The Infinite Jukebox: The Small Faces’ ‘All or Nothing’


Several years ago, in a pub at Xmas, among internet friends I had never met before in real life, and only one of whom I have met again since (and I still owe him a round), we talked of many things, music not least. I gave the opinion, agreed upon instantly by everyone, that the most underrated major band of the Sixties were The Small Faces.
When you set them against the likes of The Beatles and The Stones, The Who and The Kinks, The Beach Boys and The Move, indeed any band with a reputable string of hit singles (which excludes Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich and leaves The Tremeloes a borderline case), Messrs Marriott, Lane, McLagen and Jones are the ones who get the raw deal, pushed to the back of the class somehow.
But The Small Faces had a run of singles that stood up against everybody else, and ‘All or Nothing’, their only no. 1, was the best of them, a solid rock of blue-eyed soul, blues and pop. With a fearsome production that made it a chunk of sound, thrusting you out of the way.
Like all such things, I knew The Small Faces from Radio 1’s Golden Oldies of the Seventies, but ‘All or Nothing’ was rarely amongst those: it was always ‘Sha-La-La-La-Lee’, ‘Itchycoo Park’ and ‘Lazy Sunday’. I had to learn to love this one myself.
Of these three, only ‘Sha-La-La-La-Lee’ compares, coming from the same mod blues and rock period of The Small Faces’ career, for with the transfer to Immediate Records in 1967, and the escape from the vicious and restrictive management of future Led Zeppelin manager, Don Arden, the band took a turn into psychedelia, producing the feedback drenched ‘Itchycoo Park’ and the Cockney music hall magnificence of ‘Lazy Sunday’.
And I remember one Saturday night when my mate Alan was at Salford University, going down the bar at their Students Union, discovering ‘All or Nothing’ on the Jukebox. That was one powerful Jukebox, the sound a physical thing, so that I had to retreat very rapidly to avoid being blown away.
But ‘All or Nothing’ is every bit of what it says. After that propulsive intro, Jones’ drums building into the first blur of sound, the wedge of guitar, bass and especially the organ beating upon the ear, Marriott sings out in, at first, relatively restrained fashion, explaining himself to his girl about his need for commitment. All or Nothing.
And Lane and McLagen support him, repeating the title line behind Marriott’s white soul voice, screaming and roaring, vocalising in syllables, not words, his energy bent in impressing that this is what they’re saying. It’s extreme. It is, literally, all or nothing.
Commitment demanded, love from deep inside, from the soul as well as the heart. No games, no playing, no half-measures, nothing casual. All, or nothing, and Marriott’s voice is both pleading and commanding that it be all, absolute All.
Not that I love the song any less, nor want to add my voice to it with any less fervour, but I’m a lot more aware nowadays that Marriott’s demand for commitment makes this another one of those Sixties songs: you know the ones I mean.
It’s all very obvious: I thought you’d listen to my reasoning, he mansplains. But now I see you don’t hear a thing. Try to make you see, how it’s got to be… Ah yes. That’s how it’s got to be, all or nothing, no wishiwashiness, no half-measures. For Marriott, that is. He even says it plainly. All or Nothing. For me…
And if she, for some mysterious, unthinkable, unacceptable reason doesn’t want her All to be given to Marriott, that’s not going to happen. It’s got nothing to do with her, she doesn’t have a choice. I didn’t tell you no lie, yeah, he emphasises. So don’t just sit there and cry…
It’s a masculinist song, alright, from the days when everything was masculinist and no-one thought there was anything wrong with it (well, maybe some of the women, but who listened to them?), and it stands foursquare with the rest of the music of 1966, the last pre-psychedelia year, when the boundaries of what was possible were expanding in every direction before being diffused – some might say too widely – in the haze of acid.
And ‘All or Nothing’ bridges that very conservative blues-rock idiom with the freshness and imagination of the greater freedom growing, and it doesn’t really matter that it did so in the most chauvinist of fashion, because when Kenny Jones pounds the rhythm into being and Steve Marriott, Ian McLagen and Plonk Lane crash into together as an unbreakable unit, the passion takes over and you know that she will respond to that urgency of desire, and that before the song is over, she too will want All and not Nothing.

 

Lost 70s: Volume 19


I know I promised Volume 19 would follow shortly on Volume 18, which was because the two compilations were recorded practically back to back. It’s just that I forgot. Sorry. But better late than not at all. This collection offers 23 tracks, with a fair bit of leaping around in time, a handful of chart hits but mostly low-lyers. I hope there’s a few memories to be evoked here.

