Songs my parents taught me part 1

This is the first part of an ongoing project where I look back on my parents’ record collection and decide what it means to me and what memories it stirs. Some of this music I’ve listened to all my life and some of it I’ve not heard for over 30 years. I’m not sure how this will proceed but it might be fun.

An introduction of sorts

For as long as I can remember there was always music playing around me. I presume this is because my parents were both ‘baby boomers’ and their musical tastes were governed by their respective ages. My father was born in the early 40s so he was a teenager when rock’n’roll exploded. His taste reflected that – Elvis, Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, early Cliff Richard or more likely early Shadows. My mother was born in the late 40s so when she was a teenager it was all Merseybeat, Beatles and all of the rest. There was a lot of crossover in their tastes – they both loved the Beatles and saw them in the Capitol theatre in Cardiff, and saw other bands of the era – enough to make my brother and I drool when the subject came up. “You saw the Stones?”…”Well yes but we never heard them through all the screams”. Those were different times.

Being teenagers in the 50s and 60s they both bought records. Now here’s the interesting thing – I’m not sure whether the records I remember are my mother’s or my father’s. I’m not sure if they amalgamated their record collections when they got married and certainly I can take a guess at which records belonged to each parent. As for the records themselves, I remember them being around until the mid seventies at which point my father recorded all the songs he wanted to keep onto a series of cassette tapes and then threw out almost the entire record collection – all original Elvis, Buddy Holly, Beatles records. I think he still feels agrieved about this – I was speaking to him recently about this project of mine and he commented that he threw away records that would be worth a fortune now. So instead we had a series of carefully annotated cassettes – track listings written out in biro on Bib cassette inlays. These inlays were available from the back pages of the Melody Maker (which my father read for a few years in the mid 70s) alongside tape slicing kits and dust bugs. Ah, such magical items. As soon as I had my music centre for Xmas 82 I HAD to have a dust bug as well. We would have these tapes playing whenever we had long journeys by car – going on family holidays or when we moved house in the late 70s. Put me in the back of a mid 70s Datsun Sunny and play me one of these albums and I”d have the biggest flood of memories ever.

Now I don’t really know why but my father didn’t tape everything. He seemed to edit albums down – one or two songs here or there – and sometimes missed some vital songs from classic albums, but we’ll get to that soon enough. In some circumstances he’d put side two first instead of side one, or completely ignore side one of an album. I have no idea why, but it made for quite a voyage of discovery when I did buy some of these albums for myself and find I had more songs to learn to love.

I would like to add one point here before I dive in. I’m no record reviewer, I don’t go in for cultural contexts and all the rest – I’m reviewing these records based purely on what I like about them and what I remember of the circumstances of hearing them when I was younger. Some of these records are number one albums and some of them are very well known indeed, and if you do want to read some very decent writing on some of these records I can heartily recommend “Then Play Long“, a blog written by Marcello Carlin and Lena Friesen which reviews every UK number one album from 1952 to 1981 (so far). Please read it if you haven’t already, it’s an excellent way to spend some hours. Plug over. Let’s get started on what I believe is the first music I ever heard.

“Tommy” – The Who

As I might have mentioned. I was born on 24th May 1969. The very next day “Tommy” was issued. Now I wasn’t really meant to be born in May, I decided to pop out a month or so early and spent some time in an incubator until I was well enough to go home. The downside of being premature was that there were congenital defects which would affect my whole life – not least a fully formed cataract in my left eye and a half formed one in my right eye. The upside of being premature was that I was born in Cardiff (my parents were visiting their parents) so I am Welsh unlike my brother who was born in Derby. It’s not where you’re from though, it’s where you’re at.

Now I’m not saying that my father bought “Tommy” the day after I was born, but I’m sure it wasn’t long afterwards. I can remember looking at the sleeve at an early age – feeling uneasy about the faces in the sleeve, the visual distortions in the pictures in the lyric book. However this record did not survive The Purge so only existed in my life a few years, and not much of it was copied to tape – from what I remember only “Pinball wizard”, “Tommy can you hear me?”, “I’m free” and “Sally Simpson”. My brother bought another vinyl copy of the album in the mid 80s but I took little notice and I don’t remember it being played often – the underlying theme of my interactions with my brother’s record collection was that it was mutually exclusive from mine so we never borrowed each other’s records, which stopped around ’88 when we both discovered the Byrds and freak beat simultaneously. It was only when I bought a CD of “Tommy” for myself in the mid 90s and immersed myself in the music that I realised that this album was part of the basic DNA of my existence.

It was a strange experience, that first (re)listen. As soon as “Overture” started it felt remarkably familiar to me. I knew where all the changes were going to be. I knew all the words. Tears started to well up in my eyes and by the time of “Amazing journey” and “Sparks” they were flooding down my face. I couldn’t control it at all. Every second of the album was familiar, from the long improvisations to the short incidental tracks. Looking at the booklet with the reproduction of the original sent shivers down my spine. This really was music I knew in my soul. For some reason all my favourite songs appeared on the third side which I thought was perfect, even silly little things like “Miracle cure”. “Tommy can you hear me?” used to scare me as a child, the way the whole song fades out leaving a lone voice asking “Tommy? Tommy?” was like an aural equivalent of the visual games on the sleeve. “Sally Simpson” is a wonderful vignette of a moment in life and possibly my favourite song on the album. That song seemed to stir the emotions in me, even now it gives me a little wobble. There were flaws in the album – I could happily live without “Eyesight for the blind” and a few of the early songs, but I do love this album. It’s not one I play often in all fairness because I still find it quite emotional, but it’s one I enjoy when I do play it.

My parents had one other album by The Who – the late 60s “Direct Hits” album. I vaguely remember this but not much, and the only songs that seemed familiar (other than the obvious singles) were “Somebody’s coming” and “Doctor doctor”, which always seemed to border on hysteria back then and still does now.

“Fire brigade” – The Move

“But they never made an album called ‘Fire brigade’?” I hear you cry. Well technically no they didn’t, but in 1972 the EMI budget label subsidiary Music For Pleasure issued a compilation of that title. Somehow this album survived The Purge and remained in my parents’ collection until..well I’m not sure, it was certainly still there when I left home in 1994. This is a damn fine compilation and unless you’re a total and complete fan then this may be all the Move you’ll ever need. It’s an odd mix – mostly singles, with a few b-sides and album tracks thrown in for good measure. You get the hits like the title track, “Flowers in the rain”, “Blackberry way” and “Curly”, you get both sides of the flop “Wild tiger woman” single, and it stops just before Jeff Lynne takes over. What’s not to love about it?

As for memories… I have a vague recall of my father buying this in the early 70s, and although it never found it’s way onto tape it was played a lot at home. It also had some bearing on my “psychedelic rocker” claim in the early 80s. The songs “Yellow rainbow” and “Walk upon the water” appealed to my burgeoning sense of psychedelia. The latter song freaked out my pre-teen mind – I took the song literally and wondered about what could make someone think they could walk on water. I was young and foolish then. The album also featured what could be my favourite song by The Move – “Omnibus”. It just seems like a perfect pop song using an intriguing metaphor. It starts like the Birds then Bev Bevan’s drums kick it into something else. The song twists and turns, Roy pops in for a majestic middle eight (he did write some stunning middle eights) and as the song returns to the introduction, the song drops down to bass and drums and it goes rags rock as the song draws to a fade out. Why was this gem a beside? There are other gems too, like “Beautiful daughter”. This is a two minute ode to lost love using only acoustic guitar and string quartet. Now I know it’s trying to be like “Forever Changes” but at the time I just thought it was gorgeous. Again another great middle eight – “Would you believe? She just dropped in to say goodbye”. It’s a damn fine album all in all, let down by one thing.

“All tracks are stereo except for those marked with an asterisk. These have been electronically enhanced for stereo effect.”

This seemed to be a late 60s / early 70s fad because heaven forbid if some poor soul actually had to listen to mono. So a perfectly acceptable mono mix was fed through two graphic equaliser which cut the lows on one side of the stereo spectrum and the highs on the other side. Did it make it stereo? Did it hell! Did it make it listenable? No not really. Sometimes whoever was ‘enhancing’ a track would smother one side of the stereo with revert or echo. It really was a horrible thing and it spoils what would otherwise be a great album. Shame.

“Mott” / “The Hoople” – Mott The Hoople.

As I may have mentioned regarding my birthday a while back, my father was a big Mott the Hoople fan. I don’t know why I’m using the past tense, he still is a big Mott fan, I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s seen Ian Hunter live and he has got his tickets (for my brother and himself) booked for their reunion concert in Manchester later this year. I would be jealous of this except that I saw one of their warm up gigs in Monmouth when they reformed in 2009. So yes it’s fair to say the whole family like Mott. Maybe not my mother though, not sure if she’s ever ‘expressed a preference’ as the old advert said.

I’m not sure when my father discovered Mott, whether it was around the point of “All the young dudes” being issued or maybe earlier. I do recall hearing “Thunderbuck ram” as a youngster but not remembering the “Mad shadows” album being around. Maybe it was on an Island compilation? However I do remember these two Mott albums being around – “Mott” on vinyl and “The hoople” on pre-recorded cassette. I’m half-expecting my father to read this and correct me on these things. This meant that we heard “The Hoople” more than “Mott” as the tape stayed in the car and was played more often, which is a shame because “Mott” is a better album.

“Mott” kicks off in top gear with *All the way from Memphis” and doesn’t let up throughout side one. “Hymn for the dudes” is elegiac and a little bombastic and does the loud quiet thing really well while “Violence” rocks pretty hard for 1973. Side two takes things slower – “The ballad of Mott the Hoople” enshrines the band in their own mythology while Mick Ralph solo spot turns into a Spanish guitar workout which leads nowhere, finally “I wish I was your mother” is a touch of genius. At the time I didn’t really get the Dylan references – I was too young – but now I can’t help smiling at how Ian phrases his vocals. The whole album is taut and lean and rocks with power, precision and humour.

