My Pop Life #154 : Within You Without You – The Beatles

Within You Without You   –   The Beatles

try to realise it’s all within yourself no one else can make you change 

and to see you’re really only very small and life flows on within you and without you

*

when you see beyond yourself then you will find peace of mind is waiting there

and the time will come when you see we’re all one + life flows on within you and without you

‘laughter’

Track 1, side 2 of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  A song written by George Harrison inspired by his love of Ravi Shankar‘s records and his newly-found spiritual awakening to Indian philosophy and religion.   After the pop glories of Lovely Rita and Getting Better and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds have become over-familiar, Within You Without You retains its mystical glowing power after many repeated listens and starts to become the warm central heartbeat of the LP.  Often claimed to be the greatest LP of all time, (though more usually placed way down a list of great Beatles albums), Sgt Pepper was a cultural phenomenon that even I was aware of at the age of 9 on June 1st 1967 when it was released.   It was played on Radio Luxembourg all day, and John Peel played it on his eclectic late night show The Perfumed Garden on Radio London without interruption.  Artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa all fell under its strange English spell, and despite years of claim and counter-claim –  ‘holy grail‘ versus ‘not very good really‘ criticism, it still towers over most of pop’s major records as a Legendary Thing, combining the first concept LP (despite the concept not holding up for more than three songs), the pop-art sleeve by Peter Blake, and the music itself, a rather eccentric combination of psychedelic rock, end-of-the-pier Edwardian recital, classical Indian music, and pure pop.  The first two songs recorded for the LP were Penny Lane (see My Pop Life #36) and Strawberry Fields Forever, but they were released as an extraordinary double-A sided single in April by a zealous EMI.  It’s a testament to the depth of the Beatles’ songwriting that this commercial decision didn’t sink the subsequent LP.

George was always third in the Beatles.  John, Paul…..and George.  And Ringo.  It was simple – he was youngest.  Ringo was last because he was last in, and because he was the drummer.  And our family has a similar shape.   Ralph, Paul…..and Andrew.  And Becky.   George traditionally got one song per album if he was lucky, but by the end of the 1960s his songwriting was so strong that Abbey Road had to include Here Comes The Sun AND Something, the finest song on the LP.

Roger McGuinn & David Crosby in the early days of The Byrds

It was The Byrds‘ guitarist and legendary stoner David Crosby who first showed George a sitar in California in 1965 at an LSD-drenched party in the hills, although Roger McGuinn later insisted that he had shown George the instrument.  I can’t imagine any of them actually remember the details, but George then played one on Norwegian Wood in October of that year.  The following April Harrison went full Indian on Love You To, which is on the LP Revolver.  The accompanying musicians were uncredited but came from the Asian Music Circle,  an organisation founded in Finchley in 1946 by Ayana Angadi and his wife Patrica Fell-Clarke, and where Harrison had been taking sitar lessons.

Ravi Shankar was guest of honour at the Finchley house in June 1966 when he first met George, who thereupon humbly asked him if he could become his pupil.  Ravi accepted.  They became firm friends and the most rewarding fruit of their work is Within You Without You, also recorded with uncredited members of the Asian Music Circle on the Indian instruments tamboura, swarmandel, dilruba and tabla.

Unknown musician, George Harrison & Ravi Shankar in 1967

With a string section arranged by producer George Martin and George Harrison, none of the other Beatles are on the track.  George plays the sitar, much improved from his first attempt.  The effect is mesmerising, musically adventurous and unembarrassingly spiritual.    He was determined to master the instrument, but after a conversation with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix (!) Harrison realised that he had started his lessons fifteen years too late, and that he would never achieve true mastery.   He put the sitar down, and went back to electric guitar, playing some astonishing pieces after the Beatles’ split, including How Do You Sleep? on the Imagine LP, and some beautiful slide guitar on My Sweet Lord and Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) among others.

George Harrison & Ravi Shankar

When the Brighton Beach Boys decided to tackle Sgt. Pepper, we sat around and threw our names into the hat for lead vocals.  Within You Without You was my first choice.  Clearly the angelic and profoundly moving voice of Glen Richardson would sing most of the McCartney vocals – She’s Leaving Home, Fixing A Hole, When I’m 64 etc.  Tom and Stephen tussled over Paul’s opening screamer.  That left John,  George & Ringo among the remaining five singers.  I got Ringo’s A Little Help From My Friends and the John part of A Day In The Life and this amazing song.  Rehearsing it was odd, because we couldn’t really play it without the strings.  So I sang it at home on my own to the record and tried to hold my nerve.

Very rough Sgt Pepper live event in The Robin Hood pub, 2005.  From the top : Stephen Wrigley, me, Adrian Marshall, Tom Arnold

In May 2005 we had a very rough run-through of Pet Sounds v Sgt Pepper in the Robin Hood pub in Brighton one Sunday afternoon in front of a few customers and friends.  Landlord Neil Hayward had come up with the idea so it was his fault.  We’d already done Pet Sounds at Komedia on May 7th – the first time.  I simply cannot remember how we did WYWY, perhaps we didn’t, or perhaps we had an electric tamboura by then (plug-in, switch on, choose key = instant spangly drone and lots of “mine’s a chicken korma” jokes) and Charlotte played the string part solo.  Or perhaps not.

Soundcheck for Within You Without You in the church.  Steve is playing harmonium (on the vibraphone!)

But history (and Tom Arnold) does record that the first time we played this gig was at the Brighton Festival, May 21st 2006.  We had a tabla player just for this one song which we later considered to be a luxury, and since then Tom Arnold has played a variety of tabla and djembe and other percussion in the song.  Rory Cameron played the sitar part on a Danelectro sparkling blue guitar belonging to Stephen Wrigley.  Later he would learn the part on an actual sitar which of course is visually rather marvellous.  Rory has now left the band.  Glen found a swarmandel sound on his synthesiser – like a zither or metallic harp.   And Steve also scored the string quartet.  For this gig we added a string quartet and an extra flute and sax, and percussion, bringing the total to 16 players, and called the ensemble The Psychedelic Love Orchestra.  Stringers being expensive people who insist (with complete justification) on being paid for rehearsal, I think we may have had just the one rehearsal with them.  (We didn’t have any rehearsals with the stringers this year!)  We then rehearsed during the sound-check, always a nerve-wracking experience.  No pressure.  It kept breaking down in the call-and-answer section between the first violin and the sitar, and the timing was controversial too – was it in 2/5 ??  For my part I had simply listened to the track ENDLESSLY and knew every twitch and sigh, so when I heard my cue, in I droned with the opening line:

 “We were talking . . . about the space between us all…”

St George’s Church, Kemp Town with full Psychedelic Love Orchestra

That night the space between us all was a packed Georgian church – St George’s  in Kemp Town, Brighton.  We were set up on the altar thanks to a groovy priest who no longer runs the place – as a result the altar is now out of bounds, and we can’t fit into the space left.  So those six or seven church gigs were unique and special, in a beautiful wooden structure with wonderful acoustics and an intimate setting.  We lit  incense as the tamboura warmed up, Stephen played the harmonium I think, and it was there, singing live in front of people that I discovered the soul of the piece, how heartfelt and warm it was, how true.  How it was a miracle that somehow we got to the end without breaking down as we had in almost every single run-through.  How I made the pranam prayer Hindu shape with my hands and bowed into the applause, and how we then slid effortlessly (apparently) into the soft shoe shuffle of When I’m 64, such is the clever sequencing of the LP.   How proud I was that we had, collectively, scaled an Everest of a song in English pop culture, inspired by another tradition many miles away.  How I could never count the bars, but always had to rely on instinct, which is much scarier.  We’ve done the show ten times now, and it is always for me the scariest section of the show, and the part I look forward to the most.  A bit like a ghost train.

Practise makes fantactiss

When we moved to New York City in 2014, my great sacrifice was seeing the godchildren growing up – Delilah Rose, who is eight years old, and Skye who is almost two. Uncle Ralph flies back as often as he can to see these precious little people.  The other sacrifice was the band.  It was touch-and-go for a few years whether it would continue at all – not just my absence, but Rory moved to Bury St Edmunds, Charlotte had a baby boy Cosmo, and Tom joined the endless tour of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.   A chance visit in December 2015 found me in Brighton on the same night as a gig at The Brunswick with the rock’n’roll version of the Brighton Beach Boys complete with legend Chris Spedding on the guitar.  I played on that gig (from memory, almost forgetting a key chord in Good Vibrations) and then said that if they booked the Pet Sounds/Pepper gig, I would fly back for it from Brooklyn.

May 28th 2016, Pet Sounds v Sgt Pepper live

Thus it was that almost exactly three years to the day since we last tackled these two pop landmarks The Brighton Beach Boys were reunited at The Haunt, in Pool Valley Brighton on Saturday May 28th 2016.  No Spedding this time, but a lovely guitarist and singer called Jono Harrison.  The band had had two rehearsals, but the woodwinds and strings hadn’t been there.  The same four key players : Nicky and Brian on violins, Sarah on cello and Rob on viola joined us for the soundcheck on Saturday afternoon and we had a quick run-through of Within You Without You.  As usual it was rubbish, well, not rubbish, but covered in errors and hesitations and poor timings, mainly from me.  As usual when we performed it live it was fine.  Some enthusiastic audience members even insisted that it was great.

Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away on 11 December 2012.  George Harrison left us on 29 November 2001.  They remained great friends.

Now and again I tiptoe towards the wisdom embraced by the song – seeing both within myself to change the sadness, and seeing beyond myself to find – sometimes – that peace of mind is waiting there.  I hope I can grow old gracefully.  At the moment the tempest shows no signs of abating.  But life.   Life flows on within you, and without you.

 

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My Pop Life #153 : Small Hours – John Martyn

Small Hours   –   John Martyn

I met Colin Jones at the London School of Economics in 1976 and remained friends with him until he died in 1997 in a possibly deliberate car crash on the M6 when he drove into the back on a lorry parked on the hard shoulder somewhere in Cumbria.  We were shocked and saddened, but the happy-go-lucky LSE student, music lover, dope dealer, driving instructor and friend had turned into (revealed himself as?) a secretly deeply depressed man who struggled increasingly with his own private torments.  In the late 1980s his flat-mate Dave Moser had found him lying in his bed with slit wrists and a huge pool of blood around him on the floor, but Dave had called the ambulance and Colin had lived.  A cry for help no doubt.  Or was it ?

The London School Of Economics, Houghton St WC2

LSE 1976-79 was full of unreformed hippies, beatniks, groovers and fresh new student punks.  My gang was loosely grouped around the ENTS Room which organised live concerts and suchlike and was where you were guaranteed to score some dope or at least bum a puff of weed, a cloud of which hung like a signpost outside the door of the scruffy 2nd-floor office.  The other room which was nearby the ENTS Room was the Student Newspaper office – called Beaver, less druggy but still hippy-drenched and groovy.  I spent my spare time (which at university was plentiful) between these two rooms, and two other key groups – the LSE football team and the Drama group.  What a blessed time.  I was studying for a law degree, which I achieved with a lazy 2:2 in the summer of ’79, never intending to use it.  I would have been a good lawyer.  My mind works like a lawyer’s.  But I’d caught the acting bug by then, and regardless of shadow careers and what-ifs, it has been a true privilege to earn a living in this precarious and exciting profession.

The ENTS gang then :  Andy Cornwell, from Lewes Priory like me, the ultimate cool groover with a blond afro, pear-drop glasses and mushroom loon pants.  Permanently stoned, earnest and absurdly relaxed, he booked the bands that we all grew to champion : Aswad, Roy Harper, Vivian Stanshall and others.  He would later run the Legalize Cannabis Campaign, and perhaps still does.  Mike Stubbs, the previous Ents Chief, long wavy orange hair and pop-blue eyes, who stayed reasonably above the fray (he was a little older) but whom I lived with in my 3rd year (see My Pop Life 150).  He became a lawyer.  Pete Thomas, twinkly-eyed Everton fan from Hertfordshire, reggae disciple and expert joint-roller had a keen eye for business and had retired by the time he was 40.  His girlfriend and wife Sali Beresford, one of the only women in the crew, bright as a button, funny as fuck and fierce as a firecracker.  I lived with them and Nick Partridge from  ’78-’80 (see My Pop Life #59).  Their friends :  Colin Jones, Tony Roose, John Vincent.  Colin had frizzy ginger hair and a beard which looked glued on, round John Lennon glasses and a nervous but generous smile. He actually resembled Fat Freddy from the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in an admittedly blurry kind of way.

Fat Freddy and his cat

On closer inspection and the clear cold light of day of course, he didn’t look anything like him, but there you go.   He was warm, vulnerable and funny and he supplied the dope incessantly.  For decades.   Tony and John were a team within the team and they supported the eternal wearing of denim, throwing of frisbee, smoking of weed, drinking of beer.  John was very quiet and shy.  I went to Belfast with Tony on a Troops Out Delegation in 1981 (see My Pop Life #13), and we’re still in touch.  Back then we used to go to Regent’s Park, our nearest green space to Fitzroy Street, and play frisbee golf, a game which we invented.  (not strictly true, but we did : see Wikipedia ).   It involved declaring and indicating the next hole (That tree over there!) then throwing your own frisbee at it in turn until you hit it.  While stoned.  Subsequently I introduced this game to Brighton in the late 1990s, playing with the village gang Andy Baybutt, James Lance, Tim Lewis, Lee Charles Williams and Thomas Jules on a regular basis in the parks and green spaces of Brighton and Hove.  I recommend it to you all as a splendid pastime.

The rest of the LSE possee then  :  Anton who edited the Beaver, long hair down to his waist and a permanently amused lisp.  His team-mate and flat mate Nigel, the only other person other than me who dug Peter Hammill, lead singer of Van Der Graaf Generator who’d made a string of alarming and alarmingly good solo LPs.  Wavy hair down below his waist, Nigel turned me on to Todd Rundgren, for which eternal thanks.  Lewis MacLeod who was studying Law with me, speaking almost incomprehensible Glaswegian who liked a drink and a smoke and invented the Beatles A-Level with me one stoned afternoon (sample question :  “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean. Discuss.”)  He is now a Dave Moser, prematurely balding and brightly benign, shared a flat with Colin then moved to Australia in the mid-1980s.

I was with Mumtaz through all those years, and she would often be there with us, and was indeed one of us, still is, but often she would have to duck out of the incessant revelries because she was studying to be an actual lawyer rather than just playing at it.  And she didn’t enjoy frisbee.  She also became a lawyer.  The standard as I recall it through the haze, was high.  John Vincent was the don, his unerring accuracy gave us all something to aim for and raised our game.

Later Nick Partridge would join this crowd, after LSE finished  and lived in West Hampstead with us, he went on to run the Terrence Higgins Trust from 1991 until 2013 when he resigned, having become Sir Nick Partridge in 2009 to everyone’s joy and amusement.  In those balmy heady years after university the whole gang stayed effortlessly in touch and we still sought each other’s company, played frisbee golf and went to concerts together.  And of course got stoned together listening to Burning Spear (see My Pop Life #10), Spirit, Van Morrison and John Martyn.

Hard to choose a song for Colin, his favourite artist was Bob Dylan, favourite song Tangled Up In Blue.  But that doesn’t remind me of him.  Small Hours by John Martyn does.  A wonderful musician whom we all saw regularly in London at UCH, Bloomsbury and other venues, and he’d come up with a fantastic new LP in 1977 called One World.  It was on the record player a lot.  An early experimentalist with technology, Martyn at that point performed solo (or with just a bass player) utilising a repeat box of pedals which set up a groove for him to solo and sing over, a hugely effective trick which kept us all rapt.  A very original sound at that time.  We all loved the futuristic blues/folk/jazz of John Martyn, as did DJ John Peel.  Martyn’s early albums with Beverley Martyn his wife were subtle and beautiful, but once they’d divided their talents he changed his vocal style to a more slurred jazzy feel and hooked up with bass player Danny Thompson.   He then started a run of amazing LPs starting with Bless The Weather, followed by total masterpiece Solid Air (1973), dedicated to his friend Nick Drake (who died of an overdose of anti-depressants a year later).

Then followed  Inside Out,  Sunday’s Child and One World. Lee Perry, famous Jamaican producer was involved with some of the recording.  The track Small Hours was recorded outside at Woolwich Green Farm deep in the English countryside one night.  Engineer Phil Brown discusses the unique set-up around a lake in his book “Are We Still Rolling?“.  You can hear water, and the sound of geese on the track, haunting and wonderful.   Records (or albums, LPs indeed), were to be listened to in those days, and they also supplied us with mini-trays to roll joints on.  The selection of the album to roll on became a part of the ritual.  Joints were to be passed around, a social event.  And then when the brain was stoned, it listened to the music and fell in love with it.

After college we all helped Pete & Sali and Colin’s girlfriend Mary move a reasonably large upright piano into the infamous Huntley Street Squat, just round the corner from Heals Department Store off Tottenham Court Road.  Top floor, of course.  Up seven flights of stairs.  Most of the above-mentioned chaps were there.  It was quite simply one of the worst evenings of my life, and in the joke about visions of hell (tea-break over, back on yer heads) I would substitute an endless spiral staircase with an infinite line of pianos which had to ascend it as a particular torture which I never wished to revisit, even in hell.  A few years later we moved that same piano into a flat in Mornington Crescent, then years later when I got the Housing Association flat in Archway Road, Mary gave it to me, bless her.  About 20 years later I gave it in turn to our friend masseur Anna Barlow because her disabled son had asked her for a piano, and I then bought Andy Baybutt’s gentler-toned upright.  The Frisbee piano circle continues.

Colin became a Driving Instructor (as did Mike Stubbs) and although I’d learned to drive in Woods Hole Massachusetts in the summer of 1976 in a Beetle, now I had to pass the test, which thanks to Colin I did first time, despite hitting the kerb on my reverse corner.   Colin also continued to provide most of the dope that we all smoked in copious amounts, either as a first choice drug, or increasingly to cushion the come-down of speed which had entered our lives thanks to punk and the increased tempo of the music we listened to and watched live.  At some point after I moved into the Finsbury Park attic room with Mumtaz (1980) Colin met Wanda and they were married.  Later he transferred his talents to driving transport for the disabled for Camden Council, eventually as team leader.  He carried on dealing throughout.  But he never seemed to settle.  Neither did I by the way.  The flat with Dave Moser was a headquarters once again for all of us to gather and smoke and chew the cud, listen to music and solve the world’s problems.  Until the dark night when he slashed his own wrists.  We held a men’s group in the early 80s as a supportive response to the feminist movement, Colin was in that, as was Tony, and my mate Simon Korner.   But despite the suicide attempt Colin always seemed to me to be a together person, a proper grown-up.  I felt like a young soul next to him, he was wise and funny and sad, compassionate and thoughtful.  When we heard that he’d died in an accident on the M6 and the details filtered through, many felt that it was no accident, that this time he’d managed to kill himself.  We gathered for his funeral and wake near King’s Cross, drank and smoked, shocked and stunned, sad looking at each other for support and understanding.

I still miss him.  In researching this piece I spoke with Pete, who confided to me that Colin had been sexually abused by his father as a child.  I can only guess at the torment inside him, never shared with me.  Given that burden I feel that his life was a kind of miracle.  He was a terribly kind and gentle man.   Were we all damaged, trying quietly and privately to heal together in the wee small hours, music washing over us ?

My Pop Life #100 : Stardust – Nat King Cole

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Stardust   –   Nat King Cole

…And now the purple dusk of twilight time

…steals across the meadows of my heart…

High up in the sky the little stars climb

always reminding me that we’re apart

*

Such a melancholy yet beautiful lyric on such an unusual, strange and compelling melody.

Featured imageHoagy Carmichael wrote the melody to Stardust when he was 28 years old in Bloomington Indiana, imagining as he composed it that one day his hero – cornet player Bix Beiderbecke – would play the tune.  The way the song winds and swerves through different keys is a challenge for any singer – but originally Stardust was an instrumental.    A jazz instrumental.    The saxophone player Bud Freeman once said ‘Carmichael’s songs are the only songs on which you don’t have to improvise much, because the improvisation is already in them‘.  So Hoagy recorded the instrumental and it was played by Ellington, Calloway and others until in 1929 Irving Mills decided the tune needed lyrics and asked young Mitchell Parish to write some.

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The resulting ballad (first performed by Isham Jones in the form we know it today)  is simply the most exceptional combination of words and music that I know of, my favourite song of all time, and the song which was covered more than any other (over 1500 covers to date) up ’til McCartney dreamed up Yesterday (covered over 3000 times).

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Stardust is a song about a song about love.  Lost love – all that’s left is the song.  The star has gone, all that’s left is stardust.  The image of Star Dust (original title) is a powerful one and has been used many times – Bowie called himself Ziggy Stardust during 1972, and Joni Mitchell sang  “we are stardust we are golden” about the Woodstock generation.   The idea that music can contain in it the dust of a feeling, of a relationship, of a love is a very beautiful one, and of course it is also the idea behind this very blog.  So it seems fitting to me that as I reach the satisfying figure of 100 pieces of music written about, 100 feelings converted into stardust, that this song marks the auspicious occasion.

Featured imageI first became obsessed with Stardust around February 2008 – yes, quite specific…   And once again I am indebted to Kenneth Cranham for his musical guidance.    In a small-world twist of fate, he was now playing patriarch Max in Pinter’s The Homecoming at The Almeida Theatre – and my wife Jenny Jules had become the first black woman to ever play the role of Ruth in the same production.    Harold Pinter clearly fancied her in fact and would insist on sitting next to her at dinner and so on.   His wife Lady Antonia Fraser was terribly patient.    I walked home with Uncle Ken one day, probably after rehearsal, because he lives not far from the theatre round the back of Caledonian Road.   I had been cast in Richard Curtis‘ film The Boat That Rocked, playing late-night DJ Bob Silver, a kind of John Peel template, but with the difference that I was an old geezer in 2008 compared with Peel’s early 20s in 1966 on the pirate radio station Radio Caroline.   Uncle Ken being my musical guru I asked him, if I’d been 50 in 1966 then who would I have grown up listening to?   Apart from a reference to Muddy Waters there were no clues in the script.   A week later I was at rehearsal again, or maybe first night, and Ken thrust 3 whole C90 cassettes into my grubby paw.    I know.   It was 2008 and he was still making C90s.   They were completely brilliant.   “They’re all writer-based“,  Ken explained, “the first one is Ellington, with plenty of covers too, the second is Harold Arlen who wrote Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Stormy Weather, and the third is Hoagy Carmichael, and there’s even a track of Hoagy singing on that one”…

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The track of Hoagy singing was Stardust.  There were three other versions on the cassette – one I already had at home by Nat King Cole, probably purchased in the mid-eighties after a John Godber-directed show, (perhaps A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon theatre on King’s Road in 1982).  John’s parents were addicted to Nat King Cole and some of John’s writing acknowledges his greatness as an artist, mainly as a crooner.   The other two versions were by Willie Nelson and The Mills Brothers.   Four of the best versions.   I could not stop listening to the damn song.   I started collecting covers of it.   There are a lot.   At the last count I had 57 cover versions of it – all different, most of them terrific.  They range from wild jazz instrumentals from the likes of Charlie Christian, Ben Webster and Oscar Aleman to staggering vocal journeys by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby.   Some odd ones – by The Shadows (it’s ace), The Mills Brothers – an instrumental version AND a sung version, but all done by their voices (amazing), and Frank Sinatra – only sings the introduction (!!).   He had a history of picking the bits he liked though, did Frank (see eg: Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park).   Then there’s Louis Armstrong‘s simply astounding cover which bounces along on the one & the three like a song possessed while the trumpet riffs above it – until Louis starts to sing and makes up the words, scats along, it is simply brilliant and probably the “best” version.  Unique, certainly.

Featured imageBut my favourite is Nat King Cole.  He had a long career as a jazz pianist playing some classic trio cuts before his vocal ability took prominence and he started to sing more – his version of The Christmas Song (“chestnuts roasting…”) in 1946 made him a superstar, (although the famous version still played today was the 4th time he recorded the song in 1961).  By 1956 he had his own syndicated TV show in America, the first black performer to do so.  In 1957 – the year I was born – he released his version of Stardust, his vocal melisma and jazz sophistication perfectly suiting the song’s temperament.  The string arrangement – can’t find out who it was – is beyond perfect – the opening violin swell is like someone breathing in and out it is so organic.    As Nat reaches the word at the end of the introduction “the music of the years gone by” the strings are clearly on the “wrong” note, but resolve with exquisite delay.

When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration…

What a line – and don’t we all know that feeling ?  Now sadly gone but he has the song….

My stardust melody – the memory of love’s refrain

The lyrics are full of stars – in the sky reminding him that “we’re apart” and at the end again as he sits beside a garden wall

when stars are bright and you are in my arms…”

*

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To be honest there’s only so much you can write about a piece of music like this. Without getting overly muso – the use of semitone intervals – going up and down is extremely effective.  “Sometimes I wonder…” the first four notes are a semitone climb up that line of the first verse which leads you into the reverie.  Then later “Though I dream in vain…”  the last three words are semitone falls, perfectly in sympathy musically with the lyric.    I don’t want to go overboard at the deep end so I’ll just leave this here.   I will doubtless come back to other versions and covers in future posts.  And of course Hoagy wrote other songs too – Georgia On My Mind and many others.  But Nat King Cole sings Stardust and he wears the crown for My Pop Life #100.

Nat Cole :  LIVE !

My Pop Life #91 : The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine – Laurel & Hardy

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The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine   –   Laurel & Hardy

Give the gentlemen the best in the house !  

Yes Sir !  

I’ll be back in a minute…

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One of the weird things about getting old – or getting older I should say, and listen, whoever you are you ARE getting older – is realising with some chagrin that people who are younger than you don’t necessarily understand your references.    There are some exceptions to this – there are cultural moments that seem eternal, whatever your age, whatever TV shows you watched as a child, whatever music you loved as a teenager – and I would humbly suggest that perhaps Laurel & Hardy are one – or two -of these treasures.  Perhaps I’m wrong.   I watched them throughout my life – they were always on the TV in the 1960s, and the 1970s, particularly at Christmas I seem to remember, in the morning.  They are the funniest double-act I’ve ever seen, I can literally weep until it hurts watching their foolishness.

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Is it possible that people don’t know about these guys?  I’ll have to surrender that point.  Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel were already established performers and had already worked together (although not as a team) when they were both signed up by Hal Roach’s Studio in Hollywood in 1926.  Their first film was called Putting Pants on Philip (1927) and they worked together from that date until the late 1940s, starting out as silent comedians and finishing their considerable careers together in a music hall tour of the UK and Ireland, where they were adored and celebrated wherever they went.

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The early films were all 3-reel shorts – up to 25 minutes usually, including the classics Pardon Us, The Music Box and Big Business, to name but three and they turned to features in 1933, including Sons Of The Desert and Way Out West, although carried on making shorts too.  They were astoundingly consistent – overweight, pompous vain Ollie is the perfect foil for scaredy-cat dimwit physical comedian Stan.  In fact Stan Laurel, who was English, produced almost all of their films, although he largely went uncredited.  My favourite moments though are almost all Oliver Hardy, his comic timing is impeccable and his incredulous looks directly into the lens are quite simply awesome.

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Irritation has never been so utterly hilarious.  But in truth they are a double act and Ollie’s looks and internal fury would not be funny without Stan clowning cleverly around in befuddlement, breaking things, spilling things, dropping things, losing things, and crying.

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James Finlayson

In 1937 they made the feature Way Out West with regular foil, actor James Finlayson and co-star Rosina Lawrence as the heroine in distress.

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At one point in the saloon bar of the western town they sing The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine : after a young cowboy sings the opening verse, Ollie takes verse two, then they harmonise the chorus together before the comic finale.  Earlier in the film they dance outside the saloon bar to another song – “At The Ball, That’s All” by The Avalon Brothers, another sweet and funny moment, also linked, but not embedded, below.

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The song Trail Of The Lonesome Pine was written in 1913 by Ballard McDonald & Harry Carroll,  Tin Pan Alley turned Broadway songwriters and it was the title song in a Broadway play of the same name, itself based on a novel.  In 1936 Henry Hathaway directed the film version of Trail Of The Lonesome Pine starring Fred MacMurray, Silvia Sydney and Henry Fonda and the title song was sung over the opening credits.  A 78 record by The Hillbillies may have inspired Stan and Ollie to cover the song with The Avalon Brothers as it has a similar harmonic arrangement.

                                                                                    Harry Carroll

Almost all of Laurel and Hardy’s short films   have a comic piece of music which introduces them – their signature tune called KuKu or The Cuckoo Song was composed by Marvin Hatley and originally features two clarinets, one pompous and pleased with itself, the other playing two simple cuckoo notes – Oliver Hardy heard it at the studio and asked if they could use it for their shorts.  It was later orchestrated and I include a link to the original double clarinet version below.

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This song – Lonesome Pine – though short, is rather wonderful, even without the visuals it works as a record – indeed it was released as a single in 1975 and got to number two in the charts in the UK, on the back of an LP release of their music “The Golden Age Of Hollywood Comedy“.   John Peel played the single three times in one week and it climbed almost to the top of the charts that Christmas, only being held off the Number One slot by another novelty record but of a completely different kind : Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

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One of the joys of Top Of The Pops (our weekly Thursday night fix of pop music on TV) was seeing this clip from Way Out West followed by the early pop promo efforts of Freddie Mercury and his pals.  If you listen to the song without watching the film you can hear James Finlayson (the Scottish regular in their movies) set them up with a drink before Chill Wills from the Avalon Brothers sings the first verse.  Ollie takes over then Stan and Ollie sing in harmony.  Oliver Hardy actually was a trained singer and his is the higher voice.  When Stan starts “singing” in a foolish bass voice – he’s actually miming over Chill Wills who provided the bass part – you can almost hear Ollie summon the barman to give him a hammer, and you can definitely hear him “testing” it on the bar before giving Stan a bop on the head.   The song finishes with Stan miming the soprano part, provided by co-star Rosina Lawrence, and falling over into the spittoon.  Perfect.

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I have the 45rpm 7-inch single somewhere among my treasures, with “Honolulu Baby” on the B-side.  John Peel played that too.

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Trail Of The Lonesome Pine from Way Out West, not embedded by request just click on the link :

and here are The Hillbillies from a 1930 78rpm Regal Zonophone record :

and here is a piano roll from the early 1920s – probably Mae Brown :

Dance Of The Cuckoos :

you’ve got this far, why not click below on the classic dance routine by Stan and Ollie to the Avalon Brothers with Chill Wills singing “At The Ball, That’s All” from 1937 :

My Pop Life#85 : The Undercover Man – Van Der Graaf Generator

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The Undercover Man   –   Van Der Graaf Generator

here…at the glass…all the usual problems…all the habitual farce..

you ask..in uncertain voice..what you should do..as if there were a choice..

..but to carry on..miming the song..

..and hope that it all works out right

Didn’t need to look up the lyrics for this song.   Burned into my brain.   The man who wrote them, Peter Hammill, he of the extraordinary angelic devil’s voice, was a constant companion of mine through the 1970s.  I bought H to He (Who Am The Only One) from Simon Korner in 1971 (?) Van Der Graaf’s second LP, quite possibly my first album that was all mine;  terribly weird and prog, heavy and jazzy, literate and dense.   I loved it.   I still do.  I first heard this track from their 5th album on the John Peel show late one night in my bedroom in Hailsham.  Van Der Graaf Generator were so underground and unloved at school (Lewes Priory) that I was astonished to hear their name and their music on the actual radio.  The song is from an album called Godbluff.   This and the follow-up Still Life are my favourite musical moments from VDGG.   There is something about the intensity of Hammill’s lyrics and his uncompromising vocal delivery, his fury and his passion, his feeling and his focus that drilled through the teenage me, through all the layers of coping and pretence and bearing up, all the capability that I summoned at each maternal nervous breakdown, each visit to the phone box to call the doctor and complain about the latest bottle of pills prescribed to Mum, each battle in the kitchen over food, washing up, coal, cats, milk bills, noise, TV channels or haircuts.  The music exposed my innermost panic.  It cut through the pop fluff and the melodic flair to the gritty bone of loneliness that was my very private world.  In a way it was quite good that no one else in school liked Van Der Graaf Generator because I didn’t want to share my feelings with anyone.   Of course I used to feel that my spectacularly dysfunctional family was a kind of pin-up of affliction, that the cross I bore, heavy and splintered and surely too much for one teenage boy to carry, was heavier and harder than anyone else’s.   It was a badge of honour, a hidden scar that I would only reveal to girlfriends, look, this is who I really am, then they would want to make it better, they did !

Now an adult I see my childhood as just another suburban tragedy.  Everyone has one.

I bought this LP in 1975 when it came out – late October as the leaves fell from the trees.  I’d left school, left home and been left by my girlfriend in the same week (see My Pop Life #58).

My first day of work on B Villa, Laughton Lodge I had thirty strange faces staring at me – the new nursing assistant in a white coat with name badge.  The friendliest bloke Martin had Down’s Syndrome and immediately introduced himself “hello sir!” with a strong lisp.  He shouldn’t have been in there.  But who should ?  Described on the entrance hoarding as a “Hospital For The Mentally Sub-Normal”, Laughton Lodge in 1975 was what local people called the loony bin, ‘bedlam’ or the madhouse.   On B Villa all the 30 men could walk, feed themselves and take themselves to the toilet.   Critical distinctions.   It meant our work was watching out for epileptic fits, walking the hyper Michael Payne round the grounds because he upset the other “residents”, taking a select group to ‘work experience’, or maybe into Lewes, sorting out problems and fights and helping with tying of shoelaces, distribution of drugs (I wasn’t allowed to do this except with another nurse) and subduing of violence.  The drug of choice was Largactyl, the chemical cosh.  Half of the ward walked around like zombies under the effect of this powerful sedative.  The other half either behaved, or were headed the same way.  Ian was severely autistic and didn’t speak, kind of yelped when he was upset.  He had memorised all the puzzles in the day-room, he would pick up a piece and know where it went immediately.  Ronnie was a 19-year old murderer, and a pyschopath with a sickly grin.  Gerald was a big dangerous intelligent man who would explode with violence from time to time, attack another patient, he smashed the acquarium one day, it would take six male nurses to hold him down.  when a patient went “up the wall” they acquired superhuman strength from deep within and furniture would go flying.  We had largactyl injections, straightjackets and a padded cell upstairs.

Michael Payne was the saddest case. A handsome gentle man in his thirties, he’d witnessed a motorbike accident at close quarters and his mind had cracked.  Somehow through the system he’d found his way onto B Villa Laughton Lodge.  He talked incessantly and we would take it in turns to walk him around the grounds, answering his questions, never quite sure what was a memory and what wasn’t.  “Did you see that tiger on television last night Mr Brown?  Scratched me right down my face!”   The Charge Nurse Ray Lucas explained to me that he was on a decreasing cycle of experience, his ups and downs were getting closer together, at that point he was three days up (walk around the grounds talking ten to the dozen) three days down (slumped in green plastic armchair on the ward).  As the wavelength got shorter he would be more difficult to manage and when the up and the down met eventually he would short-circuit and burn out, and become like the monosyllabic zombies.  This made me terribly sad.

The whole place was incredibly sad.  There were psychiatric patients mixed with murderers.  One fella Nick got picked up by his Mum and Dad every Saturday and brought back every Sunday night.  Apart from a twisted hand and club foot he was perfectly fine: intelligent but damaged.  The nurses were compassionate and coped well.   There was no abuse or piss-taking that I witnessed.   All the patients, and some of the staff were institutionalised – stuck in routines and ways of thinking.   I was only there for nine months, I couldn’t change anything.  Eventually one of the nurses from C Villa (the women’s ward) invited me to dinner one night in Ringmer.  While she was cooking, she handed me a book saying “this is what I’m interested in”.   Christine Glinkowski – a Polish woman in her late 20s – had given me “The Joy Of Sex”.  Readers, I was 18 years old.  “We can’t have sex on the first date” said Christine, “but we can do this…”

After work I would walk across the fields to the Nurses Home where I lived, a huge manor house divided into living quarters for the staff.  I shared a kitchen with two Mauritian gentleman who cooked gentle curries and were very friendly and sweet.  I would read a book, watch TV or play records on my little record player.  My first independent flat.  No surrogate mum.  Just me and my dope and cups of tea and vinyl LPs : Van Der Graaf Generator, Wings, Joe Walsh, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Gentle Giant, Stevie Wonder, Spirit, Commander Cody, Osibisa, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Focus, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, John Lennon, Man, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Greenslade, Hawkwind, The Faces, Audience, Blue Öyster Cult, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Peter Hammill’s solo albums.  White people !  Apart from Jimi.  To be fair I had a box of singles too, 45s which were nuggets of gold, among them Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Dave & Ansel Collins.

Van Der Graaf were the original pretentious art-rock prog band par excellence.  Formed by Peter Hammill and Chris Judge-Smith, the classic line-up became Hammill, organist and bass pedals Hugh Banton, sax-player David Jackson and drummer Guy Evans.  You’ll note that there’s no guitarist.  They are still going, although Jackson doesn’t appear with them often, I saw them at The Barbican in 2009 and they were, as ever, amazing.  The voice of Hammill which goes from a whisper to a blood-curdling scream, from a sweet melody to a harsh monosyllabic bark is one of the wonders of the world, and has influenced many singers including John Lydon.  Hammill’s solo albums are more introspective and personal, while the Van Der Graaf catalogue is often science fiction speculation, Hammill being a fan (like me!) of Philip K. Dick.  For all their harsh pretentious beauty the band soothed me through my troubled teens.   Perhaps just knowing that someone else felt fierce anguish and wasn’t afraid to express it was enough.  I was always afraid to express it.  I still am.

My Pop Life #77 : Shirt – Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

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Shirt   –   Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

Good morning, could I have this shirt cleaned express, please?
Yes, that’ll be three weeks, dearie,

three weeks?   But the sign outside says 59-minute cleaners
Yes, thats just the name of the shop love, we take three weeks to do a shirt

Just the name of the shop?
Yes, that’s if theres an R in the month otherwise its four weeks
Your name does begin with a P, doesnt it?
Well, no, actually, of course its, uh

Well, that’ll be five weeks, then,

five weeks? Blimey !

