OLD GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS

Kate BushIt’d be easy to be unaware of the fact the UK singles chart still exists in 2022; the kind of coverage this one-time essential pop cultural institution was once afforded is long gone, with its traditional trio of promotional tools – ‘Top of the Pops’, Radio 1’s Sunday teatime Top 40, and the music press – all now part of the over-40s collective memory bank rather than a living, breathing barometer of where it’s at. It seems the sole reason the singles chart survives as a redundant relic of another era is simply its ongoing role as a yardstick for the music industry to measure its reach in terms of sales; to the general public for whom it once held as much fascination as the Premier League table, however, it means nothing. Being able to name the week’s No.1 hit isn’t even something most teenagers could probably manage today, and the chart appears to retain the ‘singles’ prefix simply to distinguish its content from the album chart – although any song is eligible for inclusion as long as it’s downloaded enough times, official ‘single’ or not.

Therefore, the sudden presence of 63-year-old Kate Bush at the top of the singles chart with a 36-year-old song in 2022 should be something that barely raises an eyebrow. Yet, the return of Kate Bush to a position she hasn’t occupied since her 1978 debut hit, ‘Wuthering Heights’, has received extensive media reportage in the last few days; ‘Woman’s Hour’ even managed the coup of a down-the-line interview with the reclusive Kate – though the fact it was conducted via Ms Bush’s landline telephone was a nice touch that seemed to emphasise a somewhat quaint analogue element adding to her mystique. The vintage slice of Kate Bush’s oeuvre that currently sits atop the singles chart is ‘Running Up That Hill’, the lead single from her 1985 album, ‘Hounds of Love’. The track originally peaked at No.3, kick-starting Bush’s commercial renaissance following a fallow period in which her increasingly adventurous vision failed to connect with the record-buying public. Its elevation two places higher in 2022 is apparently due to heavy rotation in a Netflix series called ‘Stranger Things’.

Obscure gems excavated by movies, ads and TV series have provided many unjustly-overlooked musicians with a delayed pay-check in recent times, yet neither Kate Bush nor ‘Running Up That Hill’ fall into that category. Her career has spanned the best part of 45 years and constitutes dozens of hit singles and several chart-topping albums, beginning when she was just 19. She’s been a household name to more than one generation, and her exceedingly rare return to the stage in 2014 was greeted by some fans as the Second Coming; the fact her live show consisted of 22 nights at the same theatre – the Hammersmith Apollo – seemed to once more single her out as a unique performer unwilling to embark upon the touring treadmill, despite being away from the stage for 35 years. As a survivor of an era that produced such gifted and original talent, Kate Bush remains something of a national treasure, and for her to be back at No.1 – however meaningless an achievement that might now be – is indicative of not just an enduring affection for her, but symbolises something wider in pop culture.

30 years ago, the late music writer Ian MacDonald could sense which way the wind was blowing with remarkable prescience. When referring to the contemporary rap and dance scenes at the turn-of-the-90s, he wrote ‘The effect of presenting rhythms by drum machines and later by drum samplers, slave to sequencers, has been to elevate the groove over every other musical priority; at its simplest, this means that songs are now written from the rhythm track upwards, rather from the melodic, harmonic idea as was the case in almost all 60s music.’ For all its generous electronic enhancement – and Kate Bush was always ahead of the game on that score – the technology that enabled ‘Running Up That Hill’ to sound cutting edge in 1985 doesn’t overwhelm the human element, with Kate Bush’s distinctive voice and its inherent humanity shining above and beyond the pseudo-tribal drumbeat. Even the notoriously soulless production values of the mid-80s can’t entirely erase the personality of the performer in the way the Auto-tuned, mechanised music of the 21st century has managed to squeeze it out. And to a new generation discovering the Kate Bush back catalogue via Netflix exposure, perhaps it is this quality – and the novel structure of songs not ‘written from the rhythm track upwards’ – that makes her sound so refreshing to unaccustomed ears.

