Let’s do this

Tuesday 17 October 2017, Tooting Tram and Social. Her first time on stage since a couple of things at school. She looks good but nervous. The older girl has done a few open mic nights before, and chats with her reassuringly, hugs her, helps her bring the microphone stand down. Finally the nine-piece band has finished tuning up and running sound checks and they launch into their first number, Barefoot. She sings beautifully, but keeps her movements small. The band is enthusiastically received, with help from friends and family in the audience. Apart from the other girl, her bandmates didn’t realise this was her first performance in public – she hadn’t told them so they wouldn’t fuss her.

The following May she came with me to see the Rolling Stones at London Stadium. She has never needed any lessons in stagecraft, but if she had, it was a good one. The support act was Liam Gallagher: as we entered the stadium he was in his default state of aggressive moaning.

We could see him on the big screen of course, but from a distance it took me a full five minutes to locate him in person on stage. He wore dark blue against a dark background, he stood there and barely moved. He didn’t look as if he was enjoying himself. So what chance did we have?

Liam is famously a huge Beatles fan: had he not, then, heard the story of Bruno Koschmider yelling “Mach schau! Mach schau!” (Put on a show!) to enliven the five young lads from Liverpool, passive as they played their instruments in the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg in 1960?

When the Rolling Stones came onstage, the change in mood was immediate and thrilling. Jagger, of course, still appeared a tiny figure, but he wore a shiny silver jacket and moved ceaselessly to every corner of the stage – you couldn’t miss him – and he transmitted an energy belying his 74 years to the whole stadium.  When it grew dark he wore a billowing red silk shirt which glowed like a beacon.  We had paid for a show, and by god we were going to get one.

That’s how you put on a show, I said, as if she needed telling. The nine-piece band she sang with worked well musically, but its members had very different personalities, and the negativity some brought to group discussions may have inhibited her stage performances. But her confidence was quietly growing with experience and positive feedback. When they played their most prestigious gig yet at a festival, other band members said “It’s 400 people, aren’t you nervous?”  She replied “No, 40, 400, 4000, we play for people so we can play to more people, that’s the point. This is why we’re doing this.”

The nine piece evolved into a smaller, more flexible band which had the advantage of not needing such a large stage, and not taking so long to do its sound check. Just as important was the personal chemistry between members: they were also mates. Confident of the band’s support, her performances became freer and more energetic.

Sunday 25 August 2019, Greenbelt Festival. A large tent at this family friendly festival, mothers, fathers, children and babes in arms swaying to the music. The People Versus are closing their set with one of their most danceable numbers, Charybdis. It’s hot in the tent, but she’s singing and dancing freely, her floaty top amplifying her movements.

D0881C51-4FED-4F2F-9949-511F65CD2EE1

Friday 29 November 2019, EP launch at the Jericho Tavern, Oxford. The People Versus return to their home patch, and the pub venue is sold out with friends, family and fans. The merchandise table is ticking over nicely selling tee shirts, sweaters and CDs.

The band is finishing its sound checks. She’s chatting to me, quite relaxed, three or four rows back in the crowd. The announcer leaves the stage to a burst of applause, and she has to push her way through. The teasing opening riff of Like I’m Lonely/Driftwood starts up as she climbs on stage smiling and looking at ease.  Now she’s on stage the show can start.

She brings down the mic and starts to move to the music. She hasn’t started singing yet and we already know we’re going to have fun. Let’s do this.

Cliff Richard and The Shadows, O2 Arena, 26 September 2009

History books will tell you that From Me To You was the Beatles first UK number one. That’s not how I remember it. Rob and I were listening to Pick of the Pops on the BBC Light Programme with Alan Freeman on our radiogram in Oxhey, in March 1963. Rob was nine, I was six and a half. Cliff Richard was our hero, and we were not pleased to hear that Cliff’s Summer Holiday had been knocked off the number one spot by a noisy song called Please Please Me by some upstarts called the Beatles.

(The reason for the discrepancy is that the standard reference for chart history, The Guinness Book of Hit Singles, used Record Retailer charts, while the BBC at the time compiled its own averaged chart.)

Mum and Dad were great music lovers. Opera was their thing, but they indulged our enthusiasms. I remember being taken to see Summer Holiday at the cinema. Later Mum made a great sacrifice by taking us to see A Hard Day’s Night: the only tickets available were in the front row, and she had a terrible headache from the frantic unceasing movement. They even took us, early in 1965, to see Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp – a panto at The London Palladium starring Cliff and the Shadows. (Oh no they didn’t…)

Rob and I were thrilled to see Cliff and the Shadows live. Mum and Dad enjoyed seeing Arthur Askey as the Widow Twankey. Dad was tickled by the gag where Hank Marvin tried and failed to scare someone by wearing a ghost mask – until he gave up and revealed his face, whereupon the victim screamed in horror.

When the Beatles, the Stones and everyone else burst onto the scene in 1963/4, Cliff was able to retain his popularity – if not his relevance – by continuing his trajectory from young rock’n’roller to family entertainer. The low point was Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha. In doing so, he jettisoned most of the respect he once enjoyed for his early recordings, and all of his cool.

But you don’t forget your first heroes, and I retained a fondness for Cliff Richard long after he became deeply unfashionable. I was thrilled in 1969 when Cliff and Hank made what I thought was a superb record, Throw Down a Line – an apocalyptic song which Hank Marvin has said he wrote with Jimi Hendrix in mind – now that would have been something. His artistic renaissance in the 1970s produced the exquisite Miss You Nights, and his biggest US hit, Devil Woman. He could still pick a song.

*******

I came to Move It late – understandably, as I was two when it was released. Without question, it is the first authentic rock’n’roll song produced outside the USA. Before the arrival of the Beatles, the only other undisputed non-American classic is Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.

Like Cliff, the Shadows became uncool during the 1960s, but Hank Marvin’s reputation was later burnished as heroes of later musical generations – Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Dave Gilmour, Brian May – queued up to pay their respects. Cliff, though, has found such respect harder to come by. Is that fair? When Move It was made, Hank wasn’t even in the Shadows, or the Drifters as they were called at the time.

But just listen to it, the throbbing, angry rhythm, the polite but committed and insistent vocal. Jazz critic Steve Race had written in Melody Maker “So rock’n’roll is dead, is it? All right, then. My funeral oration consists of just two words: good riddance.” He went on to say he didn’t know what the next craze would be. Ian Samwell, an early member of the Drifters, was inspired to write the song as an angry riposte: he really did want to know what could replace it. He composed the song on the top deck of a Green Line bus (the 715) on his way to Cliff’s house in Cheshunt.

