Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Early Music: first memories, second guesses, thirty-three and a third, holding forth on 1975. Oh, and Ken Dodd.

I often like to say to my younger friends, forcibly, “…go on, ask me what the Seventies were like!” and occasionally they’ll indulge this old man.

“Er, what were the Seventies like, Paul?”

Well, I'm glad you asked me that question. They were great.

A holiday bungalow in Greatstone-On-Sea in the summer of 1973 provides the setting for the earliest memory of my entire life. I was not quite two years old at the time, which makes it a remarkable, if unlikely piece of recollection — and yet I am adamant that it must be real. It’s realistically dull enough in its detail and until now I’ve never really discussed it with anyone. It involves me sitting in my high chair with the pinky-red shell and reddy-black claws of a recently boiled (and eaten) crab on the tray before me. I had dropped some of the fragments on the floor and can recall with empathic clarity my frustration at being unable to retrieve them from my fixed position. Frustratingly for me now, I don’t recall if anyone got them back for me. I am sure they did: I remember nothing from my tiniest years if not how much attention I was given. I’m sure no one would disagree with me — nor am I the first person to maintain — that tiny children have an inalienable right to unconditional adoration. There’s a certain amount to be said for negative reinforcement, but the human condition tends to engender better results in most endeavours with a bit of praise, encouragement and love. Carrots over sticks every time. Get me, Dr Benjamin Spock. So, anyway.

I was an adorable child. I don’t mean to sound arrogant: the photographic evidence backs me up adequately. Mine was a fair, cherubic countenance with lashings of blonde, almost white, curly locks and large blue eyes. Once I’d started to talk, oh boy, I didn’t stop. A slight lisp, that I’ve never quite managed to shake off, rendered every breathless, precocious word winsome and cheerful. I got the distinct impression I was being shown off sometimes by my mother to her friends as I’d tell and retell the tale of how I followed a hedgehog in my garden until it hid in a bush and didn’t emerge — “it had dithintegrated!” I said with wide-eyed wonder, to my audience’s delight.

Another one of my earliest ever memories is watching in terror as Jon Pertwee, in Doctor Who, walked down a corridor unaware of silver Daleks in pursuit. Not for me the traditional sofa to hide behind as per most grown-ups’ recollection: I hid behind my dad, gripping his shoulders tightly while presumably he absorbed the football results he’d watched earlier. It’s never occurred to me until now to try placing the exact moment of this memory, but it can be done with reasonable precision: ‘Death To The Daleks’, transmitted in March 1974. Several months later Doctor Who would provide me with another, less welcome memory that I carry with me to this very day: the sight of the giant spiders in Pertwee’s swansong story in the summer of the same year inculcated a ridiculous, unnecessary arachnophobia. Jon Pertwee’s next appearance on tv was hosting a pseudo-Cluedo game show called, with some wit regarding its star, Whodunnit. It had nothing at all to do with Doctor Who, but I would watch it with anticipatory trepidation, wondering if at any moment those damn spiders would reappear. I consider all the many heart-racing moments of instant fear and misplaced misery I’ve endured over the years with every unforeseen eight-legged encounter, set this against my subsequent, lifelong study of all things to do with Time Lords, Daleks etc  — and conclude that I must really, bloody really, love Doctor Who.

Memory plays the oddest tricks at the best of times though, don’t you find? As I type this, turning over events from so very long ago in my head, back and forth, one way and then another, I find some memories that I’ve long held — long believed, long since coveted — don’t add up. I’ve maintained for years that the first word I was able to spell was ‘confused‘ — a word that I seem to remember my mother using frequently. In my imagining I deduced that ‘fused’ could be copied easily from the top of the plug of any electrical household appliance and the addition of ‘con’ came instinctively. This is clearly not a true story; surely I must have arrived at ‘cat’, ‘dog’ ‘mum’, ‘dad’ and all the other time-honoured classics a lot sooner.

 “I can thhee the moon!” I would stare rapt, up at the night sky from the bay window in the front room of our house. The front room contained my mother’s upright piano upon which she would practice her organ pieces for Mass on Sunday; we were Catholics. The younger of my two sisters was learning the piano and I seem to recall her playing it a whole lot more, playing thin volumes from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools Of Music. They were short, often quirky and beautiful pieces written mostly by Dmitri Kabalevsky, Béla Bartók, Henk Badings and Wolfgang Mozart. The books came in muted blues, greens, browns and so on — I think the colours denoted the level of grading and the year of issue. I can’t be too sure. My sister had weekly piano lessons from Mr New, a gentleman who lived in a large Edwardian house in Sidcup, down the road from St Joseph’s Convent, which was to become in due course my Primary School.

