Thursday, 21 September 2017

Report cards

 I'm not sure that I'll ever manage to clear away my father's effects. The emotionally draining nature of it means that I can only manage short bursts at a time. My default emotion when I try is mostly frustration at his pointless hoarding (for every holiday that he ever took over sixty years he kept hold of every map and brochure), but interspersed with blinding rage at some reminder of his pomposity (a letter written to the paper in the early seventies complaining at some modern teacher's questioning of the value of homework, in which he compares the discipline required in learning declension of verbs with the worthlessness of "time spent loitering on street corners or watching television"). The worst discovery yet has been finding notes titled "W - personal development" in which he complains at my eight year-old self's “lack of interest in serious reading”, among my many other failings.

 It’s a dispiriting experience in several ways, booby-trapped with the occasional emotional landmine. Such as three of my reports from primary school from 1981, 1982 and 1984. I have no recollection of being shown these at the time. Talk about the child being the father of the man - some of this reads like my immutable and continuous inner voice of self-reproach today:

 William gives the absolute minimum; no amount of encouragement will alter this. (...) He is capable of producing more work than he does. (1982)

 William (...) shows an uneven development. He concentrates on the subjects which interest him the most. A very individual boy. He can appear precocious until one gets to know him. (1984)

 There are some odd reminders of aspects of myself that I'd forgotten. I always think of myself as being particularly cack-handed at anything visual or that requires making things, but at eight the thing that I was best at was art and crafts:

  William is a very original and creative boy. He has some ingenious ideas and the skills to carry them out. He has an excellent sense of proportion in his drawing. (1981)

 I'd forgotten that. I always think of myself as being verbal, but when I was a boy I was drawing all the time, not reading or writing. My other aptitude at eight years is Drama - "William enjoys being in the limelight in drama and can keep the whole class amused and keep their interest single-handedly." Like many shy people, I'm always most confident under the formal circumstances of speaking to a group. Another thing I'd forgotten was (third sentence):
William has a highly original mind. He writes very intriguing and unusual stories. His poems are excellent, here his originality and insight can be used to the full. (1981)

 My final primary school report contains a particularly prophetic passage:
He tolerates other people, preferring to walk on his own. He is well liked + respected by other children though not always understood. William prefers a peaceful atmosphere + one can imagine him seeking an academic career when he's older (followed by the largely undeserved, "He is a boy with great potential", which I'm glad that no-one showed me at the time). (1984)

 And look who I am and where I am now... The bit about other children makes me sound more popular than I usually remember myself being, but I think is also generally right. I usually remember myself being an awful contrarian pipsqueak when I was eleven (usually learned behaviour from my father), but this reminds me that even I wasn't behaving like that all the time. By the age of eleven, there were lots of occasions when you would have proper mature conversations with your peers - boys and girls who you'd grown up with over the past seven years, the type of social interaction that I now like best as an adult. There's quite a lot to be said for the last year of primary school, when you could be a mature child without the anxiety of puberty or exams (more true then than now). Come the autumn, when I'd moved on to a single sex public school (Dulwich College) it felt like being thrown in a bear pit and all of that (co-educational) mutual interest and putative maturity had suddenly gone for good.

 I have a generally melancholic disposition and tend to remember unhappy incidents and feelings, but reading the earliest of these reports reminds me of the sheer amount of pleasant time that you spend in school as a child in a well-run and kindly classroom. The crucial thing from year to year, I realise, was whether or not the teacher genuinely liked me. It’s something that the teacher can't fake, but affects the child's sense of whether you're an agreeable or problematic person. I sound like a different child in these two years - or, more precisely, an opposite version of the same one:
William takes an extremely mature interest in the world around him. He has settled well into the class and there are only occasional outbursts of temper. He is a very affectionate and friendly boy with a delightful sense of humour. William finds it difficult to concentrate on things which do not hold much interest for him. I have enjoyed having William as a member of the class. (1981)

William is an unusual child. Although he takes a mature interest in the world around him, his behaviour in class is extremely immature. He is unable to concentrate for very long and becomes distracted, annoying other children and the class as a whole. William is capable of giving more than he has shown this year. (1982)

 And something that wasn’t thought about in the early eighties becomes revealed to me. My inability to concentrate, forgetfulness, and wandering daydreaming mind… is (predominantly inattentive) Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, isn’t it? And all of the constant censure and guilt about work - careless, irresponsible, lazy, you don't care/show any effort, you just aren't trying… Perhaps I actually really couldn’t do it, after all?

