My Pop Life #118 : Glass Onion – The Beatles

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Being For The Benefit of the 3rd in an Occasional Series of Intellectual, Geographical and Lyrical Journeys Through the Cruciate and Baroque Interior of A Selective Selection of Several of The Splendid Songs of My Life.

See The Art Teacher 

and Where Are We Now?

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Glass Onion   –   The Beatles

I told you ’bout strawberry fields You know the place where nothing is real

Well, here’s another place you can go Where everything flows

Looking through the bent backed tulips To see how the other half live

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the walrus and me, man You know that we’re as close as can be, man

Well, here’s another clue for you all The walrus was Paul

Standing on the cast iron shore, yeah Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the fool on the hill I tell you man he living there still

Well, here’s another place you can be Listen to me

Fixing a hole in the ocean Trying to make a dovetail joint, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Which four places in Liverpool are mentioned in Beatles’ lyrics ?  Penny Lane yeah, Strawberry Field (no S) yeah.  Yeah.  And  ??  Clue  :  It’s on the last LP Let It Be.  Playing the songs they played as kids in 251 Menlove Avenue – Aunt Mimi’s house where John lived for 20 years, old rock’nroll covers and R’n’B songs, or more commonly at Paul’s parents’ house in 20 Forthlin Road.   “oh Dirty Maggie May they have taken her away and she never walks down Lime Street anymore…”   That’s three.   And number four is – and only locals and Beatle nuts know this – The Cast Iron Shore.   A real but mythical place in Liverpool.    Apparently south of Albert Dock, near Dingle, the whole area used to be dockyards but the heyday of the Liverpool Docks at that end of town – South Liverpool – was 100 years ago.   So-called because the rusting metals in the dock cranes and buildings and man-made waterways turned the river water metallic orange.  I went to look for it today, to stand there, as John Lennon talks about in the song Glass Onion, which appears on side one of The White Album.

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Strawberry Field, 2015

It’s a song that appears to tilt at the windmills of their own mythology as Beatles.  The opening line “I told you bout Strawberry Fields,  you know the place where nothing is real” sets the self-referential tone, but Strawberry Field, as I’m sure you know, is very real, and John could see it from a tree in Aunt Mimi’s garden…  “no one I think is in my tree…

It was an orphanage, and the locals kids used to break into the grounds sometimes to play football on the green.  But John Lennon and his pals Paul, George and Ringo now know “how the other half live” because they made it as Beatles.  When they were kids would they be “standing on the bent-back tulips to see how the other half live” in someone’s garden peering through Georgian windows at their future in “the other half”  ??

Looking through a glass onion.  Like a crystal ball, but looking back, and forward at the same time.

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inside the White Album ‘The Beatles’ 1968 were four pictures

John teases the fans who were reading cryptic messages into all Beatles lyrics by 1968, referencing the death of Paul in a famous example, a rumour that refused to be stifled but that was clearly bonkers.  DOA on his Sgt Pepper jacket. And so on.  Lennon skewers it all.  On the Anthology off-cut version he even shouts “Help!

Well here’s another clue for you all : the Walrus was Paul”

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Still from I Am The Walrus film 1967

Maybe, in this picture, he was.  In the next verse John’s told us about “the fool on the hill”, the 3rd song from Magical Mystery Tour that’s he’s referenced.   Each of these moments also has a musical echo of the song – here are the flutes from Fool On The Hill.  You can have fun finding them for yourself.  The other two of the five Beatles songs inside the skin of Glass Onion are even more recent, a 1968 single : Lady Madonnatrying to make ends meet, yeah” and from 1967 and Sgt Pepper :  “Fixing A Hole in the ocean…

I went looking for the Cast Iron Shore today, driving around the east side of the River Mersey where it’s all been re-built, cleaned up, nice waterfront developments, marinas, business parks.  Asked a few locals where it was.  They’d all heard of it: “The Cazzie, yeah” but no one was quite sure exactly which bit it was.   The first place I found had holes in the ocean as you can see

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Holes in the ocean at the Cast Iron Shore, yeah

because it was low tide.   But many believe that both Fixing a Hole, which is a McCartney song,  and this song reference heroin which John Lennon was sampling in the year 1968.  Two years later he would be screaming Cold Turkey into a microphone as he came off the drug.   The softer drug marijuana is also alluded to.   I tried “to make a dovetail joint” in woodwork class once at Lewes Priory school and it wasn’t great, but I suspect that I will be forever remembered for the Camberwell Carrot, a Dovetail Joint that I smoked in the film Withnail and I.  My character, Danny the drug dealer explains that the Camberwell Carrot “can utilise at least twelve skins…”

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Annie McGann, me, Paul McGann, Hope St Hotel, September 2015

It felt appropriate to have a puff on the cast iron shore today and contemplate The Beatles and Liverpool and my love of them and the city.  Last night (and the night before) I’d been out with Paul McGann and his wife Annie, up in town for a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail, and happily staying in the same hotel as I.   We ate, we drank, we met Austin and Yvonne, we met Tim Roth and Sandra Butterworth with whom I am currently working on Jimmy McGovern and Bob Pugh‘s screenplay “REG” for the BBC and LA Productions.  We watched England lose to Wales at Twickenham in a disco pumping out house tunes and hosting the totteridge and whetstone of Liverpool L1.  We’d signed autographs with fans and taken pictures after the screening.  We’d drank more drink.  Lovely weekend, making a circle of reference.  I’ve known Paul since we made Withnail and I in 1985, when we were babies.  Such a charming, gentle, gracious, intelligent, well-read man who is hugely relaxed about life and who appears to have no grey hair.

