Monday, 27 August 2007

Bridging the Generation Gap

In the history of popular music, there are two distinct eras. There is the Dark Era, from inception in the 1950s to around about the mid 1980s and the Enlightened Era from thence on to the present.

In the Dark Era, music belonged to the young and there was a marked generation gap. This was especially noticeable at school, where pop music was a complete unknown when it came to music lessons. All music teachers were blinkered classical nuts of the first order and all teaching was based around putting Beethoven’s fifth on the record player and staring out of the window for about half an hour. Instruments available for tuition did not involve anything with a stack of Marshall amps. Any mention of the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or even Simon & Garfunkel was a heresy punishable by death (well, perhaps not death but the school equivalent).

This was certainly the norm when I was at school, with the exception of one almost unbelievable moment that took place at the end of summer term in 1970. Our music master allowed, in a moment of madness for reasons best known to himself, a rendition of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ during school hours – a previously unheard of precedent. He, himself sight read the piano part from sheet music (in retrospect, this in itself is a belated tribute to his ability as a pianist – the accompaniment is not easy) and a member of our class, Simon Trott as I remember, an ex-choirboy, sang as if still in church doing Handel’s ‘Messiah’. A more unique occurrence you could not imagine and one that will stay with me probably forever. It was one of those moments that make pop music the life enhancing force that it always has the propensity to be, almost in spite of the circumstances.

Latterly, we have moved into the Enlightened Era, where every schoolteacher likes to drone on and on about the Kaiser Chiefs in an effort to ingratiate themselves with their charges. I had a look at my old school website recently only to find that what used to pass as the music room in my day, a spartan area with battered upright piano and grey metal music stands now resembles a state-of-the-art recording studio with mixing desk, arrays of guitars, drum kits and keyboards all on tap.

It makes me extremely envious to think of all this opportunity affordable to today’s youngsters. But then, will they ever experience that sublime moment, a mixture of rebellion and amazement, that comes from hearing a previously banned piece of music performed in front of you by opposing generations in an unspoken war?

Probably not.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Back Street Luv

I’ll let you into a little secret if you promise not to tell. In the very early 1970s, when I was about 15 or thereabouts, I was terribly in love with Sonja Kristina, vocalist with progrock band, Curved Air (voice from the back: ‘Yeah! You and 10,000 others!’).

In those days, rock bands were a male preserve and they generally didn’t have female singers. Exceptions I can think of were Jenny Haan (Babe Ruth), Maggie Bell (Stone the Crows) and Annie Haslam (Renaissance)…plus Elkie Brooks (Vinegar Joe)…Oh! And Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane)…OK, so there were a few! But not that many. The female led band didn’t really get going until the late 1970s when the configuration mushroomed immeasurably. But for a few years it was a bit of a novelty and in this environment Sonja ruled.

But there was more – Curved Air was a highly innovative band, which included 2 Royal College of Music inmates who used electric violin and synthesizers to augment the classic guitar based set up in general use. In these circumstances Sonja was really ‘one of the boys’ and early videos of the band confirm this feeling as she demurs to the band members for much of the time as their instrumental prowess overshadowed and at times sidelined her vocal talents.

It was only later; when the original line-up had disintegrated that she took control of the franchise, dressed herself up in evermore outlandish costumes and became a star in her own right, but by then the configuration of female led male band was in the ascendancy. Nevertheless, by the mid 1970s, audiences were calling for her the moment the band set foot on stage. Just to tease them, the band would often start with an instrumental piece whilst Sonja remained off stage! Presumably she was still struggling into those costumes.

In truth, the later reincarnations of the band were not much cop and musically, Curved Air’s finest moments are contained on their first three albums with the original line-up (Air Conditioning, Second Album and Phantasmagoria) plus ‘Air Cut’ with a revised line-up. These remain the ones worth investigating, but you never forget first love, do you? (For more about the effect of Curved Air on my life see 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive')

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Time For a Change

Does anyone have a time travel machine about them? I though not - you never seem to see them on eBay so they’re obviously incredibly rare. You see, the thing is, I seem to have managed it all on my own. Time travel, that is. It’s called ‘Going on holiday to the Isle of Wight’.

