The Morning DJ

Can there really have been a time when I thought Noel Edmonds was funny? There must have been because, like a large chunk of the English nation in the 1970s, I was an keen listener of his breakfast show on Radio One which drew in a massive 12 million pairs of ears a week between 1973 and 1978. Back then there was little or no alternative to BBC Radio – even London didn’t get it’s own independent radio station until 1973 when Capital Radio went on the air – but I don’t remember ever feeling particularly deprived because we only had Radio One. Even when I got old enough to realize that Noel, Simon Bates, Dave Lee Travis and the rest were a bunch of twerps with bad taste, there was Kid Jensen and John Peel in the evening to keep me happy. Now we are less a nation together than a collection of different tastes and interests.

Harry Chapin’s “W.O.L.D” only made the UK top 40 in 1974 and I don’t know how much airplay it got at the time. Noel must have played it though, not just because it fit in with his Elton John/Gerry Rafferty-ish soft rock tastes but how could he resist a song written about his job? Chapin is better known for the dreadful “Cats In The Cradle” but this is a much, much better record. It’s about an itinerant disc jockey having a midlife crisis and trying to get back together with his ex-wife. Though it’s a tad maudlin the production is big and clever enough (I love the mock radio jingle touches) to turn this melancholy little tale into something epic and brilliant.

Noel has been through a lot of personal ups and downs himself but got through them by being “Positively Happy.” Not by being a smarmy twat then.

Download: W.O.L.D – Harry Chapin (mp3)

Post-Punk Princess

I might have had a wee little crush on Clare Grogan but I was completely gaga over Pauline Murray. Not just because she was a real treat for the eyes (see above), but was also one of the best singers to come out the punk era with a warm, soaring voice that stood out like a jewel in a field of spitters and snarlers. She never got the recognition that more stridently iconoclastic female singers like Siouxsie Sioux and Poly Styrene did, and being lead singer of a rather ordinary punk band like Penetration probably didn’t help her profile much either. What made me fall at her feet in a fanboy swoon was the solo album she made in 1980 after the group split up.

That album, “Pauline Murray & The Invisible Girls” is something of a minor post-punk classic and, despite the fact that it was produced by the great Martin Hannett (with a beautiful Peter Saville sleeve) has somehow been ignored in the current fad for the era, probably because it doesn’t sound what post-punk is “supposed” to sound like. Instead of the gloomy boys miserabalism Hannett usually had to work with, his spacey sonics are used in the service of airy, feminine, and relatively commercial, pop songs. Playing Phil Spector to her Ronnie, Hannett gave Pauline an ornate and expansive wall of sound with a freedom to breathe she never had with Penetration. It’s a shimmering dream of record, like someone throwing a disco in a cathedral.

“Dream Sequence” (mp3) was the first single from the album and has the kind of swirling, celestial atmosphere The Cocteau Twins and a few others would later ride to indie glory. The line “they stared at my naked body” used to make me blush with naughty thoughts – it still does actually, and the record still sounds magnificent too. “Screaming In The Darkness” (mp3) is a propulsive number powered by the mighty drumming of The Buzzcocks’ John Maher. This could almost be a Blondie record except for all the peculiar noises Hannett throws at it which keep it balanced nicely on a tightrope between mainstream and avant garde.

This video is for the second single “Mr. X” which is dark mutant funk with echoes of “She’s Lost Control” (it came out at the same time as Joy Division’s last album) and the brittle, dry-as-a-bone electronic beat that New Order (and a million other synth-poppers) would be mucking about with a year or two later.

The b-side of “Mr. X” was the dreamy, minimalist ballad “Two Shots” (mp3) which is just Pauline, a drum machine and a piano. When the album was re-released on CD with bonus tracks this was left off for some reason, so here it is and it’s lovely.

The album was only a minor success and I think it was ahead of it’s time. It threw off the gloom and doom of post-punk and put on a luminous, dancefloor-friendly face before the new pop dream of the 80s had happened, and a lot of it anticipates what the coming decade was going to sound like. Siouxsie Sioux may have been the girl who landed the leading lady role but Pauline got the interesting and memorable bit part.

As I said, the album was put out on CD a few years ago but unfortunately that’s out of print now. But if you see a copy – in any format – buy it. That’s an order.

(I’m trying a different format for mp3 links. As I’m writing longer posts I thought it might be better to put them in the actual body copy to save you scrolling all the way down to see what songs it is I’m talking about. Good idea, no?)

