The School Disco

Originally published May 2007

My American wife loves watching 1980s teen movies like Pretty In Pink and Sixteen Candles (she was at high school herself during that era and I think she wanted to be Molly Ringwald) and what always strikes me watching these films is what a completely different universe an American school is compared to English ones. U.S. schools seem to be more like social clubs ruled by the good-looking and the athletic that revolve around dating, sports, being popular (the most important thing) and events like Prom and Homecoming dances which have a life and death significance in kid’s lives.

We don’t have Proms or Homecoming in England, what we had – if we were lucky – was the occasional School Disco. They weren’t the elaborate affairs that Proms are, with kids arriving in limos all decked out in tuxedos and ballgowns to be entertained by live bands and professional DJs. At my school the couple of discos we had were held in one of the classrooms with the music provided by some kid in the corner with a record player and a pile of 45s. There may have been some orange squash in paper cups for refreshments too but I’m not sure we even had that extravagance. In many ways this perfectly encapsulates the differences between the two countries (at least back then): you have the rich, glamourous Americans with their confidence and perfect teeth, while us Brits were a bit shabby and pathetic, making our entertainment out of old Cornflakes boxes and sticky-back plastic.

I went to an all-boys school which meant we were also missing one vital ingredient for a good disco: girls. They had to be invited over from the local girls school and they arrived as these exotic, alien creatures that we’d heard a lot about but had no idea how to communicate with. So the picture above shows exactly how the evening always ended up, the girls dancing together on one side of the room while the boys just stared at them from afar, too scared to cross the terrifying No Man’s Land of the room and talk to them. Occasionally there was a boy with the front to actually go and chat one of them up and you always hated/envied those confident, jammy bastards.

If I’d had the bottle to actually ask a girl to dance I might have a “special” school disco record to remind me of that moment, but I didn’t so there isn’t one. Reggae was always very popular though, you’d have to be a total spazz not to be able to singalong and dance to something like “Uptown Top Ranking” by Althea & Donna. This got to No. 1 in 1977 and was a massive favourite with everyone apart from the some of the West Indian kids at school who were into heavy dub and pooh-poohed this sort of light, pop-reggae (they even called Bob Marley “white man’s music”.)

This kind of dusty, skanking beat always reminds me of those days, and in my head it’s playing on a tinny record player in the corner of some dingy classroom and I’m standing there all alone with a paper cup of warm orange squash in my hand, too scared to go and ask Jackie Bolton to dance.

Download: Uptown Top Ranking – Althea & Donna (mp3)

Update: Since I wrote this it seems that a lot English schools do now have Proms which I find a bit depressing.


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)

Greetings, Grapple Fans

Originally published January 2012

“By the late 1980s the interests of the working class had changed dramatically, and we wanted to capture part of where they’d gone to, rather than where they’d been. Wrestling was stuck in a timewarp – it personified the old English working class sitting around the telly, staring blankly. That was the image we were trying to kill, so we decided to kill the wrestling.” — Greg Dyke, Head of ITV Sport

“Why did it come off TV? Because it was crap! The young person wasn’t interested anymore. We lost an audience, the younger element, because it was all big fat horrible men. You don’t go to see big fat horrible men. You go to see dolly fellas.” — Jackie Pallo

At 4 o’clock most Saturday afternoons in the early 1970s you’d know where to find me, along with millions of other British people (including the Queen apparently): parked in front of the telly watching the wrestling on World of Sport. Introduced as always by commentator Kent Walton with the salutation “Greetings, grapple fans!” this version of wrestling was very different to the slick, hyper WWF that we know today, it was rather more low-budget, Bingo Hall-shabby than glitzy Madison Square Garden spectacular, meat pies and Pale Ale instead of Big Macs and Coke.

But that’s not to say it lacked showmanship and characters. There were bad guys to boo like Mick McManus and Jackie Pallo, the flamboyantly camp glam-rocker Adrian Street, the great Johnny Kwango (one of my favourites) with his lethal flying-headbutt move, the man-mountain Giant Haystacks and, most exciting of all, the mysterious, masked man Kendo Nagasaki whose ritual unmasking on television had me riveted. He had a tattoo on the top of his head! And red eyes! It was brilliant. I thought he was like a superhero (or villain) with his costume and secret identity (turns out his name was Peter Thornley and he was from Stoke — not very exotic really.)

