What I learned from Geoff Love

Geoff Love's Star WarsA recent Facebook discussion made me all nostalgic for a classic of my childhood, Geoff Love’s Star Wars and Other Space Themes. I wondered if it was available on Amazon and, blow me down …

It’s probably rare for a cheesy easy listening covers album to hold a special place in one’s heart, but it does for me, and I can think of at least two friends in the sf community who have admitted similar feelings. Why? Well, because I learned a lot from this album.

No prizes for guessing that my sole reason for buying it, at the age of 13, in 1978, was to get hold of the Star Wars theme. As far as I was concerned this LP was a single with an A side and a lot of B sides. I had seen the movie once by this stage, and remembered the music as being quite good. For some reason I had it in my head that it was a bit like the theme to Born Free. (At least, it goes up and down in an approximately similar way.)

And I learned …

I began to learn new things just from the cover, which featured a montage of people and ships that were obviously based on the shows depicted on the album … but weren’t. That wasn’t Luke and Leia. (‘Luke’ is more like a bizarre Luke/Han hybrid.) That ship might be based on a Federation design but it’s not the Enterprise. There’s a space station which may or may not be the one from 2001, except that it seems to have part of a third ring which somehow gets lost.

And there was a fairly straightforward rendition of Jane Fonda as Barbarella, which no 13 year old boy was ever going to complain about.

So, I learned that artists can have fun riffing off other artist’s work. I’m sure all the rights were paid – no one was getting ripped off – but why confirm mindlessly to what is when you have your own idea of what could be?

I also learned a few things from the track list, like the very existence of Things to Come, the aforesaid Barbarella, and Quatermass. I decided I would seek these things out and find out more, and am glad I did.

And then there was the music, which brings me back to the first point – artists having fun by being inspired. The title track is a straight orchestral rendition of the Star Wars theme, and as that was what I bought it for, I can’t really complain. Other straight orchestral pieces are Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War”, a thankfully abridged version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and the theme to Things to Come. But the rest … Different versions of Star Trek and Thunderbirds and U.F.O. and Space: 1999 and … and … With everything from orchestra to sax to 1970s wacka-wacka electric guitar, sometimes in the same track (and something else I didn’t know and could not have appreciated at the time: the legendary Herbie Flowers on bass. I didn’t know that bass existed, though could probably have worked out that something must be making those deep notes).

And, what the hell was Princess Leia’s theme, I wondered? I only knew the title music: I didn’t recognise any others. But the next time I watched Star Wars, now that I knew of its existence, I was able to pick it out of the background music. Since then I’ve learned to listen to what is going on as well as watch it, and that has helped me enjoy movies on a different level to simple childlike reception.

And an extremely boppy version of Doctor Who, which at first irritated the hell out of me because I accepted no substitutes. But, you know, it grew on me … And I had no idea there would come a time when I would look back on it and wish we could have that one instead of the Bontempi drek that assaulted us during the 80s. Again, artists having fun, coming up with new ideas, fresh expressions, and why not?

Don’t take my word for it.

Soon after this Geoff Love bandwagoned his way onto the other big craze of the late 70s, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Other Disco Galactic Themes. This has been tacked onto the end of the first album in the Amazon download, so if you buy the first one you get this free. This one is … differently good.

Geoff Love's Close EncountersNo longer Geoff Love and his orchestra, note: we’re onto Geoff Love and His Big Disco Sound. Disco-tastic versions of the CE3K theme (which I will grudgingly admit actually improved on the original tune by having one) and other sf classics such as, um, Logan’s Run, The Omega Man and Flight Fantastic, whatever the hell that was last one is. Apart from the title track, the only one worth the admission price is the discoed version of Blake’s 7, which at least justifies the inclusion of a four-armed Liberator-alike on the cover. But you do rather get the idea they were running out of ideas.

And so my last lesson, which I really wish Geoff had learned too, was: quit while you’re ahead.

Because I can, I will leave you with the Geoff Love rendition of Blake’s 7.

Mike Oldfield & me

I hope I meet Mike Oldfield one day. His music was the background sound to most of my writing in the late 80s and early 90s. It would be only polite to say thank you. But as there’s little sign of him dropping in any day now, reading his autobiography Changeling seemed like the next best thing.

General legend has it that at the age of 19 Mike Oldfield sold the idea of Tubular Bells to Richard Branson’s new music company Virgin, and it went on to make a fortune for all concerned. No Tubular Bells, no Virgin Music, no Virgin Atlantic, no Virgin Galactic. Interesting thought. And that’s mostly true, but even so it’s not as if Oldfield just whipped it out of nowhere. He had been playing in clubs and bars since about the age of 12, getting more and more session playing experience under his belt, and Tubular Bells had been bubbling inside him for years. (Curiously, the bells themselves were a last minute addition when he finally came to make the album – they were still in the studio from the previous recording session and he thought he could probably use them.) He was able to record it almost from memory, with self-taught mixing and editing skills and with tapes he’d recorded even earlier in his teens.

And then he had to do a follow-up, a process he likens at one point to getting toothpaste out of a tube. He’d had his say! He’d recorded his music! What else was he going to do?

The problems of my life have very little overlap with young Oldfield’s, who for one reason and another was a functioning alcoholic even before Tubular Bells, and did a tad too much LSD and needed some severely aggressive therapy in his mid-twenties to sort himself out. (The screams and howls in TB’s “Piltdown Man” bit aren’t faked.) But I’m eye to eye with him here. Y’see, it’s dawning on me that my first three novels – not including The Xenocide Mission, because that was an unexpected sequel – were the three novels I really had inside me, struggling to get out. Simplistically, they were the Space Opera One, the Time Travel One and the Alternate History One. Then I had to write something else. Um.

Anyone who has been foolish enough to ask how my writing has been going recently will know that I’ve been rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting … if Hergest Ridge was toothpaste out of a tube for Oldfield, this is like pulling teeth for me. With a pair of tweezers. The first draft itself took some wrenching, but I got a story out and I like it. My publisher didn’t, and to be fair I can see what he means. But it’s the story! What do you mean, rewrite it?

As the world knows, Oldfield managed. Historical forces were against him – it wasn’t his fault that Tubular Bells came out just as punk was coming in. After the rapturous reception of his debut work, he just couldn’t understand why all his subsequent stuff was getting panned, even if it did keep selling. Finally he was able to keep going by redefining his entire approach and outlook, employing other musicians, riffing off their ideas and targeting his music at the market, at the same time as keeping it deliberately Oldfieldian. The first fruits of this new approach were his albums Platinum and then my favourite, QE2. He was back on track.

I enjoyed reading the book, even with its occasionally slightly clunky style which persuades me he really did write it himself rather than filter it through a ghost writer. Favourite anecdote: Oldfield’s sister Sally, six years older than him, was best friends at university with a girl called Marianne Faithfull … What with one thing leading to another, young Michael aged 13 or 14 found himself playing guitar in a recording studio with his big sister and her friend and her friend’s famous boyfriend in the producer’s box. Thus, shortly after, he was able to tell a teacher at his school who was predicting a life of miserable unemployment unless he got a haircut and some decent O-levels under his belt: “I’ve just been in a recording studio with Mick Jagger and I’m going to be a musician.”

Nice one.

Richard Branson emerges mostly with credit. He wasn’t the one who spotted the potential of Tubular Bells but he was the one who drove the money-making process. Oldfield gradually came to understand that his motive remained (understandably) making a healthy profit for Virgin, which is how within a few years Virgin had moved from being the company that debuted with Tubular Bells to the company signing up all the nascent punk bands. Oldfield understands but is still a little nonplussed. Tubular Bells’ money-making potential for Virgin was helped considerably by the contract Branson foisted on its young, naive composer, giving him the lowest royalty rate possible, binding him to another 9 albums with Virgin and giving Virgin the rights to Tubular Bells for the next 35 years. Oldfield finally got it back in 2008.

There’s a parallel universe where Moonlight Shadow still has the lyrics Hazel O’Connor wrote for it, rather than the ones Oldfield dragged out of himself with the help of a rhyming dictionary, a bottle of wine and an all-night writing session. It would make interesting listening. The success of that song gave Richard Branson ammunition to encourage Oldfield to write more and more songs, and less and less instrumental stuff: the logical conclusion was his album Earth Moving, which is all songs, and barring a couple of tracks really is the most forgettable item in his output. Oldfield hit back with the mighty Amarok – nothing that could remotely be made into a single, every instrument under the sun, Zulu choir and Maggie Thatcher (impersonated, in the last couple of minutes) all thrown together into a glorious hour-long mix. And when he finally broke free from Virgin, the result was Tubular Bells II which was and is a work of genius.

He didn’t always enjoy the process of re-identifying himself as a musician, with its loss of control and whiff of compromise, but it’s what makes him a pro rather than a talented amateur. And face it, when even the work you don’t particularly enjoy leads you to live outside the UK for a year for tax reasons, there are compensations.

