Thursday, 17 August 2017

My Top ∞ Radio Songs #15: The Saturday Boy

My first job then: answering the phones and making coffee on the Saturday morning show, 9 till 12.

A few things to say about that. First the phones. Nowadays, presenters can operate the switchboard from the same desk they drive the music and mics. Back then, the switchboard was in another room, grandly monickered MCR... no, not My Chemical Romance, but Master Control Room. Which makes it sound like something out of a Bond film... when actually, it was far more Thunderbirds.

I will talk about answering the phone in much more detail soon, since it became a big part of my job when I started working on the late night Phone-In show. I will also talk about MCR in much more detail, since I spent quite a bit of time in there over the years... just me and the ghost. (Oh yes, we will talk about the ghost.) I may even dig out some old photos from the attic to give you more of a flavour of the place. Orange hessian is all you're getting today.

That first switchboard didn't last long. I suspect by 1988, it'd served its time well. It may even have been in there since the station opened in '75. Big clunky buttons you had to force down with your thumb to put the caller on hold. Tiny red flashing LEDs. A phone with a long, long cord. Yes, kids, phones used to have cords. You don't know you're born. It was soon replaced by an ultra-modern white plastic one with both red AND green LEDs. The future truly arrived once I started working in radio.

And then the coffee. I'm not sure I'd ever made anyone coffee before I started working in radio. I'd certainly never drunk it. Although my dad, in later years, became quite the coffee aficionado, I don't remember him drinking when I was a kid, and my mum certainly didn't. We were a house of tea drinkers. How the hell was I supposed to make coffee? I remember the girl who I was replacing had to show me that. Boil the kettle. A spoonful of Nescafe. Powdered milk. Stir it or the bits won't dissolve. Eventually the station got a fridge and real milk. That made my job so much easier. And when the vending machine arrived... well, for a while I thought it was going to make me redundant. I had tremendous sympathy for the Luddites, smashing those looms. How we all marvelled at the vending machine. It even had a button for Beef Tea! 

(Don't. Just don't. Gravy: yes. Beef Tea: never. Bovril, this was not.)

I didn't drink coffee till I started working in radio. It was working nights that got me started. I didn't drink alcohol either. I know, pretty unusual for a 16 year old, even in 1988, but I was stubborn. If I saw all my mates running towards something, I ran the opposite way just to be contrary. Remember, I was the kid who steadfastly refused to get into The Smiths, just because my mate kept telling me I'd love them. 

The alcohol came later as well.

In 1988, I was in that weird hinterland between childhood and adulthood. (Of course, when I look at the average 16 year old now, I realise how far away adulthood really was. At 45... I'm still waiting.) Coffee, alcohol, scenes of a sexual nature... all these things lay ahead of me. And radio would give them all to me... and not, on the whole, for the best.

The clearest memory I have of this being a major crossroads in my life was the Saturday morning I had to go into work late because I had a piano exam. (The jock forgot I'd told him the week before I was going to be late, so the first half hour of his show was, "Where the hell is Rol?") It's weird though... In my memory, piano lessons were something I did as a kid. Radio was something I did as an adult. But there was a time when both existed simultaneously. Hard to comprehend now.

15. The Loose Salute - Turn Your Radio Up

It's also hard to comprehend Slowdive & Mojave 3 drummer Ian McCutcheon forming a band that sounds like The Loose Salute: jangly West Coast Americana and quite lovely too.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

My Top Ten Elvis Songs

One of my earliest memories is of my mum crying as she closed the living room door, leaving me in the kitchen wondering why. That was 40 years ago today. I was five years old and I'm not sure I knew who Elvis was, but it wasn't long before I found out.

