Saturday, 30 April 2011

Veni, audi, vici: blurred Bowie, Kool And The Jam — oh, and which one’s Pink?

Back in the late Nineties, there was a sketch on Dead Ringers, the BBC Radio 4 comedy impersonation show in which one of the impressionists — shamefully I don’t remember which one — as ‘John Lennon’ threatened, pitch-perfectly, upon ever meeting Liam Gallagher: “I’d punch him in the face and say, ‘stop rippin’ off my songs, yer great horrible Yeti!’”

Many people who dislike Oasis — me included — cite this blatant tendency to pinch more than is needed from The Beatles as central proof of their unoriginal and consequently uninspiring output. I appreciate it’s a little more complicated than that. Come on! They nicked from Slade and Neil Innes as well, you know! Rutles composer Innes, a modest yet gifted man, supremely well versed in the dissection and examination of what made the Four so musically Fab, to say nothing of the legal pitfalls that parody and pastiche can pursue, sued the Gallaghers over their single ‘Whatever.’ He held that it infringed the copyright of ‘The Idiot Song,’ a jaunty number he’d written for the Monty Python show back in the early Seventies. Innes won the case. Subsequent printings of ‘Whatever’ rejoice under the songwriting credit of ‘Innes/Gallagher’ — and quite right too. 
No seriously, I do appreciate that it really is not as simple as all that; after all, isn’t pop music on one level all about being inspired by — and taking a lead from — your musical heroes? If we’re going to lay charges of plagiarism anywhere, let’s not forget that The Beatles themselves cheerfully admitted snatching the odd riff here, the odd lick there from various Motown and Stax records as they were growing up in public, as much as anyone. Me, I’ve often come up with the basis of a workable tune by absentmindedly humming an existing melody so carelessly that over days the end product is far removed from its parent. It’s a kind of musical Chinese Whispers. There are no new ideas, so the expression goes, only improved ideas. Well, just so long as the ideas are indeed improved — and don’t sound like the old ones.
If you know the history of Pink Floyd — and let’s face it who doesn’t? — you can skip to the next paragraph right now. For the remaining three of you, I’ll keep this as brief as I can: Syd, Roger, Rick and Nick found Floyd in the Sixties. Syd is ousted after a few months and the other guys get in a new guy, Dave. Not long after, they make it mega. Sometime after that, Rick and then Dave have an argument with Roger and eventually Roger goes off to do his own solo thing while Dave, Rick and Nick continue to trade as Pink Floyd. Consider yourself up to speed!
Those of you will know me will know I’m partial to a bit of Floyd, but a friend, Mr Keeler by name, lives and breathes the band to the exclusion of almost anything else on occasion and has a neat and simple view of their output and lineage. “In the Sixties, there was Syd’s Floyd,” he says conspiratorially, “the last albums were Dave’s Floyd,“ he continues, “but the bit in the middle…is THE FLOYD!” 
Roger Waters and David Gilmour found themselves by 1987 legally embroiled in a rather public and acrimonious wrangle over their own personal definitions of THE FLOYD and the ownership thereof. I can’t claim to know the detailed ins-and-outs of the litigation, but essentially the Roger-less Floydies recorded an album, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason, issued calmly under the PF monicker and graced with a cover by their long-term designer, Storm Thorgerson. What they lacked in Roger’s bite, so to speak, they made up for with sheer personnel, recruiting a second drummer, a seasoned session pro bassist, some brass sidemen and backing vocalists to add some instrumental muscle.
Waters maintained his public — and he used the term precisely, quote “my public, the Pink Floyd public” unquote — wouldn’t view an album brought out by the other three chaps as the genuine article. Roger’s case was sound, as co-founding member and the man who wrote the considerable bulk of the music and lyrics that propelled the group to commercial success, following the sad ousting of Syd Barrett, their original guiding light. Poor, bright, beautiful Syd. Now he’s a blog all to himself if ever anyone was. 
Sitting pretty in the other corner, Mr David Gilmour, guitarist, singer and additional writer — the man responsible for an incalculable portion of the beguiling Floyd sound, lending both an incisive guitar tone and honeyed vocals to match. I’m generalising their roles within the band immensely, to say nothing of downplaying the contribution of the other gentlemen in the group, but for the sake of argument, there’s the sides. The judge ruled in Gilmour’s favour and ‘Dave’s Floyd’ endured, meeting financial success and ecstatic audiences everywhere they played through most of the Nineties. 
“A pretty fair forgery” was Waters’ final assessment of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. I have to disagree entirely: it possesses neither the dour, sarcastic lyrical tone nor the often contrastingly warm, enveloping sound of earlier Floyd albums. Neither fair nor forgery, it sounds like much of what passed for ‘rock’ in 1987 - brilliantly arranged, efficiently executed, but overproduced and ultimately thin and nastily dated in a way the Seventies albums seem to have resisted. To be fair to Gilmour and co, it’s a moot point whether Waters’ solo tours, playing much of the same material, were any more ‘the real McCoy’ — and I suspect I’d have got more excited at securing a Floyd ticket sooner than a Rog one had it occurred to me to do so at the time. To my ears, like Lennon & McCartney before them, it sounded like neither chap had quite as much to offer as solo artists than their wondrous work within the Floyd gestalt. As someone once remarked more succinctly: Roger made you think and Dave made sure you enjoyed it. In this respect, Pink Floyd are the paracetamol-and-codeine of the rock world, the one leavening the other and both as effective. There are heroes on both sides, so another expression goes.

You may know that the music magazine Q used to run a feature called Who The Hell Does insert name here Think (S)he Is? in which a difficult or wayward interviewee had their appointment with the journalist related in unflinching, disdainful detail. It’s certainly a good way to use up an article that may have been binned if it didn’t fulfil the initial editorial remit and I doubt if many, if any of the subjects were chosen to go into this article beforehand; rather they ended up there when a roundup of the month’s interviews yielded the most ornery, uncooperative or ridiculously self-aggrandising candidate. Ringo Starr’s one fell in the latter category (“Here is a genuine rock star standing before you!”), Rolf Harris’ in the former (“I do this weirdo bloody comedy”) and Oliver Reed’s was a little of all three.
Well, many years ago, Roger Waters got the WTHDinhTHI? treatment. Unintentional humour can sometimes be the richest comedy and in this respect Waters was hilarious. Presumably the idea was to procure some insights into the making of Waters’ then-latest album, Amused To Death, and the sort of juicy soundbites that constitute decent copy. Q certainly got the juice: when a rock star’s gambit is “Be honest — Amused To Death is fucking, fucking good, isn’t it?” and soars off on one from there, you know it’s going to be a harsh and confrontational ride. I can’t say for certain if Waters was on anything: I doubt he would bridle too much at the assertion that, like so many of his peers who had a ‘complicated Eighties,’ he may have indulged in whatever self-affirming substances were de rigeur in those times. Actually, I rather hope he had; it would explain and excuse the arrogant, bitter, one-note tenor of his invective as recorded faithfully in the article.
One moment in the interview gave me particular joy. The Q scribe quotes a line in one of Waters’ songs about Andrew Lloyd Webber, the interminability of Webber’s output and a desire for a piano lid to crash down on his fingers and end his drivelsome career; does Rog subscribe to this sentiment personally, Q asks? And has he noticed the similarity between the opening figure of The Phantom Of The Opera, then Webber’s latest infliction upon the West End stage and a recurring, descending guitar section in ‘Echoes’, the Pink Floyd song that occupies the entire second side of their 1971 album, Meddle? Roger, who has clearly come to this conclusion independently and no stranger to litigation, warms to this instantly:
“I think it’s actionable, I really think it is,” I quote Roger from memory, more-or-less, “but I think life’s too short to sue Andrew fucking Lloyd Webber — I think that might make me really angry.”
Roger Waters presents a much-chastened individual in interviews these days — or perhaps not so much chastened, more like someone who can let certain issues slide and make a mature statement without the kind of excessively cocksure verbiage that earns you that dreaded slot in Q. Happily his advanced years have not dented his confidence or brilliantly acute bullshit detection. Like most people who suffer no fools gladly for the right reasons, I’m very fond of him; a Waters interview is a slyly humorous, withering, but often self-deprecating and always entertaining read. Moreover, it’s quite amusing to note sidewards that he has grown into his looks — the long face and slightly exaggerated features of the young Waters was never going to compete with Gilmour’s Seventies hippie pinup image and yet as a vigorous sexagenarian we find Rog has the last laugh, with the same spare, rangy, bestubbled ‘Silver Fox’ countenance that gets women of a certain age so excited about Richard Gere. Good work, sir!
I’ll be off in a moment, until next time. Before I go, in related spirit, here are six examples of songs that have bits that sound like other songs. They’re not simply tunes that sample other records, or mashups — that’d be too easy. They are tunes that share compositional semblance, intended or otherwise. I am confident that at least one example hasn’t been remarked upon in any musical publications online or elsewhere, so I hope you find something new to read here. Some I think draw delightful patterns together in my head; others are tatty knockoffs of the laziest, most menacingly dull order. Either way, I have no wish to draw anyone to the similarities in the hope of ensuing legal action. That would be boring and unimaginative. Like dear Rog, I subscribe to the idea that life’s too short to be doing that. Enjoy spotting them merely for amusement’s sake.

Mott The Hoople: All The Young Dudes/Oasis: Stand By Me.
‘…Dudes’, David Bowie’s anthem for Glam youth, given to Mott and made-over with their usual gritty, down-at-heel quality, is a truly iconic song. ‘Stand By Me’ is not, managing at best a bloated, sentimental lurch by comparison, lightened by tritely appealing lead guitar interjections from Noel Gallagher. The best bit of the song is the sudden chord-changing shift in double-time between the vocal lines in the chorus — sadly, a job it did already to much more impressive effect in the chorus of ‘All The Young Dudes’ where it belongs.

David Bowie: Boys Keep Swinging/Blur: M.O.R.
In which Bowie takes another musical mugging — although this one, like Neil Innes versus Oasis, saw successful legal intervention, ensuring that he gets future co-credit. It’s actually a story of three songs. ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ dates from 1979 and Bowie’s Lodger album, the last in his so-called ‘Berlin Trilogy’ of LPs preceded by “Heroes” in 1978 and Low in 1977 and all done with collaboration with Brian Eno. It is one of two songs — the other being ‘Fantastic Voyage‘ — on Lodger that share the same chord structure, with reason: a peculiar working practice of Brian Eno’s known as ‘Oblique Strategies.’ Eno had a pack of cards with instructions written on, much like ‘Chance’ cards in a game of Monopoly, that could be drawn from if inspiration flagged or something random was the order of the moment. The instructions ran something like ‘each band member plays someone else’s instrument’, ‘try writing a song based on an existing song, only backwards’ and specifically here, ‘use the chord changes of one song to write another one.’ Consequently, anyone playing along to ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on guitar will find the same chord shapes fit ‘Fantastic Voyage’ identically, albeit in a slower tempo and a gentler feel. That the Strategy yielded two such different-sounding songs is testament to Bowie’s skill in gamely rising to Eno’s challenge.
Sadly, this all went a bit out of the window when Blur got wind of this idea and decided to try it for themselves in 1997. Had they chose one of their own songs to work this Oblique Strategy upon, it would have been all right for all concerned. As it transpired, inspiration drought dictated that they try writing a song based on ‘Boys Keep Swinging,’ unwisely copping not only the chord changes, but a fair old chunk of the melody, structure and even the arrangement of the backing vocals, the whole then filtered through Blur’s trademark, infantilised, Toytown pop sound. That didn’t hide it well enough. Bowie came, Bowie heard, Bowie sued. The moral of the story: it’s David’s ball and you can’t play with it unless you ask nicely, as so you should. 
It’s not the first time Blur have touched the hem of Bowie’s Man Dress: there’s more than a nod to the warped disco-stomp of Bowie’s 1980 hit ‘Fashion’ on Blur’s ‘Girls & Boys’ from 1994, right down to the synth ‘whoops’ that punctuate the off-beats of the rhythm and Graham Coxon’s Fripp’d-up guitar skronks. It comes off more as affectionate textural homage to Bowie’s record rather than a cynical songwriting solution, though. Fair enough.

The Beatles: Back In The USSR/Blur: Charmless Man.
Oasis may have been nonpareil rip-off merchants in the Britpop days, but oi-oi, what’s all this here? Oh, not you lot again. Those Colcestrian copyists simply can’t help it. This time, Blur deliver the Fabs a swift kick in the collective knackers and make off with their spoils: the ascending turnaround in ‘Charmless Man’ that brings the chorus back round to the main melodic hook of the song. In other words, sing “you put it all together, it’s the model of a charmless man” and then compare the similar, stammering reversal that brings ‘Back In The USSR’ out of its middle eight: “and Georgia’s always on my mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mind!” Yeah? Or just me?
Kool And The Gang: Celebration/Depeche Mode: I Just Can’t Get Enough.
On the one hand, I feel a bit sorry for Mr Kool and his groovy Gang, as ‘Celebration’ must rank as one of the most overplayed songs at any gregarious gathering anywhere you’d care to mention. Like a tearful girl’s karaoke rendition of ‘I Will Survive’ or wasted lads chanting ‘New York, New York’ while pretending they’re gangsters, it’s all-too familiar — and we all know what familiarity breeds now, don’t we? On the other hand, brief contemplation of the royalties this song must have accrued worldwide ensure I’m not that sorry for Kool. Besides, heard in isolation, I will concede that it’s a slick production and a genuinely funky piece of music that can, given favourable conditions, exert an uplifting effect on the carousing collective. The cleverest part is the rising figure that brings the verse up to the chorus, being a rousing musical and lyrical invitation to get off one’s posterior and make with the jolly vertical shapes: “Ev’ry-one a-round the world COME ON!” Simple and direct, like the best lyrics. O come all ye faithful, soulful and triumphant. I must admit I fight the urge every time to substitute “FUCK OFF!” at the end instead, such is a deep-rooted childish whim I have. Perhaps this misanthropic compulsion could be averted were I to sing the line from Depeche Mode’s ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’ that brings that song similarly to its inevitable refrain: “It’s getting hotter, it’s a burning love and I just can’t seem to get enough — ah!” Someone out there needs to do a mashup of this now.
The Beatles: Taxman/The Jam: Start!
This one is straightforward and well-known: Paul Weller has breezily acknowledged the blatant influence on ‘Start!’ of George Harrison’s 1966 opener to The Beatles Revolver LP. It’s not just the riff though: check out Weller’s snarling, all-too brief guitar solo, practically a continuation of McCartney’s astonishing, Indian-tinged freak-out on ‘Taxman,’ but taking in brief splurges of Pete Townshend and Syd Barrett while remaining firmly Punk all the way.
Electric Light Orchestra: 10538 Overture/Paul Weller: The Changingman. 
The first time I heard Weller’s ‘The Changingman’ I assumed the song sampled the ELO tune from 1970, so accurately replicated was the descending guitar figure that props up both songs. I’m not so sure if Weller has ‘fessed up quite as readily to this one as he has with ‘Start!’. I bloody well hope he has. In his defence, ‘The Changingman’ takes the elegant, spidery quality of the ELO riff and adds a drumkit behind it that that has a purposeful punch and presence sadly lacking from Bev Bevan’s uncharacteristically insipid, unsyncopated work on ‘10538 Overture,’ hindered further by Roy Wood’s woefully swampy production. It’s worth mentioning how much ELO’s early work was regarded as a kind of ‘new Beatles‘ — the band themselves set out their mission statement to pick up where ‘I Am The Walrus’ had left off — and Lennon himself dubbed them ‘Seventies Beatles’ after hearing, oddly enough, their Marvin Gaye-like 1972 hit ‘Showdown,‘ which may say something subconsciously about the debt The Beatles themselves owed to Motown. We’ve come full circle.
While we’re here, Siouxie And The Banshee’s cover of ‘Dear Prudence’ also catches a whiff of ‘10538 Overture’s proto-Goth jingle-jangle, but since both songs rely on — ‘scuse me — chromatically descending arpeggiating chords, a guitar-picking technique honoured in songwriting since the first lute riffed its way out of the primordial slime, that’s all right, then. It’s more of the flavour of the sound than the sound itself, is what I’m really trying to say.

There you go. Hm, amidst all this, I seem to be unwittingly making a case for a musical metatextuality: does everything feed into and out of The Beatles? Discuss. I want 2,500 words on my desk by next Monday. Bring an Apple.
Currently listening to: 
H To He Who Am The Only One (Van der Graaf Generator, 1970)
Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator, 1971)
The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage (Peter Hammill, 1974) 
World Record (Van der Graaf Generator, 1976)
The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (Van der Graaf, 1977)
Last (The Unthanks, 2011)

Currently reading:
Nothing this week.
Currently watching:
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (Stephen Spielberg, 1981) The first and best of the Jones series, hitting all the right marks in plot, pacing, dialogue and supporting performances. 
Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (Stephen Spielberg, 1984) An entertaining film, but lessened in stature when set alongside its mighty and near-perfect predecessor. Some mildly suspect racial stereotyping that has not worn well too.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (Stephen Spielberg, 1989) Better than the previous one. Recaptures some of the essence of the original film’s sense of religious awe, and the Nazis, of course, plus a welcome dash of spot-on humour, especially from Sean Connery.
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (Stephen Spielberg, 2007) Better than the lengthy hiatus between films would have had me believe, although the Macguffin and indeed the entire end of the film divides some people. It is what it is: a self-referencing Jones film put together by ageing Sixties hippies. Not a bad thing on the whole.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Hating things…sad things…insane things…takes years to get over it.

