Monday, 28 February 2011

The Party Is About To Begin

Before we go any further into the realms of Music From BBC Children's Programmes, there's just one more detour that needs to be made - and, let's be honest, there've been so many detours even before just getting this far that one more is hardly going to make much of a difference - as there's a couple of things that you need to know about the tracklisting. Firstly, although this was completely unknown to me at the time, its contents were drawn from existing BBC Records And Tapes releases devoted to individual shows. Yes, there really was a full length Crackerjack (no, don't) LP and you'll be hearing all about that in due course. The second thing is that said highlights have been arranged into a series of cut-and-shut medleys combining several individual tracks into one long prog rock-esque suite - sometimes this works, and at other times it makes absolutely no sense at all. And the first such medleyfied track was devoted entirely to Play Away.

A bit of background - Play Away was a programme that came about almost by accident, when the BBC found themselves making more money from their overseas sales of long-running pre-school programme Play School (and there's background on that to come) in 'kit' form (i.e. foreign broadcasters would recieve scripts, films, and a duplicate Humpty decked out in 'poison' colour scheme) than they knew what to do with. Enough spare money, in fact, to pay for a whole new programme, and the resultant stroke of genius was to give the Play School presenters - most of whom were failed or failing singer-songwriters, stand-up comedians and the like - a timeslot aimed at a slightly older audience where they could dole out puns, whimsy, improvisation, mild satire, custard pies and singerwritten-songs to their heart's content, under the leadership of the seemingly indefatigable Brian Cant and accompanied by a bunch of equally career-diverted jazzmen led by piano-pounding Jonathan Cohen.

It was, if you will, the 'free jazz' of the BBC's children's output, though thankfully when they got to record an album - the first of four, in fact - in 1973, they left the AMM-style scraping cellos at home. Instead, what they came up with was a combination of extended comedy sketches, improvised one-liners, party game-friendly instrumental hi-jinks, and a selection of musical solo showcases, ranging from nonsense songs to - naming no decidedly out-of-place covers of If I Had A Hammer - traditional numbers that somewhat gave away the frustrated folky ambitions of certain presenters.

Thus it was that two tracks from the first Play Away album ended up bolted together as a curtain-raiser to Music From BBC Children's Programmes. And it was two of said frustrated folky presenters, promisingly, that were taking the helm for main vocal duties here (with comical spoken interjections from Brian Cant and fellow non-folky type Chloe Ashcroft) - Lionel Morton, the elaborately-coiffured former lead vocalist of The Four Pennies who had come to Play School and Play Away fresh from a less than chart-troubling attempt to reposition himself as a post-Penny Lane 'Carnaby Street' popster, and Toni Arthur, moderately successful setter of geniune witchy runes to music who has always claimed to have been earmarked for presenting duties when a male producer spotted her performing in glittery purple hotpants. A claim that, judging from the cover of the Play Away album, maybe well have its basis in fact.

Though it wasn't obvious at the time, it was perhaps no coincidence that I should be preparing to rediscover the music of Play Away and its contemporaries so shortly after the release of Prince's Diamonds And Pearls, a song so uncanny in its sonic resemblance to Play School's musical numbers that there must surely be a copy of Bang On A Drum hidden away somewhere in Paisley Park, and Primal Scream's Shine Like Stars, a song that I would later describe as "for all people might like to talk about the presenters of old children's TV shows having been 'on drugs', the actual sound of what might have happened had Jonathan Cohen been force-fed powerful hallucinogens". And this album, I hoped, would break through to sonic vistas way further out even than those of Screamadelica. But what was that all-important first track actually like...?

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Four Girls With No Hairbushes Singing 'Here We Go Looby Loo'

Rubber Soul. Kind Of Blue. Modern Life Is Rubbish. Girls Talk by The Rebel Pebbles. There are many albums where - whether through musical innovation or cultural context or just having a foxy 'Rachel' one on guitar - listening to them for the first time is somewhat akin to that moment in films and TV shows where it goes from black and white into colour. Though as the only two examples that are springing to mind are the equally as tedious as each other The Wizard Of Oz and Doctor Who: The Two Doctors (which, frankly, was an insult to the show's actual black and white era, and its colour era too come to think of it), that's hardly a very helpful analogy.

But that was exactly what I was hoping Music From BBC Children's Programmes would be. A sudden shift from the 'rave'-saturated Americana-dominated realities of the popular cultural landscape of the day into the more kaleidoscopic hues of all those gaudy seventies-fashioned programmes lurking tantalisingly on the fringes of the memory. An hallucinogenic vista wherein musical innovation was Freddie Phillips bashing out a scary disjointed chord, cultural context was the BBC not being able to afford anything more than lone presenters in 'white void' studios, and the nearest thing to a 'Rachel' one was winsome thigh-length-boot-favouring Play School/Play Away folkie Toni Arthur.

Or, if you will, the moment when Black And White Andy Pandy turned into Colour Andy Pandy - for, while it was sadly not represented on Music From BBC Children's Programmes, the full colour remake of Andy Pandy that hovered around the Watch With Mother schedules in the mid-seventies was a textbook example of the esoteric televisual sub-universe that this album would hopefully somehow break through to. Made on ropey oversaturated film stock, and with a disconcertingly 'different' Teddy to boot, it had been an all-too-familiar sight on the small screen for a number of years but now was almost completely forgotten, to the point where people actually accused me (and in fact sometimes still do) of having made it up. In the days before clip shows with Peter Kay doing that counting off an imaginary list on his fingers thing while talking about Spacehoppers, nostalgia for the television of the seventies in particular was almost like nostalgia for something that never actually happened.

But it did happen, and like Lee Mavers and his legendary belief that somewhere out there was an antiquated console with real sixties dust on it that could make the umpteenth re-recording of Doledrum match the sounds that he was hearing in his head, I was convinced that this album with real seventies Space Dust on it was the key to the sounds I was still hearing in my head.

True, a note of alarm had been sounded by those aforementioned genteel youngsters on the cover (who would normally be derisively described as 'Posh Paws', except in this instance it would hardly be treating Posh Paws with due reverence), and true, some half-expected inclusions appeared to be missing while other less palatable-looking offerings took their place, but if we were ever going to reach this higher state of consciousness wherein all was bliss and enlightenment and psychedelic waves emenated from that opening titles drawing of Barnaby standing next to a gramophone, it might be an idea to actually listen to the album first.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Zum Gali Gali

And there we must leave all things jazz for the moment, though like Bod And His Friends, they'll be back - as there's many more diversions to make, stretching all the way from John Coltrane to Jamiroquai. And believe me, that's a long way, even if Jay Kay can indeed walk up walls and on the ceiling like he keeps doing in his puzzlingly repetitive videos.

Indeed, it was in the era that he was busy jumping around on The Word wearing a pretentious girl student's bag as a hat that, quite by accident, in a true moment of zen I found without trying what I'd long since lost sight of the fact that I was actually searching for. For there, in a charity shop, inadvertently yanked out of the decaying carboard box alongside a Johnny Dankworth LP, was a white sleeve bearing what appeared to be a certain near-mythical title rendered in the same sort of font as that old-skool stripey BBC2 '2'. Yes, it was Music From BBC Children's Programmes. At long, long last.

For a second I stood transfixed by the cover. Then I tried to actually decipher the weird visual jumble, made up of a headache-inducing Grog-On-Blue-Peter-Boat graphical nightmare of a load of programme logos all piled on top of each other. Some of these could just about be breathlessly made out, and gave exciting pointers as to what might be contained within. An excitement that was immediately tempered by the presence of two bland and well-mannered youngsters in the bottom left-hand corner.

