My Pop Life #203 : Bird of Paradise – Charlie Parker

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Bird of Paradise – Charlie Parker

I have written a few times about my lazy relationship with my saxophone, a Boosey & Hawkes silver alto made in 1935 with a Selma C mouthpiece holding a Rico Royal Reed of 3 & 1/2 usually.  The reed produces the sound and they come from a plant called Arundo donax, or giant cane.  

Saxophone_reeds-alto,_tenorAny saxophone player worth her salt (like Charlotte Glasson for example) would find a 3 reed way too soft to play.  That’s one reason why I say lazy.  If you rehearse every day, even for an hour or two, you’ll need to put in a harder reed sooner or later.  The numbers refer to the thickness : one is very soft and easy to play, five is tough, needs to be licked on for a minute and you have to blow like a bastard to get any sound out of it, or at least I do.   Then again, all mouthpieces are different and eventually you find the reed that suits you.  I wrote about my early screechy  days with this instrument in My Pop Life #19 then discussed my struggles with tuning and pitch in My Pop Life 80 when I was playing with school band Rough Justice.  Later I discussed a disastrous audition for old school chum and Pogues drummer Andrew Ranken in My Pop Life #149 when he was putting together a band called The Operation while I was playing with a group called Birds of Tin.  And perhaps my finest saxophone memory was busking Stan Getz, glowingly reminisced through rose-tinted glasses in My Pop Life #68.

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This entry will have to join those stumbles around my chosen instrument if only through omission, because I have never attempted to play any Charlie Parker.  Why would I willingly submit to such humiliation?   It may, indeed, have been familiarity with those early sides on Dial Records from 1946-7 which prompted me to become an actor rather than a musician.  The mountaintop just couldn’t be seen let alone climbed, and I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to practice for 8 hours a day just to play to a handful of aficionados in a darkened cellar for hardly any money while hooked on heroin.

Then again, as my T-shirt says, it’s never too late to start wasting your life.

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Someone must have told me that Charlie Parker played the same instrument as me.   A purely superficial likeness, because I could never even play a single bar of music like Charlie.  But I bought an LP with his name on it in my early 20s and played it to death.  It was called Bird Symbols and he recorded the sides in 1947.  It’s called bebop music, and it broke the mould of jazz, which was in the late 30s & the war years, big-band swing music.  Young pups like Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and others reduced the band size down to five or six and stretched the possibilities of phrasing, rhythm, harmonics and even sound itself, producing a schism in the form which then divided fans, critics and musicians alike.  Louis Armstrong for example was not a fan of bebop.

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Charlie Parker playing his alto early 1940s

Jazz took the high road after this and exploded into a thousand different forms.  I knew nothing of this when I bought it, I just listened to a young man playing the alto saxophone and held my breath because what he was doing sounded impossible to play, and for me it still is.   There is something so totally confident here, so stretched and bold and strong that I cannot conceive of really being in that space.  The opening four tracks of the LP are perhaps his signature sides : Moose The Mooche, Yardbird Suite, Ornithology and A Night In Tunisia pretty much defined early bebop and Charlie Parker, the new demon of the alto sax.  They are strange twisted mad tunes, spinning on their axes, interrupted phrases leading to staggering solos, bewitching breathless runs like excited thought patterns as the instruments have conversations with each other, debating the tune, arguing its merits, raising objections, re-iterating the main melody again.  They are short explosions of music, all under three minutes long, all totally original, all thrilling. But for me they are all a little theoretical, perhaps too esoteric.  The energy is fantastic, the playing beyond impressive.  But they don’t make me swoon in the end.

Bird of Paradise is track seven, or track one of side two when you flipped the vinyl over.  It is a different beast altogether, slower, contemplative, sweet and gentle and it stole my heart. There is something about the way Parker plays the opening phrase, he kind of falls into it, blowing like he is simply breathing out, making each fluid cadence sound perfectly natural, using the final four bars to sum up a whole universe of feeling which doesn’t resolve but just opens the door for the trumpet (not Miles Davis on this track but Howard McGhee) before pianist Dod Marmarosa turns the beat upside down with a clever phrase that tickles my ears every time.   I don’t know how to describe perfection, especially not in jazz, but I have been obsessed with this tune since I first heard it.  I have never tried to play it, probably wisely.  But there’s still time.

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Charlie Parker watches Lester Young playing tenor

Charlie Parker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri.  Background notes : the local jazz scene had an R’n’B-influenced swing sound using blues shouters like Jimmy Rushing fronting Bennie Moten‘s Kansas City Orchestra.   When Bennie died in 1935, Count Basie formed his own band with some of the players, including Rushing, and innovative stylists Jo Jones on the drums (who started using the hi-hat to keep time rather than the bass drum) and tenor saxophone player Lester Young.  Young had a sweet sound when he was backing Teddy Wilson & Billie Holiday (My Pop Life #162) but when he played with Count Basie in Kansas City his long flowing melodic lines, ear-catching pauses and his harmonic & rhythmic daring caught the attention of the teenaged Parker, and every other saxophone player in America.   Parker played the Basie sides on his parent’s Victrola over and over again until he had learned every single Lester Young solo by heart.  That’s dedication and that’s what it takes to be a great player!  Various stories of his early life include getting lost in a solo and losing track of the key changes playing live in a jam session.  The drummer – Jo Jones – threw a cymbal at his feet to make him leave the stage but it only spurred him on – an incident grossly misrepresented in the film Whiplash by the way.

Charlie Parker was quoted as saying that he practised in those days up to 15 hours a day.

Not lazy, young Charles.

He was unfortunate though –  following a car accident when he was hospitalized and given morphine he discovered that he rather liked the feeling and sought it out in the form of heroin for the rest of his life.

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Early picture of Count Basie in New York City

Charlie Parker moved to New York City in 1939 and hooked up with Dizzy, a very young Miles Davis and heroin, and started to practice with bass player Gene Ramey, trying out harmonic innovations in his time off from the gigs he had with the Jay McShann Orchestra.  Other instrumentalists were doing similar things – Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Christian and Max Roach and others were all seeing what they could invent, imagining a different sound, then trying to find it.  Eventually a group of them moved to Los Angeles where these tracks were recorded in 1946.

