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coverpic flag England - Full Moon 55 - 04/08/01

Judge Smith
Curly's Airships
Masters of Art

This double CD - 144 minutes long and including two thick booklets of lyrics and information - was launched about six moons ago, but it's a one-of-a-kind album that needs time and deserves a review. It tells the true and extraordinary story of the ups and downs (literally) of British airship history, focusing on a grandiose plan to link the colonies of the empire with a fleet of airships. The dream culminated with the destruction of the giant R.101, the world's largest airship, on its maiden voyage to India in 1930.

You might have heard of Mr. Smith earlier. He wrote the lyrics/libretto for the Usher opera that was on our Full Moon 42 menu. In his teens he gave the name to and co-founded Van der Graaf Generator (VdGG) along with Peter Hammill, check out the VdGG Boxed story at the Full Moon 51 menu. He left the band at the time their first single was released in early 1969. Since then he has been involved in other rock, pub, punk and experimental bands, released a couple of CDs, written a Latin mass, operas and stage musicals off Shaftesbury Avenue and songs performed by Peter Hammill and Lene Lovich. Curly's Airships has been his main musical occupation since 1993.

The story is told by Flight Lieutenant George 'Curly' McLeod, a fictional character with his own views, but based on the historical facts. As Judge Smith puts it in his notes: 'Despite his thoroughly one-sided view of events, I have a sneaking and quite unjustifiable suspicion that this just might be - pretty much - the way it was.' To make matters even more complicated, it's not Curly as such who speaks, but his ghost, through an old lady, a medium. Actually, after the final catastrophe that killed nearly 50 people (only six survived), a celebrated spiritualist medium received lengthy messages from deceased crew members who revealed information no one else could have known.

Judge calls his work a songstory, because most of the story is told/sung by one person, as opposed to an opera, rock opera or musical. Judge sings the part of Curly himself and plays most of the drums and bass tracks. An impressive gang of 60s/70s/80s musical celebrities helps him out along with a host of lesser-known names. Hugh Banton takes care of all the organ parts throughout the album, both modern and old ones - the latter recorded in a church and a cathedral near the sites where the story took place. This is his first major recording project, I believe, since he left VdGG in 1976. John Ellis - guitarist and E-bow master of the Vibrators, Stranglers and Peter Hammill and his K Group - is also contributing throughout the album. David Jackson (saxes and flutes) also of VdGG plays on several tracks as does Pete Brown (percussion and vocals; Cream lyricist and leader of Battered Ornaments and Piblokto). Although Curly is the storyteller, he remembers or imagines statements of other persons of the story, sung by Peter Hammill, Arthur Brown (the King of Hellfire of the Crazy World and Kingdom Come, you know), Paul Roberts (Stranglers) and others. Brown and Hammill impersonate an incompetent governmental bureaucrat and an ambitious minister of air, respectively, who manage to ruin the project by their demands for safety and to keep the work schedule. ['So if they value their jobs, They had better deliver' - heard that one before, history seems to repeat itself, eh?]

The inclusion of the medium is a clever move. The voice of the actress Gwendolyn Gray in her late 80s that transforms into Curly's/Judge's and the ticking of an old clock effectively take the listener back to the times after the first world war. This is strengthened by period slang in the lyrics (explained in one of the booklets). Also the music is interspersed by military marches, air (as opposed to sea) shanties and tango sections of the merry 1920s.

A couple of tracks have sitars, tamburas etc. at the thought of flying away to India. The rest of the music is harder to characterise. John Ellis tells on his homepage that 'It is one of the most remarkable pieces of music I have ever had the pleasure of being involved with'. True! It is mostly rock based, but not in the traditional form. There are hardly any conventional songs - only short segments, no rhyming lyrics, verses or choruses. Instead there are 27 musical themes that is repeated at least once. But the work includes several other themes. The story is divided into 26 tracks arranged in 15 chapters. I guess the music is based on the words and not vice versa. A few times the words seem to be all that matters with hardly any tune at all. Also there are pieces of spoken dialogue between airship crew members and great airship sound effects created by Banton's organs (no synthesizers!) and the guitars of Ellis; to make it sound like a sort of radio play in between. But overall, it's the words and music combined that matter.

Someone compared the music to Zappa's more complex works. I don't think so, though maybe that's as close as we can get. The way the music describes the work inside the giant airship sheds, the pompous debates in governmental committees, Curly's eagerness to fly, the lightness of the airship flying through and above the clouds, the hazards of navigating the ship through rain and thunder storms etc. is very appropriate. Hugh Banton and John Ellis in particular must have put a lot of time and enthusiasm into the project. And a challenge it must have been with hardly any repetitions and music adapted to the words. Judge sings better than ever and really distinct, you can hardly misunderstand any word he is singing, as I usually tend to do. The other participants' efforts must not be forgotten. But their contributions are mere fill-ins compared to Judge's Banton's and Ellis' formidable efforts.

Forget all your prejudices concerning concept albums and rock operas. Curly's Airships is a unique work of long durability created by a madman. Well, at least you have to be pretty mad to dedicate several years of your life to the studies required, drag your home recording equipment up and down the country to record it and - when finally finished - release the album on your own label in a first edition of 1 000 copies only. It certainly has nothing to do with fame or fortune! You'll find everything you need to know about the project, sound samples, how to order the album and even more at the specially designed and great Curly's Airships home page.

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You may also want to check out our Judge Smith article/review: Requiem Mass.

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