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Review: Locomotion – Dan Snow’s History of Railways

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The BBC seem to have started making railway documentaries again, which is great. For years we train buffs have had a bit of a raw deal from major TV channels. I’ve still got loads of Making Tracks episodes from the mid-1990s on tape, in which Bob Symes and Mary-Jean Hasler introduced me to steam engines here in Britain and around the world, and this is alongside the John Peel-narrated Classic Trains on Channel 4 and HTV’s series on the Cambrian Railway presented by Arfon Haines Davies. When was the last time there was a good series on railways on TV? The last I can remember was Channel 4’s Waterman on Railways, presented by Britain’s most famous enthusiast Pete Waterman, but this must have been a decade ago.

So Locomotion, Dan Snow’s series on the history of Britain’s railways, is a nice a touch after all these years. And for the most part, I think it was done very well. In the first of three episodes, he started pre-Trevithick and concluded with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830, charting how tramways and wagonways were developed into the modern railway with steam engines for carrying first freight and then passengers. So far, so good.

The second episode picked up where the first left off, covering the railway boom from the L&M through to the financial crash of 1866 (in which he was pointing out the similarity between that financial disaster and the global financial crisis of 2007-08 which we are still feeling the effects of. He deals in case studies like George Hudson and Samuel Morton Peto, who made and lost a fortune in the development of railways, without dealing in specific lines themselves other than the London and Birmingham (and the incredible achievement that was the construction of Kilsby Tunnel) and the British influence in the construction of the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada.

At this point, though, alarm bells start ringing – not because of the episode itself, which dealt with the process of the development of what is still the spine of our railway network pretty well. The problem is that it left one episode to cover the period from 1866 to (presumably) the present day, which is a lot of ground to cover when you’ve just spent one episode covering 36 years. And so it proved to be a bit more problematic.

The problem wasn’t necessarily what was covered – it was all very interesting, talking about the development of railway safety, British influence in Argentina and the role of the railways in World War I. The problem started with about 15 minutes to go, as you realise that only now the programme was getting to 1923, when the railway companies of Britain were grouped into the Big Four companies. Within that last 15 minutes, the programme tentatively covered the issue of the development of road transport, how the Metropolitan Railway helped develop the suburbs of London, and the battle between the LMS and LNER to break speed records. The section on Mallard’s record in 1938 finishes with just a couple of minutes left.

It is at this point that things fall apart for me, as Snow concludes a whole series that on the whole felt more like social history by effectively saying “Britain created the railways which created the superpowers which then overtook us so we weren’t the leader of the world any more. The end.” After all that, he just rams it into the classic grand international political narrative, effectively rendering all railway history after World War II irrelevant because our empire was finished and we were America’s bitch. For a moment I thought I was watching a Niall Ferguson documentary.

Now of course Snow may not have been meaning to give the impression that he was supportive of the idea of our global domination (although coupled with the section on British influence in Argentina, it bloody looks like he does). But even so, it feels tacked on and completely ignores what he had spent the previous 3 hours of programme building up – the idea that Britain was changed socially and culturally by the railways in ways in which few people acknowledge. Yes, there is an idea running through it that “Britain built the railways and the railways built Britain”, but I never interpreted that in a global way until the conclusion.

A far more appropriate ending would have been to finish talking about the rise of the motor car – just before the bit about us not being powerful any more, he had been talking about this, and it certainly felt that this was the note he was going to end on (and what a thoroughly negative note that would have been, considering more people travel on trains today than at any time since the 1923 Grouping and we’re in the middle of a new period of enormous investment in the railways by the government). But then at the last minute it switched direction. I’d have preferred it (if he still wanted to ignore pretty much everything that happened in railways after 1945) if he had instead said “And so car ownership boomed, and the railway fell into decline…(sentence or two about Beeching)…but today things look much brighter…(sentence or two about current developments).”

The problem I have with finishing a series about Britain’s railways by talking about global politics is that it isn’t relevant. Just because the Cold War started and we weren’t a world power any more doesn’t mean anything changed on the ground. Britain’s railways kept running and kept changing, and they still are today. This is the problem I have as a historian-in-training with the idea of grand political history as a whole – it’s all very nice focusing on kings and queens, but did the people of Britain notice any difference when one monarch died and another was crowned? Social and cultural history is far more relevant because it includes a far greater proportion of people in a history, rather than focusing at a tiny minority at the top. Britain’s fall from superpower status is meaningless to Britain’s railways unless you expand on that – specifically, de-industrialisation, which was absolutely huge both for the railways and because of them.

And therein lies the problem with this series – it needed another episode. Along with deindustrialisation, it missed out the Beeching era of closures, dieselisation and electrification, the HST, nationalisation and privatisation, the Channel Tunnel and HS1, and the future developments like HS2 and Crossrail, which all have (or will have) varying levels of social and cultural influence in Britain beyond their significance in the sphere of railway history. Plus this is not to mention the almost-total overlooking of the London Underground (bar the Met), which is an absolutely enormous development not just in London but globally, and the role the railways played in developing seaside holiday resorts (and the role of the loss of the railways in their decline). Maybe I’ve missed the announcement of a second series or something, but it just feels odd that these significant events, which most people who know anything about railways today will know about and would be interested in finding out more about, are completely ignored. It’s a missed opportunity.

It is a shame that most of this article focuses on this rather negative facet, because on the whole I really enjoyed the series. It was slick and accessible, and focused on the important parts of railway history pre-1939. Yes, it was a narrative and you should always be suspicious of historical narratives, but it was done well – I can see the influence here of Professor Colin Divall of the University of York, to all intents and purposes Britain’s top railway historian. Dan Snow is a talented presenter who conveys his passion for the subject well. There were a few gimmicks which people might have a whinge about being unnecessary but I don’t mind those.

The problem is that I don’t think it stands up well to earlier efforts like Channel 4’s Classic Trains, which remains my favourite railway history series. It worked because it wasn’t in a narrative format – instead each of the 6 30-minute episodes were done thematically: industry, suburbia, narrow gauge, trams, expresses and freight. It was broad and yet specialist. It was a history of railway development and social history, by talking to people and charting how places were influenced by railways. It covered a lot more ground than Locomotion despite effectively having less time for content (because of adverts). And it still managed to cover that narrative of Stephenson to Beeching.

Locomotion gets a 7/10 from me, because it was largely enjoyable but the contrived end left me puzzled and unsatisfied. Classic Trains, which is all available on YouTube, gets a 9/10, because it was virtually flawless.

Coming soon: in the not-too-distant future, I will be launching a new blog focusing on the history of the railways of South Wales…

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Written by James Bennett

February 5, 2013 at 18:14

Posted in History, Rail, Reviews

Review: Video 125

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As I’ve said before, this isn’t on football or anything at all interesting to most my regular audience. It’s on railways – DVDs about railways. I’m an unashamed train nut. Eventually I will have a train-based blog if I can be bothered. Just an advanced warning on what is to come…

As an unashamed train nut with a taste for the visual, I’ve always loved collecting videos and DVDs on trains. Among the most treasured of my collection were the three Classic Train Journeys (CTJs) videos my grandparents bought (or maybe even had via some voucher system in a catalogue – I can’t remember exactly) in what must have been the late 1990s – that’s certainly when they were made, anyway. They are basically a compilation of snippets of driver’s eye views on various scenic railways in Britain, with music and narration.

The first focused on Scotland, covering the West Highland line from Glasgow to Mallaig via Fort William, the line from Edinburgh to Aberdeen via the bridges over the Forth and Tay, and other scenic highland lines. The second focused on South West England, most of which covered the Great Western Main Line from Paddington to Penzance, as well as the run from Weymouth to Waterloo. The third focused on Wales, covering the Heart of Wales, Cambrian, Ffestiniog and Conwy Valley lines.

To me this was a trilogy as perfect as Star Wars Episodes 4-6. The scenery on most lines is stunning. The narration from Chris Denning was full of lots of historical details. Even the music felt right. OK, so in more recent years as I’ve grown up, my perspectives have changed somewhat as I’ve grown up – I’ve realised the music would probably seem a bit cheap if I was listening for the first time now, the segments on each line are quite brief, the recordings of the lines cover about 10 years, and Chris Denning is a convicted paedophile (no, really, he is). But they’re still great.

I discovered a fourth CTJs video a few years later, focusing on Northern England – including the Cumbrian Coast line, Manchester to York, York to Berwick on the East Coast Main Line, and the Settle and Carlisle line. But like all sequels made years later, it was a tad underwhelming – the music wasn’t the same, the narrator wasn’t the same, and it didn’t have the warmth of familiarity that the other three brought. It was no Star Wars Episode 1, but I decided not to buy the fifth, focusing on Ireland. A few years ago I discovered a company selling driver’s eye views, thinking they were the full versions of the lines sampled in CTJs. Unfortunately, they weren’t the same, nor were they as interesting – there was no narration (apart from the odd conversation in the cab) and the lack of music meant it sounded quiet and dull.

However, all was not lost – last year I discovered Video 125 on YouTube. I recognised the name – though a different company name was on the first three CTJs videos, the fourth was by Video 125. And soon I recognised the videos – the stack of promos on the channel matched up with the snippets on the old videos. It turned out that they were selling DVDs of (pretty much) the full routes after all, and loads more on top. Video 125 has released 65 driver’s eye views (or DEVs, as they are referred to) in total.

Today, I’m sat here with 13 of them. I’ve taken advantage of their offer of 15% off if you buy five or more DVDs – I’ve got two more coming on Christmas Day. Here’s a review of each one – if it appears that I’m being critical, don’t take this as moaning, as they are all very very good; it’s just that some don’t quite live up to the high standard the best set:

The Down Fishguard – Swindon to Fishguard

This was the first full DEV I watched, after getting a sneak peak when it was posted on YouTube. Though illegal downloads and suchlike are said to be unfair on those who produce them, in this case it was what led to me buying more, including a copy of this one, so Video 125 did rather well out of that one.

The reason it inspired me to buy more was because it was so good compared to anything I’d seen before. It’s a particularly long DEV, coming in at just under 2 hours in length, but it’s not a minute too long. Although you would think that it wouldn’t be that interesting a route, you’d perhaps be overlooking some pretty key features – as well as capturing a HST service to Fishguard (now consigned to history), you also get the Severn Tunnel, the whole of the South Wales Main Line to Swansea and the coastal route from Llanelli to Carmarthen. The route gradually gets increasingly interesting the further it gets from the border; what starts out as a classic main line becomes a long branch line through wonderful rural scenery, especially with the Fishguard section being single track and having restrictive speed limits around increasingly tight curves. By the time the train reaches Fishguard, it does feel like you’ve been on a genuine journey.

Rating: 9/10

HST Great West – London Paddington to Exeter St David’s

This includes the original Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads in full, and a large part of the Bristol & Exeter Railway. This was the final part of the HST West trilogy (the other two parts will be reviewed next) and was filmed and released in 1993, completing the full route from London to Penzance. It isn’t the most scenic of lines, but then that’s not the point – it’s the perfect summary of the classic Brunel route, with features such as the “billiard table” route through the West London suburbs, Box Tunnel, the classic station at Temple Meads and a brief look at the broad gauge recreation at Didcot Railway Centre. The Bristol-Exeter section doesn’t quite live up to that as it’s an inherently less interesting section of lining, largely running over the flat Sedgemoor plains. It may now be nearly 20 years old, filmed just before the electrification of Paddington to the then-absent Heathrow Junction, but as with the other DEVs, that adds to its charm and value.

Rating: 8/10

HST West/Far West – Exeter St David’s to Saltash/Saltash to Penzance

Both of these features are now included on one DVD but I’ll review them individually.

First, HST West, the beginning of the trilogy and only the third Video 125 DEV to be made. This covers Exeter St David’s to the Royal Albert Bridge over the River Tamar in Plymouth, at the time clad in scaffolding. The first thing that strikes me is how dated it looks – it was made in 1986, 26 years ago, and it hasn’t aged brilliantly, which may explain why only a brief sample was included in CTJs South West England: it doesn’t really fit the continuity, as the HSTs weren’t painted in the famous Intercity Swallow livery, while Class 50s occasionally appear which dates it. The picture quality also looks very “80s” in comparison to later DEVs, and like other early releases it is punctuated by cutaways (in this case a look at the now-gone Atmospheric Railway Museum at Starcross, an interview with David St John Thomas at Newton Abbot, a rare glimpse at the South Devon Railway’s operations into Totnes station, and a look at the town of Ivybridge) which are of considerable value today but break up the flow. Despite all this, the journey is a very good one, along the spectacular coastal route via Starcross and Dawlish and then over the South Devon Banks via Totnes. I have travelled over both parts several times so it’s nice and familiar, but at the same time it’s also a little underwhelming. However, you couldn’t really remake it now: Anton Rodgers, who narrated all three parts, has now sadly passed away, so you’d need to redo all three parts to maintain continuity, and it’s not worth it.

HST Far West, though, was much better. Filmed in 1990, it follows on from the scaffolding-free Royal Albert Bridge into Cornwall. Like The Down Fishguard, as the train goes deeper and deeper into Cornwall, it feels like those bends through the hilly terrain are getting tighter and the speed is dropping, while the number of large viaducts bridging one valley after another is very surprising. If you watch this trilogy as a single entity from London to Penzance, as I did the first time I watched them, this feeling is particularly exacerbated – you start out on long straight flat 125 mph runs through the suburbs of the capital and end up winding through the countryside on a hilly peninsular, before ending up at a small fishing town on the coast. Inspired by this, I caught a HST from Newton Abbot to Penzance this summer – the DEV was a great advertisement for the route and it lived up to the billing. It was every bit as good as HST West was underwhelming.

HST West Rating: 6/10
HST Far West Rating: 10/10
Overall Rating: 8/10

Cornish Branches – the branches to Looe, Fowey, Newquay, Falmouth and St Ives

Also narrated by the actor Anton Rodgers (which really helps with the continuity with the HST West trilogy), this DEV from 1991 covers all the Cornish branch lines. Therein lies the major issue – because it’s so fragmented, it doesn’t really flow well and it’s hard to get into. Added to that, not all the lines are equally fascinating. On CTJs South West England, only the Looe and St Ives branches were included (featuring to break up the main run through Cornwall), and I can see why – the lines to Newquay and Falmouth aren’t quite as interesting, while the Fowey branch is lovely but the Class 37-hauled china clay train it is filmed from is painfully slow. That being said, there are some great features: the passenger branch trains are all operated by ageing first generation DMUs as opposed to Sprinters, and the lines are all in pre-privatisation rustic state. The Looe and St Ives branches are magnificent relics of a bygone age, running through unspoilt countryside that only a train could run through. It’s worth getting this just for those two lines. This probably works best as a DEV to dip into and out of just for the individual lines.

Rating: 7/10

The West Highland – Glasgow Queen Street to Fort William

The magnificent West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William was the first route covered in CTJs Scotland, meaning it was the first DEV I saw. I am still in awe of this line – constructed ostensibly as a main line into the Highlands (how they ever thought this would work I don’t know), it remains arguably the most spectacular branch line in the country, as well as one of the longest. The full DEV, which includes a few interesting scenic sections missed out by the original sample in CTJs Scotland such as the spectacular Horseshoe Curve, is another fantastic advertisement for the line: initially running through suburban Glasgow (perhaps a little bit too much of which is shown, though I think that would be being overly critic), it gradually transforms into the classic route we all know and love, with curves, inclines, viaducts and lochs galore, but not many people.

Rating: 9/10

Steam to Mallaig – Fort William to Mallaig

The West Highland Extension from Fort William to Mallaig is probably best known for the steam specials that run during the summer (as well as for being the route used for filming some of the Hogwarts Express scenes for the Harry Potter films), and this DEV, filmed in 1985, coincides with the second year of what became known as The Jacobite, but was then still known as The West Highlander. As such, it is filmed from (in front of – but don’t tell anyone that) the unique LMS Black 5 44767 George Stephenson. The route, often ranked as one of the most beautiful in the world, is captured in its splendour, and before both the abolition of semaphore signals in favour of radio signalling and the encroachment of the widened Road to the Isles. But despite this, and having travelled the route behind a steam engine, it was a little bit underwhelming – I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it might be because of its particularly short length (at less than an hour in length, compared to the usual 80-100 minutes), the almost constant cutaways to lineside views (pared down in later DEVs) or because it’s now so old, which you don’t necessarily realise when watching on CTJs Scotland thanks to clever editing (as well as missing out the incredibly dated cheesy intro). It also lacks continuity with The West Highland – for some reason, I get the feeling that if it was done from a Sprinter and narrated by Paul Coia like TWH, perhaps even as an addition to that DEV, it would be better, but you would lose the gimmick of steam traction. But it is the biggest-selling Video 125 DEV so I may be an exception.

Rating: 7.5/10

The Cambrian Coast – Machynlleth to Barmouth

Though I said at the beginning not to take my niggles as criticism, I was particularly underwhelmed by The Cambrian Coast. But this might again be due to age rather than anything – at that point, Video 125 were still developing their DEV style. This was perhaps one of the victims. The footage is great, with an excellent recording of Wales’ most scenic railway in glorious weather – it worked well on CTJs Wales. However, it’s what it didn’t include that perhaps frustrates a little – it’s only 80 minutes long and covers only a short part of the Cambrian Coast route. Yes, it covers the most scenic part, but the remainder of the line to Pwllheli via Porthmadog isn’t without its merits, and that it is missing is a disappointment. Added to this, as with HST West, it’s broken up by significant interludes focusing on the Talyllyn and Fairbourne Railways, as well as filler for each station stop, and the narration by the Welsh character actor Dafydd Hywel is a bit over-the-top – Video 125 later went with HTV’s Arfon Haines Davies to record their other Welsh DEVs, and it’s disappointing in hindsight that he wasn’t used for this one, particularly as he narrated a documentary series on the Cambrian Railway around the same time as this DEV.

I hate to go on about it because I don’t want to be critical, especially of something that was filmed nearly 25 years ago, but this feels like a missed opportunity, and is perhaps the only one that I’ve seen that I think would benefit from being redone – longer, without filler, and with a better narrator. Video 125’s DEVs have improved enormously since then – I believe the feedback from customers said similar things about the filler content, as there’s little of this in more recent DEVs. One is planned for the line from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth, including part of the route covered by The Cambrian Coast. Perhaps that would be the ideal time to redo it, this time all the way to Pwllheli.

Rating: 6/10

Heart of Wales – Swansea to Shrewsbury

This is not advertised as a full DEV of the route, so I can’t really complain that it does skip chunks of the route. Taking that into consideration, it’s another great advertisement of the route, which, as it’s name suggests, runs right through the centre of Wales. It is another distinctly rural route, mostly running through villages and small towns. One of the high points (quite literally) is the climb through Sugar Loaf Pass between Llandovery and Llanwrtyd Wells, where the single track winds its way halfway up a mountain. It’s one of those routes that’s almost continuously pleasant throughout, even though it lacks “big name status” and the jaw-dropping sights of some of the Scottish routes.

Rating: 7.5/10

Ffestiniog and Conwy – Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog; Blaenau Ffestiniog to Llandudno

This is a DEV of two distinct halves, and both halves leave you wanting more, even though there’s little else they could offer. The first part is the full length of the Ffestiniog Railway, one of the most remarkable narrow gauge railways in the world, which twists and climbs its way through Snowdonia from the port of Porthmadog to the slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog. While we see the spectacular cliff faces and dense forests from in front of a double-Fairlie steam engine, we are told about the construction and reconstruction of the line, itself a fascinating story.

The second half is the Conwy Valley Line from the joint station at Blaenau to Llandudno, which is another great snapshot of the recent past. It has a very 1980s BR feel: the train is a first generation DMU, and the line has that rustic, slightly worse-for-wear feel that you don’t get so much in the post-privatisation era. The line is a hidden gem, particularly the section after the long tunnel in Blaenau which takes you from under a slag-covered mountain into an unspoilt jungle. Like the River Conwy, it winds itself down the valley to Llandudno Junction on the North Wales Coast line, before taking the short double-track branch to Llandudno’s once-grand but now largely derelict station, again adding to that pre-privatisation faded feel. Added to the Ffestiniog, it’s a great double-DEV, the best of those covering Welsh branches.

Rating: 9/10

SkyeTrain – Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh

I don’t think the promo on the Video 125 YouTube account sells this one particularly well – it is a very good DEV. The promo focuses on the run from Inverness to Dingwall, which doesn’t give a full impression of the balance of the route – the vast majority is fascinating, and the latter stages as it skirts along the edge of Loch Carron looking out onto the Applecross Peninsular are among the most scenic in Britain, if not the world. Granted not all the route can live up to that, but most of it runs through beautiful scenery – the climb to Raven Rock Summit is another stand-out section. The DEV is also notable for being filmed from a Class 37, as it was filmed in 1987 shortly before the end of locomotive-hauled trains, and there are useful insights into the radio signalling system (RETB) which 25 years on is destined to be replaced in the near future.

Rating: 9/10

The Royal Scot – London Euston to Glasgow Central

There seems to be a real contrast between the music, which seems to try and portray the West Coast Main Line in the mid-1990s as a fast-paced ultra-modern railway, and the West Coast Main Line in the mid-1990s itself, which feels rustic and dated – this is a WCML prior to modernisation and the arrival of the Pendolinos, Voyagers and Desiros which are ever-present today (or at least they are beyond my back garden in Coventry anyway). But that is part of the fun – yes, like many another Video 125 DEVs, it’s dated, but in this case, that’s the point. A DEV of the WCML at the moment wouldn’t be as interesting.

There are two parts to The Royal Scot, originally sold separately but now combined on one DVD. In the first part, the Class 87-hauled train heads from Euston non-stop at up to 110 mph as far as Preston, including the Trent Valley Line via Lichfield. It’s not particularly scenic but it is very interesting, as one of the most historic routes in the country. The second part, from Preston to Glasgow, is more scenic as the line climbs over the summits at Shap and Beattock. But the charm is the rustic nature – the distinctly 80s rolling stock and slightly shabby infrastructure. Though I don’t have it I’m guessing that gives it an advantage over the East Coast Main Line DEV, The Flying Scotsman, which was filmed at the turn of the century on board a more modern 225.

Rating: 8/10

Lickey Voyager – Bristol Temple Meads to Derby

For some reason, I had an urge to buy this one in my most recent batch of five. It’s an odd choice of route, seemingly running through large parts of mostly bland countryside with one feature of note, the Lickey Incline, the steepest incline on Britain’s railways. But it’s also a modern DEV, filmed in 2005 on-board a Virgin Voyager on a cross-country route, and I wanted to try it out to see if it was as bland as I originally thought it was. It was actually very good – the route from Bristol to Lickey runs through pleasant countryside, with narrator Alan Hardwick listing numerous closed stations as we travel through South Gloucestershire. The section of line into Birmingham New Street ran into the centre of the city alongside a canal, making for a pleasant run. And the line from Birmingham to Derby ran through more pleasant countryside. It was pleasant – that was what stood out. Other than a couple of minor niggles, such as getting the date of closure wrong for Filton Junction station (mixing up 1969 and 1996 could have been a typing error, mind), it was very good, a useful addition to the Video 125 portfolio without being too flash. Not all of them can run along ridges or plunge through long tunnels.

Rating: 7.5/10

Metropolitan and District – Hammersmith to Whitechapel; Whitechapel to Ealing Broadway

The first Video 125 Underground DEV is also my first Underground DEV. I bought it primarily because it is soon to be superseded by a new production concentrating only on the Circle Line from Edgware Road to Hammersmith. Aside from for the point of obtaining as complete collection as possible, the older DEV has unique features that won’t be replicated, such as the direction of travel (opposite to the upcoming DEV), use of two sides of the Aldgate triangle and the branch to Ealing Broadway. Having just watched it, my overriding feeling from this one is very positive – yes, the picture quality is a bit dated compared to recent DEVs, especially noticeable through the tunnels, but it has still blown away my expectations. Though I have done a few different Underground lines, I wouldn’t class myself as being particularly interested in it, but after this, I definitely want more Underground DEVs, especially the more recent ones. If you are in any way interested in the history of the Underground, these would be well worth getting.

Rating: 9/10

Written by James Bennett

December 21, 2012 at 01:14

Posted in Other, Rail, Reviews

My Favourite Albums: Making Moves and Love Over Gold

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Way back in February I did an article on REM’s Automatic for the People. I meant for it to be the start of a series of articles on my favourite albums. 6 months later, I’m finally following it up…

The rehabilitation of Dire Straits starts here. Too often grouped with pretentious prog rock shite, it’s time to set them free.

The whole idea of grouping them with prog is puzzling. I’ve even heard them referred to in connection with Jeremy Clarkson, as a dismissal of the band as part of some kind of fictitious uncool pretentious dad rock genre – I don’t understand that at all, for Mark Knopfler has written songs both subtly and explicitly critical of Clarkson’s great heroine Mrs T; if he listens to them, then he’s even more of an idiot than I thought he was.

But not only that, it’s missing the point. Dire Straits was a reaction to prog, not prog itself. In some ways, it’s closer to punk (although it isn’t), for it comes out of the same reasons at the same time – Knopfler’s vision of rock was more stripped down and folksy (hence the solo albums), courtesy of the Dylan influence, but at the same time it’s more sophisticated than plain pub rock: his talents with a guitar that make him one of the greatest ever to pick up a Fender. A lot of people must assume “it’s rock and there are long songs so it must be prog”, and yes, the music became more complex as the band developed, but it’s totally removed from stories of trolls and witches and medieval kings and classical influence.

The first album, self-titled Dire Straits, was released in 1978, and it still highly-regarded, hence it’s inclusion in 1001 Albums To Hear Before You Die (OK, so that’s not a guarantee of brilliance, but take it from me it’s critically-acclaimed). Sultans of Swing is of course the best-known song on the album, although it took until it was released in the United States, becoming a top 5 hit there, and continental Europe before the UK took any notice. The more laidback, Dylan-esque approach didn’t really fit in at a time where punk and disco were writing the music headlines, so it took time for the message to get out there.

This was followed by the hastily-recorded follow-up, Communiqué, released 8 months after Dire Straits. It was a commercial success, coming out at a time where the first album was still selling well, but ultimately it was bland, boring and dull, mainly because it might as well have been the first album re-released, or a bonus disc – there was nothing to distinguish it. The result was that Knopfler redoubled his efforts with the third album, which eventually would drive brother David (rhythm guitarist) out of the band. From this point, the band essentially became Knopfler’s pet project.

The third album would become Making Movies, released in late 1980. Though overshadowed by Brothers in Arms (and indeed the backlash from it, which has lasted to today), for me it is the band’s best album, coming at the juncture where Dire Straits’ music was becoming more complex and yet remained true to the original material.

Take Tunnel of Love, for instance – the first track on the album, 8 minutes long, and yet it’s still a relatively simple song. It has the feel of a Springsteen song, though I know Bruce has his own Tunnel of Love. It’s a story about a north-eastern fairground attraction (no, not that kind of fairground attraction, or indeed Fairground Attraction) between Knopfler and a mystery girl, but set onto some of his best guitar work, in particular the last solo (which is even better live in extended form). It’s one of my favourite songs (as in ever) – I don’t think I’ll ever tire of listening to it. And it’s mainly down to the solos. I can’t believe it has never got the acclaim it deserves.

This leads directly into the best-known song on the album, Romeo and Juliet, another love song loosely based on the play but from a post-relationship perspective (it’s based on Knopfler’s relationship with one of his exes). It’s a rare acoustic number for Knopfler, and again it works because of its delicacy (I am aware this sounds pretentious). This is followed by the upbeat Skateaway, capturing the early 80s trends for skating and the Walkman, which again features another great solo.

The problem (and this is the only criticism I have) is the album sets such a high standard with these three songs that it’s downhill all the way. The following songs are great, but they’re just not quite as good as the first three – Expresso Love is a good up-tempo number, but not quite as good as Skateaway; Hand in Hand is a nice slowy, but not as nice as Romeo and Juliet; Solid Rock is probably the heaviest song Dire Straits ever did, but it’s still quite short and fails to have a major impact. And then there’s Les Boys.

Les Boys, like Money for Nothing, has been accused in some corners as being homophobic. Now I don’t think it’s a particularly brilliant song, but I don’t buy this. Les Boys is about a group of gay cabaret singers in Munich, but I don’t believe they are the target of criticism – to me, Knopfler seems quite appreciative of them. If there is any criticism, it is subtly aimed at “the high class whores and the businessmen”, who are perhaps seen as exploiting them. As with Money for Nothing, people are almost certainly jumping to conclusions without reading and understanding what’s in front of them. I think it works well as a light-hearted end to the album. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Twisting by the Pool, later released on the 1982 EP ExtendedancEPlay, was originally first recorded during the Making Movies sessions – in its final form, it would have been a much better (and less controversial) ending to the album.

ExtendedancEPlay was released just after the next Dire Straits album, Love Over Gold. The album included just 5 songs, down from 7 on Making Movies, hence why I’ve combined the two into one article. I’ve also grown to like Love Over Gold a lot recently – 3 of the 5 songs were included on the greatest hits collection Private Investigations, which I bought a few years ago, with Industrial Disease and It Never Rains left out. Since ‘discovering’ those tracks, I really enjoy listening to the album all the way through.

This is the closest Dire Straits get to what you would call ‘prog rock’, though. All 5 songs are over 5 and a half minutes long. And yet it’s not prog because it still remains fairly stripped down and lacking the complexity and pretension (in my opinion) of Wakeman-esque guff. It would be like calling Junglelands ‘prog’ – and you wouldn’t do that because you wouldn’t give a Springsteen song the negative label.

Telegraph Road is over 14 minutes long, but I never get bored listening to it – I always like listening to it in one go. There’s so much going on there – it’s solo-lyrics-solo-lyrics-solo. The lyrics are all interesting, charting the development of an American suburban road before seguing into a love story set in the town, while the music is beautiful, rising and falling to match the lyrics, sometimes gentle and sometimes dramatic. Whereas prog’s monotony gets boring after a while, there is enough in this to keep you gripped. A long song isn’t necessarily too long, and despite its length, Telegraph Road never feels too long.

It would be tough to beat that after such a start, and indeed it is the high point of the album, taking up a third of its entire length. But that’s not to dismiss the rest of it. Private Investigations is a dark, menacing song, matching the lyrical content perfectly. It was the band’s biggest hit in Britain in terms of chart position, reaching number 2.

The second side of the original vinyl album begins with the up-tempo but sarcastic Industrial Disease was the lead single in the US, referring to the decline of British heavy industry and surrounding media sensationalism. This is followed by Love Over Gold and It Never Rains, which both refer to the same relationship as Romeo and Juliet from Making Movies. While Love Over Gold is sneering about deception, contrasting with the soft keyboard-driven music, It Never Rains builds from the gentle introduction (probably my favourite Dire Straits intro) to a harder and faster crescendo as the lyrics get angrier. Though I think it is an underrated song, I’m not sure It Never Rains was the right way to end the album. The song (and album) fades away just as momentum is building. It leaves you wanting more – maybe that’s the sign of a good album, but I think it needs another song.

I’ve sounded a bit critical here, but I am being particularly fussy: Making Movies and Love Over Gold are both excellent albums, performed by a band at its peak, away from the commercialisation and over-complexity of later work and performances. While I’ve put them together in one review here, they are both distinct – the two albums have very different feels and atmospheres. But you could do a compilation simply from this period, including all the songs off both albums added to Twisting by the Pool, Knopfler’s Local Hero music and other songs from the period. It would work.

Both are superior to Brothers in Arms, which has great songs but also goes on a bit. The criticisms of Dire Straits after for being boring are, in some ways, valid when looking at that album, by far their biggest success, but that neglects their previous work. It would be nice if Dire Straits got the critical praise for this period in their work that they deserve. It often seems to be neglected, BBC Four documentaries aside, and regarded as a bit boring and uncool, largely because every man and his dog had Brothers in Arms despite it not being a brilliant album and popular things are always uncool.

It’s amazing that such a wildly successful and yet relatively unpretentious artist should be ignored in this way. Nobody ever says they’re a Dire Straits fan. Until now. I am. I’ll keep listening forever. And eventually they’ll pop up something that doesn’t say “oh look, how uncool we were liking Dire Straits, how would ever do such a thing?” Knopfler and co can be reinvented.

Written by James Bennett

August 28, 2012 at 18:48

Posted in Music, Other, Reviews

My Favourite Albums: Automatic for the People

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I love Stewart Lee. I think he’s one of, if not the funniest comedian working today (as in in the world). But if there’s one thing I disagree with him on, it’s REM. In an interview in May last year in which he named his 13 favourite albums ever, he chose their second album, Reckoning, but in doing so said “I don’t think there’s any artist that I’ve ever liked who’s disappointed me more than REM.” In his opinion, their earlier albums, released on the independent label IRS before their move to Warner Bros in 1988, were much better, primarily because you couldn’t understand what Michael Stipe was singing, and that when you could understand what he was singing later on, “you realise it’s terrible pretentious rubbish.”

Now I’ve listened to a bit of REM’s IRS stuff, and a lot of their Warner Bros stuff. And I tend to agree with the usual narrative arc of their career – early stuff excellent, early Warner Bros stuff excellent, then diminishing returns after that, apart from the last album, Collapse Into Now, which I quite enjoyed. I also agree that their peak was with Automatic for the People.

OK, so I haven’t quite gone in depth on their early stuff yet. I’ve not listened to Murmur, their first album, which a lot of critics (presumably including Stew) say is their finest. But I think the great thing about Automatic for the People isn’t necessarily that it’s their best creation in a creative sense – it may not be. But the truth is that their IRS stuff, as good as it is, isn’t pop music. It’s pure alternative rock. Automatic for the People isn’t, and I think it’s stronger for that.

Think of it on a sliding scale. On the left, you’ve got pure art, done purely for the sake of it. Obviously it’s not totally objective, but that is where the best stuff generally is. On the right, you’ve got art for the sake of making money – One Direction, most West End musicals and Michael McIntyre. Personally, my favourite stuff isn’t necessarily to the extreme left of this scale – I tend to like music that straddles the divide the most, albeit certainly more to the left on the scale than the right. I’m willing to concede that it’s not objectively the best, but equally it tends to be the most celebrated music in terms of relatively mainstream critical acclaim – you could consider under this heading Radiohead’s OK Computer, early Queen, most of Led Zeppelin’s stuff, the Beatles’ highest rated albums (Sgt Pepper, the White Album, Revolver etc) and Muse’s best albums. And, of course, Automatic for the People.

The appeal of the album is that it has brilliant songs that you can sing along to. I know that songs you can sing along to normally gives you visions of Celine Dion, Westlife and anything overseen by Simon Cowell, but that doesn’t mean all music which you can sing along to is awful. But I do think some of the music on the far left of our scale, in my opinion, suffers from the tyranny of structurelessness – an obvious exception would be something like Thunder Road by Springsteen, which benefits from not being verse-chorus-verse. REM are the masters of making great music within that traditional structure, adding in political and cultural elements. Effectively, it’s like pop music but for intellectuals.

However, there is a problem with this – it has meant that some of the best songs on Automatic for the People, including one in particular (do I need to say?), have been massacred by the mainstream, overplayed and over-covered. And that’s always going to have an effect on how much you like a song or album. It’s nice liking something exclusive – I love the fact that no one else I know loves Dire Straits. Some take it to extraordinary lengths by only liking stuff that no one else has heard of, but I don’t intend on going that far, though I can understand the appeal.

But for me, Automatic for the People remains one of my favourite albums ever, simply because it’s good enough to escape being torn apart and having songs covered by G4, Paul Potts, the Helping Haiti collective and whoever else Cowell’s roped into ruining That Song That Everyone Knows.

I remember the day this album becoming something special to me. I’ve always liked a few of the songs on the album, but as an album, it didn’t mean much until I switched it on one day when I was quite depressed – I chose it because it is a dark, quiet album, matched to a dark cover, but with enough up-tempo songs to possibly progressively lift my mood, which it did. I’ve loved it ever since – I might have listened to it previously, but I genuinely discovered some great songs that day.

It starts with arguably the darkest, edgiest song on the album, Drive, before moving on to Try Not to Breathe, musically more upbeat but juxtaposed to lyrics about death. Death and pain, and overcoming that pain, is a prominent theme during the album. That Song That Is Always Played On The Radio is the best-known for that, hence its use in association with various sad events, like someone not getting through on the X Factor or something. But there’s also the beautiful Sweetness Follows which is along the same lines.

But equally, it would be wrong to say the whole thing is about death. One of the stand-out songs on the album is The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite – not necessarily a stand-out for being good (in fact, the band don’t particularly like it, although I do), but for not fitting in at all, by being the most up-tempo song on the whole album. There is also the vitriolic Ignoreland, a damning criticism of the Reagan and Bush (I) era in American politics, the quite but erotic Star Me Kitten (read Fuck Me Kitten), and another up-tempo number, the mandolin-driven Monty Got a Raw Deal, written about the tragic actor Montgomery Clift.

For me, though, a lot of the magic rests on the last three songs. First, there’s Man On The Moon, written about the alternative comedian Andy Kaufman (and probably the thing most responsible for bringing him into public attention this side of the Atlantic), It is arguably the second best-known song on the album behind That Song That Everyone Cries To But Still Sing Along, and another on this album that could claim to be one of REM’s best songs. After this, you have two slow numbers that could have feasibly closed the album. First, there’s the beautiful simplicity of Nightswimming – just Michael, Mike Mills on piano and a string arrangement that fits in so well you barely notice it’s there. Nightswimming, about innocence and memory, was chosen to close REM’s greatest Warner Bros hits collection In Time, which I think works well in that role, but here it is followed Find the River, a terribly under-appreciated song that I only discovered from listening to the album and is now one of my personal REM favourites.

That’s the great thing about REM albums. There are always little gems that keep popping up during albums that you don’t quite expect. What makes Automatic for the People so special and outstanding is that every song on there is a gem – simple but effective. That’s what makes it a little better from the likes of Green, Out of Time and New Adventures In Hi-Fi – all great albums, but not quite as good as this.

This is why, although REM have continued to put out greatest hits albums, they’re not a band you can truly discover in a greatest hits album – you have to listen to the studio albums to fully appreciate what a brilliant band they were. Sorry Stew, but they were.

Written by James Bennett

February 22, 2012 at 17:06

Posted in Music, Other, Reviews