It’s a Fairytale

It’s December again, and once more I am recording/celebrating the annual return of the greatest Christmas song in history, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “A Fairytale of New York”.

It’s hit the Singles chart again, for the fifteenth time and for the thirteenth successive year, and this time, by jumping from 55 to 10, today, it’s reached the top 10 for the fifth time, and the first since 2007.

And for some reason, this is a nostalgia heavy Christmas pop period, because Mariah Carey is at no 5, Wham at no 6 and Band Aid at 16. Even Shakin’ Stevens and Wizzard have crashed the top 30. All this with two more charts to go. And whilst I hold no brief for either Mariah or George Michael, it would fill me with delight if either one of those, or both, could knock Simon Cowell’s latest into a cocked hat.

I’d love it even more if it were “Fairytale of New York”, which peaked at no 2 first time round, exactly thirty years ago this year, but I’m content with what it’s already achieved. According to Wikipedia, it’s the most played Xmas song of the 21st century in the UK, so you’ll already be familiar with it, but here it comes again, together with the tears that cannot help but well every time I play this, and I think of poor, wonderful Kirsty, killed 17 years ago, but who will never ever die because this record will be around as long as people have ears.


Imaginary Albums: Lost 70s Volume 16

Hello again. Volume 16 of my first personal compilation series has been in CD format for a few months already without my providing a commentary/ reminiscence upon it, but the time has come at last. This compilation feels a little more tendentious than usual, with no less than five of its 23 tracks being ones that I suspect I never heard at the time. As is now almost traditional, there are five songs that were actual hits, three of then top ten successes, though I would still class them as ‘lost’, their time overlooked, their influence negligible. One of them I couldn’t stand at the time. Join me as once again I dip my tow in that most lost of decades.

Apache Drop-out      The Edgar Broughton Band

1970 was the year I started listening to Radio 1. Back then, the nation’s premier pop channel was still heavily restricted in air-time, and even more so in needle-time. Radio 1 only had independent existence between 7.00 – 9.00am, 12.00 – 2.00pm, 4.15 – 7.00pm. The rest of the time, it merged with Radio Two, broadcasting their programmes simultaneously. Things only marginally improved when the new Sounds of the Seventies strand was detached from the end of the day’s programming and expanded to two hours, 10.00pm – 12.00, to avoid contaminating the rest of the airwaves. Probably I could have heard this single, a near Top 30 success from a band of open Anarchists and Satanists (their other near-miss was with ‘Out Demons Out’), on Sounds of the Seventies, but I was still at the point where I liked Herman’s Hermits’ last top 10 hit (thankfully, I grew out of that within a year) so there was a bit of cultural dissonance in the way. Instead, with the year collapsing in the first of the early Seventies’ Miners’ Strikes, and powercuts, we would gather round a candle in the breakfast room, my battery-powered transistor radio the only source of entertainment, though my mother would have begged to doubt that. Crackling, popping, hissing, fading in and out, I discovered Radio Luxembourg, Fabulous 208. I first heard Lindisfarne, ‘Clear White Light (Part 2)’ gliding in and out of the static through them. I also heard ‘Apache Dropout’, a raucous, raw, croaky thumper of a rock song, punctuated by bright, sparkling, shiny intrusions of the riff from The Shadows’ ‘Apache’, picked out with contrasting clarity that bore no relation to the rest of the song, for whatever purpose it was chosen. It’s too late to question now, and my ears have finally learned to cope with the Broughtons being the Broughtons, but those almost hallucinatory moments of salute (?) to Hank Marvin are still as pellucid as ever and I cannot hear them without imagining that huddle round the table, just the three of us, where so recently there had been four.

Rainy Day       Susan Christie

At the beginning of the Seventies, Susan Christie seemed ready to make it. On the evidence of this single, she had the voice to do so. If I ever did hear it then, it was not enough times for it to register with me, and I probably lacked the sophistication to have appreciated it then. But it didn’t happen for her, then or since. A sweet, sad song, the fact that I didn’t discover it for over forty years should not, I think, disqualify it from exclusion. It was from the Seventies. It, and Ms Christie, were lost. One for what should, in a better musical universe, have been a memory.

Sweet Inspiration           Johnny Johnson and The Bandwagon

This, on the other hand, was not lost, but rather was the first of the top ten hits in this volume. The Bandwagon had had a rollicking hit in early 1969 with a Northern Soul charger, ‘Breaking down the Walls of Heartache’, not that I was then aware of such a thing. By the time of this late 1970 follow-up, singer Johnny Johnson had taken the Motown step of promoting his name before that of the band, though this, I am led to believe, was due to the fact that, by this point, the Bandwagon was whatever collection of session musicians and live players Mr Johnson chose to muster around him. Not having really attuned to soul – though I was well into Jimmy Ruffin that first year, thanks to three consecutive hit reissues, and generally well-disposed towards most of the Motown I heard – I hated this record at the time, but thoroughly enjoyed Mr J’s third and last hit, ‘Blame it on the Pony Express’, in 1971. Now, my opinions are reversed. Johnny’s singing, though still carrying the ragged edge of the soul/blues shouter, is smoother here, more restrained, in this tribute to a woman who, though not offering him the love he seeks, nevertheless inspires him to making music. It’s a combination he wants to change, but for the moment he’ll take what he has. And if gaining means losing, well, you know he’ll live with it. Some prizes mean more than others.

