A Child’s Christmas In Yorkshire

The first Christmas I can remember properly was 1974 when I was five. We were living in Leeds at the time and I had my little orange wallpapered box room in the middle of the landing. I can remember two presents from that year – a huge ride on Texaco oil tanker made of bright red plastic, and the “Remember you’re a Womble” LP by The Wombles. I remember unwrapping it and being thrilled to see it. Which means that regardless of any cool rewriting of my personal history, the first actual vinyl LP I owned was by The Wombles. Hurrah. Sadly I don’t have the album any longer, and thanks to the wonders of technology I can still hear it on Spotify and Youtube. It wasn’t always this way – back in 1994, urged on after a drunken Christmas meal with the ONS IT department where Paul and I waxed lyrical over how “Keep on Wombling” was their “Sgt Pepper” I did manage to locate all four of their original albums – very cheaply I should add. Actually I think I found two and borrowed two from Paul and he’s got them all now so… “Remember you’re a Womble” is a decent enough album, Mike Batt uses the cover of litter obsessed furry rodents to show his versatility – “Banana rock” being calypso, there’s some surf pop too and some standard 70s glam. However there is one song which stands out – “Wimbledon Sunset” has nothing to do with “Waterloo Sunset” beyond the title, but is a piece of highly arranged orchestral music with occasional lyrics of “Underground – Overground” and little else, but the music itself is melancholy and beautiful. Quite odd for a pop album and I wonder whether Batt was using the Wombles as an showreel to get production work elsewhere. “Look at what I can do with a bunch of Wombles (and some top session musicians) – imagine what I could do for you!”. Still it worked for a few more years and a few more albums – and honestly “Keep on Wombling” really is their “Sgt Pepper”. You should check it out

But I’m going to have a look at Christmas 1975. It had been a strange year for me. I had missed a huge chunk of school – at least two months by my reckoning – when I was admitted into Leeds General Infirmary to have the cataract on my left eye operated on. The surgeon was Richard Harcourt who it turns out was one of the best eye surgeons in Britain at the time – we only realised this years later when his obituary appeared in The Times explaining his achievements. But I was in hospital for three weeks, and I can still see the ward now in my mind’s eye, the blue walls, the huge white radiators, the window which looked out onto the enormous illuminated sign of Leeds Playhouse (so big it was in the Guinness Book Of Records at the time). I remember the toys there too – a little red plastic accordion that I loved until someone flushed it down a toilet, the set of zoo animals I had to go in with, my poor teddy who I was sick over three times. And I remember my parents bringing in an envelope containing get well soon messages from all my school friends – I’ve still got it somewhere. But I hated every moment of being in hospital which is probably why I remember so much about it, even down to remembering being nil by mouth on the day of the operations and being wheeled down for surgery. I cried myself to sleep almost every night and loved having my family visit me. Then once I was discharged (with the welcome home gift of a toy sweet shop – heaven!) I spent another month at home to recuperate, having endless drops in my eye which stung so badly that I still hate having eye drops (as anyone reading my tweets during last week’s eye test will attest). I remember having school work to complete so I didn’t miss out on anything. And even now I think the reason I don’t know my 7 times table is because of this absence. And even once the operation was over and I had recovered it didn’t really help – my left eye was still lazy. But that was the chance you take – at the time they had no idea whether it would work or not, but they had to try. So that was my 1975…

Christmas of course meant there was a Christmas production in school and I was in it. Our class had “The Christmas Alphabet” and I was Z so I was last. And I’d been learning my lines all the time and I thought I knew them, but on the day of the performance I was awful. As the alphabet progressed I got more and more nervous until the rhyme reached me, I stumbled out “Z is a zebra…” and I totally lost it – everyone was looking at me and I didn’t know what to do – my mind was blank. What were my lines? What was I doing? I started to well up and tears formed in my eyes and I managed to quickly squeak out my lines and hoped it was over. We got applause but I felt I’d messed up big time. And I could tell you what the lines are now, once it was over I found I knew them. In fact I’ve just googled it and my memory is word perfect – Just it wasn’t at the time. Over the next few years I would end up as Joseph in three nativities in three different schools through my class-mates’ logic of “Rob wears glasses so he looks old, he can be Joseph”. But being Joseph meant having no lines, so I’d just stand there watching Mary, looking “old”.

