My Pop Life #180 : Boya Ye – M’bilia Bel

Boya Ye   –   M’bilia Bel

liputa nyonso epasuki eeh

I bought this beauty as a 12″ single in 1986 at Stern’s African Music Shop in Whitfield St W1, just north of Fitzroy Square, and just below Samuel French’s Theatre Bookshop on the corner of Warren St.  Opposite Stern’s was the Diwan-E-Khas restaurant which served the finest North Indian food in London back in the 80s, alongside their sister restaurant the Diwan-E-Am in Drummond Street, behind Euston about half a mile away.  (see My Pop Life #136 )
The counter at Sterns Records in the mid-80s
You can just about see a record by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on that picture in the corner (top left).  They also stocked zouk and calypso from the Caribbean and other bits and pieces.  The shop had opened in 1983 with a little ceremony on the pavement involving drums and blessings.  The vibe in the shop was outstanding, and so was the selection of music.  The first time -or apparently the 2nd (Fela Kuti !) –  I went in there was to find the Franco & TPOK Jazz LP ’20eme Anniversaire’ which I’d heard whilst buying weed in Islington one night and had my little musical ears blown off  (See My Pop Life #38 )  Since that auspicious purchase I had returned for further Congolese magic : Pablo Lubadika Porthos, Tout Choc, Zaiko Langa Langa, more Franco, always more Franco, Papa Wemba, a wonderful Gabonese singer called Regine Feline and this wonderful single from M’bilia Bel fronting Franco’s rival camp of Tabu Ley.  The now-familiar cascade of overlapping guitar cadences and rumba polyrhythms led by a simply joyous lead vocalist who had been discovered singing with Sam Mangwana by bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau, who along with Franco was one of the giants of Congolese music.
Tabu Ley Rochereau
He’d written a song for her Eswi Yo Wapi, recorded it with his mighty band Orchestre Afrisa International, it became a smash hit, they’d got married and her next dozen singles dominated the musical and dance landscape not just of the Congo, but the whole of Africa for the next 10+ years, and loosened Franco’s grip on the musical landscape.  She was hugely popular.
This album – released on the Sterns label – documents these years superbly : they are all classic african pop/dance tunes that the rest of Africa calls “DRC Music” – dance music from the Democratic Republic of Congo.   Which is almost funny because Congo hasn’t been democratic since Patrice Lumumba the first president after independence was arrested, tortured and killed by a combination of familiar forces (MI6, CIA, Belgian troops) in 1961.    Without going into detail, the history of Congo since then has been one of corruption and arms-length control by foreign companies who have stripped the nation of its huge mineral wealth – particularly the southern state of Katanga which produces cobalt, tin, copper, uranium and diamonds, and where Lumumba was executed after 84 days in office.   Torn apart by war and conflict, other states have become involved especially in the eastern provinces alongside Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, with different forces representing somewhat shadowy interests fighting the Congolese Army and each other, including smaller private groups such as The Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda all crossing the border with impunity, terrorising the locals and raping the women as a weapon and tactic of war.
The prize is coltan, from which is extracted tantalum, used in most electronic components and devices including mobile phones.  During the war with Rwanda in the 1990s, Rwanda became a leading exporter of coltan, stolen from mines in Eastern Congo.  Competing militias funded their operations with this prized mineral, and who knows who took what percentage to turn a blind eye to the rape both of the land and the people.
Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer of Ruined in 2010
In 2009 Jenny was offered the lead in a play set in this part of the world : Lynn Nottage‘s Ruined, at the Almeida Theatre.  The play is set in a brothel in the war-zone near Goma, in the Eastern Congo.  This establishment is run by Mama Nadi, a fierce madam who takes in “ruined” local women to service the various militias who come through the territory. It is an extraordinary play which won the Pulitzer Prize for Lynn just before rehearsal started.
Indhu Rubasingham in rehearsal for Ruined at The Almeida
The director was Indhu Rubasingham who had already directed Jenny in Lynn’s earlier work Fabulation at The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in 2005/6.  So the team were reunited and set to work on this dynamic story, by turns dramatic, raw, amusing, tragic and inspiring.  It bears witness to some of the worst crimes in modern history and a series of stories buried, where women’s bodies mirror the nation they stand in, ravaged, fought over, ruined.   Mama Nadi was an extraordinary part for Jenny and she ate it up with great relish, much pain, and real commitment.  At some point before they started I remembered M’bilia Bel the great Kinshasa diva and dug out the 12″ single to play for Jenny.
By now we we on The Internet and there was footage of the singer we could watch – brilliant footage of her dressed to kill, dancing to seduce and singing to raise a revolution.   Jenny didn’t base her performance on the singer by any means but it was a window into a Congolese world of women and a certain tough independent proud defiance came through very strongly.    I made a CD of Congolese music for Indhu too – Franco & Tabu Ley of course, Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa Wemba and Werrason bringing us up to date, a wonderful sweep of sounds from Kinshasa.
The night before first preview in Islington the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull which had been simmering since late 2009 suddenly erupted with a vengeance and left a gigantic ash cloud sitting over the Atlantic Ocean & Europe, grounding thousands of planes and preventing Lynn’s husband Tony from flying in for the show.  The cloud hung for about a week and prevented Lynn from going home to New York a few days later.  It was all rather dramatic.
Jenny didn’t tell me anything about the play because she wanted me to experience it live on the night when I saw it for the first time.  This is usually the case when I see her productions.  I end up seeing them multiple times – between 5 & 10 normally, so the effect only works once.   It’s worth it though.  The 15th April 2010 was the first preview and when I entered the auditorium was thrilled to find it converted into an equatorial rainforest with a wooden-slatted speakeasy on a revolve nestled at it’s heart, presided over by an immensely powerful performance by Jenny as Mama Nadi, nurturing her girls, workers, prostitutes who’d been abused and raped and could no longer find a man to accept them;  serving soldiers who would sweep in and dominate the space, but need drink and music and dance in this unstable & constantly shifting war-zone.
Mama Nadi
An outstanding piece of writing, inspired somewhat by Mother Courage, but shining light on a hidden part of the world which we use- at arm’s length – without thought.  Brilliant and moving performances from Michelle Asante, Pippa Bennett-Warner and Kehinde Fadipe as the ruined girls living a nightmare as survivors gave voice to Lynn Nottage’s rarely-heard-from female characters, while Steve Toussaint, Lucien Msamati, David Ajala and Silas Carson portrayed the soldiers, the travelling merchant and the gem-smuggler.  The music  was played by Joseph Roberts and Akintaye Akinbode and written by Dominic Kanza and it provided a stripped-down yet infectious rumba soundtrack for the girls to dance to, either with a soldier who has been forced to leave his gun at the door, or with each other.
The title was explained early on : when a girl is raped with a bayonet, she is no longer capable of giving birth, and thus is “ruined”.
By the end of the show and Jenny’s last moments with Lucien I was in bits and had to leave the theatre and weep quietly on my own for fifteen minutes before re-entering the bar and the space and find familiar friends to congratulate and hug.  I was actually devastated.
It was a huge, magnificent performance and it changed both of our lives.  Some months later, Jenny won the Critic’s Circle Award as best actress, voted on by the nations theatre critics  – a massive acknowledgement of her achievement.  David Suchet won best actor and they were pictured together – we’d all worked together on NCS Manhunt in 2001.   A year later Jenny was cast to play Mama Nadi again, this time at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in a production directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.  We later learned that Lynn had suggested Jenny for the lead.    Again it was a stunning production.
Now we live in Brooklyn where I eventually met Lynn’s husband Tony Gerber – a director – at dinner one night and we have become fast friends here.   Tony has been back to the Congo recently to make another documentary about the militias and although things have calmed down considerably it is still an unstable area.    And Lynn went back too.  After researching the play there she returned to see a five-hour production of Ruined in Kinshasa in 2011 which tested her artistic generosity since they had added great chunks of dialogue along with the inevitable 10-minute musical interludes.
I’ve still never been there, and it is a huge longing of mine, mainly for the music, but also for the great River Congo.   Franco died long ago, Tabu Ley in 2013 but M’bilia Bel is still going, although is based, like many successful African musicians, in Paris.  The younger generation are now sampling the golden age of soukous for hip hop tracks, rapping in the local language Lingala.  Despite a few attempts online I still cannot understand it so I can’t tell you what Boya Ye is about I’m afraid.
A few short weeks after Ruined closed (in triumph!) in London, Jenny and I flew down to South Africa for the first World Cup to take place on that continent.   One of my early memories of Cape Town was sitting in a taxi listening to some music pumping out of the speakers and asking the driver who was playing.  “DRC Music” he’d said.  On my birthday in Greenpoint Stadium England were once again a huge disappointment of course drawing 0-0 with Algeria.  We went on to Fatboy Slim’s party in town and celebrated just being there with Billy The Bee and others, but the World Cup isn’t about England.   It was moving and instructive to see how as the African teams got knocked out one by one – the host nation first ! until only Ghana were left, the fans coalesced around the Ghanaians, the whole continent willing them on to the infamous quarter final game in Soweto.   A sense of unity, unforced, non-tribal, celebratory.   The reason why we’d come.

