Significant Songs (193)

Wouldn’t It Be Good

Back in 1984, Nik Kershaw was a new sensation. One of those good-looking, floppy-haired boys whose photo was on the walls of a thousand bedrooms, and gracing the covers of various teen magazines. As well as writing his own songs, he also wrote for others, including the Chesney Hawkes hit ‘The One and Only’. The single preceded the album it came from, ‘Human Racing’, which was released later.

I was not someone who tended to like this style of performer, or those songs constantly plugged with well made music videos, shown on a loop on MTV. But something about this song really got to me, with its electronic music, and ‘big finish’ crescendo. Nik appeared on Live Aid the following year, singing this same track. Since then he has worked with Elton John, Sia, Gary Barlow, and many more, as well as releasing follow-up albums over the years. But he never achieved the same success as a solo artist again.



I have recently posted about the study of both History and Geography, so though I would continue that theme with something I was not at all good at, Maths. Short for Mathematics, and simply called ‘Math’ in the USA, most of us in Britain know this school subject as ‘Maths’.

When I started school at the age of five, I was taught simple counting. Using blocks, toys, or any other accessory, I soon learned how to count up to ten and more, along with my classmates. Then easy addition, nothing too complex for my developing mind. By the time I went to Junior School, aged seven, rote learning was still popular, and we were soon getting to grips with our ‘times tables’, to form the foundations of simple multiplication. This was 1959 of course, so no calculators, and not a thought of the computers to come. Just a teacher writing numbers on a board, and conducting our recital like a band leader.
“Once five is five.
Two fives are ten.
Three fives are fifteen,
Four fives are twenty”.
And so on.

We went as far as the number thirteen, stopping there for reasons best known to the teacher. Division was also introduced, often helped along by the use of counters or visual aids, as I learned that four into twenty makes five. Then around the age of nine, that ‘Eureka’ moment, when I suddenly got the connection between multiplication and division. We also tackled currency, as at that time we still used pounds, shillings and pence, with twelve pence to a shilling, and twenty shillings in a pound. Not that I ever had much cash, but it was good to know what change to expect when I bought something. We were also using rulers, and learning how to measure short distances.

When I was eleven, it was time to go to secondary school, and begin the exam syllabus. I had a list of things I would need just for Maths lessons; this included a set of compasses, a protractor, a triangle and a ‘proper’ ruler, with measurements down to 1/16th of an inch. The first real lesson was a double period, (why was Maths always a double?) and it hit me like a whirlwind. Algebra? Geometry? Even something called Trigonometry. I thought the teacher must be talking a foreign language, but she assured us that was all to come. Meanwhile, we were hit with some serious long division. That alone was enough to make my brain ache, and I watched my ‘working out’ get further and further down the page as I struggled with something like 295 divided by 16. By the time the first month of the new school was over, I had decided that I really didn’t like Maths, and was sure I would never be good at it.

And I was right.

Then came ‘Problems’. Things like, “If a two hundred gallon water tank has a leak of a quarter of a pint a day for ten days, then half a pint a day for twelve days, how much water will be left after twenty-two days?” I didn’t even know where to start, and my hand was soon up, informing the teacher that I didn’t have a clue. Even when she showed me how to work out the solution, I still got the answer wrong. It all got worse once we started with Algebra. “If X = ? and Y = ?, what is XY squared? ” I just laughed. There was no chance I got any of that at all. The teacher later explained that X and Y had a value and it could be anything I wanted on that occasion. X could be 2 and Y 6, for example. My reply was not well-received. “Please Miss, then why don’t you just write a 2 and 6?” I was told in no uncertain terms that I was being deliberately ‘stupid’.

But I wasn’t.

Later, we were given a complex book of numbers, called ‘Logarithms’. This baffling table introduced us to decimal points and such, but might just as well have been Sanskrit, for all my brain could take it in. I wasn’t getting any better, and had to face the next year, when it was all going to get harder. Double Maths changed to a Monday morning when I was twelve, and I began to dread the walk to school,, shuffling with the reluctance of a condemned man about to be hanged. I still had the same teacher, the formidable Mrs Widdowson, who could freeze me with one of her signature glares, and had given me a terrible entry on my end of term report the previous year. Inside, I considered I was doing alright. All the other subjects were going great. I was in the top set for English, Geography, French, History, and even Religious Education, something I had little interest in. So what if I didn’t really ‘get’ Maths? It wasn’t the end of the world, as far as I was concerned.

So, I muddled along. Bad reports, bottom section of the class, and never truly understanding anything new. I did well at everything except Maths, and that was enough for me. When it came to the final exams, I just scraped though the Maths one with a Grade Four, a ‘just passed’ result. But it wasn’t all bad. That early learning left me able to recall the times table instantly, work out money without hesitation, and even able to calculate foreign currency exchanges, on my trips abroad. These days, i see young peope reach for a mobile phone, when faced with the most basic sum to work out.

Maybe we need to go back to chanting the times tables, and using a ruler?

Significant Songs (192)

The Boys Are Back In Town

You don’t see many rock songs on this blog, I know. But this is a really good one. Back in 1976, Irish band Thin Lizzy were doing very well indeed. They had already achieved success in the UK, and all around Europe, and were touring in America. The distinctive vocals of front man Phil Lynnot and some excellent guitar work gave the group an identifiable sound, and much critical acclaim too.

The band went through various changes of line up, including the arrival, departure, and eventual return of the wonderful Gary Moore. But by 1983, differences (and drugs) had taken their toll, and the band split for good, following the Reading Festival performance. In 1986, just ten years after the high watermark of this single, Lynnot died of complications from drug addiction. He was just 36 years old.

Significant Songs (191)

It Must Be Love

Back in 1971, I rarely bought any records in the genre often called ‘Easy Listening’. However, I was often tempted by those little devils known as ‘One Hit Wonders’. As I was driving around a lot at the time, the car radio was always on, and some songs seemed to get a lot more plays than others. My Dad worked in the record business, and I had heard that this was as a result of disc jockeys being paid to promote particular songs, by people known as ‘pluggers’. Now I am not suggesting this is what happened here, but I had certainly never heard of Labi Siffre, before this song was released.

With the benefit of the Internet, I can now tell you that he was a Londoner, a Jazz guitarist during the 1960s, and later released four albums and sixteen singles, though this was his only hit. He is still around, now aged 75.

Ten years later, the song was covered by the London group, Madness. With a promotional video, and the band riding a storm of popularity, their version became a huge hit, and one of the signature songs associated with them. Poor Labi had been forgotten, it seemed. But he is in the video, playing a violin! 🙂 And it must have made him a nice few quid too.

Significant Songs (190)

Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue

I have never been a fan of what is generally called ‘Country Music’. I didn’t identify with that very American experience of road trips, truck-driving, and ‘good ‘ole boys’. I don’t know much about Texas, and I have never eaten in a ‘diner’, treated my wife badly, or left a woman to look after my kids.
I haven’t met any daughters of coal miners, and I don’t believe I ever saw an island in a stream. It has also never been a requirement for me to stand by a man.

But in 1978, I was surprised to actually enjoy a Country song I heard on the radio. With a mellow voice that got my attention immediately, I managed to overlook the syrupy lyrics, and found myself humming it later, after getting out of the car. I was a little concerned though. I was only 26, yet here I was remembering the lyrics to a Country song that would normally never enter my consciousness. It became a top ten hit in Britain, so the performer eventually appeared on TV to promote it.

And she was lovely to look at too. Her name was Crystal Gayle, (a stage name) and I couldn’t help but sing along, as I watched her on the screen. I discovered that she was already a popular singer in the genre, and well known in America, also that she was the same age as I was. Not long after, I found myself in a local record shop, buying a copy of the single. The only Country record I have ever knowingly purchased. I found out a little more over the years. Her real name is Brenda, and she is the sister of another famous Country singer, Loretta Lynn.

Crystal is still recording and performing. But I didn’t buy any of her other records, not even ‘Talking In Your Sleep’, which I tried not to like, but failed. 🙂

Retro Review: Assault On Precinct 13 (1976)

***No real spoilers***

Despite a decent (though ultimately pointless) remake in 2005, John Carpenter’s frequently overlooked masterpiece remains one of my all-time favourite modern films. The cast made up of virtual unknowns, the bizarre concept of the story, the superb and disturbing musical score, and the tension that had my bum cheeks clenched throughout, all adds up to a small but important classic of 1970s cinema.

Before this was released, I had seen and enjoyed Carpenter’s science-fiction film, ‘Dark Star’. But I had not seen the three films before that, and had little idea what to expect, when I read that he had released a Police-orientated thriller, set in a closed-down police station, in an unnamed American city. Critics compared it to westerns like ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959), or the zombie classic, ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ (1968). I decided to make up my own mind, and headed off to see it in the cinema. It was released in the UK in 1977, and attracted rave reviews here. I was a 25 year-old film fan at the time, and very ready to see what all the fuss was about. Despite never having heard of a single member of the cast, I put that thought behind me, believing that an unfamiliar cast would make it all the more believable.

And I am very pleased to say that I was not at all disappointed. I left the cinema excited, and buzzing. I had seen something special, of that I was sure. Rarely had tension been so tightly wound in a film, and the somewhat incomprehensible story line just worked, and worked beyond my wildest expectations. If you have never seen it, it goes something like this.

Precinct 13 is being closed down. A skeleton staff remains, to oversee the various procedures involved in winding down the administration duties. A prison van carrying a disparate group of convicted felons must divert to Precinct 13, and they have to be detained there for a while. Meanwhile, a large number of criminals, almost a well-equipped army, decides to converge on Precinct 13. They are seeking revenge for the deaths of some of their members, during a shoot out with the police. On the way, they kill an assortment of innocent people, and when they eventually arrive at the police station, those inside, including the jailed criminals, must all fight for their very survival.

This is great stuff, and handled with aplomb by Carpenter. A tight script, super soundtrack, skilled direction, and authentic settings, all deliver a top-notch action film, that in my opinion, has hardly been surpassed since. It might seem a bit old hat now, I accept. 1976 was a long time ago, and many of you were not even born then. But trust me, as I know a lot of you do. This is much, much better than you might think. Don’t be put off by the trailer…

Retro Review: The Last Valley (1971)

***No spoilers***

Very few films have been set during the Thirty Years War that ravaged Europe from 1618-1648. I can only think of two, and this is one of them. But it is not really about that war, although it features a short battle scene. It is about what people will do survive, in a land ravaged by not only war, but the Black Death too. A time when wandering bands of fierce mercenaries were paid to fight for one religion or another, and would change sides for a better offer. It is also about the hypocrisy of religion, and how old beliefs and customs came to be associated with witchcraft, during an era dominated by opposing faiths.

Vogel, a wandering teacher, (Omar Sharif) is fleeing the pestilence and combat consuming the country. By chance, he discovers a fertile valley, and a village inhabited by prosperous and suspicious villagers with little knowledge of life outside their idyllic existence. Meanwhile, a mixed bag of mercenaries and deserters, led by a man known only as ‘The Captain’, (Michael Caine) is heading in the same direction, stopping on the way to kill, rape, and steal anything they can find. Vogel is taken in by the reluctant villagers, for fear he would tell on them if he was sent away.

When The Captain and his men finally stumble across the village, it seems the fate of everyone is sealed. But the clever Vogel steps in, persuading the village headman (Nigel Davenport) and The Captain to reach an agreement. The soldiers will protect the village from outsiders for the winter, and in return, they will supply women to service the sexual needs of the men, and provide adequate food and shelter for them all. An uneasy truce is declared, but tensions remain high, especially as summer approaches, and some of the soldiers feel they should return to the army.

This film shows its age now, but not in a bad way. Despite its ‘epic’ status, and big-name cast, it feels more like a Hammer film at times, especially during the parts concerning witchcraft. The supporting cast is on form too, with hunky Michael Gothard impressive as a baddie, and the scene-chewing Brain Blessed relishing an all-too short role. You also get the British actor Jack Shepherd, and the Greek actor Yorgo Voyagis as Pirelli. Throw in some more international stalwarts, and there is something for everyone, in a film destined to be shown all over the world. Female desire is dealt with by the inclusion of Florinda Bolkan, and Madeline Hinde. Direction and writing is in good hands too, with the experienced James Clavell.

One word of warning, and it’s not a spoiler. Michael Caine adopts a strange German accent throughout the film. Not his best choice, in my opinion.
That said, this is hugely enjoyable, and very different.
The trailer is almost as good as the film!