Reckless driving

Boy bands are the mayflies of pop music. More even than most in an ephemeral industry, time’s swift chariot presses close behind. Today, the object of the passionate love of a million teenage girls; tomorrow, the subject of universal derision.

Sometimes, a lad of strong character gets through it all, reinvents himself. Paul Anka, George Michael, (in my part of the world) John Farnham: but they are scarred survivors of an army which loses most along the march.

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Exhibit A: The Bay City Rollers. They started in Scotland the late 1960s as a Beatles cover band. In the hands of an unscrupulous manager, Tam Paton, they were raised to stardom, absolute lord-of-all-I-survey stardom. Then came the pop music career arc known as “Icarus”.

After peaking in 1975, with UK and US number one hits … well, the Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music takes up the story:

 

Disaster was heaped upon disaster. [Singer, Les] McKeown was charged with reckless driving after hitting and killing a 75-year-old widow, [guitarist] Eric Faulkner and [bassist] Alan Longmuir attempted suicide. Paton was jailed for committing indecent acts with underage teenagers.

Another member starred in a porn movie, another died from AIDS. You get the picture.

As is usual on Planet Vinyl, we will ignore the hits. “Money, Honey” was top ten in much of the world in 1975. Hard to see why, in retrospect – the Rollers here try to rock out, which ain’t their strength. The B-side is a lightweight love song, one of those “choose a woman’s name, add passion, stir” pop numbers. But they play and sing well, and the arrangement is skillful. They sound a bit like the Beatles cover band they started out as and which, in truth, they might have been happier and healthier staying. Money, honey, isn’t everything.

  • Artist: Bay City Rollers
  • A Side: Money Honey
  • B Side: Maryanne
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl
  • Label: Bell
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: BELL-10986
  • Year: 1975

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

Hurry back to your seat

It is 1957. You are sitting in a cinema in Melbourne, Australia, and it is Interval. Younger folk may never have experienced an “interval” in a cinema, but it used to be a thing, equivalent to half time at the football. As the house lights brighten and you rise, contemplating whether to buy an ice-cream, a fruity baritone voice floats over the PA.

This announcement was a custom acetate recording, a 78-rpm metal disc covered in black lacquer. These were used to record radio advertisements, theatre announcements and the like. In this case, the management want the punters not to hang around too long in the foyer, ruining the cinema’s screening times.

7133As you will have picked up, you were seeing The King and I, the 1956 film version of the Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical. This is a much-loved production, still being performed around the world. Personally, I’m not sure why it has such an exalted place in the canon, but millions disagree with me and it has some good moments.

Maybe, in 1957, the magic would have been stronger, and I would have rushed the next day to buy this EP. I have chosen one of the less-famous numbers, a song of love and gentle melancholy. The singing credit is given to Deborah Kerr, but along with the other songs in the film it was actually sung by Marni Nixon.

Now, grab your ice cream and get back to your seat. The movie is about to start!

Recording 1

  • Artist: Unknown
  • A side: “Interval, King & I”
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, acetate, mono
  • Label: Broadcast Exchange of Australia (BEA)
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: none
  • Year: Unknown (probably 1957)

Recording 2

  • Artist: Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner
  • EP Title: The King and I
  • Track: A2 “Hello, Young Lovers”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Capitol
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: EAP 1-740
  • Year: 1957

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Admire the calligraphy

Hearing the traditional music of China is like admiring a piece of calligraphy hanging in a temple. It is beautiful, no question. Clearly, great skill is required in its execution. But it can’t be escaped that this is a minute fragment of a rich and complex culture. The daunting truth: without a lifetime’s study and a gift for languages, you never will fully understand.

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Image: Taito Ward Calligraphy Museum, public domain

But still, we can admire.

I visited China with my wife nearly 20 years ago. I remember once, on a street in Xian, stopping and listening to a busker, a young man playing traditional tunes on an instrument, the name of which I do not know, but it’s a distant cousin to the violin. The melodies and rhythms were unfamiliar, but the man played with passion, and there was no denying the beauty of it. Another Chinese man, listening beside me, gave me a nod and a smile. It was one of those wordless moments: he was proud of his people’s culture and pleased that a stranger was appreciating small part of it. If he had been Australian, he might have said: “Not bad, eh?”

