The Infinite Jukebox: Al Martino’s ‘Spanish Eyes’

Al Martino holds the record for the first no. 1 in Britain.
Up to November 1952, such charts as there were focussed mainly on the sales of sheet music, until the New Musical Express decided to publish a chart of selling singles. The first chart was only a Top 12 and Martino topped it with his debut single, ‘Here is my Heart’. All told, the track was at no. 1 for nine weeks, the whole of the rest of the year.
Martino stayed popular in Britain until 1955, with five more top 10 hits and one top 20. That was it until 1973 when, right at the peak of glam-rock, his 1966 single, ‘Spanish Eyes’ was re-released for the second time and, for no reason that I can remember or discover, went big. Big as in a no. 5 highest position, 21 weeks on the chart but, if the site I discovered is reliable, only appeared once on Top of the Pops, when it was poised at no. 31, and it was danced to by Pan’s People (the site in question is devoted to Pan’s People’s dances).
It was a most unlikely hit, and very much one for my parent’s generation. The sound is dated beyond belief, but then that was the same when it was recorded in 1966. It’s a big, smooth, highly-orchestrated pop ballad, whose only concession to the contemporary day was a strong and regular beat.
Oh, and it also had a magnificent melody.
That’s the one thing I have to admit to. This was so not my kind of music, not on any level. It was what I ended up listening to more often than not throughout the Sixties, when other kids got to hear The Beatles and the Stones, The Who, Kinks and Small Faces and I got Frank Sinatra, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Sing Something Simple (and not the version they sang on the terraces either). By every measure, ‘Spanish Eyes’ was set up for me to hate it as much as (by then) I did T.Rex and Marc Bolan. But I liked it.
At least I didn’t have to admit to anything like that at school, where my musical reputation had never been bolstered by my love for, first, Lindisfarne, and then 10cc. Martino’s was a summer hit, and it felt appropriate to the time with its rich orchestration and his deep, expressive voice. It pole-vaulted into the Top 30 at 16 (on the back of that TOTP performance by Pan’s People?), which was the first I heard of it, and I’d completed my A-Levels by then and School was already a memory of ‘the happiest days of my life’.
Why I liked it is as inexplicable now as it was then. After near fifty years of music, an experience far broader than anything I’d had in 1973, such a thing is no longer unusual, and I have long since got over any sense of shame about what I like, however out of my personal mainstream it may be.
‘Spanish Eyes’ is another of those songs that doubles as a Time Machine, taking me back (in memory, sadly, rather than in body) to when it was ubiquitous and I was rather more innocent than I am now. Nothing like this will ever happen again. Someone, somewhere, will be the poorer for that.

The Infinite Jukebox: Shawn Colvin’s ‘You and the Mona Lisa’

