Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween

I have a very uneasy relationship with halloween, I’m never quite sure what to make of it. Much as I dislike being put on the same side of the argument as moralising Christians, I really don’t much care for the whole trick or treat, dressing up thing.

My reasons are of course different from those of the bible waving fraternity. I dislike Halloween, not because it’s nasty and pagan but because it’s a travesty of all the cool aspects of nasty pagan festivals. Britain has no shortage of pre-christian celebrations and traditions and yet, on this most pagan of pagan days, we increasingly choose to follow not our own traditional practices and traditions but a sort of mangled, commercialised version of them. I’m not arguing that we should celebrate Samhain again, no, I'm not a wiccan ponce. ...and we do that on Guy Fawkes’ night anyway – lighting bonfires and scaring off the darkness with loud noises, you didn't think that was really about a gunpowder plot did you?

Modern Halloween, it seems to me, is not be a night of deference to the folk superstitions which the Christians find so offensive, but a night in which we mock those superstitions, ones which seem so childish in the glow of fluorescent bulbs. We stand there, in our brightly lit streets, dressed as plastic goblins, and then congratulate ourselves on not being afraid.

All Hallow’s Eve was traditionally a night when the faerie folk, banshees, goblins and other pre-Christian beasties prowled the earth; when the souls of the lost, restless spirits, were especially active. It was a night when you sat around the fire with your family telling stories, and left lit candles in the windows to help guide the lost spirits. A good example of how scary it was is a story like the legend of the Celtic Folk-Hero Nera. Nera was the only warrior brave enough to rise to the challenge of his king: to leave the hall on the eve of Samhain, to walk alone through the darkness to the Gallows on a nearby hill, and tie a white band around the ankle of one of the hanged men decaying there. Going out on Halloween was not something that children could do, nor even most grown men.

It was, in most parts of England (even more so in Scotland), quite specifically NOT a night when you went out. Because if you went out the faeries would get you, and there is nothing whimsical about the fairies in folk stories: they stole husbands and wives, murdered children, killed livestock. I’ve been thumbing through my big book of folklore* trying to find a story that I remember reading, but I’ve forgotten the title and this book is huge.

As I remember it, the story it was about a man who was sitting with his wife on all Hallow’s eve, keeping warm and out of trouble. For some reason she insisted on going out after dark and was taken by the queen of the fairies. Exactly one year later the man’s brothers came to sit with him through the night. Sure enough the fairy folk came back, they stood by his door and called to him, entreated him to come out and join his wife. He heard her voice, she pleaded with him too, and he forgot when he had been told about staying inside. His brothers, however, were mindful of the stories of the fairies, held him down and refused to let him go out. The next morning, at dawn, the noises stopped and the brothers went out to see what had happened outside. They found the door and the doorstep covered with blood, and his wife was never seen again.

A traditional Halloween should be spent sitting in a candlelit house, surrounded by impenetrable darkness and cold, terrified of what might be waiting outside. These days, the closest anyone gets to that is hiding from trick or treaters.

I'm going to go and read some M R James stories and scare myself up good...

-Ben

*Briggs, Katherine M. A Dictionary of British Folk Tales in the English Language. Routledge : London : 1991

Monday, October 29, 2007

Daylight Savings

Say what you like about London's pollution, it certainly makes for pretty sunsets.

I just watched the sun go down, it was gorgeous, and that made me happy. It is only 4:40pm, however, and that makes me unhappy. The clocks went back over the weekend (causing an all-night party I was at to get really confusing) and now I appear to be living in a land of perpetual night. I think they do it so that it is lighter earlier in the mornings, but this doesn’t really help me, I’m not generally awake early in the morning.

Other than stare at the sunset I've really not done much of note, I sent off another job application last night, and I've been ordering prospectuseseses from various institutions today - although I feel like I'm flailing wildly in the dark in that regard, I need to find some sort of big postgraduate guide to help me.

-Ben

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Mr Ben Digs

Just the one band today, but they are very good.



The song is called 'Elephant Gun'

They are called Beirut and, as far as I can tell, they are basically the brainchild of a 19 year old from Santa Fe. Yes, young and talented. "Bastard!" I hear you shout? Well, that's as maybe, but he writes good songs.

-Ben

Sinister music

This is a little question for my readers (I'm not sure, but I think that you are at least three in number) - Do you know of any songs that could be called 'sinister' 'creepy' or 'scary'?

I don't mean scary like Boy Bands, or sinister like Gary Glitter - but you know - stuff that's actually creepy. I'm playing a folk night with my dad on Halloween and we were trying to think of some more appropriate songs. So far, we've got 'Paranoid' by Black Sabbath (in an Eastern European stylee - it works, really well), 'Watching the Detectives' by Elvis Costello (more because it's a good song than because it's particularly creepy, although it is pretty odd and unsettling), and either 'St James Infirmary Blues' or 'Death Letter' (old blues songs, included because they are really macabre).

Obviously there's no shortage of grim and scary folk songs, but we are looking to do some more modern stuff. Any suggestions?

-Ben

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A clarification

I was out delivering letters for my mum’s school today – it passes the time – and I feel like I should clarify something about which there seems to be some confusion.

This is a Bear Trap:


This is a Letterbox:


All clear? good. That is all.

-Ben

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Musics

At the moment Mr Ben Digs

The Elevaters
-Damn funky, sitting in largely unexploited territory somewhere between Stevie Wonder and N.E.R.D. I approve. (Via Kristen)

Headlines
-Pretty straight UK indie band, but done very well. (Via the radio, surprisingly - 6music is actually good enough for me to be able to listen to it all the time)

Emo

I wrote this last night, hence the references to being a bit drunk, but my internet was being crappy, so I couldn't post it until now.

Don’t worry, this post isn’t me being emo, nor is it another of my interminable ‘Ben attempts to analyse pop culture and fails’ posts. No. Instead I just thought I’d recount, in my drunken state, a story I was told today by one of my friends.

The friend in question has a job which requires him to work with children, and the other day he and a co-worker were teaching a 9 year old boy. When they were practising something particularly difficult the co-worker started to tease my friend and the boy in a good natured sort of way.

After a while the kid lost patience and retorted with the following:

Boy: Shut up! You… er… Goth!

The adults start giggling.

Boy:Actually no… you’re worse than a Goth, you’re an EMO!

At this point my friend and his co-worker start giggling harder.

Friend: What’s an emo then?

Boy: An emo is the worst. It’s a cross between a GOTH and a GAY



Such insight from one so young…

-Ben

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Funny

As I was dangerously intellectual yesterday I thought I'd lower the tone a little for today. These are two things I've seen in the last few days that have made me laugh until I very nearly peed myself.

- Human Tetris
Anyone who can watch this and not giggle hysterically is dead inside.

- The 213 Things Skippy is no longer allowed to do in the U.S. army
Bit of strange military humour, sort of like an army version of the Bart Simpson Blackboard gag - imply the stupid things done by mentioning only the prohibition to do them again.

-Ben

Friday, October 19, 2007

Killers and Strongwomen

This story on the beeb today led me off on a bit of a Wiki bender, because it occurred to me that whilst I knew the name Dr Crippen, I didn't actually know anything about him or what he did. His story isn't that interesting until the facts (if they are facts) in that news story are added. I mean, so he didn't kill his wife, but er, it's not like the new evidence makes him look shiny and innocent - what with the skilfully dismembered corpse buried under his floor. It just makes it more interesting, who was the dead body under the floor, if it wasn't his wife - I think the incompetent backstreet abortionist theory sounds plausible, if unpleasant.

I find these sort of figures interesting; not for what they did, killing people isn't that remarkable - anyone with a defective conscience, a half decent swing and a big stick can do that - but for the way that their crimes slip into popular culture after a few decades. Consider, for example, these names: Jack the Ripper, Sweeney Todd, Spring Heeled Jack - how many people would actually be certain which of these famous murderers was real, or at least closely based on a real person?* I was curious about the man's actual crimes because often you find that such shocking events and stories echo through the popular imagination, aspects of the case get regurgitated, intentionally or subconsciously, in narratives all the time and it's interesting to see how they reappear and evolve into something more fiction than fact.

In that regard I have a suspicion that all such stories have some grounding in fact. I don't mean that there really was a demon barber, but there might have been a really inept barber who gave someone with a tendency to exaggerate a clumsy shave, and so the story started. It makes me think of the romantic poets and their theories of the imagination (not something I like to be reminded of) specifically of Keats' theory, mirrored in the work of other good poets like Wallace Stevens, that art and, to an extent, perception, is created through the imaginative mind's interactions with prosaic reality - rather than conjured out of nothing.

Finally, as always with Wikipedia benders, I found myself getting more interested in tangentially related characters in the story, such as the friend of the late Mrs Belle Crippen** who informed the police that her friend had vanished - a Ms Kate Williams, known to the public as Vulcana. Who is a fascinating character, much more interesting than the weird quack who murdered his washed up showgirl wife. I insist that you go read about her instead.

-Ben


*In case you were unsure it's only the first one - Sweeney Todd and Spring Heeled Jack are urban Legends popularised in Penny Dreadfuls. Although there are those who argue that there is some grain of truth to the stories, nobody knows where that grain lies.

**Even if she wasn't 'late' at that point, I should think she is now.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Smoothed Out Shite

At the folk club tonight (which isn't really a folk club, it's more of a place where people who like to play instruments and sing gather and do both at each other) there was a man playing who comes there quite often and is, well, terrible. Terrible people at folk clubs aren't unusual, far from it. My personal favourites are the tone deaf old man who sings with, erm, charming enthusiasm and the middle aged woman who sings Bob Dylan and Joan Baez songs - seemingly with the conviction that if she delivers them with sufficient ferocity the chords will get into the right order on their own. But there's this one man who can't be so easily blocked out, or avoided by a swift trip to the bar.

He sings songs that he writes himself, about various predictable subjects - there's one about a break up, one cloyingly sentimental one about his grown up daughter, one generic lovey dovey song, and one about killing nuns... well, actually no, there aren't any about killing nuns, it'd be much more interesting if there was*. Anyway, as I was saying, this man is bad, but there's no specific thing that you can point out about his performances and say 'this man is shite'. His lyrics are clich├ęd and derivative but they aren't bad exactly - they are competently put together, more so than many songs out there. His guitar playing, whilst not face melting, is above the level of your average folkie - certainly better than Bob Dylan, and his voice is always pitch perfect. The thing is that when all added together these things seem to somehow subtract from each other, or at least, don't add up to something listenable.

He's terrible in the same way that a packet of sausages that only costs 20p are terrible - there's nothing stringy or oddly hard to incur disgust, it's all just ground up so smooth that there's nothing in particular you can object to. This man has perfected a style of songwriting that isn't good, it's just really finely honed, practised and polished crap. He's managed to take the normal cringe-inducing low points and occasional flashes of talent and merge them into one uniform whole. A whole which can only be described with the word 'meh'.

He is living proof that, with enough willpower, you can polish a turd.

-Ben

*And such subject matter really wouldn't be out of place at a folk club, folk songs are waaay more violent and sexual than people realise. I'm guessing it's because it's the music of everyday people, and as everyone knows, the average person is way more filthy minded and sweary than characters on TV

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The heap


These are the guitars currently living in my room (or the spare room) at the moment.

From top to Bottom

Vintage* Acoustic Guitar - This one is mine, used to be my mum's but she traded up. Took me many hours of work with files, wrenches and sandpaper to get it playable, I recently restrung it and have started playing it again.

Encore Stratocaster Copy - Heavily Customised. I've covered the work on this beastie fairly extensively here, quite nice now.

Yamaha Pacifica - My little sister's. I don't actually know what it is doing up here to be honest. I think guitars just gravitate up here.

Hamer 'Slammer' Centaura - My most recent project, new electronics and a clean/set up. It's living here until Ed comes to pick it up.

Yamaha BB604 - My fretted Bass. Doesn't get played a huge amount at the moment, the strings are all manky and my bass amp isn't working very well.

Yamaha RBX200F - Probably made some time in the late 1980's, bought for £60 from a pawnbroker in Plymouth 2 years ago. Refitted the electronics, refinished the body, coated the fretboard.

Gibson EB-3 - Belongs to dad, lives under my bed in a case - I occasionally take it out and check that it's all in working order - probably worth more money than dad's car.

There's also a Hohner Pianet T that lives in my wardrobe, a Roland Guitar amp that sits at the end of my bed and a Giant Behringer Bass amp that sits on top of my chest of drawers.

All of which means that I don't have much room to sleep in.

-Ben

*as in the company, not the adjective - although it probably is about 10 years old.

Swearing

I was thinking about writing something on the subject of swearing and taboo language recently but then I found this.

Which puts it all far better than I can do myself.

-Ben

Monday, October 15, 2007

Zen and the Art of Guitar Maintenance

Metal is a strange genre. It appeals to a peculiar side of the male psyche that wants, more than anything, to be seen to understand things that other people don’t; to possess some insightful understanding that sees the merit in what others discard. It is, essentially, an exclusive club – a shared opinion that allows those who hold it to feel like an enlightened minority, that they appreciate something special that passes lesser mortals by. I dare say that there are some people who are in it because they really like the sound of guitars distorted so much that they sound like a motorbike with a kazoo stuck over the end of the exhaust pipe, but they are rare.

This is all stuff that I’ve said before, probably better and more coherently than I have here, but I was reminded of it today whilst setting up a guitar. The guitar in question, my brother’s, is fitted with a Floyd Rose Double-Locking Tremolo – it’s a bridge that looks like this:


Ugly isn’t it.

