The Infinite Jukebox: Mr Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger on the Shore’


After nearly eighty entries, this is only the second instrumental to appear on the Infinite Jukebox, and it is something of an odd choice. It’s a spur of the moment choice, brought about by one of those moments of YouTube serendipity: I put on an album of surfer instrumentals as background music for a post I’m writing, get bored with how samey the guitars all sound, decide to play an instrumental not on this collection, put up Jack Nitzsche’s ‘The Lonely Surfer’, notice he’s done a version of ‘Stranger on the Shore’, play it out of curiosity, check a couple of other versions using trumpet, piano, guitar as the lead instrument, then play the original with the urge to explain why it works and they don’t.
First, I have to distinguish for myself why this isn’t just a case of infinite familiarity trumping the shock of the new. For I am familiar with the Acker Bilk original, right back from when it was a commercial phenomenon, a number 1 hit single and a single that hung around the British charts for a full year.
And I am familiar with something that not many people recall, and even fewer know, which is that ‘Stranger on the Shore’ was the theme music for a BBC children’s Sunday teatime drama series of the same name, that it was retained as the music for the show’s sequel, ‘Stranger in the City’ (silly kid me, I expected the music’s name to be changed when the sequel appeared), and that the single was credited as being the theme to the TV series.
To my amazement, though I remember nothing about either series, it has its own Wikipedia entry, describing it as a five part drama about a shy French teenager in Brighton, acting as an au pair and facing culture shock. ‘Stranger on the Shore’ was broadcast in 1961, and would seem to have been shown over the five weeks immediately before my sixth birthday! And it seems that I was not that wide of the mark in thinking the instrumental’s title would change thanks to the sequel, because it had originally been entitled ‘Jenny’, after Bilk’s daughter, and it had been renamed to the show’s title.
By rights, I should have no time for this track. It’s from the pre-Beatles era, lacking in that energy and aural freshness that Merseybeat introduced, and Bilk – Mr Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band – were mainstays of the “trad” boom (traditional jazz) that was supposed to have replaced rock’n’roll, and I do not dig jazz and I especially do not dig trad (spare me, please, from ever hearing ‘When the Saints go Marching In’ again).
But ‘Stranger on the Shore’ rises above everything else recorded by Bilk and his band of pretend Somerset yokels in this period. Bilk is the only ‘band’ participant on this track, which features sweet strings from the Leon Young String Chorale. This is yet another factor that ought to prejudice me against it, that and its associations with my parents’ ideas about music.
Yet it works. It’s more than just a time capsule that, without fail, takes me back to those black-and-white days, to the Light Programme whilst Mum did her housekeeping, to making a mini-den out of the clothes maiden, hiding between its wings, surrounded by the smell of drying cotton, to dull and empty Sundays waiting endlessly for the TV to come back on again, to those times before my sister was born. It contains all these things and even nearly sixty years later, tied indelibly to its times, it is still a moving, soothing, atmospheric piece of music, whose TV-born title lends to it an air of fitness. It is, despite its smoothness, the sound of loneliness.
Those alternate versions I’ve listened to today fail, not just because they replace the clarinet with other lead instruments, but because they fail to understand the meaning of the music. They treat it as easy-listening, as nothing but a good tune. They apply a rhythm, a beat, background instruments, against which the trumpet, the piano, the guitar plays the music, and they pick out the individual notes, and they lose it completely.
Mr Acker Bilk’s version doesn’t bother with such things. There’s just his clarinet, supplemented by the sweet strings, in little background moments that complement the melody, that work with and for it, or provide an ‘instrumental’ break from the voice of the clarinet. For the breathy, low-register smoothness of the clarinet flows forward, the notes integrated, almost elided into one another. Nothing else intrudes, there is no beat to dictate the tempo, just Bilk out on his own, the stranger through whose mind these sounds progress, heedless of others, on a shore that in the tv series (the early episodes of which I missed) was that of Brighton but which in the music is merely a shore in the mind, ethereal and endless.
Sometimes, when I focus upon it rather than listen to it with familiarity, tears start up, for the wish to live then again, a little boy without cares or fears and two parents he loved in that instinctive way that is the right and necessity of all small children, and for the contemplative mood of the music, the sound of being alone.
Acker Bilk understood that. The others don’t. A good tune is a good tune, but in only one man’s hands does it have soul.

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The Infinite Jukebox: The Sutherland Brothers and Quiver’s ‘Arms of Mary’