Stone Cross         Springwater

Springwater, as those who care about such things already know, was one of a number of pseudonyms for the late Sheffield-born singer/musician/songwriter, Phil Cordell, one of those quirky talents for whom the music business, or maybe even the Universe, ought to be rewritten to ensure them the prominence they deserve. Springwater gave Cordell his only commercial success, with ‘I Will Return’ (elsewhere in this series), a hazy, dreamy instrumental, self-recorded for £25 (which included the reel-to-reel tape recorder) in a Sheffield flat, which went top 10 in the late summer of 1971. It led to an album of instrumentals, from which a rather more guitar-driven version of ‘Jerusalem’ (also elsewhere in this series) as an unsuccessful single that caught my ear in 1972 and has stayed a favourite ever since. In the 2000’s, I used Auction Sniper for the only time ever to snaffle the CD version of the album off eBay, enabling me to do a digital rip of ‘Jerusalem’ and its awesome b-side, ‘Amazing Grace’. There was nothing else on the album sufficiently distinctive for me then, so I sold it, for a profit. But in the years since, I’ve heard more of Cordell (his single, ‘Red Lady’ is justifiably highly-rated) and become more impressed. ‘Stone Cross’ was ‘I Will Return’s b-side and, as such, stretches the increasingly elastic definitions for Lost 70s near to breaking point, but at times it feels like I’m compiling albums from an alternate universe where things were better than ours (no Osmonds, no David Cassidy, no Gary Glitter: that’s my idea of a Lost 70s). Call it Earth-2, if you like.

Just an Old-Fashioned Lovesong    Paul Williams

Another obscure memory delivered to me by the brilliant Marmalade Rainbow website, which sadly has not been updated for years). Their entry put me in a quandary: as well as the original by composer Williams, they reminded me of the successful (in America) cover by Three Dog Night, which was sufficiently close in arrangement, and vocal texture, as to defeat my attempt to recall which version I most recalled. Certainly I heard both in that amazing summer of 1971 – yes, that year again – when it seems Radio 1 must have played more wonderful but unsuccessful curiosities than in the whole of the rest of the Seventies put together. ‘Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song’ obeys its own rules, a fragile voice over a back slowly gathering in strength, an oddly compulsive hook that ultimately chose to eschew the Carpenters-like sweetness that might have brought sales but which would have condemned the song to being ordinary. Either way, it’s long forgotten now, except in the minds of those of us wondering just what the hell was in the water that year, but it arrives here because it took the artistically more daring choice.

Caroline Goodbye      Colin Blunstone

And speaking of 1971… ‘Caroline Goodbye’ was criminally underplayed. It marked the reappearance of Colin Blunstone after the disintegration of the Zombies, after the Neil McArthur episode. It was the lead single off the One Year album, a cycle of songs about Blunstone’s recent life, and told of the breakdown of his relationship with the shortly to be massively-in-demand model, Caroline Munro. This brought down condemnation of his temerity from Dan Hamilton of Hamilton, Joe Franks & Reynolds (whose ‘Don’t pull your love’ single, previously featured in this series, shortly followed ‘Caroline Goodbye’) who was Munro’s new bloke and who seemed to think that only he was now entitled to write about her. Well, he didn’t come up with anything that had the quiet beauty and dignity of this song. Over a plain, strummed acoustic guitar intro (talked over to its last chord) Blunstone’s high, breathy voice entered, wistfully acknowledging the fact of Munro’s increasing public profile and success, before lamenting his own blindness to the end of things between them. A drum and piano provide sturdy backing as he deals with his loss with austere regret: No use pretending, I’ve known for a long time your love was ending. Caroline Goodbye. The British stiff upper lip in loss of someone you still love, made musical heaven for being so free of (apparent) pain. But listen to Blunstone’s voice, not his words. That torch was far from being extinguished. Even I could hear it. But not the Great British Record Buying Public.

Gonna Miss Her, Mississippi      White Plains

What’s the year again? 1971? I would never have guessed. This was another flop. White Plains, who’d begun as one of the many Tony Burrows vehicles in early 1970, had originally been The Flowerpot Men and later mutated into First Class (see below). Their personnel and their musical style was constantly changing. In 1971, they scored a top 20hit with the curiously sophisticated ‘When you are a King’, climbing to no 13. ‘Gonna Miss Her, Mississippi’ took the same approach but didn’t get any backing from Radio 1, so that was the end of that vein: the band’s fifth and final top 30 single was a remake of a TV Butlins’ commercial soundtrack, in a wildly different vein. Not too much blood in this vein, but I still like the effort.

Sit Yourself Down      Stephen Stills

Guess the year. Go on. Yes, you’re right. ‘Sit yourself down’, a downtempo song, rich in sound, with a yearning chorus, was the follow-up to Stills’ almost-hit, ‘Love the one you’re with’. Less immediate in its appeal, I’m not sure it isn’t the better of the two, though I lost it in my head for a very long time, only to recognise it in an instant when it appear d on a YouTube sidebar. Lyrically, its the complete opposite: Stills is alone and needs love and a fellow-heart, not sex whilst he’s out of town on his old lady. It’s an older, braver song, with a gospel tinge to its compelling chorus, which the choir, not Steve sings, and a contemplative heart that looks outwards to the future. There are no roses in fisted gloves here, though there is a debatable bit of companionship with an otherwise unmentioned raven, but by then you’re grooving quietly and hoping for the song not to end.

