Category Archives: Songs my parents taught me

From Village Greens where we feel secure

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There were two albums in my parents’ record collection which made me feel uneasy. Not so much the music. Well that’s not quite true really because the first album was a Music For Pleasure LP of “Peter and the Wolf” and Prokofiev’s masterpiece always spooked me out. Even now thinking about it the main theme running through my mind makes me shudder. I can’t explain it very well but the movement of the music sends shivers down my spine. But more than the music it was the album cover which made me feel uneasy. I’ve only been able to locate the picture via Ebay but seeing it…. It looks quite placid, the actor Paul Daneman in a cosy red sweater, some felt and paper mache animals next to a tree but to me as a five year old, this looked like the creepiest thing ever. I would have nightmares about the cover, worried that the wolf was under my bed. (This may come as a surprise to my parents, but this blog had been an education for them if anything).

The other album was “The Golden Hour Of The Kinks”, a compilation issued by Pye’s Golden Hour offshoot label. The front cover is totally inappropriate, a psychedelic swirling drawing of the four members of the band, possibly in honour of Love’s “Forever Changes”, but bright yellows and oranges and vivid colours.. It was a very psychedelic cover for a record that really isn’t psychedelic at all. But there was worse on the reverse of the sleeve. Lots of pictures of other Golden Hour LPs, one of which had a picture of the moon – with a man’s face superimposed, another was a jigsaw of Donovan. Both looked very weird and slightly disconcerting.

But enough about the sleeves, what about the music? Well have a look at the track listing and marvel at how right it is. If you needed one album to convince you that the Kinks were important then this is it. Ok, so it was clearly compiled before “Lola” returned them to the Top Ten in 1970, but as an overview of their 60s heyday it is nearly perfect. There’s the primal early shredded speaker racket of “You really got me” and “All day and all of the night”, there’s the social satire of “A well respected man” and “Dedicated follower of fashion” there’s the run of classic singles through 1966 to 1967, from “Sunny afternoon” to “Autumn almanac”. Add to this a few oddities – “Sitting on my sofa” and “Louie Louie”, a smattering of album tracks and failed singles and there you go, a truly golden hour.

One curious thing for me is that listening to these songs in this particular order sends me straight back to being a child again. No matter how familiar these songs are – and they are very familiar – this sequence feels right somehow. There’s even the crappy stereo mix of “Wonderboy” where the lead vocal is buried within the song. Still sounds great in context. What is also curious about the album is that it inspired my brother to investigate the Kinks and to dig deeper. The album itself was long gone from my parents’ record collection by 1981, it was only on a cassette, which had a quirk of its own. Because the intro to “Waterloo Sunset” got stuck while it was being recorded. There’s the well known descending introduction, then the first three notes of Dave Davies’ lead guitar part, then it jumps back to the end of the descent and Dave plays three notes, back to the descent, Dave plays three notes and finally my father notices and nudges the stylus on and the song progresses normally. This is how I heard “Waterloo Sunset” for the first 12 years of my life and that’s how it sounds in my head, even now. But back in 1981 my brother had his first music centre, an integrates unit of tape deck, radio, record player with two speakers which immediately were drilled to his bedroom wall. Andy was (and still is, obviously) eighteen months older than me so was 14 in 1981, starting to develop his own music taste much as I would two years later. For him it was the Rolling Stones, at the time experiencing a resurgence of popularity due to the success of “Tattoo you” and “Start me up”. From there it was a logical move to check out the tapes in our parents’ collection and see what was similar. “The golden hour of the Kinks” fitted the bill and was regularly blasted out. I’m sure my parents didn’t mind, it was their music, it could’ve been worse, it could’ve been that sweaty noisy punk rock. (That would start pouring out of my brother’s bedroom a year or so later)

So this album started my brother’s obsession with the Kinks. A few weeks after listening to this tape he bought a cheap double cassette Best Of from Woolworths, full of songs neither of us knew with strangely British titles like “Harry Rag” and “Afternoon tea” but not too many actual hits, but it whetted his appetite for more and he started to buy their LPs. Around this time – early 1983 – the Kinks had a surprise hit single or two when “Come dancing” and “Don’t forget to dance ” returned them to Top Of The Pops, Ray Davies looking half delighted and half bemused by it all, like an uncle at the wrong party. Actually Dave Davies looks more bemused than anything. This resurgence of interest in the band helped my brother, because two books were published, “The sound and the fury” by Johnny Rogan and an official biography by Jon Savage. Then in early ’84 the Kinks played at St Davids Hall in Cardiff supported by The Truth I think, and Andy was there, the first of many Kinks gigs.

I’ve mentioned before how I wasn’t fond of my brother’s taste in music. By the end of 1984 our tastes were diametrically opposed. I liked modern music, always reading the music papers and listening to John Peel, looking for the next new song or band. He was looking backwards, investigating punk and its sources, from the Stooges and Velvet Underground, and digging into Dave Davies’ early Eighties solo career. In retrospect it gave him a better idea of the history of music, so fair play to him. But at the time I didn’t really see the point. Andy didn’t help his cause by playing the most annoying parts of his record collection at me at top volume, often accompanied by his own attempts to play the songs on his electric guitar, also at top volume. And even if he wasn’t massacring these classics, he’d still insist on force-feeding me horrible songs like “Ducks on the wall” from “Soap opera”. He would ask “What do you think?” knowing full well I hated it. He would also turn the volume up for the dull filter sweep at the end of “Attitude” from “Low budget” and say “Look Rob, the Kinks using synths!” as if they were great innovators in that area. I would counteract this by playing “You’re a hoover” by Freur and say “Look Andy, guitars!” We were young….

The first sign that something was changing for me was a tape I compiled in November ’84. It was only one side of a C90 (a green BASF if you’re interested) but it was quietly significant. It was the first time that I acknowledged that some of my brother’s music was worth listening to, not that I’d admit it to his face. I raided my parents’ then meagre Beatles collection for “Not a second time”, “Every little thing” and “I don’t want to spoil the party”. I then moved to my brother’s collection, starting with the gentler sound of the Velvet Underground for “Here she comes now”, “Beginning to see the light” and “That’s the story of my life”. Finally a few Kinks songs, three from “Village Green Preservation Society” – “Animal farm”, “Starstruck” and “People take pictures of each other” – and two from “Arthur” – “Brainwashed” and “Shangri La”. I loved that tape and again hearing those songs in that order conjures up more visions of how 1984 ended for me (which I’ll get back to soon enough). But that tape was my own secret.

I suppose the real turning point came in 1987 when two compilations arrived. “The Kinks Kronikles” was purchased by Andy during the summer holiday in Haworth (I’m pretty sure he bought it in Harrogate) and something about this collection of mid to late sixties album tracks, singles and outtakes clicked with me, so much so that I ended up taping highlights on one side of a tape with the whole of the “Village Green” LP on the other and playing it a lot in my student digs in Sheffield. The sleeve notes by John Mendelssohn were also bang on – admitting that the early seventies Kinks weren’t a patch on the late sixties Kinks, with all the subtlety and pathos replaced by drunkenness and crowd pleasing. A few months later “The great lost Kinks album” also arrived, with more pointed sleeve notes and  an even richer collection of songs. Around 1988, whoever owned the rights to Pye Records (I think it was PRT) issued a double CD of all the Kinks’ singles, EPs and b sides, alongside a mini LP collecting all Dave Davies’ songs onto “The albums that never was”. Slowly I was convinced that the Kinks’ golden period spanned from 1966 to 1969 and I started to appreciate them more.

Unfortunately just as I became interested in the Kinks, they went through a stage of making dreadful records, but my brother would still travel around the country to see them. In 1988 he stayed overnight with me in Sheffield as it was halfway between Hull (where he was studying) and Manchester (where they were playing). By 1993 both my father and I loved the Kinks enough to see them at St Davids Hall in Cardiff, and Andy came down from Stockport too. But he made one condition – if they did “It” he would walk out and go to the toilet. “It” was this odd instrumental where Ray and Dave sodded off for a drink or a fight in the wings while some dancers came on and did some kind of art. It wasn’t a lot of fun, and Andy had been to enough Kinks gigs by 1993 to know he didn’t want to see it again. So the Kinks played, Dave Davies played guitar on his knees at the lip of the stage hoping the crowd would be there for him, but St Davids Hall has an orchestra pit there and a thin layer of wood over it so nobody ever gets close to the stage… It was hilarious. But yes the Kinks were great and played old songs and new songs and a few surprises – “Oklahoma USA” sent shivers down my spine. And when the dancers came on, Andy headed for the toilets leaving me and my father laughing out loud.

I think that was the last major tour the Kinks completed before splitting up so I was glad to see them. I can never remember if my father had seen them ar their notorious gig at the Capitol Theatre back in 1964 where Mick Avory nearly decapitated Dave with a cymbal… But Ray and Dave are both still around, I’ve seen Ray a few times solo and he’s always been marvellous, and his books are great too.

So in honour of the Kinks I thought I’d write about fifteen of my favourite songs by them. I couldn’t limit it to ten, I tried a baker’s dozen but what the hell, here’s fifteen of their songs which mean the most to me. They are in chronological order and hell I could have doubled this number and still missed out a ton of favourites.

“Too much on my mind” – from “Face to face” LP, 1966

It was already clear by 1966 that Ray Davies wasn’t just going to celebrate how great Swinging London was. He was too much of a realist for that. The markers had been set the previous year with “The world keeps turning round” on “The Kinks Kontroversy” (oh how my spellcheck protests at that) and “Where have all the good times gone?” But now it was even harder for Ray to hide. By now he’d had a nervous breakdown, threatened to retire and had sued various sections of his management team and publishing, and then there were the problems with America, where the Kinks had behaved so badly they had been banned from performing there, so they watched powerless as other less able bands coined it in through the British Invasion. All these worries for someone so young.
All these worries were rolled into this one song. The music sounds placid to begin with (and you could trace a line from the intro to the start of “The theme from MASH”) but Ray sounds like he’s going to explode, but every so quietly. This tension is what makes the song so special, and it’s never truly resolved either. A highlight on an album full of gems – “Sunny afternoon”, “Party line”, “Fancy”…. Though “Rosie won’t you please come home” is very very close (“And I would bake a cake if you’d tell me you were on the first plane home” – the image of Ray Davies making a cake always makes me smile).

“This is where I belong” – b side to “Mr Pleasant” single in Europe, 1967

Some people don’t like “Mr Pleasant” at all, but I love it. Those chiming guitars, the barrel house piano but more than anything the way it swings from D major to D minor whenever Mrs Pleasant is mentioned, and you could say its a bit obvious but no, I think it’s great. For some reason I always think of “Mr Pleasant” as the husband of the woman in “Mother’s little helper”.

But “This is where I belong” is an amazing song. For a start it sounds like the Kinks are trying to achieve a  “Highway 61 revisited” vibe, lots of twiddling organ in the mix and some of the vocal has a Dylan-esque twang. But the lyrics are far from that, it’s a hymn to stability, peace, finding your place and being contented in it. Its a heartfelt performance, and when Ray and Dave sing in harmony together towards the end it makes my heart melt.

What is odd is how well known this song turned out to be. It was never issued in the UK officially until the late 90s reissue of “Face to face” but was a mainstay of “The Kinks Kronikles” since that was issued in 1971, so the Americans knew it better. Which is why the majority of covers of the song are American. A quick trawl through Spotify found almost ten versions, mostly of the garage rock variety. I’m sure Frank Black covered it, and School of Fish. And it even appears within the new “Sunny Afternoon” stage show. But best of all, when Paul K and I saw Ray perform in Cardiff a few years ago he opened his set with it. Well, it saved me having to request it.

“Autumn almanac” – single, 1967

I so wanted to include a song from “Something else…” but we’ll get to some of that album a little later. But for now let’s say that “Two sisters” was a distinct possibility for this list. But in the end I chose this single. The structure of the song is remarkable, how it moves through different time signatures dropping and adding bars along the way, how the different sections of the song all slot together so perfectly, how it evokes so many memories, how it is completely autumnal, slightly psychedelic, almost falling over itself to pack as much incident and melody into the song. And yet it doesn’t sound forced, there’s a relaxed nature to the song -no pun intended. This is a song as good as any late 67 single and should be regarded as one of the Kinks’ true classics.
(Well what can you say about perfection?)

“Do you remember Walter?” / “People take pictures of each other” from “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society” LP, 1968

It’s hard to find new ways of talking about VGPS simply because it has been so comprehensively covered in Andy Miller’s superb 33 1/3 book on the album, and his sleeve notes to the three CD deluxe edition issues not long afterwards. And if you don’t own both of these items then may I suggest you get both in your life as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.

There’s so much past in VGPS… It seeps out of almost every song, sometimes specifically and sometimes just in a general attitude of melancholy longing to return to a younger, safer and more innocent place. “Do you remember Walter?” is beautifully ambiguous. I’ve often wondered if there should be a comma between the last two words of the title, to make it more specific. Ray is remembering an old friend, the promises they made to each other, and what happened to those dreams. The final verse always hurts…and Ray sings it with such feeling – such sadness when he sings “i bet you’re fat and married”… Walter is an echo of the past, now he’s grown up and hen pecked and boring (and is Ray implying that he is too?) and not interested in the past. The final line though… “People often change but memories of people still remain”.
At the other end of the album the accumulation of memories has turned into an avalanche and Ray can’t cope. The music sounds slightly manic, the intro ascending a little bit too far, Ray’s vocal is all purrs and sighs, people are trying to prove their existence with photographs so a moment can last forever. And I knew hearing this back in the 80s that it was right, the number of pictures of me on holiday pulling a face because I didn’t want to be there… Seeing the pictures brought it all back to mind. And there’s more hurt too – “You can’t picture love that you took from me, when we were young and the world was free”. By the end of the song Ray is at the end of his tether, one too many pictures, one too many memories… “a picture of me when I was just three, sat with my ma by the old oak tree, how I love things as they used to be” then softly but insistent “Don’t show me no more please”. He’s had enough. The past is too much.
The whole of VGPS is like that, every song is superb, every song tells its own story. Even the outtakes are great. Limiting myself to two songs was hard, the whole album works beautifully, it is a masterpiece. Every home should have one.

“Mindless child of motherhood” – b side to “Driving” single, 1969.


For a short while in 1967 and 1968 Dave Davies had his own solo career. His voice was always distinctive within the Kinks but his songwriting developed in such a way that he could add three brilliant songs to “Something Else By The Kinks” in 1967. “Death of a clown” was a well deserved hit single and follow up “Susannah’s still alive” was just as good. There was a hint of Dylan in the wordplay and his keening voice was distinctive. But by ’68 his third and fourth singles flopped badly and any plans for an album were shelved. All of which is a great shame as the songs themselves were perfectly fine, if not quite in keeping with the rapidly changing times. He still managed to contribute two b sides to the Kinks’ ’69 singles and all these songs were compiled later into “The album that never was”, an approximation of what a Dave Davies solo album could have been.

There is a thinly veiled thread of heartache within Dave’s late sixties songs. A tale of first love, fumbled first experiences, unexpected results and being ostracised by the family. Even a simple line in “Lincoln County” – “got a scarf for my mama that she won’t wear” – disguises part of the sorry tale, Dave bought a scarf for hia girlfriend but didn’t have the courage to give it to her so left it in someone’s hedge, only for his mother to find it and bring it home. All these stories roll into the best of these songs – ” Mindless child of motherhood”.

For a start the songs rocks in a way the Kinks hadn’t for a while by this point, the guitars are gorgeously crunching yet still with a Byrdsian jangle, and the song hurtles towards its conclusion full of chime and desperation. But what makes the whole performance real is Dave’s vocal, he’s searching for her but can’t reach her, he regrets so much, there are intimations of an offspring, and Dave’s voice cracks during the last chorus, it gets too much for him.  An emotionally draining song, and a real hidden gem.

“A long way from home” – from “Lola vs Powerman and the Money-go-round volume one” LP, 1970

The “Lola” LP is far more than just the two hit singles on it. A funny, scabrous, cruel look at the music business, kicking out at management, press, publishers and anyone who had done wrong to Ray along the way, it’s a far better album than its predecessor “Arthur”. That LP is ok but … I’ve never seen it as the Kinks’ pinnacle that some people do. Too many of the songs are reliant on the ‘plot’, they can’t stand outside the album. Of course I could have picked “Shangri la” except for the fact that it is almost too painful to listen to as a middle-aged man with all the things in the song, the gas bill and the water rates and payments on the car, too scared to think about how insecure I am. (cough).
On the other hand “Lola” looks outward in ways previously unknown to the Kinks. So many good songs, even Gaz Coombes and John Lewis can’t spoil the joy in “This time tomorrow” and it’s great to hear Dave’s songs assimilated back into the band. And in the middle of all this is “A long way from home”.

I’ve  always wondered who this is written about. Is Ray talking about himself, or Dave, or someone else who he has met out on the road? Or is it from the viewpoint of Ray’s wife to Ray? Either way, its beautifully poised, delicate piano mostly, Ray sings of the distance between the person he knew then and now, how the money and success has changed them. It’s as if he’s met up with Walter, and Walter is singing this to Ray. But the distance isn’t just a matter of miles, it’s emotional distance too. At the end, Dave is harmonising too, and its powerful in its quiet intensity. Ray sings “You’ve come a long way, you’re self-assured and dressed in funny clothes but you don’t know me” in such a heartbreaking way. Stunning.

“The way love used to be” – from “Percy” soundtrack album, 1971

“Percy” is an odd record. Asking the Kinks to create the soundtrack to a film about a penis transplant is odd enough. The fact that Ray took it as a chance to produce some quietly beautiful songs about the glory of nature, love and tradition shouldn’t really have surprised anyone. We are all God’s children, after all. Yes there’s a few daft instrumentals too but then it’s a soundtrack, what do you expect? Nestling inside the album is this beauty, the only Kinks on it are Ray on acoustic guitar and Ray Gosling on piano, the rest is a gorgeous string arrangement by Stanley Myers, soft as a feather bed but with enough swerves to make my heart leap into my mouth. And Ray is crooning, reminding the listener about how love should be, getting away from it all, and only talking about love. Not even doing anything, just talking. How old fashioned, how quaint, how utterly perfect.

“Demolition” – from “Preservation Act One” album, 1973

At which point my brother gasps.

In a way “Preservation Act One” is a logical development from “Village Green Preservation Society”, the songs aren’t too specific, there isn’t too much plot until the end, its all character sketches most of the way.  There’s some good songs and some bad songs. I would happily never hear “Cricket” and “I think there’s a change in the weather” again. “Where are they now?” is curiously touching, looking back on the Teddy Boys and clothes designers and characters from fiction who defined the swinging sixties with fondness. Of course it wasn’t just Ray looking back at the time, as a quick listen to “Pin ups” and “Quadrophenia” and “These foolish things” would demonstrate.

But in listening to this recently, the song that leapt out was “Demolition” in which Mr Flash starts buying up properties in the village to bulldoze it, build new flats and treble the profit. “it’s the wonderful world of capitalism, I’ve got to make a profit, I’ve got to get rich quick”. Sound familiar? Even in somewhere like Newport this is happening, down the road a load of unoccupied offices are turned into luxury flats, a hotel which closed last year is going to be flats too… It’s happening everywhere, especially in London. An opportunity for luxury living.
The whole Flash persona had been building up for a while, you can see it surface in “King Kong” on the b side of “Plastic man” back in ’69 (“Everybody wants power, everybody wants fame, everybody wants money” and “I’ve got so much money I can buy anyone who gets in my way”) and “Powerman” on “Lola”, but Flash is more fleshed out. Of course it would be developed in “Preservation Act Two” and that one good melody found at the end of “Demolition” would be hammered into the ground. Shame.

“A face in the crowd” – from “Soap Opera” LP, 1974

Oh dear, “Soap opera”. My brother played this all the bloody time back in the day. About a year ago I decided to listen to the album and it turned out that I knew every word, so it must have soaked in through osmosis. The majority of the album is dismal, the plot is risible… A pop star swaps places with a normal person called Norman to gain perspective and write songs about mundane things like ducks in the wall and going for a drink after worm. Eventually he has a breakdown over a shepherds pie (“but I can’t cope with all that fancy stuff you like to eat like pizzas…” cries Norman’s wife) and the ending is a sing-along about the power of music and oh god how tedious and showy and yet…

“A face in the crowd” is the only truthful song here. He’s giving up, fading away, facing up to the truth that he’s ordinary. Is this all a fantasy? Is the whole premise of the album a lie? And considering what had happened to Ray at a Kinks gig in White City the previous year (an overdose on pills, having his stomach pumped, nobody believing him because he was in his stage clothes – “dressed like a clown”), is Ray talking about his ow  desire to not be famous, to return to normality? Who knows? All these thoughts are attached to one of the sweetest melodies on the album, with a beautiful descending sequence.

“No more looking back” – from “Schoolboys in disgrace” LP, 1975


Not another concept album! This is about Mr Flash in his youth, and I suppose the story of getting someone pregnant could be related to Dave’s story. Do we need Ray to tell us school is hard and rules are made to be broken and education is a bad thing? Demon headmasters? Dave riffing on “The hard way”?

The album closer “No more looking back” steps outside of the concept. It’s the present day, Ray sees someone he thinks he knows, and all the memories come tumbling back. He can’t escape the past, but does he want to? As the song progresses, Ray gets wilder and more passionate, until at the end he’s practically screaming out.
“No more looking back
No more living in the past
Yesterday’s gone and that’s a fact
So now there’s no more looking back”
But do we believe him? Hell no. Even when I heard this song for the first time in the mid eighties I knew it was special, I already associated with it, I knew precisely what it meant. Read through the blog, see why it holds resonance for me. That’s all I’ll say.

“Too hot” / “Living on a thin line” – from “Word of mouth” LP, 1984

The Kinks’ period on Arista may have given them huge commercial success, particularly in America, but it was to the cost of their songwriting, and their subtlety. Huge power chords, riffs you can guess from a mile away, God the Kinks in the late 70s and early 80s were a bit dull and obvious. For every good song like “Better things” there’s half a dozen tired rewrites like “Destroyer”. Dave’s back contributing songs too, even though sometimes they’re a bit weird – there’s a section towards the end of “Trust your heart” where Dave’s vocal gets so high pitched only cats and dogs can hear him. But for some reason 1984’s “Word of mouth” was half a decent album. Maybe the success of “Come dancing” in the UK had made Ray make an album for Britain not America. There’s a few duffers in there – some of which ended up in “Return to Waterloo” – but when it’s good it’s very good indeed.

“Too hot” is a fascinating snapshot of 1984. The gym is full of people working out and body popping, Julian is trying to make a video, Arthur’s heading towards a confrontation and Sarah Jane is struggling to study while working on the side. It doesn’t sound like much on paper but it has a gleeful nature that is quite infectious. “Living on a thin line” is more serious, Dave in command, not shrieking because this time the words matter. Have a look here. Strange how it still sounds relevant – “Blame the future on the past”? It could be about this government. Some things never change, even if they should. “Living on a thin line” is a song which becomes more truthful as time passes. I think this song has been used on some TV shows so it may be more well known now, and quite deservedly so.

“Only a dream” – from “Phobia” LP, 1993

After some quite dreadful albums – “Think visual” and “UK jive”- 1993’s “Phobia” was a surprising return to form. It’s not all brilliant and suffers from the standard nineties crime of trying to fill as many of the 74 minutes as possible, ao you could happily lose three or so songs, but the rest of the album is great. There’s humour, pathos, tenderness and a lot of rather decent social commentary. It was a toss up whether I would chose “Scattered” or this song. “Scattered” is a great song, it should have been a hit (ditto to non-album single “Did ya” from earlier that year) but in the end “Only a dream” won.

The reason? Because it’s the truth. You’re feeling like shit when someone od the opposite sex says hello, and your mind goes spinning off – does she like me? Is this the start of something? Suddenly the world is a better place and you’re walking on air. The next day she ignores you, but life is that little bit better. Of course it’s corny – especially the last line, oh dear- but I’ve got a lot of affection for this song. Has it happened to me? Ha, yes of course it has.

it was a huge shame that the Kinks didn’t capitalise on Britpop and faded away, and seeing Ray Davies singing with Damon Albarn on “The White Room” was about as far as it got. Every so often the rumours fly of an reunion and it may well happen. Me, I’m just glad I did see them, and that “Pictures in the sand” is finally available on CD at last. (The recent Pye anthology may play fast and loose with the mixes but it’s still a worthwhile purchase)

And with that, I’ll bid adieu.

(Oh lets see if this playlist thing works…)

http://open.spotify.com/user/1198704842/playlist/1wORb4XHDeZj7nizjwNDyi

Next time – it was thirty years ago today…

..

