Keep on Running

Do you recall Worzel Gummidge? He was a scarecrow, a walking, talking, living, breathing scarecrow, portrayed with admirable joie-de-vivre on Sunday afternoon children’s TV during the late 70s and early 80s in a metaphysical and sartorial about-turn by the former Dr. Who, the late Jon Pertwee. Worzel had the unique facility of being able to switch his heads around to suit his requirements, so, for example, he could change his usual ‘mischievous’ head for his ‘thinking’ head as and when the occasion demanded. As he grows older and wiser in the ways of this world, little O also seems to be developing that facility, albeit with slightly more variance than dear old Worzel managed.

Saturday last he had his ‘Roger Bannister’ head firmly in place. The International School of Phnom Penh were holding their annual sponsored Landmines Fun Run (sounds ever so slightly wrong, doesn’t it?), to raise awareness of the continuing blight caused to this country by unexploded ordnance (UXO) and landmines, and to raise funds to support the Cambodian volleyball team whose members include many survivors of these deadly legacies of conflict. We had put little O’s name down for the elementary fun run, assuming that he could be escorted by yours truly at a sedate pace around the dusty pebble-strewn track for the duration of one quarter kilometer lap. The big day dawned, and with it a gnawing sense of unease churning in the stomachs of all participants. Not caused by the worry of impending physical exercise, or indeed a dodgy roadside snack from the night before, but the real foreboding generated by the revelation, for the first time in public in Cambodia outwith a swimming pool, of your humble correspondents stick-like, white and hairy lower appendages… yes, I too had dressed for the occasion, baggy t-shirt, shorts and trendy black converse hi-tops in place…well, brothers, sisters, we don’t need this fasttrack groove thang…, oh no. Once the murmurs of distaste and ripples of barely suppressed laughter had subsided, all were called to order and lined up at the start line. A barely noticed countdown and we were off, in clouds of billowing dust, jogging along to the strains of Alice Cooper ‘School’s Out’ (Mostly ‘good’ music all morning, I have to say. Congrats to the compiler!). Little O, who was the youngest participant, waved to all around him and seemed really into this idea of trotting around trying to keep up with the big kids. The cheering and encouraging announcements must have spurred him on, for as eventually the end of lap one loomed with mummy cheerfully and excitedly waving him into the pits, the O decided that he wasn’t going to stop. ‘One more’ he said, and carried on trotting…
This was repeated FIVE times, until we put a stop to it after six laps and dragged him protesting into the sidelines, along with yours truly who was by now completely hot, dust-covered, sweaty and exhausted from keeping up with the little chap…

The mischievous head was firmly in place at a colleagues wedding this week. We had endured almost an hour stuck in a tuk-tuk in horrendous traffic to get to the venue, arriving there to marvel once more at the feats of cosmetic engineering conducted upon hapless Khmer brides by the beauticians of this fair country. I have sat beside my colleague for nearly two years now, but I completely failed to recognise her when we entered the reception, wondering to myself who was this glittering vision, who looked like a tiny alabaster version of one of the Roman Goddesses, hair piled in Medusan coils and eyes framed by the darkest thickest lashes, mascara’ed beyond even the wildest imaginings of Dusty Springfield. She seems to know me… who is it? Then realization dawned, this was indeed her, trapped like a frightened bird under the layers of the beauticians craft. It does look wonderful in the photoshopped marvels that pass for wedding albums round these parts, though…

My other female colleagues from work had also gone into unrecognizably glamorous overload, and from the make-up, hair and clothes you would have thought that we were actually attending an Oscar ceremony from the 1960s where all females present had entered into an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike contest. Comfortingly, the men mostly resembled extras from a black and white 1960s British kitchen sink drama, Cambodian Tom Courtenay’s all, looking as if they had just come in from the allotment, wiped their faces on their sleeves, splashed themselves very briefly with ‘The Great Smell of Brut ©’, then got stuck straight into the minced pig entrails and greasy scrawny chicken on offer with considerable gusto accompanied by copious amounts of liquid lubrication (‘Cold Guinness… Number One!’ as our waiter rather enthusiastically informed me). I felt very much the barang exception in my white Ambre suit and black shirt, but I imagined that most of the Khmer guests thought I was a very important foreign gangster, so nobody really commented for fear of going for a concrete-booted paddle in the Mekong.

