Twice Nightly

This great poster is from a huge online collection of old Leeds theatre playbills that’s well worth having a nose through. Featuring lots more saucy ladies, cockney comics, scintilating singers, and things I can’t quite figure out..

This must be what Yorkshiremen did for amusement in between walking their whippets and going to the pub.

Download: Burlesque – Family (mp3)

Every picture tells a story

After my mother died my sister gave me a pile of old family photos to scan, among them this one of my mother (left) and her three younger sisters outside their Shepherd’s Bush council flat — the same flat my gran still lived in when I was a kid and didn’t leave until the early 70s when my grandfather died. I know exactly when the photo was taken because some helpful person (my grandmother I think judging by the handwriting) has written “Coronation Day” on the back which would make it Tuesday the 2nd of June, 1953 and my mother a mere 18 years old (though I think she looked younger when she was in her 30s). She’d already left school and was working at that point, despite getting several O-levels she didn’t stay on for A-levels because the family needed the extra wage, something I think she always regretted.

My mum told me that she watched the Coronation on television like 20 million other Brits but whether it was their own set or a neighbours I can’t remember. Coronation Day was a holiday (in typical English “holiday” fashion it rained all day) and with their pearl necklaces the eldest three all look a bit dressed up to go somewhere, it could have been a street party or maybe just because they were having their photo taken, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it was because they were going to “see” the Queen on television and thought they should put on their “best” for such an important occasion. As it was a Tuesday I assume my mother wouldn’t have gone out that evening but come the weekend you might have found her dancing at the Hammersmith Palais where, in those pre-rock and roll days, the music was provided by live big bands led by the likes of Billy Cotton and Joe Loss.

The Hammersmith Palais was also where she met my dad about 6 years later who, I imagine, at the time looked something like he does in this photo.

That’s my old man on the left with three of his mates (he also had three brothers) and I don’t know when this was taken but judging by the suits I’d place it sometime in the 1950s too. The thing I’ve always loved about this picture is how suave my dad looks, he seems so much more put-together and debonair than the others, his suit just that bit fancier and well-tailored and he’s even holding his drink rather rakishly. Back then he was known as a bit of a fancy-pants and was nicknamed “Duke” because he always wore suits with a red lining, an indication perhaps that after he married my mother he wouldn’t be satisfied being a cab driver and would eventually make for the sophisticated bright lights of the theatre.

It’s always strange seeing photos of your parents as teenagers (and yourself too) and old photos of people you know are unavoidably poignant and suffused with a sort of innocence because you can see their future and they can’t, and not just in the long-term. Like the characters in Mad Men they don’t know that the 1960s are coming to smash the conventions and assumptions they’ve been living by and in my parents case they happened just a little too late, being married with two kids by the time The Beatles’ first record came out. Who knows what would have happened if my mother didn’t have to leave school to get a job at 16 and share a little council flat bedroom with three sisters until she got married, or my dad discovered what he really wanted to do with his life before then?

But then I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this.

Download: Photograph – Ringo Starr (mp3)

Summer in the city

I’m not any kind of transportation anorak who gets all swoony over buses and trains but I felt my heart sigh a little watching some of the lovely old documentaries now up at the The London Transport Museum website. Of particular interest is the wonderful All That Mighty Heart, a day-in-the-life film about London shot on a hot summer day in 1962 full of gleaming red buses driven by men with shiny Brylcreemed hair, pretty young housewives in modern new shopping centres, tennis at Wimbledon, cricket at Lords, kids enjoying a day at London Zoo and making sandcastles on the banks of the Thames (really!), all shot in vibrant you-never-had-it-so-good colour.

All That Mighty Heart is even more special to me as I was born in the summer of ’62 which according to my mother was a hot one and she often told me of the time my old man took her to see Lawrence of Arabia that summer and she had to sit through a three-hour film in a stuffy, non-air conditioned cinema while heavily pregnant with me. She suffered for me, you know.

Also worth a butchers is London On The Move made in 1970 showing a city that I actually remember, particularly those red tube trains with the green interior which brought a lot of happy memories flooding back.

So does this record, though not quite such old ones.

