My Pop Life #181 : Skyline Pigeon – Guy Darrell

Skyline Pigeon   –   Guy Darrell

                  Turn me loose from your hands, let me fly to distant lands                              Over green fields trees & mountains, flowers and forest fountains           Home along the lanes of the skyways

Dear old Mum.  This was her favourite song of 1968 and she played it to death for the next few years because  it reminded her of dear Stan, who was with her when she bought it, but who then broke her heart, turning himself loose from her hands and flew back to the distant lands of Australia, flowers and forest fountains, green fields trees and mountains, home along the lanes of the skyways.  I’m absolutely certain that Paul, Andrew (4 years old at the time?) and I all know the words off by heart, and all the notes too.  We played with the lyrics a bit too, misheard some and deliberately misheard some others.  We had to take the curse off of it I suppose.  But we loved it too.  It was played so much it got warped, a 45rpm single on the Pye label, I think.  We didn’t know who Guy Darrell was, and he did nothing else, didn’t need to.  He’d done this song, and in a list of songs which I group together as “Mum’s Sacred Songs“,  I reckon this one is at number one.

Mum’s Sacred Songs then  – I’ve already written about :

 “People Gotta Be Free” – Dionne Warwick  (My Pop Life #17)

  “Days” –  The Kinks  (My Pop Life #147)

 “Games People Play”  –  Joe South    (My Pop Life #63)

and

 “Israelites”  –  Desmond Dekker    (My Pop Life #102)

Do I repeat myself?  A little, yes, but then hey.  I don’t have to think too hard to think of the others, which would be… :

 “Jesamine”   –  The Casuals

  “The Carnival Is Over”  – The Seekers

Part Of My Past”  –  Simon Dupree & The Big Sound

and

Skyline Pigeon”  –  Guy Darrell

I think Paul and Andrew would agree with me on those.  There may be one or two others – bound to be in fact – but these are eight of the top ten.  And now that I look at them I realise with strange unease that aside from The Seekers (an Australian close harmony band led by Judith Durham which mum absolutely loved because she could sing the harmonies) whose hit single The Carnival Is Over was released in 1965 – every single one of these sacred singles comes from 1968 !!! 

So two things are evident here.  One is that they are actually my sacred singles, posing as mum’s.   They are from the year I turned eleven, a mighty year for any boy.  I’d already seen plenty of life – as a witness, at close hand, the eldest, whose testimony this is.  A nervous breakdown suffered by my mum which lasted nine months, babysat by dad and nan, the return of mum, a negotiation with the hospital and the doctor which I was fully aware of somehow, a marital schism, dad leaves and lives in Eastbourne, a divorce, an empty house, a lodger, a love affair, a parting.

       Oh this dark and lonely room projects a shadow dressed in gloom                                         And my eyes are mirrors of the world outside                                                   Thinking of the way that the wind can turn the tide                                                 And these shadows turn from purple into grey

The shadow is actually cast in gloom but I always sang dressed up until – well today really when I discovered that he sings “cast in gloom“.   Who is the Shadow Dressed In Gloom ?  Slightly scary.  But then again.  Clearly myself.  Or Mum if she was singing it.  Whoever sings it is the Shadow.  Turning from purple into grey.  Then we get the soaring chorus which Paul and I sang as 9 and 11-year old boys :

   Projects a skyline pigeon dreaming of the ocean waiting for the day                           When he could Shredded Wheat and fly away again                                             Fly away skyline pigeon fly towards the things you left so very far behind

Shredded Wheat released us from the Shadow Dressed in Gloom turning from Purple to Grey.  And we couldn’t release the scurrilous satirical version lustily in full public view and hearing of Mother because the song, as has been mentioned already, was Sacred.  It was about her broken heart.  Don’t Laugh.  We found it desperately sad of course, but we didn’t really know it at the time.  Consciously.   It didn’t make us cry at least.  Mum would grab a box of tissues.  Now I find it unbearably moving.

Projects a Skyline Pigeon was actually ” For just a Skyline Pigeon

Ocean was “Open

Shredded Wheat was ‘spread his wings‘, of course.  It fit perfectly.

The other song – I’ve just recalled – that was an eggshell song was Freda Payne‘s number one hit single Band Of Gold which I absolutely adored at the newly-sentient age of 13 in 1970 – “Mum, mum, I love this one”  I may have bought it – or did she??  And when I played it one day she snapped – “How do you think it makes me feel ?”  I was like – er – band of gold – wedding ring – divorce – oh yeah !  Sorry Mum !!

I’ve been about that sensitive ever since I reckon.

       Just let me wake up in the morning to the smell of new-mown hay                           To laugh and cry through the night at the brightness of my day                                   I long to hear the pealing bells of distant churches ring                                           But most of all please free me from this breaking echoing

I was never sure about that last line.  I’ll come back to that.  The first three lines of verse two though described our little Sussex village – Stephen Criddle and I used to help the farmer baling at harvest time and we actually would wake up to the smell of new-mown hay,  it’s a good smell.  We did live opposite a farm with all the smells one associates with that countryside feature.    The second line is completely wrong but that’s what I always sang.  Kind of perfectly balanced crying and brightness – I wasn’t always sad, or happy, I was both.  We were a few hundred yards down the lane from the church which stood opposite the vicarage where we were allowed to play croquet now and again.  Tutored in the ways of righteousness.  Stephen and I (or was it David Bristow??) cleaned off loads of gravestones one summer around this time, sat on the grass and scraped off the moss (but a few of the verses, well it got me quite cross…).  Righteous.  But the last line was a bit more Freda Payne in the end – aching metal ring – not breaking echoing.    That was me – once again – personalising the song to mine own experience.  I had trouble going to sleep, saw shapes, heard breaking echoing.  Not every night.  And Shredded Wheat always sorted everything out in the morning with cold milk and a bit of sugar.  And a nice cup of tea.  I like a nice cup of tea in the morning, and a nice cup of tea for my tea.  I could do with a D.  Tetleys Make Tea Bags Make Tea.  Brooke Bond.  PG Tips.  Little picture cards,  traded at school, books with the complete set glued in with Uhu.  Trees Of Britain. Flags.  Butterflies of the World.