 Further excavation unearths my first and second form school reports from Dulwich College. The striking thing about these when read after the primary school ones is the lack of pastoral interest in my emotional state or how I get on with the other boys. This makes them more disconnected from my inner life at the time, that I can vividly recall and instantly bring back.

 The story of me over these two years can be quickly told. I was a very unpopular boy at school and the object of derision and mockery. Almost every day there would be some collective baiting of me that would culminate with me in tears, power rituals that built towards a climax that its hard not to read as an adult as being in some way sexual (and with an institutional parallel in the ritual humiliation of playing rugby union twice a week). There was a dual quality to my understanding of this. I didn't understand what was going on while simultaneously riding what was happening to me and evaluating and testing what got a particular reaction. This was in part coping mechanism, and part Christian fatalistic stoicism:

He is very much a 'day-dreamer' (Summer 1985)

 And largely stemmed from my distaste at enforced mass male company, which remains something that I go out of my way to avoid. 

 [Even Smart's tremendous disorganisation] tends to distance him from his peers towards whom he feels no empathy whatsoever. (Michaelmas 1985)

 The two years took two different routes and I'm still not sure which was preferable. In the first form I somehow managed to conceal what was going on to my parents and teachers, although I think I was mentally ill by the summer (I'd wake myself up at four in the morning and wouldn't eat lunch). It was a private suffering, unhealthy but which also carried a certain dignity:

 He is a pleasant and reserved boy who ought to have the ability to make father academic progress. (Michaelmas 1984)

 He is as yet very passive, shy and uninvolved: a real loner. His interest in Drama could prove very useful in overcoming this. (Summer 1985)

 In the second form (thanks to a do-gooding and evangelical concerned form master) I was officially recognised as a problem child and sent to educational psychologists, etc, which felt like a continual humiliation. (By the third year, I became bolshier in a way that must have made me tiresome in a righteous teenage way but was also a better approach to coping with an institution).

 All four reports continually reiterate my disorganisation and, especially, my poor handwriting. I suspect this wouldn't be so much of a big deal today, not just because of universal computerisation, but because people have stopped making such a thing about the paramount importance of joined-up handwriting. On a few occasions I was sent to handwriting specialists and felt a great sense of a burden being released when the final one told me, "Your writing is much better when you don't join it up. You should just stop doing it." When I was fifteen. My marks are always wildly poor in these two years. Retrospectively I hold some contrarian pride in having been the bottom boy in the bottom class:

It’s apparent from an exam mark of a mere 10% that after the difficult first term he simply never understood this year's course. (Chemistry, Summer 1986)

 But sometimes the grades for application are not so bad. I'm surprised to see B plusses for Science and French - two subjects that I can only remember being bad at. I intermittently show aptitude for History and Geography. The only thing that I'm consistently good at is Art, which certainly hasn't carried over into my adult life.

 I had four English teachers over these two years, and my observation in my primary school reports of the paramount importance of how much the teacher likes you, and that being something that can't be faked holds just as true here. The first two weren't much taken with me:

Although he is an enthusiastic worker, his written work leaves much to be desired. (Michaelmas 1984)

There is still a rather strange disparity between his written work, which is often very poor, and his oral ability. He reads well and has a lively imagination but his written work has shown little improvement. (Summer 1985)

 And then the third teacher, I'd forgotten about her. Young and inexperienced, she must have been a rather ill at ease but nice woman. She only lasted a term and wasn't good at managing the unruly and glib lower stream class. I remember her leaving at least one lesson in tears and the boys feeling a bit guilty and deciding to lay off because they quite liked her. Although my marks are almost as bad in English as in any other subject, I also get an A and her comment is the only one in these reports that strikes me as particularly perceptive or empathetic about myself:

Puzzling, original, unusual. His maturity of thought and his intellectual calibre is not only way above the technical standard of his written work, but also above the rest of the class in its sophistication, so he suffers from misunderstanding and isolation.

