61. STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER/PENNY LANE – The Beatles

 

The thing about one’s personal Beatles history is this: for those of us who grew up in the Beatles years (a relatively short time, looking back), the peculiar impact of any particular song relied upon the intersection of two lines –the line of their development as a creative and imaginative band of artists; and the line of your own stage of growth and discovery as a young person…  And the less certain factor is how far their own boundary pushing changes helped to inform and influence changes in teenagers like me. Hmm. Discuss, or not.

Here’s something of my own Beatles history as I recall.  One early memory of them is their (second?) single getting reviewed on Juke Box Jury: some toff on the jury being patronising and sniffy  about ‘Please Please Me’ and commenting on their “misspelled” name.  I remember too running around on the local welfare ground and excitedly telling someone on that particular day that my parents, who had gone on the usual Saturday shopping trip to the nearby town, would be buying the new record ‘From Me To You’ –and how much I was looking forward to going home to play it. I remember one Christmas the ‘Beatles for Sale’ album (a gift for me?  Or Allan?) Maybe it was the same Christmas when my auntie bought me a Beatles scrap book – lots of early merchandising for the Fab Four.  And then there were subsequent Christmases where one family member or other received ‘Rubber Soul’ and then ‘Revolver’ –and by this time I was getting old enough to be impressed by both the innovative cover photography, and the clever wordplay of the titles.  And by the songs, of course.  (One Christmas – almost grown up now ! – it was the ‘white album’ double. That might need a blog posting of its own.) And it wasn’t just Christmases, it was summer holidays –‘Paperback Writer/Rain’  in our heads and on our tongues as we played mini golf in Scarborough; ‘All You Need Is Love’ during the summer of love, our Colwyn Bay holiday; ‘Hey Jude’, most memorably, as I returned home from a camping trip in Symonds Yat.  Memorable because it was Judy, my sister, who was enthusing about it, with such fervour that she almost persuaded me that the song was in fact written about her!

So –why ‘Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane’?  I’ll come to this soon, hopefully.  Let me say, too, that by this time in family proceedings, we had acquired a reel to reel tape recorder, and it became a regular event for a while that we would record ‘Top Of The Pops’, the classic BBC TV chart programme to listen to it over and over by the miracle of magnetic tape.  The weekly Thursday ritual would be that we would have to move the loud ticking clock from the ‘middle room’, remind everyone not to talk during the programme, and set up the microphone in front of the TV.  And on one particular occasion, the Beatles chose to showcase their new double-A side single on the programme, with perhaps two of the earliest purpose made ‘video’ presentations to accompany the tracks.  I wouldn’t swear to it –but I think it closed the programme –perhaps the single have gone straight to number one?

Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever played and replayed any piece of magnetic tape as I did those  seven or eight minutes containing those two songs.  And probably only now am I dissecting the magic they held.  As a double-A side single it was perfect –because the two songs exemplified the two equally mesmerising sides of the Lennon McCartney songwriting partnership, and, really, of the Beatles Sound itself.  ‘Penny Lane’ –the McCartney side of the Beatles – was very ‘pop’ in some ways of course, but with distinct ‘advancements’ and with its catchy melodic structure, it’s lyric a rather quirky jumble of observations –often surreal – ‘barber taking photographs…  a nurse selling poppies.etc.’ Here was pop music perhaps attempting to uncover the lively randomness of mundane reality ‘there beneath the blue suburban skies…’

And the other side?  The Lennon side of Beatlesdom –with something of a more dangerous edge.  It’s even there in the opening invitation – ‘let me take you down..’ The sound and the language are much less amusingly suburban: instead there’s a skewing and questioning –‘nothing is real..’ I knew, of course, nothing about drugs then -but I suppose I couldn’t help picking up hints of consciousness-altering possibilities in the sound and the lyric ; ‘And nothing to get hung about…  Strawberry fields forever..’

For some reason, I particularly enjoyed playing this piece of tape, with the two songs, the perfect double-A side single, in our ‘front room’ early in the morning in the semi darkness, with the curtains still closed. Ah youth.

