Film review: A Family Affair

So, I’ve just watched Angeliki Aristomenopolou’s documentary A Family Affair, about one particular branch of the Xylouris family, a Cretan family of musicians. Aristomenopolou’s film has the misfortune to have the same title as a considerably more easily-found-on-the-internet documentary, Tom Fassaert’s A Family Affair, which I haven’t seen and which this blog post isn’t about.

Ms Aristomenopolou’s film is — what’s the best way to put this? It’s not a great documentary, but it’s a wonderful document. It’s 90 minutes long, but feels a lot longer. I’m going to say that this is her fault. It’s certainly not the fault of her subjects, the family of Giorgos Xylouris and his wife Shelagh Xylouris-Hannan, together with their kids Nikos, Antonis and Apollonia, and Giorgos’s cranky father, also called Antonis, a legend of Cretan music, universally known as Psarantonis (this sort of means ‘Fish-antonis’; it’s a long story, and not as interesting as the music.) The Xylouris family came to fame in the 60s and 70s, when Antonis’s elder brother, also called Nikos, became a star of Greek music and a symbol of resistance to the military regime that ruled Greece for a good chunk of the late 60s and early 70s. Interestingly, the film does not mention the elder Nikos’s political significance at all, although it does tell you that he got famous.

The focus of the film is on the elder Nikos’s nephew Giorgos, a Cretan lute prodigy who has been a hard-working professional musician since he was 12. It follows him from gig to gig, workshop to workshop, country dance to country dance, as he plays the hell out of his lute and strives with all his considerable charm and charisma to pass the tradition on to those willing to receive it. This includes his own kids. The younger Nikos and Antonis, together with their teenage sister Apollonia, have spent half their lives in Australia because Giorgos fell in love with and married an Australian woman, Shelagh Hannan, who is now in the position of being the stoically resigned matriarch of this family of musicians. I could have done with hearing more from Shelagh about the widow-like quality of being married to a professional musician who, as soon as they got off the plane from Australia after being married, was tearing off to play a wedding. But Aristomenopolou tries to do a lot of things at once, one of them being to tell you something or other about the places where this music is being played by having lots of lovely shots of the Cretan landscape or Melbourne’s cityscape. Beautiful as these are, I could have used less of them. A lot less.

Let’s get to the good stuff. The best thing about this film, by far, is the music. Aristomenopolou’s camera catches Giorgos and his kids and other musical partners in many different contexts: public dances, concerts, recording studios, practice sessions, and the music is great. The younger family members, for all that they look like (and sound like, when they speak English) regular Australian young people, are clearly already steeped in the music and are keen to make it live on.

The hidden presence for the first two thirds of the film is Giorgos’s dad, Psarantonis, who is spoken of in reverent terms as being the real musical genius of the family. What comes across in the film is that, however brilliantly talented Psarantonis actually is, his family certainly defers him as the authority. And it’s here that the film is not only full of insight into the life of a musician, but also revealing about the nature of Greek families and Greek masculinity.

The most gripping sequence is when Apollonia has flown out to Australia to join her elder brothers, who are studying sound engineering, and Giorgos and Psarantonis fly out to do a short concert tour, one of which dates will feature all three generations on stage together. At the very beginning of the film, we have seen a sequence of shots of all the principal people: Giorgos, Psarantonis, the younger Nikos, the younger Antonis, and Apollonia. Over this was sung a quiet song with a haunting melody. When we get to the shot of Apollonia, it takes some time to realise that she’s the one who’s actually singing it; her affect is so low-key that it takes you a moment to notice that her lips are in sync with the singing you’re hearing.

Over an hour later in film time, the family convenes in Melbourne to have its only rehearsal for the concert they’re to give. It turns out that Giorgos’s children have never played with music with their grandfather, only with their dad; such is Psarantonis’s celebrity that he never seems to have seen fit to share musical experiences with his own grandchildren. They play a tune; it goes well. Then Giorgos suggests that Apollonia sing a song. She starts singing, but it’s her first time ever performing with her grandfather, and on film, at that. Being nervous, she fluffs a verse, and her dad points it out, but they get to the end anyway.