I’m sure I can learn from this with my own approach to writing. Now I just need to work out how … I probably won’t get the tax problem and I doubt my wealth will be indirectly funding innovative ventures into space. But you take what you can get.

It’s the colour that counts

I think the first audio cassette I ever held in my hands belonged to my grandfather. I’m guessing it emerged after he died in 1975. And it was so frustrating because nowhere in my grandparents’ or my parents’ house was there any kind of device for playing the thing. Goodness knows what Granddad was doing with it in the first place.
We’ve almost come full circle …
Over the last six months I have discovered iPods. First, Bonusbarn upgraded his white iPod Nano to a green one. I bought the white one off him and put my downloaded music onto it. This didn’t take long. Bit by bit it began to fill up with other stuff. I bought a widget for playing iPods on a car cassette player. See, it was dawning on me that my beloved set of car-listening compilation tapes was wearing thin, stiffening up, stretching, generally getting wonky … and I had no means for re-recording them. A lot of them came off LPs I had once bought but no longer possessed, and even if I still possessed them I no longer had the means to play them. Some came off CDs which I still own but we barely have the means to re-record them. The only tape mechanisms now in the flat are the ones accidentally attached to a couple of radios. They record, but the quality ain’t great and the new recording often sounds worse than the one it’s replacing.
And now the white iPod is full, so I have been given permission to upgrade to a purple one with eight times the capacity of the white one and twice, or possibly four times the capacity of Bonusbarn’s green one. It was a cheaper option than buying a decent tape recorder. He doesn’t know this yet.
But this means I can go one step further than with the compilation tapes. I created them in the first place because while I enjoyed the works of the selected artists I didn’t necessarily enjoy them by the albumful; and anyway it was fun to mix and match the absolutely best songs. Which led to the inevitable heartbreak of having to leave some of the good, but not entirely the best good, stuff off as it can’t all fit onto a 90 minute tape. With a purple iPod this is no longer an issue.
Of course it’s not quite as flexible as mixing and matching the recording of your own tape, or if it is I’ve yet to find out how. iTunes will let you shuffle your music randomly, or play it album by album, in alphabetical order of title rather than year of release, and in track order. But you can still have a certain amount of geeky fun classifying everything by genre and playlist. You’re essentially populating a database, after all, and fun doesn’t come more geeky than that.
It’s not quite as fun as the good old days of putting coloured stickers on your cassette collection for ease of classifying, but it’s better than nothing.
It also goes without saying that I totally ignore Genius, the cunning means by which iTunes studies your musical tastes and suggests music you might like to purchase to go with it. Until iTunes drops DRM completely and unconditionally, it will be a cold day in Hell before I buy something there. Anyway, one of the joys of life is serendipitously picking up a track at random from the background noise of your day to day existence, deciding you like it, hunting it down and acquiring it. Being fed music by Apple would miss the point completely.
And speaking of DRM … it was a truly frabjous day when Amazon launched its own reasonably priced DRM-free MP3 download section. That way I’ve been able to select favourite tracks from LPs that I formerly owned and added them to the purple iPod too. It means that in some cases I have paid for something twice in the course of my life, but only by a matter of pennies.
But this led on to a further moral conundrum. Another huge plus of the unambiguously legal Amazon service was that the dubious attractions of the dodgy Russian download sites vanished. I admit to having frequented them in the past but it was becoming clearer and clearer that the money wasn’t reaching the artists concerned, even if the Russians maintained that was the artists’ fault and not theirs. So I stopped using them.
But some tracks that I want to iPodise aren’t available on Amazon. I’m thinking specifically of the early work of Mr Oldfield and the entire oeuvre of Sky. The dodgy Russians have the Oldfield corpus covered, and do at least have Sky’s second (and best) album and half of their fifth. So on the grounds that I have already bought Sky2 and Five Live in my youth, and Sky have had their royalties off me, I admit to reacquiring them for a handful of roubles.
But now the question looms in my mind: what will replace the iPod …?
I comfort myself that both LPs and audio cassettes needed special, though cheaply available, equipment to play on. As do MP3s and whatever format it is iTunes converts them to; but even so, more and more of my music is becoming available on a big electronic database somewhere and I’m reasonably certain it should therefore be convertible to any other format that comes along. We have the raw data; what we make of it is up to us. No one will be stumbling across mysterious recording media in my effects after I’m gone; what I have will be plainly available, there on screen, in rights-free format, for anyone who wants it.
For the fun of it, here is Toccata from Sky2. Drummer Tristan Fry looks like he’s enjoying it most. For his more energetic solos he was known to take his glasses off.