The Jukebox Time Machine – Bowie, The Sweet and a load of “Hocus Pocus”

Lately, I seem to have somewhat lost track of the original premise behind this blog. The eagle-eyed amongst you might have spotted that the domain name for this site contains the words Jukebox Time Machine but it wasn’t long before I decided to veer away from simply journeying back in time to select a random “track from my years”. Oh no, the featured song instead became inspired by what was going on in the news, by the seasons, or indeed what was happening in my own life. Once you delve into the backstory to a song, you find out so much more than was ever available back in the day, so it became appropriate to change the name of the blog to “What’s It All About?” (a nod to the opening lyric from the song Alfie, written by my favourite songwriting team Burt Bacharach and Hal David).

But just for a bit of a change, I am going to resurrect the idea of having an honest to goodness “time machine” that could randomly whisk me back through the years to find out what we were listening to, in terms of the music of the day. There are a fair few time machines in popular culture, but the one I’m going to use this time, is the contraption conjured up by H.G. Wells (very steampunk) and put together by some clever prop designers for the 1960 film The Time Machine starring Rod Taylor.

So, now we have a vehicle to take us back in time, but how will we randomly generate the date to which we will be taken? Fortunately there are lots of devices at our disposal and I’m going to use an online random number generator. The year will be generated from between 1964 and 2006, when the popular UK chart music show Top of the Pops aired on the BBC. I can at a push, remember watching that show with my parents right from the beginning (yes I’m that old), and I stuck with it through the good and bad years, until they pulled the plug on it in the mid-noughties. Since then I have kind of lost the plot as far as non-mainstream new music goes, so will stick to those more familiar years. The month and date can also be randomly generated after which all we have to do is refer to the Official UK Top 40 Archive. All sounds very complicated but trust me, it’s not.

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Time to climb aboard then and generate the first date. Here goes:

Year – 1973
Month2, i.e. February
Date – 14 (cute, it’s Valentine’s Day!)

Anyone who visits here regularly will know that this year could not be better for me in terms of conjuring up memories, as it was not only the year I became a teenager, but it was also the year I became obsessed with pop music and chart rundowns (already written about here). Referring to the Official Top 40 Chart from the 14th Feb 1973, the act at the No. 1 spot was this one, Scottish glam-rock band The Sweet with their only chart-topper, Blockbuster.

Blockbuster by Sweet:

I’m not going to dilly-dally too long writing about that one however as it has been showcased very recently over at Charity Chic Music (link here) where quite a few of us chimed in with our schoolday memories of the song. It amazes me, watching this footage of the band perform, how they still somehow managed to look “macho” whilst wearing just so much glitter, gold lamé and make-up. ‘Twas the times obviously. Lead singer Brian Connolly was a particularly good-looking man back then, and I was very envious of his long blonde hair (although oddly, in this song he refers to someone with long black hair). I think I actually sported a not too dissimilar hairstyle myself for much of the noughties, but hadn’t realised until now that the inspiration for it must have been Brian from The Sweet.

But what else was in the 1973 St Valentine’s Day chart? Well as luck would have it, a song I have already featured in the blog – The Jean Genie by David Bowie (link here). It was pointed out back then by The Swede, that the opening riff of Jean Genie bore a striking similarity to that of The Sweet’s Blockbuster which was recorded for the same record label, at around the same time, and released just a couple of months later (go on, do a quick compare and contrast). But it was The Sweet who made it to the top spot on this occasion as Bowie’s offering only made it to No. 2. Having done a little digging, the date we’re travelling back to in time to was very relevant to Mr Bowie as it seems that it was on the 14th of February 1973 that he collapsed from exhaustion after a performance at New York’s Madison Square Garden. He had been touring and giving press conferences as his alter-ego Ziggy Stardust for some time, but soon after this collapse, he abruptly retired the character live on stage at London’s Hammersmith Odeon.

The Jean Genie by David Bowie:

So far we’ve revisited two songs that sound very similar to each other but what else in that chart sounded very similar? Although I can’t say I was a big fan back then, in the fullness of time I have come to appreciate all the falderals involved in the making of a Focus record (a bit of yodeling anyone?) and February 1973 was their time in the sun as far as chart success went. Their instrumental Sylvia was a climber at No.5 and Hocus Pocus was also climbing up the chart at No. 22.

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The Dutch prog rock outfit, Focus.

I may well have forgotten all about these Dutch prog rockers had it not been that the album I got for Christmas that year was “Arcade’s 20 Fantastic Hits by the Original Artists”, the emphasis on the word original, as up until then most of these compilations were very much by the unoriginal artists. If you look closely you will see that Blockbuster, The Jean Genie and Hocus Pocus (Track 7 on Side 2) all featured, so this February chart certainly seems to have spawned a fair few of the year’s most memorable hits. (Interesting to note there is a picture of the artist who is apparently Python Lee Jackson which caused lots of confusion at the time. Turned out PLJ was the name of an Aussie band and Rod Stewart had been a guest vocalist.)

