Songs my parents taught me part 2

Continuing the series of articles where I examine my parents’ record collection in search of insights. The first part is available here. As ever, these aren’t so much reviews as collections of thoughts and memories. A lot of these albums on this entry were number one albums and I can only hope you examine the reviews on “Then Play Long” on these albums as they are far more insightful than mine.

I realised the other day that this series of articles isn’t just about a remembered history of me as a seven year old – which would be 1976. It’s also a realisation of how much music had seeped into my life by that age, how it was all around me. I also look at my own son who is seven now and wonder if music has affected his life up to this point as it had mine, and if he has any defining memories of music in his life. He has his favourite songs – usually governed by the charts but also by his parents’ choice of music, he loves “Computer World” too. He adores music and accesses it in ways which I never dreamt of when I was his age – I considered myself lucky to have a small mono radio cassette player which I shared with my brother, he has access to numerous music channels on TV which he’ll channel hop through, music on electronic devices like his parents’ phones and also music in school has changed – there’s still recorders and glockenspiels and tambourines in the classroom but also Garageband on iPads, the kind of thing I would fantasise about having as a teenager – I recorded my own songs by bouncing across two tape decks while playing Casio keyboards. How times change. Anyway, back to my parents’ collection.

“The sounds of silence” / “Parsley sage rosemary and thyme” / “Bookends” / “Bridge over troubled water” – Simon and Garfunkel.

There exists in my attic my parents’ white C120 tape which contains all these albums and it still plays today. “But these albums wouldn’t fit on a C120, would they?” I hear you ask. Well they wouldn’t unless my father carried out a little pruning here and there. He only lost two songs but frankly we never missed them – and he still wrote the names of them on the Bib cassette inlay anyway so my brother and I just assumed it was there somewhere. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The first question to ask is this – did they have “Wednesday morning 3AM”? Yes they did because I can remember seeing it and some of the songs are familiar to me but not all of them. Perhaps it was a little too ‘folk’ and not enough ‘rock’ for my parents. Certainly none of the album ended up on cassette after The Purge. So the tape starts with “The sounds of silence” LP, and of course this is the British version my parents owned so it has “Homeward bound” in it’s rightful place at the start of side two. Side one is a mixed bag – I never cared for the title track, even when I was young it sounded wrong, as if someone had tried to wallpaper over something delicate and intimate – which is of course correct, as their original acoustic recording had electric instrumentation overdubbed onto it. It sounds clumsy and the ‘band’ can’t follow the intimacies of the acoustic guitar. The purely acoustic songs work best on this side – “Kathy’s song” is truly heartfelt, “Anji” nicely quotes other songs on the album (a touch I found as fascinating as a child as I do now – it must have been deliberate) but the more amplified songs – because ‘rockier’ sounds so wrong in this context – don’t tend to work well at all. “Blessed” is painful, the two singers shouting to be heard over shrill electric guitars. “Somewhere they can’t find me” is better but seems to have 1965 written all over it. Of course at the time I didn’t know that this was all folk rock and hanging on Dylan’s coat-tails, I just accepted it as music. I certainly wasn’t listening to the words at that age, because good heavens they are earnest and uptight and obsessed with seeming poetic.

