Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Twist In My Sobriety

The first gun-metal-grey streaks of dawn knife their way across the slow-to-materialise sunrise-skyline while the tugboats plough their way up the oh-so-still Hudson; up river a couple of hours by train and turn left, inland a bit and over the hills and not too terribly far away… and, there’s Woodstock – forty years ago this weekend – oh, boy.

But first, look left and there’s Union City on Jersey’s shore; home to the Union Dry Dock upon which Blondie shot their helicopter-led, day/night-time video for the track from Eat To The Beat that, curiously, was never issued as a single in America yet reached #13 on its first outing in the UK. A song penned by the ubiquitous Ms Harry together with bass-player Nigel Harrison, one time native of Princess Risborough, itself not too far down the road (or up, depending on one’s direction of travel) to one of the legendary UK venues of the seventies and eighties, Friars Aylesbury.

And home, at that point in time, to one of the very best independent record stores in all of Britain – run by a couple of music aficionados (Steve and Sue) and owned by the man behind Friars itself – Dave Stopps. Just a small middle-England market town yet one which boasted not only that tiny shop which was stuffed to the gunwales with must-have domestic vinyl as well as the very latest, de-rigeur imports but also an absolute must-go concert venue whose reputation was such that it could justifiably claim to have been pivotal within the development of a number of acts; Genesis (like ‘em or loathe ‘em) would be one of many.

I lost count rather a long time ago of the number of times I made that one hundred-plus mile round trip; seeing some extraordinary acts in the process – Queen (as one example) supporting… now, who was it… pretty sure that’d have been Cockney Rebel. Otway and Wild Willy Barrett; the Ramones; Jess Roden not long after the release of his first solo record in tandem with Iguana when they’d become the imaginatively named Jess Roden Band; Lindisfarne; String Driven Thing; Mott The Hoople who, for one reason or another, will always be associated with that particular gig; OMD; Osibisa – that was a hot night indeed – and of course… Stackridge… nights when Let There Be Lids rang out loud, proud and clear; the Saw Doctors of their day – a band who never sold a great deal of records yet who were utterly irresistible live.

Friars was also a jumping-off point to the US for so many bands of that era touring new albums.

Hey, Manhattan – look, there’s the Carlyle where Kennedy stayed… The Brooklyn Bridge laying before me… Paddy MacAloon’s paen to the city of blinding lights from Langley Park To Memphis; and off to the right, the signs for Queens that’ll eventually lead to the Whitestone Bridge, immortalised in Sonny Condell’s song on Tir Na Nog’s third, Matthew Fisher (the court-case-winning organist from Procul Harum) produced, magnum opus Strong In The Sun; just a little below that would be other signs for Jackson Heights – the group formed by Lee Jackson from the ashes of The Nice when that band imploded and Todmorden’s favourite son, Keith Emerson took his organ and knives off to fill enormadomes with Lake and Palmer. Jackson Heights, of course, variously featured both Mike Giles and Ian Wallace on drums – both, equally, stalwarts of King Crimson with the former also part of the long-forgotten duo MacDonald & Giles who recorded their one and only, eponymous, album for Island – the gatefold cover featuring both arm in arm with their ladies of the time, perhaps wives of now.

Further still up on the Jersey-side there’s Hackensack – giving of itself (by name) to Nick Moore’s band that formed in 1969 to release just the one, Roger Dean cover-designed, Polydor album Up The Hardway which, by all accounts (cement-hard-rock not exactly being my forté) is quite a considerable collector’s piece some forty years after the warmth of that and other vinyl hit the shelves of record stores up and down, across the length and breadth of… days when the newspaper adverts proudly proclaiming ‘available at your local record shop’ meant exactly that.

Now, there’s barely a record store at all.

At present, in the UK, there’s something like four-hundred independent record stores trading; in 2003 – there was well over a thousand. And, way back then – there must have been in excess of five times that number.

Do I bemoan the days of vinyl passed?

Yes… actually… I rather do.

Because there is no longer any real experience that goes with the purchase of a new recording.

Look at it this way – nowadays, the new (for sake of example) Bob Dylan waxing sits alongside a Beatles 2010 calendar in a book-shop; Waterstones, Barnes & Noble – take your pick, they’re one and the same. Woolworths (r.i.p.), Boots the Chemists, Sainsburys, Tescos, Wal-Mart or WH Smiths – their ‘record’ departments trotting out top forty as if there was / is nothing else to tempt the eager punter with. Fill up with petrol or diesel and take your pick from dozens of compilations that sit right next to the crisps, nuts and chocolate bars in any Shell / Mobil garage. Did you crave the new U2 album? Available at cut price when you purchased a cappuccino at Starbucks.

And online – what’s really there? A huge mass of… stuff – you can look but can’t touch. And, about as enticing a manner of shopping as glancing at the cellophane-wrapped top shelf volumes in an immigrant run, seedy newseller’s in East London.

The online process is… well, there isn’t a ‘process’ as such. Think about it for a moment – you dial up your latest, all singing, all dancing version of I-Tunes and log in to the I-Tunes store. So far, so ok – but, what greets you? Their (beastly) recommendations – which aren’t really theirs at all – nope, corporate label X or Y has ‘paid’ to have their ‘product’ ‘promoted’.

There is no possibility – any longer – of wandering through the racks, looking through album sleeves; all the cds that are for sale are so heavily protected by being put inside security coffins that, the simple pleasure described above is no longer available.

And here, maybe, is where the grey area is – for me at any rate – no longer grey. This is where black becomes the new white.

And… it comes down to the one, single, word – product.

And, many years back, it got me into a whole heap of trouble… for daring to question my (then) paymasters at EMI. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to 1972. Act one, scene one – the EMI annual sales conference.

I’m twenty years old (ok, so that means you now know how ancient I really am). The venue is some terribly swish London hotel and all of us nonentities (ie, sales reps) are there in our best haircuts, suits and kipper ties.

Some of us – self included – had beards; they were all the rage back then and, I confess, I rather thought I looked a little like a young King Charles – the first of that line who, you’ll recall, had a minor disagreement with Parliament which ended with one single blow of a well-sharpened axe when his head rolled onto a sawdust laden scaffold outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, one chilly Tuesday lunchtime, the 30th day of that particular January in 1649.

The great and the good were there from ‘head-office’, those inhabitants of the hallowed turf known as Manchester Square – the office building that featured, rather fetchingly I always thought, on not only the cover of an early Beatles album but also on the blue and red double-compilations of later years.

Many of them sported beards too. And, one by one, they took their turns up at the lectern in front of a slide-show to deliver a ‘presentation’ of their new ‘product’ for the coming autumnal sales drive.

And what delights did they and the relevant label-heads from the EMI distributed labels of the time have to tempt us all with..? Well now, 1972 was, of course, the year when quadraphonic sound came out to play… remember that or never heard of it? No… ok then, a little refresher – quad sound meant that you had to buy a load more audio equipment (amp and two more speakers being the bare minimum) and, in essence, sit in the middle of the room with the speakers cunningly positioned so that the sound… surrounded you.

It was a little like sitting in amongst the violas if orchestral was your preferred take on music or being uncomfortably close to Jon Lord and his Hammond if that’s what musically got your rocks off.

Quad meaning four and… speakers set in four corners of one’s room wasn’t a bad first step. Did it work… well, it was an interesting audio experiment but, really nowhere near as sophisticated as the kind of surround-sound you get in film theatres today.

The boffins loved it (of course) as did my pub-landlord of the time. Late night sessions with him and his wife just outside of Newbury (he was a monocled, Swiss baron and she learned the art of cooking Steak Dianne from the French bloke who actually invented the dish) playing Elgar, Wagner and Vaughn Williams at colossal volume whilst imbibing too much whisky saw to much of that year… as did the bar bill which saw a goodly portion of my EMI wages.

So… what did we get… hmmm… Deep Purple and Machine Head (and yes, they released a quad – or Q4 – version); Babe Ruth, Pink Floyd and Obscured By Clouds, a Gallagher and Lyle album, most probably Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill which was on ABC but, so far as I recall, that was distributed by EMI at the time (and did anyone actually know that a steely dan was a name of a dildo-variant… I think not); there’d have been a Gensis album – Foxtrot; Island would have weighed in with the first Roxy Music offering. The Music For Pleasure label would have given us a Magic Roundabout album and Twiggy – that was the year of The Boyfriend. There was ELO because Roll Over Beethoven had already clogged up the summer airwaves and The Shadows – of course there was a Shad’s album, there always was… and… yes, The Wurzels too – on the Starline label. Oh my, such delicious memories.

And, up they trotted, one by one, to extol the virtues of this or that… piece of… product.

Ultimately the assembled company were introduced to a new high-up-in-the-ranks chap. I think he may well have had a beard too. His name was… Bob. And, for the life of me, I can’t recall his surname. No matter… Bob had a background in… canned food. And, during his speech, extolling the virtues of the fabulous EMI, he used the P-word a great deal.

Later that evening, there was the company dinner at which we were all jumbled up with regard to seating – meaning that you’d have someone frightfully important hosting a table which’d be filled with people within the organisation but all from disparate backgrounds and jobs.

I was on Bob’s table.

And, after partaking a couple of glasses of the well-chilled, I was in belligerent mood and took him to task for using the P-word.

How on earth could he justify calling the music that an artist / act had sweated over for (perhaps) weeks / months and which had been committed to vinyl with a cover / jacket / sleeve that had been equally lovingly designed (so long as it wasn’t on Music For Pleasure) and… term the end result… product.

So far as I was concerned, that was equating music to baked beans.

And, it was as fundamental as that.

And so, in no uncertain terms, I made my views known

What I didn’t know – at the time – was that the canned food company from which he’d been recruited was called… Heinz.

Needless to say, my opinions didn’t go unnoticed and a severe dressing down was my reward a few days later, administered by my area manager, one Jimmy Parmenter… a kindly soul who did what he had to with, I believe, a heavy heart since he equally well knew that what drove me was passion. Equals – was it any wonder / surprise that I jumped the EMI ship at the earliest possible opportunity to join Island in ’74.

Passion – it drove me then, it does today and will until the day I bowl up at the pearly gates… and its passion about music. I’m just not passionate about music seen as / termed as / known as / referred to as… product.

Which, basically, is all one gets nowadays.


Trawling around the wild west wait a lot earlier this year, I came across an absolutely fascinating site. It was almost as if it’d been built purely to satisfy me / my kind of person… One quick look and I immediately knew that DB, holed up in his Aunac lair in the rural idyll that is the Charente would love it… and… in fact, pretty much everyone I knew who loved… music.

I fizzed the link across to France. Two days later came the reply which I’ll paraphrase here… thanks hugely for sending that link, it is indeed amazing and fully satisfies my vinyl-junkie cravings. However, you’ve not endeared yourself to the wife, she unplugged me after five hours spent online, gazing avidly – claiming that was enough for anyone. I plan to have another look when she’s out shopping tomorrow.

And the site… its called

Its run by a couple of blokes who’ve set up what could be, loosely termed, the ultimate vinyl-junkie’s fix – they specialise in rare or hard to find, vinyl and other recordings. In short, a collectors site.

And, I’d argue strenuously that its probably the very best out there.

A few weeks after discovering said site, I’m parked up in my borrowed car in a once and almost forgotten backwater in Kent – the home of It’s as non-descript and somewhat run-down as the warehouse looming large before me.

The façade belies the interior, however. Because, once through the portals, it’s a different matter altogether – a veritable treasure-trove of vinyl / cd – long forgotten jewels are racked cheek by jowl and all lovingly tended / catalogued by staff who care equally passionately about… the music.

In one respect, I’m almost glad of my suitcase existence since it precluded the purchase of a great deal laying before my eyes.

Yes, its an online shopping experience but… what sets it apart from the rest is this: the manner in which everything is laid out is as close as it can (online) get to browsing through the shelves and racks of yesteryear. Its (almost) as good as sifting through the imports bin in a shop that simply doesn’t exist any longer. Its also markedly different – and all the better for it – from the other collector’s sites out there because, the cataloguing is done / written up by people who one just knows would have worked in one of those stores; the kind of people who’d have unpacked a gleaming new import, inbound from the States way back when, and immediately played it to a shop-full of curious customers.

What could make it better... hmmm, only one thing - and, that'd be the boffins at installing a facility to play bits of music (a bit like they have on I-Tunes).

This weekend, forty years ago, half a million – give or take a few – trudged to and from the mudbath that was otherwise known as Max Yasgur’s farm in Sullivan County, upstate New York.

The counter-cultural revolution was in full-flow yet man had, but a few days before, walked the Sea Of Tranquillity having journeyed to the Moon on board Apollo 11 while Jimi Hendrix closed out the three day Woodstock Music & Arts Fair by de-constructing the Star Spangled Banner – one was a product of man’s invention, the other as eloquent a musical statement as can be made that, no matter how many times its is heard or viewed, could ever be described as… product.

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