Monday, 11 July 2011

2011: a half time report: clutter, cassettes and a Seventies cabinet of curiosities.

I’m knackered. Halfway through the year and I find myself being rather more active than I would have thought I’d be if you’d asked me way back in January. Now, I’m not knocking it — I may have a highly selective work ethic, but it’s there all the same. Apart from remaining in gainful employment — a state I am eternally grateful for, whatever you may hear to the contrary — my brain is being kept busy in all kinds of ways elsewhere too.

Where to begin? I’ve started to walk a great deal more than I used to. Ever since my local rail network removed several key services along my line, my journey home from work involves a Tube ride with the missus down to Charing Cross just in time to miss a train out of Dodge and force us to find ways of killing the half hour wait for the next one. You may not be surprised to learn that alternating between getting a pint in the station bar or browsing the same magazines you saw yesterday in WHSmith starts to pall pretty bloody quickly. Well, we’ve changed all that now! Our journey home, weather permitting, now consists of a brisk walk through the tranquillity of Regent’s Park, then typically a neat cut across the back streets that take in the best views of the funky Sixties monument to communications tech I still like to call the Post Office Tower. From this point onwards we wander any which way we like that takes us down to Charing Cross station. It’s just over 2 miles and on a good day, it can be done in time to catch the same train we normally get. True, the walk is frequently interrupted once we are in the heart of the West End with a pub pitstop — but it feels harder-earned for the walk and besides, we can always work on that bit later. In any event, the additional exercise conspires to make me ache all over most days and that can only be A Good Thing.

In more nebulous but no less gruelling enterprises, I’ve stepped up my songwriting. I’ve had a couple of commissions for musical pieces that have pleasurably but persistently prodded my composing capacity. This alone is encouraging, but it’s particularly gratifying when my submissions are well received. I am not one of those people who writes better when upset or angry — my temperament dictates that I withdraw into myself and do little when I’m at a low — so I find there’s currently a jovial, inspirational upward spiral that makes me happy to compose and happy when I’m composing. I’m not jinxing it by saying that — it doesn’t work that way. Furthermore, my guitar playing continues to improve and on occasions it even sounds a little bit like stuff you hear on records, so it’s all good.

Blogging topics orbit my head like the Space Shuttle Atlantis, currently making its way steadily around Planet Earth — not least how watching the launch of this, the last ever STS mission on live television last week brought all my childhood astronautic fantasies back home with direct, emotional charge. I’m not a gadget-obsessed chap, but I bloody love space travel.

Elsewhere, the British Museum played host the other night to a late opening themed around their new Medieval exhibition. Mrs M and I enjoyed a recital of chant and polyphony performed by the Renaissance Singers in the vast Museum Library, which we found profoundly moving. Outside a small group of medieval musicians played a wondrous array of crumhorns, fideles and primitive recorders, all to encourage a motley collection of gentle ladies, armour-clad Paladins, buxom wenches, velveted clerics and the more game members of the public in wild, giddy dance reels. It was entirely educational, uproarious and delightfully daft all at the same time.

A breakneck re-screening at home of the entire run of Drop The Dead Donkey has served to remind me a) just how good it is; b) how the topical storylines that distinguished the show have largely failed to date as they simply don’t go away, but mostly c) how much I wish veteran newsreader Henry Davenport, played with such an energetic collision of irascible charm and silky bluster by David Swift, was a real person. We need someone like him in the world these days. An imaginative chap could write an entire blog on the fictional individuals of stage, screen and literature we’d like to see exist in our world.

The events that led up to the closure of The News Of The World last week have amazed, appalled and uplifted my journalistic colleagues in equal measure and I came close to writing something that might help to quantify and articulate the complicated feelings I have on the subject. I find myself regarding the demise of such an obviously despicable publication with the not-so-sneaking suspicion that it’s merely a tactical piece of collateral damage in an increasingly sinister media campaign that has yet to reach full fruition.

Anyway, all of this is a convoluted way of saying that this week’s tale concerns none of these things. Instead, it’s something I hadn’t given any thought of until a few hours ago. This morning I was pottering round the supermarket, idly contemplating knocking out that Van der Graaf Generator article I’ve been threatening to emit for some time and picking up a very tasty bit of ham hock terrine into the bargain. That’s not what I’m going to write about. That’s just a bit of incidental detail for you — given my word count of recent weeks, I feel obliged not to let you down and curb my need for indulgent waffle. Anyway, when I returned home I pressed on (VdGG essay happily percolating prettily away in the cranial cafetiere all the while) with the ongoing long-term project of idle days in Chislehurst: tidying the flat. No, that isn’t quite this week’s subject either. Relax — I like to waffle, but I’m not that sadistic.

