Sunday 27 October 2019

Wanted - Your Lord Toffingham Memories

There are so many things the 1970s will rightly be remembered for - glam rock, tank tops, flares and platforms, big hair, cold wars and cod wars, the fuel crisis, the unburied dead, power cuts, strikes, trades union militancy, the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust, the Goodies, the long hot summer of 1976 to name but a few.

But of all the memories that those of us who are of a certain age refuse to lay to rest, one of the most precious must surely be that of the splendid Lord Toffingham. A thick blob of toffee submerged in a banana-flavoured coating, the Toffingham lolly seemed suddenly to disappear from our lives with neither announcement nor ceremony. It is sadly missed.

With all its eccentric simplicity the Lord Toffingham personified the 1970s, and it is perhaps not surprising that there is at least one active petition calling for its return. Alas, memories do lose a certain precision and clarity with the passing of time and information is difficult to come by; even Google seems unable to elucidate.

So my plea is to readers of this blog who remember and share my yearning for this wonderful creation - what do you remember about the Lord Toffingham?

Let us have your recollections, no matter how sketchy, by posting them below.

Thursday 24 October 2019

Alice Cooper at the O2 Arena

As a birthday treat to myself I took me along to the O2 Arena in London to see Alice Cooper, 71 years young, performing the London stage of his Ol' Black Eyes Is Back tour.

Whatever influence Bowie and other artists such as Steve Harley may have had on me during my very most formative years, it was Alice who in fact provided my initiation to modern music back in those long gone hazy days of 1972. It is true that on the very first day of my "conversion" to the pop scene the Number One spot in the UK was occupied by Donny Osmond with his cover of Paul Anka's Puppy Love. But having realised within a week or two that Donny was actually a "girly" artist, my attention soon switched to his successor at the zenith of that illustrious chart, which was Alice Cooper and his classic School's Out.

It helped that my dear late cousin Steve was also a fan, and in fact we both went as far as learning the introductory chords on our electric guitars before becoming distracted by something or other and losing interest.


Billion Dollar Babies became a rare album purchase, rare because an LP ran to several weeks' pocket money, and I still recall the pull-out billion dollar note and the perforated tear-off cards which graced the album cover.

But the content was rather good too. Alice Cooper was not just a glam singles artist, but had strength in depth. A fine set of songs from beginning to end.

Alice continued to be one of my go-to artists for much of the seventies. Come the year 1976 he wasn't actually doing a lot as far as I could see, but he was always there, in the background and firmly in my memory and my affections. And of course he has recorded some excellent new material in subsequent years, not least the smash hit Poison.

So when he announced his latest tour, complete with birthday date at the O2, I canvassed my household to see who might be interested in joining me. To my great surprise it wasn't my wife but my 22-year-old daughter Rosie who stepped enthusiastically up to the plate.


On the night Cooper was supported by MC50 and The Stranglers, the latter of whom I had seen at Wembley Stadium in 1979 supporting The Who, where to be honest they were less than impressive. But at the O2 they were quite superb, and had it been announced after their set that they had in fact been the main act and it was now time to go home I still would not have left feeling cheated.

That said, Alice Cooper was a class apart. Backed by a formidable band containing literally some of the world's greatest rock musicians, much fortified by a guest appearance by his original bassist Dennis Dunaway, he belted out hit after hit with nary a hint of deference to his mature years. Where some other great vocalists have become, well, not so great vocalists over the passage of cruel, relentless time, Cooper has retained his vocal range and power in all its awesomeness and, were it not for a few wrinkles (well, quite a few actually), we could quite easily have been watching the Alice of the early seventies in full flow.

There is always rather a sense of urgency about going to see long-established, septuagenarian artists when they decide to tour. But Alice Cooper looks fit and on top of his game, and points out without tongue in cheek that as a man who is six years younger than Mick Jagger he still has at least that long to play before hanging up his witches' costume.

As a first-time visitor to one of Cooper's shows I was slightly embarrassed when a 31-year-old fan with whom I got into conversation informed me that it was his third such experience. Thankfully it would seem I've at least six more years to make good.

Wednesday 2 October 2019

Steve Harley - '70s Creative Legend, Ongoing Creative Legend and Good Bloke

Sometime, late in 1974, I by some means or another became the proud owner of the Cockney Rebel LP The Psychomodo.

I'm pretty sure I didn't buy it, at least not at full price and from a shop. I hadn't long had my paper round and in those days, for us pre-teens, investing in a long playing record was like buying jewellery. Then it was all about singles, which were 50p if one purchased them from Memorydiscs or Rumbelows in Hounslow. At Woolworth's they were a penny cheaper, but the appeal of making a saving was always somewhat negated by the possibility of being recognised from a previous excursion by a store detective (not for nothing did it come to be affectionately known as Twickenham's first ever take-away).

My suspicion is that it was swapped at school, maybe for a week's tuckshop allowance or a brace of Donny Osmond singles (in which event good business, in retrospect).


I should stress that Judy Teen and Mr. Soft were already part of my burgeoning singles collection. I wasn't at all unfamiliar with the Cockney Rebel sound. But in my personal hierarchy of inspiration The Psychomodo transformed Steve Harley from a slightly come-lately glam artist with a bit of a difference into a songwriter whose lyrics and sense of the theatrical stood him quite apart from the acts that I'd spent the past two years paying homage to with my pocket money. He ascended in my musical affections to a place where only Bowie, who was already there, had any right to be.

