Archive | February, 2013

Musical Memories of the 60’s — From the Single to the Album.

24 Feb

  It is 1967. I am 17. I sit in a darkened room. The only thing that penetrates the darkness is a small, glowing red light on the front of the record player. My friend Vic has put a black, shiny vinyl LP on to the turntable and gently applied the stylus. We sit in virtual silence, awaiting the first strains of our latest musical acquisition. It is almost like a religious ceremony. We are about to embark on an exciting aural journey — a new album, just purchased. We sit in hushed and rapt attention, listening for up to 45 uninterrupted minutes. The only break is when the record is turned over on to Side 2. Sometimes there are just the two of us, sometimes a group of up to six.

  The music which pours out of the speakers is a portal into another world, far removed from our mundane, daily existance in a dead-end Northern town. Keith Waterhouses’s “Billy Liar” escaped mundanity through his fantasies, we had our music. Sounds from other cities, other countries and other continents flooded into that small, darkened room. Behind the closed curtains we were transported to mouth-watering destinations — the beat clubs of Liverpool, the R and B dens of London, the skyscrapers of the Big Apple, the sun-drenched coast of California.

  We mainly listened to long players. This was the golden age of the album. There have been a few books and documentaries about it recently. Apparantly, that era lasted from the mid 1960’s to the late 70’s. After that, the album fell into terminal decline. Unfortunately nobody bothered to tell me. I feel such a fool now! I even went out and bought many of the same albums again, to capture them in CD, remastered format. My current living room is still stacked with albums. What will people think when they visit and witness that I am  living in the past? Without realising it, it seems I have become a musical dinosaur.

  The truth is, I have never become an i-pod person.  I am not down-loading music out of the air and I do not listen to a random jumble of tracks selected for me by a shuffle function. I still like to decide who or what I am going to listen to and usually sit down and get absorbed into a whole album for a considerable length of time. I prefer this to being zapped by 2 minutes of this or 3 minutes of that.

  To be honest I do not totally decry the 2 or 3 minute single. I cut my teeth in the pop world on them. As a young teenager in the early 1960’s, they were all I wanted and all I could afford. The late 50’s and early 60’s were the days when pop singles ruled the roost. We all listened to them. Every Sunday we avidly tuned in to the DJ Alan Freeman as he counted down to Number 1 on his radio show “Pick of the Pops.” A little later, Top of the Pops, began its long reign on our TV screens by mostly following the same Hit Parade format. We all tuned in to BBC on a Thursday evening for our weekly chart fix. Somehow it seemed to be vitally important to find out whose 3 minutes of pop had reached the dizzy heights of Number 1.

  In those days, long-playing records were mostly devoted to classical music or film and show soundtracks. When pop singers made an album, it was usually just a collection of singles and their “B” Sides, hurriedly thrown together to make more money out of the fans. I couldn’t afford them anyway. Having so little money ( before I started my “lucrative” paper-round), I had to make a rare alliance with my sister, Glenys. We pooled our pocket money to eventually buy a second-hand record player from a church jumble sale. It was a shiny, blue one. What a day that was! Then our joint savings went towards purchasing exciting pop singles to play on it. We had heard them on the radio, but now we could play them any time we wanted! They went round the turntable at 45 revs per minute.

  So, what were our first purchases? In one wondrous day we bought “Bobby’s Girl” by Susan Maughan ( Number 4 in the charts), and “Let’s Dance” by Chris Montez ( Number 2.) OK, they were not exactly ground breakers but they brought the heady sounds of the pop world right into our house, which had previously been fossilised in a bygone era of brass bands and symphony orchestras. It brought “the Beat” right into our lives. It you’ve stop laughing yet, I must point out that Susan Maughan was a big star in 1963. She headed a national tour which featured The Beatles as her support act. I never got to know what happened to Chris Montez. He must have been one of those ” one hit wonders.”

  After those memorable first purchases, the flood-gates slowly opened. It was still chart orientated stuff. As young adolescents we were quite content to swim in the main stream. It gave us a sense of belonging; that we had become part of the burgeoning youth-culture that was sweeping the nation in the 60’s. Soon we were the proud owners of singles by: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Roy Orbison, The Animals, Ike and Tina Turner, Manfred Man, and The Yardbirds to name but a few. I even admit to buying a few Cliff Richard singles but we’ll draw a veil over that!

