You have to be of a certain age to remember The White Heather Club. Back in the times when the TV was still in just one room in the house and you had to wait for it to warm up, vague grey shapes sword-dancing to tiddildy-dee music or singing about speeding bonny boats was what passed for light entertainment. Not that there was any choice, but it was a favourite in our family, my father being a typically nostalgic expat Scotsman. The first record that was bought for me (rather than that supposed landmark; the first you buy yourself) was a single of Andy Stewart’s A Scottish Soldier, which I remember enjoying a great deal. I also liked the theme tune to The Lone Ranger, which I didn’t then know was Rossini’s William Tell Overture. That, and Perry Como singing his way through the states of the USA (although I didn’t realise that either) in What Did Della Wear?
It’s easy to groan and try to shut the doors on the embarrassing things we thought we liked before we really knew about music. The novelty records and one hit wonders. But they’re there — they’re part of all our heritage — and their influence remains. My co-ordination is poor to this day, but apparently one of my favourite toddler pursuits was to go into the lounge and bang the poker against the coal scuttle and the fire grate; I’ve always been a frustrated drummer. I think I can still just about remember the noisy pleasure of those sessions, and perhaps that rat-a-tat martial drumming was the appeal of Andy Stewart’s song. That, and the solider dying.
Music was played each day on some big old gramophone as we marched into assembly at infants’ school, and again as we stomped around pretending to be dinosaurs or curled up like the seeds of flowers in something called “Music and Movement”. I have no clear recollection of what the music was, but it was “improving” and classical, and I reckon it may well have included some of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and the much more jagged Romeo and Juliet. He’s still a favourite composer. There always did seem to be something about classical music that I found interesting. My next “bought for me” single, actually an EP, came from my elder brother after I’d been to see Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, which takes its music from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. I remember being a bit disappointed as we sat waiting for “the tune”… but also how much I liked the nice lady ballet dancer photographed on the cover. One of my pleasures was to dress up in my sister’s old ballet costume, and pretend to be a fairy. I even went to school dressed that way once or twice when the occasion seemed to demand it. In those days no one seemed to worry about such behaviour.
After that, up through infants’ and on into secondary school, music, and dressing up, took a back seat. I had no great interest in what was becoming the “Top Ten”, but listened as most kids then did to Junior Choice on the BBC Radio’s Light Programme. I enjoyed songs such as The Little White Bull and The Ugly Bug Ball because they told a story, and particularly liked Puff the Magic Dragon, because it ended so sadly — “a dragon lives forever, but not so little boys…” But my two biggest favourites were Feed The Birds from Mary Poppins, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Great songs by any standard, and both filled with sad yearning. I suspect that this was the first music to make me cry, and to realise what an oddly glorious feeling that was.
My elder sister, meanwhile, had noticed this group called the Beatles, and I was very happy to dance along with her to the singles she bought and played on our new radiogram that sat in the lounge on the far side of the fireplace from the telly. Jolly, melodic stuff, and Mum and Dad liked the Beatles as well. In fact, everyone seemed to like the Beatles. But that very likeability made me wary. That, or perhaps their songs simply weren’t sad enough, and lacked the right kind of drumming. But I played Rain on the B side of Paperback Writer often, fascinated by the hypnotic way it drawled and jangled. My elder brother’s tastes went in the direction of Harry Secombe and Andy Williams, but there was one track on an LP of his that I also played and played. It was from an “original cast” (i.e. – not the people from the movie) recording of West Side Story, and was called The Rumble — a modern ballet piece, all jagged angles and mis-shaped chords. Then, and now, it struck me as fresh and sharp and brilliant.
School, being school, still involved random bits of exposure to music. We even used to get so-called “music lessons” each week for no reason any of us could understand, least of all the teacher. Still, one day he set about demonstrating the capabilities of his nice new stereo by playing us a surprisingly lengthy piece of classic music. To his credit, he explained how this symphony started sadly because the composer had had to travel to America without his family, and how it might help if we imagined him arriving on a big steamer into New York harbour, and to try to feel his spirits lifting as he sees the city skyline. I thought this was fabulous stuff, a story told in sound. And there was this churning sadness, those slow drums rolling…
A week or so later, I bought my first record with my own money, an LP of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and the music was even more fabulous than I remembered. In those carefree days, and I and most of my mates used to go home for lunch from our secondary school. As everyone else was out, I’d take my white bread and mashed banana on a tray into the lounge, turn on the radiogram, and let this music flow around me. This is it, I thought. This is something that I love. The sixties had moved on, and my mates were also buying records of their own. Not classical LPs, but singles from the charts by the likes of Herman’s Hermits and Sonny and Cher. I didn’t have any problem with much of this — I watched Top of the Pops just like everyone else — but at the same time I was happy to tell them that it was all a bit… well, simple.
So there I was, my head in the clouds and following on Dvorak with Holst’s Planet Suite and a compilation called Classical Fireworks which wasn’t quite on the same level. No easy decisions, seeing as LPs cost a lot. I liked being different — I liked liking stuff that other people didn’t know or understand or care about. As the radiogram had to remain in its sacred place in the lounge, I was also regularly inflicting my music on the rest of my family, or being told to turn it down, or evicted so they could watch telly. The Beatles, meanwhile, had gone a bit odd, and my sister seemed to have lost interest in them. Another of my random musical experiences at school was when our geography teacher took it upon himself to play their new LP called Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band instead of telling us about towns of the Potteries. I can remember hearing Lennon singing For the Benefit of Mister Kite, and thinking it was strange and wonderful, and like nothing I’d ever heard, least of all She Loves You and those other sugary hits. Not that I bought the record, of course. After all, I only bought classical stuff, didn’t I?
