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1976: The potency of cheap music
The sensory jumble of childhood
Strange how potent cheap music can be. Like a whiff of Blue Stratos on the night air, all it takes is a few bars and there we are, forty years ago, dripping extruded ice cream product on the vinyl seats of a Morris Marina while the rain falls on a pebbled beach. Year by year, these are the songs that have soundtracked our lives.
‘Morningtown Ride’, The Seekers (1966)
‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1934)
‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’, Matthias Claudius and Johann Schulz (1782)
‘Spring’, Vivaldi (1725)
‘Sirtaki (Zorba Dance’), Mikis Theodorakis (1965)
My mother was a confident woman: confident in her opinions, confident in her place in our affections. Beautiful, whip-smart, tiny, vivacious and indefatigable, she thought self-doubt was for losers. So I was surprised when she told me - I was well into my thirties - that she had been jealous of my attachment to my Year 1 class teacher, Miss Crowson.
Miss Crowson was the personification of Britain in 1976; or, at least, Britain as it appeared to me, aged six. She personified it not in a Miss England sort of way, but in the way of Californian hippy aesthetics, blissed-out and mellow: summer sunshine and rainbows and soft, yellow light, like the reflection of a buttercup. She had long, thick, poker-straight blonde hair, parted in the middle and reaching down to her waist. She wore circular cotton skirts and simple t-shirts. She had freckles and wide grey eyes, and the calm, beatific attitude of a Buddhist monk.
According to my mother a quarter of a century later, I would not bloody shut up about Miss Crowson.
Every afternoon, as the school day drew to a close, she gathered our class into a semi circle, sat herself on one of the miniature chairs, and led us in song. It will probably not surprise you to learn that she played - very nicely - an acoustic guitar.
Rocking rolling riding, out along the bay
All bound for Morningtown, many miles away
Morningtown Ride, The Seekers, 1966
Perhaps she only played Morningtown Ride once; perhaps we sang it a hundred times over the course of that school year. What I think I know for certain is that she played it on a hot afternoon in the glorious summer of 1976, when the classroom was drowsy and the dust eddied and sparkled in the sunlight.
Morningtown Ride is a lullaby in which sleep becomes a train journey, with children bundled safely in carriages that travel gently around a wide ocean bay on their way to morning. I mean, when I put it like that, it sounds terrible. But my childhood home backed onto the main commuter line into Waterloo, and the lyrics made me think of being safe in bed as late-night trains thundered past. The song also represented my grandmother, whose visits from Wales began and ended (from my perspective) with a visit to the powerful vastnesses of Paddington Station.
In the jumble of infancy, food becomes weather and clothes become smells, and music grows around memories like a vine. My brain cannot meaningfully distinguish between the smell of my mother’s perfume, the wooden chair beneath the radio in our old kitchen, and Rachmaninoff’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’. Emotionally and cognitively they all produce the same response, and a fragment of any one of them summons the others; in some senses, for me, they are all exactly the same thing. My brain also insists that Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was the theme tune for Radio 4’s Listen with Mother; but Google - which has no soul - refuses to confirm it.
What else summons this childish sensory confusion? We PLOUGH the fields and SCATter the GOOD seed on the LAND! (We don’t, at all. We live in London, between the river and the South Circular, next to the trains and beneath the Heathrow flight path. But it doesn't matter.) This is the smell of the polish on the herringbone parquet floor of our assembly hall; it’s the red ridges that the floor pressed into our crossed legs; it’s the squish squish squish of our headmaster’s down-at-heel leather brogues, a soft aspiratory hush that I coveted wildly. Why did I covet - literally want to own - the sound made by an ugly pair of shoes? What synaptic chaos was this?
‘Spring’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the walk across the playground to my classroom, and the rough nylon of my winter uniform. Zorba Dance is the hysterical excitement the night before our first Mediterranean family holiday and the smell of my first pair of flip-flops, laid out on my bed as a surprise by my mother, who was secretly very glad to reach the end of the school year and see the back of Miss Crowson.
‘Dancing Queen’, ABBA
‘Save Your Kisses For Me’, Brotherhood of Man
‘Under the Moon of Love’, Showaddywaddy
‘Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto De Aranjuez’, Manuel and the Music of the Mountains
‘In Dulci Jubilo’, Mike Oldfield
1976 was a year of absolute bangers: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Young Hearts Run Free’, ‘Love To Love You Baby’, ‘You See the Trouble With Me’, ‘Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel’, ‘Let’s Stick Together’; that’s the opening of great wedding disco right there, and that’s before you add the three other ABBA tracks in that year’s top 100 (‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Fernando’ and ‘Money Money Money’). Even the second-raters are pretty good: ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’, ‘If You Leave Me Now’, ‘I Love To Love’, ‘You To Me Are Everything’, ‘December ‘63’, ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’, ‘Livin’ Thing’, ‘Play That Funky Music’.
But I didn’t hear any of these songs that year: or, at least, I don’t remember hearing any of them. My parents didn’t listen to music radio or, indeed, very much music at all. My brother and I were too young for Top of the Pops, so chart music came to me only in snatches.
I watched Brotherhood of Man performing ‘Save Your Kisses For Me’ (‘Even though you’re only three’) on Eurovision and found it disturbing. Young children are forever being forced to kiss people, and the ‘70s - as ‘60s permissiveness curdled into louche beery entitlement - were a particularly coercive time. I was unhappy about this bearded, twinkly man addressing me directly through the television, insisting on his right to kisses. I feared he would turn up one day on our doorstep to make good on the deal and that I would have to comply out of politeness.
(Oddly, I had a similar anxiety about John Craven, who (bear with me here) was somehow the same thing as Cardiff. Whenever we drove down that section of the M4 I would hide in the footwell; when asked what I was doing I would say ‘I’m shy of Cardiff’. My parents were baffled, and I couldn’t explain. My perception - of the raw alpha male sexual energy of John Craven, and of his essential conceptual and physical union with Cardiff - was so concrete and overwhelming that it didn’t occur to me that nobody else shared it.)
I happened across Showaddywaddy - this must have been on some light ent show, maybe the Generation Game - performing a glittery pastiche of rockabilly, all stack heels and beetle eyebrows (again, disturbing). The Concerto of Orange Juice, as it was inevitably called, flooded the summer and, as we approached Christmas, you heard Mike Oldfield everywhere.
None of these songs are meaningful for me: they’re just the ones I know I was aware of at the time. The only one that summons the indelible synaptic jumble of infancy - the only one I liked then and still like now - is Dancing Queen, playing on my cousins’ record player as they got ready for a night out in their local pub. Five (five!) slim, blonde, blue-eyed beauties, pushing in and out of the bathroom, throwing out jokes, singing along randomly, carelessly including me: blue mascara and hairspray and short skirts and jeans, a euphoric essence of Saturday night that still brushes past me every week, a cloud of perfume and a clatter of heels, and then the song ends, and the door closes behind them.
For an alternative look at the music of 1976: