Saturday, 15 March 2014

Suite Sounds

Mike Batt wrote chart topping hits for the Wombles and forever associated Art Garfunkel with rabbits. In 1979 he played a new card
– a whole suite of them.

I was lucky to have a fairly progressive fourth form English teacher.  His first name was Denis with one ‘n’, and he was forever amused by the fact that his own signature always made the first letter look like a ‘P’, giving the impression he was actually named after the male organ of reproduction.  As well as introducing us to the venerable smut of Chaucer, the imagination of John Wyndham, encouraging us in debating, speech-craft and drama, he also played us music.  Contemporary music – from albums he’d just bought, and then would encourage us to analyse what we heard.  One of these albums was a certain martian invasion-themed magnum opus by someone called Jeff Wayne, but that is a whole other story for another time.

And once, he played us a song which began like this:

There's an eagle in the eastern sky, turning in the wind;
Out across the evening, resting on the wing.
If I had the wings of an eagle
There'd be no holding me
I'd be free
Sailing free.

The song is Run like the wind, written by Mike Batt, performed in usual gravely fashion by Roger Chapman, and is the final track on the 1979 concept album Tarot Suite. 

 I could immediately see why he chose to play us this track, although I might have struggled to articulate it at the time. It is catchy, inspiring and evocative on a somewhat primal level: full of imagery of flight, emancipation and transcendence – and it stayed in my mind, more sketchily remembered with each passing year.

The cover sleeve for the single release of Run like the Wind - with lyrics!
 It took another eight years for me to finally rediscover the album, and I was delighted to find that another personally evocative song I remembered from that same period: Lady of the Dawn, was actually the fourth track of Tarot Suite, once again written and this time performed by Mr Batt.  Apparently the most successful song from the album’s initial release, it did very well in European charts and obviously received reasonable airplay in New Zealand.

 (Caution: lyrics only - not much to see here.)

The next thing I found was that, as a carefully crafted concept album, the tracks aren’t really meant to be listened to in isolation, but are all part of a greater whole – I’m sure you can see where this sentence is heading: yes - just like the cards in a tarot pack
In the sleeve notes, Batt explains that his process of grouping the 22 major cards in order to represent them with ten musical pieces took him longer than the actual writing of the music and lyrics.  The card’s meanings and how he equates them with his musical themes is covered in some depth.

Mike Batt assigns various Tarot cards to the album's tracks.
 To return to Run like the wind, this final track is a good example of the coherence of the album.  The preceeding tracks The Night of the Dead and The Dead of the Night (see what they did there?) are as dark and macabre as the titles suggest.  ‘Night’ is almost ghoulish; with moaning, chittering ‘night things’ audible within heavy, sepulchral orchestrals, which then segues into the still dark but less otherworldly ‘Dead’
Unexpectedly, this short track dissolves into a 'soar' of strings, inescapably conjuring the image of a rising sun, dispelling the oppressive dread of the previous two pieces, and leading triumphantly into the lyrics quoted at the top of this post.  It’s impossible now for me to imagine these tracks as independent of each other.

Of course, this might all be my interpretation, to anyone else Tarot Suite may simply be a self-indulgent relic from the end of one of rock’s least fondly remembered eras.  But it might just be worth mentioning that the ‘band’ featuring on Tarot Suite, later to be conducted on several occasions by the multi-talented Mr Batt, is a small outfit going by the name of the London Symphony Orchestra.

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