The Christmas Post

Right, that’s me out of here until the new year when hopefully I’ll have something new written. 

Until then I wish you all a very merry Christmas. Eat, drink, and be merry if you can. God knows we deserve to after this year.

Download: What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas? – The Emotions (mp3)


Pale and Interesting

Originally published January 2007.

Parents, be warned: This is what happens to a young man who hears Unknown Pleasures at an impressionable age. The milk-bottle white skin, the sullen expression, the black clothes are all outward signs of the “pale and interesting” youth. Before you know it he’s doing the hard stuff like the first Velvet Underground album and reading Albert Camus novels. I know all this because for a time I was once such a youth and that is me in the photo.

Not that I was particularly depressed or angst-ridden, I just had the usual arty young man’s attraction to the dark and edgy and thought if something was gloomy it must be more deep and meaningful. I must have seen Taxi Driver about 20 times, which in those days meant I actually went to the cinema to see it that many times, mostly at late night showings in shabby little arthouses with dirty, cigarette butt-encrusted carpets. “Dark and edgy” was basically the zeitgeist back then – the whole country felt like a cigarette butt-encrusted carpet – and Joy Division’s records were like black holes which absorbed all the pessimism, uncertainty, and violence that had built up by the end of the 70s.

For most other bands bleak angst was just a pose, something to wear with a big overcoat in your Anton Corbijn portrait, but with Joy Division it all sounded very real. Which, of course, it was. I still remember turning on John Peel that night in May 1980 and hearing him announce at the start of his show the news that Ian Curtis had died. I went downstairs with an empty feeling in my stomach and said to my mum “Ian Curtis is dead” and she said “Who?” which I guess is fair payback considering my nonchalant attitude toward Elvis snuffing it a few years before. I don’t think I found out that he’d topped himself until I read it in the next week’s NME (oh, those pre-internet days. Waiting a whole week for news) I also discovered for the first time that he had a wife and kid which started me thinking maybe he wasn’t just a tortured artiste, but a bit of a selfish prick too. In hindsight, his death neatly book-ended the previous decade as if some sort of terminus had been reached. The 80s were beckoning and it was time to start dancing and wear brighter clothes.

Now it all seems like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. They were the soundtrack for a country that has since been scrubbed, polished, streamlined and had it’s rough edges swept under a designer carpet where they can’t be seen. What does still sound astonishingly new is the production work of Martin Hannett, the Phil Spector/Lee Perry/Brian Wilson of post-punk. Have a listen to the 6 minutes of slow-burning menace of “Autosuggestion” from 1979. The dubby production is full of empty space but he manages to make it sound claustrophobic and suffocating with the dank atmospherics of a piss-stinking stairwell in a Manchester tower block.

Download: Autosuggestion -Joy Division (mp3)

Mummy Says You Won’t Come Back

Originally published January 2007. This was the first time I wrote about my childhood and connected it to my feelings about a pop record. Get your violins out.

Whenever I hear “Grocer Jack (Excerpt From A Teenage Opera)” by Keith West I’m overcome with a massive Proustian rush of memories and feelings. As soon as that cooly elegant harpsichord riff starts up I’m transported back to my childhood bedroom on a cold and rainy Saturday morning sometime in the late 60s/early 70s, listening to it on Ed Stewart’s “Junior Choice” show on Radio One. In my mind it’s coming out of my little orange transistor radio sitting on the window ledge, the melancholy tone of the record blending perfectly with the chilly air and misty windows of a slate grey London weekend back when there was nothing much to do but sit in your bedroom listening to the radio and reading comics.

A huge UK hit in 1967, this is an lavishly beautiful pop record (though those of you with an aversion to children singing on records may want to leave the room now) with an ornate, paisley-shirted production that makes Sgt. Pepper sound like the first Clash album. But beneath the incredibly pretty surface is emotionally heavy stuff about a man dying of a heart attack and the distress this causes the children in his town — none of which I realized at the time.

