/ In a silent way, Mo’ Wax, 1993
While plenty of poetry has been set as Lieder in the classical world, I’ve always found it surprising that more isn’t set to pop music. (Perhaps it is. Perhaps there are endless prog epics which borrow Poe poems to deepen their effect or diminish their pomposity and dozens of obscure post-punk salvos which concentrate their discharge through vorticist stanzas.) To a non-musician who wonders whether some instrumental work-outs might have been saved or enlivened both structurally and imaginatively by the addition of words, it seems an obvious thing to do, but I guess if you’re a musician working in the field of mood, atmosphere, beats, your instrument will dominate the final work and vocals are a non- or side issue. Maybe you feel you have no facility with words, or no need of them, or never got exposed to poetry in a way that led you back to it on the shelves of second-hand bookshops.
There has always been plenty of talk about whether the lyrics of pop songs can be classed as poetry, how they stand when stripped of their music, or who would win in a no holds barred fight between Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas. Indeed, back at the end of last century, the Poetry Society published The message: crossing the tracks between poetry and pop which went way beyond these staid discussions and addressed thornier issues, such as whether Morrissey is more epigrammatist than lyricist, let alone poet, and whether the meaning of pop is in any case to be found not in its lyrics but in its noise. But even this little pocketful of ideas didn’t have much to say about the setting of poetry to pop music. Off the top of my head I can only think of the Blue Orchids swirling use of Yeats’ ‘Mad as the mist and snow’ and Syd Barrett giving Joyce’s ‘Golden hair’ just the right touch of eerie strangeness, benefiting enormously from words we can be reasonably sure were not written under the lasting effects of too much acid. 2-0 to psychedelia.
For Palm Skin Productions’ setting of Louis MacNeice’s 1938 poem ‘The sunlight on the garden’, we enter musical terrain governed by a different drug. Let the sleeve notes, probably the work of Mo’ Wax founder James Lavelle, be our guide:
‘Midnight at Palmskin HQ and all is quiet. Freshly brewed grooves bubble gently in deep vats and sweet clouds of herbal harmony fill the air. The pinprick studio lights mix with flickering torches in a warm glow as the refrain curls out of the speakers in a hypnotic snake dance. Chatter and noise flow like a tide through the city, but up in the pastures the music is heard in a silent way.’
Palm Skin Productions was essentially Simon Richmond, who also recorded for Mo’ Wax as Bubbatunes, and is currently a member of the Bays. For tries at Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul’s ‘In a silent way’, he was joined by saxophonist Chris Bowden, who had already enlivened the fast and frantic ‘Spock with a beard’ (an earlier B side also available on the Mo’ Wax compilation Royaltie$ overdue) with breakneck, helter-skelter playing.
The version of ‘In a silent way’ on the A side is ‘phat’, to use the now quaint word inscribed on most every Mo’ Wax sleeve. Palm Skin was typical of Mo’ Wax partnerships, which were forged and dissolved seemingly at random, like Rafael Benitez’ midfield and attacking pairings for Liverpool. Bowden had already played with Talkin’ Loud’s K-Creative and would go on to lend his distinctive hand to the works of Jessica Lauren, Jhelisa Anderson, 4Hero, Basement Jaxx, and the Herbaliser. He also recorded a solo long player, Time capsule for Soul Jazz and this year has returned as part of the Tomorrow Band on 3 to get ready with minimal interpretations of standards, including ‘Freddie Freeloader’, so coming full circle.
‘Sunlight’ is very much a counterbalance to ‘Spock with a beard’. The garden comes into view with a skittering rhythm, a deep and thoughtful bass line, and a shooting flash of kingfisher colour across the established sombre shades as Rhoda Dakar, who also graced the Special AKA’s ‘(What I like most about you is your) girlfriend’, sings the opening verses of MacNeice’s poem. In its easeful intricacy it manages to be both thanksgiving and ominous.
‘The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon…’
Then in with its lowest honk comes Chris Bowden’s soprano sax, a heavier fowl on the brook which meanders its way diagonally across the garden of the song.
Together with the meditative second take on ‘In a silent way’ into which ‘Sunlight’ feeds, you have a perfect slice of vinyl, to sit and listen to in the deep shade from the enchanted hundred year hedge of conifers surrounding your castle. And before the music fades, depending upon how the poem lands, whether it soothes or cuts, you will find yourself entwined in ivy or wrapped in wisteria, perhaps also wondering why more poetry isn’t set to pop music.