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

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The Night   –   Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons

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

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

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geological cross-section of Lyme Regis bay

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

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

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

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

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

Beware of his promise. Believe what I say…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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mid-seventies Franki Valli 

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

But the night begins to turn your head around…

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

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My Pop Life #110 : Dreams – Joe Walsh

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Dreams   –   Joe Walsh

…off to waste the day plunging headlong…

For some reason it always feels indulgent to write about Lewes Priory school 1970 -75  and my teenage musical passions.  See for example My Pop Life #78 – a eulogy to Blue Öyster Cult.   I’m not embarrassed about any of the music I listened to then – or since – and I deride the notion of ‘guilty pleasures’ when it comes to music, as if there is a canon of excellence that we must worship publicly and then privately enjoy our own rather suspect taste.  The Alan Partridge joke about liking Abba and Wings – because they’re “not cool”.   In this scenario the supposedly “cool” bands are usually skinny white guys playing atonal miserablism.  My taste has widened considerably since 1973 but my enthusiasm for The Velvet Underground (and those they influenced) still hovers around ‘lukewarm’.

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But this song is still an unalloyed joy for me.  The Joe Walsh LP  “The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get” was released in america on my birthday, June 18th 1973, and three months later in England.  I have no idea from whence it came among my friends, perhaps the opening track Rocky Mountain Way caught somebody’s ear, or perhaps Andy Holmes just went ahead and bought it after sitting on a beanbag with headphones on in Virgin Records at Brighton Clocktower.  Or perhaps I did – but where I got the idea who knows ?  I don’t remember Rocky Mountain Way (Joe Walsh’s most famous song) being played on the radio.  Anyway – there is was, this amusingly-titled LP which acknowledged our new favourite past-time (getting stoned) with a brightly-coloured cover design and a selection of rather brilliant songs.  I associate this whole LP with happiness.  Sitting somewhere rolling a joint on the LP cover, glueing rizlas together, burning hashish  (invariably – grass was very rare in 1973) into little brown worms and sprinkling them evenly among the Golden Virgina, Old Holborn or Players Number Six cigarette broken down.  The music washing over us as we pass the joint among us, people nodding, agreeing on stuff, giggling, being witty and honest.  The best kind of getting high, when there’s simply nothing else to worry about.

Featured imageThere’s a section in the middle :  “she’s easy on my mind…she thinks my jokes are funny, makes me feel fine..” which reminds me of Miriam Ryle whom I started going out with halfway through the lower sixth.  My first love.  She wore Diorella and flower-print dresses.   I think that’s a great lyric, the idea of a girl being “easy on your mind”.   But the lyric also reminds me of my wife now, Jenny, who still laughs at my jokes.  I try to make her laugh every day, and if we’re not having a punch-up I succeed.  Makes me feel fine.

The song is a beautiful homage to being relaxed in a way that seems impossible today.  Having nothing to do.  Sitting on the grass somewhere.  Going for a walk.  Going for a drive, nowhere in particular.  The music has a marvellous lazy laid-back feel, minimal instrumentally but hugely effective and evocative of an endless summer’s day when time seems to stop and allow you to step off for a while.  Where did those days go?

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Joe Walsh’s band at this point were called Barnstorm – they’d done one album previous to this which is also brilliant, called “Barnstorm” and also produced by the great Bill Szymczyk.  How do you pronounce that? Kenny Passarelli played bass. Rocke Grace joined on keys. But Joe Vitale on drums, synths and flute was a particularly important collaborator for Walsh, and wrote and co-wrote some of these songs.  His influence is very musical, as opposed to the rocky flavours of some of the rest of the LP – but to be fair, Joe Walsh has a huge musical palette and always has.   He emerged from various east-coast bands to join The James Gang in 1968, recording three studio LPs with them including the tracks Funk#49, Walk Away, Collage and Ashes The Rain & I.   All tremendous.   After The Smoker You Drink LP, Walsh was asked to join The Eagles and they proceeded to record Hotel California, Walsh sharing guitar theatrics on that song with Don Felder.  I saw this line-up live in 1976 at Wembley Arena, thrilled to bits to be witnessing one of my teen idols live.  They played Rocky Mountain Way and possibly one more (Time Out?) but it was an Eagles concert and so they remain the only two songs I’ve ever seen Joe play of his own.

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However I just bought two tickets to see him at The Beacon Theatre New York City on October 1st 2015.  Unbelievably he is re-united with Joe Vitale for this show. This is a big deal.

