Tuesday, 27 December 2016

You Have been loved: an appreciation of George Michael

Christmas Eve 2016. I was enjoying my family’s tradition of a pre-Christmas evening meal and, as always happens when we gather, conversations about music were inevitable. My 29-year-old son, a gifted, knowledgeable and dedicated choral singer, startled his two sisters, both also experienced, talented and committed choristers, by stating that George Michael was the best interpreter of rock and pop songs of his and any generation. His elder sister, never short of an opinion and never one to shirk a good-natured argument, was surprised that her brother, a rational scientist with a professed love of some of the great choral works should heap such an accolade on a rather unlikely idol. However, a brief discussion of the merits and scope of George’s work and technique led quickly to appropriately harmonious agreement. We listened to Last Christmas, reminiscing as so often before about that iconic video of the snowy Alpine holiday. 

Just 24 hours later, George Michael was dead, the latest of the so-called curse of 2016, triggering an outpouring of sadness and an unprecedented spike in downloads. Quite a 2016 bookend to the January demise of David Bowie. The media have, of course, had a field day, with his musical legacy and personal demons analysed to the Nth degree and celebrities and pundits all chipping in with words of tribute. It has become an all-too-familiar routine.

So just how good is George Michael? Is my son right? Or are we all getting carried away with the prevailing media-led sentiment? For me, the answer is that he is entirely deserving of the praise, regardless of the untimely death. And of course I now have the memory of that Christmas Eve conversation as proof that we are being led by genuine musical discernment, shared across two generations.

Perhaps that’s a good starting point. Any artist whose appeal can transcend different audiences and different eras is worthy of special attention, and of course Bowie passes that test as well. George Michael bestrides the turn of the millennium with almost perfect symmetry, from bursting on to the scene in the 80’s, all gleaming teeth, rolled up sleeves and highlighted hair, through the social activism and remarkable generosity to good causes of a mature rock star to a prolonged and troubled mid-life crisis with an all-too familiar end on Christmas Day 2016. Along the way, he has earned the admiration, either unbridled or at least grudging, of everyone from impressionable teenage girls to earnest gay activists to staid schoolteachers like me – and indeed my son, thirty years my junior.

George Michael was multi-talented: a songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and charismatic stage presence. But I think it is indeed, as my son suggests, as a vocalist, as an interpreter of his own and others’ songs, that he deserves the strongest praise. He could do joyful exuberance or profound melancholy with equal alacrity, and is one of the few singers who could take a song strongly identified with another artist and come up with a cover which improves on it.

Let’s take the joyful exuberance first: the Wham songs being endlessly replayed in recent days are so palpably full of life that it is unbearable to imagine their singer taken from us so relatively young and from such a manifestly unhappy life. Listen to Bad Boys, Wake Me Up before you Go-Go, Club Tropicana and Freedom and you hear fresh-faced youth singing for fresh-faced youth about fresh-faced youth. George’s voice smiles and sparkles like his teeth and the highlights in his hair, in a manner which is at once effortless yet crafted. Listen to any of the repeated lines (like “but you know that I’ll forgive you” in Freedom) and it comes out slightly differently each time it occurs, with delicate vocal twirls like the flourish of a master pâtissier icing a cake. Whether improvised or planned, I neither know no care; imagine those same lines sung with just the straight melody line and the song is immensely diminished in impact. The same remarkable vocal twirls are there before the lyric even starts in Last Christmas in that improvised “Oooh”. A superb example of the human voice as a musical instrument. You may not have noticed that vocal, but take it out and the song has lost something small but hugely significant.

Then there’s the profound melancholy. It’s there in Last Christmas, of course, but is all over his work, and of course a glaring sign of a deeply unhappy private life. Careless Whisper is the enduring favourite, loved by all generations with its recounting of the timeless and familiar theme of guilt after temptation. Everybody knows and loves that soaring saxophone riff and the chorus hook “I’m never gonna dance again” that could be the title but isn’t. But therein lies, in my view, a little touch of genius: the title is only heard once in the whole song, at the start of verse 2. Written by 17-year-old George, it is a hugely emotive yet restrained song, which tugs at the heartstrings as well as any lost love song ever written. Yet for me, the less often heard A Different Corner, from 1986, is an even better song. For a start, it repeats that subtle trick of the title being heard only once – such a clever and seldom used device in songwriting. But whereas Careless Whisper sounds like a tale of youthful indiscretion (cheating on your girlfriend at the School Disco?) and what might have been, A Different Corner sounds more like a divorcee’s lament for what very much was, with a more profound sense of loss. The aching sadness is again in the vocal: “Little By little, You brought me to my knees”, and the emotion that George conveys in his voice is simply awesome.

