Saturday, 14 September 2013

It is always now

In 1970 when I was nine years old I was faced with a dilemma: I wanted to buy a chart topping single, but I wasn't sure which one. I wasn't sure which song I preferred – Freda Payne’s Band of Gold or Deep Purple’s Black Night: a soul classic or a three minute burst of long-haired, testosterone-fuelled heavy metal. In the end my sister was on hand to point me in the right direction (the direction that would make my decisions intersect with her interests): I bought Band of Gold. I still love the song – an overblown, gothic tale of a woman who gets left with her wedding ring on her wedding night after marrying someone who either won’t or can’t sleep with her. It would be sad in an overly melodramatic sort of way, but the singing and the soulful lilt of the song is so uplifting that the subject matter is never given a chance to set the mood. And anyway, anyone in their right mind would be up and dancing rather than worrying too much about the lyrics (which I now assume suggested that the husband was gay but heavily closeted). I think if it had been a few years later I’d have probably opted for Deep Purple, sibling pressure or not. Nine year olds don’t often have the sort of streamlined taste obsessions that will often emerge when kids hit their teenage years. The period in which music taste is so severely and strictly policed is not always long (13 to 23 is probably the time when it is narrowest) but it is the period when music seems to matter most, when it has the most sonic intensity. Young children and the middle-aged are often fairly catholic in their tastes allowing themselves to like show-tunes, country and western, punk and gospel. Teenagers and young adults are often puritans, listening exclusively to either skiffle or hip-hop – you can’t imagine them liking both soul and heavy metal.
There is an album format that is much maligned but is manna for youngsters who have yet to hitch their ears to a particular style of popular music – they are called things like Now that’s what I call music 7 or more economically Now 82. Often the release date seems to be a seasonal affair, popping up ready for Christmas stockings or as a supplement to an Easter egg or for the start of summer. They represent a sort of bargain bonanza of the latest pop fare, representing all aspects of what is selling in record shops or being downloaded from the internet. The reason they are maligned today is probably due to the chaotic mix of styles and seriousness: one-hit-wonders and established artistes; venerable voices and angelic upstarts.
In the 1970s they were maligned for other reasons too: for reasons of profits – prepared to pay author rights but not performing rights – all the songs were cover-versions recorded by anonymous studio session musicians eager or desperate to earn a crust. I loved them and often preferred the cover-version to the original. Actually that’s not quite right: I got to know a lot of the hit parade through these cover versions and then when I eventually heard the originals they were different which in itself meant that they didn't feel quite right – they weren't my originals. The first example I bought was a seven-inch single that you played at 33 rather than at 45. It began with some spoken words: ‘This is the letter T in your Tesco treasure trail’. It was a promotional record by the supermarket Tesco released in 1970 as part of a competition to win an exotic holiday. I think you were meant to collect 5 records and then you could compete. As far as I can recall the records stopped with this first one (no ‘this is the letter E…’) – but I was 9, what did I know? The Tesco record had covers of Andy Williams, Status Quo, and T-Rex. I loved the Tesco version of Ride a White Swan.
But the compilation of cover versions got serious when the record publishers Music for Pleasure (not to be confused with all those publishers of Music for Pain) entered the fray with the Hot Hits series. I bought the first one, and perhaps a couple after. At only 15 shillings (this was the eve of decimalisation) it meant that for about 75p you got a dozen top hits played adequately by some of the most anonymous session musicians around. The Hot Hits record was a temporary respite for me in 1970 allowing me to refrain, if only for a while, from having to choose my musical identity (as if on the seafront at Brighton, hurling deckchairs – are you a mod or rocker, for god’s sake, whose side are you on?).

The first Hot Hits record had a fantastic array of musical styles that pointed in a number of geographical directions (you have to ignore the cover image to get much idea that there could be anything progressive here). If you didn't like Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime – and what’s not to like with all that huffing and puffing percussion – then there was the classic 70s reggae-lilt of Love of the Common People by Nicky Thomas’s (later covered by anti-anti-smoking campaigner Paul Young). You had versions of songs by the Welsh-Nigerian singer Shirley Bassey and the Greek-Cypriot-Swedish-British Cat Stevens (to become Yusuf Islam later in the 70s). For me the stand out track was the version of Vehicle, originally by the white funk group the Ides of March. It was a stonking funky drive track and if Starsky and Hutch had existed in 1970 then I’m sure that both would have had it on their eight-track in-car stereo turned up to maximum.
The versions offered by Music for Pleasure either exaggerated musical ticks (a particular way of singing – great for any Shirley Bassey wannabes) or smoothed out anything that might seem a bit spiky. By offering a single production of a panoply of musical styles Hot Hits revealed similarities and differences that weren't always apparent when listening to the charts on the radio. In one sense Hot Hits was one long stomp – it was a grove stomp – but a stomp nonetheless. And from here it seemed that the skanking stomp of skinhead reggae was the same stomp of more mod inflected stomps of Mr Bloe. Purple tonic Harrington jackets or hooded Parkers might well amount to the same thing when finding a rhythm for the time. But the differences were equally interesting.
The German philosopher Ernst Bloch in his writings on utopia, hope and the lack of it, used a phrase that translates as ‘non contemporaneous simultaneity’. He was writing about Germany at the time when the National Socialists came to power and he had a sense of the crucial importance of how society can simultaneously support radically different experiences of time and history. For Bloch the 1930s witnessed the ‘blood and soil’ of an atavistic imagination that pointed simultaneously backwards and forwards to a thousand year Reich, while also evidencing all sorts of futuristic fetishes.
The Hot Hits of 1970 is only a tiny fragment from a cultural moment – and that moment is clearly not similar to 1930s Germany. But in offering a synchronic slice of hits we are made aware of a vast temporal unevenness. The gender uncertainty of Cliff’s Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha is a moment of transition, whereas Hotlegs Neanderthal Man offers a perspective from pre-history. The sounds too point to archaic rhythms and futuristic noodlings – survival is mixed with arrival (I Will Survive was originally recorded by Arrival). Hot Hits might have been ‘music for profit’, it might have spawned a sequence of increasingly dire record covers, yet there was – in the bringing of all these hits under the same baton – a tiny shard of a ‘now’ made out of multiple folds of time and space.

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