‘Stairway to heaven’- pastoralism and myth in British rock

Led Zeppelin’s song, Stairway to heaven, is perhaps one of the most famous rock songs written.  Its introduction is cliched and to some extent mocked and its mystical, Arthurian aura cruelly if hilariously parodied by Spinal Tap’s ‘Stonehenge.’  Despite all this, I’m going to argue in this post for its importance and meaning.

The song comes from Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, which was released in November 1971.  The album is officially ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ but it is often called ‘The four symbols’ from the mystical style symbols that appeared on the inside of the gatefold album sleeve (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Led_Zeppelin_IV for a full discussion).  No band name or album title appears on the album sleeve itself.

I first encountered the album in 1974 or 1975, aged about 14 or 15.  It was already recognised as a classic and important record and (as with many records at that time and at that age) I approached it with a good deal of reverence.  It was representative to me of serious, adult progressive rock.  This was music with meaning, unlike much of what I saw on Top of the Pops or heard on Radio One at the time.  This may appear to some readers to invest far too much into a rock album, but that was my response in my mid-teens and I am going to maintain that position now in this post.  Also, given that I subsequently lived through punk, new wave, new Romanticism, rave and Brit Pop, this reversion to my rock past may seem aberrant.  It is perhaps a testimony to the song in question that I am still drawn to it and still believe that it has greater value than many other songs of the period, including the rest of the album it featured on.

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Let’s start with the cover.  The full double spread shows a partially demolished wall of a Victorian house bearing a painting on the peeling wallpaper.  In the background are new tower blocks and waste ground.  The place is actually Ladywood, Birmingham, and one of the new high rise developments built by the city council to replace cleared slums.  On the face of it, this is photo about progress.  It’s a very post-war, last 1960s/ early 1970s scene typical of many British towns and cities of the time.  The future is the modern development; the past is the Victorian terraces that are being swept away.  But there’s that painting, still hanging on the wall despite the advanced state of demolition of the house.  Obviously the former resident has died, rather than being decanted into a new flat, and their possessions remain behind.  Perhaps this is a relative from a hundred years earlier- a poor rural labourer whose children or grandchildren relocated to an expanding city, replacing impoverished toil in the countryside for something better in a factory.  But there’s a suggestion that ‘progress’ may be brutal (and with forty years of hindsight we’d almost definitely say this and reckon that the terraced houses should have been saved and renovated and the tower blocks not built); additionally, progress is only incremental.  In the time between slum clearance and rebuilding, nature invades the urban landscape and starts to convert it back to woodland.  There’s a connection between the old man in the picture, bent double with his load of withies or firewood, and the spreading rosebay willowherb and shrubs in the space between the ruin and the new development.  There’s some sense that nature and the old ways may be preferable- or at least not so easy to ignore or deny.

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Inside the double sleeve, things are less happy for me.  The image is entitled “The Hermit” and was painted by Barrington Colby.  It’s reminiscent for me of Arthur Rackham and other early twentieth century illustrators of fairy tales and children’s stories.  Its style doesn’t fit with that of the cover and has always seemed rather jarring, in my opinion.  Regardless of my personal taste, though, the picture is a further statement of intent.  There’s an indication that we’re going to be dealing with themes of fantasy, myth and medieval legend.  It’s very ‘Tolkienesque’ in a very 1960s style- and all for good reason, as we’ll see.

I’m most interested, of course, in the LP contained in the cover, and more so with the last two tracks of the first side.  These are ‘The Battle of Evermore’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Let’s discuss context first.  During the mid-1960s affordable paperback issues of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings were published in the USA and their arrival on a mass market initiated a world wide fascination with his mythical, pseudo-medieval worlds.  Recording during late 1970- early 1971, it seems inescapable that the books were a major influence upon Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.  Other examples of the contemporary fascination with a mythical, magical past might be the film of the Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, issued in 1973, and (at a stretch) Monty Python’s film King Arthur and the Holy Grail of 1975.

