My Pop Life #229 : Wish Tower – Glen Richardson

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Wish Tower  –  Glen Richardson

Morning came in seven flavours I tried every one

Stuffed my bags with chocolate fags and ran off home to mum

Had my little tryst with sunny Aberystwyth

But I missed the haunts of my youth

Kept all my daydreams as proof

Stuffed behind the station ticket booth

Careful of that melancholy morning.  I awoke today too early with a misty dream just out of reach and the opening lines of this song tiptoeing across my mind. I turned around and my cat Boy stood on me so I turned back and we made solace for a moment. Then he left for a warm spot but the song stayed.  I tried to remember the rest of it. I tried to go back to sleep.  Neither being successful I was left with one option. Get up, make a cup of tea, feed Boy (and Roxy who didn’t come down) and put on the headphones and listen to the song.  Tears sprang to my eyes as they usually do when I hear it, but this morning more than usual.

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The opening is curious until you reach the chorus but it resembles a trippy haunted memory of Eastbourne Pier and the bingo caller shouting over the plinks plonks and wooden planks of the penny arcade machines.  Childhood memories.  Chocolate fags were sweet cigarettes made of sugar for children to pretend they were smoking. Although the chocolate ones were perhaps more cigar-like. The sweet cigarettes were white.  Then we’re quickly off to Wales, the coastal town of Aberystwyth where the writer Glen studied music for 3 years.  Clearly one of the student activities was trying to find rhymes for the town name which Glen manages here with winning aplomb.  But home calls him back.  East Sussex.  The haunts of my youth.  The melancholia of autumn, halloween and the past in one short sweet line.  The final two lines of the first verse are just breathtaking though and they lift my heart while simultaneously bringing water to mine eyn.  His daydreams are stuffed behind the station ticket booth.  Glen lived in Polegate and takes the train to Eastbourne eventually, a lost town by the sea where Debussy composed La Mer and where I and my brothers would climb Beachy Head with my dad in the years after he’d left the house where we lived with mum in Selmeston,  not far from Polegate.

Which is where we find Glen in verse two – happily back home.

 

Sunny lazy Monday mornings back where I belong

Loves and hates and middle eights for some unfinished song

Look who’s in the garden ripping up a carton

Dragged out from our rubbish box

No stars for you Mr Fox

Nipping down the Co-Op in your socks

 

It’s like a dream from a memory, songwriting happiness in rural sunny England in the 1970s. The almost embarrassing recall of nipping down the Co-op (a supermarket) in your socks is so specific so domestic and so relaxed and loose that we get a clue as to why this life is hymned as the glowing holy grail but there’s something drifting too, the D major chord that can’t escape its root, the fading backing vocals that accompany Mr Fox. Where are we going?

One way to Eastbourne when you’re off-season

Wished on the Wish Tower but I’m still around

Left all my stardust down at the Congress

Went back to fetch it but look what I found

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The Wish Tower is an old fort on the beach which now has a cafe and gardens around it, local denizens walk slowly with walking sticks and take their seats in the autumn sunlight.  What did Glen wish for ?  Success probably because he’s still around.  The reference to Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust always pricks my eyes because it is simply my favourite song – discussed earlier in these memoirs at My Pop Life #100 in the version by Nat King Cole.  The Congress Theatre is where you’ll get the annual pantomime with fading stars from television, faces you’ll know and love.  A certain type of show business that contains its own inbuilt melancholia – but they’ll also host touring theatre and the occasional pop or rock show.  Provincial English Theatre par excellence.  I remember shooting a scene from a pop video in there one autumn with Mark Williams, Zoe Thorne and a Welsh band The Crocketts. For another time.  But look what I found ?  Every great song has to have a mysterious line :

And though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway

Glen has the same relationship with Sir Paul as I do – frankly, adoration – which is one reason why we clicked early on in the Brighton Beach Boys days in 2002 – learning those sibling Wilson harmonies in Steve & Rory’s flat in Viaduct Road – In My Room, Surfer Girl, Help Me Rhonda.  Glen calls him Saint Paul.  If you’re going to be influenced by someone, you could do worse.

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Stephen Wrigley and Glen Richardson in electric dreams

Of course my feeling for this song is coloured completely by my relationship to Glen, and to my memories of Eastbourne and what it means to me :  Slightly genteel, full of white-haired conservatives and a few scallywags, a faintly useless record shop, and a whole bunch of businesses which seemed rather sad and neglected, as if shrugging at the lack of interest from the people walking by. Some foreign students, happy, weird happy people. My dad in a flat near the seafront.  Crazy golf.  Queens Tennis club (never been). The best bit of Eastbourne of course is the walk up to Beachy Head.

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Walking to Beachy Head.  The Wish Tower is the fort this side of the pier.

