Life Music is a collection of songs and music that that hold a special place in my life. In selecting these pieces, I did not necessarily choose my favourites (if that were possible); these are pieces that represent some time and place and, more importantly, have been lodged somewhere inside me throughout the years. It is the music that I have been carrying around with me throughout my life, some since early childhood.
There isn't much modern music that grabs my attention these days. I do still discover new music on a regular basis but I have to go backwards to do so - backwards in time that is. That is where all the good stuff is.
I grew up with scratchy 78RPM's, skirling church congregations and juke box needles touching down on vinyl with a thunk, hiss and click. Imperfection in music is part of life, part of the essence of the experience. Where possible, I have taken the recordings below from original acetate or vinyl without any processing to "clean it up." It is as close as possible to the sound of that time.
"The Three Bells (The Jimmy Brown Song)" - Les Compagnons De La Chanson - 78RPM Columbia (UK) D.B. 2697, 1950
Some of my earliest musical influences came out of the horn of a wind-up 78RPM record player that my parents had. I still recall the rough scratchy sound and the silver or gold needles that came in small tins. I listened to this song over and over again fascinated by the baritone and bass voices emulating church bells and its enduring sadness.
My guess is that the record player my parents had was an HMV 102 portable from around 1946-ish. It had a wind up handle on the right side and there was a lever inside that was used to stop the frantically spinning turntable. This player, together with the plodding piano of my mother on Sunday evenings was the sound of my earliest memories.
Without a doubt I am eternally grateful that my parents had music in the house when we were very young - it has certainly shaped my life.
There were other musical influences in the house - my parents bought a Perdio Spinney transistor radio in the early '60's and we would listen to the BBC "Songs of Praise" every Sunday (and non-musical programmes such as "Men from the Ministry" and the Henry Cooper fights against Muhammed Ali). For Christmas 1969, my parents bought a floor-standing record player that remained with the family until both mother and father had passed away.
"Air On A G String" (Bach) - New Symphony Orchestra - 78RPM His Master's Voice (UK) B 2913 (8-965), 1929
Very recently (May 2017) I attended a small local concert in Yahiro (near Oshiage in Tokyo) where a cello quintet played this Bach piece. The cello must be my favourite stringed instrument and hearing this piece played brought back memories of this particular record. I recall this record specifically because it has Londonderry Air on the "B" side (at the time, I did not know this was the melody to Danny Boy.) I remember thinking how convenient it was to have a record with good music on both sides. This is probably my earliest memory of records as desirable collectibles.
"Londonderry Air" - New Symphony Orchestra - 78RPM His Master's Voice (UK) B 2913 (8-966), 1929
I do not recall my parents owning this record; this song came to me from Salcombe Gospel Hall. I was always fascinated by the sea when I was very young and Salcombe Gospel Hall was situated on a narrow passageway that led down to the harbour. Whenever father preached at the hall, I would always go to the end and linger, staring at the boats bobbing on the water. Salcombe was, and is, a community tied strongly to the sea and "Eternal Father" was a favourite of Salcombe Gospel Hall. The song's tag line - "...for those in peril on the sea..." spoke of the dangers of the sea - fascinating for a young boy - and I always hoped that this song was on the song list for the evening service. The Salcombe Gospel Hall congregation sang with plodding amateurism and "Eternal Father" was no exception - we called it "skirling." On the last verse, the organist would pull out all the stops, increase the tempo a little and the congregation would swell their chests in crescendo.
"Eternal Father" is, of course, a very famous song adopted by Britain's Royal Navy and the United States Navy as their theme tunes along with many other branches of the armed forces around the world. It was performed at the White House on the occasion of the funeral of John F. Kennedy.
I am hoping one day to get a copy of the record shown above (the audio above is of an unknown church choir); the description on Discogs includes the comment: "...the overall feel is amateur - singers probably having been plucked from a local church choir..." - perfect for an approximation of Salcombe Gospel Hall. In addition, the song was originally written in 1860 by William Whiting, a clergyman from Winchester, U.K. - this version performed by the Winchester Choir in 1913 most likely has direct links back to William Whiting himself.
"Purple Haze" - Jimmy Hendrix Experience - 45RPM Track (UK) 604001, 1967
In the late 60's, you could dial 160 in a public telephone box to hear a hit record played. The service, provided by the General Post Office (GPO) was called "Dial-A-Disc." The service played the same record played repeatedly all day - next day, it would be a different record. The first time I tried this service was in the phone box situated just up the road from our house and I received an earful of Jimi Hendrix. I remember my shock - surely the GPO shouldn't be playing this? It was, well, just too different. I'm not sure what I was expecting to hear - maybe Lulu or Harry Secombe. Little did I know that I was listening to ground-breaking music and an artist who would forever change the shape of popular music.
This was the first release on the Target label in March 1967. The song reached number 3 in the U.K. charts and was there for 14 weeks spanning my 12th birthday. "Purple Haze" was one of a number of experiences, the other most notably being pirate radio, that opened up my ears to the world of music out there. Listening again to "Purple Haze" these days, and the discordant opening riffs, still makes me marvel at how groundbreaking this really was back in 1967.