“The Hoople” is like a pale facsimile of its predecessor. There’s the big singles which again add to their myth. There’s “Violence” part two in “Crash street kids”. In the place of Mick Ralphs’ solo spot, Overend Watts gets a song of his own which adds little to the stew. There’s a big quiet loud slowie or two like “Through the looking glass”. But generally there’s a feeling of diminishing returns.

There are a few good songs on the album though. I always liked the slippery glide of “Alice”, from the bass introduction to the lilting Leslie guitar part at the end. It’s lucky the younger me wasn’t listening to the lyrics. “Marionette” shows Hunter’s dissatisfaction with the star-making process he was now a part of, it’s theatrical nature making it perfect for their Broadway shows. Best of all for the younger me was “Crash street kids”. Nothing to do with the music which is stop start thrilling, but because Ian Hunter’s voice turns into a Dalek at the end, at least that’s what my brother and I thought at the time. We’d run around pretending to be Dale’s shouting “Now you’re dead! Now you’re dead! Now you’re dead!”. .
When Mott split up my father did buy the first few Ian Hunter albums and I may get to those another time. On the other hand, when my brother rediscovered Mott he continued down the line, buying the two awful post-Hunter Mott albums “Drive on” and “Shouting and pointing”, then onwards to the British Lions and Morgan Fisher solo albums. But he did get the first Hybrid Kids album which was – and still is – a post modern gem.

“Tapestry” – Carole King

Now this one I’m sure was my mother’s rather than my father’s. I came to it just as an album without knowing the back story – New York Brill Building queen moves to LA to chill out in the early 70s – and I also had a small problem with this album. My father taped it backwards – side two followed by side one. I don’t know why, but I expect it to start with “You’ve got a friend” and work its way to “Way over yonder”. It sounds wrong otherwise.

As an album it’s very good, but it does get a bit monotonous and ‘mellow’ at times. The musicianship is subtle and tasteful but it doesn’t really rock much but not a lot in my parents’ collection did rock that much. The songs I remember most as a child were “Smackwater Jack” and the title track. The former had an odd bouncing up and down beat – also notable on “Magneto and Titanium Man” by Wings, which we’ll get to another time – which made me dance around. “Tapestry” itself was one of the first occurrences for me of that heart-melting butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling. I don’t know what causes it, but it still does it to me now. I bought the CD reissue a few years ago and when I played that song the same feelings I felt as a child came through.

The one song that is special to me on this album is “Home again”. Not for any reasons of memories from childhood though. Around November 2001 I was admitted to hospital with severe kidney stones – a problem that would affect me from then until now. It was the first time I’d been in hospital since I was about six, and the first time I’d been apart from my wife since we’d been married a few years before. I was hoping to be discharged before the weekend but I ended up staying for about five days while the doctors waited for me to pass the stone. One night I was listening to the radio and the DJ – I believe it might have been Stuart Maconie – was playing an interesting mix of music. For some reason he played “Home again” and the mixture of remembering the song from long ago, and also the circumstances of being away from home and seperated from the one I love made the tears well up. That song always reminds me of that hospital ward now, sat opposite John Sicola – the late manager of TJs in Newport – and chatting to him about the acts he’d seen. Oh and the small issue of an enormous kidney stone being passed. Ouch.

There will be more investigations into my parents’ record collection as time goes by. There’ll be a look into why they had almost every Beatles record but almost nothing by The Rolling Stones, the glorious beauty of “One year” by Colin Blunstone and three different albums by three different artists which all have one song in common.

Oh and one last thing – Happy birthday Dad!

Next time : The rise and fall of a call centre, featuring music from Goldfrapp, Fleet Foxes and Port O’Brien.

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6 thoughts on “Songs my parents taught me part 1

  1. Being the hip young gunslinger you are (9 years younger than me) you probably know that the 30th anniversary edition of Mott the Hoople’s Live is terrific and makes recompense for the odd way that two gigs were represented on the original release. But if that’s news to you, make sure to listen to the 2CD version. I’m sure you’ll all enjoy it.

    1. Yes the original “Mott Live” was a total mess, the 2 cd version devoting a disc to each concert makes a lot more sense and is a damn good listen. I should have mentioned “Saturday gigs” being the greatest farewell single ever too really. “Hip young gunslinger” – am I Burchill or Parsons? God help me… 😎

  2. What a memory you have. I give this blog 9/10 . The major fact you omitted was that Mum made me throw out all my valuable Elvis records. I had a 33-1/3 RPM EP which I imported from American which must be worth a bomb now. Yes I did buy Tommy three days after you were born. No wonder its in your DNA. Keep up the good work. It’s bringing back facts and memories I had forgotten in my dotage. ONCE AGAIN THANKS FOR A GREAT DAY YESTERDAY.

  3. Great writing and post! It’s hard to not love the music your parents played. It’s imprinted on you. My father was into Neil Diamond. Neil Diamond and Nine Inch Nails are next to each other on my record shelf. LOL

    Found your blog through Ilxor. Great stuff.

    Michael

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