AND ANYONE ELSE WHO KNOWS ME

This week, BBC Radio 3’s always diverting Between the Ears series opened up an inventory of cassettes packed with the life and work of a man named Mark Talbot. For decades, Mark made his own radio shows, usually called ‘Second Side Up’, complete with records, phone-ins and interviews. But while the clips suggested him to be an articulate and slick host, he never became what you might call a ‘professional’ presenter on a national or even a local station. Instead, his programmes were specially and even individually made for members of his family, his friends and partners. It’s a melancholy but compelling half-hour about how the very act of communication can become an obsession. A kind of dialogue at one remove.

One piece of music I keep going back to is called “I’m 49” by Paddy McAloon, the songwriter and frontman with the group Prefab Sprout. It lies somewhere between electronic and orchestral music, with a yearning but resigned quality to it, but what gives it an extra devastating edge is in its use of speech samples, taken from late night radio conversations and phone-ins. The callers are unhappy and even desperate. At the close of the track someone (Paddy?) almost whispers ‘Just hold me’.

The genesis of the track, and indeed of the whole record, I Trawl the Megahertz, had come from a period of convalescence for McAloon; after eye surgery, he had to rest his sight, and so relied on radio and sound which sparked his creativity into making a solo record (his only one to date).

It’s a given that many radio listeners are lonely, especially at night. I find it a shame that more and more night-time radio is now automated or pre-recorded, even on a national station like BBC Radio 2 which recently dropped the much-loved Janice Long and Alex Lester.  There’s no shortage of stuff to listen to in the dead of night, but little of it is live and interactive. And in the small hours, people often need company. Even if it’s just to say hello to someone.

What the life and work of Mark Talbot suggests is that, sometimes, it’s not just a listener that needs support and an outlet. Sometimes it’s the presenter that might need it. And of course, you can’t award everyone national exposure but what ‘Second Side Up’ underlined is that everyone needs at some level to express themselves somehow and somewhere.

Thirty years ago or so, in my teens, I worked in radio for a bit, firstly as a volunteer at hospital radio and then at local radio. In the early stages of learning the ropes of broadcasting, you were advised to imagine you were addressing just one listener. At the time, I presumed this was to calm a novice’s nerves, but over time, I realised it was probably also to banish any delusions of celebrity that a budding presenter might be hoping for.

When it soon became clear, at least on hospital radio, that I had very few or indeed no listeners, I would occasionally amuse myself by making and recording programmes for my friends. Back then, I wasn’t sure why I did this, but I think I did it to sound more confident, or at least to find a context which gave me a reason to communicate. If it was just me, with no records or microphone, it felt like it wasn’t enough.

I was about to say that I don’t do that anymore, that those lonely years were a long time ago, but are they always? There are times when all that’s changed is the medium. Tweets have the concise economy of radio links, and you can be serious or silly, but sometimes I strain to come up with them because behind it is a terrible feeling of not being good enough, that everyone else is having a better time.

In a sense, on social media, we front our own shows: linking to playlists and video clips, announcing events, reacting, commenting. But what if we wake up in the morning and we have nothing to say, or nothing we can face admitting? You might be able to unleash one plaintive status update on Facebook, provided you offer the disclaimer that you’re over the worst now. But you can’t do it again. No-one, you assume, will want to read that.

At least with Twitter, you can do that a bit more often, but you feel it’s on the condition that you have to think of some witty metaphors along the lines of ‘I am wearing a grey hat made out of screaming wasps’. In other words, something that might distract people while you wear yourself out.

Maybe you need to talk to someone. In real life. Where ‘it’s really complicated’.

 

EXPLORING POP’S MAP: ON RECORD SHOPS (PART 1)

file_0004A long time ago now, I worked in record shops for nearly a decade: eventually for two nationwide chain stores, but before that, in a tiny independent shop which specialised in heavy rock and indie but which was on the list of shops for the Gallup charts as used by Music Week, Radio 1 and Top of the Pops. So every time someone bought something you scanned the barcode, or entered the catalogue number on the back.

My first day was Saturday, 25 June 1988. I had just left school, having performed disastrously in my A levels and knowing full well that I’d have to retake them. The main thing I remember about my first day, apart from writing up the masterbags for cassettes to be stored under the record racks, was having to listen over and over again to one of the week’s new releases: a plodding heavy metal instrumental version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz. It sounded like some testcard music for when they lost the signal for Tommy Vance’s Friday Rock Show.

The worst thing about this tiny shop was that it was tiny. It was the size of someone’s living room. It was so tiny that we had no stock room area away from the shop floor to process deliveries. We had to crouch on the floor and open the boxes while the customers were there, squinting in panic at invoices while impatient youths stood over you wanting to be first with that copy of Iron Maiden’s new shaped twelve-inch picture disc of ‘Eddie on fire’ or something.

