THE BLACK MARKET

City GentsA rare visit to the house I grew up in over the weekend was crystallised in the wee small hours of Sunday morning by me accessing buried treasure and rifling through yellowing copies of the first ever comic I purchased week in-week out half-a-century ago, ‘The Mighty World of Marvel’ (from October 1972 onwards). This inaugural outing for the British branch of the Marvel Corporation was an exciting introduction to that now-overexposed universe for a kid eager for visual stimulation 50 years ago; the fantastic imaginations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were exactly what I needed then, however much the thought of their creations as rendered by Hollywood fills me with indifference today. Anyway, the familiar sensation of turning childhood pages and re-encountering images permanently burned onto the memory banks of the half-formed mind was added to by a retrospective awareness of wider events that barely gatecrashed my infant consciousness at the time.

I noticed a comic that was priced at 5p from its launch in the autumn of ’72 abruptly shot up to 6p at the height of the Three-Day Week in January 1974 and then increased to 7p less than six months later; by the conclusion of the year it had risen to 8p, and once I’d reached the end of the pile (1977), the cover price was 10p. I appreciate that sounds like peanuts by today’s standards, but one has to take into account price comparisons between the cost of living then and now; indeed, ‘The Mighty World of Marvel’ was probably an expensive addition to the newsagents’ shelf and its bi-annual price increase from 1974 onwards evidently reflected the soaring inflation of the mid-70s, something that only impinged on me when I was informed my weekly stimulation needed to be cut back. Related searches through my numerous preserved files of vintage TV from the era revealed a report from ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ explaining the perilous position of the pound in relation to the dollar from October 1976; this served as a reminder of how current headlines surrounding similar issues are nothing new. We have been here before, even if many of us who lived through the last time we were here imagined we’d never be here again.

Forty-six years ago, John Craven and his team reported that the pound in 1972 had been worth $2 57₵; four years later, as the pound plunged to its then-lowest-ever level, this had dropped a dollar to $1 57₵. Alas, the news that the pound of 2022 has plummeted to a record low against the US dollar in the wake of new Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announcing his tax cuts fuelled by further borrowing has unfortunately added to the tiresome ‘Back to the 70s’ narrative that the MSM is currently indulging in. Threatened public sector strikes and the prospect of a candlelit winter hardly help matters, but the largest programme of tax cuts since Ted Heath tried (and failed) to repair the economic malaise of his own premiership have resulted in the weakest performance of the pound Vs the dollar since decimalisation in 1971. The Chancellor is clearly fixated on the mantra of ‘economic growth’ by arresting the rise in National Insurance Contributions, axing the additional rate of income tax and cutting stamp duty, but I would imagine the majority of this country’s workforce is now being confronted by diminishing returns for their hard work, something not aided by the prospect of the rich receiving further benefits courtesy of last week’s mini-budget.

The 1976 low of the pound – despite then-Chancellor Denis Healey going cap-in-hand to the IMF (leading to a defiant albeit bad hair day speech from the floor at that year’s Labour Party Conference) – was superseded in 1985, but the latest figures have exceeded even that; overnight trading by Monday morning saw sterling falling 5%, reduced to $1.0327. It’s worth remembering the devaluation of the pound by Harold Wilson in 1967 was greeted as a national calamity on a par with Dunkirk (and cost Chancellor Jim Callaghan his job), yet even though one could argue it led directly to Labour’s defeat at the 1970 General Election, it seems like a storm in a teacup when stood alongside the problems facing the new PM. Okay, so I know if you’re a layman like me, ‘the markets’ may as well be written in a foreign language; but the current climate has provoked an increased interest in something normally reserved for readers of the Financial Times; and Liz Truss herself has already come under criticism from within her own Party for her emergency economic measures, with one unnamed member of her predecessor’s Cabinet declaring, ‘Liz is f***ed. She’s taking on markets and the Bank of England’, adding the new PM and Treasury Ministers were ‘playing A-Level economics with people’s lives’.

This is the kind of story that used to bore the pants off my generation as children, perhaps because most of us imagined it was one of those headlines specific to time and place, not regarding it as one that would have any relevance in the future. Little did we know we’d eventually come full circle. The same anonymous Minister in Boris’s cabal added by concluding ‘Government fiscal policy is opposite to the Bank of England monetary policy – so they are fighting each other. What Kwasi gives, the Bank takes away…you cannot have monetary policy and fiscal policy at loggerheads’. In harmony with this mystery man is a senior investment analyst name of Susannah Streeter, whose opinion of the situation is that ‘the pound has been on a fast downwards track of a rollercoaster, plunging to record lows…as confidence in the Government’s economic management continues to evaporate. The fresh bout of panic appears to have been brought on by rumours that the Bank of England may step in with an emergency rate hike to try and shore up support’; referring to Kwasi Kwarteng threatening further tax cuts, Streeter added, ‘The worry is that not only will borrowing balloon to eye-watering levels, but that the fires of inflation will be fanned further by this tax giveaway, which offers higher earners the bigger tax break’.

Fears that Liz Truss will crash the economy have stoked the backbenches into action on the eve of the PM’s first speech as leader at the Conservative Party Conference. Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Tory MP Mel Stride said, ‘One thing is for sure – it would be wise to take stock of how through time the markets weigh up recent economic announcements rather than immediately signalling more of the same in the near term’. However, rumours abound that Truss and her Chancellor will not stop here; the borrowing is set to extend into 2023 and Kwarteng has promised more is to come. Stories of further tax cuts for the rich even resulted in Gideon himself – George Osborne – criticising the ‘schizophrenic’ notion of cutting taxes along with more borrowing, and also prompted ye olde Hush Puppy-wearing, cigar-smoking, Ronnie Scott-loving Chancellor of a different era Ken Clarke to comment, ‘I’m afraid that’s the kind of thing that’s usually tried in Latin American countries without success’. The fact polls show Labour now has its largest lead over the Tories since 2001 suggests the incumbent Chancellor hasn’t made a great start.

It goes without saying that even those of us not in possession of a brain boasting an implant with a degree in advanced mathematics could see this coming when industry was plunged into mothballs during lockdown, so it’s no great surprise that our governing party of 12 years is confronted by an economic meltdown of unprecedented proportions. And the majority who tend not to follow the FT Index are now faced with the realities of it all when they venture down supermarket aisles and notice how much more expensive certain items are today than they were this time last year. Yes, a recent reunion with some of my childhood reading material may have reminded me that we’ve been here before, but I guess that’s not much comfort for those who weren’t forking out pocket money for ‘The Mighty World of Marvel’ in 1972.

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NON-TOXIC MASCULINITY

ProfessionalsThere’s been a lot of understandable talk these past few days of how her late Majesty gave the British people a sense of security when every other Great British bastion proved fallible; if all else failed, the Queen was always there. Now she’s gone, who can we rely on? Well, at one time – albeit over 40 years ago – we could rely on CI5. This uniquely hardline service, sandwiched between Special Branch and MI5, was established in the tumultuous climate of the 1970s to deal with the escalating threats to the British way of life from international terrorism and increasingly sophisticated espionage. Headed by the redoubtable Major George Cowley, CI5 drew on the best men from the armed forces and the police and rode roughshod over all the legal obstacles that hindered ordinary coppers from nailing their man. CI5 had a remit that precluded niceties and this was reflected in the guys that fronted it, especially agents Bodie and Doyle. The former was an ex-military man who’d earned his spurs as a mercenary-for-hire in Africa; the latter rose to the rank of DC in the Police Force. When partnered together, Bodie and Doyle proved to be the ideal combination to cope with the challenges that threatened Britannia’s borders as the country careered towards the 80s.

Of course, CI5 only existed in the parallel universe of the cathode ray tube between 1977 and 1983. George Cowley was Gordon Jackson, Bodie was Lewis Collins, and Doyle was Martin Shaw. But from the moment that car crashed through a plate glass window and arguably one of the most energising theme tunes in TV history pumped its testosterone-fuelled beats into the living room, CI5 was for real – well, for an hour every Sunday evening, anyway. ‘The Professionals’ was a film series produced for London Weekend Television, being the brainchild of Brian Clemens, the man who had developed ‘The Avengers’ into such a memorably quirky and stylish series ten years before; having recently revived it as ‘The New Avengers’, Clemens was eager to create something less eccentric and more pertinent to the brutal 1970s and he hatched the concept of CI5 as an organisation to hang his idea around.

