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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The consul at sunset

Graythorpe stepped down from the covered shelter of the gangplank and into the midday furnace, blinking the sweat from his eyes as he struggled to set down his bulky leather portmanteau whilst rummaging in sundry pockets for the crumpled rag he termed his handkerchief. The dense wall of heat was suffocating, and he panted for breath as he searched frantically for the cotton square to mop the stinging liquid from his eyes and face.

Found! A triumphant flourish and flick, off with his wire-rimmed spectacles and then he buried his sweat-streaked visage in the grubby off-white material, gasping, snuffling, snorting, before emerging ruddy cheeked and surprised moments later.

Surprised…

Surprised at the tall thin shadow that now stood between him and the blazing shimmer of the sun, its edges seeming to blur and undulate like the rippling outline of a mirage. One bead of sweat burned unchecked into his eyeball and as he winced in acute discomfort the shadow stepped forward and took form. Blinking rapidly, Graythorpe stared nervously up at the immaculately dressed gentleman before him.

‘You are, I presume, Mr. Graythorpe?’ The voice was peculiar, not deep, nor fluting, but pitched between. To Graythorpe it seemed… well… almost natural. Natural in the sense of nature, as of the bubble and gossip of a stream over pebbles, or the busy rustling of crisp autumn leaves in a swirling eddy of wind. These fleeting thoughts briefly comforted him in the baking swelter of that dockside, and then almost as soon as they slipped from his mind he became aware that he was now in shade. The tall man had opened a large bright yellow umbrella which he held delicately in his white bony fingers above them. Graythorpe was astonished that time now seemed stilled, and that an inordinate amount of it had passed without a reply from him to the tall man’s question.

He cleared his throat and spoke ‘I – I am indeed. And you sir?’
“I, sir, am the Count’s aide. He has sent me here to assist you in your passage. Welcome to Cambodia. Now, if you would please come with me…’

Graythorpe felt himself move forward as if he were doing so outwith his own control. He picked up his portmanteau easily, and flowed alongside the tall man in the direction of a black motor taxi parked a few metres from the dockside. The umbrella seemed to shield them from much more than the intense heat of the noon sun. It seemed to create a vortex around them, and Graythorpe realized he had not been aware of his surroundings or the few people moving through the stifling day as everything seemed blurred or distorted, as if in a peculiar drunken haze.

In the cool of the taxi he took stock of his surroundings and in particular of his strange companion. He had not even been aware of his portmanteau being placed in the boot of the vehicle, and he puzzled further that the air in this rear compartment, shielded from the driver by darkened glass, was chill. There came no sound or indication of ventilation device…

The tall gentleman was stooped slightly in his seat, and the manner in which he inclined his head toward Graythorpe made his appearance more angular than he had first noticed. The man’s face was pale – deathly pale, Graythorpe realized, giving an involuntary shudder as he did so. The man turned his limpid gaze on Graythorpe and spoke again.

‘ I trust you have the information the Count requested?’
‘My dear sir, please be assured that I have all the Count requested with me and It will be my pleasure to convey this to him in person. Pray tell me, what manner of man is your employer?’

The tall man seemed to laugh as he replied. “Manner of man? Manner of man indeed… that you will find out in time enough and you may well regret the asking. He is a very busy man, Mr. Graythorpe. He is a family man, which occupies much of his time, and he has divers additional interests… you are familiar with the I-Pod?’

The question took Graythorpe by surprise. ‘Why, yes of course I am sir. A boon to the traveler and a great solace to the lover of music. Your employer has one such device?’

“He has… my employer is very old, and he was a young man in the age of vinyl…’

Graythorpe felt an unaccountable terror seize at his heart as he heard these words. Now he began to sweat again, but this was a cold sweat. The man continued. ‘Now he wishes to be more acquaint with this wondrous digital age. He spends much time in his room…’ here he paused, and leaned toward his now terrified companion, so that the spectrally aqualine face almost touched him. ‘… downloading…’

At that word, Graythorpe felt the compartment begin to spin, his vision blurring and his consciousness slipping away into a swirling darkness he had never before known. As he slumped into the seat, the last sound he heard was the tall man rapping on the darkened glass and ordering the driver to take them ‘home’… but via Lucky Market…

Sorry for the protracted absence, dear reader, but I have been as busy as the Count with life, family and work. Oh, and ‘downloading’. I will try to be a better blogger, honest I will, but please forgive my occasional abstention. In the interim, the little O has now become a walkin’ talkin’ drummin’ BIG O (breaking the hearts of toddling baby girls all over Phnom Penh), poor Ani has had to become much more patient with both of us, the cost of living has shot through the pointy pagoda-style roof, the days are getting hotter, I played at being James Burke for the children of the International School, Easter was a welter of chocolate, Dave has returned to Cambodge and the Tuesday quiz, and coming up we have a Ukranian food and Vodka party (!), a flea market, I’m off to Laos to see UXO and things for a week with my boss, and then la famille Sutherland-Mathur are jetting off to Sri Lanka for a bit of a break over Khmer New Year. Whew! Keep watching the skies, and (this Lost in) Space. Hope you are all well and happy, it’s good to be back!

Listening to – The Word Podcast (men of a certain age will find this hugely entertaining and very funny); The Divine Comedy ‘Promenade’ (Hannon’s best, methinks); Goldfrapp new album (very Wicker-mannish); Jack Bruce ‘the consul at sunset’ (great song); Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 (aye caramba!) and tons of other things.

Got slightly tipsy in the relocated Zeppelin Rock Bar last night (with Dave) and was delighted that owner Jun played Deep Purple ‘Flight of the Rat’ just for me. He even talked me into agreeing to play a solo gig there (ulp! Better start some serious practicing…). When I was about 16 that would have been my fantasy… over 1,000 vinyl LP’s and MY VERY OWN BAR to play them in… come to think of it, that still is my fantasy…

Goodnight, Vienna…