Days of Pearly Spencer

 

sinking fast

Sometimes I feel I’m losing the will to live. It’s usually when I’m ironing – shirts are so darn fiddly, aren’t they? So I do my ironing weekday afternoons between 1 and 4 pm so that I can listen to the Radcliffe and Maconie show on the radio. They play some good music and they have a lot of laughs; it’s the most effective antidote for boredom that I know.

So there I was, ironing another shirt, when a jaunty disco tune came on. I barely noticed it at first. Then, over the funky bass and perky drum machine, a familiar jingle wormed its way into the Crotchety ears. I know that song, I thought, and its title flashed up on the mental display screen: The Days of Pearly Spencer.

But Pearly Spencer, as I remembered it, wasn’t a disco record. And yet there was that distinctive motif that pervaded the airwaves of every decent radio station back in the late sixties. If it wasn’t the song I knew it had to be a later cover. For the next 3 or 4 minutes ironing shirts was no longer a chore. Wrinkles in the cloth magically disappeared amidst little puffs of steam, while the Crotchety mind wandered elsewhere and the hands moved on autopilot.

The Pearly Spencer theme ran for another minute or so before the vocals came in with a dire warning for humanity. We are poisoning the planet with pesticides and, sooner or later, nature will have her revenge. That’s not the Pearly Spencer story; some reprobate must have stolen his theme for a completely different song. It was, in fact, a song called Supernature by Marc Cerrone, who (I discovered later) was a disco producer in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Supernature is quite listenable at its 4:22 radio edit length. The full version on the Cerrone I,II,III album is much too long at 9:45 and the YouTube video below runs three tracks together for an interminable 18 minutes plus. It’s visually rather good, though, so watch it until you get bored and then read on.

OK, so you’ve heard the rip-off, now hear the David McWilliams original. There are two versions: the single and a longer one from the album, Working for the Government. Here’s the single on YouTube:

On the Crotchety patented pop-meter that scores an almost perfect 10. The lyrics paint a picture of an old man, battered, bowed and finally defeated by life’s endless battles. And yet, it rocks along irrepressibly. The megaphone sound of the vocals in the chorus gives it an air of the supernatural. And there’s that unforgettable haunting riff in the strings, a phrase that can be plagiarised but never merely quoted, even in homage.

The album was recorded some 20 years after the single release and that version has a completely different arrangement. It dispenses with the rocking beat, the fuzzy chorus vocals and the characteristic haunting riff. It throws away nearly everything that makes the single so memorable and appealing. It slows the pace and nearly doubles the playing time, too. It’s almost a different song. And Crotchety Man says it’s amazing.

I can’t find this version on YouTube, so here it is on Spotify.

David McWilliams was a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Northern Ireland. The Crotchety memory banks have him down as a one-hit wonder but the usual online sources say he released some 14 albums and was, for a time, very popular in continental Europe.

Surprisingly, although The Days of Pearly Spencer topped the charts in “numerous countries” and sold over a million copies, it was never a hit in the UK. Wikipedia puts this down to the record being banned by the BBC because of somewhat indirect links to the ‘pirate’ radio station, Radio Caroline. I find that explanation hard to swallow because Pearly Spencer had no trouble reaching my ears – and the only pirate station I listened to had been shut down before the record was released. Perhaps my memory is at fault.

David McWilliams died in 2002 but the Pearly Spencer story lives on. McWilliams had a daughter, Mandy Bingham, and she released a version of The Days of Pearly Spencer just last year, 50 years to the day after her father’s single. The Mandy Bingham version brings back the distinctive riff as a viola’s lament in a lovely folk song arrangement where it complements Mandy’s lead vocal beautifully. This release also features Mandy’s daughter, Lola, on backing vocals.

The Crotchety pop-meter gets horribly confused by the Mandy Bingham recording but the prototype folk-meter goes right off the scale. It’s subjective, I know, but to the Crotchety ears this is the best rendition yet of a timeless song in the pop/folk tradition.

The  ironing pile of life will never be too big if Pearly Spencer is there to relieve the tedium.


Headline Image: https://w-dog.net/wallpaper/pauper-the-homeless-man-dog-street/id/346396/

Auntie Aviator

http://www.historynet.com/nancy-harkness-love-female-pilot-and-first-to-fly-for-the-us-military.htm“Zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom”, said Auntie, whisking the model aircraft high above her niece’s head, adding “we’ll never touch the ground”. “And if we don’t want to”, replied her niece with a grin, “we won’t come down”. They were both remembering last week’s flight when Auntie took the controls of her light aircraft and took the little girl up into the clear blue skies for the first time. Soaring over the green fields of the English countryside with its quaint little villages knitted together by roads and rivers, pilot and passenger had wished the flight would never end.

There’s a serenity about John and Beverley Martyn’s Auntie Aviator that transcends time and place. I first heard it on the John Peel radio show nearly fifty years ago and when it came up on a playlist this week the title alone was enough to trigger a wave of warm nostalgia. The choice of this latest Track of the Week was never in doubt.

John Martyn

John and Beverley Martyn were a husband and wife folk duo. John had a highly successful career, releasing two studio albums with Beverley and another twenty as a solo artist between 1967 and 2004. Beverley was passed over by the record companies after the second John and Beverley Martyn LP, The Road to Ruin, although she continued to contribute to her husband’s solo projects until the marriage broke down at the end of the seventies.

John Martyn was a gifted singer/songwriter and guitarist. The biography on his official website mentions a long list of influences and collaborators including: Danny Thompson, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, Ronnie Scott, Tim Buckley, Paul Weller and John Paul Jones. But John is, perhaps, best understood as another Nick Drake. By that I mean a folk guitarist with a flair for original songs and a flawless technique. He was also a troubled man at times.

Though scores of musicians, including Eric Clapton, delighted in working with Martyn, his most important musical foil was undoubtedly Pentangle’s double-bassist, Danny Thompson. As 1975’s Live at Leeds testifies, near telepathic interplay informed the pair’s musical unions even when both players were roaring drunk.

James McNair, From his obituary of John Martyn, 30 January 2009

album lions

Although John Martyn was a singer and guitarist, the vocals on Auntie Aviator are Beverley’s and the acoustic guitar retreats behind prominent piano and theremin-like electronic sounds. It’s a combination that lifts us up into a child’s playground among the clouds.

Zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom. … We won’t come down.

Highwayman

maisie who?

Ashildr, the Viking, in the guise of The Knightmare

The old walled city of York is famous for several things. It was a Roman fort and a Viking settlement, it has an impressive Gothic Minster and it was the birthplace of the actress Judi Dench. But the character most closely associated with York is Dick Turpin, butcher by trade, burglar and highwayman by profession, who is buried in the city¹.

The story goes that Turpin fled from the authorities in London, riding his horse, Black Bess, the 200 miles to York in a single day. Although no-one believes that highly romanticised account, Turpin did go on the run, leaving his stamping ground of London and Essex and taking up residence in Yorkshire under the alias of John Palmer. After an altercation in the street in which Palmer shot a game cock and threatened to shoot another man he was questioned by magistrates who decided he should be bound over. But Palmer refused to pay the surety and was sent to a house of correction where those “unwilling to work” were given arduous and demeaning jobs to do.

Suspecting that Palmer’s lifestyle was funded by criminal activities the magistrates made further enquiries bringing to light evidence that Palmer was involved in stealing sheep and horses. Horse stealing was then a capital offence so Palmer was transferred to the more secure prison of York Castle pending trial at York Assizes. While in prison Palmer wrote to his brother-in-law in Essex. Unfortunately for him an official in the receiving post office recognised the handwriting as Turpin’s and travelled to York to reveal Palmer’s true identity, claiming the reward offered after Turpin had shot and killed a man two years before.

Dick Turpin was found guilty of horse theft and hanged on 7th April 1739. He was buried in the graveyard of St. Georges Church, Fishergate and there is a grave there today marked with a headstone although there is some doubt about its authenticity.

starkicker

I was reminded of York’s famous highwayman the other day. Mrs. Crotchety was flicking through the channels on the TV and came across a programme showing a guitarist I did not recognise. After watching for a while I was intrigued to see in the background the logo of an old BBC TV programme called The Old Grey Whistle Test. The Whistle Test, as it was known from 1983 onwards, was the only TV programme available in the UK in the seventies and eighties that broadcast rock and other non-chart music styles; it would have been my favourite TV programme had it not been on so late in the evening².

As we watched, ‘whispering’ Bob Harris, the DJ who hosted the Whistle Test from 1972 to 1978, came on. Although it’s 40 years since he last hosted that show he doesn’t seem to have aged a bit and a wave of warm nostalgia washed over me. For a moment I thought we might be watching a recording from the seventies but the images were too clear and the sound of Bob’s voice was too crisp. It was, in fact, a one-off, three-hour programme celebrating 30 years since the Whistle Test was last broadcast in 1988³.

