Glam Palace

Shopping with my mum in the 1970s usually involved dull shops like C&A, Richard Shops and British Home Stores looking at beige polyester slacks and brown nylon tank tops, but once in a while we’d go to the wonderland that was the Biba department store on Kensington High Street. Housed in the Art Deco splendour of the old Derry & Toms building, it looked like a Roxy Music album cover come to life, all mirrors, chrome, leopard skin, ostrich feathers and black walls, and with it’s dark lighting and loud rock music blaring from massive floor speakers it felt more like a nightclub than a store.

Biba started out in the 60s as a poky little boutique off the High Street selling miniskirts and skinny tops to the beautiful young things of Swinging London and by 1973 had expanded into the seven opulent floors of “Big Biba” which was like some mad Kubla Khan fantasy palace amid the dingy grayness of early 70s England. Their “look” evolved into an extravagant mix of Art Deco elegance with Hollywood glitz and bohemian decadence that defined the trashy cabaret and retro-futuristic look of Glam and the peacock style of 70s rock fashion. Not just spangly shirts, tight pants, feather boas and platform shoes, their dark and exotic cosmetics range was perfect for that elegantly wasted look, Lou Reed and Freddie Mercury both wore Biba’s black nail polish and a young suburban girl who would later call herself Siouxsie Sioux took the train into London to buy her red eye shadow there.

Download: Make Up – Lou Reed (mp3)

The shops founder Babara Hulanicki said she designed her clothes for “Fresh little foals with long legs, bright faces and round dolly eyes. Postwar babies who had been deprived of nourishing protein in childhood and grew up into beautiful skinny people” so it wasn’t exactly aimed at single mums with two children like mine but it was a great place to take the kids for the day, only a short bus ride away and it was free. You could literally spend all day there and I think we often did, the store actually encouraged hanging out. For a kid my age Biba was like a theme park, every one of it’s seven floors an exercise in high concept and pure fun, like the men’s department where you could play darts and bowl and featured a “Mistress Room” that sold lingerie and had a huge leopard-skin bed. For obvious reasons my absolute favourite place was the kid’s department which looked like it had been designed by Lewis Carroll, with a roundabout in the shape of a record player, a castle and a dog kennel that was big enough to walk into. I remember the kennel had a giant stuffed Snoopy sitting outside that my sister and I desperately wanted mum to buy for us but I think it was beyond her budget. It wouldn’t have fitted into our council flat anyway.

But while the clothes were meant for skinny, 20-something, “Nova”-reading, girls about town, at Big Biba they stuck their famous black and gold logo on everything from fashion to furniture, make-up, toys, even soap powder and tins of baked beans so everyone could take home a bit of Biba cool — even eat it on toast. It was probably the world’s first lifestyle emporium (before the concept of “lifestyle” had been invented), you could wear, eat, wash, play, and literally live in Biba.

Download: Something For The Girl With Everything – Sparks (mp3)

On the top floor was the gorgeous Rainbow Room restaurant and concert venue which dated back to the 1930s style of the original building. in many ways this the place where 1970s rock and style collided, the clubhouse where Freddie Mercury had afternoon tea and David and Angie Bowie hung out with Mick and Bianca in the evenings. The New York Dolls played two infamous concerts there (their only London shows I think) and it must be the only place ever to host both the Dolls and Liberace. The Wombles played there too but that’s a whole other story.

Download: Trash – New York Dolls (mp3)

Naturally, Bryan Ferry made a video there, “Let’s Stick Together” was filmed on the Rainbow Room stage and features a cameo by Jerry Hall looking very Biba-esque in a gold dress and vampy Hollywood siren make-up.

Suzi Quatro might not have been as chic as our Bryan but the video for “Devil Gate Drive” was shot there too (on the Ground Floor) it shows what a well-know cultural icon the brand had become that the Biba logo is shown so prominently here. Though this must be one of the few cases where a store looks more glamourous than the pop group.

Sadly Big Biba was only open for two years and closed in 1975, the store was making money but not enough to escape the sinking gloom of the times. During those two years the miners went on strike, the country was put on a three-day work week and power cuts meant that people were living in darkness and some stores were lit by candles in the afternoon. It’s been said that the store lived up to the rock and roll credo of “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse” and looking back there’s something all a bit Weimar Republic about Big Biba with it’s extravagant decadence in the middle of a country falling apart, according to “Ziggy Stardust” we only had five years left before the end of the world anyway so why not build a monument to dressing up and looking as fabulous as possible.

The Derry & Toms building is now occupied by a Marks & Spencer which about as far from Biba as you can get. I bet they don’t sell black nail polish.

No way I could get through this post without some actual Roxy Music, if the store had a house band it would have been them. You don’t hear their second single “Pyjamarama” much so here it is in all it’s glittery glory.

Download: Pyjamarama – Roxy Music
Buy: “Welcome To Big Biba” (book)


This is the Night Mail

Can you imagine there was a time when the Post Office had it’s own film unit and they actually created works of art like this? Back in the days when woolen-socked and scabby-kneed little boys all wanted to be train drivers they produced this classic with poetry and music by those two marvelous old buggers W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. It’s just as hard to imagine a time when such great talents would want to make a movie about the public services and make them seem so glamourous and heroic.

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,
Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,
Stare from the bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;
They slumber on with paws across.
In the farm she passes no one wakes,
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes.

Dawn freshens, the climb is done.
Down towards Glasgow she descends
Towards the steam tugs yelping down the glade of cranes,
Towards the fields of apparatus, the furnaces
Set on the dark plain like gigantic chessmen.
All Scotland waits for her:
In the dark glens, beside the pale-green sea lochs
Men long for news.

Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers’ declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.

Thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston’s or Crawford’s:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
And shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

The Name Game

Of all the cute and clever indie bands that came out of England in the 1980s, Prefab Sprout were easily the most polite and bookish, they were the band who sat in front of the class while Orange Juice were sitting at the back chewing gum and telling jokes. And of course there was that name Prefab Sprout which was so precious and twee it was just asking to be beaten up and have its lunch money stolen.

Sprout lead singer Paddy McAloon wrote highly literate pop songs which were so loaded with obscure references and clever allusions that they needed footnotes. How many other writers would come up with a title like “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)” for their debut single because the first letter of each word spelled out the name Limoges, the French town where his girlfriend had gone to university? In another example of The Sprout’s clever-dickery McAloon once planned an entire album called “Famous Fakes” where every song was named after a famous person, this never materialized (like most of Paddy’s big ideas) but these two lovelies that were written as part of the project ended up as b-sides.

According to this discography “Donna Summer” has been a b-side on three different singles though in this case it’s off the double-pack single release of “When Love Breaks Down” in 1984 from where the wonderful “Diana” also comes. “Donna Summer” is another of those Sprout songs that needs footnotes, even knowing the lyrics its meaning goes right over my head. It’s a gorgeous record though and there’s something nicely perverse about naming such a slow, mournful song after the Queen of Disco. The subject matter of “Diana” is clear enough, it really is about that Diana and I think is one of the best things The Sprouts ever did, much too good to be tucked away on a b-side. A slower version of this song appeared on their “Protest Songs” album which I think I prefer, but only just.

Download: Donna Summer – Prefab Sprout (mp3)
Download: Diana – Prefab Sprout (mp3)

Who loves you baby

If this was Simon Bates’ “Our Tune” segment on the radio and he was to tell the story of my wife and I courting it would probably end with this song, the closest we have to “our” tune.

Download: 4:35 In The Morning – Saint Etienne (mp3)

During our very first telephone conversation I mentioned that I liked Saint Etienne and it wasn’t just that she liked them too which pleasantly surprised me, but I was absolutely gobsmacked that she’d even heard of them in the first place (very rare among girls in America.) I knew at that moment there was a good chance I was going to fall in love with her.

Happy Valentine’s Day.


My Sister’s Records

Like every other girl her age in the early 1970s my sister had a major crush on David Cassidy who was the archetypal 70s teen heartthrob, a slim pretty boy with dimples and soft, feather-cut hair who exuded a fresh, tanned and clean all-American healthiness — plus he was a whole lot better looking than that goofy Donny Osmond kid.

