21st Century Gold

As best I can remember the only records Mum and Dad had in the early 1970s were by The Dutch Swing College Band and James Last.

The Dutch Swing College Band were, and for all I know still are, a group of rotund Dutch men, in dinner jackets, some with extravagant moustaches and beards, who played a kind of syncopated trad jazz with added oom pah pah. An important part of my half Dutch heritage.

James Last was a cultural phenomenon who sold almost as many records as The Beatles. He wore a safari suit and led an orchestral dance band who transformed the hits of the previous day into a blanded out non stop dance oom-pah that came linked together over the side of an album, the covers of which normally featured a blonde Fräulein sitting astride a wooden fairground horse with our hero superimposed in the right hand corner. Self described as ‘happy music’, he released at least 65 albums in the UK alone a fair few of which were bought by Mum and Dad. Ten years later his basic idea was picked up by Jive Bunny and the dancing at weddings has had to suffer the results ever since.

The records are in my attic now collecting dust in a corner with all those other records that were a good idea at the time that I bought them but haven’t been played for 25 years.

There may have been some Sacha Distel as well, but he didn’t get played loudly on a Saturday evening, when friends came back from the rugby club and best china got thrown around, because there no balls about, to the never stopping happy dance beat of James Last.

It is perhaps surprising that amongst the ten or so records my Mum and Dad owned there was not one by The Beatles. It was as if the whole of popular music had passed them by.

Despite this at some point in 1973 Pure Gold on EMI came into my life. I still don’t know where it came from but I can remember being about 9 and having it in my hands spending hours staring at the names on the cover sat on a green settee and then putting it on the red leather boxed record player to play easing it down the grey spindle designed to take a load of singles.

The cover had the top right and bottom corners cut off to better resemble a gold bar. The back cover featured a rogues gallery of the stars who sang on the album. Grainy black and white photos superimposed on each other – a cheery Cliff Richard and Cilla Black flanked by a glowering Peregrine Took and a too glamorous Diana Ross.

It might have been something to do with T-Rex. I had been at the house of my friend Richard Harrison after school late on a Thursday and had caught a glimpse of him playing Ride A White Swan on Top of the Pops. Some sort of bright white slinky sound unlike anything I would have ever come across before. Perhaps something to be slightly afraid of, the long hair, noise, sex and transgression, but also irresistibly attractive, drawing me in and kick starting that same impulse that still draws me to a record shop to have a look through the racks spending money I don’t have on another I don’t need.

I can’t believe Mum or Dad bought the record for themselves, so it must have come into the house to keep me happy. Around the same time I caught a glimpse of the Glitter Band on the TV as well and after through all I wanted was a star spangled star shaped guitar. There was no hope of me ever learning to play it but just to have such a thing in my hands was enough. I must have talked up T Rex in the same way I talked up that guitar and then the gold coloured album was in my hands. 

There were two of his great songs on it Sold Gold Easy Action and 20th Century Boy. Maybe they bought it from the record shop in West Kirby that had in its window the image from the front cover of Bowie’s, Aladdin Sane. More transgression, the bolt of lightening across the face, water pooling on his shoulder and space boy ambiguity. I was on safer ground with T Rex.

I have been upstairs to the attic to try and find the original record. It took some time but I got there eventually pulling it out from where it should be amongst the general pile of odd compilations. Looking at the back cover now and going though the names it came to me that it might not have been T Rex after all. Mud where there with one of their less good songs Crazy. Hadn’t I loved them as well. Possibly more than T Rex as they bopped, bashed and ploughed their way through Tiger Feet on Top of the Pops in their orange and black outfits. And there was Wizzard with Ball Park Incident. 

Solid Gold Easy Action was the first song and side one and was a big enough song at the time to have the whole album wrapped around it. The loping insouciant guitar leading to Marc Bolan’s ever perceptive lyrics

But I can’t get no satisfaction
All I want is easy action

A stud is a lamb
With the thoughts of a tiger

Who moves like a cat
And knows how to ride her

Words to live your life by.

But it may have been 20th Century Boy that made more of an impact. This was the fourth song on side two, tucked between Hurricane Smith and Cilla Black’s Step Inside Love, from where it made a noise like no other. There was nothing insouciant about this guitar, it leapt out of the black grooves in the vinyl and laid out its intentions from the outset, this was noise with wild abandon, loud and unruly, noise for the sake of it, and from that moment on I was forever drawn to the sound of a guitar and its strings being hit hard for no better reason than the sheer noise that it made.

Hours were spent sat on the back of the green sofa record sleeve in hand, staring at the list of names and songs trying to match up the singers with the grainy black and white photographs. At the time many of the names meant nothing to me. Apart from T Rex, there was Cliff Richard, Mud and Wizzard. So the needle got lifted to play those as well. Apart from Cilla the only other woman was Diana Ross singing Doobedood’ndoobe. A song that still goes round my head even now. My ears were also caught by the Temptations doing Psychedelic Shack  and Electric Light Orchestra making heaving work out of Roll Over Beethoven. Surprisingly I didn’t pick up on Deep Purple’s Strange Kind of Woman.

Still happy to do that now. Sit on a comfy chair music playing too loud record sleeve in hand reasing over and over the list of songs and singers, the producers and engineers and the words.

Within a few months my life would change as we moved house and I was sent away to boarding school for the first time.

Blondie at Deeside

The first full concert I went to (not counting the Julian Lennon gig) was to see Blondie at Deeside Leisure Centre in January 1980.

Deeside was a proper leisure centre with courts for playing any number of games, a swimming pool and best of all an ice rink. The Ice Rink formed a large part of our childhood. Ice-skating was in the blood because of my Dutch mother and her stories of how they used to skate along the iced up canals at the back of her house.

She took us there to keep us entertained one day during a school holiday and so we went through the ritual of checking in our shoes at a desk, revealing our shoe size and then have to squeeze my fat flat feet into the tight boot and then hobbling over to the ice. The first few minutes were spent desperately holding onto the wooden panel that ran round the side trying to find balance on the slippery ice. But after a while that balance was found and the first few tentative steps were made onto the ice. Of course I wasn’t supposed to be making steps but it was difficult to break the habit but as I stepped the blade of the skate slide over the ice and soon I found that if I shifted the angle of the step and used it to push myself forward I was able to slide over the ice and I was skating. Having worked out how to skate all there was to do was to spend the next hour or so following everyone else doing lap after lap round the vast oval shaped rink. There was the occasional mishap and fall at which point there was a fierce slippery struggle to get up again all balance lost and the lurking fear that if my hands were on the ice another skater would go over them and chop off my fingers.

And as we circled the rink we listened to music. Tucked away near a café off the ice there was a jukebox that played a continuous stream of music for us to listen to and to which the more ambitious could attempt to skate in time to.

Maybe it was listening to that jukebox that gave the idea to the councillors at Alyn and Deeside District Council that with the help of some thick carpet the ice rink could be converted into a concert venue. It would be one of the biggest in the North West and although thirty miles away sufficiently close to Liverpool to persuade any hesitating band or their manager that they were playing at the home of The Beatles rather than Deeside.

So it was for half a dozen years in the late 1970’s and early 80’s Deeside played host to a raft of unexpected bands. As well as Blondie I saw The Jam, The Who, The Police and somewhat bizarrely Genesis. The gig I regret not going to was Bob Marley shortly before he died.

At the time Blondie were one of the biggest bands in the world. Parallel Lines had come out a couple of years earlier and the singles from that were a permanent feature of Radio 1. Sunday Girl was one of the first singles I bought and listening to those songs now I am still caught short by them Debbie Harry’s nonchalant aloof voice cutting against the disco/rock chug of the music all anchored down by a persistent surf drum. I had her posters on the wall of my bedroom at home just over my bed her gaze forever over my most important teenage years. I also acquired a copy of the new album, Eat to the Beat, which I think might have been a birthday present back in the days when it was safe to give me a record with there being no danger I might have it already. I listened to it greedily never quite able to admit it was not as good as Parallel Lines and forever haunted by how hairy Chris Stein’s arm was draped over Debbie Harry’s shoulder.

I can’t remember whose idea it was that we should go and apart from my Dad who else went with us. Somehow my obsession with the band must have made it through to the family (probably the posters on the wall) and so tickets were bought and I went with my Dad.

I was 15 at the time and he was 40 – many years younger than I am now. For both of us it was our first proper concert and I think for me Dad it was his last. At or around the same time he and my Mum took my younger sister, Bridget, to see Boney M, also at the leisure centre, but that was sit down, so doesn’t count.

The joke with my Dad was that such was the allure of Debbie Harry he was keener than me to get closer to the front.

As for the gig itself I don’t remember much of that either. There would have been the crush of people, being too far from the front to get a proper look at the band and cold feet from the ice under the thick damp carpet that covered the rink. 

Scour the internet enough and there is a picture of the gig. Debbie Harry at the front of the stage mid song blonde hair bright against the dark panoply  of speakers, equipment and hangers on behind her. Just in front of the stage line of grim faced, bearded security guards keeping the crowd at bay and looking as perplexed as my Dad probably was with the noise and the waving arms and leather jackets of the crowded audience baying their appreciation.

Distracted by poetry at Bantry Market

There are dangers to be had in leaving a small child unattended at Bantry Market so his father can take a more detailed look t the second hand books for sale.

Along the run of the unattractive concrete square there are two or three pools of water with half hearted fountains in the middle. There are benches around them and the wide rim of the pools and benches provide a natural place for a stall holder to lay out some of his wares and for the older attendees of the market to take a seat and rest their feet.

It would be an easy thing to leave a dissapointed child, angry at not being fed something sweet and bought a toy wooden gun, by the trinkets next to the pool. The child can be idle there looking at the things to be bought for a euro, a mismatched plastic half sized purple tennis racket, a toasting fork, a small collection of cutlery, a collection of Top Gun DVDs and, someone’s former pride and joy, a stainless steel toast rack.

For the child it will be a natural thing to pick up and admire the toy tennis racket and weigh it in his hand and look around for a ball and someone to play with. But his Dad was still at the book stall weighing up some poetry so he could impress the child’s mother. With there being no-one to engage with and play a game there was nothing for it but to hurl the racket into the water.  No-one objected but although there was fun to be had it did not make much of a splash. An odd knife from the collection of cutlery would do better. He tested it in his small hand and gave it a hurl. That was better! It made more of a splash near the fountain and sank quickly so there was no evidence left. The purple racket still floated.

He chucked in another and was emboldened by the splash and so cast his eye about for something bigger. The toasting fork was bigger and would make bigger splash. It did but the cild then made his mistake having picked up the toast rack. It was too big.

The attendees sat opposite had been content to watch the lad hurl in the racket and the odd items of cutlery but there was a danger the toast rack was of a size they might be held negligent and in any event one of the older attendees had had her eye on the toast rack and so she made a noise and raised her arm in the air.

The noise attracted the ear of the father and he was forced to lift his eye from the book of poetry all in time to catch sight of his son about to give the toast rack a good heave into the pool. Alacrity did not feature amongst the poems, no matter, he leapt to it and was able to rescue the toast rack and wrestle the small child into his pushchair book still in hand, finger keeping the page open.

There were words from the father to the child but as he spoke his eye was disturbed by the purple tennis racket floating on the pond the sight of the silver lying at the dark bottom of the pool and the owner of the book of poems bending his ear as to why it had not been paid for.

David Berman, The Silver Jews, Purple Mountains

So I got out of bed this morning and had a look at twitter and saw that David Berman had died yesterday. It hit me like a slap in the face.

Here’s a few things about him and his bands The Silver Jews and Purple Mountains.

  1. He wore a good baseball hat. Always important.
  2. I came across The Silver Jews 10 or so years ago downloading random albums from a web site that had these things too easily available. Without knowing why I had three of the albums on my laptop and then on my iPod. Random songs would come up and then there were times on a long car journey I would put the three albums on shuffle so I never knew what was coming next. There were songs about lovelost jukeboxes, punks in the moonlight, animals making shapes in the snow, a one armed drummer, sad victories and defeat, beer and a pier. The songs were funny and sad. Rickety and wry.
  3. Listen to enough music there is an intimacy about it, the songs and the voice. I know some of these voices better than those of people I see every day. David Berman’s was one of those voices.
  4. By the time I started listening to them The Silver Jews had split up and David Berman had stopped making music.
  5. There was/is something lost and mysterious about the records.
  6. Last year one of their albums, American Water, was re-released on vinyl. I was in Probe every week for a month asking if they could sell me the only copy they had. The release date kept getting put back and they kept having to say no. All for The Silver Jews. It was worth the wait.
  7. Earlier this year I was in Rough Trade on Brick Lane and too my surprise they had another three of their albums on vinyl, presumably left over from when they first came out 15 years or so ago. Soon I had the lot .
  8. I chose one of the albums, Tanglewood Numbers, for the music group to listen to. The cover has a photograph by Terry Eagleton. Only good records have these (see Big Star).
  9. Then a month or so ago there was talk of a new band, Purple Mountains, and new album. It came out in early July. It is very good one of the years best. Sad songs about love and loss and margaritas drank in a mall. You should buy it.


Rest easy now.