Without wanting to overload the song with too much emotional weight, I sometimes wonder if the reason it gets me so verklempt is when I hear those kids pleading “Grocer Jack, Grocer Jack, is it true what mummy says, you won’t come back? Oh no, no” I’m connecting to the feeling of loss or dread I had at that age. My Dad left home when I was very young and it was quite unusual in those days to have separated parents and be a so-called “Latchkey kid.” Teachers at school would come up to me with a concerned look on their faces and ask me if I was OK, and I was teased by other kids for only having one parent at home. The most upsetting thing though was my sister and I were genuinely worried that we’d be put into state care (this was the era of Cathy Come Home), a fear which our mother occasionally took advantage of by threatening to have us taken away if we didn’t behave. So I think I’m hearing a lot more than just a lovely pop tune, sometimes I feel like it’s my whole childhood and the fear of it being ripped away from me wrapped up in 4 minutes.

Download: Grocer Jack (Excerpt From A Teenage Opera) – Keith West
Buy: “A Teenage Opera” (album)

“Grocer Jack” was the first single from a planned concept album by producer Mark Wirtz called “A Teenage Opera.” Unfortunately the follow-up single “Sam” flopped and the record company pulled the plug on the project when they saw how much his lavish production style was costing them. But though “A Teenage Opera” was never finished at the time, it was recreated and released a few years ago as close to the original conception as possible using demos and unused songs Wirtz later recorded with other acts. It may not be the real thing but it’s good enough to make you wonder how incredible that would have been.

The Top Shelf

Originally published October 2011. This is the longer version that appeared in the second issue of my Blogazine. Why not buy a copy?

It’s not easy being a teenage boy, especially when the hormones kick in and you start to realize that girls aren’t, in fact, icky, but lovely creatures you want to get to know better. But at the same time you’re dealing with a dropping voice, skin problems, and hair growing in places you never had it before, all of which renders you a tongue-tied, sweaty-palmed wreck when you do try to talk to some actual girls. It’s like God has played some cruel joke on you: turning you into a raging, hormonal volcano at the same time you are least capable of satisfying the urges it produces.

For a while, furtive moments alone (if you know what I mean) with Page Three of The Sun, the bikini-clad starlets in Titbits, or the lingerie section of the Littlewood’s catalogue will ease your lusty fever, but there comes a time when you have to make the leap of buying an actual dirty magazine.

Buying your first girlie mag is a rite of passage for a young man only slightly less stressful and potentially humiliating than getting your hands on a real naked woman for the first time, but I eventually made the big move when I bought the December 1978 issue of Playboy (above). I was 16 at the time which meant buying it was not only nerve-wracking but also illegal, and I can still remember the superhuman effort it took to work up the courage to go in the shop (first making sure there were no other customers), quickly grab it from the top shelf and take it to the counter. “This please” I said, placing the magazine in front of the shopkeeper, trying to act as nonchalantly and cooly grown-up as I could while inside my heart was pounding like a hammer, thinking that any second now he’s going to ask me how old I am, or some woman is going to come into the shop and see what I was buying. I swear I wouldn’t have been surprised if an alarm went off, a steel cage dropped down on me, and armed police stormed in to drag me out to the street for a public shaming.

Though Playboy was relatively tame and almost respectable compared to some other magazines it shared top shelf space with, that didn’t make me feel any less of a dirty little pervert (albeit a very excited one — I did it! I bought one!) so when I got home I hid it in my bedroom cupboard under my comics. My mother had once told me she’d be more worried about me if I didn’t have any girlie magazines, but I certainly didn’t want her to know I had it. All the therapy in the world wouldn’t have cured me of that particular mortification.

While I vividly remember buying it I’m not sure now what made me want that particular issue so much. You’d think all that heart-pounding stress would have been for a woman I seriously fancied but Farrah Fawcett was my least favourite of Charlie’s Angels and I certainly didn’t care about NFL cheerleaders, only having the vaguest idea what those even were in the first place. Maybe it was the Gunter Grass short story. Yes, that must be it, I was buying it for the articles.

Oddly enough, I’ve never had any problem buying condoms. Never felt in the slightest bit nervous going into Boot’s, picking up a box of Durex and handing over my money to even the most stern-headmistress type woman at the counter. Maybe it was because one purchase proudly declares “YES! I AM A VIRILE AND DESIRABLE MAN WHO PLANS TO HAVE SEX VERY SOON!” while the other is a sad admission you have no chance of getting any for the foreseeable future — which was pretty much the story of my life when I was 16.