The song being over, Psarantonis turns to his son and says ‘She forgot the words.’ Giorgos goes into pro-musician mode and insists that it just needs a bit more work; they can print out the words, if they have to. Psarantonis is visibly unimpressed. They take a break, and Giorgos goes over to his daughter and starts running the song again, just him and her. She sings with more confidence, but while she’s doing so, her grandfather shambles into shot, walking up and down behind them. They keep performing, and Giorgos gives her more advice, but then Psarantonis waves an imperious arm and says ‘You’re over-thinking. Keep it simple,’ and throws out a few more gnomic statements, before wandering off again.

Apollonia watches him go, and then asks, ‘So, is it okay?’, meaning Am I doing this song in the concert, or what? She gets no reply, and buries her head in her hands, subsequently admitting how embarrassed she’d been to make a mistake in front of her grandfather.

In the concert itself, however, she sings the song beautifully, and Psarantonis can be seen rocking himself from side to side to her unaccompanied delivery of the end of it; what’s more, it goes down huge with the Melbourne audience, and she tells in voice-over of how it had been the best musical experience of her life. So it all seems to have worked out great.

But somehow, Aristomenopolou’s camera missed that. As often happens with filmmakers who aren’t in full control of their material, there’s an attempt here to do too many things at once. It’s as if Aristomenopolou thought that this film tells its own story, but decided not to tell it herself. The film feels like the best bits of the raw material for about four or five different films about these people, with Aristomenopolou unable to decide exactly which one she wanted to make, which I guess is why it feels like it’s much longer than it is. There’s no narration, which doesn’t help.

On the other hand, it has got me permanently interested in Cretan music, so there’s that. And I would rather have no narration, than a bad one. So on balance, I think Angeliki Aristomenopolou deserves the thanks of the world for such a bare-bones document of the life of a family of musicians. Here’s the trailer, or at any rate a trailer: some of the stuff in this trailer is not in the actual film. Thanks to the Edinburgh Greek Film Festival for letting me see this.

Film review: A Family Affair

Robert Fripp and Joe Strummer Interview

I just came across this fantastic interview from Musician magazine in 1981, long before it became the boring industry wank mag that it was when I first read in the late 80s, in which Vic Garbarini got Robert Fripp and Joe Strummer together on the intuition that they had more in common than they seemed to have, and it turned out he was absolutely right. What’s especially inspiring is the obvious mutual admiration Fripp and Strummer have for each other — two smart Englishmen who had both thought long and hard about the life of a musician. It’s next to impossible to imagine them collaborating on anything, and Strummer is gone now, so won’t be anyway, but it’s a great read. Kudos to for archiving and posting it.

Robert Fripp and Joe Strummer Interview

David Bowie

David Bowie died last night.

I have disliked David Bowie’s music for a lot longer than I have liked it. Fortunately, I think, the disliking came first. I was first exposed to Bowie as a very small kid, when ‘Space Oddity’ was a hit in the early 70s. It unnerved me, the same way the Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ unnerved me. These were songs about giving up control, giving up identity, turning into someone else. As a small boy, for one reason or another, I didn’t like the sound of that.

I missed out on Bowie’s great exploratory 70s music, being firmly a follower of my brother’s own taste, which in those years meant mostly Status Quo: meat’n’potatoes entry-level rock. When I began to develop my own likes and dislikes, in my very early teens, it coincided with learning the guitar, which meant an awful lot of dogged listening to Eric Clapton because for me he had some kind of educational significance. (I don’t regret learning to play Clapton-style guitar, but I do regret a lot of glum listening to his boring 70s and 80s albums.) Just as I got into livelier music, in the form of Talking Heads and Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, Bowie was deep into his blandest, least interesting 80s pop star phase. I was not impressed. When Tin Machine came along, I was even less impressed; it looked like a naked bid for coolness. Dave Fanning, on his radio show, which I was then an avid listener to, called it ‘David Bowie’s latest incredible stab at credibility’, and he didn’t mean it in a nice way. Bowie in 1991 seemed like a burnout. Like the Rolling Stones, only pretentious.

