Tuesday, 28 May 2013

My favourite British pop music

My wife's son who is 14 has recently come to live with us from Uganda. When he arrived he knew next to nothing of the UK or our way of life and as for his taste in music....... well he liked Justin Bieber, One Direction and a load of rap and hip hop which I personally don't view as music in the true sense of the word as it lacks harmony, melody, recognisable instruments or meaningful lyrics.

Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood, ELO

So last night he was sat with me watching a documentary on British Brummie pop legend Jeff Lynne. He enjoyed it very much and said he liked the music and thought Jeff Lynne was a genius writing all those hit songs and playing so many different instruments perfectly. I told him that Jeff was a genius in the truest sense of the word. It was Richard Feynman I think who defined genius as someone who does something that leaves everybody asking how the hell did he do that?

So today, as it is half term, I thought I would begin Keleb's education.

We listened to some of ELO's greatest hits ranging from 1972 - 1980 and including Mr Blue Sky which is perhaps their biggest and best known hit to my personal favourite Strange Magic. I remember this one from the summer of 1976. It was baking hot and my parents took me to some banger racing at Pluck's Gutter. The dust and dirt and heat were tremendous and this song was playing on the PA. For many years I was convinced that Jeff Lynne was singing I gotta raise my dick!!! The afternoon was even more memorable for a driver whose car only had reverse gear and doubtful steering. I think also the driver had no clear distinction of left from right whilst going backwards which resulted in him missing every corner and taking some poor bloke off. This went on for several laps until he took out the race leader who got out of his car went over to the backwards ace and proceeded to punch him senseless through his open car window until the marshalls managed to get him under control.

Anyway, I digress.

Keleb liked the songs I played him and is interested in learning more. I also told him about Roy Wood another Birmingham legend who had featured briefly in the documentary due to his connection with Jeff during their time in the Move and founding The Electric Light Orchestra together before Roy sneaked off to form Wizzard. I told Keleb that Wizzard did the most famous Christmas song of all time. It turned out that I wish it could be Christmas every day is also famous in Uganda. He was even more impressed when I told him I saw Roy Wood in a Japanese restaurant in Birmingham about 10 years ago and that I bought him a glass of saké and he said cheers mate!

Keleb is only just getting to know the music of ELO. Personally I was never a huge fan as I thought they were a bit too easy listening for me and most of the hits were of the same genre and instantly recognisable as Jeff Lynne. Some of my friends of the time were more scathing and called them the Beatles of the 70s. This may seem like a compliment to some but was probably not, coming from people who preferred heavy rock.
However, with the benefit of hindsight, I think ELO had some really good songs and managed to prolong the life of British Pop music past its sell-by date through the first burgeonings of the Punk scene and virtually up to the 80s and the new romantic catastrophe.

When we have finished the first round of British Pop Legends, we will go back and listen to the Move and Wizzard.

We have decided that Keleb will be going on a musical journey through the 60s and 70s over the next week or so. He will be listening to early Beatles' songs tomorrow and I must say he seems quite excited!

Cliff Richard, Hank Marvin, The Shadows

Wednesday morning: well last night there was nothing on TV so we explored the genius of Hank Marvin and the Shadows and a couple of classic Cliff Richard songs. On one particular youtube link it suggested that Hank was the 4th greatest British guitarist of all time. He certainly had a uniquely easy playing style and Apache must rate as one of the greatest instrumentals of the post war era. We also heard Wonderful Land, Telstar and then Cliff doing Living Doll, the Young Ones and Summer Holiday. This latter turned out to have been a big hit in Uganda as well which I thought was great. It must certainly rank as the happiest song of all time. Hank and the Shadows and Cliff what a voice?

I once took my Mum to the Brighton Centre to see Cliff live and was quite surprised. He was unbelievably loud and I don't think my Mum ever regained her hearing. He went through all his 80s crap for over an hour and then the band {not The Shadows} were dismissed and Cliff came and sat at the front of the stage with an acoustic guitar, smiled and said "now I am going to sing a few songs you might remember" and proceeded to perform the Young Ones, Batchelor Boy, Living Doll and Summer Holiday. I had hitherto regarded Cliff as something of a joke but after that night I have held him in the highest regard as a singer and an entertainer.

