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?


Back To The Future

Originally published July 2009

The future used to look like such a brilliant place to live when I was a kid, all sleek and shiny surfaces, rockets, hover cars, robots and talking computers. But now that we’re actually living in what I considered “the future” back then — 2001 was eight 18 years ago! — it doesn’t seem half as exciting and the long-term outlook is a bit grim. Given the choice I’d rather live in the future of Gerry Anderson’s 1970 TV series UFO which had all the usual science fiction gizmos and vehicles, but was also a groovy-looking world of mod interiors and futuristic babes in cat suits and silver mini skirts.

I was a huge fan of the show when it was first broadcast — I even made my own SHADO badge out of cardboard — but as I was only 8 at the time I was more interested in the Interceptors and Ed Straker’s car than all the space-age dolly birds lounging around on modular furniture. But even I took notice of the girls stationed on the Moonbase who wore tight sparkly uniforms and purple wigs (the function of which has never been explained but who cares), especially Lt. Gay Ellis played by the lovely Gabrielle Drake (top) whose forceful command of “Interceptors! Immediate launch!” in that posh Head-Girl voice of hers conjured up all sorts of, um, thoughts.

Innocent though I was, I definitely had the feeling that there was more going on in the show than I understood (it had “adult” themes — ooooh) and scenes like this left a long-lasting mark on my impressionable young mind. Gabrielle, as you probably know, was the older sister of Nick Drake, though in that outfit she looks more like she’s related to David Bowie.

Unfortunately we don’t have this sexy future to look forward to as the show was set in 1980 which, far as I remember, didn’t look anything like that. Though with all the silver outfits and purple hair I like to think it predicted the look of Glam Rock.

Like all Gerry Anderson shows it had cracking theme music.

Download: UFO (Main Theme) – Barry Gray (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.

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)

Bad Girl

Even though I used to watch the late-70s TV show Blake’s 7 I don’t remember much about it beyond its cheap-as-chips BBC sets and effects. But I do vividly remember Jacqueline Pearce who played Servalan, the evil Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation (I had to look that up) and the main villain of the show.

Sadly, Jacqueline died the other day and my Twitter feed was full of (mostly) middle-aged men reminiscing about her so I wasn’t the only one she left an impression on.

She certainly stood out with her striking face, imperious manner, and outrageously glam outfits. I was especially taken with her close-cropped black hair which gave her a Punk/Goth vibe that was very in style at the time. Her and Sandra Douglas as Ursa in Superman II were like the science fiction versions of Siouxsie Sioux — dark and dangerous but very sexy. You’d let them crush your resistance and take over your planet anytime.

Download: Lucretia Mac Evil – Blood, Sweat & Tears (mp3)

Commercial Break

Though this commercial looks like one of the most “TOTALLY EIGHTIES!” things ever, the album it’s advertising came out in 1981 which just goes to show that a lot of the visual and musical signifiers of the decade were established almost at the beginning. This “synths and eye makeup” version of the 1980s soon peaked and was a cliche before the decade was even half done.

Despite the aroma of cheesy cash-in that sticks to most K-Tel albums Modern Dance is a pretty great compilation, as good a single-album snapshot of the New Romantic/Synthpop moment as you can get. One of the lesser-known tracks is by Birmingham group Fashion who never made it big but this was a decent record with some nice elastic bass-playing on it.

Download: Move On (Extended Version) – Fashion (mp3)

Leave My Melons Alone

If you watched British television in the 1970s the chances are beauty-spotted singer Anita Harris would appear at some point. She was always popping up on shows like Morecambe and Wise, The Good Old Days, David Nixon, and even Basil Brush, usually doing a skit or a song. When she wasn’t on the telly she was usually starring in a panto somewhere and was even in a couple of Carry On films.

Before becoming a pillar of Light Entertainment television and dabbling in acting, Anita did have a recording career and her 1966 debut album Somebody’s In My Orchard is a real curio, a sort of concept album with all the songs revolving around the theme of fruits and vegetables — beat that, Pete Townsend!

The jazzy title track is a bizarre tale of a woman out to get the man who is stealing her, um, lovely produce. I’m assuming that lines like “Picking at my plum tree”, “Somebody’s sneaking melons”, and “Looking at all my walnuts” are all saucy sexual innuendo, but why does she want to get her gun and shoot this guy who “grabbed those goodies”? The original of the song is American and I know that’s how they do things, but is something darker going on behind all the nudge-nudge wink-wink?

Download: Somebody’s In My Orchard – Anita Harris (mp3)

I can’t vouch for the rest of the album because tracks are hard to come by online, but it might be worth buying just for the cover.

Louche Lizard

The actor Peter Wyngarde died last week. To be honest I was surprised he wasn’t already dead because he always looked so debauched in old photos, but he made it to the grand old age of 90. His name will mean little to many beyond Brits of a certain age, but for a while he was very famous due to his starring roles in the 1970s TV series Department S and Jason King. I briefly saw him once on Kensington High Street in the early 70s at the height of his fame which may have been my first ever celebrity sighting in London. I don’t remember much about it — I think he was getting out of a cab — beyond being very excited because it was JASON KING looking as glamourous as he did on the telly.

Reading his wiki page I’m struck by how murky the truth was about his background, his age, and his real name. And looking at the flamboyant dandy in the photo above you might find it hard to believe that most people didn’t know he was gay either, and he had the image of a womanizing playboy. I think the character of “Peter Wyngarde” might have been the best role he ever played.

Like a lot of actors at the time, Wyngarde made an album, and a like a lot of those it was very bizarre.

Download: Hippie and The Skinhead – Peter Wyngarde (mp3)

One For A Girl

The great Blue Peter vs. Magpie debate is one that has raged among the children of the 60s and 70s for decades. I always come down in favour of the latter, not least because presenter Susan Stranks was one of my very first crushes.

But also because their theme song was so much better. Blue Peter‘s jolly intro tune sounds like the world of Ladybird books and Boy Scouts, while Magpie’s was a far groovier affair from the more modern world of long-haired teachers and Glam Rock.

Download: Magpie – The Murgatroyd Band (mp3)

As any fule kno, The Murgatroyd Band were actually The Spencer Davis Group (minus Steve and Muff Winwood).

The Last Picture Show

Before I had enough of a social life to start buying Time Out every week, the late Barry Norman was the first film critic I was aware of and my first exposure to the idea that film wasn’t just “the pictures” but an art form worth talking about seriously. I got my love of movies from my Dad but, seeing as he wasn’t around, Norman’s show was a place for me to take that interest. For Americans who’ve never heard of him, he was our Roger Ebert.

His urbane, laid back style was a million miles from TV these days. He was just a rumpled journalist sitting in a chair talking, with bags under his eyes that looked like he had been up late in some dingy cinema.

Film was on the BBC for an amazing 26 years from 1972-1998. The first decade of which was during a golden era for Hollywood films and his shows of the mid-70s were my first exposure to classics like Taxi Driver and Chinatown which I saw over and over again once I was old enough to. Hollywood changed post-Star Wars and through the 80s and 90s Norman often bemoaned that they didn’t make films for grown ups anymore which, sadly, is even more true today.

This is the famous theme music to the show, forever linked in our minds with sitting in dark rooms watching flickering images on a screen.

Download: I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free – Billy Taylor (mp3)