My sister endured merciless piss-taking from my mates and me over her Rollers fandom, calling their TV show “Shag-A-Slag” and other dazzling bon mots. She mostly just ignored it, treating our opinions with the special disdain reserved for younger brothers and their oik-ish, spotty mates. Not that our tastes were that sophisticated either as we thought Slade and ELO were the pinnacles of Western civilization at the time. But in a very mature moment my friend Graham admitted to her he thought that the track “Eagles Fly” was, you know, actually pretty good. She still wouldn’t go out with him though.
So don’t hate me until you’ve heard this record, it’s not bad at all with a laid-back, 70s East Coast acoustic rock vibe. They wrote it themselves too, so they weren’t just pretty faces. Actually, I thought they were a a plain-looking bunch, and bass guitarist Stuart “Woody” Wood was downright ugly. No wonder on the sleeve above it looks like Les McKeown is trying to hold him down and keep him out of the photo.
I lived in London through the height of the IRA bombing campaigns in the 70s and 80s so I’ve had my bags searched, had to evacuate stores and tube stations under police orders, and I even knew someone who was killed by a bomb the IRA planted outside Harrod’s so I have a vague idea what it’s like to be stressed about more than being late for work or what to have for tea in the evening. It’s a cliche but you really do just go on with living your life and not worry about it.
But I still can’t imagine what it was like in London during The Blitz, how do you go on living your life in those circumstances? My mother was only five when the Germans started bombing the city and she lost friends and nearly got killed herself when the windows of their house blew in from the force of a bomb landing up the street. I don’t know if they still do this but after the war they kept the air raid sirens in London for use in flood warnings and every now and then they would test them which would give my mum the willies when that eerie whine filled the air. I can only imagine the sights that were going through her mind when she heard that noise.
But my generation got sick of our parents and grandparents always banging on about The War, we had it drilled into us from an early age that they had it tough and how we lucky kids (“Presents? We only used to get an orange for Christmas!”) should be eternally grateful for everything we got. Then there’d be some WWII anniversary to commemorate and they’d trot out “the forces sweetheart” Vera bloody Lynn to sing her Blitz hits “We’ll Meet Again” and “White Cliffs of Dover” for the millionth time and everyone would happily remember the last time England actually mattered. But I’m old enough now to look back on 1940 and think, my God, how close the country came to actually losing and what a miraculous effort it was to stop that happening. It gives me the willies just thinking about it. I’m also old enough to realize that Vera Lynn woman actually had rather a lovely voice, strong and clear as an English church bell, and now it’s hard for me to hear this without getting a little lump in my throat — written at a time when the possibility that we might lose everything we cherished was very real.
I mentioned before that my sister was a huge Bay City Rollers fan* (Alan Longmuir was her favourite) but she switched her affections to another Scottish boy band called Slik after their #1 hit “Forever And Ever” and going to see them live. I’ll never forget her coming home from that concert and excitedly telling my mum “They were so much better than The Rollers!!!” which doesn’t sound like high praise to me but you never know.
But it’s a fickle life for the teenybop idol, “Forever and Ever” topped the charts in early 1976 right before punk came along and brought the whole 1970s teenybop era of Bell Records/Supersonic/Disco 45 crashing down. If only Slik had made it a couple of years earlier they could have been as big as, well, The Bay City Rollers I guess. But their follow-up singles flopped and before long the pretty teenage girl who breathlessly declared them to be the best thing ever had forgotten all about them and was letting their only album gather dust on the shelf behind a new one by some blokes called The Clash.
The most interesting thing about Slik was that their lead singer was a little chap by the name of Midge Ure who of course went on to form The Rich Kids with Glen Matlock, then become lead singer of Ultravox and make a fortune wearing a trench coat and looking moody in black and white videos. The other interesting thing was that they had short hair and wore straight trousers. It might not seem like much now but back when hair was long and feather-cut, and trousers and collars wider than the wingspan of a Jumbo jet they looked very different. Maybe their management had their ears tuned to the zeitgeist, pretty soon punk was going to make flares and long hair look ridiculous (I have to admit I was the last of my friends to switch from flares to straights — I actually thought flares looked better! — and it wasn’t until 1978 that I joined the modern fashion world.) When Malcolm McLaren saw Ure on the streets of Glasgow in 1975 he was so taken with how he looked he asked him to be lead singer of this band he was putting together called Sex Pistols. Midge turned him down because he thought the bloke was too obsessed with his image and never talked about the actual music much. Good for all of us that he did, the mind boggles at the thought of The Pistols with Midge Ure on vocals.
