Southern Discomfort

Originally published April 2009

I lived in Florida for 10 years and though it could be a relatively cosmopolitan place because of the large number of Hispanics and northern Yankees living there, every now and you’d be reminded that you were, in fact, in the Deep South. It wasn’t just the gun shops, the Confederate flag bumper stickers on pick-up trucks, the signs on shop doors saying “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” or even the fact that black people seemed to live in a completely different world from the white folks. There was also the drunken redneck straight out of Deliverance who staggered up to me in a bar one night and, because I had no idea what he was incoherently mumbling about, said to me “If you cain’t unnerstand what ah’m sayin’ then get the fuck out of mah country!” and punched me in the face. Or the guy in another bar who told me that the English weren’t worth a damn and the United States should never have gotten involved in WWII because it wasn’t their problem. When I said that the Holocaust was a pretty important problem for everyone he replied “Aw, them Jews were askin’ for trouble” which was my cue to move to another stool. As you can imagine, being a left-wing, urban sophisticate from London, there were times when I wondered what the hell I was doing there (easy answer actually: it was hot, it was cheap, and the girls loved my accent.)

The bar jukebox soundtrack to those days was usually some loud and leaden Rawk music of the hairy and chest-beating kind: Lynyrd Skynyrd, AC/DC, Metallica — you know, real man’s music — but the one record I really, really hated which always plays in my head when I think about the South is “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger. The song probably doesn’t mean much to your average Brit (unless they’re familiar with this scene from Risky Business) but it was a popular blue-collar classic down there which always got the Good Ol’ Boys rocking and made me want catch the next plane home — or at least cleanse my ears with some Pet Shop Boys. It wasn’t just that it made Status Quo sound cutting edge, what made it worse than all the others was its proud declaration that modern music was rubbish which, mixed with the ambience of cheap watery beer, rusty pick-up trucks and chewing tobacco, sounded like the rallying cry for every reactionary redneck cracker who still thought the wrong side won the Civil War. The line “Don’t try to take me to a disco, you’ll never even get me out on the floor” always made me think of the theory that the whole “Disco Sucks!” movement in America was driven by racism and homophobia — in that context it might as well been called “Old Time Rock and Roll (And Not That Fag Shit).”

But I don’t want to dump on Bob Seger too much because — while I might be a liberal city boy who does like disco — the truth is I am also quite a fan of his 1978 album Stranger In Town even though it does contain the offending song. I really liked the single “Hollywood Nights” and used to own it on silver vinyl. I still think it’s a tremendous record which motors along with the same exhilarating rush you get from flooring an open-top Mustang and zooming down a highway. It almost makes me forgive him for the living hell he put me through with “Old Time Rock and Roll”. Well, not quite, I still have nightmares about that bloody record.

Download: Hollywood Nights – Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band (mp3)

PS: I should add, before I get a deluge of “How dare you!” comments, that I knew many wonderful, intelligent people in Florida, including my lovely wife who I met there. And I have been punched in pubs in London and Wales so there are arseholes everywhere.



I hope you don’t mind all the repeat postings of the past couple of weeks, believe me they are way more interesting than anything new I could write at the moment. I’m just not feeling the blog muse right now so the repeats will continue for a while. Lucky I have 11 years of old drivel to draw from.

Here’s some sublime Philly Soul from 1969.

Download: Here I Go Again – Archie Bell & The Drells (mp3)

The Trendy Teacher

Originally published November 2010

Every school had one, or they used to, the fresh-faced idealist straight out of teacher-training college armed with all the latest liberal ideas in education, determined to relate to the kids. In the 1970s you could identify the male version by their facial hair and corduroy flares, while the women tended to be wispy types given to silk scarves and maxi skirts.