Watching old fights on YouTube it can seem painfully cheap and creaky now (though not without a certain low-rent charm), a relic of an England that was vanishing into the past along with our factories and coal mines. Then when American wrestling was first shown in the UK in the 1980s it must have made our home-grown version look really tatty — especially when the biggest English star at the time was the middle-aged tub-of-guts Big Daddy who looked like the only training he did was lifting pints. I’d stopped watching it myself about 10 years before but if I’d been a teenage boy in the late 80s faced with the choice between some fat old man who beat people by falling on them belly-first (his famous “splash” move) and a Hulk Hogan who didn’t just dress like a superhero but had the muscles of one too, it wouldn’t even be a contest, called by the referee after a total KO — the “referee” in this case being Greg Dyke who took wrestling off the air in 1988.

A similar thing happened to English cafes when McDonald’s came to the country, it was a cultural bliztkrieg we didn’t have the ammo to defend against and wrestling was the equivalent of a stewed, chipped mug of tea in a run-down greasy spoon.

And, yes, I know it was all fake.

Download: Nutted By Reality – Nick Lowe (mp3)

Above quotes from The Wrestling by Simon Garfield (terrific book)
More posters here.

Close Your Eyes and Think of England

Originally published August 2007

There are few more beautiful places on this Earth than the English countryside on a hot summer day (we do get them occasionally.) When we were kids my sister and I used to spend two weeks every summer staying with our auntie Carol in Derbyshire where we’d fill our days cycling along country lanes, fishing for sticklebacks in shady streams, picking berries, and generally being happy-go-lucky youngsters frollocking about England’s green and pleasant land.

All that was over 30 years ago and my memories of those days are very hazy so it probably wasn’t anywhere near as utopian as it sounds, but my heart still swells when I see rolling green English hills and I drift off into a wistful reverie of long ago perfect summers.

Elusive as butterflies though those moments are, Virgina Astley tried to capture them on her 1983 album From Gardens Where We Feel Secure which evokes the warm, lazy glow of an English country summer day with ambient piano instrumentals that float along like dandelion spores, dressed up with field recordings of chirping birds, church bells, creaking garden gates and baa-ing lambs. It’s as precious as little cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and when I hear it I get all dreamy and reflective and have the urge for a cold glass of Robinson’s Barley Water.

It could just be my advancing age and sentimentality but I can hear a heavy sadness underneath the pretty surface of this record. Not just because even the most perfect summer day has to come to an end, but there’s a yearning for an Arcadian idyll that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did. Yes, even on a perfect summer day we English can find something to be depressed about.

Download: A Summer Long Since Passed – Virginia Astley (mp3)

Photo: Surrey Hills by Clifton Royal Adams, 1928

Bloody Pulp Fiction

Originally published May 2012

We all know the Lord of The Flies cliche about boys being little more than savages beneath a thin veneer of civilization, and anyone who has gone to an all-boys school knows that this is pretty much true. My comprehensive was no different, a pressure-cooker of raging hormones and cruel adolescent power games where the strong mercilessly preyed on the weak, the bookish, the different, the short-sighted.

Not surprisingly our tastes in reading material leaned toward the violent and nasty, and if it had a sprinkling of smut in it too so much the better. There was a sort of underground lending library system at school with certain parent- and teacher-unfriendly books being passed from one kid to another, often with the “good” pages marked for easy reference. Popular reads were Richard Allen’s Skinhead books and Jaws by Peter Benchley, but it was The Rats by James Herbert that was the must-read book we all couldn’t wait to get our hands on. I remember that it had such a cult, talked-about status at school (and a controversial reputation elsewhere), that when I finally got a copy passed to me I felt like I was handling radioactive material and immediately hid it in my Adidas bag until I got home.

Published in 1974, The Rats is a gruesome novel about London being terrorized by giant mutant rats with a taste for human flesh, and is full of lurid descriptions of people being attacked and killed in very, very nasty ways:

But as he stood, one of the larger rats leapt at his groin, pulling away his genitals with one mighty twist of his body. The tramp screamed and fell to his knees, thrusting his hands between his legs as if to stop the flow of blood, but he was immediately engulfed and toppled over by a wave of black, bristling bodies.

