My Pop Life #183 : Rocket Man – Elton John

Rocket Man   –   Elton John

She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine AM
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the earth so much I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone

*

You’re not supposed to post the lyrics of a song in their entirety on the internet because copyright but if that’s the case why are there all those lyrics sites, all with the same mistake ?  As I gently age, with spurts of buckling and recovery, I find my mind grows dim, for things seem more mysterious to me now than they were forty five years ago when I was fourteen years old and grooving to Elton John in my bedroom, in particular this classic and the B-side which was, brilliantly enough, two songs :  Goodbye, and Holiday Inn.  Swoon.  The magic year of 1971, when my ears suddenly opened further, deeper, stronger and every tune held different mysterious beauty, had just passed and now we were in the spring of 1972 and I was on a musical jam roll.

We were in Hailsham.  I had a record player in my bedroom.  It was a luxury, like the view over the fields, and the broom-handle thumps on the kitchen ceiling reminded me of this privilege from time to time.  Rocket Man of course was a masterpiece, a song so perfect that I couldn’t stop burbling about it to my Nan, up visiting from Portsmouth, playing it to her downstairs on the record player while she looked at me with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.  She’d looked at me before like that, an old-fashioned look perhaps it’s called, but this time I noticed and felt my power.  I was fourteen after all, bursting out all over the place.

“Listen to this bit Nan –

‘ and all this science I don’t understand, it’s just my job five days a week…’

and of course by then I had done two and a half years of fucking science at school and found it baffling, like the smoke signal from the Vatican.  Talk about mysterious.  Perhaps it was the teachers, but perhaps MORE it was me.  Science ?  Nah.

Not for me.  Not my bag.  Not clever enough to understand it and perhaps it was never explained to me properly.  It is the basis of our civilisation after all – engineers and builders, along with medicine and war.    And in the song, when he sings all this science I don’t understand, the music goes all weird and synthesised and jagged suddenly with a staccato chord on the piano to punctuate the oddness.  Like science that you don’t understand, I explained to my Nan.  She looked at me.

Now I understand that it’s the producer’s job to do that sort of thing.  Like the two lines before that :

“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,

in fact it’s cold as hell” 

when the song empties out (like Mars, he added unnecessarily) and it’s just Elton and the piano – no drums  – then one slide guitar note on cold as hell to emphasise the emptiness.  It’s completely brilliant, very simple, like brushstrokes on canvas, the effect is concise and emotional.  Modern art is thus made.  And Gus Dudgeon, who produced this song was a genius in the studio, whatever he touched turned to gold around this time : Osibisa’s ‘Woyaya‘, John Kongos’  Tokoloshe Man, Audience’s House On The Hill, much of the Bonzos output, but he was known best for his work with Elton John.

And on the B-side was this stunning song Goodbye which haunted me then and still haunts me now.   Elton of course is a genius, his singing voice is quite superb and his music is exquisite, especially in the 1970s.   I’ve always loved piano pop more than any other kind of music, so Elton is on the high end of a list which includes Fats Domino, Ben Folds, Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, Marvin Gaye, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Dr John, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Brian Wilson, Fats Waller, Little Richard, Randy Newman, Georgie Fame, Alan Price, Harry Nillsson, Rufus Wainwright and so on and so forth.  But it’s the lyrics on this one folks.  I’m not a big on lyrics kind of guy.  Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  I’m a music kind of guy.  Chord changes and harmonies.  Some people are both, I know.  Maybe I am both, but I’m mainly musical, not lyrical.

But Bernie Taupin though.  What a lyricist.  Check this –

And if you want a drink, just squeeze my hand and wine will flow into my land and feed my lambs

He’s gone all William Blake there.  He’s young, they both are, they’re trying stuff. What’s he on about ?  Post-nuclear holocaust ?  Jesus Christ on the cross ?

And now it’s all over the birds can nest again

But by the end of the song, a mere one minute 40 seconds after it started, Elton’s singing I’ll Waste Away over and over again.  Meaning ?  Who knows ?  Allow it to be mysterious.  Not everything is to be named numbered and explained. Categorized. Collected.  Scored.  Understood. Filed, Forgotten.  I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme.

Sorry I took your time.

The innate drama of the lyrics appealed to me greatly as a 14-year old glam-rock softy.  Sometime I wish I was back in 1972 with my poor Mum banging around the house either with or without her 2nd husband John Daignault, listening to records up in my bedroom. (My and Paul’s bedroom I should say.  We would turn out the light and talk for about an hour every night, both lying down talking at the ceiling.  About everything.  Precious moments.  Healing hours.)  We’d play football outside, watch TinTin and Blue Peter, Crackerjack and Morecambe and Wise.  Top of The Pops.  Match of the Day.  The Big Match on Sundays with Brian Moore.  Chart countdown  with Alan Freeman at 4pm.  Took the bus to Polegate every morning, then the train to Lewes for school.  No important exams.  Just lessons, football, girls, friends. Simple.

Oh well.