The Free Electric Band      Albert Hammond

The next batch of songs come from 1973, starting with this vigorous shout out to music, free love and living from Albert Hammond that gave him his only UK hit, a single top 20 week. He’s still better known for the previous year’s ‘It never rains in Southern California’ which got airplay but no sales. At this distance, and given that commitment and fidelity has always been the underpinning of relationships for me, not to mention the knowledge that Hammond was a commercial songwriter jointly responsible for the majority of the songs in the ‘Oliver in the Underworld’ serial in Freddie Garrity’s Little Big Time on children’s ITV in 1970, I have my doubts about this song. Over strident acoustic guitar and a smattering of synthesizer, Hammond bellows out a raucous song with a jerky melody about rebelling against bourgeois American parents and their attempts to pigeonhole him in safe, conventional careers, when all he wants is bread, water and the free electric band. So far I’m with him, in theory if not in practice, but when he gets onto the girl from Berkeley that he’s shagging without ever getting into her head, and leaving her the moment he realises she wants something so square as a home and a life with him, my appreciation of the free spirit takes a turn down a different road. The song’s still got a joyous bounce to it that I appreciate both in memory as well as today and, yeah, it should have done better. You poor, benighted fools.

Afterglow      Flo & Eddie

‘Afterglow’ the original is one of my favourite Small Faces songs but I heard it first here in this 1973 cover by Flo & Eddie (aka The Phlorescent Leech & Eddia, aka Howard Kaylan and MarkVolman of The Turtles, whose work I love). It didn’t get much airplay, I never had the chance to record it until it swam out of the YouTube depths this year, and it doesn’t do too much radical to the original other than transplant Flo & Eddie’s falsetto register vocals in for Steve Marriott’s white-boy’s blues voice, but it introduced me to a song that I still burst to sing along to, anthemically. Thanks, guys!

Skywriter      The Jackson Five

I never liked The Jackson Five. By now, you ought to know that I believe any such general statement comes with the automatic caveat ‘except for the ones I do like’. I’ll happily admit that their fourth single, ‘I’ll Be There’, is a glorious, early exception to that rule. But the Jackson Five I was first introduced to was that of those first three, virtually identikit singles, starting with ‘I want you Back’. Let other argue their merits, in a year of Motown re-releases almost all of which I liked to one degree or another, these were a noisy, shapeless intrusion beyond my comprehension, and bearable today only through the mesh of nostalgia. ‘Skywriter’, which came out in 1972, was a minor hit that never even got to be a single in America, was a minor miracle of a strong, almost strident song, driven by a melody focussed through the clavinet – an instrument that fascinated me then and now – and phase-tinged harmonies. Michael’s solo lines were far less interesting but there was enough closely-focussed and punchy, pacey ensemble lines to put them in the minority. In the end, it’s the instrumentation and the arrangement, out of character for the band, that sold me on ‘Skywriter’. But where I liked it, the public didn’t. ‘Twas pretty much ever thus in that decade.

Hello, it’s me      Todd Rundgren

In 1972, and again in 1973, Radio 1 deservedly bust a gut trying to play ‘I Saw the Light’ past no 35 in the top 30. They didn’t make anything like the effort for this mid-tempo song about carefully establishing a difference between the singer and his girl, even though this was Rundgren’s biggest American hit by far. It’s a delicate, contemplative melody whose lyrics I have never really listened too closely too, having been seduced by the sound and Rundgren”s plangent voice. Having given myself time to look closely at these, I find myself unable to decide whether this is a song eschewing possessiveness and over-influencing the person you’re with, committing to their freedom, or whether this as cynical a case of ‘have your cake and eat it’ as ‘Love the one you’re with’. Rundgren sings that he ‘never wants to make (her) change for me’ but that’s bullshit: we change the people we become close to by being close to them, just as they change us, whether we want to or not. That’s the heart of any successful relationship. Is this the times speaking, or is it conscious bullshit? That’s for Rungren to know and us to speculate. Don’t let the beauty of the music cloud your mind whilst you decide.

Hello Hurray      Alice Cooper

We all remember ‘School’s Out’, practically the most perfect pop/rock single on 1972. I still remember ‘Alice’ and the schoolgirl at the end of the Top of the Pops performance, he in his make-up and leathers and she, in multi-layered, twee, maxi-length stuff, a world away, giggling at his mock menace, grabbing and pulling up her hair. If there was ever any suggestion that Alice Cooper meant what he stood for, or was the threat to us pop-kids the tabloids wanted to believe he was, it was dispelled then. Alice was a joke, and we were in on it. The problem was that the joke only had so much momentum, and it died from that point on. The band had five UK hits in eighteen months, each one peaking at a lower point, enjoying a shorter run, sliding away. ‘Hello Hurray’ was the middle one,an attempt at a classy sound, Spector-esque at its thinnest, at ballad pace without any balladic aspects, unless you counted the contrast to the first two, pure, raucous showpieces. It was still theatre, Alice the ringmaster coming out as host. I like it still, though it means nothing when placed against ‘School’s Out’. Alice had the depth of a puddle, but we all dived in and splashed until we were soaked.