O was the very modicum of stoic calmness during the first hour that we waited for our table to fill up and food to be served, he even ventured with me on a couple of occasions to view the band, who boasted a completely electronic drum kit, a jazz-thrash noodling lead guitarist, a PA system adequate for a small stadium and a baffling number of lead vocalists, including one man who was absolutely from the oh-so-smooth Andy Williams white loafer school which fitted in wonderfully with the whole Elizabeth Taylor imagined scenario going on in my brain…

Although the arrival of other guests (including some foreign women who were clearly and scarily misinformed that this was a Tammy Wynette look-alike event – thank the lord for A and her beautiful, simple little polka dot dress!) en masse to our table meant that the food had also arrived, O was by now well bored, and despite the tasty distractions of whole deep fried fish, mischievous head kicked in. He smashed some cutlery and stole the chopsticks off the woman sitting next to him, so we decanted him hastily from the premises, pausing briefly so he could have his picture snapped on the red carpet with my colleagues three year old cousin (who had obviously done this sort of thing before – she posed furiously for all she was worth as O remained clutched in her grasp with an expression of abject terror etched on his face) and then back into the tuk-tuk for a considerably faster trundle home. Once home, little O put his (and our) favourite head on, that of the wonderful, funny, sweet little chap that he is, and went off to bed with the story of The Gruffalo’s Child lulling him into the land of Nod from his stereo…

… and along with The Gruffalo’s Child, Robert Fripp now enters the picture. Not such a leap of the imagination as it may at first seem (what’s he talking about now? Robert Fripp? Isn’t he that Dorset guy who plays guitar, made a weird record with Eno and married Toyah? Yes, that’s the one.). I’ve recently been recording bedtime stories for the little chap using Garageband software on our Macbook, which has been enormous fun for yours truly and, it seems to date, enormously enjoyed by our little O. Whilst searching for suitable snippets of soundtrack music, I have rediscovered King Crimson. This has been a real joy to me, as regular readers will know that in addition to my love of rock, jazz, indie, punk, soul, latin, pyschedelia, country, folk, ambient, electronica, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, blah, blah, blah, I have an abiding and unwholesome fondness for Progressive Rock, or ‘Prog’ as it now seems to be known to the subterranean denizens of the vast and bewildering world of music. I think I’ve mentioned in these blogs before of balmy and not-so-balmy evenings spent appreciating each others record collections in the homes of Eric Law, Colin Morrison, Steven Beaton, Michael Houston, John Farquhar, Donald McIntosh and many others from that particular hall of infamy. Thurso High School record club and the redoubtable Leon ‘do you think I look like Ian Anderson? Great!’ Volwerk must also figure hugely in these formative years of my musical appreciation. Mr. Volwerk, Eric and Colin were big on Prog, as indeed I was, and one of my all-time favourites from that era when dinosaurs still roamed the earth with impunity was (and still is) ‘Lizard’ by King Crimson. It’s funny that listening to it now with the benefit of hindsight (or should that be hindhearing?) it’s actually pretty much jazz-rock fusion with a soupcon of classical influences thrown in. There’s even a guest vocal from helium lunged Accrington born astral elf Jon Anderson of Yes and the atonal piano dribbling of Keith Tippett burbling all over the place. It is however, in the grand tradition of all things Prog, majestic, moving, bafflingly dexterous in both scope and execution and, of course, supremely, wonderfully silly. It’s also full of Mellotron, that amazing Heath Robinson-esque instrument that added the mystery to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and the menace to ‘We Love You’… ah, the Beatles and the Stones, they sucked the marrow out of bones…(’House of Love’… remember them?). Mellotron gives a gloriously wonky orchestral feel to many of the tracks, and adds to the slightly creepy sensibility which pervades the album. The Beatles link continues with the track ‘Happy Families’ where Pete Sinfield’s occasionally obscure lyrics on the album clarify into a surreal discursion on the breakup of the Fab Four (‘Nasty Jonah grew a wife, Judas drew his pruning knife…’).

