This was written in response to an old school friend who shared an email about his early musical memories. What I have written was not intended for publication but gave me the chance to document some records that had a formative influence.
I sometimes think back to records I liked early in life and find signposts pointing to what I was to be interested in later life. I’m never sure whether it’s really meaningful or a selective re-writing of history to fit the narrative. But I’m sure my taste for listening to music from around the world started pretty early: in the 1950’s I loved Tom Hark by Elias and his Jive Flutes. It was a South African kwela record that became popular because it was used as the theme for some TV series. I think it was covered in Britain by Ted Heath and his orchestra. A bit later I used to rush to the radio every time they played Bell Bird by Los Trios Paraguayos. It wasn’t a hit but used to get played fairly regularly on the Light Programme. I still love that record with its cascading harp strings.
My sister and I had our first record-player as a joint Christmas present in 1961, along with a few singles, including my favourite at the time, Big Bad John by Jimmy Dean (I Won’t Go Huntin’ With You Jake But I’ll Go Chasin’ Wimmin graced the B-side!) and Bambino by The Springfields (The melody was taken from an old Italian Christmas song, The Piper’s Carol. Dusty Springfield remained one of my all-time favourite singers). Using money given to me that same Christmas I bought my first single, Savage by The Shadows. Around that time, you probably remember Brian, we used to perform acapella versions of the Shads hits – you, me and Brian Shaw in the first year at KGS. We discovered that if you emulated an electric guitar sound with your voice and sung it into cupped hands wrapped round one ear you could get a reverb sound just like Hank Marvin. Well, sort of. Each of us performed a different part – one was Hank, one Bruce on rhythm guitar, one Jet Harris on bass and….there must have been four of us – who was Tony Meehan? Were you the drummer Bob? FBI, Kon-tiki, Apache, Frightened City….great records.
I think it was with the following year’s Christmas money that I bought That’s What Love Will Do by Joe Brown on a trip to Bath with my mum. Afterwards we went for a cup of tea and I put my new record against a radiator causing it to warp. I’m sure I cried. Eventually, out of sympathy and to shut me up I guess, she gave me the money to buy a new copy. I saw The Shadows at Bristol Hippodrome. I was short-sighted and had recently started to wear glasses but had left them at home. I could hardly see my fave band playing far away on the big stage. But I discovered that if I squinted through a small hole made by putting both thumbs and forefingers together I could see more clearly. So I watched the whole concert like that, much to the embarrassment of my sister. My god, I could write a book about all the music that has been such an important part of my life…Other concerts…a package tour featuring Dusty, The Searchers (another favourite), Bobby Vee and Big Dee Irwin (he stood in Colston Street giving out signed photos) – I still have the programme and the signed photo. Then another package concert with Roy Orbison, The Rocking Berries, Cliff Bennet & the Rebel Rousers and Marianne Faithful. The first gig I went to (I think I was 14) was to see Marianne Faithful. That was at the Corn Exchange in Bristol. Robert McMillan, a neighbour of mine and a couple of years older than me, offered me a lift back on his motor-bike even though he was a learner and not allowed pillion passengers. We were stopped by the police (he’d forgotten to turn his lights on!) Our names were taken. Next morning I was terrified as I knew I would have to tell my dad. He was furious and made me write a letter to the Chief Constable of Bristol. No charges were brought!
I think I was fifteen or sixteen when I went to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, again at The Colston Hall. I didn’t know anyone else who I thought would be interested so I went on my own. I think I had some sense that these were legends that I was witnessing – Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Teddy Wilson…the support act was T-Bone Walker! – but I didn’t really understand it all. The highlight for me was an astounding drum solo by Louis Bellson. Around that time I started doing O-level music and couldn’t believe my luck when one of the two works we had to study turned out to be one of the most beautiful pieces of music I had ever heard, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. It remains a favourite, though there’s not much else by Vaughan Williams that I care for.
Then I started getting into blues. I went to see Fleetwood Mac at the Cole Snall. They were the support and B.B.King was headlining. I was puzzled when having seen Peter Green and chums looking like proper bluesmen in their Levi jackets and jeans, BB and his band came on stage in immaculate suits. He introduced us to Lucille, his beloved guitar, but played it less than I expected, spending a lot of time talking to the audience, telling the men to turn to the woman next to them and tell her he loved her, even if he didn’t mean it because that’s what she wanted to hear. More of my school mates were getting into music by the time I reached the sixth form and as I began to play the guitar it was the folk/folk rock stuff that I enjoyed listening to most – Dylan, Simon, Jansch, Fairport Convention…Then Art College in Cheltenham, and a young tutor introduced me to the music of composer Erik Satie, who became an enduring favourite with whom I discovered I share a birthday. And so we came to the 70’s, back in Bristol for a while watching more concerts at the Colston Hall – Pink Floyd, Segovia and one of the most amazing concerts I’d seen – Lifetime, featuring ex-Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams, Larry Young on keyboard, Jack Bruce on bass, fresh from the recently disbanded Cream and the reason I had gone along, and then the most amazing guitarist I had ever heard. He looked like a school-teacher and played like a man possessed – John McLaughlin. I think it was about a week or so later I went back to the CH to see Emerson, Lake & Palmer and I realized what, by comparison, a shallow bunch they were.
University of Essex brought lots of good things my way. Universities were great venues in those days. I’ve just listened to Andy Kershaw on Desert island Discs. Did you know he was Soc Sec at Leeds University? You mentioned Fairport – I always regretted never having seen them with Sandy Denny. But I did see her at Essex in a trio with the great Richard Thompson and bass-player Pat Donaldson. Sorry Dusty, but I think Sandy Denny is by a short margin my No.1 favourite female singer. Also at Essex I saw, amongst many others, Dr John, Lou Reed, Karlheinz Stockhausen, King Crimson, Country Joe, The Wailers (It was their first UK tour, promoting the Catch a fire album)….and I did my first free improv gig, supporting pianist Chris McGregor. You mentioned Stone the Crows, Mo. I remember seeing them at Essex supporting Canned Heat who were nowhere near as good. I’ve got a photo somewhere of them at that gig. Les Harvey, younger brother of Alex, was their guitarist and not long after was electrocuted on stage.
After I left Essex I discovered Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Bill Evans and started getting into more contemporary jazz stuff, plus Roxy Music and Brian Eno, then in time I discovered John Cage, John Cale, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Cajun and Zydeco, Flaco Jimenez, Steve Reich, Penguin Café Orchestra, Norwegian fiddle music, accordion music from Madagascar, West African kora music, East African benga, South African township….in fact since then my record collection has become an inseparable melange of music from every genre, every decade, every continent, that has come to mean something to me. A relativist view that somehow gives all the music I love an equal value. Because at some time – maybe just once a year – there’s going to be one record above all others that I want to hear and for that moment it’s the best thing that I can imagine listening to. And now I’m lucky enough to have a jukebox in my kitchen so if I want to hear Telstar followed by O Superman, followed by Ghost Town, followed by Rambling Sid Rumpole, followed by My Boy Lollipop, followed by Guitar Tango, followed by Virginia Plain, I can.