Cracking Up            Nick Lowe

Because the New Musical Express espoused punk enthusiastically, at a time when the rest of the country’s press, music or otherwise, was hounding it in the same way they do Jeremy Corbyn these days, there were a lot of people I heard a lot about without hearing anything by. Brinsley Schwarz had never crossed my musical path in the Seventies, though I’d heard of the great 1970 PR Disaster without having a single idea what had happened. But Lowe, or ‘Basher’ as he was nick-named from his Production habits, was taken up by the NME with great gusto, especially for ‘Heart of the City’ (a truly great song and only a b-side). The paper created its own nick-name for Lowe, which he took for the title of his first solo album, Jesus of Cool. It’s sub-title also came from the NME, if my memory is working properly: ‘Pure Pop for Now People’. And Lowe was on a hot streak in those years, turning out pop songs with strength and steel in them, as well as compelling melodies. By the time ‘Cracking Up’ came out as a single, in 1979, Lowe was working as one-fourth (bass) of Rockpile, in partnership with Dave Edmunds. Since the two were tied to contracts with different labels, most of Rockpile’s stuff was released as solo records by Lowe or Edmunds, according to who wrote and sung songs. ‘Cracking Up’ plays with a deliberate flat melody, Lowe half-talking the words, and that’s Edmunds you hear on the chorus. It’s downbeat, smooth on the surface but jagged in more than the lyrics, and Lowe hits the right note of disturbance. Unfortunately, differences between Lowe and Edmunds broke up the Rockpile experiment prematurely, but before they left, they recorded this minor classic that spelled out the seeds of its own demise within. I don’t think it’s funny no more. And when it stops being funny…

Baby Blue              Badfinger

Another cameo for my original naivete. Sometime in late 1969/early 1970, I first read about Badfinger. They were being billed as the ‘new’ or ‘next’ Beatles, from their place on the roster at Apple, and I took it seriously. Nobody else seemed to. The band weren’t all that prolific: ‘Come and Get It’ in 1970, ‘No Matter What’ in 1971, ‘Day After Day’ in 1972. I liked the first two and seriously loved the third. And I waited for 1973 to come round and Badfinger’s annual single. This was it. I didn’t hear it until this year, on YouTube, which makes it one of the Lost Lost 70s. Radio 1 didn’t play it, probably for no better reason than that the band had gone out of fashion. Nothing worse than last year’s model. But it’s brilliant. Archetypal Badfinger, strong song, fluent and melodic playing, a rock underpinning balancing out the pop tune and the harmonies. Archetypal Todd Rundgren production. It reached no 14 in America. Then Apple collapsed and destroyed the band through legal snarls. Pete Ham, who wrote and sang this, committed suicide in 1975. Not hearing ‘Baby Blue’ when I should have done was a waste and a loss, but it pales beside what was done to the band members. That special love I have for you. The horror.

Lido Shuffle           Boz Scaggs

In contrast, we shuffle into 1976, and the end of that very brief period when Boz Scaggs was hitting the commercial heights in the UK. ‘Lido Shuffle’ reached no 13 in early 1977, but it’s still a 1976 song, coming from Scaggs’ most successful album, Silk Degrees. It couldn’t have come from anything but that anteroom of a year, American and polished, rhythmic but not quite disco, but blessed with an uptempo verve and just enough touch of rawness to that chorus to make it worth remembering. This is fun! Woah-oah-aoh-oh-oh-oh.

Groupie Girl                  Tony Joe White

Back to the beginnings, back to basics: and they used to call Creedence Clearwater Revival ‘swamp music’. Tony Joe White crept into the British Charts only once, and this was it, a no. 22 hit of sorts that was sung and played in a low rumble over a minimal tune, about a phenomenon that I didn’t understand and that people who did understand what Tony Joe was singing about didn’t like him singing about it, even when he wasn’t actually endorsing sweet young girls collecting long-haired rockers’ dicks. And they really didn’t like that line about passing her around like a joint. Must we fling this filth at our pop kids? Well, at least one of them didn’t know what you meant and it’s take him nearly fifty years to learn to understand the music, but I got there.

Elizabethan Reggae         Boris Gardiner

I’m a little bit surprised it took me as long as it did, but I didn’t start writing down the Top Thirty every week until the end of May 1970. Once I did, I start to understand and remember things, but that left those first five months as a bit of an anomalous zone, without my ever getting a handle on what was around when, and for how long, and in relation to what. ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ was big, my first real exposure to reggae, but there was also this little oddball, a tune I was familiar with – it’s Ronald Binge’s ‘Elizabethan Serenade’, which only dates from 1951. I’m trumpeting my ignorance yet again, because I knew the melody and thought it was classical music, and I liked this version, even though I was barely able to tell this was different, and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t being played as often as I liked on Radio 1. Of course, it had originally been released as being by Byron Lee and The Dragonaires and I even got a cheap Shudehill Record Stalls copy with them on the label. Now I understand why, but I still like the melody.

