My Pop Life #183 : Rocket Man – Elton John

Rocket Man   –   Elton John

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

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

*

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

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

“Listen to this bit Nan –

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

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

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

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

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

in fact it’s cold as hell” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry I took your time.

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

Oh well.

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

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

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

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

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

 
B-side : Goodbye
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My Pop Life #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 :

My Pop Life #166 : Pacific 202 – 808 State

Pacific 202   –   808 State

The last few days of 1989 :  a Ford Granada with me driving, Jenny in the jump seat and my brother Paul and his boyfriend Colin in the back is driving the long endless East German autobahn towards West Berlin.  It’s cold outside and the road goes on forever.  We’ve been driving from England since morning.  For the last six months news reports coming out of the Eastern Bloc of change :  East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in particular seethe with popular unrest, and since November 17 the famous Wall dividing East and West Berlin has been tested and breached by demonstrators.  Refugees from East Germany have been granted asylum in Hungary.   Berlin is in flux.  Gorbachev is in power in the USSR talking about Perestroika (re-structuring : also the name of his book, which I read in 1989) and glasnost (open-ness), a new way forward, relaxing the tight rules on state power and movement of peoples and now in front of us, the Iron Curtain is creaking.


Mikhail Gorbachev stated in 1989 that German re-unification was a German matter

Historic times indeed.  Then on Christmas Day, hated dictator President Ceaușescu of Romania and his wife are executed by firing squad after a trial lasting one hour.  We decide to see in the new year in Berlin, in the centre of it all.  Armed with an address provided by Jonathan & Roberta, Paul and Colin’s friends from college, we finally arrive at around 10pm, climb the three flights of stairs to find a lovely two-room apartment, empty save for two Italians who had also been told that they could use the space for the New Year.  Mutual surprise all round, but these were pre-internet days.  The four English end up on two single mattresses in the main room.

Checkpoint Charlie : he didn’t crack a smile

The following morning we wake too late for hot water, our Italian friends having got to the bathroom first.  After breakfast Jenny and I drive through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin, receiving a small passport made of cardboard which is stamped, and we are told that we have to return before midnight.  East Berlin is eerie and strangely gentle.  At the first large square – almost deserted, very few shops open, there are rabbits hopping around.  We visit a large department store and buy AyeAye, a 1970s Donny Hathaway hat which we still have – a beautiful, madly out-of-date-in-a-good-way fashion piece, so out-of-date that it was back in fashion in the west.  We ate some unimpressive food in a quiet restaurant and made our way back to the western side.

 West Berlin was heaving with people, simply full up. Jenny and I had decided to get a hotel room, but there weren’t any.  She was something of a distraction for everyone, being black and sporting her eighteen-hole DMs.  That night, New Year’s Eve, we queued for an Italian restaurant (against my religion to Q for food : unless I’m in prison), only to be told it was a private party.  At another Italian the waiters took exception to Paul & Colin being gay, so Jenny gave them a piece of her mind and was escorted physically from the building.  We did finally eat somewhere, but seven million other people had had the same idea as us and West Berlin was rammed.  Still, if you can’t be original, join in, that’s my motto.  Sounds better in Latin.  si non potest esse prima iungas..  Imagine it on a little crest.  A badge.  Oh, never mind.

Approaching midnight and Paul and Col had gone clubbing somewhere, Jenny and I made our way to the Wall at Potsdammer Platz near Brandenburg Gate where crowds of revellers were partying on top of the Wall in full view of soldiers from both sides, dancing, smoking weed and chipping pieces of the Wall away with chisels and hammers.  An extraordinary atmosphere.  We stood in one of the holes in the Wall and could see No Man’s Land and the towers and barbed wire of the East.  I had a mini boombox and played a previously-recorded Martin Luther King “I Had A Dream” speech when a soldier told me to turn it off, despite clearly not speaking English and not understanding what it was.  I didn’t turn it off and there were too many people around to make a fuss.  In amidst the party atmosphere was a strange tension as many of the West Berliners felt decidedly ambiguous about everything opening up.  A kind of tense excitable hysteria, who are all these people?  The future was uncertain, and there were already some East Germans crossing the border, changing the nature of the enclave forever.

New Year’s Eve at The Wall 1989

We listened to cassettes on the drive over, handmade by each of us, or purchased at Our Price or Woolworths.  Certainly one of these was a best of 1989 compilation – and it was a great year for dance music in particular.

