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The Magic of Singing.

22 Jul

It was a day of tedious jobs — clearing out cupboards, combing through files, trecking to the charity shop with boxes of unwanted books and bric a brac. It was a day to get over with only the satisfaction of clean, tidy cupboards to reward us. Then we came across the mystery DVD. What could it be? I couldn’t remember ever having seen it before. On it was written “Singing Our Hearts Out” by Heaton Voices. It was dated 2006. Heaton is an area of Newcastle upon Tyne, a city I used to live in or near for 27 years. In fact 2006 was the year I left to move down to my present abode in Cleveland. Heaton Voices is an excellent community choir I was fortunate enough to be a member of  for 6 happy years. I had forgotten all about this DVD, which was a recording of a programme made for Community TV. It was about the choir, its members and its involvement in the National Street Choirs festival held that year at Sage Gateshead. Suddenly, the cupboards and the jobs could wait and I was transported back 13 years, remembering all the songs I used to sing and all the lovely people I sang them with. Watching that DVD brought a lump to my throat.

Choirs have been an important part of my life ever since 1989. It was a choir that dragged me up from the pits of despair as I struggled to cope with the emotional fall out of a difficult divorce.  Previously, most of my life had been centred on family and work. I still had my teaching work of course, but day to day contact with my 3 children had gone and at weekends and holidays I often felt cut adrift. Time hung heavy and self pity was never far away. Many things and numerous people helped me to recover from that very low ebb but it was a choir that played a particularly crucial role. One summer weekend, I had arranged to go with a friend to a festival at Druridge Bay, a beauty spot on the Northumberland coast. The festival had been organised by Friends of the Earth to raise awareness of the threat to the bay from a planned nuclear power station. I had been heavily involved in anti-nuclear campaigning throughout the 1980’s, so I was completely up for this one. When we arrived there were the usual variety of stalls and in the middle of them, a big marquee. From it drifted interesting sounding music. It was a choir singing acappella style in 4 part harmony. Intrigued, I went in to listen. It was the Caedmon Choir from Gateshead. As I sat down they were singing a piece about the potential price of nuclear- generated electricity. It talked of the horrific consequences of a nuclear accident. ( Chernobyl was not far into the past.) The song built up to a thrilling, intense climax. I was hooked. This is what I could do to help rid myself of that lingering, post-divorce malaise.It would tap into 2 of my main interests — music and political activism.

Up to that point I had associated choirs with church. Both my parents had sung in church choirs for most of their lives. My maternal grand-father had been a choir leader, organist and composer of hymns at the local Methodist chapel. He had also given me piano lessons and so had helped to generate my lifelong love of music. However in my teenage rebel days I had got into pop and rock music in a big way and I associated choirs with the older generation and with boredom. How wrong I was! I needed to do a lot of growing up before I could fully appreciate what a wonderful thing a choir is.

On the Tuesday evening after the weekend festival, I travelled to Gateshead’s Caedmon Hall on public transport. I didn’t have a car at that point, and had to catch 2 buses from my home in Wallsend. It was an awkward journey and I could easily have not bothered, but I was determined to go, even though it was work next morning. I didn’t want to spend another evening moping and marking. I didn’t know Gateshead, the small city that sits across the Tyne from Newcastle, but I eventually found my way and entered a hall full of strangers, sitting on chairs arranged in semi-circles. Caedmon was an Anglo-Saxon monk who was supposed to have been given the gift of song by God in about the 8th or 9th century. His musical legacy is claimed by both Gateshead and Whitby, a seaside town in North Yorkshire, near where I now live. I have never got to the bottom of where Caedmon actually lived , if indeed he existed at all. I don’t think people moved around very much in the so-called “Dark Ages.” Maybe he got “transferred” from one monastery to another like a modern day footballer changing clubs. Anyway, here I was in the Caedmon Hall on a Tuesday night. It was a good evening. I enjoyed the singing and a few people smiled and welcomed me to the choir. Choirs are always glad to see a man walk through the door, as many seem to be perpetually short of tenors and basses. Women seem to be much more open-minded and adventurous than men, willing to try new things away from the pub and the telly.  Most activities I have got involved in, from singing to yoga, from English literature to learning a language, seem to consist of at least three-quarters women and only a quarter men, if that.

As I sat there on my first evening as a chorister, belting out the bass parts, I became aware that I was picking up the baton from my father and  my grandfather before him. Bass singing has been a family tradition. ( My mum, aunties and a female cousin, also did their bit for the sopranos and altos.)  I remembered my Grandad Thomas’s deep, powerful voice reverberating round the chapel on a Sunday evening. I remembered Uncle Ernie ( my mum’s cousin) roaring out the stirring chorus of the Sheffield carol “Diadem” at our Sunday School anniversary — “Crown Him, Crown Him, Crown Him — Crown Him Lord of all!” Another uncle, my mum’s brother, had sung the bass solo parts in productions such as the Messiah.  And of course I remembered my dad powerfully vocalising the bass lines of traditional Christmas carols like ” O Come All Ye Faithful”. All this now welled up inside me as I sang in my first choir. It was a very satisfying experience! Recently. I have been very proud and pleased to hear that one of my daughters has joined one choir and set up another in her home city of  Leeds. She has always been musical and is now continuing what has been a strong, family tradition for at least a century.

I spent many happy years as a member of the Gateshead Caedmon Choir. Some friends were highly amused when I told them, as they misheard it as the “Caveman Choir.” It was and still is, a community choir. Anybody could join irrespective of age, gender or musical ability. There were no auditions. The only restriction on numbers was the size of the hall. We averaged between 20 and 40 members but I believe numbers have recently swelled due to the popularity of choir documentaries such as those presented by Gareth Malone. The choir contained people of all ages and many types. We had a jovial West Indian who was often well lubricted by rum. We had a down and out man who tied up his shabby trousers with rope. We had gays and straights, not that sexuality has anything to do with singing, in my opinion. We had students and retirees. OK, I admit, it included many middle aged and middle class people but there was still quite a variety. The music brought us together and gelled us into one big, happy family.

When I joined, Caedmon Choir, Gateshead had an inspirational leader : Sandra Kerr. I’m sure she won’t mind me name dropping her. She was a talented performer, composer and teacher, and became particularly famous when she composed the music of the children’s TV series “Bagpuss.” She was a hard task-master and set high standards, but her infectious enthusiasm and expert teaching skills drove us to musical heights that we had never dreamt of achieving. We performed all sorts of music — folk, pop, classical, gospel, religious. Sometimes original songs were composed and arranged for us. Joining that choir put me on a steep learning curve and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. Since giving up the piano lessons in my mid teens, my musical development had been pretty spasmodic, as other things rushed in.  I had performed in a Hertfordshire school production of The Mikado when the pupil I was understudying dropped out. That was a brilliant experience but was a one off, which was just as well as my acting was rather wooden .( think Roger Moore). I had also sung with gusto the Yorkshire versions of traditional carols to a brass accompaniment in Sheffield pubs when I lived there. But now, at last, I had the time and inclination to build more consistenly on these musical foundations. Later I moved on to Heaton Voices under the excellent leadership of Richard Scott. Heaton was much closer to my home and I felt I needed the stimulus of a new musical environment. It certainly worked — I enjoyed over 6 exhilerating years there before I moved to Cleveland. The musical directors of my subsequent choirs in Whitby and Middlesbrough have also been great and have extended my skills and repertoire considerably.

The thing about singing is that it is so enjoyable. It lightens the spirit. Sometimes I would turn up at choir full of worries and problems. On such evenings I had seriously considered not going in at all. But by the end of a 2 hour sing I felt like a different person altogether. My low mood had been dispelled and I felt happy and glad to be alive. One of my fellow choristers in Heaton Voices, described on the DVD how she felt light-headed after a choir session, almost as if she was on drugs. She pondered whether it was safe for her to drive home. I have felt the same. Singing is the one sure way of dispelling the clouds and letting the sunshine back in. Listening to music is wonderful and performing it, if anything, is even better.

