One of my earliest recollections was looking out of the window and seeing raindrops run down the window pane. This is strange because I don’t seem to be aware of those kind of things any more. It was my first real experience of self awareness. In an instant I realised that I existed and was somehow different and apart from others. I was aware of everything that went on around me like I was some kind of observer. This was the beginning of a somewhat bemused but interested relationship with the world. A bit like William Burroughs when he said that he thought he had been sent to earth for a purpose but had forgotten what it was, I felt a sense of personal destiny which has remained a mystery and eluded me for the whole of my life. It hasn’t stopped me from searching for it though, or attempting to create situations from which it can emerge. Sometimes I even think I have fulfilled my personal destiny without even realising it. On the other hand it may be just the crazy musings of an old deluded fool who is rapidly running out of time! Even so, that idea of destiny has kept me going for years and is what led me to an interest and career in music and poetry. It also possibly explains why I have persisted for so long doing the same thing ; the gigs,writing songs and constantly seeking the perfect recording of my songs. It hasn’t really been a career at all but a search for salvation, redemption even! (Boy, I love those big ideas!). As William Blake said in his Proverbs of Hell, “If a fool persists in his folly he will become wise” and although wisdom may have escaped me I have learnt a lot from my experiences!
I was born in 1951 and grew up in a semi-detached house in Knighton, Leicester. At that time this was the posh end of what is now called Clarendon Park. Now it seems the other way round. The working class terraces of Clarendon Park now house university students and middle class professionals. This has become the posh end. Just shows how things can change in a relatively short time! It was a small house with a massive garden that resembled a jungle. It was a great place to play and have imaginative adventures and I remember it with great fondness and nostalgia. It is here I lived out my fantasies of being the Lone Ranger, Robin Hood and other heroes of screen and TV.
My mother loved music and we had a massive bakelite “wireless” (Yes, I know they’re called radios now but at the time that name was an Americanism too far! Until Elvis came along Americans weren’t that popular in England! During the 1940s it was said they were over paid, over sexed and over here! Gary Cooper was okay though.) It had an extension speaker in the next room. She liked to play it loud as she did the house work so my early years consisted of listening to light orchestral music played at a deafening level! I loved it though. It became the soundtrack of my life and was no doubt better than watching day time TV which didn’t exist then. In fact we didn’t have a TV at all until I was ten years old.
Radio was the media hub of it’s time. There were two BBC stations, the Light Programme and the Home Service, which eventually became Radio 2 and 4. Later on the Third Programme came into being where you could listen to classical music and high brow plays (now Radio 3). You could also get Radio stations from around the world by twiddling the dial. I spent many a happy hour listening to Radio Moscow and other weird and wonderful stations like Radio Ankara! Yes, globalisation is nothing new! Radio Luxemburg was the only station playing pop records interspersed with adverts. It wasn’t always clear though, it depended on the weather conditions. The Light Programme had mainly live music but their were two request shows that played records and these were hugely popular. One was the British Services request show every Sunday lunch time and the other was Children’s Favourites that went out every Saturday morning. I never missed this. It was a request show but every week virtually the same records were requested. No one seemed too mind though what with classics like Nellie the Elephant, Tubby the Tuba and a weird skiffle record about a train going through the middle of the house which always freaked me out. Glad I didn’t live in that house! The records on this show made such an impact on me that years later I bought a CD of them and inflicted them on my own children. Strangely enough, they liked them as well and now we have a shared childhood experience of wonderful songs like The Ugly Duckling, Little Red Monkey and the Emperor’s New Clothes. Wonderful stuff!
Looking back I had an idyllic childhood. TV documentaries tend to paint the 50s as a grim, austere time and certainly the industrial environment of this time can make it seem like that way as well as the smoke and smog from millions of coal fires. On the other hand, I can remember gazing for hours into the living room fire and being totally fascinated. It was a constantly changing drama and a source of inspiration. Far more interesting than most TV programmes and films. I loved the way that as the coal heated up, gas escaped and then exploded into flame. It was like looking into the centre of the Earth.