One little-commented upon aspect of my belated discovery of pop and rock music ten days before the end of the Sixties is that, excepting those who continued strong between decades, such as the Who, I only knew the bands and artists of the Seventies in their guises of that year. It was as if they all sprang into existence on January 1st 1970, without any kind of past.
Whereas a great many of them had had a prior existence on the Sixties, some with success, others with no commercial track record. Only slowly, and more often than not by accident and with a fascinated surprise, would I discover where and how these people had been in the Sixties. For instance, though I never heard their music, I often saw the name Gentle Giant in the NME, without connecting them for a second to Simon Dupree and The Big Sound, hitmakers with ‘Kites’. But these were the same band.
It still happens today, fifty years on. Links emerge, connections between known and unknowns, the more so as I continue to indulge my fascination with the obscure, the rare, the bright and overlooked pop of the late Sixties.
Just this week, I’ve had one of those songs doing earworm duty in my head, just the chorus, but that includes the title, ‘Sadie and her Magic Mr Galahad’. With the majority of these things, I know the song title far better than the artist, and I couldn’t remember who was responsible for this.
Eventually, I cracked and googled the title, identifying the artist as A New Generation (of whom I have at least one further track), who later underwent a minor name change to The New Generation. But what caught my eye on one of the links was the song’s writer: Iain Sutherland. Not the Sutherland Brothers Iain Sutherland? Oh yes, and the other member of the band was naturally younger brother Gavin. Well, well, well.
I’d forgotten that I’d been well into the Sutherland Brothers in that part of the Seventies that got obliterated by the advent of punk, which turned my musical world over. There was ‘The Pie’, recorded as The Sutherland Brothers Band, displaying the brothers’ folk-oriented roots, with its gentle, almost plodding melody: I ended up with the album later, and its other, much-less played single, Gavin’s ‘Sailing’, that I knew and preferred when Rod Stewart, still in the penumbra of musical credibility, took it to no. 1
But it was the team-up with Quiver (songwriters without a band meet band without songs) that was the start of things. There was the 1973, debut, the kicker single, “(I don’t want to love you but) You Got Me Anyway”, with its beautifully paced acoustic intro and its solid yet delicate sound supporting a chorus of tremendous yearning power, 1974’s ebullient and indecently effervescent “Dream Kid”, title track of its own album, 1975’s laidback, cool, midtempo “Saviour in the Rain” that didn’t get the same love as its predecessors except from me.
All great songs. All great singles, perfect, full-bodied pop/rock, bright and illegally good, and ignored completely. In the Seventies, the Great British Record Buying Public needed a severe dose of taste, the number of great singles they ignored.
In 1975, the band switched from Island Records to CBS, apparently because Island wouldn’t release their singles in the US (though “You Got Me Anyway” had done far better there than in Britain). The outcome was their one and only big hit, Iain’s “Arms of Mary”.
I loved it then and I love it still, though it rarely leaks out of my memory. I remember Johnnie Walker, then doing the Radio 1 lunchtime slot, 12.00 till 2.00, falling in love with this song and plugging it. I remember the week it stalled at 31 in the chart, four weeks in the Top 50 already, and Walker – the anomalous daytime DJ, the one who was in it for the music, God forbid, who got saddled with the new Top 30 rundown every Tuesday – suggesting that if we all went around being nice to each other for a week, the song might make the Thirty, and the following week it was the highest new entry, at 19, and his cheerful words on announcing it, “You must have been good to be around.”
“Arms of Mary” peaked at no 5. It’s follow up, “When the Train Comes”, an uptempo, blasting rocker, did nothing. And 1977 came along and songwriters like the Sutherlands were just blasted away, and much as I’d liked them, much as I’d bought most of the albums (I would never own Reach for the Sky, the one that contained “Arms of Mary”), the truth was that for me at any rate, the Sutherlands were on the wrong side of a gigantic and necessary musical shift. Still, I’d been to see them, in late1976, at (I think) the Palace Theatre, and had a good time.
But though the move to CBS brought the band a measure of deserved success, and though “Arms of Mary”’s gentleness and wistfulness, fondly looking back to a boy’s first sexual experience (not that Top of the Pops seemed to notice), made it a restful and sweet sound on the radio in a year where so much music had descended into sterility, the band’s true strength, it’s solidity, was fatally undermined. The producers wished on the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver created a sound that even now astonishes me. It’s airless and suffocating for one thing, but what drove me crazy then and still is how weak, tinny and feeble the sound is. I had the evidence of Dream Kid and Beat of the Streets for how SB&Q could sound, full, rounded, purposeful, bright, glowing, rich, and here they were made to sound paper-thin, empty, hollow. It’s there in “Arms of Mary”, but it’s far worse on “When The Train Comes”, a classic rocker with the impact of a 97-pound weakling.
It was the same for their final SB&Q album, Slipstream, a Xmas present from a mate from whom I couldn’t quite conceal my disappointment, and which I played more out of duty than love.
This is a lovely song, but even as I loved it, and eagerly turned to the radio every time it was played, loving every moment of one of ‘my’ songs convincing everybody else, I could never hear it without knowing how much better it could have been at the hands of a Producer who could have let the band be what I already knew they could be.
Time, I think, for a bit of a re-appraisal of the Sutherlands and Quiver. Not of A or The New Generation, delightful as those failed singles are, but of that early Seventies period that may need to come out of the shadow of 1977. Beginning with another play of this. Lying in the arms of Mary. Oh yes.

 

Lost 70s Volume 18


It’s been almost a year since my last Lost 70s compilation, an elapse created in equal shares by the slowing down of discovery of appropriate tracks and a fault developing in my laptop’s CD burner, forcing me to improvise with an older laptop. There’s 22 tracks again, arranged once more in chronological order, nine of which were top 30 hits or better. And after my stating that there would no longer being any token punk/new wave tracks, I’ve managed to find a very long tail from that particular era after all. Read and enjoy: Volume 19 will be here almost before you know it.

Bordeaux Rose                           Fairfield Parlour

As I have mentioned before, more than once, I only started to listen to ‘pop music’ on 22 December 1969. This is not, however, another reference to learning about Sixties music from Radio 1’s Golden Oldies policy in the Seventies but rather that my learning curve covered the changeover to that later decade, which was the most self-conscious of decade changes I remember in my life.
I was a pop music novice, lacking not only knowledge but taste and appreciation. I had to learn ‘on the job’, so to speak, what was good and bad, and a lot of my early favourites, including one top 10 single I never speak of, were musically moronic.
Not all of them were, however. Fairfield Parlour’s ‘Bordeaux Rose’ was an early favourite, with its distinctively English vocals, it’s crisp production and the contrast between its whimsical verses and its compelling chorus. I’d never heard of them before, and certainly wasn’t aware until the 2000s that they had already had a decent career for a few years under the name of Kaleidoscope.
The name had been changed, ‘Bordeaux Rose’ was popular among the Radio 1 DJs, and I believe that, despite the single never breaching the Top 50, they appeared on Top of the Pops, though of course the tape was wiped (oh for a Beat Club producer). But in the first of many, many such records, I’d put my nascent musical love into something the Great British Record Buying Public would reject. And they rejected it again on reissue in 1976, when Radio 1 didn’t back it, but at least I finally got the chance to buy the single.
And by the time of the reissue, I’d finally learned what the hell Bordeaux Rose was: at the age of 14 I was not knowledgeable as to the ways of the grape and the grain.
So that’s ‘Bordeaux Rose’s significance. It was the first musical loser I backed, the first time I set my developing tastes against those of everybody else and found out I was on my own. It was to be a place I grew to know well, but then listening to what the public wanted to hear in the Seventies, I would rather be with me than them.

