The Infinite Jukebox: John Stewart’s ‘Armstrong’

I know that this will seem unlikely to you, but there was a time when Noel Edmonds was a Radio 1 DJ because he was enthusiastic about music. This is obviously a long time ago, 1971-3 in fact, when Edmonds had the Sunday morning show from 10.00 – 12.00, immediately after the still-extant Junior Choice.
I’d lie in and listen to the show all the way through, enjoying Edmonds’ chat – it was a long time ago – and relishing the music. Funnily enough, out of all the stuff he played then, there are only two albums that I remember listening to. One was the third Pete Atkin album, A King at Nightfall, the first Atkin I’d heard since Kenny Everett used to play ‘The Master of the Revels’. The other was an album by American country singer John Stewart, entitled The Lonesome Picker Rides Again.
Stewart had a rich, dark voice, but his main claim to commercial fame was as the writer of The Monkees’ last Top Ten hit, ‘Daydream Believer’. Indeed, Stewart had recorded the song itself for this album, and Edmonds gave it a generous amount of time, leading to a steady influx of aggravated letters from Monkees fans, offended at the mere idea of someone else trespassing on their old favourites’ turf. Stewart being the writer without whom, was no excuse.
I only remember one other song from that album, though I’m sure Edmonds played all of them at one point or another, and that song was ‘Armstrong’. Though it was often lost in longer-term memory storage, it has stayed in my head for the near half-century since then.
As songs go, musically, it’s undeniably pleasant without being exceptional in any respect. A mid-tempo, acoustic song with careful, cautious backing. It’s the words that bind us.
In 1973, and thenabouts, the name Armstrong could have referred to only one man, Commander Neil Armstrong, Commander of the Apollo 9 Mission, the Eagle that Landed. Armstrong was the first man who had strode across space to stand on the surface of a body in this Universe that was not our green Earth. Neil Armstrong was the first.
Even in 1969, when Stewart originally wrote and recorded the song, the Moon programme was deeply controversial. To me it was the thrill of a lifetime, the idea becoming the fact that we could step from our planet to another, that we could, maybe, one day, move outwards, see what was out there. But others, and they were far from unjustified, protested that with all the problems we had and have on our own ground, it was obscene to waste all that money that could be used to help alleviate fear, poverty and hunger.
‘Armstrong’ straddles that dichotomy in a manner that completely conceals Stewart’s position in that debate. Black boy in Chicago, he introduces, playing in the street, not near enough to wear, not near enough to eat. The second verse repeats the scenario, this time with a young girl in Calcutta, nearly eight years old, the flies that swarm the marketplace will see she don’t get old.
Two verses, two children. You could write a million of them, each one an argument, but in each case Stewart switches track instantly. Don’t you know he saw it/she heard it on a July afternoon, saw a man named Armstrong walked upon the moon.
Is Stewart holding up Neil Armstrong as a pinnacle of achievement, uniting the world for one brief moment in awe that we have done this, that we can do this, an inspiration that draws us literally to look up at the stars? Or is he showing that Armstrong’s feat is merely a distraction, that he and what he achieved and everything that was done to put him there and bring him back is a complete irrelevance to this little boy, this little girl, and all the others whose stories could have been sewn into this song?
There’s a third verse to this song and Stewart uses it to move outward in general terms, universalising the problems mankind faces. The rivers are getting dirty, the wind is getting bad, war and hate are killing off the only earth we have. But the world all stopped to watch it… We got together, one time, all of us, for a moment, stopped in our tracks, removed from the problems around us, everyone. To watch a man named Armstrong walk upon the Moon.
Stewart repeats his chorus, leaving us to reflect that when that moment was over, we became who we were again, and none of our problems went away. He is not going to come out on either side. His only other comment, a mixture of the iconic, the religious and the ironic, is to wonder if, a long time ago, somewhere in the Universe, they, whoever ‘they’ may be, watched a man named Adam walk upon the Earth.
I grew up on Dan Dare, I thrilled to the mere idea of space travel becoming real. We walked upon the Moon when I was only 13, though we didn’t go much further than that. When Neil Armstrong died I was stunned by the sense of loss I felt, that something vital had gone out of the world.
Yet still I recognise all the counter-claims, the cries that the Apollo Missions were an indulgence, that they were militarised in nature, that the billions of dollars could have been spent on more worthwhile things that benefited masses of people. But I am spellbound by the thought of a July afternoon, when a man named Armstrong walked upon the Moon.
Paradoxically, when I went in search of the song on YouTube, digging in memories, I wasn’t aware there had been an earlier version and I downloaded and played and familiarised myself with the first version. Stewart’s voice is lighter, smoother. In the version I heard from Noel Edmonds, he sounds infinitely older and wearier. I prefer the former version. When the song demands attention through its words, that’s easy to do, so I present that version for you to share.

