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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.

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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.
Eurythmics.
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.
REM.
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!

What’s Wrong With Thinking?

14 Oct

Everyone has his or her own opinion about what constitutes “rubbish.” This especially applies to an opinionated person like yours truly. Why do you think I write a blog? We can all more or less agree what to throw in the waste-bin, but viewpoints wildly differ about what is good, bad or indifferent in the world of culture, be it music, literature, drama, art or whatever. One man’s “load of rubbish” is another man’s masterpeice. The Tate Modern’s famous “pile of bricks” or Tracy Emin’s unmade bed with condoms, spring to mind. Yes, it’s simply a matter of personal taste. I love the Impressionists, the Expressionists and the Secessionists — in fact anything ending in “ist” seems to do the trick for me. Just joking of course. I also like the Dutch masters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt.

  When an aquaintance at a party described her experience at a Take That concert as “awesome”, I was convinced that she was  about to say “awful”, which is my opinion of that pathetic, middle-aged, “boy” band. I would reserve the over-used term “awesome” for a 3 hour gig by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band or an evening with the exquisite Mary Chapin Carpenter or any concert by David Byrne, with or without his Talking Heads. We both produced, faint embarrassed smiles to cover the obvious gulf between our musical tastes. It’s just part of being human. We all make our differing choices and clashes of opinions abound. It’s healthy. For instance, phenomenal sales would indicate that E L James’s ” Fifty Shades of Grey” is a great novel, but for many others, including myself, it might as well be called ” Fifty Shades of Cr-p.” What’s wrong with reading something by: David Mitchell, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, Anne Tyler or any number of subtle, intelligent modern novelists? Come to think of it why aren’t Tolstoy or Dickens near the top of the best-seller lists?

  I’m actually pleased that I am judgemental to a certain extent because it means that I am actively employing my brain to form a reasoned judgement about something, rather than just following the tide of hype. I’m proud to be a human-being and not a sheep. In the same vein, I’m not getting excited about J K Rowling’s first “adult” novel. That description gives the game away that her much vaunted Harry Potter series was really just for impressionable kids. I found them : obvious, formulaic, derivative, gimmicky and thus boring. I had to read one in order to “teach” it to my English set. They got bored too, maybe sensing my lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t waste my time with the rest or with the equally gimmick-ridden films with their heavy reliance on special effects to cover up the banality of the plot. Maybe J K’s new work could be re-named ” The Emperor’s New Clothes” as, in my opinion, that would neatly sum up her literary career so far.

  So we all have our opinions about what is good and what is rubbish unless one is merely wanting to go with the crowd and always agree with the majority. However, what really intrigues me is that, particularly in the world of television, increasing numbers of people seem to be deliberately choosing to indulge in “rubbish.” Is this part of the oft quoted “dumbing down” of our society, especially in the world of entertainment?

  One of my Facebook “friends”, a well-respected ex-colleague, actually announced this preference for rubbish on her status update. She wrote — “Well that’s the walk over, now time to watch some rubbish on daytime TV” ( or words to that effect.) When I naively asked her why she deliberately chose to watch rubbish, her reply was brilliantly succinct:- ” Switch brain off!” Is this a different approach to entertainment  ie– allowing it to turn you OFF rather than turn you ON?

  I consider myself entertained if my brain is stimulated and engaged. I like to be presented with something that is: clever, interesting, funny, ironic, thought-provoking, surprising, even challenging. I love nothing better than when someone or something plants a new idea into my mind, something that increases my understanding and appreciation of life and of the world I live in. That’s what entertains and satisfies me — the opportunity to switch my brain on and develop it in some way. If, on the other hand, I was presented with something that was : obvious, trivial, cliched, pedestrian , stilted or unoriginal, then I would feel that my time was being wasted and/or my intelligence insulted! That’s why, for instance, I shall be reading my book tonight instead of watching the contrived, safe and predictable shenanigans at “Downton Abbey” on ITV. My wife Chris ackowledged in series 2 that Downton was mostly rubbish. Some of the plot developments were farcical apparently. Yet she and millions of others are now glued to the screen for series 3. It is one of the most popular dramas on current TV despite being regularly derided by the critics. The Guardian man compared it with Classic FM, probably meaning entertainment that is provided in easily digestible chunks and not presenting much of an intellectual challenge. My daughter Catherine commented that it is a great programme for multi- tasking to. In other words, you don’t have to concentrate very hard to follow it and understand the characters. It seems to be a dramatic equivalent of easy-listening, MOR music. It fills in the background and helps one to relax. The comparison with Classic FM is appropriate as this very popular radio station  just plays digestible extracts from the most popular classical pieces, much easier to cope with than listening to all 4 movements of a symphony or concentrating throughout a whole opera. This in turn may help to explain the decline of the album in favour of the random i-pod shuffle. Could it be that many people are now just not willing to concentrate for very long anymore and are not particularly keen at working their brains? Being an ex school teacher this trend is obviously anathema to me. Watching cardboard-cutout characters( eg The stiff upper lipped, deferential butler, the fiesty Dowager or the headstrung young Lady) and following predictable plotlines is not my notion of entertainment or intellectual stimulation. My idea of a good gripping drama is the Danish thriller ” The Killing ” or the brilliant American series “The Wire”, both of which presented in-depth, multi-dimensional pictures of the societies they were set and lots of food for thought. Now that’s entertainment!

  Perhaps the main attraction of “mediocre” programmes is that they do NOT provide any intellectual challenge, allowing one’s over-active brain to take a break. One can view them with one’s brain largely disengaged. In fact, the very act of watching may well help push the switch into the off position. A younger- generation relative recently announced that she needed to watch some rubbish as she wished to relax before returning to work the next morning. I have also known people who have watched endless repeats of “Come Dine With Me” or “Location, Location” in order to switch off or zone-out. Maybe Reality TV, Daytime TV or  trashy “page-turning” novels ( sometimes known as beach or airport reads), serve the same broad function of alchohol. They help to obliterate the tedium of everyday existance. They also provide a temporary escape from the stresses and pressures of modern life. Post war Hollywood musicals and rom-coms served much the same function in 1940’s and 50’s cinemas, except that Doris Day or Katherine Hepburn had just a touch more class than Cheryl Cole and Simon Cowell. ( in my opinion.)

  I know it’s very important to relax or chill, as they say. I usually do so by listening to some soothing music, going for a stroll or having a nap. I have also always wanted to try out meditation or have more than the occasional massage. A relaxed meal with family and/or friends is also very calming. But when it comes to literature, art, TV, film etc , I like to be be stimulated. Just as I avoid junk food I also avoid junk entertainment. I could never deliberately watch ” rubbish” in order to switch my mental faculties off. That would go against the grain. I spent my entire  career encouraging young people to actively exercise their brains! So, for much of my spare time, I prefer to be challenged and stimulated. As another friend commented: ” What’s wrong with thinking?” In my view, life is far too short to consciously waste it on self-acknowledged garbage. But then again — it’s all a matter of opinion!

Rock ‘n Roll Pilgrimage ( In Wellies.)

25 Jul

My wife Chris and I are sitting on a bench in Hyde Park, London. We are sipping a cup of tea but nervously keeping an eye on the grey clouds above. It’s been one of the wettest British summers on record. ( 2012)  We wear our rain gear and our Wellington boots. Past us marches a constant stream of people in a dazzling array of wellies — green, blue, pink, red, black, polka-dot, flowery and union jack patterned. Hundreds turn into thousands, turn into tens of thousands. It is like a vast rubber-booted pilgrimage, everyone marching towards the same hallowed goal. We finish our tea and join the throng. In the end there are 70,000 of us, all gathered to see the greatest live rock show in the world — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It turns out to be a fantastic 3.5 hour party.

  I first saw “The Boss” and his band at St James’s Park, Newcastle upon Tyne in June, 1985. A colleague, Ted, had a spare ticket and I took up the option despite having taken only a passing interest in Springsteen in the 1970’s.( career, marriage, babies — I have plenty of excuses!)  Part of my reason for going to this gig was to get even with my then wife, Annie, who had been lucky enough to see Bob Dylan at the same venue the previous year and had left me child minding and marking my school books. So I was a bit equivocal, more curious than excited, as Ted and I wormed our way into the huge crowd gathered on the football pitch. However, as soon as the opening chords of “Born in the USA” boomed out across the stadium and the crowd went wild, I knew I was in the right place. For 3 hours I was transported into another world and grew to understand that, although Bruce’s albums are all very good ( and “Born to Run” is a stone cold classic), it’s his live performances that are the key to understanding his phenomenal appeal. He is especially good when he is with the E Street Band.

  The music ranges from the grandiose and epic to the quiet and intimate. Yet at no moment, from the first note to the last, does it lose its intensity or feel-good factor. The whole gig is like an ecstatic party, the audience bonded by common love of the music into one huge Springsteen family. Back in 1985, as I watched Bruce and his charismatic saxophone player Clarence Clemons ( “The Big Man”) run up and down the stage extensions that snaked out into the audience, I joined the clan and have been in it ever since. Bruce helped to bring Chris and I together. It’s only when I told her that I had just been to see his ” Rising Tour” gig at Crystal Palace, that she decided to give me half a chance! We have now been to three Springsteen gigs together — all of them excellent, although I didn’t totally appreciate his Seeger Sessions phase. That makes 6 gigs in total for me. They are the best gigs I’ve seen and I’ve been to a lot of  superb music concerts in my time.

  Bruces’s music embraces a whole variety of styles, incorporating: rock, pop, country, folk, gospel, R and B and blues. His concerts offer an intoxicating, seamless mix of the whole lot. Coming from New Jersey, a state often blighted by unemployment, poverty and deprivation, many of his songs deal with social, economic and political issues. In this sense he is following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Recently, especially since the sad deaths of two long standing band members, the keyboard player Danny Federici and the mighty Clarence Clemons, his work has also taken on a spiritual dimension. For instance, his rendition of “We Are Alive” from the recent “Wrecking Ball” album, was preceded by a story of when he was taken to visit a graveyard as a kid and felt he was in contact with the people inscribed on the headstones. In an earlier gig he had declared of his departed band colleagues: ” If you’re here and we’re here, they’re here.” The performance of ” We Are Alive” moved from an acoustic ballad to a rousing foot-stomper. In a way this was a micocosm of the concert and of Springsteen’s music as a whole. He reaches the parts that most other musicians never reach, and he can do it in just one song! He has collected 20 grammies and sold 120 million records, but as I said, it’s his dynamic live performances that are the essential Springsteen. They grab you by the throat and the heart and don’t let go!

  In his own words, Bruce’s songs aim to ” measure the distance between the American dream and American reality.” He growls, snarls and hollers about the exploitation of the working man and the destruction of communities by the ” corporate jackels” and “greedy thieves.” He has previously been dubbed a “blue collar rocker” but that is maybe a bit too simplistic. His music has multiple subjects and dimensions. It can be angry and scathing, but it can also be joyful and uplifting. Much of it is anthemic, with hook-lines, call and response and repetition to draw the audience in. In the end, with thousands of people punching the air, jumping up and down and singing loudly along, it’s like being part of an enormous, celebratory family.

  I have never seen or heard of Springsteen and the E Street band give a bad show. The level of musicianship is superb as is the choreography of the entire concert. Every tune is performed with verve, brio and 100% commitment. Bruce and the band play each and every show as if it could be their last.

  The E Street band’s mission has always remained the same — ” To take the glorious power of music and shoot it straight into your heart tonight.” At Hyde Park in 2012, Bruce, at 62, showed no signs of slowing down. His declared intention was to leave the audience with ” your feet hurting, your hands hurting, your voice hurting and your sexual organs stimulated!” As usual, he delivered, despite an anticlimactic  and unexpected finale, when the organisers pulled the plug one song before the end to honour contractual obligations. To see and hear the E Street band is to experience the transcendental power of music.

  Springsteen treads the boards, his fendor guitar hanging loose on his back, gripping his mic tightly, spitting out the lyrics as if his life depended on it. It’s raw, exhilerating and inspirational stuff. The music is grandiose, heroic, with more than a nod towards Phil Spector’s legendary ” wall of sound.” The set rises and falls dramatically, carrying the audience on an exciting journey. The band moves with him, adapting to every mood and moment. Beneath the passionate vocals, the music constantly shifts and swirls. At times I  think a Springsteen gig is like a cross between a rock ‘n roll party and a religious revivalist meeting. A lot of Bruce’s stage mannerisms are borrowed from the world of charismatic preachers. His voice soars up and down — exhorting, appealing, cajoling, persuading. He controls the band with the neck of his guitar and conducts the audience until thousands of voices become one.  It’s like being in a vast choir. Everyone ends up feeling part of something much bigger than themselves. In some ways, it’s like the feeling one gets in a large football crowd at a big, dramatic match.

  Few singers deliver such long, intense performances. Bruce gives his all — physically, mentally and emotionally. He stands there, legs apart, delivering hit after hit from his huge back catalogue. He clambers down from the stage and surfs the pit, reaching out, pressing  flesh, thrusting his guitar amongst the upraised hands, choosing a girl to dance with him, choosing a teenage boy to sing along with him, making himself accessible and showing that he totally trusts his fans. Sometimes he takes guitarist Steve Van Zandt down with him. On this occasion, Jake Clemons, the late Clarence’s nephew, also came down, sax in hand, reminding us of the Big Man himself. Bruce and Jake sat on the steps in mock relaxation, chatting and laughing as if they were on the back porch at home. OK, it all may be planned and rehearsed, but it helps to break down the barriers  between artist and audience. Bruce is constantly building bridges between himself and his fans.. It is what makes his shows so special.

  Hyde Park, 2012 was as good as any Springsteen gig I have seen. It built up to a fantastic crescendo with Paul McCartney on stage with him and a spectacular firework show accompanying a rousing “Twist and Shout.” Then the plug was prematurely pulled and it was suddenly, abruptly over. Feeling bereft, we stood there in dazed disbelief. Then we all trudged off into the night in our multi-coloured wellies. It had been another epic night.

  PS —- I apologise for the hyperboles in this post. It’s difficult to describe a Springsteen show without going over- the- top. Much better to go to one!