Tuesday, 17 September 2013

As promised, here’s the beginning of the sequel   to ’77 Sulphate Strip…
Tell Me When


Barry Cain


A start  

My life has been full of Megan moments.        

Take the other night. I’m at a reception for a cruise company held in a sumptuous members’ only club deep in the heart of Mayfair where toilet attendants are mandatory. I’m holding a glass of pink champagne, my third, and frequently swallowing exotic canapés distributed by red-jacketed waiters of various nationalities.

Around me – journalists, PRs, cruise executives, hip-hop-hippity-hop. It’s the same old song but it’s comfortable and the faces are familiar. I’m there in my capacity as editor of Cruise Trade News, a glossy magazine for travel agents and the industry. I started the title ten years ago and although it never paid the rent, the perks – free cruises – are edge of heaven and worth the odd minor sacrifice like no income.

So I’m chatting to a couple of real cutie-pies, sharp and blonde and charming, when the presentation begins and I head for a tall side-table where I can put my drink down, stand and take notes. A voice ushers the room to silence and the MD begins his speech.

A few minutes in I accidentally knock my glass over, sending its entire contents flying across the table and over another journalist’s notepad. The glass falls to the floor and explodes into a million pieces. The MD pauses while every face in the room turns and looks at me.

‘Sorry.’ I squirm and stare down at my notepad.

A waiter appears with a dustpan and brush and frantically sweeps up the hazardous shards as the MD resumes his speech. I move away from the table and position myself next to the closest wall where I watch the waiter clear up the mess.

A minute later my mobile phone starts to ring. I’d only just got it and was convinced I’d changed the phone profile to offline as I sat on the tube on the way down and messed around with it, like a first date, to see how far it would go.

It’ll go far tonight. I’d accidentally switched the ringtone to a spoof airport public address system message:

 −− ‘Attention! Could the man with the ten-inch penis please come to the phone? Could the man with the ten-inch penis please come to the phone immediately? Thank you.’

The message is loud and clear and keeps repeating itself because, in my panic, I can’t find the phone − a super-small-slim-line special − and when I finally do, I don’t know how to stop it. The MD breaks off − again. The journalist with the wet notepad grabs the phone, switches it off and hands it back to me. He’s got the look of death in his eyes.

‘Thanks. Sorry.’ I stare down at my notepad, again. That’s when you know everyone in the room thinks you’re a wanker.

That’s a Megan moment − Megan Davies, the Applejacks  pop star whom I never met and who doesn’t know me from Adam but who unwittingly brought ridicule back to my place to watch the late, late show.

                                                                   *        *        *

This book is about hating the world for stripping me of self-belief, for not pulling me out of the quicksands of other people’s dreams, for kicking me in the bollocks before they’d even dropped, for generally lying and cheating and hurting but for passing by far too quickly.

This book is also about taming that hatred through memory. ‘Only by acceptance of the past can you alter it,’ said T. S. Eliot, probably recalling the eight years he worked in obscurity for Lloyds Bank. Slipping into memory for me is like slipping out of Clark Kent’s suit: by reliving the past I become immortal. ‘The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,’ said Einstein, while watching the 6.05 special heading down the track.

But this book is mainly about a shedload of pop stars. Pop stars I grew up with, from the Beatles to the Spice Girls. My generation invented pop music as we know it today and we alone have lived through all its guises.

It’s dying.

It has to. One generation’s dreams are another generation’s sorrows. Kids are looking for a different sound. They’ve got heads full of ringtones and Grand Theft Auto and music ain’t enough anymore. That’s why it’s now reduced to a tiny piece of equipment that can store a million love songs and also double-up as a phone, digital recorder, games machine and camcorder.

In the sixties we had radiograms as big as sideboards covered with family photos framed in silver plate, and vases overflowing with plastic tulips courtesy of Daz washing powder. They played big, bold records from big, bold packages.

And when I got my first record player for my first room, the evenings would melt away under the spell of the Beatles. It was mine. It was all I had.

As I got older the music machines got more elaborate, right up to a Toshiba music centre my mum bought in 1976 with built-in cassette player and radio. The cassette was the first nail in the coffin of pop. Cheap, plastic and portable, you could even play your pet sounds in the car. But you can’t listen to music when you drive, you can only hear it. It’s a cheat. It doesn’t deserve that.

If you can’t play, there are only two things you can do to music: listen or dance. The rest is tomfoolery.

The musical gap between 1948 and 1978 is immense, but between ‘78 and now it’s indiscernible. My parents grew up with songs populated by guys and gals falling head over heels in love under an eternally shining June blue moon floating in a heaven full of pennies.  

That all changed in the mid-fifties and pop music continued to develop into the eighties where it started to lose its way. Punk was the last great white music; indie is simply punk with melody. House, garage, drum & bass, hip-hop, R & B, whatever, are souped-up disco and Motown with bollocks. It’s yesterday’s news.

