Dr. Mark Stocker, our former art history joke writer, now turned learned musicologist, is a good friend of an ageing Anglican rector, the Revd. Septimus Hazard, MA (Oxon). For the last forty years the latter has occupied, not without incident, the well-endowed Eton College living of St. Swithin’s, Prawnsby, Norfolk.
The rector was chuffed at being invited to share his innermost thoughts and feelings about the world in this magazine, which he proposes to do in the next three issues. Our editor is like clay in the hands of the Revd. and had no option but to comply with these plans. Any donations to St. Swithin’s spire fund may be sent directly to Dr. Stocker and no questions will be asked. God bless you all!
A Few Thoughts for my Brethren, Sisteren and Otheren…
OMG (to quote the youth of today), that was the greeting from my happy-clappy friend Greg, from that rather dreadful, cheapskate Church of Jesus down the road, I do so apologise.
The other day, good people, I was deeply impressed by my fellow divine who chose a most apposite Lesson for Boris Johnson to read at the Abbey to mark the Jubilee of our glorious Queen and Monarch, Defender of the Faith to boot: “Whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely… think on these things!” I cannot hope to improve on this brilliant summation of the British Empire’s prime minister and his most excellent Conservative and Unionist government. Boris is beautifully pure and, perhaps certain homo sapiens of the cloth might add, lovely (they have mysterious, nay, queer ways, but I fear I digress!) The Tory party at prayer, it has been wisely observed of the Anglican fold.
Talking of prayer, I recently conducted a harvest festival service for a congregation predominantly comprising market gardeners. “Lettuce spray!” I commanded—and you know what, Farmer Brown rudely interjected “I did that months ago, you fool!” Rather better received was a hymn I chose for a congregation of physicists, mostly I fear agnostics or heaven forbid, atheists. They nonetheless responded with gusto to the hymn “Immortal, invisible, God only wise/In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes…” Choosing the right hymn to match the occasion is of course very important, particularly as I need to humour my very “woke” bishop, the Rt. Rev. Timothy Venables, BA (Hull). God help us.
Therefore, when I was conducting an ecumenical service the other day with our Quaker friends, I decided in the last minute not to go ahead with “Fight the good fight with all thy might.” My parishioner, Mrs. Broadbridge (bless!) tells me I am a sensitive vicar, but far be it for me…
Back to those hymns. A while ago, I conducted a service for a congregation of what Bishop Timothy would a little nauseatingly deem “Otherly abled.” I therefore decided that “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus” was not the happiest of choices, in the unlikely event of the Saviour making a guest appearance and performing those rather splendid miracles of His. This is St. Swithin’s Church, not bleeding Lourdes (excuse my French!) Likewise, “You’ll never walk alone” would seem to be stating the obvious to these good folk, they hardly need reminding of their sad condition. What with Covid smiting our congregation, “Breathe on me, breath of God” is particularly inadvisable, especially as He resides in one or two of my holier, unvaccinated communicants. Well, they at least seem convinced He does. One cannot be too careful, nor indeed too prayerful. On that lyrical note, I will take my leave, and it’s high time to enjoy my first dry sherry of the day.
Yr humble servant, The Revd Septimus Hazard, MA (Oxon), (He/Hymn) St. Swithin’s Church, Prawnsby, Norfolk
As the Revd.’s piece went to press, the dramatic news of Boris Johnson’s resignation burst forth on the wireless waves. The editor, out of courtesy and sympathy, telephoned Our Friend of the Cloth, and alas found him very much out of sorts. He should of course spare the reader, but sounds of belching, weeping and what sounded like a crystal decanter being smashed greeted him…
“I know I shouldn’t swear, but my foughts… thoughts are well-nigh unprintable. It’s bloody, simply bloody awful—excuse my French, as dear Mrs. Broadbridge would say. Boris was… is… perfection. [sobs] The men who ditched him are beneath contempt. I need to find a good name for them [hic]. Ah yes, the great John Steinbeck came up with a juicy insult many years ago—spawn of cuttlefish—that’s them! Snakes! Bastards! Oh my gosh, my long-suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Griffin, will have a helluva, sorry, hideous mess to clear up here. I need another drink, old man, do please excuse me…”
In this article, Dr. Stocker promises to bring tears to your eyes—of laughter. Now, misheard pop music lyrics often aren’t normally subtle. But if a pompous and wordy commentary befitting someone with a Cambridge education is applied to them, adding a dash of autobiographical insight for good measure, then this constitutes the perfect guide to such a fascinating by-way of musicology. The majority of the lyrics are original mishearings, where Dr. Stocker alone is to blame, but a couple are better known and simply had to be included. Join him on his journey.
Misheard lyrics are on the one hand mere trifles that can be dismissed as being silly, but on the other they can be invaluable, particularly to the Freudian psychoanalyst, providing insights into one’s thoughts, feelings and love life that I never hitherto believed existed.
Perhaps my first memorable experience of such lyrics came not from me, but from my father, Oliver Stocker, whom I have written about before. He airily dismissed a lot of pop (“Here today, gone tomorrow!”) but like not a few middle-aged men in the 1960s, succumbed just a little to the charms of Sandie Shaw, a tall, skinny dollybird, who preferred to perform in her bare feet and had a very serviceable voice—though not a patch on Kathy Kirby or Dusty Springfield, mind.
Good, well-chosen songs, often by Chris Andrews (who almost certainly fancied her), provided hit material. Indeed, Sandie reached number one three times in the UK. The second such hit, “Long Live Love,” written by Andrews, chronicled a happy love affair:
I have waited a long, long time For somebody to call mine And at last he's come along Baby, oh nothing can go wrong We meet every night at eight And I don't get home 'till late I say to myself each day Baby, oh long, long live love!
These are hardly memorable or profound lyrics. But they fascinated Mr Stocker, who told me: “This Sandie Shaw is a remarkable girl. She says of her boyfriend: ‘We meet every night at eight/And I don’t get home ’till eight.’ Now, pray, how is that possible?” (He talked like me, you see).
Well, it was indeed phenomenal; the bionic woman clearly had nothing on Sandie! I told Dad he was being silly. He told me I was being impertinent. Posterity, I think, has vindicated him.
Abba are wonderful; even that swinging historian Jeremy Black thinks so and has quoted the lyrics of their stunning debut, the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest winner, “Waterloo.” Yet Abba are Swedish; they are, let’s face it, foreigners. Their pronunciation of English, though far better than my Swedish, is faulty and unintentionally comical.
I don’t think humour comes easy to people of those Northern regions: Strindberg, Ibsen, anyone? Indeed, Nordic humour seems to centre on people doing idiotic things under the influence of the multiple glasses of schnapps that they down, to keep spirits up during their interminable winters. But precisely because Abba are being serious and earnest, they end up being doubly funny. “Dancing Queen” is arguably their most iconic hit. But the lyrics are forever creating linguistic problems.
The misheard chorus line “Dancing Queen/Feeling the beat of the tangerine” (tambourine) is merely silly. But when Abba start to become a little more ambitious in describing the disco ambience, they founder badly, especially the climactic passage where we are urged to “See that girl/Watch that scene/Digging the Dancing Queen.”
‘Digging’ is clearly meant in its informal sense, that of appreciation of this disco diva rather than anything horticultural or archaeological. But the change from the imperative “See/Watch” to the present participle is troublesome.
It is entirely understandable, therefore, that this has been rendered as: “See that girl/ Watch her scream/ Kicking the dancing queen.” Indeed, this would be a clinically accurate description of a working-class disco (perhaps infiltrated by angry, anti-Abba punk rockers) in late 1970s Britain; and Abba’s lines afford quite a poignant social insight thereof.
It is highly amusing when a song containing the customary platitudes about love is suddenly invaded by an incongruous outsider. I am not the only one who can testify to the ample talents of Mama Cass (Elliott) of Mamas and Papas’ fame.
“Dedicated to the one I love” is a song from the summer of love (1967) that I still cherish. She turned solo with some success before tragically succumbing to a heart attack induced by her obesity, aged just 32. Cass, blessed with that rich voice, and I suspect quaking laughter, was one big-hearted Mama. She could have done so much more.
One of her biggest solo hits was “It’s getting better,” a charming song written by the highly talented husband and wife team of Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil. The title itself would have appealed to the great optimists of history: Dr. Pangloss, Emile Coué and Boris Johnson.
Its message centres on the singer’s love affair that is more down to earth than extravagantly romantic, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As Mama Cass explains,
Once I believed that when love came to me It would come with rockets, bells and poetry But with me and you it just started quietly and grew And believe it or not Now there's something groovy and good Bout whatever we got And it's getting better Growing stronger, warm and wilder Getting better every day, better every day.
So far, so good. But the penultimate line is highly problematic. “Warm and wilder?” No, the great American writer “Thornton Wilder!”
But what on earth does this profoundly serious commentator on “the timeless human condition; history as progressive, cyclical, or entropic” think he’s doing, straying onto the set and disrupting Mama Cass’s homespun sentimentality? Were she to sing “Barbara Cartland,” it would be considerably more apposite.
Was she seeking to impress and go intellectually upmarket, or what? Heed your social station and your unsophisticated audience, Miss Elliott! Whoever will you be namedropping next, your namesake T.S.? Mr. Wilder’s sentiments thereupon (he outlived Mama Cass by a year) remain, alas, unrecorded.
Robert Palmer, like Mama Cass, died too young. A-pack-a-day (or more) smoker, he indulged in the terrible habit to give his voice a rasping power where needed. He was elegant, he was intelligent, he was kind: just listen to the humanity of one of his standards, “Every Kind of People,” and I defy you not to melt, if not to flirt dangerously with multiculturalism.
