Grant Hart R.I.P.

For those who don’t recognise the name, Grant Hart, who has died of cancer aged 56, was the drummer and one of two singers and songwriters in Husker Du, the Minneapolis-based trio who were so amazingly influential on the punk/indie rock scene of the Eighties. If you’ve never heard of them, you’re in a sizeable majority, but without Husker Du, there would not have been a creative space for bands like The Pixies and Nirvana to develop, and turn into fame and success.

I came to the Huskers late. A giveaway 7″ vinyl EP in the New Musical Express included their version of ‘Ticket to Ride’, but it was 1987’s release as a single of Hart’s ‘Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely’, combining raw power, speed and a grabbingly glorious chorus line, that inspired me to try the current album, Candy Apple Grey.

One of the great things about Husker Du was that, for an ultra-basic three-piece, they had two great songwriters. Bassist Greg Norton kept out of it, which was probably just as well, because guitarist and singer Bob Mould saw the band as his band, and was insistent on being the primary writer, always having more of his own songs on an album than Hart.

On the one hand, this kind of creative tension can be fantastic for a band, with the two writers trying to outdo each other, and for all that Bob Mould emerged from the ashes of Husker Du with the higher profile, and more conspicuous success in a solo career, Hart was no slouch, as a consideration of some of the songs he contributed to the band demonstrates.

But rivalry only goes so far. Husker’s next, and last album, in 1988, was the double LP Warehouse: Songs and Stories. It held twenty tracks, enough for any writer, but Mould insisted that Hart would never get equal credits, so the album was almost mechanically broken down as to eleven songs for Mould, and nine for Hart.

That was what basically broke things up, though Mould alibied a lot of it to Hart’s struggle with heroin addiction. He went onto popular success with both solo albums and as the band Sugar, a couple of which I used to have. Hart seemed to disappear, and it’s only from his obituary that I’ve now learned he had an extensive post-Husker Du career, both solo and with a band called The Nova Mob. I shall have to go in search.

When all’s said and done, I came to Husker Du late, and at the end of their career when they’d signed for a major label, were slowing down (literally) the speed of their songs, becoming a more orthodox and less raw band. I worked slowly backwards, only this year coming to their other double album, Zen Arcade, seeing the band become more primitive.

But in that rawness there were always songs displaying melody, an unexpected ear for a cracker of a tune. No, Husker Du don’t rank in the front line of my personal tastes, but I’m not parting with the CDs.

In away, I’m writing this out of a sense of wrongness. I’m beginning to get inured to the deaths that keep coming. There’s no other way to handle it: age is surrounding so many long term heroes, anyone who had any kind of success in the Sixties and the early Seventies, and painful though their departure might be, they don’t get to live forever.

But Grant Hart was of the Eighties. He was a part of the musical warp and weft that saw me from my mid-twenties to my mid-thirties. To lose someone from that era is wring, fundamentally wrong. He was five years younger than me, he should have had another twenty years in him, it’s too bloody soon for that generation of favourites to start leaving us.

I’m going to steal a comment from BTL on the Guardian Obituary. Rest in Peace? No, set the room alight and drum the fuck out of that ever-growing jamming band up there! And sing your songs free and clear and urgent. Songs like this…


The Infinite Jukebox: The Association’s ‘Never My Love’

According to Wikipedia, ‘Never My Love’ by The Association was the second most played song on American radio in the Twentieth Century. I don’t have access to the list, but I doubt I’d be far out if I assumed the top placed song was The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’. For a band almost completely ignored over here, that’s high company. Anyway, listening to ‘Never my Love’ never fails to make me question what the Great British Record Buying Public are using in place of their ears.
Not long ago, I discoursed on Spanky and Our Gang’s ‘Sunday Will Never Be The Same‘, and on how its apparent simplicity was merely a window into something deeper. The two songs are completely different in subject. ‘Sunday’ is a classic piece of Heartbreak/break-up pop, but ‘Never My Love’ is about the love that is, and always will be.
But not necessarily for both.
The singer sets his stall out in the first line. You ask me, he says, gently and without petulance, if there’ll come a time when I grow tired of you. She’s hesitant, fearful, not sure if she should respond to him. Has he given her any reason to doubt him? Not if you listen to him, to the whole song. But what of her? Has she been hurt before, been let down by false promises, been heartbroken? Does she think he’s only staying it to get her into bed?
We don’t know, nor will we know. What we do know, and the band comes in as a whole, breathy, harmonious, quiet and firm, is his answer: never, my love. Never, my love.
She asks again, will his heart ever lose it’s desire for her? Again, quietly, undemonstratively, with complete sincerity, never, my love. Then it’s his turn to ask her a question: how can she think love will end when he’s asked her to spend her whole life with him (and this being 1968, he’s talking marriage)? Why does she doubt him?
Unable to say more with words, the band turn to a weave of ba-das, as much an instrumental break as any guitar or organ solo.
As a band, The Association, pioneers in soft rock, were known for their superb harmonies, six members, all of whom sang, several of whom took lead, and sometimes they would produce vocal arrangements almost as complex as those Brian Wilson devised for the Beach Boys. They dressed in three piece suits, with quiet, perfect ties, and neatly combed hair. They didn’t look like rock stars of any kind.
But still she doubts. You say you fear I’ll change my mind, that I won’t require you: never my love, and each time he says it twice, as if the repetition ends all uncertainty. He’s sincere, he is only sincere. For him this is it, for the rest of all time. If she would only reach out to him.
And still he tries to make it plain. The song, a gentle ballad built upon low-key group instrumentation, decorated by those superb harmonies, offers commitment, lifelong commitment. If only she will accept it.
In the end, we don’t know whether she does, and we never will know. Does she accept him, accept his love? In a ballad as beautiful as this, with harmonies like soft kisses, and a gentle, easy melody, some of us at least are seduced into hoping she believes him. He is without doubt: she is the one for him, the only one, if only she will have the confidence to accept him. Why does she resist? What makes her cautious, over-cautious as he sees it. Has she been hurt too deeply to ever easily extend her trust again, or saddest outcome of all, does she not really love him enough?
Until such time as an answer is forthcoming, he and the Association can only use the best words they know, perhaps the words they were unable to summon two years earlier in that other awesome ballad, ‘Cherish’. But there aren’t many more beautiful hymns to commitment, to love and a lifetime of it, than the second most played song on American radio in the Twentieth Century, that a cloth-eared British Recording Buying Public turned down flat.
You fools. You poor, benighted fools.


The Infinite Jukebox: The Banana Splits’ ‘The Very First Kid on my Block’

By 1968, I was being exposed to some pop music. My parents still refused to have it in the house, the only bit I saw of Top of the Pops was the bit between the end of whatever ITV programme we’d watched and the start of whatever followed it on BBC1, and the only memory I have of all those snippets of Number Ones was of Arthur Brown arousing my parents’ joint disgust at the ‘gimmick’ of his fiery headdress.
But on Saturday and Sunday mornings I would switch on the old radio my Dad had built into my bedside cabinet at 8.00am, and enjoy two hours of Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart with Junior Choice. I was still only twelve and it was the children’s songs that I listened out for, but even then those four weekend hours were mixed in with Pop, and when I occasionally taped things off the radio onto the reel-to-reel tape recorder I had been given, one such thing was the Love Affair’s ‘A Day without Love’ that even now pulls me across time and space every time I hear it.
Though I doubt I recognised it as such, in 1968 I had another source of pop music, one night a week, after school, in the form of The Banana Splits Show. Once again, it wasn’t about the music, but the cartoons, ‘Danger Island’, Uh-oh Chon-go! and the anarchic doings of Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky. And I was beginning to find absurdity and anarchic and craziness was my kind of funny.
I don’t think I even registered the songs as pop music. Certainly, the Banana Splits swept our year at School – Uh-oh Chon-go! – but I don’t remember anyone ever talking about the songs.
Nearly twenty years later, a qualified Solicitor, at my second firm, I looked in the TV listings and discovered BBC1 were repeating some old Banana Splits shows in the early afternoon, stripping them across the week. I phoned home, got the video-recorder set, and indulged in pure nostalgia, for what is better than the pure rush of a childhood memory that stands up in adult life?
There was one Banana Splits song I did love then, that then and then and now and still I cannot understand not being released as a single over here, for 1968 was the heyday of bubblegum music, and this was bubblegum at its sweetest and most joyous, a song made for that rarefied zone where the most commercial of intents produces pure art: of a specialised kind, but still transcendent. And that, by glorious coincidence was in that episode I phoned home to have taped.
But I’ve already expounded on ‘Wait til Tomorrow‘. I could do it all again, and say different things, link it to the theme I began to develop when writing recently about ‘Sunday will never be the same‘, about the deftness in which Sixties songs could sketch out a scene with the simplest of lines that nevertheless painted a complex emotional picture: ‘Wait til Tomorrow’s tale of love lost, love regretted and love that could be restored with patience and trust is another perfect example.
But though most of the rest of the Splits’ ouevre is cheap and cheerful, fun and unambitious, that wasn’t the only time that the songwriters and session musicians came up with something that spoke to deeper emotions, set to a perfect jangle-pop sound, and ‘The Very First Kid on my Block’ was another of those supposedly commercial products that broke through the unconscious shell I had built around me.
‘The Very First Kid on my Block’ immediately created an alien resonance: we didn’t think of Blocks over here, but of streets, at least I didn’t. I’d grown up in a back street terrace: though in 1968 we were in our second year of South Manchester semi-detached Suburbia, on a wide, long road, my definitions still went back to where I’d been brought up.
But if the terminology was alien, and the emotions a year or two (or more) beyond me, the sound thrilled me, the melody swept me with it, and if the lyrics were beyond my then comprehension, there was a trick to the song that won me to it, that I adopted myself in those years when I tried to write my own lyrics.
Because the song starts out by announcing that the singer was the very first kid on his block with a broken heart. And it goes on to detail the singer’s experience with a girl who only wanted to play with him, to use him for amusement and then move on, uncaring of the pains given, the emotions awakened and left unfulfilled, the need to hide real tears. Was the singer warning, or was he boasting? Or, difficult though it might be to comprehend, was it a mixture of both? Was there not an element of it being something to be the pathfinder, to be the boy this girl thought worthy of her attention, before all the other little kids, to be the first?
Because being first to have a broken heart was itself a rite of passage. This boy was singing from a place of hurt, and though the song was rhythmic and light, the voice was rueful and downbeat. And there was that trick at the end that made the song. Because this boy might still be broken-hearted and lost, but he knew that in a while he’d forget about her and then, tempered by the fire, he’d be the very last kid on his block to fall in love again.
First kid, last kid, topping and tailing the lyrics, giving the sense, plainly stating, that things had changed over the course of the 134 seconds this song lasted. I was to try to duplicate that effect, over and again, and sometimes the effect worked but more often it was too clumsy, awkward, forced.
But this was where it came from. And if I didn’t listen closely enough in 1968, something inside sensed that again a commercial product was straining at that uncertain boundary it shared with art, and was suggesting at things not spoken of, but curled up inside, fractal dimensions of the heart.
I was never going to be the very first kid at anything, whether on my block or any other place. But someone had to brave the danger, and come back alive to tell us.

