Expect there to be a lot of Sixties music on the Infinite Jukebox. I might have missed the decade musically, all but the last ten days of it, but I listened to Radio One throughout the Seventies, and one couldn’t do that without developing a pretty detailed grasp of the music of that era.
Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ was a three week number 1 in the summer of 1969, a classic One Hit Wonder from a band that took its name from perhaps the least important member, and which wasn’t really a band at all. Indeed, I doubt I ever heard the single at the time, and I first got to know it well by taping it off Terry Wogan’s show, back in the day when large swathes of Radio One’s airtime was still being shared with Radio Two, and he cut the song well short, as he usually did back then: try listening to a song all the way through on Wogan’s show. But I loved the song, and I was one of the few who wanted to hear more from Thunderclap Newman, and in a poll for the greatest number One single of all time, this has my vote firmly in its back pocket.
Though they toured, briefly, as a five-piece, Thunderclap Newman were effectively a three-man operation, though ‘Something in the Air’ was recorded as a four-piece, with a guy named Bijou Drains on bass and arrangements. Well, for this recording he was named Bijou Drains, though most people knew him as a boiler-suited, arm-swinging guitarist with a big nose, who wrote songs for the Who under the name of Pete Townsend. And there were those who were convinced that Thunderclap Newman were a pseudonym for Townsend.
But there was an Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman, who was a jazz-loving piano player, with a heavy pair of hands, who worked as a GPO Engineer, dressed like someone twice his age, and refused to get into the music business because he wanted to make sure of his Post Office pension.
And there was Jimmy McCullogh, who was from Glasgow and could play guitar like both an angel and a devil, which was seriously impressive since he was only 15.
And there was John ‘Speedy’ Keen, drummer, singer with an extraordinary nasal whine, rock’n’roller, Who roadie, Townsend’s chauffeur, best mate and Best Man at his wedding. Speedy wrote songs. He was the only guy outside the band to write an original song that The Who had recorded. And Townsend wanted to showcase his mate’s songs, one of which was ‘Revolution’, that is, until the Beatles recorded their song of the same name, which meant that Speedy’s song had to be re-named ‘Something in the Air’.
What a title! In just four words, Keen captured something mystical, the sense of possibility, the atmosphere of change.
The words of the song are simple enough, three verses and choruses, in which only the first line changes. Call out the instigators because there’s Something in the Air/We got to get together sooner or later because the Revolution’s here. And you know it’s right. We have got to get it together, we have got to get it together now.
But the music surrounds it with the haze of summer, McCullough’s twelve-string guitar filling the air, filling the sky, Speedy’s simple yet expressive drumming controlling the movement, Thunderclap’s piano as yet an understated, rhythmic underpinning. It feels like summer, it tastes like summer, with that something more somewhere out there, beyond the reach of the senses but forever on the edge of them.
Lock up the streets and houses, Keen wails, before going on to repeat the lines we’ve already heard, his falsetto yelp filling us with anticipation and desperation both. We have got to get it together, now.
Then the music dissolves, and as if from a different recording studio, from a different session, another song entirely, Thunderclap inserts an astonishing, tub-thumping piano solo that takes the song over, takes it somewhere else, fills the ears with mystery. The others clap, loud, the percussion for this session as the music spins and whirls into itself, the sound dying down as the strings begin to soar, such a soaring, louder, higher, more insistent than before, as McCullough’s guitar and some understated horn rising from the mix underpin Keen’s final, pleading howl. Hand out the arms and ammo, we’re going to blast our way through here. The time’s come, the moment when it depends on faith, courage and despair, when we decide who wins and where history will go next.
And you know it’s right.
Again and again, the horns spiraling, we have got to get it together, we have got to get it together. Now.
And then it ends (though it didn’t that first time, when I taped it off Wogan, who faded it at the end of Newman’s implausible solo). Did we win? No, not in real life. But in the four minutes of genius that Speedy Keen wrote and Pete Townsend constructed, the Revolution is still alive, the summer is hot and the air is pregnant. All we have to do is to get it together. Now.