I don’t think I really caught up with Bowie until the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992. At that concert, he and Annie Lennox sang a majestic version of ‘Under Pressure’ which still has the power to bring tears to my eyes. Even then, I wasn’t compelled to listen to more Bowie, but I was willing to recognise that ‘Ashes to Ashes’ had something going on in it, and I’d listen to anything Fripp played on, so ‘Fashion’ was a favourite track of mine, featuring as it does some of Fripp’s most unhinged guitar playing. Then Nirvana, who I’d never liked much, did ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and did it beautifully, and I realised that I had to think again about Bowie.

I had to fall in love and get married to a Bowie-liker before I truly saw how wrong I had been. My wife Ioanna had a Bowie compilation CD and we would play it in the car when we took our infant daughter on drives. On hearing ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Rebel Rebel’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’ and ‘Wild is the Wind’, I began to realise that this was something like nothing else, something weirdly unique and wonderful.

And so I completely changed my mind about Bowie, which I’ve never done about anyone, I don’t think. I listened to Station to Station and Low and while they didn’t quite grab me as albums, their high points pierced me the way the best popular music does.

Bowie’s combination of naked emotionalism placed within a strangely askew frame was entirely his. He was as unique in his way as Thelonious Monk, and like Monk he had the ability to sound like no-one else, and to take somebody else’s song and make it sound like his. (He was unlike Monk in that sometimes, between around 1983 and 1991, he didn’t sound like anyone in particular, but even then, there were moments: ‘Loving the Alien’ is a crappy song, but only Bowie could have written it.)

I was surprised to find myself very sad to hear that he’d died. Bowie made his decisive moves with the left hand; he stole his way into your affections, sometimes literally. (I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought that he ripped his entire vocal approach off from John Lennon.) With Bowie dead, at the premature-for-an-aging-rock-star age of 69, it feels like a little bit of surprise has gone from the world. But his strange and wonderful career is still there.

I’d like to end with Scott Walker’s lovely tribute to Bowie on Bowie’s 50th birthday, which, as you can hear, left the recipient, for once in his life, speechless.

David Bowie

Review: Bridget Marsden and Leif Ottosson — Mountain Meeting

I have never reviewed an album on this blog before but this one’s so good I’m prepared to make an exception. Bridget Marsden is a young English violinist who fell in love with Swedish folk music and studied for her Masters degree in Stockholm; Leif Ottosson is a young Swedish accordionist determined to get new sounds out of his instrument. They teamed up for this album, and have been playing concerts with some kind of storytelling guy, apparently.

Now, I normally don’t like the accordion, but at my workplace we were throwing away a bunch of CDs we had been sent for review, and this looked interesting (on the cover, Marsden looks a bit like a very attractive rabbit that has temporarily assumed human form, while Ottosson looks like a junior member of a crime family) and I took it home because I thought it worth the gamble. (There were other reasons, such as my lingering fondness for Scandinavian folk music, but anyway.)

Ottosson (l), Marsden (r), photo by Aron Mattsson
Ottosson (l), Marsden (r), photo by Aron Mattsson

These two are really good. This is what you hope albums of traditional music will be like, but so seldom are like. Ottosson plays his accordion like a fiddle, without any of the hearty chordal oompah which is normally so off-putting in records of accordion music, and Marsden is mercurial, light and stabbing in her attack. This music is danceable but it also has a sense of silence and violence. I’m very pleased with this and I heartily recommend it to those who prefer their traditional music to be non-reassuring. Buy it here.

Review: Bridget Marsden and Leif Ottosson — Mountain Meeting

King Crimson at the Usher Hall Part 1

I went to see King Crimson at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh tonight, and it was one of the better gigs of my life.

I’ve been waiting to see King Crimson live for nearly 30 years. When I first started listening to them, in about 1985, they’d just broken up for the second time, having had an unexpected 80s reincarnation as a sharp-suited New Wave/Industrial combo with Adrian Belew on vocals and guitar, and I don’t think anybody thought they’d get back together. I spent much of my late teens (the second half of the 80s) listening to 1973-74 King Crimson and wondering why nobody played like that nowadays. I had no idea that plenty of other kids with access to better record shops were thinking the same thing, because I lived in Dublin, and although I lived in a milieu of people who were either in bands or who knew people in bands, nobody I knew had even heard of King Crimson, let alone liked them.

