A riveting hour of television

(Credit: BBC)

In November 1979, following the release of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, a remarkable debate took place on late-night British television. Forty years later, that debate, between representatives of the Britain’s Christian establishment and Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin, is just as riveting and relevant as the day it took place.

The film, which tells the story of Brian of Nazareth, unlucky enough to be born on the same day as the subsequently more famous Jesus of Nazareth. As the Irish Examiner summarizes:

After joining a Jewish, anti-Roman terrorist group, The People’s Front of Judea, he is mistaken for a prophet and becomes an unwilling Messiah. All this eventually produces the film’s most remembered line, courtesy of Brian’s mother Mandy (Terry Jones). “He’s not the Messiah,” she tells us, “he’s a very naughty boy”.

The movie was met with instant controversy when it was released. I remember local churches in my Florida hometown passing out leaflets denouncing the comedy as blasphemous. The film was banned in Ireland, Norway, and parts of Britain, and elsewhere in the US, crowds picketed outside theaters where it was showing.

With the controversy raging, Cleese and Palin, along with the Anglican Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, were invited on to the program Friday Night, Saturday Morning to debate the film and its merits.

What followed was, and remains, riveting viewing. Andrew Todd explains:

Perhaps the most famous element of Life of Brian blowback was a televised debate on talk show Friday Night, Saturday Morning – a show whose host changed each fortnight, and whose hosts selected their own guests. Moderated by Jesus Christ Superstar lyricist Tim Rice, the debate pitted John Cleese and Michael Palin against Catholic bishop Mervyn Stockwood and broadcaster and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge (both of whom were likely selected, in part, for their stubbornness). The topic: Life of Brian, and the accusation that it was a work of blasphemy.

the first section simply has Cleese and Palin discussing the making of the film, speaking as eloquently and amusingly as you’d expect from legendary comedians at, arguably, their peak (Cleese had just wrapped Fawlty Towers as well). Upon Muggeridge and Stockward’s entrance, things become hostile, as the two old men demonstratively expound on their own faith and fire veiled (and unveiled) insults at the two Pythons. Stockward in particular rarely makes eye contact with his ostensible opponents, instead preaching to the audience or into the ether, refusing to allow the filmmakers to respond.

Cleese and Palin do their best to keep their cool, continuing to defend their film as it’s labeled to their faces as “a little squalid number,” “tenth-rate,” “buffoonery,” and “unworthy of an educated man.” Closing out with Stockward proclaiming that the Pythons would “get [their] thirty pieces of silver,” the sham of a debate is a fascinating insight into both the Pythons’ vision for the film and the closed-mindedness of certain elements of the Church. Indeed, Muggeridge and Stockward, for all their bluster, end up proving Life of Brian’s thesis without even a hint of satire.

Cleese and Palin make a fundamental point that goes right over the heads of their interlocutors. Far from making a film that was intended to undermine people’s faith, they wanted to, and did, make a film that would make its audience laugh, and but more importantly even think a little bit.

It is the kind of debate that is frankly unthinkable on television today, with serious people (yes really) dealing with a serious topic in way that is, for the most part, intellectually and spiritually honest. If you ask me to score the event, my card gives it to the Pythons, hands down. But you should watch it and make up your own mind.

That’s what Cleese, Palin, and the other Pythons wanted you to do all along.

Music for a Friday

R.E.M. 1985 (Credit: Edward Colver)

A college campus in the early 1980s was an interesting time to become aware of “pop” music. To clarify, I knew it existed, I just didn’t listen to any until I got to college in 1982.

The musical environment of the home I grew up in was heavy on classical, leavened with Broadway cast albums and a bit of jazz. The musical environment of the community where we lived was saturated in what we now call “classic country” and bluegrass, neither of which I had an appreciation for at the time.

Sure, the sounds of mainstream FM radio were all around, but I had what I considered a healthy and justified disdain for all that. (As I wrote here, I came to an appreciation of Bruce Springsteen much later). But college, and college radio, was ear-opening.

Friends in my dormitory introduced me to metal pioneers Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin but also the so-called “New Wave of British Metal” from Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Saxon, and the like. Other friends were my gateway to punk: The Clash, Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Stiff Little Fingers.

MTV, which had debuted less than a year earlier, was a constant presence on the television in my dorm’s common room. (Yes kids, back in my day the only television in the dorm was in the common room. Deciding what to watch was an exercise in diplomacy and compromise.)

Our little college radio station, WLVR, opened up even broader musical horizons. By our senior year, a buddy and I were hosting a drive-time Friday morning show. Our musical choices were … eccentric.

R.E.M. is one of the bands that hit my consciousness back then like a thunderclap and has stuck with me ever since. And while there’s no end of songs I could single out in this space, I want to point to one, Driver 8, which captures for me nearly everything I love about the band, especially in its early years.

Driver 8 was the second single off the band’s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, released in September 1985. In a long appreciation of the song posted at PopMatters, Robert Loss writes:

What if the song’s dream is about mobility? Freedom not as an ideal, but as the tangible freedom to move about, which might also mean the ability to participate, to argue, to be heard, to vote? Someone living in cities, plugged into the circuitry of the American Wow, might scoff at the uniqueness of this, but if you live somewhere else—a small town in the South, or anywhere remote; a dusty town in Kansas or a snowbound Montana mountainside village—it might be a breathtaking idea. So breathtaking that when the opportunity arises, you jump at the chance.

That’s how the song starts: a headlong jump forward, springing from one of Peter Buck‘s signature guitar melodies. The riff begins with a heavy downbeat, then races ahead, climbing, stumbling into syncopation, and just when it seems to have reached its zenith, it reaches a little higher before tumbling, and beginning all over again. The entire song has that impulsive feel, light and fleet, shuffling along on Bill Berry‘s simple backbeat and Buck’s arpeggiation, barely weighted by Mike Mills’ punctuated bass lines and the melancholy in Stipe’s voice. 

Like so many of R.E.M.’s songs, from “Chronic Town” through “Document”, including the album this song originally appeared on in 1985, Fables of the Reconstruction, “Driver 8” entwines words within the whole of the song. Stipe’s vocals barely stand out above the guitars and his delivery is almost off-hand, as if you just happened to catch him singing. It’s not that the words’ meanings don’t matter, but if you’re looking for a clear story, you won’t find one. You’ll catch images and hear flashes of dialogue instead, and sometimes even those are willing to risk coherency, for example, “He piloted this song in a plane like that one”. We hear this for the pleasure of the sound, for the emotion and beauty of the sum. …

“Driver 8” suggests a story more than it tells one, and it’s probably more correct to say that it suggests many stories. The people who live them in the song speak quickly, or someone speaks for them, about them, or they say the same thing over and over—the conductor’s words to the driver, which you can hear growing more insistent—and some don’t speak at all. (What does the woman “selling faith on the Go Tell Crusade” have to say about herself? Would she call it “selling faith”?) They’re a loosely defined community, which is to say, a nation, bound together by what can seem like not much at all, but bound together nonetheless. 

I actually included the official video release at the end of a post I wrote back in the spring of 2017, having been exhausted by the first three weeks of the then new Trump administration. I needed it as a mental break from what was then and has remained a virtually nonstop barrage of norm-breaking assaults on both democracy and basic human decency.

So here we are, almost three years later, and I still need this song. Driver 8, recorded live at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ, in June 1984.

Music for a Friday

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (Credit: Mountain Stage)

I tend to like my music the way I like my coffee: strong, hot, and pretty dark. Maybe that explains my love of the murder ballad.

Murder ballads as we know them are a part of an ancient European ballad tradition that predates both the printing press and standard musical notation. Colonial settlers brought the English versions of many these with them when they came to these shores. Preserved in the isolated hills and hollows of the southern Appalachians, they quickly became embedded in the American folk music tradition.

This is such a deeply rooted form in traditional music that the publication Sing Out! had a regular blog feature called Murder Ballad Monday at their website, which they described as “Reflections on the tougher side of old, weird America … (and the British Isles.)”

Murder Ballad Monday reflects on music and mortality. We explore the murder ballad tradition of folk and popular music, with a deliberately broad definition of the genre. We pursue conversation on the power of music to create meaning and beauty in response to the toughest of times.

Murder ballads share some common characteristics. They tend to claim to tell the tale of a true crime and its consequences, identify both victim and killer, describe the motive and how the deed was done, and often end with the killer in prison or on the way to the gallows. And yes, these are almost always tales of women being victimized by scorned, jealous, or simply rapacious men. Sometimes they conclude with a morality lesson in which the listener is entreated not to go down the killer’s path.

Most, like Pretty Polly, relate the story through the eyes of the victim, though some from the perspective of her killer. Occasionally these examples are sympathetic to him, like Tom Dooley or Sam Hall. Others, like Banks of the Ohio, not so much:

I asked my love to take a walk
Just a walk a little way
And as we walk, oh, may we talk
All about our wedding day 

   Only say that you’ll be mine
   In our home we’ll happy be
   Down beside where the waters flow
   On the banks of the Ohio 

I held a knife against her breast
As into my arms she pressed
She said Willie, don’t you murder me
I’m unprepared for eternity 

I took her by her lily white hand
And dragged her down that bank of sand
There I throwed her in to drown
I watched her as she floated down 

Was walking home tween twelve and one
Thinkin’ of what I had done
I killed a girl, my love you see
Because she would not marry me

Seldom does the woman get the last word in these stories. A notable exception is the modern murder ballad Caleb Meyer, written by Gillian Welch and appearing on her 1998 album Hell Among the Yearlings. In a long Murder Ballad Monday post about the song at Sing Out!, Ken Bigger writes:

Some people call “Caleb Meyer” a murder ballad. We will too. I’ve also seen people call it a “manslaughter ballad,” perhaps because they are overly persnickety about legal definitions. I’ve been there. As a species of murder ballad, though, I’m inclined to call “Caleb Meyer” a “survivor’s ballad.” 

In short, it’s a murder ballad with a twist in which the victim not only survives, but gets the best of her would be assailant, and does so in a very satisfying and true-to-the-genre way. It’s one of my favorite songs.

You can watch Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings perform it live in the video below.

Music for a Friday

The Fall River disaster of 1874, as depicted in Harper’s. (Credit: ATHM)

For the past week I’ve been driving by the gates of our local General Motors assembly plant on my way to work in the morning, honking my horn to signal solidarity with the striking UAW workers walking the picket line.

Organized labor has taken a beating in this country over the last few decades. I suppose folks have forgotten the abuse and exploitation of workers that made unionizing necessary.

The lyrics of The Granite Mills, a haunting song which I first heard some 25 years ago on a recording by the punk-influenced Amherst, MA folk band Cordelia’s Dad, are a reminder of why we have a labor movement in this country:

In this vain world of trouble,
many accidents occur.
I’m going to sing about one,
as sad as you ever heard.
It was in Fall River city.
They were all burned up and killed,
imprisoned in the factory
known as the Granite Mills.

The origin of the song is a bit of an historical mystery. The Granite Mills tells the story of a disastrous 1874 mill fire in Fall River, MA. Yesterday, Sept. 19, was the 145th anniversary of the catastrophe. A contemporary news account (the original source has been lost) described the incident this way:

FIRE AND GREAT LOSS OF LIFE! DESTRUCTION OF GRANITE MILL NO. ONE! 

A TERRIBLE CALAMITY!

This morning, a little before 7 o’clock, an alarm of fire was sounded from boxes 72 and 74, and it was soon found that Granite Mill No.1 was on fire in the central part – the spooling room in the fifth story. The fire is supposed to have been occasioned by the friction of one of the mules. It spread so rapidly that the help were immediately bewildered and panic stricken, and could not avail themselves of the fire escape, which was ample to save all. The room was instantly filled with smoke, and the help huddled into the south end where the flames had not come.

Men, women, and children rushed to the windows gasping for air, pushed their arms through the glass and screamed for help. Some in their desperation broke through the glass and frames, and pitched themselves headfirst to the ground, where they were killed instantly or shattered in a terrible way. The sight to the spectators was sickening in the extreme. The screams of the injured and the groans of the dying with the roar and crackle of the flames made a scene of horror which was terrible to every beholder. 

The origin of the song is a bit of a mystery. A version appears in a collection of traditional songs and ballads from Nova Scotia published in 1932, but it puts the scene of the fire in New York rather than Massachusetts. It’s unclear where the lyrics of the Cordelia’s Dad’s version came from (you can check them out here), perhaps the band’s own an adaptation of some of the other examples. For those of you with an interest in traditional music and ballads, The Mudcat Cafe, where I found this background information, is a fantastic resource.

I’ve been singing this song for a long time, almost since I first heard it. My hunch is that the tune was written for the lyrics by Tim Eriksen, the lead singer of Cordelia’s Dad, but that’s just a guess. Sometimes I try to accompany myself on the mountain dulcimer. This morning I picked up my old 1890s-era banjo and tried that for the first time while I ran through the lyrics. I was pretty pleased with how it went.

Click on the video below to see and hear the band perform The Granite Mills at their 20th anniversary show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA, way back in 2007.