INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
‘SMALL TOWN, BIG ADVENTURES’
The first record I fell in love with was ‘On the Street Where You Live’. My parents had the Cast Recording E.P. of ‘My Fair Lady’ and I discovered this lyrical gem one afternoon going through the pile of discs by the record player. I would have been about four or five and instantly was taken by the internal rhymes in lines like ‘I have often walked down the street before/But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.’ I played the track over and over again until I knew it off by heart. The singer had a gorgeously rich deep baritone and I wanted to be the one he waited each day for under those lilac trees.
The first record I bought was Elvis Presley’s ‘It’s Now or Never’. It would have been late 1960, and I found it at the Bury Market record stall while out shopping with my mum. I’d never heard it before but wanted to buy a single. At least, I wanted my mum to buy me a single! I liked his name, it sounded very odd and oddly appealing. I’d never heard of anyone called ‘Elvis’ before. When I played it back at home I adored his voice, it was so majestic and in control. His earlier stuff had gone by me unnoticed. In fact, Rock ’n’ Roll had no impact on me whatsoever. For one thing, I didn’t hear much of it. Pop radio in Britain hadn’t got going, and though we got our first TV in 1957 there was little pop music on there, and any there had been, such as Jack Good’s ‘Oh Boy!’ would have aired long after I was tucked up in bed. Even if I had heard anything remotely rock ’n’ roll, I was too young to identify with it or understand the social and musical revolution it had caused in the 1950s. To this day, the genre leaves me stone cold. Rather like the Blues does.
I didn’t know who Buddy Holly was until I saw his name in the writer’s credit brackets for ‘Words of Love’ on the sleeve of ‘Beatles For Sale’, which my sister got for Christmas ’64. (Holly), it read. I had no idea if this was a girl’s Christian name or a boy’s surname.
“Buddy Holly died five years ago,” Susan told me with great authority.
I assumed he must have been very old.
Our house in the late ’50s and early ’60s had been full of Cliff Richard singles. ‘Gee Whiz It’s You’, ‘The Young Ones’, ‘Living Doll’, ‘High Class Baby’, ‘Theme For A Dream’, ‘Dynamite’. Sue and her friends, in multi-coloured headbands and Sweetheart Swing dresses, would pick each record up and dance across the room singing the opening lines to each other. Susan would stack the records on her pink and grey Dansette turntable, her beehive and kiss curls bobbing up and down as she and her pals hand-jived round the sitting-room. Each 45 wowed more than the last as they slipped around on top of each other, but the girls were oblivious. They bopped happily around to the wowing sounds of their Brylcreemed hero, kissing his smiling laminated face and giggling naughtily.
One of their games as the singles played was standing in a circle and seeing who could keep their hoola-hoop going the longest. I did try having a go once but quickly got a stitch, much to everyone’s amusement. The Cliff Club, as the girls called themselves, was their secret society for which membership to me was never offered. I was an under-age onlooker to their go-go-daddy-o fun.
I did have one personal Cliff favourite, ‘The Shrine On The Second Floor’, from his ‘Expresso Bongo’ E.P., which I’d play on my own when Sue was out. It sounded so exotic, the words telling of this ‘grey-haired Madonna’ who lived there, ‘the face of this lady of grace on the shrine on the second floor.’ It was surreal and otherworldly. I’d lie on the floor and try to imagine this ‘shrine’. In my mind it was carpeted with soft purple wall-to-wall and had shiny lifts on every floor out of which beautifully dressed couples would wander, smile at each other and disappear down the softly-lit corridor which smelt of polish and spring flowers. I’d discuss it with my imaginary friend, Barbara, and she would agree with me that, one day, we would visit it and say hello to the grey-haired Madonna.
