My Pop Life #239 : You’re The First, The Last, My Everything – Barry White

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You’re The First, The Last, My Everything  –  Barry White

We got it together, didn’t we?
We’ve definitely got our thing together, don’t we baby?
Isn’t that nice?
I mean, really, when you really sit and think about it, isn’t it really, really nice?
I can easily feel myself slipping more and more ways
That super world of my own
Nobody but you
And me
We’ve got it together, baby
Ohhhh ohhhh

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Pow.  That’s how the long version begins.  When you read it, read it aloud like a white person, sitting down, it seems ludicrous.  That’s because you have to mean it.  And maybe, have a voice that comes from your boots through your gut and out from your heart.  Maybe, just maybe, you have to be Barry White.

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Remember the early days of lockdown?  Seems like five years ago.

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Diary Extract

Monday night in Brooklyn, 17th March 2020.

We are entering the unknown.  The truly unprecedented moment which the world has not faced before.  OK Spanish flu in 1918, 102 years ago.

We don’t go out very much but today – the last day that pubs cafes and restaurants will be open, we decided to have a last romantic meal in Olea on Lafayette, three blocks from our duplex.  We made quite a big deal of getting ready, the sun was pale but warmed the 7 degrees Centigrade air, spring is making an attempt.  When we got there it was closed with a sign on the door.

WE ARE SADLY CLOSED TEMPORARILY

Which was sad.  Would we go home?  We walked back up to De Kalb and found Dino’s Roman’s and Brooklyn Public House also closing up because of the city ordinance.  Walked up Clinton Avenue to Myrtle where Mr Coco had run out of baked beans and potatoes.  Opposite was Puttnam’s – a gastro pub where we ate on our first night in Brooklyn over six years ago.  It was open.  We walked in and the bar menu was available, along with alcohol.  About eight people were sitting at the bar.  We sat in the far corner in a pool of spring sunshine and ordered Impossible Burgers.  I had a pint of Guinness, Jenny a glass of Stella.  When will we next do that?

People came and went, squeezing the hand sanitizer on the wall as they did so.  We paid with a card, and Jenny squirted it with her new lavender sani bottle containing 62% alcohol.  It was a strange but lovely meal.  We tipped the waiter $20 on a $60 bill.  He had four hours left on his shift before they closed for… how long? Where was his next tip coming from?

It was a short walk home with plenty of people out.  I stood outside smoking while Jenny bought apple juice, limes and eggs in Greenville Gardens our local bodega.   The girl serving asked after me and remembered our discount code because she is sweet.  The other girl was scared.  No one knows what to feel.

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Harry Potter and The Cursed Child closed on Broadway last Thursday at 5pm and Jenny, who plays Hermione, came home stunned and in mourning.  The 2nd year cast were due to finish on Sunday and there was a grand farewell party planned to send them off in style, including her stage husband Ron, played by Matt Mueller.  She has been in mourning for this stolen moment since then.  But she has also been left without a show to do, without wages (we’ll see what happens there?) and without a distraction for her to stop her thinking about her sister Dee who died last summer.

Now it’s just us four in the house.  Jenny, Ralph, Roxy and BoyBoy.  We haven’t got a routine yet, but every morning I tend to wake and make tea & toast and bring it all upstairs.  I like marmalade and jack cheese, and Boy always gets a corner of cheese which he loves so much that he will chew my fingernail in case there’s any left in there.  Then every other day there is Pilates downstairs to disco music.  I’ve decided to do a PhD in Disco during this lull.  Brother Paul thought it was for real.  He was a disco kid back when it was a thing, a gay man in New York City in 1980 dancing in the clubs to Donna Summer, Sylvester, Cerrone, Patrick Juvet.  I’m a much more recent convert – probably around 20 years ago when I started to really love it.  My way in was via Philly soul and the Gamble & Huff productions of the O Jays, Harold Melvin and Thom Bell with The Stylistics who have become my favourite band.  From there you acknowledge Norman Whitfield and Papa Was A Rolling Stone, Earth, Wind and Fire, Barry White and George Macrae.  It’s been fun talking to Paul about it over the last few days.

I’m also writing up the numbers of Covid 19 cases and deaths every day, country by country.  Some kind of handle to grasp on it, this strange blurry unseen enemy.  Watching Biden and Bernie, in their late 70s arguing on TV about who had the best plans for the virus and thinking they’ll both die if it gets them.  So therefore who will be the running mate?  The British Government, the US President and the Brazilian President have all shown a shoddy and weak approach because they are all populist blowhards who reject experts and appeal to racists and homophobes for their support.  Perhaps this crisis will see the beginning of the end of this kind of leader.  Perhaps the voters will understand that leaders are needed who have a level head and listen to experts.

It’s strange to think how utterly changed the world will be once this passes.  There will be a massive recession.  There will be numbers of dead.  But perhaps, maybe the world will have hit the re-set button and we will have spent some time thinking about how we organise ourselves and our world.  We can only hope.

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Now it’s July 10th 2020.  Has anything changed? Oh yes, plenty.  George Floyd was murdered by racist policemen in Minneapolis at the end of May and the world exploded.  This triggered Jenny’s first walk outside since that visit to Puttnams.  Down to Barclays Center and the crowds of protestors.  The anger was greater than the fear.   A police car was burned on De Kalb Avenue and the ashes now form a memorial to George Floyd. We had constant NYPD helicopters hovering overhead ever since and nearby.  Then we had fireworks every night for six weeks, from all directions. And we’ve had Covid-19 powering through all of it.  I had the test a couple of weeks ago at Brooklyn Hospital  just across Fort Greene Park there. Negative.  Yes and I spent many hours immersed in my Disco PhD – indeed when I mentioned this fact to a screenful of students I was teaching one afternoon some young wag said

“Oh so you’re going to be a Doctor of Disco?”