The background to the creation of the album must also incorporate a strain of ruralism or pastoralism in British culture.  Concepts of peace and love and of an alternative, ecological lifestyle almost inevitably led British minds to a romanticised recreation of an idealised non-urban past.  Communes and free festivals gave these ideas practical reality, bolstered by talk of William Blake and Albion alongside inspiration from continental thinkers, Marxist, Situationist, feminist and others.  This thinking drew in a revival of British folk music, too, with bands such as Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull combining traditional music with rock.

It was within this culture of late 1960s hippy peace and love mixed with magic and fantasy that the ideas for the album emerged.  The two songs need, I think, to be read together, the former, ‘The Battle of Evermore’ being the more directly influenced by a reading of Lord of the Rings.  Full lyrics for both are found on a separate page.

The Battle of Evermore‘ is a kind of English folk song, this resemblance strongly reinforced by the presence of guest vocalist  Sandy Denny, formerly of Fairport Convention.  The lyrics are full of conflict and medievalising grammar to the extent that they could be from one of Tolkien’s poems or songs.  We have ring wraiths, castles, drums, a ‘Dark Lord,’ a ‘Queen of Light’ and dragons of darkness.  It’s quite biblical, with references to ploughs and swords; there is a theme of defending a homeland from some unspecified aerial menace. For Page and Plant, born in 1944 and 1948 respectively, the presence of World War Two and the Blitz will have been very real- both in their parents’ talk and physically in urban bomb sites, as suggested by the rear of the album cover.  The War was a spectre over British society well into the seventies (at least).

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We also have in the song material from far older British legend- angels of Avalon and magic runes.  The looming conflict with the forces of evil is contrasted, too, with evocations of rural peace: “waiting for the eastern glow,” “The apples of the valley hold the seeds of happiness,/ The ground is rich from tender care.” Eventually peace is victorious, the sun shines and “the clouds of blue roll by.”  The cultivators will be able to return to their fields and pastoral security and comfort is restored (much as in Lord of the Rings).  It’s a fine tune, played on a mandolin, and although the words may be a little overblown in places, a touch too melodramatic, the melody combined with the intertwining of the voices of Plant and Denny make it a success.  There’s a driving quality to the song which seems to me entirely appropriate to its folk character: a lot of traditional music can be quite relentless in its length and repetition.

Side One of the album concludes with ‘Stairway to Heaven.’  The song commences with the famed guitar lines, followed quickly by recorders.  The tune is haunting and the use of woodwind emphasises once again the folk quality of the music.  The first few lines suggest a very commercial and self centred scenario, with references to ‘gold’ and to a ‘sign on the wall’ (advertising?) but then the lyrics veer away to the rural and pacific setting envisaged at the end of the previous song.  (Whilst I know that Robert Plant sings about “the stores” being closed, I have always heard his vowel in the word as ambiguous, so that “stars” might equally be what he sings- in which case the song is dealing with something less material and more magical right from the outset).

From the end of the first verse on the lyrics are purely a paean to a fairyland of rustic charm, wistfulness, mystery and longing- for example:

“In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.”

(Once again we have the deliberately archaic diction, a suggestion of Shakespearean or older provenance, along with a simple, natural scene)

“There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.”

(There’s a yearning to depart to a western paradise, akin perhaps to the place to which Galadriel and the elves of Middle Earth depart at the end of Tolkien’s trilogy. The West in British terms may suggest also the Isle of Avalon or even the lands of youth of the Irish and Welsh myths- Tir nan Og and the like).

“And it’s whispered that soon, if we all call the tune,
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long,
And the forests will echo with laughter.”

(We are escaping to reason and to a better future- and it seems that that more prosperous and happy future is not to be found in inner city tower blocks but in some distant rural idyll.  Those recorders, Hamelin like, will guide us to a place of communal joy and unity where our patience will be rewarded.  If our destination is reason, our point of departure might fairly be supposed to be a realm of unreason- a land of war, industry and commercialism).

“If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.”

(This is just a delightfully clever line and an evocative image of fairies, seasonal festivals and all that is magical and pleasant in the countryside of ‘Merry England’)

“Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run,
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

(The primary references here are to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but this also very much puts me in mind of certain Scottish fairy ballads such as Thomas of Erceldoune or  The Queen of Elfland’s Nourice in which the fairy queen magically reveals to her human companion different paths through life, leading to hell, purgatory or heaven.  In Plant’s version, though, we are given hope that we can all correct past mistakes and still attain salvation on those western isles).

