The Infinite Jukebox: ‘I Vow to Thee, my Country’

I am not a religious person. I was baptised into and brought up in the Church of England, went to Sunday School and, for a brief time, went to Church on Sunday mornings, on my own. That was more a case of aspiring to be grown up, prematurely, than any religious impulses from within. Any chance that I might be further influenced was probably lost when I was just turned 11, when we moved from East to South Manchester and whereas my parents had been involved in our Church back in Openshaw, they never became attached to our nearest Church in Burnage. I don’t know why. It never occurred to me to ask.
My own ‘religious’ opinions gradually metamorphosed. For many years I would have said that I believed in God, but not in Religion, then I hazily declared myself Agnostic until, in the 2000s, I accepted the reality of being Atheist.
Growing up an unthinking member of the Church, I was of course familiar with the traditional hymns that are a part of being CofE. I’m not going to start listing them, we all know them. Most are out and out paeans of praise for God, and for Jesus. Out of all of these, I retain a fondness for ‘Silent Night’, for the beauty of its melody, and for the strident but still rousing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, and there’s a source of personal pride in remembering the school hymn for Burnage Grammar School: ‘To be a Pilgrim’.
The point is that I’m familiar with a lot of hymns because I was brought up to sing them, but that without the religious impulse that is at the heart of them, they have little influence upon my life and especially my enjoyment of music.
‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ is a massive exception.
Some of it can be explained in musical terms. ‘I vow to thee my country’ is first and foremost a patriotic hymn, another fundamental aspect that has little or no appeal to me. The words were composed as a poem by diplomat Sir Cecil Spring Rice prior to the First World War, the Great War as it was termed at the time. The poem was about the love and honour that a man owes to both his homeland and his god.
After the War Rice changed the now altogether too-War-welcoming first verse to emphasise the qualities of love and sacrifice for one’s country and one’s countrymen in a world too heart sick of the thunder of the battle. In 1921, a request was made of the composer, Gustav Holst, via his daughter, that he set the poem to music. The overworked Holst was relieved to discover that the words almost perfectly fit the sweeping, romantic section in the middle of ‘Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity’, from the Planets Suite.
In that the hymn owes itself to what can be described as a coincidence, the perfect fit between words and music could in itself be thought of as a miracle.
The first verse is about those men who fought for England. We know so much more about the Great War, the reality of it and the way the men who fought for England were treated as cannon-fodder, at best, enough for us to despise a verse of a hymn that exemplifies the lies and traditions that go into the disgraced words ‘Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mari’, taken apart so unanswerably by Wilfred Owen. The hymn builds itself upon the myth, without regard for the reality. It describes an ideal, a naive vision that only certain people could have held about the nature of War, yet it has become a staple of Remembrance.
The second verse is, of necessity, more abstract. It talks of another country, a country that we may not know. We cannot count its armies, nor yet see its king. This country grows, inexorably. Though it has armies, its way and its wishes are of peace, and gentleness. It is, of course, the kingdom of God, and the implication is that those who die in the service of their own country go to swell the population and borders of this land. It is their destiny, their reward.
Given my own opinions and beliefs, there is practically nothing in this hymn that accords with my thinking. And yet. There is Holst’s melody, so perfect a rising arc, cradling and enhancing the words meant to be sung not in individual voices or tones, but en masse, by chorus whether trained or untrained.
And there is that perfect appeal. The ideal of sacrifice. It’s been a subject to which I have been in mental thrall all my life. Why, I have no idea. I only know that I am vulnerable to the idea of the hero who sacrifices themselves, who goes to a death more immediate and horrible and painful than any he might be asked to endure, in order to spare others. Me, instead of them. That is at the core of ‘I Vow to Thee, My Country’ and between the sentiments, however noble and misguided, and the melody that Holst found to suit them perfectly, I only know that there is a hymn that I have loved all my sentient life and will love until the end. An end that, except in the most unimaginable circumstances, will not come by sacrifice.
But once you have loved, you understand sacrifice very well.

The Infinite Jukebox: Peter Skellern’s ‘The Way You Look Tonight’

