Are The Bluetones a great band? I think so, but that might a a minority opinion. Did they put out some great music? Definitely. It helps if you have an ear for irony and the love of a jangly tune. I got hold of a copy of A Rough Outline, their singles and B-sides as of about 2003. They’ve done some good stuff since, but this is a great collection, and not rendered redundant by owning the albums. The 3cd set is the winner — I would not want to be without “Persuasion” or “The Bluetones Big Score”, though not everything on that disc is gold.
You’d expect a mix of B-sides and singles to be pretty diverse, and it is, from spoken word to instrumental to electronic noise.
I’m not going to review, I’m going to let the songs speak for themselves by picking a line or two from each (at least, from the ones written by the band).
Disc 1: The Singles
“Are You Blue or Are You Blind?” – 2:56
Smile again for me
As if you’re going to say
Nothing could have done all this
Then gone away
“Bluetonic” – 4:05
When I am sad and weary
When all my hope is gone
I walk around my house and think of you with nothing on
“Slight Return” – 3:21
You don’t have to have the solution, you’ve got to invest in the problem.
And don’t go hoping for a miracle.
“Cut Some Rug” – 4:36
Seems like you’re always a million miles away
As far as I’m concerned that’s where you can stay
“Castle Rock” – 3:09
I’m lying in your arms
I’m lying to your face
“Marblehead Johnson” – 3:22
Tonight we’re not gonna solve anything.
“Solomon Bites the Worm” – 3:08
Pack up your troubles now take
All you can carry
“If…” – 5:08
It’s all that I can do to sing these stupid songs to you.
I give up half my time just trying to think of words that rhyme.
“Sleazy Bed Track” – 4:37
Your pills have cost too much.
And you can’t feel them working any more.
So pour them all right down the sink.
“4-Day Weekend” – 3:57
Lets forget about the questions
We’ve been dragging ’round for years
Clear this smoky air between us
And shed no tears
“Keep the Home Fires Burning” – 3:30
That man who would save us,
From the hurt the world brings,
Neglected to mention,
Who would save us from him
“Autophilia (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Car)” – 5:02
She comes in 16 colours,
She’ll suck your money dry,
Gives shitty mileage,
But come on lets get inside.
“Mudslide” – 4:23
How’m I gunna get my white shirt clean?
“After Hours” – 3:34
Lord only knows what kind of poison I’m drinking
I can’t read the label
So I’ll just dance off my cares like Fred Astaire
Up here on the table
“Fast Boy” – 2:59
I’m a fast boy
I’m on the guest list
I’ve got a gram of joy
Wrapped in a clenched fist
“Liquid Lips” – 3:05
Maybe your kind of face just ain’t in season
“Never Going Nowhere” – 4:14
I keep my thoughts in little boxes
Disc 2: The B-Sides
“String Along” – 3:56
I forgo my pride
“Colorado Beetle” – 3:59
I shan’t close my eyes tonight,
I’m gonna look at you instead,
And when at last you sleep my love,
I’m gonna smash your lying head.
“Nae Hair On’t” – 2:47
It doesn’t get any better, alone.
“The Devil Behind My Smile” – 3:02
You think that everything’s all right,
I think you might be wrong,
“Nifkin’s Bridge” – 5:16
Where is the child that was to teach us how to fly?
“The Simple Things” – 4:20
Thought that time was a healer,
But now you feel the days starting to ache
“I Was a Teenage Jesus” – 3:15
I knew a teenage Jesus,
I bought into the dream,
He had the coolest sandals,
That I have ever seen,
“I Walked All Night” – 2:21 (Hargus “Pig” Robbins)
“Blue Shadows” – 2:38 (Randy Newman)
“Blue” – 3:00 (Rain Parade)
“Pretty Ballerina” – 2:52 (The Left Banke)
“Armageddon (Outta Here)” – 3:36
Student 2: You don’t need fake ID, you look about thirty.
Student 3: Exactly. This gets me child fare on the buses.
“The Favourite Son” – 3:18
The days of our lives are but leaves in the wind,
Collected and binned
“Be Careful What You Dream” – 3:11
Some wounds don’t heal,
They’re designed to let you know,
That you must be careful what you dream.
“Vostok of Love” – 3:19
With just an elegant flick of her wrist,
I was made to realise that I could never exist,
She brushed me aside and tapped off her ash,
And my life went up like the head of a match.
“Zero Tolerance” – 3:48
I realised that the people I’d known all my life,
My family and friends, were all just like strange little islands.
“Keep the Home Fires Burning” [U.S. version] – 3:19
And those home fires burn,
Scorching a hole through me,
And I am welcome no more.
“Fock Da Brain Hole” – 3:01
This ain’t no east side,
This ain’t the west side,
This ain’t the south side,
Where the fuck are we?
“Groovy Roussos” – 3:08
Remember your words they’re tattooed in my brain,
You said never apologise, never explain,
And so who’s sorry now, who’s sorry now.
“Reverse Cow Girl” – 3:42 (Instrumental)
“Suffer in Silence” – 2:35
Every night I retire to the same chair,
By a phone that’s attached to the wall,
And I hope that no one will call,
“Pram Face” – 3:14
I offered my heart to the pram faced girl
Disc 3: More B-Sides (Limited Edition release only)
I’ve said goodbye so many times,
It’s as easy as breathing
“Glad To See Y’Back Again?”
I’ve said too much,
But I’ve far to much to say,
“Don’t Stand Me Down”
I know all about magic baby, you see I taught myself,
And I’ve got tonnes of the stuff on my bedroom shelf,
And that’s the end of this transmission,
“The Ballad of Muldoon”
Play the game, co-operate,
When it suits your mood
“Mr. Soul” (Buffalo Springfield)
“Please Stop Talking”
There’s so much to admire about you,
I like you as a friend or a pet,
But each time that you open your mouth,
It spoils the whole effect.
“Thought You’d Be Taller”
Never meet your heroes, they’ll always let you down,
They’re just as shallow as you or me,
Or worse than that, they’re clowns,
“It’s a Boy”
I really do hope that it’s a girl,
But a little knob would really do the job,
“Soup du Jour”
And in good time you may find that in this song I got it wrong.
“Mudslide” (Shandy Weather version)
There’s a mudslide,
A mile wide brown tide a bona-fide mudslide,
And what’s the odds that you’re enjoying one right now?
From the comfort of your favourite easy couch.
“Sail On Sailor” (The Beach Boys)
“Woman in Love” (Barbra Streisand)
“Move Closer” (Phyllis Nelson)
“Beat on the Brat” (Ramones)
Everyone get down like the chief of the funk train leaving and jump.
With a little persuasion, with a little finesse,
I’ll comply with any lie you’re happy to express.
“Freeze Dried Pop (Dumb it Up)”
We don’t want Mozart or that old Ludwig Van,
Give us freeze dried pop in a can,
“The Bluetones Big Score”
Was that a bird call or was it a signal?
“That’s Life” (Frank Sinatra)
How to deal with empty pages, when the urge, obligation or need to create is strong but the creation itself remains formless and elusive? How to find a way in? It is a stereotypical scene; Jack Nicholson in front of his typewriter, Billy Crystal and ‘the night was moist‘; Snoopy and ‘it was a dark and stormy night.’ Samuel Beckett made a whole career out of this and related issues:
The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.
(Quoted from here.)
Classic techniques to get started include cut-ups, pulling random words from a random volume and seeking connections, bashing at the typewriter until something comes (typing nonsense until form emerges or the writer keels over), even as a last resort going away and actually learning something. Constraints are a great place to start.
While I do not write a lot, and have published nothing major, I can say this much: Nothing works all the time. Sometimes stories do begin with a stream of nonsense from which a phrase emerges. Sometimes the phrase or idea comes without the nonsense, and I scribble it down (or type it into my second brain). But above all else it is a habit.
Now, I publish scrappy drawings on this blog from time to time — I generally try to alternate them with text-based entries like this one. (Indeed, this entry was prompted by my having a drawing I was going to put up and then realising the last post was also a drawing. So I needed some words. So I fell back on writing about trying to get words down.) I am not pretending the drawings are all that funny, but they usually have a joke in them. Where does it come from? Habit. I habitually sit down with a pencil and paper and let my mind turn over ideas and challenge expectations. The last post is an example. The scrap of paper I had had a scrawl on it that one of my kids had done some time ago. I vaguely recalled it was meant to be a hot air balloon. I started thinking about shaped balloons — the sky whale was hard to forget — and it struck me that they are very highly visible. Well, what would a viewer not want to see in the sky, and what would make a reasonable shape for a balloon? A bit more daydreaming and there it was. I sketched it out in a few minutes — it is clear my drawings don’t take very long, I think you’ll agree. The original image looked like this:
So you can see I am very choosy about my materials. The paper was crumpled, pink, and already used. The orange splodge I don’t know anything about. I scanned it in, used imagej to make it monochrome, then kolourpaint to clean it up and, since the writing is so bad, type the words in.
I would never use such a slap-dash approach if I was producing work to submit to a proper magazine. But the relaxed atmosphere of just getting something to bung up onto a blog means I can still get ‘something’ out, and now and again I put together something I think worthy of higher honours. And then I post it here anyway.
As different views of a common terrain, the Israeli and Palestinian maps signify not only different cultural perceptions of the region but the bitter polarization of mortal enemies. By creating new settlements and constructed features, the Israelis have had a more profound impact than earlier regimes. As Benvenisti observed, “We have done more than create a paper empire. We have actually transformed the physical reality, built cities, drained marshes, made the desert bloom. We not only eradicated Arab place-names, we actually destroyed the places as well.” The Palestinians deeply resent this, of course, and their research institutes in Beirut and refugee camps throughout the region feed the hunger for a restored Palestinian homeland by persistently promoting a pre-1948 map of Palestine that denies the existence of Jewish settlements, boundaries, and place-names. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has hardened to the point where, in Benvenisti’s words, “maps cease being geographical and turn into an act of faith, a call for action, for revenge.” […] The need to rename places is perhaps strongest among people insecure about their territory.
Drawing the Line, by Mark Monmonier.
Before you can read or write stories you must learn spelling and grammar; before you can play a sonata on the piano you must learn scales, harmony, and musical notation; and before you can go into a laboratory and make an intelligent stab at discovering something new, there is a lot of dull, hard work to be done. No one escapes that.
Francis Bitter, Magnets: The Education of a Physicist
How can you teach someone to tell a story? Paula, by telephone, gave me the key, with a heavy dose of irony: tell them to write a bad book, that’s easy, anyone can do it. And that’s what we did. Each of the students set aside his or her secret dream of producing the Great American Novel and enthusiastically and fearlessly waded into the writing. Along the way, we adjusted, corrected, cut, and polished and, after many discussions and much laughter, out came their opuses, one of which was published with much ballyhoo by a major New York firm. Since then, any time I fall into a period of doubt, i tell myself I am going to write a bad book, and the panic passes.
Isabel Allende Paula.
Penguin, 1962, 272 pages.
There is a more detailed review of this very fine book at http://neglectedbooks.com/?p=197 which may be of interest.
Peter Bamm was a surgeon at a German Main Aid Post on the Russian front in World War II as the Germans first advanced through Ukraine and then withdrew. Through it all, until virtually the end of the war when defending Germany itself, Bamm operated in hospitals and commandeered houses and even bunkers and tents while the shells whistled overhead.
The book details the technical difficulties of operating close to the front, the camaraderie that made it all bearable, and the spectre of Nazism that hung over the Wehrmacht and which they did not speak against yet which they knew was a sickness at the core of the war effort and which made victory impossible. One thread in the book is that the Soviet Union contained many minorities — some very large — who were oppressed by their own government and who could have massively augmented the German effort, had the Nazis not instituted their various evils once the army had rolled through. In this, and in its inherent lack of trust and reliance on informers and violence, Bamm sees the Nazis ultimately defeat themselves. How much of this insight was really present in 1942 and how much was seen in hindsight cannot be known.
The book is endlessly quotable:
This small miracle is accomplished with a piece of thin steel which weighs less than a couple of ounces – a scalpel. At its tip converge years of skill and training; a technique developed through centuries of experiment; the immense and complicated organization of a modern army’s medical services. And above it, as it cuts deep to heal, above the little tent in the wood by the Dniester, there flutters beneath the wide Ukranian sky a small dauntless flag: an invisible flag: the flag of humanity.
We see Bamm and his colleagues tend to Russian soldiers and peasants as well as the German soldiers. We see them break the rules to obtain the machines and the supplies they need to do their job. We see them fail to believe that anything other than losing this enormous war can be done to stop the suicidal Nazism of the Germany they love, and they try to mitigate at the lowest level, that of a single human being hurt by “the Dictator’s” (he is never named) folly and arrogance, the damage that is being done.
Geographers draw and imaginary line … and they call it the border between Europe and Asia. But the true dividing line is between men’s souls.
The dictator who stood to benefit by it [the spirit and hard work of the foot soldiers] knew as much of Prussian discipline as a Congo witch doctor knew about science.
The System was built on force. And it was only by methods of force that it could exert itself. That is not to say that all the mistakes made during the war could have been avoided. It was just that they were part and parcel of the system itself.
The rats were also the reason why one had to learn to sleep with one’s head under the blanket.
Like a tortoise with its shell, the conqueror drags his own world around with him. It is hard to get to know a foreign country if you are only there to conquer it.
Or (on speaking out against the Nazis):
I do not of course imply that such self-sacrifice would have been useless in a moral sense. I am only saying that as a practical measure it would have been pointless.
When the autumn storms came and the steppe witches darted once more across the empty countryside in ghostly zig-zags, the god of war removed his last mask.
Set against the sublime splendour of creation, man’s petty strivings seem as senseless as the migrations of the lemmings.
And so on. While I cannot help but wonder what was left out, what was retrospective and what was invented entirely, much of the book is moving, evocative, and strangely beautiful. One cannot help but feel for good, honest men, fighting a war they cannot win for a country they love ruled by a party they do not believe in.
This is a review of Sky Command, a novel of Luftwaffe pilots at the end of World War II, by Anton Richler.
(1) I am not saying Anton Richler is a hack. The presentation of the book, though, makes him look like one. It is a ‘Trojan’ paperback, but the original publisher is (possibly) Badger books, an imprint hardly renowned for quality and carefully considered output… there is minimal publication info (no date of original publication, no date of this issue), no page numbers (!) and no cover art credit. Below is a scan of a random sample to demonstrate the incredible carelessness of the typesetting — notice how the letters ripple up and down. There are more than a few typographical errors, and the paper is only one step above the stuff that wrapped my fish and chips last week.
(2) This is actually a fascinating story, made doubly so by my recent reading of Cheshire, VC and The Dam Busters, two non-fiction books, written about the victorious British by a couple of victorious Australians. The Cheshire book is worth a review, and such a review may get written one day…
Reading Sky Command (a generic name if ever there was one), there is something poignant that comes through even in the purplest of prose — the men portrayed are just men, fighting hopelessly to defend a country they love that is ruled by a party they do not believe in and that had dragged them into this useless war. The knowledge that their efforts are doomed adds a resonance that an equally pulpy but ultimately triumphal story would not have. The result is that despite some fairly purple prose that smacks of padding
the book is quite compelling reading, with sympathetic protagonists, economically evoked action scenes, and apparently a sound knowledge of the aircraft and the military situation around the time of the Ardennes campaign (the ‘Battle of the Bulge’).
(3) The setting of the book around the time of the Ardennes campaign is a master-stroke, as well; we get the very moment when the last slim hopes of throwing the Allies back into the sea are ended, viewed through the eyes of a small band of exhausted pilots whose job is to support the offensive with air-strikes against enemy convoys. When the remaining pilots are withdrawn to defend Berlin from the advancing Russians, the hopelessness of the German cause becomes clear. The pragmatists hope merely to slow the Russians down, on the principle that the less of Germany under Russian control the better. The fin de siècle atmosphere is apparent. And through it our protagonist fights on, though he wonders why.
(4) In conclusion: This is a book of many weaknesses — several of them the fault of the book production department, not the author — but many compelling strengths. I love that cover with the two guys walking away from the holed plane, one using his hands to illustrate some point of the aerial battle just gone. Richler gives it an air of authenticity and a mood and atmosphere that lends the tale depth. The view from ‘the other side’ is fascinating. The prose and the dialogue are rather blunt instruments at times, and a couple of paragraphs read as if there was a bomb strapped to the typewriter that would go off if the author stopped hitting keys. Yet the tale remains entertaining. Richler knows what makes a story work, knows how to keep you reading, and does not turn anybody into cannon fodder or a faceless scapegoat.
It is that kind of pulpy, hackish fiction that borders on being really very fine. If the author had more time to spend, if the publishers edited it properly, if the author perhaps thought more of his own talents and aimed at All Quiet on the Western Front rather than the newsstand, this could have been a major work.
But, hell, it’s a lot of fun. And if I could write a book like this, if I could be a hack as good as this author, I’d be a happy man.