Download: Boys Will Be Boys – The Undertones (mp3)

Something for the Weekend

I couldn’t find when I first posted this, but it was one of my favourite Something for the Weekends because it’s my Platonic ideal of what the 1970s looked like until punk came along: Big sideburns, dolly birds in hot pants and tank tops, and primitive, stomping pop music sung a bloke who looks like a cross between a brick layer and football hooligan.

Cracking record too, of course.

I Love A Girl In Uniform

Originally published November 2007.

Mention the name Jenny Agutter to an Englishman of a certain age and he’s likely to go a little soft at the knees and get a faraway look in his eyes, wistfully recalling the night he saw Walkabout on BBC2 and felt his adolescent hormones blow a gasket.

In the league table of British totty of the 1970s Jenny was the champion, Manchester United* to everyone else’s Tranmere Rovers. She had the plummy voice and well-bred poise of the Head Girl of an expensive upper class girl’s school but while she sounded frightfully proper she also had a very free-spirited attitude toward the idea of clothes and got them off in almost every movie she was in. The fact that she did so while playing a schoolgirl in Walkabout and a nurse in An American Werewolf in London (above) fulfilled several Englishman’s fantasies all at once: the posh bird in a uniform who is a bit saucy underneath the prim exterior. On the one hand you could picture her doing all sorts of nice, outdoorsy girl things like playing netball, riding horses and being terribly jolly hockey sticks, but also having an illicit fag behind the school gym, flirting with the rough boys from the local comprehensive, zooming off to London on the back of her long-haired boyfriend’s motorbike, and getting suave Uncle Roger all hot under the cravat when she stretched out her long legs in the passenger seat of his Jag.

I’m surprised some soppy indie boy hasn’t written a song about her but far as I know no one has so these will have to do. Two sides of the Jenny Agutter coin, at least in my head.

Download: Jennifer Juniper – Donovan (mp3)
Download: Mary Of The 4th Form – The Boomtown Rats (mp3)

*I wondered if I should have changed this to another team now acheter viagra discount. United aren’t quite the force they were in 2007. What a shame.

You Can’t Put Your Arms Around an MP3

Originally published April 2009, before the current vinyl boom I hasten to add.

When I moved to the States I stored all my records in my Dad’s basement and it was 10 long years before I finally had them shipped over. When those battered cardboard boxes landed on my doorstep it was like being reunited with my lost self, as if someone had just dug up the dusty artifacts of a past life that had been fading into the distance after spending a decade in a dark room thousands of miles away. 

As I flipped through those old albums and singles for the first time again I was hit by a flood of memories which were just as much to do with the physical, tactile reality of the records themselves as it was the music they contained. These records had sat on the shelves in all the flats and houses I had lived in over the years, bought from record stores that don’t exist anymore (by a person I wasn’t anymore either), and every scuffed sleeve and worn spine, every scratch on the vinyl, was like an mark left by the past. Here was the album that got covered in beer at a party and I washed under a tap, the 12″ I bought in New York the first time I went to America, the single with a message from an old girlfriend written on the sleeve. Even the faint dark stain left on a sleeve by the peeled-off price sticker was like a ghost trace of where and when it was bought. It wasn’t just the soundtrack of my life, it was the actual concrete evidence of it.

What I felt even more strongly was a pang for what was missing, all the records I’d sold over the years, particularly at one point in the late-90s when I was temporarily back in London flat broke and flogged some of my most valuable ones. It was like several chapters in my life story were missing. Who, I wonder, now has the copy of “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever” that my first serious girlfriend bought me? And what had happened to Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” album? Not the rarest record in the world by any means but it was the first album I ever bought. Surely I wouldn’t have sold that too? That one really bothered me, a big milestone in my life and the evidence is gone.

Records are vulnerable, fragile things, the way they can scratch and warp gives them a human quality that cold, perfect CDs lack, you can feel the patina of age on a vinyl album just as much as you can a human face. But now with even the CD becoming obsolete it seems like music formats are shrinking out of existence, from twelve inches of vinyl to little silver discs to… well, nothing really, a sequence of digital ones and zeroes downloaded off the web with all the tangible reality of a cloud. It’s like music stripped of all the lovely touchy-feely pleasures, there’s no there there and how can you be that emotionally invested in something that doesn’t exist? I have a whopping 45GB of mp3 files on my computer but if they all got deleted tomorrow it would be a pain in the arse but I wouldn’t be all that upset about it because I could just replace them with ones that were literally exactly the same. You can’t say the same about records, I’ve been slowly replacing some of the ones I either sold or lost over the years (the ones that aren’t too expensive anyway) but the “new” copy will never be that one, the one I bought when I was 16 with the scratch on the last track I sometimes still hear in my brain even when I listen to a pristine mp3 of the same song.

So in twenty or thirty years time will someone who is a teenager now relate to their mp3 collection the way I do my records even though it just a track name on a glowing screen, still exactly the same as the day they downloaded it with no physical substance or texture they can hold, feel or smell? Will they get all sentimental about their beaten-up old iPod instead? I have no idea, I’m just one of those sad old gits with an emotional attachment to objects, particularly the circular black plastic kind.

Of course, one drawback of vinyl is that you can’t download it off the internet, it’s too big to fit down the tubes. So an mp3 will have to do.

Download: Some Of Them Are Old – Brian Eno (mp3)
Buy: “Here Come The Warm Jets” (album)

Ten Years of Tears

Many happy returns to this here blog which turns ten years old today. That’s a whole decade of writing bollocks sentimental musings. Who’d have thought it would last this long when I published the first post on December 12th, 2006? Certainly not me.

The idea for all this came about because I’d been reading a lot of elegiac books about Britain like Lost Worlds, The Likes Of Us, The Village That Died For England, and even Bollocks To Alton Towers, that had me feeling wistful about the country of my youth and all the things that had vanished since then. So I decided I wanted to write about that, but not in any cheesy “I Heart The Seventies” way. I didn’t care if anyone else but me was interested in things like what records my mum listened to or who I fancied when I was 12, and had no idea I could get a decade of mileage out of it. The original title was going to be England Made Me but there was already a (now-defunct) blog of that name, but I think the alternative I came up with (in a moment of inspiration on a train to New York) was much better anyway.

A decade is a lifetime in internet years (even longer if you add the three years I did my previous blog The Number One Songs In Heaven — sadly lost in Blogspot limbo somewhere) and things have changed a lot in that time. When I first started, mp3 blogs were the hot new thing and I got mentions in The Guardian, USA Today, Word magazine, and The Boston Globe which often caused a surge in traffic that used up all my monthly bandwidth and took the site down for days (remember that?) But with the warp-speed things move on the internet blogging has lost its youthful buzz. Now all the kidz are Snapchatting, Tumblring, Facetiming, and Instagramming instead, and the web landscape is littered with the ghosts of abandoned blogs. To couch it in terms more relevant to this site, blogging has become the vinyl records of the internet: an obsolete medium superseded by more convenient formats but still beloved by sentimental oldsters.

It’s a shame really, I think the internet has become a less interesting place since it was consumed by social media which has created more of a herd mentality than the individualism which existed before (Facebook might even be bad for democracy). I miss the frontier days when services like Geocities and Tripod (where I first learned HTML) provided a platform for anyone with a hobby or obsession to express themselves — usually with blue type on a purple background and lots of animated gifs. It was often bizarre and amateurish but it was more alive. Blogging was an extension of that, giving exposure to a multitude of new voices and opinions, but now that expression has been reduced to a “Like” button or 140 characters.

I’m no saint, I’m just as bad as anyone at tearing myself away from Twitter and doing something more useful like writing this blog or playing with my kids. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought this place was on it’s last legs and running on fumes, but I still have things to write about so hopefully next year I’ll still be keeping the blog flag flying high, even if it’s not cool anymore. Doubt if I’ll make another ten years though.

Lot of songs I could have picked to go with this post, but Pauline Murray is one of the few artists I’ve written about enough times to earn her own tag.

Download: Time Slipping – Pauline Murray & The Invisible Girls (mp3)

Between now and Christmas I’m going to be republishing some of my favourite posts from the archive. Then hopefully I’ll have my 2016 review written (if I can bear to think about this God-awful year), and then… more of the same I guess.