59. I’LL KEEP IT WITH MINE – Bob Dylan

 

‘Some people are very kind’, I found myself singing in the car one day recently, when somebody let me into a stream of traffic, when they could so easily have not.  And wondered where the line came from, and then realized that in my head the line sounded like Sandy Denny singing.  Pretty soon, by a sequence of connections, I got there: the album ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ which I had bought during my first year at university and the song was by Bob Dylan, and I loved it.

I’m almost sure, that I purchased the album (from the ‘Duck, Son and Pinker’ record shop in Swansea) because it contained a cover version of a Joni Mitchell song that I’d never heard of before, and which had never appeared on any of her own recordings –the wonderful’ Eastern Rain’ (why on earth has no one else chosen to cover this beautiful song?); and also for some odd reason , I maintained a kind of illusion that this band Fairport Convention was somehow a bunch of undergraduates just like me who did this sort of thing in between lectures and tutorials.  I had the same sort of feeling, incidentally, about Bridget St John with whom I was musically half in love at this time: I imagined them all going to seminars about John Keats, or oceanography, or even mechanical engineering, and then getting together in common rooms to make music, or staying up late in student digs penning sensitive songs. Hmmm.

The sound, the sounds, on’ What We Did on Our Holidays’ was fabulous, and still is.  Richard Thompson has gone on to achieve iconic musical status; Sandy Denny –and not just because her early death confers ‘legend’ –is acknowledged rightly not only as one of the great contemporary folk singing voices, but also as an accomplished songwriter in her own right.  The choices of songs on the album seem, now, pretty inspired -and of course the timeless ‘Meet On The Ledge’ is included in that number…  along with this relatively unknown Dylan song.

What gave this song its wistfulness?  Well, first of all it’s within the context of a kind of unconventional love song  (loving you ‘not for what you are/But for what you’re not..’)- but it’s also about ‘searching’ (a popular idea in the post- flower power years), with the added slightly mystical appeal of searching ‘for what’s not lost’.  There’s the attractive idea of communality –‘everybody will help you/discover what you set out to find..’; and then there’s that quirky, ambiguous refrain which provides the title: ‘if I can save you any time/come on give it to me/ I’ll keep it with mine’.

Despite being a words man, I’m still not clear on this.  He could be saying of course that he’s more than willing to save ‘her’ (the addressee) time and trouble spent searching for meaning, or whatever (‘what’s not lost’).  But I think I heard it in a kind of literal way too –‘time’ being talked about as a sort of commodity to be ‘saved’, looked after, ‘kept’ (safe?) – and the playful offer from the singer is that if she will be willing to hand over her allocation of time to him, he will look after both their ‘times’, together – like love, sort of thing.

Where does the verse three train (which leaves ‘at half past ten’) come into this, I hear you ask.  Funnily enough, though trains often feature in songs as symbols of freedom and movement, in this one I wonder if the train’s monotonous regularity (‘back tomorrow at the same time again’), like the conductor ‘still stuck on the line’, is in fact bit of a contrast to the searching spirit, not earthbound by these timetables and schedules.  So does the refrain now come to imply: against this backdrop of mundanity, stick with me and either ‘we’ll do our searching together’ or rather that‘spending our time together is the right goal of all that unnecessary searching’?  Answers on a postcard please.

The only recording I’ve heard of Dylan himself singing this is, I think, with his own bluesily plonky piano accompaniment –still great, of course of course- but perhaps helping us to appreciate even more Fairport’s lightness of touch. Nico’s famous cover from her ‘Chelsea Girls’ album doesn’t do it for me really, and Judy Collins’s early stab at it (a 1965 single which she never bothered to include on an album) is perhaps a touch too jaunty. It’s not an easy song, perhaps, or I’m just fussy.

Or more likely, the lovely Fairport Convention recording spoilt me for any others.

So dear readers, if you have any further reflection, memory or interpretation relating to this song: come on, give it to me, I’ll keep it with mine.

 

54. CHELSEA MORNING – Joni Mitchell

Since the old lady herself was on the radio the other morning, Radio Four delving into some old archival interviews – hers from 1983 –I suddenly felt it was high time to share a little more of my Joni story, and this song will do as well as any, and better than most, as a focus for those thoughts.

