What follows is my impressionistic description of a musical journey that began when I was in short trousers and is still going strong today. A wise soul once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, so I’ve included plenty of YouTube clips to accompany the words – just click the brown links. The big arrow on the left of your screen will bring you back to the text.
(Some links may be unavailable for copyright reasons in time.)
I can recall as if it was yesterday the exact moment fifty years ago that I first heard Traffic’s Mr Fantasy album on the Dansette record player in the Preston Manor School Prefect’s Room. I can see the dust motes in the beam of light from the long windows, taste the powdered milk in my bitter cup of instant coffee, smell the tobacco smoke coming up through the floorboards from the staffroom below … evidence, I believe, to prove a theory of mine about the power of music.
Hearing something really good for the first time has a deep effect on me. My heightened emotional awareness seems to take a sensory snapshot of the moment, becoming a crystal-clear memory that never fades … Take Five (Dave Brubeck), I Remember You (Frank Ifield), From Me To You, the feedback intro to I Feel Fine, the Revolver and Sergeant Pepper albums, Strawberry Fields (the Beatles), Purple Haze, Manic Depression (Jimi Hendrix), Light My Fire (the Doors), Golden Brown (the Stranglers) … the list goes on, special moments locked in my mind like no others. Music plays with time, of course, but how? And could you tell a life story in music? I began to think back to my earliest musical epiphanies …
Runaway, heard on a Dansette record player in my neighbour Kay’s back bedroom … Sherry, going home after school, when someone turned up a radio until it was blaring … Nut Rocker, sunny day outside a café … each a first hearing that hit me like a flash of lightning, illuminating the moment and forming an indelible snapshot in my mind’s photo album.
(10 days after writing this, I attended a school reunion and to my surprise and delight I met for the first time in over half a century that same neighbour and dear childhood friend, Kay Hill, who introduced me so long ago to Del Shannon and Bobby Vee … and who still loves rock’n’roll and will have passed the flame to her own children and great-grandchildren. Long ago but only yesterday, it seems … )
Moving on a few years to 1963 and I’m watching the Lennie the Lion Show, sitting next to my grandma on the sofa … Lennie, the ventriloquist’s puppet with his soppy lisp, says, “Wight then, boys and girls, all the way fwom Liverpool to sing Fwom Me To You … The Beatles!” The cameras cut to a beat group I’d never seen … never even heard of … jangly guitars, spooky harmonies, falsetto shrieks, collarless jackets, tight trousers, long hair … I sense my grandma stiffening with disapproval at their effeminacy and perhaps their rebellion … they’re not dancing choreographed steps like the Shadows but moving freely as individuals and there’s a shot of John Lennon, looking straight at the camera with a hard look which has the old girl tutting with displeasure and muttering something about that one being trouble … but they weren’t singing for her, were they? This was straight from them to me. I can still feel my rising excitement to this day, the first tremors of a cultural earthquake.
Haha, working-class boys cheeking the press and using their Royal Variety Performance to mock the class system … whatever next? You can picture the scene, with parents up and down the land in a lather … and would you let your daughter marry one of these, if he’s telling her Wanna Be Your Man? Or is she being told You Really Got Me? And what if she brings home some gormless twerp who Can’t Explain? Where’s it all going to end?
Perhaps it will end at the Isle of Wight in 1970? (Don’t bother to click on the link, it’s been removed for copyright reasons … perhaps by the management of Oasis, who sampled the quote) … Still contentious, after all these years ….
We Can Work It Out
Meanwhile, the Beatles never failed to amaze us. They managed to keep everyone on tenterhooks. Whatever would they come up with next, we always wondered? Their music was somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Paul had written some verses in the form of a lover’s plea for understanding, based on his faltering relationship with Jane Asher. The words were so personal that they were ready to reject the song, until someone had the idea of adding a bridge using John’s words from a completely different song. These words had nothing to do with boy-girl relationships, being more philosophical and even introspective … life is very short and there’s no time, for fussin and fightin my friend … but they had found a way to universalise the song’s sentiments and came up with a masterpiece, We Can Work It Out … and seeing them play it on television was the moment I realised they were here to stay.
Turn It Up
A stuffy hotel lounge in Torquay, all potted plants and chintzy furnishings, with a bunch of Basil Fawltys frowning at us to keep quiet. We could just hear a brand-new close-harmony song called I Get Around on the old Bakelite valve radio which had us turning up the volume control despite their disapproving stares. Next track up was Reach Out, another vocal triumph which was about to storm up the charts. The volume stayed up for that one, too … hey, doo-wop, soul … whatever next?
Walking the Dog to Soul Town
As a Beatles fan in 1964, I couldn’t imagine anything else could come close. One day my friends and I went to a local dancehall in Northwest London – either Sudbury or Greenford – and there stood with open mouths watching an American act. It was the first live electric music we’d ever seen, apart from friends trying to play Johnny B. Goode and Route 66. At its heart was a tight, funky combo (guitar, bass, drums) with a horn section (saxes, perhaps a trumpet or trombone) and three girl backing-singers in short, shimmering dresses. Out front – wise-cracking, whirling around like a dervish and generally putting on one helluva show – was none other than Rufus Thomas whose big hit was Walking the Dog..
Suddenly there was a whole world of music out there … a hundred blues, soul and gospel traditions behind the hit parade’s beat boom. It’s impossible to overestimate the popularity of American soul music in the UK. Every young band, it seemed, did covers of Knock On Wood and Midnight Hour. Don’t forget that The Who and The Small Faces began as soul bands, as did The Action who changed their name to Mighty Baby … don’t worry, nobody else has heard of them either. Hit their name to hear the eclectic and open-eared sound of the late 60s when even the bands who didn’t make it were, yeah, putting on one helluva show in homage to their musical influences. All you need is love, sang the wealthy Beatles, and many played for love if not money …
Getting Better All The Time
When the Beatles brought out Rubber Soul, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys heard a new sensitivity in the music and produced Pet Sounds. The Beatles responded with what I regard as their best album, Revolver. Under pressure, the Beach Boys went back to the studio and constructed a timeless masterpiece. I first heard Good Vibrations in our 6th form common room at school. The bell had just gone when it came on the radio. Needless to say, we were very late to our next lesson …
Sadly, Brian couldn’t get it together at the time to produce the complete album but by a kind of miracle finished Smile many years later to universal acclaim. His live performance with a truly remarkable bunch of musicians a few years back seemed to me some kind of miracle, a wheel turning full circle and a triumphant renewal of the enormous promise the 60s seemed to offer the young at heart.
Don’t believe the bad press about that crazy decade. It was greed did for the planet, not peace and love …
I was at a party in 1967 full of very brainy young people who were all members of MENSA, with IQs of 138 or more – I was there as the token Muggle, I suspect – but I remember we were all very fond of our own voices, gabbling away ten to the dozen. Then somebody put on the Beatles new double A-side single, which nobody there had heard. The room fell silent. Some preferred Penny Lane and others were transported by Strawberry Fields, so we played both sides alternately. The Beatles had very cleverly chosen to go back to childhood and we, a bunch of young sophisticates impatient for adult life, were for the moment only too happy to go with them ..
Wild, man ….
I got to another party early because I knew the host was going to play the new band’s debut album, just released, which he’d gone straight out and bought. I’d already heard a couple of tracks (including Purple Haze, here played live) courtesy of John Peel, probably – and couldn’t wait to hear the rest and see how my friends would react to this radical new sound. It’s easy to forget how surprising Hendrix was at the time, even to us 60s sophisticates. As I expected, the first few notes quietened conversation and everyone settled down to listen …
I can remember everything about that moment to this day … the scent of cut flowers, the late afternoon sun falling across the radiogram, the paper cup I was drinking cider from … my feelings complex, equal parts musical excitement and delight that my friends were encountering something so new and daring for the first time. It’s all still with me, still as fresh, almost half a century later.
The British Summer of Love in 1967 and transistor radios all over the beach at Newquay carried Scott McKenzie’s sonorous invitation to San Francisco. When I got home my friend Bernie was wearing a kaftan and a chiffon scarf knotted around his neck. He had stopped out all night at the International Love-In at Alexandra Palace and begun listening to John Peel’s Perfumed Garden. You couldn’t move in his mum’s front room for Murano glassware and Capodimonte figurines but this was where they kept the radiogram and even the kitsch became cool as the first notes of Astronomy Domine – recorded at Abbey Road with the same sonic conjuring-tricks as Sergeant Pepper – filled the room.
Light My Fire was their big hit and The End was their arty nod to Greek drama, but my first exposure to a complete Doors album was listening to Strange Days in a friend’s room at my university hall of residence. A thrilled shiver ran down my spine because the music sounded as if it had emerged from icy water …
Haunting and still disturbing to this very day!
Things Get Heavy
In 1969, a friend made a reel-to-reel tape recording of a live session on the John Peel Show. We spent a lot of time in his room from then on, mesmerised by the band’s intensity. Led Zeppelin, their debut album was excellent but hit the band name in this sentence to get their live sound, which is even better. Their BBC Sessions CD has several versions of Communication Breakdown, each one quite different from the others, the mark of a great live band. I was lucky enough to see them a few times, once at the Bath Festival when they had to follow the barnstorming Champion Jack Dupree and were nervous for a couple of numbers, until Jimmy Page pulled out his violin bow to send power chords crashing in a semi-circle behind our heads …
If there weren’t many girls at a party in those days – PLUS ÇA CHANGE! – at least you got to hear some good music. A party we went to in 1970 started badly … no unattached ladies and only a few music singles lying by a beat-up old Dansette record player. We’d never heard Deep Purple or Black Sabbath so gave their singles a spin … and another spin … and another (again, hit the names for the sounds) and we discovered that heavy rock could somehow dull the pain …
Wish you’d been there to experience all this stuff first time around? Aw, stop whining … in 1970, we never had the miracle of cyberspace to bring us Paranoid with Spanish subtitles!
A Very Good Year
This nostalgic trawl through my musical memories has reached 1970, the year of big festivals, heaven for devoted acolytes of blues-rock. Everyone I knew was a convert to the cause, fuelled by years of American rock’n’roll and our spirited British counter-invasion.
A few years ago I got talking to a visiting harmonica ace from Chicago and found out we were born in the same year. I told him how lucky he was being American, surrounded from birth by such a rich and varied live music tradition. Ye-eah, he drawls, so who d’ya spose was in my record collection in them days? Muddy Waters, I venture, Howling Wolf? He shakes his head and begins to count off the names on his fingers … Beatles, Stones, Animals, Yardbirds, Kinks, Who, Mayall, Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Free, Zeppelin, Purple, Sabbath … and suddenly my inner union jack is all a-flutter.
Was I as patriotic in 1970? There were fabulous homegrown performers like Floyd, Zep, Free, Jethro Tull and the Who in those stellar festival line-ups but I reckon what drew us in our hundreds of thousands was a rare chance to see all the American acts. The Bath Festival of Blues and Progressive Music (actually near Shepton Mallet and before Prog became a term of mild abuse) offered Canned Heat, Steppenwolf, Johnny Winter, Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, Flock, It’s A Beautiful Day, Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Santana, Dr John, Country Joe and the Byrds. The Isle of Wight Festival featured Chicago, Hendrix, Sly Stone, Tony Joe White, Miles Davis and the Doors as well as Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, Leonard Cohen and others . Oh, and Tiny Tim …
There are many online clips showing all these performers in the late 60s, many at their peak amidst the strong musical competition of those heady days. I recently sent for a box set of audio recordings made at Bath … er, Shepton Mallet. I wanted to jog my memory – they say that if you remember, you weren’t there, though I blame the moonshine scrumpy we were drinking – but the discs weren’t much help. You know the sort of thing, a single hand-held mic mainly registering surrounding crowd noises and cries of Sit Down You … Silly Person! Still, there was a nice T-shirt showing the line-up which I wear whenever I want to feel smug …
The film of the Isle of Wight Festival is a different matter. Nobody wanted to put up the money so It wasn’t brought out at the time. I suspect they felt it couldn’t compete with the upbeat vibe of the Woodstock movie. Message to Love by Murray Lerner is certainly is a quirky and often downbeat little film, but it has tight 90’s editing and tells a fascinating story – a slice of English life at a time of acute culture clash. It’s often very funny. And then there are the performances, still sounding fresh and exciting to this day … something here for any mood and, as Jimi said, It’s all freedom man …