  Generally speaking, as we went through the 60’s, our record collection got louder, wilder and more rebellious. This was especially so with the ones I chose. Many records were used as weapons in an undeclared war on the older generation, especially my poor parents. They hated The Stones and The Pretty Things — so I loved them. Through pop, rock and blues music I pursued a career as a teenage rebel with increasing enthusiam, plunging deeper and deeper into uncharted territory. This was especially so when lyrics by artists such as Bob Dylan turned away from superficial “boy meets girl” stuff and started to tackle more serious subjects such as: war, peace, race, religion, relationships ( plus relationship breakdown), Nuclear matters and the generation gap. The lyrics of songs such as : Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”, Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and “With God on our side”, The Who’s “My Generation” and  Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child” raised my awareness of weightier issues than mere teenage courtship. Such songs, and there are many more examples, eventually took me out of the mainstream and drove me “underground.” So called “underground music” was less chart-friendly, was not at first featured very much on the radio or telly and was chiefly to be found on long-playing albums rather than singles. As I got towards 17 and 18, the nature of the “game” changed from wanting to be like every one else of my own generation, to striving to be different. Now my friends and I listened to music that was often not in the charts and not on most DJ’s playlists. We listened to “alternative albums” that were out of the mainstream and carried the distinctive covers ( or sleeves) under our arms  as a badge of pride, because they showed that we were different from the crowd. We even travelled to Sheffield ( our nearest city) to an obscure little record shop that stocked American imports -ie albums not yet released in Britain.

  Before plunging completely into deep, unmapped waters, I dipped my toe in tentatively.  I had already listened to Beatles’ albums which contained many songs that were never released as singles — “Help”, “Rubber Soul”, “Revolver”. This was at my friend Michael’s house, while he helped me with my physics and geometry homeworks. Then came my first album purchase — “Deliver” by The Mamas and the Papas. Their harmony singing produced a beautiful and magical sound and this album ( their third) was semi-safe because it contained several of their hits anyway. I was still weaning myself off singles at that stage.( 1966)  However, it also included album only tracks and it transported me from grey, dreary Britain to sunny, colourful California. This was music from the West Coast of America and now it was in my very own living room! When I listened to the whole album  it was if I had been whisked off to a gig in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Here was a whole set of carefully sequenced songs. They ebbed and flowed, blending together to make an atmospheric whole. It wasn’t just a quick fix of pop, but a more leisurely and ultimately more satisfying musical experience.

  Albums gave musicians more time and space to try new things. They encouraged creativity and experimentation. I feel privileged to have been a teenager at the very time when the album revolution started to kick off. Led by Bob Dylan and then The Beatles, there was soon an explosion of new ideas and ways of producing popular music. Dylan started to make whole albums of his own compositions, outlining what he saw as the serious issues in the world around him. Soon he produced an 11 minute track — ” Desolation Row”, well and truly bursting through the confining 3 minute barrier. On the same album ( “Highway 61 Revisited”) was the 6 minute epic: “Like a Rolling Stone” which nearly caused me to catch hypothermia as I was sitting in a cooling bath when I first heard it, listening to Alan Freemen’s radio show. ( it had also been released as a single.) To his credit, Freemen played it in full instead of fading it out at the time when a single would normally end. Then, even an album was not long enough for what an artist wanted to do or say. Thus we got double and even triple albums, and tracks sprawling across whole sides. Examples are Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” and a little later: The Beatle’s “White Album”.

  Just as the album gave the artist more time and space to communicate, it also gave the listeners more time and space to appreciate and understand. My musical mates and I used to get genuinely lost in the experience. It was like the difference between having a quick snack or enjoying a whole meal, or reading a novel instead of flicking through a magazine. We used to talk about “getting into an album.” It didn’t always give up its secrets and complexities on the first or second listening. We had to work at it, listening 4, 5 or even 6 times times before making the breakthrough and grasping what the artist was trying to get across. Thus, we were very different from the modern trend towards “instant gratification.” Listening to Long Playing albums taught us: patience, concentration and delayed gratification. Our teachers would have been proud of us!

