09 April, 2006

Past masters III

Time to dip into that shoebox once again.

- 'Facade - 1/4/92'
This is a tape of a performance I conducted (oh yes!) at school as part of my A Level Music. I did this course a year early not out of choice but because someone high up in the staff thought it'd do the school some good to have an "advanced learner" on the books. The thing was a shambles from start to finish, however, because the head of music couldn't teach, preferring to spend each lesson making lists, writing wallcharts and organising trips to perform at some local primary school or other. I had to fumble my way through the syllabus largely by myself - one aspect of which involved me demonstrating my leadership skills by conducting a small ensemble through a piece of work of my own choosing. I opted for a few extracts from 'Facade', a suite by English composer William Walton setting the poems of Edith Sitwell to music. It seemed like a good idea at the time: an unusual choice, involving an unusual arrangement (flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, cello, percussion and two people speaking, not singing, the words). Plus I knew folk who could fill all the parts and who I'd performed stuff with before. The recording session itself was not so straightforward. One of the people reciting the words turned up wearing a neckbrace. The person on percussion couldn't read music. And taping the whole affair was my nemesis (one of the many), the bespectacled Buddy Holly lookalike who was the mastermind behind that notorious school covers gig. Somehow I got through it, but I remember it being one of the most desperately tiring days of my life (to date), and wondering even then whether my steady pursuit of music via academic means would ever come to anything (it didn't).

- 'Winter 1994'
Another compilation made for me by my friend David. It begins, brilliantly, with 'If I Only Knew' by Tom Jones, which I'd still rate as one of the best songs the recently-ennobled Welsh bellower has ever done. The tape also includes some Velvet Crush songs, 'Faster Days' and 'Weird Summer'; 'Love Torn Us Under' by the Manics; something called 'Never Understand' which, without listening to it, I suspect is by The Jesus And Mary Chain (David left off the names of all the artists); something else called 'The Power' which I know is most definitely not by Snap; and a live version of 'The Drowners' by Suede. There's also 'Out Of Tears' by The Rolling Stones, which at the time was a hugely uncanny choice given I'd just spend three bleak months listening to - and bizarrely watching the video for - the song on the bus into university.

- 'Billy Bragg: Radio Cambridgeshire 18/2/84'
How on earth I came by this is not a particularly interesting story, and refers to a period in my life when I'd decided my destiny was to write the definitive history of British political popular music in the 1980s and 90s. Suffice to say that lofty goal never came to pass, but it did precipitate a lot of unlikely and frankly ludicrous business involving, for instance, assembling an audio archive of significant gigs by the titular Bard of Barking, around whom a substantial portion of my narrative was to revolve. I made this tape from another tape loaned to me by someone who had actually recorded the session in February 1984 itself. It's not that good, but worth keeping as a memento and I guess a small slice of cultural history. I later got to stand in a lift with Billy Bragg, but couldn't think of anything to say.

- 'Mark Radcliffe (Last Ever Shows)'
I have probably two dozen or so tapes filled with either parts of or complete off-air recordings of the show Radcliffe self-dubbed The Graveyard Shift, which ran from 10pm to midnight Mondays-Thursdays on Radio 1 from autumn 1993 to spring 1997. I'd listened to the programme a fair few times during my last year at school ('93-4) and been dazzled by its mix of inspired music, learned guests, poetry, comedy and all-round self-deprecating dementedness, but it wasn't until I left for university that I became a devout fan. I tuned in religiously, looking upon it as a comfort and ritual during many difficult and depressing times, coming to trust and appreciate its companionship and inclusiveness, and tuning to it last thing at night for the company I so rarely found during the day. I quickly took to taping the second hour of the show, chiefly on those occasions when I had to be up early the next day. But I never wiped them, and ended up taping editions even when I listened right through to midnight, such was the brilliance and inspirational quality Radcliffe's formula for broadcasting seemed to purvey. I never met anyone else at university with the same interest or enthusiasm for the show. I wrote in quite a few times, once winning a competition for a copy of The Graduate on video. In fact the first time I wrote in was back in April 1994, when I was still at school, on the day I passed my driving test. It sounds lame in retrospect, but I wanted to express my relief at passing (on the fourth attempt) via some gesture of thanks to what had already become a totemic slice of escapism and reassurance. In what I quickly ascribed to be a move of great symbolism, the programme came to an end just as my life at university was coming to an end. Hence the show became instantly and for all time associated with my three years as an undergraduate, bookending my degree and providing the soundtrack to my student days. This tape is one of several capturing Mark's farewell shows, before he left for a daytime slot and a career of ever diminishing returns, and I treasure them all.


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