She knows, you know

Gawd help me, I love this record. I know I shouldn’t but I think the great Hylda Baker could turn even a duff novelty record into comedy gold. The way she sings “my heart is set on yooooooo” just cracks me up and makes me think of her as pickle heiress Nellie Pledge in the early 70s sitcom “Nearest & Dearest”, calling Jimmy Jewel a big girl’s blouse, looking at her watch and saying “It’s quarter-past… ooh I must get a little hand put on this watch” or uttering some silly malapropism like “and I can say that without fear of contraception.”

Hylda was born in Bolton in 1905 and went to a school with the brilliantly Dickensian name of Plodder Lane. She was a big variety star in the 1950s and had small parts in the films “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, “Up The Junction” (she played an abortionist in both those) and “Oliver!” before turning her talent to sitcoms. In 1978 some bright spark had the idea of getting her to record a duet of “You’re The One That I Want” with cockney comic actor Arthur Mullard who had made a career out of having a face like the back of a bus and talking like he had a mouthful of spanners. The big joke behind this concept being that this teenage love song was sung by two ugly old duffers who couldn’t carry a tune. Unfortunately when the record hit the charts the duo made a train-wreck of an appearance on Top of The Pops where they fluffed their lines and looked like they didn’t know where they were (sadly I couldn’t find a video online). It may be the only time in pop history that a record has actually gone down in the charts after being on the show. The truth was Hylda probably didn’t have a clue what was going on as she’d been suffering from Alzheimer’s for several years.

They recorded a whole album together called “Band On The Trot” which seems to be rarer than hen’s teeth these days. I’ve only heard a couple of tracks but the joke wears more than a bit thin after the one song. You probably think it wears out long before that but don’t hate me for liking this.

Download: You’re The One That I Want – Arthur Mullard and Hylda Baker (mp3)

Lost In Space

As a young whippersnapper I think I first became interested in David Bowie because of the science fiction elements in some of his songs. He fitted in very nicely with the Marvel comics and episodes of “The Tomorrow People” that were the staples of my cultural diet back then.

To me, “Space Oddity” didn’t have any deep subtext about alienation or even drugs (I swear I never even knew what drugs were), but was just something to do with astronauts and rockets, and “Life On Mars” wasn’t about… well, I’ve never understood what that was about but it had the word “Mars” in the title so I thought it was dead good. Plus, the guy looked like an alien himself most of the time, you really did half expect him to climb into a spaceship and fly away after he’d finished giving Mick Ronson’s guitar a blow job.

Bowie resurrected Major Tom (and his own career) on the 1980 single “Ashes To Ashes” which probably had more subtext and hidden meanings than any song in the history of popular music. A few months before that he actually released another version of “Space Oddity” itself which appeared on the b-side of his rather peculiar cover of “Alabama Song.” This is light years (ha!) away from the lush, Stylophone-tripping production of the original with a stripped-down, minimalist instrumentation like John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album. The primitive sound gives the song a more emotional edge and Bowie puts far more feeling and angst into it, as if in this post-Berlin stage of his life being lost forever in the cold darkness of space wasn’t the groovy idea he thought it was as a fresh-faced flower child in 1969.

He first sang this version on the 1979 Kenny Everett New Year’s Eve television show while sitting in a padded cell – so Major Tom wasn’t only now a junkie but a looney too? Or is it all really about Inner Space and is Major Tom really Bowie himself? So many questions that I really used to care a lot about.

This turned up as a bonus track on a CD of the “Scary Monsters” album issued in the early 90s but I’m not sure where you can get it now.

Download: Space Oddity (1980 version) – David Bowie (mp3)

Country Life

“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Samuel Johnson (1777)

Marshall Hain’s beautiful song “Back To The Green” is an ode to escaping from the chaotic bustle of the big city to the peaceful green spaces of the countryside. Personally I’ve always thought the countryside was a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. Growing up in London made me the sort of person who has an existential crisis if I live too far from a tube station, and if I’d wanted a “country” experience I could always get that in the city anyway – from the spectacular vistas of Hampstead Heath to the herds of deer roaming Richmond Park, peacocks in Holland Park, boating on The Serpentine, or lazy summer Sundays watching a cricket match on Barnes Common. Besides, the problem with the country is the people that live there: Tories, rich arseholes from the city, and Daily Mail-reading reactionaries who look at you funny if you aren’t from “around here” or look different (believe me, I was an art student in Kent and know what it’s like to walk into a little country pub with a friend who had blue hair.)

But even this council-estate-raised city boy recognizes the subconscious attraction of the pastoral idyll; escaping the city’s cacophonous nightmare of traffic and other people’s cell-phone conversations for a picture-postcard village where the bells of an old stone church ring out through warm summer air, willow tress hang lazily over glistening streams, and rosy-cheeked children fly kites over sun-dappled green hills. Such fantasies are the warm baths of city-dweller imaginations.

Julian Marshall and Kit Hain are only known for the one song, the 1978 hit “Dancing In The City” which came from their debut album “Free Ride.” The single’s sensual synth-drummy groove isn’t much like the the rest of the record which is mostly clean and modern adult pop in the jazzy mold of Steely Dan with the middle-class English smartness of a 10cc. Unfortunately the album was a flop and is now out of print which is a shame as it’s rather good. The final track “Back To The Green” is a gorgeous ballad that ebbs and flows in an appropriately dreamy mood, languidly drifting along before building to a symphonic crescendo of strings and brass. Kit Hain has a lovely, clear-as-a-bell voice that makes me think of her as a well-spoken young lady who probably played netball at school (a thought I find vaguely erotic which I’m sure all the English boys reading this will understand.) It makes the idea of moving to the country quite a warmly appealing prospect – for a few moments anyway.

Download: Back to The Green – Marshall Hain (mp3)
Poster from “Pleasure Trips by Underground” (book)

Picture Post

I’ve been away for a few days and I’m a bit at swamped at work so here’s a rather nice image-music combo to tide you over for a day or two. The tune is gorgeous psychedelic pop from the Bee Gees’ terrific 1967 debut album, and the picture is…well, I don’t know but I really like it.

Download: Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You – Bee Gees (mp3)
From: “Bee Gees 1st” (album)

My Mother’s records

Peter Skellern’s 1972 single “You’re A Lady” was given to my mother as a present from a bloke she was having an affair with at the time. Well, technically he was the one having the affair as he was married with kids while my mother was separated and free to see who the hell she wanted. All very “Play For Today” and “Bouquet of Barbed Wire” I know.

This is a very romantic record to woo a woman with but it’s a particularly English sort of romantic. The opening melancholy notes played by a colliery brass band places it under the coal black sky of some cold and drizzly Northern town rather than, say, Paris or Rome. The man in the song is walking a woman home down a dark, empty street after a dance, trying to summon up the courage to express his feelings for her, but the language of love doesn’t come easily to his Lancashire tongue and all he can blurt out is the plain “you’re a lady, I’m a man.” You can picture him nervously looking down at his shoes, couching his feelings in blandly polite phrases – “Here I sit and hope that you’ll love me” and “I’m not asking you to marry me, Just a little love to show” – as if he’s asking to borrow a cup of sugar from her, if she doesn’t mind of course. Like the affair between Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in “Brief Encounter” this is the awkward, hesitant romance of dingy tea rooms between people who keep their passion buttoned up under conversations about library books and overdue trains.

It’s also a incredibly beautiful-sounding record, intimate and warm but as big and grand as an old Victorian dancehall. It’s probably an English thing, but I find it hard to hear a colliery brass band without feeling a wistful glow (like a Hovis commercial) and the backing choral voices have the heavenly tone of a Salvation Army choir saving souls in the shadow of dark satanic mills. I don’t know what effect this had on my mother but it makes me swoon every time.

Download: You’re A Lady – Peter Skellern
Buy: “The Very Best of Peter Skellern” (album)

An Englishman Abroad

“I gulped down several Heinekens. I felt drunk. Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music stood at the back, watching the show. I went and introduced myself. He was puzzled, and polite. He said he was in Los Angeles to make a record. He was living in the Malibu colony house which had once belonged to Fritz Lang. I told him a story about a friend of mine, a film-maker who loved Lang’s work and came to Los Angeles to interview him. This was in the 1970s, not long before Lang died. Somehow my friend never got round to the interview. He felt the city had robbed him of his will.
Ferry smiled. I told him I thought “Can’t Let Go”, a song he’d recorded when Jerry Hall was dumping him for Mick Jagger, was one of the best things written about LA: ‘They said go west young man that’s best, it’s there you’ll feel no pain, Bel-Air’s okay if you dig the grave, but I want to live again.’ I told him I thought the song was very good on the experience of feeling rootless in a foreign place. He looked embarrased. I told him I was an Englishman, having a bit of woman trouble myself.
He smiled again. He obviously thought I was wrong in the head. But the judgement of a man who had once appeared in public wearing toreador pants was not to be trusted.”
Richard Rayner
Los Angeles Without A Map

Download: Can’t Let Go – Bryan Ferry (mp3)
Buy: “The Bride Stripped Bare” (album)

What’s it all about?

The sentimental musings of an ageing expat in words, music, and pictures. Mp3 files are up for a limited time so drink them while they're hot. Contact me: lee at londonlee dot com