Hip hop had already come, seen and conquered.  Now we were into the Daisy Age thanks to De La Soul, while Heavy D & The Boyz had serenaded Jenny and I in D.C. with their own New Jack Swing thang  (see My Pop Life #33).  Janet Jackson was in the Rhythm Nation, Shabba Ranks was being Wicked Inna Bed, and in the summer I’d  choreographed a dance to Redhead Kingpin & The FBI‘s monster song Do The Right Thing (see My Pop Life #7) in a theatre workshop with a young David Walliams and 25 other teenagers for the National Youth Theatre.  Not to be confused with the Spike Lee film of the same name which had a terrific soundtrack featuring Public Enemy, Perri, Teddy Riley, Guy and Take 6.

The British had a great year – a new confidence in the air manifest by Soul II Soul and that Keep On Movin’ LP which dominated the summer.  Other acts which popped through were Rebel M.C. with Street Tuff, Neneh Cherry with Buffalo Stance and Stone Roses with Fool’s Gold.  But none caught my ear quite like this record.  Radio One played it every day – Gary Davies I think – until it was eventually released in November 1989 and became an immediate hit. An immediately intoxicating sound whether you had dropped ecstasy or not, we hadn’t heard much like it before on the radio.

I depended on Paul and Colin for bringing me club tunes since I didn’t really go clubbing.   I did go to legendary gay club Heaven with them a couple of times under the Charing Cross Arches but they were out listening to Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers, Phuture and the other stars of House Music regularly, and this year’s big song was French Kiss by Lil Louis.  Earlier in the year Paul had introduced me to seminal techno house track Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald, out of the Manchester underground, later a big hit, and this track Pacific by 808 State has his fingerprints all over it.

Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson, Martin Price – 808 State

808 State were formed in Manchester by Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald), Graham Massey and Martin Price in 1987 and named after Gerald’s Roland TR-808 drum machine.  Pacific aka Pacific State, Pacific 717 Pacific 202 etc etc was and remains a delicious electronic chilled dance tune featuring a wonky alto sax line and a collection of strange bird noises and it heralded Acid House and the Manchester rave scene, about which I know next to nothing.  My Manc friends Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill, Keith Davey and Josh Raikes all came of age through those Madchester years and I’ll leave it to them to explain it all to you (they all moved to Brighton though – make of that what you will…).   As for me, I never did like Happy Mondays, The Charlatans or Stone Roses THAT much and I certainly never bought the 2nd Summer Of Love designation, but I would never pour cold water over it either, I’m sure it was an intoxicatingly hypnotically fantastic and exciting time to be up in the north west of England.  Especially when Pacific State came out !   I bought the 12″ single on ZTT (Paul Morley, Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair’s label) which had Pacific 707 (the 7 inch version) and Pacific 212 and one other mix ?  There are about 20 versions out there.  The one below is Pacific 202.  I think.  It was released in America on TommyBoy Records in 1990.

We found a hotel and a bathroom on Jan 1st 1990 in West Berlin while Paul & Col made friends with their new Italian flatmates and stayed for three more weeks.  Jenny and I explored the groovy anarchist squat scene in Kreuzberg and went back to The Wall and picked up some orange spray-painted sections for keepsakes and drove back home shortly afterward one morning.  I went back to Berlin last year and invented the David Bowie : Where Are We Now ? tour (see My Pop Life #97) and some 25 years later the city is almost unrecognisable.  Only a few parts of the wall remain, tourist attractions, protected.  I stayed in the old East Berlin, now simply Berlin.  It is thrumming with activity and endeavour, much of it artistic, simply full of energy.

As we drove home through Germany, then Belgium, we were stopped on the French border for our passport.  Most cars were getting waved through and we were blocking the road.  The passport was in my suitcase in the boot, so I offered to pull over while I got out and unpacked.  No said the French border police.  Stay in the road.  I got annoyed with him and so they decided to search the car.  Jenny and I were processed through the system, stripped,  and searched.  And then made to wait in the little central booth as the border police tooth-combed the car.  While we waited, and waited, I noticed cars queuing to get into Belgium from France looking at me with quizzical eyes.  They were asking for permission to cross the border.  There was no one else there, so I started to nod at the drivers, and they would drive through.  It was ridiculous but fun.  Eventually we were interviewed by the boss.   He explained that busloads of tourists came this way from Amsterdam every day.  I told him that we’d come from Berlin.  Earlier in 1989 I had been filming in France (see My Pop Life #9) playing Eugene Delacroix the painter who appeared on the 200 Franc note (sadly now replaced by the Euro).  As I explained this to the police chief, he asked me if I smoked weed – “and is it used for inspiration, like Baudelaire?”  I agreed that I imagined it was.  “Ah you artistic types” he sighed.

We crossed the Channel at Ostende and landed in England in the brave new world of 1990.   Capitalism won, after extra time.

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 #157 : By The Beautiful Blue Danube – Johann Strauss II

An der schönen blauen Donau   –   Johann Strauss II

I immediately smile when I hear the first few phrases of this and I don’t stop smiling until it’s finished.  What a truly tremendous piece of music.  Dance music, pop music, classical music, whatever.  Music.  It is a waltz, which means it is in 3/4 time.  When you play or dance a waltz you count 1,2,3 – 1,2,3.   Actually that’s the easy part.  As a self-taught pianist I’ve always struggled with beats in a bar.  Where’s the four ?? Anyway, you count 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.  And don’t step on her toes.  Very important.

Der Donau near Vienna

The Danube is Europe’s 2nd-longest longest river (after the Volga in Russia) and runs from the Black Forest in Germany (where is is called der Donau) all the way through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary (called the Duna as it runs through Budapest rather beautifully), Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine where it deltas into the Black Sea.   It is (tragically today in late June 2016) the longest river in the EU.

Johann Strauss II

Johann Strauss II was Austrian and grew up by der schönen blauen Donau in Vienna. Photos of him suggest he was a biker, but this is a modern interposition because the motorbike had yet to be invented properly.   He also resemble a rocker, greased back hair and mutton chops.  He was clearly a dude.  He was as near as you got to a pop star for the 1850s/60s.   If you were a musician in the 19th Century you tended to gravitate to Vienna, much as New Orleans was a musical magnet in the first half of the 20th Century.

All of his family were musicians, and his father, Johann Strauss I,  was a popular composer and the leader of an orchestra.  Dad didn’t want number one son to become a musician and whipped him when he discovered the secret violin lessons he was taking (with a member of his own orchestra).  Undeterred, number one son eventually held his first concert for music he had written at Dommayer Casino in Vienna in 1844 after many other venues, fearful of Dad’s influence, shied away from hosting young Johann.  So enraged was Dad that he never played the Dommayer again.

                                                                                                       Johann Strauss I

In 1848 revolution swept through Europe and father and son found themselves on opposite sides of the struggle, father siding with the Habsburg Royal Family and writing his most famous piece the Radetsky March the same year  and son being arrested for playing the revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise in public.   The following year Strauss senior died and Johann the younger merged their two orchestras.  The waltz was then the most popular dance in Europe thanks to Johann Strauss I and his contemporary Joseph Lanner, and Johann Jr extended the form and took it into the stratosphere becoming probably the most successful composer of dance music in the 19th Century, touring Europe with his orchestra to great acclaim.  An Der Schönen Blauen Danube was written in 1866, and premiered in Vienna, Paris and New York in 1867.  It was a sensation.  It still is.  One of the world’s most popular pieces of music, but that’s never frightened me.  When I was younger I preferred the cool of undiscovered, unpopular music.  My ears led me here though.  Bless my ears.

I feel like this piece of music has been in my head forever.  I cannot remember when I purchased the vinyl LP, early 20s in London no doubt, but it was already familiar to me.  It is, it must be confessed, a tune.  The night I danced to it in ?1991? lingers lovingly in the memory since we had all been partying at the Archway Road flat since Saturday evening, and it was now Sunday morning.  The party was over but many people were still present, still drunk, still happy.  It was late summer I believe, Jenny and I had invited the gang round – why or who or what I cannot recall but  – among those present were : Jo Martin, Michael Rose, Roger Griffith, Jo Melville, Michael Buffong, Paulette, Beverley, Paul my brother, Colin, Michael too? Pedro ? Richard (Lady G?), Saffron Myers, Julian Danquah and….hmmm here it gets hazy.  If you were there please let me know !  In any event it was around five or six in the morning when we’d played all the Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Marley, house music, Sly Stone and ska records in the collection and we needed a party closer.  I rustled around in the box and found the LP.

This is pre-CD by the way !   The response to those opening phrases was magical.  We each took a partner and waltzed gently around the front room, pretending we knew what we were doing, pretty sure I partnered with Saffron letting the alcohol lead our steps, slowly at first then with increasing vigour and abandon as the music swelled, swirling merrily around the carpet and onto the furniture, swapping partners, spinning, smiling, spinning.  We laughed we fell over we span and span around and around.  Exhilaration and satisfied exhaustion followed and we collapsed in a pile smiling.  Time for a coffee.   Happy days.  Happy happy music.

The piece is performed every New Year’s Day in Vienna by the Vienna Philharmonic  and beamed live around the world.   Here is the result from 2010.

and here is the wonderful Daniel Bahrenboim in 2014 :

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 #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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