Mention long-lost Cable TV channel Bravo, and most people will remember it as some sort of nightmarish collision of FHM and TV Zone, pitching the likes of Street Hawk and The New Avengers alongside the prosaically titled Hard Bastards and When Hidden Cameras Attack. Given that their audiences probably weren't exactly awash with hard-partying hedonists who went out re-enacting the Smack My Bitch Up video before coming home and throwing up their unholy cocktail of alcopops, cocaine and chilli sauce-sloshed kebab over their strictly chronologically-arranged copies of Doctor Who Classic Comics, it's hard to determine precisely who they were aiming their output at.
Before they started chasing this bewildering demographic, though, Bravo had another short-lived and little-remembered - if equally obscurely targeted - entertainment agenda. Backed up by RKO-evoking stings and idents with appropriately dusty-sounding fanfares, Bravo in its original incarnation aspired towards some sort of rainy Bank Holiday afternoon-style uniformly monochrome high watermark of 'Golden Age'-slanted classic entertainment. Song and dance-heavy Hollywood extravaganzas rubbed shoulders with ancient American sitcoms and, erm, Torchy The Battery Boy. There was very little risk of accidentally stumbling across a late-night showing of Zombie Creeping Flesh in those days.
What you might well have stumbled across, though, was an unlikely and long-forgotten UK television show. With their choices already limited by the parlous state of the black and white-era archives, and limited further still by UK Gold and Granada Plus already having the rights to most of what little did still exist, Bravo had little option but to go rooting around for the more obscure BBC and ITV shows of yesteryear. One such more obscure series that they ended up pulling off a doubtless hazardously dusty shelf was Hadleigh, Yorkshire TV's light drama that ran for an impressive fifty two episodes between 1969 and 1976, but had barely even been mentioned since then.
A spinoff from Gazette, Yorkshire's 1968 series about the thrills and spills of life in a local newspaper office, Hadleigh retained that show's unexpected 'breakout' character, wealthy yet civically-minded proprietor James Hadleigh. Swinging dandy-about-town Hadleigh had recently inherited the paper, along with a title, land, ancestral home and seemingly inexhaustible artillery of paisley cravats, from his late father, but in spirit belonged to a younger generation in touch with progressive ideals and resentful of the selfish attitudes of the landed gentry. Adding insult to social faux-pas, he consistently shunned all entreaties to 'marry rich' in favour of on-off dalliances with local ladies from - gasp - the middle class, with a particular 'thing' for schoolteachers. If you're understandably thinking that this sounds a somewhat flimsy premise to hang a television show that you expected to run for more than three episodes on, it's worth keeping in mind that, even then, this was still a mildly contentious stance in the face of ongoing class-cultural upheaval; and, more to the point, allowed the production team to venture into all manner of then-socially contentious issues.
Back in 1969, issues didn't come much more socially contentious than recreational use of powerful hallucinogens, yet that's exactly what Hadleigh found himself up against in Patron Of The Arts, the fifth episode of the first series, originally broadcast by ITV on 14th October 1969. It would probably have provoked fewer furious letters to TV Times by the time that it rolled up late one Sunday night on Bravo, but nonetheless it still looked startling and, frankly, startlingly realistic. Not for Hadleigh a music festival crammed with Ronnie Corbett's idea of 'hippies' saying 'hey man' to all and sundry, but a realistic-looking house party full of presentable young people having fun expanding their minds, and if you're thinking that sounds unlikely to the point of impossibility then just swallow this sugarcube and let's set off on a voyage across an ocean, wave off our minds, our sense and motion, and get lost in a wonderland of colour and of sound. Only with slightly more expensive suits.
Hadleigh opens with a simple but effective title sequence showing Gerald Harper - doubtless relieved that his first major post-Adam Adamant Lives! gig was somewhat more on the conventional side - going about his silk-tied business, riding around various properties and businesses in an expensive car before being shown 'relaxing' via horse riding and clay pigeon shooting. This is accompanied by Alan Moorhouse's startling theme music, in which a blaring brass-led melody - bearing more than a passing resemblance to High On A Hill, the now highly collectable instrumental single Moorhouse had written for sixties talent show winner Nigel Hopkins only a couple of months earlier - does battle with over-energetic bongos and an alarming series of firework-esque ricochets from a Hammond Organ. This was presumably intended to signify the 'culture clash' of Hadleigh's lifestyle, and if so then it does the job more than effectively. The Forsyte Saga this is most evidently not.
