Saturday, 11 April 2015

Roderick Falconer and other musical debts

When I was very young, I heard music only on the radio and TV - much of it rather formal stuff, even the theme tunes for radio programmes. The themes for The Lone Ranger on TV and The Archers on radio were orchestral; and for Coronation Street on TV it was a traditional Northern brass band. Yes, you could also hear jazz, and the blues, and Rock and Roll too, but I missed it all, being just too young.

By the time I heard of Elvis Presley, or our own Cliff Richard, they were smooth and seasoned performers who had established their careers, films included. They still looked young and exciting, but were unassailable and permanent, and were not simply going to burn brightly but briefly, then fade away. Cliff, of course, never has gone away. He's a survivor, and epitomises what can be achieved if you listen to your parents. If you remember - in the song anyway - his father urged him to stay a Bachelor Boy; and clearly he has taken that as a lifelong guiding principle. Elvis died in 1977, tragically and rather unnecessarily, but it really was passing of a King.

If I missed the great sounds of the 1950s, I was right on time for the 1960s. I was aged twelve in 1962, just as bands like The Beatles were getting nationally known. In retrospect, I feel very lucky - privileged - to have lived through that era, and not just become familiar with it through archive material. Every year brought new performers, new kinds of sound that nobody had ever heard before, and right across the Western World an entire young generation was in some way influenced by it. It could not be escaped, and it seeped into every aspect of life. But we didn't want to escape it. Our parents and elders tut-tutted, then learned to do The Twist at family parties, long after dancing like that ceased to be the main reason for having music on tap.

They didn't like it so much when family-friendly bands openly took to drugs and mysticism and the lyrics become strange and disturbing. When well-known names died of overdoses - it was almost a slaughter - the older generation didn't see it as the tragic but avoidable result of mental stress, physical exhaustion, and unbearable commercial pressure - something that deserved understanding and rational medical treatment. It was taken as a well-deserved retribution from a God (or at least a Sane Society with True Values) who had been defied and deserted. A lesson to those still uncontaminated: music was evil and corrupting.

My own parents did not lecture me. But they retreated into a world of Easy Listening, and for years no form of loud or avant-garde musical expression was permitted at home in Southampton. I could listen (quietly) to the Top Forty, and that was all. No wonder I never attempted to try my hand at any kind of instrument - although later experiments with guitars, harmonicas, recorders and flutes in my own flat in London convinced me that I had no gift for music-making whatsoever!

Being a solitary sort of teenager, I wasn't part of any music scene, and much passed me by. I stayed mainstream, becoming a Beatles expert (who wasn't?) but remaining ignorant of 90% of what was going on. Even major bands like The Rolling Stones didn't get my full attention. Led Zeppelin? Black Sabbath? Pink Floyd? I'm afraid not. Only what I might see on Top of the Pops. To my shame now, of course. At this point, I'd best fall on the knife and admit that I liked Engelbert Humperdinck, and never stopped liking his 1960s hits. Well, be fair, he did have a very nice voice, even if his French pronunciation was dreadful - can you recall his chart hit Lay Bee See Clett Der Bell Size? ('Les Bicyclettes de Belsize') I thought not.

Thankfully my girlfriends rescued me from complete brain death where music was concerned. It's the real subject of this post. I want to pay homage to them, and to the music they brought to my attention. Two in particular: M---, my ex-partner, and a girlfriend from a long time back (thirty five years, actually), Deborah.

M--- (1994 to 2009) was a one-band woman, but what a band. She was a Rolling Stones fan to beat all other Stones fans. She was old enough to have seen them perform in their very first venues in London, and had been a faithful follower ever since. She knew her stuff, and introduced me to the Stones in depth. I was myself old enough to remember their main chart hits from about 1965 or so, but, one or two numbers aside, I'd never been much attracted to their raunchy style and challenging attitude, feeling more comfortable with the safe and (at the time) more interesting Beatles. Later on, I had some exposure to their late-sixties mystical phase (songs like We Love You, Dandelion and She's a Rainbow), courtesy of my former wife Wendy. M--- exposed me to far more.

M--- gave me in fact an education in what I'd been missing over a span of decades, songs I'd never heard before, not just from the Stones' early albums, but from the much more recent ones such as Tattoo You (1981), Steel Wheels (1989), Voodoo Lounge (1994) and Bridges to Babylon (1997). And - this surprised us both - it was not all one way. There was, unbelievably, a gap in her album collection. She had somehow never acquired the Emotional Rescue album from 1980, and had therefore not heard some of the material on it. I knew about it though, and presented her with the missing album (which quickly became a firm favourite of hers).

The Stones seeped into my musical consciousness, and this has survived the loss of M--- herself. I think that is remarkable. Whether M--- feels good about her favourite band still being part of my life is beyond guessing - I cannot know - but I am very grateful to her for enlarging my musical experience to include this still-dangerous and disturbing influence. Every Stones song that I ever liked is now on my phone, and it's a rare day that at least one Stones track doesn't get played.

We were together when Mick Jagger brought out one of his rare solo albums, Goddess in the Doorway (2001). It was, and remains, rather underrated. Perhaps it's too autobiographical, with references to Jerry Hall and her 1999 advertising campaign that 'plastered her all over town' in the song in Don't Call Me Up, and the making the Enigma film (2001) in Everybody's Getting High. But it's an excellent album, very well produced, and interesting in that it's so personal, including Jagger's long-standing yearning for redemption and a state of grace, best exemplified by the song Joy, which is actually sung by his friend Bono, with Jagger merely doing some background vocals towards the ecstatic end. It's not a hymn. It's still basically pure Rolling Stones in its mention of a down-to-earth, cigarette-smoking Jesus Christ in an early verse:

Oh joy love you bring
Oh joy make my heart sing

And I drove across the desert
I was in my four wheel drive
I was looking for the Buddha
And I saw Jesus Christ

He smiled and shrugged his shoulder
And lit a cigarette
Said, Jump for joy
Make some noise
Remember what I said

Bono was a great choice. His powerful voice bawls out the lyrics wonderfully, especially so when the song gets to this part:

I was drowning in the darkness
As I drove down to the sea
Joy joy joy, oh joy

And I looked up to a mountain
And the light burst over me
Joy joy joy, oh oh joy

It all says a lot about Jagger's deepest concerns too.

Deborah (1978 to 1982) was significantly younger than myself, and was still only twenty-one when we split in 1982. But despite her youth, she had a varied and memorable taste in music at a time when it had just passed through New Wave and was at the height of the New Romantic era, but had not yet got to Wham! and George Michael. It was an interesting time musically. As well as the genres just mentioned, long-established individual singers and bands who had risen during the 1970s like Michael Jackson and Roxy Music were at the top of their game too. Deborah had a big thing for Roxy Music, and a genuine yearning and personal regard for dishy and sophisticated Brian Ferry, getting terribly upset when Jerry Hall left Brian Ferry for Mick Jagger. I saw why then, and see it even more so now. We went to see Roxy Music live when they performed in London.

But Deborah introduced me also to many sounds I'd never heard before. Thus I became familiar with (for example) the early Neil Young, and those memorable and haunting songs sung in his weedy, distinctive voice such as A Man Needs A Maid, Old Man, Harvest, Soldier, Southern Man, After The Gold Rush, and I Believe In You. But there was one artist she loved that you may never have heard of: Roderick Falconer. His 'best period' was in fact in the mid-to-later 1970s. Here he is on the front of his 1976 album New Nation:

That riding gear, particularly those tight trousers and boots, got to her. Also the commanding eyes. You can absolutely see why. To me it looked at first a little suggestive of ultra-nationalism and arrogant posturing! However, this was merely the contrived marketing image. On the vinyl itself were a collection of songs that were very original, very stylish, and featured thrilling guitar work. The opening track, titled New Nation, is creepily amazing. I would recommend listening to most of the tracks, but my personal favourites, apart from the opening track, are Play It Again, Where Are they Now, I Don't Think Your Love Can Save me, But I Want It Anyway, and (especially) This Is Your Life. Falconer peaked with this album, and his next, Victory in Rock City (1977) had a nice cover design but only one really top-notch song, Public Enemy:

You know, this is from 1977, and yet that looks so much like Gary Numan of the early 1980s, doesn't it? The very same kind of style, all dressed in futuristic silver clothing, the gaze visionary and almost robotic.

I won't show you a picture of M--- enjoying the Stones, but I will show Deborah in her 1982 bedroom, with pictures of Roxy Music and Brian Ferry everywhere. One girl's devotion:

And this is the June 1999 advertisement featuring Jerry Hall that forced Mick Jagger to pen lyrics complaining that he'd tried to forget her after she walked out of his life (he'd been unfaithful), but couldn't avoid seeing her everywhere on billboards. She was advertising a fabric softener:

I spotted that poster in Swansea, in South Wales. In another part of Swansea was a poster advertising the Manic Street Preachers' soon-to-be-released new single, Tsunami:

I've just given it another hearing. I think it stands up quite well after so long.

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