Palmer was above all, courageously varied and open to experimentation in his musical repertoire; very unusual in this regard, and all the more admirable for it.
From the blue-eyed soul of “Every Kind of People,” he could move into a convincing essay in proto-techno in “Looking for Clues,” to the Lounge genre in “Riptide” (Robert in his tuxedo), to—for want of a better word—the stylish sexism of his biggest hit, the multi-million selling “Addicted to Love.”
And then, in “Flesh Wound,” a little-known track on his “Riptide” album, we encounter Palmer the hard-rocker, a cigarette paper separating him from Heavy Metal. There was nothing that he couldn’t do. I had fond aspirations of his intellectual pursuits.
Palmer, one feels, would have enjoyed his Trollope and his Gide, and known his Rameau from his Rimbaud. In truth, according to his partner, he liked nothing more than getting up in the night and assembling model aircraft; shucks, one’s illusions were blown! But the music remains impressive, and it is to “Flesh Wound” that I wish to turn.
As befits the popular genre, Robert is intending to “pull the bird,” as it were:
We flew over miles of ocean, be prepared I don't have the faintest notion, who'll be there You underestimated, nobody sympathized I think you'll soon feel better, once we get inside I see the door is open, why don't we walk right in? Let's put our party hats on, and let the fun begin.
It is when he is attempting to reassure his lady love, in his ardent courtship, that Robert comes to grief; she will “soon feel better.” Only I could swear he says “Zubin Mehta.” What on earth is he doing in the bedroom? Is this revered classical conductor going to make it a joyous threesome? (I hope I shock no reader who subscribes to this magazine’s wholesome family values, but do make allowances for the dubious morality of the rock music scene).
Worse, is Zubin a horrible voyeur? Did Mr Mehta seek damages from Palmer? A more charitable reading is that the namedropping of the conductor merely attests to the intelligently catholic range of music that Robert Palmer embraced. I would very much like to think that.
A wonderful misheard lyric is embedded within the signature hit of master rock guitarist and cult figure, Jimi Hendrix, “Purple Haze.”
Let me briefly digress: Jimi incongruously shared his birthday (27 November) with my great aunt, Miss Kate Henchman Stocker, MA (1895–1984), who taught English, Elocution and Drama to the grateful pupils of New Zealand’s most esteemed private girls’ academy, Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, Wellington.
In retirement, Kate rose to stellar heights in pteridology. Poor Jimi wouldn’t have had a clue. But to him, you and any other plebs, this designates the study of ferns, really quite a significant field in New Zealand. I definitely think this accident of birth made Aunt Kate more “groovy” than she could ever have believed, though when I told her this, she was decidedly nonplussed: “Who’s this man?”
To return to “Purple Haze”: in the lyrics, Jimi is, I think, holding forth upon the impact of nefarious substances, the liberal consumption of which, true believers swear, enabled his creative genius to thrive:
Purple Haze all in my brain Lately things just don't seem the same Actin' funny but I don't know why 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky
The last line is decidedly odd, but remember this was from the summer of love, when people in their thousands suddenly started behaving untowardly, particularly in the Haight-Ashbury quarter of San Francisco.
Famously, an alternative interpretation of the said line is “Scuse me, while I kiss this guy.” Now, that makes considerably greater sense, and is eminently consistent not only with the Zeitgeist of permissiveness, but with all the peace, love and whatnot that constituted such a vital part of the hippie ideology.
By all accounts, Jimi—author of “Electric Ladyland”—was joyously heterosexual, but perhaps he too was open to openness and experimentation. Yet it could still be “the sky’” and if the object of his attention had been a frilly “chick cloud”—to quote from an especially daft song by the Incredible String Band—then that would have made perfect sense.
Alternatively, yes, his lady love could have been “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Εὕρηκα, the perfect fit! Clearly there is method in Jimi’s hippie madness.
Readers may care to note that I received powerful intellectual vindication of my whole train of thought from the eminent linguistics expert (and poet), Emeritus Professor Koenraad Kuiper, who assures me: “The phonemic ambiguity of ‘the sky’ and ‘this guy’ is quite common and is disambiguated in context.”
Gee, thanks, Kon!
In retrospect, it is obvious that Herb Albert’s big hit, “The sky’s in love with you,” was a witty response to “Purple Haze.”
I will conclude this edgy, pioneering article with a reference to the gender fluidity that characterises our relativist age. In this regard, I sometimes use “It/Them” in my email and epistolary “signature” to confound and irritate woke folk, a proud assertion of my fundamental Otherness. But enough of this self-absorption.
Herman’s Hermits were a hugely successful pop group of the 1960s, part of the so-called “British Invasion,” led by the Beatles. Their success came partly because they were such a wholesome act, unlike the “long-haired vermin” that conservative folk would call the Rolling Stones, or the still-more egregious Pretty Things.
Lead singer Herman (aka Peter Noone) was a handsome, charming, youthful “boy next door” type, and with the Hermits enjoyed several US number ones, notably “I’m Henry VIII, I am,” and the poignant “Mrs Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter;” the latter sung in his broad, Mancunian accent.
A lesser-known hit by Herman’s Hermits was the jaunty, up-beat “Must to Avoid,” dating from 1965–66. It reached number 8 in the US, and number 6 in Britain. The lyrics commence thus:
She's a must to avoid A complete impossibility She's a must to avoid Better take it from me.
Herman then goes on to explain: “She’s nothin’ but trouble/Better cut out on the double/Before she gets into your heart.” In short, she’s the sort of girl that your Mother would warn you against, unless that is your Mother is a hard-core feminist who joylessly objects to the systemic misogyny of this song.
The title poses a genuine problem. “Must to avoid?” A strange turn of phrase, and the early use of the verb ‘must’ as a noun would have made it even stranger nearly 60 years ago.
The alternative reading, “She’s a muscular boy,” makes infinitely greater sense. Clearly, Herman’s dangerous girl is transitioning, and avoidance during this difficult phase of her/his/their life is called for; really, this is sensitive counsel from him.
Alternatively, Herman might just have been alluding to those formidable East German women athletes who scooped up all the Olympic gold medals for tossing cabers, hurling garden gnomes and weightlifting, aided by performance-enhancing medication that deepened their voices. And what scary, hairy creatures they were, definitely to be avoided! This, though, is a more tenuous and frankly unsavoury gloss on an otherwise charming and innocuous song.
Indeed, perhaps after reading this, some sensitive souls are despairingly saying “Dr. Stocker is a must to avoid,” so he had better conclude.
Lounge Music, also known as Easy Listening, is considerably harder for an intellectual such as myself convincingly to theorise. It was—and remains—huge in terms of its popular impact and when these things were properly measured, in records sold. And yet there is a dearth of literature on it. This is music that is predominantly sung by solo male artists—though the lovely Dionne Warwick (pronounced Warrick, not War-wick, you plebs) eminently qualifies, as do a syrupy duo big in Britain in the 1970s, Peters and Lee. This is music that does not seek to problematise, nor indeed, does it follow that ambitious Marxist edict “the point is to change the world.” Au contraire, Lounge would claim itself to be apolitical and here I think it succeeds wonderfully.
Whilst you sip your Martinis or G&T in the golf clubhouse to the accompaniment of Frank Sinatra or, if the ambience is more trendy, Harry Connick Jr, you simply do not think about burning questions like the ordination of women priests or poor reading ability at lower decile schools—or even want to. Lounge is conservative, it does tend to reinforce the capitalist status quo, and, thank goodness, it doesn’t preach at us. Even fine people of the left (not an oxymoron) can and should derive comfort from Sinatra singing “Three coins in the fountain” or “Young at heart” in the background.
I like Lounge because it tends to be discreet; it doesn’t and shouldn’t aim to compete with the meaningful conversations I have enjoyed with friends sunk into deep hotel armchairs. I will go so far as saying that I even feel Frankie, Andy, Tony (Bennett), Johnny (Mathis, aka Mr. Velvet) Nat (King Cole), Matt (Monro) and indeed Engelbert (can’t spell his foreign surname, sorry!) are like friends to me.
A pivotal figure in Lounge music is Andy Williams. In the last 30-40 years of his life I think he was criminally underrated, but he had the money in the bank, focussed on his art collection and sagely told us that he believed Obama was a grave threat (a rare venture of Lounge into politics). Above all, his music continued to give many people pleasure, which was always his aim. He was blessed with a fabulous voice, looks to match and a great choice in V-neck sweaters—some guys have all the luck.
But I love him for his witty self-reflexivity, when he called one of his late compilation albums, In the Lounge with Andy Williams. He would have been well over 70 at the time, and a comfortable armchair probably seemed more enticing than ever.
The songs are from his predictable repertoire, though “May each day” is sadly absent. How I loathed that song when I was a bolshie little 10-year-old and when it was played to death on Housewives’ Choice—’For Aunty Doris, who is 80 today,’ etc., with the compere sickeningly adding, “Bless her!” (Oh, sod off—it totally justified Punk Rock, but I digress!)
In older age, with maturity kicking in, I gave it another listen; and you know what, reader, I just melted and promptly forwarded the YouTube link to a few choice lady friends:
As the days turn into weeks, and the weeks turn into years, There’ll be sadness, there’ll be joy, there’ll be laughter, there’ll be tears.
Of course, I now want the radio to play it when I reach 80. Andy, you have warmth, you shake hands with our hearts. But I concede that “May each day” isn’t exactly cutting-edge. Lounge rarely strives for such qualities, but every now and then a complex and fascinating song comes within its purview. I adore the pizzicato and clipped guitar of “Can’t get used to losing you,” and admire another lesser-known track with syncopated rhythms that make it veer towards a rock ballad: “Getting over you.” It’s also a fabulous production job, with perfect use of strings and chorus. I wish Andy had attempted something edgy rather more, but as I have implied, this goes against the fundamental grain of Lounge.