Let’s not get carried away.  But on that first weekend I had volunteered to guru for Songbar once again, I usually do about 4 weekends a year.  I feel as if I have spoken about this before – an online music blog with people suggesting songs and tunes to fit a musical theme which changes every week.   This particular week I suggested Songs Which Quote Shakespeare which was quite max factory of me, but sometimes you have to embrace the cheese mon ami, mon petit gruyére.  (Where’s the backwards accent on a computer?)  Anyway.  And there on Day 2 some young blade named pejepeine suggested a tune I had never heard before called Romeo & Juliet by one Alec Costandinos which is a disco marvel and lasts a full 15 minutes in twelve inch format.  Blimey what a discovery that was, and straight into my top twelve Shakespeare tunes.  The rest you can find here :

https://www.song-bar.com/song-blog/playlists-songs-that-quote-shakespeare

If you so desire.  It seems clear to me that Alec Costandinos was influenced greatly by Barry White.  And listening to these disco tunes every other day as we stretched and twisted and bounced our Pilates around the apartment it occurred to me that disco had been coming for years before Disco.

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Not proto disco.  Actual Disco.

I found a Youtube playlist called Proto Disco – the tunes that took us to disco.  They include the ones mentioned above, essentially – Philly Soul, The Tempts and the great Barry White.  Some other nice discoveries – MFSB weren’t just a one-hit wonder for example. The Hues Corporation were though perhaps. And then I swooned into Barry White.  Did Pilates to Barry White.  Did a PhD in Barry White.  Told my friend Simon about my PhD in Barry White.  Confessed that actually it  was more of an O Level in Barry White to be fair.  But, readers who have read thus far, here are the salient facts.

a)  Love Unlimited are Barry’s backing vocalists, sisters Glodean James (who married Barry), Linda James and their cousin Diane Taylor.  They had hits in 1972 with Walking In The Rain (With The One I Love) and 1973 with It May Be Winter Outside (But In My Heart It’s Spring), both written by Barry White, although the latter song was co-written by Paul Politi and was a minor hit for Felice Taylor in 1967 as was I Feel Love Coming On also written and produced by Paul & Barry.  Walking In The Rain was a hit a full year before Barry White’s first single.

b)  The Love Unlimited Orchestra was formed by Barry White in 1973 as a backing group for Love Unlimited.  However they were soon releasing music of their own, with no top line.  I found the first LP, Rhapsody In White at the Brooklyn flea market about five years ago.  What a find !

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An unusual combination at the time of funk rhythms and orchestral instrumentation, in retrospect it seems clear that this is the birth of disco.  Barry White wrote long and short versions of the classic Love’s Theme which was released in 1973 and made number one on the pop charts.   It changed the world.  To me it sounds like a TV Theme tune until we start dancing.  It is classic disco from 1973, three long years before Disco was DISCO.  Perfection.  Groove.  I had to tussle with myself about which Barry White song to choose today.  Here’s the long version of Love’s Theme.  Grab your lover and move gently around the room to this baby

There is something supremely endless about this song

c)  Barry White wanted to be a writer, producer and arranger – and so he was for many years, working with longtime collaborator Paul Politi, until one day in 1973 Paul suggested, for the eleventeenth time, that Barry re-record his demo and sing the damn song himself.  Now Barry’s voice is one of the world’s 70 wonders, a bass baritone which shakes the buttons on your blouse.  His voice dropped when he was 14 and apparently his mother wept.  The first of many mothers to weep.  Larry Nunes was Barry’s business manager by now, and together with Politi they persuaded Barry to record the song himself.  That song was I’m Gonna Love You Just A Little Bit More Baby.  It appeared on the first LP I’ve Got So Much To Give and the rest is pop history, R & B legend and musical eternity.

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My brother Paul was way ahead of me on this curve because he spotted the genius of Barry White early on, certainly by Never Never Gonna Give You Up with it’s breathy sighs and pillow talk in the mix and

“quitting just ain’t my stick”

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But for Paul I think it was the production that he loved, the rooted bass line in lockstep with the warm crisp architecture of the drums.  Wacka wacka rhythm guitar, some french horns summoning us all to the mountaintop, and violins and flutes on the top end creating lush generous fills.  Barry’s voice felt compassionate and passionate at the same time.  Somehow made it sound like he wasn’t going to force anything, wasn’t going to stretch his voice like Little Richard or James Brown, no, this was another style, not reaching but drawing you in, relaxed and centred and genuine.  It was the sound of the heart of the 1970s.

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People took the piss from day one, especially men, small dick energy wrote about The Walrus Of Love and stuff like that.  Barry was a smiley performer though, if you watch any of his concerts online (and I do recommend it!) he always takes time to walk through the audience, shaking hands with people and kissing the ladies, never missing a beat, singing the whole way.  Quite a show.  My late development as a soul fan (early 20s) means that I missed many of the greats, including Barry White, Millie Jackson, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye playing live.  But I’ve been a lucky boy too and am eternally grateful and blessed to have seen Aretha, Smokey, Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Khan and Parliament/Funkadelic. And now we all have Youtube, where Barry and Teddy and Marvin sing every night.

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In 1974 as I started the Upper Sixth at school Paul was leaving his school in Hailsham and leaving home because Mother had sent him a solicitor’s letter, using her mental illness as a weapon to force him out of the house.  He was 16 years old.  He went to live in Eastbourne, then Pevensey Bay and got a job in the local tax office.  In October 1974 You’re The First, The Last, My Everything was released, another of Barry White’s unfeasibly long titles, and a piece de resistance of a song which reached both Paul and I in different ways, and the coveted Number One position on the UK Charts.   A fact which meant that it was in contention (surely) when the Guardian decided to list the 100 Greatest Number One Hit Singles later in lockdown this year and signally failed to include it.  My family had a Zoom Call around that time – May 2020 I reckon – and Paul, now living in Shanghai, was furious.  Given that the Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls had made number one, and Human League were in the top ten he had a good point.  Once again it was Barry White not getting his due, being sidelined, not included in ‘best of’ lists.  It perhaps is partly to do with his physical appearance (maybe he predicted/feared this), or more feasibly his style of music and the way he delivered it.  Barry White made songs that appealed to women, directly.  Men knew this and ridiculed it because deep deep down it makes them feel inadequate.  Which they often are.  I always loved dancing to Barry but I didn’t take it seriously or recognise his true genius until I did my O Level earlier this year.  My Lockdown Lover.  A truly towering figure.