  Albums became unified collections of songs rather than a horch-potch of disparate tracks. Some even told a story or were bound together by a strong unifying theme. Thus we listened to “Days of Future Past” and “In Search of the Lost Chord” by The Moody Blues or The Who’s self-proclaimed rock opera “Tommy.” It may sound a bit pretentious now but back in the late sixties we thought of it as exciting, cutting- edge stuff. The Beatles stopped touring to join this movement of more elaborate, densely textured  studio albums. Inspired by the complex arrangements of Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys on “Pet Sounds”, the “Fab 4” went into the studio to produce the ground-breaking album: “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club’s Band” Here they masqueraded as an imaginary band giving us a concert, each track seemlessly linking up with the next to propel the listener constantly forward. This pioneering concept album was also a stimulating, unpredictable journey into the Beatles’ fertile imaginations. It mixed: pop, rock, nostalgia, sound effects, instruments from India and the east, drug-inspired poetry, a brass band and an orchestra. The last track-” A Day in the Life” jointly produced by Lennon and McCartney, had a song within a song and ended on a long, seemingly endless orchestral crescendo. It would have been faded out long before this dramatic end if it had ever featured on Top of the Pops. Just about everyone was bowled over by this massive progression from the bright catchy singles of their early career. I remember listening to “A Day in the Life ” on my transister radio as I walked through the streets on a cold dark night. ( This was before I had heard the whole album.) It stopped me in my tracks and made me completely forget about the cold and where I was supposed to be going.

  This was the start of my journey into drug inspired psychedelia. Yes I can now publically declare that I was a drug addict in the late 60’s and still am. Except my drugs were taken vicariously via the musicians I was listening to. I never took drugs myself, always passing the joint on when it got to my part of the circle. At that stage the long-term bad health consequences of large scale drug taking were not fully appreciated. Drugs such as cannabis and LSD were seen as creative forces which opened the mind and broke down the barriers of the conventional, 3 dimensional world. They allowed a mind-blowing, out of body expereince. Now anything seemed possible. Vivid, hallucinatory poetry and wild, free-form instrumentation became more and more common in the music I chose to listen to. So I got turned on by The Beatles, went on acid trips with Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish and had my doors of perception bent, distorted and transformed by Jim Morrison and co. The longer format of the album made all this vicarious tripping possible. Tracks such as The Doors’ ” When the Music’s Over” or “The End” could never have been contained in a simple single. In a recent documentary, Ray Manzarak, the Doors’ keyboard player stated : ” We exist because the Long Playing Record existed.” So by listening to bands spawned by a growing LSD Psychedelic sub-culture, particularly strong in San Francisco and the American West Coast, my friends and I travelled not only to far away places but also to the far reaches of the mind. It was an intoxicating trip in both senses of the word and it was all done via the magic of the music. When we put the LP on to the turntable we all had our “Ticket to Ride”, to quote Lennon and McCartney. ( I used to think that song was about catching a train!) As stated before, the terrible drugs back-lash had yet to kick in. That’s why is was so shocking to us all when rock stars such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, died from overdoses well before their 30th birthdays.

  Listening to wierd but wonderful albums by artists such as Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, or Frank Zappa’s “Mothers of Invention” was about as far away from Cliff Richard and Susan Maughan as one could ever get. This was my musical journey of the 1960’s. It had taken me light years away from my sister and my parents, as well as from the singles charts. My inspiration had been my friends especially Vic, and alternatives DJ’s such as John Peel, who dared to play long album tracks and the sort of music that would never have got into the Hit Parade. He didn’t care whether a number lasted 3 minutes or 30 minutes. His radio shows : “The Perfumed Garden” ( on the pirate Radio London) and the later “Top Gear” on BBC Radio 1 ( nothing to do with cars or Jeremy Clarkson) were a constant inspiration, taking us on many wonderful musical journeys. Added to this was the intense excitement of loud, live gigs at Chesterfield’s Mecca ballroom . We were blasted by: The Family, The Nice, Chicken Shack, and Jethro Tull, to name just some of the rock and blues groups that came to our local town. Devotees of “underground music” even had their own club on Wednesday nights, pretentiously named “The Purple Haze Club” probably inspired by the Hendrix number. No longer confined to our darkened room, now that our income was increasing, we travelled further afield to see gigs including Manchester ( where I went to college in 1968) and London. Vic, at a later date, even went to the States to become a sort of unofficial Grateful Dead groupie. To finish with a Dead quote: ” What a long, strange trip it’s been”  And my trip goes on — despite the advent of the i-pod generation. Only the other day I let my coffee go cold as I was listening to one of my album collection.

  It’s strange to me that music is not always contained in a cover or a case. It can be downloaded straight out of the ether into the ears. New technologies and tastes have raced past me while I wasn’t looking, such that succeeding generations now regard me as the old fashioned one. I cannot explain how or when this dramatic change-around took place. Maybe I was too busy being absorbed by a long album at the time!


11 Feb

My childhood Sunday in the 1950’s : deserted streets, closed shops, roast dinners and church — or to be more precise: chapel.

  I come from a chapel family. Chapel folk are Christians but they don’t go in for the : fancy ceremonies, colourful robes, chanting or incense wafting of the Catholics or the Anglicans. As they refused to conform to all the High Church stuff, they broke away and were dubbed the Non-Conformists. This all happened in the later 18th Century. Their places of worship were small, simple buildings, mostly devoid of rich decoration or fancy ornemants. The non-conformists consisted of several different groups, the main ones being: the Methodists, the Congregationists and the Baptists. Their chapels sprang up all over the north, the Midlands and Wales, attracting bulging congregations.

  My family, on the maternal side, came from the Methodist tradition. Methodism had been founded in the 18th century by the brothers. John and Charles Wesley. It attracted an enthusiastic following partly because of its rousing, evangelical-style preachers, who travelled round the country delivering open-air sermons to huge crowds. John Wesley was one of the most popular. While at Oxford University, John and Charles formed the “Holy Club” which systematically tried to set out the “rules” for a Holy life. They were branded “methodists” by some fellow Oxford students, who derided the methodological way they ordered their lives. I suspect though that this was a clue to their popularity with many people, including my family. Instead of having to struggle to figure out how to live a decent life, all the church members have to do is follow the rules and regulations set down by others who are claiming to be speaking on behalf of God. This is a feature of most of the main religions. Their followers just have to submit to the rules, supposedly laid down by God, in order to live a good life and go to heaven, or whatever the after-life is called. For example, “Islam”, one of the World’s biggest faiths, literally means “submission” ( to the will of God or Allah.) Methodists are not Muslims, but they still willingly submit to the rules. This is easier and more convenient than trying to figure out everything for oneself.

  I grew up in a coal-mining and steel making area of North-East Derbyshire, near the town of Chesterfield. It was classic non-conformist territory. In the large village where I was born, New Whittington, there were at least 3 Methodist Chapels back in the 1950’s. They were all built from imposing red brick. We attended Wellington Street Methodist Chapel, a few doors up from my grandparents, Tom and Alice. A few years ago, faced with a dwindling congregation and rising costs, it was demolished. I vividly remember the shock waves that shuddered through my family, including myself, when we surveyed the sad pile of dust and rubble. It was as if an important part of our history had been wantonly wiped out!

  My grandad used to dominate much of that chapel’s life in its hey day. He was: the organist, the choir master, a hymn composer and a preacher. One of his sons, my Uncle Victor, was also a long-serving lay preacher as was my dad, Maurice, when he married into the family. Later, my younger brother, Graham, carried the family tradition of lay- preaching into yet another generation.

  Although they rejected much of the ritual and ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, the Methodists were not short of rules and restrictions. These tried to control what chapel members could or could not do, both in and out of the chapel. It wasn’t just a religion but more like a whole life-style choice.

  When my dad joined the Methodists, having got hitched to my mum, one of the first things he had to do was to sign the “Pledge.”  This was a solemn undertaking not to touch a drop of the evil drink and become a life-long tee-totaller. The non-conformists churches had close links with the Temperance Movement which was also very strong in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Alcohol was identified as being at the root of much that was wrong in society. I’m fairly sure that before he signed up, my dad used to enjoy a few pints in the pub with his mates after work. But after he became a Methodist he didn’t touch a drop, except for a small glass of port on Christmas Day, diluted by lemonade. Methodists don’t even have real red wine when taking the Sacrament, their version of Holy Communion. They substitute blackcurrent or grape juice instead, to represent the blood of Christ.