“Forever and Ever” was written Bill Martin and Phil Coulter who wrote most of the Rollers big hits and sounds pretty much like one of their records with a singalong, scarf-waving chorus but it also has these weird Gothic chanting bits complete with church bells and organ that make it sound quite unusual and, dare I say it, not unlike parts of “Vienna” by Ultravox. “The Kid’s A Punk” was the second single after their big hit and the title is probably an attempt to cash-in on the punk bandwagon that was coming (“Anarchy In The UK” had hit the charts by then) but it failed and never made the charts. I think this sounds great though, one of the last gasps of 1970s teenybop glam.
*Funny story: My sister was going to a Bay City Rollers concert and got all dressed up in her Rollermaniac uniform of shin-high baggy jeans with tartan trim, denim jacket, long stripy socks, platform shoes and a tartan scarf tied around her wrist. While she was waiting for her mates to pick her up my mum asked her to pop up the shop and get a loaf of bread. Before she went out she got changed back into her “normal” clothes and when mum asked her what she did that for she replied “I’m not walking up the road dressed like that!“
Back to the grind after a lovely week in The Smoke, though it would have been a lot lovelier if the dollar was currently worth more than the paper it’s printed on.
After extensive anthropological research (ie: talking to my mates and reading the papers) I want to revise what I wrote in my previous post about English teenagers and their cellphone use. The problem isn’t that they’re talking loudly into them on buses, it’s that they’re murdering each other over them.
I don’t want to get all Daily Mail on you, but stories like this remind of the sickness that afflicted the country in the 1970s when it felt like there was something rotten at the core of England. Back then it was our economy and industry that were broken and falling apart, now it’s our families and children and it’s happening behind a shiny facade of go-getting 21st century capitalism where the capital is awash with money, kids dream of Big Brother tabloid celebrity, and you can buy a loaf of Ciabatta 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I’ve only been living abroad for 15 years but sometimes it feels like I’ve been gone over 100. Pretty soon there won’t be anything left for us to feel superior to Americans about.
I’m off to London for a holiday tomorrow so there won’t be any posts for a week or more. I haven’t been home in two years so I’m excited to be going (not least because I get show my little girl the city her Daddy grew up in) but that’s mixed with the sad feeling I always get when I go back that it’s changed too much for me to really feel at home there anymore.
The other day I was talking with another London-born friend of mine who lives in New York and we both agreed we couldn’t live there now as the place we knew just doesn’t exist, not just because the clubs, pubs and cafes we knew are gone but now there’s a level of in-your-face vulgarity, rudeness and 24/7 consumerism I really didn’t think the English were capable of. Which is fair enough, London is a vibrant, modern city and is supposed to move forward, there are more great restaurants, more shops, more choice in all sorts of things (if you have the money) but I’d gladly lose a little of that in exchange for fewer surly teens jabbering loudly and moronically into their cellphones on the bus, fewer nasty drunks in the West End on a Saturday night, and fewer chain coffee shops (aren’t we supposed to drink tea?) Yes, I’ve turned into my Dad, he was born there too but left when he retired, couldn’t stand the traffic and the people anymore.
But it’s still the place I grew up in and lived for 30 years, my family are there along with a million great memories, they can’t take that away from me. No matter what I’ll always think this song is true.
Here’s another pretty English girl on a bike, this time it’s Marianne Faithfull in the kitschy 60s sexploitation movie “Girl On A Motorcycle” which I saw when I was a kid late one night on BBC2 and will never forget because it was one of the first times I ever saw a naked woman (one who was actually moving, that is.) I’m watching this pretty blond lady in skin-tight leathers (Marianne) cavorting with this French bloke (Alain Delon), getting more and more saucy, he’s unzipping her with his teeth, and then — blimey! — there they were: knockers! (that’s what we called them back then.) I can’t remember how old I was at the time, old enough to be interested in what I was seeing, but young enough to get very flustered, turn bright red and forget to breath for quite a while.
I haven’t see the movie since, I’ve read that it’s no good but who cares? This song is nothing to do with it but it’s still bloody great.