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…

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Rip It Up

…And start again. As I get older (losing my hair, many years from now, will you still be sending me a Valentine, birthday greet – stop it! Be still, my Beatling heart…) I start to have so many more of them. Preconceptions, that is. Rip them up and start again, or at the very least leave them at the door, that will be my new philosophy.

On Saturday we had a somewhat cultural day, firstly visiting the International School of Phnom Penh International Day. Ani wore her Sari, Otis was decked out in his wee kilt with Sutherland Clan crested kilt pin, and I looked like an American. That is, until I took the Stetson off, then I just looked like a white male, 50-ish, medium build, receding graying hair, no distinguishing features… ‘He just looks like any outa town rube’ Kincaid sneered as he crudely rolled the body over with the toe of his badly scuffed boot. Brett stopped and lowered the camera from his eyes which narrowed with disdain as he squinted at Kincaid. ‘Never forget, Mr. Kincaid, that this was someone’s son, maybe someone’s father… we should show some respect, no matter how hardened we’ve become down the years…’ Kincaid shrugged, embarrassed at this outburst from the normally reticent photographer, and spat his chewing tobacco from the side of his mouth into the same dirt where John Doe had struggled for his last gasps of air…

Sorry, got sidetracked there briefly. Yes, in the riot of colour that characterized International Day I was a mild protest of drabness. However, the day, or rather the morning we spent there, was extremely entertaining and well worth the $5 entry fee. (Note to self; I’m becoming just a little obsessed with vfm these days… a worrying trend – gone are the carefree days when I would go out and splash $10 on trivialities…) The food was good (excellent somosas!) and the performances were exemplary. Ani’s class did her proud in their gosh-gee-whiz-aren’t-they-cute way, by performing a very strange piece about hats and monkeys. Unfortunately I missed the apparent highlight, as I was informed by Ani, which was three (female) senior students performing a hula dance. Apparently every male in the audience resembled the big bad wolf in that old Betty Boop Little Red Riding Hood cartoon, eyes out on stalks and tongues dragging on the ground. At that exact time my eyes were also on stalks and my tongue dragging on the ground in the International Food room, where I had just encountered the Belgian chocolate display next to the New Zealand chocolate cake…

Otis drew his usual admiring glances and was his usual charming self as we flitted from country stall to country stall. The face of the woman in the room dedicated to India was a picture as I informed her of Otis’ Indian heritage. You could read her mind ‘… this man is crazy; he comes in here with the whitest baby in the world and expects me to believe that the child is part Indian…?’ So we did the rounds, nodded and smiled, piled as much food as we could under the buggy then rode off into the mid-day sun…

We did a little shopping in the afternoon, going to the Russian market to buy some winter clothing for Otis. The temperature has dropped to around 20º in the evenings now, and is hovering around 30º during the days so we thought it time to get him some long sleeved woolens and mittens and scarves to ward off frostbite. Ha ha ha. No, but we are returning to dear old blighty soon, and it is apparently a bit chilly around those parts, so time to stock up on the winter woolies. That done, we went off to the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) so I could finish typing up my dispatch to send it out with the Reuters journalist on the last chopper before the sun set and the rebels mounted their assault on the Palace under cover of darkness… Or alternatively I could have a Tiger beer and a poke of chips. I settled for the alternative. It’s hard to imagine what places like the FCC must have been like ten or fifteen years ago. Probably pretty horrible actually, bursting at the seams with gung-ho foreign correspondents and their ever expanding egos. As a younger man, I used to imagine myself one day having an ‘Our Man in Havana’ type existence, rushing about in a hot place in a crumpled linen suit mopping my brow with a monogrammed handkerchief and masterminding incredible feats of espionage in a kind of bumblingly endearing James Bond manner, whilst confounding those damned journalists at every step. Pretty much what I do now actually, albeit more in the manner of the drunken elderly ex-consul lampooned by The Fast Show…

I had noted earlier in the week that the First International Rock Festival of Phnom Penh was to take place in the Titanic (!) restaurant on 1st December. And it was free. Major VFM, no less. The cynic in me leapt at the opportunity to spend some time guffawing at what the First International Rock Festival of Phnom Penh would present for our edification. We were promised a German band called Diva International, fronted by a Debbie Harry type singer and influenced by Bowie and Iggy, a ‘nylon punk’ band (!) from Thailand called Bear Garden, and PP’s own Thom Thom (or Josie and the Pussycats as I call them). Oh boy… a German punk band called Diva International… the laugh-o-meter was cranked up and ready to go! I used to be a big fan of German music of the early 70’s – I would go round to my friend Eric’s house (where and how are you now, Mr. Law?) to listen to Aamon Duul II and Can and Neu and Tangerine Dream. These albums were serious pieces of work, with fantastic cover art and great titles – ‘ Dance of the Lemmings’, ‘Tago Mago’, ‘Monster Movie’, ‘Phaedra’… then came the wonderful Nina Hagen, eventually she gave way to the still tolerable Nena and her 99 Red Balloons and then, as far as I was concerned, it all went wrong. It seemed as if most of Europe didn’t quite get punk right, and Germany were no exception. Die Totden Hosen. Oh Holy Jebus, somebody please tell them that the UK Subs are not the kind of role models to build a career on… so German rock music and yours truly drifted apart at that point, until…

