Goodbye Spaceboy


Well, this really puts Ed Stewpot in perspective, doesn’t it?

Unlike seemingly every other kid who grew up in the 1970s I didn’t have my life changed by seeing Bowie perform “Starman” on Top of The Pops in 1972 because I was only nine years old at the time and, to be honest, I don’t actually remember seeing it. But us kids were fascinated by Bowie who was clearly far stranger than Marc Bolan or David Essex in a way we didn’t really understand yet.

I had no clue about gender-bending or performance art, I just liked the fact that he sang about astronauts and aliens — and looked like one himself — and even though I had no idea what “Life On Mars?” was about (I still don’t really) the words fired my imagination and painted some bizarre pictures in my head. I remember going to the house of a school friend whose older sister had just bought Aladdin Sane and we stared at the sleeve image as if we were sneaking an illicit peek at his Dad’s porn magazines. It was both magnetic and a little bit… pervy. Heady, thrilling stuff when you’re a kid, if a little unnerving.

I was on the right wavelength for him by my teens though. The first album of his I bought was the compilation ChangesOne in 1977 which opened the gates and in the space of about two years I’d bought all the others right up to the newest one “Heroes”.

Digging in to Bowie’s back catalogue was a thrilling adventure, you never knew what kind of experience you were going to get and it’s astonishing to think that at this point Ziggy Stardust was only five years old but he had already covered more water and changed skin more times than most artists do in a career. I saw him live at Wembley on the Serious Moonlight tour in 1983 when he was in smiling, family-entertainer mode playing hit after hit after hit — Space Oddity! Life On Mars! Young Americans! The critics were sniffy but I was in dreamland.


Being another working class kid with an artistic/creative streak myself I had other reasons to be inspired by Bowie and even identify with him a little bit. Art schools like mine were full of his children, kids from shitty towns with blue hair and far-out dreams he had shown they could make reality. The early punk scene was driven by Bowie disciples, as was post-punk, synthpop, New Pop, Goth, and every other 80s act with cheekbones and eyeliner. The million tiny seeds he planted through the 1970s flowered and bore glorious fruit.

But all the conceptual, art-school trappings in the world would mean nothing if the records were crap, then he’d just be Steve Harley or some second-rate New Romantic act. The guy knew how to write a song that hit the heart and hips as well as the head and — something which gets overlooked in all the chameleon/artist/icon talk — he was a phenomenally great singer whether it was the theatrical sneer of Ziggy or the deep croon of the Thin White Duke.

And somehow through all he achieved and experienced he seemed to stay a charming, decent, and funny man. Thank you so very much Mr. Jones, may God’s love be with you.

Download: Somebody Up There Likes Me – David Bowie (mp3)

PS: What kind of person can rally themselves to make an album as good as Blackstar when they know they’re dying? Maybe he was an alien.

Stewpot


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.

Download: Sparky’s Magic Piano (mp3)

Lemon Drops


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.

Download: Harlem – Edwin Starr (mp3)

This soulful beauty by Edwin Starr was the b-side of “Headline News” in 1966.

Something for the Weekend



The sad death of the great Allen Toussaint earlier this week got me falling down a YouTube hole of records he either wrote, produced, or performed himself. Bouncing between Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey, Dr John, The Meters, Aaron Neville, and Labelle really brought home what an extraordinary amount of great music he was responsible for. Like this joyous beauty he wrote.

Though I didn’t know the original version of this song was recorded by Frankie Miller of all people.

Holy Hormones, Batman!


I’m not entirely sure who was the very first woman I saw on TV as a boy that made my dormant hormones go Boing! and realize that girls were actually rather interesting creatures. Previously I’ve identified that first crush as possibly being Raquel Welch, or even Bobbie Gentry, but it could very well have been Yvonne Craig as Batgirl.