When contemporary pop bows to the need for melody to give its monotonous rhythm track an earworm, more often than not the earworm chosen is either a sample from an organic, analogue track of 50-odd years ago – which adds the aforementioned human element lacking from the present day toolbox – or a ‘new’ melody that borrows so heavily from an old one that it’s just a few bars away from accusations of plagiarism and an inevitable appearance in the copyright court; the ‘Blurred Lines’ case of 2015 ruled in favour of Marvin Gaye’s estate, following claims the Robin Thicke track leaned a little too close to Gaye’s 1977 hit, ‘Got to Give it Up’. ‘Blurred Lines’ was a hit largely on the back of its infamous video, the uncensored version of which featured a topless model; considering my own YT channel was recently terminated on spurious grounds of ‘nudity’, the said video was still on there just a few months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still is. Anyway, I digress…

It’s interesting that Kate Bush’s overnight rediscovery is no isolated incident. An article by Ted Gioia that recently appeared in the Atlantic magazine quoted stats stating ‘old songs’ now constitute 70% of the US music market according to the latest data – yes, 70%. It seems you can’t keep an old song down, especially when new songs are found wanting in the qualities that have made old songs evergreen; the article goes on to say that the 200 most popular new tracks on the likes of Spotify actually account for less than 5% of total streams, a rate that was twice as high a mere three years ago. ‘Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact,’ writes Gioia. ‘Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona-fide hits can pass by unnoticed by much of the population.’

Some of the more vintage acts remaining alive and kicking have decided to capitalise on ongoing interest in their body of work by selling-off their back catalogues, making one last mint from the family silver whilst they’re still around to enjoy it, especially when royalties from streaming sites are so pitiful. Prominent veterans such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen have all taken this path recently, and they’re fortunate they have those back catalogues; no artist of their grandchildren’s generation has that advantage.

Old and deceased musicians also satisfy cravings for the classics by transcending the physical and hitting the road as holograms – Elvis Presley and Abba have both been reborn as live acts utilising such technology, and we can probably look forward to the trend becoming the norm as more of the golden generation of musicians shuffle off this mortal coil. Paul McCartney may be physically headlining this year’s Glastonbury merely days into his tenure as an octogenarian, but he’ll probably still be headlining the festival 20 years from now as a 3D CGI facsimile. Perhaps Her Majesty could try a similar approach, if it prevents Charles from a reign few outside of Clarence House are looking forward to.

Along with the findings revealed in the Ted Gioia Atlantic article regarding the dominance of old songs on streaming sites, the best-selling physical format in music right now is the vinyl LP. And Kate Bush is No.1 in the singles chart. Perhaps, just as bookworms were still reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 1978 – 130 years after its publication – music lovers will still be listening to ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 2108. Nobody today would junk Beethoven or Bach from the Proms on the grounds they’re ‘old’, so maybe we shouldn’t expect 20th century music to be excised from playlists either. Perhaps this is the beginning of its elevation to permanent ‘classic’ status, where it will probably remain as long as people want to listen.

© The Editor

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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

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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 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

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

A SONIC HANDSHAKE

Say the name ‘Grundig’ to anyone of a certain age and the electronics company that was Germany’s first true post-war success story will instantly evoke memories of reel-to-reel tape recorders. Grundig was ahead of the competition in getting what had previously been the province of recording studios, radio stations and sonic pioneers such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop onto the domestic market in the 1950s and 60s; but the Germans had been at the forefront of magnetic tape technology before the Second World War – indeed, the Nazis made full use of such technology when relaying propaganda across Europe. The advances that enabled tape recordings to be broadcast over the airwaves in audio quality indistinguishable from a live transmission were unearthed by the Allies when liberating Radio Luxembourg at the fag-end of hostilities, and once peace was achieved Grundig was established as a leading manufacturer of both radios and television sets; but it was the tape recorder for which the company became best known in the UK.

I remember as a child the novelty of hearing my own voice played back on my granddad’s reel-to-reel, a machine he kept on a shelf in what passed for a front parlour, the room generally reserved for visitors and special occasions. He seemed to use the tape recorder primarily to record from the radio – mainly music, but I also recall him having reels of Open University programmes when he was studying (appropriately enough) German. As there were no visible means of connecting the two machines, recording from the radio entailed placing the tape recorder’s microphone as close to the wireless as possible and gesturing for anyone else in the room to be silent for the duration. As I got a little older, I was trusted to play with the tape recorder on my own without breaking it, and I tended to produce my own spoof radio programmes rather than recording the real thing. It goes without saying I’d love to hear what I did, but I should imagine the reels were recorded over once I’d returned home. My granddad only ever appeared to have a limited number of them and never seemed to buy new ones.

