Low Fidelity

Speaking of Lo-fi music technology, this was our family record player for most of the 1970s, a fact which may have influenced my memory of how music sounded back then. It’s a Fidelity HF42 which, according to my research, only cost £13.95 from Argos in 1976 which seems ridiculously low even for 40 year ago. It was mono and made of plastic — even the “wood” bits — with a whopping output of 1 1/2 watts of tinny music power. Sad to say, my mum probably bought it because it was the cheapest one there was — we were poor, you know.

The Fidelity was where I first played such epochal albums of my youth as All Mod Cons (I’m amazed I could hear Bruce Foxton’s bass), but the record I most associate with it is the 45 of “Telephone Line” which I played incessantly for a while. I think I literally played it a dozen times in a row the day I bought it. I listened to a lot of ELO records on that thing and was probably only hearing about 25% of the sumptuous production, but Jeff Lynne’s songs were so strong they still sounded great on a shitty record player, or radio.

Download: Telephone Line – Electric Light Orchestra (mp3)

We eventually got a Panasonic music centre at the end of the decade which felt like a top-of-the-line Bang & Olufsen system to me — two speakers!

My Mother’s Records

Not being in the mood for anything new I re-read Jonathan Coe’s nostalgic novel The Rotters Club on holiday the other week. The book is set in Birmingham in the 1970s and one of the major events in it is the horrific bombings at the Mulberry Bush and Tavern In The Town pubs in the city which killed 21 people on one night in November 1974.

Two characters in the story are in the latter pub that fateful night and one detail Coe adds is that the last song playing on the jukebox of the Tavern In The Town right before the bomb went off was “I Get A Kick Out Of You” by Gary Shearston. I can only assume Coe made that up because I can find no reference to it anywhere else, but it’s perfectly feasible as the record was a big hit at the time, getting to No.7 in the charts the month before the bombings.

Though she already had a version of the song by Frank Sinatra my mother bought the record because she loved Shearston’s lazy, laconic take on it — complete with an acoustic guitar intro stolen from “My Sweet Lord” — which really brought out the urbane ennui of Cole Porter’s lyrics. Despite his Ferry-esque croon, Shearston (who died last year) was actually an Australian folk singer and this was a one-off novelty hit that he recorded for a lark. Part of the success of such an old-timey record was probably due to the 1970s nostalgia vogue when even Laurel & Hardy and Glenn Miller got in the charts.

This is one of the records that most reminds me of my mother so I was a little bothered by Coe placing it in the terrible context of the Birmingham pub bombings, as if he was messing with my own memories. But one of the book’s strengths is that Coe avoids the superficial, I Love The Seventies! version of the decade — nothing but flares, Glam Rock, and big sideburns — which a more obvious signifier of the era like Bowie or T. Rex would have been. Going with a forgotten one-hit wonder — and slightly cheesy one at that — can tell you more about the actual, ordinary reality of the 1970s than “Starman” does.

Download: I Get A Kick Out Of You – Gary Shearston (mp3)

PS: How nice looking was the Charisma Records label?

My Mother’s Records

The furthest abroad my mother ever got was to the Channel Islands on a family holiday in the 1960s, and later in life it was impossible to get her to step outside of West London, let alone England. But she had so many groovy sun n’ samba records like this I like to think that when she listened to them she dreamed of exotic locations, sandy beaches, the warm sun, and tanned hunks handing her chilled cocktails. But then it was back to the two kids and the council flat.

I’m not so contrarian that I’m going to claim this is better than The Beatles’ original, but this is the first version I knew so it always sounds to me like it’s the Fab Four who are doing the cover.

Download: The Fool On The Hill – Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 (mp3)

Poor, but happy

Whenever my daughter throws a tantrum because we won’t buy her some new thing that she absolutely, desperately, please please please, must have, I find myself coming on all Four Yorkshiremen and giving her the “you don’t know how lucky you are” speech which I’m sure she finds as eye-rolling as I did when my mum gave it to me. If I whined about not getting something, or was just insufficiently grateful for what I already had, my mum would play the “World War II” card, telling me how she only got an orange for Christmas when she was a kid, had to eat powdered eggs, and had bombs dropped on her by Nazis — which is hard to top really, Hitler trumps a new Action Man every time.

But even if I didn’t grow up during the Blitz my childhood wasn’t without its own relative hardships either, and I don’t mean only having a black and white telly (though, you know, we didn’t get a colour TV until I was 16).

I was about seven when my dad ran away from home to join the theatre, leaving my mother to raise two kids on her own (to be fair to my dad he did carry on paying the rent). This was in the late 60s when there weren’t exactly a lot of jobs for women that paid enough to raise a family, so my mum really struggled to keep us fed and clothed and pay the bills.

