My Pop Life #55 : Help! – The Beatles

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Help !   –   The Beatles

…when I was young, oh so much younger than today,

I never needed anybody’s help in any way 

but now these days are gone I’m not so self-assured

now I find I’ve changed my mind I’ve opened up the doors

1965, Selmeston, East Sussex.  Andrew is one year old and things are not going well with Mum.  Later she would blame the amount of air and gas she was given by the midwife during the birth, but who knows why she felt she could no longer cope with life in a small village with three young boys?  The world collapsed when she was admitted to Hellingly Hospital as a patient, suffering from a mental breakdown.  I didn’t know what was going on, so what chance did Paul and Andrew, my younger brothers have?  Nan travelled up from Portsmouth to help my dad, who still had to go to work every day, teaching kids English in Falmer School near Brighton.  Nan was my mum’s mum and kindly, with a tough edge.  Her favourite swear word was “sod”.  As in “ooh, he’s a sod”.   I can’t remember who the sod was, but there were a few around. mainly on telly I think.  I cannot remember the date when mum was admitted, but it was during school term, possibly May or June.

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Pretty sure that’s our house at the far end, slightly higher and off the road

The following day and for about a week, I went to school – a fifteen minute walk up the village – in my grandad’s black hat, which kind of fitted me.  I was 8 years old.  Miss Lamb, the venerable headmistress didn’t say anything until the end of the week, when she had a quiet word in my ear and asked me not to wear it the following week.

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Me aged about 8

We visited Mum in Hellingly a few times, stressful, strained occasions where the effects of whatever medication they were administering were obvious – she was tired and lethargic, but happy to see us.  Some of these memories survived in my first screenplay, for the film “New Year’s Day” (2001) which is very loosely based on my youth.

We didn’t know how long she’d be in there, but she was given ECT at least twice – Electro-Convulsive Therapy where they strap you to a couch put something on your tongue and shoot electricity through your brain giving you an induced fit.  I’ve seen a documentary on the procedure since with Jonathan Miller talking about how little they know about why it works – when it does.

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This looks like Miss Lamb’s house next to the village school

From that moment on, my mum would be the subject of various new treatments and theories which abounded in the 1960s regarding how to treat depression, usually some new drug which would be tested in the field on her and all the other women and men going through the same thing.  Her doctor at Hellingly was Dr Maggs.  He diagnosed manic depression, probably gave her Largactyl, a massive downer.  I got to know all of these drugs years later, both from our kitchen cupboard and later when I worked as a nursing assistant at Laughton Lodge.  For now, I was an eight-year-old boy wearing my grandad’s hat to school, to cover my dark abandoned scared feelings.

My mum was in Hellingly for 9 months.  A gestation of a new life for me, for all of us, without her.  Things would never be the same after that.

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Help is a John Lennon song through and through, one of his best.  So dramatic and hooked with feeling.  Later he would describe it as a release from being bottled up in the Beatles glass enclosure for years, the pressure of success, being holed up in hotel rooms under siege from press and fans, of having to explain every detail of every element of your life, your songs, your clothes, your haircuts.  They dealt with all of it really well, I almost remember the press conferences from that era better than the songs:  the jokes, the verbal sparring, the deflection of any difficulty or awkwardness with scouse wit and quick-thinking and solidarity.  But by 1965 the strain was beginning to show, the answers less smart-arse, more weary :

Help is a glimpse of the world beneath those likely lad grins and chuckles, the cry of a young man floating in space without anchor or centre of gravity, who was supposed to be happy because it was all going so well.  A breakout from the shell of protection, the rictus grin of appearances, the secret heart exposed : camouflaged as a great pop song.

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For me 1965/66 was the year when I created that shelter, day by day stitched together a carapace around my heart which would protect me from further pain, started to create a protective layer of survival.  I felt capable of doing that.  After removing the hat I had to walk up that little road exposed to the sky, and I learned to enclose my feelings, my pain and distress, with a character who got on with it, who coped, who survived.  Who looked after his younger brother Paul.   This new coping, private character took over my entire being over the following 15 years as things progressed, deteriorated, wobbled and left me exposed with unsteady regularity.  I would look after my brothers, and the house once Mum and Dad were divorced, but that was a year away, after Mum came home.  The story of her coming home is frightening, but I’ll save it for another song.

My real and true feelings escaped just as I went to sleep at night upstairs with Paul in the room alongside me in his own bed.  Large inchoate shapes would start to appear in the corners of the room, like Play Doh blobs of grey, heavy bulging clouds of unnerving malevolent solidity which moved closer around my eyes until they were all I could see.  I don’t remember telling anyone about that.

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I love Ringo’s drum roll before the first verse, I love Paul and George’s backing vocals especially the harmonies over help me get my feet back on the ground, but mostly I love John Lennon’s voice : grainy, gritty yet melodic and true.  The last harmony on the vocals at the end of the song is unfeasibly sweet.   They were at the height of their power, where they would stay for another 4 years.  I was at the depths of my weakness, and forever afterward lived in fear of repeating it.  I built my heart’s castle wall from the mud of Selmeston village.  I wouldn’t start to unravel it until I was in my mid-fifties.

And now my life has changed in oh so many ways
My independence seems to vanish in the haze
But every now and then I feel so insecure
I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before

live, August 1965:

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My Pop Life #39 : Knocks Me Off My Feet – Stevie Wonder

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Knocks Me Off My Feet   –   Stevie Wonder

…but there’s something ’bout your love… that makes me weak and knocks me off my feet…

It is an indication of how musically unformed I was at the time that I didn’t rush out and buy Talking Book when it came out in 1972 –  I saw Stevie Wonder singing Superstition on Top Of The Pops one Thursday evening.  I liked it – and ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life‘ – but it wasn’t until I was 16 and hanging around with girls that the magic started to work it’s course under my skin, into my bones.  Tanya Myers was in the year below me and friends with other girls that Simon knew mainly called Jane.  We were at Tanya’s house in 1973 – she was gorgeous but I was with Miriam Ryle at this point – and we listened to Innervisions from start to finish.  Quite soon after that I bought it, and Talking Book, then late in 1976 Songs In The Key Of Life, a double album with an extra single inside the packaging, 21 songs in all.  By then I had also heard Fulfillingness’ First Finale since Mumtaz owned it and we listened to it a lot, I think at some point in my mid 20s (the soul years) I bought Music Of My Mind from 1971.   

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Thus we have the run of LPs from 71-76 that represent a Himalayan mountain range of musical excellence, with Songs In the Key Of Life being most folk’s pinnacle moment.  It’s hard to have favourites with Stevie Wonder, but mine is Innervisions.   And if you go back to 1970 there’s another superb LP called Where I’m Coming From which was his final LP under the first contract with Tamla Motown and is the true beginning of Stevie making the music he wanted to make, rather like Marvin Gaye his label stablemate, who made What’s Goin’ On in the same year, with the same desire to stretch out beyond the pop confines of Motown.  And beyond 1976 is the pause for breath before the brilliant but uneven indulgence of Secret Life Of Plants in 1979 and 1980’s genuine masterpiece Hotter Than July and on into the 1980s with more wonderful music (Overjoyed is outright stunning) right up to the present day.  A Time 2 Love was released in 2005 and is a five star piece of writing and singing, a really great LP that everyone inexplicably ignored.  But critical focus has always been on that run of five albums from 71-76 when Stevie wrote every song (some co-writes) played almost every instrument, arranged and produced every song after teaching himself how to play every instrument (and he’s an excellent drummer as youtube will testify).  Of course the list of credits on Songs.. is as long as your arm though, trumpet players, vibes, harps, singers.

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I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time sitting at a piano trying to play Stevie Wonder songs.  There are chord books.  I’ve got three of them.   Before the internet of course.  I think “Golden Lady” was the first one I could play all the way through.  I learned about complicated music via Stevie Wonder.  The Beatles Songbook taught me the major, the minor, the sixth and occasionally the seventh or major seventh.  Stevie Wonder taught me the minor 9th(last word of “you are the sunshine of my life), the diminished 5th (My Cherie Amour), the Gminor7th/ Eb bass (Golden Lady), the Bbminor9(11) (Lately).   You’re into an arena where each chord voicing can be written any number of ways.  I had to count down the stave to find out  what they are.  The chords sound amazing, stretched, deep, rich.   Apparently he learned keyboards at Hitsville USA in Detroit singing hits with The Funk Brothers, (Motown’s backing band of jazzers who played on every song the label produced) “he’d come up to me and ask me ‘what chord is that – show me'” said Earl Van Dyke the main keyboard player.