By the time the audio cassette gradually superseded the old Grundig reels as an easier and cheaper means of recording, I acquired my own portable tape recorder; I picked up where I’d left off from my granddad’s machine by continuing to produce my own ‘programmes’, but I also recorded a good deal from TV and radio – favourite shows and chart hits from the Sunday institution of the teatime Top 40. What became colloquially known as ‘the mix-tape’ evolved from this practice; more than one generation got into the habit of not simply recording entire LPs on the spanking new hi-fi units with built-in tape decks, but putting together a unique compilation of tracks by different – or the same – artists. By the early 1980s, the widespread accessibility of home recording – despite the music industry warning it was ‘killing music’ – meant any music fan in the country would have dozens of what were effectively their own personal equivalents of the old K-Tel albums on cassette. Just as the advent of the VCR took control of one’s viewing habits out of the hands of broadcasters, being able to make one’s own compilation cassette gave the listener a sense of liberation from record companies deciding the running order.

The fact that most public libraries had a record section back then meant it was possible to tape what might be the one track worth hearing on an album without having to pay for eleven duff ones; this could then be incorporated into the latest mix-tape. Pre-YouTube or Spotify, tracking down rarer material could be an expensive business, one that would require endless fruitless hours spent in stuffy second-hand record shops, so record libraries were essential to compiling the mix-tape. Sometimes, the mix-tape was famously used as a new tool of wooing, competing with the old standbys of chocolates and flowers and sparing the besotted suitor from having to serenade his sweetheart from below her balcony. Speaking personally, if I ever passed on mix-tapes to anyone they tended to be friends I was hoping to introduce to music I wanted them to love as much as me. If this was appreciated, I’d become more ambitious and make multi-artist mix-tapes based around a particular genre or theme; this now tends to be the formula for every mix-tape I make, though the format has changed. Today, the ‘tape’ is a CD; I realise even this makes me sound prehistoric to anyone under 40, but I like my music on a physical object, and being able to burn discs on my PC has enabled me to compile the most sonically satisfying mix-tapes I’ve ever put together.

The mix-tape can often mean a ‘dream album’ that the music business would never sanction becomes a reality. The cream of the solo material issued by the ex-Beatles during the first twelve months after the split – containing the likes of ‘Instant Karma’, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘It Don’t Come Easy’ – actually makes for a pretty bloody good Beatles album that never was; but it is the multi-artist mix-tape that remains the cottage industry standard – and it is often gathering together the more obscure and unknown under one thematic umbrella that can produce the most rewarding listening experience. In some cases, bedroom compilers of the mix-tape have graduated to the real world and have made officially issuing such compilations a worthy sideline career. Chief amongst these are two I’ve mentioned several times before, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of St Etienne. The series of thematic albums they’ve released over the past five years have put the legitimate seal on the concept of the mix-tape once and for all.

A good friend has forwarded several of these to me, beginning with ‘English Weather’, an album that captures a musically diverse moment at the uncertain opening of the 70s by placing little-known tracks by known (if esoteric) acts such as Caravan, Camel, John Cale, and Van Der Graaf Generator alongside the likes of The Orange Bicycle, T2, Aardvark, and Belle Gonzalez. The ensuing musical tapestry brilliantly invokes an imaginary provincial afternoon somewhere in 1970, watching the rainfall through the window and daydreaming of a sunny Nirvana called California. Equal care has been taken with the packaging of the album, which comes wrapped in a series of poignant photographs of 1970s Leeds in a state of perennial demolition taken by Peter Mitchell. Although this album inadvertently ended up as the soundtrack to an especially traumatic personal period for yours truly, it nevertheless remains alluringly atmospheric, as does its recently-acquired sequel, ‘Occasional Rain’, in which Traffic, The Moody Blues, Argent and Yes share space with none other than Granny’s Intentions. They just don’t name bands the same way today.

Other albums in the series I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire include ‘The Tears of Technology’ (turn-of-the 80s synth obscurities), ‘76 in the Shade’ (the perfect musical accompaniment to memories of the Long Hot Summer), and ‘Tim Peaks’, a blend of moody 80s, 90s and relatively contemporary unknowns that combine to create the hazy background soundtrack to a laidback evening in the company of friends as the wine flows and the head swims. The whole is always greater than the disparate sum of its parts where these albums are concerned; the compilers have the knack of selecting perhaps the one great song that some of the more obscure acts produced and when lined up alongside each other they constitute a fine testament to the story of the mix-tape. And it’s a story that has nothing to do with subjects I am exceedingly weary of. For today at least, I’ll deal with one of them via a different vehicle as I disappear to compile my next mix-tape…

You Ain’t Black! from Johnny Monroe on Vimeo.

