Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: Music Miscellanea

Best Books & Discs of 2020

As usual, my favourite books of the year were all non-fiction. I did read one novel – The Tree Wakers by Keith Clare, a strangely curious book recommended to me by Liz Williams – but everything else was non. I think the highlight of the year was Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ wonderful and very well received Kindred, which updates the Neanderthal story with considerable grace and style. Last year’s book tokens went on the fascinating The Evolution Of Imagination by Stephen T. Asma and Penny Spikins’ marvellous How Compassion Made Us Human, which superbly puts the boot into male notions of fighting, hunting, and general macho anthropological bollocks. Lockdown tore into my reading a lot, but I did re-read The Singing Neanderthals by Stephen Mithen as research for writing Uncanny in April; this is a wonderful book, whose central premise still holds firm in my opinion. Lewis Dartnell’s Origins was another terrific “large scale overview kind of book” (akin to Sapiens, I suppose), dealing with its material extremely well – a terrific, compelling, fascinating read. A million miles away, I also enjoyed the unexpectedly revealing biography of Larry Stephens, who is perhaps best known for working with Spike Milligan on a lot of the Goon Shows. The Extraordinary Voyage Of Pytheas The Greek was an ancient world delight.

In music, the event of the year was the release of Tangerine Dream’s second Virgin mega box set Pilots Of Purple Twilight, which accompanies the fantastic In Search Of Hades. Jonathan Hulten’s Chants From Another Place was my first post-lockdown purchase, and very good it is too – a marvellous album of vocal and other textures. Elsewhere, during a trip to Hay-on-Wye, I bought music from various regions, including China, Tuva, Kazakhstan, India and Turkey. I also took a chance on Mozart L’Egyptien, which weirdly works, though I keep feeling it shouldn’t: Mozart interspersed and arranged with Egyptian music. I also enjoyed a number of choral music CDs by John Rutter, John Tavener and various Renaissance composers, including Tallis and Allegri. Other band CDs I acquired included releases from The Gentle Good, Gwenno (great Cornish electronica), All India Radio and Salif Keita. Another standout release was the new album The Bitter Lay by Arch Garrison, whose I Will Be A Pilgrim remains a lifelong favourite.

Best book of the year: Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred.

Best discs of the year: Tangerine Dream, Pilots Of Purple Twilight.

Solo music back catalogue

Music on the day of Yule! For those fans and friends interested in my solo music, I have today released the entire back catalogue on Bandcamp. There are various styles, ranging from orchestral through electronic to acoustic and kosmische. Check it out here!

Music and more interview

To celebrate twenty years of recording music as Blue Lily Commission, I’ve done an audio interview with DJ and music promoter Brendan O’Melia. In it, I talk about music, SF, writing, and more. Here’s the link if you’d like to have a listen…

30 at 20

A rare music-related post today – celebrating thirty @ twenty…

thirty at twenty

The Isness Of Bands

Are some band line-ups inviolate?

I started to get interested in music in my mid-teens. A friend at school recorded four Tangerine Dream albums onto cassette tapes for me; I was mesmerised. Then I heard music by ELP and Yes, and my sonic world expanded… then it was The Stranglers, punk, and beyond…

In recent years we’ve lost some remarkable musicians. The ones which have affected me most have been Edgar Froese (2015) and Dave Greenfield (2020), but the loss of Chris Squire, Neil Peart, Daevid Allen and Greg Lake really got to me too. As a consequence, and especially after the loss of Edgar Froese – Tangerine Dream were, and remain a massive part of my musical foundation – I’ve been wondering about a feeling I have that certain band line-up are inviolate. I’m going to call this feeling the isness of bands.

Currently, “Tangerine Dream” (quotation marks to indicate my stance) exist with no original members. One of the present members, Thorsten Quaeschning, worked for a while with Edgar Froese in the band, but Tangerine Dream was Edgar’s creation, and to me it seems absurd that his musical vehicle should continue after his death with exactly the same name. When Peter Baumann and even Chris Franke departed, fair enough – but the demise of Edgar should have indicated the end of Tangerine Dream. He represented the isness of that band.

I think this idea of inviolate line-ups also taps in to my attitude to death. The end is the end: no afterlife. In my opinion, commercial considerations should always defer to artistic ones. That’s idealistic, I know, but I deeply feel it. There is no Tangerine Dream after Edgar Froese.

A more difficult consideration for me is the case of Gong. Before founder Daevid Allen died, he indicated to the current line-up that they should continue as Gong after his death. To me, it seems ludicrous that a band so determined by the character of its founder – like Tangerine Dream – should continue after that founder’s death, but what am I to make of Daevid’s insistence that Gong continue? Clearly he saw Gong as something more than himself. He had spiritual beliefs, of course, and those informed his attitude to all sorts of aspects of life. Probably he imagined the musical manifestation, Gong the band, to be only one part of his overall vision. Perhaps he imagined the isness of Gong rather like a spirit. But a spirit is an imaginary human construction with no basis in reality. If you argue that a band is a human construction, well, yes it is. But a band, for all that it emerges from imagination, has a basis in reality.

I’m taking a profoundly materialistic view here, yet I also profoundly feel the wonder, the uniqueness, and the emotional power of music. I’m a musician myself. Music is a central part of my life. Tangerine Dream were unique, extraordinary, ground-breaking and progressive – their run of albums up to and including 1985s Le Parc remain a testament to their cultural importance. For me, it’s disappointing that musical entities don’t end when the founding member or original “classic” line-up ceases to be.

Neither spirit nor soul exist. I think we should recognise that all things – life itself and the creations of life – have finite duration. Tangerine Dream was born in 1967, and it should have been allowed to die in 2015.

I realise that this attitude is highly idealistic, and even unrealistic. Why shouldn’t Dave Greenfield, Jet Black and Jean-Jacques Burnel have carried on as The Stranglers if they so chose? Well, my attitude is of course particular to me; in my view the only incarnation of The Stranglers with that name is the 1975-1990 one. What came after should perhaps have had a different, but similar name. My attitude says more about me and my feelings for music than about anything else. However, I think it also says something about how we experience music as we age, which is a more generally interesting point. The experiences we have – the bands we discover, the bands we follow, the bands we love – as young people are central to our later experiences. You can tell how roughly old somebody is by which music decade they first mention or are particularly drawn to: ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s… For me, the magic of the ’70s – Tangerine Dream, Yes, Mike Oldfield, Steve Reich, The Stranglers – is a unique, irreplaceable glamour, one linked irrevocably to particular band line-ups. The isness of The Stranglers was represented by Dave Greenfield, Jet Black, Jean-Jacques Burnel and Hugh Cornwell.

I would argue that, after 1990, The Stranglers were merely the sum of their parts. The sum of the parts of “Tangerine Dream” is precisely zero.

Perhaps then my attitude to certain line-ups is a manifestation of something that we all feel, albeit that it’s an unusual attitude. The bands we grew up with as young adults are special. They and their names help define us. They are part of our identity.

Isness is a form of identity. It does not last forever.


Dave Greenfield RIP

One day in 1977, when I was about half way through my teen years, I walked past the radio in the kitchen of my house to hear an extraordinary piece of music. I halted, mesmerised. I had to listen to the rest of the song, whose rippling, haunting keyboard sound transfixed me. That song was 5 Minutes by The Stranglers.

Today we learned that Dave Greenfield, The Stranglers’ gifted keyboards and synth player, has died of Covid-19. Alas… for it turned out that 5 Minutes and the two incredible albums it represented – Stranglers IV and No More Heroes – was just the beginning of an extraordinary musical career, whose highlight, Black & White, remains for me one of the ten greatest albums ever recorded – forty two years on and still sounds futuristic. When Andrew Hook asked me to contribute to the punkPunk! anthology, I knew I had to write a story inspired by that unique LP.

Peel was a fan, of course, and supported them even through major sonic changes. I remember him say after playing the track The Raven: “The Stranglers… of course.” As the years went by their style and focus changed, yet they kept their core: great melodic songs, clever lyrics, world concerns. Dave Greenfield remained central to the sound, though his overdriven Rhodes passed into history.

