Take Three Songs … or early 60s instrumentals

Well, not actually three songs in this case but rather a trio of instrumentals which made it to the peak or near peak of the UK hit parade in that curious lull between 50s rock ‘n’ roll and the Merseybeat invasion, a window during which instrumentals flourished in the charts.

The three I have chosen, although very obvious candidates, are key pointers of fundamental cultural change.  Perhaps instrumentals, being that much more removed from the pop song mainstream’s blatantly adolescent concerns, were sometimes better placed to pinpoint this.  The cultural changes embodied here were only just stirring but in time they would sweep away much of the old world of deference and hierarchy.

I’m writing about these three singles in chronological order because each one advances the cause, moving away from a yawning, consensual togetherness and towards a new, dynamic, technocratic modernism.

Stranger on the Shore

Performed by Mr. Acker Bilk (clarinet) with the Leon Young String Chorale
Written by Acker Bilk
Columbia A-Side, October 1961

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I posted at length on Stranger on the Shore and its particular evocations back in November, soon after Acker Bilk died.

I cannot think of many more hit instrumentals for which the description ‘pleasant’ applies so strongly.  Stranger on the Shore’s huge success – a US No. 1 and UK No. 2, the biggest selling single of 1962 and incredibly the biggest selling instrumental single of all time – must be due to more than the easy appeal of a hummable tune.

Much of its retrospective resonance, I think, comes from its positioning in that pre-Beatles period which almost required an inoffensively enjoyable, easy listening piece for families to gather around one last time.  An instrumental carries no words to object to, no anchoring in teen angst to alienate older listeners.  The melody is played on a clarinet, an instrument which carries absolutely no connotations of rebelliousness or subversion.

Stranger on the Shore could equally well have been a hit a year or two earlier.  But if released even two years later, it would surely have been trampled amidst the clamour for the new, the exciting and the overtly youthful.

Curiously, just as the new youth culture advocated a kind of classlessness, Stranger is itself curiously classless not by declaim but by default.  Look for any of the faultlines which defined 60s cultural change – faultlines of age, class, ideological allegiance – and you will find not so much as a crack.  Stranger on the Shore is an evenly sliced teatime cake of one nation togetherness soon to be seized by eager young hands.

It’s the curious melancholy beneath the milkman hummability which makes Stranger on the Shore so poignant, as if it is aware of its own fate.  Nothing better evokes for me the sleepiness of a 1961 suburban English Sunday afternoon.

Wonderful Land

Performed by The Shadows
Written by Jerry Lordan
Columbia A-Side, February 1962

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Apache, Man of Mystery, The Frightened City, Kon-Tiki , The Savage – even the titles of The Shadows’ 1960/61 hits evoke exotica and male, western heroism tinged with melancholy.

Wonderful Land, a UK No 1 written by Jerry Lordan, who also wrote Apache and several other Shadows instrumentals, maintains this quality and adds a widescreen feel, as if riding out into an optimistic future of freedoms barely dreamed of, a new egalitarianism which would have been inconceivable a generation ago – a ‘Wonderful Land’ indeed.   The crisp modernism of the piece captures the spirit of the early 60s before the proto-metal guitar riff of You Really Got Me (and all in its wake) offered a much rawer, more aggressively rebellious take on freedom.

With its lovely melody, sparkling precision playing and Norrie Paramor’s just-right application of upturned strings and horns, Wonderful Land is, for me, the strongest of The Shadows hit singles (my favourite non hit single of theirs would have to be 1967’s twisty-turny Tomorrow’s Cancelled).

Wonderful Land was originally recorded by Bert Weedon – has anyone heard his version? – but Lordan didn’t like it.  Just as well, perhaps.  It suits The Shadows – and 1962 – to perfection.


Performed by The Tornados
Written & Produced by Joe Meek
Parlophone A-Side, August 1962

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Even today, The Tornados’ ‘Telstar’ maintains an almost mythological mystique both in its otherworldly sound and in the circumstances of its creation, despite those circumstances having become well known: named after the communications satellite launched into orbit in July 1962, Telstar was produced by Joe Meek in his cramped home studio flat above a shop on north London’s Holloway Road.