 She must have recognised something of herself in my position, I think now. I wonder what became of her?

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Roxy (Tyne Tees/ ITV) 1987-88

The Fall perform 'Hit the North' on The Roxy (10 November 1987)

 Tyne Tees' short-lived The Roxy (1987-88) is only remembered as a footnote in the history of British pop TV, invariably described as "The ITV Top of the Pops". The reasons for its failure are pretty apparant in retrospect - a reluctance of the ITV network as a whole to get behind the project, its use of the second-best Network Chart (shared with Independent Local Radio and the NME), presenters who weren't household names, the difficulty of competing with an established TV brand of proven value in Top Of The Pops (especially when a Roxy appearance required recording in Newcastle and not London) meaning that a lot of minor barely-hits got performed on the show at times.

 However, watching many clips from the show online 30 years on, I'm struck by how well made the programme often was and what a good job it did of making a range of songs seem exciting. The Roxy came to be largely because Tyne Tees' pioneering live Channel 4 music show The Tube (1982-87) had finished, and a desire to make good use of the company's five years accumulated experience of making music television combined with the need to bring fresh youth audiences to ITV (always a problem for the channel). When watched in comparison with Top of the Pops performances of the same song, the Roxy versions often come off better to my mind - especially in terms of direction, sound and use of and engagement with the studio audience (particularly in the earlier editions recorded in a converted cinema with proscenium arch theatrical staging).

 From a distance of three decades The Roxy looks like a very good television show and a useful gazetteer of a lively pop time. Here is a complete list of studio performances, and links to YouTube videos of the majority:


With Los Lobos (La Bamba), Siouxsie & The Banshees (Song From The Edge Of The World), Freddie McGregor (I Just Don't Want To Be Lonely), Marillion (Sugar Mice), Shakin' Stevens (A Little Boogie Woogie), New Order (True Faith)


With Wet Wet Wet (Sweet Little Mystery), Errol Brown (Personal Touch), Hue & Cry (Labour Of Love), Samantha Fox (I Surrender), Def Leppard (Animal)


With Westworld (Where The Action Is), Spagna (Call Me), Freddie McGregor (I Just Don't Want To Be Lonely), Echo & The Bunnymen (Lips Like Sugar), Kim Wilde (Say You Really Want Me), Los Lobos (La Bamba)


With Then Jericho (The Motive), Sinitta (Toy Boy), Pseudo Echo (Funky Town), Def Leppard (Animal), New Order (True Faith)


With T'Pau (Heart And Soul), The Jesus & Mary Chain (Happy When It Rains), Rick Astley (Never Gonna Give You Up), Wet Wet Wet (Sweet Little Mystery), Yello & Shirley Bassey (The Rhythm Divine)


With Johnny Hates Jazz (I Don't Want To Be A Hero), Black (Wonderful Life), Sinitta (Toy Boy), Then Jericho (The Motive), Squeeze (Hour Glass), Rick Astley (Never Going To Give You Up)


With ABC (The Night You Murdered Love), Chris Rea (Loving You Again), Levert (Casanova), The Housemartins (Me And The Farmer), Cliff Richard (Some People)


With Depeche Mode (Never Let Me Down Again), Jonathan Butler (Lies), T'Pau (Heart And Soul), M/A/R/R/S (Pump Up The Volume), Black (Wonderful Life), Level 42 (It's Over)