…now! It’s 8pm in the quite wonderfully but bafflingly named Titanic Restaurant (considering it is perched on a jetty at the riverside – visions of the whole shebang sliding slowly into the dark waters as the bands play on swim before my eyes ), and I have just missed Thom Thom. Not to worry, they are playing an acoustic gig later this week so opportunity to catch up then, but as I arrive a rap duo, a young man and an older man, both Cambodian, are performing a rap about genocide to the smallish crowd of mostly German expats. Some people are enjoying a Saturday evening meal, apparently oblivious to the frenetic rapping and scratching coming from the dynamic duo on stage, who I find out are DJ Sday and his young protégé, MC Curly. This is their last number for the moment, then Curly introduces Thai duo Bear Garden, a young woman playing bass and singing and a young man playing a vintage Casio mini keyboard. They’re pretty good, a little like a cut price B52’s crossed with Sadistic Mika Band ,and I find myself doing some on the spot restrained Dad dancing to their plinky-plonk rhythms and bass popping. Good stuff. Another rap from Curly, who is now genuinely amazed at the gathering crowd, and then he announces Diva International. Nothing happens for about five minutes, then the black clad rhythm section amble on, look about them a bit then walk off stage again. Perhaps they are a little upset at the neon sign above the stage that somewhat erratically flashes the words ‘Titanic Band’ and variations thereof above their heads in electric blue. A young man with dark curly hair and a permanently worried expression is obviously the band’s gopher, and he rushes over to fix whatever has been displeasing them so much that they have telepathically communicated it to him before retreating. They return, and now they are four, skinny guys dressed in black with low-slung guitars. Where is Debbie Harry soundalike? Utilizing the old ‘dramatic pause before entrance’ routine perhaps? Well, no. It’s clear that as the band start up that there is no female front person, just the skinniest of the skinny foursome with low slung Telecaster untouched round his neck, see-sawing his microphone and stand up and down in the grip of first number nerves, cigarette smouldering in his left fist and laconic Lou Reed/David Bowie vocal tics firmly in place. They are good. I eat my thoughts. They are really, really good. All you could really fault them on would be the horrendously cheesy between song patter. Every cliché is being expounded, and I don’t really think it’s worth wasting your or my time repeating them. Come on, put your hands in the air and ROCK AND ROLL if you agree with me. Are you having a good time reading this? I can’t hear you… come on, are you having a good time??!! Hello World, are you ready to rock tonight? One, two – more monitor… Yeah! You’re the best crowd who has read my blog ever! I love you! Goodnight! I’ll be back!!

There is one deeply surreal moment when the singer shouts from the stage ‘hey…. anyone here tonight from… Bristol?’ but all becomes clear when moments later they lurched into a growlingly electric version of Portishead’s “Glory Box’. Curly Roadie is kept endlessly busy attending to the whims of the singer, who cannot plug his guitar in, light a cigarette, pick up a plectrum, turn up his amp or indeed wipe sweat from his own brow without help, but that’s ROCK AND ROLL isn’t it, and he is forgiven as they are so good. It’s a short set, but they win two encores and get MC Curly and Roadie Curly to join them in a scrappy yet exciting jam at the end, and their whole veneer of distant cool and arch pretension has long since dissolved in the sweat lashing from them. I congratulate the singer as they come off stage, telling him how much I enjoyed their performance and how good the cover of ‘Glory Box’ was, and he puts me exactly in my place and reinforces that I need to really keep an open mind when it comes to perceptions or preconceptions about music (or indeed anything) – ‘Thank you’ he says ‘ it’s really difficult to do this when it’s not your own language’…

On another subject, Orange Juice (spot the easy connection) once had a whimsical wee ditty called ‘you old eccentric’, and thinking about that got me wondering, where are the eccentrics of my generation? Maybe I’m not thinking quite hard enough, but have my generation not spawned any George Mellys, Ivor Cutlers or Spike Milligans? The only one worthy that I can think of right now to follow in those hallowed footsteps would be old irascible John Lydon, but there must be more – write in with your ideas, and we’ll put together a list of current great eccentrics to give us hope and inspiration when the real world becomes a tad too crazy for our own good.

In the meantime, be good, clever or both at the same time (sound of sock full of custard hitting brick wall).

Thank you and goodnight from Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia.