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!

The English Cold*

Hello again. I have returned.(sound of muffled boos offstage)

Temperatures of -11 across southern England, bloody carnage in Gaza, winter vomiting virus, the credit crunch, the demise of Woolies, MFI, Zavvi and more, 1000 jobs lost at M & S, goodbye to Harold Pinter, Eartha Kitt, Ron Asheton… an alarming number of people thinking Jeremy Clarkson would make a better Prime Minister than the dour Scots incumbent, and most shockingly (for the UK press) no gong for our Brucie (Forsythe, that is – Springsteen is a Yank and doesn’t count)… yes, the family winter holiday in England has been shadowed by some pretty strange and unsettling events in the UK and elsewhere which I have watched with a growing concern that is nevertheless tempered with a distinct feeling of distance… in a few days we return to Phnom Penh and our expat existence, back into the warmth and mild craziness of the city that has been home to us for over three years, away from the freezing fog of gloom that seems to currently envelop the sceptred isle…

Fortunately we have had a wonderful time with our families and friends, and young master O in particular has thoroughly enjoyed the festive season and all its excesses. Many delightful images from these last few weeks crowd my brain and banish the lingering, lurking dark shadows cast by the tabloid grimsheets, the bleak mid-winter pinnacle that was scaled by ‘Eastenders’ (‘Dancing On Ice’ is no longer recommended by the beloved tabloids – whither the Dickensian scenes of yore? “ Oh, Gorblessyew no, no ‘ot chestnuts for me, guvnor… iffen I drop ‘un, me and the missus and kids will fall frew the melted ice…”) and all the other frankly awful programmes that crammed the digital airwaves in the name of entertainment. British television has sunk to new depths of triviality, repetition and crassness, so much so that the endless property and antique programmes that fill the morning (and afternoon) schedules are beacons of old-fashioned family values in a cloying sea of profuse profanity and backstabbing viper-tongued fast-cut mediocrity. No, that last phrase does not refer to the Queen’s Speech. It was the usual ‘aren’t-things-orful-for-one-and-one’s-subjects, but if we all pull together we can get through this (becorse one is just the same as you plebians underneath it all)’ stuff and nonsense. You can’t fool me with all that Helen Mirren smoke and mirrors nonsense, ma’am… also full of smoke and mirrors but the best thing on the X-(mas) box by a haunted-country-house mile was something called Jonathan Creek, starring the mumblingly excellent Alan Davies – it was a good old-fashioned brain-teasing complex whodunnit crossed with a gothic mystery, so let us rejoice just a smidgeon, as all hope for British television may not be lost after all.

Or is it? Smoke and mirrors pretty much summed up the New Year festivities as presented on’t telly also. It seems that the nanny state has decided once and for all that we should not be subject to the sight of drunken revellers drowning in the Trafalgar fountains or spewing over the Royal Mile, but rather we should enjoy an annual incrementally more expensive and destructive firework firefest around the London Eye… wow! After about five minutes the realization dawns that one colourful big bang is pretty much exactly the same as another… never mind, there’s always the bafflingly obtuse Jools Holland and his Hootananny to turn to – this year the audience was again the boringly usual selection of middle-aged ‘celebrities’, mainly unfunny male comedians, that must make up Jools’ drinking buddies, the only real humour coming from this years diva in residence, Duffy, who appeared to have not only ingested rather too much electric soup before raiding what she thought was her wardrobe (but was actually her mum’s lace curtains) but also to have taken several substantial hits of helium prior to performing… the Minnie Mouse revival starts here…

However, the season to be jolly was not all artifice – real joy was to be had from watching little O shuffle wide-eyed through the frosty leaves in the wood behind his grandparent’s home, shout his greetings to Santa up the chimney on Christmas Eve, rip the paper from his presents with exuberant glee on Christmas morning, proudly ride his red tricycle around the tree (with matching feather boa adorning his neck), tuck heartily into his Christmas dinner with lip-smacking relish and then regale us with ribald tales from the playschool as he puffed merrily on a monstrous Cuban cigar and sipped from a large glass of Cognac in the fuzzy ennui post Her Majesties fibfest. Okay, so that last part was also a fib…

It has been heart warming to see how O has again taken to his family in the UK, the strengthened bonds forged during this holiday and it will be really hard for us to say goodbye, as it always is…. Sorry, this is getting a bit maudlin, isn’t it? Let’s lighten up and talk about something cutting edge and, like, relevant to the real world out there. So, who’s going to win Celebrity Big Brother then? Ulrika? Tommy Sheridan? Ooooh, who knows? Who cares? I certainly don’t. I should be given an honorary place on yet another waste of thirty minutes of valuable lifetime, namely BBC 2’s ‘Grumpy Old Men’. Rick Wakeman is on there, and definitively proves on a weekly basis that wearing a sparkly cape and eating curries and drinking beer to rile macrobiotic bandmates in Yes was not his sole contribution toward lightening the burden of humankind through humour. Yes folks, being grumpy can be fun!