I could, if I wished, fill practically every slot on the Infinite Jukebox, if it were not Infinite, with Shawn Colvin, and on the version that’s in my head, practically all of them are there to be recalled, relived and loved. It’s amazing to me that it’s been nearly thirty years since I was introduced to her voice and her songwriting via a tape from a might-have-been girlfriend on which it was the filler to k.d.laing’s Ingenue.
But no matter how much you love an artist’s works, there are always the ones that rise up above the crowd, the songs that are extra special, that are the most beautiful, most moving and most important. The ones that, no matter the standard, are better than the rest.
‘You and the Mona Lisa’ came from Colvin’s fourth album, A Few Small Repairs, released in 1996. We’re talking the commercial peak of Colvin’s career here: the lead single, ‘Sunny Came Home’, was a top 10 hit in America and even gave Colvin her biggest success over here, a highest ever placing of no. 27 as a Top 40 New Entry.
‘Sunny Came Home’ got me in some unexpected bother at work. I was in the last year of a five year contract at a firm I’d long since come to loathe, counting the days with all but religious fervour. The firm’s main office was in North Manchester, with satellite offices in some of the surrounding towns. An assistant Solicitor at Heywood, the one office I’d not then so much as visited, was leaving for a better job, and I was tapped to sub for her. Each day, I’d call in head office for post and anything else requiring delivery before driving up to Heywood – a very pleasant, mainly country route for the rest of the day. Working from Heywood helped keep me sane.
Though that office was under the control of a partner, the day to day running was by a senior secretary with definite views. Early on, I got quizzed about various things, including my tastes in music. I can still recall the response to mentioning Shawn Colvin: ‘Never heard of him.’ ‘Actually, he’s a she. She’s a bit of a cult singer from America, but I think her work is very good.’ ‘Huh.’
And then, about ten days later, I’d no sooner arrived for the day and she said, ‘I heard that Shawn Colvin of yours on the radio this morning.’ (This was when ‘Sunny Came Home’ was current). ‘Oh?’ I said, interested in her reaction. ‘She was bloody rubbish!’ ‘Oh, right,’ with a bit of a shrug. ‘Everyone else I’ve played her to has liked her.’
That, as far as I was concerned, was that. It’s been a very long time since I was last fazed by someone liking different music to me. But it wasn’t that to my colleague. About a fortnight later, the subject of Diana Ross came up. She was playing Manchester. She was her husband’s favourite artist. She was getting tickets for them to see her. What did I think of Diana Ross?
Now a truthful answer would have, and still would be, uncomplimentary about everything but a handful of post Supremes tracks, and nothing more recent than ‘Chain Reaction’ but there was no point in being offensive, so I limited myself to saying, ‘She’s not my kind of music, actually.’ ‘She’s better than Shawn Colvin!’ I should have expected that.
From that point, it was on. At every possible opportunity, she was there, denigrating Colvin. I took it on the chin. There was no point in responding. I could have pointed out that I had heard considerably more Diana Ross, over a much longer period, in coming to my opinion and she’d heard one song once but it wasn’t worth it. The only time I did answer back was when she said I wouldn’t play Shawn Colvin at a party, to which I agreed, but I couldn’t resist adding that I wouldn’t play Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony either, which actually had the effect of shutting her up. For a while.
All of this was during the time A Few Small Repairs was out. I was playing it at home, but more importantly, I’d put it on tape and was playing it in the car. Driving to Heywood, driving home, driving on the runs I had to make to Council offices, other Solicitors, our Bury office, the album was my near constant companion, as I learned to understand it as a comprehensive piece of music, its tracks all in order.
The fourth of these was ‘You and the Mona Lisa’, a gentle, mid-tempo, almost jogging melody. The title caught my ear before I heard the words and I loved the words. It was a love song, but a love song with an angle, a song about someone with whom Colvin was in a relationship that her wiser self was telling her to leave (I should walk away right now). She was the one who would always do the heavy lifting, and unspokenly she asked why she should.
But that chorus would bounce in, singing that she loved him the most, always giving up the ghost, in his own private conversations. He’s a sweet mystery and there’s nothing in between you and the Mona Lisa.
And what is the world’s most famous painting famous for? It’s enigmatic smile, that soft curl of the lips, hiding forever what Mona Lisa is thinking, and whether her amusement is genuine or ironic.
And then would come the lines that I fixated on, for what I saw them as saying, nothing in particular and everything in between: this is what you mean to me. That said everything, more than anything a song could explain, the forever inexplicability of love and desire.
So many times I would sing softly along with that song then, rather than let the tape roll on to the track ‘Trouble’, I would wind it back to singalong again to the song that meant most to me in the album. And the best of it was that I was not cleaving to this album out of any need of escape from what was, however mild, workplace bullying, but simply because I loved it with all my heart.
Years later, seeing Colvin live for the first time, at the Lowry Theatre in Salford, she followed the first few songs by asking for suggestions from the audience: I was in right away with a call for ‘You and the Mona Lisa’, which she played superbly. At the end, in the instant before the applause began, I called out ‘Thank you’ and she replied ‘You’re welcome’.
So long after, this is still one of my ten favourite Colvin songs (most but not all of the rest come from Fat City), and it’s got a heck of a lot of memories associated with it.

The Infinite Jukebox: Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’