When Peter Skellern – actor, singer, songwriter, arranger – died, I wanted to pay tribute to him, if only for his performances as Carter Brandon in later series by Peter Tinniswood, supporting Robin Bailey as Uncle Mort. My first instinct was to accompany my little remembrance with footage of Skellern on Top of the Pops, singing the second and last, and infinitely more preferable if less successful of his Seventies hit singles.
I’d thoroughly disliked Skellern’s first hit, ‘You’re a Lady’, a formal, almost archaic song, taken at near funereal pace and accompanied by a muted brass band that was still the antithesis of anything that I wanted to hear in music in 1972. It reached no. 3, I say no more.
His other hit, three years later, ‘Hold on to Love’, was a very different affair, a soul-tinged, organ based ballad using the classic soul deep voiced bass as a very effective counterpoint to Skellern’s own light, almost mannered vocals, slightly breathy and using the upper end of his register. ‘Hold on to Love’ reached no. 14 and still is one of my favourite songs from 1975.
So it was natural to have used that to accompany my brief words of regret at Skellern’s death from an inoperable brain tumour. The things I remembered him for were very different from those that meant the most to him in his life and career: four months before his death he had fulfilled what he saw as his lifelong calling and been inducted as a deacon and priest in the Church of England.
I mention this to exemplify the great difference between his and my beliefs and feelings and preoccupations. Because somehow, for whatever motive I can no longer recall, I found myself clicking on a clip of Skellern playing ‘The way you look tonight’. And I was spellbound.
The song, originally written by legendary Broadway songwriter Jerome Kern for, and first performed by Fred Astaire in 1936 was familiar to me. It was a classic song for my parent’s generation, for whom the most popular and best known version was that by Frank Sinatra. It was a staple for them and, by being such, it was an anathema to me. I didn’t like those songs, I didn’t want to listen to them, the words were so empty and unrealistic. Why on Earth I played it, I don’t know.
Peter Skellern played and sang the song straight: his voice, light and breathy, restrained and sweet, his piano-playing composed and delicate, the almost inevitable brass band called in to supplement the middle eight. There was nothing in this for the likes of me.
Except that somehow he turned the song into a thing of extreme beauty. And he sang the words as if they were the first time they’d ever been sung, as if they were the spontaneous thoughts of a man who has just seen the most beautiful thing on Earth, the woman he loves. He sang the words in a voice of wonder, as if they were fragile things that would break unless he treated them with the most delicate care. He was the man who has seen the woman he loves in every aspect, as a whole and entire creature, that he loves in the most perfect depth.
In the musical, Fred Astaire sings ‘The way you look tonight’ to Ginger Rogers whilst she is washing her hair. The implication is that it doesn’t matter what she looks like, that she could have her hair hanging in rats tail and be dressed in a coalsack, he will love her as he sees her, and never forget the way she looks tonight, tonight when he has seen her, really seen her, for the first time. He is capturing this moment of realisation.
Skellern gets that exact sound into his voice. I don’t know what year he recorded this, but he was singing a song more than half a century old, a song written for an age thoroughly passed, and yet he was dealing with sentiments that are universal and immortal, sentiments that Jerome Kern put into a simple form that outlasts any age.
Astaire said that when he first heard the song, he cried at how beautiful it was. I cry too, now, for the sweetness of it all, yet the arrangements that attach themselves to an era that is no more. My parents would have loved this, loved listening to one of the love songs of their era, played as if it was still then, and I can follow them into that past, and project myself somewhere into their courtship, their love, that produced me and my sister, and the baby brother that died so soon.
But mostly I can sit and listen on their side of the gulf and agree that, whilst the vast majority of it is not for me, their music sometimes got it right so hard that no-one can fail to see it. Not even me.

The Infinite Jukebox: Mason Williams’ ‘Classical Gas’

There is a guy who, in the space of six months in 1968, wrote two and performed one British Top 10 hit singles. That’s not, in itself, an especially unique claim. Hundreds of guys, not to mention girls, have done that.
Few of them are responsible for two such widely diverse hits that, if you were to listen to either in isolation, you would shake your head in absolute disbelief that the writer of one could ever have had anything to do with the other. Just not possible, you would insist, no.
In 1967, Mason Williams was the head writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on American television. The Smothers Brothers (Tommy and Dick) aren’t very well known in Britain. They started off as a comedy folk duo, with Tommy as the funny one and Dick as the dumb one. Their popularity grew and, in 1967, they were awarded their own variety and sketch show.
That was the same year as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which did appear over here, on BBC2 at 9.00pm on Wednesday nights. I was still only 11, going on 12, and that was my bedtime, but my parents did a deal with me: as long as I was washed and ready in my pajamas, I could watch Laugh-In and go to bed the moment it ended at 9.45pm. It was a wonderful and loving gesture by them, recognising without me being aware of the show that it’s anarchic, chaotic comedy was ideal for me. I watched the first one they allowed me and near laughed myself sick.
I’ve no idea how The Smothers Brothers compared, and if the whole show was to be paraded for me now it would be completely impossible to even attempt to measure one against another: for decades, repeats of Laugh-In have left me completely flat. But there was one massive difference between the two shows. One was anarchic, chaotic, absurd. The other was anarchic, chaotic, absurd and satirical.
Massively satirical. Virulently satirical, Radically satirical. Ultimately to an extent that would have the show taken off the air abruptly. I’d have loved to see the show in its time, in full swing, in the era of Johnson and Nixon and America: Love it or Leave it.
Williams won an Emmy for his writing on the show, but he was more than just a writer. He was a gifted musician who used his music, like the Smothers Brothers, to purvey his routines, a stand-up comedian, an arranger. And he came before the camera to play an instrumental he’d written, combining his acoustic guitar and a full orchestra.
The instrumental, melodic, instantly attractive, was originally called ‘Classical Gasoline’, because it was meant to be ‘fuel’ for the classical guitar repertoire, but a mistake by a music copyist shortened it to the title we all know, a title that sat foursquare in the times of the Counter-Culture. And though the melody was composed and buoyant, and in its way at odds with the rock music that surrounded it – especially in the show – it was an essential part of the pattern of the times.
‘Classical Gas’ showed that the classical, the establishment of the times, could be equally as fun and as optimistic as the modern sounds, the rock, the psychedelia. Like the three-piece suited The Association, it was a bridge between worlds, a gateway between two opposing sides.
The track reached no 2. in the American charts, and despite the Great British Record Buying Public’s tendency to reject the music of the Land of the Free, it crept into the Top 10 here for one week, just like The Rascals ‘Groovin”, this time at no. 9.
The number of times the track has ben recorded by others is amazing – Williams himself has re-recorded it at least four times and whilst I’ve never heard any of these, I’m prepared to bet they aren’t as good as the original – and I’m very partial to an obscure keyboards version by Beggar’s Opera from 1972. I don’t know if classical guitarists do accept it as part of their repertoire, and I’m far from musical enough to be able to even hazard a guess as to whether they should. I just know it’s a superb, infectious melody that lifts the spirits every time I hear it.
But I said that Mason Williams had another UK Top 10 hit that year, with a song that he wrote but didn’t appear on, one which reached no. 1. You’ll never guess, but it was that Israeli husband-and-wife duo, Esther and Abi Ofarim, and ‘Cinderella Rockerfeller’. I can already hear the rising tide of ‘Noes!’, many of them frantic and horrified.
Yes, the same mind conceived and composed both tracks. You may take that as evidence of the breadth of mind men and women can display or, like me, you can stick your fingers in your ears every time you’re unfortunate enough to be exposed to the bloody song.
And turn direct to ‘Classical Gas’ for musical relief.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’