You see, until a long-overdue incidence of getting-with of the times in the mid-eighties, the BBC were always irritatingly fond of using clean-cut, fresh-faced young innocents (often toting toy trains) to iconographise their children's output, as a reflection of the improving Reithian values that children's shows like Blue Peter and The Song And The Story were supposed to embody (Zokko!, we can only assume, must therefore have been represented by some unkempt screaming incoherent that they kept locked in the airing cupboard for their own safety). The kind of youngsters who would dutifully watch BBC Schools programmes even when they weren't at school, singing along enthusiastically to Music Time yet all the while failing to appreciate the unanticipated joys of that mental AOR instrumental thingy that accompanied the 'dots', or the jazzy theme from Watch, or indeed its comely presenter Louise Hall-Taylor. The sort of children who made it past the opening titles of Go With Noakes. The sort of children, in short, who could ruin this most mythologised of albums. Come on in, they seem to be saying, it's all good clean fun here. You'll find nothing to trouble or disturb you. Apart from possibly The World Of Doctor Who.

But we were already in way above our heads. I'd spent too many hours and seen too many Mario Lanza album covers to be dissuaded now. There was a potential doorway to retronostalgic nirvana just waiting for someone to say "ready to knock, turn the lock", and no amount of sepia-toned goody two shoes-es were going to stand in my way. It was time to actually listen to Music From BBC Children's Programmes.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

In The Realm Of Nothing Whatever

The problem with this jazzy boulevard that I'd found myself diverted along was that it was addictive. If a theoretical boulevard can be addictive as such. Where soft drugs and soft porn lead some on to harder drugs and harder porn, the hapless jazz addict will find themselves drawn towards ever lengthier and more abstract ventures, albeit more healthily and indeed 'healthily', until they arrive at that point of no musical return - 'free jazz'.

No, this doesn't have anything to do with Jools Holland And His Boogie Woogie Big Brigade playing for the benefit of non-paying passers by. It's a style of jazz where improvisation takes precedence over melody and structure, and the players dispense with such trivialities as chord sequences and tempo and literally 'play how they feel'. It's complex, it's challenging, it's intellectual and it gives you an air of depth and sophistication. The only problem is that a good deal of it is basically an unlistenable racket. Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus... these are all incredibly hip names to drop, and yes some of their work is indeed rewarding if demanding listening. But that's when it works. Most of the time, it doesn't, and you'd be hard pushed to find anyone who listens to the bulk of 'free jazz' for pleasure.

Personally speaking, there's only three examples of the genre that I'd ever listen to for anything resembling 'pleasure', and none of them are exactly textbook examples. First, and laugh if you must, there's the music from Zen-inflected BBC Watch With Mother effort Bod. The short tunes that heralded each character were composed in advance by well-versed scat-yodeller Derek Griffiths, and improvised around by a set of players who might well be playing how they 'feel' (notably the violinist, who appears to be aiming for some kind of world title in Most Number Of Notes Played in a minute) but who never lose sight of the tune (admittedly, not hard to do when said tunes run to an average of eight seconds). Secondly, at the other extreme, there's AMM, who dispensed with the whole notion of a 'tune' altogether. This fluid collective of hardcore beardy jazzers were regulars on London's mid-sixties 'psychedelic underground' circuit, where they donned lab coats and turned the scoffing that free jazz was 'just noise' to their advantage, recruiting someone to 'play' the transistor radio alongside conventional instruments and doing away with anything resembling riffs or melody to concentrate on creating evocative soundscapes with names like Later During A Flaming Riviera Sunset and After Rapidly Circling The Plaza. Yes, there are moments when the screeching and scraping can all get a bit too much, yes, there are moments when it sounds like the 'bonus track' from The Stone Roses' Second Coming has been dropped on the floor and smashed and then haphazardly glued back together, and yes, there are moments that can only be described as sounding like a goose, browbeaten and exhausted by the relentless cacophony, is weakly pleading to be allowed out of the room. But if you're in the right mood, it can be quite an entertaining listen. And then there's Starsailor by Tim Buckley.

Initially one of about two hundred and thirty three million 'folk troubadors' Dylan-aping their way around Greenwich Village in the early sixties, Buckley was marked out from the crowd by the advantageous possession of both an ability to write his own songs and a searing multi-octave vocal range, and was quickly signed to the ultra-hip Elektra label, where he recorded two strong but rather undistinguished albums. By the time of third offering Happy Sad, however, he'd started to move towards jazz, embellishing his songs with vibes, standup bass, congas, impressionistic lead guitar and startling vocal gymnastics, as most celebratedly showcased on the superb Buzzin' Fly. Critical and commercial success followed, but Buckley was also doing some following of his own, delving deeper into the possibilities of the jazz idiom. The slightly more loose-ended Blue Afternoon (containing Happy Time, which even if proved otherwise this writer will still continue to believe 'borrowed' its arrangement from the end theme of Camberwick Green) gave way to a brace of albums that were almost entirely free-form in approach, which went right over the heads of the 'heads' and more or less finished off his spell as a chart hopeful. With his career and personal life in freefall, Buckley spent some time working as as chauffeur before remerging with a radically reinvented funk sound and borderline explicit lyrics, which was just starting to pay dividends when, having become increasingly fond of hard partying, he died following the entirely accidental mistaking of one 'substance' for another; something given added poignancy by the later equally young and accidental death of his son, Jeff Buckley, with only one critically acclaimed album to his name. Starsailor, in case you hadn't worked it out already, dates from slap bang in the middle of his 'difficult' period, and while it can seem a difficult listen at first, with lots of juddering noises and vocal lines seeming to break through at random, perseverance pays off and you come to really appreciate the lovelorn aching of Song To The Siren, the propulsive riffing of Monterey, and the carefree and schmaltzy Moulin Rouge, the closest the album ever comes to a conventional song (something that is leapt on by a trumpeter who is audibly overjoyed to be playing something that makes sense to his ears at last).

So, free jazz - it may be 'clever', but it's not big. And what's more, as the spectre-at-the-feast that was Derek Griffiths yelling "doo dk'n dk'n doo da dooda dadooda, do do do do do d'doooo!" kept naggingly reminding me, it was an improvisation too far from the real musical holy grail - as indeed the above overlong and overcomplex write-how-you-feel free-form shenanigans have been from the main narrative thrust - Music From BBC Children's Programmes. As Sun Ra & His Arkestra jetted off further into some kind of sax-wailing cosmos, Bod And His Friends were wandering into a horizonless green void. And I was somewhere in the middle, still rifling through those hazardous cardboard boxes.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Sweet Georgie Fame

Music From BBC Children's Programmes, it soon became clear, was going to take some finding. What you did sometimes used to find in those damp-eroded cardboard boxes though, in amongst the miles upon miles of James Last, Bert Kaempfert, Ray Conniff, Johnny Mann, Nina And Ferederik, Nana Mouskouri, Johnny Mathis, Manuel And His Music Of The Mountains, Mario Lanza, Mario Lanza, Mario Lanza and Mario Lanza, was an unusually high proportion of sixties jazz records.

Presumably the genre afficionados hadn't quite got around to appreciating the merits of vibe-heavy breathy-girl Modern Jazz with world music inflections and touches of sitar/backward tape experimentalness yet, because this stuff just used to sit there untouched, with the intriguing-looking tinted sleeves and elongated typefaces seeming to become more and more appealing as Barnaby's Heavy Concept Album seemed to become more and more elusive. After a while, it seemed churlish not to give a couple a try.

This was, it turned out, an entry into a very different sort of secret world to the quasi-psychedelic retro-heavy nirvana promised by Music From BBC Children's Programmes. It was kind of how you'd always thought jazz sounded as a youngster (though in the mould of those piano-syncopating characters that showed up in the middle of TV Light Entertainment shows, rather than stripy-blazered 'ragtime' loons like those planks who did the music for Harold Lloyd's World Of Comedy and indeed exhorted us all to "laugh a while, dig that style - a pair of glasses and a smile"), but spiralling off into unexpected directions, full of smooth instrumental textures and wild improvisation that evoked some lost Beatle-John-Lennon-Meets-Dalek-era world of arty sophisticates slipping into hip modernist joints serving terrifyingly strong coffee.