Some people have claimed Steppenwolf as the progenitors of Heavy Metal. It’s a serious charge but on the strength of their best known track, ‘Born to be Wild’, I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and acquit them. Besides, ‘Born to be Wild’ has too much of a melody to ever be a forerunner of Heavy Metal.
‘Born to be Wild’ was another of those songs that regularly got tracked into Radio 1 shows as a Golden Oldie, to the extent that, when I got my first book of Chart Music (Simon Frith’s Chart Files, summarising the Top Twenty from 1955 to 1969), I was flabbergasted to discover that the band didn’t feature anywhere. But it got that airplay because of its distinctive, aggressive sound and it’s rebel lyrics, and I suppose you have to give credence to the progenitor argument if only because the song includes the term ‘Heavy Metal’ early in the lyrics – it’s first appearance in music – though the predominant organ sound looks to a different tradition.
Oh, what the hell, does it matter who calls this what? It’s a classic piece of music, a song of power and massive appeal, the sound of wanting to be free to do your own thing, to reject rules and regulations and the suburban ways of life and just get out there on the road, free and alone, just you and your motor-cycle, and the band fit the perfect sound to singer John Kay’s snap and snarl and that glorious howl of the title line.
Get your motor running, it begins. Head out on the highway. Looking for adventure. And whatever comes our way. It’s an immediate statement of intent and the band hits it at pace, the riff already striking, the organ squealing between each line.
Yeah darling, gonna make it happen, catch the world in a love embrace. Fire all of your guns at once and explode into space.
This is the point in a lesser song that the chorus line would break in but, in a touch of genius the band withhold it, preferring to rush into a second verse, that praises the sound and feel of the bike (the line about heavy metal thunder is meant to refer to its roar) racing with the wind and the feeling that I’m under.
Yeah darling, again, but this time the song bursts forward, building towards its peak. What Kay and the band are doing, their rejection of the world we others occupy, comes from within. They are the true nature’s child, they were born, born to be wild and being wild they can climb so high, they never wanna die…
And in that moment, everything stills except for the residue of Kay’s growl and the sensation of the organ, for a pause that is brief but infinite, until Kay throws back his head and hollers into the wind, with a howl that is proclamation and supplication in one: Born to be Wild, his voice caressing the last word and refusing to let it go, and the guitar screams out its riff in a tone like the earth splitting, Born to be Wild, and the band career in with a searing, juddering organ solo that scorches the tarmac until the song collects itself again, and begins anew its assault: get your motor running…
We run through the first verse again, and that bridge, until Kay throws back his head again, and everyone who listens to this throws back their head, either in voice or metaphorically, and tries to emulate that imperishable line: Born to be Wild, as if we could sound like that or live like that, except in those regions of the imagination that this song reaches into and incarnates.
‘Born to be Wild’ isn’t just a song, it’s a statement. It’s sound is the sound of its lyrics. Would you believe, could you imagine that this was originally written as an acoustic ballad by a guy who was the drummer’s brother and who went under the stage name of Mars Bonfire? Steppenwolf’s version is a classic example of seeing things in a song that it’s composer couldn’t, of tearing it down and building it up differently, of making it into a thing of beauty and a rush forever. And it has a fierceness that nowadays is wasted on things that don’t matter worth a damn.
Never wanna die? The song has already done that for you.

The Infinite Jukebox: Warren Zevon’s ‘Nobody’s in Love this Year’

Once I’d bought one Warren Zevon album, I started buying all of them. The follow-up to Sentimental Hygiene was 1990’s Transverse City, a very different experience, with its overall reliance on a heavier, more grinding sound, and a profusion of synthesizers. Not a single sign of an R.E.M.-esque influence.
There are only a couple of tracks that impressed themselves upon me indelibly, and one of them not so much for it’s buoyant, boisterous chorus but its uncommon application to my increasingly-private-minded lady of those years. Splendid Isolation, I don’t need no-one. Don’t want nobody coming by without calling first…
But the other song was the closer to the album, and like that pair from Sentimental Hygiene that I’ve written about before (, it was a love song, and once again Uncle Warren was producing a song with a gorgeous melody, and words of great import.
‘Nobody’s in Love this Year’ keeps its instrumentation simple, and it’s vocal low and dark. Zevon sets the scene with economy. We keep walking away for no reason at all, he explains, and no-one says a word. We were always so busy protecting ourselves, we never would have heard. So far, so simple. But Zevon has ideas about expressing this gradual deterioration in financial metaphors, the language of Wall Street and the dreaded yuppies.
The rate of attrition for lovers like us, he comments, just like any financial report, is steadily on the rise. Nobody’s in Love this year, not even you and I. Love as a commodity, and Love as a stock that is falling, so that the canny and the smart back away.
The formal import of this, and the underlying lack of emotion is further emphasised as Zevon goes into more detail. Due to lack of commitment on both of our parts, he admits, we’re going our separate ways. Ah me, a mutual lack, they’re just not that much into each other, and at least it’s mutual.
But how distant is this distance, really? This show of indifference is breaking our hearts, he claims, against the evidence of the previous couplet, and it’s making us crazy, yeah. You sit back and wait for your love to accrue, instead of extending yourself to do something about it, and the outcome is that you’ll be waiting a long long time: nobody’s in Love this year. Not even you and I.
That this disintegration has real consequences, for at least one of the parties maintaining their cool, is shown in the brief middle eight, where Zevon both admits and conceals the extent of the pain. I don’t want to be Mr Vulnerable, he says, I don’t wanna get hurt, I don’t want to be the one who gets left behind. A-ha!
Just what is this about, now we have this admission? Zevon makes it all out to be about not showing weakness, being a Master of the Universe, and not wanting to be the one who loses out in the end of this mysterious relationship. But to be hurt, there must have been vulnerability, no matter how this young Turk wants to deny it. You can’t get hurt if there’s nothing to feel, if all it is is a bad contract that didn’t produce the gains you expected.
And he recovers his balance and covers everything in transactional terms again. We still keep walking away without that ostensible reason, but now it’s for the sake of being free. Why do they want to be free of each other? Because nobody’s invested enough of themselves to yield to maturity, the sharpest, two-edged line of the entire song. And the rate of attrition for lovers like us, in this world that has got its perceptions skewed arse-about-face, is steadily on the rise. Nobody’s in Love this year. Not even you and I.
The repetition of the middle-eight, to close out the song is, I submit a mistake, however musically soulful it is. When you have a line like that, you end on it, leave it’s hidden depths of regret in the listener’s mind, for them to measure the reality that is being so imperfectly denied here.
What could have been won’t be. The good money won’t be placed where it might turn bad. Invest in something safer, with a guaranteed return. Make Love work that way. If you can.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Summer in the City’