“There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.”

(I connect this to the Queen of Light of the previous song; ‘Stairway’ in some sense may represent the resolution of the aftermath of the conflict depicted in ‘Battle of Evermore.’  Whatever the exact significance, it is again a suggestion of fairy maidens, magical powers and a promise of ultimate redemption).

The song is about mystery, wonder and enchantment (the head humming); it’s about getting away from the here and now to some form of utopia. This is my personal reaction and interpretation (there are plenty of others, considering some of the more occult or satanic aspects of the song and you can research them all online).  For me, the song is not at all sinister and is much more about hope and redemption.  It is quintessentially a British rural hymn: salvation in the British psyche, from Piers Plowman on through Samuel Palmer up to Peter Blake and the Brotherhood of Ruralists, has been about finding liberty and peace in some sort of countryside retreat.  This may be escapist, but it is nonetheless deeply appealing to the British soul.  I have also discussed these themes separately in postings on johnkruseblog on WordPress.  See too my website for fuller details of my writing (fiction and non-fiction) on folklore and music.

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Crying ‘Wally’ in the dark…

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September 15th 1976, Sheffield city hall: my first ever major rock gig; I went to see Hawkwind play.  There was a group of us, mainly friends from the band I was in at the time, called Nightmare.  The evening was a revelation to me, an introduction to the etiquette at these really big events.

I’d been to gigs before, of course, as I have described in other postings- I had seen Son of a Bitch (soon to be reborn as Saxon) several times; I had seen various other  local and national bands playing at Barnsley civic hall. But nothing matched the Sheffield gig for scale and showmanship; this was also the biggest named band I had yet to see.  I had been introduced to them by the gorgeous Diane at my school- and still decades later she and Hawkwind are intertwined in my memory.

We sat in the darkness, gazing in awe and jealousy at the equipment and fantasising about the day when our band might have that many lights and speakers.   We wondered if we dared go to the bar.  We checked out the cool older kids and their clothes.  We heard people around the auditorium shouting out ‘Wally.’  Endlessly, circulating, pointless, ‘Wally.’

Why? It was a thing you did.  It was like a round, repeating, interminable, initially amusing, then boring, then almost blanked out.  We joined in, to show we knew what to do, how to act.  ‘Wally.’  Where was Wally? Who was Wally?

Well, by that date Wally was dead.  Wally had been dead a year.  Wally was Wally Hope, founder of the Windsor and Stonehenge free festivals;  he was a significant figure of the seventies free festival movement and friend of Penny Rimbaud from Crass.  Wally’s vision was  “free music, free space, free mind.”  For a brief window from the mid-seventies until the mid-eighties, that was almost realised. I caught a tiny glimpse of this myself at Stonehenge in June 1980, unknowingly connecting loose threads of my previous (and future) existences.

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Wally was really called Phil Russell and his life and achievements are recalled across the internet and in print (see for example The story of Crass by George Berger or the generally excellent and inspirational Senseless acts of beauty by George McKay).  We teenaged boys in that crowd unwittingly recalled and celebrated him by daftly calling out his name in the wait before the band came on.  If we had but known it, it was a tribute to an ideal, to a lifestyle and a style of politics that was ever to be marginal and endangered.  Crying out ‘Wally’ in the dark was- had we known it- a small act of rebellion, a tiny self-assertion, a microscopic claim to liberty of thought and conduct.  But we didn’t know- we shouted because everyone else was shouting- the very antithesis of the idea.

In more recent decades this cry has deteriorated to cries of ‘bollocks’ as later generations seem to have tried to make sense of a meaningless word.  I have heard it echo across the tented wastes of Glastonbury festival at night.  Perhaps it’s just as well it’s changed; the Glastonbury festival that carries on today is mostly so far from Wally’s vision as to be unrecognisable to him, although I am sure that in corners of the Green fields there are individuals who remember him and who still harbour those seventies aspirations, an agenda (arguably) that still has meaning and potential today.

Wally

The marvel of The Mekons

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If I had to choose one group from the post-punk era to represent all that I loved and aspired to most about the music of the eighties, it would be Leeds band The Mekons. Here’s my brief paean to some less well remembered Yorkshire musicians.