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I’ve seen Stevie live three times.  First time : Wembley Arena, 1990.  Second time 02 London 2009. Third time last Sunday April 12th 2015 Barclays Centre Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn.  It’s a basketball arena so it’s like sitting inside a nutshell, tight, steep sides, all great views.  We had floor seats because we’d missed this show in October at Madison Square Garden, thinking a friend would be able to get us in, sometimes in life You Have To Buy The Ticket.  So these were “expensive” in the vernacular but I would have paid triple, quintuple.  It was overwhelming.

He came onstage with India Arie guiding him and stood still – to a standing ovation naturally.  He thanked us and said it was his honour to be able to play the show tonight for us.  It made me wonder how old he is, a question that went up and down our row of seats throughout the show.  When he smiles he looks under 40 years old.  At other points, singing blues, he looked 80.  He spoke softly about wanting to play us the whole of his 1976 masterpiece Songs In The Key Of Life, then sat down at the keyboard and the concert began.  Immediate goosebumps, eyewater and hairs on the back of the neck rising as the singers moaned the opening harmonies to Love’s In Need Of Love Today. “Good morn or evening friends, here’s your friend the announcer…”  I was crying by this point, 30 seconds into the show.

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So hard to place into readable words what was happening at this show.   So just a few facts before I melt into hyperbole.  Village Ghetto Land had a twelve-piece string section.  Contusion showcased the guitar players in a red-hot jazz funk workout.  Sir Duke destroyed the building when the six horn players stood up and stabbed it to death – we could feel it all over, everyone was on their feet dancing and stayed there for the irresistible groove of I Wish when we all transported ourselves back to childhood for the song.  Then I was in tears again for Knocks Me Off My Feet which is one of the first songs I learned on the piano, and is in my Stevie top five.   Then he took a noodle on the piano and started making the singers copy his vocal trills.  One at a time, talking to them, mimicking their voices, making them sing complex vocal melodies that he made up on the spot.  At one point the three women stage right – who were all unfeasibly gorgeous and busty by the way – broke into En Vogue’s Hold On before Stevie stopped them and told them to be quiet.  He was in such a great mood.  Then he got the lead violinist – a local chap – stand up and play, solo.  Believe me when I say he took his moment, astonishing work.  Then Stevie stood up and took the mic and the sharp sad strings of Pastime Paradise sliced through the arena, as the band were joined by a choir for the final heart-rending moments.

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Summer Soft was immaculate, Ordinary Pain was fierce, then on came India Arie in a science fiction dress and hat to help him sing Saturn, one of my favourite songs.   Then Stevie stood up unassisted and walked across to the stand-up joanna, or tack piano, honky-tonk to you.   A ripple of relieved applause made him turn “What you clapping for?  You think I’m not gonna make it?”  We laughed.  “I been lying about being blind for the last two years – I can see y’all!’  and into latin-jazz showtune Ebony Eyes, complete with talkbox tube guitar effect and cracking sax solo and we were into the interval.

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Everyone’s eyes were glazed, people were smiling, Tony Gerber and I were stunned, sat down, Lynn Nottage and Jenny went to the ladies together.  The french harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet who played the opening to Have A Talk With God was talking with his friends just in front of us and I thank him for the gig, he thanks Stevie.   Stevie was trying so hard to be ordinary, joking, using a faux english accent, messing about musically but then in the middle of a song I would find myself staring at him singing and thinking “OH MY GOD IT’S STEVIE WONDER”.

Part two opened with Stevie introducing us to his grand-daughter who is about 2 years old and said ‘Hello’ which took us into “Isn’t She Lovely” and the greatest harmonica playing I have ever witnessed in my life.  More tears, another highlight.  Somehow the next song – un-noticed by me usually – was even better, even more emotional.  Joy Inside My Tears became a church-hall testimony as Stevie pounded the keyboard and shook his fists at the sky and the crowd roared its approval.  Amazing moments.  Black Man continued the hot-tempo passion as the band moved into funk workout mode and steam started rising from the stage.  Jenny shouted “Harriet Tubman – A Black Woman” at Lynn at the appropriate moment.  Now they were using some of the original sounds and quotes from the LP and as we slid slinkliy into All Day Sucker, which is funk cubed, the roof was being raised.   Stevie then stood up with his harmonica and walked over to the side of the stage and performed the quirky exotic instrumental Easy Goin’ Evening with the other harmonica player and the sax player.  This was a moment to treasure, I’ve never heard anything like it.  It sounded like a gypsy lament.  You could hear the proverbial pin drop.  India Arie and singer Jessica Cruz joined him for Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing which was beautiful and joyful and happy.  All the actual songs from the LP Songs In The Key Of Life – the 21 jewels in the crown – were presented with incredible attention to detail, real passion and love and clearly the players were all experts.  They each had a place in the sun, a moment to themselves, and they all took it with pride and aplomb.