One term at Secondary School we had this young English teacher with scruffy shoulder-length hair who, instead of making us read Shakespeare or any boring old nonsense like that, showed us clips from movies which we’d discuss afterwards. This being the 70s he didn’t show us any morally-uplifting, boys-own stories like Reach For The Sky or The Dambusters (too much like celebrations of the war-like patriarchy?) but instead we were treated to extracts from Hitchcock’s grisly serial killer movie Frenzy and Lindsay Anderson’s radical Public School drama If… Imagine the heap of shit he’d get into now for showing a bunch of 14-year-olds a film where the pupils mow down the teachers and parents with machine guns and bombs. I can’t remember his name now but I like to think of him as our school’s very own Howard Kirk.

He obviously knew the way to a boy’s heart was through nudity and violence because we actually behaved in his class, but that mostly wasn’t the case with the trendy teacher who usually exuded all the authority of a timid hamster, and in the Darwinian jungle of an all-boys comprehensive the kids are savage little sharks who can smell vulnerable fresh meat in the water from a mile away so they usually got eaten alive. Once we had a substitute Biology teacher called Mr. Bone (really!) whose life we made a living hell, and not just because of the comic goldmine that was his name. His first mistake was to tell us he was a vegetarian (the first one I ever met) which led to constant shouts of “have a nice roast lettuce for dinner Sunday, sir?” and trying to engage us in a chat about pop music by talking about Joni Mitchell’s latest album. It was like Cat Stevens trying to deal with a roomful of Noddy Holders. Every time he turned his back on us he was showered with a rain of pellets from the sacks of dried rabbit food in the classroom. He only taught us for a little while and when we asked our regular Biology teacher what had happened to Mr. Bone he told us that he’d walked out of a particularly unruly class one day and never came back. Last he’d heard he’d had a nervous breakdown and was living in a squat in Earl’s Court.

So if you’re out there somewhere Mr. Bone, I’m sorry we were such little shits. But you really should have just hit one of us over the head with a text book.

Download: I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing – The New Seekers (mp3)

Stiff Upper Lips

Originally published February 2009

Alec: We know we really love each other. That’s true. That’s all that really matters.
Laura: It isn’t all that really matters. Other things matter too. Self-respect matters, and decency.

Brief Encounter is one of those lovely old British movies full of plummy voices, stiff upper lips, and dreary tea rooms which the BBC used to show all the time on Sunday afternoons (along with Genevieve, The Way To The Stars, and The Dam Busters). Its atmosphere of monochrome miserablism was perfectly suited to that post-lunch, rainy Sunday dead zone where there was nothing better to do than sit in front of the fire and watch a great old movie.

The picture of England these films painted was of a genteel and polite country which probably only exists today in the minds of ageing Daily Mail readers. It was a place of deference and impeccable manners where the last thing anyone wants to do is cause a scene or, God forbid, get all emotional about something.

It’s a cliché about us English that we’re all a bit reserved and repressed and in Brief Encounter Alec and Laura are like the poster children for stiff English formality, living in a buttoned-up world of afternoon tea and polite chat about trains and library books. When they fall in love it threatens to tear that tidy world apart and they’re thrown into a panic by it. Laura in particular is completely discombobulated by her sudden feelings — “I’ve fallen in love. I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” — and it’s heartbreaking to see them try to be sensible and frightfully British about something as irrational and powerful as love.

Before she meets Alec, Laura’s life has all the flavour and excitement of a stale British Rail ham sandwich, with a house in the suburbs and a dull husband who looks like he probably goes to bed in the pinstriped suit he wears while doing The Times’ crossword puzzle in front of the fire every night. It’s the sort of dreary suburban trap that would later be made out to be a soul-destroying hellhole to be escaped at all costs, but Laura is a sensible middle-class housewife and people like her just don’t run off with a handsome doctor. Passion and romance might be alright for the French, but she’s British! So she does the “decent” thing and gives up Alec even though it tears her apart. At the end of the film it looks like she’ll never be happy again, but you know that she’ll pull herself together, keep it all bottled up and soldier on making the best of things, hiding her misery behind a polite English exterior. Order must be preserved, emotions must be kept in check, or England and the Empire will crumble.

It’s easy to mock (and parody) their frightfully proper manners and old-fashioned English reserve in general, especially in this post-1960s era when we’re told it’s bad to bottle your feelings up and to let it all hang out, man. But really, don’t you wish more people these days would resist the urge to share the almost pornographic details of their inner selves in public and keep the lid on a bit more? And just because the “stuffy” Brit isn’t inclined to swing naked from the emotional chandelier doesn’t mean they have no feelings, we just find it a little vulgar and juvenile to advertise them to the world in great big neon letters which is why we get embarrassed in the presence of loud Americans who will insist on talking about their bloody feelings and hugging you all the time. That’s when we start looking at our shoes and talking about the weather.

Download: I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You – Tom Waits (mp3)

Caught By The Fuzz

Originally published February 2011

Booze and fags were always enough of a high for me so I was never a major drug user and it must be over 10 years since I did any at all, but in my time I’ve taken speed and ecstasy, did cocaine on one occasion, and smoked enough joints to know the difference between Afghan Black and Red Leb (hash being easier to get than grass in England back then). But considering I’ve only ever been an infrequent dabbler in them I do have a rather good drug story to tell.

One Saturday night back in 1985 I was on a pub crawl in Putney with some mates when, during the walk from The Spotted Horse to The Star & Garter, one of them got out a joint for us to have a puff on while we strolled down the high street. Being young and a little drunk we didn’t care if anyone saw us smoking a joint in the street and were feeling pleasantly buzzed as the dope mixed with the lager in our systems. But the evening was about to go tits up because when we got to the pub one of my idiot mates — unnoticed by me — walked in there still smoking the joint and stubbed it out in the ashtray at our table.

About half an hour later we’re sitting having a beer when these two blokes came up to us, one of them says “Outside, boys” and showed us an ID card. I had no idea they were plain-clothes coppers and my first thought was that someone was having a joke so I said to him “That was a bus pass!” (I swear, it did look like a bus pass, nothing like the fancy badges you get in American cop shows) which didn’t amuse him in the slightest, he just said “outside, boys” again and held up the roach from our joint in his hand with a look on his face that said “we got you red-handed, you stupid little bastards.” It turns out that the landlord of the pub had smelled the joint when we walked in, found it when he emptied our ashtray, and called the Old Bill. The bastard.

We got outside and they asked us where we got the dope from, made us empty our pockets and all that stuff. My mate who had the joint originally had left before the cops got there which was lucky because he had a big lump of dope in his pocket. Then a uniformed copper turned up who took me back inside the pub on my own and marched me to the Gents toilet. As it was a Saturday night the pub was packed and everyone saw me being taken into the loo, it was like one of those scenes in a Western when a saloon goes quiet and everyone turns around when the lawman walks in.

Thinking back I can’t remember if I already knew what they were going to do, but once in the Gents he told me to strip down to my underpants and wait for the plain-clothes guy — yes, I was going to be strip-searched. I did what I was told and while I’m standing there in nothing but my skids people kept coming in to use the toilet and got a good look at me before the copper told them to get out, I’m sure they had a big laugh about it and the whole pub found out what I was doing in there.

If I’d been a little less drunk — and stoned — I probably would have been mortified and more than a little angry, but as it was I took the whole thing in my stride and was quite relaxed, I even had a nice chat with the uniformed copper. Then the plain-clothes bloke with the bus pass comes in, tells me to take down my underpants, turn around and bend over, and he then proceeded to have a good look up my arse — with a torch! A fine way to spend a Saturday night I must say, having a copper look up your bum in a cold pub toilet.

Satisfied that there was nothing up my rear end (the very idea!) he told me to get dressed and I was taken back outside where my mates were still being held, having no idea where I’d been. Apparently I was the only one who had been searched like that and when I asked them why they said because the landlord had fingered me as the one who had been smoking the joint. Either the landlord was blind or they were bullshitting me, to this day I think it was because I was an art student at the time and looked like one with my second-hand clothes and round NHS glasses which, in their eyes, made me the type who liked to indulge in the ol’ Jazz Woodbines. Or maybe he was just getting me back for my “bus pass” crack. Luckily they decided it wasn’t worth nicking us for one joint so they let us go with the parting words “We don’t care if you smoke a joint, just don’t do it in public.”