I saw them live at the Rainbow Theatre in London in 1982 on the Meninblack tour. You had to wear black to attend a Stranglers gig, and I had nothing black except jeans and shoes, so I borrowed a leather jacket from my friend Dave Nye. Thus attired, I took the train from Egham to London for one of the highlights of my young life. It was incredibly loud and incredibly exciting. It was just incredible. I stood to the right of the stage about half way back, and, afterwards, getting a bus back to Waterloo Station, I realised I’d gone deaf in my right ear. Ah, great times!

I was unable to listen to anything after Hugh Cornwell departed. Many Stranglers-worshipping fans have recommended newer albums, but for me the original quartet is inviolate. Dave Greenfield somehow represented that futuristic, exotic, hypnotising, almost SF quality of the band, especially with his early keyboard sound. He leaves an amazing legacy.

All things must pass, even, in the end, our own memories. The music however lives on.

dave g

Blue Lily Commission review

Lovely review here for my new Blue Lily Commission album Shall We Go For A Walk? , from Jeff Fitzgerald of the online magazine ‘Psychedelic Waves.’

(Four Journeys here / The Undrugged Orchestra here.)

Special thanks to Jeff for his thoughts.

shall we

Carolyn Hillyer & Nigel Shaw

I first saw Nigel Shaw playing live in 1994. My then wife had been told by a colleague that he was playing a gig in Bedfordshire, quite close to where we lived and worked, so we went to see him. He played solo: synthesizer and Native American flute. I was captivated by that flute, which must have been one of the earliest ones that he played. After the gig I chatted to him about it. He was friendly and approachable – a lovely chap.

I liked the music on CD, but it was only after we moved to Devon a few years later that I really got into his music, and that of his equally extraordinary partner Carolyn Hillyer. We used to see them at local gigs in Devon and Cornwall, and soon his influence affected my own music – I bought a Native American flute from him, not one of his own, but one made by Guillermo Martinez, a Californian he worked with. It’s a gorgeous instrument, that I still play. I got to speak with them quite a few times, which was always a happy, positive experience. Nigel is open and friendly, with a charming manner; he has the same obsession with and love of musical instruments that I have. Carolyn is I think more serious, perhaps more intense, and she has a distinct ‘mystical’ quality about her. I remember watching her preparing for at a gig by the River Wye a few years back; she seemed to be staring into some other world.

Over the years I realised just what special talents these two were. Nigel had begun in New Age circles, but he was by far and away the best musician in that genre, and really not part of it at all, except perhaps in the early days. Dartmoor, the land, and tribal societies were strong influences on them both, which gave their music a deep foundation.

Over the last twenty-five years their music has diversified, progressed and deepened. Some of the music is like Nigel’s early stuff – haunting flutes, synth washes and other light instrumentation. Meanwhile, Carolyn has produced an amazing series of tribal and song-based albums, a really extraordinary part-improvised album using just her voice, and there is a strand too of what they call ancient folk, which are my favourite works.

Their music I find deeply soothing, not just because of the quiet, ambient quality of much of it, but because of that foundation in land, seasons, weather, nature. It anchors me. Nigel’s Dartmoor trilogy is particularly strong here, but so are other favourites – the icy/upbeat Ancestors, and the beautiful Nocturnes. Each album has its joys and delights. When, a decade or so ago, my personal life was a wreck I listened to their music for weeks – it helped get me through. I bought all the CDs I didn’t have from Shrewsbury’s alternative shop.

Nigel and Carolyn both make their own instruments, for themselves and their music, and for others; they run instrument-making courses too. They have played with many musicians from across the globe. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to receive one of Carolyn’s shamanic drums, made with her own fair hands from sustainably sourced deer hide. It’s a lovely thing, and records beautifully. Hopefully I’ll have one of Nigel’s flutes in due course.

Even though they make a living from their music and all their other activities, and are well known, I’m still amazed at the lack of public recognition. Why isn’t some production company making a documentary about them and their lives? They’re well known in Devon of course, and in alternative/underground circles, but I’d love to see some sort of national recognition – a film would be perfect.

Where to begin if you don’t know their music? Songs Of The Forgotten People will always be a favourite of mine – truly an inspirational album – but also Ancestors, Weaving The Land and Riven. Carolyn’s Ice is a favourite, as are Nigel’s Nocturnes and Dartmoor Journey.

You can find them at Seventh Wave Music. Happy listening!

c & n

Fear Of Melody

About fifteen years ago I began thinking about melody. I’m not sure what the motivation was for this; perhaps a personal need to go back in pop history when songs seemed more tuneful. At the time, my band was going, so it seemed natural for me to understand melody by trying to write it. And, of course, that wasn’t easy. In the end I found that what worked for me was what I called the Neil Young Method. Young basically goes with what comes to him first thing in the morning, when his subconscious dreaming mind is close to his conscious mind. In such a way he wrote gorgeous songs with amazing melodies like After The Gold Rush, Only Love Can Break Your Heart and Heart Of Gold.

Whether I found myself able to write a unique melody is a question best left to those who remember the band and bought the albums. What I can say is that using Young’s method I found many melodies that seemed fresh and original to me, and after a while I had more than I needed.

One of the themes of The Autist is the loss of melody from music being symptomatic of some deeper malaise. It has struck me during the last couple of decades that more popular music now than that of, say, the 1960s or 1970s, is lacking those wonderful, sometimes extraordinary melodies: I’m thinking of Paul McCartney’s classics, many Motown classics, The Byrds, the Beach Boys, John Phillips’ songs, Paul Simon, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, and so on. Did something happen around the turn of the millennium that sucked some of the melody out of popular music in the West?

It seems to me that such a thing might have happened. As a practicing musician I used to wonder if it was something to do with the increasing use of computers in the recording studio. Using software rather than analogue tape can channel musicians in a certain direction: loop-based music using samples for instance. Some groups – FSOL stand out here – can use loops and samples in an original way, but for me something is lost around this particular time. But perhaps there is more to it than computer software.

What, then, is melody? Melody for me is a direct connection to the emotional heart of human existence. With melody, feelings can be evoked without the need for words – you only have to think of instrumental themes like Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1, or many themes from famous films, like Francis Lai’s unforgettable theme from Love Story. Melody is our path into feeling, emotion and mood – think of the theme from The Snowman…

So I can’t help wondering if the loss of melody from popular music is diagnostic of a deeper problem. We live in a world where computers are the environment, not just some handy thing in the environment. Our world has become one of calculation, algorithm, statistics. The analogue age is over: this is the digital age. Could it be that the loss of melody in popular music is a symptom of emotion, and therefore of human values, receding from our world? Could the reported increase in ennui, in numbness, in the Western world also be symptomatic of such a lack?

This was the thesis I had Mary Vine put forward in The Autist. Mary has been working on a case involving Tarrington Smith, a brilliant melodist – “… a Mozart, a McCartney…” – murdered in mysterious circumstances. The case leads her thinking in a certain direction. I wonder if she was on to something when she spoke about the loss of melody from the world? Because, if so, that’s scary.

The Autist front cover

Kate Bush On Creativity

I spotted a few interesting quotes over the weekend while reading an interview given by Kate Bush for Mojo music magazine. I’ve been a fan of hers since hearing ‘Wuthering Heights,’ and have followed her fascinating and wonderful career since then.

In the interview she gave some insight into her take on creativity.

“I don’t like working in commercial studios… I don’t like the dissipation of the focus. ‘Cos you might be in the middle of doing a vocal and you look through to the control room and you’ll see somebody walking in looking for a pair of headphones or something. I think it’s very important to get the creative focus and it’s very easily distracted. The creative process is, I think, very much about trying to keep this focus throughout all these things that are trying to destroy it.

“It [her personal studio] is a quiet space that you create from. I think of it quite often as being similar to people who write books and stuff. It’s disciplined, and quite often they do it in the shed in the garden, because they need that quiet space.”

It’s fascinating to read about her stress on focus and discipline. Being an author – for all the wonderful perks – is extremely hard work. But you have to be focused and disciplined the whole time, not just to write a novel but to be an author over a period of years. I talk a lot about how I write a new novel intensively during a comparatively short period of time (see Tony Ballantyne interview), but it’s not just that, it’s the whole long-term slog that new writers so often struggle with.

Focus, imagination, discipline, extremely hard work – the stuff authors are made from.

mojo kate bush