Regrets, I’ve had a few

When you were a kid did you ever think about how old you’d be in the year 2000? It seemed so far away and unreal (science fiction was set in the year 2000) but all the times I thought about it I never wondered about what I’d actually be doing at that age. Even when I grew up, in job interviews I couldn’t answer the question “Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?” because I’ve never had A Plan or been one of those people who think “I want to be doing this by the time I’m 35″ or “I want to have that by the time I’m 40.” I’ve met a few go-getters who actually think about their lives like that (mostly in America) but they’re not the sort of people I’d want to have a beer with.

Last year I became a father for the first time and the year before that my own father died so it’s been a life-changing couple of years. The only piece of fatherly wisdom my Old Man ever passed on to me was that if you keep doing good work and don’t piss off too many people along the way then positive things will happen and life will work itself out. He said that when I was going through a rough patch and it meant a lot to me at the time, especially as he wasn’t the sort of father who usually passed on sage life lessons (are any fathers like that?) So that’s pretty much what I’ve done, and with no plan and no goals things have worked out very well indeed. The Old Man was right, I just wish he could have met his beautiful granddaughter.

The reason for this indulgent navel-gazing is that today is my 45th birthday. I gave up being bothered by birthdays after the trauma of turning 30 (that was painful) but 45 does feel like a big one, like I really, actually am middle-aged now. I’m not going to suddenly turn into a misanthropic old git complaining about the bloody kids today and their stupid music, how crap movies are now and how the the whole of Western culture is going down the toilet — because frankly I’ve always been like that, my nickname at college was Alf Garnett. But I don’t want to be 18 or 25 again, I’d have to care about things like iPods and video games and text-messaging and think Green Day were really good or something too. No thanks.

Just to prove I’m still alive and interested in new things, not always looking over my shoulder at the past, here’s a record from a current band I saw live recently. The Clientele don’t pop up very often on mp3 blogs for some reason but I think they’re wonderful.

Download: Isn’t Life Strange – The Clientele (mp3)
Buy: “God Save The Clientele” (album)


Light Entertainment

It’s a Saturday night in the early 70s and I’m lying on our brown shag carpet in front of our fake-wood, black and white television rented from Rediffusion. I’m waiting for The Two Ronnies and Match of The Day to come on, but first I have to suffer through light entertainment shows like The Black & White Minstrels and Seaside Special with dance numbers performed by The Young Generation and musical guests Demis Roussos, Dana, Lena Zavaroni, and Peters & Lee singing their #1 smash hit “Welcome Home.”

Peters & Lee were an odd couple. There were rumours (which my mum mentioned everytime they came on the telly) that blind Lennie Peters had been friends with the Kray brothers in the 60s and with his craggy face he looked more like a tough George Sewell type hard man, put him in a sheepskin car coat and you could imagine him on The Sweeney telling some slag to shut it or he’ll break his kneecaps. Dianne Lee on the other hand looked like the glamourous wife of a young stockbroker, passing around the sausages on sticks at suburban cocktail parties.

Posting this I feel like I’m testing the limits of nostalgia’s power to put a golden glow on things. Lennie did have a rather good, husky and Charlie Rich-esque voice but it’s drowned in a sea of easy listening strings and backing singers and Dianne must have been there purely as eye candy because her voice hardly registers. I can’t help but hear it through a filter of memories which makes me more kindly disposed toward it, but strip all the baggage of the past away and it’s left alone in the cultural Dead Zone of early 70s Light Entertainment television and that’s a dreadful place to be — it’s all brown and Mike and Bernie Winters live there.

Download: Welcome Home – Peters & Lee (mp3)
Buy: “The Best Of Peters & Lee” (album)

Close your eyes and think of England

There are few more beautiful places on this Earth than the English countryside on a hot summer day (we do get them occasionally you know.) When we were kids my sister and I used to spend two weeks every summer staying with out auntie Carol in Derbyshire where we’d fill our days cycling along dusty country lanes, fishing for sticklebacks in shady streams, picking berries, and generally being happy-go-lucky youngsters frollocking about England’s green and pleasant land, getting grass stains on our knees and stung by nettles. All that was over 30 years ago and my memories of those days are very hazy so it probably wasn’t anywhere near as utopian as it sounds, but my heart still swells when I see rolling green hills and I drift off into a wistful reverie of long ago perfect summers.

