Archive | January, 2014

Musical memories from the late 60’s to the 70’s – negotiating Glam, metal, prog, Punk and much more.

5 Jan

As the “swinging sixties” drew to a close I found myself long-haired, footloose and fancy-free in the big metropolis of Manchester. It was a far cry from my previous insular life in a “dead-end” north midlands town with my parents. Now at college, training to be a teacher, I could indulge my passion for rock, pop and blues music as much as I wanted. The only restriction was the thickness of my wallet. A student grant didn’t exactly turn me into a millionaire but it was still a big step up from paper-round money. It was a short but wonderful window between the constrictions of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. As the new decade of the 70’s progressed however, my opportunities for unfettered musical indulgence were gradually choked off by, in turn: marriage, a full time teaching job, children and a mortgage. I wanted all these things of course and they greatly deepened and enriched my life ( even the dreaded mortgage), but much of it was at the expense of my music. I no longer had the time, energy, ready cash or opportunity to go to many gigs, keep up with the latest artists or listen to more than a small fraction of the albums on offer. My life developed immensely and very positively in that decade but as far as the balance between my responsibilities and my interests were concerned, the key word was now: “COMPROMISE.” I couldn’t remain a teenager for ever.
But for a time at least I enjoyed those heady, student days in Manchester as the 60’s gave way to the 70’s. My own record collection was still on vinyl as was everyone’s, but now I purchased an extra speaker and listened to the sounds in wondrous stereo. It was great to hear for instance, the lead guitar coming clearly at me from the left and the bass thumping in from the right. Somewhere in the virtual middle was the vocalist, or so it seemed. It was almost like being at a live performance , a big step up from the squashed together, flatter sounds of mono records in the earlier 60’s. My vivid memory is of listening to Deep Purple blasting out of the speakers whilst painting the ceiling of our flat a deep shade of purple! We also, for some strange reason, painted the walls bright orange. ( Possibly while listening to Tangerine Dream!) I pity the poor people who moved in after us!
However I remember Manchester mostly for the excitement of the live gigs at the Free Trade Hall, the University Union on Oxford Road and the UMIST building. One minute I was being seduced by the beautiful folky sounds of Pentangle, Eclection or the Sandy Denny incarnation of Fairport Convention, whilst the next I was being beguiled by the weird but wonderful meanderings of The Incredible String Band. I crowded into sweaty university halls to hear the powerful rock/blues singing of Joe Cocker, Roger Chapman, Julie Driscoll or Arthur Brown, the driving rock of The Nice, or the dreamy psychedelia of Pink Floyd. For the last mentioned gig the hall was so packed that I was squashed uncomfortably up against a wall, hardly able to move a limb. It also got incredibly stuffy. It was like a rock version of the Black Hole of Calcutta. However the next 90 minutes of Floyd music transported me into another world so completely that I was honestly unaware of my discomfort. It was literally an out of body experience. I survived another incredible crush when I went to see the American group Steppenwolf, of “Born to be Wild” fame. ( featured in the cult film “Easy Rider.”) We were all crammed into the hall like sardines in a tin. God knows what would have happened if there had been a fire. The music was loud and thrilling but my clearest memory of that gig is of people fainting all around me and being carried off horizontally. To my shame I did not show much sympathy. My predominant thought was that now I would have more air to breathe and more room to dance to the driving beat. As at many gigs, it was an “every man for himself” situation.
In 1970 I got married and a year later I started full time teaching in a tough, all boys secondary school in Salford. My energy was sapped by the demands of the job and much of my free time was taken up with marking and preparation. The days of “freedom” had come to an abrupt end. I listened to music as a solace and an escape but had little time for concerts or browsing in the record shops.
Over a weekend in May,1972 however, my wife Annie and I attended our first pop festival. The late 60’s festivals at Monterey and Woodstock had already become iconic events — great gatherings of the “hippie” counter-culture which I desperately wanted to have a taste of. Similar gatherings had taken place on the Isle of Wight and in London’s Hyde Park. I had been to a free concert in Hyde Park but had missed out on the Stones, having to make do with The Move instead.( They were good though). But the ’72 festival sounded like the real McCoy for it was going to be headlined by the legendary West Coast group: The Grateful Dead. Support included: Captain Beefheart and his Magic band ( another one of my favourites), The Kinks, Donovan, The Incredible String Band, Pacific Gas and Electric, The Flamin’ Groovies , New Riders of the Purple Sage and many others. It sounded too good to be true and impossible to resist even though I was bogged down with schoolwork. The most amazing thing of all though was that this whole musical extravaganza was to take place in a field on the edge of a depressing mining village near Wigan! I’m talking about the Bickershaw Festival in early May, 1972. I suppose the pit village setting was appropriate for that time as the miners had just won their great victory against the Heath government after causing widespread power cuts and almost bringing the country to its knees. The festival organisers must have been wetting themselves as the strike wore on and May got closer and closer. Luckily it was all done and dusted by early February and so Gerry Garcia and co did not have to resort to a rare acoustic set.
I borrowed a tiny tent from school and we set off for Wigan on the train. The tickets were relatively expensive for the time and I made things worse by losing them, which meant I had to buy them twice! The weather was wet and Annie and I found ourselves pitching our tent on the edge of a grey, muddy field which merged into a reed- filled bog. It was more reminiscent of the Somme in 1916 than of a pop festival in the early 70’s. We listened to some great music that weekend and also got a valuable insight into life in the First World War trenches. It was very apt for a music fan who was also a history teacher. At first we really enjoyed the music and the festival atmosphere but as the rain began to fall again, it became a bit of an ordeal. Unfortunately, the tent let water in! We got cold and damp and started to feel a bit sorry for ourselves. The toilets were just circular trenches covered with tents and as the weekend progressed the smell became more and more odious and the edge of the trench caved in, thus becoming increasingly treacherous. The queue for the pub toilet in the village was permanently half a mile long, so impossible to contemplate.
The music was very good though and did a lot to raise our spirits. It went on late into the night as the organisers got more and more behind schedule. In fact the last of the Saturday night acts didn’t come on until 6 o’clock Sunday morning! We retreated into the leaky tent for a cold and fitful sleep. In the middle of the night, I woke up to hear very strange sounds coming from the stage. What happened next has lived long in my memory and I wrote about it to UNCUT magazine in 2007, when they were printing readers’ memories of Bickershaw. ” The scene that greeted me as I emerged, bleary-eyed from the tent, was totally surreal. The whole field seemed to be shrouded in mist. Bedraggled people, carrying fire-torches and draped in blankets, were wandering around in a daze. And in the background, came the bizarre electronic dronings of the Magic Band. It was a scene straight from Hell! Then the Devil himself, the Captain, in a flowing dark cloak, swept on to the stage to hollor his way through an amazing, otherworldly set of electronically charged swamp-blues. This was easily one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life.”
That experience was utterly fantastic, but as Sunday – the day of the Dead- dawned, reality hit big time. We were cold, wet, miserable and increasingly desperate for a proper loo. So we never got to see The Dead and my guitar hero, Gerry Garcia. As they flew in we bussed out and ultimately experienced an incredible “Relief of Mafeking” moment at Wigan Railway Station toilets. Could we have reached an equal high listening to five hours of the Dead’s improvisational brilliance? Probably, but our bladders would not have held out and the whole thing eventually finished so late that we would have been very late home and totally wiped out for work the next morning. It was an early example of the realities and responsibilities of our new working lives curtailing the freedoms that we had enjoyed in our student days.
Later that year I got a new job in Stevenage New Town, Hertfordshire which put us within striking distance of the gig Mecca of London. I could now attend top shows at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park, the Royal Festival Hall and later, the Hammersmith Odeon. I remember taking school trips to see Thin Lizzy, Suzi Quatro and Slade ( not my favourites but still a good outing.) I also saw Stevie Winwood’s Traffic at the Rainbow as well as King Crimson. The most memorable show at the Hammersmith was Santana ( brilliant extended guitar solos) supported by Earth, Wind and Fire. However, the biggest treat of all was seeing the incredible Captain Beefheart again, this time at the Mecca ballroom in Stevenage, just 10 minutes walk from our house. I felt a bit of a fraud as the first people I met in the queue had travelled from Amsterdam to see the Captain. The show was mind-blowing. I got so close to the group in the small dance hall that I became completely immersed in the throbbing music, as it swirled all around me.
In 1973 my daughter Joanna was born. I loved being a father but naturally, opportunities to go to gigs now became fewer and far between. Annie however, kindly encouraged me to join friends at the Knebworth Festival in, I think, 1974. Again I felt a bit sheepish as people had travelled from all corners of the country to be there but I only had to go on a very short local train ride from Stevenage. My friends has camped overnight and kindly saved me a prime spot only about 6 rows from the stage. In one incredible, sunny day I was fortunate enough to see performances by : the great Tim Buckley, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Van Morrison, The Maravishnu Orchestra, The Doobie Brothers and the fantastic, boogieing Allman Brothers. What a fabulous line up it was and all introduced by John Peel. It finally finished about 1 o’clock in the morning. Yes, Knebworth was a definite high spot of the 70’s but most of my everyday life was taken up by teaching and enjoying being a husband and father.
At home I preferred listening to the subtle, sensitive offerings of singer songwriters such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Dory Previn and Buffy St Marie rather than the increasingly loud, excessive hard rock sounds of Led Zeppelin or so called prog- rock groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I considered such bands too obvious and pretentious but I was in a definite minority as they were incredibly popular. I preferred what I considered to be more subtle and sophisticated offerings from American groups such as: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Steely Dan and the southern blues of Little Feat. I never got on to the Zeppelin band wagon regarding them as unsubtle and over the top — the forerunners of the heavy metal scene which I think of as the musical equivalent of banging one’s head constantly against a brick wall. I think they were very lucky to be able to fill the heavy- rock vacuum left by the break up of Cream.
