Musical youth 

9 November 2011

It was my dad’s fault that I first became aware of music. As far back as I can remember there was a record player in the house. The earliest was a large floor-standing bakelite contraption with shiny brown mottled casing; later we progressed to those typical 50s/60s table-top units which were usually plywood, covered with a curiously tactile, knobbly fablon. Names like Dansette, Phillips and Ecko spring to mind, with an L-shaped auto changer which sent records crashing down on top of each other, doing wonders for the playing surface.

My dad’s collection of LPs and EPs probably totalled around 150, although at the time it seemed like a lot more. He even had quite a few 78s, which were no problem because record players back then had four speed settings; 78, 45, 33 and 16. Anyone remember 16 rpm? Did anybody ever buy anything at that speed?

His collection was mainly classical, but also included easy listening gems along the lines of ‘Hammond a-go-go’, where the LP sleeve featured a sultry young lady under a waterfall. These days such items are either a) worse than musical wallpaper or b) ultracool and fetch a fortune on eBay. But from a very young age I’d sit there listening to them all, just fascinated by the process of playing records, almost regardless of what I was actually hearing.

And that’s why I still know the words and music to the Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein musicals, all the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and can do air-conducting along to most mainstream classical pieces. That’s where I was first impressed by the cannon in the 1812, the almost-nonsense of Figaro Figaro Figaro, the swirl of Carmen… and the dustbin-with-revolver creations of Spike Jones.

But significantly, it gave me a foundation course in a wide range of music. Some of it I still don’t like but at least I can dismiss things I don’t like with a degree of authority. I still have many of my dad’s old records, and there’s a cosy nostalgia in looking at the LP sleeves and reading the liner notes. They have a wonderfully dated style, like old family photos, bringing back childhood memories of sitting in the living room in the early 60s, accompanied by Gordon Macrae, Perry Como or Carmen Dragon. And only recently have I realised that “Laminated by Clarifoil” is a phrase which disappeared with the coming of CDs.

As I got older, and as a token gesture towards my more contemporary tastes, my dad started buying a few singles and I remember the excitement of him bringing home things like ‘My old man’s a dustman’, ‘Little white bull’, and ‘Don’t bring Lulu’. Now I could play records which I’d heard on the Light Programme, and to an 8 year-old that was somehow glamorous and exotic. It also meant I could pretend to be a Living Room DJ presenting my own up-to-the-minute programme with the latest hits (theme tune ‘Walk, don’t run’ as covered by Herb Alpert). Before long, my ability to back-time or cue up records was impressive for someone so young.

My dad also bought quite a large amount of comedy material on record, which I found funny even though it was aimed mainly at adults. Some of the names have survived and are still well-regarded, whilst others have disappeared in the mists of changing tastes. Who, these days, is familiar with the works of Flanders and Swann, Gerard Hoffnung, Victor Borge, or Tom Lehrer?

The one factor common to those artists is that they are familiar to people over the age of around 40; something of a middle-aged cult, and not widely known by a younger generation.

Back in the early 60s Flanders and Swann were always on the radio – even on Children’s Favourites – with their songs about Hippos and Buses and Gasmen, as they performed the neat trick of being simultaneously childlike and satirical. We had their ‘At the drop of a hat’ live concert recording – produced, incidentally, by George Martin before his encounter with the Beatles. A genteel reminder of a more polite, restrained age of humour.


Courtesy of Alan Moores


I first heard Victor Borge from an EP where he did his phonetic punctuation thing. Listening to it as a kid I was impressed by an adult who could make noises which were vaguely rude but also clever. That particular sketch had a limited potential for development but Borge did have other strings to his bow (such as playing the piano deliberately badly, and using a female singer as a “straight man”) but a lot of his act was quite visual, and facial expressions have never come across very well on vinyl. In the 60s and 70s he used to crop up on TV from time to time, which was probably a better medium for his act.


Courtesy of The Ed Sullivan Show


Gerard Hoffnung is possibly the least known of that little bunch, and he deserves greater recognition. We had a 10 inch LP (remember them?) of him speaking at the Oxford Union, which included what is probably his most famous piece, the story about the bricklayer. At the time I didn’t really understand the humour, but I’ve heard it again more recently (and investigated his surprisingly large and varied output) and the man was a genius. As a speaker, musician, eccentric, illustrator, and caricaturist he is absolutely world class. Sadly he died young (age 34 in 1959). A great example of ‘what if…’


