A LIGHT-BULB MOMENT

CallanI was surprised to realise the other day that the box-set currently curtailing my viewing for the evening is one I haven’t actually written about before; I thought I’d covered every archive series on the Telegram, especially those that have been viewed more than once. However, it occurred to me that I’d never penned a post about that most superlative – and, it has to be said, cynical – spy series, ‘Callan’. It’s one I revisit every couple of years, I guess, for ‘Callan’ has a habit of routinely drawing me back. I’ve sometimes wondered why such programmes can do that when I pretty much remember where each episode’s storyline is going within five minutes of sitting down to watch; with the element of surprise absent, I’ve realised it’s the characters – and ‘Callan’ has an abundance of real characters that you can’t help yearning to spend more time in the company of. It really is one of those shows that seem to grow richer whenever I return to it. I won’t use fine wine as an obvious analogy, but…oops, too late. Its vintage spans just the five years (1967-72), and even with frustrating gaps in the monochrome era preventing the viewer from seeing the series in its entirety, there is still plenty to be getting on with in 34 surviving episodes.

Just as ‘The Sweeney’ was spun off from ‘Regan’ the TV movie, ‘Callan’ first saw the light of day as an entry in ABC TV’s ‘Armchair Theatre’. The instant potential for a series is evident in that de facto pilot (which happily survives) as we are introduced to a spy and an espionage landscape as far removed from the glamour of 007 as only John Le Carré had ever previously explored. Played with brooding brilliance by Edward Woodward, David Callan works for ‘The Section’, a shady branch of the secret service that appears to specialise in all the dirtiest jobs the State doesn’t like to think about. This is the Cold War’s grubby, sordid frontline – a place where everything from blackmail to assassination can be utilised to eliminate the enemy – and Callan is its most reluctantly effective hit-man. Callan knows he’s the best, but it’s not something he’s remotely proud of; if anything, the job has left him riddled with self-loathing; every time he takes a life, he marks the act with weary resignation rather than satisfaction, for Callan knows the moment he pulls the trigger he’s morally inferior to the man who failed to pull the trigger on him.

Perhaps befitting a series of its era, class consciousness is a recurrent factor when it comes to the title character; Callan’s background is clearly working-class, whilst his ultimate superior (who goes by the title ‘Hunter’) is old-school public school. This helps exacerbate tension as Callan’s vociferous tirades against the unemotional suits issuing death sentences from behind a desk suggests he almost sees them as WWI generals sending Tommy over the top. It doesn’t help that Callan’s most regularly seen fellow agent is another product of privilege – the arrogant, upper-class Toby Meres (an unforgettable performance by Anthony Valentine). Meres evidently enjoys his job as much as Callan loathes it and the two rub each other up the wrong way in the best possible way for the viewer. Whereas so many aspects of The Section make Callan despair of human nature, Meres isn’t exactly plagued by a conscience; he’s not even troubled by the methods employed by the department’s resident psychological sadist, the sinister Dr Snell, whose basement torture chamber is the destination of all captured enemy agents if they manage to be taken alive.

Rarely has the work of the intelligence services been portrayed with such bleak brutality as in ‘Callan’. The Section isn’t presented as remotely heroic, though Callan himself emerges as a heroic figure if only because the viewer empathises with his simmering disdain for, and seething revulsion at, the world he finds himself in – the sole character in The Section to react this way. His only respite comes via his unlikely hobby of model soldiers and the war-games he engages in with them; he also finds strange solace in the smelly company of the habitual criminal known only as Lonely (Russell Hunter), whose own specialist talents often prove useful for The Section, even if Callan’s superiors strongly disapprove. Although on the surface Callan appears to have as much affection for Lonely as Basil Fawlty has for Manuel, there’s an undeniable bond between the two men that is actually quite touching. Perhaps Callan sees in Lonely’s criminality an honesty missing from the far worse criminal acts carried out with perfect legality by The Section and by himself. Lonely is an unpretentious petty crook, pure and simple, not a cold-blooded killer masquerading as a gentleman. Callan certainly has no comparable relationship with any work colleague, most of whom are as untroubled by the job as Toby Meres.

In the first colour series of ‘Callan’ (1970), Meres is absent and his place is taken by the younger and even more arrogant James Cross, played by a sublimely swaggering Patrick Mower. Callan returns to the fold following a spell of convalescence after being brainwashed into shooting dead the third man to sit in Hunter’s chair, and Cross is visibly miffed at his return; throughout their time together, Cross is attempting to establish himself as The Section’s top man and is incurably jealous of Callan’s status. However, Cross is unexpectedly killed off midway through the fourth series, an event which Patrick Mower once recalled led to ‘Cross Lives!’ being scrawled on the bonnet of his car the day after the episode originally aired in 1972. This incident takes place during a brief period in which Callan himself is promoted to Hunter, though sitting behind a desk is not Callan’s natural place and he soon finds himself back out in the field of Cold War conflict.

‘Callan’ ends on a high, if somewhat ambiguous, note with a superb trilogy of episodes featuring the pursuit of a KGB agent code-named Richmond (played with urbane ruthlessness by T.P. McKenna); each man recognises himself in the other and Callan goes against orders by adhering to Richmond’s desperate plea to kill him rather than take him alive. The climax of the series implies Callan will no longer be employed by The Section as a consequence of his actions, though Callan himself knows all-too well that nobody employed by The Section is ever really allowed to leave it. A rare episode in which Hunter’s beautiful secretary Liz takes centre stage by going AWOL underlines the dangers of one individual carrying around so much top secret information in their head; Hunter’s immediate response when Liz fails to show up for work is to put The Section on red alert, so terrified is he of her falling into enemy hands and being emptied of every sensitive detail.

The chillingly clinical approach to the sanctity of life prevalent throughout The Section is a necessity of the job, but by placing a human being like Callan in that world we the audience can identify with his humanity and be as appalled by the lack of it around him as Callan himself is. It’s a clever way of giving the viewer a stake in the series, though we are able to enjoy Meres’ posh-boy thuggery and Lonely’s seedy body odour in a way that Callan can’t, revelling in the wonderful characterisations, peerless performances, memorable dialogue and exceptional storytelling. Coming back to ‘Callan’ again has made me feel that television’s 50-year progression from studio-based series shot on videotape to filmed series shot on location has somehow resulted in the revival of the more melodramatic tropes that ‘Callan’ provided such a sobering antidote to, making ‘Callan’ itself oddly feel even more realistic half-a-century on than many an equivalent series today. More screen time is given over to the development of the characters into well-rounded, believable people than to the shoot-outs, and the viewer is the beneficiary. Add that swinging light-bulb and haunting, reverb-drenched theme tune and you’re left with one of the true jewels in British TV’s crown.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

A PROPER CHARLIE

Charlie WattsUntil today, the last time a member – or former member – of The Rolling Stones passed away was well over 30 years ago. He was Ian Stewart, who’d been the casualty of Andrew ‘Loog’ Oldham’s brainwave to package the Stones as the ‘Anti-Beatles’; a six-piece was too close to a jazz ensemble, whereas five worked on the pop scene (as Dave Clark had already proven). And if anyone clearly couldn’t be moulded into the image Oldham had in mind, it was the tall, burly Stewart. It helped that a permanent keyboard player was deemed a superfluous luxury; besides, it was quickly evident the band’s sound didn’t need augmenting on stage, for the volume of screaming that began to greet each performance once the Stones progressed from R&B club to provincial theatre drowned the sound out anyway. However, Ian Stewart was no Pete Best; he was shifted sideways to road manager and remained a permanent member of the band’s entourage up until his death. I recall his passing provoked one of the all-time great so-tasteless-it’s-brilliant headlines in Melody Maker, ‘Key Stone Cops It’.

Behind the scenes, Ian Stewart was an important figure; but as far as the public were concerned, he was a footnote in the Stones story. Not so Charlie Watts, whose death at the age of 80 has been announced. Watts was the urbane jazzman who somehow found himself the drummer in the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band when his detached demeanour often implied he’d have been happier playing before a few hundred punters at Ronnie Scott’s rather than thousands in some vast arena. If Mick Jagger is the celebrity salesman for the band and Keith Richards is the keeper of the musical flame, Charlie Watts has always been the solid rock outside of the spotlight, the Stones’ equivalent of the old Arsenal back four.

