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.

Imaginary Albums: Lost 70s Volume 8


Lost 70s Volume 8 consists of 23 tracks. I’d acquired a few songs that fell into a mental group and which ran together, songs that hadn’t earlier been available (including one that was incredibly difficult to find). There’s a strong acoustic element to this volume and no less than three Top 10 hits, along with the by now familiar nod to punk and post-punk to see the CD out, but there’s still enough jumble to mark this out as a classic piece of Crookall curation.

This is not the original version of the compilation. After getting very sloppy in curation and including a number of tracks several times on different volumes, not to mention including too many tracks by the same artist that would be better grouped, I re-burnt the entire series, filling in spaces with tracks that had not been available when the original compilation was created.

Pure and Easy    Pete Townsend

This was a song written for the abandoned Lifehouse project, the Who version of which missed the cut when it came time to select tracks for the ‘Who’s Next’ album. Eventually, the band version came out on the much expanded CD version, but long before that was even a glimmer in the music industry’s wallets, Townsend included the track on his first solo album, ‘Who came first’. The song itself is an expansion of the final line of ‘Song is Over’ from ‘Who’s Next’, and I’ve always seen the pair of songs as a segue, despite the fact that Townsend takes a different musical turn with ‘Pure and Easy’, choosing piano as opposed to synthesizer as the dominant instrument. There once was a note, pure and easy, playing so free like a breath rippling by. If the music isn’t as ethereal as the sentiment expressed, the notion of life as music, and as harmony, is a most appealing vision. Sadly, the past tense – ‘there once was a note’ – has only grown more applicable in the years since.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_IT2JqX7jw

Tell the World we’re not in    The Peddlers

I hated this when it was on the air. Hated and loathed it. I couldn’t stand the jazzy organ, couldn’t stand the voice or the phrasing of organist/singer Roy Phillips (ex- of the Tornados), was in total disagreement with the DJs who couldn’t praise the Peddlers highly enough. If they were supposedly good, so supposedly popular, why could I not find any record of them in the top 30 (they had, actually, scored a no.17 with a song called ‘Birth’, in 1969). But who could seriously enjoy that cabaret style sound, that torturing of the organ into producing sounds that barely resembled music? Too jazz, man, too, too much like jazz. And forty years later? Even the things we hated when it came to defining ourselves have their place in our memory. And I  enjoy listening to this now.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zH33Q-bAaeY

Montego Bay        Bobby Bloom

Whether it’s correct to describe no 3 hit singles as ‘Lost’ is a debate we’re just going to have to ignore. Bobby Bloom seemed to come out of nowhere with this rich-sounding, reggae-ish paean to luxurious Jamaican holiday resorts which, in the copy I have been able to find on-line, segues deliciously into ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’. This is another one I hated at the time, but towards which I have long since mellowed. Bloom disappeared as abruptly as he appeared: I remember hearing his follow-up, ‘Heavy Makes You Happy’ a couple of times but it never sold. Nowadays, I get the same, open vibe off this record as I did Mary Hopkin’s unjustly overlooked 1970 hit, ‘Temma Harbour’. Both records make me want to be there, if only.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYYiaZcuEuk

I sure like your smile    Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort were Ian Matthews’ backing band for ‘Woodstock’, though the two sides went their separate ways almost before the single had dropped off the number 1 slot. The band stuck together, playing the same kind of hawaiian guitar dominated country rock, with impeccable harmonies. The mainstream press were mildly fascinated with him because of their hawaiian guitar player, Gordon Huntley. Huntley was 45 years old, an utterly unheard of middle-aged rocker, though he was concerned that the band didn’t get into anything heavy. After all, he wasn’t that much of a rocker… ‘I sure like your smile’ was smooth and sweet, and not only got a lot of airplay, but also got itself onto Top Of The Pops, but in that age old story tied to my Seventies’ tastes, it sold buttons. I was a very effective jinx.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHm_rlkzTTo