For those of you resident outside the UK, The Isle of Wight is a small chalky island of about 150 square miles located off the south coast of Britain and when you arrive there by ferry from the mainland, it’s suddenly about 1957. For the duration of your visit, the sky remains azure blue with those unfeasibly fluffy white clouds you only see in books and it never rains. And you wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were muffins for tea.

Not only that but everything is like you remember it from your childhood (if you’re old enough). Farmland – there is no industry - is divided into small fallow fields with proper ragged hedgerows and water troughs and odd trees where they ought not to be i.e. in the middle of the field. Tractors with hay-balers produce old-fashioned brick like straw bales that build into haystacks and livestock mooches around out of doors – whatever next? It’s a bit like stepping into an infant school Janet and John book.

‘Look, John! Look!’

There are no major multi-lane highways to drive along, only narrow, hedge-lined roads that wind and twist between hedgerows and snake through picture postcard villages. There’s hardly any traffic even in the rush hours. There’s even a steam train that runs between Wootton and Smallbrook Junction.

If you want some retail therapy the High Streets contain few multiple stores, only independent businesses with unfamiliar names and disconcertingly welcoming staff. In fact there are names on signs that I thought had vanished decades ago, like Regent petrol and Lloyds chemists. Unfortunately, due to some malfunction with my time machine all prices seem to be set at 2007 levels.

The whole experience is very disorientating, so about a week is generally enough otherwise you tend to get sucked into a way of life that is only a distant memory to most people. But don’t worry, on the return journey you can get back to 2007 and feel much more at home stuttering along on gridlocked motorways that cut a swathe through huge barren fields and identikit towns…in the rain.

It’s good to be back.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Aaah......Freak Out!

I don’t know whether you have ever been forced to live out your worst nightmare but it’s not something I would generally volunteer for. Yet inexplicably, I found myself watching a 90-minute retrospective on the Disco phenomenon of the 1970s/1980s on TV recently, a genre of music that I avoided at all costs when it first appeared.

It felt like someone at the BBC had raided my younger sister’s (12 inch) singles collection and played the whole lot, one after the other in an unending battery of chink-a-chink rhythm guitar and thumping bass lines. We won’t even mention the clothes…or hair.

Chic, Sylvester, Dan Hartman, KC & the Sunshine Band, Kool and the Gang - the list went on and on. But let’s try and be positive. What can we learn from this lot, using as our guide the academically approved tool of hindsight?

Well, first off it seems pretty clear that the disco template belongs to Chic. Nile Rogers developed the chink-a-chink guitar style and the late Bernard Edwards was the master of the hum-a-long bass line. Between them they set up the formula for the genre and they did it best. Some of the rest did a reasonable impersonation and the rest were Disco by numbers. Worse, most didn’t know when to stop (and to think that old prog-rockers got pilloried for this). Interestingly, the Bee Gees didn’t really stick to the approved template – perhaps that’s why they are considered the Disco kings?

Secondly, it is surprising how bare the music now seems without drum machines and computers filling in every nano-second with machine gun precise, mind numbing polyrhythms. With just a real live drummer and bass player the rhythm sections of these 30-year-old recordings sound stark and well, human. I reckon that the first wave of ‘band based’ Disco came a cropper at about the time that drum machines and sequencers appeared – about the mid eighties and by, say, 1988 when the Rave culture took hold, Disco was dead.

Would I like it back? Well, no. But on the other hand, it was instructive to hear ‘Groovejet’ by Spiller, released in about 2000 well after the demise of 1970s Disco, included at the end of the programme and guess what? Chink-a-chink rhythm guitar and hum-a-long bass lines!

At least it made a change from the sort of technology-produced ‘dance’ music we are now subjected to. Perhaps I’ve gone into nostalgia mode over real drummers. Now, where did I put that silver jumpsuit?