Sunday, 2 November 2014

10 significant records

Every now and again I come up with a list. It's what men do to avoid the real world. So here, since you asked, is a list of 10 records of special significance. Not necessarily 10 brilliant records, although some are undoubtedly brilliant, but 10 records that for one reason or another really mean something to me.

Benny Hill – Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)

When we were kids we’d often spend family Saturday nights at the bowling alley, located at The Mayfair at The Wheatsheaf in Sunderland (for years I thought this area of Sunderland was actually called The Wear Chief for some reason). Progress dictates that this venue has now been demolished and replaced by a Renault Garage. It wasn’t the bowling that sticks in my mind, although obviously I still have a soft spot for the shoes, but my first encounter with a Jukebox. Boy did we love that Jukebox, and of course my brother Andrew and me weren’t of the age where we wanted to listen to the varied musical styles that were on offer. Quite the opposite; we knew what we liked and we wanted the same records played every week. For me was Benny Hill’s tragic ode to an amorous milkman and his love rival Ted. For Andrew it was Melanie’s ‘Brand New Key’. How the other bowlers must’ve loved us.

The Carpenters – Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft

In the mid 1970s my Dad had a Rover with an 8-track cartridge player and a limited library of cartridges including Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Olivia Newton John, ABBA, Simon and Garfunkel and, of course, The Carpenters. We knew every track on every one of these albums by heart, including the places where some of the tunes stopped part way through before resuming after a brief pause while the player swopped to another of its 8 ‘tracks’. The only one I can ever remember my Dad buying new was ABBA’s ‘Arrival’, the others simply seemed to have always existed. This is where my love of cheesy, mainstream pop music started and continues to this day. Most remarkable and most memorable of all was The Carpenter’s ‘Calling Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft’, a haunting tale of reaching out to extra-terrestrials, performed by the chirpiest looking brother and sister act ever seen. I’m a lot older and possibly slightly wiser now, at least enough to know that they weren’t quite as chirpy as they appeared.

ABBA – The Name Of The Game

From what now seems like a dangerously young age I used to walk from our house into Sunderland town centre, meet up with friends and spend Saturday looking around the shops of Sunderland. Sometimes I even had money to spend, and of course as everyone knows that was the only way to ensure admittance to Josephs’ toy shop. If you didn’t have any money to spend you simply weren’t allowed to idly browse the wonders on the first floor (it was boring sportswear on the ground floor) regardless of the amount you’d spent last week on a new Subbuteo team or a John Player Special in black and gold for your small oval of Scalextric track. Then, one particular Saturday in 1977, something significant happened. We wandered down windswept Walworth Way (the bleakest environment outside the Arctic Circle) and instead of spending my pocket money on sweets or toys I made a bee-line for that most independent and cutting edge of music retailers, WH Smith and handed over my hard-earned for a copy of ABBA’s ‘The Name Of The Game’. My first single. Orange Epic label, orange paper sleeve. My second single was ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, but there are no prizes in this list for second place.

Electric Light Orchestra – Sweet Talkin’ Woman

Now a fully fledged record buyer I found it hard to resist the pull of a record shop. Still do. So when I went to Scout camp at Sandsend on the North Yorkshire coast the following year I had only one thing one my mind – where could I get my hands on vinyl? A planned walk to the bright lights of Whitby turned out to be just the ticket, and it was in a record shop in that most haunted of coastal resorts that I spotted the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, a copy of ‘Sweet Talkin’ Woman’ on translucent purple vinyl. I bought it on the spot, and just like ‘The Name Of The Game’, I still have it. Of course because we were at Scout camp I had to wait almost a week before I got home and finally had the chance to play it on our radiogram.

