Vince Guaraldi and his music for Charlie Brown cartoons

I first saw the animated versions of Charlie Brown on television back in 1976 at around the age of ten. Some of them actually dated back to a few years; they were originally shown on US television from the mid 60’s. I instantly took to the cartoons and a huge part of their appeal was the music that accompanied them, written and performed by pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi. I made a mental note of his name when I saw it roll up the credits at the end.

From the start there was something different about Charlie Brown that set it apart from other cartoons. Whereas Tom and Jerry and the various from Merry Melodies/Loonee Tunes began with a fanfare and a flurry, the opening of a Charlie Brown cartoon was more subtle and would often see two characters in mid-conversation. The music was in the ‘background’ yet audible enough to capture the viewer’s attention without detracting from the on-screen dialogue. I imagine this was purposely done. The choice of Vince Guaraldi’s music was a canny one. Like the spoken dialogue in the cartoons, the music is sophisticated and subtle, even though it was aimed at a young audience. Adding to the uniqueness of the cartoons is the fact that its main protagonist Charlie Brown has a world-weary, sometimes melancholy character which the music depicts perfectly.

Many of the cartoons had a theme associated with public holidays in the USA. Thus, there’s the famous Christmas one, as well as specials for Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Coinciding with a time when American children would have been off school no doubt added to the sense of occasion; they were also shown during school holidays in the UK. From the 1965 Halloween special, ‘The Great Pumpkin Waltz’ is a favourite.

Another element distinguishes the music of Charlie Brown from its counterparts. In a Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry cartoon, you don’t so much hear full pieces as music as little fragments of tunes that musically depict the dialogue or emotions expressed by the characters, a technique known as ‘tone painting’. This rarely takes place in Vince Guaraldi’s scores; instead you’d get one complete piece of music that sat nonchalantly in the background, rather than brief snatches that imitated each and every action or piece of dialogue.

I had no idea of what kind i.e. style of music it was. I just knew it was something I relished hearing, that was enough. Children tend to be like that, and aren’t self-conscious about what they do and don’t like. I didn’t know the music was ‘jazz’ but it did unknowingly plant the seeds for getting into jazz later on. When I heard pianists such as Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal, I was reminded of the music I first encountered on Charlie Brown cartoons. Thank Vince Guaraldi for that.


For The Love v For The ‘Likes’ – Being True To Self

One of the most insightful and candid interviews I’ve heard by a musician in recent years is to be found in the 2017 youtube video ‘Gary Numan – Records In My Life’, part of a series in which well-known artists speak about key records by other musicians that have inspired them. As the backdrop to one of his choices, Numan describes the journey that went from huge initial commercial success making music that was true to his creative vision – followed by a steady decline in popularity resulting in losing faith in his ideas. It led to him, in his words “desperately” attempting to win back the fame, even if it meant doing music which he had no belief nor love for. The story does end well, however, which he shares from 7:14 to 13:52 at the link below.

The majority of artists will never attain the high profile of the likes of a Gary Numan. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learnt from his story, irrespective of what stage your career is at. In my own musical life, I’ve shared original work on social media that would receive no response. If, on the other hand I did a popular cover, suddenly ‘likes’ and comments full of gushing praise would appear out of nowhere! So I thought, “Ah, I see. If I do more popular covers, I’ll get even more people hitting the like button!” It led to me neglecting my own creativity to a point where I temporarily lost faith in it.

Nothing wrong at all in playing popular covers, of course, if that’s what you really feel happy to do. It can only become an obstacle if your end goal is to put your own unique voice out to the world. These days it’s more important for me to do something I love and feel good about, than to share content that might get more instant acceptance but which doesn’t challenge me. If it gets a like, then that’s a bonus. First and foremost is being true to myself.

As a coda, I’ll finish off with a few more choice words on the subject, spoken by an artist who was Numan’s most important formative influence: David Bowie.

Just Beneath The Skin – August 2022 single release

Just Beneath The Skin is actually a re-release; I first put it out in 2011 as a free download. It remains pertinent, and especially so in the post-2020 lockdown world. I’m very proud of how the song’s video turned out and hope you too enjoy it. Downloading and streaming information can be found in the video’s description on youtube.

Stop The Pigeon(hole) – the value of being musically eclectic

“Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is. And I always hated categories. Always. Never thought it had any place in music.” Miles Davis

“We’ve got to learn to stop thinking in terms of categories – “this is this and that is that”. No, there’s cross pollination all the time.” John Lydon.

‘Playlists are the new radio,’ a recent writer (Ari Herstand) confirmed. When people want to hear music of a particular genre, there’s an abundance of streamed playlists for them to choose from. In turn, artists whose music is of a specific style can target their audience. Here’s a thing, though: What if the music you make covers a variety of styles, or doesn’t fit neatly into the existing categories? Or, what if it ‘blurs’ genres to the extent that it makes categories misleading?

Playlisting by genre is convenient. From one angle it’s understandable as people want to have some sense of what they’re going to listen to. The down side to this is there’s far less sense of discovery and surprise, which is a big part of the pleasure of listening to music. We can all recall the first time we heard a certain song; part of the reason why it moved us was because we had no preconceived idea about what the style or genre was. In fact, we’d have been oblivious to those things.

It’s interesting that while the internet has given us access to a wider variety of music than ever, listening habits may be becoming more rigid. Radio stations set up to play 70s rock exclusively run the risk of disapproving listeners if they happen to slip in a track released on January 1st 1980 (at midnight).

Without wanting this to be one of those ‘it was better in the good old days’, let’s look at how things were in the pre-digital, pre-internet music industry. The UK top 30/40 system was obviously limited and had its flaws; with one major radio station and tv station on offer for popular music, we were in effect ‘told’ what to listen to. Despite that, there was tremendous variety on offer. Long before ‘diversity’ became a corporate buzzword and a box to tick, you could hear a real mixture of contrasting artists one after the other. David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Kate Bush, The Police, Grace Jones, Prince. Punk, reggae, 2 Tone, post-punk, disco alongside pure pop. There was never a sense that it should be all separate.

Perhaps because of that, in Britain the blurring of musical styles by combining different elements was commonplace. Which is as it should be: History shows us that musicians combining influences of different styles of music is how we ended up with genres in the first place. In other words it’s a normal approach, without which we wouldn’t have soul/r&b, jazz, ska, reggae, hip hop and so on. Even so much that goes under the term ‘pop’ is hugely varied in its sound.

In his memoir A Cure For Gravity, the singer/songwriter Joe Jackson (whose work often cuts across genres) uses the analogy of chefs creating new dishes rather than just reproducing the same menu. Categorising of music by genre is always going to be with us, especially with the internet being as rigid as it is, but there should always be room for those artists going beyond labels.

Closedown: The ‘Television Generation’ and the Digital Age compared

I don’t have a television set, haven’t had one for well over a decade – but I retain a fascination for the television programmes of my childhood. I recently found some 1970s editions of the Radio Times and TV Times on the Genome digital archive. Besides the programmes themselves, I was reminded how broadcasting would begin usually no earlier than 9am, and finish a little before after midnight. Then there’d be nothing.

Even during the day, it was quite common to have what they called a ‘Closedown’, e.g. after the 1pm news on BBC1, broadcasting would stop for 3 to 4 hours, and there’d be just the test card. This was true to a lesser extent of ITV also. Apparently, up until the 1960s the BBC used to close down between 7 and 8pm so that parents could put their children to bed! It’s only really when you get to the 80s that you find daytime television being brought in, with shows brought in for breakfast, mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

If you were an adolescent or teen in the 70s, you’re seen now as the ‘television generation’. Yet in truth, for vast swathes of time, nothing was actually on the box. Did that help a young mind to begin to develop a more creative imagination? I think it did. For one thing, it meant you had no choice but to create your own entertainment during the times when there was just the test card for three hours. This isn’t to knock today’s young creatives but this is just how it was. Whilst that era wasn’t as innocent and danger-free as some of us might reminisce, it also wasn’t as hazardous as it is at times depicted. For one thing, we had far more freedom to roam beyond our homes. So we had not only the time to explore our imagination but also the space.

Imagine if the internet ‘closed down’ every night, and at different times of the day. Maybe I should be careful what I wish for, in case the server crashes.

Always Look On The Bright Side Of Nietzsche

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the chapter titled The Bestowing Virtue has the protagonist Zarathustra suddenly announcing to his few disciples that he is to leave them. He observes that they’re no longer thinking for themselves, due to their idolising and adulation of his teachings. On reading it I was reminded of the “You’re all individuals” scene in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Below is Zarathustra’s address to his followers, deliberately expressed in archaic language which is used throughout the book. I’ve omitted a couple of sentences but the basic gist of his message is contained in the quote:

‘I now go alone, my disciples! Ye also now go away, and alone! So will I have it. Verily, I advise you: depart from me, and guard yourselves against Zarathustra! And better still: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he hath deceived you. The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends. One requiteth a teacher badly if one remain merely a scholar…. Ye venerate me; but what if your veneration should some day collapse? Take heed lest a statue crush you! Ye are my believers: but of what account are all believers! Ye had not yet sought yourselves: then did ye find me. So do all believers; therefore all belief is of so little account. Now do I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when ye have all denied me, will I return unto you.

Zarathustra’s followers were initially inquiring of mind, curious and questioning that which they’d learnt, but had over time become content to assume that everything Zarathustra told them was correct. Psychologists might describe this as ‘vicarious learning’, to learn in a second-hand way rather than one’s own experience. It is a common trait among the majority of people, especially in how they relate to authority figures, individuals of clout, etc.

“…be ashamed of him! Perhaps he hath deceived you. The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends. One requiteth a teacher badly if one remain merely a scholar. ”

Why would Zarathustra caution his followers to be on their guard against him, and even be ashamed? My own interpretation: No matter how correct a teacher may be in many areas, ultimately it is their experience and not our own. Not only that, the teacher may even get some things wrong. It’s akin to the musician who’s so in awe of their favourite instrumentalist that they indiscriminately copy everything their hero plays, even the mistakes! Also, perspectives that ring true at one period may be of less validity with the passage of time, so it’s a good idea to periodically examine your beliefs to see if they still hold relevance to your life. To love enemies and hate one’s friends I feel is symbolic of not staying with the familiar and being open to learn from sources that are outside of your regular mental terrain.

The overall message is to find your own truth. It doesn’t preclude learning from others, but as it’s been expressed by different individuals throughout history, ultimately all the knowledge you’re looking for is already within. The best teachers are those that act as a catalyst for the student to unlock it.

Imagine any educational institution or any other seat of learning today saying to its students, “Sorry, we’re closing down for a while, and I think you should all go home until you stop believing every single thing we tell you.” A tad impractical, yes, but not a bad idea at all, in theory.

“Conscious Music” In A Shifting Age

In my blog from November 2020, Cancelled Culture, OR: ‘Stand up for your rights’, said Fred, I commented on how the vast majority of popular artists (UK and abroad) associated with ‘protest music’, ‘socially conscious music’ have been, for the most part, in unquestioning support of the government’s lockdown mandates. One artist after another repeated the mantras of ‘stay at home/stay safe/get the jab’. As I write in 2022 this is still much the case, despite the wealth of evidence detailing the governmental tyranny masquerading as concern for the public well-being.

At first glance this seems totally inconsistent with artists that have always spoken out about social injustice and government abuses, although a different picture starts to emerge when one looks closer. As critical of government as many protest-related artists are in songs and public statements, the majority still tend to hold a belief in the established institutions, and see current affairs within the traditional left-right paradigm. The problem is that the scamdemic doesn’t neatly lend itself to a left-versus-right analysis, especially with left-oriented politicians often demanding ever greater restrictive measures in the UK and elsewhere. This might account for the silence, and in many cases compliance of “conscious artists”.

Yet this is as it should be, and it is indicative of a shift that has occurred. I am not an astrologer but I have a great interest in this area. In the spirit of “as above, so below”, astrology holds some revealing insights on the subject at hand.

According to many astrologers we are now in the Aquarian age or at the very least on the cusp of it, having previously been in the age of Pisces. For those unfamiliar with astrological terms, let me briefly explain the basic concept of an ‘age’. Just as the year is subdivided into 12 zodiacal signs, an astrological age is a much longer period of time, lasting 2160 years. During an age, life falls under the influence of one particular sign of the zodiac and human life reflects the attributes and themes peculiar to that sign.

So, for instance the Piscean age runs roughly from 50 BCE to 2100 and was all about following messiahs, saviour figures and political structures to which people gave their power away. What we had was top-down systems where the beliefs of the collective were determined and often imposed by an authority. The rise of Christianity and Islam are good examples, as well as governmental and, in more recent times mass media institutions. The sphere of popular music also has its Piscean associations, and not all negative; artistic expression has been taken to great heights during the age. Pertinent to this blog is the mass worship of famous musicians in a manner that has all the trappings of religious devotion, something that came to the fore from the latter half of the 20th century onwards. Some artists were seen by their fans virtually as musical messiahs, saviours and prophet figures in a secular context.

By comparison, the themes we would expect to see in the Aquarian age would be an emphasis upon individuals finding their own unique truth, rather than looking to the existing established institutions. So, as artists urged their fans to get vaccinated, not all of them followed suit, thankfully! Where the popular artists parroted the government, a less-acquiescent section of the public sought a second opinion outside of the orthodoxy. Social media has been the main means by which a truer picture emerged, itself a strong Aquarian association with cutting-edge technology and networking amongst people. We have seen this abundantly, owing to the failure of the established institutions to be transparent.