My Pop Life #139 : The Way We Were /Try To Remember – Gladys Knight

The Way We Were /Try To Remember   –   Gladys Knight

What a strange blog this is.  Or perhaps what a strange day I’m having today.  For each day carries its own colours, moods, feelings and impressions.  I’m grateful for this, for often a day can be quietly unbearable, and I long for the pall of night to cloak me so that I can start again, refreshed, renewed, by sleep…

the innocent sleep,
  Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
  The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
  Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
 Chief nourisher in life’s feast—

And thence to think on the next entry in this wandering musical through my half-forgotten life.  Many is the day when I start to write a piece and realise that I am not one, but two or three years out with my memory.  Or, perhaps worse, I can remember a snapshot, a few colours and no more.  No details, no essence.  I know I saw Prince at Wembley Arena in the late 80s.  I had to email a half-dozen likely contenders and ask them if they were with me “that night” and on the 6th attempt I got a YES, from Lewis MacLeod, who even remembered the hat I was wearing.   So – hey – drop me a line if you accompanied me to any of these gigs !! :

The Who – Rainbow

Parliament/Funkadelic   –   Hammersmith Odeon

Black Uhuru   –   Rainbow

Aswad   –   anywhere (saw them loads)

The Specials   –   Hammersmith Palais

Madness   –   also Hammersmith Palais I think

The B52s  –  probably supporting :

Talking Heads – at Hammersmith Palais

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles  –  Hammersmith Odeon

Elton John  –  Wembley Arena

This is just a small selection of the puzzle, strewn across the floor of my mind, incomplete, disappearing.  One of the main reasons I’m writing the blog is so that I can get some of it down before it all disappears.  Not because I think it’s important, but because it actually happened, and other people are involved.  Sadly I can’t remember who they are half the time.  Does it matter ?  Maybe not.  Best not to spend too much time thinking about the past, or planning the future.  I know.  But sometimes the present is just too dull to be indulged, and at these points I sit down and write, dig it all up, try and recall a moment, a feeling, a turning point, a reveal.  Just to pin some of it down.

It’s either missing a part, or it’s endless.  This is number 138 and I can’t see me finishing anytime before 500, using the template I’ve now established.  That’s kind of ridiculous.  So now, like Rakim (see My Pop Life #86)

When I’m writing I’m trapped inbetween the lines, I escape when I finish the rhyme

But.  One of the delights of the process is the email traffic between me and people I haven’t spoken to for ages about a specific time.  Or people I do speak to regularly trying to help with memory holes.  This part is fun.  I don’t think I suddenly remember stuff though.  It’s either there or it isn’t.  My friend Simon K has a brilliant memory and has tapped it regularly for his novels and short stories.  He has the ability to open a wormhole in his mind and follow the traces back back way back to a day, an afternoon, a movement of someone’s arm.  It is uncanny and very affecting.  He claims to have trained himself to do this just using concentration.  This may well be true, but I don’t have that kind of mind.  I’m a butterfly-type person, born under the twins, restless, flighty, settling for brief periods before taking off again.  I’ve always been like that.  So many of the memories are these brief glimpses, flickering shadows, inchoate, yearning.  It’s the best I can do.

Memories may be beautiful and yet

what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget

Thinking about these things this song felt perfect.  I think I discovered it with Lewis MacLeod in those late 1970s when we went on a self-imposed pilgrimage of discovery into the music called soul.  We found a book called, yes, The Soul Book, which outlined the various centres of excellence – Detroit and Motown, Philadelphia and the Philly label, Memphis and Stax, Hi Records and others, the Atlantic label in New York which reached out to embrace the whole community, New Orleans, Washington D.C., and many others.  This book no longer appears to exist, even on Google, but I have it in a box in the attic in another country.  Oh yes.

And at the back of the book the contributors – there were about ten of them – had listed their ten favourite soul records.  This was terrifically useful for two 20-year old chaps as a kind of road map.  Some songs – these would be solid-gold certainties – appeared on two lists.  Kind of a guarantee of excellence we thought.  You could tell the ones who wanted to list ten obscure songs that no one else had chosen or perhaps even heard, and we worked our way through these lists by searching the shops of Soho and Camden Town.  Lee Dorsey, Millie Jackson, Lorraine Ellison, Garnet Mimms, The Delfonics, Betty Wright, and yes Gladys Knight and others all endorsed in print.  This is how you did things pre-internet by the way.  Research.  Expeditions. Treasure.

Gladys Knight has already appeared in this blog (My Pop Life #29) as a Motown artist in the 1960s, then she moved to Buddah Records for Midnight Train To Georgia and You’re The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me…and I’m wondering if this song was on that famous lost memory mixtape too.  It never fails to make me cry when I hear this line –

Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time re-written every line ?

The song was the theme from a massive hit movie The Way We Were, starring Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in 1974, perhaps the biggest song of 1974, sung by Streisand herself.

Written by Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (words) it is quite simply one of those extraordinary pieces of work that touches me very deeply, and though Barbra Streisand sings it beautifully, magnificently, I’m afraid Gladys absolutely lifts it into eternity.   As Gladys Knight explains below in the 2009 live version, (a concert Jenny and I were lucky enough to attend) – she never wanted to record it in the studio, but she would sing it every night with “Try To Remember”as a little spoken entrée.   Her management recorded it live one night then presented it to her afterwards, and now we all have it.  It’s one of the most treasured records in my collection.

and if we had the chance to do it all again, tell me would we ?  Could we ?

Live in Chile in 1979 this is outstanding and very close to the ‘record’:

the ‘record’ from 1974 :

the live version from 2009 :

My Pop Life #138 : Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker) – Parliament

My Pop Life #137 :  Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)  –   Parliament

we gotta turn this mother out….

…Owww…we want the funk, gotta have that funk…

My brother Andrew was born in Mum and Dad’s upstairs bedroom on May 6th 1964.  Mum wondered afterwards if she’d been given too much gas, but Andrew was a perfectly healthy bonny boy.   One year later Mum was in Hellingly suffering a severe mental breakdown.  She was there for nine months all told.  (Discussed in My Pop Life #55).  Within a year after coming out of hospital she and dad had divorced on the advice of her doctor.   It was a turbulent start to my brother’s life.  Mum’s second marriage in 1969 and 2nd divorce in 1972 happened before he was 10 years old.  Middle brother Paul and I were only 2 years apart, and we shared a bedroom, it was always RALPH, PAUL………..(and Andrew).  In that order.  Always.  We joked about it.  We still do.  I’m sure growing up with two parental divorces, numerous maternal hospitalisations for mental illness and two older brothers who didn’t include you much was traumatic and scarring.   But Andrew has turned out all right, when he lifts his head from the bellybutton of self-pity which we all get tempted by in our family, Rebecca excepted.  Rebecca is the youngest, our sister.  Resilient as fuck.  But we all are in our way.  None of us went to prison, got addicted to drugs, vote Conservative.  Dysfunctional childhood sure, but who didn’t ?

the great George Clinton 

Andrew suffered my 1970s taste as he grew, before he could afford to buy music, he had to listen to ours, being forced to consume the likes of Gentle Giant, Osibisa, Jimi Hendrix, The Sweet and The Moody Blues alongside Mum’s pop genius – Motown, Joe South, Johnny Nash and Hurricane Smith and Paul’s adoption of Bowie & Roxy while getting more into disco as the decade advanced and he moved out to Eastbourne:  Barry White.  Chic.  Candi Staton.  Andrew had a lot to choose from, plus we all watched TOTP together for years, and religiously tuned into the Top 40 Countdown on a Sunday afternoon, almost always presented by Alan Freeman.  I think initially he drifted towards prog rock.

Andrew went to school in Hailsham but was so many years below Paul that seeing his older brother crossing the playground in 4-inch stack heels and red flares with his friend Vince was probably like spotting a badger at dusk.  I was 25 miles away in Lewes.  I’ve become closer to Andrew as we’ve got older, as the age difference narrows as it must, now we’re both in our 50s it seems foolish for him to still look up to me, but he does.  We’re just not on equal footing.  So he asks questions, and I answer them in an irritable voice.

When Andrew was young, in Selmeston village in the 1960s, we enjoyed watching him learn how to talk.  Sugar was “oog“.  Yellow Submarine was “Mam Mamfreen“.  And Andrew, his own name, was “Godrib“.    That was so biblical and semi-satanic that it stuck, we have called him it for years, and then Andrew himself adopted the moniker so that now he often signs off emails and letters as Godrib.   Thus early scars become tattoos.  Perfectly normal.

At some possibly pre-ordained point in the 1980s when Andrew was studying either in Anglesey where he read Ecology or perhaps in Bristol where he and Debbie settled post-education he got seriously involved with The Funk.  This moment combined with Andrew picking up a bass guitar and deciding that it was his instrument.  And the deadly combination of The Funk and The Bass Guitar could only mean One Thing.

Bootsy Collins.

Bootsy Collins, a native of Cincinatti, Ohio, has been playing music since the 1950s.  His funk band The Pacemakers, which included his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins, Phillipé Wynne and Frankie Waddy, joined James Brown in 1969 after Brown had sacked his entire band.  In 1970 they played on Sex Machine, Superbad, Soul Power and über-sampled The Grunt (as The J.B.s) before they too parted ways with the exacting Mr Brown, and thereupon moved to Detroit in 1972 to join forces with the genius of George Clinton and Parliament, who’d released one record at that point, called Osmium.  It was a match made in heaven, and together Collins and Clinton with their outstanding band of funkateers re-invented funk music using science fiction, LSD and fake fur.

Parliament/Funkadelic early 70s looking normal

Parliament/Funkadelic mid-70s looking trippy

There followed a string of outlandish and brilliant funk records where Clinton placed the black man (and woman) in situations where they would not normally be found, notably science fiction.  When Parliament and their sister band the rockier Funkadelic toured, their stage show was a massive supersized spaceship, The Mothership, and the psychedelic clothes, make-up and drug intake was almost unique in black musical culture. Perhaps Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone got there first, and perhaps Rahsaan Roland Kirk got there before them…but this band were like no other before them to be honest.  A little bit of ELO, a touch of The Tubes, some Hendrix, but no one had done theatricality and funk music quite like this before or since.  Genesis had their moments when Gabriel was the lead singer, and The Tubes were pretty astounding too.  Most bands just stand there and play though don’t they ?  Parliament looked like they were having a whole load of fun onstage and the crowds loved them for it.

George Clinton steps out of the Mothership

I was lucky enough to see this show at Hammersmith Odeon in December 1978 in my 3rd year at LSE, when a bunch of us got heavily stoned jumped on the Piccadilly Line and became One Nation Under A Groove.  It was an amazing show.   But after that night I really didn’t keep up with the groove I have to admit.  Or the funk.  I was very much post punk/two tone around then, with an interest in reggae and pop, and George Clinton & Bootsy Collins faded from my radar.  In this sense I have to hold my hands up – both my younger brothers are groovier than I.   Paul was by now deep into disco, and Andrew was following Bootsy and George.

It was around this point that Collins created Bootsy’s Rubber Band, releasing albums alongside the continued Parliament/Funkadelic LPs, some claim them to be the funkiest records ever released.  Andrew would be among these disciples.  Andrew has always been attracted to ‘difficult’ music – difficult to play at least – including Bill Bruford, King Crimson, Herbie Hancock, Delius, Messiaen and yes, Van der Graaf, and I’m guessing that he tried to play some of these, including Bootsy Collins on his bass guitar.  Funk might be simple, but making it sound funky sure ain’t.

Bootsy’s star-spangled bass guitar

Andrew next travelled to the Colombian and Peruvian rainforests for ecology work then split with Debbie, moved to London and met Katie at Middlesex College.  They had a beautiful baby boy called Alexander together in Enfield around the turn of the century and we have a photo of Andrew throwing his two-week-old son into the air.  They moved to Bournemouth together to make house, and ever since his birth my nephew has been affectionately known as Bootsy.  Even at primary school he was called Bootsy.  We call him Bootsy too, but when secondary school started a few years ago there was a general feeling that Alex would be the preferred name.  Alex is a fantastic bright and funny cricket mad young man who has carried on the family tradition of rapping, loves his video games and sees Andrew his dad on weekends and holidays since Katie and Andrew separated.  Having a teenage son has kept Andrew in Bournemouth, an honourable decision for a father.  Paul and I have no children, and Rebecca has three.  Whenever Andrew whinges about wasting his life, wishing he’d done this or that, wondering what to do for a career, I remind him that he has created and nurtured this child.  Alex.  Bootsy.

Bootsy’s Rubber Band 2nd LP 

In actual fact Andrew has links with many of Dorset’s wildlife projects, helps on the heathlands, is a trained bat-spotter, and runs the dragonfly society and website of Dorset from his flat.  It’s a terribly competitive world to get paid work in, but it gives him real pleasure, and again having grown up in a tiny Sussex village, we both share an affinity for the changing seasons and the local flora and fauna.  Bird-watching we both enjoy, and while my passion is butterflies, Andrew has adopted the dragonfly as his creature of excellence, and become an expert.

Bootsy Collins

Our musical tastes overlap slightly – we both adore Wagner, Debussy and Mahler, we are both capable of buying tickets to see Van Der Graaf Generator (see My Pop Life #85 ) when they occasionally play live and swooning over a track from Pawn Hearts being included in the set list, and we’re both inordinately fond of The Stylistics (see My Pop Life #70).  We both love Public Enemy and other early hip hop, and this love has passed to Alex who has grown up with rap as a natural form of communication.  And we both love this track, from Parliament’s 4th album Mothership Connection (1975) and the big hit that allowed them to play stadiums.  I’ve recently bought a load of Parliament albums (more of a soul vibe),  I prefer them to the harder rockier sound of Funkadelic, and today I downloaded the first three Bootsy’s Rubber Band albums in honour of my nephew Alex and his Dad.   They sound great.   Hopefully as I gently approach 60 years of age I can get a little funkier, a little more funktastic, perhaps a lot more funkadelic with a little help from Dr Funkenstein, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Andrew, my funk soul brother.

short hit single version :

P-Funk live 1976 at their interplanetary best :

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.

My Pop Life #91 : The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine – Laurel & Hardy

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The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine   –   Laurel & Hardy

Give the gentlemen the best in the house !  

Yes Sir !  

I’ll be back in a minute…

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One of the weird things about getting old – or getting older I should say, and listen, whoever you are you ARE getting older – is realising with some chagrin that people who are younger than you don’t necessarily understand your references.    There are some exceptions to this – there are cultural moments that seem eternal, whatever your age, whatever TV shows you watched as a child, whatever music you loved as a teenager – and I would humbly suggest that perhaps Laurel & Hardy are one – or two -of these treasures.  Perhaps I’m wrong.   I watched them throughout my life – they were always on the TV in the 1960s, and the 1970s, particularly at Christmas I seem to remember, in the morning.  They are the funniest double-act I’ve ever seen, I can literally weep until it hurts watching their foolishness.

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Is it possible that people don’t know about these guys?  I’ll have to surrender that point.  Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel were already established performers and had already worked together (although not as a team) when they were both signed up by Hal Roach’s Studio in Hollywood in 1926.  Their first film was called Putting Pants on Philip (1927) and they worked together from that date until the late 1940s, starting out as silent comedians and finishing their considerable careers together in a music hall tour of the UK and Ireland, where they were adored and celebrated wherever they went.

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The early films were all 3-reel shorts – up to 25 minutes usually, including the classics Pardon Us, The Music Box and Big Business, to name but three and they turned to features in 1933, including Sons Of The Desert and Way Out West, although carried on making shorts too.  They were astoundingly consistent – overweight, pompous vain Ollie is the perfect foil for scaredy-cat dimwit physical comedian Stan.  In fact Stan Laurel, who was English, produced almost all of their films, although he largely went uncredited.  My favourite moments though are almost all Oliver Hardy, his comic timing is impeccable and his incredulous looks directly into the lens are quite simply awesome.

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Irritation has never been so utterly hilarious.  But in truth they are a double act and Ollie’s looks and internal fury would not be funny without Stan clowning cleverly around in befuddlement, breaking things, spilling things, dropping things, losing things, and crying.

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James Finlayson

In 1937 they made the feature Way Out West with regular foil, actor James Finlayson and co-star Rosina Lawrence as the heroine in distress.

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At one point in the saloon bar of the western town they sing The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine : after a young cowboy sings the opening verse, Ollie takes verse two, then they harmonise the chorus together before the comic finale.  Earlier in the film they dance outside the saloon bar to another song – “At The Ball, That’s All” by The Avalon Brothers, another sweet and funny moment, also linked, but not embedded, below.

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The song Trail Of The Lonesome Pine was written in 1913 by Ballard McDonald & Harry Carroll,  Tin Pan Alley turned Broadway songwriters and it was the title song in a Broadway play of the same name, itself based on a novel.  In 1936 Henry Hathaway directed the film version of Trail Of The Lonesome Pine starring Fred MacMurray, Silvia Sydney and Henry Fonda and the title song was sung over the opening credits.  A 78 record by The Hillbillies may have inspired Stan and Ollie to cover the song with The Avalon Brothers as it has a similar harmonic arrangement.

                                                                                    Harry Carroll

Almost all of Laurel and Hardy’s short films   have a comic piece of music which introduces them – their signature tune called KuKu or The Cuckoo Song was composed by Marvin Hatley and originally features two clarinets, one pompous and pleased with itself, the other playing two simple cuckoo notes – Oliver Hardy heard it at the studio and asked if they could use it for their shorts.  It was later orchestrated and I include a link to the original double clarinet version below.

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This song – Lonesome Pine – though short, is rather wonderful, even without the visuals it works as a record – indeed it was released as a single in 1975 and got to number two in the charts in the UK, on the back of an LP release of their music “The Golden Age Of Hollywood Comedy“.   John Peel played the single three times in one week and it climbed almost to the top of the charts that Christmas, only being held off the Number One slot by another novelty record but of a completely different kind : Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

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One of the joys of Top Of The Pops (our weekly Thursday night fix of pop music on TV) was seeing this clip from Way Out West followed by the early pop promo efforts of Freddie Mercury and his pals.  If you listen to the song without watching the film you can hear James Finlayson (the Scottish regular in their movies) set them up with a drink before Chill Wills from the Avalon Brothers sings the first verse.  Ollie takes over then Stan and Ollie sing in harmony.  Oliver Hardy actually was a trained singer and his is the higher voice.  When Stan starts “singing” in a foolish bass voice – he’s actually miming over Chill Wills who provided the bass part – you can almost hear Ollie summon the barman to give him a hammer, and you can definitely hear him “testing” it on the bar before giving Stan a bop on the head.   The song finishes with Stan miming the soprano part, provided by co-star Rosina Lawrence, and falling over into the spittoon.  Perfect.

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I have the 45rpm 7-inch single somewhere among my treasures, with “Honolulu Baby” on the B-side.  John Peel played that too.

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Trail Of The Lonesome Pine from Way Out West, not embedded by request just click on the link :

and here are The Hillbillies from a 1930 78rpm Regal Zonophone record :

and here is a piano roll from the early 1920s – probably Mae Brown :

Dance Of The Cuckoos :

you’ve got this far, why not click below on the classic dance routine by Stan and Ollie to the Avalon Brothers with Chill Wills singing “At The Ball, That’s All” from 1937 :

My Pop Life #89 : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy – Paul Simon

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Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy  –   Paul Simon

…some folks lives roll easy, some folks lives…never roll at all…

…most folks never catch their stars…

It’s a slight, unshowy track on Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon’s masterpiece.  It’s a magnificent album chock-full of hits and flashy songs, the title track alone is the work of a genius, but then there’s My Little Town, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Have A Good Time – for me this is the perfect LP.  Look at it this way – you’ve written the song.  You have wonderful chords, searching lyrics, you’ve done well, you’ve chosen only the creme de la creme of your work.  And then :  you arrange them.

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 I’m a sucker for a great arrangement, something with a bit of thought, a bit of TLC.   Paul Simon shares this arranging fetish with Bob Marley – rarely is a song a straight guitar strum 4×4 and drum beat with a few bvs.  No – there is a careful consideration of how to tell the story of the song musically – and this means instruments dropping out, only appearing for the turnarounds, treating pop music a little more like a classical composition.  Brian Wilson went there with Pet Sounds, Kate Bush lives there.   There is something about jazz musicians playing pop arrangements that delivers delicious music (he generalised : eg Motown) – the line-up of A-list session players on Still Crazy After All These Years is long and distinguished and includes the celebrated Steve Gadd on drums and Mike Brecker on saxophone.

This is probably the most compassionate song I know.  The concept of the piece – that some folks’ lives roll easy, while others don’t, is relatively simple, and yet not commonplace in pop at all.  There are songs which celebrate, defiantly, being working-class – Dead-End Street by The Kinks, most of The Streets output, The Clash – and there are songs celebrating or lamenting the easy life – large chunks of hip hop, Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks, disturbingly large amounts of Bryan Ferry – but there are very few songs it seems to me which put these two universes together in the same song.

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The narrator – Mr Paul Simon – contemplates the fact that “most folks never catch their stars”  – this alone is an astounding line in a pop song and the truth of it stabs you unexpectedly with its clear-eyed compassion.  Then we’re in the middle eight and the narrator suddenly becomes the self-confessed supplicant speaking directly to his “Lord” – at his place of business, despite having “no business here”.  He speaks directly to his God :

“You said if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted?”

The music around this repeated middle eight is tremendously affecting. first time around a simple string section supports and leads us away from this humble prayer,  then it repeats :

here I am Lord, knocking at your place of business, and I know, I got no business here

but you said, if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted…”

and this time the horns punch us back to the first verse “Some folks’ lives roll easy, some folks never roll at all, they just fall, they just fall…” but this time with a soaring three-part harmony which tears your heart open.   If you have one, naturally.

There is no chorus in this song which is unusual, but what is more unusual is the narrative that it offers.  We think we know this story, but when we hear the song, we hear it all over again on another level.  It’s pretty damn special.

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I didn’t buy solo Paul Simon until the 90s, but this song quickly became one of my wife’s favourites.   I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, I had singles and greatest hits as a very young teen.  They were the sound of my youth.   I thought, and still think, they were totally amazing.   But I never did bother to follow up and get into Paul Simon until I was deep into my thirties.  This LP, his 4th, came out in 1975 and is perfect, as described above.  Of course there is Graceland which broke the boycott but helped make Ladysmith Black Mambazo into international stars, Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon, ah look, there’s a kind of endless tapestry of brilliant songs and LPs to be honest, right up to the present day (2011’s So Beautiful or So What), consistency applied – he never appears to write a bad song, and his taste in musicians and arrangements is impeccable.

Featured imageJenny and I went to Liverpool for the year of culture in 2008 and had an absolutely brilliant long weekend – again a subject for another post (!) but we did see Paul Simon at the new Echo Arena on the River Mersey, with his incredible band which includes South African Bakithi Kumalo (pictured right) on bass (with Simon since Graceland in 1986), and Cameroonian Vincent Nguini on guitar.   He didn’t play this song, but did sing Sound Of Silence, The Boxer, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Gumboots, Boy In The Bubble, Duncan, Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard, Mrs Robinson, Still Crazy, Slip Slidin’ Away and You Can Call Me Al.  Among others.   An amazing night.

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So, cut to : at some point in 2010 I’m basically giving up every Saturday morning, sometimes the whole day to canvas on behalf of Caroline Lucas of The Green Party in the Brighton Pavilion constituency for the 2010 election.   A Party which I’d recently joined, partly due to renewed political optimism engendered by Barack Obama‘s first election victory (white Americans voted for a black man – there is hope).  The Green Party understands that some folks lives roll easy, some don’t.  Many former Labour supporters joined the Greens, myself included,  depressed by the right turn of Blairism, and the pusillanimous surrender of the Labour Left to the City – see the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) for the NHS if you doubt my words.  So:  I’m meeting Green volunteers who’ve taken the train down from all across the UK to Brighton to support the big push, and they’re getting into my 4×4 Jeep Cherokee (converted to LPG!!) and being taken out to places like Withdean and Hollingbury.   To leaflet every household.  And Radio 3 has a show being presented by Richard Curtis, with whom I’d worked the previous year on “The Boat That Rocked” his film about Radio Caroline (yes yes there will be posts about that obviously !) and really enjoyed his humourous positivity.  He’s actually not particularly English, probably because he grew up in diplomatic surroundings in dozens of different countries.  And maybe that gives him a slightly dewy-eyed view of England.  Anyway enough Freud, he was on Radio 3 this very day in 2010.   And he was playing his six most personal favourite songs.  And one of them was this one : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy by Paul Simon.   It made me love him even more.   The UK public are as hard on Richard as they are on Paul McCartney – big soppy rich so-and-so they appear to mutter under their breath – we prefer snarling mean people, like us.  Well sod you all, mean people.  Richard Curtis is one of the sweetest people I know, generous, funny, loves music and is genuinely supportive.  You may not like his films, or Blackadder, or Comic Relief, but if that is the case, have you actually sat down and asked yourself what is wrong with you ?

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Compassion is not to be sneered at.  It’s what makes us grow.  The best bit of ourselves.  Let’s nurture it.

My Pop Life#85 : The Undercover Man – Van Der Graaf Generator

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The Undercover Man   –   Van Der Graaf Generator

here…at the glass…all the usual problems…all the habitual farce..

you ask..in uncertain voice..what you should do..as if there were a choice..

..but to carry on..miming the song..

..and hope that it all works out right

Didn’t need to look up the lyrics for this song.   Burned into my brain.   The man who wrote them, Peter Hammill, he of the extraordinary angelic devil’s voice, was a constant companion of mine through the 1970s.  I bought H to He (Who Am The Only One) from Simon Korner in 1971 (?) Van Der Graaf’s second LP, quite possibly my first album that was all mine;  terribly weird and prog, heavy and jazzy, literate and dense.   I loved it.   I still do.  I first heard this track from their 5th album on the John Peel show late one night in my bedroom in Hailsham.  Van Der Graaf Generator were so underground and unloved at school (Lewes Priory) that I was astonished to hear their name and their music on the actual radio.  The song is from an album called Godbluff.   This and the follow-up Still Life are my favourite musical moments from VDGG.   There is something about the intensity of Hammill’s lyrics and his uncompromising vocal delivery, his fury and his passion, his feeling and his focus that drilled through the teenage me, through all the layers of coping and pretence and bearing up, all the capability that I summoned at each maternal nervous breakdown, each visit to the phone box to call the doctor and complain about the latest bottle of pills prescribed to Mum, each battle in the kitchen over food, washing up, coal, cats, milk bills, noise, TV channels or haircuts.  The music exposed my innermost panic.  It cut through the pop fluff and the melodic flair to the gritty bone of loneliness that was my very private world.  In a way it was quite good that no one else in school liked Van Der Graaf Generator because I didn’t want to share my feelings with anyone.   Of course I used to feel that my spectacularly dysfunctional family was a kind of pin-up of affliction, that the cross I bore, heavy and splintered and surely too much for one teenage boy to carry, was heavier and harder than anyone else’s.   It was a badge of honour, a hidden scar that I would only reveal to girlfriends, look, this is who I really am, then they would want to make it better, they did !

Now an adult I see my childhood as just another suburban tragedy.  Everyone has one.

I bought this LP in 1975 when it came out – late October as the leaves fell from the trees.  I’d left school, left home and been left by my girlfriend in the same week (see My Pop Life #58).

My first day of work on B Villa, Laughton Lodge I had thirty strange faces staring at me – the new nursing assistant in a white coat with name badge.  The friendliest bloke Martin had Down’s Syndrome and immediately introduced himself “hello sir!” with a strong lisp.  He shouldn’t have been in there.  But who should ?  Described on the entrance hoarding as a “Hospital For The Mentally Sub-Normal”, Laughton Lodge in 1975 was what local people called the loony bin, ‘bedlam’ or the madhouse.   On B Villa all the 30 men could walk, feed themselves and take themselves to the toilet.   Critical distinctions.   It meant our work was watching out for epileptic fits, walking the hyper Michael Payne round the grounds because he upset the other “residents”, taking a select group to ‘work experience’, or maybe into Lewes, sorting out problems and fights and helping with tying of shoelaces, distribution of drugs (I wasn’t allowed to do this except with another nurse) and subduing of violence.  The drug of choice was Largactyl, the chemical cosh.  Half of the ward walked around like zombies under the effect of this powerful sedative.  The other half either behaved, or were headed the same way.  Ian was severely autistic and didn’t speak, kind of yelped when he was upset.  He had memorised all the puzzles in the day-room, he would pick up a piece and know where it went immediately.  Ronnie was a 19-year old murderer, and a pyschopath with a sickly grin.  Gerald was a big dangerous intelligent man who would explode with violence from time to time, attack another patient, he smashed the acquarium one day, it would take six male nurses to hold him down.  when a patient went “up the wall” they acquired superhuman strength from deep within and furniture would go flying.  We had largactyl injections, straightjackets and a padded cell upstairs.

Michael Payne was the saddest case. A handsome gentle man in his thirties, he’d witnessed a motorbike accident at close quarters and his mind had cracked.  Somehow through the system he’d found his way onto B Villa Laughton Lodge.  He talked incessantly and we would take it in turns to walk him around the grounds, answering his questions, never quite sure what was a memory and what wasn’t.  “Did you see that tiger on television last night Mr Brown?  Scratched me right down my face!”   The Charge Nurse Ray Lucas explained to me that he was on a decreasing cycle of experience, his ups and downs were getting closer together, at that point he was three days up (walk around the grounds talking ten to the dozen) three days down (slumped in green plastic armchair on the ward).  As the wavelength got shorter he would be more difficult to manage and when the up and the down met eventually he would short-circuit and burn out, and become like the monosyllabic zombies.  This made me terribly sad.

The whole place was incredibly sad.  There were psychiatric patients mixed with murderers.  One fella Nick got picked up by his Mum and Dad every Saturday and brought back every Sunday night.  Apart from a twisted hand and club foot he was perfectly fine: intelligent but damaged.  The nurses were compassionate and coped well.   There was no abuse or piss-taking that I witnessed.   All the patients, and some of the staff were institutionalised – stuck in routines and ways of thinking.   I was only there for nine months, I couldn’t change anything.  Eventually one of the nurses from C Villa (the women’s ward) invited me to dinner one night in Ringmer.  While she was cooking, she handed me a book saying “this is what I’m interested in”.   Christine Glinkowski – a Polish woman in her late 20s – had given me “The Joy Of Sex”.  Readers, I was 18 years old.  “We can’t have sex on the first date” said Christine, “but we can do this…”

After work I would walk across the fields to the Nurses Home where I lived, a huge manor house divided into living quarters for the staff.  I shared a kitchen with two Mauritian gentleman who cooked gentle curries and were very friendly and sweet.  I would read a book, watch TV or play records on my little record player.  My first independent flat.  No surrogate mum.  Just me and my dope and cups of tea and vinyl LPs : Van Der Graaf Generator, Wings, Joe Walsh, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Gentle Giant, Stevie Wonder, Spirit, Commander Cody, Osibisa, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Focus, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, John Lennon, Man, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Greenslade, Hawkwind, The Faces, Audience, Blue Öyster Cult, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Peter Hammill’s solo albums.  White people !  Apart from Jimi.  To be fair I had a box of singles too, 45s which were nuggets of gold, among them Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Dave & Ansel Collins.

Van Der Graaf were the original pretentious art-rock prog band par excellence.  Formed by Peter Hammill and Chris Judge-Smith, the classic line-up became Hammill, organist and bass pedals Hugh Banton, sax-player David Jackson and drummer Guy Evans.  You’ll note that there’s no guitarist.  They are still going, although Jackson doesn’t appear with them often, I saw them at The Barbican in 2009 and they were, as ever, amazing.  The voice of Hammill which goes from a whisper to a blood-curdling scream, from a sweet melody to a harsh monosyllabic bark is one of the wonders of the world, and has influenced many singers including John Lydon.  Hammill’s solo albums are more introspective and personal, while the Van Der Graaf catalogue is often science fiction speculation, Hammill being a fan (like me!) of Philip K. Dick.  For all their harsh pretentious beauty the band soothed me through my troubled teens.   Perhaps just knowing that someone else felt fierce anguish and wasn’t afraid to express it was enough.  I was always afraid to express it.  I still am.

My Pop Life #70 : Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love) – The Stylistics

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Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)   –   The Stylistics

…If I had money I’d go wild buy you furs dress you like a queen
And in a chauffered limousine
We’d look so fine.
But I’m an ordinary guy and my pockets are empty
Just an ordinary guy
But I’m yours till I die…

In July 1975 I hitch-hiked to Hungary with my friend Martin Cooper.  In our last year at Lewes Priory he’d been Head Boy, and I’d been Deputy Head Boy, voted by the students of the sixth form.  This really only meant that every now and then we had a meeting with the headmistress about things that have entirely slipped my memory, but probably involved social events and smoking in the toilets.  An honorary title really, but there was a channel open at least.  Martin was a carrot-topped football fanatic and we would often go to the Goldstone Ground together to see Brighton & Hove Albion playing in League Division 3 against the likes of Preston North End, Gillingham and Aldershot.  We’d finished 19th that season.  Coops was also captain of the school football team, being the son of a vicar and a sensible sort of chap, head boy and all that.  We played on Saturday mornings – Coop was in midfield and I played centre forward in that last season at school.  I did about three good things over the course of the season in my recall.   I may be placing this event in the wrong year – but for some reason – perhaps because his reasonableness was in fact a curse – Martin Cooper put his foot through a train window one day and severed his achilles tendon.  To say we were all shocked is an understatement.  Completely out of character and rather more violent than anyone else in the school would have managed, even under stress.  He spent a few months hobbling around in plaster poor chap, and John Trower, star of the javelin,  took on the captain’s mantle, and the sexiest girl in the school Sarah-Jane Cumner.

After the A-level exams (see My Pop Life #112 – The Night), I’d got a job at Sussex University for a few weeks and stayed at Waterlilies in Kingston at Rosemary Ryle‘s insistence, despite her daughter Miriam having finished with me.   I had my own room (see My Pop Life #47).    I think Rough Justice, the band I played in with Conrad Ryle and Tat and Andy Shand played one last gig at school but were somewhat upstaged by a new band from the lower 6th who covered Jo Jo Gunne’s Run Run Run rather impressively.

And as The Stylistics started to climb the charts with this magnificent single, Coops and I started our thumbs-only journey through Europe.   The first part was easy – ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe.   We had a two-man tent and erected it somewhere or other that night.  I cannot really remember the French section of the journey, but we got to Grenoble on day three amidst stunning Alpine pastures.  Thence through the Great St Bernard Tunnel to Italy and the Aosta Valley, then right across North Italy.  We ended up in a small car with a funny old bloke who only said one word to us : “Udine“.  Ooh-Dinn-Ay.  We checked on the map and there it was just north of Trieste.  After a frankly bizarre lift where the little man kept saying Udine every five minutes we got out and pitched the tent on the Trieste road.  Next day we got as far as Ljubljana in western Yugoslavia which felt pretty foreign, (very pretty, very foreign), and so we stayed a couple of days in the Youth Hostel.   Nice place.  Next up was Zagreb which we skimmed and then headed north for the Hungarian border which we reached at about 6pm.  There was a little cafe just before the border post, so we went in and had some food.

The locals were aghast.  We were going to Hungary ?  Alarmed looks all round, heads shaking, pitying glances !  They insisted on buying us a farewell drink each – our last taste of freedom I believe it was called, except that it wasn’t our last – there were about three more.  Each.  As dusk fell we staggered under the sudden weight of our rucksacks and with the waves of our new comrades ringing in our ears, walked in a drunken manner to the border post, showed our visas and stepped over the Iron Curtain.

 

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Now what?  We knew there was a campsite about ten miles up the road.  How we knew this I have absolutely no idea but pre-internet it actually was possible to discover things you didn’t know.   We stood there and hitched as cars drove past us, then started walking as the light faded.  Before ten minutes had passed a huge army truck stopped just in front of us, full of soldiers.  The Hungarian Red Army.  Now bloody what.  We’d been intrepid to plan the trip and then we’d actually got there, had no idea what to expect.  Hungarian words v English words.  Soldiers.  Sixth formers.  There was only one word that all of us, me Coops and the soldiers all knew.  “Camping”.   Nods.  They gave us seats in the back of the truck with them and drove us to the campsite.  I think we managed to share the simple fact that we were English, on holiday, but I’m not sure they understood the holiday bit.   When we pulled into the darkened campsite, they took our rucksacks from us, unpacked the tent and proceeded with military efficiency to erect it there and then, shook our hands and jumped back in the truck, headlights disappearing into the night.  We looked at our little tent and thought: “Bloody communists“.

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No of course we didn’t.   We thought “Welcome to Communist Eastern Europe”   The next day, with a Yugoslav liquor hangover, we hitched to Lake Balaton and met some East German girls in the youth hostel.   Detente.  Stayed a few days in that beautiful part of Europe, and thence to Budapest where our A-levels results were going to be posted in a few days time.

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We ate in restaurants with live bands playing Hungarian folk music, using an instrument I’d never seen before called a cymbalom which is like a stringed vibraphone-type thing, or perhaps a piano on it’s side played with padded sticks;  alongside violins, cellos, bagpipes.  We spent some time in Buda, which we loved, and some time in Pest, which was more commercial.  Then one day a huge display of weaponry along the beautiful blue Danube (see My Pop Life #157), with red flags alongside every Hungarian red white & green flag – gunboats, a flotilla bristling with armaments.   A local told us that the red flag was Russian.   Our A-level results were collected on time the next day, poste restante Budapest – we both got what we wanted, which means I got an A in Geography and two Bs in English and Economics.  I’d be going to LSE in a year’s time, after taking a break from education for a while.   A few days later we took the train to Vienna and separated, I was heading for La Chaux De Fonds in Switzerland, which is another tale, and Martin was going to Germany.   When I eventually got “home” which was nowhere really, but anywhere in East Sussex in actual fact, The Stylistics were number 1.

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The Stylistics were one of my favourite bands in those days – long before I decided that I liked soul music, they just had a string of amazing singles between 1972 and 1975,  (My Pop Life #193).  The voice of Russell Thompkins Jr is a thing of great sweetness joy and beauty and twice now I’ve had tickets for a live show and been unable to make it on the night.  Such are the vagaries of self-employment.  They are a Philly soul band, a symphonic soul band, initially under the wing of Thom Bell at Avco Records who produced all of their hits up to 1974, when Van McCoy took the reigns and gave his signature sound to Can’t Give You Anything.  The opening trumpet glissando and melody with that twinkling piano arpeggio behind it is breathtaking every time I hear it.   And the voice!   The Stylistics are still playing together, still performing.  Catch them when you can, these old soul guys really know how to put on a show.  But be warned – Russell Thompkins Jr. is singing with The New Stylistics which he formed in 2004.

Meanwhile, Hungary is now in the EU and not such an exotic destination as it was in 1975.  It was always a more independent country than a lot of the Eastern Bloc, but now it has swung violently to the right, has a popular fascist party (Jobbik), and anti-Roma feeling is running high.   There’s also a strong organised crime element to Budapest, as there is with Sofia and to a lesser extent Bucharest, all places where I’ve worked on films, (for example My Pop Life #134 : Haydn).  The border where we crossed is now open all day.   And  Ljubljana is now the capital of new country (old country) Slovenia since the break-up of Yugoslavia, and Zagreb the capital of Croatia.  Am I mourning the old communist bloc then ?  Well what do I know ? Hungary 1975 was very warm and friendly.  You have to watch yourself these days.

I think Martin Cooper and I saw each other once, maybe twice more after that.  Ever.  Martin got married and I wrote to him (at Durham University) or maybe he settled in the North-East, anyway I got his wife’s name wrong, called her Bridget, his sister’s name, he got annoyed, I felt shame and we haven’t spoken since.    Such are the chapters of life.   We come together, we separate. Now read on dot dot dot…

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My Pop Life #58 : St Elmo’s Fire – Brian Eno

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St. Elmo’s Fire   –   Brian Eno

Brown eyes and I was tired
We had walked and we had scrambled
Through the moors and through the briars
Through the endless blue meanders.
In the blue august moon
In the cool august moon

In the autumn of 1975 I had a crisis – my girlfriend Miriam Ryle had left me and meant it, I had left home and gone to live in the nurses’ quarters of Laughton Lodge Hospital, and I walked out of my Cambridge Entrance exam, and thus finally left school. All of these things happened in the same week.  It was a sudden collapse in the House Of Cards – woman, home and education all gone, finished.

Simon Korner and I were doing the Cambridge Entrance exam together but I was finding it stressful – both the expectation of the school and my Dad (who went to Cambridge, Downing College) and I was actually finding it stressful.  Conrad Ryle’s brother Martin who lived in Brighton was giving Simon and I extra lessons in English Literature but we still never got around to William Blake who was set sight unseen in the exam.