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Hocus Pocus by Focus:

Although we have travelled back in time 45 years, so many of these songs are now part of popular culture and I can’t imagine them ever being forgotten, whereas can we really say that about much of what is in the charts today? Maybe I’m wrong but could we envisage a time in the future when there will be another television cop show, this time inspired by the music of 2018? Not sure, but it certainly happened around 10 years ago when Life On Mars was made for our own BBC. The lead character Sam Tyler goes back in time to 1973 and finds himself working under the highly misogynistic, homophobic, borderline alcoholic Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt – The Gene Genie. For those of us who remember those days, there were many, many amusing musical exchanges between Sam and Gene. These were only made possible because Sam knew the legacy left behind by some of the artists they listened to, on the Ford Granada car radio, or during a nightclub raid. For Gene all this music was as yet unknown, and anyway, he and his wife preferred listening to Roger Whittaker!

Ok, so Life On Mars aired a fair few years ago now but I think it is generally agreed that one of last year’s best films, for music fans at any rate, was this one, Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. I’m not usually a fan of films that feature multiple car chases, but this one was a very different animal, and the best car chase of all was played out to the sounds of Focus with what has turned out to be their most memorable recording (was it because the words rhymed so well I wonder?). Watching this excellent clip again, the lead character Baby, could definitely give Lewis Hamilton a run for his money.

So, “What’s It All About?” – I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me on my Jukebox Time Machine journey back to February 1973. All you need is a random number generator it seems and we’re good to go, although I may change the mode of transport for next time as H.G. Wells’ time machine was a tad uncomfortable at times – Doc Brown’s DeLorean might make for a smoother ride.

As to whether the music of 2018 will feature in the movies and telly of the future, having thought about it all a bit more, it probably will. As the music-obsessed youngsters of today become the movers and shakers of tomorrow, they will use the “tracks of their years” when making directorial debuts, peppering their films with the works of Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino (yes I watched the Grammys this week so am “down with the kids”). Problem is, by the time you make it in that world and are entrusted with the big budgets you are a generation older than the majority of your audience. Great for parents taking their kids to the cinema though as there is something for everyone, the action for the youngsters and the music for the mums and dads (Guardians of the Galaxy springs to mind) – All in all, a bit of a win-win situation.

Until next time….

Blockbuster Lyrics
(Song by Mike Chapman/Nicky Chinn)

Ahhh, Ahh Ahhh
You better beware, you better take care
You better watch out if you’ve got long black hair
He’ll come from behind, you’ll go out of your mind
You better not go, you never know what you’ll find
Ahh Ahh, Ahh Ahhh

Can’t look into his eyes, you’ll be surprised
If don’t know what going on behind his disguse
Nobody knows where Buster goes
He’ll steal your woman out from under your nose

Does anyone know the way, did we hear someone say
(We just haven’t got a clue what to do)
Does anyone know the way, there’s got to be a way
To Blockbuster

The cops are out, they’re running about
Don’t know if they’ll ever be able to blockbuster out
He’s gotta be caught, he’s gotta be taught
‘Cause he is more evil then anyone here ever thought

Does anybody know the way, did we hear someone say
(We just haven’t got a aho)
Does anybody know the way, there’s got to be a way
To Blockbuster

Does anybody know the way, did we hear someone say
(We just haven’t got a clue what to do)
Does anybody know the way, there’s got to be a way
To Blockbuster

Ahh Ahh, Ahh Ahh
Ahh Ahh, Ahh Ahh

Buster buster blockbuster
Buster buster blockbuster
Buster buster blockbuster
Buster buster blockbuster

Buster buster blockbuster
Buster buster blockbuster

Postscript:

It occurred to me that although the journey back in time was primarily to find out what we were listening to in February 1973, perhaps it might be interesting to remind myself what I was doing at school. As luck would have it (that trusty archive box came up trumps once again), I still have a self-penned “magazine” which we all had to produce in English (the subject not the language) that year.

All very embarrassing as ever, but I was only 12 remember, and one of the “stories” was essentially an exchange between my mum and myself as to the merits of acquiring one of those new-fangled cassette recorders that had just come on the market. Ignore the fact I seem to have missed the letter “t” in the title (should be tempted) and please ignore the fact that it seems my family were a bit tight with the cash, as in reality I did get a MURPHY cassette recorder later that year. It was my absolute pride and joy and was heavily used for the rest of my teenage years. I give you an extract from the Reader’s Realm February ’73 edition (adverts were included).

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David Bowie, “Life on Mars?” and The Mortality Reality Check

Ironically I had already chosen this day, 11th January 2016, to start a blog. The idea behind it was to jot down those memories conjured up by a random piece of music heard in the course of the day. And what a day it turned out to be. News broke this morning, as we were all waking up, that David Bowie had died after an 18 month struggle with cancer. I had noticed a few days earlier that he’d just released a new album to coincide with his 69th  birthday (suddenly prolific in his later years after a long gap with little output), but like most of us I was unaware that he was so ill. A video clip showed him with stylish short cropped hair, smartly dressed, but looking old I thought which made me sad. Sad perhaps because of my own mortality. If our musical heroes were getting old then so must we. This morning’s news confirmed that “The Man Who Fell To Earth” was indeed not immortal.

