Format firsts. (3)

First vinyl album:
1967-70 – The Beatles (1973)

beatles6770A few months earlier, my father had changed his old Fiat (registration WWW 187 G) for a new Fiat (come on, do you take me for some kind of FREAK). Out went the old in-car 8-track cartridge player, which we listened to on the school run in the mornings: Andy Williams, Simon & Garfunkel, The Carpenters, The Sound Of Music, Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass, and the REALLY BORING one: Mario Lanza in The Student Prince. Instead, the new car came equipped with a radio/cassette player, for which new music had to be purchased. Easily my favourite of the new cassettes was the recently issued Beatles retrospective 1962-66, also known as the “double red” album. I had grown up with most of these songs, and so – even at the age of 11 – was experiencing my first kick of nostalgia.

As for its companion volume 1967-70 (the “double blue”), nothing would persuade my father to buy it – his reason being that 1967 was when the Beatles “went funny”. Long hair, weird music, dodgy Indian gurus, that awful Yoko Ono woman who RUINED John Lennon… and, of course, DRUGS. (My grandmother was firmly of the same opinion: “It’s such a pity, and they used to be such NICE boys.”) Attempting to catch him in a weak moment at a petrol station, I had almost succeeded in getting him to buy Sergeant Pepper. Only when scrutinising the cassette case did he suddenly remember that this dated from their “funny period”, and was therefore Not Suitable.

Of course, all of this only served to heighten my curiosity. As a boy, I was very much drawn to the aesthetic of the weird, the wacky, the surreal, the fantastic. I liked anything which broke the boundaries, pushing things further, stimulating my already highly active imagination. Thus the detailed, multi-coloured cover of Sergeant Pepper interested me enormously. This was one step further than The Sweet, Slade, T.Rex or David Bowie. It suggested a forbidden fantasy world of unimaginably rich possibilities.

So what could be better than a complete double album’s worth of The Beatles after they went weird? I was just beginning to understand the concept of an “album” as opposed to a mere “LP”, having heard a piece about the subject on Radio One. Albums existed on a more elevated, adult plane, as complete artworks in their own right. They were still a little bit advanced for me – but nevertheless, I thought it was about time I owned one.

At that time, I had just become aware of the albums chart. Top of the pile in the summer of 1973 was the soundtrack of That’ll Be The Day, starring David Essex and Ringo Starr: another double album, heavily advertised on TV, featuring many rock and roll classics from the 1950s. With late 1950s nostalgia starting to feature heavily in the chart pop of the time, I was interested in finding out more. Also, I did rather fancy buying the Number One album in the charts, merely for the sake of owning the Number One album in the charts. Once again, there was a little more at stake than mere access to a bunch of songs.

Back in the music department of Boots The Chemist, at the start of the long summer holiday, I dithered. Perhaps I should listen to That’ll Be The Day in one of the booths? My sister and I stood beneath the speakers, listening out for the songs which had been featured on the TV advert. As Jonny Tillotson’s Poetry In Motion blasted out (we knew that one), one of the shop porters paused in front of us, in his long brown coat, and did a little “rock and roll” comedy jig for our benefit. We giggled.

However, there was something a little dowdy about the album. It didn’t quite come to life, in the same way that all my favourite glam-rockers did. Black and white, not glorious Technicolor. Beatles it was, then.

And so it came to pass that Side One, Track One of my entire album collection was Strawberry Fields Forever, a song which I had never heard before. I can still picture myself placing the record on my little Bush player with the smoked perspex lid, and perching myself on my bed, lyrics in hand. Golly, was it ever weird! Creepy weird, sinister weird, nightmare weird – with a freaky coda that faded back in, startling and unsettling me. It sounded like how I imagined an LSD trip would be, and confirmed in my mind that I would never, ever try anything like that for myself. It was a blessed relief when Penny Lane came on next; I remembered Peter Glaze and the gang singing it on BBC1’s Friday afternoon kids’ show Crackerjack, and felt a strange shudder of longing for my own early childhood, and for the comforting security of the 1960s.

(Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that I bought this album only a couple of weeks after my parents told me they were divorcing, and my mother moved out of the family home. Interesting timing.)

Equally weird stuff was to come: I Am The Walrus, which embarrassed me by using words like “bloody”, “knickers” and “pornographic”, and disgusted me with images of semolina pilchards climbing up the Eiffel Tower, Lennon’s oddly pitched voice twisting with mockery and menace. But worst of all was A Day In The Life, whose two discordant orchestral crescendos I could scarcely bear to hear, filling me with an overpowering sense of dread. Again, something very dark and very wrong seemed to be taking place.

However, all of this was counterbalanced by sweet, playful, wistful songs such as Hello GoodbyeFool On The Hill, Hey Jude and many more: a clear majority for the light over the dark. By the end of the fourth side, the group’s collective journey through the madness was demonstrably over, as more conventional arrangements took over, and a sense of mellow, valedictory maturity came to the fore. It was scarcely possible to believe that this was the same group who had recorded She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand, and I presumed that such naive juvenalia must have embarassed them by its existence. That short reprise of She Loves You at the end of All You Need Is Love: they were obviously laughing at their pre-enlightened selves, jumping around for the Grannys and the screaming little girls, in their boring matching suits. Aged 11, on the cusp of being a teenager and longing to get there as soon as possible, I felt much the same about my own early childhood: silly Enid Blyton books, silly Play School and Andy Pandy on the telly.

Nostalgia for a lost idyll; impatience to attain maturity and win freedom; fear of the dark mistakes that adults might make; delight at the breadth and scope of the human imagination; curiosity for whatever might happen next. Not a bad way to start an album collection, all told.

What was your first album?

title unknown – Abba (guyana-gyal)
Thriller – Michael Jackson (Buni)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road – Elton John (d)
Inflammable Material – Stiff Little Fingers (Chav Gav)
Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy – Elton John (“bob”)
Songs In The Key Of Life – Stevie Wonder (joe.my.god.)
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles (patita)
Parallel Lines – Blondie (annie)
Tapestry – Carole King (asta)
EITHER Safe As Milk – Captain Beefheart OR The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter -Incredible String Band (Tina)
Clodagh Rodgers – Clodagh Rodgers (Nigel)
Rio – Duran Duran (vit)
Transformer – Lou Reed (Debster)
Mud Rock – Mud (NiC)
Human Racing – Nik Kershaw (Adrian)
Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap – AC/DC (bytheseashore)
Thriller – Michael Jackson (eric bogs)
Can’t Stand The Rezillos – The Rezillos (andy)
Sweet Baby James – James Taylor (Dymbel)
Love At The Greek – Neil Diamond (Alan)
Choke – The Beautiful South (Will)
Greatest Hits – Helen Reddy (looby)
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Format firsts. (2)

First 7″ single (bought with own money):
Tom Tom Turnaround – New World (1971)

newworldIn 1971, somewhere towards the beginning of the long summer holiday, I started listening to daytime Radio One, following the singles charts, and watching Top Of The Pops with genuine (as opposed to passing) interest. At that time, there happened to be a whole clutch of records at the top of the charts which appealed to my nine year old’s aesthetics: happy, tuneful, catchy bubblegum which was easy to learn and fun to sing along with. It was an ideal moment to become hooked.

Leading the pack was the irresistible Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep by Middle Of The Road – which, like Knock Knock Who’s There before it, was bought for me by my grandmother. Indeed, I have always thought of it as my official First Single – the one which (ahem) turned me on to rock and roll. Well, you’ve got to make a start somewhere.

Following closely behind were The Sweet’s Co-Co (steel drums, nonsense lyrics, increasingly shrill key changes), Lobo’s Me And You And A Dog Named Boo (kiddie-friendly acoustic folk-rock), Never Ending Song Of Love by The New Seekers (featuring some lovely choral interplay, all chiming doo-doo-doo‘s and shimmering ba-ba-ba‘s)… and, from another former winner of ITV’s Opportunity Knocks, New World’s Tom Tom Turnaround.

There was also Dawn’s jolly Knock Three Times (but that was going down the charts, so I wasn’t so interested); Greyhound’s pop/reggae plea for racial unity, Black And White (which I found facile and tiresome, even at that age); Diana Ross’s haunting I’m Still Waiting (which made me feel sad, but in a nice way); and two tunes which were still a little bit too wild and advanced for me: Get It On by T.Rex (one for the scary hairies, and I didn’t want to think too much about what they got up to), and Devil’s Answer by Atomic Rooster (whose use of the word “devil” shocked and embarrassed me; but then I wasn’t even allowed to say “Good Heavens” in front of my mother).

For several years, I had wondered how the people at Top Of The Pops compiled their Top Twenty. Did they get all the hippies to vote for their favourite song? Was it something to with being a member of the Radio One Club? As yet untainted by notions of vulgar commerce, it had simply never occurred to me that the chart was based on sales of singles. Now that I knew this, I was gripped with excitement at the thought of being able to walk into a shop and buy any song which I liked off the radio. Such freedom! Such choice! This was something which I had to experience for myself. I had some pocket money saved up. The next time that we went shopping in Doncaster, I would take the plunge.

What I didn’t know was how much singles cost. It couldn’t be very much, just for two songs in a paper bag. Guessing they would sell for around 20p each, I spent the next few days making calculations in my head. I had about 60p, so that would mean three singles, so that would mean I couldn’t have The Sweet and Lobo and the New Seekers and New World. Which one wouldn’t I buy? Probably the New Seekers. Well, they did have rather soppy smiles on the telly; the others were less showbiz, more groovy, more teenager. But then if singles were 15p, then I could buy all of them. Or if they were 25p, then I could only buy two. And so on, and so on.

I was taken to the record department on the first floor of Boots The Chemist, in Doncaster’s Arndale shopping centre. I was quite nervous about this, as all the trendy people and the hippies and the hairies probably went there, and they might laugh at me. To say nothing of that particular breed of impossibly cool girls who always appeared in the audience of Top Of The Pops, dancing with faraway looks in their eyes, never smiling because the songs were so deep and they were probably thinking about Love. (My sister and I did quite good impressions of them in front of the telly.)

In those days, you didn’t flick through the display racks to find the singles you wanted. The only ones in the racks were stupid babyish ones for children, or boring ones by people your parents liked. Instead, all the good stuff – the stuff from the charts – was kept behind the counter, and so you had to ask for them by name. But first, I had to find out how much they cost.

45p! (Nine shillings in old money.) I couldn’t believe how expensive they were! This meant that I could only afford to buy one single. I hadn’t reckoned on this at all. Which one should I buy? The Sweet, or Lobo, or New World?

“Please may I have Tom Tom Turnaround by New World?”

I don’t really know what made me choose New World. It just seemed like the best idea at the time. In any case, it didn’t really matter which song I picked; the concept of purchase was almost more important than the concept of ownership. It was from the charts, and it was played on Radio One, and I had seen it on Top Of The Pops, and that was good enough for me.

Thus, what should – under the established terms of rock mythology – have been a defining moment (young kid, caught in the grip of an unstoppable passion, impelled to buy Seminal Classic) turned out instead to be a rather arbitrary moment (nervous little prep school boy, intimidated by imperious cool of Boots shop assistant, picks random song from the charts in a state of mild panic). For not even the most wilfully perverse of present day pop contrarians could ever claim restrospective greatness for Tom Tom Turnaround.

An early composition by the mega-successful songwriting/production team of Chinn & Chapman (also responsible for The Sweet’s Co Co and all of their subsequent hits, as well as lengthy flushes for Mud, Suzi Quatro and Smokie), Tom Tom tells the story of an errant husband and an abandoned wife, before offering redemption (for the husband at least) in its final verse and coda. There’s also a faint subtext of criticism for the abandoned wife, as highlighted by her replacement’s subtly different choice of language. (In other words: ladies, if you want to keep your man, then don’t cling and don’t nag. ‘Cos a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.) As with Co-Co, there are endless upward key changes, which serve to heighten the drama. Other touches – the folk-rock inflections, the timbre of the strings, the subtle dabs of pedal steel – are pure 1971, already showing Chinn & Chapman’s characteristic grasp of the prevalent musical idioms of the day.

My love for Tom Tom – if we can call it that – didn’t last. Middle Of The Road remained my favourite act for the rest of the year, to be supplanted first by The Sweet, and then by Slade. As for my old 7-inch single: it got lost years ago. Until the advent of Napster in 1999, I hadn’t listened to the song in years. In a rush of nostalgia, I downloaded it, played it, burnt it to CD… and forgot about it all over again.

Until now, that is. Do you know what? Maybe it’s just the lateness of the hour, but listening to it again after a gap of nearly six years, it sounds kind of nifty. Here, see what you think.

What was your first single? Stone cold classic, guilty pleasure or childhood folly? Tell me. I like to know these things.

My Girl – Madness (Girl)
Dance With The Devil – Cozy Powell (dave)
Borderline – Madonna (Buni)
Telegram Sam – T.Rex (betty)
What Can I Say – Boz Scaggs (looby)
Rubber Bullets – 10cc (NiC)
Can The Can – Suzi Quatro (Alan)
Kodachrome – Paul Simon (joe.my.god.)
Long Tall Sally EP – The Beatles (Dymbel)
Magic Fly – Space (d)
Banner Man – Blue Mink (Junio)
The Man With The Child In His Eyes – Kate Bush (Chav Gav)
Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa – Gene Pitney (Tina)
Kings Of The Wild Frontier – Adam & The Ants (bytheseashore)
Step Inside, Love – Cilla Black / Me The Peaceful Heart – Lulu / Cinderella Rockefella – Esther & Abi Ofarim (Nigel)
Alone Again, Naturally – Gilbert O’Sullivan (“bob”)
Those Were The Days – Mary Hopkin (Debster)

Format firsts. (1)

First 7″ single (bought for me):
Knock Knock Who’s There? – Mary Hopkin (1970)

hopkinAh, who could forget the two-way diva-meets-diva Bitch Fest of the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest, as Opportunity Knocks winner and Beatles protegé Mary Hopkin was pitted against that lilting colleen from across the Irish Sea, Dana Provincial?

I was already a fan of La Hopkin, having seen her and Tommy Steele in panto at the London Palladium, where we all sang along to her big hit, Those Were The Days, as well as Steele’s “Junior Choice” favourite, Little White Bull. And I was already a fan of Eurovision, having watched Cliff Richard being pipped at the post by Spain in 1968, back when the contest was screened before my bedtime. This time round, as with Lulu in 1969, I wasn’t allowed to stay up late, and so relied on my grandmother’s account of the evening. She had been most unimpressed with Lulu’s allegedly scruffy demeanour (“Straight off the plane! The silly girl had no time to comb her hair!”), but was charmed by Mary – and Dana – in 1970. So much so, that she bought us copies of both their singles.

As my sister’s kindergarten class had been singing it at school (something which I considered terribly daring and modern), she was given Dana’s winning song All Kinds Of Everything, with the equally lilting Channel Breeze on the flip. Meanwhile, because I had been following the weekly Song For Europe qualifying contest so avidly, I was given Mary Hopkin’s single, on the Beatles’ Apple label – backed with the runner-up song, the even more jaunty I’m Going To Fall In Love Again (The Very Next Chance I Get).

There had been singles in our house before – the earliest being The Beatles’ She Loves You, which I regard as Side One, Track One of my entire life – but, aside from kids’ records (Johnny Morris from TV’s Animal Magic telling the story of Lorenzo The Llama; Vivien Leigh – yes, that one – reciting Beatrix Potter’s Tale Of The Flopsy Bunnies), Knock Knock was the first one that was actually, officially mine. A lifelong interest in Eurovision (apart from a few years when it went a bit crap in the 1980s) was born.

Looking at the lyrics now, my twisted 21st century brain can’t help wondering whether there hadn’t been a risqué subtext to this seemingly harmless ditty all along. Check this out:

Climb the stair, and then I say a prayer
For someone who could share my situation,
But instead, as I lay down my head,
I have to leave it all to my imagination…Knock knock, who’s there?
Could this be love that’s calling?
The door is always open wide.

Knock knock, who’s there?
Now as the night is falling,
Take off your coat and come inside.

Hands where we can see them please Mary, there’s a good girl. OK, so it’s no Sugar Walls – but, you know, slippery slope.

No such trouble for Dana the country girl, so pure and sheltered that she even lacked the descriptive language to articulate her innermost desires. (“Dances! Romances! T’ings of der Noight!“) Next to such innocence, the following year’s UK entry from Clodagh Rodgers, Jack In The Box (“I’m going to bounce up and down on my spring!”) looked positively debauched. How far we have come, ladies and gentlemen. How far we have come.