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The above absurd dialogue nestled in the central section of this “song” – a series of sketches and musical ideas linked only by the title – “Shirt“.   I never fail to enjoy this song when I hear it, there are elements of true genius at work.    The man’s voice you can hear doing the interviews on Willesden Green – “yes brrr it is a bit chilly..” is the one and only Vivian Stanshall, lead singer of the Bonzos, professional glint-eyed fool, ginger geezer, effete prankster, florid purveyor of onomatopoeiac confabulations, and educated yobbo.    Britain’s zaniest pervert.

I first saw him as a youth, watching our black and white television, a show entitled “Do Not Adjust Your Set” on Thames TV in 1968.   This comedy sketch show starred David Jason, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Denise Coffey and Terry Jones – three of whom would go on to form Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969.

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Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Denise Coffey, Eric Idle, David Jason

 The house band on Do Not Adjust Your Set were the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band who performed one song per week, and whose performances were notable for the large number of goofy props and comedy eyeballs, fluffy sticks and signs saying “Where?”  and “Why Not?”. They were a seemingly unrehearsed surreal happening marshalled with charm and glee by the suave Vivian Stanshall.

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I loved them.  When I discovered that they actually made albums I went and bought one called Tadpoles which was a compilation of the TV stuff.  In 1968 they’d had a hit single called I’m The Urban Spaceman written by Neil Innes and produced by Paul McCartney under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth, with The Canyons Of Your Mind on the B-side (“in the wardrobe of my soul, in the section labelled “Shirts”).   The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were a mixture of many things – musicians Neil Innes, Rodney Slater, Legs Larry Smith and Sam Spoons and mischief-makers Vernon Dudley Bowhay-Nowell, Vivian Stanshall and Roger Ruskin-Spear could all play something musical and based their sound on trad jazz, 1920s pop and vaudeville croons, peppered with music-hall and of-the-time psychedelia, all overlaid by comedy and foolishness.  They rarely did a straight song in a straight way, although Tubas In The Moonlight may be the one exception – on the same LP.

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The early LPs – Gorilla, The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse, Keynsham, and Tadpoles are endlessly listenable nonsense, both musical and funny.  For me the peak moments were always provided by Stanshall’s invented posh accent (described as talking complete nonsense at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party).  In this track he actually interviews members of the general public about “Shirts” and the results are there for all to hear.

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The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

The Bonzos split and reformed at least seven times after 1970, and their most recent incarnation Three Bonzos and A Piano starred my friend and band member Charlotte Glasson’s dad David Glasson on The Piano.  I went to see them a few times in the Brighton area and their ramshackle anarchy and sense of unrehearsed surrealism was still intact and a joy to witness, even though Stanshall had passed and Innes was elsewhere.

I had the opportunity to meet Viv Stanshall in the late 1970s and I grabbed it.  By then we were all listening to the John Peel Show late night on Radio One, playing punk, reggae, and some spoken word segments entitled Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, with all characters voiced by Vivian Stanshall.   Some shrewd folk were taping it straight from the radio – and it remains one of the finest and funniest things I’ve ever heard.  Sir Henry was an old-school colonial racist and Rawlinson End was his country pile inhabited by a random selection of strange characters including Mrs E and Old Scrotum, the Wrinkled Retainer.  Vivian was lined up to perform the entire show at the LSE Old Theatre.  I think it was 1978.  Someone from the LSE student rag “Beaver” had to go down and interview Mr Stanshall in his houseboat near Roehampton.  Crikey.  I stepped into the breach and took directions down.

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Viv Stanshall on the Thames towpath in 1978

The boat was called The Searchlight and was moored near Shepperton.   The door was answered by Pamela Ki Longfellow his american girlfriend, I was made a cup of tea, introduced to Viv, sat down and off we went.  I recorded the man talking to me for almost three hours – about Leigh-On-Sea in Essex, teddy boys, rococo theatres, turtles and “losing the cosy” before Pamela broke it up and said that Vivian was feeling tired.  It was probably the most thrilling three hours of my life up to that point.   What joy I took away with me.  Sitting with my hero in his house, doing comedy voices, talking nonsense, making me laugh, making me feel stupid, but mainly, making me feel happy.  I asked him about Shirt and he revealed that he had done all those interviews.  What a joyous man.

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The interview was written up for the student paper, and a sold-out Old Theatre welcomed Vivian Stanshall a few weeks later.   I distinctly remember two things he said to me – first when he asked me what The Old Theatre was like, and I immediately answered “It’s definitely cosy” – he arched his eyebrow and quizzed further : “Ah.  But is it rococo?”   Then when I tried to ask him about Sir Henry and those wonderful stream-of-consciousness narratives therein he held up his hand with a smile : “Nonsense dear boy, I worked on those pieces for bloody hours, days even.  They are painstakingly put together and worked on, re-written and polished…stream of consciousness my arse!!”

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 He was difficult to work with sometimes, became full of rage in later life, disowned the LP of “Sir Henry…” as being rushed out and unready – and in truth it never did match the peerless John Peel sessions somehow – and eventually died in a house-fire in Muswell Hill in 1995.  A true and endearing National Treasure, massively influential, intelligent, compassionate, bored and funny as fuck.  There’s a fellow out there – Michael Livesley – doing “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” live – I saw it a few years back and can reveal that it is a loving and very good tribute to the man.  As for the Bonzos, their remnants appear and re-appear, split and re-form and will doubtless continue to do so.  They have also brought countless joy to many.