Christmas 1970 was very much the Joni Mitchell Christmas in our house: I came down on Christmas morning to find (as I think I’d probably expected, and was hoping for…) a couple of albums on ‘my’ section of the Christmas table –‘Sweet Baby James’ (Taylor) and…  ‘Clouds’ from Joni Mitchell.  I had been sort of lusting after this album since the summer; every record shop I came across I would wander in, finger through the female vocalists section, and gaze at that remarkable self portrait of the blond artist with the cheekbones and the freckles and the flower, with its heavily romanticised background from the warm, dark sunsetty side of the spectral palette.  It was transfixing as much for what it represented as for the kind of songsmithery delights to be discovered therein.  What I had heard of Joni Mitchell –very little, really: the cleverly gimmicky ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ single and the far more intriguing flip side ‘Woodstock’; a quick snatch of the BBC two ‘in concert’ performance –and what I had read of her (NME concert reviews…) suggested something/someone that could not fail to stimulate and engage my little teenage creative proclivities!

I knew that she painted –this crazy album cover, for one –and that her songs were already been covered by other people.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to Judy Collins, for instance.  What about this song?  My memory is a little hazy, but I think that I heard it first sung by John Rogers Prosser, extraordinarily talented classmate and head boy whose awareness of cool and exciting new musical movements and discoveries seemed several giant leaps ahead of me.  I often watched him closely, surreptitiously, listened in something like awe.  The song seemed fresh and remarkable for a few reasons.  We’ll come to that.  I think shortly afterwards I heard and saw Judy Collins singing this song on the Tom Jones show on TV!  (she did actually release  it as a single, though did not include it on an album until much later).  Since I only saw a bit of the famous 1970 BBC ‘pink dress’ Joni concert, a quick burst of ‘My Old Man’, I think – something better (!) over on ITV, maybe – I didn’t get to see her perform ‘Chelsea morning’ with which she opened the set, I believe.  [thankfully BBC repeated the recording the following year, I think; and in recent years have also trotted out, for nostalgic music-weeks. Am I right in thinking that the half hour productions often differ slightly in the edit, suggesting that the original recording was a slightly longer set list?] My point being, I still hadn’t heard the composer herself singing the song.

It might sound a bit pretentious, but I think there was something about the very structure of the song that seemed alluringly unusual.  Its phrasing and construction definitely wasn’t  ‘common metre’ –to use hymnody parlance –or ‘ballad metre’ even; it wasn’t really pop-idiomatic, either –though there was a bridge between verse two and three (but then the bridge modified at the end of verse three).  There was that little gap between the ‘woke up’ and the ‘it was a Chelsea morning’.  There was rhyme, of course, but not as we know it, Jim… and the verse certainly wasn’t enslaved to it –‘Christmas bells’ and ‘pipes and drums’ sounded like they should have rhymed, but didn’t.

The content, too, was excitingly refreshing for the richness of its imagery –‘the light poured in like butterscotch/and stuck to all my senses…’.  If you were sniffy, you could say that this was just the kind of dippy  poeticizing set of similes and metaphors likely to appeal to an equally dippy A level student of English.  Yet I was aware that it wasn’t Yeats, or Wordsworth or even the imagist complexity of a Dylan –but there was definitely something about it, as there undeniably is with every great song, that was much bigger than the sum of its parts.

If you’ve read  enough of these you may already be tired of hearing me say what a sucker I am for ‘morning’ songs.  I’m even not above a quick burst of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘oh what a beautiful…’ from ‘Oklahoma’; and it’s not rare for me to greet the day’s greyness with something like ‘This is the Day’ or even my own special ‘Buenos Dias mi Senor’ ; and this old Joni song, which takes its place among the classics – I never tire of it, or of playing it.

Joni wrote it as an urban morning song, of course (the Chelsea District of New York is her setting); she had already written a quieter, rural morning song (‘Come To The Sunshine’ – a pretty number that never made it onto any of the albums) but the feel good factor of Chelsea morning –and the other one too, actually –transfers itself to any setting!  And there is a sort of challenge to savour the days experiences, and to ‘stay in the present moment’ as they say: ‘Oh, won’t you stay/we’ll put on the day/and we’ll talk in present tenses’..

I said at the beginning that the album Clouds marked Christmas morning in the Hankins household –finally giving us a chance to hear the composer herself singing this amazing song, and it didn’t disappoint.  As track two, it followed the haunting ‘Tin Angel’, breaking upon us with those crisp jangly chords and the confident soaring voice, backed up towards the end of the song by her own multi tracked harmonies.  Stunning. Oh but then, in the evening present-giving celebration, my sister’s gift was ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’!  Plus,some aunty gave me a record token, which by the new year had magically transformed itself into the first album (‘Song To A Seagull’ or ‘Joni Mitchell’ whatever it’s called).  Suddenly I had the set! The rest is history.

No, one more thing…  Whatever obsessiveness there might have been, at times, in my enthusiasm for this artist, the one thing I do maintain is that the principle value and effect for me especially in those early days  – apart from the intrinsic interest, worth and often beauty of her own output –is that she inspired creativity  more than she inspired unhealthy ‘fandom’.  In other words, though I love to listen, hearing her and seeing her art has primarily made me want to write my own – more poems, more songs, do more arty dabblings.

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.]

45. PEOPLE GET READY -Curtis Mayfield

No anecdotal attachment here, as such. It feels like this great modern gospel song has always been around. In fact when I was younger,  I might have thought of it as a version of some other train/salvation metaphor songs – didn’t the Seekers or the Settlers or the Rennies sing one about ‘the Gospel train’? (Wasn’t that also in ‘Youth Praise’, the British 60s hymnal for church youth groups?) I note that the original ‘Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ single/album of this title was actually released in 1965! But it’s been dormant for me, this song, only gaining a kind of prominence as, over the last 15 years, I’ve heard a succession of cover versions underlining what a classic of a song it is – James Taylor, Eva Cassidy, Patty Griffin – but what, particularly, has occasioned this essay is hearing the mighty Seal singing it on his album of classic soul songs, which I picked up in a charity shop last week. Wow.

Going back to the original, it’s sweet, but surprisingly tight and low-key, with some neat choreography in the structured performance – the first halves of lines sung by a solo voice and then completed in the second half either by a different voice or by the whole group. Then there’s a key change before verse 3 – ah that tricky verse three (more in a moment) – and the first verse is repeated at the end. It’s a piece of smooth, controlled soul. If that’s not an oxymoron.

Hearing it being played in the car again last week, and having heard me warbling it round the house made my youngest daughter ask ‘Is this your favourite song at the moment, Dad?’ ‘I suppose it is,’ I said. These great cover versions over the last few years have made me want to add it to my repertoire, but I think I lack the necessaries to bring it to life – a good voice, maybe. My gifts such as they are – quirky song-composition-twiddling or whatever – are not enough to do this justice. You need a Voice, I think. On the only occasion I had a go at this in Folk Club, it all felt a bit flat. And then there’s the question of that trickiness in verse 3.

Before singing it publicly, I realized I had some theological problems with verse 3: ‘There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner/Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own..’ Hmmm, I thought: aren’t sinners precisely for whom there IS some carriage room? Or am I watering down Mr Mayfield’s justifiably urgent warning, because of a kind of liberal universalism? And maybe there’s the implicit understanding that said sinner is ‘hopeless’ because in his unrepentant malice willfully  misses the train?  Either way, I ended up singing ‘There’s STILL some room for the hopeless sinner..’ And the final two lines of the verse – ‘Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner/Cos there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne’… Well, that was just about OK, I suppose. But what too about the end of verse 2 which seems to differ in different versions – ‘There’s hope for all among those loved the most.’ Uncomfortable (Calvinistic?) ideas of God’s favouritism, as the lucky Elect chug on in their luxury choo-choo? However, Eva Cassidy sings ‘There’s hope for all among the loved and lost’ which I think is what I plumped for in my solo performance.

Why such scruples, you might be asking?  I suppose it seems such a neat bit of gospel, I want the metaphor to hold together in a way that has some integrity by my funny standards. Is a train journey a good image for salvation? It has some validity I think, especially the idea of the ‘free ride’ (‘you don’t need a ticket’), the sense of sheer grace that enables the ride (‘no baggage..’) , the sense of train rides as having destination etc. Alright -easy to stretch what is essentially a fun piece of imagery if we over-analyse, I know!

I don’t think I’ve heard a bad rendition of this song (except mine at folk club), and the opening exhortation generally makes something skip within me as a kind of response. I heartily commend – especially – the Seal recording. Could you get more soulful soul? And so, get on board, little children, get on board.

41. TWELVE THIRTY – The Mamas and the Papas

 

 

In my time, I’ve probably picked up more than one ‘Best of’ Mamas and Papas collections, but I think I’ve finally got the message: in any of their compilations, there are going to be 5 or 6 ‘stand out’ tracks…and the rest are fillers. Now I’m taking a cold objective look, I think it’s probably true to say: that was indeed a true reflection of their career. John Phillips wrote a few absolute classics – and around them, to pad out an album, or a concert performance, or a TV appearance, they threw in some rehashed standards, some slowed-down rock songs, and some mediocre lyric/melody combinations hoping that Cass Elliot’s voice, and the prevailing appetite for commercialized faux-bohemia would sustain them.

But let’s affirm; the classics were classics. ‘California Dreamin’ is toweringly important  in its place in popular musical history: it has the feel of something with the substance of folk song, part of a national consciousness, which had been waiting to be discovered. ‘Creeque Alley’ is as clever and witty a song as anything that came out of the sixties : both mischievously self-referential in its narrative of the ambitions of their clique, and at the same time indicative of a more general cultural mood, I think.

And the mood is characterised by the focus shift from (in American geographical terms) East to West Coast, from the more tired, industrious, wisecracking, survivalist cynicism of east Coast’s mentality to the (as perceived) perpetual sunniness, free-spirited, tolerant/relaxed/libertarian lifestyle of the West Coast. ‘California Dreamin’ indeed – because the west coast becomes a kind of dream, an ideal to which the yearning spirit aspired…

Or so it seemed. ‘Twelve Thirty’ was another of this handful of Phillips classics. Perhaps, like many great writers, he really only had one theme, and perhaps that theme was this move from East to west, and what it symbolizes. This single is the only Mamas and Papas single which I remember buying, and it’s still my favourite. I’m imagining I was 15 (?) perhaps, when the single was released. My hazier memory imagines that all of their songs were released in the ‘summer of love’, ’67, and that can’t possibly be true, of course, but I think this single was actually released that summer. My understanding of the American popular-cultural east to west shift must have been sketchy at best…but in some small way I think I got it – and caught the ‘allure’ of freedom and newness that drew all those ‘young girls’ to ‘the canyon’ (Laurel Canyon? The several leafy canyons north of Los Angeles? Did I know that then?)

If this was Phillips’s great theme, where in ‘Dreamin’ he’d pictured the Eastern mentality from which they were escaping as cold, sterile – ‘the preacher likes the cold…’-, that cold church perhaps a symbol of the frigid institutional life which the new generation yearned to leave behind, in ‘Twelve Thirty’ we get the same images of the East’s stagnation – this time through the clock with its hands stuck on twelve thirty. NYC is declared as ‘dark and dirty’ – while the world of the west coast is pictured as a place of new openness, sudden connectedness, discovery – ‘At first so strange to feel so friendly/To say good morning and really mean it/ To feel these changes happening in me…’

I’ve not been to the West Coast of the States, so perhaps I ought to shut up now and bow to more informed experience. Still, here’s what I can’t help feeling: I cannot believe that any place can sustain this weight of idealism; when it carries the symbolism of such allure it becomes like C S Lewis’s idea of ‘northerness’ that drew him on towards…something beyond place, in his spiritually formative years. Perhaps I knew at 14 or 15, as I still believe now, that only a spiritual kingdom can satisfy the profound depth of those kinds of longings – for perpetual sunniness of heart, friendliness, creativity, community. Which is to say that in popular song, at least, the ‘Californian’ ideal of the sixties seems for me a ‘type’ of the Kingdom of God.

Have I strayed from my focus? Let me not forget the song’s delicious melody, the group’s unsurpassed harmonic sound…it’s a great single. Let’s put it back on the home jukebox.