Eventually Mum couldn’t stand listening to the song so it stood in the singles rack in its sky blue and white paper sleeve and remained unplayed, long after we all moved out, and Rebecca was born, grew up and moved out, and there it still was, Skyline Pigeon, unplayed and living on in all of our minds as breaking echoing… Perhaps we played it once or twice but I always remember it being a mistake, unless Mum was in a particularly good frame of mind which was Rare.   And so rarely played.  One day I was helping Mum to move from Polegate to a house in Willingdon where she would live on her own after the third and final marriage broke down and a third and final divorce was agreed, amicably and with great dignity on the part of Alan, who became Becky’s dad.   Mum didn’t want anything from her past when she moved,  was throwing stuff out with abandon, pictures, books, all kinds of stuff had been lost already in the last hallucination, god knows what had gone into the dustbin so I retrieved some amazing black and white pictures and a handful of 45rpm singles, including this one.  It is warped and full of scratch hiss rasp and breaking echoing.  But I have it.

Pam & Reg, unknown, Bob & Jessie, my dad & Mum standing, his parents sitting 1965? Paul and I may be the two boys at the front…

As the years went by I searched for Guy Darrell.  No news.  One song – I’ve Been Hurt, which was a northern soul hit.  The only copy of Skyline Pigeon I owned for ages was by the fella who wrote it – Elton John, with lyrics and spreaded wings by Bernie Taupin.  It appeared as a strange harpsichord crystalline version on Elton’s first LP which came out the following year 1969.  Nobody bought it of course.  Nobody heard Elton John (knowingly) until 1970 when he released Your Song : “…it’s a little bit funny this feeling inside…“.  Later we all discovered he’d been voicing those Top Of The Pops albums with covers of the top 30, later still I would hear his ‘version’ of Skyline Pigeon, released as a piano solo version on an album of Elton Rarities in 1992, even later I would find him singing it in Rio, just like Guy Darrell did in 1968, the way it should be sung in my humble onion.  He didn’t sing the words right though.   The last line Elton sings “Open up this cage towards the sun“.    It’s pretty good Bernie, pretty good.  But from the age of eleven I always sang

Open up this face towards the sun

Guy Darrell has just had a retrospective released on CD last week which kind of prompted this post but I haven’t received it yet.  So I’ll leave you with a couple of Elton John performances and when the CD arrives I’ll post the track on Youtube, then on here. TTFN.

Elton John live in Edinburgh 1976 :

Elton John live in Rio 2015 :

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 #160 : River Deep, Mountain High – Ike & Tina Turner

River Deep, Mountain High   –   Ike & Tina Turner

Well I’m gonna be as faithful as that puppy, no I’ll never let you down

June 18th 1966 I was 9 years old.  Mum had walked out of Hellingly Hospital but on the advice of Dr Maggs had volunteered to go back for a short while.  When she finally returned home, she’d been away for nine months.  I was happy when she came home.  Her mum, my nan, had been helping Dad to run the house, and us.  Andrew had been in Portsmouth, still a baby, but by now he was walking and talking.  A little boy.  Paul and I shared a bedroom and we talked after the lights went out.  The staircase went up and then forked right and left, we were on the left and Mum and Dad were on the right.  The cat used to have its kittens on top of the wardrobe in Mum’s bedroom.   At the halfway point of the staircase I could sit and listen to my parents arguing.  Sometimes I was already downstairs when they started fighting, and Mum had a technique.  She went for Dad’s glasses.  That was that – pretty much – he’s blind without them.    Bt if I was upstairs when the fight started, Paul and I might walk down the four steps to the mini-landing.  Down the stairs we could see a french window onto the back garden. To the right was the door to the living room with the record player and the table where we ate.  The TV was in the front room. Rationed.  A dog, and a cat would be somewhere around.  Bookcases.  And, right now, my mum and my dad were having a high-decibel screaming match.  Or rather my mum was.  Dad’s parries were usually low-key, murmured dissents, accusing my mum of stupidity.  Since he had gone to Cambridge and she’d left school at 15, this was something of a blue-touchpaper-lighting moment on his part :  fireworks guaranteed : If she was stupid, what did that make him ?  An utter imbecile for using the taboo words, for climbing onto an intellectual ledge of education he had climbed alone and casting rocks and stones down into the newly-despised slough of ignorance from whence he had climbed !   His mother was proper working class, and his dad too.  John was the only one of his family (he had four older sisters) to go to Grammar School, and then the only one to stay on, then take Cambridge Entrance Exam and go up to Downing College in 1955.  Totally intrepid, there were two other working class boys in his year, one from Yorkshire, one from the midlands.  A fish out of water.  People talked down to him, for the first time in his life he wasn’t the best.  He was the lowest of the low amongst the Etonians, Winchester boys, Harrow snobs, privately-schooled little empire-builders.  At the end of that first year, he’d gone back to Portsmouth and married Heather, and together they’d embarked on his 2nd year at Downing.  I was born some 9 months later, in Cambridge.

