Nor shall my sword sleep in my hands…

England is not just beer and fish and chips and God Save The Queen it?

England is not just beer and fish and chips and God Save The Queen t-shirts…is it?

In Brazil I’m known as a ‘Brit’, but I don’t know what the term means. I have a British passport, and yet I’m as English as a wet Sunday in Wakefield. If I was Welsh, Irish or Scottish, there is no way I would refer to myself as ‘British’. I would be proud of my nationality and make sure everybody knew I was not to be lumped together with the dreaded English! But, like it or not, I am not from any of those other, satellite countries, I am from England’s green and pleasant land.

Why do I always feel ill when England play football?

Why do I always feel ill when England play football?

So, if I defiantly refer to myself as English, what do I mean by that? What is special about me? How is an English person identifiable? At the risk of unearthing a Pandora’s Box of stereotypes, I would like to suggest that the English do have certain characteristics that set them apart. This week I gave a talk about ‘Englishness’ to a group of Brazilian undergraduates, so I had to make an effort to find something tangible about the English that I could explain to them.

So, here is a list of characteristics and quirks I jotted down on the back of a buff envelope on the bus last Tuesday:

'What an extraordinary use of a four-letter word - musn't let my servants see this'

‘What an extraordinary use of a four-letter word – mustn’t let Aunt Dolly see this’

Sense of Humour: anathema to the English sensibility are people who take themselves seriously. That’s because we have an acutely-developed sense of irony and human folly. Showing off is sneered at mercilessly: ‘Who do you think you are?’ Self-deprecation is the English charm. That and satire, parody and general mischief-making. You should never be able to tell when an Englishman is being serious.

Writing: this is where irony pervades, from Shakespeare and Jane Austen to newspaper columnists and song lyrics. Through irony, the English reader, sitting on the Clapham omnibus, is able to smile at the intended victim and at herself. Irony is the distance we need from other people and their ridiculous behaviour; but it also mirrors our own pretentions and weaknesses.

Politics, the church, what they teach you at's all bull, says John

English institutions are a joke, says John

Music: ‘quiet desperation is the English way’ sang Pink Floyd (nicked from Thoreau, I’ll have you know), but my touchstone for English rock is John Lennon’s A Day in the Life, a gloriously random, satirical swipe at English institutions which could have been spoken by a Shakespearean fool. Why are the English good at pop and rock? Because the good ones see through the bull. Take another look at the anarchic God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols. A fascist regime?

Acting: former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sir Peter Hall, famously quipped that the English were a nation of philistines who happened to be good at the arts. Mention the words ‘theatre’ or ‘opera’ down the pub and seconds later you will be nursing your pint alone and red-faced. But the English are born actors because they need masks to hide behind. England is a stage and everybody is having you on – that way the messy, emotional baggage can stay safely in the locker.

Get all that gentlemanly anger out of your system: English cricket

How to get all that gentlemanly anger out of your system: English cricket

Sport: forget football and rugby, the true English sport is cricket. All those school beatings and repressed sexuality come surging out on the village green where sado-masochism rules: the bowler wants to maim the batsman, and the batsman has to be deranged to face a 100 mile-an-hour missile whooshing towards his unmentionables. Besides, only the English could devise a game that lasts until the middle of next week.

Trainspotting? English people need hobbies for long dark winters

Trainspotting? English people need hobbies for long dark winters

Hobbies: of course the English have hobbies – what else are we going to do cooped up in the house for 9 months? Train set builders, matchstick guitar makers, beer brewers, you name it. Most of us collect and hoard stuff to pore over through those long dark nights, filling little libraries with jumble-sale LPs and Narnia books.

DIY: an Englishman is a chimpanzee with a screwdriver. Pay somebody to fix my dripping tap? – you must be joking! Rewiring, plumbing, laying floors – us blokes are too proud to let you think we can’t sort it ourselves. The result? Most English ‘homes’ are jerry-built death traps.

Politics: conservative with a small ‘c’ it’s true, though the English despise authority and have a rebellious spirit: inside every timid gill-sipper is an angry young man barking to get out. Oddly, the most popular institution in England is a pure socialist invention: the NHS.

'Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot-water bottles' (or a secret copy of Fanny Hill)

‘Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot-water bottles’ (or a secret copy of Fanny Hill)

Religion: the Anglican church, with all those robes and closet Catholics, is for wusses – the true English religion has always been hard-nosed nonconformism. With their wilful work-ethic, tasteless food, matronly black looks and a horror of the human body, the Puritans have spread guilt and shame far and wide in the ‘Sceptred Isle’. Many were those poor creatures who topped themselves rather than face the vicar’s wrath once their grubby copy of Fanny Hill had been discovered under the mattress.

This is where the list runs out, folks, though I cannot end this portrait without mentioning the secret that dare not speak its name: the English are obsessively tight-fisted and can spot a ‘rip-off’ a mile away. When an English person walks into a supermarket they make a beeline for the ‘Special Offers‘, even if it means eating a dinner of mini pork pies mixed with chicken korma and week-old sherry trifle.

