S’cool Days

‘Today I learned about the sea and ‘bout someone in history
well, ain’t that cool
they taught me how to square a cube and put a fly into a tube
well, ain’t that cool…’

the above lines are lifted from the very wonderful 45 ‘S’cool days’ by Stanley Frank. I can’t quite remember when it was released (late 70s? early 80s?), and I can tell you very little about Mr. Frank, but other than coming enclosed in a particularly nasty orange sleeve it was one of those great one-off new wave non-hits that proliferated around that time. I’m sorry, perhaps some of you would be puzzled by the ‘45’ reference in the opening sentence. Nowadays they would call it a 7-inch vinyl. Those exciting little slabs of plastic generally revolve around the turntable at 45rpm, hence the abbreviation, most commonly used in the 60s and 70s. It’s extremely heartening that whatever you choose to call it, the good old single record is still around.

Can you remember the first one you bought with your own pocket money? Mine was ‘Lady Madonna/The Inner light’ by The Beatles, 6/11d from the Music Shop, Thurso… I can still recall the smell of the vinyl as I removed it from its black paper sleeve and the sheer joy and anticipation of placing it over the spindle of my Aunt Catherine’s Dansette record player…

I was certainly no stranger to the wonders of the 7-inch record at that point, as my collecting habit had been kick started by my mum and dad many years before with ‘The Old Chisum Trail/Red River Valley’ by Roy Rogers, which was the first record I had bought for me. It was actually a red vinyl 78rpm with a magnificent picture of Roy and his trusty white steed Trigger adorning the front. He stuffed him, you know. Stop sniggering at the back, it’s true. When his four-legged friend passed on to the great pasture in the sky, Roy had him stuffed and placed in the Roy Rogers museum. I wonder if a similar thought flitted across the mind of Roy’s wife Dale when the singing cowboy joined the ranks of the ghost riders in the sky… doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it…

My mum and dad both loved music, so we had plenty of records around the house. My Aunt Catherine also had a great love of music, and, being single, a bit more in the way of disposable income so she had a pretty awesome collection mostly stored at my nana’s house, where the aforesaid Dansette also resided. My nana was another music lover, her tastes mainly being for ballad singers. She was particularly fond of Ken Dodd (he actually had a very ‘country’ style catch in his voice… ‘Tears’ showcases that to great effect. Bet you never thought I’d admit to being a bit of a Ken Dodd connoisseur, eh?) and Englebert Humperdinck, whose name she steadfastly pretended she could not pronounce. “J, would you please put that lovely Dinglebert record on.” she would ask, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, and D.J. J would oblige, and then pretend to do the Last Waltz with his nana around the tiny sitting room.

That selfsame tiny sitting room (we actually always called it the living room) in a remote northern Scottish town was the scene of many Saturday afternoon rave-ups, when my sisters, cousins, nana and I would enjoy the latest discs bought by my Aunt by frugging enthusiastically around the tiny space to them before inevitably collapsing in a heap when the needle hit the run-out groove. The best collapsing in a heap record was undoubtedly ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’ by Georgie Fame, where we would all re-enact the bullet-riddled end of the doomed lovers in a gloriously over the top manner which William Penn’s gore fest movie could only hint at…

Writing this the memories are coming thick and fast… working in the music business for over twenty five years had somewhat dulled my visceral reaction to music, but it’s been a long time and now with the benefit of some hindsight I can clearly recall the thrill engendered by those black circles of plastic, the differing weights, smells, some in picture sleeves, some Extended Plays (the four track E.P.’s) in their heavy laminated sleeves, like mini-albums, the band names, which seemed to precisely invoke the music lurking in the spiral groove… space rock from The Tornados, psychedelic music hall from The Kinks, the jazz tinged cool of Manfred Mann… I could go on and on and on, and I will, but… later!

As I grew older, DJ’ing took precedence over dancing, and I began to really notice the elements of a record that excited me, the beat, the bass line, the sound of the voices and instruments – particularly guitar, the melody, harmony… the best 45’s were an encapsulation of feelings that could be sadness, joy, happiness, loneliness or anything else, delivered in a sonic mélange that took you on a whirlwind rollercoaster ride of emotions, a journey that lasted from the moment the needle dropped into the vinyl until the click of the tone arm moving back into place, ready for the next one… S’cool days, indeed…