Skylab      The Ventures

I was still picking my Single of the Week, and this was one of them. It was the modern day equivalent to The Tornados’ ‘Telstar’, though Skylab was no match for Telstar and became more famous for crashing to Earth nine years later, though thankfully not in any populated area. I never heard this more than once, and picked it more because I loved ‘Telstar’ than loved ‘Skylab’. The next time I heard it again was on YouTube this year, and I can’t believe it’s by the Ventures, or that this was the one I heard so long ago, but nobody’s uploaded a different version yet. The ones that were hardest to hear back then still deserve a place when they become easier to access.

Tell Me What You Want      Jimmy Ruffin

I mentioned Jimmy Ruffin above, and those three differing re-issues from 1970, reaching successively no 8, no 7 and no 6. For no apparent reason, other than that Radio 1 didn’t seem interested in playing it, his next single did nothing. In 1974, a re-issued ‘What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted’ became his most successful British hit, reaching no 4, and dragging a re-re-issued ‘Farewell is a Lonely Sound’, my first and favourite of his songs, back as far as no 30. Ruffin was no longer with Motown by this time, and tried to get back into the act with this shuffling little smoothie of a love song, that I remember as a big, top 10 hit, but that was just my imagination: in real life, it spent one week at no 39, the week after ‘Farewell is a Lonely Sound’ peaked. It’s a song on the edge of disco, with its feet firmly in a deeper kind of soul than you got from Motown, and I listen to this and think this is a guy who should have been absolutely bloody massive. Is it me? Am I the kiss of death, with my out of the way preferences? I have to wonder.

Help Me       Joni Mitchell

On the other hand, there was simply no chance of this charting. With the exception of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, which owes its hit status to 1970 being a transitional year where nobody had any real idea what was happening in music, Joni Mitchell has never come over on pop radio over here (though I had a loving fondness for ‘Carey’), and by 1974, when she was beginning to slide into an increasing sophistication, and blurring lines with jazz, there was nothing in this song that could pin itself to British ears. Nevertheless, the new Manchester Commercial Radio Station, Piccadilly Radio, was smarter and hipper than Radio 1 by a street mile (in 1974, the year Woolworth’s record sales became part of the pool for chart returns, there were three-toed sloths in the jungle that were smarter and hipper than Radio 1). This isn’t my kind of music, too jazz, Mitchell’s vocal slidings too removed from the kind of straight singing I still favoured. But this loose, leggy song about the perils of loving someone so not good for you worked its way into my head, though I didn’t understand a note of it, and I loved its freedom.

Sundown      Gordon Lightfoot

I’ve included Gordon Lightfoot twice before in this series. He’s been a long-standing success, first as songwriter then as singer himself, in Canada and America, but has made very little impact in the UK. ‘Sundown’ was the second of only four singles to show in the top 40, and was his biggest American hit, reaching no 1. It’s perhaps the simplest of those songs of his to take a place oin my memories. Sundown is one of those women with improbable names that occur all over rock and pop and folk music, in the places where this forms meet, merge and take from one another. She’s in the great tradition of temptresses, one that Lightfoot wants to keep at arm’s length whilst simultaneously drawn to her. He signs the opening couplet to each verse alone, but the rest of the song is swamped in voices., lifting and supporting. ‘If I could read your mind’ was a song about his marriage disintegrating marriage, fuelled by infidelity on the road. ‘Sundown’ comes from the road, when you get feelin’ better when you’re feelin’ no pain. With a song like this, it’s easy to understand why.

The Show Must Go On       Three Dog Night

One of the reasons I went for Paul Williams above is that I knew I had this in my pocket. Yes, it’s that Leo Sayer that exploded on us in January 1974, with the pierrot costume and make-up and those on-the-spot movements. Absolutely loved it from the moment I first heard it, was fascinated by the movements on Top of the Pops, tried to imitate it. Loathe it now, and all his works, a change of heart that began with one nastily written and delivered line in ‘Moonlighting’. Three Dog Night had the hit in America, turning the arrangement into a more conventional form, adding the cliché of carnival music into the mix and, crucially, changing the key line from ‘Won’t let the show go on’ to ‘Must…’. Yes, in every respect, a much lesser version, and one I barely got to hear a handful of times then. I think it’s because it doesn’t strain so desperately to be ‘quirky’ that I can listen to this now.

Dreams are Ten a Penny       First Class

Whilst The Flowerpot Men more or less mutated into the original White Plains, a change of name being considered necessary, there was no similar transformation between White Plains and First Class, who were more a regathering of old singers, Tony Burrows among them. ‘Beach Baby’ was a nice, retro-sounding, bouncing pop tune that, off the sonic back of the Rubettes’ ‘Sugar Baby Love’, made the top 20 in 1974. It was Burrows’ last hit. ‘Dreams are Ten a Penny’ repeated the formula two singles later. It got no airplay. It’s another of those songs I never heard till this year. You could have swapped it with ‘Beach Baby’ and it would probably have charted at that specific time, which goes to show how much certain things have their moment, and it comes but once. The Sixties were long gone.