In the middle of the 1970s, when the band was beginning to make serious money for the first time thanks to the growth of stadium rock and astronomical album sales, they were actually on the brink of collapse. Mick Taylor, replacement for Brian Jones, had quit; Jagger had joined the coke-snorting jet-set with Bianca; Keith was sleepwalking his way through the day doped-up to the eyeballs; and Ronnie Wood had yet to become a permanent member, still being best known as Rod Stewart’s sidekick. The band’s public image as decadent tax-exiles provided the best excuse for the arrival of Punk Rock, and if it hadn’t been for Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, the drum ‘n’ bass team keeping the train on the tracks, chances are the Stones would’ve been derailed for good around this time. The two of them were that important.

Bill Wyman earned his eventual notoriety during another fallow period in the 80s and finally departed the band in the early 90s, whereas dependable Charlie Watts was always there whenever the remaining members reconvened for a tour or album. As the decades flew by and the Stones adapted to their advancing years by fleshing out the sound on the road with additional musicians, Charlie Watts’ reserved parking space behind the drum-kit was as vital to the band’s composition as Jagger’s breathless gymnastics and Keith riffing away with a fag hanging out of his mouth. It may have taken his impressive staying power for his long-term contribution to the band to be belatedly recognised, but Charlie keeping time at the back, just as he always had, was as necessary a part of what made the Stones work as any of the more celebrated factors. But then, a man who was married to the same woman from 1964 until his death was evidently in possession of something special his bandmates lacked.

The manner in which hit records were recorded in the early 60s often relegated the rhythm section to a place so low in the mix that they seemed to emphasise the hierarchy within a musical unit. Improvements in the recording process and the high profile afforded the likes of Keith Moon and Ginger Baker both on record and on stage dramatically changed all that by the end of the decade, yet Charlie Watts – not unlike Ringo Starr – remained defiantly un-showy; one could never imagine Charlie indulging in a ten-minute drum solo, for example. He knew what his job was and he did it. Only when listening closely to the classic run of Stones singles and albums from the mid-60s to the early 70s can one really discern just how quietly inventive a drummer Charlie Watts really was. Following the lead of their genre-crossing rivals from Liverpool, the Stones flirted with a wide range of sounds and styles during this invigorating period; the eclectic musical gifts of Brian Jones helped expand the band’s horizons, presenting Charlie Watts with constant challenges in finding the right rhythm; but he always managed it.

Watts and Wyman appeared content to concentrate on the music and let their more extrovert bandmates dominate the spotlight for the first 20 years of the Stones; but whereas Wyman finally made his way onto the front pages in a way that didn’t necessarily reflect very well on the bass-player, Charlie continued to shy away from the gossip columns. Even when he unexpectedly developed a serious drug habit in the 80s, he didn’t do so in the tabloid glare, keeping it within the family and successfully getting through what he himself referred to as his midlife crisis. He certainly didn’t fit the stereotype of the rock star that Keith Richards had copyrighted as a public image – even if Keith eventually allowed his considerable erudite side to become more well-known; instead, Charlie Watts’ laconic, self-deprecating humour helped keep the band as grounded as it was possible for such an institution to be. Rock scribes might still like to experience a vicarious thrill telling tales about the on-the-road excesses of old, but without Charlie heading up the rear, the whole circus could easily have disintegrated into an almighty mess.

Like many of those belonging to the generation of Brits whose creativity shaped the 60s, Charlie Watts was from a working-class background (son of a lorry driver) and benefitted from the-then educational system by progressing to art school; his post-college career as a graphic designer ran parallel with his sideline drumming for jazz and blues combos, though even after joining the embryonic Rolling Stones as their permanent drummer at the beginning of 1963, he continued to dabble in art. His cartoons could be seen on the back cover of the 1967 Stones LP, ‘Between the Buttons’, and he later helped design many of the band’s stage sets. He also stayed loyal to jazz and blues, regularly playing with musicians specialising in such sounds whenever the Stones took one of their extended sabbaticals. These sabbaticals have become ever more extended in recent years and Charlie even had to admit he wasn’t physically capable of fulfilling another touring schedule pencilled-in for the back end of this year and had pulled out. His health had previously been a concern in the mid-2000s when he was diagnosed with throat cancer, but he went into remission and the band resumed business once he was well again.

A uniquely sharp dresser even when other members of the Stones were succumbing to some of the worst sartorial crimes of the 80s, Charlie Watts’ distinctive visual style remained rooted in the sharp-suited jazz era that was always his first love, and his wry detachment from the tiresome mythologizing that goes hand-in-hand with the heritage rock industry was always a breath of fresh air. In the best British tradition, he never took himself too seriously; but when it came to his profession he was, in the words of a friend on Facebook tonight, ‘a pro’. Damn right he was.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

RUNNING MAN

Tom CourtenayWell, anybody who fell for that clearly hasn’t learnt anything from the Covid narrative – and if you haven’t learnt anything by now, you never will. Only an idiot foresaw an uninterrupted march towards 21 June in the expectation the last lingering lockdown vestiges would definitely be lifted; of course that glorious liberation has been postponed; anyone with half-a-brain knew a new variant would appear on the eve of Freedom Day and the SAGE boffins would throw a spanner in the works right at the point when their unelected influence over Government policy was threatened. Putting back the final removal of restrictions by ‘a month’ was apparently based on scientific advice re the Narnia Variant – ‘thousands of potential deaths’ or so they say; cheers once again, Professor Ferguson. Incidentally, as the official christening of variants now shies away from naming the latest one after its country of origin, I’ve decided that every new addition to the variant pantheon will henceforth be named after an imaginary realm on this here blog. What the MSM used to call the Indian Variant and now refers to as the Delta Variant will be known as the Narnia Variant at Winegum Towers.

I suppose one could feel a modicum of sympathy for those who did fall for it, but only a modicum and no more. Twitter has been abundant in video statements from the likes of Matt ‘Cockers’ Hancock over the last 24 hours, all emanating from last year and all full of ‘it’ll be over by Christmas’-type promises as evidence of taking each forecast – good and bad – with enough pinches of salt to sculpt a Biblical pillar. When it’s down to Theresa May to make a speech in Parliament that absolutely nails the futility of the Government/SAGE approach, you know the game is up. Anyway, perhaps that tediously familiar phrase ‘herd immunity’ should really be applied to the unquestioning adherence to the advice that the herd entered into with the best of intentions, placing misplaced faith in their elected representatives to deliver. The immunity of the herd is immunity to common sense, willing to sacrifice long-term freedoms for short-term gain, handing over personal data via vaccine passports in order to enjoy a social activity that won’t kill them, never once considering that this info will be collated, catalogued and inevitably leaked.

The pressure to conform has always been a prominent element of every society, especially those that purport to be free ones; basically, they’re far easier to govern if everyone does as they’re told – only, don’t let on this is the case. In a free society, the herd is gently persuaded into conformity not through the strong-arm tactics of a police state, but through subliminal social manipulation, something particularly effective if there’s a moral tone. Pandemic Britain has seen conformity take on a pseudo-patriotic quality in which opposition to conformity is almost regarded as treasonous. The pressure to conform in this unhealthy atmosphere has infiltrated all aspects of daily discourse so that individual choice is secondary to the collectivist consensus, and any deviation from it is tantamount to criminal.

The doctrines of the coronavirus consensus have been embraced by some as choice, whereas many others have opted out and simply submitted. Following the guidelines, shopping your neighbours if you suspect them of not following the guidelines, taking the vaccine even if in doubt, disowning your unvaccinated friends, clapping for the NHS, living in fear for your life and so on and so on; I sometimes wonder if anyone who has stuck religiously to all the advice has actually come out the other end feeling it was a worthwhile endeavour – or are they now too far gone to evaluate their sacrifice? The herd adapts to whatever demands are placed upon it as a misguided means of self-preservation and survival, but imagined safety in numbers often means insulation from those aspects of life that make it worth living. What we have seen over the past year or so has been an extreme example of the state selling conformity as a panacea, though the practice has always been there.