Sue stayed loyal to Cliff right up to early ’63. But once The Beatles shot to the top of the charts with ‘Please Please Me’ he was ditched. All we then heard in the house were the exciting raw strains of ‘From Me To You’ and ‘She Loves You’. She was enthralled with The Fab Four, especially Paul, who’d she’d scream at in the front room whenever the group were on TV, which in 1963 seemed like every night. Her love affair with everything Beatles extended to a Beatles wig, Beatles boots, Beatles stickers on her school satchel, even Beatles wallpaper (which I now wish we’d peeled off carefully and saved rather than getting my parents to steam it off when Sue got married in 1965 and left home, bequeathing her larger bedroom to me).
The British pop explosion that year meant the scene was blown wide open for a lot of new names to suddenly start selling a lot of singles, and because many of them came from the North-West of England it had an even greater impact for me and my friends. It felt very local and as though they belonged to us, in a way that American pop stars never could. Even at ten years old, I knew something was happening. I have a really clear memory of seeing a school friend combing his crew cut down with water, trying to get a fringe and singing ‘I’ll send it along with love from me to you,’ bobbing his head around like Paul and George did on Thank Your Lucky Stars.
In January 1964, Top Of The Pops started. It helped burgeoning pop fans like me to tune in every week to the latest hits by The Hollies, The Searchers, The Rolling Stones, Cilla Black, Sandie Shaw and Dusty Springfield. I was fascinated each week to see where a single had risen or fallen to. My love of lists, which I’ve had all my life, was satiated beautifully with great music into the bargain. I liked especially the wondrous drama-pop platters like ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, ‘Always Something There To Remind Me’ and ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ , while on the solo male front I was actually keener on the few American acts still dominating the charts.
P. J. Proby was a particular favourite. He was my first pop star crush. While Sue shrieked at The Beatles I secretly lusted after P.J. Well, lust is probably too strong a word at that age. It was more a feeling that I wanted this man to literally ‘Hold Me’. I would imagine myself in his arms as I watched him leap around in front of the cameras in his blue velvet suit, tight velvet pants and cute little pony tail.
“He looks daft!” my sister would yell as I got closer to the TV to watch his every move.
“He does not!” I said.
(“He looks gorgeous!” I thought).
Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison were the Kings of Drama Pop in 1964, and anything they released had me spending my pocket money down the record shop in Bury Centre. Their big doomy echoey ballads with tortured tales of love lost and broken hearts would boom out in my listening booth at Javelin Records, door shut, staring faces ignored, as I mimed happily away to each purchase. Heaven.
On holiday in Torquay in the summer of ’65, my friend Anthony and I would listen to Radio Luxembourg every night in our room on my little transistor radio. Even with the signal fading in and out, the station played some of the best pop music around. We fell in love with a new one which had just come out, ‘I Got You Babe.’ Fab 208 played it at least three times a night. We learnt the words by heart so that we could enter the local holiday talent contest as Sonny & Cher. On the Friday evening before the contest, we sat in the guest house’s darkened TV room and waited excitedly for the duo to appear on Ready Steady Go. Cathy McGowan joyfully announced them and voila! there they were. And horror of horrors, they were husband and wife! We’d thought they were two blokes, with Cher’s deep voice and Sonny’s slightly higher one. Anthony turned to me and said,
“Well, I’m not being Cher!”
“Neither am I!” I protested, rather vacuously.
“That’s that then!”
So, the next day, I entered the contest on my own, telling the compere, one Billy Bright, that I would perform Cilla Black’s ‘It’s For You’. He turned to the piano accompanist who shrugged his shoulders and shook his head:
“Our pianist doesn’t know that one, Howard,” the blue blazered Billy smilingly announced to the audience. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Anthony hiding behind someone in the crowd, grinning to himself.
“It was a Top Ten hit last year,” I informed Billy. “Got to No.7!”
“Did it now?” Billy mugged at his fans and turned to the pianist again, who shrugged his shoulders even higher and looked bored.
“OK, I’ll sing it on my own then.”
“Accapella!” the compere laughed, getting an ‘Ooooh!’ from the crowd.
