Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Why Oh Why?

OK, here’s a thing. Why do I own LPs by bands that I don’t really like? And, even worse, why did I buy them in the full knowledge that I didn’t really like them?

It must be that there are some bands in life that you just love to hate – and in my case Steely Dan is one of them. The anonymous person that reviewed my book in a local paper condemned me for calling them a ‘slick, bland, middle of the road’ act but frankly, if I have to listen to ‘Do It Again’ one more time, I swear I will commit a crime usually associated with a long prison term with no remission.

Paradoxically, I would be quite happy for ‘Ricki Don’t Lose that Number’ containing, as it does, ‘Skunk’ Baxter’s immaculate guitar solo to sit comfortably in any ‘top’ list you care to name, so how does that work? I’ve never really got to the bottom of this type of relationship. Another is Supertramp. ‘Dreamer’ really irritates me to death, yet I note that ‘Crime of the Century’ still nestles in my vinyl collection, as does ‘Breakfast in America’. For God’s sake, I even went to see Supertramp in concert when I was at Reading University in the mid 1970s and I didn’t really like them then, so why do I own these things?

Is it peer pressure, or something more sinister? If you backed me into a corner and threatened a Chinese Burn, I’d be forced to admit that there are probably two reasons and neither of them are particularly edifying.

First, there is the theory of musical relativity. This states that at any given period in rock history there is no absolute quality, only relative quality, an entirely different kettle of fish. In a period of piss-poor music, like ooh…the mid 1970s, anything that shows a glimmer of invention becomes the bee’s knees by default and my inclination is that Supertramp and Steely Dan fall into this category. I mean, where was the competition?

Second, there is undoubtedly a ‘critical acclaim’ influence whereby a few music hacks sitting in their isolated offices decide to have a bit of fun and agree amongst themselves what the new ‘in’ sound is going to be, publish glowing tributes for months on end and we all follow lest we be branded philistines. Guilty as charged, I’m afraid, which is why I have LPs by both the defendant bands sitting in my collection, m’lud.

In mitigation, I haven’t bought them on CD, honest!

Wednesday, 19 September 2007


Well, it had to happen one day and over the weekend it did. My Dad died after a short tussle with Cancer. I suppose that makes me an orphan? It also means that, suddenly, I’m in the front line.

But amongst the emotion and uncertainty there is one aspect that stands out in my mind and it starts in my childhood. When I was small, my Dad was a keen gardener. He tried his hand at most things; fruit, vegetables, flowers, you name it. But his passion was Chrysanthemums and he would grow them for entry at prize events at the local horticultural shows. Over the years he must have won a whole stack of prizes but all this industry meant that our garden never really looked like others. Normal gardens were awash with colourful blooms and lush foliage, but not ours.

In order to grow prize blooms you have to ensure that each plant only produces one perfect flower and this is achieved by removing all the other shoots on the plant so that it resembles a stick with leaves. Then, when the bud appears, you cover it with an inverted paper bag tied around the stem. This ensures that the bloom grows without ravage by insects and without being damaged by buffeting by other flowers or the weather. When it is ready to show you remove the bag and cut the stem.

I’m not sure my mother was impressed with our garden of swaying paper bags but if not, she kept quiet about it. When she died at age 40, we moved house and Dad lost his enthusiasm for gardening, but in his later years he returned to it and the sight of Chrysanthemums bobbing in the breeze were again a feature of his garden.

The weekend before last, he entered some of his blooms at the local village show and won not one...or two...but three first prizes. The next day he was rushed to hospital and died 6 days later.

As a final act on this earth, to win three first prizes for his flowers seems an entirely fitting epitaph.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Colour My World

Just in case you were thinking I was completely sane, here is a bit of research that will cause you to rethink your opinion. Have you ever wondered how often colours are used in song titles? No, thought not. Nevertheless, I can reveal today, for the first time in the public arena, my valuable research into this little appreciated subject and the results will amaze you…or not. I have taken as my sample, my personal music collection (just short of 10,000 songs). I have recorded every instance of a colour in a song title (Red, Blue etc) and set out the results below – in reverse order, naturally. I have not looked at those obscure colour-chart descriptions that decorators adore, like ‘autumn haze’ or ‘cowardy custard’, or the type of colours only computers like (Cyan??).

At the bottom of the scale are the likes of Orange, Pink and Purple who only managed to rack up two instances each. I guess these are far too exotic for most songwriters who wouldn’t know what to do with them unless your name is Prince.

Next comes a bunch of slightly more assertive colours, the top two being Green (19) and Red (22), followed by Brown (8), Yellow (7) and surprisingly, Grey (5). At this stage you can guess at the way this is going. Green, Red and Yellow are optimistic colours and the song titles they provide are generally up beat, but Brown and more pertinently, Grey show a slightly less optimistic frame of mind.