Hello everyone. There are sad things to relate this week, not least the terribly sudden death of the actress Elisabeth Sladen, famous for playing the redoubtable Sarah Jane Smith both on Doctor Who and in her own spin off series. The announcement of her passing from a cancer she had kept secret from all but her closest associates and family came as a genuine shock to me. Having seen her in the role since my earliest memories of television, I felt like I grew up with Sarah Jane Smith. I was lucky enough to meet Elisabeth Sladen a few years ago and she made me feel like an old friend within minutes. She was a lovely lady. Her loss comes merely two months after Nicholas Courtney, as well-known and loved by Doctor Who fans for his portrayal of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart for many years in the show in the early Seventies. I was also privileged to meet him the same day I met Ms Sladen and a charming man he turned out, unsurprisingly, to be. To write any more on them, but not make it the subject of the entire blog, is to do them a disservice and so I’ll stop here — suffice to say that the world has become a sadder and less fun place in their absence. A piece of them will never die when their performances shine so brightly, so likeably, every time I watch one of my Who DVDs.
Elsewhere, and nowhere near as upsettingly may I add, my stupid cold is hanging around with wearisome persistence, like that guy whom you suspect fancies your girlfriend and clicks ‘Like’ a lot on her Facebook postings. Er, anyway, this unimaginative ailment and its constant background radiation level is finding little outward sport from me as I continue to carry out my daily tasks, but there’s no doubting the cast it slyly slants on my synapses. I do get so impatient with colds. On the plus side, my phlegm is no longer a pea-green colour, but neither is it healthy, instead now resembling the more pastelly shade of apple white (not-quite) that we used to have as the grouting between the avocado tiles in the bathroom of my childhood home, circa 1984. It’s about the same consistency too, I’d wager. 
Today’s blog is constructed not only of phlegm, but also some bile and is consequently not a pleasant one, touching as it does on things that annoy me. That said, writing is always a pleasurable waffle and the change in the weather into something I can confidently describe as ‘Springtime’ has fired enthusiasm, even if it be in the old vitriol-fuelled cylinders. It’s a heady blend you get from the prospect of a few days off, black coffee, a decent cooked brekie and later, a delightful picnic and laze on the lawn with the missus and music from Peter Warlock, Percy Grainger, Benjamin Britten, Béla Bartók and Michael Praetorius. We’re nothing if not civilised sometimes — it’s not Pink Floyd or Hawkwind every day, y’know. Lately I’ve been getting into Van der Graaf Generator, a band of early Seventies origin whose sound, while couched in an ostensibly unremarkable Seventies rock syntax of drums, guitars, sax, Hammond organs and Fender Rhodes piano, manages to be like nothing I can think of from around the same time. Definitely a blog for another time, not to mention how I was put onto these boys, whom I’m pleased to add are still together and touring as I type this.
Anyway, let’s begin with a friend of mine recounting the advice of one of her previous employers from her time working behind the bar in a well-known Soho private members’ club for writers, journalists and actors— resting or otherwise. The landlord of this salubrious drinking den, Mr D, whom I too have enjoyed meeting on several occasions, had but one rule to say to new faces in the place: “Don’t be boring.” 
Mr D’s definition of boring was straightforward: don’t be messy. It’s both a cliché and a truth that the majority of people associated with the theatre profession, or journalism, like what we could call ‘a bit of drink’ and may indulge in a touch of the old rumbustiosity, but that’s the difference between ‘drunks’ and ‘drunkenness’. Mr D insisted that everyone handle what they took on. Outright rambunctiousness, violence, vomiting, paralysis and so on were not tolerated. 
The worst crime was breaking glass. “My staff have to clear it up off the floor after you,” he’d say with even, genial authority, “and that’s boring.”
Several weeks ago I had the misfortune of coming across the definition of Mr D’s boredom in considerable proportion while awaiting a train to take me to Norwich at Liverpool Street station some time before midday on a Saturday. I am normally fond of this mainline London terminus as for me it is a gateway to places that I tend to go to solely for fun and larks: East Anglia, with my splendid friends who live in the Fine City; the salt-sprayed, wild bluster of Lowestoft, birthplace of Benjamin Britten; Aldeburgh, the charming town where Britten lived, died and is buried; the dated delights of Cromer and the pure, joyous seaboard civilisation of Southwold. Plus Adnam’s Bitter everywhere you go. Splendid! Liverpool Street itself is a modern, airy, high-ceiling’d steel and glass construction grafted onto the expansive, vast Victorian brickwork of the old station. It is populated with enough shops and eateries to enable anyone to pass a reasonable amount of time patiently before their train arrives. Crucially, there’s a pub on the side, called Hamilton Hall, decked out and too-brightly lit in a bland 19th Century style with fixtures that might actually be original, if you’re wondering. Still, a pub nonetheless and one with a good range of ales. No, the venue was not the reason for my disquiet this particular day. 
The first thing I noticed once inside the concourse was the noise. Not in volume, more a feeling that vibrated the very air molecules. I could certainly perceive this over the sound of the Groundhogs’ Thank Christ For The Bomb rattling enjoyably away at me from my wee iPod Shuffle, if my detail holds up. Chanting. I find it a weird sensation to hear massed voices raised in unison anywhere outside of a stadium, auditorium, school hall or church and my initial reaction was that there was some kind of protest demonstration happening outside. After about 30 seconds I could make out a song that nailed it: ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles‘ — they were West Ham supporters. There was a bloody football match on.
Now, before I go any further I wonder how many of you have ever heard someone ask “why do men have nipples?” I have had to suffer this question on a number of occasions in my life, getting thrown about carelessly in pubs, across desks in offices and so on. The question, silly, not me. It’s quite an old chestnut, usually offered up as an example of something that doesn’t make sense in the world — and this annoys and puzzles me. One thing it does throw up is the question of collective intelligence, of mutual understanding. It’s as if there’s a race memory stored in the collective unconscious instructing everyone not to find out the answer for themselves. If you have ever wondered yourself and remain none the wiser, then shame on you. We live in an age where access to the information is available as never before — and for those of you wondering, I can assure you there is a satisfactory answer.  I shan’t tell you myself since, now I’ve roundly hectored you, you really ought to look it up for yourself. You will find it simple and reasonably obvious. I’ll give you a clue: it will almost certainly contain the word ‘vestigial.’ Now — away with you.
The West Ham supporters: I am using the term ‘supporters’ with neither Jeremy Paxman's scepticism nor Zainab Badawi's arched eyebrow. These people were not outright hooligans to my eyes — I want to be clear on that. What we had was some 200-300 men — almost exclusively men — in the depressingly identical prerequisite uniform of dark bomber jackets, jeans and short haircuts. I would place the average age as anywhere between late 30s and early 50s. They were being herded from the Hamilton Hall pub on the far side of the station, down an escalator and then escorted — absolutely the best word for what I saw — along the length of the concourse to a specific platform by a loose cordon of police officers, essentially ensuring the Hammerfans didn’t break ranks and mingle with the rest of the humans milling about at random. ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ continued to be sung lustily throughout. I am not up on usual practices in getting large sums of football fans to an away game, but it appeared to me that a special train had been laid on for them, or a regular service had several carriages set specially aside. The gang traversed the ticket hall and filed through the barriers, all the while gently kept on track by the coppers. It was at this point that I decided, not to put too fine a point on it, to have a pre-journey slash and headed to the adjoining pub to avail myself of the toilets within.
Oh dear. 
Imagine this large open-plan pub, too-brightly lit in its bland 19th Century style with fixtures that might actually be original (if you’re wondering), then fling the image out and redecorate in a style best described as Ralph Steadman’s Jackson Pollock tribute. Jagged shards of broken glass strewn across the floor. Pint glasses discarded in the centre of the floor — only some of them intact. Vast, soggy puddles in the carpets so wet that they must have been from whole pints of spilt lager — or worse. I wove haphazardly through the detritus of the now empty establishment in a zig-zag fashion to get to a door that usually requires a straight line. Inside the gents — chaos. Lakes of piss, discarded bottles of Beck’s and inexplicable trails of toilet paper forming lines of papier-pis-maché like trenches marked on a map of the Somme. Oh, and shit on the floor too. I’ve never measured the diameter of a toilet bowl, but it must be something like ten times the size of the average human rectal aperture. Not a hard target for the old bronze eye to bullseye, wouldn’t you say? 
Oh, and it still wasn’t quite midday at this point. How very boring indeed.
As I said, these people were not hooligans. They were fans. I don’t doubt they were of good nature as they got in their pre-pre-match-drinky-drinkies, but what good can I say of a bunch of chaps who find raising a pint to their mouths, drinking the contents without spilling and lowering the glass squarely onto the table a challenge at eleven-thirty on a Saturday morning? Never mind the rest. Is this what the gang mentality does to people? What then went through their minds as they were led down the escalators across the hall, through the barriers and onto their train, police escort at every step? They were too busy singing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.’ Temple Grandin has spent years devising abbatoir corridors that don’t work as effectively. I just hope the Hammers won that day for the sake of toilet cubicles in the surrounding area. 
I used to like football as a child, but then I grew up. I shan’t discuss which players I rated or what team I supported back in the Seventies and early Eighties. Maybe that’s a blog for another time, but it’s not important now. It all bores me intensely these days. Or rather, I have since grown up sufficiently to recognise that it’s not football per se that irks me: all sporting activities are of course worthy, agreeable and often honourable ways to spend one’s time. Sportspeople and athletes themselves tend on the whole to just get on with it and their modest dedication to their field is laudable but I disliked — still dislike — the certain, pernicious element that always attaches itself to sports activity with monotonous regularity: essentially, anyone who takes it overly seriously and to the exclusion of everything else. With football, I find these drones especially rabid and dull. It’s always the armchair critics that ruin things the most. Just too many children like that at my school, with their terribly tiresome and borrowed pronouncements on ‘the game,’ proving themselves unremarkable in the rest of their day, growing up and behaving no better. Just too many adults like them in the world, twisting their loyalty to somewhere near where they live as an excuse to smash things, piss in random places and chant like a howler monkey. The love I had for football was destroyed singlehandedly by its proponents. I know why these people get annoyed when you say, “Oh, it’s only a game...” — because deep down, they’re afraid to acknowledge that maybe that is all it is. If one person has had their head kicked in for wearing a Man Utd shirt in a Man City pub, that’s too many. This is not my definition of supporting a local business. 
Moreover, were I to go out dressed as a ninja, a Jedi Knight or, oh I dunno, Captain Jack Sparrow, I’d be laughed at and quite rightly so; however, it’s not only socially acceptable, but almost compulsory in certain pathetic circles to stretch a shirt of one’s chosen football team colours over your beer gut and shout like an embarrassing cretin in front of Sky Sports down the local boozer. What excuse do those contemptible morons have? I am reminded of spoilt children who stubbornly refuse to leave the house unless they are dressed in pyjamas depicting their favourite tv character. Were I some Government conspiracy theorist, I’d posit that this whole footballing caper is only funded as sumptuously as it is simply to keep you all in line.
This is not a testosterone-fuelled preserve. It almost goes without saying (except I will) that some people divide the world, culturally speaking, into those who understand the offside rule in football and those who don’t. A recent incident, one that made the national news and brought the age-old issue of sexism in sport and sports commentary into focus, offered women a chance to demonstrate that they comprehend it as well as any man; a virtual badge of honour and acceptance. I find the perpetuation of this idea mind-numbingly dull of course, but unfortunately it’s the need, the tacit feminine collusion in all this that I find particularly, nauseatingly, sexist and degrading. I really, really, really don’t want to believe that as football becomes increasingly overexposed in the media, the rise of female fandom is simply a result of a desire to show the world that they ‘understand’ something that had been the province until now of the men in their life. Nor should men be so boorish and exclusive. We should all be more interesting than that. Do me a favour, boys and girls: next time someone brings up the offside rule in tedious conversation, point out that plenty of people, of both sexes, do not know the offside rule, and with good reason: it’s really not important to know — the players themselves clearly aren’t aware of it most of the times when it arises or they wouldn’t need that nice referee chap to point it out to them. Also, if you’re really concerned, just look it up: good old Wikipedia, again, should yield a satisfactory explanation using words of two syllables or less. Just like men’s nipples. Oh and remember, it will never be a sport free of sexism while women’s football languishes in relative obscurity with minimal coverage and pitiful financing. Sport For All, ran the campaign in the 1980s. Still waiting.
I sound disgustingly bitter and snobbish about all this — well, I am. My opinion on this matter is clearly driven for the most part by a certain resentment at the world borne of years of tolerating specific, vacuous and overweening enthusiasts whom, boringly, feel it necessary to foist their unwanted and unvalued views upon me. I am aware that I am making generalisations and there are many fine people, friends included,  whose enthusiasm is engaging and bereft of the mouth-breathing ovine mentality I find so inherently detestable. I will probably make precious few allies along my way with this attitude. Well, I won’t worry about it if you won’t; it probably doesn’t matter. 
I’m not being down on footie bores exclusively — they’re just the best example I know. If it makes things fairer, the analogy holds true for many things. If you don’t like gambling, Las Vegas loses its lustre pretty quickly once the novelty of transposition wears off. Talk about any subject single-mindedly for too long and you lose your audience — look at Uri Geller. It is a social truism that while the world needs experts — self-styled or otherwise — they tend to outstay their welcome once their knowledge has been disseminated to those who need to hear it. True wisdom comes not from merely knowing facts but in making connections between them. If everyone was a specialist, to completely misquote the baddie in The Incredibles, then no one would be. 
It’s my turn to be quiet now. Thank you for your time. Have a happy Easter, if you celebrate it.
Currently listening to: 
H To He Who Am The Only One (Van der Graaf Generator, 1970)
Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator, 1971)
World Record (Van der Graaf Generator, 1976)
The Quiet Zone/The Pleasure Dome (Van der Graaf (sans Generator!), 1977)
Black Sea (XTC, 1980)
Wasting Light (Foo Fighters, 2011)
Currently reading:
Disgusting Bliss: The Brass Eye Of Chris Morris (Lucian Randall, 2010) 
Currently watching: 
Pirates Of The Caribbean. All three current movies in the series, with rapidly diminishing returns (Gore Verbinski, 2003-2008)
Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World (Peter Weir, 2005)
Robin Hood. Not as good as it could have been. But not all bad either. (Ridley Scott, 2010)

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Early Music (extended version): those shining Seventies school days, part 2.

I can’t say for certain that I saw the now legendary  live, uncensored appearance of the Sex Pistols with Siouxie Sioux on Bill Grundy’s Today show in December 1976. We definitely had the show on in the early evenings as my father was an absolute addict for current affairs programmes and most nights of the week Today was hosted by Eamonn Andrews — whom my dad claimed was a chum from schooldays in the Twenties and Thirties spent getting a terrifying education from the Christian Brothers in Dublin. Eamonn was notably absent from Today that day and the truculent, combative and clearly lubricated Grundy was failing spectacularly in starving his boisterous charges of the old Public O2. They had only been drafted in as a last-minute replacement for Queen as well! I wonder — would the entire axis of Punk have tilted another way had the genial, but physically handier Mr Andrews been helming that evening? Such variables. As it stood, it tolled the career death knell for the hapless Grundy, who never distinguished himself ever again. It was as if he had personally unleashed The Filth And The Fury. I certainly remember my mother warning me, some time later, to cross the road if I saw any punks — quite a risk considering I’d only just mastered my Green Cross Code — and there really were punks in my world. Remember, I grew up in and around Bromley, which lent its name to the ‘Contingent’ who numbered Siouxie among them. Chislehurst boasted the psychedelically-decorated Hong Kong Garden restaurant immortalised in the Banshees’ song. Orpington had the Further Education College that saw plenty of putative punks pass through its portals. Even I went there 15 years later, albeit in no fixed style of attire. I can remember seeing the occasional punks and skinheads on the streets where I lived and viewed them with inward terror, even though my memory provides me with no examples of how this feeling was justified beyond the prejudice my parents had imparted, with doubtless the best of intentions. I close my eyes and see skins sitting on low walls in shopping areas, looking bored, keeping their own moody company, but probably not getting up to much bovver. I can summon images of resplendent punker dudes and terribly glamorous punkettes walking down the street, with that curiously contradictory air of people with outlandish clothes, hair, tattoos and piercings who also, conspicuously, have no wish to be noticed.

What a shame it is to say that my first acquaintance with Marc Bolan was seeing him posthumously on Marc, the tv show he made in the weeks leading up to his tragic death in September 1977, with the continuity announcer informing me that the show I’d just seen was broadcast in tribute. The newspapers carried a photograph of the mangled wreckage of his girlfriend’s car — a purple 1975 GT Mini with gold ‘go-faster stripes — an image rendered in monochrome, making it look chillingly like the black Mini my oldest sister had recently bought and was itself later involved in a smash, though thankfully with no injury or loss of life.

I should point out before we go any further that music wasn’t the overriding passion in my life at this time. I could write several decent blog entries on the things I enjoyed. Despite being one of seven children, I would spend hours in blissful, peaceful seclusion in my bedroom, constantly reading. I would be fascinated by Greek myths. Space travel, too, although the books I had on the subject were my eldest brother’s New World Encyclopedia set, which dated from the early Sixties and — hilariously — still speculated on what sort of things Man may discover should he ever successfully set foot on the Moon. Great pictures, though. Once I learned to ride a bicycle, the local library was a ten-minute ride away if I pedalled hard. There, I would take out Doctor Who novels (of course) and brightly illustrated books on myths and folklore. If I procured my older siblings’ cards, I could take out books in the Adult Lending section where the darker corners of non-fiction lay: hardback books on ghosts, magic, witchcraft, UFOs and other arcane esoterica. My mother would fret so about my choice of reading matter, but I was rarely forbidden from reading anything, and I suspect she was pleased I read at all, and willingly, unlike so many children. Besides, I soon learned to keep my reading habits a secret if I suspected that the content was, to use my mother’s most feared imagining, ‘unethical — by which she usually meant anything that may conflict with a Catholic upbringing.

I rode my bike quite a lot, living on a quiet, long road and was fortunate to have a very big garden to play in too. There, I was fascinated by frogs and toads and searched for them under stones, always with the fear of arachnid disturbance ever near by. The late Seventies brought in the first skateboarding craze, but I don’t remember it gripping the nation’s youth quite as it did the second time around when the craze married itself to hip-hop in the late Eighties. I think those Seventies boards were too plastic, skinny and brightly-coloured — it was a kid’s toy in those days, nothing more. I never owned one, although many of my friends would go on to become proficient on them ten years down the line.

I was like most of my generation: a boy’s life was filled with toys such as Lego and Action Man. Unlike most of my generation, I hated sport. Here we come to a deep-rooted aspect of my psyche — I hesitate to use the word ‘problem’ as I have no trouble with it — but I have a general distrust of the herd mentality manifest in any large group of people. Not a fear; I do not mind crowds. No, mine is a specific pathology: I like individuals, but people en masse largely bore and annoy me. That is to say, for example, that while I love listening to say, The Beatles and am happy to discuss my love for them with a small number of people either in a pub, at home in front of the stereo or even writing it up on a blog for an invisible number to debate over, I find the idea of attending a Beatles convention utterly anathema to my being. I can imagine a few of you who know me finding this surprising, given how firmly laid-out my geek credentials are in so many other areas, but there it is. I perceive no ‘atmosphere’ at live events if not the sense that people are being led this way and that, and I can’t help but find it at best controlled, procedural ‘fun‘ — at worst, a little sinister. Mostly, I just find attending live events dull and need to limit the number of times I do so to a minimum to ensure they remain fun. It’s clearly not an attitude that is going to get me signed up for anything sporty or clubbable any time soon. Not that that would make a difference: the main reason I disliked sport at school was that I was incompetent and physically unsuited to balletic grace on the playing field in any capacity. I was and still remain the archetypal fat boy wheezing on the sideline with a note from Mummy excusing me from rugger practice — which suits me just fine.

That said, I found a peripheral way to get along with the footballing contingent at school without having to waste my time chanting slogans, watching matches and forming spurious attachments to people and places to which I had no affinity: I collected the football stickers, famously made by Edizioni Panini in the late Seventies and early Eighties. I was certainly no stranger to the playground ritual of rifling through a friend’s collection of ‘doubles’ and intoning “Got… got… got…” with mounting disappointment at each passing sticker I already possessed, making it all worthwhile when the occasional, unowned picture of John Wark or Ricky Villa would arise to the top of the pile, prompting an almost orgasmic “ooh, need!” It certainly gave me a reasonable working knowledge of late-Seventies/early-Eighties football, should the need arise, but I think my fondness for the footie stickers lay more in the fact that they were the only kind around at the time. Once someone made a Star Wars-themed sticker album, I was so much more into that than I ever was in Football ’79, Europa ’80 or España ’82.

Which reminds me…possibly the biggest pop culture influence in my childhood was Star Wars. Almost everything not connected with Doctor Who was Star Wars. I was fortunate enough to see it early in 1978, in the cinema in Bromley High Street that stands to this day. Where to begin? Original phraseology eludes me when I try to quantify what arcane magic Star Wars wove and revealed to me that Spring day. It’s inevitable that I must write a glorious, verbosely vivacious entry on it one day, but until then I’ll resort to pure cliché and say that it completely blew me away. I’ll stop right there.

In a clutchless gear change of subject, I saw my first corpse in 1978. The Mother Superior at my Convent was a tiny, sweet-natured lady called Sister Mary. She was possibly the oldest person I think I have ever met, being about 101 when she died. My mother, having personal and professional ties with the nuns at my school, was offered a chance to pay her final respects to the deceased and thought it would be ‘nice’ for some of us to come along and do the same. I had recently liberated the full album of The War Of The Worlds from my eldest brother’s record collection and spent enough time murdering it on the Garrard. So it was I found myself rattling along to my primary school on a sunny Saturday afternoon in my father’s car along with my sister and mother with the unmistakeable sound of Jeff Wayne’s ‘The Eve Of The War’ on the radio; there to see the body of an elderly nun laid in state, in a tiny, veiled, single-windowed room within the sequestered living quarters of the Convent.

Seeing a dead body in such a prepared fashion, by which I mean as much me as the dearly departed, manages to be both momentous and bathetic. The anticipation was colossal: I have a distinct remembrance of the precise minutes that led up to this, my most ultimate intimation of mortality to date as a child — but of course the reality is somewhat prosaic too. A human cadaver never looks quite ‘right’, rather more a clever representation of someone that’s nonetheless missing the vital essence known to those who knew them in life. I think it’s the human condition to assume and insist that a humanoid figure must be alive: that’s how I understand the weird sensation one gets if you’ve ever been to a wax museum, where you’re almost disappointed that the effigies don’t move. I gazed on Sister Mary’s undoubtedly tranquil features, half-expecting her eyes to snap open, half-realising that sleeping people are never so completely recumbent as she was.

In other death, The Who’s gifted drummer Keith Moon — and I can still hear the news reporter’s arch use of his nickname ‘Moon The Loon — passed away in accidental overdose the day after I turned seven. If I was not familiar with The Who, I certainly would be in the coming weeks as ‘Who Are You’ received considerable radio play. My father once told me that he’d insured Keith Moon’s life for a limited period, although whether he had underwritten it for the period up to September ’78 I’ll never know. Considering my father’s usual tactic in assessing the risk of a client was to meet them and discuss the finer details of policy over a drink or two, it’s a shame I never pressed him further on this particular business transaction!

A curious thing about my father: he liked a good song, but was unmusical in other respects, neither expressing regard for anything on the radio, nor saying if he disliked something, except on the rarest of occasions and usually after he’d endured a tape being played in his car (step forward The War Of The Worlds: I think he felt Richard Burton had demeaned his art to appear on it). But he did have one tape that saw plenty of play in the Seventies: The Mike Sammes Singers recording of music from South Pacific, on the Music For Pleasure label. I really should seek this out online: it’s as essential a part of my musical memory scrapbook as any hip bit of disco or some punk track. It was definitely the soundtrack to my summer holidays in 1978, when I spent two weeks in the small seaside town of Dymchurch in the Romney Marshes. ‘Happy Talk’, ‘This Nearly Was Mine’, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, ‘There Is Nothing Like A Dame’...I don’t care too much for the film, but there are some great songs on South Pacific. I also spent 1978 being enamoured of the soundtrack to Grease, like Saturday Night Fever before it, along with almost everyone I knew — so I shan’t need to discuss that.