‘Whatever,’ I thought, and launched into, “I’d say, someday, I’m gonna give my heart away, when I do, it’s for you.”
My knees shook, my hands shook, my head shook, my voice quivered. Anthony sidled up to the front of the stage and smirked up at me the whole way through. I stared at the out-of-focus microphone and wished I was dead. The audience gave me a mild sympathy clap and I ran off the stage.
“You looked so funny!” Anthony crowed.
Our friendship never really recovered.
My love of Sonny & Cher, however, continued to grow. I got their debut album ‘Look At Us’ for Christmas that year and fell in love with tracks like ‘Just You’ and ‘The Letter’. Sonny was a great songwriter and producer, while Cher had the most incredible voice, deep, resonant and very emotional. They stood side by side on the cover of the L.P. which I studied and stared at each time I took the orange-labelled gem out of its white paper inner sleeve. They were, I guess, the first Hippies, at least the first I’d ever seen, and they always looked so in love. I adored the open-handed rather child-like clapping Cher did on Top Of The Pops as she belted out ‘And when I get scared, you’re always arou-ou-ou-nd.” It was my idea of pop paradise every time they appeared on TV. Sonny didn’t have the greatest voice, but when he harmonised a third above Cher the sound they made together was glorious. I bought every single they released for the next two years, ‘Little Man’, which almost gave them their second UK No.1, a particular favourite. And I will always scratch my head that the utterly brilliant, multi-layered gem that was ‘Living For You’ never reached any higher than No.44.
Even though I wasn’t an avid fan during their mop-top days, I liked a lot of what The Beatles brought out. ‘Beatles For Sale’ was a particular favourite of mine, and I rather liked the Derek Taylor track notes inside the gatefold sleeve where John looked very dishy with his loosened tie. The fact the group weren’t grinning from ear-to-ear on the front cover also struck me as extremely cool. I even bought ‘I Feel Fine’, beating Sue to the record shop with my three-and-eleven. John and Paul’s shimmering double-tracked harmonies thrilled me, Ringo’s smashing cymbals thrashing away throughout, that fab distorted bass note at the start then into George’s superb complex riff which John then doubled when it all got going, it all made a really tremendous noise. The group’s biggest-sounding single up that point seemed so polished and complete and utterly joyful.
‘We Can Work It Out/Day Tripper’ was my Christmas ’65 present for myself, paid for with the postal orders Nan and Gran had given me. I loved the way Paul giggled at John’s gurning antics at the harmonium during the ‘Work It Out’ promo film, and they all looked the business in their black roll-neck sweaters. But my main singles purchases that year were records by The Kinks, The Pretty Things, The Fortunes, Marianne Faithfull, Sonny & Cher and Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. Bob’s earlier folk-protest stuff had bypassed me, rather like Elvis’s rock ’n’ roll stuff had. A girl at school had sung ‘The Times They Are-A Changing’ to me, but when I heard Bob’s version on the radio I assumed he was a really old man so dismissed it. Then one day, while making myself a cup of tea, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ blasted into the kitchen out of the transistor. I’d never heard anything like it. It sounded so angry, but in a truly erudite way. The energy of the thing pulsed into the room and the words Bob was singing were like a new language. He spewed them out, each line tumbling into the next. God, it was wonderful. And that organ! Beautiful riffs and ghostly motifs curling round and under Dylan’s gorgeous rant. I knew I had to have it. Just a few weeks later came ‘Positively Fourth Street.’ It was even more wonderful. Four exhilarating minutes of astonishingly phrased and perfectly sung venom. I pitied whoever Bob was singing about, but kind of wished it were me just to be the inspiration for such a stunning song. Out of nowhere, or so it seemed to me, came this searing star, and when I saw his latest photos in Melody Maker I wanted that polka dot shirt and those shades like nothing else.
In ‘66 I grooved along to The Mamas & Papas, Ike & Tina Turner, The Mindbenders and Harper’s Bizarre. Although The Beach Boys’ goofy striped-shirted surfer-boy image prevented me turning onto them wholesale, ‘God Only Knows’ took my breath away, and I still consider it the ultimate piece of pop perfection.