If Stranger on the Shore was the snoozing contentment of the ‘old’ world and Wonderful Land a glimpse of the new, Telstar is the very essence of futurism itself – affluence,  leisure, freedom, offering a specifically home produced brand of modernity which couldn’t be further from 80s clinical sleekness.  The whole piece sounds as if it is the product of some kind of retro-futurist machine, a space age Wurlitzer spinning into view, dazzling onlookers and then disappearing into a starry sky.

For a composition which celebrates the untold benefits of technology, Telstar is also imbued with a childlike quality and it is this sense of wonder which gives the record much of its enchanting power.  That nasal clavioline sound – primitive yet bright – recalls wide-eyed children enthralled to the anticipation of fairground rides, only here the children are all of us, yes, the wonderstruck vocalists who join in with their consenting “aahs!” on the final verse.  There is nothing sinister or cynical on offer here – the awe inspired are not duped by commercial forces nor pawns in statist plans but rather willing participants in a shared mass experiment in democratisation and, above all, in progress and a belief in progress.  The dreams spun by Telstar are their own, or our own, if we would allow them to be.

It is hard to think of a record which is more resolutely forward looking.  Telstar turns away from Harold Macmillan and towards Harold Wilson, almost like a pop premonition of his 1964 ‘white heat of technology’ speech.  Famously, and incongruously, it was also one of Margaret Thatcher’s choices on Desert Island Discs.

Britain may not have participated directly in the 60s space race but Telstar – along with the equally eccentric, boffinish Doctor Who which began the following year – were perhaps our contributions.  Telstar was English, spectral space age music, otherworldly then, irretrievably so now.

Kenny Hollywood produced a vocal version which inevitably lacks the magic of the instrumental original transforming it into a conventional starry-eyed romance.

Telstar – a UK and US Number 1 and England’s spliced-up, hand held, analogue space age miracle.

Stranger on the Shore and Sleepy Suburbia
That Acker Bilk Again

More Take Three Songs

Take Three Songs… on Blackpool
Take Three Songs… by David Bowie
Take Three Songs… by Cilla Black
Take Three Songs… Lynsey de Paul – No Honestly!
Take Three Songs… on Suburbia

That Acker Bilk again…

Last week’s post on Stranger on the Shore inspired me to dig out my 1976 copy of The Golden Hour of Acker Bilk which I haven’t seen or heard for many years.

Whilst greater obscurities such as TV Themes by Cy Pane and his Orchestra and Peter and the Wolf (narrated by Paul Daneman) came to hand relatively easily, The Golden Hour remains lost in time (or in the darkest reaches of my loft).

Rummaging around online instead, I see the album does include Stranger on the Shore – in complete contradiction to what I said last week.  In fact ‘Stranger on the Shore’ is the first track and features prominently on the sleeve.

And ‘Feelings’, which I ‘remembered,’ isn’t there at all although it seemed to be just about mandatory on 70s compilations.

The pop covers are present and correct – ‘This Guy’s in Love with You’,’Without You’, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ amongst them – though the LP is probably more biased to jazz age standards such as ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, ‘I’m an Old Cowhand’ and ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill’

And it wasn’t the Acker Bilk logo which was perforated but the Golden Hour symbol.

So that’s me wrong at least three scores.

This moody blue shot formed the cover photo.

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Stranger on the Shore and sleepy suburbia

Band-leader and clarinettist Acker Bilk died on 2nd November so I have brought forward this post inspired by ‘Stranger on the Shore’, easily his most famous and successful composition.

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Stranger on the Shore was a massively successful single, a US No. 1 and UK No. 2, the biggest selling single of 1962 and incredibly the biggest selling instrumental single of all time.  Shortly after release, it became a TV theme.  Despite a long career in ‘trad jazz’, for a large swathe of the general public, ‘Stranger on the Shore’ became virtually synonymous with Acker Bilk.

The familiar unfamiliar

The title Stranger on the Shore, with its hints of a far away, longed for romantic encounter, evokes an exotic landscape of palm fringed beaches lapped by gentle waves, a dream of romantic freedom.  Yet the landscape it conjures for me is altogether more mundane yet, in its way, just as potently ‘other’ and far more poignant – 60s London suburban rooftops with their growing proliferation of TV aerials tuning into a new commercial world of individual aspiration, choice and affluence.

When Stranger on the Shore was released in 1961, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister at the helm of an aristocratic Conservative administration which seemed to have outlived its usefulness and felt increasingly estranged from the new world dawning all around (even with his jolly ‘You’ve never had it so good’ of a few years earlier it seemed as if he was hastening his own demise).   A new world of  freedom, egalitarianism and emancipation lay ahead and the TV aerials were already turning towards it, tuning into it and, most significantly, picking up on how these values could be translated into longings for consumer goods.  The outer suburbs of Associated Rediffusion – London’s weekday ITV station from 1955-64 – were perhaps where these aspirations most eagerly took root.

London dreaming

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As a child in the early 70s, I used to visit friends of my parents in Totteridge on the outer fringes of north London.  By climbing onto the solid porcelain toilet of their 1930s semi, I could just about see through the upstairs window the rooftops with their patterned ranks of TV aerials disappearing into the distance on a gently undulating curve.  Something about this view fascinated me and the memory of it still does.

Barbara and Don had a daughter who had died of a brain tumour at the age of twelve in 1962.  Her bedroom was kept just as it always was, immaculately dust free and tidy with its floppy marionettes and shelves of Bunty and Girls Crystal annuals, all of which stopped abruptly at 1963, a year which, for Annette, never came.  When adult conversation downstairs became too dull for me, I retreated to this little room, sat cross-legged on the floor and spent an hour or two leafing through the books and annuals as if to gain a sense of who this little girl had been and how my life might link with hers.  I knew nothing about her from her parents as her name was rarely if ever mentioned, as to do so would have evoked too much of the painful circumstances of her final weeks.  A sense of closeness across time grew over many visits spanning more than ten years and then perhaps slipped away a little as I entered the teen years which Annette had never enjoyed.  The severity of that 1963 cut-off date seemed all the more poignant as I was born the following year.  We were born into adjoining eras and yet, in this room, it felt as if there was a kind of continuity between us.

I also linked ‘my’ rooftop aerial view with the 50s/early 60s world that Annette would have grown up in, asking myself whether she too might have peeped out of that upper window to wonder upon the view a decade or more earlier.  The view then would have contained far fewer aerials and probably more smoking chimneys.  But that is almost the point.  As the home fires stopped burning, so the television aerials appeared.   The television replaced the hearth as the focal point of people’s living rooms.

A child apart

Annette’s books and annuals offered other clues to her life.  They were like the remnants of an age which related to mine and yet felt very different.  There was the question of our opposite genders, of course, but as boys’ comics with their wars and football had never held much appeal for me, these tales of secrecy, sorcery and intrigue were far more interesting (some of the girlish comic capers perhaps rather less so).  The annuals and books gave me a sense that perhaps boys and girls lived more separate lives in 1962 than in my own time, their interests more strictly bound by tradition or what we now call ‘gender stereotypes’.   The boys and girls in the annuals even looked more markedly different from each other.   They were also middle class in a slightly shrill sort of way, overtly aspiring to upper middle class patterns of dress, speech, behaviour and interests.

But the more fundamental differences were about the nature of childhood itself.  Those girlish jolly japes seemed carefree, innocent, even slightly naïve but they were also guided by moral rectitude and notions of Christian character, notions which themselves were handed down in diluted form from earlier eras still.  My own childhood still held with these traditional values – the inherent rightness and ‘goodness’ of children free to play out-of-doors, children deferring to adult authority and a childhood governed by an overall notion of ‘decency’ – but my sense of identity was also connecting to a new world which was more modish, manipulative, exciting, colourful, overtly pleasure seeking, moulded around individual tastes and attitudes and which was simply younger or – to use a far more recent phrase – more child-friendly, less dependent on adult mediation.  This was the world of pop culture and television, particularly children’s ITV (long before it was branded as such), Look-in and modern gadgets such as my cassette recorder which allowed me to create whole worlds.  These all served to build a specifically modern ‘young’ world which also offered a kind of pre-entry into the adult world but crucially not via adults.

Suburban 70s

Our 70s visits to Barbara and Don were punctuated by time honoured middle class rituals such as a glass of sherry for my parents upon arrival, a generous roast lunch with all the trimmings followed by gooseberry pie and oceans of double cream (I well remember the enveloping steamy warmth of the dining room, a steam suffused with pungent smells of meat juices and boiled brussel sprouts, water streaming down the windows on a winter’s day – it always seemed to be cold in Totteridge).  There would be Doctor Who for me before tea and a round of ‘Spin Quiz’ on an evening.  My parents made sure they congratulated Barbara and Don on any newly displayed ballroom dancing trophies which might have appeared since our last visit.   These rituals were largely surviving remnants from a previous era, the 50s perhaps, formalities governing informal occasions, guaranteeing their smooth running and the comfort of all concerned.  Few if any of them would hold true now, not even the gathering around a table for lunch, let alone the food served.

Paving paradise   

Having revisited Totteridge again recently, by far the most apparent change since the 70s is the number of front gardens which have surrendered to tarmac so as to accommodate a second or even third car.  The houses, many saddled with overlarge PVC window frames and regulation white front doors, look like reproduction vernacular facades, divorced from their locale, isolated in a sea of tarmac.  When those estates were built in the 30s on the fields of the very outer fringes of London, they would have been informed by the desires of London’s growing middle-classes to escape the city for the spaces and (hopelessly tamed) pastoralism of the outer suburbs, to literally cultivate a life there.  Even something of the garden city movement would have nourished this ethos.  Is it too fanciful to imagine a husband tending to a front garden early on a summer’s evening after work?  Without their gardens, these quintessentially 30s suburban dwellings seem bereft, denied their romance.  That the garden has become a car park says much about our love affair with speed, individualism and convenience, themselves very ‘60s’ attributes.

Just as the TV aerials of the 50s/60s/70s supplanted the ‘home fires burning’ of the 1930s, so in 2014 with the loss of a suburban bucolic idyll, there is also a conspicuous gain – the accumulation of mushroom-like satellite dishes adorning pebble-dashed exteriors.  Forty years on, the forces of modernisation have turned once again – locale, ‘home and hearth’ and community have been supplanted by the desire for greater material comfort, convenience and entertainment in the home, supplied by multichannel global forces.

The proud Rediffusion adastral of the mid 50s-early 60s which first bore witness to that very process now seems like a hopelessly quaint relic compared to the corporate armour of Sky TV (though AR did rebrand itself as the more hip ‘Rediffusion, London’ in 1964).

Associated Rediffusion

Photo Credit: fpo22p via Compfight cc

Sleeping beauty

So what I hear when I listen to Stranger on the Shore, is the last sleep of the suburbs before they awoke to the pop culture world of the Beatles and then to the avalanche of pop culture which followed.  Annette, in 1962, connected very much to the old communitarian world of rotary club raffles, church bazaars and ballroom dancing trophies.  She also had a foretaste of a new world but never saw its flowering.  There is a contentedness to ‘Stranger on the Shore’, a contentedness bordering on complacency, perhaps, as nobody hearing it at the time could have anticipated what change was just around the corner.  In retrospect, that immediately pre-Beatles period seems like a kind of artificial lull between the clarion call of late 50s rock and roll and the explosion of 60s mass pop culture from 1963.

Penny Pop Star Pupil

Photo Credit: ToniPaintings via Compfight cc

The very sleepiness of the song I oddly link via some obfuscated word association with 1971’s Sleepy Shores, also a television theme and hit single and a similarly emollient piece expressing a quiet wistfulness but under a quite different set of circumstances.

In May 1969, the crew of Apollo 10 took Stranger on the Shore on their mission to the moon.  The tune was included on a cassette tape used in the command module of the Apollo spacecraft.  The song’s title would have given it a new significance in outer space but its essential homeliness renders it inseparable from the familiar yet alien landscape of  TV aerials above suburban streets, symbols of a new age about to begin. ‘Stranger on the Shore’ was the sound of that old age, still basking in its last Sunday afternoon sleepiness – Sunday school, the family roast lunch, Family Favourites.

Around 1976, I had added an Acker Bilk compilation to my record collection, perhaps inspired by a friend who was having clarinet lessons.   The record was one of those ‘Golden Hour of’-type affairs with an overlarge airbrushed blue and purple ‘Acker Bilk’ logo which was perforated into the sleeve and therefore gradually worked away with frequent playings.  ‘Stranger on the Shore’ didn’t feature on it, suggesting that Acker wanted to move away from his behemoth a decade on.   Instead the record was full of clarinet-led reworkings of vaguely contemporary hits like ‘Without You’ and ‘Feelings’, the kind of pop music rendered MOR which my parents could tolerate.

The clarinet covers are long forgotten but still the peculiar but unique resonance of Stranger on the Shore lives on.

That Acker Bilk Again…