August 2nd, 2015
Well this was a shock. I doubt if Cilla Black means much to anyone outside of Britain but there she didn’t fade away with her 60s pop hits. When those dried up she parlayed her Scouse charm and gift of the gab into a long and successful television career — at one point she was the highest-paid woman on British television – becoming, in that overused phrase, something of a national institution.
The TV shows she fronted were mostly awful (though Blind Date could be fun) but a lot of her records were terrific and I hope she is remembered more for them. As a singer she wasn’t as great as peers Dusty Springfield, Lulu, and Sandie Shaw, but it was her lack of polish that could make her so affecting: That shaky, off-key quiver she had, the way her Liverpool accent often shone through, and when she had to go big on a song like “Alfie” she sounded emotionally overwhelmed.
I wrote about this song here many, many years ago, and about how my mother used to sing the opening lines to me. It still tears me up a bit because of that, but it’s Cilla’s kitchen-sink realness that makes such a soppily sentimental song so touching.
Download: Liverpool Lullaby – Cilla Black (mp3)
July 28th, 2015
My mum bought this single in 1969 and it soon became known as “my” record because I played it all the time and would dance around the living room to it, singing the words. I think it’s the first pop record that I had some personal attachment to. I know there were lots more musically-interesting things going on in 1969 but I was only 7 so this kind of catchy Bubblegum Pop was right up my alley. Sadly my first pop music obsession came to an end one terrible day when I left the single on our armchair and accidentally sat on it, breaking it in half. I still remember how upset I was about that.
Because I have such warm memories of “Dizzy” I was a bit peeved by Vic Reeves’ 1991 cover version. As novelty records go it’s not terrible, but it reduces the original to a jokey bit of kitsch which feels to me like he’s taking the piss out of my childhood. The original probably is kitsch to modern ears, but even the cheesiest art can have significance to someone.
Download: Dizzy – Tommy Roe (mp3)
June 22nd, 2015
To mark Father’s Day yesterday, I’m republishing this post from way back in 2008. Probably not the most flattering one I’ve written about my Dad, but our relationships with our parents can be complicated.
The only time I remember my Dad talking to me about why he left my mother and us he blamed Michael Caine. He said that a working class lad like himself was raised to think that there was a certain path your life would take: school, work, marriage, kids. So he did all that like he thought he was supposed to, and by 1962 at the age of 25 he was a cab driver with a wife and two kids living in a crumbling council flat in Fulham.
But then the Swinging Sixties happened and along came a new generation of stars in movies, music, and the arts like Caine who were from the same working class background as my Dad and didn’t following the old, class-defined rules. Suddenly the possibility of a different kind of life appeared, just because you weren’t born with a silver spoon in your mouth you didn’t have to be a cab driver. You could be an actor, a rock star, a painter, a photographer — anything you wanted. So my old man ran away to join the theatre, hoping to become the next Michael Caine. That’s how he attempted to explain it to me anyway, personally I thought it sounded a little like self-justifying bullshit, but I don’t know how I’d feel if I found myself with a wife and two kids with an itch I’d been told I couldn’t scratch and society suddenly moved the goalposts on me like that.
There were other English actors at the time who came from similar backgrounds — Albert Finney, Tom Courtney, Terence Stamp — but none of them had the same iconic status that Caine attained with roles like Alfie Elkins, Harry Palmer, Charlie Croker, and Jack Carter which established him as the embodiment of 60s English cool — the good-looking lad from Rotherhithe with the birds and smart suits who even made glasses look sharp. And it wasn’t just my Dad, at some point in his life hasn’t every bloke wanted to be Alfie?
Download: Alfie – Cher (mp3)
April 8th, 2015
Is it silly that I find this beautiful? Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could be bloody poets sometimes.
Download: Johnny Thunder – The Kinks (mp3)
March 25th, 2015
I just finished reading Ode To Billie Joe by Tara Murtha, a new release in the 33 1/3 series of books. Straying from the template of most other titles in the series, it isn’t devoted to an in-depth analysis of Bobbie Gentry’s debut album but is instead an investigative biography of the reclusive singer who made her last album in 1971 and completely vanished from the public eye in the early 80s.
Murtha has done a lot of digging in archives and spoken to people who worked with her, but with such a big hole at the center of the story — Gentry herself — it has a Rashomon-like quality with people offering conflicting stories and opinions about the singer which only makes her more mysterious by the end. The only thing that seems clear is Gentry was something of a feminist pioneer: writing and producing her own records, and negotiating her own business deals (very successfully), at a time when it was almost unheard of for a woman artist to do so.
It’s a terrific book full of fascinating trivia (I could do without knowing Gentry was a fan of Ayn Rand though) but sadly it can’t answer the really big question: Why did the driven, ambitious, and creative woman capable of writing beautiful songs like this just…quit. As Murtha says in the book, “Only one person knows, and she isn’t talking.”
Download: Courtyard – Bobbie Gentry (mp3)
January 16th, 2015
I will defend to the death the right of dirty old Frenchmen to seduce our nice English girls into faking orgasms on record.
I know we’ve all heard this a million times but I’d never seen the video before and it is — how you say? — très jolie.
Je suis Serge.
January 13th, 2015
I slept through the infamous storm of 1987. I had no idea what had happened until I was woken early in the morning by a phone call from my mum asking me if I was OK. Then I noticed that our electricity had gone out. I still went to work later that day — Spirit of The Blitz and all that, you know.
Poor old Michael Fish, 30 years of forecasting the weather on the BBC — mostly accurately I imagine — and all he gets remembered for now is blowing the call on the biggest storm to hit England in 300 years. It reminds me of that “And you shag one sheep!” joke.
Download: (He’s Our Dear Old) Weatherman – Mark Wirtz (mp3)
This happy paisley number is from the 1960s legendary unfinished Teenage Opera project.
December 19th, 2014
Imagine what Jerry Lee Lewis would have sounded like to a kid living in drab Manchester where this was filmed in the early 60s. Like an alien from another planet probably. No wonder this lot are going bonkers, and no wonder their parents thought rock and roll was dangerous.
Contender for greatest ever live performance on TV?