So Very Hard To Go      Tower of Power

I know very little of Tower of Power and have never knowingly heard anything else by them but this 1973 single, their biggest American hit. It’s a slow, torchy song, muted and smooth, with beautiful horn-lines underlining the singer’s acceptance that he’s failed his girl, and she no longer wants him, and I heard it maybe a half dozen times, enough to like it, and not enough to get bored with it, or even properly digested then. Such was the way with the non-playlisted tracks, that might be heard maybe once a week, and only if you listened all the time, non-stop would you catch it. This deserved better. We deserved better.

(I Want To See The) Bright Lights       Julie Covington

I’ve always loved this song, from first hearing the sad, deliberately downbeat Richard and Linda Thompson original. The Julie Covington cover is something I’d never heard until this year, and it’s got a good, uptempo, forcefulness to it that’s appealing to the ear, but I include it here mostly as an example of how badly Ms C misinterprets the song. She’s taking its words at face value and singing to the surface, whereas the jollity of the song is a forced jollity, shot through with an underlying exhaustion that the singer’s claims that she wants entertainment, and to play hard on her minimal time off never shakes off. The Thompsons were looking for the bright lights, Julie Covington is dancing under them, and it’s the difference between a classic and an inconsequential romp.

Five O’Clock in the Morning       Godley & Creme

I was heavily into 10cc once upon a time, and the only version of the band I still recognise is the original Creme/Godley/Gouldman/Stewart line-up. Kevin Godley and Lol Creme left the band in 1976, leaving behind their poorest album (until the next one) in order to develop their great new musical invention, the Gizmo. The Gizmo was going to revolutionise music. It was a small box that you clamped over your guitar strings at the bottom of the neck which, by pressing the relevant button, you could apply a turning wheel to your string, creating an unending note, like a bagpipes’ drones. To demonstrate the Gizmo’s potential, they wrote and recorded a triple disc concept album, with dialogue/commentary from Peter Cook, called Consequences. The album flopped, the Gizmo was never taken up by anyone else. ‘Five o’clock in the morning’ was released as a single and the duo got a Top of the Pops live appearance based solely on being Godley & Creme rather than any sign the record was selling. It should have sold. I’d forgotten how beautiful it sounded, now fresh the ‘I’m Not In Love’ style multiple harmonies still sound. If there’s any Gizmo on this track, I can’t hear it. Just a piece of gentle delight.

Baby Baby      The Vibrators

And lastly, the obligatory reminder that punk came in and saved us all before the Seventies slid under the slagheaps. At least, that’s how I saw it then, and those few years, coinciding with my first independence, living in Nottingham, learning the first elements of a much-needed self-confidence, is still the most musically energetic, enthusiastic and sheer bloody fun years of my life. The Vibrators were never a part of that: ‘Baby Baby’, slower, a bit more sophisticated, would have been and gone on Peely’s show before I had the sense to listen to it. Still, it’s nice to know there are still new songs in that time to be drawn out of the Lost ether.

Until the next one (in preparation)…

The Infinite Jukebox: The Pierces’ ‘Glorious’

The Infinite Jukebox is not well-represented in music of very recent years. It does not contain any rap, hip-hop, acid house, garage, grime or other forms of modern urban music that it frankly doesn’t understand and couldn’t distinguish from one another.
But the Jukebox is not entirely shut off from music being made in the second decade of the Twenty-first Century, and has some minimal pretensions to being somewhere that’s contemporary. Nevertheless, the fact is that it’s been many years since I first decided that the relentless pursuit of the new and novel was no longer for me, and not a few since I came to the entirely reasonable conclusion that contemporary music isn’t being made for people like me. That’s fine. There’s an awful lot of past music out there that I love and which I’ll happily listen to again, and again, and there’s still a lot out there that I haven’t heard yet. Nevertheless, despite all my best efforts, I do sometimes hear new music.
Until Brian Matthew sadly left us, the only music radio that played in the flat was Sounds of the Sixties, but there were many occasions when 10.00am indolence allowed the radio to run on into, once upon a time, Jonathan Ross and, subsequently, Graham Norton. It was about the only source of modern-type music tolerated around here, and on a Saturday morning a few years ago, a song began to play.
First there was a stir of strings, then a precisely picked acoustic guitar, and all of it immediate and confident. My ears swivelled towards the sound. Then a voice, clear, smooth, pure, above a sound that felt as if it occupied a a large stage.
And voices roared out in chorus, harmonies clear and bright, the music rip-roaring, and my ears tried to detach themselves from the side of my head to race over and glue themselves to the radio. God Bless the World, It’s So Glorious, they sang, and I had not heard something so utterly, convincingly positive in a very long time, and certainly not from complete strangers.
They were The Pierces, and they were sisters, Catherine and Alison, and I had never heard them before nor heard of them, and I was eager for Wossy to back-announce the song, which he didn’t often do, but this time he had not pre-announced it, so I learned such things and immediately switched the radio off and hunted for the song on YouTube so I could hear it again.
And learned from the video that the two Pierces are both gorgeous looking women, which has nothing to do with the fact that their voices enmeshed in glorious harmonies, of the kind that only siblings can do so well, and that it takes only the two of them to produce such a full, surging sound.
God bless the world, it’s so glorious, they sing, and God bless the ones we’ve loved, the ones we’ve lost. This is The Pierces, and though I didn’t know it then, even such a life-affirming song is not without a shadow, because Cat and Alison’s songs are full of other dimensions, stories beneath that are never wholly explained and are for us to write, even as we believe ourselves content with voices in harmony, and music of yearning purity.
God bless the ones we’ve lost. Oh I will never die, never die like you.
Alison sings the first verse, Cat the second. Both have a single couplet before the verse bends them to the chorus, offering to write, to sing a song that goes like: and that line hits you again and the music is strong enough to match it, and the urge to join the chorus is overwhelming.
And then the shadow comes to the fore, because this celebration of life is truly in the midst of death, as the sisters’ voices join in a middle eight of austere beauty. I felt his hand today, they sing, across my shoulder, I kneeled down to pray. Said afterlife’s okay, but it got so lonely when you turned away.
What we take from this is what’s inside us to take. I ‘see’ a lover who is gone, but whose presence, whose ‘memory’ is so intense that it hasn’t left. The loved one is safe in their afterlife from whatever pursued them, but she who remains suffered intense loneliness when he went, a loneliness that still impresses itself upon her. You turned away: by his own hand?
If this is so, then the instinct to life is strong indeed if it can still spur the Pierces to that outright declaration, but then who can truly know of life if they have not been touched by death? It’s this shadow, this breath of loss, relieved perhaps by a religious belief, that makes it possible to be so strong in favour of celebrating what the world can offer you, and The Pierces brought their voices to tell this in such a manner that I was as caught by anything that I’ve heard since the years started beginning with a 2.
They haven’t stopped making music for me yet.