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Only three times in my life can I remember this much media attention having been paid to the death of a person from the world of music, and they were:

Elvis Presley, who died the day I went back to school after the long summer holidays in 1977. I was only 17 and had been a big Elvis fan mainly because of the movies we had watched on television and then the massive events that were the ’68 Comeback Special and the ’73 Aloha from Hawaii concert broadcast live around the world. In a career stretching back to the mid 1950s it’s sad that so many only remember Elvis in the later jumpsuited, Vegas years when until the early 1970s he truly was still the King of Rock and Roll.

John Lennon, shot down by Mark Chapman at the end of 1980. I was a 20-year-old student at the time and stayed in bed most of the morning listening to BBC Radio 1 which played the music of both The Beatles and Lennon himself. Andy Peebles, a DJ of the day had recently recorded an interview with Lennon, so he found himself suddenly the man of the moment in terms of contributing to the day’s output.

Michael Jacksonthe King of Pop. It was June 2009 and we had just come back from my daughter’s school’s version of Britain’s Got Talent.  She was one of eight performers that night (one of three solo singers) and was by far the youngest entrant at 13. After tremendous praise from our local panel of celebrity judges who forecast her being “snapped up by Simon Cowell”, she ended up not being placed so was upset. A tremendous rush of adrenaline following weeks of preparation which led to disappointment and the low that comes with it. It was when we got home that we heard of the death of Michael Jackson and as we watched footage of him as a very young boy totally outshining his brothers with his singing and dancing, it did make me glad that my 13-year-old daughter had perhaps had her wings clipped as I can think of very few child stars who have gone on to have a long and happy life.

And now we have Mr Bowie. At 69 he has actually had a long life compared to the others listed above who died at 42, 40 and 50 respectively. It is sad that his family and friends will no longer be able to talk with him, work with him and spend time with him but I am not sure if it is true that it is “sad” for the rest of us who did not know him other than through his work. It is more a massive shock that someone who has been around for such a long time as part of the fabric of Britain’s music culture, is suddenly no longer with us. Back to the mortality, reality check. It is sad that his body of work is now complete but what a body of work to leave – It will be added to, new material will be found and it will be reworked for as long as people have the appetite to do so. With a creative force such as Bowie whose work never did fit neatly into a particular genre or period, it will keep on appealing to new fans.

So back to the original premise to this blog – The random piece of music heard in the course of the day. I’m going to pick Life On Mars?

Life On Mars? by David Bowie:

I have watched many video clips of Ziggy Stardust today and heard much analysis of how Bowie pushed boundaries with his androgyny, but here’s the thing, when Life on Mars? hit the charts in June 1973, I was just a 13-year-old girl who loved Top of the Pops and Radio 1’s chart show. I sat poised with my cassette recorder and microphone on a Thursday night at 7.30pm desperately trying to capture my favourite songs with no annoying applause or voice-overs. I liked Life on Mars? a lot, because it’s a great sounding song, but at 13 I really wouldn’t have understood what androgyny meant and having taken in lots of telly from the mid ’60s onward, he was just another flamboyantly dressed pop star (we’d had the hippy era already and glam rock was well and truly underway by this time). Looking now at the lyrics, they are fairly bizarre and my 13-year-old self wouldn’t have given them much thought. The weirdest thing about Life on Mars? foray into the charts is that it coincided with The Laughing Gnome’s second release after failing miserably to make an impact first time around in 1967. Not part of his grand plan to have both songs around at the same time I imagine but the economics of the recording industry being as they are, his former record company weren’t going to miss out on an income stream from a now popular artist.

My older self now sees what a massive a creative talent David Bowie was and I look forward to revisiting his back catalogue as we all do when something like this happens. When I said earlier that he was just another flamboyantly dressed pop star I will concede that he was indeed the most flamboyant of them all. The striped, sleeveless swimsuit affair and the one-legged jumpsuit ensembles are still deeply troubling to look at today! I will try to make sense of it all although I am not entirely sure we were ever meant to. He was unusual in that he was primarily an actor and artist whose biggest success came in the music industry. Only an actor could reinvent himself, so often, so successfully, into so many great characters.

But when all’s said and done I would just like to know, once and for all, how to pronounce his name – Is is Bow-ie or Bo-wie?  Still working that one out but maybe that’s how it should be for the master of reinvention.  RIP David.

Life On Mars? Lyrics
(Song by David Bowie)

It’s a god-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling “No”
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks
through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
For she’s lived it
ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on

Sailors fighting in the dance hall

Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go
It’s the freakiest show
Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

It’s on America’s tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns

But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on…

Postscript:

A brilliant television series, first shown in 2006 was also called Life On Mars. The main character Sam Tyler went back in time to join the 1973 Manchester Police Force. It had a really clever fantasy-esque plotline and a great soundtrack of ’70s songs which made it a must-watch show, especially for me. It was inevitable that Life On Mars? the song, would be heavily used throughout the whole series and probably contributed to it becoming my favourite Bowie song.