The Last Seaside Resort

(This is the follow-up to “Oh Harpenden so much to answer for”, as it carries on from that period – early 1978 – to some point in 1980 when I leave junior school. Oh and it’s back to my parents’ record collection again)

On the 1st June 1978 the Morgan family left Harpenden for the final time and headed west to our new home in Penarth, a few miles west of Cardiff in South Wales. At the time I thought we were moving because my father’s job was going to Cardiff from St Albans, but that wasn’t the whole story – we were also moving to be closer to our family. We had looked at a few houses around the area before settling on Cherry Close – there was a big house in Whitchurch whose garden was flooded (not a good idea), a very modernist house in Dinas Powis which was all sharp angles and glass and concrete (too radical) and another house in Penarth – a dorma bungalow in Robinswood Close (not big enough for us really). If we’d bought the latter house I would have ended up opposite one of my best friends’ houses – my friend Adrian who would be with me on 30th April ’83 buying “Dazzle ships” and “Doot-doot”. But no, we settled on Cherry Close, a big four bedroom house which was oddly built – it had a garage at either end of the house and two driveways to get there, and a slopping roof which our cats would regularly jump up to and then sit outside my bedroom window miaowing at night. So now we were in Penarth…

Penarth was a sleepy little seaside resort on the South Wales coast with a pier and an esplanade and a beach covered in rocks and pebbles and no sand at all and some rather nice Italian gardens and a horrible 60s monstrosity of a car park and leisure centre at the end of the beach. I say “was” because it isn’t that now. Admittedly I’ve not visited there properly for the best part of 17 years but a few years ago I visited the high street on business and barely recognised it. The Cardiff barrage and the building of Penarth Marina, not to mention the radical transformation of Cardiff Bay a few miles up the coast, have turned Penarth from a sleepy town mainly known for the number of care homes and pensioners in residence into a busy town with all the trappings of wealth. Penarth used to be the retirement home of South Wales. Now it’s a thrusting town with connections. From time to time it will appear on television as well – an episode of the remake of “Upstairs Downstairs” was centred around an affair on Penarth seafront, only it was supposed to be somewhere in Kent. And there’s lots of “Doctor Who” filmed there – but they film that all over South Wales, I watched the first trailer for the comeback being filmed in the tunnel under Newport railway station years ago…. Penarth then is small and posh, geographically and emotionally halfway between Cardiff and Barry.

So we moved to Penarth in June 1978 and my brother and I started another school just over a year after starting at a new school in Harpenden. Evenlode school is still there, about three quarters of a mile from our house, a pleasant walk there and back, a school built in the sixties, all on one level with a large playing field around it. I only have happy memories of Evenlode – although I wasn’t treated like a genius like I had been in Harpenden, the teachers in Penarth recognised if I had a talent and let me run with it. At that time that talent was for story writing, and after I wrote a 19 page story called “The dream”, full of strange dream imagery and disconnections, some of it based on real dreams I had – well after that my teacher let me develop a series of stories based around a multi-national crime solving gang. Only I didn’t know what to call the individuals in the stories so used the exotic names of lower-rank Grand Prix drivers, like the Renault team of Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Rene Arnoux. “Nobody will know where I got those from” I thought to myself. A week later, Jabouille won the French GP with Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve famously battling wheel to wheel for second place. The game was up. Sigh. In my final year at Evenlode – 79 to 80 – we were encouraged to write ‘a novel’. Most people gave up, I wrote over three hundred pages – mostly complete nonsense but still in a structured way. I think it ended up with some kind of nuclear apocalypse. Those were the days. I always took these things too far.

Evenlode was a great school and I was happy there, and I still know some of the people I went to school with (hello Mike, if you’re reading this). OK, so there were mishaps and misunderstandings and I did have a fight with Paul Mumford but it was pretty limp wristed – he was the smallest boy in the class, I was one of the tallest, he was trying to assert some kind of authority by picking on a tall speccy kid (see picture at the bottom of the page) and nobody really got hurt and we laughed about it afterwards. We played British Bulldog on the field, I scored a goal at football by walking across the pitch and kicking a ball randomly as I passed by, everybody seemed really happy there. Oh and I learnt rude words from Paul – even if I didn’t know what they meant, they sounded cool. It’s peculiar, the more I think about Evenlode the more I can remember it…. One of our teachers drove a Fiat 126 which was a great novelty… There was a little ‘forest schools’ area with a pond where we nurtured tadpoles into frogs.. My pencil case – yellow plastic from WHSmiths, with two layers, it swung on a hinge at one end (damned if I can find a photo of it anywhere)… Playing board games during the last weeks of term… The first electronic games – Simon and Merlin…The novelty of shatterproof twelve inch rulers, and proving that they weren’t shatterproof at all….

And then there was the main hall
So many memories from there. Sitting in the back row of assembly playing Pocketeer games and hoping nobody would notice. Doing gym in there – climbing bars on the wall, attempting rolls on blue mats, falling and laughing. Singing odd old songs- “Pack up your troubles” and “My old man said follow the van” – in school assembly. Doing exams there, sat at little individual desks, not knowing why we were doing them. We would spend the second week of Wimbledon sat in the main hall watching the matches on TV – I wonder what the teachers were doing!

(As I am married to a primary school teacher, I look back on these years with wonder – I see the planning and assessments that she does, the stress of inspections, and think that the job of teaching has changed so much since then)

So we settled into life in Penarth. There were no shops nearby, except for Sully Terrace Stores about half a mile away. Actually no that’s wrong – there was a shop actually within someone’s house on Forrest Road until around 1980 – their front rooms were full of groceries with a counter and lots of sweets and I was gutted when they closed down. Sully Terrace Stores was a little further away from home and back in the late seventies it was known to us as Mr Teagal’s, as it was run by a lovely old gentleman of that name. We’d stop there on walks into town to get drinks or sweets or both. It was a quaint little place, dark and woody, jars of sweets behind the counter, a wide array of just about anything you could want – an Aladdin’s Cave for a ten year old. I would frequent Sully Terrace Stores for many years to come, and I wonder if it’s still there.

So it’s the late seventies and what music are we listening to? Unsurprisingly there was a lot of Abba to be heard. The C120 tape of Abba was a permanent fixture in the car. It had “Abba’s Greatest Hits” and “Arrival” on one side, then on the reverse “Abba – The Album” and “Voulez-vous”. All fine records with some wonderful songs and some dodgy moments too. I didn’t really think of them going disco with the latter album but something was lost along the way – no room for melancholy like “My love my life”. I suppose the real melancholy would come later for them. I still believe “Arrival” is one of the best pop albums of the seventies, but I wouldn’t say the same for the LPs that followed. By the time the “Super Trouper” LP came out in late 1980 we didn’t buy it, and the first time I heard it was at a Christmas party with all the family in Rhiwbina that year, and it didn’t stay playing long – it didn’t sound like a party record.

My father bought a few LPs during this time – ’78 to ’80 – and I’ll investigate a number of them in depth, but there were a few LPs which were bought but not played in full. “Repeat when necessary” by Dave Edmunds starts well but slowly grows more weary as it progresses – which is probably why only side one of the LP was played, with the occasional play of track one side two. But that one side of music is great. “Girls’ talk” is wonderful. I must admit that I don’t know Elvis Costello’s original version even now, but Edmunds’ cover is surely definitive. Sharp and chiming and a cool key change and those baying backing vocals. (It probably helped that I generated an alternate lyric interspersed with the names of contemporary Grand Prix drivers – “But I heard you mention my name, can’t you talk Niki Lauda?” etc). Side one grinds through swampy rock like “Creature from the black lagoon” and the speedy blast of “Crawling from the wreckage” and even Cliff Richard’s “Dynamite” kicks like a bull. But after “Queen of hearts” at the start of side two the album falters a lot. Of course retrospect would say take the best bits of this LP and the best bits of “Labour of lust” by Nick Lowe and you’d have a killer album. But then Lowe wrote all his material and Edmunds wrote none of his…

Another LP we only heard edited highlights from was “Discovery” by Electric Light Orchestra. There is a very fine review of this LP over at Then Play Long which is worth your time In the meantime we heard the singles from it. “Shine a little love” was a little bit disco, “Confusion” was rather nice, “The diary of Horace Wimp” would be a nice dream in a few years from this point, but best of all was “Don’t bring me down”. It thumped and rocked, it was primal and simple, I absolutely loved it. I also loved the little synth figure that appeared between “Don’t bring me down” and “Gruss”, because it reminded me of a similar sounding figure on “Equinoxe 6”.

There were two compilations of older material which opened a few doors for me. “Legend” by Buddy Holly helped to fill in the gap between Elvis and the Beatles – here was a man and a band writing their own songs and performing them in new and interesting (at the time) ways. Listening to Holly’s music now, it’s remarkably uncomplicated, synthesising its influences (country, western swing, Chuck Berry, pop) into plain speaking songs that still sound fresh and sparklingly clean. It was a forty song tape which was always in the car – until the tape chewed up, as is the way of things. But in the time it spent in the car, that tape wormed its way into my heart. Holly’s songs spoke simply – he avoided metaphor and simile and went straight for the heart. If he had something important to say then he would sing “Listen to me”. If he was overjoyed he would sing “Oh boy!”. I loved that simplicity of communication. My two favourite songs on the compilation were two of the oddest. I didn’t really understand “Midnight Shift” at the time – I probably thought Annie had been working at a bakery overnight – but there’s a minor key atmosphere which is cool. “Well…all right” is incredibly cool and forward looking, the song ebbs and flows beautifully and again is simply sung. I could hear the Beatles in that song. I liked that tape a lot and considered it an education.

The other compilation was “Semi-Detached Suburban”, a TV advertised LP by Manfred Mann. The advert is actually wonderful and I certainly didn’t understand it at the time but I do now – very clever. As for the album, I always preferred side two – the Mike D’abo era – to side one – the Paul Jones era. Nothing wrong with the early stuff, perfectly good R&B with a jazzy touch, but when D’Abo joins there’s a sense of discovery and joy and playfulness within songs like “My name is Jack” and “Fox on the run”. Of course they fell down the bubblegum route and weren’t taken seriously which lead to their splitting up eventually. And it’s worth mentioning that this LP was my introduction to the songs of Bob Dylan – “The mighty Quinn”, “If you gotta go, go now” and “Just like a woman” were intriguing songs, beamed in from another planet that seemed a lot cooler and stranger than Penarth.

So let’s look at three LPs which I associate most with this era.

“Hotel California” – The Eagles

Before I go diving headlong into this LP, let’s clear up a few issues.

Firstly, regular readers with long memories may remember that I don’t like the title track to “Hotel California”. I wrote a paragraph or two here about an incident in school which put me off the song, and since then I’ve always avoided it – leaving pubs and workplaces when it has been played. Indeed I’m sure there have been times the song has been deliberately put on a jukebox to annoy me. So it’s about time I faced the fear and listened to the song, in the context of the whole LP.

Secondly, I was discussing this post with my parents a few days ago and which albums I would be looking at and my father – an avid reader of Goldfish – said he didn’t remember having this LP and preferred their earlier stuff. I do know we had “Their Greatest Hits ; 1971 – 1975” as a tape – bought from Cobs Records in Portmerion in 1976 – but I listened to that LP on Sunday night and didn’t recognise half the songs. Obviously I knew “Take it easy” and “One of these nights” from constant play on Radio Two, but songs like “Witchy woman” and “Peaceful easy feeling” I’d not heard before. Maybe he played the tape in the car when we weren’t around. And as a sidenote “Lyin’ eyes” goes on for about five hours. But I know we listened to “Hotel California” a lot because every note is known to me. Well I think so anyway.

Deep breath – I’m going in…

It’s quite an attractive opening chord sequence, you know. What’s with the swirling synth noise? So far so good. And now it’s gone limp reggae, very clipped. Trying not to think of legs in libraries. Concentrate, Rob. I can see men with beards and double neck guitars. People nodding out. This ain’t so bad. Lyrics are quite clever. I read how Don Henley argued with a journalist who said wine wasn’t a spirit, and completely missed the point. Still limp musically. Oh no, here’s the big reveal – “BUT YOU CAN NEVER LEAVE!”. Guitar solo one. I’m back in that library again. Guitar solo two. Those tom rolls are doing my head in. Here comes the harmony bit. Air guitars out. Fade out sooner than I thought.

Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? No need to run away.

“New kid in town” is limp too. For some reason I keep thinking that little electric piano figure is going to turn into “Knock three times” by Dawn. I’d rather listen to that. This is just a bitter little song about transience in the music business. JD Souther was a bit of a miserable git. This sounds so wimpy though. “Life in the fast lane” is closer to rock. Did nobody use reverb in the seventies? Again clever lyrics if slightly harsh – and I wouldn’t have got half the lyrical references at the time – “There were lines on the mirror” would have bypassed me. Is this a fantasy or a reality for the Eagles? Is this glamorising sex and drugs? It’s ambivalent, I suppose. Oh maybe it’s not, getting to the last verse. But for such a classic rock song it doesn’t really rock that hard. “Wasted time” is a slow ballad, and I’ve not heard this for over 30 years but I know every word. If I thought of this song at all – which I might have done – I always thought it was a Bob Seger song. A big weepie, but they’re not sympathetic at all. This is a tiresome facsimile of passion. Pointless instrumental reprise too.

“Victim of love” is the band live in the studio (instrumentally at least) and at last it sounds like a group of people. But the lyrics are nasty. I really object to these words, they are horrible. Oh hang on – “Victim of love, we’re not so far apart” – is Henley showing sympathy? Not for long. Eurgh. I feel slightly contaminated listening to this – it all sounds like seedy sex and drug parties and bitching and hatred and posing. Very LA really. “Pretty maids all in a row” – that intro is nice. This sounds like Steely Dan. It is also drifting in one ear and out of the other. It doesn’t sound like the Eagles. I’m a sucker for string synths. Pleasant enough then. “Try and love again” is what I would expect of the Eagles – a 70s update of the Byrds. Again quite pleasant, and the words aren’t nasty for a change. Nice “Abbey Road” style arpeggios and descending chords. I really like this one. A hidden gem, I suppose. “The last resort” is a tribute to the Troubabour in LA (according to books I’ve read) and the big statement. It’s also a regular song to be played after “Popmaster”. It’s meant to be important but it drags dreadfully. So people came to California and it wasn’t as great as promised. Big deal. Some people don’t get there at all. What do you want? Sympathy?

For such a well known classic album “Hotel California” is a bit dull. I don’t really like the people they are writing about, there’s no emotional connection with them from me or the singers themselves. A distance which leaves a bad taste. To sum it up in three words – bitter and twisted. I won’t be listening again in a hurry.

“Parallel Lines” – Blondie

Now here’s an album that definitely was part of the family. I had been aware of the hit singles from their previous LP “Plastic Letters” – and remember someone bringing that LP into school. (Why did people bring LPs into school? To show how cool they were obviously. Because it’s not like there were record players there.). I’ll categorically state right here that I was too young to understand the sex appeal of Debbie Harry. I still had Abba posters on my walls of my bedroom but had no idea of what other boys saw in her. Call me a late developer, I suppose. For me it was about the music and I had liked “Denis” and “Presence dear”. I liked the singles from “Parallel lines” too, so was quite happy when my father bought the LP.

It’s another album with specific memories actually. There was a holiday in Guernsey in May 1979 that I may have mentioned already – notable for me getting lost on a military training ground, purchasing a massive 1;15 scale model of a Brabham BT44, buying a ton of the newly launched Lego Space sets and seeing Tubeway Army perform “Are ‘friends’ electric?” on Top of the Pops on my birthday and liking it. Watching it again it may have something to do with the uniform that Gary Numan was wearing looking like the uniform of the Lego Space men and the two intwined in my mind…

And in a record shop I saw my first twelve inch single. It was “Sunday girl” by Blondie. It was on a wall display and I pointed at it and asked my father “Is that a new Blondie album?”. Because in my head albums were twelve inches and singles were seven inches. “No, that’s a twelve inch single” he said and my little mind was blown. I wondered at how exotic a single on twelve inch vinyl would be – would it be different? Longer? Better? It would be another four years before I owned one but I saw a few along the way…

As for the album itself. Er.. The problem is I know it inside out and love it, even the slightly duffer tracks in the middle. Actually “I know but I don’t know” was one of my favourite songs on it when I was growing up. Those squelchy synths, the endless riff, loping drums, the unsureness of the lyrics. Damn it, I’ll have a go but really you should read what Marcello says about it at Then Play Long, a blog that is a thousand times better than mine (someone pay him – and Lena – to write a book please).

(Starts listening to the LP)

I can’t do this justice, you know it’s a great rock pop album, I don’t get how it’s punk. It’s honourable to the antecedents, even the Buddy Holly cover – which obviously made me happy as it was on “Legend”. It’s nice to hear “One way or another” without thinking of One Direction, and did they include the final verse which turns the song on its head? (Do I want to listen to their version and find out? No thanks, I don’t take research that seriously!). I’m amazed by Debbie Harry’s voice – the way she goes from purring to growling so easily. The grain in the voice. “Fade away and radiate” is nicely moody – that intro is pure Saint Etienne, Harry sounding totally like Sarah Cracknell – ok, vice versa. I’d forgotten how much I love this song. No, I’d forgotten how much I love this album. “11;59” is pretty apocalyptic, is that one minute to midnight or midday? Maybe she wants lunch? 😎 God, I don’t care if it’s not that good a song, the energy pushes it along as it does on “Will anything happen?” Great production by Mike Chapman on this LP – not too glossy but clean. I remember years later buying an old copy of “Trouser Press” from early ’78 where there’s a page long article previewing this LP while they’re making it, a report from the studio, how nobody in America knew who Chapman was, how they didn’t know how people would react to their disco song… “Heart of glass” of course. This is the song that really caught me at the time and it still sounds fresh. I could listen to this forever. I knew nothing about disco at the time – music was music, it was in the charts if it was good and then I’d know about it. Such innocence. (I should point out that the first synth I had – a Roland SH3a – was the one used to create the pulsing synthetic bass of this song, I wonder how they synced it to the drum machine). Even “Just go away” is a funny end, a kiss off with a p instead of a k.

One last memory for this LP. Exactly one year on from the day we moved into Cherry Close we held a charity bring and buy sale in our garden and I remember it well. There were tables all over the place, selling bric a brac and sweets and toothpaste and books. My brother and I had a stand selling a few things, one of which was “Parallel Lines” – I don’t think it was my parents’, it was donated to us. I kept telling anyone who looked at it that it was a perfect album and that they should buy it. Eventually someone did. I hope they got as much enjoyment out of the LP as I did.

“Rock’n’roll juvenile” – Cliff Richard

If you have read my remembrances of Harpenden then you’ll know that my parents had a fondness for the music of Cliff Richard. Maybe not the person himself, but the music. Somehow my parents had followed the rest of the world and ignored his “Green light” album, but this LP from autumn 79 was bought almost as soon as it came out and was a staple in our car. The album was a continuation of the “Every face tells a story” LP – mostly written by Terry Britten, produced by Britten, Bruce Welch and Richard himself. And it’s an odd LP.

“Monday thru’ Friday” is harder rocking than anything on “Hotel California”, the chorus is playing against the beat, the guitars are overdriven and rough and Cliff sings in a committed way about the working week, paying his union dues and looking forward to Saturday – as it is “Rock’n’roll time”. There’s even some shockingly high falsetto notes towards the end. A lovely outdated attitude to rock’n’roll already. Is that motorbikes rev-ing at the end? “Doing fine” is bright and breezy and bland, Richard is on a positivity tip – it’s not so much “I’m OK you’re OK” it’s “I’m OK who are you again?”. He doesn’t need politicians giving him blues. Best stick your head in the sand, matey. “Cities may fall” is the first of a number of songs co-written with BA Robertson and is…er..odd. It’s like someone’s listened to “Heroes” and “Are ‘friends’ electric?” and thought it would fit Richard. He sings through a flanger, there’s unearthly synths, drums through harmonisers like “Low”, Bowie style sax.. And the words are even odder. All “no more machinery” and “human zoos”. What the HELL? (Of course this was the song my brother always said I should like – “You like that weird Jean Michel Jarre synth music” – and I suppose I did like this song). Good ending too. “You know that I love you” is clipped, spare and sharp. He loves her, he wants to be with her, and she doesn’t care. Slightly funky, but more memorable for the peculiar drum noises in the chorus and the angular guitar solo. It passes pleasantly. “My luck won’t change” begins dreamily but soon kicks into traditional rock. More positivity (that Christian life’s got him in its sway) but it does nothing for me, except the bizarre atonal piano running through the song’s bridges. The LP’s title track – written by Richard alone – closes side one, rollicking along like pub rock. Richard starts professing to roll over Beethoven then goes Christian again – “I’m a rock’n’roll holy roller, I love to sing about Jesus ‘cos he saved my soul-yeah”. Oh give over. (And I’m a Christian but this sort of thing makes me sick). Then plays on the dream on the guitar making you a star. Shut up, only fools like the Gallaghers believe that crap.

Side two starts with “Sci-fi”, more synths and references to “Close encounters” and “Star wars”. But it’s nonsense – Richard can’t be into UFOs if he’s into Jesus too. These lyrics are hilarious actually. The musical backing is hilarious too, very new-wave nerdy proto-synth pop – I’m sure there’s a vocoder in there somewhere. “Fallin’ in luv'” is a through-back, all doo-wop vocal harmonies and more clipped guitars. “Carrie” is special though, it paces the room in circles and doesn’t spoil things by being too obvious. Is Richard a private eye, or looking for an old girlfriend? Is he a stalker? There’s enough gaps in the lyrics to keep the listener guessing. How does the narrator turn it into the third person on the second verse? Nothing is resolved, nothing is delivered – that cry of “Carrie!” before the sax solo is truly pained. Wonderful. “Hot shot” sounds like more hackwork – there’s a lot of library music which sounds like this – and is rubbish. “Language of love” is hilarious again – Richard trying it on with French and Italian girls and trying to impress them with his language skills, but ends up sounding like Del Trotter. “I’m getting ready for my new vocation – I’m gonna be the man who’ll unite the nations”! But the joie de vivre (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the playing and singing is obvious.

And then at the end, a glimpse of the future.

“We don’t talk any more” wasn’t the most futuristic single of 1979 but it was so different from the run of the mill Cliff Richard canon that it caught everyone’s attention. So many synths on it, hardly any guitar except the occasional guitar solo. And Richard sounds committed to the song, throwing in some high notes and making the words count. A relationship in freefall – always a good subject for me – and Richard really sings his heart out. A hugely deserved number one single, you know. Not bad as a song recorded in a day towards the end of the session – and don’t forget it’s the only song with any help from Alan Tarney, who will go on to far greater things.

This LP – well, tape actually – stayed in the car forever. In fact it transferred from our white Lancia Beta to our Datsun Violet about a month before the Lancia rust bucket story hit the news, so we were lucky to sell that car. The Violet may have been smaller than the Lancia but I loved it, I can still remember the number plate (AWO 300T) and everything…

————

So, you may ask, how about punk? Didn’t that have any influence on you during the time? Well…er…

First of all I should say that I was ten years old in 1979 so just about too young to really know what was going on, and certainly my father had stopped buying Melody Maker somewhere between Harpenden and Penarth so I wasn’t reading about these things. If it was on the radio or on Top Of The Pops then I knew about it. The Clash? “London Calling” and that’s about it. Buzzcocks? Always in the charts, so I knew them. The Sex Pistols completely passed me by until the very end – I can remember Sid Vicious doing Eddie Cochrane songs appearing on TOTP in early ’79. But one song of theirs did find its way into my life. I have a distinct memory of my friends and myself sitting in the hall with a bunch of year 6 boys a year above me and they passed around a seven inch single of “Something Else”, and them teaching us younger boys the words to the b-side “Friggin’ in the riggin'”. Until the teacher caught us singing “‘Cos there was f*** all else to do”. I also remember the seven inch of “Hit me with your rhythm stick” being handed around specifically for the b-side “There ain’t half been some clever bastards”. Rude words clearly were very funny.

And then there’s The Jam. I first noticed them doing “David Watts” on TOTP, and amazed my brother’s classmates by singing it in the lunch hall the next day. I didn’t know it was a Kinks song – it didn’t appear on “The Golden Hour Of The Kinks” which had been in my parents’ collection for years. The Jam seemed furious about something, there was an urgency in their performances which made them seem really important to pre-teen me. When “Going Underground” went straight into the charts at number one, it felt like a bomb had gone off – that never happened in those days. And even I recognised that the cover of their “Sound Affects” LP was made to look like the BBC Sound Effects LPs that my brother and I borrowed from Penarth library then used as material for our own crazed tapes – snippets of songs, radio broadcasts, records old and new. Some of these tapes are ingrained in my mind – a cross-over from a lick in Paul McCartney’s “Another Day” into a steam train tooting its horn into a Grumbleweeds sketch.

The final months at Evenlode were Spring into Summer 1980. We were the “big frogs” according to our teacher but we’d be “small frogs” when we moved to secondary school and we prepared for this transition by walking there one day, having an assembly and walking back. The first three weeks of May in 1980 were spent on a concentrated course of swimming lessons. Each morning our year 6 class would climb aboard a coach outside the school, drive down to the seafront to the swimming baths and have a morning of lessons there – with Radio One blaring in the background. So many songs from the chart in May 1980 remind me of those lessons – “Geno”, “Talk of the town”, “Coming up”. Don McLean singing “Crying”, “Suicide is painless”. Of course the baths were closed in the mid 80s and turned into a bar (“Inn at the deep end” – sigh). It’s probably flats now.

On our last day at Evenlode, Year 6 gave a presentation on what we wanted to be when we were older. We all stood in a line waiting to act out our dreams. I said “When I grow up I want to be a writer”, swung my scarf meaningfully like some Oxford undergraduate (as suggested by my teacher, it was her scarf) and wrote a few lines in my ‘novel’. Everyone clapped.

A writer! Me! Ha ha ha.

Thanks for indulging me, dear reader. Next time – what happened next, and another journey through the past.

Misty roses and a Kodachrome past

This is another of my occasional entries where I examine my parents’ record collection, circa 1975. There’s other entries about their collection elsewhere on the blog if you’re interested

My parents’ record collection was probably typical of most British people who grew up during the sixties. The break-up of a number of significant 60s acts led to a glut of albums by solo artists. Some were good and some were great and some were awful. Obviously the Beatles led the way in this overabundance of twelve inch vinyl and while those older than myself were expecting tablets of stone from the individual Fabs, I just heard the bits of the early solo LPs which my father thought were good enough for us to hear. Hence he edited “McCartney” down to a decent EP, dropped “I don’t want to be a soldier” and “Oh Yoko” from “Imagine” and brutally cut down “All things must pass” to a measly six songs. But hell those six songs were absolutely fantastic, and we didn’t have to sit through “I dig love” or “The art of dying” on our long car journeys. We had “John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band” as a prerecorded cassette but I never heard it, ever. Maybe there was too much swearing on it for our tender ears. (This didn’t stop my brother and I learning a lot of dirty words from my father’s Penguin copy of “Lennon Remembers” around the same time – this was mid 70s). I’ll look at the Beatles in more detail another time but for this article I want to look at two solo artists who were freed from their bands or partnerships – though the ties still bound in both cases – and who produced superb debut solo albums, then look at their second and third albums.

“Paul Simon” (1972)

As time passed through 1969, Paul Simon felt restricted by the format of his partnership with Art Garfunkel. It didn’t help that Artie had a part in the film “Catch 22” but Simon’s part had been written out of the final script. So while Garfunkel was shooting the film in Mexico, Simon was brooding into songs like “The only living boy in New York”. After a final tour to promote “Bridge over troubled waters”, they went their seperate ways, Garfunkel moving towards Jimmy Webb songs and angelic cover versions and rabbits.

As I have mentioned previously, my parents loved Simon and Garfunkel and had all their albums. When the partnership split in 1970, it was clear which member of the duo would have the most success. At least it seems that way from my parents’ viewpoint as they never bought an Art Garfunkel album but had all Paul Simon’s solo albums up to the late 70s. (This isn’t strictly true, I know my mother had an odd compilation tape which had S&G plus solo material on it – which is why I have Art singing “All I know” in my head at the moment).

Simon’s debut album was issued in January 1972 and is almost faultless. Being 3 years old at the time I don’t remember it arriving, but I know the album cover was a familiar item from an early age. After all, Simon was wearing a fur lined snorkel jacket like I wore to school. So it must have been cool. (Or he was trying to hide his receding hair?). “Mother and child reunion” is sort of ska, almost reggae, cooing female vocals, those peculiar hihat stop and starts, minimal guitar lines. And those words. I don’t care what Simon says about it – a meeting of chicken and egg in a Chinese dish? – I always think it’s about the Beatles, sort of – “I know they say let it be”. But it swings as freely as little else in early 1972. “Duncan” shows progress from “Bridge over troubled waters”. Whereas there Simon and Garfunkel sang over an existing Los Incas backing track, here they are integrated within the song. It’s a pencil sketch of a loner’s search for something – freedom, peace, love – and the lyrics paint skillful vignettes of incidents in a life. But Simon sings like he is Duncan himself – those “I know I know I know”s between verses are joyous, he turns “survival” into an eight syllable word. It’s Simon’s freedom from the restrictions of the harmonies with Garfunkel. I still love these lyrics, so enigmatic yet so perfect. “Everything put together falls apart” is mainly Simon on guitar and vocal with a little electric piano and harmonium in the background. But God the words! He’s singing to his generation more than one person – “Watch what you’re doing taking downs…”. The sixties people are getting older, the idealism is melting away, the real world is imposing and looking scary. “Run that body down” says the same thing, kind of. Simon goes to the doctor who tells him to slow down, then he says the same to his wife, before turning it to everyone – “Boy you’d better look around, how long d’you think that you can run that body down?” But there’s an easy jazzy swing to the music, vibraphones and major seventh chorded guitars. The medicine is being sweetened at the moment. “Armistice Day” could be about the Vietnam war dragging on, but is so oblique to be hard to discern. There’s a droning quality to Simon’s acoustic guitar playing – heading back to his days in London with the likes of Bert Jansch and other folk guitar innovators. Around 90 seconds in, a rhythm kicks in alongside a funky electric guitar and some strange horns and it sounds like a precursor to “Spirit of Eden”. Actually what it reminds me of more than anything is “Blank Project”, the new album by Neneh Cherry – the stark beauty of the music, the directness of the rhythms, the focus on the words and voice, cutting the song to it’s barest essentials to exist. But back to “Armistice Day”… When the electric guitar kicks in, Simon gets more impassioned, trying to reach his congressman (why?), hitting wordless falsetto notes. Something is bothering him, but nothing is delivered.

“Me and Julio down in the schoolyard” is another calypso treasure, another shaggy dog story. Lovely. “Peace like a river” is modal tension, based on a rhythmic tape loop – is this about some kind of underground resistance? Eventually the tension is released by the chorus – a bank of wordless backing vocals (last seen on “The only living boy in New York”) engulf Simon as he makes his position clear – “You can beat us with wires, you can beat us with chains, you can run out your rules but you know you can’t outrun the history train”. I feel I’m reading too much into these songs – for me they capture the spirit of the early 70s, the movement, the desire for revolution, the embers slowly burning out by the time of Nixon’s re-election, yet with Watergate ticking like a time bomb in his second administration. And then I watch “Songs of America”, the CBS documentary S&G made in 1969 and they take themselves so seriously that I believe my ideas on this music is at least half right. “Papa Hobo” harks back to “The boxer” with its bass harmonica, but it’s an acoustic waltz – built on Simon’s guitar and a quiet harmonium, but there’s little joy here – a glimpse of a Detroit denizen’s sad life. “Hobo’s blues” is pure joy though – Simon throws some jazzy acoustic guitar while Stephane Grappelli improvises a sweet violin over the top. “Paranoia Blues” is mean – the slide guitars could cut your throat, Simon sounds like’s he clinging on the edge – “There’s only one thing I need to know, who’s side are you on?”. More early 70s paranoia. It’s a personal favourite – all the little details, chow fong in Chinatown! Downright brilliant. “Congratulations” is weary from its own misery, and hints at the direction Simon would take, the use of electric piano and the gospel organ in the background. It’s another generational hymn, a warning to those on the verge of falling apart – the last words on the album are “Can a man and a woman live together in peace?” A theme Simon would return to. “Paul Simon” is short but not a second is wasted.

What happened next…

“There goes rhymin’ Simon” (1973)

Eighteen months or so from his debut, Simon gets the full treatment from CBS’s art department – a colourful gatefold sleeve, with only a small picture of Simon within the cover (hair receding fast). And the opening track “Kodachrome” is one of the most perfect songs about memory vs reality. That second verse is so right – “Everything looks worse in black and white”. And there’s a change in the music… There’s a richer palette of instruments, organs and pianos and horns and more overdubs. This is not to the song’s detriment. (Odd aside – since the first time I heard “Asylums in Jerusalem” in ’85 it always reminded me of a Paul Simon song and I never put it together with “Kodachrome” until now). And then the album hits a brick wall. “Tenderness” has a bitter lyric – “honesty is such a waste of energy” – some horrible cocktail jazz piano and guitar, and it drags. It sounds like a bad night at a supper club. “Take me to the Mardi Gras” is pleasant enough and enjoyable, especially when the Onward Brass Band kick off at the end. “Something so right” is another slow meditation on relationships which drops bars as it goes along, but doesn’t retain much interest. The arrangement doesn’t help, mushy strings and more electric piano and a parping flute in the background (on loan from the end of “So long Frank Lloyd Wright”). “Cloying” is the word I’m looking for. (An aside – there’s a demo version of this song on a recent reissue which has different chorus words, but is just Simon’s voice and guitar and is far superior – more intimate and heartfelt). “One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor” is far better but wastes a fine intro – that piano line really stuck with me as a youngster – on a boogie-ing verse. Still, it’s uptempo and makes a decent enough point about apartment living, and there’s some return to the debut’s paranoia too.

“American tune” is absolutely faultless. For a start the production and arrangement are totally sympathetic (Paul Samwell-Smith and Del Newman respectively, the team behind Cat Stevens at the time) and the song itself is one of Simon’s best. It starts as a state-of-the-nation address – or maybe it’s one of the characters from “America” looking at what he’s seen five years on. “I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease…”. And then the camera pulls back, the narrator dreams of dying, or is it flying, seeing the Statue of Liberty drifting off, that symbol of what America stands for… Then it turns historical, to the Mayflower and the hope of the new land, and is “the age’s most uncertain hour” the historical time of the Mayflower or 1973? This song is so multi-layered, and the melody (based on a Bach chorale) rises to the words. Absolutely beautiful. “Was a sunny day” is quite mellow in contrast, and I used to sing this one as a child. Very pleasant. “Learn how to fall” is remarkable – not least the syncopated introduction which (to me) anticipates some of the “Graceland” songs like “I know what I know” and “Gumboots”. The song is great too, not over-complicated with some lovely details – that organ punctuation, some tasteful guitar work. The lyric rises to the challenge too, it also points towards his Eighties songwriting, less specific but wise. “St Judy’s Comet” I didn’t understand when I was younger but bloody hell a song about getting your son to go to bed makes sense to me now! It’s actually quite touching, and even has a sense of humour – “Cos if I can’t sing my boy to sleep well it makes your famous daddy look so dumb”. Musically this always makes me think of “Lovely day” by Bill Withers, but that’s not a problem. “Loves me like a rock” closes the LP on a high – all rock’n’roll chord changes, gospel shouts and cheers and this was another childhood favourite. Pure joy.

“There goes rhymin’ Simon” then has some great moments, but is let down by a few poor songs and arrangements. Maybe it was an attempt at a more commercial album, and some of the songs reference back to the music of the late 50s and early 60s. A good album then, but a step down from the debut.

And then…

“Still crazy after all these years” (1975)

There’s that yellowing sepia tone that defines the mid 70s LP cover. It’s there on “Court and Spark” and “The Who by numbers”. And it’s all over “Still crazy…”. And there’s Simon on a fire escape, with a hat on to disguise his receding hair. And then there’s a new album, a Grammy award winner, with some hit singles and favourites. And…

It’s bland. Maybe I’m not the right person for this album, maybe I never will be. For a start, Simon’s acoustic guitar is surplanted by more and more electric piano. The title track is dominated by that tremelo Fender Rhodes, has that mid 70s clean ‘thud’ drum sound, not showy, and a slushy string arrangement. And is that a sax solo? Yuck. And the words are small minded and petty. I mean…I know I might get stick for this because this is probably a much loved album (checks reviews on Amazon…yes people love this album) but I find it so disappointing after the first two LPs. Anyway, back to the music. “My little town” sees Art Garfunkel return to the fold, and it actually pushes Simon a bit. “You sing such sweet songs” he told Garfunkel. This isn’t sweet and it hurts. Anyone wanting to get away from their own “little town” would identify with this song. Again I remember it from my childhood, that piano introduction, the build up. For once the arrangement is good and when Simon and Garfunkel really let go at the end it feels like they are trying to tear their past to pieces. Then we return to the swirling Univibe guitars of the mid 70s of “I’d do it for your love” and it all goes to mush again. A collection of scenes from a relationship in freefall, and is this a mid 70s “Abba on the jukbox”? Perish the thought. “50 ways to leave your lover” is great, from the distinctive drum pattern onwards – another favourite of mine. And considering the chorus was a rhyming exercise wriytten for his son, it struck a chord wlith me when I was young. For all my moaning, some of this is good which makes the bad stuff so frustrating. I’m sure “Night game” is really clever, an extended baseball metaphor for a relationship. Or is it just about a baseball game? Whatever, I find it dull. Sorry. “Gone at last” at least has some energy, even if it’s a retread of the gospel stylings of “Loves me like a rock”, only faster. “Some folks’ lives roll easy” is snoozeworthy, more Fender Rhodes. I feel like I’m missing something really important on some of these songs. Other people like them, love them – why don’t I? “Have a good time” I really don’t know how to take. Is Simon being ironic? Is he taking the piss out of the Me Generation? Or did people take it at face value? I hope not. I keep thinking of the word “enervated”. Or maybe it’s all ennui. Ditto to “You’re kind” really. It’s like a petty letter to a former lover. “Silent eyes” tries to be dramatic but just slides along using all the ideas already used on the album – the 6/8 rhythm heavy on the hihat, resounding piano, restless melody, gospel backing. Andwhat for? Oh hang on, there’s meaning here – is it about his Jewish faith? I don’t know, I don’t get it, and I’ve lost interest.

Sorry.

And from hereon in…

Well from here it was a greatest hits LP for CBS with two new songs (was this the first hits LP with new songs to entice purchasers?), then an appearance in “Annie Hall” then a move to Warner Brothers with the promise of a film (“One trick pony”) which flopped. And from there, a return to S&G in Central Park, and “Hearts and bones” (under-rated and featuring some of his best songs) then “Graceland” and onwards and upwards (and downwards with “Capeman”). Simon has always been interesting and rarely boring. But on “Still crazy” he sounded smug, self-centred and tired. Maybe that’s what 1975 was like.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean…

“One Year” (1971)

By 1968 Colin Blunstone had had enough of music to leave the industry completely and become an insurance salesman. The Zombies’ swansong “Odessey and Oracle” had been generally ignored in the UK and the band had split up, with Rod Argent and Chris White forming a new band to go in a ‘heavier’ direction. Then Al Kooper boosted the band’s profile in America and “Time of the season” had become a hit, and slowly the band’s reputation was restored and “Odessey” started it’s slow but relentless climb to become a much-loved classic. (I purchased a foreign CD of it in 1988 with a horrible blue cover and sounding like crap, but the album’s brilliance shone through).
Blunstone quietly returned to active service, recording a number of singles as Neil McArthur for Deram which were very much period pieces – Neil’s version of “She’s not there” leaps between intimacy and orchestral bombast, with some heavy fuzztone guitar soloing thrown in for good measure. He does a peculiar version of Nilsson’s “Without her” too. And then he disappeared, to return with his debut album in November 1971. In the meantime Argent and White had assembled their own band named Argent which would back Blunstone from time to time, as well as provide material for him. In November 1971 Blunstone issued his debut album “One Year”.

It’s not quite a concept album, but it’s a diary of one year – the movement from one relationship to another. Blunstone’s short and sweet sleeve note explain this – “this album is the story of a year of mine…a time of searching and beginning all over again”. The album starts quite conventionally – “She loves the way they love her” is a full band song written by Argent and White. It’s a witty take on the fame game, noticable for the harmonised lead guitar parts which anticipate Brian May’s work in Queen, and for Blunstone’s beautiful voice, breathy and high. A good start then. “Misty roses” is of course the Tim Hardin song, and it starts in a typically folkish way, a solo fingerpicked acoustic guitar and Blunstone tenderly singing the words. (This seems to be the blueprint for a lot of the acoustic side of Blueboy’s work, by the way. No bad thing). And then at 1 minute 40 seconds the final guitar strum is matched by an ominous low cello note, and a beautiful string arrangement enters. And my word what an arrangement! It moves from flowing to brutal atonal stabs, with the instruments spread across the stereo spectrum it sounds like an argument in audio form – sharp cuts, harsh words, stunned silences, cutting from left to right and back again. Someone (Marcello I expect) could probably tell me the arrangement is based on a particular composer but I don’t know these things. All I know is that it hits me hard in the heart and brings tears to my eyes. When Blunstone returns to reiterate a verse, the arrangement is playing strange harmonies off the song’s real chords. I know I used to hear this song back in Leeds (aged five or thereabouts) and be absolutely terrified of this song. “Smokey day” – another Argent and White song – is just as ominous. Blunstone harmonises with himself at odd angles and the strings and a harp drag around the room. The girl has going but the memories remain. Scary. “Caroline goodbye” is Blunstone’s first self-written song and what a start. Finally confessing her name (it was actress and model Caroline Munro), it’s another full band song with some lovely string arrangements by Tony Visconti. Blunstone’s words cut hard – “I should’ve seen sooner, no use pretending, I’ve known for a long time your love is ending”. But he sings them so tenderly, so gently. “Though you are far away” is more harp and strings – stark and stunning. It’s hard to say if this is to the old love or the new love, but it again hits home. Another Blunstone song, he really hid his light under a bushel by not writing for the Zombies. The arrangement again is shot through with silences and dischords. And that’s just side one.

Side two starts with “Mary won’t you warm my bed”, a bit of a Motown / “What’s going on” stomper with another Visconti arrangement. It’s lush – in the proper sense of the word – lots of pianos and guitar stabs and horns. It’s great stuff, and Blunstone lets rip with a wonderful vocal, hitting high notes all over the place. And a perfectly natural key change too. From here onwards, the band pretty much disappear and it’s strings and harps all the way. “Her song” is intimate and beautiful, a picture of lovers awakening. Dammit, I’m tearing up again in the chorus. Sorry. That’s such a lovely portrait of devotion. “I can’t live without you” shows the relationship progressing, Blunstone’s own song and it’s simple – what he can’t say beyond the title, he just sings a high wordless melody for the chorus and hell that’s enough. “Let me come closer to you” is all brass band, but not brash at all. Is he singing to his new love, or is it to his audience who he is also approaching? Back to his sleeve note – “this album is the key back to the road, and so to people – where music really is”. Finally “Say you don’t mind” is utterly joyous. Of course at that age I didn’t know Denny Laine’s original, and probably not a lot of people did. But this is just wonderful – the happy string arrangement, and Blunstone sings with audible joy. And that final note at the end – it’s the sound of freedom unleashed. It sends shivers down my spine.

What a stunning album. I haven’t done it justice at all and I apologise for that. The song choices are perfect. Chris Gunning’s arrangements – particularly the strings – are incredible. It really does tell a story. And it’s so different to what else was around at the time. And yes it does bring Leeds flooding back. When the LP was reissued in the late 90s I bought it as soon as I could and lay back, headphones on, with tears rolling down my face from start to finish. It’s a gateway back to Leeds – just as I can remember seeing the sleeve in the record collection there, I can picture the whole living room when I play this LP. The hifi was under the stairwell, the sofas were against the wall pointing to the TV at the front of the house, the dining room table was near the entrance to the kitchen, the sideboard was against the wall where the hall was… It’s all floral and green and I can almost smell the cleanliness of the room. And that’s the power of music, to bring back those memories. “One Year” is up there with “Can’t help falling in love” in my opinion. And again I’ve not done it justice. Sorry. But I’d take this LP over a dozen Nick Drakes any day. (“Heresy” I hear you cry, “And there’s only three Nick Drake LPs anyway…” Yes I know, I’m just making a point…)

What happened next

“Ennismore” (1972)

While Blunstone looked pensive and away from the camera on the sleeve of “One year”, holding his hands behind his head, elbows pointing forward – on “Ennismore” he is in full black and white casual portrait mode, a faint smile on his face looking directly at the camera. All doubt is gone, he is now approaching his audience. By now he has played some concerts, some with a string quartet, and has taken his music to the people. “Say you don’t mind” has been a hit – reaching number 13 in the charts – so he has re-established himself. Time for a second album, with the same team of musicians – the Argent crew again, with guitarist Russ Ballard adding songs too. Indeed the opening track of “Ennismore” – and lead single – is Ballard’s “I don’t believe in miracles”. This is a lovely ambiguous song – is it about a relationship, or is it about the search for faith? The song is very subtle, and the backing is perfectly understated, and Blunstone sings like a fallen angel. The fact that this barely reached the top 30 in late ’72 is criminal. The next four songs are all listed under the subtitle “Quartet” and it’s like a miniature “One year”, all written by Blunstone – most of the album is written by him actually. “Exclusively for you” is all Fender Rhodes and bass guitar with a little string arrangement, but the emotional depth is lacking. It’s quite conventional, unlike “One year”. “A sign from me to you” is odd because I’ve not heard it in many many years. And what’s oddest is that the chord sequence and melody is almost identical to “The weird wild and wonderful world of Tony Potts” by the Monochrome Set. Again it all goes a bit mid 70s rock when the full band comes in, which is a shame because the song is great. But I can’t get over how similar to the Monochrome Set song it is – I knew that song was familiar when I heard it years ago. Oh, and the lead guitar part would dearly love George Harrison to be playing it. “Every sound I heard” is also very familiar and rather pleasant. Damned by faint praise there. Actually all the changes from full-on to quiet are effective. In fact with the backing vocals this sounds more like the Zombies than anything else so far. The lyrics however seem quite cliched – rhyming ‘life’ with ‘wife’. Oh no. “How wrong can one man be” is better, even with a few clunky lines – “That last and final time”? Oh dear. The next few songs whizz past in a haze of normality. “I want some more” sounds like it should soundtrack “Holiday ’73”. “Pay me later” is all boogie piano and slide guitars. I can’t help feeling Blunstone’s heavenly voice is being wasted on these songs. And then he shows he still has the magic. “Andorra” is less ‘seventies rock’, built on acoustic guitars and piano and with some appropriately Spanish touches – castanets, Spanish guitar and mandolin trills. Even the sighing backing vocals hark back to “Time of the season”. The song is gorgoeus – a travelogue of a holiday, searching for the sun and finding none. And… I always feel there’s something darker in this song, something unspoken, some hidden horror from the holiday that isn’t mentioned. I’m probably wrong. “I’ve always had you” is perfectly average to begin with, gentle acoustic guitar and voice then halfway through it all goes wrong – electric piano, Leslie-tones guitar and a wailing sax. Why? Oh yes, because it’s the seventies. “Time’s running out” and so is my patience. “How could we dare to be wrong?” is heartfelt but it’s so utterly cliched, tired guitar licks, tired music. Oh Lord this should be better than this. And the album ends and I don’t want to hear it again. The bad outweighs the good – the opener, the quartet songs and “Andorra”. It’s clearly Argent in control, and the unique nature of “One Year” is slowly fading away.

And then…

“Journey” (1974)

Oh I wish I could find some kind words to say about “Journey”. It starts well, at least. The opening trilogy “Wonderful” / “Beginning” / “Keep the curtains drawn” is absolutely fantastic. The use of the Kings Singers and the arrangements on those three songs is great and unique. It tells a story too, the anticipation in waiting for the loved one and their return and hiding away and getting close with them. And having created a fantastic ten minute opening, Blunstone coasts for the rest of the album. Slight changes to the musicians – Pete Wingfield on keyboards, Duncan Browne on guitars – but it sounds like session musos going through the motions. It goes in one ear and out of the other. It makes “Still crazy after all these years” sound like a work of godlike genius. “This is your captain speaking” is the album’s nadir, a strange concoction about a drunken pilot announcing he’s pissed over the tannoy. Please don’t make me hear this again.

And from hereon in…

After his third solo album, Blunstone left Epic Records and moved to Elton John’s Rocket Records but the hits dried up. He still had the voice though, and used it on songs for the Alan Parsons Project – I remember “Old and wise” being played a lot on the radio even if it didn’t seem to be a hit – and there was a synthpop version of “What becomes of the broken hearted?” with Dave “Not that one” Stewart which got Blunstone back on Top of the Pop to Peter Powell’s surprise. And then the inevitable happened. As the reputation of “Odessey and Oracle” increased and the reunion circuit beckoned, the Zombies reformed and played the album live, alongside some Blunstone and Argent songs. There’s an “Odessey” live CD with three songs from “One year” showing what that these songs can be performed live with a respectful audience listening. Blunstone is still making music and touring with various Zombies and my parents have seen a show or two and really enjoyed it.

Conclusions

Is this a scientific test that requires a conclusion? No not really. My main conclusion is that simplicity can often produce the best music. Both debut albums revel in their simplicity, their nakedness, their honesty of expression. They aren’t overloaded with overdubs or musicians or solos, they say what they need to say as concisely as possible then push off. No extrapolation, no showboating. It’s odd – this week I picked up a copy of “Mid-Eighties” by Robert Wyatt, an artist I’ve admired rather than loved or understood. I’ve struggled with “Rock bottom” for twenty years now. I recognised some song titles from the “Work in progress” EP that Peel played extensively in ’84. I’ve played it over and over in the last few days. Again it’s simple, organ and piano and vocals and sometimes rhythm – percussion or drumbox. But it gets to me, I understand it, and I feel like a door has opened into Wyatt’s music so I can go and explore it. And the CD reminds me of “Love letters”, the new album by Metronomy which is equally simple in execution but complex in thought. And that goes back to the Neneh Cherry LP too. Simplicity is often the best policy. And I listen to some modern hyper-produced hit single by Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or Bastille and it sounds TOO MUCH. There’s too many layers. What’s great about Pharell’s “Happy” – and “Get lucky” to some extent – is that the song is at the heart, it’s not about over-production, being bigger louder stronger overpowering. It’s about songs, human expressions, communication – joy, sorrow, pleasure, pain. “Paul Simon” and “One Year” communicate, pure and simple.

Next time – Dive into yesterday.

Oh Harpenden so much to answer for

On 1st April 1977 our family moved from Leeds to Harpenden in Hertfordshire – a small town halfway between Luton and St Albans. I was nearly eight years old and remember it quite clearly. My father had been working in St Albans for almost a year and had been commuting between Leeds and St Albans all that time – he’d be home with us at the weekends usually with a box of chocolates – the St Albans GPO Computer Centre where he worked was next to a Cadburys Schweppes factory and he’d buy factory rejects, mis-shapes and damaged Creme Eggs. He also said that the computer centre was opposite the building which was used for the outside shots of HMP Slade for “Porridge” (I’ve just checked this on Wikipedia and it’s true, you know). Had I been happy in Leeds? Well yes and no. Yes I had my small circle of friends. No I had been bullied already and was glad to get away from there and I had some bad memories of Leeds thanks to an operation on my left eye that kept me in hospital for three weeks when I was six. But hell it wasn’t my choice. Maybe I’ll deal with Leeds in general next time I look at my parents’ record collection.

But we moved. We packed everything up, Pickfords came along and took it all and we sort of followed the lorry down the M1 towards our new home. Our house was a newly built four bedroom detached house on a new estate – it was the first house on the estate so was established while the rest of the estate – and our new school – was being built. According to the school’s website it was built and opened in 1975 so I’d imagine our house was around that time, if maybe a year earlier. I can remember the layout of the house – the big front room with our old hifi in its stereogram case at one end and the TV and sofas at the other, the dining room coming off the lounge so we could watch the TV if we wanted (the only time we did this was for Sunday lunch, a meal I detested and still dislike, so hearing “Nantucket Sleighride” by Mountain – the theme tune to “Weekend World” – brings back feelings of revulsion at facing another plate of vegetables. Don’t get me wrong, my mother was and still is a fantastic cook and her Sunday lunches were great but I had a thing against vegetables…). The kitchen had a breakfast bar which was quite an innovation – I’d never seen one before and loved sitting on the high stools. There was a small hall with steps in a square that led upstairs. Again a small landing leading to the main bathroom, my parents’ bedroom (with en suite! And a shower! Such luxury compared to Leeds), my brother’s bedroom and a spare bedroom. Oh and at the front of the house was my bedroom. I have an idea of how much my father paid for it, and according to Zoopla the house two doors along sold for £573,000 more than that price last year. Now the bathroom was where something odd happened. We always listened to the Top 40 rundown on Radio 1 on Sunday evenings and it usually coincided with an evening bath. One evening I got into a lovely warm bath with a ton of bubble bath in it (Matey, probably) just as “I hear you now” by Jon and Vangelis started – the simple four note sequence and the lovely little melody of synthesised notes over the top. And for some reason that stuck with me, in such a way that if I get into a hot bath with bubble bath even now I still have the intro to “I hear you now” going in my mind. Weird. (Maybe I share too much, hmm?)

Now my bedroom was long and thin and painted navy blue with a single bed at the far end under the window. Along the walls were posters of cars and pop groups. I was an avid reader of Look-In magazine and had their posters of Abba up on the walls. Were there other bands I liked and placed alongside Abba on the blue walls? Well they weren’t going to put posters of the Beatles in Look-In, so it was unlikely I had other bands up there. I didn’t think much of David Soul who seemed to be everywhere at the time but I did love Abba a lot. They never smiled, they looked so stern and cold and that suited some of their music – I heard “Arrival” a lot and adored it, especially “My love my life”, “Tiger” and the title track. There was something strong, Nordic, foreboding in that title track – it was the aural equivalent of the cover shot, a helicopter at dusk, the day on the cusp of night, a chill in the air.

I enjoyed the change of school to be honest. There was nothing wrong with the school in Leeds, but for some reason everyone seemed to treat me like a genius at the new school. We were streamed into three sets – red, green and blue – and would do our work in the room with the carpet the colour of our set. I was in the blue room – the top set – with only five other pupils, three girls and two boys. We always had to work in pairs and as I was an ‘interloper’ – a new boy – I had yet to make many friends so the two boys paired up, two girls paired up and the other girl – who I believe was named Leigh – was always paired with me. She soon got fed up with this and complained bitterly to the teacher that she always ended up with me, and then we realised that we had a common love – the “Pink Panther” films – and became firm friends, re-enacting scenes from the films in the playground.

School was fine, and I’ve got lots of happy memories from that year in school. 1977 was Jubilee year so we had celebrations in school and I remember contributing to the crown that the class constructed, and how it was placed on a shelf just too high for me to reach in the store cupboard. We had a school trip to St Albans to visit the Roman museum there and I know my mother came along as an adult helper, and I had a meltdown there for some reason. We also had fantastic grounds around the school, lovely playing fields and if the sun was out we’d do country dancing outside. I still burst into one of the songs we’d dance to, it’s ingrained on my mind. “I want to be near you, you’re the one for me for me”. A traditional square dance it seems. And again researching this I find the song on a website for the Hertfordshire Folk Association, and also mentioned on a BBC schools publication “Dancing for fun”.

Which brings us to another area of the school with striking memories – the music. There was a series of books and programmes and records called “Time and Tune” which changed every three months and we would love these songs and books. One of my favourites was during my time in Harpenden – “Time and Tune Echo” which was a cartoon style newspaper with story songs. There was one song story about pies I remember quite vividly, and the “Time and tune echo” song still spirals around my mind. And again doing a search on “Time and tune” brings it up, as it’s still being produced by the BBC and I’m sure I once found a website which had scans of all the books from over the years. I’ll keep looking for that. There was also a music book which our teacher was always dipping into called something like “Apiscadu” which I can still see in my mind’s eye – brown cover, long and thin shape, orange fish swimming across the cover…. There were also other BBC schools books and albums and I saw an article about these albums in Record Collector a few years back and recognised the sleeves.

What is odd is that I don’t really remember Harpenden town centre. Maybe I didn’t go there. I know there was a MacFisheries there which I thought was a hilarious name. Up in Leeds we’d had Asda and Safeways and Morrisons, down south we had MacFisheries and VG. I also know there was a sweet shop around the corner from where we lived because – well I went there often enough! I was and still am a sweet addict so I had to try any new sweets I saw. This was the era of new flavours of Tic Tacs and it was around this time I was introduced to my favourite sweet ever – cinnamon Tic Tacs. They stopped selling them in the UK after a few years and they disappeared alongside aniseed flavour in the early 80s but they were still available in the US until a few years ago. If I found someone I knew was going to America I’d give them a tenner and say “Buy as many cinnamon Tic Tacs as you can for me please”. We also had milk delivered by Unigate and that freaked me out – I didn’t like the “Humphrey” advertising around at the time, an anonymous straw stealing milk. We were given a set of “Humphrey” stickers and I made a point of not using them, I didn’t approve of it at all. As well as milk deliveries we also had pop deliveries – that’s pop as in fizzy drinks. It was Corona I think, or maybe Alpine. No, we had Corona in Cardiff because it was a Welsh brand – we had Alpine pop in big glass bottles that we would wash out and leave out for the next delivery. That’s what recycling was about in the seventies.

Getting back to Hertfordshire I can remember the shops of St Albans better than Harpenden for one reason – there was a toy shop I remember well because it was there I bought an Aurora AFX set. At some point in 1977 my love of cars had pushed me towards some kind of slot car racing system. Scalextric seemed too big and cumbersome but there was a smaller system which looked more fun – the cars had better grip so didn’t fly off the track at the merest flick of the controller, and the set was promoted by James Hunt. What could be better? I was bought a set and loved it – it had a McLaren M23 and a Ferrari 312-T2 racing each other.

Aurora was a bit of a niche thing – it was nowhere near as popular as Scalextric but I loved it. I had the track in my bedroom and made lots of complicated circuits and set up championships. I continued to buy extra track and cars for it as my interest in Formula One developed. I had chickenpox in early 1978 and was bed-ridden in the spare bedroom for what felt like forever, it was more than likely a fortnight. To pass the time my parents bought me an issue of Motor Sport magazine and I devoured it from cover to cover, learning about what was happening in the GP world and elsewhere. I fell in love with the romance of speed, the beautiful design of the cars themselves, of racers on the edge, of team-mates who supported each other. Put all that together in 1978 and you had Lotus – their innovative ground effect car Lotus 79 ruled that year. I wasn’t fussed on Mario Andretti but Ronnie Peterson was my absolute hero – when he really raced he was unbelievable, like in the rain in Austria that season. Of course that had a tragic end – I can remember being on holiday in Tenby in September 78, watching the TV news that Sunday evening through tearful eyes as they reported on the events of that day’s Italian Grand Prix and the accident that would take Peterson’s life.

(Ahem – music, Rob?)

Oh yes there was a lot of music too. This was the era of pre-recorded cassettes to be played at home and in the car. My father bought a white Lancia Beta 1300 which was a lot more upmarket than our previous Datsun Sunny. It had four doors! It was spacious! But it did turn into a rust bucket within three years. The cassette player didn’t chew up so many tapes either, which was an advantage. There were a few albums which soundtracked my time in Harpenden and they were about as far from what was happening in the music world as possible. Punk? Never heard of it at the time.

“Every face tells a story” – Cliff Richard

Now this is an odd one because it crossed over from Leeds to Harpenden. I distinctly remember my parents buying it in Morrisons in Leeds a week or so before we moved so it is possible that this album soundtracked the journey down the M1. It was bought presumably on the back of the “My kinda life” single. It’s odd, I remember that song being a far bigger hit than it actually was. This was the follow-up to Cliff’s big comeback “I’m nearly famous” LP which had two huge singles on it – “Devil woman” and “Miss you nights” – so this album was a development on that album’s theme. The same team were brought together – Bruce Welch, Alan Tarney and Terry Britten, all of whom had been related to each other through the reformed Shadows in the mid 70s – and more success was expected. Not that I knew this in ’77 – I just thought it was an album like any other.

“My kinda life” was as big a hit as the album would produce, a sort of rock / country hybrid that is pleasant enough and should be played on Radio 2 sometimes. (Question – does any radio station at all play Cliff now?). “It must be love” lollops along nicely with the first appearance of Tony Rivers in the backing vocals department. “When two worlds drift apart” is a stunning song, written by one Peter Sill, who I believe ended up as a music teacher in Essex though I may be wrong. This is far more dramatic, lots of heart-stopping chord changes and modulations, and some incredible crescendos, there’s a lot of dynamics here – not much of a pop arrangement, mainly piano and orchestration. It’s as good an adult break up song as “It’s too late” and is full of remembrances of a happier past – “It’s such a shame, but who’s to blame?”. Somewhere perhaps Bob Wratten was listening, but not admitting to it. (Having known and loved this song since I was eight I was pleased when it turned up on Marcello Carlin’s “Then Play Long” blog – the whole review is worth reading and he is far more insightful than me on the song). “You got me wondering” is again different, starting with acoustic guitar and slide guitar before moving to a bed of highly strummed guitars. I had no idea what this song was about but looking at it now it’s clearly about Christianity – “Gave us life for the living, gave us love for the giving…”. The wordless high falsetto notes Cliff hits at the end of each chorus show he’s passionate about this song. Great backing vocals again – and I’ve always felt this song was a distant cousin to “Mrs Ritchie” by Tony Rivers’ late 60s group Harmony Grass. The title track is as rocking as it gets on the album and is again vaguely Christian – the second verse about the man walking on water who came to save us – but other verses are more personal. And it’s a typically mid 70s sounding record – it’s a very dry sound, little or no grit on the guitars and absolutely no reverb. “Try a smile” on the other hand is a bland ballad to close out the side.

“Hey Mr Dream-maker” was a semi-hit single from late 76 and always confused me, it sounded familiar as soon as I heard it back in the day. I’ve only just realised now – it’s because the idea sounds like “Meet me on the corner” by Lindisfarne, which I knew because we had the “Fog on the Tyne” album. “Give me love your way” is something special – almost funky, bass-led with two wonderful acapella sections where Cliff sings of searching and finding love over doo-wop style vocals from Tony Rivers and the Castaways. “Up in the world” is another orchestrated ballad and almost as good as “When two worlds…”, there’s a hint of bitterness in the background. “Don’t turn the light out” is almost disco with a bouncy setting and jaunty Minimoogs playing a figure not unlike “Gonna make you a star”. However the song comes over as a plea to chastity – Cliff wants to keep the lights on to avoid “the ups an’ the downs of what lovin’s about”. Phnarr phnarr. “It’ll be me babe” is a far cry from “It’ll be me” back in the sixties, this was a failed Shadows single from their post-Eurovision mid 70s comeback, Cliff comes across as slightly creepy here, a bit of a stalker – “It’ll be me babe at your door”. OK. The Rhodes piano and wah-wah guitar creep around too and there’s a fine guitar solo, the first time the album has truly rocked up a bit. Finally “Spider man” – note the important space making it two words instead of a copyrighted one – hangs around for seven long minutes. I can remember the album being played at home in Harpenden and asking my father why it was going on so long – “The song’s finished, isn’t it?”. There’s hints of menace, it sounds like a good continuation from “It’ll be me babe”, similar instrumentation and hissing hi-hats and electric piano. There’s some ‘tasty’ mid-70s harmonised guitar and talkbox and it all goes on too bloody long.

So an album of highs and lows – but mainly highs. It was played very frequently and has lots of nice associations of Harpenden with it. The last time it was played was on the long drive to Sheffield in September ’88 alongside “Seconds of pleasure” and “Blonde on blonde” but that is another story for maybe never. The tape is in my attic, incidentally.

“20 golden greats” – The Shadows

Now this was definitely my father’s choice. Before the purge of his record collection in the mid 70s he had a lot of the Shadows’ early albums, but I don’t remember them too much but once we all started hanging out at record fairs he collected them again so I know the first three or four albums of theirs really well, quite eclectic with rocking piano stompers like “Stand up and say that” alongside classics like “Shadoogie” and “Nivram” and “Midnight”. If only they didn’t sing. But that’s all ahead of us here – in the summer of ’77 when punk was everywhere (really? I didn’t notice, maybe I was too young) we were playing this all the time. It’s the perfect Shadows compilation really, 20 of their best known songs, highlighting what everyone knows them for – twangy guitars, and er… more twangy guitars. And not singing.

The earliest material like “Apache” , “Man of mystery”, “FBI” and “The frightened city” races past. Heard in isolation you get a picture of how important and influential they were at the time – these tracks properly rock, Hank Marvin’s guitar solo on “The frightened city” is positively ferocious. The earlier tracks with Jet Harris and Tony Meehan do pack a punch, and something was definitely lost with their departure. From there it seems Norrie Paramour as producer started pushing them in directions which didn’t always work. It doesn’t help that the Beatles came along in ’63 and stole their crown as “best band in Britain” so they were playing catch-up. But their 62 – 63 music is slightly odd in places. The only comparison I can make is with the songs the Everly Brothers were issuing around the same time – “Temptation”, “That’s old fashioned” – where an overabundance of strings and horns and girly backing vocals almost overwhelm the songs, it’s like the producers in question wanted tto diversify the artist’s appeal and it doesn’t quite work. I love all those songs but they feel slightly off. A Spanish guitar solo? Really? “Guitar tango” doesn’t work – Hank sounds wrong on acoustic, all his tricks with echo and note-bending can’t be used. When the music is slower some of the orchestrations work and “Wonderful life”, “Theme for young lovers” and “Atlantis” are beautiful melodic wonders. Some of the uptempo tracks work well too – “The fall and rise of Flingel Bunt”, “The warlord” and “Stingray” are great, the songs have heavy drum patterns and fuzz lead guitars. You can hear the move from Fender to Burns guitars on these songs too (oh did I not mention I’m a gear freak too?) But the whole album works perfectly, is well sequenced and flows well.

As for memories…it links to a memory of driving north out of Harpenden towards the roundabout for the junction on the M1 – J9 I believe – with the tape playing and my father saying the same thing every time. He’d point left towards a hill with a bank of tall trees and say “Behind all those trees, that’s where Eric Morecambe lives”. And we believed him. And he was right.

Oh and the TV advert (a version of which is here) with a dad playing a cricket bat as guitar was a lot of fun, and inspired the opening song “Cricket bat boogie” on The Shadows’ next LP “Tasty”, a great album that got lost along the way.

“40 golden greats” – Cliff Richard

Well it may have had forty songs on this cassette but we never heard forty. Just as we didn’t get to hear all the Beatles album due to the editing power of my father’s cassette recorder, we didn’t hear all of this album. Maybe my father was right, this album is a bit much to take in one sitting. Instead we’d hear side one of the tape and virtually nothing of side two. And were we so wrong?

By sticking to side one we got “the early stuff”. “Move it” sounds quite tame, especially besides what The Drifters – as the Shadows were called at this point – would produce shortly. “Living doll” is sadly tainted in my mind by the Young Ones’ version from the mid 80s which was a common room regular at the time so I always hear that version in my mind. But my word Cliff already sounds neutered here. “Travellin’ light” is great, but “Fall in love with you” could be Bobby Vee. There follows a stream of trite pop songs characterised by “Gee whiz it’s you”. Knowing how Cliff had torn into something like “Dynamite” makes hearing this limp lettuce of a song all the worse. Even when Hank gets to solo it’s not that good. And then we approach the soundtrack songs.

Now my first memory of Cliff is very vivid. We were back in Leeds and preparing for a birthday party – not sure if it was mine or my brother’s – but I can remember the room being cleared up, sofas pushed against walls, the dining room table being prepared with food. And on the TV was the film “The young ones”. I sat on the floor and watched it open mouthed. Well maybe not open mouthed but I watched it and my six year old self quite liked the film. The song itself sets up the generation gap – Cliff is clearly a Young One – but is already thinking about the future when he may have children. It’s all a bit slushy. So is “When the girl in your heart….”. Wet wet WET. There are some good songs on this side of the tape but they are few and far between – “It’ll be me”, “I’m lookin’ out the window” is rather special, quiet and moody…er…oh sod it. Cliff’s reputation hinges on most of these songs like “Batchelor boy”, “Summer holiday” and by the end of the first twenty songs his career is assured, safe clean and antiseptic. The last of the twenty songs is “Don’t talk to him” which hints at paranoia and isn’t quite as safe as it seems.

And that’s where it mostly ends. We would reach the end of side one of the tape and rewind it. We might have heard one or two of the early songs on side two – “On the beach” or “In the country” but after that – nothing. So side two of the tape is quite interesting and educating. Not least because it shows how Cliff reacted to the Beatles. Again this is similar to how the Everly Brothers reacted to the Beatles, some of their mid 60s music was dreadful and some was wonderful. But back to Cliff. “On the beach” is lightweight but enjoyable fluff but the references in the lyrics and music to “Twist and shout” show he’s ruffled by the new incoming bands. “In the country” is OK too – though I still think of the Farmers Boys version which I saw them perform on “Crackerjack” back in the day. Some of the ballads are lovely but some are bland middle of the road nonsense. “Visions” is nice and “All my love” is fantastic. In fact “All my love” is one of the revelations for me, I adore this song, I have a soft spot for this sort of thing when it’s done well and this really is special. “Blue turns to grey” is also good, it’s a Jagger-Richards offcut but Cliff takes it more seriously than they did (hear their version on “Metamorphasis”, it’s a bit crap), and Hank gets some good twangs in along the way. “The day I met Marie” I did remember and I thought it was odd, the lovely minor key verse handled with care by Cliff followed by this major key brass band. I didn’t understand it but I liked it. “Congratulations” is tat though, as is “Goodbye Sam Hello Samantha”. Euro-oompah.

But in between those two songs is “Throw down a line“. A stomping beat – similar to “How does it feel to feel?” by The Creation – then Cliff sort of goes psychedelic. The lyrics are crazy – “a poor boy hanging in a nowhere tree”? – but the tune is a stomping monster, some great chord changes and Hank throwing some wacky guitar solos in along the way. I’ve included a link to the video here simply so you can all see the size of Cliff’s flares (thanks again Marcello for pointing this out to me). But it all passes, diminishing returns for “Power to all our friends” and “Sing a song of freedom”, and by the early 70s Cliff was forgotten – although the “Take me high” film is a great advert for Spaghetti Junction. Cliff’s comeback with the “I’m nearly famous” album was unexpected but welcome, and is well represented by the likes of “Devil woman” and “Miss you nights”. I never liked “Miss you nights” at the time, and still can’t say I’m that fussed about it now. It didn’t help that I never understood the title – if it had been written as “”Miss you’ nights” it would have helped perhaps. Finally the long long slog of an album concludes with “My kinda life”, his then recent hit single. But we never got there, if side two was ever played there was plenty of use of the fast forward button. In retrospect we missed a lot.

“Travelling” – John Williams

Now this is 1978 rather than 1977, and has some very specific references for me. This was the soundtrack to a lovely holiday we spent in Norfolk at a Hoseasons sort of cottage called The Wherry Arch. It was basically a building built as an archway over the end of a river, and if that sounds odd well yes it was. But it was a great holiday coinciding with my birthday so we spent a day in Norwich where I bought a load of Matchbox cars. The things you remember… It was also this holiday where I saw a “Play safe” public information film for the first time and that scared me shitless. I can still see the room with the TV in the corner showing it and being frightened silly.

John Williams then. Not the composer of the themes to “Star Wars” and all the rest but the classical guitarist from Australia. We already had his album with Julian Bream though I never remember it being played, and we had a double play tape of his two earlier “pop” albums “Changes” and “The height below” though again it was rarely played. There was a note on the card inlay giving the tape counter number for the end of the “Emperor Nero Suite” which opens “The height below” and a message saying “Very weird, fast forward to here” so someone clearly didn’t want to hear that again. But “Travelling” was bought as soon as it was issued and remained in the Lancia for a long time, then again somehow ended up in my attic (I seem to have inherited a lot of my family’s tapes as I was the only one interested in preserving them). When all three of these Fly / Cube albums were issued on cd a few years ago I had to buy them. And indeed “Changes” and “The height below” were totally unfamiliar to me, but “Travelling” felt like a long lost friend.

Now I’m going to show what a total ignoramus I am here. There are pieces I recognise as classical music re-arranged in a light pop fashion and there’s original material too. So I’ll do my best, and forgive me my stupidity if I say something that turns out to be incorrect. “All at sea minor” is a classical piece with frantic – and frankly impressively dextrous – guitar work from Williams with a shuffling rhythm section, and light orchestral touches. “Portrait” is slower and more orchestral and quite lovely really. “From the top” is funky. Yes it is. Jay-Z or someone should sample the opening drum, bass and Fender Rhodes riff. There’s wah-wah guitar going wakka-wakka, and Williams over the top too. It sounds wrong but works well. This was just before the formation of Sky and I believe that most of Sky are performing on this track and others, Francis Monkman making freaky with a Moog, Herbie Flowers getting his funk on. “The swagman” is the sort of light and easy listening that library music houses like KPM and Dewolfe were churning out by the album at this time, if Williams wasn’t playing it would be totally anonymous and it may well be that I heard it used as “Schools and Colleges Interlude” music beside Ruby’s “Bart“. However at the two minute mark everything slows down and someone appears to play a koto and there’s a totally epic heart stopping chord change, then it all returns to library music again as if the previous few seconds hadn’t happened. “Sheep may safely graze” is a classical piece which I believe Monkman arranged so it’s keyboard heavy with synthesised flutes and string synths and I absolutely adore this piece of music, and the arrangement too. So that’s the end of side one.

Side two starts with the title track and you’re reminded that this is most definitely the late seventies. This could easily slot alongside multi-part light classical pop music like Julian Lloyd-Webber’s “Variations”, or John Miles’ “Music” – there’s a heavily arranged vibe, lots of tricky time changes and lots of phased brass and electric guitars and I get the feeling it was far more fun for the musicians than for the listener. It last six minutes through all the changes and it feels like an hour. Actually I’ve just realised what it reminds me of – Yes. “The river god” starts with a slow tremulous orchestra, then pan pipes appear and I feel like fast forwarding. This is more uneasy easy listening, and if the pan pipes weren’t there it would be quite gorgeous but no, they sodding stay around. Shame. “J.S.B” is clearly that Bach piece everyone knows, rocked up and played with impressive skill and again falls into the “Variations” template. Holy cow where did that Moog come from? If you listen closely enough there’s that wah-wah guitar again, only becoming prominent for the last second. “Romanza” is another well known guitar piece and is nice enough and “Air on the G string” is another Monkman arrangement keyboard extravaganza, actually that’s not fair it’s actually quite well arranged and subtle.

“Travelling” stayed in the car a long time, and probably soundtracked the move from Harpenden to Penarth in South Wales in June 1978. Quite why we moved so quickly to Wales has only recently been explained, and I had to go through the upheavel of leaving more friends behind and starting from scratch in a new town and a new school. How life would have turned out if we’d stayed in Harpenden… Well that’s for some parallel universe.

There’s one more record from Harpenden I should mention, though it doesn’t exist. At some point my father borrowed a Hollies greatest hits album from the record library and I was taken with “Stop stop stop”, that strange echoing banjo throughout. Of course I didn’t understand the lyric at all, but I loved it and would dance around the living room to it. Another song – or piece of music – I liked at the same time was “The wonderous boat ride” – at least that’s what it’s called on the soundtrack album to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. It’s the part where they take a boat journey and it goes a bit psychedelic and Gene Wilder starts singing quite calmly before ending up screaming. I loved that song too. So I made up a pretend record player from Meccano and made a double a-side single of “Stop stop stop” and “Boat ride” from card and pretended to play them both. Ah the imagination of youth. Kids today etc etc etc

Next time. Well last time I said next time it would be “Synthesisers in the rain” and once I started to write it turned into this so next time I promise it really will be “Synthesisers in the rain”. Honest.

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.

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.