Friday’s programme was a mix of recordings from the original 445 shows, interviews with musicians and BBC personnel, and live performances from both well-established and up-and-coming artists. It was a thoroughly enjoyable set all round but the clip that caught me by surprise was Albert Lee’s performance of The Highwayman. I knew Albert Lee as a guitarist, well respected in the industry and associated with artists like Emmylou Harris and Eric Clapton. For this song, though, he was playing an electric piano and singing, live in the TV studio. Here’s a YouTube video from a few years ago that looks and sounds very similar.

The Highwayman is a pop song. It was written by Jimmy Webb, the American songwriter, composer and singer responsible for a slew of deceptively catchy songs such as By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Line Man and Galveston. It’s not rock music and it would be easy to dismiss the whole of Webb’s output as superficial twaddle churned out to satisfy the bean counters of the big-name record companies. But suspend your disbelief for a moment. These are well-constructed pieces. They have a tune that the grey-coated doormen of Tin Pan Alley could whistle after hearing them just once or twice. They have a harmonic structure that is both unsurprising and at the same time distinctive. And even the words have a spark of originality about them. The Highwayman, for example, lives, like the eternal soldier, in the past the present and the future.

bob harris

There was one other item in the Whistle Test special that deserves a mention here. One of the promoters at Epic Records, Judd Lander, remembered a time when Jeff Beck was scheduled to be interviewed on the programme. Judd had received a phone call on the morning of the broadcast saying that Jeff had changed his mind and wouldn’t be doing the interview after all.

Not content with this, Judd had a company car drive him over to Jeff’s home. Determined to talk Jeff round Judd removed all his clothes in the car and when they drew up at Jeff’s front door Judd got out, naked, and played “Hi, Ho, Silver Lining”, loudly, on the bagpipes. A heated argument ensued but Judd refused to pipe down so, in the end, Jeff said he’d do the interview on one condition: that Judd would repeat his bagpipe stunt, unclothed, live on air. The first 30 seconds of this YouTube clip show the result of those negotiations.

It’s good to have a little nostalgia occasionally, don’t you think?

Notes

  1. When the Crotchety Couple moved to York in 1997 the house they bought had once been owned by a Mr. Turpin – George, not Richard, and not related to the highwayman as far as we know.
  2. This was long before the days of video recorders and catch-up TV – either you watched it live or you missed it.
  3. Apparently, the Whistle Test was axed by Janet Street-Porter when she took over as head of Youth Programmes at the BBC. The special shown on Friday, 23rd February 2018 is available for another 28 days on the BBC’s iPlayer service for those in the UK.

The Weaver’s Answer

bayeux tapestryLast week we had an Audience with a House on the Hill. They told us a story that asked where in life’s rich tapestry we belong. So, this week, it seems entirely appropriate that we look for some answers. And where better to find them than in the studio of those master weavers of sonic and lyrical threads, Family.

Family came into existence in 1966 when line-up changes in an R&B band called The Farinas¹ resulted in a change of direction towards psychedelic rock, with folk and prog rock influences. The name change was suggested by an American record producer because, at the time, they wore double breasted suits on stage making them look like a contingent of the mafia. The dress code was soon abandoned but the name stuck.

There are quite a few similarities between Audience and Family. So much so that Crotchety Man often confuses the two. Most strikingly, Roger Chapman’s singing for Family has been described as “bleating vibrato”, a phrase that perfectly describes Howard Werth’s vocals on Audience tracks. Add to that the fact that Family, like Audience, made full use of their multi-instrumentalists to craft a pleasing patchwork of sounds (Jim King contributed saxophones, harmonica and piano; Ric Grech bass, violin and cello) and you can begin to see how easily one’s thoughts can become tangled.

family

Family ca. 1970

As a band, Family was relatively short-lived, but between 1966 and 1973 they wrote and recorded many highly original songs. There were something like a dozen candidates for Track of the Week this time², but the one that always sticks in my memory is The Weaver’s Answer.

It starts gently with an acoustic guitar and violin introduction, the opening words falling on the ears like a poetic spell:

Weaver of life, let me look and see
The pattern of my life gone by
Shown on your tapestry.

An old man is reflecting on his life. It rolls by in his mind’s eye, unfurling like the Bayeux tapestry, telling a story. Not a story of war and invasion but of love and marriage, of his children growing up, of exquisite joys and the bitter tragedy of losing his wife.

There is a pause filled with a saxophone echoing both the good times and the bad.

When the tale resumes we find the old man now is blind and lonely. Though he can hear their laughter he can not see his grandchildren. His only comfort lies in the memories stitched into the warp and weft of his past and he longs to rewind the cloth, to see again the people and the places he has loved. Then, as if the Weaver of Life has heard his plea, he begins to see the loom on which his living threads are woven. And he sees, too, that the spools are empty. He is about to die.

