Monday, 20 July 2015

This Rugged Coast Soundtrack by Urban Bowerbird (197?)

This Rugged Coast was an Australian documentary series that followed Ben Cropp and his team as they traveled around Queensland's Coral Sea  in the 1970s - like a cross between The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau and Ron & Val Taylor's Inner Space. I discovered it by accident a few years ago while watching late night tv and got so excited by it, I wrote a number of blog articles remarking on its amusing anachronisms and my genuine fondness for the show. As I described the program at the time:
The crew is lead by Cropp perpetually standing alert at the helm in nothing but skimpy bathers and a beard, smoking a pipe and continually lifting his binoculars skyward and scanning the horizon for anything film-worthy. The watery, blue depths are his domain and he presides over them like a tanned Antipodean Neptune. He is joined by Hal the fearless sea-snake expert with a perplexing accent and thick-rimmed glasses, a crew that seems to consist mainly of beach-belles in bikinis (it wasn't clear at first what their capacity on-board was, but Lynn was credited with 'sound' so I can only assume the other girls are equally technically equipped), guys with beards who look like they know a thing or two about boats and of course the ship's cat, Skipper. In tonight's episode, our crew are venturing around a treacherous maze of coral reefs called 'The Coral Labyrinth' (the name is repeated at every opportunity by the voice-over guy who pronounces it 'Lab-ee-rinth' with a faintly rolled 'r'.)
Like all good underwater documentary shows, the drama on  This Rugged Coast is constantly underscored by music. I asked James Pianta of Votary Records, about the source of this music back in 2011 and he said; 

"I actually spoke to Ben Cropp a few years back about releasing his soundtrack music, he was less than interested.

Although he did tell me that he uses library music. This is problematic as unless the original cue sheets exist (they never do) it becomes really hard to source all the tracks let alone licensing."

So, I took it upon myself to piece together a soundtrack by ripping the audio from the DVDs. Most of the audio comes from The Coral Labyrinth episode mentioned above. There is the unavoidable presence of narration and dialogue from the program over the music that, at first bothered me as being 'messy' but which I now rather like as it truly recreates the atmosphere and the ambience of the show.

Now, here's a challenge. All of the music on this soundtrack is sourced from library records - does anyone recognise any of these pieces and can you identify them?


Saturday, 21 February 2015

Australian bush soundsdcapes: Various releases - Carl & Lise Weismann, Harold J. Pollock (1964 - 1970)

This post has been written by guest blogger, Roger Close.

Demand for album-length recordings of field sounds is not what it once was. In the mid-twentieth century, though, long before smartphones could summon up any bird-call in seconds, there seems to have been a thriving market. This suite of five EPs from the 1960s and ‘70s (packaged with slim hardback volumes by The Jacaranda Press) brings together a splendid range of field recordings from the Australian natural environment. The earliest two records, Australian Bird Songs (1964) and Australian Bush Sounds (1966), were recorded by Danish couple Carl and Lise Weismann during a ten-month traversal of the continent in 1957. Zoologist Carl Weismann was one of the pioneers of ornithological field recordings, having collecting bird calls for Danish radio as early as the 1930s. However, it was the popularity of their ‘Singing Dogs’ novelty records that financed their Australian tour. Vocalisations on these two albums are presented without a narrator: the interested listener can follow ornithologist Alan Keast’s extensive written commentary. However, the calls are sufficiently distinctive that it’s easy to keep in step with the track listing. The later three recordings, ‘Menura—The Lyrebird’ (1967), Bird and Animal Calls of Australia (1968) and Voices of the Australian Bush (1970) are the end-result of thirteen years of outback travel by of one of Australia’s leading wildlife photographers at the time, Harold J. Pollock. Although these recordings also contain extensive notes, the subject of each track is also announced by Mr Pollock in a delightfully old-fashioned tone.

Nineteen species are included on Australian Bird Songs, all of which are captured clearly and with minimal background noise—perhaps attributable to the gigantic three-foot parabolic microphone reflector dish pictured on the back of the EP (wielded by Carl; his wife (“at this stage a new bride”) operates the portable reel-to-reel tape recorded slung over her shoulder). Recordings were made in a wide variety of remote environments. Both sides of this EP contain a mix of common and lesser-known (and more unusual-sounding) species, although they are frequently referred to by obsolete names, which might confuse modern listeners a little. Accompanying the black and white photographs, Alan Keast provides lively and poetic descriptions of each species’ calls, which are preceded by an informative discussion of the biological roles of bird song.

Additional material recorded during the Wiesmanns’ Australian expedition was released the next year on Australian Bush Sounds. Unlike their previous recording, this EP is not limited to birds, and features several mammals, amphibians (the Weismanns professed to be overawed by the incredible variety of frog calls on offer in this country) and even insects, a greater variety of calls that makes for more pleasant background listening. In particular, the far-off howling of a pack of dingos is very evocative, and one can only imagine how the two Scandinavian globetrotters felt as they captured this soundscape.

‘Menura—The Lyrebird’ is the only EP to focus on a single taxon. Most of the recordings are of two Superb Lyrebird individuals: a male, ‘Wanderer,’ in Sherbrooke Forest in Victoria, and a female, ‘Theresa,’ living near Sydney; the text gives detailed biographies, along with accounts of the natural history of the lyrebird. An anonymous Albert Lyrebird from Southern Queensland also makes an appearance. It seems this release was a tie-in with a now-forgotten documentary film of the same name, during the making of which Mr Pollock lived alongside his subjects for six months. (Pollock also made short documentaries about pelicans, brolgas, red kangaroos and koalas, all financed by the State Bank of New South Wales). The EP gives a terrific impression of the variety of calls and imitations that these peculiar birds are capable of—particularly mimicry of other bird species, although ‘Theresa’ does produce a fine imitation of a dog’s bark.

Bird and Animal Calls of Australia (‘animals’ here being synonymous with ‘mammals’) is the first instalment in this Jacaranda series to be printed in full-colour. The first side of the EP presents calls from a range of fairly common bird species, including the melodious Pied Butcher Bird, the curious but familiar Pied Currawong, and the less-commonly-heard calls of the Cassowary and Brolga. Side two is perhaps more interesting, focussing on mammal species. The male and female koala calls provide an amusing contrast, particularly the ‘courting’ vocalisations; we’re also treated to the sound of koalas fighting and to a baby koala, which is rather cute. More obscure ‘animal’ calls include the Squirrel Glider, Tasmanian Devils (which sound remarkably like feral cats) and Flying Foxes. The natural history of each species in included in the booklet, along with an extensive description of the technical hurdles of recording field sounds, should you wish to attempt your own. If you wish to go down the reel-to-reel tape route, the German-made Uher 4000 Report S is a “lightweight masterpiece of electronic engineering” (only 7 lb. complete with battery); this will no doubt make it easier to lug around your parabolic reflector and AKG microphone.

The final EP, Voices of the Australian Bush doesn’t include Mr Pollock’s announcements, but does cover 29 species of bird, both rare and common, accompanied by colourful descriptions and photographs. In addition to an updated guide to making field recordings, there is a portrait showing Mr Pollock brandishing his equipment.

Download - Mediafire.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Comedy and jazz from lost Melbourne: All Aboard! - Alan Rowe The One-Man Show (196?) and Graeme Bell & His Dixieland Jazz Band (1947)

Comedy is one of the most ephemeral art forms there is. What people find funny is very specific to a time and place and it dates almost immediately. While this can make comedy from only a couple of years ago seem stale and boring, that same effect can make comedy from decades or centuries ago incredibly illuminating in terms of understanding that culture and getting a feel for the real world of the bourgeoisie.

