And all the friends that you once knew are left behind they kept you safe
And so secure amongst the books and all the records of your lifetime.
The Three Sisters
I live with three nuns. They’ve been with me almost all my life. They wear stern looks, have an admonishing habit about them and carry jam spoons. Most of the time they are reasonably discrete about the house, remaining about 12 inches tall and contenting themselves by throwing me disapproving looks from a perch on the bookshelf or from amongst the dust under the sofa. They sit on my shoulder when I go into town, two on the left, one on the right and make ‘chuching’ noises, especially in the summer when, I’m afraid, I tend to find women more distracting than at any other time of year. Sometimes however, they fill the room. They are a vast, blue habited three headed remonstration. They block out all natural light, so that even the white and black Lucienne Day curtains become a lead grey and the table legs creek under the weight of their glowering. I do not need Nick Drake to make me feel guilty, I have my three Sisters. I will not therefore use this project as a means of self-flagellation, though even as I begin it, I think I know that it will give me all sorts of reasons, or excuses for self reproach.
This story begins at several different points in time and in a number of different places; Stoke on Trent in the late 1970’s, South Manchester’s most ‘boho’ suburb in the early noughties and as I write, still in Chorlton cum Hardy but with the intent of a story to tell in my mind. Or more accurately, with stories to unfold because just now, I cannot be certain of where this will take us. What I’m pretty certain of though is that it all started with ELO, the Electric Light Orchestra and though I know that it shouldn’t from the point of view of original creative writing, I’m afraid that it has to begin on a dark and stormy night.
It was a dark and stormy night. There. I had been kicked out of my office at five o’clock into an October hurricane. I pulled my hood up against the wind as I made my way across the adjacent park with my phone clapped to my ear, trying to deal with some last minute work issue that was likely to eat into precious tea drinking time the next day if left undealt with. Through swirling leaves, fastfood packaging and all the other detritus of an urban park on a day when the gods of wind and throwing shit at you are up for a bit of action, a figure appeared. At first glance, it was Death, minus the scythe. Second glance revealed it to be a woman in a hooded black duffle coat, beckoning me with a slim, white hand. I tried to arrange my face in such a way as to say “bugger off, whoever you are”, but on she came, now proffering a piece of paper which I took without a backward glance. I’d done with the phone conversation by the time I reached the edge of the park and I stopped and opened the slip of paper. By the streetlamp I read what was written there. It was the name, address and telephone number of a man called Jake Jones who I’d lived with in another town fifteen years before and hadn’t seen since. I looked back to where the duffle coated woman had been. There was nothing there but the storm.
Jake Jones was six foot three and seventeen stone, but light on his feet when he danced, which he did often and without encouragement. Rosy cheeked, with a mop of black, curly hair, he was a popular bastard. He’d grown up and gone to school on Anglesey but spent his holidays in Manchester. He was a City fan, had a kosher Manc accent but wore a daff on St. David’s day as a matter of pride. Everybody liked Jake. It was his industrial capacity for lager and pot that endeared him to me, characteristics that also endeared him to my friend Helen Coventry. Helen and I had built our friendship in the dim yellow safelight of a communal darkroom over old fashioned developing trays and cemented it in the student union bar at Staffordshire Polytechnic. However, we both lacked the skills, the confidence and the essential interest and insight in our subject to ever be star photography students. Jake was studying photography in the year below Helen and me and during the run up to our degree shows he helped us both enormously by keeping our minds focussed on England’s progress in the 1990 World Cup
One night, somewhere around October or November 1989, the three of us were sitting in Helen’s bedroom smoking dope and talking rubbish. From Helen’s record collection I’d selected a 12” white vinyl single of ELO’s Shine a Little Love to roll joints on. This wasn’t because it had some special significance. It was because it was unlikely to be listened to and would not therefore interrupt proceedings by being required for play. When I explained this Helen exclaimed “But I love ELO!” I probably gave a derisive laugh. I had every album that ELO had ever released on vinyl and a fair few singles too. “You can have ‘em”, I told her, “can’t stand it anymore, its ghastly stuff…” And so my collection of ELO records passed to Helen Coventry.
After we graduated Helen moved on and I moved in with Jake. We lived in abject dissolution while I did some freelance photography and Jake completed the third year of his degree. Eventually I moved to Manchester and I didn’t see Jake again.
I had loved ELO. I’d gone after their records, I’d read and re-read the ELO story by Bev Bevan as a young teenager. I’d sought out and bought records by the Move and Roy Wood’s Wizard as a result but then I’d dispensed with it. It wasn’t just a cock crowing denial moment. I actually gave away, with a genuine sense of relief, some physical evidence of an element of where I had come from and who I was. And to some extent, I had treated my friends in exactly the same way. To me, for better or worse, Mr Blue Sky was a dead man.