 I recently watched a documentary about the days of the Commonwealth, the 1650’s, when Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, governed Britain and his Puritan Church set the rules for the nation. In order to “purify” the country from unspiritual and sinful pursuits, the Puritans banned many entertainments and amusements. I think they even banned dancing round the maypole and tried to abolish the festivities of Christmas. I think the Methodists partly took up this mantle two or three centuries later, although not pushing it to such extremes. Fun and entertainment were largely not approved of on Sundays. This was the case in my childhood. Sunday was a religious day devoted to worshipping in church ( chapel) and for us youngsters to go to Sunday School. For my sister, Glenys, and I, these special rules for Sunday made for a fairly miserable time. It was as if our much looked forward to weekend had been truncated to just one day. Most of our rest, relaxation and fun had to be crammed into Saturday. Then, on Sunday, it was back to being serious, wearing formal clothes and being forced to do things that we didn’t want to do.

  It must be remembered however that in the 1950’s and 60’s, when I was young, the Sunday Trading Laws were still strictly enforced. The churches and religious pressure groups still had power and influence. So practically all the shops and places of entertainment were closed on Sundays. It wasn’t like the free and easy regime of today where Sunday is almost like a full-blown Saturday and the main thing being worshipped is materialism. Back then, town centres were dead on Sundays and the streets mostly deserted. We didn’t even have a bus service on Sunday morning and a very restricted service after lunch. There were no professional football matches and no “Super Sundays” on Sky Sports. Therefore, even without our Methodist strictures, it would still have been a potentially more boring and empty day with fewer opportunities for entertainment.

  However, my family took all this up a few notches thanks to the puritanical-style rules of the chapel. My sister and I were forbidden to play out out on Sundays. We could not see our friends. We were not allowed to have an ice-cream on a Sunday even when the chiming van drove temptingly down our street. We could not play any sport or even watch it on TV. In the 1960’s, ITV’s football highlights show “The Big Match” was screened on a Sunday afternnon but I wasn’t allowed to watch it. We had to go to morning Sunday School, afternoon Sunday School and then the evening service. When I got older I even got sent to Bible study class after the service finished.

  All day I would have to wear my Sunday best clothes, including shirt and tie. My father would ritually dollop Brylcream on to my hair and then comb a rigid parting into it. To this day I still have an aversion to hair-cream or gel! The rest of the day was spent: singing hymns, praying, listening to Bible readings, having Sunday School lessons and enduring long, boring sermons delivered in artificial, churchified voices. If the preacher had spoken to us in a normal, conversational voice, it wouldn’t have been quite so bad. For a long time I couldn’t understand the sermons and coped by having a day-dream or by wriggling restlessly in my chair until told to sit still by mum or dad. When I got older, I found that many sermons were about us being sinners and that if we didn’t mend our ways, we wouldn’t be allowed into Heaven, know as The Kingdom of God. We in fact risked the eternal fires of Hell if we got tempted by Satan to leave the “straight and narrow.” Surviving the sermon became one big endurance test. Sometimes it went on for half an hour – a whole 30 minutes of being preached at. Even though Methodist services had been stripped of ceremony and ritual, they followed strict guidelines. A typical service consisted of: hymn, prayer, Lord’s Prayer, hymn, Bible reading, hymn, notices, collection, sermon, hymn and benediction ( closing prayer.) Sunday School was more relaxed but still felt like an unwelcome extra day of lessons just before we had to go back to the real school.