When the band came back, in 1994, I was in my early 20s and working in theatre, and abrasive rock music was quite the thing at the time. But after enthusiastically reconnecting with them, I then began to get a bit bogged down in all the band’s different configurations and ‘ProjeKcts’. I snapped up the beautifully remastered CDs of the albums I loved, like Starless and Bible Black and Red, and I loved the fact that they were still going and still defying any conceivable trend in rock music, except for the increasingly prevalent trend for old bands to reform or at any rate keep going. My own guitar playing had come under the unmistakable influence of Robert Fripp at one point, and I found myself having to strive to not sound like I was trying to sound like him.

And so, when the band announced that it was doing a UK tour and one of my co-workers informed me, I knocked out an article that ended up freakishly over-performing on my employers’ website, just because thanks to my colleague Henry remembering that I’m a fan, and my nerdishness and alacrity, we got there quicker and better-informed than almost anyone else. I booked my ticket within days of writing the article. And tonight was the night.

The Usher Hall was gratifying jammed; the band had put on a second night within days of the first one selling out. The crowd was unexpectedly diverse. There were a great number of men who looked a bit like Jeremy Corbyn, which you’d sort of expect from a King Crimson audience, but many of them appeared to have brought their wives, and besides the expected crop of young men between 20 and 35 there were also many young women of the same age. Looking around the hall, it was a truly mixed audience, even if the fiftyish woman sitting next to me got up before the music started and didn’t return to her seat. (I later noticed that she had come back, after all; perhaps afflicted by Upper Circle vertigo, she’d hung back and watched the show from the top of the stairs to the Upper Circle bar, and at the end of the show she had a fond reunion with her partner.)

The stage was brightly lit, featuring the by-now well-known KC 2014/15 lineup: three drum kits out front and a riser behind for the other musicians. The ticket read ‘No Support. No Interval’ and there was neither.

Shortly after 7.30pm, after some semi-audible PA announcements from the band politely asking us not to video or photograph the show, the lights went down and the band shambled out, all dressed in black suits. The three drummers came out first, their kits lined up downstage, in the reverse of the usual practice, and we’ll get to them in a moment.

Meanwhile, behind, the others filed on. Stage right was Mel Collins, hunched into his leather jacket, with a mop of shaggy hair. To his left was dapper Tony Levin, sharp-suited, bald pate gleaming, surrounded by two bass guitars, an electric upright and a Chapman Stick. Next along was Jakko Jakszyk, the one with the least gear; just a mic stand and two guitars, the man himself looking self-effacing under all his curly hair. Stage left on the riser was the most intimidating setup of all: what can only be described as Fripp’s workstation. Two pedalboards and a couple of expression pedals to boot, a bunch of rack-mounted effects, at least one laptop, a stool and two guitars. Fripp himself was dressed like the chairman of the board. Three-piece suit, the jacket of which he took off and hung on a guitar stand, and glasses which he put on to play and took off to look at the audience.

The band never spoke to the audience. Instead, it roared through a selection of old and new Crim tunes. We were warned by pre-publicity that old songs might not come back the way we remember them, but this was most true of the opening number, ‘Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part 1’, which found time for a charming duet between Collins’ flute and Levin’s filthy fuzz bass.

There was a blistering ‘Red’, which benefited from Collins’ squalling sax lines; in general, he added an amiable, jazzy flavour to some of the more determinedly negative tunes of the evening. ‘Pictures of a City’ got a passionate performance from Jakszyk, who not only sounded eerily like Greg Lake but who also gave the music some vulnerability, which otherwise wasn’t much on show.

Having said that, the three-drummer lineup turned out to be fantastic. All three drummers had distinct personalities. Harrison, intense and floppy-haired, was the young and hungry one; Mastelotto, resplendent behind his eccentric-looking kit, was the dramatic one, standing up when he had to reach obscure bits of his kit; Rieflin in the middle was the aloof one, thin and bespectacled and battering the hell out of his relatively small kit with the air of a man who was thinking about something else. But all of them were capable of great delicacy as well as power. When Harrison took an extended solo, he didn’t entirely avoid drum solo clichés but he did exploit his kit’s entire dynamic range, playing a hilariously tiny pinging roll on part of a drum stand. Also, the drummers seemed to have learned perfect sync, knowing exactly when not to play, when to sit out, when to join in and when to play in unison for maximum battery. This is by far the most percussion-heavy version of Crimson, and the interplay between Mastelotto, Rieflin and Harrison would be almost enough in itself for a whole gig.