Featured imageThis is an outrage as I am both bald and grey at this point.  Tim Roth at least has the decency to be grey.  I’ve known Tim since the days of going out with Rita Wolf – mid 80s too, and Tim and Paul were both on the ‘Brit Pack” cover of The Face in 1985 – with some other creatures great and small.  But Tim and I have deeper roots since he went to Dick Shepherd School in Brixton with my friends Paulette and Beverley Randall, Eugene McCaffrey and David Lawrence.  So the circles carry on.  I’m now staying on Hope Street again, just along the road from The Everyman Theatre where I performed Macbeth and which put me off theatre for life in 1987 (see My Pop Life #108)

Tomorrow I’ll try and find Ringo’s house at #9 Madryn Road, and George’s at 12 Arnold Grove in Wavertree because Jenny and I visited John’s and Paul’s family homes – mentioned above – in 2008 when we had a holiday in Liverpool.  I know !  But we did, and we loved it.  Year of Culture, all that.  For another post.  But both Lennon and MCcartney’s properties are now run, brilliantly, by The National Trust, which is also rather spookily mentioned in a song from the White Album “Happiness Is A Warm Gun“, to continue the circle of myth.   I totally recommend that tour, probably the single best thing to do as a tourist in Liverpool.

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251 Menlove Avenue where John was brought up by his Aunt Mimi

REG” is about Reg Keys whose son Tom died in Iraq in 2003 along with five other military policemen.  When the no WMD declaration was made, Reg Keys decided to stand for Parliament in Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency in 2005 as an independent candidate fully against Blair’s Iraq war policy.  Tim Roth is playing Reg, Anna Maxwell-Martin his wife and I’m playing his election agent, ex-MP Bob Clay.  It is an honour to represent this true story to the nation.  The 90-minute film will be released at the same time as The Chilcott Report apparently – the official Enquiry into the debacle and falsehoods behind the decision to go to war.  Jeremy Corbyn, new Labour Party leader as I speak, (elected by a greater majority than Tony Blair had when he was elected leader), will this week apologise on behalf of the party for the Iraq War.  This is a big deal.   It’s one of the those jobs that I’ve been lucky enough to get where I feel like I’m inside current history.  An earlier experience – for another post naturally – was the Joint Stock workshop for the play Deadlines, when Tricia Kelly and I found ourselves at the Tory Party Conference in Brighton the day after the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel, watching Thatcher, who’d so very nearly died in the explosion, speak to the Hall.  Powerful stuff.

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Paul, Tim, Ralph

And fitting that I would feel those prickly feelings again in Liverpool, a city which I have great affection for, and which is probably the most political city in the UK.  Hmm Ok well there may be other contenders – I’m thinking of Belfast (see My Pop Life #13) but Liverpool has a deeply and profoundly anti-establishment tradition.  They don’t buy The Sun here, thanks to that rag’s coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy.   Maybe I’m romanticising.   But c’mon !  There’s a Slavery Museum here!   And, And… It is a city of music, like New Orleans, a great port city which connected it to the outside world.  The whole world.  The very reason why The Beatles came out of Liverpool rather than Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham is the docks.  Those great ships would come in from New York in the 1950s, and on board along with passengers, imports like cotton and sugar and manufactured goods would be secret stashes of cool shirts, loafers, slacks and RECORDS.  45rpm singles.  They heard Elvis Presley here in Liverpool before anywhere else in the UK.  And no, I don’t know what a glass onion is.  Maybe if I’d taken heroin I would.  But if you peel away the layers, expecting to find the answers inside (like people were doing with Beatles lyrics, and what I am clearly doing now) you’ll see that in the end, it was transparent all along.

My Pop Life #117 : Mdlwembe : Zola

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Mdlwembe   :   Zola

February 2006 I made my first trip to Cape Town, South Africa having been cast by old buddy and casting director Jeremy Zimmerman in “The Flood” a massive ITV mini-series about the Thames Barrier being unable to hold back a tidal surge which swamps central London.  Almost all of the show was shot in Cape Town (for London) with only the final week in Greenwich, looking down onto Christopher Wren’s Royal Naval College from the hilltop.  It was the end of a long journey.

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Mount Nelson Hotel, 2006 – me and Eamonn Walker

I was placed in the Mount Nelson Hotel on Orange Street under Table Mountain  (even if I keep on running I’ll never get to Orange St).  It was rather grand and disgustingly white supremacist even in 2006.  The only black guest there was my brother-from-another-mother  Eamonn Walker, (see My Pop Life #104) doing a US TV medical show,  can’t remember which one.  It was a lovely co-incidence and we hung out, ate food, and I got to meet his producers.  Eamonn had already spent previous time in Cape Town making a cheetah film and he knew the ropes.  The number of times black staff with white gloves had approached him with a quizzical “can I help you?” and received a pretty curt “No” in response.  The old black and white photographs on the wall, the air of rotten filthy greedy entitled robbery hanging around the whole place.  Outside at the open air pool an old white man shouted at a black pool attendant : “Nurse!  Towel!”.  I wanted to kick his face in.  Meanwhile on set, Cape Town was pretty funky, lovely architecture around Long St and environs, and even some black people on the crew.  This was a mere 12 years after the first democratic elections in South Africa by the way.  I had some days off coming up – I asked one of the younger fellas what I should do. “Go round the Cape, see the baboons” he suggested.

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The next day I hired a car and Eamonn and I drove south, saw penguins, baboons, zebra and spectacular geographical sights.  The view from the top of Table Mountain is second-to-none.  I spent some time with my screen daughter Jade Davidson and her mum in the Botanical Gardens.  And yet I needed more.  More than the tourist destinations.  The proper South Africa.  I’d been in the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London for years, I didn’t want to fuck about in some cobwebbed timewarp of colonial bigotry in the heart of Cape Town.   I wanted to go to the township – visible from the airport road, a huge sprawling city of tin and wire called Khayelitsha.  When I mentioned this to the same young white fella at work next day his answer shocked me.  “Those people in the townships man – they’re rich. they organise bus tours, they’re making money off their poverty”.  He was 19 years old.  His parents were clearly Boers, Afrikaaners from the country drenched in racism, struggling with the new reality.  The medic, Kerryn Pitt, got wind of my desires, and offered to drive me out there on Sunday – a mutual day off.

