A few years ago I bought a book, 1001 Albums to Hear Before You Die and I have just got it out to look and realised that it was from 2005. I guess it just demonstrates how quickly time flies. It was part of a series and there was also 1001 Films to Watch Before You Die. Now I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but I reckon I would be lucky to be able to watch 1001 films during the rest of my life, but I would have a good stab at 1001 albums. At the time the book was published, I was still buying albums, but they were in the form of cds, but since then there has been a fundamental change in recorded music and the way that it is valued and listened to. For those of us who lived through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, we experienced a period that will probably never be repeated. Music became something that was collected and the type of, and amount of your collection said a great deal about you.
I have spoken before that when I was at Stainbeck Prep School, the teachers played records that were 78s. This meant that they rotated at 78 revolutions per minute. The record player had a horn as a speaker and there was a heavy arm with replaceable needles that were just that, needles. The music was poor quality, but like the flickering black-and-white TV pictures at the time, you just get used to what you have. The only music that was played was either classical, or children’s songs, but there were stars of the 78s, such as Joseph Locke. At home, the first and only record player was the Dansette and this very basic player had a speaker and slightly less heavy arm and played records at thirty-three and a third rpm Long Players or forty-five rpm singles. It had an extended spike for playing singles where you could stack them and they would drop down, the arm would automatically move across and play the single and then the next one would drop down and it would then be played. About half a dozen records could be played this way, but it was never very successful as they tended to slide on the one below, or wobble if a record was slightly warped. I must add that my mum and dad had a few LPs, and they included Joseph Locke, Jim Reeves, and Frank Sinatra. My dad became very taken with Jim Reeves and his country and western style, but I found it maudlin. He would listen to it and, after a few drinks, would join in and almost come to tears with the over-sentimental content.
My older brother bought a transistor radio for ten shillings from one of the pirate radio stations and, with Radio Luxembourg, Radio Caroline and Radio London, he and I started to broaden our tastes. When Radio One started, in 1967, with Tony Blackburn, the first DJ, we then began to listen to the new music on the car radio. It was singles that people bought and singers and bands came and disappeared very quickly, or moved into broader entertainment, like Tommy Steele, Adam Faith, Cilla Black and Lulu. Tommy Steele had his first hit in 1957 and he became an actor and general entertainer.
Pop music was seen as a fad and no one went into it with any expectations of having a career. Ringo Starr is famous for saying after the Beatles, he would probably own a chain of hairdressers. As it is, he is still performing now, and I saw him a few years back, here in Perth with his All Starr Band. There was Todd Rundgren, Steve Lukather and others, and they were brilliant.
I first bought singles, but something happened and bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and others produced albums, and suddenly it was albums that serious music-loving teenagers wanted, and wanted to be seen with. An armful of albums was a sure sign of street credibility and if they were the in-bands at the time, then your status was high.
Whilst I was at Roundhay School, there was the British Blues scene and bands and artists such as Alexis Korner, John Mayall, were the ones setting the scene. Later, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and early Jethro Tull, Blodwyn Pig and others, became highly successful blues merchants. At the other extreme were pop bands, and The Beatles were the apex with Beatlemania sweeping the world. No other band before or since has ever created the hysteria and fanatical adoration, but Elvis had been pretty close in his heyday. The Beatles showed how bands could write their own songs and become real artists who could change style and influence popular culture. I was just that bit too young to really latch on to the Beatles, but my brother Andrew and my mum loved them. They were also one of the first bands to make and star in films. A Hard Day’s Night came out in 1964 and I went to see it. I enjoyed it, but there wasn’t a great storyline. This was followed by Help in 1965, Magical Mystery Tour 1967, Yellow Submarine in 1967 and Let It Be in 1969. The real change that they had on music was probably with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The music and the album cover were something new, and together probably were the most influential album of all time. Revolutionary recording techniques and sounds added to the inventiveness of the music, and many other artists recognise this as the watershed. They saw it as the authority to experiment, and this led to a burst of creativity that lasted for the next fifteen or so years. The British musical explosion took off and, for a while, dominated the world, in a way that the USA had previously done. The swinging sixties saw creativity flourish, fashion, art, music, lifestyle and politics change, and people wanted fun.
The older generation was shocked. Elvis could only be filmed from the waist up, but now nothing was taboo. The introduction of easily available contraceptives, mind-altering drugs and growing affluence created a revolution that spoke of love, freedom and the individual. Of course, as a youngster at the time, I just observed it, rather than lived it. We knew nothing more than that it was happening and it was fun. I actually believed, and probably still do, that music could change the world. Bob Dylan, Donovan, Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Leonard Cohen and their ilk had political messages, anti-war, anti-racial prejudice, free-love and legalised drugs. The Hippy era came and went, artists sought wealth, and were chastised for it, but still the creative energy thrived. Even the singles charts at the time were a strange mixture of pop and more challenging rock. Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, King Crimson, Moody Blues, Free, Cat Stevens, David Bowie, Emmerson, Lake and Palmer, The Who, Jethro Tull, The Doors, The Stones, The Beatles would jostle with Brotherhood of Man, Motown Records, The Nolans, The Seekers, Roy Orbison and Elvis. Watching Top of the Pops was a must-do each week, along with the Magic Roundabout.
Some artists saw the appearance as a joke and made no effort to mime, but others did their best and seemed to enjoy the company of Pan’s People. I remember well John Peel simulating playing the mandolin on Rod Stewart’s Maggie May. Charts were important and vast sales were recorded and money made, as we wanted to buy albums from our favourite artists.
I stopped buying singles and moved onto albums, and stereo records replaced mono. We would gather in Pete’s cellar or at John Lewis’ house to listen to the new albums that we had bought during the week. The album was a complete listening event, and we played them from track one to the end of the last track in order, with the only interval being when we had to turn the record from side one to side two. We listened to it loud and deeply. We discussed the music, the artists, the guest artists, the cover, the sleeve notes and the recording quality. They were serious and earnest times. Long-haired and spotty, we would lose ourselves in some of the finest guitarists, keyboard players, and singers of our generation.
I know that not everyone shared this serious side of music, and lighter pop songs were massive and sold millions, but most of the artists flared in fashion and then vanished. The Bay City Rollers, Marc Bolan, Slade, dare I say Gary Glitter and The Glitter Band, Alvin Stardust, Showaddywaddy, David Essex, Mud and The Sweet all had their day. Slade even made their own film. Disco became massive, and the Bee Gees had an even bigger success story as disco kings, with Saturday Night Fever.
There was an even more intense type of music that grew in popularity, and progressive music became a very serious trend. Yes, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd, Supertramp, King Crimson and Led Zeppelin took the rock music and made it art. These bands were made up of virtuoso musicians who could not just play, but were masters, and technical virtuosity now had to be demonstrated to the adoring mere-mortals. Concerts became events that went on for hours. They no longer played songs, they played twenty minute pieces that were only limited on the LP by the amount that could be fitted in. Despite, or possibly because of their success, they began to be sneered at by a younger generation. This was not helped when even members of Yes found the double album Tales of Topographic Oceans, pretentious and a labour to produce. Rick Wakeman left due to the album that was released on my birthday in 1973.
If Sgt. Pepper’s was the start, this was the beginning of the end. A new movement from the ground began to appear. Bands with little, if no, technical ability started to revolt against what they saw as the pretentious dinosaurs of rock. Punk was coming with its anti everything attitude and its heightened level of passion, intensity and violence. In the way that Elvis shook the establishment, here were the new boys and girls on the block, so look out!
People still collected albums and wanted to be seen carrying them. The uniforms changed: spiked hair, safety pins through the body, ripped t-shirts, black skin-tight jeans, pink, blue, red dyed hair, spitting, swearing, pogo dancing, but they still looked the same, and their intensity was as serious as it had been in the 1960s. They shook the established record companies and bands, from a grassroots revolution. A new generation, a new music, a new wave, but the seeds of another period of fantastic music and the start of another recording revolution were sown.