The success of ‘The Sweeney’ (1975-78) had shown there was an appetite for a hard-hitting police series in which the protagonists might bend the rules to nail society’s nastiest bastards; the popularity of the swearing, smoking, shagging, punching and boozing Regan & Carter was a testament to the charismatic chemistry of the two leads (John Thaw and Dennis Waterman) and was enhanced by sharp, witty writing. The show was produced by Euston Films for Thames Television, holders of ITV’s weekday franchise in the capital, and networked across all the ITV regions. The capital’s franchise holder for weekends, LWT, was desperate to come up with something similar, and Clemens’ idea sounded like just the series the company was looking for, combining the familiar police elements with the spy factor that had proven successful in the past with the likes of ‘Callan’, and adding the terrorism angle that was a reality for the British people after several years of IRA bombs causing mayhem on the mainland. The show had the potential to capture the public’s imagination in the same way ‘The Sweeney’ had, but it all depended on recruiting the right men for the job.

Gordon Jackson certainly wouldn’t have been the obvious choice to play the brash, abrasive boss of CI5; he was a household name thanks to a very different kind of character indeed – Hudson, the urbane head butler on LWT’s internationally popular period soap, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. However, Jackson proved himself to be far more versatile an actor than people gave him credit for and was as capable of barking out orders at his subordinates as any Sergeant-Major on the parade ground. After first-choice Jon Finch decided against being tied to a series, Martin Shaw, whose grumblings about his time on the show have become part of the programme’s legend, was selected for the part of ex-copper Ray Doyle; Shaw had an impressive theatre and TV CV that had been steadily building throughout the 70s. Contrary to popular belief, his distinctive bubble-haired look predated ‘The Professionals’ – it’s evident in an episode of Nigel Kneale’s anthology series, ‘Beasts’, from the year before he joined CI5 – although Shaw’s concessions to the sartorial styles of the era perhaps placed the show in a time capsule that often distracts from its enduring strengths. Initially, he was pared with Anthony Andrews as Bodie – an actor whose aristocratic bearing proved ideal for the series that made him a household name in 1981, ‘Brideshead Revisited’; but Andrews’ attributes didn’t work for Bodie and the part was recast after several days of shooting.

In stepped Lewis Collins, a lesser ‘thespian’ as far as Martin Shaw was concerned, though an actor who had also established himself on the small-screen, albeit via the vehicle of the sitcom; in Collins’s case it was the mid-70s ITV show, ‘The Cuckoo Waltz’, co-starring the beautiful Diane Keen. Called upon to play it straight, Collins nevertheless injected a level of humour into the role of Bodie that helped give the show some light relief; the banter between Bodie and Doyle – especially during extended in-car scenes when the two were screeching tyres en route to their next assignment – oozed a natural camaraderie that gave the series a great deal of its appeal. Regardless of some rather chaotic behind-the-scenes shenanigans involving lack of money, delayed shooting schedules and scripts being rewritten at the eleventh hour, ‘The Professionals’ debuted across the ITV network at the end of December 1977. Despite premiering in that television no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year, the show proved to be pretty much an overnight success. By the opening months of 1978, the benefits of being seen by all ITV viewers at the same time – a luxury denied the ITC series of the 60s and early 70s – ensured high viewing figures and instant fame for the two main leads.

‘The Professionals’ drew upon a vast, rich pool of experienced TV dramatists for its stories – men who had cut their teeth on the long-running series British television specialised in at the time – and also inherited the crew from ‘The Sweeney’ when that drew to a close. The talent behind the camera combining with the talent on-screen made for a heady mix and there followed three or four years when ‘The Professionals’ was one of the highest-rated shows on TV. It had its critics – usually hurling accusations that it was mindless, misogynistic, macho entertainment; but it was very much a show of its time, and the exhilarating action elements didn’t detract from the routinely engaging relationship at the core of its success. Yes, violence was paramount, though, unlike ‘The Sweeney’, there was no what was then referred to as ‘bad language’. The only time ‘The Professionals’ crossed a line was in an episode called ‘Klansmen’; it was pulled from transmission at the last minute and has still never been seen on terrestrial television in this country. It’s been included on every VHS and DVD release of the series, but an episode that actually addresses the issue of racism in an intelligent and honest manner stands up as a good example of how there were more dimensions to ‘The Professionals’ than merely the one.

Currently viewing the series for the first time since the 1990s, I think the old-school charm often associated with any vintage show loaded with plenty of ‘well, you couldn’t get away with that today’ moments gives it a ‘guilty pleasure’ quality; but when stood beside so much of contemporary mainstream fare, ‘The Professionals’ comes across far better than it ever did in its heyday as every little boy’s favourite undemanding series. Standards were higher on TV in the late 70s and it certainly shows in 2022. Moreover, the virtues at which Bodie and Doyle excelled were actually valued at the time rather than dismissed and denigrated as ‘toxic’; and despite changing fashions dictated by a cultural elite obsessed with what the public ought to want as opposed to what they do, these are virtues still valued by the majority, who would no doubt warm to ‘The Professionals’ all over again if given the chance.

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FAR BEYOND THE PALE HORIZON

Roxy 2When it comes to pop music, familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt, but repetition can block the ears to the sensation that comes with hearing something for the first time; it’s almost impossible to recapture that sensation unless enough years go by in which the ears are spared further exposure to it – and tuning in to the predictable playlists of ‘oldies’ stations is something of a hindrance to the process. One doesn’t necessarily have to have been around at the time of the record’s release to have experienced said sensation, though perhaps to fully appreciate just how groundbreaking a piece of music was in its day, it probably helps if you haven’t already heard everything that came after it. Anyway, as we continue along the path of years being characterised by how many landmark anniversaries they contain rather than whatever the current excuse for pop music happens to be doing when nobody’s listening, this year contains the usual multitude of significant dates. A record that might easily be overlooked from the anniversary list takes us back half-a-century, which is difficult to comprehend when the track in question still sounds like the future, albeit a future we never reached. I’m talking about ‘Virginia Plain’ by Roxy Music.

Released 50 years ago this month, the debut single by the intriguing Art Rock band with the unique potential to appeal to viewers of ‘Top of the Pops’ as much as ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ followed hot on the heels of Roxy Music’s first (eponymous) LP, which was climbing up to its peak position of No.10 on the albums chart. Throughout 1972, the band had been steadily building a reputation as ‘one to watch’, cannily supporting breakthrough man-of-the-moment David Bowie at the prestigious Rainbow Theatre and catching the eyes and ears of a music press eager for the Next Big Thing. The divisions between Rock and Pop were becoming wider in the early 70s, with huge acts like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd flourishing on album sales alone, not even needing the regular stimulus of a hit single to keep them in the public eye as bands in the 60s had; in the singles chart, the likes of Gary Glitter, Sweet, Slade and T. Rex were cleaning up as a consequence, and it seemed as though Glam was for the teenyboppers whilst Prog was reserved for the students – one was made for the affordable 45, the other was made for the expensive LP.

However, with the release of his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album (and its accompanying hit single, ‘Starman’), David Bowie paved the way for a strain of Glam that elevated the genre above the primal stomp and gave it a few musical and lyrical A-levels in the process. Roxy Music were able to capitalise on this climate, producing esoteric and eclectic sounds infused with pure pop melodies and presenting the package in the kind of kitsch, exotic dress-sense that was anathema to the dominant denim-clad Hard Rock brigade. But Bryan Ferry, the band’s founder member and frontman, had come up through the art school route with an appreciation of the visual and recognition of its importance in selling a band brand. The gatefold sleeve of the band’s debut album featured glamorous Ossie Clark catwalk model Kari-Ann Muller, whilst the individual portraits of the band inside complemented the cover, especially those of Ferry himself, synthesizer scholar Brian Eno and woodwind wizard Andy McKay.

As was fairly common at the time, no tracks were lifted from the debut LP as singles, even though several of them would have performed well if they had, encapsulating as they did Roxy’s unique blend of all pop that had gone before and all that was to come. With Bryan Ferry’s distinctive vocal delivery drawing on pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll stylists such as the crooners of the 40s & 50s as well as the quintessential English camp of Noel Coward, it was plain here was a band breaking with the recent past by borrowing from the distant past; but the inclusion of Eno’s experimental soundscapes looked forward, whilst Phil Manzanera’s guitar riffs and Andy McKay’s frenetic saxophone kept the band just about moored in 1972. It was an original and exhilarating mix that, coupled with Roxy’s louche, decadent twist on Glam fashion, made them stand out like a sore sequin. The fact they were prepared to launch an assault on the singles chart reflected Bryan Ferry’s passion for the three-minute pop song, and when it eventually appeared Roxy’s debut 45 was destined to be no run-of-the-mill hit. It had to distil everything that had made the LP such a vibrant and exciting listen into a short enough timespan to earn the band the coveted ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance. And Roxy rose to the challenge in style.

A TOTP audience that was still recovering from the seismic shock of Bowie’s ‘Starman’ performance barely a month before was ill-prepared for the debut of Roxy Music on the show, which was broadcast on 24 August. Phil Manzanera’s ‘fly’ sunglasses, Brian Eno’s glistening gloves, drummer Paul Thompson dressed as a circus strongman in ‘Clockwork Orange’ mascara, Andy McKay playing the oboe with his hair tied back as though a Samurai warrior, bassist Rik Kenton passing for a gawky schoolboy, and a surreally suave Bryan Ferry in glittering eye-shadow and a sparkly jacket designed by Anthony Price. They resembled regal aliens beamed down from an early 70s idea of what pop stars in the Year 2000 would look like. And if the presentation of ‘Virginia Plain’ was a treat for the eyes, the record itself was a blistering banquet of sonic delights.

Subverting the standard formula of the pop single, ‘Virginia Plain’ fades in and ends abruptly rather than the other way round; but it’s also a song without a chorus, a song whose title only surfaces as the very last line. The first verse follows what sounds like an autobiography of the band struggling to get a recording deal, yet ‘We’ve been around a long time’ wasn’t necessarily the case, as Roxy didn’t spend years paying their dues on the college circuit; they were far more ambitious and went for the music business jugular from the off. As the song goes on, Ferry’s lyrics expand to encompass the kind of jet-set lifestyle the singer hopes success will bring – ‘Flavours of the mountain streamline/midnight blue casino floors/Dance the cha-cha through till sunrise/opens up exclusive doors’; this continues to the final verse – ‘Far beyond the pale horizon/some place near the desert strand/Where my Studebaker takes me/that’s where I’ll make my stand’. In the song that introduced the majority of the record-buying public to Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry sets his stall out and plots his future for all to see.

Whereas in later years, the prefix ‘Bryan Ferry and…’ became commonplace – largely due both to the public’s failure to distinguish between Roxy Music and Ferry’s concurrent solo career and Ferry’s eventual dominance of the band – early Roxy is very much a team effort. ‘Remake/Remodel’, the opening track on their debut album, contains tongue-in-cheek passages where each member of the band has two bars to showcase their individual instrumental skills; and ‘Virginia Plain’ offers similar opportunities to demonstrate they’re far from a one-man band, especially the instrumental section building up to the final verse, where Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno both shine. There’s no audible kitchen sink in ‘Virginia Plain’, but it sounds like pretty much everything else is present. 50 years old and it remains one of the great debut singles, probably because not only does it not sound like anything else from 1972, it still doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve ever heard.

The single served as the launch-pad for twelve months in which Roxy Music were the most innovative and inventive band in Britain; their second album, ‘For Your Pleasure’, was released in March 1973 and is arguably the band’s finest LP, with ‘Do The Strand’, ‘The Bogus Man’ and ‘In Every Dream Home, A Heartache’ all masterpieces of Roxy’s sublime blend of pop and the avant-garde. Then the strain of containing two such gigantic artistic egos as Ferry and Eno finally provoked a split in the ranks and the latter left the fold; although there were innumerable great songs to follow, Roxy Music were never quite the same again. And no other hit quite matched the superlative originality of their first – half a bloody century ago.

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PHYSICAL GRAFFITI

OliviaNext year’s Eurovision being staged in Blighty by default isn’t necessarily a unique event; the tradition of one year’s winning nation hosting the following year’s Contest has been disrupted several times in the past, and the UK has stepped in to host proceedings as a substitute more than once, usually when the winning nation has found staging the contest an impossibility, the last time (until 2023) being 1974. Luxembourg had claimed the crown in 1973, but the Grand Duchy’s second consecutive win proved to be a financial bridge too far for the principality and Britain stepped in again, nominating the Brighton Dome as a venue. Of course, a certain four-piece from Sweden eventually captured the headlines with a stomping slice of sub-Glam Rock called ‘Waterloo’, and every other performance that year tends to linger in Abba’s shadow, despite the 1974 Eurovision producing a record number of UK hits. Aside from the celebrated chart-topping winner, the runner-up – Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti with ‘Si’ – reached No.8; Holland’s third-placed entry, ‘I See a Star’ by Mouth & MacNeal, peaked at the same position; and the UK’s very own ‘Long Live Love’ made the charts at No.11; the singer of that song was Olivia Newton-John.

The sad news that the British-born Aussie siren has passed away following a long on-off battle with cancer at the age of 73 is bound to provoke a bout of melancholic nostalgia in anyone of a certain age, particularly those (like me) whose bedroom walls she provided the first female presence upon. Remember poster magazines? They were regular fixtures on newsagents’ shelves in the 70s; they’d contain text on each page and would then be unfolded to reveal a huge poster of the featured subject on the flipside of the text. Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong had been the first such poster magazine stars of my own personal childhood gallery until the 1978 movie version of ‘Grease’ came along and ushered in a different era, whereby pop stars replaced fantasy figures on the wall. Olivia Newton-John in the black satin pants she apparently had to be sewn-into for ‘You’re the One That I Want’ decorated said wall for a few months that year, upholding the appeal of the ‘bad girl’ that Suzi Quatro had monopolised with such memorable sensual vitality a few years earlier.

This Olivia was in direct contrast with the sweet girl-next-door version of ‘Sandy’ that constituted the majority of ‘Grease’, providing the movie with a climax that those who were around at the time tend to remember as the most iconic sequence of the film. Like the rest of the cast of the original high-school musical, Olivia Newton-John was more than a decade away from school age when making it (she was pushing 30), but it gave her two of the best-selling singles in UK chart history in 1978, both of which were duets with co-star John Travolta. ‘You’re the One That I Want’ was No.1 for nine weeks, whilst ‘Summer Nights’ managed seven. A couple of years later, ‘Xanadu’ may have been a movie savaged by the critics, yet it still produced another chart-topper in collaboration with the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO’s only No.1); and the following year, Olivia’s star was in the ascendancy on the other side of the Atlantic when she pushed the sexuality of satin pants Sandy into more dubious lyrical territory with ‘Physical’, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for ten weeks.

It was all a far cry from the wholesome songstress whose first hit was a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘If Not For You’ a decade before, a breakthrough followed by forays into radio-friendly Country Pop like ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. She’d arrived back in her homeland after spending the majority of her childhood in Australia, making the same return journey as The Bee Gees around the same time. Born in Cambridge in 1948, the daughter of an MI5 officer who’d been on the Bletchley Park Enigma code-cracking team during WWII, she attempted to slot into the showbiz style of the biggest Brit female stars such as Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield once she returned to the UK as the winner of an Aussie talent contest. All had progressed from the charts to hosting their own prime-time BBC variety showcases, whereas Olivia quickly found herself effectively adopted by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, appearing regularly on Cliff’s early 70s TV show and becoming romantically involved with Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch; when she ended the relationship, a devastated Welch attempted suicide. Thankfully, the attempt failed and Olivia Newton-John continued to progress along the path established for UK pop ‘dollybirds’ by being selected to represent the nation at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974.

Like Sandie Shaw and Lulu before her, Olivia wasn’t keen on the song the public voted for her to perform at the Eurovision, but she did her duty and gave her all to a plodder that was very much in a staid tradition that Abba blew out of the water overnight. A fourth-placed finish would’ve been hailed as a triumph in more recent years, but in 1974 it was regarded as a bit humiliating. Thereafter, Olivia moved away from the MOR circuit and resumed her flirtation with Country and Western-flavoured sounds; this paid off in the US, where she scored a No.1 hit in 1974 with ‘I Honestly Love You’; the success of this song in the States – and its chart-topping follow-up, ’Have You Never Been Mellow’ – prompted her to relocate there in the mid-70s as her British hits dried up. It was a timely move. Aside from 1977’s ‘Sam’, which reached No.6 in the UK, Olivia didn’t trouble the British charts again until the phenomenal success of all the ‘Grease’ singles in 1978, including her solo ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, which was kept off the No.1 spot by The Boomtown Rats’ ‘Rat Trap’.

