Hello world! It’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve been keeping myself busy. Along with gigs in forests, my improvised comedy debut, and being an extra in a popular period drama, I’ve also got an exciting new project in the offing… a CONCEPT ALBUM based on the Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso!
But what is Orlando Furioso, I hear you say? Well, apart from every Italian person I’ve ever spoken to, who learned it at school, it’s surprisingly little-known – despite having inspired a huge amount of modern literature, including Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. It was written by Ludovico Ariosto in the 16th century, but is set in the medieval era, covering the battle between king Charlemagne’s paladins and the invading Saracen army. It’s about knights, love, chivalry, battles and all the other things you might expect from an epic poem.
So far, so highbrow, right? Well, not quite. When Cambridge storyteller Marion Leeper contacted me last summer, inviting me to collaborate on a show based on the poem, I had no idea how hilarious, ridiculous and oddly modern it is. It turns out the poem was basically joke fan-ficiton for an earlier epic poem, Orlando Innamorato, written by a different author who died before he could finish it. Ludovico Ariosto took it upon himself to complete the tale and, just as Fifty Shades of Grey originally started out as fanfiction for Twilight, it became just as popular in its own right. Highlights of the madness include:
A trip to the moon (the place where all the lost things go)
An evil necromancer with a steel castle
A magic ring that makes you invisible (sounds familiar?)
A talking myrtle bush
The Hippogriff Song!
It’s also surprising how progressive and feminist the story is in places. Probably because he wanted to attract the patronage of noblewoman Isabella d’Este, Ariosto put in loads of amazing female characters including:
Bradamante, a badass female knight who is constantly rescuing her boyfriend from peril
Alcina, a sorceress who turns irksome men into garden shrubbery
Marfisa, the formidable warrior woman who wears a belt made out of the foreskins of eight lecherous kings
For the past year, Marion and I have been performing a live storytelling show around the UK based on these excellent and ridiculous characters, focusing on the star-crossed romance between paladin knight Bradamante and saracen warrior Ruggiero. Marion’s silver-tongued story-spinning brings out the humanity and humour of the story, interspersed with songs which are in turn hilarious, tragic, melodramatic, romantic, and all incredibly fun to perform.
The next step was, naturally, an album – but we agreed that we didn’t want to do a straight-up recording of the full show, because we’ve often found that recordings of storytelling shows don’t seem to capture the magic of the live experience. Instead, we’ve distilled the show into a tight 40-minute concept album. The songs are interspersed with very short sections of narrative, backed by music throughout – sort of like a calmer version of War of the Worlds, or the kind of thing I did with my Steampunk space pirate storytelling band, The Mechanisms.
Like my previous albums, it will have the full-band sound that can only be provided by my amazing producer Nick Siepmann, who has been tirelessly recording us over the past couple of weeks.
The recording sessions were challenging, exhausting and incredibly fun. We’re all really proud of the result, and we think you’ll enjoy it too. So watch this space!
As soon as I heard that there were black squirrels in Cambridge, I knew that this was something I had to see. The only time I’d ever witnessed one before was in Belgium, of all places, and at the time I thought I was going mad. In fact, I’d spent hours convinced it was some sort of small, squat pine marten until I found out that black squirrels were a thing that actually exists. Then I started questioning all squirrels I saw, which I’d never really paid attention to before. Had grey squirrels, for example, suddenly started having white tummies, or had I only just started noticing them? Needless to say, I was eager to go through this harrowing and existential experience once again.
My informant told me that black squirrels can be spotted at two Cambridge colleges: Churchill and Girton. But how did they get there? Well, as a “melanistic” mutation of the Eastern Grey Squirrel, it made sense to assume that they can be found anywhere that grey squirrels exist.