I ended up working there all the way through college and even university vacation. I rarely listened to metal at home, but I had to concede that it was refreshing to listen to something different at work (we didn’t just play ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, we even stocked some other things). Plus I was undoubtedly a useful presence as I knew the poppier stuff, and we sold a lot of that too.

And, in every shift, more senior colleagues introduced me to stuff I didn’t know and hadn’t heard. We had no iTunes, or Spotify, or Wikipedia, where you could check What People Had Released. All that existed was a frantically well-thumbed Music Master catalogue behind the counter, there was a phone, and your own memory where you’d incrementally archived gobbets of info from the music press, radio and TV. And this was a time when a lot of long-deleted records were reactivated via this burgeoning new format: the compact disc. Every day, then, was an education, albeit a badly paid education, during which you might even be subjected to LPs by Helloween.

I would never claim to have an infallible working knowledge of music, but I would say I was – then, at least – brilliant at working in a record shop. Partly because I was polite and helpful, but also because I knew about music that I didn’t necessarily like but which customers did. You’re there to help, whether it’s someone who only visits a record shop once a year, or someone who is in every day, and yes we did have people who were in every day. Mainly, admittedly, the youth who wanted all thrash metal LPs ever and who wondered aloud who’d win in a fight between Joey Belladonna from Anthrax and Kerry King from Slayer.

All the while, in your head, you were absently continuing to fill in a rough exploratory map of music for your own use and pleasure. Facts, figures, tunes and lyrics were stored away for daily pop quizzes with customers. Their questions would be cryptic but usually could be boiled down to: ‘What is this song I’m looking for, and can I buy it, please?’ They would often sing bits of it at you while other, louder, different music was blaring from the speakers. Perhaps my finest achievement was being asked, ‘I heard it on the radio, it’s got a banjo on it, I think’ and replying, ‘Is it “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” by Del Amitri?’ It was. ‘Yes, we have it. Would you like the album?’ SALE. Kerching.

BBC4’s The Secret Science of Pop, shown this week, also began in a record shop, albeit a deserted one (it might have been the Record and Tape Exchange in Notting Hill, west London). In this rather annoying programme, the evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi was seen rifling through the racks while declaring that although he had little knowledge of pop, he had extensively studied fruit flies (‘earworms’, yeah, see what you did there), and so he was embarking on ‘a journey’ to measure pop through algorithms. He assembled a team of data scientists to analyse five decades of hits and sounds, to reduce pop to its bare essentials, aiming to try and make the ultimate pop song. In practice, what it did was suck all the mystery, joy and spontaneity out of recorded pop: the effect was akin to Johnny Ball on Think of a Number chewing some sheet music.

Although the programme was not made by BBC Music but by the science department, it felt as if this wasn’t just an attempt to make a mean/average pop song, but also an attempt to do the same with the whistle-stop tour of pop’s history documentary. I’ve lost count of how many versions we’ve had now of ‘When BBC4’s Ageing Demographic Slumbers Through The Bill Grundy Clip Again and Again’. It might be time to give these things a rest for a while.

For pop isn’t a science (and in any case, there wasn’t a lot of incisive scientific analysis in this programme either). Those who truly excel at pop are conscious of its past but always bring something new to the table. But this programme seemed to encourage the homogenous, the average, like getting a focus group to make a record. Inevitably, the weird and the unusual were left on the fringes. By the end, a young singer called Niké Jemiyo and the record producer Trevor Horn, who both agreed to participate in the process, looked as though their time had been royally wasted. Because it had. ‘Non-linear effects – they’re the hardest to get at,’ concluded the scientist presenter. ‘Given enough data, we will work it out.’ Nah, you’re fine.

Pop expressed as statistics and graphs and formulae is fun in passing, but it’s a bit like memorising Guinness Hit Singles books for trivia quizzes while never listening to the music. The amateur map I was internally constructing in my years in record shops is, I’m afraid to say, now out of date; I took my eye off the ball at some point in my mid-thirties, so to speak, and though I know the map’s changed, and I remain interested in new stuff, I know I could never really work in a record shop again. Because even though all the information is out there, what’s gone is my playful ability to connect it all up, even if those connections only made sense to me. My map is still full of landmarks, but I’ve never been so aware that it’s also full of holes.

 

MAN’S LAUGHTER

file_000Maybe because it’s felt like the 24-hour news media has been laughing at us for months, but I’ve started to be plagued by the memory of a most disturbing record. ‘The Laughing Policeman’ by Charles Penrose is the aural equivalent of being poked in the ribs by The Sun. You rarely hear it nowadays, but in my childhood in the 1970s, Junior Choice on Radio 1 was still playing it. It was already fifty years old, yet no child I knew liked or enjoyed it, and I suspected that grown adults were writing in to troll us by requesting it.

Even now, it makes me feel queasy for several reasons. As an infant, I shunned an ITV children’s show with the same title, even though it featured Deryck Guyler off Sykes and whom I liked, because of its inevitable theme tune. If it came on the radio, I would make a quick getaway, defeated by a mixture of embarrassment (‘Stop doing it, this isn’t funny’) and alarm: ‘Why is he laughing, again and again? He doesn’t sound happy. Why?’

What did this police officer, one presumably in busy full-time employment, find so uproariously funny? Miscarriages of justice? Assuming he was ‘always on the beat’, what sort of weekly targets was he expected to meet? Did his laughter impede his ability to arrest potential suspects? (We discover, at least twice, that yes, it did.) Did his colleagues in the force suffer from other behavioural quirks, like the Crying Desk Sergeant or the Petrified Superintendant?

Is this the ultimate example in comedy of ‘You had to be there’? Because nothing, not Duck Soup, not Seinfeld, not even Three Up Two Down, is that funny. Nothing warrants four ferocious choruses of whooping and barking that makes Kriss Akabusi sound like Droopy the Dog. And it brings to mind another tiresome record that Junior Choice patronised: ‘I’ve Lost My Mummy’ by a now-disgraced Australian entertainer, which replaced the machine-gun laughter with furious mock-sobbing. Who on earth was this rubbish for?

‘The Laughing Policeman’ has no sincerity. It’s the cabaret at Trump Tower. You can imagine Nigel Farage miming to it; it doesn’t laugh with its eyes, only its lungs, a kind of physical exertion like clearing your throat. It’s laughing at nothing – whereas at least David Bowie’s ‘Laughing Gnome’ attempted puns with an ‘-ome’ suffix. One of my favourite bits of laughter in pop, though, is Bernard Sumner on New Order’s ‘Every Little Counts’ where he splutters over the line ‘I think you are a pig/You should be in a zoo’. Here the laughter sounds genuine – because he’s trying not to laugh.

If only ‘The Laughing Policeman’ were an isolated offence by Charles Penrose (aka Charles Jolly). But no, for this was a self-styled ‘laughing comedian’. Its B-side on its 1926 release, ‘Laughter and Lemons’ is, disconcertingly, a barrage of forced mirth over the Open All Hours music. There were, still, others: ‘The Laughing Major’, ‘The Laughing Ghost’, ‘The Laughing Monk’ (sadly not a Trappist one), and – a sure sign that someone will not shut up – a sequel: ‘Laughing Policeman Again’ in which the policeman finds a girlfriend who also laughs inanely. As that Glasgow Empire heckler perceptively said of Mike and Bernie Winters, ‘Oh fuck, there’s two of them.’

It seemed appropriate, in the week that Desert Island Discs celebrates 75 years on the radio, to check if anyone had ever chosen ‘The Laughing Policeman’. Four people have, including Twiggy and Hugh Grant, and I shudder to think of having that in your list of eight for ever more. What is it there to do – maybe it was to remind company-starved hermits of how to laugh? And it reminds me why I dislike that laugh certain comedians do: not the laughter of amusement, more the laughter of existence, tediously and constantly reminding you they’re still in the room while other people are speaking. At least Paul Whitehouse’s Chuck Perry character on the radio phone-in parody Down the Line has a point to his relentlessness: formless laughter simply at the inappropriate or even mundane subject under discussion.

It has given me an idea for a new TV drama series, though:

‘The Laughing Policeman’: Like Midsomer Murders but set in the fictional village of Hillarity. DI John Lafferty (played by, I dunno, Robson Green, it often is) tries to solve crimes of murder, except he can’t because he’s laughing. We don’t know why yet. Theme tune is ‘The Laughing Policeman’ but slowed down, like off a John Lewis advert, and sung by Emeli Sande. Repeated Fridays on ITV3. Be there.

 

 

BASSLINES AND RAYS OF SUNSHINE

fullsizerender3In a radio tribute to George Michael earlier this week, there was an extract from some old interview where he recalled how, with little contemporary music in his family home, he was compelled to rely on Radio 1 in his youth. And then I remembered an interview from Saturday morning TV in the mid-80s, when Wham! were probably the biggest group in Britain, and when a fellow pop star (perhaps Gary Kemp – equally perhaps not) marvelled at his enthusiasm for, and knowledge of all pop: ‘He knows the lyrics to everything.’ That was the thing with George Michael: he really was one of us. He was a pop fan.

