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Me and My Music

Amongst the precious things in life, an appreciation and love of music comes close to the top.

Without music my life would be extremely empty. It soothes, enriches, challenges and is capable of mirroring my mood.

Of course the term music is an all-embracing one. There are so many different kinds, so many different styles. Tell somebody that you like music and they always reply with "Oh yes what kind" as if you can immediately pigeon hole and differentiate between styles.

The inference is always that if you like rock and pop you can't possibly like classical and if you like classical you can't possibly like rock and pop. And where does that put jazz and world music? And what does the term classical imply.

The main problem is that many people allow themselves to fall into that category. My eldest son enjoys rock, house, hi-hop et al. Ask him to listen to classical and he turns his nose up. In a few year's time he will listen to the likes of Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler out of his own interest and realise that it is not the musty boring crap that he claims it to be.

Liking music is to go on a never ending journey. I listen to as much as I can -all styles and types. I am aware, however, that there is vast quantities that I have never heard. There is a vast library of music that I could love but never get around to.

So I cannot answer the bald question "What music do I like? I can only tell you of some of the composers and artists who I enjoy and let you pigeon-hole me if you wish. First of all how did I get into this music thing at all.

My love of music didn't develop until quite a late age. My only recollection of growing up with music was having an old 78 rpm wind-up gramophone in which you had to replace the needles every few plays. I remember in particular 78s from Little Richard (Good Golly Miss Molly) which seemed like nothing I had heard before.

This interest in music didn't seem to develop although I do remember buying a 45 single by Anthony Newley called "Why" with the words "I'll Never Let You Go, Why because I love you." I think it was re-recorded many years later by Donni Osmond.

My all time favourite song at that time was from the show Oliver and was entitled "I'd Do Anything."So musically I was rather naive.

Apart from learning to play the piano ("boring classical stuff"!) from the age of about six, I had no real exposure to music until secondary school.

There I gradually found myself falling behind. My first real memories concern the sixth form where we used a chapel crypt close to Norwich Cathedral as a sixth form club. The head of the day allowed us to play music and also to hold social evenings where the music rising up from the Cathedral Close would have had the monks of old turning in their graves.

Sixth formers were allowed to produce and perform their own morning worship in the chapel whilst the rest of the school assembled in the cathedral. Many of the "services" therefore probably had little religious content. I remember one particular service where two tracks from the group Chicago were played. I don't remember the context but I believe the tracks were 25 or 6 to 4 and Question 66/67.

Goodness knows how these fitted into the religious syllabus. I should imagine the content was more akin to social issues. Nevertheless the music hit me. The blaring brass section - in those days one of Chicago's trademarks - the rasping American style vocals. It was wonderfully memorable. To this day I love the early Chicago sound and still play many of their albums.

Then there was dear old Bernard Burrell - the man to whom I attribute my love of music. "Bernie" as we knew him was a wonderfully kind man who indulged us during music lessons. He introduced us to classics and allowed us to introduce him to popular music. But he would always insist on discussing the music after we had listened to it. He told us what he loved about Bach and we told him what we loved about Procol Harum. It was a subtle exchange of views which made us feel valued and made us think about the music without ever dismissing anything. To dismiss any of his classical music without giving it a really good listen would be to insult somebody we had the highest regard and respect for.

Sadly Bernie died of cancer many years ago. I never had the chance to meet him or thank him after leaving school but I remember him well. We introduced him to the rock opera "Tommy" by the Who and "Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procul Harum. He introduced us to Copland and Smetana proving that the classical world was not just about Bach and Beethoven. I'm not sure we fully appreciated his views on the classics but I do know that as my love of rock expanded I began also to listen and not dismiss the classics. To this day Ma Vlast by Smetana remains one of my favourite pieces of music.

The Socials in the crypt were chaotic affairs. It was an all boys school but girlfriends were allowed. Alcohol was not permitted but the Head allowed Cider which was as potent as an beer or spirits. He seemed confused when a mother of a friend of mine complained that her son had returned from a social "extremely drunk." We never told him of the intoxicating nature of cider after all why kill the goose that lays the golden egg?

It was at this time that the term Underground came into being to describe the kind of heavy rock that most of the sixth form were listening to. The likes of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Jethro Tull, Juicy Lucy were rarely far from the sixth form record player. To my chagrin I viewed the output of most of these as pure noise, preferring the melody of the Batchelors, the Bee Gees and if the truth be known Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson. I hated Jethro Tull with a vengeance

My one weakness that leaned towards the rock music establishment was David Bowie. I remember telling everyone how he was going to be big big big. They disregarded me believing that he was just a boring old crooner like all the other dross I enjoyed. At least with Bowie I was right. He soon took off in a big way and suddenly I was viewed as ahead of my time. Actually at that time he sounded like a Tony Newly clone and that's probably why I enjoyed him.

