3 Still Life.. Van Der Graff Generator

New music is just music you haven’t heard before. By 1979, my life was full of new music, despite rock (and roll) being just over 20 years old there was plenty I hadn’t heard yet and every week there was a whole load of new stuff that was absolutely great.

That was the year of power pop, Blondie, Buzzcocks, The Undertones,The Police, even Elvis Costello was pop that year, Two Tone was about to explode it was a busy busy time for anyone who had even a passing interest in popular music. I was living in a block with 10 boy/men at Trent Polytechnic, out of that number a couple had virtually no interest in music at all but the rest of us, including the ones who would go on to become accountants and quantity surveyors had some record collection. At the extreme end was myself and my best Poly friend Al. Al by virtue of some semblance of a Protestant work ethic had acquired more records than me. He had initially specialized in the interesting end of prog including a number of releases on the fledgling Virgin record label, his head had been turned a little by punk and new wave but his favorite band was about to become a special band to me as well thanks to Al’s generosity in sharing his collection.

Van Der Graff Generator (or VDGG as us ‘heads’ would call them) had been around since the late 60’s and by the time I was listening they were no more. The band had 3 seventies phases. The first one saw them at their hippiest, there were acoustic guitars and pianos to soften some of the brain splitting riffs. The band hit some sort of meltdown, today they would just take a break but in the 70’s no one expected a band to last much more than 5 years so they split up. After a bit of solo careering main man Peter Hammill regrouped the band. Having jettisoned their bass player a couple of LP’s ago the core of the band was organ, drums and saxophones, not even close to the expected rock line up. Hammill now decided to play the electric guitar but manage to avoid ever sounding like Eric Clapton or indeed like anyone else.

The first VDGG I ever listen to was World Record, widely considered not to be their best but its got some pretty crunchy tunes on side one and even when the band relaxed into a bit of a jam, which appeared slightly necessary to fill side two, they were the antithesis for the Allman Brothers, veering toward scratchy texture rather than grandstanding. Keyboard player Hugh Banton was an organist pure and simple, no fancy synth twiddling for Hugh although he allegedly used the Mellotron occasionally. With the energy he saved from synth fiddling he covered the bass parts as well, usually on the bass pedals of his organ. Guy Evans was a versatile and powerful drummer, like just about everyone from the 60’s he could play jazz. The main reason he’s not regarded as one of the all time greats is because he was the drummer for VDGG.

I’ve covered the great David Jackson elsewhere, he was the soul of the band’s weirdness, could sound like a marching band or a bunch of crows in a church tower. He could play lots of saxophones and flutes, sometimes at the same time.

https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2019/06/23/sax-in-the-70s/

However the reason for the inclusion of ‘Still Life’ is down to Hamill’s lyric over everything else. I’ve never been a lyric’s person, there’s a whole load of songs where I have no idea what they are about, in fact I’m prone to mishearing lyrics and I’ve been happy to live with that for decades. I like the sound of music (literally, not the film), I like the odd lyrical phrase but it really irks me when people talk of rock lyrics as being poetry. Simon Armitage has the same view and he’s a proper poet so I’m right here- no arguing!

Still life is off the Mk2 bands second LP called Still Life. The first record Godbluff escaped my attention in 1979 but to be fair I did have an entire back catalogue to listen too, but Still Life is very much more of the same, side two features an epic which allows them to do a bit of prog noodling and goes on a bit but side one is the band at their very best. La Rossa is about requited love/lust which made an impact on me as a 19 year old listening in my polytechnic cell. Pilgrims is about pilgrims, or something, as I’ve explained I’m not great with lyrics it does feature a great Evan’s drum fill which is something I do understand.

Sandwiched between the two is still life a meditation on what it might be like if we were to live forever, all the elements of the band are present musically, Hammill has a lovely voice if he wants but you’re never far from from some tonsil shredding, possibly the main thing that put the casual listener off, but again that could be the weird saxophone or the tricky time signatures or the gothic organ or the fact that tracks last at least five minutes.

Anyway, it’s not bloody poetry but it is bloody amazing lyrically.