Grey squirrels, as we all know, were brought over from the Americas as a fancy pet and proceeded to drive out our smaller, cuter reds. Given their reputation as invasive “tree rats” nowadays, it’s hard to believe quite what a highly-prized status symbol they were at first. One of the things that’s always driven it home for me is a fancy oil painting in Wolverhampton art gallery, displaying a family of Georgian nobility decked out in their finest attire. And right at the centre, there’s a grey squirrel on a silver chain:
Little did we know that Cambridge’s squirrels would turn out to have a rather more intriguing past…
And so, on a sunny Saturday, me and my trusty Executive Squirrel Assistant set out to the first of the squirrel-heavy locations.
1. Churchill College
Named after the stalwart prime minister who shepherded the UK through the blitz, you would think the college would look a little less dystopian and futuristic…
But it still had its fair share of nature and rustic features, so we kept a beady eye out for any shadows moving among the trees…
We did hear a few skittering sounds and spotted a couple of grey tails whipping through the branches, but as we made our way past the oddly picturesque compost bins and out to the final line of trees at the end of the college, we still hadn’t seen any of the promised sable beauties. I was fine with this – I didn’t actually expect to spot any, and was just happy to have an excuse for a quest. But then we stumbled through the trees, we found ourselves somewhere entirely different…
2. The Astronomy Department
Tall, ivy-clad domes loomed over us and we realised we had wandered in among the uncanny observatories of the Astronomy department. And here, there were far more grey squirrels, who were unnervingly tame. We even managed to photograph one…
And where there are higher numbers of grey squirrels, there must surely be more chance of spotting a black one. Spurred on, we made our way through the towering pines and redwoods, but it wasn’t until we were finally attempting to stop trespassing and exit the site that I saw it – not one, but TWO beautiful black squirrels, streaking up the tree in front of us.
I was absolutely delighted! Especially since I’m NEVER the first to spot things – that’s why I’m not into birdwatching, despite writing for a bird charity. But this time, I’d done it! Sadly, they were too fast to photograph. My Executive Squirrel Assistant left a handful of presciently-purchased cashews on the edge of the table and we waited for a while, but they didn’t return.
And so we set off towards our next destination, passing through one of the strangest places in Cambridge:
3. A brief detour to Eddington
This is one of the most sinister places I’ve ever been. It’s a brand new village on the outskirts of Cambridge, built specifically as overspill housing for academics. Much of it is still being built, creating a bizarre vista when you look out across cranes and skeleton apartments to the countryside beyond. Much of what has been built is still empty, and even for those poor souls who have already moved in, there must be something very odd about living in a village designed from scratch all in one go, rather than springing up organically over centuries. A strange shrimp kite – or was it a squid? Fluttered from a tree as we approached the village, and I attempted to appear three times in a panoramic vista.
But soon enough, we shrugged off its sinister atmosphere and set off to our second destination:
4. Girton College
This is like an adorable version of the Blair Witch Project
-Executive Squirrel Assistant
I really really love this college. It’s so harsh and Victorian! It’s just how I imagine the desolate boarding school in the middle of a moor that Eustace and Jill escaped from at the start of the Silver Chair. It’s also the closest anything has ever come to the building I dreamed about in my song “School for Lost Souls”. And there are so many ravens! It’s just great.
After a brief detour to their orchards for some scrumping and a packed lunch of peanut butter and crisp sandwiches, we set off through its grounds, seeing nothing at first. But then, suddenly, while my Executive Squirrel Assistant was taking a photo of something completely different…
I mean, you still can’t see any of the squirrels – but at least you can see our reaction to them. And with the lens flare and the shaky camera, you certainly can’t say it isn’t atmospheric!