Choirs are much than just the music of course. They are about people. As outlined above, they are from all walks of life, all abilities, all ages and all shapes and sizes. The best choirs are also non-judgemental, although I acknowledge that this not so attractive human trait has occasionally reared its ugly head. Choirs are groups of people and sometimes there are personality clashes and differences of opinion. It comes with the territory as they say. However, it’s mostly the music and the choir’s common purpose in making it, that wins out. In Caedmon Choir, Heaton Voices, Whitby Communiy Choir and Middlesbrough Town Hall Choir ( my current choir), I have met and am still meeting lots of lovely, interesting people. I have made friends for life from all these singing groups. Many choir members don’t just turn up and sing once a week. They develop a social life, they invite each other to parties, they go away for the weekend and even go on holidays together. All these things have happened to me and have been a major part of my social life over the years. From the choirs I have met friends, walking partners, squash partners and gig and concert going companions. On the DVD is featured a choir member’s 40th birthday gathering with lots of chatting, eating, laughing and semi-drunken singing. On some youth hostelling weekends I have laughed so much that it has hurt. I have taken part in ceilidh dancing, story telling evenings, fun quizzes, clumsy and slightly dangerous sword dancing and any number of crazy party games. It certainly beats staying in and feeling miserable with life.

Choirs have also got me to many interesting places. I took part in the annual National Street Choirs festival for many years with 3 of the choirs I belonged to. We found ourselves singing in shopping centres, churches, concert halls, parks, street corners and town squares in places  as far apart as Brighton, Newcastle upon Tyne and Aberystwyth,  We sang in big cities like Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester and in little towns like Hebdon Bridge, Saltaire and Belper. The feeling of warmth and camaraderie as hundreds of singers join together is incredible and empowering. All the choirs I have been lucky enough to be in have also done valuable charity work, collecting for a variety of good causes especially at Christmas. My present choir at Middlesbrough Town Hall is particularly involved with supporting homeless people and asylum seekers. In fact we have a young Nigerian woman and her son in our choir and she has taught us some great songs. I have sung with people from France, Germany, Ghana, Congo and Iran.

In this age of international argument and conflict with President Trump’s  divisive policies and the British Brexit vote creating barriers between people, I think it is even more important for music to build bridges between nations. At the height of the dispute between Russia and the United Kingdom over the shocking Salisbury poisonings, some choir friends and I went to listen to a Russian Orchestra performing pieces by Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich at Middlesbrough’s Victorian Town Hall. It was a tremendous evening and the applause was thunderous. Music had brought people from 2 disputing nations together. Music destroys barriers and builds bridges.

Music has certainly helped me to turn my life around and ensure that I have a rich and rewarding social life. Last month I was singing in Ripon’s wondrous cathedral, as part of their summer lunchtime concerts programme. One our choir leaders, Dave, is the chief lay tenor in that cathedral’s choir. It was a privilege to sing in such a magnificent building with it’s amazing acoustics. Tonight I’ll be performing with Middlesbrough Town Hall Choir a programme that ranges from: medieval religious music sung in Latin to Bon Jovi’s ” Livin’ on a Prayer” the 1980s rock anthem. ( not my favourite but fun to perform) There will be nearly a hundred of us, the biggest choir I have ever been in. I am nervous but it will be great, and at the end, when the applause hopefully rings out and with the adrenaline pumping, I will feel on top of the world. If you want to have an inkling of how Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger feel, join a performing choir!


Mersey Memories.

31 Jul

The River Mersey — one of Britain’s most famous waterways. It’s so big that it’s had a county named after it — Merseyside( though I’m sure most Liverpudlians still consider themselves as Lancastrians.) It’s so big, that when I first saw it as a kid, I thought its grey, choppy waves were the sea. I grew up in the land-locked county of Derbyshire so I didn’t get to see the real sea very often. It was on the Mersey that I first sailed on a large boat. In fact I travelled on the ferry ‘cross the Mersey, between Liverpool and Birkenhead, many times before Gerry Marsdon and his Pacemakers immortalised it in their hit song of 1964/65. From the mid-50’s to the late 60’s our family travelled on it every year. To me, when I was a small child, the ferry seemed like an enormous ship, whereas when I see photos of it now, I realize that it was just a glorified tug boat. In fact, in the 1960s, there were 3 ferries, sharing the task of carrying people across the wide river estaury. They were called : Mountwood, Woodchurch and Overchurch.

So why did this north midlands family visit Merseyside every year? Well, it all began in the early 1950s when I fell into a boating lake in Colwyn Bay. ( North Wales.) It’s my earliest memory. I think I was about 3 at the time. I had struck up a friendship with

another toddler, a little girl called Margaret. ( my first girlfriend?) We ran excitedly round the rim of the lake, sailing our toy yachts, until suddenly, I slipped and fell in. I still remember being under the water. It’s my earliest memory. Then I saw the blurred, reflected figure of my dad reaching towards me to drag me out. Out I came, shocked, shivering and sopping wet. It was then that my mum uttered the immortal words: ” Oh look, he’s still got his cap on!” She didn’t seem to appreciate that her son had nearly drowned! Well, the incident brought the two families together, as Margaret’s mum had run to the rescue as well. Actually, I think we were already a bit friendly because we were lodging at the same guest house. From then on, Margaret’s parents became my unofficial aunt and uncle. I always referred to them as Auntie Joyce and Uncle Bill. They lived in Wallasey, near Birkenhead, across the river from Liverpool. From that time on, we visited them every year. They sometimes came to see us but Uncle Bill was in a wheel chair, so it was much easier for us to do the travelling, especially as my dad worked on the railways and we could go on 5 free journeys a year. Neither family owned a car, something that was consodered a real luxury for most families in the 1950s.

The annual trip to Merseyside was one of the highlights of the year. We were lucky enough to have a seaside holiday as well but the trip to Liverpool was something different. Instead of sitting in deck-chairs, walking along piers or making sand castles, my sister and I now got a glimpse of a big city ( in fact 2 cities if you count Manchester on the way there), saw huge, glittering shops, ate at a restaurant and went on the aforementioned big boat. It was all very exciting and very different from our everyday life in the relatively small Derbyshire town of Chesterfield. Normally we never ate out as we couldn’t afford to. Eating out was for richer folk I thought. But as soon as we arrived at Liverpool Lime Street station we were whisked up to the top floor of Lewis’s, next door, and had a sit down meal served by uniformed waitresses. OK, it was only a department store cafe and we only had fish and chips, but to me at the time, it seemed very  grand. Even today I remember the waitresses’ frilly white pinafores and the bread that accompanied our meal being cut into neat, dainty triangles. To me, it seemed as if we were being dead “posh.”

Next came the walk through the big, busy city and then the queue to get on the ferry to cross the water. I remember crowds of people and being crammed on to the upper deck as the Liverpool shoreline gradually receded and  Birkenhead slowly came into sharper focus. This was pre- Beatles and pre-Gerry and the Pacemakers, so we had no pop music to accompany us across the water as happens on today’s tourist version of the Mersey ferry. It was a regular, run of the mill commuter service. I may be suffering from false memory syndrone but I seem to recall that we had to pay upon disembarking, an unusual arrangement, which meant queues again. Still it was all very thrilling and different for me at the time.

Even before the big city and the ferry, we had the excitement of the rail journey between Chesterfield and Liverpool. We caught 3 trains all pulled by steam locomotives, changing at Sheffield and Manchester. There were none of the “boring” diesel or electric units in the north in those days. It was the last great hurrah of the age of steam. Being an engine driver’s son, I was a keen trainspotter and here was a chance to spot all sorts of locomotives that I wouldn’t normally see back home. The last leg from Manchester to Liverpool was pulled by a tank engine and we were in carriages that had no corriders and no toilets. I remember my dad once having to hang my little sister out of the window because she was desperate for a wee ( when the train had stopped of course.)

The Liverpool trip got even more exciting as the 60s progressed. By now, I was a teenager and was getting heavily into pop music. In 1963 The Beatles suddenly exploded on to the scene, instantly dating the old rockers, crooners and trad jazz bands that had been dominating the charts. The Beatles of course hailed from Liverpool and all of a sudden it became the trendiest city in the country. Other Mersey groups and artists quickly followed in the Beatles’ powerful wake. Gerry and the Pacemakers had number 1 hits with their first 3 singles. Other hit- making Liverpool groups swiftly followed — Billy K Kramer and the Dakotas, the Big 3, The Swinging Blue Jeans, The Fourmost, The Searchers — just to name a few. The music press dubbed it : “The Mersey Beat.” It seemed that any half decent artist from Merseyside could jump on the bandwagon and enjoy national success. And I’ve not forgotten Cilla Black of course. Liverpool’s Cavern Club became one of the hottest music venues in the country. The Fab Four had played there regularly upon their return from Hamburg. This is where they had honed and polished their act before they got a recording contract and hit the big time.

