2021..what I’ve read

I’ve not posted a whole lot this year, partly because my job involves a ton of looking at computer screens and partly because I thought a break would do us all good

For obvious reasons 2021 has been a bit of a dud for musical events in my life so a yearly round up is going to look a bit like the last turkey in the shop.

Quite whether I’m ever going to embrace the gig experience again, especially if it involves mask wearing remains to be seen. Whether I’ll miss it remains debatable.

There are other things apart from the live music experience however, books for one. I really love a good autobiography. In fact I could argue there’s no such thing as a bad autobiography and I include Phil Collins and DJ  Bob Harris in that assertion.

However it’s a high risk, very few are great works of literature (although a couple, Viv Albertine and Julian Cope spring to mind are stunning), usually it’s a fairly bland stroll through a performers career often that leaves more questions than answers . It’s not worth investing much cash so I tend to rely on charity shops and libraries which means I don’t always get what I want but sometimes I get what I need.

So here is what I’ve read this year

Bedsit Disc Queen- Tracey Thorn

Its an indication of how quickly music moved in the 70’s and 80’s that although Thorne is just 4 years younger than me, she occupied a different musical landscape starting with ramshackle indie through jazz and into electronica over the space of a decade.

I was never really a fan although she has an incredible voice (as in distinctive rather than X factor show off) but it was interesting to revisit the early 80’s where everything relating to music was so crucially important that analysis and discussion around the cultural and political ramifications of the ‘art’ (usually held huddled round a 2 bar electric heater) was as important as the actual music itself .

True -Martin Kemp

Kemp’s one of those multi taskers  who’s versatility can make you forget he’s also actually a musician. True is clearly aimed at fans of his acting and general nice guy persona as much as Spandau Ballet fans.

As is often the case, the true gold (ha) is his childhood. The early 60’s were not really that different to Edwardian times for a lot of working class people, outside toilets feature heavily. The new romantic years are skated over and the Spandau years fall into a predicable pattern of traveling and drinking, and most events are coloured by the intensity of Kemp’s hangover.

The brain tumour years are quite interesting to medical junkies like me and unlike most male rock stars Kemp is happy to eulogise his relationship with his wife Shirley. He comes across as a perpetual nice guy which is probably what most readers of this book expect.

Bonus points for the fact that he’s happy to point out when people meet him they often think he’s Gary (his brother) or an ex member of Duran Duran

Chapter and Verse -Bernard Sumner

Sumner’s from a similar background to Kemp, the main differences being the difference between Salford Manchester and Islington London. Basically Kemp gets to go to stage school and Sumner Doesn’t . Again he’s at his best describing his childhood and the brutality of 70’s schooling. At one point a teacher locks the Jewish kids in a classroom and turns the gas on which seems an exceptional school day but not that exceptional not Barney.

Like Kemp, Sumner somehow drifts into music  forms a band with some mates and the rest is history as they say. Unlike band mate Peter Hook who stopped his own book with the death of Ian Curtis, Sumner ploughs on though the New Order/Hacienda years. Lots of touring, lots of drinking and a bit of a dearth of rock and roll tales to liven the story. Other character are sketchy, band mate Gillian gets a couple of lines, Sumner’s own partner gets a very brief mention. It cant be easy describing people who are known really well to the general public especially when you’ve got to face them the next day but New Order probably aren’t really that interesting  anyway.

My Damage,The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor- Keith Morris

Morris was in Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. Bands I’d barely heard of , having listened to their music a bit now I at least know that they weren’t as bad as I feared.

The most interesting thing about Morris’s story for me were the insights into the punk world of Southern California. His upbringing sounds pretty tough but at least he had in an indoor toilet sunshine and a beach, it sounds better than Salford.

Morris comes across as a fairly easy going guy refreshingly free of grudges and blaming others for any misfortunes (if you want that try Ginger Baker or John Lydon). The California hardcore scene sounds more musical despite the nature of the music being played. There’s lots of drugs and alcohol floating about but when, inevitably, the time comes for Morris to pull back from that he becomes sober (and diabetic) without too much fuss or introspection.

Bonus points for avoiding any lurid sex or drugs ‘tales of the road’

Perfect Day- Bettye Kronstad

Lou Reed’s first wife, Kronstad was with him from the break up of the Velvet Underground up to the Berlin Tour.But three years with ‘Lewis’ was enough

Its basically an accident waiting to happen , at her first meting with Reed he slaps her arse which really should have been warning enough, on their first date he gets really drunk but Kronstad falls for him because he is an ‘artist’. This seems to be a New York affliction where going to art galleries and writing poetry singles you out as more than a mere songwriter. In retrospect Reed isn’t exactly delivering the goods in that department relying heavily on cast offs from the Velvets for his first three albums and live recordings of Velvets songs for his fourth record.

Its barely surprising as he’s drinking heavily and using massive amounts of cocaine and suffering from writer’s block. Like most addicts he’s pretty unhappy and seems a bit delusional that his genius isn’t fully appreciated. There’s increasing less of the sensitive person Kronstad fell in love with and eventually she finds herself as the carer of a barely functioning addict.

Despite this there’s a lack of prurient details, in fact theres a lack of details about most things that any reader might be attracted to. The Velvet Underground are barely touched upon beyond a very brief meeting with John Cale which Reed storms out of. Trips to Britain at the hight of glam rock are skimmed over , her insight into Bowie is that he was ‘cold’. The most exciting thing that happens is Angie Bowie tries to get Kronstad involved in a threesome.

On the other hand, their relationship is dealt with in considerable Mills and Boon pages of prose. There are pages dealing with the purchasing of the engagement ring and  too much description of a pair of earrings Reed bought her and virtually nothing about Iggy Pop, that seems a wasted opportunity!!

Finally Kronstad’s memory seems a bit suspect, chronology seems a bit wonky. Worst of all however is her assertion that Reed wanted to leave the Velvets because he couldn’t work with John Cale and she describes attending their farewell gig (only Reed knew it was the final performance ) and listening to Cale’s Viola which ignores the well documented fact that that Reed had fired him from the band two years earlier.

However it does put to rest the commonly held conception that the song Perfect Day is about heroin. I always thought it contained too many specifics to be about Reed being smacked of his tits

So 5 autobiographies  by people I’m not that interested in but everyone had something to offer so not time wasted. Also all that reading only cost me a pound thanks to the British Library system

My next book will be by Status Quo’s Francis Rossi, I’ve glanced at a few pages and cocaine seems to feature heavily.

Looking forward to it !

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Michael Chapman

Following the passing of Charlie Watts another 80 year old man has left us.

Michael Chapman was hardly a household name. In the 70s I was aware of his existence, it’s possible that I might have heard him on the John Peel show but that was the limit of his impact on my consciousness it’s only been in the last four years thanks to the miracle of Spotify that I’ve been able to access his music.

Chapman was creating music not radically different to the more feted John Martyn. There were two crucial differences that held him back. Firstly he was based in Yorkshire (Hull in fact form much of the 70s), a million cultural miles from the capital. Secondly he was a craggy balding individual who looked more like he was about to fix the plumbing than entertain an audience.

In the longer term this worked to his advantage, he didn’t look a lot different at 70 than he did at 40. His geographical isolation meant his music avoided the worst excesses of the 60s and 70s, there was a grit in his music that has weathered the passing of time quite well.

There’s no golden age of Michael Chapman. In the 70s he was closest to a breakthrough to a point of collaborations with slightly more well know people including Mick Ronson (the Hull connection) but he was never close to being a star. His recent output is just as good as his 70s work. He was working up until lockdown, playing low key gigs and teaching guitar.

Here’s a clip of him performing ‘Trees’ with Nigel Pegrum and Rick Kemp (another Hull connection) from Steeleye Span.

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Charlie Watts..end of an era

The death of an 80 year old man surrounded by his family doesn’t sound that a big a deal but the loss of Charlie Watts is on every bit as significant as the death of Louis Armstrong or Howling Wolf, he’s a link to a past that has now  gone forever.

Much is made of Watts as a thwarted Jazz drummer but in the early Stones he effortlessly made the transition from R&B to pop. He was good enough not to be replaced in the studio and flexible enough to cope with whatever the Brian Jones incarnation of the band were able to come up with.

The styling of the Watts sound really began around the time of Exile on Main Street when, along with Keith Richards he began to develop what we have come to think of as the Stones sound. 

By the 80’s his playing had become increasing stylised, he developed his habit of not playing the high hat when he hit the snare which looked ungainly but gave a certain loping quality to the beat. He also kept the habit of using the traditional grip where the left hand holds the stick in a different way. It’s good for Jazz but most rock players want more power and hold both sticks the same. It wasn’t a problem for Charlie though, his drums always cut through the mix. He tended to play behind the beat sometimes scarily so but that was the Stones sound and even their older pop songs began to sound like loose jams when the band played them live.

For the archetypical Charlie Watts experience  look no further than ‘Rough Justice’ recorded when he was a mere 65 years old 

https://youtu.be/p8xDQJpS_8M

Watts pulls it all together with a drum fill that’s somehow incredibly enthusiastic for the owner of a buss pass. There’s the strange high hatless snare beat, the wash of cymbals in the chorus and plenty more similar fills. There’s something in his playing that suggests he’s having the best time of his life while still not breaking a sweat.

Its impossible to conceive of the likes of Charlie Watts being able to exist in the same way ever again, there are more technically skilled players aged three strutting their skills on You Tube. Professional Musicians today have to be skilled and flexible, they will only play like Watts if it’s a job in a Stones cover band and even then they wont come close. The concept of someone doing one thing really well is too limiting for modern music. Not only have we lost an absolutely uniqueplayer we are losing the link to the time when people got together to make music and basically do the best they can. When that happens, the music had to adapt to the players which is when you get the Stones or the Beatles or the Who or the Sex Pistols.

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Hilton Valentine

About a month ago YouTube decided I really needed to see more videos about the Animals. Fair enough, I always like the band just like I enjoyed most of the 60’s groups.Eric Burdon has always been the main focal point of course but there was also Alan Price on keyboards, bassist Chas Chandler who had another career as manger of Hendrix and Slade as well as John Steel the unremembered but hugely talented drummer. As usual though it wasn’t the main men who intrigued me, I was most curious about the enigmatic guitarist Hilton Valentine who died last week at the age of 77.

In the 60’s Newcastle was a million miles from London which is why the band were so unique, despite having the same musical heritage as most English bands of the time. At least their isolation gave them the chance to hit London fully formed. From the start they were a tight hard hitting band, better than the early Stones (although a lot of bands were).Where they were to miss out on the transition to harder rock is their focus on ensemble playing. Alan Price was a talented player and made no secret of the fact that he could play soul music and songs from the shows and clearly felt his talent was wasted with endless Johnny Lee Hooker numbers.He was the nearest they had to a virtuoso, the other members were ensemble players

What really made the band different from the other blues bands was the fact that they lacked a guitar hero. Valentine was recruited to the band because he was a genuine rocker. He dressed the part and onstage he her was a discernible presence visually.The truth is that technically he probably wasn’t even the best guitarist in the Animals, Valentine played rock solid rhythm simple riffs and the odd chuck berry derived solo. His economy was his strength, its not easy to keep things simple and powerful just ask Johnny Ramone, you cant he’s dead but you get the picture.

Valentine’s musical legacy is the intro of ‘House of the Rising Sun’, like everything else he played its something that can be copied by any competent amateur player but until Valentine created it there was nothing to copy.

For four years he was a star by virtue of his band, America in particular loved the Animals, a lot of YouTube footage is from American TV shows with the band trying to fit into the format of family entertainment. After Price had left to be replaced by Dave Rowberry the band slowly mutated into an early version of the Doors but Valentine’s role never really changed.He remained an enigmatic figure, he seemed to be a bit a of a loose cannon verbally, never really able to deal with the mundane interviews that are a professional pop stars daily job.

By 1967 the band were no more. According to Burdon Valentine had taken on the west coast peace and love vibe and was spending most of his time tripping in a room full of stuffed animals (I think we are talking cuddly toys rather than taxidermy but its still weird). He even made a solo album with a folky/pop/psychedelic vibe. This pointed to a new direction but then the guitarist disappeared from view.

That’s another interesting thing about Valentine, He’s spent 4 years as a pop star followed by over 50 years of not being a pop star. There was a brief reunion producing one of the most perfunctory LPs ever ‘Before we were so rudely Interrupted’ in the 70’s. There’s a clip of the band getting back together, they clearly haven’t been practicing and had borrowed instruments for the appearance. It’s impossible to hear Valentine as he’s been give an acoustic guitar but as usual he seems happy to tag along. There was a further 80”s reconciliation where they were clearly searching for a new direction which involved recruiting keyboards and a second guitar to play the widdly bits Valentine wasn’t interested in. He spent around 20 years cultivating different variations of the mullet haircut further cementing the impression that this was a man who didn’t give a fuck musically or otherwise.

More recently he’s been involved in a skiffle project which brought his mini career full circle, he was able to return to basic simple music and hopefully make a small amount of money in the process.But most of the time he’s lived a life pretty similar to all elderly men who like to play guitar occasionally, whole decades are missing from the Hilton Valentine biography but, should anyone wish to make the film I would rather watch it than ‘Rocket Man’.

Here’s an electrifying performance from the band where energy more than compensates for dodgy sound and demonstrates how Valentine was a definite asset in the excitement department

https://youtu.be/8f62s8bGiic

The 70’s saw a brief reunion, clearly there’s still a bit of tension in the band and with punk on the way and the concept of ‘legacy bands’ yet to be invented no one was that interested. Valentine maintains a discreet silence throughout.

Allegedly Alan Price was really disinterested in recording the bands biggest hit and had to be cajoled into participating with an awesome organ solo.Valentine contributes the iconic intro but apparently when the record was released it was credited as Trad arranged Price. Whatever the reasons for this Price apparently pocketed the royalties and left the band. My lawyers have advised me to use the word allegedly again but if it is true Valentine missed a big payday but he became a Buddhist so what does he care.

Here it is again

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24: Whatever gets you Thru the Night..John Lennon

Lennon’s time in New York City wasn’t hugely significant from a musical point of view. Prone to inertia and laziness he relied rather on the muse coming knocking. A lot of the time he lacked others to spark him into some real creativity and tended to fall back on the music of his youth.

Probably the period of most creativity was the time he spent away from the person he considered to be his creative muse, namely Yoko Ono. During his ‘lost weekend’ Lennon reconnected with people who had become his friends and his peers and became to be more inspired with making music again even finding time to Jam with Paul McCartney and write with David Bowie.

On Whatever Gets You Thru the Night Elton John was in the studio to add keyboards and vocals. Its not an exceptional song but it’s a great performance and it’s likely that having someone in the studio who (at the time) was more famous than Lennon created those sparks. Lyrically he took the inspiration from a TV evangelist musically it was the 70’s soul of George McCrea who was in the charts with ‘Rock Your Baby’. 

It was, at least a step forward from Lennon’s 50’s infatuations. Also on board for the session was his old mate from HamburgKlaus Voorman who plays some great bass, but the star of the show is Bobby Keys who plays saxophone. It’s not quite a ‘Baker Street’ transformation’ but Key’s contributions here transform a good track into a great one. Like a lot of really creative people Lennon had trouble evaluating his own work. ‘Whatever Gets you Thru the Night’ wasn’t his first choice for a single. Elton John had no such limitations, he bet Lennon that this was a hit single and he was right of course, it was Lennon’s only No1 US single while he was alive. Elton John secured Lennon’s agreement to appear at one of his gigs. It was a typically lazy bit of jamming on Lennon’s part when it did happen but it was notable for him choosing to cover McCartney’s’ I saw her Standing There’ and for it being his last ever live appearance.

Lennon was back with Ono again and he wanted to devote some time to raising his son Sean. The likes of John and Bowie found their calls were not being returned. Lennon was going to stay at home for a while.

This single only got to No36 in the UK charts, were we mad? It does just demonstrate that the record buyers had largely lost interest by that time, the Beatles effect was wearing thin, even Ringo was more popular in the singles charts.