Bearing all this in mind, you can surely forgive me for not being patriotic. But when the Three Lions sing the national anthem on the football field the hairs on the back of my neck refuse to stay down. The strangest thing is I always feel proud to see 3 or 4 black players in the England team. Why?

Being English doesn't mean being white

Being English doesn’t mean being white

I think it must be that I want the world to recognise that England has always been a country of invasion and immigration, from the Jutes and Guilherme the Conqueror to the Windrush Caribbeans and the parents of Amir Khan. England was never a land of quaint villages and polite white nobodies; all such images are, by definition, imaginary. In my experience, most English people have a dynamic, but healthy, love/hate relationship with the place. The London-based Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson once wrote a poem called Inglan is a Bitch. I think I know what he means.



Categories: Blighty, Brazil, Football, Music, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Why blokes never grow up…

Tom Butchart, proud owner of Sound It Out Records in Stockton

Tom Butchart, proud owner of Sound It Out Records in Stockton

“When I play a record, I can tell you where I was, who I was going out with…it’s all about memories.” So says Tom Butchart, owner of Sound It Out Records in Stockton-on-Tees. Tom has a theory that blokes like to collect things as a way of holding on to their youth. That way they never grow up. He admits that 99% of his customers are men. For Tom and the rest of us vinyl junkies, records are endlessly fascinating because they hold memories and emotions. We are forever trying to recapture the past. Through the music we hear on old vinyl records, we are transported back to a time of big hair, flared jeans and necking in the back row of the pictures.

Recorded in Oslo, pressed in Munich...I must hear it!

Recorded in Oslo, pressed in Munich…I must hear it!

Now as you may or not know, I was once myself a record shop man – the manager of HMV in Bradford, no less. I worked there from 1974 until 1980, certainly some of the best years for music, I’m sure you’ll agree. I was 18 when I joined and 24 when I left, so they were formative years, years when one’s musical tastes are cemented. But whereas everybody else who worked in the shop in those days has now forgotten about their experiences and moved on to other things, I haven’t. For some unfathomable reason I am obsessed by those 6 years of my life. So much so, that I have spent all the intervening years trying to find all the records that were in the shop at the time. And I mean ALL of them! Yes, folks, it’s a kind of madness.

A record I just HAD to hear in 1975...

Now does the music match the cover, I wonder…

When I started working in the shop, some of the big sellers were records like Sheer Heart Attack by Queen and Supertramp’s Crime of the Century. But I quickly became entranced by more exotic records, LPs with intriguing, enigmatic covers, recorded in Scandinavia and pressed in Germany; unpronounceable names I had never heard of playing racks of polyphonic synthesizers or odd instruments like bass clarinet.  Terje Rypdal, Bennie Maupin, Eberhard Weber, Annette Peacock – who were these people? Suddenly music wasn’t just for dancing or shaking your shoulder-length hair; it was something deeper, magical and transcendent. LP covers were wonderfully artistic, and often the music inside matched the aesthetic promise of the outside.

Here is a picture of 'heaven' for a bloke like me...

Here is a picture of ‘heaven’ for a bloke like me…

If my obsession is a kind of religion, then I worship at a temple in the middle of my sitting room, between two great big speakers. The records I play serve as little prayers and sermons, but without the dogma. In fact, music is a release from moral responsibilities, a suspension of worry and care, a flight of fancy, a time to sing like an idiot on the sofa. Old LPs transport me as efficiently as any time-machine. Now you can see why I, and Tom Butchart, and many other blokes, have never quite grown up.

Worshipping at a temple somewhere between 2 speakers...

Worshipping at a universal temple somewhere between 2 speakers…

Nowadays, we are constantly told to “live in the present”, whatever that means. Don’t think about tomorrow, don’t dwell in the past. Well, I’m sorry, but to quote an old Jethro Tull song, I am very definitely Living in The Past. Does that make me a saddo? Maybe. But for me, music is a kind of emotional touchstone. With the aid of my LPs, I am able to reach down into a well of feelings within myself. Of course, music also gives you a great sense of history – not just the history of music, but of cultural and social change. Reading is wonderful, too, but it tends to stimulate the intellect; music is a kind of  spark that instinctively sets our bodies and souls in motion.

Mental-as-anything Quo fan Shane in his favourite shop

Mental-as-anything Quo fan Shane in his favourite shop

There is a film about Tom Butchart and Sound It Out Records. One of the blokes featured in the film is a regular customer called Shane, whose obsession is focused on one band only: Status Quo (all together now, “Here we go-oh, rockin’ all over the world”). This guy appears to have a humongous collection of memorabilia and is on a permanent mission to buy anything associated with his rocker heroes.  There is a very revealing moment in the film where Shane looks at the camera and says: “I just like my Quo! I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I haven’t got a woman. What more could you want?” I have no idea what he means…

Categories: Blighty, Music, Vinyl | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Living next door to Smokie…


Bradford's answer to the Beatles? Smokie were big in Montreux...

