Friday, 19 January 2018

Desert Island Discs

Music in my Life: Part One.

I was recently asked to take part in a local radio programme that sounds uncannily like “Desert Island Discs.” That means that I have to tell my life story and illustrate it with up to ten songs, all in an hour. It’s an interesting challenge. I started with a list of tracks that I might use and it soon exceeded twenty, so I started again by writing a chronology. The trouble with this approach is that it just reads like a list of bands and musicians.. And that’s where I’m at right now. 

Let’s see if we can do better and actually come up with a short list, or even a mix-tape. You could try this yourself if your music meant a lot to you as you were growing up. How much have you changed? 

The 1950s
It is 1953. Beside the pub in a harsh stone village in the Yorkshire Dales, a toddler wearing home made clothes stands at the top of the steps and sings as loud as he can, both for the sheer joy of it and the benefit of the whole world; “She’ll be cummin round the mountains when she cooms.” 

Gunnerside on Coronation Day, 1953.

That was me singing the first music I can remember. In that same year there was a Coronation parade through the village, led by a brass band that included my father on a euphonium. The music of the dales was hymns, brass and silver bands, and cowboy music. 

Brothers Chris and Arnold Alderson would sing to the short-horn cows as they milked them by hand in the midge ridden byre and the songs would be Jim Reeves and Gene Autry. “A four legged frind, a four legged frind; he’ll never let you down”  and “I’ll forgit many things in my lifetime, but my Darlin’ I won’t forgit yew”.

By 1956 we finally had our own house in Southampton where my Dad built a first class gramophone system to play his jazz music on. Mum and Dad had quite a collection of 78s; some jazz and some classical music, but they both shared a love of Louis Armstrong and the dance bands of the 1940s playing foxtrots and quick-steps, and of course the crooners like Nat, Bing and Frankie who my mum would sing along with. 

I liked to sing too, so, when the vicar came to my school looking for choristers, I signed up. The choir took an immense amount of time, with two evening rehearsals a week, two services on Sunday (sometimes three) and, on summer Saturdays, weddings. Being in the choir gave me a good fundamental music education and a working knowledge of the vocabulary of King James 1st which was a good grounding . “Nobby” Hume, the choirmaster and organist, was a wonderful old man who introduced me to concerts of choral and orchestral music through the local Philharmonic Society. 

Nobby thought I could get a scholarship to Winchester as a chorister, but I loved it at home and we didn't go for it. If I had, where would I be now?

(Next Post; The Sixties.)

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Music in the Sixties

Music in my Life: Part Two

The 60s
By now it was the sixties. Teddy boys, skiffle and rock and roll were almost over and I needed new, raw music that spoke to me and wasn't what they played on “Housewife’s Choice” or “Forces Favourites”. My Dad hated almost all of the new music that was on Six-Five Special and Juke Box Jury. Imagine caring enough to actually hate Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde or Cliff Richard!

The Beatles and the Stones gave us kids a taste of pop music and “white-boy blues” that in turn led us back to the original blues artists like Muddy Waters and BB King that my Dad would have approved of. 

Money was tight and albums were expensive, so none of us had more than half a dozen. We all bought different ones and played them at each other’s houses. My friend Dave Diaper had a lot of Beatles music because his whole family liked them so I bought the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Donovan instead. Harmonicas were a feature on all of the records I bought at that point so I learned to play the blues harp. I would practice in the bath where the acoustics were brilliant, and in the school playground where the school dog would howl along in a very authentic bluesy growl.

At the church youth club we played singles by the Ivy League, and Manfred Mann. On Saturdays us boys went fishing on the common where someone always sat on the picnic bench and played the latest hits on the BBC Light Programme’s Saturday Club with Brian Matthew. Don Lang played trombone with Lord Rockingham’s XI playing “There’s a Moose Loose about this Hoose” and even some skiffle by Lonnie Donnegan or Tommy Steele, but that show was also where we first heard the latest hits. Both the Who and the Kinks had happened by then. 

