My earliest musical memory involved hearing either “A Walk In The Black Forest” or “A Mouse Lived In A Windmill (In Old Amsterdam)”. I loved those tunes. The theme from Prokofiev’s “Peter And The Wolf” proved just as enjoyable, and does even now. All seem typical of the kinds of melodies children respond well to. I spent a large portion of time, prior to attending primary school, defacing the cover of my mother’s Black & White Minstrels album with a felt tip and dragging the needle of my sister’s “Elizabethan” record player across her Parlophone-labelled copy of “Help”. This might have been worth a fortune today if I hadn’t knackered it, but the destructive exercise was worthwhile as it was funny hearing how “Ticket To Ride” sounded backwards and at variable speeds.
My first, proper audio purchase wasn’t that bad, to be honest – a single by The Turtles called “She’d Rather Be With Me”. My mother bought it for me from a shop in Broadway near Norris Green, after she'd withstood me whingeing at her for about ten minutes. Little did I know that many years later, I would be enjoying the rather more unorthodox vocal stylings of that American group’s two main singers, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, during their early 70’s stint in The Mothers Of Invention. Many other Zappa fans didn’t, I gather. The second audio purchase was, I kid you not, “Careless Hands” by Des O’Connor. That’s right, “Careless Hands” – well, at least it wasn’t “Dick-A-Dum-Dum”. This alarming transaction might have been in response to discovering that Liverpool FC fans had sung the hit song somewhat sarcastically to Gary Sprake, Leeds United’s goalkeeper of the day, during a match at Anfield when, in motioning to throw the ball out over-arm to one of his team mates, Sprake suddenly changed his mind, half clung on and hurled it into his own net. A cruel, and yet somehow beautiful, sporting moment.
From the ages 7 to 15, my sister’s record collection became ripe for plundering. She had a fondness for Motown and was always playing “Motown Chartbusters Vol III”, an LP with a very shiny, silver sleeve. This great album managed to prize open my ears to the soulful clanks, snaps and chings of “SOS (Stop Her On Sight)” by Marv Johnson, Junior Walker & The All Stars’ “Road Runner” and “Get Ready” by The Temptations. She also had The Supremes’ Greatest Hits, Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits (has there ever been a better harmonica solo than the one in “For Once In My Life”?) and very many choice singles ranging from “I Can’t Help Myself” (Four Tops) to “Behind The Painted Smile” (Isley Brothers). Her impressive disc collection stretched further to encompass Glen Campbell, The Walker Brothers, Jim Reeves and The Carpenters, whilst her grandest claim to fame centres around being present at the Liverpool Empire in 1967, to witness a bill comprising – in this order - The Walker Brothers, Engelbert Humperdinck and Jimi Hendrix. Can you imagine the equivalent today? It might be something along the lines of Cardi B, Michael Ball and Queens Of The Stone Age – with, undoubtedly, Michael wiping the floor with all of them.
To me, the “Singles” box we grew up with was a constant source of amusement and the catalyst for many a tremendous, family Christmas party. On these festive occasions, I recall the men of the household playing a game which involved placing an empty beer bottle (with one hand) as far away in front of oneself as could be managed whilst balancing the remaining arm – from a crouched, two-footed starting point - on another, upstanding bottle, to the background strains of “Mississippi” by Pussycat. My Dad, who was a stocky five foot seven with a bad back, always seemed to lose out in these exchanges to my Uncle Frank who was wiry and around six foot two – funny, that….. In between bouts of drinking Watney’s Party Seven, Snowballs, Babycham and Brown & Orange, the revellers could be subjected to excerpts from a live album that typified many a Liverpudlian upbringing and existence. This was Tom O’Connor’s finest hour, “Ace Of Clubs - Live At The Maghull Country Club 1974”, introduced by Radio Merseyside’s Eddie Hemmings (Eddie used to do the station’s sports reports too – a versatile fellow). Can anyone let me know if this is available on CD? Early snippet from Side One : downtrodden mother goes into butcher’s with young child; she says “Can we ‘ave some scraps for the dog?”. Young child interjects immediately “Oh goody, we’re gettin’ a dog…!”. Tom managed to finish the album off with a musical flourish, ushering forth a version of a self-penned tribute to his home town - called "My Home Town".
Anyway, we had all kinds of sublime stuff in that Singles box – here’s a selection :
MOON RIVER – Danny Williams
STRANGER ON THE SHORE – Acker Bilk
I REMEMBER YOU – Frank Ifield
I FEEL FINE – The Beatles
ALTERNATE TITLE – The Monkees
STAND BY YOUR MAN – Tammy Wynette
CALL ME NUMBER ONE – The Tremeloes
IF EVERY DAY WAS LIKE CHRISTMAS – Elvis Presley
WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO THE RAIN? – The Searchers
YOU’VE LOST THAT LOVIN’ FEELING – The Righteous Brothers
ANYONE WHO HAD A HEART – Cilla Black
LET THE HEARTACHES BEGIN – Long John Baldry
THE JARROW SONG – Alan Price
MY FAITH – Shirley Bassey
Now several among you may scoff at the predominance of what might be called “easy listening” (or even rubbish!) in this list, and the lack of anything that various commentators might class as “hip”. Well, these arguments are all a bit redundant to me, because if it’s good to your ears, or reminds you of something splendid or positive, then who cares who delivered the chorus (even if it was stillborn)? Frank Ifield singing “I Remember You” isn’t really rock ‘n’ roll and is undeniable CHEESE, but it re-ignites memories for me of happy childhood times. And even The Beatles sang it in Hamburg. I thank you.
The Carpenters became enduring favourites and the subject of many impersonations around the living room couch. My sister did a very passable Karen while my Richard was always a mite too high-pitched….. The albums “Close To You” and “Now And Then” regularly wafted from our speakers and it must be stated now “Goodbye To Love” is not only a superior pop song of unremitting sadness and poignancy, but contains one of the all-time great guitar solos, courtesy of Tony Peluso. Thank you, able fingered personage.
My brother’s musical tastes seemed spartan in comparison, or harder for me to find as I’m sure he chose to hide his records from me – probably after seeing what I’d done to mother’s Black & White Minstrels album. I do recall him getting “Electric Warrior” by T-Rex, Stevie Wonder’s “Inner Visions” and a “philly” album that had William Bell & Judy Clay’s “Private Number” on it. His own party piece at Christmas was a rendition of Elvis’s “I Just Can’t Help Believin’” with an item of cutlery in his left hand that became “the Vegas microphone”. No white jumpsuits were worn (or harmed) during the making of that spectacle.
As I matured into an altogether sophisticated teenage listener, I began acquiring all The Beatles’ output, of which more later, and some noteworthy singles – Roxy Music’s “Street Life”, “Life On Mars” by David Bowie, Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us”. Later, I found “Making Plans For Nigel” (Swindon’s finest, XTC) and Max Webster’s “Paradise Skies”. Amongst all this culture, my mates and I, growing up fast, soon developed a Northern fondness for visiting public houses. There, we undertook prolonged bouts of alcoholic imbibation followed by the obligatory chip supper on our way home that was occasionally possessed of a smidgeon of luxury when affordable (i.e. curry sauce). One’s adolescent drink of choice soon became Pernod and Black – God help me – and it was to the accompaniment of this unusual compound that we found ourselves one Friday evening in “Tiffany’s“, a nightclub beloved of many sociable scousers, once found nestling menacingly somewhere off Castle Street. There I was, in a mustard shirt buttoned all the way up without a tie (not everyone can carry that off), pointy black shoes and black cords, dancing effortlessly to M’s “Pop Musik” and getting my first French kiss during a “slowie”, with a lady named Pam from Birkenhead. WHOOSH! Yes, this was the hormonal backdrop to the lifestyle of the young, Radio 1 listener frequently sat in front of a Ferguson music centre taping Ian Dury, Pilot, Sweet, Queen, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Led Zeppelin, Chic, The Skids, The Buzzcocks, ELO, America, Ted Nugent, Kate Bush, Fox, The Police, The Smiths, Nick Lowe, 10cc, Sad Café, The Ruts, The Undertones, James Taylor, Devo, Harry Nilsson, Elmore James, Joe Pass, Cream, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Supertramp…..and so on. All this, in between zapping zits and harvesting hair grease.
