My Pop Life #153 : Small Hours – John Martyn

Small Hours   –   John Martyn

I met Colin Jones at the London School of Economics in 1976 and remained friends with him until he died in 1997 in a possibly deliberate car crash on the M6 when he drove into the back on a lorry parked on the hard shoulder somewhere in Cumbria.  We were shocked and saddened, but the happy-go-lucky LSE student, music lover, dope dealer, driving instructor and friend had turned into (revealed himself as?) a secretly deeply depressed man who struggled increasingly with his own private torments.  In the late 1980s his flat-mate Dave Moser had found him lying in his bed with slit wrists and a huge pool of blood around him on the floor, but Dave had called the ambulance and Colin had lived.  A cry for help no doubt.  Or was it ?

The London School Of Economics, Houghton St WC2

LSE 1976-79 was full of unreformed hippies, beatniks, groovers and fresh new student punks.  My gang was loosely grouped around the ENTS Room which organised live concerts and suchlike and was where you were guaranteed to score some dope or at least bum a puff of weed, a cloud of which hung like a signpost outside the door of the scruffy 2nd-floor office.  The other room which was nearby the ENTS Room was the Student Newspaper office – called Beaver, less druggy but still hippy-drenched and groovy.  I spent my spare time (which at university was plentiful) between these two rooms, and two other key groups – the LSE football team and the Drama group.  What a blessed time.  I was studying for a law degree, which I achieved with a lazy 2:2 in the summer of ’79, never intending to use it.  I would have been a good lawyer.  My mind works like a lawyer’s.  But I’d caught the acting bug by then, and regardless of shadow careers and what-ifs, it has been a true privilege to earn a living in this precarious and exciting profession.

The ENTS gang then :  Andy Cornwell, from Lewes Priory like me, the ultimate cool groover with a blond afro, pear-drop glasses and mushroom loon pants.  Permanently stoned, earnest and absurdly relaxed, he booked the bands that we all grew to champion : Aswad, Roy Harper, Vivian Stanshall and others.  He would later run the Legalize Cannabis Campaign, and perhaps still does.  Mike Stubbs, the previous Ents Chief, long wavy orange hair and pop-blue eyes, who stayed reasonably above the fray (he was a little older) but whom I lived with in my 3rd year (see My Pop Life 150).  He became a lawyer.  Pete Thomas, twinkly-eyed Everton fan from Hertfordshire, reggae disciple and expert joint-roller had a keen eye for business and had retired by the time he was 40.  His girlfriend and wife Sali Beresford, one of the only women in the crew, bright as a button, funny as fuck and fierce as a firecracker.  I lived with them and Nick Partridge from  ’78-’80 (see My Pop Life #59).  Their friends :  Colin Jones, Tony Roose, John Vincent.  Colin had frizzy ginger hair and a beard which looked glued on, round John Lennon glasses and a nervous but generous smile. He actually resembled Fat Freddy from the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in an admittedly blurry kind of way.

Fat Freddy and his cat

On closer inspection and the clear cold light of day of course, he didn’t look anything like him, but there you go.   He was warm, vulnerable and funny and he supplied the dope incessantly.  For decades.   Tony and John were a team within the team and they supported the eternal wearing of denim, throwing of frisbee, smoking of weed, drinking of beer.  John was very quiet and shy.  I went to Belfast with Tony on a Troops Out Delegation in 1981 (see My Pop Life #13), and we’re still in touch.  Back then we used to go to Regent’s Park, our nearest green space to Fitzroy Street, and play frisbee golf, a game which we invented.  (not strictly true, but we did : see Wikipedia ).   It involved declaring and indicating the next hole (That tree over there!) then throwing your own frisbee at it in turn until you hit it.  While stoned.  Subsequently I introduced this game to Brighton in the late 1990s, playing with the village gang Andy Baybutt, James Lance, Tim Lewis, Lee Charles Williams and Thomas Jules on a regular basis in the parks and green spaces of Brighton and Hove.  I recommend it to you all as a splendid pastime.

The rest of the LSE possee then  :  Anton who edited the Beaver, long hair down to his waist and a permanently amused lisp.  His team-mate and flat mate Nigel, the only other person other than me who dug Peter Hammill, lead singer of Van Der Graaf Generator who’d made a string of alarming and alarmingly good solo LPs.  Wavy hair down below his waist, Nigel turned me on to Todd Rundgren, for which eternal thanks.  Lewis MacLeod who was studying Law with me, speaking almost incomprehensible Glaswegian who liked a drink and a smoke and invented the Beatles A-Level with me one stoned afternoon (sample question :  “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean. Discuss.”)  He is now a Dave Moser, prematurely balding and brightly benign, shared a flat with Colin then moved to Australia in the mid-1980s.

I was with Mumtaz through all those years, and she would often be there with us, and was indeed one of us, still is, but often she would have to duck out of the incessant revelries because she was studying to be an actual lawyer rather than just playing at it.  And she didn’t enjoy frisbee.  She also became a lawyer.  The standard as I recall it through the haze, was high.  John Vincent was the don, his unerring accuracy gave us all something to aim for and raised our game.

Later Nick Partridge would join this crowd, after LSE finished  and lived in West Hampstead with us, he went on to run the Terrence Higgins Trust from 1991 until 2013 when he resigned, having become Sir Nick Partridge in 2009 to everyone’s joy and amusement.  In those balmy heady years after university the whole gang stayed effortlessly in touch and we still sought each other’s company, played frisbee golf and went to concerts together.  And of course got stoned together listening to Burning Spear (see My Pop Life #10), Spirit, Van Morrison and John Martyn.

Hard to choose a song for Colin, his favourite artist was Bob Dylan, favourite song Tangled Up In Blue.  But that doesn’t remind me of him.  Small Hours by John Martyn does.  A wonderful musician whom we all saw regularly in London at UCH, Bloomsbury and other venues, and he’d come up with a fantastic new LP in 1977 called One World.  It was on the record player a lot.  An early experimentalist with technology, Martyn at that point performed solo (or with just a bass player) utilising a repeat box of pedals which set up a groove for him to solo and sing over, a hugely effective trick which kept us all rapt.  A very original sound at that time.  We all loved the futuristic blues/folk/jazz of John Martyn, as did DJ John Peel.  Martyn’s early albums with Beverley Martyn his wife were subtle and beautiful, but once they’d divided their talents he changed his vocal style to a more slurred jazzy feel and hooked up with bass player Danny Thompson.   He then started a run of amazing LPs starting with Bless The Weather, followed by total masterpiece Solid Air (1973), dedicated to his friend Nick Drake (who died of an overdose of anti-depressants a year later).

Then followed  Inside Out,  Sunday’s Child and One World. Lee Perry, famous Jamaican producer was involved with some of the recording.  The track Small Hours was recorded outside at Woolwich Green Farm deep in the English countryside one night.  Engineer Phil Brown discusses the unique set-up around a lake in his book “Are We Still Rolling?“.  You can hear water, and the sound of geese on the track, haunting and wonderful.   Records (or albums, LPs indeed), were to be listened to in those days, and they also supplied us with mini-trays to roll joints on.  The selection of the album to roll on became a part of the ritual.  Joints were to be passed around, a social event.  And then when the brain was stoned, it listened to the music and fell in love with it.

After college we all helped Pete & Sali and Colin’s girlfriend Mary move a reasonably large upright piano into the infamous Huntley Street Squat, just round the corner from Heals Department Store off Tottenham Court Road.  Top floor, of course.  Up seven flights of stairs.  Most of the above-mentioned chaps were there.  It was quite simply one of the worst evenings of my life, and in the joke about visions of hell (tea-break over, back on yer heads) I would substitute an endless spiral staircase with an infinite line of pianos which had to ascend it as a particular torture which I never wished to revisit, even in hell.  A few years later we moved that same piano into a flat in Mornington Crescent, then years later when I got the Housing Association flat in Archway Road, Mary gave it to me, bless her.  About 20 years later I gave it in turn to our friend masseur Anna Barlow because her disabled son had asked her for a piano, and I then bought Andy Baybutt’s gentler-toned upright.  The Frisbee piano circle continues.