The Infinite Jukebox: Reparata’s ‘Shoes’

I’ve thought about writing about this unusual but fun song several times but have always been held back by the conviction that I have already. But a prolonged search on the blog, and an equally prolonged search of my laptop shows no sign of even the word Reparata being used. So be prepared to hear a complicated tale about a hit that never was.
The name Reparata immediately leads the connoisseur of Sixties music to the New York girl group Reparata and The Delrons, whose only success in the UK charts came in 1968 when they took their twee and bubbly song ‘Captain of your Ship’ to no. 13. They had the typical girl group format, Reparata – real name Mary Aiese – as the lead singer, the Delrons (one of whom was stone cold gorgeous) as the backing voices.
‘Captain of your Ship’s British Top 20 score was the girls’ biggest success. They were used as backing singers on the Stones’ ‘Honky Tonk Women’, but in 1969, Reparata left the group, after marrying, leaving Lorraine Mazzola to take over lead vocals. And, in due course, start to call herself Reparata. You can see what’s coming, can’t you?
Mary O’Leary, as she now was, returning to recording in 1971 on a solo basis, using the Reparata name, which she’d taken on her confirmation. The other Reparata became a backing singer for Barry Manilow.
We jump now to late 1974. Mary Reparata records the song ‘Shoes’, written by Eric Beam and recorded by his band, Felix Harp in 1973. There’d been other versions released but Reparata’s version came out in the UK as a promo single in late 1974, using a remix on the original backing track. It was then released commercially in spring 1975 on a different label and started getting airplay in America.
A problem arose when Lorraine Reparata sued her former bandmate over the use of the name, killing the song’s momentum in the United States. That didn’t stop the single being released in the UK in October, picking up radio airplay and starting to pick up sales. Tony Blackburn made it his Record of the Week, everyone was expecting a Top 10 hit, and then – a second crunch.
Reparata had signed an exclusive three year deal with Dart Records entitling them to sole ownership of all her works and recordings. It had expired in February 1975, but they were convinced the song must have been recorded before then, which we know it was. Therefore it belonged to them, not to Polydor. The song was building, It was in the chart, it had reached no 43…
And Dart Records applied for an injunction against Polydor selling it.
Result: people want to buy the record, in increasing numbers, but it isn’t in the shops, it isn’t being pressed, Radio 1 has stopped playing it – what’s the point of playing a single you can’t buy, no matter how much you rate it? No top 10, not even a top 42. And, as was inevitable, when the dispute was resolved, when the single was once again made available, in two identical versions, one on each label, the time had gone. ‘Shoes’ was a thing of the past. No-one was interested.
Now I didn’t know any of this in 1975.I just assumed that the Great British Record Buying Public had exercised it’s inalienable right to get it all wrong again and didn’t like the record. Some indefinable time later, I heard about the record not being in the shops when wanted, and even then I just assumed it was the same story that cropped up from time to time. Some singles, even albums sometimes, were never the hits they would have been because the recording printing presses weren’t printing the physical copies. Press-shop strikes put paid to Kirsty MacColl’s original ‘They Don’t Know’, priority runs for more popular bands meant Pete Atkin fans couldn’t get his albums. In those days it wasn’t quite vinyl or nothing but it was close, and the idea of the ‘cassingle’ – which never caught on – hadn’t arisen.
Reparata just ended up screwed up by time and circumstance.
But what of ‘Shoes’ itself, the song, the singing? Is it worth all this long-winded fuss after all?
Obviously I think so. It’s an odd little number, starting off with its subject being a wedding, not one of pop’s top five subjects for a song. Then there’s Reparata’s calm, understated vocals, sung in a lower register that was usual for her, low enough to mislead some listeners into thinking this was a male singer, and causing others to claim that this somewhat unemotional treatment is intended to cast a shadow of unease, an undermining of what’s being sung about here. And there’s the song’s odd structure, without a chorus, without a break in tempo, and it’s unusual mixture of instruments, the main rhythm played on harpsichord, an enthusiastic bouzouki break, namechecked in the lyrics. They say the song has a ‘Middle Eastern’ feel but, despite Reparata being Catholic, and the song hinting at a Catholic ceremony, I’ve always felt ‘Shoes’ to be strongly Greek in flavour.
And what I hear is celebration, love and celebration, spreading way beyond the couple tying their happy knot, Johnny and Louise both on their knees, praying to God confess them that he may bless them on their wedding day… You’re getting a bit of the idea now. It’s a stream of lyrics, one following another, all building into the sensation of a great big affair of family and friend bringing their abounding warmth and love to the occasion. Father following them as they run down the aisle, throwing rice, Uncle Jerry opening the wine…
Why’s it called ‘Shoes’? It wasn’t known by that name until Reparata recorded it. The title comes in the only couplet whose meaning isn’t open and clear: Mother didn’t give her abuse, she didn’t forget her shoes. What? Are you sure that word is abuse? On a 1975 transistor radio I always heard it as ‘her views’. What is it about the shoes anyway?
But really it doesn’t matter, the song’s long past that by now, we’ve leapt from wedding to reception, Tom brings his band, bouzouki in his hand, and yes, here it comes, and Reparata’s voice lifts as she tells us everything’s so grand and gay, we can frolic all day, but don’t wait a moment, Louise starts to dance, Johnny gets a glance from all the other girls who smile, cos they know all the while, and what they know is that when the happy couple retire to their secret place to make love there’ll be music filling the air…
And the music fills the air, with a moment of an angel choir, and a break in the unchanging rhythm for clap and ‘hey hey hey’s but even though the song fades out there’s the sense that it’s still going on, that Johnny and Louise’s wedding reception is still going on, Louise is dancing, Tom’s bouzouki is still in his hand, and I really don’t get this idea of bittersweet or an ironic undercutting, because all I hear is celebration, which makes this song alive.
I really would have liked to have seen Reperata reach the Top Ten. I bet it would have peaked at no. 8: that’s what it was like in those days.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Small Faces’ ‘Lazy Sunday’

