My Pop Life #112 : The Night – Franki Valli & The Four Seasons

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The Night   –   Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons

…you know you’re gonna lose more than you found…

Mid-May 1975, the green fields of East Sussex.   I am three weeks away from my A-level exams at Lewes Priory School, some 25 miles away, which I have spent two years studying for.   My choices are English Literature, Geography and Economics.   Geography is my favourite subject, so much so that I have taken an extra O-Level in the Lower Sixth in Geology and passed with grade 1.

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geological cross-section of Lyme Regis bay

There is a possibility of taking a Geography Degree somewhere or other – or even a Geology Degree.  But the prospect, once I’d had a little think about prospects, of a lifetime working for the oil and gas industry did sway me away from that wonderful subject.  I love maps very much, especially the ones that go underground and show the rock layers.  Fascinating.  But that would be where it stopped.

Featured imageEnglish Literature was an easy choice and kind of non-negotiable – I’d enjoyed books since I could read and devoured them voraciously.  At this point I was well past A Clockwork Orange, 1984 and Brave New World and onto reading Dostoyevsky and Mervyn Peake.  The set texts were, if I can remember them : Anthony & Cleopatra (“Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall…“), Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale which is brilliant, Tess Of The D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (swoon), Dubliners by James Joyce, Saint Joan by Bernard Shaw (?) hmmmm and some poetry.  Yeats?  Eliot ?  Cannae remember captain.  

My third A-Level was Economics.  Weird choice?  I’d been told that if I wanted to study Law at the LSE (and I did) that I would have to take Economics A-Level.   Seemed fair enough.   We had one good teacher on macro Economics called Mr Dennis, which was all about GDP, Interest Rates, unemployment and Monetary Policy, Keynes etc.   And we had one bad teacher whose name strangely escapes me on microeconomics (supply and demand, pricing, business) who ran a VG shop in Chailey and constantly referred to it to illustrate what he was talking about in a particularly tedious way.  He also prefaced most of his sentences with the non-word “Em”.  “Em, just open your books on, em, page 43…”   Andy Holmes and I became needlessly obsessed with this vocal tic and started to log the regularity of its use.  To enumerate its tally.  Em.  We would place a small mark in a rough book with each spasm. one, two three, four, then a line across for five.  Then you could see at a glance how many Ems there had been in a double period Economics lesson.  Sometimes they would come in a flurry and we could scarcely keep up.  It was proper work.  What this meant though, was that we didn’t really hear any of the words in-between each Em and the next.  And fun though it had been, suddenly there we were in May 1975 and a few short weeks away from the examination which would determine whether we would be champs or chumps in life.

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It’s called Revision. It means going over your notes from the previous two years and making sure you remember pertinent details, concepts, definitions.  My notes were a series of totals.  38 Ems.  54 Ems. And yes, 71 Ems.   I badly needed to read an Economics Textbook, so I found one in the Library and started to read – and take notes.   Not so much Revision as simply panic-cramming two years of Em Economics into two months of seriously undiluted brain workout.  No music, no gigs, no getting stoned or drunk.   EXAMS.  Like entering a tunnel where the parallel lines converge to a point on a dark horizon.

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Of course the radio was always on downstairs and always tuned to Radio One.  Tony Blackburn, Paul Burnett, Johnnie Walker.  And creeping up the charts was a strange beguiling song called “The Night” by Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons which started with a sinister bassline, is joined by a thin organ & tambourine combo, the drums kick in and a very odd semi-whispered vocal warns

Beware of his promise. Believe what I say…”

at which point the song actually starts with a rush of vocal harmony and tuba/baritone sax…

..Before I go forever..be sure of what you say…

And then we’re off !  What an amazing single this is.   Adopted by the Northern Soul possee for its dancefloor pulse and sensational vocal shapes, it was released on Jobete, the Motown label, for whom it was recorded in 1972, then withdrawn after a handful of promo copies were handed out.  Some of these found their way to England and the underground soul scene.  (For a previous example of the high-tempo rhythm and passionate vocals of Northern Soul see My Pop Life #17.)

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Frankie Valli, Nick Massi, Tommy De Vito, Bob Gaudio

The Four Seasons had been hugely successful since the early 60s, the first white act to sign with the Vee-Jay label with hits like Walk Like A ManRag Doll and Sherry, and the originals of Bye Bye Baby (see My Pop Life #11), and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, covered memorably by the great Andy Williams.   Frankie Valli the Italian boy from the Jersey ‘hood has had an astonishing career lasting over 55 years and counting.  Not to mention his band mate Bob Gaudio who co-wrote this song.   They were the East Coast Beach Boys, best-selling pop vocal harmony sweetness incarnate – brilliantly celebrated and exposed in the hit show Jersey Boys, now a film. That’s all for another post – here it is suffice to say that the Four Seasons’ years at Motown (from 1970-74) were a commercial disaster zone for the band, and this single was only re-released due to pressure from Northern Soul DJs in the 70s, according to legend, or perhaps because they’d had a pop-disco resurgence on Warners with Who Loves You and Oh What A Night, and Franki Valli had scored with My Eyes Adored You, also recorded at Motown.  The Northern Soul DJs certainly adopted the song and played it, helping to lift The Night to number 7 in the charts in May 1975.