Imagine starting the morning with this glorious dollop of Celtic-infused blues-rock … listen to the crowd’s reaction to Rory Gallagher … and we were waiting for John Sebastian, hero of Woodstock the year before, to get us all throwing the peace sign – don’t ever forget the Vietnam influence in the late 60s – which we did for the rest of the weekend … the roads afterwards full of people using their thumbs to hitch-hike and their other hand to wave those two fingers, Churchill’s Victory-V backwards … but we were still capable of patriotism, as we showed in our reaction to Tiny Tim … and we were even ready, one warm afternoon with hot-air balloons floating overhead, for Miles Davis (here introduced by Keith Jarrett who played there with him) … band after band, sitting on the hard ground, zonked out, in and out of sleep, and then about two in the morning a bunch of nutters known as The Who switch on the lights they’ve borrowed from a nearby airbase and blast us with the totally unexpected fruits of their transatlantic touring … and one afternoon, Joni Mitchell tried to sing Woodstock and a real nutter this time rushed onstage to disturb the song, though she did manage to get through her proto-ecological anthem Big Yellow Taxi with its curiously upbeat rhythm.
There’s a story to tell about the next clip. This band famously cleared the arena for their soundcheck, so thousands of punters trooped outside to hear their music coming through the corrugated-iron walls before they were allowed back in. Stupid, huh? Well no, because Jethro Tull (for it was they) sounded fantastic that night … and thanks to them the headline act that eventually followed them in the early hours of the following morning sounded … well, take in the madness and make up your own mind by clicking on Jimi Hendrix.
Phew, pause for breath! One of the successes of the weekend was undoubtedly Free who performed at an almost supernatural level as in this clip of their big hit song. Not filmed, but worth hearing for its all-round excellence, was this slice of Nashville country pie. And a big reason we went to the Isle of Wight that year was to see these musicians from Chicago, whose horn section Hendrix wanted to tour with and whose guitarist the Seattle wunderkind felt was better than he himself.
Still no idea what it was all about? I guess you hadda be there … but did you spot the deliberate mistake? (answer below)
I could go on and on, as my nearest and dearest can attest … skinny-dipping with hundreds of others … summoning up the courage to brave the latrines, just a plank hanging over a deep trench … the surreal feeling of being amongst half a million people … waking in our tent one morning to the deafening sound of Hawkwind (or was it the Pink Fairies) playing in a plastic tent that you had to crawl into on your hands and knees … people breaking the walls down to get in for free while us paying customers chose to go out and perch on the steep hillside because the evening wind carried the sound up there and away from the huge crowd below… ah, the old campaign stories! My dad, bless him, used to bore the pants off people with his oft-repeated tales of World War Two and now I’m turning into him, but for El Alamein read Afton Down. Every generation has its own life-changers, events about which it can feel pride, and I have never forgotten the glimpse of humanity those big festivals gave me …
Oh, and the odd one out? The Byrds weren’t at the Isle of Wight but at the Bath Festival a couple of months earlier. I make no excuse for including them – was there ever a better band? Hit their name here for another dose of pure live magic.
After the Party
The 1970 summer of Technicolor festivals gave way to black and white as I swopped the freedom of university life for the constraints of my parental home. After a few days I was stir crazy and took off for Scotland, hitch-hiking up the A1. A fortnight later I was at a youth hostel in the far north of Skye with many young travellers from around the world (several of whom had been at the Isle of Wight Festival) and somebody brought in the newspaper headline announcing the death of Jimi Hendrix. Nobody could believe that someone so creative and vital had gone. He seemed to have touched the lives of everyone there. Later we built a huge fire on the beach and talked and played guitar long into the night, eaten alive by midges.
A huge sense of anti-climax was compounded by the tensions between my parents, and it wasn’t long before I reached the lowest point in my life – before or since. The only solace I could find was in music and one album in particular spoke to me like no other. It was After the Goldrush by Neil Young. Here he is performing the title track. To judge from the audience reaction here, I’m not alone in my feelings.