I’m not sure how I first discovered the band.  I suspect it may have been my theory of “good album cover = good album.”  This may seem like a dodgy way to determine how to invest £2.99 of your student grant, but I often relied upon it as a good guide to purchases. If the record company couldn’t be arsed to invest in decent design and printing, I reckoned that the product within was not likely to be worth the listen.  On the other hand, good quality card, artistic imagery and expensive colour reproduction suggested interesting music within.  Naive, perhaps, but it usually worked.

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I saw The quality of mercy is not strnen and loved the Shakespearean concept and the joke.  I bought the album in an indie record shop in St Mary Street, Southampton and, when I got home to my turntable, I was not disappointed.  These were songs of ordinary teenage life in a Yorkshire town.  I knew exactly what they were going on about- and they sang in my language.  The romantic sufferings and teenage traumas they described were the stuff of my South Yorkshire teens- as I have described in my two semi-autobiographical stories, Freak or smoothy? and in punk rock focussed Feeling called love.  Down the road from Leeds in my hometown of Barnsley, I had gone through the same tortures, the same ecstasies that those early tracks described.

I adored the slightly shambolic structure to the songs which was yet highly virtuoso; I liked the fact that the vocals were a bit strained and reedy and wobbly.  I was hooked.  I bought the Fast Records compilation album which included some early singles and which also introduced me to 2.3, another fine Yorkshire band- and hailing from Sheffield (which for a Barnsley lad seemed more like ‘home’ than Leeds- which of course is in West Yorkshire…).  See my soundtrack to Feeling called love for a sample song.

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I embarked on a musical adventure with the Mekons.  They slowly moved away from the basic-sounding punk of those initial releases to something more new-wavey.  Their second album The Mekons was no longer the thrashing punk of their first compositions; there were hints of the loose reggae style inspiration of The Slits.  I still adore the song, ‘Another one’ for its instrumentation and its lyrics.

2nd album

Then they surprised us all and became a kind of mutant country and western band.  The tracks ‘Fear and whiskey’ and, above all, ‘Hello cruel world‘ are at the top of my list of all time faves.  Even in this phase, though, there was a reassuring Northern-ness to their music, with references to Armley jail and to the train ride from Leeds to Sheffield- a lyric from ‘Beaten and broken:’

“I caught a train to Sheffield, but in my mind, I was already in hell.”

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The Mekons have remained a source of uplifting inspiration since.  I have two great regrets: one is that I never saw them live.  They played Birmingham once when I lived there, but the Sunday night gig clashed with me having to be in Hastings for work. Worse perhaps was that one of their members used to live next door to an ex-girlfriend of mine in Mile End- but we never got to meet…..  Nevertheless, I have still have the records on my turntable (yes, I mean phonogram) and the songs in my head which, ultimately, is what really counts.

“The best times of your nite life”- Barnsley nightlife 1975- 1979

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In this posting, I want to explore how and where Barnsley people were entertained during the late 1970s, especially at the weekends and especially in nightclubs.

This post is an expanded version of an article published in Memories of Barnsley magazine for autumn 2017.

Pubs & bars

One obvious answer to this, of course, would be drinking in the pub.  This was a time honoured and traditional pastime, seemingly for all those over the age of about 13.  Numerous pubs thrived, which today have been converted to flats or convenience stores- the Wilthorpe and the Redbrook are examples close to my childhood home.  I joined the culture of underage drinking at fourteen or fifteen, thanks to the relaxed policies of the bar in the Centenary Rooms, and took the ready availability of alcohol for granted. It was at this venue that I learned to drink, I learned many painful lessons of love and romance, I saw Saxon/ Son of a Bitch play and I first performed in a band on stage myself, as I have described in posts and elsewhere.

The authorities had a different view, however.  The chair of the licencing justices complained in January 1979 at the rise in offences over the preceding year: 92 under-seventeens had been convicted of drinking offences, including girls as young as fourteen.  “There appears no doubt that drunkenness- together with the accompanying deplorable behaviour which must be tolerated … is on the increase.”  I was an offender just as much as those unfortunates who were caught- and many of those who have shared their reminiscences of venues were similarly present illegally.