  Of course, church was not all gloom and doom. It would be unfair of me to paint too black a picture. I enjoyed some of the rousing hymns, especially when my grandad or my Uncle Ernie were belting them out. At Sunday School we enjoyed singing jolly little ditties with actions to go with the words. My favourites were “Happy, Loved and Saved” and ” Now Zacchias was a very little man.”  I met some of my friends at chapel. We had parties at Christmas and pea and pie suppers. I went to the chapel youth club where I learnt to play table tennis and kiss girls. Yes, my first girlfriend, Santia, was a Methodist! I met her at a chapel Valentine’s Day dance. Every year, we children received the gift of a book to reward our Sunday School attendance. I enjoyed reading these except for one year, when they presented me with my own Bible instead of the book about a Second World War bomber pilot for which I craved. ( “I Flew With Braddock.”) My parents kindly bought it for me later. Then there were the annual Sunday School Anniversaries when we were all kitted out in smart new clothes and proudly sat on a special tiered platform in front of our friends and families. We sang special hymns and recited special poems. The sermons on these occasions were especially child-friendly such that we could actually understand them. I used to perform duets with a boy who was tone-deaf. It was difficult keeping in tune but everyone praised him because they thought he was singing a complicated descant!

  I also enjoyed Christmas at church with its candles, carols and nativity plays. Once it was my turn to be one of the Three Kings and proudly wear my dressing gown and  tea-towel head-dress as I carried my shiny pretend- gift up the aisle. Then there were the Toy Services for kids in Children’s Homes and orphanages. We also sold books of childrens’ photos called “Sunny Smiles”. The proceeds went to the homes. It felt good to be helping others, which, to be fair, is one of the main teachings of Christianity and other religions. Yes, Church wasn’t all bad!

  Despite all this, a typical Sunday increasingly felt like donning a strait-jacket. My freedom was drastically curtailed and I was compelled to follow the church’s rules and routines. It all seemed a frustrating waste of my valuable time. I stopped going to chapel as soon as I left home to go to college at the age of 18. So did my sister. We have never gone back except for occasional weddings, christenings and funerals, plus the odd carol service to please our parents.

  Mum and Dad still go to their local chapel every Sunday. They still believe they are destined to enter The Kingdom of God. Who’s to say that they are not right? The church has given their lives shape and structure. The other members of the congregation are their friends and provide them with a social life and support. To them it’s like a cosy club of which they are long term members. In some ways the church tells them how to live their lives and even what to think, especially in the spiritual sphere. This, I suppose, is the Methodist way.

  I have chosen to try to work out my own spiritual path. I have studied the beliefs of other religions, had many discussions on this subject and have read books about spiritual matters such as M Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled” , “The Anatomy of the Spirit” by Caroline Myss and “The Celestine Prophecy” by James Redfield. I have talked ideas through with Christians, Buddhists, agnostists, athiests and Humanists. I suppose I am a product of the 17th and 18th century’s “Age of Reason” and of “Enlightenment.” At that time, the black and white medieval sureties were challenged by science, philosophy and scepticism. For some reason I feel I ought to question rather than just accept. It’s not an easy process and I’m still not sure what I believe. However it’s an increasingly important task as I grow older and I become aware of questions to do with the Meaning of Life and issues surrounding Death. I don’t believe that I can solve my personal conundrums by adopting an off-the-peg religion which tells me what to believe and how to live my life. I don’t want to be told to exercise blind faith instead of actively seeking out enlightening evidence. Unlike church goers, I do not believe everything I read in the Bible.

  Church and chapel congregations have drastically dwindled over the last 50 years. The UK is still officially a Christian nation, but as well as the growth of other religions, there has been a big drift towards a secular society. I have been part of this movement away from organised religion. Many churches have been knocked down or converted into museums, warehouses, shops or even homes. Despite largely rejecting my religious upbringing, it still makes me feel sad to see an abandoned, derelict or converted church. I still feel sharp pangs of loss when I recall that pile of rubble where my grandad used to preach. I suspect it might be a block of flats by now.

  I left Methodism many moons ago but it has still left its mark on me. I have never been a big drinker or a going-down-the-pubber. I rarely swear ie -using the Lord’s name in vain. I love singing and am a member of a choir. Although it is not a religious one, I enjoy singing Gospel songs and Christmas carols. Finally, I strongly believe in: love, compassion, charity and forgiveness, all of which are major strands of the teachings of Jesus Christ. It’s just that I don’t feel I have to attend a church or chapel to put these into practice. Neither do I have to smear on Brylcream! Hallelujah and Amen.