Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Lou Reed, My Brother and Me


Many have been writing about Lou Reed in the past week. He was obviously an important part in the lives of many people, even if that part had shrunk over the years. Lou Reed came into my life like this ...

On my 18th birthday, five days before Christmas in 1971, my Mum and Dad gave me my first stereo player. Our house had had a radiogram downstairs in the living room, but its record player was never used. That massive walnut veneered box, shiny and almost black, was covered in a small velvet cloth. If you opened the hinge you would reveal the bronze coloured dials, probably Bakelite. If you turned it on a warm glow would emanate from the yellowish light. It would take five minutes for the valves to warm, for a click to be heard, and for a deep sonorous voice from the Light programme to materialise. This radiogram could only play songs by old crooners: Perry Como mostly. Sometimes it played the Shipping Forecast. Usually it was only heard in that strangely dead time between church and Sunday lunch.

So it was a massive thing to have my own stereo record player and it to have all to myself in my bedroom. Though not quite all to myself as I shared a bedroom with my next youngest brother Graham.

The stereo was made by Alba, it had an amplifier and a radio built in with a column of 4 knobs on the side. It had a choice of a short spindle or a BSR auto-change spindle for playing a stack of singles. It was wooden with a perspex lid which didn’t have a hinge. The two speakers were separate and the front of the speakers had ribbed wooden strips over the front cloth. It had a headphone socket somewhere as I bought a pair of headphones later. That stereo remained in the bedroom and was used subsequently used by a variety of my brothers and sisters. It was a fixture for perhaps 15 or 20 years. It may still be tucked away in the attic. I loved that stereo.

But what is a stereo without a record. My birthday present came with two records. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor. It was conducted by Andrew Davis. My mother and I liked this from films; Brief Encounter seems obvious but also some other old black and white movie, which may have been September Affair with Joan Fontaine and Joseph Cotten. I would have to see that again to see if it tugs any strings! It is also used in Billy Wilder’s Seven Year Itch.

More surprisingly the other record I was given with the stereo was Wishbone Ash’s Pilgrimage. This was their second album. I did later buy the eponymous first album, and the third, Argus. A search on the internet reveals that they are still going, in two different versions (from original members) and that a 21st studio album was released in 2011. Who knew.

Wishbone were briefly famous for pioneering a twin lead guitar sound, later used by Thin Lizzy (and others). They remain, with Led Zeppelin, the only ‘rock’ albums in my collection.

How did my mother know I liked Wishbone Ash? Why did I like Wishbone Ash? It is possible that I listened to Wishbone Ash on Radio Luxembourg in those weeks before Christmas that year. I may have mentioned it. Probably she asked my brother for advice.

You can imagine how many times this album got played for the time that I only had the choice of two albums.

So, shortly, it’s 1972. It’s my last year at school and I shall leave with the merest scraping of three A Levels. But I have a record player and I have a Saturday job. I can buy records. My Saturday job is working for the Riceman’s Department Store in Canterbury. I work at the depot. It is my job to wash the cars of the owner, and his two sons. They drive big Daimlers and Jaguars. I have to wash and polish them and valet the insides too. They also have their own petrol pump and I have to fill the tanks. One on each size. Sometimes the wives come and I have to clean those cars too. Little tiny Minis!

I was earning about 30/s a day back then. But remember we had just gone metric. I was earning £1.50. It wasn’t very much. An LP would have been £2.

I was at Dover Grammar School for Boys. Only Gary Campbell and I were left from the seven boys - from our village - in our year. The others had left school after O Levels. It was nothing to do with how bright they were. They were perhaps the brightest. Certainly Ernie was, and Patrick was brilliant at football and would go on to play for WBA, Brighton, Gillingham and Southport in the lower divisions. I was lucky to be doing A Levels at all, but I was fortunate to find myself studying Computer Science at A Level at the first school in the country to offer it.

Anyway how do I go about discovering music? I don’t remember much about it. I do remember hanging around in record shops and in particular in one on Dover High Street which had a sound booth. Basically a box built with that hardboard stuff with holes in.