The Infinite Jukebox: Mystery Jets’ ‘Bubblegum’

The only things that are new are old.

The Infinite Jukebox is full of old music. At the last count, I have only once set out to write about a song written and recorded in the Twenty-First Century and that essay remains unfinished.

Does this mean that time is needed to impress a song and its importance sufficiently, or is it just my ever-growing estrangement from modern music? Has it’s concerns and subjects moved simply too far from mine, or is it just that the things I like haven’t yet had the time to resonate with me? In this century, I like Doves, and The Pierces. Aimee Mann and Shawn Colvin have not stopped making music, and REM were still active as recently as 2010.

But the truth is that my relationship with music has changed, and one of the reasons why is a side-effect of getting married. When I lived alone, I could give each new CD a damned good thrashing when I first bought it. I could, and did, play it over and over, absorbing the songs, absorbing the feel of the album so that I instinctively associated each individual song with those that precede and follow it.

You can’t do that with a partner. Not even when the two of you have exactly the same instincts about music. You can’t just sit there, for play after play, concentrating only on the music. After all, she’s there because you’d rather immerse yourself in her.

So the habit was lost, not without a slight twinge of regret (you can go on to something far better but still retain a sense of loss for what’s been replaced. It’s called wanting to have your cake and eat it). And now, when I work unsocial shifts and time away from work feels squeezed and limited because it has to be fitted in before and after my times on the phones, is unconducive to giving the few new albums I buy the same attention and involvement I could once lavish on music.

Which is why, four months after buying the album, I still really don’t know much of Mystery Jets’ ‘Curve of the Earth’ than the song that brought me here, that I lucked onto through YouTube, and which I’ve played over and again.

I’ve known of Mystery Jets for a long time, saw them in a BBC2 documentary that probably dates back into the Twentieth Century. Their sound, openly ramshackle, interested me, but I never found the time nor the enthusiasm to follow up. But this song is plain brilliant(and the video is simple but superb). It introduces itself with a jogging rhythm and sparse guitars supporting the beat, as Blair Harrison, begins to tell a tale that consists of love and paranoia and the chance that what comes after something good ends may be, at least for the other person, better than what has ended.

Harrison’s first line is to describe himself as an outsider: always on the outside, looking in. It’s his chosen status: the edge is where all the sparks fly, when the wheel spins. But just in case we’re feeling completely comfortable with that, he goes on to say that he thinks someone’s leaving messages for him, in the bubblegum on his sidewalks. Hmm.

But there may be a reason for that outsider status. Deep down, Harrison knows he should release the past, but to do so, he has to leave the hand that first held mine. Whose hand is this? A mother, now lost, perhaps dead? Or a woman who has meant something to him?

This isn’t immediately explored, as Harrison talks of taking a walk down Memory Lane, finding out that everything has changed. Is this a real or a metaphorical walk? Is it environment or emotion? Then a brilliant keyboard riff inserts itself, dancingly simple, a motif that keeps energising the song, as the band change gear, and full-throatedly launch into a yearning chorus, from which things become increasingly clear. Because this does involve someone, a woman, a partner, and things have gone.

Harrison sings it as if the moment of separation is almost upon them, as if the breakdown is about to occur, as if there is till something there, however fleetingly, to be broken. We will splinter and we will divide, he prophecies. We will disappear to two different sides. There’s going to be a gulf between us when this happens, yet his wish is that the world in which (she) finds herself is a better one, a happier one.