I bought my first car in 1981, a dark blue two door Datsun, the smaller one from which the Cherry was the next step up (as indeed it was in real life, blue to silver). It had a radio and nothing else. It was a few years before I got a cassette player installed, in the most awkward, inconvenient and downright dangerous place you could put a cassette player, and it was longer years yet before the car CD player was created and beyond that before I bought a car that came with one installed.
So it was the radio or nothing. And I liked my music when I was driving, especially when I was alone in the car and I could sing along as tunefully as I was capable of being and as loudly as I wanted, without the least protest. It was the only time nobody protested about my singing.
I’ve been trying desperately to remember just what radio station I would have listened to in 1982. It was still John Peel, four nights a week, but that was at home, in my bedroom, with a tape recorder handy for anything interesting, especially if one of my favourite bands was doing a session. In the car, heading for work in Romiley, the other side of Stockport, what station did I favour? I have the impression it was neither Radio 1 nor our local Commercial station, Piccadilly Radio, 261, but there were no other options for someone like me.
Whichever station it was, it had to be some kind of a breakfast show. I set off for work sometime around eight am – for some crazy reason I am convinced this happened on a Tuesday – and was halfway to Stockport Town Centre at best when the DJ announced he was going to play a brand new record, about to come out as a single.
He said that it was going to come as a big surprise to us because it was completely different from everything this group had done thus far. In fact, it was so different we would not believe it was this act who had recorded it. So much so that he wasn’t going to announce who the record was by until after he’d played it, and whilst he was playing it he invited us to try to guess who it was, except that we would never guess who it was. I don’t think he actually said never in a million years but you could hear the words in your own head.
Then he started the record.
Whoever it was, I liked the sound immediately. The song operated on the repeated motif of a gentle, light and rounded organ riff that should have been a clue but which meant nothing then because everything that surrounded it was different. The almost rhythmic harpsichord underlying the phrase, the skittish, almost jittery percussion, the laconic, tuneful vocals with their hazy, almost non-declarative lyrics – what on earth were machirons? what were they singing about? – and then the long coda, letting the phrase play out, touched by a light, tuneful suggestion of almost solos, the only discernible guitar in the whole piece.
Whoever they or he were, the record at least intrigued and I could hear the potential it had to be brilliant once I adjusted my ears to it. And no, I hadn’t the faintest clue who it could be.
The Stranglers? Bloody hell.
Even now, if you were to play The Stranglers singles in order, the sense of dislocation between the band of 1977/8 and this was incredible. The band hadn’t had a top thirty hit since early 1979, and I don’t remember hearing any of the seven intervening singles before this. Just where had something like this come from? What had happened to change The Stranglers so?
Studying the progression, if any, of these flops might give me a clue but ultimately what does it matter? That moment of astonishment won’t suddenly resolve into that satori of oh yes, oh yes, I see.
‘Golden Brown’ was The Stranglers’ biggest hit, reaching no. 2 and fully deserving on going one better (if only The Jam had waited another week…) Mr Innocent (still, at 26) needed to be told what the song was actually about years later, which was Heroin, leaving me wondering about the song’s enthusiastic adoption by Radio 1. I mean, we all know that ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ got by in 1973 because nobody in charge at the station had the faintest idea what Lou Reed was actually singing about, but were they really still so innocent nearly a decade later? Or were the DJs sniggering up their sleeves when they played it?
But it was many many years later before that line about ‘machirons’ was resolved into what Hugh Cornwell was really singing about, when someone broke it down to ‘and with my mind she runs’ – awkward phrasing indeed.
There aren’t that many songs where I can categorically remember when and where and how I first heard them, but I’ll never forget that drive to work. The Stranglers? The Stranglers??
Bloody Hell.

The Infinite Jukebox: Madness’ ‘One Step Beyond…’

When I lived and worked in Nottingham, I had a good mate called Simon. We had nothing in common musically, in fact I’m not even sure what sort of music he was into, except that it didn’t match mine. Punk, new wave, ska was all in bloom and it excited me, it felt like winds of freshness after a near decade of progressive music and other stodge.
In the second half of our Articles, we worked under different partners on different floors. One lunchtime, in the late summer of 1979, I popped up with my sandwiches for a chat. We got onto music, onto last night’s Top of the Pops. There’d been this band on that he thought were rubbish, they didn’t even know how to play their instruments: I’d have liked them.
Amused at this characterisation, we tried to work out who he’d meant, and it was Madness, with ‘The Prince’. They’d never get anywhere, he predicted. But he was right, I did like them, and I went on liking them for a very long time, even unto the Twenty-First century.
In later years, back in Manchester, I got to see the band live, once for each of the last three albums before they split up. Sooner or later, all band histories end that way. The sad part is when they get back together, often with only one or maybe two of the original members, to relive the past on the nostalgia circus. I have never gone to see a band just to hear them produce not quite there approximations of their old glories.
Madness, of course, did it differently. When they got together again, it was the whole lot, the Magnificent Seven, Suggs and Chas Smash, Chrissy Boy, Bedders, Monsieur Barso, Kix and Woody, the first Madstock Festival, to play the old songs they way they’d always been played.
I was envious. They’d set it all up at Finsbury Park, which was in London, which was natural because Madness were a London band, and I was in Manchester. And it was obviously good, because the crowd stomped so enthusiastically, they registered on the Richter scale. But the band obviously still enjoyed playing still, and a Xmas tour followed that included Manchester on the Sunday before the Day, at the big exhibition hall that used to be Central Railway Station and was then the G-Mex Centre (the Nineties, eh? What could you do with them?)
I scored me a ticket, of course. I didn’t go to see nostalgia bands. I also didn’t do hypocrisy. However, in both cases I was prepared to make an exception.
But there was a bit of a logistical problem. There was one remaining friend from my days in Nottingham with whom I remained in touch, and with whom I was in the habit of visiting each Xmas. Unfortunately, the only day we could fit that in was the day of the Madness gig, so there I was, up and off early, through Nottingham on beyond to where she lived in Bingham, and back again, eager to be back to Manchester in good time.
No worries on that score: I was parked up for 7.00pm with the doors not due to open until 7.30pm. I meant to be in on time: the G-Mex was a wide open space, no seats. I was going to have to stand all through the concert and I wanted somewhere not too far from the stage, where I could see the band but not get crushed or anything like that. Besides, I had already made one poor choice: it was December, it was bloody cold and I had chosen to remove my pullover and wear my coat. Which, inside the great hall, filling up, was too hot to wear and bloody awkward to carry. It was a heavy coat and I had to hug it in my arms to keep from losing it.
Everything was in place, especially me. It was over a decade since I’d seen Madness live, and then the Barson-less sextet. What would they start with? I turned it over in my mind, clicking mentally through all my favourite tracks. What would be the best one? What would be the prefect opener.
I still hadn’t come to an answer by the time the band hit the big stage. The applause, the cheers, the whistles, the roar, the stamping. And Chas Smash, Carl Smith, for we were all grown up now, but not for the next ninety minutes we weren’t going to be, and then it boomed out; Don’t watch that, watch this! And this great, stupid, goofy grin spread all across my face, and I rose into that elevated heaven that you might have called the House of Fun, even as this mocking voice in my head shouted, You bloody idiot! What else were they going to be starting with?

The Infinite Jukebox: The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’