The hits came on. There were songs I didn’t recognise, presumably from the most recent KC albums, but the bulk of the time was given to genuinely inspired renditions of older songs. ‘The Letters’, from the band’s least well-loved album Islands, sounded better than it ever sounded on the original album. ‘Easy Money’ and ‘Epitaph’ gained much from Jakszyk’s total commitment as a singer.

The last song in the concert proper was a pretty straight performance of ‘Starless’, but then ‘Starless’ is a song it’s practically impossible to fuck up; you could do it on a ukulele and it would still be a work of grand tragedy. After a fulsome standing ovation, the band returned to the stage, did a quick drum workout, and then knocked off a fine ‘In the Court of the Crimson King’ and a blistering, all-audience singalong version of ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’, which sounded more timely than ever. Then they rose to their feet, nodded politely, and filed off. Tony Levin was the last to leave the stage, and he couldn’t resist a cheery thumbs-up to some random well-wisher in the stalls.

On my way home, I met a friend whose boyfriend had been handed two free tickets to tomorrow night’s show, and he kindly gave them to me. So I’m going again, and you’ll have part two tomorrow.

King Crimson at the Usher Hall Part 1

Ireland and the Same-sex Marriage Referendum

A few days ago, my home country (Ireland, although it’s not my mother country – I was born in England but grew up in Ireland and am an Irish citizen) had a referendum to approve or disapprove an amendment to the Irish Constitution, which would guarantee the right of anyone in Ireland to marry anyone else without regard to that person’s sex.

To put this into context, you need to consider that up until 1993, homosexual behaviour of any kind was illegal in Ireland. The referendum on same-sex marriage was construed from the outset as a referendum to guarantee equal rights to everyone in Ireland, and was taken as such by the Yes camp — which I sympathise with — and the No camp, which resented the fact that its own bigotry was in danger of being rendered unconstitutional.

The Yes side had the support of every major party, as well as the business community and all but a few mostly stupid and/or rabid journalists. The Yes sympathisers campaigned with enormous fervour; the No camp knew that they were on a losing streak, and just bitched about liberal elites hijacking the nation. Even after the result, they are still bitching.

I’m no longer resident in Ireland, so I didn’t get to vote, but I followed the campaign, and I’m delighted to be able to record that the Yes camp won, with a 62% vote. Only one county in the entire country returned a No vote. This makes my country the first ever country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote.

In honour of one of the very few times in my life that my own country has made me proud to belong to it, here’s some classic LGBTQ rock in the form of Bob Mould’s band Sugar. Stay beautiful.

Ireland and the Same-sex Marriage Referendum

Aphorisms Part 2

Hardly aphorisms. More like ‘I’m too tired to write a proper post.’

Here goes:

The shit that Adorno talked about jazz is literally true about Led Zeppelin.

You need entry-level rock, for people who are too timorous to feel anything intensely. In the 70s it was provided by Status Quo; in the 80s, nobody provided it; in the 90s, Oasis.

As anyone who’s listened to his recordings can confirm, reports of Charlie Parker’s death have been exaggerated.

Haydn and Sterne: the originators are the greatest jokers.

The general lack of enthusiasm for Haydn goes to show that the lip-service we pay to innovation in music is nothing more than that.

Nobody likes to admit the extent to which any one period in music history exactly resembles every other.

It is high time that two things were established once and for all:

1.) The Beatles‘ pre-eminence in the history of post-WW2 popular music;
2.) The exact nature of what The Beatles were crap at.


Aphorisms Part 2

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil: Geeks that Pass in the Night

The story of Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil is a weird and curiously inspiring one. Lamarr has been rightly celebrated in recent years as being more than just a beautiful icon of Hollywood’s golden years. She was also a talented inventor, but by far her most influential invention was created in collaboration with someone much less celebrated. That’s why this post begins with the story of her collaborator, George Antheil.