This unease continues into the next section which comprises Black (54) and White (26). The use of Black in song titles almost invariably denotes a sombre or fearful note. Interestingly White tends to pair up with Black in the same title (Black and White Boy – Crowded House, Eve Black/Eve White – Siouxsie & the Banshees) to give a paradoxical flavour. But it’s only heading one way.

So it comes as no surprise that by far the most used colour is Blue (120). Of course, I have included instances of ‘Blues’ in the Blue category, which accounts for its pre-eminent position but even looking at Blue without the ‘s’ the tally is very high so it seems that songwriters are a thoroughly morbid lot. It’s something that I’ve always suspected: great art comes from pain not smug well-being. Perhaps this explains the attraction of Country & Western?

Or does it reflect on me? After all this is my music collection that is seemingly riddled with morbid songs. Damn!

Friday, 7 September 2007

A Reason To Buy

When I was young (so much younger than today…) I had a voracious appetite for buying music, funds allowing. I didn’t give any thought to the ethical implications of what I was buying at all; I just did it on the basis that I liked it. This of course is all very laudable but I dare say that I have funded the debauched lifestyle of many a layabout over the years as a result.

Since those early years, my propensity to amass CDs has not really waned significantly but now in my approaching old age I am beginning to have second thoughts about some prospective purchases. In fact I am beginning to formulate a sort of ethical purchasing policy. Hmm, very rock ‘n’ roll!

In general, my new purchasing policy is that I would rather give money to those that I think deserve it and not to those that don’t really need it. I do have a get out clause which states that the music always takes preference but in general I am a little more thoughtful these days. This newfound righteousness has rather surprised me. Let me give you a couple of examples.

The first is the case of the Rolling Stones. Those of you who have read my book will know that I only own one Stones album, bought out of guilt because I didn’t have any for many years and felt that I should. However, I have made up my mind that I will not buy any more, not because I don’t like the music (up to mid 1970s only at least) but because I can’t stand the thought of contributing to the already bloated pension fund of messrs Jagger and Co. They already have money, fame, knighthoods and for what?

The second case is that of the Dixie Chicks. Before 2003, the Chicks had a burgeoning career in the Country/Pop field until one moment, which took place in Shepherd’s Bush, London at the start of a European tour, when they criticised George Bush on stage. From that moment their career imploded, their tour audiences halved, CDs were burned in the streets and they received death threats. This is in the supposedly freedom of speech embracing West.

Four years later they swept the board at the 2007 Grammy’s and sung ‘I’m Not Ready to Make Nice’ to a cheering audience. How times change. In the meantime I bought several of their CDs as a statement of support, even though I’m not mad about their music.

So it has come to this. I am now buying music that I don’t like for the right reasons rather than buying music I do like for the wrong ones. Perhaps I need to rethink this!

Saturday, 1 September 2007


I have always been a Gerry Anderson fan. It goes right back to my earliest memories of visiting my grandparents in the very early 1960s and thus being able to watch the new commercial ITV channel on their television set (our home model only received the BBC). I have vague memories of ‘Twizzle’ and ‘Torchy, the Battery Boy’, but at the time, Gerry’s best offering was the futuristic ‘Supercar’ and I loved it. I loved it so much that when it was announced that we would finally get ITV at home I was ecstatic.

So it was that one evening in 1962 I sat down in a frenzy of expectation to watch ‘Supercar’ on our brand new, ITV-receiving television – only to find that it wasn’t on! Its run had ended and in its place was a new show called ‘Fireball XL5’ and I was distraught! But not for long, for as it turned out, the new show was even better with spacecraft, alien worlds, robots and the beautiful Venus to keep me amused.

For the next few years, it is a little known fact that I was secretly Steve Zodiac, my most prized possession being a plastic replica of XL5 (with detachable Fireball Junior) obtained by collecting a number of Lyons Maid ‘Zoom’ ice cream wrappers, closely followed by a vivid and slightly obsessive imagination which involved roping in my schoolmates to play ‘XL5’ in the lunch hour. Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet would follow but nothing really triggers memories of that secret childhood world like Fireball XL5. It is largely responsible for what I am today – a man with a mind still attuned to comics, cult TV and pop music. And the bad points are…um…it all costs so much.

I recently gritted my teeth and bought the entire series of Fireball on DVD and have spent many hours re-living those black and white days of the early 1960s. Some episodes I had no memory of at all but others, like my all time favourite episode, ‘XL5 to H2O’ with the fabulous smoke-firing Aquaphibian were as clear now as they were 40 years ago.

Sure, the increased clarity of DVD has highlighted all the puppet strings and other ‘imperfections’ but it has also revealed the imagination, the attention to detail and the sheer adventure inherent in these shows. It brought a kind of magic into my life which fired the imagination and left an indelible mark.

‘Ready, Venus?’
‘Ready, Steve…’