"Also Sprach Zarathustra"- Deodato - 45RPM CTS 4000, 1972
When I was young I would go to the local rubbish dump and salvage radios and TV's, bring them home and try to get them working. I always had a couple of TV's in Dad's shed and a radio or two in the house. One radio was a large floor standing edifice that had five or six channels of short wave together with the obligatory medium and long wave channels. I quickly discovered that I could pick up signals from around the world.
One night, I tuned in to a German radio station and coming over the air was this amazing, jazzed up version of Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra". Jaw dropping stuff.
The above pictured cut by Deodato was released in 1972 and reached the UK charts in March 1973 so my initial thoughts were that it could not have been this version that I heard that night back in 1969 or 1970. However, my thinking was that a band like Deodato would likely have been playing this arrangement in live situations long before recording it in a studio. I contacted Deodato by email in December 2015 to ask what is recollections were - "...it might have been my "jazzed up" version which might have come out first in Germany around end of 1971 or beginning 72 (when it came out later in the US...). Happy you like it... There were at least a dozen versions out at that time..."
So there you have it - it might have been Deodato's version, it might not have been. No matter whose version I heard that night, the desperate twiddling of the tuning dial as the signal faded in and out was testament to a growing addiction
"Ain't No Way" - Aretha Franklin - 45RPM Atlantic 45-2486-2, 1968
This song is a placeholder for all that great music that came to me in the early 1970's from Radio Luxembourg and the the pirate radio stations, most notably Radio Caroline.
In the late 1970's I became aware of the music scene that was happening in the north of the U.K. and the music genre dubbed by Dave Godin of "Blues and Soul" as "Northern Soul." While Northern Soul has remained a part of my musical life since the late 1970's, it was "Southern Soul" (my description in deference to the recording studios in Tennessee and Alabama that churned out hit after hit) coming across the airwaves that had an earlier and bigger impact on me. Luxembourg and Caroline played a vast range of music but it was artists recording on the Atlantic/Volt/Stax labels, and DJ's such as Emperor Rosko, Dave Lee Travis, Paul Burnett, David "Kid" Jensen pushing this music, that captured my attention. Solomon Burke, Sam and Dave, The Staple Singers, Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Booker T. & The MG's, Aretha Franklin....
"Ain't No Way" is the single piece that I have chosen from hundreds of possibles as a token to those radio stations and the impact that the music had on me. If, while listening to this song, you can close your eyes and imagine the piercing sopranos fading in and out over the airwaves late into the night through a single-piece mono earplug then you are as close as you can get to the listening experience back then...
"Sufferer" - The Kingstonians - 45RPM Big Shot BI508 (U.K.), 1968
Reggae. Where do I start? The most influential music genre in my life and I have to pick one track. Bob Marley? Nope. Prince Buster? Nope. Ska? Rocksteady? Roots? Steppers? Lovers? Nope.
In choosing just one track I have to go back to the music of the fairgrounds, the football terraces and the juke boxes in "greasy-spoon" cafes. This track is from the first reggae record that I bought in 1970 ("Tighten Up Vol. 2" which I found in the bicycle shop "Plaistairs" in my home town of Totnes). I still carry this song inside me to this day.
Getting to know reggae is getting to know a little bit about the cultural environment in Jamaica from the late 1950's onwards. From the weekend parties gathered around radios tuned to R&B stations broadcasting from the southern U.S., to the "sound system" operators (DJ's) and their covered-up records, to the gross social inequality, to the lyrical patios calling for the rejection of "Babylon" (the term for the police force and, more generally, the white ruling class) and justice for those living in poverty, the "Sufferers."
This song by The Kingstonians, with the late Jackie Bernard on lead vocals, captures some of that Jamaican point-in-time. The primitive 1- or 2-track recording technology is essential to the overall experience.
"Spoonful" - Howlin' Wolf - 45RPM Chess 1762, 1960
In music, connections occur over long periods of time - a riff, a whole song long forgotten, is never really forgotten.
My brother had a Cream album "Full Cream" (how he came to own this record is another story - his story) that I used to sneak a listen to now and again. In those days, your publicly stated musical tastes fell into a small number of categories: Skinhead/Mod, Greaser, Hairy.... I was very much into reggae, soul and Motown which put me firmly into the Skinhead/Mod camp. I could not admit to liking some of my brothers' records but I would put them on the record player when he was not around. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Cream...
Of the tracks on Full Cream, the standout track was "Spoonful" - at the time I thought is was weirdly wonderful, very different. Fast forward 40 years or so and I come across a reference to the fact that Howlin' Wolf originally recorded this song. Although I knew some of Howlin' Wolf's music, the fact that he recorded "Spoonful" had evaded me until then. I researched his version which also led me to Willie Dixon.
I have chosen to include Howlin' Wolf's version here due to it's overall brilliance but it is really Cream's version that planted the seed all those years ago.