Alan Rowe was a very family-friendly comedian who did impressions, sang songs and performed bits about the suburban experience in Melbourne around the early sixties. His was an old-fashioned, one-man show in the vaudeville tradition. To a modern listener, this kind of performance can sound a bit Arthur Atkinson from The Fast Show, but there’s no question that Alan was a consummate performer with original material and a good rapport with his audience. One of my favourite bits, and one that illustrates the timelessness of certain Melbourne institutions, is the one where Alan calls the running of a train on the Frankston line in the style of a horse racing announcer. With a few minimal updates, you could probably perform this routine today and still get laughs in Melbourne. Rowe's songs Living In A Flat and Dad’s Lost Weekend likewise reflect an early celebration of Australian suburban-ness that is still recognisable today.

Rowe’s final bit relates a story of a booking for a show in which all the other acts cancel, leaving Alan to take their place via his impressions. He replicates a female soprano, a bass baritone (“Michael Row The Boat Ashore), a countrified harmonica (“Home On The Range”), a banjo-mandolin player and finally as Graeme Bell’s six-piece Dixieland Jazz Band. I was pleasantly surprised to see that at the time Graeme Bell was such a well-known fixture in Australian pop culture as to be an instantly familiar reference.

To round out this little sonic window into lost Melbourne, here’s a 10” 78RPM record by Graeme Bell & His Dixieland Jazz Band that I found in a Reservoir op-shop. Ever the skilled showman, even with only his voice and a piano Alan does a pretty good impression of the band.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The REAL hidden, late-career Libaek treasure: White Midnight - Sven Libaek (1983)

EDIT 11/01/2015: When I posted this a month ago, I uploaded the wrong song. I had accidentally uploaded The Settlement; an original Libaek soundtrack composition which can be found on the I Love Australian Movies LP. A nice track  to be sure, but not of the quality of White Midnight, which has now been uploaded to the player below.

Sven Libaek produced so much wonderful music during his career, but at some point in the late seventies his output suddenly became very schmaltzy and unremarkable. Gone are the exciting, idiosyncratic soundtracks, replaced with easy listening orchestral cheese. I see these late-career records regularly in my travels and sometimes I can’t resist buying them, despite knowing full well they’re going to be terrible, due to my deeply ingrained love of Libaek.

Every now and again, I find that these records harbour a song worth listening to or even, in this case, a flat-out excellent example of the Libaek genre. 1983’s Love Is In The Air is a collection of pedestrian covers played by the Sven Libaek Orchestra and is unlikely to be included in the Libaek classic canon. However, buried in the middle of the second side is White Midnight, a song written by Sven and originally recorded in 1965 by The Saints (not the well-known Australian punk rock band) on their obscure Australian skiing record, Ski With The Saints, which Libaek produced for CBS.

This track, despite bearing sonic hallmarks that make it clear it was recorded in the eighties, is pure golden-era Libaek, sounding like it could be a condensed section from Australian Suite or an excerpt from one of Sven’s soundtracks. Have a listen and be the judge: is this a lost Libaek gem, or what?

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Revisiting John Sangster's Lord of the Rings LPs.

        When discussing The Hobbit Suite record two years ago, I offhandedly described John Sangster’s Lord of the Rings LPs as too ‘trad-jazzy’ for my tastes. I have been revisiting a few of these albums of late – prompted in part from reading Sangster’s autobiography Seeing The Rafters (1988) – and I’ve gotten new insights into the man’s work that have caused a revision in my thinking on these albums.
Sangster’s Tolkien-themed series of albums comprised, The Hobbit Suite (1973), Lord of the Rings (1975), Lord of the Rings Vol. 2 (1976), Double Vibes: Hobbit (1977), Lord of the Rings Vol 3. (1977) and Landscapes of Middle Earth (1978). All of these were double LPs released on EMI apart from the two hobbit records which were single LPs released on local jazz label Swaggie. The EMI records have all been excellently remastered and re-released on CD by Move Records. Swaggie have remastered and re-released The Hobbit Suite and selections from Double Vibes which features the aforementioned album plus four songs from the latter title. (Given the paucity of reissues of Australian jazz recordings from the sixties and seventies, this may provide some indication of the esteem in which these records are still held by people in the local music industry.)
The Hobbit Suite was apparently quite a spontaneous recording with a small ensemble and most of the tracks are first takes. After the success of this record Sangster was emboldened to try more ambitious arrangements for the new music he was writing and went to a major label that could support his vision. These records feature expanded brass and string sections in addition to the core jazz band.

For the past year or so I have been thoroughly listening to the first two LOTR albums and The Hobbit Suite which preceded them. (I haven’t heard LOTR Vol 3. or Landscapes of Middle Earth at all – and I won’t do for quite some time. Sangster died in 1995, his musical output was finite and I’ve got to make this stuff last.)
Firstly, despite the aesthetics of the cover art and the song titles being allusions to Tolkien at face value, Sangster’s autobiography makes clear that these records too, are autobiographies. His life, in musical form. For example, the ‘Knockabout Trolls’ from The Hobbit Suite? Those ‘trolls’ are Sango and Sluggsy AKA his mate, drummer Len Barnard, doubling on washboard out the front of the band! And as for the stoned laughter and banter in the background of Longbottom Leaf from LOTR Vol 2. well, let’s just say that they may well have been method-acting. Legolas et al may hail from Middle Earth, but the bird calls in the field recordings on these albums are clearly from natives of the New South Wales temperate forests, near Sangster’s home of Sydney.
In addition to these coded titles, the music itself represents the myriad of styles that Sangster has played in, beginning in the burgeoning Australian jazz scene of the forties. From his book: “If you want a musical autobiography, it's all there in the Lord of the Rings albums. A crazed montage of all the jazz (and other) idioms I've been involved with during my life. All the musics I love are in there; some plainly stated, some distorted and disguised a little bit the way memories sometimes go."
My dismissive description of the LOTR records as merely ‘trad jazz’ is just plain wrong; these records encompass a ridiculous range of music from within and without the jazz scene, such as old-style trad, ragtime, be-bop, big-band/swing, blues, film music, avant garde and musique concrete. The fact that the first LOTR record has a track like Uncle Gandalf Needs You followed immediately by Ents And Entwives is a feat of juxtaposition that shows how ballsy Sangster really was. Sangster worshipped old greats like Bix Beiderbecke and Ellington, but he was equally a fan of experimental icons like Sun Ra, Moondog and Xenakis and all these influences coexist on these discs.

I’m glad I persevered with these records as these are superb examples of Sangster’s work and are significant albums, not just for Australian jazz, but Australian music in general. Is it too much to hope that one day Sangster’s music will see a resurgence amongst the hipsters and the Oz music bourgeois alike, and Sango himself celebrated as an unheralded genius? I really hope so. Australians are famously unwilling to revere their own as cultural figures worth praising, but a talent like John Sangster must transcend this and take a rightful place in the antipodean cultural canon alongside the likes of Barry Humphries or Charles Blackman. On yer Sango. 

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Lord, Why? - The Cambrian Explosion

This is the second single from The Cambrian Explosion's album release Marine Theology. Yes, this is a song from my own band and I'd very much like you to hear it. On this one, we grind out some garage gospel with an arsenal of vintage and modern instrumentation, including flute and cümbüş.

The lyrics recount a lament from a protagonist attempting to reconcile the existence of fossils, dinosaurs and other natural phenomena with a fundamentalist belief system. Lord, why'd you leave the shells on the mountaintop?

You can download this song for free on our Bandcamp page.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Wave In The Ocean - The Cambrian Explosion

A Wave In The Ocean is lovely vocal pop number with an overall middle-eastern fusion style, accented by the Turkish oud. (To be more precise, a cümbüş.) It's the first single from Marine Theology, an oceanic theme album from my band, The Cambrian Explosion. I realise this is a little outside of my usual brief for this blog, but this is music of which I am extremely proud and would like to share with as many people as possible. Let me know what you think, and please pass this on to musical fellow travelers if this is your kind of thing.