This memory is significant to me for many reasons, but mainly because (as I've mentioned before) my parents come from the generation pre-rock 'n' roll. Born in the late 1920s, the music of their teens was Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller. My mum would be 28 by the time Elvis had his first UK hit, and 28 was at least 38 back then. Rock 'n' roll didn't pass my parents by, they just never tried to catch it. Why would they? It was music aimed at teenagers, made by people a lot younger than them. But Elvis dying still made my mum cry, because he was bigger than any star we could imagine today. He was beyond a legend. And though there will no doubt be a lot written today about how he stole rock 'n' roll and turned it white, about how Colonel Tom stopped his reaching his true potential, about how he grew old and bloated and lonely and tragic... even though he was only 42 when he died... I prefer to remember the good, because it far outweighs the bad.

When I started raiding my sister's record collection, one of the albums I listened to a lot was this...

When I started buying albums myself, it didn't take me long to pick up this...

A few years later, I splashed out on these three box sets...

...and each time, I played them to death. Far more than I'd listen to any new purchase these days.

All that said, the idea of picking only ten Elvis songs seems beyond daunting. Let's give it ago anyway...

10. Party

The only Elvis song I've ever performed in public.

Back in high school, I liked to tread the boards a little. Our most memorable production was a comedy pantomime of Robin Hood. Of course, I wanted to play Robin... but I ended up as Little John. I was never fated to be a dashing, romantic lead. My mate Simon got Robin, some 8 years after he beat me to the title role in our junior school production of Tom Sawyer (I played Huckleberry Finn: arguably the better role, but not the one with his name on the programme).

Anyway, the best bit about getting to play Little John was that I got to close the first act with a musical number, singing Party by Elvis. (I know: why wasn't this on the soundtrack of the Kevin Costner film? So much better than Bryan Adams.) It wasn't an Elvis number I knew at the time, and it's from his least-celebrated phase - those duff movies Colonel Tom kept getting him to make in the 60s - but it always brings back happy memories. I didn't actually sing it live - our teacher / director just played the song out over the speakers and I did my best Top of the Pops-style mime over the top. I did sing... you just couldn't hear me over Elvis. Which was probably for the best. Particularly as this was pre-internet and lyrics sheets were hard to come by on Elvis albums. But when I wasn't sure of the words, I just lapsed into my well-honed Elvis mumble. Actually, having checked out the original Wanda Jackson lyrics online, I'm not sure Elvis knew them that well either. He still made them work.

Of course, none of this made up for missing out on the chance to snog Maid Marian... or go out with her, after the show was done, for the next 6 months, as Simon did.  But... at least I had Elvis.

9. An American Trilogy

The Vegas years are much-mocked.

Because people are idiots.

Elvis sweat bullets and blood up on that stage, and turned these old Civil War tunes into operas.

8. Always On My Mind

Yeah, the Pet Shop Boys cover is pretty amazing. But just listen to this again. I mean, really listen to it. My god, it's perfect.

7. Jailhouse Rock

 Look in the dictionary under rock 'n' roll: there should be a link to this song.

6. Suspicious Minds

Following his career-saving '68 Comeback TV special, Elvis returned to the studio to record some of his most affecting songs. Three of the songs on this list were recorded in that session, another (Don't Cry, Daddy) narrowly missed out. There was magic in Memphis that day.

5. In The Ghetto

Of course, there's an irony about one of the richest and most successful men in the world recording a song about ghetto poverty... but this is hardly Another Day In Paradise. It's all down to the performance. To sing a song like this, you need sincerity. Elvis had sincerity by the bucketload and it wasn't an act.

4. Heartbreak Hotel

One of the first Elvis songs I loved, from his earliest days in the studio. We all like to think of rock 'n' roll as being about cadillacs and bobby socks, milkshakes, bubble gum and jukeboxes. Here's one about depression and suicide, and a rock song where the primary instrument is not the guitar, but Elvis's voice. Sends shivers down my spine, every time I hear it.

3. Kentucky Rain

Written and originally recorded by 70s country star Eddie Rabbit, this one just breaks me up every time I hear it. Elvis at his most devastating.

2. Guitar Man

I probably came to this via the Jesus & Mary Chain version. Which is truly excellent... but can't quite match the original.