It was around this time that my mother started to slide.  Again.  She had been unstable since the first breakdown in 1964 in Selmeston.  Diagnosed by a variety of doctors and psychiatrists as schizophrenic, manic depressive, suffering a nervous breakdown or affective disorder, and treated either in or out of hospital with every drug ever invented, many of which were tested on patients such as my mum, she had begun to self-diagnose by this point and pick her tablets from the giant selection in the kitchen cupboard with care.  It made her unreasonable, violent, depressed, miserable, lonely, vulnerable and a terrible bully all at once.  We didn’t tiptoe around her either, we took her on and dealt with each day as it came along.   It was a volatile household.   Who’s isn’t ??   It was a challenge that I became increasingly good at handling.  But at some cost, as I would discover much later in life.  During these years – the 1970s – the visits to hospital weren’t so long and devastating, the hospital was called Amberstone which had a slightly more relaxed regime, no ECT for example, and every so often there would be a crisis at home and Mum would be admitted, or admit herself.   We were old enough to hold the fort, or at least I certainly was.  A 17 year old young adult, I would make sure that there was food, that the milkman was paid and we had enough coal to heat the place.  But by 1975 I had a younger sister from Mum’s second marriage to John Daignault, which had since collapsed.   Rebecca was born in April 1973 and was thus just 2 years old when Mum announced one morning while I was revising Economics upstairs in my bedroom (Paul and Andrew were at school) that she was going into hospital.  An ambulance was called.  My brother’s girlfriend Janice came round to take Rebecca.    I packed a small bag for Mum with a nightie, underwear, slippers, tobacco, papers, matches, and some clothes, toothbrush and deodorant.  A small towel.  A flannel.  She didn’t look so good.  I was pretty numb.  Then the doorbell rang and there was the ambulance.  We hugged and she left with her bag.   I went back upstairs and was gripped suddenly by a huge and excruciating pain spasm inside the middle of my body.  I lay down.  It got worse.  Like a vice grip around my core, being held by a giant iron hand that wouldn’t let go.   I had never felt anything like it before,  it was so intense that all I could do was curl up on the bed and moan gently.  The parallel lines heading directly into the dark tunnel.   Listen for the break at 2.35 in The Night for a musical evocation of this moment.  It would not relent and I could not move.  Frozen.  Some four hours later it finally started to abate and I could unwind and stretch gingerly out.  At some point after that Paul and Andrew came home and I told them that Mum had gone to Amberstone for a bit.   We all knew the drill by then.  No tears, no drama.  We just got on with it.  Thank god for Janice !  And thinking about it since, that must have been some kind of cramp that gripped me that afternoon.  An immediate psychic emotional reaction by my muscles.  All I could think about was WHY NOW?  I’ve got exams coming up!!  I can’t afford to fuck them up.  I think I then immediately boxed my heart away and tightened the great padlock over my chest so that I couldn’t feel anything that would undermine or dissolve me and went back to the Economics book.

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mid-seventies Franki Valli 

Two weeks later I started the A-Level exam run.  Six exams in all I seem to recall.  Mum came out of Amberstone after about a month.  Later that summer I found out (in Budapest: see My Pop Life #70) that I’d scored an A in Geography and two Bs in English and Economics.   I had my place at the LSE.

But the night begins to turn your head around…

I wouldn’t begin to unlock the cage and truly unbox my heart for almost another forty years.

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My Pop Life #96 : Climb On Board – Labrinth

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Climb On Board   –   Labrinth

Something tell me I’m almost there…

When was the day the music died ?   Not the Buddy Holly plane crash – For you I mean.  Or did it just fade away ?  How exactly do you ‘keep up’ with what’s going on ?  Maybe it doesn’t really matter to you.   Isn’t it strange that we all have a magic year of music which coincides with our 13th-14th birthdays?   Mine is 1971 – almost every song from that year makes me go weak at the knees.   So perhaps there is a year when we disengage with music, and our own peculiar musical taste is set in stone.   I find that my taste is growing all the time and – some people do this –  I actually do try to keep up with “what’s going on” – but in a filtered way of course.   For example – I was immersed in the punk and post-punk scene in London, but probably ignored the funk music, the metal, the folk music of that time.   I was similarly enamoured with hip hop from 1987-1990 and almost literally bought everything, but as a result ignored much of the pop and rock music of the late eighties (did I miss much?).   And as the years roll by, how do we stay in touch…?  Do we even want to…?  Should a 50-year-old man be listening to Radio One ?  Why not ?

If you have young people in your life, music becomes current naturally – if they live in your house you will hear the latest thing whether you want to or not.  My own musical curiosity has not dimmed at all over the years, and from time to time I do listen to Radio One, especially in the evenings if I’m in England, or even online.   I still read reviews of new music : Pitchfork, The Guardian, Quietus, anywhere.   I still chase music down, whether on Youtube channels, Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp.   People send me stuff.   I follow up on leads.   I keep my ears open, generally.   But it is impossible to stay abreast of everything, even if that were desirable.   My relationship with music comes partly from repetition – listening to an LP over and over again, becoming obsessed with it, having to hear it at least once a day.  I still have those moments, but not so often.  Now – songs will still grab me, and I like to listen to them over and over.  Everything Everything still do that for me, three albums in.  Kanye West still does that for me.  And Labrinth certainly does that for me.

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I first heard this track Climb On Board by Labrinth inside my own house, played by my nephew Thomas Jules to one of his friends Paul.  They both loved it in a way that I immediately understood.   I really liked it too.   We played it again, then I ordered the LP Electronic Earth and it arrived a few days later.   It was summer 2012, I’d just shot Inspector George Gently with the rather wonderful Martin Shaw in Durham, and I’d taken the rather fantastic Diana Quick to dinner and talked shop.    I was now embarking on another round of the sitcom Him & Her for BBC3, where I played Her Dad.   My wife – or Her Mum – was one of my regular acting partners Marion Bailey – I think this was our fifth or sixth job together – not always married, but people who like her also like me, apparently.

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Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani were Him & Her, while Ricky Champ, Kerry Howard, Joe Wilkinson and Camille Coduri were the other regulars.  They became my family for four years, finishing in 2013 with The Wedding.  I did eight episodes in all.  It was a Great Gig, all directed by Richard Laxton, all written by Stefan Golaszewski, I’m immensely pleased and proud to have been a part of this series.

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Climb On Board is electronic music, 21st century British music.  It uses a drum and bass beat, auto-tuned vocals, synthesised riffs and chords and dubstep rhythms and breaks.  It is massively confident without being lyrically too clever.  It’s probably about drugs.  The middle eight is thrilling, and my favourite piece of the song (as so often with a Beatles or Motown track).   But there is another interesting feature which is the almost continuous conversation going on in the background – I haven’t managed to decode all of it but at one point you hear him saying “one step two step three step…whoah!” which presumably references 2-Step, the original name for the child of UK garage dubstep.   The idea being that Labrinth has gone beyond his roots in 2-step, gone beyond even 3-step.   The middle eight confirms that this is no idle boast.   The LP Electronic Earth has a large number of high points – this is track one, other hits include Earthquake which is tremendously powerful in a live context, Beneath Your Beautiful with Emeli Sandé providing the lead vocal,  Express Yourself (taking on the famous song from Charles Wright & The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band) and Sundown which is a take on Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.

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Clearly Labrinth is a major talent.   Born Timothy MacKenzie in North London, he and his eight siblings formed a band called Mac9.   His big breakthrough came when he hooked up with South Londoner Tinie Tempah and produced, and sang the vocals “Let it rain, let it pour away…” on the huge hit single Pass Out which reached number 1 in 2010 and won best British single at the Brits the following year.   Labrinth and Tinie Tempah collaborated again on the single Frisky, shortly after that Simon Cowell signed Labrinth to Syco his record label.   Labrinth remains the only non-variety-show winner on Cowell’s label.    Tinie Tempah returned the favour and dropped in to spit some lyrics on the single Earthquake in October 2011.   Electronic Earth was released in March 2012.

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Jenny and I saw him and his band performing live at The Brighton Centre on Feb 13th 2013 when Plan B was headlining and Rudimental was supporting, with nephew Thomas singing all the John Newman parts.  It was needless to say a rather splendid night.  Rudimental and Thomas smashed it as they always do – not that I take it for granted, ever – Labrinth played keyboards, lead guitar, pushed buttons and sang and was very impressive, and Plan B was doing the whole “She said I love you boy I love you so…” LP (Defamation Of Strickland Banks) with a cracking band and dancers!    I saw Labrinth again later in 2013 when Rizzle Kicks (old friends, long story) played Shakedown Festival in Stanmer Park and Labrinth was supporting.  He was excellent once again.

So now I look out for his new stuff – the last single Let It Be was very different to anything off the drum and bass style of Electronic Earth – more like new school soul music, or church in space perhaps, and it also featured a brilliant video.  Which I appear to have imagined since it has disappeared from the web.  But the new album looks like it’s going to be very interesting indeed.

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As for what’s new in 2015 – I couldn’t tell you since I’ve spent much of my music allowance time (strictly policed!) on this blog.   But early indications suggest that Natalie Prass, Kendrick Lamar and East India Youth might be pushing Mark Ronson, Hudson Mohawke and Everything Everything for that coveted Album of The Year Award.   Awarded by me.  Of course !  Unless the new LP from Labrinth : Take Me To The Truth knocks them all into a cocked hat !   Whatever that means !  Apparently we’ll find out on October 16th 2015.   In the meantime, we have this :