Friday, 2 December 2022

"Excuse me - do you sell records here?"

 By way of light relief as these dismal Winter days close in on us I’d like to take you to a time and place – a very specific time and place.  It's 1987 and it’s an independent record shop - sound good?  Maybe you’re imagining a rather poky but inviting establishment in a creaky old building - dimly lit with its walls papered in cool, eye-catching posters, a slight, oddly alluring smell of damp emanating from its alcoves, and every available space filled with racks of promising vinyl delights through which you could rummage for hours…

I’m so sorry to disappoint you.  Those were the kind of record shops I’d like to visit but the one I actually worked in during the mid-'80s was somewhat different.  Imagine instead a fairly open area, I suppose it would be called a ‘retail unit’, on the first floor of a busy modern shopping centre.  Harshly lit and with its high walls painted bright green, it was sited next to the pedestrian entrance of a multi-storey car park and right opposite the public toilets.  Ooh, a prime location!  But, for all the less than joyous aspects of working there, it was for the most part an interesting, quite enviable job and the staff were great.  We were great to each other and we were great to all the lovely, enthusiastic, friendly, genuine customers with their hunger for Creation label singles and obscure reissues, etc., who thankfully outnumbered a fair few rude and difficult arseholes we also had to serve (or occasionally kick out).  It was hard to be great to them.  But what none of them, not the nice ones nor the nasty ones, ever knew, was that we also kept notes of some of the items our customers asked for. 

Honestly, you need some little amusing highlights when you’ve been on your feet all day in a petrol-infused draught handing over copies of the latest Phil Collins album to a seemingly endless queue on a busy Saturday, so please forgive us.  Really, we weren’t being scornful or sniggering or unkind. We just… well…we just needed a few quiet laughs away from the demands at the counter. (I'm sure this goes on in more shops than we'd care to imagine.)  So we started keeping a list of the most delightful requests, a list that ended up running into several pages.  The thing with these requests was that they weren’t quite right – they were the misheard song titles, confused artist names, wrongly remembered albums (amid other enquiries about TDK chromosome tapes and replacements for faulty "kinky" records.)   As I always loved drawing it was just impossible to resist putting together a few visuals too so, a short while before I left my job there back in 1987, I picked out some of my favourites and compiled them into an A5 booklet with some silly little accompanying illustrations, and named it, ‘Excuse Me – Do You Sell Records Here?’  Incredibly, that had been a genuine question too.

35 years later and, amazingly, I’ve still got the booklet. So, if you'd like to, please travel back with me to the mid-1980s and take up your position as a sales assistant in that record shop, and see what you would make of some of these requests.  Here are some of those depictions with only the mistaken titles/names a customer actually used when asking for them.  Please feel free to suggest what they should be  - they're hopefully not too hard!

Saturday, 26 November 2022


On the very last evening of a wonderful bloggers’ mini-meet in Edinburgh, sitting across the table from me in a pub in Rose Street that warm June night, our lovely pal The Swede unexpectedly passed me a large envelope.

What a sweet surprise!  Inside were a couple of things that he thought would interest me and he was, of course, quite right.  As a lover of art, illustration and unusual historical/cultural artefacts, I was fascinated by the mysterious little book I pulled out from the brown paper package:  ’JOY-TIME’ ! (I can’t help thinking it sounds a bit like the title of a seventies soft porn mag, the sort you’d find, as a curious adolescent, stuffed into a bin in a park during the school holidays and be somewhat horrified but equally intrigued by.  But enough of my memories.)

When I look at long-forgotten and probably, at the time, quite throwaway items like this, aimed at a very young audience, it sets off a whole host of questions.  I’m thinking it must be from the early 1960s – but what would a child think of it now?  Would they be able to make sense of these pictures easily?  The art style (with no artist credit) is really striking, with its limited inks and flat colour overlays.  Each open spread alternates between pages of orange and green only, and blue and red only, with the effect of creating one darker tone where needed from the two colours printed on top of each other.  It looks simple, but having done a bit of screen-printing in the past, I know it takes a fair bit of working out and planning.  There’s a lot of clever use of white ('negative') space too.

The illustrations might even seem a little scary, a little stark, to a child of today.  We mostly flood our books now with bright, warm colours and cuteness, not red shadows and blue hair.  And, you know what, I’m reminded (a little) of this style of tone-reduced / screenprinted artwork too, who’d have thought it?!…

… as well as a certain controversial Seditionaries ‘Cowboys’ design T-shirt which I won’t reproduce here.

But away from such adult themes and back to JOY-TIME.  What about the words?  Some of the phrases really bring home the way language has inevitably changed.

This is probably my favourite page below.  Not just because I’m a fan of ‘Birdies’ but it’s the very graphic use of those two ink colours and the areas of blank paper that I especially like here.  Notice the bird swooping top left and the one in the middle at the bottom – just formed from negative space, a difficult technique to pull off.  The blue shadow shapes too give just the right gravity.  And the way the outline of the girl’s legs are red on one side, blue on the other, which we instinctively know to translate as light and dark.   Sorry, but I get a bit of a kick from noticing this stuff - thinking about the way the artist’s brain works and trying to help mine!

Of course these pages were never intended to be critiqued sixty-odd years on from their creation.  They were just made to delight, to soothe, educate and gently stir the imagination of babies and toddlers, born, as I was, into a world where there were no CBeebies or Kindle Kids.  I very much hope that the baby Swede enjoyed it then too as much as I do now - even if for very different reasons... (And many thanks again.)

Saturday, 22 October 2022

Local council

I can hear the spinning of spokes, the crunch of narrow tyres on the stony drive coming up behind me. Look around… Ohhh! Is that Paul? Paul Weller? And Mick Talbot too?! In full cycling gear, red, blue, black - bodies bent forward over the handlebars…? Yes! Riding up this long avenue between the ancient lime trees, following in my footsteps, here on such incredibly familiar ground. 

Unfortunately, I’d have to have a time machine to be in the same frame as these cycling Style Councillors – but I was there today, there on the long driveway, my absolute favourite local place to walk, just a short stroll round the corner from my home and yet I had never realised until now that it was also the setting for the video of ‘My Ever Changing Moods’. Its director, Tim Pope, creator of many a music promo for a huge number of artists (The The, Soft Cell and Talk Talk, Bowie and Neil Young all spring to mind) has a cameo part in it too. To be honest, I don’t think too much of the film, but the scenery… well, it's strange because it feels like a very close friend. One I share my secrets with, one who listens unconditionally, who soothes the soul in fractious times and makes me smile and feel alive too.  It’s a place, a haven, I wander up to so frequently and it has featured in quite a few posts here over the years. Up there today with the jackdaws chuckling in the treetops and the sheep in the distance, I took some photos to see if I could compare my view with those in the video, but the trees are still in their leafy Autumn cloaks and, thanks to storm damage over the decades, there are fewer of them than when Paul and Mick were here, and some new replacements too.   It's a place of ever changing moods; you'll just have to take my word for it.

An earlier photo from a Winter day

Still, I couldn’t stop the song going round and round in my head as I took my constitutional.  If you're a fan of the Style Council, you’d be very welcome too to come over with your bike some time and recreate that promo film – I can’t promise you the three dancing nymphs I'm afraid, but I could do you a packed lunch.

Here's the film:

A pic from today's wanderings

and one from 1984

Monday, 3 October 2022

Oh Miki, you're so fine

 A cup of tea waits for me on the table, getting cold. 

Biscuits lie on a plate uneaten.

The police are outside, hammering on the door, shouting through the letterbox, threatening to ram it open if I don’t answer.  Ok, I may have embellished that last bit (it’s just the postman with a package and a polite knock) but whatever it is, sorry, I’m oblivious, in another zone…… the reading zone.   The zone you get into which makes you forget to drink your tea, ignore that Hobnob, miss that knock at the door.  The zone you get into when a book is just so absorbing that nothing else around you can compete.  And it’s all Miki Berényi’s fault!

My copy of Miki’s autobiography ‘Fingers Crossed: how music saved me from success’ arrived just a couple of days ago and I’m already completely immersed (time off from working at last!)  I’d read some pre-publication reviews and excerpts, all of which confirmed this was going to be a book I’d lap up, perhaps for the most obvious, predictable reasons: to read an inside story on her band Lush and all the musically connected musings and revelations.  But I’m only a quarter of the way through its 367 pages and her life story so far hasn’t even got to that, yet it’s still as enthralling, hair-raising, fascinating and also, at times, disturbing as any sensational tale of adult rock’n’roll exploits.

I shouldn’t really be reviewing it so early on, I’ve a ton of chapters still to go, but my enthusiasm has made me defy convention – why not? I just want to get it out there!  There is so much ahead, I know – about the formation of Lush and its interpersonal relationships, the gigs, tours, triumphs and fallouts, plus Miki’s personal encounters with the sexism in the music industry and in particular the toxicity of the lad/ladette culture within Britpop (she is not afraid to name names) – all of which I’ve no doubt will keep me captivated. An extract from the book published in the Guardian recently is wonderfully, satisfyingly and justifiably angry and I feel especially invested as a woman - I love to read about this world from a female perspective, particularly when it also covers a very relatable period in time for me (Tracey Thorn’s and Viv Albertine’s autobiographies were likewise appealing).  But Miki’s accounts of her unconventional upbringing even before any of that could almost be a book – or film - on their own.

The childhood tales which are as shocking in places as they are compelling are told with a straightforward openness and the insight and emotional intelligence that has come with age.  100-odd pages in and our author hasn’t even left school yet but already I feel as if I’m on a wild, chaotic ride – leaving me feeling very troubled at times, but I take comfort from the fact that Miki is still here now, in a different life, to recount and reflect on her experiences with distance and disarming honesty.

Anyway… a premature review this may be but perhaps my impulsive urge tells you as much about the book as any in depth one may do later.  Plus I have a feeling I’m going to be too exhausted (in a good way) by the time I get to the end of it to write anything coherent…

It also seems deserving of a *‘Swedey McSwedeface’!

And, of course, some Lush:

* The official definition of  Swedey McSwedeface can be found here

'Fingers Crossed: how music saved me from success' by Miki Berényi was published by Bonnier Books 29th September 2022

Wednesday, 28 September 2022

A voyage of rediscovery

The yellow label.  A plain white paper sleeve.  Black type in sans serif font and a little logo at the top…  names and numbers and things I didn’t understand.  Whilst I’ve often waxed lyrical about the hours spent poring over the 12” cardboard album sleeves of my youth, meticulously exploring the artwork and the unknown song titles, it’s easy to overlook the simple thrill of a first 7” single purchase.  Not just the music, not just the fact that you could bring a song you'd only previously heard on the radio or on Top Of The Pops directly into your living room and access it any time of your choosing – but that very specific, peculiar pleasure to be found in every detail of its physical form. 

It was the Summer of ’76, I’d just turned 13.  With a pounding heart and my pocket money savings in my turquoise purse, I went into Boots the Chemist where there was a little space right at the back of the shop selling records, and I bought Dancing Queen by ABBA.  The yellow label and even the fact that it had a plain white paper sleeve, they're indelibly stamped on my mind… and then, ohh, the grooves of joy in that small shiny slab of black vinyl.   I was so excited!

I think my copy was very slightly warped – weirdly not badly enough to mar the song for me, but just giving it the merest hint of distortion which then became the norm to my ears.  When I hear it now, I rather miss that imperfection, that split second dip in speed in each revolution.   The sound was somewhat tinny too, but it didn’t matter one bit.  I loved Dancing Queen, it made me feel happy, uplifted.  I loved this band of exotic Swedes who had brought it to my TV screen on Thursday nights - they were grown-up and glamorous, but they had a special accessibility.  The song, alongside their image, their presence, just spoke to 13 year old girls like me. 

Just around the corner, punk was looming its head.  Punk found me when I was truly ready to rebel, pissed off with school, seeking refuge for my ever-present ‘outsider’ feelings, needing an outlet for my inner dissenter.   Stranglers, Generation X, Buzzcocks and more filled out my little 7” singles box, I studied their different labels, their exciting picture sleeves, I buzzed to their fuzz guitars.  But, before all that, before the drastic haircut, black eyeliner and a graffitied school tie, I was a double denim (or triple, if you count the waistcoat), Charlie perfume, blue eyeshadow,  ABBA fan - as so many of us were.  And still are?  Well, not the double denim, etc. – but their songs, their classiness, their story – it’s stayed with us somewhere deep down.  So it'll be strange and otherwordly, I'm sure, but I'm really looking forward to rediscovering my inner 13 year old in just under two weeks' time, when I go down to London to see the ABBA Voyage show.  And, hopefully, it'll be just as memorable as that very first single purchase 46 years ago…. 

I shall let you know!

Yes, I know it's so familiar, but, oh go on... 

Saturday, 17 September 2022

Stop gap

 Argh!  Sorry.  The dust is gathering, the cobwebs billowing in the corners, the mould starting to creep up the walls – I don’t think this blog has ever been quite so neglected.  I’m absolutely fine (in case you read my last post and were wondering) just working rather relentlessly, pretty much 7 days a week, to meet a lengthy project deadline (nearly there).  I’ve had a couple of brilliant days off and thankfully got out and about, but I seem to need a certain sort of home alone, quiet and relaxed time to sit down - without anything else nagging at or distracting me - to write anything meaningful or inspired.  Seems I just haven’t had enough of those opportunities.  I don’t know how others do it (nor how I ever did it in the past), do you have any tips? 

Anyway, this is just to break the silence…  and to push myself to be back in a more communicative mode soon!

Saturday, 30 July 2022

Under pressure

I had a bit of a funny turn the other week and, to be honest, it rather freaked me out.  Coming on without any warning, something weird suddenly happened to my eyesight, as if my field of vision had narrowed, and I could only make out vague, indeterminate blobs.   Scary.  Oh god, I thought - a stroke?  an aneurysm? the start of a new life as a blind person? - should I get a guide dog? - you can imagine, it all went through my mind.  After a minute or two, panicky and crouching on the kitchen floor for fear I was going to faint or fall anyway, the featureless blobs gradually reverted to relatable forms, and my brain's ‘adjust sharpness’ and ‘brightness/contrast’ controls slowly kicked back in. 

After a chat with a nurse and a doctor, it seems the culprit could be low blood pressure, but also there’s a question mark now over blood sugar, so I’m awaiting some blood tests next week. (Sorry about all this blood stuff.)  They’re checking for diabetes! I don't feel like an obvious contender for it - on the slim side, healthy eater, don't smoke - but there have been a couple of cases in my family - so, could it be in the genes?  Well, I know, it's best to find out.

Fortunately I feel ok, although occasionally a bit light-headed, so I'm on a mission to raise my blood pressure. Reading about the government helps, of course, but I'm not one to pick fights with the neighbours and I don’t read the Daily Mail so my other options are a little limited.  But drinking plenty of water raises it apparently, so I'm guzzling my way through a lot of it - my stomach just makes a lapping sound when I walk now.

Things always happen at once, though, don't they?  Not that it was serious in the grand scheme of things but a few days after that scare my dental bridge fell out (now temporarily fixed with what the dentist called 'fruit-flavoured' cement - I presume it wasn't just a strip of Juicy Fruit chewing-gum).  Some folk can look rakeish with a missing tooth but it really doesn't suit me...   And then, I caught and jammed my toe (which was naked at the time) on the edge of a very unforgiving stone step.  My little toe. The cute one! The "wee wee wee, all the way home" one.  Never mind wee, wee, wee, I was more like fuck, fuck, fuck, it hurt so much for such a small body part (and the black and blue bruising that later spanned the top of my foot really didn't go well with my turquoise toenail varnish) and I was concerned for a while that I had fractured it.

Oh well, not that it's an excuse for not blogging, but it's just felt like one of those periods when there's been other stuff to think about, unexpected appointments to attend and, perhaps most of all, just time to take the pressure off myself a little.  Whilst trying to raise it too...

Here's a song which immediately sprang to mind!

As you'll know, there are many versions of this but I'll throw in the original as well:

Thursday, 30 June 2022

A matter of death and life (part two - life!)

I must say there is nothing quite like the comfort of a good hotel bed.  (Where do they get their pillows?  So perfectly plump and firm!)  The kind of bed where you should be able to slip under the fresh clean duvet, fall asleep instantly and have glorious dreams for the next eight hours….   But I didn’t.  I lay awake for ages.  So many thoughts, images, feelings were jostling for attention in my brain, refusing to form an orderly queue or to go away and come back in the morning.  And this was only the first night!

Earlier that day I’d boarded a sleek, new (and very exotic sounding) Azuma train and travelled 400 miles northward.  Having not been on a train these last two years the experience felt strangely new again.  I mean, even a visit to the onboard space age circular loo seemed a glamorous excursion.   All silver and symbols and sensory controls, I half expected to see the lovely Lieutenant Uhura waiting outside when I emerged. 

But the views from the train window were most definitely earthly and I loved the way the landscape changed from the flatlands of home to… ooh, hills!  And rocky outcrops!  Towns and cities I’ve never visited teased me with momentary flashes of their most striking assets.  The bridges spanning the Tyne…  Peterborough and Durham Cathedrals piercing the skyline…York Minster too.   Quirkier things as well, the curious ‘Mallard’ sign… 

And I’m pretty sure I let out an audible gasp at my first sight of the sea which, in spite of it being named the ‘East Coast Main Line’, still somehow took me by surprise.  It was like that feeling I had as a child en route to a seaside holiday, the excitement at turning a corner and suddenly seeing what seemed like a magical ocean at the edge of the world.  I know, I’m romanticising, it was a rather chilly looking steel-grey North Sea.  But still…

Eight hours after leaving home that morning, I was disembarking at Edinburgh Waverley Station – amazingly my very first trip over the border into Scotland - to be greeted by our lovely blog pal, Alyson.   It was great to see her familiar face; we had met up just once before in London and felt then as if we’d known each other for ages.  And that’s the beautiful thing about blogging, the way strangers can connect, get a sense of understanding and camaraderie, just through what we express, and how…  but more on that later.  As if I hadn’t been excited enough by the journey, there was so much yet to come – a few more people to meet, some for the first time, others to reconnect with, places to see,  music to hear (not just the bagpipes on the Royal Mile which take busking to a whole new level), tales to be shared, drinks to be consumed – naturally - and hugs (hugs at last!)  to be had…  A long-awaited bloggers’ ‘mini-meet’ had finally, appropriately, come together in this beautiful city. No wonder I didn’t sleep very well that night... my senses were most definitely working overtime.

More in part three.

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