With anything half decent in Lounge, three things are vital: a professionally written song with that rarity these days, a compelling melody; a singer with a good voice; and capable production values.
Roger Chapman, of the Prog Rock band Family, who has a voice akin to barbed wire, would never have made it as a Lounge star, and probably “Chappo” wouldn’t have wished to anyway. His utterly different compatriot, Matt Monro (originally Terence Parsons, a cheery Cockney bus conductor), is probably little known to our predominantly US/Canadian readership, but there’s no question that he’s up there with the greats—his vibrato has balls alright!
Monro is a Lounge singer’s Lounge singer, and Sinatra himself recognised this, sending Matt fond wishes when the latter was on his premature deathbed (too many single malts in the 19th hole, poor Matt!) Our good friend Mrs Broadbridge wept when she heard he had passed away, but in her quick-witted way, quoted one of his loveliest hits: “Walk on, Matt!”
Sometimes Matt’s material could be jejune—he understandably disowned his 1964 Eurovision Song Contest entry, “I love the little things.” But given the right song, he was a Lounge killer: “Born free” and that art historian’s classic, “Portrait of my love,” with this delightful couplet: “Anyone who sees her/Soon forgets the Mona Lisa.” I rest my case.
Lounge has its origins in Crosbyesque crooning, in the vocal refrains which were a charming part of Swing, and can sometimes be quite jazzy. Mel Tormé is emphatically in this category—too clever by half is Mel, sometimes downright parodic (as in “I’m hip”) and subversive. I fear he was a Democrat. Yet his version of “Polka dots and moonbeams” leaves the better-known one by Sinatra for dead:
I won’t harp excessively on Frankie and it’s not because he was personally obnoxious, but because I find something slightly cold and alienating in the very perfection of his voice. Yet he wins me over with the Sammy Cahn standards of the 1950s and later when he recorded the great Rod McKuen’s “Love’s been good to me”—so infinitely preferable to bloody “My Way.”
Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck are two unquestionably significant singers who are Lounge related. Tom is best, however, when he aims at something soulful (I love his underrated cover of the Four Tops’ “Do what you gotta do”)—indeed, he’s the one improbable Lounge/ Northern Soul crossover.
Engelbert is the better Lounge suit fit though there’s a great deal of Country in him (“Ten Guitars,” “There goes my everything”). Even his signature hit, “Please release me” is emphatically Country in its origins. Gosh, this song brings back memories. Along with Rolf Harris’s nauseating “Two little boys,” it was one of the numbers I would sing in the school changing-rooms after swimming, and strangely was never beaten up as I attempted to do so. It is one of the best-selling British singles of all-time, and like “My Way,” was in the top 50 for over a year.
Its chief claim to fame was that it did the unthinkable: it kept the Beatles’ double A-sider “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields forever” (and this is the Fab Four at their creative peak) off the number 1 slot. The sheer rage of earnest rock intellectuals over this catastrophe is still something to cherish, and it was reignited when I commented in the Guardian blog many years later: “Showed those long-haired vermin what’s what.” Indeed, it marked the triumph of Lounge (and mums and dads) over its upstart, pretentious rivals (Strawberry Fields Forever indeed), and I exult!
Lounge is more complicated than you think—just you try playing any Burt Bacharach melody on the piano: it’s much closer to Grade VIII than Grade I, and this genius of composer endows the genre with creativity and even profundity. When I was aged just 8 and Dionne Warwick’s Bacharach-crafted “Walk on by” was high in the charts, I really felt the sense of hearing something special and life-enhancing. Its infinitely sad message got home to me even then, but I was a precocious as well as an endearing lad. There are of course many other songs where that came from, notably “Trains and boats and planes” and “Close to you”—aah! Jimmy Webb snaps at the heels of Bacharach as a great composer.
I particularly like “The worst that can happen” (which was covered by the obscure Brooklyn Bridge), whose lyrics show Lounge in a rare but brilliant moment of emotional sadness:
Oh girl, don't wanna get married Girl, I'm never, never gonna marry, no no Oh, it's the worst that could happen…
Mona Vale—who sounds like a lovely girl—is in fact an Edwardian homestead, in the garden city of Christchurch, New Zealand.
A man of many parts, Dr. Stocker does voluntary gardening there one day a week. Justly proud of his achievements, he was inspired to write this ode to the Christchurch ladies in his life. The response was rapt. Indeed, one or two of them felt that the poem was universal in its appeal, while the editors here readily admit brushing away a collective tear upon reading it. Hence its appearance in this little magazine…
A Mona Vale Ode
In Mona’s gardens, on your stroll Yesterday, your eyes would roll At all those horrid, torrid weeds; “Mona Vale? It’s gone to seeds!” You would angrily exclaim; Fair enough, you’re not to blame.
But on this morn, with all my might, I vowed I’d put the garden right, Wearing my erotic Uggs, I filled a myriad of trugs With weeds that just had bit the dust…
So, ladies, now you’ll take delight, Clad in muslin frocks (washed white) As you saunter past the roses (Avoiding all those sprinkler hoses)… And I vouch that you will say, “This garden makes a maiden gay,” And, rapt with my devoted toil: “Bless the dear, he’s fluffed the soil!”
As befits a genre that emphatically rejected the two or three-minute pop song, this article will be the longest in my series, and unashamedly so. Progressive Rock, a.k.a. Prog Rock, is a pleasure about which I feel remarkably little guilt, and is perhaps the most reflective of my socio-economic privilege. My offering takes the form of a couple of amuses-bouches, before presenting the reader with the core of my argument.
To qualify for a Fellowship of All Saints’ College, Oxford, it is necessary to perform with distinction in an unseen three-hour examination, equipped with a Parker 51 fountain pen and a wad of foolscap paper. Starched academic dress must be worn at all times.
The exam takes the form of a theme which is sprung on the unsuspecting candidate regardless of their background. The aim is to produce a script that shows evidence of powerful and original thinking on a subject of immense human interest.
Previous themes have been “Whither Anglicanism?” “The impact of Brexit on British sovereignty,” and “Sculpture and subalternity” (that’s when Prof. Bhabha set it). This year, Professor Mark Stocker, Robert Marley Chair in Reggae and Rastafarian Studies and Fellow of Tesco College, decided that his guilty pleasure of Progressive Rock would admirably fit the brief. The exam paper is below.
Candidates must choose THREE questions. Any duplication of material or argument will be severely penalised.
“After 1980, Prog Rock was a dead duck” (M. Stocker). Discuss.
Examine the impact of EITHER folk OR jazz OR blues on Progressive Rock.
“Prog Rock knew what it was not. Yet it is far harder to say what it is” (M. Stocker). Discuss.
Examine the role of virtuosity and technique in ONE Progressive Rock album.
How “classical” was Progressive Rock?
Examine the role and evolution of the Concept Album in Progressive Rock.
With particular reference to the music of 10cc, examine the interrelationship if any between Progressive Rock, Progressive Pop and mainstream Pop.
“My Mark plays that kind of stuff on his sports car’s cassette player with all those speakers, very loudly. Probably needs to be loud, what with that horrid engine! If you ask me, it’s mostly pretentious twaddle. Those musicians claim they’re classically influenced. Well, I think classical music should be classical and if you must have it, rock should be rock. It’s neither fish nor fowl, though the way it goes on and on with those guitar bits is pretty foul to me! Every now and then though it can come up with a good melody. A song I like of this type is “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which they play on one of my all-time favourite programmes, the Horse of the Year show:
“But mostly it’s just meaningless noise. We don’t need no education? That’s bad English and shows that’s just what they do need!”
And now, reader, for something a little more serious and substantial.
As a Baudelairean flaneur and dabbler, I cannot be a profound guide, but I make up for it in feeling. As previously indicated, I very much identify with Prog’s high seriousness, aspirations even to braininess, and its early belief in taking the listener on a journey and making a better world. It’s part of the endearing mid-to-later 1960s optimism when liberalism did seem to be offering something hopeful, when there was greater income and wealth equality and access to free higher education: not ipso facto bad things, surely?
Conservatives as much as liberals bought into this ethos and this came over powerfully in researching my recent book, When Britain Went Decimal, but I digress. It was an 18th century philosophe who commented that after having seen a great and uplifting play, as they exit the theatre, “all men are friends.” This is surely the feeling engendered by the Moody Blues in their exquisite, melodic pioneering concept album, ‘Days of Future Passed’ (1967). When I first heard one of the tracks, “Voices in the Sky,” aged just 11, I felt a definite frisson: this is a special moment, a new moment, for popular music—can’t other people see it?
It’s a way forward: it offers hope. Talking of which, here is two exquisite minutes of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with the electric John McLaughlin on his double-neck guitar, Prog at its most uber-cool!
I even defend the supposed sexism of saying “all men” above. For whatever reason, women constituted a tiny minority of Prog Rock fans and musicians alike—occasional progressively inclined artists like Kate Bush aside. Why this is so is a little puzzling, because Prog is nothing like as macho as heavy metal or blues, and is characterised by the considerable, civilised respect that its exponents often manifest towards each other in their constantly varying collaborations and permutations. However, I concede that ecstatically playing the air guitar in imitation of Chris Squire of Yes or the air keyboards of Keith Emerson is not something one would normally associate with the fair sex. Isn’t the loss theirs?
You need to do a little work to acquire a mature appreciation of Prog Rock. The great art historian Ernst Gombrich declared that we see what we know. Correspondingly, with Prog, we hear what we listen to. By contrast, rock and roll, mainstream pop and still more Prog’s arch enemy punk rock are the antithesis of intellectual and instead represent three minutes of dancing animality and instant, almost invariably shallow, gratification. Thus their followers—unless they saw the light—were often aghast at Prog’s aspirations, instantly dismissing it as pretentious and elitist. A text that particularly set their teeth on edge was the sleeve notes for Gentle Giant’s album Acquiring the Taste:
“It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being unpopular… From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts on blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling.”