“My Generation” was a pivotal track. The Who had a tough time getting the record produced because of it’s analogue rawness and the way the band sounded (and probably was) almost out of control. Part of it’s magic was the hum and whistle of feedback, caused by waving the mics and guitars close to the speakers. The white-coated studio engineers had probably done their national service working as boffins on Sonar or Radar and they saw their job as keeping all the needles out of the red. The Who were aiming for the infra red and a whole spectrum beyond that if possible.

In my early teens I would go to dances on the pier and at the Top Rank Suite on Southampton Common. The first proper band I saw there was the Yardbirds. I think Jeff Beck was in the band at the time. I remember seeing a fox on my way to the gig but not a lot of detail about the music except that they were quite a polished show band. 

My school days in Southampton ended in 1966 and I completed my A levels in South Wales. By then I was a proper Mod, with a Lambretta TV 175 scooter, which was covered in mirrors, crash bars and the rest. I fitted a particularly objectionable megaphone exhaust that probably ruined the performance but sounded great to my ears. It also inhibited by ability to turn right as it would hit the road and lift the wheels off the tarmac. 

Scooter scrambles to Cardiff were common. The main band I followed at the time was Love Sculpture with the amazing Dave Edmunds covering Hendrix songs as well as prog-classical stuff like Sabre Dance. This was also the time of Amen Corner and the Small Faces, and God’s second coming in the form of Eric Clapton. I also attended a few laid back, beatnik sort of folk clubs back then and we danced to Tamla Motown and Ska music in the youth clubs and at a rather sleazy club under Newport station, called Platform Six, I think. There was always a fight.

My first outing in a band was at a school end of term, playing bass on “There is a House in New Orleans” in 1967. 

Luckily, I fell in with a fairly cultured crowd in South Wales and we would often pop over to Bristol’s Colston Hall to see touring bands, playing mostly Jazz. I saw Jacques Loussier’s Play Bach Trio several times, Dave Brubeck, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Joe Harriott on tenor sax with Indo-Jazz Fusions; another game-changer for me. Bristol soon became a Mecca for us and so, when it came time to go to teacher training college, Fishponds in Bristol was my first choice.

But before college, if I had a lost summer in the 60’s, it was the summer of ‘68. I joined a couple of old friends from Southampton and we bummed around the country hitch hiking barefoot and picking up new friends along the way. We were very young and naive but, gosh, we had some adventures.

The highlight’s for me that summer were seeing Jimi Hendrix, Tyrannosaurus Rex, (Later T-Rex.) Family and other bands live at Knebworth before heading down to sleep rough in Hyde Park for a free concert by a cut-down version of Traffic. Steve Winwood of Traffic was a big hero, and still is.

About this time (1968) CBS Records issued the first album-length sampler called “The Rock Machine Turns You On.” My copy, like most of them, was mono. It had tracks by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Spirit, the Zombies, The Butterfield Blues Band, Blood Sweat and Tears, Simon and Garfunkel and mavericks like Roy Harper. It influenced a generation and was never (officially) brought out on CD or tape.

By the Autumn of 1968, there I was in Bristol with a grant and all expenses paid. The first things I bought were a mono turntable, a valve amplifier and a 10 inch speaker. Then I bought some wood and made the boxes to put them in. The fist album I played on it was “All Blue” by Miles Davis, followed by Pink Floyd’s “Saucerful of Secrets”, then Jethro Tull’s “This Was”, my Hendrix albums and Cream’s “Wheels of Fire.” 

Of course we formed a college band, heavily influenced by Jethro Tull, Joni Mitchell and the Incredible String Band. I played flute, whistle and harmonica, Sue Doyle sang and Ade George played guitar. I kept doing that kind of thing until I was well into my thirties; and why not?

Miles Davis
I saw Pete Green’s Fleetwood Mac, The Nice, The Who, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the Incredible String Band during my Bristol days, as well as jazzers like Roland Kirk, blues players like John Mayall, and the folkie scene heroes like Keith Christmas. I met Roy Harper at a University sit-in and John Peel at a shambolic Pink Floyd gig while selling IT and OZ magazines. ‘Heady times.