The episode begins with Hadleigh meeting with local Lord Lieutenant Sir George Withy, who is keen for him to follow in the family footsteps and become a Justice Of The Peace. They are looking, it transpires, for someone who can talk to young offenders in their own language, particularly following an incident the previous week in which a "young bastard" - yes, they really do say that - raided a sweetshop, jostled the elderly female proprietor, and in his most hideous and indefensible action "laughed in old Crawford's face" when sentenced. Initially reluctant, Hadleigh has been just about talked into it when they are interrupted by some bland and generic-sounding library music issuing from the next room. "What's that extraordinary noise?", asks Sir George as he gets up to leave. A pop record from 1964, by the sound of it.
It turns out that the popular beat combo in question are 'The Pink Shape', and their latest hot disc is issuing from a transistor radio owned by Hadleigh's secretary Lolly, as played by an extremely young Paula Wilcox. After serving up some instant coffee, which Hadleigh controversially professes to prefer to the genuine article, she begins dancing coyly to said Pink Shape hit parade smash and asks her employer if he would like to come to her birthday party. Hadleigh is surprised and a tad reluctant, causing a clearly quite crush-stricken Lolly to pull a face and mention that her friends had "dared me I wouldn't invite you", and could only conclude that she must have just imagined that he liked her. This clumsy attempt at reverse psychology has the desired effect and he agrees to show his face at her auntie's house at the allotted time, although Lolly's instructions on how to get there via the 92 bus from outside the Odeon only occasion an exasperated look and an offer of a lift. As Lolly prepares to leave, Hadleigh takes the opportunity to point out that he doesn't know what her name is actually short for. "Lolita", she replies with a wink. Ahem.
Informing his butler Maxwell that he won't need a driver tonight as he'll be sticking to soft drinks - yeah, and the rest - Hadleigh picks up a transistor-toting Lolly in his Rolls Royce, pausing only to ask her if they're still listening to The Pink Shape - "no, it's The Idiots" - before pulling up outside a bland semi. Inside, Lolly's George Layton-resembling zonked-out hippy pals are passing around bits of card and suspiciously thick cigarettes, with a couple of them venturing as far as to sway indeterminately to far-out psychedelic sounds, when a young Christian Rodska approaches Hadleigh to venture some of his Acid-fuelled insight. "He who knows the masculine and yet keeps to the feminine will become a channel drawing all the world towards it, and he who knows the white and yet keeps to the black will become the standard of the world", apparently. Hadleigh, who in turn offers the wisdom that he has to be up early the next morning, feels decidedly out of place but does partake in a snifter of 'fire water'. Upon which the record player blasts out what appears to be a showband version of Led Zeppelin, and Lolly briefly persuades Hadleigh to dance before he is again accosted by the pre-Follyfoot prophet in full zen-dispensing flow. "It's a well-worn scene man, a well-worn scene" - "Yes, you've certainly got a point there".
Even apart from the impressively underplayed depictions of drug taking and drug effects - which, rather than moralising per se, carefully emphasise just how tedious the majority of babbling psychedelic voyagers are - what's remarkable about this extended sequence is just how effectively it captures the stop-start to-ing and fro-ing of a genuine house party. So much so, in fact, that a concerned neighbour makes an anonymous call to the rozzers to tip them off about the legally-dubious happenings. Presumably they'd been keeping up with all that stuff about Mars Bars in the tabloids. The police are clearly in no particular hurry to put a stop to it, though, as there's enough time for a plunky sitar groover to play out while Hadleigh partially fends off a huge drunken come-on from Lolly and heroically endures an extended business plan presentation from his new friend ("...and I shall call it the theatre of contemplation!" - "But if there are no words and no actors, what are they contemplating?" - "I shall place a number of evocative articles on the stage - an umbrella, a teddy bear, a beer bottle... light them significantly, and have electronic music... after a time, each member of the audience will respond according to his subconscious, and leave the theatre the richer for it" - "Will you, do you think?" - "Humour, was that?" - "No, I was just trying to assess your chances of success") before they pull up outside very very slowly to the accompaniment of what sounds suspiciously like Mr. Bloe would have done if he only had a toy harmonica to groove with.