Download: Riding On A Train – The Pasadenas (mp3)

You can’t put your arms around an mp3

When I moved to the States I stored all my records in my Dad’s basement and it was 10 long years before I finally had them shipped over. When those battered cardboard boxes landed on my doorstep it was like being reunited with my lost self, as if someone had just dug up the dusty artifacts of a past life that had been fading into the distance after spending a decade in a dark room thousands of miles away. As I flipped through those old albums and singles for the first time again I was hit by a flood of memories which were just as much to do with the physical, tactile reality of the records themselves as it was the music they contained. These records had sat on the shelves in all the flats and houses I had lived in over the years, bought from record stores that don’t exist anymore (by a person I wasn’t anymore either), and every scuffed sleeve and worn spine, every scratch on the vinyl, was like an mark left by the past. Here was the album that got covered in beer at a party and I washed under a tap, the 12″ I bought in New York the first time I went to America, the single with a message from an old girlfriend written on the sleeve. Even the faint dark stain left on a sleeve by the peeled-off price sticker was like a ghost trace of where and when it was bought. It wasn’t just the soundtrack of my life, it was the actual concrete evidence of it.

What I felt even more strongly was a pang for what was missing, all the records I’d sold over the years, particularly at one point in the late-90s when I was temporarily back in London flat broke and flogged some of my most valuable ones. It was like several chapters in my life story were missing. Who, I wonder, now has the copy of “You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever” that my first serious girlfriend bought me? And what had happened to Queen’s “Sheer Heart Attack” album? Not the rarest record in the world by any means but it was the first album I ever bought. Surely I wouldn’t have sold that too? That one really bothered me, a big milestone in my life and the evidence is gone.

Records are vulnerable, fragile things, the way they can scratch and warp gives them a human quality that cold, perfect CDs lack, you can feel the patina of age on a vinyl album just as much as you can a human face. But now with even the CD becoming obsolete it seems like music formats are shrinking out of existence, from twelve inches of vinyl to little silver discs to… well, nothing really, a sequence of digital ones and zeroes downloaded off the web with all the tangible reality of a cloud. It’s like music stripped of all the lovely touchy-feely pleasures, there’s no there there and how can you be that emotionally invested in something that doesn’t exist? I have a whopping 45GB of mp3 files on my computer but if they all got deleted tomorrow it would be a pain in the arse but I wouldn’t be all that upset about it because I could just replace them with ones that were literally exactly the same. You can’t say the same about records, I’ve been slowly replacing some of the ones I either sold or lost over the years (the ones that aren’t too expensive anyway) but the “new” copy will never be that one, the one I bought when I was 16 with the scratch on the last track I sometimes still hear in my brain even when I listen to a pristine mp3 of the same song.

So in twenty or thirty years time will someone who is a teenager now relate to their mp3 collection the way I do my records even though it just a track name on a glowing screen, still exactly the same as the day they downloaded it with no physical substance or texture they can hold, feel or smell? Will they get all sentimental about their beaten-up old iPod instead? I have no idea, I’m just one of those sad old gits with an emotional attachment to objects, particularly the circular black plastic kind.

Of course, one drawback of vinyl is that you can’t download it off the internet, it’s too big to fit down the tubes. So an mp3 will have to do.

Download: Some Of Them Are Old – Brian Eno (mp3)
Buy: “Here Come The Warm Jets” (album)

Where’s the beef?

“On this occasion,” said Jack, “that’s exactly where you’re wrong. You’re all here as my guests, and you can order anything you like. The tab for this is being picked up by the British Leyland Motor Corporation, so expense is no object. Go for it, chaps. Let your imaginations run wild.
Roy ordered fillet steak and chips, Colin ordered fillet steak and chips, Bill ordered fillet steak, chips and peas, and Jack, who went to the South of France for his holidays, ordered fillet steak with chips, peas and mushrooms on the side, a touch of sophistication that was not lost on the others.”
Jonathan Coe
The Rotters Club

This little scene really captures the dismal state of English dining in the 1970s and the nation’s unsophisticated tastebuds in the days before any of us had ever heard of Balsamic Vinegar or Chilean Sea Bass and everyone’s idea of upmarket grub was steak — always with chips. I don’t want to come across like one of the Four Yorkshiremen or anything but I don’t think I even ate a steak until I was in my late teens (I mean a proper one, not some frozen Findus thing made out of unknown cow parts) and I don’t remember my mother ever cooking one at home, I assume because it was too expensive. I don’t think it was something anybody had at home back then, it was a luxury treat you had in a restaurant when you were “pushing the boat out” or if someone else was paying, like above, though back then “steak” usually meant a puny overcooked fillet served up in a Berni Inn or Angus Steak House.

I ate more “real” meat at school (though I dread to think where that Liver came from) than I did at home where my diet was 99% packaged, processed and artificially-flavoured: spam fritters, fish paste sandwiches, instant mash, Pot Noodles, Findus Crispy Pancakes (God knows what they were made from) tinned meat pies, boil-in-the-bag Cod, and “international cuisine” meant Vesta Instant Chow Mein which came in a box. Pudding was usually something powdered and instant (and totally artificial) like Angel Delight. We rarely went out to eat either (unless you count the Wimpy Bar) except for when my Dad took my sister and me out for the day and we’d have lunch at this Italian place in Kensington (which, amazingly, is still there) where he’d eat this weird thing called a Lasagne — he was sophisticated my old man, he’d been to Paris! — while I’d always have double egg and chips, a meal that still gives me a Proustian rush back to my childhood.

With all the tinned, frozen, instant, and boiled-in-the-bag rubbish we were eating in it’s no wonder we all looked so ill and pasty back then, the shit food adding to the general sickly air that seems to hang over the 1970s. Watch a TV show like The Sweeney and everyone looks like they smell of chip fat and ashtrays and has skin like an uncooked pork sausage (all that beige polyester didn’t help the complexion either).

But at least we were thin. I was surprised to find out that we actually ate more calories in the 1970s than we do today but we still looked like rickety runts, while the vast smorgasbord of cheap food and dining options we have now is creating a nation of obese tubbies. I don’t think it was because everyone was working out either, back then a gym was a place you only went when you were at school. Perhaps just getting through the day in 1970s England kept us slim, we didn’t spend all day on our bums in front of a computer and drive everywhere. So maybe the next slimming fad should be “The 1970s Diet”: wake up in a freezing cold flat, walk five miles to work, stand on your feet in a factory all day, carry your shopping home from the supermarket, eat a pile of spam fritters, instant mash and processed peas for tea, have a big bowl of Angel Delight, smoke twenty Rothman’s, and the weight will just fall off.

Download: Barbecue – Orange Juice (mp3)
Download: Bangers and Mash – Peter Sellers & Sophia Loren (mp3)

Something for the weekend

Yes kids, this is how awful things were before the internet was invented. We actually had to go to places and talk to real people. I really don’t know how we survived.

The End of The Road

ABC’s “The Lexicon Of Love” album is one of the high watermarks of 1980s pop, released in 1982 it’s shiny surfaces and theatrical romanticism pretty much set the template for the flashy, hedonistic, post-modern decade to come. Which makes it a little ironic that the day I bought it I found myself in a place haunted by the once-glamourous ghosts from another pop era and as a result it’s always linked in my mind with rather more dismal surroundings than the grand, velvet-draped ballroom you imagine ABC playing it in.

I bought the album one Saturday afternoon when I was down the King’s Road in Chelsea with some mates and when we stepped out of the Our Price record shop with our purchases it started to piss down with rain — real monsoon-like buckets of it — so we ran to take shelter in the nearest boozer, which happened to be The Chelsea Drugstore.

This was the first and only time I’d been in there and had no idea then about it’s legendary past, to me it was just this dingy place I’d walked past a million times that never looked very inviting. But when it opened in 1968 The Chelsea Drugstore was one of the epicenters of Swinging London counterculture and hangout for the beautiful people, with three glitzy floors containing a bar, restaurants, clothes and record shops and a late-night chemist. They even had a delivery service made up of young girls on motorcycles wearing purple catsuits — it doesn’t get much more groovy than that. It’s most famously mentioned in The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as the place where Mick Jagger went to get Marianne Faithful’s “prescription filled” when they lived together on nearby Cheyne Walk and she had a heroin habit. It’s also where the record shop scene in A Clockwork Orange was filmed.

But the youth culture parade is always moving on and the place must have already seemed like a relic from another era in 1976 when Punk and the Sex Pistols emerged from Malcolm McLaren’s shop “Sex” down the other end of the King’s Road, and far as I know The Drugstore’s last fling with pop history was in 1980 when it was an early hub of the new futurist/electronic music scene with it’s Monday night “Sci-Fi Disco” run by a young DJ by the name of Stevo who later founded Some Bizzare records and discovered Soft Cell, The The, and Depeche Mode. By the time I ran in there soaking wet in 1982 it really looked like the party had gone somewhere else, the place was almost empty and with it’s dingy lighting, dusty black walls, tatty black carpet and cheap chrome trimmings the vibe I got was more of a working man’s club for ageing Motorhead roadies. The rather shabby atmosphere was compounded by the appearance of a stripper on the little stage, a young girl who had that pasty-skinned, bored Reader’s Wives look common to nearly every stripper I’ve seen in a grubby English pub. It was all a bit sad and felt more suited to a seedy Pulp song than the glamour of Swinging London.

