I love this dirty town

This photo of Oxford Street at night is absolutely gorgeous. I can’t tell you who took it or when because I can’t remember where I got it from (anybody know?) Judging by the cars I’d say it was the early 60s but I’m no expert on those things. The way the lights reflect and glisten on the cars makes the city look as glamourously noir-ish as the New York of “Sweet Smell of Success.” England’s capital hasn’t been overly romanticized and turned into a visual cliche the way the Big Apple and Paris have so it’s nice to see it presented as poetically cinematic as those cities usually are. If you want to see a movie that photographs London as stylishly as this, watch the fabulous “Night and The City” which was filmed on location in the city in 1950.

Truth be told, Oxford Street is about the least romantic place in London, it’s always way too crowded for my liking and the shops are mostly dull chains. The street lost whatever interest it had when Stanley Green (otherwise known as “The Protein Man”) died in 1993.

(I’m going to spread my wings a little with this blog and occasionally just post an image I like (I have a lot) without musical accompaniment, it just so happens that time I have a song that goes with the picture.)

Download: Oxford Street – Everything But The Girl (mp3)
Buy: “Idlewild” (album)


My Mother’s records

My mother had a big collection of 45s that she kept in our living room sideboard, they were in bloody awful condition because for some reason she always threw away the sleeves they came in and just stacked them up like plates. Another thing she always did was write her name on the record label, often actually sticking it on a piece of paper (see above). Apparently this was so they didn’t get stolen when she took them to parties, she told me she lost a Sammy Davis Jr. album that way. I never knew she hung out with such shady characters.

There was a definite Spanish/Latin influence in the “adult” easy pop of the 60s and among my mother’s 45s were records by Jose Feliciano, The Sandpipers, Sergio Mendes, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Herb Alpert. Like a bottle of Mateus Rosé, this music brought a flavour of international jet-set sophistication into the lives of the first English generation for whom “abroad” and “Italian Restaurant” weren’t just places rich people went. Sadly, nowadays “adult” music means the likes of Sting and Norah Jones, the only place they want to take you is a Starbucks.

Chris Montez’s 1966 hit “The More I See You” is a record I’ve known by heart seemingly my entire life, and is probably the song I most closely associate with my mother (and I’m ever so slightly freaked out to realize that she was only 31 when it came out). It isn’t that overtly Latin, but it has the warm, sand-between-your-toes feeling of being in some exotic beach paradise and Montez’s light voice has an almost feminine quality which adds to the air of sexy languor. From those opening xylophone notes I picture my mother back then, looking like Dusty Springfield with her blonde hair and heavily made-up eyes, in a brightly-coloured mini-dress and a Cinzano Bianco in her hand.

Download: The More I See You – Chris Montez (mp3)
Buy: “Call Me: The A&M Years” (album)

Doing It To Death

“The hardest thing about being James Brown is I have to live. I don’t have no down time.” – James Brown

He was 73 years old, but the news was still a huge shock. James Brown was a guy you almost expected to live forever, he was so much bigger than life you thought he would be bigger than death too. There’s no way I could even begin to capture the man in a crappy little blog post so I’ll just give you my favourite record of his as a tribute. “Cold Sweat” came out in 1967 but still sounds incredibly alive and vibrant today, 7.25 minutes of astonishing – no other word for it – genius.

Our normal programming will resume tomorrow.

Cold Sweat (Parts I & II) – James Brown (mp3)
Buy: “Foundations of Funk: A Brand New Bag 1964-1969” (album)

I Believed in Father Christmas

I don’t remember ever actually believing in Father Christmas (that’s “Santa Claus” to you Americans) but I imagine I must have done at some point – I wasn’t born a sour old git you know. I do remember being a bit scared of him though, there was something about that big, bearded guy in a red suit going “ho ho ho” all the time that made me nervous when I was a little kid. I think my vague fear dates back to the first time I was taken to see “Father Christmas” at a department store (Barker’s in Kensington I think it was) and the sight of this strange man in red sitting at the end of a long, dark tunnel (which I assume was supposed to be his grotto) frightened the life out of me.

The first single I ever bought was a Xmas record, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard. But great though that was it’s not my favourite of the genre, it’s “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake. Usually I’d rather have hot knitting needles stuck in my eyes than admit to liking anything by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but I adore this 1974 solo single by their singer/guitarist – and I mean that in a completely non-ironic way, I really think it’s beautiful. I’m a sucker for this kind of grand ballroom pomposity, sometimes a record can’t have enough orchestration for me and this has mountains of it (even if it does rip off Prokofiev.) Though it sounds as pretty as a snowflake, the song itself is harshly cynical about the commercialization and exploitation of Christmas.