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Charlie Parker

There is a good film about Charlie Parker called Bird, starring Forrest Whitaker and directed by jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood.  The talent of the man was immense but so was his appetite for being high.  That cat was high.  Personally speaking, if I even have a joint I find playing music rather more difficult.  Especially the piano.  What is that note?  A?  It all becomes rather vague.  And drink – well one is fine, perhaps another at the interval, but any more than that and I’m playing like a dick.   I’ve always maintained that there are two types of people in the world : People who maintain that there are two types of people in the world, and everyone else.  Not but seriously – those who seek oblivion, and those who fear oblivion.  I am of the latter persuasion, once I go over my limit, once I start to Lose Control, I stop.  I don’t want to wake up in the gutter with one shoe.  I don’t want to see what happens if we all go down to the pier and jump into the sea.  No.  I’m a control freak in that sense.  Maybe I’m missing the point but I cannot stand in the shoes of Charlie Parker and imagine what it was like to play those solos while high as a kite.  Envious ?  Sure, a little.  But I wouldn’t trade places with him I don’t think, even though I would say he is probably the greatest saxophone player I have ever heard.  I have other favourites – Lester Young for sure, Stan Getz every day, but Parker, when he IS high and he plays a ballad like Just Friends for example from his ‘sax plus strings‘ era on Verve Records, or like this tune Bird of Paradise, well, there simply is no one finer.  Listen to him here and melt.

 

an incredible stoned version from 1947 called All The Things You Are with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach.  It’s the same tune.

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My Pop Life #133 : Sun King – The Beatles

Sun King   – The Beatles

Questo obrigado tanto mucho cake and eat it carousel

After 18 long and eventful months after being asked by John Lennon to imagine there’s no heaven I dropped my first acid trip.  It was the beginning of summer 1973.   School had almost broken up and the fifth form was abuzz with the plans.  We’d all completed our O Level examinations at Lewes Priory and there was a sense of freedom in the air.  Most of us would stay on for the sixth form, not all.    Before the summer holidays started, Tat’s girlfriend, the mysterious gypsy-eyed Elvira, invited what felt like the entire school to her house in Ashdown Forest for a midsummer night’s dream.  We travelled by bus then walked.  It was balmy and dry.  We were stoned and happy.   I travelled with Simon Korner I think.  Also present were Conrad Ryle, Pete Smurthwaite, Patrick Freyne, Chris Clarke, Martin Elkins, John Foreman, Adrian Birch, Andy Holmes and some older kids.  We lay around on the vast lawn of Elvira’s parents’ house.  Presumably they were away, but they may not have been.  A large set of speakers on the terrace blasted out The Beatles’ final album Abbey Road.  It was everyone’s favourite LP.  It seemed like an impossible piece of confectionary that went on forever and had the most satisfying last piece.  It still feels like that to me.  It has been varnished by time into a shiny antique pop marvel, but at the age of sixteen it was just 4 years old, and already a classic, an album for the ages. It was perfectly natural to be selected to play as the sun went down over a raggle-taggle gang of groovy student wannabees smoking dope and nodding wisely at each other’s amusing observations.  It was uncontroversial and universally admired by the cognoscenti.

The Beatles : Abbey Road

Elvira and Tat were like the alternative hippy royal couple that summer.  They both had curtains of long hair, flared jeans and embroidered tops.  They should have been on an album cover.  Elvira wore dark kohl eye make-up and flowing beaded skirts and she looked at everyone with witchy suspicion and a twinkle.  Her party was guaranteed to be a hit.  Tat – or Andrew Taylor – played guitar in the band Rough Justice (see My Pop Life #80) and wrote songs, had a sweet easy-going nature, a dry and pleasantly absurdist sense of humour, laughed easily and was slow to anger.  He’d become a closer friend of mine when he introduced me to his favourite band Gentle Giant, (for another post naturally).   He lived with his parents on South Street in Lewes, under the chalk drop of The Cliffe and the Golf Course which would be the location for our second acid trip.  Elvira was mysterious to me yet friendly, I can’t remember having a conversation much longer than a minute with her.  Who were her parents?   We didn’t talk to each other’s girlfriends much to be honest.  She was Tat’s girl.

There must have been food at the party but I can’t remember it.  Perhaps a barbecue.  The sun was starting to set.  We drank cider and lager.  Wine. Then the acid was handed out.  Tiny black microdots of  LSD.  We all took one and swallowed.  “It will last twelve hours” someone said.   Perhaps Space Oddity was playing…Memory Of A Free Festival

“the sun machine is going down and we’re gonna have a party…”

Before the light disappeared completely we all walked into the forest.  About a 20-minute walk ?  I do remember that Patrick still hadn’t arrived and we wondered how he would find us.   He did.  We found a small clearing, a small stream, a few rocks amid the trees and made a base camp.  Something weird was happening.  I felt nervous.  I looked around.  Someone winked.   Someone laughed.  It echoed with a ghoulish chuckle.   Shit – what?    A host of golden daffodils were flowering inside my stomach up through my veins through my fingertips, an unmistakeable rush of gold surged through my nerves, my skin, my eyes, like a huge chord with an impossibly large number of notes swelling lifting quivering getting louder and louder like a motorbike coming straight towards me.  Rather like falling off the top of a fairground ride with no brakes or a bunjee jump, except going upwards.  Can be fun.

here comes the sun king?

It’s entirely possible that not everyone was tripping, that we had a guide vocal, but I can’t remember who it was, even if I knew at the time.  Later on, in subsequent acid adventures we always used to have a guide on hand to hold our hand in case things went weird.  When things went weird.

because,

well,

they always did.

But not this time.  This being my first trip I didn’t know what to expect but I wanted hallucinations mainly.   I remember laying down on the rock in the stream to get a stereo effect of running water.  I remember looking at the trees dancing at dawn for about an hour, their branches wavering together in choreographed vibrations.  I remember staring at my hand for about an hour.  My eyes couldn’t focus properly for hours.

everybody’s laughing

       I remember laughing a lot with Conrad, Pete, John, Simon and Patrick.

everybody’s happy

It felt safe.   We smoked and drank.

Here comes the Sun King

There was undoubtedly speed in the acid which kept us keen.

Quando paramucho mi amore de felice corazón

It wasn’t cold, and we had sleeping bags and coats.   I can’t remember any music, amazingly.

Mundo papparazzi mi amore chicka ferdy parasol

Just the wind in the trees, the stream, the birds, the snatches of conversation.

Questo obrigado tanta mucho cake and eat it carousel*

 It didn’t change my life.  But I would do it again, and I did.

Sun King, like most of Abbey Road, is inspired by the music of the late 60s.  The Beatles had their ears open for the people around them, and this song is inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross with its heavy dreamy guitars.  Lennon put the chords together and he and McCartney added the nonsense lyrics at the end.  It is the second song on the medley which completes side 2 of the band’s last LP.  The story goes that Paul McCartney, keen to leave the legacy on a high, spent hours in Abbey Road studios with producer George Martin polishing and reworking the “Huge Medley”as it was known on the tapes and later bootlegs.  But the studio out-takes, some of which are available on Youtube, show a band working together to learn each other’s songs, as they had been doing for years. Both versions are probably true.  The Huge Medley,  almost all ‘Paul songs’, opens with You Never Give Me Your Money the song about the break-up of the band, and what Ian MacDonald (in the magisterial Revolution In The Head) called “the beginning of McCartney’s solo career”. It contains the immortal harmony and lyric

Oh that magic feeling : nowhere to go

and the song finishes with a spiralling guitar lift into

one sweet dream

and the three chords:   C   G/B   A  which will return at the end of the Huge Medley for the finale, but this time we have a whispered

one two three four five six seven, all good children go to heaven

and a bluesy guitar solo fades slowly into the faint sounds of an organ and bells, gongs and cicadas, a lush exotic other-worldly sound which ushers in the lazy guitar shape inspired by Peter Green and Albatross and played by George Harrison.  Sun King is a minor John Lennon song which can’t be imagined outside of the context of the Huge Medley, but which is quite magical inside it, especially the G 11th chord which bridges the E major section and the C major section – very lush, very Beach Boys.

The song ends abruptly and punches into Mean Mr Mustard, another Lennon snippet which wouldn’t stand on its own as a single or album track, but which gives the Huge Medley its charm and delight and keeps us interested and entertained.

When The Brighton Beach Boys chose to perform Abbey Road live at the Brighton Festival in 2011, Sun King presented a variety of tricky problems and we spent a fair amount of time on the 2 minutes and 26 seconds of this song, not least the vocal harmonies, particularly that G 11th chord on 52 seconds.  I actually bought a small gong which played a shimmering E from the percussion shop Adaptatrap on Trafalgar Street where I used to get the kazoos for Lovely Rita and bought the tambourine for Polythene Pam.  Good shop.  Since The Beatles are largely unrepresented in their original form on youtube I will post a version of  by the Fab Faux who are the best Beatles tribute band out there I believe, having not just the accurate notes and tempos but the feel too.  Tribute bands, so low in status, will be the classical music players of late-20th century pop in the future.  We always played in black suits for that reason.

It wasn’t the most difficult song on the album, but it was close.  But for me it’s less about the song, more about the feeling and the memory.  I can’t remember how we got home from Ashdown Forest that midsummer night’s morning, but Andy Holmes remembers a group singalong of Here Comes The Sun at 5am.   I suspect I caught a bus in Uckfield and ended up in Kingston with Conrad Ryle and his family.  Buzzing faintly, getting shivery electric echoes of the vision interference.  Strange taste in my mouth.  Slept all day Sunday.   Was this the same Uckfield bus trip that Simon Korner and Patrick Freyne took, or were they on the bus in front ?  They were threatened by a man with a large head, a kind of combine harvester of a neanderthal, who, taking exception to their stoned and strung out giggling, told them that: “If you don’t shut up, You’re Gonna Die.  BY ME.

The following acid trips wouldn’t be quite so simple.

Questo obrigado tanta mucho cake and eat it carousel*

*lyrics websites hilariously have this as “Que Canite” rather than “cake and eat it”…

My Pop Life #126 : Blue Monday – Fats Domino

Saturday mornin’, oh saturday mornin’ all my tiredness has gone away

got my money and my honey & we’re out on the stand to play…

 When Jenny and I finally got married on July 25th 1992 we did it in style.  We did it in the way we wanted to.  We’d postponed the original date (see My Pop Life #20) and waited a year or two then walked up the aisle eventually in 1992.   Our perfect wedding consisted of : a gold wedding dress for Jenny;  a bootlace tie for me;  a choir composed of our friends to sing things to us (see My Pop Life 56);  a wedding reception where someone played Chopin and where we both made speeches;   a party in the evening where we could invite EVERYONE;  a wedding band which played at the party that we could both play in.  For starters.  We planned every detail.  Some people don’t do this obviously – some people run away to Las Vegas, or in Dee’s case, Grenada.   Yes, Jenny’s oldest sister Dee flew to New York and thence to Grenada to marry Mick Stock (Jamie and Jordan’s dad) and made Jenny’s mum Esther furious for denying her a wedding.  We included Esther in our wedding – it was about 18 months of serious hard-nosed negotiation, mainly by Jenny.   OK, all by Jenny.

              

         Stephen Warbeck                                     Joe Korner

      

                       Simon Korner                                     Andrew Ranken

The wedding band was made of people I’d gone to school with and played in bands with, almost exclusively.  Andrew Taylor “Tat”on guitar, from school band Rough Justice (see My Pop Life #80);   Joe Korner on keyboards/piano from art-rock band Birds Of Tin (haven’t written about them yet);    Patrick Freyne on drums also from an early incarnation of Birds Of Tin;   Simon Korner my oldest and best friend on bass guitar – rather remarkably I’d never played in a band with him before so we were making up for lost time;   Andrew Ranken on vocals who had gone out with Simon’s sister Deborah Korner for years through school and beyond before Deborah had a baby boy and then tragically and awfully died shortly afterwards of an aneurysm in 1991.   The shadow of that death was still cast over our wedding quite naturally.  Andrew and Patrick had both been excellent drummers at Priory School in Lewes, (as had Pete Thomas) and they had performed a memorable drum battle on the school playing fields one summers day in 1974.   Pete Thomas went on to join The Attractions in 1977 and has been playing with Elvis Costello ever since off and on, while Andrew  joined The Pogues in 1983 and had recorded five LPs with them by the time of our wedding.  I’d seen them live many times with Simon and Joe.  He brought multi-instrumentalist and good bloke Jem Finer, co-writer of Fairytale in New York with him into the wedding band on saxophone alongside myself.

James Fearnley,  Jem Finer,  Andrew Ranken,  Spider Stacey,            Shane McGowan, Cait O’Riordan early 1980s

Stephen Wood, close friend of Andrew who also went to Priory played accordion and went on to change his name to ‘Oscar-winning composer ‘ Stephen Warbeck (for Shakespeare In Love).   On the night of the wedding a third sax player called Chris turned up and played tenor.  He was good, but he needed to be because he hadn’t been to any rehearsals.   Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules was on backing vocals with Jenny herself alongside our good friend Maureen Hibbert.  They looked like The Supremes or The Emotions ie : great.  And they could all sing.  It was a good wee band.

The Mysterious Wheels

Andrew, Simon and Joe are still playing together in that band, now called Andrew Ranken & The Mysterious Wheels.  Catch them live in London!

We rehearsed in IGA Studios as I recall, close to Mount Pleasant Post Office in WC2.   The early discussions about a setlist were interesting since they mainly consisted of Andrew casting a veto over any song which he didn’t fancy singing – which was most of the songs that we wanted at our wedding.  Oh well.  The only exception was Try A Little Tenderness which we had lined up for Lucy, who has an exceptional voice, but that’s for another post.  In the end our setlist was based on Andrew’s tried and tested setlist emanating from the great city of New Orleans and primarily songs written or performed by the great Smiley Lewis:  One Night, I Hear You Knocking, Dirty People and Blue Monday.   I knew Smiley Lewis – I’d bought the above-pictured CD in the mid-80s, it is Fantastic.  One of the inventors of rock and roll or R’n’B as we knew it.  (They’re very close.)  All songs made famous by other players – One Night by Elvis, I Hear You Knocking by Fats Domino and Dave Edmunds, Dirty People by Omar & The Howlers.  Who?   I also owned Fats Domino’s greatest hits from way back in the late 70s and considered him to be a genius.   Fats covered all these songs.  We also threw in Robert Parker’s Barefootin’, Chuck Berry’s Nadine, Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene, Dr John’s version of Junco Partner,  and Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee and Lawdy Miss Clawdy (I think!).

Andrew had played in Lewes band The Grobs when Simon and I, Tat and Joe and Patrick and Stephen were at Priory School.  He’d always been cooler than us.  One year older is a long time when you’re sixteen.  I’m not sure when he settled on New Orleans as the source of his live act, but it is definitely a sign of muso grooviness, like a faintly secret musical society.  Everyone knows Motown, most people know Philly, some know Stax but who knows Imperial Records or Specialty  Records from Louisiana ?  The sound of New Orleans is different from everywhere else in the States in that most songs will be piano-based rather than guitar.  This rolling style exemplified by Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Dr John gives all these records their own unique flavour, my own personal favourite style of boogie-woogie rhythm and blues.  Andrew Ranken, in short, was right.  Perhaps The Pogues, a punk-flavoured London Irish band led by the inimitable Shane McGowan had formed an attachment to the city when they’d passed through.  Original member Spider Stacey now lives there with his wife, having worked on a couple of episodes of that great TV showcase for the city Treme.

Fats Domino 1956

Almost all of these chosen wedding night songs were born in New Orleans.  Days after the wedding night, in a completely star-crossed, fortuitous and magical co-incidence,  Jenny and I were drinking our way around the Crescent City on our first honeymoon, courtesy of MGM Studios who had employed me to act in their film Undercover Blues alongside Fiona Shaw, Dennis Quaid, Kathleen Turner and Stanley Tucci.   For another post !

New Orleans is where jazz was born in those days before recording was invented.  Instruments abandoned by the marching bands of the Confederate army after the Civil War ended in 1965 were currency in New Orleans where whites and blacks mixed more than they did elsewhere in the segregated south, giving rise to a creole property-owning middle class in the late 1890s when the riverboats would steam up the Mississippi and gamblers, hucksters and nascent capitalists rubbed shoulders in the gin-joints and speakeasys of The French Quarter where Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton could be found forging the music of the 20th century.   It became known as Music City long before Nashville stole that crown.  There are blues joints and hops all over town, some of them such as Tipitina’s legendary.   By the mid-forties the blues had acquired a bit of bounce and this is where Smiley Lewis comes in.   A rural Louisianan who hopped a tramcar to N’Awlins after his mother died, he hooked up with bandleader and key figure Dave Bartholomew, and cut Dave’s song Blue Monday.

It’s a Monday to Friday song,  some of my favourite songs have this structure : Friday On My Mind by The Easybeats, Diary of Horace Wimp by ELO.  Solomon Grundy springs to mind :

Solomon Grundy,

Born on a Monday,

Christened on Tuesday,

Married on Wednesday,

Took ill on Thursday,

Worse on Friday,

Died on Saturday,

Buried on Sunday,

That was the end, of Solomon Grundy

A nursery rhyme ‘collected’ in the 1840s.   Bartholomew’s song was re-recorded by Fats Domino two years later and became a huge hit in 1956, the year that I was conceived.  Smiley Lewis’ biggest hit was I Hear You Knocking but again Fats’ version of that also outsold it by hundreds of thousands.  Smiley Lewis didn’t have no luck.

Our version of Blue Monday featured a crappish saxophone solo by me and a wonderful chorus of the girls singing “Saturday morning oooh Saturday morning…” as they swayed in the breeze at the microphone.  I remember watching our friends Conrad and Gaynor dancing, and others too.  Jenny’s primary memory of the gig is Stephen Wood’s leather sandal beating time into a puddle of beer as he squeezed that accordion.

The wedding party itself was at The Diorama near Regent’s Park, and was brilliantly stage-managed by blessed Neil Cooper may his soul rest in peace.  We had an open parachute suspended from the ceiling above the dance floor.  Flowers everywhere.  The band went on at around ten-thirty I think.  It was nerve-wracking, but no more so than standing in a church in front of everyone and saying your vows.  I tried to enjoy it, and some of the time I did.  I’m really really glad we did it.  I remember standing round in the Diorama earlier in the evening in my brand new blue suit from Paul Smith gnashing my teeth at the non-arrival of Jenny’s brother Jon who was doing the DJ-ing at the party (he never did show up) and playing Songs In The Key Of Life as people arrived and overhearing two people standing in front of me – the light was low and there were hundreds of people there – discussing the event… “I heard The Pogues are playing later…”  “No…!

The Pogues

Well two of them were.  My main confession concerns the song itself.  I always thought that the Sunday section was “Sunday morning my head is bare, but it’s worth it for the times that I’ve had” but apparently that’s a mis-hearing.  I’m imagining Fats Domino or Smiley Lewis in church on Sunday morning with bare head.  But apparently all the lyric sites quote “Sunday morning my head is bad…”  Make up your own mind dear reader.

Fats Domino himself is simply a legend.  One of the primary forces behind the birth of rock’n’roll he is remarkably still alive, as are Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard from that era.  Three of the group are pianists.  Fats still lives in the 9th Ward in New Orleans and he went missing after deadly Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as did many people including Allen Toussaint.  But he surfaced a few days later.  One of my favourite Fats Domino stories involves boogie-woogie ivory basher Jools Holland who was making a documentary and was visiting his house.  “Good morning“said Jools in his scrawny Lewisham gobshite accent, “We’re here from the BBC making a documentary about pianists and we’re very pleased to include your good self“.  Fats blinked and stared.  “What’d he say?” Fats eventually asked.  Jools repeated his sentence probably slightly slower to no effect.  They all stood there looking at each other.  Eventually Jools sat down at the grand piano and played the intro to Blue Monday.  Fats broke out in a big grin and shook his hand : “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but if you can play that tune, you can stay

Blue Monday was my favourite of the wedding band songs I think.  It’s a great great song.  Still in the Ralph & Jenny playlist.  Enjoy.

My Pop Life #80 : Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley

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Heartbreak Hotel   –   Elvis Presley

the bell-hop’s tears keep flowing and the desk clerk’s dressed in black

They been so long on lonely street they never can go back

and they’ve been, they been so lonely baby, they been so lonely

they been so lonely they could die…

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By the time I was 16 I had learnt the rudimentals of the saxophone, I could play a tune, I could ‘tongue’ the notes, bend the notes and more or less join in with a jam.  I could only play in a handful of keys though.  And better jokes were to come.  When I joined school band Rough Justice – my friend’s band which starred Conrad Ryle, Andrew ‘Tat’ Taylor, Andy Shand and Tigger on the drums – it was as a saxophone player.   I arrived at Waterlilies in Kingston village, sax in hand, having hitch-hiked from Hailsham, sat down, had a cup of tea, perhaps a joint was smoked,  knelt down and opened my sax case, red-velvet-lined, the horn came in various parts which had to be slotted together, then a reed selected and placed onto the mouthpiece (Selmer C) and tightened, a sling around my neck and we were off.  Give us an E said Tat.  I blew a nice clear bell-like E.   Wow that’s high.  All the guitarists tightened their strings to the right pitch.  Saxophones cannot be tuned (much*) so the more flexible instruments – the guitars, including the bass, must be.   I can’t remember how many rehearsals this went on for, but at every rehearsal someone – often two people – broke strings.   Then one day, weeks later, possibly months later, someone – who knows – maybe it was me, perhaps Andy played an E on the piano out of curiosity.  Clearly none of us had perfect pitch !     It was lower than my E.  Way lower.  It was my C# in fact.  I consulted my book “How To Play The Saxophone”.    I had an Eb Boosey & Hawkes alto.   I don’t actually know what this means even today, but I think it means that it is pitched 3 semitones above middle C – ie Eb.   What this meant for my bandmate’s guitar strings, not to mention their fingers, was that when they asked me for an E, I was giving them a G !!!  No wonder strings broke – three semitones higher than concert pitch, I got blisters on ma fingers !   I felt stupid, humiliated even, but they were all relieved.   Next time someone asked me for an E, I blew a C# and we were all sweet. *

*Muso’s note – to tune a saxophone you must move the mouthpiece up & down the cork.

– After a few more rehearsals it became evident that no one wanted to sing.   No one.   So guess who volunteered.   I’ll give it a go.   Someone who would become an actor one day.  Now, this meant learning the words to the songs which Tat and Conrad – or Crod as we all called him in those days – had written, among which were Tat’s song Muster Muster Monsters which required a kind of Vincent Price delivery, and Crod’s song about Mevagissey in Cornwall where he’d been on holiday camping with Spark and Fore and possibly Martin Elkins (“wake up with the sun run down to the sea…”), which was a basic pop vocal.  More tricky though were the choice of covers – basic 12-bar rock songs which the nascent guitar players could play with confidence – and which included THREE Status Quo songs and THREE Elvis Presley songs and Birthday by the Beatles from the White Album.  I’ll discuss the Quo in greater depth another time, for I ended up meeting them years later, (see My Pop Life #172) but this seems like a great opportunity to put Elvis into my pop life.  Aged 16/17 I sang 3 Elvis songs, kind of unaware of his legendary status, he was just a good rockin’ boy to us East Sussex lads.   I wasn’t overawed like I would be now if I sang an Elvis song.   It was just rock’n’roll.   But the songs were 15 years old even then in 1973.

Most of the Rough Justice set were rockers, so true to form I’ve picked the ballad to represent.  It was the hardest song to sing with the exception of “Birthday” which is a scream-fest.  Two of us sang that I think.  We would perform at Kingston Village Hall, Grange Gardens for some private party, Lewes Priory school dance, not that many actual gigs.  The gigs were good, but my main memory is Crod’s bedroom, amps and speakers, fags, instruments including Crod’s homemade lemon-yellow electric guitar, carved from some tree and wired up by hand.  In my recall it went out of tune on a regular basis, but Crod didn’t seem to mind.  In fact Conrad didn’t seem to mind about much it seemed to me.  He had a gentle giant atmosphere around him, smiled a lot, was very forgiving and understanding, had a good left foot on the football pitch, came to the Albion with his brother Martin or with us, enjoyed a pint of cider and a smoke of weed, is a committed socialist even now and still lives in Lewes with his wife Gaynor Hartnell.  Lovely people whom I see all too infrequently.  Along with Simon Korner I would say he was my best friend at Lewes, since I had spent so much time with both of those families as my own family slowly disintegrated amid dysfunction and doctors and drugs.  They’d both reached out a hand and invited me into their homes.  They’d saved my sanity and my future probably.  I cannot really measure it, but I will always acknowledge it.

We had fun with Crod one day – me, Spark, Fore, Martin, Tat.  Crod fell asleep early one night.  Too early.  Wankered on cider.  Someone wondered aloud whether we should lift his entire bed with him in it outside and place it carefully in the garden, without waking him up.  Much laughter.  I think we tried it.   Of course the bed wouldn’t fit through the door.  So we settled for completely re-arranging his bedroom, moved the bed to the opposite wall, moved the bookcase and wardrobe and amps and speakers.  Then we fell asleep too.   Hadn’t worked that out – that we’d have to stay awake all night to get the juicy climax to our prank.  Then someone woke Crod up to get the joke.  He looked blearily around, said “oh you’ve moved the room around” then fell asleep again.

Matthew Wimbourne would turn up to Rough Justice rehearsals too.   He was younger than us and smaller too.   Wispy beard-hairs and glasses, hippy scarves.   Carried a set of bongos.  Sat on the floor and played along without ever really being heard.   I hope he had fun.   Tigger the drummer didn’t go to our school.  He looked a bit like a kid from fame, mullet and all.   We made a logo for his bass drum.  It said Rough Justice round the rim and had a hangman’s noose in the centre.  We wore whatever we wanted on stage which was mainly denim, although Crod had some interesting shapeless clothes, and I had my Mum’s pink blouse (glamrock!!) and a pair of stripéd pants (see MacArthur’s Park! My Pop Life #216) that were red, blue and yellow and a pair of wedge-sole AND wedge-heel shoes.  I thought I was in The Sweet !!  Singing Elvis and Quo !!!  hahahahahahahaaaaaaa…

Featured imageAs for Heartbreak Hotel, it’s quite a song.  I think people used to dance even when we played it.   It was Elvis Presley‘s first million-selling single.   Not the first thing he recorded, by any means – he walked into Sun Records in Memphis aged 18 and recorded That’s All Right Mama for producer Sam Phillips which is totally fantastic, as are all the sides he cut for Sun Records.  But once he got signed by RCA Records who bought out his Sun contract thanks to new manager “Colonel” Tom Parker, the sky was the limit.  In essence they tried to bottle the lightning of those first magical two years.  And, sadly, they did.  Bottled it, labelled it, mass-produced it, gave it a haircut and sent it to the army.  They couldn’t quite smooth out all of the rough edges but near as dammit that’s exactly what happened to Elvis.  The famous episodes of him being shot on TV only from the waist up were a real threat, not a joke – a white man dancing and singing like a negro, mixing black and white music with ease, conquering both with charm, rockabilly and sex.