Lolly seems to be finally wearing down Hadleigh's romantic defences just as the coppers complete their eighteen hour walk up the drive. An unidentified Kinks-y song greets the arrival of Sergeant Banstead, who makes a beeline for Hadleigh, having already spotted his car outside. The Sergeant offers him the chance to slip quietly out of the back door, but Hadleigh not only refuses but actually stands up for the long-haired layabouts he's been partying with, arguing that the police can surely make better use of their time and resources, and insisting on being searched along with everyone else. After they have successfully felt a couple of collars, Hadleigh tries to leave with Lolly - aye fucking aye - but they are stopped by a constable who insists that she's still technically a suspect. Hadleigh insists that he can not only vouch for her good character but will be happy to do so to his good friend the Chief Inspector, upon which they suddenly decide everything is perfectly fine and he can proceed on his way by himself of his own accord. The other partygoers aren't quite so fortunate, however, and are bundled out of the house along with a projector and an armful of Indian devotional music long-players. "What's the charge, guv?" asks one of the massed George Laytons. "Don't act innocent with me Snow White, we found the Seven Dwarves". So possession of illegally copied Disney film prints, then.
Back at home the next morning, Hadleigh is complaining of his digestive system being temporarily 'stunned' when Maxwell appears to inform him that a mysterious and "rather seedy" gentleman, has turned up demanding an audience; and who also, in a disconcertingly subtle back-reference, is carrying a copy of "that book there was all that trouble about". This, it transpires, is Miles Crispin, a somewhat dubious 'photographer' played by TV's Mestor The Gastropod himself, Edwin Richfield. It soon transpires that Crispin is not there to tout for work, but rather to "dispose of the copyright" of some photographs he has taken recently. Yes, as you've doubtless already guessed, he got wind of the party and its likely guest list - from Lolly, who moonlights as one of his models - and has taken a couple of compromising ten-by-eights that he would be happy to offload for somewhere in the region of twenty thousand quid.
Even though the pictures only appear to show him and Lolly leaving the premises, Hadleigh is concerned enough to offer Crispin a sherry and hear him out. Despite Crispin's warning that "people never read the harmless explanations... they're in such small print, they only look at the pictures", Hadleigh initially stands his ground, believing his character will stand him in good stead. Crispin duly offers the additional information that in one upstairs room "there were blue movies of a... particularly nauseating shade" - though presumably still 'blue' - while in another "elderly voyeurs were catered for with a little balletic improvisation", combining to make up a Lord Longford-alarming smorgasbord that would not only present a challenge the very best of good names, but would also most likely dissuade any self-respecting high-ranking police officer from risking association by speaking up for anyone who might have been there. In a last ditch attempt at reasoning with Crispin, Hadleigh demands to know his motivation for blackmailing an innocent man. Turns out it's money, pure and simple, with a side order of clumsily expressed class warfare rhetoric. "Well", responds the surprisingly sanguine blackmailee, "you're certainly curing my hangover".
Sarcastically expressing a desire that Crispin will put the money to civic use, Hadleigh agrees to hand over the cash at a prearranged time and place, on the condition that "you'll allow me to deduct the cost of the briefcase". Seemingly satisfied, Crispin leaves, but on his way out remarks almost matter-of-factly that one of the paintings hanging on Hadleigh's office wall is clearly a forgery. This, combined with Crispin's poorly concealed educated demeanour and accidentally disclosed knowledge of expensive alcoholic beverages, is enough to start Hadleigh suspecting that, in true The Curious Orange? A Cardboard Box? Jelly? fashion, something here is awry.
Acting on this sizeable hunch, Hadleigh pays a visit to Charles Lancing's gallery, where the harrassed proprietor is trying to fend off a pair of loud Americans voicing suspicion that he's trying to palm them off with a load of goddamn baloney. It turns out that Lancing remembers Miles Crispin only too well, as a talented painter but also an "uncompromising bastard" who alienated dealers and priced himself out of the market. What's more, matters got worse from there - his wife died, he got mixed up with some shady types who pressured him into producing fake Van Goghs, and was last heard of up to his easel in pornography ("Blue Movies?" - "Well, fifteen years ago they didn't move..."). Keen to avoid any negative publicity, Lancing sold all of Crispin's works in his collection to another gallery in Colchester, which - as you may have already worked out - is our next port of call. The unnamed giddy posh custodian at this next gallery is more than pleased to see Hadleigh, and repeatedly offers to show him her 'Sunset At Clacton'. Perhaps sensing that he's already in enough hot water with the ladies, Hadleigh politely declines and insists that he's just there to see the Crispins. After clarifying that this isn't actually a variety of biscuit, he's invited for a 'rummage' in her storeroom, where whatever tension he may have been fending off is sated by the discovery of a series of well-rendered if dusty and neglected nudes. "It's frank, isn't it?", notes the gallery owner.