The Small Faces only had one no.1 single in their career, but if there was any justice to pop, they would have scored the top again two years later, in 1968, with ‘Lazy Sunday’. Instead, they had to settle for a no. 2, unable to force their way past Louis Armstrong. It’s not right – and I love ‘What a Wonderful World’.
It was two years on. The band were no longer the mod rockers of old, the little band with the astonishing power, the blues-edged group of tremendous energy. They’d left the manager who’d been ripping them off, they’d signed to Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate Records, they’d embraced psychedelia without abandoning their musical roots, and in ‘Lazy Sunday’ they were ready to produce a masterpiece. A casual, lazily-thrown-off song that chucked in a bunch of ingredients without seeming to care if they worked together or not, but a masterpiece because it all did. Multi-faceted, combining rock, and pop, and music hall, and psychedelia, Cockney urchin charm and the freedom that was breathed in with the air of 1968, in your face and heedless of your face. ‘Lazy Sunday’ was everything you wanted and didn’t expect, in just a few seconds over three minutes.
A progressive band would have needed at least three sides (with a Roger Dean gatefold cover) to do so much.
The big, bold sounds hits you in the face with a loud electric piano roll-up by Ian McLagen, topped by a tap on the kit from Kenny Jones and Steve Marriott, the chirpy cockney settling in to tell you what it’s all abart. But cockney kid though he may be, heart of London, this is 1968, no Pearly Kings and Queens, Marriott’s yet younger generation. Wouldn’t it be nice to get on with me neighbours? he complains, and the band agree with a brisk, brief, brash guitar-dominated thrash, but they make it very clear, they’ve got no room for ravers. (cue party noises, oy-oying, as if something’s leaked from a Tremeloes session). Oh yes, it’s a generation thing.
They stop me from grooving, they bang on me walls, they’re doing me crust in, it’s no good at all, oh… But Marriott and Plonk Lane can’t keep it in, and McLagen and Jones are there with their mates, and besides it’s a Lazy Sunday Afternoon and he’s got no mind to worry, close my eyes and drift away.
And Lazy Sunday afternoons aren’t meant for worries. Everybody troops down to a Rainbow Room, but there’s one of those neighbours, and Steve’s not for arguing on a Sunday, gor blimey Mrs Jones, ‘ow’s your Bert’s lumbago? but sweeping on even as she mumbles in the background ”ere, mustn’t grumble’ and Plonk’s mouthing ‘tiddly bass’ as Steve’s offering to sing a song with no words and no tune, to sing on your khazi as you suss out the moon, oh yeah.
And the chorus sings out with it’s buoyant urgency, and we feel that maybe in this London gallimaufrey someone’s been smoking something the Law would rather they didn’t, on a Lazy Sunday Afternoon, Aroo dee doo dee doo, aroo dee doo dee die day (roll of piano), Aroo dee doo dee doo, aroo dee doo dee doo dee, and the tone of the sing changes for a moment as Marriott turns to his white soul boy roar, singing with desperate urgency that there’s no-one to hear me, there’s nothing to say, and no-one can stop me from feeling this way, stripped down into his core, his generation’s time…
But that’s too much for a Lazy Sunday Afternoon in 1968, in the summer, in London, surrounded by strangers who you still know all too well, let things drift, let the music cool, close my eyes and drift away, close my mind and drift away, close my eyes and drift away, and so we do, leaving Steve and his mates to sleep it off in their peace and quiet.
It feels ramshackle but then it’s meant to do. It’s The Small Faces, chucking in stuff with abandon, playing up to their roots, mocking them and themselves but still relishing who and what they are, and how the world looks on a lazy Sunday afternoon when you’ve nothing to do and all the day to do it in. The Rascals found themselves groovin’ on a Sunday afternoon, full of yearning and aching, but The Small Faces could never be that laidback, even when they were laid back, and boy were we glad of it!
Aroo dee doo dee doo, aroo dee doo dee die day.