Back in the summer of 1966, we went to the Lakes as a nuclear family for the first time, Mam and Dad, my little sister and me, but not my Uncle, Dad’s elder brother. My sister was a sturdy little four year old in her first pair of walking boots, her brother a podgy, bespectacled ten year old, also in his first pair of walking boots. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, she was eager and enthusiastic and he wasn’t, not then.
One day in the middle of the week, we set off on a walk from the Coniston road, the road from Broughton and Low Bleansley Farm where we always stayed. There were public footpath signs off the road, and we took one and followed it upwards.
It was a bit of a disaster. The path didn’t go anywhere. It petered out in empty country from which we could see no route in any direction, not even the one back. Eventually, we found our way to a path that we would later learn was the Coniston end of the Walna Scar Road. We followed it back to a gate onto a tarmaced road, which we were able to take down into the Village, emerging past the climbers shop my parents had already discovered, opposite the turning down to the boat landings on the Lake.
It was sunny and hot, we were tired, dry and thirsty, and the car was a good mile or more away on the road to Broughton. Dad, nobly, set off to walk there and bring it back, leaving the three of us to dawdle around that corner, slowly baking a little more by the minute, with nothing to do but wait.
What has this to do with The Infinite Jukebox? This has to do with a vivid memory of a gang of lads, maybe as many as a half dozen, walking up from the Lake on the other side of the junction, and singing together, joyfully. I remember the song as if this were yesterday, and recognised it despite the complete absence of pop music from our household. What a day for a daydream, they chorused. What a day for a day-dreamin’ boy.
‘Daydream’ was the first, and the more successful, of the two UK hits The Lovin’ Spoonful enjoyed in that summer of 1966. I don’t know where it was in the charts that day because there’s no way I can find the week we were away, but eventually, or already, it had reached no. 2.
But it’s follow-up, ‘Summer in the City’, a much less successful single, peaking at no 10 but the band’s only US no. 1, is the one that caught my attention and which is my favourite Lovin’ Spoonful track, since then and till now. And given the heat of that day, if not the rural setting, it would have been far more appropriate to those lads, singing for the fun of it. Hot town, summer in the city, back of my neck feeling dirty an’ gritty.
There are summer songs and there are summer songs. What we usually think of is the beach song, the lightweight, party song, surf crashing somewhere in the background even if it’s not the Beach Boys. But you don’t get much surf in the city, and the Lovin’ Spoonful are looking at the reality of that summer swelter.
Not for nothing does the song begin with horns like motor cars stuck in jams, before the drums crash in and an eager, storming beat leads to John Sebastian, setting for us the scene. Hot town, summer in the city, bending down, isn’t it a pity, there isn’t a shadow in the city. All around, people looking half-dead, walkin’ on the sidewalks, hotter than a matchhead. You can hear it in the music, you can feel it in the words, a New York City summer, unbearable and exhausting.
But at night it’s a different world…
At night, you go out and find a girl, you dance all night, just like the heat it’ll be alright. And babe, don’t you know it’s a pity that the days can’t be like the night, in the summer, in the city.
And the band cool out for an instrumental break overlaid with sound effects, streets sounds, car engines growling, horns beeping, a pneumatic drill crashing into the tarmac, before the plunge back into the rhythm, with the lyrics whirling us through this brazen summer, but this is the evening, the cool town. Cool cat is looking for a kitty, gonna look in every corner of the city, but the heat overpowers even the softest of nights, till the cat is wheezing like a bus stop, running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop.
Oh yes, it’s a hot city, a hot summer, and you swelter through the days hoping to still be alive enough to function at night. It’s a New York summer like every year, an alien world to those of us in sleepy Britain. I can’t recall whether the summer of 1966 was an exceptionally hot one: when you’re that young, every summer is hot no matter whether it is or not. It was hot that day in Coniston when those lads were singing about a Daydream. I’d have loved to have heard them singing about Summer in the City, but it was the wrong moment.
But the Lovin’ Spoonful conjured up the sweat and swelter and smell of the city in less than three minutes and took us into it for ever, and the crash of the band rumbling into action like a bus rolling down that street of noise that might be a version of hell in real life is still the introduction to a world in which life cannot ever be overcome.