Elusive as butterflies though those moments are, Virgina Astley tried to capture them on her 1983 album “From Gardens Where We Feel Secure” which evokes the hazy, lazy glow of a pastoral English summer day with ambient piano instrumentals that float along like dandelion spores, dressed up with field recordings of chirping birds, church bells, creaking garden gates and baa-ing lambs. It’s as precious as little cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and really nothing more than wallpaper music (classy Laura Ashley wallpaper though) but when I hear it I get all dreamy and reflective and have an urge for a cold glass of Robinson’s Barley Water.

It could just be my advancing age and sentimentality but I always thought there was a heavy sadness underneath the pretty surface of this record. Not just because even the most perfect summer day has to come to an end, but there’s a yearning for an Arcadian idyll that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did. Yes, even on a perfect summer day we English can find something to be depressed about.

Download: A Summer Long Since Passed – Virginia Astley (mp3)

On My Radio

“Blinded By The Light” is one of those great 70s pre-punk singles that sounded brilliant coming out of a transistor radio during the summer holidays, getting you all revved up like a Chopper bike. For some reason I always think of Dave Lee Travis playing this, it’s a very Smashey & Nicey sort of record — big, overproduced, glittery, and made by men with hairy chests wearing Foster Grants.

As you probably know it was written by Bruce Springsteen and I’m not saying it’s a bad song but the lyrics are stupendously ridiculous, the convoluted ramblings of a young man who thinks that if the words are obscure enough they’ll sound like poetry — doctors call this condition “Dylan-itis” — so it’s full of nonsense like “Dethrone the dictaphone, hit it in its funnybone” and “little Early Burly came by in his curly wurly” that you need a code-breaking machine to decipher. The genius of the cover by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band is it sounds so fabulous you don’t notice that what they’re singing is daft bollocks. They set their Moog controls for the sun and flew right past the lyrics to create an epic that’s overblown and trippy in an Old Grey Whistle Test sort of way. To me back in 1976 it sounded like a space ship taking off.

This is the mega 7-minute version where they throw in everything but the kitchen sink from a big cosmic guitar solo to a bizarre bit when the piano player breaks into “Chopsticks.”

Download: Blinded By The Light – Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (mp3)
Buy: “The Roaring Silence” (album)

(I don’t have anything particularly insightful to add to the pile of tributes to Tony Wilson, as usual Marcello Carlin said it all better than most.)

You’re not going out dressed like that

I was going to start off this post by complaining that Scars 1981 album “Author! Author!” had never been reissued and what an injustice it was that this post-punk classic was seemingly lost forever. But the discovery that it actually has now opened up a whole contradictory can of thoughts I didn’t expect.

While I suppose it’s good thing that such a great record is available again (and I’m sure the band members won’t mind the royalty cheques) but seeing it there on that Amazon page made me wistfully sad that yet another artifact from the analogue past had been repackaged, catalogued, digitized and canonized. Does everything have to be reissued and become yet another shiny thing to add to the ever-growing pile of shiny things we already have? Are there any dusty corners of rock history left to be cleaned up, and isn’t it more interesting and romantic if some things stay lost and aren’t dragged into the digital era with the grubby fingerprints of history wiped off them? This deluge of reissues from the post-punk era (how strange is it to see the unholy racket of The Pop Group getting the deluxe remastered package treatment) makes me think my generation has become like the old geezers buying Eric Clapton box sets in the 90s, except now the “market” is for a part of my own past that managed to remain obscure and underground for so long. I’m probably not making any sense, having a record collection is like being the curator of a museum of your own memories and we all have a complicated and highly personal relationship with our bands and music. But I digress…

…what I really wanted to talk about was the outlandish gear the band wore on the album cover. As you can tell from the photo above Scars never went in for the dour, grey shirt and old overcoat look of most post-punk bands and were a bit more flamboyant. Those outfits made them look more like Duran Duran than the spiky art rockers they were, but from Danny LaRue to David Bowie and Boy George the British have a long tradition of entertainers wearing ridiculous clothes so if they wanted to look like gay Aztec pirates that was fine with us — I saw them live supporting Pauline Murray & The Invisible Girls and don’t remember anyone laughing. It’s easy to mock now but back in 1981 Spandau Ballet were on the telly dressed in kilts and off-the-shoulder cloaks and Adam Ant was poncing around looking like a cross between Dick Turpin and Geronimo so it was perfectly normal for a band to look like that. Apparently the outfits were designed by Glen Matlock’s wife and were supposed to reflect the garish graphics of the album’s Rocking Russian-designed sleeve.

Scars could have been contenders, they were more tuneful, sexier and less deathly serious than Echo & The Bunnymen or U2 (yes kids, there was a time when U2 were a post-punk band) but fell apart after just the one album when lead singer Robert King went solo. But If your band is going to only make one album it should be a great one that old geezers like me are still talking bollocks about over 25 years later, and “Author! Author!” is one of those. I guess you should all go buy the CD then.

Download: The Lady In The Car With Glasses on and a Gun! – Scars (mp3)
Download: Leave Me In Autumn – Scars (mp3)

Delta Lady

“I fell in love with Bobbie Gentry when I was five years old, and I’ve been looking for her ever since.”
From the “Ode To Billie Joe” album sleevenotes

I’ve always had a major preference for brunettes, from youthful lusting after Raquel Welch to my beautiful wife, and I think it may have all started with Bobbie Gentry. Somewhere in the back of my mind are vague memories of her (probably from the BBCTV show she had in the late 60s) that I think are at the heart of my love of raven-haired women in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. I can easily see how I could have been in love with her as a boy, she was like an exotic version of those home-grown girls Dusty, Cilla, Petula, and Sandie, a foxy bombshell with a big bouffant of lustrous dark hair who looked like a cross between a Southern beauty queen, an astronaut’s wife, and the impossibly glamourous mother of the kid next door. Even the name “Bobbie Gentry” evokes something wonderful, it’s somehow both sexual and soothing at the same time, like corduroy and rhinestones, lust and apple pie, honey and bourbon.

But while I was having childhood fantasies of being tucked up in bed by her, Bobbie was making wonderful records. When I later bought a few of them on vinyl (partly on a nostalgic whim but also because of sleeves like the above. I mean, how could you not buy that?) I was pleased to discover that behind the big hair and va-va-voom red pantsuit was an incredibly talented woman who wrote gorgeous, baroque pop songs that mixed country, folk and soul which she sang in a husky, seductive voice. The closest equivalent sound I can think of is “Dusty In Memphis” with the difference that Bobbie wrote and produced most of it herself. She should be thought of as one of the great female singer-songwriters and maybe if she’d been as ugly as Janis Joplin she’d have gotten more respect and recognition, but none of the five albums after her 1967 debut “Ode To Billie Joe” sold that well and she ended up doing Vegas and a variety show on British telly.

But don’t take my word for it, here’s a little pick ‘n’ mix of some Gentry tunes I especially love. With the exception of the funky “Mississippi Delta” they’re on the soft and ornate side, just try listening to “Mornin’ Glory” without melting into a pool of mush.

Mornin’ Glory – Bobbie Gentry
Mississippi Delta – Bobbie Gentry
Seasons Come, Seasons Go – Bobbie Gentry
Casket Vignette – Bobbie Gentry

This is a great clip of her singing her biggest hit “Ode To Bille Joe” which sounds even better than the recorded version. Lots more Bobbie goodness at YouTube including duets with Johnny Cash and Donovan.

Bobbie pulled a Howard Hughes in the late 70s and vanished from public view. She hasn’t been seen since and fell so far below the radar her albums weren’t even in print for many years. Some of them are now available on two-fer CDs and there are a few compilations including this new one put together by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne. Though I think “Chickasaw County Child: The Artistry of Bobbie Gentry” is the one to get.

Wherever Bobbie is now I hope she still has that red pantsuit. I like to think of her wearing it while she’s in the kitchen baking me an apple pie.