If I was close to you        Christopher Neal

For a very long time, I doubted whether this single had ever existed. It was invisible, unfindable, no-one else has ever heard of it, despite the many times I heard it played on Radio 1. It was almost as bad as those many years when I found it impossible to find anyone else who believed there had ever been an American sitcom called My Mother the Car (thank you 10,000 Maniacs for obliquely confirming I was not living a Rosehip syrup fuelled drug hallucination). Christopher Neal was a reasonably well-known actor, and this was a sweet, gentle, acoustic ballad of his own composition, perhaps not exceptional in any way, but I loved hearing it, and it would have been on a much earlier CD if I had been able to locate it. It’s still not on YouTube…

All Night Long        Frampton’s Camel

Another that would have featured earlier in this series had I been able to find it at the time. This was a 1973 single from Peter Frampton and his then band, in that hinterland between the failure of Humble Pie and the explosive success Frampton earned in America and here with the vigorous, enthusiastic, but ultimately bland live double album, ‘Frampton Comes Alive’. ‘All Night Long’ could very easily have fitted on Frampton’s big hit if it had come along a couple of years later for, although it still bore a few traces of the British pop traits of the Herd, it was a long way down the line towards that kind of California airbrushed pop that went so big. At least this song has the advantage of a ridiculously compulsive chorus to help it retain the mind.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H75m1MBq4Qs

El Progresso        Ralph McTell

We’re now into that sequence of acoustic songs I mentioned above, into which even Frampton’s Camel fits by feel. McTell’s single was the follow-up to ‘Streets of London’ in its puffed up, brass band commercial version that came so very close to giving him a Xmas No. 1 in 1973 – don’t we all wish now that it hadn’t been Gary bloody Glitter (some of us devoutly wished it back then). ‘El Progresso’ was a complete contrast, an up tempo, jaunty, Spanish-inflected piece about an exotic woman somewhere on an island that sounded like it was going to turn into a volcano any time soon. I had decidedly mixed feelings about the El Progresso of the title turning out to be a cigarette, but I put them behind me.

This song is not currently available on YouTube

Pinball            Brian Protheroe

Brian Protheroe, like Christopher Neal before him, was better known as an actor, but when it came to his music, he was far less mainstream than his colleague. ‘Pinball’ was a sad, slow, ruminative, stream-of-consciousness lyric about living alone in a dingy London bedsit, accompanied by a slow, walking pace acoustic guitar and some lazy, hazy, smoky sax. It got more airplay than sales but it did climb into the Top 30 and threaten to do better. If Protheroe recorded again, I don’t remember hearing it, but this was a minor moment of genius all the same and plenty of people don’t even have that.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQuCqNVdxTc

Journey        Duncan Browne

Duncan Browne’s ‘Journey’ is always bracketed in my head with Brian Protheroe. Both were one-off singles, heavily dependant on acoustic guitar, both were heavily championed on the radio, both just broke into the Top 30 and both disappeared again from commercial ken. But that’s where the similarities end. Protheroe was an actor who sung, but Duncan Browne was a guitarist, who also sang, and ‘Journey’ was a musically technical piece, beautifully played by Browne, both picking and strumming, in which the words and his singing, pleasant as it was, were more an afterthought. You can tell where the focus is and this was definitely in the playing. But Browne was seriously good, and he deserved better reward than this minor, and now all-but-forgotten hit.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8akfBqS8-Ok

The Rusty Hands of Time    Johnny Goodison

And once again, we make a musical leap into a completely different style and direction, for no better reason than that I like doing that. An abrupt and unlikely change of pace, from acoustic seriousness to big-style cabaret pop balladry. John Goodison was mainly known as a session singer, but with a powerful voice, and though there’s nothing to distinguish the song from a hundred others, something in the melody caught my fancy. I’ve never found the original single, though a version by one of the male New Seekers, gone solo, can be had on YouTube, so I have to make do with a Radio 1 session version, recorded to get around needle-time restrictions (remind me to tell you about those one of these days) which has been re-recorded a few times before finally hitting digital on a mini-disc. This came off Johnnie Walker’s lunch-time show, of blessed memory.