The Infinite Jukebox: Spanky and Our Gang’s ‘Sunday will never be the same’

Now that I no longer listen to Sounds of the Sixties, I’ve lost the serendipity of what Sixties music, classic or obscure, I might hear each week. It’s full-time replacement is the YouTube trawl, in which I alternate between the search for obscure singles, the ignored and overlooked that nevertheless contain the spark of what I hear as attractive, and sessions where I concentrate on certain bands who made their mark, such as my long-favourites, The Association.

One song I’ve been returning to recently is Spanky and Our Gang’s ‘Sunday will never be the same’. The band, a six piece who cultivated a fairly eccentric appearance, were part of the mid-Sixties burgeoning folk-rock, or perhaps folk-pop scene, the most successful proponents of which were the Mamas and the Papas  (Elaine ‘Spanky’ McFarlane replaced Mama Cass Elliot). They never had any hits in the UK, but they had three top 30 tracks in America, which got airplay over here, if only as oldies for me in the Seventies.

‘Sunday will never be the same’ was the biggest hit. It showcases the band’s considerable harmonies, with a sweeping, wordless intro over sweet strings that create a big space in which the music sits. It’s harmonious and happy, but that’s not the point of the song. Spanky sets the scene quickly, with half a verse extolling the joys of Sundays on which she meets someone at the park, to walk with hand in hand, and talk till it gets dark.

But already this is a eulogy for something lost, because the opening words are ‘I remember’, and no sooner are we presented with this image of simplicity, this pure enjoyment of the other’s presence, than it’s swept away. It’s the past, it’s over, it’s gone, and Sundays will never be the same.

What else is there needs be said? One of the beauties of Sixties songs is their superficiality, in that what they said was placed on the surface. Depth was not required. A brief word picture of happiness is created, without even using the word ‘love’, and then it’s gone. We don’t know why, we don’t know how, we don’t know what. All we know, and all we need to know is that it isn’t like that and it never will be like that again, and that world that was created between the two can never be recreated. Sundays will never be the same.

The whole world has changed about her. Sunday afternoons no longer warm her inside, instead they’ve turned as cold and grey as ashes. The very paths themselves have changed, and she can no longer stay, the sun has gone and the rain is coming. The park’s a cold place on her own and it is full of memories, children feeding pigeons, images of innocence and fun that tear and dull because all they are are memories and nobody’s waiting for her. Sunday that was so special is now just another day.

Of course it’s simple, of course it’s naive. Would it be any more painful if you brought something more than holding hands into it? Love at its purest is about being with them, when everything is made warm and wonderful because they are there. Each of us brings into this song the details of how it was for us, but we all share in the emotion Spanky sings of: it’s not the same, it never will be again. Nothing stays special.

