Tom’s Crystal Ball

Tom Robinson’s song “The Winter of ’79” isn’t about The Winter of Discontent of that year because it was written and recorded before that actually happened. In the song Tom is reading his tea leaves and looking into the future, imagining events in England a year down the road (written from the point of view of someone looking back at 1979) and it’s not a pretty picture: civil unrest, violence, fascism, repressive Government and police brutality — but with cheap beer, so it wasn’t all grim.

Let’s see how his predictions worked out.

All you kids that just sit and whine
You should have been there back in ’79
You say we’re giving you a real hard time
You boys are really breaking my heart
Spurs beat Arsenal, what a game

I hope Tom wasn’t doing the Football Pools because that’s wrong for a start. Arsenal beat Spurs 1-0 in December 1979. It was probably a rubbish game too.

I’d been working on and off
A pint of beer was still ten bob

I can’t remember how much a pint of beer was in 1979. Ten bob (50p to you kids) does sound a bit cheap for even then, but my wages from my Saturday job at WH Smith that year were a whopping £6.60 which was enough for me to get shitfaced in the pub after work (which usually took about 6 pints back then), have a kebab on the way home, and still have enough money left over to buy records and cigarettes. These days £6 would get you a couple of pints at most but you wouldn’t have much change left for a kebab.

They stopped the Social in the spring
And quite a few communists got run in
And National Service come back in
In the winter of ’79

When Marco’s caff went up in flames
The Vambo boys took the blame
The SAS come and took our names
In the winter of ’79

These verses might all sound like typical lefty paranoia about the fascist state clamping down on political dissent, but by the mid-70s the country seemed headed for social breakdown and political anarchy and some elements of the British secret services, convinced that the government and the unions (and the BBC) were in the hands of radicals and revolutionaries, actually planned a military coup against the Labour government of Harold Wilson that would have installed Lord Mountbatten as the new Premier. So it’s not paranoia if it’s true, though no one knew about this at the time. And you have to remind yourself that he wrote this when “Sunny” Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister. If he thought England was a violent, politically oppressive place when he wrote the song in 1977 then God knows what he would have written if he’d waited a while and seen Maggie Thatcher in power, a woman who openly referred to striking workers — fellow British citizens — as “the enemy.”

It was us poor bastards took the chop
When the tubes gone up and the buses stopped
The top people still come out on top
The government never resigned
The Carib Club got petrol bombed
The National Front was getting awful strong

Well, some things never change. The top people still come out on top and are far richer and even more on top than they were in 1979 (and mostly got that way under a Labour government), the Government is clinging to power despite being mortally wounded by scandal and an economic crisis, and if you change “The National Front” to “The BNP” these verses could be from a song called “The Winter of ’09”

So it turned out that Tom was right about the winter of 1979 being an important point in English history, he was just wrong about a lot of the facts — even the football results. But it didn’t take much imagination to look at England in 1977 and imagine the worst.

Download: The Winter of ’79 – Tom Robinson Band (mp3)
Buy: Power In The Darkness (album)


The Jackson One

Holy shit.

That’s what I said last night when I heard the news about Michael Jackson. To say it was a bolt out of the blue would be a massive understatement and I found that, after the initial shock, I was more upset by his death than I expected given that I hadn’t bought a record of his in over 20 years. But you never really know what a person means to you until they’re gone and Michael and his brothers were a big part of my childhood. They were the first pop group I ever had on my bedroom wall, my sister and I always watched their cartoon show on TV, bought a lot of their singles with our record tokens, and their Greatest Hits was one of the first albums my mother bought me — I still have it.

That’s why all the post-Thriller craziness of his life (and here I am obliged by the Gods of Rock Criticism to point out that Off The Wall is a much better album) just made me more sad than anything. Whenever I saw the freakshow he’d become I just thought of the little kid who seemed so full of joy and sang and danced so brilliantly that I loved when I was a kid myself (he was only four years older than me) and wondered what happened to him. Watching the news last night the gasbags on tv spent most of their time talking about the scandals and weirdness that engulfed his life and barely mentioned his records (though Michael himself should take some blame for that) but that’s really all I’m interested in. Like these two gems, reminders of just how good he was.

His version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” has long been my favourite of his early Motown solo records and I’m not bothered at all by saying I think it’s better than the original. Just listen to his tender, yearning vocal on this and remember that he was only 14 when he recorded it.

Download: Ain’t No Sunshine – Michael Jackson (mp3)

And a reminder of how, before the vocal tics turned him into a caricature of himself, he could ride a funky beat better than almost any singer since James Brown. This is the full 8-minute version from The Jacksons’ superb 1978 album Destiny.

Download: Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) – The Jacksons (mp3)

What a sad, sad shame on so many levels.

Three Cheers For Pooh

Download: Pooh Trilogy – The Divine Comedy (mp3)

We don’t own much in the way of “kids music” — our daughter mostly listens to the same stuff we do — but the CD this comes from is pretty groovy. Perfect for all those Alternadads out there. Not that I’m one you understand (though I did spend part of Father’s Day yesterday at a record shop).

Non-Hit Wonder

Then there are those records which not only didn’t make the charts but seemed to have made so little impression anywhere you get the feeling you were the only person on the planet who bought a copy. Like “Questionnaire” by ex-Blockhead Chaz Jankel which I’d even forgotten I owned myself until I dug it out the other day. I thought it would probably sound dated and make me wonder why the hell I did buy it (I have quite a few records like that) but it still sounded like a pretty tasty slice of dance pop, not bad considering it came out in 1981. I can’t remember ever hearing it on the radio or in a club but I suppose I must have at least once otherwise I wouldn’t have bought it — in 12″ format too. But did anyone else? That’s the, um, question.

Download: Questionnaire (12″ version) – Chaz Jankel (mp3)

The video is rather brilliant too (and very 80s). Thinking about it, it might have been seeing this somewhere that made me buy the record.

Hey Judie

English singer-songwriter Judie Tzuke was a one-hit wonder but “For You” wasn’t it unfortunately. This was her 1978 debut single which, despite being prettier than a field of daisies on a hot summers day, barely had a sniff of the charts.

I could devote an entire blog to great singles that flopped (there probably already is one) as “Why wasn’t this a hit?” is something of a mantra for serious music buffs who decry the popular success of crap records while their favourites remain unknown. As a result they turn into bitter misanthropes with a condescending disdain for popular taste (especially the ones working in record shops). But then again, when a record they like does become a hit that often becomes a reason not to like it anymore — if the general public are idiots with no taste and they like it, then it can’t be any good can it? It’s the sort of twisted logic that makes music fandom such a cross to bear.

I know Judie Tzuke is hardly the poster child for under-appreciated genius, in her case she was a one-hit wonder because her records were mostly a bit duff. This single is absolutely lovely though, as soothing and relaxing as a warm Radox bath. Pity no one bought it. Idiots!

Download: For You – Judie Tzuke (mp3)

The Life For Me

Reading this feature about the gorgeous but short-lived 1960s magazine London Life I came across this marvelous bit of pop trivia about a promotional idea cooked up by managing editor David Puttnam (yes, that David Puttnam):

One of his more extravagant (though certainly forward-thinking) ideas was to ask Burt Bacharach to write a song for the magazine. “He was very big at the time and it struck me that if he could write a song with London Life as the title it could help us,” says Puttnam. The idea was that the song would garner huge, free publicity for the magazine through radio play. So Puttnam headed up to the Edinburgh Festival, where Bacharach was performing, to suggest the idea. Luckily, he took Jean Shrimpton with him. “Bacharach was much more interested in meeting her than me,” says Puttnam, and he agreed to the plan. Lulu was to have recorded it: she was unavailable, so Anita Harris did it instead.

It’s extra marvelous to me because I work in the magazine business and this is like my dream of what the job should be like. Sadly, my chances of jetting off to meet a pop star with a supermodel on my arm are slim to none. While I’m sure they gave him a large pile of money to do it, I’m still amazed that Bacharach agreed to write a promo song for a magazine, but I guess the presence of Jean Shrimpton will persuade a man to do anything. Hell, I’d write a song for a church newsletter if she asked me to.

I think the story is a bit better than the actual record though. The song is fine but Anita Harris isn’t exactly Dusty, let alone Lulu.

Download: London Life – Anita Harris (mp3)

PS: The illustration on the cover above was by a young man whose name you might know: Ian Dury