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Magnificent.   A wave-cut platform full of hermit crabs, tidal pools and other treasure where The Downs meets The Sea and falls into it.  A large piece of chalk.  And of course, where you go to commit suicide. Setting for my film New Year’s Day – (press the back button below three times for that story, not so much melancholic as downright tragic!)

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Wedding Day swoon

By the time I’d met Glen he was with Christine who had seen him perform (with Steve and Rory and others) at the Gardner Arts Centre at Sussex University with a 30 -piece orchestra playing the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.  Glen was singing, and since he has the voice of an angel, she swooned immediately.  The rest is herstory.  A few years after we met they were married but I’ll save that for another post and another song.  But Glen’s mum was often at our early gigs with Glen’s sister, they travelled in from Polegate to Brighton.  A sweet little cherub with her own head of white hair and a twinkly smile.  She fell ill once and we travelled in to see her in hospital and sang her a five-part harmony Surfer Girl (Glen may correct me here in the precise details).  She died earlier this year after some illness, just before I went to England to conduct the marriage of my god-daughter Kimberley to her beau Kazim.  I didn’t make the funeral but I called Glen from the wedding venue as we waited for the rehearsal to start the day before and we had a surreal and delightful chat as he handled both his children Daisy and Stan in the back garden of his Hollingbury house overlooking the Downs and a bee threatened their peaceful afternoon.  I miss him.

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Glen Richardson is happy

Glen passed me a CD of 16 songs sometime back in 2009 if I recall correctly.  The band was thriving, by then we were performing Pet Sounds & Sgt Pepper every year in the Brighton Festival.  Then we decided to arrange Abbey Road for concerts, and needed a new first half.  That first year (2011) I talked the band and Glen (just about) into performing his album of self-composed songs which was then called Pop Dreams.  Brilliant gems of songwriting in the mould of Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello or Randy Newman with sparse instrumentation which exposed the songs themselves as the little jewels that they are.  I particularly liked All Sewn Up, Underground and A Country Walk but they are all really good.  I started giving the CD to friends of mine urging them to listen – see what you think of this> because I couldn’t believe that someone as talented as him hadn’t been signed, hadn’t been produced, didn’t have a deal.  Even if not as a singer (incredible though he is) as a songwriter.  In fact Brighton was full of people like this at that point (and maybe always has been and always will be).  Stars and Sons.  Butterfly McQueen. Electric Soft Parade !  To name but three.  So we started to rehearse Pop Dreams. I would be on backing vocals mainly because there’s only one keyboard part, and very little woodwind.  Then I got a job.  It was spring 2011 and Bryan Singer was directing Jack The Giant Slayer under a giant beanstalk somewhere in Surrey out of Longcross Studios and I was to assist in disguise.

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Ian McShane, Chris Fairbank, unknown, me : Jack The Giant Slayer

It meant that I would miss the crucial rehearsals right before showtime which was May 28th in St George’s Church.  So disappointing.  I didn’t even know if I would be able to do the gig at all such are the demands and vagaries of filming.  So I pulled out of Pop Dreams and let them get on with it.  I wasn’t exactly a critical member of the band instrumentally for this show, but there is a nebulous chemistry among us all and it would change when people were missing.  I was told that my presence was missed and all I heard back was of friction and disagreements as Glen felt people weren’t learning his songs quickly or thoroughly enough.  He was under pressure in retrospect. How do you learn a song ?  You listen to it and then work it out at home. Nothing I could do.

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Rehearsal : Tom on drums, Rory guitar, Steve bass, Adrian guitar, Glen on keys

I made the May 25th rehearsal three days before the weekend of gigs – on Sunday it was Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper which still needs rehearsal even if you know it !  On the day in fact I was free and watched Pop Dreams from the back of the church.  I loved those songs and the band played them really well, but I just wish I’d been up there singing the backing vocals which were largely missing.

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Then I joined them for Abbey Road in the 2nd half.  Later on Glen confessed that he’d found the entire experience an ordeal and he was a) glad it was over and b) would never do it again.  Which was a shame because I had a fantasy that the Brighton Beach Boys could have an original outlet with Glen songs.  It wasn’t to be.  The following year we played other songs from 1969 cleverly titled “The 1969 Show” as our warm up for Abbey Road.  Anyway here’s the third and final verse of Wish Tower.

