Something for the weekend

I have a stinking cold at the moment which has rendered me temporarily incapable of writing an interesting sentence so I’ll quickly drop this on you. A while ago I wrote about how much I adored Pauline Murray. Well I loved her so much I even bought this single, a country and western duet she recorded with Peter Perrett of The Only Ones. Were they trying to be the post-punk Tammy Wynette and George Jones or something? Strange, but rather sweet.

Download: Fools – The Only Ones (featuring Peter & Pauline) (mp3)


Sing, Lofty

I wonder who it is who comes up with the idea for records like this? I imagine some cynical record exec at home one night, watching the sitcom “It Ain’t ‘Alf Hot, Mum” and a light bulb going off over his head and pound signs flashing in his eyes when he heard actor Don Estelle sing. If Telly Savalas and David Soul could make records – and have number one hits with them – then why not this little bloke? It’s a very popular show and at least he can actually sing. Even better, what If we roped in this other actor bloke Windsor Davies to do his Sergeant Major bit on the record too? Ka-ching!

Mr. Record Exec wasn’t wrong either, this went to number one in 1975 and sold a million copies. Back then the charts were full of this sort of silliness, not just the aforementioned TV cops and sitcom stars, but comedians, disc jockeys, football teams and school choirs were having hits. A lot of these novelty records then inspired parody versions which also became hits, it was a like a never-ending cycle of idiocy. If I was being churlish I’d say it was records like this that made punk happen, but I can’t find it in my heart to hate it, I even find it rather charming and part of me thinks it’s great that a fat little bloke in a pith helmet could top the charts. I admit that I’m listening to it through the warm fog of nostalgia but it is a very pretty song (originally done by The Ink Spots in 1940) and Estelle does have a sweet, choir-boy voice. Even Windsor Davies’ silly monologues make me smile, his ridiculous, Bully Beef military voice is like a sound from another era. Do any soldiers talk like that anymore?

Download: Whispering Grass – Windsor Davies & Don Estelle (mp3)
Buy: “Whispering Grass” (album)

Back To The Future

Be Bop Deluxe always struck me as the sort of band your clever older brother would have been into in the 1970s. He liked Glam Rock but turned his dreadfully serious elder teen nose up at the fact that Bowie and Roxy had pop hits and went on Top of The Pops. Plus there were all those screaming girls at Bowie’s concerts, he couldn’t possibly take seriously someone teenage girls liked too. But “serious music” usually meant Prog Rock which was just too silly and long-haired – besides, he’d long since grown out of reading Tolkien and was into J.G. Ballard now. Be Bop Deluxe fitted the bill nicely for the clever boy with pretentions, they had the futuristic sheen of Glam but leader Bill Nelson‘s flamboyant guitar virtuosity and arty songs gave them the image of “real” musicians and put them out them out of the reach of the charts, teenage girls and Fab 208 magazine.

Nelson himself had something of the swotty schoolboy about him, his songs were full of science, robots, and rockets which makes me think he was probably the type who spent hours in the school library poring over picture books of aeroplanes. The gorgeous “Jets At Dawn” is like the “White Cliffs Of Dover” of Glam Rock, bringing the sort of swooning, romantic poetry to flying machines and war that Bryan Ferry brought to ennui and blow-up dolls.

Woke this morning the war was over
The radio was singing love songs
Saw the smiles upon the soldiers,
Coming home across the fields
The calendar said first of August
Romance and promises of summer days,
I strolled unclothed into the garden
To feel the warm sun on my face
The saving of the human race…

Jets at dawn, trail across the sky
Silver birds writing words for airmans wives
Who down below hang the washing out to dry
Frilly briefs and flying helmets in a line

I don’t know about you but that makes me sigh a very wistful sigh. Though this evokes the past with visions of old fashioned English heroism and a dream-like pastoral idyll, it’s not about anything that actually happened – sadly, no wars ever ended like this. As the saying goes, it’s nostalgia for an age yet to come, a mix of Douglas Bader and Dan Dare. Julian Cope calls it Pastoral Glam.

