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It's All Too Beautiful: Psychedelia and the British Psyche
The date is April 22, the first spring day of 2016 that actually feels like spring. There is sun and birdsong, and the warming air seems animated, alive, slowly dispelling the last vestiges of winter gloom. It's the time when those who have been hibernating most deeply experience the slightly disturbing pleasure of being wrenched, blinking, back out into the daylight.
The walk south towards Ilford from Gants Hill tube station takes me along a wide and busy street lined with substantial mock Tudor semis. This indicates that I am in suburbia now, just beyond the edge of London's East End. As I walk in through the gates of Valentines Park, I come across a pond with scattered slices of white bread and a pile of cheese puffs left on the bankside for the wildfowl. Canada geese sail away, snootily disdaining this human being's idea of an avian smorgasbord, although the park's noisy crow population are taking an interest and one flies off with a cheesy snack in its beak.
Valentines Park, like many parks in London, was once the grounds and gardens of a substantial property. Valentines Mansion was built in 1696 and, paid for by National Lottery money, extensive renovation was carried out in 2007, including restoration of the walled gardens. The architectural features of particular interest in the grounds are the three 18-century grottos bordering the Long Water, a narrow man-made lake about 100 metres long. Two of these grottos stand at each end of the lake at water level, one of which is occupied by a swan. A third grotto overlooks the water from terra firma, and is occupied by a man with a mobile phone and several cans of lager.
Mallards, swans, moorhens and tufted ducks paddle around. One broody moorhen has built a nest of twigs on the bank. The Fish Pond, an adjoining lake with a large island in the middle, would have been a safer site.
A little girl rolls away from her mother on unwieldy roller skates, joggers jog by in succession and groups of kids in school uniform cut through the park on their way home. But still the atmosphere is unexpectedly tranquil.
In case this all seems a little less than relevant to the subject matter of this book, all journeys start with a single step and mine finds me in Itchycoo Park, the subject of a 1967 single by the Small Faces. The "itchycoos" of the title were nettles, which could give a nasty sting to an unsuspecting Fifties schoolboy dressed in shorts.
This is also the book's first contentious point. The song was written by bass guitarist Ronnie Lane, and singer and guitarist Steve Marriott. Lane has said it was written about a park in Ilford. Some of Marriott's school friends remember the nettles being at Little Ilford Park about a mile to the south, but Marriott has specifically identified it as Valentines Park. Drummer Kenney Jones prefers to think it is referring to King Edward Memorial Park in Shadwell. But Valentines Park seems the best fit for the venue. In the bridge passages into the choruses of the song, Marriott sings of feeding the ducks (with a bun) and while Little Ilford Park contains no bodies of water, Valentines has three lakes and ducks aplenty.
It's unclear exactly which one park – if indeed it were just one – inspired the song, and references to Oxford's "dreaming spires" and Cambridge's Bridge Of Sighs are thrown in to make up a composite place. But that only adds to the mystery.
There are no dreaming spires in sight of Valentines Park, just a single, rather wary-looking tower block. And as I stand reflecting on all this, I realise that being in one of a number of its possible locations is rather like standing atop Glastonbury Tor, which some claim to be the Isle Of Avalon, collaring a passer-by and asking: "Excuse me, where is Camelot?" It's a question without an answer.
The reason I had gone looking for its location is that the song epitomises a peculiarly late-Sixties English way of looking through a metaphorical lens – be it drug induced or not – at the everyday and transforming it, via the imagination, into something transcendental, almost mystical, and as such it was one of the most potent songs of the psychedelic era, which, at most, lasted just a couple of years from 1966 to the beginning of 1968.
Mythical places are so entrenched in our race memory that the fact that one only has access to them through the imagination strengthens their allure. Millions of people will have an image in their minds of Itchycoo Park. And in the mind is where the action was taking place.
Most importantly, the song was inspired by memories of the group members' youths and, in common with many late-Sixties British musicians, the Small Faces were re-evaluating who they were musically by travelling back to their childhoods, a time when they could dream and play in a relatively untroubled way, and when days were always sunny and full of untested possibilities.
Musically, the times were changing fast. The Small Faces had started out in 1965 as fresh-faced, sharply dressed teenage mods purveying a mixture of soul, R&B and Brill Building pop. Into 1967 fellow mods The Who were purveying an updated image of aggressive dandyism, both in the expanded range of their music and their onstage equipment smashing. But the Small Faces were still seen as teen pin-ups and locked into something akin to Beatlemania.
With 'Itchycoo Park' the group began to veer into more personal territory, while still making a brilliant experimental pop single. They epitomised the way that many British musicians at this time were moving away from their influences and pursuing more individual ideas.
Ian McLagan weaves piano and organ phrases around Marriott's jaunty acoustic strum. Lane's dreamy, conspiratorial backing vocals agree with the singer in how cool it would be to miss out school, then with his voice swathed in flanging – a new technique of manually putting tape signals out of phase, making a disorientating whooshing sound, which is pretty much synonymous with phasing – Marriott sings about his intention to blow his mind before leaving a two-bar gap for Jones's flanged drums and cymbals to travel across the soundfield, leaving sonic vapour trails in their wake, and leading into a simple chorus in which the scene is described as "all too beautiful".
Given the locale that spawned the song, these gushing sentiments might be taken as ironic, but Marriott sounds genuinely, unabashedly overwhelmed by the beauty of things, by these thoughts of a sunny afternoon stoned in the park, a precious oasis of green in the capital city.
By 1967 this exploration and re-establishment of self was probably practised more vigorously by musicians like the Small Faces than, say, trainee surveyors, but this pop song, with its memorable tune and alluring soundworld – and a Top 10 hit for the group – re-imagined humdrum Britain as somewhere that really could be perceived as being all too beautiful. The idea was immensely attractive.
But before we immerse ourselves more fully in psychedelia, we need to wind back to the first musical memories of the Small Faces and their peers, those musicians born around the end of World War Two and their audience, of similar age or born up to the end of the Fifties.
In the decade or so following World War Two, the principal remit of mainstream public broadcasting was to be educational and impartial along the lines drawn by Lord Reith at the foundation of the BBC in theTwenties. In terms of music, the idea was to provide a sense of comfort and order, which in turn fostered a largely static and conservative mainstream culture. There was initially little aimed at youths specifically, but then what would the demand have been?
The Anglo-Italian band leader Mantovani was the most commercially successful recording artist in the UK up to the end of the Fifties. BBC orchestras would play approximations of his trademark lush string arrangements on the BBC Light Programme on morning shows like Housewives' Choice. As its name suggested the Light Programme also played Light music – the theme tune to Music While You Work was Eric Coates' ebullient wartime march, 'Calling All Workers' – as well as big band music and songs from musicals.
Elsewhere you might hear popular tunes sung by The Andrews Sisters, or proto-pop stars like Jimmy Young and a young Petula Clark singing songs arranged by Ron Goodwin; or The Cliff Adams Singers and their soothing medleys of "the old songs" on their early Sunday evening radio show Sing Something Simple, which ran from 1959. For younger listeners the programme not to miss was the Sunday evening singles chart rundown, Pick Of The Pops, which ran from 1955.
The December 1944 copy of the American Life magazine had carried the first high-profile recognition of the cultural phenomenon known as "the teenager", as those in the transitional phase between puberty and adulthood would become known. Within the affluent US, which was not as affected by the war as the UK, this group developed its own fashions, vernacular and modes of behaviour, but one can safely assume that happened largely within the more liberal white middle class groups. At the time the cultural significance of this new species had yet to be felt, and some of it would definitely not be welcomed.
In the mid-Fifties, the new phenomenon of rock'n'roll caused a huge stir in the USA because it saw a young generation symbolically shearing away from, and at times kicking against, the notion of an idealised, near utopian post-war American lifestyle. At least musically: typically the teenagers' lives were otherwise as conservative as those of their parents. But once they had hold of the notion of self-expression it wasn't going to go away.
In the mid-Fifties Brian Eno was a young boy growing up in the small Suffolk town of Woodbridge. Just a couple of miles outside of town lay the RAF facility of Bentwaters, which had been handed over to the Americans as a Cold War airbase. The number of American personnel living in Bentwaters and the former RAF Woodbridge, which had also been handed over to NATO, was around 17,000 – over four times the population of Woodbridge itself. A number of cafés and milk bars with jukeboxes sprang up in town to cope with the demand and they would play the latest American rock'n'roll and doowop, as well as Tommy Steele, who came onto the scene in 1957 as Britain's answer to Elvis Presley, and Cliff Richard who followed a couple of years later.
A record buyer from the age of nine, Eno was captivated by these sounds, but has since noted that you didn't necessarily need to have an airbase in your back yard to have been affected by this new music.