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It was the night of Dee’s funeral, October 2019 or was it more likely the night before Jenny and I flew back to New York, two days later.  A Sunday night.  Deep emotional unprecedented days in High Wycombe with the family.  Me, Jen, Mandy, Lucy, Mollie (?), Marlyn, Uncle Lee, I think it must have been around 1.30am and no one wanted to say goodnight, we were camped in the living room downstairs and someone flicked through the channels.  A Barry White documentary.  Talking about his orchestrations, his collaborators, his charisma, and his sad death at only 58 years old in July 2003 in Cedars Sinai hospital Los Angeles when the family were kept from visiting him by the hospital staff on the instructions of his girlfriend and manager, presumably with the support of ex-wife Glodean who became the sole executor of the will.   Two of his children have since sued Glodean as their monthly allowances dried up and stopped.  And talking about how this song was written as a country tune some 20 years earlier (in the 50s) by his old friend Stirling Radcliffe entitled “You’re My First, My Last, My Inbetween”, whereupon Barry changed the words and upped the tempo considerably and then improvised his way through the intro on take 2 which is the one that became the hit smasherooni.

Play this song.  You will hit the snare drum, just a little late, just like the record does, perhaps hitting your thigh, or the person who you are dancing with, or cracking an invisible whip.  One of the signature sounds of my life.  Thwack!

Let’s all hail the Soul Lover, the one and only, the great musical wonder that is

Barry White

 

My Pop Life #106 : A Wedding In Cherokee County – Randy Newman

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A Wedding In Cherokee County   –   Randy Newman

…maybe she’s crazy I don’t know

maybe that’s why I love her so…

The Old Market, Hove, Sussex August 13th 2005.   Not quite Cherokee County but it’s a universal tale isn’t it ?   Hmm maybe not.   Anyway.   Cherokee County could refer to Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, South or North Carolina or Texas.   The song is written by Randy Newman and is off his 5th LP entitled “Good Old Boys” and the LP has a theme – the South of the USA.   All of the songs are concerned with life, history or the mentality of living in the South.    When he plays live he compares it to Quadrophenia.   He’s joking.   In case you missed the debate, The South or The Confederacy, finally lost the Civil War in 1865 when Reconstruction began and the abolition of slavery was final.   However, the effects of that war have never disappeared as is only too obvious.    President Abraham Lincoln was shot dead on April 14th 1865 just as hostilities had ceased, a victim of his support for the abolition of slavery,  The South was poor (relatively speaking) for at least 100 years afterwards, voting rights weren’t granted finally until 1964 (Selma) and the Confederate Flag – the flag of the six breakaway states (the ones with the most slaves) – was finally taken down from the Town Hall in Columbia South Carolina this month in July 2015.  But this song isn’t about slavery.  Or Civil War.  It’s about marriage.

Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles to musical parents.  His first self-titled LP came out in 1968 and it was immediately clear that he was a distinctive and original songwriter.  Mordant, satirical, ironic, witty, irreverent and clever, there is no other writer like Randy Newman.  Instead of attacking he goes underneath and makes you smile.  I bought his 4th LP Sail Away in the 1970s after hearing it at Simon Korner’s house (or so I thought, Simon has since denied this) – it contained one of my then favourite songs Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear which I knew from the pop charts and Alan Price.   Randy wrote it.

  The entire LP is a masterpiece and I’ll blog it another day – we’re inside the next one – from 1974.   ‘Good Old Boys’ is what men from the south call each other.  “Them good ole boys was drinkin’ whisky and rye singin’ this will be the day that I die..”   That line is a perfect example of the stereotypical sentimental self-pity of the southern man in art and song, a strange mixture of pride and defiance, racism and whisky.  “I sang Dixie as he died“.   I think this LP is also a masterpiece and I will definitely be blogging five of the songs on it so I won’t go on and on.   But just to note in passing that the opening track Rednecks goes where few songs dare and calls out both the southern racism and the northern hypocrisy faced by black people in America.

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Meanwhile, Keith & Yarra were getting married.  They had a beautiful boy called George who had been born the previous January.  But they decided to tie the knot,  get hitched,  get wed, do matrimony, nuptials, get spliced and legalise publicly and forever their cohabitation and love, and they wanted me to do a reading at the ceremony.  Did I have any suggestions?  And could I suggest any music?

They both worked in the music business so I was sure they had everything they needed, but I made a few suggestions : Aaron Neville’s Ten Commandments Of Love,  Elvis Presley’s Hawaiian Wedding Song,  A Wedding In Cherokee County by Randy Newman.  The last song wasn’t a great choice to be honest because is it incredibly disrespectful, intentionally hilarious and pretty likely to get the relations kicking off especially if they’ve had a few.   Check the lyrics :

There she is : sittin’ there
Out behind the smoke house in her rockin’ chair
She don’t say nothin’, she don’t do nothin’
She don’t feel nothin’, she don’t know nothin’
Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so

But of course Keith and Yarra loved it, and not only did they love it they decided that they wanted me to read it out as a poem at the wedding.  Jeepers Creepers !   Not for that first verse, which is funny, but for verse two particularly.  I’d never met either set of parents, and now I was expected to stand up in my nice sky blue suit and read :

Her papa was a midget, her mama was a whore
Her granddad was a newsboy ’til he was eighty-four
What a slimy old bastard he was
Man don’t you think I know she hates me
Man don’t you think I know that she’s no good
If she knew how she’d be unfaithful to me
I think she’d kill me if she could

They both assured me that it would be fine, that the parents would find it amusing, and that even if they didn’t that was what they wanted me to read.   I was honoured to be asked of course so I agreed.   I was also a little thrilled.   How very daring !