This is the version that was on the b-side of their independently-released first single “Teenage Archangel” in 1973. They re-recorded it on a grander scale it for their debut album “Axe Victim” but I much prefer this simpler rendition.

Download: Jets At Dawn- Be Bop Deluxe (mp3)
Buy: “Postcards From The Future” (album)

My Mother’s records

It’s my Mum’s birthday today so I thought I’d dip into her record collection again (though “collection” is probably too big a word for the scratched-up pile of 45s she kept in the sideboard and cleaned by wiping them on her dressing gown before she played them). But what have we here? Not sophisticated adult pop from the 60s, nor a maudlin 70s singer-songwriter, but… Status Quo???? Yes, my mother bought a 45 of “Mystery Song” by Status Quo.

I’ve no idea why she bought this, probably for the simple reason she liked it, though I never she was a secret headbanger. I never knew why it was called ‘Mystery Song” either but doing some research for this post I was shocked – shocked! – to discover it’s about a boy having sex with a prostitute. Whatever would Mary Whitehouse have said if she’d known? I guess that’s why it was a mystery.

Americans might not be too familiar with The Quo but they’re something of a denim-wearing British rock institution, sort of like Kiss but without the silly costumes and long tongues. They had so many hits with their repetitive brand of heads-down, no-nonsense mindless boogie they even inspired a parody record of that name.

This was a hit in 1976 and it’s easy to mock Quo for the lumpen simplicity of their records but this is an enjoyable chunky slice of hard rock, the swirly guitar at the start is even quite sophisticated for them. I’ll admit to once doing some serious headbanging to the “12 Gold Bars” album at a house party I went to when I was at school – in a very mocking, ironic way of course.

Download: Mystery Song – Status Quo (mp3)

Hallelujah, Rosie Lea

Have you noticed that when a character in an American movie or TV show is having an emotionally difficult time someone gives them a hug, while in English ones they put the kettle on? That’s because, for us, a nice cuppa is the beverage equivalent of a hug, it wraps itself around our English hearts like a warm and wet comfort blanket. More than that, it’s a drink for good times too – in fact, there isn’t a situation in the world that isn’t improved by someone putting the kettle on.

The other great thing about tea is it’s egalitarian qualities, it’s a drink for all people, from the Queen…

…down to the East End gangster.

It’s the glue that holds the nation together.

Much as I like coffee – and I mean coffee, not a skinny mocha latte or some other ridiculous thing – you’d have a hard time giving tea some poncey designer name and charging over three quid for a cup. Sure, there are your fancy teas with exotic flavours but there’s something about it which resists being turned into a hip and sexy lifestyle choice. So, in the immortal words of Ray Davies: “For Christ sake have a cuppa tea” and don’t forget the chocolate biscuits.

Download: Have A Cuppa Tea – The Kinks (mp3)
Buy: “Muswell Hillbillies” (album)

My Sister’s Records

Between 1975 and 1977 my sister went from worshipping the Bay City Rollers and the ground they walked on to thinking The Clash were the greatest thing since sliced bread. That’s quite a big leap from “Shang-a-Lang” (or “Shag-a-Slag” as we called it – what wits we were!) to “White Riot” but she didn’t make it in one bound. In between the two she had a fling with The Steve Miller Band and their “Fly Like An Eagle” album which she bought because she liked the “Take The Money and Run” single from it. There’s no logical connection between Scottish teenyboppers, American soft rockers, and guttersnipe London punks but we probably all have these “stepping stone” records as we mature and go looking in all directions for new experiences as restless teenagers are wont to do. My sister’s fellow Rollermaniac friend Sue had a dalliance with Nils Lofgren before diving headlong into punk, orange hair and bondage trousers, and I got from ELO to The Jam via Bruce Springsteen.

