I'm a writer and storyteller and for much if my life produced sponsored films and commercials. Subjects were as varied as bananas in Cameroon, oil from the North Sea, fighting organised crime and caring for older people. Their aim was always to make a positive difference, but, worryingly, two commercials I worked on featured in a British Library exhibition, ‘Propaganda’.
Janice Nicholls. Remember the name from the 1960s? A teenager who gave her verdict on new record releases. Her ratings were out of five, and if she liked one, she’d say enthusiastically, ‘Oi’ll give it foive’. Her weekly appearances were on ATV’s Thank Your Lucky Stars, hosted by Brian Matthew. Her catchphrase was immortalised in song. I don’t know if she ever reviewed it herself, and it was completely ignored by the record buying public. But here’s your chance to give it a score!
Out of five – how many?
Oddly, many people confuse her with being on Juke Box Jury, another record review show, but on BBC and hosted by David Jacobs. (It’s a raging debate on Facebook‘s London in the ’60s and ’70s!) But on that show, four panelists would assess whether a record would be a hit or a miss. Its theme tune, by the John Barry Seven plus four, was aptly named . . . Hit & Miss. And unlike Ms Nicholl’s offering, this record was a hit (No. 10 in 1960).
John Barry went on to write the Bond theme (amongst many other film tunes). Janice Nicholls apparently went on to a life of podiatry.
If you’ve not had enough nostalgia, there’s loads online about the programmes, though not much about Janice.
And if you like music and a story that, according to one reader is ‘a gorgeous hug of a book,’ my novel, Homeward Bound goes on a blog tour in July. Catch it with these bloggers.
I watched in awe as two blackbirds set about a magpie in our back garden in Highbury Hill. Pecking and grabbing at its feathers, I was amazed at their ferocity and sorry for the magpie. My view was soon to change.
I’ve been observing the throngs of birds visiting our feeders, tiny garden pond and containers of water more than I used to, through a combination of ‘lockdown’ and new patio doors. From wrens, sparrows, blue tits and robins, through thrushes and blackbirds, to crows, magpies, blue jays and even the occasional woodpecker and sparrow hawk, they have established a literal pecking order of the seeds, fat pellets and dried worms on offer.
The smaller birds enter the squirrel proof cages and hurl the food across the grass, a gift to the larger ones waiting in anticipation on the ground where there’s a literal pecking order.
The magpies, crows and pigeons get first picks, the rest waiting their chance of what’s missed. But there must be enough to go round as most of these birds seem to have built nests nearby, and we’ve already seen newly fledged robins and sparrows negotiating the feeders and bathing in our containers and pond.
Which brings me back to the altercation between the magpie and the blackbirds.
The squabble showed no sign of abating, with the magpie seemingly coming off worst. Yet rather than escaping, it briefly touched down in the garden. Here, it stretched its neck and pulled from the undergrowth a tiny, helpless blackbird chick, pink mouth wide open in expectation of being fed. What happened next was a brief blur of feathers and squawking – then all the combatants flew away. But what of the chick? I went to investigate. No sign. Just a few small feathers. Had it escaped or had the magpie taken it? I fear the latter.
So my view of battered magpie changed from victim to offender. Yet, in retrospect, maybe there are hungry magpie chicks that needed something more substantial than slim pickings of seeds dropped by the sparrows. It’s nature’s way. But the possible loss of a blackbird chick is so disheartening.
Next day, they were all back in the garden, sparrows, blue tits, robin, blackbirds, magpie, following the same feeding routines – until, that is, they were all interrupted by the arrival first of a squirrel, then cats.
It’s tough being a bird.
PS – since I’ve written this, I’ve noticed a blackbird devouring a newt from the pond. The circle of life and death . . . . !
Richard Smith’s novel, Homeward Bound, is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon and bookshops like Ink@84and Waterstones
Did you watch the recent BBC drama, ‘Trial of Christine Keeler’? It’s set in 1963. But in the soundtrack, they play ‘Well Respected Man’ by the Kinks – a song not released until 1965. A little research would have come in handy, methinks. But it’s not unique.
I’ve lost track of the times I’ve watched a play or a film and somebody has slid the vinyl from its sleeve, placed it on a turntable, dropped the stylus into the groove . . . and out has come the wrong tune, or at least, to the eagle-eyed, a different tune from the one on the record that’s spinning. OK, it’s nerdish and we should be involved in the film’s narrative. But to anyone with any interest in records, it’s the first thing we see. It just comes naturally.
The key to identification is the record label. Artists and songs were signed to companies with label brands, and each brand was recognisable.
For instance, the Beatles’ early singles were on red Parlophone.
