A Symphony of British Music

Some random observations on the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games:

It was previously noted in these pages that the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Games would enjoy the luxury of cherry-picking from amongst the greatest acts the popular music world has ever known.  This was evident during tonight’s ceremony.  In February 2010, Vancouver shut off their Olympic lights to the tortured strains of Simple Plan, Nickelback, and Avril Lavigne.  Canadians have been apologizing to the world for noise pollution ever since.  The British, in contrast, have nothing to apologize for.  Their gifts to the world of music are undeniably great.  The UK charts have been an embarrassment of riches for five decades.

Ray Davies emerged from a London taxi and, from a perch maybe a scant ten kilometres from his original muse, sang his Kinks masterwork “Waterloo Sunset”.  The perpetually stylish Pet Shop Boys vamped their way around Olympic Stadium to the immediately recognizable synthesized strains of “West End Girls”.  Even dancehall-pop group Madness were resurrected for a madcap version of their worldwide hit “Our House”.

For some unfathomable reason, David Bowie was not on hand to sing Olympian favourite “Heroes” – instead, we got Memorex Bowie and recordings like “Fashion”.  Larger-than-life actor Russell Brand filled in for John Lennon on a surreal take on The Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus”.  Goo goo ga-joob!

There may be no more haunting, glorious sound on the planet than the sound of a Welsh men’s choir.  Something about that sound resonates in the ancestral lobes of my brain.

The Canadian television feed of the ceremony helpfully identified most of the performers, and even managed to show most of the performances, unlike a certain American network (earning the now-ubiquitous label #NBCfail).  But for whatever reason, CTV/TSN left out the name of one important act.  In case you were wondering which fantastic band played while the athletes were entering the stadium – that was Northern England’s own Elbow.  The two songs they performed, “Open Arms” and “One Day Like This”, are big favourites of the Craven Hermit.  If you would like to hear more of this band’s epic melodic genius, check out their 2011 album Build a Rocket Boys! or 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid.

Annie Lennox could sing page 417 of the phone book and still sound amazing.

2009 saw the acrimonious split of Oasis, with Noel and Liam Gallagher pledging to never work together again (at least not until some concert promoter backs up a truck filled with a couple tons of gold bullion).  In the meantime, Noel continues to refuse to participate in all public spectacles on the principle that ‘they are all completely shite’.  On this night, it was left to Liam’s new project Beady Eye to perform “Wonderwall” for the masses.  If you think the symphonic strings on stage and on your television screen were actually part of the live music mix, then perhaps you’d be interested in some ocean-front property we’re selling.  In Saskatchewan.

Fatboy Slim emerged from an inflatable octopus at mid-field (drugs were taken) to ‘play’ “Right Here Right Now” and “The Rockafeller Skank”.  Although any half-way talented twelve-year-old with an iPad and a 99-cent app could have ‘performed’ it just as well.

Jessie J is basically the UK’s answer to Katy Perry except with bigger, err, lungs.  Her manager somehow talked the organizers into putting her into four (yes, FOUR) songs, which was at least 75% more Jessie J than anyone really needed.

Comedy legend Eric Idle appeared mid-ceremony to lead the assembled masses through a rendition of Monty Python’s “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life”, complete with gorgeous angels, roller-blading nuns, a Bollywood interlude, and a man fired across the stadium from a cannon.  Of course.

More than two decades after his untimely death, Freddie Mercury can still capture the imagination of a crowd of 80,000 punters with the immortal music of Queen.  Footage of Freddie singing at Queen’s 1986 triumphant gig at old Wembley Stadium inspired the audience to raise their voices in unison.  Despite a lack of critical acclaim throughout their career, Queen truly are the UK’s ‘People’s Band’.  Too bad they couldn’t rustle up someone more exciting to sing “We Will Rock You” with Brian May and Roger Taylor than Jessie J.  Hell, if George Michael was so insistent on doing a second song tonight, he could have sung the hell out of this one.

The Craven Hermit is a huge Muse fan, but the song they wrote for the Olympics is pretty much the definition of ‘meh’.  ‘Bombastic’ is not synonymous with ‘great’ or even ‘interesting’.  As their ancestral countryman might have said – Muse’s “Survival” is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Hopefully this isn’t a sign of things to come on the next Muse record, which will be released in early October.

Once again, the ceremony made a point of covering up the crippling unpopularity of IOC chairman Jacques Rogge.  Much like the way that all pro hockey functions are obligated to trot out NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in the company of a one-legged Nobel laureate orphan with an incurable disease, the Olympic organizers made sure that Rogge was always paired up with popular characters like indefatigable British sporting legend Sebastian Coe.  One imagines that if Rogge ever took to a stage alone, he would either be met with silent indifference or, worse, several dozen bottles of pee hurled at his head.  (Incidentally, bottled-pee-hurling would not be the most ridiculous of Olympic events, and British music festival attendees would take the gold medal in a walk).  But on this night, Coe did his best to inspire the crowd and keep everything civil.  Note to the IOC – if your chairman is so unpopular that you have to pair him up with the human equivalent of a baby kitten for all of his public appearances, maybe it’s time for a new chairman.  Just saying.

One could quibble with the ceremony organizers’ inability to feature Radiohead or Coldplay or Kasabian or Manic Street Preachers or Blur or the Stone Roses or New Order on this night (though New Order and Blur did appear at the Hyde Park after-party).  Even the petrified remains of the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were AWOL.  Imagine the goosebumps if Peter Gabriel had come out to do “In Your Eyes”, or even Robbie Williams for “Angels”.  And no offence to gifted up-and-comer Ed Sheeran, but it would have been nice to see either David Gilmour or Roger Waters amble on stage to join Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason for “Wish You Were Here”.  That said, surely there was enough musical talent on hand to reach a British quorum anyway.

As expected, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend closed out the ceremony, charged with reinvigorating the crowd after the extinguishing of the Olympic flame.  Meanwhile The Who’s original combustible drummer Keith Moon did not appear, despite rumours to the contrary, on account of still being quite dead.

And we here at the Craven Hermit blog don’t care what anyone says.  She might have left the group years ago.  She might not be the world’s greatest singer.  She’s not even a red-head anymore.  But Geri Halliwell, aka Ginger Spice, can still brighten anyone’s day.  There should be a gold medal awarded for singing from the roof of a moving taxi while wearing 4″ heels.

Last word goes to Bruce Arthur of the National Post, who tweeted this contrast between Vancouver and London:

No inflatable beavers in the Closing Ceremony.  Britain wins.

Rocking Out with Gaylord Meatface

Your intrepid blogger is friends with a first-class dude that goes by the web handle Gaylord Meatface.  He assures me that he picked the name because he wanted to be unique on the Internet.  I’ll go out on a limb and guess that he’s got it all to himself.

After hearing that I picked up a turntable for my birthday, Meatface offered to bring by some 45’s for a listening party.  Not just any 45’s either, but his mom’s vintage record collection.  After throwing some steaks on the barbeque, and partaking in some warm-up beers while watching hockey, the Hermit and the Meatface started dropping the needle.

It quickly became evident that technology has come along quite a ways since the 1950s and 1960s.  Vintage 45’s sound a lot different than modern audiophile vinyl.  The principal differences are a LOT more surface noise, and a thinner overall sonic balance.  Maybe that’s because today’s recording technology is better (stereo vs. mono, multi-track vs. live recording, and so on).  Maybe it has something to do with how music is mixed and mastered differently today, with an overall “hotter” sound.  It was also a lesson in protecting one’s vinyl – most of the records in Meatface’s collection probably hadn’t seen their dust jackets (much less their cardboard sleeves) since Lester Pearson was prime minister.  Or Gaylord Meatface wore short pants, for that matter.

Despite all that, the evening was a grand success.  A dust brush removed most of the surface grit on the records & markedly cleaned up the sound.  Plus among the typical teenaged-girl staples in the collection, there were some gems.  We enjoyed hearing Sun Records era Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two crackle to life with “It’s Just About Time”, backed with “I Just Thought You’d Like to Know”.  We rediscovered Buck Owens with “Love’s Gonna Live Here” and “Getting Used to Losing You”.  We continued in a classic country vein with Conway Twitty’s “What Am I Living For” and “The Hurt in My Heart” (wow, Conway should have been on suicide watch).

We got an education in proto-jangle guitar pop by spinning Buddy Holly’s “Listen to Me”, backed with “I’m Gonna Love You Too”.  We got our folk on with The Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” and “Ruby Red”.  And we even got into the swing of things with Frank Sinatra’s “Just One Of Those Things” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter”, with “Sunday” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” over on the flip side.

My personal favourite moment was reveling in the pure rock majesty of “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” by The Who, with “Anytime You Want Me” on the b-side.  Somehow, the hisses and pops just added to Pete Townshend’s glorious feedback and Keith Moon’s calamitous drums.  I can only imagine what a mint-condition single by The Who would fetch in a record store today.

Many thanks to Gaylord Meatface for spelunking through his parents’ closets to unearth these records and offering to share them with me.  It was a great way to spend an evening.  And happy birthday, Gaylord!