Not nearly as frank as the scene that follows it, in which we see Crispin hard at work in his studio, painting a nude study of a surprisingly-revealed-for-1969 Lolly. She's not happy when he makes her turn off more of her blasted 'pop' music, and even less happy still when he relates his blackmail plot, retorting that her employer is a nice man and is being treated unfairly, and anyway, didn't Crispin go to one of them posh schools himself? This makes him ever so slightly furious, though his temper is subdued by, in turn, Lolly booting him in the knackers and an unexpected ring on the doorbell. Despite momentary panic that it might be the police, it turns out to be - surprise surprise - Hadleigh. He's got the money but has deducted fifteen quid for the briefcase. "I said not more than ten", snarls Crispin. "Well, what's a fiver between connoisseurs?".
Hadleigh gets straight in with a critical appraisal of his work, and while Crispin tries to rebuff this by reminding him that "you're not on Late Night Line-Up", Lolly sees her chance to help and whips out her favourite of his renderings of her - a JH Lynch-esque baps-ahoy number that presumably kept any teenage viewers that were looking in excited for an entire fortnight. Speaking from an art-loving rather than knocker-loving perspective, Hadleigh opines that a work like that ought to be seen, and reveals that the briefcase is actually stuffed with old newspaper; his offer instead is to donate a grant to allow Crispin to resume serious painting, and what's more he'll pull some strings and arrange for Lancing to mount a high-profile retrospective of his work. A humiliated Crispin declines, and asks the unwanted "deus ex machina bettering the lives of poor unfortunates" to leave. Which Hadleigh duly does, noting on his way to the door that he now wants to pay the original demanded sum out of sheer irritation. Erm, however that works exactly.
Back at home, Hadleigh is discussing Crispin's work with an equally artistically impressed Maxwell, and pondering on what would drive a man to refuse to be helped ("Pride, Sir"), when Crispin arrives, bearing both his genuine accent and a hefty slice of humble pie. He is taken aback to see one of his prints up on the wall in place of the forgery, expresses surprisingly explicit regret for his porn work and genuine lament for an artistic interest in the female form gone wrong, and breaks the ice by jokingly referring to Hadleigh as "more patronising than a Tory landlord". Over a glass of the expensive stuff, the two unlikely associates toast their new business agreement, with Hadleigh musing that "we don't want a slow fade to soft music, do we?". No, what we want is the end credits over a carefully cropped nude of lolly with a full-length album-edit 12" extended version of the theme music complete with over-extravagant middle eight, and that's precisely what we get. And, well, that's Hadleigh. On 'drugs'.
Patron Of The Arts does, it has to be said, have what feels like a flimsy cop-out ending, but it's also fair to say that it probably packed more of a viewer-surprising punch back at the tail-end of the sixties, when the upper classes were still at least halfway honest about their nose-looking-down proclivities rather than clowning around on panel shows pretending to be an ordinary common folk just like all of you at home until everyone's conned into agreeing to something for the sake of further lining their pockets. Indeed, to describe this as 'light drama' seems a tad unfair, especially when you take the frank, realistic and atypically sympathetic depiction of recreational drug use into account, even if it was clearly written by someone who had had just about enough of their friends turning into 'visionary' dullards who wouldn't bloody shut up. It's also quite surprising to find such a subtle yet undeniable sense of disdain for the police and their law-bending bias towards the great and good; the sniffy rubber-gloved attitude towards 'obscene' art is slightly more as might be expected, although it would be interesting to ponder on whether this stance might have changed following the Open Space Theatre raid and the Oz Trial only a couple of months later. Admittedly Lolly's rather passive role in her starring episode does leave a little to be desired, but this was 1969, and anyway she did get to stand up for herself physically in an impressively eye-watering fashion.