And that refusal to dig deep, to talk of hand-holding and walks in the park, may now seem naive and laughable, instead deals with the purity of the situation. Every relationship will have a thousand, a million caveats, to negotiate, day in and day out, but songs like this cut through to what lies in the centre, without which no relationship can ever mean anything.

The more sophisticated we get, the further away we get from such things. Songs like this remind us that once, when we were young, a single day could mean everything. But that if Sunday means so much, one day it will never be the same. Love doesn’t even have to end for that to be so.


The Infinite Jukebox: Mama Cass’s ‘It’s Getting Better’

The other night, I watched a YouTube video about ’10 Songs that always make you smile’. Like all such things, I had mixed opinions about the choices, though it’s hard to argue against a top 3 of ‘ California Girls’, ‘Here comes the Sun’ and ‘My Girl’. The video itself commented that it was hard to beat the Sixties for happy songs, sunny songs, positive songs, and that’s the same point I’ve made myself: the Sixties was the last great age of optimism, a time when we looked at ourselves saw changes being made that opened things up, broadened things, extended the range of possibilities wider than they’d ever been before. And we believed, naively but honestly, that this condition was eternal, that we had broken on through to the other side, and that it not only was getting better, but it would always get better. It’s in the music at a bedrock basis: hope, belief, wonder, enthusiasm, innocence.

This song could and probably should have been put in that list. It’s not a political song, or a social song, or any kind of symbolic song, though its title and its chorus strips the atmosphere of 1969 down to its minimalist essence. It’s just a love song, by a young lady with her life and her music in front of her, unaware how little longer she would with here to make her own kind of music.

Cass Elliott went (unwillingly) by the name Mama Cass, signalling her association with The Mamas and the Papas. Her solo career left behind the folk-pop of the band, with its roots in the clubs, choosing a more direct pop approach, with lazy, gentle ballads like ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’, mixed with the rousing, uptempo declaration of independence of ‘Make your own kind of music’.

I’ve known ‘It’s getting better’ for a long time. It was Mama Cass’s second top 10 hit over here, a beautifully balanced piece of mid-tempo jangly-pop alleviated with cleverly restrained, but still buoyant horn riffs, leading into a chorus that sucks you into joining in, singing your heart out.

Cass opens with a confession. Once I believed, she sings, that when love came to me, it would come with rockets, bells and poetry. Rockets, bells and poetry: to a lonely, naive, repressed teenager, this was manna to the expectation, though the embittered old man I am now knows that finding rockets, bells and poetry was blazing luck.

But that’s not what it’s about, not at all. Cass expected rockets, bells and poetry, but didn’t get them. Instead, what she got was infinitely quieter, calmer, and yet so much more satisfying. But with me and you, she proclaims, because you can’t keep such feelings in, it just started quietly and grew.

And it’s getting better. Getting better every day.

There’s an uplift to those words, that chorus, a powerful dignity shot through with absolute confidence that just isn’t possible in music today, because the singer cannot be that pure. Too much has happened to allow songs like this to be made today and have any credibility.

But Cass is still singing about how great things are, how natural and right it feels just to be with her man, for the two of them just to be together, and do things together, because the together elevates everything, no matter how small or banal, into a moment of grace and love.

And, best of all, it’s not hard to see that this isn’t half of what it’s gonna turn out to be.

And with those words, Mama Cass reminds us of just how much we have lost that we can no longer say that, or think it or believe it. It isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse and for many of us we will never see it become better, but for three glorious minutes we can travel back in time, and tell ourselves that we don’t mind waiting, no matter how long it takes. Because it’s getting better. Growing stronger. Warmer, wilder. It’s getting better every day.

And that’s why I have an Infinite Jukebox in my head.

The Infinite Jukebox: Owen Paul’s ‘My Favourite Waste of Time’

The one thing that people who sneer at mass-appeal, commercialised, manufactured pop will never understand – mainly because the vast majority of mass-appeal, commercialised, manufactured pop is criminally abysmal at everything but separating young people from their money – is that it is about the most potent force known to man and woman: young love. And in amongst the utterly synthetic crud are songs that, sometimes intentionally but more often not, cross that magic barrier into high and joyous art.

And those of us who usually sneer at mass-appeal, commercialised, manufactured pop don’t tend to notice that we’ve met such a thing until it has gone from the airwaves long enough for us to listen to it as something other than an ear-devouring annoyance.

I remember ‘My Favourite Waste of Time’, and Owen Paul, from the summer of 1986. It was the perfect prefab summer song, instantly bringing to mind Hawaiian shirts and beach barbecues, buoyant, effervescent, light as the most uncollapsed souffle and coming with a pre-guaranteed refrain that could have held up twenty tons of concrete. I was conditioned to hate it.

I was in love that year, for the first time in a long time, and to my amazement she loved me too. But she was going away for three weeks in the height of summer, to Canada, to stay with her brother and sister-in-law. I missed her like crazy, life was put in suspension, and in that absence and my intense need was sewn the seed of things that, many years after, would break us apart, mere weeks before what would have been our tenth anniversary.

Owen Paul was the soundtrack of that summer. No matter how much I didn’t listen to the radio any more, I couldn’t escape them, not least on Top of the Pops, which I wouldn’t leave for many more years yet.

When they got back, her fourteen year old daughter wanted to catch up on the music she’d missed. I remember her genuine puzzlement at the inherent contradiction in the song. How can she be his favourite and be a waste of time?

I couldn’t explain it, but I instinctively understood, and even in the midst of hating the song, the writer in me loved the fantastic conception, or maybe I was just listening more intently than I was kidding myself I did. Because he’s having a rush, and maybe he’s kidding himself a little bit too, but he’s young and free and the summer is time that doesn’t matter. Nothing need be done, no responsibilities need be undertaken, school’s out but University’s not here yet, like the summer I had in 1973, the very last time that nothing really mattered. Everything he does, everywhere he goes, is a waste of time because he has nothing but time and it’s the most fun thing ever and she’s the very best waste of it, because her being with him is the way that he gets forty-eight hours out of every day, and maybe he’s not really kidding himself at all, because anything that you enjoy this much is no waste, no waste at all.

And who knows, maybe the girl isn’t going to be a waste of time at all?

But to think that implies that there is a future ahead, when the guy is happily ignoring everything but today, and that’s what this song really captures, a great and glorious and permanent now. It’s about all the things that pass too soon, and I don’t mean 1986 and the woman I missed too much, I mean that time in your life when if it comes good for you, you can live without thought and consequence, and the little ducks line up for you all in a row and if there ever is an end, it is in memories that will warm you forever. Life is nothing but time that’s yours to waste, on nothing but living, and she’s the one who is the best way of wasting it.

Owen Paul, singing irrepressibly, like he can’t contain the fun he’s having, didn’t just record a big hit, didn’t just record a summer anthem to rival those legendary lost Beach Boys classics, didn’t just define his career in three minutes, he tapped into something immortal, and I hear it and yearn for it every time I hear this.

Sun, summer, love, pop. When you get it right, there’s no joy sweeter.



Imaginary Albums: Lost 70s Volume 15

It’s that time again. After fifteen compilations over sixteen years, we have still not yet come to the bottom of my memories of the more obscure Seventies pop music. As always the key to this compilation is that the song has been pretty much forgotten, usually but not exclusively because it was never successful in the first place. There are 21 tracks on this latest outings and, as usual, there’s a rough chronological order to things, and there are a preponderance of tracks from 1971. Honestly, I don’t remember it being this crowded with obscurities when I lived through it.

Old Fashioned Girl – John Keen
We kick off with Speedy Keen’s first song after Thunderclap Newman split up, if they could ever truly be said to have been together in the first place. ‘Old Fashioned Girl’ was a great rock song with a screaming guitar and a compulsive chorus. For some strange reason, given that everyone knew him as Speedy, this, and the first album, were released under the name John Keen, with which the self-styled ‘bleeding long-nosed rock’n’roll herbert’ had been born. I have more to say about this on The Infinite Jukebox, here but this is the kind of opener that gets anything off to a good start.
Haunted – Bob Clarke
From the start of 1971, I began selecting a single of the week, a habit I maintained for the next half-decade or so. Without fail, I would pick some new single that had come to my attention and which thrilled me. This was not always the easiest thing to maintain: there were weeks when the selection of new records was extremely scanty, and for weeks when the family had gone away on holiday to the Lakes, where medium wave radio reception was absolutely shit and I barely got to hear any music at all, I had to allow those selections a two week run because I wouldn’t know what to choose the following Monday. And there were plenty of occasions when I would catch a song once, nominate it for myself, and then discover that it was on no-one’s playlist and I would never hear it again. This was one of those songs. I don’t think I heard it more than two or three times at best, ethereal and, so my memory told me, laden with spooky sound-effects. I loved it. For over thirty years, if not even longer, I forgot it completely, then it popped up on a YouTube sidebar. It’s not what I remember, but then I no longer remember anything but the circumstances. Perfectly pleasant stuff. What made me love it is now as much a vanished thing as 1971 itself.
Walk in the Night – Jr Walker and The All-Stars
This is another of those slightly dodgy entries, a track that reached the UK top 20, and one that was very popular for a very long time. But even this seems to have slipped into a kind of audio limbo, not having joined the ranks of those classic Tamla-Motown singles that those with the best of taste revere and cherish. Junior Walker was a sax player, and the band did a lot of backing tracks for Motown, together with the odd single, either a sax instrumental or a song with limited lyrics to suit Walker’s limited range. ‘Walk in the Night’ was a quasi-instrumental, a smooth, easy-loping melody, a gentle dancing beat, with sax breaks flowing smoothly and a bunch of girl backing singers contributing the title line and a lot of ooh-oohing. Smooth as anything, one of those late night dancefloor-fillers, the ideal lead in to the slow snogging session. It remained in people’s memories far longer than such limited hits usually do, and it should never have lost its place.
Sing Children Sing – Lesley Duncan
In the early Seventies, Lesley Duncan was an already successful backing singer and songwriter, whose beautiful ‘Love Song’ had already been recorded by both Elton John and Olivia Newton-John. She was also getting an increasing reputation for her own singing, a deep, near-husky voice on beautiful songs, with messages on ecology that were ahead of her time. ‘Sing Children Sing’ went down a storm with Radio 1 DJs and was played continually. I didn’t like it. It was too downbeat, too dry, too sententious for my then little-developed tastes. It flopped, like many turntable hits that I couldn’t get behind but which, years later, I came to recognise for their brilliance. ‘Sing Children Sing’ came back into my head only lately. I played it for nostalgia and stayed to play it again because its simplicity and its unostentatious vocals proved to be deeply moving. It’s taken me more than forty years to appreciate the quality of this song, and of the late Lesley Duncan. I’m glad I didn’t leave it any longer.
Day By Day – Cast for Godspell
Everybody remembers Jesus Christ, Superstar, but not too many people who weren’t there at the time remember that it was not the only religious musical at the turn of the Seventies. The other one was Godspell, more famous for giving David Essex his start (though let’s not be too hard on it for that). Godspell was a bit more hippy-trippy, crossed with an element of gospel, and wasn’t written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, which gives it a bit more cred, street-wise, but not so much kudos on the longevity front. This was the single, an explicitly religious song, which I hated at the time, but whose energy and enthusiasm and sheer peppiness has evidently bled into my memories and taken up deeper roots than I ever imagined.
What is Life – George Harrison
When the Beatles officially split in 1970, there was a long silence, musically at least. George Harrison was first out of the traps, greeting 1971 with ‘My Sweet Lord’, and rapidly following it with the triple All Things Must Pass album. The rumour was that the album was basically every song Harrison had written that the Beatles had refused to record all at once, and given the general standard of his work after that point, it’s at least an arguable case. I’ve never listened to the album, but if it was strong enough that Harrison could afford to waste a song like ‘What is Life’ on the b-side of ‘My Sweet Lord’, it must have been strong indeed.
‘What is Life’ is George the rocker, hammering out an addictive riff, supplemented by some fierce brass, as he roars into an impassioned love song, or it might be God who he’s enquiring what his life might be without the object’s love. Either way, it’s a fantastic track and I preferred it to the a-side. In the UK, Olivia Newton-John had a Top 20 hit with a cover that demonstrated succinctly what was deemed to be commercial: the riff is flattened slightly, the sound sweetened, the repetitions reduced and a descant tone introduced so that the audience doesn’t get bored. And the love Livvy is singing about is definitely not religious, but romantic (and not carnal). What a waste of a great song.
September in the Rain – Dinah Washington
