Saturday, 26 June 2010

Billy J, don't be a - eeeeeuuurgh!

Remember Clifford T. Ward? Gaye: "You're the tray of bright rings I upset yesterday" - or some such. Look it up somewhere: teacher, long blonde hair, possibly first championed by John Peel, possibly not. Sorry, I just don't have time for elementary online research, and there will undoubtedly be lot of fan sites about him. And I have recently been told - unkindly, in my view, but let it pass - that mine would not be the first online destination should a certain someone need dependable musical knowledge about any artist.

So why am I mentioning Clifford T. Ward at all, when there will be so many dedicated websites, and how can I hope to compete? Well, the answer is I'm not interested in the broad sweep of his achievements but only in one tiny but perfect fragment from his work. After the success or non-success of Gaye ("You allay my every fear in a most extraordinary way" etc), certainly a turntable hit of sorts if nothing else, he penned a ditty which may or may not have been called (again, I'm just too busy) Home Thoughts From Abroad, and it is a detail of that to which I direct the reader. From memory it runs:
I've been reading Wordsworth, Keats and Robert Browning [...]
I like the things they say and I like the way they say them,
You know, Home Thoughts From Abroad is a beautiful poem.
Yep, up there with Bernie Taupin and Marc Bolan in the lyrical achievement stakes. But the reason I mention him is something which happened to me on a train journey yesterday.
Lots of people claim this happened to them in the blurbs of allegedly funny books, but never before had I experienced the truth of it: I laughed involuntarily, helplessly at something I was reading - and the fact it links up with the theme of recent blog entries has impelled me to record it here.

Luckily I wasn't facing anyone - on long train journeys I make a point of sitting in the "airline" seats when possible, to avoid eye contact (or even worse, conversation) with strangers - but the train was fairly crowded, and I hate those people whose laughter is semi-calculated to elicit enquiries from others, so I did my best to suppress my reaction to the book, resulting in a sort of strained Muttley sound, plus my eyes streaming uncontrollably.

And having started, I'm not sure whether I had just hit on several good pages at once, but several anecdotes in turn increased the happy torture to the point where I had to stop, listen to something on my mp3 player and look out the window for respite.

As the journey was quite long, I had the chance to read a lot more of the book, which is called Last Record Shop Standing, and is about the recent demise of so many independent stores, although Cheapo hasn't been mentioned so far.

Despite evidence to the contrary on this blog, I'm fairly picky about so-called comic writing, and I loathe the sort of facetiousness-as-standard style which you can find in many places. TES (Times Educational Supplement) columns, contributors to the late Home Truths radio programme including, I'm afraid to say, its late presenter (who naturally features in a happier role in Last Record Shop Standing). It's just about trying a bit too hard, not trusting that the material itself might be enough without that extra patina of "funniness".

And so to the Clifford T. Ward quote. As an overview of the works of those poets it may be lacking, but as a way of explaining why Last Record Shop Standing took control over me in such a public setting it'll do just fine. The writing style - and I can't even be bothered to get the book out of my rucksack and check the author's name, as you can just google the title and find out more - is just right: the author knows the world and the people he's talking about, having been immersed in it himself, managing bands and working for record companies, so he doesn't constantly nudge the reader. He talks about those involved with fondness or contempt as appropriate, and he has a knack of selecting the best anecdotes - or the ones which appeal to me, which amounts to the same thing, as far as I'm concerned. (Especially as it seems I owe no allegiance to any other reader: my oldest friend has recently displayed a marked disinclination to read my blog, even though he was the one who first suggested I write it, so he is unlikely to seize this further opportunity to accuse me of egotism.)

So yes, I like what he says and I like the unadorned way he says it. Only now I have a problem. I don't want to repeat the anecdotes, either by laboriously typing them out or giving the gist here (thus ruining the experience of reading them). So actually, maybe the best thing to do is to get my rucksack and give you the relevant pages.

Oh, but I must reproduce one: a kind of starter, which tickled me before I happened upon the section which started off the uncontrollable, half-muted howling. Not quite Muttley, actually, or a Muttley with a wheezy, painful cough.

And the anecdote I want to reproduce struck me because it's part of a larger narrative about this performer, Billy J Kramer. Beatlenuts will know that when John Lennon did a demo for Billy, in reality or in legend the tape ended with the sound of a toilet flushing, which (again, in reality or in legend) prompted JL to remark that that was the sound of Billy J's career. (More on that demo here.)

Anyway, that small detail has lingered with me, so that when I read the following, I was being primed for the barely suppressed explosion to come - of hilarity on the train, I mean:

Ah. No. I'm not quoting yet. This is still me. Have just realised the book doesn't have an index and I can't be bothered to search through it. So although it's a disservice I will give the gist. Billy J Kramer is performing and he knows some friends are in the audience. He decides it would be amusing to fart rhythmically, cued by the drums, at a certain point in the song. He does it once, twice. All is well. On the third go, however, he follows through: a brown stain, initially no bigger than a 50p piece but quickly spreading, shows on his white trousers, prompting a quick dash offstage.

As I say, the immediate association with Lennon's demo gave that account an extra frisson, but it was when I read of a performer doing a parody of a Queen song entitled "Bohemian Crapsody" that I really let rip, so to speak. There then followed a couple of anecdotes about the cruel but carefully planned humilation of a Macc Lads roadie - not scatalogical but with an ingenuity which would have attracted the envy of the hero of Kingsley Amis's Ending Up - and I was gone. Solid gone. (Amis's geriatric hero fills a water pistol with carefully heated urine to make a similarly aged friend, stupified with drink, believe he has become incontinent.)

Blah blah, all good bookstores - but I still haven't forgiven Proper Records (who publish the book) for the lousy remastering on the Spike Jones box set. Don't buy it - the box set, that is. Do buy the book. The author is Graham Jones. It won't allay your every fear in a most extraordinary way but it will divert you and will reassure you about the essential stupidity and strangeness - which is to say humanity - of people in general. I can only lament that he never paid a visit to Cheapo, or never covered it in the book, anyway. How would he have described Phil?

On another day, I may try to collate such information about Cheapo as there is on the net, though it ain't a great deal. But good on Mr Jones for capturing in such readable and amusing form the essence of so many shops in a rapidly shrinking market. 

And if you have any other vaguely scatalogical anecdotes about Billy J Kramer, please feel free to share them. (Just what is the real story behind From a Window?)

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