Sunday, May 16, 2010

Concert: Ray Davies

Cambridge Corn Exchange, 13th May 2010.

If I'd wanted to give this post a smart-arse title, I'd have been spoiled for choice, wouldn't I? "Well-Respected Man", "You Really Got Me", "Not Like Everybody Else", "Loud, But Never Square"...

Or, to put it another way - well, it's not too hard to see some of the surviving legends of Ray Davies's form and era - from the far side of a stadium, at considerable expense. But in a venue the size of the Corn Exchange, for local-venue prices? That wouldn't really have been sensible to miss.

Of course, Ray Davies was one of the lesser Big Names of his era, being the most quintessentially British of the British Invaders. But I'll put him up there with any of them, for influence as well as talent. I don't really like "If no A, then no B, C, D, or F" comparisons - influence and history don't work like that - but subtract the Davies/Kinks influence and where are you with Bowie, or the Jam, or the Pretenders, or Blur? And the blighter was productive, too; every now and again at this gig I was thinking "Hey, he's used most of his big hits already, where's he going from here" - and then out would come yet another classic pop song.

Which said, being limited to the resources of a small-ish touring band did restrict the range of effects that Davies could apply, to the point where (whisper it) some of the songs were in some danger of sounding the same as each other. He started with just himself and another guitarist, playing mostly acoustic but seriously amplified, and then brought on the keyboards, drums, and bass; the classic rock/pop configuration, playing in fairly conventional style - and at one point performing a string of heavier numbers (yes, including "You Really Got Me") that would remind one that the Kinks also got some credit or blame for Heavy Metal. (Although to be fair, they probably gave it a useful sense of melody and some wit.) The other notable feature of the performance, though, the one off-beat stylistic touch, was the way that Davies used the audience in his arrangements.

I believe that he's long had some tendencies this way - live albums with the audience sounds mixed high, and so on - and I don't think that it's exactly egotism; rather, Davies treats his more exuberant fans (and the front row at this event were definitely exuberant) as part of the show and therefore part of the music, letting them provide vocal fills when they want to. The trouble is, a bunch of dedicated rock fans aren't the most precise of instruments... Still, it was often fun, and many of the songs could stand it, including some that perhaps shouldn't have had to. I've said before that "Waterloo Sunset" can withstand pretty well anything, and that turns out to include this sort of live performance with the audience providing occasional backing vocals.

Anyway - repeatedly, throughout the show, Davies and the band would hurtle yet again into some neat little pop song that was also a small masterpiece of slice-of-life poetry. And this guy wrote all this stuff, and has been performing since about 1962. The place was full of people of a range of ages, all doubtless being reminded of important parts of the soundtrack to their lives. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Recent Reading: The Age of Wonder

by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)The Age of Wonder has a subtitle: "How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science". Which is accurate enough, although the terror only really shows in the chapter on Frankenstein, and maybe occasionally in the stuff about the discovery of the true scale of the universe.

Richard Holmes is a biographer by trade, and this is scientific history as biography. The spine of the narrative is formed by the life stories of two figures; Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) and his successor as the president of the Royal Society, Humphry Davy (1778-1829), around whom other stories twine in different chapters - with the Herschel family featuring in several of them. I'll admit that I learned an awful lot from this book; just for a start, I'd previously been aware of Banks mostly in connection to his contributions to the nomenclature of gardening, rather than for his status as the grand (ageing) man of British science over generations (or even for his activities as Coleridge's drug dealer), and of Davy as the inventor of the miners' safety lamp, which was certainly important but which rather neglects the stunning volume of work he did on the foundations of modern chemistry (the work which got the safety lamp project pushed his way, in fact). Blame the simplistic shorthand stories of British education in my schooldays, I guess.

Whether Holmes quite proves his stated thesis is another matter. His idea is that there was in Georgian Britain such a thing as "Romantic science", or perhaps more correctly a Romantic idea of science - science as the product of solitary geniuses, thirsting for knowledge at any cost, progressing by huge leaps at crucial "Eureka moments" and seducing that knowledge from the infinite mysteries of nature, but also objective and disinterested, willing to transmit their new knowledge to a wider public thanks to a new system of public lectures. The last part, though, seems to me to be the only place where "Romantic science" differs very clearly from the Enlightenment science of Newton and Descartes, although Holmes does trace the 18th century evolution of the myth of Newton's Eureka moment with the apple, and his story does culminate in the meeting where the word "scientist" was actually invented to replace the older "natural philosopher", retroactively fitting the likes of Newton with a new label. He might also have traced the relationship between British science and that of other European nations in more detail, but to be fair, the book has quite enough to talk about as it is.