The Beatles 1962 - 1966

We listened to the singles from their beginnings as a modified skiffle group through to the end of the respectable suited Epstein creation and the beginnings of pseudo prog rock. The first few singles such as She Loves You, I wanna hold your hand and Can't buy me love are almost identical in format and substance and are virtually unlistenable with 50 years of pop hindsight. However, the progression from raw talent to polished rock band in less than 4 years is startling. Songs like Yesterday, Hide your Love Away, Girl and Eleanor Rigby are fine compositions and demonstrate the lads' mastery of various musical forms.

The Beatles 1967-1970

This morning we listened to Sgt Pepper which I explained to Keleb was a significant album in many ways. After the death of Brian Epstein, the Beatles seemed freer to experiment not just in musical terms but in their lifestyles too. Musically they became more innovative and experimental and used a wide variety of instruments and sounds. Sitars, various keyboards plus classical strings and wind instruments plus multi track mixing meant that they could produce a more elaborate studio sound and, since they had given up touring, they never had to re-create it for a live audience, meaning they could spend as much time making as weird and wonderful sound as they wanted. The album, for vinyl connoisseurs, was certainly the first I ever owned that did not have a raised groove between tracks.

I tried to explain that before Sgt Pepper, the music buying public was singles dominated whilst after Sgt Pepper, the music industry became album dominated. Not an easy thing to explain to someone who has never seen a 45 or an LP and looked shocked when I said you had to turn them over. And I never got as far as explaining about the different speeds that LPs and singles had to be played at. That will have to wait for a later day. I would reckon also that Sgt Pepper was the first "concept album" and marked the beginning of "prog rock". Amazing that a working class modified skiffle outfit from "oop north" or, popular beat combo in the words of Ian Hislop, had in just less than 5 years become an accomplished prog rock outfit beloved by intellectuals and middle class southerners too!

Another thing that we haven't touched on yet is the art of the prog rock album cover. That will be covered in the 6 arts 1 syllabus next year.

In the evening we listened to Abbey Road which most people view as their best work. Some say the album is confused in styles and self indulgent. But surely self indulgence is what the Beatles specialized in from Revolver onwards. Self indulgence is what made them so creative and innovative.Lennon always accused McCartney of self indulgence and surely Harrison with his sitars was self indulgent. And Ringo trying to sing about an octopus' garden was wonderfully self indulgent. In summary prog rock was self indulgence on an industrial scale. Or I just realised the most self indulgent recording of all time must be #9 from the double White Album!!!

Anyway, before anyone accuses me of self indulgence, the album contains some fine songs by George Harrison which established him as a truly great song writer. His composition Something was according to Frank Sinatra the greatest love song that Lennon and McCartney ever wrote. What a jerk. Maxwell's Silver Hammer is a typical McCartney piece - quirky yet tuneful and loved by old people the world over. The final medley works for me very well. I love the way that the songs blend into each other and musical themes recur. Apparently most of these songs have some significance. Mean Mr Mustard was probably about Allen Klein; She Came in through the Bathroom Window was about obsessive fans and most Lennon compositions would no doubt be a cynical and scathing attack on those closest to him.

I also have Let it Be and the final compilation album which is entitled Hey Jude in the UK or The Beatles Again if you are American. Let it Be was recorded either side of Abbey Road or rather Abbey Road was recorded in the middle of the Let it Be/Get Back Sessions. The Album artwork for Hey Jude was from August 1969 and photographed at Lennon's mansion. Strangely for the remastered CD of Abbey Road, the same artwork is used on the inside of the jacket.

Keleb says he is very impressed with the Beatles and will listen to their other work at the end of his course. I have all their stuff on vinyl and CD so he can keep himself busy:)

The Rolling Stones

So very different from The Beatles. The Beatles didn't perform live after 1965 so could do what they liked with months in the studio whilst touring was what it was all about for The Stones. And if you are going to perform to large live audiences for several decades you have to remain tight and they seldom if ever recorded anything that couldn't be reproduced fairly faithfully on stage. This is also slightly to their detriment as they became one dimensional and predictable. I saw them live at the Old Wembley Stadium in 1982 and they played for only 1 hour and went through the motions. The performed exactly the same songs as were on their latest live album and to add insult to injury, in exactly the same order!!!!

