A Happy Accident

In which The Author buys a book

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Ringo Starr’s 2004 book Postcards From the Boys. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a collection of cards which Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison sent back from their tour venues and holiday destinations. I didn’t buy it when it came out, and have regretted it since.
Anyway, this afternoon in Aberdare, I came out of Wilko and almost got caught in a downpour. (Summer in Wales, innit?) I legged it as far as the side entrance to the market, and decided to have a browse around while I was there. I don’t often go as far as the bottom end. Barbara’s mountain of stock outgrew the three stalls she was renting a couple of years ago, forcing her to relocate to a shop around the corner. Instead I tend to cut through to the new part and bypass the couple of stalls at the far end. Today I decided to have a look at what was on offer.
Red House Music has been there for ages. Stefan, the previous owner, always kept a eclectic range of CDs and vinyl in stock, together with framed prints, books, ornaments (little model guitars and so forth) and magazines. The stall takes its name from a song by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, which may give you an idea of where Stefan’s tastes lie.
My former bookselling friend Marilynne is a music teacher, jazz player and a huge Beatles fan, who once played hookey from school to see the Fab Four at the Capitol in Cardiff. (She and her pal changed into their trendy gear in the ladies’ toilet of David Morgan’s department store.) A few years ago I knew Marilynne’s birthday was approaching, and while I was browsing in Red House I spotted the perfect present – a framed photo of George Harrison, looking serene and rather sexy. I took it into work and left it on the staff room table, with her card from us all on top. I knew she’d found it when she came back on to the shop floor and gave me a huge hug. Back of the net, as they say.
I haven’t read a music paper for many years, so I’m well and truly out of the loop with the current scene. (For instance, I know that David Gilmour has released a new single only because it’s been played on Radio 2 a fair bit.) When the return trip to Cardiff became prohibitively expensive, I lost the habit of buying music at all.
Martin H. and I went into HMV a couple of years ago, and we both found it a rather dispiriting experience. Last time I called into Spillers, their range was quite disappointing too.
Stefan’s stock policy was broad enough to cover the decades, though. As well as the current releases, he had enough decent backlist to make up the mythical 80/20 ratio.
It turns out that Stefan’s now handed the business over to a young woman named Laura. She was behind the counter when I walked in. I was holding a shrink-wrapped and pretty much mint condition copy of Ringo Starr’s book, which had been on the rack outside, priced up at two quid. ‘That’ll do nicely,’ I thought.
I paid for the book and decided to have a browse while I was there. There was a good selection of blues, folk, stoner rock and prog rock (probably reflecting Stefan’s own tastes), but the contemporary(-ish) scene was well represented too: Oasis, Robbie Williams, U2, Madonna, and so forth.
I was very tempted by a David Bowie CD with a limited edition bonus disc. There was a copy of Bryter Later by Nick Drake, but I’ve got a feeling I’ve got it at home already. There was Pictures at an Exhibition by Emerson Lake and Palmer, with bonus tracks which wouldn’t fit on the original release. (My turntable’s on its last legs, so I haven’t listened to my copy for ages. That’s why I decided not to check out the vinyl.)
I spotted the fortieth anniversary reissue of In the Land of Grey and Pink by Caravan, the newly remastered Tubular Bells, a boxed set of five classic books about the music scene, and plenty more that could have made a serious hole in my wallet. But I decided to hold fire for another day.
As well as the backlist and the frontlist, Red House sell CDs by local musicians, which is good to see. Some thirty years ago I bought a single by a local band (local-ish, anyway; I think they were from Glyncoch) called Blaue Reiter. They didn’t come to anything, but their singer Bari Goddard went on to front The Knives, whom I saw supporting Andi Sex Gang in London in 1984. You never know where the boys from down the road will end, do you? Did anyone in Cwmaman (apart from Kelly Jones himself) ever think Tragic Love Company would come to anything? Go figure…
Laura and I chatted for ages about the business, the music scene in general, bands we’ve seen and gigs we’ve missed, the chronic shortage of vinyl pressing plants, and notable casualties of the music scene like Syd Barrett and Nick Drake. She’s knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and keen to broaden her own horizons. I suggested she should check out The Legendary Pink Dots (see Just a Quick One), as they’re the logical heirs to Syd Barrett’s crown as chemical experimenters.
It’s good to know that in the era of iTunes and Amazon, an independent record shop can survive in a small town like Aberdare. I’ll definitely make a point of calling in more regularly now, and maybe upgrade some of my beloved vinyl collection to CD.
After all, as with any business venture these days, it’s a case of ‘use it or lose it.’ And quite frankly, Virgin and HMV had enough money out of me over my nearly four decades of record buying. It’s time to give someone else a slice of the pie.

A Tale of Two Singers

In which The Author stays in the pub

I hadn’t intended to stay out last night. As things turned out, I called into the Lighthouse at lunchtime for ‘just the one’ (in the words of Jeffrey Bernard) and crawled home at closing time.
When I say ‘crawled’, that’s something of an understatement. I was helping to prop up the side of the Coliseum when a young couple came along and offered me considerable moral and physical support during the (normally short) journey as far as my front door. I might have known their names last night, but I have more recall of my codeine-fuelled dreams than I have of getting home.
Consider that only a couple of months ago I made sure my friend Neil J. got home safely after a fair scoop. I think the lad and his girlfriend who made sure I got home safely must subscribe to the ‘pay it forward’ school of thought. (Or, quite possibly, pay it backwards. I still haven’t decided.) If they’re reading this by some quirk of fate, I owe them a big one.
Anyway, I was in the Lighthouse when the first of the evening’s professional karaoke singers turned up. He was a large gentleman in his mid-thirties, wearing a scruffy T-shirt and a pair of jeans. To be frank, when he came in with a speaker on one shoulder, I assumed he was the singer’s roadie/minder/boyfriend/whatever. I was expecting a slender bleached Valleys sunbed clone to walk in behind him. No such luck – he was the singer.
I don’t know his name. Mark doesn’t put posters up, so the poor buggers who ‘entertain’ us at weekends don’t even merit free publicity. However, if you’ve seen The Big Bang Theory, you’ll probably be familiar with the minor character ‘Captain Sweatpants’. Now try and visualize him standing on a very slightly raised area at the back of a Valleys pub. Got it? Good – you’re with me.
I was expecting him to lug his gear in, then vanish into the gents’ and emerge wearing something a bit more audience-friendly. When Sam and I were travelling back on the ferry from Ireland in 1996 (and that’s a whole entry in itself), we were the unintended victims of a professional karaoke duo. After they’d set up their kit, they vanished for a while. I said (half-jokingly) that they must have gone to change into their stage outfits. As things turned out, I was right – on that occasion, at least. Captain Sweatpants was already wearing his stage outfit.
I decided to try and track his set, with half an eye to working on my Bar Band Bingo idea. That plan went out of the window from the start. I’ve transcribed my notes (as best I can) from last night. This process hasn’t been made any easier by a) my illegible handwriting, b) the fact that most of Captain Sweatpants’ set doesn’t feature on Ken Bruce’s playlist, Sounds of the Sixties and/or Late Junction, and c) the fact that I dropped my notes while cooling my fevered brow against the glass door of the Coliseum at stupid o’clock. Amazingly, they were still there when I walked past this afternoon. (They weren’t any easier to read, but they were still there.)
  • Soundcheck (?) No idea
  • 1 Still no idea
  • 2 ‘Keep on Loving You’ (Foreigner?)
  • 3 ‘Just Looking’ – bloody ‘Phonics
  • 4 Not ‘Drops of Jupiter’ – Train (‘Hey Soul Sister’)
  • 5 ‘Babylon’ – David Gray
  • 6 Pass
  • 7 ‘New Jeans’
  • 8 No idea
  • 9 REM (?)
  • 10 ‘I Believe’ – Australian Guy (actually Affirmation by the guy out of Savage Garden whose name I can’t be arsed to Google in case he thinks I’m a fan)
  • 11 ‘I Got a Feeling’ – Black Eyed Peas
  • 12 The song that goes Wooo!
  • 13 ‘Budapest’ – George Ezra (information courtesy of Lee M.)
  • 14 Some ska thing
  • 15 ‘Drops of Jupiter’ – Train
At which point my mate Rob J. and his wife came in, so I started chatting to them and lost whatever remaining interest I still had in Captain Sweatpants. (Les and Katie had come in earlier, but they escaped before he started. Wise move, both!)
You get the measure of the set, though. It was overwhelmingly modern stuff, with a token MOR ballad for good measure, and the obligatory Stereophonics number just because they’re almost from Aberdare. There was nothing you could dance to, assuming there was enough room in the pub to dance anyway. It was the sort of music which Paul Gambaccini once described as ‘the triumph of rhythm over melody’. I wouldn’t give any of it house room, personally.
No sooner had Captain Sweatpants departed than the second singer came in. He was tall, slim, dark of hair and complexion, and amazingly handsome. (If I were gay, I definitely would!) After he set up his gear he changed into a crisp white shirt, black tie, smart trousers, shiny shoes and a dark waistcoat. My friend Adrian T. sings professionally under the name Tony Royale, and wears a suit on stage. He sings the standards (Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, that sort of material) and looks the part on stage. Singer Number Two looked the part, too.
Then he started his set.
He introduced himself to us, thanked us for coming, and launched straight into ‘Cry Me a River’. Not the Justin Timberlake song, but the beautiful power ballad made famous by Julie London. And he blew us away. He had the presence, the range, and the charisma to carry the song off. After that, he went into ‘Ain’t That a Kick in the Head’.
He was firmly in Tony Royale territory. It’s the stuff I grew up listening to, between Dad’s and Mother’s (admittedly limited) record collections and daytime Radio 2 (before they discovered The Beatles). It’s timeless music. ‘Drops of Jupiter’ might be a staple of Radio 2 now, but will they still be playing it in 2065? Personally, I doubt it – but the superb pop songs and arrangements of the Rat Pack’s repertoire will be played as long as the music of Beethoven and Bach.
When he launched into ‘Beyond the Sea’ (the Bobby Darin version, of course) Gaz and Billy came in, so I stopped writing and chatted to them. All the while, the singer kept ploughing through a remarkably wide range of material, covering all bases from big band standards to fairly modern pop (Sting, Queen, The Beatles). In between songs he talked to us, telling us what he was going to sing next, and remarking on people in the crowd. Whereas Captain Sweatpants was about as interactive as a teenage girl singing into a hairbrush in her bedroom mirror, Mr Big Band actually realized that he had an audience. We’re all victims of technology, of course. One of his backing tracks misfired, and we got the first few seconds of a (fairly) early David Bowie song. (When a long and distinguished musical career stretches over fifty years, even ‘Ashes to Ashes’ probably counts as Early David Bowie, after all.)
I nipped across to him and said, ‘Oh, go on, sing it – you know you want to.’ He laughed and shook my hand.
‘Maybe next time,’ he grinned.
‘I’ll be here,’ I said.
And I will be. I don’t care if he thinks I’m a stalker. He was a welcome breath of fresh air in a stale and tired Valleys entertainment scene, and I hope he goes on to great things. He deserves to. So does Tony Royale, come to that – but when the ‘average’ punter would rather pay good money to watch some three-chord flash in the pan than take the time to appreciate decent music, I fear that they’ll be condemned to the pro karaoke circuit for the rest of their lives.