Saturday, 28 March 2009

By The Time We Got To Woodstock

At the risk of sounding like an aging baby-boomer hippy, I would just like to point out that it will be forty years this August that the Woodstock Festival took place in New York State, USA. Just for the record, I didn’t go – my mum probably wouldn’t’ve taken kindly to me rushing off with a huge ‘Keep on Truckin’ rucksack saying that I was just off to the States for a few weeks as a) I was only 13 and b) I would’ve had to be back in time for tea anyway. Also, my head was still in the singles chart at the time and would not become aware of ‘real’ music until after a year or two further had passed.

Nevertheless it was a major event, which in a rush of ultimate irony bearing in mind that everybody claimed to have been there, was immortalised in song by probably the one person apart from me who wasn’t there – Joni Mitchell. ‘Woodstock’ by Ms Mitchell, whose manager persuaded her that rather than play Woodstock, a TV appearance on the Dick Cavett show would be preferable to her career, was written on the basis of hearsay information imparted by her then boyfriend, Graham Nash who along with the remainder of the planet, did attend (allegedly).

‘Woodstock’ is a strange song. Joni’s original version appeared on her ‘Ladies of the Canyon’ album and whilst having a spot-on lyric, has a rather challenging melody which contains all manner of vocal-straining interval jumps but doesn’t really seem to benefit much from them. It is very symptomatic of Joni’s style of that time and meanders along to a dulcimer backing for rather too long. I am a big Joni fan but lyrics aside, this doesn’t really do much for me. Not the most auspicious of debuts for an iconic song.

But then along came Crosby, Stills Nash & Young to grab it by the scruff of the neck on their 1970 effort ‘Déjà Vu’ and put some muscle into its rhythm and cleverly hide many of the odd interval jumps in a mass of four part harmony. This version was a hit and not surprisingly – it is a rockier, more confident and ultimately superior version to Joni’s own.

The third version is one I own myself and it is by Matthews Southern Comfort. Where CSN&Y rock, MSC sort of swirl in a myriad of steel guitar and primitive synths. Iain Matthews, the leader of the band, clearly didn’t fancy Joni’s roller-coaster melody either and so totally ignored most of the jumps and just smoothed over them giving it a much more singable ambience. Whether or not this was done for convenience or artistic licence, it was certainly a hit with the British public who voted it up to number 1 in the Sept 1970 singles chart. This is the version I heard first so discovering the original years later was a bit of a shock as the melody is just not the same.

Which rather begs the question; do I really like ‘Woodstock’ or do I just like the subsequent appropriations? One thing is certain; I love the lyric which nails the atmosphere beautifully. Perhaps I’m an aging hippy after all?

Monday, 23 March 2009

Tickets! Anyone Want Tickets...?

Some posts ago, I protested that I couldn’t really give an answer to the vexed question of my favourite gig of all time. This was based on the premise that I couldn’t remember them all and even if I could, it was impossible to go back in time and inhabit your younger self to ‘feel the moment’ as it were. Well, since then I have made a concerted effort to create a list of gigs attended and have surprised myself by recalling, with the help of ticket stubs and old diaries, just under 100 occasions where I tried to make myself permanently deaf! There are bound to be more but for the time being this list will suffice. Now, trying to remember them all in any detail is a much more difficult task owing either to too much alcohol at the time or lack of memory now (or both really).

Nevertheless here is a list of 11 gigs that I feel were definitely a fun night out. They may not be the best gigs I have attended but they are events for which I have real memories rather than hindsight imaginings. Nor do they always feature the biggest bands or the best venues but each has a place in my hall of fame.

Curved Air (Hatfield Polytechnic 1972) – My first ever gig. Truly awe-inspiring despite having to leave during the set due to parental curfew. (Huh! How rock ‘n’ roll!) Set me on the path to music as an unpaid career.
Argent (St Albans Civic 1974) – One of my favourite bands of the early 70s. This was one of their last appearances before Russ Ballard left. In the days when musicianship counted for something.
Split Enz (St Albans Civic 1976) – Tim Finn’s weird and wonderful band before little brother Neil took them away from the avant-garde and onto the path of commercial pop.
Talking Heads (Hemel Hempstead Pavilion 1978) – A night throbbing with massive rhythmic integrity and psychosis from a band at their prime.
Martha and the Muffins (Nashville 1979) – Before they were famous, playing the back room at the Nashville pub and filling it with sweaty energy.
The Bangles (Town and Country Club 1985) – 4th July gig gave it a certain poignancy. Who said women can’t play? One of my favourite live bands...ever.
The Smiths (Royal Albert Hall 1986) – Better than I thought it would be. Great tunes and Morrissey on top form complementing the grandeur of the venue.
Siouxsie and the Banshees (Royal Albert Hall 1986) – my favourite of all the gigs of theirs I attended (and there were many). ‘Nightshift’ rules!
Ghost Dance (Riverside Studios Hammersmith 1987) – A solo outing on a whim to see an unknown I’d picked out of the NME and turning out to be one of the best nights of my life. You live for these moments.
All About Eve (Astoria 1988) – Another great live band melding some old fashioned guitar histrionics with Julianne Regan’s fabulous voice.
Go-Go’s (Shepherds Bush Empire 1994) – With The Bangles’ Vicki Peterson filling in for a pregnant Charlotte Caffey, and Belinda Carlisle back in the fold, how could they fail?