I asked Keleb to count how many beats in a bar on each song and doing that made me at least understand how Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts held the whole thing together and were like the engine room of every song. With the Stones it was all about a tight rhythm section with some slightly distorted guitars and a bit of wailing thrown in whilst The Beatles were about melody and harmony and the beat is really incidental. All the Stones hits we listened to were the same formula. Actually that is not true! Angie and Wild Horses resemble each other very closely whilst having no family resemblance at all to the steady string of rhythm & blues dance hits.

Despite my slightly less than positive comments I still love the Stones, especially the period from about 67 through to 70 when they were going through what I term their Black Magic period when the British media portrayed Jagger as the Prince of Darkness and he was more than happy to go along with it. Paint it Black and Let's Spend the Night Together both have incessant driving rhythm and Charlie Watts must have worn out many a drum kit. Sympathy for the Devil I think is a deliberately ambiguous song but largely misinterpreted. Jumping Jack Flash as well has incredible energy whilst maintaining a rigidity unthinkable in bands like Beatles or the Faces. Gimme Shelter has an awesome opening where layer upon layer is built up with another instrument coming in after every bar. Unusually it starts with distorted guitars, then adding the drums before Bill Wyman comes in on bass and the song reaches escape velocity. And lastly, what can I say about Brown Sugar? A classic Stones track that has everything even including a saxophone.

Rod Stewart & The Faces 

We listened to a compilation of Rod's hits from 69 through to 72. Some of the songs were his own or partly his own composition whilst others were by Bob Dylan and one by Elton John & Bernie Taupin. We noticed his predilection for the Mandolin.

There are some nice tracks and Maggie May is an anthem of its time. Reason to Believe and Mandolin Wind are also noteworthy and some of Rod's re-hashes of folk songs such as Dirty Old Town are also exceptional. And remember that Rod recorded Handbags and Gladrags first and best.

Yesterday we listened to Ooh La La. I had to explain to Keleb that Rod Stewart sometimes recorded as himself alone or as Rod Stewart and the Faces or sometimes the Faces recorded as Faces and had Rod singing. I also had to explain as best I could what happened to them all. Sad about Ronnie Lane as he was probably the most talented musician of the lot really.

Anyway, I consider it to be the best album by Faces and the title track is one of my all time favourites. However, I was not sure how it would measure up 40 years later so I was pleasantly surprised when Keleb said it blew him away and he thought that Faces were better than the Stones!!

I agree in as much as the musical range is better than the Stones and they were less predictable than the Stones. But they didn't last long and their song book is a fraction of their better known rivals. I never saw them live but I was always led to believe that they were half cut on stage and didn't bother keeping time at all. So a miracle Ronnie Wood fitted in with the Stones. Good job he wasn't bassist:)

Tonight listened to Every Picture Tells a Story which I consider to be a masterpiece. Unfortunately Keleb did not agree. He found Mandolin Wind annoying because every time it finished it just started again. He thinks once a song is finished it should stay finished. All in all he was not too impressed with it.

David Bowie 1969-1974

We listened to 20 greatest hits from the period which I personally think is brilliant. There is hardly a weak song among them. Keleb, strangely, liked Rock n Roll Suicide best. As usual he said he didn't like songs that didn't know how to end. I am beginning to wonder if he really likes this music or if he is being very polite and doesn't want to hurt my feelings:(

He liked Space Oddity {and come on, who doesn't} and had seen Commander Hadfield's spacestation version on Youtube recently.

We finished with All the Young Dudes and then I couldn't resist the temptation to play the Mott the Hoople version which he agreed was much much better.

In my humble opinion, Bowie from 1969-1974 represents possibly the most imaginative, creative and innovative period of any modern music star. Musically it was sensational and stylistically I am not sure if it inspired revulsion or shock or disgust. Or maybe all three at once. But it certainly got him noticed which is what it was all about. It is just a pity it all went to pot with Diamond Dogs and the rest as they say will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Elton John 1969-1974

Well, we started on Elton after all and listened to some of his hits. I have to say that compared to some of the other artists we have listened to, Elton's song book is rather thin. Your Song, Rocket Man and Daniel are pretty good but stuff like Saturday Night's All Right for Fighting, Crocodile Rock and Honky Cat are pretty much unlistenable by now. We shall skip through a few more later. Don't let the sun go down on me and Sorry Seems to be the hardest word are both fine works. Anything from Goodbye Jelavic Road also stands the test of time and is easily his finest work.
Keleb's favourite track though was Benny and the Jets! Another surprise from our young Ugandan star who has decided to drop IT in favour of Music for his GCSEs and is also now taking guitar lessons.

Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

Possibly the greatest album ever made!! We had to listen to this in the car going to school as it would appear my CD was an illegal copy and wouldn't play on my home hi-fi system. Nonetheless Keleb enjoyed it. It is obviously best listened to through headphones with the lights turned out but apparently this had an adverse affect on my driving and Keleb insisted I took off the blindfold at least.

I never thought that Money fitted in with the rest of the album and would be better suited to an album such as The Wall. Does anyone else think the same?

Cat Stevens

Oh yes, what a talent he had back in the early 70s. Tea for the Tillerman, Mona Bone Jakon and Teaser and the Firecat were all recorded in an 18 month period and then sadly Cat or Steve or whoever he was became Yusuf Islam and disowned his previous lives and his fantastic music as being un-Islamic. Until he went bankrupt that is.

I had a friend of a friend who lived in Alperton in the next street to Yusuf. He said he used to see him in the local corner store and say " hello Cat" to him. He would allegedly reply that he was not Cat. So on a warm summer evening this guy used to open his bedroom window, put the speakers on the window ledge and play Cat's greatest hits at maximum volume!! No wonder he became a suicide bomber poor chap. I don't mean Cat - my friend's friend blew himself up one day. His family say it was a gas leak but we knew he loved setting fire to things like carnation powdered milk.

Anyway, enough terrorism and back to the music. Did you know Rick Wakeman played piano on Morning Has Broken and got £9 for it!!!! Father and Son is one of the best songs ever. The lyrics are so poignant and his voice is haunting.

A forgotten great of the British music scene of the early 70s.

Saturday, 25 May 2013


When people think of Warsaw they generally think of some snow covered communist wasteland. I know that is what an intelligent well-educated Japanese visitor thought when I had to take him around the Polish capital a few years back.
Those interested in history will maybe think of the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Polish Uprising and the city being totally destroyed by the Germans as the Russians looked on and smiled with misanthropic glee.

If ever a Phoenix rose from the flames it must be Warsaw. Using paintings of the old city centre painted by Canaletto hundreds of years ago, the old buildings were carefully restored. In fact some locals dared suggest that as Canaletto used artistic licence to make his work more attractive, the new Warsaw, the Warsaw re-born was even more beautiful than the original.

In the distance you can see the football stadium where they held the 2012 Euro football championships. Many holier than thou Guardian readers were most upset that there was absolutely NO racist violence whatsoever that they could look down their noses at.

Curiously there is a Thai restaurant in this gatehouse.

Not all traces of communism have been obliterated however. Here is some fat old Babooshka growing potatoes next to her dilapidated apartment block,

Nowy Swiat means new world. It used to be the heart of Warsaw. Not sure if Warsaw necessarily has a heart. It seemed pretty dull to me.

This reminded me of that building in Saigon. Unfortunately it was the Sofitel Victoria and it was my hotel for 2 nights.

Warsaw now has skyscrapers a plenty. But they built them away from the old historical heart of the city.  Someone told me that they are largely unoccupied but they look good and make Warsaw look like a major financial hub and not at all communist. Stalin's gift has not yet been torn down though.

Thursday, 23 May 2013


Like many cities in Europe, Dresden was completely destroyed in the 2nd World War. Unlike their British counterparts who were complete morons, the Germans decided to re-construct their historic cities using old photos and plans. During the Communist occupation Dresden was left to fester as a reminder of the horrors of war and presumably as a way of cowing the population.

After the Berlin Wall was knocked down by Bono and Geldorf, the West German authorities made a huge effort to restore the centre of Dresden to its former glory.

For example the Zwinger

The Opera

A pleasant cruise down the Elbe to Schloss Pillnitz

Dresden is an oft over-looked gem to rival Prague and Budapest and other trendy destinations favoured by Tarquin and Orlando. It also makes you ashamed to be British. Not because of what we did in the war but because the Germans decided to re-create an architectural gem whilst British bureaucrats were much more in the Stalinist mould and destroyed our city centres more completely than Hitler and Goering could ever have done. We are now saddled with concrete monstrosities and multi storey car parks which are hideous in the extreme and soulless adding to the lack of civic pride and hopelessness in British society in the post war era in which we are condemned to live forever.