Wednesday, 4 December 2019

3 Wyrd Things: Robin the Fog

For '3 Wyrd Things' I asked various creative types whose work I admire to tell us about three oddly, wonderfully, weirdly British things that have been an influence on them and their work - a book or author, a film or TV show and a song, album or musician.

Robin the Fog by Victoria Hastings
photo by Victoria Hastings
This month, Robin the Fog.

Robin is a musician, sound artist and radio producer based out of London, often working under the name Howlround he works with several, lovely, old (and slightly unreliable) tape machines to produce beautifully hazy lazy loop based music.

Robin's website can be found here.

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The Boy With Illuminated Measles  John Antrobus
Book
The Boy With Illuminated Measles
John Antrobus

Behind the desk sat a man in a white suit. Round his neck hung a sign which read: “GONE TO LUNCH”. He was munching on a ham sandwich.  
“Ah”, said Doctor Halibut, “I see Sir Rodney has gone to lunch. Never mind, he’ll be back soon”. “No I won’t”, said Sir Rodney from behind the desk, “I’ve got another half hour yet”.

One morning a boy called Ronnie wakes up feeling rather unwell. Good, he thinks, no school today and immediately feels better. Examining himself in the mirror, he discovers that he is suffering from a most unusual case of measles, his face covered with spots of different colours all flashing on and off like lights on a Christmas tree. His mother had planned to take him to the doctors, but she is accidentally blasted into space inside the elevator she uses to get upstairs - Dad having replaced the staircase with an escalator moving in the opposite direction. Ronnie is forced to head to the surgery on his own. In the waiting room he attracts the unwanted attention of Mr. Sloane, a suspicious old man who is almost certainly a Russian spy and keeps speaking into his shoe. This is all in the first 10 pages…

“Illuminated measles are like the Loch Ness Monster”, continued Sir Rodney, “You get the occasional report of a sighting - from Ealing, mainly - but you can’t get the facts. I should know. I've written three books on the subject”

Escaping from the doctor’s surgery after deciding that he didn’t want his measles cured after all, Ronnie is pursued by Mr. Sloane and his Russian spy comrades, who have convinced themselves that he is some sort of new secret weapon disguised as a small boy. The chase takes him, somewhat implausibly, to an iceberg where he bumps into a troop of elderly musicians playing old-time dance music for a tribe of Eskimos…

Could it possibly be, thought Ronnie, that these musicians were from the Titanic? A big ship that had sunk many years ago when it struck an iceberg? Ronnie’s father had told him all about that terrible catastrophe of long ago and of how his great grandfather had survived the disaster. (His great grandfather had survived it by never going to sea: in fact he had made a point of always staying at least thirty miles inland. He had also survived the Great Rumanian [sic] earthquake at the turn of the century, because he was in England at the time. He had survived Captain Scott’s expedition to the South Pole by not going on it. In fact, he had not even been asked…)

At this point it’s probably not too much of a spoiler to inform you that further plot developments include Ronnie being swallowed by a whale and winning an Oscar, but I’ll stop there and let you discover the rest of this beautifully ridiculous children’s story for yourselves. Written in 1978 by John Antrobus, a veteran comedy writer perhaps best known for his collaborative work with Spike Milligan, a copy of The Boy With Illuminated Measles was given to me years later as a birthday present by an art student who was lodging with my family at the time. Reading it again now for the first time in years, I realise just how many of the jokes went over my 8 year old head, but I loved the silliness and absurdity of it all. The illustrations by Rowan Barnes-Murphy play a big part in telling the story as well, exuberant doodles filling every scrap of the page that isn’t taken up with text. The image of the Titanic’s band jamming together on a giant snowball (complete with timpani and grand piano) while a group of Eskimos joyously breakdance in the foreground is particularly glorious. Unfortunately, their happiness is short-lived as the musicians realise Ronnie’s flashing measles would make a perfect set of navigation lights and promptly make good their escape.

The Chief Eskimo burst into tears “Our band! Our lovely band! Our beautiful light music!” he cried. “Ah, well, nothing lasts forever. The only constant thing is change”.

There are supposedly four other books about Ronnie and his adventures, but I’ve yet to come across them. Frankly, I’m amazed John Antrobus could think of anything left to happen after having the US and the Soviet space programmes join forces to rescue Ronnie’s orbiting mother…


Catch 22-20
Music
Catch 22-20

‘Technics SL-P202A compact disc player. 4 times oversampling high resolution system digital filter. 2D/IC linear 18-bit random access program. recorded direct to DAT 1997 no edits. no user-serviceable parts inside. refer servicing to qualified service personnel. Limited pressing of 500 copies’.