Mother writes a letter to the local government

Says we won’t be beaten and I wonder what she meant

Wonder where my dad’s gone, please don’t look so sad son

Maybe he’s lost in the rain

Won’t be the same here again

Must be off now I’m gonna miss the train

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So touching, so direct, so sad – the memory of the death of his father, which could be from years earlier but is the final shattering verse before the final haunting chorus.  I cannot hear this verse without the tears coming which is extraordinary because I never met Glen’s father, and mine is still alive (as is my dear mother).  But his facility with the melody, his delivery of the lyric, and the lyric itself :

Won’t be the same here again

is quietly devastating.  And the final line is just so English, as a reaction to expressing emotion.  As the current Halloween season draws to its climax on Thursday here in New York City, over two months have now passed since my wife Jenny’s beloved older sister Dee died.  We are still in shock and the season is perfect for our sadness which is a heartbeat away from whatever mood we are in.  We feel so close to her but she has gone and it won’t be the same here again.

My Pop Life #147 : Days – The Kinks

Days   –   The Kinks

thank you for the days….those endless days, those sacred days you gave me

I’m thinking of the days…

Red Admiral

I hated my Mum and my Dad when I was growing up.  Who didn’t ?  Especially as a teenager.  Then again later, in therapy in my late twenties/early 30s.  They fuck you up your mum and dad they do not want to but they do…  Mine sure did.  Jeez,  didn’t yours ?  Mine were a) mentally ill and b) absent.  A badge I wore for years, a cross I carried up the hill from Gethsemane.  Hi, I’m fucked-up, how are you?  Then I grew out of all that and made friends with my parents again.  Took responsibility  for my own life and stopped feeling so hard done by.   Then I forgave them for making mistakes, for being young.  For separating.  And for everything.  If they annoy me now, I still get annoyed – of course.  But there’s no residual anger. I don’t think.  Now I feel lucky that they’re both still alive (Feb 20th 2016). And that they are both my friends.

Peacocks

In 1968 my Dad was in Eastbourne in a bedsit flat off Terminus Road.  We’d visit on Saturdays, have lunch at Ceres Salad Bar and then walk to Beachy Head, be back for the James Alexander Gordon football results and Sports Report.  We’d never talk about Mum.   Back in Selmeston Mum would talk about Dad now and again, or John Brown as she called him, we all called him that in fact.  Later he became JB for me and my brothers.  Mum would tell me things I didn’t want to know about, why they split up and so on.  Lurid details of conversations and incidents that eleven year-old boys don’t need to know about. My memory of those years is blurred naturally, but Mum wasn’t entirely alone bringing up three boys in a Sussex village – she had Stan at one point, (see My Pop Life #63) and her friend Heather at another point, both in 1968/69.

Small Tortoiseshell

Stan was Australian and worked at Arlington Reservoir, digging out a huge hole in the Weald where water would be stored for the surrounding farms and villages.  He was our lodger, and Mum’s lover.  Later on, when he went back to Australia and left Mum with a broken heart,  she bought a single called “Part Of My Past“by Simon Dupree & the Big Sound and wept while listening to it.   Even worse was a song called Skyline Pigeon by Guy Darrell : “fly away…”  She took all of these records deadly seriously, and we respected that.  They were treated like living breathing things with immense power.  Emotional bombs.  They were her and our soundtrack.

Marbled White

On sunny days we would make a picnic up, take a tablecloth and cups and crisps and buckets and spades and walk up the village – Mum and three boys – then take a rambling left through the churchyard and head down the path and overhanging trees to the most sacred spot of my youth – the sandpit.  Mum later confessed that she felt secretly ashamed that we weren’t getting on a bus and going to the beach somewhere, but to us the sandpit was simply a magical place.

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The path carried on towards Berwick across the fields, but there on the right, tucked away, was a small path of trodden grass which led to a clearing – an area completely overgrown and wild.  A half-dozen acres probably with patches of exposed sand in cliffs and banks, other areas of marsh, other densely wooded parts and some open space with short tufts of grass where we settled and laid the tablecloth and ate our sandwiches.  Mum would bring the transistor radio, but wouldn’t always play it because the rustling of the leaves, the birdsong and the silence was better.

Adonis Blue  f & m

There were butterflies everywhere – the usual Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, Gatekeepers, Speckled Woods, Red Admirals and Common Blues all in abundance, and more unusual ones too – Clouded Yellows, Small Coppers, Adonis Blues, Brimstones and Orange Tips.  Marbled Whites!  We spent hours identifying them from a book – the Observer Book of British Butterflies, which always got packed along with the paste sandwiches.  Shippams.  Or Marmite.  Peanut Butter.  Delicious. White sliced bread. Of course !

Brimstone

We were always alone in the sandpit, never once did we sight anyone else, or even hear them.  It was our place.  It was always a sunny afternoon.   It was always peaceful.  Some days Paul and I would go there on our own, and one day with my friend Martin Coleman we found a grass snake, also unusual.  The slow-worms were pretty common – actually not snakes but legless lizards whose tails fell off if you picked them up the wrong way.  There were plenty of actual lizards there too.  Sometimes we would bring back a skull of a small mammal – a squirrel perhaps, a fox, a weasel.  And the bird-life was also rich.

Clouded Yellow

It was the butterflies though that captured our imaginations.  And we in turn captured them.  As we got older and learned about methods of capture we suddenly had nets, jars, and at home, chloroform to put them to sleep.  Two in particular were pinned under glass – a Small Tortoiseshell and a magnificent Clouded Yellow.  Treasure.  Near us in Alfriston was Drusillas, a mini-zoo with toy railway and a butterfly house, with an exhibit of every single species of British Butterfly – there are 63 altogether – and some foreign ones too including the spectacular irridescent Morpho.

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Of course grown-up Ralph finds this behaviour abhorrent now – the decline in butterfly numbers in the UK is truly alarming, mainly thanks  to farming chemicals and loss of habitat – hedgerows and meadows, but the collecting didn’t help and no one does this now.  We have all learned to cherish our world in a different way.   It only serves to reinforce the innocence of those days in the sandpit.  Whatever misery was upon us, whether financial, emotional, mental or spiritual, those trips down that secret path past the church to the sandpit healed us, nourished us, gave us a reason to be.   A reason to believe.

Days was released at the end of June 1968.  I’d just turned 11, and I wouldn’t be going back to the village school.  I’d passed the eleven plus (at the age of ten!) and was on my way to Lewes Grammar – a long bus journey away.  Things were changing.  It was exciting.  I was about to outgrow the village, and my friends.  The Kinks were very popular in our house, we loved everything they did.  Songwriter and singer Ray Davies was like a raconteur troubadour speaking to us of England.  On 45 rpm of course – the singles market was all we consumed in those days.  I had absolutely no idea that The Kinks‘ LP The Village Green Preservation Society had been released, just as I didn’t have a clue what The White Album was – we had Lady Madonna and Hey Jude and The Marmalade singing Obla-di Obla-da instead.  Leapy Lee singing Little Arrows.  Those Were The Days by Mary Hopkin.  I Can’t Let Maggie Go – an advert for Nimble.  Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations.

The best thing about The KinksDays‘ were the harmonies.  Our cousin Wendy used to come up from Portsmouth to visit Mum and they’d go into Eastbourne to get kissed (see My Pop Life #102).  They would also sing together – they’d done it for years in church.  Mum would always sing “thirds” as she called it, in other words two tones above the melody, or Doh-Re-Me.   In fact Days has a suspended 4th –  “Thank you for the Days…” – on the word days, which resolves onto the third at the end of the phrase.  I didn’t know that at the time, but I knew how to sing it thanks to Mum and Wendy.  And thus I was really brought up singing in harmony, to The Seekers (Morningtown Ride, Georgy Girl), The Beatles, MotownBeach Boys and The Kinks and many others.  It was the most natural thing in the world.  So Mum – Thank You for the thirds, the suspended 4ths, the butterflies, the sand-pit and all of the music.  It’s still what makes me happiest.   And yes, thank you for the days.

 

My Pop Life #120 : I Love It : Icona Pop ft. Charli XCX

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I Love It   :   Icona Pop featuring Charli XCX

I threw your shit into a bag and shoved it down the stairs

I crashed my car into the bridge – I don’t care !

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Trashy electro bubblegum pop of the very finest kind.  And I’ll tell you why.  It was April 2012 and my sister was turning 40.  One of those moments when you realise that a large number of years have passed by and that young baby who was born in the 1970s was now a grown woman with three kids – which meant I was officially middle-aged.  Age ain’t nothing but a number they say – and they’re right – the inside of my head feels largely the same as when I was 25, but boy some things make you stop short and gulp.

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Rebecca and Alan

Rebecca’s dad-in-love (if not in blood or law) the rather wonderful Alan Sully had booked my band The Brighton Beach Boys to perform at this event, in The Fishermen’s Club in Eastbourne – eastern Eastbourne, somewhere beachside.  I’ll save the band moment for a later post – but just to say that it all went down very well, and remains the only time that my Mum ever saw the Brighton Beach Boys play live.  But for another day.  The band packed up their instruments and gear and drove back to Brighton, leaving Jenny and I to celebrate with the family and friends.  Mum had come with Darren her oldest and dearest friend, both pushing 80, the youngest people there weren’t even 10.  Alan was there with his bowling club mates, Becky’s friends were social workers and teachers.  Mollie, Becky’s oldest daughter was 15, Ellie was 13 and William was 9.  I think.  There were sausages on sticks, cheese sandwiches, a huge cake and lots of drink.  Lots of drink.  We would eventually get the train back to Brighton so no designated driver.