More surprising still is the substantial element of self-awareness verging on postmodernism that runs throughout the entire episode. From jibes at cliched fade-outs to swipes at whatever was on 'the other side' at the time - not to mention Hadleigh's constant sharp rejoinders that chime so closely with the viewer's perspective that they may as well be addressed directly to camera - there's a sense that the production team were intentionally trying to position the show somewhere outside the pigeonhole of nattily-dressed fluff, and while these may not seem quite as wildly deconstructionist now, and even at the time were hardly as 'out there' as The Strange World Of Gurney Slade, it's still something of a surprise to find such leanings in such an apparently ordinary and unremarkable show. On top of that, it's also a decent bit of light drama and Gerald Harper is superb as the lead. It would be a stretch to call Hadleigh an undiscovered classic of television that should be up there with The Prisoner and Up The Junction, but it's certainly proof that you can still find enjoyable surprises in the most unlikely and overlooked of places.
What's more, with its nudity, choice language, unflinching drug references and thorough disrespect for the conventions of decent society, this episode of Hadleigh was probably more extreme than anything else shown by Bravo. Stitch that, Brits Behind Bars.
This is an interview about Higher Than The Sun that I did with Creation Records as part of their celebration of twenty five years since the release of Screamadelica. It turned into quite a wide-ranging discussion, touching on attitudes to Britpop, nostalgia for 'compilation tapes', and who the best Evening Session host was. And of course there was plenty about Screamadelica, Foxbase Alpha, Bandwagonesque and Loveless. You can get Higher Than The Sun in paperback, as an eBook, or from the Kindle Store.
1991 was a great year for alternative music in general, what inspired you to write a book about some of the releases?
I’d written about all four albums individually in the past, but the idea for Higher Than The Sun really came about when there was that outbreak of Britpop ‘anniversary’ mania a while back. Which is obviously worth celebrating, but I always felt like we were only getting part of the story. It wasn’t something that just magically appeared from nowhere when Modern Life Is Rubbish came out, there was a whole gradual build-up to it with a lot of false starts along the way, and some bands and even entire scenes that have been written out of history. Not that they had anything to do with Britpop but Carter USM were actual proper pop stars for a good while, and they never get mentioned now. And added to that, on the other side of the coin, there was the sneering from people determined that we should all know how little they cared about Britpop. By the time we got to columnists blaming Elastica for Nigel Farage or something, I was a bit fed up with it all.
I suppose this made me want to look for a fresh ‘angle’ to look at it from, and this started me thinking about that phase just prior to Britpop when there were a lot of bands taking a similar approach but still with that ‘indie’ attitude and lack of interest in playing the ‘fame game’. Almost literally from the release of the C86 compilation to The KLF sabotaging The Brits; and in fact there was a concerted effort by the BPI to take ‘control’ of the independents around then, which I’d entirely forgotten about. As far as I’m concerned, Screamadelica, Foxbase Alpha, Bandwagonesque and Loveless were the greatest achievements to come out of all of that, so it made sense to make them the focus of the ‘story’. And once I started to look into it, it became obvious that there really was a story here, and the four albums were linked in all kinds of surprising ways that went way beyond the fact that they were all released within weeks of each other. Andrew Weatherall was very heavily involved, for example, and there was a shared enthusiasm for the seventies rock band Big Star. Often the production of one album would impact directly on another. They all had direct links to C86. It just got more and more interesting from there, really.
On a more personal level, I’m more known for writing about archive TV and radio and had recently written a book about Radio 1, which had the misfortune to come out just as certain allegations were starting to emerge… so I needed a bit of a change and what better way to do that than with four of my favourite albums!
From the start were you going to just feature those albums or was there a temptation to include some other albums from that era?
I knew from the outset I wanted to concentrate on those four albums, but also put them in their proper context. So there was always going to be quite a bit about Madchester and Shoegazing, and also the early Heavenly bands, who were way more colourful and cartoonish than everything else that was going on at the time – very at odds with the usual view of the early nineties. As it progressed, all kinds of other names started to get drawn into the story, from 808 State and Spirea X to Tin Machine and Sugar. So I talk about a few other albums, but the only one to get any substantial coverage is Back In Denim by Denim, which really was an unofficial ‘fifth’ in many ways.
Which of those four is your favourite?
I’d find it hard to choose between them, to be honest, but if I was pressed on the point I’d have to say Foxbase Alpha. So many ideas and so much potential, and it actually feels like it exists in several different eras of pop music all at once – it’d be as at home on a sixties pirate radio station as on a nineties dance one. Also the reference points are so esoteric and individual – if it’s ‘retro’, then it’s recalling an alternate timeline to the usual fare.
How did you first discover most of those bands and what drew you to them?
I’d had C86 and a couple of earlier singles by most of them, but it really started when Mark Goodier took over The Evening Session in the Summer of 1990. He was right behind all four acts from the outset – more than John Peel ever was – and probably did more than anyone else to get them out to mainstream listeners and into the charts. When you consider that included convincing enough people to push To Here Knows When into the top thirty, that’s quite an achievement. I think he’s been done an enormous disservice by the rock history books and I was really glad to have the opportunity to redress the balance a little. Time was when his was my favourite radio show bar none.
As for what drew me to them, I’d been a massive fan of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays et al, but by the middle of 1991 they’d all hit a wall for various reasons and it was time to start listening out for something new. In all four cases it was the imagination and the sheer diversity of their influences – and I do include Teenage Fanclub in that – that caught my attention. And all of their singles really, really stood out, at a time when certain more successful acts didn’t even seem to be trying.
That’s really interesting that you talk about Mark Goodier, I know he does the odd stand-in on Radio 2 but he’s pretty forgotten about these days. He’d be more suitable for 6Music perhaps?
I’d certainly like to see him better represented in the endless Britpop ‘retrospectives’. Obviously it’s true that Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley were presenting The Evening Session right in the thick of it – and I have to say I really enjoyed their recent revival of the show on Radio 2 – but it’s also worth stressing that he did a huge amount of the groundwork. For example he was determined to play Blur when nobody else cared. In fact I’ve a vivid memory of him raving about advance tapes of Modern Life Is Rubbish in very early 1993, and saying that he couldn’t wait to play the new songs on the show. He was a straight-ahead, facts-first DJ who wasn’t too ‘cool’ to enthuse about new discoveries – for the record, I didn’t think that Chris Morris sketch was a very accurate parody even at the time – and yes I do think we need a bit more of that these days.
Back in those days bands ‘breaking through’ seemed a lot more black and white, the press and radio either promoted you or you were unknown. Were you an avid NME, Sounds or Melody Maker reader?
Definitely NME for me! I loved the attitude they had then that you shouldn’t be afraid to poke fun at things that you actually liked, and I was very much a fan of Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie and David Quantick – in fact I still crack up laughing when I remember stuff they did like the Rock Family Trees parody and the celebration of the Fourteenth Anniversary Of Punk. The others left me a bit cold sometimes, though I obviously still read them occasionally. It’s worth pointing out though that even back then, there was a suspicion of bands that were being backed by the press and radio, and they’d often be derided by the sort of indie fans who’d then go on about some wilfully uncommercial outfit that you stood little chance of actually hearing. I can remember people reacting to the ‘hype’ around Suede as if they were Bad Boys Inc or something. So maybe that even worked against bands sometimes; I’d imagine there was probably some recoiling in horror at the idea of Teenage Fanclub performing on Saturday Night Live.
My first impressions of Screamadelica were that it seemed more of a compilation of previously released material with a few new tracks. It took me a while to get it as a whole. Did it click with you straight away?
Funnily enough, yes I did ‘get’ it straight away, on the very first listen. I think that was probably down to having then recently discovered a lot of the musical reference points; people forget now that pre-Internet, there was that whole tape trading culture. It gets reduced to nostalgia about ‘mixtapes’ now but there was also a huge element of music obsessives making tapes with discoveries they thought each other would like, and in those days that’s how you found out about Francoise Hardy, Neu!, Northern Soul, Bowie’s sixties material and what have you. ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’ was a bit of a silly slogan when you think about it. So yes, I’d recently been introduced to 13th Floor Elevators, Big Star, Robert Johnson, Pet Sounds etc, and had a nodding acquaintance with ‘rave’ culture – it was hard not to back then admittedly – so it all seemed to make perfect sense.
You mentioned Britpop, I think all four albums you’ve written about (and Ride’s first two albums) have stood the test of time so much better than anything from Britpop. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the 'fame game' which ultimately lead to less experimentation in music. Should we blame Britpop for the corporate/celebrity culture we suffer today?
Yes and no really. Noel Gallagher was blatantly ambitious but nobody could ever accuse him of following anyone else’s ‘rules’. Blur would have top ten hits but with lead guitar that sounded like it belonged on a Wire record. There were the likes of Elastica and Menswe@r who emerged so fast from the small-time indie scene that they maybe weren’t properly equipped to cope with so much mass mainstream attention. So I think that even then they were trying to find ways of making their ideas commercial, rather than just going straight for the cash register. There were exceptions, but I think they also really just prove that point; Supergrass and Super Furry Animals did whatever they felt like doing but lost that mainstream audience pretty quickly, and the real unfortunate casualty was Luke Haines, who stuck admirably to the ‘old’ attitude but got left behind as a result. That was a real shame. But the problems started when the bands that came in their wake went straight for the money rather than the music so ultimately maybe it did do a lot more harm than good.
