Helen Lane

There was a very popular book in the early 1970s called Supernature, by Lyall Watson. It documented uncanny natural phenomena and, among other things, told the story of Helen Lane, whose real name was Henrietta Lacks, an American woman who died in 1951 of cancer. Some of her cells were isolated and cultured in the laboratory after her death, and to everyone’s surprise proved far more vigorous than normal, surviving even to this day, and, according to Watson, blithely overriding most anticontamination procedures in order to take over other cultures and even turn up in laboratories in different continents.

In 1981 we wrote a song about all this and called it Helen Lane. Looking on wiki, I see that a couple of other songs have come along since, plus a lot more recognition of the HeLa cell line, as it’s called, and of course recognition of Henrietta herself for providing the cells that have gone on to be used in all sorts of medical research. I hope no-one thinks we’re jumping on a bandwagon, but at the same time, if anyone’s about to put together a compilation of great HeLa songs, perhaps they’ll give this one a listen.

Sacred Cow

You have lots of ideological arguments when you’re a student, but my main memory of them from the late 1970s was not the particular ideologies we argued about but the fact that you could express an idea, or refer to something, in one of two ways: either by avoiding buzzwords and clichés as much as possible (which usually meant finding a new way to talk about familiar and often contentious ideas so as to forestall a long and boring conditioned reflex) or…by not avoiding them, and sitting out the consequences.

I can’t actually remember any examples of buzzwords from that time, only their inflammatory effect on a discussion. But it had to be a discussion about something massively important to at least one party for the effect to happen. When it comes to sacred cows, it never pays to take the bull by the horns. Find some udder way…

The Be Good Tanyas – Royal Northern College of Music, 1/2/13

Stately, chilled, unassuming, minimalist, half-awake, intimate, magical, even a bit fey…these were some of the words that came to mind as I watched two-thirds of the Be Good Tanyas perform at the RNCM, helped out by their good friend Caroline Ballhorn. She stood in for the remaining Tanya, Sam Parton, who was still recovering from a car-crash. The core of their rhythm engine tonight was the acoustic guitar, played either by lead singer Frazey Ford, or by multi-instrumentalist Trish Klein (when she’s not playing harmonica, banjo, or electric guitar), and augmented by upright bass and brushed drums. When Sam’s around, mandolin and extra guitar and vocals get added to the mix.

I first heard the BGTs years ago on Andy Kershaw’s recommendation on Radio 3, always worth listening to if only to hear him give that explosive emphasis to the third word of their name: “And next week I’ll be playing you some more from the Be Good TANyas”. Ever since Frazey Ford’s mothwing of a voice first came fluttering out of my speakers, brushing against the cheek like warm breath on a stifling velvet-black summer night, I’ve loved their earthy but spare and elegant music. Her consonants are occasionally only barely discernible, but somehow it doesn’t bother me, because the vocal sound, especially when harmonised by the other two voices, is just so creamy and spellbinding.

Even on a bare stage, it felt as if they were really playing in the sort of funky, quirkily-furnished house you imagine the Tanyas (like the Monkees) inhabit together, with the odd harmonium or antique standard lamp, a cat strolling past the drum kit, and Manchester outside being replaced by the windswept Canadian prairie. However, that’s because I’m acquainted with all of their output, whereas a new listener might wonder what the fuss is about: they concentrated, rather unrepresentatively, on the stately, chilled end of things and largely ignored (despite requests) their earlier, more upbeat, and more instantly captivating stuff.

That’s their privilege, of course, and perhaps they’re just sick of playing “The Littlest Birds” and “It’s Not Happening”, but the current tour is to promote a best-of collection which includes some of the early material, so you’d think….Ah well, maybe it’s because they’re not fully up to strength instrumentally given Sam Parton’s absence. And you get the feeling that advising the Be Good Tanyas is a bit like telling smoke what to do. The result, with the songs tending to blur together a little, was an extremely pleasant (if occasionally soporific) night’s work.


A band in instalments

There’s a short story by the science-fiction writer James Tiptree Jr. (less well-known as Alice Bradley Sheldon) called The Man Who Walked Home. The man in the title, after a cataclysmic particle-accelerator mishap, was flung several million years into the future. It’s hard to say in what physical form he survived, but from his point of view he was alive and trying to make his way back home.

Several decades later, after Earth’s population had somewhat renewed itself, a few people finally happened to be in the neighbourhood where the figure of the man made his annual one-second-long apparition as a flailing giant accompanied by thunder.

Several more decades passed, during which a cult slowly grew up around the yearly event, and it dawned on the faithful that the man was actually speaking. A couple of centuries later, technology had recovered enough to provide a primitive sound-and-vision recorder and the long task of assembling the man’s message in agonisingly short bursts had begun. Scarcely a couple of decades more had elapsed when some of the elders realised that they were witnessing the man’s message backwards.

At long last, they could start to make some sense out of the strange sounds they’d been hearing.

The Boo-Hooray Theory are slightly more organised than that – their gigs are played forwards and last considerably more than a second.