Colin became a Driving Instructor (as did Mike Stubbs) and although I’d learned to drive in Woods Hole Massachusetts in the summer of 1976 in a Beetle, now I had to pass the test, which thanks to Colin I did first time, despite hitting the kerb on my reverse corner.   Colin also continued to provide most of the dope that we all smoked in copious amounts, either as a first choice drug, or increasingly to cushion the come-down of speed which had entered our lives thanks to punk and the increased tempo of the music we listened to and watched live.  At some point after I moved into the Finsbury Park attic room with Mumtaz (1980) Colin met Wanda and they were married.  Later he transferred his talents to driving transport for the disabled for Camden Council, eventually as team leader.  He carried on dealing throughout.  But he never seemed to settle.  Neither did I by the way.  The flat with Dave Moser was a headquarters once again for all of us to gather and smoke and chew the cud, listen to music and solve the world’s problems.  Until the dark night when he slashed his own wrists.  We held a men’s group in the early 80s as a supportive response to the feminist movement, Colin was in that, as was Tony, and my mate Simon Korner.   But despite the suicide attempt Colin always seemed to me to be a together person, a proper grown-up.  I felt like a young soul next to him, he was wise and funny and sad, compassionate and thoughtful.  When we heard that he’d died in an accident on the M6 and the details filtered through, many felt that it was no accident, that this time he’d managed to kill himself.  We gathered for his funeral and wake near King’s Cross, drank and smoked, shocked and stunned, sad looking at each other for support and understanding.

I still miss him.  In researching this piece I spoke with Pete, who confided to me that Colin had been sexually abused by his father as a child.  I can only guess at the torment inside him, never shared with me.  Given that burden I feel that his life was a kind of miracle.  He was a terribly kind and gentle man.   Were we all damaged, trying quietly and privately to heal together in the wee small hours, music washing over us ?

My Pop Life #121 : Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long – Roberta Flack

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Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long   –   Roberta Flack 

First you’re here, then you’re gone,
It’s that same old heartbreak story;
Thought that you’d be in my life
For more than just one night.
But you say you got to leave,
It destroys me, boy, it hurts me;
Tell me what did I do wrong
For you to leave me all alone?

1981 was a very strange year for me.  I have virtually no clear memories of it, only strange images and moments, meetings, fleeting whispers.  I was 24 and still hadn’t “become an actor”.  I had a degree in Law from the London School of Economics.  Whoopee.  I was living in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz, whom I’d left in spring 1980 to take a year off on the Gringo Trail with my brother Paul through Latin America, then been forced to come home prematurely five months later after contracting Hepatitus B, jaundiced and weak.  Mumtaz and I had reunited but I was scratchy.  Any discussions we had about the relationship were along the lines of “are you staying or going?” and then debate was shut down.  I was working in an office above the ICA in The Mall for a group called SIAD.

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More about that later.  Finally in the spring of ’81, Paul had returned from New York City where he’d been living with Jim (whom he had met in San Cristóbal Las Casas in Mexico) and needed a place to live in London.  After making a few enquiries at a squatting collective in Hornsey, we identified an empty ground floor flat in a council block called McCall House on Tufnell Park Road, just down from the old Holloway Odeon and broke in.  Changed the lock.  Cut another set of keys.  Soon after this I left Mumtaz for the second time, found a mattress from somewhere and moved in with Paul.

We knew other squatters – The Huntley St squat down in Tottenham Court Road where Colin and Mary lived and where we’d lifted a small but incredibly heavy piano up six flights of stairs one day. Never again!  But we knew the squatting drill.  And London at this point felt a little like a battleground.  Thatcher was in power.  Ghost Train by The Specials was waiting in the wings, as were the Brixton Riots – and Toxteth, Wood Green and other areas.  It was nervy, aggressive and rough.  Normal enough, but heavy.

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There must have been running water and electricity.  We made rudimentary curtains in a hippie punk style and set up a small record player.  Photos from Mexico, Sussex and London were blue-tacked to the wall above the fireplace, which didn’t have a fire.  We added to these pictures on a daily basis.  Then a young gay guy from Mexico turned up and he stayed there for a while, kind of uninvited.  Maybe I moved out for a bit.  Really can’t remember.  Then a Kiwi girl Paul had met in Mexico called Eppy turned up and stayed too.  How did she find us?  No mobile phones or internet in those days.  Almost beyond understanding.  Eppy then invited some fucking heroin dealer round who boasted of his connections with Clappo – Eric Clapton – and the following day while we were out the flat was broken into and cleaned out.   Eppy was told to fuck off.  Soon after that we both fucked off too – Paul to a friends and me, tail between my legs for a second time, back to Mumtaz.  Before we left though, two main memories surface from those strange days in that flat…

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The Scala Cinema, Tottenham St W1, 1979-81

First – speed.  Amphetamine sulphate.  I’d been dealing it and taking it before Mexico andhad come close to becoming hooked.  It does bad things to your teeth, not to mention your brains, but the buzz was excellent.  There was clearly still some knocking around and one bleak Sunday we swallowed a couple of blues each and walked down to The Scala Cinema in Tottenham St W1, where I worked on Saturday nights at the famous all-nighter (see My Pop Life 23).  Lee Drysdale, who used to work there with me, still remembers me coming back from Mexico (once I was out of hospital) and turning up at the Scala orange-skinned and yellow-eyed with Hepatitus B.  It’s not infectious once you go orange, but I guess I looked pretty alarming.  No more so than the usual punters probably.

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So I must have worked there on the Saturday night, all night, noticed there was a film on Sunday night I wanted to see, crawled home at dawn, slept, got up, popped some blues and walked down Camden Road to Fitzrovia with Paul.  The film was Tarkovsky‘s sci-fi epic Solaris which had come out in 1972 and which I’d managed to miss at every opportunity.  It’s a stunning strange hypnotic empty film, and coming down from amphetamines, in-un-endingly desolate and grim.  Brilliant, beautiful but, well, apt somehow.  Soon after this The Scala moved to King’s Cross, Steve Woolley started Palace Pictures (with whom I would do a few films later) and I didn’t move over to Kings Cross with it.  I started another chapter.  Acting.

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My second memory of the squat though is one of the greatest LPs ever made.   It was one of Paul’s and we played it a lot while living there.  Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway is a short, 35-minute, seven song masterpiece of soul disco released in late 1979.  Originally planned as a second duets LP between the two friends and singers, Donny Hathaway only sings on two of the tracks “Back Together Again“and “You Are My Heaven“.  Roberta finished the album on her own after Donny ‘apparently’ jumped out of his apartment window on 15th St after suffering from paranoid delusions early in 1979.

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Donny Hathaway

They had originally met at Howard University in Washington D.C. studying music in the 1960s, had success individually, then recorded a hugely successful LP together in 1972 called simply Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.  It includes the songs You’ve Got A Friend and Where Is The Love.  Donny’s condition led to a breakdown in the relationship with Roberta through the 1970s, but they did record The Closer I Get To You on Roberta’s Blue Lights In The Basement LP in 1978, then decided to record a second LP together.  Sadly Roberta had to finish it on her own.  The result however is stunningly beautiful.  Every single song is a stand-out.  Stevie Wonder co-wrote You Are My Heaven with producer Eric Mercury then gave Roberta one of his greatest songs “Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long“, which is the song which leapt out at me in that Holloway squat.

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The immense bass-line is one of those disco show-off lines which compel you to dance, and is played, as are all the instruments on this song, by Stevie Wonder himself apparently –  or is it?  Surely it’s more likely that Stevie’s longstanding bass player Nathan Watts is the uncredited player.  It is similar in style and flexibility to Stevie’s Do I Do, which was recorded around the same time.   Luther Vandross sings backing vocals along with Gwen Guthrie, Stevie, and possibly Jocelyn Brown.  It has been a favourite song of mine since 1981, and I have often played it at houseparties where I may have been DJ-ing.  One notable memory was in Upper Abbey in Brighton when we had a houseful of playmates, and this song got dropped.  Jenny and two of her sisters immediately went into full disco mode and mayhem ensued.

Roberta Flack is still very much alive and I’m lucky enough to have seen her live a couple of times in recent years.  She doesn’t play this song, but still plays Back Together and Where Is The Love live along with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, the song which rocketed her to stardom back in 1969.  She is a classically-trained musician who enjoys covering other writers work, particularly Lennon/McCartney/Harrison and Marvin Gaye. She is also a superb singer.  Her back catalogue has considerable pedigree, from the dark soul of Reverend Lee to the frothy disco of Uh Uh Ooh Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes).  

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I knew there was another reason why I loved Roberta

I don’t think I can imagine a song which less suits the bleak spring of 1981.  There we were in that druggy council squat that had all its windows smashed by some junkie scum and forced us back onto the street, and back into a relationship I’d finished twice already.  But life isn’t always neat and tidy like that.  And memory plays tricks.  This is one of them.

I have to thank my brother, currently living in Shanghai, for major assistance with remembering this episode in our lives.  His recall, though also blurry, is considerably better than mine.  Thanks Paul x

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, 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)

My Pop Life #18 : Kalamazoo – Glen Miller

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Kalamazoo   –   Glenn Miller

…hi-ya Mr Jackson, everything’s OK-A-L-A-M-A-Zee-O Oh, what a gal, a real pipparoo…

I’ve never really felt confident around jazz music, always imagining that there’s something there which I’m not getting.  I’ve tried playing it on my chosen instrument – the alto saxophone – and my suspicions were confirmed.  It’s hard.  I feel more comfortable around older jazz from the 20s and 30s maybe because it’s got better tunes, or is more danceable, or just less intellectual generally, but maybe that’s partly been the point of jazz anyway – only a select few will get it.   I diligently bought jazz LPs though from the age of about 20 onwards : Mingus, Ellington, Coltrane and Getz have been with me ever since.

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Back in the day I used to make people mixtapes which actually were 90-minute tapes – C90s by Memorex or TDK or BASF.  The great thing about these was that you could fade things in and out or just pause the tape in the middle of a tune.  CD mixes are naturally inferior in this respect.  Kalamazoo was one of the first jazz tunes I’d put onto one of my mixtapes and thus represents a level of cautious bravery.

In 1981 I’d joined a socialist-feminist Theatre Company called Moving Parts, who wrote their own plays and toured them to youth clubs and unemployment drop-in centres around the UK, preaching tolerance, equality, marxism and revolution.  It was my first professional job as an actor, even though I was only getting £40 a week it would “lead to an Equity card” in the hallowed phrase of the time.  It actually did, three tours later.  The core group was Ruth Mackenzie, Rachel Feldberg, Anita Lewton and Saffron Myers.  We played music in the shows too, some covers but always with the lyrics changed in a cabaret style. After the show “there would be a discussion”.  These were almost always fantastic.  Sometimes we had polo mints thrown at us, or heckles, but it was righteous rockface work going into deprived communities with an alternative viewpoint.

One particular mixtape I made for the gang was called, with no apparent embarrassment on my behalf “The Immaculate Conception”.  I can still remember most of the running order on this tape and most of the songs will probably trickle out somehow onto My Pop Life.   I was about 23 years old when I made it, living in an attic flat in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz, and becoming, before my very eyes, a professional actor, working my passage in a Ford Transit van up and down the M1.   The tape was for the endless journeys, up to Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire.  Pulling the set out of the van, setting it up, doing the show, doing the discussion, packing it all back and grabbing some food before the next show – always two shows a day, sometimes three.  The Immaculate Conception mixtape went from jazz to pop to classical to spoken word to country without apology or transition, abrupt startling juxtapositions of styles which clearly clashed, there was Robert de Niro from Taxi Driver, Hawaiian guitar, clips from Star Trek, Beethoven, Bach and Randy Crawford. I’m still pretty proud of it.

It’s funny I was going to suggest that Kalamazoo was the first jazz tune I had the confidence to include on a mixtape, but I’ve just remember that Duke Ellington’s Black & Tan Fantasy was on there too, following Randy Newman’s Sail Away (oh the daring).   No matter, Kalamazoo was still a gateway song.  Simply put – it’s a pop song with jazz elements, not really jazz at all.

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It’s funny, clever, brilliantly arranged and played, and slightly creepy.  Miller took a popular song and “jazzed it up” – not particularly by the way – but rearranged it in his own layered swing style.  The rhythm, mainly carried by the woodwinds and swishing hi-hat is lazy and yet urgent at the same time.  But I think what captured my pop heart were the vocals – not just the alphabetical tricks but the layered harmonies, Andrews Sisters style and the hook of “zoo zoo zoo” which reminded me (perhaps) of Baloo the Bear.   Jazz purists have always derided Miller for his simple pop take on swing jazz, preferring Ellington, Basie, Hampton, Kenton, Teddy Wilson and so on, and now that I’ve been exposed to all these great bandleaders I can see their point.  But there will always be room for Glenn Miller in my ear – he had the real popular touch, and there is a strange innocence in this song that makes me feel that America can’t be all bad.

Addendum : I’ve never seen this long version in the clip, but it’s a good find I think.

My Pop Life #13 : The Green Fields Of France – The Fureys & Davey Arthur

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The Green Fields Of France  –  The Fureys & Davey Arthur

But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
To a whole generation that were butchered and damned.

We’re sitting on a bus to Crossmaglen in South Armagh in the summer of 1981;  me,  Tony Roose and a delegation of the Troops Out Movement.  We have a Sinn Fein escort, for these rolling green hills and sparkling rivers are in bandit country, and we’re heading for a village on the Irish border.  An IRA village.  There’s a huge bristling watchtower on the village green, and a mile to the south, towards the border, a British Army barracks.

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We marched down the country lane with banners and made a speech through a megaphone to the troops inside.  Then someone knocked on the door.  I remember this moment quite clearly.  A young lad with a red, black and green camoflage painted face stood there with his rifle, reminding me of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, the paint glistening on his young features, he was younger than me, about 18.  We made our point: “we don’t want British troops in Northern Ireland” and went to the pub.  Drank Guinness and then this song came on the jukebox.

I think the moment I became curious about Ireland was after Bloody Sunday in 1972, shocking grainy images on the TV of soldiers, people running.  Death.  An IRA bomb sometime after that terrible day – the day the Daily Mirror headline IRA SCUM was published.  We had the Mirror delivered every day to our council house in Hailsham. I was about 16 and on a political learning curve – I had a map of Vietnam on my bedroom wall where I mapped the Vietcong advance.   For me, there was just something wrong with a newspaper using the word “scum”, about anyone.   My antennae wobbled.  I investigated.  I understood fairly quickly that we were at war – not in some far-flung colonial outpost – but inside our own country.   Nothing really happened except filtering The News through this knowledge, translating and decoding the stuff we were supposed to think but never really being active until after college in London when I joined the Troops Out Movement and went to some marches and meetings. Tony Roose was at LSE with me and felt the same way.

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So one early morning in August, we boarded a coach with our fellow Delegates, and drove up the M6 to Stranraer where a ferry would take us to Larne.  Before we boarded there was a checkpoint and we all had to hand over our passports.  It took them about 20 minutes to photocopy the lot, and we were all on file and bang goes the knighthood and there we were on the Irish Sea.  Once in Belfast, we were taken to our orientation meeting off the Falls Road, told not to wander around alone, we were guests of Sinn Fein, and there’ll be a trip to Crossmaglen tomorrow, then a rally the following day.  We were billetted with republican familes on Ballymurphy Estate in West Belfast and that’s when it hit me.  War.   Roadblocks with soldiers. Watchtowers.  Barbed wire.  Armoured Cars with squaddies.   Guns.  And amongst all this war, people going shopping , going down the bookies, kids playing in the street.  “They never told us about this”  I said. ” Look at this !”  This is what war looks like.  Squaddies with rifles cocked crouching down in someone’s front garden as the net curtain twitches and an old lady looks out.  The weird normality of occupation.  The wall which separated the Protestant Shankhill from the Catholic Falls Road.  It was shocking.  The kids were fresh – asking for money, dancing Michael Jackson for us, flirting, laughing at our accents.  When I ran out of cigarettes I wasn’t allowed by Eileen (whose husband was serving time in H-Block) to go to the shop on my own.  “They’ll pop yer when they hear yer accent. They’ll think yer an undercover Brit”.

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It was a passionate moment in Irish history.  Ten hunger strikers had died in the H-Block prison demanding political status since May, among them Bobby Sands, who was elected MP for Fermanagh in April 1981 on an 87% turnout.  Thatcher had overseen this grisly procession of martyrdom with a steely demeanour, and would go on to prove she had guts by sacrificing more young men in the South Atlantic the following year.  The stakes were high.  The anger in West Belfast, mixed with the anarchic joy of the kids, the incredible street murals championing the IRA as heroes, and Bobby Sands in particular as a latter-day saint, the British Army waiting “out there” as Joe Strummer had said : “and it weighs fifteen hundred tons”, everything just felt like resistance – fight back – take a stand.

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The song is about the First World War and was written by Eric Bogle, a Scotsman.  But I’ll always marry it to the Irish republican struggle because of this moment, and because this cover version by The Fureys and Davey Arthur is so universal – and yet so specific too. The year 1916 saw the Easter Rising in Dublin, 500 were killed, and the leaders were executed.  Conscription for ‘The Great War’ was abandoned and Ireland turned decisively against the British.  At war’s end, Sinn Fein won the 1919 election and formed a government in Ireland.  The following war of independence saw the formation of the “black and tans” – the brainchild of Churchill  -who became the sectarian RUC or Royal Ulster Constabulary – the N. Irish Protestant police force. The South formed the Irish Free State in 1922, and the partition of the country ensued.  And that’s where we were sitting in our pub in the village of Crossmaglen – in the north of a divided nation.  This was a particularly hot period in Irish history, and although I’d read about it somewhat I was not prepared at all for what I found there.  It was thrilling and scary and righteous and we stood for what we believed.

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I nearly got beaten up in London for wearing my favourite Troops Out badge – a map of the UK where Scotland was beating Northern Ireland with a baton formed of The Hebrides, and got searched on the tube platform at Victoria on my way to a gig by a secret Policeman who snarled “Don’t Wear Badges” when he couldn’t find anything incriminating.  Mine was slightly more geographically accurate than this, and was a greener green, but nearly got me a broken nose outside The French House one afternoon by a dead squaddie’s brother.  “Say sorry to my brother!” Me : brave, foolish : “I’m sorry your brother is dead but if he hadn’t been over there he would still be with us”.

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The Troops Out Movement is still going and their website is here:

http://www.troopsoutmovement.com/

Somehow this song incorporates all my feelings about that time, even though it is a song about WW1, perhaps the soft southern irish accent of Davey Arthur singing, or perhaps the righteous fury at the establishment, or more likely a heady combination of the two, and where I first heard it.   There were plenty of rebel songs too of course, The Men Behind The Wire and others but this song is pretty amazing.