My friend Padfield (we only had surnames in those days and that was how we were addressed by the Masters at school (no common or garden teachers)). We went down to this shop one lunchtime so that he could specifically make me listen to this amazing record. It was Tago Mago by Can. It was amazing and it took me to many places musically. To be fair it also closed the door on a lot of stuff I might otherwise have liked if they had not just been blown out of the water by the sheer brilliance of this album. A brilliance, of course, that I wasn’t really aware of. It was new to me, unknown to most and a doorway to many interesting sounds.

I borrowed some of Chris’s other records round about that time thinking he knew something. I borrowed Atomic Rooster, Curved Air and Grand Funk Railroad, and realised he wan’t the guru I thought he was. I was on my own.

Or not quite as I had the NME as well. It’s hard to remember now how influential this was. Did I take notice of the stuff written in here? What I do remember taking notice of is sleeve notes. I’m convinced that what led me to the Velvet Underground and, eventually Lou Reed and John Cale was reading a sleeve-note somewhere of how they had influenced Can. I was massively into Can, and a few other German bands. Amon Duul for example (1 album) and Faust (3 Albums) - who remembers now the Faust album with an X-ray hand on clear vinyl in a clear sleeve?

Somehow somewhere someone mentioned the Velvet Underground and with my new found wealth I bought the records.

So now I had three summers before I would leave home to go to Polytechnic. Even when I went I would leave the stereo behind. I bought a Philipps Cassette Stereo system to take with me and copied all my LPs to tape. But meanwhile three summers in which to catch up. To play music. To play happy music, but importantly not to play too much different music, because the point is if you cant afford to buy too much music then you have to listen to what you have over and over and over and over again. Those albums from those years I played to death. I know them inside out and back to front with every word and every note. Nobody plays music in this way any more. Over and over.

I cannot now recall which albums I bought and when and in which order. It could have been no more than 1 or 2 albums a month. VU, the Doors, Roxy Music (and later Bryan Ferry), a Santana record, a Frank Zappa (“take me to Montana, gonna be a dental floss tycoon”), and eventually getting around to John Cale and the first Lou Reed album and then the Nico Albums. One leading to another and then another.

But it was the summer really, the summer of ’72 and then the summer of ’73 and finally the summer of ’74. The summer before I left home for Sheffield Polytechnic. Those two years where I worked at the Computer Lab at the University of Kent. Where I earned £998 pounds a year. Just £20 a week. Money spent on records ordered from Virgin Record mail-order. Clothes bought from dodgy adverts on the back of the Daily Mirror.

These were summers where we balanced the stereo speakers on the inside windowsills, opened the windows and blasted the LPs out to the street whilst we lay in the sun in the front garden. Not forgetting that we had to come inside every twenty minutes to turn the record over or change it or more likely just play it again.

Careless long summers with the music playing and neighbours not complaining and not even my Dad saying anything. How can that be? It was probably just one single afternoon that I remember.

But that summer of ’73 we played Transformer over and over gain. Every song is timeless, every melody and bass line and every sax line or tuba line. Those dark lines about New York City those insidious lyrics played out in a simple workings-mans village with no thought of what they meant or who they related to or what they were about. We didn’t care. We didn’t know. We’d hardly been to London, never mind New York. It seemed to us then that we would never know and these places could never be reached or understood. All we had was the tunes and the feeling. Perhaps a feeling that summer would never end.

And we bought ‘Berlin’ and played it to death, and then ‘Sally Can’t Dance’ and then ‘Coney Island Baby’ and by then our musical tastes are moving on and the years are moving on and Lou Reeds albums are getting shorter and shorter. I remember feeling short-changed by these 30 minute albums and it was this that sowed the seeds of my wavering interested and though I bought a few more albums my interest had tailed off by the ‘80s.

In the following years when Lou Reed toured the UK I did try to catch him. In ’73, ’74 and ’75 and then never again. That reunion business in the ‘90s never appealed to me and he never really grabbed me again apart from the New York album.

And that’s it. It’s about playing the LPs repeatedly. And nothing else.

Except at my brothers funeral they decided to play ‘Perfect Day’ possibly his favourite track from Transformer. Or more likely the one he learnt to play on the piano or the one he sang in the shower. It was at the time when the BBC version was released with a sequence of different singers. This was 1997. I’ve never been able to stomach that song since.

He would have been 58 today, but he was killed at 42.