So, there you have it and not a mention of Pink Floyd at Knebworth 1975, nor Queen in Hyde Park 1976 but then I never really enjoyed outdoor events. Perhaps I’ll dig out a few more intimate venue favourite gigs for a future post. Or maybe the worst gigs...

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Pan's People

Over on fav blog ‘A Novice Novelist’ the question was recently posed; ‘If you were in a band, what would you be?’ For example, are you the fidgety drummer or the extrovert vocalist and so on? But an interesting side issue was raised and it was this; if you were not a musician then what would you be? Roadie, Dancer (Bez-like), a member of Pan’s People? Hmm...I’m not sure I’m the right shape to join Pan’s People (although that didn’t stop Morecambe & Wise) but it’s an interesting thought. After all, where else can you get to boogie to 'The Monster Mash' and wear horror make-up or dance around a load of dogs that promptly and unexpectedly leave the stage?

For all you overseas types who are probably thinking ‘What the hell is he prattling on about?’ Pan’s People was a fondly loved all-female dance troupe who graced episodes of Top of the Pops between 1968 and 1976 to replace bands who were unavailable to appear before the days when music video could step in. Originally they comprised six members, ‘Flick’, ‘Dee Dee’, Babs, Louise, Ruth and Andi and wore colour-coded outfits long before the Spice Girls. The American member, ‘Flick’ Colby, relinquished her dancing role in 1971 to become full time choreographer and the diminutive Cherry replaced the departing Andi in 1972 thus arriving at what many aficionados consider to be the classic line-up. Numerous further changes took place in 1974-5 and by 1976 they were gone.

But why is Pan’s People such a cherished part of our heritage? Why are there countless websites devoted to them and why is YouTube awash with vintage clips? Some recent clips have been painstakingly created by mashing up old footage with contemporary songs thus creating the illusion that they are still operating. However, let’s be honest, their costumes were often 1970s fashion victim disasters, the moves almost ridiculously literal and their dancing synchronicity left a little to be desired. The undisputed fact that they had precious little time to construct and rehearse routines has a bearing here and mitigates for them but it doesn’t answer the question.

I think the real reason why they had so much appeal was that they embodied the role of the ‘enthusiastic amateur’ and they did it with smiling gusto. I do not cast aspersions on their professionalism with this remark as I think to be an ‘enthusiastic amateur’ is a role that strikes deep into the psyche of the average Briton. We love them with a vengeance from the Sherlock Holmes of literature to the contestants in reality shows. We don’t like our heroes to be too perfect, we like them to be underdogs in the face of overbearing authority. Triumph by enthusiasm is enough and that’s exactly what Pan’s People achieved and it's why they are still well loved by people of a certain age.
For those of you who wish to learn more, join the forum at

After extensive research on YouTube (well, someone’s got to do it), I found this neat compilation of PP doing what my dad would call ‘flinging yourself around’. 

Friday, 13 March 2009

Requiem For A 'B' Side

I’ve just received a rather curt email from MSN Music telling me that they will be re-launching their downloading operation on March 18th and if I don’t use up my current outstanding balance (presumably by downloading a load of songs I don’t really want), then it will be gobbled up, never to be seen again. Charming.

I’ve been using MSN to buy the odd song for over three years now and it has become quite a handy tool for avoiding having to buy a whole album just to get hold of one good song. It seems that the download has now replaced what were once called ‘singles’ and along with the long-time demise of the vinyl seven-inch and now the CD single, has come the final expiry of that most anachronistic of creations: the ‘B’ side.

In the days of the vinyl single, every new release came with its associated ‘B’ or ‘Flip’ side. Sometimes these were just album tracks lifted from previously released stock or live versions of well known songs, but most of the time they were cast-offs. And it is this latter category that was by far the most interesting. These unloved tracks, rejected from albums were generally seen as ‘filler’ to pad out the release but often they were interesting insights into the nature of the band or artist. Many of them were failed experiments into new directions or styles and offered a tantalising glimpse into what went on in the artist’s mind.

Obviously most ‘B’ sides were a bit of a mixed bag but some bands were very adept at this sort of thing and would offer some high class stuff, especially when CD came along and they were allowed 2 or 3 extra tracks in addition to the main ‘A’ side song. I have a complete collection of Lush’s CD single releases, not because I’m a completist, but because each one boasts three extra and classy tracks not available on albums. I have a playlist on my iPod which sequences 18 of them, enough for an album on their own and a very good release it would’ve made too.