The Batman TV show was already catnip to a young boy anyway with its bright cartoon sensibility and KAPOW! fight scenes, then they threw this cute girl in a skintight purple outfit into the mix (they already had Julie Newmar as Catwoman, add her to the list too) and I thought it was about the greatest thing on television.

40+ years later and I have a daughter who loves watching the same show to see Batgirl beating up bad guys. Anyone with a daughter can tell you the power of strong female role models to fight against the malevolent evil that is Barbie and Disney princesses, so I’m very grateful to her Batgirl for several reasons. Craig died yesterday at the age of 78, she’ll be fondly remembered.

Download: Hero Takes A Fall – The Bangles (mp3)

Fade To Black


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)

Dark Chocolate


I once saw Errol Brown coming out of the Gents in a trendy Soho bar in the late 1980s and, while thinking he was shorter than I’d imagined, I just gave him a very cool smile as he walked past me while inside I was all “FUCKING HELL, IT’S ERROL BROWN!” because here was the man behind so many beloved pop hits of my youth — which is why his death upset me more than I imagined it would. While they were only modestly successful elsewhere, Hot Chocolate were a pop institution in the UK, having at least one hit every year between 1970 and 1984. With his distinctive bald head, Brown was as familiar a face on Top of The Pops as the DJs, one of the few regular black singers on the show who wasn’t American.

Hot Chocolate were a difficult band to pin down. Their records contained elements of soul, pop, glam, funk, dub, and psychedelia — sometimes all at once thanks to the production magic of Mickie Most. What linked some of them together however was a surprising bleakness, singles like “Emma” and “Brother Louie” are pretty grim for pop hits your mum probably liked, and even a love song like “Put Your Love In Me” has an edge of dark desperation about it.

They were such a singles band they didn’t release their debut album Cicero Park until several years into their hit-making career in 1974, and shockingly it was a flop despite containing the hit “Emma” and being a terrific album in it’s own right. The title track in particular is a fabulous piece of moody Blaxploitation soul-funk. If Curtis Mayfield had made this record it would hailed as a classic.

Download: Cicero Park – Hot Chocolate (mp3)

Strange Days


I first heard of the late Steve Strange in 1979 when he was the notoriously-strict doorman at the Blitz club in Covent Garden and his refusal to let Mick Jagger into the club became a minor tabloid story. An act that served as both bravely sticking to your style guns and two fingers up to the crusty old rock establishment — though when Bowie showed up he was treated like a God, they were his children after all.

Back then, the Blitz Kids (as New Romantics were called initially) were still just a small underground clique and I can remember seeing these dazzling peacocks in flamboyant clothes and make-up hanging around the King’s Road or going out at night on the Tube, and would be startled by how they looked which was a million colourful miles away from the Punk and Mod styles everyone else was wearing. I had no idea who they were but admired the balls it took to go out looking like that, in those days just looking “weird” could easily get you beaten up.



Steve Strange grew up in Wales as plain old Steve Harrington and, like many kids of his generation, had his life changed by seeing the Sex Pistols and moved to London with dreams of reinventing himself, changing his name, creating his own scene. This was when it was possible to survive in London without much money and get by on the dole and living in squats which most of them did. It was also that exciting time post-Punk when outsiders and oddballs like Strange, Boy George, Gary Numan, Adam Ant, and Marc Almond could be given the keys to the pop kingdom and become bona fide stars. God knows we could do with some colorful mavericks like them in mainstream pop music today.

The New Romantic cult can look very silly today (never boring though), but Strange and his Blitz friends had an influence way beyond that one movement. They changed the look and sound of British pop, defining 80s music in the process. It was also the first British style/musical movement to come out of the club scene which would prove to be the incubator for nearly every other one to come after.

Once you look past the frills and eyeliner it did produce some great records too. Because Strange was thought of as just a club promoter and fashion plate it wasn’t exactly cool to like Visage (despite the rest of the band all being members of Ultravox and Magazine) but I did love this one, particularly the extended 12″ dance version.

Download: Night Train (Dance Mix) – Visage (mp3)

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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