© The Editor

THE LOST WORLD

I was talking to a friend the other night about my brief stint as a Big Gig-goer in the late 80s. I saw Bowie twice, as well as Dylan, the Stones and Prince once each within a three-year period and I did it all whilst signing-on, suggesting the ticket prices (not to mention the obligatory coach travel costs) weren’t that extortionate. The stubs from said gigs are probably gathering dust in my mum’s loft, so I’m unable to announce here and now how much I was charged for the privilege of being squeezed into Roker Park, Maine Road, Wembley Arena and the NEC; but a cursory glance at vintage ticket stubs from the same era on eBay suggests that even when the change in the cost of living is taken into account, the gap between wages (or dole) and ticket prices wasn’t that great a gulf.

It goes without saying that those were the days when touring was a handy sideline rather than the prime source of earning for musicians; like being able to turn up at your local football club on match-day without having to take out a loan beforehand, it was possible to see your musical heroes in the flesh for an affordable amount. The simple reason was that record sales financed their tax-exiles back then; even though there wasn’t much difference between the price of seeing them live and the price of their new album, the album would sell to more people than could attend a tour, thus negating the need to hike up ticket prices to a point where they’d be beyond the reach of fans short on ready cash. Not so now, in this post-Napster world.

Other the Ronnie Biggs model (which is itself redundant now the drugs market brings in a far higher income than an old-school blag), Rock ‘n’ Roll and football were the tried and tested working-class escape routes, as well as passionate pursuits for those who couldn’t sing a tune or kick a ball. The audience projected its own aspirations onto the performer, who had come from the same place, and believed it was possible to do likewise. The view from the terraces on a Saturday afternoon was similarly imbued with possibilities, especially for those youngsters hemmed into ‘the boy’s pen’.

There was considerable media coverage when England’s U17 team won their equivalent of the World Cup a couple of weeks back, though few members of that starting eleven will make it off the bench at Premier League clubs crammed with overseas signings. And unless a boy or girl from nowhere is prepared to suffer the indignity and humiliation of being a Cowell marionette, the only kids who can afford guitars, basses and drums today are the posh ones – which would explain why none of them have anything to say. Classic working-class pastimes have effectively priced out the working-class. But, hey, we’ve got Smartphones, X-Factor and microwave meals – what more do we need, eh?

Even the theatre was once an escape; some of our most iconic actors of the 60s and 70s came from humble backgrounds, but getting into drama school without the fear of being saddled with a lifelong debt and then honing their skills on the regional rep circuit is a lost world in 2017. The slashing of local council budgets that previously funded after-school drama classes and theatre workshops runs parallel with Government emphasis on the arts as a ‘luxury’ in state education (not much point reciting Shakespeare soliloquies when you’re cold-calling, I suppose). By contrast, the arts remain a fixture on the public school syllabus, which would explain why the majority of today’s under-40 household name thespians are Old Etonians. Their parents could afford to finance such ‘luxury’.

Considering the last time the economic climate was probably this grim was in the recession-struck early 1980s, it’s worth remembering what that period produced in terms of art reflecting life; and memorable music aside, it’s been interesting to recently reunite with a one-off TV series of the era that has unexpectedly surfaced on DVD. And, no, it’s not ‘Boys from The Blackstuff’.

‘Johnny Jarvis’ aired just the once on BBC1 at the back-end of 1983, and at the time of its broadcast was a must-see at my high-school. Appearing at the tail-end of the gritty social realism characteristic of ‘Play for Today’, this six-parter accurately documented the scrap-heap we Easter Leavers were poised to be tossed onto. The title character was played by Mark Farmer – a familiar juvenile lead at the time via his stint on ‘Grange Hill’, and who sadly passed away last year. Jarvis is the focus of his best friend, the bookish outsider Alan Lipton; Jarvis is a borderline ‘David Watts’ character to Lipton, both envied and idolised. But whilst Jarvis is dutifully subservient to the system once he leaves school, his subservience amounts to nothing when the firm he’s apprenticed to goes under before he fully qualifies as a skilled tradesman.