A rather prosaic introduction to what is almost certainly the single strangest record in my collection, beating off stiff competition from Plus-Tech Squeeze Box’s stupendously maximalist CARTOOOM!!!!, the sugar-coated, edited-with-a-bag-of-hammers frenzy of Muhammad Ali vs. Mr. Tooth Decay, the oxygen-rich Earth-child wibblings of A Chant For Your Plants or the grubby, creaky bedsprings of Midnite Cowpoke. Released in 2002 as a one-sided 12” on RAFT Records, ‘Catch 20-22’ purports to be a single, unedited recording of a CD player attempting to play a well-known piece of music (the identity of which only becomes apparent after several minutes), but doomed to skip back and forth over the same short section over and over again, thanks to some sort of obscure malfunction. However, rather than the usual ‘tik-tik-tik’ sound we might expect from a skipping compact disc (perhaps through some quirk attributed to the ‘4 times oversampling high resolution system’ mentioned above), the machine’s incessant efforts to get back on track and play the disc correctly occasionally lead to some small progress, injecting an element of unpredictability into the mix. Gradually new notes and sections of the music are revealed, a tiny fragment at a time before cycling through the entire process anew - the digital equivalent, perhaps, of ‘one step forward, two steps back’. But here’s the rub: during all of this, in an act of utterly wondrous serendipity, the skipping of the CD remains completely in time with the beat of the music.

Even now playing this record is something of an endurance test. It’s roughly fourteen minutes in total, but ends in a locked groove (which also happens to be in exact sync with the music, stretching the limits of plausibility still further), meaning that unless you physically stop the disc the piece could go on into infinity - or until the turntable breaks, though it’s entirely likely that the listener will collapse first. What was formerly a famous piece of light orchestral pop is now digitally scrambled before your very ears into a keening, wheedling melody that burbles incessantly over a frantic lockstep rhythm for ten sanity-sapping minutes. By this point, you’ll probably be wondering if time itself has got stuck, not just the CD. But then all this is then suddenly blown into oblivion by an extended blast of digital scree, followed by a few seconds of absolute silence. For a moment it seems that the experiment is over, but then the track suddenly blazes back into life, swings into a bombastic chopped-up drum solo and we’re off again. It’s astonishing how much it sounds like there’s a genuine agency behind the way this piece falls together, but we’re told this is an unedited, aleatoric recording and I believe it.

As a listening experience it’s utterly maddening, like an amphetamine-blasted Benny Hill chase sequence without end or respite. I’ve known it cause listeners to both howl with laughter and plea desperately to make it stop - often in the same sitting. Also like Benny Hill, there’s something confoundedly British about the whole heroic folly – the rictus grin of a Duracell Bunny smashing away at the remnants of his drum, a frantic plate-spinning act by some senile end-of-the-pier conjurer, where the plates are both endlessly spinning and endlessly shattering.

My copy was given to me by RAFT label-owner Howard Jacques one evening at Resonance FM and to this day listening to it reminds me of late nights spent at the station’s Denmark Street HQ in the early 2000s (before the ceiling fell in) having my ears opened and my mind expanded. Outside of Resonance they weren’t always the happiest years, professionally or personally, but Catch 22-20 taught me the most valuable lesson in embracing chance, serendipity and failure as part of the creative process – and made me cry laughing too. I still find it incredible that this record isn’t better known. Mint condition copies can be found on online vinyl database Discogs for a mere couple of pounds. I’ve got two of my own and if after purchase you decide you can’t bear having a copy in your house I can always use a third.




TV
See Saw

Doubtless the revelation that I spent a good chunk of my formative years watching weird old kids TV will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody - who amongst us didn’t? Great reams of online content have already been generated on this subject over the last couple of decades, so for our purposes here today I’ve chosen a couple of extracts from the long-running See Saw strand of BBC programming (formerly known as Watch With Mother) that seem to have thus-far avoided being picked too clean by other hauntological hands.

The first, Chockablock, was a lurid mix of primary colours, flashing lights, vintage computer graphics and proto-chiptune music - including that memorable bontempi-bashing theme tune. Each episode was crammed with all manner of cheery electronic bleeping, squelching and burping noises, mixed with primitive animation and some basic chromakey special effects, all served up by a giant mainframe-style computer with a big reel to reel tape machine mounted on the front to look like eyes in a benignly smiling face. I probably wouldn’t need to draw too much of a map between watching this show as a child and all of my subsequent longstanding musical obsessions, starting with the moment in late 1991 when I saw Altern 8 making very similar noises on Top of the Pops and suddenly realised in some obscure way that this was what I wanted to do. Plus ‘Chocka-Girl’ Carol Leader was my first crush: in Chocka-World girls wore jumpsuits and drove around in tiny little electric cars to the strains of calliope music. What red-blooded man could resist?!



Pie in the Sky
Until the arrival of youtube, I was convinced that the second, Pie in the Sky, was nothing more than some sort of chickenpox-related fever dream. Making sense of this short-lived and extremely bizarre piece of pre-school edutainment is a tall order even as an adult, so I’ll leave the exposition to the programme’s introductory voiceover: the following words were dramatically intoned at the beginning of each episode, with a gravitas that grew steadily more intense as the Poundland-Prog sig tune swelled to a crescendo:

‘Once there was a Pieman and his wife who sang as they baked their pies. The smell of their pies and the sound of their singing carried beyond Earth through outer SPACE! To the planet PIE!! And THEN, from out the sky, came a PIESHIP!! A PIE IN THE SKY!!! Its MISSION!! To beam a dish down to Earth to be FILLED WITH SONGS FOR THE CHILDREN OF PIE WHO HAD NONE OF THEIR OWN!!!!’

Got all that? Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during that commissioning meeting! One can readily imagine some 1980s office at BBC Television Centre, presumably downwind of the canteen, in which an emaciated producer mumbles ‘It’s about a spaceman who likes pie so much that he travels to Earth in a spaceship looking for more pies. And all the pies have songs inside them, did I mention that? And his helmet is a pie. And his spaceship is a pie as well… Sorry, I understood lunch would be included?’

The commissioning editor must have been hungry too, because rather than having the producer escorted from the building, they duly commissioned 13 episodes for broadcast in the Autumn of 1986 (presumably after that the unhappy children of Pie just had to go without). The stars of Pie In The Sky (or perhaps more accurately the people the camera is mostly pointed at) are two characters known as Pieman and Piewife, a married couple who live on Earth and run a bakery together, but are somehow still not on first-name terms. In each episode a mysterious alien force commands the duo to bake them a very special pie filled with a song – a concept apparently so rudimentary it requires no further clarification. And as the pie-loving pair begin to carry out this most peculiar of tasks, the scene cuts away to an extended musical number where the cast give the song in question - generally a well-known nursery rhyme – what can only be described as a thoroughly good drubbing.

Gentle reader, there are few folk in this universe of ours that I dislike more than the kind of hardened cynic that would roll their eyes at such lowly-budgeted toddler-fodder as Pie in the Sky and sneer something like ‘what the hell were these people ON?!’ Yet in spite of this, I cannot accept that anyone in full possession of their faculties could sit through FOUR LONG, LOUD MINUTES of ‘Sing a song of sixpence’ without coming to the unshakable conclusion that everyone involved was under the influence of some kind of psychoactive substance. Exhibit A: the moment about two thirds into the song where a man dressed as a woman is suddenly mutilated by a hand puppet while the others gurn manically behind plastic animal snouts. Then everyone just starts screaming. Exactly what kind of a dainty dish is this?!

Anyway, once each of these musical numbers have been sucked into the centre of a freshly baked pie (again, the science behind all of this was rather brushed over), the resulting dish would be magically beamed up to an orbiting ‘Pieship’ and into the care of a castrato in a pastry helmet known as the Pie Pilot, who would transport it far across space for consumption by the grateful denizens of the Planet Pie. We learn very little about the Planet Pie throughout the series, though it appears to be home to a greatly advanced civilisation that has a solid mastering of interstellar travel, if not of basic logistics (ie. why not just make one trip to Earth and order several pies simultaneously, thereby saving on Pieship mileage?).

Yet for all their futuristic technological sophistication, the proud people of Pie seem to have two simple lodestars in their lives: they like pastry and they like nursery rhymes performed VERY LOUDLY. And while they may be light years ahead of us in their conquest of space and their development of the tractor beam, those two simple pleasures seem to be completely beyond them. What a terrible irony it must be to dwell on a planet named after something the entire population desperately wants but can’t have. And so across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely, they drew their plans against us. These plans chiefly involved sending a guy with a squeaky voice crisscrossing the galaxies to capture our songs and have them wrapped in a flaky, buttery crust. All sounds ridiculously implausible until you remember that Max Tundra once issued a full-length album in a can of kosher chicken soup. ‘Soup in the Sky’ might make for quite an intriguing sequel, if I can just find a sympathetic commissioning editor. 

I may have over thought all this. But thanks to youtube I know I wasn’t hallucinating.


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4 comments:

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  2. Brilliant. I have have always loved, been intrigued, exasperated and uplifted by Catch 22-20 since hearing it on Resonance and managing to track down a copy. So great to hear of someone else who appreciates it in the same way as I do. Robin manages to describe it's joys perfectly.
    He made me buy one of those copies on discogs for my daughter to (hopefully) enjoy on her new record player.
    Thank you so much.

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    1. ha ha ha. yeah it's an unusual but compulsive listen. hope your daughter enjoys and i shall pass on your message to the good Mr theFog

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    2. Hello Jonathan! Thanks very much for the kind words - I'm chuffed to bits! Would love to know how your daughter is getting on discovering the joys of 'Catch 22-20' for herself!

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