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.

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.

Influences: Sunday mornings and reggae

An abiding childhood memory of mine is hearing ska and early reggae tunes playing in the front room on a Sunday morning. Time-wise, we’re talking about 1970 onwards, a few years before I started primary school. It’s a piece of nostalgia that many of the Windrush generation and their children will recognise and identify with, irrespective of which island that they or their parents and grandparents hailed from. This was also the period when the original skinhead movement was at its height in Britain, adopting the new songs coming out of Jamaica as its anthems.

The music also has a strong association with food, specifically the delicious smell of Jamaican rice, peas and chicken that my mum would have been preparing. Ska and reggae tunes pumping away, sometimes the occasional pre-ska JA pop by Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards, along with the waft of the expectant big dinner. In a way, the vibes from those tunes were a hidden ingredient that went into the food. Even at that tender age, I understood that this was my parents’ way of maintaining ties with ‘back home’. Strengthening the link further, we even had the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner newspaper delivered to our home on Sundays, where we could find out about current events on the island.

I’ve many a favourite song from that period, far too many to mention. Standouts are Monkey Man by The Maytals, Double Barrel by Dave and Ansel Collins, Them A Laugh And A Kiki by The Pioneers (aka Soulmates), the whole of the Tighten Up Volume Two album, Here I Am Baby by Skin, Flesh & Bones – the list goes on! For me and my brothers, having being born in England, we were getting a glimpse into our parents’ world, the island that had nurtured them. They’d tell us about how a song such as Long Shot Kick De Bucket (about a racehorse that died during a race) was based upon real events. There always was a little sad undercurrent to the way the Pioneers delivered the story with their sublime vocal harmonies.

One thing I noticed was, those records were only played in our home on Sundays, except at Christmas time. For the rest of the week, it was Radio One at breakfast and around teatime, with its selection of mainly British and American pop, and of course Top Of The Pops without fail every Thursday. There was also some ‘crossover’ because in the early 70s, reggae frequently featured in the UK charts. Things such as Let Your Yeah Be Yeah by The Pioneers, and Bob and Marcia’s Young, Gifted and Black were on constant rotation. Yet it was English artists that we heard predominantly on the radio, and, by a neat coincidence, our family meals on weekdays were mostly the same dishes that you’d find in any English home – give or take the odd serving of plantain, dumplings or yam now and again. This would have been pragmatic on the part of my parents; making an elaborate Caribbean meal would have taken up too much time after they’d come home from work. Hearing ska and reggae only one day a week took on a special significance; I’ve also no doubt that by hearing such a wide variety of music throughout the week is the reason why my tastes were eclectic from day one, and remain so to this day. Though I still like to play reggae tunes on Sundays – keeping a great tradition alive, you might say.

‘Dharma Reigns’ – Finding Meaning In The Mundane

Often times, it’s the everyday, run-of-the-mill events in life that by pure chance convey the most profound of messages. Such is the case with a horse race that was run in November 2020 at the Fontwell racecourse in West Sussex, UK. The footage speaks for itself, really, so rather than giving you a description first, please view the 2 minutes’ footage of the closing stages.

The winning horse’s name Dharma Rain, which I heard as Dharma Reign, lent a certain symbolism to the outcome of the race. ‘Dharma’ is a Sanskrit word for a concept in Indian spirituality that has multifarious meanings. One of them is to do with a person’s ‘destiny’; their ‘dharma’ being basically their ‘calling’, what they are meant to do in life.

In the race, we see all the horses except one avoid the hurdle and are duly disqualified. Dharma Rain negotiates the hurdle and turns out to be the victor. We all know that in the pursuit of our respective calling, there are inescapable challenges that present themselves that stand in the way, challenges that must be met head on. Going around the barrier has its place as well but sometimes there’s no other option! There’s also a message here about following your own path and not being swayed by the crowd, something that is of great importance in today’s world.

All this from the 3.50 chase at Fontwell.

The Changes and ‘The Synchronic City’

For many, the lockdowns unintentionally afforded the time to watch films and tv programmes that they’d long been interested in seeing but never got round to. I’m no exception; I spent the first couple of months of 2021 watching The Changes, a series first broadcast in 1975 on BBC1. Aimed at children but with a narrative equally pitched at adults, I found it compelling viewing. What I’d not expected, however, was that this disparate sci-fi tale would contain themes strangely similar to the ongoing UK lockdown measures.