This track is similar in style, though with a small orchestra. It from a compilation of folk tunes by various artists. As is often true of Chinese products, the English translation on the sleeve is a bit wobbly. This tune is “10 Miles Fragrant Of Blooming Olea”.

I do not pretend to Chinese scholarship, but I can help a bit. A “Chinese mile”, the li, is only about one-third of the English mile, and is now standardized as equal to 500 metres. “Olea” refers to Sweet Osmanthus, a small tree which grows widely in Asia. As its name suggests, this tree has fragrant flowers. Literally the tune should be called “five kilometers of nice-smelling Osmanthus trees”, which is worse than the original.

So, ignore the name. Close your eyes. It is spring, in the Chinese countryside, and the trees are in blossom. Just listen.

  • Artist: Unknown
  • Album title: Kweilin Scenery | Famous Chinese Light Music (Various artists)
  • Track: A4
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Fung Hang Record Ltd
  • Made in: Hong Kong
  • Catalogue: FHLP 201
  • Year: Unknown (1970s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

Looking at a Foxconn factory

George Orwell was one of my first literary heroes. I got hooked by Nineteen Eighty-four, and went on to read everything he wrote. I don’t recommend this. His best work stands up: brave, clear sighted, a voice raised against tyranny. But don’t seek out the B-sides and rarities.

Having once been an uber-fan, though, I know his lesser works, and was reminded of one just now.

4019 AIn 1941, as the world careened into the darkest years in human history, His Master’s Voice released a recording of the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing Carl Maria von Weber’s delightful Invitation to The Dance (the record label calls it “Invitation to The Waltz” – it’s the same thing). The disc is a bit scratchy. That happens when a record gets played on a portable gramophone in an air raid shelter. But through the crackle we hear what must, in 1941, have seemed like paradise lost: the glittering ballrooms of privileged Europe, before the world knew of the machine gun.

4019 COnly months earlier, George Orwell wrote a poem about the factory where this disc was made. It channels the same tension. On a Ruined Farm Near the ‘His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ contrasts the rural idyll of pre-industrial England – which the writer yearns for but knows is lost to him – with the intimidating power of modern industry.

The factory is:

where steel and concrete soar
In dizzy, geometric towers —
There, where the tapering cranes sweep round,
And great wheels turn, and trains roar by
Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel

There was a time when making 78 rpm records out of cardboard and shellac was new, the cutting edge – terrifying even.

These same records now seem quaint, archaic, objects of nostalgia.

But imagine a young person in China, uneasy about the country’s breakneck modernisation and pursuit of wealth, looking at a Foxconn factory. Imagine the same young person writing a poem, while listening to lovely classical Chinese music on an iPhone. A lifetime ago, that was the experience of listening to this record, .

  • Artist: BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini
  • A side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Part 1 (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
  • B side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Conclusion (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
  • Format: 12”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: England
  • Catalogue: DB 3542
  • Year: 1941

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

Vaguely about the end of a relationship

The lecturer held up an LP cover. It was Supertramp’s 1975 album, Crisis? What crisis?. The sleeve pictures a man reclining with a drink under a beach umbrella, but instead of a beach he is set against a bleak factoryscape, a nightmare of grey industry spewing pollution. What, the lecturer wondered, does this mean, exactly? Does it, in truth, mean anything? He was not dismissive, not scornful, just raised the question: is this, maybe, a problem?

Supertramp_-_Crisis

Image via Wikimedia

This all happened longer ago than I care to tell, in my first year at university. The lecturer’s name was Jack Clancy. He was a pioneer in the study of communication in Australia. He was also a lovely man: I came to know him slightly, and remain friends with his son, Rob. Sadly, Jack Clancy departed this life a couple of years ago.

But Jack’s question has stayed with me. Does it matter if communication may, or may not, mean anything? I was an earnest literalist back then. Too earnest all round, actually. But I have mellowed and relaxed with time. I have no problem now with stuff which might not mean very much. Art which is ambiguous demands that the audience bring its own meaning. That requires searching your heart, which is never a bad thing.

This reminiscing came because the Planet Vinyl shuttle has landed on a Supertramp single, “It’s Raining Again”. This was released in 1982, and I remember it from the radio – indeed, anyone who was a teen at the time will know it, as it was a top ten hit almost everywhere.