I usually have a bit of a “bah humbug” attitude about the yuletide season myself because I detest phony sentimentalism, especially the kind that’s just trying to get you to spend more money. You drown in that crap in America at this time of year and my wife thinks I’m a curmudgeonly old grinch because I’m always complaining about it but I’m not really, I prefer to think of myself as a sentimental idealist. But now that I have a newborn daughter I think I’m going to start seeing it through her eyes and it will regain some of that lost magic for me. And that’s what this song is all about.

I wish you a hopeful christmas
I wish you a brave new year
All that anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there’ll be snow at christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
Hallelujah Noel, be it heaven or hell
The christmas you get, you deserve

Merry Christmas everybody.

Download: I Believe In Father Christmas – Greg Lake (mp3)

My all-time favourite record, age 14

If Nick Hornby is right and the defining characteristic of the music geek – apart from sneering contempt for other people’s musical tastes – is the obsessive making of lists, then I became one at the tender age of 14. For it was then that I first put pen to paper and breathlessly compiled a list of my 10 All Time Favourite Records. I actually don’t remember what nine of the songs on that list were but the coveted Number 1 slot was given to “Tightrope” by the Electric Light Orchestra.

ELO were the first band I was really nuts about. I bought all their albums and singles, read everything I could about them, memorized all the lyrics, wore the underpants, and they were the first band I saw live. For a long time that was the sort of thing you were supposed to be mildly ashamed of, but they seemed to have attained a little hipster cachet recently what with “Mr. Blue Sky” (I’d kill to still have my blue vinyl 45 of that) being used in trendy movies, and bands like The Flaming Lips and The Delgados clearly owing them a sonic debt. So I was 30 years ahead of the curve there.

But I digress. “Tightrope” is the opening track of their 1976 album “A New World Record” which is probably their shining hour, and at the time this seemed to me to be as perfect as music could get. It’s a pretty simple tune but Jeff Lynne’s production treats it like it was the Sistine Chapel and achieves the rare feat of merging Pomp Rock with Blue Eyed Soul. It starts off with a huge symphonic fanfare of strings and choir so over the top it would make Cecil B. DeMille blush, then segues into a jaunty and insanely catchy pop tune with some female backing singers that give it a touch of soulful sass. I always wondered who those girls were, ELO never credited them on the album.

A year or so after this came out I had my head completely turned by punk (I was a little late to the party) and it suddenly seemed a bit naff – it just couldn’t compete with “All Mod Cons” — so I filed ELO away with my Marvel comics and flares as artifacts of a previous life. But like a lot of things from the past it’s gone through the window marked “naff” and come back in again sounding not all that bad, quite good in fact. Probably wouldn’t make my Top 50 today (no, I don’t have a Top 50 written down) but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Download: Tightrope – Electric Light Orchestra (mp3)

What a sauce!

It isn’t exactly breaking news but I just found out that Heinz, who now own the company which makes HP Sauce, has moved production of the world’s greatest condiment to Holland after over 100 years in Birmingham. That’s another British icon gone.

This just the sort of thing that makes ageing ex-pats like me get all Blimpish and fogey about the horrible modern world. It probably won’t taste any different (Heinz had better not mess with that) but my tongue won’t feel quite the same nostalgic and patriotic tang when I bite into a sausage sandwich garnished with it’s spicy brown goodness ever again.


(Image above from the wonderful Brown Sauce site.)

In a flowerpot, on the whatnot

“The lower middle class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras – they lived by the money code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money code as they interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had kept their standards, their inviolable points of honour. They ‘kept themselves respectable’ – kept the aspidistra flying. Besides, they were alive. They were bound up in the bundle of life. They begot children, which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.
The aspidistra is the tree of life, he thought suddenly.”
George Orwell
Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936)

The Aspidistra plant was a ubiquitous prescence in English homes from the Victorian era through to WWII, it’s popularity mostly due to it being impossible to kill no matter how much you neglected it and able to practically grow in the dark which made it perfect for drab and pokey English sitting rooms. In Orwell’s novel it symbolizes dull bourgeois taste and the “parlour palm” was so pervasive it became an emblem of aspiring middle class respectability, bringing a touch of colour to otherwise humdrum lives. Like the flamboyant spider plant in the bohemian 70s and the angular Yucca in the designer 80s, the Aspidistra meant something more than mere home decoration – it’s the plant for people who “know their place.”