Citadel reverberates to a thousand voices, now dumb:
What have we become? What have we chosen to be?
Now, all history is reduced to the syllables of our name –
Nothing can ever be the same now the Immortals are here.
At the time, it seemed a reasonable course
To harness all the force of life without the threat of death,
But soon we found
That boredom and inertia are not negative,
But all the law we know
And dead are Will and words like survival.Arrival at immunity from all age, all fear and all end…
Why do I pretend? Our essence is distilled
And all familiar taste is now drained
And though purity is maintained it leaves us sterile,
Living through the millions of years,
A laugh as close as any tear…
Living, if you claim that all that entails is
Breathing, eating, defecating, screwing, drinking,
Spewing, sleeping, sinking ever down and down
And ultimately passing away time
Which no longer has any meaning.Take away the threat of death
And all you’re left with is a round of make-believe;
Marshal every sullen breath
And though you’re ultimately bored by endless ecstasy
That’s still the ring by which you hope to be engaged
To marry the girl who will give you forever –
That’s crazy, and plainly
It simply is not enough.What is the dullest and bluntest of pains,
Such that my eyes never close without feeling it there?
What abject despair demands an end to all things of infinity?
If we have gained, how do we now meet the cost?
What have we bargained, and what have we lost?
What have we relinquished, never even knowing it was there?What chance now of holding fast the line,
Defying death and time
When everything we had is gone?
Everything we laboured for and favoured more
Than earthly things reveals the hollow ring
Of false hope and of false deliverance.But now the nuptial bed is made,
The dowry has been paid;
The toothless, haggard features of Eternity
Now welcome me between the sheets
To couple with her withered body – my wife.Hers forever,
Hers forever,
Hers forever
In still life.

Whenever I think I might not want to die someday all I have to do is revisit still life and realize the alternative is far far worse.

Hugh Banton left the band after a couple of years , rather unsurprisingly he became a church organist and built church organs (that guy sure loved his organs). It’s Banton who provides the core backing throughout Still Life, creating the church vibe at the beginning and morphing into the 60’s prog as the song progresses

Mark 3 VDGG brought in a violinist to replace Jackson and re-introducing ex bass player Nic Potter. They were pretty good but very different as as punk had happened were doomed to failure after one LP. After decades apart they reformed and are still a going concern, although Jackson bailed out after a couple of years. Three old men who are free to play pretty much as they please, Hamill has had a heart attack they all know that every gig or recording could well be their last.

But hopefully they know the alternative is far worse…

Posted in memories of 70s, prog rock, rock music | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Doctors of Madness

Many years ago while working in Leicester I came across a story in the local paper, the Leicester Mercury, about Leicester bands who had not quite made it. Leicester is not exactly a rock and roll city but it’s made its mark on the rock music map of Great Britain. In the 60’s there was Family, in the 70’s it spawned Showaddywaddy, in the 90’s, almost inevitably given the city’s Asian population, there was Cornershop and most recently the city witnessed the formation of Kasabian.

And let’s not forget Englebert Humperdinck of course.

Anyway, there were the also rans who were the subject of this article, bands who had a recording contract but never ‘made it’. One thing that struck me was that the bands never attributed their relative failures on their inability to write decent songs or put on an acceptable live show. Each and every band attributed their demise to external factors, bad recording choices, always by the record company, changes of personnel at the company or generally the record company making bad decisions or sometimes just ceasing to exist. In fact the only thing that was not entirely the record company’s fault was when musical tastes changed and the band were left behind (and often it was the company’s failure that the band were unable to pursue a new direction)

Bloody record companies!

Today anybody with a laptop can put out their music, record companies are becoming redundant at a grass roots level but in the 70’s the only way that 99.9% of bands could make a record was with the cooperation with their paymasters.

One of the many notable failures of the decade were the Doctors of Madness. I caught the band in 75 or 76. My confusion in relation to the date is caused not only by the age process but also due to the fact that I was coming down with the flu and was hallucinating mildly during their performance.

The heart of the band was a lanky singer/guitarist with blue hair which in itself was outrageous at the time. Kid Strange was also, according to my unreliable memory, wearing thigh length boots and had a guitar made out of the letters KID. The bass player Stoner was wearing some pretty unpleasant Frankenstein make up and the drummer Peter Di Lemer was frighteningly blond and looked like Jet Harris from the Shadows. The aural excitement was curtesy of a crop haired individual dressed in grey. Urban Blitz was a classically trained (aren’t they all?) violinist and occasional guitar player. His role model appeared to be John Cale form the Velvet Underground, Cale played viola however, the violin was an even more abrasive instrument in this setting.

