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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!

Who’s In Charge — Them Or Us?

18 Jun

This is the second blogging site I have opened in less than a week. It might be some kind of record. Scrapheapstuart has already been supplanted by scapheapstuart 2. Why, you may ask? Is this egotism gone mad? Well, the simple reason is that I have been prevented from entering my own blogging site. I type in my Username, chosen by yours truly and carefully  recorded, but the computer tells me it is an “invalid” name and bars my entry. I try several variations but to no avail. The machine is in charge. No matter how hard I try to circumvent the website’s blocking mechanism, I, the human being, have to admit defeat. It’s like arriving home and finding that a robot is stopping me from getting through the door, claiming I don’t live there even though I know I do. Surely this is not supposed to happen! We humans are supposed to be in charge of the machines, not the other way round.

The website has no facility for me to actually speak to another real person about the problem. So I’ve been thwarted and frustrated by the very machine that was invented to serve me. The only solution was to open a new email account and then re-register with WordPress.com with a 2 added to my original blogging name. Thus “scrapheapstuart2” has been born, to replace its shortlived predecessor that still lives on in cyber-space but is forever unreachable.

As it happens, this is one of my favourite rants. That is — the ups and downs of living in the age of rampant technology. Technological and scientific advances have changed the world beyond recognition since I was born back in 1949, and the pace of change is accelerating at a bewildering rate. Many of these advances have greatly enhanced our lives, whether they be in medicine, communication, entertainment or countless other areas. You don’t need me to list them all. However, I would challenge the notion that all technology is for the good. Nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations that go into meltdown are just obvious cases in point. Ask the Japanese, who suffered terribly both in 1945 and earlier this year. We now have the power to obliterate our own planet at the whim of a “mad” politician or a “misguided” terrorist .

On a more mundane day to day level, it seems that machines and gadgets such as : computers, mobiles, smartphones, Kindles. ipods,ipads etc are taking over our lives. They are swamping us just as the tsunami swamped the Japanese nuclear power stations. Through the belief that we HAVE to HAVE all these things, that they are essentials rather than luxuries, we have allowed these contraptions to control us rather than vice versa.

Technology is worshipped in our society. Machines have become our new gods. As conventional religion declines and churches limp on with dwindling and ageing congregations, the vacuum is filled by the need to own a whole range of technological gadgets. The purpose of life for many seems to be to possess bigger and better material things, rather than say, to help others, or to develop as a person, or to follow a spiritual path. On top of this is the decline of the idea of patience and of delayed gratification , which I taught my children and all my school pupils over the years. It has now been replaced with the DEMAND for instant gratification. ” I want it , and I want it NOW!” Thus we now have the instant ( and sometimes illegal) download, rather than patiently saving up to eventually purchase the CD, DVD or book at something called a shop.

Obviously, all this materialistic “wanting” is relentlessly driven by capitalism, which insists that we constantly consume so that the producers can make a lot of money. All pervasive advertising and marketing techniques ( otherwise know as “brainwashing”) persuade us that we want and have to acquire many things that we don’t actually need. In other words, many of us have become prisoners of our own technology. We are addicted to the TV, the Internet, to Smartphones and the like as if they are hard drugs. We cannot live without them ( or we think we can’t.) When we are denied our “fix” we suffer from withdrawel symptoms. I met a friend recently who was suffering terribly because he was not connected to the Internet. ( He has moved to a new estate which had not been cabled up yet.) Yet merely 10 to 15 years ago, most of us lived quite happily without it. When I speak to my parents, both born in the 1920’s, their faces glaze over whenever I mention computers. They have no interest in that “alien” subject and simply do not take anything in. Computers have never been directly a part of their everyday lives and never will be. It is too late for them to change. However, they still somehow manage to lead a full and happy life without having to be constantly linked to the Worldwide Web, and they can still navigate themselves from A to B without the aid of sattelite signals from space. They, like me, still find out information from books and use something called a map to find their way rather than being instructed by a disembodied voice. In some ways, people of my parents’ generation are the lucky ones, because they have not become slaves of technology. Neither are they interested in the game of oneupmanship, which the marketing men love us to play.

OK, I am 61, getting stuck in my ways and ideas, and resisting change for the sake of change. I am fast developing into a “grumpy old man” I’m proud to say. But I still believe I have a valid point. What is in operation here, I believe, is the concept of F.O.M.O.  I heard this acronym on the media for the first time this week. It is supposed to be a new and growing phenomenum, except it is really a very old one. F.O.M.O stands for “Fear Of Missing Out”. Back in the 1950’s and 60’s we used to call it:”keeping up with the Jones’s .”The difference is that back then it was washing-machines, vacuum cleaners, refridgerators  — and cars, whereas now it is the latest generation of mobile and their array of apps, the latest Laptop, the latest games console, or the most recent ipod or ipad — and cars! I confess to owning a Sky TV , mainly so I can feed my sport addiction.  Not content with me upgrading to Sky+ and Sky HD ( as I recently did), they are now screaming at me to get Sky3D, or Sky Anytime or Sky Multi-Room! The demands to keep up with the pace of technological advance are unremitting.

What a state to get into — being ruled by fear of missing out and being controlled by machines and the need to acquire them. This used to be the stuff of science fiction novels. I rail against it but am simultaneously sucked into it and/or swept along by it. Trying to resist it will have the same result as King Canute trying to keep back the tide. ( He knew he was powerless to do so.)  Yes, I go along with it, even to the extent of  putting my rambling thoughts into cyber-space to be read by unknown others. What an absurd idea — writing to nobody!  Yes, I succumb to it, as why else would I waste 2 hours of my precious time trying to outwit a website that won’t let me do what I want to do? I created the key but the machine hid it away!

I now have a great sympathy with the Luddites, the 18th-19th century machine- smashers. They fought against the machines that were taking away their livelihoods. Maybe we should follow their lead, and fight against the machines that are taking over our lives. Who’s in charge — Them or Us?