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Kerryn picked me up from the hotel and we drove for 45 minutes and on the way out of the city she gave me the background.  She was running a school in Khayelitsha and many of the kids who attended were orphans, specifically AIDS orphans.   Kerryn encourage the locals (who had nothing as I would shortly see) to take these kids in and offer them shelter, and the school would give them 3 meals a day and wash their clothes.

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The highway was now an asphalt corridor between two cities – corrugated iron shacks linked by endless wiring to the odd lamp-post.  Dirt poor.  We turned off and drove into the township.  Everything was one-storey, made of wood, tin, corrugated iron, bits and pieces.  All of the inhabitants were black.  There were shops, hairdressers, cafes, bars, stalls, no road markings, lorries and some buses which were minivans full of people.  Kids with bare feet staring at us.  Nothing I had been told about this type of settlement could prepare me for being there.  It is quite simply overwhelming.  First – it is huge.   Over a million people living in shacks.   Most with no running water, no flushing toilet, no sink or shower.  No electricity.  We finally reached the project and parked, then walked past some rudimental dwellings to the project.  It was one building, like a school, with some washing machines and a kitchen.  Pretty basic, but it was a local hub of care for the kids who were everywhere.  I was introduced to the staff and shown around.  Kerryn explained that they were trying to persuade an old chap to move so that they could build a hospital on his land – an AIDS hospital that would also teach and practice Bush Medicine, using the knowledge of the sangoma (a healer, always a woman), and pass on her methods to the next generation.

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Kerryn had originally chosen to start this project because her grandmother had asked her to – Kerryn is white, but her grandmother was black.  Maybe she was her old nanny?  (“Nurse!”)   Feeling slightly out of my depth but impressed with the energy of the place we travelled back to the white privileged world of the Mount Nelson.  Just a few doors down was a cinema.  They were showing a new South African film called Tsotsi, so I decided to go and see it that evening, despite warnings “not to go out after dark in case of crime”…

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scene from Tsotsi (SA 2006)

Tsotsi opens in a township just like the one I had been in.  Soweto.  (SOuth WEst TOwnship just outside Johannesburg).  The young boy is at the window and he turns round.  His face is a scowl, dark and angry, and the beat of Mdlwembe starts to pump and the lyrics to snarl.  The song that opens the film is by a young township musician called Zola – real name Bonginkosi Dlamini, from the part of Soweto known as Zola.  Despite the temptations of drink and drugs, crime and simply struggling to earn a living, Zola became a beacon of hope for the new country, expressing the rage felt by the still-ignored township-dwellers years after apartheid was abolished.  The film Tsotsi is hugely powerful and won an Oscar the following year for best foreign film – the storyline from an Athol Fugard novel, the acting, including Zola as a’bad guy’, the directing by Gavin Hood and the soundtrack featuring the finest kwaito tunes of the new century are all first class.

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Zola himself read Steve Biko and his ideas of Black Consciousness when he was growing up, and placed those thoughts into his music.  Sadly I can’t find any translations of the lyrics to Mdlwembe online, except that the word itself translates as delinquent, so if anyone out there knows what this song is saying I’d be grateful.  But when you listen to it, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to understand where this song comes from and what it is expressing.   South African music is exciting rhythmically, always has been, and here the influence of hip-hop on the home-grown kwaito beat is truly thriling.  Zola eventually got his own TV show on Channel 5 in South Africa and released a new LP last year, 2014, called Intakathusa.

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But this tune, from his debut album Umdlwembe in 2000, is quite simply a peak moment in music for me.  A cry of rage, full of potency, lyrics of fury directed at the new black Government, to wake up and heed the needs of the people.   It’s brilliantly produced but still sounds rough round the edges, there’s piano, guitar, a shuffle, a surging feel to the music, and the spitting Zola achieves is magnificent even without knowing what he’s saying.  There was an election while I was in Cape Town, the ANC were out in force, no longer a banned terrorist organisation, but now The Government, defending their record in an election campaign.  Cape Town, not an ANC stronghold, was still covered in their black green and gold posters, as well as those of the opposition.  The Government won, again.

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My Pop Life #116: Left Bank Two (Vision On : Gallery Theme) – The Noveltones

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Left Bank Two   –   The Noveltones

(Vision On :  The Gallery theme)

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Tony Hart

Unmistakable, gentle, playful vibraphone jazz shuffle which evokes immediate memories for my generation of a BBCtv show called Vision On which ran from 1964 to 1976 thus neatly encapsulating my entire life in East Sussex as a youth.  My family moved from Portsmouth in 1964 when I was just seven, Dad having scored a teaching job at Falmer School just outside of Brighton.  We moved into a semi-detached house in Selmeston, a small village of some 200 people, bordered by a railway line at one end and the A27 at the other.

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Selmeston Church

That one-mile stretch of road was my universe until the age of eleven by which time my dad and mum had divorced, mum had spent nine months in a mental hospital and I’d passed my eleven-plus exam and would take a bus into Lewes every day.   Two years later we would all be separated as a family as the landlords – horsey toffs from Sherrington Manor – made us homeless and wiped our debt to them at one stroke.  For the remainder of the 1970s we were in a council house in Hailsham, although I left for Laughton Lodge in 1975, and London in 1976.