The Man Who Sold The World                  Lulu

In 1974, five years after her last hit single, that atrocious piece of Sixties Eurovision, you’d have struggled to find a Bookie who would give you any odds whatsoever on Lulu turning into David Bowie. Hey, the next year, she tried to be George McCrae: can’t fault the wee Scots lassie from trying. Bowie obviously didn’t mind, he produced the Lulu version, arranging the song for a less dark and swirling guitar, decorating the melody with saxaphones and even adding very distinct backing vocals on the chorus. Needless to say, the very idea was considered blasphemy, but if it didn’t bother Mr Jones, who were we to object? Of course, it lacks a tenth of the dimension of the original, but I wasn’t familiar with the original back in 1974 and I was happy with this then. The CD’s only bona fide big hit, but if only she hadn’t covered up that lovely red hair with that panama hat…

Spinnin’ and Spinnin’            Syreeta

Soul just wasn’t my thing in the Seventies, but this beautiful rush of sweetness, written and performed by Stevie Wonder’s ex-wife Syreeta Wright and issued under just her first name was a glorious exception. It’s a heartfelt paean to love and being swept off your feet, matched a musical confection masterminded by Stevie at his most generous and rich. Ain’t never come down yet.

Don’t Touch Me There           The Tubes

For once, I’m including a B-side here, or to use early Seventies parlance that was out of date long before 1977, when The Tubes made their only brief excursion into the British singles chart, a maxi-single. Maxi-singles were hybrid 7”ers. EPs, or Extended Plays for the under twenty-fives here, were 7” vynil with four tracks, two on each side. They had their own, irrelevant charts but some sold well enough to have taken Top Ten places in the singles chart if they’d been included, as indeed they were in the New Musical Express Top Thirty. Maxi-singles came along in 1970, the biggest of them being Mungo Jerry’s ‘In the Summertime’. The difference was that whilst you got an A-side, you got two, count them, two tracks on the B-side, and a hike in price. ‘Don’t Touch Me There’, a massively over-produced, gigantically melodramatic rock’n’roll spoof about masturbating your lady-friend, was one of two tracks backing up the equally spoof-titious ‘White Punks on Dope’, and was to my ears an extravanganza a million times as much fun. The Tubes were a satire on music, a great good, and this is a blast of disdainful energy wrapped in a disdainful wink. And there’s precedent for me elevating this track above it’s A-side, for Family’s classic ‘The Weaver’s Answer’ was just one of the three tracks on their ‘Strange Band’ maxi-single: ‘Strange Band’ was the A-side, but for once Radio 1 played the best track. Pity they didn’t do that for ‘Don’t Touch Me There’ but if you listen to what they’re singing…

Motor-Bikin’          Chris Spedding

Chris Spedding was a musician of high repute in the Seventies, a session guitarist in constant demand. In 1975, he decided to briefly front up with this modest Top Twenty single, a slightly out-dated rocker about exactly what the title says, motor-biking. The lyrics are a bit naff, and Spedding’s voice isn’t much better than average, but it’s a bit of fun, an injection of energy when energy was badly-needed, and a necessary reminder that there were some moments when a signpost to the future placed itself before you.

I Knew The Bride (When She Used to Rock’n’Roll)          Dave Edmunds

Then again, this is the real deal. It might be every bit as backwards-looking, to the days of rock’n’roll, as the Chris Spedding track is, but this Dave Edmunds single, the fourth to be released from his 1977 Get It album, came out in the summer of 1978, when Punk was being heard a lot more openly, instead of being only known through its vicious opposition. But ‘I Knew the Bride’, telling a regretful tale of a once-rebel-rousing young woman marrying a pillar of the community, looked both ways, being a bridge between the simplicity and power of what had once been and the rising tide that took that simplicity as its goal. It’s Rockpile again, just like the Nick Lowe song that heads this compilation. There wasn’t a punk band that could have recorded this song but there wasn’t a punk band that couldn’t take it as their own.

