‘Curly’s Airships Interview with Jon Downes of Gonzo Media

Friday, 8 June 2012
JUDGE SMITH: The ‘Curly’s Airships’ interview… (Part One)

..in fact it turned out to be our widest and most rambling talk yet. Partly because the two of us are now comfortable with each other, partly because Judge is exhausted after what would be a punishing schedule for a man half his age, and partly because I am in a spectacularly unfocussed headspace at the moment, this interview, was possibly the least formal that I have ever done.

I enjoyed it. I am pretty sure Judge enjoyed it, and I hope that you will too…

Jon: I was very impressed with Curly.

Judge: You’ve done a wonderful review of it. I am so touched, Jonathan. A very kind and generous review.

Jon: It’s no more than it deserves. It is a remarkable piece of work.

Judge: Thank you. I have had some wonderful responses from people which I’ve collected since it first came out, and if it’s right for people it’s very right for people.

Jon: It is the one of the song stories that most sounds like you were once in Van de Graaf Generator.

Judge: Oh yes. It’s got Hugh Banton all over it basically. That’s so distinctive.

Jon: I thought his organ playing was absolutely extraordinary on it.

Judge: Yeah, he’s amazing. He runs a successful organ building company so it and he gives every impression of being a middle-aged business man, but stick him behind the keyboard and you get extreme, violent, astonishing organ playing that you would expect from a kind of long-haired madman.

Jon: It is, some of that playing is completely insane.

Judge: Yeah, he’s just fantastic. It was a very complicated thing to do because Curly was recorded in analogue on a 16-track machine that I had to take up to Cheshire to his home on numerous occasions to record the organ stuff. It was a very complex procedure to get all his organ stuff done.

Jon: I was thinking that. When I was reading the liner notes it almost the last great dance of analogue recording. Three or four years later it would have been done completely different.

Judge: Yes, it was the last thing I did analogue. As soon as it was finished I dismantled the studio, as I knew I wasn’t going to go on any longer with it, and sold all my kit and braced myself to join the digital world. Which I don’t regret at all – it certainly makes my life more easier. I’m not particularly romantic about analogue.

Jon: It’s actually interesting, because half the people I talk to now for Gonzo are telling me how they make incredibly complicated albums all on a laptop and it is interesting to hear something that was recorded in the old fashioned way.

Judge: There’s a lot to be said for it, but for my particular circumstances being not a performer of music, being a writer rather than a performer, being digital is a huge advantage. I am an old-fashioned writer in many ways, but it is still an awful lot easier for me to get that stuff down onto a computer than it is onto reels of iron oxide.

Jon: I am itching to see Curly done live.

Judge: Well, I like performing very much on stage. I haven’t done nearly as much of it as I’d like, particularly in recent decades. I did perform quite regularly with a band in the ‘70s called ‘The Modern Beats’ which was a London pub band, which was great fun. We gigged quite a lot and I did enjoy that ever so much. But that wasn’t doing original material. We did early ‘60s pop songs played in a very new wave, or punk-style. Our by-line was ‘Too fast, too loud and twenty years too late’. But it was a fun band. But since then, it has been few and far between really. Both recording and performing are costly things to do. They require a lot of resources and a lot of time to get a band together for example. And I felt I wanted to spend what time I had, and what resources I had at my disposal, on making records rather than running a band. It is a regret in many ways. I do enjoy performing live.

Jon: I would love to see Curly on the stage.

Judge: I think it could be done. I do have a scheme for doing it, mind you I’m getting a bit long in the tooth to carry it off now, but it would be possible to do. I would like to. It could be done as an illustrated lantern slide show where Curly McLeod presents an old-fashioned lantern slide show with a long pointer as if he’s giving a lecture to the Women’s Institute.

Jon: Gosh what a lovely idea.

Judge: So it could be done as a one man show.

Jon: And with backing tapes rather than a band?