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Pat Keysell, Tony Hart

Throughout this period Vision On was on BBC TV.  It was a programme for deaf children, and had almost no spoken words.  It was watched by all children.   Filled with speech bubbles and mime it was largely a visual show.  Presented by Tony Hart and Pat Keysell, who spoke in sign language and spoke, with Tony spening much of the show (so it seemed to me) drawing things.  Encouraging children to create.  Awakening our latent interest in expression.  The centrepiece of each show was The Gallery where the camera lingered over pictures that viewers – ie children – had sent in, with their name and age displayed, and a notice explaining and apologising that pictures could not be returned but that a prize would be given for those shown.  What that prize was we never found out.  We never sent one in, but were transfixed, at least partly by the music.  For this section of the programme was played out to a piece of music which, with its dreamy melody and nimble simplicity appeared to come from another planet.  In fact it came from Holland.

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Left Bank Two was a piece of Library Music originally.   Library Music is licensed differently than other music and is often used for TV shows.  It is much cheaper for producers to use, as the broadcaster in general will pay the royalties, maybe a dollar each time it is played.  If it is a long-running series, over the years this can add up.  If it is a commercial, you could be, as composer, quids in.  I found out a little about Library Music when I was directing an aborted documentary (called Red Light Fever) on British Session Musicians in 2012, inspired by the great doc ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Motown‘.  I’m still learning.  But all of the people I interviewed – singer and composer Barbara Moore, guitarist Chris Spedding, bass players Herbie Flowers and Les Hurdle, drummer Clem Cattini, singer Madeline Bell – all of them great session musicians, arrangers, songwriters, all exceptional musicians as session players have to be – (deep breath it’s a long sentence) – all of them have played Library Music on a regular basis.   How to explain it?  There are some production houses which specialise in this kind of music.  De Wolfe Music is the big one, started in 1927 to provide cheap music for the talkies.

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 They hire a composer to write : seascapes, exciting car chase, a creepy scene, ghostly atmospheres, romantic swoons, mood music of various types.   The Composer will hire a group of session musicians to come and read the dots and they will be paid a session fee.  The pieces of music will be grouped together and issued to TV production companies who can use a short piece – eg Grange Hill written by Alan Hawkshaw – and the broadcaster will cover the royalties.  All the musicians who played on the piece will get a cut, unless they signed that percentage away, in the deal – a “buy-out”.  And if you’re a session musician you never know which piece will suddenly get picked up.  Indeed these days when hip-hop producers and DJs are constantly looking for new samples, obscure beats and licks that other producers haven’t used yet, Library Music is now being plundered like every other form of music.   Barbara Moore provided the marvellous wordless vocal on the theme tune to The Saint.  Les Hurdle ended up playing with Giorgio Moroder‘s band in Munich when Donna Summer turned up and disco was born.   And this particular piece – called Left Bank Two – was an afterthought on one of those De Wolfe sessions in 1963, at the end of the day with half an hour still on the clock – I love these stories, this one reminiscent of Otis Redding’s big break – “has anyone got anything we can play here?”

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It was young vibes player Wayne Hill who offered ‘a thing he’d been playing around with’.   The group of Dutch musicians with whom he was playing (who called themselves The Noveltones) quickly learned it and recorded the vibraphone-led piece.  Carefully listening musos will hear the guitarist having a slight crisis over chords towards the end, the only clue to the tune’s end-of-session nativity.  TV viewers would never get to hear that anyway since The Gallery would only last a minute usually.  Seemed longer though didn’t it ?  A minute is a long time on television…

I bought a vibraphone in 2004 once The Brighton Beach Boys had decided to perform “Pet Sounds” live.  There is one tune on that LP which requires vibes, and although my keyboard has a good vibes sample, the visual of seeing someone strike the keys with beaters as Darian Sahanaja had done with the Brian Wilson Band earlier that year had stuck with me.  I want to be him, I thought.  I wanted to play vibes on “Let’s Go Away For A While“.  I’ll save it for another post.  But the first tune I attempted to play, once I’d set it up and worked out how to use the foot-pedal, was the Vision On Gallery Theme.  Of course !  And wheeling it into rehearsal with the Brighton Beach Boys, everyone wanted a go, and I think almost everyone wanted to play that tune.  Maybe it was just me ;-0

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Live in St George’s – my Penny Lane vibes – concentration is key !

My vibraphone currently resides in the Charlotte Glasson Musical Museum of Earthly Recollections in Brighton’s sexy Surrey Street, being carefully nurtured and oiled.

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Morph

Tony Hart is a children’s TV legend.  An early (ie before my time) Blue Peter presenter, he designed the logo for the Blue Peter badge, and took a buy-out rather than the requested 1d per badge.  After Vision On was discontinued in 1976 would go on to use Left Bank Two as the theme music for his next show Take Hart, and John Williams‘ Deer Hunter Theme Cavatina would take over as the Gallery Music.  He often appeared alongside Aardman Animations creation Morph in the late 70s and 80s until he retired with two Baftas in 2001.  Tony Hart died in 2006, his reputation unbesmirched like others of his generation.

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Left Bank Two – the Vision On Gallery Theme – is often referred to as ‘easy-listening music’ or even ‘elevator music’.   It’s library music.   It’s TV theme music.  And – yes – it’s jazz.