In theory there was a lot to like, their open number ‘Waiting’ smacked us about the ears in a painful but good way and the band looked as impressive as any support band can do occupying a six foot strip of stage in front to the headliner’s drum kit.
These days the band are sometimes heralded as precursors to punk but that’s being wise after the event. Kid Strange was actually very influenced by singer/songwriter Roy Harper. Like Harper he had developed a stark and uncompromising approach, being influenced by the Beat writers and particularly Edgar Burroughs. Strange was intelligent and self-confident there seemed little doubt that he felt he was entitled to become a seriously influential figure.

Willing to back his self-belief was record company Polydor, and with The Doctors of Madness signed up their lives would now be dedicated to the inevitable album/tour cycle.

Unfortunately the nation failed to be stirred by the Doctors of madness at all. They toured with Be Bop Deluxe (when I saw them) and the Heavy Metal Kids, ironically other bands that never really achieved their potential. Initially the band was probably just too caustic for the glam rock crowd. Pauline Murray of Penetration, stranded in an ex mining town in County Durham observed that although she would happily travel many miles to see the group they were a ‘real record company type band’ where the Sex Pistols, who she caught a little later were in a different league. The Pistols were later to support the Doctors of Madness were able to blow them off stage not because they were more musically gifted but because they were just totally different, the Pistols were not ‘record company’.

I bought the band’s first record ‘Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms’, second hand of course, and it was obvious that Kid Strange was prone to slightly overwrought song writing, a bit like Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel, when The Doctors of Madness were good they were very good but it was easy to slip into histrionic singer songwriter mode which both Kid Strange and Steve Harley were prone to.

Urban Blitz was to quit which seemed to me to be a blow to the band but Kid Strange was undeterred. The fact was that the band were transitioning, becoming The Doctors and dropping the violin which was now out of step with the time. No doubt the record company thought this was a good idea, Punk was starting to sell and it might be possible that The Doctors could fool enough people into thinking they were a proper punk band without the screeching .

Except, of course that the band, now with three albums under their belt, were still playing the same venues to audiences that might now be tempted to see the Stranglers or Souxsie and the Banshees instead.

In a last gasp the band recruited Dave Vanian , at a loose end after the demise of The Dammed, as co vocalist (although good friends with Kid Strange, the latter recounts in his biography Vanian ‘couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket’). This seemed to last a matter of minutes and the band were no more.

If the band had existed just a couple of years earlier it likely we would have had a more lasting impression of them but instead, like everyone else they were overtaken by punk and punk filtered out memories of everything that had existed before. The Doctors of madness would have seemed better on the same bill as Hawkwind rather than The Sex Pistols, punk seemed to diminish and flatten their impact, it wouldn’t be long before blue hair became the norm although the violin was never fully rehabilitated.

Kid Strange realised that a full band was no longer necessary to ply his trade. With a drum machine and with plenty of effects and a cheap synthesiser he became Richard Strange, edging into a career that included acting, curating, writing and socialising. As we all know it’s impossible to leave the past behind for long so he’s also toured in Japan with a couple of session musicians pretending to be The Doctors of Madness but that was best forgotten, these days he’s as likely to be a guest on radio 4 talking about his latest multimedia project as strapping on a guitar.

Polydor had signed the Jam who looked like a far more exciting proposition, at least financially, and the Doctors where consigned to bargain bins across the land.

Posted in memories of 70s, punk rock, rock music | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Andy Gill

The death of Andy Gill, Gang of Four Guitarist in many ways seems more tragic than the Amy’s, Janis’s and Jimi’s. Gill was only 63, it’s tempting to think that if you’ve made it that far you should be entitled to another 20 years, at least that’s the lie I’ve been telling myself. Apparently, its pneumonia that’s taken him, the ‘old man’s friend’ took someone who appeared as vital as he had appeared in 1978 when the Gang of Four emerged with their first single ‘Damaged Goods’.