During my late teens and early twenties, on visits to Edinburgh I would frequent the ‘Hot Licks’ record shop in Cockburn Street, a very ‘studenty’ cobbled wynd near the castle. In addition to having the world’s coolest carrier bags (the Stones tongue logo) they often stocked limited copies of obscure US import singles, LP’s and other cool stuff, and it was there that I bought such essential items as copies of ‘Punk’ and ‘Trouser Press’ magazines, ‘Go Girl Crazy’ by the Dictators, ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ by Television, ‘The Summer Sun EP’ by Chris Stamey and the absolutely bonkers but truly wonderful ‘Bangkok’ by Alex Chilton. I also bought ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, Bruce Springsteen, on the day of its release from Hot Licks, and I recall how sombre and low key Bruce appeared on the sleeve, a bleary eyed leather-jacketed Al Pacino look-alike, tired and bruised from the slings and arrows that outrageous fortune had sent his way since the success of ‘Born to Run’. It very quickly became my favourite Springsteen album, and has remained in that lofty position (albeit challenged by ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Nebraska’ from time to time) until now.

The surprise challenger is the new Bruce album, ‘Working on a Dream.’ It’s his best collection of pop songs in a long time, emerging from the dark post 9-11 clouds that have weighed heavy on his last few albums, choosing instead to be funny, happy, joyous, just a little bit serious, and, for Bruce, pretty experimental with the sonic palette. In feel, it touches base with the exuberant and untrammeled early works, ‘Greetings…’ and ‘The Wild, the Innocent…’ and his recent ‘Night with the Jersey Devil’ Halloween freebie whilst also letting a great deal of very Brian Wilson style light into his arrangements, which have in the past been occasionally just a little too dense for their own good. It’s also, on occasion, as pleasingly daft as a semi-psychedelic brush. Which is also good. Very good. Try the bizarre eight-minute opening epic ‘Outlaw Pete’ (‘…at six months old he’d done three months in jail…’)or ‘Queen of the Supermarket’ with its killer pay-off line for a taster of some of the new directions (whistling and backwards guitars?) followed by The Boss…

The Other Boss, little O, has also been making his musical mark lately. Daddy finally got around to buying and putting strings onto his customized mini-guitar (with retro Cowboy illustrations… yippee-ay-yeh! The influence of a John Fogerty video makes itself felt…), so the O is now happily thrashing away and experimenting with his six-string sidekick. He seems at the moment to be partial to the Syd Barrett/Blixa Bargeld school of using various implements to modify the sonic output and of course he has a somewhat maverick approach to the niceties of tuning, but, hey, he’s only two… Hopefully he’ll soon be confident enough to pop a couple of doors up and jam with our new neighbour in Villa Domino (the very Bond-like residence which has sprung up in our street recently), who adds a wonderful dream-like ambience to our hot weekend days by sitting up on his balcony as the late afternoon sun brings a fuzzy orange glow to the surrounding buildings and tootles away on what sounds like a tenor sax. His repertoire is limited but appropriate, and it often adds just the right amount of mellow to an already laid back day…

Tuesday night A and I managed to have a quiet, civilized and entirely uninterrupted evening repast in the oasis of calm that is Commé a la Maison. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, the little O was back home, safely causing havoc with his ever patient Aunt Packdey. Dear A wisely went home after our leisurely meal, leaving yours truly to venture out again with a colleague from Laos in search of LOUD ROCK MUSIC. During the course of a lengthy evening that did indeed lead to LOUD ROCK MUSIC (namely Zeppelin Rock Bar, where Jun, who never ceases to amaze me with his musical selections, played some Rick Derringer! Yay! Then on to Memphis (bar, not city) where, fortified with copious amounts of my good friend San Miguel I assaulted the sensitive ears of the hardy few with renditions of ‘classic’ rock tunes accompanied by the house band. My head and throat really hurt the next day…) we visited the Meta House gallery where we bumped into Tim Page, the iconic war (and peace) photographer. Well, to be honest, we didn’t really ‘bump’ into him, we kind of stalked him. Tim is a patron of the organisation I work for, and on guessing he might well be in town to attend the opening of an exhibition of his work we thought we could pin him down to ask him for some favours. Ever the gentleman, he duly obliged, and we spent an hour or so chatting to him. He now feels closer than ever to finally solving the riddles surrounding the disappearance of his close friends Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, and is returning to Cambodia next week to continue his quest for the truth, with, he hopes, some resolution and closure in sight. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, but he’s a remarkable man, in many ways the Keith Richards of photojournalism, yet infinitely humble though charged with an intense inner flame, whose pictures of the mayhem and destruction wreaked by war are a frozen reminder of the insanity that humans continually perpetuate seemingly without ever learning that it is really not a good thing…

Time for a change of subject… let us muse briefly on tropical torpor. We are definitely moving into the hot season now, the temperature is rising and life is moving ever so slightly slower than it did before. Weddings are on the increase (we have been invited to three in the last two weeks) and so is the prevalence of that massively popular Khmer outdoor sport, spot squeezing. On every corner one can expect to see someone, more often than not a Tuk-Tuk or moto driver, bent in intense concentration in front of a wing mirror, squeezing and popping for all they are worth… ah, life’s small pleasures. Nose-picking, nit-picking, zit zapping, spitting, urination and spot squeezing are all publicly paraded on the thoroughfares of this fair city. Still, better out than in, as my dad used to say…
… and so the days crawl by here in the Kingdom of Cambodia, counting slowly down to the summer holidays in a lazy haze. I venture that Ray Davies would love it here, given how many Kinks songs mention either sitting, or the sun, or both… perhaps I ought to rechristen my current domicile the Kinkdom of Cambodia?

Now there’s a thought…

‘I’m just sittin’ in the midday sun
Just soaking up that currant bun
With no particular purpose or reason
Just sittin’ in the midday sun.’

‘Sitting in the Midday Sun’ The Kinks

ciao, bambinos

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Hey Porter!

So, Porter Waggoner has died. He is credited (mostly by himself, it has to be said) as being the man who brought Dolly Parton to prominence. Prominence and Dolly Parton… what thoughts pass fleetingly through the mind, dear reader… send them away, they have little place in this particular missive. His rhinestone-encrusted besuited frame topped by the strange inverted triangle of his head and his extremely large ears (hang on… isn’t it strange that many male country singers – and Bryan Ferry – have larger than average ears…) are etched in my memory through the courtesy of RCA Camden and their range of budget LP’s, as sold in Woolies and as bought in large quantities by my Mum and Dad. We had several of their duet LP’s, and the material on those was pretty much your average (!) tearjerking country balladry, songs of orphans freezing to death in the snow, life’s great tragedies and of decent god-fearin’ folks snatched from the warm bosom of life way before their time. Classic stuff. Hallmark was another great label for country vinyl. Patsy Cline was a favourite in our house. My sister Pam can do an uncanny Patsy Cline impression. I really, really liked Patsy (and the Hank’s – Williams, Snow and Locklin. I found Red Sovine just a little too much to take, Jim Reeves – mmm, good singer but too much of a smoothie, although Bimbo’s a great tune… mind you, so is ‘This world is not my home’… time for a re-appraisal, I think…). I loved Marty Robbins, particularly ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’, home to the wondrous ‘El Paso’ and ‘Big Iron’, and anything by Johnny Cash (both CBS orange label – a tad more expensive!) and though I would never admit this to my Dad, I really liked his other main man, United Artist’s very own Slim Whitman. I think it was the fact that so many of his recordings sounded really spooky to me, like spirit messages filtered through a medium locked in an echo chamber with a steel guitar, and he looked amazing, really plastic and always soft focus, like an early version of Max Headroom. Boy, did I have an active imagination as a kid.

My introduction to country music came courtesy of my parents, when as a young child (maybe four or five years old) I received a red vinyl 78 of Roy Rogers singing ‘Red River Valley’, backed with ‘The Old Chisum Trail’ (my middle name is Chisholm, and my dear Nana’s family were Chisholm’s who had many émigrés in their history, so this set off fanciful flights of imagining about their role in the Wild West which I have recently found are much more accurate than I could have ever dreamed.). It was encased in an incredible picture sleeve, with Roy mounted on Trigger, his trusty steed (many years before he would literally mount Trigger – titter ye not, I mean upon a wooden plinth, stuffed and on display at his ranch) on the front. If Otis is the whitest baby in the world, then there is no doubt that Trigger was the whitest horse in the world. Even whiter than the White Horse whiskey horse, or the White Horses from the eponymous 1960’s children’s TV serial. Sorry, I’m diverging and digressing again. Lets get back on track… Roy Rogers… I really liked both songs, and at that time my heroes were pretty much either cowboys or spacemen, or my Dad, who I kind of imagined was Michael Rennie playing the role of a cowboy spaceman… which I suppose he did in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ … now there’s an obscure reference to something coming up in this blog very shortly…

TV was full of cowboys, and my favourite was Ty Hardin from Wells Fargo. Ty didn’t go much for shootin’, oh no, he favoured pistol-whipping the bad guys, and usually being pistol-whipped in return. This was very unfortunate for my younger sister Vanda, who found herself the recipient of a particularly vicious pistol-whipping from her beloved big brother, copying old Ty. I don’t recall the exact details, but my mother remembers my disbelief that poor Vanda didn’t just get up right away, rub her head and clamber back into the saddle and ride off into the sunset, as Ty was wont to do, but had to suffer mild concussion courtesy of the Milky Bar Kid (me).

All this reminiscing is getting me misty-eyed with nostalgia, so while we’re on a roll, let’s carry on. Dan Dare, Yuri Gagarin (I far preferred the Russian cosmonauts to their American counterparts – Gagarin seemed such a cheeky and likeable chappie – and Russian spacecraft were way more interesting, almost Heath-Robinson-ish in appearance. Remember Lunakhod, the Russian Moon-rover? I swear that was a bathtub with wheels on it…), Quickdraw McGraw, Robert McGregor from across the road and his huge collection of glossy music magazines, so many, many formative influences… but let us fast forward to the point where my burgeoning obsession with rock music collided with the realization that country music was a very real part of the whole kaleidoscopic jigsaw… step up and take a bow Mr. Alan J ‘Perce’ McPherson, the man who introduced me to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Perce was a little older than my friends and I, and he had a record collection full of many strange and wondrous things, but none more wondrous than his Creedence albums. He also became the drummer in our first band, Paranoya.

We started as a ‘front-room’ band in my friend Michael’s house, before graduating to ‘garage band’ when we began to get a little too loud. I suppose we were a very early example of art-rock as we used found or everyday objects as part of our equipment. Michael’s mum’s big radio was our PA system; his front room lamp stand became the microphone stand. Guitar amplifiers were built from mail-order electronic kits (Kids! Why grow giant mushrooms in your basement when you can build your very own ‘Eagle’ crackling high voltage electric shock dispenser that also functions as a signal amplifier for only £8-3/4d!!), speakers resembling inverted Kleenex dispensers were constructed from Planika. Our bass player’s mum and dad obviously had more faith in him as they bought him a guitar, amplifier (15 watts! Yay!) and a strap, bag and cable (ironically he went on to be the bassist in a real country band…) I didn’t have a guitar at that point, or indeed a purpose to my life, so I drew the short straw of vocalist, which was a bit strange as I was at that time chronically shy. (Which is not to say that I am not still chronically shy, because I am, albeit in a slightly more extrovert way.) One of our original two guitarists who had previously shown little interest in music didn’t like the idea of being left out of this latest digression so he toddled off down to the Music Shop, bought a guitar and a copy of Bert Weedon’s legendary ‘Play In A Day’ and stayed up all night, effectively learning to play in half-a-day, returning the next day to stun us with his new-found expertise. As I recall, the first song we practiced (nobody ‘rehearsed’ in those far-off days) was a song by the Kinks called ‘Took my baby home’, which I believe none of us had actually heard at that time, we learned it straight from a songbook. Some years later I did get round to hearing the original, and our version was pretty close.

Well, reasonably close…

I wish I could find a set list, as my memory of those days is pretty hazy now, but I’m pretty sure we did more than a few Creedence numbers – ‘Don’t look now’ for certain, maybe ‘Effigy’… ‘Travelin’ Band’, ‘Lodi’, perhaps ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (also known as Bare Moon Horizon… does that mean anything to anyone out there reading this??). I think Michael may have made some reel-to-reel recordings of the garage sessions, but he may well be sitting on these (if they still exist) in the unlikely event of any of that little group of people becoming famous for whatever reason… (News just in – Thurso man blown up in Cambodian minefield – Legendary Garage Sessions tape to be released!) .
Jebus, I’ve been rambling a bit, haven’t I? I’ve completely lost track, so let me finish with a recommendation. Buy ‘Revival’.

Must admit, first time I heard the single (well, actually saw the video for it– I do hope John is being ironic, though I would kill for the painted western acoustic one of the kids is playing… ), I wasn’t sure… Now I am. Absolutely. The real John C Fogerty is back with a vengeance. It’s simple and direct, maudlin in parts (like the best country music), and it rocks like an unhinged mountain man high on moonshine driving his truck at 110 the wrong way down the interstate highway in others… and dammit, yes, it really sounds like Creedence. The last time Mr. Fogerty released anything this consistently great was around the time my Dad died, so the memories that flood through me when I listen to this incredible album are tinged with a little bit of that ole country sadness. Like we all do with the people who matter and who have gone from our lives, I really wish my Dad was still around. I would love to tell him honestly how much I really secretly liked his music, and the incredible effect it would go on to have on my life, but I do have some amazing memories.

We once went to see Carl Perkins and Bo Diddley play… I’ll never forget looking around during Bo’s set to see my Dad grinning from ear to ear and almost bopping around with the sheer joy of the music. Music is all about moments, and in that moment on the stage it was country meeting it’s best buddy, rock and roll, and up in the stalls my dad and I realizing that we weren’t really as different as we thought we were after all…

…so this one’s for you, Dad

Keep on chooglin’…