My Pop Life #115 : Ma Jaiye Oni – King Sunny Ade

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Ma J’aiye Oni   –   King Sunny Ade

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The winter of 1982-3.  Finsbury Park.  Top floor attic room, living with Mumtaz.  I think I must have got myself an agent by now – David Preston.  More about him later.  He came to see me in A Clockwork Orange on the King’s Road, the John Godber adaptation.  More about that later too.  My memory is dim of these events and their surrounding characters, much much more so than other people I talk to.  Some people can pin point what things people were wearing on certain days.  WOW.   I mean, my memory is seriously hardly there to be honest.  So why would I embark on a marathon blog attempting to chart my life through music if I can’t remember two thirds of it ?  Well partly to get those bits that I do remember down on virtual paper before they too disappear and become smokey robinson’s barley water, wisps of smudge on a page that once held such vivid clarity.  I live in the moment mainly so it isn’t a vast un-ending tragedy, but it can be a handicap.  My friends can nudge me into memories, and when I really concentrate for a length of time… the mists seem to part and there, just out of reach, an arm breaches the waterline, and in its clenched fist a sword, and then I know that I’m actually making it all up.   But I’m not dear reader, I’m not.  All these Pop Lives happened.

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Anyway the attic room in Finsbury Park.  It was around this point that World Music started to leak into the country, via WOMAD (see My Pop Life #67), Stern’s Music Store in Whitfield St (see My Pop Life #38), the John Peel Show, and word of mouth.  I’m not sure where the term “World Music” came from but certainly on June 21 1982 France held a Fête de la Musique for the first time, at the behest of Culture Minister Jack Lang, and have held it ever since.  Many other countries have joined in – the day is devoted to playing music in the streets – from Russia to the US to Brazil to Italy, but it seems that the United Kingdom has deigned not to join in for reasons I can only speculate over.  In any event, African music started being played now and again on the John Peel show and in late 1981 the compilation of West african music Sound d’Afrique was released by Island Records with groups such as Etoile De Dakar containing the future superstar of world music Youssou N’Dour.  1982 brought a second volume which I bought, and then King Sunny Ade came to my attention via his LP Juju Music.

Featured imageIt was splashed all over the NME front page and could hardly be missed.  On the Mango label, produced by Frenchman Martin Meissonnier and very definitely aimed at the western market,  (at me!) it’s a brilliant record, a showstopper, showcasing Ade’s trademark Nigerian juju rhythms with a slight electro tinge.  His best songs, usually 20 minutes long in their Nigerian context, are here shortened and sweetened, but not too much.  The key component is the talking drum, held under the arm and squeezed, you can change the note of the drumbeat.  So-called because they have been used as communication tools in West Africa for forever.  As a musical instrument they are thrilling.  I have one !  The other unexpected element is the beautifully evocative slide guitar.  The production is immaculate and the whole package was a winner.  I’ve chosen a beautiful song Ma Jaiye Oni to represent his juju beat.

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King Sunny Ade and His African Beats played a gig at the Lyceum Ballroom on the Strand in January 1983.  I went along with Mumtaz.  I can’t remember who supported him, if anyone, but this was an astounding gig.  Full of Nigerians as well as curious music fans it was an unmitigated triumph.  A huge line-up onstage of drummers, guitarists and singers, pure joy emanating from the performers.  They played for a long time.  One West-African tradition that I was unaware of will forever stay with me from this show.  Ade would be playing a guitar solo in the middle of a song – the crowd would be dancing and encouraging him, a definite energy going back and forth between band and crowd – then a man dressed in robes, or a suit maybe would walk up to the front and in an uber-ostentatious way pull out a roll of £20 or £50 notes and place them one at a time on King Sunny Ade’s body as he was playing, sticking them to his sweating forehead or his arms.  I was waiting for security to get involved, but this was a ritual with no danger – money is going forward.  I have seen it many times since at African gigs but that was the eye-opener.   I know plenty of British and American musicians who wish it was a tradition in the “West” too.  Oh well.

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It was a window onto another world for me, so much more than sitting down and getting stoned and listening to the record – great thought that is – this was an immersion into the music that went far beyond the comfy chair.  I was hooked on African music thanks to King Sunny Ade and have been ever since. I then bought his earlier LP Check-‘E’ (see pic above) and the follow-up Synchro System which was a huge hit too.  He is still going strong playing his music around the world and I commend him to thee.

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Here is some tremendous footage from Japan in 1984 – this is exactly the show we saw at the Lyceum.  Subtle, powerful, mesmerising, infectious, delicious.

Here is the original LP track:

but the shorter song from JUJU MUSIC is not on youtube sadly.  You may have to buy it !

My Pop Life #114 : There’s Nothing Better Than Love – Luther Vandross

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There’s Nothing Better Than Love   –   Luther Vandross

…what in the world could you ever be thinking of ??…

This song makes me melt, because of the music, the words, the rhythm, the notes, and where it takes me – to 1989 and falling in love with Jenny.   We had started dating in the summer of ’88 and following a mad American road trip at the end of that year I had finally almost accepted that she WAS the ONE.  1989 we were together.  We were in Portsmouth where I proposed, in New York City and Washington D.C., but mainly we were in London, in Highgate N6, on the middle section of the Archway Road.

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Jenny had introduced me to Luther Vandross in the shape of two LPs : Give Me The Reason and Any Love.  Probably three actually because I remember Never Too Much from this era too.  Luther was new to me, although I’d unknowingly heard him before singing background vocals on David Bowie’s Young Americans in 1974 and co-writing the song Fascination.  He also sang on the LP Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, one of the greatest soul albums of all time, released in 1972, which includes the first incarnation of Where Is The Love.  He also sang backing for Diana Ross, Chic, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer and Carly Simon among others.  I found all this out later.

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One Thursday evening in late January we lay in bed together and I summoned the courage to tell Jenny that it was all over, that I didn’t think it would be a good idea if we carried on seeing each other.  “Why not?” said Jen, who was lying on my shoulder, my right arm around her.  “Well,” I said, “Because I don’t want you to fall in love with me.”  Luther Vandross was on the stereo singing this song !  “I’m already in love with you…” she answered.  The answer that stopped my breathing, and halted the celestial cycle and melted my heart, and softened my very bones.  I pulled her toward me in an embrace.  We have been together since that moment.