This song is not available on YouTube

Festival Time        The San Remo Strings

One unusual aspect of the early Seventies was the sheer profusion of oldies being re-released and turning out to be hits again. The most extreme example of this was probably Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’ which, only four years after reaching no. 1, had a second lease of chart life and got to no. 2 in 1973. Motown took advantage of this phenomenon, but then they had always done so: nearly every one of its big UK hits of the late Sixties were songs that had already been successes in America, sometimes years earlier. ‘Festival Time’ was one of these, originally from 1967. It didn’t chart over here but it was one of those many singles that, seemingly out of nowhere, were hits from artists who never followed up. It took me decades to realise that this is because they were coming from the Northern Soul scene, from the clubs instead of Radio 1. This was a sweet stringed, graceful little mover, with a ready, uptempo beat that deserved to be revived, and still does make me feel like getting up and moving, despite my knackered knees.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKprdvRIPpo

My Wife        Rigor Mortis

This comes from the same Rigor Mortis album as ‘Made in Japan’. I hadn’t heard this before buying a cheap copy of the album in the Nineties, when I would test out various types of music I’d never heard before via cheapie oldies in the vinyl section of the infamous ‘Sifters’ (yes, I too lived in Burnage, and may some time have rubbed shoulders with a Gallagher whilst working the racks). It’s basically a version of the Entwistle song that was the only non-Townsend song on ‘Who’s Next’, which is given a really muddy and fuzzy production on that album, as opposed to the crisp, clear work done on all the other tracks. This isn’t as good a version, but it’s better produced, and it did seem only fair.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sntkxdot-OI

Slalom            Mike Steiphenson

Another Mike Steiphenson clavinet-funky mid-Seventies instrumental that I never quite got to hear at the time. Much appreciated, YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QISWIoNc8Yg

Love is just a four-letter word        Joan Baez

Joan sings Dylan, as opposed to singing about him. This was a 1973 single, all pure clear voice and a sitar-like spike directing the melody through Dylan’s long chain of words. I loved it, but recognised immediately that there wasn’t a hope in hell of it charting. It seemed as if there ought to be a chart in which records of quality, as opposed to commercial success, could be ranked, so I made up my own, Alternate Chart. At first a Top 20, after three months it had to expand to a top 30 and, later in the decade, even a top 40. I kept it going for ten years, exactly, a personal record of where my tastes went, week in, week out for a decade. All because of this one song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1fpDWXwfso

For You        Greg Kihn

1977 was the year of Berserkely Records. It began with Jonathan Richman and ‘Roadrunner’, and the Modern Lovers, and went on through the Rubinoos and Earth Quake, and even the enigmatic Son of Pete. It was one of the few times where I went looking for music based on the label that issued it. Greg Kihn was the last of these, earnest, energetic, a little bit more grown-up than the rest. This single was an edited version of the track on his first album, a Bruce Springsteen song with the start chopped off, so that it began with the words, ‘I came for you.’ Berserkley ended up existing for Kihn’s sake alone, but nothing he did later equalled this glorious little fireball.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahW-aWBAUK0

Me and the Elephant        Gene Cotton

Another track from those late night, sit up until 2.00am sessions on Piccadilly Radio, another American hit that made no impact in England. It’s a sweet, lost love song, with lyrics that have a bit of a gimmicky twist. It begins with a trip, one sunny afternoon, to the zoo with a girl. A year later, she’s moved on, and he’s missing her something chronic. Everyone says to forget her, to write her out of his life, though he can’t bring himself to get rid of all her photos, or even a few it sounds like. One of them was taken that day at the zoo. So he pays another visit, walking round the cages. All the animals have forgotten her, except for the Elephant. And him. We’ll never forget you. And neither can I.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-aiOjPVxNqY

Time in a Bottle        Jim Croce

Jim Croce died in a plane crash in 1974, another premature death from a singer-songwriter who’d already shown himself possessed of a great talent that showed signs of only getting better. He left behind a handful of songs, first amongst which is this wistful, heart-breaking track about preserving memory to relive it again. I loved it from the first time I heard it. Sometimes I wonder if, in this song, I recognised the future that was waiting for me. It had no personal meaning for me back then, but it still brought me to the edge of tears when I tried to join in on this. There never were enough times to do the things I wanted to do once I found them. This song remembered for me before I had the memories.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dO1rMeYnOmM

Gaye            Clifford T. Ward

This record was a hit, a gentle, soft, beautiful ballad that reached the top 10, written and sung by a fragilely beautiful long-haired man who was a schoolteacher by day. I doubt you’ll ever understand just how disorienting it was for me to love a song that everybody else was into at the same time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnn7tIE8Wq4

I’m a Believer (Peel Session)        Robert Wyatt

The idea of Robert Wyatt, avant-garde drummer and singer, veteran of jazz-rockers Soft Machine and his own Matching Mole, covering a Monkees song – and their only UK no. 1 at that – was completely absurd. But he did, and he produced a stunning version of it, and he got into the top 30 and on to Top Of The Pops. Where the fairy tale took a bit of a nasty turn, as the nation who were buying this new version got to see Wyatt rocking backwards and forwards in a wheelchair. Top Of The Pops’s very MOR producer Robin Nash opined that it was all in very bad taste, to which Wyatt retorted that as he was going to be in that wheelchair for the rest of his life, the audience could stand seeing him for three minutes. Now I’m 60, I can understand, if not entirely agree, why the sight of Wyatt in his chair might be off-putting. But it was a great version, and this is the Peel Session version of the single, which is just Wyatt, a piano and some enthusiastic scat singing to boot, which is almost as good.

This version of the song is not currently available on YouTube. Have the actual single – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMtU_cgSifo

Fighting for Strangers        Steeleye Span

Steeleye Span had a brief moment in the commercial sun  from 1973 – 74, with the beautiful ‘Gaudete’ and the deliberately poppy ‘All Around my Hat’ (a heavier, more Fairport-ish version of the traditional song ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ intervened but scored neither plays nor sales). That seemed to be it: not many people were impressed with the direction ‘All Around my Hat’ took – at least one future member agreed to join only if he was never called upon to play that song – and the band immediately rowed back from that excess. ‘Fighting for Strangers’ came along in 1976. It didn’t sell, but it struck the air, with Maddy Prior intoning the chorus line, to a tune strongly reminiscent of the hymn, ‘To be a Pilgrim’ in contrast to the more percussive, dissonant words sung by Tim Hart. It’s still original now.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JI3vRaTg0tI

Silver Star            The Four Seasons

Everyone thinks of the Four Seasons as a Sixties band, the New Jersey sound, those great harmonies built around the voice of Frankie Valli. But those of us who were there for the Seventies remember their second life, with such dance-oriented songs as ‘The Night’, ‘Who Loves You’ and the classic no. 1 ‘December 1963 (Oh What a Night)’ This is the one that everyone forgets, the last hit of this brief run, the summer of 1975, acoustic guitars and distant horns, a western in song, with hero and stallion. It could have done without the slow section in the middle, but that’s a minor quibble, because it was a fantasy of a song and it should be more firmly fixed in everyone’s heads.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lK-vHc5sE48

