Sunday, 27 November 2011

Long John Baldry: 'House Next Door'

I don’t know what I was expecting the first time I visited the Record Detective Agency. Perhaps ashop that wasn’t quite a shop. A functional stockroom with a man seated behind a desk, perhaps a pile of cardboard mailers to his left and a falling-apart copy of the Record Collector Price Guide. I figured I’d better memorise some of mywants list before I walked in. If I gave him nothing to set about “detecting”, then why on earth would I have made the journey just beyond the main drag of Palmers Green high street? Instead, I found Derek, squirreled behind the counter in what was essentially a grotto of old plastic. Every available surface was covered in records. Hanging from hooks just above him were vintage sleeves bearing the imprints of every major label operating in the 50s and 60s: Fontana, Decca, Brunswick, Parlophone, Polydor.

This was 1999 and Derek was probably in his late 50s. How did he rate the chances of procuring me Vashti’s two singles? How about Mellow Candle’s sole 60s single, Feeling Higher, on Simon Napier Bell’s SNB imprint? Had he ever seen one? Derek didn’t think he had ever seen either. He wrote both titles in a book, but – I hope I’m not doing Derek a disservice here – I’m not sure he looked at it too often. In the event, it didn’t really matter. Derek wasn’t really a detective – although he was briefly a policeman in the late 60s. Therecord shop was something he did after the stresses of working at Heathrow had become too much for him.

Not that I knew any of that at the time. “Do you want a cup of tea?” he asked me. He didn’t have a sink, but he had a Mr Muscle pump action dispenser that he filled with soapy water, that he then dried with a sheet of kitchen roll. Exceptional things had happened here. If The Record Detective Agency had never existed, the twelve year-old boy who came here with his dad wouldn’t have become obsessed with Martha Reeves and written the letter which prompted the real, actual Martha Reeves to invite him to see her soundcheck at her most recent Jazz Café. Last time Martha came to London, she even turned up to the boy’s family barbecue. For so long the holy grail of Joe Meek obsessives, Those Plucking Strings – the long-playing collaboration between Meek and 20 year-old bandleader Charles Blackwell – turned up here in the form of a test pressing. In a rare lapse, Derek sold it for a fraction of its value. Some dealers would be consumed with bitterness about that. Derek genuinely seems to find it funny.

The thing about Derek’s shop is this. If you discover records at a certain age, you quite simply want to have them around you. “When I was a kid growing up after the war, there was nothing electric in my house, other than this record player,” Derek told me. “Even the fridge ran on gas. It was so incredibly modern. The other day, one customer came in with his son. The boy picked up a Rolling Stones album, and said, ‘What are these?’ And the dad said, ‘Um, that’s, big software. Which, of course, it is. But at the same time, the reason I’m here is that it’s so much more than that.”

One day, I was working through a pile of likely 45s, when Derek nudged one record my way. “You might like this. Long John Baldry recorded some good sides for United Artists before he had his hit.” Two years before he aced the top spot with Let The Heartaches Begin, How Long Will It Last was Baldry’s third single. It’s slight, but none the worse for that. In Rudy Clark’s song, he’s looking for commitment in the wrong decade, and from the wrong person. “I wanna know, I wanna know/How long will it last,” beseech Baldry’s tarry, forlorn tones.

“But you keep on telling me/Hey sugar/Don’t get serious.”

A low trombone parp for every bar and a busy beat-pop arrangement with plenty of drum fills seems to side with the subject of the singer’s affections than the poor singer. The same year, Tom Jones finally found the song to launch his career with It’s Not Unusual – but it could just as easily have been this one.
How Long Will It Last chimed perfectly with the times – which, I imagine, is the reason it was chosen in preference to House Next Door. But, in a parallel universe a lot like this one, House Next Door could easily have been a standard, mauled by X-Factor applicants on a regular basis. And the arrangement which – like How Long Will It Last – was put together by our friend Charles Blackwell, suggests that everyone had high hopes for the song. You can hear it in the sure-footed, stop-what-you’re-doing vocal intro, “I got to find lo-o-ve/I got to find lo-o-ove!”

From thereon in, the protagonist’s plight proceeds at a heartbroken half-tempo. “The house next door is a worn hole/I just don’t see how it can hold a soul/But the people living there are so close together/that that old house can hold any kind of weather.” Blackwell’s strings ascend in sympathy. Baldry is gazing from a window of his own swish pile. Life has ostensibly been kind: “My house is like a mansion/Standing so brave and tall/But for all the love that’s in it/It might as well fall.”

And so the narrative pendulum swings back and forth. Their car is falling apart; his motor is top of the range – “but for all the joy it brings me/I might as well trade.” They’ve “got a half a dozen kids” and always seem “short of all they need/[but] even though they haven’t got a lot/they seem contented with what they got.” Meanwhile, “I’ve got all the money/A man can hope to save/But for all the love it buys me/I’d give it away.”

“It sounds like an American song to me,” said Blackwell when I sent him an MP3 – and he’s half-right at the very least. I don’t know anything about L. Carr, but the song’s co-writer H.B. Barnum was a former child star from Texas who went on to record with an early version of The Coasters, before scoring for Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin. In fact, House Next Door sounds like a specific American song. Garnett Mimms’ A Quiet Place came out the previous year, and it isn’t difficult to hear other elements of that song – notably the tempo, the soul-baring lyric, sense of taking stock, even an allusion to “a man next door” – in Blackwell’s arrangement for Baldry.

Both songs sound terrific, but I’m besotted with the way Baldry inhabits House Next Door. I love the transition from the self-pity of the verses to the mannered half-spoken bridge to the pay-off: “But for aw-ll…! the lo-ve…! it buys me…” At this stage in his career, if Robbie Williams wanted to record a decent album of other people’s songs, this would be an inspired place for him to start. After the years spent rattling around his L.A. mansion, chomping on painkillers to fill the emptiness, House Next Door would be a perfect fit. It’s not a bold experiment or a moment of genre-defying indulgence. It’s a big song written in an era when so many big songs were being written that a few were bound to fall by the wayside. Baldry tackled several more throughout his early years on United Artists. His performances of The Drifter, Let Him Go (And Let Me Love You) and Only A Fool Breaks His Own Heart (both featured on his second album Looking At Long John) are majestic cases in point. Lingering if little-heard testaments to the fact that no-one – at least, none of Long John Baldry's contemporaries – could deliver a loner's lament with this sort of honey-dripping charisma.

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