1979 is the year the really good shit hit this particular music fan. It brought something far more distracting than death and just as profound to my life. I spent most of it aged seven, going on eight, but mature ideas were starting to form. Things were on the rise, as it were. My First Love! Lene Lovich sang ‘Lucky Number’ on Top Of The Pops. Oh, how I loved her and her pigtails. Boy, was she striking and weird. For the first time in my life I knew I liked what I saw. My older brother, amused that his baby bro’ had acknowledged a girl for the first time, procured for me a garish full-colour poster of Lene in full live pomp from an issue of Look-In, but better than that was the article I had cut carefully out of the London Standard. Headlined Pop’s First Sax Symbol it profiled Ms Lovich and her sensational arrival on the UK music scene. The accompanying picture of her playing saxophone, hair centre parted with plaits was small and in black and white, rendering her panda-eyed image stark and contrasty, hard-faced, yet utterly cute. Gave me those funny feelings in my tummy.

It was also the year of the first great Mod Revival and my older brother, moving into Secondary School, was fast recognising the need to develop an image. Leading the advance guard were The Who, whose stock had risen bittersweetly in the wake of Keith Moon’s death with the release of the Quadrophenia movie, based on  their original 1973 album, in itself a love letter to Mod. The film’s soundtrack also put Booker T & The MG’s sublime ‘Green Onions’ back into the charts some 15 years after it was recorded. My brother had the requisite enamel Union Jack badge proclaiming Mods Are Back, complete with arrowheads on the overhanging letters. The Mod look chimed happily, sharply, with everything going down in what we would later call ‘New Wave.’ The spare-cut suits and skinny ties of ’63 were sitting snugly on the chippy, angular frames of new acts more-than-likely glad not to have to invest in the makeup or outlandish hairdos of the previous ten years of glam, punk and disco. In this respect, I always think the New Wavers were ‘more Punk’ than anything else of the time. It’s terribly cool to look so square, so confrontational to look so smart. Seems the only losers were Boots No 7 and Crazy Colour.

As 1979 became 1980, there were too many bands to go into detail from this time in my life, but the radio was certainly jumping happily to the sounds. Everything by Blondie at this point in time was perfection: ‘Heart Of Glass’, ‘Hanging On The Telephone’ and the rest of the fantastic Parallel Lines LP. Let’s hear it for other girls too: the aforementioned, adorable Lene Lovich with ‘Lucky Number’, Rachel Sweet singing ‘B-A-B-Y’ and The Flying Lizards’ trashcan-bash take on ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’. The smart synth-pop end was handled by Sparks with the punchy ‘Beat The Clock’ and the pulsatingly frantic ‘Number 1 Song In Heaven’. Similarly plastic-fantastic pop came from The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ and ‘Living In The Plastic Age’ along with M’s ‘Pop Muzik.’ The Boomtown Rats moved away from their punk roots with each release of a deadly triple broadside consisting of ‘Like Clockwork’, ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ and the almost, ironically enough, prog-operatic ‘Rat Trap.’ Ian Dury and the Blockheads Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and  the controversial Spasticus Autisticus. The Jam were in the midst of an astonishing run of amazing singles that included ‘Eton Rifles’, ‘Going Underground’ and the magnificent ‘When You’re Young’. Jam-wannabes The Vapors had their one major hit with the immense, immortal ‘Turning Japanese’. Paul McCartney, smarting from critical reaction to ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ learned how to pare things down, keep things fun but not have to sound like a Beatle on ‘Coming Up,’ although his bank manager much preferred the former. Gary Numan and Tubeway Army enjoyed an extraordinary robotic rise with ‘Are Friends Electric’, ‘Cars’ and ‘We Are Glass’. Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ came to my attention sadly, as Marc had done three years earlier, with much posthumous airplay. XTC were busy scaring the shit out of me with the menacing, incisive intent of ‘Making Plans For Nigel.’ The Undertones kept it light and wry with ‘My Perfect Cousin’, for my money a far better song than ‘Teenage Kicks’ whatever dear John Peel had to say on the matter. BA Robertson, known even to me then as the guy who wrote the theme tune to Swap Shop and would go on to write one for its successor Saturday Superstore, unleashed the delightfully demented, sardonic ‘Kool In The Kaftan’ and invited us all to go out and buy T Rex. T Rex again.

Are you dizzy yet? Bloody hell, you should be. I’m sure there was dross in the charts, but that’s the beauty of memory, how the chaff falls away. It seemed great. It was great. It was all great. It could have carried on. It should have continued being great.

Sid Vicious proved incapable of outlasting the decade he was, even in his lifetime, so closely identified with and OD’d early in 1979. Again, the London Standard ran it as a front cover, just as they had with Marc and Moon in earlier years. I’ll be honest and state that I never cared for Sid Vicious as a musical figure, nor does his indisputable position as the visual focal point of Punk stir any feeling in my bosom beyond an intellectual appreciation. He wasn’t where I was at. No one really was then. Not even Lene Lovich. I hadn’t made the next steps in my appreciation: buying records, following bands, discussing music. I was still passive.

“John Lennon’s been shot,” I said to a friend of mine in the cloakroom at Primary School sometime before 9am on Tuesday, 9th December 1980.

— “Who’s John Lennon?” said my colleague. Well, we were nine years old at the time.

“He was one of The Beatles,” I replied.

— “Which one?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but he must have been one of the important ones ‘cos the newsreader was crying.”

For many people around the world, certain things changed that day. The London Standard ran a picture of John Lennon on the front cover that evening. As for me, I still had a long way to go before I fully understood the world of music around me, but my dislike of the Eighties started early.


Currently listening to:
Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator, 1971)
Godbluff (Van der Graaf Generator, 1975)
A Wizard, A True Star (Todd Rundgren, 1973)

Currently reading:
The Music’s All That Matters: A History Of Progressive Rock (Paul Stump, 1997)

Currently watching:
Nothing since yesterday's post!