So, you needed to acquire the taste. A noble aim, surely, but hoi polloi and still less forgivably leading rock critics such as Lester Bangs, eschewed and denounced Gentle Giant’s appeal. To put it coarsely, and they were coarse, they gagged. Yet there was surely an element of “épater les proles” in those sleeve notes and the problem was it worked all too well, and rebounded…
There is much in Prog that I identify personally with—it’s my roots, man. Its origins are emphatically English—and Home Counties, not Liverpudlian, thank you. Prog artists are Caucasian, though Prog Soul in the hands of 1970s Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye could be darn good. Progs are often solidly middle-class and privately educated: Genesis are mostly Old Boys of the very exclusive Charterhouse. Their values presuppose a certain degree of culture and refinement: a large proportion of Prog Rock artists were classically-trained, and had sung in church choirs, usually Anglican not Catholic. Some, like Keith Emerson, were surely moved by church organ music. They would have gone on to art school or academies of music. Those fine Prog pioneers the Zombies were grammar school boys from the cathedral city of St Albans, close to where I grew up:
What a spiffing mellotron!
I can easily envisage chatting affably to their breathily beautiful vocalist Colin Blunstone about the cathedral’s Romanesque tower and Decorated Gothic tracery in a way that I don’t think I could do to Beyonce or even Kylie Minogue, while any self-respecting punk would surely respond to my overtures with a vulgar oath.
Even in their names, Prog artists live up to these ideals: calling yourself the Van de Graaf Generator presupposes a knowledge of physics as well as orthography. The Generator’s lead vocalist, long since gone solo, is the remarkable Peter Hammill, a science graduate of Manchester University. Consider the subject matter of “The Play’s the Thing,” Hammill’s heartfelt tribute to the Bard, recorded in 1988:
Any Prog aficionado would instantly know that the genre was at its critical nadir at that time—and Hammill typically refused to concede one whit to this. With utterly perfect enunciation, he entreats us:
How could he know so much?
How could he bear such knowledge?
How could he dare to write it in the plays?
What is it Shakespeare’d say
If he came back today?
Surely he'd recognise these mortal coils
How do we carry on?
No-one knows where they fit in
No-one knows who they are or where they've been
What does the writer mean?
How do we play this scene?
What didn't Shakespeare know that we do now?
Moving stuff—and I’m not the only one who’s moved. There’s a lovely story of a dance at an upper-class girls’ school perhaps 40 years ago. A parent, one hopes with a wicked sense of humour and certainly with the right connections, engaged Hammill to play there live. The girls stood in a circle around him and his piano in their dresses, any pimply boys forsaken, while they wept at his mournfully beautiful dirges. So, Prog can appeal to the feminine!
Sometimes the name of a Prog act can be even more abstruse and esoteric than the Van de Graaff generator. I well remember Robert John Godfrey, Royal Academy of Music graduate, being interviewed about the etymology of his band, the critically underrated Enid. Godfrey is notoriously curmudgeonly and he didn’t disappoint this time, telling the interviewer: ‘I have no wish to tell you the origins of our name. It is essentially private. Next question?’ “Okay, Mr Godfrey, your track ‘The Loved Ones’ is surely a tender and knowing tribute to Rachmaninov?” “That’s more like it, my man!”
Training, technique and virtuosity are all prized Prog Rock qualities. To purists, Yes’s “Going for the one” is worryingly less sophisticated than some of their earlier recordings, treading dangerously nearer heavy rock than Prog. Maybe, and I’m the first to concede that its lyrics amount to very little, never a Yes strength:
Yet consider the following: Jon Andersen’s passionate high tenor, mimicked in the back beats of Alan White’s drums; Rick Wakeman’s piano, sometimes boogie and honkey-tonk, complemented by his state-of-the-art late 70s synthesiser. An intrepid counter-melody comes from Chris Squire’s slide guitar (and he went to the same high school as me, Squire!) Not least, there is Steve Howe’s steel guitar. The synthesis, without proper discipline, would be disastrous, but the outcome here is triumphant: “Going for the one” indeed had me shouting, entirely appositely, “Yes!” The reverse, I regret to say, applies to their later, post-Prog “Owner of a lonely heart,” whose brazen commercialism makes this devout follower yell, “No!” and perhaps, echoing the famous critic of Dylan gone electric, “Judas!”
Nobody would call the barbed-wire voice of Roger Chapman, of Family fame, classically trained or even refined. And yet it’s a central component of that band’s appeal. Folk and—relatively unusually—blues ingredients go into their musicianship, yet their place in Prog’s B-list is secure. It is Chapman’s sheer imperfection that helps make his slow ballad, “My friend the sun” so affecting. Perhaps there’s a bit of the Cézanne in Chapman. The Frenchman was a technically poor painter who flunked art at the academy, but when viewed through a modernist lens, he is one of the very greatest; likewise “Chappo” (as he is affectionately called) through a Prog lens. The signature song of Family is “The Weaver’s Answer”:
It is about an elderly man asking for the “weaver of life” to unfold the events of his lived experience. As the song gets underway, the old man recounts his childhood, his first love, and the day he took a wife; he wonders aloud how it looks on the fabric from the weaver’s loom. It begins thus:
Weaver of life, let me look and see
The pattern of my life gone by
Shown on your tapestry… [orchestral dissonance]
Just for one second, one glance upon your loom
The flower of my childhood could appear within this room
Does it of my youth show tears of yesterday
Broken hearts within a heart as love first came my way?
Did the lifeline patterns change as I became a man
An added aura untold blends as I asked for her hand
Did your golden needle sow its thread virginal white
As lovers we embraced as one upon our wedding night?
What is the weaver’s answer? I won’t spoil it, but I entreat you to listen and challenge you to remain unmoved. Prog Rock repeatedly touches these nerves. It is infinitely superior to the mediocrities (punk or otherwise), committed to de-skilling music, that savaged and trashed it – some claim irreparably – in the later 1970s. And it isn’t all humourless, contrary to what Hammill and Chapman may lead you to believe. I shall close with two delightful, if relatively minor, Prog offerings to rest my case. Firstly, Jethro Tull (I love the conceit of naming one’s band after an early 18th century agricultural improver), ‘Too old to rock and roll/ Too young to die’ (itself something of an existential paradox):
This is followed by the creativity and wit of 10cc “Art for art’s sake (money for God’s sake),” evidently a favourite saying of Jewish Mancunian front man Graham Gouldman’s impecunious playwright father, Hymie:
No doubt, in common with other Postil Magazine contributors, I get sacks of fan mail from grateful and admiring readers. One particular epistle deeply moved me. It read thus:
Dear Dr Stocker,
I am a 6th former at an exclusive private girls’ school in the Cotswolds and I hope to read history of art at Oxford or Cambridge. My teacher, Miss Trevelyan, told me to read your Postil Magazine articles to improve my own writing. I think they are excellent. My problem is that the Pop singers you write about are often old or dead, and my parents say they are even before THEIR time. I am a real fan, however, of your poetry and jokes. Could you please write something special in this line? I would be so thrilled.
Thank you so much in anticipation,
Stephanie (age 16)
P.S. I do think you’re rather dishy!
Well, how could I possibly turn down a request like that? To please Stephanie, and many thousands more (not all of them nicely behaved girls of 16), I supply herewith two poems and four jokes.
The first poem is written in honour of my good friend Michael, an art historian, who recently attained a certain age.
The second one, I believe, will touch the hearts of everyone accustomed to condo or apartment living, and alludes to our sometimes faulty communal garage auto door, which opens to correctly swiped cars and drivers for precisely 90 seconds.
The jokes, I think, speak for themselves. I trust Stephanie and the rest of you will respond with gales of laughter and near ecstasy. If you don’t, contact the editor.
To Michael at 80
For four score years thou’st nobly trod this earth A man possessed with decency and worth, Who solemnly regards it as his duty To say sagacious things on art and beauty.
You’re blessed with a shrewd aesthetic eye; Of serious mien – and yet of humour dry At a pinch that verges on the sly!
Emotions, no, you don’t betray too much Yet a cunning feline, he can touch Your heart, just like a much-loved wife; Salutations on your well-lived life!
Ode to a Garage Automatic Door
Coming from a lowly station I approach’d in trepidation Our reconditioned portcullis. Would I find garagèd bliss? Or would access be denied? “Open, Sesame!” I cried… At one fell swipe of card—it oped! Had it not, could I have coped? And then, count 90—would it close? It did! The air smells like a rose!
And now for those jokes…
I was listening to KD Laing, as one does, and suddenly a great name for a meat eaters’ buffet restaurant occurred to me: Constant Carving.
An uncharacteristically clumsy painting by a great American realist caused him to be nicknamed “ClodHopper.”
The famous and very savvy New Zealand artist Dick Frizzell proudly showed me his latest painting: “Well, Dick, me old son, there’s only one word for that.” [I am prone to talk like that, I’m very irritating] “Pray what is that, Dr. Stocker?” “Moneymaker!“
The woke art historian’s dilemma: Hogarth had a much-loved pug called Trump. Should the artist’s statue be toppled?