Before the Internet, if you had no disposable income or wealthy parents, you had two options if you were a kid into music. Either you latched on to one band and aimed to buy every record, poster and T-shirt they ever put out, or you generalised and sampled a bit of everything – a record collection of oddities is the truly honest record collection. I was struck by how, when first famous, George Michael reminisced about not only liking The Sweet in his formative years but also buying Carly Simon’s ‘The Right Thing to Do’ on holiday, almost as if by accident. To be a pop fan, I reckon – and I suspect George agreed – is to be open to anything. Even if you don’t like it, you hear it anyway – because who knows, thirty years later, a song you thought you detested brings back fond associations of that holiday, that job, that crush, that partner, that family member who perhaps did like it.

Memories occur by accident, and it has become commonplace for professional contrarians to tut away at our reactions to celebrity deaths, as if such things are cordoned off from our real lives. It is immature, it seems, to mourn someone’s life and celebrate someone’s passing, and instead we should return to the usual ten phone-in subjects, like revisiting the same ten stale farts you once locked away in the shed. I wonder if these contrarians secretly resent that few things they say or write will be remembered in a week, let alone after they pass on. Note too that even when they do recognise someone’s death, they rarely refer to the work, merely their behaviour or that they met them. Yet the detail of pop culture is what furnishes our recall, what intersects with our own lives, and are often the elements that help to bring our missed loved ones back to life in our imaginations, momentarily perhaps, but vividly.

As we grow older, so the power of nostalgia grows with us. It unlocks your past, and often makes sense of it. It reminds you of euphoria, of despair, of a need for escape, a craving for entertainment and colour. And for George Michael to die on Christmas Day itself, when we are already at our most nostalgic thanks to family members (both present and absent), is a haunting irony.

George’s death alone evoked several specific snapshots from my own life. I thought of my dad blasting out Wham!’s ‘Freedom’ (off The Hits Album) while he was working on the bathroom and saying how great it sounded – I know you’re meant to hate your parents approving of stuff in the charts, but I’ve always believed it shows they haven’t lost interest. I also thought of buying my first compact disc player at eighteen and choosing, amongst other things, a Wham! compilation – two years after they’d split up. In turn, that CD reminded me of being thirteen, and obsessively playing their Fantastic! LP, which I borrowed off my brother – he never asked for it back. A particular favourite track on that album was ‘A Ray of Sunshine’, a joyous song emphasising the power of pop music.

At the time, thirty-three Christmases ago, I was also a fan of Thriller and The Beatles’ ‘Blue’ compilation, and how I’m now struck by how we lost important contributors to those records too in 2016. And the memories and connections don’t stop there: That time your dad helped Paul Daniels in his live act by being stuck to a chair; when you scoured record fairs seeking twelve-inch import copies of ‘Mountains’ and ‘America’; when you were traumatised by Watership Down, ‘Frankie Teardrop’ and that bit in The Deer Hunter; when you all but wore out your VHS off-air tapes of the As Seen On TV special and Fawlty Towers.

Furthermore in this tapestry: the best Willy Wonka, the first cheery weather forecaster, what the producer said to Ronnie, Hilda Ogden wishing she didn’t live at number 13, the theme tunes to Soap and Diff’rent Strokes, ‘this is the theme to Garry’s show’, ‘down down deeper and down’, ‘‘Ello darling hahahaha’, The Liver Birds, Equus, Shoot the Damn Dog, ‘Nasty Girl’, Yes Minister, Shoestring, Postman Pat and Chigley, ‘first we take Manhattan then we take Berlin’, Skating to Antarctica, Hotel du Lac, ‘you spin me right round baby right round’, Unhalfbricking, ‘September’, The Brady Bunch, ‘I Scare Myself’, Postcards from the Edge, Singin’ in the Rain, ‘Wedding Vows in Vegas’, ‘What’s the recipe today, Jim?’, ‘it’s a wonderful, wonderful life’, ‘Sound and Vision’.

Sound and vision – the fabric of our lives. Once, when a celebrity passed on, if you were lucky, you got a repeat of something they were in, or a compilation of clips. As Spitting Image once put it in a parody of TV news obituaries, ‘The scheduled episode of Quincy has been postponed, unless it was Quincy who died.’ But online interaction now means we can celebrate how moments from their lives enriched ours. Because we lived through such an extraordinary age of popular culture, because we ourselves are ageing, our presents and pasts are going to keep colliding. But it is these passions that keep us young and lively – and in an era when apparently ‘Brexit Means Brexit’ is supposedly a grown-up maxim and where a President-elect wears a fucking baseball cap, we need all the rays of sunshine we can find. If that means seeking out comedy, music, literature and cinema that warms our heart one more time, so be it.