 

I heard the record via John Peel of course, it took my breath away, it still does, not only because of Gill’s guitar but also the bass and drums and the way the whole approached being a musical three piece. They changed the idea that all the instruments have to play at the same time and it   gets a bit thin when there’s a guitar solo, instead at any point all or just one of the instruments could be playing. It sounds simple but it was a whole new approach which was influence by Dub Reggae.

Gills had a 40-year career but to be honest I don’t care much about his production work or the Gang of Four reformations or even their second album Solid Gold. For me their debut long player Entertainment was all I needed I even resent the additional tracks on the CD reissue for sullying the purity of the original.

Entertainment changed the way I thought about music and it rocked so much harder than the faux rock of the likes of the Foo Fighters or the Stereophonics. And ‘Damaged Good’s ‘ still feels Like  punch to the stomach.

https://youtu.be/fRjsBh_R3TQ

 

I wrote more about the Gang of Four last year… here it is again

   

One of the consequences of the digital age is that we don’t really have to listen to music we don’t want to anymore. When I was young I listened to the 6 LP’s my parents owned and whatever was played on the radio stations they tuned in to. As I got older I started buying my own LP’s but I was still reliant on the radio, in this case Radio 1 and as I might listen for hours and not hear very much I actually liked  I started to find pleasure in unlikely areas, I was forced to adapt.

The last time I had to listen to modern pop music was when my kids travelled in the car with me and wanted their updated version of Radio 1 on. Again I began to adapt, I wasn’t wild about the music but I did appreciate the odd banging tune and as Radio 1 seemed to have a playlist of about 6 records for months on end I at least became familiar with what was happening in the world of modern music.

These days I am less adaptable, my only exposure to modern music is when Radio 2 plays something contemporary. I don’t usually like it, there’s a modern voice sound which I don’t like at all and it’s horribly produced. Modern pop seems to resemble music in the same way as cheesy string resembles a mature cheddar, it’s kind of similar in theory but very different in practice.

The worst thing for me though are the lyrics, it seems that the only topic on the table is relationships. When Ed Sheeran began a very successful musical career with ‘The A Team’, I actually stopped and listened , although it’s a kind of modern day ‘Streets of London ‘the impact for me was far greater, here was someone singing about something other than their own feelings.it was very unusual.

It wasn’t always like that, sure the whole experience of being human is going to rely heavily on our relationships with  people we fancy quite a bit but there are other things going on in the world to sing about.

Punk was pretty low on the whole relationship experience unless it was our relationships with people we hated. Post punk no one was going to talk about love, PIL even had a song titled ‘This is not a Love Song’ although clearly it would have been for more radical if they had created something that was a love song.

Politics were on the agenda, not necessarily traditional politics but personal politics, anti racism and anti sexism were high on the list although ageism was still allowed in. The phrase political correctness hadn’t been invented but this was its birth.

The Gang of Four had their origins at Leeds University. People were now safe to be students again, for a couple of years they were hated by the punk cognoscente for their supposedly cushy lifestyle but now things were getting more intelligent. Naming themselves after a group of Chinese Communists Gang Of Four had already nailed their colours to the mast hinting they were intellectual and subversive.

I had a somewhat troubled relationship with the band. They produced some of the best music I have ever heard.GuitaristAndy Gill took the Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson guitar sound and mixed in punk, funk dub and noise. As a musical three piece the band did all they could to make guitar bass and drums interesting. In effect this meant each instrument had an equal role and, influenced by dub, instruments would drop out at various points to create simple textures.

The down side was that Jon King was a fairly rubbish vocalist and the lyrics (keenly avoiding the L word) could sound a bit like a sociology essay. It might be a bit po faced as could most post punk but I have to admit the lyrics have stayed with me to this day. The phrase ‘see the happy pair smiling close like they’re monkeys’ from Essence has led to a lifelong aversion to having my picture taken (and certainly never smiling).

 

Inevitably the band would tackle the thorny subject of why bands are expected to write songs about relationships in one of their greatest hits ‘Anthrax’. Involving lots of guitar noise and two intersecting vocal lines Anthrax sets it clear

 

Woke up this morning desperation a.m.