You mentioned you’ve written a book about Radio 1. In these days of Spotify and YouTube does it still hold the same influence as it did?
I think it’s starting to again, as they’re now finding ways of engaging with New Media that no longer make everyone cringe. Some of the best new DJs have emerged through YouTube which some people would probably snort at, but is it really any different from finding past presenters on Pirate Radio or Local Radio? The only problem is that there’s now much less distance between the regular shows and the specialist shows – again, maybe a byproduct of Britpop – and you have to go to 1Xtra or Asian Network to hear something really ‘out there’.
There’s obviously been other books that have featured those albums but it's great you’ve focused purely on those four. Have you read David Cavanagh’s and Paolo Hewitt’s books on Creation Records?
Yes and they’re both great books; I especially like that they cover the story of Creation from entirely different approaches. I suppose mine was from the listener’s point of view, which was different again. Which reminds me that I’d like to get a tip of the hat in for Paolo’s Small Faces book The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story, which I really enjoyed and I don’t think has ever got the attention it deserved. I’d imagine they both found, as I did, that nobody’s account of any story quite added up with each other. People interpret artistic situations differently, and while you can have the facts nailed down, the view that the people involved had or have is just as important, and just because they recalled details incorrectly they’re not necessarily ‘wrong’. So it becomes a matter of finding a common ground between how everyone involved, including the audience, saw it… I’d like to think I’ve done a decent job of that, and hopefully others do too!
Whatever innovations the emergence of 'serious' rock in the late sixties may have brought with it, they certainly didn't include an abundance of zany knockabout slapstick horseplay.
Back when pretty much everything in the charts was still seen as 'pop', 'pop' itself was in turn still largely seen - at least in the UK - as essentially an offshoot of Light Entertainment. Many of the biggest pop acts - including, at least initially, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones - actually still played the variety circuit, and most fancied themselves as 'all round' entertainers who could raise a chortle as easily and efficiently as they could inspire a dance craze. Even beyond the more overtly comedic likes of Freddie And The Dreamers and The Temperance Seven, you will still find a far broader vein of humour running through the average sixties popular beat combo's discography than you would do for any randomly selected act at pretty much any point since then.
The Beatles, of course, treated almost every appearance they made as an excuse to make with the sarcastic wit and surrealist interchanges, while The Kinks rightly considered themselves to be every bit the equal of the stars of the 'satire boom'. The Move, The Who, The Hollies, The Small Faces, Manfred Mann, Lulu and many, many others routinely filled out their albums and b-sides - and sometimes even their a-sides - with out and out tomfoolery. Jimi Hendrix apologised for long solos in his lyrics, recorded humorous outer space travelogues for b-sides, and once told Neil Innes that he believed that he and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were 'doing the same thing'. David Bowie tried to make his name with a fairly notorious bit of speeded-up silliness, while Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd were never a couple of extended improvisations away from half-chortled whimsy about scarecrows and gnomes. And was there ever an entirely serious Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky Mick And Tich record? From Cilla Black and Herman's Hermits to The Waltham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association, everyone had their novelty songs, their comedy routines and their jokey accents, and if we tried to list every single slapstick caper film featuring a sixties UK pop act we'd be here all day. And probably still not get them all. Even The Dave Clark Five might have cracked a smile once or twice.
It would be a mistake to say that the arrival of more 'serious' rock did away with humour completely. You'll find quips, wordplay and situationist musical pranks aplenty on any given Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin album, to name but two, but the difference by now was that they almost uniformly traded in subtle and sophisticated humour that you had to be looking for to find. In fairness, a fair few of the leading lights of Prog Rock had been plying their trade in unsuccessful beat bands since the mid-sixties and may well have got all of that out of their system by then; Ritchie Blackmore, for example, was probably in no hurry to repeat the Joe Meek-instigated publicity stunt tomfoolery he'd endured as a member of The Outlaws. In addition to that, the Glam Rockers had already adopted the more visual elements of pop-slanted humour into an equally updated and visually baffling take on the phenomenon. At the end of the day, though, they were dealing with audiences who wanted to think about the music, man, and no doubt spotting one of Pete Sinfield's witty lyrical conceits after 'seeing' the haunting existential dilemma of the cover of In The Court Of The Crimson King was an afternoon well spent in early seventies Ladbroke Grove.
Unfortunately, this fundamental shift in the music-to-laughs ratio has resulted in far too many of the emergent 'serious' rock acts being written off as pompous and humourless bores who considered themselves above such trifling concerns as levity, when in reality the majority of them were nothing of the sort. This is especially, and especially unfairly, true of the handful of bands that paved the way for said emergence, which is why we're going to be taking the opportunity here to say a couple of words in defence of Cream.
Hang on a minute, you're probably not unreasonably thinking. Weren't Cream the virtuoso blues purists who started all of this 'Robert Johnson is real music' tediousness and did that twenty seven million hour concert that gets shown on BBC4 every three minutes? Well, yes they were, and to be honest Ginger Baker's entertaining yet dismissive curmudgeonliness and Eric Clapton's dreary stadium rock boreathons and boneheaded declarations that Enoch was 'right' - which he was still refusing to entirely recant as recently as 2007 - have done little to help the band's cause. Yet believe it or not, all of this came surrounded by subsequently critically-ignored outbursts of levity and absurdity. Dressing up as convicts and park-keepers, miming on television with tennis racquets, writing a jokey song about catching an STD from a groupie with the chorus "WAAA-AAAAAA-AAA-A-ARGH!!", dancers in bear costumes, the very clearly Spike Milligan-inspired likes of SWLABR and Pressed Rat And Warthog, the scarcastic scorn-pouring of Politician, finishing off a hard and heavy album with a psyched-up close-harmony stroll through that Your Baby Has Gorn Dahn The Plug'ole thing and so much more besides, especially in the earlier days when they remembered to keep everything under four minutes long. And then there's the small matter of their debut single.
Even the most dedicated and in-depth 'rock guides', not to mention Eric Clapton biographies, tend to gloss over poor old Wrapping Paper. At best it will be described as 'low key', 'atypical' and 'barely featuring Clapton's guitar'. At worst it will just find itself on the receiving end of a barrage of disdainful bafflement and rhetorical demands to know what they were thinking, usually backed up by a typically forthright quote from Ginger Baker. A more accurate description, however, would be a charming and wistful Music Hall pastiche - a good six months before The Beatles got in on that particular act - with some nifty rolling piano and a sublime instrumental break where Clapton trades slide guitar licks with a cello. It was written and sung by Jack Bruce, but if Clapton and Baker had any issue with it at the time, then it certainly wasn't apparent in their joyous and enthusiastic backing vocals. Sadly, as it stalled at number thirty four, we can only guess at what Tongue Tied-esque antics they might have been planning to mime to it with on Top Of The Pops.
Wrapping Paper was also very clearly deliberately intended to be low key, atypical, Clapton-deficient and all the rest of it, as it was equally clearly deliberately intended as a joke at the expense of the more humourless contingent of their audience. And yes, they did have one already; Cream may not have released a record yet, but if you look back through the music press over the latter half of 1966, you'll find all manner of feverish articles about this brand spanking new 'supergroup' formed by three highly talented refugees from popular live acts, crammed with wild speculation about how loud the drums would be, how many centuries the guitar solos would go on for, and just how thrillingly dull and purist they would be. Small wonder, then, that they would choose to launch themselves on the world with a misleading bit of whimsy. In fact, around the same time, you could find similarly over-eager predictions being made for the similarly conceived Traffic, whose immediate diversion into soul-jazz with heavy psychedelic pop overtones must have caused similar alarm amongst the Clapton Is God brigade. Oh well, at least they could have consoled themselves with the ferocious rampage through the blues standard Cat's Squirrel on the b-side.
Sadly, we never did find out whether Wanderin' Sandy made it back to the house of old times, nor indeed whether he trod the weeds down. Overlooked and unloved, Wrapping Paper never made it onto an official Cream album and has even been omitted from some reissue campaigns, which is a shame as it really is a hugely enjoyable song, and strong evidence of just how downright peculiar mainstream pop music was getting in the mid-sixties. It's about time that it got wrapped up again and re-gifted, frankly. Well come on, this whole article is about unsophisticated humour. What were you expecting?
You can find more about Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and company and their various escapades on late-night BBC2 in The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society.