Once Susan had left home at the end of 1965, the regular influx of Beatles singles and L.P.s ceased, and while I thought ‘Paperback Writer’ was great, I found a comment a friend made at the local Bury Palais disco, on hearing the single played there, more interesting:
“This is the best record The Beatles have made. They were finished before this one came out.”
In retrospect that seems a ridiculous thing to say. ‘We Can Work It Out’ had been No.1 for five weeks over Christmas ‘65 and ‘Rubber Soul’ had sold millions round the world. But there was a definite sense among general pop fans by the early summer of 1966 that The Fabs had had their day. There hadn’t been a single released for six months, their live performances and their public profile had lessened, certainly in the UK, and other bands like The Small Faces, The Walker Brothers, The Yardbirds and The Troggs were riding high in the charts which The Beatles once dominated and now seemed to have lost interest in. Even The Rolling Stones, always runners-up in the public’s mind next to The Fabs, had achieved two huge hits during the year and had become rather dangerously hip with tremendously off-the-wall singles like ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’, ‘Paint It Black’ and ‘Have You Seen Your Mother Baby?’.
When the Double ‘A’ side ‘Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine’ came out in August that year, the group didn’t even bother to make a promo video for it. For a thirteen year-old pop fan like me who could only afford to buy singles most of the year and followed the charts avidly each week, the apparent lack of Beatles to be seen anywhere meant that other acts were taking a hold in their absence. The Beach Boys, for example, who had always been the American underdogs when compared with The Beatles, were suddenly going from strength to strength, bringing out amazing 45s like ‘Sloop John B’, ‘God Only Knows’ and the astonishing chart-topper ‘Good Vibrations.’
I couldn’t afford ‘Revolver’, my sister was busy rearing babies so didn’t buy records any longer, and it was singles, TV shows and the charts which made up my pop landscape. From my vantage point, the once-mighty and omnipresent Beatles were notable by their absence.
By the end of the year, with no Beatles Christmas single release for the first time since 1962, along with all the kafuffle on the news about John Lennon’s so-called ‘anti-Jesus’ remarks prompting Beatles record burning parties in America, and rumours abounding that the group were on the verge of splitting with just occasional rare glimpses of one of them alone in India or another filming solo in Spain, one had the definite impression that the times were definitely a-changing for The Fab Four.
In February 1967 I was watching the weekly Saturday TV show Juke Box Jury when the new Beatles single came on, their first 45 release for six months. Host David Jacobs played both sides, ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ Only about a minute of each but that was enough to completely change my world – and my opinion. When the opening mellotron strains of ‘Strawberry Fields’ and John Lennon’s mournful slightly odd vocal began I fell hook, line and sinker in love. I remember Simon Dee, one of the J.B.J. panellists that evening, covering his face with his hands, shaking his head and murmuring, “They are AMAZING!”. I simply sat and stared at the TV nodding in silent agreement. I bought the single a few days later and played it until it virtually wore out.
The group’s two psychedelic promo videos for the tracks, featuring the no longer Mop Top foursome, also signalled that something was happening here and we didn’t know what it was. They were now moustachioed exotically attired rather mysterious and beautiful people, displaying the kind of confidence only Gods achieve. There was no attempt to be cheery or funny, the chirpy boys-next-door look and leaping about antics had gone and been replaced by something, for me at the age of fourteen, altogether more artistic and much more fascinating.
From that moment on there was no other pop act for me. With one single they had left every other pop star behind, the sound of pop music changed forever with just two incredible recordings. When news broke that their new L.P. ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was to be released in June, I saved up weeks of pocket money. Just the title alone was enough to intrigue me. My determination to buy it was fuelled even more when our history teacher, on the day of its release, instead of giving us our usual history lesson, played it to us in its entirety. “This is history in the making” was Mr Reilly’s prophetic excuse for straying off the beaten curriculum track.