“Fly Like An Eagle” is actually a pretty good album, a mix of catchy, Fleetwood Mac-esque soft rock and trippy electronics – what Miller called “space blues” – held together by a lazy, hazy vibe which suggests everyone got very high making the record. My favourite track “Wild Mountain Honey” is a very pretty ballad that floats along sprinkling fairy dust as it goes. Listening to it is like sinking into a warm bubble bath. The title track is fairly well known but this is the longer album version with the dreamy “Space Intro” beginning which is all electronic bleeps and wooshes that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Tangerine Dream album. Its spacey groove makes it sound very modern today, though back then they probably used steam-powered synthesizers.

Download: Wild Mountain Honey – Steve Miller Band (mp3)
Download: Space Intro/Fly Like An Eagle – Steve Miller Band (mp3)
Buy: “Fly Like An Eagle” (album)

Queen of The Bedsits

I first saw Tracey Thorn back in 1983 as one third of the ramshackle all-girl group The Marine Girls when they were supporting Orange Juice, and you wouldn’t have thought then that this shy, doe-eyed girl with the guitar would still be around 25 years later with a string of great records under her belt and also be one of the best female singers ever to come out of England.

Later this month she releases her second solo album, a mere quarter century after the first one “A Distant Shore” came out in 1982. Back then Tracey was a student at Hull University (albeit one who had a recording contract with Cherry Red) and the album’s homey acoustic sound and melancholy, lonesome mood made it a big favourite with introspective college girls (it’s funny how many of these customer reviews mention the fact they had the album while at “uni”), finding a home on the Reject Shop shelves in their student digs alongside a well-thumbed copy of “The Bell Jar” and a poster of Robert Doisneau’s “Le Basier de L’Hotel de Vilne, 1950” hanging on the wall. It was the indie equivalent of the singer-songwriter confessional album, a generation before those girls would have had Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” on the shelf instead.

That Robert Doisneau image was used on the sleeve of the “Plain Sailing” single, the b-side of which was the gorgeous track “Goodbye Joe” which didn’t appear on the album. This was originally recorded by the (very underrated) Monochrome Set on their 1980 album “Strange Boutique” and is about Warhol “superstar” actor Joe Dallesandro whose crotch and torso grace the cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” and The Smiths’ debut. Even back then Tracey had the sort of voice that could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and her breathy, intimate vocal on this makes it sound as if she’s performing the song sitting at the end of your bed.

Download: Goodbye Joe – Tracey Thorn (mp3)
Buy: A Distant Shore (album)

Something for the weekend

This is why God invented YouTube: Roxy Music performing “Do The Strand” live in 1973. If I’d been in a band back then I would have quit and got a job sweeping roads after seeing this, no way you could top it. The band are rocking their glittery tits off, Brian Eno is doing all sorts of electronic jiggery-pokery over the top of it and – the icing on the cake – Bryan Ferry is wearing a white suit. Insanely great.

England’s Dreaming

According to surveys one of the most common dreams that English people have is the Queen coming over to their house for tea while they’re in the rather mortifying position of being naked. What Dr. Freud would tell you is this shows that an English person’s greatest anxiety isn’t death or nuclear war but being embarrassed socially, as if we’d rather die than commit a social faux pas. Wrap this peculiar neurosis up in a bundle with the Queen and a nice cup of tea and you have a pretty clear picture of the English national subconscious. No wonder Morrissey writes the songs he does.

Like the great Moz, Pet Shop Boys are masters at mining Englishness in all it’s eccentric moods to make brilliant pop art. For “Dreaming of The Queen” they took this amusing little tidbit about having naked tea with the Queen and turned it into something quite beautiful. This is an elegant, haunting song about the death of love, not just from the perspective of the Queen and Lady Diana (she was still alive at the time) but it also becomes a personal and very moving song about losing a lover to AIDS.

I can’t say I’ve ever had that dream myself, mine usually involve scoring the winning goal for England in a World Cup Final while simultaneously snogging Elizabeth Hurley.

Download: Dreaming of The Queen – Pet Shop Boys (mp3)
Buy: “Very” (album)