By 1970 my tastes spread to progressive jazz, blues, folk, psychedelia and all combinations thereof. It was the fusion areas that interested me most. “Bitches Brew” and "In a Silent Way" by Miles Davis pulled all that onto one canvas with an outrageous all star line up that redrew the map of modern jazz.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Music in the Seventies

Music in my Life: Part Three.

The 70s.
Pip Martin and Jim Stevenson
in Wiltshire.
My first proper teaching job was in Wiltshire on Salisbury Plain: not exactly a focus for the avant garde, but I played every week in duos at pubs and folk clubs, honing a few dozen songs that almost won us a tour of Scandinavia. The trouble was that we all had jobs and families. I was playing finger-in-the-ear type folk-songs while listening to Weather Report, Oregon and Pat Metheney; all fusion bands. 

I was absolutely hooked on John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra (later Shakti), featuring John’s runaway electric guitar riffs (like Jimi Hendrix meets Carlos Santana, at double pace) and a very tight band of European, American and Indian musicians. Then, on hearing Jaco Pastorius playing his fretless bass with Weather Report, I really didn’t want to hear anything else for years. These were not aberrations that you could share in the relatively straight folk world.

It was my younger brother Alex who introduced me to the music of Steely Dan. They were an American band that merged jazz, pop and blues. The jazz purists hated them for being pop and the pop people hated them for being jazz, but I had a weakness for that kind of thing. Sadly I never saw them and I still don’t have “Aja” or “Pretzel Logic” on vinyl, which is the way I heard them first. 

Jaco Pastorius
While teaching I took courses in music and eventually took a degree in art and music from the Open University. I found the 20th century composers really interesting, though hard to listen to. My tastes became even more eclectic as a result. I listened to everything from Stockhausen to Fairport Convention.

I joined a band called Marvo the Magician and stretched my playing quite a bit. I still have a demo tape we made in a studio in Poole and I’m rather proud of it.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Music in the Eightees.

Music in my Life: Part Four

The 80s.
I left Salisbury Plain and moved to Arundel in Sussex to become the education officer at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust there. The Famous Willows Folk Club was on my doorstep and I got to play pubs and folk clubs pretty much weekly. 

One night, I was lolling in my arm chair while roasting my feet on the fire. Centuries before, the house I rented had been a sort of pub and a hang out for smugglers. The fireplace was as big as the kitchen.and I often fell asleep in front of it, still wearing my woolies and Barbour coat. I eventually heard a knock on the door and there, in the pouring rain, stood a young American girl who was to be our intern and my assistant, on loan from Slimbridge. We married a year later. 

There was a serious amateur dramatics scene in town and we did a few musical shows,. I enjoyed the social side of all that, but the folk music was the real deal. The Copper Family became close friends and even sang for us at our pre-wedding booze-up. 

There were some good bands around in the 80s but this was the decade of the synthesiser and it pervaded everything. Joan Armatrading, Steve Winwood, even Joni Mitchell fell under it’s spell. However, my favourite Joni album is from 1980 and it goes in the opposite direction. This double live album, called Shadows and Light is a jazzy masterpiece with Pat Metheny on guitar. Lyle Mays on keys, Don Allias on percussion, Michael Brecker on sax and, ……wait for it………Jaco Pastorius on bass. It’s probably my favourite album of all time.
Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek

We moved to Scotland where I was the new warden at the RSPB’s Vane Farm Reserve, less than an hour from Edinburgh. My new hi-fi took pride of place on the roof of my car all the way up from England. 

I remember driving up to Mull for a spring camping trip (it was freezing cold with snow on the hills) and listening to Mark Knopfler’s music for the film “Local Hero”. The real local hero was a musician called Dougie Maclean who I had met in Sussex years before. He provided the music for the film “Last of the Mohicans” and ran a thriving studio and record label up the road from us in Dunkeld. His most famous song “Caledonia” is an unofficial National Anthem up there.  