Other, less discerning acts would stuff CD singles with appallingly recorded live versions of songs already released or, horror of horrors, the extended-beyond-endurance remix or, even worse, the sequenced mega-mix patching bits and bobs of all their ‘hits’ into one horrendous racket. No wonder the download became so popular – who wants to pay for this sort of junk?

So RIP to the ‘B’ side. I shall miss you.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Pirates Ahoy!

In an odd moment, I often have cause to wonder, ‘Why me?’ Why did pop music force an entry into my home, take the best chair by the fire and refuse to leave? I’ve often thought about showing it the door and banishing it to the harsh outdoors, but if truth be told, it has been an amusing and life affirming friend for about as long as I can remember so it looks like it’s here for the duration.

I suppose I can point to the usual fact that to my generation, pop music was new and exciting and that it made use of a technological revolution embodied in the long playing record and the transistor radio, which was also new and exciting but there was something else. And I think it was the Pirates. Not Johnny Kidd’s backing band, or those blokes sporting stylish eye-patches and parrots on their shoulders, but the Radio Pirates.

Pirate Radio was crucial to me. Those unlicensed broadcasters, bobbing about in the North Sea trying to keep the needle steady on a brand new single by the Electric Prunes were a fabulous mixture of the forbidden and the fascinating. They provided a constant stream of information about pop culture that was unavailable elsewhere and certainly not available on either the BBC Home Service or even the Light Programme outside of the singles chart. In the UK in the mid-1960s, the main protagonists were Radio Caroline, Radio London and interestingly, the land-based Radio Luxembourg, by virtue of the possibility that receiving ‘foreign’ broadcasts on a UK licensed receiver could be construed as illegal.

Most of the appeal was the fact that being outside of the law they could do what the hell they liked and were not restricted by ‘needle time’ (the amount of music allowed to be broadcast per hour) or advertising breaks or anything else come to that. They played the popular mixed with the obscure and often played whole albums. DJs became household names – Tony Blackburn, Emperor Rosko, Dave Cash, Johnny Walker, Kenny Everett and of course, John Peel who seemed to manage to maintain a Pirate Radio flavour to his broadcasting right up to his death in 2004 despite being employed by the BBC.

It all came to an inglorious end in 1967 with the Marine Broadcasting (Offences) Act making such broadcasts illegal and one by one the Pirates were shut down whilst the BBC scooped up many of the suddenly-out-of-work DJs to work at their newly launched Radio 1 pop music station complete with choice-limiting playlists, statutorily enforced needle time and chattering celebrity DJs. It was the start of institutionally organised music and the beginning of the end.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

‘In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There’

I've just had another non-birthday (29th) so am feeling extra grumpy! I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Disney for what it has done to Winnie The Pooh. The Pooh stories were those that I read and re-read when I was a child whilst poring over those wonderful black and white drawings. Some years ago, not having read them since childhood, I set out to buy copies of ‘Winnie The Pooh’ and ‘The House At Pooh Corner’. My only requirements were that they contained the original uncut stories, as written by A A Milne and the original E H Shepard drawings (NOT the colourised versions)...oh, and the must-have map of the 100 acre wood on the inside cover. It took me some time but eventually I found them and have now read them again after decades of neglect.

It is always interesting to read childhood books with the eyes and mind of an (almost)adult as the stories take on a different hue in the harsher light of experience and this was no different. Many classic children’s books have been written by highly original minds (some may say, bonkers e.g. Lewis Carroll, Kenneth Grahame – does anybody understand ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’?) and Milne falls squarely in this group, weaving off-beat humour with an undercurrent of gentle anarchy. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the crashing wave of realisation that awaited me in Chapter 10 of ‘The House At Pooh Corner’. This is the final story in the book and is entitled:
‘In Which Christopher Robin and Pooh Come to an Enchanted Place, and We Leave Them There’

As a child, the import of this story had gone way over my head, but on reading it again the obvious inference that Christopher Robin must give up his playtime with his favourite toys to be packed off to Boarding School leaped off the page at me with the force of a sledge-hammer. This was bad enough but it was CR’s final conversation with Pooh that really got to me:
‘I’m not going to do Nothing anymore.’
‘Never again?’
‘Well, not so much. They don’t let you.’
And it was the ‘They don’t let you’ that really set an icy grip around my heart. It just feels so menacing and secret-police-ish and is utterly heart-breaking. That small phrase stands for everyone who has been wrenched out of childhood and forced to confront the real world before they are ready. Some of us are never ready.

We’re still doing it today, prematurely stripping our children’s innocence by inappropriate education, propaganda, commercialisation of minors and intrusion into private lives by the state. This story was published in 1928 but the sentiment applies as much today as it did then, if not more so.

You don’t find the dark underbelly of childhood in Disneyland and this is why the Disneyisation of the Pooh books has ruined them – they have removed the idiosyncrasies of Milne’s brilliant writing and blanded them out like so much pap. Buy the originals and accept no substitute.