Colin Morrison used to particularly despair of my attitude towards much of the music he enjoyed, but as I recall ‘Lizard’ seemed to be a common ground between us. Colin and I used to get into some fairly heated arguments, particularly about jazz-rock, and sometimes his taste seemed to me to be bafflingly obtuse – sorry to bring this up again Colin, but Jukka Tolonen…? – but I really miss the overall over-intellectualised and frequently smarmy silliness that used to pass between us during our ‘appreciation’ evenings… these might, for example, include lengthy discussions about the stunning left-handed bass technique of another Colin, Mr. Hodgkinson of Back Door. I’ve mentioned them before in a blog, but just to recap they were an early 70s Yorkshire bred jazz-rock trio of sax, bass and drums with a punk attitude and by ‘eck bloomin’ good they were, too. I bet you really wish now that you had been part of those music appreciation evenings, don’t you, eh? I hope that you’re still out there in the land of the musical avant-garde, Colin (Morrison that is – Mr. H is still a very active musician and has recently put together a new combo based on the Back Door sound), baffling your neighbours with Jukka and the rest. If you should happen to stumble upon this, please do get in touch… the same goes for you, Robert Fripp… I’m sure your well developed sense of the absurd will be tickled by the thought that snippets of your meisterwork ‘Lizard’ are now adorning my renditions of ‘The Selfish Crocodile’ and ‘The Gruffalo’s Child’.

I wonder too if my dear little tousle-haired O will grow up to mumble incoherently from behind a curtain of shoulder length hair, wear an ex-Navy greatcoat, 26-inch loon pants and desert boots and waste many evenings of his teenage years earnestly debating with his long-suffering friends something earth-shattering such as the nuances of style that differentiate Steve Howe’s picking technique from that of Robert Fripp …

… or perhaps maybe, just maybe, unlike his father, he will actually get a life!

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Yours Is No Disgrace

(WARNING – THIS BLOG CONTAINS REFERENCES TO PROGRESSIVE ROCK-READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED)

Warily yet wearily the four bedraggled little students made their way down the steep and leafy incline of Paterson’s Lane, their spirits lifting as they spied the multi-coloured brickwork of John’s house in the middle distance. John was John Farquhar, or as pronounced in the ‘ness, ‘Fracher’, and within that house was a wondrous loud stereophonic record player, upon which he would soon place his new-bought hallowed treasure. He would carefully place the dust bug in its required position, switch on electrical power to the unit then rotate the ivory bakelite dial to indicate 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, before carefully lifting the playhead into position, lowering the compatible stereo cartridge (perchance a Goldring G800?) onto the shellac disc rotating on the Garrard SP25 MkII record deck. Then the four would agree, yes, this will be worth skipping school for, before lying back in the semi-darkness of that room, deep within the bowels of that quaint split-level house, and allowing the music to flood over them in waves of sonic bliss, signals arcing from speaker to speaker, a mélange of guitars (lap steel! Stratocasters!) of bass, of keyboard washes, pounding tom-tom rolls, human heartbeats, Moog synthesizers, found voices and finally the eerie, weary, ennui filled tones of David Gilmour… “Breathe, breathe in the air…”

It really was like that. Today’s pop kids will never experience anything similar, oh no. There really was (still is, I fervently hope) a John Farquhar. And a Donald (Danny) Farquhar (his cousin, I think…). And a Donald McIntosh (‘Tosh, where are you now?). And a me. And we had skipped off school because John had bought ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, and his mum and dad were out, and they had a really good stereo system, and…

Guess what? I love music. For much of my life, child and adult, I have lived, eaten, slept and breathed music. I have even tormented countless thousands over the years with my attempts to perform music. To you, I now apologize unreservedly. However, the strongest attraction for me is still the recorded medium. Even now, a man who is over a half-century old, I become obsessed with particular bands or artists, labels or even sleeve artists. Ani bought me an I –Pod for Christmas. She jokingly (I hope) remarked the other night that it was the worst thing she could have bought me. Probably as I was completely immersed at that point in trawling the internet (do you think that’s why we say ‘trawling’, because it’s a ‘net’? I wonder…) to find jpegs of artists and record sleeves to upload to my pod (behold! I have the jargon!) for those tricky one-off or compilation things. Music is pretty much everywhere now, and is used to sell everything under the sun. I’ve now given up getting enormously annoyed at the hijacking of a classic track to sell soap powder or whatever, so it is good for me to reminisce about a time when that wasn’t quite the case, and ‘the man’ had not, like, completely turned us into, like, breadheads or worse…

The Famous Four music appreciation saga unfolded in the opening paragraph was by no means an isolated occurrence. Oh no. Group appreciation was one if the joys of being into music. Informal record clubs of all sorts proliferated amongst the wet flagstone streets of slumbery Thurso in the early part of the 1970’s. Occasionally these were simply evenings where one took it in turns to host a friend (or friends) to play them your choice of music, along with a guest spot for the album they would have brought with them. Much snobbery around the type of record deck/speakers/cartridges/stylus/dust removing paraphernalia used would take place (‘Oh. A Calotherm cloth. Hmmm. Personally I find that it can sometimes cause surface marking…’) Techniques for removing records from paper (or, god forbid, poly-lined – simply encourages static build up and therefore dust attraction!) sleeves without touching the playing surface would be appraised. The sleeves would themselves be studied as if ancient dusty tomes from the bowels of the National Library, carefully scrutinized for the meaning of the cover art, and how it linked to the music locked in the grooves… and then the music… protocol dictated listening in silence for at least one side, no matter how jarring or boring the experience was, before passing measured judgement upon the piece and its performers.

Colin Morrison, where are you now? Visits to Colin’s house were always interesting. He wasn’t really into pop music, he was much more cerebral. I had an extremely catholic taste in music, but sometimes Colin’s choices would stretch my tolerance level more than a little… Jukka Tolonen, anyone? However, thank you Colin for making me listen to Back Door. In these post-Morphine days I can appreciate much more a pre-punk instrumental Jazz-rock trio of bass, drums and saxophone. And his mum made a nice cup of tea. As did Eric Law’s. Nothing like a hot strong cuppa to help the synapses adjust to Aamon Duul, Tangerine Dream, Kevin Coyne, Van der Graaf Generator, Hatfield and the North… that sort of thing. You get the picture.. Eric was also probably the first person in the world to own a copy of Tubular Bells. I find it amazing now to reflect on how cutting edge we all (The navy greatcoat and mumbling brigade that is… not my skinhead friends, I have to say.) thought it was. His dad was an incredibly nice man who would often pop his head cheerily round the door to enquire after my health during the particularly grim passages of ‘dance of the lemmings’ or some such thing. Alan McPherson has previously received credit in this blog for his impact upon my life, but there’s no harm in another mention, is there Perce? Thank you for introducing me to Creedence and the 70’s Who, in particular. Then there were those who shared a particular obsession. Steven Beaton, David Moore and I were the three T.Rex fans in our High School class. That was a very dangerous thing to be in the early formative years of Glam Rock, as most chaps favoured the uncouth laddish glam of Slade. Kenny Cameron, a meenisters son, no less, used to give me an incredibly hard time about my obsession with hermaphrodite-hot-pants Bolan (©Record Mirror and Disc). Steven also favoured Welsh weed gobblers Man, for some truly unfathomable reason, and seemed to be the only person in Thurso with a John Kongos album.David and I would regularly quake in fear of being found by his dad using his incredibly state-of-the-art gramophone unit to play Tyrannosaurus Rex records on. It apparently was only designed to accept and play real music, i.e. classical. What untold damage did we cause to the valves and tubes by placing the woodland warbles of the bopping elf on its hallowed turntable…? David went on to have one of the coolest jobs in the entire world, senior lighting engineer for Top of the Pops…

Mr. Leon Volwerk was a history teacher who ran the Record Club at Thurso High school. Once a week we would gather in the upstairs music room to hear the chosen ones, the albums he had selected from those proffered by the spotty male longhairs who were the majority of attendees. Being able to only afford maybe one album a month at most, this was the opportunity to actually hear those things that one had read about and could only imagine in the days before decent radio signals reached Thurso. Black Sabbath ‘Master of Reality’, Deep Purple ‘In Rock’ (so exciting I actually ordered it from my mum’s clubbie book!) and the collected works of Jethro Tull, as Leon Volwerk, bless him, not only looked uncannily like Ian Anderson but also obsessed over him in much the same way I did over Marc Bolan. He never really liked my Pink Fairies ‘What a Bunch of Sweeties’ album much, ‘though…

It’s good for me to reminisce about what the world was like before punk, because to be honest the music that gets pigeon-holed into that pre-punk era of the 1970’s is often very unfairly done by. Every era has its bores (dare I say… no, I’d better whisper… Coldplay?) , but much of it was just as wild, wacky, out-there and funny as the tidal wave that swept through British music in the late 70’s. Its confession time now. Bless me Father, for I have sinned, it’s been a long time since I last confessed to this sin, Father…

Last night, a DJ saved my life. Ha Ha. Only joking. I’m afraid it’s worse than that.

Last night, I listened again to Yes.

Those of you who haven’t logged off in utter disgust by now, thank you for your continued support. I could blame the I-Pod (‘oh, you know it’s that shuffle feature. One never knows what will come up from that obscure compilation one downloaded months ago!’), but the sad truth is that I downloaded four tracks in the full knowledge that they were by Yes, and with the deliberate intention of listening to them. Which I did, last night.
The truth? I really, really enjoyed them, as I had done in the early 70’s. But where I (and John Farquhar, Perce, Steven… I’m not going down alone, you know…) had once scoured each subsequent Yes release for the cosmic portent invariably locked within, I now realized that that had been only part of the appeal of this much maligned band. They were so good because they were simply completely and utterly bonkers, out of their trees, tripping on Vishnu and vegetarianism, so far round the proverbial bend or corner that they were meeting themselves. Why play one note when you can fit ten in? Why should a guitar sound like a guitar? Why shouldn’t you sing lyrics that only a gnome that had received a serious blow to the medulla oblongata could decipher in a voice that suggested your favourite pastime was inhaling helium? Why not play your bass through a broken speaker so it sounds like a large over-amplified rubber band? Why bother with 4/4 time? Four technically staggering musicians and a crazy lad from Accrington invented this complex sound universe that does sound like they had been blindfolded and thrown into a big bag full of instruments and told to play as fast and as complex as they could because not only their lives, but the entire fate of the universe depended upon then achieving cosmic Nirvana. And by heck, they nearly made it. I truly believe that some Yes moments do stand alongside such wonders as the glacial distance of ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, the sound and fury of the Pistols in their prime, the eerie otherworldliness of the Only Ones, the righteous fire of the Clash…

The earphones hurt my tired ears, but by closing my eyes I can drift back into the last century, the years sliding away, ten, twenty, thirty… more… and I am back in John Farquhar’s house, in the curtained semi-darkness of the listening room, marveling at the sound of Steve Howe flicking his guitar pick against the strings behind the bridge of his Gibson, and how the sound hops through the air from speaker to speaker… track one of the Yes Album, ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’… then to end side one, the incredible build up to the closing part of ‘Starship Trooper’, ‘Wurm’ , an unfolding behemoth of sound that gets louder and louder before exploding into stereo tripping, guitar again leaping from left to right… to ‘Fragile’, and the architectural precision of ‘ Long Distance Runaround’, complex patterns fire off against each other with the rubberband bass of Chris Squire pulling the disparate components together… and finally… ‘Roundabout’. All hands on deck in dazzling form, and containing one of, if not the greatest, Hammond organ solos of all time. Rick Wakeman’s finest three minutes, pausing briefly to spar with the guitar before dancing to a conclusion where it almost sounds like he is cascading across the keys like a dazzling beer-blonde waterfall…

Pseuds corner may beckon, but dammit I still like Yes. And I’m glad I do. I will no longer hide how I feel about them, I now know that really I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Some wit once wrote a review of a Yes album which said, in its entirety,
‘Yes. No.’

I would have to disagree, with a double affirmative, on the rock – ‘Yes. YES!’

‘On a sailing ship to nowhere, leaving anyplace, if the summer turn to winter, yours is no, yours is no disgrace…’

Come on over to my house, I’ve a Gnidrolog album I really think you ought to hear…