Looking back now, it might have turned into a shabby dive but at least it had some character which the King’s Road is sadly lacking these days as it’s become just another bland British high street with no trace of the vibrant counterculture and underground scenes it once spawned. When I walk down there now all I see are the ghosts of what used to be there: The Great Gear Market, Shelley’s, Fiorucci, Robot, Flip, American Classics, Acme Attractions, Johnson’s — they’ve all gone, replaced by mobile phone sellers, supermarkets and dry cleaners, not exactly the sort of places you can imagine a youth explosion starting from. The Chelsea Drugstore is long gone too, and in a perfect illustration of how far the King’s Road has fallen, on the site of what was once the hippest, most-happening scene in London there now stands a McDonald’s. There’s a giant metaphor for all of modern pop culture right there too.

I don’t think anyone needs me to post any tracks from “The Lexicon of Love” so how about all the b-sides of their first three 12″ singles instead?

Download: Alphabet Soup – ABC (mp3)
Download: Theme From “Mantrap” – ABC (mp3)
Download: Mantrap (The Lounge Sequence) – ABC (mp3)
Download: The Look of Love (Part 3) – ABC (mp3)
Download: The Look of Love (Part 4) – ABC (mp3)
Read: “King’s Road: The Rise and Fall of the Hippest Street in the World” (book)

Stiff Upper Lips

Alec: We know we really love each other. That’s true. That’s all that really matters.
Laura: It isn’t all that really matters. Other things matter too. Self-respect matters, and decency.

No one has ever asked me about the picture in the banner at the top of this page so I assume everyone knows it comes from the 1945 film Brief Encounter — and those that didn’t know couldn’t care less what it was. I grew up knowing that film by heart, it was one of those old British movies full of plummy voices, stiff upper lips and dreary tea rooms which the BBC used to show all the time on Sunday afternoons (along with Genevieve, The Way To The Stars, and The Dam Busters) and it’s atmosphere of monochrome miserablism was perfectly suited to that post-lunch rainy Sunday dead zone where there was nothing better to do than sit in front of the fire and watch a great old movie.

The picture of England these films painted was of a genteel and polite country which probably only exists today in the minds of ageing Daily Mail readers. It was a place of deference and impeccable manners where the last thing anyone wants to do is cause a scene or, God forbid, get all emotional about something. It’s a cliché about us English that we’re all a bit reserved and repressed and in Brief Encounter Alec and Laura are like the poster children for stiff English formality, living in a buttoned-up world of afternoon tea and polite chat about trains and library books. When they fall in love it threatens to tear that tidy world apart and they’re thrown into a panic by it, Laura in particular is completely discombobulated by her sudden feelings — “I’ve fallen in love. I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” — and it’s heartbreaking to see them try to be sensible and frightfully British about something as irrational and powerful as love.

Before she meets Alec, Laura’s life has all the flavour and excitement of a stale British Rail ham sandwich, with a house in the suburbs and a dull husband who looks like he probably goes to bed in the pinstriped suit he wears while doing The Times’ crossword puzzle in front of the fire every night. It’s the sort of dreary suburban trap that would later be made out to be a soul-destroying hellhole to be escaped at all costs, but Laura is a sensible middle-class housewife and people like her just don’t run off with a handsome doctor. Passion and romance might be alright for the French, but she’s British! So she does the “decent” thing and gives up Alec even though it tears her apart. At the end of the film it looks like she’ll never be happy again, but you know that she’ll pull herself together, keep it all bottled up and soldier on making the best of things, hiding her misery behind a polite English exterior. Order must be preserved, emotions must be kept in check, or England and the Empire will crumble.

It’s easy to mock (and parody) their frightfully proper manners and old-fashioned English reserve in general, especially in this post-1960s era when we’re told it’s bad to bottle your feelings up and to let it all hang out, man. But really, don’t you wish more people these days would resist the urge to share the almost pornographic details of their inner selves in public and keep the lid on a bit more? And just because the “stuffy” Brit isn’t inclined to swing naked from the emotional chandelier doesn’t mean they have no feelings, we just find it a little vulgar and juvenile to advertise them to the world in great big neon letters* which is why we get embarrassed in the presence of loud Americans who will insist on talking about their bloody feelings and hugging you all the time. That’s when we start looking at our shoes and talking about the weather.

Download: Love Hurts – The Everly Brothers (mp3)
Download: I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You – Tom Waits (mp3)
Download: Show Some Emotion – Joan Armatrading (mp3)

*Or we used to, I’m sure I’m not the only one who found the national crying jag that took place after the death of Princess Diana a little unseemly at times, especially when people started demanding that the Queen open her heart and let us all cry on her shoulder too as if she was bloody Oprah Winfrey.

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