The alternative take above (which was on the 60s box set) which switches into the song What'd I Say at the end, was apparently Elvis's preferred version as he was never happy with the single as released.

1. (Marie's The Name) His Latest Flame

Why this one song, above all others? Primarily, it's the sound. An upbeat (Bo Diddley-inspired) backing track and intense vocals, masking a tale of heartbreak... much as the hero of the song hides his own feelings from the friend who's unknowingly copped off his with ex. A classic Doc Pomus lyrical conceit. (I have Ben Folds & Nick Hornby to thank for my mild Doc Pomus obsession: he led a sad, if interesting life.)

And then came Johnny Marr and Morrissey, making this song even more essential...

Elvis Aaron Presley. 40 years gone: never forgotten
Which is your crowning moment from The King?

Oh, and I just remembered this... My Top Ten Songs About Elvis. Worth another plug.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

New Entry: Tense, Nervous Jason?

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the new Jason Isbell album continues down the same alt-country path as his previous record (one of the best albums of 2015), Something More Than Free. He has, after all, called the new one The Nashville Sound... I mean, you don't get more country than that, right?

Imagine your surprise then, when you discover that Isbell has chosen instead to craft a flawless ROCK album, still country flavoure, but with a heart of SOLID ROCK. And that heart is Anxiety, the 7 minute lynchpin that holds the whole record together. Make no mistake, this song is a BEAST. It is ROCK that DEMANDS CAPITAL LETTERS. Even though the majority of it is a mid-tempo country song, it's bookended by power chords that will rattle your speakers and make your heart jump out of your chest. Nobody's done something so interesting - and apt - with the whole loud-quiet-loud mix since Kurt Cobain compared his libido to a mosquito. Very appropriate for a song on this particular subject...
Why am I never where I am supposed to be?
Even with my lover sleeping close to me
I'm wide awake and I'm in pain
Anxiety is a weird thing. I can stand up in front of a class of 30 strangers and feel supremely at ease. Other situations though, much smaller things, can make me feel panicky and desperate. And as most of us know, there's nothing worse than the anxiety that hits you in the middle of the night. I've talked about that before. Time to seek out The Peace Of Wild Things... 


Sunday, 13 August 2017

My Top 90 Midlife Crisis Songs #1: Forever Young

Here comes another new feature (this was "How I Spent My Summer Vacation")...

Having turned 45 earlier this year, I straight away went out and bought myself a Lamborghini, chatted up the 18 year old on the Tesco checkout, and started using Just For Men on my sideburns. OK, I didn't do any of those things: but I did stare down the ever-darkening tunnel of my own mortality and wonder if I could hear any songs there. (Actually, something I did do was book myself in at the Ear, Nose & Throat clinic to finally get myself checked for a hearing aid. The songs do keep getting quieter.)

Anyway, I decided to start featuring some of my favourite songs about getting older. Will I get to 90? Well, that's the question every 45 year old must ponder...

For those of you who think I'm still a whippersnapper at 45, I'm starting with Neil Young. Recorded in 1972 when I was just getting born and Neil was 27 (despite pretending that he's still 24 in the lyrics: he was lying about his age even before he hit 30!). Having just spent his riches on a huge ranch in the country, he wrote this song for the old caretaker who asked him how such a young fellow could afford such a place. "Just lucky, I guess," was Neil's response...
Old man take a look at my life
I'm a lot like you
I need someone to love me
The whole day through
Ah, one look in my eyes
And you can tell that's true.
James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt are kicking around in the background of this song, but those two pretty much lived in the recording studio in the early 70s.

This series will get more personal as it goes along. You may want to look away now.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Glorious 10th


This is my new monthly feature, stolen  from the guys at WYCRA who aren't using it anymore (with respect and the encouragement of a number of former WYCRA readers).

Following on from my WYCRA tribute Top Ten Goodbye Songs, the most obvious place to start was with My Top Ten Hello Songs.

I decided to do this once a month, and it made sense to do it on the 10th day of every month, hence 'The Glorious 10th'. So you have up till the 10th of September (or just before) to leave your suggestions.

Here are the rules...

1. You can suggest as many songs as you like that are called Hello, but they have to be called JUST Hello and nothing else... so you can't have Hello Goodbye or Hello, I Love You, and you can't have songs that feature Hello prominently in the lyrics, such as Pop Song '89 by REM. Sorry.

2. There are a few exceptions to Rule 1. You are allowed a repetition of the title word: so if you know any songs called Hello Hello or Hello Hello Hello, you can suggest them. You are also allowed songs which included parentheses: so if you know a song called Hello (I Hate You) or (I Just Called To Say) Hello, they would be allowed too... as long as every other word in the title is inside the brackets. I will also allow plurals: Hellos; and punctuation: Hello!? Chances are none of these rules will help you this time, but they may in future. Mis-spellings probably won't be allowed unless I really, really like the song. Sorry, Noddy.

3. If there are a number of versions of the same song, I may not pick the original. If you guess the right song but not the right artist, you'll get half marks (1 for first to guess, half for everyone else).

4. You will be allowed a maximum of 10 guesses, since I only have ten songs. I'll count your first 10, after that no points will be awarded.

5. Points will be awarded thus:
  • 1 point for every song in my Top Ten you correctly guess.
  • 2 points for being the first person to guess that song.
  • 3 points for guessing the song's position in my Top Ten.
  • 5 points for guessing my Number One song and correctly identifying it as such.
  • 1 bonus point for any song I have in my collection which I couldn't squeeze into the Top Ten.
  • 1 bonus point for any new songs you suggest which I like.
  • Points will be deducted for really bad suggestions (i.e. U2).

Over to you...







4. If anybody gets Number 4, I'll give you 10 points.




Good luck.

Here's the best song that wasn't allowed...

And finally, just in case there was any doubt about it: yes, I will go there.

Hello, I must be going...

P.S. I just noticed that Jez finally brought The Chain late last night. Must be something in the air.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

My Top Ten Glen Campbell Songs

I'm not sure I can do Glen Campbell justice. I'll let his good friend, songwriting God Jimmy Webb, say it for me...

"One of [Glen's] favourite songs was “Try A Little Kindness” in which he sings “shine your light on everyone you see.” My God. Did he do that or what? Just thinking back I believe suddenly that the “raison d’etre” for every Glen Campbell show was to bring every suffering soul within the sound of his voice up a peg or two. Leave ’em laughin.’ Leave them feeling just a little tad better about themselves; even though he might have to make them cry a couple of times to get ’em there. What a majestically graceful and kind, top rate performer was Glen on his worst night!"

I was lucky enough to see Glen Campbell play live on his farewell tour in 2011.It wasn't his worst night, but it could hardly be described as his best. He forgot a few lines, fumbled a few guitar chords. The illness was obviously affecting him. Yet it was still one of the most powerful and memorable performances I've ever had the privilege to see. At the end, he got a standing ovation... and there were tears in all our eyes.

There will be a lot written today about Glen Campbell's contribution to popular music. Not just the big hits, but his guitar work for the Beach Boys, the Monkees, Elvis et al. (Although don't let anyone tell you Glen played guitar on Viva Las Vegas: it's a myth.) There's very little I can add, except to say that whenever I heard a Glen Campbell song, I feel a little better. And whenever I hear the ones listed below... I feel a hell of a lot better.

(Oh, and if you're still in any doubt about Glen Campbell's importance in popular music... here's Alice Cooper. Yes, Alice Cooper.)

10. Country Boy (You Got Your Feet In L.A.)

I didn't pay a lot of attention to this song until I saw Glen play it live. It obviously meant a hell of a lot to him and that performance made me hear the lyrics properly for the first time.

I'm a country boy myself. I grew up on a farm. There's a part of me that would happily spend all day in the fields... minus the manual labour, of course.

9.  A Thousand Lifetimes

Glen's most-loved songs were all written by other people. Like Elvis, it was his voice, his performance, that brought untold depths to those songs. Plus he was an amazing guitar player - that was still evident when I saw him live. He did write and co-write a number of his own songs though, and this is my favourite, from one of his most recent albums, Ghost On The Canvas. Co-written with his producer, Julian Raymond, it's a song that expresses Glen's fears of living with the illness that blighted his final years, but it also cries "je ne regrette rien" in the face of all that. As powerful in its own way as the latter Johnny Cash recordings.

I've held onto coal in my bare hands, prayin' for diamonds
I've trusted in the words that to my face turned out were lying
I've trapped and I have tripped and I have loved and I've abandoned
Each breath I take is a gift that I will never take for granted

8. Dreams of the Everyday Housewife

There are plenty of country songs about women getting older, losing their girlish charms, and wondering whether they ended up with the right man. They're normally sung (and even written) by women though. Chris Gantry's song manages to find a male perspective that is both loving and respectful though. Glen's performance makes it shine.

She picks up her apron in little girl-fashion
As something comes into her mind
Slowly starts dancing remembering her girlhood
And all of the boys she had waiting in line
Oh, such are the dreams of the everyday housewife
You see everywhere any time of the day
An everyday housewife who gave up the good life for me

7. These Days

In his later years, Glen tried to connect with younger audiences by recording songs by contemporary artists. Although not as successful at this as Johnny Cash, there were some outstanding results, including Green Day's Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) and Foo Fighters' Times Like These. But it was his cover of Jackson Browne's These Days which stood out most for me. Not the most up-to-date tune from the set; it was written when Browne was 16... back in 1967. The lyrics take on much greater depth when sung by someone nearing the end of their life.

I stopped my rambling
I don't do too much gambling these days
These days
These days I seem to think about
How all the changes came about my way
And I wonder if I'll see another

Interestingly, the verse above is missing from Browne's recording. It did feature on Nico's version though.

6. Where's The Playground, Susie?

More epic heartbreak from Jimmy Webb, close in its lyrical ambiguity to McArthur Park. Glen's voice was made for heartbreak in the same way as Roy Orbison's.

5. Galveston

A song as misunderstood as Born In The USA, according to Jimmy Webb. Originally written with a much sadder tune, Glen turned it upbeat, making it seem almost patriotic... rather than the homesick fears reflected by the soldier in Webb's lyrics. The switch works though. For me, this guy is doing whatever he can to survive. It's still an anti-war protest song... it just doesn't hit you over the head with its message.

4. By The Time I Get To Phoenix

Glen leaves his lady and crosses the country to get away from her... feeling bad about it all the way.

Pedants ahoy! Jimmy Webb was challenged about how realistic the journey described in this song's lyrics actually was...

 "A guy approached me one night after a concert [...] and he showed me how it was impossible for me to drive from L.A. to Phoenix, and then how far it was to Albuquerque. In short, he told me, 'This song is impossible.' And so it is. It's a kind of fantasy about something I wish I would have done, and it sort of takes place in a twilight zone of reality."

Iffypedia, however, sides with Jimmy (while disputing his above claim)...

"However, the drive is actually possible. If she "rises" at 6:00 a.m. when he is in Phoenix, and she eats lunch at 12:30 p.m. when he is in Albuquerque, it gives him six and one-half hours to make the 420-mile drive, an average of 65 mph. The drive from Albuquerque to Oklahoma is just 340 miles, giving her plenty of time to get home and go to sleep."

Talk about taking the romance out of a song...

3. Gentle On My Mind

I think I knew Elvis's version of this song first, and that is amazing... but Glen's is superior. It's a desperately sad song if you study the lyrics, but the light guitar refrain makes it sound carefree and joyous. It's a weird song in search of a chorus: I always feel an urge to break into the much bigger chorus of Don MacLean's Castles In The Air whenever I sing along.

Watch the clip above if you're in any doubt about Glen's skills with the guitar.

2. Rhinestone Cowboy

I'm not sure how the wider world sees Rhinestone Cowboy. It is the most well-known Glen Campbell song, but it's viewed by many as a country cliché and isn't afforded half as much respect in muso circles as my number one. Written by Larry Weiss, the man who also penned the lyrics to the similarly themed Hi Ho Silver Lining, it's a song about not giving up and making the most of whatever success that comes your way.

And I dream of the things I'll do
With a subway token and a dollar tucked inside my shoe
There'll be a load of compromisin'
On the road to my horizon
But I'm gonna be where the lights are shinin' on me

1. Wichita Lineman

The greatest song ever written, given its best ever performance. That opening guitar countdown sends shivers down my spine every time.

I've written about how much Wichita Lineman means to me before... here and here... I'm sure I will again. Jimmy Webb + Glen Campbell = Perfection.

I hear you singing in the wire
I can hear you thru the whine
And the Wichita lineman
Is still on the line...

Rest in peace, sir. Thank you for the music.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

My Top ∞ Radio Songs #14: My First Boss - No Static At All

My first boss may have damaged me for life, by leading me to have unrealistic expectations of what bosses should be like. He was a human being for a start, humorous and generous, and although from time to time he did have to lay the law down, you always felt like he didn't want to have to do it. Almost like it pained him to do so. He was encouraging and supportive and helped me quickly progress from volunteering to an actual paid job. He virtually found a job for me where there wasn't one and gave me opportunities to develop my skills in all areas of the business... although looking back, I could have made more of those opportunities.

He wore a suit which was slightly too big for him and had huge square spectacles which made him very easy to cartoon. He had an unusual voice for radio which was often mimicked by the staff (myself included) but he indulged us. He wore bright red, patent leather boots, and if anyone ever asked him about them, he replied...

"The suit says 'management'... the shoes say ROCK 'n' ROLL!"

On occasion, I would co-present shows with him. I did this with a variety of jocks during my first few years: we'll get onto that. He played it mostly straight, I went for the sarcastic retorts. (Yes, I was Sidekick Simon.) He used to make out that he thought I was going to take a joke too far, get worried, fade me out in case I said something I shouldn't. I'd play up to that. An example: one time, I was complaining on air about another driver who'd cut me up on the way to work. I made out like I was going to read out the guy's registration number on air. The boss feigned panic and started the next record. It was a good routine.

I remember one time I was co-presenting a late show with him and he'd come up with a suitably banal phone-in competition called 'What's In My Brain'. It was very Partridge, long before Partridge was a thing, but knowingly so. He gave cryptic clues and people had to call in and guess what he was thinking about. The prizes were shit. A key-ring, a CD you'd never heard of from the chuck-out box, a car sticker. The switchboard glowed red hot. People liked that sort of thing back then. It was cheesy, but it was real. Nothing slick. The only clue I remember was something about 'Is there gas in my car?' I didn't get it myself at the time. Neither did many of the listeners. Kid Charlemagne hadn't even been a hit... 15 years earlier. Was it even a single in the UK? Somebody guessed it pretty quick though and we moved on to the next question.

14. Steely Dan - FM (No Static At All) 

When I started in radio, FM was still quite a big deal. A lot of people still called it VHF, and a lot of listeners still tuned in on Medium Wave (A.M.). But that would change very quickly. FM was taking over and radio was changing with it... 

I've never seen the movie FM, which Steely Dan wrote this track for. I'd like to, because it sounds right up my street: a bunch of rebel DJs fighting the sales people who want to turn radio commercial. Just like Rex Bob Lowenstein who started this series off. It's a theme I will return to again and again and again...
Worry the bottle Mamma, it's grapefruit wine
Kick off your high heel sneakers, it's party time
The girls don't seem to care what's on
As long as it plays till dawn
Nothin' but blues and Elvis
And somebody else's favorite song...
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