But there is a happier world to come, and the impression is that this will be real, that there is a future in which he and she will be together again, in some form. One day they’ll return and take a look around. Perhaps that visit will be in spirit form, for what they will see is all the mes and yous of every town, the pairs who have not yet learned that everyone will try to destroy things for them. Talk show callers that carp and criticise, but who wouldn’t even piss on them if they were on fire. It didn’t work out because the two of them were broken, broken down and apart, given no chance, and Harrison has felt it so much that he has retreated into paranoia, and it will happen to others. They may look back one day and all they’ll see is their story, being replayed in young couple everywhere.

We will splinter and we will divide/We will disappear to two different sides/But I hope that the world in which we find/Ourselves returning to is better than the one we left behind.

And that riff reasserts itself, and Harrison repeats that maybeness, that what comes will be better for both of them, better than the one they left behind.

Do we believe in that possibility? Not if you’re like me. But play the song again, echo its yearning and despair, and repeat that riff until forever.



The Infinite Jukebox: Harmony Grass’s ‘Stand On Your Own Two Feet’

It’s rarely referenced as such, but the back end of the Sixties was a time for harmony-driven, highly-orchestrated, cabaret pop, built on big, booming choruses, many of which were put together by the professional songwriting team of McCauley and McLeod. The Love Affair’s entire chart career, The Marmalade’s commercial breakthrough were prime examples of this, and, in a slower tempo, The Casual’s one big success, with ‘Jesamine’ another demonstration.
Why this was so is impossible for me to discern, this being a brief age that lived and died in the last couple of years before I began to immerse myself in pop music, but my personal guest was that it was an industry-led reaction to psychedelia and the burgeoning muscle of rock, bands whose underlying ethos rejected the very notion of pop and hit singles.
One more example of this trend was Harmony Grass, formerly Tony Rivers and The Castaways, who charted in 1969 with ‘Move in a little closer baby’. It go a lot of airplay on Radio 1 in the early Seventies as a Golden Oldie, so much so that I assumed it had been an absolute smash, and so I was truly shocked when I bought Simon Frith’s Rockfiles Vol 1 (the first chart summary book in this country) to learn that it had only reached no 25!
‘Stand on your own two feet’ came out in the late summer of 1970,and not even a Top of the Pops appearance could lift it into the Top 50, nor overcome the fact that it was getting less airplay than that their hit of the previous year was getting.
The single is a perfect example of the changing musical tides of that year. Some pop bands had their head in the sands, sure that nothing had changed, or at least determined that they wouldn’t, others reacted to the new freedom to take their music down the prevailing ‘heavy’ route.
‘Stand on your own two feet’ falls somewhere between the two. It pitches itself to a pulsing, bass driven, rock beat, maintained with metronomic precision throughout the song, with lyrics about self-reliance instead of sunshine pop love. It’s utterly at odds with the rest of the band’s output, claustrophobic rather than expansive, consciously avoiding the standard song-structure and any suggestion of a harmonic chorus.
But at the same time, it wants to keep in with its established format. We’re barely half a minute in and the horns start up, the band keep coming together in vocal harmony, as if it’s an addiction. This isn’t Tony Rivers on lead vocals now, he’d left the band and this was Joe Williams singing, but though the song is better suited to a solo voice, the band doesn’t trust itself to go that far. And the train-whistle ‘wooh-wooh’s really don’t help.
There’s not really much to say about the lyrics. They’re very much one-person-against-the-world but it’s hard to tell who they’re directed to. I always assumed they were meant for a girlfriend, but that needn’t necessarily be so: if it is the girl the singer’s encouraging to stand up for herself, find her own course, then why do I have this indefinable sense that he’s not just there in case she should fall but, this being 1970, is willing it to happen?
The song doesn’t quite get it, frankly, so perhaps I’m over-suspicious about the otherwise admirable theme. Some people really don’t get it. I was one of them at that time, and had a lot to learn.
To the best of my knowledge, this was Harmony Grass’s last release.

The Infinite Jukebox: Mama Cass’s ‘Make Your Own Kind Of Music’

Mama Cass had two British Top 20 singles in 1969, the second of which, ‘It’s Getting Better’, I’ve already written about in this series. She really should have had a third, in the early part of 1970, with this song, and I remember hearing it on the radio in those early days of catching daytime Radio 1.
This far on, I can only think that ‘Make Your Own Kind of Music’ suffered from its musical similarity to ‘It’s Getting Better’: the same mid-uptempo sound, the same horn overlays, a very Sixties type of build into a musical climax come only a couple of months late.
My memories are uncertain, and very distant, and it was the first time I perceived such a transition, but I do think there was more awareness that we were changing decades than at any time since, excluding of course the end of the Twentieth Century. I can only attribute this atmosphere to the fact that the Sixties had been so different a decade, the first perhaps to be conscious of itself as a decade, and a decade of change, and thus so many more were concerned about what the next decade would be, because it had something to stand up and be measured against.
My guess is that ‘Make Your Own Kind of Music’ fell foul of this perceived change and, by being unmistakably of the Sixties, did not accumulate the sales it deserved.
Because though the song is ostensibly about music, we all know that that’s just a metaphor. Your own kind of music can, literally, be the music that moves, affects and enthuses you, that you want to sing and play if you have the ability to generate those sounds (and even if you haven’t).
But what Cass Elloit was singing about was life: her life, our lives, and how we lived them. And the opening verse couldn’t have been more Sixties if it had tried. Nobody can tell ya/there’s only one song worth singing/They may try and sell ya/cause it hangs them up to see someone like you.
And then her voice and the music swells into that long, flowing, positive line. You gotta make your own kind of music – even if nobody else sings along.
There’s further reinforcement in the second verse, an acknowledgement that it may be hard, that to do your thing’s the hardest thing to do, but once again the message is clear, open and loving: make your own kind of music. And that extends to the moment when that song, or the calling it represents, pulls him away. It’s a principle, a life to be lived, as hard and true as you can, and the sacrifices it demands are things that must be done. If you cannot take my hand, she says, brave and calm, I will understand. Cos you gotta…
It’s big, it’s bold, it’s life-affirming and it went nowhere. The Sixties was a decade in which everything seemed possible. The Seventies was a decade when people set out to stifle every bit of that optimism, to crush that belief, to turn itself into the decade when nothing was possible. We live with those decisions now, and with the children of those choices.
In the better world of our dreams, Cass Elliot scored a massive hit with this song.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Association’s ‘Cherish’

You look at the clip and you think that they can’t possibly be taken seriously as pop or rock musicians. Six young men, dressed immaculately in conservative three-piece suits with high-collared white shirts and ties sharply knotted. Though their hair may be just a little on the long side, they’re a far cry from the degenerate long-haired animals that pass for young men these days. Some polite, restrained group, hoping one day to make it in the Catskill circuit, playing nice, safe, well-mannered versions of old standards. Not pop, nor definitely rock. Surely not.
But The Association were a pop group, and a rock group, a soft rock group who, in the late Sixties, were lauded as witty, articulate and, with their six man harmonies, capable of some of the finest vocal arrangements outside of Brian Wilson.
‘Cherish’ was their first big American hit, the first of two number 1 hits (three in some charts). It’s a gentle, soothing, pop ballad, unobtrusive backing, resting its weight on its voices and its words. And Cherish is an odd word, an archaic word for a pop song, a love song. It isn’t a strong word, its connotation is of a one-sided feeling, not reciprocated. But The Association have chosen this word deliberately: indeed, the song’s opening line makes a point of this selection.
Cherish is the word he uses to describes all the hopes he has hidden deep inside. So yes, it’s the right word, for this is a boy-loves-girl-but-she-don’t-love-him song.
She doesn’t know how many times he wished that he could hold her, or that he had told her or, and this is where the dodgy attitude of Sixties love pop applies, where the woman has no agency in her feelings and is no more than a response to the male’s libido, how many times he’s wished that he could mould her into someone who will cherish him back with equal urgency.
The position is made even more clear by a second verse in which Cherish is replaced by its exact rhyme, Perish. That’s the word that more than applies to the hope in his heart each time he realises, and there is a further litany, each line of despair and denial. He’s not going to be the one who shares her dreams, nor is he going to be the one with which she shares her schemes, nor yet what seems to be the life that she will herself cherish as much as he does hers.
This literary approach continues into the bridge, as more of the band join the two who are sharing these vocals. He’s beginning to think that Man has never found the words that would make her want him, words with the right amount of letters and sounds that will make her hear, and see, and if until this moment you’ve entertained any thought that his careful, articulate words are a put-on, too clever for words, now the band strip away the circumlocution and he openly, plainly states that she is driving him out of his mind.
There’s a momentary pause in the music as these words are absorbed, and then the careful distance, the attempt even now to find words that will unlock the distance between them. The band sing of things he could say: he could say he needs her, but that would be a dead giveaway, because then she’d realise that he wants her, and that in turn puts him on a level with a thousand other guys who’ve told her they love her for the rest of their lives, but really that’s just a cover for their real desire, which is to touch her face, her hands and gaze into her eyes, which is about as far as this kind of contemporary pop allows the singer to state, even though we all now how to decode it into physical desire: you don’t really think that all John Lennon wanted to do was hold her hand, do you?
But he is above that, or at least he’s trying to tell her so, by implication. Yes, she’s gorgeous and any guy would want her, but that’s not all for him. He wants more than her body, her kisses. He wants that life, to share it intimately, and he’s so far from it, but it means so much to him, and that’s when the band respond with a force that surprises.
It’s that first verse again, the helpless wishing, but instead of the polite two-voice enquiry, backed by quasi-doo wop ornamentation, this time it’s the full band, six-man harmony, at full-tilt, with vocal swoops and stresses. No more Mr Polite Guy, this is the sound of hurt and pain, of direct need, wrapped up in jewelled harmonies, coming from a gang of immaculate musicians, who surely can’t produce something this powerful?
But they do. Just like they cherish her. There is no relief. Not even the lushness of this arrangement will convince her, though it convinced enough people to take it to number 1 for two weeks in 1966, and launch The Association’s commercial career.
A band with that vocal flexibility could never be just the cabaret audience entertainers they affected to appear. A song like this might not be hip, it may be constructed, manufactured, but the workings were genius and the sound inspiring. If a sound like this couldn’t win her over, check her for breathing.