Dr. Stocker hereby concludes his magisterial survey of favoured women singers…
Riding high in the same Top Ten of January 1964 that included Gene Pitney’s “24 Hours from Tulsa,” whence my interest in pop music all started, was Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to be with You.” Though I wasn’t at all pro-girls at that stage in my almost eight-year-old existence—indeed thoroughly relieved to be at an all-boys’ school even if Mary Broad was no longer there to tie my shoe-laces—I nonetheless really liked both the song and the singer. With my discernment even then, I appreciated Dusty’s infinite superiority to Petula Clark’s contemporaneous, simpering, goody two-shoes “Thank You.” It’s cruel, I know, to put them head-to-head but history has utterly vindicated me:
Dusty posed a dilemma to me in this essay because, like Michelangelo, there is very little new or special you can say about her, but omitting her from my pantheon of girl singers would be unthinkable. So, it’s “Dusty definitely,” to quote an album title. She was arguably a more interesting character than her smarter, sassier contemporaries Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. A white, middle-class British Catholic girl whose prime love was American black music—and whose voice sounded convincingly black—perhaps had a more fraught struggle to be understood and appreciated than those born in blue-collar Detroit into that ethnicity.
Franklin and Ross were/are emphatically establishment figures, tough to the point of ruthlessness and totally focussed. “There was only room for one Aretha” is a standout line in the film 20 Feet from Stardom, while Ross, probably not as naturally gifted as her fellow Supreme, Florence Ballard, made up for it by being an alpha female. Dusty by contrast had deep self-doubt, almost amounting to an imposter syndrome, together with a fiddly recording perfectionism that required her already remarkable voice to sound superb.
There were further paradoxes: she was by definition a public performer crippled with shyness, a sex symbol who was lesbian, a natural brunette whose stage persona and public image was a (dyed) blonde bombshell. People who don’t bother to look beyond her hairstyle write her off as being “fluffy”—which is precisely what they are. Dusty’s lengthy period in the US (1972–85) was mostly a tragic write-off; a Guardian writer mourned the “lethargy, paranoia, and drink and drug-soaked self-destruction that blighted her later years.” I for one was not convinced by her late-career resurgence aided by the Pet Shop Boys, though it cheered many sentimental hearts.
The best Dusty comes from the period spanning 1963 and 1969, culminating with her poorly-selling but now iconic album “Dusty in Memphis.” Not all of her many hits during this time were great songs (“Little by Little” endlessly repeated was little better than Lulu’s execrable “I’m a Tiger,” and it sounded like “Litterbug” to me). There were songs that I admired more than liked: “You don’t have to say you love me,” her sole British number one, to me always had a slightly dreary, Eurovision quality to it. But several were stand-outs: “Losing You” sounds as fresh as it did nearly 60 years ago; there’s the pretty, soulful “Wishing and Hoping” and “Going Back;” the more dramatic “My Colouring Book;” and above all “I Close my Eyes and Count to Ten”:
Its relatively complex melody requires several listens and accompanies a complexity of emotions. Dusty tells us what the object of her love is not: “It isn’t the way that you look/ It isn’t the way that you talk,” accounted for in a lower range. Rising up the octave, she explains: “It’s the way you make me feel/ The moment I am close to you/ It’s a feeling so unreal/ Somehow I can’t believe it’s true.” It’s as if Dusty feels she doesn’t quite deserve her lover, and when we link this to her dismaying lack of self-confidence and self-belief, the pathos is all the greater.
That voice! In 1978 she was in the midst of her American period decline and the nadir of her reputation but you’d never guess when she opens her mouth to sing a charming little trifle with her friend Rod McKuen, “Baby, it’s Cold Outside”:
The gay Rod is an unlikely seducer of the protesting, lesbian Dusty: what a hoot! And they were well aware of it, touchingly at ease in each other’s company and companionship.
When I was fourteen and we had a pleasantly laissez-faire maths teacher, Mr (“Randy”) Andy Funnell, yours truly and my friend Jeremy (not Black, he was no singer and was in Set 1 anyway) would not infrequently sing duets in the middle of lessons. The intention was to goad the prog rock or heavy metal-loving contingents in the class and it rarely failed. We were also, of course, budding humanities intellectuals: our tomfoolery could retrospectively be hailed as an ironising postmodern jeu d’esprit, avant la lettre, right?
When we got a bit too operatic, Mr Funnell would tell us in bored tones to cut it out but it was good fun while it lasted. Elvis Presley’s “The Wonder of You” and the Carpenters’ “Close to You” were among our favourites. Elvis (at least in this song) I can now happily discard, but I’m still in love with ‘Close to you’. It’s a gorgeously melodic Burt Bacharach song, and when I first heard it, sung so faultlessly and with such perfect enunciation by Karen Carpenter, I knew this ushered in a fabulous new star:
Yet I still remain faintly irritated by the special ‘You’ that Karen feels close to: “Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?/ Just like me, they long to be close to you.” A kind of Hitchcock in reverse, absurdly improbable, plausible with cats, dogs and even horses, but birds? Ducks, kestrels and swallows, hello! But I’m being literal-minded as ever, and everything else about the song and singer I forgive.
Karen and Richard Carpenter risked looking like a duo of goodie-goodies; with their wholesome appearance and wholesome musicianship, you’d swear that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. But time and again, the singers and the songs had the last word. Their choice of material was impeccable: the nostalgic and pensively sad “Yesterday Once More” (shooby-doo-lang-lang), the obviously happier “On Top of the World,” and the lovely Tim Hardin song, thoroughly Carpenterised, “Reason to Believe” are cases in point. Slightly more daring was the cosmic “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” If you were such an occupant, then Karen and Richard would make thoroughly civilised earthlings to meet and greet you; indeed, Karen was at pains to assert in the song “We are your friends”:
Their music trod a tightrope between the charming and the sentimentally banal, but negotiated this masterfully, aided by their technical excellence. Richard, the marginalised male arranger and keyboard player, deserves considerable credit here.
Understandably, the Carpenters didn’t move too far out of an utterly pleasing, easy-listening genre. You wouldn’t expect Karen to suddenly start imitating John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin) on her drum-kit. She was a ‘good girl’ in the way that Patti Smith, Suzi Quattro and the underrated all-girl band Fanny were exhilaratingly bad. But she and Richard did once memorably depart from the tried and tested formula, shocking their conservative fans in the process. This was with the melancholy ballad “Goodbye to Love,” when Karen’s vocals yield to the almost Bach-like fuzz guitar solo of Tony Peluso. It’s truly groovy, and it excitingly bridged easy listening with the power pop genre of Badfinger and the Raspberries:
I’d really like to think Karen and Richard showed a sense of humour in their totally anti-climactic, indeed inane, follow-up ‘Sing a song’. “Ah! That’s the carpentry we want!” their core fans would have exclaimed.
Of Karen Carpenter’s appallingly brief life and dreadful death of anorexia nervosa, the less said here the better. Ars longa, vita brevis: Karen, thank you for being you. Oh dear, this sounds worryingly like a Carpenters’ song title, but I mean it!
Linda Lewis is a far lesser known singer than Dusty or Karen but is the obvious bridge to Nina Hagen with her fantastic multi-octave vocal range. Here she’s surely the closest Cockney-Jamaican equivalent of the US one-hit wonder Minnie Ripperton (“Loving You [is easy ’cos you’re beautiful”]). Only Linda is infinitely less irritating, as she wisely refrains from imitating warbling birds. I admire her transition from precocious teenager to established (minor) star—the album title and content “Not a Little Girl Any More” says it all—and then to an amiable veteran/trooper at the Glastonbury Festival. Everything indicates that she has a regular, likeable and grounded personality: I envisage her in a late model Vauxhall, not a private jet and she may even vote Conservative.
It puzzles me, just as it does with Colin Blunstone, as to why Linda isn’t as big as she deserves to be. She’s nothing if not versatile: her first hit, “Rock-a-doodle doo,” which dates from her late teens, somehow combined the funky with the quirky, and I have to say rather annoyed me, clever though it was. I prefer the catchily retro “It’s in His Kiss” (her biggest hit, from 1975). I like her even more when her vocal pyrotechnics are intelligently utilised in “My Friend the Sun,” a cover of Family’s Prog Rock hit. I believe she was the then girlfriend of a member of that band (though not the barbed-wire vocalist Roger Chapman, that couple would have been altogether de trop):
She delivers Andrew Lloyd Webber with panache in “I’ll be surprisingly good for you” from Evita, and you believe her. But best of all is when she sings Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Moon and I” from The Mikado: try playing this end-to-end with Kate Bush’s near contemporaneous “Wuthering Heights” and I guarantee it will do your head in:
You see what I mean about versatility? I don’t think Linda did anything punk, so she has her limits. I suspect she was simply too accomplished to want to de-skill and regress, which is what that egregious genre demands.
Astute readers of these articles will have noticed that I always look for a consonance between melody and meaning in songs, and how I prize qualities of emotional generosity in the lyrics and delivery. I like this capacity in people (sadly, it’s not that common in academics) and I like it in music. The Linda Lewis song which best embodies this is the soulful “This Time I’ll be Sweeter”:
It’s very feminine, charming and manipulative: pleading and probably irresistible. Linda asks entreatingly: “Darling, can’t you see/ What losing you has done to me?” and then goes on to reassure him:
I'm not the same girl I used to be
Have a change of heart
Don't leave me standing in the dark
Don't let confusion keep us apart
Come back to me and I’ll guarantee
All the tenderness and love you'll ever need.
This time I’ll be sweeter
Our love will run deeper
I won't mess around
I won't let you let down
Have faith in me…
And “Darling” surely does!
If the reader has detected a certain dislike of punk rock in my writings, let me correct them. A lot of it is horrid, and frankly aims to be precisely that. But its derivatives in not a few instances are terrific. Azure flowers emanated from the punk dung-hill: the Jam, the Clash, the Stranglers and particularly Squeeze (oh Glenn Tilbrook, you are Paul McCartney reincarnated). But the most remarkable punk and post-punk of them all is without doubt the German singer Nina Hagen. You can divide humanity into two categories: those who haven’t heard of her and look blank, and those who have—and who promptly grin and say “You would like her!” Like her? I’d do anything she asked me to do. I’d be like Anthony Powell’s horrible, obsequious Widmerpool and thank her if she stomped on me with her fish-netted legs and metal toe-capped Doc Martens!
