My Pop Life #92 : Cities – Talking Heads

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Cities   –   Talking Heads

…there’s good points !  and bad points ! 

it all works out…..sometimes I’m a little freaked out…

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August 1979 I was a Batchelor of Law with a 2:2.   It was ‘only’ a 2:2 because I didn’t do any work.   I didn’t do any work because I wasn’t motivated.   I wasn’t motivated because I wasn’t going to be a lawyer.   I wasn’t going to be a lawyer  because I was going to be an actor – but not yet.   Not yet because I was saving up to go to Latin America with brother Paul for a whole year.   I was going out with Mumtaz, but I was going, I was leaving, I was going to Mexico!  To Bogota !  To Lima !  Rio ! Ten dollars a day.  That’s $3650 I needed to make, on top of the plane fare to Mexico City.  I had a plan, and I’d already started to carry it out.  At the end of my last year at LSE I’d seen a notice on the ubiquitous noticeboard – it’s what we did before the internet – saying “Student wanted to paint exterior of house for cash” – and I’d answered it.   It was a guy in Pinner – I can’t remember his connection to the LSE – and I met him and he agreed that I was the chap for the job.  He provided all the paint, brushes and scaffolding and all I had to do was turn up every day and paint those damn windows and doors.

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West Hampstead Jubilee Line to Wembley, then Metropolitan line to Pinner.   If you’ve never been there, well it’s very English in a certain suburban kind of way.  Did Elton John come from there?  It’s a suburb of North West London, part of Harrow in fact.    It was actually a really pleasant summer holiday’s work, his wife was sweet, she made me tea at intervals and I had a radio like all British workmen.

This is the sort of wanker I was in those days : one day at lunch I was chatting about this and that with his wife – they were in their 50s I guess, I was 22, and I asked her what he did for a living?  She said he was in business and left it at that.  I demurred.  I didn’t like business I said.  I didn’t believe in business.  She was quite shocked but too polite to be annoyed.  She simply said that business was necessary.   I remember that conversation quite clearly.  funny the things you remember and the things you don’t.  But I was clearly a wanker who thought he was Elvis Costello “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me“.   Anyway.   I also had blues – amphetamine sulphate in tablet form, otherwise known as speed, powder blue in colour, which I was then dealing from behind the bar at the Scala All-Nighter on Saturdays (see My Pop Life #23) and eating the proceeds.   Literally.   Come lunchtime on the scaffold outside the Pinner house I was starting to flag, so I’d pop a couple of blues and hi-dippetty-dee, whistle while you work.  Sing-alonga radio one.   Of course then the comedown would come crashing in around 6pm or so, because I couldn’t take two more or I’d be up all night so I would start to slump and frazzle just after I’d got back to Tower Mansions in West End Lane where I lived with Pete, Sali and Nick (see My Pop Life #59) and to soften the deadening empty slump of a blues comedown what do you do?  Yes.  You roll a joint.  And then another.  And listen to music with your mates.

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Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, David Byrne 1979

Reggae mainly, but also everything else : soul, jazz, Emmylou Harris, Frank Zappa,   and some classic post-punk singles in picture sleeves : Spizz Energi, The Slits, Buzzcocks, Shoes For Industry, Gang Of Four, PiL and so on.   Albums on the turntable that summer were Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps“, Robert Fripp’s “Exposure“, The Gang Of Four’s “Entertainment!“, Ry Cooder’s “Bop ‘Til You Drop“, and Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ “Do It Yourself“.  Punk had been pronounced dead by the critics – Sid Vicious had died in January, but The Clash released London Calling and Stiff Little Fingers produced a couple of classic singles – and pop was alive and kicking in the UK in the shape of Squeeze, Elvis Costello and the two-tone explosion – Madness, The Special and The Selector all broke through.  Disco was king though, Jackson’s Off The Wall and Chic’s Good Times and Donna Summer’s Bad Girls were ubiquitous records.

 But for me personally the LP that was head and shoulders above all the rest in 1979 was Talking Heads’ 3rd album “Fear Of Music“.