No no, you don’t know                         Bennett and Evans

Speaking of the musically moronic, this antiquated piece of middle of the road pop also dates from that learning year of 1970, not that you can set it against Fairfield Parlour and have anyone believe they came out at the same time. It’s here as an example of the kind of very simple pop that appealed to me, and because it stuck oddly in my memory from the one and only time I heard it. Radio 1 had a late afternoon/early evening record review programme, and this was reviewed one night, with a rather amusing piece of record company promotion preceding it. I never heard it, or of Bennet and Evans again, but they lodged in my memory, and only a short time ago, I discovered the song was available on YouTube. That’s enough of a synchronicity for me, frankly.

Goin’ to the Zoo                       Julie Felix

And if we’re going to go through some of my most formative (and embarrassing) musical experiences, we might as well have this. Julie Felix was an American lady, a folk singer who was pursuing her career in Britain. She was dark-haired, slim and suited short skirts, which you pretty much had to do in the late Sixties, unless you were Judith Durham (who did suit short skirts but didn’t believe it) and she had her own BBC2 show, clips from which you can still find.
Felix did have two minor UK hits, a cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Paso’, which gave her her highest placing at no 19, and a Top Thirty placing for it’s follow up, ‘Heaven is Here’. But everyone of my generation will probably remember her for this silly kiddie song, a Junior Choice favourite, that I’d forgotten for decades but which remains fixed inside my head.
It probably doesn’t do her justice, but it’s her legacy for me.

All the Way from Memphis                      Mott the Hoople

Ah, some real rock!
In all the years since 1972, I still don’t think I’ve ever heard anything by Mott the Hoople from before David Bowie gifted them ‘All the Young Dudes’. The single’s success thrilled the heart of a schoolmate who was already heavily into the band, but it was this In Hunter-penned, storming little rocker that got me on board the following year.
‘All the way from Memphis’ started in true rock’n’roll style, with a pounded piano riff into the beat, before Hunter and the rest of the band joined in for a first, lip-curling verse that bears the shade of Elvis.
And then it puts on the burners and screams into that zinger chorus that tries to bind within it the history of rock and if it fails, it’s only by a whisker, but there’s honking saxes, and the most vibrant energy of any Mott the Hoople track I ever heard, and in the end the band sinks into a series of repeats of that chorus because it’s so compelling you don’t want to hear its energy diffused.
‘All the way from Memphis’ was the third of four follow up hit singles, only two of which reached the top 10. Staggeringly, this one peaked at no 10 when it should have been threatening the top slot, so much of a rush it is, which just goes to show that when it came to me and the rest of you, I was very clearly right. In forty-six years, this track hasn’t lost an ounce of energy. And it’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll…

Robert’s Box                  Procol Harum

After the big success of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, and its tedious follow-up, ‘Homburg’, Procol Harum didn’t do all that much in terms of singles. No doubt they weren’t phased: after all, in the early Seventies, a lot of bands were album bands, arguing that how could you say anything worth saying in less than a side of an album?
No doubt Procol Harum felt that way, but it didn’t stop them releasing singles every now and then. There was the orchestrated ‘Conquistador’, with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, that got them into the top 30, and which was tons better than the original, and the almost poppy ‘Pandora’s Box’ that got them into the top 20, and on Top of the Pops for the last time in 1975.
In between, if Procol did release singles, they didn’t get played on Radio 1, or Piccadilly Radio, when they arrived in 1974. ‘Robert’s Box’, a title that seems to have no relation to the lyrics in the way that Keith Reid’s lyrics have no relation to comprehensibility, was the only exception I remember, a 1973 single with more of a blues underpinning than most Procol tracks then or since, that scraped a handful of plays and sold nothing.
Listening to it again, after all this time, it fits perfectly into that spectrum of early to mid-Seventies singles by progressive or underground bands in which a potentially commercial or melodic single is given a jerky, unsettled arrangement in order to disguise that it has pop elements to it. It wouldn’t have taken much for Procol to have turned this into something that would have demanded more airtime and with that maybe another hit, but that would have embarrassed them among their contemporaries and suggested they were shallow, so we got this disjointed affair that isn’t quite clunky enough to conceal its potential.
You had to be there, and when you were, you mostly approved of it.

This Flight Tonight                   Nazareth

Slade are usually referred to as being part of Glam Rock although their music always sounded too hard and too raucous for that category, and despite Dave Hill clowning around, they lacked that effeminate edge. They were screaming pop on the edge of hard rock and they were bloody effective.
Nobody in glam was quite like Slade: by the time The Sweet went heavy they were too tainted to ever be truly believed. But the Wolverhampton wonders did have a couple of junior league aspirers whose music worked the same side of the same street. Geordie were the Newcastle-based version, and Nazareth the Scottish ones.
Nazareth had more of an edge to them, granted by singer Dan McCafferty’s voice. After a couple of raucous, heavy-edged hits, kick-started by the juicily stomping ‘Broken-Down Angel’, the band’s third effort was a controversial cover of a Joni Mitchell song. I say cover, it was a wholesale translation of the drifty acoustic track into a sheet of sliding and oozing rock.
But though ‘This Flight Tonight’ could be nothing like any version of the song Ms Mitchell could have imagined, it’s not as heavy as you think. The song is taken at a controlled and measured tempo, a chugging rhythm to which the guitar is decoration rather than structure, it’s solo is played backwards, and this is maintained throughout the song except for a few brief seconds when the rhythm breaks and the band sound as if they’re about to break, and then back again, sliding into their almost hypnotic groove. For a band with a hard rock image, this version is almpsr a foreshadowing of the bass rhythms of dance music.
McCafferty makes the chorus into a near eldritch croon, summoning ‘Star light, star bright’ as in the old wishing rhyme, celebrating that (she’s) got the loving that he likes, wishing to turn the bird around, and ruing that he got on this flight tonight.
The song ends without resolution, the band in flight, away from where they want to be. Nazareth never hit that kind of peak again, and they were never again so subtle.