Nina Hagen stands alone amongst all the singers I’ve examined so far in having exerted political influence—emphatically for the good. If the Berlin Wall crumbled, it was partly because Nina kicked it with those Docs. Her first hit as a teenager, “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen/ You Forgot the Colour Film.” was a sly dig, mocking the sterile black and white communist state.
Her family were clearly too hot to handle for the authorities—her stepfather, the dissident singer Wolf Biermann, was paid the ultimate compliment of not being allowed to return to East Germany after a concert tour. In turn, the authorities did nothing to prevent Nina (and Mum) from joining him in Cologne, particularly after Nina threatened to become “the next Wolf Biermann” if they made her stay. Herr Honecker groaned: “We’ll be out of power in a month if we let her, and we can’t count on those trusty Soviet tanks!” (I made that up).
The nine-year-old Nina had been hailed as an opera prodigy and consider the year she went west, 1976: this marked the stunning advent of punk. Given its essential foundation of talentlessness, Nina ripped through punk like a knife through hot butter. Even the British, pioneers of punk and eccentricity alike, couldn’t quite believe what they saw when she took to the stage. Nina Hagen in her pomp was flamboyant, excessive, outrageous and courageous alike. Sometimes, just rolling her eyes, her ‘r’s or, ahem, her ass, she could transform herself within seconds from a Valkyrie Vampire or a Cruella to a clown—and back again.
If I stood any chance and could have Nina on my interviewer’s or analyst’s couch, baring her innermost thoughts and feelings, I would ask her this question: “Fraulein Hagen, underneath your lioness’s mane, your layers of punk makeup, all your velvets, leathers and frilly panties, isn’t there quite a shy girl lurking? Isn’t there a cashmere cardigan, string of pearls and a knee-length tweed skirt of a well-bred Bavarian Frau of ca. 1965 [Editor: exciting thought!] wanting to come out? Isn’t all your excess a carapace, a protection, from a diffident, introverted, softer and vulnerable Nina within? Don’t you in your heart of hearts wish you were recording beautiful songs like Joan Baez or Judy Collins?”
“Nein!” she would scream back, “Folk off, Herr Doktor!”
Now, let’s focus on the music—and unlike the largely prehistoric artists addressed so far, videos are integral to Nina’s appeal. Her choice of material, as you might expect, is scattergun, terribly hit and miss, probably numerically miss. And then you really need to get Nina in one of her relatively rare, subdued moods, not when she is showing off and wailing like a banshee, which is most of the time. She was not at her best when performing live by the recently toppled Berlin Wall in 1989, though we can readily forgive her glee. She’s far better when she’s acknowledging the very few sentient beings superior to Nina in her world view, e.g., the Blessed Virgin Mary:
If you played Mario Lanza’s impeccably sung version of “Ave Maria” immediately afterwards, it would appear a vapid, sanitised, 1950s anti-climax, underlying the cultural and historical need for Nina.
Her fans are split over “Hold Me”: some punk purists despise it as a sell-out to commercialism. I adore it. It’s a cover of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s song. Listening to them sequentially underlines Jackson’s decent, boring worthiness, whereas Nina electrifies the song. I’d like to think of the Lord chuckling indulgently and a little nervously at her. In the very funny accompanying video she responds to an invitation from “Mother Mahalia” to perform her version and is aghast: “I can’t sing a [sic] gospel, I’m a white chick!” But she does:
And in her appearance Nina in 1989 resembles for all the world another Jackson: Michael. Can we rewrite history and posit the thesis that Jacko underwent all that cosmetic surgery in a doomed attempt to look like Nina Hagen? I know he was weird, but this is plain ridiculous…
Hagen’s humour resurfaces in the electro-punk of “So Bad” (1993). Sometimes she’s a bit worrying, a little too environmentalist/leftie/proto-woke for many readers. But here we should forgive her everything, especially when she rolls out all the baddies/bad things: “diet soda… user friendly… Helmut Kohl… the Yugoslavian rape”:
This is surely Chateaubriand’s romantic mal du siècle, 200 years on: go, Nina!
This first part of Mark Stocker’s fiercely intelligent celebration focuses on four singers, one famous, two obscure and one middling—but tragic. Common to each one of them is, surprise, surprise, an ability to sing…
There really was a time mid-century when a kind of infantile sexism prevailed in the popular music scene. We were supposed to thank heaven for “leetle girls” according to the creepy Maurice Chevalier. Accordingly, grown women were expected to record cute novelty records or, if they were more ambitious, inanely catchy ones. And then there were Christmas hits (shudder, Scrooge was right). I’m thinking of “How much is that doggie in the window?” (Patti Page) and “Me and my teddy bear” (Rosemary Clooney).
We can turn over the Page quite easily, but Rosemary Clooney—best known today for being George’s aunty—was a massive vocal talent. Her career had stops and starts and nearly came to premature ruin in the 1960s. Five children, the wandering paws of José Ferrer whom she married and divorced twice, alcoholism (Rosemary was probably pickled in the womb), and the capitalistic pressures of recording contracts and stardom (think Judy Garland) made Rosemary a remarkable, admirable survivor. She ultimately did it her way. I find her voice just as attractive as her legendary near contemporary Peggy Lee, and reckon she’s underrated in comparison. Give Rosemary the right material (almost anything by Rogers and Hart for a start) and you’re in for a treat. Ella and Sarah alike would have admired her—I just know it!
There are some 1950s goodies interspersing the trivia. Who can resist her duet with Marlene Dietrich, “Too old?” And there’s the tenderly sung “Tenderly”:
But Rosemary attained astonishing heights in what has become a cult album, the inanely titled “Love” (1963), where the impeccably curated material, superlatively delivered, nails it time and again. It’s the dream ticket, the sensuous orchestra of Nelson Riddle (with whom she was then conducting an illicit affair, just the conductor, mind, not the instrumentalists), which surely gives several songs their edge, and Clooney’s vocals: breath, pitch and phrasing to die for. Though recorded on the eve of Beatlemania, the record is 1950s in feel, which probably didn’t help its negligible commercial success.
The plus side of being conservative is that these songs exude repression and sublimation, and possess none of the “let it all hang out” vulgarity that still gives the 1960s a bad name. Some of the melodies are genuinely complex: am I alone in thinking that Marc Blitzstein’s “I wish it so” is possibly the finest popular song before “Eleanor Rigby?”
“Find the way” is very nearly as good, and if you like Rosemary at her more conventional, then Rogers and Hart’s “Yours sincerely” hits the spot too. Oh, you people, ‘Love’ should have been reciprocated but it was simply too good for you, you bought into the frothy Rosemary and spurned the one that had sheer class. Sometimes it is a case in music of “vox pop, vox dei” and stuff the snobby critics (early Beatles, Abba and Queen are prime examples), but here the populi still need consciousness-raising.
A long and horrible hiatus followed in Rosemary’s career: relationship and personal breakdowns, paranoia and barbiturate addiction, etc. But then, mirabili dictu, she emerged—in what was little short of the Clooney Renaissance—as a remarkably adroit, fully-fledged jazz singer, her deeper voice enhanced by her committed packet a day smoking. (Clooney’s voice and the tragic impotence of a snooker player while your opponent piles on the breaks are the two justifications I can think of for cigarettes).
Almost anything from about 1978 to 1998 in Clooney’s repertoire is worth listening to: her tributes to Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and of course, Rogers, Hart & Hammerstein. The first two tracks of RH&H, “Oh what a beautiful morning” and the witty duet “People will say we’re in love” (with fabulous trumpet AND vocals from the Louis Armstrong soundalike Jack Sheldon), make this probably the most awesome start to any album I’ve heard, and the rest doesn’t disappoint either:
Rosemary, I salute you. Yours sincerely (groan!), Dr. Stocker.
My next two singers, Lana Bittencourt and Miss Toni Fisher, are more minor stars but all the reason to resurrect them and share my guilty pleasures. As in art history, I relish the obscure. Lana who? Well, she was Brazil’s biggest female vocal star in the late 1950s, and even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Her voice was big in the truest sense, and there was no point in resisting it.
Aldous Huxley divided the female sex into egg whisks and chests-of-drawers in the brilliant Point Counter Point, and Lana was emphatically an egg-whisk.
One Valentine’s Day, I sent a number of select fair-sexed friends her biggest hit, the passionate cover of “Little Darling” and their response was one of startled pleasure and perhaps affectionate reproach: how come I haven’t heard of her, “Little Darling” indeed!, etc. Listen and yield to Lana:
Her versatility is demonstrated in this clip from the eminently forgettable B-movie Jeca Tatu, about an endearing, lazy simpleton who has his property threatened by an unscrupulous landowner, and we all know how that will turn out. In the god-fearing society of that day in these rural parts, everything naturally stops with the Angelus bell. Note the guest appearance by Frida Kahlo (I know, I’m kidding), irritated by a fly:
Lana Bittencourt recorded admirable cover versions of “I will follow him” and, particularly, the impassioned “Johnny Guitar,” the title track of a Nicholas Ray film marginally superior to Jeca Tatu. You don’t need to translate from the Portuguese—in fact it’s a lot less risible than Lana’s hopeless English accent. Indeed, it’s a worthy rival of Peggy Lee’s far more famous version:
I’m looking for a culture anywhere on Earth that respects and preserves its sense of history, but it’s proving a vain search. My heart sank into my Doc Martens when I saw that the Israeli government hadn’t intervened to buy the archive of the “Roaring Lion” sculptor, Abraham Melnikoff, passed in at auction. Lana Bittencourt’s obscurity in Brazil today is almost as saddening. She’s approaching 90, and just a few years ago, was still bravely, albeit croakily, singing away…
Miss Toni Fisher (omitting her title is a no-no) had a brief but glorious recording career and it would not be ungenerous to pigeonhole her as a “two hit wonder.” But ‘wonder’ is the operative word. If Bittencourt’s voice is big, then Miss Fisher’s can break a Waterford decanter at 50 paces.
