Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Annus Mirabilis, or the Year the Music Died?


My introduction to "pop" music came, peculiarly, in the person of Michael Jackson.

We were at primary school, I was ten years old. For reasons which I cannot recall, one particular day was declared to be a "free" day – no lessons, no classwork, no booky stuff. Instead we were invited to bring in our 45s, to be played to the class on the old record player brought into school by the teacher.

Being inspired primarily by other things, mainly football and toy cars, I didn't actually possess any records of my own, so I brought in some of my mother's. Who, unfortunately, had rather conservative musical tastes, and my classmates groaned and stuck their fingers in their ears as the sound of Frank Sinatra strained datedly from the turntable. My friend Paul, unable to take any more, lifted the needle in mid-croon and replaced it with a record of his own, Michael Jackson's "Rockin' Robin". Humiliation turned very quickly into devotion. I was hooked.

Steve Harley Cockney Rebel 1976 The Best Year Of Our Lives by Phil AndrewsAs befits my obsessive personality, I transformed myself very quickly from pop novice into classroom authority on the music charts. By the end of 1972 and into '73, by now a first-year pupil at senior school, I was the first to rush out and purchase every latest release by the big chart acts of the day – Slade, The Sweet, Gary Glitter, T. Rex. The new chart was announced at noon every Tuesday, and I would race down to the toilets as soon as the bell sounded for the lunchtime break with my illicitly-smuggled transistor radio wedged firmly in my blazer pocket and pre-set to Radio One, pen and notebook at the ready, to list all the latest Top 30 placings. By the end of the dinner break I could recite them all sequentially without reference to my notes.

WIND-FLAPPING LOON PANTS

My dear late father and I would argue at some length about my musical enthusiasms. He was a rock'n'roll man, raised on Elvis and Little Richard although by no means averse to the Beatles and some of the stuff which had defined at least the earlier part of the sixties. My music and its accompanying culture, he informed me, were ridiculous. The long hair, the wind-flapping loon pants, the absurdly impractical platform boots, the (to him) banal and repetitive lyrics (not at all evident, I would point out sarcastically, in ditties such as "She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah"), and all the monster-sized egos which paraded themselves shockingly around the stage every Thursday evening on Top of the Pops.

Worst of all, all the music of my era apparently sounded the same. Not so, it would seem, the simplistic be-bop of Stone Age rock'n'roll or the pudding-bowl haircuts and four-guys-in-suits which defined the so-called musical revolution of the early- to mid-sixties. No, it was Elton with his Zoom! spectacles, Glitter with his ostentatious if ever so slightly too tight costumes, Marc with his corkscrew locks and Bowie with his androgynous Ziggy persona who were apparently identical to behold. How could anyone be so blind?

Grifter 1976 The Best Year Of Our Lives by Phil AndrewsIn fact so locked was I in that moment that even now a part of me still thinks of Mud, Wizzard and Suzi Quatro, not to mention Sparks and the Rubettes, as being "new" acts. Of course I bought into those as well when they arrived, especially Suzi Q who doubled for a time as my childhood fantasy woman (not least I imagine because she was about the same height as me).

One "new" act by which I was particularly captivated was Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel. Not glam in the sense of sequins and tassels and look-at-me stacked heels, but showy enough to hold a '70s audience for long enough to appreciate some really nifty songsmithery from a truly gifted writer and artist. And then there were always Mott and Roxy.

CULTURAL BACKDROP

Of course such a full-on onslaught of sparkle and glamour was doomed to enjoy a limited shelf-life, and by the time 1976 arrived I was already, musically speaking, a man lost in time, with only the evergreen Bowie for company. And yet, at fourteen, I was beginning to take my first tentative steps along the awkward road from childhood into maturity, and was much in need of a cultural backdrop against which to strut my stuff. What I found was a zeitgeist both unique and peculiar, a mosaic of fading glam intermixed with an uplifting discofied soul which I found eminently palatable in spite of my normally European tastes (I'd long since jettisoned Michael Jackson from my list of idols by this time, Rockin' Robin notwithstanding). Add into the mix the most glorious summer of all and I was in ecstasy, an emotional and spiritual state of being which I had never encountered previously, and have never found since. 1976 isn't formally recognised as having been the best year ever to have grown up in for nothing.

And then, at the height of it all, came punk. Spitting, snarling and, worst of all to me, pretentious. I could swear with the best of them, but vulgarity was for classroom banter or the rest room at the youth club, it was never part of my music. Anybody who gobbed at me could expect a fight, it wasn't something I went to a gig to experience. Worst of all, on my streets at least, many of the kids who seemed to embrace this sudden outpouring of anarchy and revolution were the kind I had always thought of as being, well, a bit middle-class. Geeks, spotty types and pencil monitors had suddenly become the ambassadors of rage, and I couldn't quite work out how or why.

Daily Mirror Sex Pistols 1976 The Filth And The Fury The Best Year Of Our Lives by Phil AndrewsBy the time the world had become bored with the cultural one-trick pony that was punk, it was too late. As the impact of the explosion faded, what emerged from the dust and the smoke was Grease and John Travolta. It was as though the proverbial gods were punishing us for having turned our backs on our spiritual nirvana. The twentieth century equivalent of a plague of frogs. The flares had gone, alas, and we had climbed down from our platforms forever.

Of course, my story is precisely that. Others remember 1976 with fondness precisely because of punk, viewing it as a liberating force sent to rescue us all from the ever-encroaching triteness of disco, to move us on from a post-glam musical wasteland which no longer quite knew what it was about. Oddly enough I can understand and even sympathise with this view. Hidden amongst my collection of singles which still lurks in a forgotten cupboard somewhere at my mother's home are a few of the more well-known numbers by the Sex Pistols and Sham 69. At times I swayed with the wind, no matter how hard I struggled to stand firm.

A SPECIAL YEAR

The fact is that 1976 was a special year for all sorts of reasons and that applies whether one was a punk, a disco kid or a lost soul still wandering confused by the demise of glam. It was a special place that we all inhabited at the same time, moving around in the same age often oblivious to the existence of one another. It was like a veritable black hole which sucked in everyone from every genre of adolescent society and spat them all out sometime later transmogrified into Bee Gees.

Some wag recently remarked that in spite of all the strikes and shortages, bombings, football hooliganism, Carnival riots, Cold Wars and Cod Wars we were all younger in 1976 and it is this fact alone that makes us regard it lovingly through rose-tinted spectacles. This doesn't of course explain the special affection this particular year holds in our hearts which is absent in respect of other years. There's always one, isn't there? Fact is, the Spirit of 1976 lives on as a memory that will never be erased, a candle that will always burn. Don't take away the music, whichever tune from 1976 it is that floats your boat.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to The Spirit of 1976.

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