Kinnell Tommy             Ed Banger

You have to allow me my quirks sometimes. Ed Banger and The Nosebleeds sounds like a cheap Benny Hill parody but they were one of the earliest and crudest Manchester punk bands, producing the single ‘Ain’t Been to no Music School’ (by all accounts, no-one needed to be told that). Ed (Ed Garrity) then left the band and resurfaced in 1978 with this single, on Rabid Records, who had first hosted Jilted John. It’s a mainly piano and drums song, (if you stretch the word far enough) with some roughish guitar sweeps and an odd burst of synthesized sound over the extended coda. In front of this performance Ed shouts like an excitable football fan at a Sunday morning pub team game, which is what the silly but weirdly endearing thing is: Tommy is a useless centre forward who’s being encouraged along by the eternally optimistic Ed (we all know what he means by Kinnell) until the useless Tommy leathers a penalty over the bar at which point Ed turns on him with a torrent of inventive and clean abuse into the fade-out. It has to be heard to be believed, and you will most likely not want to ever listen to it again, but until you do, your imagination can’t ever say it’s been stretched! Incidentally, EMI picked this up just as they did ‘Jilted John’ but this one didn’t happen. Pity, I would have given a great deal for a clip of Ed doing this on Top of the Pops

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do             Neil Sedaka

For a while there, Neil Sedaka was back in the Seventies, in Britain at least. Aided and abetted by members of 10cc, producing at Strawberry Studios, he recorded a short string of Top Twenty singles, sophisticated, grown-up MOR Pop. This didn’t chart: despite the false start using the intro to the original, this is a complete deconstruction of the song and its reinvention as a slow, gentle, nightclub smoother. Lots of people hated it, clinging to the original. I had no such attachments, and liked it as it had become, though what it had become was outside the normal parameters of what I liked. On re-discovery, it’s no longer so appealing, but it stands as a marker in time of where I stood as I was coming out of my teens.

Shoes                 Reparata

A story of how sometimes obvious, massive hits-to-be become flops. Britain and I knew Reparata and The Delrons, a three-girl singing group, from their somewhat goofy 1968 hit ‘Captain of your Ship’ and nothing else, though Wikipedia confirms them as providing backing vocals on ‘Honky Tonk Women’. Actually, Reparata, lead singer Mary Aiese, left the group in 1970, when she married and became Mary O’Leary. She encouraged the two Delrons, the stone-cold gorgeous Nanette Licari and Lorraine Mazzola too carry on, with Mazzola becoming ‘Reparata’. Then, in late 1974, Reparata surfaced with this song. It lacks any conventional song structure, there are no choruses, and there’s a strong Greco-Italian-Turkish blend to it, especially in its fade, with balalaikas and handclaps and fades. The lyrics are about a big family wedding and the whole thing is a joyous romp. You imagine yourself doing one of those big step dances that precede line dances, as everyone gets happily drunk and the couple are in the middle. The radio loved it, everybody loved it, it was a sure-fire hit. And it peaked at no 43 and vanished. Long years later, I learned that it didn’t sell in the colossal numbers it deserved, not because I was once again out of step with the Great British Record-Buying Public but because there were no bloody copies to buy. Reparata was Mary O’Leary, but so too now was Lorraine Mazzola, whilst Reparata-Mary had recorded this whilst signed to one record company but released it under her new contract with another company. The twin legal actions forced a halt to pressings: by the time you could go out and buy it, time and the audience had moved on. A bloody shame. It still sounds perky, and more mature, a very long time after.

Quit this Town            Eddie and The Hot Rods

When I added ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ to the last compilation, I pointed out that people credit it to Eddie and The Hot Rods, which was the band’s permanent name, instead of The Rods, the name they took for that single only. For its follow-up, they reverted to their full name, and commercial obscurity. Which is a shame, because ‘Quit this Town’ was a cracking little bit of powerpop itself. Not quite as purely commercial a melody, the guitars not quite so ringing, and a crappily rough Top of the Pops live performance did the band no favours. The song peaked at no 36 in the Top Thirty era. It would have been more fun on the radio with this in heavy rotation.

Yes I Understand           The Flying Machine

The Flying Machine are a more than usual example of the Lost. The band formed in 1969 out of the ashes of Pinkerton’s, formerly Pinkerton’s Magic Colours, of ‘Mirror, Mirror’ fame, and had an American top 5 hit single, ‘Smile a Little Smile For Me’, that I don’t even remember hearing on the radio over here. Indeed, it’s only within the last decade I have heard of the band at all. ‘Yes I Understand’ was the last of their six singles. But I know the song very well indeed, and loved it tremendously in the only form I ever met it, adapted for a well-played TV commercial in 1971 as ‘Esso Understands’. It used to amaze me that a song like that wasn’t properly recorded as a single. Well, now I know.

Magic Man             Heart

This was the first single from the Wilson sister’s band’s debut album, Dreamboat Annie. I didn’t hear it until the follow up, ‘Crazy on You’ came out and I fell for its crazy rush of acoustic and electrics, it’s pace and power. I heard about ‘Magic Man but didn’t hear it until I bought the album, and I cursed not having known about it before, with its near-funk wriggle, its sinuous melody and its lyrics that, for me at that still-immature age, weren’t quite open enough for me to recognise that Ann Wilson was explaining to her critical mother why she’d had to hop into bed with this Magic Man. The chicks looked hot, even through the layers of midi-length dresses and knee-length boots that were the prevailing fashions in 1977, but though the cover of the second album was gorgeous, the music had lost any spark that Dreamboat Annie possessed. Ten years later, when ‘Alone’ was big, I read a profile that gave Nancy Wilson’s age as 23. I then came across a copy of that first album, and couldn’t help but think how well-developed Nancy was… as a guitarist, I mean… for a supposed 13 year old.