After establishing herself as the predominant female pop star in the US with ‘Physical’, Olivia Newton-John’s stateside star surprisingly faded swiftly thereafter, overtaken by younger upstarts such as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. After taking time out to marry her long-time boyfriend Matt Lattanzi and become a mother, she returned later in the 80s, but found even younger newcomers like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany occupying the ground she’d previously dominated, and she never regained that ground despite staging various comebacks that carried her into the 90s. However, all of this was placed on ice when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. Despite winning that stage of the battle, the cancer returned both in 2013 and 2017; the latter proved to be a tougher opponent than her previous bouts and it ended up spreading to her bones, causing her so much pain that she turned to cannabis for relief and ended up becoming a vocal advocate for its medicinal use.

Aside from Bruce Welch’s attempted suicide, the most notable incident in Olivia Newton-John’s personal life was the strange disappearance of her post-divorce, on-off boyfriend Patrick McDermott, who mysteriously vanished from a fishing boat off the coast of Los Angeles in 2005; persistent rumours that he faked his own death have been compounded by the fact that his body has never been found. Their relationship had already ended around the time of his disappearance and she married again in 2008, a union that lasted all the way to her death. I guess the announcement that the cancer which had bedevilled her for the best part of 30 years has finally claimed her provides a poignant opportunity to reassess her lengthy career now that there will be no further comebacks.

Although not an ‘artist’ in the vein of a Joni Mitchell or a Kate Bush, Olivia Newton-John nevertheless had a fascinating journey that took her all the way from Australia to BBC light-entertainment and from Hollywood to US pop royalty – and one could say she paved the way for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Whatever her legacy, Olivia Newton-John made a mark that, for a brief period, placed her at the top of a showbiz tree that is no mean feat to reach. And the image of her stubbing out her cigarette beneath stilettos is one that will remain a potent snapshot of 20th century pop culture for however long the shadow cast by 20th century pop culture lingers. Right now, it seems like it will linger for a hell of a while.

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SLICES OF LIFE

Alison SteadmanIt could be connected to the Commonwealth Games being staged in Birmingham or maybe it’s simply part of the BBC’s centenary celebrations; whatever the reason, the rare opportunity to see some episodes of the Corporation’s mid-70s series of single plays, ‘Second City Firsts’, has been a nice surprise for those who mourn BBC4’s descent into a repeat channel for shows that have been seen too many times before. This series, produced at the late lamented Pebble Mill studios in Brum, was a mouthpiece for voices without much in the way of a nationwide platform at the time, and perhaps it’s only the notoriously shabby treatment of the BBC’s archives in the 1970s that has prevented any of the instalments from receiving an outing since. Thankfully, the likes of the Kaleidoscope organisation are renowned for retrieving lost gems from private collections, and viewers this week were treated to a trio of ‘Second City Firsts’ that were an eye-opening breath of fresh air when it comes to vintage television.

Only one of the three screened – 1975’s ‘Club Havana’ – seemed specific to the actual city the plays were produced in. This dealt with the arrival in Britain of a young man from Jamaica whose mother had been given a decade to lay down roots in Handsworth – one of the areas of Birmingham that experienced high immigration from the West Indies during the 50s and 60s. In many respects, Handsworth was a blueprint for the impact of the Windrush generation across Britain’s old industrial towns, being amongst the first to recruit Afro-Caribbean labour to work in munitions factories during the Second World War. By the time of the TV play’s production, a heavy immigrant population from the Indian Subcontinent had become predominant in neighbouring Smethwick, though Birmingham’s black community had seniority, something that was reflected in the play itself. The new arrival walking into a well-established community was played by Don Warrington, already making a mark in ‘Rising Damp’, whilst his mother was played by the familiar face of Mona Hammond, who sadly passed away at the beginning of this month.

‘Club Havana’ was a fascinating dip into a British black experience which was a hidden world from TV viewers in 1975, despite having a vintage of 30 years in Handsworth by then. Warrington’s character was that of an idealistic teacher eager to use education to liberate the future factory fodder from the destiny capitalism had selected for it; his attraction to the white barmaid (played by Julie Walters in her first TV appearance) at the ‘speakeasy’ run by his mother sparked tensions due to his father’s desertion into the arms of white women years before. Her prejudicial response to how only the lowest-grade ‘white trash’ females were deemed the best that even the most ‘middle-class’ West Indian immigrant could hope for highlighted an aspect of multiracial Britain that probably wouldn’t be touched upon today.

In 1975, it would be another three years before the debut of the BBC2 drama series ‘Empire Road’ (also set in Birmingham), which was described during its too-short run as ‘the black Coronation Street’, probably because Granada’s evergreen soap didn’t have any black characters back then. Unlike now, when the presence of any non-white character in a BBC drama often feels like box-ticking tokenism, the 70s view was to present immigrant stories as intriguing windows to a parallel universe Britain that the rest of the population was largely ignorant of rather than pretend we all reside in some fantasy rainbow nation where colour only registers when the guilt-stricken white middle-classes release their latest list of the most oppressed minorities to be patronised. But it wasn’t only colour that ‘Second City Firsts’ dealt with in its exploration of tales from the country’s invisible fringes. Perhaps the most well-known play in the series’ canon was 1974’s ‘Girl’, starring a pre-‘Abigail’s Party’ Alison Steadman as a young woman fresh from a relationship with another woman.

It’s interesting how the genuine female experience has been downgraded in the brave new, non-binary 21st century world of Identity Politics so that the word ‘lesbian’ is now deemed to have transphobic connotations. The BBC4 continuity announcer claimed the play contained the first ‘same-sex’ kiss on British television, which isn’t actually true; that had come four years earlier in a production of Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’ starring Ian McKellern. What ‘Girl’ featured was the first lesbian kiss on British television, but lesbian now appears to have been reclassified as an offensive word, buried in the ubiquitous LGBTXYZ acronym; some progress, eh? The play itself contained ye olde slang term ‘dyke’, uttered by the dykes themselves just as the black characters in ‘Club Havana’ were the only ones who said the N word; yes, it was a full six years on from ‘The Killing of Sister George’, but cinema as the 60s turned into the 70s was always one step ahead of the small-screen. What viewers would pay to see at their local fleapit was different to what the masses were served up on the box; the likelihood that the Mary Whitehouses of this world would blow a fuse and besiege the Beeb was paramount in broadcasters’ minds, but perhaps a series of plays hidden away on the nation’s only ‘minority’ channel was the perfect compromise in 1974.

Nevertheless, at the time, the programme apparently attracted a flurry of outraged letters to the Radio Times, describing it as ‘repugnant’ and ‘nauseating’. 48 years on, what struck me more than anything was how unusual it was to see such damaged stock being transmitted in the Hi-Definition digital era; the off-air recording of the programme is the only version that exists and will no doubt have been subjected to meticulous restoration prior to broadcast. It still looked like an old bootleg tape, though as someone accustomed to viewing recovered vintage TV, it didn’t really bother me. At times, the picture quality reminded me of the Duran Duran VHS I had in the 80s; whenever I leant it out to a friend it would always come back with the segment featuring the full-length ‘Girls on Film’ promo strangely damaged. I could never work out why. Oh, well…

Ropy visuals aside, ‘Girl’ came across as a surprisingly candid portrayal of butch lady soldiers for the time. Alison Steadman’s character is being discharged from the Army due to becoming pregnant via a close encounter with a man, one that she describes as rape in all-but name; her determination to have the baby baffles the superior female officer she’d had an affair with, though it eventually transpires the officer in question is something of a predator and will evidently find another ‘lamb’ to seduce come the next intake of recruits.