The Infinite Jukebox: Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’

No, I’m not a soul boy, but this is magnificent. Just the horn intro, so stark, severe and declarative, making this the best soul intro I’ve ever heard and close to being one of the best ever. Listen to those notes, those stretched, drawn-out notes, their formality, their severity. Then tell me you could resist any song that came after that introduction.
And the song obeys the same imperative. The piano, the same dignity, the same aural sense of removal to a plane far above you. And Bob and Earl, coming in together, instructing you on how to do the Harlem Shuffle. You move it to the left, yeah, you go for yourself, you move it to the right, yeah, if it takes all night…
No dancer, me, nor am I into songs that instruct you on dances, but this is something different. This is Olympian, the sound descending from the Gods, immune to opinions, a thing of itself, precious and complete.
This is a slow dance, full of soul, you make it last. It incorporates other songs, including the limbo, challenging you on how low can you go? And the horns roar again, building the sound, the big sound, as if Phil Spector did soul, as if he could surround the singers without overwhelming them with the Wall of Sound, just making the music big, as immense as it can get with such simple and precise instrumentation.
Now come on baby, Bob and Earl cajole, don’t fall down on me now. Would you fail them? Could you? Just move it right here to the Harlem Shuffle. Moving to this, the most klutzy of us become cool by definition. If man was made to move, he was made to move to this.
Hitch, hitch-hike baby across the floor…
Bob and Earl were a vocal duo, veterans of doo-wop groups who came together in the late Fifties. They made no headway and the original Bob left, leaving Earl Nelson to recruit another Bob, Bobby Relf, with whom ‘Harlem Shuffle’ was written and then recorded in 1962. It was a minor American hit, but it emerged from obscurity in 1969, the period with which I always associate it, as an unexpected British top 10 hit.
But does the year really matter? This is the kind of sound that comes from no era but which is eternal. It’s something special, something outside of time, bound to nothing and no-one but its own imperatives.
I have never had the privilege of dancing to ‘Harlem Shuffle’ at a party, or in a disco. My arthritic right knee makes that kind of dancing particularly painful. But let me have but one chance and I will be out there and I will shake, shake, shake, shake a tailfeather baby. Those horns call…

The Infinite Jukebox: Friend and Lover’s ‘Reach Out in the Darkness’

