My Pop Life #181 : Skyline Pigeon – Guy Darrell

Skyline Pigeon   –   Guy Darrell

                  Turn me loose from your hands, let me fly to distant lands                              Over green fields trees & mountains, flowers and forest fountains           Home along the lanes of the skyways

Dear old Mum.  This was her favourite song of 1968 and she played it to death for the next few years because  it reminded her of dear Stan, who was with her when she bought it, but who then broke her heart, turning himself loose from her hands and flew back to the distant lands of Australia, flowers and forest fountains, green fields trees and mountains, home along the lanes of the skyways.  I’m absolutely certain that Paul, Andrew (4 years old at the time?) and I all know the words off by heart, and all the notes too.  We played with the lyrics a bit too, misheard some and deliberately misheard some others.  We had to take the curse off of it I suppose.  But we loved it too.  It was played so much it got warped, a 45rpm single on the Pye label, I think.  We didn’t know who Guy Darrell was, and he did nothing else, didn’t need to.  He’d done this song, and in a list of songs which I group together as “Mum’s Sacred Songs“,  I reckon this one is at number one.

Mum’s Sacred Songs then  – I’ve already written about :

 “People Gotta Be Free” – Dionne Warwick  (My Pop Life #17)

  “Days” –  The Kinks  (My Pop Life #147)

 “Games People Play”  –  Joe South    (My Pop Life #63)

and

 “Israelites”  –  Desmond Dekker    (My Pop Life #102)

Do I repeat myself?  A little, yes, but then hey.  I don’t have to think too hard to think of the others, which would be… :

 “Jesamine”   –  The Casuals

  “The Carnival Is Over”  – The Seekers

Part Of My Past”  –  Simon Dupree & The Big Sound

and

Skyline Pigeon”  –  Guy Darrell

I think Paul and Andrew would agree with me on those.  There may be one or two others – bound to be in fact – but these are eight of the top ten.  And now that I look at them I realise with strange unease that aside from The Seekers (an Australian close harmony band led by Judith Durham which mum absolutely loved because she could sing the harmonies) whose hit single The Carnival Is Over was released in 1965 – every single one of these sacred singles comes from 1968 !!! 

So two things are evident here.  One is that they are actually my sacred singles, posing as mum’s.   They are from the year I turned eleven, a mighty year for any boy.  I’d already seen plenty of life – as a witness, at close hand, the eldest, whose testimony this is.  A nervous breakdown suffered by my mum which lasted nine months, babysat by dad and nan, the return of mum, a negotiation with the hospital and the doctor which I was fully aware of somehow, a marital schism, dad leaves and lives in Eastbourne, a divorce, an empty house, a lodger, a love affair, a parting.

       Oh this dark and lonely room projects a shadow dressed in gloom                                         And my eyes are mirrors of the world outside                                                   Thinking of the way that the wind can turn the tide                                                 And these shadows turn from purple into grey

The shadow is actually cast in gloom but I always sang dressed up until – well today really when I discovered that he sings “cast in gloom“.   Who is the Shadow Dressed In Gloom ?  Slightly scary.  But then again.  Clearly myself.  Or Mum if she was singing it.  Whoever sings it is the Shadow.  Turning from purple into grey.  Then we get the soaring chorus which Paul and I sang as 9 and 11-year old boys :

   Projects a skyline pigeon dreaming of the ocean waiting for the day                           When he could Shredded Wheat and fly away again                                             Fly away skyline pigeon fly towards the things you left so very far behind

Shredded Wheat released us from the Shadow Dressed in Gloom turning from Purple to Grey.  And we couldn’t release the scurrilous satirical version lustily in full public view and hearing of Mother because the song, as has been mentioned already, was Sacred.  It was about her broken heart.  Don’t Laugh.  We found it desperately sad of course, but we didn’t really know it at the time.  Consciously.   It didn’t make us cry at least.  Mum would grab a box of tissues.  Now I find it unbearably moving.

Projects a Skyline Pigeon was actually ” For just a Skyline Pigeon

Ocean was “Open

Shredded Wheat was ‘spread his wings‘, of course.  It fit perfectly.

The other song – I’ve just recalled – that was an eggshell song was Freda Payne‘s number one hit single Band Of Gold which I absolutely adored at the newly-sentient age of 13 in 1970 – “Mum, mum, I love this one”  I may have bought it – or did she??  And when I played it one day she snapped – “How do you think it makes me feel ?”  I was like – er – band of gold – wedding ring – divorce – oh yeah !  Sorry Mum !!