With Curiosity Killed The Cat (Free), Johnny Hates Jazz (I Don't Want To Be A Hero), Cliff Richard (Some People), The Communards (Tomorrow), Def Leppard (Pour Some Sugar On Me)


With Hue & Cry (Strength To Strength), Karel Fialka (Hey Matthew), Housemaster Boyz (Housenation), Shakin' Stevens (Come See About Me), M/A/R/R/S (Pump Up The Volume)


With The Christians (When Fingers Point), Steve Winwood (Valerie), Level 42 (It's Over), Lloyd Cole & The Commotions (My Bag), Erasure (The Circus)


With Living In A Box (So The Story Goes), Jelly Bean (The Real Thing), Sisters Of Mercy (This Corrosion), The Cross (Cowboys And Indians), M/A/R/R/S (Pump Up The Volume), Gary Numan (Cars (E Reg Model))


With Terence Trent D'Arby (Dance Little Sister), Ray Parker Jnr (I Don't Think That Man Should Sleep Alone), UB40 (Maybe Tomorrow), Was (Not Was) (Walk The Dinosaur), Bryan Ferry (The Right Stuff)


With The Alarm (Rain In The Summertime), Scarlet Fantastic (No Memory), Erasure (The Circus), Blue Mercedes (I Want To Be Your Property), Bryan Adams (Victim Of Love)


With Then Jericho (Muscle Deep), Was (Not Was) (Walk The Dinosaur), Black (I'm Not Afraid), T'Pau (China In Your Hand), The Style Council (Wanted), Rick Astley (Whenever You Need Somebody)


With The Communards (Never Can Say Goodbye), Maxi Priest (Some Guys Have All The Luck), Heartbeat (Tears From Heaven), Marillion (Warm Wet Circles)


With Mirage (Jack Mix IV), T'Pau (China In Your Hand), The Fall (Hit The North), Joe Cocker (Unchain My Heart), Rick Astley (Whenever You Need Somebody)


With The Proclaimers (Letter From America), The Housemartins (Build), The Communards (Never Can Say Goodbye), Glen Goldsmith (I Won't Cry), Johnny Hates Jazz (Turn Back The Clock)


With Blue Mercedes (I Want To Be Your Property), Paul McCartney (Once Upon A Long Ago), Mirage (Jack Mix IV), Maxi Priest (Some Guys Have All The Luck)


With Labi Siffre (Nothin's Gonna Change), The Proclaimers (Letter From America), ABC (King Without A Crown), T'Pau (China In Your Hand)


With The Alarm (Rescue Me), Johnny Hates Jazz (Turn Back The Clock), T'Pau (China In Your Hand)

15.12.1987 (VIDEOS ONLY)

With Wet Wet Wet (Angel Eyes), New Order (Touched By The Hand Of God), Simply Red (Every Time We Say Goodbye), Belinda Carlisle (Heaven Is A Place On Earth), The Pogues & Kirsty McColl (Fairytale Of New York), Level 42 (Children Say), Rick Astley (When I Fall In Love)

22.12.1987 (HITS OF 1987)

With Pet Shop Boys (It's A Sin), M/A/R/R/S (Pump Up The Volume), Rick Astley (Never Gonna Give You Up), Rick Astley (Whenever You Need Somebody), T'Pau (China In Your Hand), Los Lobos (La Bamba)


With Wet Wet Wet (Angel Eyes), Krush (House Arrest), Sinitta (GTO), The Christians (Ideal World), Climie Fisher (Rise To The Occasion)


With Terence Trent D'Arby (Sign Your Name), Morris Minor & The Majors (Stutter Rap), The Stranglers (All Day And All Of The Night), Lloyd Cole & The Commotions (Jennifer She Said), Depeche Mode (Behind The Wheel)


With Bros (When Will I Be Famous), Tiffany (I Think We're Alone Now), Joyce Sims (Come Into My Life), Dollar (Oh L'Amour), Krush (House Arrest)


