The Infinite Jukebox: Madness’ ‘Our House’

In 1979, I was enjoying my second year in Nottingham, doing my Articles of Clerkship. In the first year, I’d shared a room with a slightly more senior Clerk, with whom I got on really well and who was very helpful to me. We transferred over to the other side together, to separate departments, both of us getting the window seat in our boss’s rooms, me on the second floor, he on the third.
We didn’t see as much of each other but, one day in the summer, with his boss away on holiday, I popped my head into his room and we settled down for a chat over lunch.
We had very little in common musically, I being punk/New Wave oriented. This being a Friday, Top of the Pops had been on the previous night and he was cheerfully dissing a band who’d made their debut. They were awful, they didn’t know how to play, you’d have liked them. He couldn’t remember who they were but we tracked it down to Madness, with ‘The Prince’. He was right. I did like them.
Mind you, if you listened to Madness on that performance, you wouldn’t ever have dreamed they would become the band they became. The cheery cockney chirpiness, the street level wisecracks, sheer danceability and joyousness of the ska they loved, the Madness of 1979 were lightweight in every possible sense of the word.
Slowly, but surely, and from an earlier time than most would imagine, Madness’s music acquired gravitas. They sounded like they always did, but firstly in their elliptical lyrics, and then in a kind of solidity bottoming the beat, they began to divide their time between being the Nutty Boys, and writing perceptive and aware songs about real aspects of people’s lives.
And because they were so superficially bouncy and lively, they could bring out the poignancy of life with greater effect. Nowhere is that more obvious than in ‘Our House’, an Ivor Novello songwriting award winner and the band’s only hit in America (they were always too indelibly English for success over there).
It begins with some thumped keyboards from Mike Barson, the band’s leader, a plunging bass line from Mark Bedford, a horn riff and then the melody is sweetened with strings that work with the horns to carry much of what follows. Suggs sings, or as closely as he ever gets to singing, in an easy, laidback rhythm.
The lyrics are unusual in that they’re not telling a story or building anything. They’re a word-picture, line by line portraying an ordinary working class family, mother, father, kids, sister and brother. Nobody’s unusual or special, and they’re not doing anything unusual or special. It’s life, Jim, and it’s life as we know it in its everyday minutiae.
But whereas many rock and pop musicians would sneer at the people for whom this is life, Madness, for all their success, are still these people themselves. They empathise, they know what it’s like, and they sing with affection of things that no-one will ever celebrate but which are themselves the stuff of life. Father in his Sunday best. Mother overtired, the kids playing up. Sister’s sighing in her sleep, brother’s in a hurry to get to his date,
Our House, they sing, in the middle of our street.
However you look at it, as a fortress, as a place of safety, as where the people who’ve surrounded you all your life will be, it doesn’t matter. It just is. It’s our house and it’s where it ought to be, in the middle of our street.
Father oversleeps for work. Mother has to rapidly iron a shirt and send the kids off to school with a small kiss. Then Suggs breaks your heart with a single, almost offhand mention that she’s the one they’re going to miss in lots of ways.
It’s an oblique reminder of how much mother is in the very centre of the family, the hub around which everything revolves, and the one most likely to be worn out first.
In the middle eight there’s a shift of emphasis, to Suggs the kid himself, flashing back on days when everything was true and happy and there was no other thought except to waste the day away, when bonds were eternal. Though there’s nothing in these words that is in any way unusual, it is what it is. This is how we thought, this is the minimum entitlement of any child that was every born, to have a childhood in which this was what mattered.
And Chris Foreman gets to indulge in that most unMadness of things, a guitar solo!
The first verse repeats, and then it’s the long coda built on repetitions of the chorus by which time you would stand and sing this forever, rooted in whatever was the home you had. All of this, for one short song, written, unusually, by the entire band, that removes you out of your time and place, wherever and whenever that is, and places you where no-one wants to leave.
Such an amazing song, and such an amazing creation, so jaunty yet so serious. Though I love ‘House of Fun’ for its cleverness, though there are many other Madness songs of extraordinary pathos and joy, this for me is Madness in under four minutes. This for me is England in under four minutes, the true England, the real England, of people getting along together, being the same under the skin.
My England.

Person of Interest: s04 e16 – Blunt

The Stumbling Block

Here, I’m afraid, we hit a block. A stumbling block of rather large proportions. It’s called Harper Rose, and since she’s the Number of the Week and thus looms large in this episode, it is a stumbling block of major proportions.

As usual, we begin in media res, Reese on a snowy campus tracking the new Number, played with energy by Annie Ilonzeh. Harper Rose is already unique in that, instead of her Social Security number, the Machine has provided her College Registration. This is because Harper Rose is not Harper Rose’s real name. What that is goes unrevealed: ‘Harper’ is a chameleon with multiple phones, IDs, names, roles etc. Why is this? Hang on a bit.

The usual question is Victim or Perpetrator. There’s nothing except Harper’s general air of innocuous innocence to tilt the balance, but early indications are that she’s likely the former. Her stoner boyfriend, Trey, works shifts at a Medical Marijuana Dispensary, and he’s feeling under the weather so Harper takes his shift. A legal Dispensary of marijuana nevertheless has issues, especially around how orthodox Banks won’t open accounts for them, and there’s tons of cash lying about, enough to warrant private security from a legal operation of, and it’s about time we got back to them, the Brotherhood.

And something goes wrong tonight. Harper’s handling the takings run. The Cartel attempts to steal the money. Much shooting occurs, including the usual number of kneecappings by ‘Detective Riley’. The bag is recovered. It is full of travel brochures. The bag with the money is disappearing towards the nearest horizon in the possession of Harper Rose, she who is a grifter, a conwoman, a perpetrator of criminal acts.

Which is where I hit my personal wall. It’s not just here but I remember her return appearance (and her third), and between now and next I find myself violently disliking her. Harper is highly intelligent, curious and inventive. She operates on permanent alert, every second devoted to pursuing angles and advantages, and to complete the alliteration, she’s completely amoral.

Every second of dear little Harper’s day and night is devoted to furthering the interests of dear little Harper, using her wits to con, shuffle and trick absolutely everyne around her, to get what she wanrts and do what she wants, without an atosecond’s worth of thought for anybody else. She is the predator and they are her prey and her refusal to get attached to anyone or anything leaves me cold. I cannot feel anything about a character who feels nothing and prefers to see everyone she encounters as sheep to her wolf.

That was a bar against my ability to enter into and enjoy the world of the show this week, or to be engaged in the machinations of the plot. Who cared if Reese and Finch got Harper’s feet out of the fire? She certainly didn’t. All she wanted to do was get out and find another sucker to leech off. Did we care about Trey’s fate, the pathetic stoner put at risk through all this but who, as played easily by Connor Hines, was insignificant to the point of utter dispensability?

The only things of merit to the episode lay in the aforementioned return of The Brotherhood and Dominick to the forefront of the audience’s attention, and the extremely truncated subplot featuring Root. Root has an idea. Finch and Reese have the wrong approach, pushing everybody else out since Shaw’s ‘death’. Instead of excluding, Team Machine should be recruiting. There are others out there who think as they do, who would fight if only they knew how. Root has designed an App (we all know the Machine has been at least a consultant on this).

And Finch, concerned, follows Root to a company, with whom she is set to go into partnership, to market her App, and to work with them on designing another.

What is the App? What does it do? How will it work? This is something to be patient about.

There are now only six episodes to the end of season 4, six episodes in which to deal with the Brotherhood, the War Dominick intends with Carl Elias, and the counter-measures Root and her App will bring into play to start the attack on Samaritan. Such a waste that this episode had to concentrate upon Harper Rose, who I decidedly do not trust, or like.

The Infinite Jukebox: Frank Sinatra’s ‘Strangers in the Night’

My father and his elder brother hated motorways. They didn’t like the A6 either, finding it too congested, despite the traffic taken away by the M6 (which in those days ended just short of Carnforth). So, before our next holiday, Uncle Arthur wrote off to the AA for An Alternative Route from Manchester to the Lake District Avoiding the A1.
It was a roundabout route, for obvious reasons, but we were in no especial hurry, and it took us through Central Lancashire, Bury, Rawtenstall, Nelson, and across the moors via Gisburn to the main road across the edge of the Yorkshire Limestone Country, through Settle and Kirby Lonsdale (which we passed dozens of times but never entered).
It was a gentle, friendly, familiar way that was an essential part of going away on holiday.
Whatever route we took, we always stopped for lunch in Milnthorpe, at 12.30pm every time. We would always eat at The Flying Dutchman cafe, in the Market Square, and I was allowed sausage barms for the only time in the year. We’d wallow in the break, not returning to the car until 2.00pm to resume our journey.
Which is all very well, but what has this to do with music?
The Flying Dutchman had a jukebox. One year it had the forerunner of a Video Jukebox, but in 1966 they had an ordinary one. 1966 was the first year we, amazingly, got away for three holidays in the Lakes, three separate weeks. And 1966 was the year of ‘Strangers in the Night’.
When you set it against some of the other number 1s of 1966 – The Small Faces, Chris Farlowe, the Stones, the Beatles, the Troggs – it’s an oddity, almost a throwback, but if it is it was a glorious throwback and an instant hit, charting at no 14 in its first week and number 1 for three weeks thereafter. It was one of Sinatra’s best and strongest songs for a long time, a rich and powerful melody, and lyrics that married hope, fate and circumstance into a love story that resonates with everyone.
Strangers in the Night. It’s an evocative phrase, full of mystery and possibility. Two people meet, who have never seen each other before. Two lonely people, both consciously or subconsciously looking for someone with which to share lives. Anything can happen. Love was just a glance away, a warm embracing dance away.
Sinatra’s voice is rich and enveloping. It’s not the swing of the Fifties, but it’s an embracing sound on a song that could have been written for him, that may indeed have been written for him.
And indeed it is love at first sight. The Strangers who met have embraced each other, have chosen a life that bonds them. It turned out so right.
It’s a universal dream. Every one of us, practically, meets the person we will love as a stranger. Sinatra pulls us into that world of possibility, incarnates what we feel about the chance of a future. He sings us into that future with the sound of the past.
Song and singer: for me, ‘Strangers in the Night’ is the definitive Sinatra song, not the overplayed, supposed signature song, ‘My Way’. Sinatra was a familiar sound to me from endless days of playing in the living room at Brigham Street, absorbed with things like a miniature cannon that fired used matches to knock over ranks of little plastic soldiers, giveaways from Corn Flakes packets no doubt, a military band with varying numbers of instruments. And Mam does her housework and drinks her cups of tea whilst the Light Programme plays and I absorb some of the classic songs of Sinatra’s late-Fifties/early-Sixties period. In 1966, free of the impression of pop, another classic song is free to impress itself upon me. Like The Gang Show, not everything in your head is there because you chose it for yourself.
I love the song anyway, but it has significance for me from 1966. All three times we walked into The Flying Dutchman, ‘Strangers in the Night’ was playing on their Jukebox. Mam and Dad loved Sinatra anyway, and they loved the song’s association. Though they didn’t buy records, they bought this: an EP of which this was the title track. Many a time it would play at Sunday tea-time, and it was a long time before I could hear this without subconsciously expecting it to be followed by ‘On a Clear Day you can see Forever’.
When my mother died, the EP was among her things. My sister no longer had a record player but I did, and so I took it. I no longer have a record player but I still have the record, and I will keep it until my time comes, because it is an indelible link to days gone by and a rare example of my tastes coinciding with my parents’.
And because I remember meeting a stranger for the first time, in the early afternoon, not the night, but with the same outcome Frank Sinatra sung about.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Gang Show’s ‘The Crest of a Wave’

