Prolific? Me? Honestly, No…

People keep telling me I’m a very prolific writer. It happened again just over a week ago. I’ve published a number of books over the last few years, definitely more than one a year.

But that’s not prolific. When I hear that word, I think about the way groups worked in the 1960s. They worked hard, and some of them made huge music strides and produced glorious work under pressure.

Let’s look at the Beatles as an example.

Los_Beatles_(19266969775)_Recortado

They fully broke through in the UK at the end of 1962. Between 1963 and 1966, by which time they were a global phenomenon that had never been seen before, they released:

  • Seven LPs
  • 13 Eps
  • 15 singles

On top of that, they also made two films, toured Britain and the world, and appeared countless times on radio and television. Think of the material Lennon and McCartney penned in that time. It truly changed the entire musical landscape.

That’s prolific. That’s influential.

I’m just an amateur, a dilletante by comparison.

I will remind you, though, that The Hocus girl is out in hardback in the UK and from November 1 it will be available everywhere as an ebook.

The Hocus Girl is powerful, persuasive and almost impossible to put down.” – Fully Booked.

“This historical tour de force reminds readers who come for the mystery that life hasn’t changed for the disenfranchised.” – Kirkus Reviews, starred review.

Shouldn’t you give it a try?

Hocus Girl final

Lyrics? Poetry? Both?

I hit my teens and became interested in music in  1967. That was the year that progressive rock – prog rock to most of us now – really began. Music changed. Pop became Art. As well as groups making music more complex (until it would eventually disappear up its own arse), there came the advent of the singer-songwriters.

And with it, to my young ears, the realisation that song lyrics could be poetry. Of course, I didn’t know then that Leonard Cohen had already enjoyed a distinguished career as a poet and novelist, for instance. But that first album of his hit me – an aspiring musician and writer – as a revelation. Then add in some others, the Joni Mitchells, the Nick Drakes, who seemed to distil experience and feeling into lines and verses in the manner of the best poets. It says a great deal that even now I’m more likely to quote a lyric than a poem or a line of Shakespeare.

That’s not to say poetry couldn’t be pop. The Liverpool Poets showed that, Pete Brown crossed between one world and the other as lyricist for Cream, and the A.A. Alvarez Anthology of New Poetry was as vital as the newest Beatles album. I groped my way into culture as I grew.

Of course, not all attempts at poetic lyrics worked. Pete Sinfield’s work with King Crimson was often nothing short of embarrassing, while Yes was twee and post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd was 6th form solipsism masquerading as profundity. But when things worked, and it always seemed to be the singer-songwriters who made it work, it could be beautiful.

Not that pop couldn’t use words well, as popular song had for decades. But there it was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. A marriage of words and music that was generally less effective when taken apart. While it could very powerfully pinpoint a time, a place, a mood, a romance or a breakup, it wasn’t the same.

It wasn’t poetry.

That was what I truly believed back then. I tried to make the songs that I wrote into poetic gems. I polished my poems. I was a pretentious little git.

These days I know better. I can still appreciate old Leonard as a rare talent, and Joni’s Blue stands as a near-perfect record even after all these years. But I’ve hopefully grown out of my leanings towards Art. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve come to understand that what’s important is that it moves me, whether it’s “Suzanne,” “Anarchy In The UK” or Bobby Bland singing “Two Steps From The Blues.” It was always that way, of course. I simply chose to be too blind to see it.

Another Leeds Story

Your reaction to the Roman Leeds story, and to the idea of a fictional history of Leeds in stories, has been so lovely that I’m going to post one more. This is from 1963, about as far from Roman times as this is going to get. It was the year England went boom! – although it took quite a while before the reverberations reached Leeds.

BEAT MUSIC

 

“Are you going?”

“Don’t be daft. Of course I’m going.” He hesitated. “If we can still get tickets.”

They were walking along Duncan Street, past Rawcliffe’s with all the neat, clean school uniforms in the window, crossing Briggate and out along Boar Lane.

“There’ll be tickets, they only went on sale half an hour ago,” James told him. “They won’t have sold out yet.”

“Hope not.” His fist was curled around the pound note in his pocket. Before taking the bus into Leeds he’d queued for ten minutes to draw it from his Post Office account. His father had disapproved, of course, wasting all that money on a pop concert. But it was just one more criticism on top of so many in the last year.

It was May, almost summer, and the air was warm enough to leave his windbreaker unzipped, the old grey school shirt underneath.

They turned by the station, down onto Bishopgate Street, through the tunnel under the tracks, bricks black and sooty, all the sound amplified. Now they were close to the Queen’s Hall he speeded up, his steps tapping quickly on the pavement.

“Did I tell you what my uncle did?”

James glanced over at him, keeping pace easily, wearing a striped tee shirt, a pair of American jeans his father had brought back from a trip, and his plimsolls. He looked relaxed, bemused by the whole idea of spending a little over ten bob to see a group.