The third play dusted down and given its first airing since its initial broadcast was called ‘Glitter’. This starred two teenage ones-to-watch, Phil Daniels and Toyah Willcox, cast three years before being reunited in ‘Quadrophenia’. The latter played a hopeful pop star half-a-decade ahead of becoming a bona-fide Top 10 regular, whereas the former would have to wait a further 18 years before his one moment of pop glory via his guest vocals on Blur’s ‘Park Life’. This one was a rather surreal affair, even featuring a cameo from Noel Edmonds, though the nicest surprise was being alerted as to how Toyah looked before the extensive plastic surgery that has rendered her weekly YT outing with hubby Robert Fripp such an embarrassing freak-show. In retrospect, it was probably the weakest of the three, though what all of them evoked was a sense of sadness that the single play – a genre that uniquely combined both critical acclaim and large viewing figures in its lengthy heyday – is now a notable absentee from mainstream TV schedules. As ‘Second City Firsts’ reminded us, that’s a crying shame.

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MOONAGE DAYDREAMS

Bowie 72 DHard to believe now, but there was once a time when David Bowie was regarded as a one-hit wonder; this was when, after a testing, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful journey as an aspiring pop star throughout the 60s, Bowie finally gatecrashed the Top 5 at the very end of the decade. ‘Space Oddity’ launched him into the charts by capitalising on the 1969 Moon Landing, even if this atmospheric and unsettling song chronicling the doomed mission of an astronaut lost in space was at odds with the global euphoria that greeted Neil Armstrong’s achievement. It marked him out as one to watch, which must have made it all the more dispiriting for Bowie himself to then follow Major Tom into a black hole and fail to come up with that all-important second hit. At the beginning of the 70s, Bowie vanished off the public radar he’d spent so long trying to be picked up on and his career progressed largely unnoticed by record-buyers; during this period, his restlessness manifested itself as intriguing flirtations with musical trends then prevalent in that uncertain post-Beatles world.

His 1970 album, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, was an electrifying excursion into the dark heart of Hard Rock, a timely move in a year dominated by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But Bowie’s exceptional intellect elevated the lyrical concerns of the album above the usual Blues Rock clichés, making for a uniquely original take on a style of music not renowned for highbrow content. Despite featuring the debut of Mick Ronson, the axe-man who would become Bowie’s priceless sidekick for the next three years, Bowie seemed to sabotage any potential success for the LP when he decided to pose for the sleeve wearing a dress. Mick Jagger may have got away with briefly donning a man’s frock in Hyde Park the year before, but he was a household name with carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted. Bowie was still only known for the one hit and had yet to build himself a fan-base that could translate into sustained commercial success. An album cover with him resembling a stoned Veronica Lake languidly lounging on the sofa was not one guaranteed to win him the favour of the denim crowd, despite the music on it delivering the goods. It flopped.

The next album, 1971’s ‘Hunky Dory’, tapped into the vogue for the singer-songwriter, with heavy reliance on acoustic guitar and piano. Despite it containing some of his most memorably melodic gems – including ‘Changes’, ‘Oh, You Pretty Things’, and the epic ‘Life on Mars’ – this album also failed to chart upon initial release. But one song on there, the Velvet Underground-influenced adrenalin rush of ‘Queen Bitch’, pointed the way to the future. A promotional visit to the US in which he made the acquaintance of Andy Warhol and Iggy Pop fired Bowie’s imagination and he returned home brimming with ideas for a persona combining the alluring artifice of transsexual Warhol Superstars like Candy Darling with the raw power and theatrical nihilism of The Stooges. Bowie’s wife Angie was a hustler on her husband’s behalf during this crucial stage of his career and her wide circle of outré associates provoked the transformation that was the first step towards the realisation of his new persona. Scissors were taken to Bowie’s flowing locks and the jagged thatch that remained was dyed an unnatural orange. Dragging his backing band into the spotlight, Bowie then generated a group image with outfits inspired by ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The Spiders from Mars were born.

It helped that Bowie was writing new songs at a phenomenal rate. Even before the release of ‘Hunky Dory’, he and the Spiders entered the studio to record them with another album in mind. Loosely linked to form a narrative, the songs told the tale of the character Bowie envisaged as the ultimate rock icon when such figures were pop cultural Gods, Ziggy Stardust. His new image also reflected the growing resurgence of a trashy, old-school rock ‘n’ roll glamour unseen since the heyday of Billy Fury a decade before, and one that was at odds with the fashion as the 70s opened; the music scene then was all about authenticity, rejecting showbiz and looking like a hobo. However, the emergence of former hippie minstrel Marc Bolan as a major chart act in 1971 – scoring two No.1s with his band T. Rex – was another key inspiration for Bowie; Bolan’s music was deliberately primitive yet undeniably invigorating, whilst his image was of a well-groomed androgynous elf; Bolan’s breakthrough opened the floodgates for many acts who became the leading lights of Glam Rock, and for Bowie it convinced him his ingenious idea had a ready-made, hungry audience. He was right, but he also had to convince a sceptical music press.

Casually proclaiming himself bisexual in a Melody Maker interview in early 1972, Bowie sent nervous ripples throughout a music scene still wary of gender-bending despite the great leaps forward of the 60s. But it garnered the outrage, shock, horror and headlines Bowie required as he and the Spiders hit the road and began bringing their exhilarating set-list to the curious kids. The combination of this exotic alien creature quite unlike anything anyone had seen on stage before with a catalogue of riff-tastic instant rock classics was the magic recipe for success Bowie had spent a decade furtively searching for, one that the false dawn of ‘Space Oddity’ made him determined not to let slip through his fingers. None of the attention Bowie’s striking image attracted would have lasted long had he not possessed the musical mettle to back it up, however – and he did.

The release of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ exactly 50 years ago today was the foundation stone of a commercial career that lasted all the way to Bowie’s premature passing 44 years later. It became the first LP of his to chart in the UK and eventually peaked at No.5 whilst continuing to sell for decades thereafter. Its success was also aided by the single lifted from it, ‘Starman’. Having not troubled the singles charts for three years, viewers with a vague memory of a bubble-haired folkie were left open-jawed when Bowie returned to ‘Top of the Pops’ and unveiled Ziggy before an unprepared nation. As Bowie suggestively slung his arm around Mick Ronson, the shockwaves could be felt in every school playground in Britain the following day; it told many a confused kid it was chic to be a freak and gave them the confidence to follow suit. Many of them took the Bowie template and expanded it when they became glamorous chart regulars themselves a decade later.

The ‘Ziggy’ LP didn’t necessarily break new musical ground in the way Bowie went on to do, but it was a good place to start; by contributing his own intoxicating collision of high and low art to the nascent Glam scene, he enabled the Art School crew of Roxy Music, Sparks and Cockney Rebel to storm the charts and take the sound beyond the more basic appeal of Gary Glitter. Even Lou Reed managed to score a Top 10 hit courtesy of the Bowie connection, and the leper messiah also generously gave Mott the Hoople one of his pivotal numbers of the era, ‘All the Young Dudes’. With such pearls as ‘Five Years’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ and the LP’s title track, Bowie had announced his arrival in style and by the following spring, the release of the ‘Aladdin Sane’ album was heralded with an instant No.1 and a sold-out tour that saw his star in a seemingly unstoppable ascendancy.

The clever move of killing Ziggy on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973 didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t an afterlife. Ziggy lingered for a good year or so in Bowie’s haircut and music until he finally buried him by embracing ‘Plastic Soul’ in 1975 with the release of ‘Young Americans’. But Ziggy had been Bowie’s Open Sesame to the masses and would never be forgotten either by the generation that fell in love with him first time round or all the generations to come for whom he would prove to be a stellar inspiration. Half-a-century on, it remains yet another landmark in a long-gone age overflowing with them.

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GOD ONLY KNOWS

DaltreyNietzsche may have infamously declared ‘God is dead’ in 1882, but the decades since his incendiary declaration seem to have proven that you can’t keep a good (or bad) God down. Like David Bowie, it would appear He can take many forms; and the kind of worship that was once reserved for stone icons of Christ or the Virgin Mary was gradually transferred to mere mortals as God resurfaced in numerous new guises to suit whatever God the prevailing climate craved. In the second half of the 20th century, God found his most unlikely outlet in the pop cultural figurehead, whose message was transmitted to the young masses via the global communication tools denied the Messiahs of previous epochs. Come the 1960s, young working-class (or lower middle-class) boys who were expected – and were expecting – to follow in their fathers’ footsteps suddenly found themselves in the eye of a fanatical storm that understandably both swelled their own sense of self-importance and left them spiritually empty once undreamed-of riches and material goods were acquired.