Well might you blink at the inclusion of this one. We are really delving into pre-history when it comes to my experience of music.
Before pop it was nursery rhymes and kid’s songs, Housewives’ Choice and Workers Playtime on the Light Programme whilst Mam did her housework at Brigham Street. At Burnage Lane, Dad bought a stereo radiogram, a massive piece of furniture on which to play records or listen to the radio. When he wired one set of speakers through into the Breakfast Room, we could have music whilst we ate, especially at Sunday teatime.
Their records, their music, and no avenue, if there had been the appetite, for me to know better.
Some LPs stand out in memory. They had one of those cheapo ‘Soundtrack’ albums, forerunners of the ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘Hot Hits’ series, session musicians and singers recording tinny, feeble versions of hit singles and rushing them out for a fraction of the price of a normal LP. Maybe we had more than one: I know we had The Sound of Music and I know we had one on which Dickie Henderson sang, and I don’t think they were the same. The actual Soundtrack album was too expensive for parents who loved Musicals.
We did have George Formby’s greatest hits, whether that was the actual title of it, which I loved, and so did my little sister, although I got precisely none of the innuendo. It was silly songs with singalong melodies.
There was one album that Dad had, that had personal significance to him as a former Boy Scout. That was another singalong, but not of silly songs and far too upstanding to have any truck with innuendo. It was a staple of Sunday teatimes and I had forgotten it for a very long time until the random access butterfly of memory waggled its wings again, and I wondered if it was on YouTube, and it was.
The Gang Show, which persists to the present day, was a Boy Scout amateur production, created by Rover Scout Ralph Reader, a man with theatrical interests and talents. It began as a London show in 1932, was repeated in 1934 and became an annual event. It’s a mixture of song, dance and skits, performed entirely by Scouts, resolutely amateur. Every Scouting Association can put one on, anywhere, and they’re all Gang Shows. They were so prolific that they used to say that every night of the year a Gang Show is being performed somewhere.
We had, or Dad had, an album of twelve such songs, energetic singalongs by mass voices. At this remove, with not the faintest idea of what album it was, I suspect there was also a nautical theme to the songs, which would make it doubly personal to Dad, an ex-Navy man.
‘Crest of a Wave’, like many other Gang Show favourites, was written by Reader. It was the Gang Show theme song, the finale of all their concerts, and the finale of our album, that we learned to listen for, for its simple, almost naïve ebullience, and as the climax of the disc. It was never imposed on us, my sister and I would ask for it.
The video is a clip from the film version in 1937. Don’t ask when our album was recorded, the only thing I can tell you is that it was a live performance and the memory of it is as sharp as a knife in the heart. Not all the music on The Infinite Jukebox is my choice.

The Infinite Jukebox: Love’s ‘Alone Again, Or’

If you were around in the Seventies, you couldn’t help knowing this oddly-titled song from West Coast band Love, the opening track of their legendary 1967 album Forever Changes. Like Todd Rundgren’s ‘I saw the Light’ it was one of those singles the record company kept determinedly releasing, Radio 1 kept gleefully playing and the Great British Record-Buying Public kept resolutely turning their collective back upon. You cloth-eared idiots. In a better organised Universe, ‘Alone Again Or’ would have been released just as often and would have been top 5 on every one. Bliss it would have been in that dawn to be alive.
The thing is that if ‘Alone Again Or’ didn’t capture the British ear in 1967, when it was wonderfully, beautifully of its time, there is no evidence in the song that it might do so in the sun-less Seventies.
Forever Changes was Love’s third album and ‘Alone Again Or’ the opening track, written and sung by Arthur Lee, one of two songwriters and singers the band was blessed with. After pursuing a crisp, electric pop style, containing occasional flashes of proto-punk, the band adopted an almost entirely acoustic approach for this album, apparently without prior intent, but in response to the songs and the arrangements that best suited them.
‘Alone Again Or’ has an unusual structure, one that you might think would mitigate against its appeal as a single. The song is a stop-start affair. It opens with a solo acoustic guitar, a complex melody picked out by Lee (or Bryan McLean if it was him) with a mere brush of chords beneath, before the drums enter with a skip beat and the band is there in full, supporting Lee’s voice, eager and enthusiastic. I’ll come back to the words later, but as the verse spins out there’s an accelerating energy, leading to the almost desperate “And I will be alone again tonight, my dear”, a line decorated with trumpet, before the music abruptly ends, and the acoustic intro returns, fading up out of the music.
We run through the intro again, the drum beat skips and we’re back with the band for the second verse, leading to the same climactic line and trumpets.
The intro is played through again, the drum skips, but this is now the solo, and it’s the trumpet which plays the melody Arthur Lee has been singing, supported by sweeping but slightly removed strings, up to that line again, without words.
And yes, we go through the intro and the second verse a final time and when the song dies away to leave that acoustic guitar in place, there is a change of note, a slowing down, and a final dying away to an end.
I love the song, and it’s sound is the sound of Forever Changes, and if you like ‘Alone Again, Or’ and are wondering, the album is indeed worth it. But there’s no denying it is a bit of an oddball, like a miniature song played four times over in the course of three minutes.
And the title leads nowhere. It isn’t sung, and Lee, as I’ve already said, only sings about being alone again, my dear. Who’s he addressing? The first verse is sung to a girl, a woman, a perhaps partner who lets him down, leaving him waiting patiently for her to turn up. He asks how she can do what she chooses to do before announcing that, impliedly yet again, he’ll be alone again tonight.
But the second verse is completely unrelated to this set-up. Someone tells Arthur a funny thing, that he could be in love with almost everyone. He thinks that people are the greatest fun. But once again he’ll be alone tonight…
What gives? These are the whole of the lyrics, a neglectful girlfriend in one verse, a hippy appreciation of humanity in the other. Has Lee dropped acid during the second guitar intro?
Who knows? But though some remember 1967 for psychedelia and all things related, and others recall it as the year of Engelbert Humperdinck, Love and Forever Changes and ‘Alone Again, Or’ were also something that could only have been that year, but which is not only of that year but forever.
Whatever the reason, you know where I’ll always place the blame. There was a lot of bloody good American pop and rock music of all kinds in the Sixties that never stood a chance over here. They stand proudly in the Infinite Jukebox.

The Infinite Jukebox: Honeybus’s ‘I Can’t Let Maggie Go’

Though it’s sullied slightly by its latter-day association with a former doctrinaire and divisive Prime Minister (that little turd, Jonathan King, recorded a cover version when the late Mrs Thatcher was forced out of office), Honeybus’ only hit single is still a wonderful piece of light as air pop, delivered in almost formal tones, with one of the late-Sixties’ best simple-but-sweeping chorus lines. Better yet, the song survived a million repetitions throughout the next decade in television commercials promoting Nimble Bread.
Honeybus are a bit of an oddity. Their recorded oeuvre includes songs only aired as live broadcasts on pre-Radio 1 BBC programmes where they’re called The Honeybus by a young and enthusiastic Brian Matthew, there was much confusion over whether they were Honeybus or Honey Bus, and just when they were on the edge of catching on in a way that their delicate, often fragile music deserved but which would have felt alien, their leader quit because he hated live gigs.
‘I can’t let Maggie Go’ was the band’s only hit, although with the frequency that Radio 1 used to play their second single, ‘(Do I still) Figure in your Life?’, as an oldie, you’d have thought that that too was a massive success. Honeybus were a basic four piece guitar/bass/piano/drums outfit, and their music had a distinct Beatle-esque tone, but unlike most bands inspired by the Fab Four, their main source of inspiration was ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
The first thing you notice about ‘Maggie’ is that its intro is played on a clarinet, with the band almost a distant sound beneath its melody, and it’s the clarinet that gets the solo, as well as wandering in and out of the song, adding decoration to the otherwise plain and simple, acoustic based sound. There’s a surprising busyness to the drums, which are mixed forward and frequently vigorous without ever doing more than complementing the music
But like so many other songs of the Sixties or inspired by them, the music is a vehicle for the voice, which carries the melody. Writer, band-leader and singer Pete Dello (sometimes called ‘Psychy-Dello’ according to Brian Matthew on one of those BBC shows) sings smoothly, sweetly. He’s singing about a girl, a fresh and lively girl, who makes him laugh and cry ‘with a twinkle of her eye’. They walk here and there, and people stop and stare (but not at him). The girl is what would then have been called a stunner, and there’s a touch of awe in Dello’s voice as if he can’t believe his luck that she’s with him.
It’s simple, plain and sweet. But beware of simplicity. The minimal verses may depict an idyllic scene, lead you to imagine a summer’s day, a park, the breeze in her hair and the girl alive with life, but that’s to neglect the chorus, on which the band sing in harmony, on one of the best and most uplifting lines of the Sixties. Because She flies like a bird in the sky.
Is it real or is it fantasy? The Nimble Bread ads concretised the the image with a beautiful girl with long dark hair soaring across idyllic country in a big old hot-air balloon, effortless and romantic, like the music. The line in the song comes from Dello’s intense love and awe. The flying is figurative, the girl is lighter than air, she rises above him, like a bird.
And the next line confirms as it confuses: She flies like a bird, and I wish that she was mine. She’s with him, but not with him. They’re friends, perhaps, but he loves her deeply and she doesn’t know. He’s in awe of her: She flies like a bird, oh me, oh my, I see, I sigh, but no real relationship can be based upon awe. Now I know, he says, I can’t let Maggie go.
On the surface this sounds like typical male Sixties chauvinism, but Honeybus aren’t like that, the music is too soft and sweet, too undemanding, and anyway, he can’t insist on keeping her because he hasn’t got her. He never has, and the yearning of that sweet and gorgeous chorus is that deep inside he knows he never will. He’s the best male friend, the one who is faithful and trustworthy but who will never be seen in the light in which he sees her.
The clarinet plays its miniature solo and the song returns to its chorus, unable to say more and only able to celebrate hopelessly the woman who is loved. She flies like a bird in the sky, they sing, again and again, and you could listen to this for hours upon hours, but Dello is canny enough to end as he began. The music winds down, the clarinet decorates the ceasing memory and the band’s final, ‘ooh-ooh-oohs’ and thus it is ended. It’s a sound that typifies 1968, and the spring in which this song reached no. 8. It couldn’t have been recorded at any other time.
‘I can’t let Maggie go’ is undoubtedly a minor song. Honeybus, in turning their sound towards cellos and woodwind, were turning their face away from the slowly increasing heaviness of electric music to the countervailing appeal of baroque pop, which in the end failed to make the impression it should have, because ultimately the baroque was fey and charming, qualities not wanted as the music business began dividing itself between controlled, cabaret pop and the burgeoning underground. Honeybus missed out, especially after Dello left.
Compilation CDs are available, showcasing their entire repertoire, and they are an intriguing delight. But the only visible remnant of Honeybus is ‘I can’t let Maggie go’, and it is a gem of which The Beatles themselves would have been proud, except that John Lennon would have been too strident for this, and Paul McCartney insufficiently nuanced. Pete Dello it had to be. And it’s not a bad legacy to have, is it?

The Infinite Jukebox: Thunderclap Newman’s ‘The Reason’

As I mentioned in the context of Speedy Keen’s ‘Someone to Love’, Thunderclap Newman only released four singles in their brief career. Everyone knows ‘Something in the Air’, the Number 1 hit that nobody expected and everyone struggled to follow. It was almost a year later when a follow-up appeared, charting for one week at no. 44, which was the end of the band’s chart career.
Career do I say? And ‘band’ do I say? Thunderclap Newman took their name from keyboard and kazoo player Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman, an eccentric 24 year old GPO Engineer and jazz fan, who didn’t want to go into the music business because it would disrupt his GPO pension. It included guitar wizard Jimmy McCullough, a 15 year old from Glasgow who would end up a member of Wings playing on songs on which no guitar could be heard. And the trio were a studio set-up as a vehicle to record the songs of John ‘Speedy’ Keen, Who roadie, Pete Townshend chauffeur and Best Man at his wedding.
There was nothing organic about them. In a New Musical Express interview, to promote his first and only solo album, Newman commented that he liked Keen but didn’t like his music, whereas for McCullough it was the opposite.
‘Something of the Air’ stands head, shoulders and torso above the rest of the band’s limited oeuvre (a total of 18 tracks including single and album versions of their second and third singles). It came and went in that last year before I started listening to music. ‘Accidents’ was a weird choice for a single, even in its completely re-recorded shorter form, but the one that caught my ear and swallowed me up entire was the third single, ‘The Reason’, that for a long time I believed was called ‘There’s a Reason’, because that’s the line Speedy sings.
I caught it on tape the first time I heard it, losing less than two seconds as it went straight into the lyrics, and playing it over and over again. It wasn’t until sometime the following year, or maybe even the one after when, having accompanied my mother to Ashton Market one Saturday afternoon, I was allowed five minutes to browse the singles untidily piled on a record stall. It was a cold afternoon and Mam didn’t want to just hang around and freeze, so she asked if there was anything in particular I was looking for. I mentioned ‘There’s a Reason’ so she went off down the other end of the stall whilst I picked through what was in front of me and she came back two minutes later holding a single in an inappropriate DJM Records sleeve and asked, “Is this what you’re after?” It sure was!
It’s a song with a tremendous nostalgic history behind it, a song that nobody else seemed to have heard of, but one that I loved and would play over and over again. I’d play it at my friends, none of whom seemed to appreciate it, but I could always sink into it and let the music surround me.
Yet it’s a weird choice as a single, even for 1970, when music was in flux between the certainties of the Sixties and the unfathomable future ahead. Anything could be a success, or so you’d have to believe if you look at releases, but ‘The Reason’ is improbable from the outset. Maybe if I’d had a couple of years listening under my belt, I might not have found it so fascinating.
But it’s a stop-start song, with quasi-mystical lyrics that never really resolve into a statement of what Keen is getting at. The instrumentation is low-key, and the rhythm constantly stops to allow the picked intro to repeat. The distinction between this and the album version is the brief, tinkling rather than thumping piano solo by Newman, overdubbed on an otherwise dull and shapeless harmonica interlude.
And there’s an extended coda where McCullough gets to strut his stuff with an electrifying solo that uses all the fretboard without ever losing its shape, which the single mix makes more concentrated and continuous.
Listening to it a half century further on, I find that for once my tastes have shifted away from a song that once was so meaningful to me, that it is now bound up almost entirely with nostalgia for days gone. Then, I wasn’t as familiar with ‘Something in the Air’ as I am now, not caught up in the spell of that magical sound and it’s summery haze of optimism. ‘The Reason’, in contrast, has no such aura about it, no such simplicity. Like all the band’s other songs, it lives in the shadow of something that couldn’t be repeated. I feel only sorrow that it no longer represents what I always thought it to be.

The Infinite Jukebox: Speedy Keen’s ‘Someone to Love’

Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” was in every sense a one hit wonder. I remember hearing its follow-up, the ambiguous “Accidents”, maybe a dozen times on Radio 1, when I was listening all hours it was broadcasting, and seeing a Music Week Top Fifty in our local record shop the one week it entered the chart, at 44. I heard it’s follow-up, “The Reason” (which I thought was called “There’s a Reason”) maybe three times (on one of which occasions I recorded it and played it to death) and the band’s final single, “Wild Country” (which I hated) only once.
Then there was Speedy Keen’s first solo album, from which two singles were taken, “Old-Fashioned Girl” which I can’t remember if I ever heard it played, and “Let us In”, which I definitely didn’t. The single and the album were released as John Keen, but the album had a silver ‘Speedy’ sticker across the name. No, when it came to John ‘Speedy’ Keen’s music, it really was “Something in the Air” or nothing.
Keen, who seems to be someone who, for all his talent, could easily have his confidence knocked down, started getting tracks together for a second solo album on Track Records, intended to be a double. But numerous halts and inefficiencies badly delayed its progress and, in early 1975, he signed to Island Records and made headway towards releasing a single album instead.
(Sometimes I wonder: does this mean there’s an album-worth of never-released Speedy songs stuck in a vault somewhere? If there is, I would kill to hear it!)
The release of Y’Know Wot I Mean? was preceded by a single, side two, track two’s “Someone to Love”. To my amazement, I first heard it on the radio. Not Radio 1 but Piccadilly Radio, Manchester’s Commercial Station, which I’d taken to my heart from the first day it broadcast in April 1974 (I even had a Piccadilly 261 t-shirt but then I was still only 19). Piccadilly took up “Someone to Love” in the summer of 1975, the only other Speedy track to get real airplay.
I loved it. I loved it because I loved Speedy Keen, because I loved that cracked falsetto yelp, and because I loved the melodies he came up with. But I also loved “Someone to Love” because it was a beautiful, heartfelt song that spoke exactly to my shyness around girls, my loneliness and my longings. I had fallen in love and made a mess of it and first love’s the one that’s the worst because, well, you don’t know anything else. This is it, this is the one, it will always be here, you can never feel like this about anyone else ever again.
When she wrote to dump me, as gently as possible, I went into a depressive fugue that lasted pretty much a full year. I was only just surfacing from it when I first heard that slow, liquid, almost oozing intro and Speedy’s voice, immediately familiar, singing those opening words, “If there’s anything I’ve forgotten…”
Apart from Keen’s voice, there was nothing in the sound of “Someone to Love”, or in its words, to connect to “Something in the Air”. It drifted in on a melange of electric piano, organ and an already weeping guitar, the drums that were Keen’s main instrument buried deep in the mix, understood rather than heard. No resounding acoustic, no thumped piano, no guitar whizz-kid. And no call to revolution, no sniffing the air for the hope that never came, but a lonely, lost recital of a life spent in confusion, in an isolated state of mind that can’t retain pleasures, like the dawning of a brand new day, like the children on a rolling surf. If he’s gotten lost a million miles away, watching streams turn into rivers.
And then Speedy’s voice soars, asking that if this is so, if he is lost, that someone comes out and finds him. He’s only looking for some to love.
Wonderfully, in the second verse, he’s speaking to another person. Someone who has come out to find him? Perhaps not. Perhaps it’s someone seen, but it is someone who is themselves lost in that loneliness, of not mattering to someone, and Speedy in turn promises to them that he will come out and find them. We’re only looking for someone to love.
Is that someone each other? In a way it doesn’t matter. Nothing has been settled by the time the song smoothes to its end. It’s about seeking, about supporting, about commitment to others for we are all of us, wherever we are and whatever we do, looking for someone to love. To love. To give to, not take from.
The music flows around us. I am almost tempted to describe it as an aural amniotic fluid, but that’s a bit too pretentious even for me. But it warms, it bathes, it is in its slow tones, its quiet melody, what Speedy Keen and those who respond to this exact degree of yearning are looking to find. I know from the years that passed after those days of confusion, insecurity and fear what I wanted in love and it was giving, not taking.
Before the end of 1976, Speedy Keen released one final single, two previously unreleased songs. There would be no more recordings. When he died, suddenly, in 2002, he was re-ordering things to start recording again. One of my greatest musical regrets was that I never had the chance to see him play live. I never got to hear him sing “Something in the Air”.
And I never got to hear him sing “Someone to Love”.

The Infinite Jukebox: Steel Mill’s ‘Green-eyed God’

It all began for me, music-wise, ten days before the end of the Sixties. I had the whole of 1970 to begin to understand the music that I’ve loved, and I wasn’t getting very far by the time we clicked over into 1971 and I found myself being forced into listening to another radio station.
Radio 1 was still sharing frequency space with Radio 2. Radio 1 broadcast individually between 7.00 – 9.00am, 12.00 – 2.00pm and 4.15-7.00pm. The rest of the time, it carried Radio 2’s output, Peter Murray, Terry Wogan etc. The evenings were dead, and the only concession to progressive music was Sounds of the Seventies, between 6.00 – 7.00pm daily. Not very good pickings.
But the Tories were elected in mid-summer 1970, bringing in Edward Heath as the new Prime Minister. The Unions were strong in those days and come the winter there were miners’ strikes causing power cuts. The purchase of candles was at a premium, because they were your only means of light when it all went suddenly dark. Similarly, television was off. Families huddled together. My new Xmas present transistor radio became a prized object.
And I discovered Radio Luxembourg, 208m on the Medium Wave Band.
This added another string to my pop bow, even without the power cuts, because Luxembourg commenced broadcasting at 7.30pm at night, half an hour after Radio 1 shut down. On the other hand, the signal was not very strong, and it got worse after 10.00pm, though of course I wasn’t up to listen to it after that time (officially).
But Luxembourg was situated in Europe, whereas Radio 1 was very much the home of British and American music. They had a different playlist generally, they introduced me to my first serious favourites, Lindisfarne, playing the unfairly overlooked first single ‘Clear White Light’, they were more prepared to play the kind of Sixties pop that was becoming obsolete, but, more importantly, they were more prepared to play European pop.
There were a couple of songs that I learned to love through hearing them on Radio Luxembourg in the early part of 1971, whose sound and milieu and complete absence from Radio 1 led me to believe they were from European bands. Black Swan, whose ‘Echoes and Rainbows’ was clearly being sung with a foreign accent, was actually multi-instrumentalist Billy Bridge, from France.
Steel Mill, who from the name alone I somehow took to be Dutch, turned out to be a short-lived London-based, heavy, progressive blues band. Only, if you listen to this, they don’t sound much of a heavy band, the brief guitar solo excepted.
‘Green-eyed God’ is a more-or-less instrumental, a soothing flute melody that, after its opening bars, develops on an easy-loping, unhurried rhythm of bass, bongoes and bones. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, it’s almost hypnotic. It’s nothing like hard rock of any kind you’ve heard. Nor is it like the kind of flute solo Ray Thomas or Ian Anderson would play. It’s smooth and it’s cool.
We’re about a minute twenty in when an unobtrusive acoustic guitar beings to blend with the melody, a cymbal hisses, drums roll to a halt and, in the silence, a laidback voice sings the first of only four lines: Green-eyed God in the midnight sun. Flute and bongoes take up the tune again, pausing for the next line: Surrender to him, give up your fight.
And this is how it progresses. A different fragment of melody, of rhythm, interspersed with lines sung in silence, a final restatement of the main flute melody, the acoustic guitar picking a line, and then the flute cools, hushes, the beat stops. The flute plays a questioning sequence, alone. An electric guitar repeats it, alone, the notes picked clear and sharp, testing this melody…
And then the full band crashes in, the electric guitar hard and harsh, the pace suddenly frantic, an unexpected energy released, the solo grabbing and clawing. For thirty seconds the band play the hard rock they’re supposed to be about. And then they stop. The flute replays its theme, the bass and bongos return to that easy, loping rhythm and the song plays it out until its fade.
This interlude, this intrusion, is as incongruous as Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman’s piano break in “Something in the Air”, if not necessarily so magical.
Even by the standards of a half-century’s immersion in music, this single is bloody odd, so you can imagine me trying to get my head round it through the blur and static of Radio Luxembourg in 1971. Fortunately, only a couple of years passed before I found the single cheap on Shudehill’s Record Stall (I got ‘Echoes and Rainbows’ on the same visit), and I have it still.
Needless to say, neither the single nor the band got anywhere. Steelmill re-recorded the song in a nearly ten-minute version as the title track of their only album in 1972, putting too much echo and distance on the elements retained from the single, and killing the cool, whilst inserting a long, overlong rock section, with masses more lyrics that had even less to do with the song in its original form. Instead of a unique sound, they preferred a humdrum hard rock workout: it was the early Seventies. If you were there, you’d understand it.
But go back to the single and imagine someone putting this out as representative of their sound. Now try to imagine them imagining who was going to buy it. I still can’t imagine anyone but the oddballs like me, and I’m nobody’s chosen audience.
1971 was a very strange year when it came to music.

The Infinite Jukebox: Lou Christie’s ‘Lightnin’ Strikes’

In the months immediately preceding my musical awakening, there were a number of ubiquitous hit singles that even I couldn’t miss hearing. One of these was Lou Christie’s ‘I’m gonna make you mine’ (though I found myself more in favour of its far-less-successful follow-up, ‘She Sold Me Magic’).
In Britain, ‘I’m gonna make you mine’ was a comeback hit for Christie, who’d had a Top 20 hit previously in 1966 with his American No. 1 hit, ‘Lightnin’ Strikes’, which reached no 11. When I heard that, I liked it. I’ve heard it on and off over the decades, enjoyed it when I heard it, never made a point of seeking it out when I didn’t.
A few days before I am writing this, comics writer and historian Mark Evanier, whose blog ( I follow daily, went to see Christie in concert, and even though the man is now in his seventies, he still retains the voice that powers all those characteristic falsettos. Evanier followed that up by linking to several videos of Christie doing this song at different stages of his life, and also a cover version as an example of how not to sing the song.
I like it, what can I say? I clicked on a link, enjoyed a couple of performances, had fun. But what gets me writing this today is that these have been the first time I have really listened to Christie’s lyrics. And oh my God, I cannot believe what he is actually saying!
I’ve spoken many times of the masculinist attitude to love and romance in many brilliant Sixties songs, and ‘Lightnin’ Strikes’ is one blatant example of this. There is an amazing contrast between what Christie sings in the verses, in a normal voice, and what he launches into in the chorus, in his penetratingly high falsetto. Unashamedly as well.
The verses are about Christie telling his girl that she’s his girl, that she’s the one he wants to spend his life with. He wants her to stick around, she’s the girl he will trust to the very end, she’s in his heart all the time, and there’s a chapel in the pines waiting for them round the unquantifiable bend. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
There’s just one little problem. It’s there in the verses when he’s telling her, with a jarring cynicism, that’s she’s old enough to know the makings of a man, and a bit further on, he’s telling her that for the time being, she’s got to live by his rules. And what, pray, are these rules?
Here’s where that falsetto comes in, the one that makes Frankie Valli sound like Melvin Franklin from The Temptations. That she’s got to wait, and she’s got to not object to what he does, which he’s going to do at every possible opportunity, and that is grab every pretty girl he can find.
You see, it’s basically an obligation. He’s not ready to settle down yet, and when he sees lips waiting to be kissed, it’s like an overwhelming compulsion: he can’t stop, he can’t stop, lightnin’ is striking again. And of course this is the Sixties, so whilst he says its kissing, we know it’s not going to be stopping there, if she’s put together fine and she’s readin’ my mind, well, you would, wouldn’t you?
So the girl he loves, the one he wants for always, that he’s asking to stick around and in the meantime be pure as the driven snow, is meant to live happily through his screwing every sexy bint he can get his hands on, the little sluts, and say nothing and do nothing, on the understanding that when he wants to settle down (no matter when that is, how far removed), it’s be with her. And when he does, he’ll make up for all lost time, namely he’ll then start ‘kissing’ her and she can take her place at the bottom of a very long line of notches. Can you spell completely obnoxious double standards?
As it happens, there’s a very timely blog about this song, given that it’s exactly fifty years since this was the American No. 1, which I offer for its suggestion that Christie is hamming it up, going deliberately OTT, and it may be so, though I can’t really accept that myself.
No, we know there was a completely different attitude back then, to how men and women’s approaches to, and stance in relationships differed, but this is a lot too much. Any bloke who tried that on fifty years later would either find himself doubled up in the dustbin, or else confronted with the fact that she was going to shag around just as enthusiastically, and if she met someone a bit more palatable…
Yet without the words, it’s a classic Sixties song, full of life and energy and melody, that nevertheless wouldn’t work as an instrumental. It needs the words, it needs the falsetto to be complete as a song. What a pity the words ended up being so vile.