The woman in the storm was Jane Brown, who had been in Jake’s year at college. Like a few other Staffordshire Polytechnic graduates she had pitched up in the same part of South Manchester as me. She’d seen me around the place and had told Jake, with whom she was still in touch. He explained this to me when I rang him. He told me about his marriage and his recently born son. He’d wanted to get hold of me to invite me to his wedding but that was a while before, so it was too late. This made me feel rather terrible. I don’t think he’d even featured on a B list for my wedding.
He also told me that Helen Coventry was dead. She’d been working in London as an illustrator and died on a bus from an asthma attack.
Because of Helen, because of ELO; because of some nagging guilt about my inability to maintain friendships, I was struck be the idea of buying back all the records I’d ever had. But even as I thought about it, the very idea began to fill me with a chill of embarrassment. All of it? Long Live Rock and Roll by Rainbow? Roger Glover’s The Butterfly Ball? All that ghastly ECM elevator music I had when I was trying to work out what kind of Jazz I liked before I’d heard Mingus’s Blues and Roots? Well, yes. There wasn’t any point in being selective about it. Realising that the project would have to involve me buying Status Quo’s 12 Gold Bars I dismissed the idea and in 2008 I sold the remainder of my vinyl collection to Les, the man who runs possibly the finest second hand record shop in the country, Chorlton’s King Bee Records. There was logic to this sale. My Thorens turntable, once my pride and joy, had been banished to the loft. Consequently, the surviving albums hadn’t been played for the best part of ten years and were taking up limited houseroom. I used the proceeds from the sale to buy a painting, which I love and we all live with every day so I have no regrets about selling the records. I admit to the odd moment of sentimentality as I watched Les go through them though. The Song Remains the Same, Led Zeppelin’s live double album caused a bit of a stab, it’d had been a birthday present from my oldest sister when I was 13; there was a pang as he examined a copy of Frank Zappa Live in New York given to me by a woman called Anne as a parting gift from her impossibly stylish flat on the edge of the Antwerp red light district where I’d stayed for a week during my final year at college; felt a brief but appalling nostalgia for the summer of 1989 as Whatever by Danny Thompson, a copy of Let It Be and Charles Mingus’s New Tijuana Moods went by but really, it didn’t matter. I had moved on. A married man with a proper job, kids and a mortgage didn’t require a turntable and a shelf full of fragile black vinyl.
But somehow the idea wouldn’t quite go away.
I had once joked that I would fall in love with and marry the person who walked into my flat and said “Nice hi fi”. The only person who ever passed the test was a big black guy from Huddersfield called Anthony and he was already engaged. But to see the sorry state of my Thorens turntable when it came down from the loft you might conclude that I had the very lowest aspirations for love and marriage. It was filthy with cobwebs and the kind of dust you only get in lofts and looked a tarnished and miserable shadow of its former self. However, I had found a taker for it on a permanent loan basis in a chap called Cowboy Mark who occasionally plays slide guitar with my band and I needed to at least check that it was still working before I passed it on to him. I plugged it into the mains, flicked the chunky switch from 0 to 33 and with a slight grinding noise the platter made its way to the requisite revolutions per minute. It still worked and I was excited. Some odd bits of vinyl had managed to avoid the final sale to Les. I rooted out my old copy of Rubber Soul, put it on the turntable and heard the unmistakeable but forgotten ‘doof’ as I applied the needle to the run in groove. Crackle, crackle, Beep, beep, beep, beep, yeah! Standing there with a stupid smile on my face I knew I was going have to let Cowboy Mark down.
It was time to begin retracing my vinyl footsteps. Things had changed somewhat since my encounter with Jane Brown in the park, learning of Helen Coventry’s death and thinking about buying back all my records. I was no longer a middle manager in the local authority having been made redundant. I was doing bits of freelance consultancy work which I wasn’t exactly enjoying and bits of labouring work which I was. If I was going to do this project, which to many I knew would seem utterly pointless, I was going to have to do it on a shoestring budget. The day after the Thorens came down from the loft my wife Liz took our two sons off on a mum’s and kids only camping trip. Naturally I was distraught at been forced to stay at home because of my gender but decided to make the best of it by going to a record shop and stopping off for a pint on the way home. Geese and ganders and all that. I sat outside The Bar just a few yards down the hill from King Bee Records with a fag and a pint of Alzheimer’s and examined my first purchases towards the project. I was determined to do the thing as fully as possible, which meant I was going to have to endure some pretty embarrassing moments in record shops, fairs and charity shops between now and sometime in the future when I had all my records back on the shelf. But so be it. I had after all only recently had to expose myself on several separate occasions to a variety of medics dealing with an infected abscess in my groin. It couldn’t get much more embarrassing than that. Well, not until it came to having to buy Pieces of Eight by Styx anyway. The first four records had cost £13 in total. That set the weekly budget for me. I had decided to try to buy across the spectrum of genres each time, as far as what was available allowed. So, I relieved Les of ELO’s On the Third Day; Andy Sheppard’s first eponymous album, Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and Glorious Fool, the Phil Collins produced effort that nosedived John Martyn into the 1980s. I examined the covers. They were huge. I stared at the seven hairy men who were the Electric Light Orchestra who stared back at me whilst pointing at their belly buttons from what I realised for the first time was a particularly good black and white photograph. I remembered Bev Bevan’s account of the photo shoot from The ELO Story. He wrote that when they went into the studio the photographer didn’t seem to know what to do with them and after a few shots told them to point at their belly buttons. On the Third Day was really quite stylishly packaged for 1973 with the moody group portrait (despite the belly button thing), and the ample white space afforded the copy on the back; it had something of the look of The Face from the late 80s about it. When I parted company with my original copy in 1989 I was in the third year of a photography degree. It was 22 years later, sitting outside The Bar reading the credits on the back of the newly acquired copy that I realised the photographer was Richard Avedon.
I had my first new cache of second hand vinyl from Les ready for play, but which to start with? It didn’t much matter so I started with ELO then listened to Glorious Fool. Neither provided any great surprises, though I was amazed by how low the production values were on On the Third Day. Clearly Jet Records had blown the budget on Richard Avedon. The songs were unspeakably pretentious, making me wonder if Avedon had heard the material and asked them to point at their belly buttons to indicate that they were a bunch of navel gazers. There was a sub George Martin quality to a lot of it that I wouldn’t have noticed as a thirteen year old, when to me it was the zenith of contemporary music. Glorious Fool was as I remembered. The slick Phil Collins production had taken any sting that Amsterdam might have had and Eric Clapton’s predictable guitar solo on Couldn’t Love You More turned Martyn’s classic into a saccharine soup devoid of the sola plexus thump of the One World original. Later in the evening I played Slow Train Coming and things really hotted up.
As a 14 year old I really did believe that Bob Dylan had a message for me in the songs on Slow Train Coming. I got the album from my parents for Christmas just before my fourteenth birthday. I was listening, I thought, to something that had real meaning and import about it. Listening to it again, for the first time in at least 20 years I was transported immediately back to the Catholic Youth Area Centre in Stoke, an asbestos shack from which my RE teacher ran Folk masses, prayer groups and a Friday night disco, with its musty sofas and young women in flowery hippy dresses that were as anachronistic as Thatcher thought the striking miners who lived down my street.
The album starts with Serve Somebody, one of the tunes we all held hands and danced in a circle to at the CYAC Friday disco. It remains undeniably a good groove and I’m not surprised we danced to it. In fact, apart from on our wedding night, when Liz and I propped each other up and moved about to Sinatra’s Fly me to the Moon, the only public dancing I’ve done was to some of the tunes on Slow Train. I was expecting some cringeworthy lyrics but Serve Somebody didn’t really have them. Half way into that first track I was even wondering if it was a number that I could cover with the band. However, things went downhill faster than a Sanhedrin chasing a blasphemer after that. I found myself veering between staring in open mouthed disbelief at the turntable and Scargill-ish finger jabbing one way remonstrations with the twaddle that was coming out of the speakers. Virtually any of the songs on Slow Train Coming could have been a proto neo con anthem. So much of the sentiment expressed is insular, imperialistic and downright racist. It was enough that I be expected to accept that the American Christian right is an oppressed minority but when the spokesman for a generation insisted that Jesus had been crucified for me and that I just had to believe in his power without question that I really began to feel things had gone a little too far.
How come I never questioned any of this as a teenager? Perhaps I was groping in the dark for spiritual enlightenment and a religious experience and I was somehow hoping Uncle Bob was going to point me in the right direction. As a small child my Irish Catholic grandmother warned me away from spending too long looking in the mirror because if I did “the Devil would come to me”. I was in my early twenties before I stood before the glass and stared at my reflection, defying Beelzebub to pop up. Perhaps my lack of questioning was because I was actually afraid to, in case it constituted querying the very existence of the Almighty, thereby putting my mortal soul in jeopardy. Or perhaps it was just that I enjoyed holding hands with girls and dancing in a circle to quite a groovy tune.
A short way into the project and I find I have listened to more music in the last month than I have in the last four years. I am not a Luddite or a digital refusnik by any stretch but returning to listening to analogue recordings rather than their digital rivals has proved an altogether more musical experience. I am not going to argue that the scratches and surface noise are ’all part of it’, anyone who chooses to listen to music this way takes time and effort to ensure that their records are maintained to minimise those distractions. The simple truth is, your foot taps more with vinyl
Most importantly, Arthur, my eight year old now knows that Jimmy Page’s solo on Since I’ve Been Loving You is the best recorded guitar solo in the world, ever. My work as a father is done, so I’m off to Vinyl Exchange on Oldham Street and for a pint in The Bar on the way home.