Lipton opts out and finds his voice with a guitar, starting a band he continues to write for after he forgoes the spotlight, leaving fame to his ex-bandmates whilst he settles for fortune. The steady progress of Lipton’s musical endeavours as the series spans 1977-1983 is a vivid demonstration of how such a thing was then possible from the starting point of a council flat; Jarvis’s struggles to make a living in the traditional heavy industries that were dying on their arses under Thatcherism are equally prescient for the era, and watching the programme after a 34-year gap really brought home to me how much has changed.

It not only reminded me of how those coming from nothing were able to articulate their experiences and could make themselves heard doing so. It also made me realise how those experiences wouldn’t be dramatised by mainstream television today. There is no working-class representation now unless we’re talking stereotypical chavvy thugs in gangs or victims of sexual abuse; and those playing such parts probably learnt their lines in end-of-term productions on the stages of Harrow or Roedean, anyway. Sixty years ago, Arthur Seaton said ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’; well, they have ground us down and they’ve got us where they want us – complicit in our own lethargy. Never mind the bollocks – here’s the Bake Off.

© The Editor

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Mr-Yesterday-Johnny-Monroe/dp/154995718X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1510334323&sr=1-1&dpID=41ppifNq5pL&preST=_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_QL70_&dpSrc=srch

MUSICAL YOUTH

A paragraph from the previous post provoked this one, and if you haven’t read it, where have you been? Anyway, let’s go back 30 years. Actually, I’d rather not; if 2017 is pretty grim, I can’t say I rated 1987 much at the time either and it doesn’t acquire a nostalgic glow the further away I travel from it. The stuff I cared about then – general popular culture and pop music in particular – was, in my opinion, rubbish; there were a couple of contemporary exceptions, but I was a scholar of what is now referred to as ‘Classic Rock’. I also extended my appreciation of the recent past to then-unfashionable 70s pop such as Abba and The Bee Gees, acts who had yet to receive the kitsch makeover the next generation would give them. The arrogance of youth told me I could do better than what the present was offering me as a record-buyer.

My mate Paul played the guitar; I wrote the lyrics. Between us, we moulded them into melodies which I sang; Paul provided the riffs. He and I shared a wavelength neither of us shared with anyone else; Paul was the first friend I’d had who looked like he could’ve been in the Stones rather than Curiosity Killed The Cat, and we sparred off one another in our attempts to resemble rock stars. He was as much of an outsider in his part of town as I was in mine, and we’d both experienced run-ins with ‘the beer monsters’; city centre streets may have been low on knife crime and acid attacks in the 80s, but you still had to watch yourself. It was easier when there were two of you.

We’d spend virtually every weekday ensconced in Paul’s bedroom at his mum’s house, listening to a range of LPs from the extensive record collection he’d amassed during his brief stint in 9-to-5 Land. We studied and absorbed the masters; it was our university. Eventually, I’d produce my exercise book crammed with lyrics, he’d tune up his acoustic guitar, and we’d devote the next few hours to putting a song together; if it was any good, we’d record it on his ghetto blaster and improve it the following day before moving onto the next one. We were hungry to make our mark, and though we may have been dreaming the dreams many music-obsessed young men dream, we were prepared to put the work in.

After several months of assembling a songbook, we decided to locate other musicians, and there was no shortage of venues to visit where we could check them out. Unfortunately, it took time to find like-minds; commitment was hard to come across. Rehearsal space wasn’t, but as Paul and me were both signing-on, it could be a stretch to pay for it. A room above a pub with an unsavoury reputation as the hostelry of choice for football hooligans was the one we eventually settled on because it was the one we could afford. By then, we’d acquired a bass-player and drummer, though it had taken well over a year of searching and numerous disappointments before we got there.

Our first gig was on the bill of an all-day event featuring dozens of local bands, staged in one of the many pubs that packed the punters in by hosting live music. In a dense fog of fags, and fuelled by booze that was probably less than a quid a glass, we took to the stage, collectively crapping ourselves. We had the usual repertoire of crowd-pleasing standards, such as ‘Teenage Kicks’, but primarily showcased our own material. We were rather under-rehearsed, but went on in the late afternoon, by which time the well-sozzled audience greeted every act with enthusiasm. I can’t honestly remember how many numbers we played; I mainly remember wearing a second-hand psychedelic jacket, which a lady complimented me on – the first such compliment a lady had ever paid me. It wasn’t a bad day.

