My Mother’s Records

Originally published June 2010

What is it with the British and soul music? Why did we fall so truly, madly, deeply in love with it, worship even its most obscure artists and form so many cults and lifestyles around its every permutation? I doubt if there’s another country in world with such an obsession.

The most obvious expression of this love affair was the huge popularity of Tamla Motown which seemed to be adored by everyone in England from sharp-dressed Mods to mums and dads. Growing up, Motown songs always seemed to be coming out of a transistor radio somewhere — usually introduced by the chirpy voice of Tony Blackburn — and I don’t think I entered a house that didn’t have a copy of Motown Chartbusters on the shelf, Volume 6 with it’s bizarre Roger Dean cover was especially popular.

So it was only natural that next to her Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett albums my mother should have a copy of the 1968 compilation “The Motown Sound: A Collection Of 16 Original Big Hits Vol.6”. I’ve no idea what was on the other albums in this series (I can’t find any of them online and the American version has a completely different track listing) but the thing I love about it (especially now) is that only about three tracks on it were big hits while the rest is made up of more obscure numbers which gives it the feel of a from-the-vaults rarities collection rather than a package of chart smashes.

Little did I know when I was a little kid jumping around our living room to the fabulous, rousing “I Got A Feeling” by Barbara Randolph that I was enjoying a cult tune that was filling the floors of Northern Soul clubs. It wasn’t until the Mod revival in the late 70s when I “rediscovered” the album, dusty and half-forgotten in our sideboard, that I realized it was probably the hippest record my mother owned.

Download: I Got A Feeling – Barbara Randolph (mp3)

My other favourite track was the ballad “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You” by Rita Wright which even as a kid I thought was heartbreaking (I was a softy even then). Though I didn’t know then that “Rita Wright” was later better known by her real name Syreeta (and for a while as Mrs. Stevie Wonder), how this was never a hit either is beyond me as it’s utterly gorgeous.

Download: I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You – Rita Wright (mp3)


My Mother’s Records

Originally published February 2009

When I was about 14 my best mate at school told me that he thought my mother was good-looking. I don’t know if I should have thumped him for eyeing up my mum in that way (and maybe having secret Mrs. Robinson-style fantasies about her) but the truth is I was more chuffed than anything. I was rather proud that I had an attractive mother who got compliments — even from chubby schoolboys — and was wolf-whistled at when she walked past a building site, even though she had reached the shockingly ancient age of 40. So while she might not have been able to afford to buy me the new Gola trainers with the lime green stripe that all my mates had at least I didn’t mind being seen in public with her.

Not that she was a Bond girl or anything but because she was a single woman with long blond hair who still dated men she seemed younger and more glamourous than my friend’s mothers who were more Woman’s Realm than Cosmopolitan if you know what I mean — “proper” mums like the ones you saw in Daz commercials on the telly. That’s how I remember them anyway, but when you’re that age most grown-ups seem old and boring. My mate Paul had parents called Stan and Winnie which not only sounds like two characters out of Andy Capp they looked like them too, the sort of people the 1960s seemed to have completely passed by and you can’t imagine ever being young or having sex — though Paul was proof that they must have done it at least once. Lovely people, mind.

As you can imagine, being a divorcee raising two kids on her own my mum had a thing for songs about strong, independent women battling against the odds (men, usually) so she loved the Country record “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley. This 1968 hit was about a single parent (though widowed in this case) who scandalizes the other parents at her daughter’s school by wearing short skirts and being seen out on the town with men. The best part about it is she stands up for herself and gives them all a good verbal knee in the balls for their small-minded hypocrisy. When one-parent families were portrayed in the media back then it was usually as a “problem” — latchkey kids, “broken” homes and all that crap — so it was nice to hear a loud and proud single mum in a pop song. Not only that, but it also stands up for a mother’s right to look sexy which must have made mine pump her fist in the air and shout “right on sister!”

