Another year, and blogging has been too infrequent around here. There will clearly be much more Hobbit Rock work to be done in 2022. In the meantime, here is an easy one.
As my previous Hobbit Rock post showed, all the Joy Division influence in northern England could not extinguish the Hobbit Rock flame. Like a stubborn Viking invader, it merely moved north to Scotland and never left the island. And here’s a further ‘80s Scottish example of Hobbit Rock to follow up “All About You” by Scars. This is one that everyone knows, but here in a fantastic live performance:
In the mid-90s I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, one of those foreign classics that it’s assumed everyone will like. Well … I gave it a try, and it just didn’t do anything for me, though I later liked Godard’s Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou. And I found that Godard in general had a fantastic sense of absurdity, atmosphere, and was of course very good at editing. I just got off to a patchy start with Breathless. But I did think that the lead actor in that movie had some quirky star power and wondered if he was in anything else.
As I found out before long, Jean-Paul Belmondo was a major movie star in France. I’m not sure what I saw him in next, but I soon understood the extent of his stardom, and that his career was long and varied between commercial and experimental movies. While he often played conventional leading man parts, Belmondo had range and I can’t recall him ever seeming fake in anything. Among his lesser known roles, one of Belmondo’s most interesting was for Jean-Pierre Melville, frequent director of crime films who also made one of the greatest religious dramas of all time with Leon Morin, Priest.
France used to produce a bushel of serious movies about Catholicism and the tensions between hope in the next world and life in the present one. Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, from a novel by Georges Bernanos, is probably the most famous, but Leon Morin, Priest deserves much more attention. (It used to be a Criterion title. Many thanks to Kino Lorber for bringing it back to Blu-Ray in the U.S. a couple years ago.) Cast as far from a ladies’ man as possible, Belmondo is utterly convincing and engrossing as a sincere young priest, engaged in a part spiritual battle, part platonic relationship with a young windowed mother (Emmanuelle Riva, soon after Hiroshima, Mon Amour).
Leon Morin, Priest is a great movie and maybe, all these years later, I should give Breathless another try too.
While seeming like a staple of 70s prog that made its way into 80s hard rock, Hobbit Rock was pervasive enough in its quiet little way to live through punk rock and become part of the unique little pocket of time when there was something called postpunk. Only punk in sharing the DIY ethos, this was a sonic world of flanged and chorused guitars, heavy keyboard atmospherics and abstract and sometimes unsettled lyrics.
Scotland made an impressive contribution to postpunk, exemplified by the career of Simple Minds. Their first album an above average blend of Bowie/Roxy influences, they moved into moodier and more unique territory on a second album nourished by the postpunk currents then starting to flow. While Simple Minds would go on to a more streamlined sound and mass success, Scottish postpunk is also well-represented by the lesser known and short-lived band Scars.
And does Scottish postpunk relate to Hobbit Rock? Yes, indeed, it does, as this Scars song and video demonstrate. Four guys running together, a veritable fellowship, leaving their town and heading to a tower where some sort of evil awaits, while the song fluctuates between the brighter and more melancholy edges of longing.
An accomplished actress, of course, but much more than that, and this spring she has left us. By all accounts, a person who lived a life rich in making others happy, with many friends and family. More about Claudia and her life here.
When I took a Renaissance lit class in the early 1990s, our instructor scoffed at least once at Renaissance Fairs. And while “Ren Fests” have experienced their share of derision, my teacher’s issue was more specific than any perceived dorkiness. For the festivals don’t always much distinguish between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, mixing elements of them together in a historically inaccurate mish-mash of time periods, some of it medieval.
But I’ll defend Ren Fests a bit. First, I’ve been to one years ago, and found it very enjoyable. Second, my favorite part of that lit class (besides writing a sonnet about Robot Monster) was learning that Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was a little early for Renaissance, more like the very end of the Middle Ages. So if that ambiguity of historical eras is good enough for the Arthurian legend and John Boorman’s Excalibur, why, Ren Fests should get a little more respect.
What does this have to do with Hobbit Rock? Our next song is by a band called Renaissance. There is some folk here, some classical, woodwinds mixed with guitars, it’s the seventies, sort of a prog group, but this song is a very good pop song. Here is a longing-for-home sentimentality, very much in line with hobbits and their love of home, and there seemed to be more songs like this back then. What does this have to do with the Renaissance? I don’t know, but it’s a great song and a great performance.
Bonus video: This is Nightwish’s cover version of Gary Moore’s “Over the Hills and Far Away,” featured in the previous installment of Hobbit Rock.
I’ve seen a mention of this term online that pigeonholes the Hobbit Rock subgenre as part of the prog era that peaked in the ’70s. Myself, I believe that the term is more far-reaching than that definition, not that I can exactly define it.
Hobbit Rock seems to always have a vaguely Celtic feel, or be in some way similar to folk music of some part of the British Isles. And … that’s it. At least until enough examples can show a more definite pattern.
Anyhow, as part of this not very serious study, this month’s song for the appreciation of Hobbit Rock is Gary Moore’s “Over the Hills and Far Away,” not to be confused with the Led Zeppelin song of the same title. At one time a member of Thin Lizzy, Moore was an accomplished guitarist and no slouch as a vocalist either. And this video shows that he could lip sync to himself pretty well too.
“Star-Spangled Banner” films were a regular fixture of local TV stations, before infomercials gave them an excuse to broadcast 24-7. The ones I see on YouTube seem all recorded from the sign-off at the end of the day, but my strongest memory of them is from one that was played as a morning sign-on.
The video below is a sign-off from New York City, and I’m reasonably sure this is the same video we had in my corner of the Midwest when one of the local stations signed on at 6:00 in the morning on the Saturdays when I was up. The close-in on the flag at the end with that exciting high note (sounded like a pipe organ from a little TV speaker), followed by a whooshing rocket-into-space noise is the part I’ve always remembered.
But wait, there’s more. Notice that the entire video is a series of still photos with zooms and pans and fancy edits. This style is the true essence of the late ’70s and early ’80s, and it was everywhere. I’m continually amazed that anyone associates it so much with Ken Burns documentaries–remember the opening credits of The Rockford Files, Days of Heaven, anything on public television back then?
Many of my latest (and future) blog posts are about novels I’ve written and am releasing. But this post is about someone else’s novel. One I fully intend on talking up to everyone I know until I get the eye rolls that let me know I’m going on about it too much. And I need to buy a few copies and give them away. This is a 1945 novel that has drifted out of print for long stretches while, I’m overjoyed to say, it’s back in print on July 7 of this year.
Joel Townsley Rogers’ incredible novel The Red Right Hand opens with the aftermath of a crime. A young couple on a scenic trip have encountered a frightening stranger, the story beginning with the narrator trying to sort out exactly what happened. This description is no spoiler, for it’s merely how the book opens and I will say no more about the plot or the characters. I truly want to ruin nothing about the experience of this novel for anyone who hasn’t read it.
What I will say is that The Red Right Hand is a feverish, hallucinatory nightmare, dripping with nocturnal atmosphere, recurring dread, and much more. Written by a prolific, master pulp writer, it’s much appreciated by writers and genre enthusiasts, but seems to have never crossed that far into the mainstream. Maybe now is the time for that to change. If you like mystery, crime, or the more psychological brand of horror, you need to read it, preferably on a hot summer night with open windows, a darkened screen door nearby, and all of nature’s unearthly sounds drifting in.
Don’t take my word for it, just trust Donald Westlake: “I believe Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand should be reissued every 5 years forever.”
The music of Rush is supposed to be a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but somehow I managed to fall in the middle. Long-term, devoted fans don’t always love their early ‘80s material but I think the Permanent Waves-Moving Pictures-Signals era was magnificent. Alex Lifeson’s guitar had a lovely chorus pedal sound which meshed with the synthesizers that the band was experimenting with, and brought out the best in some of their best songs.
It’s thanks to Neil Peart that I learned something about music. A couple of high school jazz band friends had whatever the current Rush concert video was at the time, and could not say enough about Peart’s drumming. One of these guys was a drummer, and the other a serious Rush fan, and I realized that some folks like music not for any song by that artist, but because of the sheer musicianship.
And I hope Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson keep going in some form.