A Still Life In Life Stilled Days


 John Howard - "In The Stillbeat Of A Silent Day"

For half a century, the 45, the single, the seven inch, was the sole means of the cultural sharing of a song. It was a bright idea etched in spiral grooves that caught the heart and made you want to own it. An object of passion and a thing of joy. Something that you sought and wished for. It facilitated Little Richard and Elvis Presley. The Beatles and The Stones, Blondie and The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads and Nirvana. Even singles that failed became legendary artefacts. The Velvet Underground, Love, and the MC5 never troubled the charts, but if you had a 45 of theirs you had a thing of significance. A brave stab in the dark. 

The digital age made things uncertain for the 45. The charts were less of a barometer of taste. The market became more disparate and the discs got smaller and more shiny, and then the download rendered them largely irrelevant. It seemed like its days of dominance were spent. Yet a new democracy was emerging that made music instantly available. A record from decades earlier could once more challenge a new release because for some reason, an advert or a cultural event, it had again been rendered current, and this time it didn't require a physical "Rush-Release" via the record label in a physical form. It was there already.

So the single had a rebirth. Vinyl remained the encapsulation of the finished statement, the definitive object existence of a bright idea in a picture sleeve and on wax of many different colours. The download meant no journey to a record store had to be made, though many thankfully still are. You could hear a song and send it to a friend. You didn't need to copy it onto a cassette, or a CDR. Downloads became audio postcards, literal singing telegrams. a means towards instant sharing and immediate gratification. The revolution might not have simply been televised. it had gone one swifter, it had been digitized.

The single is now a means of instant alert, a reaction that takes longer to record than it does to share. The waiting game is largely over, though we still anticipate and wait to prepare. to do things properly. In the blink of a mere month's existence, the world has become an alien place. A landscape of desertion. Culture has in many ways lost its physical hold. We cannot go to the cinema, congregate at a gig, visit a theatre. We can neither marry or bury those we love. The certainty of faith on Sundays has been paused. We have become entombed in our apartments and houses like monks on an unintended retreat. Nothing is as it was. We are all living in a time of plague. People are dying in a strangely democratic fashion across the world. We are experiencing zen and loss on an industrial scale. We cannot even comfort our dying. Hospitals have become a place of utility, exclusion and bald function.

And so the muses are heard. They congregate like anxious birds, Those that can, write and draw and sing. Those that can't may be have forced to try to for the first time. In postcard pretty exile in Spain, that quintessentially English singer songwriter John Howard began to write some words. Pressure sometimes begets beauty as its own reward. A title came. A line he could add painterly impressions to, "In the Stillbeat Of A Silent Day." A poem set to music, it is the perfect thing to share in the song it has become. Reflective without being overly sad. Mournful yet not morose, it is a beautiful take on all that has been stilled and taken down.

In the stillbeat of a silent day

Saved for trilled birdsong in the tree

In my soulsearch for the lad who stayed

Lost in the wonder for the heart it thieved


In the stillbeat of a silent day

Streets are not peopled by the noise of speed

In the glimmer of reflected skies

Empty of love songs we forgot to heed


In the loudbreath of deserted streets

Heaving beneath leaden clouds of ache

In the heartlight of tomorrow's prayer

Ears at the windows when the songbirds ache


In the stillbeat of a silent day

Doors blind the sunlight tapping soft

As I breakstride with the dogs unstrayed

Out to their dreams of the field-bathed croft


In the stillbeat of a silent day

Smiles beneath masks where no part plays

Joining gloved hands for the angels care

Cheers from the balconies' grateful gaze

It is a song that musically operates along the lines of the late David Ackles. A hymn or a psalm suggestive of choirs. Lyrically it has echoes of William Blakes's "Jerusalem" and the more pastoral musings of Robert Frost, but then John Howard has always been a closet poet in the arcs and turns of his lyric writing. It ends as almost celebratory dirge reaching effortlessly towards the multi-coloured light coming through stained glass as it draws to a close. Soothing and reflective the song encapsulates a global tragedy in a personal fashion and as such brings comfort. What more could a single song hope to achieve? 

The single remains alive and relevant in these troubled times, and this one brings solace in its wake. It deserves not only to be heard, but to cherished and shared. A once in a lifetime response to a crisis we for which we were, and remain still, woefully unprepared.

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