The little Prime Minister who never was

10 Downing Street, London, October 1969.

It seems extraordinary that such photo opportunities were presumably commonplace back then.  Mine had nothing to do with an invitation or acceptance of any kind of accolade, it was merely incidental.  Perhaps a child was ushered away before me and another ushered on afterwards.  How many of us have a similar photo in our family album?

I remember nothing of that half-term day trip to London.  The significance of the location would have been entirely lost on me as a five year old.  The background could almost be a ‘Mary Poppins’ set, there’s a kind of quaintness to the whole scene: my Uncle Earnest’s conversation with a very at ease bobby; my post box red jumper, school socks and oh so shiny shoes.

The date is prescient.  ‘The Troubles’ began a month later, no doubt precipitating a significant increase in security.

Ten years on

Fast forward almost a decade and I stood as part of a small crowd, fenced off  opposite the entrance to Number 10 where reporters stand today.  This was as close as we were allowed to get.  After what felt like a long wait but was probably only fifteen minutes, the then PM, James Callaghan, emerged to a round of applause and muted cheers.  Such polite deference (we were members of the public not Labour Party supporters) seems surprising from a 2020 perspective.  A brief wave and then Uncle Jim got into a waiting limousine and was driven swiftly away, probably to PMQs.  I would say this was autumn 1978.  The winter of Discontent lay just round the corner.

Me in time

When I rediscovered this transparency last autumn, I instantly felt a flush of pride, a kind of innocent, poignant pride.  I’m not at all given to feeling proud through association with public monuments or official occasions so the emotion caught me by surprise.

Perhaps it was the contrast between one little boy on the steps of the most prestigious address in the United Kingdom where that little boy just happened to be me.  And perhaps it was an instant realisation that such an incongruously domestic photo would be an impossibility today.

Lockdown 2

Stillness gives rise to an enhanced sense of place.  That’s place, not space.
There’s been so much said about space – safe spaces, ‘a space to do’, spaces rather than rooms, life lived in a white cube where we’re the curator.  Someone once told me, if you don’t know what to say in a gallery, say “It’s an amazing space”.  It’s a catch all phrase for admiring vacancy, absence and one’s own refusal to commit.  But you can’t grow roots in a space.

Clusters of spaces are called hubs.  I felt sad when I saw a sign of greeting outside a church which read ‘Welcome to our hub’.  Was there ever such a dead sounding word as hub?

The BBC’s ‘The Travel Show’ (‘showcasing the best of travel across the globe’) is the essence of space signifying little, a compacted stream of rhetorically efficient sensation seeking set against chromakeyed perma-blue sky.  The effect is akin to twenty-eight minutes being force fed overheated global tourism: a water slide, a dog sleigh ride, a champagne safari, a paintball brasserie.  It’s anywhere and everywhere yet it’s not here and neither is it there, a succession of air conned virtual experiences, places which have had their sense of place excised to form part of an entertainment feed, a colour rush of effects along fibre optic cables encircling the globe.  But when you pull apart the cables and look inside, what is there?

This lockdown here and now might be a pause in the linear time of our appointments but it doesn’t feel in the least like empty space.  It’s entering a slipstream that is covered over but always present.  May it come forth and show itself.  The place of ornaments, mantelpieces, curtain folds and dust.  The place of rusty door hinges, static grooves and mysterious carriage clock chimes.  The place of blossom flurries, tree trunk faces, worm casts.  And cheesy bugs curled up under stones.  Deeper, darker, longer, lower, older, smaller and younger.

[April 2020]

Lockdown 1

So strange to find myself in this most familiar of unfamiliars: home, yet not as I know it.

Everything is in its place but all around the landscape has changed.  Aliens watching from outer space unaware of the invisible virus, would hardly think human beings were a social species.

In the midst of this, there can be unexpected freedoms.

If I looked back to those 1970s’ photos, there would be a white space where I should be standing.  Like an action transfer or a Sugar Smacks freebie, some invisible hand has pressed round the perforations and stuck me onto this garden bench in the suspended here and now.  It’s not 2020 and it’s not 1971 either.  My legs are no longer swinging but my feet aren’t quite on the ground.

The garden has recovered a pastoralism unknown in decades – fat bumble bees, butterflies, birdsong.  Streets are as traffic free as fifty years ago. Something of the countryside has come to London.  Skies are big, the air voluminous, sounds reach my ears from streets away.  Through an open window, Tijuana Taxi drifts and blares, Testcard F playing to an empty lounge.

Or it’s 1974, I’m standing coltishly in Lee Wood’s garden and through the patio windows is a big box colour tv showing the blue-on-yellow BBC2 clock counting down to 4.30pm: ‘Service Information Follows Shortly’. The yellow is almost fluorescent, so brilliant it burns into the screen.  The picture is transmission test pristine, painfully so.  I can’t hear Syd Dale’s slinky Walk and Talk but I have to see every movement of the shaky second clock hand even although I’m supposed to be in goal.

Why was the private observation of these rituals so reassuring?

[March 2020]

Bee Gees – A Kick in the Head is Worth Eight in the Pants

The last of three albums the Bee Gees recorded in 1972, A Kick in the Head is Worth Eight in the Pants was unissued thanks to the underperforming and underwhelming Life in a Tin Can.

Yet, despite its jokey title, A Kick in the Head… is reckoned to be the worthier contender and deservedly so.  Barry and Robin are in healthy vocal shape and the ballad heavy songs are at least well crafted.  More attention is paid to production than with its predecessor adding to an assured feel.

Sugar and grit

But still the writing lacks genuine inspiration.  The overall effect is of too much sugar and not enough grit.  Lonely Violin is the chief offender.  Despite an undeniably fetching melody it’s just too calculating to be really touching.  Lonely Violin wants to be taken seriously yet cannot truly touch me.  And yet neither does it tip into outright parody, Cucumber Castle style.

The most successful track is the striking Elisa, with its slow-build chorus gradually drawing us in.  Harry’s Gate extends nostalgic reminiscence into near self-mythology but it’s one of the more impressive songs here lent extra impact by the three brothers singing in unison on the chorus’ shared memories.

Production tends towards default lush as if hi-sheen surface alone demonstrates a quality product whereas it most likely suggests an overfriendliness towards AOR radio, ironic given that this album never made it onto the airwaves.  Like others, I can hear another Barry at times – Manilow – in the album’s romantic, schmaltzy sensibility.

Soft underbelly

And maybe that hints at the problem I have with the Bee Gees come 1972/73. In 1968, they simply wrote one freshly-minted song after another, put across with conviction, urgency and flair. Many were about lost love yet each conveyed a different emotional flavour. But five years down the line the Bee Gees’ emotion is like a kind of bland, en masse ‘thing’. They sound like a band producing what they think the public expects of them, no more and no less.

Four songs produced in London in early 1973 (King and Country, Jesus in Heaven, Life, Am I Wasting My Time? and the atypically political Dear Mr. Kissinger) are unfortunately not as compositionally strong as the best of the LA bunch.

It’s not hard to see why, at this point, even if at least one of the 1972 trio had fared rather better commercially, a change was required to relight the brothers’ fire. The Bee Gees’ soft underbelly was about to be made lean once again.

A Kick In the Head is Worth Eight in the Pants [1973]

Side 1
Wouldn’t I Be Someone
A Lonely Violin
Losers and Lovers
Home Again Rivers

Side 2
Harry’s Gate
Rocky LA
Castles In the Air
Where is Your Sister
It Doesn’t Matter Much to Me*

Singles 1973 [related to A Kick In the Head…]
Wouldn’t I Be Someone

* ‘It Doesn’t Matter Much to Me’ was B-side to 1974 single ‘Mr Natural’ from their album of that name.

<- Life In a Tin Can

Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees’ Home Page

Bee Gees – Life In a Tin Can

The brothers don’t like this album much and neither do I.  An air of complacency hangs over proceedings not helped by the resolutely slow to middling pace across eight tracks lasting a mere thirty-two minutes.

Life In a Tin Can is the sound of the Bee Gees narrowing down their craft on almost every front.  Melodies mostly lack ambition and lyrics are unremarkable.  Where is the urgency, the passion?  Maybe the laidback LA vibe didn’t help.  At least they don’t pad out the tracks with superfluous instrumental breaks or extended codas so as to reach a forty-five minute running time.

Laidback LA 

Despite these shortcomings, Robin and Barry’s vocals are fine and Robin even stretches himself on Method to My Madness even if the material is too insubstantial to generate the necessary emotional payoff.  This being the height of Maurice’s struggles with drink, we also lack a Maurice lead vocal/composition; his down-to-earthness, often a necessary antidote to Barry and Robin’s aggrandising tendencies, is missed here.  Still it’s nice to hear Maurice’s electric piano updating the unobtrusive but fairly bland production.

The best tracks are the opener, I Saw a New Morning (good dynamics), Robin’s My Life Has Been a Song (Barry’s bridge anticipates mid-late 70s Bee Gees) and Method to My Madness: all three have melodies a cut above the rest whilst lacking the freshness and vitality of earlier triumphs such as To Love Somebody, I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You or even the hookability of the more recent Lonely Days.


Elsewhere I Don’t Wanna be the One slides headlong into the mush which always threatens to engulf Life In a Tin Can.  Living in Chicago is well meaning but unengaging.  Barry plays with his post-The Gambler country thang again on South Dakota Morning but it’s getting a bit played out now.

So not a single Can track in My Top 50.  ‘I played the game, Still it’s not worth it’.  This just about sums it up.


Life In a Tin Can [1973]

Side 1
Saw a New Morning

I Don’t Wanna Be the One
South Dakota Morning
Living in Chicago

Side 2
While I Play

My Life Has Been a Song
Come Home Johnny Bridie
Method to My Madness

Singles 1973 [related to Life In a Tin Can]

Saw a New Morning
My Life Has Been a Song

-> A Kick in the Head is Worth Eight in the Pants
<- To Whom It May Concern

Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees’ Home Page

Bee Gees – To Whom It May Concern

Not quite a coherent album, especially following Trafalgar, but one which definitely rewards repeated listens, To Whom It May Concern shows the Bee Gees firing pretty strongly during their so called wilderness years even if the album lacks a signature identity.

The two main singles are both in their familiar ballad vein but very contrasting – the smoothly reassuring Run to Me and the frantically persuasive Alive.   It’s perhaps surprising that the huge success of How Can You Mend a Broken Heart hasn’t inspired deeper ventures into smooth soul.  Run to Me really feels quite teenage beside How Can You Mend’s … silky, adult aspirations.

Elsewhere, the brothers search for new sounds and land on a number of touchstones.  Maurice is absurdly McCartnesque on You Know It’s For You, whilst Alan Kendall’s aggressive lead guitar propels Bad, Bad, Dreams into the crunchy spotlight.  Paper Mache, Cabbages and Kings is one of the wackiest tracks but it shows the Bee Gees could still marry quirkiness to a decent tune and leave you to read into the weirdness as much or as little as you like.  But perhaps most surprising is the moog prog of Please Don’t Turn Out the Lights, the closest the brothers would come to truly experimental in this incarnation at least, though it’s far from the strongest track here.


So diversity and a slightly low key approach ensure To Whom It May Concern is never tiring like Cucumber Castle and rarely dull like 2 Years On but, taken overall, not brilliant either.   The main problem is a lack of overall plan or purpose, its scattergun approach feeling slightly cobbled together, pervaded with a sense of doubt as to whether anyone out there was listening let alone cared.

Not many fans or casual listeners will head for this album as their first Bee Gees port of call, but when you’ve exhausted the big hitters, there are some surprises to be found here and I think you’ll find To Whom It May Concern grows on you.


To Whom It May Concern [1972]

Side 1
Run To Me
We Lost the Road
Never Been Alone
Paper Mache, Cabbages and Kings
I Can Bring Love
I Held a Party
Please Don’t Turn Out the Lights

Side 2
Sea of Smiling Faces
Bad Bad Dreams
You Know It’s For You
Road to Alaska
Sweet Song of Summer

Singles 1972 [related to To Whom It May Concern]

My World
On Time

Run to Me
Road to Alaska

Sea of Smiling Faces
Please Don’t Turn Out the Lights

Paper Mache, Cabbages and Kings

->  Life In a Tin Can 
<-  Trafalgar

Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees’ Home Page

Bee Gees – Trafalgar

Trafalgar looks to new horizons with an uncertainty which sums up the band’s situation at the time.

Despite huge singles success with Lonely Days and How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, the Bee Gees’ chart entries increasingly feel like isolated milestones measured further apart.  But here they turn the tenuousness of their position to their advantage.

Trafalgar is simply the Bee Gees’ best early 70s album, one which needs to be heard from the first to last groove and preferably in one sitting.  Allegedly it was to have been a twenty-track opus, thus overtaking Odessa, but even in two-sided format, Trafalgar’s monumentality is an altogether more measured affair and as a twelve track album of forty-seven minutes, it doesn’t feel at all foreshortened.

Emotional landscape

At last the Bee Gees have come up with a vision for the new decade and the songs to match it.  Those who only know the Bee Gees for their ‘disco’ hits are often stunned at hearing relatively unknown tracks like Trafalgar and Walking Back to WaterlooTrafalgar is underplayed and touching whilst Walking Back to Waterloo marks a breadth, maturity and sheer emotionality which is perhaps unrivalled in the brothers’ back catalogue.

Elsewhere, the extended songs which were tiresome on 2 Years On come alive, especially Don’t Want to Live Inside Myself where Barry really expands his vocals.  They almost savage Lion in Winter whilst When Do I sounds like a strange vocal exercise.

Sensuousness, alienation, frustration, a search for the heroic and the occasional influence of The Beatles (still) are felt in Trafalgar.  Maurice’s deep bass and chordal piano sound great and Bill Shepherd’s dignified arrangements provide orchestral weight.

It’s a different landscape – moody, expansive, atmospheric – and it works.

Trafalgar [1971]

Side 1
How Can You Mend a Broken Heart

The Greatest Man in the World
It’s Just the Way
Somebody Stop the Music

Side 2
Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself
When Do I
Lion In Winter
Walking Back to Waterloo

Singles 1971/72 [related to Trafalgar] 

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart
Country Woman

Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself
Walking Back to Waterloo


Other artists 1971

Lulu – Everybody Clap

-> To Whom It May Concern
<- 2 Years On

Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees’ Home Page

Just wanted to say…

We begin this second selection of retro greetings cards with an atomic baby:

Happy 1st Birthday 1965

There’s a propogandist feel here.  Those eyes are looking forward to a new political dawn, the future light upon the face the glow of a protective atomic bomb.

I’m reminded of my mother telling me that two friends decided not to have children because, in the era of the Cuban missile crisis, the prospects for world peace looked so bleak.


Here is a playful take upon the paternal role in bringing up baby, again from 1965:

Giving Birth 1964

The handy father seems to be somehow supporting the pram.  This was back when prams still resembled spindly, nannyish devices from the Edwardian era (a year after Mary Poppins) not the armoured personnel carriers of today.


Staying with 1965:

Now You are 1 1965

That perenniel favourite, the cute kitten seen here with some kitsch acoutrements and hint of a Spanish holiday souvenir.


Now we are four and it’s 1968:

4 Today, 1968

Local newsagents were packed with cards like this.  The fezed monkey seems especially redolent of the time.


This has a decidely continental air:

Just for You, 1972

Slightly Bohemian, faux naive yet somehow also sophisticated.

Looking in shops today, I notice the very limited palette of most cards; often just one colour is used to offset monochrome and its typically red, pink, mauve in descending order.

But here vibrant, gypsy hues and an overall patterned design evoke European folk art.


This might be a scene from a Sunsilk shampoo advert.

Mother's Day 1974

The orange, nostalgic glow definitely pins this picture to the early-mid 70s.  1974 to be precise.


How many flowers can you fit into a dessert bowl?

Happy birthday card

Faking spontaneity, this sweet concoction would have been very carefully assembled indeed, probably with a little help from adhesive.  Its 1972 miniaturist precision is a million miles away from the boutique, long stemmed, au naturelle look of 2018.


We end with this wholesome scene from 1969:

Birthday child's 1966

A Little Something Especially for You


Moving House 
Growing up with Lego
Cuisenaire rods

A Little Something Especially For You

Among the many family belongings I am still sorting through are stacks of greetings cards from the early 1950s to the early noughties.  

I thought I’d share some of those from the 60s/70s in random order across two posts. 


Is this charming or merely kitsch?

Happy Birthday 1969

It straightaway reminds me of the highly sentimental portraits of children lining the walls of department stores in the 70s (Woolworths, Boots, Timothy Whites).

Those shop waifs and strays invariably possessed doe eyes crying tears of dubious size down dimpled cheeks.  But this cheerful twosome have something of Bill and Penelope about them.


The Woolworths associations apply even more strongly to this portrait of cute, moral uprightness from the mid-late 60s probably aimed at doting grandparents:

Best wishes card

The prayerful pose would probably never find its way onto cards in our far more secular age, at least not outside of cathedral bookshops.  This isn’t how we want children to be any more.


I’m surprised that this Wedding Anniversary card dates from as late as 1966:

Birthday 1966

It could easily be from at least a decade earlier.  I imagine the vase carefully positioned in a palatial hallway by a butler’s begloved hands.

My collection is stuffed with variations on these rather stiff bouquets in as assortment of urns and classical vases.  They strike me as emblems of prestige though not of material aspiration, representing a kind of official good taste.  But they are also dull and respectable, joyless even.

In an age of care bears and other fluff, it’s the adult seriousness of this card which dates it most.


This has 1960s stamped all over it:

Anniversary card 1960s

The chequered brown, yellow and green background adds a modernist touch though the card belongs squarely next to a gilt carriage clock on a tiled mantelpiece.  When I look at this, I hear Frank Chacksfield, Royal Daffodil or perhaps Jim Reeves. 


A card which inspired a dozen These You Have Loved  LP covers.  Or was it the other way round?

To My Darling Wife, 1960s

To be given accompanying a large box of assorted milk chocolates.  The surprisingly underplayed message is rather endearing and all the more effective for that.


An Englishman’s home is his castle.

It’s 1969 and here we have a reassuring image of sturdy masculinity in the making:

5 Today, 1969

Background props are crucial; the bookcase implies inculcating a love of learning but the fireplace spreads parental warmth.

More choice selections in two weeks time.


Moving House 
Growing up with Lego
Cuisenaire rods

Bee Gees – 2 Years On

If Cucumber Castle was hyperbolic, 2 Years On is pervaded with an insipid feel and, for me, a sense of disappointment and anti-climax.  They got back together – for this?  Had the brothers used up their stock of quality material on their 1970 solo albums?  Perhaps but thankfully, as it turns out, they were also stock-piling for 1971’s Trafalgar.

Off their high horses

It’s clear the Bee Gees weren’t going to get back on their art-pop high horses to continue where Odessa left off.  Given the splintering in rock which had grown into a chasm during that 1969/70 hiatus, it just wouldn’t have been a credible move.  Indeed, the low-key feel of 2 Years On can be heard as a deliberate antidote to the ‘excesses’ (which I would argue were not excesses at all) of their red-velvet high watermark.  Only Lonely Days (the album’s only single) feels vital and attention grabbing here, though being just short of a Beatles‘ pastiche it is hardly impressively original.

For once, Bill Shepherd’s arrangements seem to suck the life out of the (fairly lifeless) songs.  Most are slow paced and sometimes over-stretched; The First Mistake I Ever Made is a repeat offender.

We have so-so country (Portrait of Louise), a would-be weepie (Tell Me Why) whilst the raw, lively though slightly out-of-place tour blues lament Back Home is annoyingly allowed to dissipate.  2 Years On might have worked in Robin’s Sing Slowly Sisters style but as an album opener it’s just uninspiring and meandering (nice chorale prequel though).  Sincere Relation is Robin at his most eccentric but with its gravely portentous ‘but then he died …’ can’t make me feel much – a shame as I sense it’s probably a most personal piece.  Robin’s contributions generally come off worst of the three.

Sub-prime Bee Gees

Hearing 2 Years On makes me long for the clipped precision of songs such as Lemons Never Forget.  The album actually feels most successful at its most incongruous – the stripped-down Back Home, the swampy Every Second, Every Minute (mimicking 1968’s The Earnest of Being George) and rootsy Lay It On Me which playfully hints at Maurice’s drink problem.  But these diversions into sub-prime Bee Gees territory often feel more forced than earlier excursions such as Lemons Never Forget (why do I keep coming back to that song?)

The brothers are in good voice and of course it’s great to hear them harmonising again but this hardly trumpets a return to form let alone an inspirational new departure.  Overall 2 Years On lacks identity, feels pedestrian and fails to create much in the way of atmosphere.

Already two albums into the new decade but it seems as if the Bee Gees are adrift in the 70s.  Thankfully they get it together on Trafalgar.


2 Years On [1970]

Bee Gees - 2 Years On

Side 1
2 Years On
Portrait of Louise
Man For All Seasons
Sincere Relation
Back Home
The First Mistake I Made

Side 2
Lonely Days
Alone Again
Tell Me Why
Lay It On Me
Every Second, Every Minute
I’m Weeping


Singles 1970 [related to 2 Years On]

Lonely Days
Man For All Seasons

-> Trafalgar
<- Cucumber Castle


Bee Gees Top 50 1966-72
Bee Gees Home Page