Showroom Dummy

It was easy to knock Gary Numan (he ripped off David Bowie, voted Conservative, and stared meaningfully at little pyramids on his album sleeves) and knock him I did. I used to have a Saturday job in the record department of a WH Smith’s in the late 70s/early 80s when Numan was the biggest thing since sliced bread. One day these two teenage girls came in dressed up in full Numanoid regalia — black military jackets, black eyeliner etc. — and bought one of his records. While serving them I gave a condescending little smile and told them how Numan was just a Bowie rip-off and if they only heard “Low” and “Diamond Dogs” they’d realize where he got his whole act from and see the error of their ways. Even though it was only a WH Smith* and I was wearing a brown blazer I was still the sort of insufferably smug twat you can get in real record shops. Not surprisingly they ignored me, all they did was come in to buy a record and they got a lecture from the four-eyed wanker behind the counter (did I mention I was wearing a brown blazer?)

What I didn’t tell those young ladies was that I owned a copy of the Tubeway Army single “Down In The Park” and loved it (still do.) This came out before “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” made him a star which could be another reason why my snobby 17-year-old self thought it was OK, it was never tainted by the charts (or young girls buying it in WH Smith’s). Thankfully I grew out of that attitude long ago.

Download: Down In The Park – Tubeway Army (mp3)
Buy: “Replicas” (album)

*I say only a WH Smith’s but the staff were mostly young music nuts like myself and we were often the only place on Putney High Street that had things like the new Jam single in picture sleeve (most important) so we used to get a lot of Mods and Punks coming in. I first heard “Unknown Pleasures” while working there too.

My Mother’s Records

I’m surprised it’s taken me so long to get to Frank Sinatra when delving into my mother’s record collection. Talking about her taste in music and leaving out Ol’ Blue Eyes is like a history of art that doesn’t mention Michelangelo. He was the untouchable King as far as my parents were concerned (“Come Fly With Me” was played at my Dad’s funeral, that song won’t sound the same ever again) and my sister and I were indoctrinated at an early age with a love of all things Frank. I probably knew all the words to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” when I was still in nappies and just seeing the sleeve of “Songs For Swingin’ Lovers” sends me on a Proustian rush into the past.

Sinatra was something of an anachronism by the late 1960s, a hero to the older “square” generation who spent most of the decade trying to stay relevant which led to horrors like his cover of “Mrs. Robinson” (count yourself lucky if you haven’t heard that.) But one very smart move he made in 1967 was to jump on the bandwagon for all things Brazilian and Bossa and make an album with Antonio Carlos Jobim. The combo of Sinatra’s elegant phrasing with Jobim’s gentle, sun-kissed songs resulted in what I think is the coolest record ever made (in the truest sense of the word), immaculate and poised right down to it’s cufflinks. The greatest thing about Sinatra’s singing was how he never rushed a song, even uptempo ones. Try and sing along to one of his records and you’ll soon find yourself overtaking him as he hangs back, savouring every syllable of the lyrics. With Jobim he slows down to a mellow and languid crawl, his voice barely above a whisper. But I can’t describe the record any better than how the sleeve notes did:

“It had begun like the World Soft Championships. The songs, mostly by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Tender melodies. Tender like a two-day, lobster-red Rio sunburn, so tender they’d scream agony if handled rough. Slap one of his fragile songs on the back with a couple of trumpets? Like washing crystal in a cement mixer.
Seemed like the whole idea was to out-hush each other. Decibels treated like daggers. The arranger tiptoeing about, eliminating some percussion here, ticks there, ridding every song of clicks, bings, bips, all things sharp. Doing it with fervor matched by Her Majesty’s Silkworms.”

As I’ve mentioned before my mother was a big fan of all the Latin-flavoured adult pop around at the time so Sinatra making a record with Jobim was a match made in heaven for her and this got heavy play on our old mono Bush record player. Aside from lovely Jobim tunes like “How Insensitive” the album has a few Bossa-fied versions of old standards like Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate On You” which drips with the sleek ambience of a jet set lounge. When those flutes play you can almost hear the lights dimming and the clink of ice cubes dropping into heavy glasses of Jack Daniel’s.

Download: How Insensitive – Frank Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (mp3)
Download: I Concentrate On You – Frank Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (mp3)
Buy: “Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim” (album)

Bonus feature: This clip of Sinatra singing “The Girl From Ipanema” with Jobim is just too wonderful for words. Watch and learn kids, this is what cool really looks like.

Early Closing

This photo of a fabric shop on Petticoat Lane is from the wonderful book “Shutting Up Shop” by photographer John Londei which is a beautiful but very sad time capsule of the traditional small British shop. Sadly these little oasis of local, individual English character are vanishing and being replaced by chains and megastores.

There was a Chemist shop just like this round the corner from us when I was a kid with wooden shelves and glass cabinets laden with rows of powders, potions, syrups in heavy brown bottles, and Lucozade wrapped in orange cellophane. Apart from the chemist we had a butcher, a greengrocer, a proper old sweet shop, a haberdasher, a grocer, and even a cobbler. They’re all closed now and my mum does her shopping at a big Waitrose. Peter’s Fish and Chips was still there last time I looked though, going strong (I hope) after what must be more than 30 years in business.

I wrote about shops like this in the very first post on this blog and much as I try to avoid going the old fogey, “things were better in my day, lad” route sometimes I can’t help it (anyway, they were better).

Not an entirely relevant song, but close enough.

Download: Portobello Road – Cat Stevens (mp3)
More photos here.

The Jingle Jangle Morning

“Boy, it began to rain like a bastard. In buckets, I swear to God. All the parents and mothers and everybody went over and stood right under the roof of the carousel, so they wouldn’t get soaked to the skin or anything, but I stuck around on the bench for quite a while. I got pretty soaking wet, especially my neck and my pants. My hunting hat really gave me quite a lot of protection, in a way, but I got soaked anyway. I didn’t care though. I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe kept going round and round. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going round and round, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.”
J. D. Salinger
The Catcher In The Rye (1951)

I don’t remember how old I was when I first read “The Catcher In The Rye” (I still have my old Penguin Modern Classics copy which cost 30p) but I was the type who identified with Holden Caulfield and still am in a lot of ways. Holden was a clever, sarcastic kid who wasn’t very good at games and was prematurely cynical about the world but had a sentimental streak a mile wide. He was a teen rebel but not in any wild, Jack Kerouac, James Dean, living-on-the-edge, rock and roll sort of way. He loved childish innocence and just wanted adults to be honest and nice which makes him more of an indie-pop sort of rebel, the patron saint of quiet boys who start fanzines in their bedrooms, make mixtapes for pretty girls, or form cute indie bands. Orange Juice made his influence apparent when they put out records on a label called “Holden Caulfield Universal” but if they were to make a movie of the novel I’d nominate The Pale Fountains to supply the soundtrack. Edwyn Collins had Holden’s sardonic humour but Fountains’ lead singer Michael Head captured his wistful yearning and fragile sensibility.

Download: Just A Girl – The Pale Fountains (mp3)

In my movie version of “Catcher In The Rye” I can imagine The Fountains’ lovely second single “Thank You” bursting out like fireworks over the climactic scene with Holden’s little sister spinning around on the carousel while he breaks down in tears at the transcendent beauty of it all. With it’s soaring crescendos of strings there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.

Download: Thank You – The Pale Fountains (mp3)

By the time their debut album “Pacific Street” finally emerged in 1984 they had competition from new bands like the even more bookish and precious Prefab Sprout (who wrote songs based on Graham Greene novels). Flop though it was, the album did produce their best ever moment in the majestic single “(Don’t Let Your Love) Start A War” (which was called “You’ll Start A War” on the album). This is the extended 12″ version which is even more epic and not available on CD anywhere far as I know.

Download: (Don’t Let Your Love) Start A War (12″ version) – The Pale Fountains (mp3)

Bonus feature: I saw The Fountains live supporting Orange Juice (God, I wish you could’ve been there) when their second album “From Across the Kitchen Table” came out. As you can see from this video for the single “Jean’s Not Happening” by then the group were into leather jackets, ripped jeans, and motorbikes, but even with loud guitars they still sounded like nice boys.

London’s Burning

Before rap became the designated voice of black youth — or “the black CNN” as Chuck D called it — the black experience in England was best expressed through Reggae, particularly the records of poet Linton Kwesi Johnson who read his angry rhymes in a heavy patois over skanking music provided by producer Dennis Bovell’s Dub Band. Unfortunately the black experience in England wasn’t all that great.

If you were a young black man in England during the late 70s and early 80s you probably felt like you were living in a police state instead of Jolly Olde Blighty. The hated “Sus” law gave the police the power to stop and search anyone they suspected of having committed a crime (or be about to), a power they mostly used to hassle young black men on the street time and time again. Also notorious were the uniformed thugs of the Special Patrol Group, a “elite” mobile unit of the Metropolitan Police whose idea of combatting crime and civil disorder was smacking people about with their truncheons (or killing them in the case of Blair Peach.) No wonder many Reggae songs of the era referred to England as “Babylon.”

Download: Inglan Is A Bitch – Linton Kwesi Johnson (mp3)

The combination of this heavy-handed policing with chronic unemployment made England’s inner cities pressure cookers that could blow at any minute. There had been a riot at the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival where the police had to defend themselves with dustbin lids from a hail of bricks and bottles thrown by black youths (which inspired The Clash to write “White Riot”) but far worse was to come. The shit really hit the fan in 1981 when Brixton exploded into one of the worst riots the UK had ever seen. Over a weekend in April cars and buildings were set on fire, the police were attacked with petrol bombs (the first time those had ever been used in England) and fire engines were attacked when they tried to put out the flames. By the end of it the place looked like a war zone.

A school friend of mine who joined the police force told me he was on duty in Brixton during the riot and had to spend the night in a police minivan parked near the “frontline” on Railton Road. When he woke up some of the other coppers had written “NF” in the condensation on the windows (but backwards so people outside could read it.) Lovely bloke, the good ol’ British bobby.

It wasn’t so much a race riot (white kids joined in the action too) as an anti-police, anti-state “uprising” fed by anger at the state of the nation: 2.5 million unemployed, crumbling inner cities, poor housing, and a Prime Minister who gave speeches about the country being “swamped” by alien cultures while giving the police a huge pay rise.

Download: Di Great Insohreckshan – Linton Kwesi Johnson (mp3)

1981 turned into a a long, violent year as riots broke out all over England, from Handsworth in Birmingham, to Toxteth in Liverpool (that was a bad one), and Moss Side in Manchester as well as smaller incidents in other cities. I remember one night back then news went round that a riot had broken out in Fulham where I lived, it just turned out to be some kids having a fight outside McDonald’s but it shows how on edge the whole country was. In one of those rare moments of pop culture capturing the zeitgeist The Specials “Ghost Town” got to number one in July that year, it’s eerie sound perfectly reflecting the tense, nervous state of the nation:

This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry

It happened all over again in 1985 with more riots in Brixton and Toxteth, but the worst was at the Broadwater Farm estate in North London where a policeman was hacked to death. Race relations in the UK have improved in lots of ways since then, but as the Stephen Lawrence case showed, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Buy: “Bass Culture” (album)
Buy: “Forces of Victory” (album)
Buy: “Independant Intavenshan: The Island Anthology” (album)

Goodtime George

One of the Greatest Living Englishmen is sadly living no more: George Melly died last week. Jazz singer, author, critic, art expert and, above all, larger than life character of the sort they just don’t make any more. I only saw him live the once at one of his traditional Ronnie Scott’s Xmas shows and he was wonderful.

“Old Codger” is a bawdy number he recorded with The Stranglers that came on a free EP included with their 1978 “Black and White” album. It may seem an odd pairing but George was a punk long before there was such a thing as “punk” — and he was a smutty old bugger too.

Download: Old Codger – George Melly & The Stranglers (mp3)
Read: “Owning Up” (book)
Read (if you can find a copy): “Revolt Into Style” (book)

Queen of The Scene

I always think of Steve Harley as the bloke who chewed gum while he was singing on Top of The Pops. Others probably only think of the one song — “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)” — but he did actually have a couple of other hits with his band Cockney Rebel. “Judy Teen” was their first hit single, hitting the chart in 1974 when they were an arty and vaguely glam band. To call this Bowie-esque would be an understatement, Harley puts on the same theatrical vocal mannerisms and the lyrics could be from an “Aladdin Sane” track, but it’s still a great single.

Download: Judy Teen – Cockney Rebel (mp3)
Buy: “The Human Menagerie” (album)

What’s for tea?

This might get a bit confusing for non-Brits so pay attention. If you’re English and a bit common (like wot I am) you might refer to your evening meal as “tea” instead of dinner, and you might call your midday meal “dinner” instead of lunch (which is why the women who serve lunches in our schools are called Dinner Ladies). “Supper” used to mean a light meal eaten late at night and is only used now by the upper classes and middle class people with pretensions, unless they’re Scottish in which case they could be referring to a fish supper from the chip shop which they eat at dinnertime. All clear?

I don’t think I ever had toast and marmalade for tea, when I was a kid it was usually Fish Fingers or Spam Fritters with chips which we had to cook ourselves because mum was at work. We had it tough you know.

Download: Toast and Marmalade For Tea – Tin Tin (mp3)

If you think this sounds like early Bee Gees that’s because it was produced by Maurice Gibb in 1971. Read more about Tin Tin here.