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He was a powerful dangerous young man in the mid-fifties, and those first two years at Sun Records are the best of Elvis.  Not to say that the other stuff is bad – hardly that – and I have favourite Elvis songs from every period of his life.  In The Ghetto.  Are You Lonesome Tonight?   I Just Can’t Help Believin’.  Lawdy Miss Clawdy from the comeback gig.  There are two wonderful books that have all the details, all the gossip and all of the stuff you need.  Peter Guralnick wrote both – Last Train To Memphis goes up to the army, Careless Love takes it from there.  Highly recommended.

I visited Graceland in Memphis in 1989 on my way out to Dallas delivering a car for Auto-Driveaway.  Really that’s for another post, but Graceland is everything you want it to be.

In other news Kenneth Cranham (see My Pop Life #6 and My Pop Life #46) or Uncle Ken had thrust a pair of C90s into my grubby little paws one night entirely made up of original material covered by Elvis, followed by Elvis’ version.  In pretty much every respect the Elvis versions are better.  And of course they were huge hits too.  Parker and Elvis demanded half of the publishing for any song they covered, and most writers (though not Dolly Parton) agreed.

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I knew very very little of this in 1974.   Just as well I think.   I was an innocent singing rock songs for kids to dance to.    I didn’t want to be stepping into a legend’s shoes.

Featured imageAnd yes, the legend of Elvis would flourish and bloom in later years and become a kind of religious touchstone and a musical crossroads too.    There’s so much myth and bullshit written and spoken about Elvis.   I’ve heard tons of it.   Make up your own mind.   Did you know, for instance, that Elvis used to wear eye make-up in the early 50s?   There’s some amazing photos of him back then, on the cusp of his power, under arrest for an assault.   He was a tornado.    I’ve spoken about my conversation with Bristol trip-hop pioneer Tricky (My Pop Life #61) regarding the Public Enemy “Elvis was a hero to most…” lines on Fight The Power.   But whatever, he was one of the original rebels.   A white working class kid in Memphis singing black music in 1953.   He was it.    There’s two clips below, the original single from 1956, the young man aged 21 making his first million dollars, below that the ’68 comeback gig in Las Vegas where he appears to be taking the mickey out of himself and his schtick.  He was a complex man in some ways, a very simple man in others.  I’ve got a lot of time for Elvis.

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and live at the comeback gig in Vegas ’68 :

My Pop Life #78 : Then Came The Last Days Of May – Blue Öyster Cult

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Then Came The Last Days Of May   –   Blue Öyster Cult

They’re OK, the last days of May, but I’ll be breathing dry air

I’m leaving soon, the others are already there

You wouldn’t be interested in coming along ?  Instead of staying here…

It’s said the west is nice this time of year, it’s what they say…

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One of the towering theme songs of my adolescence, Blue Öyster Cult‘s Then Came The Last Days Of May seems an appropriate choice on May 31 2015 as I write this blog at 5.00am.  Evocative, stirring, tragic and beautiful, it is the last track on BÖC’s first self-titled LP.   I carried this LP around the competitive corridors of the Lower Sixth when taste began to carve out the cliques.  New kid Andy Shand had introduced Andy Holmes (“Sherlock”) to the Cult as he was a Seaford clan member, taking the train into Lewes for school.  Andy Shand was also the bass player in Rough Justice, the band I had joined who rehearsed at Waterlilies, Conrad Ryle‘s place in Kingston.   I’ll save the mighty Rough Justice for another post, but suffice it to say that Andy Shand (he never did have a nickname) and I were so enamoured of this LP that we included a section of “Before The Kiss, A Redcap” (at 1.39 it’s a bass riff naturally enough) in a Rough Justice song that had a nice indulgent instrumental middle section (and also featured the riff from You Really Got Me), which I think guitarist Andrew Taylor (Tat – ) had suggested, with Conrad’s approval.

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We all walked around school with little badges on, the cross and hook symbol that the band used on all their LPs – there were 3 LPs out already in 1974 – in Greek mythology the sign of Kronus, King of Titan and Father of Zeus – and furthermore, symbol of the chemical element for lead, the heaviest of metals.  For Blue Öyster Cult were a very streamlined and polished heavy metal band, one of the first.    They were the first band to use an umlaut (ö) over one of the letters in their name (Motörhead, Queensrÿche, Mötley Crüe would follow) – and as any German speaker or Arsenal fan would know, an umlaut changes an Oh into an Er.  Özil – the German international World Cup winner who currently plays for the Arsenal and won the FA Cup yesterday v Aston Villa – is pronounced Erzil.   But at school we never went around saying Blue Erster Cult.  Sounds stupid right?   Manager Sandy Pearlman came up with the name, thought it conjured up Wagner.   What it all meant was that we thought we were the grooviest kids in the school, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.   We were pretentious twerps.   But the band was undoubtedly great, and many many years later, the records still hold up as crisp riff-laden metallic shiny rock craftsmanship.  Really metal is not my thing – nor is rock – I never took a shine to Deep Purple (except for the incredible Fireball) or Black Sabbath, and the bluesey side of guitar rock never grabbed me much either (Stones, Zepp, Free etc).  I was a pop tart awaiting my conversion to soul and dub reggae.  And hip hop.  But these days I can listen to anything and find joy in it – classical, country, metal, folk, electro-pop, balkan gypsy, trad jazz, disco, soukous, mbaquanga, samba, salsa, son.  Bring me your music !

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This song is tragically a true story.   Then Came The Last Days Of May was written by lead guitarist Donald Roeser – known as Buck Dharma – it tells the tale of a group of lads going west to score a huge dope deal, : “each one had the money in his pocket to go out and buy himself a brand new car”  crossing the border to Mexico in a rented Ford and being murdered for their money.   The tragedy is played out in the guitar solos which open and close the song, and comment on the story throughout.   The playing is impeccable, the song immense.   Of course, being the only ballad on that great first LP, it’s the one I hold dearest to my heart.  You should know me by now !    It still plays a part in the band’s live shows today.   We worshipped at the altar of this song in the mid-seventies.  Like a biblical tale of temptation in the desert and the one who turned down the chance to go with them, and survived to write a song about it.    The rest of the band – the classic 70s line-up – were Eric Bloom on lead vocals, brothers Albert and Joe Bouchard on drums and bass, and Allen Lanier on rhythm guitar.

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They hailed from Long Island and had a long gestation – from The Soft White Underbelly in the late 60s through The Stalk Forrest Group who issued one sought-after single What Is Quicksand? (which of course I have) before settling at Pearlman’s insistence on Blue Öyster Cult.   The name stuck and so did the music.

Their 2nd LP is called Tyranny and Mutation and is more of the same tight dark melodic tremendosity:

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Their 3rd LP is probably my favourite – Secret Treaties – a proto-metal manifesto with strange lyrics and twisted muscular riffs :

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Their 4th LP was a mighty live album called On Your Feet Or On Your Knees which is a stunning testimony to their tightness and power:

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then came the mighty Agents Of Fortune in 1976 with the huge sound and big hit “Don’t Fear The Reaper“.   One of Jenny’s favourite songs.   Rifftastic!

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I’ve never seen them live, but one day perhaps I will be granted that treat.  There was a period when they were my absolute favourite band in the universe.  I still like them.  But I didn’t follow their followers into metal – although I have soft spots for Metallica and Slipknot – most of those bands don’t have the softer melodic side that the Cult have.   They wrote great songs.  I followed them through albums 5 and 6 :  Spectres and Mirrors and then they faded as I grew into Stax and Channel One, DefJam and Blue Note.

This time of year is my favourite.  We’ve already moved into Gemini, my sign but we’re not quite in June.   They’re OK the last days of May.   Hats off to Blue Öyster Cult.

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guitarmy

My Pop Life #70 : Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love) – The Stylistics

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Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)   –   The Stylistics

…If I had money I’d go wild buy you furs dress you like a queen
And in a chauffered limousine
We’d look so fine.
But I’m an ordinary guy and my pockets are empty
Just an ordinary guy
But I’m yours till I die…

In July 1975 I hitch-hiked to Hungary with my friend Martin Cooper.  In our last year at Lewes Priory he’d been Head Boy, and I’d been Deputy Head Boy, voted by the students of the sixth form.  This really only meant that every now and then we had a meeting with the headmistress about things that have entirely slipped my memory, but probably involved social events and smoking in the toilets.  An honorary title really, but there was a channel open at least.  Martin was a carrot-topped football fanatic and we would often go to the Goldstone Ground together to see Brighton & Hove Albion playing in League Division 3 against the likes of Preston North End, Gillingham and Aldershot.  We’d finished 19th that season.  Coops was also captain of the school football team, being the son of a vicar and a sensible sort of chap, head boy and all that.  We played on Saturday mornings – Coop was in midfield and I played centre forward in that last season at school.  I did about three good things over the course of the season in my recall.   I may be placing this event in the wrong year – but for some reason – perhaps because his reasonableness was in fact a curse – Martin Cooper put his foot through a train window one day and severed his achilles tendon.  To say we were all shocked is an understatement.  Completely out of character and rather more violent than anyone else in the school would have managed, even under stress.  He spent a few months hobbling around in plaster poor chap, and John Trower, star of the javelin,  took on the captain’s mantle, and the sexiest girl in the school Sarah-Jane.

I’d got a job at Sussex University for a few weeks and stayed at Waterlilies in Kingston at Rosemary Ryle‘s insistence, despite her daughter Miriam having finished with me.   I had my own room (see My Pop Life #47).    I think Rough Justice, the band I played in with Conrad Ryle and Tat and Andy Shand played one last gig at school but were somewhat upstaged by a new band from the lower 6th who covered Jo Jo Gunne’s Run Run Run rather impressively.

And as The Stylistics started to climb the charts with this magnificent single, Coops and I started our thumbs-only journey through Europe.   The first part was easy – ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe.   We had a two-man tent and erected it somewhere or other that night.  I cannot really remember the French section of the journey, but we got to Grenoble on day three amidst stunning Alpine pastures.  Thence through the Great St Bernard Tunnel to Italy and the Aosta Valley, then right across North Italy.  We ended up in a small car with a funny old bloke who only said one word to us : “Udine“.  Ooh-Dinn-Ay.  We checked on the map and there it was just north of Trieste.  After a frankly bizarre lift where the little man kept saying Udine every five minutes we got out and pitched the tent on the Trieste road.  Next day we got as far as Ljubljana in western Yugoslavia which felt pretty foreign, (very pretty, very foreign), and so we stayed a couple of days in the Youth Hostel.   Nice place.  Next up was Zagreb which we skimmed and then headed north for the Hungarian border which we reached at about 6pm.  There was a little cafe just before the border post, so we went in and had some food.

The locals were aghast.  We were going to Hungary ?  Alarmed looks all round, heads shaking, pitying glances !  They insisted on buying us a farewell drink each – our last taste of freedom I believe it was called, except that it wasn’t our last – there were about three more.  Each.  As dusk fell we staggered under the sudden weight of our rucksacks and with the waves of our new comrades ringing in our ears, walked in a drunken manner to the border post, showed our visas and stepped over the Iron Curtain.

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Now what?  We knew there was a campsite about ten miles up the road.  How we knew this I have absolutely no idea but pre-internet it actually was possible to discover things you didn’t know.   We stood there and hitched as cars drove past us, then started walking as the light faded.  Before ten minutes had passed a huge army truck stopped just in front of us, full of soldiers.  The Hungarian Red Army.  Now bloody what.  We’d been intrepid to plan the trip and then we’d actually got there, had no idea what to expect.  Hungarian words v English words.  Soldiers.  Sixth formers.  There was only one word that all of us, me Coops and the soldiers all knew.  “Camping”.   Nods.  They gave us seats in the back of the truck with them and drove us to the campsite.  I think we managed to share the simple fact that we were English, on holiday, but I’m not sure they understood the holiday bit.   When we pulled into the darkened campsite, they took our rucksacks from us, unpacked the tent and proceeded with military efficiency to erect it there and then, shook our hands and jumped back in the truck, headlights disappearing into the night.  We looked at our little tent and thought: “Bloody communists“.

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No of course we didn’t.   We thought “Welcome to Communist Eastern Europe”   The next day, with a Yugoslav liquor hangover, we hitched to Lake Balaton and met some East German girls in the youth hostel.   Detente.  Stayed a few days in that beautiful part of Europe, and thence to Budapest where our A-levels results were going to be posted in a few days time.

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We ate in restaurants with live bands playing Hungarian folk music, using an instrument I’d never seen before called a cymbalom which is like a stringed vibraphone-type thing, or perhaps a piano on it’s side played with padded sticks;  alongside violins, cellos, bagpipes.  Then a huge display on weaponry along the Danube one day, with red flags alongside every Hungarian red white & green flag – gunboats, a flotilla bristling with armaments.   A local told us that the red flag was Russian.   Our A-level results were collected on time the next day, poste restante Budapest – we both got what we wanted, which means I got an A in Geography and two Bs in English and Economics.  I’d be going to LSE in a year’s time, after taking a break from education for a while.   A few days later we took the train to Vienna and separated, I was heading for La Chaux De Fonds in Switzerland, which is another tale, and Martin was going to Germany.   When I eventually got “home” which was nowhere really, but anywhere in East Sussex in actual fact, The Stylistics were number 1.

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The Stylistics were one of my favourite bands in those days – long before I decided that I liked soul music, they just had a string of amazing singles between 1972 and 1975.  The voice of Russell Thompkins Jr is a thing of great sweetness joy and beauty and twice now I’ve had tickets for a live show and been unable to make it on the night.  Such are the vagaries of self-employment.  They are a Philly soul band, a symphonic soul band, initially under the wing of Thom Bell at Avco Records who produced all of their hits up to 1974, when Van McCoy took the reigns and gave his signature sound to Can’t Give You Anything.  The opening trumpet glissando and melody with that twinkling piano arpeggio behind it is breathtaking every time I hear it.   And the voice!   The Stylistics are still playing together, still performing.  Catch them when you can, these old soul guys really know how to put on a show.  But be warned – Russell Thompkins Jr. is singing with The New Stylistics which he formed in 2004.

Meanwhile, Hungary is now in the EU and not such an exotic destination as it was in 1975.  It was always a more independent country than a lot of the Eastern Bloc, but now it has swung violently to the right, has a popular fascist party (Jobbik), and anti-Roma feeling is running high.   There’s also a strong organised crime element to Budapest, as there is with Sofia and to a lesser extent Bucharest, all places where I’ve worked on films.  The border where we crossed is now open all day.   And  Ljubljana is now the capital of new country (old country) Slovenia since the break-up of Yugoslavia, and Zagreb the capital of Croatia.  Am I mourning the old communist bloc then ?  Well what do I know ?  Hungary 1975 was very warm and friendly.  You have to watch yourself these days.

I think Martin Cooper and I saw each other once, maybe twice more after that.  Ever.  Martin got married and I wrote to him (at Durham University) or maybe he settled in the North-East, anyway I got his wife’s name wrong, called her Bridget, his sister’s name, he got annoyed and we haven’t spoken since.    Such are the chapters of life.   We come together, we separate. Now read on dot dot dot…

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My Pop Life #47 : The Great Gig In The Sky – Pink Floyd

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The Great Gig In The Sky   –   Pink Floyd

There are no words.    Just the wonderful sound of Clare Torry‘s voice rising and falling like the pure instrument it is over the shifting chords of Floyd’s keyboard player Richard Wright.    Track 5 on their magnum opus Dark Side Of The Moon, released in 1973, it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and probably always will.    This was a monster LP by any standards, probably the only LP at Lewes Priory School to rival Abbey Road in school corridor sightings per day.   Others had their moment and faded, these two giant records were beyond fashion and cool, beyond fortune and even taste.  They just WERE, like the stones of Stonehenge.

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Dark Side Of The Moon became a cliche quickly due to ubiquity, but it never stopped being good.   We all loved how sonically rich it was.  We loved how it took its time.    It was anti-war and anti-money, had wisdom in the mouths of fools and mental patients, it was druggy, paranoid and alive.    We all loved the muttering voice at the beginning of The Great Gig In The Sky, “And I am not frightened of dying…why should i Be, there’s no reason for it…you’ve got to go sometime..” mainly because, of course, we all are terrified of dying;  we loved a character who returns chuckling at the end of the LP on Brain Damage “the lunatic is in my head…” ;   we loved the early electro wobblefizz of On The Run which appears to end in a helicopter crash;  the line in Time which would have meant little to a group of teenagers: “…and then one day you find, ten years have got behind you….” but which haunts every adult I know.   The production is immaculate: those liquid slide and pedal steel guitar chords, blissful Hammond organ, crisp drum breaks, whispered cymbals, tasteful vocals and major sevenths in abundance.  The Great Gig In The Sky was added right at the end of the LP sessions, when the band decided to append an instrumental track of 4 minutes.

The opening chords are rather lush  :     Bm     F(-5)     Bb     F/A

play it on the piano then you can almost hear that pedal steel guitar  Gm7 to C9  sweeping in which is the bulk of the song.

But of course the reason why it stands out is the voice.  Clare Torry was a songwriter and session musician (ie paid by the session, or by the day)  and the original song was just a group of chords.  Pink Floyd’s engineer Alan Parsons suggested Torry,  she said no, she had tickets to see Chuck Berry, but came back a few days later and improvised over two and a half takes the track that we hear today.

We listened to it straight, we listened to it stoned, we listened to it tripping.   I’ll always associate it with the Ryle’s house “Waterlilies” in Kingston where I had taken refuge from my family, was playing in a band called Rough Justice with Conrad Ryle and going out with his sister Miriam.   Miriam was tall, elegant and beautiful, and when she smiled at me it was like the sun coming out.   They had a shiny wooden record player with large speakers that you could lie down between if you so desired.  In the summer of 1975 Miriam decided that we could not go on dating, mainly due to her parents splitting up – I had become “part of her past” overnight.   Miriam and Conrad’s mother, dear Rosemary Ryle (who sadly passed away in 2013) in retrospect took pity on me and said I could stay on at Waterlilies, since I had a summer job at Sussex University Library just down the road in Falmer, but some 30 miles from Hailsham where my family were.

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From Kingston Ridge towards Waterlilies, Juggs Lane, and Lewes

 Miriam wanted to stay friends and didn’t object, the house was quite a large bungalow so we weren’t exactly on top of one another, but it was a strange and melancholy summer, sprinkled with contentious trips home to Mum, Paul, Andrew and now, aged 3, my new sister Rebecca. “You treat this place like it’s a hotel, only coming back to change your clothes”.   Change clothes and pick up that Jimi Hendrix single.    Back to work on the train to Falmer.    Back to Waterlilies.    I remember lying down between those two speakers one afternoon and playing The Great Gig In The Sky at Top Volume when everyone else was out, tears streaming down my face.   Miriam was my first love, and she’d broken my heart.

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Clare Torry in 1973

But hey, I survived to listen to another Pink Floyd LP.  1995’s Wish You Were Here was the last one of theirs I liked.   Call me weird.    I spoke to Clare Torry a couple of years ago in relation to a documentary I was trying to raise finance for about Session Musicians – she was reluctant to speak of this song on camera again after so many years, a court case, regular interview requests and so on and so forth.    But she was very sweet about it.    It’s not hugely unlike what I do for a living – the session musician, the character actor –  the Lee Van Cleef image of the hired gun – ride into town, hitch the horse, set up in the saloon, shoot some bad guys, ride into the sunset with a bag of coin.   Not the whole bank.   No glory.  Hit and run.    And then the chance, now and again, to really nail something with some great people, play a lick, set up a groove, do a twirl, hit a bullseye.   Then glory, then love.   Then.    Then wait for the phone to ring.   Feed the horse.   Keep your eye in.

This really is the most incredible performance.

The Making Of The Great Gig In The Sky

Clare Torry being hilarious on making The Great Gig In The Sky

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