The Infinite Jukebox: Graham Bonney’s ‘Super Girl’

Some songs are doomed to be regarded as minor songs: not necessarily for anything to do with the song or its quality. One-hit wonders whose one hit doesn’t make it that far up the chart fall into this category, remembered nostalgically but dismissed as being of any importance, or influence.
I’m not going to claim that Graham Bonney’s one-off hit, ‘Super Girl’, which got to no 19 in 1966, is any greater or more influential than it is. It’s of no great weight or moment, just a typical pop song of 1966, a thing of and reflecting its times. Bonney, who was far more successful in Europe, especially Germany where he had a string of hits over many years, co-wrote the song with professional songwriter Barry Mason, co-composer of many MOR and pop smashes.
I’ve heard ‘Super Girl’ described as Northern Soul and whilst the songs medium tempo doesn’t really sit well with that category, it’s lazy swing, its upbeat air and it’s saxophone soundtrack make it easy to hear being blasted out in a crowded club. Bonney himself, at this time, was a young, fresh-faced lad whose cheeky grin was perfect for the song.
It’s a love song. Of course it’s a love song. It starts with a brief joggingly buoyant intro on horns before Bonney comes in, initially using a falsetto to sing some great oo-ee-oos leading into his introductory line, ‘Hey, super girl (hey hey)’. The song’s wormed its way into our head before he’s even dropped down into his natural register to plead his case. Hey super girl, with your fine feathered friends, super girl, let’s leave them, we don’t need them tonight.
There’s a clash of worlds thing going on here. He wants her and he loves her, and he wants her to understand that she may be running with a fashionable crowd, one that can afford fine fancy clothes for her, that have pretty things, but only he really sees her, sees her as the super girl of whom he dreams: he’s only at the fringes of this superficial world, but he’s the only one she needs, because he and only he loves her.
Bonney sings his plea with a lightness, a casualness that only in moments slips to reveal the depth of his feelings that match the song’s lyrics. Little inflexions in the voice, a moment of depth, almost of despair in how he sings ‘but they ain’t got what true love brings’.
There’s a middle eight that uses rumbling saxophones to sustain the melody as Bonney returns to his falsetto, singing his oo-ee-oos and calling her super girl again. Until he returns with his plea, to see what she has before her.
Because this world in which she orbits might be bright and breezy but it’s only puddle deep, and he wants her to leave her golden cage, for him, who will love her tonight and, by implication, forever after. He will give her something much more important than good times, if she is ready to want them.
There’s nothing to either song or performance to put this anywhere near a first rank of Sixties singles, yet it’s a nice, bouncy little mover, with a lightness of touch that echoes Bonney’s surface smoothness, incongruous though it is to the message he’s giving. Can serious commitment really be this light-hearted? Well, why not?
Even so, he’s still got to convince her, and the song doesn’t let us in on whether she listens or not. Instead, there’s a subtle downturn, as Bonney cries again, Super Girl, oo-ee-oo, Super Girl, a slight, almost subliminal slowing of the tempo, a slight mournfulness of the horns creeping in, as if to prepare the ground for his ultimate failure. But I say that if she loves her dancing, with a bit of good honest worship thrown in, he should find her bopping happily in front of him, returning his grin, for the rest of the night.
A song doesn’t have to be heavy to be meaningful, or meaningful to be delightful.

