Oh man, now Ed “Stewpot” Stewart has gone and died too, that’s another massive part of my childhood taken. I listened to his show Junior Choice in my bedroom nearly every weekend morning when I was a kid and he was to my early years what John Peel was to my late teens and early 20s, the one who provided a large part of its soundtrack and whose voice immediately brings the past back with all its sounds, images, and feelings.
I still know every note of the songs he played regularly like “Puff The Magic Dragon”, “Jake The Peg”, “The Laughing Policeman” and, of course, the amazing “Excerpt From A Teenage Opera” which is wrapped up with so many memories I had to unpack them on one of the earliest posts on this blog. But the thing I most associate with his show isn’t a song at all but “Sparky’s Magic Piano”, an audio story from the 1940s which he ran in installments seemingly over and over again. While I have many fond memories of this the robotic voice of that piano always creeped me out and still does.
This is the whole thing, it lasts 18 minutes but the file isn’t too big.
The Celebrity Grim Reaper was busy in the week between Christmas and New Year, taking Lemmy, Natalie Cole, The Specials’ drummer John Bradbury and Guru Josh (not Guru Josh!) off to meet their maker. But I’m not kidding when I say the one that upset me the most personally was the death of legendary Harlem Globetrotter Meadowlark Lemon.
Basketball is a niche sport in England and when I was a kid we’d never even heard of the NBA and couldn’t name a single American team. But we knew all about The Harlem Globetrotters (who actually came from Chicago), the exhibition team who toured the world playing “matches” against opponents they always beat which were full of trick shots and clownish routines and more about entertainment than sports.
They were such a pop-culture phenomenon in the early 70s they had their own Hanna-Barbera cartoon show on television (the first one made with a primarily black cast) and made guest appearances on Scooby-Doo.
My mum took me to see them at Wembley Empire Pool (now the Arena) one year and actually seeing Lemon — the star of the team nicknamed “The Clown Prince of Basketball” — doing his famous Hook Shot and that gag with the bucket full of confetti was one of the major treats of my childhood.
But it was their cartoon show that really made them household names with my generation of English kids, and because of it Meadowlark Lemon (how could you forget that name!) became part of the pantheon of loved TV stars I watched after school. So when I heard the news about his death it felt like Hong Kong Phooey or Secret Squirrel had died. No wonder I was so upset.
NASA’s entire archive of photos taken by the Apollo astronauts has recently been uploaded to Flikr — that’s over 13,000 images of the greatest achievement of the 20th century, scanned in beautiful high-resolution. We all know the famous and iconic Apollo images, but seeing the entire rolls of film unedited — lots of shots are blurry, wrongly-exposed, or badly-framed like holiday snaps you’d reject — brings home the scrappy, imperfect, and seat-of-the-pants nature of the endeavor and makes it even more awe-inspiring because it seems so human. Even when it’s just an empty photo of the moon surface (which is a lot of them) they’re amazing because it’s the fucking moon and it was taken by a human being standing on it.
I was 6 years old when Neil Armstrong took his famous step on July 20, 1969. It happened at 4am in England and my mother woke me and my sister up to see it. I think I watched most of the Apollo missions in my pajamas as the big events tended to happen either late at night or early morning our time which made them seem even more special because I was up watching TV when I was supposed to be in bed. Being a typical boy I was into rockets and space, and I was entranced by the fuzzy black and white television pictures, and the staticky chat between the astronauts and Houston punctuated by that high-pitched beep!
Even 40-plus years later there is still something incredibly glamorous about Apollo: the towering spire of the Saturn V, the white spacesuits that made the astronauts look like heavenly knights, and the ships gleaming in the raw sunlight of outer space. Of course another reason for the enduring wonder of these images is that we haven’t been back to the moon since, so they still look like the future — a future we never had. Back then the year 2000 was this far-off date that only existed in science fiction, and by which time we thought there’d be people living on the moon or even on their way to Mars. Sadly it turned out that Apollo was just another example of 60s optimism that ran aground on the rocks of dismal reality in the 1970s.
This song was a hit thanks to the BBC using it in their Apollo 11 coverage, so Bowie owes his career in part to the moon landings. This is the version he recorded in 1980 which is more sparse and Plastic-Ono-Band in style, I’ve posted it before many years ago but it’s still not a widely available track so here it is again.
This jolly tune was a regular play on Junior Choice when I was a kid, and hearing it 40-plus years later still takes me back to my bedroom on a damp Sunday morning listening Ed Stewart on the radio. Gives me the warm fuzzies it does.
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.
Dr. Who & The Daleks, the 1965 film with Peter Cushing as the Doctor, was on TV here the other week. It was the first time my kids had seen Daleks so I hyped up them up beforehand with tales of how much they scared me when I was young.
Now, my kids love Ray Harryhausen films so they’re not some jaded modern youths only impressed by state-of-the-art CGI, but sadly the Daleks didn’t frighten them in the slightest. Admittedly it isn’t a very good film, and it probably didn’t help that in it these supposedly terrifying machines were incapable of moving on a carpet. But still, at no point did either of the kids hide behind the couch which was very disappointing.
But the kid in me always gets a kick out of seeing the Daleks in widescreen colour instead of the grainy, black and white TV figures of my youth. The adult in me didn’t mind the lovely Jennie Linden either, that’s the young lady the Dalek is getting fresh with in the picture above. Careful where you’re pointing that plunger.
Dalek I Love You was a post-punk synthpop group from Liverpool who weren’t all that successful and it’s members more famous for other bands they were in. Formed by Alan Gill and David Balfe who later joined The Teardrop Explodes (where Gill co-wrote “Reward”), the lineup at one point also included Andy McCluskey before he formed Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. This was a single from their 1980 album Compass Kumpas by which time they’d shortened their name to Dalek I. Didn’t make any difference to their record sales though.
Too distracted by other things to finish a proper post at the moment so I thought I’d go back to one of the original wells of inspiration for this blog: the book “Lost Worlds”, a compendium of vanished things written by Michael Bywater. Here he is on why nostalgia for our childhoods is such a powerful thing:
“Generations beyond number — certainly they were active when the Old Testament was being composed — have lamented that time when men were men and women didn’t mind; when the air was cleaner, people stood taller, children obeyed their elders, food tasted better, wine left one mellow rather than crapulous, flowers were brighter, rain softer, animals more obliging, harvests richer and a hazy mellifluous peace engulfed the living world…
Yet its location in time remains uncertain. Just as the garden always looked better last week, just as the orgy was always the day before yesterday or down the road, so the Golden Age occupies a strange, shifting region of time; the opposite of the phenomenon observed by authors, lawyers and software engineers, the Constant Time to Completion effect. The Golden Age is always, and has always been, a little before we were born; perhaps when out parents were young. After all, it’s they who spent our childhoods telling us how much better things were when they were children.
But here’s the secret. The Golden Age is always, really, us. It’s the memory of our own childhood. Not that is was necessarily wonderful; just that it was simultaneously us, and yet entirely foreign. Nobody can recapture how they thought as a child; how the world felt; how alert the senses were; how the world seemed to offer endless opportunity, unalloyed promise under the sun. The seventeenth-century mystic Thomas Traherne saw our lives beginning, as infants, in a condition of amazement, like angels; and so the Golden Age is the angelic infancy of the world. No wonder we yearn for it.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Literally. He’s a much better writer than me.
Those Spandau Ballet boys did some cracking 12″ single mixes during their own Golden Age.