There are numerous other sad songs, of course, perhaps most famously Jesus to  a Child, written following the tragic death of his partner. Lots of great songs have been written about loss, but George Michael’s striking and daring choice of simile, unusual yet totally apt, is what makes the song so memorable. You have been Loved was not written as a tribute to Princess Diana,  but became one, whilst Don’t Let the Sun go down on me seems like a plea for a break from life’s woes. 

That song, in which its author Elton John, who had a big hit with the original recording, appears as a guest vocal, stands as an example of one of many where George takes an already well-loved standard and performs it with such respect and sensitivity that it arguably betters the original. He recorded a whole album of them in 1999 when he released Songs From the Last Century, and his rendition of great songs like Stevie Wonder’s As and Queen’s Somebody to Love shows his remarkable talent for interpreting the emotions of others. The former was a duet with Mary J Blige, one of several such collaborations which perhaps say something of his humility and generosity of spirit: in 1987, for example, he proved to be more than the equal of the legendary Aretha Franklin with the powerful Knew You were Waiting. And of course he had one of the key lines in the original and best version of Do They Know It’s Christmas?, which in just a few words exemplifies not only his gift for conveying emotion but also his ability to collaborate so effectively with others.

Much has been made since his death of George Michael’s extraordinary, and often secretive, generosity. That facet of his personality surely indicates, above all else, humanity and generosity of spirit, and that, together with the most beautiful of singing voices, has left us with a legacy which will long outlive him. Truly, George Michael, You Have Been Loved.


Friday, 23 December 2016

A Wombling Merry Christmas: an appreciation of Mike Batt

Among the Christmas hits that dominate the airwaves and form the soundtrack to any visit to a supermarket, garden centre or restaurant from mid-November onwards, one of the less commonly heard is Wombling Merry Christmas, which was a Top Ten hit in 1974, riding that year’s wave of popularity of the furry eco-warriors and their pre-news TV show. At one level, it’s just another identikit Christmas song of the sort that has been churned out over the years: a catchy tune, with cliché lyrics overlaid with sleigh bells. And of course in 1974, a 7” single was a perfect stocking filler for children who had fallen for the lovable litter-pickers and their music. It couldn’t fail at the time, but is now too often overlooked.

But listen again, or to any of those songs performed by a band of men dressed in furry costumes, and there’s a lot more to it than just a novelty song. Yes, it’s got all the Christmas clichés, but there’s more than a touch of class about the melodic progression, the orchestration and the production. It bears the unmistakable hallmark of the versatile musician Mike Batt, who wrote, produced and sang all those Wombling songs and a whole lot more besides. He’s one of those musicians whose versatility and breadth of musical skills mean that he risks being overlooked or regarded as a lightweight: not cool enough to be a respected rock musician, not serious enough to be a respected classical musician. This is a pity in my opinion, and his work over five decades merits more recognition than he gets. A bit like Wombling Merry Christmas.

Take those Womble songs for a start. Batt’s ability to write and produce songs in any style shines through: from the theme of the TV series came their debut single, The Wombling Song with one of the best melodic introductions I know, played on the French horn, hardly a staple instrument of pop and rock. He's fond of featuring more unusual instruments in his songs, a bit like another of my heroes, Roy Wood.

Batt followed that initial success up by cleverly exploiting the Womble craze while it lasted, with a series of pastiches of musical styles. Remember You’re a Womble with its violin hook, is a country square dance; Minuetto Allegretto dares to rip off Mozart of all people, while Wombling White Tie and Tails cleverly evokes the Hollywood of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. And of course there’s the already mentioned Christmas song. Novelty songs all of them, but a clear indication that their writer/ producer knows his music across a very broad range of genres.

Since that lot, we haven’t actually heard Batt much. He released one single in his own name, the theme song for a mid-seventies TV series Summertime Special - it's another “annoyingly good” song called Summertime City, but then concentrated on writing, arranging and producing. If you know your 70’s and 80’s pop, you’ll be familiar with all the songs, but you may be surprised to learn of Mike Batt’s involvement in at least some of them. In 1975, he turned a traditional folk song, All Around my Hat, into a big hit for folk band Steeleye Span, then in 1979 he wrote and produced Bright Eyes for the film Watership Down, giving Art Garfunkel his biggest solo success. Bright Eyes is the archetypal Mike Batt song, characterised by clever chord progressions that somehow tug at the heart strings and clever use of that most bitter-sweet sounding of instruments, the oboe. It always reminds me of one of my favourite French songs, La Montagne by Jean Ferrat, an achingly sad eulogy for the rural way of life lost in the late rush to urbanisation in post-war France. You don’t need to understand French to get this song, and even if like me you do speak French, you won’t understand all the lyrics, but you’ll get the feel of it. Like Bright Eyes, it just sounds sad and wistful.

Mike Batt certainly knows how to write a sad song. If you want to wallow in your misery after a failed relationship, try any one of these three Mike Batt compositions from the early eighties, all written for established artists: Please Don’t Fall in Love by Cliff Richard, A Winter’s Tale by David Essex and I Feel like Buddy Holly by Alvin Stardust. They won’t cheer you up, but they’ll put your sadness into music, never mind words, and assure you that however unhappy you are, someone else has been there as well and made a damn good tune out of it.

Talking of good tunes, you probably didn’t know that the main theme from Phantom of the Opera is in part a Mike Batt song. But it is, and in this case it was the lyrics, not the tune, that he co-wrote. And he also produced the Steve Harley/ Sarah Brightman version of that song, which served as such an effective trailer for the show.

Then there’s Katie Melua. Although her success is often rightly credited in large part to the late Terry Wogan’s championing of her work on his breakfast show, it was Batt who wrote much of, and produced her debut album Call off the Search. And the break-out single, still her best known song, Closest Thing to Crazy, is archetypal Mike Batt. It’s a sultry, jazzy song that sounded like a years-old standard as soon as it came out. One of those songs that you think you know the first time you hear it.


Perhaps that’s the thing about Mike Batt. In some ways, his music is a bit derivative, but what’s wrong with that if it’s done so well? He’s so good at writing in so many styles that he risks being seen as a jack of all musical trades, lacking in specialist talent or originality. He certainly deserves to be regarded as more than just “the man behind the Wombles”, but those songs alone deserve a lot of credit. I wish you all a Wombling Merry Christmas.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Life is a Rollercoaster: Diaversary Reflections

This is an update and re-edit of a post previously published as My Diabetes Story. Today (19-12-2016) is my diaversary, a term used by people with diabetes to "celebrate" the anniversary of the day when they discovered they were to live the rest of their lives with an incurable but manageable condition. I was diagnosed on 19th December 1997, at the age of 40, and here's the story.

Until that age, I had lived a life with minimal contact with the health service. I had a couple of standard childhood illnesses, leading to a couple of spells off school before the age of 10; I then managed an entire secondary school career without a single day's absence. I fell off my bike at the age of 13 on the first day of the summer holidays and suffered a straightforward arm fracture, which mended in the standard six-week time frame. And that was about it. Prior to my diagnosis with diabetes in 1997, I had worked for 17 years as a teacher with a total of four days off sick (two lots of two).

Moreover, I was a slim, healthy and active person: as a child I cycled to school, played football competitively and spent holidays fell-walking with my family. As an adult I cycled to work, tended an extensive garden and walked from my home to the local shops rather than driving. And I still do.

Then, as 1997 came to a close, with Robbie Williams' enduring classic Angels dominating the airwaves and the Tellytubbies bagging the Christmas No 1, I had a very bad case of 'flu in the week running up to the Christmas break at school - a week's absence for the first time ever. No real cause for alarm: there was a big epidemic and a number of colleagues were off at the same time. Then, on the last day of term, after I had started to feel better again, my condition took a nosedive, and I went to my GP, alarmed at this apparent recurrence of an illness from which I had just recovered. I felt tired, thirsty and run-down, but just thought it was a hangover from my first real illness in years and a long, hard term's work. A routine urine test revealed very high blood sugar, and an alarmed GP (parent of three children whom I taught) informed me that she was pretty sure that it was diabetes, referring me to her colleague at the practice who was the specialist in diabetes. He told me to "cut out all sugary foods" and see if the sugar level fell. This puzzled me somewhat, as I have always had a famously "unsweet tooth"- there was little or nothing to cut down on. However, I agreed to do so, and came back a few days later - just before Christmas - to discover that my sugar level was higher than ever. "OK, said the doctor, we'll put you on medication" He was assuming, from my age, that I was Type Two. Looking back, I have to say this was a questionable diagnosis in the face of all evidence - I was slim, ate healthily and exercised plenty - but again, I went along with it and took the pills for a few days (including Christmas Day). 

It was only when I reported back with an even higher blood sugar level and no sign of feeling better that he finally wondered if it might be late-onset Type One. Off to hospital I went (only as an out-patient), where a consultant agreed it certainly must be Type One, and referred me to the clinic to learn the noble arts of injection and blood testing. I did all this without missing any days off work, despite feeling very tired. My school were very good to me, and as I live near to the school, I was able to come home for a rest at lunchtime and leave early when not teaching.

Two different insulins, two pens 
- my permanent companions.
Once the insulin started to have an effect (and that effect comes on almost instantly, as anyone with Type One will tell you), I was soon back to normal. By the Easter four months after diagnosis, I led my annual residential school trip to France with about forty pupils and five colleagues. I continued to do this every year whilst it remained part of my role at the school. By the June six months after diagnosis I was planning, setting up, organising and running the end-of-exams Ball for 200 Sixth Formers, a demanding job I undertake every year. In day-to-day terms over the 19 years since, I have continued to take on all that life and work throw at me, all with an unblemished attendance record in a very stressful job. I am certainly not a burden to anyone, and other than the cost of my insulin and test strips, the annual flu jab and my annual clinic review, I don't bother the NHS at all.

But let's not pretend it's easy. Living with Type One diabetes is a 24/7 challenge that we face on top of all as that we do in life, whatever that may be. You can never forget or overlook it for more than a few minutes. Every action, every piece of food or drink, every event needs to be thought through. Any departure from routine is potentially risky. And for me, the uniquely infuriating challenge is that insulin - the treatment that you self administer every day in order to preserve your life - is precisely what threatens to bring you down in day-to-day terms. I think is fair to say we have a love-hate relationship with it!

My Diabetes drawer - all the stuff we need to keep going

And yet it could be worse. Let us not forget that. It was a lot worse until the discovery of insulin therapy by Canadian Frederick Banting in 1922, when Type One was in effect a death sentence. It is a whole lot worse in many less fortunate countries where access to insulin is still limited or non-existent.

The 400 000 of us who live with the condition in the UK have good cause to be grateful to our doctors, nurses, designers and makers of insulin delivery methods and blood testing kits who enable us to live normal, active lives. I am particularly grateful that I discovered the FreeStyle Libre, a clever monitoring device which helps me to stay one step ahead of my blood sugar levels.

And then there's the silver lining to this cloud: my fellow diabetics. People with diabetes are remarkably supportive to each other and in recent years have used the internet to create a wonderful community, known as GBDoc in the UK.

What's the collective noun for diabetics?
In one of the best illustrations there is of the good side of social media, thousands of diabetic people of all ages, both genders and all backgrounds regularly support, help and encourage each other online in a spirit of togetherness and cheerful acceptance of a condition which can at times make its victims feel frustrated and lonely

It's no fun having Type One, although it is fun being part of a worldwide community of people who are very good at making the best of a cruel stroke of luck. I certainly feel that having diabetes has enriched my life and made me a different person with a more interesting life.

With diabetes, we are reminded every minute that Life is a Rollercoaster. We've just gotta ride it.