As you know, my initial grasp and understanding of the music of the Sixties came from Radio 1’s Golden Oldies policies in the Seventies. But, as I’ve also observed, this could be seriously misleading.
Ironically enough, my first exposure to The Moody Blues, Birmingham’s ‘Cosmic Rockers’, had nothing to do with any kind of oldie, but was their 1970 single, ‘Question’, which was their second biggest success in the UK charts, reaching no 2. It’s an odd song, beginning with a rapidly strummed, long acoustic guitar intro before blasting into sound courtesy of the band’s characteristic instrument, the Mellotron. And then it goes off into a long middle section of serious slowness, that I can only now characterise as overblown and sententious, before shooting off on another one at full speed and bombast.
Not really the kind of song to really trigger the sympathies of a young teenager struggling to understand pop and rock music.
But we’re not here to talk about ‘Question’. We’re here to talk about an older song. When it came to Oldies, there were just the two Radio 1 played, the original R’n’B Band’s number 1 from 1964, ‘Go Now’, and the rather more characteristic example of the latter-day band’s sound, the one song synonymous with the Moodies for all time, ‘Nights in White Satin’.
The number of times it was played, you’d have thought, like Honeybus’ ‘(Do I Figure) In Your Life’, that we were talking massive hit, top three at the minimum. But no. Though I still didn’t know that when the song was re-issued as a single at the end of 1972. That’s another thing that’s gone by the wayside these decades later, the songs that would be re-issued. The Xmas resurgence of Xmas songs is the last vestige of that, but there’s no comparison. These returning hits are based on the public’s own desire to rehear the familiar and the beloved. When records had to have a physical existence, had to be manufactured, only the most successful were kept permanently available.
So record companies held the key to what you could buy, and if they decided there was no more profit in keeping a record around, it was deleted and then all you could do was to haunt record stalls. The hours I spent pawing through singles racks on Shudehill.
But Deram decided to re-issue ‘Nights in White Satin’ in the run up to Xmas. And because most of the Radio DJs loved it, it got airplay. And because I now heard it daily, and often several times daily, I fell in love with it, like them, and watched and enthused as the song returned to the Top Thirty, and climbed, slowly, but steadily, until it reached no. 9.
‘Nights in White Satin’ was extraordinarily effective on me. Within fourteen months I had all the Moodies’ classic seven albums, starting with the current Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, going back to On the Threshold of a Dream, and only then letting my basic, logical characteristic shine through and adding the others in strict chronological order. And, at the end of September 1973, as my University career began, The Moody Blues became my first concert as well as being, ironically, their last, last that is for the classic line-up: they would take a break for the next five years, pursue solo projects that undermined my love for the band, and reform without Mike Pinder.
By which time I had sold all seven of those albums, leaving the Moody Blues the only one of my favourites from time to time whose music for which I do not have at least a sentimental recollection of when they enthralled me.
Where does that leave ‘Nights in White Satin’? Where does that leave a song that, for several years, I would have put at, or very close to the top spot in any list of my favourite songs ever?
When I listen to it again, I hear the traces of the magic that drew me into it in 1972. It’s a love song, to the extent that its chorus repeats the lines I love you, and I love you, oh how I love you, as deep and meaningful as any of McCartney’s sentimental little nothings like ‘ And I love her’. What is meant to be deep and meaningful are the verses. Moody Blues fans regard these as philosophical and maybe I did too, once. Nights in White Satin, never reaching the end, letters I’ve written never meaning to send. Or, gazing at people, some hand in hand, some try to tell me, thoughts they cannot defend.
I’m afraid I can only call such lyrics pretentious, pretending to deep internal meaning when in truth they have nothing of substance, sixth form poetry, lacking in both knowledge and understanding, and what’s more, irrelevant to that returning chorus. And I love you (repeat until meaningless).
What does remain is the shadow of the music. Justin Hayward was not an original Moody but from 1967 onwards he was their recognised leader, and by some margin their best songwriter. And he had a decent characteristic sound on the guitar, though none of that’s on display here. The intro doesn’t as much begin as appear, as if someone’s entered your aural area already playing, but Hayward’s sound is acoustic, establishing more of a rhythm whilst his voice defines the melody, and bassist John Lodge plays a melodic line above it.
No, as with most Moody Blues’ tracks, it’s Mike Pinder’s mellotron that carries most of the song, and if you were to listen to the ‘extended’ version from the album, where the London Festival Orchestra conducted by Peter Knight decorate the introduction and last part of the song with real strings, the limitations of the instrument – a keyboard playing pre-recorded tapes rather than notes – become most apparent (the mellotron rapidly dropped out of favour from the early Eighties when it was wholly superceded by the much more versatile emulator).
Though the flute solo in the middle, played with cool beauty by Ray Thomas, is still the best part of the song.
Much later after 1972, I discovered that, on its original release, this famous song, this favourite of oldies, had only reached no 19, ten places lower, and at almost the same time of year.
It would be a hit a third time, in 1979, this time peaking at no. 14, exactly halfway between its two prior listings.
And the days of the Moody Blues being one of my favourite bands are long gone and unlamented. Not even ‘Nights in White Satin’ makes my heart flutter any more.

The Infinite Jukebox: Horslips’ ‘The Rocks Remain’

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes on the Infinite Jukebox, one song leads straight to another. This is one more such instance.
Like ‘Concrete and Clay’, Horslips’ ‘The Rocks Remain’ is a lovesong that uses the metaphor of time and the rocks of the mountains as a measurement of permanency between two lovers. It was part of the band’s 1976 concept album, The Book of Invasions, based on an old and legendary book of Celtic literature, and I saw Horslips perform this live in a concert later that year at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, about which I wrote several years ago.
Horslips were an Irish rock group who were first around for basically the Seventies, forming in 1970 and disbanding without warning in 1980. They were noted for fusing Irish folk music and Irish traditional legends and stories with rock music, and whilst they were not always successful at maintaining an interesting balance between the two forms, when they were on song they were not just fantastically interesting but incredibly influential.
Unfortunately, they were not very successful commercially in this period, certainly not in England, where only one album broke the UK chart, that being the aforementioned Book of Invasions, sub-titled A Celtic Symphony.
Like their earlier, 1973, album, The Tain, the songs in The Book of Invasions were built from carefully researched myths and legends and built into an overall composition in three parts. The leading track on side two, the wonderful, flowing, energetic ‘The Warm Sweet Breath of Love’ was released as a single in the summer of 1976 – of course it got nowhere, it was barely even played – and on the strength of that I kicked in to buy myself the album, and of course to go see them when they toured.
For at long time it has been, fittingly, ‘The Rocks Remain’ that has stayed with me. It was the latter half of a segue with ‘The Power and the Glory’, the second single, squeezing out of the dying sound of the earlier song with a bright sprig of sound and a wholly Irish lilt to the complex, spiralling riff, a thing of high, musical notes, that underpins the entire song.
If I remember correctly, the song comes at a point in the album where two lovers have run away. She is a Princess, and the likes of him are not for her, and they are being hunted even as they hide among the rocks. The song is sung from his viewpoint, but it is by the band in harmony, all its singers combining in a gentle, upper register sound.
The song is about what is and what is not permanent. The trappings of her former life, the thrones and rings and fine clothing, all will decay and fail, but the stones of the land will endure and this is what he seeks for his love, that it have its day to fulfil the hopes and dreams they have invested in it.
The language is symbolic, but the sentiments are as basic as the earth itself. Change will come, and there is no point in questioning why it happens. Sticks and stones to break your bones, words to make you cry. Even the strongest symbols of permanence, the sun and the moon, not even these are strong enough to resist time and change, but the hills remain: Ireland will exist and so will love, their love, that will never die.
But that reference to sticks and stones isn’t just the dragging in of an old proverb, but an immediate pertinence. The brief middle eight tells us that this love may not die but it can still be extinguished. I can see the lights below us twinkle like the stars, but those lights are not something seen from a plane, oh no, they are the campfires of the besiegers who, in the morning, will fall upon them and end this escapade. And I know they’re waiting patiently for the day to break again.
So all was in vain, all dreams forlorn. The lovers understand this, he understands this, that in loving her he has brought despair and death on her. Now is the hour that this had led them to. Distant skies, different eyes, the change has come so fast, and she, a mother of pearl distant girl clutches at the past.
Then for a moment the voices change, one alone, his voice dropping, an intensity that is all of reassurance intervenes, singing the words that have never failed to make the hairs on the back of my neck rise: And in the sunset I see your eyes and they tell me nothing’s lost. No regrets, no recriminations. While the rocks remain, love’s the same. Strong love will last.
We are here in 1976, we are here in 2022, and we are here wherever love means something bigger than yourself. Like Unit 4+2 in a contemporary scene, Horslips delved into the past of their land to find the thing that endures beyond life itself. But in the story they tell, it is only the rocks that remain, bound to the love that only ended in this life.

The Infinite Jukebox: Unit 4 + 2’s ‘Concrete and Clay’

Unit Four Plus Two, or 4 + 2, if you prefer, started out as a four piece vocal harmony group who added two instrumentalists, a guitarist and a drummer. Hence, Unit 4 + 2. They were one of the many bands in the Sixties who escaped the tag of One-Hit Wonders by virtue of getting a follow-up single into the absolute bottom reaches of the Top 30, but who made no further impact irrespective of how long they hung around. These things happened, even to bands whose One-Hit was a Number One Hit.
Though some pop singles, most noticeably those of The Beatles, flashed across my hearing thanks to plays on The Light Programme, I have almost no recollection of them. But I do remember Unit 4+2 from seeing them on television at some point, perhaps on Blue Peter, playing their hit single, and because I was capable of counting up to six by that time, I performed a head count and came to my own conclusion as to why the band had taken the name they had.
Sometimes, what you do remember is for utterly crazy reasons.
But whilst I’ve never actually gone out and gone crazy over ‘Concrete and Clay’, whilst it’s never inspired the desire to play it on a Jukebox consisting of Sixties classics, I have always enjoyed hearing it.
The track begins with a cowbell, struck quietly, setting up a rhythm immediately taken up by a slightly stuttery guitar, with dry, acoustic tones. The song slides in quickly, a pair of opening lines setting out the terms of a love song, golden praise for the loved one, made all the more specific by the repeated introduction of You, to me, are… sweet as roses in the garden, soft as summer rain at dawn. The imagery is gentle, soft, feminine but ephemeral.
But the band allow no pause as they lead up to the chorus, in love we share, that’s something rare, and then the imagery abruptly turns upon its head. The sidewalks in the street, the concrete and the clay beneath my feet, and then the harmonies cut in, to make pledge of love, of a permanency of love, that will go on and endure, not just as love as the world exists but longer. The sidewalks in the street, the concrete and the clay beneath my feet begin to crumble, but love will never die, because we’ll see the mountains tumble before we say goodbye, those lines sung with an easy swing, a harmony so simple yet settled that you accept the words, accept that this is forever, as the band assure this cherished woman, my love and I will be in love eternally. Yes, that’s the way, that’s the way it’s meant to be.
‘Concrete and Clay’ is not a song with a hidden depth. What it is is all out there, on the surface, love and a promise of constancy that perhaps is more than any of us can truly offer, for time changes everything. Like the lovers of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ learning that it might not be, until all that is left is to mourn that ‘Caroline No’, Unit 4+2 are giving their hearts in the belief that nothing can change that.
The song has no break in its vocal. Already they have commenced the second verse, moving from morning to evening. All around, they say, I see the purple shades of evening, the day drawing to an end, night stealing upon us. And on the ground, the shadows fall, but evening makes no difference, for once again you’re in my arms, so tenderly… The sidewalks and the street, the concrete and the clay…
The song has gone from morning to night in the blink of an eye, but at heart nothing changes. The chorus, the promise, is as it always was and is. The concrete and clay may crumble, the very ground under your feet collapse, the mountains ground down to an entropic plain, but love will never die.
There’s a guitar solo, undemonstrative, unflashy, notes picked individually with what has to be said a weedy tone, yet one that fits perfectly into the sound of the record, whose instrumentation is in service to the voices and not itself, and the band come back for one final chorus, before fading away on that promise that that’s the way it’s meant to be.
And you smile in soft content, at a love song without shadows, and the amazing thing is that this has all taken place in a mere 123 seconds. Sometimes, things can be said, and eternal commitments made, in a tiny space in time. Sometimes the Great British Record Buying Public only wants one thing from you and, no matter how good you are, nothing more. What the band gave us was light of weight, but ease and pleasure is just as important, and all the more if you are in love.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Shop Assistants’ ‘Somewhere in China’

The Infinite Jukebox isn’t really infinite: it stops at the last record I’ve ever liked. Beyond that is only the silence of interstellar space. But before that point is thousands of songs, and music of all kinds. Well, nearly all kinds.
Amongst its glittering chrome displays are hundreds and more obscurities, tracks only a handful of people heard and loved, but amongst them me. Singles that went nowhere, albums that deserved better attention, b-sides that only a fraction of their buyers bothered with. There are some great tracks on b-sides, many of them uncharacteristic of their performers, which of course is often the very reason for their greatness.
The Shop Assistants were formed in Edinburgh in 1984 but had undergone multiple line-up changes, transforming from a one-woman, three-men group to a three-women, one-man line-up. by the time they released their most famous single, ‘Safety Net’, buoyed up by Radio 1 sessions for both Janice Long and John Peel. ‘Safety Net’ was brilliant, a short, sharp, fast rocker, layering successive blast of hammering drumming, bass guitar and guitar riff topped by cool, uninflected vocals from Alex Taylor. I heard it, I loved it, I taped it, I bought it, in 12” single form.
I always played the b-side, though many time I played it only once (the only exception was when they were the lazy choice, another track from the same album). So I flipped the disc and listened to its b-side, which was ‘Somewhere in China’, and I was stunned. Stunned by the complete contrast between the two sides, from the in-your-face rocker to the delicate, laid-back, gentle ballad of the reverse.
Neither track, I’m bound to say, showed great musicianship. The band knew their instruments, but kept things simple. Whether this was out of principle or rather limited ability I neither know nor care. It wasn’t the point. Neither song could have been improved by flashy musicianship or displays of technique, guitar solos were not wanted. Indeed, ‘Somewhere in China’ was even more of a miracle for its subliminal raw edges.
Soft, almost drifting guitar led us into the song before Taylor’s voice, low, quiet, begins her portrait of a woman who lives somewhere in China, that she thinks one day she’ll go out and find her, just to see if there’s a better world for her. She imagines sailing down the Yangzi Jiang in a bright red and blue sampan, in a world where the only way to go is real slow.
But even as this life otherwise is held up as an ideal, it’s rejected. It’s not for her, she’d rather things go much faster, so instead she’s jetting off to New York City, wings and rings.
Throughout this, the music continues its even way. The guitars play bright chords, which grow with a mild intensity as we explore the dream-like qualities of this song, in which China is not a real place, nor yet possibly a contemporary place, but a mythical China where there is time without rush or pressure, time simply to experience.
The reality is otherwise. The days are colder, they don’t laugh any more. A cuddle on a couch before a log fire becomes a huddle, blankets round shoulders, as the fire, both physical and metaphorical, dies down, and all that remains is to dream of still being young. And to pretend they are still having fun.
But the fun is all gone. And so is living here. It’s not New York, just a cold old city. All that remains is that fantasy, now more impossible of pursuit than ever, of that life somewhere in China, which might be a better world. But by now we don’t believe that.
I’ve often spoken of the art in many Sixties songs of simplistic lyrics that open up in a moment’s thought to hint at much more complicated depths and The Shop Assistants demonstrate here that that art was still alive and kicking in the Eighties, even if you had to look for it in obscure corners.
Because this is a magnificent song, that creates a hazy atmosphere before even the words come into play, which are no dream but a deep welling nightmare of ordinary dimensions. Hidden by the emotionless voice but displayed in the words, the sweetness is shadowed by an incredible sadness that, when I choose to listen to it properly, has me wishing to weep for all the never things that could have been.
And all this, for a b-side!
There is gold in them thar hills.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Beach Boys’ ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’

Of course I knew about The Beach Boys. Radio 1’s Golden Oldies policy made free with their work so that I had heard practically every hit single they’d had in Britain many times before I took advantage of K-Tel Records – a mail order label who advertised on TV and weren’t available in record shops – to buy their 20 Golden Greats.
And of course I knew about the legendary album, Pet Sounds, if only from Nick Kent’s tremendous three part series on Brian Wilson in the NME in 1975. I just didn’t consider getting hold of it and hearing it for myself.
Not that I was totally unfamiliar with the album. Weren’t ‘Sloop John B.’ and ‘God Only Knows’ big hit singles from it? Not that you would necessarily take the former to be an advertisement for a whole album’s worth of that.
No, for some reason, it just never struck me to listen to Pet Sounds.
Part of that is one of my lifelong failings that I hope I’ve now grown out of, but I didn’t go much for other people’s recommendations. Paradoxically, for someone whose self-confidence was as uncertain as mine, I was possessed of something that was part-stubbornness and part-arrogance. I was the loner, I was the outsider, I was the oddball whose tastes veered away from the conventional to the obscure and the unknown. I was used to finding things by myself and the concomitant of that, which should never have been, was that if I hadn’t found it, it wasn’t worth it. I couldn’t follow other people’s tastes because mine veered so distantly from them.
See what I mean about arrogance? Even the popular bands I was into, I got into them my own way, without any prompting. And so it had to be.
I remember it as being a Sunday afternoon, a request programme, and taping a track, a Beach Boys track that I knew I’d never heard before. If it was a request programme then surely it had to be Annie Nightingale, but the timing was completely out. I’d stopped listening to Radio 1 at all in the mid-Eighties and her Request Show didn’t outlast the Seventies, and besides, once I’d absorbed this previously unheard song, which was nothing like any Beach Boys track I already knew, I sought it out on CD, which means the Nineties…
The album was of course Pet Sounds, and the song was ‘I just wasn’t made for these times’.
It’s the album’s penultimate track, coming just before the aching ‘Caroline, No’, the end of the journey that the album takes from the wide-eyed innocence of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ and the lovers’ imaginings that all that is necessary to be happy is to marry and be together all the time, to the wistful air of disappointment that, on the contrary, lovers and girls change and there is no such thing as emotional perpetuity.
I’d never heard such a Beach Boys track before. There was none of the cheeriness, the sun and surf gaiety, the big choruses with those wonderful harmonies. Instead, the song was slow, its instrumentation a world from the Chuck Berry-influenced rock the Wilson family sprung from. It came from an entirely different level of sophistication that almost negated in one moment everything the band had been for me before now.
For once, I’m not going to say that it was a song that I responded to, although elements of its lyrics were pertinent to me. Most people regard it as the most personal song on Pet Sounds, a recounting of just how isolated and alone Brian Wilson felt, which, given his relationship with his bandmates during the recording of this album, is certainly true. Whether it’s Brian or not, it’s the introspection of someone who, for all his intelligence, can find nothing in life to attach himself to and to bring people along to. Whatever he gets into, he cannot find those to join in with him.
In the end, his conclusion, sadder in its way than even the realisation buried in ‘Caroline No’, is that he is out of step with everyone and everything around him, and damned to be so: I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.
But like I said, it wasn’t the words that spoke to me but the beauty of the music, its layered effect, its difference from not just the ‘California Girls’ and ‘Darlin”s, but from everything else. It was slow, it was strong, it was smooth. Even the vocals were not quite the same, because they were Brian Wilson on his own, aptly, building up harmony after harmony.
And ‘I just wasn’t made for these times’ was the song to make me go out and buy Pet Sounds, at long last. It was my doorway, my route of access, my stepping stone to listen to one of the most perfect albums ever recorded. How stupid I had been to resist other people’s opinions, because, yes mother, it was every bit as good as everyone had always told me it was, and even better than that, and what’s more in all those years that I could have been listening to it, it hadn’t aged a second, it was as bright and fresh and imaginative as it had been on the day it was first released.
And the times that Brian Wilson thought he wasn’t right for turned out to be forever, because even in 2022, this is one of the measures that music will always have to have to stand up to.
And, do you know what? If Mike Love and Co. hadn’t fucked Brian around so much, Smile might just have been even better. But that’s another story, for another day.