Scunthorpe’s answer to the Eagles? Nearly…Smokie blow up a snowstorm in Montreux

Imagine a place where the water is so soft and pure you can drink it straight from the tap. Not only that, but when the local brewers use it to make beer it produces a wonderful creamy head on the top of your pint. And when you come to pay, it’s only a couple of quid (less than US $3). Then, when you’ve had a skinful of beer, you can stagger out into the bright lights and follow your nose to a little place where they serve the most wonderful fried fish. The name of this marvellous fish is haddock, and it comes covered in golden batter and soaked in malt vinegar and salt. Delicious! And if you are not in the mood for fish, you will also find in this place an array of little cafes where they serve the most mouth-watering, aromatic, spicy food which you scoop up with great fluffy discs of flat bread.  The name of this food is curry and chapatis.

Battered haddock...comfort food from heaven

Battered haddock…comfort food from heaven

The weather is never a problem in this place, because all is forgiven when Christmas comes and the snow falls,  turning the town into a picture-postcard winter wonderland, complete with mistletoe, robin redbreasts and snowmen with carrots for noses. It’s so cute you feel like weeping. When the snow clears you can catch a bus over a hill or two and find yourself in a delightful Olde-Worlde village where the famous Bronte sisters lived in a pretty little parsonage. Or you can stay in the town and wander over to the world-famous museum of film and photography to while away a fascinating hour or two. After that, feel free to pop down the road to see a concert at the famous St George’s Hall where icons such as Charles Dickens, David Bowie and Duke Ellington have appeared.

After a few pints, there's nothing like curry and chapatis

After a few pints, there’s nothing like curry and chapatis

In this mythical place, the rivers are crystal clean and the old canals carry shining white pleasure-boat cruisers – so lovely on a Sunday! And when you feel like driving you can buy a brand-new second-hand Mercedes for a couple of grand (thousand pounds). For more sedentary pleasures, you will find plenty of quaint little bookshops which may even stock a few slightly worn vinyl LPs, if you are lucky. And if you want to study, there is a first-rate university and a very well-known art college. The people in this magical town and surrounding area are pure and simple (a bit like the water). They are also very honest and tell the truth to your face. They don’t beat about the bush or talk with forked tongues like sly Londoners who are only after your money. 

What a bunch of hunks - Smokie in their heyday

What a bunch of hunks – Smokie in their heyday

Of course, ladies and gentlemen, in case you haven’t guessed, I am talking about none other than BRADFORD, my beloved home town. Yes, folks, I dream about the old place every day. But there is one thing I haven’t told you about – a little known fact that makes it all the more astonishing. Bradford once spawned a world-famous pop group, one that I would like to pay a little tribute to today. The name of that group is Smokie. Please don’t feel dumb or guilty if you haven’t heard of them, but the truth is they were massive. I know the 70s was a long time ago now, but the impact of Smokie is still being felt all over the world. So, let me entertain you with a few facts about this overlooked outfit:

1) Before they made the big time, Smokie had a manager called Mark Jordan. I kid you not.

2) Also before they shot to stardom, when they were known as Kindness, our heroes were the backing band for Peter Noone from the famous Herman’s Hermits (“There’s a kind of hush…”)

3) In 1973, drummer Pete Spencer joined. He had played in loads of groups with amazing names such as The Chevrons, The Common Bond, Dave and Dee Dees Playground, London Fog, Sugar and Spice, and Brenda and The Collection. I would love to know who Dee Dees is (was?). Pete’s first gig with the band was performing on a sightseeing boat in Frankfurt, Germany.

Someone, somewhere in Scandinavia has all 28 Chris Norman albums

Someone, somewhere in Scandinavia has all 28 Chris Norman albums

4) When fame first arrived, the band were called Smokey, not Smokie. So, what’s the difference? Well, US soul legend Smokey Robinson didn’t like it one bit. He threatened to file a lawsuit, alleging the band’s name would confuse the audience. Can you believe that!? In order to avoid legal action, the group changed the spelling to “Smokie”.

5) In 1978, now firmly established as pop stars, Smokie had a brilliant idea. They decided to produce British football star Kevin Keegan’s first single, “Head Over Heels in Love”, which charted in many European countries. (Don’t tell me you haven’t heard our Kev singing his heart out!)

6) Smokie were not just a big hit in little old England, they were even bigger on the Continent and elsewhere. The band had loyal fans in Denmark,  Israel, Germany, Holland, Australia and Russia – to name but a few.

7) To date, heart-throb lead singer Chris Norman has released 28 solo albums!

Absolutely fascinating facts – don’t you agree, folks? But my favourite anecdote about the band comes from a Russian fan, Danny, who shares his love of Smokie on a website called Danny has proudly posted pics of his very own copy of Smokie’s Greatest Hits, an LP made in Israel. Here is exactly what Danny says:

“One of the first western Rock’n’Roll bands which became very popular in Soviet Union was Smokie. I think, that their LP was released there even prior Beatles and Stones. Being a child I very liked them, I still kind of like them…For the very first time I heard Smokie when Soviets released the record contained the mix of popular foreign music. One of the songs there, I even remember it was the last one on side A, was “I’ll Meet You At Midnight”. I think this was one of three or four songs I liked from that vinyl. The rest sounded to me like a crap. The compilation is finalized with a great ballad “Wild Wild Angels”. If I would be a musician, I would rearrange this composition to make it a Metal one. But even the way it is I really enjoy it.”

Russian Danny's fabulous Greatest Hits LP - made in Israel

Russian Danny’s fabulous Greatest Hits LP – made in Israel

Don’t you just love him already? I’d love to meet Danny and share some reminiscences about Smokie. But perhaps it would be most appropriate if I finish with a line or two from one of their songs, a sentiment that is close to my heart. The song is called Back to Bradford, and it goes like this: “Goodbye cardboard city, you’ve nothing to say / Though your face is pretty, I don’t have to stay / She’s my friend and you know what I like / Going back to Bradford, it’s what I prefer / Though your face is pretty, you’re nothing like her.”

I just couldn’t say it better myself…

Categories: Blighty, Music, Vinyl | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No samba, please, we’re British!

"As you can see , Prince, here in Rio they let it all hang out. Very un-English, I'm afraid."

“You see, Prince, here in Rio it’s all a tad tribal. Very un-English, I’m afraid.”

It’s hard for a true Brit to like Brazilian music. I mean really get into it, man, to really dig those rhythms. Samba drums are alien to us; they sound dark, primal, swampy – when we hear them, we expect to see a boiling pot of missionary soup. Then there are those tinny-sounding ukeleles being manically strummed (to a Brit, the ukelele sound goes back to George Formby and comic ‘Music Hall’ turns). To cap it all, there’s the language problem. What the hell are they going on about? All that chanting in slang Portuguese makes carnival music sound like a cheesy B-movie soundtrack. Samba is a ‘no no’, best left to the natives.

Prog-rock dinosaurs Yes: no good for weddings (or anything else)

Prog-rock dinosaurs Yes: great for, er, weddings?

Besides, us Brits are blessed with our own prodigious array of musical talent. Forget the Beatles – there’s Genesis, Supertramp, Jethro Tull, Yes and U2 – to name but a few! Any one of these perennial artists have a string of albums to choose from and all of them are bound to liven up the proceedings, be it weddings, barbecues or funerals. To be honest, even when a Brit lives in Brazil, he’s so spoilt for choice that Brazilian music never gets a look in. The worst thing is watching an ex-pat pretending to ‘feel’ that samba thing. He sits there, all white and pink, with a plastic grin on his face, tapping his foot and trying to look cool. Of course, a few caipirinhas help to lubricate the illusion.

The truth is, there’s a little bit more to Brazilian music than samba. There is something called MPB, which translates as ‘Popular Brazilian Music’. Terrible title, I admit. It makes you expect the Latin equivalent of Cliff Richard, Susan Boyle or Adele. But once you get past the label, you discover a host of musical talent so vast, various and colourful that it amounts to nothing less than an embarrassment of riches. Brazilian popular music is world class – simple as that. Even if we restrict the head-count to just a few of the greats – Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Djavan, Milton Nascimento, Rita Lee and the godfathers Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes –  we have enough astounding music to make André Rieu smash his fiddle and weep.

Brilliant Brazilian home-grown talent: Djavan

Brilliant Brazilian home-grown talent: Djavan

Brazilian song-writers, musicians and producers have listened to everything and know all the chops. They play like demons and have an irrepressible knack for mixing African, European and Indian roots to produce an exotic cocktail of sounds with a passionate lyrical undertow. In short, great songs that will make you twist and shout or laugh and cry over your beer and black beans. My favourite MPB song is Gilberto Gil’s Eu Vim da Bahia (“I came from Bahia”). Call me sentimental, but every time I hear it I marvel over its melodic complexity and its ability to tear my heart-strings to shreds. It must have been written by a god and passed into the mind of Gil by osmosis. Pure genius.

Bit of a toss-pot: Bono PR Ltd

Bit of a toss-pot: Bono PR Ltd

So what’s the message? Well, if you live in Brazil and don’t appreciate the glories that are Brazilian music you must be a kind of musical zombie; a Marmite Brit-packer who still thinks Bono is cool. Oh, and by the way, the white and pink guy with the plastic smile was me! Hey, hey!

Categories: Brazil, Music, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , | 10 Comments

What’s it all about?

I need to remember the meaning of life before I kick the bucket...