"The combination of the three-minute single and the radio station is in my opinion what gave birth to rock'n'roll," he says. "Suddenly it was possible to make a three-minute piece of music stand alone, and it could be heard globally in a very short space of time through radio stations and distributed globally as well, and this created a new way of thinking about music."
This applied just as much to the music from the Detroit label Tamla Motown. Formed in 1959, its singles – a peerless combination of soul, doowop, R&B and pop songwriting craft – were soon in the UK charts and on the radio.
While some of this music was played on BBC radio, its dedicated pop music station, Radio 1, only came on air in 1967. Before its inception you could catch the latest sounds on Radio Luxembourg and the UK pirate radio stations like Radio London and Radio Caroline that had broadcast from the early Sixties to over 10 million listeners. Many teenage music fans living with their parents were surreptitiously tuning in to the stations' inconsistent signals at night, their transistor radios pressed to their ears as they lay in bed.
From the early to mid-Sixties, the Liverpool-based Merseybeat groups purveyed pop-oriented appropriations of American soul and R&B in a way that carried a subtly distinctive English feel in their driving rhythms and vocal delivery. This was the scene that ushered in The Beatles, who were to dominate the Sixties on both sides of the Atlantic.
Into the Sixties, distinct tribal strands of youth culture were forming. Those who would become known as the modernists, or mods, were sharply dressed teens, initially dancing to jazz and then soul and R&B in London clubs. Their nemeses, the rockers, had morphed from the teddy boys of the Fifties and were steeped in rock'n'roll music with its accompanying signature style of pompadour haircuts and leathers, and although not much separated these rival factions age-wise, the mods were seen as upstarts against the old guard.
Prolonged fights in spring 1964 along the south and east coast from Brighton to Hastings, and in Clacton, prompted the UK's very own "moral panic", with the media also proclaiming the imminent disintegration of society.
Away from the testosterone-fuelled world of knuckle-dusters and bike chains by the sea, for those more keen on discovering traditional forms, there was a revival in the performance of folk music, which had been collected, researched and championed by the likes of Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd in the Fifties and Sixties. This extended to the appreciation of American folk, and one young singer was of particular importance in speaking to the youth of America and the UK: Bob Dylan.
Others explored the recordings of American blues artists and as this music was relatively easy to learn, skiffle groups, playing an amalgam of folk and blues with a primitive jazzy swing, began to spring up in the UK from the Fifties, emulating homegrown artists like Lonnie Donegan. This huge groundswell of interest in blues music prompted a bunch of London-based students and their mates to form a group called The Rolling Stones in 1962.
They played R&B with an arrogant, sexually charged performance style and a lot of attitude. The Rolling Stones might have been serious about their blues, but they also had far more teen appeal than most blues outfits. Alan Barnes, a teenage music fan in the Sixties, remembers their impact.
"Going to parties aged 15 or 16, there used to be a kind of divide between the melodic, early Beatles-type things against the Stones, who were the slightly riskier option and that's when I decided that it was my kind of music, even though it wasn't quite as popular. It was edgier and you felt like you were more a rebel without a cause.
"A lot of the time, groups just used to stand there in suits playing their instruments and so having someone like Jagger commanding the stage was exciting."
Elvis Presley never came over to the UK and it was a rarity to be able to see other American rock'n'roll legends over here. But it was relatively easy to go to provincial theatres to see less remote stars like The Dave Clark Five and their stomping beat music or The Swinging Blue Jeans, or expat American P. J. Proby, infamously banned from all ABC theatres in 1965 for causing a ruckus after publicly splitting his tight trousers.
Or if you wanted to see something a bit nearer the source, soul groups like Herbie Goins & The Nightimers regularly played UK clubs in the Sixties as did Geno Washington. A US airman formerly stationed at the Air Force base at Bentwaters, once demobbed, Washington became a favourite on the UK club scene leading the Ram Jam Band, who scored two Top 10 album placings.
Barnes recalls the thrill of seeing Washington playing in the cellar of the Orford Arms in Norwich in the mid-to-late Sixties: "It was never more than a dive and it would probably never be opened now for health and safety reasons. I can remember all the people packed in there and looking at the walls and seeing the sweat trickling down. But the atmosphere was fantastic and the fact that you couldn't move was just part of it."
A wider British electric "blues boom" had begun in the early Sixties and expanded into the mid-Sixties, based on catalytic band leaders like Alexis Korner and John Mayall, and so it became worthwhile for some of the original American blues artists like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters to come over as middle-aged men and play to enthusiastic audiences of young Brits. A young American promoter, Joe Boyd, brought over a package tour, the Blues And Gospel Caravan in 1964, featuring Muddy Waters, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, the Reverend Gary Davis and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The line-up toured the UK, playing to sold- out venues.
In this stylistically diverse time it was inevitable that hybrid forms would start to emerge. It would be these that took us through the brief flowering of psychedelia and onto progressive rock at the end of the decade.
One of the most remarkable and influential characters of the mid- Sixties was Graham Bond. His group The Graham Bond Organisation formed in 1964 and played a freshly minted, jazz- inflected take on R&B, including some classical influences. The group comprised Ginger Baker on drums, Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, as well as Bond himself, who sang and played sax and Hammond organ. Their album The Sound Of 65 was the first to feature the Mellotron, the keyboard instrument where depressing keys activated tape loops of strings, bass or woodwind. The instrument will crop up regularly throughout the rest of this book.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A New Day Yesterday"
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Table of Contents
Introduction More Songs About Wizards and Hobbits,
Chapter 1 It's All Too Beautiful: Psychedelia and the British Psyche,
Chapter 2 Notes from the Underground,
Chapter 3 Hyde Park Incident: King Crimson Part One,
Chapter 4 The Drive to 1974: King Crimson Part Two,
Chapter 5 Orchestral Variations 1967–74,
Chapter 6 Suburban Spacemen: Pink Floyd,
Chapter 7 And Did Those Feet ...: Ladies and Gentleman – Lemerpal, Aker & Son,
Chapter 8 Kick out the Jams to Jerusalem: Genesis,
Chapter 9 Swings and Roundabouts: Yes,
Chapter 10 Stand up and Be Counted: Jethro Tull,
Chapter 11 From a Whisper to a Scream (Including Lighthouses): Van Der Graaf Generator,
Chapter 12 "Plus ... Tubular Bells!": Mike Oldfield & Virgin Records,
Chapter 13 Sock in Opposition: Henry Cow,
Chapter 14 Knights in Beige Terylene on Acid: The Moody Blues,
Chapter 15 The Moody Poor Man's Blues: Barclay James Harvest and Renaissance,
Chapter 16 Divertimento No.1: Notes on Drugs,
Chapter 17 In Search of Space: Arthur Brown and Kingdom Come,
Chapter 18 In the Garden of England: The Birth of the Canterbury Scene,
Chapter 19 Can a Wyatt Man Sing the Blues?: Rock Bottom & Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard,
Chapter 20 Pilgrims' Progress: Caravan,
Chapter 21 Counting out Time: Egg,
Chapter 22 All Roads Lead to Homerton: Hatfield And The North and National Health,
Chapter 23 The 'What I Was Doing Was Too Simple for Them and What They Were Doing Was Too Complicated for Me' Blues: Kevin Ayers and Soft Machine Post-Wyatt,
Chapter 24 Divertimento No.2: Notes on Fashion and Youth Tribalism,
Chapter 25 Surrey Super Novas: A Brief History of Gracious,
Chapter 26 What's Sauce for the Goose: Camel,
Chapter 27 So-Called Journalists: Seventies Rock in the Media,
Chapter 28 Divertimento No.3: Funny Foreigners,
Chapter 29 A Jazzy Collection of Antiques, Curios and Battered Ornaments: Colosseum, Greenslade, Pete Brown and Centipede,
Chapter 30 All You Need to Do Is Sit Back and Acquire the Taste: Gentle Giant,
Chapter 31 Ray Charles, the Godfather of Progressive Rock?: Procol Harum, Traffic and Family,
Chapter 32 Come All You Rolling Minstrels: Seventies Folk Rock,
Chapter 33 Divertimento No.4: Notes on "It",
Chapter 34 She's a Rainbow: Sonja Kristina and Curved Air,
Chapter 35 The Cats in the Grove: Hawkwind, Quintessence, Third Ear Band and the Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill Freak Scene,
Chapter 36 Divertimento No.5: Notes on Politics,
Chapter 37 Electrick Gypsies: Steve Hillage and Gong,
Chapter 38 The Art School Dance Goes on Forever: Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Quiet Sun and 801,
Chapter 39 Divertimento No.6: Notes on Festivals,
Chapter 40 1974 – the Tipping Point,
Chapter 41 There's Gonna Be a Storm: UK Punk,
Chapter 42 The End of the Century,
Author's Source Notes,