As a moody adolescent, I might have been expected to be reluctant to get dragged along on a family visit with my  “old-fashioned”parents yet again, but once The Beatles and co had taken off, I didn’t need any persuading to go at all. I was going to the centre of the action. Liverpool was “where it’s at” as they used to say in the 60s. I had  teenage American penfriends in Cleveland and Pittsburgh whose letters were dominated by endless questions about John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Who was my favourite? When was their next record going to be released? Were they going to come to the States?I was their passport to the very heart of the pop music scene. Just for the record, my favourite “mop top” was George Harrison, closely followed by John Lennon. I remember one visit when I was about 15. It coincided with the release date of The Beatles’ latest single: ” Can’t Buy Me Love.” It went straight to Number 1 as so many fans had pre-ordered it. Margaret, now a 15 year old Beatles fan, had pre-ordered it too and she proudly played it to me on the afternoon of its first day of release. It was a genuine thrill. If I had not gone to Liverpool that day I would have had to wait several weeks to save up my pocket money to buy it for myself.( which I eventually did.)

It was no fluke that The Beatles and their contemparies hailed from a major port city such as Liverpool. Soul, Blues and R and B records arrived from America on the trans-Atlantic ships. Much of the Beatles’ early repertoire consisted of covers of American records they had acquired and which were not commonly available in the shops. I can just imagine Lennon, Harrison or McCartney carrying home their vinyl copies of “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers or “Please Mr Postman” by The Marvalettes, as if they were precious trophies. Their city was more multi-cultural than many others, more open to new ideas and thus was a “melting-pot” of musical styles.

In it’s days as one of the great ports of the British Empire, many people passed through Liverpool on their way to the New Worlds of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Between 1830 and 1930 as many as 9 million people emigrated from here. So it was a city of farewells, tears and hopes. Unfortunately, Liverpool was also a major port for the notorious slave trade until slavery was finally banned in the British Empire in the 1830s. In past visits I have visited moving and absorbing exhibitions about emigration and slavery at Liverpool’s excellent and free Maritime Museum on the refurbished Albert Dock.  The museum also has very good archives for private research. I remember the hairs standing up on the back of my neck while researching with my then girlfriend, the drowning of her father in the South China  Seas while working as a ship’s engineer on a White Star Lines ship in the 1950’s. We found the actual record of the voyage and a list of the ship’s crew. D’s father’s name was there, alongside the chilling words: ” Lost at sea.” He had sadly died while trying to rescue a colleague who had fallen overboard off the west coast of Malaysia.

I’ve recently been back to Liverpool to visit some exhibitions. It’s become an important cultural centre with its galleries, theatres and museums, including a major outreach of the Tate. I’ve visited the city regularly over the years. To me, there always seems to be a bit of a buzz about the place. There is invariably a great atmosphere. Most people are friendly, approachable and humourous. It’s days as a great port are over and much of its traditional industries have died out. I’m sure there is still quite a bit of unemployment and poverty there. But there is  a great spirit to the place. It took on the right wing Thatcher government in the 1980s, electing a radical left wing council which virtually declared Merseyide as an independent Socialist Republic. It inevitably lost the fight against the all powerful government but even Mrs Thatcher recognised  Liverpool’s plight and gave it the sop of hosting one of Britain’s first “Garden Festivals” and sending, her minister, Michael Heseltine to Merseyside on a charm offensive. Maybe, even the ruthless “Iron Lady” formed a grudging admiration for the cheerful stoicism and fighting spirit of the Liverpudlians. Who knows?

Say “Liverpool” to people in a word association exercise, and by far the most common responses will be “The Beatles” and football. Both still draw in the crowds today. The city has 2 premier League football clubs — Everton and Liverpool FC– the blues and the reds. Both command a huge fan base and generate great passion and loyalty. This applies not just in Liverpool itself but across the nation and even throughout the world. As Liverpool FC has enjoyed the most success over the years it has attracted the largest number of fans. Many people in Africa, Asia and North America, walk around, proudly wearing the red shirt of Liverpool. Probably only Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona rival them for world wide popularity. People are attracted to success so that they can extract a vicarious pleasure from it.  Liverpool FC has won the top English League, the FA Cup and even the European Cup ( Champions League) on numerous occasions. Back in the 60’s I adopted Liverpool as my second team. Chesterfield FC, my home town club were ( and always will be) my first love but they have perenially been stuck in the lower leagues of English football.  Peer pressure demanded that I support a top club. As most of my mates were pretending to be Manchester United fans even though they had nothing to do with Manchester, I decided to be different and eventually went for Liverpool, even though at the time of my choice they were actually in Division 2 ( now called the Championship.) With my backing they soon got promoted and quickly became one of the top teams in the country, and deadly rivals of Man Utd. I was impressed with Liverpool’s then manager, Bill Shankly and their energetic, attacking style of play. This penchant for Liverpool continued even when I went to college in Manchester, when I could easily have gone to see Best, Charlton and Law or the then stars of Manchester City. I only went to Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC ,once however.  It wasn’t an entirely comfortable experience. It was a top of the table clash against United and I travelled on the train from Manchester with my “Red Devils” supporting mates. We ended up in a pub before the match ( I was about 17 or 18 at the time). We were having a quiet drink, looking forward to the action, when the place was suddenly invaded by Liverpool fans. Ironically, considering I had travelled all that way to support his team, I got spat upon by a Liverpool fan and called “United scum!” The match itself was a tense 0-0 draw but I had to stay very quiet all the way through it because I was stuck in the middle of the away end, and had to endure relentless verbal abuse from the “Kop” opposite us.

I went to Merseyside recently to once again enjoy the culture, the architecture and above all the atmosphere. There are 2 impressive Cathedrals, Anglican and Roman Catholic, on opposite ends of the appropriately named “Hope Street”. Beautiful Georgian buildings grace the hillside above the centre. Three magnificant buildings, the “Three Graces” adorn the river front. They are the Port of Liverpool building, the Cunard Building and the Liver Building, topped by the famous mythical birds. Thanks to these, the Liverpool riverside had been appointed a World Heritage Site by the UN. Unfortunately recent adjacent , unattractive tower blocks have started to put this status at risk.

Tourism plays an increasingly important role in the city’s economy. The Beatles and the football have become the biggest draws. There are Beatles statues on the waterfront, Beatles taxi tours, Beatles open- top bus tours , a recreated Cavern club ( the original one was demolished) and a Beatles Experience museum. I think it’s over the top but plenty of tourists lap it all up. Yet, even I succumbed to the excellent ” John Lennon and Yoko Ono — Double Fantasy” exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool.  It was an absorbing 2 hour journey back into my youth, and was quite emotional at times. I never saw The Beatles live, unfortunately. The chance never came up. My wife Chris, saw them but didn’t hear a thing because of the constant screaming. The nearest I got to the “Mersey Sound”  was the Merseybeats, who were a support act to Traffic at a Chesterfield concert in 1966. However, I was a regular visiter to the city  when it was the “Mecca” of the pop music world. For a host of different reasons, I have been going back ever since. And it’s all thanks to a boating lake accident in a North Wales seaside resort.

Musical memories of the 1990’s.

16 Oct

My music listening reached an intensity in the 90’s that I had not experienced since my late teens. For much of my adult life, as family and work responsibilities crowded in, the luxury of listening to music had been pushed aside. But now, in my early forties, deeply wounded by divorce and the destruction of much of my previous life, music became my solace and my saviour. After a hard day at work, I could unwind at home by putting on the headphones and listen to a whole album without interruption. I switched off the light and allowed myself to be completely taken over by the sounds feeding into my head. It was a blessed escape and a small but important consolation for the pain of separation from my family.

As the 1990’s dawned I was freshly ensconced in my post-divorce flat in North Tyneside. It was the beginning of a new era for me. Upon leaving my marital home I had grabbed my most precious vinyl LPs (Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, The Doors , The Velvet Underground etc) to take with me to my new life, but most of the family’s large record collection stayed right where it was, for the hopeful edification of my children and my ex-wife. So I wasn’t only starting again emotionally and socially, I was starting over in music too. I had to build up a new collection, beginning almost from scratch. As it was, many music fans were also busily re-purchasing their record collections, this time on CD , the new format which was rapidly replacing vinyl. That was a great trick by the music industry– getting us all to buy our music collections twice! It’s yet another example of how technology drives our lives in the modern world. However, as it so happened, it suited my circumstances to abandon vinyl ( though never completely jettisoning it). I now embraced the new format. I purchased a second-hand music player from a friend, erected a neat stacking system of shelves and started filling them with shiny new Compact Discs. My old vinyl LP sleeves, I used to decorate the walls!

My musical experience in the 1990’s and beyond was not just about listening though. It was also about taking part. No I didn’t form a rock band, but I did join a folk choir. I heard the Caedmon Choir singing in a Friends of the Earth anti- nuclear festival at Druridge Bay in Northumberland. ( This beautiful stretch of coastline was being threatened by the building of a Nuclear Power station.) They were (are) named after an Anglo-Saxon monk in north-east England, who was supposedly given the power of song by God. I was so impressed with Caedmon Choir’s performance  and repertoire, that I decided to join them. I knew I had a decent bass-baritone voice but had previously only sung at church as a kid and in a school production , as a teacher, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” So I travelled to Gateshead’s Caedmon Hall one dark, cold Tuesday evening and joined the acappella, 4 part harmony, mixed choir that  was to become a regular feature of my life for the next 14 years or so. ( I later joined other choirs and still enjoy being a member of the excellent Middlesbrough Town Hall Choir.) We sang a mixture of folk, pop, gospel, classical and World music, led by the renowned singer-songwriter Sandra Kerr. We did gigs and even recorded a couple of albums.( I later found a cassette version of one of them: “Angry, Gentle People”, being sold for 50p in a charity shop — so I bought it!) It was all very exhilarating. Apart from enjoying the music, I made lots of good friends. Amongst others, I sang alongside  Rachel and Becky Unthank ( and their mum Pat) who were later to become famous alternative- folk recording artists.( I promise this will be the last name drop in this blog!)  We sang at concert halls, community halls, hospitals and care homes, as well as in shopping centres and on street corners. The whole choir experience sharpened my musical skills. It  developed my musical knowledge and appreciation immeasurably.

Meanwhile, back in my flat I bought an expensive, Japanese keyboard and started playing a lot more again. I had learnt piano as a child. I played light classical, pop, blues and a bit of jazz, though not very well. I acquired a lodger, M, who was a friend of a friend, and he just happened to be the editor of the periodical: “Keyboard Monthly”. He helped me choose the Korg and introduced me to new music and artists. One day he interviewed Tori Amos and later I went with him to see her show at Newcastle’s Opera House. She put on a mesmerising, dynamic performance, her sweet but powerful, soaring voice interweaving with the 2 keyboards that she played both alternately and simultaneously. ( shades of Keith Emerson here.) Tori Amos was to became one of my favourite musicians of the 90’s. I quickly acquired her first 2 albums :”Little Earthquakes” and “Under the Pink” and played them to death in my little flat. I then bought the rest of her output. I found her singing intense and unique. She used her mezzo-soprano voice as another instrument,  accompanying her piano-driven songs. Her lyrics were interesting too. They dealt with serious subjects such as sexuality, politics, feminism and religion. They even featured a tale of sexual abuse. I believe many of them were semi- autobiographical. Like most great artists, Tori Amos creates her own world which one can immerse oneself in. I missed my family, but one small compensation of living alone was that I had more time to listen to music. This meant that initially difficult music would become more accessible after repeated hearings.

To the uninitiated, Amos might have sounded like an American Kate Bush, with her high pitched, swooping and soaring vocals. However, once given time, she emerges with her own distinctive, compelling style. In fact, Amos ironically later led me back to the work of Kate Bush, particularly “Hounds of Love” and her 21st century albums. I had previously dismissed Bush as an irritating “screecher”, but now, I came to appreciate her genius and become a fully paid up member of the fan club. Better late than never, as they say.

Not surprisingly, the 90’s were just as complicated musically as the previous decade. The music scene had splintered into a  whole myriad of genres, styles and artists. I was now in my 40’s, so teenage pop had little interest to me, except to keep up with what my  pupils were listening to. Thus I didn’t bother with boy bands like “Take That” or girl bands like the pseudo-feminists, “The Spice Girls.” I ignored the bubble gum pop of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Although it is now highly revered, the so-called” “Grunge” rock of “Nirvana” and “Pearl Jam” , also failed to grab me, maybe because I wasn’t an alienated adolescent feeling disenchanted with the established adult world. My mid-life crisis had consigned my teenage angst to the dim and distant past. I was still a big rock fan though and the stuff I particularly liked was dubbed “alternative rock” by the critics.

I  loved the American garage rock band REM whom I had belatedly discovered in the late 80’s.  In the 1990s, they managed the difficult task of achieving mainstream popularity whilst still retaining critical acclaim.  REM were a constantly evolving band who kept their edge. I particularly liked their first two 90’s albums: “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People”, which  achieved massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. The former had a baroque, acoustic feel using a variety of string instruments to go alongside the guitars. The latter had a more subdued, moody atmosphere with sudden, thrilling explosions of electric guitar. The songs dealt with deep subjects such as mortality and spirituality, had interesting lyrics and often beautiful melodies. I found Michael Stipe’s vocal style compelling. In the 90’s, REM emerged from their previous obscurity to become a major stadium rock band, although inevitably some of their subtlety and sensitivity had to be sacrificed in the live performances. Maybe this is why they put out a more strident, heavy rock album: “Monster” in the middle of the decade. I bought this but didn’t find it as satisfying as their earlier offerings.

I was lucky enough to see REM live at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield stadium which normally hosted international rugby matches. I lashed out and bought a transport and concert package for my eldest daughter, Joanna, her partner Al and myself. We travelled up from Newcastle upon Tyne in a large convoy of double decker buses, listening to REM classics all the way up through Northumberland and into Scotland. Unfortunately, our driver got lost in Edinburgh and we nearly missed the start of the concert. Even we diehard fans got rather sick of “Losing my Religion” and “Man on the Moon” by the time we had listened to them for the twentieth time! But we made it in the end and enjoyed a great show, even though we had to sit in plastic seats and swivel our heads to the left to see the stage. REM were supported by the Irish folk/rock band “The Cranberries” who were very popular at the time. I liked them too and bought their first 2 albums. ( strong melodies, beautifully sung and played.)

I continued to like folk rock. As well as the Cranberries, I kept up with the Waterboys’ output and had a spell of liking The Levellers, another celtic band with a more political edge, as can be deduced from their name. (The original Levellers were enlightened but ill-fated mid 17th century revolutionaries.) After a while their earnest lyrics and strident style began to grate on me, but not before I went to see them perform really well at Newcastle’s atmospheric Mayfair club, along with the equally good Chumbawamba. Unfortunately that gig, which I attended with my second daughter, Catherine, was marred by a terrible accident, when someone fell off a balcony and later died. It rather put rock music into perspective! Also in the folk-rock mode were the excellent Oyster Band, who like The Levellers featured an electric violinist and had a real edge.  The Oysters led me to the superb June Tabor as they made a joint album with her. Her wonderful haunting voice and melancholic folk songs made her one of my favourites. A Tabor gig was always totally engrossing.

June Tabor in turn led me to appreciate the excellent bluesy guitar playing and strong singing of her right hand man: Martyn Simpson. I regularly went to see him too, when he launched out as a solo performer. Although he moved from Manchester to far away New Orleans, he seemed to pop up in Tyneside very regularly.

I was lucky to live in the north east of England where there was a multitude of musical venues, large and small. My local Buddle Arts Centre in Wallsend featured lots of talented singers and musicians. I remember going to see  Robin Williamson, of Incredible String Band fame, perform there, lacing his other-wordly songs with magical stories. I also saw Peggy Seeger perform although she must have been well into her 70’s by then. The gig was uncomfortable though as she was still very much the militant feminist, blaming men for all the world’s ills, so being a man, I was made to squirm in my seat quite a lot! Tyneside also had its own resident singer-songwriter and superb guitarist: Isaac Guillary, who sadly only achieved local fame. Going back to the folk scene I enjoyed the celtic music of Capercaille, their reels and jigs interspersed with beautifully sung gaelic ballads. I saw them at the now defunct Riverside club. My lodger had bought me one of their lovely albums for Christmas.

I suppose one of the most famous musical “events” of the 1990’s was the emergence of “Britpop”. This was largely a contrived label made up by the press to help sell its papers. It also helped to sell lots of records of the four main groups involved: Oasis, Blur, Pulp and Suede. British pop/rock groups of the mid-90’s were hyped up to be the modern successors of the famous bands of the 6o’s. The media got excited that the Brits seemed to be conquering the pop world once again. A typical example of this hype was the so-called “Battle of the bands” when the latest singles by Oasis and Blur were supposed to be having a race to be Number 1. Just for the record, Blur won. Well, where did I stand in all this? I must hold up my hands and admit that, rightly or wrongly, I’ve never shown much interest in Suede. Maybe I should stream them now and give them a belated chance?  They just never caught my ear. One can never say the same about Oasis, who were probably the most hyped band of the four. Oasis were in your face all the time and seemed to take up permanent residence in the tabloids with their “bad boy” antics and controversial pronouncements. I didn’t like them at all despite their incredible success.( or maybe because of their incredible success.) I found their guitar based sound quite derivative of 60’s groups like The Beatles and their unsavoury behaviour to be a pale imitation of the Stones or the Pistols. I was irritated by their whining singing style and hated their sneering arrogance. I got to hear their songs because they were never off the radio but I never got to like them or their music. I felt they were greatly over-rated.

So that left Blur and Pulp. I liked Blur but never grew to love them. I could see their songs were clever and well performed and I admired the way they constantly experimented with different instruments and styles. I particularly enjoyed the LP “13” which included both electronic and gospel elements, which takes some doing in the same album. The lyrics of Damon Albarn were thoughtful and increasingly personal. They could also be great fun as in the highly enjoyable “Parklife” album which celebrated their cockney roots. However, I think much of my appreciation of Blur’s music came retrospectively, looking at their back-catalogue after listening to their strange but stimulating  “Think Tank” album in the early noughties.

Pulp were my big love out of the so-called Britpop big 4. My daughter, Catherine, put me on to them, as again, I was a bit slow on the uptake. With my advancing age, roles were now being reversed.  I was now getting recommendations from my children. Pulp had been going since 1978 but only hit it big  two decades on. I enjoyed all their excellent 90s albums: “His ‘n’ Hers”, “Different Class” and “This is Hardcore”. I also went to see them at Newcastle City Hall with Jarvis Cocker putting on a fabulous show-man’s performance. The group had a driving, pop-rock sound with catchy keyboards complementing the guitars. But it’s Cocker’s witty, earthy, often challenging lyrics that makes Pulp’s sound so distinctive. They deal with serious subjects ranging from sex to social class, from the perils of fame to the dangers of drugs, but they often approach them in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Much of the music is dramatic and often looks at the dark side of life. Some are like mini operas. I  remember listening to and thrilling to the tracks of Different Class, especially the title track and L.O.V.E. The latter struck a deep chord with me as I was embarking on a post-marriage love affair at the time and the lyrics captured the raw intensity of the feelings that were coursing through me. And at the same time Jarvis always had that ability to make you laugh with his wry comments on the absurdities of everyday life and his playful but compelling  vocal performances. Yes, to me, “Pulp” easily won the battle of the bands. A little later, Catherine also introduced me to the grandiose, lush pop and clever, quirky lyrics of Neil Hannon’s  brilliant”Divine Comedy” Thy became another long term favourite of mine.

In the 90’s I discovered 3  great American female singer-songwriters apart from the aforementioned Tori Amos  — Mary Chapin Carpenter, Alison Kraus and Lucinda Williams. For this I have to thank a friend and a magazine. G., the friend, was a fellow chorister who also became my squash partner ( a vitally important role) and music gig buddy. She went on a road trip to the southern states of the USA and while driving around in her hire car, she listened non-stop to some of the many American radio stations that crowded the airwaves.  She subsequently ended up spending much of her holiday money on CDs! She kindly “burnt” a few copies for me and it was through this that I grew to love Mary Chapin Carpenter. She had been packaged as a country singer but really she was ( and is) a superb singer-songwriter . I loved her 1992 album “Come On, Come On” and then quickly bought everything else she had recorded. She mixed up-tempo, driving country-rock with tender, emotional, personal songs. Her lyrics often spoke to me as I negotiated the ups and downs of my unstable post-marriage world . Most of all I found her rich voice so soothing and beautiful. I was also lucky to see her live at York’s Barbican centre — an excellent show shared with Shaun Colvin, who I also grew to like. The warmth of Mary Chapin’s personality shone through and made it a very special evening.

It was the same story with Alison Kraus. She possesses an absolutely exquisite voice and I fell in love with her blue-grass style music after acquiring several excellent albums and going to see her in concert. Kraus led me into an appreciation of a whole new genre of popular music, as I had never considered blue-grass before. It was exciting to branch out  and explore new musical worlds. I in fact became interested in American roots music in general, a genre that was increasing in popularity under the heading of “Americana.” I was to discover a rich vein of new artists by going along this route. All this brings me to the magazine that I mentioned earlier. “Uncut” specialises in music and film  and once I got into it and took out a subscription, a whole wealth of music fell into my lap. Every month it also included a sampler CD so one could listen to some of the music that was being reviewed. Thus I discovered the excellent Gillian Welch and her down to earth but lovely roots music recorded with Dave Rawlings, sometimes in her own living room. One day I read a letter from someone who said he couldn’t stop playing “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” by Lucinda Williams. So I took a risk and went out and bought it. This was before the age of music streaming and youtube. ( at least for me it was.) Pretty soon I couldn’t stop playing it either. It’s a classic southern country rock album, with strong, haunting songs and dynamic guitar work . Lucinda’s voice expresses raw, searing emotion, all delivered in her rich Texan drawl. Fantastic!

The trouble with music blogs is that it’s difficult to avoid boring lists. That’s often how we categorise pop music — into charts, and catalogues of names and titles. UNCUT magazine is a serial offender. The thing about “Best Of” music lists is that they are totally subjective. Someone will always disagree with your choices or get upset and even angry if you’ve missed their choices out. As this is a purely personal blog I make no apologies if I have omitted your favourites. When the list is retrospective, memory also plays a part in perhaps distorting the original picture. I’ve tried to give a flavour of my musical experiences and preferences from the 1990s, and some of the events surrounding them. Even as I try to wind this blog up, more musical memories flood into my mind: the thrilling feminist anger of Alanis Morrissette on her mega album “Jagged Little Pill”; the  futuristic, electronic soundscapes and weird but wonderful singing of Bjork: the 90’s offerings of Neil Young, especially “Harvest Moon” and “Rockin’ in the Free World”; the exciting  hip-hop tinged rock of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers; the powerful songs and sensational singing of Jeff Buckley, son of the incomparable Tim, on his only album “Grace” ( before his young life was cut tragically short); the bombastic, wild, witty art-rock of Oklahoma’s “The Flaming Lips”. I will even admit to obsessively listening to the top selling, radio friendly albums of Dido and David Grey, before I suddenly got sick of them. Then there were the artists such as Mary Black and Eddie Reader, whom I loved for their beautiful voices but whose material gradually got more and more comfortable and middle of the road, until I stopped listening. I also remember a phase of constantly listening to Cheryl Crow, but then dropped her as suddenly as I had discovered her. The Beat goes on, as Cher used to sing.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my musical journey through the 90’s. It was a turbulent decade for me personally, but no matter whether I was ecstatically happy or totally depressed, I could always find something to match my mood and lift my spirits. Playing, singing and listening to music help me negotiate through the emotional minefield.

PS — All that, and I still forgot to name-check The Verve! Their “Urban Hymns ” was one of my top albums of the later 90’s.

1980s- Musical memories.– from synthesizers to CDs and everything inbetween.

22 Apr

Move to Newcastle upon Tyne.
On the cusp of the 1980s I hit 30 years old and got a new job in North Tyneside. My young family and I moved from Sheffield up to Whitley Bay on the North East coast. From a musical point of view this was a very good move. Newcastle City Hall had many more mainstream gigs than its equivalent in South Yorkshire. Having been virtually starved of live music in the last half of the 70s, I was now presented with a veritable feast of concert opportunities throughout the bulk of the new decade. However, my most indelible musical memory of the 80s was not at the City Hall but at Newcastle United’s football ground, St James’s Park. Here, in the summer of 1985, I was lucky enough to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on their fabulous “Born in the USA” World Tour. From a live music point of view, it was one of those “Road to Damascus” moments. Acquiring a friend of a friend’s spare ticket, I accidently stumbled upon the most dynamic and thrilling live rock show in the World.( and I’ve seen a few.)
The Ups and Downs of the Decade.
The 1980s was to be a tumultuous decade, both personally and musically. Those 10 years witnessed the birth of our son, who joined his 2 sisters to complete the family; a crisis at work which resulted in me being granted a year’s secondment to study at Newcastle University; a crisis at home which led to the break up of my marriage; a mid-life crisis (as I approached the dreaded 40), and eventually setting up in a place of my own. All these events were played out to a background of popular music. I partied to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Soft Cell and drowned my sorrows with Tracey Chapman or The Cure. I had music to suit most occasions and moods. I wasn’t a depressed teenager so the downbeat offerings of The Smiths did not initially appeal to me. So it was only later that I came to appreciate their haunting melodies and provocative lyrics. The same thing happened with The Stone Roses. I discovered them in subsequent decades but now revere their peerless first album as a timeless classic. Better late than never as they say. I tried the same trick with The Joy Division, belatedly purchasing their second album “Closer”, but never got into their depressing, doom-laden sound.

Trying to Keep Up.
Obviously, by the time of the 1980s I had left my adolescence far behind. I no longer had the luxury of listening to pop music whenever I pleased. I had other priorities such as: teaching career, family and political campaigning to take up much of my time. Therefore it was impossible to keep up with the myriad of musical trends, the latest releases or new artists. I fell further and further behind, such that whole movements and major new performers appeared on the scene with me only being vaguely aware of them. As well as a constant “to do” list , I also had a “to listen to” list which I never got near to the bottom of. For a time I beat myself up for not keeping up, but I then sensibly decided to do just what I could and not worry about falling behind. After-all, it was not a race and nobody was judging me except perhaps myself. This was still a pre-Internet age for the majority of the public, including myself. Getting to know new music was not a question of You-Tubing, Spotifying or instantly downloading. One had to tune-in to lots of radio or spend hours in the listening- booths of the high street record stores – all very time-consuming.
The task of keeping up became all the more complicated in the 80s because of the multiplicity of styles and genres that appeared. Once upon a time, life had seemed so simple — a straight choice between classical and pop. Now the popular music scene was fragmenting at a frantic pace. I was faced with a mind-boggling choice between: rap, hip hop, techno, House, funk, soul, folk, reggae, country, blues, New Romantic, New Wave, heavy metal, hard rock, soft rock, Indie, Goth, synth pop, post punk and uncle Tom Cobbly and all! It gives me a headache just to think about it all. As one commentator noted, it was a decade that refused to be pinned down.
Watching Top of the Pops.
We still watched Top of the Pops on Thursday nights as a family. It was past its sell by date and had included lots of gimmicky novelty- acts in the latter years of the 70s. However it helped us to keep up with some of the latest musical trends and fashions even though many of them didn’t appeal. I was still a rock fan really. So the soundtrack of the family as we moved north was the driving, aggressive rock of Chrissie Hinde’s “Pretenders” and the witty, jazz-infused rock ‘n roll of Ian Dury and the Blockheads. “Brass in Pocket” and “Hit Me With Your Rhythmn Stick”, both Number 1 singles at the turn of the decade, were big hits in our family too. We went on to buy multiple albums by both groups. Apparently, Dury and his group was a top live act of “New Wave” music, so that’s at least one item ticked off the above list. But labels like “New Wave” don’t really appeal to me. They are often artificial constructions made up for the convenience of music journalists. I wasn’t bothered whether they were New Wave or not. I was just attracted by the driving rhythms and Dury’s amusing Music Hall- style word- play. I was later lucky enough to attend gigs by both The Pretenders and Dury’s Blockheads ( just before he prematurely died) in Newcastle. Both put on dynamic and exciting performances. And it had all started with good old Top of The Pops!
The New Romantics.
As I switched on my screen or turned the pages of the music press in the early 80’s it soon became apparent that mainstream musical fashion had changed yet again. I was no longer confronted with angry, foul mouthed punks festooned with piercings and thrashing their guitars to death. ( as you can see I wasn’t very enamoured of the Punk Rock movement). Now, I was faced with groups festooned in flamboyant clothes such as frilly fop shirts, and sporting a variety of extravagant hairstyles. These were the “New Romantics” who in many ways reminded me of the mods from the 60s. Some of them, following in the footsteps of Bowie and Roxy Music, wore cosmetics such as eye-liner and lipstick, cultivating an androgynous, gender-bending look. However, although it obviously appealed to the latest generation of teenagers, it did not grab me, mainly because I saw it as a fashion movement rather than a musical progression. Thus I never took groups such as Ultravox, Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran seriously. To me they were just pretty “boy bands” who had little musical merit. I found their offerings overwrought and largely vacuous. Another popular group I rejected was Adam and the Ants, who thought make-up and silly costumes could compensate for lack of talent. Their commercial success was another example of the triumph of style over substance. As you can see, I was now starting to show my age by dismissing the younger generation’s musical choices ( just as my own teenage music had been derided by my parents and their peers, back in the 60s.) Life goes on and history constantly repeats itself.
MTV and the Pop Video.
Part of the reason for the rise of the image- driven “New Romantics” was the emergence of the pop video as a major way of marketing music. This huge new development was kick-started by the creation of MTV, an American television channel that played wall to wall music videos. It was the time when viewers in America were no longer restricted to a few main TV channels but now had many more cable channels of varying quality, to choose from. This development was parodied by Springsteen in his song:”69 Channels and Nothing On.” The cable and satellite TV revolution was to follow in Britain a little later and we now have many more channels than a mere 69. The actual video tape was also a completely new thing for most people in the 1980s. Before, we could only watch a TV programme when it was broadcasted. It was very restricting. Now, with the aid of a video tape, one could choose to watch a programme or a film whenever one wanted, could pause the entertainment in order to make a cup of coffee, could rewind to see an important scene again and could fast forward through the boring bits. All this is taken for granted these days but was a wonderfully liberating new piece of technology in the 80s. I remember going to friends for video evenings which also featured another new 80s development in Britain — the take- out pizza delivered to your door. It was all very exciting and novel. MTV and the advent of the pop video completely transformed the music scene. It was a god-send for TV shows like TOTP because they no longer had to book the live artist to perform their song. Now it was just a simple case of playing their video.
Reservations about Pop Videos.
All this sounds great but I had several reservations. Instead of being judged on their musical merits, artists were now judged on the qualities of their videos. People who had the glossiest, slickest videos got more TV airplay and publicity than those who had less flashy offerings or could not afford to produce anything at all. In other words, the new system discriminated against musicians who did not have much money to splash around. It seemed so unfair. This was even criticised by some successful groups such as Dire Straits in their facetious top seller “Money for Nothing.”
I also thought the video often seriously hampered the listening experience. No longer were we allowed to just listen to the lyrics and paint a picture in our minds. Now a film director and photographer were hijacking our imaginations and imposing their own vision of what the song was about. It was all very irritating and distracting. I was annoyed that a moderate singer like Madonna, a purveyor of routine dance music, was quickly elevated to super-star status on the back of her mastery of image, media manipulation and marketing. It seemed that musical ability and vocal skills were now of secondary importance. Duran Duran also swept to the top of the charts on the back of their expensive videos in exotic locations, even though their music was distincly run of the mill. Musical giants such as Springsteen didn’t even bother with videos, until forced to by their record companies and broadcast media demands. MTV has a lot to answer for! It’s heavily ironic that the very first music video played on the game-changing channel was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Focus had changed from music and lyrics to fashion and theatrics.
Masters of the Pop Video.
Of course some of the videos were great and despite everything, actually enhanced the music. A prime example was David Bowie who quickly transferred his flair for performance art from stage to screen. I enjoyed both his music and his vivid imagery. Also memorable were the dynamic productions of Michael Jackson in support of his record selling “Thriller” album. I enjoyed his urgent singing and whirlwind dancing but never actually bought the album as I didn’t fancy listening to track after track of relentless dance music.
Synth Pop.
Another dominant feature of early 80s music was the synthesizer. So many groups based their sound on it that the term “Synth Pop” was coined. I had first heard and enjoyed the synthesizer in the late 60s and early 70s when it was a central component of the music of The Moody Blues. It had also been pioneered by Kraftwork and Tangerine Dream in the 70s. However, guitars and drums mostly continued to dominate until suddenly it seemed that almost every new group had to consist of a singer backed by a synth player. Leading the charge into the charts were : Yazoo, Gary Numan, The Thompson Twins ( all 3 of them), Soft Cell, The Pet Shop Boys and of course Eurythmics. At first synthesizer-driven pop and rock sounded a bit artificial, mechanical and even sterile. It lacked the warmth and subtleties provided by other instruments. However it was something new and interesting and we all quickly got used to it. Although I never liked Numan’s cold, robotic offerings, I did enjoy quite a few of the others. Yazoo had a great singer: Alison Moyet, whom I still like to listen to today. The Pet Shop Boys produced moody epics about seedy urban life. I found their music evocative and atmospheric and often listened to it on my headphones late at night when I was in a melancholy mood. I loved Marc Almond’s Soft Cell with his sexually ambiguous looks, and soulful singing, also focussing on the sleazy side of life, all to an insistent electronic beat. “Tainted Love” and especially “Goodbye and Hello” were favourite tracks of mine.
Pre-eminent though were “Eurythmics”, who were to become one of my top groups of the 80s and beyond. Lennox’s superb singing whether belting out a rocker or extracting more subtle and gentle emotions was one of their main assets. But the songs were memorable too with driving, hypnotic beats, haunting, minor key melodies and increasingly dark, obsessive lyrics that lingered in the mind. They were masters of style and image too, producing powerful and unusual videos to back up their excellent music. Annie sported a whole range of striking looks and was not afraid to do a bit of gender bending. Like Madonna, Lennox was a stylistic chameleon, but unlike Madonna, Annie could sing with real feeling and the group she was in produced original and memorable music. As the decade progressed, so did Eurythmics. They were a movable feast. They morphed into a rock group with Stewart on electric guitar, they employed other musicians and backing singers as they saw fit, and they were not afraid to indulge in electronic experimentation in the studio. They constantly pushed the boundaries, driven on by Stewart’s creative musicianship ( it’s not surprising that he later went into production) and Lennox’s superb songs. Eurythmics provided a consistent soundtrack to my decade.
Straits and Stranglers.
I still loved guitar groups though. I continued to follow Mark Knoppler’s “Dire Straits” especially when he sang about the area where we lived — Cullercoats and Whitley Bay on the lyrical album “Making Movies”. I went to see them 2 or 3 times at Newcastle City hall, including taking my teenage daughter Joanna. They were all great gigs. However I slowly tired of them when they added extra musicians ( keyboard and sax players) and started to cultivate a grandiose, bigger sound. I found it overblown. As they become more full of themselves they became more middle of the road, used as background at dinner parties and played in many a BMW.( I imagine.) I didn’t even bother buying their massive selling “Brothers in Arms”. Another City Hall favourite were The Stranglers, who had calmed down a bit from their wild punk days and began to produce hypnotic, keyboard based, mood music based on the excellent songs of Hugh Cornwall. I adored their single “Golden Brown” even though it was about drug taking. In a way their music reminded me a bit of The Doors with their emphasis on organ riffs. I enjoyed most of their 80s output and their concerts were great. It could get pretty wild at the City Hall. I remember fans rushing on to the stage in the middle of Stranglers gigs and being thrown back into the crowd by the bouncers. I’m glad I wasn’t sitting on the first few rows! However, when Cornwell left in an acrimonious split, I lost interest, as he was the creative heart and soul of the group. Also at Newcastle City hall I enjoyed concerts by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and bought their first 2 excellent albums.
American Rock.
American rock bands were always high on my listening agenda. Springsteen and the E Street band with their energetic, stunning live shows took pride of place. I saw them at the aforementioned St James’ Park and later at Bramhall Lane, Sheffield on the equally brilliant “Tunnel of Love” tour. Both of those nights lived long in the memory.( I have already written about them on a previous blog, so I won’t go on now.) Other American rockers I followed were Bob Seger ( and the Silver Bullet band) and Tom Petty ( plus his Heartbreakers.) Petty was also a leading light in the Traveling Wilburys, a sort of loose “super-group” formed by George Harrison and friends in the late 8o’s The other members were Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynn. They were a staple of every party I attended at that time, and I loved their easy-going, chugging along, catchy songs.
Live Aid and Mandela Day.
The 1980s had two big musical events which were given wall- to- wall coverage on the TV — one was Live Aid, to raise funds for the victims of the Ethiopian famine and the other was a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday which doubled up as a protest against South African Apartheid. You can tell how long ago it was as Mandela was still languishing in jail. Both events brought a lot of new music to my ears and the great opportunity to see artists performing live. The Live Aid event was actually two 2 simultaneous music extravaganzas, one in London, the other in Philadelphia. It was a great opportunity to catch up. Queen were supposed to have stolen the London show but I had no time for their pretentious, over the top showiness. The groups who caught my eye (and ears) were U2 and Simple Minds, both darlings of big stadium, anthemic rock. I found their performances exciting and immediate and followed up by purchasing several albums. These included U2’s classic ” The Joshua Tree. They were one of my favourite acts for a while but after they achieved worldwide fame and became increasingly bombastic, I gradually tired of them. I followed a similar trajectory with Simple Minds, losing interest after they became mainstream. This was a trait of mine — to turn away from many artists once they were famous. I was still more comfortable with undiscovered, so called “Underground” musicians.
Singer Songwriters.
The Mandela event enabled me to see Eurythmics, Sting and Dire Straits ( with Eric Clapton guesting) put in great live performances. It also introduced me to Tracey Chapman, a previously unknown American singer songwriter. I loved her soulful singing style which had such an edge to it. Her subjects were edgy too, dealing with racial tension, violence, revolution and poverty as well as the usual joys and heartaches of sexual politics. Apparently she was given a longer set than planned because Stevie Wonder had had his keyboard, computer and other equipment stolen. Welcome to London! He later appeared to do one song backed by a galaxy of musicians who had scrambled together to help him. Another favourite singer songwriter of mine to emerge in the 80s was Suzanne Vega. I liked her sparse voice backed by subtle guitars and violins. Her melodies were often haunting and her lyrics interesting and clever, featuring word-play such as similes and metaphors. Vega’s subjects ranged from medieval knights, to having a cup of coffee in a café, to serious issues such as child abuse.( in her famous song “Luka.”) I went to see her a couple of times and the concerts were magical and spell- binding. Yet another singer songwriter I liked and admired was Billy Bragg with his overtly political lyrics in support of socialism. His was a necessary voice in that bleak, oppressive era of Thatcherism.
Chance Discoveries of New Artists,
New artists arrived at my door by a variety of means. My post- marriage life was initially sad but at least it gave me opportunities to meet new people and come across new music. Some of it had been around for a while, but it was new stuff to me. In one friend’s house, my ears suddenly pricked up at the magical opening strains of “Fisherman’s Blues”, the folk-rock classic of The Waterboys. Meanwhile, at another friend’s place, I was given a welcome crash-course in the exhilarating Afro-funk rhythms of David Byrne’s “Talking Heads.” Both groups have since established a major presence in my music collection. Catching on to them a little late, I proceeded to embark on a retrospective but exciting exploration of their repertoire. My appreciation of Talking heads was enhanced by the brilliant concert movie “Stop making Sense” by Jonathan Demme. It encapsulated the essence of their live performance and the flair and charisma of Byrne himself.
African Rhythms.
The African influence was strong on the 80s. Not only did we have Mandela’s “party” which featured leading South African musicians, and the insistent Afro beats of Talking Heads, but we were also treated to the evergreen Paul Simon reviving his career with the inspiring “Graceland” album. Everyone I knew bought it and played it constantly( including me). It was like a huge breath of fresh air — new rhythms, new instruments, new harmonies. And it was all welded together by Simon’s smooth, soothing voice and his clever, quirky lyrics.
My final major musical revelation of the 1980s came via the unusual medium of a glossy Sunday newspaper magazine. I was just settling down to read the sport’s section when my eye caught the headline: “REM — The Worlds Top Rock Band?” I abandoned the football reports and started to read about a great “garage rock” band that had emerged from the south of the USA several years before. I had hardly heard of them I’m ashamed to say. That chance article sent me on another illuminating voyage of discovery covering every album from 1981’s “Murmur” onwards. I now regard them as one of the all time greats.
Summary of My Musical 80s.
Although it is now fashionable to deride the 1980s, for me they were another golden age of music. I have only mentioned a fraction of the stuff I enjoyed. From late night listening to Sade, allowing myself to be enjoyably introspective while listening to the Goth Rock of The Cure, jumping around the kitchen to Bruce, Tina Turner and any number of rockers, grooving to Fleetwood Mac ( “Tango in the Night) and Eurythmics, it was a great decade. I have tried to avoid boring lists and have attempted to give you a flavour of my musical journey through those eventful 10 years. I bought many albums and saw numerous gigs both in the flesh and on the screen. It was a great era for live music.
Cassettes and CDs.
But the 80’s music scene was also driven by technological developments. Apart from the aforementioned music video and MTV, that era was also the golden age of the cassette tape. I spent many a merry hour dubbing compilations to swap with mates or try to impress girlfriends. I always felt a bit guilty ( “Illegal taping is Killing Music”) but couldn’t resist the temptation. I consoled my conscience by buying most of the albums anyway. Finally of course there was the advent of the CD which quickly pushed vinyl on to the dusty attic shelves. ( at least for the time being.) It was a whole new and simpler way of playing music and stopped us worrying about whether we should change that scratchy stylus.
That decade was a typical example of the frenetic, kaleidoscopic world of popular music. I couldn’t have got through all the trials and tribulations of the 80s without it!

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.

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!

The Soundtrack Of My Early Years.

8 Dec

  I have always been thought of as musical. I read music, play the piano ( though not very well), sing in a choir, have a large CD collection and regularly attend concerts and gigs. It’s unthinkable to contemplate a life devoid of music. I probably have inherited this love of music and music-making from my family. The musical gene has been passed down through the generations.

  My earliest musical memories all centre around my maternal grandfather — Thomas Robert Bottoms. Grandad was the choir leader at the local Methodist church, played the organ and the violin and even composed a few hymns. During the General Strike of 1926, when he was officially employed at the iron and steel works, he moonlighted at the local cinema, playing his violin to accompany the action on the silent screen. Grandad was also a powerful singer, belting out the bass lines of traditional non-conformist hymns such as Diadem ( ” Crown Him, Crown Him, Crown Him! Crown him Lord of all!). Before my dad was given permission to go out with my mum, he had to pass an audition for the choir and was quickly slotted into the bass section.

  Thomas conducted the local brass brass band as well as doing all of the above. It was called the New Whittington Silver Band. ( New Whittington is an area of Chesterfield, Derbyshire, in England’s East Midlands.) My mum was taken along to many of the band rehearsals and was adopted as the band’s mascot. She tells me that her dad could play any instrument in the band if he turned his mind to it.

  When we reached the age of 7, grandad taught my sister and I how to read music and play the piano. Once I got the hang of it, I loved to go into Grandma and Grandad’s front parlour and play simple hymns on their old pedal organ. My mum seemed to conclude that I was the one who had inherited Grandad’s musical talent. A second-hand piano was purchased for my sister and I to learn on. It must have been quite a financial sacrifice on my parents’ part, for which I will always be grateful. Mum herself sang in the church choir and joined larger gatherings to perform oratorios such as Elijah or The Messiah. My Uncle Leslie ( mum’s elder brother) had singing lessons in Sheffield and became a well-regarded semi-professional singer — another bass-baritone. It seemed to be compulsary for all members of the family to be involved in music. The metaphorical baton was now passed on to me, so to speak. Recently, grandad’s real baton was given to me — an ebony affair with a silver tip. I think he was presented with it to mark 25 years of choir/band leadership.

  As I was now considered to be the heir-apparent, I was packed off to professional piano lessons around the age of 9/10. Grandad’s lessons had been enjoyable and he taught me about the basics of music, but his approach was rather unstructured. A lot of lesson time was spent talking about the old days, especially the war. So, we would forget about the scales and arpeggios and he would tell me about a dogfight between a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt in the skies above Chesterfield in 1940. The excuse of the music gave us precious one-to-one time together.

  Now however, my sister and I had to undergo “proper” piano lessons with a professional teacher:  Mrs Jukes. We had to do proper daily practise. Our standard was raised significantly but it was more boring than grandad and we soon came to see it all as a chore. Mrs Jukes was a good, rigorous teacher, was pleasant and patient with us and knew her stuff, but the joy of making music was gradually knocked out of us by the necessity of having to take exams. We were drilled to prepare for the dreaded day of the exam and my poor parents had to pay extra for music and entrance fees.

  We went to a gloomy Victorian house in an old part of town near the football ground. We knocked on the door with trepidation and it was opened by an old man with wild hair, wearing a dark, crumpled suit. He looked as though he had just walked off the set of The Adams Family! I nicknamed him “Beethovan”. We were led into a waiting room full of other “victims” and a motley collection of cats. The room smelled of fish because of the saucers of cat food liberally strewn around. Then came the long, nervous wait, accompanied by the loud ticking of a clock and the faint tinklings of the piano in the exam room. One day “Beethovan” took my hand and examined my veins, pronouncing that I had music running through them. When I told my mum this, she smiled with pleasure as this seemed to be the vindication of her investment in my musical education. Finally came the dreaded moment when my name was called. The front room was dominated by a vast, shiny grand piano. It was like a completely different instrument from the old upright plinky-plonky I practised on at home. The grand was very light to the touch and I always ended up playing too heavily because I was so used to having to force the keys down. The examiner sat behind me constantly writing notes. The whole experience was a bit of a nightmare. I somehow managed to get to Grade 5 however. Then: girls, football, pop-music and other adolescent pursuits took over and my formal musical training came to an end. ( Although I did manage to pass GCE O Level Music at Grammar school.) I never did fully follow in the footsteps of grandad afterall.

As I grew up in the 1950’s and early 60’s, the music in our house was predominantly light classical and brass bands. It arrived via the radio. We didn’t purchase our first record player until around 1962. It played vinyl 45’s which my sister and I purchased with our spending money. Big band dance music, very popular in the 40’s and early 50’s seems to have passed by my parents without them noticing. Mum told me that grandad never allowed her to go to dances. Presumably he thought they would be full of unsavoury influences that might corrupt his daughter. Thus she largely remained innocent of popular music and never acquired a taste for Glen Miller, Count Basie or Duke Ellington when she was young. Similarly: jazz, blues, ragtime, be-bop, swing or Country and Western music never got through our front door. Every now and then the radio delivered a corny crooner such as Perry Como or Bing Crosby  into our midst, singing songs like “Catch a Fallin’ Star” or “White Christmas”. This for a long time was as much as our family encountered of the world of popular music. We sat around listening to brass bands playing : marches, overtures, hymns and medlies or we sometimes listened to “posh” sounding singers with trained voices singing arias or formal versions of traditional folk songs. Kathleen Ferrier singing “Blow the Wind Southerly ” was a particular favourite of my parents.

  At New Year things livened up a bit when Kenneth McKellor, an earnest tenor from north of the border, appeared on our TV screen. He stood there in his swinging kilt performing Scottish folk songs such as “You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road” To a child approaching adolescence, it didn’t exactly set the pulse racing! It was all very boring, staid stuff in my opinion. Across the Atlantic, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis et al were launching Rock ‘n Roll and Elvis was pouting and gyrating himself to superstardom, but back at home, we were cloistered in a narrow musical world, listening to brass band renditions of The William Tell overture or Oh Come All You Faithful. It was like living in a lost world, otherwise known as the 19th Century.

  A chink of light eventually appeared when the Skiffle craze hit Britain. Suddenly, everyone with a wash-board, a tea-chest and a cheap guitar could form a pop group. My parents let their hair down a bit and admitted to a liking for Lonnie Donegan. So we occasionally enjoyed his high-energy ditties such as “The Battle of New Orleons” and ” Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour on the Bedpost Everynight?” Things were livening up!

  Finally, rock ‘n roll, albeit in its watered down British version, burst into our house in dramatic fashion. My mum had agreed to look after a neighbour’s teenage daughter for a couple of hours after school one day in the later 1950’s. Rosie was about 15 or 16 years old. She requested to listen to a different radio channel, so we got to escape the anodyne fare of the aptly named “Light programme “. ( now BBC Radio 2)  Suddenly, Cliff Richard, Britain’s very own copy of Elvis Presley, came on to the airwaves, singing his first rock ‘n roll hit: “Move It”. Rosie came over all red and virtually collapsed in a swoon. We had to help her to lie down on the settee and give her a glass of water to aid her recovery. It was as if she had received an electric shock. It was a graphic example of the potency of pop music and blasted open our doors to reveal the exciting musical world beyond.

  This incident was to usher in the 1960’s, when despite still having to slog through my piano scales, I discovered the infectious Beat music of the Beatles and the wilder R and B of The Rolling Stones. I was about to leave the tame musical ” backwater” of my grandparents and parents for ever. Still, to be fair to them, they did lay a solid musical foundation.

  Fifty years on, I now know how they felt. I cannot tolerate or even understand rap music, especially gangsta’ rap. I find it impossible to endure the interminable thump-thump of night club “House”music or whatever it’s called. I loathe manufactured “boy bands” or “girl bands” and avoid X Factor contestants like the plague! I’m sure I’m increasingly regarded as a musical dinosaur for sticking to my Rock Music. I’m stuck in “My Generation” and can now interpret Pete Townshend’s angry lyrics from a completely different perspective!