The Sound of the Suburbs

The Sound of the Suburbs

In my previous wittering, I wrote about how music has come to influence my life & how that came to be. I had initially planned on the piece being a musical journey from childhood to present, however my loquaciousness got the better of me – I didn’t quite realise how much I had on the subject & so have decided to serialise the piece, if only to save the reader from exhaustion!
As a forces child during the 70’s & early 80’s, I grew up to the regular drum beat of moving every four or five years, often considerable distances & always highly efficiently. One of the results of this was that at any given time, there remained packing crates or boxes somewhere, in what ever house we happened to be quartered. Most of these boxes contained things we didn’t need there, so were often left unpacked until we moved on again & had cause to use their contents.
Occasionally however, a need would arise for something in one of the boxes & they would be opened. When this happened, I always had a sense of excitement; perhaps, like a trinket box, they contained items long forgotten that would evoke memories.

The boxes tended to be made of very hard, heavy duty cardboard, often fastened at the corners with industrial sized steel staples, sealed with swathes of brown packing tape, covered with a multitude of shipping labels & a black marker summary of their contents in my mother’s hand – “kitchen bits & bobs, glassware & cookbooks” or “spare linen, ornaments & toys”.

On opening them, my initial recollection is of a pervading smell of moth balls. Many of the things we had shipped would go by sea & so could spend considerable time in exotically located warehouses en route. As such moth balls were packed with clothing & linens in order to prevent their contents being reduced to rags by the time of their arrival. For example, on returning from an overseas posting to Hong Kong, my mother shipped enough new cotton bed linen back that we had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new sheets.

I can see me hovering excitedly at my mother’s shoulder in order to spy the contents, hopefully a missing or forgotten toy, followed by a quick thrust of my hands when I spotted something I wanted.

It was in one of these boxes I was to discover the thing that would lead to the next stage of development where my love of music is concerned.

While I cannot be wholly certain of my age at the time, I can place it roughly at between 78 & 79 due to its geographic location. As such, it’s likely to have taken place within 12 months or so of me discovering the joys of vinyl. This item however was to kickstart a taste in music of my own, minus parental influence.

What lay in the box on this occasion, nestled  other items, was a small, plastic transistor radio; about the size of a Walkman (modern fangled technology that was still yet to exist), bright orange in colour, two small black dials on the side, one simple volume & on/off switch the other the tuning for frequency, a selector switch for wavelength, AM, LW & MW, I think, a dial across the front with needle for frequency, a retractable aerial, along with a single earpiece/headphone that was flesh coloured & resembled a hearing aid.

Having never seen the like before, it was not long before it was in my sweaty little palms. Shortly after my father having put new batteries in it & explained its rudiments, I was walking round ear piece in & dialling frequencies to find sounds, holding it aloft above my head, having discovered that if I stood with my arms raised “aerial held high” it improved reception somewhat.

So that was it, I now had access to music that I could take with me anywhere in the house, most importantly to my bedroom. The next few nights & weeks were spent with me willingly going to bed without retort, how that ever passed unremarked I don’t know, however once firmly ensconced I would wait until I thought it safe then, with the covers over my head, switch on & tune in.
During this time I discovered the BBC World Service, full of boring adult stuff, along with countless foreign stations & voices that while I could not understand it thrilled me to be listening to people from exotic locations, well to my mind at least.

I even dabbled with Radio Luxembourg for a short while, before happening upon Radio 1 one night & a voice who would often introduce himself as Margrave of The Marshes.

It was of course John Peel.

The sounds Peel played were alien yet exciting to me, things I was unaccustomed to hearing, discord, feedback, singers that to first response might not necessarily sound in tune, yet had things to say regardless & with a passionate energy.

So began a habit, a fixation of tuning in to listen to John Peel, often I’d tune in early & catch the end of Janice Long before they handed over another DJ who played what at the time to my mind was slightly off kilter.

If I’m truthful then looking back & being so young, I cannot recall a single song Peel or Janice Long played merely the fact they struck a chord; however with the benefit of hindsight & history, knowing this was the late 70’s, I realise now that most of what I listening to was either the death throes of punk, or the beginnings of what would latterly be known as “New Wave”, songs from the likes of The Clash, Joy Division, Buzzcocks, PIL, The Only Ones, The Fall, The Cure & The Undertones, all songs & artists that when I would go on to rediscover them 4 or 5 years later by would seem eerily familiar & evocative….

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Music For A Jilted Generation

Music….. It’s soundtracked most of the significant moments in my life, there are tracks that upon hearing them, instantly take me back to a certain place in time, they evoke certain emotions & sights in my mind. Often I can recall them instantly along with sounds & even tastes related to those specific moments when catching a snatch, just a few bars of a familiar refrain.

Music has always been a place In which, like the written word I seek solace or escapism. Give me a book to read or music to listen to & you will undoubtably loose me for a while, give me both together, then I will switch off entirely & be transported to a different world for hours at a time.

Asked where my tastes lie then my normal reply, & I suspect that of those who know me well enough, would be “electic”. It ranges from guilty pleasures, in the form of single tracks to full blown obsessions with some artists as well as a multitude of genres from jazz, blues, rock, punk, ska, dance to classical & more recently even opera.

It’s difficult to pin point at exactly what point this love of music started, however as a child of parents who were teenagers in the mid 60’s, a mother who was an unashamed MOD & a father who’s taste’s were more rock driven, music was always played in our house throughout my early years.

My earliest recollections of music becoming so much more personal in my life hark back to being a 7 year old. I would spend Sunday afternoons, sprawled across the floor on my front, before our huge Hi Fi system, with a large pair of Sony headphones glued to my ears. My choice of listening varied from the many tapes my parents owne,d such as Simon & Garfunkel, Judy Collins, Crosby Stills Nash & Young as well as various Mowtown, my legs swinging back & forth in the air behind me always in time with the beat.

Then there was the holiest of holy, vinyl. I can vividly recall the stack of records which leant against the wall, their coloured spines, the scent of cardboard selves, the crispness of sun aged cellophane wrappers.
Even to this day I can name a fair few of the titles. Treasures such as Wing’s Band On The Run, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters, The Beatle’s Let It Be, Mike Oldfield’s Tublar bells, The Face’s A Nod As Good As A Wink. these were some of my regulars.

At the other end of the scale there were albums that to a 7 year old seemed less accessible, strange titles with sleeves that seemed daunting, Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery, complete with H.R Geiger’s striking gothic imagery. Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, it’s cover a New York tenement & die cut windows, filled with American iconography.

Though fascinated & transfixed by these covers, something about both of them made me shy away & eschew listening to their contents. They were both albums I would come to discover & enjoy under my own terms later in life.

If I had a favourite at the time then it was undoubtedly Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. This is the album that introduced me to the now familiar spine tingling sensation I experience when listening to music that moves me.
It wasn’t only in the listening though, it was also the record that would induct me into the ritual of vinyl.
To start with, obviously I was deemed too young to be able to handle such precious possessions, but shortly & with time I was allowed to do so.
I quickly grew to love the process of switching the hi fi on, watching the dials gradually light up & the needle flicker on the amp as the valves within slowly received their initial surge of electricity.
Unwinding the thick rubberised cable from round the headphones & the satisfying clunk the connector would make as it slotted firmly home into headphone port.

Then to the record itself, first lifting the heavy glass lid on the turntable, switching the selector to correct speed, again with a satisfying noise & firmness, sliding the thick vinyl disc from it’s sleeve & then gripping gingerly between the finger tips of both hands to avoid prints or smears.
Next placing the disc upon the turn table, lifting the needle arm across & over the record so it would begin to turn, but not lowering it, oh no, this was indeed a ritual, one that I was taught had to be carried out to the letter & one that I did so, without fail, with pride & with a peculiar sense of love for the ritual itself.
First and always first before the record could be listened to it had to be cleaned. Using a record cleaner with a handle made of heavy brushed steel that was always cold to touch, I would deftly place it’s velveteen edge against the rotating grooves & watch as light from the window flickered through rising dust motes.

Then once satisfied that the record was sufficiently clean I would place the headphones over my ear’s & perform the last act of gently lowering the arm and needle onto the groove, always with a slight crackle, but careful not to jar or scratch, settle my elbows onto the floor, place my chin in my hands & begin to listen to Richard Burton’s opening words.
Here I would remain, pouring over the vivid artwork & words contained within the sleeve booklet, whist listening to the howls of the martian’s death ray’s, transported to an alien earth until such time as the needle would reach the run out groove, automatically returning the arm to the start position above the record with an audible click & signalling the need to start the ritual over for side two.

Being a double album the ritual would be repeated at least once more, hopefully even twice before being called for either dinner, bath or bed.

To be continued……