Oh, all right, fine. We did manage to get a sneaky photo of ONE:
And after that, we started seeing absolutely loads of them! About 20 or 30 at least, frolicking alongside their grey fellows. And that’s when we started noticing strange things about them. For example, they seemed bigger than their grey counterparts. Surely this couldn’t be possible if it was just a colour mutation? Maybe the fact that they were black just made them stand out more and their outline look bigger? Not only that, but they were different shades – some were solid black (reminding me of the Black Rabbit from Watership Down – maybe they were there to ferry the souls of the grey squirrels to the afterlife?) – but others seemed more of a brown-black – and I could have sworn one had a tan tummy. This required further exploration…
The true origin of Cambridge’s black squirrels
My research took me to places I never could have imagined. Firstly, I found that black squirrels aren’t just a rare mutation of grey ones – in fact, in some places they used to be the main colour morph. In the deep, dark forests of the Eastern United States, for example, their black fur used to give them an advantage over greys – but now, deforestation is overturning this trend. And not only does the mutation make them have a higher concentration of melanin pigment in their fur – it also makes them bigger, better at defending their territory and more attractive to females. No wonder it had spread so fast at Girton!
In fact, I found that at Girton, three quarters of the squirrels there are black! No wonder they were so easy to spot. I felt a little less proud of my observation skills, but no less intrigued. And then I found out something else – scientists had analysed the genes of Cambridge’s black squirrels, and found that they were actually more similar to modern squirrels living in America than they were to the ones in this country. So they aren’t actually mutant local squirrels. Instead, the story goes that, thanks to novelty of their monochrome fur, some black squirrels were captured from America and displayed a fancy menagerie at a posh manor house, from which they escaped.
I’ve always loved anything related to folk: I remember being introduced to 1970s prog folk (Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Jethro Tull and the like) as a child, and having my young mind blown by the mystery and delicious poignancy of the songs. And it’s struck me recently that my love of folk might not just be down to childhood indoctrination or a vague personal perversion: there might be some specific reasons why it captures the imaginations of so many people, and these could be put to good use in modern songwriting. I’ve catalogued these reasons in a handy list, as follows:
One of the first things that struck me when I started listening to “normal” bands was the lack of complex and unusual vocal melodies. I get the idea that most bands come up with the chord structure first, then lay the vocal melody over the top (band people, is this right?) which often tends to flatten and restrict the melody from doing anything really “out there”. But traditional folk, by its very definition, was written by ordinary people, not trained musicians. So the people composing the songs probably didn’t have any formal schooling in the rules of musical theory, and if they played an instrument, it was just as likely to be a melodic one, like a violin or tin whistle, as a chorded instrument like the guitar. This has helped to form much more unusual, interesting melodies, unrestricted by backing instruments or any prior knowledge of the “rules” of music. (My producer informs me that folk melodies are also very good at indicating what key the whole song is meant to be in, probably as a result of them being sung a capella).
A lot of people make the mistake of thinking a simple, bland melody is more catchy, but complex melodies are more distinctive and often contain more musical “hooks” – they just need to be repeated in order to drill them sufficiently deeply into brain of the victim (listener! I mean listener). One thing I hate is getting “lost” in a song – hearing all these wonderful musical turns of phrase, but only once before they move onto something else, and before you know it you’ve lost track and can’t work out whether it’s the same song or has gone onto another one (Laura Marling is very guilty of this). Folk music, with its narrative nature, is repetitive by necessity. And since most people composing folk songs couldn’t write them down, the melody would have to be strong and distinctive in order to be remembered – an opinion shared by Paul McCartney, who bemoans in this article the fact that “dozens” of early Beatles songs were simply forgotten the morning after due to the absence of portable music recording devices.
The Beatles can’t help me on this one. Lines about holding hands and love are absolutely no substitute to songs that are actually ABOUT something. From piracy and highwaymen to hangings and lost polar explorers, folk songs were used as much to carry news or spread a cause as they were for entertainment. Of course, like every genre, they have their clichés. I once developed a game of “folk bingo” to be played at folk gigs, where points to be crossed off included:
The events of the song taking place “in the merry month of May”
Awkwardly attempting to get the phrase “press-ganged into the Royal Navy” to scan
Visual rhymes like “the wind” and “to find”
“Milk white steed”
Singing in a strong yet completely unrecognisable regional accent
But despite all folk’s faults, nobody could say the lyrics were an afterthought. That’s a relatively modern phenomenon. West End producer Richard Andrews puts it perfectly I his book “Writing a Musical”, and it’s just as true in folk as it is in musical theatre:
“People don’t appreciate the difference between pop songs and show songs. Once upon a time they were the same thing, but since the 1950s they have each moved in different directions. My definition is that the most important thing about a pop song is the sound, while the most important thing about a show song is the meaning. Lyrics are often the last thing to be added to a pop song, after the music track is finished, and their importance is certainly less than it once was.”