My courting of Jenny had reached the point of going to meet the parents, so one Sunday I was formally introduced to Esther & Thomas Jules a handsome and loving St Lucian couple who had produced a houseful of gorgeous girls and one son.  They were very kind and served me a classic West Indian Sunday roast : chicken, plantain, yam, corn, greens, roast potatoes, dashin and gravy.  Delicious.  Mr Jules insisted that I drink a whisky or a rum with him.  I complied happily.  Jenny had two older sisters : Dee and Mollie, and two younger : Natasha and Lucy.  Jon the brother was slightly older than Jenny.  They were all very warm and friendly toward me because they all loved Jenny very much and didn’t want to upset their sister.  But also because they have all been brought up with love, and have it in abundance to spare.  It was just the family I needed and wanted to become a part of.  Solid, secure, easy, supportive and loving.   I’d already proposed to Jenny in February ’89 but hadn’t asked her father yet – but that is for another song and another story.

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Luther Vandross is the soundtrack to those young lovers though.   At the time he was an unfeasibly smooth, handsome and sultry soul singer with a very modern sound – his music is forever attached to the 1980s.   Those LPs were played a lot in Archway Road.  Beautifully produced – but what a voice.   One of the great singers of my lifetime, so expressive, so pure, gentle, and sensitive.  In a line of greatness back to Teddy Pendergrass, Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, the record you play after you’ve gone to bed.  Love music.  Of course women also sing this music – Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Sade, Gladys Knight, Toni Braxton, Roberta Flack and on and on.   Is anyone still doing it you ask ?  Oh yes – Usher, Ciara, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Frank Ocean, Lianne La Havas, and on and on.    It will always be made of course.

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My soul development went something like this :  60s – Motown on the radio, 70s – Al Green on TOTP, discovery of James Brown, Otis Redding, Stax & Atlantic then through Philly, back to Sam Cooke and Jacky Wilson, Barry White & Teddy Pendergrass, Earth Wind & Fire into DISCO, Donna Summer and all that somehow emerging into the 80s with Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC, Electro LPs and Prince.  So I had completely missed the soul continuum that Luther Vandross represents.   Jenny introduced him to me, and soon I loved him too.

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March ’89, Wembley

He was playing at Wembley Arena in March 1989 and Jenny’s sister Dee asked if we wanted to go, so together with Mick her boyfriend, we did.  It was a sold-out ten-night run in the Arena, which is massive – and Luther was the first artist to sell that many tickets, he was huge in England in the late 80s.  Rightly so.  We sat to his left, he wore silver and black, we swooned and went home happy and high.  The concert was released on video/DVD sometime later in 1991 but we’ve never seen it.   This song was on the brilliant LP Give Me The Reason in 1986, and is a duet with Gregory Hines.   I think it’s time to have a look at that night in March 1989.  Because – you know – and I know – there is nothing better than love.

My Pop Life #113 : God Save The Queen – The Sex Pistols

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God Save The Queen   –   The Sex Pistols

we mean it maaan…

God save your mad parade.  The Silver Jubilee, June 7th 1977.  I was living in a flat on Fitzroy Street with one other gentlemen, also an LSE student – a Trinidadian indian chap called Mahmood.  I had befriended the LSE Ents crowd – bands, weed, politics, journalism.  We went to gigs, we got stoned and listened to music, we went on marches and demonstrations, we wrote articles in the student rag.  The hair was reasonably long, but by summer 1977 I’d gone punk (see My Pop Life 52 / The Clash / Complete Control) or had I ?  Musically we all had – The Clash LP was played endlessly and we’d all been to gigs by people like 999 and The Adverts, Slaughter & The Dogs & The Vibrators.  When the hair got cut and dyed I can’t remember, but it was that summer.  In fact – that has sprung my memory – I was 20 years old later that month, and I would have felt that big zero number coming like we all do, so I’m pretty sure that once punk was unearthed and discovered from it’s hidden realms – I was surrounded by it in other words – I would have dived in both barrels because this would be my last teenage gang.   A nineteen-year old punk is almost too old, but there were way WAY older than me back then dontcha know.   Anyway – who cares about the age thing, it’s all bollocks, to use a word we wouldn’t see in day-glo colours until late October.  We couldn’t believe how long it was taking the Sex Pistols to release their first album, they’d changed record companies three times and put out four blindingly good singles.  This is the second one, and, although Anarchy In The UK (released 26 November ’76) was a statement of intent and a major punk manifesto of nihilism, God Save The Queen was a more thrilling record.  It’s not a competition anyway, but by May 1977 The Sex Pistols’ notoriety was at its height.

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Posters with the portrait of The Queen with a safety pin through her mouth started appearing on the streets, and many would be vandalised, torn down or spray-painted.   The cover of the single was in silver and blue, the Jubilee colours, designed by Jamie Reid, but it wasn’t planned as a comment on the Jubilee.  In fact the song was recorded in October & March at Wessex Sound Studios with producer Chris Thomas.

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Paul Cook, Johnny Rotten, Glen Matlock & Steve Jones in 1976

Johnny Rotten wrote the song over beans on toast for breakfast one morning, and Steve Jones and Glen Matlock (before he left) helped with the music and Jones played guitar and bass – Sid wasn’t up to recording anything too musical, being mainly ‘the gimmick’.  He’d replaced Glen Matlock the original bass player.  In fact manager and svengali Malcolm McLaren had contacted Matlock and asked him to play bass on God Save The Queen, and Glen agreed, if he got paid up front.  The money never appeared so Jones got the gig.

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 The single was pressed on A&M Records, but the label then sacked the band ten days after signing them and withdrew the promotional copies. These have become among the most valuable collector’s items in vinyl history – one A&M copy of God Save The Queen sold for £13,000 in 2006.

So when the single was released on Virgin Records in May 1977 it had been around for a while.  The coincidental hoopla of the Silver Jubilee – the constant bullshit of bunting, nationalism, false history and doffing the cap to our betters had fed an anti-royal fervour which was there to be ignited.

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  The record was banned by the BBC and subsequently went to the number One position in the national charts, although officially it remained at number two, behind Rod Stewart.  We all knew it was number one on sales, it wasn’t even conspiracy theory.  No one had ever dared to question the Royal Family so publicly before in living memory and a thrill ran through public life as the British Establishment responded with threats of arrest and the Tower via Traitor’s Gate.  There were  attacks on the band and other punks on the streets by nationalist youth, skinheads and other offended types.

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Jubilee : On the Thames

And then, when The Sex Pistols hired a boat and played the song on the River Thames across from the Houses Of Parliament, a police boat came alongside, boarded, pulled the plug, shut them down and arrested Malcolm McClaren.  It was perfect publicity of course.  Everyone played their role.

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McClaren arrested June 7th 1977

The other half of the country was cheering them on, revelling in the open defiance of the snotty plebs, two fingers up to her Maj.   No Future….

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On that day June 7th when the single was Number One (Number Two officially!) and the whole nation had a public holiday, people were encouraged to organise street parties and genuflect, the students gathered in flat 4:1 where Andy Cornwell opened his windows onto the street, we rolled joints and smoked them out of the window, and we played The Sex Pistols “God Save The Queen” all day, off and on, and then at one point for at least an hour, over and over again.  Don’t forget that when I say we “played” the single, we actually had a few copies and a nice stereo, and the needle would be placed back to the edge of the seven-inch circle.    Those present :  Andy Cornwell, Van Morrison devotee;  Norman Wilson, Thin Lizzy fan;  Lewis MacLeod, Flamin’ Groovies appreciation society;  Anton, Neil Young groover;  Nigel, Todd Rundgren acolyte;  Derek, Joan Armatrading lover;  and me, Ralph, Peter Hammill and Gentle Giant collector.  Not a punk among us – although I suspect I’d started posing as a punk by then due to the imminence of my 20th birthday – but we all LOVED this single (although memory tells me that Barnsley lad Norman hated punk rock) and celebrated its timely arrival at the top of the charts, but off the radio, on Jubilee Day.  We became the radio and made up for all the plays the song wasn’t getting on the BBC.  It was a legendary day.  Actually we were White Punks On Dope.  Stoned out of our boxes listening to the Pistols and dub reggae.

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Sid Vicious, Paul Cook, Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones

Later that year I would get word from Stephen Woolley in the Scala Cinema coffee bar where I worked (see my Pop Life …) that the Pistols were playing in London the following night.  I can’t remember how I snaffled a ticket but I did, and went up to Birkbeck College in Uxbridge to see them.  They opened with God Save The Queen.  Mayhem.

Jubilee river boat trip :

My Pop Life #112 : The Night – Franki Valli & The Four Seasons

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The Night   –   Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons

…you know you’re gonna lose more than you found…

Mid-May 1975, the green fields of East Sussex.   I am three weeks away from my A-level exams at Lewes Priory School, some 25 miles away, which I have spent two years studying for.   My choices are English Literature, Geography and Economics.   Geography is my favourite subject, so much so that I have taken an extra O-Level in the Lower Sixth in Geology and passed with grade 1.

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geological cross-section of Lyme Regis bay

There is a possibility of taking a Geography Degree somewhere or other – or even a Geology Degree.  But the prospect, once I’d had a little think about prospects, of a lifetime working for the oil and gas industry did sway me away from that wonderful subject.  I love maps very much, especially the ones that go underground and show the rock layers.  Fascinating.  But that would be where it stopped.

Featured imageEnglish Literature was an easy choice and kind of non-negotiable – I’d enjoyed books since I could read and devoured them voraciously.  At this point I was well past A Clockwork Orange, 1984 and Brave New World and onto reading Dostoyevsky and Mervyn Peake.  The set texts were, if I can remember them : Anthony & Cleopatra (“Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall…“), Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale which is brilliant, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (swoon), Dubliners by James Joyce, Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw (?) hmmmm and some poetry.  Yeats?  Eliot ?  Cannae remember captain.  

My third A-Level was Economics.  Weird choice?  I’d been told that if I wanted to study Law at the LSE (and I did) that I would have to take Economics A-Level.   Seemed fair enough.   We had one good teacher on macro Economics called Mr Dennis, which was all about GDP, Interest Rates, unemployment and Monetary Policy, Keynes etc.   And we had one bad teacher whose name strangely escapes me on microeconomics (supply and demand, pricing, business) who ran a VG shop in Chailey and constantly referred to it to illustrate what he was talking about in a particularly tedious way.  He also prefaced most of his sentences with the non-word “Em”.  “Em, just open your books on, em, page 43…”   Andy Holmes and I became needlessly obsessed with this vocal tic and started to log the regularity of its use.  To enumerate its tally.  Em.  We would place a small mark in a rough book with each spasm. one, two three, four, then a line across for five.  Then you could see at a glance how many Ems there had been in a double period Economics lesson.  Sometimes they would come in a flurry and we could scarcely keep up.  It was proper work.  What this meant though, was that we didn’t really hear any of the words in-between each Em and the next.  And fun though it had been, suddenly there we were in May 1975 and a few short weeks away from the examination which would determine whether we would be champs or chumps in life.

