I’m a Christian and I’ve loved pop music all my life, so can’t really separate the two.
This weird book brings the two together, one informing the other.
I hope it might make for an interesting, informative and entertaining read, even though some of the titles are a bit cheesy. Apologies…
An extract from the book
Sunshine on a Cloudy Day
In the film Music and Lyrics Alex Fletcher, played by Hugh Grant, comes up with this great quote about pop songs. He says that any line from all the great novels in the world cannot make you feel anything like as good, in such a short space of time, as a line from The Temptations’ My Girl. A song which describes sunshine on a day full of clouds, and warmth on a chilly cold day. And all to an endorphin -busting tune. He then lists a few great songwriters, those who bring such life-infused tunes into our lives. Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, The Beatles.
That’s me. That’s my take on it too. These poets can not only make us feel good, they move us, they fire us up, they calm us down, they enrage us, they motivate us and they inspire us. In just three minutes. That is something.
We artists, and I use the word verrrrry loosely with regard to myself, fear being found out, unmasked as frauds, not as smart or special as people think. Perhaps we inadvertently set ourselves on a pedestal, legends in our own mind, capable of changing the universe one song, one line, one picture, one book, one tune, one performance at a time. So I'm unmasking myself here, disclosing myself as a true fraud. To misquote Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, ‘I'm just a guy, here in front of you, with a handful of thoughts, asking you to go easy on me.’ And when it comes to improving the universe I try and hold on to a simpler thought, changing the world one smile at a time.
I’ve never been a discerning or sophisticated listener, I just fall for whatever grabs my ear-gear and sneaks into my head. I have huge gaps in my knowledge too. I know little or nothing about Pink Floyd, or Led Zeppelin, or Deep Purple, or prog rock, or hip hop, or heavy metal, or emo, or Gilbert and Sullivan, or Mantovani, or opera, or Flanders and Swan, or classical. I’m tempted to label myself a Philistine at this point, but I believe the Philistines were actually rather cultured. So I guess, I’m just me.
I have just been listening to a programme about the brilliant guitarist Jeff Beck, who was endlessly creative with the sounds he made, but I realise I know him best for the infectious Hi Ho Silver Lining and not least for the version recently done by Imelda May for the second Fisherman’s Friends movie. I tend to like what I like and often keep quiet about the cheesier end of that. (Not in this book though!) Over the years I have acquired albums by everyone from Magazine to The Nolans, Showaddywaddy to Stiff Little Fingers, The Carpenters to The Clash, John Barry to Cliff Richard.
My love for pop music began early, I was born in 1962, the year The Beatles had their first hit. I missed their reign, and only caught up later. Same with The Kinks, and much of The Who, The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann and so many others. I did buy my first single in the ‘60s, but the ‘70s was really my era. I left the hit parade behind for much of the ‘80s, and picked things up again in the ‘90s, though it was becoming a love/hate thing by then. The new century has been hit and miss for me. I want to be ‘down with the kids’, but let’s be honest, these days if I could get down with anyone, it’s unlikely I’d get back up again.
I don't play a musical instrument. I started learning the guitar at eighteen but then I saw a mime artist, Geoffrey Stevenson and drama took over my focus and energy. I picked up my daughter's ukulele in the 2020 lockdown and found a lesson on YouTube, but soon I was making videos for online church services and other projects took over.
I worked in a bank from 1979 to 1984 and they used to pay us profit sharing each January, so one year I bought a small keyboard. But the mechanics and digital dexterity were beyond me. My fingers wouldn't do the walking. They tripped over themselves or meandered off course. Listening and dancing to and thinking about songs is my limit.
So any opinions I have don't come from a place of technique or ability, just from a cave of my own ideas. And is dependent on which sounds have made their way into my ears and shoved open the doors of my heart.
I've always found happy, catchy tunes uplifting, those most easy on the ears, and I feel I should apologise for liking songs by Showaddywaddy, The Carpenters, Abba, The Nolans, S Club 7. Because many of them are, well, seen as a little bit naff and commercial, and I am not supposed to like them.