..I’m not afraid of the grey wolf
Who stalks through our forest at dawn
As long as I have her beside me
I have the strength to carry on…

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Extensions from Nighty Night – me and Lyndsey

Keith and Yarra I’d met via Mark Williams when Jenny and I moved down to Brighton in 1996, they were part of the great loose endless party by the sea that seemed never-ending and full of cider and cocaine.  Keith unusually was a Manchester lad who supported Chelsea.  He has a streak of decency that is immediately recognisable and very welcome in a seaside town, and Yarra is similarly precious to me.    I think he used to work in rock and roll promotion in the biz, but he graduated to design later – for example designing the whole package of Paul Steel’s first LP April and I (see My Pop Life #1) which was like a Mr Men book.  I bought four of them to hoard.  It’s a brilliant record and a brilliant package.  But Keith has done tons and tons of stuff.  Not least been a  great Dad to George and Milla (who was born a few years later).

Today we will be married
And all the freaks that she knows will be there
And all the people from the village will be there
To congratulate us
I will carry her across the threshold
And I will make dim the light
And I will attempt to spend my love within…

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Yarra, Keith and George

So the day of the wedding came and all was well.   They’d planned it down to the inch.  I knew many of the guests but by no means all – but our Brighton and Hove gang were well represented by Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill (then married and together), Lyndsey, Louise Yellowlees,  Erika Martinez, Alex Campbell & Natasha, Lorraine and John and Mark, Emma, Josh, Patrick surely and Adam Mellor must have been there and when I just looked at my crap pictures I could swear that the bass player of Elbow is there, and he might well be because they are mates of Keith’s from Manc-land and I met them all one night in Pool Valley in Brighton after a gig.  It was a good wedding needless to say.  A good mixture of rock ‘n’ roll and class, flowers, nice clothes and drink and drugs.  The congregation were very welcoming when I arose to read out the Randy Newman poem, but the following third verse got a laugh and in the end we were all rather moved :

…though I try with all my might
She will laugh at my mighty sword
She will laugh at my mighty sword
Why must everybody laugh at my mighty sword?
Lord, help me if you will
Maybe we’re both crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so

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Randy Newman ‘sometime in the 1970s’

Randy Newman’s songs sound like they were written 100 years ago.  They have an incredible weathered quality, the key changes, the simple choices, some of them sound like hymns, some like campfire songs, some like Tin Pan Alley or early vaudeville.   I’m not sure how he achieves this stardust 78rpm quality, I’ve watched him very carefully playing piano both live and on the TV and he scarcely moves his fingers up and down the keyboard – everything is bunched together and one new note and a shift of bass line and he achieves miracles.   Very little guitar – all strings and brass and piano.  Now and again a lick of slide.   Only the lyrics give away the non-historical nature of these songs – they are all massively contemporary even when he is pastiching older musical tropes.   And just listen to the drum on the first verse of …Cherokee County.  It’s so late it almost misses the bus.

With a song that somehow expresses the opposite of its subject, which talks about hate, stupidity and mistrust and yet makes you feel sentimental and weepy-eyed about getting married I think Randy Newman had hit the motherlode of genius – but all of his songs are like this.  Short People.  Sail Away.  Political Science. On and on.

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Yarra, Keith, Milla & George

Happy Anniversary Keith and Yarra – ten years in a couple of weeks.  And I wouldn’t have dared have this song played or read at my wedding.  Are you kidding ?  Have you met Jenny’s Mum ?  So respect…

This never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

a taste of the man himself playing live in 1978 :

My Pop Life #94 : Overture to Tannhäuser – Richard Wagner

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 Overture to Tannhäuser    –   Richard Wagner

Perhaps it was January 1974.    This was when Major Horst Mohn of the German SS, memorably played by Anthony Valentine, arrived in Colditz Castle at the beginning of series 2 of the BBCtv WW2 drama Colditz, and had a showdown scene with the Kommandant, the more sympathetic German officer in charge of the POW camp, played brilliantly by Bernard Hepton.

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Bernard Hepton – the Kommandant – listens to Wagner

Mohn was sent down from Hitler’s inner circle, wounded in action, to Colditz.  Things were going to get a little tougher for those plucky POWs, and for The Kommandant himself !

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Anthony Valentine and Hans Meyer in spooky moving picture from Coldtiz

But to be honest, I can’t really remember the trigger scene.  What I can remember is that my Mum wrote to the BBC and asked them – what was the music playing behind that scene ?  If indeed that was the scene.  And bless them – they replied :  it was the Overture to Wagner’s Opera Tannhäuser.   She went out to Eastbourne on the next shopping Saturday (record-buying day) and found an LP with the music.  “Here’s that music” she triumphantly announced, “from Colditz.  It’s Tannhowzer!”

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Those plucky POWS included Robert Wagner (a relation?) and David MacCullum

Had we even heard of Richard Wagner?   Well we had now.   The LP became an institution in our house.   We lived in Hailsham East Sussex in 1974 , and we had very few LPs.  Loads of singles – on labels like Deram, RAK, Tamla Motown, A&M, Parlaphone, Island, RCA, Track, Regal Zonophone, UA, Decca, Pye, MAM, Capitol, Chrysalis and others, but LPs – let me think – we had the soundtracks to Oliver! and The Sound Of Music, The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, In Search Of The Lost Chord by The Moody Blues, a Seekers LP called Morningtown Ride, Andy Williams,  I had a bunch of stuff upstairs by then : Imagine, Roxy Music, Aladdin Sane, Band On The Run, These Foolish Things, VDGG, Electric Landlady and Abbey Road.   Mum must’ve had some others, but not many.   So the arrival of a new LP  was a moment.   We played it a lot.   I know this music backwards, I know all the violin parts, all the horn parts, I know when it trembles, when it swells, when it swoons, when it thunders, when the percussion come in, when it fades – it is undoubtedly the piece of classical music I know best.

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The legendary Tannhäuser LP cover

I knew nothing about Wagner in 1974, I was 16 and didn’t know much about anything.  We all loved Colditz though and watched it together, and Mum writing to the BBC didn’t seem weird at all.  Looking back, I’ve got to say that she had a very good ear, picking up on the background music to a scene in a BBC drama.  Impressive.   And suddenly we had this LP in the house.  It’s a massively powerful piece of music, rich and dark and beautiful.  We none of us knew that it was the Overture to an opera.  I’ve still never heard the opera.  Not sure I want to really.  Since 1974 I’ve collected a fair bit of Wagner as he is one of my favourite composers – up to a point.

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 The Ring Cycle – four operas all telling a long story about Wotan, Seigfried, The Rhine Maidens and some ring or other – is one of the pinnacles of human artistic endeavour, but the problem is, I can’t really take the singing.  I’ve seen one of the Ring operas – Götterdämmerung at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden with Bernard Haitink conducting – one of the great interpreters of Wagner.   I recognised much of the music because I have had a double LP (and CD) of Ring music for years – but there’s no singing at all on that LP, just the overtures and preludes.   Just the music!!!  Fantastic.  The singing is so dull and tedious.   My brother Andrew has been to see the entire Ring Cycle three times already, I couldn’t sit through it.  Or could I?  It’s almost worth it for the music which is outstanding.  But No, give me the overtures anytime : Lohengrin, Parsifal, The Flying Dutchman, Tristan & Isolde, The Master-Singers of Nuremburg and the Ring – Rheingold, The Valkries, Seigfried and Götterdammerung.  It’s 20 pieces of music in all.  About two from each.  And that’s all you need from Wagner.  Sorry purists.  But having said that – each piece is a magical journey into sound, music that opens you up and tears you down, music that rolls and rides and lifts and inspires.  Fantastic stuff.

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On the B-side of Tannhäuser were two shorter pieces : Seigfried’s Rhine Journey and The Magic Fire Music, both from The Ring Cycle.  They hardly got played, but now and again they got an airing.  No, Tannhäuser was the one.  The umlaut (two dots) above the ‘a’ changes the pronunciation in a very efficient and clear German way – Tann Howzer becomes Tann Hoyzer  (see My Pop Life 78).   Pointless for me to describe the music.   I know little about the opera only that it is a struggle between sacred and profane love and there is a Venusberg section which involved the goddess herself – in fact Botticelli’s representation of Venus (on the half shell as Kurt Vonnegut would say) was on the cover of our LP.   It’s very pop classical, big obvious shapes, repeated phrases, completely dramatic and very melodic indeed – this is music with Tunes in.   It also ripples in a particular way that appealed to later composers such as Claude Debussy (see My Pop Life 87).   The rippling is fantastically effective in the Rhine music of The Ring operas, and in particular the opening of Das Rheingeld – a single Eb (E flat) chord which is slowly developed and teased out in a brilliantly simple yet effective musical impression of water.  This piece of music is used by director Terrence Malick for the start of his film The New Age when the europeans ships first drop anchor off the Virginia shore in 1504.

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But here’s one interesting thing about classical music, pop fans.  It is written down, with a few guidelines about tempo written above the dots.  In Italian.  All music instructions are written in Italian, because it was during the Renaissance when written music began to be reproduced and thus instructions were key to how it would be performed.  In fact many musical terms are Italian : opera, concerto, oratorio, soprano, alto, contralto, allegro, andante, adagio etc etc.    Classical scholars reading – please advise me if I’m wrong here – but Richard Wagner wrote andante maestoso above the opening of Tannhäuser – a stately walk.  Now – one woman’s stately walk is another man’s wandering stroll – or in other words it is hugely open to interpretation.  This is what conductors are paid for, to read the Italian words on the top of the dots.  So skimming though all the versions of this Overture on Youtube one finds ‘long versions’ – slower tempo, very stately – and shorter versions – pick up your feet a bit, violins.   Conductor Daniel Barenboim gets through it in 14 minutes 37 seconds while John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé stretches it out to 25 minutes.  I find this fascinating, this huge difference in style on one piece of music.  It’s the same number of notes after all.    In my experience, the piece you hear first and get to love – with any classical music – is the tempo that you prefer.  I wonder if Wagner is harder to play at a slow tempo, harder to get it right?   At any rate – the Charles Munch Boston Symphony Orchestra LP we owned clocked in at 21.12 and I just listened to it again, it’s perfect.   If you’re just starting on Wagner though, I’d recommend two conductors who get the stately walk thing brilliantly – Herbert Von Karajan and Bernard Haitink.  There is a lot of emotion in their approach, which I think is right.

Wagner completed the writing of Tannhäuser in 1845.   The Paris opening was infamously interrupted by The Jockey Club for 15 minutes at a time amid chaotic scenes and Wagner withdrew the opera after three performances and never really established himself in France as a result.  By all accounts he was an anti-semite, a misogynist and a bully, but as with our dear Kanye West and Michael Jackson I do believe that we have to listen to the music rather than read the tabloids.  The music is magnificent, the man less so.    It’s an age-old argument, but my position is simple :  I don’t need to approve of Wagner to like his music.   Another faux-objection to Wagner is the well-known fact that he was one of Hitler’s favourite composers which the BBC clearly played on when including his music in Colditz.  But as someone said on Twitter the other day, Hitler liked dogs too.  What of it?

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So I am once again grateful to my mother Heather for opening my ears to music.  Her ears are always open to tunes in the air, on the radio, behind the scenes.    I’ve definitely inherited this from her.   I could have gone on to study music if my teachers at Lewes Priory weren’t so incredibly dead.   But I am where I am.   Music is freely available to us all whatever our profession, and it remains the delight of my life.  This particular piece of music just makes me feel good.  I don’t really need any further recommendation than that.

My Pop Life #80 : Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

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Heartbreak Hotel   –   Elvis Presley

