Happy birthday to me

I share my birthday with Queen Victoria, Bob Dylan and Eric Cantona. Hopefully this is being published on my 44th birthday. As you might have guessed by now I’ve had a long relationship with music so I thought it might be interesting to have a look back at the music associated with my birthday over the years. Feel free to say “Bloody indulgence, can’t be arsed” and go elsewhere.

1974

“Tubular Bells” – Mike Oldfield / “All the young dudes” – Mott The Hoople

Yes that’s right, 1974. I was five. Earlier in the year my infant school class had been sat in the hall and a huge colour TV with a video recorder underneath was wheeled out in front of us. We then watched some schools and colleges TV and at the end a short video was shown with some instrumental music. At the end the teacher said it was called “Tubular bells”. As far as I can tell the video had been recorded from “The Old Grey Whistle Test” and is available on Youtube. But I was impressed enough to tell my parents about it and they must have noted it somewhere because when it came to my birthday there was a pre-recorded tape of it for me. I’m sure that by then my brother and I had a little mono Crown radio / cassette player to share because I played my tape on it. I’m not sure whether it ever got played on my parents’ hifi though, but the tape got played a lot. So much so that after a while it stretched and destroyed itself, but even still I kept it.

Boy, did I love “Tubular Bells”. What is unusual is that I preferred side two to side one. I still do really. The first fifteen minutes, up to the conclusion of the Piltdown Man section, was as thrilling a piece of music as I’d heard by this point. And while you’re saying “Yeah cos you hear so much music when you’re five” I would counter that I’d heard a lot of it which is why my ongoing “Songs my parents taught us” project is taking so long, I keep finding more records they owned. I shan’t bore you with the ins-and-outs of “Tubular Bells”. Some of my favourite parts though .. From “Part one” the almost ambient duet guitars around the 11:30 mark, the section at 17 minutes where the end riff is established before Viv Stanshall makes his grand entrance, and from “Part two”

I’ve owned numerous copies of “Tubular bells” over the years. After that inital tape finally died, I bought a second hand copy from a neighbour in 1983 which had an enormous chunk cut into the middle of side two making it almost unplayable. I bought a CD of it in the mid 90s, the “Remastered” edition around 2001 – it was this cd I regularly played as the soundtrack to my walk home from the hospital after my son was born seven years ago – and I also bought the double CD remixed edition that came out a few years ago. But until recently I never felt the need to investigate any further into Oldfield’s career. Last year I bought a boxed set of his first six albums which has been an enlightening listen, but all the other albums have got a lot of catching up to do, I’ve played “Tubular bells” more than almost any other album simply because it goes back so far with me.

So why is there another album here for this date? Well I’m not entirely sure. I do know I was given “All the young dudes” at the same time, I also know I had never expressed a preference for it, and I also know my father had “Mott” and played it a lot, and would soon have “The Hoople” too. Maybe he used it as an excuse to buy the album. I know I never willingly played it, but I know he did. I have mentioned this in passing to him and he doesn’t remember it as being a gift for me so I could be wrong. Either way, it’s a good album but not a patch on its sequel.

1981

“Small Faces Big Hits” – The Small Faces

In 1980 there was a show on Radio One compiled by John Tobler and Pete Frame called “25 years of rock” which took one year and made a sound collage of hits from that year interspersed with news broadcasts of important events. It was a huge education for me, giving me a glimpse of the history of rock music and some idea of recentish news. It’s the kind of long form broadcasting that Radio One would never dream of creating now. The two episodes that made the most impression were 1966 and 1967, mostly for the psychedelic influence on them – the section at the end of 66 that featured “Eight miles high” and LSD and “Tomorrow never knows” was a huge eye opener. The 67 show had more of the same and featured “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces which I’d never heard before. I wanted more of this psychedelic music. I would later find my expectations had been set unreasonably high and not a lot of psychedelia matched those standards.

Now my birthday is at the end of May which always seems to match up with the Whitsun bank holiday / half term holiday. In 1981 my family booked a half term holiday in Aberporth in West Wales so off we toddled on Saturday 23rd May. Now I remember two things about this journey – it was very long and boring, and I heard Radio One play “Pocket calculator” by Kraftwerk. I think it was the first time I’d heard of Kraftwerk. I was vaguely aware of “Autobahn” at the time it came out but “Pocket calculator” sounded different, it sort of fitted with some of the electro pop that was emerging and appearing on the radio but there was something deadpan about it. Certainly that one hearing stuck with me enough to remember one or two lines a few years later when I quoted the song in my diary.

My birthday was on the Sunday and with this being West Wales on a Sunday in the early 80s, everything was shut, so I didn’t buy anything that day. However two days later we drove up the coast of Wales to reach Porthmadog and to go specifically to Cobs Records. We had been there a few years before when we’d had family holidays in North Wales and my father knew it was an excellent record shop (and still is, he went there last year) and I had my birthday money to spend. After looking around for a while I settled on a cassette of “Small Faces Big Hits”. By now I had my own little mono radio cassette player which I listened to religiously in the mornings and had a few cassettes along the way. But this one – I thought – would be good. They’re psychedelic, aren’t they? I looked over the song titles – “My mind’s eye”, “Tin soldier” – they sounded interesting. Of course I didn’t actually have my cassette player with me so had to wait til we got back to Penarth at the end of the holiday. At last I could hear these psychedelic gems. I was slightly disappointed when I started playing the tape. Side one started off with some quite twee pop but by the time it arrived at “All or nothing” I didn’t care that this wasn’t what I’d expected but very happy with the results. Side two was more of what I anticipated. I loved the slightly drugged up glee of “Here come the nice”, the swirling “Itchycoo Park” and the knees up Mother Brown “Lazy Sunday”. I didn’t quite get “Tin soldier” for some reason and thought little of the boogie-ish “Wham Bam thank you ma’am”. But my favourite out of all the songs on the tape was undoubtedly “The universal”. It sounded like it had been taped in someone’s back garden – accurately enough as it turned out – and then after two verses the whole band come in. And what an entrance. That opening electric guitar is one of my favourites of all time and I really should read up on it and see if I can play it. The words also told their own tale – it seems world weary, the singer out of sorts with life, and I really identified with the song – “Working doesn’t seem to be the perfect thing for me so I’ll continue to play”. It’s definitely my favourite Small Faces song.

A week or so later my class in school were having their weekly art lesson. It was a free-for-all of paint and paper and mess and chatting and not really caring. Our Art teacher – Mr Davies – was quite young and was considered to be ‘cool’, he even let us put the radio on which was unheard of for first year children. It’s around that age where kids start taking on musical factions, even though they may change by the day. So that particular day, Mr Davies was asking each of the boys (and only the boys, the girls weren’t interested in that sort of factionalism) what they were – a rocker or a mod or a 2 tone freak – and we were replying with brutal honesty as only 12 years old can. When Mr Davies got to asking me I replied “I’m a psychedelic rocker”. He was momentarily silenced, as were the rest of the boys. One of the boys said “What the BLOODY HELL is a psychedelic rocker?” Mr Davies immediately defended me – “Well it’s different, but it’s just as good as answer as anyone else’s”. And with that. I was happy.

1983

“Their Satanic Majesties Request” – The Rolling Stones

As already discussed, 1983 was the year I started buying records (as in pieces of vinyl as opposed to tapes) properly but by my birthday I still only had “Dazzle ships” and “Doot doot”. My brother was a huge Stones fan and had bought pretty much all their albums over the previous year, but had not bought “Satanic Majesties” for some reason. Maybe because the “Rolling Stone Record Guide” – which had become his bible the year before – had rated it so poorly. Maybe because he didn’t like psychedelic music, certainly his record collection at that point wasn’t too far out. He had started working his way through all the Stones albums around ’81 onwards – when “Start me up” restarted their career – and had a few books along the way. All of them said nasty things about “TSMR”. Roy Carr’s “Illustrated Record Guide” said it would make a good EP. It was considered an aberration, somewhere they lost their way and never should have gone there in the first place. My brother also had an interesting little discography book for the Stones which listed hundreds of variations of their official releases and also had pages and pages of bootlegs. There was only one bootleg which covered 1967 and it was called “Sing this all together”.