There was something else about 1974, and thereabouts, which deserves a mention. Those who, like me, first discovered pop music when it was at its glammiest, in my case during the peak Slade-Sweet-Glitter era of 1972-73, felt just a twinge of disconcertment when the genre seemed to tweak itself in the direction of 1950s nostalgia a year or so later. When Mud became teds, when Showaddywaddy won New Faces, when Suzi Quatro released an LP full of old rock'n'roll covers, when The Rubettes sang about jiving in '55, and when David Essex appeared in That'll Be The Day, something was happening which I didn't entirely get.

Sure I bought many of their records and even turned up to school in a pair of pink luminous socks (albeit discreetly hidden beneath my ample flares out of respect for the regulations). But it wasn't glam was it?

It was because Harley wasn't glam in the same sense as Bolan or Glitter or Noddy Holder, but rather added charisma and creativity to the most enduring remnants of what was always going to be a very temporary and transient genre, that he continued to grow as the sequins began to sprinkle away and the platform boots gradually, and incrementally, descended back to terra firma.


Not that that was a complete consolation to me at the time. I still pined longingly for the foot-stomping, loon-panted days of my distant past of two years back. And my obsession with charting the hits as the radio announced their latest movements every Tuesday lunchtime waned rather a lot. But whilst the pure glam acts which had not quite gone away struggled ever more desperately to make the Top 30, Bowie and Harley stood tall before their respective fan bases, alongside other quality artists of the time such as Rod Stewart and Elton John.

It was in that context that The Psychomodo made a real and lasting impression on me. I wasn't sure I knew what the songs were about, and was not entirely convinced that the writer did either (of his earlier classic Sebastian Harley himself subsequently said: "Sebastian is possibly a sort of Gothic love song, possibly not: I'm not really sure to be honest … It's poetry. It means what you want it to mean").

Indeed, I've long been of the view that the mark of a great song is not so much about what it means to the person who wrote it as what it means to the person listening to it.

With that in mind, The Psychomodo to me is about fishing under Staines Bridge with my schoolmates. It's about wearing pink luminous socks and wedges that I didn't feel altogether comfortable about wearing. It's about thinking it was about time I had a girlfriend, as all my fellow thirteen-year-olds had girlfriends with whom they enjoyed exhilarating sexual relationships (or so they told me, so it must have been true). It's about going on rambles with the church club, and growing my hair long, and staying out till ten.


But essential though it was to me and to my life at the time, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel can hardly be defined by one album; by one moment in time. He and they had already released The Human Menagerie, which joined my back catalogue as soon as my paper round wages would allow. And in 1975, of course, came The Best Years Of Our Lives, which was arguably stronger still and in tribute to which I named my novel, set in 1976 (we were always a few months behind the release date when it came to buying albums).

Which brings us conveniently to that year, which after all is what my writing is mostly about, and the contribution made to it by Harley, both in terms of the bigger musical picture and of my own personal experience. During 1976 he and Cockney Rebel recorded two studio albums, Timeless Flight and Love's a Prima Donna, and four singles, two of which for me helped to define that wonderful year and the life that I had come to lead and enjoy.

The first, White, White Dove, was an awesome song. It never quite made the UK Top 50, which didn't really surprise me as it was lyrically quite deep, or at least it gave that impression. Lots of stuff about the Rosicrucians, which meant precisely nothing to me at the time and doesn't mean a great deal even now. But it extolled peace, and in the battles which I and those around me fought for dominance in our neighbourhood it was an option that always had a certain appeal, especially when things weren't going particularly well for us. For some reason I remember that I picked up my copy from the local newsagent's, some weeks after it had "peaked". Harley never performed it at any of the gigs I attended in later years, which I will always consider a great shame, but he did appear with it on Supersonic (a latter-day rival to Top Of The Pops) around the time of its release.

And then there was Here Comes The Sun. Usually for me a certain disappointment accompanies the recording of a cover version by a creative artist. It's okay when you're Rod Stewart performing Sailing and in so doing effectively taking ownership of it. But this was a Beatles classic! Nevertheless it could not have been more apt as it provided the backdrop to what was the most glorious summer in living memory (there have been hotter ones since but seasons induced by global warming, like athletes on steroids, don't really count). It also, as cover versions go, happened to be very, very good.


Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel still perform live today, drawing respectable attendances although smaller, in my opinion, than they deserve. He has written a whole lot of new material since the 1970s, including a beautiful number entitled A Friend For Life which has been covered by Rod Stewart. Cannily he tends to mix his old material up with the new for the benefit of his largely mature audience.

He also, so I'm reliably told, has the added benefit of being a thoroughly nice bloke. Certainly when I sent him a copy of my novel he was decent enough to take the trouble not only to read it (twice), but also to send me some words of encouragement which he gave me permission to use in my subsequent promotional material. I'm only too aware that he's a busy man and didn't have to do that.

On stage he exudes just about enough ego to carry off the pop star thing, whilst at the same time somehow remaining self-deprecating. It's a difficult balancing act which he has managed to perfect over the years. My wife, my friends and I will be seeing him and the band perform for the umpteenth time shortly before Christmas, and I'm thoroughly looking forward to it as I always do.