The Infinite Jukebox: Billy Bragg’s ‘St. Swithin’s Day’

Sometimes, it’s all about the words.
A long time ago, when I was in Nottingham. Paul McCartney, who was still Wings at that point, released a single called ‘London Town’. I didn’t much like his work with Wings (and this was before ‘Bore of Kintyre’) and I didn’t like this one, and I especially didn’t like its lyrics and I said so with caustic reference to the line about “I was arrested by a rozzer wearing a pink balloon/
About his foot – toot toot toot toot’. No, even forty years later, I still want to bring a priceless Ming vase down on his head. This man is supposed to be a genius, right?
I was gently chided for my vehemence by my best mate, who told me that most people don’t even listen to the words, let alone care about them like I did. I’ve no doubt he was right, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t believe that the words of a song, the bit that makes it a song instead of an instrumental, the bits you bellow out in drunken chorus, the part that breaks your heart, are so unimportant. And I will never be able to forgive what to me is an insult to the listeners’ ears like McCartney’s lyrics there and elsewhere.
The exact opposite applies to this early Billy Bragg song, the opening track on his second album, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg. This was the pure Bragg, the hoarse-voiced, unmusical troubadour with the lone guitar, slashing and burning, spikey punky in inspiration if not quite sound, yet capable, musically at any rate, of some of the most tender and heartfelt songs ever.
Like I said, sometimes it’s all about the words.
‘St Swithin’s Day’ is a love song, a love-gone love song, sung to a former lover with whom it’s all died, but who still hopes, still cares, still wants to get back together and relive it. And it’s a song about saying no, not without regret, but a final no, because there’s nothing to go back to, and the third and final verse, each of which obey an eight line pattern, though the first two employ an extended seventh line that breaks into two on the page, especially when the latter of these employs an internal rhyme, the final verse breaks that news with the gentleness of inevitability.
It begins with Bragg thinking back to what was, as it happened, a terminal quarrel. At this distance he’s prepared to concede that it began as just a difference of opinion, as meaningless ultimately as the weather or the Battle of Agincourt. But nevertheless it was the end, of a love both hoped would last but like a train went by so fast, and left them unmoved.
That’s Bragg’s decision, though the fact of the song immediately brings into question whether he can speak for her with the same confidence. She’s still a pleasant memory on one level, as he still masturbates to thoughts of her (though Bragg puts it rather more elegantly, and better disguised, than that). But his hands aren’t the same, for he misses the thunder and the rain, the metaphors he uses to speak of being with her. And the fact that she doesn’t understand him, and by implication never will, casts a shadow over the land that was theirs: the sun is elsewhere, beyond that shade.
But there’s that third verse that is the true ending. She’s written to him, subject unknown but still easily guessed at. He won’t reply, because her honesty touches him like a fire, the fire of her retained love for him, perhaps.
And then there are the words that, every time I have ever heard them, have burned their way up my spine and set a frisson to the back on my neck, the irreversible pronouncement of death. The polaroids that hold us together will surely fade away, Bragg sings, like the love that we spoke of forever, on (pause) St Swithin’s Day.
St Swithin’s Day when, it is popularly supposed, whether it rains or shines it is the start of forty days of constant weather. And love spoken of on that day that can only live for the same forty days.
I am in awe of that line, as I am of so many more, written and sung with a precision that goes into the heart and tears its own, fine little hole. So many ways of putting words to the feelings that pull us from pillar to post, and so many times that writers of widely differing generations have enacted those feelings in words never put together before but once divined are literally unforgettable.
So no, I can’t subscribe to the idea that lyrics are unimportant, and not listening to them, and I resent someone with McCartney’s ability spewing out idiotic rubbish when he has – or had – the inspiration to do more. God knows why he couldn’t do it any more, maybe it really was because he no longer had John Lennon to sneer at shit like that. But Billy Bragg had the Muse whispering in his ear that day, though from his voice you might not believe it. St Swithin’s Day is not a day to fall in love upon.

