The Infinite Jukebox: John Keen’s Old Fashioned Girl

I can’t remember if I actually heard Thunderclap Newman’s ‘Something in the Air’ when it was a hit in 1969. I remember hearing it being spoken of as the BBC’s number one, as if that were something special or unusual, as if it belonged to the BBC in some way, and passing on that snippet at the bus stop one afternoon, waiting to go home from school.
I do remember when I first recorded, off Terry Wogan’s afternoon show, back when Radios One and Two merged, with Wogan cutting it off after the piano break (never did like playing records all the way through did our Tel). I remember the belated follow-ups, ‘Accidents’ and ‘The Reason’ (which I thought was called ‘There’s a Reason’, and which I played to death) and hating the fourth and last single, ‘Wild Country’.
The next I heard was that the band had split. Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman recorded a solo album in 1971 that I’ve still never heard, and the next year, Speedy Keen released this song as a single.
Or rather John Keen did. He’d gone under his long-established nickname for the credit for ‘Something in the Air’, and everyone who would have been interested in his music (except the unknowing like me) would have recognised him as Speedy, but here he was going by his given name, and the ads in the pop papers having to make the link for us.
Under either name, the song didn’t get much airplay, but enough for me to hear it and determine to buy it. It’s a good, smooth rock song, with a swooping chorus, some effective screaming guitar and two instrumental breaks, one played on a solo acoustic guitar and the other on piano.
The following year, Keen came out with a solo album on which this was the first track. There was still some confusion over the name he should bear. The CD reissue has Speedy, as do the later printings of the sleeve, but my copy was early enough that it bore the name John Keen, albeit with a silver ‘Speedy’ sticker at at awkward angle across the name.
For the album, Speedy’d added some rather weak brass to the first break, and strings to the second. I got used to that, and foolishly, when I was trying to thin down my collection by disposing of duplicated records, I got rid of the single. Over the years, I came to regret this.
Much time and effort was expended in the eBay era trying to get hold of the single, so that I could re-hear the pure version. To my dismay, I learned that there had obviously been different pressings, one with the album mix, one with a hybrid mix where the strings vanished but the brass remained. Getting hold of a pure version became an obsession.
At last, I found a copy. The same day I agreed to purchase a checked and correct pressing, the original single version appeared on YouTube and I downloaded it.
Music’s a bitch sometimes.

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…


A Stillness Falls…

Except for December each year, when A Fairytale of New York makes its annual pilgrimage, I pay virtually no attention to the British Pop Charts. It is many long years, indeed decades, since the music was of any genuine interest to me (which is as it should be), and except for December, it’s exceedingly rare if there be one track on the top 100 with which I’m even passing familiar.

I like it that way.

But old habits die hard, especially ones that you’ve been nurturing since 1970, and I still check the chart every week, eve though it is a list of titles and artists that are practically meaningless to me. Admittedly, since they brought the date forward to Friday evening, as opposed to Sunday, I’m late in ‘catching up’ more often than not. I’ve only just checked this week’s chart, and it makes for some interesting reading.

Number 1 for a third week is Mike Pozner and ‘I took a pill in Ibiza’. I realise that I could, at any moment, go on YouTube and access this, and any other song I chose, but I have no intention of doing so. The mere title suggests all manner of things horrible to my ear, and I’m not concerned to learn what diference there may be to my prejudices.

What causes me to write is something other. Pozner’s been at no. 1 for thtree weeks, and before that one Lukas Graham was top for five weeks. In fact, we’re now in April, and there have only been five no. 1s all year thus far. There were only twenty-three in the whole of 2015, as opposed to thirty-seven in 2014, thirty-five in 2012 and thirty-five again in 2010.

Alright, that proves nothing of itself, given that the alternating years each produced less than thirty, but there’s more evidence to consider. For a second successive weeks, there are no new entries directly into the top 40. In fact, the highest new track is at 61, and the next at 84. There are five further entries between 91 and 100, but three of these are re-entries.

And taking the top 40 in isolation, there are only two ‘new entries’, and the lower of these, at 38, is a re-entry. Only Meghan Trainor, at no 30, is actually new to the top 40.

It gets worse: there are joint highest climbers, at 26 and 11, both of which have only risen seven places, and the fastest faller is at 36, down 9. Practically the whole top 40 has changed places since last week by three places or less.

Now, I may not be interested in the contents of the chart, but I remain fascinated by its mechanics. In 1970, when I first grew interested, the charts – then a top 30, that expanded to a 50 – were in a static phase: no new entries directly into the top 20, long-running no 1s (four consecutive no 1s took up twenty weeks in the summer/autumn, and one of those only lasted one week).

But even those staid days were volatile compared to what I’m seeing here. And the comments under the Chart on its official website make it plain that the natives are growing restless.

There is seemingly a simple answer: the inclusion of streaming in creating the charts. One commentator alleges that record companies are exploiting a new form of manipulation, paying people in call centres to stream certain songs 24 hours, and that this will soon be exposed publicly. Most people are blaming the increasingly unchanging charts on the inclusion of streaming, and calling for a return to sales only.

According to one source, The Pet Shop Boys’ latest single, ‘The Pop Kids’, a self-referential song I’ve actually heard, when I can’t be arsed to switch off Radio 2 after Sounds of the Sixties and run on into Graham Norton’s Show, is at no 2 in the Physical Chart and in the mid-90s on the Sales Chart (which I assume is the one that adds in the downloads) but is yet to appear in the top 100.

If this is correct, it’s hardly surprising. The moment chart music was unhitched from purely physical formats, the Music Industry lost control. People were no longer restricted to only what was printed. Deleted singles ceased to have any meaning. To buy a physical copy of my beloved ‘Something in the Air’ in a record shop. I have to go hunting in second hand shops and stalls. But I can download it any time I want, as often as I want.

Enough of us, responding to, say, its use in a popular TV drama, can send it back into the Charts without any record company being able to stop us.

But the smothering of new music, even if it isn’t what I want to hear, in this fashion isn’t good for music. Nor was the breaking down of the single, when an enthusiastic fan base can download an entire album’s track-listing into the Chart, at once, by concerted purchase of individual tracks.

I shall watch developments with interest. Pop doesn’t do standing still very well. It’s something about the genes, as opposed to the jeans.

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.