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Posts Tagged ‘Britain’

Islands in the Stream

July 14, 2014 | by

The elephant in the discotheque: the Bee Gees.

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A 1977 publicity photo of the Bee Gees for a television special, “Billboard #1 Music Awards.” From top: Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb.

The Bee Gees’ dominance of the charts in the disco era was above and beyond Chic, Giorgio Moroder, even Donna Summer. Their sound track to Saturday Night Fever sold thirty million copies. They were responsible for writing and producing eight of 1978’s number ones, something only Lennon and McCartney in 1963/64 could rival—and John and Paul hadn’t been the producers, only the writers. Even given the task of writing a song called “Grease” (“Grease is the word, it’s got groove, it’s got a meaning,” they claimed, hoping no one would ask, “Come again?”), they came up with a classic. At one point in March they were behind five singles in the American Top 10. In 1978 they accounted for 2 percent of the entire record industry’s profits. The Bee Gees were a cultural phenomenon.

Three siblings from an isolated, slightly sinister island off the coast of northwest England, already in their late twenties by the time the Fever struck—how the hell did they manage this? Pinups in the late sixties, makers of the occasional keening ballad hit in the early seventies, the Bee Gees had no real contact with the zeitgeist until, inexplicably, they had hits like “Nights on Broadway,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Night Fever,” and the zeitgeist suddenly seemed to emanate from them. This happened because they were blending white soul, R&B, and dance music in a way that suited pretty much every club, every radio station, every American citizen in 1978. They melded black and white influences into a more satisfying whole than anyone since Elvis. Simply, they were defining pop culture in 1978.

Like ABBA, there is a well of melancholic emotion, even paranoia, in the Bee Gees’ music. Take “How Deep Is Your Love” (no. 1, ’77), with its warm bath of Fender Rhodes keyboards and echoed harmonies that camouflage the cries of the lyric: “We’re living in a world of fools, breaking us down, when they all should let us be … How deep is your love? I really need to learn.” Or “Words,” with its romantic but strangely seclusionist “This world has lost its glory. Let’s start a brand-new story now, my love.” Or “Night Fever,” their ’78 number one, with its super-mellow groove and air-pumped strings masking the high anxiety of Barry Gibb’s vocal; the second verse is indecipherable, nothing but a piercing wail with the odd phrase—“I can’t hide!”—peeking through the cracks. It is an extraordinary record.

Total pop domination can have fierce consequences. Elvis had been packed off to the army; the Beatles had received Ku Klux Klan death threats—the Bee Gees received the mother of all backlashes, taking the full brunt of the anti-disco movement. Radio stations announced “Bee Gee–free weekends”; a comedy record called “Meaningless Songs in Very High Voices” by the HeeBeeGeeBees became a UK radio hit. Their 1979 album Spirits Having Flown had sold sixteen million copies and spawned three number-one singles (“Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” “Love You Inside Out”); the singles from 1981’s Living Eyes—“He’s a Liar” and the title track—reached thirty and forty-five on the chart respectively, and didn’t chart in Britain at all. Almost overnight, nobody played Bee Gees records on the radio, and pretty much nobody bought them. The biggest group in the world at the end of 1978 went into enforced retirement three years later. Could they rise again? Of course they could. Read More »

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Speaking American

July 7, 2014 | by

The varying temperaments of British and American storytelling.

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Lower Basswood Falls, Superior National Forest, July 1961.

In 1890, a thirty-seven-year-old Scot named James F. Muirhead arrived in America with the intention of carrying out an extensive survey of the republic for the “Baedeker’s Handbook to the United States.” Muirhead spent the next three years traveling to almost every state and territory in the Union, approaching his vast subject matter with none of the condescension often expressed by Victorian Englishmen of the era. In 1898 he published The Land of Contrasts—A Briton’s View of His American Kin, which he considered to be a “tribute of admiration and gratitude.” His colorful chapter headings show the range of his interests: “An Appreciation of the American Woman,” “Sports and Amusements,” “American Journalism—A Mixed Blessing,” and “Some Literary Straws.”

In that last chapter, Muirhead attempts to throw some light upon the “respective literary tastes of the Englishman and the American.” While he notes the grammatical wrongness of the American idiom—at least to his ear—in phrases such as “a long ways off” or “In a voice neither could scare hear,” he is most interested in “the tone, the temper, the method, the ideals” of an American writer. He singles out William Dean Howells—who challenged American authors to choose American subjects—as “purely and exclusively American, in his style as in his subject, in his main themes as in his incidental illustrations, in his spirit, his temperament, his point of view.”

