My Mother’s Records

Following the example of Sailor you’d expect a band called Dr. Hook to have wooden legs and parrots on their shoulders, but apart from the one guy with an eye patch they didn’t dress up like pirates. Shame, I think they missed a marketing opportunity there.

Their first big hit was “Sylvia’s Mother” in 1972 when they still had “…& The Medicine Show” in their name and long before they polished themselves up and struck gold with bouncy, slick hits like “Sexy Eyes” and “When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman.” The song tells the story of some poor chap trying to get through to his ex-girlfriend on the phone before she leaves town but her damn mother won’t put her on and to make matters worse the telephone operator keeps coming on the line asking him to put more money in the slot. My mother loved this sort of domestic melodrama — I think she imagined Sylvia’s mother standing by the phone in the hallway wearing her dressing gown — and she also worked as a telephone operator herself (first for the GPO and then at the BBC) so she got a kick out of being such major player in a pop record. Far as I know no one has written a song that mentions graphic designers so she’s one up on me there.

This was written by poet/author/musician/cartoonist Shel Silverstein who wrote all their early material (as well as Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”) and I’ve read that it’s meant to be a parody of weepy teenage heartbreak songs which makes me like it a bit less if true, especially as they ended up recording such bland mainstream rubbish themselves later in their career — who are they to be taking the piss out of sappy pop records, the smug hippie bastards. If they were having a joke someone should have told them that one of the greatest things about pop is that it can be emotionally overwrought to quite a silly degree (eg: The Shangri-Las) but still be brilliant and moving.

So whatever their motives it still works as a pretty good little dramatic pop record, it doesn’t matter if the emotions are cheap or if the lead singer get a bit too blubbery when the operator asks him for 40 cents more, please — if anything that makes it even greater.

Download: Sylvia’s Mother – Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show (mp3)
Buy: “Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show” (album)


Turkey and Telly

I’m off to spend Christmas week with the in-laws in rural North Carolina which is a long way from England in more ways than one so I thought I’d recreate the English Christmas Day experience here, at least the television part of it.

First off is the Christmas edition of Top of The Pops, essential viewing for us youngsters while the grown-ups were either in kitchen roasting a turkey or down the pub in their new jumpers getting lightly sozzled. This one’s from 1973: Slade, Donny Osmond, and Tony Blackburn in the most horrendous tank top. Poptastic!

Then it was time for the Queen’s speech. Put down that fork, stop eating and stand to attention everyone.

After everyone had got stuffed to the tits with pudding and pies, Uncle Dave had drunk a whole case of Double Diamond, Gran was on her third Sherry and Dad was lighting up a Henri Winterman’s cigar, it was time for the whole family (and the whole nation) to crash out in front of the telly and watch the Morecambe and Wise Christmas show.

And don’t forget the Quality Street…

On the radio it wouldn’t be Christmas without the obligatory seasonal pop records as stars big and small tried for the much-coveted Christmas #1 spot in the charts. I always thought this Elton John one was a cracker (pardon the pun), though it only got to #24 in 1973.

Download: Step Into Christmas – Elton John (mp3)

Merry Christmas everyone, hope you and yours have a good one. See you in a week.

Half Empty

“This is where England most truly excels: in all the characterful shabbiness of its drizzled parks, soiled launderettes, frayed tailors, abject chemists, sparse barbers, bare foyers, dun pubs, weary Legion halls… and cowed solitary cafes.”
Britannia Moribundia

One of my favourite Simon & Garfunkel songs is “America” especially the part where it builds up to a crescendo and they sing “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they’ve all come to look for America” which just sounds incredibly romantic and makes you want to jump into an open-top Chevy and drive off into the sunset looking for your dreams. The thing is, I’ve driven on the New Jersey Turnpike and it’s just a pot-holed, congested stretch of motorway the same as any other, the only thing I saw people looking for on it was the right exit. But even knowing that the line still sounds wonderful and makes my heart sigh.

But if the song was set in England and they sang “counting the cars on the North Circular” instead it just wouldn’t have the same effect, would it? Whatever the truth is, Americans romanticize their reality in a way that we don’t. When you think about Route 66 it isn’t just some road that goes to California, it’s a life-changing journey of freedom and discovery. But when Billy Bragg uses the same tune to take the “A13 Trunk Road To The Sea” the English locations just sound dismal and pathetic in comparison — which I guess is the point of the song, but it’s still sad that it is funny. Has anyone ever had the urge to quit their job, hit the road, and go chase their dreams in Shoeburyness? The one English “road” song I know that tries for that classic American sense of freedom is the lovely “Driving Away From Home” by It’s Immaterial which almost manages to make English motorways sound romantic, but even they can’t resist being terribly British at the end and burst their own rose-tinted bubble by singing “I mean, after all, it’s just a road.”

Download: America – Simon & Garfunkel (mp3)
Download: Driving Away From Home – It’s Immaterial (mp3)

The truth is, we (Brits, that is) don’t look at life and see endless bright horizons and dream big dreams, we’re a gloomy, glass-half-empty kind of people and who find idealistic American positivity a little embarrassing and phony. Americans, bless their hearts, do still say things like “you can be anything you want to be” and believe it (despite evidence to the contrary) because they’re happily unburdened by history while we’ve had way too much of it and frankly can’t work up the enthusiasm for anything anymore as a result. We built an empire and won a bunch of wars and now we just want to put our feet up and enjoy England’s plucky failures.

Our pop laureates prefer to pick at the scabs of England than construct some romantic fantasy, looking at the dirt under the carpet and the gloom behind the net curtains, singing about miserable people living on dead end streets waiting in the rain for a bus that never comes. So while Bruce Springsteen makes the seaside resort of Asbury Park seem like some mythological eden of golden boulevards teeming with a rich tapestry of life, the English equivalent (Southend maybe?) only makes you think of grey, rainy Bank Holidays and Morrissey’s coastal town they forgot to close down. The kids in Brucie’s Little Eden might be working class good-for-nothings but he still makes them sound movie-star glamourous compared to the feral adolescents in a song like Pulp’s “Joyriders” — if Springsteen wrote that he’d give them romantic nicknames and treat nicking cars as some metaphor for glorious youthful rebellion. In Jarvis Cocker’s hands they’re just petty nihilistic criminals “so thick we can’t think of anything but shit, sleep and drink.”

Download: 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) – Bruce Springsteen (mp3)
Download: Joyriders – Pulp (mp3)

These days the stubborn refusal to “have a nice day” feels like a defiant poke in the eye of today’s noisy, amped-up consumer culture (created by America, of course) which bangs you over the head with its global franchises, useless gadgets, trashy television, and blinged-up celebrities. In the face of that, being miserable old bastards may be the last thing we have to hold on to that’s truly ours.

Download: We’ll Let You Know – Morrissey (mp3)

It’s the way he tells them

I went to see Richard Hawley live last night who was very, very fine indeed. He looked as good as he sounded too, like a greaser Hank Marvin and was playing the most gorgeous Gretsch guitar. He also told a very funny joke I thought I should pass on.

I went to the doctor and he told me to stop masturbating.

But why, I said, I love it.

Because I’m trying to examine you, he replied.

Good huh? If the music thing doesn’t work out he can always do stand-up. I don’t hear that many jokes these days, at school I heard great new ones everyday but boring old adults don’t bother as much. Where do jokes come from anyway, who makes them up?

Anyway, in case you can’t tell I’m still really busy at work and will be until next week. In the meantime here’s a lovely little number from Mr. Hawley, the Roy Orbison of Sheffield (or maybe he’s the Bernard Manning of rock and roll).

Download: Can You Hear The Rain, Love? – Richard Hawley (mp3)
Buy: “Late Night Final” (album)