I had the radiogram in the lounge mostly to myself now, as my bother had left to get married and my sister was off at university, and my Dad only had a Black and White Minstrels LP and some Scottish pipes and drums stuff he played at New Year or when he got sentimental. When my sister returned with a boyfriend in tow, they were gracious enough to take me with them to see a film called 2001 A Space Odyssey, and my world was changed. Partly, of course, because of the look of the film, and the mystery of whatever story it was telling, but at least as much because of the music. Not just the iconic stuff by the two Strausses, brilliant though that was, but the other, weirder, pieces. When I played one of my mates some Ligeti from the 2001 soundtrack, I remember him commenting that he would, genuinely, rather listen to Mrs Mills on the piano. Which was great as far as I was concerned. More of this strange and wonderful music left just for me.
But, alarmingly, I found that I now rather liked some of the singles from what was now called the “Top Twenty”. Between buying Richard Strauss tone poems and exploring Karl Nielsen’s symphonies, my secret shame was that I thought some of Deep Purple’s stuff, and Alice Cooper’s, not to mention Cream and the Stones, was actually pretty good. I liked the drumming, and the riffs, and the sense of risk, and the jangling, twisting melodies. And then there was David Bowie. Not because of the way he dressed — my own dressing-up days were behind me — but because of the music. I particularly loved Life on Mars, with its soaring wistfulness, and Space Odyssey, because of Major Tom dying.
Maybe this pop and rock thing had something going for it after all. Not the stuff you heard all the time on daytime Radio One, of course, but by now I was listening to John Peel as I played with my Airfix soldiers on Sunday afternoons, and enjoying a new, different, sense of exclusivity. I never bought singles, but the first rock LP I bought was Emerson Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The classical link was obvious, but at least as important was that it came in Island’s cheaper Help series instead of at full price. That, and the cool gatefold cover. But it was great, and I absorbed it with the same edge-of-the-seat enthusiasm I’d had for Dvorak, Richard Strauss and Ligeti. I loved the shrieking, atonal bits where Keith Emerson attacked his keyboard. And then there was the drumming…
Ah! Drumming. It wasn’t something you got much of in classical music. Even Holst’s Mars doesn’t have the same propulsion as Karl Palmer at full tilt. My next LP, and the first live act I saw, was the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Drumming aplenty there, and brilliant solo playing. One of my favourite live musical memories is of John McLaughlin and Jean-Luc Ponty trading fours (although I didn’t then know what it was called) on the stage of the Birmingham Odeon. That, and Michael Walden’s thirty minute drum solo. For a long while after that, by now a sixth-former, then a college student, I bought complex jazz-edged rock music, often with very little singing. This was the era of prog rock, and there was plenty of this stuff to go around, although to my mind, as ever a musical snob, a lot of it was still a bit simple-minded. The Floyd, for example, who I liked for a while, at least until the NME laid into them for being lazily commercial. Not to mention Genesis. And as for Supertramp… Actually, I secretly loved my tape of a friend’s Crime of the Century because it was such a sad album.
From here on in, it probably all gets much more predictable. Step forward Henry Cow. Step forward Keith Jarrett and pretty much anything on the ECM label. That, and Steely Dan, and Joni Mitchell, along with a slow return to the classical stuff I’d always loved, especially the great, sad, romantic composers, combined with all the folk, ambient and avant guard music I began listening to. Thanks in major part to Richard and Linda Thompson’s brilliantly pessimistic I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, which starts with a song about suicide and ends with the fabulously bleak The Great Valerio, I finally realised that there was elegance and profundity in seemingly simple music. But probably the last great aha moment in my musical life came when I purchased, for no exact reason I can now remember, a copy of King Crimson’s Red. I already had In the Court of the Crimson King, but, if you discount the great cover and Twenty First Century Schizoid Man, that’s a surprisingly quiet album. I took Red from its sleeve, opened up the record player, which still sat in my parents’ lounge opposite the telly, and played it, and played it, and played it, and played it. Again. And again. I could play it now. In fact, I will…
The prowling thunder of the title track. The jagged, free-form of Providence. Above all, the churning mellotron chords which begin Starless, with that yearning guitar theme and those bleak lyrics about grey hope and sunsets that quitens to a riff which builds over clashing drums until the main theme returns in a howl of saxophones. Complex, intelligent music, played with a ferocious mixture of joy, anger and passion. Maybe it helped that Fripp and his band were imploding. Who knows? To me this is still, and always will be, earth-shatteringly brilliant. I could cry. I am crying. It all seems a very long way from Andy Stewart’s A Scottish Soldier. But then, I always did like sad songs, with lots of drumming.
Guest post by Ian R MacLeod
Ian R MacLeod’s “Snodgrass”, a story telling the life of a John Lennon who quit the Beatles just before they became famous, and ended up living in Birmingham and working for a while in the civil service will be shown in the UK on Sky Playhouse on 25 April.
Open Road Media will shortly be publishing all of Ian’s novels as e-books. They’re starting with a “Best Of” collection of short stories called Snodgrass and Other Illusions, featuring some favourites from his whole career, a few rarities, and individual afterwords.
For all the latest news visit Ian R MacLeod’s website.