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…

red-headed stranger

You may well (indeed almost certainly) have noticed that the titles of these blogs often coincide with the titles of some well known songs. On occasion there is some diversion into music discussion within the blog with an often at best tenuous link to that song. Yes, I freely admit to being one of those terrible I-think-I–know-it-all people like Mark Ellen or David Hepworth. That’s why we have magazines like The Word and Mojo and television programmes like ‘Later with Jools Holland’. It’s for people like me who publicly scoff at people like them but are much more like them than we would care to admit. I am so bad that Ani insisted on one of our wedding vows being that I could only bore her with little known but useless facts about the wonderful world of popular music once a day, a vow that I now publicly confess to breaking, yes, you’ve guessed, on a daily basis.

So, to ‘Red Headed Stranger’, the title of this latest blog (though I do think that ‘blag’, or even ‘blah’ is probably a more accurate description of these rants). A Willie Nelson tune. So, are we headed for a digression into country music once more? Are we going to off on a tangent to discuss the outlaws of country music, those maverick souls who bent the boundaries of the rollin’ redneck prairies? No. Will we wander into the fabulous world of those red-headed strangers who have brought beauty and mystery into our lives, the Rita Hayworth’s, the Dylan Thomas’s, the Ben Sheridan’s…?
Well, sort of.

Close your eyes tightly, click your heels together three times and repeat over and over in a very loud voice ‘there’s no place like Phnom Penh, there’s no place like Phnom Penh…’ and we will travel back in time to last Saturday in Phnom Penh, when the little O and I were in the house together whilst mummy Ani was out visiting her Thai friends in street 240 who give her a ‘glamorous Hollywood starlet of the 1950’s’ wash and blow dry on a regular basis (and give me an ‘0h God what can we do with this but pretend to snip a little and push those wispy bits around to cover the wide open spaces’ haircut on a slightly less regular basis). We were getting ready to go out and I had showered as Otis played in the bedroom, making contented little ‘broom-broom’ noises and seemingly quite absorbed in whatever new skill he had developed in the last few moments. As previously mentioned I am now severely follicly challenged, but that did not prevent me from picking up mummy A’s hairbrush and running it jauntily through the few remaining strands whilst slipping into a nostalgic reverie for the days when I would have given Rick Wakeman a run for the money in the ‘that man is wearing Harmony hairspray – no he isn’t. Yes, he is!’ beautiful blonde tresses stakes. Snapping out of that bit of foolish reminiscence (but pausing to remind you that one of the truly great organ solos of all time can be heard on ‘Roundabout’ by Yes, played by that very same blonde bombshell. Rick Wakeman, that is. Not me. Obviously. I can’t play organ, but boy can I bore with useless information…) I scooped the O up, tucked him under one arm and carried him down the stairs. He giggled as we went, looking up at me with a naughty boy grin spread across his cherubic features. At the foot of the stairs we paused, ostensibly to play peek- a – boo with his reflection in the large mirror at the bottom of the staircase, but really so I could have one last check of my rapidly fading grandeur before heading out into the unforgiving blazing sunshine.

Jebus! I nearly dropped the by now hysterically chortling O as I gazed at the red headed stranger who faced me in the mirror. No…not even red. What little of my former tonsorial glory that remained was now crimson. Crimson and erect, like a pathetic middle aged attempt at a mangy Mohican, a Kings Road original gone to seed that not even a hopelessly myopic Japanese tourist would bother to photograph…I am so sorry God, please forgive me for criticising the UK Subs in that last blog, I didn’t mean it, I take it back, please restore what little dignity I have, please…please…

Thankfully it was not a punishment for excessive sarcasm handed down by God. It was a punishment for not paying attention, handed down by little O assisted by Max Factor. As I was trilling tuneless versions of various 70’s hits from KC and the Sunshine Band through the Sex Pistols and even some Fox (remember them?) and swallowing mouthfuls of soapy water in the process, little O had been smearing mummy’s lipstick liberally over the hairbrush in preparation for the grand humiliation of daddy that would surely result. I had to wash my remaining hair a total of 6 times to remove all trace of the caked on crimson, although my scalp remained tinged with red for several days after…

I am writing this in the cool (ha ha) of a winters evening in England, as we have flown back to the Yoo-Kay for the festive season. Our flight was a little fraught, as the young master decided that if he was to be put out by overnight travel on a jumbo jet, then everyone else in economy class should suffer also. That meant incessant high pitched screaming coupled with frequent attempts to crawl over under sideways down into every nook and cranny on the plane. Nappy changing during turbulence is also not recommended, although he seemed to enjoy the many push that-pull this-turn that-press this delights of an aircraft toilet cubicle more than most of the toys we have bought him in these last few months. Efforts to calm him by feeding proved mostly ineffectual. One cabin staff member, a very smiley Thai woman, seemed to completely fail to understand my accent as on each occasion that I asked for ‘some baby milk, please’ or ‘some breakfast cereal, please’, or ‘a sandwich, please’ she shook her head affirmatively then offered me some Singha beer. Maybe she just expects every middle-aged man who wanders up to the galley at three in the morning to be looking for beer… anyway, the flight was hell but we are here now and girding our loins for the coming Christmas extravaganza. We went into Basingstoke briefly this afternoon, but everywhere was monumentally busy with incredible queues, and everyone just looked so wholeheartedly miserable that the experience was probably marginally worse than being tied into one’s seat for every date of the Black Lace reunion tour then made to buy the T-shirt afterwards. And wear it.

Still, mustn’t grumble. ‘Strictly Come Dancing – the Final!’ is on telly tomorrow. It’s so good to be back in a country whose cultural heritage has inspired the world…

As this is probably the last blog I will write before Christmas strikes (I’m not sure if that is really the appropriate terminology to use, but what is appropriate about Christmas anyway? Baby Jebus hardly gets a look in on his birthday these days…), may this eternal Ebenezer Scrooge wish all his readers a big ‘bah, humbug!’ and truly a very Merry Christmas and if I don’t blog before then, a very Happy New Year 2008 to you all.

‘I mean it, ma-a-a-n!’