Lana Del Rey – Ride (Video)

“I was always an unusual girl”.

Lana Del Rey may not be the greatest singer to have emerged in 2012, but she has managed to capture the attention of the collective cultural psyche. Whether she’s in character or not, the artist beneath the projection is set on performing a commentary on the American Dream and its darker undercurrents. Her lyrics are full of it, and her ‘National Anthem’ video took this to new levels. Now, with the same director (Anthony Mandler), and the same concept of accompanying the track with a confessional monologue, she presents the ten minute video clip for ‘Ride’.

The video manages to take the fullest meaning from the simple title of the song. It seems she’s playing a version of herself – someone she’d like us to imagine she might really be. A young girl who once had dreams, but now roams the American highways with bikers; her life spiralling out of control as she attempts to live a purely hedonistic existence, free from the ties of society. She claims her vagabond group desire nothing but ‘to make our lives into a work of art’, conjuring images of the Beats poets and Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece On The Road, which did just that. Allusions to murder and prostitution show that this doesn’t come without sacrifice, and gives strength to the eternal sadness that runs through her music. She seeks comfort in the various men she meets, but whether she’s wandering the city streets, or swinging slowly on a tire in the desert, the enduring tone of this video is loneliness.

The monologue sounds believable – like she’s reading the memoirs of a real person – and it breathes a bit more life into the Lana Del Rey we’ve hardly ever heard speak. ‘I believe in the kindness of strangers’, she confesses – quoting Blanche du Bois from A Streetcar Named Desire; a woman so wrapped up in old America that life in the modern world drives her insane. Lana pitches herself somewhere between this and Laura Palmer, the small town beauty queen gone bad from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Overall, the speech is just as much a composite as the artist herself. Her entire act is a fusion of cultural references blended together into her own distinct brand of Americana. Largely, it’s nostalgic. She declares finally, ‘I believe in the country America used to be’. This refers to the concept of the frontier, constant exploration of place and thought, and crucially, the creation and recreation of one’s own identity – and that’s something the brains behind Lana Del Rey knows all about.

This piece originally appeared in So So Gay magazine.

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Re-Orchestrated and Re-Released

If the new Adele Bond theme ‘Skyfall’ has whet your appetite for all things orchestral, then it looks like you’re in for a few treats this coming winter. As well as what is set to be an incredible soundtrack to the Les Miserables film (recorded live on set), one of the major trends occurring in pre-Christmas releases is the re-release of albums and collections that have been completely re-orchestrated for an even greater listening experience. And we’re not just talking about a couple of buttons played with on a mixing desk of previously existing tracks – this is music completely re-recorded with an orchestra replacing original synthesisers or bands. Literally music to my ears. Here’s a few I’m particularly excited by…

Freddie Mercury & Montserrat Cabelle – Barcelona

In 1987 Freddie Mercury became besotted with the voice of Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe, and set about writing a duet for the 1992 Olympics which had been awarded to Barcelona. The song developed into a full album, released in 1988. Freddie’s death in 1991 meant he was unable to perform the title track at the 1992 Opening Ceremony, but the project is an important part of his musical legacy, hinting at the opera music he had planned for the future. Label uncertainty meant that funding wasn’t readily given for an orchestral recording, so Freddie recorded the whole thing on synthesiser keyboards. Now, for the first time, on the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the project, we can listen to it the way it was meant to be.

Standout Track: ‘Barcelona’

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Kylie Minogue – The Abbey Road Sessions

As pop music goes, Kylie Minogue’s repertoire is rich. From the Stock Aiken Waterman hits of the late 90s, through the experimental wilderness of the early 90s, to the glorious post-Spinning Around years up to now, you can’t help but love at least a couple (if not several). Now they’ve all been reworked into new arrangements, recorded with full orchestra at London’s legendary Abbey Road studios, and complete with new vocals from Ms Minogue herself. For some of the tracks which traditionally sound a bit cheesy (‘I Should Be So Lucky’), or completely played to death (‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’), this is a new way to enjoy them. It’s even been given a bit of a Christmas polish, with some of the instruments used, and the glistening album cover. Lovely.

Standout Track: It’s a toss up between ‘All The Lovers’ and ‘Confide In Me’

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Tori Amos – Gold Dust

This album is marking the 20th anniversary of the beginning of Tori’s unique career, in which she has always been an experimental artist. Gold Dust is her 13th studio album, most of which are self-produced. In the past she’s done a covers album, a collection of unreleased tracks, albums in character, and reworkings of Christmas carols. She says it’s working with the unity of the orchestra, as opposed to individuals in a band, that makes this new project special for her. She’s recorded new versions of songs from throughout her career, with the renowned Metropole Orchestra, and the results prove her musicality is still one of the greatest working in the industry today.

Standout Track: ‘Precious Things’

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The ones I want to hear next…

Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)

Elton’s magnum opus is the perfect album to give the reworking to. It already has orchestral elements in tracks like the 11 minute ‘Funeral For a Friend’ and it would make tracks like ‘Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting’ and ‘Candle In The Wind’ sound even more lush.

Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run (1975)

Springsteen spent so long trying to perfect the sound he wanted for Born To Run, it went through at least 3 styles, and nearly ended up as a live album, before some hard work made it into the legendary piece we know today. This is an epic album, in concept and musicality, and an orchestra is probably the only thing that could make it even more compelling, if not taking it off in a different direction. ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ would be a massive ball of fun; ‘Jungleland’ would be something truly remarkable.

Prince – Purple Rain (1984)

Prince has so many projects on the go at one time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had an orchestral version of a classic album up his sleeve. This cutting edge production in 1984 would lend itself so well to ever grander arrangements – not least the Oscar winning title track – and I’m sure Prince is just the man to give it a wacky reworking.

Jimmy Saville and the Spectrum of Acceptance

The allegations brought out in the press last week about the late Sir Jimmy Saville sit uneasily with many people in Britain. They are described by the BBC as “disturbing accusations”. I saw an anger in Philip Schofield on This Morning while interviewing the women making the accusations: “Why now?”, he demanded “What are you hoping to achieve?” Indeed many fellow broadcasters have spoken of how the crimes of Saville were largely brushed over or ignored. But why? Because he was such a do-gooder? I feel it goes deeper than that. The man was a national treasure in the most traditional and justifiable sense of the term (sorry Chezza). There is a sense that accepting his complicit guilt brings a stain over something greater than the man himself. It affects the great British mythology of children’s television – the glory days of the 1970s when Jim’ll Fix It and Top Of The Pops were more than just television shows, but centrepieces of popular culture. Many look back on this as a time of great innocence, and characters like Saville were kings of it.

So what happens when the innocence is shattered with the realities of the truth? It looks fairly certain that these allegations are true – with helpful people like Childline founder Esther Rantzen proclaiming she’d known it to be an open secret for years (thanks for blowing the whistle love). Will the understanding that Saville was a manipulative molester of young girls tarnish his image as a colourful, charitable, eccentric children’s entertainer? In other words, how do the private misdemeanours of the man affect the public appreciation of the myth? And to what extent?

I ask to what extent because whether we realise it or not, as a society, we do have different levels of tolerance where this issue is concerned. Think about Gary Glitter – whose name has been thrown around as a possible accomplice of Saville’s. His career was destroyed when it was revealed he was a paedophile, and not just his career, but his legacy. I can’t think of anywhere where someone would find it appropriate to play his music now – his big Christmas hit banished from the festive compilation albums. And yet, despite the fact that the adult population are constantly willing to speculate on whether or not Michael Jackson committed similar offences, we’d never dream of resigning his music to a similar fate.

We must remember Jackson was cleared of his charges but most people will still crack a joke about it with a wink and a “of course he did!” (middle aged men who drink in pubs have a strange authority on this, I’ve found). So with Jackson, why doesn’t the mud stick? Why doesn’t the smoke mean fire? On the scheme of things, Gary Glitter’s music – and therefore his contribution to the world – wasn’t worth a great deal. But Jackson? Well, no need to remind you here, but his music was genius, revolutionary and fundamental to the lives of anyone who lived in the past fifty years, and outside of that, there’s the general belief that he was probably the greatest entertainer of all time. Even if he was guilty, it would never have affected his legacy. Even though we know he was a peculiar character, who led a strange life behind closed doors – whatever the details – it will never really impede on his work, because his contribution to the world was greater than that. And we accept that. When the history books are written, in 50, 100, 200 years and beyond, Jackson will only be remembered for the music, and the gossip of sex crimes will have long died out.

Where is the proof for this? Well look at Lewis Carroll – widely believed to have been a paedophile in the Victorian era, and yet Alice In Wonderland is an inescapable cornerstone in children’s literature. Oscar Wilde was ruined beyond modern comprehension when he was jailed for being a homosexual at the turn of the 20th century, and died as a result of his social blackening. Yet he remains the most famous playwright since Shakespeare, and remarkably, he is an historic figure remembered and revered mostly for the wit and demeanour which touted him as a ‘sodomite’ in the first place. How about Charlie Chaplin? An enemy of the CIA, he was famous for sleeping with young, young women (he married a 16 year old at 36, and an 18 year old at 54) – but his contribution to film, to culture, to civilisation, is so crucial, that all of that is simply put down to the folly of a man of genius. And finally there’s Woody Allen, who left his wife Mia Farrow for her adopted Vietnemese daughter, as soon as she came of age. They’ve been together ever since. It’s weird, it’s creepy, it’s perverted – but his career is still going, and his legacy is secure: because of his talent.

My point is not that talent excuses criminality, but it clearly goes some way to wiping it out. Behaviour fades into insignificance and is deemed irrelevant by the public if the work created and performed by the individual is of enough merit. The way I see it, someone like Gary Glitter didn’t stake a strong enough claim to cultural importance in the first place, and so he was easily dismissed when his crimes were revealed. But for Jackson, Wilde, et al, it’s the misdemeanours that are ultimately dismissed – because we recognise, however conscious or subconscious, that their contributions to the world immortalise them, and by far outweigh their momentary slip of respectability in life.

But the reason I wrote this piece is because I’ve been wondering where someone like Jimmy Saville fits in this spectrum of acceptance. Not exactly an artist, but something much more than an entertainer; he holds an important place in the cultural psyche of this country, and existed as more of a myth than a man, even in his own lifetime. To the extent where his colleagues neglected to report his crimes – because people wouldn’t have believed it, or they feared undoing his charity work, or of course, ruining his reputation. But now that the cat is out of the bag, will his reputation survive untarnished? Will he constantly be a man we think of as having two very different sides? Or will he be stripped of his knighthood and forever banished to the ranks of the unmentionable? For a much loved British figure like him, it’s hard to tell, and perhaps too soon to even grasp the scale of his crimes; but it is apparent that as a society we can remember what we want to remember, and forget what we want to forget. Time will tell for Mr Saville…

Pumpkin Spice Latte

I’m a sucker for a festive drink. Starbucks is now as much a part of my Christmas experience as the classic ‘Christmas Carol’ scene is to…well, everyone, ever. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas until I can have a Ginger Nut Latte, with the same high-calorie sweet treats I’ve had all year, which suddenly taste even better because I’m generally in better spirits.

But what is this I hear? A Halloween drink? Yes, for the first year ever, the UK is being graced with the Pumpkin Spice Latte, which my U.S. friends (and well travelled, smug UK friends) tell me has been a staple in the American Starbucks for years.

Well hello already! Why is this such a good thing? It’s good because the UK isn’t big into Halloween like the U.S, but it really should be. Also, our winter begins on 1st September, if not before, and it is bitter cold. We don’t just like having hot sugary drinks long before December, we physically need them to survive. And, after having the greatest summer ever in London, we now have nothing to look forward to until Christmas. We need something in which to drown our autumnal sorrows. I like the word autumnal. And I like the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

SKYFALL: A Musical Dissection

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Adele got the Bond theme – surprise! Well, not really. She was the right choice given that her last album is the biggest thing since the Big Bang, and she links directly from the lineage of great British Bond crooners Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones. Skyfall is the 23rd Bond theme, starring the eternal DILF Daniel Craig – so just how did Adele and Paul Epworth go about composing music history? It’s got to carry on where all the others left off, and yet it has to sound like you. Here’s how she gets it just right…

0.02 Opening with the roar of the ‘you can’t not have’ horns, you know within 2 seconds it’s a Bond theme.

0.08 Almost immediately we’re stripped down to a piano pulse straight out of Adele’s own musical style bag, making it clear it’s hers.

0.33 Here she is. Adele’s trademark vocals narrate the typically vague lyrics which make the song applicable to the entire Bond franchise, not just the film in question. She says this is the first time she’s written to a brief. (Usually she’s writing to a grief.)

1.00 ‘This is the end’ is clearly the refrain for the verses. Implies impending doom, linking to the apocalyptic title. She sings in her usual tone, relaxed and not belted – slipping up into her head voice for the higher notes.

1.24 Catchy, killer chorus. The way the melody lifts on ‘skyfall’, ‘crumble’ and ‘stand tall’ is pure Shirley Bassey, but Adele’s trademark cockney shines through when she pronounces all the ‘l’s as ‘ow’s. Accompanied by strong strings, recorded at the legendary Abbey Road studios. Because when you’re making a Bond theme, why not.

2.10 Strings and horns get to do what they’re best at with some harmonic minor action filling in the vocal lines. That’s the scary sounding bits, for the non-musical ones.

2.18 The best line in the whole thing: “You may have my number, you can take my name…but you’ll never have my heart”. Listen to how she carries the ‘heart’ note on up into the chorus

2.30 Chant-like backing vocals make it even grander than it has been thus far. The first chorus here appears to be multiple Adeles, but when it repeats it sounds like a men’s chorus – slightly Gregorian, slightly Only Boys Aloud.

2.55 Break it down now! Adele chants over simmering grand orchestral chords. This is the goosebumps bit. I can see Daniel Craig peeking around corners and running and all sorts here.

3.45 Everybody! All instruments, singers, flames, everything, back for the grand finale.

4.10 The strings shoot up much higher than before to give us a new oscillating theme making sure the arrangement feels EVEN BIGGER. All the chords below are sinking towards the end. And presumably, the sky fall.

4.21 Here’s her big moment: sing ‘Skyfall’ and hold…and go higher…and go higher again. I can already see her, arms outstretched, singing this at the Academy Awards next year. If her throat’s not playing up.

4.37 The final chord, like the very first, is standard Bond, bookending it perfectly.

So that’s how you make a Bond theme. In case you want to brush up, here is a quick flick through all of the past 22. It takes 11 minutes. Enjoy…