Mind you The Beautiful South did a great album of diverse covers, Golddiggas, Headnodders & Pholk Songs, on which they did a version of S Club 7’s Don’t Stop Moving so they must have liked them too. The album also features such classics as Don’t Fear the Reaper and You’re the One That I Want, both done in that inimitable Beautiful South way.
I could try and present the case that, once in a blue moon, I have wished I was passionate about some other music, as pop is considered such a lowbrow art form. But I don’t think that’s true. Though I may have appeared embarrassed sometimes when confessing my fondness for the top forty. I’m me and this is who I am, why try to be something else? I’d be a shark trying to ride a unicycle, wouldn’t I. So as I sit and write this I’m not convinced that I have ever really wanted to escape my love of pop.
At the other end of the hep spectrum I also feel I should apologise for not liking rap and hip hop. I confess I am behind the times here. It’s a dominant genre now. So popular, and with plenty to say. In my defence I do like one or two, The Black Eyed Peas’ Where's the Love comes to mind, and there’s a good message in that one as well. Less of a good message in House of Pain’s Jump Around but that’s a favourite an’ all.
I believe rap made its first insurgence into the mainstream with The Sugarhill Gang and Rapper’s Delight, and The Gap Band’s Oops, Up Side Your Head. A.k.a. The Rowing Song due to the sit-down-and-do-some-rowing-on-the-floor dance that we all did to it. I have to confess to liking that one too, and was more than happy to throw myself down and bust a few rowing moves.
Being a chart fan I couldn’t resist including numerous random Top Five listings, and many of them contain more than five songs. (There are three kinds of mathematicians in the world, those who can do maths and those who can’t.) I should also say any references in the book to chart placings refers to the UK hit parade. Some of my top five listings appear with a logical connection to what has gone before, some don’t. Bird Songs for example. No real reason for that to be in here. That was just a topic that popped into my head so I included it. Good job Terrifying Villains didn’t pop into my head instead or you’d have had Bony M’s Ma Baker, Georgie Fame’s The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, The Phony King of England (from Disney’s Robin Hood)… and Mr Blobby. I’ll stop there.
When I was at junior school we used to tell a ghost story. It went something like this.
We were walking along the moor one night, there was Fred and Joe and me. We came to a big old house. Fred went inside… and didn’t come out. Joe went inside… and didn’t come out. Then I went inside. One year later Fred went mad. Two years later Joe went mad. And it’s exactly three years ago today since it happened to…. MEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!! At which point we howled the last word, hoping to make the listening crowd jump out of their skin. Even if they had heard it before.
I think of that tale sometimes when I hear the classic Hotel California by the Eagles. It’s one of the great story songs, about a guy who gets weary while travelling and has to stop for the night. He finds this eerie place, full of whispers and strangers. The Hotel California. It always reminds me of Fred and Joe and me going mad in that house on the moor. (I’m better now.)
Top Five Favourite Story Songs
Hotel California (The Eagles)
Goodnight Saigon (Billy Joel)
American Pie (Don McLean)
Wuthering Heights (Kate Bush)
Park Life (Blur)
I think I mentioned that I’m a sucker for a catchy tune. I’ve just been watching a documentary about New York’s Brill Building, a thriving hit factory in the ‘50s and ‘60s, where groups of talented artists produced hit after hit. The likes of Neil Sedaka and Carole King scribbled catchy number after catchy number so that the hip singers and groups of their day could fill the airwaves with hooky three-minute tunes. When Dire Straits sang about Romeo and Juliet back in 1980 they made reference to a Brill classic with the line about Juliet being under Romeo’s window singing a line about her boyfriend being back. I thought she was just waxing lyrical about Romeo, but it seems now she was also quoting the Angels from 1963.
