Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Warmest Sound



For more than thirty years, my Grandad was in a band. They regularly toured the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the States, playing everywhere from the Hollywood Bowl to the Royal Albert Hall, and released so many studio and live LPs that they made Billy Childish look like the Blue Nile, indeed so many that nobody, including my Grandad, could keep track of every record. We've endeavoured to build up as much of the extant vinyl as we can grab, but we're resigned to the fact that theirs is one discography we'll never complete. Dozens of the albums were on EMI, via the wonderfully named Regal Zonophone (later reactivated as a boutique imprint for St.Etienne), which at the time made my Grandad labelmates with Joe Cocker, Procol Harum and the Move: you may also recognise that label name from Mark E. Smith barking a treasured catchphrase of ours, "Repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, repetition, Regal Zonophone". He (my Grandad, not MES) spent fair chunks of time in the 1960s and 70s in EMI Studios - as they then were - in Abbey Road: on more than one occasion a vastly inferior band, called the Beatles, were in the studio next door.

No, my Grandad wasn't in a rock band or a folk band or a pop band - probably just as well, given our pronounced reservations about such music before 1976. He was in a *brass* band (playing the baritone, since you ask: along with its sister the euphonium, a wonderfully evocative instrument). Indeed, he played with that band from the 1940s right through to the 1980s: all the way from Attlee's premiership to Thatcher's, unconsciously charting a poignant political decline. But he was also, in that time, a prodigious moonlighter in an array of other musical projects: a conductor, a band leader, a choirmaster, a published songwriter and no mean concertina player. And he could never resist a nearby piano, the instrument that gave him associateship at the London College of Music when he was only 15 years old.

Still, it was that warmest sound, the calming, beauteous caress of brass instruments, which is the most powerful, inerasible memory from days going round to his snug terraced house as a kid. It was always there, a soundtrack to our equally indelible recollections of the lavender-scented front room, of the sweeties from Grandma, of the net curtains, of the musty carpet we played on, of the pet cockatiel whose MES-like interjections would occasionally "accompany" the dancing trumpets and trombones.

In that house, where the turntable never stopped spinning, we learned to share Grandad's love of music. It wasn't just the soothing tones of a full brass orchestra, much as those can still take us to a cherished place. It was also of pieces he'd himself grown up with - the Trout Quintet, the Serenade for Strings, both sheer elegance at 33 rpm - which would be handed further down the generations. Or he'd play us "The Entertainer", or he'd play Bucks Fizz on the record player (the seven year-old me kind of liked them). He bought us cassettes for Christmas and birthdays, from gospel and classical recordings to the Japan and New Order tapes I asked for when those bands superseded even the Fizz in the battle for my inconstant musical affections.

For him, for decades, it had been tour, tour, tour; too much time on the road and away from family: the pull of music can sometimes stretch too far. But once he left the band, it was precisely the same songs that had taken him away that helped rebuild the home again. And that was the house I knew. A brass band can conjure surprisingly powerful feelings: it's music often earmarked to symbolise comfort and homeliness, whether to sell freshbaked Hovis or play cosy winter carols to snowbound commuters, but the more spirited passages have an entirely different feel, painting radiant colours with uptempo, resilient and above all *celebratory* brush strokes. The appeal of brass band music across deep-rooted family traditions, military traditions, working traditions and religious traditions is another reason why, for its devotees, it is so much more than just something to listen to: just ask the bandsmen who stood tall before the mines were decimated, along with the colliery bands of which they were so fiercely proud. Hear mournful cornets and French horns lamenting a world forever left behind.

* * * * *

My Grandad died the other day, just shy of his 95th birthday. We'd had our final conversation in the stroke ward. He asked, rather from left-field, whether we preferred Parsifal, of all things, to Die Zauberflote. We had to back Mozart on that one, which I'm confident was the answer that Grandad wanted. And then he found out that the Black Dyke band had just covered (a vigorous, blazing, full-on march called) "The Liberator", and his enthusiasm for that particular tune fair flooded out, a music fan still every bit as excitable about his pet favourites as we are about Horowitz, about Cappo, about Insect Warfare, about whoever. Serene and happy, he hummed the melody, for those precious instants oblivious to the ever-present distraction of fellow patients' chatter and the orderlies buzzing around him on their rounds.

It's fair to say we never inherited his musical ability. That would have been evident each time in our teens that we scratched together distorted sub-Weddoes chord screes and listless can't-get-a-girlfriend indiepop laments from a Korean guitar and a 10-watt amp, politely as he tolerated such cacophony. But we did inherit his passion for music, which is why these fumbled, hasty words are here. His life saw musical trends ebb and flow: jazz and the charleston in the twenties; the reinvention of British music by the likes of Britten and Vaughan Williams (the latter of whom once conducted him); the rock n' roll invasion; the high water mark of classical minimalism; the subsequent birth of subcultures from punk and metal to goth. But right through into the 21st century, his passion remained. Only in the last couple of years did ill-health finally stop this particular nonagenarian stripling journeying up to town for concerts: a round-trip of some 260 miles. Don't know about you, but we sincerely hope we're still so committed to gig-going when we hit our our tenth decade.

For the funeral, we plumped for two old faithfuls. As Grandad was the first to acknowledge - and as he was angling for in that Magic Flute conversation - sometimes you just can't shake a good hook, whether written at the tail-end of the seventeenth century (that was Pachelbel's Canon) or on the cusp of the twentieth (we went for the New World, inadvertently maxing the Hovis angle). On the day, and just at that moment - with the newfound luxury of distance, and sudden tears in eyes - each seemed supremely fitting.

And we're glad, at least, that Grandad got to meet his great grand-daughter before he died. When she's older, we might show her fragments from distant, pre-mp3 times: some of the 78s he played on in the early days, some of the sheet music he wrote. For she's going to get an immersion in music, in all its forms and formats, of which Grandad would heartily have approved.

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