Featured imageFeatured imageI’d already seen them twice by then when they toured England with the first LP “77” and the amazing second LP “More Songs About Building And Food” which I still love to death.  How could their third LP be better than THAT?  Well it was, and is.  “Fear Of Music” is a giant concept album, a jittering funk-rock classic with jagged edges, bouncing bass lines and hooks and riffs and clever lyrics galore.  Most of the songs have single-word titles :  Air, Paper, Drugs, Mind and my favourite : Cities.

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The first line of the single was completely awesome: as the music fades up :

Think of London : small city…

Is he kidding ?  London is huge.  I’d been living there three years and got to know it a bit – the West End, Honor Oak SE23 for my final year at LSE, West Hampstead, Hammersmith, Pinner ! – and Camden Town where I’d seen Talking Heads play in the Roundhouse, supported by Slaughter & The Dogs.

Featured imageLater in 1979 they would tour again with this album, this time playing Hammersmith Palais where everyone played that year : The B52s supported them this time I think.  They were so exciting, so poppy, so funky, so urgent, David Byrne would sing a line then skitter across the stage and they were as tight as any band I’ve seen.  Married couple Chris Frantz on the kit and Tina Weymouth on the bass, Jerry Harrison completing the line-up on keyboards.  They would go on to even greater success with “This is not my beautiful house” and “Road to Nowhere”, album producer Brian Eno would do a weird sampled-collage LP with David Byrne called My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, but this LP was just them at their pop peak, or maybe just before it.

dark… dark in the daytime…

people sleep… sleep in the daytime

if they want to – if they want to !

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It had a black sleeve with raised dashes on it like a weird manhole cover and neon green lettering : Fear Of Music.  Jerry Harrison designed the sleeve and came up with the title.   It was art-pop, it was post-punk, it was music for head, hands and feet.  We loved that band.

..did I forget to mention, forget to mention Memphis ? 

home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks…

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

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St. Elmo’s Fire   –   Brian Eno

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

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

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

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

My Pop Life #54 : Art Decade – David Bowie

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Art Decade   –   David Bowie

The first time I met David Bowie I made the mistake of telling him that Low was my favourite LP of his.  Well to be honest I think I may have actually said that I held Low and Heroes and Lodger, all three with Brian Eno collaborating, in very high regard, but that Low was, for me, the best.   Christ I actually said that like a pompous little twerp.  He was gracious and smiled, said thank you, but scarcely bothered with me for the rest of the evening.   Sigh.

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How to pick a favourite David Bowie LP ?  Many people go Hunky Dory and have done with it.  Many others, and I’m tempted here, go Aladdin Sane.  It’s fantastic, but includes a cover of Let’s Spend The Night Together and I wish it didn’t.  Station To Station is perfection, but so is Low in my book.  Heroes is amazing.  Ziggy Stardust is teenage genius music.  And I have a huge soft spot for Space Oddity.  Scary Monsters is outstanding. Many plump for the blue-eyed soul of Young Americans. As for the rest, well they’re simply brilliant, rather than out-of-this-world hyperbole.

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My first real memory of DB was – like most people’s – Starman on TOTP, draping his arm languidly around Mick Ronson and singing the chorus with ineffable cool.  I followed his every move from that point on, though oddly didn’t go to see the Ziggy Stardust show at The Dome in Brighton when I could have – I’m sure I had some fucked-up teenage justification at the time.  Twat.

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By the time I met him, in 1991, I’d seen him three times, all at Earl’s Court on the Stage tour in 1978, which was a marvellous band with Adrian Belew, Roger Powell and Simon House joining Bowie’s rhythm section guitarist Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis on drums and George Murray on bass.   The show featured the Low and Heroes songs, with stuff from Ziggy and the mighty song Station To Station for a punchline.  He couldn’t have got any higher in my estimation at each stage of his career, from 1972 through to Let’s Dance.  Then he took a few years off from being David Bowie and joined a band called Tin Machine which I wasn’t too fond of, but his legacy was already untouchable, untouched by any other artist I was aware of.