I need to remember the meaning of life before I kick the bucket…

If I get knocked down tomorrow by a number 27 bus there may be a moment when my whole life flashes before me and I think, “What was all that about?”. I might just have the strength to reflect upon what exactly I have learnt from my 50 odd years at the crease. Not much, of course, apart from the obvious: that beer is the reason we carry on, that we do everything to impress our mothers, that women are gods, that vinyl is better than CDs and that Bradford City is the greatest football team the world has ever seen. But seriously, folks, what lessons have I really learnt from life? Well here are a few to be going on with:

Love is essential, but it’s not enough. That’s because, love it or hate it, we also have to work. The happiest people I have met are those who love what they do, those who would do it for nothing. Love is a feeling; it comes and goes and there’s not a lot we can do to make it stay. But work happens every day and if you don’t get excited by it, life is going to be a long, frustrating haul.

Kindness is a virtue. I once invented a character called Brian Bottomley. He was ugly, overweight, had bad skin, dressed terribly, and smelt like an old cabbage. “How can we possibly like him?”, I asked my friends. The answer came back: “Well, if he’s a kind person, we can forgive him all the rest.” After all, it is doing good things and helping others that makes us happy.

Stamp-collecting is for saddos...LPs are 12 inches of pure pleasure

Stamp-collecting is for saddos…LPs are 12 inches of pure pleasure

Don’t compromise in relationships. It’s easy to kid yourself, in the heat of passion, that your new squeeze is Adonis or Helen of Troy. But unless you develop deep respect for your paramour, the pillow talk will soon turn sour and the sight of unwashed underwear make you gip. Love is finding someone who is endlessly fascinating. And that can take years. Settling for less won’t bring you joy.

What’s your hobby? I’ve heard it said that English men are famous around the world for three things: having bad teeth, having hobbies and being gay. It’s all those camp actors, lousy dentists and stamp collectors that did it. Nevertheless, without a hobby, without something that engrosses me and makes me feel like a demi-god sometimes, my life would be a poor show. Work and the family are just not enough. We need to lose ourselves in something.

Don't forget to do that thing that broadens your horizons

Don’t forget to do that thing that broadens your horizons

Travel is golden. There is a lot to be said for staying in one place, putting down roots, having a wide choice of friends. But it’s the adventurous spirit that finds the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow. “See the world, lad, before you settle down”, my grandad said. England can be an inspiring place, but it’s just one little, funny country. Travel can turn the Brian Bottomleys of this world into the George Clooneys. Well, you know what I mean.

Material wealth won’t make you happy. In his book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton explains how people today are less happy than before, despite being much better off financially. That’s because they can’t bear the shame of not having as much as the next guy. They bust a gut to keep up with the Jones’s. Everybody could get by with a lot less if they realised that being rich is a state of mind.

Ignorance is not bliss. Tony Benn, my all-time favourite politician, once made a joke about his time as a government minister saying that he wanted to raise the school-leaving age from 15 to 65. Learning enriches your life all the way. One day even I will understand the link between interest rates and inflation, or the opening speech of Measure for Measure.

Music is divine. Words are all very well, but they often get in the way. They dominate, assert themselves, trick you, bully you. Most of all they interrupt the silence. Music is purer. Through music we listen to our inner selves.

The inimitable Monty Python team...I want everybody to laugh at my funeral

The inimitable Monty Python…I want everybody to laugh at my funeral

Death is something to look forward to. Imagine being 539 years old. You would be tetchy, bored witless, seen-it-all-before cynical. You’d also probably be pretty disgusting to look at. If coming into the world is a great adventure, why can’t going out be a greater one? Friends and family are wonderful, but to be on your own again for that rollercoaster ride into the great unknown must be the ultimate thrill. “To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream,” as Hamlet says. By the way, I want the Monty Python theme tune (The Liberty Bell) played at my funeral, alright? And if I don’t hear it I’ll haunt the lot of you!

Categories: Music, Musings, Travel, Vinyl | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A rush of balony to the head

Is there anything more boring than another list of the “best” albums of all time? Maybe not, but with every new poll that comes along I can’t resist having a quick look to see if Joe Public has got it right this time. Well, not only did the voters get it very wrong in the latest attempt, it looked as if they had limited their choice to moronic pop tunes sung in the shower. I refer, of course, to the recent BBC Radio 2 listeners’ poll. Oh dear, what a load of tripe! Here are the so-called “Top 10 albums of all time”:

1 Coldplay: Rush Of Blood To The Head (2002). As tone-deaf social misfits across the world hum along to ‘Viva la Vida’, the rest of us hang our heads in shame at this travesty of a rock band. Just to remind myself of the cringing mediocrity of Chris Martin’s songs, I’ve just watched ‘Fix You’ on YouTube. Not all of it, of course, as my toes began to curl so much that I fell backwards onto the floor in a lifeless heap.

2 Keane: Hopes and Fears (2004) The four 15 year-old boys who formed a band at my secondary school in Bradford were better than Keane. ‘Jedediah Strut’ had guts, spunk and raw energy. Keane are a band for Brownies who want something to singalong to as they practise joined-up writing.

Duran Duran: Rio (1982) I’ve heard that if you slag off Duran Duran you receive death threats, which doesn’t say a lot for the mental well-being of their fans. Nevertheless, it has to be said that Simon Le Bon and his pals were pretty dreadful, even in the vacuous, synthesized 1980s. Not convinced? OK, organize a party, invite all your friends and play DD all night. You’ll be lynched.

4 Pink Floyd: The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973) Finally, at No 4, we have a decent album. When this came out, we all sat stunned on the sofa with our gobs wide open. Then we made frantic love on the carpet. A ground-breaking record as rich, dark and complex as a bottle of chocolate stout.

5 Dido: No Angel (1999) I thought everybody knew that Dido was a one-hit wonder. ‘Thank You’ was a big hit on the wards when I was doing hospital radio. Then we all got sick of it. Some of those patients have now sadly passed away, though I am not suggesting for one minute that it had anything to do with listening to Dido.

6 The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers (1971) OK, fair enough, another goody. In fact, a stonking album that should be in every half-decent record collection.

7 The Pet Shop Boys: Actually (1987) I always love that moment at football matches when the crowd sing to the opposing fans: “You’re ****, and you know you are…” to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West. But the 7th best album of all time?

8 The Beatles: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) So Chris Martin’s silly schoolboy songs are 7 places higher on the rung of greatness than some of the best efforts of the fab four? Sgt Pepper was a landmark in 20th century popular culture, no less. A diamond twinkling on the gravel path of life.

9 U2: The Joshua Tree (1987) Mormon settlers in California gave the Joshua tree its name because its shape reminded them of the biblical story of Joshua raising his hands to the skies. If Joshua were around today, I’m sure he’d be praying that Bono and his chums would stop repeating those dad-rock chords that have turned many a stadium into a fool’s paradise.

10 Queen: A Night At The Opera (1975) Freddie, Farrokh Bulsara, whatever your name is, we still miss you. I saw Queen live on stage twice in the mid-70s – in Bradford and Liverpool – and they were hotter than a Turkish kebab. ‘Opera’ is a patchy album, but ‘Love of my Life’ always has me in tears.

So, as you can tell, my verdict on the Radio 2 poll was two thumbs down, one roll of the eyes. But it did inspire me to dash over to my LP collection and yank out 10 albums (vinyl only, of course) as challengers. So here they are, in reverse order :

The Rutles: a brilliant and hilarious parody of the Beatles with 14 uncannily good songs

The Rutles: a brilliant and hilarious parody of the Beatles with 14 uncannily good songs

10 The Rutles: The Rutles (1978) Good parodies should be so close to the original that they make you think you’ve seen, or heard, a ghost: songwriter Neil Innes is so clever he has you singing along from track one in a parallel universe aboard a tangerine submarine.

Julio: not just a Spanish smoothie

Julio: not just a Spanish smoothie

9 Julio Iglesias: Raices (1989) For the latent Latin lover in all of us, ‘Julito’ croons his way through Spanish, Mexican, Brazilian, Italian and French popular classics proving Forest Gump’s assertion that life is just like a box of chocolates: there’s something for everyone.

Brixton Prison...'Dear Mama, let me tell you what they done to Jim...'

“Mama, let me tell you what they done to Jim…”

8 Linton Kwesi Johnson: Forces of Victory (1979) The Jamaican poet who coined the phrase “Inglan is a bitch” with his first and best album: a suite of astute social commentary poems set to sound-system reggae rhythms that will turn your living room into a soup of body odour.

Lua de Mel (Honeymoon): with honeyed voice, tropical songs and fruity arrangements

Lua de Mel (Honeymoon): tropical songs and fruity arrangements

7 Gal Costa: Lua de Mel (1987) The dark muse from Bahia lets her honeyed voice melt its way through Brazilian popular classics penned by the likes of Lulu Santos, Djavan and Caetano Veloso: the standards of musicianship, production and sound quality are overwhelming.

The sun don't shine anymore in Scott Walker's torture chamber

The sun don’t shine anymore in Scott Walker’s torture chamber

6 Scott Walker: Climate of Hunter (1984) The 60s pop-idol grows into a serious avant-garde artist, leaving the Bacharach saccharine behind for an edgy, fantasy world of flesh-eating electric chairs, wailing souls and manic saxophone solos (all tongue-in-cheek, of course).

"Your world is still in the tadpole stage, my friend". Too right, Bob.

“Your world is still in the tadpole stage, my friend”. Too right, Bob.

5 Bobby Darin: Born Walden Robert Cassotto (1968) Another American pop star gets real, this time Bobby Darin chucks away the tuxedo (and wig) to concentrate on wry, political protest songs with a sound paired down to acoustic guitar and voice: smart, lyrical ballads that would make Dylan blush.

Track 3, Side 1: "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask"

Frank’s songs have great titles, like: “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask”

4 Frank Zappa: Weasels Ripped my Flesh (1970) Talking of smart Americans, Frank was the Einstein of rock, light-years ahead of the pack, making musically complex, satirical rock  – “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” – in the late 60s while manufactured groups like The Monkees were being daft on our tiny TV sets.

British modern jazz at it's best: fiery, funky, tight

British modern jazz at its best: fiery, funky, tight

3 Stan Tracey: The Poet’s Suite (1984) Stan plays the piano like a man possessed; here his quartet pay homage to five Irish poets with a suite of songs that glow with ideas and explode like sky-rockets (Art Themen must be the most under-rated sax player in the universe).

"Jenny's into black musicians, soft junk and butterscotch rum".

“Jenny’s into black musicians, soft junk and butterscotch rum”.

2 Gary McFarland & Peter Smith: Butterscotch Rum (1971) Savvy jazz orchestrator McFarland teams up with songwriter Smith for a mix of love ballads and funky off-beat songs that tell a poignant story of struggle, loss and redemption in the backwoods of mid-west America.

Oriental ambient jazz made in nirvana

Oriental ambient jazz made in nirvana

1 Collin Walcott: Cloud Dance (1976) India meets Africa, with American pluck and German aesthetics: an irresistible rhythm section powers along underneath Walcott’s snake-charming sitar; the music is earthy and ethereal at the same time – a transcendental sound-massage for groovy liberals.

Of course, musical taste is very personal, so don’t all rush out and buy my choices…as if you would! But mega-stars like Coldplay, with their mega-sales and mega-bucks, too often obscure truly talented artists who never seem to get a look in.

Categories: Music, Vinyl | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The day the music died…

Nipper is now a stray dog...

Nipper is now a stray dog…

The news that HMV – the UK’s only chain of so-called “record” shops – has gone bankrupt and closed its doors hasn’t caused much wailing in the streets. Nobody liked the shops any more. Expensive CDs and DVDs, no atmosphere, supermarket-style checkouts and no personal touch. In short, a dull and empty consumer experience. But hey – it wasn’t always like that.

Way back in 1974, an 18 year-old long-haired youth gingerly entered a branch of HMV in Bradford, Yorkshire, and asked for a job. So began a six-year period of my life which not only formed my musical taste but seeped into the very fibre of my being. On my headstone should be written “Martin Fletcher, HMV Bradford, RIP”. Everything about the shop and the people who worked there appealed to me. My previous job had been fitting tractor wheels in a factory, and suddenly I was in heaven. Now I could go to work in my high-waisted flared trousers, platform shoes, cheesecloth shirt and a smirk on my face.

The happy staff I left behind. HMV Bradford, 1981.

The happy staff I left behind. HMV Bradford, 1981.

But it wasn’t all sugar and spice. We had to be respectful in those days. We had to call the manager ‘Mr Walker’. Then, lo and behold, at my first Christmas party, my naughty colleagues plied me with so much whisky that I got fuzzy and headstrong, letting my working-class roots show through. So what did I do? I only went and called the manager, Mr Walker, a ‘bastard’. That didn’t go down very well, I can tell you. I literally got down on my knees and begged to keep my job.

Turkey No 1 - Slade in Flame...

Turkey No 1 – Slade in Flame…

Turkey No 2 - Elton John, Rock of the Westies...

Turkey No 2 – Elton John, Rock of the Westies…

But I digress. You see, this is the story of six LPs. Six records that I encountered in my early days at HMV. Let’s call them the ‘Turkeys’, the ‘Naughties’ and the ‘Gems’. I discovered the Turkeys on my first day, when I went upstairs to look for the toilets. On the way I passed two huge piles of records gathering dust in the corner. These were embarrassing examples of bad buying by the management. Expecting huge demand, they had ordered hundreds. But these two – Slade in Flame and Elton John’s Rock of the Westies – hadn’t sold well at all. In fact, they had both gone down like a bag of spannersSoon I learned that one of my jobs was to send a few of them back to the record company as “faulty” every so often – and hope they didn’t notice.

Art or pornography? Roxy Music's odd choice of cover for 'Country Life'

Art or pornography? Roxy Music: ‘Country Life’

Never mind the WHAT? Censored, please!

Never mind the WHAT? Censored, please!

The Naughties were LPs that had such obscene or outrageous covers that we had to put stickers over them to avoid upsetting the public. It seems laughable now in the highly sexualised, four-letter 21st century. But HMV was part of EMI, part of the establishment, and we had to be seen to be decent and upright. The offending albums were Roxy Music’s very strange (pornographic?) choice of cover for Country Life, and the more obvious Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks. Another of my duties was to stand like a guard over the LP racks to make sure nobody tried to remove the stickers and peep inside. You had to be married to see nipples in those days (usually after closing time on a Friday night).

What a voice! Honey for the ears...Gino Vannelli

What a voice! Honey for the ears…Gino Vannelli

There is NO OTHER album quite like this gem from Gene Clark

There is NO OTHER album quite like this gem from Gene Clark

And now we come to my favourite category, the Gems. The manager had a habit of playing records in-store that he wanted to promote. Often it was because he had taken a gamble and ordered five copies and nobody had bought them. So, as I strolled around the shop, flirting with the girls at the counter and nodding to the customers, I was treated to the exotic and irresistible sounds of Gino Vannelli’s Powerful People and Gene Clark’s No Other. These two LPs have turned out to be a couple of my very favourite records of all time. I’m quite sure that if I hadn’t been there at that moment in time, in HMV Bradford, I would never have heard such cracking music. Thank you, Mr Walker, wherever you are.

I left HMV in 1980, just at the right time. I don’t think I missed much in the 1980s. Of course, some of you will be thinking I’m an embarrassing dad-rock dinosaur, hopelessly stuck in the 70s. But I was warmed by a recent interview with an artist who made his name during the 1990s – Ian McNabb (remember If Love was Like Guitars?). He was asked who he thought the new pioneers of rock were; which artists were the most innovative today. He said: “I don’t know – it was all over by 1980, wasn’t it?”

All together now: "Spent the last year Rocky Mountain way, da daa da da..."

All together now: “Spent the last year Rocky Mountain way, da daa da da…”

Certainly for me, the music died a long time ago. And so, in a way, did the people. I met a lot of great characters during my six years with the firm. Now they have all vanished into the ether. So, if anybody is mourning the demise of HMV, I would like to put in a word for all those eccentric, witty, music-obsessed weirdos I had the pleasure of meeting all those years ago. Luckily, the records remain to remind me of those happy times. Records, not CDs. Please – no CDs. LPs. Albums. Gatefold sleeves. And I still have the very first LP I ever bought at HMV in 1974: Joe Walsh, The Smoker You Drink The Player You Get. And if you think you understand the title, it means you weren’t there in the Seventies.

Categories: Global Crisis, Music, Vinyl | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Music is my mistress

This vinyl junkie just can't stop himself...

This vinyl junkie just can’t stop himself…

William Shakespeare said never trust a person who is not moved by music. It’s not enough to tap your foot or sing along to the muzac on the radio: you have to need music like you need love. A song can make you glow inside, jump up and shout with joy or sit and cry your eyes out on the sofa. Most people I talk to believe that music is important in their lives. But I am suspicious of people who say they like all kinds of music: it usually means “nothing in particular”. In other words, music is not an obsession, an addiction, a drug.

You know you have an obsession when you realise that you really do like “all kinds” of music. I mean everything. When people claim to have wide taste it usually means “within the sphere of rock and pop”. My problem is I like the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. And all of it looks down on me every day from my record shelves.

OK - this isn't me, but I know how he feels...

Come up and see my LPs! Go on, you know you want to.

So here’s a little test. I am appealing to everybody on the blogosphere to examine their musical predilections and try and match this for “wide-ranging taste”. My record collection covers: country and western, English and American folk, every kind of jazz (from Dixieland and Duke Ellington to avant garde scary stuff), rock and roll, deep soul, disco, reggae, samba, heavy rock, soft rock, prog-rock, punk, bossa nova, every kind of classical music (from Bach to Bartok and Benjamin Britten), blues, brass bands and Welsh male voice choirs. I even have recordings of steam trains.

The worst thing about having an unstoppable fascination with everything recorded is the embarrassing cheesy stuff you have to come clean about. Over the years I have had soft spots for Barry Manilow, David Cassidy, Helen Reddy, Mantovani and his Orchestra, Cliff Richard, Julio Iglesias, Shirley Bassey and Boy George. And I’m not gay.

Let's hear it for Barry Manilow!

Let’s hear it for Barry Manilow!

The problem with having musical “taste” (and the inflated pride that goes with it) is that so much music has to be dismissed as trash. You can only like the good stuff and look upon the rest with derision. You become a self-appointed critic panning everything that hasn’t got…well, whatever it is you think it needs. But the real secret of having musical taste is liking everything. Yes, everything (apart from gangsta rap and André Rieu, of course).

My favourite music magazine is Record Collector (published in the UK). You never know who might be on the cover: Frank Sinatra, Iggy Pop, Donny Osmond, Adele or some weird prog-rock band from the early 70s. The ethos

The weird and wonderful world of...Mike Gibbs

The weird and wonderful world of…Mike Gibbs

of the magazine is that they don’t discriminate. Of course, some readers only buy the magazine to look for their favourite artists and skip the rest. But the happiest reader, the music lover, finds excitement on every page – like a schoolboy with a comic.

So the next time somebody says they like all kinds of music, ask them if that includes Bix Beiderbecke, Dolly Parton, Jethro Tull, Throbbing Gristle, The Only Chrome Waterfall Orchestra and the Nolan Sisters.

The majestic, tragic Bix Beiderbecke with his wonderful Wolverines, 1924

The majestic, tragic Bix Beiderbecke with his wonderful Wolverines, 1924

Categories: Music, Vinyl | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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