White Mice            The Mo-dettes

So we near the end of another Lost 70s compilation, with the usual couple of late Seventies tracks that are not actually punk but which would not have existed but for the irruption caused by that much-maligned genre, and the explosion of independent labels. The Mo-Dettes were an all-girl group, one of whose members married Mike Barson of Madness, which is the sum total of my knowledge of the band. And ‘White Mice’ is the sum total of my knowledge of the band’s music, a bouncy, jerky, ramshackle, upbeat little number that never rises above the ephemeral, but then again never aimed to be anything but.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0JCoMYpiA0

Money                The Flying Lizards

And we end with the Flying Lizards and their solitary hit single. This was the band’s second single, and it followed the formula of their debut, another cover, this time of ‘Summertime Blues’. Deliberately flat, tinny instrumentation, minimal and flattening out the actual tune until it’s almost negligible. Add to that a flat voice, more speaking than singing, and you have an individual, utterly bizarre approach that, to be honest, couldn’t hold up for longer than two singles. Thankfully, this was the second one, and in its way, it was a work of genius.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUfwoKZaU80

And then there were none…


This year’s sweep of the great and the good, the famous and the talented, continues unabated. The latest to pass on, at the age of 73, is Andy Newman, better known as Thunderclap, for his heavy-handed piano style.

You know which record I’m thinking of, of course. Something in the Air. Lock up the streets and houses. Speedy Keen, Thunderclap Newman and Jimmy McCulloch, plus Bijou Drains, who played bass and arranged the strings, and brought together a  roadie/chauffeur, a GPO Engineer and a 15 year old guitar hero.

McCulloch died in 1979, aged 26, of heart failure brought on by morphine and alcohol abuse. Keen died in 2002, aged 56, also of heart failure, after years of problems with arthritis. And now Newman, aged 73, through causes undisclosed, has followed his two colleagues.

They were never really a band, just an artificial assemblage created as a vehicle for Speedy Keen’s songs. I tell myself that. And then I listen to Something in the Air again, and I don’t give a damn. Once upon a time they recorded that, and now there are none of them left. I don’t want to think of that now. I want them to still be as they were. When this was.

Hand out the arms and ammo, we’re gonna blast our way through here…

 

Is that what it’s really about? The Who’s I’m a Boy


This is an occasional series in which, inspired by their being played on Sounds of the Sixties, I pick apart the lyrics of a big Sixties hit record for the real meaning concealed behind the seemingly innocent lyrics.

Well, would you credit it? Just last week, Brian Mathews gave me an excuse to talk about the Who’s less-than-subtle ‘Pictures of Lily’, leading to a comment about the fact that I’d have another piece to write when they got round to playing the band’s ‘I’m a Boy’, a number 2 in Britain earlier the same year, and it’s only the penultimate track on today’s programme.

Like ‘Pictures of Lily’ and to an even greater extent, this song is even less of a double meaning. It only goes and sets things up in its first verse in a way that only the deliberately naive could mistake. There are these four little girls, you see, called respectively Jane Marie, Felicity, Sally Joy and Bill.

And this little girl is not the tomboy kind who runs around in dungarees, Wilhemina who’ll only answer to Bill. No, this is the real thing. The other (little girl) is me – and I’m a boy.

And a very confused little girl, sorry, boy, is Bill (I’m a headcase) as his mother practices making up on his face (just how little a girl is he supposed to be?), dressing him up in skirts and filling his hair with hairpins. But Bill’s insistent that he’s a boy, and it’s just because his mother refuses to accept that she has given birth to a child made of snips and snails and puppy dogs tails, and insists on him living the life of the one that’s made of sugar and spice and everything nice (yeah, right, has anyone here ever had a younger sister?)

At least Bill has a clear image of his natural, as opposed to his enforced gender and wants to spend his time doing manly – sorry, boyly – things: cricket on the green, riding bikes across the stream, cutting himself and seeing his blood, getting muddy. But instead, whilst the other little girls are putting on frocks, plait their hair, painting their face, he’s being forced to wear a wig.

It’s all very cheerful and upfront and in that sense jokey, so that people don’t really stop to recognise that Townsend is writing about enforced transvesticism, the abusive enforcement of an unnatural gender identity upon a child, with the inevitable long-terms psychological effects, and that’s not necessarily a laughing matter, or even a sing along with the chorus one, come to that.

But the ultimate joke might be that Townsend is burying a genuine issue beneath this seemingly absurd setting. For we only have Bill’s word for the fact that he’s a boy and not a girl all the time, a girl perhaps suffering from body dismorphia and desperately seeking to escape from her own physical form into a fantasy of being a boy, or potentially being transgender.

So what does lie beneath the superficial surface of this song? And what more serious issues might lie beneath the superficial surface below the surface? Some songs are never as simple as they sound.

The Infinite Jukebox: Something in the Air


Expect there to be a lot of Sixties music on the Infinite Jukebox. I might have missed the decade musically, all but the last ten days of it, but I listened to Radio One throughout the Seventies, and one couldn’t do that without developing a pretty detailed grasp of the music of that era.
Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ was a three week number 1 in the summer of 1969, a classic One Hit Wonder from a band that took its name from perhaps the least important member, and which wasn’t really a band at all. Indeed, I doubt I ever heard the single at the time, and I first got to know it well by taping it off Terry Wogan’s show, back in the day when large swathes of Radio One’s airtime was still being shared with Radio Two, and he cut the song well short, as he usually did back then: try listening to a song all the way through on Wogan’s show. But I loved the song, and I was one of the few who wanted to hear more from Thunderclap Newman, and in a poll for the greatest number One single of all time, this has my vote firmly in its back pocket.
Though they toured, briefly, as a five-piece, Thunderclap Newman were effectively a three-man operation, though ‘Something in the Air’ was recorded as a four-piece, with a guy named Bijou Drains on bass and arrangements. Well, for this recording he was named Bijou Drains, though most people knew him as a boiler-suited, arm-swinging guitarist with a big nose, who wrote songs for the Who under the name of Pete Townsend. And there were those who were convinced that Thunderclap Newman were a pseudonym for Townsend.
But there was an Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman, who was a jazz-loving piano player, with a heavy pair of hands, who worked as a GPO Engineer, dressed like someone twice his age, and refused to get into the music business because he wanted to make sure of his Post Office pension.
And there was Jimmy McCullogh, who was from Glasgow and could play guitar like both an angel and a devil, which was seriously impressive since he was only 15.
And there was John ‘Speedy’ Keen, drummer, singer with an extraordinary nasal whine, rock’n’roller, Who roadie, Townsend’s chauffeur, best mate and Best Man at his wedding. Speedy wrote songs. He was the only guy outside the band to write an original song that The Who had recorded. And Townsend wanted to showcase his mate’s songs, one of which was ‘Revolution’, that is, until the Beatles recorded their song of the same name, which meant that Speedy’s song had to be re-named ‘Something in the Air’.
What a title! In just four words, Keen captured something mystical, the sense of possibility, the atmosphere of change.
The words of the song are simple enough, three verses and choruses, in which only the first line changes. Call out the instigators because there’s Something in the Air/We got to get together sooner or later because the Revolution’s here. And you know it’s right. We have got to get it together, we have got to get it together now.
But the music surrounds it with the haze of summer, McCullough’s twelve-string guitar filling the air, filling the sky, Speedy’s simple yet expressive drumming controlling the movement, Thunderclap’s piano as yet an understated, rhythmic underpinning. It feels like summer, it tastes like summer, with that something more somewhere out there, beyond the reach of the senses but forever on the edge of them.
Lock up the streets and houses, Keen wails, before going on to repeat the lines we’ve already heard, his falsetto yelp filling us with anticipation and desperation both. We have got to get it together, now.
Then the music dissolves, and as if from a different recording studio, from a different session, another song entirely, Thunderclap inserts an astonishing, tub-thumping piano solo that takes the song over, takes it somewhere else, fills the ears with mystery. The others clap, loud, the percussion for this session as the music spins and whirls into itself, the sound dying down as the strings begin to soar, such a soaring, louder, higher, more insistent than before, as McCullough’s guitar and some understated horn rising from the mix underpin Keen’s final, pleading howl. Hand out the arms and ammo, we’re going to blast our way through here. The time’s come, the moment when it depends on faith, courage and despair, when we decide who wins and where history will go next.
And you know it’s right.
Again and again, the horns spiraling, we have got to get it together, we have got to get it together. Now.
And then it ends (though it didn’t that first time, when I taped it off Wogan, who faded it at the end of Newman’s implausible solo). Did we win? No, not in real life. But in the four minutes of genius that Speedy Keen wrote and Pete Townsend constructed, the Revolution is still alive, the summer is hot and the air is pregnant. All we have to do is to get it together. Now.

 

Is that what it’s really about? The Who’s Pictures of Lily


This is an occasional series in which, inspired by their being played on Sounds of the Sixties, I pick apart the lyrics of a big Sixties hit record for the real meaning concealed behind the seemingly innocent lyrics.

This one’s a bit of a cheat. Hell, it’s a lot of a cheat, because we’re not here talking about something that, suddenly, strikes you as being not entirely what it seems on the surface, because ‘Pictures of  Lily’ has always been what it seems on the surface, and those lyrics have never been what you would call seemingly innocent.

Still, I’m sure it must have fooled some people at the time it came out, and it must have fooled the BBC – which has always been more than a bit naive when it comes to pop lyrics: how on Earth did ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ get through? – otherwise it would never have gotten on the air in the first place.

“I used to wake up in the morning/I used to feel so bad” sings Daltrey, introducing the topic in an initially innocuous fashion. “I got so sick of having sleepless nights” he complains. What ails the poor lad? Is he in need of Alka Seltzer to settle an upset stomach? Should he try a feather pillow in place of a flock? What can dear old Dad do to help his unfortunate child cope with this tricky attack of insomnia and, incidentally, just why are The Who singing a pop/rock song about insomnia in the first place?

But this is not a song about a medical disorder, although the world is pop is full of songs about lovestruck fellows unable to sleep because their baby don’t love them any more. No, wise old Pop immediately diagnoses both disease and cure. Dad sticks something on the wall, and sonny boy is instantly cured. Just what is this miraculous remedy? (No, it’s not Medicinal Compound).

They are, in fact, the titular Pictures of Lily. They make the lad’s life so wonderful, they help him sleep at night, they solve his childhood problems, and, best of all, they make him feel alright. And how do these undescribed photos perform this tremendous feat? They make his nights not “quite so lonely”.

Can you guess what it’s all about yet? Because if you can’t, you’re really not trying. I apologise for being so brutal about it but what Daddy has done to relieve his firstborn’s nocturnal deficiencies is to provide him with at least quasi-pornographic photos so that he can wank himself to sleep. Yes, that is what it’s really about.

Unfortunately, these pictures of Lily end up causing more problems than they, er, relieve, since the poor semen-splattered kid only goes and falls in love with this lust object. Still, he is not without ambition because, despite his youth, the lad wants to meet this fully grown, no doubt fully developed lady, and this is where Townsend pulls his nasty little switch, because Lily is no longer with us, indeed she’s actually been dead since 1929, that is, thirty-seven years before her pictures came in so handy.

Which leads us to the inevitable, although unwelcome speculation about just how the lad is going to fare if his sexual drive has been so fundamentally linked to the styles, tastes, body-shapes and furtive porn of the mid-Twenties, or even earlier. Even though this song seems to be a single-entendre schoolboy gag, instead it contains hidden psychosexual depths, and would appear instead to be a tragedy. We shouldn’t laugh. And we really shouldn’t wonder just what those pictures of Lily really looked like.