Money was tight enough for my mother to burst into desperate, angry tears one time when I lost a brand new pair of shoes (my only “good” ones), and at the beginning I think she borrowed money from a loan shark because one of my earliest memories is of this man coming to our flat every Friday night and mum giving him money which he entered into a little book. Some Fridays she wouldn’t have the money to pay so we had to pretend to be out – lights out, telly off, keep quiet — when he knocked on the door. We often did that on Saturday mornings when the milkman came knocking to get his money too.

The term “single-parent family” didn’t exist in those days, instead I came from what was called a “broken home.” My sister and I hated that phrase because it made our situation seem so grim and damaged, conjuring up images of deprived “Latchkey” kids letting themselves into cold, dingy flats where they’d heat up a tin of baked beans for tea and wait for their stressed-out parent to come home from work and slap them around a bit before bedtime. Divorce and separation are much more common now but we were the only kids we knew in our situation, and “broken home” was a label with a real stigma to it which made us feel as if we could being taken into care at any minute.

I’ve had friends ask me if I’d rather have grown up in a two-parent family but I have no idea what that would be like so they might as well ask me if I’d rather have grown up on a planet with two moons — it was just the way things were and I didn’t ever lie awake at night wishing my dad would come back. Obviously there were things I missed out on, but on the positive side I learned to cook and clean for myself at an early age (on a school camping trip and at college I was stunned how inept my peers were at basic culinary skills) and it has never occurred to me that women shouldn’t or couldn’t do the same jobs as men for the same money, so being raised by my mother made me a feminist (the chicks dig that, you know). It also made me a big believer in school uniforms because I know what it’s like to go to school without the latest trendy gear.

Here I am forty years later with a thoroughly middle-class life and two kids who are already more familiar with flying on planes and eating out in restaurants than I was in my 20s so I guess things have turned out OK. Having a daughter whose idea of deprivation is not being able to play on our iPad must count as a success of sorts, I wouldn’t ever want her to have to learn how to avoid the milkman.

Download: Poor Boy – Nick Drake (mp3)

My Mother’s Records

My mum liked what I think of as “grown-up” songs, ones where the subject matter was adults doing, um, adult things instead of the usual wide-eyed, adolescent innocence of most pop songs — records like “Me and Mrs. Jones”, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”, and “Harper Valley PTA” which weren’t about holding hands at the bus stop but dealt with infidelity, sex, and being a single parent. Another big favourite of hers was “Behind Closed Doors” by Charlie Rich from 1973 which, you know, wasn’t about two people going home to play table tennis. Besides the sublime melody and production a big part of its appeal was Rich himself: the big, burly “Silver Fox” with the soulful voice who sounded like he’d been around the block a few times and taken a few punches along the way, but his woman letting her hair down made him glad to be a man. What woman could resist that kind of bruised poet?

Download: Behind Closed Doors – Charlie Rich (mp3)

But there was a lot more to Charlie Rich than smooth MoR ballads loved by mums which I found out for myself back in the 1980s when, loving his voice and wanting to hear more, I started following the dusty, overgrown trail that led from “Behind Closed Doors” back to his brilliant earlier recordings. At the time Rich was semi-retired and mostly forgotten so I thought I’d found the best-kept secret in popular music because it was literally like discovering another Elvis – one who had the voice and looks (plus genuine musical and songwriting chops) but hadn’t blown his talent on shitty records and movies and cheeseburgers.

If Rich sounded like he’d been around the block a few times it was because he had, having spent years making records that no one bought and jumping from label to label. He started his career back in the 1950s at Sun Records but, with only a couple of minor hits to his name, had to wait until the 1970s before his big breakthrough singing string-laden “Countrypolitan” love songs which must have been a bittersweet pill to swallow as he preferred Jazz and Soul to Country — so even when he finally became famous it wasn’t for what he preferred doing, no wonder he started drinking heavily.

Those years of struggle and not-making-it probably inspired his wife Margaret to write the beautiful, heartbreaking “Life’s Little Ups And Downs” which should bring a lump to your throat, a tear to your eye, and a shiver to your spine. If it doesn’t then there’s a black chasm where your heart should be. This is the track that really turned me on to his greatness.

Download: Life’s Little Ups And Downs – Charlie Rich (mp3)

His apparent “problem” making it big early on was that he didn’t fit into any one box and wasn’t just a little bit Country and a little bit Rock n’ Roll, but also (more than) a little bit Jazz, and a little bit R&B, Gospel, and Blues too — sometimes all in the same song. His 60s recordings are particularly eclectic, ranging from hip-shaking groovers like “Party Girl” (my personal favourite) and “That’s My Way” to Jazz-Gospel-Blues ballads like “River, Stay ‘Way From My Door” — the common denominator being Rich’s soulful voice and rolling, jazzy piano-playing.