Judge: Yes. In fact, when I mixed Curly’s Airships with the amazing David Lord, we mixed everything two ways, with and without the lead voice so it would in theory be possible to put together a performance tape as it were that could be sung to live. But I rather doubt if it is every going to happen. Pushing a project like that is a full time job, and it is a full time job for someone with a lot more drive and chutzpah, and bottle than I can generally summon up.

We will continue tomorrow, and the next day after that, and quite possibly after that as well. However, for the record, I would love to see Curly staged the way that The Who did Quadrophenia about fifteen years ago (released on DVD about five years back) with a band playing it live interspersed by narration and film clips. If I had the resources I would do my best to persuade Judge to stage it. But I haven’t, so this must remain just a rather pointless pipe dream…

Check out Judge’s artist page at Gonzo: http://www.gonzomultimedia.co.uk/artists/6774/Judge%20Smith
Posted by Jon Downes at 08:26 No comments:

Saturday, 9 June 2012
EXCLUSIVE: Judge Smith, the ‘Curly’s Airships’ interview (Part Two)

Yesterday I posted the first part of a long and rambling interview that I did the other evening with the incomparable Judge Smith. It was meant to be about the imminent rerelease of the first of his groundbreaking songstory albums which tells the story of the Imperial Airship Scheme and the R101 disaster, but in fact we talked about all sorts of other things as well.
That’s the problem when you have someone like me who has a grasshopper mind, interviewing a polymath like Judge. The conversation gets so engrossing that before long you completely forget that you are supposed to be conducting an interview…

Jon: You’ve got so many other things you are doing always.

Judge: It has been a rather long run of projects. Once The Climber started it hasn’t stopped really and it’s been too much to be honest. It’s been one thing after another really. The Climber and Orfeas happened – not simultaneously, but half of one and then half of the other. I got half way with Orfeas and then had to put it aside to do The Climber because there was the opportunity to do it, and then I had to go back to Orfeas and once I had finished that I spent a long time making a demo of my Requiem Mass which is the first big piece I ever wrote in the mid-70s.

It is a big piece; choir, brass and a rock band and it was put into a full score by my friend Michael Brand, the arranger, who helped me turn my imaginings into a musical manuscript. (The connection is, he arranged a big orchestral piece on a Peter Hammill album) – and it’s never been recorded.

My friend Ricardo Odriozola, who has been so helpful for me on Orfeas offered to get this pencil score into the 21st Century and get it digitised and give me the opportunity to revise it and make some changes I always had in mind for it. And we did that work which was fantastic and then I had to put it on to tape, just as a demo, so it’s done with samples, just to – as a proof of concept – to show what it might sound like and sooner or later I’ve got to make a decision as to whether I try and actually record it, but it would be a very big undertaking and would cost a lot of money. A full choir, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, a rock band and a good vocalist, because I can’t sing it. It needs a proper rock singer, a good singer. So I don’t know whether that will ever happen, but that took up a long time and then immediately I dived into the present project which is an album I’m doing with the American producer David Minnick..

Jon: Oh the guy who did the speech music?

Judge: That’s it, the guy who worked on those narrative passages in Orfeas. ‘Speech music’ is what I call it. It doesn’t actually have a name. It’s got a history – it’s got quite an underground thread running through – the experimental music of the 20th Century, but as far as I know it hasn’t got a name so I called it ‘speech music’ just for my own convenience.

Jon: I love the concept.

Judge: It’s fascinating stuff. I think I probably will go back to it but I am not sure what form or for what project. But it is very demanding for me, you really need to be a better musician than I am to make the most out of it. But even though David is an expert, it doesn’t feature on this next project of ours which is an album of songs – a relatively conventional song format album.

Jon: Does it tell stories?

Judge: Well the individual songs tell stories because that tends to be what I do. But no, there isn’t one over-arching narrative. It’s a bunch of songs, like a proper album.

Jon: When is it going to be out?

Judge: Well, I don’t know – I’ve got several more vocals to do. David has some sessions with brass and strings to go and it’ll be finished when we are both happy with it. Later this year, when I can raise the finance to press it and issue it..

