Bee Gees: final Words

After more than three years, seventy plus posts and a countdown of my fifty favourite tracks, I feel I’ve said most, but not quite all, of what I want to say on the Bee Gees.

I may post some stats on which albums fare best in the Top 50 but before reaching that possible pinnacle of geekiness there remain album overviews.

So we begin next Friday with Bee Gees 1st

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Cuisenaire rods

I vividly remember these ‘mathematics learning aids for students’ at primary school.  This would have been at the very start of the 70s when Cuisenaire rods were at the height of their popularity.

Until quite recently I’d assumed they were called ‘quizinaire’ having never seen the word written down and only rarely spoken.  They were always simply ‘the coloured rods’ which lived in the bright red plastic drawers at the front of the classroom.

The ten rods measured 1cm to 10cm with each increment represented by a different colour:

White 1cm
Red 2 cm
Light green 3cm
Pink 4cm
Yellow 5cm
Dark green 6cm
Black 7cm
Brown 8cm
Blue 9cm
Orange 10cm

The rods were the invention of Belgian primary school teacher Georges Cuisenaire in the early 50s.  Cuisenaire found that pupils who had difficulty with maths taught by traditional methods learned quickly when they manipulated the rods.  Child centred learning emphasised learning by play and Cuisenaire rods were a central part of the new ethos.

Magpie maths

In truth, my magpie instinct was more drawn to the colour element than the gradations in size.  I linked each numerical height with its colour so strongly that yellow was 5 and orange was 10.  The conflation held its own secret fascination.

I deduced that what the shorter rods lacked in height they made up for in brightness of hue as if each rod were granted an equality in power, balancing height with intensity of colour.  But why was red two and pink four and not the other way round?  Could there be a hidden significance to the order?

I might like to think all of this was some kind of synaesthesia but it was more likely an early manifestation of OCD or an autistic tendency.  Colours and car registration letters, numbers on front doors, the colours of clothes worn by particular people on particular days of the week quickly followed.

Unfortunately my appreciation of the rods failed to translate into lasting mathematical ability.  I obtained an ‘unclassified’ in my O level, the lowest possible grade (not proud of it in a “I’m hopeless at maths!” kind of way, just saying).

Tables or rods?

Child centred learning was central at my primary school.
Certainly in our earlier years, the emphasis was more on discovery not instruction, peer group learning rather than whole class teaching.

I even remember one teacher, straight out of training college, asking her class – did we want to do sums or painting?  Painting always won out so maths was neglected until at the age of ten I had a crash course in learning my times tables.  The class chanted them and my mother made me say them out loud or would suddenly demand over morning’s Golden Nuggets “What are twelve fours?”

But perhaps it was too little too late.

Seeing and doing

Still available but far less popular today, Cuisenaire rods now come in plastic which seems unimaginable as the woody feel and smell of them was very much a part of their appeal.  Rod No 4, the pink one, is now, for some reason, purple.

The most enjoyable thing to do with the set was – and still is – to build a pyramid.

Starting with the orange 10s, use four rods of each colour to form an overlapping square, working your way up through the blues, browns and blacks until you end up with a tight square of four white 1s on top.

Like this:

Cuisenaire company


PlayPlax
Growing up with Lego
Moving house

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 company
PlayPlax on Retrowow
Guardian interview with Patrick Rylands


Cuisenaire rods
Growing up with Lego
Moving house

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

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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.

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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

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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