But whatever. Holmes tells a good story, and reading more around the subject might well reinforce his case. Meanwhile, he draws an interesting picture of the "second scientific revolution" (as identified by Coleridge in 1819 - Coleridge is an important figure throughout this story). The primary sciences in this revolution were astronomy and chemistry, with the first largely driven by the methodical brilliance of William Herschel, an expatriate German musician discovered by chance making solitary observations on the back streets of Bath (I said that Holmes has a great story to tell). Herschel, aided by his sister Caroline (who became Britain's first professional woman scientist, as Herschel became personal astronomer to the king), redefined the universe; his discovery of Uranus (the thing about him that I learned in my schooldays) seems almost incidental, although helpful to his fame.

But before we meet Herschel, we get to know Banks, a fabulously wealthy naturalist who landed the job of botanist on Captain Cook's voyage to Tahiti. Banks comes across as one of those casually amiable aristocratic types who treats everyone with equal amounts of casual charm, whatever their social position or cultural background, and seems to have helped the slightly more stiff-necked Cook deal with the Pacific islanders he met; one ends up wondering if Cook would have survived his last voyage if Banks had been along to moderate his attitudes, instead of being kept off the ship by political chicanery in the Admiralty. (This is a handy book for devotees of the conspiratorial model of history, although it makes no deliberate efforts to support such silliness; fellow roleplaying gamers of my vintage will understand if I re-title it "When Void Seekers Ruled the Earth".) Instead, Banks became the patron of the new scientific movement, although his aristocratically conservative instincts maybe hardened into something less helpful as he aged. Indeed, the story of British science in the period emerges as one of older organisations growing sclerotic and being replaced by dynamic new groupings, as the Royal Society is followed by the Royal Institution, and that then leaves a gap to be filled by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. All very British.

Where the book maybe seems a little weak is in the actual science; Holmes comes across as having done the research and taken good advice, but it's hard to avoid the feeling that he's more interested in the people than in their work, occasionally digressing onto the lives of the Romantic poets with variable amounts of relevance, and he fails to really tackle more complex subjects in any detail; his explanation of Fraunhofer lines, for example, is limited to a footnote, where he calls them "similar to a supermarket barcode". Nor does he seem to understand why scientists get so irritated by Coleridge's bizarrely muddle-headed comments about mind being passive in Newton's "system", and one Shakespeare or Milton thus being equal to 500 Newtons. He also wanders off into specific subjects that barely qualify as "science" at all, although they were of some interest to scientists and to the Romantic poets; fortunately, these make for interesting chapters. One involves Mungo Park, an early explorer in central Africa who was to some extent backed by the old globe-trotter Banks, and who did appeal to Romantic poets; another, which I confess to finding sometimes hilarious, is the ballooning craze of the late 18th century. Lighter-than-air flight was actually invented by the French, but the British caught on fairly quickly (and told themselves that some of the chemistry involved was invented by Britons, so it was fairly British anyway, even if one of the pioneers in this country had the poor taste to be Italian); this being the Georgian era, early developments naturally included attempts to invent the Mile High Club, while more serious pioneers struggled to convince themselves that there were in fact reliable winds in any direction one might want at different altitudes, so given a bit more research, this technology could actually be made useful... Holmes actually misses an analogy which hit me while I was reading this chapter, between ballooning then and the manned space program today; ballooning involved new gadgets, public showing-off, and worries about national prestige and military applications, was basically about applied technologies but involved various scientists attempting to argue that it was all about serious scientific research, was a little bit too dangerous for comfort, and faded out rather after a few years as early promise came to little.

But the book begins and ends with sea voyages that facilitated vastly important biological research; at the start is Banks, vastly expanding the knowledge of European biology and returning a hero and a major public figure; at the end, as John Herschel dismantles his father's great forty-foot telescope (ending the age when Slough was a global centre of astronomical research) and young scientific radicals like Charles Babbage chafe against the Romantic establishment, a relatively obscure young enthusiast lands a job on HMS Beagle - and returns with ideas so dangerous that he doesn't dare publish them for decades. But Darwin's long-drawn-out Eureka Moment is a story that's been told well before, and largely lies outside the scope of Holmes's book. What is does show, and fascinatingly, is how the Georgians invented modernity, in this as in other ways - and then weren't quite sure what to do with it. It was left to their heirs to sort out that little matter.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Iron Man 2

If anyone hadn't heard, Marvel Films are currently engaged in a speculative project; they make a set of movies featuring most of the original members of the Avengers, and assuming that these work well enough, at some point in the future, they make an actual Avengers movie. Well, Jon Favreau has evidently bought into this idea; Iron Man 2 is set in something much more like the "Marvel universe" than previous Marvel superhero movies, and not just because of the teaser scene after the end titles. Early on, someone tells Tony Stark that he can't continue operating as a lone gunslinger, that he should accept the help that his friends offer him; by the end, we're in Marvel Team-Up territory, with Iron Man and War Machine facing off against a horde of robots while Black Widow infiltrates the enemy HQ.

Yes, Favreau clearly loves him his superheroes, and he's been given the resources to express that love. The fights in this film could come straight out a comic - not just the noisy, dazzling high-tech power armour dogfights, but also Black Widow's deft and hyperkinetic demolition of a whole team of security guards. (Not that Scarlet Johansson's character is ever referenced by that name, and frankly she's pretty superfluous to the plot, except that she defines its parameters while giving us lots of high-speed judo in a catsuit, which is good enough for me.) He also seeds the film with stuff for the geeks; not only does it assume that viewers will have seen the first in the series (fair enough), it assumes that they'll have sat through to the end of the credits on that one, so that when Samuel L. Jackson wanders on set half-way through, he's not given anything as superfluous as an introduction. For that matter, I'm pretty sure that Tony Stark's father was carefully cast and made up to resemble Tony Stark in '60s-era comics.

But lots of directors can do decent super-fights. Where Favreau jumps ahead of the pack is, as in the first film, in the engineering. (Both films seem practically designed to make engineers into very happy bunnies. The heavy product placement of Audi cars fits very, very well indeed; Audi are a marque with huge engineer appeal.) Admittedly, the script tips ever further into comic-book goofiness here, as Stark synthesises a brand new element (gurggh) by improvising a particle accelerator in his lab, aligning it with a spirit level and what appears to be Captain America's shield (yes, really), and then hand-aiming it - but Favreau evidently reckons that, if you're going to do comics, you gotta do goofiness. And the actual physical action of those scenes, as Stark throws himself around his workshop, alternately playing with holographic models and tearing up the floor with a pneumatic drill, reinvents the cinematic mad scientist lab for the 21st century. Anyone planning a movie about a super-genius inventor will need to watch this one first from now on; I just hope that the makers of Doctor Who[?] are paying attention.

But all this narrative density (plus the obligatory tedious Hollywood father-issues sub-plot, damnit) has to have a cost, and what this film has lost that made the first so interesting is a sense of a relationship with real-world politics. At times, Iron Man threatened to say something almost significant about American foreign policy and the "War on Terror"; Iron Man 2 assumes that Stark is doing something worthwhile about these issues at the start, and then looks at what might follow for him personally - which is moderately interesting, but not something that binds so well to the newspaper headlines of our own world. That jump into a full-on "superhero universe" maybe leaves too much behind. Though one might see Stark as symbolising America this time round - ingenious, charismatic, solipsistic, obsessed with independence and free enterprise, terribly opened to attack from all sides when weaker opponents show that he's not actually invulnerable, subject to the demands of a military-industrial complex that cares only for profit...

And because it's still about just Iron Man, the film has problems finding interesting opponents for him; most of his fights are with other people or robots in suits of armour much like his own, which could get quite boring quite fast. (Mickey Rourke's "Ivan Vanko" - briefly referred to as "Whiplash" in the credits, but comics geeks will see him as owing rather more to the Crimson Dynamo - shows his face in his first appearance, but never quite explains how he can be so robust with that much bare flesh showing, and eventually dons proper armour.) The comics solve this by throwing much more colourful, less armoured gadget-users at Iron Man and then ducking the question of how they survive in a stand-up fight against him; this isn't likely to work on film. Meanwhile, Justin Hammer is the story's weak link, an incompetent twit who's somehow become CEO of a major weapons manufacturer - nothing like the suave Cushing-esque Hammer of the comics, and just a pale shadow of the first film's Obadiah Stane.

So, overall - not as good as the first film, no, and probably too specifically aimed at the geek market in the virtues it does retain. But it's still a film about a guy in super-powered armour, with good FX and fight scenes and a few good jokes, that also asks a few questions in passing about responsibility and power.It's probably as good as we deserve.