But then to make all of these outstanding albums, then take a sabbatical and come back with Hours, Reality, Heathen and recently The Next Day speaks to a genius at work, a man who can’t help but keep twisting and turning, creating new, interesting, artful work.  And yes Bowie fans, I have’t mentioned Earthling, Diamond Dogs, Tonight etc.  It’s been a long beautiful career.   He’s truly in a class of his own.

In 1988 I’d been cast in Scandal which Stephen Woolley was producing, I had about five days work that summer with John Hurt, Roland Gift, Arkie Whiteley and Joanne Whalley before she met Kilmer.  July 20th of that blessed year I embark on a day the like of which I would not revisit, but which seemed at the time both sweet and natural.  Visiting Bruce Robinson and Richard E. Grant on the set of How To Get Ahead In Advertising at Shepperton Studios, hanging with old mates from the Withnail shoot before I drove back to Soho to the Scandal location, Bridget Fonda said hi from Lee Drysdale an old Scala mate (see My Pop Life #23) and Stephen and I left to find Forest Whitaker at The George public house, corner of Wardour St and D’Arblay St, with Stephen’s American co-producer Kerry.

I had organised tickets to see Steven Berkoff’s Greek at Wyndhams Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, so Stephen Woolley, Forest Whitaker Kerry and myself walked down there to watch Bruce Payne and Steven tearing it up onstage.   I’d worked with both these fellows in Berkoff’s West at the Donmar some years earlier, and this was the best play of Steven’s I’d seen.  Afterwards we went backstage to Bruce’s dressing room to congratulate and pass love.  Some crowd in there !  There was David Bowie.  “Ralph, this is David;  David, Ralph”  said Bruce, as casually as he could, which was pretty casual I’ll give him that.  Stephen and Forest had decided to chip because they were both working early the next morning…I stuck around as a veritable cornucopia of glitterati filled the dressing room with glamour, some kissing and leaving, others hanging around.  After some time dinner was suggested at Cafe Pelican, a French-style brasserie just across the street and my favourite hangout in the West End.

We sat down at the furthest table from the door and DB sat with his back to the room.  I was opposite him and looked around the table.  Iman.  Steven Berkoff.  Clara Fisher, musician, Steven’s partner.  Bruce.  Me.  Gary Oldman.  Ann Mitchell.  Lesley Manville.  David Bowie.  We ordered, we drank wine, we chatted, we laughed, it was relaxed, charming, easy.   I think we were eating when Gary brought up Nick Roeg, film director that he’d just shot Track 29 with, who’d also worked with David on Man Who Fell To Earth.  Common ground.  And that was when chippy me chipped in with my cultured assessment of Low.   Sorry but I flipping love that album.  It sounds like proper science fiction pop music.   I mean, Brian Eno was another hero of mine since the days of Roxy, I’d bought all his solo stuff, now he was collaborating with Bowie??   Anyway back to Le Cafe Pelican ’89.  Ah well.  David had been friendly and interested up to that point with me, now there was a slight but noticeable withdrawal.  I became fanboy.  It was the most glamourous evening I’d ever had, and possibly will ever have and despite my faux pas, I was glowing and happy.

Next time I saw Stephen I told him what had happened.  He’d worked with Bruce and David Bowie on Absolute Beginners, where they’d all met, and he gave me some words of advice.  Good words.  “When you meet people like Bowie, don’t talk to them about their work, it makes them uncomfortable.  Talk about other people’s work – Brando, Lennon, Picasso.  Anyone but him.”  So wise.   But hey.  I’m a young soul on this earth, and I sometimes behave like one.

So.  What is my favourite David Bowie LP ?  Christ knows.  Who cares, right ?  Now, once again, it’s Low, recorded with Brian Eno, produced by the great Tony Visconti, partly inspired by The Man Who Fell To Earth (sci-fi pop!) partly a response to Berlin, Bowie’s new career in a new town, and his coming off and down from a cocaine addiction sustained at least since Diamond Dogs.  This is one of the lesser-celebrated tracks, but my favourite from the windswept moonscapes of side two:  Art Decade.  But the album is, essentially, perfect.