Rebecca was born in Hailsham East Sussex on 29 April 1972 almost exactly two months after her dad John Daignault was kicked out by Mum.  She wouldn’t get to meet him until she was in her 30s.  Born in the midst of a dysfunctional family storm that lasted for at least the first decade of her life, she grew up largely with Mum.  I left home in 1975 at 18 years old, but had spent much of the previous two years in Kingston nr Lewes with the Ryle family.  Paul left home, or was kicked out by Mum, the same year.  Andrew stayed until he too was 18 four years later, then left for college.  So Becky’s prime relationship was always with her Mum.  They bicker, they fight, but they are close – perhaps too close at times.  When Mum met Alan and married him in 1987 her and Rebecca moved into Alan’s house in Polegate by the railway station and Becky called Alan ‘dad’ from then on, and he treated her as his daughter.  Although that marriage also didn’t last a lifetime Alan always kept true to his word and looked after Becky, and this birthday was one of his finest hours.  He proudly paid for everything, and didn’t impose his will on anyone – as far as I know!  I am 15 years older than Bex and have always felt protective of her, although she never appeared to need protection to be honest.  She has ploughed her own furrow through life and is a strong, versatile, funny and warm woman, a great mother and a totally supportive and loving sister.  I love her to bits.  We don’t see that much of each other, but I don’t think we’ve ever really had a seriously cross word.  there’s the shared history of dealing with Mum of course which we all have, but Andrew and I occasionally fight, and Paul and I have had some legendary fights.  Becky and I – never.  Always aligned somehow.

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Proud Mum and her daughters :  Mollie, Rebecca, Ellie

So we drank and ate, admired the cake and drank some more.  The kids were dancing but the adults mooched around the edges.  And then this song dropped.  A churning plumb drop of electronic bass and a thumping 4×4 drumbeat with fierce young ladies chanting in punk pop rant above it.  “I don’t CARE : I LOVE IT”.  The room became instantly transformed into a bouncing melee of mental dancing – young, old, friends, foes, people who didn’t dance and people who absolutely DID.  It was a moment.  Mollie and Ellie were drunk ravers by now and raised the bar on the dance floor.  What was really great was the Everyone loved this song.  Half an hour later Rebecca was in her absolute element and took the party and the dancefloor by the throat.  I have never ever seen her so drunk as that night.  It was glorious – like performance art, she strutted, twirled, span around and around, made shapes and poses, flung her head back, pointed at the sky and ruled.  We howled.  She loved it and so did we.  A memorable event of a night, and yes there are pictures, but to protect the sister who needs no protection I will only post the one below.  There are others…

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can I kick it

I suspect this song has been responsible for quite a few moments, at weddings, birthdays, clubs and raves.  It’s quite simply a stonker.  In a perfect story, my two teenage nieces would have shouted the line

you’re from the seventies but I’m a nineties bitch

at me, their aged uncle Ralph who is indeed from the seventies, but given their ages they scarcely merit the 90s bitch claim.  Ah well they probably sang it at me and their Mum anyway !

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Charlie XCX

Written by Charlotte Aitchison when she was a relatively experienced songwriter at the age of 19 (having started public performance aged 14 encouraged by her parents), she didn’t think I Love It would suit her style at the time (2011).  It was picked up by Swedish producer Patrick Berger who’d previously worked with Robyn on her influential dance record Body Talk Pt 1 and in particular Dancing On My Own.  Swedish producers currently rule the world of pop on both sides of the Atlantic – notably Max Martin (Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry) and Tove Lo who also worked with the Swedish band Icona Pop.  Icona Pop were formed in 2009 by Stockholm teens Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, they hit the jackpot with Charlie XCX‘s “I Love It” on which Charlie was a featured artist. Although the song was released in the US in 2012 it didn’t reach the UK charts until 2013.

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It is cheesy trashy irresistible fist-pumping pop of the finest lowest-common-denominator kind, a call to arms to unburden yourself of any conformist instincts for the duration of its 2 minutes and 37 seconds and thus takes its place in the great canon of perfect pop.  It’s a destroyer of the generation gap.  It’s a fucking classic.   Make sure the DJ plays it at your party.

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My Pop Life #87 : Prélude a l’àprés-midi d’un faune – Claude Debussy

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Prélude a l’àprès-midi d’un faune   –   Claude Debussy

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There used to be two working piers in Brighton.  The Palace Pier, which still stands and contains the Victorian helter skelter and a pub ‘Horatios’, and the West Pier where I saw my first gig (The Barron Knights – see My Pop Life #63) and which was closed in 1975 due to high maintenance costs.  Built and designed by Eugenius Birch in 1866 it was Grade 2 listed despite slowly rotting away, and in the late 1990s a little momentum gathered to apply for English Heritage and Lottery money for a full restoration.  The owners of the Palace Pier, the Ignoble Organisation (sic) were not happy at all, scenting competition.  In 2003 not one but TWO fires occurred on the West Pier’s rotten structure, home only to bird’s roosts and the odd pop video, and it burnt to a shell.