As teenage years subsided and found me searching for new sounds, I was introduced by my best friend, John McEvoy, to an album entitled “Sheik Yerbouti” that had a swarthy, Arabian-looking chap on the front cover. The album belonged to John’s older brother Tony and had been one of Frank Zappa’s most recent releases. It was, to put it mildly, a revelation. As well as being laugh-out-loud amused and surprised at the “bad” language and outrageousness this naughty man was getting away with, I was completely awestruck by the music – it was nothing short of wonderful! Not long afterwards, my curiosity running wild (as Chuck once said), I went out and bought “Joe’s Garage Act I” from WH Smith in Liverpool City Centre, the album which again had Frank’s face on the front cover, this time next to a mop, staring out at the world with a sneering indifference. This fantastic album cemented my lifelong commitment to Zappa’s music, with all its breathtaking scope, power, complexity, weirdness, aggression, ugliness, cynicism and humour. Words – even good ones like these – don’t really do justice to Frank and if you profess any kind of love for music, you should own at least one of his 90-odd albums that straddle every kind of musical expression, from gargantuan orchestral works for 100-piece ensembles, big-band jazz (sort of…), 50’s doo-wop, surf music, country & western, rhythm & blues, disco, gospel, rap, reggae, ska, 60’s ‘English’ pop, heavy metal, musique concrete, electronic. Whatever consumer label you care to bandy about, Frank not only explored and mastered all of them but did so in an often confrontational, satirical, highly technical and downright unique fashion that to associate him with the word genius would not be out of place. If the creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, thinks him the best thing since sliced bread, then that in itself is a worthy testament. I advise you to investigate “N-Lite” and “Put A Motor In Yourself” from “Civilisation Phase III”, “Watermelon In Easter Hay” from “Joe’s Garage Acts II & III”, “Penguin In Bondage” from “Roxy & Elsewhere”, “Plastic People” from “Absolutely Free”, “Little Green Scratchy Sweaters And Corduroy Ponce” from “200 Motels” (for the title alone). Or how about “Alien Orifice” from “Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention”, “Navanax” on “Jazz From Hell”, “Mom & Dad” from “We’re Only In It For The Money” and the truly splendid “Inca Roads” from “One Size Fits All”? It’s a mazy and hazardous journey when you dive into the vast ocean that is Frank but, believe me, if you brave the initial cold shock, the rewards are akin to finding some staggeringly beautiful coral reef that’s been secret home to a bunch of disfigured marine life. It should either astound you or eat you alive there and then (maybe even both). And while you’ve got your nets handy, you can scoop up some further, Zappa-related side-catches (if I can call them that….) such as Edgard Varese, Anton Webern, Pierre Boulez, Igor Stravinsky, Conlon Nancarrow, Nicolas Slonimsky, George Duke, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta, the outrageous Captain Beefheart, The GTO’s, The Ensemble Modern, Ike Willis, Ray White…..I saw Frank play on three occasions in the 1980’s, his final tour in 1988 harbouring the best live gig I have ever seen. His death from prostate cancer in 1993 at the age of 52 was terribly sad and far, far too early.
I realise this fondness for Frank has to be tempered somewhat by the other, abiding body of work that runs through my preferences, that of The Beatles.
In truth, it is they – and, in particular, John Lennon and Paul McCartney – who have outlined the basic templates upon which I’ve based my own songwriting approach, and I would gladly admit to their influence on me as a writer being paramount above all others. To this person, they were, and still are, the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band and the greatest pop songwriters of the 20th century, right up there with Joplin, Gershwin, Cole Porter and [fill in your own blank].
The Beatles were always ‘around’ as I grew up, even though the memory of them together is fuzzy to the point of thick fog. There they were, from my family’s record boxes to a grainy recollection of seeing them perform “Hey Jude” on The David Frost Show. Or, to drawing pictures of them from the “Let It Be” book of stills that my brother-in-law brought round to the house, when I was still in junior school. To queueing up for a Wings ticket unsuccessfully, in the fierce rain with my brother, outside the Royal Court Theatre in late 70’s Liverpool. Then, to raving about The Rutles with schoolfriends after “All You Need Is Cash” was first broadcast on BBC2, to hearing about John’s death from a note my Mum left downstairs for me on that morning, before she went to work. To the release of “The Anthology” series in the mid-90's, to The Rutles releasing “Archaelogy” around the same time; to George’s death in 2001 right up to finally seeing Paul McCartney perform live in London two years later. They have been a constant in my life and I remain surprised that my ears have never tired of listening to them. I’m not sure if there’s anyone out there as unfamiliar with The Beatles’ canon as many may be with Zappa’s, but for those who haven’t had that much exposure to the lads, may I recommend the albums “A Hard Day’s Night”, “Revolver” and “Abbey Road” and the songs “It Won’t Be Long”, “I’ll Be Back”, “The Night Before”, “Rain”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, ”Within You Without You”, “I Am The Walrus”, “Blackbird”, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, “Don’t Let Me Down” and “You Never Give Me Your Money” alongside their more well-documented hits. No question – they were the best.
These days, I find recreational listening a little depressing, although that may be a measure of how poor I am at searching out and discovering new music. I’d rather write something of my own, even if it never sees the light of day, than trawl TV or radio stations, via wireless or internet, hoping to hear up-to-the-minute splendour. Writing is much more fun. However, I’m open to suggestions from anyone as to who I should be listening to now…
I can’t think of anything else, so this might be a good time to stop.
Thank you and have a pleasant evening.