Monday, 10 February 2014

Rollers, Rubettes and a Wombling Music Explosion

Everyone’s story begins with their mum and dad, right?  That’s certainly the case where my love of music is concerned.  I wouldn’t say they were big music lovers; my parents’ record collection was humble, but back in the 70s, that wasn’t terribly unusual I suppose.

I can’t put my finger on any particular moment when music entered my life, but I can trace it back to an early age.  I would probably have been somewhere between 5 and 7 years of age.  We had a front room.  Most people of a certain age living in Britain will know of ‘the front room’.  It was an almost hallowed space, frequented only on special occasions.  On no account were you permitted in ‘the front room’ unless mum or dad specifically said so.

But our front room was where the record player was.

I grew up in a pretty unspectacular, small market town in North Devon called Great Torrington (the ‘Great’ is somewhat ironic).  Torrington (as it is more commonly known) was/is the kind of place where everyone knew everyone else and everyone else’s business.  Nothing ever happened.  Oh, except they filmed some scenes for Tarka the Otter there, which remains a life’s highlight for some residents.  In 2012 the Olympic Flame passed through the town.  It went out!  That’s the kind of place we’re talking about.  I seem to remember there being a small record shop in the square at one point, but the main place to buy records when growing up was Barnstaple, which boasted not only a Woolworths, but a John Menzies and a Boots too.  Yes, Boots used to sell records, albeit rather overpriced ones.

As such, music-buying was restricted.  I contented myself playing my parents’ records.  This was fine though.  When you’re learning in such circumstances, you have to experiment, make do with what you’re given.  And so it was that I was raised on a varied diet of easy listening standards, country & western and, praise be!, pop music.

The first records I can remember coming across in ‘the front room’ belonged to my mum: Rollin’ by the Bay City Rollers, and a various artists compilation (on the legendary K-Tel label) called Music Explosion.  I still have problems deciding how characteristic these records were of my mum.  I like to think she retained a small essence of unpredictability throughout her life, and here was the proof.

Rollin'For starters, she was no teenager when these records came out, yet the Rollers were basically the then equivalent of Take That in the 90s, Westlife in the noughties or One Direction now.  There was one crucial difference however.  Yes, they were marketed at a teenage girl demographic; yes they were stylised up to the eyeballs in their tight tartan trousers (they were Scottish, see what they did there?); but the Bay City Rollers were a proper band.  They played and wrote their own songs, much like other teen idols of the time (Marc Bolan, the Osmonds, etc).  Nowadays, you just have to have a pretty face and you’re in (stand up One Direction).  The music is written and performed for you, and even if you can’t sing, don’t worry – we can AutoTune you to buggery so no one will notice.  Or, it seems, care.  My mum’s copy of Rollin’ had a gatefold sleeve, and was autographed by each member of the band.  I never established whether she had bought it like that, or if she had actually had it signed personally, but the sigs were genuine, that I do know.  Whatever, the one thing I remember even now is that even at such a tender age, the aesthetics meant very little to me.  Who cares what they looked like or where the autographs came from?  What mattered was inside the packaging – the music.

I must have played that record dozens of times.  I loved the songs.  That was the point, the songs.  Production? Arrangement? Instrumentation?  None of that meant a thing to me; it was all about the song, the whole thing, the finished work.  I was a kid, for goodness sake!  As if I gave a crap about the technical stuff.  Except with hindsight, the techie side of things obviously made the songs what they were.  That big, Phil Spector-esque wall-of-sound production, the heavy pounding rhythm section, the vocal harmonies – all clever stuff for sure and that’s what made the songs so appealing.  But your average 6-year-old won’t tell you that.  And why should they?  Let’s face it, even now, if you’re listening to something for the first time, what is it that reels you in?  The amount of reverb on the rhythm guitar?  The classy yet restrained use of a string quartet during the bridge?  Bollocks!  It’s the song; the beginning, the middle, the end, the whole damn thing.  We’ll worry about the intricacies later, just gimme the song first and let me work with that!

the legendary Wombles
That record never spurred me on to learn more about the Rollers, but it did serve as an inspiration.  They were the first band I became aware of.  Well, them and the Wombles anyway.  There was a Wombles album in the house, purchased no doubt for the benefit of my brother and I, though for the life of me I can’t remember a thing about it now.  It must have been played though, I loved the Wombles – who didn’t?  I often wondered whatever happened to them?  Did they break up or just take an extended hiatus?  I certainly don’t remember any spin-off solo records or side projects.  I hoped they hadn’t gone the same way as the Bay City Rollers – arguments, legal wrangles, drugs, alcohol, sex scandals, child porn… How gutted would you feel reading about Orinoco going down for gross indecency, or esteemed violinist Madame Chaulet facing charges of selling crack to schoolkids?

Turns out everything is OK in Wombleland – they reformed to play Glastonbury in 2011 and can still rock with the best of ‘em!

Music Explosion was equally, if not more significant to me in terms of influencing my musical tastes during that time, featuring an array of styles and moods you couldn’t get from a sole Bay City Rollers album.  It was typical of compilations back then; it was released by K-Tel and seemed to follow the ethic that, in spite of the limitations two sides of 12” plastic presented, there was no reason why you couldn’t cram 20-odd songs onto each record (even if they were edited heavily in order to get them to fit).  And so it was that Music Explosion boasted a whopping 22 chartbusting hits.  Some of them have since been long forgotten – remember ‘Guilty’ by the Pearls?  Or Barry Blue’s ‘Miss Hit And Run’?  No?  Me neither… - while a few introduced us to some burgeoning talents who would go on to become huge stars over the following decades – Elton John, Bryan Ferry, Genesis (at the tail-end of the Peter Gabriel era).  But there were also some eternal classics that still stand the test of time even now some 30-plus years on.  Try these for size:

Stuck In The Middle’ by Stealers Wheel;
This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ by Sparks, who are still making amazingly inventive and highly original music to this day;
Seasons In The Sun’ by Terry Jacks, arguably the most tear-jerking song ever written.

The track that really captured my 6-year-old imagination though was the Rubettes’ ‘Sugar Baby Love’.  Blending the bang-up-to-date glam rock with 50s doo-wop, ‘Sugar Baby Love’ captured the uplifting mood any young child discovering pop for the first time felt.  That ridiculously high vocal swoop, irritatingly infectious melody and slick production made this the one that would have made my first ever ‘Most Played’ list if I’d decided to make such a thing.  As the opener to side 2, it was ideally placed for this accolade, as I didn’t have to try and carefully drop the needle onto the miniscule gap between tracks with my clumsy young fingers.  I still can’t hear this song without feeling cosily nostalgic about ‘the front room’ and my earliest introduction to pop music. 

A shame then that they looked such prannets in those ghastly berets…



  1. Sugar Baby Love is a majestic piece of pop music. The best thing they did. Ohm and I do remember Barry Blue. A talent gone to waste?

  2. This is shaping up to be a great blog. I was born in 1970 and you have already hit a lot of memories for me: dad's ABBA records, the Wombles LP (sill proudly filed on my shelves) and the use of the word 'prannet' which I haven't heard since school. And do I detect a Cardiacs reference in the blog title? Looking forward to reading more.

    1. I'm trying to reintroduce the word 'prannet' into day-to-day vocabulary. My kids have already been made aware of the word so it may be the next teenage slang word. Watch this space.

      As for the title - you've got it in one...