Over the years I’ve made countless interviews and answered literally hundreds of questions, often circulating around similar themes. More infrequently, I’m asked how I began to make music, where and when, and what were the inspirations.
Many years down the line it’s almost impossible to answer such a question with any kind of absolute clarity, and in the absence of any family left living to help out with context or memories, there are at least reference points in terms of books, notes and vinyl records.
And in the fashion of superhero origin stories I’m only going to focus on my earliest years, under the age of 10. I’ve frequently spoken about my growth from the age of 11, after being introduced to the work of American composer John Cage by my school music teacher John Williams, (and no, not THAT John Williams), but here I thought it might be interesting to reveal more of this young boy and how he came to be.
Without delving too deeply into my personal family history I grew up in a happy household, filled with noise and playfulness, in Wandsworth in South London. I lived with my grandparents, Jack and Bette, and their daughter Janet, my mother, and my brother Nick. The five of us occupied this neat little terrace house in a quiet residential street. Everyone seemed to work from the earliest age I can remember. Indeed, it was a very typical working-class family house. My mother and grandmother cleaned houses for wealthy people, my older brother was a porter and postman, whilst my grandfather was a decorator by day and baker by night. Here’s the bakers today in 2021.
And seemingly like most commercial buildings in now trendy areas the former bakery has probably transformed into absurdly expensive apartments. To think that we were offered to buy our rented house for £10k in the 1960s but my grandfather, who like so many of his generation, saw no value in owning property.
Nick and I would listen to music on the imposing but grand radiogram in the living room, or the Dansette radio in the kitchen. I remember marvelling at the glowing red valves in the radiogram when it was switched on, which was a combination of a radio and record player in one. I was obsessed with the graphics across the radio screen, etched in a modernist design, picking out exotic locations that meant nothing to a little South London boy. Strasbourg, Hilversum, Brussels, Toulouse, what or where were they?
We would listen to 7” singles all weekend, playing the same tunes over and over again, until my poor mother presumably encouraged us to go outside and play! After my brother’s death, I inherited his record collection and still treasure these beaten up, busy boxes of scratchy vinyl singles, all engraved with love and memories. David Bowie’s Laughing Gnome was one of these quirky little pieces of music that can still take me back to that moment in time whenever I hear it.
I still own the majority of records that have accompanied me through my life, and remarkably they have survived numerous moves over the years too! It’s interesting to reflect on these some 50 years later. Some of the vinyl presumably reflects my innocent interests, such as Rupert the Bear and Winnie the Pooh, whilst no-one can question the ownership of many of these, as my name is boldly inscribed in lower case black ink across the record sleeves! A copy of 1812 And other Famous Overtures seems to be another favourite of mine at the time too, rather bizarrely.
A scrapbook from the time found in an old cupboard reveals a series of very chaotic collages I created when a kid, and curiously I seemed equally fascinated by photographs of soldiers as I was by images of tape recorders and hi-fi separates. Channeling the spirit of artist Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol combined, I then scribbled over these in blue pen. Were these expressionist responses to the images, or just a little boy embracing the joy of pen on paper?
Some of the records still resonate with me today. The Action Man is Here 7” was especially memorable for the B-Side of ‘authentic battle sounds’ which presented a series of explosions, machine gun shots and grenades. As the sleeve succinctly noted ‘the patrol radios for artillery support and land-based batteries and naval armour put down a 30 second concentration with the big stuff.’ Amazing! Interestingly, all these years later I can still today remember all the words to the ‘Official Action Man March’ on the A-Side. Goodness knows how many times I must have listened to that record at the time then!
More disturbing vibes came from Sparky’s Magic Piano, which presented the audio story of a little boy with an overactive imagination. The sound of the talking piano, generated by Sonovox, was generated by attaching small transducers to the performer’s throat to pick up voice sounds and transforming them. I recall finding the piano ‘voice’ really eerie, perhaps not helped by the humanisation of a static object, the piano itself. The imagination of a child is a very powerful thing indeed.
Now combine listening to Sparky’s Magic Piano with The Clangers TV series, which was a children’s programme using stop-motion animation and featuring tiny creatures that lived in space. Since space exploration was topical at the time of the show’s inception, the producers decided it would be set in outer-space, and the ‘Clanger’ originated from the sound made by the metal plates that covered the creatures’ burrows when they were opened. This was completely otherworldly to me.
However, all of this pales in contrast to the absolutely terrifying TV series The Singing Ringing Tree. This was a show that thrust some of the darkest moments deep into my psyche, and long before the internet was established, it was hard to contextualise or share this experience. The Singing Ringing Tree was broadcast on the BBC and presumably considered charming and relatively whimsical in character when they bought it from East Germany in 1957. But how wrong they were was proven in the early 2000s when I attended a screening of the complete work at the National Film Theatre in London in a packed cinema, surrounded by spectators all approximately the same age. All of whom had gone through the same trauma of watching this as kids. I remember looking around afterwards and seeing a host of ghostly faces, having all relived the hideous nightmares of their childhood.
I mean how unsettling could the story of a Princess, a Prince, a King, and an enchanted tree actually be? Believe me (and countless other victims!), absolutely bloody terrifying. Viewed in black and white, with a voiceover replacing the original German language, with reasonably innocent music to accompany it, the show was so terrifying. Yet, I watched it again and again, addicted to the strange little sounds the tree itself made. Curiously the British industrial experimental music group Zoviet France later on called their label Singing Ringing, clearly a nod to the series.
So, this has been a minor story of the happy childhood of a young boy keen to discover the sounds and sights of the world around him. Sound brings me back to these places with immediate effect, almost like teleporting my energy back to another time. I wonder how what sounds you make today and what images you present will alter those minds of the future? It’s a responsibility we all carry.