But intellectual intelligence is probably less than 20% of the story.  Maybe a little more, but not much.  Emotional intelligence, which boys have less of, is a little more precious, certainly to me.  Then – no.  I had no idea.  Maybe younger lads have more emotional intelligence, but evidence points to the opposite.  They’re into riding bikes, collecting bird’s eggs, fishing for frogspawn and fighting with David Bristow.  Collecting comics and not washing properly.  Doing stupid things.  Anyway – I’m wandering.  This particular half-formed 9-year old was sitting listening to an offstage fight between mum and dad from the T-bone of the staircase.  Paul had joined me.  I don’t think we were that interested in what they were actually saying, but I think we needed to go downstairs.  So we stopped, slightly guiltily because it meant we were now eavesdropping.  I can’t remember a word of it, I never was much cop at lyrics, but the music I can recall, because both of them have spoken to me in a similar key, before and since.

But just then a jar of marmalade flew horizontally through the barely-visible doorway downstairs and smashed violently against the wall below me.  Orange jelly, glass and peel started to slide down the wall.  It was a stunning moment.  The pitch of the argument went up, then became teary and finally included moments of some silence.

Did Paul and I then walk down the stairs and out into the garden leaving them far far behind ?  Out to the village with it’s curious green paths that ran everywhere, along the roadside, into the fields, down to the sand-pit and far away.

Or did we tiptoe back upstairs and read comics ?

It was so intense that the rest is blank.  Either, both.  Perhaps we went downstairs and saw that Mum had Dad’s glasses in her hand, and he was demanding their return.  But now I feel that they were actually arguing about getting divorced, because Dad, as Paul once said many years later, “had a roving eye” and he’d been taking the piss for years, later confided to me in far too much detail by Mum.  They were divorced later that year and he moved out.  I used to remember it as the other way round.  That they had a fight, then divorced, then Mum went into hospital.  Linear.  Blame.  Made sense as a memory.  But maybe when I was in my thirties I suddenly realised that Dad looked after us with Nan for 9 months, and was still there when she came out.  But maybe that was when the eye roved.  Can’t say I even knew what that meant then.  But somewhere over that murky summer, I pedalled furiously along country lanes with Stephen Criddle even beyond the railway line, to Chalvington and Ripe.   And swung on a black bent tractor tire over a pond with Martin Coleman and his dog Boffin.  And on the radio, there it was, amongst the Paperback Writer, Sunny Afternoon, Sloop John B, Strangers In The Night and Sweet Talking Guy, this monster single which appeared to be made of something else entirely.

I think it was.  Truly.  In early 1966 when River Deep, Mountain High was recorded, it cost over $20,000 to make, unheard of at that time.  But let’s re-wind a little.  The second married couple in this story, Ike & Tina Turner were married in in Tijuana in 1962, but are now almost impossible to think about without Angela Bassett‘s glorious performance in What’s Love Got To Do With It?  immediately filling the frame as Lawrence Fishburne glowers behind her.  Domestic violence poster children all grown up.  But there’s more to Ike Turner than wife-beater.  Rocket 88, recorded in 1951 with  Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, is considered by many to be the first rock’n’roll single ever recorded.    Who cares right ?   Their tempestuous marriage lasted until 1976 when Ike cocaine habit was so out-of-control that he had burned a hole in his nose and would get regular nosebleeds.  She escaped and never looked back.  But amongst the violence and drugs, they had made some great music together.   Tina’s original name was Anna Mae Bullock, and she dated the saxophone player of Ike’s band The Kings of Rhythm in St Louis, Missouri before singing one song at one show.  The rest is herstory.  Tina Turner has one of the most soulful soul voices of any era.   The first single for Ike & Tina Turner was A Fool For You was on Sue Records, but by 1964 Ike Turner had sacked them and was prowling around the record business looking for a pop hit.  Ike & Tina Turner had been touring the southern soul circuit for hundreds of days per year, and had produced a series of great LPs, and great singles, all of which would be dwarfed by this cavernous, gothic piece of work.  Ike signed up with Warner Brothers where he met Bob Krasnow who would start to manage the husband and wife team and introduced them to Phil Spector.

Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry in 1964

Our third married couple, Ellie Greenwich and her husband Jeff Barry were New York songwriters who married in late 1962 and then decided to exclusively write together from that moment, upsetting previous songwriting partnerships.  But three years later they’d composed Be My Baby & I Can Hear Music for The Ronettes, Da Doo Ron Ron for The Crystals (see My Pop Life #),  The Dixie Cups’ huge hit Chapel Of Love and The Shangri-Las’ mighty single Leader Of The Pack.   

Quite a cv.  All of the above (bar Leader Of The Pack produced in New York by George Morton) were produced by Phil Spector in Los Angeles, and he always had a cut on the publishing too.  Greenwich, Barry, Spector became a badge of a hit record.  But in late 1965 control-freak Spector hadn’t had a hit record for a whole year.  He paid Ike Turner $20,000 to stay away from the sessions, and recorded with the Wrecking Crew whose members Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco and many many others had already sat in on many of the big songs of the decade, often on Spector’s signature wall-of-sound productions.  You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. Mr Tambourine Man.  I Got You Babe.  As well as all those with The Ronettes and The Crystals.  This though was to be Spector’s biggest production to date.

Tina, Phil, Ike, Goldstar, 1965

Late ’65 they were all in Gold Star Studios at Santa Monica & Vine, running through the chord changes and orchestrations.  Days and days later they were still recording.  Tina was down to her bra, scorching hot and howling into the microphone one of the great vocal performances in all music.    The final peak at 3 minutes is unmatched in pop I would suggest.   A genuine tingle every time I hear it.  It certainly isn’t matched by the combined force of The Four Tops & The Supremes in a 1971 cover which only takes off on the bridge section.  Diana is game, Levi Stubbs is is too polite on his puppy verse, but that was Motown right there.  Aimed at the white audience, so more polite, less gutsy and raw, more pop, less black.    A bigger hit than Spector’s I’m guessing, in America, although Tina’s is now considered one of the pinnacles of pop history.  Les black ?  Weird to think of it like that, perhaps that’s a racist construction but in any event, the gospel element is often subsumed in Motown records, less so at Stax, Specialty, Sue, Atlantic or other soul labels.  But whatever is pop and whatever is soul, greatness is greatness, and all of the acts mentioned above are truly great.   Tina Turner didn’t sing Remember Me after all.   But Spector reckoned River Deep, Mountain High was his greatest moment.  So did George Harrison among others.

Tina Turner & Phil Spector at Goldstar, late 1965

Extraordinarily, River Deep, Mountain High was not a hit in the USA at all, either on the pop charts or the R’n’B charts, and opinions ranged from “too white for the black chart” to “too black for the pop chart“, and Spector retired in disgust, remarking later that he understood famous American traitor Benedict Arnold which told us a) how very hard he took the record’s failure, and b) how bonkers he was.   He didn’t work until 1970 when John Lennon and George Harrison gave him the Twickenham Sessions and he went away and made Let It Be, later producing many of the pair’s solo records in the 1970s.

However, River Deep, Mountain High was a chart hit in England in July 1966.  At some point that summer England won the World Cup.  I know because I was in the village shop and the shopkeeper smiled at me.  “England won The World Cup” he said.  I was so happy.  Even though we hadn’t watched it.  I didn’t really know what it meant to be honest.  Perhaps that means that my dad wasn’t at home then and had already left.   Funny things memories.  Intense though.

full song –

the original promo with Ike singing along, which he doesn’t :

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 #132 : Imagine – John Lennon

Imagine   –    John Lennon

..I wonder if you can..

In the summer of 1971, after nine achingly long months apart, my family was finally offered a new-build Council House on the edge of Hailsham, an East Sussex market town between Eastbourne and Uckfield.    I was 14.  Paul 12.  Andrew was 8.  Mum was mid-30s.  Paul and I shared a bedroom which overlooked fields and faraway trees, and in the distance, Herstmonceux Observatory. Andrew had the smaller single bedroom.  Ralph, Paul…..and Andrew.  That’s just how it was.

Mum’s ‘new’ husband, John Daignault, had not moved back in with us.  We were secretly glad, because he was just an extra person in the house.  He took our Mum’s attention and they usually ended up arguing, shouting and screaming or actually fighting.  It was a drag.  So we were pretty relieved when we found out that they’d fought again, and Mum had no intention of inviting him to stay in the new house.  But then she changed her mind and one day, there he was.  Short, dark-haired, slightly nervous.  He was always nice to us, but he was only about ten years older than me and I was decidedly cool with him.  I was a twatty teenage boy who was primarily concerned with increasingly important decisions about grooviness, my own burgeoning sex life and the expanding musical landscape, not whether my mum’s 2nd husband was worthy of consideration.  He was just there.  He tried though.  Back in the village his record collection had included The White Album, The Beatles double-LP from 1968 which was a compendium of musical styles and grooves, from country to heavy rock, weird experimentia to 1930s pop.  JD, as we called him, had a few cool points logged.

Lennon, Ono & Grapefruit at Cannes, May 1971

Christmas 1971.  Beneath the tree an LP-shaped present for me.  Intrigued, I had to wait for the entire ritual to unfold, starting with the stockings filled with brazil nuts, small plastic toys, a satsuma and other ephemera.  Early morning thrills with mini-pinball tables and so on.  Then breakfast.  Then church – or had we abandoned church by then?  I think we had not.  Dragged there and back through the weather in our best.  Then home.  Then presents ?  No – change your clothes.  THEN Then??   NO A NICE CUP OF TEA FIRST.  Christ in swaddling clothes can we now open our flipping presents ???  AFTER THE QUEEN’S SPEECH.

Summer ’71

This may be a singular and important reason which explains why I am a republican.  The speech was always fluff and was intoned in a flat aristocratic drone.  I had no respect for The Royal Family in 1971 and even less today in 2015.

And finally.  Someone was nominated as Santa – but not before we’d been further delayed by sausage rolls, slices of ham and bread and mustard, things that mum had been ‘slaving over a hot stove for months’ with, anything really to keep us from the fucking presents.  There was a real tree with decorations, tinsel and a fairy on the top, the presents bulged beneath it.  It would end up in the back garden and slowly die as winter progressed toward a long-promised distant spring.

And my LP-shaped present from Mum and John Daignault – a French-Canadian name by the way – was the new John Lennon LP “Imagine”.   I knew it was from him really.  And I was actually bowled over.  I think it’s the most I ever liked him, and it remains one of the best Christmas presents I ever received.  When I was 14, brand-new LPs were a rarity.  They had to be saved for.  Our LP collection – almost all Mum’s – was small, and included Wagner’s Tannhauser (see My Pop Life #94), Oliver! and The Seekers ‘Morningtown Ride”.  The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats.  Simon and Garfunkel.  Dusty Springfield.  Van Der Graaf Generator.  Jimi Hendrix.  ‘Imagine’ may well have been my 3rd-ever LP.

The Plastic Ono Band in 1969 :

Klaus Voorman,  Alan White,  Yoko Ono,  John Lennon,  Eric Clapton 

*

We were a singles family mainly.  Loads of those.  Big pop hits and obscure lower-chart singles.  We had many Beatles singles.  From She Loves You through We Can Work It Out to Let It Be.  And the Beatles had finally split up officially on April 10th 1970 when Paul announced he was leaving the group.  John Lennon had already told the rest of the band that he was finished during the previous September when The Plastic Ono Band played Toronto to an extremely warm reception but the decision was kept under wraps until the spring of 1970.  We’d all been learning to live without the Beatles for over 18 months, and it was hard.  Each and every former Beatle’s release was devoured hungrily, and although almost always not as satisfying a meal as a Beatles song, it was at least like one of the ingredients.  A snack.  They were the four most famous people in the world still.  With Muhammed Ali.  If you made an LP out of the first two years of solo releases it was an AMAZING Beatles LP, with Maybe I’m Amazed, My Sweet Lord, What Is Life, Imagine and Working Class Hero.

1964

We would learn to nourish ourselves with these offerings,  scoured for clues, hints, rifts, chords, harmonies, these musical conversations between former members now not on speaking terms.  The family divorce was played out by my favourite band separating and going their own ways.  Or rather, by Lennon and McCartney being actually divorced.  The great song-writing team was over.

McCartney’s first solo offering, an acoustic collection which gets better with the passing years was entitled “McCartney”and released in 1970. Lennon had already explored a great deal of strange musical territory with Yoko Ono on the LPs Unfinished Music : Two Virgins and Life With The Lions (1968) and The Wedding Album (1969) all released while The Beatles were still together.

Unfinished Music : Two Virgins (1968)

Unfinished Music : Life With The Lions (1968)

The Wedding Album (1969)

All three albums dabbled unselfconsciously in avant-garde experimental sounds, tape-loops, heartbeats and their own voices.  Not many people listened more than once or twice.  It was the late 60s, everything to be abandoned, everything to play for.  Then in 1970 they released 2 Plastic Ono Band LPs – one each.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)

 The JohnLennon/Plastic Ono Band LP is a masterpiece pure and simple. It  emanated from the primal scream therapy Lennon and Ono were doing in Los Angeles with Arthur Janov.  Songs about the death of The Beatles and howls of pain on subjects such as his mother and loneliness gave the album a huge depth and impact.  I listened to it at Simon’s house, but not then I don’t think.   A year or two later.  It wasn’t played on the radio or TV at all, apart from on a few late-night shows.

October 1969

But then music just wasn’t available in the same way as it is today.  Most music wasn’t played on the radio.  There was no internet, tapes, CDs, mp3s.  You’d have to be round someone’s house to hear it.  Vinyl.  So the gaps were filled – as always – by the singles.  Lennon’s first was an anguished snarl of pain about heroin addiction, Cold Turkey, which was rejected as a Beatles song and became his first solo single on the Beatles own record label Apple in October 1969.  It was followed by Power To The People and Instant Karma, big thumping sounds, exciting anthems with casts of thousands.

Bed Peace, Room 902, Amsterdam Hilton, March 25th – 31st 1969

Since meeting Yoko Ono John had become an extremely active public person, from the mass-media wedding onwards, unafraid of making grandstanding statements and leading the pop culture into new political areas.  It was thrilling.  He was aware of his status and used it change the public discourse. The hippie dream was over, but Vietnam wasn’t.   John Lennon positioned himself clearly on the battlements as a counter-cultural leader.   As a result he was lampooned, vilified and undermined by political and cultural commentators, while becoming a hero to progressives and others.  This high-profile campaign culminated in the Green Card harrassment of Lennon by President Nixon in 1972 who felt that Lennon’s high-profile activism could undermine his re-election campaign, and who issued deportation proceedings against Lennon that were only halted when Nixon himself was snared in the Watergate scandal.  But all that was to come.

In the early part of December 1971 the Christmas single Merry Xmas (War Is Over) was played on the radio – political but less punchy as a production, still anthemic, but totally anti-Vietnam.  Lennon was in his post-pop political pomp. Then came Imagine.

Tittenhurst Park 

The title track was written in John’s house Tittenhurst Park in Ascot, Surrey one morning in early 1971 on a white Steinway piano.  Inspiration was provided by a Yoko Ono poem from the collection called Grapefruit published in 1964.  The poem was called Cloud Piece :

“Imagine the clouds dripping, dig a hole in your garden to put them in.”

Words that were later placed on the LP’s back cover.   That summer at a jam in New York, John asked George Harrison if he wanted to play on the next record and George agreed.

Voorman, Harrison, Lennon, Ono 1971

 Klaus Voorman, John’s old friend from Hamburg who’d designed the Revolver LP cover was drafted in on bass guitar (Paul’s instrument) and Nicky Hopkins from Apple label band Badfinger played piano.  Alan White played drums.  The first few tracks were recorded at Tittenhurst in June 1971 then the whole kit, caboodle and shebang was moved to the Record Plant in New York City in July and other session players joined such as King Curtis on saxophone (see my Pop Life #128).

Lennon & Spector at The Record Plant 1971

Phil Spector co-produced with John and Yoko, adding sugar in the shape of violins, cellos and violas as he had with The Long And Winding Road a year earlier on the Let It Be album, much to McCartney’s irritation.  Lennon had no such problems with Spector’s strings and described the song Imagine on one occasion as a political statement sugar-coated “so that conservatives like Paul would swallow it“.

The McCartneys had issued the LP “Ram” in May 1971, billed as Paul and Linda McCartney.  It is as good a record as Paul ever made.  On the cover he wrestles with a bighorn sheep of some kind.  A postcard inside the Imagine LP had picture of Lennon with a pig.

 There was a song too, called “How Do You Sleep?” with lacerating lyrics :

“the only thing you did was Yesterday,  now you’re gone you’re just Another Day”

referencing Paul’s brilliant single which didn’t appear on the Ram LP.

1971

 This McCartney/Lennon/Ram/Imagine dialectic dominated 1971 and the bad feeling set the stereotype of the two in the public mind forever : Paul the doe-eyed soppy balladeer and John the working class hero rocker.  People took sides, as people do in divorces.  Loyalty is expected from friends and balanced love for both is punished.   The tragedy of separation. The archetypes are of course nonsense – Paul wrote and played Helter Skelter, the rockiest birth-of-metal-moment in the Beatles’catalogue, while Lennon soft side was never far away as evidenced by Love on the Plastic Ono Band LP or Jealous Guy on Imagine.  But England in particular loved Lennon and spurned McCartney.  I loved them both, always did, always will.  I despise the anti-McCartney camp because musically they are simply wrong.  But the anti-Lennon camp would have its day with this very song.

Imagine is ballad of protest.  It is anti-religion, anti-nationalism, anti-war, anti-ownership and anti-greed.  It sees everything that there is to see, and imagines how life could be without them.  Simple, effective, powerful.  It stands head and shoulders above most of John Lennon’s songwriting and remains his best-selling song.  It seems incredible that serious writers could turn on a song like this – but popularity can be a critical curse, and Imagine is a huge song which went around the world and back again.  It could have been written by Paul and people would have found it sappy.  Eventually they did – after a wave of love for the song, the strange taste of the British groover found that, incredibly, Imagine was actually a stupid song, groaning under the weight of its own pretension.  Elvis Costello wrote, in the lyrics to The Other Side Of Summer :

“Was it a millionaire who wrote ‘imagine no possessions’ ?”

Well, actually Declan, yes, it was.  What do you want a millionaire to write?  Imagine more possessions ?  It’s a cheap shot, but one which was encouraged by the pop media in the years following its release and thus the sheer success and popularity of Lennon’s worldwide anthem was curdled, serially disrespected and sneered at by people who should have known better.   The song became sacred, and sacred cows must be transgressed if you are a permanent teenager.  People accuse Lennon of writing teenage lyrics – “5th form dirge” is a common-enough drop of disdain.  But the misunderstanding is deep.  What the song describes will never happen.  The song knows this.  It is a funeral march for a dream.

The rest of the album has its moments too – How is a beautiful delicate melody, It’s So Hard is classic rocker Lennon with echo vocals that would soon become ubiquitous, Oh Yoko a beautiful bouncing pop song, the classic Jealous Guy which dated from the Rishikesh era and nearly ended up on The White Album, the angry diatribes of Give Me Some Truth and How Do You Sleep, the simple beauty of McCartney-esque Oh My Love…  John sounds relaxed and comfortable, playing his music with his friends, in love with Yoko, always present.  It’s not my favourite Lennon LP, but that’s neither here nor there.  It’s among his best moments for sure.   And – It was a landmark moment in my young life, a piece of treasure which I treasured and played incessantly.  We listened to it together downstairs late that Christmas afternoon in 1971, all present approved, then I took it up to the bedroom Dansette record player and heard it a couple more times – this was also the first Christmas when I spent some private time away from the family in my room and it was acceptable.  It felt like John was speaking to me personally as I lay on my bed listening to his voice.

Dick Cavett Show 1971

Paul and John never did sing or write together again.  Although apparently they jammed together in 1974 before further estrangement the tapes from that session have never been released, if indeed there are any.  They had brought out the best in each other for an entire decade and changed the world together.  The inspiration of those years carried them through the even longer time spent apart.   Time heals, and brings closure to even the bitterest divorce camps, but tragically Lennon was gunned down outside his New York apartment on December 8th 1980 before any further healing could occur between the two of them.  His unreleased guide vocals for ‘Real Love‘ and ‘Free As A Bird‘ were backed by Paul, George and Ringo and produced by Jeff Lynne as the last two Beatles’singles in 1995 when ‘Anthology’, the official Beatles bootleg collection finally came out.

The dream is over, what can I say ?  The dream is over, yesterday

John Lennon ‘God’ 1970

My Pop Life #127 : He Who Would Valiant Be

To Be A Pilgrim

he who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster

let hm in constancy follow the master

there’s no discouragement can make him once relent

his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim…

At some point in 1966 my mother was still in Hellingly Hospital near Herstmonceux in East Sussex, receiving ECG and taking various medications, mainly Largactyl.   She’d had a Nervous Breakdown.  She would be there for 9 months in all.  I wrote about this period in My Pop Life #55.  My dad was struggling to cope with three young sons and a full-time teaching job in Brighton and initially he’d been helped by our Nan, Ruby Laming who’d travelled up from Portsmouth and lived with us in the village.   Apart from missing Mum terribly our lives hadn’t changed all that much – we still walked up the road to the little village school, played football, fought in the playground, saved up for a packet of crisps and hid in the bales of the barn opposite our house.

Mum came home eventually 9 months later, but Dad moved out under a cloud pretty soon after that after being caught with the babysitter.  So then it was Mum and three boys.   These years blur and blend, but perhaps it was 1968 when she must have returned to hospital again.

And suddenly we were shipped out to Brighton – or at least Paul and I were.  Andrew was only 3 or 4 years old at this point and would have been transferred to Mum’s sister Valerie in Portsmouth.   Separated not for the first or the last time.   But at least we weren’t in care.   Being abused somewhere.   Lucky us.   I think Paul and I were 10 and 8 years old respectively.  It may be 9 and 7.  Someone may help me pin the year down.  It won’t make that much difference.

We were taken to a house in Lauriston Road where a colleague of my Dad’s lived with his family.  Phil was a teacher at Westlain Grammar too.  His wife Moyra also worked but I cannot remember her job.  They had two children called Ceri and Eleri – the daughter Eleri was one year older than Ceri.

Lauriston Road is opposite the top end of Preston Park in Brighton.    Us country boys from a small village with one shop were suitably gobsmacked by this development.  Just down Preston Road was the Rookery Rock Garden, right opposite the park and we explored that with delight.  Twisty paths, ponds with fish, rocks and overhanging trees, all built on a hillside between the main road north – the A23 and the railway line.  It has a slightly Japanese feel in design, and was built in 1935 using tons of imported Cheddar rock and stone.   It is still a delightful place to visit.  It was my first taste of Brighton.

We were all taken to their primary school the next morning, but Paul refused to go, hanging onto the baluster of the staircase and screaming his head off.  Moyra got quite upset with him – I imagine she was being made late for work, and there was nowhere else for us to be at that age.  Eventually his hands were prised free from the staircase and we were bundled into a Morris Traveller and taken to school.

Christian reads his Book :  William Blake

The school was terrifying of course.  We’d been used to a tiny classroom with a dozen kids, three or four of them my own age.   Now we were lined up at desks with 25-30 strange faces and a large female teacher whose name I have erased.  She read to us every day from a large book about a man called Christian and his journey across a strange forbidding landscape – the Hill Of Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation and carrying this weight everywhere he went – a book.  When Christian was captured by The Giant Despair and imprisoned in his Doubting Castle I started freaking out.

The psycho-geography of Pilgrim’s Progress

Then I caught chicken pox.  Then Paul caught chicken pox.  Then Ceri caught chicken pox.  Then Eleri caught chicken pox.  That was the end of school !!  We were bedridden for at least a week, maybe more.  Phil would read us bedtime stories at night bless him.  In loco parentis.  We never really made friends with those kids and I don’t think we ever saw them again.  It was like an unearthly interlude with illness – and probably felt like chaos to my parents.

John Bunyan (detail) – painting by Thomas Sadler

Later I realised that the book that was being read aloud to us was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a christian allegory the first part of which was published in England in 1677 while Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching without a licence.   Perhaps it was an abridged version, or a child’s version we were listening to.  In any event the looming Celestial City and the Valley Of The Shadow Of Death both represented the same thing to me – horror.  I can’t ever remember enjoying Christian stories, whether Old Testament, New Testament or books like Pilgrim’s Progress.  They always felt slightly threatening.  Perhaps it was the context, or the character of the teller.

6th-former, Lewes Grammar 1964 by the Chapel

Later when I was at Grammar School in Lewes we sang in the School Chapel, the whole school assembled to stand in pews and hold hymnbooks and sing together.   Me in shorts, uniform, striped dark blue and light blue tie and cap.   And there was that word again, in a tune that filled my heart :  To Be A Pilgrim.  I never heard any version of this on record or anywhere else, my entire memory of it is as a hymn sung in a church.  Little did I know that the words of the hymn were taken from Bunyan’s book, slightly modified in 1906 by Percy Dearnal, and set to music in the same year by my namesake Ralph Vaughan Williams.   Later on Vaughan Williams would write an opera called Pilgrim’s Progress which premiered in 1951.

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

Young Ralph – he was 34 at the time – took the music from a Sussex folk song called Monk’s Gate, named after a village near Horsham, the tune being collected by a Mrs Harriet Verrall of that parish who was also responsible for the Sussex Carol.  The resulting tune and words are forever stirring and pleasing to mine ear, and do not remind me of the shadowy days listening to Pilgrim’s Progress in some strange forbidding grey school in Brighton.  I can pick up and discard these associations in my own time – luckily – for the hated Thatcher’s funeral also featured this very hymn.   In fact I’m quite fond of the word Pilgrim.  I like to set myself random tasks, usually psycho-geographical in nature, oft times muso-geographical, and then become a pilgrim for the length of a day, a week, a year.  An example is to be found at My Pop Life 16 when Jenny and I visited the Metropolitan Museum in 2014 seeking the paintings from Rufus Wainwright‘s The Art Teacher, or at My Pop Life #97 when I sought out the locations in Berlin that David Bowie references in “Where Are We Now?“.  In both instances I was a pilgrim.  There is a staggeringly good Van Der Graaf Generator song called Pilgrims which I am inordinately fond of.

And there is a Wishbone Ash LP called Pilgrimage which captured our teenage imagination at one point with its twin lead guitar attack and which I have not revisited this long century since.   But it means so much more than this.  Remember the Canterbury Tales?

The Hajj to Mecca ? The Pilgrimage Of Grace ?

Benares ?  

These mass movements of the devoted are peaceful in nature, the very opposite of a crusade.  And yet and yet.  I have to reject the religious way, the idea of such certainly being handed to me in a book, from a man, located in a place, a system of beliefs laid out for me.  The centre of the universe is surely everywhere as Sitting Bull once observed.

Pilgrims are focussed.  Single minded.  Valiant – possibly.   They seek, they search, they have a reason to go on.  Following a master ?  Don’t know about that.  It would certainly make it easier though wouldn’t it ?  Make it easier to be a pilgrim.

Maddy Prior who used to be in Steeleye Span :

My Pop Life #125 : Chickery Chick – Sammy Kaye

Featured image

Chickery Chick   –   Sammy Kaye Orchestra

“Chickery chick, cha-la, cha-la
Check-a-la romey in a banonika
Bollika, wollika, can’t you see
Chickery chick is me? “

My mother, Heather Ruby Laming, was born in June 1935 in Portsmouth to mother Ruby née Price and father Horace Laming.  Ruby had come down to Pompey from Abergavenny in her teens and worked ‘in service’ until the birth of my mum.  Below stairs in a rich families’ house in other words.  Something happened there that she almost told me once, then changed her mind.  I’d travelled down to Copnor in North Portsmouth in the 1980s to talk to her about her life.  My Nan would have been late 80s by then, still painting occasionally-interesting abstracts, still lives and strange scenes from road accidents or desolate sea shores.  The house was full of her paintings.  She appeared to be fond of me, regarding me with a tolerant, knowing chuckle as if I couldn’t put one over on her.  She came out with some odd things regarding my Mum – “Heather has always been difficult – she wouldn’t even take the nipple as a baby”.  

That’s a bit dark, I thought.

Her dad Fred Price was a lovely old geezer who used to write funny letters to my Mum when she married my Dad and moved away from Portsmouth, first to Cambridge, then to Sussex. “Winter – drawers – on” he wrote as we entered December.  Clever old stick.  Ruby would have us believe that she was the eternally long-suffering wife of a dreadful husband – Horace, and I wrote about the strange atmosphere pervading his funeral in the late 1960s in My Pop Life #49.

 Almost all of the stories I heard about my Nan were bad, and my own experience talking to her backed them up.  She favoured Mum’s sister, Aunty Valerie, deeply favoured her.   She used to drink heavily when Heather was growing up and going out with my Dad, and once or twice he intervened to stop Horace and Ruby coming to blows.  Or to stop Ruby beating on my Mum.  In any event it didn’t sound like the most closely-knit family.   I remember one Christmas round there when I was about five – where we had to behave.  Keep quiet.  Ssshhh.

Of course when Mum had her first nervous breakdown (that I was aware of) in 1965 (see My Pop Life #54), Nan came up from Portsmouth to look after us while Dad went to work teaching.  She must have lived with us in 2 Manor Cottages, Selmeston, for nine months, for that was how long Mum stayed in the hospital in the end.  The Mental Hospital it was called.  I can’t remember much about that period, having successfully wiped it out of my memory and grown up without its haunting disabilities at the front of my brain.  Buried so deep that it rots my soul from within.  But Nan must have been alternately strict and loving with us, me, Paul and Andrew.  Thinking about it, this was when Andrew was disappeared to Portsmouth to stay with Aunty Valerie and Uncle Keith, so Nan was only looking after Paul and I.  We shared a bedroom.  We talked before we fell asleep, after the light was turned off.  It kept us sane.  Kind of.

Later on, when Nan sold the house in Copnor and moved into a nursing home in Southsea, Mum travelled down to see the house for one last time.  the same one we’d gather in for Horace’s funeral, for Christmas, for strange visits which I dreaded.  When Mum got there the house was empty.  Literally.  No art.  No china.  No furniture.  “Oh“, she said to Ruby, “I thought I could have taken one thing to remember this house by, a saucer or a vase or something“.   Ruby then answered with one of her classics :  “I gave everything to the woman over the road.  She’s been like a daughter to me.” 

When my Mum told me this story I was horrified.  I said “You can’t go on taking this shit, it’s abusive, designed to hurt you.”  Nan was still alive, we were still visiting her in the nursing home.  She was in her 90s now.  “No,” said Mum, “I don’t want to upset her.”  I had another clue to the cause of the mental illnesses mum had been plagued with for what seemed like the bulk of her life.  Not to mention my own bipolarity.

Bollika Wollika.

My friend Richard went to see her one day with Paul and we had an interesting chat about it later.  He thought there was a possibility that she was a lesbian who’d never owned it, let alone come out.  Pretty charitable I thought.

*

This may well be the happiest memory I can retrieve of my Nan…and perhaps have been the first pop song I ever heard, although it would have been from my Mother’s lips.  She remembers it from World War Two when Ruby sang it to her, enjoying the nonsense words.  I remember Mum singing this all through the 1960s.  She actually sang “Wollika Wollika can’t you see” rather than the actual words “Bollika Wollika” which clearly don’t have the same connotation in America and which were carefully screened from our young English ears.   I never did know what she was talking about until one day looking through some old sheet music in a shop, I found this.

Featured image

So it had been a Number #1 hit song in the U.S. and in the charts for over 4 months, played by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra.  The odd words were written by Sylvia Dee, and the music by her regular songwriting partner Sidney Lippman.  Sammy Kaye had over 30 hit songs in the swing era, and six number ones.  “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye”offered the tag-line, and young Nancy Norman auditioned aged 16 and 4’11” high and got the job of female vocalist.  Her mother would chaperone her all over the United States to sing Chickery Chick.  The man’s voice is country singer Billy Wiliams.   Many other stars covered the song, including The Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Gene Krupa & Anita O’Day, and Evelyn Knight and The Jesters, which is my actual favourite.

The word banonika is still in use in our house here in Brooklyn.  It is used to denote a wrapping into which the special needs cat Roxy will position herself, enjoying the cosy created therein.

Featured image

Not a banonika

Featured image

Not a banonika, strictly speaking

Featured image

a carboard box I’d call that

When she is under the duvet or inside some clothing then :  “Are you in your banonika darling?”we will ask in slightly high-pitched voices as if talking to a child.  Which we are really.  A furry child substitute.  Maybe we should sing Chickery Chick to our cat.  I’m sure people have.

Featured image

Roxy and I agree that we have no banonika pictures

*

Sammy Kaye, featuring Nancy Norman & Billy Williams :

Evelyn Knight & The Jesters :

Previous Older Entries