My Pop Life #22 : Ladytron – Roxy Music

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Ladytron   –   Roxy Music

You’ve got me girl on the run around, run around got me all around town

June 1973, Lewes Priory 5th form are doing their O Levels – for some reason I’m only doing six – English Literature, English Language, Geography, History, a split course Biology/Chemistry and Latin.  I know.  Latin.  I hated it.  The teacher was a permanently drunk Welshman called Dai Jones and I learned nothing and failed the exam with a 9.  The lowest possible score.  I’d already done French, Art and Maths in the 4th year, and the following year in the Lower Sixth I would take Geology which was my favourite subject of all time.   I very nearly did a degree in Geology because I loved it so, particularly the section-maps going underground to reveal the layered rocks beneath, which you had to draw only from surface evidence – wow that was cool.   I still love those maps.   Had I followed that particular nose I would have been lost to all but the oil companies  I suspect, perhaps the main reason, in the end, that I decided to do Law instead.   But in the 5th year all these considerations were way off.   There was a mini-cultural explosion in mid-June when the LP Roxy Music was released and kids started carrying the distinctive blue and pink cover with Kari-Ann Muller giving us her pin-up flex around the school corridors.

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16-year old boys with pin-up LP covers !  Further examination revealed a music that none of us had even imagined before, let alone heard.   This was a musical box of chocolates with every shape, flavour and colour and we became obsessed, none more so than me.   I couldn’t get enough of this record and played it to death over the summer of ’73, with the result that my younger brother Paul, turning 14, became an even bigger Roxy Music fanatic than me – almost an impossible feat!   Deep inside the carefully-designed sleeve were more delights, pin-ups of the band members who appeared to have beamed down from an outer space glamour convention, the lot “designed” by Anthony Price.

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Well Graham Simpson on bass looks pretty Andy-Williams-normal.  But Andy Mackay became my new saxophone guru although he also played the oboe and could do things that I couldn’t even contemplate on the saxophone, nevertheless I did play along with Ladytron from time to time, a moment that sums up everything about Roxy for me at that time – Mackay’s sax and Phil Manzanera’s electric guitar playing a harmonic riff together while a mental piano plinks and plonks some kind of rhythm around it under an odd electronic bubbling from weirdo Brian Eno (bottom middle in the pic above), making it all sound sci-fi, and still everything, and I mean everything is rooted to the rock-solid rock-steady drums of Paul Thompson (with a tiger on his shoulder above).   And Ferry, above all else, Bryan Ferry’s vocals, mannered, exquisite, English, haunted, pleading, romantic.   I worshipped the man.   This feeling grew over the ensuing three years as further LPs came out, costumes were worn, lyrics were caressed.    But for now all I had to go on was this picture, these strange but compelling gentlemen from the planet Rock which was in this incarnation planet  Roxy.   Some of them were wearing make-up!   They were clearly obsessed with style as much as music.  With glamour more than chasing a hippie dream.  That summer my first eyeshadow was bought, and worn, although not around the council estate where I lived.   I knew that young men were a little sensitive about these matters.

When I listen to the LP today it still has the same effect on me as it did when I was a 16-year old boy.   It thrills me to the core with it’s daring clashes of style, it’s thunderous drumming which anchors every splash of electro-wierdness, the oboe, the guitar, the lyrics about Humphrey Bogart, about World War Two, about Brief Encounter, but above all else a huge confident new sound, rooted in rock’n’roll but re-made, re-modelled for the future.   It became my musical badge of honour and remains my favourite of their LPs.   I have them all of course, and all of Ferry’s solo output and Brian Eno’s.   This LP is a pinnacle of art-rock, and they would never return there.   I’ve seen them live too, and met the man, but that’s for a later conversation.  For now, just listen to those castanets, and the sheer thrill of the beat doubling up for the instrumental drive-by.  Sensational music.