If there were an awkward squad of composers, Hans Pfitzner would be the uptight, humourless medic with the short fuse (think Robert Duvall in the film of MASH); Hugo Wolf would be the pessimistic sidekick who keeps making sardonic jokes about how they’re all gonna die; Carlo Gesualdo would be the psycho sniper that everyone else is scared of, and George Antheil (1900–1959) — ebullient, handsome, untrustworthy — would be squad leader. He never formally finished either high school or college and yet he ended up hanging out with Stravinsky, Man Ray, Fernand Leger, Ezra Pound and Hedy freakin’ Lamarr. He could be charming one minute and a colossal horse’s ass the next.

His music isn’t quite as original as he hoped it would be, but it varies from percussive freak-out to enticing and intricate orchestral writing to dissonant cowboy modernism. The temptation is to call him the Bad Boy of Music, except that he had the cheek to get there first when he titled his own highly unreliable autobiography Bad Boy of Music — you’re not supposed to say so yourself, George. Even if you’ve never heard of him, he made one other singular and important but non-musical contribution, with an unbelievably unlikely collaborator, the effect of which is around us all the time — but we’ll get to that later.

Antheil was the son of German immigrants (it’s pronounced ‘AN-teil’, not ‘On-TAY’) and he started out as a pushy but gifted piano player and budding composer. All along, he wanted to write distinctively American music, but the spur to do so didn’t come from American music itself, but from the Russians. The so-called Five were a loose coalition of Russian composers with a strong nationalist streak, determined to write music that would have Russian-ness stamped all over it. On Antheil’s account, one day a critic invited a group of young American composers around for a drink and a chinwag and suggested that something like the Five was needed in America, if a distinctively American music was ever to get off the ground. Antheil was there already. His idol was Stravinsky and he found in Stravinsky’s music the kind of relentless rhythmic pulse that seemed right for a new American music.

Antheil made his way to Paris, where Stravinsky lived and where most of the ambitious young American modernists were going, and he wangled an introduction to the great man. Stravinsky was politely encouraging. Antheil soon got involved in an ambitious project to make an abstract art film called Ballet Mecanique. It’s fair to say that, as avant-garde art films go, it suffered from a lack of project management; the final film was three minutes long, but Antheil delivered an epic, thunderous score for massed pianos and aeroplane engines that lasted half an hour, and which required multiple mechanical pianos to be synchronised with each other.

Result? They weren’t. Embarrassment all round, but Antheil bounced back and managed to get a performance of the piece in Paris, which provoked a gratifying riot in the concert hall. By the time the riot had fizzled out, film cameras had been obtained, and the film-makers asked the rioters if they wouldn’t mind rioting all over again for the cameras, otherwise it would look boring. The Parisian concertgoers, knowing an Art Event when they were involved in one, were happy to oblige. Antheil subsequently revised Ballet Mecanique into a shorter and much more performable piece, scored for regular pianos and tuned & untuned percussion, and this is the version most often played today. It’s as much of a riot as the riot it inspired; a jerky, manic portrait in sound of the early American metropolis, complete with firebells and abstract honky-tonk piano and a blistering workout from the percussion section, who more than earn their paycheque in this number.

Ballet Mecanique was the high point of Antheil’s notoriety, if not of his achievement. He returned to America and put it on there, but staging problems plus the conservatism of the Carnegie Hall audience turned the event into a fiasco. Once again he refused to lie down; he moved to Hollywood and began a long and successful career composing for the movies, abandoning his earlier clattery manner for a more self-consciously measured and lyrical style that’s sometimes very successful. (Among other films, he scored The Plainsman, starring Gary Cooper.) Of his later style, the Serenade for String Orchestra is a very dissonant serenade, blending neo-classical structure with unexpected bits of hoedown and shivery noir-ish strings.

Antheil went on to compose operas (including a version of Ben Jonson’s Volpone), ballet music and pieces for orchestra. However, he never lived to see his most influential achievement being recognised and, since it had little do with his music, he probably wouldn’t have been too pleased about its success. It all started when some friends invited him to dinner, and he accepted because it meant he’d get to meet Hedy Lamarr.