It serves still as a passionate war cry and anthem for the music. Move it was first released as the B-side of the insipid Schoolboy Crush, but fortunately TV producer Jack Good heard it and insisted that Cliff should sing that one if he wanted to appear on Oh Boy! The record was flipped and reached number two in the charts.

The implication wasn’t lost on British fans. Just as Buddy Holly had shown that ordinary looking guys could become rock’n’roll stars – not just exotic godlike figures such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard – so Cliff proved you didn’t have to be American to make it. There were earlier British attempts at rock’n’roll, of course, but to properly understand the impact of Move It, what it meant to teenagers at the time, it’s worth listening to dire previous offerings like Tommy Steele’s Rock With the Caveman.

Cliff became such a fixture in British life that it’s not always appreciated how desperate he was for success and how hard he worked for it. A story about High Class Baby, his follow up to Move It, is revealing. After recording the song, he went home and cried, believing that his early success had been a fluke. “I thought that was it” he said. “It just didn’t compare in any way to Move It.” He was right about that record, but soon broke through again with Livin’ Doll and never looked back.

Many of Cliff and the Shadows’ early recordings still sound good today: rock ballads like Livin’ Doll, Travellin’ Light and The Next Time, out and out rockers like Please Don’t Tease and We Say Yeah, pop/rock songs like Bachelor Boy, Dancing Shoes and Don’t Talk to Him, and the big film themes The Young Ones, and Summer Holiday. And those two films are cheesy but still fun and full of youthful energy, in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney kind of way.

My wife and I had seen Cliff Richard in concert many years before, but when we heard that he was getting back with the Shadows for some 50th anniversary concerts, billed as the Final Reunion Tour, we knew we had to be there: they very rarely played together these days, and having the Shadows along would keep Cliff to his more rocky early material. I invited cousin Phil, nostalgia king and an even longer-standing Cliff fan, to join us.

Known for years as “The Peter Pan of Pop”, it was claimed that Cliff had fans from nine to ninety. In truth, there were few under fifties there. We did spot a nerdy looking 12 year old boy with his parents: I assumed he was there under duress, but later we noticed him mouthing the lyrics like a true fan.

When the lights went down, the years dropped away and we all felt like teenagers again. They opened with a pulsating We Say Yeah, and the mood for the evening was set. (A version of which Johnny Hallyday has also used to good effect to open his show). “Please sit down – you’ll only get tired” said Cliff considerately, viewing the frenzy his opening number had unleashed. The Shadows, always consummate musicians, were tight and energetic, and Cliff looked delighted to have them back on stage with him. They were all having a great time.

It was full set, stretching to three hours, and fans would struggle to think of any big hits that were left out. Cliff performed with an energy belying his 68 years. The Shadows had the stage to themselves for a while to play some of their hits, which they did with accuracy and intent – for example the cleanest, sweetest Wonderful Land you could imagine. They even threw in some trademark dance steps.

The audience had a huge helping of exactly what they wanted: it was, without doubt, the best a Cliff Richard and the Shadows gig could be. When I expressed my opinion in that way, it was sometimes greeted with a smirk, but I meant it as a high compliment. We had a wonderful time. When eventually they had run out of hits, Cliff introduced their final number by saying that when, if ever, we met again, we will still be The Young Ones. Not a dry eye in the house.

Cliff Richard has always been polite, and lacked the air of danger which characterises true rock stars. He was never going to be Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury or Ray Davies. But he’s definitely Cliff, and he’s served up some great music over the years, and if, as he’d feared, he’d faded away straight after Move It, his legacy would still be substantial. And for people of a certain age, he’s just always been there, part of the British fabric, like David Attenborough or the Queen. We understand that you’ll never be cool. But we love you, Cliff.

Set List

  • We Say Yeah
  • In the Country
  • Gee Whiz It’s You
  • A Voice in the Wilderness
  • Livin’ Doll
  • Dancing Shoes
  • I’m the Lonely One
  • A Girl Like You
  • Do You Wanna Dance?
  • Shadoogie
  • Wonderful Land
  • The Savage
  • Sleepwalk
  • High Class Baby
  • I Could Easily Fall (In Love With You)
  • Willie and the Hand Jive
  • Sea Cruise
  • C’mon Everybody
  • Dynamite
  • Lucky Lips
  • Travellin’ Light
  • Time Drags By
  • All Shook Up
  • Please Don’t Tease
  • Apache
  • Foot Tapper
  • Atlantis
  • F.B.I.
  • I Love You
  • The Next Time
  • Don’t Talk to Him
  • On the Beach
  • Summer Holiday
  • Bachelor Boy
  • Nine Times Out of Ten
  • It’ll Be Me
  • Visions
  • Move It (encore)
  • Singing the Blues
  • The Young Ones

Nine Handy Trouble-saving Opera Hacks

Do you ever think there’s a little too much drama in opera? Here I offer a few suggestions as to how the participants could save themselves a bit of trouble.

Radames to Aida: “I’m sorry darling, but you know I can’t discuss army business.”

Don José to Micaëla : “Oh yes, Carmen’s hot alright, but she’s crazy.  Will you marry me?”

 

Soldier to Desdemona: “Madam, you dropped your handkerchief.”

 

Cavaradossi to Angelotti: “Sorry mate, you’re not hiding down my well.”

Violetta to Alfredo: “No worries, I’ve had my BCG.”

Calaf to Ping, Pang and Pong: “…and if I get them wrong?…OK, I think I’ll pass.”

Butterfly to Pinkerton: “Marry you? Do you think I was born yesterday?”

 

Rigoletto
Gilda to Rigoletto: “You’re right Daddy, he’s a ratbag.  Let’s go home.”

 

La Boheme HD
Mimi: “Ah, there are the matches!”

Please feel free to suggest more in comments.

The Rolling Stones, O2 Arena, 25 November 2012

mick

2012 was a good year for London. The Queen celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, and millions defied awful weather to celebrate with street parties, and to watch the royal procession down the Thames. And of course London became the first city to host the modern Olympics for a third time: again the weather was no friend, but for a few weeks in August, London welcomed all nations. In those innocent pre-Brexit days, the city seemed like the capital of the world, a vibrant, open and cosmopolitan place, hosting the biggest party ever, presided over by Bolt and Farah. Tickets sold out for Olympics and Paralympics alike, and while there were outstanding British successes – most famously on “Super Saturday” – the venues were filled with knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans, happy to applaud excellence from all parts of the globe. Although there might have been less applause for the Russian competitors, had we known then what we know now.