The break-up of a romance had left me feeling pretty down at the time and the following song from the album seemed to reach places deep within. The gauche visuals to Only Love Can Break Your Heart somehow suit his fragile, vulnerable voice. What helped was talking to a friend who had experienced the same anxieties and loss of self esteem. There is a verse in Don’t Let It Bring You Down that pins that down perfectly.
Another good friend of mine once told me that his depression lifted once he stopped thinking other people were different and began to see they were just the same as him. Music can put us in touch with others like nothing else can. As Jim Morrison, soon to pass himself, once sang: Music is your only friend, until the end.
Music for Grown-Ups
When the business moguls of Tin Pan Alley regained control in the early 1970s, music went dead. You couldn’t move for singer-songwriters. Glam-rock was a feeble and often cynical re-run of the teeny-bopper 1950s. Good new bands could be found but they were confined to certain genres: the Southern Rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, the country rock of New Riders of the Purple Sage and Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. All very enjoyable, of course, but something of a guilty pleasure!
Two bands who returned music to its adventurous and eclectic best were Little Feat and Steely Dan. Both featured outstanding songwriting, classy arrangements and virtuoso playing. It was like sitting down to a proper meal after too long with nothing but light snacks. Little Feat hit their stride with Dixie Chicken, the first side of which (remember sides?) was an absolute tour de force and at its heart was an eerie and atmospheric version of the Allen Toussaint classic linked above. And Steely Dan were uncannily consistent with a wry lyricism more often associated with jazz, as on their link’s waspish morality tale.
In 1976 the kids in my classes began to spit at one another and use the middle-finger salute. Genuinely appalled, I pretty soon found out where they got it from when I heard the Sex Pistols. Compared to the later version with Sid Vicious on bass, this version is almost good. Glen Matlock really wanted to be in the Beatles. More than that, after reading the French symbolist poets and learning about the shock tactics of the Situationists, I kind of get it. What is wrong with trying to waken us all from our mindless consumer trance? And anyway, I should have been ready after years of listening to the Dadaist genius Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart. A friend of mine once said that, in certain moods, nobody but the good Captain made any sense.
Earlier than punk, the Ramones were punk in all but name. I’ve recently posted a clip of them on Facebook, so how about a bit of Canvey Island caterwauling to remind us that pub rock bands like Doctor Feelgood were punk’s John the Baptists. The clip even begins with some pompous pop punditry to get you in a snarling and rebellious mood.
One record that always had us dancing round the room in the mid-60s was Desmond Decker’s Israelites. Infectious rhythms carried its bible-centred social message, a plea for the poor man and his family, deep inside the dancers. There was something almost shamanistic about its effect.
The Virgin Front Line sampler records which came out in the late 1970s were infused with the same social conscience, angrier by now and less accepting of inequality. Stand Up For Your Right was a spirited Bob Marley contribution and another was War/No More Trouble, his effective musical setting of a Haile Selassie speech on the album Rastaman Vibration, here given a crystal-clear performance. You can tell the words mattered to him.
When the first blues boom petered out reggae was a natural successor, an earthy counterweight to the excesses of prog rock. It became as popular in the UK as soul music was in the 60s, spawning several homegrown bands. Some were sweet, even saccharine, like Aswad and UB40. Others turned it into a knees-up, like the zany Selecter and the musical hall shenanigans of Madness. But the band that caught the zeitgeist best were the Specials who came up with an eerie, dystopian classic called Ghost Town.
Back to the Roots
Reggae, blues, folk … ah yes, folk music, the bedrock of everything from Bob Dylan and the Byrds to the San Francisco scene and British folk-rock … at its most haunting on the Celtic fringe with the likes of The Bothy Band or rocked up to good effect by Horslips.
The Wanderer Returns
Disco, New Romantic posturing, the keyboard taking over from the guitar so that guitars started to sound like keyboards … to anyone who’d grown up in the vibrant vital 1960s, it all seemed like a horrible fall from grace. There were flashes of light in the gloom, of course, as when I drove into the school car-park just in time to register my form group when Golden Brown, a gorgeously baroque love-song – or so I assumed in my respectably romantic middle-class innocence – came on the radio. Hmm, maybe keyboards aren’t so bad after all, I thought … and that morning there was nobody to nag the kids for being late, because it was Sir who rolled up long after the bell.
A few exceptions proved the rule, however, and Tin Pan Alley ruled OK. The suits had triumphed, it seemed, in keeping with the new brutalities of runaway capitalism. My busy job and the enjoyable occupation of family life took centre stage and music dropped out of my life, apart from occasional forays into my vinyl collection.
The big return came in the early 90s. I was going to drive a group of 6th formers to the school’s outward-bound centre in the Peak District for a creative weekend. Their education would start with the first turn of the ignition key, I decided, and put on a cassette tape of something from the old days – something good to balance the pap they usually listened to … but they outvoted me and put on an album I’d never heard, Pearl Jam’s Ten. Hmm, I thought, proper guitar music is back. And songwriting, too. Then they put on Rage Against the Machine. Hmm, I thought, proper guitar music allied with social anger. Then they put on Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit …
The education turned out to be all mine, kids … and thanks! Then the release of John Lee Hooker’s wonderful collaboration album The Healer (hit the link for JLH and Carlos Santana on the title track) rekindled my passion for the blues and related forms. My recommenced journey went via Noo Orlins and the sublime funky soul groove of the Neville Brothers.
And then I caught the Colin Staples Blues Band playing live at a local pub, an impassioned performance that turned me on to live music again. Hit their name to find the video link, showing them at the Running Horse in Nottingham.
My kids bought me a ten-hole harmonica and a good instruction book, which told me how to bend notes and stuff. In between the technical chapters, the author cleverly inserted sly propaganda along these lines… you’re standing by the side of the stage – the lead guitarist gives you the nod – you’re on, for the very first time – you blow a safe note – the band exchanges smiles of approval – you’ve arrived … And so I started getting up at Colin’s blues jams and Ian ‘Doc’ Shellard’s open mic nights, both very supportive to a rookie green behind the ears.
The Runner became my second home, with Barry Middleton and others bringing us wonderful blues and rock acts from Britain, Europe and the States. The audience regulars provided our new social life, there were plenty of crazy shindigs and our CD collection also grew by leaps and bounds. I began to review gigs for Blues in Britain and started a preview column in the Nottingham Evening Post. Paul Morgan from the City Council was putting on world-class blues acts at the Old Vic and the annual Riverside Festival. It was the second blues boom in Britain and Nottingham certainly had its fair share of the fun.
And So We Face the Final Curtain …
Have I enjoyed this cakewalk through my musical memories? Does Simon Cowell take out his money when he’s all alone and cackle to himself as he counts it?
You betcha …
Well, Mr Moneybags, music is a temple that you pollute with filthy lucre. Music is a place where people can feel a shared kinship, as anyone who has stood around a piano and sung in unison will testify. I suspect music has played a big part in human evolution – never mind homo sapiens, maybe we’re the musical ape. All art aspires to the condition of music, according to Walter Pater, and he has a point. We know that life is finite and are always aware of Time’s winged chariot hurrying near, as Andrew Marvell put it. Music makes its own time and can offer a kind of relief from the remorseless ticking of the clock. And music can put us in touch with the past like nothing else.
It can also put us in touch with one another. Music is an ocean we all swim in, a common language, a perfect democracy. You can’t argue about music because in the end it comes down to personal taste. I prefer spontaneous dialogue to premeditated monologue and go for improvised music rather than anything too arranged or contrived … unless it happens to be a Sunday morning, when a stately piece of early music or something baroque like Bach or Mozart does the business. I draw the line at opera but, hey, each to their own as the actress said to the bishop. You see, any attempt to argue about music is doomed to failure … unless you disagree with any of the choices I’ve made, of course, in which case you have absolutely no taste whatsoever! But perhaps we can both agree with Nietzsche who said that without music, life is unimaginable.
One last clip, then … but where to start? Blues, soul, jazz, folk, reggae, rock, rap … er, how did that last one sneak in? I well remember Randy Newman on Desert Island Discs banging on about Kirsty Young being an evil woman because she was forcing him to choose a mere eight records. I should be so lucky … one last clip, then, and what could be nicer than chilling out with Miles Davis and John Coltrane on So What? After all, it’s only music …