The Infinite Jukebox: Focus’s ‘Love Remembered’

A minor element of my musical education that I don’t believe I’ve mentioned before was the tastes and conversation of my classmates at Burnage High School. My Fifth and two Sixth Years coincided with the development of the Progressive music era – we didn’t call it ProgRock back then, not at my School at any rate. I was an eavesdropper on these conversations about music, short of close friends and completely ignorant of the music they would talk about: Pink Floyd, ELP, Genesis and Focus. Nor, without any LPs to lend, was I included in the circle of borrowing, and my nascent but un(in)formed enthusiasm for Lindisfarne wasn’t going to get me far, not when one lad described them as a poor man’s version of the Incredibles and I had to ask him who this lot were: I’d never even heard of The Incredible String Band.
One way or another, I got to hear more than I now wish I had of most of these bands. Genesis were one exception and so were Focus, the Dutch progressive band formed by guitarist Jan Akkerman and organist/flautist Thies van Leer.
That was just the quirk of people’s tastes. Akkerman came with a big reputation that got thoroughly trashed by one lad who saw the band live and reported back that Akkerman literally didn’t know what he was doing, he was looking at his hands and wondering what was going on.
I knew, and liked, the two British hit singles, and the earlier acoustic guitar/flute instrumental, ‘House of the King’ but that was the beginning and end of my knowledge.
Jump to 1978, May maybe, or possibly June. I was still new to Nottingham and to looking after myself. There was a Bank Holiday and the firm’s tradition was to stay shut for the Tuesday as well: if the Courts didn’t open, why should they? It was a hot day and I had nothing planned, I was still suffering the after-effects of dislocating my right knee instead of playing cricket, and someone knocked on the door.
At work, I shared a bottom floor room with three others, two Articled Clerks of similar age to me and a Legal Executive aged about 28, called Liz. It was her. I was surprised to see her (I don’t remember how she knew my address). But she knew I hadn’t really formed any friends outside the office, and it was a gorgeous day. She was off but her husband was back in work, she’d just dropped him off, and she fancied going for a swim at Papplewick Lido: did I want to join her?
I was flabbergasted but grateful. Left alone, I’d have mooched round my little flat all day. The City Centre would have been too far to limp for my sore knee, especially coming back up the long hill. And I liked Liz, so I said yes. She waited outside whilst I washed and dressed, then took me over to their house first, where there was some work needed doing outside before she was free for our swim. I could put on one of their records whilst I waited.
There was nothing unusual or unexpected for that time. I was getting into punk/new wave, losing all my old unwanted progressive influences, and there wasn’t much to suit me so I decided to try a Focus album, Focus 3 to be exact, because I’d heard very little by them but I’d liked what I’d heard. It included a short track with the beautiful title of ‘Love Remembered’.
Like the singles I knew, this was an instrumental, a beautiful, elegiac tune played on van Leer’s flute, with a gentle, subdued picked guitar from Akkerman, fragile and sweet, to underpin it. Bass and drums were even more subdued, used as punctuation points only, and there was some sweeping sounds akin to strings that probably also came from van Leer.
It was simple, it was plain, it was beautiful. There wasn’t an ounce of the Progressive to it, just a bit less than three minutes of someone playing music that meandered through their memories of love, and evoking for anyone to listen the sweetness of that feeling. Liz was happy for me to borrow the album and tape the tracks I wanted, of which there were more than just ‘Love Remembered’, but of which this was the standout I wanted to be able to hear.
At the Lido, Liz changed into a pale blue bikini that suited her slim figure and made me wish, not for the first or last time, that I wasn’t so short-sighted without my glasses. Even so, I can remember her emergence to this day. Some months later, filling in her replacement just before leaving to follow her husband to a South Coast job, she was talking about how she thought her thighs were a bit too fat,and called me as witness. The other woman smiled and asked if this was some relationship that shouldn’t be spread about, but between my obvious embarrassment and Liz’s cheerful explanation of the circumstances, the true story was established.
I’ve often wondered… but I’d have been far too unconfident to try anything on, however gently – I mean, she was married, right? Anyway I got a lovely, relaxing afternoon of cold water and hot sun, friendly conversation with a woman in a pretty skimpy bikini, and a beautiful piece of music that reminds me of a friend who was kind to me all those many years ago. Love is not all that is remembered in these notes.

The Infinite Jukebox: Lush’s ‘Ciao!’