Lamarr (1914-2000) was an Austrian actress, born Hedwig Kiesler. Her breakthrough role had been in the 1933 German movie Extase in which, as a 19-year-old, she’d done a then-notorious nude scene.

Since moving to Hollywood, she’d been celebrated for a succession of sultry roles in movies such as Algiers, Comrade X and H.M. Pulham Esq.. MGM billed her as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’. Looking at pictures of her you can see their point: Lamarr’s stills are ravishingly beautiful, but it didn’t always translate into great performances. She found the Hollywood star system annoying, and watching her movies you can sometimes sense her lack of interest.

Lamarr wasn’t uninterested in movies because she was stupid or unimaginative. She was whip-smart, good at math, and her idea of fun was to sit at home and invent things. In 1957 she appeared as the mystery guest in an episode of What’s My Line? and the first question she was asked was ‘Are you a glamorous lady?’ She looked genuinely baffled, and only after much prompting from the host did she finally mumble ‘Mm-hm’.

Hedy Lamarr was, in short, a geek. And her moment was about to come.

An early marriage to a German industrialist had sparked her interest in military technology, and the wartime sinking of the liner City of Benares made her want to contribute something to the Allied war effort. Those dinner party conversations she’d sat in on with her industrialist ex-husband had sparked in her mind the idea of a radio-controlled torpedo, but the same conversations had brought up the problem: radio-control, in the 30s and 40s, was extremely vulnerable to jamming. All your adversary had to do was find out what frequency you were using to control your device, and broadcast a stronger signal on it, ‘jamming’ your signal and removing the device from your control. The problem was how to get around this.

What Lamarr realised was that it would be possible to avert enemy jamming if the transmitter and the receiver constantly hopped from one frequency to another. The time-consuming part of jamming was finding out what frequency the enemy was broadcasting on; once you’d found it, you’d won. If the frequency kept changing, there was no way that the jammer could keep up.

However, there was a problem. In order for the frequency-hopping to work, both the transmitter and the receiver had do it at exactly the same time, which meant that they had to be synchronised with each other. Lamarr didn’t know how to make that happen.

And so, on one particular night in 1940, the 26-year-old actress met the 40-year-old Antheil at a dinner party, and the conversation soon turned to inventions. She outlined her idea about torpedo control and synchronisation, and lamented that she didn’t know how to sync the devices up in the first place.

Bizarrely enough, Antheil knew a good deal about synchronisation, from his work with mechanical pianos. Punched tape, he told her, was the answer. The composer and the actress started working together, and they soon came up with a viable patent. But if Lamarr hoped that she could help the war effort, she was disappointed; as the historian Richard Rhodes pointed out in his wonderful book about Lamarr (from which most of the facts in this article are taken), the US Navy was hardly going to pay attention to the ideas of a Hollywood actress when they weren’t even paying attention to their own submarine commanders.

The Lamarr-Antheil patent was finally picked up by the Department of Defense in the 1960s, by which time Antheil was dead and Lamarr had retired. However, in the meantime it ended up making an important contribution to the spread spectrum technology that’s used today in Bluetooth technology all over the world. Your mobile phone works partly because one night in wartime Los Angeles, an avant-garde composer and a movie goddess had a conversation about torpedoes.

Lamarr’s stardom faded in the 60s and 70s, and she didn’t help her career by getting some seriously pointless and very badly-executed plastic surgery. Her reputation as an actress got a boost a few years ago, when Anne Hathaway learned that Catwoman was originally inspired by Lamarr: Hathaway watched the movies and based much of her performance in The Dark Knight Rises on Lamarr’s presence. Lamarr the inventor finally achieved recognition in 1997, when she was pleased to be given the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, putting her in the company of the inventors of the computer mouse and the Linux operating system.

Hedy Lamarr’s favourite fictional hero was Bart Simpson. She died in 2000.

George Antheil died in 1959, still married to the same woman he’d been married to all along although, at the time of his death, he had an illegitimate eight-month-old son — ever the bad boy. He was still composing, never knowing that the technology he’d worked on with Lamarr would bear fruit in the next century. His reputation dipped after his death, but that happens to every composer. Now that his contemporaries like Copland and Barber are becoming over-familiar, Antheil’s boldness and exuberance deserve to be rediscovered.

Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil: Geeks that Pass in the Night

Superstar – stiff promo video from hell

I can’t resist further damage to this blog’s credibility by following up my post of September last year on Jesus Christ Superstar, with a choice of bit of cheesy video. This would appear to be a promotional video for the original single of ‘Superstar’, with Murray Head rather unconvincingly lip-synching to his own performance on the album.

Yeah, I know. But listen to that band. For a bunch of English session men that’s a pretty impressive groove, and proof, I think, that English players by the early 70s could deliver convincing R&B if they wanted to. The standout player for me is the bass player, the late Allan Spenner: listen to the way he keeps it high up during the choruses, emphasising the ethereality of the girl singers while reminding us that it’s about to drop down and get roadshow again in a minute. I appreciate good bass playing; my first serious attempts at playing music were as the bass player in a school garage band.

I realise that posting this video is almost calculated to not make you listen to the music, because it’s so cheesy. Consider it a challenge. Enjoy.

Superstar – stiff promo video from hell

I may be jazz, but yet I am offended

I was browsing YouTube the other night, wondering as usual whether the guitars I own are adequate or if I’d be better off with another one, when I decided to look for reviews of a particular instrument: the Epiphone Broadway.

The Broadway was introduced in 1931 as an unamplified f-hole archtop suitable for big bands, and it was the go-to guitar for many a mid-20th-century session man. At some point it acquired pickups but it’s never lost its bigness; I once saw one in a Dublin shop and didn’t have the nerve to ask for a tryout, probably because it was priced at about €800, well beyond my reach. (I was in the market for an f-hole archtop and ended up getting a far more affordable Ibanez AF75, although mine is the rather uglier orange-hued AF75D, not the sunburst beauty as seen in the link.)

Well, among the many reviews of the Broadway on YouTube was this one:

— in which a Broadway is played with great gusto through some serious distortion effects, and not with the sort of smooth, muffled, warm, clean tone normally considered appropriate for such a venerable jazz box. Of the comments on the video, which are not many, the majority are in an appalled tone, as if the player had taken a shit on the instrument:

This is no way to play an Epiphone Broadway.

*facepalm* Dude.. its a Hollowbody, designed for blues / jazz, and here you are with rock licks and distortion? you might as well demo a frickin les paul! -.-‘

Weirdly, the other two comments about how you shouldn’t do this to a Broadway, goddammit, are from the player himself:

You are right, it should be a clean sound and not a distorted sound.

Appreciate it. We do so many videos, we get lost sometimes on which sounds to use. You’re right, it should be a clean sound and not a distorted sound.

The only other comments, in which someone says that they liked the video because ‘[t]here are a couple dozen of everyone doing the typical jazz licks and that’s fine but why have so many videos showing the same thing?’ and someone else agrees with him, are alone. I’m the person who agreed, for what it’s worth.

Jazz used to think of itself as, in Whitney Balliett‘s fine phrase, ‘the sound of surprise’. It’s always been a contested music, with nobody being able to agree about where the frontier is; Charlie Parker used to be accused of having anti-jazz instincts, but as someone who has ‘Donna Lee‘ as his ringtone, I can confirm that Charlie Parker bursting into a crowded 21st century office sounds more like Louis Armstrong than like the avant-garde. (Of course, Louis Armstrong was once the avant-garde, but that’s another story.) Jazz guitar in particular has been a pretty sorry field for most of its history, with the early innovations of Charlie Christian soon becoming boringly canonical; it could be argued that jazz guitar didn’t really loosen up until you had a generation of guitarists coming of age who’d grown up listening to punk, or alternative rock. It’s depressing to see social pressure being applied to the way you play an instrument; the instrument itself doesn’t care how it’s played.

It’s true that you couldn’t take a Broadway onto a rock stage and turn it up to 11. Its large, hollow body would vibrate and it would feed back uncontrollably. But if you have ever wondered why jazz, which was once the most exciting music on the planet, can sometimes sound so boring, now you know.

I may be jazz, but yet I am offended