Turning back to legitimate forms of fun (!), what is impressive is the sheer number of clubs, pubs and discos that were available, just within the boundaries of South Yorkshire and in smaller towns and locations where you would not expect them.  I presume that this must be explained by the increased mobility of young people: they could afford cars and they could afford the fuel to travel to venues.  At exactly the same time, though, they were not inclined to go very far.  Why go to Leeds or Sheffield when you only had to go to Mexborough in your search for a good time?

Across the area working men’s clubs offered bars, discos, live bands, comedy and bingo.  Weekly events were advertised consistently at the clubs in Greenside, Shaftoe, Swaithe, Kexborough, Staincross, Jump, Mapplewell, Ward Green, Dodworth and Worsborough.  Large employers provided similar attractions, for example the NUM and the Yorkshire Traction social club, which offered strippers with your Sunday roast lunch.  The aforementioned Redbook staged dance nights on Tuesdays in the mid-70s, with Maisie on organ and Johnny on drums.   

Cinemas

Another traditional place of entertainment was, of course, cinemas.  You did not only see films at the Barnsley Odeon, but also at a council run screen in Penistone and at the Futurist in Elsecar.  The latter, at the start of the period, was a general cinema showing the usual spread of family and over-eighteen films.  Fairly quickly, though- perhaps because of competition and waning attendances- it became rather more ‘specialist’ in its programming.  Sample saucy offerings include When girls go to bed, Carnal knowledge, Do you believe in Swedish sin? and Prickly problems (not, I assume, about cacti).  Bizarrely though, amidst the X-rated fare, the odd Disney cartoon still appeared at matinee.

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Nightclubs

Young adults after something other than The ups and downs of a girl on holiday still had plenty of swinging venues to choose from.  Within Barnsley town itself there was the YMCA, offering a ‘Top of the Pops’ disco on Wednesdays for 20p; Changes at 2, Sheffield Road, was a pub mainly putting on local heavy metal bands, but with Lynn the go-go dancer at weekends; the Stables Club in Peel Street, is remembered with affection, but is generally described as ‘grotty,’ and Jim’s Inn on Doncaster Road, was a private members’ club that offered cabaret and dancing.  The Inn was named after a popular TV series of the late 1950s and catered for an older and more affluent clientele than some night spots.

The leading venue in town was probably Baba’s disco in Queen’s Road; it claimed it was Barnsley’s “biggest and best disco scene.” It was popular with hen nights, works parties and footballers, but it also staged live acts, including Geno Washington and Bilbo Baggins in early 1976 and, in January 1974 Heatwave, who were unfortunately promoted to the locals as a “coloured American song dance group.” The venue was acquired by Granada Theatres early in 1975.It was closed for refurbishment later in the year, reopening in late November with a new sound system and light effects.  The new owners had spent £10,000 (£59,000 today) on 700-watt amplifiers and sound to light equipment copied from Paris, Oslo and Geneva.  There was also new décor and furnishings and the ability to show films.  The emphasis remained on dancing, although rock music was also promised.

Club Baba closed again for refurbishment in mid-1976 but had reopened by early 1978 as Rebecca’s, with “new super sound, new décor and new sophisticated lighting.”  Admission to all of this was just 75p before 10pm (about £5.75 today) and they offered regular drinks promotions (spirits 20p all night); themed nights such as St Trinians, Treasure Island and Pink Panther, and annual ‘Miss Rebecca’s’ competitions.  The disco claimed, in slightly sinister terms, that it was “where one could meet one’s match.”  I think we know what they meant.

Still within the wider Barnsley area, there was a remarkable choice of venues.  The Pinfold Hotel, Cudworth, put on Friday night discos; the Londoner, Lamb Lane, Monk Bretton, was a former casino that claimed it was “the most exciting disco pub in town” with dancing on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights; in Royston was Tassel’s Club, a dance school that also presented live bands such as Middle of the Road, of ‘Chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep’ fame.  In Kings Street, Hoyland, stood the Birdcage, where “everybody meets.”  It offered the area’s “number one nite scene” from 9pm to 2am- and for only 60p on the door.  A tie was not necessary to get in, but style definitely was, the adverts advised: they pictured a young woman in shorts, boots and bra-less in a short, unfastened waistcoat.  The club featured palm trees inside and is most memorable for the fact that, if a beer barrel ran out, the cellar was only accessible through a trap door in the middle of the dance floor, which necessitated clearing the dancers for a time.  Bands played the Birdcage too, including circuit regulars Ponder’s End and Bitter Suite.  Copied by Rebecca’s, the club organised an annual Miss Hoyland competition.  For a while, at least, the Cage extended to the adjoining premises, opening as Cupid’s, “Hoyland’s new superscene”- just in case the Birdcage had failed in its promise to deliver “the best times of your nite life.”

If this wasn’t enough, South Yorkshire’s pleasure seekers had plenty of attractions only a short journey away.  In Wakefield, the Theatre Club staged live acts such as the Nolan Sisters, the Three Degrees, The Jacksons, Osibisa, Alvin Stardust, Gene Pitney and Charles Aznavour.  The Golden Girl Nightclub in the same town also offered bands, such as Paper Lace in January 1979.  Heading south, the Fiesta in Sheffield booked names like the Drifters and the New Seekers, and there was dancing at the Top Rank Suite and Crazy Daizy at the Mecca.  Still feeling jaded?  Then you could try Tiffany’s in Rotherham, Wordsworth’s Ballroom in Pontefract- which featured bands and discos- or Jesters in Mexborough, where the Drifters appeared in November 1976.

For sheer bizarreness, Kiko’s in Pontefract has to be mentioned.  It advertised itself as the town’s number one exotic Polynesian nightclub.  “A splendid time is guaranteed for all” in “breath-taking surroundings” the adverts promised.  The venue was famed for its plastic palm trees and was immortalised by John Godber in his play Bouncers.

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Northern soul venues

Parallel with the regular clubs, there was the sub-culture of Northern Soul.  The Londoner in Monk Bretton offered Northern Soul nights on Monday, which were a big draw for local youth, including a high proportion of under-eighteens. The Portcullis Club put on an all-dayer for over-eighteens in May 1975.  The event ran from 2pm until 11pm; the entry fee was 75p, with a bar and food provided.

Wordsworth’s had Northern Soul nights; so too did Bailey’s in Doncaster.  The latter’s adverts featured drawings of typical 1970s ‘dolly birds’ dancing to the latest sounds, but the club established a firm reputation as one of the venues on the all-dayer and all-nighter Northern Soul circuit, competing with Cleethorpes, Blackpool and Wigan. It drew audiences from as far afield as the East Midlands and East Yorkshire and offered twenty-four hour marathons on Sundays.  Finally, there was Raquel’s in Wakefield, which had two floors of music: Bowie and Roxy Music upstairs and soul classics such as R. Dean Taylor and Gloria Jones downstairs.  It drew coach loads of soul fans from a wide area and the 50p entry even included a meal.  Once again, the club had a large underage clientele: one weekly regular recalled doing his homework under the tables in the bar during the midweek soul sessions.  Raquel’s even offered hard-core devotees an all-nighter on December 25th 1976- a radical new approach to ‘keeping the faith.’

Northern soul was often blighted by its association with dance floor drugs.  Witness of this was Barnsley magistrates’ refusal in April 1975 to licence an all-nighter at the Civic Hall.  Although the applicant had run events in Cleethorpes and Doncaster without incident, the town police objected because of the likelihood of drug use and ‘trouble.’  Of course, this is of a piece with the overreaction to Barnsley’s only ever punk gig– see my two posts on this- and the rather more legitimate concern about underage drinking.

Too much fun?

If none of this sufficed, though, there was still Antoinette’s Luxury Nightspot at Brierley Gap, Hemsworth.  There was dining and dancing on Fridays and Saturdays and sometimes male strip tease compered by a drag act- “See it all for 40p.”  This rather remote venue had formerly traded as ‘Eight miles out,’ which described itself as “a bistro, a disco, a country club- and very, very different from anywhere else you’ve ever been.”  It offered a northern soul night on Thursdays: “Keep the faith! Come early and often!” was the slightly plaintive slogan.  The venue seemed desperate to attract clientele: February 1975 also saw a ‘knicker party’ with ‘knicker bar’(?) and March a ‘stag show’- “girls, girls, girls- and comedian.”