As contemporary music recedes ever further from my interest, I find myself going back all the more often to the Sixties, and to the music with which I am not familiar. There’s all sorts of stuff in that late Sixties period, 1967 – 69, obscure records that never bothered the top 50, that was never expected to hit, bright poppy tunes, stuff that brushed the fringes of psychedelia, singles that are full of a life that didn’t go down with a Great British Record Buying Public that was looking to the big, orchestrated, semi-cabaret pop of The Love Affair, the early Marmalade and The Casuals.
But the obscure British music scene of the time is not the only source of brilliant pop touched by the spirit of the late Sixties. Then, as for a long time after, there was an American music scene that only occasionally crossed over with British tastes. The ‘bubblegum’ pop sound was one trend that did connect here, but for every Kasenatz and Katz act there were a dozen or more great records that made no impression here.
The Association. The Rascals (except for ‘Groovin”). Two examples of bands who did not invade our airwaves and our charts in a way that their songs deserved.
Friend and Lover were a different prospect. They were a husband and wife folk group, though there’s nothing folky about this single, Jim and Cathy Post. ‘Reach out of the Darkness’ was the pair’s only hit, a US no. 10 in mid-1968, but a song that was adopted by various movements. The protest movement viewed it as anti-Government and Christian groups as being religious in intent.
I don’t know how and where I first heard it, but it caught my ear for the moment, and was one of the few songs to conjure up a mental image instantly. To me it’s a psychedelic sound, yet it was recorded in Nashville, and the musicians include Ray Stevens and Joe South.
The song introduces itself with a buoyant beat, a springy base-line and a fussy, cymbal-heavy drum, a repeating pattern, at the end of the second iteration of which Cathy Post comes in, ringing with great strength and great joy that she thinks it’s so groovy now that people are finally getting together, I think it’s wonderful to know that people are finally getting together.
I mean, how more Sixties can you get? And behind her, I imagine a psychedelic wheel of brightly coloured paints, sliding around and into her whilst before them the silhouette of a dancer gyrates, a go-go dancer, twisting and turning, hips and body swaying, a completely black figure.
And on the second repetition, Jim Post joins his wife, singing the same words, projecting them with every fibre of his soul, this is no cynical attempt to manufacture a song that speaks to the times, this is the genuine thing, the flower power, hippy-dippy naivete shining through, and by god but you feel it with them as the second repetition completes, and there’s a pregnant moment until the music surges and the duo hit full harmonies as they sing out into the void to reach out in the darkness, and you may find a friend.
I listen to it and I wish we could all sound like that again. I wish we had something like that to be openly optimistic about, to say to each other that we are all connected even as we stumble about in the darkness, and that we should reach to each other.
To demonstrate, Jim Post sings a verse, the intensity pitched down. He knew a man that he did not care for, but then one day that man came to his door. They sat and talked about what was on their mind and now that man, he is a friend of mine. And those voices rise again in that plea to reach out in the darkness, and once again Cathy Post carols that it’s so groovy now that people are finally getting together.
Oh my word, this is naive, almost as much as Oliver‘s ‘Good Morning Starshine’, but isn’t it gloriously so, and why did we let the world and ourselves lose that sense of coming together? And that image of the go-go dancer, go-going with relish, alert and aware of the things her body can do, expressing herself without restraint. That might not be a part of any other person’s response to this song, but it is at the heart of mine, wedding it to a time I didn’t experience for myself but still miss immensely. Imagine being there, being there then.

The Infinite Jukebox: America’s ‘A Horse with no Name’

America’s ‘A Horse with No Name’, a dry, dusty song built on strummed acoustic guitars and three-part harmonies, set to a loping rhythm whose percussion is primarily bongo drums, was the big hit Neil Young never got in this country. Though it’s a song about a mirage-strewn trip across a desert, for which its sound is appropriate, it was a UK no. 3 hit in December 1971.
I liked the song then, enough to buy the album, though the single wasn’t included on it. The best track on the album was ‘I need you’, a lovely, piano-melody love song. The band were a trio who, like The Walker Brothers, were the sons of American airmen stationed in the UK, and I can envision them still, three long-haired guys sat in a row on high stools, strumming away.
1971 was a weird year. I was starting to sort music out in my head, starting to develop tastes that, if at odds with the rest of the Great British Record Buying Public, were at least my own. If you read my ‘Lost Seventies’ series, you’ll see the profusion of 1971 singles that never got anywhere, and not only the sheer number of them is astonishing, but the eclectic nature of the music.
America was only a temporary interest: within a year, I had passed the album on to a mate whose normal fare was prog rock, ELP, Yes and Olivia Newton-John (I will never cease to regard that juxtaposition as incredible). I never even owned ‘A Horse with No Name’ except digitally.
But though this is a song about crossing the desert, the time it was always on the radio linked it for me to the cold, dark December atmosphere. I was not long since turned sixteen, and the loss of my father was turning me inwards in many ways. I associate the song with drab Top of the Pops studios, the band’s undemonstrativeness, dark skies and cold air, greyness and frigidity. The sound that matches the desert lyrics also matches the winter repression.
Like so much music of that period, the song disappeared. I no longer listened to the radio, but I doubt it saw much if any airplay as a Golden Oldie. I don’t even know if they have such things any more. Years went past, decades even.
In the 2000s, when I was married, we holidayed several times on Mallorca, where my wife’s mother and stepfather lived. My wife was familiar with left-hand drive cars and driving on the right hand side of the road, so the first year she did the driving, but the second time, she arrived with a migraine and I, who had never driven a car like that before, was press-ganged into taking over.
To my considerable surprise, I took to it comfortably and near-instantly. After that, I did all the driving, then and on our later holidays, even on some of those very narrow, very steep and very winding mountain roads.
The main difference between her driving and mine was that I put the car radio on, almost automatically, and we had music wherever we went. This was the late summer of 2002 and the music was a mixture of Spanish and English songs. This was the year I heard, without knowing, Amaral’s Te Necessito .
But I remember none of the English music being contemporary. Indeed, some of the stuff that was played regularly, as in at least once every day, was unexpected to say the least. The Eagles’ ‘One of these Nights’ (1975), and Chicago’s ‘Saturday in the Park’ (1973) were ubiquitous.
And one late morning we sent off to spend the day in Palma, the island capitol, it’s only city. We drove in from our rented villa in Cala Llombards, in the southeast corner of the island, until Palma came in sight, with the blue Mediterranean sparkling away to our left, and growing all the nearer as the road descended towards the bay, until we were driving along the marina front, the sun burning down out of a deep blue sky, the yacht masts in uncountable array beside us, the traffic slowing as we neared the city, and also the underground car park we had been told to look out for.
The radio was playing, whatever it was. It finished, and what took its place was a long-familiar acoustic strum, to a loping rhythm, a song of dark Decembers, of greyness and coldness, here on the front in Mallorca. It was ‘A Horse with no Name’ and it was playing in the most incongruous circumstances I could imagine to hear it after so long. I couldn’t help but laugh at the sheer improbability of it. What a gulf between then and now.
And in an instant, its association leapt thirty-plus years, and now I cannot hear the song without it conjuring up Palma and the Med, in the sun, and a brilliant holiday with the people I loved.
With their memory at heart, I ride through the desert on a horse with no name.