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It felt like the entire population of the town was on the beach that morning to watch it burn away.  Earlier, a speedboat was spotted leaving the scene of the crime, and in my view the Latin phrase ‘cui bono‘ is the appropriate pointer to who was ultimately responsible.  After the fires English Heritage deemed it unfit for restoration, and it was partly demolished to make way for the i360 which may also be a cause of competition for The Palace Pier, (unnecessarily re-named Brighton Pier for similar ugly reasons).

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But before the fires, Andy Baybutt and I used to enjoy sitting on the stones and watching the starlings wheel and spin at sunset every night in a glorious and mysterious ballet before roosting in their thousands beneath the structure.  We decided – in a moment of stoned genius naturally – to film this local safari and so for twelve almost consecutive evenings in 2000 we shot the birds wheeling and falling through the air on their singular and collective missions with two mini-DV cams.  The lighting was hugely different each night.  We asked and received permission to film the spectacular event on the pier itself from Rachel at the West Pier Trust, and walked down the rickety iron walkway through the derelict ballroom to the theatre at the end, shooting through broken glass at the starlings flying in their thousands past the decay.

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We’d already shot a pop video for The Crocketts on the West Pier with local mate and actor Mark Williams for a song called “Host” which you can find on YouTube – we also shot on the Palace Pier for that video…so the pier filming wasn’t unique, but the idea of filming nature was.   There’s a mini-murmuration in the “Host” video, but now we were after the full thing.  {Murmuration is the collective noun for a group of starlings}.  They gather just before dusk and start flying in random but stunning formations over and around the pier, splitting, soaring, swooping, changing direction and shape like a shoal of fish or a galaxy exploding, atomic particles under a microscope;  it really is quite mesmerising (whether you’re stoned or not).

One day before shooting we sat there watching it with various songs in the headphones wondering what would work.  As soon as Claude Debussy‘s flute line came lilting through my ears I knew it was right – and once the orchestra starts to play, in the same tempo as the birds are flying, the music really found its purpose.

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Claude Debussy

Written in 1894 and inspired by a poem by Mallarmé, this impressionistic piece of music – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in English – is often cited as the start of modern music in that it never concludes or resolves itself.   The poet was unhappy about someone writing music to his poem – until he heard it.  Claude Debussy himself spent time in East Sussex and wrote another impressionistic masterpiece “La Mer” (the sea) in Eastbourne in 1905.

Featured imageDebussy was a hugely influential composer, particularly on Ravel, Gershwin, Delius, and Stravinsky among the classical composers, and Ellington, Miles Davis, Monk and John Williams among the jazz and film composers.    Prélude a l’àprès-midi d’un faune was danced as a ballet in fact in 1924 by the great Nijinsky and caused much furore when he appeared to masturbate as part of the production – despite this being one of the themes of the piece.  In the original poem a satyr or puck-like figure follows some nymphs one summer’s afternoon, becoming aroused, but cannot catch them and have his wicked way so instead falls asleep in the afternoon sun.  It is a beautiful piece of music and immediately accessible, even with its key changes and tempo adjustments, the flute keeps reappearing and serenading us into bliss.  When matched with the starling’s ballet some serendipitous magic appears to be at work – surely they can hear it?

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As to why the starlings fly in this way – we do not know.   I have researched it a great deal – they are my favourite birds – and theories abound.  They’re making a defensive formation against peregrine falcons.  They’re enjoying themselves before they go to bed.  Fish do it as a defensive collective measure.  So perhaps.  Best theory I know is this :  they’re trying to get a roosting position next to the strongest flyers, the ones who can turn speed and direction fastest, because they’ve eaten best that day, and in the morning they’ll wake together and follow them out to the feeding ground.  Who knows ?

Andy Baybutt and I met as mutual friends of Mark Williams, an actor I’d met at the RSC in 1990 (my last time on stage until 2009) and who’d moved to Brighton just before Jenny and I.  Mark had surrounded himself with young people in Brighton – still friends of ours many of them : Josh, Keith & Yarra, Andy & Jo (then together), Patrick, Kirsty, Sorya, Louise.    Andy and Jo got married shortly thereafter.   For some inexplicable reason I always treated Andy B like a long-lost younger brother, possibly because I have two younger brothers.   When he and Jo split up later on it felt like all of our mutual friends sided with Jo.   I always want to stay friends with both parties, but this naive approach has got me in trouble in the past.   Somehow I managed to do it in this case, and Jo Thornhill and Andy Baybutt are still two of my close friends to this day.   Andy is a camera expert and and a very good director in his own right (see Something For Nothing : The Art Of Rap) and we made three short films together in those Brighton years –  “The Murmuration” is the best of them and quite probably the best thing I have ever done.  No words, no people, just starlings and music, a perfect match.   When we edited the footage on my computer in 2001 the music gave us a finite timeline – just over eleven minutes – and the differing skylines and colours of those 12 sunsets had to appear to be the same day – and so we had our work cut out.   The wind was also a factor, any gust of wind would cause a tremble in the picture (no tripods!) – so the edit was a major challenge in retrospect.   The finished product isn’t perfect but it does work as a piece of art – ‘ambient film‘ perhaps.   I always wondered if it could be a pre-flight soother, or play in dentist’s waiting rooms.   There is untapped commercial potential but my hustle isn’t really built for that.   For a while Andy and I sold DVDs of the film at The West Pier Trust office but that fizzled out – there must be a few hundred out there somewhere.   I don’t actually have a copy of the film myself anymore.   Andy and I talk often about putting it on youtube, but we never do.  Extra footage was shot by Amanda Ooms‘ sister Sara Kander while Andy and I were on the Pier itself, she was on the beach when tens of thousands of birds were wheeling around the crumbling structure, that was an amazing day, and some of our most spectacular footage.   Help with production was generously offered by Jo Thornhill, Jenny Jules, Steve McNicholas & Luke Cresswell.

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The last day of filming was a little overcast.  Andy thought it wouldn’t match for light, but I was a little addicted to the process and went out in drizzly weather and staked out a position at 90 degrees to the pier, looking directly out to sea.  After shooting for some 35 minutes, the battery light started to flash red.  At that exact moment the birds appeared to fly together in a series of mesmerising turns just to the west of the pier, with a section landing at each turn, the mass murmuration becoming gradually smaller and smaller.  I watched in alarm as this beauty unfolded in front of me – the camera was balanced on a 10p piece on the railing – the light flashed, the starlings dwindled, the light faded and finally the last few birds settled beneath the pier and all that remained were the grey waves and the derelict structure.  And then the battery ran out and the camera went dark.  Luck, magic, faith, love…   But there’s more.   When Andy and I realised that the footage from that day had to be the final shot of the film, as the music gently relaxes and fades, we lined up the last bird landing with the last note of the music, and then watched it back.  On at least three occasions the birds turn precisely in time with the music.  Quite extraordinary…

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There are many many versions of this online, ranging from 7 minutes (Paganini – ridiculously fast!) to over 11 minutes, which is my personal preference, and the preference of the starlings themselves I believe…

If anyone reading this has a copy of The Murmuration perhaps you could let me know…

POST-SCRIPT !  In the final moments of 2015 Andy made a digital copy from the master beta tape, and uploaded the whole damn thing onto YouTube.  So here it is pop-lovers, starlings, the West Pier, and Debussy…

My Pop Life #84 : All Along The Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix

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All Along The Watchtower   –   The Jimi Hendrix Experience

“…No reason to get excited

The thief he kindly spoke

There are many here among us

Who feel that life is but a joke…”

I felt that life was but a joke in September 1970.  I was thirteen and staying in Lewes with one of my surrogate familes, foster-mum Sheila Smurthwaite.   But first quick – a little re-wind selector…backstory…

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The second time our family was split up, I was 11.   I’d just got to Lewes Grammar School For Boys by passing the 11-plus.  Three of us from the little village school in Selmeston had done it : Me, Cedric the postman’s son Graham Sutton and David Bristow, much to the delight of Miss Lamb, the headmistress who used to bring goose-eggs to school as prizes, and who taught us how to make porridge, play Men of Harlech on the recorder, and probably what a slide rule is for.   It was daunting, travelling into Lewes on the bus wearing the uniform with cap, being in this giant school full of big hairy boys, playing rugby and being bullied by prefects.  I think Pete Smurthwaite and I probably shared a detention together for being scruffy.  No cap on.  That kind of thing.  He was in my class, 1R.   Anyway.   Mum had to go into hospital again so me and my two brothers went to three different houses – Andrew to Portsmouth and Aunty Val (he was about five years old), Paul down the road to Gilda and Jack (he was still at Selmeston school being 2 years younger than me) and I went to stay with Pete Smurthwaite and his mum in Ringmer, which was near Lewes, but not near Selmeston.   Really.   When I go back there now, through the green fields of East Sussex, Glyndebourne, the Downs, Firle Beacon, it’s all deliciously close together, but aged 11 it felt like a foreign country.  To be fair, Ringmer actually is a foreign country, despite being a mere 4 miles from bohemian, pope-burning, witchy, cobbled Lewes.  But Sheila Smurthwaite made up for Ringmer’s lack of charm with her own hippy spirit and welcoming vibes.  Jimi Hendrix posters. Gaugin’s Tahitian women.   Guernica.

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Two years later, and a different crisis – we were evicted from our tied feudal cottage for not paying rent – and we were all split up again.   By now Mum had re-married, to John Daignault.   He was a chef, but then worked at Caffyns on Lewes High St, then lost his job.   I’ve got a feeling that we all went to the same places we’d been 2 years earlier, and I definitely stayed with Sheila and Pete again – only now they were actually in groovy Lewes where they belonged, Pete had a baby brother called Jake (whose dad Nick was Sheila’s 19-year-old lover) and Jimi Hendrix was all over the walls and loudspeakers.  There was a board-game inventor down the road and Pete and I got to go round there and try them out – war-games and one evolution game shaped like a tree.  We all ended up as sharks every time we played it.

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I smoked my first joint in that house, and helped local legend Noddy Norris roll a two-foot long joint by sticking forty or fifty cigarette papers together, along with a bunch of mates (Pete, Conrad, Spark, Fore, Martin Elkins, Dougie Sanders, Tat?).   My mum smoked roll-ups, so I was au-fait with the apparatus.   The Camberwell Carrot had nothing on this monster.   At least two feet long.   But thinking back now, what was an 18-year-old ex-con doing hanging out with a bunch of 13-14 year olds?   That was Lewes though.   Hendrix and The Doors and The Beatles were always playing.   Soft Machine.  Cream.  Santana.  Dirty hippy music.  Always the older kids were groovier than us, had longer hair, better afghan coats and boots, had groovier record sleeves tucked under their arms, could actually play the guitar and drums.   I had my first wank in that house, in the bath.   It was completely alarming, but tremendous and I never looked back.   Smiley face.   And then Jimi died.

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The house went into shock.   I remember composing a giant memoriam on my blue school rough book which said Jimi Hendrix RIP Sept 18th 1970.  (I’ve found in now three years later and it too was three years later).  We listened to the four LPs and a handful of singles – Are You Experienced?, Axis Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland (number one LP for me and All Along The Watchtower is on this album) and Hendrix In The West with the amazing version of Little Wing.   Simon Korner later bought Cry Of Love the scribble-cover LP but I never listened to it because it was released after he died and so I suspected it of being inferior and somehow not meant to be.   In fact it was a rush-released version of the 4th Jimi Hendrix LP which never got finished.  In 1997 a more carefully crafted version of this record called New Rays Of The Rising Sun was released, and it is as near as we’ll ever get to that follow-up to Electric Ladyland.  It’s fantastic.   We could not believed Jimi had gone.  He was so young, so full of fire and love.  He was the future of music, we knew it, you could hear it in the way he played and sang in perfect sync with himself.  He was an incredible poet, musician and person.   We mourned.   We were stunned.   We played the records again.   And then in the weeks that followed, or possibly in the weeks preceding this calamitous death, I’d gone to see my Mum in Eastbourne.  She looked terrible.  She had a large black shape on her cheek vaguely covered with make-up.  She told me it was barbiturate poison because she’d taken an overdose.  She’d been living in a caravan in Pevensey Bay with John Daignault and they’d fought and scratched and punched each other to a standstill.  My mind was reeling – not by the fighting – that was happening in Selmeston before we’d all moved out.   In one comic interlude Mum had thrown eggs at JD (as he then became known) and one of them had landed and broken in his hair.  He’d walked up to the police station in the village up on the A27 to file a complaint.  With an egg on his head.  No – it was the overdose that was frightening.

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Then weeks after this meeting I received a letter in New Road Lewes from Mum.  It explained that we’d have to wait another nine months before we got housed.   Nine months !   I crumpled in a heap on my bed and wept like a baby.   What could I do?  Bear it.  Get on with life.  I bought Hendrix 45s which became god-like items, played them over and over again.  Gypsy Eyes.  Long Hot Summer Night.  Stone Free.  All Along The Watchtower – like a hurricane blowing through my body every time I heard it.  A song of devastation.  A testimony of chaos.

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“There must be some kind of way out of here, Said the joker to the thief,  

There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief….”

I had no idea that Bob Dylan wrote it.  It was Hendrix through and through, round and round.  It was a terrifying record, an exhilarating record, it was everything I ever hoped to be, everything I feared, a prophet crying in the wilderness.   A distillation of pain and despair.   I completely misheard many of the lyrics.

  “Mr Splendid – drink my wine….ploughman take my urn…

no one will level out of mind, nobody else in this world”

And despite now knowing the actual words now : “Business men, they drink my wine, Plowman dig my earth, None were level on the mind, Nobody up at his word“.  Really ??  No I prefer mine and I still sing Mr Splendid drink my wine.  

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The song perfectly expresses the joke of my life in 1970.  It is still burned into my heart.   Jimi Hendrix RIP  September 18th 1970.