My Pop Life #130 : America – Simon & Garfunkel

America   –   Simon & Garfunkel

Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together

I’ve got some real estate here in my bag

So we bought a pack of cigarettes

and Mrs Wagner pies

and walked off to look for America…

It was some time in early 2015 when I became aware of the two Swedish sisters Johanna & Klara Söderberg who call themselves First Aid Kit covering this evergreen classic.  Clear, bright, bel canto voices with a precise harmonic shiver  : the song lived again in their youthful rendition.   It marked our first year living in New York City, two English actors who’d packed two suitcases and one cat each and upped and flown to the Big Apple on a whim in February 2014.   My wife Jenny and I had moved six times by the time I heard this cover of Simon & Garfunkel‘s song, from Harlem in the snow, to the top floor of a brownstone in Washington Avenue in Brooklyn in the deeper snow (and an encounter with fairy godmother Johanna), across the street to a sublet in an apartment block, to the Village in Manhattan, then Air Bob in Bed-Stuy, to Hall St in Clinton Hill, now next door in Fort Greene.  It was our third major stint looking for America.  First – 1992 Los Angeles for three years, Venice, West Hollywood and Green Cards.  Next – 2002 Los Angeles for another two years – Los Feliz.  Now New York.  Coming up for two years as I write this.

My first experience of America was in 1976 when my best friend Simon Korner and I hitch-hiked from New York to Los Angeles to Vancouver to Cape Cod.  It was our gap year – though it was called “a year off” back then.  We’d done our A-levels, got our University places sorted – him at Cambridge, me at LSE.  I’d then left home and gone to work in Laughton Lodge as a Nursing Assistant, a period I outlined briefly in My Pop Life #58.

Essentially I was required to keep an eye on a ward-full of 30 men of differing shapes and sizes, but all classified in 1975 as ‘Mentally Subnormal’.  Some of them were dangerous.  Some were catatonic.  Now they would be called clients with a learning difficulty.  All this for a later blog, but I mention it in passing.  I worked there from October through to April 1975, saving money to fly to New York with Simon, to go and look for America.

It was terribly exciting, we were 18 going on 19 and from a small Sussex town called Lewes.  Seeing the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the Smithsonian, the wide open prairies of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains, Monument Valley and the Arizona desert was an unparalleled experience for two young men, and it changed and bonded us both.    Paul Simon did a similar trip with Kathy Chitty in 1964.   I kept a diary of the trip and at one point in New Mexico wrote a kind of Ode :

America ! America ! The skies all seem to say !

Or are they saying something else, like : “Let’s be on our way” ?

 It’s rather hard to tell because it’s cloudy out today

But Ralph and Sigh don’t mind because they’re IN THE USA !!

Fairly safe to say there wasn’t a budding Paul Simon hiding within at that point.   It’s more of a Soviet Farm Song satire.

Perhaps not surprisingly this song always makes me feel emotional for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on.  The ultimate line : “…counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America…” is so simple and ordinary yet it has a poetic magic that lifts the song into a mythical hymn for the soul.  Of all those people searching for their best life on this vast continent.  Plenty wrong with the USA of course which I won’t rehearse here.  this is about the other side of the coin.   The optimism of America, constantly encouraging, constantly asking you to make the very best of yourself.  The reason why we keep coming back.    The hope.  The interior yearning made physical reality.

We had Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits in our house all through childhood, Mum must have bought it.  This song didn’t stand out to me at the age of ten or eleven, I was hooked on Sound Of Silence, Parsley Sage Rosemary & Thyme, Homeward Bound.  But it must have crept under my skin because it has become one of my favourite songs of all time.  Again, I’m not sure why, but it has a strange ineffable power : unusually there is no rhyme at all in the lyrics, and the chorus is just one line, slightly altered each time “…look for America”.    Paul Simon evidently knows that from the specific and the individual experience comes the universal : the details of the Greyhound Bus trip from Pittsburgh which had started as a hitch-hiking journey from Saginaw, Michigan, the cigarettes, the jokes, the youthful joy which turns to melancholy in the last verse :

Kathy I’m lost” I said, though I knew she was sleeping..I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why

the reference to smoking pot “some real estate here in my bag” and the the space between the two voices above all lend this three-minute masterpiece a unique power.  In particular the middle verse :

So I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine and the moon rose over an open field..”

has no equal in pop writing for me.  There is just so much space in the song, and the listener fills it with their own fantasies, desires and feelings.  But mainly with their own bruised optimism.

graffitti on an abandoned building in Saginaw

I thought I would post the First Aid Kit version because I became rather obsessed with it, but after a few months of listening to hip hop and electronica I went back to it.  It still sounds bright and beautiful, but it is in the end a cover of a classic.  There are technical issues – chopped bar lines and other things I won’t bore you with, Paul Simon’s song is best served in the end by Art Garfunkel and himself, some acoustic guitars, a wandering soprano saxophone and a melodic bassline.  Larry Knechtel on Hammond organ and Hal Blaine on the drums join them on this recording, but essentially the space created between all of these elements is where the song’s beauty lies, which the Swedish sisters have understood so well.  David Bowie made a similar empty echoing version immediately after 9/11 which I post below.