In the post-‘Sgt Pepper’ landscape of the late 60s, when Pop had been rebranded as Art, a definite sea-change amongst its leading (and most intelligent) practitioners took place. Yes, the pursuit of female flesh and recreational substance abuse remained high on the list of song subjects, but the revolutionary fervour that gripped the western world from around 1968 onwards reflected a growing awareness by youth of their own potential and powers. Youth turned to their messengers for guidance, and the messengers – who were no more clued-up than their disciples – nevertheless did their best to deliver answers. Rather than advocating an external revolution, however, most turned inwards and sought to make sense of a journey for which there was no roadmap; for some, this was manifested as an embrace of Eastern philosophy. After The Beatles had set the trend by kneeling at the feet of the Maharishi, The Who’s Pete Townshend found his own guru in the shape of Indian mystic Meher Baba; some of what he absorbed then fed into what remains his most popular artistic achievement, the Rock Opera, ‘Tommy’.

Having not seen it for several years, I recently caught Ken Russell’s visual white-knuckle ride that is his 1975 movie of ‘Tommy’ and was instantly aware of how the near-religious following the rock stars of the era attracted was being cleverly addressed on screen. Of course, this was no isolated wakeup call; ‘Privilege’, the 1967 film starring Paul Jones, drew parallels between traditional worship and the new religion of Pop, and faith was reborn as a legitimate vehicle for a hit record with the likes of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’, giving it a hippie makeover that rendered it far cooler than Cliff Richard at his most evangelical. For black artists raised in the Gospel chapel, this was nothing new, though – in the case of, say, Marvin Gaye – it often had to be squared with thoughts of a more carnal nature, making for a fascinating listening experience. By the early 70s, it had spilled over onto Broadway, with the cosmetic counter-culture of ‘Hair’ superseded by ‘Godspell’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, both of which took this premise to the ultimate extreme by portraying Christ himself as the original rock star.

With the so-called ‘Jesus Freaks’ of the period now tainted by the blotted copybook of the Manson Family, the dark side of this new religion not only presented the cults of the Alternative Society in a negative light, but it gave the musical manifestations of what was happening a far sharper edge. Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s ideal of the ultimate Rock God, comprising all the elements of those who had risen and fallen in the previous decade and cranking them up to eleven; but the fact that the narrator of his 1972 album’s title track admits ‘When the kids had killed the man, I had to break-up the band’ suggests it can only ever end in tears, something that had already been chronicled in ‘Tommy’. When Ken Russell took Townshend’s musical odyssey and placed it on the big screen six years after the release of the LP, the characteristically pessimistic mid-70s setting seemed more relevant to the tragedy of the story than the idealistic 60s, a time when Pete Townshend’s spirit had yet to be blunted by the bottle. There’s a telling sequence in the film where the sick and afflicted are shepherded into a church, praying to an icon of Marilyn Monroe that recreates her famous ‘up-skirt’ pose from ‘The Seven Year Itch’, as though Ken Russell recognised the way in which the mass media had made idols of mortals that, like Christ, were capable of transcending mortality – something mirrored in Tommy’s post-fall ‘resurrection’ at the climax.

Around the time of the movie’s release, the phrase ‘Rock God’ had become common currency to refer to the superstars of the era, though whether Jimmy Page posing with his twin-necked guitar or Robert Plant preening beside him, the conscious attempts of Pete Townshend to somehow deliver a philosophical message to the faithful had been largely abandoned in favour of pure – albeit enjoyably flamboyant – entertainment. Rock had now become a straightforward career choice rather than an accidental spiritual journey. The devotional worship remained, but the search for an answer appeared to have been effectively discarded. When the deliberately primeval Punk Rock gatecrashed the party a year or two later, the more pressing issues confronted by a generation too young to have experienced the seismic shifts of the 60s were favoured over the luxury of pondering ‘Why are we here?’, something that perhaps could only really be asked by a musician once he can sit back and observe the fruits of his labours.

After Punk, the entertainment factor of the most globally successful rock stars became one of their key selling points. Social concerns would periodically surface in the lyrics of less frivolous acts, echoing a recurrent tradition stretching back to Bob Dylan’s ‘Protest’ period; but there were no real further attempts to elevate pop music to Art by seeing it as something on a higher plane than simple self-expression or showbiz. Yes, there was Michael Jackson’s notorious attempt to present himself as the Messiah at the Brit Awards in 1996, though Jarvis Cocker’s impromptu intervention was the perfect antidote to such dubious pretentiousness. And pretentiousness seems to be the usual insult aimed at the period in pop when the likes of ‘Tommy’ were greeted with reverence by broadsheet reviewers. Maybe it simply belonged to a moment impossible to recreate, for that level of intense idolatry had never happened in pop culture before – at least not in quite the same way; okay, so there’d been Valentino and Sinatra and Elvis, but not the self-contained writer, musician and performer bringing their own personal vision to the masses and being put in a position it must have been difficult not to be consumed by.

The Gods of today appear to have been grouped together from a wide range of professions under the umbrella term, ‘celebrity’. They can be actor, athlete, online influencer, model, musician, royalty or reality TV star. The level of attention and scrutiny afforded these usually uninspiring figures can often be quite baffling to those of us who can’t see why any of them – unlike Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison or David Bowie – are remotely interesting. But they supply an evident need for someone to worship in the absence of any form of conventional religion that ticks the same emotional boxes. The God that Nietzsche penned the obituary of may have vanished from the day-to-day lives of most, but He is still with us, and still commanding the adoration of millions. He just wears different trousers these days.

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A LOST ART

Family TVOn the whole, I can think of far preferable sedatives than daytime television; heroin or methadone spring to mind. Daytime TV for me evokes grim images of care home residents slowly succumbing to rigor mortis as they gather dust in sub-tropical temperatures before the small screen, powerless to resist the unremittingly bland diet of soporific sludge that gushes out of every daytime TV pore, leaving the viewer feeling as though they’re being smothered in a sickly-scented cardigan whilst their feet set in a bucket of treacle. Even if one disregards the dreary content, one thing these excuses for entertainment seem to share is the same theme tune – or at least that’s what it sounds like; whilst the themes themselves are as forgettable as the programmes, they all appear to employ those awful ‘synth horns’ that were once the province of Phil Collins hits from the 80s, and each tirelessly upbeat burst of their infantile jollity is akin to being trapped in a lift with a Butlin’s redcoat.

Whilst the paucity of original and gifted minds working today in a once-abundant field of talent such as pop music is regularly discussed, if one widens the net to encompass areas that used to be touched by trends in pop, the dearth of maestros is even more evident – none more so than in another once-abundant field, that of ‘library music’. A deep reservoir of earworms specifically penned for use in commercials or as TV and radio themes, at one time library music – along with specially commissioned themes cut from a similar sonic cloth – provided British viewers and listeners with melodies that simply refuse to go away; many infiltrated our ears as children and they’re still there. Some of the most prolific composers responsible for these persistent portals to happier times are anonymous to all but the most devoted aural archaeologists, even if their body of work stands up as far stronger than anyone ever anticipated when their output was regarded as little more than dispensable Muzak. And, needless to say, it blows the synth horn bots out of the water.

When most vintage rock and soul genres had been plundered and sampled to death by DJs, producers and Hip Hop acts in the 90s, a sudden wave of interest in the untapped riches of archive library music, such as that housed on the books of KPM, led to the so-called ‘Lounge-core’ craze. CD reissues of long-deleted LPs that had spent years in the charity shop bargain bins were suddenly appearing on hip Indie labels, with everything from test card music to novelty noodlings on early synthesizers selling like cult hotcakes. Though the fad passed – as fads do – this ‘ironic’ appreciation of an imaginary soundtrack to an Austin Powers dinner party didn’t erase the nostalgic wave still capable of sweeping over the listener whenever one of the classic library pieces launches a fresh assault on the ears. A warm analogue glow flows through every note and what strikes the listener today is just how well the composers responsible for these tracks managed to take rock elements characteristic of the 60s’ cutting edge and marry them to traditional ‘easy listening’ vibes, producing a uniquely cool hybrid of old and new.

Key musical elements of the Golden Age of library music and theme tunes (the late 60s/early 70s) seem to be fuzzy guitars, the Hammond organ, strings, and lots of horns. Some of the best themes of this era were from the ITC stable of adventure series, as well as the Gerry Anderson shows; whilst John Barry was responsible for some of the former, Barry Gray composed the majority of the latter. A little more well known due to his knack of writing 60s pop hits for Petula Clark and his wife Jackie Trent, Tony Hatch not only worked with the young David Bowie, but his Midas touch gave us memorable themes for ‘Man Alive’, ‘The Champions’, and ‘Sportsnight’ – as well as…er…‘Crossroads’; he also produced a series of future ‘Lounge-core’ classics with his own orchestra. He later became a TV celebrity playing a proto-Simon Cowell alongside the equally sharp-tongued Mickie Most on the panel of the 70s ITV talent show, ‘New Faces’, but it is his musical talents that warrant an inclusion in this particular hall of fame.

Keith Mansfield was a composer who worked extensively in the library world, but also provided the theme tunes for ‘Grandstand’, ‘The Big Match’, and the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage; Johnny Pearson was the leader of both his own Sounds Orchestral band and the Top of the Pops Orchestra (for 15 years), though he composed both library music and numerous memorable TV themes at the same time, including the likes of ‘Captain Pugwash’, ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, and even ‘News at Ten’; Cliff Adams may be remembered with a groan by more than one generation of teenagers waiting for the Sunday Top 40 when leading his silky-smooth singers on ‘Sing Something Simple’, yet his contribution to television came via the commercial break, for which he wrote the jingles we still associate with Murray Mints, Fry’s Turkish Delight, and ‘For mash, get Smash’ amongst numerous others.

Another name worthy of mention is Alan Hawkshaw, who was a brief member of The Shadows before branching out into library music. Several of his library tunes ended up as TV themes, including the smoky organ grooves of ‘Dave Allen at Large’ and – in a weird occurrence that highlighted the non-exclusive nature of library tracks – the tune most of us remember as the original ‘Grange Hill’ theme, yet one which was simultaneously used on an ITV schools series called ‘Alive and Kicking’ as well as ‘Give Us A Clue’; also, though Cliff Adams wrote it, it was Hawkshaw and his band who performed the Bond-esque theme that accompanied the well-remembered ads ending with the tagline, ‘And all because the lady loves Milk Tray’.

Many of the tunes associated with this productive era that found their way onto television or radio as themes with a surprising longevity were put together by musicians with a solid track record in the business, often emanating from a jazz world that didn’t pay half as well as the royalties on a theme tune guaranteed to be aired at least once a week. Take the likes of British jazz legend Johnny Dankworth, for example; he was responsible for the toe-tapping Shepherd’s Bush Bebop of the original ‘Tomorrow’s World’ theme and for ‘Beefeaters’, the tune Tony Blackburn opened with every morning on the first Radio 1 breakfast show between 1967-73. Back then, most radio shows had theme tunes, including the shows of each star DJ to jump ship from the pirates to Radio 1 when it debuted. Library music was regularly called upon to provide them, and many of these tunes have stuck in the memory, even if we can’t always pinpoint their source. They’re all tunes we know, though we may not know where we know them from.

The familiarity of library music from this period is due to the way in which it was widely disseminated across television and radio, just as likely to be found as the start-up theme for an ITV franchise-holder, introducing a schools programme, featuring on a test card or opening a regional Sunday soccer show as it would be on a networked institution such as ‘Mastermind’, which has always begun with an aptly-titled piece named ‘Approaching Menace’ by library composer Neil Richardson. The fact these tunes have remained part of our pop cultural wallpaper and have crept into our collective memory bank with stealth is testament to the depth of unsung talent that once worked in an unsung arena. Easy to dismiss, but not so easy to forget, the melodies these men made are just one more example of how even the most seemingly throwaway elements of what we used to have far outshine the majority of what we have now.

© The Editor

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OLD-SCHOOL TIES

WatermanSad but true – Dennis Waterman is dead, and another one has bitten the dust. Perhaps he can lay claim to being one of the most active actors on vintage TV channels specialising in mining the rich archive of British television via his decade-long stint as a household name via ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Minder’ – stalwarts of the schedules such channels live by. But there was more to Waterman’s CV. Take, for example, ‘Joe’s Ark’, a 1974 ‘Play for Today’ by another Dennis, this one being Potter. Angharad Rees, soon to become better known as Demelza in ‘Poldark’, played a terminally-ill cancer sufferer retreating to the rooms above her father Freddie Jones’s pet shop in Wales to breathe her last. Dennis Waterman played her wayward brother, eking out a seedy living providing a musical accompaniment to strippers in dodgy clubs; Waterman’s character makes his way home to see his sister and build a few bridges with his God-fearing father, but arrives a little too late. It’s one of Potter’s most underrated and moving plays, and Waterman gives a touching performance that would probably surprise those only accustomed to his more beefy roles.

The risk of typecasting was a genuine gamble for actors on television in the 1960s and 70s – one thinks of Harry H Corbett’s tragic failure to evade the long shadow cast by ‘Steptoe and Son’ – so it’s no wonder many successful character actors approached the prospect of a hit series with trepidation, particularly those who were in the process of establishing themselves as familiar faces. Dennis Waterman had been a minor child star – starring in an early 60s TV adaptation of the ‘Just William’ books – and adolescent one-to-watch, making a mark as a young man in the movie version of the celebrated (and controversial) ‘Wednesday Play’ set in his own Clapham backyard, ‘Up the Junction’; but he carved a career for himself as a significant grown-up character actor by appearing in one-off episodes of numerous popular small screen series in the early 70s.

His versatility was apparent by the fact he occasionally ventured into the comedic arena, such as his appearance in a 1973 episode of ‘Man About the House’; by contrast, that same year he also scored a memorable cameo in ‘Special Branch’, the hard-hitting police series produced by Euston Films – the speciality film wing of Thames Television. He’d also appeared as a customarily sinister Gestapo officer in an episode of ‘Colditz’ and in another characteristically labyrinthine Potter play, ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ as well as the token Hammer horror outing (1970’s ‘Son of Dracula’), which was a rites-of-passage necessity for up-and-coming actors at the time. By this stage of his career, Waterman was certainly being noticed, though as a recognisable face rather than name. However, all that was about to change.

‘The Sweeney’ began life as a TV movie called ‘Regan’, which aired in the ‘Armchair Cinema’ slot on ITV in 1974. The potential for a series was immediately evident, and Dennis Waterman resumed his role as the reluctant second-in-command to John Thaw’s DI Regan when ‘The Sweeney’ went into production a few months later. Debuting on ITV at the beginning of 1975, ‘The Sweeney’ famously rewrote the rulebook in the way the British police force was portrayed on television, and Waterman’s George Carter was the perfect counterpoint to Thaw’s Jack Regan, exuding a less cynical and less grizzled persona than his superior. The two together exhibited a macho chemistry that has ultimately outlived them both, setting the template for a nostalgic, Brut-drenched, buddy-buddy relationship which breezes into contemporary touchy-feely sensibilities as no-nonsense fresh air.

When ‘The Sweeney’ ended in 1978, John Thaw took several years to find a character which could represent his middle age in the same way Jack Regan summed-up his prime. Dennis Waterman, on the other hand, moved on far quicker, but even the character of ex-boxer Terry McCann wasn’t an instant hit. It took a good series-and-a-half before Waterman’s character and the winning dynamic alongside veteran George Cole as Arthur Daley struck a chord with the viewing public, though by the early 80s ‘Minder’ had established itself as one of the UK’s most popular and culturally prescient TV shows. One thing it did do was to extend Waterman’s televisual omnipotence; he even scored a top ten hit with the ‘Minder’ theme tune, ‘I Could Be So Good For You’, in 1980, and he found himself back on ‘Top of the Pops’ three years later via an unlikely Christmas novelty duet with George Cole, ‘What Are We Gonna Get for Er Indoors’.

Whilst starring on ‘Minder’, Dennis Waterman also remained open to other, more intriguing, offers. His passion for the beautiful game inspired an affectionate tribute to football’s amateur beginnings with the 1982 TV movie he himself financed, ‘The World Cup: A Captain’s Tale’, which dramatised the famous triumph of West Auckland FC in winning the first attempt at an international soccer tournament, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, in 1909; he also played a major part in the BBC’s landmark feminist fantasy, ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ in 1986. By this time, he had quit ‘Minder’ and starred in several TV series without making the kind of impact he’d previously enjoyed, though he was the ideal host for the retro-football series, ‘Match of the 70s’, which aired on the BBC in 1995-96, tapping into the vogue for the decade Waterman was inexorably linked with; around the same time, renewed interest in ‘The Sweeney’ led to him becoming the programme’s unofficial curator whenever it was profiled on clips shows in the absence of contributions from John Thaw.

Ongoing affection for ‘The Sweeney’ unquestionably played its part in Waterman’s final TV success, ‘New Tricks’, in which he starred from 2003 to 2014; this BBC series focused on a team of ageing ex-police detectives brought back to solve cold cases and featured many familiar faces from the 70s, including in its original line-up James Bolam and Alun Armstrong. Despite the indisputably odd appearance of an unnaturally white set of dentures, Waterman’s strong presence and association with the era the old jacks were supposed to have been prominent coppers in aided the show’s success and contributed to its ultimate longevity; he also once again ‘sang the theme tune’, which was played upon in a typically surreal recurring sketch in ‘Little Britain’ that left Waterman himself more than baffled. At the same time, however, the skit seemed to solidify his enduring place in British TV’s cultural wallpaper.

The cause of Dennis Waterman’s death at the age of 74 has yet to be revealed, though one often formed the impression he was a man who enjoyed life in ways that are now frowned upon by the acting profession; he received two convictions for drunk-driving and was married four times, the most eventful (from a tabloid perspective) being his 11-year relationship with Rula Lenska, one marked by physical violence on Waterman’s part. He was certainly ‘old-school’, though one suspected this was a tag he himself wouldn’t have objected to. Part of the appeal of ‘New Tricks’ was, like ‘Life on Mars’, its knack in reflecting late 20th century generations’ inability to get to grips with the constantly changing unwritten rules and regulations of the 21st century and, in turn, mirroring the audience’s similar confusion at what could and couldn’t be said both in polite company and in the corporate business the police force has morphed into. Dennis Waterman was undoubtedly one of yesterday’s men, though that’s not a criticism; it’s a compliment.

© The Editor

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

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YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

Sid ViciousDecimalisation was the default setting in the 1970s blame-game. As the country seemed to slide deeper towards economic oblivion with each passing year, decimalisation could always be relied upon as a regular excuse as to why the UK had been labelled the Sick Man of Europe. Five years after D-Day, when Chancellor Denis Healey endured the humbling and humiliating comedown of crawling cap-in-hand to the IMF, ‘Things have never been the same since decimalisation’ remained a common gripe as the latest crisis reared its ugly head. The Common Market, Ulster, Punk Rock, the Three Day Week, the Winter of Discontent, industrial disputes, immigration, the England football team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup – whatever the problem, it seemed as though all could somehow be traced back to the moment when Albion’s ancient currency was replaced by a suspiciously Continental model in 1971.

However, rising prices – an issue that directly affected the pound in your pocket – tended to be the main factor for which the switch from £sd to decimal was inexorably blamed. Despite the public being bombarded with detailed information and charts that translated old money into new, they remained convinced shopkeepers and innkeepers were rounding up their prices and ripping them off; and Fleet Street stoked this conviction by dreaming up epithets such as ‘decimal diddlers’. Of course, prices had always risen – usually in line with the cost of living; but the pace of prices rising seemed to accelerate from the early 70s onwards, gradually overtaking wages so that by around 1974 many were struggling to budget. TV news footage of shoppers visiting a newfangled supermarket around the time of the Three Day Week features interviews with families comparing the price of foodstuffs to the same month the year before and admitting they’ve had to cut down on their groceries because they simply can’t afford everything on their shopping list from twelve months earlier.

As a child at the time, the best yardstick available to measure where my pocket-money was going came via the increase in the cost of weekly comics. From 1973 to 1979, I witnessed the average cover price of comics go from 5p to 12p, more than doubling in the space of six years; and was it merely coincidence that the traditional practice whereby the price of chocolate bars was printed on the wrapper ceased by the late 70s – presumably because Messrs. Cadbury, Rowntree and Nestlé were embarrassed about how much they’d gone up? Inflation was the 70s curse that Thatcher and Blair had supposedly tackled and then extinguished in the 80s and 90s; and now, like the worst fashion disaster of the past, it’s back with a vengeance.

Over the last month or so, I’ve noticed the cost of certain essentials rise far quicker than is the norm. For example, the butter I buy has gone up from £1.49 to around £1.65, and my preferred milk from £1.80 to £1.95; in fact, dairy products appear to be suffering the highest price increases. Eggs in particular are suddenly more expensive, though an item I caught a snatch of on ‘You and Yours’ the other week suggested most farmers make practically zero profit from eggs; a bout of bird flu requiring them to keep their hens permanently indoors, coupled with a shortage of chicken-feed (a consequence of current events in Eastern Europe, by all accounts) have both contributed towards this state of affairs, and the consumer is feeling the effects as those dependent on agriculture for an income are faced with little option but to charge more.

The Office for National Statistics claims inflation rose from 6.2% in February to 7% in the year to March, reaching the highest point since 1992; food inflation alone stands at 5.8%, with bread experiencing a rise of 5.2%, milk 7.4%, and margarine leading the way with a staggering 34.8% increase in the past year. The same source states that, whilst regular weekly wages have risen by 4% from December last year to February this, adjusting stats for inflation reveals a real terms pay cut of 1% during the same period. When one takes into account the swift increase in the cost of fuel and the astronomical hike in prices on the part of the energy suppliers, food inflation is the latest kick in the teeth for those struggling to make ends meet. A 30-year high in inflation will be especially traumatising to the ill-equipped generations who weren’t around back in the days when inflation and unemployment were the twin economic evils that seemed a permanent obstacle to any attempts at revitalising the nation’s fortunes – evils that the public were schooled in dealing with after several decades of being plagued by them.

To be honest, this turn of events shouldn’t really come as a big surprise; anyone with a clear head could have foreseen it two years ago, when the Government abruptly took it upon itself to shut down industry overnight and confine workers to quarters, paying them pretend wages from a magic money tree that many suspected amounted to little more than an expensive loan. I guess this is payback time for pandemic policies that were destined to return to haunt us before too long – and a vaccine isn’t much insulation against an economic downturn. ‘One in eight adults say they have already gone without heating, water or electricity in the last three months,’ says Joanna Elson, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust. ‘With energy, food and fuel prices showing no signs of easing, and national insurance increases hitting pay packets for the first time this month, there is no respite in sight. Urgent action is needed to prevent more people facing impossible choices trying to meet basic needs, and at risk of an increasing burden of debt.’

Other expert voices are adding to the chorus of doom ‘n’ gloom – Karen Betts, Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation, says ‘Food and drink manufacturers are doing all they can…but businesses must also remain viable and the reality of current inflation means that some price increases are having to be passed on.’ Meanwhile, yet another Chief Executive in a long line of them, Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium, says ‘Retailers are trying to help consumers by expanding their value ranges and doing all they can to keep the price of essentials down.’ Jenny Tilwart, Chief Executive of the British Cannibal Association, added ‘We may have reached a time when the rising cost of food coupled with that of paying for the care of the elderly may finally push the hardest hit within society into choosing which grandparent would provide the most nutritional and economically-satisfying meal for a family of four.’ Yeah, okay, I made that last one up; but nothing really feels too far-fetched anymore.

Perhaps more than ever, it pays to keep an eye on the ‘reduced’ section of the supermarket, where marked-down goods poised to pass their sell-by dates can offer a genuine and affordable bargain for even the most penny-pinched of households; equally, vegetables remain amongst the cheapest of foodstuffs, and provide the prospect of a hearty and healthy dinner for those who can actually be arsed cooking it. Considering the plethora of reading material and TV programmes produced by professional chefs out there, one would like to think the nation has rejected the easy option of the microwavable meal or the frozen filler and has reverted back to the traditional method of feeding the family; but one suspects such hand-me-down lessons haven’t been handed down for at least a couple of generations – if the expanding waistlines brought about by the fast-food revolution are anything to go by, anyway. At the same time, it’s hard not to be aware that some supermarket shelves are rather threadbare at the moment, and whichever hot topic you prefer to hold responsible – Brexit, the pandemic, Ukraine – the situation seems set to continue for the immediate future; speaking personally, I believe things have never been the same since decimalisation.

© The Editor

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

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