Live concerts are popular today with those who go to relive memories – acts and fans – when once they went in search of them. Pop music is now part of showbiz because my generation can’t let go. We really are the oldest swingers in town with forty and fifty year-olds buying albums made by twenty-somethings. When I was sixteen, pop music was my domain. Middle-aged men would never have dreamed of walking into a record shop to buy Beatles For Sale or Their Satanic Majesties Request or Paranoid.  It would’ve been just plain weird. It wasn’t for them, it was for us. We’d succeeded in stripping the ‘ular’ from popular.

But now pop music belongs to everybody thanks to the cross generation X Factor and EastEnders and Take That and Facebook and Jordan and David Beckham and Prince Harry. It’s been sucked into the showbiz swirl and five hundred ‘fuck’s on a rap album mean fuck all. Pop, in whatever guise, has become the music of the people and got its ‘ular’ back. The young don’t need it like I needed it. Now you could get Cliff Richard and 50 Cents doing the ‘Bachelor Boy’ rap on the Royal Variety Show and nobody would bat an eyelid. Imagine Joe Strummer doing a duet with Des ‘O Connor in ‘77 and you get the picture.

Shit, a recent study revealed that nearly half the fan base of One Direction is old enough to be their mothers.

The game is over and youth has lost its music and, as a result, its youth.   

Music was my life for thirty-five years, but I checked out in 1998 when the Spice Girls sued me, and it’s been painful watching it die in a Jade Goody kinda way. The weekly music press, apart from the death defying NME, has long gone. Smash Hits, like the brilliant big girls’ blouse it was, went on a crash diet and managed to slim down to 40,000 copies from a million and became the skinniest magazine in the skinny magazine graveyard. The record companies dotted across London in funky offices have vanished like vinyl, replaced by a few smirking conglomerates snorting up what they can before the Internet dishes everything out for free.

This book traces that demise.

Shit, this book is about a lot of things.

Maybe it’s time to tame some hatred. Time to get off this train and walk the rest of the way. Time to count moments, not months. Time to see what’s been hurtling by all these years while my eyes were closed and my heart was stranded.

But it won’t slow down as it heads, inexorably, to the last stop and if I jump, I’m toast. So I walk back to happiness through the empty carriages away from the engine in a desperate attempt to slow down time and commit myself unashamedly to memory because it soaks up speed like a ‘77 nostril.

Whenever possible, I like to escape my now and head back to my then when I was young and in love and only disillusioned with myself. I don’t want to listen to the rhythm of this runaway train anymore, telling me what a fool I’ve been. The pouring rain does that already.

I do most of my time travelling in Colindale, home of the British Library, where dead words come to life in the kiss of an eye. Everything I ever wrote about music is enrobed in blue leather and stored lovingly in rooms where the smell of old paper is as intoxicating as Dune Spice.

It’s my youth that smells so sweetly.

Where else will I again share a dressing room with the McCartney’s, get pissed with Paul Weller, re-discover the little-boy- lost secrets of Iggy Pop and fly Concorde to see Earth, Wind & Fire defy gravity like the funky box of tricks they were?

Where else will I relive the day I spent with Barry White at his place in the Hollywood Hills watching the rivers flow, or hear, once again, John Denver slag off his beloved Annie?

And, tell me, where else will I see the Stranglers play the pants off Japan (the country not the group) or go on a guided tour of Bob Marley’s Jamaican home with the dreaded man himself?

Fancy lunch with the Beach Boys on a Santa Monica beach? Your table’s booked and may I suggest the Meat Loaf?

Fancy a night of excess with Ronnie Wood and Keith Richard, in the Playboy Country Club, Milwaukee? Roll up that hundred dollar bill and inhale gently. The ol’ heart may not take to heat, especially deep heat.

Fancy chewin’ the fat with Bruce Springsteen in Maryland? C’mon, don’t be chicken. Or howzabout sharing an afternoon with the sexiest woman in the history of pop? Share away.

Fancy a touch of Rotten, a Strummer bummer, a shock from Sting, a diamond ring? Snow in Texas and pain in Iceland? Fancy eavesdropping on the most embarrassing Megan moment of my life involving Blondie and Frank Warren? Or hearing Paul McCartney call me a bastard? 

Fancy reliving some of the greatest concerts in pop history?

Fancy seeing a grown man’s arse cry?

‘Got live if you want it.’

Now don’t get me wrong; my memory is a blur and I never kept any cuttings from the publications that employed my services. But at the British Library they’re all dressed up with nowhere to go. I want to take them where the music’s playing and dance all night long.

Paul Simon once said, ‘Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.’ I wonder if he knew how right he was.

Six years later Marvin Gaye asked, ‘Where did all the blue skies go?’ It took me thirty years to figure out the answer.

Into the British Library, Marvin. Into the British Library.

                                                                         *       *       *

Since writing ‘77 Sulphate Strip, I’ve been asked on more than one occasion (three actually) what Katy did next.

Well, for you three guys, I guess it went something like this...

© Barry Cain 2013

Part 2 tomorrow



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