The Infinite Jukebox: Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘Pavanne’

A long time ago, almost forty years, late one night on BBC2, I found myself watching a television performance of Richard and Linda Thompson. Other than idle curiosity, I don’t know what motivated me to put the programme on: I believe it had already started. No doubt I was just putting off going to bed.
I knew very little of the Thompsons, though in a few years I would know much more. I knew of them mostly from the New Musical Express, my weekly music bible from 1972 to 1987, where Richard remained very much a favourite. And I definitely heard ‘I want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’, an unusual choice to be favoured by Piccadilly Radio 261, when commercial radio reached Manchester. If I knew any other songs even fleetingly, I can’t remember: my friends were all into prog and I didn’t develop friendships with those who were Richard Thompson fans until later that decade.
It might have been a Jake Thackeray programme on which they guested. I’d have watched that. The point was that I came into this cold, in silence and solitude, and the first song that hit me was ‘Pavanne’
Hit me was right. It stunned me into total fascination. Then, before and since I rarely gave a brand new song, by brand new artists, such undivided attention. For five minutes, as it unwound itself simply, an acoustic guitar and that amazing voice of Linda Thompson, slowly drawing out the image of a female assassin, a cold steel woman, infallible and implacable held me rigid, intent only on what this amazing song would do, where it would go to next.
Enigma, impossible to feel as a corporeal woman, lethal in effect yet curiously neutral in impact, neither to be despised nor idolised, Pavanne was a woman whose name was taken from an old, slow, courtly dance, as referenced in the song’s lyrics. I was familiar with the term from my comics reading, for Pavanne was an assassin elsewhere, a foe of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu.
It was an astonishing experience. By the time the song was over, I wanted it. In contrast, the other song they played that night (which was ‘Just a Motion’ if it was indeed that Jake Thackeray Show) didn’t affect me remotely as much.
The track appeared on the Thompson’s album First Light. Good though it was, it was lacking. The intensity of the performance, the stripped down force, the aura around Linda’s voice just wasn’t there to be heard on vinyl. Other songs, yes. The title track, for example, was wonderful. And in time I would discover the full I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight which is awesome, and the alternate, electric version of ‘A Heart Needs A Home’, which always makes me wonder why on earth they released the original, acoustic version, on Hokey Pokey.
Truth to tell, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight is the only wholly satisfying, front to back Richard and Linda album for me, though for near forty years the alternate ‘Heart’ has fought it out with ‘Pavanne’ for exclusive rights to be called the favourite. ‘Heart’ has an edge in that I know it only as the recorded track, and ‘Pavanne’s most pure and affecting form is locked in a memory from so far back.
There are different versions of the song on YouTube. The one I’ve chosen to highlight comes from the Thompsons’ last tour in 1981, which makes it contemporaneous with that five stunned and yearning minutes that television night. In some ways it’s almost better. Richard plays guitar, Linda sings, but from the moment she starts she is scary cold, ice and steel. She isn’t singing this song, she is inhabiting it. Every inflexion in her voice is simultaneously intimate and distant. She might be Pavanne herself. Eyes cold as the barrel of her gun. The woman who has never missed her mark.
And this performance was part of the farewell tour in which the Thompsons’ marriage was a hollow thing of hatred on both sides but his guitar and her voice are meshed together without a gap between them that you could fit the blade of a knife into.
Sometimes what art demands of us is scary beyond belief.