Jon: I didn’t realise the other day that you had done the songs for ‘Not the Nine O’clock News.’

Judge: Yes I did a few. That was fun.

Jon: Which were yours?

Judge: Well the one that people remember is ‘Gob on You’.

Jon: I used to sing that with a terrible punk band back in the day

Judge: Really? [laughs]

Jon: We did an absolutely diabolical version of it and I stole two of the lines for a song I did as well.

Judge: It has actually been covered by a perfectly legitimate punk band.

Jon: There is such a thing as a legitimate punk band?

Judge: Well… yes I see what you mean. ‘Chaos UK’.

Jon: That’s a name I never thought I would hear again.

Judge: ‘Chaos UK’ have covered ‘Gob on You’ which I suppose is a legitimate piece of pride for me.

Jon: Well I stole the line “sex is boring, pain is fun, I wanna cut my fingers off one by one, there ain’t no point in staying alive, I wanna be dead by 25” for one of my songs thirty years ago so I owe you a couple of beers.

Judge: I did several others. And I can’t remember which ones get done and which ones were rejected so if I said I did that one but not that one, some ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ completist would say…that was never broadcast

I submitted a lot – I think there were about three in the end that they actually did. The big disappointment was they did one of my numbers for the very last song on the very last show which was called ‘Happy Bloody Christmas’, and it was very elaborate set-up done with a live audience and members of the cast came out into the audience and beat them up for not singing along and so forth. Only unfortunately, they handed Rowan, who is an absolutely delightful man by the way, they handed him his microphone the wrong way round, so he sang the whole thing into the little wire coming out of the end. And so, of course, it was unusable, so they went for… they did something dramatic and serious. They did ‘Imagine’ or something like that. The last segment of the last show. So it was a great shame and that was quite a good song.

Jon: How did you get involved with doing that?

Judge: Because before Mel Smith was a TV performer he was a theatrical director and he directed a musical of mine at the Sheffield Crucible. A musical called ‘The Ascent of Wilberforce Three’ which I wrote with Maxwell Hutchinson. We were a sort of musical writing team for a considerable length of time. We wrote several musicals together and Mel directed it. And that is how I got to know Mel. So when he joined this new comedy programme, I had an opportunity to submit songs.

Jon: I suppose that is the way the business works

Judge: Yes. But I’m not facile enough to get anywhere in television. You’ve got to be able to do things quick, which I can’t do.

Jon: But then again, if you had done that you might not have got around to writing Curly.

Judge: Possibly yes. Perhaps if I’d had any legitimate career I wouldn’t have done anything so incredibly stupid as to do Curly.

Jon: The thing I found interesting. I listened to the three song stories in exactly the wrong order. I listened to ‘Orfeas’ first, the ‘The Climber’ and then ‘Curly’ last of all. And the nearest reference point I got to that was the musical version of Edgar Allan Poe that you did with Peter Hammill twenty odd years ago?

Judge: Oh right yes. ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ – that was a good experience.

Jon: Because Richard and I got hold of a copy of that I can’t remember how we got it, or from where it came, but I remember sitting down with Richard listening to it far too loud, years ago and totally, totally getting it.

And so this seems to be a convenient place to break for today. There will be more tomorrow, and quite possibly the day after that…

Posted by Jon Downes at 11:37 No comments:

EXCLUSIVE: Judge Smith interview part three

I really enjoyed talking to Judge Smith the other evening. We were supposed to be talking about the imminent re-release of the Curly’s Airships songstory, but we ended up talking about all sorts of other things as well.

Check out:
Part one
Part two
..and you will see what I mean.

As today’s segment opens, we were talking about the musical version of The Fall of the House of Usher that he did with Peter Hammill et al about 20 years ago:

Judge: There are some magnificent tunes on that piece. I think it’s got some of Peter’s most wonderful melodies ever on that piece. It’s recorded in quite an austere fashion, but it has no compromises but the tunes themselves are just magnificent I think.

Jon: That’s something it’s a pity you didn’t get to a wider audience

Judge: Well at one time it was going to be put on at the Barcelona Olympics (1992). It was scheduled to be produced as a site-specific production, I think in the old Ministry of Health building in Barcelona.

But unfortunately really quite late in the day it fell through. Local and regional politics, local and euro funding and all the rest of it. It was a big, big disappointment so it did almost get produced.

Jon: Then it finally came out in 91 or 92? And then disappeared again and came out again in the late ’90s.

Judge: Yes, the first release was not very auspicious in terms of the actual record company involved and then Peter wanted to rework it and do a lot of really quite radical changes to the musical arrangements and the vocals and put it out again on his own label. And they’re both very interesting recordings I think.

Jon: Well I think that was the nearest reference point to ‘Curly’.

Judge: That’s interesting.

Jon: I think there were a lot of points between the two and not just because it had Peter on it, but they both had a very similar feel to them.

Judge: Oh that’s interesting. It’s not a connection that I’ve would have made.

Jon: They’ve certainly got more in common than I think than Curly has to either of the other two song stories.

Judge: Quite possibly. Well being around someone who writes extraordinary tunes it does rub off on one. It tends to raise your game and working with Peter, and of course knowing his stuff, has raised the threshold at which a tune becomes acceptable to me. I think that won’t do, that’s predictable, and I am sure that being somewhat in the shadow there has had at least that beneficial effect.

Jon: That’s something that all three of the song stories – to me anyway – have got in common. Being a musician , when I’m listening to something I sing along with it and you usually know where the tune is going to go, and with yours, you don’t. You get wrongfooted, because you go off at a tangent that one wasn’t expecting.

Judge: Oh yes, I’m very pleased to hear that. I like stuff that jumps around a bit. I like wrong-footing people’s musical anticipation.

Jon: I think there’s as much cheeky humour in the way that you write the music as you do the words.

Judge: Thank you again. I find it difficult to do things without jokes in them. I find it difficult to take things seriously, even though I take them very seriously.

Jon: I know exactly what you mean.

Judge: I am currently what my friend John Ellis would say, ‘cream-crackered’.

Jon: You sound exhausted.

Judge: I am a bit to be honest. David Minnick is doing all the heavy lifting on this project but he wants me to record my vocals in a particular way, and that is very demanding for me. I have to provide two identical vocals. I’m double tracking my vocals. And because I’m quite a random sort of singer, it’s very, very difficult to do. And I find it pretty tiring, but the results are very interesting. It’s not something I do myself, but he’s said ‘that’s how I want to do it’, and the whole point of getting him involved is for him to be the producer.

Jon: I’m really looking forward to hearing it.

Judge: It’s extraordinary stuff to be honest. The sound…he is a wonderful musician. Absolutely extraordinary musician so I am very, very lucky indeed to have that relationship.

And there, once more, we shall knock it on the head for today. We will be back with more tomorrow, and quite possibly the next day as well..
Posted by Jon Downes at 11:40 No comments:

Sunday, 10 June 2012
EXCLUSIVE: Judge Smith Interview (Part Four)

And so my mammoth conversation with Judge Smith about his songstory Curly’s Airships trundles on.

Talking to Judge is always a pleasure, but my dear wife Corinna told me that transcribing interviews with him is so much easier than with some people whom I could mention, because he speaks slowly, in well-modulated tones, and is easy to follow.

Today’s episode is quite possibly the most arcane interview we have ever posted as it covers so many peculiar, and disparate, things whilst always coming back to Curly McLeod and his airships..

Jon: So how did the idea for Curly come about in the first place

Judge: I wanted to do a long narrative piece because I thought it could be done and it was something that I’d always been interested in. You know that ‘Van der Graaf Generator’ went in for the ‘long song’ and it always irks me somewhat that rock music was still expected to fit into a relatively short timeframe and I wanted to do something that I could stretch out and tell a whole story. And so what I had to do was find a story to tell and I like airships, I knew the story of the R101 and thought it covered a lot of bases that appealed to me; airships, the 1920s, the British character, the language and slang of the first part of the 20th Century and the paranormal, all of which I am very interested in, so that’s what led me to do it. So it was finding a subject to do the song story, it wasn’t ‘I am desperate to tell the story of the R10, how can I possibly do it?’ I knew it had to be something that I found really, really interesting because I knew it was going to take a long time. I didn’t anticipate 7 years.

Jon: A project of yours which keeps on getting referenced whenever I’m writing anything about you is the Kibbo Kift musical.

Judge: That was one of the ones written with Maxwell Hutchinson. And in fact Mel Smith also directed a production of that musical as well.

Jon: Was that ever recorded?

Judge: There is a demo of most of the songs. But the only recording we have is a so called – a pair of microphones hung up on the ceiling and they record everything I think for legal purposes in case there is a disaster and I’ve got a tape of the show like that, but it’s not a listenable proper edition really

Jon: Oh what a pity, because again after talking to you I did some research into it. Very interesting. Particularly as I did some research into Ernest Thompson Seton some years ago. I was writing about him 15 years ago because I did a lot of research into singing mice.

Judge: Singing mice?

Jon: They were things that were sold in pet shops in the late 19th and early 20th Century and there was a vogue for singing mice and dancing mice in late Victorian times. Singing mice were mice that were bred with lung conditions and squeaked like canaries, and dancing mice went round and round in circles because they were epileptic.

Judge: That’s awful.

Jon: That’s terrible, but one of these singing mice became a star on the very early BBC and its name was Mickey, and having somewhat of a hatred for Walt Disney I spent about three years trying to build up a thesis which turned out not to be buildable that the whole Walt Disney empire was built on a piece of animal abuse around a mouse with tuberculosis. Then I got involved with Seton. He wrote a book called ‘Ralph of the Woods’ and in that there is a red Indian who tells the story of the singing mouse..

Judge: Well John Hargrave, the founder of the Kibbo Kift was very much influenced by Thompson Seton and it was the beginning of the Kibbo Kift. As a result of writing this musical, a lot of the old membership came out from the woodwork and the result was the formation of the Kibbo Kift foundation which is a body set up to gather in and preserve all the records and memorabilia of the movement, and an amazing amount of material still existed and I was inducted as a trustee of the foundation – a very junior member, myself and Maxwell, because we had written this musical regenerated some interest in the movement and of course with the way of the world I am one of the few people left, most of the members have now passed on. And so I really am running the foundation more or less single handed.

Check out: http://www.kibbokift.org/

Jon: That’s a song story in itself.

Judge: Well we’ve achieved our aims in that all the collection of objects and regalia, robes, costumes, carvings, illuminated manuscripts are all in the Museum of London and the archive or written records is at the LSE Library. And it is now done and only recently I finished doing the cataloguing of the last part of the archives so our job is pretty well done now.

Jon: Are you going to being doing a book on it?

Judge: I was offered a commission to do Hargrave’s biography by a grown-up Bloomsbury publisher years ago, but I turned it down. I am not a professional writer. I would have to become a professional writer – you know Jon, you are a writer…biographers….

Jon: It’s a horrible job

Judge: What a ghastly job, you know it just goes on and on and then you don’t make any money at the end of it – a bit like rock ‘n’ roll really … but I thought it was better to have those working conditions and come out with stuff of my own rather than burying myself in another man’s past. There is a book there – a very good book there for somebody, an extraordinary story.

Jon: And I want to hear the Kibbo Kift songs.

Judge: Most certainly. I would be interested to know what you think. I can send you the script as well. But again, whether it would see the light of day again I don’t know. It’s half my project and so obviously I am more inclined to spend time on projects that are entirely mine.

Jon: I like the way that when you and I start talking about things, these are the least formal interviews that I do. We end up talking about different things.

And that was it. Judge and I chatted about non interview stuff for about ten minutes, we said our goodbyes and parted company. I am certain, however, that we shall be talking again soon.
Posted by Jon Downes at 17:59 No comments: