No more Pre-emptive regional Lockdowns, please?

It is time to acknowledge that Covid 19 is different in New Zealand. We don’t have community transmission in the same way that the northern hemisphere does. But, despite there have never been Covid 19 at all in some parts of New Zealand, we are still having partial lockdowns in the biggest city, Auckland. It seems like as soon as there is a case emerging in Auckland our government locks down the whole region, forgetting that this is a draconian measure that should have been a last resort.

In mid February it emerged that one person had contracted Covid 19, and it was presumed that this was because she worked for a company that serviced aircraft linen. She went on to infect her household. So the Ardern Government decided to have a partial lockdown of Auckland, which lasted three days. It then seemed that there had not been a spread of the virus, even though the household had school age children. A whole secondary school had to be closed and all students tested, along with the usual hundreds of people who queued up for tests even when they didn’t have any symptoms. It seemed to be under control, so the lockdown was relaxed, and the rest of the country went back to no restrictions at all.

Then a week later another case emerged in the same suburb of south Auckland. The young man did not have an immediate connection to the first household. He also had continued to visit the gym, an educational institution, and his workplace, even when symptomatic. So the lockdown was reimposed for 7 days. But then the contact tracers worked out that someone connected to the first household had visited the mother of the young man, and there were similar instances of positive cases not isolating when told to by authorities. However, there was no spread of the virus beyond fifteen linked cases.

Prime Minister Ardern yesterday announced that the lockdown would be rescinded, not immediately, but tomorrow morning (ie after 2 days more of it). All of this for a mere 15 cases, none of whom had to visit the hospital. It appears that we got away with it again, but she did not apologise for reimposing the lockdown just for 1 case. This is obviously wrong, and undermines her own policy. When we had a long lockdown in March last year it was because there was some community transmission, the health services were not prepared, and the contact tracing system was not in place. Since then we have got back to zero cases, there is strict border control, and the contact tracing system supposedly works well.

If the Covid 19 virus was ever to get away in New Zealand it would be in south Auckland. This is one of the poorest urban areas in New Zealand, with high ethnic Polynesian population, and overcrowding in public housing. Similar areas in Britain have seen high rates of the virus, so it might have been assumed that it would happen here. But the outbreak never took off, and it is not just down to luck. The authorities here assumed that, because it was the new English strain of the virus it would be more contagious, but it has not proved to be so once again. We have had earlier examples where some people have tested negative in managed isolation facilities, but tested positive when they were released. In one notable case the woman involved had gone to the hairdresser and all sorts of shops after she left the isolation facility in Auckland. Hundreds of people got tested but there was not a single new case of covid.

So now it is time for the so-called experts in New Zealand to look objectively at the empirical evidence here, and not make assumptions based on overseas experience. And the evidence is that community transmission has not happened, even with the new Covid variants arriving at the border and sneaking through the quarantine facilities. Not a day passes when one of the academic experts aren’t insisting on fine-tuning the existing system, or advocating for more measures that impinge on our civil liberties. Maybe the policies have been more successful in New Zealand because there is better compliance, but this does not need to be excessively enforced. There was no need for the pre-emptive lockdown in the first place in Auckland, and the re-imposition of it after a single new case was a mistake. The so-called scientific experts don’t seem to acknowledge the damage done, including all the community events in other parts of the country that have had to be cancelled over the last two weeks. Talk about cancel culture!

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Chick Corea and Jazz-Rock Fusion in the 1970s.

It was sad to hear of the passing of the great jazz pianist, Chick Corea, yesterday. Though not a great jazz fan as such, I do have a thing for the Jazz-Rock fusion era in the 1970s, and certain other Fusion musicians who were adventurous at the time. Like many jazz musicians, Chick Corea was prolific, and it would be easy to overlook the Fusion phase, which sometimes seems a bit over the top. Indeed, strictly speaking, I would say that the style is exemplified by only three groups: Chick Corea’s Return to Forever; John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra; and Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House.

It is often said that all of key players in Fusion were alumni of the electric phase in Miles Davis’ career, from around 1969 to 1971, and focussing on the Bitches Brew LP. This is slightly misleading, as the relevant albums featured a number of keyboard players, such as Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, and Corea. Hancock and Zawinul’s later groups are usually included in Fusion, but the three groups I referred to above are all very much electric guitar oriented ensembles, and this aspect is not always to the taste of jazz fans. Whereas rock fans are attracted to the technique and speed of the Fusion players, in particular, McLaughlin, Coryell, and the Return to Forever players, Bill Connors then Al di Meola.

All of the main players appear on the early Larry Coryell LP, Spaces, with the characteristic cover art. Chick Corea only played on one track; and the bassist, Miroslav Vitous would then form Weather Report with Zawinul. John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham went on to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with Rick Laird on bass, Jerry Goodman played the violin, and Jan Hammer emerged with his unique keyboard style. The Mahavishnu Orchestra released two studio albums, and one extraordinary live album, called Between Nothingness and Eternity. The latter might be criticised for the length of the tracks, and McLaughlin over-playing, but the version of ‘Sister Andrea’ is a favourite. That group split in acrimony, and various solo albums followed, with Billy Cobham getting the critical acclaim for his Spectrum LP. This included a fantastic one off group featuring Cobham on percussion, Hammer on keyboards, Leland Sklar on bass, and Tommy Bolin on guitar (who subsequently joined Deep Purple in 1975). The track titled ‘Stratus’ is extraordinary, but there were also contributions by horn players. Cobham’s next LP, Crosswinds, featured the Brecker brothers on horns, and was closer to jazz than rock.

Meanwhile, Larry Coryell unveiled a fusion group called the Eleventh House, whose debut LP was released on the smaller Vanguard label in 1974. The album had Randy Brecker on horns, with Danny Trifan on bass, the blind keyboard player Mike Mandel on keyboards, and Alphonse Mouzon played percussion (he also went on to join Weather Report). In my view this LP is a tour de force, and may well be the best Fusion LP of them all, if not so well known. The follow up LP, Level One, was released on the Arista label in 1975, and featured Michael Lawrence on horns, and John Lee on bass. The remainder of the Eleventh House material, and outakes from the Spaces LP, appeared on the Planet End LP.

Finally to Chick Corea and his contribution to Fusion. Return to Forever was originally an LP title, before the music got more rock oriented, and the playing more elaborate. Corea and bandmates Lenny White on drums, and Stanley Clarke on bass, were all unique players. But the Fusion period also saw them get involved with Scientology, and dedicating their music to L. Ron Hubbard. The album cover art varied, and could be particularly garish, as with 1974’s Where Have I Known You Before. The high brow critics were rather bemused by Return to Forever, given the kind of style that they knew Corea could play in trad jazz. But with the arrival of the young Al di Meola on electric guitar they just got better and better, culminating in a move to a major label, Columbia, for the Romantic Warrior LP in 1976.

Both the cover art (by Wilson McLean) and the playing is great on this album, and listening again to it last night on re-mastered CD it sounded fantastic, but even as a period piece it holds up. Fusion could be over the top at times, with frenetic playing and over blown song titles, but for purely instrumental music it certainly holds the attention of the listener. After 1976 the main players formed different temporary combinations, such McLaughlin and di Meola playing acoustic guitars in the Spanish style; Jan Hammer appeared on many LPs, including playing with Jeff Beck, the other notable British guitarist. There was even a short-lived record label, Nemperor, that released solo LPs by Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, and two from Tommy Bolin before he died in 1976. But if there was only one album that combined all the elements of jazz-rock Fusion, with great cover art in the mid 1970s, it was Corea’s Romantic Warrior.

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New Zealand in the Global Pandemic: Exceptionalism or Luck

As we head into Christmas it is time for a brief reflection on the year. At the time of writing we are Covid-free in New Zealand. While new strains break out in the Northern hemisphere, we remain without community transmission. And as long as the border controls hold, and homecoming passengers stay in quarantine and don’t spread the virus, we can carry on with Christmas celebrations as normal. Lucky us.

So is it just luck? Does being the exception in the world over the last six months result largely from being an island nation a long way from the disease hot spots. And does that make us exceptional, at least in terms of our policy response, and the fact that the political leaders decided to go for an elimination strategy, with a total lockdown in March. There may have been elements of luck, especially when the virus got out of the quarantine area in Auckland, in late winter, and some carriers infected family members in the central North Island. That minor outbreak was contained effectively.

As we continue to watch the chaos in other countries, particularly in the English speaking world, it might feel like we are the exception, if not exceptional. Certainly, when we held an election, with no community Covid, and a very high turnout, there was an exceptional result for Jacinda Ardern. But people voted for the status quo. In other contries millions have still voted for right wing populists who have downplayed or even denied the Covid crisis, and continued to pursue their own agendas. The sight of foreign trucks queued up at Dover, in south east England, should be proof of the folly of Brexit, but still the English nationalists pursue it, despite the circumstances.

It is frankly hard to fathom what is going on in most countries in the northern hemisphere. They don’t even seem to be able to prevent their own leaders from contracting Covid 19. And then when they get the disease, and are to recover and carry on, nothing really changes. Is the policy response the same because they are ideologues, or that they don’t care about the death toll, and the damage to the health of survivors. What appears to be a fiasco in Britain, and the USA, hasn’t caused the social chaos that should have been the obvious consequence of letting the disease rip into urban areas.

Now the northern hemisphere relies on the rushed vaccine programme to create herd immunity, even as the virus mutates, and gets more virulent. How long can even more lives be lost to otherwise treatable disease. Here in New Zealand there will be ‘normal’ gatherings of family, sporting events, and even musical concerts and festivals. We can enjoy it for now, but until the global north gets on top of the Coronavirus we are not safe either, even when the vaccines are rolled out next year, assuming they arrive in bulk.

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Eat A Peach, Yankee Slickers

After one of the more bizarre elections in world history, attention remains fixed on the American state of Georgia. It is the only state that is in full recount mode, because, or despite of, there being a Republican Party member as the Governor. There hasn’t been this much attention on Georgia since 1976, when the then Governor, a Democrat, was about to become the POTUS.

Carter

The Governor, Jimmy Carter, is on the right of the photo. Next to him is Dickie Betts, guitarist in the Allman Brothers Band. To his right is Phil Walden, the founder of Capricorn Records, the label that introduced so-called ‘Southern Rock’. And next to him is Gregg Allman, of the Allman Brothers Band. Presumably, they were not discussing electoral results. Jimmy Carter went on to be a one term President; Dickie Betts came and went from the Allman Brothers band over the years; Phil Walden’s business empire collapsed in the late 1970s, taking out Capricorn Records; and Gregg got divorced (from Cher) not long after this was taken.

But Southern Rock lived on, mostly through the work of a band called Lynyrd Skynyrd. That band had not jumped on the Capricorn Records bandwagon. Instead, they were discovered by a Yankee Slicker, in the form Al Kooper, who managed to sign them to a big label, MCA Records. This put them in the big league, and thus had much more international exposure, allowing them to appear with big British bands like The Who. Skynyrd had much more Southern attitude than the Allmans: as they put it in the song ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, they loved the Republican Governor, and didn’t care about Watergate. Their leader, Ronnie van Sant, had the southern schtick, and the group played in front of the Confederate flag. But he was also no fool, and he soon parted company with the Yankee Slicker, once they had achieved a commercial breakthrough. Ronnie van Sant died in a plane crash in 1977, but the legend lives on, and the cash still flows every time ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ plays on classic rock radio around the world.

This was something of an allegory. You could call Donald Trump a Yankee Slicker, and a snake oil salesmen. Many in the news media like to do the old vox pops, and find a Trump supporter who believes every word he says. Maybe some are that gullible. But others are possibly just playing along, having launched their cultural posture back into prominence. Just like rock n’ roll was always Southern music, so are all real Americans.

Skynyrd

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New Zealand Election 2020: It’s all about Jacinda

This was meant to be a longer post about the New Zealand election, and how the MMP system might finally be working here. But it is shorter for two reasons. The first is that WordPress have changed the format for writing a post, which I can’t work out yet. And the second is that the election was all about Jacinda, and her celebrity status. With no Covid to worry about at the time of the election, Jacinda just went on walk-abouts, mostly in malls, with a coterie of security, media, and Labour MPs. The media just filmed each of these, while their other reporters found dissension in the official Opposition party. All the debates were between Jacinda and the Opposition leader, who was nowhere near as popular. End of story, pretty much, maybe policies next time.

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Music Festivals and help from ‘Perfect Strangers’

As certain publications celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Isle of Wight festival, one has to wonder whether we will ever see such musical gatherings again. They used to be all the rage, even here in New Zealand, where the tribes would gather at such places as Sweetwaters or Nambassa, in the North Island, for two or three days of drugs and music. I recall my cousin driving up from the South Island for such events in February, at the hottest time of the year, just as I was starting the school term. But, by the time I got to the age for going to such festivals, they were going out of fashion, or out of business.

In truth, I never did like such large gatherings of people, and even smaller concerts could be uncomfortable. I went to a so-called concert by Motorhead in Wellington, about 1984, and my hearing hasn’t been the same since, they were truly awful. At the time I was mostly into Deep Purple, and through my early years at secondary school this had become something of an obsession. My schoolmates and I were in some kind of a cult, even though Purple had long since disbanded in 1976. But the Purple brand was kept alive through all sorts of issues of compilation albums and unreleased live material.

Then in 1984 the classic Mark 2 line-up of Deep Purple re-formed, and released the Perfect Strangers LP. In truth, it was not great album, although the title track is certainly a good song, but the show was back on the road. And that meant a world tour, which included dates in Australia and New Zealand. In a documentary I recall the guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore, stating that he liked travelling, but not so much that he wanted to go down under. But Deep Purple, with Blackmore in tow, did make it in late 1984. And somehow me and my friend Eamon managed to get there, even though it took all of my savings to afford the ticket, and the cost of an all night train to Auckland and back.

I had unfortunately left the organisation of our accommodation in Auckland to Eamon and his parents. The venue for the concert was to be Western Springs, a motor-racing site that is quite close to central Auckland. However, we had arranged to stay at a house in the North Shore, which is over the harbour bridge. When we got into the train station in central Auckland, very early in the morning, we had to find a bus that could take us over the bridge. Any bus would do, but we got lucky with a driver that took us on a detour to get us close to the destination, when he should have gone the other way. The kindness of strangers continued when we got to our hosting house. It was meant to be the residence of Eamon’s father’s friend, whom Eamon had never met. But when we got there we found out that he had long left the family, and the result was that we were complete strangers.

They put us up anyway, while the man’s son explained to us what the situation was. He was bit older than us, and it turned out he was in a local rock/alternative group called the Screaming Mee Mees. Obviously Deep Purple was not his thing, but he took it upon himself to get us to the concert, which was quite a long journey. He also had to find us after the concert, but I can’t remember how he managed it. This was over and above the call of duty, and I only wish has musical career had not been so short lived. Our time at the concert did not start well, as we had to be checked when going in, and Eamon had tried to bring a camera in, so his roll of film was confiscated. My only other memory is that the band tried to play Smoke on the Water as an encore, but Ritchie Blackmore didn’t bother to come back out for it. He didn’t last that much longer in the band. Years later I was intending to see Deep Purple with a female friend, but she bailed out, so 1984 will probably be the only time I get to see them. I haven’t seen Eamon since he left school.

After the obsession with Deep Purple ended I picked up on other English groups from the 1970s, particularly the group known as Free. Free was big in 1970, and was one of the major acts at the Isle of Wight Festival that year, after All Right Now became a hit single. Photographs by Charles Everest were published this year in the Guardian:

free

This shows the singer Paul Rodgers trying to rev up the crowd, while the guitarist, Paul Kossoff, hits a no doubt anguished note. What a player Kossoff was, and what a mane of hair he had, especially as he was really quite short in stature. I’m not sure why Kossoff is not mentioned in the same category as Peter Green, especially in terms of technique, but his time was short. Koss died in 1976 on a trans-Atlantic flight, after some years of drug abuse. Paul Rodgers went on to form Bad Company, and achieve success in the U.S.A.

I also can’t resist including this photo of Clive Bunker, from the 1970 festival, the original drummer in Jethro Tull, when the group could really play:

bunker

Tull obviously had the advantage of playing at night, and having adequate lighting for the gig. This could not be said of the The Doors, who played one of their last gigs at the Isle of Wight festival, and didn’t bring any of their own lighting. As shown in a documentary of their performance, they relied predominately on one red light most of the time. In fact, this seems to have led them to kind of huddle together, in what was a performance of great concentration, where they found a really intense groove in the extended improvised tracks. That was last time we would see Jim Morrison; and, of course, it was (virtually) the last time that Jimi Hendrix would perform. The end of an era, even if it was still the beginning of the rock music culture, such as it was.

 

 

 

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Not Forgetting the Engineer: Martin Birch

Not a day seems to go by when some important figure from the music world, as it emerged in the 1960s and 70s, passes away. Following Peter Green, and of the most relevance to me was Martin Birch, not a musician, but recording engineer for Fleetwood Mac and many other English rock groups. Such is the cultural power of that period in music that even an engineer can be mourned, despite the fact that he retired from the role about 30 years ago, aged 42. He was actually a bit younger than Green and most of the other musicians he worked with early on, so got the dream job at a very young age.

It was certainly the age of the young artist, and Martin Birch was described as the catalyst for much of the music, particularly the rise of Deep Purple. In the press he was described as a ‘heavy metal producer’, due to his work with Iron Maiden. But we can forgive him for that. He should be remembered for his role in a run of classic LPs in the early 1970s, beginning with Deep Purple in Rock in 1970, and the period in which he also engineered for Fleetwood Mac and Wishbone Ash. My interest here is to look at a few of these albums, and try to see them as a particular genre, not the forerunner of ‘heavy metal’. Birch was so busy in 1971 and 72 it must be seen as a kind of peak of British rock.

Fleetwood Mac continued on without Peter Green after he left in 1970, with Birch being the engineer for Green’s solo album End of the Game, and the Mac LP Kiln House. Then Jeremy Spencer left for a religious cult, leaving Danny Kirwan as leader, and they recruited American guitarist, Bob Welch. Welch wrote the title track for the next LP, Future Games, and added his particular songwriting touch to that of Kirwan and Christine McVie. The track ‘Future Games’ is a strange one, and rather long, with Welch’s multi-tracked vocal kind of buried in the mix, and with various over-dubbed guitar parts that sometimes seem out of place. It’s hard to believe that Martin Birch would have mixed it that way as the actual producer, but it was the early seventies after all. Mac went on to release Bare Trees in 1972, which I think is a great album, with all three songwriters on great form. Danny Kirwan’s guitar instrumental ‘Sunny Side of Heaven’ is truly beautiful, no doubt assisted by Martin Birch’s recording of the guitar tracks.

‘Bare Trees’ is an another guitar-laden track with some perfunctory vocal lines, but with a clear theme. Danny Kirwan was something of a master of a kind of autumnal feel in his songs, a shame I can’t describe it any better. But there is a clear similarity to the music of Wishbone As in this period. This was another twin guitar group, without any keyboards, and with most vocals handled by bass player, Martin Turner. Their 1971 LP Pilgrimage appears with stylized cover art of an old bare tree, and contains a number of moody instrumentals, in which the lead guitars of Andy Powell and Ted Turner weave around each other. This distinctive guitar style was honed even further on the classic album that followed, Argus, which had a kind of ancient warrior theme happening on the second side. There is also a very distinctive LP cover designed by the Hipgnosis guys.

argus

Argus is the most well known LP by Wishbone Ash in a long career, and is closely associated with the twin lead guitar approach, and with Martin Birch. Along with Bare Trees, it comes from the same period as Deep Purple’s Machine Head, perhaps the best album in the British rock genre. It’s well known that Birch was in charge of the Rolling Stone mobile recording unit that was based in Montreux, Switzerland, in the middle of winter in 1971. As described in ‘Smoke on the Water’, Deep Purple ended up in an empty hotel for the recording session, and came up with some long-lived gems, such as Highway Star, Space Truckin and Lazy. Of course, Purple only had one guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore, a man who could not have played with any other guitarist, and he wasn’t that keen on vocalists either. It was not long before vocalist Ian Gillan left, and while the follow up, Who do we think We are, wasn’t as successful, it still has a great sound.

In fact, the recording of those four Purple LPs changed fairly clearly over time. The breakthrough album, In Rock, has a deliberately raw sound. It’s almost as if Birch was still a novice at this point, not able to use all the tracks available in the studio; or, perhaps, that he didn’t use the latest technology. Though I’m not an expert on these things, sometimes it seems that groups did try to use all the tracks they could, and end up with a song that is too busy, a possible criticism of some of Bob Welch’s stuff. But In Rock sounded like a group in a hurry, with a live feel to the recording. The first side is one of the classics in rock: going from Speed King into Bloodsucker; and then the epic Child in Time, where Jon Lord’s organ playing has a classical feel, before we get to Ian Gillan’s so-called ‘silver throated’ screaming, and Blackmore’s extended guitar solo (then a reprise of Gillan’s screams). But what a tour de force the album is, and even if the second side is less memorable, it still has momentum, ending with Hard Loving Man. And with iconic cover art.

in rock

One of the interesting things about the Deep Purple albums in this period, and the Wishbone Ash LPs, was the format chosen. All the Purple LPs have seven songs, and with one side of three songs, it allows for an extended track. This usually worked well, except perhaps on the album that followed In Rock, called Fireball, which has a bit of a throwaway song, Anyone’s Daughter, ending side one; and then the second side loses its momentum in the middle track, The Mule. Ritchie Blackmore has suggested that the band had let the standards slip on Fireball, but it nonetheless still went to the top of the charts in Britain. Birch continued to produce for Purple until its temporary demise in 1976, the year that he worked with Blackmore’s new group Rainbow, producing the Rainbow Rising LP, which included Stargazer, recorded with the Munich symphony orchestra (something Blackmore was not usually keen on). And another iconic cover.

220px-RainbowRainbowRising

Rainbow also included the American singer Ronnie James Dio, who lasted in the group until 1978. He then replaced Ozzy Osbourne in Black Sabbath for two LPs, both produced by Martin Birch. These did not sound that much like the classic Black Sabbath, but were more melodic, and closer to Birch’s early 70s guitar sound than the Ozzy era band. But it also meant that Birch became the so-called heavy metal producer, and Iron Maiden called. So what to say about Birch: you lucky man, well played old son, a glorious career.

 

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Musicians as cultural icons: Peter Green

Guitarist and songwriter Peter Green died in London a week ago, and I have been going back through my Fleetwood Mac records, and Peter Green CDs since then. I have tried to find an iconic photo, and have chosen this one, probably from 1969:

eight_col_Peter_Green

Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac were huge in 1969, as he released his spellbinding singles from Albatross to the scarifying Green Manalishi (with the Two-pronged Crown). Green had actually moved on from being something of a blues purist, during the blues boom specific to British music at the time, but, like some of the old style black musicians of an earlier era, was obviously still haunted by something, which he could not quite express. This is despite the rather obvious lyrical content of songs like Man of the World.

Anyway, 1969 was the big year in rock music internationally, and was of course when Woodstock and other things made certain figures into cultural icons. It was also the year before Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died, and the cult figure was established as a youthful sacrifice of sorts. But in England the end of the 1960s became the moment of the genius as drug casualty, something that may have been true of Syd Barrett, and has been assumed to be true of Peter Green. Most of the reports and obituaries in the press just have to mention Green taking LSD and it all falling apart. Even some sympathetic writers and fans accept this version of events, even though it involves some exaggeration and distortion. One would expect the media to do this, even music magazines such as Mojo had one of its first issues include articles on both Barrett and Green, and the madness.

These articles were in 1994, but by 1997 Peter Green was back playing live, and though the same old cliches were still being written, the reviews had to note the enthusiasm of the crowd for their lost hero. And the fact that he could still play guitar in style, only somewhat diminished by age and all the turmoil of the interceding years. I too was pleased to hear of his comeback, and bought some of the new releases from Peter Green’s Splinter Group. Green was assisted by his friend Nigel Watson on guitar, and they managed to recruit one of Britain’s best rhythm sections in the form of Neil Murray (bass) and Cozy Powell (drums). Powell had played with some of the other English axe heroes, such as Jeff Beck and Ritchie Blackmore, and didn’t last too long. On the night that the Splinter Group was recording their Soho Session live, Cozy Powell died in a car crash near his home aged 50. It seems that some kind of jinx still haunted this music.

However, Peter Green’s new group mostly played the American blues music that had so entranced young white men with six string guitars in the 1960s. This involved both the acoustic country blues of the 1930s, as exemplified by Robert Johnson, and the urban electric blues from Chicago, especially the so-called West side version, mainly created by Otis Rush. Peter Green’s Splinter Group did useful versions of Robert Johnson songs, but it was the urban blues of Otis Rush that remained the core of the set, including classics like It Takes Time and Homework. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers had played the West side songs in the mid 1960s, with the young Eric Clapton on guitar, as well as Freddie King instrumentals; and Green of course replaced Clapton in the Bluesbreakers. Green’s Fleetwood Mac had even gone to Chess Records’ studio in Chicago, in early 1969, and recorded with some of the side musicians there, including a great version of Rush’s Homework. Fast forward to 1997 and Green could still play the song in that way.

There was always something odd about those young English white boys taking the old blues music back to America, with an added dose of enthusiasm and technique. Green and company could play the music, but did not sound like black blues men in timbre or phrasing. Yet it was Green most of all, who tried to understand more about it than say groups like Led Zeppelin, who used songs and blues phrases without crediting the original authors. But as players the Fleetwood Mac guitarists, Green, Jeremy Spencer, and Danny Kirwan, did contribute to the remaining blues cannon, such as it was in the late 1960s when the music was actually in decline in the black community. Green and company played on new LPs by Eddie Boyd, and the pianist Otis Spann, on an album called The Biggest Thing Since Collossus. These sessions were set up by the English producer Mike Vernon, whose Blue Horizon label gave some new opportunities to some of the older black players. Indeed, Otis Spann actually died not long after his LP was released.

It’s true that my Splinter Group CDs had been gathering dust for some time, though I listen to early Fleetwood Mac quite regularly. But listening to this 1997 incarnation is a pleasure, and the music still swings. Though his voice did deteriorate, Green could now sing the blues, and sound affected. It was actually his famous Fleetwood Mac songs that didn’t sound quite right. In truth, the young white guys put the rock into blues music, when it was only an element of the Chicago blues, and was exemplified by Otis Rush, one of the more unlucky of the black performers in terms of (not) being recorded in his prime. If one wants to hear rock meeting the blues full on, then there are the recordings of Fleetwood Mac at the Boston Tea Party in early 1970. Green and Danny Kirwan’s guitars duel on Black Magic Woman, and harmonise in other songs, while Jeremy Spencer really plays slide guitar on Can’t Hold Out and a swinging version of Madison Blues. But it is the ferocity of Green’s playing in the Green Manalishi which is astounding, certainly that of a man possessed, if not in anguish. If you like heavy blues playing that was it, there and then, but not a space which most players should want to get into, or could again. So Peter Green joins Danny Kirwan, lost souls but never to be forgotten.

 

 

 

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Seismic shifts and political earthquakes

Back to politics again. But first, it is the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere today, and I woke up at 6am to a rumbling earthquake. It turned out not to be a big earthquake, by our standards, but it was close by. And it came a couple of weeks after two rather larger ones off the west coast of the North Island, jolting the Wellington region. Just as we are enjoying the post-Covid 19 freedoms, and the ability to shop in actual shops now, there are natural disasters to worry about again.

Usually if I wake up early enough I try to catch the Sky News bulletin that is screened live on the Australian Sky News channel overnight. Of course, this is mostly to catch up on the political news in Britain, before reading the Guardian on-line later in the day. But it is rather difficult to watch British news now, for obvious reasons, but not just because of the pandemic and other losses of life. It is rather irritating watching the bumbling right wing ideologues pretending to be world-beating leaders, whether in Westminster or Washington. Yet, despite the obvious fiasco taking place, the Conservatives still lead on.

Certain sections of the international media like to focus on New Zealand, or, more particularly, Jacinda Ardern, our Prime Minister. In the first place this is because of the elimination of Covid-19 here, and the accessibility of a leader speaking to the public without the baffling waffle and nonsense that conservative white men offer. Of course there was a bit of a wobble this week, when two women returning from the UK were let out of quarantine and turned out to have the virus, after not being tested while they were in their luxury hotel accommodation. There were also questions for the health administrators, after they claimed that the women drove from Auckland to Wellington without having to stop for petrol or for other reasons. It actually takes 9 hours to do this drive and I always have to re-fuel somewhere when I take the trip. But after these questions were raised Jacinda stepped in and the right corrective measures were taken.

Jacinda Ardern was already riding high in the opinion polls before the Covid crisis, but this was based on personal popularity. Her Labour Party was not the most preferred party, it had been the conservative National Party, which had lost the last election even though it had the higher party list vote than the Labour Party. But because of the pandemic crisis, and the visibility of the Prime Minister, the Labour Party’s polling has been surging past that of National. It’s leader had never really registered as a preferred Prime Minister, so he has been replaced without having fought an election, with another right wing man from the provinces taking over. The only question is whether Jacinda’s personal popularity will translate into a majority in the party vote. The next election has been called for September, and it seems unlikely that National can form a government.

But New Zealand has a proportional representation system, and no single party has ever got a clear parliamentary majority since the change in the electoral system was made in 1996. The point here is that, even if one party did achieve this milestone, they would actually choose to include other parties, either as coalition partners, or through having a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement. This has been the preferred arrangement for the National Party, which always seems to think that it wins by having more seats than Labour. It looks like they will have the biggest reduction in the party vote since 2002, when Helen Clark won a second term very easily. But Clark sought out a coalition partner to her right, and shunned the Green Party, which has always been to the left of Labour. At the moment that is the status quo, although the Green Party has a confidence and supply agreement, as well as having some minor ministerial portfolios.

Now the international media see Jacinda Ardern and Labour as a centre-left party, but this is only relative to the National Party, which is usually in government. The New Zealand Labour Party is not a socialist party, as the British Labour party has been, at least while Mr Corbyn was leader. In fact, the term ‘socialist’ is very seldom heard in Wellington. There may be some individuals who call themselves socialists in the Labour Party, but they are not MPs. This is because of a seismic shift in the late 1980s, when the fourth Labour Government implemented Thatcherite policies, including a very dodgy privatisation programme. The result was that the left of the party broke away as individuals, with some outsiders, to form New Labour (which later formed an alliance with the nascent Green party). The trade union movement did not support the break, but was decimated by legislation introduced after the National Party won a landslide election in 1990. And it was the National Party which changed the electoral system, after a referendum in 1993, for retaining First Past the Post, or creating a proportional system.

I recently read a comment on the Labour List website, in which someone named Ollie Middleton was singing the praises of Jacinda Ardern, and suggesting there were lessons to be learned by the UK Labour Party. There were some nice words here, but mostly some misinterpretation of events in New Zealand. Middleton suggested that Ardern had pursued a radical domestic policy agenda. This is not really true. She was not able to implement a capital gains tax measure, even at the height of her popularity; and even if she had a radical agenda, her coalition partner (called New Zealand First) has been putting the brakes on. Her one large policy promise involved a large house-building programme, based on heroic assumptions about what the building industry could do, and which has already failed and been largely curtailed. Back to the drawing board then.

In fact, the significance of the Ardern phenomena is not about policies at all, it is based on the ability to respond to crisis events, and rally the public to her side. Or just her popularity in opinion polls. This would be the lesson for the Labour Party in Britain when it chose a new leader. But instead, the Labour Party there chose a safe option, Sir Keir Starmer, a competent and solid performer in Parliament, when they could have gone for a woman from up North. It seems that their major concern is the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2019 election, judging by the Labour Together Election Review that has just been published. It essentially blames Corbyn for the loss and, implicity, his version of British socialism.

It is easy to be critical of this document from afar, but the analysis is deeply flawed. It also seems to assume that there is still a two party system, even when it acknowledges that the SNP control most of the Scottish seats. It claims that it is not impossible for Labour to win a parliamentary majority, but it looks incredibly unlikely under the First Past the Post system, which appears to be set in stone. While it is navel-gazing at Labour’s campaigning problems it ignores the seismic shift that seemed to occur in 2014-15, when the Scottish Nationalists almost swept all the other parties away. While the nationalists are in power in Edinburgh, Labour cannot expect to form a majority in UK elections again, with the ‘English Nationalism’ of the Tories still relevant to the white working class. Having a Labour Government in Wales is about the best it seems able to do.

The really extraordinary thing in this election review is how much Labour are in thrall to the Conservative Party, and not just because of the trauma of losing the ‘red wall’ seats in the north of England. The analysis is that there is a long term trend of Labour losing working class seats to the Tories, outside of the big cities, and university towns. This is portrayed as a kind of inexorable process, where there are even more seats that could be lost, and despite the incompetence of the current Conservative government. The really amazing thing is the idea that the good result under Corbyn’s leadship, in the 2017 general election, somehow ‘masked’ the underlying demographic trend. The goodish result in 2017 was only because the public didn’t really know a lot about Corbyn; or the view of the right faction within Labour was that voters who stayed with Labour did so in the expectation that Corbyn could not win anyway. This does not explain how Labour won so many Tory held seats in 2017. It also does not explain how Corbyn’s Labour managed to hold on to seats that were gained in 2019, some very narrowly, but others comfortably in the south of England. And if the Liberal Democrats had been able to win more seats off the Conservatives in their former strongholds in the south west the overall result would look rather different. But the Liberal Democrats gained over 1 million more votes without winning any more seats at all; and there are still half a million Labour voters in Scotland who are left unrepresented, apart from one seat in Edinburgh.

In any other country, without an archaic electoral system, winning an extra 1 million votes would have been a triumph. Not in dear old Blighty though, where 43% of the overall vote is good for a landslide win. If the British were to learn anything from its former colonies like New Zealand it would be about how to create a modern electoral system, and one which reflects representation of a multi-ethnic society. And if the British Labour Party were to learn anything from Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Party, it would have been to take a chance on a female leader, and to no longer expect to have to win an absolute parliamentary majority before getting into government again. And it is not just the different electoral system that makes this possible.

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The so-called Lockdown is not actually over in New Zealand

New Zealand has gained some more publicity after the Prime Minister announced that the so-called Lockdown was over, and the coronavirus Covid-19 has been ‘eliminated’. Contrary to this public relations, the lockdown actually continues, and it is doubtful whether ‘community transmission’ ever occurred here, in the way that it swept across other countries. When I said we had been lucky in the previous post this has continued, if the virus had not got into some rest homes the death toll would still be in single figures. The number of people in intensive care has always been in single figures; and while some care workers and a few nurses got he virus, it has only been fatal for elderly people with underlying conditions. Was this good luck, or good policy management. Time will tell. The lockdown was imposed in a panic measure because of what was happening overseas to other health systems, and because a viable testing practice was not in place.

On a personal level the lockdown continues. I’ve been based north of Wellington on the Kapiti Coast, trying to look after a difficult octogenerian, while my mother is alone in our family apartment in the city. In principle, at the new level 3 form of lockdown, I can only go back to Wellington if I can prove to a police checkpoint that I live there (this is more difficult than it seems), and it is a single journey; and my mother would have to come  back up north, and stay here until level 3 ends. So the only change is that the aging octogenerian can go to the shops when likes, and I could go back to work if I still had a job.

So the central part of the day is my bike ride to the Waikanae River, and a bench seat with this view, looking towards Waikanae. It’s been fine, and could be worse I suppose.

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