There have been some oddball choices in this series – Guy Marks, anyone? – but there will be some puzzled faces at this selection. Surely Dinah Washington is not Seventies music? How can she qualify? Do you really like something like this? Well, the answer to the last such question is, yes. Improbable as it seems, much as my tastes and instincts in music are removed from the kind of stuff my parents enjoyed, I love this record. It’s the same as any other genre of music: no matter how unpalatable it may be to your general tastes, something will come along that, for no easily discernible reason, will slide through your prejudices, and I have loved the easiness and freeness of this arrangement, the confident delivery, the wonderful smoothness of its old-fashioned sound ever since I first heard it. In the early Seventies. The song itself only dates from the early Sixties, and for some reason it was reissued in 1972, or thereabouts, and got a lot of airplay, enough for me to hear regularly, so either Radio 1 actually played it or I was listening to more Radio 2 than I remember. Whether this is a Sound of the Seventies or not, it’s a Sound of My Seventies.
Spill the Wine – Eric Burdon and War
One of the features of these later compilations is the number of songs they include that I hated at the time, but have now changed in my attitude to. By 1970, Eric Burdon’s career was in tatters. He had broken up the Animals in 1967, gone from being a Newcastle hard-ass bluesman to a psychedelic flower-power dreamer, and this collaboration with War, a black band themselves moving uneasily between soul and rock, was a shapeless, unstructured thing, alternating between meandering hippy narrative and an impassioned appeal to spill the wine and save/take? that girl. I still don’t understand it. But my ears are now so much more broadly attuned to what I couldn’t understand when I was young (which all you Burden fans will appreciate).
Vehicle – The Ides or March
Now this really is a case of nostalgia above everything. When I was first listening to pop music, in those early days of discovery in 1970, this blast of jazz-rock with its rasping vocals was big on Radio 1, and I hated it. There was this, and Blood, Sweat and Tears’ ‘Spinning Wheel’, getting all the airplay but thankfully never selling. ‘Spinning Wheel’ is still far beyond any personal pale, no matter how my tastes shift, but when I listen to ‘Vehicle’, I remember hating hearing it more than I hate hearing it. Do you understand what I mean?
Brown-eyed Girl – Ian Matthews
With the exception of ‘Woodstock’, I was pretty ignorant of Ian Matthews’ career when he came out with this cover of Van Morrison’s justly-celebrated first solo single, in 1976. It’s softer, less distinctive, more orthodox and Matthews’ voice doesn’t have the rasp that Morrison brought to this jaunty remembrance of time and love past, but I still like it. A good song need not only be celebrated in a single form.
Mary Skeffington – Gerry Rafferty
This is the most recent song to arrive in the Lost 70s pot, a memory that floated up out of a short session of skipping through Gerry Rafferty/Humblebums songs on YouTube. I recognised the name, I recognised the song, but that’s about all. I don’t know when I got to hear this, I am not even certain that it was this version that I heard, and I am certain that I thought of it as traditional back then, though Rafferty is the writer and it’s apparently about his mother. All I remember is that I remember this, and it is gentle, fair and takes me back. That I don’t know where it takes me to is no reason to exclude this. (Addendum: looking up the YouTube link has exploded the mystery: I knew it best back then from an album track cover by Olivia Newton-John, played by my mate Alan. Three Livvy cross-overs in one compilation!)
Black-skinned Blue-eyed Boys – The Equal
In contrast, this one has been waiting the longest to be included in a compilation. The Equals, fronted by a teenage Eddy Grant, are usually thought of as a Sixties band, and few remember that, after a succession of singles that only really brushed up against the top 20, this went all the way to the top 10 in early 1971. It’s a splenetic burst of anti-war agitprop, with pop underpinnings, protesting the overwhelming presence of black men in the US Army in Vietnam, and it’s aggression could sustain it for far longer than the three minutes it lasts. It ought to have been more celebrated, but hey, no matter how loose enough now children the Equals were, their time had gone. Eddy Grant had more to offer later, much later.
We’re gonna change the world – Matt Monro
It’s nearly fifty years since this song was on the radio, in 1970, usually on those Radio 1 shows that shared the frequency with Radio 2: Pete Murray, Jimmy Young, Terry Wogan, et al. Matt Monro, born Terry Parsons, was an easy-listening singer, more my parents’ meat than mine, but this is a vigorous pop tune with a striking chorus, and the song has left me confused for that near fifty years. On the surface, it’s a protest song, a bustling story of a morning when women are rising, collecting, gathering to hold a protest in support of peace. Monro names them, several of them, traces their path into a greater flow, but each verse ends with the contrasting figure of Annie Harris, who isn’t involved: going back to bed, going off to work, following dull patterns whilst this tide of female protest builds, drawing all the excitement to it. Come with us, Monro urges, run with us, we’re gonna change the world. But this isn’t a protest song. It never has been, despite the enthusiasm and energy it puts into talking up what the marchers are doing, what they are aiming for. The women are stupid, ineffectual, misguided. Annie Harris has avoided them for good reason. One’s dragged away by a policeman, another has her face slapped (with the underlying implication that it serves her right, the stupid, interfering cow). Meanwhile, Annie Harris is the true hero, she knows her place, she’s in the office, typing. For a moment, she pauses, and thinks of Don, glances at his last letter: ‘Died for others to live better’, then brushes away a tear and carries on, no doubt Keeping Calm whilst she’s at it. He’s the true hero, the man. He gets things done whilst these stupid women merely witter and Annie Harris knows her place. It’s a horrible, utterly conservative, disgusting mess disguised as a jolly paean to the spirit of the time, and the desire to see things improve. How stupid these women are, to think they can change anything. A wierd song, a poison pill, coated with the sugar of an energetic chorus. Fifty years only makes it look more foul.