Cementing it’s position as a national icon, the plant was also the subject of the very popular 1920s song “The Biggest Aspidistra In The World” by Lancashire lass Gracie Fields. Gracie was born over a chip shop in Rochdale which sounds like the sort of thing Monty Python would make up for some comically working class character (but it’s true) and went on to become the most famous and highest-paid entertainer in England, if they’d had pop charts back then I would have called this a monster hit. This is a very funny song about the jolly japes that result from the plant being crossed with an oak tree – so it’s also a warning of the dangers of genetic engineering. Though the references to Hitler and Goering must mean this isn’t the original version, but you can’t beat a song that takes the piss out of Adolf too.

Download: The Biggest Aspidistra In The World – Gracie Fields (mp3)
Buy “Northern Sweetheart” (album)
Photo from “We Are The People” (book)

Grim all over

Just how bleak were the 1970s in England? Well, we had a miner’s strike that brought down the government, power cuts that plunged homes into cold darkness, a 3-day work week, bombs going off in pubs, the Winter of Discontent, the National Front, a bankrupt treasury, and “Love Thy Neighbour” on television. No wonder brown was the dominant color for home decoration back then, very appropriate for a country totally in the shit.

Things were so grim that even our shiny pop stars were making depressing movies. First there was pretty boy David Essex dying of a drug OD at the end of “Stardust” and then Slade came up with “Slade In Flame” in 1975. Given their image as fun-lovin’ glam bovver boys who wrote simple, dyslexic songs, you’d expect a colourful “Help!”-style romp but what you got was a gritty, cynical kitchen-sink drama about the rise and bitter break up of a Northern rock band. Though it had it’s funny moments it was generally as dour as an old Yorkshireman at closing time. If Ken Loach made a rock and roll movie it would have been like this. I only saw it once and remember liking it but my best friend at school was a Slade fanatic and claimed to have seen it 13 times.

The movie’s theme “How Does It Feel?” was another bitter pill and is probably the only time you could ever use the word “plaintive” about a Slade record. I think this is one of the best singles of the 70s, a reflective, melancholy ballad built around some very non-Slade things like piano and flute and a massive wall of brass. There’s something about that brass sound that reeks of leather coats and dirty pavements, I can’t really explain why. Much as I love their mindless headbanging numbers this gem shows that Noddy Holder and Jimmy Lea could write proper songs – with proper spelling too!

The British public didn’t warm to Slade as serious artistes, the movie wasn’t a big smash and “How Does It Feel?” was their first single in three and half years that failed to make the Top 10, so they reverted back to being cartoon characters and stayed that way ever since. Shame. a few more songs like this and their reputation could have been very different.

Download: How Does It Feel? – Slade (mp3)
Buy: “Get Yer Boots On: The Best of Slade” (album)

What’s all this then?

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
L.P. Hartley
The Go-Between (1953)

There used to be this tiny little old sweet shop near where I lived in London that was like some relic from a previous era. It was a dark and dingy place that rarely had any customers, run by an old lady who lived in the back of the shop. Behind the counter on it’s old wooden shelves stood a few big plastic jars of Cough Candy, Bonbons, Kola Kubes, Acid Drops and Lemon Sherbets which were sold loosely in plain paper bags, a quarter pound at a time. When I was a kid all the sweet shops in England sold candy like that but the reason I always remember this shop is it carried on doing it this way well into the 1980s when that old, slow, and terribly English way of doing things was being swept away by the radical new broom that was Maggie Thatcher. As the area around it gradually became more gentrified and swanky with the other shops replaced by tapas bars and estate agents there it stood, looking increasingly lonely and forlorn with its peeling paint and dirty windows, a shabby museum of an England that was fading into history. Those few jars of sweets seemed to be the only stock the shop had left as if the old lady was hanging on until the last Cough Candy was sold. It eventually died sometime in the late 80s and I think there’s a hair salon on the spot today. I know it would make this story better if it had been replaced by a McDonald’s or Starbucks but life isn’t always as neatly symbolic as that.

So what does all this have to do with the price of fish? Well, this blog is sort of like that sweet shop: a time capsule of the past, a melancholy little place stocked with tatty old crap and a musty air of wistful nostalgia for a vanished time and place. This will be a lot more personal and idiosyncratic than The Number One Songs In Heaven (it’s a local shop for local people) and some of you might be a bit shocked how rubbish my taste in music was and still is at times.

I assume most of you know the title of this blog comes from Jilted John’s eponymous 1978 single. Its classic line “I was so upset I cried all the way to the chip shop” is one of the quintessentially English pop lyrics, a mopey melodrama sung in a runny-nosed voice as wet as a Bank Holiday in Margate. It’s silly and pathetic but also quite poignant, turning mundane miserablism into something romantically tragic as much as weeping over a dying old sweet shop does. A friend of mine thinks that one line was the inspiration for Morrissey’s entire oeuvre.

Download: Jilted John – Jilted John (mp3)
From: True Love Confessions (album)