By far the most common subject of pop and rock songs is love. Love that lifts, love that hurts, love that frustrates and, to quote my recent Warren Zevon essay, love that brings heartbreak. Ah, the break-up song, in all its myriad forms. This, my friends, is a break-up song. But it might not be quite what you’re expecting.
Given that, by the early Nineties, I was drifting away from listening to contemporary music, I’m not sure where or how I came across the term ‘shoegazing music’. I’d stopped listening to John Peel, I’d stopped buying the New Musical Express, I’d given up on Top of the Pops, I could barely recognise a Radio 1 DJ’s name, let alone their voice. But I knew the term if I had my own impression of what it sounded like.
Lush, consisting of guitarist/singer Miki Berenyi and guitarist Emma Anderson, plus a male rhythm section, had been a shoegazing band but, for their third and final album in 1996, made the leap towards Britpop. And they invited Jarvis Cocker to duet with Berenyi on one of the latter’s songs on the album.
Three singles were released off the album, all of them Top 30 hits but no higher. I don’t believe I heard any of them, but I heard that song with Jarvis Cocker, the one called ‘Ciao!’, and loved it, and I still can’t understand why that was never issued in its own right.
The idea of the song is simple but genius. Berenyi and Cocker are a couple who are splitting up, have split up, acrimoniously. Maybe they were married, certainly they lived together, and from the lyrics, though it’s never said, it’s obvious that they were passionately committed to each other, deeply involved and that when it went pear-shaped, it went pear-shaped in a very big way. Only love can spawn hatred like this.
From the very first line, the contrast in Berenyi’s and Cocker’s voices are perfect. She’s full of sarcasm and spitting fury, he’s the deadpan Jarvis we know and love, the most infuriating response to her energy and sense of resentment. Oh, I’ve been happy, they duet on the first verse, since I walked away, I never thought that I could feel as great as I do today, cos you were nothing but a big mistake and life is wonderful now that I’m rid of you.
Ok, right we get the picture, and if we didn’t, here’s Jarvis to explain a bit more, about how he must have been crazy to think he was in love with her, telling her to go to Hell, because that’s where she took him, and Miki responds with claims of how brilliant her life is, a non-stop party since she flew the coop, can’t believe that she fell for a loser like you.
You can hear it behind the words, the absolute desire to prove that each of their lives are better alone, are better than yours, you couldn’t possibly have a good life because of who you are. There’s a split verse, two lines each, bouncing blame back and forth.
The music’s unexceptional, you might almost call it functional, because this song’s about the words, and the backing only has to frame it, a brash, brisk acoustic guitar, a metronomic beat, a well-mixed bass. There’s a brief melody played on a melodica that resurfaces in the brief instrumental break and at the end of the song, and a curious middle eight where Berenyi sings in the background about how she bets Cocker still misses her and he’ll never get a girl like her again, whilst he talks through a mini-fantasia about her sitting at home in the kitchen with the curtains drawn and eating meagre meals.
Oh, but this is glorious! The invective, and the two singers’ respective approaches to delivering their lines is heartfelt and vicious, but at the same time it’s sufficiently OTT that you can’t help the feeling that both of them are trying to convince two people that they’re telling nothing but the unvarnished truth, and themselves is one of that audience.
It gets better in the second half because the pair are desperate to let the other know that their life is so much better, and especially when it comes to love, romance and, well actually, just sex. He’s met a girl who’s wonderful, really beautiful, dedicated to making him happy (without any thought of her own wishes and needs), in fact she’s fifty times the person his ex will ever be. Good luck mister, she replies, in individual words delivered through gritted teeth, she’s got it coming at her from all angles because it’ll hurt him more to know that not just every guy wants to get into her knickers but that she’s going to let them. A million guys lining up for her, her life is ecstacy, if nothing else from all those orgasms she’s going to be getting.
To end the song, Berenyi and Cocker duet again on the first verse, with a couple of minor changes, calling each other a waste of space, and ending by saying that ‘I’m over you’.
Do you believe them? I half and half do. The anger is unmistakable, even if it’s so desperately exaggerated. They’re taking their disappointment out on each other, in a near cartoon manner, but the true sadness in the song is not that what was good love has gone so bad but that the intensity of their strikes at each other are serving to ensure that the last and deepest feelings that might, in another way, be the basis for reconciliation, are being stamped out, washed out and thrown out.
There will be no Wait Till Tomorrow for this pair, no matter how much it might have been best for them. They have only themselves to blame.