the bell-hop’s tears keep flowing and the desk clerk’s dressed in black

They been so long on lonely street they never can go back

and they’ve been, they been so lonely baby, they been so lonely

they been so lonely they could die…

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By the time I was 16 I had learnt the rudimentals of the saxophone, I could play a tune, I could ‘tongue’ the notes, bend the notes and more or less join in with a jam.  I could only play in a handful of keys though.  And better jokes were to come.  When I joined school band Rough Justice – my friend’s band which starred Conrad Ryle, Andrew ‘Tat’ Taylor, Andy Shand and Tigger on the drums – it was as a saxophone player.   I arrived at Waterlilies in Kingston village, sax in hand, having hitch-hiked from Hailsham, sat down, had a cup of tea, perhaps a joint was smoked,  knelt down and opened my sax case, red-velvet-lined, the horn came in various parts which had to be slotted together, then a reed selected and placed onto the mouthpiece (Selmer C) and tightened, a sling around my neck and we were off.  Give us an E said Tat.  I blew a nice clear bell-like E.   Wow that’s high.  All the guitarists tightened their strings to the right pitch.  Saxophones cannot be tuned (much*) so the more flexible instruments – the guitars, including the bass, must be.   I can’t remember how many rehearsals this went on for, but at every rehearsal someone – often two people – broke strings.   Then one day, weeks later, possibly months later, someone – who knows – maybe it was me, perhaps Andy played an E on the piano out of curiosity.  Clearly none of us had perfect pitch !     It was lower than my E.  Way lower.  It was my C# in fact.  I consulted my book “How To Play The Saxophone“.    I had an Eb Boosey & Hawkes alto.   I don’t actually know what this means even today, but I think I worked out that it is pitched 3 semitones above ‘concert’ C – ie Eb.   Which means that when I play a C it sounds remarkably like an Eb.  What this meant for my bandmate’s guitar strings, not to mention their fingers, was that when they asked me for an E, I played my fingering of an E (same as a recorder) BUT I was giving them a G !!!  No wonder strings broke – three semitones higher than concert pitch, I got blisters on ma fingers !   I felt stupid, humiliated even, but they were all relieved.   Next time someone asked me for an E, I blew a C# and we were all sweet. *

*Muso’s note – to tune a saxophone you must move the mouthpiece up & down the cork.

– After a few more rehearsals it became evident that no one wanted to sing.   No one.   So guess who volunteered.   I’ll give it a go.   Someone who would become an actor one day.  Now, this meant learning the words to the songs which Tat and Conrad – or Crod as we all called him in those days – had written, among which were Tat’s song Muster Muster Monster which required a kind of Vincent Price delivery, and Crod’s song about Mevagissey in Cornwall where he’d been on holiday camping with Spark and Fore and possibly Martin Elkins (“wake up with the sun run down to the sea…”), which was a basic pop vocal.  More tricky though were the choice of covers – basic 12-bar rock songs which the nascent guitar players could play with confidence – and which included THREE Status Quo songs and THREE Elvis Presley songs and Birthday by the Beatles from the White Album.  I’ll discuss the Quo in greater depth another time, for I ended up meeting them years later, (see My Pop Life #172) but this seems like a great opportunity to put Elvis into my pop life.  Aged 16/17 I sang 3 Elvis songs, kind of unaware of his legendary status, he was just a good rockin’ boy to us East Sussex lads.   I wasn’t overawed like I would be now if I sang an Elvis song.   It was just rock’n’roll.   But the songs were 15 years old even then in 1973.

Most of the Rough Justice set were rockers, so true to form I’ve picked the ballad to represent.  It was the hardest song to sing with the exception of “Birthday” which is a scream-fest.  Two of us sang that I think.  We would perform at Kingston Village Hall, Grange Gardens for some private party, Lewes Priory school dance, not that many actual gigs.  The gigs were good, but my main memory is Crod’s bedroom, amps and speakers, fags, instruments including Crod’s homemade lemon-yellow electric guitar, carved from some tree and wired up by hand.  In my recall it went out of tune on a regular basis, but Crod didn’t seem to mind.  In fact Conrad didn’t seem to mind about much it seemed to me.  He had a gentle giant atmosphere around him, smiled a lot, was very forgiving and understanding, had a good left foot on the football pitch, came to the Albion with his brother Martin or with us, enjoyed a pint of cider and a smoke of weed, is a committed socialist even now and still lives in Lewes with his wife Gaynor Hartnell.  Lovely people whom I see all too infrequently.  Along with Simon Korner I would say he was my best friend at Lewes, since I had spent so much time with both of those families as my own family slowly disintegrated amid dysfunction and doctors and drugs.  They’d both reached out a hand and invited me into their homes.  They’d saved my sanity and my future probably.  I cannot really measure it, but I will always acknowledge it.

We had fun with Crod one day – me, Spark, Fore, Martin, Tat.  Crod fell asleep early one night.  Too early.  Wankered on cider.  Someone wondered aloud whether we should lift his entire bed with him in it outside and place it carefully in the garden, without waking him up.  Much laughter.  I think we tried it.   Of course the bed wouldn’t fit through the door.  So we settled for completely re-arranging his bedroom, moved the bed to the opposite wall, moved the bookcase and wardrobe and amps and speakers.  Then we fell asleep too.   Hadn’t worked that out – that we’d have to stay awake all night to get the juicy climax to our prank.  Then someone woke Crod up to get the joke.  He looked blearily around, said “oh you’ve moved the room around” then fell asleep again.

Matthew Wimbourne would turn up to Rough Justice rehearsals too.   He was younger than us and smaller too.   Wispy beard-hairs and glasses, hippy scarves.   Carried a set of bongos.  Sat on the floor and played along without ever really being heard.   I hope he had fun.   Tigger the drummer didn’t go to our school.  He looked a bit like a kid from fame, mullet and all.   We made a logo for his bass drum.  It said Rough Justice round the rim and had a hangman’s noose in the centre.  We wore whatever we wanted on stage which was mainly denim, although Crod had some interesting shapeless clothes, and I had my Mum’s pink blouse (glamrock!!) and a pair of stripéd pants (see MacArthur’s Park! My Pop Life #216) that were red, blue and yellow and a pair of wedge-sole AND wedge-heel shoes.  I thought I was in The Sweet !!  Singing Elvis and Quo !!!  hahahahahahahaaaaaaa…

Featured imageAs for Heartbreak Hotel, it’s quite a song.  I think people used to dance even when we played it.   It was Elvis Presley‘s first million-selling single.   Not the first thing he recorded, by any means – he walked into Sun Records in Memphis aged 18 and recorded That’s All Right Mama for producer Sam Phillips which is totally fantastic, as are all the sides he cut for Sun Records.  But once he got signed by RCA Records who bought out his Sun contract thanks to new manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, the sky was the limit.  In essence they tried to bottle the lightning of those first magical two years.  And, sadly, they did.  Bottled it, labelled it, mass-produced it, gave it a haircut and sent it to the army.  They couldn’t quite smooth out all of the rough edges but near as dammit that’s exactly what happened to Elvis.  The famous episodes of him being shot on TV only from the waist up were a real threat, not a joke – a white man dancing and singing like a negro, mixing black and white music with ease, conquering both with charm, rockabilly and sex.