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
*
*
Featured imageI didn’t know what he was on about to be honest.  I found it disturbing.  I wrote some guff or other.  Then in the afternoon the paper was even more obscure and I drew some cartoons on it and left the room, and the school, and went down to the nearest pub to Lewes Priory – The King’s Head in Southover St and bought myself a pint of beer.  Had a fag at the bar.  Freedom.  School, dad, Simon would all have to be disappointed.   I wouldn’t be going to Cambridge.  I had a place at LSE anyway to read Law.   Fuck Cambridge.   My gap year started now !   This self-sabotage led me to leave home within days for Laughton Lodge, a hospital for the mentally disabled between Ringmer and Golden Cross, between Lewes and Hailsham indeed.   Two of my friends, Conrad and Tat (Andrew Taylor) were already working there and my interview for the job was mainly about not getting involved in any sexual scandals with the nurses (I did), so in two shakes of a lamb’s tail I was employed as a Nursing Assistant or NA.  I had a white coat, a blue badge, and that was it.
I had a nice high-ceilinged room in a huge Mansion House – the Nurse’s Home – I shared a kitchen with a couple of Mauritian fellas, a shared bathroom and a huge staircase to climb to get up there.  Good views of fields and trees and the hospital from my window, and we could get up to the roof too, but that’s for another story.  I took my clothes, my record player, my books.
Here I have to acknowledge brother Paul who had picked upFeatured image
the Roxy Music baton with a teenage vengeance and run with it all the way to strutting around Hailsham school with his mate Vince in tear-drop collars, fat ties and huge platform shoes, then winning a Roxy competition and being sent all five Roxy Music LPs in the post (he already had them all!), but he’d also religiously followed Brian Eno’s solo career, which started when he left Roxy in 1973 after their 2nd LP For Your Pleasure.  Paul bought both Brian’s first two solo LPs, credited to “Eno” : Here Come The Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy).
Featured image   They were both scratchy rock-ish albums which I’d found quite hard to get into, but which I now adore.   We had them at home.  By then Paul and Mum were fighting badly and she eventually kicked him out with a solicitor’s letter – he was 16 years old.  He went to my Dad’s flat in Eastbourne but no joy there.  Paul ended up renting some flat somewhere in Eastbourne and working for the tax office.   I think that week of his life scarred him more than this week of mine did.   Paul probably owns all of Brian Eno’s albums.  I nearly do. I’ve got about 26 at last count, out of about 40, including his many collaborations.  There are a lot of them, but the quality never dips – he’s been a consistently interesting fellow both in his music and his mental meanderings through the music business and he is something of a genuine hero of mine.
(But why did he have to produce three U2 albums ?  To get paid probably – he’s been prolific but none of his LPs have sold in any quantity – even this one which is considered to be a masterpiece.)
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This is from Brian Eno’s third solo LP Another Green World which was more electronic and synthesised than the first two.  It was released in September 1975.   Only a few songs had singing – one of which is St Elmo’s Fire – quite a traditional pop song in many ways.  But his voice has a strange latent eerie quality that I absolutely love, but which I understand can drive other people up the wall.  I can play this LP over and over again and never tire of the sounds coming out of the speakers.  And that is true for most of his records.   If you don’t have any Brian Eno records, I would suggest that this be your introduction.  It’s also an essential listen as an influence on the next 30 years of electronica and pop.  St Elmo’s Fire itself – a strange electrical weather phenomenon – is a beautiful bubbling wickedly playful piece of music.
Brian made Another Green World in London using his Oblique Strategy cards which he would consult to keep things random.   Phil Collins plays the drums, Percy Jones is on bass on most tracks but on St Elmo’s Fire it’s Brian on everything including ‘synthetic percussion’ and ‘desert guitars’ (except for “Wimshurst guitar” credited to Robert Fripp, who’d been in mighty prog band King Crimson).  It is a song that’s easy to love, like most of his music.  He comes across as an egghead professor of ambient music, but his music has always been hugely accessible, certainly since Another Green World anyway.
You may think it strange that I left my mother who was being treated for psychiatric problems, on various drugs and treatments and regular hospital visits, to go and work in a Mental Hospital.   She’d been diagnosed by this point in my life (some 10 years after the first breakdown) as Manic Depressive, Schizophrenic, Paranoid Schizophrenic, they hadn’t come up with BiPolar yet, still testing drugs and side-effects.  But it didn’t scare me by then.  I was actually perfect for the job.  And look – it was just a job.  And it was temporary.  I was saving to hitch-hike round the USA with Simon next summer….

My Pop Life #28 : Too Far Gone – Bobby Bland

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Too Far Gone   –   Bobby Bland

…my friends, they console me, they say go out and find someone new…

It’s 1981.   I’m all but recovered from Hepatitus B, although I’m still not drinking.   When my liver finally recovers I’ll be a cheap night out.   My vinyl-buying habits haven’t subsided though, and I can be found flicking through bins in Soho, Camden Town Record & Tape Exchange or Notting Hill.   I actually scored a job at the Notting Hill Record and Tape Exchange – it’s in my collection of short-lived futile jobs.

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On day one the manager  (who was like a bitter incarnation of Alan Rickman), asked me what music I liked.  It was a trick question of course.   I think I answered “Roxy Music” and possibly “David Bowie” : being an honest kind of chap and not prone to pretending I was cool – much.   He sneered in derision.  “How about you?” I asked.   “No rock music,”  he deigned to answer but didn’t offer anything else.   Wow what a twat.    Gave me a box of records to put into the bins.    They were unsorted – and I was expected to know what they all were.  I think most of them were jazz, and placed them (in alphabetical order) in the various jazz bins.   By the end of the shift I was asked not to come back tomorrow.   So much for access to cheap vinyl….

My appetite was wide and deep – I was up for anything new.  So when I found Bobby Bland smiling at me from the ‘blues’ bin I chose him.

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I knew nothing about him, or his music, but felt that as a music lover, I ‘ought’ to know about the blues.   It’s been a part of my musical journey this self-taught encyclopaedic approach and it has taken me up many delicious backwaters, and into plenty of powerful running rivers too.    A lucky dip is a fun way to collect music too.  I rarely really hate anything I’ve bought like this, but sometimes stuff gets returned, for a fifth of what I bought it for,  that’s just how the 2nd-hand music market works.   I’ll happily hand over 10 CDs now that I don’t need any longer and buy two “new” ones with the proceeds.    But this was vinyl day, and each new slice was lovingly wiped clean, placed onto the turntable and the needle gently brought down onto the black shiny spinning groove.

If you don’t know Bobby “Blue” Bland – he is an astounding singer of the blues, with a deep and profoundly emotional voice.  Bobby was brought up in Tennessee, never went to school, and got his breaks in Memphis alongside B.B. King – he was one of the Beale Street blues boys.  (BB means blue boy King, and Bobby’s nickname was Blue)  and he recorded a great live LP with B.B. King too.   I never saw him live, although I did see B.B. King at Hammersmith.   Bobby Bland’s big hits were Cry Cry Cry, I Pity The Fool and Stormy Monday, later he hit home with Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City but the tune which caught my ear & my heart & my soul was called Too Far Gone, which was the final song on the LP.    Many years later, I tried to track this song down and discovered an LP called Get On Down which Bobby had made in 1975 – a collection of country music songs from Nashville…

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Too Far Gone was written by Billy Sherrill for Tammy Wynette, it is a wonderful song, and many others have covered it, notably Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris.  This blues version though, is astounding.   I love how the different parts of the band join in one at a time.   It’s a simple trick, but never done with such aplomb.   First the rolling piano, then the off beat catches the rich warm voice, the strings join in, are we in country honky-tonk or Nashville – then the horns sweep majestically into the equation bringing Memphis back to the fore, the backing singers join us for some oohs, then the harmonica adds a blues harp twang before the mighty chorus, key change and finale, and we’re done.  No middle eight, no more verses just a mighty last growl from Bobby before the end.  I still find this song completely perfect, and it would always be in any mythical top-ten I may have to produce in pop-favourite-land.   Not bad for a lucky-dip.

Around this time I visited previous flat-mate Nick Partridge (from West End Lane Pete and Sali’s place) as he was now living on a house-boat in Amsterdam, and running a blues show on the radio there.   Or maybe I’ll leave that story for another song….

Many years later I would include this tune on a cassette tape I made for my new love, Jenny Jules, a C90 that I imaginatively called “The Soul Tape“.  (See My Pop Life #29)

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