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!

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