Side two of the album opens with “Homeward bound” which fits far better in this company than on “Parsley sage etc”. Following that are two songs to which I DID listen to the lyrics. “Richard Cory” and “A most peculiar man” scared the living daylights out of me as a child, and were as vivid in their descriptions of death as any public information film which were scarred onto my memory. There we would be sitting down to Sunday lunch with “Weekend World” on the TV in the background, it would go to an advert break and just be filled with PIFs of death and horror. I would only see them once and remember them forever – there was one I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere which had a sort of country song going “Drive to the left on country lanes” with endless carnage as cars drove into oncoming tractors. Laugh a bloody minute. Years later I found out what the problem was, I’m not an auditory learner but a visual learner – you need to say things to me a few times to get me to action them (“Don’t I know it” says my wife at this point) but show me an image once and I’ll remember it forever. This is why I have little interest in films or repeats on TV – I’ve seen it once, I remember it. On the other hand this may also explain my love of music, because I can hear familiar music and still be learning it and enjoying it as if it were the first time. Anyway, back to S&G. “Richard Cory” is about a rich and powerful man but the narrator – one of his workers – wants Cory’s lifestyle even if it is so hollow that Cory kills himself. “A most peculiar man” is more gentle – a character study of loneliness but again the character ends up taking his life. Were there many other albums from the mid 60s which featured two consecutive songs about suicide? But my goodness I took these songs literally at the time – again these are ASD traits. Just like “Play with fire” by The Rolling Stones – I didn’t know many Stones songs when I was younger but that song terrified me. Why? Because of public information films again – I’d seen that “playing with fire” usually ended up with people getting hurt. I didn’t see it as a metaphor, I honestly thought Mick Jagger was lighting matches carelessly. OK, some of that might have been youthful naivety but that’s what I thought. The rest of the S&G album is adequate and at the time I just considered this album to be “30 minutes I’ve got to sit through to get to the good stuff”. “I am a rock” though…well I kind of identified with that song when I was young, which is a scary thought. Very scary indeed.

“Parsley sage rosemary and thyme” shows a huge leap forward in recording quality and songwriting even if some of it still sounds rather earnest. More thought has been spent on the arrangements, “Scarborough fair” builds from nothing to something then back to nothing again. Side one for young me was all about “The big bright green pleasure machine”. I had no idea what it meant but it sounded like fun. (Quickly checks Google – what does it mean? The power of advertising? Fair enough). Now I listen to it and think how ahead of the curve they were mentioning hippies. Side two however turns into a deeply emotional experience. The album’s sleeve notes think “The dangling conversation” is satire but I don’t think so, it’s too worthy and all the mentions of poetry on “The sounds of silence” lead to this song. The music however is gorgeous, those little ascending flourishes on harp. “Flowers never bend” is almost as good, being fast but meaningful – everything “Leaves that were green” could have been but clearly wasn’t.

Then there’s “A simple desultory phillipic”. The young me thought this song was hilarious and groovy – who were all these people being mentioned? It was like a modern history lesson in song. I loved the groove, the wailing organ, everything. When I reached my mid teens I went back to the song and realised just how funny it was – it is completely ripping the piss out of “Highway 61” era Dylan, right down to “I’ve lost my harmonica. Albert”. The middle eight is just too clever – “He’s so unhip that when you talk about Dylan he thinks you’re talkin’ ’bout Dylan Thomas – whoever he was. The man ain’t got no culture but it’s alright Ma, everybody must get stoned!”. It still brings a smile to my face now and I’ve known it for years. That’s as raucous as they’d get, the change of pace into Garfunkel’s solo piece “For Emily” is startling and here somehow it gets a little emotional for me. The song isn’t really that emotional, no real heart melting chord changes but this song gets to me somehow. Finally “A poem on the underground wall”. I remember asking my father “What’s this about?” and him being vague. Of course it’s about someone writing graffiti but “a poem” of “four letters”? Well! At this point my father’s judicious editing loses “7 o clock news / Silent night” and quite right too, and having about 90 seconds left on the end of side one of the C120, he adds “Bookends theme”.

And that confused the hell out of me for years because I always assumed that side one of the tape was the first two albums and side two was the second two. So in my mind “Parsley sage…” finished with an instrumental which would be used again on the next album which is a totally bonkers way to look at it. Only when I saw a S&G discography a few years later did I work out that “Bookends theme” was really the start of “Bookends”.

But what a start! “Save the life of my child” kicks off with a huge Moog bass motif and the whole song sounds like it was recorded in some huge underground car park, a sound I absolutely adore (and the only other song I’ve come across with similar sonics is “Automobile noise” by The Blue Nile). Again I remember asking my parents what it meant – “He flew away”? – but they were vague then, and I can see why. Is it a metaphor for something? Well you’re asking the wrong person there. The rest of the first side of the album shows the transition from youth to old age quite brilliantly, and again my father edited out “Voices of old people” and while it’s nice in context of the album I didn’t really miss it. “Old friends” is beautiful though, the orchestration gets dissonant halfway through and it’s a little bit scary and ends with a high string line before the “Bookends” theme returns and the lyrics here are masterful – “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you”.

It should be pointed out here, the halfway point through “Bookends”, that the standard of songwriting has risen enormously. Whereas before the songs were a little self-conscious and verbose and ‘collegiate’, here the songs are musically varied, and lyrically far less self obsessed, and more interesting for that. The production is also more considered, and were parts of this the first recording on 16 track? (Well I think The Millennium’s “It’s you” got there first). The whole album sounds fabulous, and the relationship that was developing between Simon, Garfunkel and Roy Halee is now bearing fruit.

Side two of “Bookends” isn’t as conceptual as side one, and could be considered a collection of singles but it still hangs together nicely. I didn’t realise until recently that the intro to “Fakin’ it” was an homage to “Strawberry Fields Forever” but it works, and “Punky’s dilemma” was a favourite when I was young – “Wish I was an English muffin…”? What’s he talking about, it just sounded like funny words to me, and the sound of someone falling down the stairs. “Hazy shade of winter” rocks and “At the zoo” reminds me of going with my grandparents to Bristol Zoo in the early 70s and being amazed to see a baby white tiger. The album is easily my favourite of theirs and I can still pick up new aspects with each listen – for instance the acoustic guitar on the left channel of “Mrs Robinson” playing octaves, and I only noticed that this week.

Finally on the tape was the whole of the “Bridge over troubled water” album. Now this is a troublesome album for me. There’s some good stuff on there but it’s was a letdown for me after “Bookends”. It’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve recognised how powerful these songs are. The two epics – “The boxer” and the title track – really didn’t connect with me until I was in my mid thirties and having a small crisis or two (we may get there or we may not), and suddenly the songs made sense and I could hear past what I’d previously considered ‘bluster’ to the heart of the songs. Maybe I just needed some kind of maturity to understand them. It’s about comfort sometimes, needing someone to rely on, even if it’s yourself. Certainly the younger me wasn’t that impressed with the album, my favourites were the brassy “Keep the customer satisfied” and the automobile noises of “Baby driver”. Which goes to show that when you’re seven you have absolutely no idea what songs mean. I thought the former was about a shop keeper and the latter was about – well – cars. What did I know? The rest of the songs I kind of blanked through, I’d sing along to “Cecilia” but the deeper meanings of the songs, the underlying sadness in the break up of the relationship between Simon and Garfunkel, it all passed me by. I was too young for such adult themes. Now I can appreciate them more and recognise the delicacy on “El Condor Paso”, a song I hated but now adore. I still don’t quite see the point in some of it – I recognise the use of “Bye bye love” but hate the way the song comes across – the “proper” live version on the “Old friends” box set makes more sense. On the other hand, age has allowed me to see that “The only living boy in New York” is not really a bit of a dirge but actually a beautifully crafted piece of songcraft, and when that choir of multitracked Garfunkels come in and sing “Here I am” it plains stops me breathing for a second. For me, the song is the highlight of the whole album, but whereas “Bookends” is universal in its theme of youth to old age, “Bridge…” is more personal. I can recognise how it must have felt for the sixties generation to have this touchstone record as a comfort blanket as they entered the uncertain seventies, and it probably spoke to that generation more than it did to me, but at the end of the day, I’d take “Bookends” any day of “BOTW”. And now the C120 has finished and we’re back to side one and the simplistic sounds of silence. How far they travelled in such a short time.

“Close to you” – The Carpenters

It took a bit of research – and consultation with my father – to work out which Carpenters album we used to own. I knew we had one and I had vague recollections of the cover but it certainly didn’t survive The Purge, I don’t think any of it was taped for posterity which shows how much it was cared for. However we did have this album and it was fascinating to hear it again simply because I’ve not heard it for more than thirty five years.

It’s an interesting listen because you are hearing The Carpenters’ style develop in front of your ears. Their debut album from 1969 was a bit odd around the edges – almost choral in places, a hint of psychedelia, not so much reliance on Karen’s voice, even covering Neil Young’s “Nowadays Clancy can’t even sing” and the hippie classic “Get together”. The second album “Close to you” sees them defining their own style within the A&M sound. There is more emphasis on Karen’s breathy voice, more of the massed overdubbed harmonies, and the songs are “straighter”, for want of a better word.