Download: Harper Valley PTA – Jeannie C. Riley (mp3)

Poor But Happy

Originally published January 2013

Whenever my daughter throws a tantrum because we won’t buy her some new thing that she absolutely, desperately, please please please, must have, I find myself coming on all Four Yorkshiremen and giving her the “you don’t know how lucky you are” speech which I’m sure she finds as eye-rolling as I did when my mum gave it to me. If I whined about not getting something, or was just insufficiently grateful for what I already had, my mum would play the “World War II” card, telling me how she only got an orange for Christmas when she was a kid, had to eat powdered eggs, and had bombs dropped on her by Nazis — which is hard to top really, Hitler trumps a new Action Man every time.

But even if I didn’t grow up during the Blitz my childhood wasn’t without its own relative hardships either, and I don’t mean only having a black and white telly (though, you know, we didn’t get a colour TV until I was 16).

I was about seven when my dad ran away from home to join the theatre, leaving my mother to raise two kids on her own (to be fair to my dad he did carry on paying the rent). This was in the late 60s when there weren’t exactly a lot of jobs for women that paid enough to raise a family, so my mum really struggled to keep us fed and clothed and pay the bills.

Money was tight enough for my mother to burst into desperate, angry tears one time when I lost a brand new pair of shoes (my only “good” ones), and at the beginning I think she borrowed money from a loan shark because one of my earliest memories is of this man coming to our flat every Friday night and mum giving him money which he entered into a little book. Some Fridays she wouldn’t have the money to pay so we had to pretend to be out – lights out, telly off, keep quiet — when he knocked on the door. We often did that on Saturday mornings when the milkman came knocking to get his money too.

The term “single-parent family” didn’t exist in those days, instead I came from what was called a “broken home.” My sister and I hated that phrase because it made our situation seem so grim and damaged, conjuring up images of deprived “Latchkey” kids letting themselves into cold, dingy flats where they’d heat up a tin of baked beans for tea and wait for their stressed-out parent to come home from work and slap them around a bit before bedtime. Divorce and separation are much more common now but we were the only kids we knew in our situation, and “broken home” was a label with a real stigma to it which made us feel as if we could being taken into care at any minute.

I’ve had friends ask me if I’d rather have grown up in a two-parent family but I have no idea what that would be like so they might as well ask me if I’d rather have grown up on a planet with two moons — it was just the way things were and I didn’t ever lie awake at night wishing my dad would come back. Obviously there were things I missed out on, but on the positive side I learned to cook and clean for myself at an early age (on a school camping trip and at college I was stunned how inept my peers were at basic culinary skills) and it has never occurred to me that women shouldn’t or couldn’t do the same jobs as men for the same money, so being raised by my mother made me a feminist (the chicks dig that, you know). It also made me a big believer in school uniforms because I know what it’s like to go to school without the latest trendy gear.

Here I am forty years later with a thoroughly middle-class life and two kids who are already more familiar with flying on planes and eating out in restaurants than I was in my 20s so I guess things have turned out OK. Having a daughter whose idea of deprivation is not being able to play on our iPad must count as a success of sorts, I wouldn’t ever want her to have to learn how to avoid the milkman.

Download: Money’s Too Tight (To Mention) (12″ version) – The Valentine Brothers (mp3)

My Mother’s Records

Originally published January 2010

Much as I like to big up my mother’s love of Frank Sinatra as an example of her good taste in music she did have a few skeletons in her closet — or rather in the sideboard where she kept her records. For a few years she really had a thing for Rod Stewart, and unfortunately I don’t mean the classic, Faces-era Rod either. She loved – I think even preferred — late 1970s, Britt Ekland-shagging, spandex-tights-wearing, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Rod. In a nutshell: the crap Rod. But you know what mums are like, they just don’t care about things like authenticity and street cred.

The first album of his she bought was A Night On The Town in 1976, my opinion of which has always been marred by how much of an utter prat I think he looks on the cover. That photo of Rod in a blazer and boater enjoying a nice glass of champers after a hard days punting (or something) is like Exhibit A for Why Punk Happened. Here is Rod firmly established as wealthy rock royalty and looking so smug about it that you want to punch him in the face. The outfit he’s wearing is based on the pastiche of Renoir’s painting Le moulin de la Galette that’s on the other side of the cover and while I’m sure Rod was thinking to himself “it’s a bit classy, innit?” it looks like a rather naff vision of “the high life” to me, more Babycham than Dom Perignon. Only Bryan Ferry had the panache to do that sort of thing properly.

When he made this album he was well on his way to booking a stool at the bar next to George Best in the “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” Club but it does still have flickers of his old brilliance on it. His version of “First Cut Is The Deepest” is my favourite, and “The Balltrap” is great, raunchy Faces-style rawk and roll. But the real surprise is the beautiful “The Killing of Georgie”, a song Stewart wrote about a gay friend who was murdered. Given Rod’s image as a football-loving, skirt-chasing, Jack the Lad it’s an unusual subject for him to tackle and a fairly bold one too considering that at the time the popular image of homosexuals was either as camp Larry Graysons and John Inmans or shady perverts, so writing a delicate and touching song about a gay man — years before Tom Robinson, Bronski Beat, and Pet Shop Boys — and having a big hit with it was quite something. He even manages to show some understanding toward Georgie’s murderer too and it’s hard to believe such a sensitive song could come from the pen of the man who also wrote “Tonight’s The Night” on the same album, a lecherous song about deflowering a virgin that’s about as delicate as a Penthouse letter. Maybe he wasn’t such a prat after all.

Though if Rod was hoping to promote more tolerance toward gay people it fell on deaf ears at my school where this boy who was suspected of being a “poof” (for no reason that I can remember) got nicknamed “Georgie” and lots of kids (not me!) would shout “oooh, Georgie!” in limp-wristed voices at him. Poor bastard was probably scarred for life.

Download: The Killing of Georgie (Pt. 1 and 2) – Rod Stewart (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)

My Mother’s Records

My mum had 45s of Harry Nilsson’s two big hits “Everbody’s Talkin'” and “Without You” which she loved. She was also a huge fan of Frank Sinatra and the old standards he sang so it would seem natural she’d love an album of Nilsson singing them arranged by Gordon Jenkins who had performed the same duties for Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.

And love it she did. A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night from 1973 was one of her favourite albums and probably the one she played the most when she wanted to relax. The combo of Nilsson’s sweet voice and Jenkins’ heavenly strings on songs like “As Time Goes By” and “Making Whoopee” just made her swoon.

These days everyone from Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart to Robbie Williams and Lady Gaga has put out a cover album of old-timey songs, but in 1973 it was a real left-field move even for an idiosyncratic, eclectic artist like Nilsson and was greeted with puzzlement. In the eyes of the rock audience back then about the un-coolest thing you could do was make an album of their parent’s music. Was he serious? Bryan Ferry got away with doing old chestnuts like “These Foolish Things” because he performed them with a big dose of camp archness, but there’s none of that with Nilsson. Just a man singing songs he loves and doing it beautifully.

Listening to it again for probably the first time in 40-plus years I’m dazzled by how great Nilsson’s vocals are and the orchestration is so grand and lush you could drown in it. The whole album drifts along at the same languid, hazy pace with each song blending into the next, so it seems more like a conceptual suite than just a collection of individual tracks.

I can’t hear his version of “As Times Goes By” without remembering my mum singing along with it, but beyond the nostalgic tug it exerts on me I think it’s a wonderful record.

Download: As Time Goes By – Harry Nilsson (mp3)

Back To The Old House

For the first 10 years of my life my family lived in an old Victorian block of flats in Fulham called Humbolt Mansions. It was knocked down soon after we moved out and in the years since I don’t recall ever seeing a photo of the place and even internet searches yielded nothing — it was like the flats had been wiped from memory. Then recently I found these images at The London Picture Archive and had one of those “oh wow” moments that suddenly unlock your brain and bring the memories flooding back.

Though the building was solid in the way Victorian ones are, our flat was dingy and run down. There was a massive hole in our bathroom ceiling and one night a mouse fell out of it and landed on my mum when she was in the bath. There was also a small hole in the living room floor by the skirting board that a pet gerbil I had disappeared down and never came back. On the plus side it had a long, narrow hallway I could race my Hot Wheels cars down.

Though Fulham wasn’t exactly a dodgy part of London we were burgled twice. The first time I vividly remember coming home from school one day and walking up the stairs to find the glass in our front door had been smashed in. Luckily my Dad was with us (he was still living at home then) so he went inside first to make sure no one was still in there and called the police. They’d didn’t get much except our big old radio and all the money out of the gas meter. Not much consolation though, if you’ve ever been burgled you’ll know how strange it can make your own home feel.

When the building was demolished the entire street block was taken down with it which included an old disused library, a doctor’s surgery, and a junk shop called Abbot’s which we spent a lot of time in as kids. It was a little place piled high with all kinds of stuff and felt a bit like Aladdin’s cave to me — albeit a very musty and dusty one.

I can’t say I have a lot of happy memories of living there, besides the things mentioned above it’s where my parent’s marriage fell apart. I remember them arguing in the living room and crying because I had no clue what was going on and why they were shouting at each other. That’s the sort of thing that scars you for a long time. With my Dad gone my mother was left in a bad financial situation which cast a pall over a lot of our life there. The electricity was cut off at one point, and a creepy loan shark came around once a week to collect on the money my mum had borrowed. Happily, life improved a whole lot when we moved to a 1960s council flat that was brighter and cleaner and my sister and I got our own bedrooms.

45 years later and that whole block is just an empty patch of grass with nothing built on it despite being in what is now a very desirable part of London. Even after all this time I still look at this spot and think there’s something missing. It’s like a big hole where my childhood used to be.

Download: This Is The House (12″ Version) – Eurythmics (mp3)

My Mother’s Records

The Jazz standard “Misty” was one of my mother’s favourite songs and she loved this Country-fied version by Ray Stevens which was a huge hit in 1975.

It’s one of those songs that is indestructible enough to stand almost any kind of interpretation and it fits surprisingly well into the genre. The addition of banjo and a sprightly beat moves the song from a smoky nightclub to a barn dance in rural America but it still retains it’s sense of the blissful euphoria of being in love.

The definitive version of “Misty” is by Johnny Mathis (a concert highlight of my life was seeing him sing it at the Albert Hall in the 80s) and Stevens doesn’t come close to the spine-tingling beauty of that but this is still an original take on it. Stevens is best known for his dreadful comedy records like “Bridget the Midget” and “The Streak”, and a little of his goofy hick persona shows through but even that can’t kill the beautiful, swooning sweetness of the song.

Download: Misty – Ray Stevens (mp3)

The Memory Hole

My sister came to visit last summer and brought with her this photo booth picture she found among our mum’s things. Amazingly I had never seen it before so I was bowled over at having a forgotten moment from my childhood unexpectedly revealed.

We think it was taken around 1967 which makes me about five years old (bless), and fifty years later I find myself staring at it trying to imagine where we were and what that day was like. We were probably out shopping and the photo booth was a spur-of-the-moment bit of fun because I do remember us doing that on other occasions. We certainly look happy, especially my mum who is positively beaming — I like to think with pride over her lovely kids.

I treasure pictures like this because I don’t have many of them. We didn’t own a camera until my mum bought a Pocket Instamatic in the 1970s so I don’t have a lot of family photos from before then. I have school photos but those are really just a record of the changing length of my hair.

It occurred to me writing this that the really big hole in the photo album of my life is that I only have one photo of me with my dad when I was a little kid. I guess he didn’t have a camera either.

This is Dusty’s 1982 version of a great Elvis Costello song.

Download: Losing You (Just A Memory) – Dusty Springfield (mp3)