Tracking Thompson Pt 2

Richard and Linda were married and all of a sudden, they were an act.
They hit the jackpot with their first album ‘I want to see the Bright Lights Tonight’ was a masterpiece. Even after 44 years it still sounds great. This may well be attributable to the fact that while his contemporaries were squeezing into satin trousers Thompson was scanning his phone book to find a couple of Krummhorn players (which he used on ‘We sing Hallelujah’). It’s hard to sound dated when you start from the C15th.

Somehow Thompson managed to combine something that might vaguely be termed ‘folk’ with a whole lot of other influences. It could have been a total mess but it isn’t, largely due to the honesty of the enterprise. Thompson had gathered together a couple of mates, Timi Donald on drums (I don’t think he hits a cymbal for the entire recording)and Pat Donaldson on Bass. They had been playing with John Cale and created a fairly dour folk-rock rhythm section, a British version of The Band’s Levon Helm and Rick Danko. There’s a bit of colour from John Kirkpatrick’s squeezeboxes and there’s dulcimers and, yes, crumhorns and even a brass band on the title track.

Lyrically Thompson is hopping across centuries, ‘We sing Hallelujah’ sounds medieval, ‘The Little Beggar Girl’ conjures up the streets of Hogarth and suddenly in ‘Has he got a Friend for Me’ there’s a mention of telephones (which plenty of us didn’t have in 1974). At no point does this seem contrived which may be due, at least in part, to Thompson’s overarching pessimism and lyrical darkness. For someone recently married there’s a pall of despair hanging over the record, from wanting to go out, to see the bright lights but knowing its not going to end well with ‘Down where the Drunkards Roll’ Out of 10 songs only two approach anything that might be described as optimistic. The mood plummets to the pits with ‘End of the Rainbow’ where Thompson tells his firstborn
‘There’s nothing at the end of the Rainbow
There’s nothing to grow up for anymore’

There are clues were here for anyone who wanted to look for them, Thompson makes Ian Curtis look like; well, someone who is really happy. Quite how much of this attitude was a song writing device and how much of it was a reflection of Thompson’s state of mind, it’s hard to tell, but if, like Nick Drake, he hadn’t survived the 70’s the lyrics on display here would have been just too poignant

‘This is your first day of sorrow’

‘If I was a butterfly, live for a day
I could be free just blowing away.

‘A man is like his father
Wishes he’d never been born
He longs for the time that the clock will chime
And he’s dead for evermore’

And that before we even get to ‘End of the Rainbow’

‘I want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ is very much a product of the 70’s, a lovely warm sparse sound of ‘proper’ instruments largely recorded live with minimal overdubs. Best of all it’s 37 minutes and 14 seconds long, just 10 songs, we can’t make records like this anymore.

Finally there’s the role of Linda. Bear in mind at this point there was no Richard Thompson as an act and wouldn’t be for the rest of the 70’s this was Richard and Linda Thompson. Quite how Linda felt about the lyrics we just don’t know, here she is cast as the weary hedonist on the title track, the lonely girl trapped at home on ‘has he got a friend for me’ (a kind of folky update of Janis Ian’s ‘at 17’) and the defeated exile in ‘withered and died’. The only time she perks up is the cynical little beggar in the titular song (‘I love taking money off a snob like you ‘).

There’s a harshness but also a purity to Linda’s voice, if she was to appear on the X factor she would probably be described as ‘a bit pitchy’ but Linda herself has reported something along the lines of ‘I know I’m not the greatest singer in the world but when I sing, I’m not kidding’

And she’s right.

Despite all the above I don’t find ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ particularly depressing but then I have been known to laugh out loud at Leonard Cohen songs. What does amaze me is the fact that it’s not regarded as on a par with albums such as ‘Astral Weeks’ or ‘Blood on the Tracks’ or ‘Blue’ or ‘After the Goldrush’

So, here’s the final track a short treatise on fame and idolatry, Linda’s hard as crystal voice, Richard’s guitar and even a bit of Satie.
‘I’ll be your friend until you use me,
And then be sure I wont be there’


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Tracking Thompson pt 1

I have a real fear of commitment when it comes to declaring my love for an artist. It’s born from bitter experience, I’ve been let down too many times, someone you think is a genius will then release an absolute stinker and then all your friends laugh at you. Take Rod Stewart as a classic case, fantastic artist in the early 70’s but at some point he recorded those American Songbook albums and that’s what half the population of Britain know him for, I cant I’m a Rod Stewart fan anymore (I keep a sneaking admiration of him though).

And there’s the fact that Clapton seems to have released a Christmas album !

And so, while I am happy to say how great an album is or a single or even a gig but unless they are dead or disbanded I cant really commit to support of an artist or band.

But there are a few notable exceptions and the most notable of those is Richard Thomson. In fact, I can’t deal with him in just one post, this is going to take a while. Think of this as my Ulysses

My initial impression was not good. Thompson first came to my attention when he was performing as a duo with his wife Linda. They seemed to get wheeled on as a support act as they were essentially two voices and an acoustic guitar and as such were of no more interest to me than Keith Christmas or Lesley Duncan or one of the legions of singer songwriters who would pop up at a moment’s notice to occupy the front of the stage for half an hour while the audience got ready for the main attraction.

Linda Thompson

Thompson wouldn’t go away though, I became aware he had been the brilliant electric guitarist in Fairport and also that a lot of people who I respected seemed to rate him, there was more to him than the acoustic troubadour apparently but it was the 70’s and apart from listening to John Peel I had no way of finding out more about his music.

The breakthrough came with the release of a compilation album Guitar/Vocal which received a rave review in the New Musical Express and this, uncharacteristically, was the catalyst for my friend Phil actually purchasing the record. Guitar/Vocal was essentially largely outtakes and live tracks but it showed the way forward into Thompson. Firstly, it proved there was more substance to the music he made with Linda than I had suspected, notably an acoustic version of ‘Dark and of the Street’ which could make you forget James Carr (relatively easy for me in 1975 as I had never heard of the great soul singer at this point). The two tracks that’s that really captured our imaginations though were ‘Calvary Cross’ and ‘Night Comes In’, two live tracks where Thompson let rip with his improvisational skills creating a guitar style that was unique being rock but also not American, he even had an accordion playing with him but even that couldn’t spoil it. Our eyes were open to new possibilities.

Thompson has started his musical career as a gawky north London teenager. Blessed with a mild speech impediment and an introverted nature, had he been born half a decade later he would have taken to his room to play video games and peruse online conspiracy theories for for the rest of his life. Luckily this wasn’t an option and he took up the guitar, pouring his life and soul into it. By the time he joined Fairport he was already one of the best guitarists around but as he didn’t smash up his instruments or play with his teeth not everyone noticed this. He was gaining in confidence though, occasionally he would look at the audience, very occasionally he would sing, and now he was writing songs, most notable of this Fairport tunes was ‘Meet on the Ledge’, it was about death. Also, of huge significance was his playing on ‘A Sailor’s Life’ which was the first full realisation of the Thompson guitar style. By now he had moved away from what he termed ‘a bad version of Buddy Guy’ to a style that was unique.

Thompson was bending notes that weren’t usually bent, he was picking modal scales that weren’t usually used in rock and he was starting to combine earlier influences such as James Burton with sounds he had picked up from listening to his father’s record collection notable Jazz and Scottish music. While on his only ever non-musical job making stained glass windows, he also listened to a lot of what was then the ‘Third’ Channel i.e. classical. As a result of this he was being influenced by composers such as Debussy. Suffice to say there was a lot going on musically in young Thompson’s head.

Having defined folk rock Thompson eventually left Fairport with enough confidence and songs to start a solo career. ‘Henry the Human Fly’ was a bit of disaster. I don’t know why but I’m a fan of first records, it’s usually where the artist hasn’t decided who they want to be and will often contain some of their quirkier stuff. Such was the case with Henry, it’s quite a folk sounding record with fiddles and accordions and a relative lack of electric guitar. It’s a dense muddy sounding record but I love it, most people didn’t though, it sold very few copies when it first came out.

Linda Peters was one of the singers on the record. Here previous boyfriend had been Nick Drake so she probably thought Thompson was laugh a minute. Their relationship developed during drunken sessions for the Bunch recordings and before you could say “I want to see the bright lights tonight” they were married.

And that’s it for tracking Thompson for now more next week (probably) but for anyone with more time than is healthy for them you can compare and contrast the guitar playing on these two tracks.


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Paul Weller’s Wilderness Months

There’s a lot of the practice of gratitude at the moment. The idea is that you list reasons to be grateful each day whether it’s a nice meal or a beautiful sunset or the smile of a child whatever with the aim of orientating your thoughts towards the positive. I’ve done it myself, it works but sometimes it’s a bit of struggle to find anything particularly worthy about the day. There is however always one reason we have to be thankful, and that is is that the Sex Pistols never made a second (proper) record. It’s not a lot but some days it’s all I’ve got.’ Never Mind the Bollocks’ found the band pretty much at the end of their creativity, they didn’t have a lot more to give. Fortunately, they split up before 1978 got going, no more. We were safe from any more Sid Vicious songs.

The Pistols were spared the agony of the second album. It’s a well-documented fact, a band spends 2-3 years collating material for their first record and then have a couple of months before someone is going to suggest they record a second, they cobble together a few bits and pieces left over from their creative years, chuck in a couple of covers and hope no one notices too much. Then its time for the ‘difficult’ third album…

The Dammed having been first out of the traps were, naturally, the first to record a follow up. It’s wasn’t as good as their debut apparently, the critics weren’t happy, the band split up. Like wise the Stranglers found that people had less affection for their sophomore product, they were made of sterner stuff and would soldier on. Ditto the Clash had polished up their performance, ‘Give em Enough Rope’ might not be the best clash record but it was OK, they needed to do better for their next record.
Paul Weller has turned 60, how did that happen? Weller was always the young kid on the block. I’ve already covered the early days of the Jam

But in 1978 Weller was struggling. The first jam LP is pretty impressive for energy, speed and power but also had the benefit of a few decent songs. By 1978 though Weller was burnt out. It’s not really clear why but the Weller pool of inspiration was running dry. It’s easy and understandable to forget that once the Jam was about more than Weller. Bass player Bruce Foxton aspired to be McCartney to Weller’s Lennon and so a standalone single ‘News of the World’ had been released while we waited for Weller to recover his muse. NOTW was a Foxton composition, it was OK but it wasn’t great. Neither was the new long player ‘This is the Modern World’ which featured a couple of great Weller songs, a few more OK Weller songs, a couple less OK Foxton songs and a cover of ‘In the Midnight Hour’, these were the days of vinyl remember, as long a you could get near the 30 min mark you had an album.

More confusion was to come, the band supported Blue Oyster Cult in the states which wasn’t really a match made in heaven. The band then started on the ‘difficult’ third record apparently recording more Foxton songs. Producer Chris Parry had the good sense to send the band away to try harder.

This was the tipping point for the band’s, and significantly Weller’s career. There was a bit of treading water as the band made a decent cover of the Kink’s ‘David Watts’ which was backed with the more revolutionary ‘A Bomb in Wardour Street’ Weller finally showed a glimpse of genius when he came up with the iconic ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ which was enough to lift the band up for their ‘All Mod Con’s’ LP. Listening to that record again after all these years it’s probably as flawed as ‘This is the Modern World’ but there is a sense that Weller is now going somewhere interesting. It was as if his own success inspired Weller to reach for the stars. A follow up single ‘When You’re Young’ confirmed that he had seized the moment, then there was ‘Eaton Rifles’ and ‘Start’ and the anticipation that the next Jam single was going to be just great whatever it was. For a couple of years the Jam were the best British rock band still alive.

It had been a close thing. Now he’s an elder statesman of rock and the BBC put on a Weller at 60 show for him. We’re not really interested in a Captain Sensible at 60 or a Pete Shelley at 60 or even a Mick Jones at 60, neither, of course, did we delight in a Bruce Foxton at 60 broadcast. They were all once contenders but only Weller has made the grade despite the fact that his music has been pretty much the same for the last 20 years. Like Springsteen or Neil Young or even Bob Dylan it’s just enough now that Weller exists.

But did that happen?

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Pink Floyd’s Theory of Time

Following the death of Marty Balin from Jefferson Airplane I have I been watching an unhealthy amount of videos on YouTube featuring the band’s founder and vocalist. I’ve followed Balin from good looking fresh-faced beatnik in the early Airplane (all the band look just great in 1967) to hollow eyed hippie at Woodstock. At Altamont Balin was literally the only person at the whole festival to come out with credibility when he jumped into the crowd to try and stop the Hell’s Angels beating someone up and was knocked unconscious for his efforts. All this raises the question why , by the time he had reached his 60’s was he dressing in the sort of middle America leisure wear that Donald Trump would think twice about wearing on his day off .
The Airplane were inducted into the dreaded rock and roll hall of fame. It was widely considered that getting one of the most contrary bands together again was unlikely. Apparently whatever corporate whores run the whole event they were willing to spend a lot of time and trouble getting the individual members to the event (apparently they then let them make their own ways home). Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen bought a shirt and tie specially for the event and came across as some fort of groovy silicon valley entrepreneur. Balin looked like an insurance salesman from Ohio, the only person who looked like he might have once flown a freak flag was bassist Jack Casady who looked as weird in a tux as he did in hippie gear and headband. And what did the band decide to play in front of the record executives, only blinkin ‘Volunteers’ that’s what. There were so many levels of irony present I just wouldn’t know where to start unpicking it. The only person missing from the bizzare affair was band icon Grace, allegedly because of illness but also possible because she had ‘let go’ of her former identity. Slick is very much on record of the opinion is that rock should be a young person’s business’ looking at the beauty of the young Jefferson Airplane you could concede she’s got a point.

jefferson airplane

One of the weird things about getting old is the disconnect between who we think we are and what we appear to be. In the 70’s most of the middle-aged men around me had had a past life, they had flown spitfires or driven tanks in the desert or been in Japanese prisoner of war camps. Some of the older women had lost their husbands in WW1 and their sons in WW2. My grandad had fought at the Somme, both my parents had lived through the bombing of Norwich, my mum had lost classmates to childhood illnesses we forgotten about. All this counted for nothing to me because they were over 30.
Rock is now no longer a young person’s business. In the 80’s I used to patronise a record shop in Nottingham. It was a competitive environment with punks, goths and new romantics jostling for attention. An inappropriate choice of record could get the death stare from the assistant, my inappropriate hair and clothes would negate even a brilliant selection. Working away for a number of years my relationship with the shop declined and inevitably the shop decided to close, these events are probably not related. I returned for the closing sale and discovered to my amazement the clientele had aged with me, no more punks, no more goths just balding men in their 40’s.
And just like me, those men thought they were pretty much the same person they had been in the 80’s.
As I hit 60 the music world is a lot more inclusive than it was when I was in my 20’s. In fact, rock is in danger of becoming an old person’s ghetto. I say danger but really there’s nothing wrong with that in my book. Music now has to jostle for its place with other distractions. One of the reasons that we learned to play instruments in the 60’s and 70’s was the world was just so boring, there really was not a lot else to do, locking yourself in a bedroom with a musical instrument seemed pretty appealing. Most of the bands playing the pubs are 50 and 60 year old’s playing to their peers, folk clubs are pretty much a geriatric phenomenon, festivals rely on retired people to steward and attend, in twenty years’ time there’s a real possibility that that rock music will be a very specialist interest like traction engines or vintage cars or growing giant marrows.
There’s also a sense of satisfaction that those of us of a certain age can fell though of having been there as rock music blossomed, it’s been a good time to be alive.
There’s plenty of songs about the passing of time but the best ones seem to be written by young people. It’s kind of understandable, I think one is more concerned about death at the beginning of life than the end. Old people worry lots of things, its usually the fact that the post is late or it might rain later rather than their own mortality. Young people can see the big picture.
My time song was written by someone who was about 27 at the time. I’m not a big fan of Pink Floyd or Roger Waters but I will concede that Dark Side of the Moon is a classic album. It kind of debunks the idea that the Floyd were a prog group, DSOTM sounds more like Abbey Road Beatles than ELP to me. It’s a lovely warm sounding record where the group display song writing skills rather than showing off.
And the best song (‘Money ‘is the worst in my book) on the album is ‘Time’. There’s a great contrast between the two parts, one sparser and sung by guitarist Dave Gilmour and the other lusher and featuring a rare vocal by Rick Wright. For once there’s a real poignancy in Roger Water’s lyrics


Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain.
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.

How could such a young man write lyrics like this? It captures perfectly the tension between trying to make something of our life and the distractions that steal our time. It’s not straight forward of course, in retrospect some for the best moments in my life have been lying in the sunshine or staying home to watch the rain but there’s always that icy fear that I could have wasted my time writing that blog or watching Jefferson Airplane videos.
Happy Birthday to me !
PS I will be taking a week off, just giving advance warning in case any of you set your alarm clocks early for a Sunday just to read my blog.



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The Clash ‘Sort it Out’

November 1978, 10 young men stuck in a concrete block on the outskirts of a midlands city. Trent Polytechnic seemed far removed from the dreaming spires. Many of my new companions departed for the big city every day to do proper things like engineering and accountancy. The only people still on the ‘arts’ part of the campus were me and my new best friend Al who only had to walk a few hundred yards to get our education.

Throwing a group of people together from different backgrounds was quite interesting, there were the twin focus points of football and music. I hadn’t a clue about the former obviously but this was compensated for by a liberal taste in the latter, I even forged a link with Chris from Manchester who had no interest in music beyond Five Penny Piece a folk group from the northwest who sang comedy type songs, and so Chris would let me join in on guitar as he sung a song about Jim (who was a “bloody great worm” apparently). Another of our group I was able to get along with was Tonto from Shrewsbury. He was nicknamed Tonto because he got lost on his first day apparently, such were the bonding experiences of young men. Tonto was a classic instance of how punk had permeated the mainstream. With the rest of the ‘Shrewsbury crowd’ Tonto had been a huge Slade fan. As Noddy’s crowd went into decline the Shrewsbury crowd had discovered the energy of Punk. Its rebellion had no appeal, Tonto was set to be a quantity surveyor and already knew what car he intended to be driving in five years time. The arty farty Pistols held no appeal but Tonto liked the lad’s music of the Jam best of all but in second place were bands like Buzzcocks and the Clash.

The Clash were in the process of releasing their second LP ‘Give em Enough Rope’. Although I loved the first album I was in no great hurry to hear more. There were reasons for this, the band were making great singles and in many respects they were best listened to in 3 minute bursts. The was also the strange choice of producer, Sandy Pearlman was best known for his work with the dreaded Blue Oyster Cult, for those of us looking for a ‘sell out’ there was plenty to keep us busy. The Clash remained the most ideologically puzzling band refusing to appear on Top of the Pops (just like Led Zeppelin) but happy to sign to CBS and now were recording with a proper producer. Another reason, of course, was there was just lots of great music from the likes of Costello, or XTC, or the Rezillos or loads of other bands and artists who might, at any point, come up with something that was really really good.

None of this bothered Tonto, he liked the Clash and bought the LP as soon as it hit the shops. And so, I became familiar with ‘Give em enough Rope’ almost through osmosis as he would play it on repeat most of the time he was in the building.

Perhaps for this reason I have never really engaged with the second Clash LP, if you like the Clash you’ll love this record. ‘Safe European Home’ could easily find it’s way into any Clash top 10, ‘Tommy Gun’ the single sticks in the mind because the drums sound, well, like a machine gun, ‘English Civil War’ has the comforting ‘when Johnny comes marching home’ tune while ‘Stay Free’ is a kind of English buddy song that Bruce Springsteen probably admires.
Al liked the Clash as well, with three out of 10 on board we hit on the idea of actually going to a Clash gig.
It seems strange today but 40 years ago a gig could be a real walk on the wild side. There was no CCTV, little regulation of anything and virtually no health and safety. You could be badly beaten up by anyone who fancied it, it could be the punks who didn’t like you for not being a punk or the skins who didn’t like anyone much or the city louts who thought anyone going to a gig was fair game. Worst of all were the bouncers who seemed licenced to beat anyone to a pulp and throw them out on the streets. At this point a had long hair and flares, I wasn’t sure that a gig in the midlands was a safe place for me (unless it was a Steve Hillage gig)
My companions were either more confident or more stupid and persuaded me to buy a ticket for the Clash ‘Sort it Out’ tour in Derby. I suspect than no one else from our block wanted to come but also, I suspect Tonto had recruited at led one of the Shrewsbury crowd to come along, I am pretty sure there were not more than 5 of us as Tonto drove us in his Vauxhall Viva and no one had to travel in the boot.

As anticipated King’s Hall Derby was largely populated by young men with shortish hair and narrowish trousers, by and large no one was well dressed, there may have been a few obvious punks but they were few and far between.

The first band I caught were the Innocents. I have seen it reported online that a band called Neon were bottom of the bill but having dredged up an interview with their lead singer he doesn’t mention it as a career highlight so I suspect he was not there. Anyway, the Innocents were a classic example of the ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’ mentality of the time. Having scraped around the squat scene and being on nodding terms with the movers and shakers on the London scene the Innocents were well place to form a band and go on tour with the Clash. From the back of the hall I was pretty impressed with their guitarist who had obviously put in some work in an earlier life before playing with Wayne County and the Electric Chairs. The rest of the band were female which from where I stood had little impact on anything, they sounded a bit like X Ray Spex, pretty tight but not fully developed.


The Innocents

In contrast the Slits who were next on had a very female quality about them. They were introduced to a hail of spit like I have never seen before or since. One member of the band addressed this by saying she would be more impressed if the young men doing this could ejaculate as effectively. The gobbing dies down a bit but there must be a limit as to how long anyone can jump up and down and spit without running out of fluids anyway. The Slits were part way between their Peel sessions and their first LP, they now had a male drummer budgie who was a steadying influence but the band were excitingly ramshackle.


the Slits

The Slits were barely tolerated by the Shrewsbury crowd, this was just too arty for Slade fans. Things went wild for the Clash. To my shame I actually can’t remember much about their performance but I remember it was just like I imagined a Clash gig to be like. They had some great songs, they played pretty well and at some point, they had a go at the people who insisted on spitting.

For a long time, the Clash were the only really big band that I had seen. Even at this point they were a big live draw and over time they have increased in stature by splitting up and never getting back together again. I’ve seen bigger artists since, I’ve even seen Bryan Adams for Rods sake but it has always been in a comfortable venue with seats or open air at a festival, no one spits anymore, we all clap politely. I did see someone who looked more of a hippie than me at the Clash gig right at the end, he was about 5 foot tall and wearing a greatcoat, he didn’t look like anyone had beaten him up.
I’ve always hoarded my Clash experience, I have always hoped that like seeing the Beatles at the Cavern Club, or the Velvet Underground’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable it would give me immense kudos. One day I will sit in my rocking chair surrounded by young hipsters and some wide-eyed seeker of the truth will ask me what it was like and I will reply
“yeah, they weren’t bad, I think”

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A New Career in a New Town

Summer was coming to an end and so was my tenure with the Parks and Recreation Department. “I suppose you must have been of some use” the area manager informed me on handing me an assortment of dismissal paperwork.
It was clear I was not cut out for the world of work but already I was preparing for the world of further education. I had been offered a place on a Humanities course at Trent Polytechnic. Anyone with any knowledge of education in the 70’s will realise I had set my sights pretty low. Polytechnics were a kind of second league university which actually offered some pretty good courses in practical topics and even art. Humanities was pretty much the floor sweepings of some of the other courses like history or sociology aimed for people like me who lacked the commitment for a proper course. Not to worry, I had a place as well as somewhere to live and a student grant. The latter being means tested had been eroded by my dad’s commitment to working a 60 hour week at the factory. Alongside me the sons and daughters of the management classes were raking it in due to the facts that their parents were financially savy enough to actually manage their money rather than stick it in a biscuit tin. And so I was a poor relation for the next three years. Not that I was that bothered, I had a check, at the age of nearly 20 I opened my first bank account.
My plan was simple, to get away from home and then, probably to give up after a year and go back to Norwich. The getting away was important, there was a whole history of getting away from the ‘small town’ as the Hot Rods had informed me
We’re gonna break out of this city
Leave the people here behind
Searching for adventure
There’s a life for us to find

Or the gospel according to Springsteen
Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, a suicide rap
We’ve got to get out while we’re young.

In the 70’s people really did get jobs for life, you left school you started work, you retired, you died. There were no gap years or time out, there was time served and a gold watch. The picture painted by Springsteen of ‘growing up to do just like your daddy done’ was very real. I was a young man, I needed to get away.
Polytechnic was a reality check; the typical student was Dave from Sheffield who was studying surveying or quantity surveying or anything which required the regular wearing of a hard hat. Dave was 18, having just left school he had a girlfriend back home and liked to have Sunday lunch with her parents. Dave was a nice guy who would own three records, one of which would be by the Eclectic Light Orchestra.
There were 10 of us in our block. Determined to show my independence I arrived by train with all my belongings in a gigantic family suitcase which had a handle which would cut your hand in two if you attempted to carry anything heavier than a T shirt. It made a man of me though, to this day I refuse to use those travel cases with wheels. I was met by the permed block leader Gary from Leeds who showed me my room which had a wardrobe, a single bed, a desk and an angle poise lamp, I was in Heaven. Being a solo traveller, I was first there but slowly my block mates arrived, most of them were variations of Dave or Gary but there was also Vince from Lincolnshire who looked like he might own a Zeppelin record or two (he did). There was also Al who was to prove to be my closest and most enduring friend. Al had long hair but looked like it had a lot of professional attention, he was very clean. He had also taken a year out like myself working in the same offices where his dad was a manager and was also on the Humanities course. The really great thing about Al though was his record collection which was rather at odds with his appearance consisting of some really esoteric releases, often on the Virgin label. Despite being a card-carrying conservative, he was happy to listen to Henry Cow, Van Der Graff Generator, Hatfield and the North or even the Clash.
As the rest of Britain was gearing up for the 80’s I spent the next few months listening to the sounds of 73 (an era ago) thanks to Al. The more experimental sounds of prog were the soundtrack to my new life which was a big improvement of the sounds of ELO blasting out of the other rooms.
Regrets, I have a few but one of them is that I was Lazy in my choice of education opting for something that was easy rather than challenging or interesting. I was to spend the next year living in what I think were ex RAF barracks on the edge of Nottingham. I was determined not to go home, my parents kindly brought my belongings over but that was all I saw them until Christmas, that was just as well as apparently, they let my room to a Chinese guy who worked with my dad. I had to become resourceful many of my fellow students would return home at weekends, there were even a few who kept their Saturday jobs back home, I was to spend quite a bit of time entertaining myself with Van Der Graff Generator records. It as OK but my old schoolfriend Phil nailed it on a visit “there’s no one here like you” he remarked.
Moving to Nottingham was a watershed in my life, that was it, I have lived here ever since, I found a new death trap, a suicide rap. It wasn’t awful but it wasn’t the best period of my life which seems to be the case for a lot of people who went to University.
Despite still being an avid reader or the New Musical Express (my Thursday ritual) I started to lose track of contemporary music. Al had more than a passing interest but my brain was getting confused by all the other music I now had around, even the dullest music fan would have a record player and at least three records (one by ELO) so there was plenty to listen to. Literally no one had a television, there were 420 students on campus and one TV lounge, I even stopped watching Top of the Pops.
Al liked his Bowie and a fitting memory from my initial Polytechnic years is fitting.

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It was 40 years ago today–Jilted John

The accepted norm of rock music is that English is the best language to sing in. It depends on the song of course, if the aim is emotive tear-jerking then Spanish, of even Portuguese might be a good choice. It’s surely not just an eye on sales though that requires most rock groups sing in English wherever they are from. To take things a step further it is American English which is the best for the rock and roll voice. Let’s face it, they got there first and they do it best. It’s the vocabulary, as a young man I was enthralled by Don Mclean taking his ‘Chevy to the levy’ and could there be any better ice breaker than Steve Earl’s ‘hey pretty baby are you looking for me, I’m your good rockin daddy down from Tennessee’ , I think not.
Then there was the subject matter, the Wichita Lineman seems so much more romantic than the Sunderland cable installer. I once considered a substantial detour in the USA just so I could stand on the corner of Winslow Arizona just like Jackson Browne had done. I don’t feel that compulsion in Britain.
Every now and again though there is an artist determined to sing in their speaking voice. To be fair, the fab 4 despite being enthralled by all things American were prone to slide into scouse vernacular now and again but like so many things the introduction of the British accent only really took off post punk.
To be brutally honest there was a brief period when we really hated the American’s. It didn’t stop bands touring there but, a bit like playing to students’ it was just something they had to do. The Clash were instrumental in this antagonism recording ‘I’m so bored with the USA’ on their debut record. A band who wanted to have their cake and eat it, the Clash then plundered American music forms which is probably not unconnected with them being the most successful Punk Band.
And so, 40 years ago, while we had fallen out of love with the states, we were treated to a prime slice of northern English pop music curtesy of Jilted John.
Jilted John is an apocryphal tale of how punk had blown the music world wide open. John was in fact drama student Graham Fellows who had written a couple of somgs and decided he would like to do more with them than just play them to his friends. With a view to recording his masterpieces he went to the local record shop in Manchester and asked for advice. He was told there were only two independent record labels. Stiff in London and Rabid in Manchester. He decided to save himself the train fair and headed to Rabid. The label told him to record a demo which he did and they loved the music and wanted to release a single.
Freshly re-recorded the single was issued with ‘Going Steady’ on the A side backed by ‘Jilted John’. The B side was more immediate and after an airing on the John Peel show EMI decided they wanted to put their corporate weight behind it and suddenly Jilted John was singing ‘Jilted john’ on Top of the Pops.

I’ve been going out with a girl,
her name is Julie
But last night she said to me,
when we were watching telly
(This is what she said)
She said listen John, I love you
But there’s this bloke, I fancy
I don’t want to two time you,
so it’s the end for you and me
Who’s this bloke I asked her
Goooooordon, she replied
Not THAT puff, I said dismayed
Yes but he’s no puff she cried
(He’s more of a man than you’ll ever be)
Here we go, two three four
I was so upset that I cried,
all the way to the chip shop
When I came out there was Gordon,
standing at the bus stop
(And guess who was with him? Yeah, Julie, and they were both laughing at me)
Oh, she is cruel and heartless
to pack me for Gordon
Just cos he’s better looking than me
Just cos he’s cool and trendy

But I know he’s a moron, Gordon is a moron
Gordon is a moron, Gordon is a moron
Here we go, two three four
Oh she’s a slag and he’s a creep
She’s a tart, he’s very cheap
She is a slut, he thinks he’s tough
She is a bitch, he is a puff
Yeah yeah, it’s not fair
Yeah yeah, it’s not fair
(I’m so upset)
I’m so upset, I’m so upset, yeah yeah
(I ought to smash his face in.)
(Yeah, but he’s bigger than me. In’t he?)
(I know, I’ll get my mate Barry to hit him. He’d flatten him)
(Yeah but Barry’s a mate of Gordon’s in’e?)
(Oh well, I don’t care)
I don’t care
I don’t care
Cause she’s a slag and he’s a creep
she’s a tart, he’s very cheap
she is a slut, he thinks he’s tough…

Clearly, it’s ‘not sad eyed lady of the lowlands’ but it contains word that Chuck Berry never utilised ‘mate, telly, puff and chip shop’ to name 4 of them.
It’s also noticeable that there was no twitterstorm over the derogatory use of language towards homosexuals and women. It’s all offset by the fact that Jilted John is clearly a whiney looser but no one even felt the need for discussion in 1978, this was everyday language.

Jilted John got as far as making an album True Love Stories which featured more of the same including a track about his pet mouse. He re-recorded ‘Jilted John’, this was an inferior version featuring keyboards which were, by then, taking over the world. Strangely enough he also sounds like Peter Perrett from the Only Ones when he chooses to sing a bit deeper from his usual rather abrasive range.

true love stories
I have never listened to True Love Stories until now, that’s how much I care for my readers. In retrospect Jilted John is best listened to once for the duration for his titular single. It now sounds like a comedy record but at the time it was quite a breakthrough in terms of an English voice (even if it was the voice of someone who was essentially an actor).
Suddenly we were besieged by English voices singing about English lives, Squeeze, Wreckless Eric and eventually the Smiths, Blur, Belle and Sebastian (Scottish I know!) and plenty more were singing about pubs and chip shops and busses. Traditionally they were/are much loved in Britain and pretty much ignored in the USA which seems a bit unfair considering the way we adopted Bryan Adams (Canadian I Know!!)
Fellows being an actor went on to do acting roles like Coronation Street. He also created the comedy character John Shuttleworth who seems to be big on radio 4 where the word ‘comedy’ is frequently preceded by the word ‘gentle’. Weirdly though he is about to reprise the Jilted John character for a 40th anniversary tour which seeing that he is now in his late 50’s could be a bit inappropriate but each to his own. He also lives in Louth Lincolnshire, which I think is also home to Robert Wyatt, and has converted a church in Orkney into a studio. I know all this because I caught him on the Ken Bruce show* doing ‘tracks of my years’ which serves as a testament to his continued popularity as a ‘one hit wonder’

* as a point of reference to my international readers, Ken Bruce, an avuncular and seasoned broadcaster runs a popular midmorning show on Radio 2. The music barely strays beyond the 80’s and I’m sure he plays ‘Bat out of Hell’ at least three times a week. I love him.

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