The opening and closing ceremonies were of course a big part of the fun, and the Rolling Stones were notable absentees. Presumably they were invited, but Mick Jagger has a record of avoiding what he sees as “high risk” gigs where the Stones don’t have control or set the agenda – for example he chose to contribute a video with David Bowie to Live Aid rather than risking the Stones at a gig where they could only play for twenty minutes, and might be outshone by another band on the day.

rolling stones london

But 2012 marked the 50-year anniversary of the birth of the Rolling Stones, and something had to be done. So they announced a couple of gigs at the O2, to go on sale at 9 am, just twenty-three days before the first gig. It was a working day, but a quiet one, so I was able to log on before 9 and begin the frustrating business of trying to buy a couple of tickets. My colleague Chris put his faster reactions at my service, and joined the chase. To my indignation, work intervened and I became embroiled in a long phone call: but meanwhile Chris continued the search. Before long he drew my attention to his screen, where he at last had the offer of two floor tickets – more than I had wanted to pay, but I was getting desperate. I beckoned the “buy” trading gesture, and they were mine.

Stones ticket001

The price was exorbitant, but if I’d wanted I could have seen a tribute band for much less – there’s only one Rolling Stones. I get that. But what really grated was the additional £30 “Service Charge”. What the fuck? We have grown used to having to pay for things that were once free (or at least no extra charge – hold baggage on flights springs to mind). For me the test of fairness is whether you can avoid the charge if you choose. But you can’t go to the gig without buying a ticket, so it’s just bullshit and greed.

Ah, the Stones. Unquestionably the greatest rock’n’roll band of all time. No-one else can match them for authenticity, for appetite, for longevity, most of all for excitement. I was a latecomer to their party: I loved the Beatles of course, but the Stones seemed too dirty and threatening to a polite pre-teen boy. But Rob and I bought a pre-owned copy of Beggars Banquet, and it was rarely off our turntable about 1970. Street Fighting Man, Sympathy for the Devil, Jigsaw Puzzle, the sly, lecherous Stray Cat Blues, and the rare Keith Richards vocal on Salt of the Earth…amazing tracks. I was fascinated too by the gatefold sleeve, with the elegant cursive invitation on the outside opening to reveal the louche, depraved feast within.

beggars banquet

My wife reckoned she had ticked off the Stones when we saw them at Wembley Arena in 2003, where the Darkness playing a deafening support set. So Rob was the obvious choice to invite, and I met him off the Eurostar at St Pancras early on Sunday evening, had dinner and made our way to the O2.

Soon the lights went down, and the arena was filled with drummers filing into position surrounding the floor. The rhythm pulsed in our ears and we looked at each other: for one moment we were sixteen and thirteen again. The Stones were coming!

The band took the stage with a driving version of “I Wanna Be Your Man”, a rare acknowledgement of the helping hand they had from the Beatles early in their career – the story goes that McCartney and Lennon knocked it up in a corner of the room while Jagger and Richards looked on in awe. I took the choice as a promise that they would reach right back to the beginning of those fifty years. And the next three numbers also came from their first few years: Get Off Of My Cloud, It’s All Over Now and Paint It Black.

Jagger was 69 years old, and made no concessions to his age, capering around the stage like a man half his age, but there were moments of unintentional comedy: Get Off Of My Cloud came across as a crotchety old gent telling kids to get off of his lawn.  But he had some fine banter: “It’s taken us fifty years to get from Dartford to Greenwich” and a cheeky teasing line about the ticket prices, “How are you doing in the cheap seats?”

The playing was loose and energetic. Mary J. Blige joined Jagger for Gimme Shelter, which was fine – although Florence Welch’s turn at the next gig was much more exciting, when she went toe to toe with him, right in his face. Jeff Beck appeared for a bluesy Going Down. My premonition that this series could mark the band’s final gigs – although happily to prove wrong – seemed to be confirmed by cameos from former Stones Bill Wyman (It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and Honky Tonk Women) and Mick Taylor (Midnight Rambler). Towards the end of the set Keith Richards took over vocal duties for a couple of numbers, and large numbers of fans headed for the loos or the bars.

Jagger returned and the show wound to a climax with Brown Sugar and Sympathy for the Devil. While we cheered for an encore, the excitement mounted as we made out a gospel choir gathering onstage in the gloom. That had to mean You Can’t Always Get What You Want! They finished off with an electrifying Jumpin’ Jack Flash, with Keith Richards pounding out the famous riff: that has never been my favourite Stones song, but since hearing this the song brings me out in goose bumps.

The show was supposed to end with (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, but a late start meant that we were now up against the venue curfew: playing another number would have incurred a hefty fine on the band. With Jagger in charge, that was never going to happen. To compensate, here is a professional quality clip of their storming performance from Glastonbury the following summer, where that epic riff churns on forever.  Just the bow at the end gives me the shivers. Back in the O2, we may not have had Satisfaction. But we certainly had satisfaction.

 

Set List

I Wanna Be Your Man
Get Off of My Cloud
It’s All Over Now
Paint It Black
It’s All Over Now
Paint It Black
Gimme Shelter (with Mary J. Blige)
Wild Horses
All Down the Line
Going Down (with Jeff Beck)
Out of Control
One More Shot
Doom and Gloom
It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It) (with Bill Wyman)
Honky Tonk Women (with Bill Wyman)
Before They Make Me Run (Keith Richards on lead vocals)
Happy (Keith Richards on lead vocals)
Midnight Rambler (with Mick Taylor)
Miss You
Start Me Up
Tumbling Dice
Brown Sugar
Sympathy for the Devil

Encore:
You Can’t Always Get What You Want (with the London Youth Choir)
Jumpin’ Jack Flash

David Bowie, Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, 24 December 1972

I saw him first, sort of. After Bowie’s hit in 1969 with Space Oddity, he chose a song called The Prettiest Star as his follow-up, featuring Marc Bolan – months before T.Rex broke through to huge success with Ride a White Swan – on guitar. Apparently the recording session had gone well until Bolan’s wife June told Bowie “Marc is too good for you, to be playing on this record.” Despite airplay on the Kenny Everett Show (where I heard it), it is said to have sold fewer than 800 copies. Space Oddity had been opportunistically released to coincide with the Apollo 11 moon landing, and Bowie was still seen as a novelty act. Strange to think that for nearly three years he was a one-hit wonder. But I thought, and think The Prettiest Star is a beautiful plaintive love song, much enhanced by Bolan’s fluid, wailing guitar. (A brittle, metallic version was later to appear on Aladdin Sane) So before you could say K.WEST I had ordered a precious copy from Strawberry Fields in Rickmansworth.

But Rob was the true fan. He had spent many Saturday nights that year with his friends Nigel, Jill and Steve, pursuing Ziggy Stardust around Dunstable, Aylesbury, Hemel Hempstead and divers other places to your writer unknown – this was, they think, the sixth time he and Nigel had seen Bowie. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Hunky Dory had taken a pounding on our turntable in the previous six months, and I loved what I heard: sharp, edgy rock songs mixed with quirky slower songs, flavoured by this exotic androgynous creature. Can little brother tag along, please?

Our evening didn’t get off to the best start. Rob had put a dent in the Daf on the way back from Watford, and had to square that with Dad. But my spirits were high: it was Christmas Eve – I was still young enough to find that wildly exciting – our cousin Jonathan was staying with us over Christmas, and we were going to see David Bowie.

Bowie had just spent nearly three months touring the US with the Spiders from Mars. In his absence Ziggy Stardust sold strongly, fans were beginning to seek out his earlier albums and his reputation was soaring. The Jean Genie, recorded in New York City two months earlier, had just been released and was flying up the charts. After an amazing year there was a huge buzz around his triumphant return to London, to play the prestigious Rainbow Theatre at the start of a short British tour.

The Rainbow, as it appeared the following year, besieged by Osmonds fans

It being Christmas Eve, Bowie asked the audience to bring in toys – his father, who had died three years earlier, had been a public relations officer for Dr Barnardo’s childrens’ homes. Rob stepped up and bought a toy, which was added to the huge pile in the foyer, and a whole lorry-load was reportedly distributed to grateful children the following morning.

Rob’s ticket. Retained it was.

(Returning, if I may, to the vexed question of ticket prices, you might remember that it was 75p to see Led Zeppelin at Wembley Empire Pool thirteen months earlier. Of course £2 was still astonishingly cheap to see a legend like Bowie breaking through, but even allowing for the prevailing 7% inflation rate, this seems quite a step up, considering Led Zep’s huge established reputation. By now, rock music fans were starting to earn grown up money, and the spectacular rise to modern ticket prices was tentatively underway.) Sorry.  Anyway…

There was no show on 23 December – The Rainbow was unavailable

Possibly because of the incident with the Daf, we arrived late, and the show had got off to an unpromising start. Stealers Wheel (featuring Gerry Rafferty) gave us no clue to how soon they would break through with the Dylanesque cowbell classic and radio perennial, Stuck in the Middle with You, or to the songwriting talent that gave us the sublime Baker Street. It was just an aural battering.

But things picked up when at last they stopped playing, and by the time the lights went down again some in the audience were near hysterical. After playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – perhaps a cheeky nod to Elvis’s opening with Also Sprach Zarathustra – the band launched into the Stones’ Let’s Spend the Night Together (shortly to appear on Aladdin Sane), followed by a pulsating rendition of their regular opener Hang on to Yourself (seen here at the Hammersmith Odeon the following year). The set was fast, tight and electrifying, and Bowie surfed the wave of adulation.

NME writer Charles Shaar Murray reported the frenzied audience reception. “Just for the record, they’ve started screaming at David Bowie,” he wrote. “At the Rainbow on Christmas Eve young girls were reaching out for our hero’s supple limbs and squealing in the customary manner. Whether it’s Bowiemania or Ziggymania or a combination of the two is not yet apparent.”

Earlier Ziggy Stardust gigs had included an acoustic set in the middle, but that had gone. Murray wrote: “That American tour has really honed the Spiders to perfection. The show is tougher, flashier and more manic than it’s ever been before.”

The set included tracks from four different Bowie albums, from The Man Who Sold the World through to Aladdin Sane. The message was clear: if you were a true fan, you had to get them all. I was fascinated by the strobe lighting during Mick Ronson’s solo during The Width of a Circle, and stunned by the pitch at which Bowie kept the audience for the whole show.

I remarked to Rob and Jonathan that as well as being an exciting performer, he seemed like a nice guy. They weren’t so sure. Perhaps I had mistaken his knowing, satisfied grin – at having his audience where we wanted them – for affability. As always with Bowie, there was an element of calculation, his careful choreography mocking the usual spontaneity and wildness of Rock’n’roll. The show wound up to its climax with The Jean Genie and Suffragette City, but it was the melodrama of Rock’n’Roll Suicide (seen here, again Hammersmith Odeon footage) that stirred the audience to frenzy. Bowie prowled the stage screaming “Gimme your hands…cause you’re wonderful” – written for this very purpose – reaching out his healing hands to fans like the god he had become that night.

Here is the set list from that fantastic evening:

Ode to Joy (Beethoven)
Let’s Spend the Night Together
Hang on to Yourself
Ziggy Stardust
Changes
The Supermen
Life on Mars?
Five Years
The Width of a Circle
John, I’m Only Dancing
Moonage Daydream
The Jean Genie
Suffragette City
Rock’n’Roll Suicide

Someone was bold enough to smuggle in their cassette recorder that night, because here, believe it or not, is an audio of the entire set.  Never mind the quality (which is terrible), let’s just celebrate the fact that it exists.

When we went back into the cold night air, Jonathan and I were surprised to see Gerry Rafferty crossing the road in the opposite direction, headed for the Rainbow – presumably to pick up his stuff. Perhaps he preferred going to the pub to seeing the headline act. Mate, you can get a drink any night of the week.

 

king commode and his expanding rubber band, Watford Grammar School for Boys – 1st April 1969

take-off

A school revue it was, called take-off!, when I was twelve, young enough to be gratified and think it hilarious that my maths teacher, Mr Wolton, (and many other very game teachers) could appear on stage in comedy sketches. I sat next to John Moore, a friend dating back to primary school. It was 1st April 1969, and there was a relaxed end-of-term vibe. Everything seemed very funny.

My cousin David appeared playing a tune on a colourful structure he called magic mushrooms (!), a strange plaster sculpture he had made in art class, which he said “surprisingly turned out to be tuneful!” I was quietly proud of how well he was received.

But the revelation that evening was a real live rock/jazz band – the first live gig I had heard – king commode and his expanding rubber band, modishly foregoing capitalisation that evening in common with the rest of the event programme. The lineup was given thus:

on a good night the band includes snake-hips sugden  martino g-string clarke  liver lips louis leach  steve bongos stead  paul fuzz-face devonshire  ralph licorice-stick compton  chris bass-man newman  beasley the bum  colonel richard entwistle & finally lord fantastic

I didn’t know at the time, but these boys had auditioned for the TV talent show Opportunity Knocks the year before:

opportunity knocks

I wonder how many of the lads in this band – which I now know comprised five boys from Watford Grammar and five from Bushey Grammar – went on to become solicitors and accountants. When the band started playing I was transfixed: I stared unblinking at the stage, laughing with joy, taking in the noise, the rhythm and the stage antics. I can only recall one of their numbers: consistent with the zany stage names, they performed what seemed, to my untutored ears, a storming version of the Bonzos’ Death Cab for Cutie – an Elvis pastiche which the Bonzos had performed in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Sadly, no footage survives of king commode and his expanding rubber band, but here are the Bonzos (more properly the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) performing the song on the children’s TV programme Do Not Adjust Your Set with bonus footage of a young Michael Palin:

Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I have been able to find the exact date: a search on the band name led me to the website of none other than liver lips louis leach, now going under the more sedate handle of Richard Leach.

Richard is a now multi-award winning jazz player, still playing his trombone all around Europe. He was able to help me out:

Yes, I was on the Take-off gig at Watford Boys Grammar and can actually pinpoint the exact date for you, purely and simply because I remember one of our WGS friends who was compering the evening bounding on stage and announcing over the mic that ‘for those of you who are wondering what has happened at Vicarage Road this evening it has finished Watford 1 Southport…..lost’. I’ve just used ‘Mr. Google’ to learn that it was 1st April 1969, halcyon days for the Hornets that season as they won the Division 3 championship a few weeks later.

Thanks, Richard, for your amazing recall!  Richard was also kind enough to reach out, as we say, to the other band members to enable me to grow my knowledge of the band to an extent I previously could only have dreamed of:

A couple of the band have remembered that we played Hello Dolly, which I used to sing in a throaty, gravelled voice a la Louis Armstrong and also recalled that I used a tin of stage face-xxxxxxxx as well. You’d better not mention that in this day and age Rik otherwise I won’t be able to run for the President of Canada position again!! Apparently, John Jenkins, one of the production team on the show recorded it but wiped the tape clean thinking it really was Louis Armstrong. Blimey, I didn’t know I sounded that authentic.

There was definitely a lot of influence from the Bonzos, so it’s quite possible that we played ‘Jollity Farm’ (complete with all the animal noises), ‘Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold’ and ‘Mickey’s Son and Daughter’.

Paul Devonshire also remembers us playing ‘Rock Me Baby’ in ‘take-off’ featuring Chris Newman on guitar. Chris went on to play with Diz Disley, Stephane Grappelli and Fred Wedlock, even composing ‘The Oldest Swinger in Town’ for him.

martino g-string clarke has also followed the trend of simplifying his name, now preferring to be known as Martin Clarke.  Martin was able to add another nugget:

We did do our own version of “God Save the Queen” which broke out into Saints after everyone had got to their feet.

Thanks to the assistance I’ve had from Richard and other band members, I’m proud to provide a definitive list of the band that night:

Mark Sugden (trumpet & vocals)
Richard Entwistle (tenor sax)
Paul Devonshire (clarinet, alto sax & baritone sax)
Ralph Compton (clarinet)
Richard Leach (trombone)
Roger Hillier (piano)
Martin Clarke (banjo)
Chris Newman (guitar & bass guitar)
John Elliot (tuba)
Steve Stead (drums)

We’ll have to leave Roger Hillier and John Elliot to fight it out over which was beasley the bum and which was lord fantastic.  Or, possibly, finally lord fantastic.

reunion
Band 50-year reunion, July 2016

Looking at this photo suggests to me that making music and having a laugh is not a bad recipe for life.  Perhaps the odd pint doesn’t hurt either.

I had no yardstick with which to measure the quality of the live music I heard that night, fifty years ago. But to my impressionable young ears, it was the best thing, ever.  Thank you guys.

R.I.P. Mark “Snake-hips” Sugden.

Dr Feelgood, Cambridge Corn Exchange – 25 September 1976

So, who were the godfathers of punk? Sixties bands like the Kinks, and the American garage bands which followed them proved that exciting records could be made with a modest level of skill. The Velvet Underground’s attitude and Iggy and the Stooges’ wild energy pointed the way – and David Bowie helped both to reach a wider audience. For me, though, punk started in 1975 when I first saw Dr Feelgood.

I had finished school in December 1974, and had nine months to fill before starting at Warwick. Many would have seen this as an opportunity to travel to Borneo, Peru, Thailand, anywhere. I went to work at the Department of Employment in Watford, where my most important learning was that I should not make my career in the civil service.

Although a huge fan of pop and rock music, I was finding very little to enjoy at the time: there was a sharp divide between “serious” artists who made albums, usually overlong and pretentious (rock bands like Led Zeppelin would never deign to issue a single), and “pop” artists, usually targeting the under 15s or the over 40s. The singles charts were dominated by the Bay City Rollers, the Drifters in their pop reincarnation, novelty records like Kenny’s The Bump, novelty acts like the Wombles. The Stones had gone soft, Bowie had gone funky. Thin times for a lover of rock’roll and high quality pop music.

During the early months of 1975 I was vegetating in front of the telly after “work” and a programme called The Geordie Scene came on. It was a short-lived but pacy thing: teenagers dancing in a studio, like Top of the Pops, introduced by a smarmy, facetious DJ, like Top of the Pops. This week’s show was given over to Dr Feelgood.

I was startled. Wilko Johnson marched back and forth on stage like one of the Shadows on speed, chopping at his guitar as if his life depended on it, trailing a long curly lead. Lee Brilleaux growled into his mic, a small time villain from a cop drama, forever sweating and loosening his collar and tie as if the excitement was a surprise to him. The music was fast, exciting, earthy. Completely out of sync with everything else that was popular, they were prophets come to lead us to a better future, or a better past, and I reached for them, a parched wanderer at an oasis. Someone else out there cared about the Coasters and Riot in Cell Block #9, and that made me happy.

The band took their name from a favourite track by Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, but it was also blues speak for a medical practitioner prepared to take a flexible view of his patients’ prescription needs.  Certainly, they could make you feel better than you should.

It was some time before I got to see them live, but a review in Melody Maker of the fabled Naughty Rhythms Tour (which they undertook with Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers and Kokomo) stuck in my mind:

Dr Feelgood came out, played like a hurricane and the crowd went potty. This has happened every night of the tour.

Their records were enjoyable, but the band weren’t exceptional songwriters: they worked best live. So I visited my brother in Cambridge to catch them at last, and they didn’t disappoint: sixty minutes of uncompromising sweaty blast. The crowd did, indeed, go potty. I may have had a beer or two, and the details are a little fuzzy, but their set list would have been something like this:

I Can Tell
All through the City
Back in the Night
Roxette
Keep It Out of Sight
Goin’ Back Home
Walkin’ the Dog
I’m a Hog for You
Riot in Cell Block #9
Rollin’ and Tumblin’
She Does It Right
Bony Moronie / Tequila

Encore:

You Shouldn’t Call the Doctor (If You Can’t Afford the Bills)
Great Balls of Fire

Happy days!   By this stage the punk revolution they had heralded was well underway, and the tired old hippy bands who had held sway were about to be pushed into oblivion.

Here is a clip of the Feelgoods’ triumphant return to home territory at the Southend Kursaal in the same year. Skip the long intro: start about 1:10:

Enjoy!

Everly Brothers, Royal Albert Hall – Thursday 22 September 1983

On 14 July 1973 the Everly Brothers were playing a concert at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. Halfway through the show the venue booking agent stopped the show: Don Everly was clearly incapacitated, playing erratically and forgetting lyrics. In frustration, Phil smashed his guitar and announced their split, telling the crowd, “I’m tired of being an Everly brother… The Everly Brothers died ten years ago.” Years of touring as “has-beens” in the wake of the Beatles and the music revolution they triggered had taken their toll.

The rift lasted ten years. Don and Phil lived two thousand miles apart: Don in Nashville and Phil in L.A. They pursued separate careers, with very modest success. Their fans were deprived of hearing those sublime harmonies in concert.

But by the end of those ten years, they were no longer regarded as a clapped out relic of the rock’n’roll era, but as a revered musical treasure. Albert Lee, noted British guitarist, was a friend of each brother independently, and was able to effect a reconciliation. They agreed to put their differences aside and perform together again.

But where? Their popularity had endured longer into the 1960s in Britain than in the USA: and with all the world to choose from, they opted for London’s Royal Albert Hall – or Albert Hall, as Don called it on the night – where they had last performed on stage with their musical mentor, their father Ike, on 11 October 1971.

Much thought went into presentation, and it was decided to use the huge width of the stage for dramatic effect. The idea was that Phil should walk on from the left, and Don from the right, so their meeting in the middle would symbolise the reunion.
“Do you think they’ll get it?” asked the brothers. The reply came back from their British hosts “Are you nuts? They’ll go crazy!”

I was only one year old when they had their first hit, but I had discovered their music as a teenager through the rock’n’roll revival films of 1973, American Graffiti and That’ll be the Day. Also, I should admit, through a Radio One broadcast each Sunday, which played the records from the chart five, ten and fifteen years ago: so in 1972, the show was playing Everly hits from 1957. I owe much to this show, which also opened my ears to early Elvis, to Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran and many more. It was presented by a Mr Jimmy Savile.

So in my teenage years I became a voracious reader of any books I could obtain about 1950s rock’n’roll. These had been very thin on the ground but were now growing rapidly in number as the first generation of fans reached maturity, writing perceptively and entertainingly about the music while retaining their passion for it. I gobbled up pop music encyclopaedias – they could point me towards new treasures.

In the early 1970s my friends at school were getting off on Genesis, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer and the like: to me it seemed bombastic, self-important and overblown, plain boring. In reaction I reached back into the simpler times before the reign of the Beatles, and acquired greatest hits collections by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, the Arcade release of Elvis’s 40 greatest. Once I was caught by a classmate on Watford High Street holding a newly purchased copy of The World of Billy Fury. I’m pretty sure that shredded the last of any “cred” I might have had.

It hurts, when a favourite band breaks up, or when your heroes fall out with each other.
And when the Everlys’ concerts were announced, it was well known, not just that Don and Phil hadn’t performed together for ten years, but that in that time they’d barely even spoken to each other. So when, on Thursday 22 September 1983, Phil walked out from the left, Don walked out from the right, and they met in the middle of the stage and embraced, the audience, as predicted, went wild. They launched into a driving version of The Price of Love, and we were in the palms of their hands for the rest of the evening.

They sang their best known hits with a joyous freshness, each familiar song revealed anew. They also made time for an acoustic selection from Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, referencing their previous appearance at the venue.

I went with my cousin – another Phil – several years older than me, and able to remember the Everlys the first time round. If anyone tells you nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, they haven’t met Phil: he is capable of being nostalgic for lunch by teatime. But when the Everly Brothers completed an exquisite, tender version of All I Have To Do Is Dream, I had to admit that (cousin) Phil’s Welsh-accented roar of ecstatic approval was entirely appropriate.

Throughout the song the brothers looked at each other with an intense fondness. Singing close harmony of course requires them to keep each other in view, but this was something much more. The years of bitterness melted away as they rediscovered their love for each other, and their love for singing together. Two voices, no more than pleasant individually, coming together to produce something sublime. And we were there to witness this joyful reconciliation.

Led Zeppelin, Empire Pool, Wembley – 21 November 1971

Don’t worry, we only printed 18,000. Ticket from first night.

 Having a cool brother three years older than me was a blessing. It meant that despite being a nerdy coin-collecting teenager, I was exposed to some great music in our shared bedroom/games room in Chorleywood: besides the obvious Beatles and Stones stuff, I also heard the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Julie Felix (quite a lot), King Crimson, and the latest rage at school, Led Zeppelin. So when I heard that they were to play Wembley Empire Pool (now Wembley Arena), this fifteen year old rock fan, who hadn’t yet been to a proper rock concert, didn’t hang about.

Consider this. Led Zeppelin had already released their first three albums to huge success, and their fourth – which included Stairway to Heaven – was about to complete their world conquest. The tickets were 75p – seventy-five fucking p! – fifteen shillings as it would have been a year earlier.

Ah but, you say, that was a lot of money in those days, counting inflation and everything. Well no, not really. At the time I was doing a paper round – remember those? – which earned me £1.50 a week. It wasn’t a difficult decision to blow half a week’s pay to see Led Zep. Back then bands priced their tickets for pocket money: by contrast an album cost a princely £1.99. Bit of a turnaround in relative prices since then.