Frequent visitors to the Vinyl Planet will know that usually we favour the rarity, the B-side, the obscure. In this case, though, we are going with the hit. Reason being? The B side, “Bonnie”, is a love song addressed to a girl of that name. Planet Vinyl is a broad church, but it is fair to say that “Bonnie” is a lyrical clunker:

Yes I got my fortune read
And here´s what the gypsy said
That we´ll live and love and share eternity

That, and rhyming “please be nice” with “paradise”, and “golden skies”?  Nup.

However the A-side stands up well as pop song. No, it isn’t really clear what is means. Vaguely about the end of a relationship, but you can kinda read it how you want to, and the music is great: lovely sax and electric piano.

Sending this out to the late Jack Clancy. Scholar, thinker, teacher, footballer and fine man. Thanks for your teaching.

  • Artist: Supertramp
  • A Side: It’s Raining Again
  • B Side: Bonnie
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: A&M
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: K 8910
  • Year: 1982

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

Never shoot first

Gene Autry was the first great singing cowboy of American popular culture. Not a type of performer you see much anymore. We still have western movies, but they tend to be grim and bloody, and there is not much time for singing around the campfire, faithful horse in the background, between two cardboard boulders.

It all seems tacky now, the world of the B-movie western, but hugely popular in its day, and Autry was a colossus of that world. Born in 1907, Autry became a star of radio, the large and small screens, and one of the most successful recording artists ever. He wrote or co-wrote hundreds of songs. (His biggest success? “Here Comes Santa Claus”.) He made 640 recordings, and sold over 100 million copies of his records. The man was, in consequence, worth a mint. He owned a TV station, a baseball team, a film studio – the works.

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Gene Autry with singing group The Pinafores, 1948. Image: CBS Radio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Autry’s persona was that of the straight shooter, the cowboy as patriot and embodiment of what was good and fine in American manhood. This can grate on a modern audience. For the guidance of the boys and young men who idolised him, Autry created the ten-point Cowboy Code, which begins: The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

Just what a Boy Scout needs to know. Mind, there are some cops out there who could learn a thing or two from the Cowboy Code …

More important, the music was good. Autry’s mellow voice and easy guitar style stand up well. This is his take on “Buttons and Bows”, which was a hit for him in 1947.

  • Artist: Gene Autry
  • A side: Buttons And Bows
  • B side: Blue Shadows On The Trail
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Regal Zonophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: G25274
  • Year: 1948

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

You can honk your own horn!

Guest post by “Green Strobe”

“Excuse Me” is the final track on Alison MacCallum’s album of the same name, which turned out to be her last. A powerfully-voiced Australian blues/rock/soul singer, she released a couple of well-regarded albums, but is best remembered nowadays as the vocalist of the successful “It’s Time” jingle which emotively helped Gough Whitlam to victory in the 1972 Australian federal election.

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“It’s Time” was one of the great jingles. The T-shirts, not so much. Image via SBS

The single was issued in 1974, and the album in 1975. The single and its B-side are a pair of opposites – one an expression of love, the other a diatribe about a failed relationship.

0622 b“Excuse Me” is a lush number arranged in the mid-1970s manner, telling us how much she misses her other half. It’s rather unfair to say so, as the song predates Sherbet’s, but during the orchestral build-ups you may half-expect her to start singing “how-ow-ow howzat!”.

The B-side, “Honk” was not included on the album, making the single that much more attractive. And it’s pretty racy! A song of scorn directed at an ex-lover, the double entendre is not exactly subtle (it is on the Albert label) – “you can honk your own horn!”.

Rather explicit for the time, it takes a swing at male sexual gratification, mixing metaphors along the way (moving to sweets and gluttony, instead of maintaining the theme of lust and automotive and/or musical horn-blowing). It’s more of an upbeat tune, and brings to mind the angry feminism of the time – until you realise it was written by men! Pop svengali Simon Napier-Bell arranged, produced and (with Antonio Morales) wrote both sides. Nothing is ever what it seems…

  • Artist: Alison MacCallum
  • A Side: Excuse Me
  • B Side: Honk Honk
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Albert
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: AP-10476
  • Year: 1974

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs