My Pop Life #201 : The Banner Man – Blue Mink

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The Banner Man – Blue Mink

…and the Banner Man held the banner high he was ten feet tall and he touched the sky and I wish that I could be a banner man…

 This was, I can finally reveal, the first single I ever bought with my own money.  I suspect this money was from doing a paper round, or helping the farmer baling straw, or selling eels to Mr Catchlove, or maybe – just maybe – my mum gave me some pocket money and I saved it up.  The Regal Zonophone label, red and silver 45rpm single in a square piece of paper with a circle in the centre so you could see the label.

This would then be placed in the singles rack at home alongside the record player.  It would join my mum’s singles – Simon Dupree & The Big Sound, Joe South, The Casuals, Guy Darrell (see My Pop Life #181) until I bought a record player of my own for the bedroom, but even then I wonder if I didn’t leave it downstairs in the pop section.  The bedroom singles were religious artefacts for the shrine of Jimi Hendrix – 45rpm singles on Track records, Gypsy Eyes, Long Hot Summer Night, Burning of The Midnight Lamp, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).  What was Blue Mink doing with these inspirational songs?  It was like a throwback to my childhood  and I still can’t really explain it.  Taste changes fast when you’re 14.

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It was May 1971 when the single first charted.  It reached Number 3 on the 20th June, two days after my 14th birthday.  This therefore becomes a fairly accurate indication of how cool I was as a teenager.  No older brother or sister to look up to, take taste from.  A mum who had her own particular taste, from Dionne Warwick singing a cover of The Rascals (My Pop Life #17) to The Kinks (My Pop Life #147).        I liked all of the above, and when I look at the charts of 1971 I think that mum must’ve bought Your Song by Elton John and Double Barrel by Dave & Ansel Collins for there they were in the singles rack.  Gosh the Proustian rush is too much, and  I’m in too deep now to walk back – or as Macbeth would say :

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er”

 

which means that, since 1971 is my year of sentience, I have to dive right in and indulge in that vivid musical touchstone of my life.  So with no further apology,  Here Is the Top 30 on my 14th birthday :

  1.    Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep          –     Middle Of The Road
  2.    Knock Three Times                         –     Dawn
  3.    I Did What I Did For Maria           –      Tony Christie
  4.    Banner Man                                     –      Blue Mink
  5.    I’m Gonna Run Away From You   –     Tami Lynn
  6.    Lady Rose                                          –     Mungo Jerry
  7.    He’s Gonna Step On You Again     –     John Kongos
  8.    Heaven Must Have Sent You         –     The Elgins
  9.    I Am…I Said                                       –     Neil Diamond
  10.    Indiana Wants Me                           –     R. Dean Taylor
  11.    My Brother Jake                               –     Free
  12.    Rags To Riches                                  –     Elvis Presley
  13.    Oh You Pretty Thing                        –     Peter Noone
  14.    Malt & Barley Blues                         –     McGuinness Flint
  15.    I Think Of You                                   –     Perry Como
  16.    Brown Sugar                                     –     The Rolling Stones
  17.    Just My Imagination                        –     The Temptations
  18.    Don’t Let It Die                                  –     Hurricane Smith
  19.    Co-Co                                                   –     The Sweet
  20.    Mozart Symphony Number 40       –     Waldo De Los Rios
  21.    Jig-A-Jig                                               –      East Of Eden
  22.    I Don’t Blame You At All                  –      Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
  23.    Lazy Bones                                         –      Jonathan King
  24.    Hey Willy                                            –      The Hollies
  25.    Rain                                                      –      Bruce Ruffin
  26.    Joy To The World                               –      Three Dog Night
  27.    Pied Piper                                            –      Bob & Marcia
  28.    Un Banc, Un Arbre, Un Rue             –      Severine
  29.    It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie                       –      Gerry Monroe
  30.    Double Barrel                                     –      Dave & Ansel Collins

It was, even to my clearly biased ears, a fairly fecund picture : plenty of irritating bubblegum at the top end, a decent smattering of pop reggae (Greyhound‘s Black & White was about to rise into the Top 30), some genuine originals in John Kongos, Hurricane Smith and East of Eden (written about in My Pop Life #141), some great Motown including the immaculate Smokey Robinson (My Pop Life #3), some lovely bluesy stuff and a few songs for grandma.  For me the whole of 1971 imprinted itself on my ears, for it was when I learned what I liked, and what I didn’t like, and maybe even what the difference was and why.   Now, aged 60 as I write, I can find merit in all of these songs, yes, even the number one, which grated on us all at the time with its defiance of any kind of grooviness.   I bought Banner Man and brought it home, and now I’m wondering if I bought Jig-A-Jig at the same time, because it was a big song in our house and there it is travelling down the charts from a high point of number 7.

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Blue Mink in 1971

Banner Man is terribly catchy, a genuine earworm.  Simple lyrically, a song about a marching band…

So we waved our hands as we marched along
And the people smiled as we sang our song
And the world was saved as they listened to the band

who march up to the top of the hill,

So we reached the square, on the top of the hill
And the music stopped and we stood quite still
And a few were saved and the people said
Amen

I also note that the the Banner Man had “an Allelujah in his eye” and that the chorus goes full gospel :

Glory, glory, glory
Listen to the band
Sing the same old story
Ain’t it something grand?
To be good as you can
Like a Banner-Man

It’s a brass band song, a kind of 2-step oompah rhythm, and the trombone does that cheesy slide down (glissando!) on “grand” and “can” .   I spell it all out like this because it is something of a mystery to me even now – what was I listening to?  What did I hear?  It is like a child’s nursery rhyme (rather like a fair section of that top 30), but I was 14.   There is something endearing in the fact that both Blue Mink and East of Eden (Jig-A-Jig) were crossing musical genres and spinning pop gold out of old forms, but I knew nothing of this at the time, I just liked the tunes I think.  Maybe something primal in that brass band sound though that gets under the skin – the New Orleans funeral march, the Second Line, the celebration of life after the body is interred.  The sound of something ancient, churchy but celebratory, harking back to “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” a popular song from 1907 :

I do like to stroll
Upon the Prom, Prom, Prom,
Where the brass bands play
Tiddly-om-pom-pom!

and “76 Trombones” from 1957 which echoed through my childhood.   The Beatles of course made use of the brass during their psychedelic period, from Yellow Submarine through Sgt Pepper to Martha My Dear on The White Album.  Other brass band songs that made hit records include Peter Skellern‘s sublime You’re A Lady from 1973 and Mike Nesmith’s Listen To The Band for The Monkees from 1969.  And really that’s it, aside from The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band‘s single The Floral Dance in 1977.  The number of pop brass band songs can be counted on one hand pretty much.

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Madeline Bell & Roger Cook

I remembered Blue Mink from their first single in 1969 “Melting Pot” with its call for racial harmony mixed up in racist language :

Take a pinch of White man
Wrap it up in Black skin
Add a touch of blue blood
And a little bitty-bit of Red Indian boy

Curly Latin Kinkies,  mixed with yellow Chinkees
If you lump it all together
Well, you’ve got a recipe for a get-along scene
Oh what a beautiful dream
If it could only come true you know, you know
What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough to take the world and all it’s got
Keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee-coloured people by the score

This song with Madeline Bell, a black American and Roger Cook, a white Englishman taking alternate verses reached number one and was part of a brief English soul boom in the late sixties which included mixed-race groups such as The Equals, The Foundations, Geno Washington’s RamJam Band and Hot Chocolate.

clockwise :  The Equals, The Foundations, Hot Chocolate, Geno Washington

But Blue Mink were different.  Formed by a group of session musicians, they were professional players working for a day-rate on other people’s music, like the famous Wrecking Crew out of Los Angeles who played on everything from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys, the Funk Brothers who played on every hit record from Motown or another mixed-race group Booker T & The MGs, the house band at Stax records, on all of Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd and Sam & Dave’s records.