I was with Martin King, much cooler than I. It was the second of two gigs at the venue: the first date on Saturday (which my brother attended) had sold out in less than an hour, and they added a Sunday date. I remember my excitement being slightly overshadowed by the anticipation of school the next day, probably intensified because I still had a history essay due in.

The show was billed as “Electric Magic”, an ambitious concept: as well as support from raunchy blues rockers Stone the Crows featuring Maggie Bell, there were circus acts, performing pigs (!) and all kinds of weird shit. I don’t remember that stuff making much impact, we just wanted the band.

Boy was it worth the wait. They came on and tore into Immigrant Song. It was electrifying: I had never heard anything like it, and somehow by the end of their first song tears had welled up from sheer excitement and joy. I remember the whole show being terrific: pulsating rock music and world class posturing and screaming from Robert Plant, with perhaps just a couple of longueurs provided by a lengthy Jimmy Page guitar solo and the even lengthier drum solo. Martin bought a can of warm lager and banged his head in time: my eyes were glued to the stage, as I drank orangeade and politely tapped my foot.

Their set list was something like this:

Immigrant Song
Heartbreaker
Black Dog
Since I’ve Been Loving You
Rock and Roll
Stairway to Heaven
Going to California
That’s the Way
Tangerine
Bron-y-Aur Stomp
Dazed and Confused
Celebration Day
What Is and What Should Never Be
Moby Dick
Whole Lotta Love (with blues medley)

and for the encore

Communication Breakdown

Someone smuggled in their cassette recorder, and amazingly you can access a recording of the whole performance – albeit with atrocious sound quality – here:

I wouldn’t want to listen to all of it, but Immigrant Song at the start still gives me goosebumps. You never forget your first gig, and mine happened to be one of the greats of rock music at their peak. I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time. But I sure had fun.

 

The Top (Insert Arbitrary Number) Classic Nasty Songs

F65B84D2-B6D4-499B-B1E2-0DAD55E9196C

There’s plenty of silly love songs out there.  In fact, you’d think that people would have had enough of them.  How refreshing, then, to change the mood sometimes with a bitter, spleen-venting, point-scoring, revenge song.  What I especially love about nasty songs is that people don’t always recognise them for what they are.  OK, you wouldn’t struggle to guess that Bob Dylan is having a go at someone in Like a Rolling Stone, but at least three of the following list feature regularly as request songs, one imagines, for loved ones.

This list makes no claim to be contemporary, so you won’t find Taylor Swift here.  But feel free to suggest any others you think should be included.  In no particular order, here we go.

One – U2  (1991)

On a casual listening, when we hear the lyric “One love, one life”, it’s easy to think that we’re hearing a happy, upbeat warm-hearted song, perhaps in the same vein as Bob Marley’s “One Love”.  Uh-uh.  Try these lines for size:

“Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus?
To the lepers in your head?”

Bitter enough?  I shudder to think how many people have requested it romantically for their loved ones without ever having listened properly.

How Do You Sleep – John Lennon   (1971)

“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” says John ungrammatically, as he settles old scores with Paul, referring to the 1960s “Paul is Dead” rumour.  John was not happy that Paul beat him to the punch in initiating the break-up of the Beatles, or that the other three Beatles were not as smitten with Yoko as he was.

Typically, though, beneath the vitriol Lennon does still manage to hit the target when he sings “since you’re gone you’re just another day” and “the sound you make is muzak to my ears”.  McCartney’s early post-Beatle output was very disappointing: there were a few good songs, but it wasn’t until the release of Band on the Run in 1973 that he found any real form.  But Lennon couples the first of these with the outrageous lie that “the only thing you done was yesterday”. 

Perhaps the cruellest jibe is “jump when your momma tell you anything”. Perhaps, charitably, we can read this as a reference to Linda McCartney: if not it’s particularly vicious, because Paul’s mother died when he was fourteen.  John should have known better: his own mother died when he was seventeen.

Reputedly Ringo was upset when he visited the studio during the recording of the song and said “That’s enough, John”.

Paul showed no sign at all of losing any sleep: if he felt any guilt, he hid it well.  Diplomatically, he made no public response, although many felt that his song Let Me Roll It on Band on the Run was an affectionate Lennon pastiche.

Easy – The Commodores   (1977)

A staple of those schmaltzy Sunday morning (of course) request shows.  Sounds all sweet and romantic, doesn’t it?  But really?  Let’s have  a closer listen, right at the beginning:

“Know it sounds funny but I just can’t stand the pain
Girl I’m leaving you tomorrow”

Tomorrow?  Mate, if she’s got any sense she’ll tell you to sling your hook right now.  You wanna be free, and high, so high, and you’re way too cool to stay with one person.  She can help you with that.  Your stuff is on the sidewalk in the rain.  Hats off, though, for the tenderest, sweetest “you’re chucked” song in history.

Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan   (1965)

“How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Just like a rolling stone?”

No-one could write a nasty song like Dylan.  And it was probably safer, in those years, to be a known “enemy” at some distance (eg an arms manufacturer) than to actually know Bob.  The song, which spearheaded his move from acoustic to electric folk, came from a long typed rant of Dylan’s, and has never been definitively linked to a particular person – although it has at times been suggested that it was intended for Joan Baez or Marianne Faithfull.  Dylan has even hinted that in part, it might have been directed at himself.

Dylan’s biographer, Howard Sounes commented “There is some irony in the fact that one of the most famous songs of the folk rock era – an era associated primarily with ideals of peace and harmony – is one of vengeance”.  In any case he seems to have enjoyed writing and performing it: soon after this he came up with a similarly vitriolic song, Positively 4th Street.
My Little Town – Simon and Garfunkel   (1975)

“And after it rains there’s a rainbow
And all of the colours are black
It’s not that the colours aren’t there
It’s just imagination they lack”

Paul Simon wrote this for Art Garfunkel some five years after the duo split. Simon explained “It originally was a song I was writing for Artie. I was gonna write a song for his new album, and I told him it would be a nasty song, because he was singing too many sweet songs.”  However, the story goes that Simon had fallen in love with it, so they decided to record it together.  Art Garfunkel has said that it described his youth, saying he “grew up in an area where a career in music was not seen as either desirable nor exciting”.  Oh, and

“Nothing but the dead and dying back in my little town”.  Sweet.

