PC 110 That reminds me (2)

My introduction to classical music was gradual and subtle – staying with my grandmother in Bath and having to listen as she practised that ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’ over and over again for instance! You might have thought I would have developed an aversion to it, such is the repetitive nature of someone practising, but I didn’t and came to love the sound. And it’s the sound I love; I read erudite critiques of pieces of music and wonder where the writer’s imagination has been. Not where mine has been.

And then along came Cliff Richard.

The first record I bought was his single called ‘Living Doll’ in 1959 and that was closely followed by Adam Faith’s ‘What do you want?’ I didn’t have a record player so had to borrow a school chum’s; and that wasn’t big enough to play a 12 inch ‘long playing’ record – ah! The impecunity of youth!

And then along came Elvis (Do I need to write ‘Presley’?).

My grandmother didn’t like this ‘crooner’ but boy did we. He shook the teenage world with his songs and brash antics and our memories are unsullied by subsequent binges ……. and drug abuse ……. and an early death. At boarding school we opened the windows in the winter months after evening ‘prep’ and played ‘O So Mio’ or ‘Love me tender’ at full volume ……. and wondered about life and love.

And then along came The Beatles ….. and the Rolling Stones.

In the holidays I went home, went to the odd party and heard The Beatles for the first time. I can still picture the cover of one of their first LPs ‘With The Beatles’.

The Beatles

In 1968 my UK-based regiment went to Cyprus for a month of ‘adventurous training’, a mixture of training in the mountains of this Mediterranean island and canoeing, hiking, sailing, shooting and rock climbing. Towards the end of our time, the Commanding Officer asked me, the most junior officer, to be in charge of the Rear Party. My only task, hardly onerous, was to manage the ‘Rear Party’ consisting of four soldiers and ensure the Regimental freight was dispatched by the RAF on time. Sadly it meant I had to spend an extra 14 days waiting for that flight; ‘ah!’ I hear you sigh. Why am I telling you this? Because ‘Hey Jude’ by The Beatles will be forever associated with Gail, the daughter of an officer permanently based in Dhekelia, the Sovereign Base Area on the island, whom I met at the Officers’ Club.  (Tea & toast?)

Then there was an American duo that created some lovely ballads – Don & Phil Everly. One of their famous hits was ‘Ebony Eyes’. Today I went on to YouTube ……. and there it was ……. and I put the cursor over ‘play’ ……. and I found myself singing along …… about Flight 1203 ……. my Ebony Eyes ……the words just came tumbling out of me as if it was yesterday. Ingrained somehow!

Another influence of my generation was another American called Buddy Holly – all clean cut and glasses. He sang about Peggy Sue, True Love Ways, Everyday and Crying, Waiting, Hoping …… and then he was killed in an aeroplane crash in 1959 at the age of 22 …… and became a legend in the process! Ritchie Valens was another rising music star on that plane, causing Don McLean to refer to it as ‘The Day the Music Died’ (American Pie).

The Day The Music Died

Here in Britain black & white television was becoming more common and a ‘Top of the Pops’ programme, with live acts performing their songs on television, established itself in the rhythm of our lives – it was mandatory viewing at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. In our Company ante-room we all crowded around a small TV, waiting with baited breath for Pans’ People, a dance group of 6 lithe women whose costumes were obviously deliberately designed to set our imaginations running.

The first musical I really loved was Evita, the story of Eva Peron and that song ‘Don’t cry for me Argentina’ still  runs around my head on occasions. As does ‘The Music of the Night’ from Phantom of the Opera, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Michael Crawford, its first leading actor, recalled how some months before he was taking singing lessons on a Saturday morning when the tutor’s front doorbell rang. Telling Michael to practise his scales, he left him upstairs and went down to open the front door. It was Andrew Lloyd-Webber, who was working on bringing ‘Phantom of the Opera’ to the stage. He immediately asked whose voice he was hearing. On being told it was Michael Crawford he exclaimed ‘I think I have found my leading man for ‘Phantom’!

In Germany in the mid ‘70s I went to my first Rock concerto in Dortmund, in Germany, a group called Santana. I was just ‘going with the flow’ with chums and don’t remember finding the ground moved, but I did get completely hung up on the slow guitar introduction of Samba Pa Ti. Years later on my way to see my soon-to-be in-laws, driving down a laurel-banked road, the radio played it, taking my mentally back to Dortmund.

I developed no real passion for one particular type of singing or music over another, just loved some, and conversely didn’t get on with others. Singers whose voices and the songs they have sung I have loved, in no particular order, range from Francoise Hardy and her glorious “Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge”, Carly Simon’s ‘I’m So Vane’, Jennifer Rush’s version of ‘The Power of Love’ and anything by Neil Diamond. I had all of his LPs up until the demise of my record player (!) and loved his ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’ and ‘Stones’ LPs. I even saw him at the Wembley Arena one evening. And then, sadly, his voice was past its best and no one told him. I bought a recent CD and played it once; enough!

Another collection

Sometimes you need a good belter to lift your mood. In the immediate aftermath of my first divorce, in my lower ground flat on Cavendish Road in Clapham, London, nothing better to lift your spirits than ‘You’re the Best’ by Tina Turner.

All the LPs eventually went – cassettes didn’t really do it apart from in a cassette player travelling on business. Gradually my taste has evolved and the music of Ottmar Liebert (Thank you Jonathan H for the introduction!) and voices of individuals like Enya, Celine Dion, Adele and Enigma fill my rooms. Even more recently Angus & Julia Stone’s songs have tugged at the heart strings.

Occasionally I think “Why don’t I have any recordings of ……?” (Barry White and Demis Roussos for example) and it’s soon rectified by a cheap purchase through Amazon. Or you watch a drama on television and love the accompanying music and wait until the end of the credits to catch the artist …… and go on to Amazon …… for instance the Israeli singer Asad Avidan ….. but don’t ask me what the drama was!!

Mere scribbles, mere memories

Richard 18th November 2017


PC 109 That reminds me (1)


I hear the notes of the start of some music or song and almost immediately seem to be able to recall what it is called or remember when it meant something to me, such is the power of association. I doubt whether you are different and between us there will be hundreds and hundreds of pieces of music that we hold dear to our hearts, tunes that stir our soul. What follows are some of mine. Naturally some of you will identify with them and others will ask: “Really?”; such is life!

In my early teenage years I thought that the only ‘opera’ I liked was the accompanying overtures and none of the singing. This dislike was probably initiated at school as the teacher responsible for putting on the classical concerts and operas, Mr Oboussier, always seemed to choose Mozart. One year ‘Don Giovanni’ and the next ‘The Marriage of Figaro’; “One foot …. two feet ….. and that makes three….” sang Figaro and the squeaky strings of the school orchestra violins started these painful memories. However the school Tuck Shop was run by Mr Pickford, a delightful man with a clipped white moustache, short of stature but big in generosity; for some reason he always wore a white coat rather like a laboratory assistant. It was here we played cribbage, bought snacks and had our daily ⅓ pint of milk, invariably to the strains of Wager’s Tannhäuser Overture, obviously Mr Pickford’s favourite. I got to love it too and I get goose pimples whenever I hear those first stirring notes.

Years later my brother and I were making an infrequent visit to our father in Newcastle, driving north up the M1 in his Morris 1000 Traveller. At one point north of the Watford Gap Service Station the car radio played Rossini’s ‘Thieving Magpie’ overture …… and the link between this and travelling together on that wet grey day was cemented. I would search for record collections of ‘Overtures from the Operas’ whenever I could.

Then it all changed. You may recall my parents lived in the little village of Balcombe here in Sussex, and during my time at university (1969-1972) I would often drive down from north of Swindon for a weekend. On the Sunday evening, on the way back to a week of studying ‘Materials of Construction’ (good!) or ‘Mechanics of Fluids’ (not so good!), I would be passing through Camberley around 2100. At that time Alan Keith presented a BBC Radio 2 programme called ‘Your Hundred Best Tunes’; astonishingly he did so for 44 years – yes forty four years!! Quite often he would play the famous duet from Bizet’s opera The Pearl Fishers “Au fond du temple saint” (In The depths of the temple) – and in his wonderfully warm and cultured voice announce it would be the 1950 recording by Robert Merrill and Jussi Björling. I knew nothing about the opera but boy oh boy did this duet fill the car with a cacophony of passion, love and sheer magic. I was hooked. No more only orchestral pieces; duets and grand choruses became my love although I still dislike men or women ‘warbling’.

CDs 3

That dislike probably started in my teenage years if I think about it. My grandmother, a very accomplished pianist, would organise concerts to raise money for Bath charities. Occasionally some man or woman would get up and ‘warble’……. .not for me. But Granny practised …… and practised …… and practised Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, and then played it as a duet with a Rose Tobin in the concert. Hear this piece today and I am instantly transported back to the 1960s and Bath! Lovely huh!

On my journey of discovery of classical music I stopped learning the piano and took up the trumpet. The former had been taught at school in a small room by a teacher who, unbelievably, chain smoked! Clearly my strenuous but largely unsuccessful attempts to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps irritated him a great deal. I remember him trying to position my hands over the appropriate keys, leaning over me, all the time puffing on a cigarette that dangled precariously from the corner of his mouth. He gave up on me; it was mutual and everyone was happy.

A Mr Weeks taught brass instruments so I asked him to teach me how to play the trumpet. Being virtually tone deaf this presented a problem for me, well for him too I guess, but if I heard the music first, I sort of was OK. Mr Philip Oboussier decided one year that the school orchestra should perform Sibelius’s Symphony Number 2. Initially I didn’t like what I heard, as we all sat around his Grundig Gramophone and listened to a recording. Then we dissected the piece and rehearsed each bit. We brought it all together, performed in in the School concert and now it’s possibly my favourite orchestral piece. Sibelius scored his compositions with a heavy accent on the brass section, so maybe I was slightly biased!

CDs 2

Music can often be associated with the untimely departure of a friend or loved one. During our unforgettable first term at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, one of our fellow Officer Cadets developed a particularly vicious form of Leukaemia. He went from being an energetic, charming chap to his death bed in about four weeks, or so my memory informs me. The Company Sergeant Major, a mature figure to us 18 year olds, loved Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto. Up until that point squeaky violins didn’t do it for me; maybe this was the right time to be educated. We cried our way together through this emotional music, laying the basis for a love of weeping violin and viola concertos that continues to this day.

CDs 1

In my second term at Sandhurst our intae were accommodated in some Nissen huts (see note) some distance from the main buildings. They were rudimentary, poorly insulated at best. I had been given an old record player, for which I was grateful, but there was something wrong with its ability to rotate the turntable at a constant speed – a fairly basic requirement you might think. Further investigation revealed that the drive was transferred from the central spindle to the turntable by a rubber belt attached to a plastic disc. This disc was not a true circle and despite endless attempts to shave it ‘round’ eventually I gave up ……. and put up with its idiosyncratic variable speeds! So why am I thinking of this now? Well, one of the records I had was a recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 – The Emperor ……. and I have always thought that the opening of the slow movement, the Adagio ‘un posso mosso’ was a dead ringer for the beginning of the song from West Side Story ‘There’s a Place.’ (aka Somewhere) written by Leonard Bernstein. Maybe he was a Beethoven fan? Let me know if you agree.

You might think that I only love classical music but that’s not true. As someone who spent some formative years during the Summers of Love in the 1960s, how could I have not been influenced by ‘pop’? More anon …….


Richard 4th November 2017

Note: Designed as cheap accommodation in the First World War by Major Peter Nissen, these prefabricated structures had a half cylindrical corrugated steel skin, with brick ends.