The planet Uranus rules Aquarius. The Uranus energy can be associated with unexpected upheaval in a person’s life, removing outmoded ideas, structures, relationships etc that no longer serves them. For many, this has meant the turning away from orthodoxy that has led to tyranny. The phrase “I believe” is said by astrologers to represent the Piscean age, whereas “I know” is what defines its Aquarian counterpart, the latter being an intuitive process.

Given what we’ve seen over the past two years, where does this leave the concept of ‘conscious music’ and the artists that create it? I personally see it as a stark lesson in trusting one’s own judgement and not looking outside for saviours, for people to do or say things that you can do yourself. To see people seeking information for themselves, drawing their own conclusions rather than looking up to celebrities who mostly echoed the government line, surely speaks to the themes associated with Aquarius.

Cooking food and making music

Not being a major gourmet, I’d never considered any link between the respective arts of cooking food and music making until recently. What triggered it was attending the funeral of a friend’s mother, a Jamaican lady of the Windrush generation who had made her transition in December 2021 at the age of 85.

Among the tributes given was one by a woman who as a thirteen year old had attended a cookery class delivered at Bradford West Indian Parents Association by this Jamaican ‘auntie’, and another Caribbean lady. By all accounts these two women were a joy to work with, yet with a formidable strictness that would have made Gordon Ramsay quake in his chef’s hat. In her tribute, she recalled one class in which she took out a notepad and pen to write down in great detail the directions given to her. Noticing the skeptical looks of her teachers, the conversation that followed ran a little like this:

“Weh yu doing?”

“Oh, I’m just writing down the ingredients.”

“No need, love. All yu need in the kitchen is yu hands, yu eye, and yu mout’.”

It wasn’t until I thought about this anecdote the following day that it struck me how much this approach has in common with music making. The sense of going by your own feel and intuition rather than following a strict format. The feeling of being in the moment, where the piece of music doesn’t have to be identically played every day, sticking rigidly to the same arrangement. In this way, the same meal/piece of music will be different each time but still taste good.

I’m sure people have experienced how food prepared by sticking to the letter of a recipe book usually doesn’t taste right. It’s as though there’s something missing. Even more in keeping with the musical process, I’ve seen a couple of cookery articles where writers are saying it’s OK to make mistakes in the kitchen, embrace them! I’d be willing to bet that some of the tastiest meals were created despite the misgivings of the cook believing they’d put either too much or too little of an ingredient, over-cooked it, etc.

To end on a culinary note, here’s Candy Mckenzie performing ‘Ice Cream’, with Lee Scratch Perry at the controls.

The Wisdom of Mistakes

One of my favourite musician stories is an anecdote Herbie Hancock shared about a concert he played in 1964 as the pianist in Miles Davis’ group in Stuttgart, Germany. It has an unconventional twist to it because rather than the usual recalling of how on top of their game the band was, his recollection actually centres around a wrong chord he played.

Many musicians have had the experience of mistakenly playing the wrong chord, note or beat during a performance (or for that matter a writing session) and finding that the thing they played ended up sounding better than what they’d intended. Herbie’s account runs on similar lines but takes the meaning of the event much further.

He takes up the story at 2:06 up to 5:34.

What’s remarkable is Herbie uses this experience on the bandstand as an analogy for what takes place in the process of everyday life. The phrase “turning poison into medicine” draws upon his Buddhist practice. I’m also reminded of the Kybalion (ancient Egyptian-based hermetic writings), and two of its seven principles/laws – ‘correspondence’ and ‘polarity’ respectively. The law of correspondence relates to how you can draw analogies from one life situation as a way of teaching you about something else that may be ostensibly unrelated. In this case we have the details of a musical performance being put forward as a metaphor for life. There’s also the law of polarity, which the Kybalion presents as follows:

“Everything is dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet; all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.” (The Kybalion)

Let’s say someone finds themselves in a challenging situation, due to their own or others’ mistakes and bad choices. By being open enough to reflect and learn the lessons contained therein, the person can grow and the same situation becomes transformed from being “poisonous” to its polar opposite – medicine i.e. something that’s healing. The important point being that they had to make the mistake in order to then experience the growth. Just as Miles might not have played those amazing melodies without Herbie’s ‘wrong chord’.

Perhaps Miles Davis was right when he said “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”. Then again, all truths are but half-truths.