What I’ve been saying won’t say them again

My head’s not empty, it’s full with my brain

The thoughts I’m thinking

Like piss down a drain

And I feel like a beetle on its back

And there’s no way for me to get up

Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax

And that’s something I don’t want to catch

Ought to control what I do to my mind

Nothing in there but sunshades for the blind

Only yesterday I said to myself

The things I’m doing are not good

For my health

 

“Love crops up quite a lot as something to sing about,

cos most groups make most of their songs about falling in love

or how happy they are to be in love,

you occasionally wonder why these groups do sing about it all the time –

it’s because these groups think there’s something very special about it

either that or else it’s because everybody else sings about it and always has,

you know to burst into song you have to be inspired

and nothing inspires quite like love.

These groups and singers think that they appeal to everyone

by singing about love because apparently everyone has or can love

or so they would have you believe anyway

but these groups seem to go along with what, the belief

that love is deep in everyone’s personality.

I don’t think we’re saying there’s anything wrong with love,

we just don’t think that what goes on between two people

should be shrouded with mystery.”

Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax

And that’s something I don’t want to catch

Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax

And that’s something I don’t want to catch

 

Why isn’t anyone writing songs like this anymore? This isn’t my Desert Island Disc (I’d rather have something by Joni Mitchell about relationships) but is it impossible to find songs that are looking external rather than internal experiences?

Its not just pop, its Americana, Rock, Singer Songwriter, it’s not as if there aren’t things to get angry about anymore but perhaps we’d rather listen to people telling us about themselves.

On the other hand perhaps its just the case now that music is so integrated into our entertainment pleasure that its completely devoid from documenting radical experiences or thoughts perhaps its joined the ranks of synchronised swimming, tap dancing, or knitting as something we do to unwind.

 

There’s a Spotify Playlist for every occasion.

 

Here’s the Gang of Four

https://youtu.be/aj-h3zmGVO4

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2: The Air that I Breathe-The Hollies

One of the main reasons I can pick up songs pretty quickly is that in the 70’s there was no telling just how many chances one might get to listen to a track. The obvious exception was if you bought a single or LP, it was yours forever or at least until you wore it out with playing. The only other alternative was the radio and TV, some track made the playlist, some were banned and some would only get an occasional play by the likes of John Peel.

The effect was twofold. As you might not hear a track again anything good had to be listened to intently in the hope of sucking the content dry in the space of 3 three minutes. The opposite reaction was that sometime a track was always on play, there wasn’t a lot of choice apart from turning the radio or TV off if you didn’t want to listen. The trick with this was to find something to enjoy, a line of lyrics, a guitar line or drum fill, anything to make the time pass until the next track came along.

And sometimes, rarely, there would be a song that you heard a lot, but it never outstayed it’s welcome. 

The Hollies, Manchester’s second-best band of all time, had a reputation for following in the footsteps of the Beatles. This served them well until their Strawberry Fields period which failed to be convincing when they came up with a relative flop ‘King Midas in Reverse’ and retreated back to cabaret and lost Graham Nash in the process. The Beatles splitting had left them without role models and singer Alan Clarke tried leaving the band for a while himself before regrouping for the best song Creedence Clearwater Revival never wrote ‘ Long Cool Woman In a Black Dress’.

As the 70’s progressed The Hollies were in a kind of limbo. Still young enough to think they had a role to play in contemporary music but not really sure what to do with that responsibility. The tendency was to go heavy, the band had Bobby Elliot on drums and Tony Hicks on guitar who were both up to the challenge but in their heart of hearts they were a beat group with great harmonies and a sizable fan base who weren’t ready for a huge amount of ‘progression’.

 

Unlike the Beatles, the Hollies were not prolific writers by any means and were fairly reliant on professional songwriters. ‘The Air that I Breath’ had been written by Albert Hammond, a bit of a singer songwriter in his own right who would go on to have his own hits. The version that had come to the Hollies was from a Phil Everly solo album.

Both Everly and Hammond had made sparser recordings, more sombre and personal, the Hollies would need a bit of fairy dust to make their version sparkle.

And so it did, thanks to EMI staff producer Alan Parsons and the Abbey Rd studios. Here was a bunch of professionals working together. Parsons had his standard studio set up, the band could reproduce harmonies without a huge amount of planning and discussion. Nash’s replacement, Terry Sylvester tends to get marginalised in the band’s history, not least by Clarke himself but the harmony trio of him with Sylvester and Hicks is pretty much as good as any three voices can be. The acoustic guitar bass and drums are all just right and Elliot chose to over dub his fills which means that the rhythm never let up and the fills are pretty loud.