I come to so many of these songs late, but the easy-on-the-ears nature means I’m instantly grabbed. Bruce Springsteen’s latest album is a collection of Northern Soul classics. The Boss cranking out a load of tunes from the sweaty dance halls of the ‘60s, no doubt packed with memories for him. I discovered Northern Soul late via an online documentary. Young adults spinning and twisting all weekend in northern UK dance halls to rediscovered American soul classics. I could spend my life watching programmes like this, the university of life just keeps on giving. And when I find one of my daughters playing a song I used to love I feel I’m helping complete their education in some way.
There was no Northern Soul in our house in the early 70s though. Instead we had a clutch of novelty singles. Ernie by Benny Hill, complete with the classic B-side Ting-A-Ling-A-Loo, Middle of the Road’s Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, and not forgetting The Scaffold’s Lily the Pink. Ah, Lily the Pink. I knew all the words about Jennifer Eccles and her terrible freckles. And I found it to be a rather haunting tale, as it ended with dear Lily going up to heaven. The theology was okay, (although I feel the need to point out she wasn’t actually the saviour of the human race, for that I suggest taking a gander at the gospel of Mark), but it seemed such a shame the pink one had to leave. I believe the song was number one in the hit parade for four weeks. And the band includes the famous Mike McGear – yes! Only the younger brother of one Paul McCartney. Forget Penny Lane, Lily’s the thing.
I’ve just discovered that Lily the Pink is actually based on an old folk song called The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham. Lydia was a real person, famous for inventing a tonic for menstrual and menopausal problems. Who knew? Well, The Shenanigans for sure, as you can see them singing it on YouTube. But back to those early records. The first single I remember going out to buy was The Legend of Xanadu by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. A band who were extremely successful for a time, it’s said that between 1965 and 1969 they spent more weeks on the chart than The Beatles. They only had one number one though (a little shy of the seventeen that The Beatles managed). And that was the one I bought, hopefully I had a certain influence on their success. It was 1968 and I was just five.
I recall Dave Dee cracking a whip on Top of the Pops as he sang, that must have been worrying for the camera crew. And maybe it sowed the seeds in my psyche for my later dedication to Indiana Jones. I have half an idea that also I went out to buy Sugar Sugar by The Archies at some point. But I might be imagining that. I don’t think I got it anyway. Probably sold out. I’ve always loved that Tate and Lyle number, a song that was originally offered to The Monkees, who turned it down as they wanted to move into a more serious musical phase. Bit of a mistake as it went on to be the biggest selling single of the year. Oh well. The Archies weren’t actually a real band. They were a fictional cartoon group, although some might suggest that of The Monkees too.
No idea what my second purchase was, I didn’t buy many singles back then. I often strummed through my parents’ collection of LPs – they had South Pacific, and The Sound of Music (I think everybody had those two), and also possibly West Side Story. The South Pacific soundtrack was, believe it or not, number one in the album chart for… are you sitting down… sixty, yes – sixty weeks. And that was just in the 1950s. In the 1960s it clocked up another fifty-five, making one hundred and fifteen weeks at number one. I kid you not. And we thought Bryan Adams was outstaying his welcome with that Robin Hood number.
My mum and dad also had other albums, including Simon and Garfunkel’s greatest hits. Plus an old disc of the sound of someone driving a tractor. Really. I don’t think I’m misremembering that. It may have been a vinyl 78. I say vinyl, everything was on vinyl. We could only dream of TDK cassettes getting tangled round the heads of your tape player. Those heady spooling days were light years away. Paul and Art’s greatest hits collection was the fourth biggest seller of the 1970s, they weren’t the biggest LP because that was their other little record Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Love and War
The LP I played over and over was Geoff Love’s Big War Movie Themes. Now that was an album. Love and War you might say. I loved it. The disc was jammed with those themes from The Great Escape, Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Dambusters, The Battle of Britain, The Longest Day, 633 Squadron, The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare. Not only had I seen most of the films, but the tunes were memorable, hummable numbers too. Not all though. Lawrence of Arabia was hard to whistle, and I’d never heard of Is Paris Burning? And haven’t seen it to this day. I’ve just looked up Mr Love only to find he also did a ton of albums under the guise of Manuel and his Music of the Mountains. I recall he had a hit with Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto in 1976, but I never knew Manuel and Geoff were one and the same! (What would we do without Wikipedia eh?)
I used to play the Big War Movie Themes in our lounge in Cornwall on our Dansette record player, it was mounted in a solid blue box big enough and strong enough to sit on. When you were seven anyway. I played that disc over and over. Knew the album back to front. The cover was great too with its technicolour sketch of John Wayne, Peter O’Toole and some other fella. With the bridge exploding over the River Kwai in the background. I must have stared at that thing for hours. Back then you could digest such things like that.
That was the wonder of records, they came with covers and sleeves and that vinyl smell. We had a special oblong duster you could hold onto the record as it went round. Not as you were playing it though, that was the quickest way to the scourge of vinyl. Scratching. And I don’t mean like those hip happening DJs do now. These scratches meant you could be stuck in the middle of track three forever. Crackle click crackle click crackle click crackle click crackle click... I’m assured by Wikipedia that Geoff Love released his war opus in 1971. Perfect timing then for moving on to the music of my sister.
Top Five War Themes
A Bridge Too Far
The Great Escape
Memphis Belle (Danny Boy)
Bridge Over the River Kwai
I don’t mean that my sister actually recorded any songs, she was only about thirteen then. But Donny and David were on the scene. Yes. Osmond and Cassidy. Puppy Love and Daydreamer. Ah, those heartthrobs with their feather-cuts, wide lapels and flares. Bowie and Bolan were on the scene too, and I remember liking Space Oddity and Metal Guru. Only later would I buy greatest hits collections and discover classics like Starman and Ride a White Swan.
The early ‘70s is a fuzzy period in my memory. I became aware of popular songs on the radio such as When Will I See You Again, Rock Your Baby, Band of Gold, Miss Grace, I Can’t Give You Anything But My Love. But knowing exactly when I first heard them or if I was regularly listening to them is hard to say. I was aware of Slade too, as Marc Bolan faded and the boys from Birmingham grew popular. Mama Weer All Crazee Now comes to mind, and Gudbuy T’ Jane. (Gudness mee, wheare dyd thees guyze lurn two spelle?) These songs and others seemed to be forever in the background in the early 70s. And they bring back hazy and nostalgic memories of that time. That’s the best I can say. Hard to be specific.
I recently read about the boys from the glam band The Sweet, and how they came up with their early 70s sound. They were playing a concert and not going down well at all. People started throwing things and there was chaos. However, instead of giving up, they went away and wrote Ballroom Blitz, a reimagining of that concert in which the larking of the audience threw a shedload of energy into the mix and turned the anarchic event into something of good order. And this defined the next few hits they scored. A great example of that old adage, if life gives you a lemon… make a bacon sandwich.
I started going to Redruth Grammar school in 1974. You had to be careful about revealing your musical tastes at school. Didn’t want to get caught out liking The Wombles or The Osmonds when you had the likes of Bowie and Rod Stewart around.
In the second form we used to listen to the chart on a Tuesday lunchtime. One of the class had a little transistor radio and on March 23rd 1976 we were listening to the new countdown in our classroom. We heard that Tina Charles had slipped from the top position down to number three, which left just two songs. I was a big fan of Billy Ocean, and I wearily announced that he must be number one with Love Really Hurts Without You. In fact we soon discovered that Brotherhood of Man had begun their six-week reign at the top, after winning Eurovision.
The interesting thing is (you see, there is a purpose to this story) that I felt the need to pretend to be unhappy about the possibility of Mr Ocean being at number one. It was all cover up. I would have been secretly over the moon about that. As it was, in our house, Brotherhood of Man were also flavour of the month. But I couldn’t show any of that. Life was often full of musical pretence. The peer pressure was immense, at least in my head anyway. That lunchtime was one of the many occasions when I was hiding my true self...