Wednesday, 8 December 2010


It's the thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon's death as I write. Later on tonight the BBC will be repeating a Lennon Top of the Pops 2 Special, and the not-so-good biopic Lennon Naked to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of his death.

The Top of the Pops 2 programme was first broadcast in September 2000, and I wrote about the programme, and more importantly, the way the Beatles had proved a kind of fraternal glue over the years, on the Kewl Steve board. It has already been reposted on this blog but I'm going to reproduce it below anyway, in the hope that a few more people might read it.

The Beatles, or a version of them, are still providing a fraternal glue. A few days ago I went with my immediate younger brother and his son to see the Bootleg Beatles perform in Brighton.

It was an odd sort of gig: he had seen them before and found them more pantomimic this time, but it was impossible to deny that most of the crowd were going bananas. With eight other musicians (strings, brass and percussion as required) there's no doubt that the quartet produced a fair approximation of the sound - I recorded the first half on my mp3 player and listened to it a couple of times - but it was undoubtedly "Bill Haley", to quote from Mark Shipper's Paperback Writer: the memories were selling themselves, so all the musicians had to do was not let their own personalities get in the way.

This particular group have been on the go since 1980, formed from the cast of Beatlemania, which probably means they have been singing those songs since the late seventies. Which is a bit of a straitjacket: Macca is able, on occasion, to reinvent some of his back catalogue, but a tribute band's definition of success has to be as close an approximation of the original recordings as possible. Listening to my illicit recording, I wondered whether they learnt by playing along to the records, and how it felt to do that. Rather a Beatles tribute band than a Dave Clark Five one, I suppose, but the "job" aspect inherent in regular live performance must surely be to the forefront.

Those, if any, who have looked through this blog will know that live performance is something which interests me: in fact, the first play I wrote was about a doowop singer condemned to repeat those adolescent hymns in middle age. What goes through the minds of Donovan and the like as they sing their hits yet again? But, as I say, at least the original artist has the option of reworking his hits, trusting that the audience will indulge him. Joe Brown, as I discussed a few posts ago, seems to have found a way to make it work: he plays a range of material and his early sixties hits are done in more of a country rock these days. On occasion, the Donmeister has played around with his material: there was a live version of There Is A Mountain which included some fab scat singing - not, alas, at the most recent gig I saw but in the seventies. And Macca's Unplugged performance in 1996 included a slowed down And I Love Her which felt just as right as the original Beatles recording:

Anyway, here's that original post on the doo wop shop board plus the family memory added when reposted to this blog last year.

(42/M/London, England)

As I start typing this second part, it's 5.35 PM British Summer Time, though lashing with rain outside, and I shall stop and post this at six o'clock, however far it has or hasn't progressed, because on BBC TV's Top of the Pops programme there is a John Lennon birthday special. Both the programme and person are an integral part of my and my brothers' early lives. Just before six, I will phone my younger brother, to check he knows about it.

I was born in 1958. I have two elder brothers and two younger ones, with roughly two year gaps between each one. Long before I was interested enough to think about buying records, the Beatles were around: the excitement of She Loves You - well, no matter how doowop dedicated, you'll know the story. There are hundreds of books, and when you tire of them you can read Mark Shipman's Paperback Writer, a not unfunny Rutles-type account (eg Ringo Starr enjoyed hit record after hit record in the seventies, one of these being Philadelphia Freedom by Elton John) with some insights amid the facetiousness.

But this is about the Beatles in my, and my brothers’, lives. And Top of the Pops. This has been the only consistently shown pop music programme on British television since the 60s. Every Thursday night (as it was then) at 7.30 we would gather, praying that my father would not interrupt the programme (in those one-TV days) and that my mother would be able to arrange the making of his tea in a way that would overlap with this semi-religious broadcast. TOTP was something only shared between the five boys because there wasn't a great deal of music in our house. Half-heartedly tolerated by my mother, actively disliked by my father, who possibly saw the Beatles' financial success as unfairly earned, and who definitely saw its creed of pleasure as dangerous, the music united us. So I can remember Sgt. Pepper, bought or borrowed by my eldest brother, the excitement of hearing the White Album on a brand new stereo, and the paternal disapproval over the collage-type insert with bare flesh.

Taking the risk that the above lines would remain onscreen when I pressed the "internet" button on my TV remote, I took time out to watch the John Lennon Programme.

Seeing him sing Stand By me brought back a memory: dancing with my then girlfriend at a rock'n'roll club in 1975 as this came on, and the DJ saying: "John Lennon's coming home." Although the Beatles remain the fraternal glue to some extent (witness the phone call) my journey towards doowop was not one shared by them. That will be the subject of my next posting.

Rereading the above, one incident remembered from childhood bears out the "semi-religious" tag being applied to pop music for myself and my brothers. My father was advising a priest who was staying overnight, and we, the children, had a lot of opportunity to talk to him. I think (and this sounds like a lousy joke but isn't) he may have needed time off to reflect on his calling, as a later article in the Daily Express - evidently a class act even then - dignified his dark night of the soul with the heading:


Anyway, the wide-ranging conversation came round to the subject of pop music, and this man of God shocked us by claiming that the Beatles regularly laughed themselves silly at the "cripples and hunchbacks" who would be waiting to greet them at airports; it was all there in the biography, he said, if we didn't believe it.

I can barely remember the incident, let alone the timescale; all I recall is at some point later my eldest brother proclaiming: "It doesn't matter - JL still is King."

Whether that meant he did or didn't believe it, I'm not sure; but I think on some level he'd worked out that that the priest's words were a salvo in a religious war, firing from the same side as my father. Our collective faith did not waiver - and later, reading Hunter Davies' biography, I could see that the claim was , at best, a mischievously distorted one.

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