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It’s called Revision. It means going over your notes from the previous two years and making sure you remember pertinent details, concepts, definitions.  My notes were a series of totals.  38 Ems.  54 Ems. And yes, 71 Ems.   I badly needed to read an Economics Textbook, so I found one in the Library and started to read – and take notes.   Not so much Revision as simply panic-cramming two years of Em Economics into two months of seriously undiluted brain workout.  No music, no gigs, no getting stoned or drunk.   EXAMS.  Like entering a tunnel where the parallel lines converge to a point on a dark horizon.

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Of course the radio was always on downstairs and always tuned to Radio One.  Tony Blackburn, Paul Burnett, Johnnie Walker.  And creeping up the charts was a strange beguiling song called “The Night” by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons which started with a sinister bassline, is joined by a thin organ & tambourine combo, the drums kick in and a very odd semi-whispered vocal warns

Beware of his promise. Believe what I say…”

at which point the song actually starts with a rush of vocal harmony and tuba/baritone sax…

..Before I go forever..be sure of what you say…

And then we’re off !  What an amazing single this is.   Adopted by the Northern Soul possee for its dancefloor pulse and sensational vocal shapes, it was released on Jobete, the Motown label, for whom it was recorded in 1972, then withdrawn after a handful of promo copies were handed out.  Some of these found their way to England and the underground soul scene.  (For a previous example of the high-tempo rhythm and passionate vocals of Northern Soul see My Pop Life #17.)

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Frankie Valli, Nick Massi, Tommy De Vito, Bob Gaudio

The Four Seasons had been hugely successful since the early 60s, the first white act to sign with the Vee-Jay label with hits like Walk Like A ManRag Doll and Sherry, and the originals of Bye Bye Baby (see My Pop Life #11), and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, covered memorably by the great Andy Williams.   Frankie Valli the Italian boy from the Jersey ‘hood has had an astonishing career lasting over 55 years and counting.  Not to mention his band mate Bob Gaudio who co-wrote this song.   They were the East Coast Beach Boys, best-selling pop vocal harmony sweetness incarnate – brilliantly celebrated and exposed in the hit show Jersey Boys, now a film. That’s all for another post – here it is suffice to say that the Four Seasons’ years at Motown (from 1970-74) were a commercial disaster zone for the band, and this single was only re-released due to pressure from Northern Soul DJs in the 70s, according to legend, or perhaps because they’d had a pop-disco resurgence on Warners with Who Loves You and Oh What A Night, and Franki Valli had scored with My Eyes Adored You, also recorded at Motown.  The Northern Soul DJs certainly adopted the song and played it, helping to lift The Night to number 7 in the charts in May 1975.

It was around this time that my mother started to slide.  Again.  She had been unstable since the first breakdown in 1964 in Selmeston.  Diagnosed by a variety of doctors and psychiatrists as schizophrenic, manic depressive, suffering a nervous breakdown or affective disorder, and treated either in or out of hospital with every drug ever invented, many of which were tested on patients such as my mum, she had begun to self-diagnose by this point and pick her tablets from the giant selection in the kitchen cupboard with care.  It made her unreasonable, violent, depressed, miserable, lonely, vulnerable and a terrible bully all at once.  We didn’t tiptoe around her either, we took her on and dealt with each day as it came along.   It was a volatile household.   Who’s isn’t ??   It was a challenge that I became increasingly good at handling.  But at some cost, as I would discover much later in life.  During these years – the 1970s – the visits to hospital weren’t so long and devastating, the hospital was called Amberstone which had a slightly more relaxed regime, no ECT for example, and every so often there would be a crisis at home and Mum would be admitted, or admit herself.   We were old enough to hold the fort, or at least I certainly was.  A 17 year old young adult, I would make sure that there was food, that the milkman was paid and we had enough coal to heat the place.  But by 1975 I had a younger sister from Mum’s second marriage to John Daignault, which had since collapsed.   Rebecca was born in April 1973 and was thus just 2 years old when Mum announced one morning while I was revising Economics upstairs in my bedroom (Paul and Andrew were at school) that she was going into hospital.  An ambulance was called.  My brother’s girlfriend Janice came round to take Rebecca.    I packed a small bag for Mum with a nightie, underwear, slippers, tobacco, papers, matches, and some clothes, toothbrush and deodorant.  A small towel.  A flannel.  She didn’t look so good.  I was pretty numb.  Then the doorbell rang and there was the ambulance.  We hugged and she left with her bag.   I went back upstairs and was gripped suddenly by a huge and excruciating pain spasm inside the middle of my body.  I lay down.  It got worse.  Like a vice grip around my core, being held by a giant iron hand that wouldn’t let go.   I had never felt anything like it before,  it was so intense that all I could do was curl up on the bed and moan gently.  The parallel lines heading directly into the dark tunnel.   Listen for the break at 2.35 in The Night for a musical evocation of this moment.  It would not relent and I could not move.  Frozen.  Some four hours later it finally started to abate and I could unwind and stretch gingerly out.  At some point after that Paul and Andrew came home and I told them that Mum had gone to Amberstone for a bit.   We all knew the drill by then.  No tears, no drama.  We just got on with it.  Thank god for Janice !  And thinking about it since, that must have been some kind of cramp that gripped me that afternoon.  An immediate psychic emotional reaction by my muscles.  All I could think about was WHY NOW?  I’ve got exams coming up!!  I can’t afford to fuck them up.  I think I then immediately boxed my heart away and tightened the great padlock over my chest so that I couldn’t feel anything that would undermine or dissolve me and went back to the Economics book.

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mid-seventies Franki Valli 

Two weeks later I started the A-Level exam run.  Six exams in all I seem to recall.  Mum came out of Amberstone after about a month.  Later that summer I found out (in Budapest: see My Pop Life #70) that I’d scored an A in Geography and two Bs in English and Economics.   I had my place at the LSE.

But the night begins to turn your head around…

I wouldn’t begin to unlock the cage and truly unbox my heart for almost another forty years.