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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See No Evil

‘Television, come go to my head. ‘
I’ve had a bit of a week health wise, first few days enveloped by a sort of flu that attacked both head and throat with equal ferocity (‘it’s the wind…’ my Cambodian colleagues assure me. The wind runs pretty close to insects and mice as the cause of all ailments round these parts), second part of the week in the vice-like grip of unrelenting and extreme back pain that led to a clinic visit of equal parts hilarity and anguish, doubled over like a rusty penknife and actually completely unable to move on several occasions (‘okay, thank you – please come down from the couch now.’ ‘I’m really sorry, I can’t…) . Hilarity when the cheerily efficient nurse who had watched sympathetically as I shuffled agonizingly into the consulting room and maneuvered myself with extreme difficulty into the chair had finished taking pulse, BP etc. then had turned to me and said ‘so what is the problem today, James?’.
However, every dark cloud has a shiny lining, and my enforced stasis has led to an enhanced level of viewing pleasure which has gone beyond the simple delights of the Cambodian karaoke channel and it’s endless variations on the theme of one man/two women, two men/one woman and a tree (or trees) to furtively lurk behind that impart a Zen-like quality to the domestic tragedies unfolding before our eyes, and into the realms of daytime TV with it’s staggeringly wonderful variations on ancient western concepts such as ‘It’s a Knockout’ , which I swear to whichever god is listening is actually hosted by the Khmer equivalents of Stuart Hall and Eddie Waring and is conducted not only on the cheap, but on the ‘gor-blimey guv, I can do that for you for five quid and still give you enough change for a night out in the Long Beach Navy Beer Garden’ cheap. Yes, sets – who needs ‘em. Throw up a scaffolding stage, a couple of banners strung along the back , and there you go… costumes? Nah… lets gaffa tape some tyre inner tubes together and there we go, costume and safety equipment in one fell swoop. This untrammeled ingenuity also spreads to the games themselves, which appear to utilize whatever resource happens to be around. I never thought I would get so excited over watching individuals attempting to lasso empty Coke bottles lying on their side and lift them into an upright position… The entertainment break is provided by a (presumably) up and coming pop star, who does not even get the dubious accolade of her own dodgy dancers (the dancers who accompany most televised popular music on TV here make Dougie Squires and the Young Generation from ‘Seaside Special’ look like the Bolshoi – ask your mum if you don’t know who I’m talking about. On second thoughts, ask your granny…), no, she has to make do with the multi-tasking crew of the show, who look bewilderingly at each other as they try to figure out should they be putting their right or left leg in/out and shaking it all about at this point or not…
Cambodian TV even has it’s very own ‘Ready, Steady, Cook’, sponsored by a paper towel manufacturer who also provide the prize, which is…. Wait for it… a double pack of kitchen roll! In a sparkly bag! Truly, the excitement engendered by this glittering prize drives the contestants into flights of feverish culinary ingenuity, which in turn cause the judges to effuse apoplectically over the gastronomic ‘coups-de-grace’ administered by the participants.
Well no, sorry. They appear to cook exactly the same very basic shrimp curry, which the judges pull faces over and make (I assume from the expressions of distaste on their faces) sarcastic comments about, before awarding the first prize to… both of them!
I’d love to see that Anthony Worrall-Thompson face them, I have to say…
The highlight of last night, which I have to confess it took me some time to figure out was actually what it was, had to be, wait for it, Miss Bridgestone 2008. I did briefly ponder that perhaps the ‘It’s a Knockout’ crews reliance on inflatable friends had prompted some kind of ongoing rubber mania in the country, as the opening credits were a cornucopia of gratuitous tyre shots and footage of immaculately coiffed feisty women burning rubber as they screeched to a halt on brand new Yamaha motorbikes, but no, it gradually became clear that we were in the presence of one of yer actual beauty contests. Obviously, I thought smugly, no one had told the organizers of this glittering TV event that beauty contests are actually illegal in Cambodia – maybe they thought that the PM would turn his blind eye to the sight of a Khmer beauty proudly wearing an inner tube sash and with a hubcap diamond star halo on her head. Of course it soon became abundantly clear that this was not actually a beauty contest, but for reasons probably as obscure as the national treasure status bestowed on Norman Wisdom in Albania, a tribute contest. And, from what I can gather, a tribute to Dick Emery. Specifically, a tribute to the ‘oooh, you-are-awful…. But-I-like-you!’ character of his that was so much a part of British Saturday evening light entertainment in the 1970’s. The contestants had obviously done their research by scouring the Russian Market for every Dick Emery DVD or videotape extant, and I have to say that they had done that research very well, as almost without exception they had the lurching high-heeled gait and exaggerated arm movements of Mr. Emery’s character off to a tee…
… and the judges? Well, they must have hot-footed it over from the ‘RSC’ studio and the shrimp curry, as it seemed to be exactly the same scions of sarcasm present and correct, not even bothering to hide their increasingly arching eyebrows or ‘oh-my-god, look at the size of her…’ comments from the watching millions (hundreds?).
I have to say that thankfully I cannot actually tell you who rose to the exalted position of Miss Bridgestone 2008, as common sense and little O took over. He took advantage of my restricted mobility and quickly commandeered the remote control, switching over to the vastly improved production values of the Nat Geo channel. Classy, but no fun…
Oh yes. Television. They were a good band. Actually, they were what I meant to write about back at the beginning of this particular blog, but I got a little sidetracked. Tom Verlaine had a rather unique guitar style, and that brings me back to Cambodian television again. The CCTV channel, which shows back to back DVD’s all day (bootleg commercial versions – often you have to sit bemused watching the menu or title screen as the engineer figures out which icon he should click on) went slightly more surreal than normal a day or so ago. If there is a lengthy break between full-length features they will often slot in a short excerpt from a music video, which normally is Britney Spears Live or Westlife or some such thing. The other day we were treated to, in no particular order, live sets from Arthur Lee and Love, Edgar and Johnny Winter, and It’s a Beautiful Day. Like, what is happening, man? Stranger and stranger, dudes. I have to confess to really enjoying this unexpected treat, in particular It’s a Beautiful Day and their rendition of ‘White Bird’ , which had pretty much every late 60’s, early 70’s hippy musical excess all present and correct. Long hair? You got it. Red stage lighting? Yep. Hippy chick singing flat backing vocals and ineffectually waving tambourine? Over here, dude! Cameraman fixated on aforesaid hippy chick’s cleavage? That’s awesome, man. Interminable guitar solo? Yeee-ss! Electric violin solo? Hey, like wow!
David La Flamme was the man responsible for the electric violin solo, and some parts of it really reminded me of the playing of guitarist John Cippolina, who had been in San Francisco band Quicksilver Messenger Service. He had also been a particular favourite of Bruce Murray’s back in my record shop days. Bruce was a music obsessive, a baker who perhaps drank a little too much for his own good after his late shifts, but possessor of a huge record collection and a fairly forthright commentator on all things musical. John Cippolina used to bring him very quickly to a state of yeasty frothing that would often scare other customers off, and I recall that when I was attempting to spread the gospel of Television and ‘Marquee Moon’ and I mistakenly likened Tom Verlaine to, in my view, a more disciplined Cippolina that old BM got particularly upset and dragged me across the counter to emphasise that no scruffy New York hippy could ever come close to the SF master of the guitar. Point taken.
I actually went to see Television on their debut tour of the UK in 1977. I had loved the album, with its spikily glacial guitar interplay between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, yet its sense of being real and almost intimate in its recording. Most of that was lost in the vastness of the nearly empty Glasgow Apollo, however ,and they struggled to raise any enthusiasm from what little audience there was dotted around the huge auditorium. They also, as I recall, looked terrified in a rabbits-in-the-headlights manner.
There was still that sense of not-sureness in Scotland as regards punk at the time. Were Television punk? Nobody really knew… it wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. You would have to be superhuman to be able to gob accurately onto anything on that ten-foot high stage. The support band were also from New York, but they had bags of attitude and a mouthy female fronting them who continuously cajoled and swore at us in between the short bursts of trebly bubblegum noise that comprised their set. They certainly had something, did that Blondie…
So lets get back to Television and really what this was all about was just to point anyone who liked the spidery metallic style of Verlaine’s playing in the direction of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter. Her lead guitarist, Phil Wandscher, ex of Whiskeytown (Ryan Adam’s old band), has evolved into a player of Verlaine-like complexity and ingenuity, and has rapidly become one of my favourite guitarists. Jesse Sykes writes songs that seem to exist in a twilight consciousness, sings them in a sibilant half whisper, yet connects directly with the dark and light sides of the soul in a way that reminds me of Tom Waits at his best. Have a listen, she has her own website and a My Space page.
Last week also saw the loss of Rick Wright of Pink Floyd. Rick’s playing brought an indefinable quality to the work of Pink Floyd, his textural colourings are everywhere throughout that incredible body of work and he was also a very gifted songwriter. I didn’t know him, but I will really miss him. I’ll play ‘Summer of ’68’ and remember him…
Off to take my medication now, next time something different, will ease back on the music, I promise…