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Thursday, 24 November 2011

I've got a beard, get me out of here

So the BBC is running old editions of TOTP from 1976. I’ve no idea why they started the re-runs from that particular year. Perhaps it’s something as simple as them not having a complete record from previous years. Or then again, maybe it is something to do with 1976 being perceived in some quarters as pop’s ‘year zero’, the date at which punk -according to legend- revolutionised the music scene. The truth, however, is that punk was mainly an interesting socio-cultural phenomenon, one that paved the way for some interesting music to follow. As a 'movement' however, it didn't produce that much in the way of great songs. There is plenty of music from the period 1976 to 1978 that still sounds fresh and vibrant today (the work of Stevie Wonder and David Bowie springs to mind), but I don't think that is quite the case with the majority of punk's output. Some folk hold it as an article of faith that punk ‘changed everything’, but if changing everything means changing the face of the pop charts, the ‘punk changed everything’ theory doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, as ten minutes on the intergoogle studying chart statistics will tell you.

Mind you, watching some of the acts from 1976, it’s easy to see why there might have been a musical reaction against what appeared to be the stultifying dominance of middle-of-the-road and cheesy pop. It may have stopped just short of being an actual reign of terror, but the saccharine ranks of MOR and cheese managed, on a regular basis, to dope the charts into a state of torpor. Take for instance the band Liverpool Express, who got to number eleven with ‘You are my love’. As an art statement, this track was -in its own way- pretty extreme, because it took the concept of ‘lightweight middle of the road’ right to the middle of the middle of the road and then knocked some of the edginess off until the sound was gossamer-light. Then they smoothed off any remaining rough edges in the hope of achieving a theoretical state of absolute translucence. Add to that an uber-trite lyric that even Hallmark’s A and R department might have rejected for its excessive vapidity and you’ve got a recipe for musical revolt. Being subjected to this kind of stuff on a regular basis would have made any self-respecting kid hanker for scruffy bands with loud guitars and a working knowledge of, at best, three major chords.

For all their evil genius, Liverpool Express had nowhere near the level of success enjoyed by the Greek singer Demis Roussos, a chart phenomenon who appealed mainly, I suspect, to ladies of a certain age. Demis dressed like a character from an episode of Star Trek, in which Kirk and crew had beamed down to a planet where the dominant species had evolved from a race of fortune tellers and new age therapists. He sometimes appeared on TOTP through the miracle of specially-filmed clips shot in Greece, or at least shot somewhere that was hot, with rocks and sand and electricity that was magically supplied to the various unplugged instruments. He was a handsome big fellow and he did his fair share of smouldering, but that ‘mean and slightly moody’ look was rather at odds with his high-pitched vocal delivery, which often attracted scorn from his critics. He may have sold millions of records, but many folk will remember him for having been disparaged by Mike Leigh in the play ‘Abigail’s Party’, wherein his anodyne music was a deemed to be a risible signifier of the upwardly mobile suburbanite affectations of the main character. It can’t be all that pleasant having a bearded lefty playwright looking down his nose at you, so for that reason alone I’d be inclined to stick up for Demis.

Perhaps one of the reasons he attracted ridicule was that, with song titles like ‘My friend the wind’ and ‘Goodbye my love, goodbye’, (yes, it’s that second ‘goodbye’ that does it), you got the impression that he took himself quite seriously. Maybe someone should have advised him to take ‘down to earth’ lessons from another mid-seventies chart topper, David Essex. Essex, now playing someone’s granddad on Eastenders, was an astonishingly good-looking song-and-dance man who lucked out with a succession of film roles and chart smashes. Watching him the other week perform even a mediocre song like ‘Home’ was a real pleasure, perhaps because he had the look of a man who knew full well that he had pretty much won the lottery and was loving every minute of it. Essex was by no means a great singer, but he had an individual character to his voice, an impish grin and the general air of a man who didn’t appear to take himself too seriously, a man who knew that he had managed to make a little bit of talent go a very long way. A bit like Robbie Williams, but twice as charming, three times as good-looking and nowhere near as needy.

David Essex didn’t invite ridicule in the way that Demis Roussos evidently did. Perhaps folk suspected that Demis, with his quasi-operatic vocal style and his progressive rock background (he was in ‘Aphrodite’s Child’ with keyboard wizard Vangelis), thought that pop music was maybe just a wee bit beneath him. Maybe the hair, the beard, the clothes and the moody demeanour gave out the coded message that he would have been much happier fronting a ‘proper’ progressive rock band and appearing with other bearded blokes on the Old Grey Whistle Test. And maybe then Mike Leigh wouldn’t have been so snotty about him.

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