Once I’d got over thinking all popular music was rubbish (which it couldn’t possibly be, right?) I just assumed that people must be listening out for completely different things in songs than I did. Being raised on an ungodly combination of folk and musical theatre, it was no surprise that I’d automatically go straight for the lyrics and vocal melody. But what else is there if the rest is just a load of guitars?
I will never for the life of me understand how, out of an entire world full of instruments, modern music has been built almost exclusively on guitars. It’s like deciding to make all bands for the rest of history play nothing but different kinds of xither or bassoon, and obsess over the tiny differences offered within this niche.
Michale Chabon, editor of McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (an anthology of “proper” short stories with a beginning, middle and end), bemoans the prevalence of the “plotless, self-revealatory” short story, stating all modern short stories have been forced into this single, narrow format. He puts it this way:
“Imagine that, sometime about 1950, it had been decided, collectively, informally, a little at a time, but with finality, to proscribe every kind of novel from the canon of the future but the nurse romance.”
Well, guitar bands are the musical equivalent of the nurse romance. (Gosh, that’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d say!)
Folk music, on the other hand, offers a diverse range of musical instrumentation so refreshing that I even like this song (composed by scientists using the most commonly hated aspects of music).
Obviously there are hundreds of exceptions to every one of these rules, many of which reside happily in my music collection. But I’ve had a good rant, and hopefully this will be helpful, or at least interesting, to some of you. Of course, everybody has different tastes and different songwriting methods, and I’d be really interested to hear some of yours – feel free to prove me wrong!
There’s no hiding the fact that I have some bizarre interests. I’m obsessed with the Victorians, I can’t stop hand-sewing octokittens, and, most prominently, I’ve been known to keep Giant African Land Snails as pets – to the extent that I proudly answered to the epithet “Snail Girl” all through primary school. Now, I’ve always taken it without question that if you have an unusual interest, it will inevitably put off a certain proportion of people from wanting to become a friend or potential suitor. And that’s fine – that’s just how it is. But what I’ve never really thought about is: what exactly is it that they’re scared of?
I think it’s an interesting question that I’d genuinely like to get to the bottom of. Are they worried I’ll refuse to talk about anything but snails? Or that I’ll bring snails to the date? Or do they equate unusual interests with being unstable / unpredictable / not very down to earth in the context of a relationship? I feel a bit conned by the latter explanation, because despite my unusual interests, but I’m actually a disappointingly boring and normal person deep down (as anyone who’s attempted to make me “go out” and “have fun” on a Saturday night will attest). In fact, maybe some people think having unusual interests means the person is boring – although I’d have thought the exact opposite!
Still more infuriatingly, how come some people seem to be able to “get away” with being strange more than others? I had a friend who was far more bizarre than me really, but people never seemed to notice as much. Are certain “kinds” of bizarreness more acceptable? I think appearance has a lot to do with it – I’ve seen countless films where the main characters’ behaviour would have got them sectioned was it not for their aesthetic value. The protagonist’s beautiful, arty, pathologically manipulative sister in the 2012 British film Strawberry Fields is a scarily realistic example.