“We’ve only just begun” defines their style really, Karen singing with an audible smile on her face and Richard as a counterpoint. I must admit listening to this album – I love the electric piano throughout, it sounds lovely. “Love is surrender” is an odd speedy bossanova with Tijuana brass and an ascending piano part that is basically “Do you know the way to San Jose?” in reverse. “Reason to believe” has a country swing to it and Karen sings it nicely enough, then their trademark massed harmonies take over the song and it turns into a typical piece of lightness, which doesn’t suit the song really. “Help!” though does work very well (at which point a friend of mine will run screaming from this blog), slowing down Lennon’s plea to make it more heartfelt. This is strange in that this song doesn’t end up on Carpenters compilations yet I know this version intimately and I really do like it a lot. I also like the churchy organ towards the end, very Procul Harum. The album’s title track is of course very familiar but this version sounds slightly different – was it rerecorded or remixed for the single? It is a tailor made hit single and quite lovely. And of course my wife and I had a trained opera singer friend of ours sing it at our wedding, which was nice. “Baby it’s you” is a very different version to the original, or the Beatles’ version that I was familiar with as a child and I don’t really think it works as a slushy ballad, it misses the way the Beatles hiss out ‘cheat cheat’. “I’ll never fall in love again” is great though, more of that lovely electric piano and some flute. “Mr Guder” is a lambasting of one of their old bosses and while not quite matching Ray Davies’ biting satire it has a hint of poison in it which suits them, but again it’s more bossanova and flutes and strings – they really were making their style their own here. “I kept on loving you” also sounds familiar, it’s a Richard Carpenter feature and is ok, as is the ambitious multi-part “Another song” which sounds like they’re trying too hard to prove their musical chops – “Look, we can improvise too, here’s a flute solo just like Jethro Tull, and an electric piano through a wah-wah, like Soft Machine…”

However there is one revelatory song on this album. “Crescent Noon” is utterly beautiful, a basic piano introduction very much like Satie and Karen singing like she means every word and some incredibly moving chord changes. The arrangement is gentle and sympathic to the song’s performance and I can’t help welling up. You know, I knew there was one song on this album that would do this to me, that’s why I wanted to find it so much, it’s tapping into my past and recalling times and places. It’s like I’m back in our old house in Leeds, I can see the furniture and the old stereogram under the stairs and it’s all here in my mind when I hear it. How does music capture memories so? This song is gorgeously moving and it’s heart stopping. Oh here come the tears. Oh sorry sorry. Goodness this song is incredible, just incredible. Why don’t people know this song? It’s their loss.

(Dries eyes). Ok moving on.

“Every picture tells a story” – Rod Stewart

My father excelled himself on his editing skills with “Every picture tells a story” by simply taping side two and nothing else. Thus when I bought my own copy of the album in the mid 90s it was an education to hear side one. I knew it vaguely but it was like a ghost memory, as I hadn’t heard them since around 1975. My parents had the album and I remember not liking the sleeve for some reason – I think the picture of Rod on the back scared me, the way he was throwing his head back. It looked weird, and I didn’t like it. I was secretly glad when it disappeared in The Purge.

Side One then wasn’t so familiar as Side Two. The title track is a rollicking good time, though I can understand why my parents didn’t want me to hear it too often – it’s a bit raunchy. The rest of side one is OK, well it’s better than OK, it’s excellent and heartfelt and bluesy, and it’s probably the first version of “Amazing grace” I knew – we would be singing it in school assemblies by the time I was seven. I knew Elvis’ “That’s all right” ‘cos my father was a huge Presley fan (as we’ll see next time I look at their collection) and Stewart’s version isn’t as epochal but is respectful of the original’s place in history. Stewart does a mean Dylan cover too. But at the end of the day, it’s all about side two and I’d don’t apologise for concentrating on that.

A short acoustic guitar instrumental leads into “Maggie May” and really everyone should be sick of this song, but it still sounds fresh as the day it was recorded. In fact the whole album sounds remarkably relaxed and vibrant, the sound of Rod and his mates making music together – it could have been recorded at any time, there’s no signifiers in the sound that screams “1971” other than the song selection. “Maggie May” is a bit of a conundrum, it doesn’t sound like a hit single, there isn’t a chorus, you have to concentrate to the words to understand what’s going on and the seven year old me delighted in mishearing words in this song – a trick I would continue for years, ending up with an alternate lyric for “Girls talk” by Dave Edmunds based on Grand Prix drivers of the late 70s, and of course my classic opening line of “Street fighting man” – “Everywhere I hear the sound of Martin, George and Pete, boy”. Anyway, back to “Maggie May” and it’s a shaggy dog story with a happy-ish ending, I always presumed the line about finding a rock’n’roll band who need a helping hand was aimed at the Faces. Actually thinking about it, is there an ending anyway to this story, happy or otherwise?

“Mandolin wind” is another kind of story. Details are sketched in here and there – the weather, the seasons, the animals – but at the heart of the song is love. If anyone said “Name a song that encapsulates love” I would pick this one. As a seven year old I had absolutely no concept of love so took all the words at face value, and didn’t follow the story. Now I can listen to the story unfold and become wrapped up in it, it is ambiguous enough for you to paint your own picture and fill in your own gaps, but the lyrics are incredibly powerful, the third verse that starts “Oh I never was good with romantic words so the next few lines come really hard…” is so great because it’s so right, it could be anyone saying those words. And I haven’t even talked about the music which has one of those heart stopping chord changes running through it. Tears invariably flow during this song.

Next comes “I’m losing you” which is a perfect recording of a band playing together in a room bouncing off and reacting to each other. It bloody wells rocks as hard as you like without resorting to amplifier distortion or power chords, and when it breaks down to just Kenny Jones thrashing away on the drums, don’t you just want to turn up the volume? I know I do. If it wasn’t for knowing what comes next I would have played it again.

Finally “Reason to believe”. We’ve already encountered this song before, thanks to The Carpenters and whereas Richard and Karen treat the song as another piece of fluff, Rod takes it into the realms of truth. He really does sound like someone’s done this to him and he still wants to believe in them. The arrangement is perfect – almost gospel in a way, quiet in the right places, and you feel you’re close enough to feel Rod’s breath as he sings, it’s that intimate. The song fades with a violin playing out and Rod still whooping. I really haven’t done justice to Side Two, the movement from one song to the next, the breadth of emotion is extraordinary. A wonderful wonderful record, and one which deserves all the plaudits it has received over the years. Sometimes Rod’s original talent for writing or picking songs is overshadowed by his public image – one spin of this disc should settle any arguments to his talent.

“Can’t help falling in love” – Andy Williams.

Now this album has always puzzled me – why did my parents own it? It’s not like they had any other Andy Williams LPs or showed any interest in him. I can remember seeing the album in the collection – the cover of Andy walking through a forest, the inner sleeve of blurbs for other CBS albums – but when the vinyl collection was transferred to cassette I assumed it had disappeared.

In April 1986 things were a little emotionally fraught for me – I mentioned in my Durutti Column piece how at the end of March their “Circuses and bread” album got me through that depressing Easter “alongside an old rediscovered album from my parents’ collection.”. This Andy Williams album was that record. I found a tape of it quite by accident and played it through headphones lying on my bed and was in floods of tears. It was like a past life flashing before my eyes, I knew the album from beginning to end, and I was convinced that at some point in my childhood something happened to me while this album was playing. It may have been that I had an accident to it – I was accident prone due to my eyes – or I was upset about something. Playing the album was like a gateway back into the trauma of what had happened – I couldn’t remember the details but I could remember the emotion. And even now I still feel that when I play the album. So that Easter was spent with a melancholy Durutti Column album and an Andy Williams album that reminded me of some unknown trauma. Happy days. I was also writing and recording an EP of songs about how I felt and decided that covering one of these Andy Williams songs was a good idea. Oh no it wasn’t. A few weeks later the tape chewed up due to overuse and I searched high and low for a vinyl copy, locating one in Kelly’s – a second hand record shop in Cardiff Market – on the same day in late July 86 that I bought “Here comes everybody” by The Wake and “Compass Kumpass” by Dalek I. So happy days in the summer of 86 there too. So that’s my relationship with the album, how about the music itself?

