What if the worst happens? Well, it has. Donald Trump is going to be President of the USA. His campaign rested on his status as an existential “winner”, a promise to reverse America’s misfortunes through the power of will and the demonization of minorities. These ideas belong to a political tradition that is indistinguishable from fascism. It is hard to find any consolation under these circumstances other than wishful thinking, which did not work very well the last time that these ideas were in ascendancy. We will have to live with the result, which is likely to involve a long period of resistance of attacks on Enlightenment ideas, both political and scientific.
It makes me think about my grandfather, Arthur Poole, in 1939. He strongly supported the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and he fully comprehended what it meant when they lost. Those must have been even darker days than these. He was unfailingly optimistic throughout his life, and I aspire to his capacity for hopefulness.
So I am going to allow myself the briefest of pauses. I have decided to blog about something life enhancing, something that has nothing to do with elections (not even the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Presidential election). Like Ian Dury, I think that there is a role for dwelling on reasons to be cheerful.
In our hallway stands my jukebox. It is sixty-one years old, and it has been in my possession for thirty-two of those years.
When I lived in London, and then when I was in Oxford, it was maintained by the UK’s top jukebox dude, Rob Edwards. Rob is based in Croydon, a really nice and interesting man, who has devoted his whole working life to restoring jukeboxes. He has changed very little in the many years that I have known him. Some months ago a minor part of the jukebox broke and I realised that I should get it properly serviced. A long-term musical collaborator and I put it the back of his white builder’s van with some difficulty (it is extremely heavy) and took it down to Purley.
There was a sad gap in the hall for several weeks, but it has now returned in fantastic condition. The records sound just as they should, not only because they are ancient vinyl 45s, but also because the sound is going through a big, hot, inefficient valve amplifier. The sound is warm and thick, no hint of digital brittleness. The rejuvenation has inspired me to change some of the records and to print new selection cards. All of the records on the jukebox have some sentimental resonance, but two in particular have been played over and over today.
The first is J9, ‘I’m a Believer’ by Robert Wyatt. Here he is singing it on Top Of The Pops. Watching this provoked something of an epiphany when I was 18. I was a gigging musician of a few years’ standing and I was already familiar with Robert Wyatt’s work. He had been the drummer with Soft Machine and later led Matching Mole (a convoluted pun: the French for soft machine is machine molle). Both bands were much beloved by John Peel. I found them interesting but a bit indigestible at the time. Wyatt’s career as a drummer ended when he got drunk at a party and fell from a window, breaking his back. From then, he has been paraplegic.
Several things were striking about Wyatt’s appearance on Top of the Pops. I cannot remember ever hearing a cover of a Monkees’ record prior to this. There have been many covers of I’m a Believer since, but none has surpassed Wyatt’s version. It really impressed me that it was sung in a noticeable London accent. The idea of a moving, intelligent and distinctively British version of a song written by Neil Diamond seemed revolutionary to me.
As a sixth-former, I had been involved in activism about wheelchair access (essentially non-existent at the time) and other disability issues, and it was really uplifting to see a singer in a wheelchair on the telly. It has since emerged that the producers of the programme wanted Wyatt to sit in a ‘normal’ chair. He was insistent on appearing in the wheelchair and, after a heated argument, he prevailed.
The band that appeared with him included some musicians from the avant garde (such as Fred Frith, formerly of Henry Cow) and a genuine rock star (Nick Mason from Pink Floyd on drums, who produced the record). At the time, the composition of the band seemed to speak to an egalitarian solidarity. I am not sure now that this is really different from his mates rallying round, but I do not think it matters. The attitude, however it is construed, has always been one of the attractive features of the grass roots music scene that I have frequented for 45 years.
Wyatt’s I’m A Believer on Top Of The Pops was the first of a series of inter-related formative moments for me and my friend Steve Hammond (who designed this website and currently plays guitar in the Vodka Jellies around Shropshire). These included seeing Dr Feelgood for the first time on the Old Grey Whistle Test and Steve acting as impresario for a very early Sex Pistols gig at Ravensbourne College of Art, Bromley (his role as the midwife of the Bromley Contingent, and my assistance, have hitherto escaped the attention of historians).
Robert Wyatt’s post-accident music has been consistently excellent, always engaging and interesting. He is still active. My sister found herself sitting next to him in a pub in Canterbury in 2014. If I had been there I would have had to embarrass myself by telling him that his hit was on my jukebox. I am confident that he would have been pleased.
The second record on continuous play is F5, “The River’s Invitation” by Percy Mayfield. Hear it here.
Mayfield is best known as a songwriter. Ray Charles made heavy use of his material. He had a wide reach in Black American music. Both BB King and Aretha Franklin recorded his songs. In fact, Aretha Franklin recorded a version of this one.
Mayfield had some intermittent success with his own recordings right up until his death in 1984. He started in the late 1940s as an R’n’B singer with a similar bluesy croon to Charles Brown, Amos Milburn and the young Nat King Cole, a style which eventually evolved into soul music when Ray Charles incorporated raw gospel-style extemporisation. In 1952, Mayfield was a passenger in a serious road traffic accident. He sustained a depressed fracture of his frontal skull bone and deep facial lacerations. His injuries were so severe that the emergency services initially pronounced him dead. He survived. His career as a live performer stalled, because promoters thought that audiences would not pay to see a scarred musician. From this time, his writing became really prolific. Many of his songs, such as ‘Hit The Road, Jack’, were witty and knowing. I cannot be certain, but I think that he was probably a major influence on Randy Newman.
I first became interested in Percy Mayfield through a really obscure British band called Jellybread that featured the pianist Pete Wingfield. He was later a producer and had a hit record, “Eighteen with a Bullet” (I can do this music geek stuff to the point of exhaustion, so I think I had better stop). They played Mayfield’s brand of blues in the late 1960s when ‘British blues’ meant Led Zeppelin. There was nothing wrong with Led Zeppelin, but after I bought this single unheard from a market stall, I suddenly realised that blues were all about singing, not guitar playing. To me, the record typifies the quality that the late Dave Godin labelled ‘Deep Soul’.
It seems that Wyatt and Mayfield are connected by life threatening accidents and by post-accident careers more important than what went before. I have only noticed that connection as I have been writing this blog, and I think that it is a co-incidence. For me, Wyatt and Mayfield are connected through records that have spoken to me emotionally throughout my adult life, records that make me feel hopeful. I am quite certain that that is all that would seem important to them.
Most people who grew up in the era of 45s have records with this type of meaning for them. It is my special good fortune to have a vintage jukebox that plays them. It will help to sustain me in a world where Donald Trump is President of the USA.