The Scottish folk scene is quite different from the English one, but we loved going to the clubs and the ceilidhs. Archie Fisher hosted the weekly folk show on the radio and he spent a lot of time in Canada with a singer called Stan Rogers who, like Ewan McColl  before him, wrote songs that everyone thought were traditional. His Northwest Passage sing, about driving a truck across the tundra, is a Canadian classic.

Then there was Edinburgh with its Festival. We went to a huge number of gigs in our first year up there. Edinburgh was on the tour list for many of the great bands, and there was a good jazz scene too. One of the best concerts was a solo gig by John Martin when he was in his prime.

Jan Garbarek in Edinburgh
The ECM record label launched an era of “chamber jazz” based around an international set of musicians that some called the Third Viennese School, though many of them also went to the Berklee Music School. Jan Garbarek is a Norwegian sax player with a very characteristic pure tone, Eberhard Weber played an electric double bass that sounded more like a cello. The pianists Keith Jarrett and Chic Corea signed up and Gary Burton played vibes while Ralph Towner brought his 12 string along. Everyone had their own band, made up of other soloists who had their own bands too. You could call it a collective. Every time I  saw them there was a different line up. I missed seeing Bill Frisell play guitar with them but I caught David Torn doing his weird computerised, pedal powered and over-driven guitar to create a ghostly, impressionistic backing to  Garbareks sparse, ringing, plainsong sax-ballads.

After our son Nicholas was born, we didn’t go out quite so much. The first concert we went to was a band called the Rolling Stones (‘remember them?). They were playing a football stadium in Glasgow on a summer’s Sunday afternoon. They were not allowed to play after ten pm, so the show was in such bright sunlight that the lighting and the big projected images struggled to have any effect. The band was a long way away and I’m afraid we got a bit bored, and so we left early to get a bite to eat on the way home. Scottish Sunday nights were a wee bit dull in those days and we didn’t find anywhere open. Our babysitter was astonished when we fell in the door, stone sober and famished. 

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Music in the Nineties.

My Life in Music: Part Five

The 90s.

At the end of the 80s, the monster album was  Paul Simon's "Graceland," which was a brilliant collaboration with bands from South Africa. We had been to Kenya and longed for another adventure like that.

And so, everything changed: We took a posting to Seychelles for three years to work in the marine parks there. We had no TV and the only radio station we could receive was the government station. I must say, it didn’t bother us much. Our neighbours listened to two kinds of music: Reggae and Country Music. On a Sunday morning I might walk out early through the palms on Praslin Island counting black parrots to the sound of Bob Marley singing “Don’t Worry about a thing, Every Little Thing’s Gonna be Alright.” The booming reggae bass would be coming from a wooden house, hidden in the trees. I was in Little Jamaica. Further on, another house would have the radio on and I would hear one of those cowboy evangelists singing about how he had been a poor sinner and almost died until he saw the light. I preferred the Reggae. 

Seychelles has its own language called Kreol. This is mostly made up of pigeon French, some English, some Indian, Malagasy, and some African words, all mixed together and infused with Swahili spelling which is phonetic. Bon jour, becomes bonzur and we also have bonswa for "Good-night". The Franglais element is endearing to us Brits but makes the French cringe.
Guide at Vallee de Mai with a Seychelles coco-de-mare.

“Bonswa monzami, komonsava?” 
“Mon byen.” or more in the English way, “Pa tro mal” 

The real local music is sung in Kreol. It combines French dance tunes with a particular African beat called Sega. Tourists hear it in the hotels, but the locals, who hang out at grandma’s house during weekends, still know all the songs. I learned to dance a bit of Sega and can remember some of the tunes. We bought a few tapes by local musicians including Jonise Juliette. 

On returning to the RSPB in Bedfordshire I was given the job of managing the Seychelles programme and, as a bonus, I was given Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to work in too. I found Uganda to have the most interesting music, drawing on all the countries around it for influences. The Half London Club in Kampala was a delight with bands from Rwanda and Mali joining the local ones. 

Despite all the other things going on in the 90s music scene, I think I was most interested in the African music I heard. 

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Music in the 21st Century

My Life in Music: Part Six

2000 to 2018 
My work was keeping me away from home too much of the time so I needed a job with less travel involved. My director at the RSPB offered me the UK Overseas Territories; a rash of tiny islands scattered all over the globe. I was supposed to go to meetings at the Foreign Office in London and attend a few conferences in places like Gibraltar and the Caribbean. However I soon found myself travelling regularly to Ascension, the Falklands and Anguilla, which meant more Reggae music. 

One conference was in Cuba, not long after the Buena Vista Social Club album was produced by Ry Cooder.  I remember sitting in the back of a tour bus with a group of wary Americans. I was listening to local radio on a Sony Walkman with a huge grin on my face. The pretty tour-guide remarked that I was the happiest person on the bus and asked me why. I said that I had always wanted to come to Cuba and now, here I was in Havana, listening to fantastic music on the radio and looking forward to seeing a lot more of Cuba. I caught as much live music as possible on the trip.

While all of this was happening, our son Nicholas was showing real talent as both an artist and a musician and it became my job to ferry a car load of schoolboys down to London to see the latest bands. It was novel for me to enjoy young British bands through the eyes and ears of another generation. Soon Nick had his own band and we had a boot load of gear to cart around between gigs and recording sessions. We still go to see his own band Lucky Shivers and two others that he plays in, called Red Kite (based in Northampton) and Oro Swimming Hour (based in Bristol). 

Meanwhile, my grandson Jake has become an operatic bass, singing with Holland Park Opera and performing in Arundel and Chichester regularly. No-one saw that coming!

Oro Swimming Hour
Admittedly, since Nick left home, there is less music about the place. I always have some CDs of the old stuff in my car, but I usually listen to Radio 4. Hanna and I chill out to mum and dad music, like James Taylor and Mary Chapin Carpenter who comes to Cambridge regularly. Hanna sings in a women’s choir while I take photos . It's all very mellow and cosy, so sometimes, I just have to crank up the volume and let off steam. My current playlist includes David Bowie’s Black Star, probably the best album he ever made, and my son’s latest releases.

My youngest boy, Dan has special needs 
but is also showing some talent as a musician. 

After always having guitarists around, I’m finally trying to learn the guitar for myself. Don’t hold your breath. 

Friday, 12 January 2018

My Shortlist of Singles

My ten records? I thought you would never ask!

After wracking my brain to remember all those decades of music, it's really hard to make a choice. I might just as well have gone into a second hand vinyl store, such as our local Oxfam shop or "The Vinyl Frontier" in Suffolk, and picked out a few singles at random. However, if you consider who the audience will be on Huntingdon Community Radio on a Sunday, it would not be wise to go for the raw folk, the jazz-rock stuff, the hippy noodlings or any long virtuoso solos, be it jazz, prog-rock or an African drum cooperative. People would switch off. 

In any case, a lot of my favourite tracks are very long and an extract would not do them justice, so I have chosen tracks that assert themselves pretty quickly and I have mixed a few more obscure ones in with some pop classics.

This is my short list that will need to be pruned down:

  1. All Blue by Miles Davis.
  2. My Generation, by The Who
  3. On the Road Again by Canned Heat.
  4. Fresh Garbage by Spirit or the Zombies, Time of the Season (both from the Rock Machine Turns You On sampler).
  5. America by the Nice (Keith Emerson) 
  6. Joni Mitchell Woodstock (preferably from Shadows and Light ) or the Crosby, Stills and Nash version.
  7. Peter Gabriel singing The Power of the Heart (written by Lou Reed for his proposal to Laurie Anderson) 
  8. David Bowie This is not America (with Pat Metheny Group.)
  9. All I Want to Know by the Magnetic Fields.
  10. Nick Stevenson's band Lucky Shivers performing Human by Night. 
  11. The Water is Wide by Karla Bonoff with James Taylor.
  12. Dreamland by Mary Chapin Carpenter.
  13. Weather Report performing Birdland.
  14. Raga Piloo by Indo Jazz Fusions.