Well it’s an interesting album in itself. First of all it exists under a different name with a very different track listing in the US. Secondly there is a medley of songs on side two which works as a whole along the same lines as side one of “Bookends”, a similar theme of youth to old age and / or wisdom. The sleeve notes provide clues to this creation from producers Dick Glasser and Mason Williams explaining how the medley is a TV concept of putting the most recognisable parts of popular songs together, but in this case they wanted the best parts of songs which may not be so popular. In researching this album it’s been fascinating finding where the songs have come from and how they originally sounded. (For more information on the sources, this albums Wikipedia page has been invaluable).

Side One starts with “Bridge over troubled waters”. Andy takes it as gently as Art does, and the arrangement is pretty similar and in exactly the same key. Andy adds little inflections to the lyrics and a more natural vibrato on his longer notes. You know what? I think it’s a more believable performance than Art’s. There’s a churchy organ and a small harmony vocal on the second verse which works nicely. The third verse has more harmony vocals which enrichs the song. I think I love this version more, you know. The gentle coda deflates the pomposity of the original too. “Raindrops keep falling on my head” is a nice easy arrangement of the BJ Thomas hit but adds nothing much to the scheme of life. It’s pleasurable and amiable and that’s enough. “Can’t help falling in love” is rollicking, the tempo double that of Elvis’ version but Andy sings it in the same tempo as Elvis, which is quite a trick. (I’m not convinced I’ve explained that properly). “It’s over” is slower and more melancholy and Andy puts it over convincingly – certainly more than Scott Walker does on his version on “‘Til the band comes in” from around the same time. “It’s so easy” could almost be Andy’s theme song, light and chipper and swinging against the girly chorus (which remind me in places here of the interplay between lead and backing singers on “Temptation” by The Everly Brothers). Finally side one closes with “Long time blues”, written and originally recorded by Mason Williams and Andy takes this for a stroll. Side one then is good typical Andy Williams of the period.

Side two is where the tears start. As soon as the orchestra starts on the introduction to “Little boy” I can feel my tear ducts filling up. Andy sings of being a little boy and the advice he was given and oh God even thinking about it without listening to it makes me well up. Must keep on. Andy sings with such delicacy and patience here and the music moves to ‘If wishes were horses”, more youthful dreams before the church organ introduces “Today”. “And lost forever is yesterday and I don’t believe in tomorrow / I used to dream of the rainbow’s end but it only brought me sorrow”. He sounds like he means every word. It’s a song of dissatisfaction – “I can’t be contented with yesterday’s stories, I can’t live on promises, winters to springs”. I only realised today that it’s a medley of two distinct songs both called “Today” and it melds together beautifully. The orchestral musical link into the next song is utterly heartbreaking but then levened with flutes as another version of “Reason to believe” comes into view. Not as heartbroken as Rod or as dispassionate as Karen, Andy sings it nicely but the arrangement doesn’t quite work. But when Andy does the second “That you lied straight faced while I cried” it does sound like he knows that pain. “Simple thing as love” though is devastating for me. It’s only recently I’ve found the John Hartford original, which is similar to his own “Gentle on my mind”, but this arrangement is built on a repeating note throughout and the same ascending to descending riff that appeared on “The dangling conversation”. Andy loses the first verse of the whole song, to make it purely the failing relationship part, and it works beautifully before cutting to the finale – “Both sides now” loses a verse or two but fits perfectly in terms of looking back on life and love. Is it a bit slushy? Perhaps. But side two works – it is clearly well thought out and considered, expertly chosen and highly emotional music, which isn’t what you’d expect from such a mainstream artist. Yes there are some obvious cover versions on side one, popular songs from the time, but side two is where the emotion is, for me anyway. Again I don’t feel I’ve done justice to this album but I do find it hard to listen to – there’s so many nerves beimg touched. Is it as good as “Bookends”? I’d say it’s a draw.

(I’d like to dedicate this entry to my brother who was kind enough to find an American CD of “Can’t help falling in love” – or “Raindrops keep falling on my head” as they call it – and send it to me last year. Thanks Andy!)

Next time : I will be the first person in history to die of boredom.

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