In the story, Britain has been experiencing strange weather that affects the population’s behaviour, causing them to turn against technology, suddenly smashing up machines whenever the conditions occur. The society soon grinds to a silent standstill reminiscent of pre-industrial times. The mindset of most of the population has also altered, reverting back to a quasi-‘Dark Ages’ mentality, with its attendant bible-based, ‘olde worlde’ superstitions. Technology is viewed as being evil.

This is bad news for the main protagonist Nicky Gore, who, in the search for her parents whom she’s lost in the melee, is found sleeping in a barn in a village where farm machinery (deemed as “wickedness” by the locals) has been locked firmly away. She is tried and sentenced to death by stoning by Davy Gordon, a witchfinder general-type who runs the village, but is spirited away by a pair of siblings, Margaret and Jonathan, who, unlike most of the villagers, haven’t fallen under the sway of the superstitions.

The siblings’ father is a different story, however, as he has also succumbed to the witch-hunt mentality. A revealing piece of dialogue takes place when Nicky asks Margaret if the villagers really believe she’s a witch. Margaret’s response is telling: “Well, most of them (do) – because Davy Gordon has persuaded them. Men more than women. You see, since the ‘changes’, they believe doing things like this is God’s will; and our dad is really a kind man but he’s not all that bright. His life has never been very exciting. Well, now he’s right under Davy Gordon’s thumb. He’s got this kind of ‘mission’ in life, rooting out evil. Our mum knows it’s a load of nonsense but even she can’t get through to him”

I was instantly reminded of something I’d heard said repeatedly by Irish author Thomas Sheridan in his Epic Voyage series of Youtube vlogs chronicling the lockdown: “The normies are absolutely loving this, and do you know why? It’s because at last they now have a sense of purpose.” Initially I didn’t get this, until I started to notice people whom I would normally see coming and going to work, now zealously out in the streets in their purple volunteer uniforms, on housing estates, at the entrance of supermarkets, all over shopping centres handing out masks and sanitiser, going from door to door offering testing kits like JW’s flogging the Watchtower. They probably see themselves as activists of some kind, saving the world from a modern-day plague. I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice the glee of shop assistants now charged to tell customers to wait in queues before being allowed in, seemingly reveling in the opportunity to wield a bit of ‘power’.

The similarities of the measures to Abrahamic religious ritual and forced indoctrination have been covered by both alternative and mainstream writers. (By the way, this isn’t an attack upon anyone’s personal belief, it’s merely a comparison of the way in which religious institutions, in tandem with governments, have historically suppressed the worldview of others with a distinct perspective on life.) As for the modern-day “witches”, they are of course any of the individuals who challenge or debunk the efficacy of the measures, or refuse to go along with the programme. Anyone not walking around looking like an extra from a 50s sci-fi B movie is viewed with suspicion, as though they aren’t wearing the required religious garb.

“Men more than women”. When looking at social media, it has not escaped my attention that women appear to be far more outspoken against this than most men, and far less compliant with the government’s ‘health’ mandates. Of course, many women have been more than willing to follow Hancock and Johnson’s latest sermons, yet where has been the resistance from men? It is as though the roles of the sexes have reversed.

Throughout The Changes narrative, only a relative handful of people remain unaffected, which takes on significance. Firstly, there’s the Sikh community whom Nicky meets and briefly travels with. We’re told that it is the Sikhs’ way of life, so different from the populace around them, that safeguards them against the prevailing madness. The same is true of a married couple encountered later in the story, who live in a rural, “off the grid” lifestyle, having gotten away from the hustle-bustle of London. The implication being made in the case of both this couple, and the Sikhs, is that it is their independence from the norms which has created a kind of ‘immunity’ for them. This is comparable and analogous to the independence of spirit that characterises those who haven’t capitulated to the fear and hysteria present amongst most in the present lockdowns.

I’m glad to have had the chance to see The Changes. By its reference to witch hunts, I would surmise that the author Peter Dickinson may have based this upon the actual social dynamics of medieval times, and the powerful hold that these ideas exerted over people. It’s also clear that Dark Ages thinking manages to persist into the present-day reality.