Then, Stevland Morris, 64 years old (Jenny correctly guessed) back centre stage, produced an odd-looking lap instrument – a zither ? that appeared to have at least 12 strings and sounded like an electric guitar with effects, but he played it like a piano.  Although it had a fretboard.  He started chatting to us.  He started playing notes, anything, noodling.  “We’re musicians, we like to jam”.  It’s called a harpejji.   I heard Yesterday, Mrs Robinson, and many other snatches of melody that I can’t remember already – two days later ! – before settling on the four-chord cycle of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’ and India Arie joined him as he covered the whole song.  Then he asked India to sing “Wonderful” her own tribute song to Stevie.  He liked that. He asked us if we liked it, and we said yes, so he asked us to sing along to ‘Tequila‘ a 1958 hit from The Champs (!)  (You’ll know it.)  Next was Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel and we were in Stevie Karaoke land.  He made us sing (ladies first, then gentlemen) a melody line that he’d just made up.  We belted it out.  These excursions into covers, improvisations and chat seemd like a way of taking the monumentality out of the show.  A hugely influential double-LP played live as if it were a classical piece  – which it is obviously – interrupted by rehearsed jams.  Chat.  Jokes jokes.  But they only served to deepen the intimacy already present in our  knowledge and love for the LP, carried inside us for years as a treasure, now unfolding before us, not as an edifice, but as an old friend, a jam session in Stevie’s sound world.  His continual reference to his blindness had the same effect : “I see it how I hear it” .   But the monumental feeling remained : the temple of love was real.

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And then we were hushed and Stevie explained that the world’s premier harpist who’d played on the album in 1976 – a black woman called Dorothy Ashby – would be accompanying him on If It’s Magic, but that since she died in 1986 they would be using the original music from the LP as a backing track. Stevie sang it perfectly, mimicking his 26-year old self – more tears, more vulnerable open hearts, more hand-holding as Jenny and I and thousands of people melted together.

Every time you hate on somebody you are blocking your blessing.  And your family’s blessing.  Your street’s blessing.  Your city’s blessing.  The world’s blessing.   We have to release the power of love.  It’s the most powerful force in the world.”

As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May
Just as hate knows love’s the cure
You can rest your mind assure
That I’ll be loving you always
As now can’t reveal the mystery of tomorrow
But in passing will grow older every day
Just as all is born is new
Do know what I say is true
That I’ll be loving you always

We’re on our feet, we’re singing, the entire band is on stage – two drummers, bass man Nate Watts (who has been with Stevie for decades) three guitars, two more keyboard players, six brass & woodwinds, two percussionists, six backing singers, twelve strings, 15 in the choir plus India Arie and Frédéric Yonnet, over 30 people are playing Another Star and we’re going to church in Stevie’s parlour, the joy is infectious and huge.

The don’t leave the stage after Stevie takes his bow and introduces us to every single member of his band, saying “Wow – we did it – we played it all – it’s 11.40”  we looked at our phones – he was right ! “we’re gonna play til midnight.  This is Stevie’s disco”  He had a table with button on it and we got bits of Boogie On Reggae Woman, Jungle Fever, Do I Do, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Uptight, then the whole band sang Living For The City (woo!) and Superstition (wow!) and that was it.

It was midnight and he’d been onstage (with a 20-minute interval) since 8.20.  We were lifted up into the night air and floated home, high.  It was a huge cultural moment, like watching Gustav Mahler conduct his 5th Symphony or Chopin playing the Ballades.   And yet he’d been so humble, so funny, so human. And one of the greatest singers I’ve ever witnessed in a live setting.   Knocked off my feet.

Songs In The Key Of Life.