Courtesy of British Movietone


Lehrer is frighteningly sharp. Nothing is sacred. We had ‘An evening (wasted) with Tom Lehrer’, a live concert recording which I found funny even if I didn’t always understand why. In his company you can enjoy post-nuclear singalongs, join in with numbers about pigeon poisoning and masochism, and listen to audiences who aren’t sure whether or not to laugh at songs about incest and drug dealers. He is incredibly funny, observant and – maybe overlooked – a very good pianist. He was also ahead of his time. Listen to his song ‘The old dope peddler’ and then listen to the Velvet Underground’s ‘Waiting for the man’. Lehrer was 15 years ahead of Lou Reed, and with a better sense of irony. His greatest hit may be his setting of the periodic table of elements to the music of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Modern major general’ – an exceptional feat of memory, piano playing and dexterity. Significantly, he chose to retire from recording and performance in the early 1960s, so his legacy is untarnished. Get out whilst you’re on top and don’t flog any dead horses. If only other celebrities could follow the example.


Courtesy of The Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel


As I reached my early teens I started buying records for myself. At first I could only buy second-hand singles because that was all I could afford – and we’re talking 2/6d old money. My first ever 45rpm single, second-hand, was ‘Summer in the City’ by The Lovin’ Spoonful. On that day I really felt like I’d grown up and stepped into the adult world. Finally I wasn’t restricted to my dad’s tastes. My first ever new full-price single (6/8d) was ‘She’d rather be with me’ by The Turtles. That was on a par with buying your first car, or house, or getting married; something which would be remembered – for better or worse – for a long time to come. It was the start of something very big. By the mid 90s I had over 700 LPs, most of which I still have, along with around 600 CDs (still growing).


Now I’d started buying records I couldn’t just listen to them, I had to read up on the subject. I wanted the background information and details to suit my anorak tendencies, so I started buying music magazines; a habit which I followed without a break for the next 40 years. The first one I ever bought was New Musical Express in November 1967, and I still have it, albeit now a slightly dog-eared version. Back then the front page contained no editorial, only adverts for new releases, and to put my early copy in perspective, the front page featured ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’ by Traffic. By then the psychedelic era was in full swing, the blues boom had kicked off, and “progressive underground” music was emerging, but the music press was only just beginning to drag itself out of the era of Matt Monro, Frank Ifield and Kathy Kirby. In interviews, singers were still asked to name their favourite colour, and which fruit they liked best. The banner across the top of that NME sums it all up. The present meets the future and the past. Yes, there really was a short period of time when Max Bygraves rubbed shoulders with Jimi Hendrix.

Another edition of NME from those days has their ‘Best of the year’ readers poll results and the British Vocal Personality category makes interesting reading. Number 1 is Cliff; 2 – John Lennon; 3 – Tom Jones; 4 – Lulu; but lurking down at number 8 is Val Doonican! Even more amazing is that the 1967 Top Disc Jockey category included a number of people who are still working today. The top 8 were Jimmy Savile, Tony Blackburn, Simon Dee, Johnnie Walker, Emperor Rosko, Alan Freeman, Kenny Everett, and Ed Stewart… and that’s 44 years ago!

It’s surprising how many music magazines were available then, and have subsequently disappeared. From that era I also have several copies of Disc, Record Mirror, Sounds and Melody Maker. MM still included several pages of serious chin-stroking coverage of jazz and folk. That was where it had started and it was still covering those topics, whilst slowly acknowledging the growing rock/pop market. An edition from December 67 has a front page story about a proposed Tom Jones film (whatever happened to that?), but it shares that front page with the news that a forthcoming tour by Duke Ellington has been postponed. And the front page headline at the end of 1967, the year of hippies and flower power, described it as “the year of Engelbert”. Rock on.


Look inside and you find gems such as this advert for the Marquee in London… just a typical week. To really get into the mood of the 60s you could browse the adverts and buy a transistor radio or a wig (yes, that really does come from MM December 1967). And in the news pages you could read that Juke Box Jury was coming to an end because David Jacobs had decided that it had become boring (another DJ who is still broadcasting 44 years later).

Singles and LP reviews still had an air of ‘schoolmaster commenting on pop music’ about them. Expressions like “pleasant melody” and “up-tempo beat” crop up. Everything is very respectable and polite, using the language of a previous generation. Melody Maker’s review of the first Procol Harum LP starts with the phrase “a very pleasant and thoughtful set…”; and the review for the Pink Floyd single ‘Apples and Oranges’ tells us that “although much of the track is way out, there’s a catchy and repetitive chorus…”

Disc and Music Echo (the two had merged in 1966) was aimed more at the pop market with photos of heartthrobs such as The Tremeloes, The Herd, Gene Pitney or Cliff Richard. This was where you could learn that Junior Campbell of Marmalade lived in a flat in Finchley and used his money from songwriting to buy an MGB GT sports car (with electric windows and radio-cassette player). Or learn the prophetic news that “the new Monkees film may shock you says Davy Jones”. That’s the one which became ‘Head’. It bombed totally on its initial release because the teenagers couldn’t understand it, but is now a highly regarded cult classic.

The Monkees were also troubling the nation’s youth in other ways at this time. In the readers’ letters someone was compelled to write (and notice they printed the writer’s FULL address)

Record Mirror had started in 1953 as a traditional showbiz magazine, but by the late 60s its coverage of the market had managed to bridge the gap between teenage pop and the more serious punter. By 1969 its chart pages were spectacularly comprehensive and would include not only the current singles and LPs, but also the charts from 5, 10 and 20 years ago, the US charts, R&B charts, C&W charts, etc etc. Heaven for anoraks.

One regular feature in RM which now seems amazing is their “Readers Club” in which readers would send in a photo of themselves and tell everyone “I like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, watching tv and playing tennis, and I would like to hear from others with similar interests” which was then followed by their FULL home address. Where are they now? And what do they look like now? There is an overwhelming urge to write to one of those address today, just out of sheer curiosity.


Step forward a couple of years to 1970 and I still have the first ever issue of Sounds. Slightly unfortunately, their launch coincided with the death of Janis Joplin which was the cover story. In those early days Sounds filled a recently recognised gap in the market and was predominantly aimed at 13-18 year old male record buyers. Kids who had long hair, wore denim and fitted into the newly-invented “rock” category. It catered for modern tastes and treated its audience with respect and intelligence – at the time a radical concept. Finally, here was something written by people who knew what they were talking about. A new generation of music journalists with contemporary tastes had appeared, but they were having to fight for space alongside the old school who didn’t have time for pop music – which probably wouldn’t last anyway.

And yet some old habits died hard. That first edition of Sounds still had several pages devoted to jazz and folk news, features and album reviews. And those items looked rather incongruous alongside a full page advert for Vertigo records featuring Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Dr Strangely Strange, and Rod Stewart’s Gasoline Alley.

Sounds moved in a different direction during its lifetime. It started as the thinking teenagers mag, but by the late 70s it was concentrating on rock/heavy metal and became the headbanger’s bible. But today’s fashion is tomorrow’s history and by the early 90s Sounds had folded and disappeared off the map.

NME followed a slightly less dramatic path. By the mid 70s it had undergone a seismic shift in position and attitude coinciding with the punk/new wave scene, and it became the paper which sneered at everything. It caught the mood of those times and has subsequently managed to be the only survivor. Every few years it reinvents itself and today operates as a kind of semi-intelligent tabloid covering everything from rock to rap to dance, although its circulation figures are only a fraction of those in its heyday.

Melody Maker tried to adjust to the 70s and 80s, but always seemed to be jumping on a bandwagon which had just passed, constantly trying to keep up with everybody else, and never quite sure what it wanted to be. A bewildering change of editors and policies ultimately led to its demise by the end of the 20th century.


Looking back now, it seems there was a period of 30/40 years where the weekly music press flourished, peaked, and died. Its audience initially was the teenage pop market. Subsequently it became more specialised, aiming at two or three generations of male teenagers who bought LPs, religiously pored over the sleeve notes and lyrics, sat in front of the record player memorising every note, knew who played what in which group, and then went round to their mate’s house to listen to LPs in the bedroom.

I know that happened because I did it. A habit formed in my even-younger days when I’d wait for my dad to come home to see if he was carrying a record-shaped package. What is it? Can I listen to it? Would it be any good (in my opinion) or would it be an opera singer belting out arias, in which case my interest would rapidly fade.

How many kids today do that? It’s a lifestyle which was finished off by the internet and downloading. In 30 years time people may look back with nostalgic at what they used to buy off iTunes. Reading the sleeve notes and learning more about the artist is becoming a lost art. Music has become an intangibly digital form, with no visible or tactile element to it. To many listeners today it’s just something which they hear, without knowing much about its background or origins.

Maybe the spirit of those days is just managing to survive. If there is any continuity from the lost era of the 60s/70s, it is in the monthly magazines like Mojo, Uncut, Word. Their audience is largely the teenagers from those times who are now married, have kids whose musical tastes they can’t understand, and who want to read about the groups they listened to in those ‘golden’ days.

As the music fans from the 60s and 70s descend into old age, they aren’t quite sure how they are supposed to behave or what they are supposed to do. Keep on rocking with grey and thinning hair?

Nobody really wanted to die before they got old. But nobody had an alternative plan either.


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Liverpool, Monday 15 July 2024