I visited friends who had whole stacks of Genesis and/or Yes albums which I quite liked to listen to but always suspected they were trying to be too clever and thought a bit too much of themselves. They would try to take the listener on mythical quests full of Arthurian knights and pre-Raphaelite maidens. It all got a bit much. I felt much the same about Pink Floyd after the departure of Syd Barret. They lost a lot of their fun, quirkiness and edge, in my opinion, disappearing more and more up their own backsides. If I had a pound for every time I had to listen to “Dark Side of the Moon” at dinner parties in the 70’s, then I’d be a multi-millionaire now. I think it’s quite a good album but I always hung back from liking it wholeheartedly because of the thought that they were taking themselves a bit too seriously. Some of the prog-rock music was good but as the decade progressed, I felt it all got too ambitious, too extravagant and started to drown in its own excess. The Electric Light Orchestra for example took to arriving and departing from the stage in a huge, mock flying saucer. There seemed to be more emphasis on the spectacle than on the music, as well as making them more remote from their fans. Although I hated the “mindless” thrashings of Punk when it exploded on to the scene in the late 70’s, I admit it was much needed as it swept aside much of the self-indulgent pomposity of later prog-rock.
I still tuned into Top of the Pops for a laugh and to catch up with the latest teenage trends, but I mostly ignored the singles charts and the various crazes that they spawned. I didn’t get into Glam Rock ( or Glitter Rock), mostly bypassing T Rex, Slade, Sweet and the now disgraced Gary Glitter. However, I did take a passing interest in David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust phase and very much liked Roxy Music. To be fair Bowie and Roxy were only allied to glam/glitter rock in a visual sense, being far superior musically. Apart from in the supermarket at Christmas, who ever listens to Slade now? I didn’t buy any singles. The catchy kitsch of Abba was OK on the radio but I couldn’t stand more than 3 minutes of it at a time. later, in the 90’s I went to an Abba theme party. It was pretty grim! I liked Rod Stewart at first, both with and without The Faces but then he went increasingly middle of the road, ending up as a gross parody of himself. Another big act of the 70’s – Queen — I found overblown, obvious and intensely irritating. Their number 1 hit: “Bohemian Rhapsody” is regularly voted as the greatest single of all time but to me it was sheer torture especially as it seemed to be crudely caricaturing the Brian Wilson/Beach Boys’ exquisite operatic classics: “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”. Once again I was content to swim against the musical tide. I was happy to listen to albums by artists who hardly ever featured in the charts. Bob Dylan made some great albums in the 70’s, especially “Blood on the Tracks”. Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Lou Reed and Neil Young all produced wonderful solo albums as did the aforementioned Joni Mitchell. Post Beatles John Lennon put out a stark, stripped down but emotionally charged album with the Plastic Ono Band which appealed me a lot more than any of the more commercial musical journeys that Paul McCartney took us on with “Wings.” I quite like Elton John but he never grabbed me enough to make me actually want to shell out money for one of his big selling albums.
One rare example of me following the majority was my liking of Fleetwood Mac, both in their earlier Peter Green British blues phase and in their later Nicks and Buckingham inspired AOR. I really liked their eponymous 1975 album and it’s classic 1977 follow up “Rumours” They are smooth, slick and commercial but I love them. Another feature of my 70’s musical journey was venturing more and more into country rock led by the Byrds, Dylan and the Dead. Previously I had loathed the corny, sugary sentimentality of Country and Western music but now, once it was fused with rock I grew to really like it and recognise its place in rock history from Elvis onwards.
Then in the later 70’s there were: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Pretenders, Blondie, Gerry Rafferty ( Baker Street being one of my favourite tracks), Joan Armatrading, and the quirky but hugely enjoyable Ian Dury, with his Blockheads. I also loved the guitar based pop/rock of Mark Knoppler’s Dire Straits. I even got to like some of the Punk stuff especially Hugh Cornwall’s Stranglers. I’ve always hated the Sex Pistols though — a triumph of noise over musicianship. I suppose this shows that I was now a member of an older generation who disapproved of much of what the new kids on the block were listening to. It’s an inevitable consequence of growing older. I was one of those who sympathised with Bill Grundy who tried to interview the Pistols but ended up being verbally abused. At least Mick Jagger was always polite and well spoken when asked questions.
Despite job pressures and the arrival of our second child Catherine in 76’s, I still found time to enjoy a whole range of music. I tried to move on and discover new artists. I did not want to stay fossilised in the 1960’s. Our move to Sheffield restricted the number of live gigs I could go to — I only remember one great show by Nils Lofgren at the City Hall. However I spent many a happy hour listening to music at home either with the family, or, late at night when I retreated into my headphones. Both Joanna and Catherine remember growing up in a house full of music as did Ian, born in 1981. What other explanation is there for my daughter, born in 1976, liking Frank Zappa’s “Mothers of Invention” or my son recently taking me to a David Byrne ( Talking Heads) concert? Pop and rock music provided not just the soundtrack of my life but also for the whole family.
When we moved up to Tyneside in 1979 we put ourselves in pole position for many great gigs together at the Newcastle City Hall, St James’s park, Gateshead Stadium, etc. As the children grew up my music going revived and increased — but unlike in the 1960’s, it was now very much a family affair.