Apologies for the lack of Christmas Quiz this year. Couldn’t be bothered, to tell the truth – compiling it would have cut into valuable Celebrations/Toblerone/Quality Street eating time over the holidays. Who knows, I may spring a surprise quiz at some point in the not too far distant future. Or not. We’ll see…

Next blog will be brought to you from the Kingdom of Cambodia, for the time being it’s bye-bye from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland… mind how you go on that ice…

*an album by July Skies – watch this space closely for more effusion on these guys soon…

What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been…

‘and in the end, the love you take
is equal to the love you make’

The Beatles ‘The End’

This is going to be The Last Post from me for the foreseeable future and I really want to talk a bit about music again, despite the fact that, yes, I know I’d promised something a little different for my next blog last time, but of course I’m nothing if not unreliable. So, in an effort to soften the blow of my final blathering I asked my friend Skip if he had anything interesting to share. He’s been writing various bits and pieces over the months with a view to putting together a children’s book of cautionary verse, but we all know he never finishes anything so I’ve managed to persuade him to release one poem to an unsuspecting world. Here follows the sad tale of a little chap who stood out from the rest of the little chaps around him. Suitable for children? You decide…

The Sad T(r)ail of Mollusc Boy

Mollusc boy was different from
The other kids in town
He kept his house upon his back
And always wore a frown
He had no legs to speak of
Just an elongated tail
And everywhere this strange boy went
He left a silver trail

He wandered ‘round the neighbourhood
On paving stones and walls
and left his slimy signature
Wherever he would crawl
His friends (of which there were but few)
Would say (to no avail)
‘please do not crawl across our floor
and leave your sticky trail!’

and so he grew and went away
to where the grass was greener
and got a job (surprised? I was!)
as a high-rise window cleaner
as he could stick to brick or wall
with ease, and lean right over
to polish glass with pail and mop –
for now he was in clover!

But nothing in this world can last
and changes they must come…
poor Mollusc Boy, he lost his job
and boy, was that boy glum
he slithered off into the night
and when the dawn appeared
they found him in a garden quiet
drowned in a pint of beer…

©Skip Cormack 2008. All rights of the author reserved. Please don’t copy or use any part of this without asking me or I’ll get upset and cry.

He’s a strange one, that Skip… anyway, back to music. I’ve only relatively recently realised the power of music. That’s a strange acknowledgement to make, I know, but true. I spent the greater part of my adult life involved in selling, producing and playing music, but always had a kind of selfish approach to it, in that it was just for me or my immediate circle of friends to understand how deeply a particular piece could affect an individual or a group. I scoffed at the statement at the time, but that tree-hugging yoghurt knitter Jon Anderson from Yes probably summed it up pretty well when he said in the booklet accompanying ‘Fragile’

‘Music’s chosen colours move the soul –
War music, Peace music, Love music,
We move to it all.’

As I type this I am listening to Cheb Khaled, the Algerian Rai singer, on my I-pod. I’m not really meant to be, as it should actually be John McLaughlin’s Shakti, but the guy from the CD shop put the wrong CD in the sleeve and… I now have to say, that more than twenty years on, Olaf Cowan, you were right. Olaf was a regular customer who was into all kinds of music, particularly folk and world music (though at that time it wasn’t even called world music) and would often try to get me to listen to some of the artists he liked (Khaled being one) to no avail, as I knew what I liked, and it certainly wasn’t some singer from North Africa who didn’t even sing in English… but I was wrong, and my narrow mind has at last expanded to recognise the worth of more than just skinny white kids with guitars (although they probably will always be my major musical influence).
Some final thoughts and recommendations then, before I fade into the sunset…
sunset… hmmm… I can think of two great contemporary songs about sunset… ‘The Consul at Sunset’, by Jack Bruce (which works in so many ways… bit of a genius, Mr. Bruce) and ‘Sunset’ from Roxy Music’s weary masterpiece, Stranded. The most perfect ennui song ever, bar none, with one of the most evocative opening lines of all time ‘oh, look at the sun, it’s all aglow… slow burning orb, sinking low…’. How I wish I could write like that. Sorry, that was a bit stream of consciousness wasn’t it? That’s how my mind is working at the moment, flitting from thought to thought just like a butterfly, alighting for just a moment then spiraling off into the blue.
Calexico’s new album ‘Carried to Dust’ is going to become a favourite; I can feel it in my bones. It’s low-key, and dusty, and hazy, Cormac McCarthy-ish and a real grower methinks. I love a few tracks off Elbow’s ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, particularly the tracks ‘Mirrorball’ and ‘Grounds for Divorce’ where the album’s title originates. They really remind me of Gabriel-era Genesis, which is no bad thing round my ranch. Epic 45 have been a fixture in my ears for the last couple of months also – their album ‘May Your Heart Be The Map’ is just so evocative of a mythical English summer, all acoustic guitars and hazy samples and church bells and wispy vocals – mind pictures of dappled sunlight through green trees, combined with aural honey for the synapses. The US has responded by bestowing the Gabe Dixon Band, who summon up the ghosts of early Jackson Browne and ‘Madman/Tumbleweed’ era Elton, and wrap it in an album cover that is so 70’s, very American Gothic. I like them a great deal. As usual, there’s oodles (Is that a word? Must ask Skip..) of other stuff out there, but you’re all smart enough to figure that out.

Blogging is pretty much an egocentrical kind of thing, and I suppose I hadn’t thought too much about boredom levels, or levels of possible offence, or other things I should have been thinking of in any audience out there when I write these things. I probably basically just haven’t thought,full stop. I’m afraid I’m totally incapable of writing the diary type of thing that a blog should be, so I’ve decided to knock this on the head for the foreseeable future. For those who are wondering, day to day life is probably pretty much like yours at the moment. We just muddle along, getting things right and wrong and steering a middle path most of the time.

It’s been fun being Lost in Space – maybe one day I’ll fire up the supersonic rocket ship engines and get lost again. Until then, thank you so much for your support, you cyberspace friends out there.

‘ If you have a revolution, do it for fun.’

Goodbye, and may your God go with you.


Yours Is No Disgrace


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!’