The sheer choice, cheapness and quantity of night life in this period are impressive and even make you feel rather envious of days gone by.  Sadly, many of these venues have disappeared now: for instance, the Birdcage burned down in the 1980s and was replaced by flats; the Londoner also burned down whilst the Futurist closed in 1985 and became an auction house.

For fuller details of my fiction and non-fiction writing on music, please see my website.

 

 

 

 

“England was thine- and it owed thee a living”

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I went the other night to see England is mine, the newly released film biography of Stephen Patrick Morrissey.  The cinema was full of people of a certain age, all summoned to the stalls by nostalgia.

I enjoyed the film, but I’d say it’s definitely one for existing fans of The Smiths.  The film ends with Morrissey and Johnny Marr meeting for their first song-writing session: you have to know what follows, and care about what follows, to engage with the story.  If you’ve never heard The Smiths, if you don’t like their music, you’re not going to be inclined to invest in the film’s account of events.  Nothing much happens- Morrissey has a crap job, he is briefly in a band, he gets depressed and is put on medication, he stays in and types a lot; what gives all of this meaning is the awareness of what is to come.  It helps too to know something about the other characters- that ‘Billy’ is Billy Duffy who becomes lead guitarist of The Cult and that Linder Sterling designed the covers for Orgasm Addict and Magazine’s Real Life album.  In other words, you have really to be of a certain age group and musical persuasion (and to like Keats, Yeats and Wilde perhaps…)

A couple of complaints- and if you are of said age group, you may well have rankled over these things too.  There was some carelessness over period details in the film, I thought:

  • no-one in 1976 went to a gig and asked for “a beer” at the bar, then to be given a glass bottle.  Huh?  It was a pint or half of bitter in a dimple glass, surely!
  • definitely no-one, especially a middle manager of middle age at the Inland Revenue, would have said in 1977 “get your shit together, Stephen.”  The phrase did not exist in our language then.  “Pull your socks up,” would have sounded right for a man of that generation and background;
  • likewise, “I don’t need this” when Stephen’s first friend can’t take his negativity anymore.  These are Americanisms which would have meant nothing to us then- and sounded wrong now.

There was plenty of humour in the film.  It reminded me too of Morrissey and Marr’s musical roots.  Both were fans of Motown, Morrissey in particular having a high regard for the sixties soul groups and female singers in particular.  We see him perform one song in the film, and that is a cover of ‘Give him a great big kiss’ by the Shangri-Las.  Often now, there is a taint of racism lingering with Morrissey’s name, but this early love of his for the Tamla bands gives such rumours the lie.

For more detail of the facts behind the film as well as the career of The Smiths, see Johnny Rogan’s book Morrissey and Marr- The severed alliance.  For fuller details of my writing on cinema, the arts and music, see my website.

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The Skids live, 2017

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I’ve written previously about the Skids’ fortieth birthday tour.  Here are a couple of reviews of the actual gigs.

Firstly a review from the Scotsman,  by Fiona Shepherd, who gave their Glasgow ABC gig fur stars:

“When I’m up here I feel like I’m sixteen, but afterwards, the limbs…” For all his understandable apprehension around The Skids becoming part of the creaky punk heritage trail, lurching dervish Richard Jobson looked to be having a ball as the much-loved Dunfermline band embarked on their 40th anniversary reunion.

For justification, he need only have registered the reaction in the rammed venue – pints aloft from a sea of men of a certain age, exactly the sort of constituency.  The Skids represented with their meaty, politicised rabble rousing anthems such as debut release Charles, its bouncy bass-line propelling an ode to a factory worker literally ground down by the job.

Four decades on, The Skids are far from ground down. Even with the quickly acknowledged absence of Jobson’s wing man Stuart Adamson, lost to suicide 15 years ago, the band sounded in peak condition. Original bassist Bill Simpson and drummer Mike Baillie were the rock solid engine room, augmented by no better custodian of Adamson’s legacy than his former Big Country cohort Bruce Watson to provide that distinctive ringing, melodic lead guitar so admired by peers such as U2 and Siouxsie & the Banshees. The set was a pretty comprehensive romp through the singles and album standouts, with the pugnacious Working For The Yankee Dollar and turbo-charged The Saints Are Coming providing early highlights, fist-pumping chants Charade and Masquerade firing up the masses and the daft nosebleed roll call of TV Stars rewritten to name check the day’s political figures.”

Secondly, a review written by John Robb for Louder than War of the Manchester Ritz gig:

“Well, that was pretty fucking special.

The triumphant return of the Skids worked on so many different levels that it’s hard to believe they ever went away. The band, who emerged in the punk wars, are further proof of the strength in depth of that musical wave – a time when perhaps 40 odd bands all had a whiff of greatness about them. Some of them crashed and burned, some of them soldiered on to their never ending victory lap and some like the Skids seemed destined to never return.

… a rock solid rhythm section makes the band super-tight, serving the songs up with a real care, with all the shape shifting rhymes and rhythms and clever constructions in place and perfect for charismatic frontman Richard Jobson to project his still powerful voice over.

The last of the classic punk generation bands to reform the Skids hit the stage to a rapturous reception. They have, of course, got back together a couple of times before – a 30th anniversary thing in their home town of Dunfermline but this time it’s serious – a whole tour and some festival action.

Jobson is on fire fire tonight – a great frontman with charisma to spare his autodidact intelligence and powerful stage presence is still in place even if he amusingly complains of being knackered from jumping around in the songs like his youthful self complete with his trademark one legged scissor kick dance which he takes the piss out of for his lack of cool. Jobson is an engaging and powerful presence and he commands the stage with his voice delivering a series of songs that like so many of these classic bands sets is full of long lost album gems that fly back at you from over the decades.

The hits are, of course, here Working For The Yankee Dollar is still a timely reminder of the world order and catchy as fuck with that guitar lick ear worm, Masquerade and Charade are both anthemic, The Saints Are Coming is huge with that football stadium chorus and Into The Valley is a thrilling rush – one of the great songs of the period, they even play early favourite Charles and even throwaway b side Albert Tatlock and a new song which augers well for the new album. It’s hard to believe that the last time I saw them play was in 1978 supporting the Stranglers at Lancaster University when the band was drowned by a storm of spit. Decades have come and gone and all the young punks are now old men but still filled with the fire and passion of musical adventure.

The set only underlines the Skids unique position in the culture – a band born out of punk with huge ambitions, a band who were in a creative rush and helped laid the bed rock for eighties rock – time and time again you wonder how much of a debt U2 owe them soundwise and the band’s innovative and highly intelligent take on punk rock was rewriting the rule book as it went along.”

Tonight the Skids are fantastic and leave you hoping that this is more than some short term comeback but a full time concern – they will rule any festival they play and need to be embraced by the Beautiful Days/Bearded Theory festivals as well as the post punk ATP set. Their futuristic vision has served them well and they sound far from dated – unique and timely and hungry.”

Reassuring news for a ‘man of a certain age’ that the band and the period I chose to immortalise in my novel Feeling called love are still capable of inspiring excitement and dedication!

 

Saxon at Steelfest

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Last week I had to help by daughter move home in Cardiff.  Stopping in an AirB&B between flats, I was looking at the 2017 Welsh Tourist Board brochure.  What’s on for July included Steelfest at Hafod y Dafal, Ebbw Vale at which Saxon are appearing.

The brochure asked (cheekily, you might think):

  • are they actually still going?  The answer is, of course, loud and strong.  The band recently released a 14 disc box set (Solid book of rock), a live album, Let me feel your power (2016) and there’s another album Thunderbolt due; and,
  • are they still wearing those trousers? The brochure answered yes; my feeling (my hope, for men approaching 70) is no.  I’ve featured this picture before, but here they are- the monsters of rock at Castle Donnington- just to remind you what was being referred to…

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In the meantime, I have continued to add to my history of the origins of the band as Iron Mad Wilkinson, Coast and Son of a Bitch in Barnsley during the early and mid-1970s, updating my posting as I find further material in the archives.