PlayPlax

I recently rediscovered my PlayPlax set, looking as bright and modern as it did nearly 50 years ago, minus only two squares of the original forty-eight.

PlayPlax (rather pedantically, I thought it should be PlayPacks as a child) was invented by Patrick Rylands in 1966 whilst studying at the Royal College of Art.

Ryland’s ‘spatial construction game’ consists of 48 brightly coloured plastic squares in red, blue, green, yellow and transparent.  An incision on each side allows them to be fixed together to form myriad, interlocking abstract shapes or architectural structures.  The Montreal Convention Centre is a real PlayPlax building.

Rylands became chief designer at Ambi Toys and PlayPlax a staple of children’s play during the late 60s through to the 80s with over a million packs sold.

Plastic fantastic

I used to spend many happy hours with PlayPlax, sometimes simply revelling in the bright colours.

The structures I made were part abstract imaginary, part versions of real-life buildings rendered bright, open, transparent and looking even more fantastic if the sun cast stained plastic reflections over the bedroom carpet.

I thought of my buildings as kinds of churches.  They bore no resemblance to a traditional spire and steeple church yet felt inspirational, hallowed in a very modern kind of way.  They would probably be urban art galleries now.

Six years ago, the original PlayPlax was reissued, no doubt with baby boomers in mind, using the same dyes and even manufactured in the same factory as back in the 60s.

I am sure I have seen a circular/cylindrical version in the intervening years but it’s the squares which have stood the test of time.

PlayPlax
PlayPlax on Retrowow
Guardian interview with Patrick Rylands

 


Moving house
Growing up with Lego

Not just a Casual affair

I surprised myself a little in writing no less than eight posts on The Casuals who, by any stretch of the imagination, were a minor pop group of their time and no more than a one hit wonder to a majority of the public who might have heard of them at all.

Casuals

When I started lightspots, I said I would try to avoid reproducing information available elsewhere – discographies, biographies, reeling off a band’s career.  But for The Casuals, to fill in some of that background has felt necessary as it appeared to be barely out there.  What existed was widely scattered and tended to be brief, focusing on their ‘one hit wonder’ status.

I hope something of my appreciation of the band has emerged through what were fairly straight and narrow biographical posts.  But writing them has made me think further about why The Casuals hold a particular appeal for me.

Two aspects spring immediately to mind – the abiding quality (and qualities) of their big hit and the underappreciated elegance of John Tebb’s unique voice.  But there’s more.

Making arrangements

I’m also interested in the role of these 60s arrangers whose talents often seem severely undervalued.  It’s as if the arrangements are regarded as unfortunate necessities for young bands signed to major labels who had to endure their creations being ‘dressed-up’ for commercial success by older, more conservative record company stalwarts.  Well that was how it might have seemed at the time and to rock cognoscenti subsequently whereas by and large, I find the arrangers add a great deal of expertise, colour and interest, taking the music to another level of sophistication rather than reducing it down or blanding it out.

It makes more sense to hear these bands in the round – as an amalgamation of the talents of performers, composers, arrangers and producers rather than focusing only on the frontmen.

There is something I find quite endearing about young groups being nurtured by the talents of a largely older generation who were themselves informed by earlier and other traditions: big band, orchestral, jazz, classical and so called easy listening to name but a few (George Martin obviously springs to mind here).  That collision of the old with the new – psychedelia, rock, experimentalism – produced something rare and unique to the mid-late 60s with everybody benefitting from the cross fertilisation.  I think the ‘old’ was as essential to the ‘new’ in the mix although it tends to be the new which gets the attention.

But there are other aspects of bands like The Casuals which appeal, more personal ones, perhaps, which are harder to pin down but which have quietly crystallised as I’ve written these posts.  Now I’d like to say something about these too.

English modesty

There is sometimes a sense when listening to pop of imagining yourself as part of the band.  Sometimes this might be subtle or what you might call ‘psychic’ – feeling an intense part of the music simply by being a listener or a fan – sometimes it’s much more overt – identifying with particular band members, or relating to a group’s ethos or sympathising with the scene they represent.  I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a rock god (which is perhaps just as well as I was never going to be one).  I don’t much relate to the macho, muscularity of that nor of wanting to hog the limelight.  But I think I can imagine what it might have felt like to be a Casual – part of a working band from the provinces, hoping for that elusive breakthrough hit.  Yes, it’s a  fleeting fantasy of being in a POP group at that time, the comraderie in music, being on a shared quest.  The excitement yet modesty of it appeals.

I feel it in a closer way still with groups such as Honeybus who wrote all their own material but, like The Casuals never made it big. Their lack of grandeur or spectacular success beyond the one hit seems curiously English – defining them as unassuming though they never intended it to be like this of course.  Pete Dello’s  diffidence probably played a part in crashing the band’s career.  Still, I find these qualities immensely appealing and a huge loss once they slipped out of music during the Americanisation of the 70s before being effectively demolished under the weight of international stadium rock in the 80s.

Experimenting with the mainstream

The Casuals’ music may not be the most ambitious and yet it provides an ideal example of how ideas from outside the mainstream come to influence that mainstream and why this is so redolent of the 60s.  The Beatles exemplified this.  The Casuals highly arranged, orchestrated pop sound with its sometime nods to a flower power/psychedelic sensibility would not have been possible two years before and was already cut adrift two years later. The narrowness of this window gives their music an added poignancy.

There is a sense too that because music has moved on so much since then, music which at the time simply did not qualify as ‘artistic’ has acquired a certain piquancy or even potency.  Nothing sounds remotely like it today and we simply don’t have the means – the backgrounds of the arrangers, the jobbing nature of the touring band playing in a myriad small venues, that unadulterated style of smooth ballad singing, the ability to distil something in song primarily through melody – to capture that sound anymore even if we wanted to.

Here come the nice

Another thing which fascinates me about The Casuals’ music is that it is a refinement of quintessential pop in 1968.  The Herd were perhaps its trendy embodiment but The Casuals offered something less modish, less gimmicky, friendlier (‘you’re really too kind’).  Their songs are often characterised by a courtly quality, a niceness, a kind of politeness so that when they do kick-ass (Seven Times Seven) they do so within parameters which are fundamentally pleasant!  To some this might seem like damning with faint praise but I believe that there is room for music which isn’t necessarily utterly outré, world changing, in your face, ‘out there’, banging – and that that music can be appreciated for its particular virtues just as can any other.  It need not be bland, boring or disposable but charming, delightful, understated.

Although I don’t recall hearing The Casuals at the time (being only four in 1968), there is something in their music (as with The Family Dogg) which powerfully takes me back to the late 60s/very early 70s, as if it was in the air when I was a child – the sunshine brass, blissed out harmonies, that ‘honey and buttercups’ vibe.  The Casuals‘ juvenilia themes intensifies this, as if their music describes both my childhood – Toyland, Daddy’s Song – but then also what it might have felt like to have been a teenager in 1968 – I’m thinking Here we Go Round the Mulberry Bush – with fare such as Fool’s Paradise, Sunflower Eyes and even Toy.

Songwriting

I have tried my hand at songwriting and from time to time have borrowed some of the feel of songs like Toyland and Letter Every Month without consciously trying to do so, let alone emulate them.  I just find it’s there as a part of me – the desire to write a three minute, melodic pop song which is modest but in its own way hopefully eloquent, crafted, going beyond guitar, bass and drums – a kind of 1969 Casuals’ single in other words.

I might even post some of these songs up one day…

 


Posts on The Casuals

The Casuals: beyond Jesamine
The Casuals: before Jesamine: 1961- mid 1968
Jesamine Part 1

Jesamine Part 2
When Jesamine Goes: Singles 1968/69
Hour World 1969
With Jesamine Gone: 1970-76

 

Sarstedt 1969

 

It’s hard to catch up with the 60s generation.  For a while I’ve had it in mind to post on Peter Sarstedt but his death in January of this year has overtaken me.  So this review of his first two albums from 1969 becomes something of a tribute by default though not an uncritical one.

The two albums in question are Peter Sarstedt and As Though it Were a Movie both for United Artists and brought together on BGO’s 1995 CD re-issue [BGOCD274] – more on the CD release later.

Romantic outsider

A European flavour runs through both albums, at times recalling something of the romanticism of Nick Garrie-Hamilton’s The Nightmare of J.B. Stanislas.  It therefore comes as no surprise to learn that, like Nick, Peter travelled widely in Europe prior to his major success at the end of the 60s.  But Sarstedt’s romanticism, whilst never jaded, is far more equivocal, more observational than Nick Garrie-Hamilton’s misty-eyed musings.  Sarstedt is also some eight years older.  A certain worldliness is offset by a literary, artistic sensibility – witness the wistful epiphany of I Am a Cathedral, also the most Garrie-like track here.

Talking of I am a Cathedral, Peter acknowledges he was looking for ‘something obscure and enigmatic’ and that seems key to an understanding of these albums.  At once both wayward and mainstream (in a way which only the late 60s can muster), we’re always aware of Sarstedt’s instincts to deliver a good (or at least reasonable) folkie melody but then he’ll throw something unsettling into the lyrical mix so that Sons of Cain are Abel begins by evoking days of wine and roses but its summery gaze is drug-fuelled and blank.

 

Both albums are produced by Ray Singer and arranged by Ian Green and share a similar sonic sensibility.  The latter (despite its top and tailing orchestral extravaganzas) is slightly drier, a little rootsier.  On the debut album especially, the producer might have been Mike Hurst around the time of Neil McArthur’s She’s Not There. 

The orchestration is by turns quasi-psychedelic, middle-of-the road, folkie, cinematic, clicky in an early Cat Stevens sort of way, featuring just an occasional brush with rock.  For me, the instrumentation mainly enhances the surprisingly diverse styles on offer – country, calyspso, gospel – but I say that as a fan of 60s arrangements.  I have only dipped into Peter Sarstedt’s later albums but singles like Beirut from 1978 and 1986’s Hemingway both suffer from unsympathetic backings.  Peter’s 2006 album On Song (which I have heard through) opts for a reduced palette of acoustic guitar and I suspect this may be true of his later offerings; how I miss those arrangements!

Gentle but sardonic

Sarstedt comes across as someone who partakes of life but remains essentially an outsider.  He as good as tells us this in Boulevard.  He comments on his experiences, painting portraits of people he meets along the way though at times it’s not clear how these encounters affect him.  He is like a traveller negotiating his way through the peace, love and drugs generation via the wheeler dealing of Blagged, the drug bust of No More Lollipops for You and the permissive apologia of I’m a Good Boy. 

Sarstedt’s voice may be gentle but his tone can be surprisingly sardonic.  He acknowledges Dylan’s influence.  Only on Many Coloured Semi-Precious Plastic Easter Egg does the debt become overly onerous.

I find the overtly satirical pieces pall after a few listens – My Daddy is a Millionaire (the clue is in the title) the sly Take Off Your Clothes, the insistent I’m a Good BoyMary Jane (portrait of a dominatrix) gets by thanks to some fabulously blaring toxic swinging London horns – it feels like you’re in a Jaguar swinging round Piccadilly Circus (or Pigalle) in 1968.  On the second album generally, Sarstedt seems more relaxed, less keen to impress: Letter to a Friend is welcome for its self-deprecatory honesty.

Follow that

It’s so hard to hear Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) just as ‘track 7’ when you know it was a massive international hit.  The song dominates Peter Sarstedt by nature of its length, repetitive structure and comprehensive narrative but I wouldn’t say it completely overshadows its peers.

Follow-up,  Frozen Orange Juice, although likeable enough in a jaunty kind of way, was a lost opportunity to showcase the best of Peter’s material, a view shared by its composer.  It’s just too different from its predecessor, an infinitely inferior song with an unevocative title.  Inevitably it made it to Number Ten.

At his best

As Though It Were a Movie is often cited as his best song and, on the basis of these two albums, I’d agree.

As Though It Were a Movie in full.

I’d also highlight Blagged with its clever, sometimes cynical power exchange, catchy melody and Day in the Life drums.

The double CD

It would have been nice had the double-CD included as bonus tracks Peter’s two pre-album singles:  In the Day of My Youth b/w My Monkey is a Junkie (Major-Minor 1967 as Peter Lincoln, the B-side is Bonzoesque and quite irritating) and I Must Go On (Island 1968, the B-side Mary Jane features on Peter Sarstedt).

More pertinent is the omission of Where Do You Go to (My Lovely) B-side Morning Mountain.  Having caught it on Youtube, it’s a minor piece but should have been included anyway.

Liner notes from Spencer Leigh of BBC Radio Merseyside provide just enough context together with reproductions of original album artwork and full lyrics for Peter Sarstedt.  

This is an adequate but by no means deluxe re-release.

‘Life … God how it slips away’  – ‘Time, Love, Hope, Life’.

Peter Sarstedt: 10th December 1941 – 8th January 2017.


Peter Sarstedt

1. I am a Cathedral – 2.49
2. Sons of Cain ae Abel – 3.46
3. No More Lollipops – 2.12
4. Stay Within Myself – 2.56
5. You are My Life – 3.13
6. Sayonara – 2.36
7. Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) – 5.23
8. Blagged – 3.12
9. My Daddy is a Millionaire – 2.18
10. Once Upon an Everyday – 2.33
11. Mary Jane – 2.19
12. Time Was Leading Us Home – 4.27
13. Many-Coloured Semi-Precious Plastic Easter Egg – 2.51
14. Time, Life, Hope, Life – 3.52

As Though It were a Movie

1. Overture – 3.08
2. As Though It Were a Movie – 3.54
3. Open a Tin – 2.54
4. Step into the Candlelight – 3.06
5. Take off your Clothes – 3.55
6. Letter to a Friend & Intermission – 3.05
7. Overture – 0.30
8. Boulevard – 2.44
9. The Sunshine is Expensive – 3.17
10. The Artist – 2.52
11. The Friendship Song (Hey Nena) – 4.23
12. Juan – 1.37
13. I’m a Good Boy – 3.52
14. National Anthem & Doors Clsoe at 10.45pm – 1.28

Extra tracks

15. Frozen Orange Juice – 3.10
16. Aretusa Loser – 3.43


Update June 2017: first two images substituted [original selections withdrawn by Gettyimages]

Apologies for absence

Hello lightspotters,

Sorry for there being nothing here in four weeks.

I’ve been in Japan (may work this into a future piece) and forgot to say so here.

Back now with the first of two posts on Peter Sarstedt

Peter Sarstedt: As Though It Were a Movie

As Though It Were a Movie is often cited as Peter Sarstedt’s best song and on the basis of his first two albums (which I’ll be reviewing shortly by way of a tribute), I’d agree.

Art life collision

Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) is perhaps more finely crafted but the art-life collision of As Though It Were a Movie has a gravitas touching on the disturbing: ‘What do you think your mother is and what is she for?’  Sarstedt demands against a thunderous crescendo.

For once, a tendency to satirise is abandoned and the result is significantly more powerful.  Itching to get under the skin of this mysterious nonentity he does so only to find a kind of celluloid, psychic void.

Lyrics are let down only by the nonsensical and overly portentous ‘And his name was Solitaire’!!

Cataclysmic fate

The song achieves great sense of momentum by being skewed towards its ending, creating the sense that we are heading inexorably towards some kind of cataclysmic fate.

This is achieved in three ways: (i) The first ninety seconds are basically a intro/chorus/chorus run through; when fresh material is eventually introduced, our anticipation maximises the impact of the clever ‘pennies from heaven’ imagery.  (ii) We expect the second bridge (‘Wander down a corridor’) to repeat the melody of the first but it is entirely different with a more urgent, expansive feel opening up a sense of new possibilities.  (iii) A huge Scott Walker/Alan Hawkshaw like arrangement – by turns queasy, melodramatic, introspective – gradually gathers force, powering and empowering this song more than any other.

I think I’d prefer the lyrics without the little asides – ‘yes they did!’, ‘yeah!’ ‘heh!’ – but that’s a minor irritation.  I can listen to this song numerous times without tiring of it.

One curiosity is that the title consistently occurs as ‘as though it was a movie’ in the lyrics.  Did no one notice the inconsistency?


He lived his life
As though it was a movie
Humphrey Bogart
Was his god

He’d become the book
That he was reading
Locked his mind in
Fantasy

He lived his life
As though it was a movie
Humphrey Bogart
Was his god

He’d become the book
That he was reading
Locked his mind in
Fantasy

But he never complained
When it started to rain
He just waited for the pennies from heaven

He would hold out his hand
In a gesture so grand
Everybody wondered what he’d been given
Yes they did

To live his life and dream
Was all he wanted
And his name was Solitaire, yeah!

He never felt one of the crowded nation
And if he’s insane
What am I

Wander down a corridor
Carpeted from wall to wall
Jump into a swimming pool
And watch your mind swim

Living is a tragedy
Though it doesn’t mean to be
What do you think your mother is
And what is she for? heh!

He lived his life
As though it was a movie
Humphrey Bogart
Was his god

He’d become every book
That he was reading
Locked his mind in
Fantasy, yes, yes

Trouble!
Trouble!
Trouble!
Trouble!
Trouble!

Sarstedt 1969 – his first two albums

Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You

By Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb
Lead Vocal: Barry
Album Bee Gees’ 1st 


 

And so to the most overrrated Bee Gees‘ track of 1966-72…

I know I will make myself unpopular with pop-psych fans by finding fault with a song upheld by many as the pinnacle of Bee Gees’ psychedelia (sure enough it’s top of the list in this month’s Shindig  ‘Bee Gees Deep Cuts’ feature).

Criticising Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You goes against the grain of my general preference for psychedelic over romantic ballad Bee Gees.  And there’s no doubting this is one of their most outré pieces.  But being self-consciously experimental and ‘psychedelic’ in themselves aren’t enough to make a song any good.

Far out

This dreary (as against dreamy, as it might like to think it is) dirge sounds as if it was written to simply get as far out as the Bee Gees were able to get in early 1967.  Its melody is by far the dullest on Bee Gees 1st.  I can almost hear the needle getting stuck in the groove in the yawning depth of Maurice’s pitch bend.

Indeed Maurice does a terrific job in controlling the notorious mellotron.  And yes the lyrics are strange but does that mean they are stimulating or that they emotionally connect with the listener in any way?

Red Chair Fade Away has an OK, fairly fluffy kind of weirdness but at least it’s about something and makes me feel a response, not ‘when is this sub-Beatles moan going to end?’  No wonder we need Craise Finton Kirk as an antidote.

Out to impress

Every Christian Lion Hearted Man Will Show You sets out to impress and I’m amazed by the ease with which it does so.  But for me, it screams ‘let’s collect some counter cultural brownie points’, never mind writing a decent song.

That’s really that’s all there is to say apart from the oft-quoted ‘the brothers sound like Gregorian monks.’  But how much better do they put their chanting abilities on a well-crafted, properly atmospheric and genuinely ambitious composition such as Odessa?

So I’m afraid this is well outside my Top 50 and easily the most skipable track on 1st.

Bee Gees’ Home Page

Mythical Kings and Iguanas

The other day I turned on the kitchen radio and after a slight pause heard the opening notes of Mythical Kings and Iguanas, the title track to Dory Previn’s 1971 album.  It was as if I had just pressed play on my CD player:

I have flown to star-stained heights
On bend and battered wings
In search of mythical kings
Mythical kings

Sure that everything of worth
Is in the sky and not the earth
And I never learned to make my way
Down, down, down where the iguanas play

I’ve not heard Mythical Kings and Iguanas – the song nor the album – in perhaps twenty-five years though scraps have played in my head from time to time and I still have the vinyl LP.

I first heard it around 1987 or 1988 in my early 20s.  Last week it was as if it was playing to me for the first time:

Singing scraps of angel song
High is right and low is wrong
And I never taught myself to give
Down, down, down where the iguanas live

Stopped in my tracks, I put down my plate and my tea-towel, pulled up a chair to listen and for the first time found I understood.

Without any effort on my part, the words arose from the speakers and made utter sense as if they simply couldn’t help themselves.  I realised that, like it or not, I have lived enough to know what the song means instinctively.

 


Dory Previn

 

Lying with iguanas

Mythical Kings and Iguanas is about embracing the often despised ‘lower’ aspects of being and not losing oneself in fruitless flights of wishful fancy towards unobtainable heights.  Fundamentally it’s about gaining self-acceptance, becoming embodied.

In my 20s maybe I simply liked the sounds the words made, the overall sense of philosophical musing which, in a way, is what she is railing against:

Curse the mind that mounts the clouds
In search of mythical kings
And only mystical things
Mystical things

Buried treasure

In 1987 or 1988, without realising it, I laid a trail between then and now.  Rediscovery in 2017 meant connecting with my younger self and gaining awareness of a kind of unknowing, a certain confusion perhaps, which I couldn’t perceive at the time.

I think there’s real value in this kind of experience which goes way beyond nostalgia.  The feeling of connecting across time, is vivid and poignant, the sense of unlocking meaning without even trying, so powerful.

Had I heard the song for the first time last week, I would have ‘got’ it, been a little moved by it.  But there wouldn’t have been the discovery of buried treasure and finding it richer than I could ever have imagined.  And of feeling a kindness towards the moment of acquiring it so many years ago and someone I once was.

Cry for the soul that will not face
The body as an equal place
And I never learned to touch for real
Or feel the things, iguanas feel
Down, down, down

Where they play

The seeds that you once planted

This epiphany is a little akin to experiences of religion as a child and which organised religion possibly exploits for its own effectiveness.

The words of The Lord’s Prayer or of a particular hymn are planted in young minds at a time when they can be barely understood.  A seed of meaning is sewn with the potential to bear fruit many years later, when an old idea is revisited and subsequently accepted, modified or rejected.

At that point there may be the strong sense of time, growth, a journey, change and impermanence an awareness of being caught in life’s unstoppable flow.  And of a kind of learning which is natural, uncontrived, inevitable.

Could it even be wisdom?

Teach me, teach me
Teach me, reach me.