Space, it almost goes without saying, is always at a premium if you live in a flat and when you live with a woman who has a propensity for acquiring and hoarding things that is equal to your own, one’s thoughts turn all too often to the dreadfully banal matter of storage. I am one of those people who still gets as excited in stationery shops merely by looking at technical drawing pens and their accessories as I did when a schoolboy. I own a silver Parker propelling pencil. Jealous, readers? The lead that comes with it is so hard and unyielding — so to remain unbroken inside the pen’s shaft during use — that it is practically invisible on the page. How can something so completely elegant be so utterly useless? I’m digressing again. What I’m saying is that in an age when my most extensive bout of handwriting goes no further than a shopping list, modular storage solutions are the kind of grown-up stationery items I covet these days. Rock’n’Roll! Occasionally however, a more stylish solution presents itself and a couple of weeks ago I took delivery of a delightful item of furniture that is at one both space-saving and rather splendid: a 1970s hi-fi cabinet. This reassuring relic is a sturdy, smooth, wooden rectangular affair with a smoked glass door that pops open on its magnetic fastening when pressed. Nice action! This pleases me immensely and I’m confident it would please you too, so stop sniggering right now. One could easily imagine Jerry from The Good Life having one of these in the corner of his living room. I can see him now, smug with a sly smile, sliding a Perry Como album on the turntable in anticipation of a naughty night in with Margo to distract her from the blue fit she had earlier upon seeing how those wretched neighbours have got themselves a pig in their back garden. Or something. That’s not the half of it: there’s a side drawer on this thing that glides open smoothly on still-shiny runners to reveal four rows of shelf space, designed specifically to hold tapes.

Compact cassettes, yes. This was precisely the thing that sold the cabinet to me in the secondhand furniture showroom.  I have a vast cardboard box containing hundreds of the damn things burning a hole in my living room. Some are commercial recordings but the majority are self-made compilation tapes and this — finally, ladies and gentlemen — is what I realised would comprise the mainstream of this evening’s symposium. 

Luminaries as sublime as Adam & Joe and as ridiculous as Nick Hornby have all adequately expressed the fun, strategy, planning and taste that ensues in creating compilation tapes, so I’ll say no more on their construction. Anyway, if you’re over 30, you’ve almost certainly made one; those much-agonised-over ones deployed as all-important gambits in relationships with new girl/boyfriends, band members or chums.

I used to copy albums off vinyl since I was about 14, in their entirety. It didn’t occur to me for several months that I could cherry-pick highlights from albums — and besides, as a product of the pre-CD era I had the whole-album-listening mentality. We didn’t have our own integrated home ‘music centre’ — as we called them in the Seventies — and it took until the Eighties before I had something to tape on; my sister’s compact, tidy, so-called ‘midi system’. My sister owned the majority of records in the house and was a degree student: her indie singles and David Bowie albums were more to my taste than my brother’s Chaka Khan and DeBarge twelve inchers. I’d have to wait until she was out of the house and make illicit recordings or ask permission to use it, and avoid potential sisterly wrath, although I think she was probably secretly quite pleased that I found her small selection of records so intriguing.

I was given a midi system of my own on my seventeenth birthday. Glory be! As with many of these machines from this era, it soon showed itself to be clunky and temperamental and didn’t last very long, but it scored over my sister’s device in one crucial way: it had a built-in CD player. My first CD ever? The Very Best Of T Rex, a Pickwick budget-priced compilation of mostly not-so-well-known cuts from Marc Bolan’s later albums, decked out with an unflattering mid-Seventies photo of the Metal Guru himself in his fat period, looking like a drag act — but the music was good. Now I could freely tape in my bedroom to my heart’s content. Initially I made several tapes of randomly assembled tunes and taped over them in the same arbitrary manner, but after a while I realised something: the music on these tapes represented — and forgive me the biggest cliché of all — The Soundtrack Of My Life. Cassettes had the potential to provide a sort of sonic diary. Preservation suddenly became paramount.

The Really Amazing Squad Presents The Rather Good Music Tape, reads the legend on the side of my first, official if you will, compilation tape — a Super Ferric C90 bought from WHSmith. I have it by my side now as I type. The majority of the songs on it were culled from an epic browse my friend Chris and I did through his mum’s record collection. As a teenager through most of the Sixties, her record shelf ran to a considerable length of pop, rock and folk albums spanning the following 25 years or so. The track names are dutifully laid out along with the dates of recording (13th and 18th October 1988) and even the number count on the tape player is helpfully detailed after each song. I cared about these things. What was on it, you say? I wish you hadn’t asked me that. Oh well — no guts, no glory:

It opens with ‘Electrick Gypsies’, by Steve Hillage. Three lengthy blasts on some kind of Tibetan bass horn, some distantly clattering wood blocks and four crisp ceremonial cymbal smashes lead into a pungent hash cake of mystical mid-tempo space rock from the ex-Gong axeman. Start as I mean to go on. I still love it now, but I suspect its inclusion on here was due to it being played in the background during a hippie party in an episode of The Young Ones.

Next up, two electronic ditties from Jean-Michel Jarre: ‘Equinoxe’ and ‘Oxygene’ — a little chintzy, but I’m a child of the Seventies and it was still pretty out-there in 1988, fair enough.

Then a stone-cold classic: ‘Layla’ by Derek & The Dominoes, only with the laid-back piano outro impatiently snipped off just as it begins. It was clearly all riff and no comedown for me aged 17; how hormonal.

‘Aquarius’ by The Fifth Dimension. Again, a burgeoning interest in the more stoned corners of pop music and the unintentionally hilarious lyrics made this instantly beguiling and daft then as now.

‘Green Onions’ by Booker T & The MGs. Flawless, deathless, peerless.

Three tracks culled from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack: ‘Stayin’ Alive’ and ‘Night Fever’ by the Bee Gees, plus ‘Disco Inferno’ by The Trammps. The decent end of a much-maligned genre in my opinion. I continue to make no apologies for the disco I grew up with: Mrs M and I even had ‘Disco Inferno’ as our first dance at our wedding.

Finally for Side One, ‘Rave On’ by Buddy Holly. It’s a groove. No problem with this now as then.

End Of Side One.

Side Two.

‘When We Was Fab’, ‘Got My Mind Set On You’ and ‘Devil’s Radio’ — three songs from George Harrison’s 1987 album Cloud 9 constitute the most recent tracks on the whole tape. How typical of me already to be more interested in the new output of a musician principally associated with the Sixties than anything by any thrusting young blood of the time. These songs sound more dated now in their Eighties production in a way that the Fifties chug of Buddy Holly, for example, does not — but hey, nothing I could do about that.

Next up, ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush. This is still bloody brilliant, witchy, enchanting and strange. Such a stunning breakthrough single.

‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon. It’s all about the keyboard solo on this one. That, and the ‘WAH-WAH-WAH-WAHs’ Again, the early Sixties production and sound wraps itself around the ears more engagingly than anything of 1988 vintage.

It’s going OK, isn’t it? Oh, but it gets even better: three songs from Pink Floyd, demonstrating my eternal appreciation of Cambridge’s finest: ‘One Of These Days’, one of the more succinct and rocking statements from their 1971 Meddle album, followed by Syd Barrett’s two most shining, beautiful bursts of pop from his time in the band: the sardonic, marvellous ‘Arnold Layne’ and the  psychedelectable joy of ‘See Emily Play’ — all rarely off my proverbial turntable in 2011.

From this point onwards, the shit hits the fan. I’ll be honest — everything I’ve written until now is mere preamble to this very special moment. Volunteering one’s embarrassment willingly can be such a cathartic experience and in this respect the next three songs are an object lesson in pure, naked therapy. Consider yourself warned.

‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ by Middle Of The Road. Seriously. I ransack my sister’s singles collection and we go from the sumptuous psychedelic splendour of Syd’s Floyd and follow it up with the musical equivalent of a gun being cocked and held to the head. 


After this comes two songs from Gary Glitter.

Ck-clik… BANG!

In my hasty defence, it was 1988, after all. Gary Glitter’s latter-day career as a bald, Cambodian Death Penalty-dodging paedophile was several years off and he stood at this point as something of a semi-ironic Gary Glitter tribute act. He had always displayed a canny knack in the Seventies of laughing enough at himself, realise his act was patently absurd, and yet turn this ostensibly transient novelty into a successful career well into the Eighties and beyond. His singles, including the two I had added to my tape — ‘Hello Hello I’m Back’ and ‘I’m The Leader’ — packed enough punch and hooks to stand alongside any of the lighter Glam pop of his day. It helped enormously that we didn’t know what was to come for the man formerly known as Paul Raven/Gadd. Nonetheless, never has the phrase ‘with the benefit of hindsight’ felt so ineffectual. It is, with all the best of intentions, almost impossible to hear these songs out of context anymore, especially as they are — and always were — lyrically suspect. I don’t hate them as such, but neither will my life be blighted by their absence if I were never to hear them again. Mike Leander wrote the music anyway and there’s no need to tar him.

Things look up for the final two songs on the tape: ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’ by The Hollies, a single bought for me by my sentimental sister on my seventeenth birthday. The song was currently riding high in the Top 20 once more, due to its inclusion in a Miller Lite beer commercial featuring a pre-EastEnders Ross Kemp, if memory serves. Like the beer, it’s smooth, slick and a little too sweet  — but I like it.

We round off with a song that I was frankly obsessed with at the time: David Bowie’s ‘Chant Of The Ever-Circling Skeletal Family’, the spooky, looping closer from the Diamond Dogs album. Its cyclical, dance-of-death rhythm appealed to the medievalist in me and I would fit it on any tapes I did.

Well, that’s that. Quite a blend, I trust you’ll agree. Some evergreens from the Fifties and Sixties, a burst of Seventies electronica, some nifty disco, the latest hits from an ex-Beatle and some ropy shit from a Scottish one-hit-wonder group and a Glam rock kiddy-fiddler. Not a bad effort for an opener, but I’ll award it six out of ten: must try harder. My tapes got better as my pop-picking acumen improved, as it did for all. The marvellous thing about tapes is that they are exchangeable; as surely as I would lend this little sonic snapshot to my friends, so they would have things to make and swap with me. I listened about and made notes. 

So — that was me, filing my tapes away in my newly-acquired old cabinet over the weekend. My compilations number handily from 1 up to 67 and span 1988-2001. It was an amazing time for music as far as I was concerned and it’s a fantastic document of everything that drifted through my transom through those delirious days. I also found several dozen or so tapes done for me with love, care and enthusiasm by other people — old friends, ex-girlfriends and current friends alike — although it proved a little harder to file them away as I got something stupid in my eye at that point or something.

I held onto compact cassette tapes for a lot longer than most of my contemporaries. Im no Luddite,  despising anything new, but I was simply happy staying with them, and while I still owned working hardware to play them on, that was good enough. Eventually, I bought a MiniDisc player and enjoyed several years with an acceptable digital analogue of compilation taping — if that’s not an inherent contradiction. All the fun of cassettes but with no hiss, smaller dimensions and discs that could hold 10 hours of music. For a chap who marvelled at the possibilities that a C-100 (minute) chrome tape afforded, this was some serious shit. The only problem was that I’d come so late to the MD technology that very few people I knew still — if ever — owned a player to listen to them on. Two, in fact. Eventually, Mrs M bought me an iPod — just a Shuffle, holding 250 songs or so, but it beat MiniDiscs and sounded just as good to me. I knuckled under the hegemony of Apple far quicker and more willingly than I ever imagined. So I remain today.

As I get older and I see the allure of the physical artefact in music recordings falling by the wayside, so a little bit dies inside me too. The instant retrievability of MP3s have made storing and playing music simpler, instantly exchangeable…but there’s not much romance in a iTunes playlist. You can’t hand-doodle a band logo onto a folder on your Mac desktop, and you can’t roll a joint on an iPod. Well, not easily. Like I said earlier, I’m not a gadget obsessive, but neither am I technophobic on principle. I like the things technology can do for us, without having to take much interest in the technology itself. Specifically, I liked tapes, the sociable exchangeability of hand-decorated tapes, but wasn’t so concerned with tape players. I am wary of that ever-present type of person who all-too-readily embraces any innovation, particularly at the expense of the old. They seem to be the ones who have the power to decide the fate of such devices too often as well. How often a perfectly good baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. How dull and unimaginative they make our futures. In their world, we’d all write with silver Parker propelling pencils.

Dedicated to everyone who has ever made a tape compilation for me. Sic transit gloria mundi.


Currently listening:
No albums so much as the things I’m recording myself: Paul Murphy & The Bishops.

Currently watching:
Kinvig (LWT, 1981)
The Thick Of It series three (BBC, 2010)
In The Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)

No comments:

Post a Comment