White Lies, Blue Eyes         Silver Bullit

There wasn’t really a band called Silver Bullit. In America they were Bullitt, but in England there was Bullet so for this slice of strident blue-eyed soul-pop, the band needed a new name. The song leads with its chorus, no intro, which made it hard to tape off the radio and necessitated me buying the single, on special order from the local shop. Springy bass, a raucous lead, brass and a slicing guitar solo, it hit me where it hit, but there was a narrowness to the production that I think worked against the strong. Nevertheless, on minimal airplay it got to no 41 over here. An inferior follow up called ‘Willpower Weak, Temptation Strong’ suggested a penchant for four word, commaed titles, but I heard nothing more of the band. This is still a decent legacy for a one-off, though.

If you can’t give me love            Suzi Quatro

Truthfully, I never liked Suzi Quatro, except for one unexpected bikini photo in the Sun. She and her band were the arse-end of the Chinnichap era (if you ask your grandparents, they’ll most likely box your ears) and dire stuff it was by then, but this laconic, semi-acoustic 1978 flop caught some of us off-guard by featuring a melody and some husky-voiced singing as opposed to shrieking. Admittedly, it sounds like a foretaste of Smokie at this remove, which piles up even more minus points, but I liked it then and that buys it a place here.

The Six Teens         The Sweet

Speaking of Chinnichap…
Nowadays, we cower at the words Stock, Aitkin and especially Pete Waterman, most often when they, or rather he, compare themselves to Motown. The more accurate comparison was to the early-Seventies team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, writers and producers of the likes of Mud, Suzi Quatro, Smokie and New World (you don’t remember New World? Stay that way). But their first and biggest success was with The Sweet, starting with ultra lightweight stuff like ‘Funny Funny’ and ‘Co-Co’. But, and it’s funny to think of this, The Sweet had their own mind, even if it was only one between them. They wanted to be taken seriously, play heavier music. Chinnichap let them start to orient their sound more towards fuzzbox guitars, then gave their head – within limits – with a genuinely raucous sound on massive hits like ‘Blackbuster’, ‘Ballroom Blitz’ and ‘Teenage Rampage’. I hated them all, of course, though I’ve softened a great deal towards ‘Ballroom Blitz’. That wasn’t enough for the boys and there came a parting of the ways, allowing the band to write their own material. ‘The Six Teens’ was the first demonstration of that. In sound, it’s no different, and it’s typical of the mid-Seventies in that any notion of a simple, straightforward melody is abandoned consciously. It’s herky jerky and awkward and comes complete with an egregious change of speed for the last verse chorus, throws in some quasi-operatic stuff from bassist Steve Priest and teenage angst lyrics of stunning obscurity.
In all, it’s an object lesson in how not to establish yourself, but back then I liked it for its conspicuous effort, and when Chinnichap ruled the world, or the British bit of it anyway, you learned to enjoy anything that consciously rejected it.

I don’t need to tell her               The Lurkers

…or, Dumb Punk with a decent melody. Plonking good stuff.

Language School               The Tours

In that long ago conversation down the pub that I referenced in relation to ‘Get Over You‘, this was the record I was thinking of when I said that some bands have only got three minutes of genius in them. ‘Language School’ was the title track on an EP by The Tours, but if Peely played any of the other tracks, I don’t remember them. Hell, I bought the record, and if I played any of the other tracks, I still don’t remember them. But this track is good enough for me, a straightforward, punchy song, delivered over a booming bassline and no complexity whatsoever. You could ask for more, but in the summer of 1978 I wanted no more than this.

Map Reference 41°N 93°W            Wire

Wire were, and still are, Wire, a law unto themselves, the deliberately strange, too weird to be called offbeat, though in another generation that would have been the first thought in anyone’s head. But though they deliberately ignored the conventions of song-structure most of the time, when they chose to work within them, they could come up with something seriously brilliant, like this. I’ve no more idea what this song is about, and you can be sure that it’s title appears nowhere within the lyrics, but there’s a rhythm pulsing at the right rate and the chorus insinuates itself into your ears with gorgeous harmonies until you can’t help yourself joining in. And even when you read the lyrics you’re no wiser, but that chorus pins you to the map once again.