Parsons production has a dreamy quality, Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat’ has a similar slightly disconnected feel to it as well it might do also having been produced by Parsons. There’s also a 40 piece orchestra onboard, it could seem overwrought but the production saves it.

The Hollies were a popular group with media professionals, they were friendly and got the job done with the minimum of fuss. The band might crop up for a three-minute slot whoever there was a space on whatever variety TV show was airing. They always seemed to be on performing ‘The Air that I Breath’. I didn’t get bored, there were mammoth drum fills, electric guitar breaks, layers of vocals and Clarke’s languid lead vocals. The Orchestra were an integral part of the song, and of course there’s the middle eight and fade out.

This also marked the appearance of Bobby Elliot’s wig.

 https://thefutureispast.co.uk/2018/08/05/when-to-wear-the-hat/

The Hollies would go on to provide the same treatment for young Bruce Springsteen’s early works before the law of diminishing returns led to them fracturing and finally acknowledging  they were now an oldies/legacy act. Every now and again Smooth or Radio 2 will give ‘The Air that I Breath’ and airing and for 3.45 I’m back in the family front room watching Clarke, Hicks, Sylvester, Elliot and Calvert performing their finest.

https://youtu.be/7duPNQCp-w4

 

 

 

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1: Sylvia’s Mother: Dr Hook and the Medicine Show

The first couple of years of the 70’s are a dark hinterland to me. It was dark literally all the time it seemed but also I didn’t really have a clue about what was happening in the world. Like most pre teens, school was the most important thing in my life and thanks to school I became aware of music as a ‘thing’. There was no realisation at this point that I could seek out sounds and make my choices, I listened to whatever my parents had on the radio, whatever musical acts appeared on variety shows on the television and from occasionally playing one of my parents’ collection of 9 LP’s.

Top of the Pops was an incredibly important show. Placed firmly in the middle of a Thursday evening it was watched by generations some of whom came to sneer and others came to watch in awe. To be fair it was always the deal that you had to sit through a lot of crap, in fact in the mid 70’s you could go for weeks without seeing anything exciting but there would be the nuggets, Bolan, Bowie, the Faces, that made the wait worthwhile.

And somewhere, it seemed out of nowhere, there emerged a record called Sylvia’s Mother by Dr Hook and the Medicine show that made its way, almost to the top of the charts. 

 

I must admit, at the time, that I was underwhelmed, largely because this sort of music was outside my comprehension. There’s a bit of Norfolk that is forever Tennessee, country music was incredibly popular even in the village halls out in the sticks. It was the music of mums and dads and I didn’t really like it and Dr Hook sounded a bit like that. But I was also a little impressed, they were clearly American and so weren’t going to schlep over to the BBC studios so all we had was a blurry piece of film which only really conveyed the fact that one of them had a hat and an eyepatch. He clearly must be Dr Hook although it was the hairy guy who sounded like he was about to burst into tears who was doing the singing. There was also the fact that this was a story song. Clearly, I hadn’t realised that this was written by Shel Silverstein writer, cartoonist and general renaissance man. The song was about an actual experience he had had and there’s a certain pathos about the author trying to contact the titular Sylvia while her mother fields the call and the operator asks for more money.

In the 70’s you had to sell records to get into the charts and it amazes me how the British public decided to simultaneously purchase a record by a bunch of freaks who had only just recorded their first album. Dr Hook and the Medicine Show had been plugging away for years in the states but this single broke them in Europe, Australia and the USA without warning.

48 years later, YouTube decided I needed to watch an old clip of the band live in concert and so I did (thank you YouTube), and then it decided I wanted to watch more live performances and interviews from all around the world, so I did.