My Pop Life #36 : Penny Lane – The Beatles

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Penny Lane   –   The Beatles

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway

Possibly the finest lyric from the 1960s or any other time, Paul McCartney is reminiscing about growing up in Liverpool.   This was a monster single when it came out in early 1967 on a double-A-side with John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, also a psychedelic childhood impressionistic work.   They were the first two songs (along with When I’m 64) to be recorded for their new LP Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but EMI wanted a spring single and producer George Martin offered them these, thus both songs were subsequently not included on that LP.   This double-A side of masterpiece pop theatre – surely one of the peaks of the entire genre of 7″ vinyl – was the first Beatles single since their debut Love Me Do in 1962 (unfeasibly only 5 long years earlier) to fail to reach the Number One position in the charts, being kept stubbornly in the Number Two position by Engelbert Humperdinck’s schmaltzy  “Release Me”.   It presaged the end of The Beatles as a completely dominant cultural force, although the single did reach Number One in the US and they would of course continue to make extraordinary music for the next three years together.

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Those are the facts.   Psycho-geographers and groove-diviners could probably find a mystical mid-way point between the two real locations of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields in Liverpool which would mark the actual centre of the pop universe.   It still thrills me to listen to it, the soaring harmonies, the bright blue suburban brass in the chorus, the English-pop confidence of the characters in & around the barbershop and the Goon-esque BBC comedy line “very strange” at the end of each verse.   Every time I go for a haircut I sing the opening line to myself  : “In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known”.    We meet the banker – clearly a lower-middle class figure of fun – was this a dim memory even in 1966? – the patriotic fireman with a portrait of The Queen in his pocket (more Englishness) and the nurse selling poppies (not real poppies, we somehow know this refers to Nov 11th Armistice Day and the wearing of poppies in remembrance of the war dead).   We get the illicit sexual behind-the-bus-shelter line “a four of fish and finger pies” which doesn’t refer to frozen food, and the fireman’s bell ringing a clear F sharp to herald in the simply magnificent piccolo trumpet solo, played on the session by David Mason, inspired by Paul watching him play it in Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto on the telly a few nights earlier.   Brilliantly engineered as ever by Geoff Emerick the result is a perfect encapsulation of childhood memory become pop art.

I’ve taken the trip down Penny Lane, been to Paul’s old house at 20 Forthlin Road where the teenage Beatles taught each other Little Richard and Chuck Berry songs, I’ve been to John’s Aunt Mimi’s house at 251 Menlove Avenue, (when John was “in my tree” in the back garden he could see Strawberry Fields) and then along to Strawberry Fields’ gate round the corner, seen a gig at the new Cavern and patronised other Beatles-related tourism in Liverpool.   All highly recommended, very well curated, and makes for a magical mystery tour of a day.  Or a week.

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I’ve bought the T-shirts, seen the tribute bands and even bought the road sign.   It hangs from my vibraphone, currently on loan to Charlotte Glasson from The Brighton Beach Boys, a band I played in for 10 years in Brighton.    I add hastily I wasn’t very good on the vibes, but really loved playing them.

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After being together for five years and mastering most of the Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats we moved on to Pet Sounds – the whole LP, then with an heroic attempt at the impossible decided to try Sgt Pepper.  Some bright spark (Neil Hayward of the Robin Hood pub in Brighton) suggested we play both LPs live back to back to settle the old baby-boomer argument about which was better. And so it was that for eight years consecutively we used to play all of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper live with a string quartet and brass & woodwinds in the Brighton Festival each spring.   These evenings remain as some of the very brightest moments in my life.

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We’d end the show and bring the house down with the final chord of A Day In The Life (it’s an E major popfans) and take the applause – then the first encore just had to be Penny Lane.  I played the alto line in the chorus.  Such joy.   Stephen Wrigley arranged the strings and brass.   Heroic work was undertaken by Dominic Nunns on the French Horn as he would play the piccolo trumpet solo and somehow hit that top note to a burst of applause mid song.  And lead vocal duties were delivered with uncanny accuracy by Glen Richardson who has a crush on St Paul anyway (and is also in a play, but has never sold poppies).

My knee jerk response to that impossible question “what is your favourite Beatles song?” is “Penny Lane” 90% of the time, when I’m not being a smart-arse, or just wallowing in some indulgence.  I love Strawberry Fields too of course, and playing that song live made me appreciate its brilliance even more.  I can’t compare the two songs, they are two sides of the same shiny acid-drenched musical coin, from my favourite musical era, the post-LSD 1960s when for about 2 years all the great songwriters and singers added harpsichords and bells, trumpets and brightly-coloured imagery to their work – Itchycoo Park, Autumn Almanac, I Can See For Miles, Sunshine Superman, See Emily Play.  But there is a purity to this song that eclipses all those great great songs – and it’s there, for me, in the simple, bright blinding light of the chorus:

“…Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes…”