Monday, 14 March 2011

Keith West - Excerpt From 'A Teenage Opera' (1967/ No. 2/ 15 weeks/ Parlophone)

Despite the title, there can't have been many hits of the day that chime less with teenage concerns than this tale of the death of an octogenarian grocer and its effect upon his customers. Its not really that operatic either, but it is an oddly structured song, feeling more like a collection of fanfares and middle-eights than something which organically flows.

This sense of oddness is inherent to the tone of the piece, which keeps shifting from sarcastic to empathetic. Some of this must stem from Keith West himself, commandeered away from his day job in psychedelic scenesters Tomorrow (of 'My White Bicycle' fame) into singing this pop project, and uncomfortable interpreting this material.

Consider the first verse. Heralded by a rinkytink harpsichord and an orchestral fanfare. It starts with pathos;

"Count the days into years...
His eighty-two bring many fears.
Yesterday's laughter turns to tears..."

And then switches uptempo into a rather gleeful description of a heart attack, with Bob Dylan enunciation;

"His arms and LEGS!
Don't feel too STRONG!
His heart is WEAK!
There's something WRONG!
O-pens win-dows in despair!
Tries to breathe-in some fresh air!"

(fifteen years later, Madness cribbed this section, and built one of their best songs around it - 'Cardiac Arrest')

And then the lyric turns back to sketch some of the character

"His conscience cries -
'Get on your FEET!
Without you, Jack
the town can't EAT!"

The conscience then takes over the chorus, seemingly mocking him.

"Grocer Jack! Grocer Jack!
Get off your back!
Go into town.
Don't let then down...
Oh no-oo-oo!"

The second verse shows us Jack's place within the life of the town. The housewives don't understand why Jack hasn't turned up, and they'll give him hell when he does. I often think that this section of the song owes an awful lot to The Beatles contemporaneous 'Good Morning Good Morning'

"Husbands MOAN!
at breakfast ta-bles -
No milk!
No eggs!
No marmalade labels!"

If you're over about 35, this record acts as a very evocative lament for old school grocers, by the way... And then the masterstroke comes in, what makes this record unforgettable even after your first hearing;

"Mothers send their children OUT!
To Jack's HOUSE!
To scream and SHOUT!"

Yes, the chorus is sung by a choir of urchin children;

Oh no no!"

The three verses have a thesis - antithesis - synthesis structure, as Jack and the townspeople are brought together by his funeral.

"A Sunday morning, bright and clear.
Lovely flowers dec-o-rate a marvelous square.
People CRY!
And walk AWAY!
Think a-BOUT
The fateful DAY!
Now they wish they'd given Jack
More attention and respect"

The heavenly choir of backing vocals that has been lurking in the background of the song really start to cut free at this point, lifting Grocer Jack into the After-world. And then the children return;

"The little children
dressed in BLACK!
Don't know what's happened
to old JACK!


The cumulative effect of this final chorus being sung by the children, the heavenly backing vocalists and Keith West - plus the returning trumpet fanfare accompanying then - is really quite overpowering. Its a bold record that insists upon dropping you into the world of Grocer Jack, and it can't possibly function as background listening.

(the 'Teenage Opera' project was never completed. A second single, 'Sam' got to number 38 in the Christmas charts of 1967. The story of an engine driver who has to leave a town, and is only missed by the town's children, it, um, bears some similarities with its predecessor, although it is also rather fantastic)

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