Cassidy initially appeared on our radar as lead singer of The Partridge Family which was the first introduction into pop fandom for both me and my sister. They were the first pop group she ever had on her bedroom wall* (to be precise it was our bedroom wall at the time, we shared a room until I was 10) and the first single I remember owning (not one I bought myself) was their version of “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” We both watched the TV show every week and while she was swooning over David I may have had a thing for Susan Dey, though she looked a little too much like my sister for me to be entirely comfortable with that thought now.

Until the Bay City Rollers came along David was bigger than sliced bread and Jesus among the teenybopper set, at one point his fan club had more members than any other in pop history and in 1973 he sold out Wembley Arena six nights in a row which was a record at the time. Unfortunately David-mania got badly out of hand the following year when a fan was killed and hundreds were hospitalized in the hysterical crush at his White City Stadium concert. At the inquest the coroner blamed “trendy, high platform shoes” for so many girls falling over and being trampled — so 1970s fashions weren’t just ugly, they could kill you too (as I can attest to myself after once getting my flares caught in the front wheel of a speeding bike and being hurled head-first over the handlebars.)

I really liked his single “Could It Be Forever” at the time but I was only 10 when it came out and hadn’t yet learned that I was supposed to regard my sister’s taste as a bit naff and girly. With it’s whispery vocal and pillowy mountains of strings it’s as soft and dreamy as David’s smile, and listening to it now I don’t mind saying I think it actually is rather good, beautifully-produced soft pop in the mold of The Carpenters. I still wouldn’t stick a picture of him on my bedroom wall though.

Download: Could It Be Forever – David Cassidy (mp3)
Buy: “Cherish” (album)

*The first pop poster I put on the wall was of The Jackson Five so I like to think I was hipper than my sister even then.

The Slowie

Was there ever a social situation more stressful and ripe for humiliation and embarrassment than asking a girl to slow dance? Walking across that dancefloor to approach some young lady with the question often felt like climbing out of a trench in WWI and crossing No Man’s Land to face the enemy guns and certain death.

The “slowie” was a fixture at every club and disco (or “meat market” if you’d prefer) I went to in my teens where the music was secondary to getting off with the opposite sex. They always played a few at the end of the evening so you knew it was coming and had time to scout around for potential candidates and maybe try to impress her in advance with your dancefloor moves to the faster songs. You’d need a few pints of Dutch Courage before you could work up the nerve (but not too many, you didn’t want to fall all over the poor girl) and when the moment came you’d go up to her trying to act all nonchalant and pretend it was no skin off your nose if she did or not — one thing my more sexually-successful friends always told me was that girls hate a bloke who seems too keen. But of course I did care and if she turned me down I might ask someone else but more often than not I’d slink back to the bar for a lonely pint where I stood and enviously watched all the jammy bastards who’d managed to score.

But occasionally you got lucky and she’d say “yes” so you’d have the few minutes the record lasted (and maybe another one) to make the most of the opportunity. If things were going well and you were feeling brave (or just drunk) you’d let your hands slowly and gingerly make their way down her back until — if she raised no objection — they rested happily on her bottom. Most of the time it never went any further than that and when the record ended she’d say “thanks” and go back to her mates never to be seen again, but occasionally you’d get a phone number or even a snog out of it and go home with a satisfied smile on your face — even if you didn’t get your hands on her bum. No matter how depressingly unsuccessful you usually were, it was that possibility which kept you coming back weekend after weekend, ready to go through the same painful ritual all over again.

If I had to pick one slow record that was the definitive soundtrack to the British high street disco experience and that end-of-the-evening feeling when air was thick with the scent of Paco Rabanne, sweat, lager, Silk Cut and hormones, it would be this one.

Download: True (12″ version) – Spandau Ballet (mp3)

Just hearing that clipped guitar intro I can see myself standing at the bar in some long-closed, chrome-and-carpet disco pub, everyone around me is busy coupling up and hitting the dancefloor while I’m still trying to summon up the nerve to make a move on some lucky girl.

But if Spandau aren’t your cup of tea these were always good for a smooch too. Lots of memories here, mostly frustrating ones.

Download: Move Closer – Phyllis Nelson (mp3)
Download: Always And Forever – Heatwave (mp3)
Download: Zoom – Fat Larry’s Band (mp3)