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Joe is a hugely likeable person by all accounts – he visits the same AA group in Hollywood as one of my friends – and his other big hit “Life’s Been Good” is testament to his sense of humour about money, fame and success.  As a rock guitarist I don’t think he’s ever been bettered with the sole exception of Jimi Hendrix but like Jimi he also has a gentle lyrical side and a beautiful delicate touch, none more so than on this song, a wistful evocation of plunging headlong into a relaxed endless day where you will do absolutely nothing.  Taking the time for dreams…  

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

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Then Came The Last Days Of May   –   Blue Öyster Cult

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

I’m leaving soon, the others are already there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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guitarmy

My Pop Life #19 : Y Sharp – Osibisa

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Y Sharp   –   Osibisa

There was a moment at school when it all went music.  It certainly wasn’t in a music lesson.  I didn’t even do the O level music exam I enjoyed it so little.  Mr Richards taught us in the 4th year and I took in one of my singles – “Jig A Jig” by East Of Eden.  Maybe I’ll do a post on it later (see My Pop Life #141).   He hated it.   I hated him.   But he couldn’t kill my love of music, the kind of music that came out of the radio, the stereo, and then suddenly LIVE GIGS.  I actually can’t remember what the first live gig I saw was.  So blurred that whole period, my mum going in and out of different psychiatric hospitals, me staying with friends – Pete’s, Simon’s or Conrad’s houses, or once with Simon Lester’s mum & dad in Chiddingly.  Sometimes staying in Hailsham and holding down the fort, paying the milkman, doing the shopping.  I think it kind of depended on what was happening to Paul (now 13) and Andrew (9).  And then Rebecca was born.  My timeline is confused here, things overlap and run parallel, dissolve and get swapped around.  But in the 5th year while I was doing O levels we had a ‘new kid’ in our class who sat at the back near me & Simon & Andrew Birch and his name was Andrew Holmes.  With great creativity and wit we immediately nicknamed him Sherlock.  He had musical enthusiasm and liked to drum with me on the desktop before Mr Knight came in – and we went to our first live gig together – at Sussex University – to see Osibisa.  What a great gig that was.  If you don’t know them they were – and still are – a jazz-funk afro-pop rock latin fusion outfit formed in London by Ghanaians Teddy Osei, Sol Armarfio and Mac Tontoh, Nigerian Loughty Lassisi Amao and West Indians Spartacus R, Robert Bailey and Wendell Richardson.  The magnificent seven.  Their sound is unique to them.  Criss cross rhythms that explode with happiness.  They had the distinct advantage in 1971 of having their first LP produced by the great Tony Visconti, and cover art drawn by the prog artist Roger Dean (who now lives in Lewes) famed for Yes, Atomic Rooster and Gentle Giant. His flying elephant for Osibisa was iconic.

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But of course live they were simply outstanding, and have continued to be so for the last forty years – playing African music for western ears 20 years before the term “World Music” was coined, and they are a simply tremendous band.  I bought the 2nd LP above “Woyaya” and played it endlessly in 1973.

Around this time people started bringing guitars into school and playing them in the common room.  Older kids in the 6th form were in cool bands such as The Grobs.  There were actually three great drummers in the year above ours  – Patrick Freyne (whom I later played in a band with & who also played in my wedding band with Simon, Andrew Ranken, Joe and others), Andrew Ranken himself (who went out with Simon’s sister Deborah, played in The Grobs and later became The Pogues drummer) and Pete Thomas (who has played with Elvis Costello since the 1st LP My Aim Is True).  Stephen Wood played the accordion, piano and everything else and later went on to win an Oscar for his soundtrack writing.  So when kids in my year started playing guitars and talking about playing in bands I knew I had to be in that number when the saints went marching in.  But I was at least six months behind already.  I tried picking up an acoustic but it hurt my fingers and I was clumsy – my fingers aren’t that long.  Now what?  Another groovy kid in the year above (god those year-above kids were SO INFLUENTIAL!), one John Mote – whose dad owned an antique shop in Cliffe High Street (before they were ubiquitous) – was selling an alto saxophone.  I saved up some money from (where?) my Sunday paper round probably -the instrument cost me £35.  It was a huge amount of money in those days, especially to me, but I still have that instrument today – a silver Boosey & Hawkes 1936 alto with a Selmer C mouthpiece.

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John may have given me a book too called “How To Play The Saxophone” but I only picked up the basics, and even then some fundamentals whizzed over my head.  Luckily I thought, the fingering was the same as for the recorder, which I’d learnt at Selmeston Primary with Miss Lamb the legendary Miss Lamb.   C, B, A, G, F, E, D, C.  The sharps and flats were a bit different.  And actually getting a sound out of it was really different.  Initially impossible.  Then, some off-key honking.  Squeaks.  Pigs being murdered.   Dying geese.  My mum had the patience of Job because, while she used to bang the ceiling with a broomstick when Jimi Hendrix got too loud, she never did when I was learning how to play the sax.  Bless her.   I eventually put a pair of rolled up socks into the bell, which dampened the sound somewhat.

And that’s where Y Sharp comes in.  It has a fairly simple opening refrain, played on trumpet and saxophone over the rolling guitar.  If memory serves, D-C-B-A.  The D would have to be played on the higher octave meaning the thumb would come into play.   And the rhythm was staccato, meaning I had to tongue the reed to get those punctuated notes.   I played this damn song over and over and over again, before I moved on to the second phrase, and played that over and over and over until I’d got that too.  After about six months (can it be?) I applied for band membership as a saxophone player.   I knew there weren’t any other sax players in Lewes Priory.   I’d shortcut myself into the most exclusive club in the school – the band.