Saturday, January 14, 2012

A musical youth

We weren't exactly a 'musical family': nobody played an instrument - although my mother used to sing a lot around the house, and I had a favourite cousin who played acoustic guitar for a bit in his teens. But there was not really any live music in my home environment. However, my parents had been busy acquirers of records at a certain stage of their lives: they had some hundreds of 45 rpm singles (very middle-of-the-road stuff, for the most part), and a few dozen albums (mostly film musical soundtracks - the entire Rodgers & Hammerstein songbook is probably hardwired into a remote corner of my brain). They seemed to have got out of this stage by the time I achieved consciousness: it was nearly all 1960s stuff. I hardly recall them buying anything in the 1970s; I used to buy them records.

I obviously had some affinity for music from an early age. When I was about 2 or 3 years old, we lived for a while with one of my grandmothers (the English one rather than the German one) who had an old upright piano in her parlour: I would 'play' that for hours at a time. HOURS. It must have sounded bloody awful, but I think I have probably never tasted such a pure and perfect happiness in my life since.

Within another couple of years, I had mastered the operation of my parents' big Pye Radiogram, and would spend whole afternoons working my way through their record collection (and getting my first taste of building playlists, since there was a stack-and-play feature which enabled you to pile 6 or 8 discs on the spindle at once, to be dropped on to the turntable in succession).

I was also fortunate, I suppose, to have a brother who was nearly 7 years older than me. That gave me some access to contemporary music that my parents would never bother with, and that would ordinarily have been outside the consciousness of someone so young. I disliked most of it at the time - or pretended to, to maintain the required levels of sibling antagonism. But I found a lot of it growing on me through repeated exposure, and after a while I began secretly playing some of my favourites from among his albums whenever he was out of the house. He it was who gave me my first taste of Queen, Pink Floyd, and Deep Purple. The strangely discomforting tinted pyramid poster from Dark Side Of The Moon was on his bedroom wall for several years (a bedroom that I shared with him for a year or two). I also remember being deeply disturbed by the burning man photograph on the inner sleeve art for Wish You Were Here (I was only 7 or 8 at the time). The bro had broader - and better - tastes than most kids his age, I think. He ignored most of the pop and rock fads of the early '70s, and concentrated on heavy rock. He even delved back a little into the past, collecting some classic late-60s stuff that he would have been just a bit too young for when it first came out: Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival were two of his other most important introductions to me.

But I didn't fully 'get' rock music for quite a while. It was an intermittent, and somewhat shamefaced pleasure - since my parents strongly disapproved, and none of my friends at school seemed to have any interest in it either. Punk happened just a bit too early - and too far away - for me. I admired the energy and iconoclasm of The Sex Pistols, but didn't really grasp their context or significance. (It took us 4 or 5 years to catch up: in the early '80s, I played the Malcolm McLaren role to a bunch of fellow 6th Formers, goading them into forming a band called Ded Lemming, and writing a number of songs for them [The only ones I remember now were called Tortoise In My Head and Don't Put Kitty In The Microwave - they might be worth a little post of their own at some point!]. It was a short-lived venture. By that time, punk was pretty much dead, and its memory being drowned in the first waves of synth-pop.) Jazz I knew only a little from TV, mostly from old movies (I think my parents had a token album or two of Louis Armstrong, and some Acker Bilk - a British jazz clarinetist who had broken through to 'easy listening' fame in the 1960s). Blues - destined to become my favourite thing - I'd hardly heard at all in my childhood.

No, the soundtrack of my schooldays was almost exclusively classical music. I used to wake up every morning with BBC Radio 3 (nothing knocks the drowsiness out of you quite like the William Tell Overture... which I'm sure was on the early morning show at least once almost every week!). And when I joined a mail order record club in the 6th Form, it was exclusively classical LPs that I bought; my 'introductory offer' purchase being the Tchaikovsky and Mendelsohn violin concertos, Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite, Bizet's Suites from Carmen and L'Arlesienne, and Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. I bought myself a boxed set of Beethoven symphonies (Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic) for my 18th birthday, and "prepared" for my Oxford admission interviews by lying on my back in the living room and staring at the ceiling in a trance for hours at a time, while I listened to all 9 of them back to back... every day for about a week. (It seemed to work!)

I listened to a lot of Radio 4 as well (I think radio used to play a bigger part in our lives than TV back in the 1970s and early 1980s; I wonder if that's been lost now, with the explosion of digital music and the Internet?), and had encountered Tom Lehrer through the wonderful comedy anthology show Frank Muir Goes Into... He soon became another of my great enthusiasms. As did Instant Sunshine, a British comedy quartet who produced some fantastically witty and jaunty songs, and had their own Radio 4 series for a number of years. (Still going strong today, although one of the original members dropped out a decade or so ago.) The first book order I placed at Blackwell's, the venerable and rather stuffy university bookshop at Oxford, was for The Instant Sunshine Book (With Hints For Struggling Supergroups). I wonder if I still have that somewhere.

And then on TV, there was Neil Innes, whose spoof Beatles rockumentary The Rutles (All You Need Is Cash) is the 'Lost Ark' of television comedy (the music has all been reissued on CD, but, as far as I know, the film only ever aired once, and has not been released on DVD). Much the same fate befell The Innes Book of Records, a brilliant series of song pastiches accompanied by often surreal videos (was there not one of Frankenstein's monster in traditional Scottish dress doing a tippy-toe dance over crossed swordfish in a cave beside the sea? or did I just imagine that??). Two six-part series were made in the late '70s, and it was one of the great joys of my childhood; but it has rarely been seen since, as a result of a bitter rights dispute between Innes and the BBC.

In the 6th Form, my musical tastes had just started to branch out a little, tentatively, sporadically. A few of my friends had begun to unearth more 'obscure' stuff from the past few years: we'd play these new discoveries to each other in our studies, and share taped copies (home taping supported live music, you fools!!). The early ZZ Top albums were the one find that I remember from that phase, though; the song Fool For Your Stockings lodged in my brain particularly persistently. I suppose this - and occasional doses of Dr Feelgood - was my first sustained exposure to the blues; although I probably didn't realise that's what it was at the time.

Of course, it was only when I went up to university that things really exploded. It was only then that... a) I first met a whole bunch of people who were very nearly as musically omnivorous as I was, and b) I acquired a record-player of my own for the first time. Thereafter, mainly thanks to the miracle of the 'bargain bin', I was for a few years purchasing well over 100 albums a year.

And THAT is how my music tastes came to be as eclectic and diverse as this (a discussion of 'obscure gems' on another blog), and this (today's Song Lyrics Quiz on Froogville).

There is one further key element in the development of my enthusiasm for music: I was born in Hereford and grew up in Monmouth. Only a handful of musicians and music nerds are likely to grasp the significance of that. I think it deserves another post all of its own; so, I'll keep you in suspense for a little while. Be patient.


Gary said...

Interesting story. I guess you don't get so much variety of radio play in England. Out here we've got stations playing every kind of music. My dad didn't have a lot of records, but he played classic rock stations the whole time. So I grew up with Zeppelin, Skynyrd, The Who, CCR.

Froog said...

There was a fair bit of that stuff on the radio in the UK too, especially BBC Radio 1 - but that just wasn't part of the soundtrack of my life when I was growing up. My parents didn't listen to it, my schoolmates didn't listen to it (not at school, at any rate). The only public venue I can remember where I heard the radio was my dentist's surgery, and that played the more 'easy listening' Radio 2 station.

When I got to university, I discovered that in many environments Radio 1 was on constantly: in many factories and workshops, even some offices and shops; in many of my fellow students bedrooms; in some cheap cafes, and a few pubs; and in delivery vans and so on. In smalltown rural England, that didn't seem to happen. Or I just didn't notice it.