What’s most odd is that in early May ’83, I ended up buying a tape of this particular bootleg at the first record fair I attended in Splott leisure centre in Cardiff. (The only other time I’ve been to that leisure centre was when my band played the Cardiff Beer Festival there 12 years later, but that’s another story for another time). So now I had a bootleg of songs I didn’t know the real versions of. It was a double album – a C90 in other words – and one side of the tape was the “TSMR” out-takes and one side was random sixties Stones rarities, some BBC sessions, a few weird things and an odd instrumental called “That Place” which the book seemed to think was a Beatles / Stones collaboration (I must dig out the tape and play this song into Shazam to see what it really is). I played the tape a lot, until my birthday when my brother bought me “TSMR” on vinyl in stereo and I immediately realised the bootleg was just a huge con – it was left side of the stereo spectrum played in mono, or the right side of the stereo spectrum.

“TSMR” is a bit of an odd one. It aims for the ramshackle communal air of “All you need is love” or some of Traffic’s more jovial work but there’s a hint of darkness that pulls it away from being full on. Jagger never sounds too convincing when he’s urging us to “Sing this all together” or gently singing “The gomper” – he’s not convinced by the love and flowers and his voice tone shows this. When there’s a hint of nastiness – “Citadel” or “2000 lights years from home” – he sounds more convincing. Those two are the best “rock” songs on the album, you get the impression Keith wasn’t really interested in what was going on. Well let’s face it, the band did have a few other things on their mind during the year. There is some good stuff on the album, “She’s a rainbow” is lovely and heartfelt, and I’ve always had a soft spot for “On with the show” for some reason – I think it’s the way the chord at the end of the chorus turns into a seventh chord on the mellotron. It has been said that this is Brian Jones’ album, or even Nicky Hopkins’ album, but really it’s nobody’s album – it is so uncharacteristic of anyone in the group, it doesn’t sound like them or anything else. It exists in its own world, and that’s not a bad thing.

On my birthday in 1983 the first girl I ever had a crush on found out about it, and the entire day in school was spent hiding from her and from other girls in my class who kept ordering me to ask her out. In the end I gave in – I was locked in a classroom with her until I popped the question. She shyly laughed and said no. My memories of “TSMR” are kind of tied up with that, not that my feelings were reflected in the songs, but that I’m reminded of those intense feelings of rejection when I listen closely. But hell, I’m over that. It was thirty years ago. Time moves on et cetera.

1984

“Heroes” – David Bowie

Again this was a present from my brother and again it was an album by an artist he loved but he wasn’t interested in. He was the big Bowie fan – even got the Spiders From Mars album, and Mick Ronson’s albums and all the rest. But he never bought the Berlin Trilogy and I don’t really know why. Maybe he didn’t like synthesisers. Certainly I did. In the year since “Satanic Majesties” I bought as much OMD as I could find, then moved on to Kraftwerk and was now into my Eno phase. It seemed natural that my brother should buy me one of the Bowie albums he made with Eno. A few days before my birthday I’d found “Heroes” hidden under my brother’s bed so I knew I was getting it.

I must admit that I wasn’t much of a Bowie fan before I heard “Heroes” but then it didn’t sound at all like the other Bowie that my brother played. The whole of the album sounds processed, and I quite like that about it. It sounds like the band did their stuff and the girl singers did their stuff and Bowie did his stuff then someone came along and reprocessed it into this strange noise. At the time I credited most of that to Eno but having read Tony Visconti’s autobiography I’d say he had a larger hand in it. Side one has these slightly crazed songs like “Joe the Lion” and “Blackout” which seem frantic but have calm hearts – the section in the former from “It’s Monday” onwards and the “Kiss you in the rain” section in the latter. The title track I already knew well, I may well have remembered it from the charts at the time. Side two was a totally different matter and got a lot more play from me than side one. “V2 Schneider” was a Kraftwerk reference that was so obvious that I got it and was a funky little thing that jammed along – I love the way the vocals are treated differently each time they appear. “Sense of doubt” was at the time one of the most unsettling pieces of music I’d ever heard. That’s not saying much considering my general musical ignorance, but even now it can make the hairs stand up on the neck. It’s just so ominous. I love the timbre of the synths as well – they seem very in keeping with the sounds of “Music for films” and “Music for airports”, both of which I’d bought by now and adored. The two following pieces – “Moss garden” and “Neu-koln” are equally atmospheric and gorgeous and have their own specific instrumental colour’ – koto and sax respectively – but the three pieces work well together. However what I wasn’t expecting the final track. As far as I was concerned “The secret life of Arabia” was disco. I was too young to know about “disco sucks” but still it was a surprise to hear something so straightforward after the final skronking sax of “Neu-koln”. But secretly I danced, in my bedroom with my headphones on, and wished it went on longer. Yes, side two was a gem.

For some reason, my brother didn’t bother borrowing it from my collection. I’m not even sure if he owns it now himself anyway – he may not.

1985

“Stratosfear” – Tangerine Dream

Cardiff had its own local radio station in the 80s called CBC – Cardiff Broadcasting Corporation. It later became Red Dragon radio then became amalgamated into Capitol FM a few years ago and now sounds as bland as any other radio station playing the same playlist. But back in the 80s CBC had its own personality. The Saturday late night show was presented by someone who called themselves “The Major” and his choices of music were quite enlightening for me at the time. He played Van Morrison. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Patti Smith and Television – all acts I’d read about but hadn’t heard by that point. Certainly they weren’t acts that Radio 1 was playing in 83. My brother tipped me off to the show when it started and we’d both listen to it in our respective bedrooms on Saturday night then discuss it the following morning. One night in late 83 he played “Cinnamon Road” by Tangerine Dream, adding that he didn’t normally play ‘something like this’. That was true enough – it was like a four minute burst of synthesised liquid melody and I loved it. The album it came from – “Hyperborea” – was immediately added to my Christmas list for ’83 and over the 17 months from there I had bought a few TD albums. Even then it seemed obvious that their 70s albums were better than their 80s albums somehow but it’s only once I’d read about the differences between analogue and digital synthesisers that I realised why. At the time I was reading Electronics and Music Maker magazine which expounded how great digital synths and sampling and FM synthesis was, and only when I got my own synth – an old Roland SH3a – did I realise how making your own sounds was more creative than using presets. Incidentally I’ve only just realised that I bought that synth the day after my birthday in 85. However, back to TD… “Stratosfear” is a dark record. As you may have gathered by now, dark is good for me. I’ve always had a wellspring of melancholy and I like that reflected in music too. I love happy music too but… It’s when the minor chords hit that it really makes me feel in touch with the music. “Stratosfear” is that kind of record. Reading about it since then, it seems like there was a lot of trouble within the band – between members and with equipment – and this is reflected in the music. There’s acoustic and electric guitar throughout which was an innovation – or a throwback – for them, and the second song (even now I have no idea of the song titles) starts with harpsichord and flute which makes it sound medieval. There seems to be a distance to this music, it’s not about outer space but inner space – interior worlds of quiet discomfort. At least that’s what I felt back in 85. It suited the time actually. The real downside of having a birthday at the end of May was that any real joy was overcome by the knowledge that there were exams looming, and that year I had my O levels to do. So after one day of playing with the synth it was packed away until ‘after the exams’. And “Stratosfear” became the soundtrack to revision, a task I hated and really didn’t do too well at. All of the reasons for these quirks of mine would eventually become clear, but at the time it was just a case of having to do revision because I had to do it. Grin and bear it. That’s how the summer of 1985 was, and that darkened my birthday, and that is sort of reflected on “Stratosfear”.

So there you go. Some birthdays are better than others. There have been more, obviously, and I may well write about them soon. Or maybe next year. I really must crack on with “Songs our parents taught us” y’know….

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4 thoughts on “Happy birthday to me

  1. I very much enjoy reading these posts, not least because I’m of a similar vintage and share your enthusiasm for much of the music you write about. Enjoy the rest of your birthday.

  2. Great post. I am of a slightly older vintage than yourself, but I have underlying memories of sitting in darkened school assembly rooms watching documentaries soundtracked by Tubular Bells and Ricochet. They made a big impression on me.

  3. That Bowie album is amazing. Hands down. When I stumbled onto it I was SO not into anything instrumental, but I could not help but like side 2. The sound landscapes are amazing.

    I’ve heard you mention “Tubular Bells” often. I need to check that one out.

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