49. ALL IN THE APRIL EVENING – Katherine Hinkson & Hugh Robertson

Well, here’s a little song which has hung around, in a hazy fragmented state, in the back of my brain for half a century.  And every year, around this time, at Easter, and afterwards… and also when I’m seeing ‘sheep with their little lambs’ dawdling across the mountain lanes in front of my car, it surfaces –that is, the snatches of it that I remember surface.

It all goes back to a school eisteddfod; and I was probably in form one or form two.  In those days school eisteddfods were serious affairs (even ironically for us valleys grammar schools with no jot of welsh on the curriculum at all!), often lasting not just through the whole of saint David’s day but often continuing the next day as well; and we dutifully and enthusiastically dressed up in our house colours (did my mother really buy me a yellow roll-neck pullover so that I could support Glyndwr house?  This is perhaps a memory best buried…) cheering our teams.  And ‘worthy’ items of culture were generally chosen as performance pieces: so we would listen to the six or seven entrants/finalists all playing, say, Für Elise, one after the other –hoping of course that one of them would hit a wrong note so that we could at least distinguish the performances.  And in this particular year that I’m thinking of, ‘All in an April evening’ was chosen as the item for the upper school’s girls’ solo singing performance competition.

You might think that having to sit through half a dozen performances from an earnest group of girls (most of them, if I recall rightly, a diligent crowd from Bedwas who entered absolutely everything) might have wearied the listener?  Not this listener.  The effect was, I suppose, equivalent to putting an unfamiliar song on iPod repeat today.  It seeped, seeped deep into my soul and –well, it’s stayed there a long time, hasn’t it…  without any particular conscious nurturing!

Living in the valleys, as I still do, the images of ‘sheep with their little lambs passing us by on the road’ and references to the ‘weak human cry’ of the lambs were familiar enough…  It was perhaps the connection with the ‘Lamb Of God’ that was a little new and surprising, and the poignant melody somehow made the connection more intriguing.  I’m not going to pretend that my listening to that song contained anything as sophisticated as analysis –but something must have stuck in me.  I wasn’t at that time a Jesus-follower (though I imagine that the stirrings of conviction and grace were there –just like ‘April  airs were abroad’) but within a couple of years I had indeed joined that great company and accepted the grace, forgiveness, life and hope which I was beginning to see vividly in that ‘Lamb…’

Yes, half a century on then –those ‘April airs’ are still ‘abroad’ –those beautiful/pesky sheep and lambs are still strolling and jumping on the high roads above the valleys, or occasionally loitering into our garden…  And I am indebted to Catherine Hinkson wherever she was, and to Hugh Robertson, the music man (Wikipedia tells me that he also wrote the music to ‘Mhairi’s wedding’!) and to the music teacher who chose it for the eisteddfod, and those earnest participants, because sometimes – not always of course, but sometimes –‘ I [think] on the Lamb of God/going meekly to die..’ for such as me.

48. CARE OF CELL 44 – The Zombies

I really can’t remember how we managed before 1967 (we did, obviously) but I do know that the advent of Radio One meant that ‘unwilling schoolboys’ like myself could leave the house for the bus stop at least with some sort of catchy tune on their tongues.  Tony Blackburn it was, filched by the BBC from Radio Caroline, who injected an unfamiliar breeziness into the general pre-school sluggishness, new zippy jingles and all.  His tastes were pretty anodyne, weren’t they, and – shameful to say?  -suited me just fine, from his initial picks of the Move (‘Flowers In The Rain’) and the Bee Gees (‘Massachusetts’) to his later swooning over The Carpenters (how he loved ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’).  But, as far as I was concerned, he invariably sent me out, satchel on shoulder (?) into generally wet and grey Jubilee Road with a chirpy song on my lips.

And I have such a distinct memory of one such morning, in 1968, with this one, ‘Care Of Cell 44’ by a group called The Zombies.  We called them ‘groups’ in those days, not bands…  And I think I liked most of  these ‘groups’, with of course the Beatles unquestionably at the pinnacle of the group hierarchy – and this group I think I liked for the distinctive sound.  Looking back, I can only think that part of the appeal was the rather otherworldly haunting quality of Colin Blunstone’s voice.  [Later on in the 1970s,  I think he briefly became a fashionable voice once again when championed by whispering Bob Harris …and that first solo album of his, with its exquisite cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘Misty Roses’ is still a classic of sorts. Briefly cool..then blandly mainstream again…]

OK, so there was that voice, but the single was bigger than a voice –the sound was a very rich, full one – not exactly Phil Spector ‘wall of sound’ but a sort of semi-psychedelic British approximation with perhaps some multi tracked voices?  And what else sent me out into the street singing it on the way to the bus stop?  Well, I don’t think it’s too fanciful to conjecture that there was something about the content, too.  This was a song about pending freedom (addressing someone about to be released from prison!).  This unwilling schoolboy, seeing perhaps just a few years left in the educational ‘prison walls’, was possibly heartened by some degree of identification – “counting the days until they set you free again…”; “feel so good/you’re coming home soon…”

And of course, it’s a morning song, to some extent – at least, it begins with the words ‘Morning to you, I hope you’re feeling better, baby…’ and I am and always have been an absolute sucker for morning songs – not just the hymns and psalms and Christian songs that encourage praise to spring up in the morning, but – just think of all those Joni morning songs (Chelsea Morning et al) and check out – when I finally upload it –my essay on Georgie Fame’s ‘Peaceful’.  I remember when our music teacher in school (I was eleven or twelve; I dropped music shortly afterwards) introduced us to Grieg’s ‘Morning’ from Pier Gynt.  For months, it played in my head to accompany many a beautiful morning scene afterwards.  I was a terrible romantic.

Hey, I saw a poster for ‘The Zombies’ appearing later this year at the club here in Bath, this week.  Could it be that some of the old group have got together (with a couple of ‘fillers’?) re-forming to do a nostalgic tour?  Hmmm, I think I’m not big on nostalgic tours.  *

For now, let’s leave us with this dippy 15 year old school kid, facilely given an artificial spring in his step by Radio One’s jaunty, jingly Mr. Blackburn and his feelgood playlist, belting out ..‘feel so good you’re coming home soon.. /walking the way we use to walk/and it could be so nice..!’ And probably, ignoring all thoughts of the geometry homework he had failed to finish on the previous night…

[*stop press since writing the above: tonight in Aberdare, I saw another poster advertising the Zombies’ tour – Aberdare had been added to the itinerary.  I asked the reception staff if they could somehow check up on the band’s line up.  In the interval, they informed me that, indeed, both the notable Colin Blunstone and the notable Rod Argent were members of this touring band!  I said that, despite this encouraging information, looking at the publicity poster, it might be appropriate to cross out the word ‘The’ from ‘The Zombies’.  Though that’s a little unkind of me.]