The Infinite Jukebox: Half Man Half Biscuit’s ‘Trumpton Riots’

Was it really 1984?
If it had been a year later, or maybe a bit more than that, it might never have happened, to me anyway. I can’t remember exactly when it came to the parting of the ways with dear old Peely. He was certainly down to only three nights then, Andy Kershaw having been awarded Thursday night and Tommy Vance still bestriding Friday night with the kind of music I would go a long way out of my way to avoid.
But it was 1984, and I was still among the faithful and one night Peely played a song from a band from the Wirral, a five piece bunch of Scouse layabouts playing a crude, post-punk blend of short, sharp, direct songs. And it was called ‘Trumpton Riots’.
I remember Trumpton. I was old enough, or should I say young enough, to not only have watched the series when it appeared in the Sixties, and indeed to have gone through Camberwick Green before it (though the third of the trilogy, Chigley, was my younger sister’s thing: it was after my time, so to speak). The song title alone had me swivelling round to listen.
I was stunned by the combination of total improbability, the high-speed energy of the song and the lyrics. Nobody had ever thought of that before Nigel Blackwell, the singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist. All it was was mashing together the twee world of Trumpton and its denizens, and the real world of our society, with particular reference in this case to the countrywide riots that had taken place in so many towns and cities in 1981, including Croxteth in Liverpool.
Unemployment’s rising in the Chigley end of town, and it’s spreading like pneumonia, doesn’t look like going down, there’s trouble at the Fire Station, someone’s had the sack and the lad’s are going to launch a scheme to get rid of Captain Flack.
Genius. It was genius. It was Britain in the recession-hit early Eighties, the underlying anger of even those of us who were not affected by unemployment, and desolation and the Tories’ overt decision to run places like Liverpool down and not try to improve the lives of the people who lived there (not only were they Northerners but they voted Labour: they were not One of Us).
And this was being brought into the sharpest of focus by projecting them onto an idyllic country town of peaceful and content residents with no connection to real life, suddenly thrown into the same upheavals as all of us.
Someone get a message through to Captain Snort that he’d better start assembling the boys from the Fort, and keep Mrs Honeyman right out of sight cos there’s gonna be a riot down in Trumpton tonight!
What on earth were they thinking. What would Brian Cant think? But, with respect, who cared? Two impossibly distant worlds suddenly came into contact with each other, with rude energy and total lack of respect. The music might have been crude, the singing more energetic than tutored, but there wasn’t a single false note to this song.
It could easily be one glorious moment, but Nigel Blackwell was no flash in the pan. At first, Half Man Half Biscuit lasted about eighteen months, before splitting up due to ‘musical similarities’ (at the time, it was being said that the pressure of being a ‘star’ got to him and he sold his guitar). One album, a couple of singles, some riotous gigs and a sweep up album collecting b-sides, EP tracks and John Peel sessions.
My mate and I got lucky, we saw them live twice. I have seen bands where the audience sang along with all the choruses. I have been to gigs, usually in folk clubs, where the audience has joined in on the verse. I have only ever seen one band play where the audience has chanted along to the intros and the instrumental breaks.
The band came back. They come out with a new album every two or three years. Nigel Blackwell remains one of the most iconoclastic and observant lyricists around, acutely tuned into icons in a multitude of areas and able to bring improbabilities together in a surrealistic fusion that boggles even as it seems completely natural.
If I have never heard anything from the band that surpasses ‘Trumpton Riots’ (I love the melody and music of Reflections in A flat’ but it still doesn’t compare), that isn’t meant to talk down the rest of the band’s history. Sometimes, you can’t quite capture the same amount of lightning in your bottle. And nobody can hear something for the first time twice.
The shock came in 1984. I’m so glad I was stood under the right tree.


The Infinite Jukebox: Burundi Steiphenson Black’s ‘Burundi Black (Part 1)’