The Infinite Jukebox: Nizlopi’s ‘The JCB Song’

At first sight, a novelty Xmas one-hit-wonder single seems to be an unlikely candidate for ripping me apart every time I hear it, but those who are regular readers of this blog as well as being familiar with Nizlopi’s unlikely 2005 chart-topper, may already be seeing where this is going.
‘The JCB Song’ wasn’t the actual Xmas no. 1. This took place in those dark days when Simon Cowell bought the Xmas no. 1 every year for his latest, here-today, gone-by-5.00am-on-Boxing-Day X-Factor winner. Or was it Britain’s Got Talent? I really don’t want to look it up.
Nizlopi – named after a Hungarian girl the lead singer had fancied at school – were an ‘alt-folk’ duo consisting of Luke Concannon (vocals, guitar, bodhran) and John Parker (double bass, human beatbox, backing vocals). They first released ‘The JCB Song’ in June, when apparently it peaked, if that’s the word, at no 160. But it started to gain an Internet following, especially once complimented by a charmingly twee animated video. Interest built up, the Press started talking about it as a Xmas no. 1 and it entered the chart at no. 1.
That the song was popular was evidenced by the fact that even though it was knocked down to no. 2 on Xmas Day, Nizlopi stayed there for four weeks.
So what is the thing about, in all its tweeness? It’s about Luke, the singer, the writer, about a five year old version of himself, a little kid who has dyslexia, and has a rotten time of it at school, bullied by the bullies, looked down on by the teacher’s pets, and you can tell he’s getting it from the teachers too. But he’s not in school now, he’s with his Dad, who drives a JCB. And he’s sat with his Dad on this JCB that’s rattling along and hurting his bum, and they’re holding up the traffic, and Luke doesn’t care, because it’s funny, and his Dad doesn’t care, because they’re having a top laugh, singing ‘Don’t forget your shovel if you want to go to work’.
Because Luke’s with his Dad and his Dad has probably had a bloody hard day too, and pulls over into a layby to let the cars go streaming past, then they’re out and rattling and rolling again, enjoying nothing more than being together, father and son.
And Luke’s safe and secure with his Dad, who can save him from the bullies and the cads, and whilst they’re together he can pretend his Dad is B.A. Barracus with Bruce Lee’s nunchakas, and whilst he’s there little Luke is invincible, and he needs to have some point in his life where he’s invincible, and he can turn into a Transformer or a Tyrannosaurus Rex and eat up the kids who are tormenting.
Because his Dad is his very own superhero, he can hold up all the cars on the bypass, and Luke starts chanting, I’m Luke, I’m five, my Dad’s Bruce Lee, drives me round in his JCB, over and over like a kid does until you get sick of hearing it but it’s what Luke has to keep him safe, it’s his mantra, ahead of the day when he learns what a mantra is.
And it is silly and twee, and inconsequential, and musically naïve, and plenty of people hate it, and in any other Universe I probably would too, and no, I never was Luke, I didn’t have dyslexia, I wasn’t bullied, I liked school, I probably was a teacher’s pet, none of this applies to me or calls ghosts out of buried closets, but if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that I lost my Dad when I was in my early teens, and every time this song appears, it splits me open with a pick-axe, because I want to be that boy, hanging around with his Dad, full of the warmth that a Dad brings, especially when you’ve got him all to yourself, without mother or sister to deflect him, and you look up to him and revere him as all things because he’s Dad and that one sound means the whole world.
It means it especially when he’s no longer there and you’ll never share any part of that grown-up world he inhabits ever again.
So, Nizlopi. Luke Concannon. Your much-despised novelty song is the very opposite of safe and secure for me. No matter in what dusty corner of the Infinite Jukebox I hide you, you are still there. A boy and his Dad, holding up the bypass forever.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Association’s ‘Windy’