“What?”

“You know he’s a commercial traveller?”

“Yes.”

“He was up in Sunderland last week, at the hotel where he always stays and sitting in the bar with the other salesmen there. You’ll never guess who was staying there and came walking in.”

“Go on,” Chris said with a smile. “You’re dying to tell me, anyway.”

“Only the Stones.”

“What, the Rolling Stones?”

James nodded and continued,

“My uncle and the others took one look at them and went off to talk to the manager. They said they weren’t going to stay in a place that let in animals. Either the Stones went or they did, and they were the ones who came back week after week.”

“Are you serious?” He was close to laughter, his soft smirk cracking into a grin. “What happened?”

“The manager kicked out the Stones.”

“Bloody hell.”

The words came out as astonishment. James followed his gaze and saw why. There were hundreds of people queueing outside the Queen’s Hall, all the way down the side of the building.

“We’re going to be here all day trying to get a ticket.”

“Worth it, though.” And it would be if he could get to see the Beatles. He hadn’t managed to buy a ticket for their show at the Odeon, but this would be bigger and better. They were even going to be onstage twice during the night. Any money, any length of time spent queuing would be worthwhile. “Going to stay?”

“I don’t know,” James answered doubtfully. “I said I’d be home by dinnertime to revise for my exams.”

Chris shrugged.

“Your loss. Take a look.”

“What?”

“Girls. Lots of girls” He grinned and pushed his quiff into place, the scent of Brylcreem on his hands, then began to walk to the end of the line. “But if you want to go, it’s OK. I don’t mind.”

 

In the end it only took an hour and a half to move to the ticket window. James tried to chat up the girls around them, but they weren’t interested; all they cared about was seeing the Beatles and he wasn’t John, Paul, Ringo or the other one. In the end there’d been nothing to do but enjoy the sunshine and wait.

            Chris bought his ticket, paid and began to turn away, when James said,

            “One for me, too.”

            “I thought you didn’t care about the music,” Chris said as they walked back towards Briggate.

            “I don’t,” he insisted briskly, it was true. For all his casual appearance, James was the perfect grammar school pupil. Piano to grade six, always at the top of his year, certain to do well in his O-levels next month. Then there’d be a smooth passage through the sixth form all the way to Cambridge. A boy to fulfil all his father’s aspirations.

            They’d known each other since primary school. On the second day James had stopped Chris from hitting a girl who’d bitten his arm. They’d been friends ever since, a curious bond that neither of them really understood.

            It would change soon enough, Chris knew that. He’d sit his exams then leave school. His father already had a job lined up for him, clerking in an office. The two of them would spend less time together, drifting apart. Probably in weeks rather than months. Somewhere in the future they’d bump into each other, say hello, and wonder how they’d ever been friends in the first place.

“Did you see how many were still waiting?” James asked.

            Chris shook his head.

            “There must have been at least another thousand behind us. It’s going to be something.” He shrugged. “I thought I might as well see it.”

            “You’ll hate it. It’ll be loud. And all those girls who were there, they’ll be screaming. That’s what they do for the Beatles.”

            “Maybe,” James answered doubtfully, as if he couldn’t believe anyone would behave like that. “I suppose you want to go up to Vallance’s.”

            Of course he did. Down in the basement there he could go into a booth and listen to the latest singles and hear what was new. That was the draw, the music. He’d played guitar since he was thirteen, and old instrument one of his aunts had passed on when she saw how he liked what he heard on the radio. He learned to play it properly, the lessons his father insisted on, hours of practicing scales and classical pieces, and enough theory to understand how songs were put together.

            And once he realised how simple it all was, pop music had bored him. Until the Beatles came along. With three singles they’d made him realise there was more to it than he’d ever imagined. He’d bought them all, worked out the chords and listened to the way the voices all worked together. It was a new world. And he wanted to step into it.

            Once he was working he’d be able to save money for an amplifier and an electric guitar. A Burns, like Hank Marvin played in the Shadows. He’d find a few others who loved the new music and form a group. Give it a little time and they’d be able to play youth club dances. Church halls. And if things went really well there was always the Mecca. After that…well, it would be fun, if nothing else. His dad would hate it, but by now he was used to that. He couldn’t live his father’s life.

            He picked out three singles, the Saturday girl with the beehive hair and tight skirt telling him to go to booth three. He and James were cramped inside, but then the music began and he was lost, listening to the lines the guitars played and the power of the drums. Beat music, they called it, and the term was right. It needed the beat to work properly. James looked bored, but ten minutes later it was over. Chris was smiling as they walked out into the sun on the Headrow.

            In the end they simply went and caught the bus home, the long pull up Chapeltown Road. James was itching to go, to put in more time revising for his O-levels, as if he didn’t do enough already. They were the only people on the top deck, the windows wide to catch the breeze. They were sitting right at the front, the best seats, where overhanging branches would hit against the glass as if they might break it.

            James stared straight ahead, lost in one thought or another. Chris gazed out of the window. The street was full of dark faces. West Indians. A few white people remained, passing through the crowds like fading ghosts. The business signs were colourful, each one offering a mystery. It was a different world. A dangerous one, his father said. But the world was full of fear, according to him. It seemed strange when the man had fought in Burma during the war. What could be so fearful about home?

            Soon enough he’d be home. The usual Saturday summer dinner, ham, lettuce and tomato with salad cream. He knew he should spend the afternoon revising, trying to make some sense of calculus. He’d try. He always tried, until it defeated him and he’d put the book away in frustration and pick up his guitar. That always made sense, the logic of chords and notes.

            Another month and he’d be washing the ink from his fingers for the last time. He’d hand in his books and walk out of school, take off the tie. Then life could begin. Sometimes he believed that he’d spent all his life just holding his breath, waiting for something to happen.

            The bus juddered to a stop across from the war memorial in Chapel Allerton. Wreaths of paper poppies laid in the two minutes of silence last November, still stood against it, their blood colour faded to pink by the weather.

            He hadn’t even been born in 1945. He could only faintly remember the very end of rationing. But so many of his father’s generation still lived in that time, as if the fighting had never ended. He’d heard their evening conversations over a bottle of whisky, the longing reminiscences of their finest years, when they were allowed to be real men.

            He stood.

            “I’ll see you on Monday,” he told James, receiving a nod in reply. At the bottom of the stairs the conductor rang the bell. Chris jumped off before the bus stopped moving, almost stumbling until he found his feet.

            A new England, he thought as he walked away. That was what they needed.

It’s Only Schlock’n’Roll

So in a blast of publicity the Rolling Stones have turned 50 and celebrated it with a London concert where tickets ranged from £96 to £1000. Call it nostalgia, call it entertainment if you like. But don’t call it rock’n’roll.

There can still be magic in those three little words. They conjure up excitement, they conjure up youth and above all they conjure up rebellion. As soon as white American teenagers discovered this black music, mostly courtesy of Elvis, it was dangerous. It made them think unclean thoughts and disobey their parents, to slip outside the straitjacket norms of society. It was ungodly an un-American. It was brilliant.

The British bands who fed the music back to America and to the rest of the world were inspired by black music. It touched something in them and acted as a catalyst and for a few heady years they could go exactly where their imaginations took them. The Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, the Pretty Things and, yes, the Stones, made the ‘60s a decade of excitement and musical discovery, and by its end, a long way from the rock that had inspired it. By 1970 it had mostly gone from the gut to the brain, dissected and intellectualised (ironically, the one band that had returned to rock was the Stones). We should perhaps be glad that the Beatles called it quits with such a majestic canon of work. If they hadn’t, their legend would inevitably have become tarnished. By 1972 all those bands had run out of anything relevant to say.

Fast forward to 1976 and punk. Once again it was those kids doing it for themselves, being shocking and contemptuous of society’s mores. And why not? Society had nothing for them, the new boss was pretty much the same as the old boss, and kicking against the pricks is the way life should be for the young. The original musical influences of rock might not have been there, but the spirit certainly was, just as it was in ’88, when the second summer of love brought in dance beats, E and raves, things beyond the ken and acceptance of the establishment. Hip-hop, grime, they all tell the story of the fight – at least until they’re co-opted. In many ways punk died as soon as the clothes appeared in High Street shop windows. At that point it was, quite literally, window dressing.

Our pop icons – and how many have made the grim slide from rock to pop status – have become the establishment, with titles, estates, riches and people more than eager to do their bidding. And in that state, isolated and feted, they lost all relevance. It’s a tale told over and over again. Few avoid it. My generation, the baby boomers (I’m at the tail end) want to keep connected, to stay hip. We listen to new music, we want something to excite us. And while that may be the way we’ve been conditioned it’s probably wrong. What we should be looking for is some new music that climbs up from the streets, out of the underground, that we can’t make sense of that we hate and that our kids absolutely love and want to play. Because only in that will they have their rebellion and their voice, the chance to give us the bird as we gave it to our parents. They deserve that. They need music that speaks to and for them, something not spoon fed on watered-down reality TV shows. Something that makes them want to trash things. Things like us and what we believe in.

The Stones might be a pleasant night out for the well-heeled with large disposable incomes. But it ain’t rock’n’roll. You can say something relevant and interesting as you grow older (Chumbawamba did it for 30 years, although they then stopped and the mighty Mekons keep going) but you can’t be a great rock’n’roll band. For that you have to be hungry, you need something to prove, something to blast and burn down. The best you can be is a well-oiled novelty and nostalgia act, a brand. It’s showbusiness, with the emphasis on the business. Just don’t call it rock’n’roll.