Peace – Peter
I didn’t have many mates at school, and one of them moved away when his parents went to live in Tenby. His gran still lived about ten minutes away by bike, and he used to come back to Manchester every summer, and we’d meet up, play subbuteo, talk music. I was at his gran’s that Friday afternoon when it got too nice to play subbuteo indoors, so I biked home to get my football for a kickaround, and I saw my Dad for that last brief time, before he went back into the hospital to die in as much comfort as they could find for him. The following summer, Steve C was back. I was listening to Radio Luxembourg in the evenings, but he was tuning in to RNI, Radio Nordsee International, pirate radio whose frequency I could never find. They played this ballad/anthem, and he loved it. I never heard it. It’s here for him, if he ever reads this blog.
Mamy Blue – Los Pop Tops
In 1971, we hadn’t yet quite got the idea of inviting a Europop record back into our homes when we came back from summer holidays. That dismal practice only began in earnest two years later, with the chirpy Swede, Sylvia (no relation to Sylvia of ‘Pillow Talk’), and that act of cultural war, ‘Y Viva Espana’. This early, all we had to put up with was this sententious piece of drippy gloom, with people lazing around intoning various variation of ‘Mamy Blue’ and the word ‘Oh’, whilst the singer practiced his fake sincerity. It was responsible for more abrupt switchings off of my transistor radio than anything else that summer, but, as the years go by it has become… well, tolerable. Nostalgia for lost youth can be a punishing thing.
Amoureuse – Kiki Dee
Pauline Matthews from Bradford had been around for half a decade and more before she broke into the Top 30 with this slow, sensual song about shagging a bloke for the first time. She’d found a measure of fame in 1969 or thereabouts, by becoming the first white English woman to be signed by Motown, but that was all she got out of the deal. To get that far, she’d changed her name to the slightly more poppy Kiki Dee, suggesting kookiness and all sorts of Sixties girl-singer lightness. ‘Amoureuse’ was a world away from all those impressions, intense and rich in sound and voice. It was what Dave Marsh described as Topic 1: do I or don’t I? Unlike the Crystals, Kiki wasn’t concerned about what he would think of her in the morning, but what she would think of herself. Based on a song as smooth and melodic as this, I don’t know if she came, but she certainly deserved to stay.
Heartsong – Gordon Giltrap
An instrumental from a guitar virtuoso that was a minor top 30 hit and became background music for BBC factual programmes like holidays shows for many years. More recently, the BBC started snatching instrumental breaks from songs by Doves, which were a lot more classy and engaging, but this was not a bad little piece of music to have on tap.
Garden party – Rick Nelson and The Stone Canyon Band
By 1972 or thereabouts, there was a big hole in the middle of the day on Radio 1. You had bozo DJs out to promote themselves from breakfast through to about midday, and bozo DJs out to promote themselves from 2.00pm until the end of independent radio 1 transmission at tea-time. In between, there was a massive dislocation of expectations, in the form of ex-radio Caroline DJ, Johnnie Walker. You see, Walker’s USP was seriously unique on daytime radio: he was into the music. The music. Really. You wanted the good stuff, the serious, thoughtful non-bubblegum/boyband shit, you listened to Johnnie Walker. Walker lasted like this until 1976 before moving to America, believing that American radio offered more in terms of the music than Radio 1 offered in supermarket openings. This 1972 single by Rick, formerly Ricky Nelson, about his experiences in trying to play contemporary music to an audience wanting only golden oldies, was a gentle, laid-back country rocker that had a very great influence on Walker. If memories are all I sing, I’d rather drive a truck, Nelson sang. At least we got four more years out of Walker, when we really needed someone like him. I wish I’d realised that I could have had even more from John Peel all that time.
Stay with me till dawn – Judy Tzuke
Another song about a first night spent shagging with a bloke. There was six years and a musical upheaval between Kiki Dee and Judy Tzuke, who looked and sounded incredibly Southern Californian but actually came from London. Musically, Ms Tzuke had written an intense ballad, with heavy strings but otherwise sparse instrumentation, for a voice that occupied a higher register than Ms Dee, and six years on there was no suggestion that this was her first time ever, just her first time with someone she wants to know. It was 1979, the height of New Wave, the death knell for Southern California, even when this wasn’t really from that laid-back state. It was just as gorgeous, and Judy Tzuke made Stevie Nicks look like a mile of bad highway. In the end, Kiki Dee had the longer career: Tzuke never repeated this record’s success. But not many people get to make a sound like this. She has nothing to be ashamed of. And if this was about anyone in particular, then he was one seriously lucky bastard.
Where were you – The Mekons
You can always tell we’re reaching the end of one of these compilations when the punk tracks start to come out. ‘Where were you?’ was much beloved of Peely. The Mekons come from Leeds and they called themselves after the Mekon so that’s two strikes against them already, but the aggressive and scruffy charm of this student bar favourite has yet to be exhausted. They not only don’t make records like this any more, they can’t.
Good Technology – The Red Guitars
This is not a punk record. Nor is it a New Wave record. But it wouldn’t have existed without either form. The Red Guitars came from Hull, and this is a slow burner, building with a seemingly ponderous certainty towards a finale with screaming guitars. It’s one of those tracks that don’t leave any room for a following song, which is why it’s at the end here and why no-one can remember any other Red Guitars tracks.