Rocket Man though jeez what a song.  It’s the twin brother of Space Oddity of course with the lead astronaut figure singing the song, both songs about loneliness in the end and space, too much space.   Both songs produced by Gus Dudgeon, a few years apart .  Fantastic melody, and fade out :
And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
Many many years later – let’s say 2009 when I was living off Mulholland Drive with my brer Eamonn Walker, a stupid big view of Warner Brothers, Universal and Studio City and the San Fernando Valley (The Valley) stretching down to the ocean beyond.  A local member of the wide Beach Boys family circle aka Adam Marsland announced that he was hosting an Elton John night on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice Beach with his band.  Did anyone want to sing a song?I jumped down his throat and picked Rocket Man and was lucky enough to get the nod.  I sang it at home a couple of times then drove down there.  No rehearsal as I recall or maybe there was a run-through?  The rather fantastic Evie Sands was in the band on guitar.    Other mates turned up : Stevie Kalinich (see My Pop Life 169), Alan Boyd,  Tracy Landecker and some people I recognised a bit.  I delivered the song as straight as I could, just down the line, no interpretation, as Elton as possible.  People clapped.  It was an honour.
Then in 2005 Jenny had been performing in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in the West End and on tour with Sharon Osbourne & Lisa Riley.  She had a laugh with them, and Sharon liked her and thus we got invited to the Osbourne’s Christmas Party that year, somewhere behind Harrods.  Ozzie was shuffling around being rude to people and at one point I passed Elton John on the staircase.   I was so utterly nervous/selfconscious and tongue-tied that I completely ignored him, and as I walked up I could hear him going “Well, Really !” as if he was used to people going ahhhh I love you.  Which is pretty much what I should have done. <sigh>  Later on, upstairs I hooked up with David Walliams again (see My Pop Life #7) after many years, but never got to speak with Elton John.  My loss.  Jenny had met him earlier that evening before I arrived and had a nice chat…
Elton at Hove Cricket Ground
We saw him live a couple of times – Wembley in the 90s and Hove Cricket Ground in the noughties.  Brilliant both times.  The real deal.  Such a roster of great great songs.  He wheels them out time after time, knowing that we want to hear Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Bennie & The Jets.  I often think about success and what it means.  For an actor it means no privacy in public, but plenty of choices in work, new stuff all the time.  For a musician there is also no privacy but the work is essentially playing those 20 songs every night, with a few new ones.  When we saw Elton in Hove after about an hour he announced that he was playing a handful of new songs and that to pre-empt the inevitable rush for the toilets he actually suggested that we could all get up and go to the toilet or get a drink – and literally hundreds of people did just that.  “Sorry” said Elton, “We have to play some new stuff otherwise we’d all go completely mad“.   He had two of The Family Stone (as in Sly & The) as his backing singers – Lisa and Rose Stone.  They covered the high notes on the rearranged hits.  It was a fantastic show.
Late September 2012 a small crew – me, Jono Smith (who shot Sus) and Chris Williams with Diane Frangi on stills are shooting a promo for my documentary idea ‘Unsung Heroes’ about the session musicians of the UK Hit Factory 1963 – 1975, inspired by the film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.  Probably emotionally echoing my own feelings as a character actor, out of the limelight, yet integral to the production I felt like I wanted to lift some of these musicians into a visible place, if only for 90 minutes.  One of the characters I’d lined up was Ray Cooper, legendary percussionist with Elton and others, and one of the producers on Withnail & I at Handmade Films. Spoken to Ray on the phone about it – he was out of the country for the promo dates.  Anyway.  By the time we’d shot five or six days worth of stuff the film was called Red Light Fever, after the nerves which afflicted those musicians who couldn’t take the stress of studio work, being handed sheet music and told to play a solo over bar 36 and so on.  None of the living legends of the studio I interviewed – drummer Clem Cattini, bass player Herbie Flowers, guitarist Chris Spedding, guitarist Alan Parker, singer and arranger Barbara Moore – suffered from Red Light Fever, but it was still a good title.  I wanted to get these interviews before they all died – James Jamerson the Motown bass player is not in the Motown film for example.
Barbara Moore in 2012
Barbara Moore lives in Bognor Regis, just down the road from us in Brighton and we ended up filming her twice because the fellas fell in love with her.  She’ll appear in another post but for now, the story she tells me that first afternoon in her beautiful conservatory is of meeting Elton John in Olympic Studios in Barnes in the late 1960s.  She’d walked past an open door and heard this beautiful piano and vocal coming out – and there was this scruffy fella playing something.  She popped her head in the door and said “That sounds nice” or something similar.  Reg said thanks (for it was he) and said that he was going in to try and sell some of his songs to a producer and get a deal.  “Good luck”  she said. At lunchtime that day in the local pub she asked him how it had gone – he wasn’t too confident, but she then asked if he could join her choir for the afternoon because she was a voice short, someone had let her down.  He said OK, because that’s how he was earning money in those days.
1972
 It was probably two years later that her phone rang.  “Is this Barbara?” said the voice.  “I need some help with a song, would you come down to the studio tomorrow?”   She agreed, and then arranged and led the choir on Border Song which appeared on Elton John’s 2nd LP, entitled simply ‘Elton John‘.  A standout track which Aretha Franklin covered – adding (Holy Moses) to the title – to greater success than the original, although it is now seen as an Elton classic.  The backing singers were Madeline Bell, Tony Burrows and Roger Cook, all of whom were slated to be interviewed for Red Light Fever  – Jenny and I met Madeline Bell for lunch the following Christmas in London (she lives in Spain).  She had been co-lead singer with Roger Cook of Blue Mink, a band created by session musicians including Alan PArker and Herbie Flowers ! with hit singles – Melting Pot, Banner Man, Good Morning Freedom.  Roger Cook was the songwriter behind I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing and many others – some of which Tony Burrows sang on – the session voice of Edison Lighthouse, White Plains, The Pipkins, The Flowerpot Men and The Ivy League and who infamously got banned from Top Of The Pops for appearing three times in one show with three different bands.  “People will think it’s a fix” said the BBC.  But he was the singer on all three songs!  As you can see already, it was a very tight, very small world, and a film exploring it all would be such fun.
Addison Cresswell
What eventually happened after editing the footage forever on my laptop was that Luke Cresswell’s brother Addison Cresswell took my five minute promo, (paid for by Latest TV, a new venture in Brighton run by Bill Smith) and made various people in TV Land watch it.  Addison I knew through Luke and we’d met a number of times, in pubs, at Luke & Jo’s Boxing Day parties, New Year’s Eve parties and he’d invited me to his office one day for a meeting to discuss this doc.  Addison had immense power in UK TV world because he managed all of the main comedians in the UK, including Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Michael McIntyre, Jonathan Ross and Kevin Bridges and had the ear of all the producers.  His style was all swagger and front, larger than life, a Rocket Man indeed and he was very good at his job.  Only BBC4 came back with an offer of £10k, all in for the show once it was complete – they’d buy it, but they wouldn’t fund it.  I couldn’t possibly make it for no money, so we waited for other responses over Christmas 2013, still planning and lining up interviews such as Madeline Bell and Ray Cooper.   Then Addison died at home of a heart attack on December 23rd, a death which shocked me to my bones, causing devastation to his family and shock throughout Brighton, his friends and colleagues, his clients and the TV industry as a whole.  He was 53 years old.   So so sad.  The Boxing Day social was cancelled and a giant hole filled the landscape where Addison had stood.  He was an extremely warm and generous man underneath his bark and laddish flex.  Something that perhaps I appreciate having had a few laddish years myself in my youth.  Addison’s love of his brother Luke, my friend, was also visible and echoed my own feelings for Paul and was the reason why he gave me so much of his time.  He is hugely missed.