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He was a powerful dangerous young man in the mid-fifties, and those first two years at Sun Records are the best of Elvis.  Not to say that the other stuff is bad – hardly that – and I have favourite Elvis songs from every period of his life.  In The Ghetto.  Are You Lonesome Tonight?   I Just Can’t Help Believin’.  Lawdy Miss Clawdy from the comeback gig.  There are two wonderful books that have all the details, all the gossip and all of the stuff you need.  Peter Guralnick wrote both – Last Train To Memphis goes up to the army, Careless Love takes it from there.  Highly recommended.

I visited Graceland in Memphis in 1989 on my way out to Dallas delivering a car for Auto-Driveaway.  Really that’s for another post, but Graceland is everything you want it to be.

In other news Kenneth Cranham (see My Pop Life #6 and My Pop Life #46) or Uncle Ken had thrust a pair of C90s into my grubby little paws one night entirely made up of original material covered by Elvis, followed by Elvis’ version.  In pretty much every respect the Elvis versions are better.  And of course they were huge hits too.  Parker and Elvis demanded half of the publishing for any song they covered, and most writers (though not Dolly Parton) agreed.

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I knew very very little of this in 1974.   Just as well I think.   I was an innocent singing rock songs for kids to dance to.    I didn’t want to be stepping into a legend’s shoes.

Featured imageAnd yes, the legend of Elvis would flourish and bloom in later years and become a kind of religious touchstone and a musical crossroads too.    There’s so much myth and bullshit written and spoken about Elvis.   I’ve heard tons of it.   Make up your own mind.   Did you know, for instance, that Elvis used to wear eye make-up in the early 50s?   There’s some amazing photos of him back then, on the cusp of his power, under arrest for an assault.   He was a tornado.    I’ve spoken about my conversation with Bristol trip-hop pioneer Tricky (My Pop Life #61) regarding the Public Enemy “Elvis was a hero to most…” lines on Fight The Power.   But whatever, he was one of the original rebels.   A white working class kid in Memphis singing black music in 1953.   He was it.    There’s two clips below, the original single from 1956, the young man aged 21 making his first million dollars, below that the ’68 comeback gig in Las Vegas where he appears to be taking the mickey out of himself and his schtick.  He was a complex man in some ways, a very simple man in others.  I’ve got a lot of time for Elvis.

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and live at the comeback gig in Vegas ’68 :

My Pop Life #78 : Then Came The Last Days Of May – Blue Öyster Cult

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Then Came The Last Days Of May   –   Blue Öyster Cult

They’re OK, the last days of May, but I’ll be breathing dry air

I’m leaving soon, the others are already there

You wouldn’t be interested in coming along ?  Instead of staying here…

It’s said the west is nice this time of year, it’s what they say…

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One of the towering theme songs of my adolescence, Blue Öyster Cult‘s Then Came The Last Days Of May seems an appropriate choice on May 31 2015 as I write this blog at 5.00am.  Evocative, stirring, tragic and beautiful, it is the last track on BÖC’s first self-titled LP.   I carried this LP around the competitive corridors of the Lower Sixth when taste began to carve out the cliques.  New kid Andy Shand had introduced Andy Holmes (“Sherlock“) to the Cult as he was a Seaford clan member, taking the train into Lewes for school.  Andy Shand was also the bass player in Rough Justice, the band I had joined who rehearsed at Waterlilies, Conrad Ryle‘s place in Kingston.   I’ll save the mighty Rough Justice for another post, but suffice it to say that Andy Shand (he never did have a nickname) and I were so enamoured of this LP that we included a section of “Before The Kiss, A Redcap” (at 1.39 it’s a bass riff naturally enough) in a Rough Justice song that had a nice indulgent instrumental middle section (and also featured the riff from You Really Got Me), which I think guitarist Andrew Taylor (Tat – ) had suggested, with Conrad’s approval.

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We all walked around school with little badges on, the cross and hook symbol that the band used on all their LPs – there were 3 LPs out already in 1974 – in Greek mythology the sign of Kronus, King of Titan and Father of Zeus – and furthermore, symbol of the chemical element for lead, the heaviest of metals.  For Blue Öyster Cult were a very streamlined and polished heavy metal band, one of the first.    They were the first band to use an umlaut (ö) over one of the letters in their name (Motörhead, Queensrÿche, Mötley Crüe would follow) – and as any German speaker or Arsenal fan would know, an umlaut changes an Oh into an Er.  Özil – the German international World Cup winner who currently plays for the Arsenal and won the FA Cup yesterday v Aston Villa – is pronounced Erzil.   But at school we never went around saying Blue Erster Cult.  Sounds stupid right?   Manager Sandy Pearlman came up with the name, thought it conjured up Wagner.   What it all meant was that we thought we were the grooviest kids in the school, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.   We were pretentious self-congratulatory twerps.   But the band was undoubtedly great, and many many years later, the records still hold up, brimming with crisp riff-laden shiny metallic rock craftsmanship.  Really metal is not my thing – nor is rock – I never took a shine to Deep Purple (except for the incredible Fireball) or Black Sabbath, and the bluesey side of guitar rock never grabbed me much either (Stones, Zepp, Free etc).  I was a pop tart awaiting my conversion to soul and dub reggae.  And hip hop.  But these days I can listen to anything and find joy in it – classical, country, metal, folk, electro-pop, balkan gypsy, trad jazz, disco, soukous, mbaquanga, samba, salsa, son.  Bring me your music !