Her sole major US hit was “The Big Hurt” (1959). This is an irresistible combination of Miss Fisher’s vocals, pioneering electronic phasing sound effects and a winning melody. Not surprisingly, it became highly influential and was frequently covered, lending itself perfectly to big ballad treatment by Scott Walker, and exhilarating Northern Soul by the two Susans (Rafey and Farrar). But as often happens, the original version is the best:
Miss Fisher’s follow-up hit “West of the Wall” is a fascinating phenomenon, a rarity: a convincingly politicised song, recorded at a time of great international tension, the construction of the Berlin Wall. It’s on the side of angels:
A few “useful idiots” doubtless condemned it as anti-Soviet—which of course it rightly was. The singer’s passion matches the political indignation that millions felt. Possibly it wasn’t a big hit in the US because inane radio stations didn’t want music and politics to mix. This can, admittedly, be heavy-handed and irritatingly preachy (sorry, I’m no fan of John Lennon’s “Imagine”), but hardly applies here. Unlike so much noise that passes for music over the past half-century, Miss Fisher makes sure you hear and digest every word of her message:
West of the wall I'll wait for you West of the wall our dreams can all come true Though we're apart a little while My heart will wait until we both can smile That wall built of our sorrow We know must have an end Till then dream of tomorrow When we meet again.
Tomorrow would only come in 1989.
Imagine either the sex-symbol Jayne Mansfield, or her voluptuous British counterpart, Diana Dors, magically transformed from an actress into a singer. The result would surely have been Kathy Kirby (1938–2011). Tragedy is common to all three, the first two dying prematurely: Mansfield in a car accident and Dors of breast cancer, causing her grieving husband to commit suicide.
Kirby’s fate was if anything even crueller: a prolonged, squalid, impoverished forty-year coda to her relatively brief period of stardom. The Petula Clark hit “Don’t sleep in the subway, darling” inevitably comes to mind, and the ruined latter-day KK did just that. Or somebody’s doorstep.
But let’s focus for the while on the buoyant and radiating optimism that characterises the heyday of her recording career. The teenage, convent-educated (like Dusty Springfield and Marianne Faithfull) Kathy stood at the crossroads: she took singing lessons with view to becoming an opera singer, but fate intervened when she was discovered by band leader Bert Ambrose in 1956. She remained with Ambrose’s band for three years and he in turn remained her manager, mentor and lover until his death on stage in Leeds in 1971.
Like the previous two chanteuses, KK boasted a considerable vocal presence. Her material certainly lacks profundity (the early 1960s were shallow times, what with superstars like Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee and Bobby Rydell in their pomp), but it hits the spot in joie-de-vivre and catchiness. “Dance on” was kept at the top of the charts for a month by those unsophisticated Australians across the pond; then there’s “Let me go, lover;” and KK’s admirable cover of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”:
Later KK verges on the dramatically camp, particularly the theme song for “Adam Adamant,” a nutty BBC series proposing that an adventurer born in 1867 and who had vanished in 1902 had been revived from hibernation in 1966. It provided a satirical look at life in the 1960s through the eyes of an Edwardian. Touché, Dame Shirley Bassey!
The fact that KK had a far grander voice than the younger and trendier Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw unfortunately failed to stand her in good stead. She was in her element in variety shows, not the Swinging Sixties, and by the later years of that decade had become rather “square.” Is it a sexist observation to say that wearing a dress below the knee in 1966 contributed to her fate?
While KK was regularly claimed to be the highest-paid female singer in Britain, behind the scenes things were falling apart. Her alleged affair with game show host Bruce Forsyth caused Ambrose to erupt into fits of jealousy. Kirby also realised that Ambrose, a compulsive gambler, had lost almost all her money. When he died she was both bereft and skint. I hate to say it, but like a number of far more celebrated stars (Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson to name but two), I fear KK just wasn’t very bright, and this when the playing-field was unquestionably tilted against women…
Turbulent affairs with both sexes ensued, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and survived on state benefits and meagre royalties for many years. She became a Garbo-like recluse before being moved to a nursing retirement home for entertainment professionals. This was at the behest of her niece, Sarah, wife of Margaret Thatcher’s son, the distinguished rally driver and Equatorial Africa coup leader, Sir Mark. A rare act of Thatcherite charity?! Lest I raise the hackles of some readers, I will soothe them with a lovely Kathy Kirby song, another standard (famously recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dalida, etc.), “I wish you love”:
Listen to her, be touched by the generous spirits that this song conveys in spades, and posthumously wish Kathy blue-birds in the spring…
Woke is no joke. I despise it, just as my lifelong socialist late father despised PC for its preciousness, pomposity and intolerance. Oliver Stocker felt that there were much more important battles for the left to fight, and I, who still consider myself just a smidgen to the left of centre (what a joke, say the woke!) must agree. I’m just relieved that Dad didn’t live to witness some of the nonsense of the last six years in world politics and the rise—from seemingly nowhere—of wokery.
I don’t intend to make this a profound analysis, but what should concern us all is the world’s growing inequality, with vast salaries and performance bonuses for the undeserving rich at the top of the tree; global warming and other environmental degradation (it saddens me when I return ‘Home’ to see so few skimming swallows); obscenely high property prices which is fine for those with comfortably-off parents (I’m a beneficiary of this, I confess) but dreadful for most of the rest of us; then there’s the police stopping and searching innocent non-whites in the street; and on a micro level in Britain, disgusting school lunches for state-educated kids and continued tax breaks for rich kid schools like Eton or even my own school, Haberdashers’ Aske’s. It all sucks. If it’s considered ‘left’ to protest about these injustices and constructively frame policies to counteract them, then count me in! You’d have thought that the left would have a bonanza fighting the good fight here. It certainly makes their woke poses over ‘slaver’ statues and the decolonising the far-from-reactionary curriculum all the more frivolous, idle and, yes Dad, precious.
But at the same time, on the other side of the ideological divide, there’s surely a limit to the usefulness of fighting culture wars against the woke. This may be a heresy for me to say as a founder-member of the History Reclaimed group but it can become an obsession, a preoccupation with the ultimately trivial. By clobbering second-rate people, you risk insidiously becoming second-rate yourself, ironically falling into the same trap as the woke themselves. I feel particularly uncomfortable when I read about Tory chairman Oliver Dowden giving a recent speech to the overfed bow-tie wearers of the Heritage Foundation in the US, denouncing wokery.
I don’t necessarily disagree with the content, so much as the priority he accords it as a likely platform of the Tories’ next election campaign. It runs the risk of being an easy and glib attempted vote-winner while Britain burns. It could well backfire, too: common-sensed people will see through the superficialities of Dowden’s line of argument before too long—perhaps they already do. Oliver, you should focus on being a good “One Nation” Tory and attend instead to some of the harder and more serious injustices that I enumerate above. That will earn you my historical Brownie points alongside Disraeli, R.A. Butler and Michael Heseltine.
I’m not for a moment suggesting a suspension of HR’s activities, so much as a good-humoured awareness of the fact that there are worse things in the world than a fair bit of what we fight. Moreover, there’s a danger of falling into a constant trap of the hard left: being critical and negative, and not positing a constructive alternative. That’s why, in the “statues war,” I passionately believe in the “explain” part of “retain and explain,” consistent with my lifelong commitment to reasonableness! I have offered my services to the beleaguered Oriel College, Oxford and its Rhodes statue accordingly.
Merely banging on about the same theme can get rather boring; but doing something to tip the world just a bit in a positive direction—voluntary gardening in a public park, helping with the City Mission, supporting a “books in homes” charity—is surely time and money better spent than getting worked up into a right lather about a ludicrously woke-looking new Bodleian Library job description.
Apples and oranges, I know, but hey, let’s keep a sense of proportion in all of this, and try and do our bit to make the world a slightly less awful place.
Chris Farlowe, Rod McKuen, Colin Blunstone and Clifford T. Ward aren’t exactly celebrities; the sole exception is McKuen who nonetheless died relatively obscure and unjustly patronised. The first three have remarkable voices in utterly different ways, whilst the fourth was a singer/songwriter of minor genius.
McKuen was a later discovery for me – he was never particularly big in Britain, and is probably the guiltiest of these pleasures. Only Farlowe had a Number One, a record that remains, alongside “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “Dancing Queen” and “(Too-Rye-Ay) Come on Eileen” (but not “Hey Jude”), one of my favourite tops of the pops.
This happened the week that England won the 1966 football World Cup, to the delight of Mr and Mrs Broadbridge, teaching Germany another lesson lest they forgot. The song in question was “Out of time,” a Jagger/Richards composition which from the opening strings playing those stirring chords, you know would be a winner.
The lyrics address a tiresome ex-girlfriend who needs to be told she’s so last year:
You don't know what's going on You've been away for far too long You can't come back and think you are still mine. You're out of touch, my baby My poor old-fashioned, baby I said, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time.
Poor thing! Farlowe has been labelled a one-hit wonder but several singles made the lower chart reaches and the album “The Art of Chris Farlowe” (and it was art) sold respectably. “Ride on baby,” which had nothing to do with lawnmowers, was too much of a carbon copy to succeed, but an earlier Jagger/Richards song, “Think,” should have been a lot bigger.
Farlowe is white, but he definitely sounds black. His voice tends towards the rasping and gritty, it’s tough, it makes no attempt whatsoever to endear or charm, which is part of his integrity but does nothing for his popularity. Nor is Farlowe’s stage presence or appearance heart-warming: with his narrow set eyes and long nose, he looks like a lean 1960s London gang leader who would either have beaten up Francis Bacon, or would have been requested to do so with cash inducements.
Farlowe later got into strife for selling Nazi regalia in his antique shop, compounding the image problem, and yet when you see him on rare video footage sharing the stage with his idol, Otis Redding, he commendably holds his own. He’s a good match for the Father of Soul James Brown himself in his rendition of “It’s a man’s world.” But the title: can you see the problem? He doesn’t shake hands with our heart, so much as stomp on it. “We’re doing fine” drips with relationship tensions:
Everybody wants to know If everything's alright I guess they thought by now We'd had a great big fight No no no no no…
Farlowe protests too loudly. The grim way he sings it suggests that a rather horrible fight had indeed taken place, or else was highly likely to do so. Years later (1988) guitarist and Pre-Raphaelite art collector extraordinary, Jimmy Page, plucked Farlowe out of relative obscurity to sing several tracks on his album “Night Rider.” Page has always had impeccable taste and knew what he was doing. “Hummingbird,” a Leon Russell cover far superior to the original, shows that Farlowe had lost none of his old tricks:
The gulf between Chris Farlowe and Rod McKuen is akin to blue cheese bordering on rancid, and strawberries and cream. Rod is an old flirt, a cardigan clad charmer, at least in his now rather excruciating TV specials which were hugely popular in North America half a century ago. Yet his songs about love and loss are something else: melancholy, sometimes even bitter. Oh, that husky, raspy voice! Technically it is god-awful, and came about after Rod had irreparably wrecked his vocal chords in 1961. But like our friend Bacon painting the backs of his canvases, Rod shrewdly made a virtue out of this.
If you like the overpraised Tom Waits, you can’t credibly dislike Rod, and I would even say much the same about Leonard Cohen. Yet Rod seems destined to go down in history as “the king of kitsch” and it was a sad reflection on today’s philistinism that his vast personal archive was scattered and sold, rather than acquired by the Harry Ransom Center…
You “Rodophobes” should look at yourselves. You people would protest, but you’re the victims of left-liberal genre and cultural snobbery. You can’t even claim the high moral political ground, for Rod’s liberalism was impeccable and his fight for gay equality utterly laudable. He famously combined his composing and performing with poetic aspirations, and the slim volumes which now turn up in car-boot sales, perhaps accompanied by their late owners’ lava lamps and kaftans, once sold in millions.
Many people’s minds—and I would venture to say not a few ageing academics’ minds—were opened up to poetry thanks to Rod, but he has received singularly little thanks for this. He’s a bit too homespun, predictable and lower middlebrow, a wannabe Charles Bukowski. Posterity, as I say, has been ungrateful, but a poetic sensibility unquestionably infuses Rod’s many memorable songs.
Some of the best are tributes to Rod’s Belgian mentor and friend Jacques Brel, which he translated. The much-recorded ‘If you go away’ is something of a signature song, surpassing almost every other cover version (no thanks, Neil Diamond):
If you go away on this summer day Then you might as well take the sun away All the birds that flew in a summer sky When our love was new and our hearts were high When the day was young and the night was long And the moon stood still for the night bird’s song If you go away, If you go away, If you go away…
I know, I know. My personal favourite is “Seasons in the Sun,” the reflections of a dying man. Please ignore that Canadian Terry Jacks’s icky and cheesy cover, and instead appreciate Rod’s mordant and angry rendition. Its poignancy is accentuated by the barest of acoustic guitar accompaniment and you don’t forgive or forget the cheating Françoise easily:
Rod could of course write (and perform) no shortage of admirable songs in his own right. Frank Sinatra knew what he was doing in recording “A Man Alone,” an album entirely based on McKuen, and not unusually it is rated far more highly by popular opinion than by jaded critics. “Love’s been good to me” is the standout track and Rod’s version holds its own against the infinitely greater formal perfection of Sinatra’s singing. Rod may have gone away, but his brittle talent and charm live on for me at least:
Like many people, I sometimes fantasise about singers, what they might be like and what their intellectual pursuits might be. With the late Robert Palmer, so studied, stylish, sophisticated, suave, witty and ever experimental, I felt that he must have enjoyed the fiction of Sterne, Thackeray and possibly Gide. No such luck: he was evidently at his happiest getting up at night and working on his Airfix model aircraft kits (just as Rod Stewart famously loves his train set). Perhaps my illusions would be likewise shattered by any putative meeting with Colin Blunstone.
When I listen to his singing, I feel he is incapable of the common, vulgar, unrefined or uncouth. This is a voice which, before it broke, would have surely made him head chorister at the local St Albans Cathedral or even one’s alma mater, King’s College, Cambridge. The same adult voice was an integral part of the appeal of the Zombies, those pioneers of Prog, whose breathily beautiful “She’s not there” and “Time of the season” were surprising but deserved chart toppers in the US. American audiences are far less familiar with, but would surely not be disappointed by, Colin’s solo career from the early 1970s onwards. Here, Prog yields to superior, sensitive pop. I remember one of my contemporaries in the sixth form (11th grade) describing how he had been reduced to tears by “Caroline goodbye”:
Saw your picture in the paper My, you're looking pretty good Looks like you're gonna make it in a big way Oh, I always knew you would But I should have known better, yeah And I should’ve seen sooner. There's no use pretending I've known for a long time your love is ending Caroline goodbye Caroline goodbye.
It’s that emotional generosity moving me (and my mate), perfectly meshed with that perfect sounding tenor. How could anyone in their right minds chuck Colin, who is as good looking as that voice? And it would be Caroline (a classy name half a century ago), rather than Sharon or Tracey: Colin, you are middle-class Home Counties and I like you very much for that.
Colin’s biggest hit was a cover of Denny Laine’s lovely song “Say you don’t mind” (I remember a music critic remarking how he would immediately smile whenever he heard it playing). Colin’s tenor attained powerful falsetto heights, corresponding yet again to the emotional… tenor. Oh, and those strings!
I realise that I've been in your eye some kind of fool What I do, what I did, stupid fish I drank the pool I've been doing some dying Now I'm doing some trying So say you don't mind, you don't mind You'll let me off this time.
I forgive you anytime, Colin, but I can’t speak for Caroline. The voice is perfect, the songs likewise, and sometimes quite complex (“How can we dare to be wrong?”) and I continue to remain as baffled as I was half a century ago as to why he wasn’t a megastar:
How could people “fail to see” as Colin rhetorically asks in this song? But I get the strong impression that Colin is relaxed and contented with the recognition that he does get, and again he has my admiration. In fact, I feel a fan letter coming on:
Dear Mr Blunstone, I’m in my 60s and average looking. I like church architecture and Prog Rock and like you grew up near St Albans. Well, I’d like to tell you that for many years, I’ve just loved your singing and your songs…
Next singer, please!
As one of Clifford T. Ward’s obituarists has observed, his best songs—and there were a fair few—synthesised a fine grasp of pop melody with genuine poetic sensibility. An awful lot of English art before those ghastly, self-advertising Young British Artists, and a comparable amount of literature, celebrated the homely, the domestic, the everyday and the low-key. Woe betide anyone who mistakes this for insipidity.
Ward epitomised these qualities. He first hit the charts as a Worcestershire schoolteacher with “Gaye,” which enchanted me as a sensitive and uncertain 17-year-old, and no, it is not about liberation of one’s sexuality. But my personal favourite has to be “Scullery.” North American readers perhaps need to be told that this is an offshoot of the kitchen in an English home, where you wash your smalls or dirtier pans. Clifford T’s perfect enunciation perhaps makes any reproduction of his lyrics otiose, but I hope you too marvel at how he makes the humdrum poetic:
You're my picture, by Picasso Lighting up our scullery With your pans and pots and hot-plates You'd brighten up any gallery If I could paint a different picture Leafy lanes and flower scenes Buttermilk, your cooking mixture You still have ingredients that make you shine And when you take your apron off I know you're mine…
This was inspired by his wife, Pat, whom he knew from their schooldays. One would love to create an idyll around them and their four children living in a picture-postcard ivy-clad cottage, but the reality was far sadder. Clifford T. was diagnosed in his early forties with multiple sclerosis, and took many years to die.
From his stage persona, he seems the very embodiment of sensitivity and sweetness, but a tell-all biography sadly blew that image to smithereens and though this was surely aggravated by pain, he emerges as hectoring and self-centred. Yet, to quote Prog Rock band the Nice, ars longa vita brevis, and there remains much to cherish in Clifford T’s songs. “Home thoughts from Abroad,” itself of course a quotation from Robert Browning’s famous poem, and the gorgeous “The best is yet to come,” are both cases in point:
Obviously, Clifford T. had no truck with punk rock, and the feeling was mutual.
Truly, he could be deemed a cult figure: his shyness meant that he loathed live performance, and yet he and Pat were legendary for making fans cups of tea if they called round. This was utterly in character with the aforementioned domesticity and decency. I’d like to think the same fans would go on to do brass rubbings in a local church on the same trip, but I fantasise.
People who matter in music jolly well knew he was special: these included Elton John (“Your song” is very Clifford T), Paul McCartney, whom historian Dominic Sandbrook rightly lauds as the greatest Beatle, while Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, Art Garfunkel and Judy Collins all recorded cover versions of his songs. Clifford T. died aged 57 in 2001 and I am pressing for his inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.