But its now a song for our times, its been a tough year…Whatever gets you through the night.

https://youtu.be/vjWebKavfuI

‘Don’t need a gun to blow your mind’

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Paul McCartney saves Christmas

You are 78 years old. Your mother dies when you were 14. Your closest male friend is gunned down and your wife and ‘baby brother ‘ bandmate are taken by cancer. And that’s all before you reach the age of 60.

Like anyone who has lived a life Paul McCartney has baggage. And like everyone else he’s been locked down for the last nine months. He’s been making music for over 50 years, not just recycling his past, the McCartney back catalogue is a living breathing thing

The fact is that McCartney just can’t stop playing music and having been locked down for most of this year its inevitable that he’s been recording. The featured track (do singles even exist?) found its way onto my YouTube feed and it’s a beautiful glimmer of optimism for these dark days.

You never used to be

Afraid of days like these

But now you’re overwhelmed 

By your anxieties

Let me help you out

Let me be your guide

I can help you reach

The love you feel inside

The Album’s on Spotify, these are corporate times but to hell with negativity just enjoy an old man delighting in creating melodies out of thin air

https://youtu.be/2oSmP3GtOBk

Merry Christmas

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The Lonesome Death of John Lennon

I try not to engage with the news to much, its pretty much a constant babble and I assume that anything of real importance will get though to me somehow. I had assumed that the 40thanniversary of John Lennon’s death would somehow be a big deal. There was a certain symmetry to that tragic event, he has now been dead almost as long as he was alive and the anniversary of his last birthday certainly did creep into my consciousness. Although I didn’t seek it out there was nothing on the Wednesday when he died or the following day when we all got to hear the news. Admittedly I don’t remember any commemoration of the 40th anniversary commemoration of Glen Miller’s demise in the 70’s but this was John Lennon for Rod’s sake!

I remember the fateful day as well as I can remember most things. The weather was traditionally awful, dank and drizzly. I was still at Polytechnic but not particularly gainfully employed. For a brief period co incidentally my old school friends Phil and Dunk we also living in Nottingham, Phil was working as a lab technician and Dunk had just started a Christmas job as a sales assistant in a, now defunct, department store as well as having a room in my sharedhouse. We had agreed to meet at lunch for a drink, the fact that two of us were going back to work was no barrier. In my early days of employment, I could drink more in a lunchtime than I might consume in a whole week now. Pubs were rammed between 12 and 2pm.

I arrived in town a bit early. In the 70’s and 80’s Nottingham was dominated by the Evening Post Sellers who arrived around 11am and stayed until rush hour selling the local rag.It was only after wandering around a bit, I realised that the headline on their stalls was about Lennon’s death. I bought the paper and adjourned to a pub to read it I then went to another pub to share the news with Phil and Dunk. It was shocking but I couldn’t remember being that shocked. We had a couple more pints then they went back to work and I went to spend my afternoon sitting as close to the gas fire as I could manage without combusting.

As a house we sat around to watch the news, it must have been a big event because it disrupted the evening schedules for a couple of hours. Inevitably anyone who had ever known Lennon was trotted out for  a quick tribute, broadcasters had to do their work in those days there was no reading out tweets. At one point someone posed the question that no one wanted to think about ‘I suppose there’s no chance of the Beatles reforming now?’

Lennon had told us the dream was over a decade earlier, but we chose not to believe him. In retrospect the 70’s was a grim time to be a Beatle, not only were there endless law suits but any interview was bound to touch on the possibility of the Beatles getting back together again. Even mainstream newspapers would report the fact that Paul had been on the phone to John in the hope of rekindling the dream.

Among rock critics it was very much the opinion that John was the real deal. McCartney was Mr Showbiz, happy to dash off an insipid ditty then appear on a chat show being Mr Macca thumbs aloft and generally being bland and positive and cheerful. Most ironic was the charge that he preferred to be in a band with his talentless wife rather that his old mates from Liverpool (who were pretty much sick of being in  bandwith him). One of the great strengths of the Beatles has been their positivism but in the 70’s we wanted our rock stars to be a bit more edgy. Lennon was honest and direct, he said what he thought, he was an artist, McCartney was a hack.

All bollocks of course. With the benefit of hindsight we can appreciate McCartney’s work ethic, his ability to constantly push himself and experiment, his almost effortless gift for melody and the fact that Linda was quite a nice person. 

The fact remains though that for the 70’s Lennon didn’t achieve a great deal musically. He did what he did best on the first Plastic Ono Band album which is the only Lennon album I’ve felt the need to own. Imagine was not bad at all kind of on a par with George Harrison’s early solo stuff but as soon as he was resident in the USA Lennon appeared to be struggling to come up with anything musically that didn’t rely heavily on 50’s rock and roll (quite literally on his ‘Rock and Roll album).

One of Yoko Ono’s impressions on Lennon was to get him to consider himself as an ‘Artist’. One thing we know about artists the world over is love of talking about themselves and their experience of the world. Another trait is often an inability to distinguish between what they produce that is genius and what is self indulgent which certainly accounts for his very first recordings and the amount of Yoko screaming on others.

It was quite a wise decision to withdraw from public life for a number of reasons not least was the fact that he avoided punk and a lot a new wave which might have shown up how regressive his own recording might have been. Despite this I was really shocked when ‘Just Like Starting Over’ was released. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but I had hoped for something better that another 50’s parody telling the world how much he loved Ono. Years have mellowed me but I’m still disappointed.  

In retrospect Lennon and McCartney needed each other so much. Lennon was lazy and often unfocussed but given a little direction from the right person (not you Yoko!) his imagination was unfettered. McCartney could churn out songs with relatively little effort, but he too needed someone to focus him and sometimes tell him his songs might be a bit crap. Given time they would have worked together again, its also pretty likely the Beatles would have had some sort of reformation. We ought to be very grateful we were spared that, it wouldn’t have been as good as we would have hoped we are very luck to have all our Beatles in one place and time.

Lennon was 60% the Beatles who in turn were 50% the 60’s which were 50% fantasy anyway. The idea that the Beatles would reform and everything would be great again was childish and a false hope. Lennon told us that in 1970 but would we listen?

And that’s the great thing about Lennon, he was intelligent in a way we aren’t allowed to be anymore, he was a musician, a writer, a poet and actor, a comedian an activist, and because he was untutored, he could get over concepts directly. The song Imagine is pretty trite but also brilliant, its just about imagining, just like war is over if you want it. Admittedly he moved from one idea to another but at least he had ideas, few people are so bold these days. Had he lived it’s pretty likely he’d have made some terrible records, name anyone from the 60’s who hasn’t. He’d have said plenty of stupid things and made plenty of mistakes because he was that sort of person.

Now social media exists we just are not tolerant of anyone who makes any sort of error. There’s plenty on YouTube about what a terrible husband and father Lennon was, how he mocked the disabled and was just nasty to lots of people. It’s all true of course but there’s also a lot of clips of performances and interviews where he just lights up the room time and time again.

And that’s why I still miss John Lennon

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23: Oliver’s Army…Elvis Costello

Watching an episode of ‘The Crown’ recently I was reminded of the Falklands war. At the time I was unemployed and living in a house which had heating one room only. Having survived a cold damp winter and facing an uncertain future I considered the possibility of the war escalating and national conscription happening. I don’t know what would have happened if that has transpired but my thoughts at the time were certainly ambivalent. I didn’t really want to join the army but at least if I did something would be happening in my worthless life.

And this was the conundrum Elvis Costello was addressing in my last polytechnic disco song.

It seems incredible now but by 1979 Costello was set to rule the world. After the glossy power pop misogyny, he had changed direction for the third time in 3 LPs for his most commercially successful album Armed Forces and was now high in the charts with Oliver’s Army. A mediation on the recruiting of working class lads from ‘the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne’ to give their lives in pointless wars, the song was apparently inspired by Costello considering the situation in Northern Ireland. Other people had tried, Paul McCartney had released ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ which was trite and jolly, Lennon later retaliated with his own song which was so awful I can’t even face checking the title of it. U2 would have a bash at it a couple of years later with ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’. There was basically a war in northern Ireland which didn’t really impact on us on the mainland but for Costello and the ex Beatles Liverpool as near as you could get to ‘the troubles’ without getting your feet wet.

Costello’s so artful with his wordplay I hadn’t really picked up on this at the time. I thought his reference to the ‘Murder Mile’ referred to a street where I lived with my family in the mid 60’s but equally applies to Belfast or any road which is quite long with a significant death rate. It didn’t stop me form thinking I had a special bond with Costello at the time.

Today I can’t ignore his use of the ‘n word’. I would never believe Costello is racist its use relates to the casual attitude towards soldier’s death. It also links the term used by the English towards the Irish with the song title which refers to Oliver Cromwell (just in case you thought it was about TV chef Jamie) There was no twitter storm, it got played on radio all the time, we didn’t feel the need to picket the polytechnic disco but those were different times, he probably wouldn’t try that lyrical device today.

What does amaze me is how a song of this depth so effortlessly get into the charts and the radio and the disco. It’s immediate strength of course is the music. From the first bars as keyboard player Steve Naive channels Rachmaninoff via Abba its peerless pop.

And you can dance to it

See also

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2020/05/17/14-welcome-to-the-working-week-elvis-costello/

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2019/02/17/this-is-pop-lipstick-vogue/

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22:Cool for Cats…Squeeze

The polytechnic disco was a refreshingly genre free environment. There were 420 people on campus and most of us didn’t have that much in common. Dance music didn’t exist, disco did of course but the rugby club wasn’t going to be entertained by three hours of that. My memories of song selection beyond my selected tracks here are hazy. I asked my mate Al, he could remember ‘Ring my Bell’ by Anita ward which kind of makes sense. His other memory was ‘Into the Valley’ by the Skids which doesn’t but this was the music we attempted to dance to.

The fact remains that dance music doesn’t have to be actual dance music, at least it didn’t in 1978 because dance music hadn’t been invented which spared us the hassle of having to take ecstasy to enjoy it.

So, my second memory from the polytechnic disco is a great dance record or most of it is. ‘Cool for Cat’s’ just explodes from bar one thanks to its rhythm track featuring bass player Harry Kakoulli who had ironically just been sacked. Although their career was greatly enabled by punk the band were really good musicians who had been around for the previous 4 years. Drummer Gilson Lavis had been a professional musician for the decade, it’s a common misconception that dance music had to somehow be created and refined in the studio but people who know how to play together from Motown’s Funk Brothers to Muscles Sholes Swampers to Fela Kuti’smusicians have been able to create compulsive dance music simply by playing together well.

Squeeze had that ability, soon they would be tagged the new Lennon and McCartney but a this point they were very much a band, bass player sackings notwithstanding. Chris Diffordwas more of a songwriter than a guitarist, but fellow songwriter Glen Tilbrook is a fantastic player who usually doesn’t need to prove it. Also jostling for the front position was Jools Holland whose media career sometimes obscures the fact that he’s a fantastic piano player although fairly average at everything else musical.

So, what most of ‘Cool for Cats’ has is a fantastic groove. It derails slightly in the middle when it gets a bit experimental. That’s the trouble with band democracies, the Jazz bit has the hands of Holland and Lavis all over it. To be fair it creates a bit of tension but it losses the beat which leaves the dancer with the option of perhaps just giving up which is not aim of any good dance track obviously. Anyway with a cymbal crash and a sense of relief is back to the song and everything’s ok again. It’s quite a slight song that needs the piano outro to nudge it over the 3 min mark.

Squeeze were learning fast and refining the formula. Chris Difford got to ‘sing’ this time, but it would be the only time we got to hear him on a hit single. The more tuneful and melodic Tilbrook effectively became the face of Squeeze gradually eclipsing the other members by virtue of the fact that he wrote the music, sang the songs and played all the guitar solos. They were unlikely to record anything as quirky as ‘Cool for Cats’ again as the band refined its perfect pop tunes.

Difford is rightly revered for his song lyrics although he takes too many liberties with his rhyming (ie lines like ‘nappies smelly’ in up the junction) for me to get totally onboard with this. ‘Cool for Cats ‘ is a weird one though. Even at the time there was a bit of criticism the for ‘give a dog a bone’ but it’s hardly gangster rap. The band rather vaguely said the song was about their lives at the time but what the hell is the first verse about?

Clearly none of this really bothered me as I made my way to the disco floor.

Squeeze are still something of a going concern in the way that heritage bands are. They weren’t the new Beatles, but they gave the Kinks a run for their money. Its only Difford and Tilbrook left with Holland and Lavis forming a breakaway partnership and a whole load of sacked bass players littering their past.

According to Holland’s autobiography the official video is filmed at Tittenhurst Park one time residence of John Lennon, there’s a similar light to the ‘Imagine’ video so its probably true although why they needed such a location for a video which could have been filmed in a cardboard box is a mystery. It features new bass player John Bentley as well as two singers who I assume became the ‘Fabulously Wealthy Tarts’* which helped out with Holland’s solo career and went on to be featured with Paul Young who was huge in the early 80’s.Anyway,they clearly think it’s a great track to dance to as well.

They all seem to be having a great time, a period in time when the band was just starting out.

As was I, I suppose

* there’s lots of theories as to who they were so I’m probably wrong

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21: Heart of Glass.. Blondie

Weekends at Trent Polytechnic were a mixed affair. It depended who was around. Some Fridays it seemed everyone disappeared leaving me rattling round my accommodation block. It always amazed me how many students had decided to leave home and then wanted to return almost immediately, it was even rumored that someone had kept their Saturday job and would return to this every weekend.

Stuck, as I was, on the very outskirts of Nottingham the campus offered a bare minimum of entertainment opportunities and, after an initial flurry of activity when term started that boiled down to just one thing; the Poly Disco.

So, for three weeks only here are three 70’s tracks indelibly imprinted on my brain from the ‘Poly Disco’.

As a keen student of the New York scene I had had my eyes on Blondie from the moment that the first started to appear in the music papers. This was partly for obvious reasons as Debbie Harry seemed to be one of the most beautiful women who ever walked the planet but also their early repertoire tied into the slightly cheesy sixties punk rock that I had been listening to on the ‘Nuggets’ compilation LP. I bought the first record and quite liked it. Harry seemed to be a really distinctive singer, I loved her voice and Clem Burke’s drumming and the 60’s organ sound, the first LP was good but not great. There was so much going on musically that I missed the detail of their career after that but the subsequent singles sounded pretty good.

And then, all of a sudden there was Heart of Glass.

I think this was a bigger thing in the States but there was a casual hatred of disco amongst rock fans. Although you were never going to find me down studio 54 I didn’t really share this. This was partly though lack of choice, there were so little opportunities to hear music that having a blanket hatred of disco meant that radio would never be an option and radio was pretty much all there was in the 70’s. As a consequence I listened to a lot of that genre and enjoyed a lot of it.

For a band that was loosely considered punk however, recording a disco influenced track was a big step and a big risk.

The band had been playing around with a version of what they called the ‘disco song’ for a while. White rock bands trying disco always tended to sound a bit lumpy, I suspect this was the case until top pop producer Mike Chapman got his hands on it and utilised the latest technology in the form of a drum machine and synthesizers to create the irresistible groove.

By doing this he was in effect making the band a bit redundant but Chapman always prioritized a great sound over a great band. In truth Blondie weren’t that great a live band, live they could sound tinny and bombastic at the same time but by having the twin bases of vocals and drums covered they managed to get by.

Although theres apparently not a sequencer involved Chapman got the sequencer effect with the synthesizers which in tandem with the drum machine pushes the song forward. Nigel Harrison does that octave bass thing that rock players had been experimenting with since the Stones recorded ‘Miss You’ and Clem Burke (reluctantly) beefed of the rhythm with some actual drums (you can almost hear their relief in the fade out where they can cut loose and relax a bit)

Like a lot of great records its the sound that captivates, theres a glamour but its the style of the glitter ball and the Mecca ballroom rather than the catwalk. Like a lot of their earlier records theres fun mixed in with the style, just right for a crowd of gauche polytechnic students on a Friday night.

Interestingly this was a blip rather than a change in direction, the next track by the band was a return to guitar jangling with Sunday Girl, there were to be no attempts a cashing in on some sort of punk disco craze which leaves Heart of Glass in it’s own little oasis of pop perfection.

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