My father, befitting his trade as an underwriter for Lloyd’s Of London, was fond of a drink. Aren’t we all? Mostly he’d do his post-work drinking with his cronies in the City, but sometimes he could be found more locally in the faded Victorian grandeur of the Sidcup Station Hotel, the pub near the railway station where he would have parked his car. I have a distinct recollection of getting into my mother’s navy blue Mini on several occasions to collect my sister from her piano lesson and thence drive to the Station Hotel where my father would be retrieved  — with some protest you may imagine. Here again my memory pulls a trick on me rather like one of those Republic black-and-white action serials from the 1940s and 50s where the cliffhanger ending of one episode is replaced — fudged — with a new angle or a reshot scene that ‘cheats’ your previous understanding of events. I can never remember what happened to my father’s car on these occasions. I assume he was driven to the station the following day, which must have been sobering in several different ways. The Sidcup Station Hotel was closed for business by 1974 and was sadly, inexplicably, demolished to make way for a supermarket and a really quite atrociously bland, brick-built boozer called The Iron Horse. A real shame, as I would have loved to have ventured inside its portals, come of age as a drinker. Tom Baker recalls having a jar or two in there whilst a student at the nearby Rose Bruford college of performing arts in the Sixties. By 1974 he was poised to become one of my all-time favourite people on the planet as the fourth Doctor. The Iron Horse in turn was later renamed the Metro Bar and remains quite simply the best place to go in Sidcup if you want a decent fight on a Saturday night. From the sublime to the ridiculous!

While the reminiscence is clear, and while you’re here, two other memories of 1974: watching the Christmas Special of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? and being carried to bed by my father afterwards when I fell tired…and best of all, getting the two things I asked for on Christmas Day: a teddy bear and a humming top. I can’t think what’s more incredible — that they still made humming tops out of tin in the early Seventies or the fact that I wanted one. Somewhere in a box I still have Teddy Edward, but not the top.

1975 was the year where memories connected with music really coalesce for me. There was the summer day that I jumped on the back of the wrong Routemaster bus after school, thinking it was heading homewards and my brother shouted at me to jump off of it as it pulled away. I fell off the back, hit the ground too quickly to stay upright and was nearly run over as I splayed flat out on my arse in the middle of Sidcup High Street. I remember gazing at the back of the bus as it retreated, blazoned with adverts for Tommy: The Movie; the now iconic image of Roger Daltrey, shades on, cork in mouth and halo of curls. Later that year I witnessed the same buses plastered with the stylised painting of Little Nell screaming that advertises The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I do realise that I am recalling a musical connection with these things only in retrospect: I was not aware that these images represented movies — or their soundtracks — at the time.

The examples of music I’ve outlined so far have all been live accounts, things played on instruments in the room present with me. The first time I ever engaged with a music recording, to the best of my knowledge would be  — you can probably guess this — cowering in fear behind my father as the theme tune to Doctor Who played out on tv. It was composed by Ron Grainer in 1963 and realised for television in an astonishing arrangement by Delia Derbyshire, from a painstaking process of assembled tape loops and primitive sine-wave generating equipment. It packs a considerable, otherworldly punch. Children in particular seem to respond strongly to its long, spacious, swooping melody with a mixture of fear, fascination and familiarity and this makes it a truly remarkable piece: a theme that paints in sound a stunningly vivid interpretation of the show’s overall identity and outlook and as such is indivisible from it. Few composers — or shows — can claim to have such simultaneous synergy, synthesis and synaesthesia. Brian Sewell would have a field day saying that.

So what of records and tapes? My mother owned a mono Garrard record player with a pearlescent disc at the centre of the turntable and the stackable auto-change arm, all tricked out in a very Sixties hue of blue nylon. It was around this time that I would start to play records and my mother’s singles collection yielded a few things that I liked. And it’s here that we get to the nitty-gritty of the whole thing: what governs the things you like? It’s easy to quantify as an adult: one of the factors that shapes our opinion of anything is experience — so someone who has never had, say, moussaka may find any doubts they’d have about trying it dispelled one way or another if they were told it wasn’t too far removed from lasagne, assuming they tried the latter. It’s so self-evident, we take this for granted. But how extensive can the experiential frames of reference be for a four-year-old child? It’s perfectly conceivable — no pun intended — that music can be detected from within the womb, but since my mother seldom plays records at the best of times, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t hear much music that way. So what makes you like what you like when you don’t know what you like to begin with? What a question. Not one I feel I can answer — certainly not within the confines of a blog entry; I do set myself certain word limits, you know. No, really I do.

One of the only times I remember my mother buying a record in my lifetime was in the autumn of ’75: ‘Think Of Me (Wherever You Are)’, a frankly rather mawkish, sentimental song recorded, as unlikely as it may seem, by the eminence grise of Knotty Ash himself, the Scouse comedian Mr Ken Dodd. My mother was very taken with the tune at any rate and, to be fair for a second, Doddy did possess a surprisingly convincing croon that belied his buck-toothéd demeanour. I used to play this song a fair bit on my mother’s record player. Before you gather rotten tomatoes and find out where I live, let me say first that there’s a story attached to this.

The late and greatly missed John Peel once famously professed to loving a song on his radio show that later turned out to have been played on the wrong turntable speed. Julian Cope, on his website, notes a review of Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida LP specifically as heard on 45 revolutions per minute, in which guise it apparently takes on a tight, punchy techno feel. My mother’s Garrard was of sufficiently advanced age to have both 16 and 78 revolutions per minute settings as well as the usual 33 and 45rpm. Anyway, the first piece of music I remember listening to on record ever was ‘Fandango Asturiano’, the final movement of Capriccio Espagnol by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a suitably pungent and giddy piece of waltz time passion, which came on a 7” 45rpm single. I particularly loved it played on breakneck 78rpm. I used to love playing things at the wrong speeds — I have a love of fast and frantic music and firmly believe it stems directly from playing albums and singles on 45 and 78rpm respectively. Conversely, I was fascinated with the slowed-down sound of Ken Dodd on both 33 and the stupendously terrifying 16rpm, the latter of which rendered the King Of The Diddymen’s pleasant baritone into a positively Stygian growl-drone that must have informed my later love of death metal.

My oldest brother, being a chap in his early twenties around this time, owned several singles that I would sneakily ‘liberate’ from his wardrobe to have their tempi arbitrarily violated in this fashion. It shames me to say that they’d eventually end up in unplayable condition as a result, but if it’s any testament to their memory, I can tell you of the ones I particularly loved: 

Step forward The Doors’ ‘Hello, I Love You’ which is the perkiest pop ditty Pinky & Perky never recorded when played on 78rpm, which brings it roughly into rhythmic line with The Kinks ‘All Day And All Of The Night,’ a song that it shares certain musical similarities.

Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ didn’t excite me nearly as much as the harmonica-driven blues blitz of its b-side, ‘The Wizard’ when played at a super-heavy 33 — something I did so often that when I first heard it after many years at the right speed, it took me ages to get over just how fast and skittish it sounded by comparison.

The end credits music for the tv series Crown Court also took a beating, played variously either too slow or too fast — anything but the right speed, please.

Weirdest of all, I used to groove on the flexidisc that came with my sister’s Stylophone, played on too slow a speed. If you really don’t know, a Stylophone was — is — a musical instrument consisting of a metal keyboard strip, that when connected with an attached metal stylus completed a circuit, producing a high, reedy buzzing sound of fixed pitch. Slide up the keystrip, the pitch would rise; go down, it’d fall. It was made popular when David Bowie featured it in his 1969 breakout hit ‘Space Oddity.’ Rolf Harris, the Greatest Living Australian, was also an enthusiastic Stylophone proponent, coining the accurate catchphrase — “If you can write your name, you can play a Stylophone!” — and lent his mellifluous Strine to the flexidisc tutorial that came enclosed with every device. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that’s me right there, sitting cross-legged on the floor, one ear cocked to the sound of a giant hornet orchestra interspersed with the voice — distorted to doom-laden incomprehensibility — of the Rolferoo himself. It’s no wonder I’m all over the place musically.

Perhaps my most vivid memory of anything musical in 1975 came in the closing moments; the tune that saw the year out: the Christmas No 1 single, Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ I can confidently assert that by the time I was five years old I knew all the words to it. I bloody should: the now-famous video that accompanied it, often held up as the first of its kind, did seem to be on tv quite a lot in those days.

I think here’s a good time to end this entry. School was looming in 1976. I was going to have my world opened up in all sorts of ways. More later.


Currently listening to:
Osmium (Parliament, 1970)
Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator, 1971)
A Wizard, A True Star (Todd Rundgren, 1973)

Currently reading:
Performance: The Pocket Movie Guide (Mick Brown, 1999)

Currently watching:
Doctor Who: up to date, with the most recent adventures with Matt Smith, anticipating the new series to come (BBC, 2010)
Torchwood, the sister show to Doctor Who. Post-watershed, overweeningly ‘adult’ in content with gratuitous profanity and lashings of teenage-mentality sex, but it’s not all good! Series One (BBC, 2006)


  1. Not really from the 70s, but regarding record players, how else would we have found a reference to "Sidcup" in the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom story record without taking it in turns to manually spin the record backwards, both sides, while listening to it. Why? I really don't remember, but we did. I think we heard "Mohammed" in there too...

  2. Thank you for reminding me, dear boy!

    Too right - I am currently pulling together ideas for a blog entry on our various taping experiments! Dr Positron aka "Slow Boy", the Nestines, our obsession with attempting to emulate an Emulator just like Paul Hardcastle (all that stuttering!), endless loops of Funky Drummer and Paid In Full... all must be chronicled in detail!!

    The Judas Priest 'backmasking' trial really made an impression on us it would seem! The Indy record served to demonstrate that you can hear anything you want to hear in backwards recordings if you so desired: "Sidcup" "Mohammed" "Start to smoke marijuana" and that creepy "Seh-nu" chant that you get when you play my voice singing "We Can Dance, We Can Dance" etc etc... I'm inspired to write this up now!