I’ve been getting through my Christmas books, some worthy others less so. “Jeeves and the Wedding Bells” – Sebastian Faulks tribute to P. G. Wodehouse – made me cry with laughter, embarrassingly as it was in a packed standard class carriage of East Midlands Trains. Then “Wings On My Sleeve” by Eric Brown made my jaw hit the floor: the country’s greatest test pilot, flying everything from German jets to biplanes, interviewing Goering about the Battle Of Britain, landing a Mosquito on an aircraft carrier, finding out why fatal crashes happen at the speed of sound, extraordinary.
One book I enjoyed more than I thought I might was Linda Ronstadt’s autobiography, “Simple Dreams”. I’ve always enjoyed her voice: I went straight out and bought her LP after hearing her sing “Tracks of My Tears” on the radio in the 1970s. The voice is wonderful, and I have always admired the way that she was happy to move between different genres – country, Mexican folk, rock’n’roll, Gilbert and Sullivan, Puccini, and the great American song-book with Nelson Riddle. She was also a backing singer on many of the iconic records of the last forty years – “Heart of Gold”, “Graceland”, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Little Feat, the lot. The danger with reading a book about an admired performer – the word ‘idol’ is silly – is that they might let you down. This book doesn’t. There’s confirmation of decent human being status (regretting the closure of the Mexican border, seeing through the nonsense of a Catholic education, rejection of drunken or druggy or simply ill-mannered behaviour). There are some surprises – didn’t know her grandfather invented the electric toaster – and some good anecdotes – she doesn’t pull her punches about loutish rock stars (Jim Morrison sounds a prize arse) or corrupt agents. She is loyal to old boyfriends and partners, gracious about other women singers and, above all, enthusiastic about the music.
“Simple Dreams” is a reminder of the utter wonderfulness that was around, and it is fascinating to learn how she came across (e.g.) the McGarrigle Sisters, or Ann Savoy, or John David Souther, or Peter Asher. It was a small world, but filled with extraordinary talent. There’s a legend that the music of the mid 70s was tired and boring, panting in exhaustion after the excitement of the sixties, waiting to be rescued by punk and the New Romantics. The idea that Joni Mitchell or Van Morrison or Jackson Browne or James Taylor needed to be rescued by Spandau Ballet or Johnny Rotten … this is such crap, and I was glad to hear the great Danny Baker say so when he was on Desert Island Discs.
Why am I so defensive/aggressive about the mid 70s ? Part of the answer is that during the mid 1970s I was a part-time disc jockey on local radio – Radio Tees, in Teesside where I was working as a college lecturer at the time. I won’t tell the convoluted tale of how I became the most local of local personalities (I actually got to the stage of being asked for my autograph), but it was the job I most enjoyed of almost any I have ever done. What did Noel Coward say – “work is more fun than fun”: yes indeedy. Then I was offered a new lecturing job in Manchester, and accepted, just as the radio station was about to offer me a job. Rats ! It would have been a career disaster, but what fun. As it was, I left and my last show was filling in for a Christmas absentee on the graveyard slot, 11 pm till 1.00 a.m. on 27/28th December 1976. I discovered a dusty tape of it under my desk (Memorex, if you want to know what lasts 38 years and still does the job), and this was the playlist:
When will I see you again – 3 Degrees (as it was my last show – geddit ?)
Everything that touches me – Bonnie Raitt
Nothing Heavy – Bellamy Brothers
My Man – Barbara Dixon (Yes, it’s an Eagles song, but this version is wonderful)
Heart Like Wheel – Kate and Anna McGarrigle (who wrote it, even if Linda Ronstadt made it famous)
Tongue-tied – Pete Atkin
I doubt you could find anything anywhere as good nowadays. Remember, this was a late night show on a small local station in a little known area of England. Criticism ? Too full of my faves – Atkin, Browne, Raitt, the Dan. Maybe a little light on the Great American Songbook, Sinatra, Riddle etc; lacking anything European, Piaf, Brassens, Trenet, (suppose I could’ve slipped Autumn Leaves in the seasonal mix), but hang on, we’re talking about two hours as the drunks pitch out of the pubs in Stockton-upon-Tees. The fact that YouTube has preserved nearly all of these songs on screen tells you something. I could release it under the label of “Now That’s What I Call Music”, but I think that’s been done, actually it’s been done 89 times, so you’ll have to rely on some click-throughs from which I make not a penny. Enjoy, as the modern cant has it.