Where I lived the countryside was close by and their were many parks and green spaces. Nearby was the Wash Brook which became a favourite place full of wild things and adventure. Close too was the old church of St. Mary Magdalene where I was baptized and a derelict thatched cottage which became something of a magical playground. There was a field with horses in it. Quite an idyllic place really! Also, for someone who turned into a bit of a juvenile deliquent, I loved school (apart from one year when I hated the teacher, or more importantly, he hated me!). My favourite activity was singing and I loved the songs from “The New National Song Book” especially “John Peel” and “I’ll Go No More A Roving”. I believe that this book was put together by Cecil Sharpe and Vaughan Williams as a way of returning traditional folk song to the people. In many ways it was a patronising thing to do but I know I was not the only one who enjoyed belting them out so I think in some ways it was successful! We also sang hymns every morning and I loved them too although it led to some hilarious misinterpretations of the words e.g. I thought “There is a Green Hill Far Away” was about a road I walked past called Greenhill Road. My fertile imagination saw Jesus crucified at the end of it! Hello school psychologist, I’m not as disturbed as you think!
In many ways children had a lot of freedom in the 1950s. There was less traffic and we played outside and were quite autonomous. We were allowed to make our own decisions. At the age of eight I can remember going to the shop to buy cigarettes for my mother and nanna and from a very early age I walked to school and back on my own. The kind of anxieties that exist now didn’t occur then and there was a strong sense of community especially in the Hinckley Road area where my grandmother lived. People really looked out for each other then.
On the other hand, there wasn’t much music being played in people’s homes, at least not the ones I went to. Our next door neighbours were members of the Salvation Army and played in a brass band. They were very supportive to me when I got into playing music. Most of the people I knew didn’t play anything. I think they saw it as a luxury they couldn’t afford. If it didn’t bring money in then it wasn’t worth doing. People had time for many other hobbies though like football and fishing and lots of people went for bike rides on Sundays. You can make time for things if you want! It was also a time when the media organisations had an even bigger stranglehold than now. The BBC and later ITV dictated what people listened to and watched. It was virtually a monopoly of culture in which the consumers had no say in what happened. This was also true of cinema. It was the environment that Theodore Adorno wrote about in “The Culture Industry” in which he sees media coverage as one of the main ways of controlling society and people’s thoughts. Propaganda in other words. This reached a perverted kind of perfection in advertising and the growth of independent television. The adverts were more persuasive and better made than any of the programmes! They were also not really selling products but a life style. They were telling people what they should be doing and thinking and what they should have! It’s interesting that George Orwell based “The Ministry of Truth” (an organisation dedicated to lies and propaganda) in “1984” on the time he worked at the BBC. At the same time, many popular TV shows at the time ( like “I Love Lucy” and “Bewitched”) shamelessly promoted a consumerist, capitalistic life style based on the nuclear family. A recipe for total conformity in a “clean” home full of electronic gadgets!
By the time I left Avenue Road Junior School pop music was making an impact. “Pick of the Pops” was a programme that appeared on the radio on Sunday afternooons playing the Top 40. I still didn’t have a record player nor could I afford to buy records but they started having an impact on me. Favourites included “Telstar”, “Apache”, “Sheila” and “Wooden Heart”. It was at this time I learnt a skill I thought everyone had but now realise they don’t. I could memorise a whole record and play it back in my head, I mean all of it not just the tune. At times I even managed to “improve” on it and prefered my “virtual” version to the original.
The raison d’etre of the pop music industry was to create disposable music in the true spirit of consumerism. Kids were expected to buy a record, listen to it, throw it away and buy a new one. What they didn’t factor in was that they didn’t throw them away. They became valued artifacts and inspired a generation to start creating their own music. This was the beginning of a new era of creativity for those who had previously been excluded from the media circus (which, in reality, was virtually everyone). This leads on to the next period of my life. Secondary school and the wonderful 1960s, a period when briefly everything seemed possible and when I decided to become a musician.