Philosophy – Ben Folds Five
..I see that there is evil and I know that there is good
But the in-between I’ve never understood…
Ben Folds Five
It was on the radio in August 1995 that I first heard Ben Folds Five. They were amazing. The music sounded hand-crafted specially for me – pure major-chord bright-eyed sophisticated pop music fronted by a piano; witty songs, arrangements and lyrics and brilliant music with no guitars. I’ve never been a huge fan of the guitar to be honest – so of course here follows a list of exceptions <sigh> : Jimi Hendrix, Joe Walsh, Blue Oyster Cult, QOTSA, Sex Pistols, George Harrison, Elmore James, Django Reinhardt, Paco de Lucia, Guy Clark, Franco & TPOK Jazz, The Ramones etc etc
But the piano. Come on. The finest musical instrument. An orchestra in two hands. Bach. Chopin. Erik Satie. Debussy. Scott Joplin. James P. Johnson. Rachmaninov. Ellington. Fats Waller. Teddy Wilson. Art Tatum. Count Basie. Fats Domino. Ray Charles. Randy Newman. Alan Price. Ian McLagan. Gilbert O’Sullivan. Kate Bush. Ben Folds.
Hey – whose Pop Life is it anyway ?
Ben Folds was the pianist. Darren Jessee was the drummer. Robert Sledge played bass.
Just three of them, and they called the band Ben Folds Five. Sounded better I suppose.
The first single was called “Underground” and it sounded amazing on the radio. Amazing enough for me to go out and find the CD somewhere. Called “Ben Folds Five“, it had a picture of a piano on the front cover. It was excellent. Packed chock-full of ideas, the songs were about college, leaving college, being a young adult, looking back, growing up. Many styles. Some were like Elton John, some were rock music, some were like music hall/ragtime, others like prog. And they could play. Folds himself is clearly classically trained, returned to pop. The fuzz bass is a huge part of the sound. And the backing vocals. My favourite track on that first LP is called Philosophy and it is a little impenetrable lyrically – theories abound that it is about an architect, the Statue of Liberty, Ben’s cock. Seriously. (He made a joke about it once and everyone remembered it). But I think it’s about having your own self-image, your own take on life and your path through it. Your own philosophy that “keeps your feet on the ground, keeps you walking when you fall down”. Without that you’re a cypher.
I immediately set about learning it on the piano. It is a beautiful thing. But very soon I was off to Australia on a gig, and by the time I came back we were completing on a house purchase in Brighton.
Cut to November 1996, one year later and Jenny and I are babysitting for Mollie’s girls Dominique, Kimberley and Courtnie (who was only one year old!) in Ruislip for a week. Mollie – Jenny’s older (but not oldest) sister, married to Pete a year before us – was in hospital under observation because she was pregnant again, and she’d already lost two previous pregnancies desperately trying for a boy. Mollie & Pete had three very beautiful and fabulous girls – still do – but they both wanted a boy, even at some risk to Mollie’s health. It was a worrying time for us all. Mollie was also showing signs of auto-immune disease Lupus once again to complicate things. At this point at the end of November she was six months pregnant and there had been some alarm so Jen and I stepped in and said we could stay overnight there for a few nights. Pete was working nights at that point.
Anyway, come November 26th we got Jenny’s two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy to stand in for us as babysitters because we had two tickets to see Ben Folds Five at the Astoria in London’s Charing Cross Road. Over a year after the album was released this was their first tour of the UK.
The Astoria, Charing Cross Road, London
The Astoria was one of those great London venues which has now been destroyed to make way for Crossrail, the project that allows bankers to whizz into the City from Heathrow in half an hour. It is responsible for the current destruction of Soho as a unique bohemian corner of London. I didn’t see that many shows there, but David Bowie in 2001, and this from Ben Folds Five are up there with the best moments.
Ben Folds Five live
They played the whole album and some interesting covers – Ray Charles You Don’t Know Me and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer – and absolutely smashed Philosophy and Underground with Ben jumping onto the piano and playing it with his fists and feet at one point. Good show. We came out and Jenny immediately called her sisters to find out if all was well. We’d driven in from Ruislip – I think I had a Jag at that point – some gas guzzling blue monster that I loved driving – and Jenny suddenly burst into tears on the street as we walked round to Soho Square. “Mollie’s had a baby boy” she said through sobs…”he’s in an incubator”.
We drove to the hospital and found Mollie, exhausted but happy, wth Pete, and Jenny’s Mum & Dad, and there was a tiny little precious baby boy in a transparent incubator, tubes going into his nostrils as his tiny hands tried to pull them out – it was a good sign. He was three months premature. He weighed less than a bag of sugar – 2lbs. In those early days there was much worry about brain damage and stunted growth and all kinds of things, but those early struggles to remove his nose tubes were a sign of strength through adversity and slowly but surely he was removed from the incubator and grew into the healthy young nephew that Jenny and her sisters called ‘Boy’ after the youngest, Cookie had named him.
Robert, Jordan and Cookie in 2006
Robert – June 17th 2007 when he was 11
Robert is now 18 years old and a more throughly great young man I couldn’t wish to know. Thoughtful, funny, gentle but nobody’s fool.
Robert Jules-Crompton and I in 2013
I’m not sure he even knows this story about his nativity – from our side anyway. I doubt he’s heard this song. But I know he has his own philosophy which keeps his feet on the ground. Jenny and I took him to see Tottenham v Chelsea one day for a birthday present a few years ago. All Jenny’s family are Tottenham Hotspur fans. Oh well.
It’s now November 2015, some 20 years after that first Ben Folds Five LP was released, and two days ago Robert’s nan Bet, Pete’s Mum, passed away in Yarmouth. Cycles of birth and death. She will live on inside us all, inside all who knew her. But death is a loss, and it has been a sad week. Rest in Peace Nanny Bet.
Pete, Kimberley, Bet, Dominique in 2013
Ben Folds Five did two more LPs : Whatever & Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – both outstanding; an LP of B-sides, and then split. Ben Folds did some cracking solo LPs himself – notably Rockin’ The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, and Ben Folds Five reformed for one last LP The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind in 2012.
Robert with his nephew Kian, Dominique’s son in 2012
Philosophy, the song, has a moment towards the end when everything goes mental and Ben’s pounded piano solo turns into a quotation from Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, that mighty work from 1924 which has come to symbolise New York, via Woody Allen’s Manhattan and various other cultural markers. Soon I will get the famous cadence – the theme from Rhapsody in Blue – tattooed onto my left arm. Sometime this November.
Live from Jools in 1996
Reformed band in 2010