Midnight at the Oasis                          Maria Muldaur

Increasingly, tracks on these compilations are appearing as exercises in nostalgia and nothing else. ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ was one of those tracks, floaty and jazzy, that Radio 1 fell upon like Dracula on a particularly creamy neck, and played to death. I hated it, but it sounded to me as a record that would be as massive here as it had already been in America. It wasn’t, and Maria Muldaur never troubled our airwaves again, much to my relief.
Nowadays, I find it bearable, and a reminder of times that were otherwise and, despite my despair in living through them – I was depressed the whole year in which this appeared – seem like better times when compared to now. I’ve changed, my palate is broader than it was, and these days, I can even make friends with a cactus if I need to.

Almost Killed a Man                        Philip Goodhand-Tait

I’ve been waiting a very long time and a lot of these compilations to be able to include this track. Philip Goodhand-Tait first made his mark as a professional songwriter who wrote both of the Love Affair’s last two top 10 hits, two fine orchestral pop songs that I love, but who went on to record his own music.
I remember Noel Edmonds taking up one particular album of his, from which three singles were taken. I’ve managed to include two of these in previous compilations, but the middle one, ‘Almost Killed a Man’, the slow, contemplative, middle track of the three, has long been accessible only in my memory.
Now I can hear it again, I’m less enamoured of it than before, but I still like it enough to want to have it in this series for more than just the memory. The song’s arrangement is just a little too cluttered for my liking in 2019, but its message of heartbreak is still one that resonates. There are very few happy love songs that have infiltrated my life: I incline to the melancholic, as does this song. It still fills that corner of my soul the way it did a lifetime ago.

Ire Feelings (Skanga)                     Rupie Edwards

The early Seventies was a great period for reggae singles. Jamaican artist after Jamaican artist would chart with bright, bouncy singles that used to be thoroughly despised by my contemporaries at Grammar School, with one exception who was a prototype Rude Boy. Very few of them scored a second hit, mind you, and only Desmond Dekker scored a third or more.
But by 1974, the run seemed to be over. Maybe reggae was just too sunny and poppy for the times, or maybe this was reggae mutating into another of its manifold forms.
By the time Rupie Edwards got into the top 10 with ‘Ire Feelings (Skanga)’, an echo laden, deep sound that bordered so much on dub that dispensed with passport controls, we were a world away from the reggae I’d come to know. It used voice and abstract sound, with echo and depth, and a slower pace than the reggae of Bruce Ruffin or Nicky Thomas, and Radio 1 hated it and didn’t play it even when it reached the top 10. I remember Edwards complaining about that, pointing out that the audience wanted to hear it because they were buying it.
I listen to it now and it still sounds like it’s completely outside time and place. It would be a long time and it would be John Peel before I heard anything like this again. I can tell why his fellow DJs didn’t want it cluttering up their nice, shiny, supermarket promoting programmes, but it wouldn’t half have done them good if they’d bitten the bullet.

The Spirit is Willing                           The Hands of Doctor Teleny ftg Peter Straker

Assemble some wah-wah funk guitar, then being described as ‘Shaft’ type guitar, an orchestral rip-off of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Freddie Mercury’s future partner and professional songwriters Ken Howard and Alan Blakely, without whom the chart career of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich would have been non-existent (for which, one day, they may be forgiven, if not by me), and what have you got?
Most people, on reading the above, would anticipate an horrendous mess. A lot of people, who were around in 1972, when this quasi-instrumental provided Radio DJs with another cue to talk over it, would say that that’s exactly what it was. It still got to no 40, albeit in an era of Top 30s.
This truly is a Lost record. It had gone so deep into the black hole of my memories that only the chance spotting of the Doctor Teleny name on a YouTube sidebar a month or so back. Even then, I didn’t have the slightest recollection of what the record sounded like, and playing it awoke only the very faintest recognition.
Yes, it is an horrendous mess, and it’s a pretentious one too. But after nearly fifty years in which I had forgotten its entire existence – unlike Bennett & Evans – it takes its place as a reminder of the times in which I lived. The Lost 70s series started off being a collection of the obscure and overlooked. Now it’s a memory sink, a private nostalgia trip.

Simone                        England Dan and John Ford Coley

Back in the mid-Seventies, a mate and I constructed what would now be called a Shared Universe, based on the concept of a fictitious record company with fictional bands and singers, albums and singles, successes and failures. It was good fun for a few years, and served the purpose of keeping us from meeting girls (not that I needed any artificial aids for that!)
When I think back to the mid-Seventies, and in particular that last couple of years before Punk broke and changed my musical landscape, I remember a ‘press release’ I wrote in 1976, that began by quoting Eric Clapton’s ‘Let it Grow’ (of which I was happily impressed). Standing at the crossroads, trying to read the signs. I was not known for having my finger on the pulse of anything, but by 1976, I was conscious of the feeling that something needed to happen. Things felt and sounded stale. Music had shifted towards the laidback, adult MOR of West Coast ‘rock’, perfectly produced, by musically talented people, and completely sterile.
England Dan and John Ford Coley broke into the UK chart once only, with a song I featured on an earlier Volume. ‘Simone’ was a track they’d recorded and release prior to their ‘hit’. It’s smooth and straightforward, completely lacking in anything that could be described as an edge. I like the slightly awkward melody, but it’s heavily overproduced and there’s no room to breathe. If this had been the musical future, I genuinely believe I would have suffocated. Thank heaven for Malcolm McLaren!

Ebony Eyes                          Bob Welch

And this is more of the same, except with a bit more edge to it. Welsh was one of those members of the interim Fleetwood Mac, the Mac of that underconsidered period between the Peter Green band and the Buckingham/Nicks monsters. Welch was either the first, or one of the first American members the band had, and I remember an interview with him some years alter where he was half philosophical, half bitter about how he could have been Lynsey Buckingham if he’d only had the chance.
How likely that may have been would require me to listen extensively to this version of the Mac, which I’m not about to do. Welch’s ‘Ebony Eyes’ single, in 1976, has to stand for all the evidence, and on that basis it’s an arguable case. ‘Ebony Eyes’ is another of those mid-decade records made in that stasis period when things that were going to happen were waiting for their cue. It’s a bit more steely than ‘Simone’, it uses its drums more forcefully, and it has the advantage of a stronger chorus, which suggests that whatever else Welch brought to Fleetwood Mac, he took some of their virtues away with him.
Ultimately, though, enjoyable as this song is, Welch doesn’t quite have the voice to be a real lead singer. But he leaves an excellent one-off legacy.

Bide Awhile                              Thomas Yates

We’re going seriously off-piste with this choice. Hitherto, the Lost 70s series has dealt with the greater part of my musical enthusiasms, the pop and rock stuff heard most often on the radio or in the albums and singles I bought. But that isn’t all of the story.
Early in 1975, my mate with whom I’d shared the fictional record company brought round the first live album recording Mike Harding’s act. We fell about laughing. Not long after, we discovered he was playing a local folk club, and a bunch of us turned up blithely confident of a great evening, only to find it sold out.
Nothing lost, we got to see him not too long after at the Deanwater, an isolated hotel cum pub in Woodford, outside Wilmslow, which ran a Sunday evening folk club. Harding was great, but we liked the atmosphere, the club organiser had an interesting choice of mainly contemporary folk artists, and we became Sunday night regulars until the organiser moved away and the club closed, over eighteen months later.
The Folk Clubs, for we didn’t just restrict ourselves to the Deanwater, were a world away from the music I listened to six and a half days a week. It was live music, acoustic, natural, varied in style and scope. Some nights were better than others: what possessed me to turn up in a three-piece suit the night they has The Watersons – excellent musically but too many wassails – is lost to posterity.
One of the things Mike Harding used to sing, that wasn’t his own composition, was this friendly, contemplative Tom Yates song. It’s about an evening out, in amiable company, down the pub, in a relaxed, cheerful mode, wrapping yourself in friendly company, and it became a favourite of mine, almost as much as the Hunter Muskett song ‘Silver coin’, which I adored.
Times changed. Punk happened. I completed my courses but couldn’t get Articles. The crew started to drift apart. In the summer of 1977, I discovered Yates was playing a pub between Withington and West Didsbury. I didn’t have much money but could afford to go on my own, with the bus. He was scornful and sneering towards punk, claiming that music never came from the streets, but only from the bars. I found that disappointing, but he was preaching to an audience of the converted so I kept schtum. At least he played ‘Bide a while’.
It was all a very long time ago, a pocket universe that had no real or lasting bearing on my musical history, except that it happened, among friendly company. None of whom I have spoken to in nearly forty years.

Complainte pour Ste Catherine                       Kate & Anna McGarrigle

This is not a Lost track in the sense of others on this compilation, that disappeared in memory and which have only just been recalled. The McGarrigle sisters impressed themselves upon my consciousness in the drought summer of 1976 with this jaunty French-language ditty, the words to which I have never understood in over forty years, and I have been familiar with this song ever since.
It’s lost in the sense that this is another of that seemingly endless list of Seventies singles over which I and the Great British Record Buying Public differed, over which I and the Radio 1 daytime DJs differed, because I would have had this played on the hour, every hour, and because it was this little wierdity with the foreign language, because it was homespun and charmingly amateurish, and because it was good but good beyond their limited parameters of what made a sound for the radio, they sidelined it. My God, I can hear an accordion on it! Quick, play the Starland Vocal Band again, so I can make an off-colour remark about shagging in the afternoon.
Nor were the ladies glamorous or sexily dressed, not like the blonde in the Starland Vocal Band. Kate was married to Loudon Wainwright III, she and Anna were both mothers, they looked and sounded like it. They were real people.
In the summer of 1976, music was in need of a direction. The Sex Pistols provided that for some of us, something to follow and something to violently reject. If not for Malcolm McLaren, some of us may have followed this oddball record in another direction. But Kate and Anna weren’t about trends or influences. They were that rare and wonderful thing: themselves entirely.
And St Catherine’s Lament was and still is a gem that takes me back to that long hot summer whenever I play it.

The Devil Went Down To Georgia                    The Charlie Daniels Band

Despite being absolutely mammoth with British audiences, Garth Brooks has never had a UK hit single, for which I am profoundly grateful. Pure American country music, with or without the western, rarely raises its head over here. Shania Twain’s probably the most successful country artist, but you wouldn’t call her music all that country, would you?
I did develop a sort of partial, and sideways enjoyment of country music, though it took me until the Nineties to do so, and I was heavily influenced by Shawn Colvin in doing so. But what I enjoyed was almost inevitably sung by female country singers – Nanci Griffiths, Susie Bogguss, Mary-Chapin Carpenter – not the boys. There is something about the male country singing voice that grates in my ears.
So what’s the Charlie Daniels Band doing here? And what were they doing in the Top Twenty in 1978? Especially with so down home a country track, without any rock elements, as this tale of a fiddle duel between the Devil and a country boy called Johnny? I don’t know, any more than I did forty years ago, but the song, its complete self-confidence and its undeniable brio makes it that good ol’ boy that defies borders and boundaries. I was into it then, and I’m into it now, for its energy and it’s refusal to compromise what it sees as the best kind of music around.
And when I hear it, I flash back to the road between Manchester and Nottingham, and a section of it between Matlock Bath and Ambergate, which I travelled regularly in those years I lived in the East Midlands, and many times after, and an occasion when ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ came on the car radio along that stretch and impressed itself into my memories so that whenever I hear it I’m on that road, like any good ol’ country boy travelling between the only two cities I’ve ever had cause to call home. Fire on the Mountain, run boys run, indeed.

