Even Stranger Things

Originally published January 2017

The Netflix series Stranger Things is a loving homage to American pop culture tropes of the 1980s, especially those seen in Spielberg-related films like ET, The Goonies, and Poltergeist: Nerdy kids on BMX bikes, sleepy suburban towns, supernatural creatures, and shady government organizations (the 2011 movie Super 8 was a similar tribute).

I’ve been thinking that it would be a great idea to do a British version set in the 1970s that was influenced by creepy kid’s TV shows like The Tomorrow People, Children of The Stones, the Jon Pertwee Dr Who, and the scary public information films of the era.

In this version the kids would have adventures while riding around a dingy London on Chopper bikes. Fueled on greasy chips and Fanta, they would fight toxic rubbish monsters that emerged from disused canals and rusty old fridges on bombsites. The mean old lady who lives in the crumbling, dark house at the end of their street would be a pagan witch who enslaved children when they climbed into her back garden to get their football back.

The Stranger Things soundtrack also reached back to the 80s with throbbing analog synths straight out of Miami Vice or a John Carpenter film. In my imaginary show the music would be influenced by the eerie themes of those 70s kid’s shows. They still sound scary today, especially if you were an impressionable kid when they were first broadcast.

The Tomorrow People Theme – Dudley Simpson (mp3)
Children of The Stones Theme- Ambrosian Singers (mp3)
Dr. Who (Original Theme) – BBC Radiophonic Workshop (mp3)
Maneche (Theme from Picture Box) – Jacques Lasry (mp3)

Think I can get Netflix interested?


The Listening Room

Originally published June 2017

Your Hundred Best Tunes was a BBC Radio show which ran from 1959-2007 that played popular classical music tunes like Ode To Joy and The Enigma Variations — the stuff you can hum, basically. Even though it had been on the air since before I was born I’d never heard of it until I started working at WH Smith where the accompanying albums The World Of Your Hundred Best Tunes were regular sellers among the middle classes of Putney. There were 10 volumes of the albums released in the first half of the 70s and I remember them well because I was fascinated by the covers.

The main thing I always noticed was that none of the rooms had televisions in them. Had no entertainment media at all in fact, as it appeared the radio and even the record player had to brought in temporarily from another room to listen to music. This is because these were the sort of people with houses big enough to have a separate room for the television and record player. One of these was rooms was usually called either the Lounge or the Sitting Room, or even the Drawing Room if they were being extra posh. Like most things in English life how you referred to them often depended on your class. But they certainly wouldn’t have called it anything as working class as “the Front Room” like we did (even though it was at the back of our flat).

Another reason the television would have been tucked away in another room was that for a long time they were considered a bit common, something the unwashed masses watched, not something you put in the “nice” room. Early sets even had doors on them to hide the screen and make them look like a cabinet. If they had a set they would refer to it disparagingly as “the Gogglebox” and proudly claim they only watched the BBC on it, and even then only nature documentaries and The Proms.

In my experience people who bought Classical music were usually the rudest customers we got at Smith’s, the ones most likely to be curt and talk to you like a servant. I remember one lady expressing surprise that I knew something about Mozart as if she was expecting a mere shop worker like me to be a moron. This really brought out the class warrior in me and led me to think of the people on these sleeves as Daily Mail-reading Tories who would have worshipped Maggie Thatcher in the 80s and probably voted Brexit if they were still alive today.

Today they look like kitschy snapshots of the 1970s, but even back then I thought they were wistfully nostalgic. My family only ever gathered together in one room — the Front Room — to watch the telly. Often with our dinner in trays on our laps. How dreadfully common we were.

In a change from our usual programming here are some lovely tunes the show considered to be among the 100 best. Retire to your Lounge/Sitting Room/Drawing Room and chill out to these while enjoying a nice sweet sherry.

Download: Peer Gynt Suite (Morning) – Edvard Grieg (mp3)
Download: Variation IX (Adagio) – Edward Elgar (mp3)
Download: Intermezzo from ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ – Pietro Mascagni (mp3)

Tu Fais Chanter Mon Coeur

Originally published September 2017

One of the many bands and musicians Chrissie Hynde hung around with before she formed The Pretenders was a Power Pop group from Yorkshire called Strangeways. They only released a couple of singles before they broke up but a few years ago a compilation album of unreleased material came out which featured this terrific French version of “Wild Thing” they recorded with Chrissie on vocals in 1978.

If you think the idea of Chrissie Hynde singing in French sounds sexy as hell, you’d be right.

Download: Chose Sauvage – Chrissie Hynde & Strangeways (mp3)

Photo from Paula Yates’ book Rock Stars In Their Underpants.

My Sister’s Records

Originally published August 2015

Smokie (originally spelled “Smokey” until they were threatened with a lawsuit by a certain Motown legend) were a band from Bradford who had had been kicking around for years without any success before coming under the wing of the songwriting and production team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman in the mid-70s.

Though “Chinnichap” were famous for the Bubble-Glam hits they penned for Suzi Quatro, Mud, and The Sweet, they showed their versatility (and smarts) by not forcing the denim-clad Smokie into this mould and instead wrote some laid-back, country-rock songs for them that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an American FM radio station.

There must have been a gap in the market for a Northern English version of The Eagles — grey Yorkshire houses on the album cover instead of California hotels — because they were very successful. Their second album Changing All The Time was a big seller in 1975 down to the presence of the Chinnichap hits “If You Think You Know How To Love Me” and “Don’t Play Your Rock & Roll To Me.” They also wrote the title track which is a really lovely song, hard to believe it’s by the same guys who wrote “Blockbuster” and “Tiger Feet”.

Because of those hits my sister got the album for Christmas 1975 as a present from our Gran. She was 14 at the time and up until then had only owned Bay City Rollers and Osmonds albums so this might have been her first non-“teenybopper” record. Two years later she was into The Clash, but I don’t think Smokie were directly responsible for that. These days she really likes The Eagles which you probably can blame them for.

Download: Changing All The Time – Smokie (mp3)
Download: Don’t Play Your Rock & Roll To Me – Smokie (mp3)

I’ve always loved the cover of this album, a nicely evocative bit of pre-Photoshop collage and hand-tinting.

The Starship Boney M

Originally published May 2017

There are albums I always associate with working in the record dept of WH Smith in the late 70s-early 80s, mostly because we sold a shit-load of them at Christmas, like the Grease soundtrack and Neil Diamond’s The Jazz Singer (which I sold a copy of to Sue Lawley!) Another was Boney M’s 1978 album Nightflight To Venus which we shifted piles of that year. 

Boney M were incredibly popular but they were also terrible. A manufactured group from Germany who made really awful dance pop with ridiculous songs like “Ma Baker” and “Rasputin”. 

Most of the people buying it were older, probably parents getting it as a Christmas present for their kid or for themselves. I don’t remember any teenagers buying a copy, this being 1978 when there were lots of other things going on musically that were more appealing.

Normally we could play what music we wanted at work, but at Christmas we had to play records that were popular and seasonal. As a result I got to hear Nightflight To Venus several times and I have to say I thought the title track was surprisingly good. Being 16 at the time I kept such embarrassing thoughts to myself but I am beyond such things now. Though even now liking a Boney M record still strains the concept of a guilty pleasure to it’s extremes.

I still like it despite (or maybe because of) it being a total, lawsuit-worthy rip-off of “Dancing With The Devil” by Cozy Powell. With its pounding tribal drums and vocoder effects it probably sounds cooler now than it did in 1978.

Download: Night Flight To Venus – Boney M (mp3)

My Chiffon Is Wet, Darling

Originally published March 2016

I don’t know if it was because things were so grim that people needed cheering up more, but there were a lot of novelty hits in the 1970s. 99.9% of them were terrible, but this one was marvelous and “My chiffon is wet, darling!” is still one of my favourite lines in pop.

“Disco Tex” was a fellow called Sir Monti Rock III and the group was the brainchild of The Four Seasons’ producer/writer Bob Crewe. This was a hit in 1974 before Disco went overground and became a cultural juggernaut so it was ahead of that curve, and its camp flamboyance was ahead of Sylvester and The Village People in being a hit that came out of gay club culture — both Rock and Crewe were gay and the record was made to sound like a live performance in a gay disco. Which just shows that even the silliest novelty record can have some sociological significance.

Download: Get Dancin’ – Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes (mp3)

No Static At All

Originally published January 2015

I often think that the difference between British and American pop music in the 1970s can be defined by a difference between radio frequencies. Back then — except a few hours in the evenings and weekends — our national pop station Radio One only broadcast in Medium Wave (known as AM in the States) which meant that our listening experience was mostly tinny and lo-fi, the ideal aural environment for the primitive Glam Rock, New Wave, and tacky novelty songs that filled our charts during the decade. It’s also a pretty good metaphor for dismal 1970s Britain, even our radio reception was shoddy.

The United States, on the other hand, was the land of plenty with radio stations broadcasting in the crisp hi-fidelity tones of stereo FM; perfect for the sophisticated, well-produced Soft Rock of bands like The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac which to me is the signature sound of American pop in the 70s. In my imagination it’s playing on the stereo FM radio of a big convertible, sounding as clear and warm as a California swimming pool.

It’s a generalization but that’s the impression I’ve always had. Medium Wave was all about the single, while FM favoured the album. One was Cum On Feel The Noize, the other Hotel California.

Beyond being a radio frequency, “FM” also signified a whole culture and style in the States, there was even a movie called FM set in a Los Angeles radio station made in 1978. I never saw it (I don’t think many people did) but I did have the soundtrack album which was a guilty pleasure for me at the time. Liking an album full of Bob Seger, Boston, and James Taylor felt like a subversive act in Punk and Post-Punk England, about the least hospitable place for slick AOR made by rich, suntanned Americans with beards.

The only new song on the soundtrack was the terrific title tune by Steely Dan which, not surprisingly for them, takes a cynical view of the very thing the movie was celebrating. Their records might also have polished, FM-worthy production but, unlike the other bands on the album, Becker and Fagen’s literate East Coast cool has meant they’ve always been hip.

Download: FM (No Static At All) – Steely Dan (mp3)