With Jermaine Stewart (Say It Again), Two Men, A Drum Machine & A Trumpet (Tired Of Getting Pushed Around), The Christians (Ideal World), Tiffany (IThink We're Alone Now), Terence Trent D'Arby (Sign Your Name)


With Jack 'n' Chill (The Jack That House Built), T'Pau (Valentine), Sharpe & Numan (No More Lies), Sinéad O'Connor (Mandinka), Bros (When Will I Be Famous)


With Taylor Dayne (Tell It To My Heart), The Mission (Tower Of Strength), Billy Ocean (Get Outta My Dreams Get Into My Car), Robert Plant (Heaven Knows), The Screaming Blue Messiahs (I Wanna Be A Flintstone)


With Was (Not Was) (Spy In The House Of Love), T'Pau (Valentine), Eddy Grant (Gimme Hope Jo'anna), Bourgeois Tagg (I Don't Mind At All), Jermaine Stewart (Say It Again), The Communards (For A Friend)


With Coldcut & Yazz (Doctorin' The House), Vanessa Paradis (Joe Le Taxi), Alexander O'Neal & Cherrelle (Never Knew Love Like This), Bryan Ferry (Kiss And Tell), Bomb The Bass (Beat Dis)


With Belinda Carlisle (I Get Weak), The Primitives (Crash), Sisters Of Mercy (Dominion), Johnny Hates Jazz (Heart Of Gold), Derek B (Goodgroove)


With Bomb The Bass (Beat Dis), Erasure (Ship Of Fools), Taja Sevelle (Love Is Contagious), Aswad (Don't Turn Around), Aztec Camera (How Men Are)


With Bros (Drop The Boy), Eighth Wonder (I'm Not Scared), Belinda Carlisle (I Get Weak), Glen Goldsmith (Dreaming), INXS (Devil Inside), The Communards (For A Friend)


With Wet Wet Wet (Temptation), Simon Harris (Bass), Sinitta (Cross My Broken Heart), Aswad (Don't Turn Around), Climie Fisher (Love Changes Everything)


With Status Quo (Ain't Complaining), Taylor Dayne (Prove Your Love), Glen Goldsmith (Dreaming), Eighth Wonder (I'm Not Scared), Aswad (Don't Turn Around), Brenda Russell (Piano In The Dark)


With Jermaine Stewart (Gonna Get Lucky), T'Pau (Sex Talk), Lloyd Cole & The Commotions (From The Hip), Pat & Mick (Let's All Chant), Bananarama (I Want You Back)

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Gallery: British Playwrights of the 1970s

David Mercer and David Storey enjoy a night out, 1966

A gallery taken from assorted TV Arts features, 1966-83.

David Mercer
David Storey

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Carpenters - Yesterday Once More (1973/ No. 2/ 17 weeks/ A & M)

Those were such happy times
And not so long ago...

For me, The Carpenters stand as the absolute antithesis of easy listening, presenting song after song to the listener that look searchingly into what it means to be alive and face the likelihood of vulnerability and disappointment. This is achieved with a stoicism and a lack of grandstanding that makes their work amongst the most grown-up in pop, supported by memorable, spacious arrangements that allow the mood of the songs to truly breathe and allow the listener to enter into the world of the music.

None of this would be possible without the wonder that was Karen Carpenter's voice, my favourite in pop, with its remarkable capacity for intimacy, a sense of closeness and compassion that made Herb Alpert remark that listening to her sing was "almost like she had her head in your lap". Every song seems like a confidence entrusted to you, the listener, alone. By the time that you get to the latter records, things like 'Make Believe It's Your First Time' and 'Touch Me When We're Dancing' the effect is almost unbearable, half-literally the voice of a dying woman, her brother's way with a tune and an arrangement audibly faltering behind her.

Even in their earlier glory days, this discomfort is always present. Hence this, their biggest ever British hit, is a song about youth meeting maturity and the ultimate limitation and failure of pop music;

When I was young
I'd listen to the radio
Waitin' for my favourite songs
When they played
I'd sing along
It made me smile.

The songs are now back on the radio and the opportunity to sing along has returned for the woman who was once the girl. This provides the opportunity for the girl and the woman to meet each other face to face, like the old and young Houseman in Stoppard's Invention Of Love;

Those old melodies
Still sound so good to me

Something has gone horribly wrong for her between then and now. Love either never came, or failed, or was sought in the wrong places. The anticipation of grown-up feeling meets its actual reflection through the portal of the nostalgia show.

When it comes to the part
Where he's breaking her heart

Yes, but its a different intensity of crying now, isn't it? Not the impatient anticipation of love and incipient adulthood, but its failure or cruelty. Those songs seem both deeper and flimsier now ("Every Sha-la-la-la/ Every Wo-o-wo-o/ Every shing-a-ling-a-ling"...)

The dear old music, "back again, just like a long-lost friend", doesn't help her deal with the present.

It's as desperate as watching somebody hug themselves for comfort and understanding.

In the 1973 parent album, the effect is accentuated by the song fading into a 15-minute pastiche radio show 'Oldies Medley' of Carpenters-interpreted hits of 1963 (1960s nostalgia and so early!), the tenor of which gradually changes, from youth ('Fun Fun Fun'), to sex ('Da Doo Ron Ron'), to lost love ('The End Of The World'), to unrequited love ('Johnny Angel'), to betrayal ('The Night Has A Thousand Eyes'), to songs of anticipated love and triumph unbearable to return to... ('Our Day Will Come' and 'One Fine Day')

Flashing past her eyes like a suicide whose life flashes past her eyes.

And then a reprise for a minute. The sepulchral lines;

When I was young I'd listen to the radio...

So fine...

So fine...

are repeated on a loop, each time fading further into silence, against a single static piano chord.

The breaking string. The severing of the past from the present.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

New York New York - So good I went there twice (1980 and 1999)

I have a theory that every childhood has its optimum point of receptiveness: the time when the openness to sensation and sense of wonder of the early years has yet to dim, but once some acquired knowledge and social skills can start to be used to find ones way in the world. For me, this blessed point was around the age of seven and that was the time that my parents took me on holiday to America: Seven days in New York and three days in Princeton.

I tend to remember everything anyway, but these ten days seem to contain an unstoppable bounty of memories; the long haul jumbo jet with the pleasure of being given gifts and puzzles and drinks and a dinky orderly meal and headphones to Bernard Cribbins introduce songs by the Muppets, the criss-crossy roads and seemingly much brighter daylight of New York, a forth of July parade where I am presented with a helium balloon, new and unfamiliar breakfast cereals, the coach journey from New York to Princeton that takes an entire day and then being shown a map of America and seeing what a tiny distance we had travelled, the great staircase of MOMA, a trip to Chinatown where I am given a small red rubber dragon, a Broadway matinee of Peter Pan where the principle boy flies out into the gallery and the pirates are funny and the dog is clever followed by daddy taking me to an ice cream parlour that serves 120 flavours where I choose coconut.

I imagine that I must have radiated more charm on holiday than I did at home. On a bus, an old lady compliments the little English boy and tells us how if I was staying with her she would enjoy taking me to Central Park and the Statue of Liberty. My mother is pleased by this exchange, both because I am managing to make a good impression, and that the love that she feels for me is reflected in the responses of strangers.

Which is not to say that my memory is rose-tinted - I never trust those whose childhood recollections present an unceasing flow of delight. Surely childhood is as much about frustration and feeling afraid or hurt as it is about happiness?

In Princeton I drink gallons of orange juice and develop a rash.

My mother has an aura of fear and fluster that strangers can be quick to pick up on - on a sidewalk a hairy and ragged-looking individual sees us and adopts a demonic pose that makes my mother cry out and hold me close to her. "He's probably on drugs", my daddy explains. Once we have crossed the road I notice that the hairy man is now joking with a companion and looks quite normal, and am not sure about my father's judgement.

Most trying of all, while the three of us are walking downtown, my father spots some distraction and goes gadding off after it. We become separated and mummy has to get a taxi back to the hotel with me - the driver has large aviator-style sunglasses and an air of quiet authority that impresses me. Back in our room my mother - who does not take well to the cross-Atlantic time difference - has to have a headachey lie-down all afternoon. When my father arrives back they argue. "You selfish PIG!" mummy tells daddy. "You pig!" I parrot back, entirely taking my mother's side in this dispute. "Now, now! Don't say that" responds my father, prepared to take this criticism without response from his wife, but not from his son. When you are seven years-old, and trapped in a small hotel room in a foreign city with your angry unhappy parents you can't escape to the playground or the garden.

One evening I find myself sitting alone on a sofa in the lobby of this hotel - we must have been about to go out and my parents gone back to the room to fetch something. I decide to pass myself off as a real American and integrate myself with the city. I walk out of the hotel and onto 46th Street. What shall I do now? Many people are walking fast in both directions. A man amongst them is on roller skates. He looks like a suitably interesting person to engage with. I make eye contact with him. What would be an appropriately American thing to say? "Hi!" I announce. "Hi" he replies, perplexed, before he skates off again. Satisfied with this exchange, I return to the lobby and my place on the sofa. My parents come back to collect me. I don't tell them about my expedition, not because I think that I've done anything wrong, but because I am not sure that I can convey the meaning and significance of my action. It was an instinctive thing that one does, hoping that its significance will become clear to oneself in later years.

It takes me almost twenty years to return to Manhattan, from the last months of Carter to the last months of Clinton. I sometimes find it amusing to review the progress of my life as being like a microcosm of a nation state, with booms and depressions, alliances and wars. Retrospectively, this period seems like some kind of pinnacle of good fortune - through having stable employment and not having to pay rent, I have a surplus of £6,000 in the bank. I am twenty-seven years old, one of the lowest rungs of adulthood and the latter reaches of being genuinely young. I have lucked into staying, free, for a week at a marvellous apartment that resembles the set of Friends on Bleeker Street. This is with my friend Polly, an actress training at the Actors' Studio and her landlady, an amazing old lady of Broadway, who carries sixty years of theatrical history on her shoulders.

It is in this blessed coalescence of circumstances that I find myself walking through Greenwich Village on a Friday night, a young man with money in his pocket and supposedly ready for pleasure and experience. I'm even dressed in a white suit, a costume that I've always wanted to wear. The only problem is that - I can't think of anything that I want to do. I feel rather tired and uncertain of what the time is. I wander around for a bit, milling in crowds and looking at the shop fronts and restaurants. I am amused to see an establishment that promotes itself as 'Mr Slinky's bar and celebrity hangout', but resist the temptation to go in to see if Tom Cruise is hanging out there tonight. Around me are unceasing crowds of people who actually belong here, or at least who make a better fist of making it look as though they do. I give up the ghost and go back to the apartment, where I read an act of When We Dead Awaken and try to get to sleep.

In this journey from boy to young man some sense of venture has clearly been dissipated. The impulse to catch the eye of a roller-skater and say "Hi" seems to have gone.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Mr Bloe - Groovin' With Mr Bloe (1970/ No. 2/ 19 weeks/ DJM)

What couldpossibly be more 1970 then a novelty discotheque harmonica one hit wonder? A novelty discotheque harmonica one hit wonder performed a knocked together made-up band of top session musicians, of course! (The harmonica ace behind Mr Bloe is Harry Pitch, who can also be heard on the theme tune to Last Of The Summer Wine)

The title encourages the listener to think of the harmonica as being the musical embodiment of Mr Bloe, and the single as the wordless epitome of Mr Bloe's conception of grooving. And Mr Bloe most assuredly and instantly memorable groove to share with us -

Wahwah! Wah-wah Wahwah wah Wawah! Wah Wawah!

repeated many times. But Mr Bloe can also be a reflective and laid back character, who sometimes breaks off from his main groove to look over his shoulder and give a smile to the listener -

Wah wah Wawah - Wahwahwah...

He's brought some friends along with him, too. Although they are very much supporting characters in the Mr Bloe show, their contributions are vital. There's a peripatetic bassline - dumdadalumlum- dumdumdum! - and a drum that provides cascading rolls whenever Mr Bloe catches his breath, and lets us know that yet another

Wahwah! Wah-wah Wahwah wah Wawah! Wah Wawah!

is about to reappear and delight us once again.

Like a lot of instrumental records, the particular delight of Mr Bloe lies in its use of space, ensuring that the listener fully discerns every pleasurable detail of the record and immediately wants to play it again to moment that it finishes.

Postscript: Oh this is interesting - I've just found the US original single that Mr Bloe is a UK copy of. It sounds more Northern Soul and a bit more frenetic than the British hit -

So, whether by accident or design, the session musician version does change the tune into something different, and not in a cheap or tacky way.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Gene Pitney - Backstage (1966/ No. 4/ 10 weeks/ Stateside)

I can never understand why Gene Pitney doesn't have the same kudos as Roy Orbison. Both men worked within the same form, the highly melodramatic ballad, and both used highly distinctive voices to extract the maximum possible emotion out of their material. Both singers also always came across as being genuinely humble and modest in interviews.

In Pitney's case, the voice is a quavering adenoidal tenor, purpose built for the expression of anguish. The amazing thing about this voice is that it will build and build throughout a song, and then - just when the listener thinks that things couldn't possibly get any more exciting or compelling - build some more, reaching a kind of delirious catharsis.

The songs that he interpreted were generally short and unhappy. They are usually tales of lost love, or the fear of being about to lose love. When, less often, Pitney sings about finding love, the effect is equally uncomfortable, because he tends to be consumed by guilt at stealing someone's girl or cheating on someone, most famously in '24 Hours From Tulsa'. 'Backstage' is a definitive lost love tale, given a metatheatrical spin through being the story of a successful pop star.

A brief drum-roll and fanfare sets the scene. "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight's star attraction";

A thousand hands -
applaud tonight...
I sing my songs...
My star shines bright...
I stop and smile...
I take my bow...
I leave the stage...
and then some-how -

Hubris is swiftly followed by nemesis;

Backstage I'm lonelee
Backstage I cry
You've gone away


and each night
I seem
to die
a little...

On the second verse, Pitney becomes notably louder and more desperate-sounding;

Out on that stage
I'll play the star
I'm famous now!
I've come so far..
A famous FOOL!
I let love GO!
I didn't KNOW!
I'd miss you SO!

It's taken a while to get there, but the second chorus brings the first extended anguished phrase;

Backstage I'm lonelee!
Backstage I cry
Hating myself
since I let you say -

A middle eight cranks up the tempo, the strings echoing the singer's manic excitement;

Every night a different girl!


Every night a different club!


And yet I'm lonely all the time...


When I sign my auto-graph!


When I hold an in-ter-view!


Can't get you out of my MIIIIND!

The point of self-revelation;

Come back my love!
Come back to me!
I need you now!
So desperatelee!
What good is fame?
It's just a game!
I'd give it awll to be the same

Backstage I wait now -
ho-ping I'll see
Your smiling face waiting there backstage for meeee-eeee!

(A trumpet backs that "meeee-eeee!")

Your SMI!LING! face waiting backstage for meeeeee-eeeeee!

She won't be there. Surely that's it?

No. Pitney reminds us of the scene;


And them, that astonishing Roy Orbison trick of taking things one stage further than anyone could realistically expect them to go;


I've found a new layer of poignancy in this song since the 2006 death of Gene Pitney, alone in a Cardiff hotel room, after a show on a comeback tour. When he was found dead on his hotel bed he was fully dressed and looked, according to his tour manager, "as though he had gone for a lie down".