Do Anything you Wanna Do                         The Rods

Nowadays, people tend to credit this vigorous single to Eddie and The Hot Roads, a Manchester punk quartet. After all, it was the band’s regular name, before and after. But ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’, with its ringing guitars, its vigorous surge and its pure and wonderful chorus was so unlike the band’s usual style that, for this release, they renamed themselves The Rods.
And the song got the airplay it deserved, the single hit the charts and the band played Top of the Pops, which was not an outcome anyone would have predicted in 1976.
People tend to credit the sound as powerpop, an existing musical term that got bandied about a lot in 1978, as plasticene bands tried to marry the energy of punk to the utter triviality of pop (Tonight, I’m looking at you, or I would be if anyone remembered you). But if The Rods were powerpop, they were the real thing, the mixing of energy with the classic elements of pop, and they were a breakthrough with quality, of the only kind that matters, from the inside not the outside. ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ graced the airwaves, made the playlist fun for once, and opened up the door for the harder core of punk to be taken a bit more seriously.
It’s also a bloody great record that hasn’t dated more than a minute since then.

Spanish Stroll                           Mink de Ville

Like Maria Muldaur, Mink de Ville, a band built around the talents of Willy de Ville, was going to be big. They appeared out of nowhere with ‘Spanish Stroll’, a song that was neither punk nor the as yet unformed new Wave, but which was clearly a close cousin, on more than kissing terms.
The single was a rolling, crackling account of an evening walk, down the boardwalk, observing the characters out there, girl singers adding gorgeous ooh-wah-oohs to Willy’s half-talking tales of who he saw, the whole thing taken at strolling space. It was going to be massive, and for once I agreed with everybody. And, unlike Maria Muldaur, I would have welcomed that.
But the song peaked at no 20, the follow-up flopped, and Mink de Ville never even breathed success again. Willy fell prey to drugs issues and died young, his talent unfulfilled. I’d forgotten ‘Spanish Stroll’ for many years. It still should have been bigger.

Ready Steady Go                          Generation X

Now, let’s be honest about Generation X. Any band that spawns the solo career of Billy Idol and Sigue Sigue Sputnik should be condemned to some cold and lifeless corner of the Universe which the light from this planet will not reach until long after this galaxy has succumbed to the inevitable encroachment of entropy.
The vigour and near-sincerity of this paean to the Sixties’ most exciting pop programme convinces me to allow them one oxygen canister on which to survive. Between them.

Outdoor Miner                            Wire

When it came to categories, there was Punk, New Wave, Post Punk, and Wire. Wire were weird. They were odd. They were unconventional. They were even unconventional in their unconventionality. They rejected verses and choruses and conventional rock time-signatures.
But every now and then, in a short series of commercially overlooked but strangely fascinating singles, they would play with regular structure and actual choruses, as in ‘Dot Dash’, a single sung on Morse Code (my Dad, an ex-Navy man, would have been able to tell me if it spelt out something, if he’d lived that long).
‘Outdoor Miner’, a song inspired by the name of a butterfly, known as a Serpentine Miner, and name-checked in the middle of the song, went even further towards orthodoxy. Unsurprisingly, it was the only Wire single to get real airplay anywhere except on John Peel’s Show, and the only one to show in the charts, getting as high as no 54.
It’s a song of chugging rhythm, obscure lyrics and an impenetrable sound, but there are some background vocals that would do justice to classic singles, and a minor key chorus that inserts itself into your senses the way the titular miner is digging underground, not to mention a tinkling piano break that could have come from Russ Conway but which drops into place like a round peg into a round hole. And you could produce it as a brand new track now, and no-one would know the difference.

Airport                           The Motors

A hit single! A genuine, full-scale, piano and synthesizer pop song with a 24 carat chorus and a fresh and wide sound. And recorded by a band who, at any time before or after this song, you would have described as borderline punk with a degree of slightly lumpen pub-rock to their DNA.
‘Airport’ was even more out of the way of The Motors’ usual fare than ‘Do anything you wanna do’ was of Eddie and the Hot Rods. It was pure commercial pop, gifted with a vigorous beat that pure commercial pop had spent a long time forgetting since the Sixties, but which The Motors reinserted like a rectal thermometer and with pretty much the same response. The nation’s eyes (and ears) sprang open, the band dressed in flight uniforms for Top of the Pops but the song was so immediately cool and good that the cheesiness was overlooked.
And like all the best pop, the upbeat breeziness of the music was a cover for the melancholic lyrics: airport, you took the one I love so far away. To which the only retort can be that if you’d played her the song before she bought her flight ticket, she’d have danced straight back to you.

Warm Leatherette                         The Normal

That this band called themselves The Normal is one of the greatest arguments against Nominative Determination ever. This is not a normal songs. Musically, it’s ahead of its time, built upon machine-like synthesizer sounds that wouldn’t start to become a regular part of pop until the Eighties, and mechanical vocals that have learned their craft from Kraftwerk.
But the fact that The Normal are singing about warm leatherette conveys a sense of perversion that some people don’t want to get too close to. I lost all memory of this song for over forty years, until it thrust itself before my attention on YouTube not long ago, just in time to make this compilation. Its downhome, DIY seediness still has a compelling effect.

Oh Bondage, Up Yours!                     X-Ray Spex

And then there was X-Ray Spex. X-Ray Spex, fronted by the shrill-voiced Poly Styrene, show just how broad a church punk could be. I mean, you listen to this energetic, almost rabid little honker, with Poly’s shriek of defiance and the honking sax, and it doesn’t sound like anyone else on Earth, or anything else of Earth for that matter, but it’s the defiance and anger and rejection of punk wrapped up into three minutes of whatever the hell it is. Some people, Poly says, over the silent introduction, that little girls should be seen and not heard (which they still did). But I say, she goes on, sounding reasonable until the last moment, Oh Bondage! Up Yours!
Only Tory MPs would dare to disagree with her at that point.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Mamas and The Papas’ ‘California Dreaming’


I’ve known this song for a long time. If it wasn’t one of the few pop songs I heard in the Sixties, filtering through time and chance and my parents’ rooted objection to that kind of music, it must have come early, in the Seventies, because it was one of those Radio 1 Golden Oldies that got frequent plays. With it’s high and glorious harmonies and its vigorous chorus that invites even the least musical voice to want to take part in it, ‘California Dreaming’ impressed me immediately. I remember it on the car radio, the car cassette player, especially one Sunday drive along the road from Sheffield to Worksop, when the two of us raised our voices in joyful chorus, and I was close enough to the harmonies to not draw a wince from my more musical companion.
But familiarity is one thing. At times, you find yourself listening to something with fresh ears, as if it is something you’ve never heard before. The song is not become strange, but in a curious way it is once again new, and you can listen to it more intently again, as when you first wanted to know and understand it. Today, playing the first of a triple CD compilation of late Sixties ‘hippy’ music, it came up, and there was something clean and austere about the song, whose lush sounds suddenly became refined.
And I listened closely again. The brief intro, an acoustic guitar picked with clarity, the individual notes coming together in a brief chord, heralding a moment’s pause before those voices come in, anthemic and mythic.
‘California Dreaming’ is a dream, is something unreal, not wholly of this earth in its singing, in the moments it circumscribes. California, especially to those of us who have never been there, nor even shared its continent, is a dream in itself: the endless sun, the golden sand, the surf and the laidback life.
But this is not of that. It’s the end of the year, all the leaves are brown, the sky is grey. The sound of the song, the call and response, first Papas then Mamas, gone for a walk on a winter’s day, the sound is pure California, but the words are elsewhere, somewhere East, the singer is dreaming of California and the warmth of L.A. The song lies between, unanchored to either extreme, unbound. California dreaming on such a winter’s day.
We hear the tightness of the voices, the togetherness, and we slip into the uplifting harmony, detaching ourselves from the earth of our common whereabouts. But what is the song about, if it has something so mundane, so concrete as a reality? The walker takes refuge in a Church, not for spiritual purposes, but against the cold, because though he/she/they humble themselves by getting down on their knees, they can only pretend to pray. The preacher likes the cold, but what cold does he like, the cold of the winter or the cold of the church that offers no solace? He knows I’m going to stay, but what would or could this wanderer stay for?
Because before this song ends, there is a line that, just for an instant, for eleven syllables, opens up a window that is immediately, but not perhaps wholly closed. If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today. California dreaming.
The line replaces the first verse line about being safe and warm, if I was in L.A. And by that juxtaposition, we must read the two lines together. A relationship failed, a love gone dead, the urge just to light out and run, escape without the fear and danger of honesty, to a better place, a warmer place, meteorologically and emotionally, to the myth of California. Where all the scared ones run, because there is nowhere beyond to run to, and everything to run from.
John and Michelle Phillips wrote the song, Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty joined in its singing. The song was a US single in 1965, a minor British hit in 1966 and a top 10 success on re-issue the following year. John and Michelle Phillips divorced in 1969. California dreaming. And today is a winter day.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Chi-Lites’ ‘Have You Seen Her?’


Serendipity in musical terms is pretty much out of the window now I no longer have Brian Matthew and the much-missed glory era of Sound of the Sixties. But sometimes YouTube can fill a little of that absence. This morning, a combination of circumstances led me to pull up a track that’s featured in a previous Infinite Jukebox blog. The next track on the Autoplay was The Chi-Lites’ first British hit, from early 1972, ‘Have you seen Her?’
I used to have a friend, a girl, a contemporary from Elysian Street Mixed Infants & Juniors, with whom I played in innocent times. We were separated at age eleven, first by going to different one-sex-only Grammar schools, then by my moving from East to South Manchester. Nearly five years later, out of the blue, I got a letter from her, suggesting meeting.
She’d grown into a long-legged, long blonde-haired fifteen year old who was utterly gorgeous. In my naïve and extremely inexperienced way I fancied her something rotten. Thanks to her, I started going to a Sunday night Church Youth Group, run by the then-Vicar of our old East Manchester Church. I was reintroduced to my oldest mate, met another lifelong friend, met the first girl I ever fell in love with.
My friend left the Youth Group about six months later, and I was not to see her for another decade when, in an ironic inversion of circumstances, I wrote to her after the death of her father, and we formed a firm friendship that lasted nearly twenty years before dissolving in disappointing fashion.
But what this has to do with The Chi-Lites goes back to that brief teenage reintroduction. For some inexplicable reason, given that for all my passionate enthusiasm for music I was still pretty much an ignoramus, come December she decided she wanted to buy herself a single for Xmas and asked me to suggest something.
Eager not so much to please as to impress, and showing my desperation in doing so, I covered two sides of a narrow-feint lined sheet of paper with at least a dozen possibilities: names, title, what they were like as music. Thankfully I’ve no memory of anything I offered, except for one already-dated piece of fluff that I heard exactly once, and which went on the list solely because it’s title was her name. I cribbed my notes on that single from what the DJ said afterwards, only to find she’d heard the same broadcast.
With no more than a day to go before handing my list over, I heard another song on the radio for the first time: The Chi-Lites, of course, and ‘Have you seen Her?’. They were unknown in this country, and had only recently charted in America after a dozen years together. I knew of them vaguely, having spotted in the American chart published in Record Mirror that they’d had a song called “Give more power to the People”, and curious as to how it differed from John Lennon’s strident “Power to the People” (it differed, people, it differed).
“Have you seen Her?” was out of my usual parameters. I was not a soul boy, not by any means, despite a nascent attraction to some of the Motown reissues of the time, and this slow, hazy, lazy, mostly spoken piece was nothing like I had ever liked before. Besides, my sheet of paper was full. But I still managed to cram in a mini-rave, in a scruffy corner, about The Chi-Lites, based on that one play, and predicting it would be a big hit.
For once in that decade, I was exactly in tune with the Great British Record Buying Public, for it was a hit, and it was big, reaching no 3, a placing only reached by one of their other UK hits, six in total, ironically with their last. It was popular enough to get back to no. 5 when reissued only three years later.
Which of my suggestions my friend bought, or whether she bought any of them, I can’t remember even finding out. I suspect I’d be on safe ground in thinking that The Chi-Lites was the one most likely, given that she loved Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. I’m sure I’m on safe ground in thinking it to be the best of my selections and even safer in thinking it to be the only hit. Listening to it again, marvelling in its soft, warm, melancholy glow, connects me once more to those days and someone who used to be one of the very best friends I had.
Yet “Have you seen her?” is a memory of it’s own. It sits in a long tradition of songs about women, girlfriends, who have disappeared, as in “A Day Without Love” or “Carrie”. The singer may sound laidback, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t missing her, isn’t hurt, as that meltingly gorgeous chorus, as much whispered as sung, constantly reminds us. Have you seen her? Oh tell me, have you seen her?
She’s gone and he’s lost and lonely. Nothing holds any value for him. Everything he sees or hears reminds him of her. He tells himself she’ll come back, but each day proves him a liar. What has caused this breach, when he loves her so deeply and needily?
Well, maybe there’s a clue that ears of 1971 were less receptive to than those of our modern age. You know, its funny, Eugene Record muses, I thought I had her in the palm of my hand… But those of us who are in love want to be held by a hand, not in it, where we have no agency of our own. Sometimes it’s necessary to escape that kind of loving.
Did she come back? Did he ever see what was under his nose? With music this soft and sweet, this humble and loving, you have to believe him capable of getting it.