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Herbie Flowers, Roger Cook, Maddy Bell, Barry Morgan, Roger Coulam, Alan Parker

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Roger Coulam on keyboards hooked up with bass player Herbie Flowers, guitarist Alan Parker, drummer Barry Morgan and vocalists Madeline Bell and Roger Cook in 1969.   Bell, an American from New Jersey, had come to England with a gospel show in 1962 and stayed, met Dusty Springfield and had some hits herself.

By 1969 she already released three solo albums including her debut Bell’s A Poppin’ (1967) which had Dusty Springfield on backing vocals repaying her friend’s debt after Bell had backed many of Dusty’s blue-eyed soul hits.  Roger Cook had a successful songwriting partnership with Roger Greenaway established after they’d written You’ve Got Your Troubles for The Fortunes, and continued later with I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (and sell Coke), and Softly Whispering I Love You among many many others.  He now lives in Nashville.

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Disc Jockey Tony Blackburn takes the place of Alan Parker in this shot

After the success of Melting Pot, the band stuck together for five more years 4 LPs and released a handful of decent, musical hit singles, including the vibrant Good Morning Freedom (1970).   They all continued working as session musicians in-between Blue Mink gigs and appearances on Top of the Pops, notably on Elton John‘s first LP.  Most of Blue Mink were also in C.C.S. (Collective Consciousness Society) another band which charted in 1971 with Tap Turn On The Water, and a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love which became the Top of the Pops theme music for years to come.  Flowers played on Lou Reed’s Transformer and Bowie’s Space Oddity, Labi Siffre’s It Must Be Love and was later a Womble and on David Live!  He now lives in Ditchling.  Bell sings on Rolling Stones & Dusty singles, and with Tom Jones, Elton John, Joe Cocker and Scott Walker.  Parker plays the riff on Rebel Rebel, Hurdy Gurdy Man and No Regrets among countless others, and now writes theme music for film and television.   Drummer Morgan played with Elton, Tom Jones, Nilsson and many others while Coulam played on iconic Serge Gainsbourg single Je T’Aime and the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and died in 2005.

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It was in 2012 that I started work on a documentary project about session musicians.  I felt drawn to them as if they could help me to understand my own strange career as a character actor, a self-styled Lee Van Cleef, the hired gun, forever getting on my horse & leaving town clutching my fee after helping to kill the bad guys.  I called the putative film Red Light Fever and we worked for a good solid week, interviewing a group of players from the Brighton/M25 area – legend Chris Spedding, who sat in the guitar section of the GAK (Guitar & Keyboard) shop for his interview, Barbara Moore – voice of The Saint and Bedazzled and arranger of The Sign Of The Swinging Cymbal – Alan Freeman’s chart countdown music, Alan Parker and Herbie Flowers from Blue Mink, legendary drummer Clem Cattini (Telstar, much of The Kinks early stuff, Hurdy Gurdy Man, hundreds of others) and bass player Les Hurdle (Foundations, Donna Summer) who we talked to in Fatboy Slim’s shoreline studio (thanks generous Norm!).

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Before we started shooting, one of my first interviews, with guitarist Big Jim Sullivan, was abruptly cancelled after he passed away.  I attended his funeral outside Worthing and saw many of the old session faces there, (including Chas Hodges RIP).  There was a sense of time slipping away, an urgency to complete the project before it was too late.  I wanted to record a new piece of music which Barbara Moore would write and, using all the old faces from the 60s and 70s London sessions, record it at Maida Vale Number One Studio, filming the whole get-together.  Maybe even a gig too like that great film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.  It was like a detective story piecing it all together, great fun and a proper buzz.  Sample joke : when I asked who played the trumpet on It’s Not Unusual about 50 musicians claim to have been in the studio that day, record-keeping was poor, and royalties are like gold-dust.   We shot enough for a decent trailer – here it is :

Red Light Fever Promo

you’ll need the password which is :  rlflatest

That is because my buddy David Cuff was working at Latest TV in Brighton in 2012 and the boss of that young channel Bill Smith liked the idea and generously agreed to front £500 to pay for the promo.  It all went on the camera crew.