As you can imagine we — pardon the expression — ate this up with glee. A tramp had his knob bitten off by a rat! That bloke had his eyes chewed out! They ate a baby! I read it again recently (well, skimmed would be more accurate) and while I wouldn’t exactly call Herbert a good writer he’s an effective and efficient one; the story motors along from one horrific scene to another with no distracting subplots, and the only chapter that doesn’t have any bloody carnage in it has a sex scene instead — x-rated, vividly-described sex of course (chapter eight if you’re interested) — so the book managed to get our adolescent blood pumping into more than one organ. No wonder it we loved it so much, it was if it had been written by a committee set up to produce a book just to satisfy our particular bloody and lusty imaginations.

It’s been claimed that, under the schlocky horror, The Rats is actually a damning portrait of the run-down, dysfunctional state of London — and England — in the 1970s, and reading it again with grown-up eyes I did think that if you took away the killer rats you’d have a social-realist polemic. There are lots of angry references to slum neighbourhoods in the East End, dirty canals, neglected bomb-site wastelands, people living in poorly-built “concrete towers” with stinking rubbish chutes, and at one point the dustmen go on strike forcing the Army to be called in to clear rubbish from the streets which actually happened during the Winter of Discontent in 1979. The rats may have been mutant freaks but the novel makes it clear that they bred and thrived in a city one character curses as “Dirty bloody London!”

So if a teacher had caught me with it and asked me why I was reading such junk, I could have replied “Actually sir, it’s a devastating critique of the social, political, and environmental conditions in London today” — and he probably would have given me a clip ’round the ear and confiscated the book.

Download: Down In The Sewer – The Stranglers (mp3)

Upwardly Mobile

Originally published March 2012.

Someone asks the question “How are British people taught to expect failure and disappointment?” and gets a lot of responses, including this rather pithy formulation:

“Many American kids are told that they might grow up to be the President. No English kid is told that he might grow up to be King”

This isn’t exactly true of course. There are, oh, three English people who were told as kids that they might be King one day and their names are Charles, William, and Harry Windsor. But I assume it was meant to be a comment on the inherently undemocratic nature of the British Constitution (if we had one anyway) because they won’t get the job by working hard at school and going to a good University, it will be because hundreds of years ago one of their ancestors married or killed someone — or both. You don’t vote for Kings as Monty Python said in The Holy Grail, which is terrible and probably has no place in a modern democracy and all that. They do have nice costumes though.

But it got me wondering, why aren’t English kids told they could grow up to be Prime Minister one day? In my experience it’s not an ambition instilled in our kids the same way that “you could be President” is an almost cliched dream for Americans. I know our countries have different histories but it’s not as if being Prime Minister is an out-of-reach, pigs-might-fly ambition these days. A lot of the recent occupants of No. 10 — Blair, Major, and Thatcher (boo! hiss!) — are all from fairly middle-class backgrounds so it’s perfectly reasonable to think it possible that even a kid from a council estate could become PM if they were clever, driven, and power-mad enough. It might help if they went to Oxford or Cambridge though.

So why not? I know us Brits are a glass-half-empty kind of people who think excessive ambition is a bit vulgar but I can’t imagine that in today’s more aspirational, fame-obsessed England old attitudes like “don’t get ideas above your station” and “know your place” have much currency — I would hope they’d been chucked in the rubbish bin along with the tugged forelock.

But I could be wrong and English schools are now full of wannabe Blairs and Camerons which, on the one hand is a good thing (ambition!) but on the other hand, what sort of kid would want to be like those bastards? Maybe that’s the problem.

Download: Ambition – Subway Sect (mp3)

Sweet Home Suburbia

Originally published December 2008

“Do you know the road I live in—Ellesmere Road, West Bletchley? Even if you don’t, you know fifty others exactly like it. You know how these streets fester all over the inner-outer suburbs. Always the same. Long, long rows of little semi-detached houses—the numbers in Ellesmere Road run to 212 and ours is 191—as much alike as council houses and generally uglier. The stucco front, the creosoted gate, the privet hedge, the green front door. The Laurels, the Myrtles, the Hawthorns, Mon Abri, Mon Repos, Belle Vue. At perhaps one house in fifty some anti-social type who’ll probably end in the workhouse has painted his front door blue instead of green.”
George Orwell
Coming Up For Air (1939)

Most of my family originally come from London but I have aunties and uncles who moved out to the leafy suburban outskirts of the city to places like Purley and Crawley where they had children, played golf, drank sherry and led nice middle-class lives. When I visited them as a kid I think I felt a little jealous of my cousins living in these large semi-detached houses with big back gardens only a short bike ride away from actual countryside (this was in the 1970s, I imagine the “countryside” is a lot further away now). Compared to our poky little council flat it seemed that they led an idyllic life like something out of a Ladybird book, where it was always sunny, there was a new car in the driveway and two parents at home, a cheery mum who baked pies and a solid, cardigan-wearing dad who did something in accounting.

But this feeling probably had more to do with my personal family circumstances than any actual reality, after all I was the one who lived in London and inevitably my sense of city superiority took hold so by my late teens I regarded my suburban cousins as rather boring and backward people whose lives I wouldn’t swap with for all the tea in Croydon.

Being a city boy who has an existential crisis if he lives too far from tall concrete buildings I obviously have my prejudices, but that’s nothing compared to the good kicking the suburbs have always gotten in popular culture over the years; the list of novels, movies, plays and television shows damning them as awful, soul-crushing dead zones is as long as Orwell’s Ellesmere Road. This is true in every country that has suburbs but it’s in pop music that the English have really staked a claim to the subject. I’ve not done an in-depth survey or anything but there could be more English pop songs about suburbs and suburbanites than there are about almost any other subject (apart from L.O.V.E of course), and with few exceptions these songs portray the suburbs as the dull home to either angry, uptight reactionaries or sad, downtrodden cogs in the capitalist machine — usually with both hiding all sorts of sordid and kinky goings-on behind their net curtains of their mock-Tudor homes.

So why the fixation with these places? It’s not the garden gnomes and shag carpets they’re objecting to, the suburbs stand for bourgeois conformity and all the conservative values of tradition and respectability that rebellious, modern, pink-haired pop music is supposed to be against. And it’s often in the suburbs that these values, for lack of anything better to do, curdle and turn sour into reactionary xenophobia, empty materialism and dull philistinism which makes them a nice easy target for any aspiring pop poet who thinks he has something to say about England and the English.

This is just a small dip into the vast English Suburbia Songbook, none of which have anything nice to say about it.

Download: Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James – Manfred Mann (mp3)
Download: Suburban Relapse – Siouxsie & The Banshees (mp3)
Download: The Sound of The Suburbs – The Members (mp3)
Download: Respectable Street – XTC (mp3)

Light Entertainment

Originally published August 2007

It’s a Saturday night in the early 70s and I’m lying on our brown shag carpet in front of our black and white television rented from Radio Rentals (no one owned a TV set back then). I’m waiting for The Two Ronnies and Match of The Day to come on, but first I have to suffer through awful Light Entertainment shows like The Black & White Minstrels and Seaside Special, usually with dance numbers performed by The Young Generation and musical guests Demis Roussos, Lena Zavaroni, and Peters & Lee singing their #1 smash hit “Welcome Home.”

Peters & Lee were an odd couple. There were rumours (which my mum mentioned every time they came on the telly) that blind Lennie Peters had been friends with the Kray brothers in the 60s, and with his craggy face he looked more like a tough George Sewell type hard man, put him in a sheepskin car coat and you could imagine him on The Sweeney telling some slag to shut it or he’ll break his kneecaps. Dianne Lee, on the other hand, looked like the glamourous wife of a young stockbroker, passing around the sausages on sticks at suburban cocktail parties.

Posting this I feel like I’m testing the limits of nostalgia’s power to put a golden glow on things. Lennie did have a rather good, husky and Charlie Rich-esque voice but it’s drowned in a sea of easy listening strings and backing singers, and Dianne must have been there purely as eye candy because her voice hardly registers. I can’t help but hear it through a filter of memories which makes me more kindly disposed toward it, but strip all the baggage of the past away and it’s left alone in the cultural Dead Zone of 1970s Light Entertainment television and that’s a dreadful place to be — it’s all brown and Mike and Bernie Winters live there.

Download: Welcome Home – Peters & Lee (mp3)