The Infinite Jukebox: Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’


Before you read this, if you have never heard this song before, click on the link below, and listen to it, in silence, with your ears wide open.
Go on, play it, go off and listen, for this is more than a song of great beauty, of superb singing, from inside the depths of a man’s soul. It’s a landmark song, a song that, on the eve of change, looked into the heart of the need for that change, and back into what was and had been for far too long.
Sam Cooke came from Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the South: the South of segregation, repression, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan. He’d originally been a star of gospel music but crossed over into secular pop, scoring an American No. 1 with his debut single, the sweet, smooth, ‘You Send Me’.
Cooke wrote the song in response to hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’, to hearing a white singer singing about racism. In part it was inspired by Cooke’s experiences in being refused accommodation at a whites-only motel, but the song, in both its words and its voice rises above a single incident to take into its hands a belief that it cannot be like this for much longer, that A Change Is Going To Come.
After recording the song, Cooke performed it once on TV, an impromptu broadcast at his manager’s urging: the tape wasn’t retained and Cooke, spooked by the music and the vision he’d laid, never sang the song again in his life. He was shot and killed in controversial circumstances ten months later.
In a way it’s as extraordinary as Otis Redding’s ‘Sitting on the Dock of a Bay’: a very late piece of music that sees the singer in a reflective mode about his life as a black man in the turbulent, Civil Rights Sixties, a song unlike the music he would regularly perform. But whilst Redding looked within, Cooke looked without. For Change was, indeed, about to come, on the heels of Cooke’s death, with the faith and optimism that permeates this song.
But that was fifty years ago, and A Change Is Gonna Come is still not what it should be, which is history. Prophecy yes, for change has come, and we are a world away from the overt, licit racism of those times, but we have not come so far that we do not need to go further yet, and that is without the growing tendency these past years to want to slide back, to go back to those times and embrace them as somehow good, somehow better. That there were things in those times that were better than those we have now is true: but it was not the racism, the grinding of people into poverty and humiliation because their skin did not look like ours.
Back in the 2000s, there was a BBC2 series, Friday nights, on the History of Soul Music. We watched it together, as a family, five of us, three children. I will never forget the first episode, which went back to the turn of the Fifties into the Sixties, laying out in cold detail what it was like to be black in America and how that fed into their music. I will never forget the awed fascination of the children as they absorbed the, to them incomprehensible, reality that had existed even in their stepfather’s lifetime, and they listened to this song.
They will never slide back as others have.
Listening to this song fills me with awe. It read the air, it smelled the wind, it spoke of hope in that moment when hope seemed the last thing to have. It still rings with meaning today, and with regression in the world and racism making great strides back into the open, let’s take time to recall that.
And to hope that we too can say, with true hope in our hearts, that a Change is Gonna Come.

Peter Tork R.I.P.


Oh dear, this is happening again.

I didn’t get to watch The Monkees when I was a kid, so I saw the shows when they were being repeated years later, and I was in to more serious and worthy bands. I found the antics comic, up to a point, and some of the music attracted me, mainly Mike Nesmith’s stuff.

But I never lost my appreciation for the well-made, well-played pop song, and I don’t care about anyone else’s opinion any more, and about eighteen months ago I bought The Monkees’ contribution to the Original Album Series, the first five albums on unadorned CDs, but glory be they’re the extended versions, with demos and alternate arrangements.

Peter Tork was the dummy onscreen, the bass player and, according to a recent piece I read on the Monkees, was the best musician in the band, or at least a better guitarist than Nesmith. But he was the other one who pushed to be allowed to play on their own records, and to choose their own music.

It needed all four Monkees to be Monkees and it wouldn’t have been the same without any one of them. It isn’t going to be the same without this one now.