And now that it’s all over
The birds can nest again
I’ll only snow when the sun comes out
I’ll shine only when it starts to rain

And if you want a drink
Just squeeze my hand
And wine will flow into the land
And feed my lambs

For I am a mirror
I can reflect the moon
I will write songs for you
I’ll be your silver spoon

I’m sorry I took your time
I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme
Just turn back a page
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away

 
B-side : Goodbye
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My Pop Life #138 : Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker) – Parliament

My Pop Life #137 :  Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)  –   Parliament

we gotta turn this mother out….

…Owww…we want the funk, gotta have that funk…

My brother Andrew was born in Mum and Dad’s upstairs bedroom on May 6th 1964.  Mum wondered afterwards if she’d been given too much gas, but Andrew was a perfectly healthy bonny boy.   One year later Mum was in Hellingly suffering a severe mental breakdown.  She was there for nine months all told.  (Discussed in My Pop Life #55).  Within a year after coming out of hospital she and dad had divorced on the advice of her doctor.   It was a turbulent start to my brother’s life.  Mum’s second marriage in 1969 and 2nd divorce in 1972 happened before he was 10 years old.  Middle brother Paul and I were only 2 years apart, and we shared a bedroom, it was always RALPH, PAUL………..(and Andrew).  In that order.  Always.  We joked about it.  We still do.  I’m sure growing up with two parental divorces, numerous maternal hospitalisations for mental illness and two older brothers who didn’t include you much was traumatic and scarring.   But Andrew has turned out all right, when he lifts his head from the bellybutton of self-pity which we all get tempted by in our family, Rebecca excepted.  Rebecca is the youngest, our sister.  Resilient as fuck.  But we all are in our way.  None of us went to prison, got addicted to drugs, vote Conservative.  Dysfunctional childhood sure, but who didn’t ?

the great George Clinton 

Andrew suffered my 1970s taste as he grew, before he could afford to buy music, he had to listen to ours, being forced to consume the likes of Gentle Giant, Osibisa, Jimi Hendrix, The Sweet and The Moody Blues alongside Mum’s pop genius – Motown, Joe South, Johnny Nash and Hurricane Smith and Paul’s adoption of Bowie & Roxy while getting more into disco as the decade advanced and he moved out to Eastbourne:  Barry White.  Chic.  Candi Staton.  Andrew had a lot to choose from, plus we all watched TOTP together for years, and religiously tuned into the Top 40 Countdown on a Sunday afternoon, almost always presented by Alan Freeman.  I think initially he drifted towards prog rock.

Andrew went to school in Hailsham but was so many years below Paul that seeing his older brother crossing the playground in 4-inch stack heels and red flares with his friend Vince was probably like spotting a badger at dusk.  I was 25 miles away in Lewes.  I’ve become closer to Andrew as we’ve got older, as the age difference narrows as it must, now we’re both in our 50s it seems foolish for him to still look up to me, but he does.  We’re just not on equal footing.  So he asks questions, and I answer them in an irritable voice.

When Andrew was young, in Selmeston village in the 1960s, we enjoyed watching him learn how to talk.  Sugar was “oog“.  Yellow Submarine was “Mam Mamfreen“.  And Andrew, his own name, was “Godrib“.    That was so biblical and semi-satanic that it stuck, we have called him it for years, and then Andrew himself adopted the moniker so that now he often signs off emails and letters as Godrib.   Thus early scars become tattoos.  Perfectly normal.

At some possibly pre-ordained point in the 1980s when Andrew was studying either in Anglesey where he read Ecology or perhaps in Bristol where he and Debbie settled post-education he got seriously involved with The Funk.  This moment combined with Andrew picking up a bass guitar and deciding that it was his instrument.  And the deadly combination of The Funk and The Bass Guitar could only mean One Thing.

Bootsy Collins.

Bootsy Collins, a native of Cincinatti, Ohio, has been playing music since the 1950s.  His funk band The Pacemakers, which included his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins, Phillipé Wynne and Frankie Waddy, joined James Brown in 1969 after Brown had sacked his entire band.  In 1970 they played on Sex Machine, Superbad, Soul Power and über-sampled The Grunt (as The J.B.s) before they too parted ways with the exacting Mr Brown, and thereupon moved to Detroit in 1972 to join forces with the genius of George Clinton and Parliament, who’d released one record at that point, called Osmium.  It was a match made in heaven, and together Collins and Clinton with their outstanding band of funkateers re-invented funk music using science fiction, LSD and fake fur.

Parliament/Funkadelic early 70s looking normal

Parliament/Funkadelic mid-70s looking trippy

There followed a string of outlandish and brilliant funk records where Clinton placed the black man (and woman) in situations where they would not normally be found, notably science fiction.  When Parliament and their sister band the rockier Funkadelic toured, their stage show was a massive supersized spaceship, The Mothership, and the psychedelic clothes, make-up and drug intake was almost unique in black musical culture. Perhaps Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone got there first, and perhaps Rahsaan Roland Kirk got there before them…but this band were like no other before them to be honest.  A little bit of ELO, a touch of The Tubes, some Hendrix, but no one had done theatricality and funk music quite like this before or since.  Genesis had their moments when Gabriel was the lead singer, and The Tubes were pretty astounding too.  Most bands just stand there and play though don’t they ?  Parliament looked like they were having a whole load of fun onstage and the crowds loved them for it.

George Clinton steps out of the Mothership

I was lucky enough to see this show at Hammersmith Odeon in December 1978 in my 3rd year at LSE, when a bunch of us got heavily stoned jumped on the Piccadilly Line and became One Nation Under A Groove.  It was an amazing show.   But after that night I really didn’t keep up with the groove I have to admit.  Or the funk.  I was very much post punk/two tone around then, with an interest in reggae and pop, and George Clinton & Bootsy Collins faded from my radar.  In this sense I have to hold my hands up – both my younger brothers are groovier than I.   Paul was by now deep into disco, and Andrew was following Bootsy and George.

It was around this point that Collins created Bootsy’s Rubber Band, releasing albums alongside the continued Parliament/Funkadelic LPs, some claim them to be the funkiest records ever released.  Andrew would be among these disciples.  Andrew has always been attracted to ‘difficult’ music – difficult to play at least – including Bill Bruford, King Crimson, Herbie Hancock, Delius, Messiaen and yes, Van der Graaf, and I’m guessing that he tried to play some of these, including Bootsy Collins on his bass guitar.  Funk might be simple, but making it sound funky sure ain’t.

