Eliot & Orlando

I am sitting here as the direct result of Brian Blessed singing in a leotard 28 years ago.

The London Library’s new wing, TS Eliot House, opened this morning. As I came in at 9.30am, I was told by the staff that I’m the very first member to use it. The redevelopment is still very much ongoing: so far there’s just this Wifi enabled Temporary Reading Room, which looks out onto quiet little Mason’s Yard. It’s a view dominated by the White Cube gallery, that towering, slightly menacing sugar lump of the London art scene. But just one room in the new wing is enough to get me excited. Walking through the familiar old stacks of the main Library – Fiction, 2nd Floor – then stepping through a previously hidden door into the Eliot annexe, I’m breathless with anticipation. It might as well be a childhood birthday. What kind of a person gets excited over library annexes?

TS Eliot House has been named not just to honour the great poet and former Library President, but also to mark his widow Valerie’s gift of £2.5 million from his royalties. It’s the single largest donation to the Library, which exists without state funding. And of course, the lion’s share of Eliot royalties these days is not from sales of The Waste Land but from the enormously successful Lloyd-Webber musical Cats, based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats. It opened in 1981 with Brian Blessed and Elaine Paige in the original cast of warbling felines, all decked out in furry leotards.

There’s also some new toilets in the Eliot block. Very modern and shiny, with a range of pretty multi-coloured floor tiles designed by the Turner prize-winning artist Martin Creed. The lightbulb man. As I try the loos out, mindful of who paid for them, I think of that schoolboy anagram of the poet’s name: toilets.

More seriously, though, and as it’s the New Year and a time for resolutions and self-reflection, I muse on that famous line from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:  ‘I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.’ So arresting, so sad, and so sobering. How one’s life gets measured out one way or another whatever you do, and how you’d better make sure it’s measured in something you’re happy with. Or at least, don’t mind too much.

So for 2009, the plan is to try to take charge of the year, rather than just let the year happen. I won’t say yes to doing something out of sheer politeness any more. I spent too much of 2008 agreeing to things, only to find myself pacing Archway Road for weeks afterwards in a blind fury, scolding myself for committing to a project or booking I didn’t actually want to do, whether it was a DJ gig or a music gig, or a writing gig where I wasn’t in the least bit interested in the subject matter (and in the case of reviews, I’ve done more than enough for a CV anyway).


Something I have been asked to do recently is to talk about the Orlando album, Passive Soul. Thanks to Tim Chipping and his Herculean persistence, it’s now been given a digital reissue on iTunes, making it officially available for the first time in ten years. He also ensured the album comes topped up with all the b-sides from the same period. Including demos and a cover of the Kenickie track ‘Acetone’.

A quick Google reveals that the album often has a kind of flattering default opinion hovering about it, with people on message boards using it in arguments to show off their knowledge of Great Lost Albums Of The 90s. Which is fine by me, though obviously I’m biased. Regardless, it did pretty well with the proper critics on its release in 1997. NME gave the album 8/10, while Melody Maker included it in their Top 20 Albums Of The Year.

And at about 4AM on January 1st 2009, while staggering drunkenly outside the Boogaloo, I am stopped by a young couple.

‘Are you Dickon Edwards? We’re big Orlando fans…’

It’s the first time I’ve been recognised as Dickon From Orlando in years.

I’ve also just remembered that ‘Prufrock’ is half-quoted in an Orlando song, ‘Contained’ (‘In this life that is measured out / in bus stops and rain’).

Is it a sign of things coming together? Well, it’s a reminder I should write about the album.

Here’s the link to Passive Soul on iTunes:

Tim wants to know how I feel about the songs now, particularly the lyrics. I’d quite like to know too. Let’s find out. Off we go with the iPod…

Furthest Point Away
Hah – this now makes me think of the Go Team, of all people… A case of throwing everything into the mix at once. Dexys, soul records, Spector bluster. Lyrically – the misanthropic socialist, wanting a revolution as long as it doesn’t mean talking to people – and ‘soul-cialist’, too. ‘A wink begets a sigh / you won’t pre-empt so why should I’ is pure Edwyn Collins verbose camp. Am I playing guitar on this one? Probably struggling if I am.

Just For A Second
Great pop song, forged by the producer of Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’. Definitely playing guitar on this one – weird, out of time chords strummed upside down. Fantastic vocal performance from Tim. ‘Through no real fault of your own / You were born with a withering tone / You’re out on the town / Making people impress you” is actually more Fosca than Orlando. Going out to impress or trying to impress people is one thing, MAKING others impress YOU is a less expected line. So I’m showing off  on the lyrics front with little bits of wordplay and arch reversal, at the risk of losing the listener.

Nature’s Hated
Prefer the more raw demo version (included with the reissue) but only slightly. Excellent contrast to ‘Furthest Point’ in the arrangement, as it lets the song breathe. The self-pitying in the words grates with me now. Very much a younger Dickon’s lyric. I’m no less free from bouts of feeling sorry for myself these days, but back then even my miserableness had a certain naïve charm. I envy his youth – what right has he to moan with skin that good?

On Dry Land
Never cared for this at the time. Probably out of vanity: I just supplied the words while Tim came up with the music entirely separately (no idea how to play it myself), but today it sounds right up my street…The kind of record I’d track down if it wasn’t by a band I was in. Brilliant stuff. A real 70s musical feel to the music. Stephen Schwartz, A Chorus Line, Paul Williams…

Okay, this is pretty much one of the best things I’ve ever helped to make. Please, please, download this if you download any one Orlando track. No false modesty here. A ton of influences (TS Eliot as mentioned, but also Billy Bragg, Curtis Mayfield, Prince, The Beatles’ ‘For No One’, The Style Council, Jimmy Webb). Tim sings his heart out, I actually play the guitar without falling over.

Afraid Again
The album is just showing off now. Excellent songs, beautifully realised. I remember coming up with the main riff on guitar, and Tim transferred it to a synth. Very much the  sound of a band who are free from external fashions. Actually, it sounds a bit like Take That are NOW – dreamy, mature pop without being cloying.

Happily Unhappy
This completes the trilogy of ‘showing off’ songs. I came up with the chords in my Bristol bedsit when learning the guitar for the first time. I think I was trying to learn a Carpenters number, and ended up with this flowing ditty instead. Lyrics are a bit lazy – apart from the bit about thinking too much all the time. That’s actually quite a strange thing to hear in a pop song. Of course, that’s the narrator’s dilemma – his mind is out of sync with his heart, and he can’t even relax his own words into the simple language of a ballad.

Don’t Sleep Alone
A rather raunchy sentiment by my standards… Lyrics are rather like late Abba, in that aloof and disdainful way of commenting on a relationship, or the want of one. Fabulous brass solo. Anyone got Mark Ronson’s phone number? Nods to Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’ in the lyrics towards the end.

Save Yourself
Very much Late Orlando. Thoroughly fed up with all things, and angry with it. Uneasy and personal listening for me – I can hear barbed remarks of the day set down here – from letters, from arguments.

Three Letters
The darkest and most selfish lyric I’ve written, brilliantly arranged by Tim into a desolate torch song turn. Gripping, cathartic.

Here, So Find Me
The one with the big orchestra, Tim outdoing McAlmont & Butler. My position in the band at this point was pretty much faxing lyrics to the studio then going back to bed. Lyrics are about walking the most dangerous possible streets on purpose – hoping to be mugged or worse, purely to get some kind of human contact. Proper orchestration rather than just turning the keyboard bits into strings. Closing piano is sublime.

The secret track. A cover of the Shelley track from the Sarah Records EP. A surprise from Tim to me.

And of the B-sides:

Something To Write Home About
A very shy song, very proudly sung by Tim. KG RIP.

Orlando do TLC-style R&B. Pretty damn well, really. No, really! Lyrics are a bit unwieldy. Sorry, Tim.

Up Against It
I absolutely adore this one. So beautifully realised and performed. Lyrics are possibly a bit too overwrought. And that’s coming from me.

Someday Soon
A favourite lyric: ‘I wish I was a girl / Because you’re only nice to girls…’ Imagine the likes of Oasis singing that! I do, nightly. Should be ‘were a girl’ if you’re a stickler for formal grammar. But ‘I wish I was…’ sounds better here.

You’ve Got The Answer Wrong
Oh god – I’ve just remember this is actually a song I wrote for the Queercore punk band The Children’s Hour. Transformed and vastly improved into this well-dressed cocktail jazz setting. Perfect for El Records.

A Life’s Aside
I’m very fond of this one. It’s rather beautifully strange and otherworldly and woozy.

All in all, Orlando were a pretty varied band. And indeed, invariably pretty. We were restless, fearless, luckless and, sadly for us, commercially hopeless. But never pointless.

Tags: , , ,