The Infinite Jukebox: Dusty Springfield’s ‘I Only Want To Be With You’

Considering that the last song ever released in the Sixties is now over fifty years old, I still find it amazing that so much of the sounds from that time nevertheless sound so fresh, and bright, it’s innate energy in no way dissipated by time and familiarity. The Beatles are the obvious example, but then again so are The Rolling Stones, and The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces: over 90% of them, all filled with the enthusiasm, the rush of creation.
But it’s not just the bands, from whom it might be expected. The same irrepressible energy, the same burning eagerness to be up there, out there, in front of it all rings through artists you wouldn’t expect it from. Girl singers, Cilla Black, had their own style, but they weren’t expected to be so forthright, to be forward at all. Dusty Springfield’s acknowledged masterpiece is the slow, dramatic, sophisticated, heavily-orchestrated ‘You don’t have to say you love me’ and, let’s face it, she had one of the world’s greatest blue-eyed soul singing voices.
But listen to ‘I only wanna be with you’, her first solo single, her first hit in 1963. Up till then she’d been a third of The Springfields, including her brother Tom, singing light, gentle pop-folk. Dusty felt limited, and ‘I only wanna be with you’, from the moment of it’s bluesy horns introduction, is the sound of a girl casting off her limitations, and casting off her inhibitions.
It’s a glorious, shameless, excited declaration of love, a whirl of feelings, sung with confidence and joy by Dusty. Her head and her heart have come together over this guy she’s met, she confesses she doesn’t know why she loves him so, they’re the first words she comes out with. The only thing she knows is that she never wants to let him go.
And it’s a whirlwind, she can’t stop, the words, the delirium of love gush out unstoppably. Cause you started something, oh can’t you see? That ever since we met you’ve had a hold on me. It’s crazy but it’s true, I only wanna be with you.
And once she’s started, she can’t stop, the words pour out, the girl’s giddy, telling him in so many ways of her complete dedication to him, no matter where he goes she wants to be by his side, the sheer disbelief that she can feel this way, the release of joy and glory, and how improbable it all was. A request for a dance, falling into his arms, not standing a chance, you started something with just one kiss, I never knew that I could be in love like this. Even when Dusty takes a break, to revolve and dance, the strings maintain the flow, the energy.
Who is this wonder man, what has he got that turns her head so? And is it, really, real? The brilliance of it all is that it doesn’t matter. Sure, we in the Twenty-First Century wince a little over the line about his having a hold on Dusty, but we who have been in love also remember the times when we would do anything for them, no matter what. He might be someone ultra special but he could just as easily be someone as ordinary as us. He needn’t even be a man, since we now know that Mary O’Brien loved otherwise. The point is that he is her love, and her love overwhelms her, as love overwhelms all of us. Dusty’s inside that feeling, and it lights up everything, and the song throws itself into our faces with recognition and a glow of, yes, that word again, energy, that hasn’t dimmed by a fraction in nearly sixty years.
Dusty wouldn’t always be like that, she was too good, too versatile, to stick to any one style. She was at her most successful when she performed at her most conventional, big ballads, ‘You don’t have to say you love me’ and ‘I just don’t know what to do with myself’, and she could be impossibly, lovingly wistful on the nostalgia of ‘Going Back’. And then there was Dusty in Memphis.
But she hit the ground running, literally running, with this song, and it has an indelible place in the long long list of songs in the Sixties that took up the optimism, the hope, the confidence and the energy of those years, that decade, that grabbed what was happening with both hands, and Dusty took love and delight and wrapped them up in two minute and thirty-five seconds of bloody perfection.

A Matter of Respect: Michael Nesmith R.I.P.

An actor chosen to play the calm, cool one in a bunch of zany kids who were in a band, Michael Nesmith was the first of The Monkees to gain respect for his musical abilities, even as he always admitted that Peter Tork was a better guitarist than himself. I like The Monkees more than my contemporaries will tell me I should have, and among their albums it is the songs with Nesmith’s voice on that I listen for the most. Now he too has gone on ahead, leaving only Micky Dolenz left. This song was always my favourite. Sing it in his spirit.

The Infinite Jukebox: Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Expecting to Fly’

Before he launched onto a career of fifty-odd (some very odd!) albums in fifty years, Neil Young was one fifth of a West Coast band of the kind they don’t seem to make any more. Three-fifths of that band became prominent figures in the music of the Seventies, Steven Stills as part of Crosby, Stills and Nash, sometimes incorporating his Canadian ex-partner and Richie Furay as leader and driver of the underrated Poco. I mean neither of them any disrespect if I suggest that, in longevity terms, Neil Young is the one who really counts.
The band they all graced was Buffalo Springfield, noted for such Stills songs as the protest-heavy ‘For What It’s Worth’ and the bright and buoyant ‘Rock’n’Roll Woman’. It’s songs like that, upfront and fitted to their times, that stand out, and the band contributed heavily to the development of folk-rock, as well as incorporating a mixture of genres into their acclaimed style.
It’s not just Young’s work with the band that attracts me to Buffalo Springfield but it’s fair to say that it is his songs that attract me the most, and in particular, the extraordinarily beautiful ‘Expecting to Fly’ from the band’s second album, Buffalo Springfield Again.
The song is a haunting, delicate experience, with Young’s cracked-falsetto vocals at their sweetest and most plaintive, and the song is a fragile ballad of loss, of regret for someone leaving, and for all the things remaining unsaid. It is, in practical terms, a Neil Young solo, for his is the only voice heard on the song, and the instrumentation is a deep, slow, aching orchestration put together by Jack Nitzche over Young’s strummed acoustic guitar and delicate electric guitar figures.
The track introduces itself by means of a low drone, growing in intensity until the first taste of strings intrudes upon the sound. Young uses the acoustic guitar to create, not a rhythm but a sense of momentum whilst leaving his electric contributions to be complemented by Nitzche’s strings. But it is the picture he paints, the story he outlines, that goes to the heart.
Young sings the opening couple of lines in almost a state of amusement: there you stood on the edge of your feather, expecting to fly. It’s an absurd image, but no less a serious moment, immediately amended as he goes on, in a much darker manner, albeit denied by the smoothness and lightness of his voice, admitting that he laughed but at the same time he laughed he wondered if he could wave goodbye, the whole thing coming into focus on the simple, single line, Knowing that you’re gone.
The feather and the flying are no longer absurd, they’re a metaphor. She’s going away, out into a bigger, wider world than the place she’s been for so long, looking outward to make it for herself in this year of the counterculture in 1967. And it must be alone: you can’t make it for yourself with someone constantly around her, which means leaving Neil behind.
But what of him? He might well sing that by the summer it was healing, recognising the fact that we had said goodbye. But that doesn’t brush under the carpet all those years they spent with feeling, ended with a cry. Ended with a cry, he repeats. But which of them was crying?
The music stretches and curls, as Neil explains just what life is for him, in the wake of her departure or, as it seems to have been, release, for he has not stood in her way, sacrificing his content and life for her need. He tried to stand, but he stumbled and fell to the ground. His loss is plain and heartfelt, he tried so hard to laugh as he fumbled, and reached for the love he’d found. And again, that single, short line, without poetry or flowers, just the plain truth of it: Knowing it had gone.
Alone there, in the midst of this distance, sweet but comfortless, Young reaches back into the confusion of his feelings. If I’d never lived without her, but that’s exactly what he has to be doing now, now she knows I’d die. If I’d never said I loved her, now she knows I’d try.
And that sheds unwanted light on that beginning, tying the song into an unexpected little bundle. Those years of feeling? Just how much of it had been feeling unrevealed, feelings never spoken because, why? Did he assume that she knew and understood him, so that he didn’t need to go against his manliness and tell a girl she was important to him? Does that explain his laughter at the thought of her flying, flying away? Is Neil Young the sole author of his heartbreak and loss?
Neil won’t tell us, nor will Nitzche’s beautiful strings do more than hint. Yet again, this is a Sixties song that tells a story that is an iceberg, nine-tenths of it below the water. We each of us construct our own interpretation, once we move beyond being spellbound by the yearning and the loss and the beauty of the music and the voice.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Scorpions’ ‘Wind of Change’

This is almost the perfect recording. A Hard Rock band, and a German one at that, singing in stilted English, a rock power ballad designed to have people in football stadiums holding cigarette lighters above their heads, a politely designed guitar solo modulated to demonstrate both your rock cred and your safety to sixty year old bosses, and awkwardly pitched lyrics intoning on a nebulous theme of change in the most obvious of fashions. No, seriously, it all adds up to something that might have been designed to my personal prejudices to be something I can loathe in my very guts.
So why does it give those guts a sucker-punch that sends my spirits soaring every time I hear it?
You could describe it as a bandwagon-hopper, or a soppy and sententious attempt to describe, in non-specific terms, the turning pages of history, and you’d be right. And you can claim that it caught the spirit of the times, the fragility of possibility in a time when no-one knew what the world would turn into, and were fearfully hopeful of a shift away from the decades of underlying fear.
You could charge that it chose to depict this moment by the reference to the biggest cliché of them all, and you could see and dream of the blowing away of clouds and darkness that had overhung our existence, by a hope-to-God irresistible wind, like smoke dispersed from factory chimneys.
And all these contradictions would be true descriptions of the very early 1990s, and somehow, for all its lowest common denominator crudity, ‘Wind of Change’ and The Scorpions summed up what so many of us tremulously hoped for and didn’t dare believe in in our hearts in the immediate aftermath of the end of the Cold War.
It was thirty years ago, which means that at least two generations have grown up without the permanent shadow of the undeclared war between the World’s only two superpowers and the threat of Nuclear Destruction. Two generations who, for all the other fears and concerns of today, do not know and cannot know what it felt like late on a Sunday night to hear that Russia had invaded the Polish dockyards and to go to bed wondering if you would actually get to wake up or if a nuclear exchange would blow apart the world in your sleep.
And then there was 1989, from Tiananmen to Timisoara, as we said then, the year that went from Chinese Army destruction of student protesters seeking democracy to a dictator being destroyed in his place of power in an instant, by a crowd that booed him, and the focal point for that was the fall of the Berlin Wall, that fixture that, for men and women of my generation, was the physical symbol of the Iron Curtain across Europe.
And one day, just like that, it came down. The Immovable Object met the Irresistible Force and the Object moved. And with it went all the certainties of our times and we found ourselves in a world that we didn’t know how to understand but that, for a while, offered us something we had never quite been able to believe in: a future we didn’t expect.
The Scorpions wrote ‘Wind of Change’ off the back of a concert in Moscow the following year. That explains the Russian terms at the start of the song: I followed the Moskva down to Gorky Park. It was the time of Gorbachev, of glasnost and perestroika. Though part of me hates to concede it, because the band had nothing of the sensitivity of Sam Cooke, they too were sniffing the air, tuning in to the Change that was Gonna Come.
Which is why none of the cliches, the clunkiness, the childishly self-important lyrics matter worth a damn. Because for all of us who were there, who’d lived that life until that moment, who’d argued down the pub that nuclear war was inevitable because Man had never created a weapon he hadn’t used, this song sits truly in its time and rides the winds of hope, into a dawning sky that for the first time might be free of cloud. I listen and it is Tiananamen to Timisoara again, the man with the shopping bags stood in the path of tanks to the horror of Nicolae Ceaucescu’s face in that moment his subjects dared to boo, and I remember the disbelief that this was all happening.
And it fucking well does take me to the magic of the moment of that glory night, when it matters not a jot or tittle how you got here or who you came with. And with the knowledge and despair of what that future became, it becomes more important every year.