Nevertheless I needed educating. At that time one of my closest friends was Paul Smith who lived in Recreation Road in Norwich. I had some wonderful weekends staying with him and his mum. Now here was a guy who was musically switched on. He loved Jethro Tull. During my stay there I took my bachelors records (I subsequently threw them away although I mustn't be too hard on them because I would be committing the same offence of insulting somebody else's taste - yes there must still be Bachelor fans out there) but Paul didn't want to know. Mrs Smith was glad that at last there was somebody with taste in her house.

From those stays I remember an Island compilation entitled "Bumpers" and folk/rock bands such as Fotheringay and weirdoes such as Captain Beefheart and the Edgar Broughton Band. Paul had one weakspot. He like Johnny Leyton. Above all I remember being forced to listen to the man I thought had the worst voice in the history of music Al Stewart.

How could anyone listen to this man's music? Well we did for hour after hour. I remember every note of the LP "Zero She Flies".

So now it's time to come clean. As the years progressed I grew into this type of music. I loved Bowie's various re-incarnations, I began to appreciate Tull, Deep Purple in Rock became one of my favourite albums and the quintessential Heavy Metal album of all time and yes I began to come to terms with Al Stewart.

Within a few years I had come to terms with that voice - a voice that would be replicated many many years later by Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys. Today I view Stewart as one of the best singer-songwriters to come out of these shores and certainly the best Scottish writer for many decades.

Today I love "Zero She Flies", "Bedsitter Images," "Love Chronicles" and "Orange". They make the memories flood back. Stewart had a brilliant knack of making lyrics meaningful. I believe one of his claims to fame was being the first singer to use the word fuck on a record. It probably went largely unnoticed as his music was reasonably inoffensive. I have seen him in concert numerous times and enjoyed his output.

So as I started at college I said goodbye to the crooners and hello to strong and melodic rock and that's where my education continued.

We are talking about the early 70s when rock music was growing in maturity and experimentation. The spectrum was being widened and Harlow Technical College and Harlow Playhouse enjoyed being close enough to London to attract some top names.

We had a very able social secretary at the college and I remember the likes of Medicine Head and America playing the college and I'm not sure whether Tyrannosaurus Rex appeared there as well although I didn't attend if they did.

By this time I was going with the flow and enjoying the same kind of music as everyone else. I vividly remember buying albums by The Strawbs and Pink Floyd. The early 70s remains my favourite period of rock music. The output was pompous and at times terribly pretentious but it was melodic and different.

It was whilst at the college that two major music events occurred for me. I must stress that this is of course personal taste and to most people the following would mean very little.

The social secretary booked a group for the college by the name of Barclay James Harvest - a northern band from Lancashire. Some people seemed knowledgeable about them and suggested it would be a good evening. I had my doubts but decided to go along on a rather cold winter's night. Now in those days a gig really was a gig. You would often get five or six bands on the same bill.

I knew nothing about Barclay James Harvest and were with a group of students who seemed equally in the dark. Every time a new band came on we thought it was BJH. They were all without exception appalling and at times I felt like returning to my lodgings. But I stayed on and eventually we got to BJH.

That night was to have a great affect on me. Their music was wonderful. It was full of swirling melodies and strong lyrics. They culled their material from their first three albums "Barclay James Harvest," "Once Again" and "Barclay James Harvest and Other Short Stories." I fell in love with the guitar work of John Lees. Even today I think he is one of the most underrated guitarists in the country. He has a style all of his own which I find instantly recognisable.

I was left speechless by the beauty of "She Said," "Galadriel" and absolutely stunned by "Mockingbird" which that night became my favourite rock piece of all time and has remained so ever since. To me Mockingbird still evokes those carefree student days. Listening to it today (preferably late at night with the lights off) it conjures up so many memories. It can, on occasions, still reduce me to tears.

That night BJH finished with "The Poet" and "After the Day" which ended with a mock blowing up of the keyboards and a plume of dry ice enveloping the stage as the musicians left.

Today that may sound like nothing but it was a stunning performance. I have seen BJH on numerous occasions since and they have never really reached the same heights as on that evening, although they went pretty close on their 25th anniversary tour a few years ago.

My other abiding memory of those college years was a gig by David Bowie at Harlow Playhouse. Again it left a rosy mark on me. I believe the support band was Cochise who succeeded in practically clearing the auditorium as everyone went to the bar.

Bowie's act was split in two. In the first half he undertook an acoustic set backed by just his own guitar or piano playing. During this he featured material from Hunky Dory (My second favourite all time album after BJH's Once Again). I also vividly remember a number of Jacques Brel numbers such as "Amsterdam" and "My Death."

The highlights, however, were "Oh You Pretty Things" and "Changes." Bowie left the stage at that moment and half an hour later we were being introduced to his new band The Spiders From Mars. It was an electric set mainly featuring songs from the Ziggy Stardust album. During the break Bowie had transformed himself from the youthful folk singer into Ziggy Stardust.

I believe it was only the band's second or third gig together and I will forever remember the guitar-work of Mick Ronson (now sadly no longer with us). Woody Woodmansey was on drums and Trevor Bolder with the most ridiculous sideburns I have ever seen completed the group. Ziggy played guitar and how he played.

Again I saw Bowie at subsequent concerts but he never reached the same heights. This was vibrant, fresh, new and exciting and that one concert was responsible for me delving further and further into rock music.

There were of course less satisfactory nights. I remember an Essex band called Hirronymous Bosh boring everyone sick with their over-indulgent blend of psychedelic rock.

I left college to start work as a journalist, but music continued to play a large part in my life, although distinct memories are fewer one I was in the outside world. I bought records by the cart-load and even reviewed some for the Lowestoft Journal. I had an excellent agreement with the owner of a local second hand record shop by which I would give him three unwanted review copies and he would swap them for something I really wanted. That way I built up my collection of Beatles music and much else as well. The Dutch band Focus were one of my favourites at this time.

It wasn't until many years later that I began to enjoy American singer-songwriters and began to get into lyrics very heavily. Rock lyrics can be poetry. If you don't believe me just listen tot he songs of the Doors, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and many others.

It was around 1974/75 that another artist began to have a profound effect on me and this one was not just about the music. Around Easter on one of those years a single entitled "WOLD" got into the lower reaches of the British pop charts. I enjoyed the song and on the strength of it bought the album "Short Stories." That began a musical love affair with Harry Chapin which survives to this day. I loved the album (I bought it on the same day as "Between Today and Yesterday" by Alan Price which is another extremely under-rated LP).

For there I bought Chapin's earlier work and suddenly realised here was a man who could communicate with me through song. I had never experienced the power of lyrics to this extent. Many people dismissed Chapin's lyrics as banal and childish. I believe that they are deep and full of beautiful poetry. I know from the number of internet sites dedicated to the man that thousands share my views and have been just as much or even more affected by his songs.

But with Chapin it was very much more. He worked tirelessly to rid the world of hunger and over half of his gigs each year were for charity. He worshipped his fans. His humble and modest stance touched me. Today many of my thoughts and beliefs have been moulded by the humanity of this man.

Tragically he was killed in a car crash in New York State and thousands of us felt that we had lost a friend. I never met him, but I do have a personal letter from him following a review of one of his albums I did. It is one of my prized possessions. Whenever I am feeling depressed I read it again and it instantly cheers me up.

Despite his death, Harry is still speaking personally to thousands and a new generation are experiencing his wonderful songs of loneliness, hope, despair and courage for the first time.

Another of my favourites is American Phil Ochs. Again he has the ability to wrap extremely powerful messages around simple songs. It was thanks to a Harry Chapin song dedicated to Ochs that I looked into his catalogue.

I always find it exciting when I uncover an artist new to me. So you see there is no real answer to the question "What music do you like ?" I like simple music, I like complex music, I like folk music, I like jazz music, I like music of the 60s, I like music of the 90s above all I like keeping an open mind. So I will try and answer the question by giving just some of my favourite artists in various categories and hope that helps. This comes with an apology for pigeon-holing.

Rock music: David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Barclay James Harvest, Family, Neil
Young, Icicle Works, Beach Boys, the Byrds, Divine Comedy
Songwriters: Harry Chapin, Jimmy Webb, Phil Ochs, Al Stewart, Lou Reed
Jazz: Pat Methany, Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett
Classical: Mahler, Bruckner, Puccini, Copland, Bernstein
Today: The Verve, Ocean Colour Scene, Radiohead, Nirvana
Folk/Rock/Country: Joan Baez, Mary Chapin-Carpenter
And that's just a start.

Peter Steward: November 1997