There was Blossom Dearie, who sounded (on her That's Just The Way I Want To Be album at least) like some hip Kohl-eyed psychedelian that the cover photo confirmed she was most definitely not. There was the amusingly-named Tubby Hayes, whose reverberating vibraphone workouts seemed almost too fast for the vinyl to keep up with. There was The London Jazz Four, whose sadly underappreciated Take A New Look At The Beatles succeeded in making even the overfamiliar likes of Michelle sound like totally fresh compositions (and if you're interested, please please check out their dancefloor-scorching Things We Said Today, almost unrecognisably harpsichorded up I Feel Fine, and shimmering snail-paced rearrangement of Rain). More exotically, there were the bossanova-toting likes of Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, and the unhinged raga experiments of The Dave Pike Set.

All very exciting, but in the words of another charity shop find from around the same time, "nice though this be, I seek yet further kicks". I was being drawn further and further into the genre, and further and further away from the sonic holy grail of Dylan The Rabbit And Other TV Favourites, and so began the descent into affecting an interest in 'free jazz'. And it was all Keith Chegwin's fault.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Newsreel Past

Like all good stories, this starts once upon a time. Like no other stories ever, let alone any good ones, this also starts with some incidental music from Doctor Who.

It was November 1988, and Starburst, the long-defunct monthly bible of all things sci-fi and fantasy (they really ought to have kept their original title, Opal Fruits), were running a review of The Doctor Who 25th Anniversary Album. As part of the general inability to decide whether they thought it was any good or not, there was a brief history of the countable-on-one-hand releases of Doctor Who music over the years. One such mentioned item was something called The World Of Doctor Who, reportedly originally the b-side to the theme from famously dull 1973 adult drama about the scientific realities of space travel Moonbase 3, and which later, they oh so casually remarked, "found its way onto a Music From BBC Children's Programmes album".

Well, that was more than enough to send one particular pre-internet imagination into overdrive. Not so much over The World Of Doctor Who, though they did make it sound like some kind of Brian Wilson-style Pocket Symphony rather than a load of screechy effects flung at a half-hearted funk backing with the Roger Delgado-heralding 'Master Theme' tacked onto the end, more over the potential contents of the casually-referenced album. This would, some hasty Pertwee-skewed mathematics indicated, date from around the mid-seventies. In other words, the exact era that played host to all those hazily-recalled first-awareness-of-television fringe-of-the-memory shows that had retreated so intangibly into 'The Past' that you might as well have just made them up (something that, in the case of Rubovia, I was regularly accused of having actually done).

What transcendentally obscure delights might be found within its grooves? Rentaghost? Cheggers Plays Pop? Barnaby? The tracklisting just kept writing itself, in ever more evocative and exciting post-Glam pre-Punk ways. And indeed the cover just kept drawing itself too, an ever-evolving psychedelic splurge with Dylan The Rabbit, Mr Benn and indeed 'Cheggers' thrust listenerwards through the magic of clumsy graphic design. Music From BBC Children's Programmes, it seemed, was the key to the gates of some sort of retro-nostalgic nirvana, with a bit of Doctor Who incidental music thrown in for good measure.

The only problem was that this apparent Noah And Nelly In The Skylark Of The Covenant wasn't exactly going to be easy to track down. BBC Records And Tapes had deleted it from their catalogue many years beforehand, so simply walking into a shop and buying it was out. It wasn't really the sort of thing that second hand record shops bothered touching with a bargepole at that point in time, either, so simply walking into a second hand record shop and buying it was out too.

The only hope, it seemed, was charity shops - but these were the days before they wised up to the financial potential of a copy of Bringing It All Back Home with a huge coffee mug ring on the cover, and all 'Long Players' tended to be flung haphazardly into the sort of cardboard box that required anyone who'd been within ten feet of them to be treated for mould inhalation. And even if you had circumnavigated the weird characters standing at awkward angles whilst pursuing the same Decca Stereo Sampler tracklisting for hours on end, and avoided the urge to punch Mario Lanza in his irritatingly recurring cardboard face, there's no guarantee that you'd find a copy that hadn't been smeared with peanut butter and used to line a rabbit hutch by its previous one careful owner. But these were mere trivialities. Music From BBC Children's Programmes had to be found. The Master had spoken.