The Day The World Turned Day-Glo                   X-Ray Spex

Lastly, we have X-Ray Spex again. The same words apply, this time to a fantastic vision of plastic colours and products. The degree of restraint, or rather the channelling of fantasies into a less lubricious direction permitted Radio 1 to play this enough for the band to get into the Top Thirty and onto Top of the Pops. Such days, now gone, but forever missed.

The Infinite Jukebox: Dinah Washington’s ‘September in the Rain’


The biggest divide in music, for me, is between my parents’ music and my music. Until my early teens, the former was the only music I heard: there was no such distinction. At home in Brigham Street, I would play contentedly downstairs whilst my mother did her housework to the accompaniment of the Light Programme. No other music existed. The only records I do remember hearing from that era are Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey’s ‘Freight Train’, ‘The Laughing Policeman’ from Charles Penrose and The Beatles’ ‘All My Loving’, which might just be the first ‘pop song’ I ever heard.
When we moved to Burnage Lane in 1966, Mam no longer had the radio on. Instead, having bought a for-the-times very impressive stereo radiogram, it was LPs, especially when my father wired an extension speaker into the breakfast room, which led to many meals being accompanied by albums playing in the lounge.
It was still all their music. I heard of pop but didn’t hear it, although that slowly broke down with Junior Choice on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but it was not until the Xmas School Holiday of 1969/70 that I started to listen to Radio 1 daily, all day, and the chasm between me and them opened. Them and me, and though they’ve long since passed on, the difference remains, and I have an automatic block against ‘their’ music’.
But to everything as always there are exceptions. Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘When I fall in Love’, Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swinging Lovers, and Dinah Washington’s version of ‘September in the Rain’ recorded in 1961, an American Top 30 hit and one solitary week in the UK singles chart.
If I heard that song whilst playing in the living room in 1961, it’s lost now. Instead, I date it to 1972, or perhaps 1973. Mam had reverted to Radio 2 around the house, and it was on the station’s equivalent of a playlist, though I associate it with one of our post Low Bleansley self-catering cottage holidays, playing in the mid-morning whilst my little sister and I waited for the grown-ups to decide where we were going today.
Nothing about the song flips any of my usual switches. It’s only just two minutes long, though it doesn’t sound overly short. It’s just the usual thing, a swirling orchestra in the introduction, a tinkling jazz piano, lazily playing the melody, and Washington’s vivid yet relaxed voice making none of the noises that grabbed my ear. Yet it stuck in my mind, and forever after I’ve turned to listen every time it’s been played.
Maybe this is just another example of what I’ve said over again, that no matter how much you may dismiss or even hate a genre of music, there will always be songs that find their way past your most extreme of prejudices, to confuse, but ultimate entertain you. I can’t think of a much more improbable example if that’s what it is.
So the sound is strange, and I usually have little interest in the lyrics of professional songwriters, spinning clever but ultimately hollow rhymes, but that’s not quite so here. The song is a gentle meditation on how time and weather can manipulate your feelings, and how the time of a time can override what you feel on a different day and return you to that moment when the whole world was in tune with how you felt. The leaves of brown came tumbling down, remember, that September, in the rain, and though Spring is here, to me it’s still September.
Like so many of those Sixties songs that sketched out the outcome of love lost and left the listener to invest the deeper events for themselves, ‘September in the Rain’ doesn’t hold its audience up with explanations. We don’t know what happened in September, but we know loss when we hear it, and the heart’s inability to hold on forever to what it had.
Dinah Washington invests the song with a melancholy that answers all questions, turning the lyrics into a resignation. It used to be and now it’s not, and as long at that’s so, it’s September and the leaves blow in the wind. And the music I regard as my own, the songs and the sounds my generation claimed for themselves, are not the only things that can speak to us of the things that never last as we want them too.
I grew to understand melancholy far too young and for reasons that pre-dated the love of eros. We all of us in that cottage, on that day, lived with the loss that couldn’t be healed. Dinah Washington’s mellow tones remind me that it was not a new feeling for any of us.

A Night at the Opera


Let’s make things clear: this is not a post about the Marx Brothers (though I reserve the right to slip in a gag or even an allusion if the context permits). But for the first time in my life, I am going to see an Opera, even though that really isn’t my sort of thing.

If you look to the Links sidebar on this blog, you will see Charlotte Hoather.com. Charlotte is a soprano with a growing reputation, based on a great voice, unbounding enthusiasm and a dedication to the craft and her roles. She is currently singing the lead role of Pandora – she of the infamous Box – in the new opera, The Fyre of Olympus, which is playing for one night at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester on Saturday night, 28 September. And I am going.

Of course, the first question is why? And the answer is that several years ago, when she was still studying in Glasgow, Charlotte started her blog and quickly built an initial wave of support by visiting and commenting on many other sites. I checked out hers in reciprocation, and we’ve been internet friends ever since (by coincidence, we share the same birthdate, though hers is many years more recent!)