I’ve commented before on the paucity of instrumentals on The Infinite Jukebox, which makes it ironic to remember that they made up two of my first four singles purchased. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember if this example was the third or fourth single I bought, but if this has any significance, it was the first picture sleeve single I ever saw, let alone bought, such were the cultural wastelands of late 1971.
‘Burundi Black (Part 1)’ was a most unusual single and is still among the 10 to 15 most offbeat singles I ever bought. It actually spent thirteen weeks in the lower part of the Top 50, oscillating up and down but only ever getting as high as no 31. That week, Alan Freemen played it, for the only time, on his Sunday afternoon Radio 1 Show, Pick of the Pops, which, at the time, was the first to broadcast the new Top 30. And, to my disgust, he played the wrong side!
Let me explain.
‘Burundi Black’ began life as a 1967 sociological recording of drums and chants of twenty five drummers of the Tambours Ingoma Tribe of Central Burundi. The tape came into the possession of classically trained French arranger and musician Michel Bernholc, who recorded under the somewhat slicker name of Mike Steiphenson. Steiphenson recorded a rock soundtrack over it, using piano, guitar and clavinet.
This track was released as the A-side, as Part 1. Part 2, on the reverse, is just the original drum track, and is credited to the Tambours Ingoma Tribe. This was the side Alan Freeman played when the single was poised at no. 31, when every other Radio 1 play I heard was of the A-side. Grrr.
But what a job Steiphenson has done. The chanters and drummers are given free reign for intros and codas, and it is a full 32 seconds before Steiphenson enters with piano and clavinet. There’s a break for the drums to continue unaffected, a second, shorter sequence built on a screaming guitar, another break and then a furious final section as the three instruments pull together to their own climax, leaving the rhythmic drumming to fade things down.
The brilliance is that at no moment is there a loose spot. Steiphenson has integrated his music into the drumming as if the two components had been planned to be integral to each other, had been written in concert. And Steiphenson’s accomplishment is so perfect that if you listen to Part 2, it is complete in itself. There is no moment at which you sense anything is missing and, indeed, in nearly fifty years of occasionally playing the other side, I still cannot judge when exactly Steiphenson comes in.
The two tracks have the same basis, but they are completely separate. I think that’s a measure of Steiphenson’s achievement.
Though Burundi Black never achieved any commercial success (and the Burundi Drummers certainly never saw a penny), the sound was surprisingly influential. Several records sampled the drums including, of all unexpected people, Joni Mitchell. Adam and the Ants ripped the whole Burundi drumming off for their sound, and even the rhythm for ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’. An ‘extended’ disco remix (!!!!) was released, with ‘additional drumming’ by Rusty Egan. Rusty Egan? Additional drumming? Not in my world, thank you.
And it felt great back then, when people queried what was this odd single that had the same name as the artist, and I was able to tell them all about it. Me, who knew nothing about music, but I knew that thing!


The Infinite Jukebox: Todd Rundgren’s ‘I Saw the Light’

Like Love’s ‘Alone Again, Or’, Todd Rundgren’s record company had so much faith in ‘I saw the Light’ that they swore to keep reissuing it each year until it was a hit in Britain. They did it once, without success, and then never again. The record had its biggest success when it first came out in 1972, reaching no 35 in an era of Top Thirties.
Up to this point, Rundgren’s career seems to have been pretty obscure. He’d been a member of the late Sixties band, The Nazz, and recorded two solo albums that didn’t seem to have had any attention at all. But then, in 1972, he released his third album, Something/Anything?, a double album on which he wrote, sang and played everything. Suddenly everybody was talking about him, and everybody was talking about ‘I saw the Light’ as a perfect pop single, with base and body and an irresistible melody.
I had a bit of a habit in the early Seventies of being out of step with Radio 1 over singles that all the disc jockeys espoused and promoted, and more often than not they failed to be hits. Some of that may have been psychological: in a couple of cases, I came to love them just as much as Radio 1 much later on.
But that wasn’t the case with Todd Rundgren. I didn’t go overboard about it, and even now there’s a tiny bit of clunkiness to it that I put down to be that it’s not a band playing but one man patiently building up instrument by instrument. But I liked it, then, and when it was released the following year I welcomed it, and it’s an old, comfortable favourite still.
‘I saw the Light’ is a love song, that tells a brief story. Late at night, Rundgren (whose voice is not strong but which is perfectly deployed here), feeling something wasn’t right, sees the only other person in sight. They walk along, though he’s feeling something wrong about the whole thing, then a feeling hit him strongly, about her. And with a joyous, almost awed ring, Rundgren finds his explanation, because he saw the light in her eyes.
Isn’t that a wonderful line? Who could resist the light in the eyes of a love? To look and see the glow inside. Here is a romantic moment that roots itself in reality. Allied to the inference of another pair of Strangers in the Night, the song’s buoyancy and warmth stirs up the heart with envy.
But this is no McCartney-esque paean to love as something wonderful, without depth or flaw. Todd’s resisting, enjoying a fling and trying to run away when he finds himself getting to be more serious than a man who ‘couldn’t never love no-one’ can allow himself to be. In fact, he’s getting very confused and mixing metaphors all over the place because the little bell that began to ring in his head comes in through his eyes, when she gazed up at him, and he saw the light in her eyes.
Poor, loving girl. Rundgren wrings his emotion through a slide-guitar solo before coming back to her, penitent. He loves her best, he doesn’t say that in jest, she’s different from all the rest. Yes, he ran out before but he won’t do it any more: can’t she see the light in his eyes?
Love strikes, and love overwhelms the cynic who pretends he’s unable to love but has to admit that she means more to him than everyone and he’s no longer afraid of his feelings. A pithy love story, simple and pure, and at every step a musical joy as Rundgren invests all of himself – literally – in making this the most fun experience you can have with your clothes on. Even the slight clunkiness of the over-vigorous drumming doesn’t matter in the end, the slightly static nature of the lone musician running around keeping up with himself all the time makes no difference. The song cuts it both ways.
Once again, the Great British Record Buying Public let us all down. Imagine hearing this all day on the radio instead of ‘Blue is the Colour’, ‘Mother of Mine’ or ‘Back Off Boogaloo’ and think how much better a place 1972 could have been and if you can keep from shuddering, you have a stronger stomach than me, mate.
As the years have gone by and I passed from falling in love hopelessly to falling in love with someone who loved me back, I grew to love Rundgren’s song all the more. I have seen the light in someone’s eye that was intended for me and I know what an unimaginable blessing it is. It was missing in 1972, but it was worth the wait, and the light in my eyes could have outshone the sun.


The Infinite Jukebox: David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’

Though in 1969 I was beginning to hear some pop music, here and there, I doubt I heard David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, a number 5 hit in October, Bowie’s first hit, and his last until 1972. Of course I heard it as a Golden Oldie in the Seventies, and as a number 1 on reissue in 1975. A brilliant song, an absorbing, strange, affecting song, and a classic.
But it was more than thirty years later, in the 2000s and on Sounds of the Sixties, that I found out that the record I’d heard so many times was NOT the hit single of 1969.
Brian Matthew was running a weekly feature on One Hit Wonders of the Sixties (later changed to a much more unwieldy title to take account of some of these Wonders having had additional hits in the Fifties or the Seventies, to whit, David Bowie). When he got to ‘Space Oddity’, he played the original.
I had never heard it before in my life and I could not believe what I was hearing.
The difference between the two is extraordinary. It’s the same song, with the same structure and virtually all the same words, although the familiar version is nearly ninety seconds longer. But the original is crude and rough and weak: play the two together to someone unfamiliar with the song’s history and they would immediately identify the original as a bad cover version. In every respect, and not merely the familiarity of nearly fifty years, the re-recorded version is a massive improvement.
Bowie’s singing in 1969 is subdued and undistinguished. He’s mostly singing in a monotone, still transitioning from his Anthony Newley-influenced early style (think ‘Laughing Gnome’ if you can bear it), and making no attempt to dramatise the song in any way.
And what a song! It was a total departure from Bowie’s career to date, a space fantasy inspired by a combination of the Moon Landings and Kubrick’s 2001 – a Space Odyssey. The original version starts with bongos, the familiar fades in on a lightly strummed acoustic guitar offering no particular rhythm.
The song is a story, a story in multiple parts, told in isolated lines. The build-up to lift-off, introduced by the iconic line, ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, the deep bass organ note as the Bird lifts off, the sudden euphoria of the world’s absorption of the man in space, far above the world.
And Major Tom responds to Ground Control, stepping through the door into an experience no-one else has ever had. he’s floating in a most peculiar way, and the stars look very different to him from here, free of the atmosphere of Earth.
Different, and helpless. Major Tom is more than one hundred thousand miles, the furthest man from his kind, in an atmosphere in which he could survive for only seconds. The experience is more mystic than frightening, he’s feeling very still, he has put his full trust in his spaceship, which knows where to go, but his voice drops to a calm and level tone as he almost pleads for someone to tell his wife he loves her very much. And responds to himself resoundingly, ‘She knows!’
There’s a sudden urgency from Ground Control, signalling Major Tom, his circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me Major Tom, they plead desperately, over and again, their anxious words seguing into Major Tom’s placid tones. He’s extra-vehicular, floating round his tin can, far above the moon.
The first man in space is in nothing but space. Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing he can do… He will become his own satellite, he will never return to Earth.
The original version has virtually none of this emotionalism attaching to any of the song’s phases, and it blurs off at this point into a rapid fade over the acoustic guitar and some bongos. The familiar version bleeds off over vigorously strummed guitar, and organ and studio effects miming radio signals, the incomprehensible audible debris of empty space, as Major Tom drifts further and further away from everything we and he recognise of Earth…
An extraordinary record. I don’t know when Bowie produced the version we all know now, just that this was the only version I knew from long before its 1975 reissue. It took almost three years from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Starman’ to the true beginning of Bowie’s career as a master of music and an explorer of where we were going to be. I sometimes think that if he’d been capable of producing the familiar recording in 1969, that gap would have been greatly diminished.

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.