I cut the promo at home on Final Cut and took it to Luke Cresswell’s brother Addison and he hawked it around the industry (see My Pop Life #183 for the full terrible story).   I didn’t have much money at the end of 2012 but I thought something might break for us, and the trailer was decent (despite all the Super-8 footage being out of focus so that we couldn’t use it).  I was still working on the interviews.  Just before Christmas Madeline Bell finally relented to meet and chat while she was visiting from Spain.  Jenny and I had lunch with her at The Delauney on the Aldwych.  She was great company, very funny and warm.  She promised to grant us an interview if we got over to Spain with our camera and we parted on very positive terms.  The film would not be finished though due to tragic circumstances already described in the above link to Elton John’s Rocket Man.

If I find a spare 10 grand I will finish that film in my own time.  The musicians deserve the accolade after all these unsung years, just as the Funk Brothers did with their film.  If I don’t, I have faith that someone will carry that torch.

Meanwhile 1971 will forever glow in the dark like a lighthouse to my soul.  My friend Martin Steel (father of Paul who opened this blog (My Pop Life #1) has been trying to link me up with an audio version of writer and broadcaster David Hepworth’s book Never A Dull Moment : 1971 – Rock’s Golden Year.  It feels like it was written for me and I look forward to disagreeing with its contents while saluting its general premise. (I strongly suspect that it is rockist i.e.) Perhaps he values album statements over 45rpm pop singles too, which will be seen in years to come as an historic mistake.  The pop single is the late 20th century’s highest form of popular culture as any fule kno.  I know Simon Price is with me on that one.  They are also, in particular, spangly dayglo markers for our emerging personalities.  Every one of us has this sentient musical moment, and commonly it will be our early teens, probably coinciding with puberty.  Awakening. The chrysalis unfurls and there we are in all our contradictions.

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Trust me : make a playlist up from your year of musical sentience, say the moment you turned from 13 to 14 and then listen to it in pure joy as the waves of discovery once more wash through your soul, and you rediscover that you know every lick, every drumbeat, every intake of breath for they are forever imprinted upon you like rhythmic & melodic DNA.  Almost as if, as you grew into your body and the cells expanded, the music you heard then got into the cracks and became part of you.

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I wonder if I liked Blue Mink because of Madeline Bell ?   I married a black British woman some years later and we created our own mixed-race band, me, Jenny, two different breeds of cat.  Very open-minded, inclusive.   But the mystery at the heart of this blog though is why that song?  One’s first single purchase is supposed to be an indicator of something. Some tribal moment, some groove, something that will not be denied.  Perhaps all this is blurred by my mum’s pop purchases, after all she was only 34 at the time, and our musical tastes crossed over considerably.  It wasn’t just me – thousands of people bought the single and it reached number 4 eventually.  Maybe we all wanted a bit of Glory Hallelujah dressed up as pop music – Oh Happy Day with a brass band, or a hippie Salvation Army?  Or… maybe… when I was a wee child in Portsmouth, Mum had taken my brother Paul and I in the pram down to Southsea where the funfair was, where you could see the Isle of Wight and the giant ships coming in and out of Portsmouth Harbour, where H.M.S. Victory stands in dry dock, where a bandstand hosts the occasional concert.   A very early childhood memory.   Did we like to walk along the prom prom prom to hear the brass band play tiddly om pom pom?

Well I’ve been reluctant to press the “Publish” button on this post for over 24 hours now.  Something beyond a mystery.  Looking back at My Pop Life #84 which is set in 1970 and which precedes this by a profound 9-month period of my life, it is starting to become clear that my memory is unreliable.  The Hendrix era had been the previous year, and surely I had bought those singles already.  Why this song always pops into my head as “first single” I do not know, but it cannot be.  It doesn’t matter.  I definitely bought it, and Jig-A-Jig, and All Along The Watchtower.  I’m glad I did.

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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