My other memory of this song is the film Almost Famous of course, a film about music with one of the finer soundtracks I can remember.  The closing credits roll over The Beach Boys’ “Feel Flows“the closing song on their 1971 LP Surf’s Up and well outside the 20 Golden Greats arena.   Simon & Garfunkel’s song accompanies the young hero leaving home, looking for America.  One of those cliches that always lands.

Simon & Garfunkel 1966

Paul Simon is of course one of the finest songwriters of any era.  I sang his solo praises in My Pop Life #89 .  The combination he had with Art Garfunkel was immaculate though and unlikely to be bettered as a vehicle for his amazing songs.  I think they fell out probably – and unspoken issues kept them apart aside from one remarkable song My Little Town and a concert in Central Park in 1981 when they tried to heal the rift to no avail.

Carousel Singers at the Unitarian Church Brighton 2013

Towards the end of my Brighton period, around 2013 I suppose, I joined a group run by Julia Roberts called The Carousel Singers.  I was suggested by ace percussionist Paul Gunter who played for a while with The Brighton Beach Boys and is a senior graduate of Stomp – because Carousel – or rather Julia – were looking for a pianist who could accompany a choir of learning-disabled adults.  My year with Carousel was extraordinary, funny, moving and occasionally sad.  We’d meet every Wednesday evening in the Unitarian Church on New Road in the centre of Brighton.  Julia, Paul, another musician Gabrielle, graduate Karis and me.  My instinct was always to push the singers further, assume that they could do things that perhaps they hadn’t been asked to do before, stretch them out a bit.  And we used to write songs together, as a group.  In particular the choir members would come up with the lyrics, and I would supply some kind of tune and chords to go with them.  The first time we did this, for a song we called Song For Iain,  I used a simple descending F to C bassline which pleases the ear and sounds very POP, but for the second song I just couldn’t get ‘America’ out of my brain, and blatantly lifted chunks of melody for the choir to sing.  Fran in particular got it, and always remembered the tune from one week to the next.  Others joined her.  Others again could scarcely talk let alone sing, but it was a group which looked out for each other and didn’t judge, but always supported each other.  I learned a huge amount from working with these people, who just 40 years earlier would have been on a locked ward in a Mental Hospital being dosed-up with various drugs.   The Carousel Singers all have a level of independence, and a huge reservoir of compassion combined with a lack of judgement of other people’s ability and capability.  It was extraordinarily moving.  I do believe that we could learn a great deal from adults and children with learning difficulties.

Meanwhile I’m still looking for America.  Wish me luck.

Simon & Garfunkel :

First Aid Kit get an ovation from Paul Simon :

the David Bowie video isn’t the 9/11 one but hey !

Advertisements

My Pop Life #44 : Autumn Almanac – The Kinks

Featured image

Autumn Almanac   –   The Kinks

From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar
When the dawn begins to crack, it’s all part of my autumn almanac…

This is one of those quintessentially English songs which represents, along with a handful of other tunes, the peak of the 45rpm single format.   Ray Davies, the songwriter, formed The Kinks with his brother Dave Davies, Mick Avory and Pete Quaife in Muswell Hill, North London in 1963 and went on to grace the radio airwaves and the pop charts with stunning regularity throughout the 1960s.   I always think of my childhood which spanned that decade as being breast-fed by The Beatles (although in reality that would have been Elvis and Chuck Berry) and weaned on The Kinks and The Rolling Stones.   There were others of course, Tamla Motown, The Beach Boys and The Who, but The Kinks occupy a special position in my museum of recollections for their mini-dramas of life as it was lived in 1960s Britain.  Ray Davies’ unerring eye for detail and the times gave him a palette of realism which, laced with a few poetic grace notes, makes the run of singles from You Really Got Me through to Lola pretty much unequalled in British songwriting.

Featured image

Autumn Almanac is a pinnacle of songwriting for me partly because of the lyrics – “I like my football on a Saturday, roast beef on Sunday – all right” and partly because of the actual structure of the song :   verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, wordless verse, chorus, wordless verse, chorus, further middle eight, and then yet another (unprecendented) middle eight, final chorus and finale.  I can’t think of another song that does this – even A Day In The Life which is two songs stitched cleverly together, or even the great Paul Simon compositions (My Little Town) from the early 70s still don’t get anywhere near this kind of boldness.

Featured image

As our narrator sweeps leaves into the sack he ruminates on his life : football, roast beef, toasted buttered currant buns, which “help to compensate for lack of sun, cos the sun has all gone”, with Ray singing the last word in Cockney as “gawn” which pokes fun at and yet celebrates the music hall roots of his genius.   As he talks about football and roast beef, and Blackpool holidays and sitting in the sunlight Ray’s voice becomes like a character, a trick he would use on a regular basis (Dedicated Follower Of Fashion, Apeman) but just when you think he’s taking the mickey, wham,  here comes his real voice and a brass band, getting properly wistful as we reach the third middle eight which evokes the glory of community, of the simple connected life we all desire :

…this is my street, and I’m never gonna leave it 

and I’m always gonna stay, if I live to be ninety nine

cos all the people I meet,

seem to come from my street 

and I can’t get away,

because it’s calling me

“come on home”…

The French horns return to both lament and fanfare this moment which is then somewhat undercut by the last raucous chorus which comes across almost as a drunken pub song, and the Beach Boys-esque outro bap-bap-bap ooh has Ray speaking ‘Yes‘ in a confident affirmation as it fades.   It is a major achievement in popular song, inspired apparently by a hunchbacked old gardener Ray had seen in a local churchyard.   Romantic with a capital R – yes, file alongside Penny Lane and Lazy Sunday as slices of pop life in Britain in the late 60s, beautifully realised.

Autumn Almanac was released in October 1967 on the Pye label and reached Number 5 on the charts.   I was ten years old, in my final year at Selmeston Village School and living with my Mum and two brothers Paul and Andrew.  Dad had left the previous year.  There had been a divorce.   This felt somewhat shameful, but we saw him every weekend, and we were kids – you know, we just got on with it.   The television had been moved into the main living room.  We’d bought another corgi (Bessie) after Raq, the previous corgi, had bitten Andrew when he was 18 months old.   Raq had been given away.  Then, when it was too late, I found a long white dog whisker in the corner where the bite had taken place !  Andrew had pulled Raq’s whisker out and got a bite for his trouble.  This shocking revelation inspired the purchase of Bessie who was a very sweet dog.   We watched Top Of The Pops religiously, waiting for our favourites, patiently sitting through Engelbert Humperdinck  – or maybe not  –  no indeed, at ten years old I wouldn’t have had favourites particularly, or people (like Cliff Richard) whom I didn’t like.  They would all have been fine.   I’m projecting back from the mid-70s when I was a “discerning teenager” with plenty of attitude and only three bands I liked.  No at ten I would sit and enjoy all music.  All TV.  Crackerjack.  Star Trek.  Thunderbirds.  Do Not Adjust Your Set.   The Magic Roundabout.  Tin-Tin.   Vision On.  Johnny Morris.

Featured imageFeatured image

And conkers.  There was a large horse-chestnut tree near the village churchyard and another one further up the road.  We harvested bags of conkers and selected the biggest, the best to skewer, string up and take to school.  Deadly serious competitions would ensue – one hit each – knuckles would get banged, a winner would splatter the weak conker into pieces leaving a pathetic piece of string dangling, and your winner would become a One-er.  One of my conkers got up to be a fourteen-er before the effects of constant combat weakened its sinews and it was shattered – the victorious conker would of course inherit all 14 wins – plus one.   Did some kids vinegar their conkers?  Other tactics were discussed for hardening, and techniques for the hit, from the side, from the top…

Featured image

Sometimes these competitions would end in a fight.  David Bristow liked to fight.  So did I.  We fought a lot, David and I.   David got nosebleeds easily, and fight would normally end with knees straddling upper arms, pinning down your opponent and calling for submission.   David’s trick, after I punched him in the nose and caused it to bleed, would be to pin me down on the grass, kneel on my arms, and drip blood into my face.   There would always be a gang of boys watching, the usual suspects.   And sometimes a teacher would intervene – but not often.   There were only two teachers at the school, Miss Cox for the young ‘uns and Miss Lamb for the older ones.  So break times were football and fights, or Graham Sutton would somehow have enough money for a bag of crisps and he would stand there nonchalantly eating them, one at a time, until you were forced to beg  “Can I have a crisp please Sut?”  His shoes were polished and his jumper was green and knitted.   “People who ask don’t get” he said, lifting another crisp into his mouth.    He was popular at primary school.   The football pitch had a sand pit in the middle of it – a perfect square.   We just played round it.   One day we thought we saw The Beatles walking past the school fence, in the field, with Jane Asher, not all of them, just Paul and John and Jane and someone else.   Excitement shuddered through the school.   I’ve often thought about that moment.   It can’t have been them though.

But it was.

My Pop Life #43 : Finlandia – Jean Sibelius

Featured image

Finlandia   –   Jean Sibelius

1964.   We are in our new house.   Perched above the village road behind a thick privet hedge, but we can see the farm opposite, the farmhouse, the barns, the fields beyond.   We can smell the farm opposite.   There’s a sloping narrow path up from the road to our gate.   A large garden.   Two trees.  A large vegetable garden which my dad dug and dug, and where we buried Caesar the large tabby cat I’d owned since I was 1 year old.  He was wrapped in a pillowcase.   My dad dug his grave too.    A back lawn, with another privet hedge, and a gate leading out onto an endless sheep field.  Beyond that, the Manor House.   Sherrington Manor.  They owned our house.    They owned most of the village.   Selmeston.   East Sussex.   The Lewes-Eastbourne A27 at one end, the Lewes-Eastbourne train level-crossing at the other.  One mile long.  About 200 people I calculated one day, including the vicar, the farmer, the Catchloves, the Whitakers, the Criddles, the Bristows, the Colemans, Miss Lamb at the village schoolhouse, Gilda who looked after Paul when things went wrong, Geraldine next door who was Italian and mentioned shopping in “Marks Expensive”, the Spillers at the top of the road on the other side of the A27 and whose daughter Valerie Spiller was my first crush aged about nine.  They were brown-coloured maybe Indian but nobody ever mentioned it.  I hugged my pillow imagining it was her.  Funny feeling in my tummy.  At least I thought it was my tummy.

I would walk to school every day – the village school up near the main road, the pub the Barley Mow, the only shop, the mini-petrol station.   Across the road from the school was the cricket pitch, an acre they said, so you could see what an acre looked like.  It was big.   Sometimes we’d have our breaktime in the cricket field and Midge Millward whose mum was the school cook would tell dirty jokes to us younger ones.  Probably Rastus & Liza.  “I’m fucking dis custard” etc.   I laughed dutifully because of the word “fuck”without knowing what was going on.  Steve ‘Eggy’ Burton and his younger brother Chrissy Burton, Stephen Criddle, David Bristow, Graham Sutton the postman’s son, Mick Spiller and me and my brother Paul.  There were 30 kids in the village school, aged between 5 and 11.   Some of them came from Berwick, or Firle, Chalvington or Alciston.

At home we had a black and white TV which my dad didn’t really approve of, but the kids (Paul and I) were growing and presumably becoming a handful.   Andrew arrived in May after a long labour and a fight with the nurse over gas and air.   Mum would later claim that she had too much.    I remember fights over the TV between Mum and Dad.   I remember him coming into ‘the front room’ where the TV was put (so that it wasn’t in the family room ?!), and switching it off, and Paul, Mum and I skulking out in disgruntlement.   But he never switched off the record player.   Or should I say “the gramaphone”.

Featured imageFeatured image

We had a wind-up turntable on a box with a speaker which would fold up and down inside the lid, a corner compartment for needles – about 1/2 inch long – big buggers.   It was my first experience with handling music – or possibly my second because I cannot discount picking up a recorder at the village school and being taught the simple fingering, following the dots on ‘Men Of Harlech’.   But there is a huge difference between playing music and being a disc jockey as any fule kno.   The records were in the lid, which I think means that it was a portable gramaphone, but I may have misremembered that.   They were heavy shellac 78rpm discs and there were three of them.   Three.   One was Chicken Licken.  One I cannot remember.  And one was Finlandia.

I always connect Finlandia with my father.  I’m sure it was his record.  I don’t know where he bought it, or how long he’d had it, or whether it came with the gramaphone, or phonograph.  Maybe there were other 78s in the house, but I don’t remember them.  I remember three.   The unknown one may come back via my dad or my brothers or my mother, all still happily alive and one day perhaps to read this account.   But for now we’ll focus on Finlandia.  Oh – but first, of course, Chicken Licken.

Featured image

The story is of a chicken who has an acorn fall on his head.  He thinks the sky is falling in and runs through the village yelling at everyone that the sky is falling.   Henny Penny ?  Is that a character?  I can’t remember the rest but we played this story – on a 78rpm record – over and over again, winding the turntable, changing the needle for no good reason because we could and had learned how to do it, playing it fast in squeaky voices, playing it slow in underwater voices.

Featured image

Finlandia was a different matter altogether.  It was a short classical tone poem, though aged six, seven it was just noise to me, music, horns, violins.  No words.  It was written in 1899 by Jean Sibelius and was part of the Finnish nationalist resistance surge against Russia during that period.  The opening is very energised and expressive with full horn stabs and sudden silences.  Then the timpanis start to thunder and roll.  It is hugely dramatic, then the violins start to swirl and sweep and we get another surge of excitement and a part of a melody.  Again all is excitement and energy, passion and pride.   After about 4 minutes there’s a moment of pause and we are hearing a different tempo, a different hopeful moment, this is how the piece resolves, known as the Finlandia Hymn.  It’s not quite the Finnish National Anthem, but it’s their main tune.   I guess it is their Jerusalem.  It will always remind me of my father, whom I have to acknowledge as a profound influence on my life, both musical and otherwise.   When I think of him now in 1964 I see him as a young man with glasses and a receding hairline, fresh from Cambridge and moving his young family from Portsmouth, where he grew up, to East Sussex, where I grew up.   He was the only boy in a family of five, all sisters older than him.  His dad was a batman in the Royal Navy, the lowest rank, and they lived in a small terraced house in Fratton quite near the football ground.  My dad – John – was bright and passed the eleven plus, winning a scholarship to Portsmouth Grammar.  Again, although a working-class kid, he took the Cambridge entrance exam and passed, becoming one of the tiny intake of worker’s kids in Downing College 1955.   I understand that he hated his first year, or maybe just missed my mum, whom he’d started walking out with as a teenager (after briefly dating her sister Valerie).   At any rate that summer he was married to Heather my mum and they went back to Cambridge together for his 2nd year.   I think my Mum hated it there even more than he ever could.  My dad and his friends talked of D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot and didn’t really include her in the conversation.  I was born in Cambridge in June 1957.

When I think of my parents now I think of them as young people and marvel.   I don’t judge them, I just see them in their lives, making decisions, trying to do the best they can.  I’ve spent so much of my lifetime in recrimination, trying to understand what went wrong, why my family was dysfunctional, who, in particular, was to blame, to unload all the pain onto.  Well it turns out that every family is dysfunctional, and some far far more so than mine.   I’ve put down my cross, the one I carried all those years, Lay Down Burden.   Now I’m just trying to remember everything and write it down before it’s my turn to lay down.    Not to say that there hasn’t been pain, upset, wrenching sadness and loneliness.   But just to say that I’m just another human being in the end.

This is a wonderful recording of Finlandia conducted by Leonard Bernstein appropriately enough in 1965.

My Pop Life #35 : Right Said Fred – Bernard Cribbins

Featured image

Right Said Fred   –   Bernard Cribbins

…Charlie had a think and he thought we ought to take off all the ‘andles, and the things what held the candles;  but it did no good, well I never thought it would…

All right said Fred, have to take the door off, need more space to shift the so-and-so.  Took the wall down, even with it all down we was getting nowhere and

so

we

had a cuppa tea

Featured image

The song is genius.  I must have first heard it sometime in 1962, when it came out, and then every year after that.  It was played on the radio a lot, and particularly on the Children’s Favourites Radio 1 Saturday morning show which was DJ’d by Ed “Stewpot” Stuart from 1968 to 1980.   I think it was called Junior Choice and it played pretty much the same selection of songs every week – at least that’s my not-to-be-trusted memory.  They were mostly comedy gold, like this song, which concerns 3 gentlemen trying to remove a large piano (although it’s never acknowledged as a piano) from an upstairs room in a small house.   They do not succeed, but drink a lot of tea.   It has a marvellous selection of sound effects as the piano and the house are slowly demolished, and a particularly enjoyable spring sound, like a kind of musical punchline punctuation.  Not used enough in music that spring.  Written by Ted Dicks and Myles Rudge, and performed with gentle comedic charm and wit by the great Bernard Cribbins, it is my very favourite ‘novelty song’.   Saturday morning we heard them all – ‘My Brother’, ‘Three Wheels On My Wagon’, ‘Nellie The Elephant’, ‘The Runaway Train’, ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’, ‘The Ugly Bug Ball’.    Charlie Drake, The New Christy Minstrels, Mandy Miller, Mike Holiday, Peter, Paul & Mary, Burl Ives.   What a treasury!   Tommy Steele – Little White Bull, and of course Rolf Harris who was molesting children for most of his career as it was revealed in a childhood-shattering court case last year.  Now filed alongside Saville and Glitter – those who abused their fame and their access to fans for decades.  Featured image

But Rolf can’t tarnish my Children’s Favourites LP.  I bought it when I was in my late 30s, nostalgic for those clever songs whose lyrics I knew off by heart even after all these years.  Later in the 1970s came The Wombles, brilliantly narrated by Bernard Cribbins with musical accompaniment by Mike Batt, in between were TV favourites The Magic Roundabout, Crackerjack, Hergé’s Adventures Of TinTin, Thunderbirds, Star Trek, an embarrassment of riches :  one day I’ll write something about Do Not Adjust Your Set which had the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band playing every week.

Thank you for indulging a Junior’s Choice.  Makes me smile every time.   Time for a cuppa tea.

My Pop Life #25 : There There My Dear – Dexys Midnight Runners

Featured image

There There My Dear   –   Dexys Midnight Runners

…you know the only way to change things is to shoot men who arrange things…

In the summer of 1980 I had what remained of my tail firmly between my legs and I was licking my wounds.  The trip to Latin America with brother Paul had foundered in Mexico where I’d contracted hepatitus B and been rushed back to Coppett’s Wood tropical diseases hospital for a couple of weeks.  I was weak as a kitten, couldn’t drink for a year, and had to start thinking about getting a job (over and above my Saturday all-nighter at the Scala coffeebar).  Mumtaz, whom I had left to go on a hitch-hiking year off with Paul, had gracefully welcomed me back into her attic flat in Finsbury Park. I was 23 years old.

Featured image

“Seen quite a bit in my 23 years” sings Kevin Rowland on track 2 of Dexys first LP “Searching For The Young Soul Rebels”, a record which blasted into my ears that summer and blew (almost) everything else out of the water.   It had bags of attitude and swagger, it had a manifesto, but most of all it had soul.   English white kids from Birmingham playing soul.   Legend has it that Kevin Rowland walked into the first rehearsal of Dexys with a box of Stax singles and announced “We’re doing music like this”.   But listening to that 1st LP there’s loads more than Stax influences – there’s Jackie Wilson, Motown, the Bar-Kays, Northern Soul.   Since I’d spent the previous three years cramming a PhD in soul music (to make up for my teenage pop youth) I was ready to play my part as a disciple of Dexys and spread the word – not that they needed me – the NME and the nation were already enamoured.   I’d bought the first single Dance Stance the year before, and helped Geno to get to number one in the spring (B-side: Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache a cover of Johnny Johnson & The Bandwagon !!).   I think my first Dexys gig was in the National Ballroom in Kilburn, appropriate for their Irish/Celtic roots.   But did I see them support The Specials?  Is that where I discovered them in fact??  Sometimes I simply cannot remember critical details of these formative years.

Featured image

They were absolutely brilliant live, real power and passion.   Of course I loved the horn section and spent hours playing along with the album on my ancient alto sax.   I’d always wanted to be in a horn section – playing chords, harmonies with other brass players.   I was particularly fond of “Keep It”.   They actually did manage to do that Stax sound – Booker T & the MGs with the Memphis Horns.    I’m less convinced that Kevin had the vocal chops of the soul greats, but he certainly committed to it heart and soul, and more importantly he sounded like he meant it.

Featured image

It’s hard to remember now, how much that mattered in those days, as punk morphed into Two-Tone and battles with the NF, Rock against Racism, and “whose side you were on” felt like your daily bread – those early Thatcher years were full of aggro and passion, maybe it was just me but the times were intense.   Live and onstage Kevin demanded attention and respect.   Watching him sing “Respect” live was an exercise in faith, he would end up writhing on the floor whooping and squealing and I would feel equal amounts of embarrassment and admiration.    He would continue to make a career out of this strange dialectic, even today he stretches what is acceptable in a musical context beyond what is simply cool, out to the edge of reason.    But these were early days when he wanted to be a soul singer.   And he was a white boy, my age.   Christ I wanted to be in that band.   Lyrical interlude : “Holed up in white Harlem, your conscience and you…”   Those early gigs were a riot.   Wilfully antagonistic toward the audience, we were used to it old punks that we were, there was an atmosphere of danger, aggression, risk in the air.  But most gigs in those days felt like that.   The band were tight as anyone I’ve ever seen.    Pete Williams, Al Archer, Big Jimmy Patterson on the trombone.  The Teams That Meet In Caffs.   They were formed with gang membership in mind, a ready-made pop subculture.    That’s just how it used to be.    They would go on to have different line-ups, different instruments and their biggest hit as a bunch of raggle-taggle pseudo- Irish punks with ‘Come On Eileen’ and weddings thereafter would never be the same, but for me the first LP is still an astonishing listen.    Maybe you should welcome the new soul vision.

As a footnote I have to mention that Kevin Rowland moved to Brighton around the same time as us in the late 90s and we spoke on a number of occasions at parties and so on.  He was a gentleman and a scholar, softly-spoken and funny.  He moved to Shoreditch around 2005 “because Brighton was getting too cool”.

My Pop Life #24 : Requiem (Sanctus) – Gabriel Fauré

Featured image

Requiem  (Sanctus)  –   Gabriel Fauré

I stopped going to Sunday school when I was 11, after I’d passed the eleven-plus and was readying myself for the bus journey to Lewes Grammar from my tiny Selmeston village home.   Now I had the perfect excuse to cut that out of my schedule.   “Homework”.  The bible stories were all over-familiar and draped in languid irreproachable moral conclusions, I was tired of their parables and lessons, my brain knew there was something else out there.   I was already an atheist at 11 years old.   No offence to any religious readers of course – my wife is a practicing Catholic.   But I’m still an atheist.   I remember my dad describing himself around this time as an agnostic.   Sounded cool.   But it meant “don’t know”.   ‘Not sure.’   I wasn’t an agnostic.   I was sure that God, as taught me in Sunday school and other places, Didn’t Exist.   And I’m still sure about that, which is why I define myself as an atheist.   My wife, in contrast, has faith.   Fair enough.

I was brought up as a Christian.   Bible stories.   Moses.   Adam and Eve.   Abraham.  Those three in particular I find frankly laughable now.   Less than worthless.   Dangerous nonsense.   The New Testament was always different.   It had revolutionary zeal, disobedience, miracles, betrayal, a hero who died and was reborn.  I treat this is a true story which has been shaped by men.   Since growing up I’ve discovered the Gnostic Gospels with more lines for Mary Magdalene and other women, and come to see St Paul as a problematic figure who rewrote sections of the Bible and divided men by nationality.

Featured imageFeatured image

I’ve studied all the main religions over time with the help of Joseph Campbell and his books such as Hero With A Thousand Faces, The Power Of Myth  and other examinations of comparative religion – they are brilliant works of scholarship and imagination, showing how each culture creates a religious story out of the same basic elements, a tale with choices, wonderful happenings, a hero’s journey, a chosen people and death.  Most religious books also have an “end times” climax right at the end = the Christian one is called Revelations.   It describes the the end of the world   “…people will be gambling, selling and buying each other, cheating, lying and stealing, killing and despoiling the earth.  Then the end will come.”   This is clever because of course it describes the earth exactly as we know it, thus leading to the inevitable conclusion – we’re doomed, we may as well pray for our souls.   It has worked for centuries.   Interesting to note that since the rise of science and in particular Darwin over 150 years ago, other myths have taken over the “end times” scenario – notably ourselves – homosapiens – in the form of war, climaxing in the atom bomb which loomed over my childhood rather like Revelations must have loomed over my ancestors.   Since 1989 and the dismantling of the Soviet Union we have grown to fear first ‘the greenhouse effect’ and now ‘climate change’.   The “We’re Doomed” lobby will always have a scenario, and an audience.

All of which is to say that Sunday for me, as an atheist, is still special.   It used to be a vacant empty day – no shops, no work, a day for “family” and so on & so forth.  But since capitalism needs to survive and we all need to keep buying more shit to keep the charade going, Sunday became just another shopping day, and large temples to spending grew up on our ring roads where people flocked on Sunday to worship their Stuff, to buy it and hoard it.   But for me Sunday morning is for classical music.

I can’t remember when this started but as far away as university I’ve put on a classical record first thing on a Sunday morning.     The record won’t necessarily be religious, although many of my favourite classical pieces are.   Well the church was the main source of income for musicians for hundreds of years, so most of Bach, Vivaldi,  Haydn and lots of early music emanate from God and his works.  I’ve never had a problem with this.  Why would I ??   I think the finest piece of music ever written is probably the St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach.   If you don’t know it, you’re in for a treat, it’s immense, pure, and beautiful.  If you know it, you know exactly what I mean.

Featured image

I’ve been listening to Fauré’s Requiem since the 80s – I couldn’t put a date on it, or a reason why I bought it, or who introduced me to it, or any interesting biographical moments or details.   But if I had a magic counter on my musical choices (which I used to fantasise about as a teenager – my own pop charts!) then this piece of music would be in the top 3 Sunday morning selections, I’m very sure about that.    It’s really short, and absolutely stunning, especially, for me,  the Sanctus.   I have been known to chop it back, rewind selector, the same short piece which is just so mysterious and perfect that I can scarcely believe it.   Like that moment in “If…” the Lindsay Anderson film where Malcolm McDowell is listening to Peter Kamau’s African Sanctus and continually lifts the needle back to the haunting infinite opening chords.  Except Fauré is better.