I recently watched the 1962 film of Alan Sillitoe’s ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ for the first time in quite a while, and it has a lot to say on the struggle to resist conformity. The author took the corruption of the amateur ethos central to the Olympic ideal and used it as a metaphor for how the integrity of the individual is sacrificed to the continuation of a society that has done him few favours. The Borstal boy played by Tom Courtenay finds a personal, internal freedom when his athletic ability elevates him above his miserable home life, the petty crime sprees that resulted in his incarceration, and the incarceration itself. The Borstal Governor, however, is essentially training him like a racehorse in order to win a cup on a sports day event against a public school, with Courtenay’s individuality subsumed by him representing the entire institution – just as the society outside its wire fences demanded his submission to a communal conformity.

The sports day sequence itself has an antiquated pomp and circumstance that now looks like the dying breath of the Empire; the film appeared just a couple of years after the end of National Service, and the fact Tom Courtenay had his acting apprenticeship interrupted by the pointless peacetime exercise of playing soldiers perhaps gives his inspired casting an additional edge. Compulsory conscription – rather than voluntary – was a contemporary example of state-sponsored conformity, though Courtenay’s character also sees the era’s ‘you’ve never had it so good’ consumer boom as merely another illusion of freedom, memorably setting fire to a pound note as his mother goes on a spending spree after receiving the money bequeathed to her by her late husband. While the rest of the family sits mesmerised by the novel new television set, the pre-Borstal Courtenay only feels alive when he’s thieving.

As his time at Borstal progresses, Courtenay’s character gives every impression his contempt for authority has been softened by the privileges bestowed upon him when training for the race; yet when he’s within a few yards of the finishing line on the day, he deliberately stops running and allows his posh-boy opponent to catch-up, overtake him and win it. His final and most devastating act of defiance is sealed by a knowing smile aimed at the furious, humiliated Governor. Some are baffled by this ending, but it always made perfect sense to me. After being dispatched to Borstal, it’s the only ‘fuck you’ opportunity the character has left to him.

Another name for Borstal was ‘approved school’, and whilst it’s closer to a cross between a prison and army barracks, there are parallels with state schools of the period. Today, there’s a lot of concern regarding what some view as the ‘Woke indoctrination’ apparently rampant in the education system; were I a parent, I’d probably be concerned too. But to me schools have always been conformist training camps, teaching children to grow up to become good little obedient citizens – Pink Floyd pointed that out over 40 years ago, after all. The majority of kids I was at school with were indoctrinated, it’s just that the ideology then was a different one; but the aim was the same. I rebelled and resisted, and I’ve no doubt there are kids today doing likewise. The rebels are always in the minority, for the majority prefer the herd mentality. I can understand its appeal – I suppose life must be far easier if you simply go with the flow, just as it can be far harder when you instinctively rebel and resist. But I do believe it must be even harder to follow that path today – and, of course, there was no social media when I began my own journey on that path, one which will stretch way beyond 21 June.

© The Editor

HIGHWAY ’21 REVISITED

DylanAs there’s no one alive today who has lived in a time without either recorded sound or moving pictures, it’s easy to take for granted how ‘far out’ the concept of both must have seemed when they were invented. In the case of the latter, I recently became aware of objections which were made at the time, ones that had never occurred to me before. Prior to recorded sound, if someone you knew had died their voice was never heard again thereafter; it vanished into memory’s murky recesses and could only ever be recalled rather than revisited. Come the advent of recorded sound at the end of the nineteenth century, concerns were expressed in some quarters that being able to hear the voices of the deceased after they’d passed away, ones that had been preserved on the earliest wax cylinders or discs, was somehow disturbing the sanctity of death and messing with the order of things.

To be able to hear those voices again, as though calling from beyond the grave, sent a few shivers down various spines in the beginning, which is understandable when one considers such a thing had never been possible before – outside of a séance, anyway. The innovation was viewed as unnatural, though considering some of the dubious rituals the Victorians dabbled in re the recently-deceased – such as family photographs with dead children propped-up to complete the set – their concerns appear somewhat eccentric today. It does often strike me though how all subsequent generations are utterly dependent on contemporary written descriptions of the great men (and women) of the age immediately preceding the invention of recorded sound. For example, no composer was ever heard performing their own works by anyone other than those present at a performance before said performance was able to be recorded. We can only go by what was put down on paper at the time as to just how good Franz Liszt or Clara Schumann were as concert pianists; we can’t hear them, only their works as interpreted by later musicians and preserved on plastic.

Mrs Schumann, who paid the rent by hitting the road during her famous husband’s bouts of mental illness, is now again acknowledged as the significant figure she was acknowledged as during her lifetime. Her ‘feminist’ reappraisal was only necessary due to her talent being neglected in the decades following her death (1896) – probably because there had been no recordings as evidence of her gifts to pass down to future generations. But whatever perceived obstacles she faced due to her sex at the time were not necessarily unique – all artists are confronted by them, male or female; if they have anything about them, the talent will win out in the end. Just because most of the notable ‘Classical’ composers were men doesn’t mean they had success and plaudits handed to them on a plate; they had to work damned hard for it too. She, like them, deserved the reputation that has now been resurrected and doesn’t need a retrogressive ‘Woman Composer’ tag attached to reiterate that fact. She was as much a product of her age as her male contemporaries were.

I used the term ‘Classical’ as a generic one in the previous paragraph; in the modern era of strict musical categorisation it tends to be applied when referring to any orchestral music made over the past 300 years. Cut through lazy labelling and one comes across more accurate terminology to separate artistic and cultural phases, often encompassing not just the music but the art, architecture, literature, politics and philosophy of the age. These ‘epochs’ – the Baroque, the Classical, the Romantic etc. – produce sons and daughters whose restless spirits and hunger for change push their eras onwards and upwards until, like Icarus, they burn out and are superseded by another cast of characters and another epoch. Distance is usually required to recognise a diverse and disparate variety of movers and shakers can be grouped together under one all-encompassing umbrella, with what they shared being greater than that which divided them. With media coverage of Bob Dylan’s impending 80th birthday, I got to thinking how the age that produced characters like him and all the others whose simultaneous breakthroughs made such an impact (in part thanks to the ubiquitous presence of recorded sound) can probably now be acknowledged as an epoch in its own right, one we are witnessing the last rites of due to the advanced years of its prime practitioners – those who have made it this far, anyway.

The great William Shatner is a decade ahead of Dylan, but even the fact that the former captain of the USS Enterprise was perhaps a little too old to embrace the extremities of 60s ‘cool’ (though he had a go at it with his own…er…distinctive version of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’) isn’t relevant today. The original series of ‘Star Trek’ has long been enshrined as a component of the same cultural canon to which ‘Blonde on Blonde’ or the mini-skirt or the first Moon Landing belong; the further we’ve travelled from the moments in which these (sorry to use an over-used word) ‘iconic’ innovations and events occurred, the more it has been possible to discern the qualities they had in common, qualities that may well have not been so apparent at the time. Bit-by-bit, whether it be The Beatles or Bob Dylan or Muhammad Ali or George Best, the jigsaw of the second half of the twentieth century is now a complete picture with all its various pieces fitting neatly together as much as the pieces of the Baroque, the Classical or the Romantic retrospectively do. Perhaps we need to be once or twice removed to appreciate this.

Anyone who lives through such a period (or at least catches the arse-end of it) gradually learns it takes time to dawn on them that it’s over. The epoch which began in the 60s, realised its creative potential in the 70s, and achieved its most profitable commercial spell in the 80s is undoubtedly over now. It staggered on into the 90s, with manufactured scenes routinely appearing and disappearing to maintain the illusion it remained relevant, but the traditional remaking and remodelling that accompanied ‘The Next Big Thing’ slowly wound down. The support system that kept it on the front pages of most people’s lives – and everything from ‘Top of the Pops’ to the music press to the Sunday teatime Top 40 on Radio 1 played its part – has been dismantled. Who would give a shit if Ed Sheeran ‘went electric’ in 2021 like they did when Bob Dylan did in 1965? Somebody like Ed Sheeran is not important to anyone other than those who download his dirges as background Muzak; he’s meaningful in the same way Tommy Steele was meaningful. Even if he was an outstanding artistic talent, he would still be incapable of impacting in the way Dylan managed it because Dylan was in the right place at the right time at the right moment – and his creative spirit was a product of where he came from, a place that no longer exists.

Are we in in-between days today? It’s impossible to tell. Even if we come to terms with the fact that the aforesaid period which produced popular art of such invigorating and electrifying verve that it has continued to inspire those who weren’t even born when it appeared has passed into history, it means we feel somewhat bereft when we look to the same source for our earthly and heavenly bread in 2021. If we look elsewhere, perhaps we will find a similar spirit struggling to be heard in the digital cacophony of so many competing voices; and perhaps we won’t know until it’s gone if where we are now is another epoch or merely an interlude, a breathing space in which chaos reigns because it can. But we can’t complain we haven’t inherited some class family silver; we have the luxury of being able to listen to the young Dylan sing ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ just as we can listen to any pianist of the last 80 years playing Clara Schumann – and that’s plenty to be getting on with instead of waiting for something to happen that maybe never will.

© The Editor

THE BABY AND THE BATHWATER

A tried-and-trusted barometer for how far we’ve travelled as a society in living memory – certainly by the compilers of cheap clip shows – is to look at television output from 30-40-50 years ago. Yes, we’ve all seen these delves into the archives, with their awkward examples of antiquated attitudes towards women, ‘ethnic’ groups, gays and so on; such out-of-context samples of the recent past are usually accompanied by interjections from contemporary talking heads reacting in ‘Gogglebox’ fashion. As most of those selected to offer their insightful opinions tend to have been born long after the event, they react in the way people have always reacted to a past they never lived through; one may as well dig up descriptions of the atrocious living and working conditions of the urban poor in the Victorian period and inform someone born in 1995 that children actually used to be sent up chimneys. Yes, times have changed, just as times always do; that’s what happens when day follows night.

Despite having a greater immediacy than cinema in being able to reflect current cultural and societal developments and trends, television drama nevertheless isn’t the news; it usually trails a year or two behind the zeitgeist by virtue of the time it takes from the scriptwriter penning the opening line to an eventual transmission date. In the early-to-mid 1990s, for example, there was a spate of ‘illegal rave’ storylines running through many mainstream TV series of the era, with the standard moralistic plot usually concerning a teenage character dabbling in ecstasy and dicing with death as a consequence. However, by the time most of these shows aired, the rave scene had already relocated to shiny new city centre nightclubs opened by canny promoters and superstar DJs, and what remained of the illegal element was in the process of being crushed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994.

Similarly, many TV dramas – and sitcoms – of the 1970s often feature storylines in which the late 60s ‘counter culture’ still figures prominently when embodied in hippie radicals spouting pseudo-Marxist revolutionary gibberish and using outdated terminology – ‘man’. Therefore, relying upon old telly, certainly drama or comedy, to provide a 21st century generation with an accurate window to a world they never knew can be a tad misleading. Even taking some archetypal variety show of the period and studying the act of a comedian in a dinner jacket spinning the routine mother-in-law/thick Irishmen gags doesn’t take into account the fact this kind of comedy was hardly cutting-edge; it had long been regarded as naff and was regularly parodied by satirists on TV; it was also mercilessly ripped to shreds by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s foul-mouthed alter-egos Derek and Clive on their subversive vinyl outings at the same time as ‘Seaside Special’ was airing. Ee, it’s Alfie Noakes!

By picking and choosing snippets of old-school attitudes or language alien to modern mores simply to fit the agenda of the programme-makers and therefore underlining what a backward, bigoted society we used to be, there’s an inherent dishonesty at play; in falsely claiming this represents a whole picture, we conveniently ignore those segments of popular culture and television of the past that did a better job of giving voice to important issues and the masses affected by them than any equivalent attempt can manage now. Yes, ‘Play for Today’ is rightly remembered as a beacon of this, but it wasn’t operating in isolation; many of the writers, directors, producers and actors who progressed to the single play and gave us some of its most memorable jewels received their apprenticeship on what the BBC used to categorise as ‘continuing dramas’. In the 1960s and 70s, two shows served as especially potent training grounds – ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Z Cars’; today we’d call them soaps, but they were described as continuing dramas back then.

The impact of Tony Warren’s baby on British TV was more or less instant and proved to be incredibly far-reaching; it’s easy to forget just how radical it was when first broadcast and how much it revolutionised television as a whole, not just drama; one could argue there’d have been no ‘Steptoe and Son’ or ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, let alone ‘The Wednesday Play’, without ‘Coronation Street’. Within a year of the arrival of Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner, Annie Walker and the rest, the BBC responded with ‘Z Cars’, another groundbreaking series that took the gritty, kitchen-sink vibe of ‘Corrie’ and put it in police uniform. Whereas Salford had been re-imagined as Weatherfield, Kirkby was reborn as Newtown. As close-knit communities were being swept away by the tower block and Brutalist housing schemes, ‘Z Cars’ showed how crime continued to flourish even in the Brave New World Utopias of the 60s. As the series moved on into the 70s, this factor became more pronounced as a greater reliance on location filming exposed just how swiftly those idealistic projects had descended into grubby, decaying eyesores in which crime and poverty were just as depressingly prevalent as they had been in the old slums.

Although a couple of ‘Z Cars’ DVDs were issued around seven or eight years back, giving me the opportunity to see the series with a fresh pair of eyes, great chunks of the show from the 70s are currently (at the time of writing) available on one of those YT channels that have a habit of quickly disappearing. I was able to download all the episodes – just in case – and have been watching them over the past few weeks. As is so often the case with mainstream dramatic output regarded at the time as the formulaic poor relation of the single play, when stood beside the ‘Am. Dram.’-like hospital-based soaps of today, many episodes of ‘Z Cars’ are astonishingly engaging, moving and hard-hitting. The writing and the acting are both of a remarkably high standard for a show that aired before the watershed. The characters are well-drawn, believable, either eminently likeable or effectively loathsome, and the situations are entirely relatable, especially to the audience who would’ve been watching at the time.

As someone who was a regular childhood visitor to an auntie and cousin who resided in one of the worst examples of a 60s high-rise concrete Dystopia, ‘Z Cars’ scenes of feral kids running wild around graffiti-stained estates with broken lifts, broken windows and broken spirits ring very true indeed. Not only do you instantly warm to the regular cast, but you care what happens to those who figure in just the one episode, which is a testament to the writers and the actors. Long scenes enabling characters to breathe and establish their personalities in a way that gradually explains the predicament they’re in means the viewer is slowly reeled into their world rather than emotional investment being achieved by emotional blackmail delivered with the subtlety of Bob Geldof demanding ‘Give us yer feckin’ money’. By mostly avoiding the headline-grabbing blags and gangland murders that Regan & Carter tackled, ‘Z Cars’ deals with the kind of small-scale crime most of us will come into contact with at some point of our lives and therefore highlights the plight of that most overlooked contemporary demographic – the little people.

From a modern perspective, the best way to watch ‘Z Cars’ – and its unfairly-maligned elder sibling, ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ – is not to view it as belonging to the same televisual canon as ‘The Sweeney’ or ‘The Professionals’ simply because cops are involved, but to place it alongside the likes of ‘Play for Today’, which also took time out to seek out the drama in the ordinary life. As we find ourselves at a moment in society’s decline and fall in which me and thee count for so little that they place us under house arrest, hide our faces behind masks and outlaw any public protest against them, it’s worth remembering how what was once the nation’s premier medium used to serve as the stage for our stories. Are we so much better off now than we were then?

© The Editor

THE MADNESS OF GENIUS

Owning up to loving the creative output of someone whose personality has been revealed as distinctly unlovable shouldn’t require a disclaimer; after all, artists in any field should always be judged on that creative output above their flaws as human beings. But perhaps a consequence of the faux-intimate nature of modern celebrity and the way in which its stars insist on sharing every innermost thought with the public – a practice that makes the selling of the star as a person as important as their art – is that artist and art have become inseparable in recent times. Therefore, any revelation of character traits or activities that suggest the star isn’t as nice a guy as the public have been led to believe can trigger a backlash that ultimately ruins the reputation of the art; the public feel betrayed and the art is held as responsible as the artist. However, expecting the artist to live by the same standards as the consumer can often be an unfair demand; it is often the artist’s failure to adhere to these standards that has led to them turning to art as a means of self-expression in the first place.

Overnight blacklisting in the wake of a scandal is nothing new. It happened with Oscar Wilde in the 1890s, whereby his plays suddenly disappeared from the London stage following his trial and imprisonment, almost as though the audience risked being infected by homosexual urges if they attended a performance of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. Of course, Wilde today is fully (and rightly) rehabilitated, but the practice of blacklisting has never gone away; and it undoubtedly has its hierarchy. Despite being one of the UK’s biggest chart stars of the 1970s, Gary Glitter has been written out of pop history, his hits removed from oldies station playlists and his name only permitted to be mentioned in the context of his convictions. At the same time, it’s still okay to play Michael Jackson without being outed as a ‘Paedo apologist’, maybe because Jacko continues to generate generous income for the music industry and therefore a universal expulsion of his recorded legacy would create a far more severe dent in streaming profits than the censure of ‘Leader of the Gang’.

And then there’s Phil Spector. How much has the art been damaged by the artist in his case? A controversial character more or less from the off, his deranged genius in the recording studio was carried over into his private life and escalated way beyond providing pop biographers with a string of memorably mad anecdotes. After dramatically quitting the business following the inexplicable US chart flop of his peerless production on Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ in 1966, it took being made an offer he couldn’t refuse to coax Spector out of retirement. That offer came in 1970, when he was persuaded to salvage The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ project; Paul McCartney may not have been overjoyed with the results, but Spector’s magic touch made what became ‘Let it Be’ sound considerably more than the scrappy demos he was presented with. John Lennon was impressed enough to hire Spector as the producer of his first post-Beatles solo recordings, and George Harrison followed suit. It’s probably fair to say that the best stuff either ex-Beatle did in the aftermath of the split was done with Spector at the helm.

John Lennon’s patience with Spector’s increasingly erratic eccentricities finally broke during the recording of the ‘Rock n Roll’ album in 1973, a project that was abandoned until Lennon eventually decided to finish it off on his own; the two never worked together again. Spector’s casual attitude towards firearms – even in a country where attitudes towards firearms can be alarmingly casual – appeared to have been the main cause for concern; but Spector’s appalling treatment of his ex-wife Ronnie during their marriage would be enough to condemn him with or without the recurring spectre (sorry) of guns. Again, however, what about the art? After another bout of inactivity, Spector returned as the unlikely producer of pioneering New York punk band, The Ramones; the band themselves may have found the experience something of a nightmare, but Spector’s magic touch did the trick once more by giving them their only proper hit single via their cover of ‘Baby I Love You’. Tackling one of Spector’s own early smashes was an inspired move by The Ramones to pacify the producer, but it is those early smashes upon which the creative reputation of Phil Spector still stands.

Spector’s first brush with fame came as a member of pop trio The Teddy Bears, whose 1958 No.1 ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ was written, arranged and produced by the then-19 year-old; the title was inspired by the inscription on his father’s headstone, ‘To Know Him Was To Love Him’. Spector Senior had committed suicide a decade earlier. His son was clearly something of a prodigious talent, setting up his own independent record label at 21 and rapidly bringing an epic Wagnerian scale to music that had previously been regarded as a disposable adolescent fad. Nobody had treated teen-based rock ‘n’ roll-fused pop as Art before Spector, but he imbued it with a heightened drama that expertly mirrored the heightened drama of how it feels to fall in love as a teenager. With his uniquely meticulous work ethic, innovative (and influential) ‘Wall of Sound’ production, and a dependable core of session musicians nicknamed The Wrecking Crew, Spector attracted the finest songwriters in the business to collaborate with and unleashed what he called his ‘little symphonies for the kids’.

Spector gradually found that the female voice best articulated the sensations the songs encapsulated, and session singer Darlene Love was the voice he favoured; she sang lead on the 1962 No.1 ‘He’s A Rebel’, though the record was credited to The Crystals. By contrast, The Ronettes were a girl group in possession of a strong lead singer in the dynamic shape of Veronica Bennett, whose voice dominated such cinematic classics as the original ‘Baby I Love You’ and ‘Be My Baby’, two of the definitive Wall of Sound recordings. Spector could seemingly do no wrong in the studio – his immortal production of The Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ was eventually certified as the most played song on American radio in the 20th century. But the shock flop of arguably the finest Wall of Sound production of all, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’, provoked the retirement that left his temperamental behaviour without a fitting context. When he married Veronica Bennett and she took the name Ronnie Spector in 1968, this unchecked side of his personality was manifested as psychological abuse that left her under virtual house arrest for four years.

With his strange character defects tolerated and encouraged to an extent by virtue of the uninhibited, larger-than-life parallel universe he inhabited, Phil Spector’s inability to distinguish between the legendary evil genius of the recording studio and the man he was outside of it eventually proved to be his undoing. Producing a gun to prevent female visitors leaving his home was a favourite seduction routine, but it was viewed as an unnerving – if dangerous – bluff on his part; perhaps it was destined to end in tragedy one day, and that day came in 2003 when actress Lana Clarkson was shot dead in his home. Spector claimed her death was an accidental suicide; the resulting trial led to a hung jury, with the judge declaring a mistrial. With events in court televised, the sight of the reclusive Spector as a withered old man bearing a bizarre fright-wig leant a comic element to proceedings; but there was nothing comic about the crime that led to a retrial in 2008. Second time round, Spector was found guilty of murder in the second degree, sentenced to a minimum 19 years behind bars. He died in prison on Saturday at the age of 81, the artist permanently disgraced despite the eternal magnificence of the art.

© The Editor

SPACED ODYSSEY

It’s not much of a gamble as gambles go, but purchasing anything on the strength of a good review and a feeling that ‘this looks right up my street’ sometimes pays off. I would occasionally apply this logic way back when there was such a thing as a music press and ‘Single of the Week’ would praise an unknown song by an unknown band; once or twice, I struck lucky, whereas there were far more occasions when I realised the enthusiastic reviewer had probably received a handsome backhander from the band’s manager to shower plaudits on the atrocious single in question. Anyway, when it comes to buying DVDs on Amazon, every once in a while I gamble and I did so last week. ‘The Tyrant King’ is about as obscure a TV series from the 60s as you can get – a children’s drama serial, the first-ever production by Thames Television before it had even superseded ABC and Rediffusion in the London region, filmed in colour but broadcast in black & white, shown once in the autumn of 1968 and never seen on TV again – i.e. it looked right up my street.

Indeed, having now watched this six-part series, I’m still not quite sure if I dreamt it up or not; it certainly has the feel of some imaginary kid’s show from the 60s I’d be watching in a dream and then wake up from, wondering if my mind had concocted it or if it had genuinely existed. To be fair, it does have an exceedingly dreamlike ambience, bearing more of a resemblance in style to a European Art-house movie of the era than something intended to air at teatime. Then there’s the inspired – and, considering the context, quite avant-garde – soundtrack; the likes of Pink Floyd, Cream, The Nice and The Moody Blues are so expertly woven into the surreal fabric of the series it’s as though the bands had scored the show. If my imagination had invented ‘The Tyrant King’, it’s precisely the kind of hazy interlude between Psychedelia and Prog Rock I would have selected; the chosen songs still possess the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe of 1967, but also point to the darker decade just round the corner. With the three lead characters all on the cusp of adulthood, albeit not quite there yet, one might say the soundtrack mirrors their one-foot-in-both-camps status.

As was the case with all ‘child actors’ in TV dramas produced for an audience of under-16s up until ‘Grange Hill’, the trio whose strange adventure the series follows are frightfully middle-class, continuing the ‘Famous Five’ tradition that proved surprisingly durable until well into the 70s. As with Enid Blyton’s gang, this one is inadvertently caught up in a mystery involving sinister grownups, a mystery only they can solve; but this is Enid Blyton if she’d dropped acid en route to Toytown. Yes, the three are archetypes – the brainy, sensible boy; the ‘cool’ kid; and the pretty girl; but the latter two – brother and sister – exhibit a dazzling array of Carnaby Street threads. Bill could almost pass for Monkee Peter Tork whilst Charlotte’s hemlines would undoubtedly be deemed a tad too high for a 14/15-year-old girl these days. All three leads reside in comfortable Suburbia, though the striking house Bill and Charlotte call home looks like it had won some 60s ‘design a luxury pad’ competition, the kind of dwelling I could imagine George Best having as his address.

The two main villains of the piece remain elusive and mysterious figures until the big reveal in the final episode. The charismatic and dependable Welsh actor Philip Madoc – who always possessed a natural flair for simmering villainy – first crosses the gang’s path in a threatening way during a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral; they nickname him ‘Scarface’ because…well, because he’s got a scar on his forehead. Then there’s the gloriously camp Murray Melvin, still best-remembered for his groundbreaking performance as Geoffrey alongside Rita Tushingham in ‘A Taste of Honey’, who goes by the slightly unsettling name of ‘Uncle Gerry’ and dresses like a gay Doctor Who – hat, cloak, cane and all. The gang first stumble upon him whilst exploring an old house they assumed was empty, a house crammed with the sort of eccentric and creepy Victoriana ephemera that was going for a song in antiques shops on the King’s Road at the time. They overhear him on the telephone and the intriguing mention of ‘the Tyrant King’ sets them off on their quest across the capital to discover the secret of something they suspect is dangerous but nonetheless must pursue. Let’s face it, it’d make a pretty dull six episodes if they’d bottled it and decided not to bother.

As the series was shot entirely on 16mm film rather than being slowed down by long videotaped scenes on studio sets, the pace is far quicker than one traditionally associates with dramas from the period; it also enables the full, exhilarating whirl of the toing and froing around Swinging London to be enjoyed in the breathless spirit of the time. The sequence at Kew Gardens in particular is reminiscent of the Maryon Park scenes from ‘Blow Up’ in the way the picturesque location seems simultaneously serene and spooky, but director Mike Hodges shot it with a cinematic eye that pointed the way to his future career (three years later he directed ‘Get Carter’); one wonders if Hodges also had a hand in the ‘out there’ soundtrack that older TV execs probably wouldn’t have opted for in 1968. Even though the series was effectively sponsored by London Transport to encourage folk to travel around town by bus or train, each location visited (including the obvious ones) is shown in a fresh and often disturbing light that works well with the additional snatches of detached dialogue accompanying the disjointed travelogue, ones that seem to be beamed in from a radio picking up the discharge of Numbers Stations.

Inevitably with a series shot wholly on location (and such a visually fascinating location, to boot) there’s the nostalgia factor of a London looking as we grew up believing London looked from snow-globes, biscuit tins or postcards; but it’s equally marvellous to see how the cutting edge of contemporary pop culture (including drugs!) even infiltrated the cosy enclaves of children’s television in 1968, something for which there was precious little evidence until ‘The Tyrant King’ was excavated from obscurity by the ever-reliable DVD company specialising in vintage TV, Network. The series was written by Trevor Preston, one of the great television writers of the era and one who went onto create another weird and wonderful kid’s show, ‘Ace of Wands’, as well as eventually penning the memorable crime miniseries starring Tom Bell in 1978, ‘Out’. Coupled with an adventurous, up-and-coming director such as Mike Hodges, the presence of a writer of the calibre of Trevor Preston shows how much talent was invested in children’s television back then. Yes, it could still dredge up the music hall pantomime of something like ‘Crackerjack’, but when it came to drama, every effort was made to ensure it wasn’t just a watered-down, cheapo version of the adult variety.

With its inaugural project an exclusively film-only one, Thames learnt the lesson of ‘The Tyrant King’ and gradually put together its offshoot company Euston Films, responsible for ‘Special Branch’, ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Van der Valk’, ‘Minder’ and ‘Widows’ amongst many others. ‘The Tyrant King’ is certainly an enchantingly uncharacteristic genesis for a company that became renowned for gritty dramas labelled ‘kick, bollock and scramble’; but in 2020 it serves as yet one more diversionary sidestep into a world almost faintly recognisable, yet one so removed from where we are now that it may as well be taking place in Wonderland after all. And why not? Any series that can have a song called ‘The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack’ as its theme tune is worth a look.

© The Editor

A DAY IN THE (AFTER) LIFE

You’re probably going to hear the expression ‘I can’t believe it’s forty years since…’ a lot today, though only from those who were actually around forty years ago; for those who weren’t, forty years ago occupies the same time-stream as D-Day or Waterloo; events before our time exist outside of time, whereas events of which we have a memory are firmly rooted in our own personal tree of life. I myself rarely say that any pivotal event to have occurred within my lifetime feels like yesterday; it never does. Sure, I can remember exactly where I was, who I was with and what I was doing when I heard the planes had flown into the twin towers or when I was told Princess Di had died in a car crash; but they all feel like a very long time ago – and felt like a very long time ago almost straight away. Often, it seems any major news story of magnitude serves as a full-stop on how life was lived the second before it happened, acting as an instant dividing line between two different worlds. I could apply the same principle to personal events in my life; they always feel like decades ago once they’re gone.

No, eating my Ricicles at the breakfast table on 9 December 1980, maybe half-an-hour before having to set off for school, certainly doesn’t feel like forty years ago; it feels more like 400. I had no notion that John Lennon had been murdered in New York around four hours earlier (which was still the 8th Stateside on account of the UK/US time difference); I was going through the usual weekday motions that morning. I wondered why ‘Love Me Do’ was playing on the radio instead of a contemporary hit, but it was only when a news update followed the track that I was made aware of what had happened; and I don’t think I thought about anything else for the rest of the day. Once reluctantly shoved in the direction of school, I rightly guessed the subject would be on the lips of friends, for they all knew I was a Beatles fan. It was even referenced in the school assembly; I couldn’t remember anything like that ever happening before. Yes, Elvis’s death three years earlier had been a big story, but I think it was the brutal manner of Lennon’s death that seemed so shocking – even to a generation raised on the routine violence of US TV cop shows. They no longer seemed so far-fetched.

I came home for dinner and recorded Radio 1’s extended ‘Newsbeat’ onto an audio cassette (featuring an early outing for Paul Gambaccini as the unofficial executor of every pop icon’s last will and testament), and as soon as I was back home for good there was no shortage of further coverage on TV, which was abundant in ‘programme changes’ that evening. ‘Help!’ was shown, as was the Bob Harris ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ interview with Lennon from five years earlier. As by this stage the obligatory B&W portable set had made household viewing choices a tad more democratic, I had free rein to change channels and seek out as much on the subject as I could catch. That night was the first time in my life I actively sought out news programmes to watch instead of greeting them with the archetypal childish cry of ‘boring!’; in fact, childish things suddenly seemed very childish indeed. If ever a day could be singled out as the day my childhood was officially given notice, it was 9 December 1980.

Although I’d had a ‘Yellow Submarine’ colouring book as an infant and was familiar with the sleeves of the Beatles LPs my parents owned, I hadn’t properly ‘discovered’ the Fab Four for myself until the previous Christmas, when BBC2 screened all their movies. A few months later I acquired the famous ‘blue’ compilation – ‘1967-’70’ – which is as good an introduction as it’s possible for a novice to receive. Music now mattered more than what had traditionally captured my attention. I was fortunate the music scene in 1980 was pretty bloody good as well; with 99p singles at Woolies beginning to edge out comics when it came to the spending of pocket money, I was spoilt for choice, with the likes of Blondie, The Police, The Jam and others. But the advantage of The Beatles was that their entire career from start to finish was ready and waiting to be devoured, a task I spent a good deal of 1980 engaged in. Paul McCartney was the most visible ex-Beatle to anyone growing up in the 70s, for Wings were always in the charts and on TOTP; Ringo would surface periodically, whilst George was relatively anonymous. Instinctively drawn to Lennon from the moment I fell in love with the back catalogue, I couldn’t understand why he was absent and acting all ‘Howard Hughes’ when he was the one I wanted to hear from out of all four; then, in the autumn of 1980, it was announced he was back.

Rock stars reaching the age of 40 was uncharted territory at the time; 30 had been seen as the ultimate cut-off point when Lennon’s generation was in its prime, yet when they all got to 30 they didn’t abruptly slip into slippers; they kept going – and this despite the peasants’ revolt of Punk and all its numerous offshoots that were making waves at the dawn of the decade. Therefore, John Lennon re-entering the arena with a new album was still big news and he played the PR game, giving several major interviews; one of them was with Radio 1’s Andy Peebles, segments of which had been aired in the hours before Lennon’s murder; I remember my dad informing me of this, which I’d naturally missed, what with bloody school and all that. Lennon’s new music disappointingly didn’t appear to be along the lines of ‘Instant Karma’, ‘Cold Turkey’ or ‘Working Class Hero’; but I was too green to realise that wasn’t going to happen. I wished the kids at school who ribbed me for being a fan were more familiar with that stuff than ‘Woman’.

At least I knew I wasn’t alone when the charts over the Christmas period were swamped in Lennon material. By the second chart of 1981, Lennon had three singles in the top five, holding both the No.1 and No.2 spot as well as No.5. He’d even managed to swap places with himself at No.1 by the beginning of February. It was a strange couple of months, but the renewed interest in his music, along with the deluge of tribute magazines and books that flowed off the presses in the wake of the events of 8 December, suggested death was something of an inspired career move. Not that this was entirely new, of course; everyone from Buddy Holly to Jimi Hendrix to Elvis and Sid Vicious had experienced an upsurge of sales following their demises, and Bob Marley would shortly receive a similar boost. But the way in which a media that had regularly ridiculed and mocked Lennon suddenly venerated his memory did stick in the throat a little. George Harrison picked up on this when he emerged from his own hibernation with a Lennon tribute in the spring of 1981: ‘You were the one that they said was so weird/all those years ago.’

Mind you, Lennon’s posthumous life was only just beginning. Yoko Ono honed in on one element of her late husband’s oeuvre and repackaged him as Gandhi with a guitar; a fascinatingly complex individual was reduced to the official, somewhat trite slogan of the Lennon brand, AKA ‘All he was saying/was give peace a chance’. He also said ‘Boy, you been a naughty girl/you let your knickers down’ and ‘Curse Sir Walter Raleigh/he was such a stupid get’; but they rarely make the merchandise. Perhaps the grotesque drama of being shot dead by a twisted stalker – a possibility every star was made aware of thereafter – inevitably triggered the path to faux-sainthood that followed; but at the same time, an unconventional character like Lennon was probably never going to quietly conk-out at 80, the age he would now be had Mark Chapman been committed to the institution he evidently belonged in far earlier than he was. So, to echo the previous post on the subject of endings, something definitely ended forty years ago today. For my parents’ generation, it was their youth; for me, it was my childhood. And that does feel like 400 years ago.

© The Editor

SING A SONG OF SIXPENCE

In the mid-1960s, pop musicians were laying an abundance of golden eggs for grateful record companies, promoters, managers and merchandisers and getting very little in return. And even if the biggest earners in the business had a better time of it on paper than the opening act for Freddie and the Dreamers, the Wilson Government’s very own superhero, Taxman, was taking nineteen shillings from every twenty made. Pre-60s entertainers hadn’t made much money from record sales either; back then, performers had earned their livings by performing, whilst the majority of the royalties from a big-seller went to the professional songwriters who penned it; and in the era of the Standard, a dozen different singers could sell millions of copies of the same song, further boosting the income of the composer as opposed to the performer. With the rise of the writer/performer in the wake of The Beatles, the additional compositional income helped a little, but the contracts the bands were locked into weren’t that different from the kinds of tied land/cottage deals endured by centuries of agricultural labourers.

Having lost a fortune courtesy of Brian Epstein’s business naivety, The Beatles attempted to break the stranglehold others had over their accumulated earnings by forming the Apple organisation in 1968; but their reluctance to involve anyone with genuine financial acumen left the shambolic field clear for Allen Klein, the archetypal showbiz shyster, to eventually steam in and pocket the pieces; he’d already shafted the Stones, after all. It wasn’t until the arrival of Led Zeppelin and their visionary manager Peter Grant at the end of the 60s that bands began to earn the kind of big bucks that would set them up for life. At the same time as Led Zep were flying around the world on their private jet, Stevie Wonder was turning 21 and renegotiating his contract with Motown, gaining an unprecedented degree of control over his recorded output. However, the rise of the powerful artist in command of his or her destiny didn’t end the traditional factory farm system, with the likes of The Bay City Rollers being royally ripped-off by their manager, the notorious Tam Paton. The exploitation of youth – both performer and audience – still constituted a hefty chunk of the music industry’s business plan.

The phenomenal record sales of the 70s and 80s paid for many a Rolls Royce, country estate and penthouse suite, but the boom dramatically turned to bust with the advent of Napster and file-sharing at the very end of the 20th century. Home taping may not have killed music, but free illegal downloading certainly killed the old music industry – and denied any rising star the prospect of following in the footsteps of their millionaire predecessors. With falling record sales and the increasing irrelevance of the singles chart, contemporary acts reverted to the bread-and-butter of their 50s ancestors by hitting the road. The astronomical rise in the price of tickets for big gigs thereafter became the main way an artist could at least make a decent living from music, whilst the place of recorded income was taken by the industry cornering the streaming market, belatedly latching onto the fact it was the one remaining area they could recoup some of the billions they lost when physical sales began to plummet.

The conglomerates that gobbled up the old record companies – Universal, Sony and Warner – today own the vast majority of popular music people want to hear and can make on average a good $20 million a day from streaming; whatever crumbs are left (13% of an estimated annual £1bn in the UK alone) go to lesser-known, independent artists, and as streaming sites lean towards acts that have a proven track record of success, the marginalisation of new artists trying to make headway is inevitable. The little they earn from streaming leaves them no better off than the 60s acts making a pittance from record sales due to the miserly contracts they signed. But at least there was always touring to depend on for paying the rent, even if the number of small venues for up-and-coming acts is a pale shadow of the circuit there used to be 30 or 40 years ago. Alas, even that hit a brick wall this year thanks to a certain virus. 2020 has seen the one lifeline most musicians who aren’t Ed Sheeran or Adele had as their main income completely wiped out. Sure, those who enjoy live music are being deprived in lockdown land, but if performing is what you do, what do you do when there’s nowhere to perform anymore? Chances are relying on streaming isn’t the answer.

Streaming royalties don’t work the same way as radio airplay; at a time when more are accessing the likes of BBC Sounds to tune into playlists whenever they feel like it, most are probably unaware (or don’t care) that the artist’s royalty payment for featuring on the BBC Sounds app goes direct to the artist’s label rather than the artist. This is because of a legal loophole whereby the broadcast is regarded as ‘interactive’ and therefore not subject to the older, fairer system; it empowers the labels further, turning them into an old-fashioned housewife in charge of her husband’s wage-packet and dispensing the contents as she sees fit. There is no cast-iron guarantee the artist will receive any kind of substantial payment for the privilege of being included in such a playlist, and with the lifeblood of the live performance suddenly removed from the picture, many musicians are struggling. This week, ‘Private Eye’ gives the example of classical violinist Tasmin Little, receiving 5m Spotify streamings of her work over six months and earning the princely sum of…£12. Both the Performing Rights Society and the Musicians Union are making the right sounds, but they may as well be Oliver Twist requesting an extra bowl of gruel.

Last week, a group of concerned musicians – including Ed O’Brien of Radiohead and Guy Garvey of Elbow – gave evidence to a Commons Select Committee of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; also present was Nadine Shah, a singer-songwriter belonging to a younger, more vulnerable musical generation. As she herself made clear, many less-established acts still on their way up are reluctant to speak out against the unfairness of streaming for fear of being blacklisted by the all-powerful streaming sites; at such a perilous time for musicians, one can understand their fears. The musicians appearing at the DCMS inquiry into the streaming business put forward the suggestion that artists be granted rights by Government to earn a decent percentage from streaming of the kind they would be legally entitled to from radio and TV airplay. Bands such as Radiohead and Elbow were amongst the last wave of acts who were able to build their careers in the pre-streaming age and are, I would imagine, relatively secure in financial terms; the same cannot be said of those at the mercy of the streaming overlords when they have no past royalties to fall back on.

I know myself that the publishing industry is notoriously stingy when it comes to royalty payments, and the music biz is no better. There was a brief window of around 30 years – between, say, the release of Led Zeppelin’s first album and Oasis’s third – when a small fortune could be made by artist as well as record company should an act capture the public imagination; but those that came before the window was open and those who came after it was closed tell a different story. Of course, no musician has a divine right to end up as a member of the landed gentry; but many wouldn’t want that, anyway. Some just want to be able to earn enough not to have to worry about the bailiffs on the doorstep. Most were just about managing before lockdown curtailed the live scene overnight; now they’ve no choice but to rely on a system that treats them as effective serfs, just like the system that existed before all those golden eggs started to be laid back in the 60s. Who knew that the brave new world of ‘digital content’ would end up taking us full circle?

© The Editor

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

Bloody hell, talk about painting yourself into a corner. To come up with a title like that at times like these implies there are reasons to be cheerful when the gut reaction of most right now would be to declare there aren’t actually any reasons to be cheerful at all. I must admit I can’t really think of any that come straight outta 2020. What about straight outta the 30-odd years after the end of the Second World War, though – the timespan that still feels like home? If this wretched century can do one thing to suggest there are reasons to be cheerful it is by enabling the past to be seen again via the technology of the present. The insularity that has been imposed upon the majority this year has exacerbated personal viewing habits that would’ve probably have served me well without a lockdown; however, the circumstances unique to 2020 seem to have provoked a binge on the familiar that has little precedence.

Some opt for Netflix, whereas in 2020 I’ve sat through the following box-sets: ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Strange World of Gurney Slade’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Department S’, ‘Jason King’, ‘The Protectors’, ‘Budgie’, ‘Colditz’, ‘Softly Softly: Task Force’, ‘Callan’, ‘Special Branch’, ‘Public Eye’, ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Angels’, ‘Casanova’, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, ‘Out’, ‘The Sandbaggers’, ‘Shoestring’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin’, ‘Law and Order’, ‘Boys from the Blackstuff’ – all since March, and that’s not even mentioning numerous one-off productions or documentary series that have filled out my own private schedule. Sometimes, such as these nuclear bunker moments, it pays to have amassed a library of archive TV; the fact that I’d seen all of these shows before didn’t really matter, because there’s a ‘Painting the Forth Bridge’ factor that means whenever you’ve done the lot, it’s time to go back the beginning. All very sad and pathetic, I know; but if you don’t build shelves or knit, what else you gonna do to unwind? I only ever feel alive when I’m creating, and I can’t think of any better way to experience facsimile living during downtime than by remembering how we used to live.

After revisiting the contents of the library, the good thing about being online is the prospect of stumbling upon something absent from that library, and I was momentarily cheerful this morning when I found an old Fred Dibnah programme on YT. I genuinely lost all sense of time, instantly enraptured by the fearless Bolton steeplejack ascending a chimney he was laboriously demolishing by hand. Anyone whose palms become sweaty watching John Noakes’ famous climb up Nelson’s Column needs to see Dibnah manoeuvring his way from ladder to chimney-top as he clambers over shaky scaffolding and wobbly planks positioned God knows how many hundreds of feet above ground. No safety harness to prevent him plummeting to his death, not even any gloves to combat the cold; once in place, he chips away with his chisel, lights another cigarette, and dismantles the brick edifice with the same artisan dignity as the man who erected it a century earlier. The gentle manner of the demolition is almost like Dibnah is showing his respect for his predecessor in a way that simply blowing it up doesn’t.

These films radiate so many different layers of melancholy – melancholy as the industrial landscape that made Britain the workshop of the world was being rapidly erased along with the nation’s global standing; melancholy that doorstep sandwich-chomping, fag-smoking, beer-drinking blokes like Fred – from a time when no working man had a weak handshake – are not so much a dying breed now but an extinct one; and melancholy at the realisation that so many restrictions have been placed upon freedoms which had been hard-won by the generation before Fred, freedoms that have been removed gradually by the generation after him, sneakily and slowly so that few noticed. What we are seeing now, however, is the blatant and ugly acceleration of that process courtesy of a pandemic that waives the previous hesitancy that anticipated resistance. I guess the problem with dependence on the riches of the past to provide sustenance for the present is that cheerfulness is always one step away from melancholy because there’s no escaping the fact it’s all gone.

To borrow a phrase I used in an earlier paragraph, ‘How We Used to Live’ is also the title of a wonderful 2013 film put together by Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley, they of long-running musical ensemble St Etienne, and a film I watched again last night. It could almost be seen as a visual companion piece to Wiggs and Stanley’s superb CD compilations of overlooked and obscure gems from the nation’s neglected record libraries such as ‘English Weather’. It takes ‘travelogue’-type Technicolor footage of London from the Festival of Britain to the end of the 1970s and paints a poignant portrait of the capital as it was before money moved in and natives moved out; the footage is the kind that comprised Pathé and Movietone cinema fillers in the 50s, 60s and 70s but in this case is primarily lifted from similar shorts dispatched to the colonies and not shown in the mother country. Eschewing straight chronology, the film instead mixes the eras together in a delightful dreamy collage accompanied by a suitably lugubrious narration from Ian McShane and a complementary St Etienne soundtrack. Anyone who has a soft spot for old London needs to see it.

Again, however, the viewer comes away from the viewing experience somewhat overwhelmed by sadness. It’s not just the vintage cars or the way people are dressed or even the way the city looks – i.e. before it was scarred by bland glass towers that could slot into any non-dom billionaire’s ghetto on the planet; no, the impression the footage gives is more a lost world of community, consideration, shared values and, I guess, simple politeness – the people’s manifestation of the political consensus that collapsed in the 80s. What the images magically generate is a less rude, obnoxious, ignorant, aggressive, selfish and self-centred country, not to mention less authoritarian; all the worst human characteristics that Thatcherism and Blairism at their most nakedly avaricious legitimised are absent from the Britain of ‘How We Used to Live’. Yes, the exquisite stitching together of the footage could be accused of manufacturing an imaginary past, but it actually works in the same way memory does, far more effectively than if it was a conventional chronological documentary.

Having seen the unnecessary prevention of the public from marking Remembrance Sunday last weekend – and with every day seeming to bring one more despotic and undemocratic curb of civil liberties proposed or introduced by the UK’s devolved administrations under the guise of ‘saving lives’ – one can’t help but compare the world of ‘How We Used to Live’ to the world we’ve allowed to be remade and remodelled by such appalling individuals and not end up wondering how the hell we went from that to this. Of course, you can’t go back, only forward – but forward to what? I’d like to look upon this period as a periodical trough, yet it’s more tempting to view it as the last row of lights going out as it becomes increasingly difficult to detect any reasons to be cheerful on the horizon. Oh, well; if nothing else, documenting decline and fall makes for more gripping reading than trying to describe rise and shine, I suppose, so what am I complaining about?

© The Editor