As for music…

Well I thought I’d have a look at the Top 30 chart of the week of Christmas 1975. I’d only know the Top 30 as it would be all I’d see on “Top of the Pops” so let’s have a glance through the lower regions before we hit the big top ten. (Have I turned into a corny DJ now?)

Well looking over the Top 30 there’s a few songs I frankly don’t wish to hear – Elvis doing “Green green grass of home”, “Think of me wherever you are” by Ken Dodd. Rod Stewart does nothing special with “This old heart of mine”. The Drifters’ “Can I take you home little girl?” sounds slightly suspect now. For some reason I thought “Sky high” by Jigsaw was something else entirely – which turns out to be “High in the sky” by Amen Corner. But “Sky high” was the kind of song I just bleeped through during TOTP. There’s a lot of proto disco here too – Fatback Band, Stretch – and some Christmas novelties – “Cold cold Christmas” by Dana, “Christmas in Dreadland” by Judge Dredd – well that wasn’t getting on the radio, was it? Which brings us to “Renta Santa” by Chris Hill. Was this played on the radio or on TOTP at the time? It completely passed me by and I’m not surprised. Listening now it sounds like a very primitive form of sampling, little bits of songs chopped up to tell the story. Clearly I would not have understood it then – I knew who Rod Stewart was but not that he was a tax exile, and I had no idea who Uri Gellar or Ted Heath were then.

There’s a few gems though. I find “Wide eyed and legless” by Andy Fairweather-Low strangely moving – I remember it from the time but now recognise the frailty and humanity within the song, and the vocal in particular. “I should’ve known better but my memory’s no friend”. And yes that clip’s from “Supersonic”! “Art for art’s sake” by 10cc is ok if a little cynical, but not half as cynical as “Money honey” by The Bay City Rollers which is pretty much as rock’n’roll as this chart gets.

However the best song for me – then and now – in the lower regions is “Glass of champagne” by Sailor. I definitely saw it on TOTP and I swear I remember hearing it in hospital – I may be wrong about that though. But watching Youtube clips of TOTP performances brings back memories – it all looks very familiar. I wasn’t aware of Roxy Music then, so it sounded more futuristic than a lot of the other songs around then – there is a thumping synth bass throughout and that piano machine – Nickelodeon according to Wiki – was a big selling point for them. And that vocal style is pure Andy Partridge. Yes I loved that song then and still do. That might get a few plays this Christmas.

So let’s look at the Top Ten – 20th December 1975.

10 – “Show me you’re a woman” by Mud

Bloody hell this sounds dodgy as hell. It’s a slow dance in hell musically – electric sitar like a late 60s Motown song, tinkling Fender Rhodes and some lush harmonies on the chorus but what initially sounds pervy – the scenario of a teenage fan offering herself to Les Gray – turns out to be a bit more respectful, he understands it’s all her hormones working overtime and when the time is right, he’ll show her “I’m your man”. But in the meantime he turns her down politely. But when Les is growling “Show me you’re a woman and I’ll show you that I’m a man” you start to feel scared for the poor girl. But no, I don’t remember this one. Thank God.

9 – “All around my hat” by Steeleye Span

This song I don’t have to think about. My father was a huge Steeleye Span fan and had all their albums, or at least it seemed that way. In retrospect he didn’t have any of the LPs before they went ‘electric’. Anyway my brother and I used to laugh ourselves silly over their songs “Spotted cow” and “Alison Gross” – that ridiculous fuzz bass on the former and the crashing power chords which close the latter sounded daft to us. And I can remember being in the car hearing “Little Sir Hugh” on the stereo, listening to the words and freaking out – Hugh kicks a ball over a castle wall, so the lady in the castle stabs him and throws him down a well? God how horrible! But by Christmas ’75 “All around my hat” was inescapable. Steeleye Span were on every TV show plugging it, “Crackerjack” and “Supersonic” and “TOTP” and anywhere else that would have them. This was a harder sound than their previous music that I knew, and it sounded like the Wombles. When I was older I would realise why – Mike Batt had produced it. It sounds now like a lighter version of Status Quo with folk stylings, and is pleasant enough but I wasn’t that impressed then and equally so now. “Gaudete” was far better and more appropriate for Christmas. This was product.

8 – “Golden Years” by David Bowie

Not a song I remember very well from the time to be honest. To which the question must be asked – for God’s sake WHY NOT? I was too young to have the “Starman” moment, but I do remember seeing the promo film for “The Jean Genie” (or it may have been “John I’m only dancing”) when I was three or four and finding it / him very sinister. Other Bowie songs didn’t register with little ol’ me until “Sound and vision” in ’77 and then only because it was used by the BBC as trailer music for their forthcoming attractions. Bowie wasn’t appearing on “Crackerjack” (but the song did appear + thanks Marcello!) so didn’t appear on my radar – he clearly had more important things to do, such as whatever he was getting up to in LA during 1975. Any sensible reader of this blog will know that “Golden Years” is the work of a genius at the peak of his powers while walking along the edge of a precipice of drugs, celebrity and madness. Yes it’s very very good but you already knew that, didn’t you?

7 – “Na na is the saddest word” by The Stylistics

Now this is another song that didn’t reach me in 1975, in fact listening to it now I have no recollection of hearing it before. Maybe they didn’t appear on TOTP for this, hence the paucity of clips on Youtube other than what appears to be bits of the band playing summer season in Butlins. The song sounds older than it should be – the lush harmonies and orchestration put it into mid 70s context but that harpsichord is pure late 60s anachronism. The song doesn’t go anywhere either, the title is established – and isn’t “Na na” two words? – and it sounds sad but nothing really happens. Not a song I intend to readily investigate again.

6 – “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker

See this is one of the odd things I’ve never understood about the charts in the 70s – how old records could reappear for no real reason. Bubbling underneath the Top 40, “Itchycoo Park” by The Small Faces is there, and this was in the Top 10 – why? These days people hear a song performed on “The X Factor” and remember it fondly then download it from iTunes and it returns to the chart for a week or so – that’s just the nature of pop now. But how did it work in the seventies? I’m sure someone will explain it for me.

In the meantime “Let’s twist again” is a classic song and sounds totally incongruous amongst the rest of this chart. But my problem with “Let’s twist again” is… God I hate to admit it… Jive Bunny killed this song for me. I’ve attended too many wedding discos and suchlike where that horrible ’50s and ’60s medley has been played between “Dancing Queen” and “Let me entertain you”. Just enough recognisable chunks of the song to get the oldies dancing as long as they’ve had just enough to drink. And just don’t mention The Fat Boys.

5 – “Happy to be on an island in the sun” by Demis Roussos

This is odd because it’s so totally un-Christmas-y – was this a desire for escape to sunnier climbs, to leave the grim mid 70s Britain of power cuts and strikes? Or was it just the pre-emptive strike by all the Beverley Mosses out there? (Woah there Rob!). Anyway this is vaguely familiar but does make me think of other songs like it – that marimba jive is reminding me of “Knock three times” by Dawn though that doesn’t really have marimbas on it. Maybe it’s reminding me of a Brotherhood Of Man song, but I don’t really fancy finding out what that song is. Not knowing too much about Demis beyond what everyone knows (Aphrodite’s Child -> “Forever and ever” -> endless piss-taking) I won’t speculate too much. I don’t remember hearing it at the time – unlike “Forever and ever” which was the soundtrack to the long hot summer of ’76 in my head. It’s pleasant enough.

4 – “You sexy thing” by Hot Chocolate

Again not a typical Christmas hit. Again a song so engrained in the culture that it’s hard to listen to it with fresh ears. Again a song which I knew well from the time, though I had no idea what a “sexy thing” was, but it sounded like a lot of fun to be one.

Listening now it sounds a remarkable record, it still sounds forward looking in an odd way. Errol Brown is singing with palpable joy at what he’s found and it’s infectious. I must have heard this song a thousand times on the radio and I still can’t work out whether it’s a guitar with a wah wah pedal or some kind of hand drum through a filter going on. And yes, being 6 I really did think he was singing “I believe in milk-o”. A deserved classic.

3 – “I believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake

This song – alongside the Number One record in this countdown really is the sound of Christmas ’75 for me. I hear it and I’m transported back to the house in Leeds – the tree is in the corner of the front room surrounded by presents, the TV is in the opposite corner probably showing “Top of the pops”, the dinner table is at the back of the room while the stereogram hifi is against the wall under the stairs leading upwards to the next floor. I can see it all.

And I absolutely hated this song at the time and I still do now. I just took really badly to it at the time and those feelings still remain. I didn’t like the music, the way the chords changed, those ringing 12 string guitars, the over the top choirs, the Prokofiev quotes (not that I knew that at the time) and I really disliked the lyrics. I found it unsettling, he was singing “I believe in Father Christmas” but he didn’t sound like he meant it. Is he lying? Is he saying Father Christmas doesn’t exist? What was a six year old to make of this conundrum. As for now, well I still feel exactly the same way. I find the lyrics cynical, and I don’t like the payoff line “The Christmas we get we deserve” – that doesn’t scan right to me. No, I don’t like it even now. Lake can’t be totally blamed for it – the lyric is mostly Pete Sinfield’s, though inspired by Lake’s own comments. Hmm.

(Though I must admit the version that appeared under the ELP name on “Works vol 2” is slightly less preposterous and over the top. Still the same song though with little redeeming features)

2 – “The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine” – Laurel and Hardy

You know what I was saying about how the hell did old records appear in the charts again? Well here’s another example. I knew about Laurel and Hardy because they were regularly played on the TV at the time and I can only assume this single was issued because of their popularity. I know I saw the ‘video’ (or film excerpt) for this on “Top of the pops” and it does make slightly more sense with a visual – you don’t really understand the vocal games at the end unless you see Laurel getting hit over the head by Hardy. But again – why now? Why? It’s a nice enough song but…

1 – “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

Honestly, what’s left to say about “Bo Rap”? Everyone knows it, everyone either loves or hates it and even those who hate it probably secretly headbang to it like the car scene in “Wayne’s World” when nobody’s watching them. It was number one for weeks and weeks between ’75 and ’76 then number one again when Freddie Mercury passed away in ’91. It’s his memorial, it’s his crowning glory, it’s his most personal song. Oh and you can do some mean air guitar to it.

But what struck me so deeply in ’75 was just how spooky the video was. Of course they never performed it on TV, it was always the video shown on TOTP. I wasn’t aware of the iconography of the band, the format of the four members in a diamond as used in the video and the cover of “Queen II”. It just looked odd. Then that visual feedback, multiple Freddies. No! And the flicking back and forth of the four faces then twenty little faces and back again during the ‘opera’ section – that really freaked me out. It was like the end credits of “Help” – where the Beatles’ images are refracted through the sides of a ruby, and I never liked that either. So put this multi-part epic song together with a promotional film which is clearly freaking me out and that’s Christmas ’75 in a six minute nutshell. It was on the Christmas TOTP of course, and unavoidable. I learned to love it but at the time I just looked away from the screen a lot

So what of the actual Christmas Day 1975 itself? Well there was a stocking at the end of my bed with books and toys (a Matchbox army vehicle set) and sweets and chocolates and those were all consumed pretty quickly. Then after lunch and TOTP we opened the presents around the tree, and the one present I remember best was a blue Matchbox cars carry case which held 48 cars in four smaller yellow baskets (if I can find a picture I’ll add it). That carry case stayed with me for many years and I passed it on in the late 90s to a colleague at the ONS who had an autistic son who loved cars, so I gave him all my Dinky and Corgi cars from the mid to late 70s (and I had three boxes of them), and this Matchbox case filled with cars. He loved the case and kept the cars in exactly the same order I had passed them on to him, even if he took them all out to play with them. So that case went a long long way. As for the rest of the day, well we probably watched TV – looking through the ’75 TV listings it may have been the first year I saw “The Wizard Of Oz”, and the show “Great Big Groovy Horse” shown on BBC2 rings a bell – Jonathan Cohen’s musical version of the Trojan Horse story. Then we sat around eating Matchmakers and peanuts and eventually drifted off into our bedrooms surrounded by new toys and packaging and paper and mess, and fell asleep content with life and everything in it.

The Christmas you get you deserve. Maybe Greg Lake was right after all.

Merry Christmas!

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