And what a great band! Basically if the Bonzos had been born in Alabama  and raised on soul and country instead of Jazz, given a big bag of weed and told to go out and entertain the roadhouses they would have been Dr Hook. Its was almost impossible to conceive how talented American bar bands could be. Eggs over Easy started the whole pub rock scene when they decamped to Kentish Town in the mid 70’s and impressed the pub crowns by being able to play almost anything the audience wanted. Dr Hook (soon to loose the Medicine Show)  were a 7 piece where just about everyone could sing lead (and did), instruments were swapped, musicians came to the front of the stage to dance and sing and despite seeming hugely stoned they all weighed in with vocal harmonies at a moment’s notice. There was no Dr Hook of course, Ray Sawyer was a soul singer who had lost his eye in a near fatal car crash. We all got a bit confused, Ray didn’t have a hook, Captain Hook, on the other hand didn’t have an eyepatch and wasn’t a Doctor, we didn’t really think this through at the time.

The real voice of Dr Hook, as he would later bill himself, was Dennis Locorriere, initially drafted in as the bass player,Locorriere was a sweaty hairy ball of pathos who, along with Sawyer, was incredibly popular with the ladies. Between them they had an incredibly intuitive onstage relationship and just seemed to be having the best time ever when they performed.

Its taken me some 48 years to appreciate just how good they were, they diversified into disco and soft rock but even at their blandest they had Locorriere’s voice and Sawyer’s maracas. If I could have a time machine gig Dr Hook would be pretty near the top of the list. Only the Faces approached their level of onstage camaraderie.

I wonder if, in retrospect they set the seeds for my love of American roots music. Things were so grim in the late 80’s that many of us were checking out country music again and Dr Hook began to make sense.

Inevitably the band came to an end, Locorriere estimates they spent 17 years playing 300 gigs a year which if true is pretty incredible. There were the inevitable fallings out but we won’tsee the band ever again, some are no longer with us including the estimable Sawyer (only 8 years younger than my dad!) who left us just over a year ago. 

But despite life’s setbacks there’s always YouTube.

https://youtu.be/7LXpnNKNxJI

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The Tracks of my Years

Splitting out lives into decades is, at best, an arbitrary experience. Its not possible to divide a century by 10 and expect life events to follow a pattern. The first part of the 70’s were really just the end of the 60’s, the bad end when things had gone wrong with the hippie dream. The charts featured bands like Atomic Rooster,Hawkwind, even Jimmy Hendrix. Everybody had long hair flared jeans and occasionally an afghan coat. The 70’s ended with young men jerking about frantically while they played. The likes of Squeeze, the Police and Elvis Costello were only a couple of years younger than the early bands, but they had short hair and tight trousers and seemed like a different species entirely. Most significantly, waiting in the wings were the likes of the Human League and Depeche Mode who were to stage their own quiet revolution, in ten years’ time music would be completely different again.

Sandwiched in the middle was the real 70’s (about 5 years), glam,prog, punk, disco,reggae and some genuinely good pop and rock. The thing that united recording in those days (with a few notable exceptions) was that it was played, usually in real time, by real people. Apart from rudimentary drum machinesall music was created by musicians, quite often in the same room at the same time. In the 70’s music was recorded, by the end of the 80’s it was being assembled. Technology hadn’t really taken off, there might be more tracks to record on but the recording process was not greatly different in 1980 from 1970, in fact it wasn’t hugely different from the 50’s. 

Today its quite possible that, given a couple of hours, I could create and record a song using my phone, technically it would be better quality than anything from the 70’s  but, lets face it, it would be crap. For me there no substitute for the sound of people playing together and to a large extent that was the unifying sound of the 70’s whether it was a band of childhood friends or a group of session musicians.

And so. I’m intending to write about some of the individual pieces of music that shaped the 70’s and influenced me. I was hoping for a pithy heading for this. Alas ‘the tracks of my years’ has already been used by the Ken Bruce* show on Radio 2 who also created ‘the sounds of the 70’ back in that decade. I lack the creativity to come up with anything memorable (any suggestions welcome) so the best I can do is number each track as they appear. It’s a count up not a count down, I’m not sure where this will end.

Number one is next week.

*thats his picture, it’s not me !

 

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The end of Rock?

20 years ago, along with friends and family, I was stood on a grassy bank in Northumberland waiting for the grey light to reveal the first day of the new century. Not all of us who were there then are still alive now, the children are all adults and the world has changed a great deal since then. I can remember using a friends top of the range Nokia to play a game called snake, we had just bought a computer which cost a month’s wages, if you wanted to listen to music you bought a radio or a CD. As usual 20 years ago seems simultaneously like yesterday or a lifetime away. 

 

The scariest thing is if you take those 20 years and project them into the future. More of that group won’t be alive but some of them may have had children of their own. The evolution will take place slowly enough for us not to really notice its happening, Twitter and Facebook and WordPress seem to have been there forever but if you had told me in 2000 that I could use a handheld device to watch almost anything I wanted or listen to any music I wanted from almost anywhere in the world at anytime my mind would have been blown.

 

But what is the future for people like me who like to see music played by real people in real time? 20 years ago, there had been a final flourishing of rock. Thanks to Oasis showing us how easy it was to write and play a song, sales of acoustic guitars were on the increase. We were used to the ebb and flow of popular music. Commentators were making noises about the end of rock from the mid 70’s, following the purge of punk it came back even stronger but each time it changed the after effects were less cataclysmic, grunge and Britpop gave dance music a run for it’s money, but really hip hop came and conquered all and there was no comeback.

 

When I used to go to gigs in the late 70’s I was surrounded by people between the age of 16 and 26, anyone over the age of 30 would have been treated with extreme suspicion. Today I would be surrounded by people from 35 to 75 with the average age being around the 50’s. It’s a wider but broader demographic but it’s a hell of a lot older. At a grass roots level, a lot of local bands are playing to sparse audiences of older people, worse still those bands only survive by playing covers at best or being a tribute band at worst. When I started playing live an unlistenable post punk band could fill a pub on a Thursday night now there’s no appetite, young people don’t care and old people want to hear ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ just like the record (and to be in bed by 10:30).

 

But the most significant thing will be that very soon we will lose all our classic rock icons. I’ve been racking my brains to think of any band from the 60’s that could actually reform without the addition of session players or band members children. The only band from Britain I could think of who could do would be the Holies and that’s assuming bass player Bernie Calvert is still with us. Leading on from that the only really big 60’s act I could think of was CSN (&Y) who could still delight us with a new record or tour. Apart from that every band from the Beatles downwards has been decimated. On an individual level though think of a world where there is no Paul McCartney, Pete Townsend, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Elton John,Springsteen, Mick Jagger or whoever matters to you most, it’s a bleak thought but it’s going to happen…soon.

 

When I was young learning a musical instrument served several functions, it was a chance to be creative and a bit different. In turn this created more opportunities to meet other people which for a lot of us meant girls. Also, let’s not underestimate how boring life in the 70’s could be, music was a godsend.

 

Compare that with the young person today, their dad probably used to be in a band and is dying for the fruit of their loins to pick up a guitar. But; there are so many more things to do that provide a more instant reward and getting to know people (at least at some level) is the easiest thing in the world, why would anyone want to learn to play an instrument just so they could waste their weekends playing to 6 old people in a pub.

 

Of course, this type of music will continue in some form. Just as trad jazz thrived between the 20’s and the 50’s. A bit of diligent searching and it’s still possible to find a trad jazz band today but it was a lot easier in the 70’s and 80’s when the guys who had been playing in the 50’s were still around. Its like that now with Rock Musicians but like with the Jazzers there are not enough young people coming through to sustain it. People will still listen to what might be loosely called rock music just like they have continued to listen to Jazz or even Classical, but it won’t be the same.

 

And that’s the point, rock music has become as much about nostalgia as anything, that’s why the back pages of the glossy rock magazines are advertising the Australian Pink Floyd or the Bootleg Beatles or, at the very least one of those performances of an entire ‘classic’ album Live and new artists are struggling to half fill a room above a pub.

 

And yes, there’s loads of great music around but there’s too much, its so diluted as to be almost invisible.

And even I don’t want to spend all of my life banging on about how great the 70’s were and like everything The future is past is going to have a limited lifespan it’s certainly not going to outlive Paul McCartney (imagine a world without sir Paul). This year were are going to introduce some sounds of the 70s looking at some great music including America which I have tended to shy away from and of course there will still be the usual navel gazing and half remembered anecdotes from that golden decade.

 

And then I’m taking up birdwatching!

Finally apologies for a low level of grammar this week. I usually write on a proper computer and edit in the WordPress app. This week the app has a life of its own and I the digital equivalent of Caxton’s printing press.

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