So let that be a lesson to you kids: Just say no to drugs, at least if one of your mates is an idiot who doesn’t know that you shouldn’t walk into a pub with a lit joint. And if you’re ever down Putney way, pop in the Star & Garter for a piss and think about me.

Download: Sound of Da Police – KRS ONE (mp3)

Caroline Hello

Originally published May 2007

My Dad was a big movie fan and his idea of a grand day out with me and my sister was to take us to the pictures. I loved it too, sit me in the dark with a Kia-Ora and I was a happy kid. A big event was seeing the latest James Bond film on the day it came out at the Odeon Leicester Square (I think Diamonds Are Forever was the first one I saw there) which I still think is the greatest cinema in the world with its football-pitch size screen. Aside from Bond, Dad also worshipped Michael Caine which meant we got dragged to see Zulu twice when it was re-issued in the 70s (no videos in those days of course).

My own cinematic tastes ran more toward the ouevre of Ray Harryhausen and the stop-motion creatures he created for movies like Jason & The Argonauts, so when The Golden Voyage of Sinbad came out in 1973 the old man took me to see it. Even though it wasn’t his cup of tea I’m sure he didn’t mind because the film had some rather nice eye candy in the form of Caroline Munro who played Margiana, a slave girl and love interest for lucky old Sinbad. Munro had been in the kitschy Hammer film Dracula AD 1970, but her main claim to fame was being the girl in the Lamb’s Navy Rum billboards that were plastered all over London at the time. She wasn’t the sort of actress to give Meryl Streep sleepless nights and her part in the movie consisted mostly of standing there looking scared and trying not to burst out of her costume, but she did that brilliantly. Even though I was only 11 at the time I knew what girls were for by then and she was burned into my subconcious at a very impressionable age.

A few years before all this Caroline had a romance with former Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone and I don’t know how long it lasted or how serious it was, but when it ended Colin was moved to write a song about her on his debut solo album One Year in 1971. The plaintive “Caroline Goodbye” is a gorgeous record with a whispery and sad Nick Drake-ish mood. He does sound a bit wet though, no wonder she dumped him.

Download: Caroline Goodbye – Colin Blunstone (mp3)

As a bonus feature to our program today here’s a one-off single Caroline made in 1967 when she was only 16. This is very nice 60s girl pop produced by “Teenage Opera” man Mark Wirtz and the musicians on it include Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. Like her acting, she isn’t the greatest singer in the world but she sure sounds pretty.

Download: Tar and Cement – Caroline Munro (mp3)

Every Picture Tells A Story

Originally published September 2010

After our mother died, my sister gave me a pile of old family photos to scan, among them this one of her (left) and her three younger sisters outside their Shepherd’s Bush council flat — the same flat my gran still lived in when I was a kid and didn’t leave until the early 70s when my grandfather died. I know exactly when the photo was taken because some helpful person (my grandmother I think judging by the handwriting) has written “Coronation Day” on the back which would make it Tuesday the 2nd of June, 1953 and my mother a mere 18 years old (though I think she looked younger when she was in her 30s). She’d already left school and was working at that point, despite getting several O-levels she didn’t stay on for A-levels because the family needed the extra wage, something I think she always regretted.

My mum told me that she watched the Coronation on television like 20 million other Brits but whether it was their own set or a neighbours I can’t remember. Coronation Day was a holiday (in typical English “holiday” fashion it rained all day) and with their pearl necklaces the eldest three all look a bit dressed up to go somewhere, it could have been a street party or maybe just because they were having their photo taken, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it was because they were going to “see” the Queen on television and thought they should put on their “best” for such an important occasion. As it was a Tuesday I assume my mother wouldn’t have gone out that evening but come the weekend you might have found her dancing at the Hammersmith Palais where, in those pre-rock and roll days, the music was provided by live big bands led by the likes of Billy Cotton and Joe Loss.

The Hammersmith Palais was also where she met my dad about 6 years later who, I imagine, at the time looked something like he does in this photo.