Depending which chart you use for your statistics, The Association had either two or three American Number Ones between 1966 and 1967. ‘Never My Love’ may have been the second most frequently played song of the Twentieth Century but it only got to No. 2 on Billboard. There was no argument about ‘Windy’ though, which spent four weeks at the top through July, for which it was a perfect summer hit.
They still don’t look like rock stars, any of them, with their immaculate suits, down to their waistcoats, their carefully groomed, not-too-long hair, and nothing more wild than Terry Kirkman’s sideburns. Though I heard the term used more often in the Seventies, The Association were soft rock, something you could put on when your boss came round for a meal. But what that meant was six singers, masters of harmonies, capable of vocal arrangements that stood up against the ones Brian Wilson concocted for The Beach Boys. Oh yes, they could sing, in any combination.
Those other two smashes were love-songs, quiet, slow ballads, and so was their only other Top Ten single, ‘Everything that touches you’. ‘Windy’ on the other hand, was a rock song, uptempo, punchy, with a steel backbone. It was as catchy as anything that year, a song about a girl in the city, tripping down the streets, smiling at everybody she sees. Who is this girl, who’s bending down to capture a rainbow? Everyone knows it’s Windy.
Windy’s a dream-figure, a girl of the moment, a hippy-chick with stormy eyes that flash at the sound of lies. And Windy has wings to fly above the clouds… A mercurial girl, an honest girl, a girl who sees with more than just her eyes. She’s the dream-girl of 1967, the year of expanding consciousnesses, of flower-power, of naivete, of purity.
The song was written by folk-singer Ruthann Friedman, apparently in twenty minutes whilst staying at David Crosby’s house. I’m hardly surprised: the song is simple, it’s lyrics are few and some melodies are just natural ones that arrive in about as much time as it takes to write them down.
Her version refers to Windy as a he, a drugged-up hippy, off his head on pills as he trips the streets of the city, and despite the denials, that was my first thought when I heard the original. Switch the genders, and Windy becomes this unreal girl that we all wanted to meet and know that summer.
And The Association may seem to be the wrong band for the song but instead they were perfect, the bridge between worlds. Russ Giguere and Larry Ramos share the lead vocals, Terry Kirkman contributes a penny-whistle solo that captures the dancing girl who’s calling a name that’s lighter than air as Brian Cole’s bass, building both rhythm and melody in one line, commits the song to pulse that captured the audience and set them dancing.
As I said, the lyrics are not extensive, just a verse and a chorus, repeated through the song, and then the band just fling themselves into the verse, repeating it over and over, with extra strength to their voices, with extra curlicues of harmony, until the singing induces almost a trance, and you want the song to go on forever.
Of course, we in Britain ignored it completely, as we did all but one of The Association’s singles, of complex rhymes and possible drug-references, and those incredible harmonies that could at one and the same time be both soft and hard. If it was released simultaneously in Britain, which so very often was not the case, not like now, then it would have come out in the last couple of months before Radio 1 made its debut.
Why did songs like this fail? Were the Great British Record Buying Public really so deaf to great music from America? Or did Radio 1, with it’s limited airplay and even more limited needle-time, simply not play it? They certainly turned to it often enough in the Seventies, as a Golden Oldie. That’s the problem with coming in late, as I did, after the fact. What got played, and what did not? I know in the Seventies I heard plenty enough great music go ignored by our primary music station, in favour of stale, tedious, mindless mush.
But though it’s a song that endures unfaded by the years, it’s still, in one of its many ways, the sound of 1967, and what it would have been to have known it then in the sound of its times. Increasingly, I resent having lived those momentous years in what might as well have been silence for all I got out of it.
Had I been around in those years, I would have been tuning the dial to find songs like ‘Windy’, turning up the sound as I heard them. I can hear it now whenever I want, over fifty years after it would have uplifted me, given me dreams of the girl everyone knew and wanted to be with, whose eyes flashed at the sound of lies. What a life it would have been with her?