The Human League – Empire State Human

After sitting my ‘O’ levels and before the results were known (spoiler – I got them all, unlike my ‘A’ levels) I went to stay for a fortnight with my uncle in Nottingham. He had the best record deck I’ve ever seen, a collection of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin on vinyl (which I hardly touched having been warned off the stuff by many a punk luminary) and an Alfasud, which if not already cool enough, had an oil gauge marked ‘olio’. The real excitement of that Nottingham break lay in doing whatever I wanted and in spending most days in Virgin Records. I’d never seen a Virgin Records store at the time, this was a few years before Richard’s store arrived in Newcastle. It seemed like it was light years away from the familiarity of stuffy old HMV (although in hindsight it was almost exactly the same). At this stage every last penny of my pocket money was being spent on music and I must’ve spent a lot of my limited funds in the Nottingham branch of Virgin. One single I bought XTC’s ‘Towers Of London’, remains a favourite to this day, but the other was the one that turned me on to alternative electronic music forever, and that was ‘Empire State Human’. After this I hunted down everything that Phil, Martyn and the boys had recorded (still got it all!), and then, as obsessive music fans do, I hunted down most of their influences too. Not many people did it in this order, but I did.

Spizzenergi – Soldier soldier

At the height of what was then known as the era of the ‘New Romantics’ we would go downstairs into Heroes in Sunderland and listen to the best vinyl that it was possible for the DJ to lay his hands on. Most notably the more danceable stuff by The B-52’s (Planet Claire, Give Me Back My Man and Dirty Back Road), the glorious, unique, downright grubbiness of Cabaret Voltaire’s Nag Nag Nag and things like ‘Tar’ by Visage that sounded lost on an album but totally at home in a dark pub or club when played loud. But the standout record from this period was Spizzenergi’s ‘Soldier Soldier’ probably because this was the only place (other than on my own record player) that I’ve ever heard it played.

Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin – It’s My Party

The first record we ever danced to. It doesn’t get much more significant than that.

Angelo Badalamenti – Theme From Twin Peaks

In the latter part of 1990 and the early part of 1991 we were pretty much broke. With a baby on the way we abandoned our living room and moved into the smaller dining room, because it was easier to heat with the old open fire that was in there. There was room for one settee, the telly and my entire record collection in two cupboards in the alcoves at either side of the fire. In this withdrawn and almost hallucinogenic state we discovered Twin Peaks. If everyone who claims to have watched this series when originally broadcast had actually done so then it would have run to at least seven or eight seasons. It was menacing and spooky and completely inexplicable for the most part, and, as you won’t realise if you’ve only seen the cleaned up remastered versions, apparently shot with a dirty sock draped over the camera lens. We were addicted. I’m not entirely sure I’m looking forward to a new series.

Teenage Fanclub – Don’t Look Back

It has to be said that leaving a job purely on a matter of principle might not always feel like a wise move, but, for a brief moment, before the ‘God, what have I done?’ worry sets in, it feels wonderfully liberating. I wasn’t completely irresponsible mind (I don’t think I ever have been!) because I had another job lined up. And a monumental day, such as the start of a new job or the first drive of a new car, requires monumental music and in the 1990s and on discerning record decks/tape decks/CD players/MP3 players since, monumental music very often means Teenage Fanclub. For this particular day I chose ‘Grand Prix’ without really realising that part way through my first journey to my new job up would pop ‘Don’t Look Back’. Perfect.

The Sleepy Jackson – Morning Bird

While we were waiting for the arrival of our granddaughter I put together a playlist of tunes on an MP3 player for my daughter to listen to while in hospital. Just the usual preparing for a baby mixtape with a mixture of great stuff (‘This Love’ by Craig Armstrong) and relevant stuff (‘Waiting For Baby’ by BMX Bandits) and stuff that just felt like it belonged on there, like ‘Morning Bird’ by The Sleepy Jackson which will always remind me of the time before and after the arrival of Eve.

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Saturday, 19 July 2014

King Canute, Spotify and The Two Week Summer Holiday mixtape

Until fairly recently, like a typical luddite, I've remained pretty unconvinced by the charms of Spotify.
Skinflint that I am, I dabbled with the reasonably limited free version until about six weeks ago when I finally took the plunge and finally let the tide wash around my ankles like a latter day King Canute. If the sea was streamed digital music and the King was a short bloke with an unhealthy vinyl fetish.
So to celebrate being away from work for a fortnight (I'm joking of course, I love work really) here's my 100 tune Two Week Summer Holiday mixtape.
Hope you like it.

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Sunday, 13 July 2014

A day (and a night) at the Opera

I like to think of myself as a reasonably cultured individual. I've read Kafka and Camus (and, on more than one occasion, the first 16 pages of James Joyce's Ulysses). I'm not averse to watching films with subtitles, and I usually avoid newspapers with red tops as if my very life depended on it.

Musically though I'm a bit of a heathen. I've never been to a ballet and the only classical music I know is the kind that turns up in tunes like 'Lady Lynda' by The Beach Boys or the magnificent Pet Shop Boys' modern classic 'Love is a Bourgeois Construct'. Until last weekend I'd never been to 'The Opera' either, so when I was offered the opportunity to do so I jumped at the chance, blissfully unaware that I'd volunteered for a marathon experience. In German.

As the day approached I started to harbour a number of serious concerns. What should I wear? (images of capes and monocles flooded my overactive imagination). Was it obligatory to take a little pair of binoculars? Would I manage to stay awake throughout Opera North's epic performance of Richard Wagner's 'Götterdämmerung ', beginning with an introductory talk at 2.30pm and concluding at 10.15pm and, crucially for an opera performed entirely in German, would I be able to locate the ubiquitous umlaut in Microsoft Word?

The pre-show talk turned out to be hugely informative. I learned that 'Götterdämmerung ' means 'Twilight of the Gods', although when the time came for questions, even the translation of the title was called into question by one audience member. I also learned about diminished fifths and the need to be particularly alert to hear the three steerhorns making a brief appearance during Act two. I did notice that the man sitting next to me fell soundly asleep in the middle of the talk and wondered how we would all fare during the actual performance.

The show itself (is it acceptable to refer to it as a 'show' I wonder) opens with three women, apparently known collectively as 'The Norns' banging on for 20 minutes about a rope that snaps. It must have been a fairly important rope as they all seem to become quite upset about it.

Once we hit Act one the pace picks up and the whole affair really rocks along. Considering it's in German it's fairly easy to follow, with the aid of helpful surtitle translations into English. Surtitles are like subtitles on screens above the stage, apparently.

The Orchestra sound magnificent (six harps!) and, with all the marks of a good film soundtrack, are barely noticeable for much of the time. Even though it doesn't particularly sound like it, I mean that as a huge compliment. The whole opera singing bit was impressive too. I can never see it replacing Teenage Fanclub in my musical affections, but in the context of an opera the opera singing was pretty much perfect.   First and foremeost this particular opera was an impressively elaborate way to tell a wonderfully engrossing tale. If you're unfamiliar with the story contained in Götterdämmerung it goes something like this (spoiler alert!). A boy, Siegfried, gives a girl, inevitably glorying in the name of Brunnhilde, a magic ring that he acquired when he slew a dragon. The boy, encouraged by the girl, embarks on a quest but is tricked into drinking a potion of forgetfulness by two half-brothers so that their sister can marry the boy and one of the half-brothers can marry the girl. The boy then disguises himself as one of the half-brothers using a magic helmet so that Brunnhilde will marry the half-brother and Siegfried will marry the half-brothers' sister. Actually I haven't been entirely clear there because the half-brothers' sister is actually only a sister to one of the half-brothers and a half-sister to the other one.

Did I mention that Brunnhilde is a Valkyrie?

Act two opens with the extremely loud and prolonged rustling of a carrier bag. Presumably this is a later addition not present in the original performance from 1876. And so continues a tragic tale of love, disguise, betrayal and revenge that ultimately results in the demise of the entire aforementioned plus Brunnhilde's winged horse, Grane, and, eventually, all of the gods, hence the title.

It may sound like a cliché, but the hours did genuinely roll by and I really was in awe at the level of respect shown by an attentive and knowledgeable audience. Needless to say, nobody felt the unfathomable urge to sing along and not a single person was tempted to film one single little part of the performance on their mobile phone.

I came away feeling just a little bit more cultured, but more importantly privileged to have spent a few hours in the presence of supremely talented musicians and performers, and a wonderful, polite, respectful audience.

Article originally published on the NE:MM website and reproduced here with permission.

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