Hi Ho Silver Lining – Jeff Beck Group   (1967)

Ironic that Jeff Beck, regularly featured in poll lists of best ever guitarists, is most remembered for this (often drunken) singalong which gives him little opportunity to display his virtuosity.  Beck’s record became much better known than British band The Attack’s version, which came out a few days earlier.

“Flying across the country, and getting fat
Saying everything is groovy, when your tires are flat”

I’ve always found this a rather dreary, predictable song.  But we owned the single, and back in the day we used to flip singles over.  This time I was rewarded by the astonishing “Beck’s Bolero”, a thunderously exciting instrumental.

This was performed by an ad hoc supergroup including Beck, Keith Moon, Nicky Hopkins, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – the last two, of course, later became half of Led Zeppelin.

19th Nervous Breakdown – Rolling Stones   (1966)

“When you were a child you were treated kind
But you were never brought up right
You were always spoiled with a thousand toys but still you cried all night”Young Mick shares his thoughts on how to bring up kids.  Jagger first had the phrase “19th Nervous Breakdown” in his head, and then wrote the lyrics around it.  The descriptiveness and invention of the lyrics are reminiscent of the best of Chuck Berry or Lieber and Stoller:“Your mother who neglected you owes a million dollars tax
And your father’s still perfecting ways of making sealing wax”.The girl at the end of Jagger’s abuse seems more of a victim than a bad person, but these were tough times.  One more gem from this song:“On our first trip I tried so hard to rearrange your mind
But after a while I realized you were disarranging mine”.Before we leave Messrs Jagger and Richards, let’s take a peak at Stray Cat Blues, their 1968 celebration of underage sex from Beggars Banquet: (1968)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umWuNsJKRps

“I can see that you’re fifteen years old
No I don’t want your I.D.
And I’ve seen that you’re so far from home
But it’s no hanging matter
It’s no capital crime”

Well that’s a lyric that wouldn’t get written in 2018.

Every Breath You Take – Police   (1983)

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=OMOGaugKpzs

Another song often casually assumed to be romantic.  That’s hardly Sting’s fault:

“Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you”

Does that sound like a love song to you?  It’s quite clear from the lyrics, from the stressed vocals and the taut, menacing music that we’re in creepy, jilted stalker country here.

Sting started writing the song at Ian Fleming’s writing desk on the Goldeneye estate in Oracabessa, Jamaica.  Sting later said he was disconcerted by how many people think the song is more positive than it is. He insists it is about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow. “One couple told me ‘Oh we love that song; it was the main song played at our wedding!’ I thought, ‘Well, good luck.’  I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite.”

So no, mate, she doesn’t want that played as a request for her.

A Well Respected Man – Kinks  (1965)

If you were ever tempted to invite Ray Davies to join you in a game of golf, pay attention. Davies was on holiday in a hotel in Torquay when a wealthy hotel guest recognized him and asked him to play a round of golf.  Far from being flattered by the invitation, he took great offence. “I’m not gonna play f–king golf with you,” he told him. “I’m not gonna be your caddy so you can say you played with a pop singer.”

This incident was the inspiration for A Well Respected Man:

“And he likes his own backyard,
And he likes his fags the best,
Cause he’s better than the rest,
And his own sweat smells the best,
And he hopes to grab his fathers loot,
When pater passes on”

Davies was later at pains to point out that “fags” in this context referred only to cigarettes and/or younger personal servants at public school.  In the UK, Pye Records refused to issue this as a single, preferring to play safe by sticking to the rockier style of their earlier hits.

This song deserves a special mention for rhyming regatta with get at her.  And neither should we forget Warren Zevon who instead rhymed regatta with persona non grata.

Dedicated Follower of Fashion was also considered for inclusion in this list, but failed to make the cut because it’s a little bit too affectionate.  But it does have the wonderfully risqué line:

“And when he pulls his frilly nylon panties right up tight
He feels a dedicated follower of fashion”.

Little Boxes – Pete Seeger   (1963)

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=n-sQSp5jbSQ

“Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes
Little boxes
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same”.

I’d always assumed, on casual hearing, that this song was aimed at the houses which poor people lived in.  Which always seemed mean-spirited: the cool and successful folk singer sneering at the modesty and uniformity of the architecture.  There, it seemed, spoke someone who had never gone without indoor toilets, a home which could be kept warm, electricity, or hot and cold running water – all the things which standardised modern housebuilding brought to ordinary people.

But on more thorough listening…

“And the people in the houses all went to the university
And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same
And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers
And business executives
And they all get put in boxes, and they all come out the same”

So the song, written by Seeger’s friend Malvina Reynolds, is actually taking aim at the prosperous middle classes.  Who, typically live in large boxes, usually much more varied and interesting than the houses occupied by poorer workers.  And pretty well built, not made out of ticky tacky at all.  There are many reasons why you might want to have a pop at the middle classes, but the architecture of their houses seems a pointless target.  When you listen to this ditty, it’s worth bearing in mind that this was the same year in which Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind”.  Personally, I’m with satirist Tom Lehrer, who allegedly described “Little Boxes” as “the most sanctimonious song ever written”.

Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa – Gene Pitney

“Oh I was only twenty four hours from Tulsa
Ah, only one day away from your arms
I hate to do this to you but I love somebody new, what can I do?
And I can never, never, never go home again.”

Bacharach and David were great songwriters, but really guys, what were you thinking?  The singer has been unfaithful, so now he is letting his partner know that he’s dumping her.  Does he do this in person?  Does he call her up?  No, he’s writing.  So unless the US Mail is super efficient, she will have noticed his absence before she has any explanation.

Ok, he’s met someone new.  That happens.  But it doesn’t justify the self-pitying tone of the song, like he’s the victim here.  Not helped either by Pitney’s whiny voice.  If he was really concerned that he could never – never – go home again, he could have tried:

1) not telling her about being unfaithful

or even

2) not being unfaithful

but I guess that as he’s already told his new love he’d die before he would let her out of his arms, those options didn’t occur to him.

Like most writers, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here, and must pay tribute to Ian McMillan of the Yorkshire Post, who has established beyond reasonable doubt that Pitney was writing his letter from Darfield, South Yorkshire:

https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/opinion/ian-mcmillan-where-exactly-is-24-hours-from-tulsa-1-5085142

One wonders, too, whether Gene has many possessions back home which are important to him.  We have already established that he can never – never – go home again, so it sounds like he will be relying on his ex to ship his stuff back to him.  Good luck with that, pal.