I’ve been about that sensitive ever since I reckon.

       Just let me wake up in the morning to the smell of new-mown hay                           To laugh and cry through the night at the brightness of my day                                   I long to hear the pealing bells of distant churches ring                                           But most of all please free me from this breaking echoing

I was never sure about that last line.  I’ll come back to that.  The first three lines of verse two though described our little Sussex village – Stephen Criddle and I used to help the farmer baling at harvest time and we actually would wake up to the smell of new-mown hay,  it’s a good smell.  We did live opposite a farm with all the smells one associates with that countryside feature.    The second line is completely wrong but that’s what I always sang.  Kind of perfectly balanced crying and brightness – I wasn’t always sad, or happy, I was both.  We were a few hundred yards down the lane from the church which stood opposite the vicarage where we were allowed to play croquet now and again.  Tutored in the ways of righteousness.  Stephen and I (or was it David Bristow??) cleaned off loads of gravestones one summer around this time, sat on the grass and scraped off the moss (but a few of the verses, well it got me quite cross…).  Righteous.  But the last line was a bit more Freda Payne in the end – aching metal ring – not breaking echoing.    That was me – once again – personalising the song to mine own experience.  I had trouble going to sleep, saw shapes, heard breaking echoing.  Not every night.  And Shredded Wheat always sorted everything out in the morning with cold milk and a bit of sugar.  And a nice cup of tea.  I like a nice cup of tea in the morning, and a nice cup of tea for my tea.  I could do with a D.  Tetleys Make Tea Bags Make Tea.  Brooke Bond.  PG Tips.  Little picture cards,  traded at school, books with the complete set glued in with Uhu.  Trees Of Britain. Flags.  Butterflies of the World.

Eventually Mum couldn’t stand listening to the song so it stood in the singles rack in its sky blue and white paper sleeve and remained unplayed, long after we all moved out, and Rebecca was born, grew up and moved out, and there it still was, Skyline Pigeon, unplayed and living on in all of our minds as breaking echoing… Perhaps we played it once or twice but I always remember it being a mistake, unless Mum was in a particularly good frame of mind which was Rare.   And so rarely played.  One day I was helping Mum to move from Polegate to a house in Willingdon where she would live on her own after the third and final marriage broke down and a third and final divorce was agreed, amicably and with great dignity on the part of Alan, who’d become Becky’s dad.   Mum didn’t want anything from her past when she moved,  was throwing stuff out with abandon, pictures, books, all kinds of stuff had been lost already in the last hallucination, god knows what had gone into the dustbin so I retrieved some amazing black and white pictures and a handful of 45rpm singles, including this one.  It is warped and full of scratch hiss rasp and breaking echoing.  But I have it.

Pam & Reg, unknown, Bob & Jessie, my dad & Mum standing, his parents sitting 1965? Paul and I may be the two boys at the front…

As the years went by I searched for Guy Darrell.  No news.  One song – I’ve Been Hurt, which was a northern soul hit.  The only copy of Skyline Pigeon I owned for ages was by the fella who wrote it – Elton John, with lyrics and spreaded wings by Bernie Taupin.  It appeared as a strange harpsichord crystalline version on Elton’s first LP which came out the following year 1969.  Nobody bought it of course.  Nobody heard Elton John (knowingly) until 1970 when he released Your Song : “…it’s a little bit funny this feeling inside…“.  Later we all discovered he’d been voicing those Top Of The Pops albums with covers of the top 30, later still I would hear his ‘version’ of Skyline Pigeon, released as a piano solo version on an album of Elton Rarities in 1992, even later I would find him singing it in Rio, just like Guy Darrell did in 1968, the way it should be sung in my humble onion.  He didn’t sing the words right though.   The last line Elton sings “Open up this cage towards the sun“.    It’s pretty good Bernie, pretty good.  But from the age of eleven I always sang

Open up this face towards the sun

Guy Darrell has just had a retrospective released on CD last week which kind of prompted this post but I haven’t received it yet.  So I’ll leave you with a couple of Elton John performances and when the CD arrives I’ll post the track on Youtube, then on here. TTFN.

Elton John live in Edinburgh 1976 :

Elton John live in Rio 2015 :

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My Pop Life 161 : Shine – Take That

Shine   –   Take That

You, you’re such a big star to me
You’re everything I wanna be
But you’re stuck in a hole and I want you to get out
I don’t know what there is to see
But I know it’s time for you to leave
We’re all just pushing along
Trying to figure it out, out, out, oh your anticipation pulls you down, when you can have it all

*

My favourite memory of Becky was of her practising majorettes in our front room to Abba’s Dancing Queen, when she must have been around 7 years old.  The image of her practicing her steps became the opening scene of my first play Drive Away The Darkness, a play named without irony from a Rolf Harris song Sun Arise.  I had reached 29 years old and panicked – I hadn’t written a play yet !  So sat down and vomited up the family history based around an Easter weekend from hell.  It was, to all intents and purposes, my family’s version of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  The finished play got a rehearsed reading at the National Theatre Studio in London under the wing of Peter Gill in 1986 and… that was pretty much that.   Gill and Nicholas Wright summoned me into a room after the reading was done and asked me “what I wanted to do with it?”  “Get it produced?” I answered.  They smiled condescendingly “no, we meant what do you want to do with the material?”   I didn’t know what they were talking about.    “Go away and have a think about it”.   No clues, no notes, no help was offered.  I wondered what the point of it all was.  Encouragement ?

Legendary photo from late 1972 

My sister Rebecca was born on April 29th 1972 when I was a teenage boy of 15.   Mum was in and out of Amberstone Hospital at this point, as usual, and Becky’s dad, John Daignault (see My Pop Life #132) had been ejected from our council house in Newton Park by the police for domestic violence when Mum was 9 months pregnant.  So Becky was born into a recently peaceful, if shaky household.  And although the hospital visits continued (about 2 weeks at a time when Mum couldn’t cope) somehow the social workers managed to keep Becky – and us three boys – out of care.  Various people helped out, notably a girlfriend of Paul’s called Sharon, who must’ve been around 13 herself.  A few years later I was gone, to Lewes, thence to London, University and the rest of my life.  But I’ve always had a close relationship with Bex despite the age difference.

Becky and Sparky, 1979 ?

We lived on the edge of a large council estate, our garden backed onto a vast Sussex field which led to Marshfoot Lane and Herstmonceux Observatory eventually, although none of us ever went that far.    I’d come back for Easter, for Christmas and birthdays etc, usually for a punch-up  (not literally!) with Mum, and a chat with Becky about how things were going.  By now Mum had met Alan, perhaps through Gingerbread, an organisation for single parents, and they had married.   Alan was a decent bloke and treated Rebecca as if she was his own daughter, bless him, and still does to this day.   She went to the same school as Andrew and Paul in Hailsham, before Mum decided to move in with Alan in Polegate.  By now Rebecca had met Peter and they were married with much fanfare and dancing on July 4th 1992, some three weeks before my wedding to Jenny.  It meant Becky couldn’t be a bridesmaid because the fittings were during her honeymoon…it also meant that I wasn’t there.  Becky remembers this as filming Alien 3 which was a year earlier – but I did have to fly to Los Angeles to shoot some extra bits so perhaps that was it – anyway – Paul and Andrew were there in spades…

Paul, Rebecca, Andrew July 4th 1992, Eastbourne

*

Rebecca marries Peter July 4th 1992

Bex, Darren, Peter, me, Mum, Debs (behind Mum), Paul, Alan

Us kids had, for many many years, only one topic of conversation  when we hooked up – Mother.  It drove our various partners mad knowing that we would huddle together in a coping quartet – Ralph, Paul, Andrew Becky – and relate the latest installment of the soap opera of our family. Thankfully those days and that feeling of perma-crisis have gone.   We’ve grown.  But I think Mum’s personality and issues were so powerful that it bound us together.  Becky has always been my sister, never my step-sister.  Becky and Peter got divorced, and she married John Coleman from Dagenham in 1997.  I offered my blue Jaguar as her wedding car and left Brighton too late, bombing up the M23 at 120mph.  Got a ticket too and appeared at Haywards Heath magistrates a few months later and got a £200 fine and was banned for six months.  “But it was my sister’s wedding” I said.  Becky and John had three lovely kids – Mollie, Ellie and William (see My Pop Life #120).

Renewal of vowels 2005- Ellie, sleeping Will, John, Bex and Mollie

In 2005, eight years after the marriage and now in Strood on the Medway, they renewed their vows.  It was a lovely day.  I was doing Nighty Night at the time in Bude in Cornwall.  We joked that they’d renewed their vowels – an E and an O.

2007

Soon after that they moved down to Sussex and an old house in Horsebridge near Hailsham.  Closer to Mum and to us, we saw more of each other.  But the marriage was broken and John moved back to East London.

Becky marries Steve, 2013

In 2013 Becky married Steve in Eastbourne, Paul came back from China to be there, it lasted about a year and a bit.  Becky is now single and living in Hailsham, near Mum, with Ellie and William still at school.

So that’s the bare bones of a life that tell you nothing about the woman. She is, as the song suggests, resilient and optimistic, tough and glamourous, funny and generous.  Becky is the best mimic of our mother of all of us, and when she relates the latest installment of our mum, we are weeping with laughter.  She has re-trained herself so many times as a businesswoman, nail technician, health consultant while ferrying the kids to schools in Ringmer, Hamden Park, Hailsham and Eastbourne and William to football practice while swimming three times a week and doing the family shopping looking after a dog and popping in to clean Mum’s house and do some shopping for her that really she ought to look like a wet dishrag of exhausted martyrdom.  But Becky has it seems, unlimited powers and juice – like the duracell bunny – powers of determination and a centred strength of being that brooks no fools, and suffers no half-stepping.  I’m very proud of her, and I was very proud to play at her 40th birthday (previously discussed in My Pop Life #120 from a different angle) and more especially to play this particular song.

A young Take That in 1990

Tune.  First things first.  It’s a tune.  A major key piano bounce with vocal harmonies will almost always find favour with me, an echo of English pop, particularly Penny Lane (see My Pop Life #36) & Mr Blue Sky.   This though from 2007 and the most successful boy-band of all time, and one who actually wrote their own material.  Built around songwriter Gary Barlow in 1990, the original members were a bank clerk (Mark Owen) a hopeful breakdancer (Jason Orange) a carshop paintsprayer (Howard Donald) and a 16-year-old teenager (Robbie Williams) all of whom auditioned a number of times for Nigel Martin-Smith in Manchester before securing the gig.  One of the most successful and loved bands in British Pop History, they swept all before them during the 1990s with some beautiful songs – A Million Love Songs, Back For Good, How Deep Is Your Love – until William’s drug issues forced him out in 1995 and Take That disbanded the following year to the sound of a million broken teenage hearts.  In fact the UK government set up suicide hotlines because so many teenage girls were distraught.

The 4-piece without Williams eventually got back together in 2005, toured in 2006, then dropped this great single Shine with a lead vocal by Mark Owen, a love letter to the missing Williams, in early 2007.  It won the Ivor Novello in 2008 for best song, and sure enough Robbie Williams rejoined Take That in 2010 for a reunion tour and album, but the band currently exist as a 3-piece in the wake of Jason and Robbie’s subsequent departures.

Bex has been obsessed with Take That since their inception in 1990, and has seen them at least six times live, in all their various incarnations.  On the occasion of her 40th birthday, her step-dad Alan hired my band The Brighton Beach Boys to play the birthday party, and we learned Shine especially for the event.  Or did we ?  Actually I think I decided on the morning of the gig that I would play it for her, alone if necessary, and when I told the band in the soundcheck they joined in.  I had printed a few copies of the charts in case we had time, and we did.  I’ve just found the setlist from that show :

We may be a Beach Boys tribute band but we have a few party tunes up our collective sleeve too, thanks to the excellence of Mr Stephen Wrigley, Mr Glen Richardson, Mr Theseus Gerrard, Mr Adrian Marshall, Ms Charlotte Glasson and – in those days – Mr Rory Cameron.  The ska section had just been played at our 1969 Show, and Dancing Queen & Night Fever had been played at Caroline Lucas’50th Birthday bash.  The ever-expanding playlist strikes again.   But Shine was a one-off, just for Becky.

I don’t think we got the Stop! bit right, although a few people attempted it.  The thing is with a Stop! bit is that unless everyone does it, it isn’t a Stop! bit at all.  At all at all.   But it went down well, and is a thrillingly good song to play live.  Uplifting.   The link to Mr Blue Sky became apparent when Take That played it live and started the song with the end of Jeff Lynne’s great pop song.  Unfortunately I wasn’t aware of that in 2012.

Ellie, William, Rebecca, Mollie

I’ve always loved my sister unconditionally.   She is the strongest of us all, the closest to Mum and the most volatile of all four kids – her relationship with Heather, my mother, is tempestuous to say the least.  I listen to them both bitching in extremis about the other and just nod, like Alan, like my Dad, like Johnny Coleman – yes dear.

I’m not stupid enough to take sides with the women in my family, they’re too fierce.

Don’t you let your demons pull you down

Cos you can have it all, you can have it all, all, ALL

So c’mon oh c’mon get it on I dunno what you’re waiting for your time is coming don’t be late

hey hey

So c’mon, see the light on your face, let it shine, let it shine

the full live version from the Circus tour 2009.  Rebecca was there !

My Pop Life #160 : River Deep, Mountain High – Ike & Tina Turner

River Deep, Mountain High   –   Ike & Tina Turner

Well I’m gonna be as faithful as that puppy, no I’ll never let you down

June 18th 1966 I was 9 years old.  Mum had walked out of Hellingly Hospital but on the advice of Dr Maggs had volunteered to go back for a short while.  When she finally returned home, she’d been away for nine months.  I was happy when she came home.  Her mum, my nan, had been helping Dad to run the house, and us.  Andrew had been in Portsmouth, still a baby, but by now he was walking and talking.  A little boy.  Paul and I shared a bedroom and we talked after the lights went out.  The staircase went up and then forked right and left, we were on the left and Mum and Dad were on the right.  The cat used to have its kittens on top of the wardrobe in Mum’s bedroom.   At the halfway point of the staircase I could sit and listen to my parents arguing.  Sometimes I was already downstairs when they started fighting, and Mum had a technique.  She went for Dad’s glasses.  That was that – pretty much – he’s blind without them.    Bt if I was upstairs when the fight started, Paul and I might walk down the four steps to the mini-landing.  Down the stairs we could see a french window onto the back garden. To the right was the door to the living room with the record player and the table where we ate.  The TV was in the front room. Rationed.  A dog, and a cat would be somewhere around.  Bookcases.  And, right now, my mum and my dad were having a high-decibel screaming match.  Or rather my mum was.  Dad’s parries were usually low-key, murmured dissents, accusing my mum of stupidity.  Since he had gone to Cambridge and she’d left school at 15, this was something of a blue-touchpaper-lighting moment on his part :  fireworks guaranteed : If she was stupid, what did that make him ?  An utter imbecile for using the taboo words, for climbing onto an intellectual ledge of education he had climbed alone and casting rocks and stones down into the newly-despised slough of ignorance from whence he had climbed !   His mother was proper working class, and his dad too.  John was the only one of his family (he had four older sisters) to go to Grammar School, and then the only one to stay on, then take Cambridge Entrance Exam and go up to Downing College in 1955.  Totally intrepid, there were two other working class boys in his year, one from Yorkshire, one from the midlands.  A fish out of water.  People talked down to him, for the first time in his life he wasn’t the best.  He was the lowest of the low amongst the Etonians, Winchester boys, Harrow snobs, privately-schooled little empire-builders.  At the end of that first year, he’d gone back to Portsmouth and married Heather, and together they’d embarked on his 2nd year at Downing.  I was born some 9 months later, in Cambridge.

But intellectual intelligence is probably less than 20% of the story.  Maybe a little more, but not much.  Emotional intelligence, which boys have less of, is a little more precious, certainly to me.  Then – no.  I had no idea.  Maybe younger lads have more emotional intelligence, but evidence points to the opposite.  They’re into riding bikes, collecting bird’s eggs, fishing for frogspawn and fighting with David Bristow.  Collecting comics and not washing properly.  Doing stupid things.  Anyway – I’m wandering.  This particular half-formed 9-year old was sitting listening to an offstage fight between mum and dad from the T-bone of the staircase.  Paul had joined me.  I don’t think we were that interested in what they were actually saying, but I think we needed to go downstairs.  So we stopped, slightly guiltily because it meant we were now eavesdropping.  I can’t remember a word of it, I never was much cop at lyrics, but the music I can recall, because both of them have spoken to me in a similar key, before and since.

But just then a jar of marmalade flew horizontally through the barely-visible doorway downstairs and smashed violently against the wall below me.  Orange jelly, glass and peel started to slide down the wall.  It was a stunning moment.  The pitch of the argument went up, then became teary and finally included moments of some silence.

Did Paul and I then walk down the stairs and out into the garden leaving them far far behind ?  Out to the village with it’s curious green paths that ran everywhere, along the roadside, into the fields, down to the sand-pit and far away.

Or did we tiptoe back upstairs and read comics ?

It was so intense that the rest is blank.  Either, both.  Perhaps we went downstairs and saw that Mum had Dad’s glasses in her hand, and he was demanding their return.  But now I feel that they were actually arguing about getting divorced, because Dad, as Paul once said many years later, “had a roving eye” and he’d been taking the piss for years, later confided to me in far too much detail by Mum.  They were divorced later that year and he moved out.  I used to remember it as the other way round.  That they had a fight, then divorced, then Mum went into hospital.  Linear.  Blame.  Made sense as a memory.  But maybe when I was in my thirties I suddenly realised that Dad looked after us with Nan for 9 months, and was still there when she came out.  But maybe that was when the eye roved.  Can’t say I even knew what that meant then.  But somewhere over that murky summer, I pedalled furiously along country lanes with Stephen Criddle even beyond the railway line, to Chalvington and Ripe.   And swung on a black bent tractor tire over a pond with Martin Coleman and his dog Boffin.  And on the radio, there it was, amongst the Paperback Writer, Sunny Afternoon, Sloop John B, Strangers In The Night and Sweet Talking Guy, this monster single which appeared to be made of something else entirely.

I think it was.  Truly.  In early 1966 when River Deep, Mountain High was recorded, it cost over $20,000 to make, unheard of at that time.  But let’s re-wind a little.  The second married couple in this story, Ike & Tina Turner were married in in Tijuana in 1962, but are now almost impossible to think about without Angela Bassett‘s glorious performance in What’s Love Got To Do With It?  immediately filling the frame as Lawrence Fishburne glowers behind her.  Domestic violence poster children all grown up.  But there’s more to Ike Turner than wife-beater.  Rocket 88, recorded in 1951 with  Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, is considered by many to be the first rock’n’roll single ever recorded.    Who cares right ?   Their tempestuous marriage lasted until 1976 when Ike cocaine habit was so out-of-control that he had burned a hole in his nose and would get regular nosebleeds.  She escaped and never looked back.  But amongst the violence and drugs, they had made some great music together.   Tina’s original name was Anna Mae Bullock, and she dated the saxophone player of Ike’s band The Kings of Rhythm in St Louis, Missouri before singing one song at one show.  The rest is herstory.  Tina Turner has one of the most soulful soul voices of any era.   The first single for Ike & Tina Turner was A Fool For You was on Sue Records, but by 1964 Ike Turner had sacked them and was prowling around the record business looking for a pop hit.  Ike & Tina Turner had been touring the southern soul circuit for hundreds of days per year, and had produced a series of great LPs, and great singles, all of which would be dwarfed by this cavernous, gothic piece of work.  Ike signed up with Warner Brothers where he met Bob Krasnow who would start to manage the husband and wife team and introduced them to Phil Spector.

Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry in 1964

Our third married couple, Ellie Greenwich and her husband Jeff Barry were New York songwriters who married in late 1962 and then decided to exclusively write together from that moment, upsetting previous songwriting partnerships.  But three years later they’d composed Be My Baby & I Can Hear Music for The Ronettes, Da Doo Ron Ron for The Crystals (see My Pop Life #),  The Dixie Cups’ huge hit Chapel Of Love and The Shangri-Las’ mighty single Leader Of The Pack.   

Quite a cv.  All of the above (bar Leader Of The Pack produced in New York by George Morton) were produced by Phil Spector in Los Angeles, and he always had a cut on the publishing too.  Greenwich, Barry, Spector became a badge of a hit record.  But in late 1965 control-freak Spector hadn’t had a hit record for a whole year.  He paid Ike Turner $20,000 to stay away from the sessions, and recorded with the Wrecking Crew whose members Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco and many many others had already sat in on many of the big songs of the decade, often on Spector’s signature wall-of-sound productions.  You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. Mr Tambourine Man.  I Got You Babe.  As well as all those with The Ronettes and The Crystals.  This though was to be Spector’s biggest production to date.

Tina, Phil, Ike, Goldstar, 1965

Late ’65 they were all in Gold Star Studios at Santa Monica & Vine, running through the chord changes and orchestrations.  Days and days later they were still recording.  Tina was down to her bra, scorching hot and howling into the microphone one of the great vocal performances in all music.    The final peak at 3 minutes is unmatched in pop I would suggest.   A genuine tingle every time I hear it.  It certainly isn’t matched by the combined force of The Four Tops & The Supremes in a 1971 cover which only takes off on the bridge section.  Diana is game, Levi Stubbs is is too polite on his puppy verse, but that was Motown right there.  Aimed at the white audience, so more polite, less gutsy and raw, more pop, less black.    A bigger hit than Spector’s I’m guessing, in America, although Tina’s is now considered one of the pinnacles of pop history.  Les black ?  Weird to think of it like that, perhaps that’s a racist construction but in any event, the gospel element is often subsumed in Motown records, less so at Stax, Specialty, Sue, Atlantic or other soul labels.  But whatever is pop and whatever is soul, greatness is greatness, and all of the acts mentioned above are truly great.   Tina Turner didn’t sing Remember Me after all.   But Spector reckoned River Deep, Mountain High was his greatest moment.  So did George Harrison among others.

Tina Turner & Phil Spector at Goldstar, late 1965

Extraordinarily, River Deep, Mountain High was not a hit in the USA at all, either on the pop charts or the R’n’B charts, and opinions ranged from “too white for the black chart” to “too black for the pop chart“, and Spector retired in disgust, remarking later that he understood famous American traitor Benedict Arnold which told us a) how very hard he took the record’s failure, and b) how bonkers he was.   He didn’t work until 1970 when John Lennon and George Harrison gave him the Twickenham Sessions and he went away and made Let It Be, later producing many of the pair’s solo records in the 1970s.

However, River Deep, Mountain High was a chart hit in England in July 1966.  At some point that summer England won the World Cup.  I know because I was in the village shop and the shopkeeper smiled at me.  “England won The World Cup” he said.  I was so happy.  Even though we hadn’t watched it.  I didn’t really know what it meant to be honest.  Perhaps that means that my dad wasn’t at home then and had already left.   Funny things memories.  Intense though.

full song –

the original promo with Ike singing along, which he doesn’t :

My Pop Life #147 : Days – The Kinks

Days   –   The Kinks

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

I’m thinking of the days…

Red Admiral

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

Peacocks

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

Small Tortoiseshell

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

Marbled White

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

Comma

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

Adonis Blue  f & m

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

Brimstone

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

Clouded Yellow

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

Wall

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

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

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

 

My Pop Life #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 #127 : He Who Would Valiant Be

To Be A Pilgrim

he who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster

let hm in constancy follow the master

there’s no discouragement can make him once relent

his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim…

At some point in 1966 my mother was still in Hellingly Hospital near Herstmonceux in East Sussex, receiving ECG and taking various medications, mainly Largactyl.   She’d had a Nervous Breakdown.  She would be there for 9 months in all.  I wrote about this period in My Pop Life #55.  My dad was struggling to cope with three young sons and a full-time teaching job in Brighton and initially he’d been helped by our Nan, Ruby Laming who’d travelled up from Portsmouth and lived with us in the village.   Apart from missing Mum terribly our lives hadn’t changed all that much – we still walked up the road to the little village school, played football, fought in the playground, saved up for a packet of crisps and hid in the bales of the barn opposite our house.

Mum came home eventually 9 months later, but Dad moved out under a cloud pretty soon after that after being caught with the babysitter.  So then it was Mum and three boys.   These years blur and blend, but perhaps it was 1968 when she must have returned to hospital again.

And suddenly we were shipped out to Brighton – or at least Paul and I were.  Andrew was only 3 or 4 years old at this point and would have been transferred to Mum’s sister Valerie in Portsmouth.   Separated not for the first or the last time.   But at least we weren’t in care.   Being abused somewhere.   Lucky us.   I think Paul and I were 10 and 8 years old respectively.  It may be 9 and 7.  Someone may help me pin the year down.  It won’t make that much difference.

We were taken to a house in Lauriston Road where a colleague of my Dad’s lived with his family.  Phil was a teacher at Westlain Grammar too.  His wife Moyra also worked but I cannot remember her job.  They had two children called Ceri and Eleri – the daughter Eleri was one year older than Ceri.

Lauriston Road is opposite the top end of Preston Park in Brighton.    Us country boys from a small village with one shop were suitably gobsmacked by this development.  Just down Preston Road was the Rookery Rock Garden, right opposite the park and we explored that with delight.  Twisty paths, ponds with fish, rocks and overhanging trees, all built on a hillside between the main road north – the A23 and the railway line.  It has a slightly Japanese feel in design, and was built in 1935 using tons of imported Cheddar rock and stone.   It is still a delightful place to visit.  It was my first taste of Brighton.

We were all taken to their primary school the next morning, but Paul refused to go, hanging onto the baluster of the staircase and screaming his head off.  Moyra got quite upset with him – I imagine she was being made late for work, and there was nowhere else for us to be at that age.  Eventually his hands were prised free from the staircase and we were bundled into a Morris Traveller and taken to school.

Christian reads his Book :  William Blake

The school was terrifying of course.  We’d been used to a tiny classroom with a dozen kids, three or four of them my own age.   Now we were lined up at desks with 25-30 strange faces and a large female teacher whose name I have erased.  She read to us every day from a large book about a man called Christian and his journey across a strange forbidding landscape – the Hill Of Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation and carrying this weight everywhere he went – a book.  When Christian was captured by The Giant Despair and imprisoned in his Doubting Castle I started freaking out.

The psycho-geography of Pilgrim’s Progress

Then I caught chicken pox.  Then Paul caught chicken pox.  Then Ceri caught chicken pox.  Then Eleri caught chicken pox.  That was the end of school !!  We were bedridden for at least a week, maybe more.  Phil would read us bedtime stories at night bless him.  In loco parentis.  We never really made friends with those kids and I don’t think we ever saw them again.  It was like an unearthly interlude with illness – and probably felt like chaos to my parents.

John Bunyan (detail) – painting by Thomas Sadler

Later I realised that the book that was being read aloud to us was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a christian allegory the first part of which was published in England in 1677 while Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching without a licence.   Perhaps it was an abridged version, or a child’s version we were listening to.  In any event the looming Celestial City and the Valley Of The Shadow Of Death both represented the same thing to me – horror.  I can’t ever remember enjoying Christian stories, whether Old Testament, New Testament or books like Pilgrim’s Progress.  They always felt slightly threatening.  Perhaps it was the context, or the character of the teller.

6th-former, Lewes Grammar 1964 by the Chapel

Later when I was at Grammar School in Lewes we sang in the School Chapel, the whole school assembled to stand in pews and hold hymnbooks and sing together.   Me in shorts, uniform, striped dark blue and light blue tie and cap.   And there was that word again, in a tune that filled my heart :  To Be A Pilgrim.  I never heard any version of this on record or anywhere else, my entire memory of it is as a hymn sung in a church.  Little did I know that the words of the hymn were taken from Bunyan’s book, slightly modified in 1906 by Percy Dearnal, and set to music in the same year by my namesake Ralph Vaughan Williams.   Later on Vaughan Williams would write an opera called Pilgrim’s Progress which premiered in 1951.

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

Young Ralph – he was 34 at the time – took the music from a Sussex folk song called Monk’s Gate, named after a village near Horsham, the tune being collected by a Mrs Harriet Verrall of that parish who was also responsible for the Sussex Carol.  The resulting tune and words are forever stirring and pleasing to mine ear, and do not remind me of the shadowy days listening to Pilgrim’s Progress in some strange forbidding grey school in Brighton.  I can pick up and discard these associations in my own time – luckily – for the hated Thatcher’s funeral also featured this very hymn.   In fact I’m quite fond of the word Pilgrim.  I like to set myself random tasks, usually psycho-geographical in nature, oft times muso-geographical, and then become a pilgrim for the length of a day, a week, a year.  An example is to be found at My Pop Life 16 when Jenny and I visited the Metropolitan Museum in 2014 seeking the paintings from Rufus Wainwright‘s The Art Teacher, or at My Pop Life #97 when I sought out the locations in Berlin that David Bowie references in “Where Are We Now?“.  In both instances I was a pilgrim.  There is a staggeringly good Van Der Graaf Generator song called Pilgrims which I am inordinately fond of.

And there is a Wishbone Ash LP called Pilgrimage which captured our teenage imagination at one point with its twin lead guitar attack and which I have not revisited this long century since.   But it means so much more than this.  Remember the Canterbury Tales?

The Hajj to Mecca ? The Pilgrimage Of Grace ?

Benares ?  

These mass movements of the devoted are peaceful in nature, the very opposite of a crusade.  And yet and yet.  I have to reject the religious way, the idea of such certainly being handed to me in a book, from a man, located in a place, a system of beliefs laid out for me.  The centre of the universe is surely everywhere as Sitting Bull once observed.

Pilgrims are focussed.  Single minded.  Valiant – possibly.   They seek, they search, they have a reason to go on.  Following a master ?  Don’t know about that.  It would certainly make it easier though wouldn’t it ?  Make it easier to be a pilgrim.

Maddy Prior who used to be in Steeleye Span :

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