Thanks to BBC Four, Friday night is music night in this household. After what seems like an eternity of repeats and dross-age, the station got back on track on Friday with the first of a three-part series on how the West was won. That is, how British musicians conquered America.
I use the term ‘household’ rather liberally. Despite my best efforts, I watch alone. As interested as they are in music, the ‘girls believe that music is for listening to. They can’t generally be bothered with documentaries and in-concert footage. Fair enough, maybe it’s a male thing. But I can’t help but feel that they’re missing out on an added dimension to their music for pleasure. (And who remembers that label? MfP – 14 shillings and sixpence.)
No doubt I’m showing my age, but I derive as much pleasure from seeing how the rock stars have aged as I do from watching the contemporary newsreel footage. As the terrible landmark of 60 looms on the horizon, I find myself looking at people like Paul McCartney and wondering whether, if I keep up my punishing schedule of twice-daily dog walks, I shall look so presentable at 70. He’s showing a little saggy round the jowls these days, but is still recognisably Paul. Not bad for someone who hasn’t (to the best of my knowledge) gone in for a little ‘lifting’, as they say in France.
It was a particularly good programme in that respect on Friday night, because it was full of characters who don’t tend to be wheeled out for every other music programme. There were the usual shots of the screaming hordes at Idlewild airport (as JFK was then known) to great the fabulous Beatles, but there were also some great clips of the minor stars who followed in their wake. The Animals, for example, arrived to find the airport and the streets of New York worryingly deserted. It provided an excuse to talk to the Eric Burdon of today. He may not be the best preserved of individuals – after all he looked 50 when he was 21 – but he’s certainly the funniest. Despite all the years of living in LA, he still sounds like a fisherman from South Shields.
Mike Pinder, the singer of The Searchers, has an air of a double-glazing salesman on the threshold of retirement nowadays. Tony Hicks, the baby-faced, spindly-legged guitarist of The Hollies, is still as thin as a rake. His face is testimony to that ne’er-quoted truism, ‘once a baby-face, always a baby-face’. He didn’t get to say much, because he was sitting beside drummer, Tony Elliot, who took the opportunity to wax lyrical about all the jazz legends he saw during the group’s first visit to New York.
Another splendid double act was Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone of The Zombies. The latter, he of the breathy singing voice of an adult choirboy, didn’t get to speak much, because he was Ernie Wise to Rod Argen’s Eric Morecambe. The last time I saw Rod Argent on the telly, he was playing Hammond organ with his eponymous group and had just about the biggest head of hair I ever saw on a male (until the day I saw a Rastaman in the Paris Metro, with dreadlocks down to this shins). If I remember correctly, Rod chirped away about visiting Graceland – only to find that the King was away for the day. His dad, though, was happy to show the lads from St. Albans around his son’s humble abode.
My award for the sweetest person on view went to a disarmingly white-haired Jimmy Page, who talked ingenuously about the awe of simply being in the land of all his blues heroes. Peter Noone ran him a close second. Herman of the Hermits still looked and sounded like the cheeky little Mancunian chappie who won the hearts of middle America. I still find it staggering to think – and don’t quote me on this, because I haven’t checked my facts on Google – that they sold more records in the U.S. at one time than the Fab Four themselves.
The best moment of the programme came when an 18-year old Peter Noone, a naïve supporter of the Vietnam War at that time, was debating the impact of music with a Graham Nash just on the verge of going all Crosby, Stills and. Our Graham, bless him, was arguing that music had the power to stop all wars. Peter Noone, even at 18, wasn’t so sure. Graham rubbed the point in by suggesting that if everyone stopped to listen to what Donovan was singing about, they would put down their weapons. ‘No more wars, no more wars…’
Well, it was a delightful sentiment, but you only had to look at Donovan today to appreciate the error of judgement. Britain’s very own Bob Dylan looked like a hurdy-gurdy man preserved in East Anglian clay and dug up by an archaeology team a few centuries later.
There are two parts still to come and I’m dying to see what Robert Smith of The Cure looks like these days. Will he still back-comb his hair? Does he still outline his eyes with kohl? All will be revealed on Friday at 10pm on BBC Four. The girls have got it wrong: music is far more than a mere auditory pleasure.