This giant chunk of chromed brass is a fairly recent invention: A refinement (of sorts) of your standard Stratocaster Tremolo, designed in the late seventies by a man named Floyd Rose. It has its advantages – it can bend the notes up or down 3-4 semitones without pulling all your strings out of tune when you return to normal pitch – which is useful, if you like that sort of thing. They do undoubtedly have their uses, not uses I particularly approve of, but uses nonetheless.

My beef, however, is with how teeth gratingly frustrating and impractical they are to work with: They take ages to get in tune, finger bending on one string brings the pitch of all the others down, you have to take the strings off to adjust the intonation, and, worst of all, if one string breaks the change in tension pulls of the other strings out of tune, and the locking nut & bridge makes changing said string impossible to do quickly – so if you break a string on stage you are totally fucked.

In this thing, however, lies further evidence that my theories about metal are not completely wrong. These machines are impractical, cumbersome and rarely used to an extent that counterbalances their many faults, even by their admirers. Yet they are, nonetheless, loved by heavy metal guitarists. They adopt very much the same attitude to them as I’d noticed in relation to their music; that these things are perfect in some way that mere mortals can’t understand. They dismiss all the faults as mere trifles designed to put off the casual user, leaving it for the purists who really appreciate it. I assume that this means that they take this approach to everything; I expect they find the turner prize interesting, and think Finnegan’s Wake is great.

I despair.

-Ben

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ed's Guitar

For the last few days I've been working on a guitar again, not mine for a change. My brother recently acquired a Les Paul and since then his old Hamer superstrat has been gathering dust. I was given the task of making it into a blistering funkmachine - something that the Gibson, for all its merits, quite definitely isn't - and generally bringing it up to an acceptable standard for a man with expensive tastes. Which, of course, meant only the finest parts; Switchcraft jacks, CGE pots, Sprague Capacitors, Oak Switches, and a pair of Seymour Duncan Phat Cats.

The part of this process that took longest was the waiting for the parts to arrive - Royal Mail were on strike and I can't just walk down to the road to my local Guitar Technician Supply shop. Once it arrived it all moved pretty fast though. I managed to do the whole thing without burning or cutting myself once, which is a new record - I'm getting better, at one point I couldn't do a refit without gaining some new permanent scars.

I've been sitting around playing it for the last few hours now, after troubleshooting the last of the little niggling problems that always appear, and I think it's rather awesome. I've not had to opportunity to have a go with the amp cranked up to 'Obnoxious Wanker' levels but from what I've heard so far it all seems to have worked. It is indeed a face melting funkmachine, but it also has a huge array of different sounds for its owner to play with, once you figure out what .

Before!


After it had been stripped down, the cavities extended, and the new holes drilled.



And this it what it looks like finished. I cleaned the Fretboard (despite Ed's protests) and gave it a polish to get all the masking tape marks off the body.



Oof. The modifications are much more complete and elaborate than those 'spot the difference' pictures would suggest, but they were almost entirely internal. It was quite interesting work - there weren't any frustrating setbacks that caused me to pull my hair out, or faults that I couldn't understand. Most interestingly, a circuit that I, an English Lit graduate, designed, Actually Worked!

In accordance with my witty naming scheme this guitar will be called the 'Stratobastard' until Ed gives it a better name.

-Ben

Oh, and if I ever meet Floyd Rose, me and him are going to have words. Honestly, who'd design a tremolo system where you have no individual string height adjustment and you have to take the strings off to adjust the intonation? eh? A madman, that's who.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Meme


I really should learn never to underestimate the number of brilliant madmen on the internet. They hide amongst the normal everyday madmen, who are busy gluing captions to your cats, and create something like Lolthulhu - which merges the simple humour of cat macros with the unspeakable horror of the Great Old Ones.

-Ben

This is also rather excellent

Monday, October 08, 2007

Odd

want a repainted green godess?

Have a craving for an armoured police car?

or can you simply not live without a combat engineer tractor?

Man, there are shops for everything on the internet, this seems a good shop for anyone who wants a distinctive car to stand out in the office car park.

-Ben

Monday, October 01, 2007

eew

Just now I was sitting around playing the guitar, strumming away happily, then all of a sudden I started to feel a little bit jazz. So I started playing fingerstyle, picking out strange and wonderful jazz chords that are all wonky and askew; the sort that have names like Bb7sus4aug19th. I came up with a chord progression I liked, I recorded it. I came up with a lead riff I liked, I recorded it.

- - -

I then realised that I had spent the last 20 minutes playing whilst holding a plectrum in my mouth.... A plectrum that I picked up off the floor of a tube station on my way back from oxford a few hours previously...

I suspect I may have only minutes to live.

I leave my guitars to any who will play them, my CDs to Izzy and my body to medical science.

-Ben