Wednesday 30 November 2011

The Lilac Time: 'Street Corner'

When I was seven, the end of Elmdon Rd – around the corner from my parents’ chip shop – seemed like the end of the world. Beyond the very final houses, there was a clearing through which you would climb. And here, away from people, away from the gentle bustle of a Birmingham suburb – was the canal towpath where we would sometimes sit with cheap nets and old jam jars and catch sticklebacks which would invariably die after a couple of days in captivity. While my parents looked after the communal Acocks Green appetite, Elmdon Rd looked after me. When I wasn’t sitting by the canal, I would take a couple of Matchbox cars and Dinky toys and sit at the circular concrete planters that split the fresh new housing estate into four.

There I’d imagine all sorts of scenarios for my cars until, out of their windows, Peter Bradley or Robert Singleton would come out and join me. Soon a solitary pursuit would give way to something else. Hide and seek. British bulldog. Tig-off-the-ground. And because a day is proportionately a greater part of a child’s life than that of an adult, days would seem to last forever. Dusk alone, seemed an epic undertaking. Midlands dusks are the best dusks. In spring, smudged pinks pushed outwards into blue and caramel skies. Up above, everything seemed still and benign. Young eyes had no trouble charting the trajectory of a caser before you trapped it and thumped it against a nearby garage door. Night took forever to happen. Parents only worried if you failed to appear maybe an hour after the stars came out.

But it was from Birmingham – a Birmingham much like the one where I grew up – to the Malvern Hills that Stephen Duffy decamped when he decided to put some distance between the pop star persona that gave him a hit with Kiss Me and his new group. The Lilac Time got their name from a song in Nick Drake’s River Man. Nick Drake himself was more of a West Midlander than people seem to realise. But growing up in the bucolic Warwickshire enclave of Tanworth-In-Arden was different to growing up in suburban working-class Birmingham. What I love about The Lilac Time is that perfect sense of suspension between two different Midlands backdrops: sunsets over silhouetted industrial skylines; and the subsequent retreat to the hills of Malvern. Suddenly, the candyfloss clouds were within touching distance.

This is where the first The Lilac Time songs take place. Return To Yesterday was Duffy’s Adieu To Old England, where “the couturier weeps” for an age she knows will never return. You’ve Got To Love was the work of a Pied Piper trying to lead his people to the village green before the Daily Mail readers got there first. Now as it did then, Black Velvet sounds like a slow motion reconstruction of the epiphany that removed Duffy from the 1980s four years before the decade ended and into a more forgiving place. Street Corner wasn’t just the b-side to Black Velvet. You couldn’t get it on the seven-inch or the twelve-inch. It was the extra track that came with the CD single. As a result, prior to its eventual appearance on 2006’s Compendium anthology, there can’t have been more than a few hundred people who heard it. Duffy has a habit of demoting his best songs to b-sides – but Street Corner deserves special attention.

Street Corner is what it was like to grow up in the West Midlands in the 70s; and, actually, I think there’s enough here convey a sense of what most of our early years were like. The houses stay largely the same; the road signs rarely change from one decade to the next. Amid this scenery, lives coalesce. First drink. First cigarette. First love. “Old street lamps/Shine through seasons/Made us brighter/The world around seem darker” he sings. The subdued sepia beam of a harmonium sets the tone, but perhaps the real star is Duffy’s guitar playing. Here and – on other Lilac Time songs – A Dream That We All Share; Beauty In Your Body; Paper Boat – geography seems to form the shapes of the chords. One minute in, the electric guitar embarks on a parallel monologue to his “dreams of going somewhere”, deep into the waltz-time bridges which chronicle the song’s ultimately unrequited teenage tryst: “We never did more than kiss.”

Regret depends on the idea that things can be perfect. That relationship could have been the one. Instead it remains paused in the narrator’s memory. And that’s why Street Corner sounds as uplifting as it does melancholy. The final verse is actually a repeat of the first verse, but with all the band playing, regret morphs into resolution: Nostalgia isn’t what it purports to be. Hindsight is constantly remixing the past.

For all of that, I can see why Street Corner didn’t make it onto the album. It sounds like it’s the first time the band have played it all the way though. And that’s also part of its charm. The slightly overblown hammering of piano keys at the end suggests no-one thought this would be the final take. But this is where the alchemy happens. Amid “the old parklands, where our swans sang,” sky-wide ochres and pinks smoulder up above. Impossible to miss. Impossible to reach.

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 CafĂ©. 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.

Thursday 10 November 2011

David Bowie: 'The London Boys'

Before he was the Dame; before he made 'the Berlin album' an obligatory career milestone; before he was chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature; before all this, he was David Jones, ultimate suburbanite.

The Bromley boy's horizons were narrow enough as a teenager that he would describe something he found cheap and nasty, the height of uncool,  as "so fucking Croydon" - a diss of Bromley's ever-so-slightly more down at heel neighbouring borough.

He longed to escape to the smoke, just 25 minutes away from Bromley South and Beckenham Junction. David Jones, a sharp dresser but not yet remotely close to a space oddity or a thin white duke,  had the notion to take himself somewhere and catalogued his move from the suburbs to the city in a trio of songs - Can't Help Thinking About Me, I Dig Everything, and ultimately The London Boys. None were exactly England Swings: the first finds him on a cold station platform and hints at a "dishonour" that he has brought on his home town ("mother says she can't stand the neighbours talking"); the second places Bowie's rather sarcastic idiot joy at finally being a Londoner ("I've got more friends than I've had hot dinners") over a chirpy organ hook later sampled by Fatboy Slim. "His material was good" said producer Tony Hatch, "although I thought he wrote too much about London dustbins."

This concentrated dissection of the grittier side of sixties London teendom isn't something to be so lightly dismissed. It was unique. While the Kinks may have fired an equivalent number of  shots at Swinging London's ship - notably the double-sided single Dead End Street/Big Black Smoke in late '66 - they were born Londoners (Muswell Hill having been built as an Edwardian suburb, but very much a part of London's 'northern heights' by the sixties) and, besides, these songs were part of a much larger and varied catalogue than Bowie's handful of mid-sixties singles. Other mod acts like the Who (The Kids Are Alright) and the Small Faces (Sorry She's Mine) would occasionally write about the buttoned-up caste system of Mod, but even then it was in a conventional boy-girl scenario. Bowie's attempt at something similar was the self-flagellating Baby Loves That Way in which, not wanting to appear boorish or uncool, desperately wanting to fit in with the scene, he allows his girl to "fool around with other boys, she treats me like an unwanted toy."

The London Boys - released on the B-side of Rubber Band, Bowie's first single for Deram at the very end of 1966 - was his most theatrical performance to date and none the worse for it; it was also his most substantial. The single emerged on the cusp of a new era. The boy taken in by "bright lights, Soho, Wardour Street" was late to the mod ball and playing catch-up; most of the real action would now have been at UFO or the Roundhouse, the venues that fed the sound of '67.

It starts with muted brass, a funereal sound rising up from the basement of the 100 Club, and the mood is monochrome.  "Bow bell strikes, another night, your eyes are heavy and your limbs all ache." Tony Hatch's pea-souper arrangement includes oboes, which he had used to great effect earlier in the year on the Crossroads theme.

Bowie's vocal is his most individual to date, both in its odd phrases ("you feel a little queasy, decidedly ill" reminds me of Hunky Dory's Kooks) and its stagey delivery - he almost gags on the line "you're gonna be sick". If there's a touch of Anthony Newley about this (on this occasion, it really is just a touch), he sounds more like 1974 David Essex by the time he reaches the desperate, climactic "it's too late now..."And it is too late. The only comparable song is Donovan's Young Girl Blues, released a few weeks later and a distaff companion piece: the girl in Donovan's song is home alone on a Saturday night while "all the losers are grooving". Among this number, we suspect, is Bowie's subject who "takes the pills too much". Two kids in London with milky skin and not even enough money to feed the meter. You will them both to head back to the suburbs for six months and then, maybe, try London again; maybe second time around they'd even meet, and swap war stories. If the London Boy sticks around his fate will be found in Brian Protheroe's sequel of sorts, the bedsit drear of 1974's beer-soaked, tear-soaked single Pinball.

The London Boys isn't finger wagging. Instead Bowie is crumpled and sour voiced: "You've got what you wanted but you're on your own... now you've met the London boys". With a few flop singles and a string of abandoned backing groups already behind him, it is surely autobigraphical - something Bowie rarely was once he got the keys to the pop kingdom. 

Bowie's pre-fame melancholia affected the mood of a few of his best early songs: 1970's The Prettiest Star c/w Conversation Piece was a beautiful single, with an A-side in tribute to his contemporary, rival and friend Marc Bolan (who plays the gorgeous guitar hook with the same economy and feeling as he does the solo on Hot Love) and a flip of an almost embarrassingly personal nature.

Conversation Piece is comparable to The London Boys and Be My Wife in its desolation, only this time Bowie is a failed artist living in a flat above a grocery. It is a solitary existence save for his conversations in faltering English with the Austrian grocer.  "I'm a thinker not a talker" concludes Bowie. "I've no one to talk to, anyway". By the end of the song it's all spilling out, and the song tips into the self-pity and comical angst of a Max Beerbohm character ("My words stick inside my throat... no one will recall me"). The baroque, Anglo-country rock (with the return of The London Boys' oboes) production more than keeps it afloat, though, and Bowie's most affecting lines about lack of direction ("I can't see the bridge for the rain in my eyes") keep you on the sorry artist's side. The song was presumably written after his split with Hermione Farthingale, the actress who broke Bowie's heart when she left him in 1969. By the time The Prettiest Star and Conversation Piece were recorded at Trident studios in January 1970, though, Bowie had a new belle in Angie Barnett, and apparently played the A-side down the phone as he proposed to her. I prefer to think of it as his ambiguous tribute to the almost-famous Bolan (the no.2 hit Ride A White Swan was recorded two months after The Prettiest Star had been released, selling an estimated 800 copies). But there you go. I like myths and legends.

Bolan - who seemed to slip in and out of Bowie's shadow, as nemesis and friendly rival, both stylistically and on the level of fame, for a full decade - also wrote a song called The London Boys, a middling stomp which reached no.40 at the start of 1976. Closer to the spirit of Bowie's London Boys, though, was Over the Flats, written in 1972 about Bolan's forced teenage relocation from Hackney to Tooting. "The chicks I used to know would never see me grow, would never grip my hand" he complains and, worse yet for an East London face and an ego the size of Marc's, "here no one knows my name, people all look the same, I walk on lonely steps, they don't know my rep." The song was only ever recorded as an acoustic demo, for possible inclusion on The Slider, and is strong enough - and knowingly funny enough - for you to wish that Bolan had dug into his scufflin' days for inspiration more often.

Bolan's career arc was perfectly symmetrical, with Jeepster at the peak, and The Wizard and Celebrate Summer as flops at either extreme. With Bowie there was no such arc, just constant shape-shifting, and many of his most interesting records slip into the cracks between his major releases. Aside from The London Boys and Conversation Piece, there is an astonishing run of 45s between 70s farewell Scary Monsters and 80s hullo Let's Dance (Wild Is The Wind, Under Pressure, Baal's Hymn, Cat People, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy) which I like to think of as his Wilderness Years. Certainly there was no real clue that the calculated and largely unadventurous Let's Dance would follow collaborations and expeditions with Kurt Weill, Freddie Mercury, Bing Crosby and Paul Schrader. Or maybe he knew that in 1983 it was time to cash in the Bowie bonds. The suburban outcast, the lonely pill-popping London Boy, the frustrated artist of Conversation Piece had by now achieved everything he ever set out to do.