Featured image

Gabriel Fauré was a 19th century French impressionist composer (my definition) – the Requiem dates from 1890, was revised and finished in 1900 and is composed of seven short pieces (the Sanctus is 3 minutes long).   It’s largely a vocal piece and most of the great singers have tackled its refined and subtle beauty.   I don’t have a particular favourite version, but I’m listening to it soothe me (baby) right now.     Long live Sunday mornings.

My Pop Life #23 : Somethin’ Else – Eddie Cochran

Featured image

Somethin’ Else   –   Eddie Cochran

..lookee here, what’s all this ?

After a few weeks in LSE Halls Of Residence in Fitzroy St, walking down to the LSE across Bloomsbury most days, I discovered my local cinema – The Other Cinema on Tottenham St, a few hundred yards from my front door.  I worked there tearing tickets for about 2 years, and payment was in free tickets.  The Other Cinema was a collective and included Steven Woolley and Dominique Green amongst its illuminati.  That year I saw Pontecorvo’s Battle Of Algiers, Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, and most of Fred Wiseman’s incredible output among other delights – but it folded after about 2 years, only for The Scala Cinema to open in its place, run by Steve, with Paul Webster and I think Don McPherson too.  I remember Lee in the projectionists box because he wore black cowboy boots and, like me, played the saxophone.   I ended up working in the coffee bar downstairs on Saturday for the all-nighters, 11pm – 7 am.   For money probably this time.   I served coffee, cake and amphetamines to the hollow-eyed delinquent regulars.  While the Other Cinema was worthy and political, intellectual and left-leaning, The Scala was transgressional and lurid, cheesy and often banned.  They showed films all night that no one else would.   Thundercrack, Pink Flamingos, Salo, Eraserhead, The Wild Ones, The Girl Can’t Help It, Performance were favourites and often shown;  spaghetti westerns, biker films, blaxploitation, arthouse, grindhouse, Russ Meyer, Borowczyk, Laurel & Hardy, Visconti and Fritz Lang reeled out til dawn when the legions of the undead had to face, blinking and reluctant, the cold hard reality of a Sunday morning and a Tottenham Court Road fry-up.

 Featured image

Monthly poster is from after the Scala moved to King’s Cross in 1982

The audience would be at least as interesting as the film programme.  Saturday nights would be the tribal gathering – film nerds, actors, auteurs, popstars, insomniacs, psycho-billies, anarchists, Chilean refugees, skinheads, the dirty-mac brigade, new romantics, the properly psychotic. …All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets…. sorry got carried away there…. but we had punks, queers, bikers and junkies, and Barry who never told me his last name, lived in a squat on Warren Street and shaved his face within an inch of it’s seven layers of skin.  He’d arrive looking sharkesque with his permanently slicked black hair and über-shaved sharpened face and would drop off a large 1000-pill bag of blues back in the kitchen where no-one was looking four a quid, and I’d sell them from behind the bar.   3 for a quid.    I ate the profits.  I mean everyone was speeding.   Everyone.   I certainly was.  You couldn’t smoke in the cinema, but you could in the all-night cafe.  Everything was underground appropriately enough, a pit of cheerful drunken tribal youth popping in and out of the cinema, to the cafe, hanging on the Space Invaders machine or the jukebox.

Ah the jukebox.  Yes. 

Best one in London.   Everyone knew it.   I’m sure John at the Hope & Anchor would disagree but The Scala jukebox had the most eclectic mix of singles on there from cajun rock to the post-punk Pop Group, Loretta Lynn to James Brown, and – my pop life number 22 – Eddie Cochran all the way from California 1959 and sounding fresher than anything else on the damn jukebox with Somethin’ Else, like a teen reb cross between Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.

Featured image

What I’d call a bangin’ tune.   A rockabilly punk shuffle.   A slice of utter youth attitude, never been done better since.  Proof of course is in the Sid Vicious cover, recorded for The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle in 1978 which doesn’t approach the excitement of the Cochran record, but nevertheless has a certain nihilistic swagger.   Vicious was dead by Feb ’79 of heroin.   Eddie Cochran died in a car crash in Wiltshire on April 16th 1960.    Gene Vincent and girlfriend Sharon Sheely who’d co-written Somethin’ Else survived.   Like his friend Buddy Holly, his recorded output, though slight, casts a huge shadow over all recorded music since.  All you have to do to understand why his influence is so large is to listen to the song.

Previous Older Entries