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This song is tragically a true story.   Then Came The Last Days Of May was written by lead guitarist Donald Roeser – known as Buck Dharma – it tells the tale of a group of lads going west to score a huge dope deal, : “each one had the money in his pocket to go out and buy himself a brand new car”  crossing the border to Mexico in a rented Ford and being murdered for their money.   The tragedy is played out in the guitar solos which open and close the song, and comment on the story throughout.   The playing is impeccable, the song immense.   Of course, being the only ballad on that great first LP, it’s the one I hold dearest to my heart.  You should know me by now !    It still plays a part in the band’s live shows today.   We worshipped at the altar of this song in the mid-seventies.  Like a biblical tale of temptation in the desert and the one who turned down the chance to go with them, and survived to write a song about it.    The rest of the band – the classic 70s line-up – were Eric Bloom on lead vocals, brothers Albert and Joe Bouchard on drums and bass, and Allen Lanier (later Patti Smith’s boyfriend) on rhythm guitar.

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They hailed from Long Island and had a long gestation – from The Soft White Underbelly in the late 60s through The Stalk Forrest Group who issued one sought-after single What Is Quicksand? (which of course I have) before settling at Pearlman’s insistence on Blue Öyster Cult.   The name stuck and so did the music.

Their 2nd LP is called Tyranny and Mutation and is more of the same tight dark melodic tremendosity:

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Their 3rd LP is probably my favourite – Secret Treaties – a proto-metal manifesto with strange lyrics and twisted muscular riffs :

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Their 4th LP was a mighty live album called On Your Feet Or On Your Knees which is a stunning testimony to their tightness and power:

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then came the mighty Agents Of Fortune in 1976 with the huge sound and big hit “Don’t Fear The Reaper“.   One of Jenny’s favourite songs.   Rifftastic!

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I’ve never seen them live, but one day perhaps I will be granted that treat.  There was a period when they were my absolute favourite band in the universe.  I still like them.  But I didn’t follow their followers into metal – although I have soft spots for Metallica and Slipknot – most of those bands don’t have the softer melodic side that the Cult have.   They wrote great songs.  I followed them through albums 5 and 6 :  Spectres and Mirrors and then they faded as I grew into Stax and Channel One, DefJam and Blue Note.

This time of year is my favourite.  We’ve already moved into Gemini, my sign, but we’re not quite in June.   They’re OK the last days of May.   Hats off to Blue Öyster Cult.

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guitarmy

My Pop Life #32 : Everything I Own – Johnny Nash

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Everything I Own   –   Johnny Nash

…you sheltered me from harm…kept me warm, kept me warm…

October 1974 in East Sussex.   I’m in the final year at Lewes Priory, doing A-levels in English, Geography and Economics, we’d successfully abolished school uniform in the Upper School (5th and 6th forms), I was playing in a school band called Rough Justice with kids from my year – Conrad Ryle, Andrew ‘Tat’ Taylor, and Andy Shand – and Tigger on drums, (who I only saw at band practice and knew nothing about.)   I was going out with Conrad’s sister Miriam and spending most of my time in their house Waterlilies just below Kingston Ridge where the band practiced.  Home though, was 25 miles away in Hailsham where my mum was struggling to raise 3 teenage boys and a young daughter of two (my sister Rebecca) on her own.  The threat of a nervous breakdown always hovered over her, and us, the cupboard of tablets above my chair in the kitchen, always at arm’s length;   I knew what they all were, but never ever took one even for curiosity.   I was taking my own drugs, notably cider, LSD and red Leb or Afghani black, and I wasn’t going to dabble in hers.   There would be a crisis from time to time and Mum would disappear for two weeks into Amberstone Hospital and we would run the house ourselves – at 17 I didn’t need to be farmed out to the Ryles, or the Korners, or the Smurthwaites, or the Lesters – all schoolmate’s homes where I’d found shelter over the previous 6 years.   Maybe that’s why this song pinged so hard that autumn.   Maybe it was my love song for Miriam and her family, the Ryles, who had been hugely generous to me and given me a safe haven and even come to visit Mum on one occasion since dad Tony Ryle was a psychiatrist working at Sussex University.   Or maybe, just maybe Everything I Own was just the perfect pop song.

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It’s certainly that.  It’s a lover’s rock cover of a song by David Gates of US band Bread that doesn’t bother with the 2nd verse and repeats the delicious middle eight twice (“If there’s one thing you know…”) over a light reggae backing and a simple vocal harmony.   But there is something eternal about it, perhaps bottled in my teenage memory as a moment of safety and warmth among the strange inchoate horrors of growing up, perhaps in fact I was a happy teenager, not carrying a cross at all until later when I looked back at those supposedly dysfunctional years.   I really can’t remember, but I know Mum wanted me home more than I was, and that there was a sense of Paul and Andrew, my brothers, having “their turn” at dealing with the doctors and the tablets.

On the radio :  David Essex, Barry White, Mud, ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ and ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’.  On my stereo in the bedroom :  Gentle Giant, Van der Graaf Generator, Spirit, Roxy Music, David Bowie and The Beatles.  But Jamaican music was always in the charts in my pop life, from My Boy Lollipop and Israelites through to Double Barrel and Young, Gifted and Black.   But we didn’t really know them to be reggae to be honest.   They were pop music.

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Capstan Full-Strength, 10 Number 6, Sunday paper round, Reading Festival, hitch-hiking to Brighton and Virgin Records, playing football Saturday mornings for the school, half an ounce of Golden Virginia and a packet of green papers for Mum.   The seventies.   Dad a train journey away in Eastbourne, just married again.   Mum was already divorced again.

These were the days of “Ralph, Paul…………..and Andrew”  the legendary firm of local solicitors where the junior partner had his own bedroom and would always play in goal in the large field outside the back door, where Paul and Ralph would fire the ball at him from long distance and point-blank range.   The days when a package would be delivered by Postman Pat, an advert answered from the back pages of Melody Maker, a pair of loons with a note signed “Peace…Jud“.   The days when all holes in jeans were to be welcomed as the basis for a new patch, sewn on by Mum of course, where shirts were tear-dropped and shoes were stacked, but where tops were tie-dyed or embroidered,  and patchouli oil and hemp became normal smells, although Miriam wore Diorella and I was probably toying with Old Spice.

We liked this song in 532 Salternes Drive (33 Newton Park) on the Sin City estate in Hailsham because – like Days by the Kinks (see My Pop Life #147) or Cottonfields by the Beach Boys or You Are Everything by Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross, we could sing in harmony together.   The simple pleasures.