We recorded a demo tape – tape being the operative word, as the songs went straight from reel-to-reel acetate to cassette; the recording studio cost what must have been a small fortune to us then, and we had to record and mix four songs with the clock rapidly ticking towards the end of the time we could pay for. We didn’t sound bad, and it’s undoubtedly invigorating when you hear yourself in top-notch quality sound for the first time. The end result received reviews in regional fanzines and was optimistically dispatched along the tried-and-tested route that led to John Peel and the music industry. We played a few more gigs: one as support to another local band in another pub, one on our own (in another pub), and one on the bill of another all-day event – this time in a pub car-park. That gig turned out to be our last.

We had the impossible task of following a folk duo singing a song called ‘F**k Off, Yuppie Scum’ to the tune of ‘Knees-Up, Mother Brown’; but we were such a shambles on the final performance that I actually apologised to the audience who were too pissed in the summer sun to even notice. We hadn’t rehearsed in weeks. The drummer was still at school and this was just a hobby to him; the bass-player enjoyed jamming but had no real interest in being a professional; and Paul was smoking a lot of dope, perhaps to cope with the fact we were going nowhere after all the work he and I had put into it. Our friendship survived, but our musical partnership didn’t. We never shared the same vision thereafter; I got into the nascent Dance scene, whereas he preferred chilling out to ‘Astral Weeks’. We’d had high hopes, but we’d crashed and we’d burned.

Paul and I had probably squandered twelve months searching for other musicians because we were so determined to do it the traditional way we revered. Today, we wouldn’t need them; we’d have the technology to create a ‘virtual’ band and we could record on bedroom PCs without having to bankrupt ourselves for studio time, uploading our endeavours online to a worldwide audience. We wouldn’t have to bombard record companies or the music press because neither exists anymore; but we’d struggle to play live because the gig circuit has gone along with the pubs that were vital to it. We also wouldn’t have the dole to subsidise our musical education and we wouldn’t have the money to invest in instruments.

They weren’t great days. They were frustrating and disappointing. We gave our all to something that eluded us, and whilst it genuinely doesn’t bother me now that we didn’t make it, it always seems a shame that all the dynamic verve and energy we exuded was drained from us in such in a depressingly crushing manner – though we weren’t the first and we weren’t the last either. Les McQueen from ‘The League of Gentlemen’ (guitarist with Crème Brulée, a 70s band that never made it) would look back by saying ‘It’s a shit business; I’m glad I’m out of it’; but I don’t regret doing it. Everyone should give it a go and then gracefully exit the stage when it all goes tits up. It’s an experience that prepares you for the rest of your life.

© The Editor

NON-STOP ECSTATIC CROONING

I wouldn’t ordinarily mark a birthday on here, but I make an honourable exception today because I felt like it. Marc Almond is 60 today – yes, you heard it right. Bloody sixty! Anyone witness to the dramatic debut of the twenty-something Soft Cell on ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1981 will probably struggle to accept that fact, but it’s true. In a way, however, Marc Almond has grown into his middle-aged skin rather well; a noted admirer of older performers such as Scott Walker and the whole torch-song genre, Almond never possessed the juvenile mindset of Rock ‘n’ Roll and its desperate search for a fountain of youth. He seemed suited to the crooner persona, and you can’t be a crooner in skinny jeans.

To have made it to 60 at all is quite an achievement for Almond. In 2004 he was involved in a potentially-fatal road accident when he was thrown from his motorbike near St Paul’s Cathedral, leaving him in a coma for several weeks. It was quite disconcerting watching the regional news on Yorkshire Television at the time this happened, as the accident was presented as a virtual obituary. Thankfully, Almond pulled through, and the proper obituaries could be shelved for another day. The fact YTV covered the accident in such a major way reflected the impact as a ‘local act’ Soft Cell had in the early 80s; but they had quite an impact nationwide.

Gary Numan had pioneered the escape of electronic music from the experimental, avant-garde ghetto it had long been assigned all the way to the top of the charts. ‘Are Friends Electric?’ hitting No.1 in the summer of 1979 was a pivotal moment in the transformation of synthesizers being merely rock band decoration to becoming lead instruments in their own right and it proved such a sound was commercial dynamite in the right hands. It took a year or two for Numan to be joined by other electronic (or ‘Synth Pop’) acts, but 1981 was a crucial year in the change. It began with Ultravox’s grandiose ballad ‘Vienna’ stuck behind Joe bloody Dolce at No.2 and ended with The Human League occupying the pinnacle with ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ In between these two events was a minor revolution.

Along with the arrival of a band such as Depeche Mode, who dispensed with the guitar-bass-and drums formula altogether in favour of a purely electronic armoury, there was a rash of painted faces gate-crashing stale pop programmes that signified a sea-change. Inspired by the ‘anyone can do it’ DIY Punk ethic as well as the synthesized soundscapes of Kraftwerk and the arty Glam of the previous decade (as represented by Bowie and Roxy), the newcomers were often lumped in with London’s New Romantic movement and its most striking spokesman, Steve Strange of Visage. But the likes of Phil Oakey, David Sylvian and Marc Almond had been operating in isolation on the underground grapevine for quite some time, biding their time until the mainstream caught up with them. And in 1981 it did.

Marc Almond and David Ball were both refugees from rundown British seaside towns (Southport and Blackpool respectively) who forged an alliance at Leeds University in the late 70s, a seat of learning receptive to musical misfits at the time; Scritti Politti were formed there more or less simultaneously with Soft Cell. Ball and Almond’s project was initially more of an experimental performance outfit; few would’ve earmarked the pair for future pop stardom. But the kitsch theatrical garishness they embraced, combined with Ball’s synths and Almond’s outré appearance, was soon to cross over from limited cult appeal to the top ten because the top ten was suddenly ready for them.

Signing to one of the numerous thriving indie labels of the era, Soft Cell’s recording career began inauspiciously with a characteristically uncommercial electronic work-out called ‘Memorabilia’; but following a headline-grabbing turn at Leeds’ Futurama Festival, one of the must-see showcases for new ‘alternative’ acts at the turn of the 80s, they covered a little-known Northern Soul classic called ‘Tainted Love’. Marc Almond had been introduced to the track via his teenage devotion to T.Rex; Marc Bolan’s girlfriend Gloria Jones had sung the original. Released in the summer of ’81, the rise of ‘Tainted Love’ gathered pace when – as happened so often back then – Soft Cell were invited on to ‘Top of the Pops’.

The Sex Pistols remained the benchmark for outrage at the beginning of the 80s and few thought their particular brand of it could be surpassed. But 1981 was the year of a new kind of subversion, and – along with Phil Oakey’s unique haircut and pierced nipple – few did it better than Soft Cell. Clad in black and camp as a row of tents, Marc Almond provoked an instant generational divide in the nation’s households, one that accelerated when ‘Tainted Love’ went all the way to No.1 and ended up as the year’s best-selling single. It even made the US top ten, spending more weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 than ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (excuse the Paul Gambaccini moment).

The first duo to have such an impact on the charts since the equally eccentric Sparks in the 70s, Soft Cell became an overnight sensation, following ‘Tainted Love’ with a string of top tenners over the next year, including the brilliantly overwrought ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ and the fantastic ‘Torch’. Their foray into the US charts enabled them to become regulars on New York’s club scene, where they sampled ecstasy years before it became the clubbers’ drug of choice this side of the pond; but the unexpected pop stardom they were hardly prepared for punctured the left-field principles their generation still held dear, and they embarked upon a somewhat self-destructive path; this was particularly evident on the superbly fractured albums, ‘The Art of Falling Apart’ and ‘This Last Night in Sodom’.

Already fronting Marc and the Mambas when Soft Cell were still operational, the band’s split in 1984 saw Almond establish an idiosyncratic solo career that has remained his trademark ever since. He stubbornly follows his own path, occasionally gracing the upper echelons of the charts and even returning to the top spot in a duet with Gene Pitney in 1989; but what makes Almond special is that he belongs to that elite group whose members have included the likes of Julian Cope, Roy Harper, Richard Thompson and Billy MacKenzie, the Great British Musical Outsiders who do what they want to do, whether the wider public wants it or not.

Almond’s sexuality, whilst as obvious as Freddie Mercury’s, remained something that was left to the imagination to begin with; being openly gay was still perceived as career suicide in the early 80s; even Boy George avoided the issue. Come 1984 and the arrival of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bronski Beat, however, the closet door had been kicked open and Almond no longer had to change the subject. But their breakthrough wouldn’t have been possible had not Marc Almond invaded our living rooms before them. Lest we forget, the gloriously kinky ‘Sex Dwarf’ video appeared two years prior to ‘Relax’. We live in different times today, and it’s thanks to the likes of Marc Almond that we do. So raise a glass to one of our one-offs. They’re fewer and far between in 2017, so we need to cherish the ones we’ve still got.

© The Editor