But what does it mean to have an American point of view? Muirhead keeps trying to put his finger on this elusive quality: “Mr. Howells … possesses a bonhomie, a geniality, a good-nature veiled by a slight mask of cynicism, that may be personal, but which strikes one as also a characteristic American trait.” And then: “To me Mr. Howells, even when in his most realistic and sordid vein, always suggests the ideal and the noble.” Read More »

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Brazen Towers

July 1, 2014 | by

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Francis Thompson at nineteen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“The Summer looks out from her brazen tower,
Through the flashing bars of July.”
—Francis Thompson, “A Corymbus for Autumn”

By the time he died of tuberculosis in 1907, the forty-seven-year-old Francis Thompson had found respect and moderate success as a poet. A favorite of G. K. Chesterton, and later both J. R. R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle, Thompson gave us the phrases “with all deliberate speed” and “love is a many-splendored thing,” which would become the title of a 1952 novel, a ludicrous film, a hit song, and, later, a soap opera. The latter is especially apt; Thompson had a dramatic and difficult life.

The son of a Lancashire physician, Thompson studied medicine himself, but in 1885 moved to London to try to make it as a writer. Instead, he developed a serious opium addiction and started sleeping rough on the streets of Charing Cross, occasionally selling matches and newspapers to make a little money. He would claim later that, on the brink of suicide, he was saved from ending it by a vision of the poet Thomas Chatterton. More materially, he was, he said, helped by an anonymous prostitute, who gave him money and lodging before conveniently disappearing, Thompson would say, because, in classic hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold fashion, he feared that associating with her would hurt his burgeoning career. (Needless to say, he would go on to write about her romantically in many poems.)

Here’s what we know for sure: after reading a manuscript Thompson had sent them, the editors Wilfrid and Alice Meynell took him in, ran his work, and would later help him publish a book. (It probably didn’t hurt that Thompson had been raised Anglo-Catholic; the Meynells were active in Oxford Movement circles.) The Meynells even paid for Thompson to do a stint in Our Lady of England Priory, a sort of Victorian rehab.

Of course, by then years of neglect and addiction had taken their toll. Thompson was never physically robust, and died after years of illness. In a final act he might have appreciated, his onetime home, which bore a Blue Plaque, came to an appropriately depressing end: in March of this year, an engineer accidentally hit the house with a cherry picker, and it proceeded to promptly collapse. (Watch the video here.)

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Kansas in Drag, and Other News

April 11, 2014 | by

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A photograph from Kansas City recently discovered by Robert Heishman.

 

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Prude

February 28, 2014 | by

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No sex, please, we’re British intelligence.

We at The Paris Review Daily do not ordinarily see fit to intervene in matters of geopolitics. But the Times brings news too dismaying to ignore: in a ham-fisted effort to tighten national security, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters has intercepted millions of images from Yahoo webcams. And what have they gotten for their troubles? Not sensitive documents, hot tips, or even shifty conversation—just eyeful after eyeful of amateur porn. Worse still, they’re not even turned on by it.

“Unfortunately, there are issues with undesirable images within the data,” one GCHQ document reads. “It would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.”

An internal agency survey of 323 Yahoo usernames found that 7.1 percent of those images contained “undesirable nudity.”

“Undesirable” our asses! (Which would, if bared on Yahoo webcams, provide only the most desirable foreign intelligence in the world.)

 

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Ivor Gurney’s “To His Love”

November 11, 2013 | by

Ivor Gurney in 1920.

In honor of Veterans Day, we are re-running this favorite post.

In the last century, a few years of sodden slaughter in France and Flanders turned British poetry from Keatsian lyricism to raw, aghast reportage. Isaac Rosenberg’s poems, for instance, moved from prewar patriotic exultation—“Flash, mailed seraphim, / Your burning spears”—to, three years later, this numb, bone-dry mutter from the trenches: “Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies.”

In Ivor Gurney’s “To His Love” you see the thing happening not in mid-career but in mid-poem—between lines, in a line break, specifically the last one. It’s the most astonishing line break I’ve ever encountered. It’s the sound of a culture’s poetic history cracking in half.

“To His Love” begins as an almost doggedly traditional elegy, with the Byronic echo of “We’ll walk no more on Cotswold.” It meanders through rivers, beasts, flowers, and the old tropes—nobility, “pride,” “memoried.” We are lulled into thinking that the urgency of “Cover him, cover him soon!” arises from intense soldierly love, rather than the desperate need to hide a shredded corpse, that “red, wet / Thing.” The euphemistic Latinate décor is stripped away; the haplessly tall T does it’s pitiful duty by the form, like a Tommy too shell-shocked to hide, a standing target.

The fragile Gurney was gassed and traumatized by the war, and he lived out his days in asylums. Read More »

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