While we’d all been decrying the fall of The Fabs, they had been working away in the studios on a masterpiece. ‘Pepper’ became the L.P. that all record buyers had to own. Walking round Bury Centre with it under your arm became a kind of badge of honour. You were suddenly cool and other kids smiled knowingly at you as you wandered nonchalantly by singing ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ to yourself: “I got nothing to say, but it’s ok…”.
In the UCP Tripe Shop, I’d prop the L.P. up on the empty chair next to me, feeling very hip as I tucked into tripe and chips with a hot steaming Vimto, assured that adults would stare disapprovingly while their kids looked on in wonder.
“I liked them,” the girl at the till said to me one day, nodding towards my proudly displayed Pepper sleeve as I paid her my one and a penny, “until they went weird.”
Truly nothing could have made me love The Beatles more at that point.
Listening to the intricacies of ‘Strawberry Fields’ and much of ‘Pepper’ over and over again in my bedroom, a new ambition overtook me. I had already begun writing songs, albeit not great songs. But now I wanted to be a recording artist. To try and create something close to what The Beatles were doing became an obsession. I dreamed of being in a recording studio like my heroes were in the Beatles Monthly photos, working on my own masterpiece.
I begged my parents to buy me a new Grundig multi-tracking tape recorder which I’d seen in a music shop on the way home from school. It was an expensive thing to desire and pay for but, God bless them, they bought it for my birthday. For months afterwards, I would record the piano in the living room while my parents were out, then take the tape recorder upstairs to my room and spend delicious evenings alone overdubbing salt cellars, banged knees and oohs and ahhs, before adding the final double-tracked lead vocal with an occasional third-above harmony. Oh my word was I happy. The songs still weren’t up to much but the fun I had was top notch.
On Christmas Day 1967, I played my latest creations to our visiting guests. My sister and her husband, Dave, along with Gran Wood and Nan Longton sat and watched me carefully thread my reel-to-reel tape through the heads onto the machine, choosing which channel configuration I needed and turning the enormous plastic knob to ‘Play’. They were more interested in the complexities of what I was doing rather than what was to come.
My parents had left me more or less alone the previous few months to indulge myself in the weird bangings and oohhings and aahhings they heard coming out of my bedroom every evening while they watched Coronation Street. Now they perched themselves at the back of the room, my mum with one ear cocked for the oven timer, Dad with that amused frown he always had when I was trying out something new.
As the strains of the first track floated round the living-room, I sensed bemusement turn to fascination.
“Is that you singing?” Susan asked, staring at me.
“Language!” my mum said to the back of her head.
“No, bloody hell is right!” Gran Wood broke in. “This is great!”
“Who did all those voices?” Susan asked.
“Howard did,” my dad replied. “We can hear him doing them in his bedroom every night.”
“And the harmonies!” Gran Wood exclaimed. “All you??”
I nodded again, blushing up.
Dad winked at me, Mum beamed, Sue looked increasingly astonished. She turned to Dave and said,
“My little brother can sing!”
“Aye, he can that,” Dave answered. “Good on yer, son!”
It was the best Christmas Day I’d ever had.
A few months later, I sent off a tape of 30 songs I’d recorded at home to Apple, which had advertised in Disc & Music Echo that they were looking for new talent. I never heard a word back from them, of course. I read years later that all the tapes they’d received through the post got thrown in the bin. But it didn’t put me off. More songs, more multi-tracked opuses flowed out of me onto that overworked tape recorder, which finally gave up the ghost after a year or so. With a puff of smoke and a loud bang it refused to ever multi-track anything for me again.
But the seed was planted and the recording continued, although done more simply, live in the sitting-room, mike propped up on the piano as I banged out my developing catalogue of compositions. My future was decided. Any thought of becoming something other than a successful pop singer no longer occurred to me. It was just, as far as I was concerned, a matter of time.
copyright John Howard 2016