I’ve seen Charlotte sing live twice to date, one an ensemble show in Stockport that included songs from Les Miserables, and once at a lunchtime recital in Bury, where I had the chance to introduce myself to her. As well as her excellent voice, she really is a nice young woman, so let’s see how I fare on my first ever Night at the Opera.

Now that the time has come, I’m wishing it didn’t have to be this Night. It’s a lousy day, and I’ve been drenched three or four times already, but most of all it’s been a rotten week and I’m exhausted, physically and mentally, and fit for nothing. But one has to support one’s friendds, and I’ve paid for the ticket, so I’m not changing my mind.

My seat, when I got to it, was truly front and centre: middle of the front row. I last enjoyed such a privileged position when my then wife-to-be, much wilier than i when it came to the availability of late release tikets for sold-out gigs, got us onto the front row for Warren Zevon at the Lowry in 2000.

Don’t for one minute expect me to comment about the music for I haven’t the least qualifications so to do. I heard nothing wrong in either orchestra or any of the singing. But if this is  Opera, then I’m not impressed. To me it seemed to be a dramatic form consisting of infinite repetition of the same thing, over and over and over (at one point, Prometheus, in the second half sang ‘they told me you were dead’ thirteen times in thirteen and a half lines: believe me, I got it first one). A first half of 70 minutes would have struggled to fill 15 if this were a play.

Until the end of the first half, I found Charlotte to be dreadfully underused, given only occasional half lines to sing, and off stage for longer than each of the other four singer. When she was onstage, she was excellent in her dramatic role, though Pandora as a petty functionary, long blonde hair dragged back into a single braid, supercilious and sneery, was a far cry from the lady in ral life? Wheere was that lovely grin?

But she came into her own in her solo, leading into the interval. Zeus has casually instructed her to find Epithemeus and seduce ‘him’, though the word seduce is not used: instead, we get, ‘it’s just a fuck’. This shocked and horrified the otherwide loyal and ambitious Pandora into her own revolution, and provided Charlotte with an opportunity for real passion in her singing.

Unfortunately, the interval just brought back my overpowering weariness, leaving me struggling all the more. Frankly, by the second half, the only bits I was interested in were those with Charlotte, and they didn’t start for twenty minutes that included three lengthy speells of offstage noises or music that, as far as I could tell, were included to pad things out. Once Charlotte got back on stage she sang a powerful duet with Epithemeus before leading ‘him’ to the dungeon to free Prometheus (‘they told me you were dead’) before wimping out with an inexplicable song of moral collapse into defeatism.

After that, she wa  confined to reaction shots until it was all over and then, when the cast were taking their bows, we finally got that brilliant Hoather smile. I didn’t try to hang around the stage door in the hope of saying hello, because I was bushed and wanted to go home and sleep.

So: an experience, and a delight to see and hear my friend again, but not something I’m likely to repeat any time soon.

Sorry Charlotte.

The Infinite Jukebox: Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’


It’s always sad when a musician loses their life, removing forever the possibilities of where their talent could have taken their audience. It is doubly painful to think of the death of Jim Croce, killed in a plane crash returning from the last night of his tour.
Croce had started his career, unsuccessfully, in the mid-Sixties, recording one album with his wife, Ingrid, but first came to commercial notice with his third album, an American no. 1 and its attendant single, the title track, ‘You don’t mess around with Jim’. Further singles followed, including his only lifetime no. 1, ‘Bad Bad Leroy Brown’, which was covered by the unlikely figure of Frank Sinatra.
Croce had become a hit, and several of his songs got Radio 1 airplay without selling, but he became increasingly unhappy at the amount of time spent touring, keeping him away from Ingrid and his son, A.J. So much so that he wrote her, after his last gig, telling her he was giving up music so as to stay closer to her. In the morning, his plane crashed on take-off, killing everyone on board: Croce’s letter arrived after Ingrid had learned of his death.
But in 1970, after learning that his wife was pregnant with A.J., Croce had sat down and written a song, encapsulating his lover for Ingrid. It’s recording had been a fortuitous experience: Croce found a harpsichord on the studio which blended beautifully with the two acoustic guitars he played, with the addition of a very small amount of electric bass, and no percussion.
The song was called ‘Time in a Bottle’. It appeared on You don’t mess around with Jim, and after his death, albeit with some misgivings about the sentiments of the song, set against his loss, it was released as a single, and became a second American no. 1. I heard it that year and bought it, though like everything that came before it, and most undeservingly, it made no headway in Britain.
I could never persuade anyone else just how good it was, but then I was surrounded by prog fans.
The song is simple, dealing with the most simple of subjects, the love one person has for another. There are three verses and two choruses, the verses dealing with desire and hope and the awe of that other person, that Croce sings in a higher register, his voice full of wonder at the fact at the thoughts of eternity that dance through his mind. He sings of abstract ideas, becoming concrete in his dreams, the idea of saving time in a bottle, to be used to spend time with her, turning days into forever and words into wishes that come true, so that all of time may be spent within her presence, of a box for wishes and dreams that never came true, a box that would be empty of everything but the memory of how she made them come true.
And the choruses are repeated in a lower register, in a softer, less urgent tone, because the choruses are what is, what is real between them, which is that there is never enough time in the demands life makes for what you want to do, and that is still her, for he has had enough time go past to know that she is the one he wants to spend all his time with.
The contrast between the dream of the verses and the practicality of the choruses, between what should be and what is is the cornerstone of the song, and the painful poignancy of the contrast between the understanding that Croce is singing from the heart and that he never had the time at all, that what he needed was not time in that bottle but rather a genie who would have preserved him to live at least some of that future to which he looked.
The song received a beautiful, crisp, clean production in which each note was individually sounded, with crystal clarity. And Croce was right about the interplay between the harpsichord and the guitars, which mesh seamlessly, creating a delicacy of sound over which his voice rises in what is, in many ways, a private hymn to the woman he loved. But he expressed it in a way that each and every one of us recognises in ourselves, in universal terms that only require the existence of another person, a someone that they want beside them.
Even in 1974, and having behind me only my first, puppyish love that I hadn’t known how to make work, I was moved to deep emotion by this song. Sometimes I wonder if I recognised the future that was waiting for me. There never were enough times to do the things I wanted to do once I found them. This song remembered for me before I had the memories.

The Infinite Jukebox: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘America’


Every time I play ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ on YouTube, it automatically leads on to ‘America’. And I let it play and I usually sing along with it, a thing that should only be done in private since I can carry a tune like a string bag can carry water.
I remember that I first heard the song at school, when two of my year-mates performed it on the stage of the school hall, a duet on acoustic guitars for some sort of entertainment the pupils were putting on, and I couldn’t make head nor tail of it because they seemed to flatten the tune out of it, nor hear what they were singing. I only remember it was ‘America’ because they’d talked about rehearsing it.
I don’t think I knew it was by Simon and Garfunkel, or even who they were. I have a vivid memory of hearing ‘Sound of Silence’ on the old radio at Brigham Street, and getting spooked by the lyrics. All this stuff passed by me.
But I love ‘America’, perhaps above everything else Paul and Artie did, except of course ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’. I love its slow haziness, it’s rise and fall, the sense of space between the instruments. Most of all I love the place I am taken to in the song.
It’s a road song, heir to Kerouac and forerunner to Springsteen. Where ‘Bridge’ is Art Garfunkel’s song, ‘America’ is Paul Simon’s. He and his girlfriend Kathy, of ‘Kathy’s Song’ and ‘Homeward Bound’, are on a Greyhound bus, travelling at night. They’ve picked up the bus in Pittsburgh and we never get to learn where they’re headed, two lovers with a pack of cigarettes and a joke about marrying their ‘fortunes’ together.
But where they’re going has no place on any map you could buy over the counter, because they’re all gone to look for America, and in that place and time, America was something you found in your mind, the great dream of what the country meant to you, and what you saw it could be, not what it was.
Paul and Kathy are travelling a road that will take them forever. They joke about other passengers, they smoke their cigarettes, he wakes from a dream, lost and confused as she continues to sleep, and we see her behind the words, long, dishevelled dark hair, head on his shoulder as he looks drawn, and cramped, the moon risen over an open field holding them in its cold light..
Everyone around them is on the same journey, that quest to find who you are and what you’ll be and where you are. They count the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, counting them in to their quest. Though travelling in space, they are really travelling in their souls, which is what the song means when it runs out of words and it fades into that endless road to the sound of an organ wrapping itself around the melody, cocooning it against the inevitable.
Nobody found America, not that year, not since. Seventeen years later, Talking Heads took the same road, but by then we all knew that the destination was unattainable, and they called it for what it was, a ‘Road to Nowhere’.
Out there, the Pauls and Kathys still ride, still take the piss out of the weirdos who accompany them, still sleep fitfully and awkwardly, along night highways that maybe, one day, if we remember how to be better than this and to care for one another and write words that can penetrate to the heart of this need to reach a fabled land, we may finally arrive at that land of pride and hope and honesty and equality that each of us calls by a private name but that many call America, the America that has never been but still lies beyond our horizon.
Each time I let one song transition into another, I become a rider on the same lost Greyhound.