Tuesday, 4 January 2011

musical memories

A few days ago, I was listening to my ‘general playlist’ when a song started that can only be described as ‘weird’. “What’s this?” Paula asked. I explained that it triggered a very specific memory, and I began to wonder how many other tracks on that playlist would also set off such detailed recollections. Here are some of the highlights, ordered according to the date of the original memory:

Marvin Gaye — Can I Get a Witness
In the early 1960s, a vinyl single would set you back six shillings and eightpence, but once a month the local record shop was visited by a travelling salesman, who always left a pile of demo records. These were intended as a guide for possible future orders, but the proprietor merely put them on sale, and at a meagre two shillings and sixpence (half a crown) each, they were a godsend for cash-strapped teenagers like me.

This record is the only one I can now remember buying as a demo. It was released at a time when Tamla-Mowtown was not a separate label in the UK; it appeared on EMI’s Stateside label and was not a hit, although I consider it one of Marvin Gaye’s best records. Many years later, when I consulted a catalogue that listed the prices you could expect to pay for old records, I was not surprised to learn that this one would have cost £2, but I was amazed to discover that the demo version was priced at £50! By this time, the owner of the record shop was dead, but I’d have enjoyed winding him up about the fortune that he gave away for peanuts, because every demo is now worth considerably more than a commercial pressing.

Solomon Burke — Down in the Valley
In the autumn of 1964, I was in my first term as a student in Manchester, and at the end of every day I took a bus back to my hall of residence that passed a record shop called the Turntable. It had a sign in the window that read “45s, half a crown each or 10 for £1”. One day, I decided to get off the bus and check it out. The shop had so many must-have records that I ended up spending all my money and was thus obliged to walk the remaining two miles back to the hall.

This record, with its rasping brass accompaniment, was also not a hit in the UK, but it marked the emergence of soul music as a distinct genre. It was the stand-out record among those that I bought there, but when I returned to Manchester after the Christmas vacation the entire area had been demolished, so there was no opportunity for a return visit. I must have caught the tail end of a closing-down sale.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band — I’m the Urban Spaceman
In the 1960s, it was customary for big-name bands to play at student dances: the Moody Blues, the Who and the Spencer Davis Group all played at Manchester University Student Union while I was there. However, this memory relates to a dilemma I was faced with in 1967. The Faculty of Technology had its own student union, and one Saturday night the Move were playing at the main union, while the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band were on at the tech union.

I finally opted for the Bonzos, and I’ve never regretted that choice. Remember, this was meant to be a Saturday night dance, but the band put on a show, the first time I’d seen this done. And what a show: the hall was crowded, and nobody was dancing. It remains one of the most spectacular entertainments I’ve ever seen, and I still picture the onstage antics every time I hear this track.

The Who — Pinball Wizard
It is often alleged that proficiency at snooker is a sure sign of a misspent youth. The same might be said of skill on a Bally pintable. The Dunrobin, the coffee bar where I misspent my youth, had a pintable as well as a jukebox, and I was a frequent player. The custom was that you could play continuously for as long as you liked, unless someone else wanted to play. In that case, when your game was over, you gave way, except, that is, when you had free games on the clock. I often had the free-game clock at or near the limit, and I would eventually sell my games to the next guy.

In 1969, I found myself working in Great Yarmouth, a once genteel seaside resort on the Norfolk coast that had become, with the discovery of gas offshore, a major supply and service base for exploration and production in the UK sector of the southern North Sea. Like every other English seaside town, Great Yarmouth had its amusement arcades, with their pintables and one-armed bandits, and it wasn’t long before I located one. I found a pintable that was identical to the model in the Dunrobin. It cost me sixpence for my first game, after which I was able to keep playing because I kept winning free games. Finally, after about three hours, with the place full and people waiting to play, the owner gave me £5 and told me in a not very friendly manner to bugger off. And not come back.

Now, whenever I hear Pete Townshend’s crashing guitar chords in the introduction to this song, I am unfailingly reminded of this incident.

Earth Opera — The American Eagle Tragedy
If you’ve never heard this record, it’s the weird one referred to in the opening paragraph. I heard it for the first time while lying in hospital in IJmuiden in 1969 as a result of a near-death experience. I was listening to Hilversum, a Dutch English-language radio station, not paying much attention for the obvious reason that the beginning of this record is not attention-grabbing stuff. Suddenly, it kicked into gear with an arresting chorus:
And call out the border guard,
The kingdom is crumbling.
The king is in the counting house,
Laughing and stumbling.
Gosh! This is interesting. Who is it? I’ll find out at the end of the record. Well, no I won’t. There was no back announcement. For years, I asked everyone whom I thought might know, and I followed quite a few red herrings, but I never did find out, or hear the song again.

Until the internet came along. The only clue I had was that chorus, which had stuck in my memory. I tried typing it into Google, and I had one hit, a discussion forum where a poster had quoted it to make a quite different point. But he had the grace to credit the band, which meant that I could go about locating a copy.

I had no idea at the time that this was a Vietnam War protest song, but this was probably because I didn’t remember the rest of the chorus:
His armies are extended,
Way beyond the shore.
As he sends our lovely boys to die,
In a foreign jungle war.
Bucks Fizz — Making Your Mind Up
I am not a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, but this one had ‘winner’ written all over it in 1981. Bucks Fizz was a vocal quartet (two men, two women) who provided a vigorous onstage presentation of what is a very lively song. My elder son, Siegfried, was only slightly more than two years old, and I still remember his description—“Shaky bum dancing”, which he used every time he heard the song, even without the visuals—every time I hear it now.


  1. Interesting Sir Dennis. This reminds me that all of us who grew up loving music have our own soundtracks to our lives. Hearing one single note can yank us back to every buried experience -- especially the joyful and the painful.

  2. i cannot think of anything better to trigger memories than music. i also live Malvin Gaye.

  3. Hello, Dennis. Sorry to go off topic but this is just to let you know that I have published and responded to all of your comments. Sorry it’s taken so long but I’ve only recently returned from a skiing trip. In response to your question about Orwell’s essay on Tolstoy, yes, I have read it. Look for The Man who would be King, a piece I posted on 5 July, 2010. It’s great to be on your team on great that you are on mine. :-)

  4. I'll have to check out some of the bands you've mentioned here. I'm also a Marvin Gaye fan...Mercy, Mercy Me always takes me back to being 10 years old. Many of his songs are included in the soundtrack of my childhood.

    1. Kris, I’ve been a fan of Tamla-Motown ever since the days of Little Stevie Wonder and Fingertips. Some of the label’s best tracks are by some of its lesser known artists, and if you’re not familiar with them, you might like to check out Money by Barrett Strong (covered by the Beatles on their second album) and Do You Love Me? by the Contours.


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