Posts Tagged ‘Britain’
December 25, 2014 | by Bob Stanley
We’re out until January 5, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2014 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
The elephant in the discotheque: the Bee Gees.
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 >>
December 17, 2014 | by Bridget Read
Penelope Fitzgerald’s shifting reputation.
Penelope Fitzgerald would have been ninety-eight today. We should mark the occasion by remembering that it is not extraordinary that she became a prize-winning novelist, though you may have heard otherwise.
In 2008, Julian Barnes described Fitzgerald as a jam-making grandmother, carrying a plastic, purple handbag. “Many readers’ initial reaction to a Fitzgerald novel,” he wrote, is, “ ‘But how does she know that?’ ” He said that he has reread the first scene of her book The Blue Flower (2000) many times, “always trying to find its secret, but never succeeding.”
And most everyone knows the story of the Booker dinner in 1979, to which Fitzgerald supposedly wore a flannel housedress. When she beat out V. S. Naipaul for the prize with Offshore, Robert Robinson of Book Programme proposed that the judges had made the wrong choice.
Then there’s Michael Dibdin, who once compared Fitzgerald to Jane Austen, of whom Lord Grey of Fallodon said something like, How astonishing that, despite the dullness of her life, she should write not only one novel, but several, and they are very good, too. Didbin was also incredulous of The Blue Flower: “How on earth was this done?” Read More »
September 30, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The origins of genius, which is a relatively new concept: “The term genius in its modern sense was first adopted in the eighteenth century and it involved a conflation of two Latin terms: genius, which for the Romans was the god of our conception, imbuing us with particular personality traits but nevertheless a supernatural force external to us, and ingenium, a related noun referring to our internal dispositions and talents, our inborn nature … Why did the moderns need a term like this, in which natural characteristics are fused with supernatural associations?”
- “What is remarkable about Ibsen’s work is that it seems both to reflect the specific, Scandinavian bourgeois milieu that formed the author and to have a universal appeal that allows endless reinterpretation … the issues that Ibsen deals with, of class, of status, of who may speak and who may not, ‘are timeless, especially as we are now moving back to the conditions of the nineteenth century, with a very, very small, wealthy and powerful elite.’”
- An analysis of the GIF, the Internet’s most divisive image-file format: “Created in 1987 by the digital communications company CompuServe, the GIF was originally designed for speedy transfer across pre–World Wide Web Internet networks … GIFs are chiefly agents of pleasure within a sensibility that predominates online, but one that has yet to be invoked in analyses of the format: that of camp. The web-born incarnation of this attitude goes well beyond historical definitions of camp as (variously) over-the-top sprezzatura, effete affectation, stereotypical homosexual display and its hammy adoption by straight society. In fact, it has a potentially international and transcultural reach as a genderless way of engaging with the modern world.”
- A British teen novel unwittingly illustrates the wide gulf between senses of humor in America and the UK: “I had to put a glossary of words [my editor] didn’t understand in the back for the American editions. Words like ‘prat’ (someone who plays air guitar at concerts or puts two legs down one knicker leg) etc. Common-or-garden comedy words … But you know how cheerful [Americans] can be. Always wanting you to have a nice day. Perking you up by going up at the end of sentences in case you had nodded off. Bounding over to serve you in restaurants.”
- Remembering the loudest sound on Earth: the eruption of a volcano in Krakatoa on August 27, 1883. “The ear-drums of over half my crew have been shattered,” the captain of a nearby ship wrote in his log. “My last thoughts are with my dear wife. I am convinced that the Day of Judgement has come.”
September 26, 2014 | by Sadie Stein
On this, the occasion of T. S. Eliot’s birth, it’s interesting to revisit (or, I should say, visit—if you didn’t happen to be around in 1965) his Times obituary. Especially this bit:
In his later years he had an office in London in the publishing house of Faber & Faber, of which he was a director. There he carried on his business, writing letters and articles, somewhat like the clerkish type he resembled.
In appearance he was then, as he was in early life, a most unlikely figure for a poet. He lacked flamboyance or oddity in dress or manner, and there was nothing of the romantic about him. He carried no auras, cast no arresting eye and wore his heart, as nearly as he could be observed, in its proper anatomical place.
His habits of work were equally “unpoetic,” for he eschewed bars and cafes for the pleasant and bourgeois comforts of an office with padded chairs and a well-lighted desk.
Talking of his work habits, he once said:
“A great deal of my new play, ‘The Elder Statesman,’ was produced in pencil and paper, very roughly. Then I typed it myself first before my wife got to work on it. In typing myself I make alterations, very considerable ones. But whether I write or type, composition of any length, a play for example, means for me regular hours, say 10 to 1. I found that three hours a day is about all I can do of actual composing. I could do the polish perhaps later.”
Eliot’s dress was a model of the London man of business. He wore a bowler and often carried a tightly rolled umbrella. His accent which started out as pure American Middle West did undergo changes, becoming over the years quite British U.
The U was complete and unfeigned. “I am,” he said stoutly, “an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics.”
Even so, his ascetic austerity drew the line at gin rummy, which he delighted to play of an evening. He also kept a signed photograph of Groucho Marx, cigar protuberant, in his study at home.
These touches lend credence to Eliot’s attempts in later years to soften some aspects of his credo. His religious beliefs, he asserted, remained unchanged and he was still in favor of monarchy in all countries having a monarch, but the term classicism was no longer so important to him.
September 24, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Today in history: the dreams of British steampunks and dirigible enthusiasts were sundered like so many feet of duralumin. On September 24, 1911, His Majesty’s Airship No. 1, the rigid, phallic Mayfly, met its demise. If you don’t hear of this incident as often as you do, say, the Hindenburg disaster, it’s because (1) no one died, (2) nothing caught on fire, and (3) nothing fell to the ground; the Mayfly was torn in twain before she ever left the ground. All it took was a strong gust of wind and a bit of human error. The accident happened just as the crew removed the ship from its hangar for testing, as the Airship Heritage Trust explains:
Disaster struck in the form of a sudden forceful beam-side gust, causing the ship to lurch, just clearing [its] shed but [rolling] onto her beam ends. She righted and was then pivoted so her nose would point back out to the dock when there were cracking sounds amidships and she broke in two. She started to rise in an inverted V formation, but the crew in the gondola dived overboard, and the stern flew up into the air.
The damage was extensively photographed, and there’s something heartbreaking in the images—it enables a strange form of rubbernecking. Snapped in two, the ship looks impossibly frail, almost like an elongated box spring, and of dubious airworthiness. (Though it must be said that it floats quite nicely.) It was just over five hundred feet long, and it weighed forty-four thousand pounds. Its cruising speed was only estimated at forty-two miles an hour.
The wreck widened the gulf between Britain and Germany’s airship programs—by 1913, Germany had a fleet of seventeen zeppelins and the Brits had only two. That year, Winston Churchill had a nice zinger for the House of Commons:
Altogether, compared with other navies, the British aeroplane service has started very well … I have a less satisfactory account to give of airships. Naval airship developments were retarded by various causes. The mishap which destroyed the Mayfly, or the Won’t Fly, as it would be more accurate to call it, at Barrow, was a very serious setback to the development of Admiralty policy in airships.
September 22, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Before she made a living as a novelist, Fay Weldon, who’s eighty-three today, was a copywriter “at O&M, a copy group head in charge of the Little Lion egg account, first-generation IBM computers, and goodness knows what else.” As she tells it, her crowning achievement there was the slogan “Vodka makes you drunker quicker”: “It just seemed to me to be obvious that people who wanted to get drunk fast needed to know this.” Her superiors disagreed—god knows why—and the motto never saw the light of day.
What did see the light of day is “Go to Work on an Egg,” a masterly double entendre that served as the catchphrase for the aptly named British Egg Marketing Board. Weldon managed the ad team that coined the phrase, and proof of her handiwork abounds. On YouTube you can find a series of “Go to Work on an Egg” meta-advertisements in which an increasingly indignant Tony Hancock—a famous British radio and TV personality—bemoans that his career has come to this. “Ladies and gentlemen, owing to the present state of the theatrical profession, I have with great reluctance been forced to accept a job as a supporting actor to a lady doing a commercial for eggs.” Read More »