That’s my old man on the left with three of his mates (he also had three brothers) and I don’t know when this was taken but judging by the suits I’d place it sometime in the 1950s too. The thing I’ve always loved about this picture is how suave my dad looks, he seems so much more put-together and debonair than the others, his suit just that bit fancier and well-tailored and he’s even holding his drink rather rakishly. Back then he was known as a bit of a fancy-pants and was nicknamed “Duke” because he always wore suits with a red lining, an indication perhaps that after he married my mother he wouldn’t be satisfied being a cab driver and would eventually make for the sophisticated bright lights of the theatre.

It’s always strange seeing photos of your parents as teenagers (and yourself too) and old photos of people you know are unavoidably poignant and suffused with a sort of innocence because you can see their future and they can’t, and not just in the long-term. Like the characters in Mad Men they don’t know that the 1960s are coming to smash the conventions and assumptions they’ve been living by and in my parents case they happened just a little too late, being married with two kids by the time The Beatles’ first record came out. Who knows what would have happened if my mother didn’t have to leave school to get a job at 16 and share a little council flat bedroom with three sisters until she got married, or my dad discovered what he really wanted to do with his life before then?

But then I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this.

Download: Photograph – Ringo Starr (mp3)

Something for The Weekend

Ray Davies introduces this song as “a little known album track” because when this was recorded in 1973 the album was sadly a forgotten flop. Of course now it’s probably their most beloved record.

It’s hard not to listen to his and think of Brexit now, but it’s not Ray’s fault that this kind of cosy nostalgia has curdled into reactionary xenophobia.

The X Factor

Originally published April 2008

The first X-film I ever saw at the pictures was Midnight Express which I managed to blag my way in to at the tender age of 16, two years before I was legally allowed to. That might not sound like much of an achievement but I was young-looking for my age (still am!) and had failed to get into X- and even AA-rated films before. I’d just started going to pubs by then and never had any problems being served, but getting into an adult film seemed like a much more difficult proposition. A pint of lager was one thing but at an X-film there was sex, violence, nudity (lots and lots of that in the 70s, everyone got their kit off in films back then) and all sorts of mysterious grown-up stuff, so attempting to bluff the old lady in the ticket booth of your local Odeon or ABC was as nerve-wracking as trying to buy a dirty magazine at the corner shop. And it almost always was an older person selling tickets at the pictures back then, not the spotty teens they have these days who would probably let a coach load of Boy Scouts in to see I Spit On Your Grave.

So it was with a huge sense of relief that I settled into my seat at the Odeon Kensington High Street knowing that I was in and no one was coming to chuck me out. Even more so because I’d gone to see it with the beautiful Jackie Bolton, the curly-haired and curvy temptress from the local girl’s school I had an unrequited crush on. Though sadly it wasn’t a date, she was with a group of her mates and had asked me along as a “friend” — that dreaded word. But still, can you imagine the humiliation if I’d been turned away for being too young right in front of Jackie Bolton? I wouldn’t have been able to show my face in public ever again.

Midnight Express had plenty of the “grown-up stuff”: boobs, bums, masturbation, drugs, homo-eroticism, and lots of gory violence, though I was less shocked by that as I was uncomfortable to be watching Brad Davis have a wank while I was sitting next to Jackie Bolton. I liked it a lot at the time but I think the older, more sophisticated me wouldn’t be as impressed. Director Alan Parker and scriptwriter Oliver Stone both tend to be as subtle as a knee in the balls and I’ve feeling if I was to see it now I’d find it all a bit sensationalist and lurid — like a beautifully photographed exploitation flick.

The soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder still sounds great though, and supposedly was the first electronic score to win an Oscar. We used to play the soundtrack album a lot when I was working at WH Smith and every time we did someone would ask us what it was and buy a copy (Jeff Wayne’s War of The Worlds opus had the same effect.) Alan Parker gave Moroder the job after hearing “I Feel Love” and the 8-minute “Chase” has a similar throbbing EuroDisco beat and is something of an early Techno classic (Daft Punk did a version of it).

Download: Chase – Giorgio Moroder (mp3)