Download: Party Girl – Charlie Rich (mp3)
Download: That’s My Way – Charlie Rich (mp3)
Download: River, Stay ‘Way From My Door – Charlie Rich (mp3)

Having spent most of his life as the poster boy for unappreciated genius Rich finally got the recognition he deserved before he died in 1995 — better late than never I guess — and now he’s not such a big secret. A friend of mine called him “the introvert’s Elvis”, the King of that alternate pop universe we music geeks wished was real, the one where all the “right” people are famous.

Buy: “Behind Closed Doors” (album)
Buy: “Feel Like Going Home: The Essential Charlie Rich” (album)
Buy: “It Ain’t Gonna Be That Way: The Complete Smash Sessions” (album)

My Mother’s Records

“Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” is one of those oddities in my mother’s record collection, maybe not quite as off-the-wall a choice for her as the Status Quo single or Rugby Songs album she had but trippy jazz-fusion instrumentals weren’t usually her bag either. I can see why she liked it though, it’s cool and elegant and groovily cosmic without being too far out there — if they had the expression back then it would have been called “chill out” music.

This was a big hit for Brazilian ivory-tinkler (and future Kool & The Gang producer) Eumir Deodato in 1972 and, of course, is a cover of the Richard Strauss tune used in 2001: A Space Odyssey which had blown everyone’s minds a couple of years before. Oddly enough, even though my mother usually hated science fiction films (she thought they were “unrealistic” which, I know, is kind of the point of them) she actually liked 2001 which is about the most difficult and hardcore mainstream SF film there is, even more light years away from being her usual cup of tea than this record is. But we watched it on television together once and though I imagined she’d think it was like watching paint dry when it was over she said to me “that was good, wasn’t it?” Maybe she was secretly doing drugs and had been tripping out on the couch during the “Beyond The Infinite” sequence without me noticing.

Download: Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001) – Deodato (mp3)

The Sadness

Some days I’m really, really bothered by the fact that these two aren’t around to see their grandchildren. Most days actually.

Download: Motherless Child – O.V. Wright (mp3)

My Mother’s Records

There was a time when a person could look at a picture of some hunky, naked men having a bath together and think it was nothing more than sporty boys having good, clean, healthy, heterosexual fun, and that after the communal bath they’d all head down the pub for a skinful and a fight, then end the evening shagging some bird in a very manly way. Now, of course, it looks like the gayest record sleeve ever, queerer than a nine-bob note, camper than a row of tents, and a masterpiece of homo kitsch. We’re all so damn “knowing” these days, aren’t we?

I really have no idea why my mother owned this record and how it ended up sitting in our sideboard throughout my childhood. Like most Brits she liked bawdy humour and there was a whole series of Rugby Songs albums released in the 60s so they must have been fairly popular, but I can only assume — and hope — that someone bought it for her as a joke. I certainly hope she didn’t buy it herself because she liked the picture on the cover, I’d rather not think about that too much.

Despite the saucy sleeve the record itself isn’t actually that rude (by modern standards anyway) because all the naughty words are bleeped out so it’s more nudge nudge wink wink than truly filthy. While I don’t remember my mother ever playing it I used to play it a lot trying to work out what words those bleeps were hiding. I imagine they had to be very bad to be censored like that and figuring them out was like unlocking another door into the world of grown-ups. Some tracks were rendered almost unlistenable by the constant bleeps but my favourite song “Balls To Your Partner” was easier to work out:

Singing balls to your partner, bleep against the wall,
If you’ve never been bleep on a Saturday night, you’ll never get bleep at all.

Though I was still of an age when I was learning swear words from the older kids in the playground I knew enough to reckon that the first bleep was “arse” (I had no idea what “arse against the wall” meant though), and the second had to be “shagged”. Thanks to the magic of the internets I now know that “Balls To Your Partner” is based on an Irish folk song called “The Ball of Kerrymuir” but I can’t say for sure what those bleeps are as there appear to be several different versions of it. Oh well, guess I can just use my imagination the way I did back then, or maybe in these more liberal times someone will release an un-bleeped version of the album.

Download: Balls To Your Partner- The Jock Strapp Ensemble (mp3)
Download: It Was On The Good Ship Venus – The Jock Strapp Ensemble (mp3)
Download: John Peel- The Jock Strapp Ensemble (mp3)

(Yes, there’s a song called “John Peel” and they’re all performed by a group called The Jock Strapp Ensemble)

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


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