Weaver of life, at last now I can see
The pattern of my life gone by shown on your tapestry.

The violin returns to tie off the loose ends. The old man has his answer. One more life has ended, the tapestry is complete.

Additional Notes

  1. This name reminded me of the Italian design company, Pininfarina, responsible for the styling of Ferraris and many other sports cars. It also triggered a memory of a concept car called the Ikenga which got a Crotchety lad very excited back in 1969. So much so that he went up to central London to see the prototype on display in the Harrods department store. Here’s an article that casts a fond look back at that project. And there’s a YouTube video of the car on the set of the Blue Peter children’s programme.
  2. I’ll mention here three other tracks that are well worth listening to: Burlesque, In My Own Time and No Mule’s Fool.

 

The House on the Hill

album cover

The English master was about to hand back our homework. “Before I return your books”, he said, “I’d like to read you one of the essays”. We sat there nervously for a moment, not knowing what to expect. Was he about to praise the text he held in his hands or lambast it mercilessly? And whose work had he singled out for special attention?

As soon as the master began to read I knew I was off the hook. The piece had a title, something like “The House on the Hill”, and mine was gloriously untitled. So, with considerable relief, I listened, intent on understanding why this ordinary piece of homework was getting such exceptional treatment.

From the title I had expected the essay to be a descriptive piece but it turned out to be a short story. It was written in the first person and told of a boy who wanted to explore a ramshackle old house. For the sake of this blog post I’ll call him Joe.

painting

The house had been empty for years and there was an element of mystery about it that fascinated Joe. He knew his parents would forbid him to go. He knew, too, that there were perfectly good reasons not to go sniffing around – the structure might be unsafe and he might be arrested for trespass. But the dark windows beckoned him and the more he tried to put it out of his mind the larger it loomed in his thoughts.

So, one day, Joe gathered his courage and walked up the drive to the house. All was quiet. The house looked unoccupied. As he stood there on the porch Joe got the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Perhaps he should go home. But, if he chickened out now his curiosity would never be satisfied. Joe tentatively pushed the door and it swung open easily as if the house was welcoming him in.

Stepping into the hall Joe saw nothing unusual, just a traditional entrance with a big oak staircase and some wooden panelling. An open door led to the living room. With its patterned wallpaper and faded carpets this struck Joe as a bit old fashioned, but there was something else, too. The feeling that something wasn’t right was stronger here. Something was out of place, he was sure, but what was it?

Going from room to room Joe searched for something that didn’t belong here. It wasn’t the furniture or the ornaments, they were as much at home as the walls and the floors. But the house was blighted by something. Something out of place or something out of time. Joe had to find it. Then, upstairs in a bedroom, Joe suddenly realised what it was. It was him!

The story ended, I think, with Joe running home, never to return to the house on the hill – not because he was scared, simply because he didn’t belong there. When I heard that story I was, like my English teacher, immensely impressed. The writer would have been 12 or 13 at the time and his story was so well written that it could have been published alongside established authors. That was why it had been singled out to be read to the class.

Some six or seven years later a band called Audience wrote a song with a similar theme; The House on the Hill was the title track of their 1971 album. As far as I know there’s no connection between the schoolboy’s story and the Audience song but the band did play at our school dance around the time the album was being recorded. (Caveat: I didn’t go to the dance and I only have my feeble and unreliable memory to rely on for that curious fact.)

Audience were an unusual band. With Keith Gemmell on tenor sax, clarinet and flute as the lead instrument and Howard Werth’s nasal, warbling vocals their sound comes very close to Jethro Tull at times. And yet, at other times their material strays too far from Tull territory to categorise them as progressive rock. So much so that one review of the band’s eponymous first album describes three of the tracks as “pure twee twaddle”. The consensus seems to be that we should file Audience under ‘art rock’, but there are definite folk and prog rock influences, too.

Here’s The House on the Hill on YouTube. I find it peculiarly unsatisfying visually but it’s a good example of the band’s arty, proggy music.

Message In A Bottle

Or, Tales of the River Bank¹.

bottle on beachOne morning in the summer of 1979 Crotchety Young Man was on his way to work. At that time he was based in the Berkshire town of Reading and his route took him over the river Thames at Caversham Bridge. There were rather more people than usual in the streets heading towards the bridge that sunny day, many of them young, dressed in jeans and T-shirts and, seemingly, in high spirits. Where were they going, young Crotchety wondered? Were they students going to college? And why were they so enjoying their march through the wholly unexceptional streets of Reading at this early hour?

I began to wonder if I was witnessing an alien invasion. These creatures looked like humans but they seemed all too perfect. Then I began to notice that, as well as beads and bracelets, some of the invaders were decorated in badges. Actually, by and large, the girls wore the jewellery and the boys wore the badges. But the puzzling thing was that the badges were unappealing dark grey discs with white lettering spelling out ‘The Police’.

Crotchety was confused. Had the British police force updated their uniform? No, that couldn’t be right. Then the sleeping voice of reason woke up and yelled a silent, “Don’t be ridiculous!” in my inner ear. “The kids must be going to the rock festival”, it continued, “and ‘The Police’ must be the name of a band”. It was the only explanation that made any sense. But I’d never heard of that band. A sudden chill descended as I realised that I couldn’t have been more out of touch with current music trends if I had lived for many years on a desert island.

As we approached the bridge the music-loving aliens peeled off to the left heading down Richfield Avenue². Young Crotchety continued on over the bridge to the office, which was on the opposite side of the river, a few hundred yards downstream from the Festival site and just out of earshot of the bands. For the rest of that day ‘The Police’ kept cropping up – in conversation, on the news and on posters – the words mocking a Crotchety Man who, although still in his twenties, was no longer entitled to consider himself young.

the band

After that chastening experience Crotchety Man’s aural antennae became acutely sensitive to any mention of The Police. It turned out that things weren’t quite as bad as I had imagined. The Police had released a single, Roxanne, and the album, Outlandos d’Amour, the previous year but neither had made much of an impact on the charts until Roxanne was re-released in April 1979. It wasn’t until their second album, Reggatta de Blanc, was released a couple of months after that year’s Reading Festival that The Police became a household name.

Two of the singles taken from Reggatta de Blanc soon washed up on the shore of Crotchety’s Desert Island and have been carefully stored in the disc archive. I have chosen one of those, Message In A Bottle, for my Track of the Week³. That link is to the original version on the album. For those who like YouTube and/or live versions here’s Sting and his current band performing the song in 2017.

Notes

  1. Tales of the Riverbank was a British children’s T.V. programme originally broadcast in 1960. The first series used footage of live animals dubbed with human voices.
  2. The Reading Festival has been held at Little John’s Farm, Richfield Avenue since 1971.
  3. The other one is Walking On The Moon.

A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows

rainbow stars

Before we get into the new year in earnest here’s a belated Album of the Month post originally scheduled for December 2017. The album in question is called A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows and it was one of my first forays into the hinterlands of jazz.

I must have bought this record in the late seventies before CDs were invented and long before the Internet became available to the ordinary citizen. It was a time when good new music was hard to find and Crotchety Man had to resort to speculative purchases to satisfy his cravings. The Kaleidoscope was just such a leap in the dark. Although ‘dark’ is a rather peculiar word to use for an album whose title describes shifting multi-coloured shapes reflected in a mirrored tube held up to the light.

It was the record cover that compelled the plunge into the unknown. On the front there was a shimmering rainbow galaxy viewed through a mysterious wisp of smoke. It is still one of my favourite pieces of album artwork. Although, looking at it again today, I wonder what the dark foreground shape might be: the silhouette of a human body, a near-Earth asteroid or just a potato waiting for the chipper and the deep fat fryer?

In contrast, the back cover was almost entirely monochrome, consisting mainly of black text on white paper listing the tracks and musicians, carrying the copyright notices and giving a little information about Neil Ardley, the composer, and the compositions on the disc. Intriguingly the inspiration for the album came from a form of Balinese gamelan music, which uses a five note scale. The seven main tracks on the album emerged from Ardley’s exploration of this scale. (There was probably also something about rainbows but I no longer have the vinyl and haven’t been able to check.)

Among the musicians the names of Barbara Thompson and Ian Carr stood out. They were both well respected jazz instrumentalists and their contributions served to reassure Crotchety Man that this record would not disappoint. So, on the strength of the artwork, the blurb and the personnel, the Kaleidoscope was added to my small collection of LPs. And it sparkled like bright sunbeams reflected in falling drops of rain.

dots

The Kaleidoscope of Rainbows is an album that begs to be played all the way through, from Prologue, through the seven Rainbows to the Epilogue. Like a box of tasty chocolates one bite is never enough and it’s impossible to play one track without drooling over the others. Some tunes are soft and soothing, others have a certain funky piquancy. None are bitter. All are food for the soul.

Unlike chocolates this album has no ‘best before’ date; it sounds as good today as it did 40 years ago. And, fortunately, you can’t overdose on rainbows.

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