I think gender comes into it too. This articlediscusses the way in which eccentric men tend to be labelled as “visionary” or “genius”, while women are often dismissed as “mad” or “quirky”, or filed under the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl stereotype. And it’s something I’ve personally experienced a lot as a performer, as well – there was a whole year when one compere of an open mic night never used any other adjective to describe me apart from “crazy”, but would describe even the most randomly surreal male acts far more thoughtfully. I found this quite dismissive, and a bit of a cop out, too, because although my songs often have unusual subjects, if you listen properly there’s method in the madness – in fact, I think they’re often quite well thought-out and witty (but then I would). As the above article says, “To call stories like this quirky is to admit that you haven’t really listened”.
I’ve forgiven him now, though!
I’ve also been pondering about where people’s interests come from in the first place. My theory is that once they reach a certain age, people’s brains want to learn deeply about something, so simply latch onto the first vaguely suitable thing that presents itself at the time. That’s why a lot of people’s interests can seem very random. Of course, there’s obviously a logic behind some people’s interests: family / friend influences and wish fulfillment are the most prominent factors that come to my mind. I know that my interest in snails is at least partly due to my fervent childhood desire to own a horse – this being impossible, my mind simply latched itself onto the nearest garden animal that I quite liked, as a more practical pet on which to focus my affections.
I think fashions work in a similar way – society seems to simply latch onto the first random thing that people might conceivably be interested in. This is the only possible explanation for the nation’s all-consuming obsession with pigeon breeding in the 1850s (to the extent that Charles Darwin was advised to re-write The Origin of Species to be on this subject – and the opening chapter is, indeed, about pigeon breeding. The craze was also responsible for our modern infestations of town pigeons. Thanks, Victorians).
This is why I’ve always pronounced myself “not cool enough to be a geek”. In geek culture, there seem to be certain things that it’s cool for people to be interested in (sci fi, comics, anime etc.) and other things that are not so cool (snails). But why one thing, and not another? Is there some kind of logic behind it, or is it just random?
I really would be interested to hear your thoughts and theories on this matter. Where did your interests come from? What runs through your head when you find out someone has an unusual interest? In fact, maybe all this will become a new INTEREST of mine!!!!!!!!!!!
I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the concept of evil. I’m not really sure why. Of course, everybody loves a good villain. But it’s deeper than that – how do we define evil? By actions or intentions? Is evil circumstantial, or objective and immutable?
I seem to be one of the few people who still suspects that some people are simply born evil. I don’t know why, I just get the feeling that there are people who, regardless of circumstances or the era they’re born into, will default to evil acts. Obviously, there are also thousands of people out there who are forced into evil acts by their circumstances (as the recent and controversial Derren Brown episode, where ordinary, law-abiding citizens were manipulated to the point where they would push a man to his death, will attest – although its authenticity remains suspect in my cynical eye). But there are also people who seem to perform evil acts out of some deeper urge. So how true is my assumption?
Historically, the idea that people are evil simply because they’re born evil was by no means unusual – in fact, up until the early 20th century, it was the default. It’s only recently that the idea of the sympathetic villain has come to the fore – in the past, this would have been seen as scandalously morally ambiguous. Contrast the original “penny dreadful” serialization of Sweeney Todd, “A String of Pearls”, with the modern-day Tim Burton film adaptation. The Sweeney Todd of 1846’s motivations were seemingly limited to greed and the sheer joy of being evil. In a predominantly Christian society, there was an obvious moralising purpose to this: he was simply a force of the devil, over which the force of good must (and invariably did) prevail.
But, without the knowledge of genetics and psychology that we take for granted today, there really was an idea that people were born to an evil “type”, and this was often associated with physical appearance. In the 1840s crazes such as phrenology were all the rage, and the shape of the head was meant to reflect traits as far-ranging as secretiveness, parental love and the perception of colour. Sweeney Todd himself was described as “a long, low-jointed, ill-put-together sort of fellow, with an immense mouth, and such huge hands and feet, that he was, in his way, quite a natural curiosity.” Such unrefined features were commonly associated with evil (which had ugly connotations regarding race, social class, and a whole host of other pre-Victorian prejudices).
(As an aside, Dracula caused controversy by being one of the first attractive villains – although the deeply homophobic author, Bram Stoker [who, incidentally, stole Oscar Wilde’s first girlfriend, Florence Balcombe], appeared to have scored a bit of an own goal there. The sensuous, beguiling depiction of Dracula that has set the hearts of readers fluttering ever since was originally intended as a portrayal of unattractive, immoral un-manliness.)
The modern film adaptation of Sweeney Todd concocts a sympathetic back-story for our antagonist, involving an evil, wife-stealing Alan Rickman and 15 years of forced labour in an Australian penal colony (which would certainly explain Jonny Depp’s preposterous accent). With psychologists like Freud introducing the idea that past experiences build who we are today, modern audiences see a sympathetic villain as more believable. And, I suspect, we like to feel the thrill of moral ambiguity that comes with sympathising with man capable of slicing the jugulars of unsuspecting customers with a shaving razor and then baking them into pies. Such a questioning of morals would be unheard of in the Victorian era.
In fact, I’ve always thought that the Victorian view of evil was less moral – if someone’s evil out of the sheer joy of being evil, it implies that there’s joy to being evil, and maybe even that that’s what we’d all become if we yielded to our temptations or “let the devil in”. It gives evil an attractive allure, something that Robert Lewis Stevenson captured all too well in Jekyll and Hyde. A tortured, unhappy antagonist gives a far superior moral message. But that’s not the pure, unadulterated evil that I’m talking about.
The closest real-life example of pure evil in today’s society is, of course, the psychopath, whose absence of fear and empathy is caused by an underactive amygdala (the region of the brain responsible for memory, decision-making and emotional reactions). Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test suggests that this ruthlessness is what enables business and political leaders to rise to the top. In fact, the book estimates that people in positions of power are four times more likely to be psychopaths than the average population – in other words, those responsible for shaping society and building the world we live in are not the same kind of people as us – society is disproportionately geared towards psychopaths. (No wonder I feel so discombobulated all the time.)
“Aha!” I thought, flicking through its pages, “I was right! Some people really are just born evil!” But what the book doesn’t mention is that even a condition as extreme as psychopathy can be brought about – or at least exacerbated – by early childhood experiences. One of my friends knows a social worker who is under strict instructions to keep an eye out for any babies or young children not receiving enough physical affection – because apparently, a lack of hugging can turn you into a psychopath! I always knew hugging was good for the soul.
So why do I still believe in the idea of pure evil? Maybe because I find it so impossible to empathise with unrepentant evildoers, or even to see them as real people like me. As first, I was worried this failure of empathy meant that I myself was a psychopath – but Jon Ronson’s book was quick to reassure me that if I was worried I was a psychopath, that meant I almost definitely wasn’t one – because if I was one, I wouldn’t care. And that’s what makes them so scary: it’s like there’s no way you can reach them. If you try to tell them they’re doing wrong, they don’t believe you, and even if they do believe you, they don’t care. As Neil Gaiman said in his latest anthology, Trigger Warning, “the people who scare me are the ones who are certain of their own rightness”.
Ever since a gig I did this summer at the Phoenix Picturehouse, where local musicians teamed up to perform iconic songs from films, I’ve been thinking a lot about lyrics that must have made perfect sense at the time they were written, but whose meaning has since descended into baffling obscurity. Old films are a great source of these oddities, and there are some good examples among the songs I performed that night.
One of my favourites is the jazz standard “Paper Moon”, originally written in 1933 for the catastrophically unsuccessful musical “The Great Magoo”. In the same year it appeared in a slightly more successful film version of the catastrophically unsuccessful musical “Take a Chance”. It was popularised by Ella Fitzgerald in the 1940s, and finally gave the title to the 1973 Oscar-winning film “Paper Moon”, about a father and daughter conman duo.
It’s a good song, proven by the fact that it managed to withstand such an inauspicious start, and the clever lyrics centre around the idea of the old-fashioned photo studio where customers would pose sitting on a giant crescent moon – something that everyone seemed to be completely obsessed with in the 20s and 30s, to the extent that it’s it seems to have entered into the cultural catalogue of iconic images from the era, and has even become the Dreamworks logo. But there’s one lyric that people always ask me about:
“It’s a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it could be
But it wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me.”
What’s “Barnum and Bailey”?
Well, it turns out that the elusive Barnum and Bailey were actually 19th century circus owners, who ran the modestly titled “Greatest Show on Earth”, an iconic institution at the time. So to the 1930s listener, this would have been a universally recognizable reference to all that was showy and fantastical. It’s just one that’s got lost in the mists of time.
But when it comes to songwriting, it’s not a simple task to make your lyrics futureproof. After all, how can we know for sure which turns of phrase will last and which are simply lexical fads? Modern-sounding phrases like to “hang out” or to have “beef” with a wrongdoer have actually been in use since the 1920s (unfortunately for me, “old bean” appears to have stood the test of time rather less well).
Although I’m sure current chart hit “Hotline Bling” isn’t going to become a timeless classic any time soon.
But I digress.
Another example that I’ve (infuriatingly) never been able to get to the bottom of comes from the iconic 1954 film “White Christmas”. Quite apart from a completely baffling (and, for all I know, deeply racist) sequence in which they reminisce about the nebulous ins and outs of a “good old minstrel show”, a subject that was already nostalgic at the time, there’s this lyric in the third-act-dilemma torch song “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me”:
“Love, you didn’t do right by me
As they say in the song
You done me wrong.”
As they say in what song? Why are they even referring to another song within their own song? I can’t even find record of any songs called “You Done Me Wrong” that predate 1954! To use an oft-worn catchphrase, what does it all mean????
There must be countless lyrics like these whose meanings are lost forever, and still more that are simply passed off as nonsense or surrealist through lack of context. I only recently learned that the Mock Turtle in Alice in Wonderland isn’t just a whimsical flight of fancy, or a psychedelic product of Lewis Carroll’s opium-addled mind – well, it is, but it’s also a clever and topical play on words. In the book, the mock turtle is a creature with the body of a turtle, and the head, hooves and tail of a calf. And that’s no coincidence. While the super-rich of the Victorian era dined on real turtle soup, a much more common starter was mock turtle soup, made from – you guessed it – the head, hooves and tail of a calf. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to picture this as an actual creature called the mock turtle. How many other insightful references have since been dismissed as nonsense verse?
(As an aside, I strongly suspect that a lot of David Bowie lyrics from the 1970s fall into this category. Although, he was taking a lot of drugs at the time, so I don’t think even he could tell us for sure.)
It also gets me thinking – what is it that gets some things remembered as icons, and other things that were equally popular at the time, if not more so, relegated to the cultural oubliette? The present day seems to have, magpie-like, selected almost at random a selection of films/ artists/ songs that they have decided are emblematic of the era, and ignored everything else, regardless of actual popularity at the time. I recently saw a documentary about the silent film actress Clara Bow, who was indisputably the Marilyn Monroe of her era: the inspiration for Betty Boop and the original “It” girl – but who has been retrospectively eclipsed by contemporaries like Greta Garbo.
So what is it that gets some songs remembered, and some forgotten? It’s not like they’re all incredibly specific 1970 – 80s novelty one-hit wonders like The Brat’s “Chalk Dust” (which is, in actual fact, still unaccountably entertaining). That’d be a good topic for a future post, actually – “Things That Were Really Popular At The Time But Have Since Been Completely Forgotten” – at least, it would be if anyone could remember them! Any suggestions, folks?
But there are always some lyrics that make perfect sense regardless of the era. I’ll leave you with a verse from the scandalously ribald “Willow’s Song” from The Wicker Man, pieced together by Paul Giovanni from ancient medieval verse: