Posts Tagged With: vinyl LPs

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

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

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

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