Bootsy’s star-spangled bass guitar

Andrew next travelled to the Colombian and Peruvian rainforests for ecology work then split with Debbie, moved to London and met Katie at Middlesex College.  They had a beautiful baby boy called Alexander together in Enfield around the turn of the century and we have a photo of Andrew throwing his two-week-old son into the air.  They moved to Bournemouth together to make house, and ever since his birth my nephew has been affectionately known as Bootsy.  Even at primary school he was called Bootsy.  We call him Bootsy too, but when secondary school started a few years ago there was a general feeling that Alex would be the preferred name.  Alex is a fantastic bright and funny cricket mad young man who has carried on the family tradition of rapping, loves his video games and sees Andrew his dad on weekends and holidays since Katie and Andrew separated.  Having a teenage son has kept Andrew in Bournemouth, an honourable decision for a father.  Paul and I have no children, and Rebecca has three.  Whenever Andrew whinges about wasting his life, wishing he’d done this or that, wondering what to do for a career, I remind him that he has created and nurtured this child.  Alex.  Bootsy.

Bootsy’s Rubber Band 2nd LP 

In actual fact Andrew has links with many of Dorset’s wildlife projects, helps on the heathlands, is a trained bat-spotter, and runs the dragonfly society and website of Dorset from his flat.  It’s a terribly competitive world to get paid work in, but it gives him real pleasure, and again having grown up in a tiny Sussex village, we both share an affinity for the changing seasons and the local flora and fauna.  Bird-watching we both enjoy, and while my passion is butterflies, Andrew has adopted the dragonfly as his creature of excellence, and become an expert.

Bootsy Collins

Our musical tastes overlap slightly – we both adore Wagner, Debussy and Mahler, we are both capable of buying tickets to see Van Der Graaf Generator (see My Pop Life #85 ) when they occasionally play live and swooning over a track from Pawn Hearts being included in the set list, and we’re both inordinately fond of The Stylistics (see My Pop Life #70).  We both love Public Enemy and other early hip hop, and this love has passed to Alex who has grown up with rap as a natural form of communication.  And we both love this track, from Parliament’s 4th album Mothership Connection (1975) and the big hit that allowed them to play stadiums.  I’ve recently bought a load of Parliament albums (more of a soul vibe),  I prefer them to the harder rockier sound of Funkadelic, and today I downloaded the first three Bootsy’s Rubber Band albums in honour of my nephew Alex and his Dad.   They sound great.   Hopefully as I gently approach 60 years of age I can get a little funkier, a little more funktastic, perhaps a lot more funkadelic with a little help from Dr Funkenstein, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Andrew, my funk soul brother.

short hit single version :

P-Funk live 1976 at their interplanetary best :

My Pop Life #132 : Imagine – John Lennon

Imagine   –    John Lennon

..I wonder if you can..

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

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

Lennon, Ono & Grapefruit at Cannes, May 1971

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

Summer ’71

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

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

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

The Plastic Ono Band in 1969 :

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

*

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

1964

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

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

Unfinished Music : Two Virgins (1968)

Unfinished Music : Life With The Lions (1968)

The Wedding Album (1969)

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

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band (1970)

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

October 1969

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

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

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

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

Tittenhurst Park 

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

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

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

Voorman, Harrison, Lennon, Ono 1971

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

Lennon & Spector at The Record Plant 1971

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

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

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

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

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

1971

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

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

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

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

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

Dick Cavett Show 1971

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

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

John Lennon ‘God’ 1970

My Pop Life #111 : Heroes & Villains : The Beach Boys

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Heroes & Villains   –   The Beach Boys

I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost & gone & unknown for a long long time…

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This extraordinary creation was one of the songs on The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, one of the handful of LPs in our council house in Sussex in the mid 70s.  The album pulled together all the big singles, and had a couple of interesting choices including this song, which we also had on 45rpm Capitol Records black label 7-inch from 1967 when it was released.  My mum must have bought it – I was 10 years old in ’67.

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Back in those days, The Beach Boys were a chart-pop act for me, even when Simon and I hitch-hiked around the USA in the summer of 1976 the great discovery was their greatest hits LP Endless Summer which contained songs I hadn’t heard before like Be True To Your School and the exquisite jewel Girls On The Beach.   I had no interest or awareness in their LPs until I got to college later in 1976 and my girlfriend Mumtaz had the LP Holland from 1973.  I think Surf’s Up (1971) was the next Beach Boys LP I was aware of, during the LSE days, but they remained a singles band for me apart from those two exceptions.   Pet Sounds you ask ?  Didn’t hear it – in full – until the early 1990s when Jenny and I were living in Los Angeles.    Perhaps it was because they are the quintessential LA band that I bought the box-set Good Vibrations in 1993 in Amoeba Records – an Aladdin’s cave of musical treasure – and played it endlessly due to the immense discoveries thereon – including the Pet Sounds songs.  Featured image

The 1966 LP Pet Sounds is for another post – but for now I’ll simply acknowledge it as an extraordinary piece of music – a deep, rich, carefully arranged and orchestrated work of delicate beauty, terrible sadness & infinite fascination.  It was Beach Boy’s head honcho and songwriter Brian Wilson’s response to hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, an inspirational leap into the studio and the possibilities of playing pop music in a completely different way.   The Beatle’s responded with Sgt Pepper,  itself influenced by Pet Sounds, but while they were recording Pepper, Brian Wilson was working on his own follow-up to the Pet Sounds album.   One of the problems for The Beach Boys was that Pet Sounds hadn’t shifted large numbers of units, and even today it is considered complex and less obvious than most of the music of 1966.

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Brian salvaged his pure pop credentials with the single Good Vibrations in October ’66 which outsold the Beatles and won Single Of The Year in all the polls.  This pop rivalry was pushing the respective songwriters to unheard-of peaks of creativity.  Good Vibrations was recorded at four different studios in Los Angeles and endlessly polished before release – but it is an undoubted masterpiece which was Brian Wilson’s first installment on the Pet Sounds follow-up LP – to be called “Smile”.    The album never came out.   But the second single Heroes & Villains did – and it is another towering slice of baroque harmony pop which goes where no 7″ single has gone before.   Apparently the bigwigs at Capitol Records in Hollywood weren’t impressed with it (??) and the start of Brian’s great mental decline can be measured from this song.   Which kind of makes this a peak moment in 1967.

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I’ve always been obsessed with Heroes & Villains.   Jimi Hendrix called The Beach Boys ‘psychedelic barbershop‘, and some people took that as an insult.   But it applies here.   The vocal arrangement is second-to-none in a pop milieu.   It sounds impossibly complex, but the Beach Boys would happily sing it live.   They had a natural blend – three brothers and a cousin plus one mate – and in a live setting they could pull off the most beautiful layered harmonies either acapella or rockin’ out.  The 1993 Good Vibrations box-set though had something else going on – at least 3 other songs called “Heroes & Villains” with different words, different tempos, different arrangements, little pieces of music using parts of the song like strands of sound, stunning piano shapes, harpsichord modulations, vocal experiments, percussive expressions, doo-wop, strings, animal noises, hand-claps, swoons, cantinas, laughs, a whole universe of sound.  A series of clues.  This was like a suite of songs all with the same title.  It’s just a little bit mental.  The final release of SMiLE in 2011 had over 30 tracks called Heroes & Villains.

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Indulgent ?  LSD ?  Genius  ?  Or just unable to settle – a spasm in D minor which couldn’t be resolved.  Probably all of these.  Brian Wilson was mentally disintegrating as he was writing his greatest work, and the pressure to compete with Sgt Pepper, the lack of support from other band members and the record company, and Brian’s own inability to shape the endlessly brilliant pieces of music he was giving birth to into a coherent whole meant that the SMiLE project was finally ditched in May 1967.   It wouldn’t surface again until 2004 when I saw the Brian Wilson band playing it live onstage at The Royal Festival Hall in London – a world premiere.  I went to see it a further five times that week.  It is clearly a masterwork in the pop medium, but apparently, isn’t as it was originally intended.  Sadly no-one can remember what was originally intended least of all Brian himself.  My own theories are centred on this song, it was clearly a musical thread which was to run throughout the work, but don’t forget that in those days all tape was analog and pieced together one part at a time – not like today’s digital world where we can shuffle pieces of music at the touch of a click and experiment with what sounds best.  Brian had written and recorded a musical puzzle which no-one could put together.  He spent the first few months of 1967 shaping Heroes & Villains into a reasonably regular pop song, and it remains a high water mark of musical joy.

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Original artwork for the aborted SMiLE LP by Frank Holmes

In September 1967 a Beach Boys album called Smiley Smile was released, with Good Vibrations and Heroes & Villains on it, and a few survivors of the abandoned project.   It is an average album, a cobbled-together record-company compromise, not a masterpiece, and not a Pet Sounds 2.   It would be 2011 when Alan Boyd and Mark Linnett would finally put together the box-set The Smile Sessions with the Beach Boys approval.  It is everything I hoped it would be, a fitting companion piece to Pet Sounds, and better in many ways, even more adventurous musically  containing humour, American history (care of lyricist Van Dyke Parks) and the masterpiece Surf’s Up – a kind of choral farewell.  Wilson called SMiLE ‘a teenage symphony to God‘ and I can’t better that LSD-drenched description.

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Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love & Dennis Wilson in 1967

When Stephen Wrigley and I formed The Brighton Beach Boys in early 2002 we started with In My Room, Surfer Girl and Surfin’ USA.   Joined by Glen Richardson, Adrian Marshall, Charlotte Glasson, Rob Breskal, Rory Cameron and Theseus Gerrard we did our first gig later that year, in the Hanbury Ballroom.   Paul Gunter joined on percussion, Rob departed and Tom Arnold arrived.   Andy Doe joined on French Horn, left and was replaced by Dom Nunns.   We started doing some of the more complex songs.  Wouldn’t It Be Nice.  And Your Dream Comes True.   And – yes : Heroes & Villains.   Glen did all of our vocal arrangements and taught us the notes, and week by painstaking yet thrilling week we pieced the song together.   I sang the lead part – it’s right in my range – and it’s the easiest part – and we wheeled it out one night in a live show.   It brought the house down because it sounds so impossibly complex, Glen’s brilliant arrangement giving us each a specific vocal job.   And the song itself is so thrilling, a rush of words and music.   It was an absolute privilege to perform it each time we played live.

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Charlotte, Adrian, Stephen, Stevie, me, Rory, Dom, Glen, Theseus – Herne Bay 26.08.06

Later on the band would be introduced to beat poet and lyricist Stephen J. Kalinich who wrote a number of songs with Dennis Wilson, and later with Brian too.  Stevie was in England for a mini-tour, and he sat in on a BBB rehearsal then travelled to a gig with us in Herne Bay, Kent, which I’ll save for another post.   But I’ve been friends with Stevie ever since and we always spend time together when I am in Los Angeles.  He is a gentle and lyrical soul with a unique sensitivity to life which he expresses in words and poems.  Featured image

Stevie in Los Angeles 2012

Again I will save Stevie for another post (see My Pop Life #169) but he introduced me to Mark Linnett while Stevie was living in his house in Glendale in 2009-2010.    Stevie also introduced me to other members of the wider Beach Boys family including David Marks, guitarist on the first five LPs, Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, Brian’s first wife and her husband Daniel, and also the wonderful Alan Boyd, The Beach Boys’ archivist and the only person that all former and current members actually talk to.   Alan is a beautiful man with a fine collection of vintage celluloid and 1920s pop music and it was he who laboured night and day to put the final 2011 SMiLE Sessions Box-Set together, with Mark Linnett engineering.   He won a totally-deserved Grammy for his pains.   I’ve talked to Alan about the Heroes & Villains conundrum and he agrees that the musical pieces are the cornerstone of SMiLE but the many parts mean that it is impossible to know how to assemble it satisfactorily or otherwise.   Alan has spent more time with this song than anyone since Brian Wilson in 1966-67, and I think it drove him a little bit bonkers trying to piece it all together.   In the end Heroes & Villains takes up a whole side of vinyl on the box-set, its different parts laid out for us to all to hear and make of what we will.   It is astonishing.   Me – I always liked the original single, but Al Jardine always said that the actual original was way better.    I’ll leave you with the Stereo Mix from the 2011 SMiLE Sessions.  It’s a little bit like the one The Brighton Beach Boys used to sing live, and perhaps will again one day…

My Pop Life #107 : Desiderata – Les Crane

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Desiderata   –   Les Crane

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story…

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Whilst I am unable to find the release date for this single, it was huge in our house.   Our house being a three bedroom council estate new build on the outside edge of East Sussex market town Hailsham.   Facing north towards Herstmonceux Observatory.   A field where we played football.   A back garden which felt permanently in the shade.   We had coal delivered directly into a hole in the back wall which was the coal shed.   We’d take it in turns to fill the coal scuttle which was shaped like a cone, then carry it through to the living room where all the paraphernalia of the fireplace were present :  shovel, poker, brush and tongs.   Proper fire.   Proper chimney that got swept probably once.   If ever.   TV in the corner.   Two settees ?   Or was it one settee and two armchairs ?   Milk delivered in bottles every day onto the doorstep.  Sometimes the silver foil tops would be pecked before we took the bottles in – by blue tits famously who wanted the cream which had risen to the top of the bottle.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater
and lesser persons than yourself.

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“the front of the house, and you can just see a bit of the side”

Next door was Monique and her two kids : Tim, who was my brother Paul’s age (12 going on 13 in 1972) and Joanna who was younger, perhaps 10.    Carl, the kid’s dad was “inside”.   On the other side was an old lady whose name has been forgotten and her fully grown son.  Can’t remember his name either.   But one day we heard that he been “fiddling about” with Joanna, so we weren’t to make friends with him.   He was “a bit funny”.   And that was that.   It was, as people never seem to tire of saying “a different time”.    Sure was.    I am forever grateful that I was never “fiddled about” with, by anyone, and never put into care by the Social Workers -despite the regular family upheavals and hospital stays that mum was experiencing during this whole period.    It was a long walk into the town centre, to the bus stop, to Polegate Station to take the train, to Lewes.   I was at school in Lewes.   It was an hour’s journey at least.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble,
it’s a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

By the time I was in the 4th year, moving into the 5th year and O-levels I was buying singles regularly, and LPs on special occasions.   1972 was a major year for me as a music fan.   A brief look at the charts confirms the incredible variety of music that people were buying in vast numbers – a record needed to sell many hundreds of thousands of copies even to reach the top 20.   Desiderata by Les Crane peaked at number 8 in late March 1972 – Harry Nilsson was at #1 with a cover of Badfinger’s “Without You“, also present in the top 20 were Gilbert O’ Sullivan “Alone Again, Naturally”, Argent “Hold Your Head Up”, Paul Simon “Mother & Child Reunion”, and Michael Jackson “Got To Be There”.   There was virtually no ‘crap pop’ – The New Seekers, Middle Of The Road and Englebert Humperdinck being the blots on an otherwise pristine and glorious pop landscape:  American Pie, Bernadette, Heart Of Gold, Say You Don’t Mind, Have You Seen Her.  Yes I romanticise, I see through rose-tinted ear-plugs, and none more so than Desiderata.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

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What a strange and glorious thing it is.  A man reads a poem, Desiderata (Latin : things to be desired) a series of aphorisms, epigrams and generally perspicacious observations on LIFE, THE UNIVERSE and EVERYTHING while a female choir joins him for the loosely-defined “chorus” :

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars

You have a right to be here…

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should…

And then the narrator would be off again with his pearls of wisdom, his insights into getting through it all.  Les Crane, though I didn’t know it at the time, was a radio broadcaster and one time talk-show host who was himself an interesting mover and shaker within the counter-culture during the late 1960s.  His short lived Talk Show lasted just 14 episodes in 1964 without denting The Carson Show, but the list of guests speaks for itself : Bob Dylan, who rarely appeared on TV;  Malcolm X,  Martin Luther King,  Richard Burton,  George Wallace, Robert Kennedy, Muhammed Ali.    The Rolling Stones first appearance on US TV was on his show in 1964.   Crane, who tried acting at one point and who won a Grammy for ‘Best Spoken Word’ for Desiderata, reads the prose poem with a kindly gravitas which Paul and I found hilarious.  Fred Werner provided the musical accompaniment, which was of its time, think for example of The Congregation Softly Whispering I Love You or Aquarius by the Fifth Dimension, two beautiful records.

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Les Crane

Although we didn’t fully admit it at the time, we were mesmerised by this song.  Paul and I in particular took the royal piss out of it, probably because it got under our skin so effectively.

Be yourself.
Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

When younger brother Andrew (who was 8 years old at the time) wanted to come into our bedroom, or made a mistake with a word, or anything stupid like that, we were merciless.  “You are a Child Of The Universe” we would pronounce, (without the solace of “you have a right to be here“), in fact I seem to recall we would deliver our own version of this judgement, as follows “You are a Child Of The Universe : You Have No Right to be Here”.   Meaning our bedroom.   Or even anywhere.   We were cruel.   It was a cycle of cruelty.  Andrew would find his way into our bedroom when we weren’t there.   He would find a plastic Airfix kit, carefully built from component parts and glued together according to the printed instructions, usually an aeroplane from the second World War, wheels that actually turned, a cockpit you could see into, decals shiny on the wings and fuselage, painted with a tiny paint brush from tiny paint pots the size of a thimble, all mounted on a stand on the chest of drawers.

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Andrew used to like to play with the Airfix kits and break them.   Maybe he pretended they could fly and threw them across the room.   But I’d come home from school and find pieces of plastic littering the floor, smashed aeroplane bits.   So he wasn’t allowed in our bedroom.    He was in fact a child of the universe and he had no right to be there.   I don’t think I beat him up ever.   The scars would be deeper and for life, rather than bruises for a few days.   The cycle of cruelty manifested in other areas too.    Football.   Andrew was in goal, Paul and I would fire shots at him.   Penalties mainly.   In the back field.   Forever.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit
to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

We thought Desiderata was funny because it was, but the words stuck, buried deep in the teenage brain.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

For years everyone thought it was an anonymous poem from the Middle Ages, found in a church in Baltimore by the Reverend Frederick Kates and dating from 1628.  In fact the date referred to the church’s founding.  The poem Desiderata was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, a lawyer from Terre Haute, Indiana who stopped working aged 40 to write.   It has been intoned by a variety of characters, notably Leonard Nimoy’s Mr Spock on a 1968 LP calling it “Spock Thoughts“.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

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Max Ehrmann

It is one of those pieces that people can recite.  The eternal truth contained in the lines makes it feel Medieval or a translation from Buddha or Confucius.   No.   A lawyer from Indiana.    Everyone is at the centre of the universe.  Clearly, the truth is all around us.   And for me, as a non-religious man who rejects the pious the righteous and the pontificating peace of religion, this is as near as I get to spirituality.   It’s like a survival manifesto, with kindness at its core.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

My Pop Life #101 : Tired Of Being Alone – Al Green

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This painting is called ‘Lichtenstein in the Sky With Diamonds’

and it is by Andrew McAttee

with kind permission

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Tired Of Being Alone   –   Al Green

…tired of on my own…

1971.  The year of sentience.  The year of awakening.  When every sweet note, every bass line, every guitar lick, every vocal harmony, every crunchy cymbal and every sweeping organ chord-change melted into my ear for all eternity.   Burned, forged onto my very soul.  Every time I would hear these songs as I grew older, they would leap out of the speakers and caress my heart.   Sometimes I would remember the moment, the feeling, the teenage yearning, but often I would just be inside the music.   I know every small hesitation of these songs because I was fully available to them as they appeared in 1971.  They are magic incarnate and will always be so.  They are inside me.

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I was at middle school, Lewes Priory.   Mountfield Road.   I distinctly remember the Chapel  – it was actually a church in between Middle and Upper School.  With an organ, pews, altar, the works.   It was used for music and worship.   I didn’t like “music” at school because Mr Richards had metaphorically pissed all over the record I brought into his lesson one day – and that’s for another post I think.   It was also 1971 though.   I liked pop radio and Top Of The Pops.   It’s difficult to overstate the huge impression TOTP made on all of our lives, accompanied by the possibly more important Pick Of The Pops chart rundown from 5 to 7pm every Sunday evening, a non-religious gathering of the family around the radio to hear Alan Freeman tell us whether our favourites had gone up or down the charts.   Critical, basic, essential moments.

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The first time I saw Al Green on Top Of The Pops he was singing Tired Of Being Alone.  Just him, no band.  It was completely astonishing.  He was wearing some stretch top and had a small afro haircut.   And he sang this song as if his entire life depended upon it.   I didn’t know it at the time, but I would now mark this moment as my introduction to soul music.   Yes I’d seen The Temptations,  Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, Diana Ross & The Supremes on the TV, but I can’t remember Otis Redding at all, or Jackie Wilson, or Sam Cooke, or James Brown.   I remember them on the radio – but not TV.  Having seen them since then I’m pretty sure I would have remembered them ?

Why did it have this effect on me ?  Well, I think the vast percentage of the reason must reside inside Al Green himself.   As a performer he really is second to none, and always has been.  This cannot and will not be the only Al Green post I write because I simply have too many stories spread over almost all of my life in relation to Al Green – The Reverend Al Green as he became known.  I have seen him live at least ten times, visited his church in Memphis and own all of his LPs.   I followed him through the gospel phase and then back to pop again.  He is technically a supreme singer. But the technique is the least of it.   His voice is powerful and delicate, male and female, hugely expressive, a thing of rare beauty and subtlety.   A gift.   All of which is present on this first single.  Watching him sing it – (live ?) – on TOTP was like a revelation, like a vision of something.

After one minute 44 seconds we’ve had the song, two choruses with their syncopated horn stabs, and then he starts to break it down, the music starts to vamp, Al starts to improvise, to express himself, to wonder…   I don’t think I’d ever seen that in a pop performance before, that whole section where he folds his arms and goes mmmmmm, it was simply remarkable.    It was an education.   It was soul music.

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The other thing that struck me from that seminal TOTP moment was how delicate he looked – small, wiry, dynamic, he reminded me of Desmond Dekker both physically and how he moved his mouth around the words as if they were alive.   Which they were.

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And maybe the song just expresses a huge simple human truth.  Aren’t we all tired of being alone ?  Maybe parents surrounded by children dream of being alone, but what for ?  Peace and quiet is over-rated.  I’ve been sitting here in Prague now for two months working on Legends, and it is simply the most unsocial group of people I have ever worked with, all for different reasons, some have their families here, Sean Bean stays in mainly, the others have their own runnings.   It’s just how it goes sometimes in the wacky world of showbiz.   I cherish time alone, and read a lot, write this, and so on and so forth, but underneath all that, yes, I am tired of being alone.   Luckily Jenny is coming out in two weeks.   And Paul after that sometime.    I’m quite a social animal au fin du jour.   Which is why I have ended up hanging out with The Musketeers – here for seven months on series three for the BBC – and we all meet in the James Joyce pub, two blocks away from the InterContinental, if we want some social time.  Guinness on tap.   Food.   Convivial.   Bit of Al Green on the jukebox.

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When this song was released in August 1971 I already knew what loneliness was all about.  As I wrote in My Pop Life 84 All Along The Watchtower and My Pop Life #56Morning Has Broken, we had been split up, separated as a family for nine long months while we waited for someone, somewhere to house us.   Eventually a council house on a new-build estate in Hailsham was offered and we moved in together in the late spring of 1971.   Our lives together in Hailsham were, in my memory, almost utter turmoil, with frequent visits from doctors, a cupboard full of pills for depression and Paul and I becoming more ungovernable as we hit puberty and grew physically larger, causing the weapons used to beat us with to get larger in response.  But of course there were moments of repose, of laughter, of peace, of conviviality too.  I’ve blotted most of this section of my life out.  My memories are very very selective.  But I clearly remember seeing Al Green on Top Of The Pops one Thursday evening.  And that is a good thing.

Check out his microphone technique on this wonderful archive footage from 1972:

the original single, with backing vocals :

My Pop Life #94 : Overture to Tannhäuser – Richard Wagner

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 Overture to Tannhäuser    –   Richard Wagner

Perhaps it was January 1974.    This was when Major Horst Mohn of the German SS, memorably played by Anthony Valentine, arrived in Colditz Castle at the beginning of series 2 of the BBCtv WW2 drama Colditz, and had a showdown scene with the Kommandant, the more sympathetic German officer in charge of the POW camp, played brilliantly by Bernard Hepton.

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Bernard Hepton – the Kommandant – listens to Wagner

Mohn was sent down from Hitler’s inner circle, wounded in action, to Colditz.  Things were going to get a little tougher for those plucky POWs, and for The Kommandant himself !

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Anthony Valentine and Hans Meyer in spooky moving picture from Coldtiz

But to be honest, I can’t really remember the trigger scene.  What I can remember is that my Mum wrote to the BBC and asked them – what was the music playing behind that scene ?  If indeed that was the scene.  And bless them – they replied :  it was the Overture to Wagner’s Opera Tannhäuser.   She went out to Eastbourne on the next shopping Saturday (record-buying day) and found an LP with the music.  “Here’s that music” she triumphantly announced, “from Colditz.  It’s Tannhowzer!”

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Those plucky POWS included Robert Wagner (a relation?) and David MacCullum

Had we even heard of Richard Wagner?   Well we had now.   The LP became an institution in our house.   We lived in Hailsham East Sussex in 1974 , and we had very few LPs.  Loads of singles – on labels like Deram, RAK, Tamla Motown, A&M, Parlaphone, Island, RCA, Track, Regal Zonophone, UA, Decca, Pye, MAM, Capitol, Chrysalis and others, but LPs – let me think – we had the soundtracks to Oliver! and The Sound Of Music, The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, a Seekers LP called Morningtown Ride, Andy Williams,  I had a bunch of stuff upstairs by then : Imagine, Roxy Music, Aladdin Sane, Band On The Run, These Foolish Things and Abbey Road.   Mum must’ve had some others, but not many.   So the arrival of a new LP  was a moment.   We played it a lot.   I know this music backwards, I know all the violin parts, all the horn parts, I know when it trembles, when it swells, when it swoons, when it thunders, when the percussion come in, when it fades – it is undoubtedly the piece of classical music I know best.

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The legendary Tannhäuser LP cover

I knew nothing about Wagner in 1974, I was 16 and didn’t know much about anything.  We all loved Colditz though and watched it together, and Mum writing to the BBC didn’t seem weird at all.  Looking back, I’ve got to say that she had a very good ear, picking up on the background music to a scene in a BBC drama.  Impressive.   And suddenly we had this LP in the house.  It’s a massively powerful piece of music, rich and dark and beautiful.  We none of us knew that it was the Overture to an opera.  I’ve still never heard the opera.  Not sure I want to really.  Since 1974 I’ve collected a fair bit of Wagner as he is one of my favourite composers – up to a point.

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 The Ring Cycle – four operas all telling a long story about Wotan, Seigfried, The Rhine Maidens and some ring or other – is one of the pinnacles of human artistic endeavour, but the problem is, I can’t really take the singing.  I’ve seen one of the Ring operas – Götterdämmerung at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden with Bernard Haitink conducting – one of the great interpreters of Wagner.   I recognised much of the music because I have had a double LP (and CD) of Ring music for years – but there’s no singing at all on that LP, just the overtures and preludes.   Just the music !!!  Fantastic.  The singing is so dull and tedious.   My brother Andrew has been to see the entire Ring Cycle three times already, I couldn’t sit through it.  Or could I?  It’s almost worth it for the music which is outstanding.  But No, give me the overtures anytime : Lohengrin, Parsifal, The Flying Dutchman, Tristan & Isolde, The Master-Singers of Nuremburg and the Ring – Rheingold, The Valkries, Seigfried and Götterdammerung.  It’s 20 pieces of music in all.  About two from each.  And that’s all you need from Wagner.  Sorry purists.  But having said that – each piece is a magical journey into sound, music that opens you up and tears you down, music that rolls and rides and lifts and inspires.  Fantastic stuff.

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On the B-side of Tannhäuser were two shorter pieces : Seigfried’s Rhine Journey and The Magic Fire Music, both from The Ring Cycle.  They hardly got played at, but now and again they got an airing.  No, Tannhäuser was the one.  The umlaut (two dots) above the ‘a’ changes the pronunciation in a very efficient and clear German way – Tann Howzer becomes Tann Hoyzer  (see My Pop Life 78).   Pointless for me to describe the music.   I know little about the opera only that it is a struggle between sacred and profane love and there is a Venusberg section which involved the goddess herself – in fact Botticelli’s representation of Venus (on the half shell as Kurt Vonnegut would say) was on the cover of our LP.   It’s very pop classical, big obvious shapes, repeated phrases, completely dramatic and very melodic indeed – this is music with Tunes in.   It also ripples in a particular way that appealed to later composers such as Claude Debussy (see My Pop Life 87).   The rippling is fantastically effective in the Rhine music of The Ring operas, and in particular the opening of Das Rheingeld – a single Eb (E flat) chord which is slowly developed and teased out in a brilliantly simple yet effective musical impression of water.  This piece of music is used by director Terrence Malick for the start of his film The New Age when the europeans ships first drop anchor off the Virginia shore in 1504.

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But here’s one interesting thing about classical music, pop fans.  It is written down, with a few guidelines about tempo written above the dots.  In Italian.  All music instructions are written in Italian, because it was during the Renaissance when written music began to be reproduced and thus instructions were key to how it would be performed.  In fact many musical terms are Italian : opera, concerto, oratorio, soprano, alto, contralto, allegro, andante, adagio etc etc.    Classical scholars reading – please advise me if I’m wrong here – but Richard Wagner wrote andante maestoso above the opening of Tannhäuser – a stately walk.  Now – one woman’s stately walk is another man’s wandering stroll – or in other words it is hugely open to interpretation.  This is what conductors are paid for, to read the Italian words on the top of the dots.  So skimming though all the versions of this Overture on Youtube one finds ‘long versions’ – slower tempo, very stately – and shorter versions – pick up your feet a bit, violins.   Conductor Daniel Barenboim gets through it in 14 minutes 37 seconds while John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé stretches it out to 25 minutes.  I find this fascinating, this huge difference in style on one piece of music.  It’s the same number of notes after all.    In my experience, the piece you hear first and get to love – with any classical music – is the tempo that you prefer.  I wonder if Wagner is harder to play at a slow tempo, harder to get it right?   At any rate – the Charles Munch Boston Symphony Orchestra LP we owned clocked in at 21.12 and I just listened to it again, it’s perfect.   If you’re just starting on Wagner though, I’d recommend two conductors who get the stately walk thing brilliantly – Herbert Von Karajan and Bernard Haitink.  There is a lot of emotion in their approach, which I think is right.

Wagner completed the writing of Tannhäuser in 1845.   The Paris opening was infamously interrupted by The Jockey Club for 15 minutes at a time amid chaotic scenes and Wagner withdrew the opera after three performances and never really established himself in France as a result.  By all accounts he was an anti-semite, a misogynist and a bully, but as with our dear Kanye West and Michael Jackson I do believe that we have to listen to the music rather than read the tabloids.  The music is magnificent, the man less so.    It’s an age-old argument, but my position is simple :  I don’t need to approve of Wagner to like his music.   Another faux-objection to Wagner is the well-known fact that he was one of Hitler’s favourite composers which the BBC clearly played on when including his music in Colditz.  But as someone said on Twitter the other day, Hitler liked dogs too.  What of it?

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So I am once again grateful to my mother Heather for opening my ears to music.  Her ears are always open to tunes in the air, on the radio, behind the scenes.    I’ve definitely inherited this from her.   I could have gone on to study music if my teachers at Lewes Priory weren’t so incredibly dead.   But I am where I am.   Music is freely available to us all whatever our profession, and it remains the delight of my life.  This particular piece of music just makes me feel good.  I don’t really need any further recommendation than that.

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