Later copies and re-issues were black. These changes are unique date markers – vinyl carbon dating if you like – as brands were revised over time and for reissues. Not just for the Beatles but records through the ages.
Which means people like me will notice if the actors are using a record with the wrong label for the song or a reissue that’s not contemporary with the period of the drama.
My defence is we are not alone. I once made a film where I used an archive clip of a steam train and dubbed a whistle on it, culled from the nearest BBC Sound Effects LP – Vol 1 RED47M, Side 2 Track 5. It seemed to be just right for the soundtrack. Not just right for railway enthusiasts, though. I was lambasted by viewers because I’d used the wrong whistle. I expect they’d have demonstrated the correct one for me if I’d asked.
So allow me the moral high ground. Art directors or their researchers – do your research and get it right, please. We’re watching!!
Richard’s novel about music, ambition and ageing – Homeward Bound – is available from the high street and online bookshops and Amazon (paperback and ebook).
What Rebecca’s Read wrote: “Homeward Bound” is a funny, feel-good read that I’d highly recommend. With music intertwined throughout, this is a story of family, love, hope and dreams and finding your purpose at different points in your life. 5 stars!”
Richard Smith – Homeward Boundfollows a 79-year-old musician who is expected to be in retirement but isn’t ready to close the lid on his dreams, and his 18-year-old granddaughter, who shares his house and the dreams he once had. (Amazon/Waterstones/ebook)
Click on the links for more information and where to buy them online (if your local bookshop is closed and can’t deliver to you). Amazon offers ebooks as well as hard copies. The e-book link is to a Google site. There are other links to the ebooks (like kobo) that need a sign in to a free account.
All the books were part of the Age UK Camden Literary Festival in March 2020.
Go on, admit it, if only to yourself, in private. Odds on it was something way too guilty to be even a guilty pleasure. Bob the Builder? Mr Blobby? Bros?
I’ve yet to meet someone who said their first record was Jimi Hendrix or Nirvana.
Mine was My Old Man’s A Dustman (Lonnie Donegan – ‘My dustbin’s full of lilies.’ ‘How do you know they’re lilies?’ ‘Lily’s wearing them!’) For years it was my party piece whenever my parents had friends round to visit. Funny they only ever came the once . . .
My embarrassing first record theory was knocked on New Year’s Eve when one person told me hers was Shostakovich (and she wasn’t posh, she assured me, and she didn’t know if Shostakovich was embarrassing in classical music circles.) Another proclaimed his first to be a Bob Dylan record. I ruled him out on two technicalities – the first he didn’t know which song, so that doesn’t count. Plus he’d lived in a remote part of Ireland and didn’t come into contact with pop music until quite late in his life, by which age all of us have moved on to something more credible. I was ten for Lonnie and swiftly moved on to rock’n’roll and American punk – though I must admit the second record I bought was barely more credible than the first. Delaware by Perry Como. (‘What did Delaware? She wore a brand New Jersey.’) Maybe for me the damage was lasting. I’ve had a weakness for puns ever since.
Of course, it’s different for today’s first-timers, with so much available to stream and children plied with music at child sensory and music classes. I doubt We Built This City On Sausage Rolls is ever going to be fondly remembered as a musical first by this decade’s teens. Will there ever again be a ‘first record’ to pass into personal histories, like Lonnie Donegan and Mr Blobby? And is that a good or a bad thing?
Richard’s novel, Homeward Bound, is available from the high street and online bookshops and Amazon (paperback and Kindle).
Choice. It’s what everyone wants. Spotify offers access to millions of songs, Amazon music quotes 50 million songs online. You can have what you want when you want it. Good? Not necessarily.
I’m not anticipating a return to the days when the only music you could hear came from a handful of radio stations, the music was what the producers liked or a record company paid them to play. Yet there’s a case to be made for taking back control.
When there was a limit to what was available, every new release was eagerly anticipated. Excitement grew at the impending release of a new song by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Police, Madonna. Conversation in the office would often begin with, ‘Have you heard the new single by . . .’ The anticipation and reaction of a new release was way beyond casually ‘dropping’ a track, as happens now. And chart positions were analysed, watching avidly to see if a favourite would climb or fall, not the dull, predictable (and often unnoticed) charts we have today.
It’s undeniable that the music industry was controlled – and for the benefit of the big and rich record companies. True, new artists needed the companies to spot them and give them a chance – meaning many never had the opportunity to see the light of day. For every Beatles that were turned down but eventually made it, there are probably countless who didn’t get a first chance, let alone a second. Yet when deals were signed and records made and released, it provided an excitement and anticipation that is unimaginable today. And now there is so much, it’s arguable that the opportunities for major breakthrough are just as limited.
What’s more, by being able to choose what we listen to, the risk is we’ll go for what we know we like. New music – and different styles – are forsaken for something we already know. Who listens to a radio station or streams music that they don’t initially like?
It all adds up to music going stale. There’s still plenty of good stuff, and innovation is still possible, but too much choice leads people (and TV programmes that feature music) to fall back on what is safe. And for someone who grew up being excited by music, that’s a shame for generations to come.
Drinks are ready, copies of Homeward Bound, my first novel, are stacked behind the counter and a table is set aside for signings.
Let the launch begin.
Except there’s only me. I take a deep breath, taste the sweet aroma of bookshop and look around at the empty space.
Is anyone going to come?
It’s a lovely local venue – Ink@84 in Highbury – but will people find it? Was this all a terrible mistake? And what if people do come, but all at once and bringing uninvited friends and relatives? Will there be too many? Jostling for space, complaining that it’s too hot. What if there aren’t enough books to go round? And worse, not enough drink? Will there be rioting in the street?
Twenty minutes to go. Still no-one. Perhaps it’s for the best if they all stay away. They’ll probably hate the book, anyway.
I was asked if I had thought of doing a reading from my book. I saw no point in that. It’s taken me a couple of years to create the voices of my characters in my head. How can I be expected to reproduce them out loud to unforgiving ears?
Yet if I’m not going to read from it, what then? I have a short speech prepared, but what if no-one listens? Or they can’t hear me? Or I’m staring at faces barely concealing boredom, disinterest, wishing they were home watching Love Island?
The thought of seeing people I know brings a new dread. I am as incapable of memorising names as I am of giving birth to a child. I see myself, pen poised over the title page, being asked. “Make it out to me, please,” with no idea who they are, even though I’ve worked with them for twenty years, live in the same street, drink in pubs with them.
“Hello, Richard. Thanks for inviting me. Not too early are we?”
“Richard, will you sign my book for me, mate? Make it out to Paul.”
Loads of them.
“I’ve read the first chapter online. It looks really interesting.”
The shop is full, everyone’s drinking, chatting, smiling, taking photos and selfies. It’s going to be alright.
“That went well, great speech and they all seem to like the book.” the host says when the door has swung shut on the last guest.
Success. I should be able to bask in the compliments. But what if no-one else likes it? Or no-one else buys it. Will distant shops only stock it if I change my name to ‘Local Author’?
Any writer who thinks the agony will be over after the final proof is approved, just wait until the book launch!
Homeward Bound is available from the high street and online bookshops and Amazon (paperback and Kindle).
When was the last time you went to a music gig? What was it like? What as the music like? I went to one recently, half decent position, standing to one side. The sound was poor – loud, unclear and unbalanced – the vocals lost in the bass. At not much change from a £100 a ticket. What’s more, they didn’t play the songs I wanted and quite a few I didn’t. At home, I have them all on records and CD – and in unsurpassed quality. In the comfort of my own living room.
That’s why I don’t go to a live gig for the music. The recorded version is the real deal, perfected for listening by the artists and producers after many hours in a studio, only signed off when everyone is satisfied with it. And it can be listened to again and again. And listen is what I do, invariably with my eyes closed, putting pictures to the sound. A gig’s not about what you hear. It’s about being there – the ambiance, the excitement, the energy. The performance is unique but the music’s rarely memorable. They offer you alcohol and then pump up the volume to lift your spirits and create an experience. What’s on stage? Forget it!
Bands must know this. Otherwise, when they put out a ‘live’ album, why do they spend hours in the studio, perfecting the performance before it’s released? In the studio, the microphones are positioned to maximum effect, multiple tracks overlaid in the mix, final masters completed in front of top of the range studio monitors. At the gig, they know they can’t reproduce the studio sounds. What counts is setting the mood and blasting the audience away.
So let’s get this straight. Gigs are good if you want a lift and an experience – at least, so long as you’re in a decent spot, preferably near the front, where the atmosphere can envelop you and the people next to you aren’t discussing the trouble they had getting to the venue. But studios are where real music is created. I don’t care if it involves trickery in production, with auto-tuning, multiple layers and double-tracking. This ‘perfection’ is what most performers are aiming for.
Of course, I couldn’t live off, ‘I saw Jimi Hendrix live’ for the next forty years if I’d not been to one of his gigs, but my memory is from watching him play. That’s not music. It’s a different kind of craft. If you want performance, go to a gig. If it’s musical perfection, stay at home.
Richard’s novel, ‘Homeward Bound’, telling the story of a seventy-nine year-old wannabe musician and his eighteen-year-old granddaughter is available now from bookshops and online.To find out more, click https://richardsmithwrites.com/blog-feed/