Was in The Craven Arms last night. The room had been packed full of people all drinking before the James/Echo and the Bunnymen did. Talking loudly so you couldn’t hear the background music. When they disappeared I could make out ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ which instantly set me on edge.
My mum has this Beatles compilation my Uncle had made her. She used to play it in her car when we went places, with me, around three or four or five in the back seat, farting about and doing what young boys of that age do. The compilation was an esoteric mix of the Beatles songs from their entire output, with a bit of Wings on the flip side. The tape soundtracked trips through Northfield to Weoley Hill, through King’s Norton, Bournville, Bournbrook and Selly Oak. And it’s on this tape which, I think, first introduced me to the concept of ‘Suburban Psychedelia.’
I haven’t completely specified what ‘Suburban Psychedelia.’ I know it is something to do with the world as seen through my eyes as a child, and, having living in Birmingham for most of my life, I re-visit old haunts and try and re-capture those feelings and emotions. I imagine what goes on behind closed doors. The suburban scenes at the start of 1971s ‘Carry on at your Convenience’ has it. So does ‘Reginald Perrin. Houses vibrate and throb with their own energy. I consider the fads for vintage and retro being a way to get high without actually imbibing on substances. It’s a gateway to an old world. And if one believes in re-incarnation, these fans of vintage and retro are desperately attempting to cling on to what they were before, or if not, what they would have aspired to be. The pencil skirts and fashions of ‘Mad Men’ may be aped by someone living now who was actually a shop worker in the old Sainsbury’s at the Grosvenor Shopping Centre in Northfield back in the 1970s before she was actually born.
My fascination with test cards and old television and continuity adverts started in earnest in 2004, when I believe I had an experience that connected me to this, this past-life regression. I know part of me was clinging on to a simpler time on childhood in King’s Norton, Northfield and Weoley Castle in the 1980s, and I’d thrill to the old sounds of music from ceefax and Test Card F, played now through tinny laptop soundtracks, whilst I jorged on cups of sugary tea and toast and jam. And then I’d dig deeper into further retro amusements, trying to stretch my brain back as far as I could. I think somewhere in my searching, I’d seen a vision of a past life via the Schools Diamonds clips. The two pieces of music had a resonance. And this resonance was that of a past-life, or limbo.
A current project, ‘Pamphleteering for Ceefax’ and the recorded work I’m going to do with the Midwich Youth Club (working title ‘Pages from Ceefax’) will attempt to dig deeper into this, with an exploration of Birmingham and childhood memories and (hopefully) elaborate on the above brain-vomit, but for now, I’m going to talk about The Beatles.
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is the music of what limbo sounds like. I think it followed ‘You Won’t See Me’ on the old Beatles compilation my Mum had. The music on the tape, whilst great, set me on edge. Frightening and compelling. Other tracks on it like ‘Your Mother Should Know’ and ‘Martha My Dear’ formed ideas these experimentations into eerie music hall and pop-psych, the kitchen table and the living rooms with knackered carpets and serving hatches. My nan’s Jack Russell, and tripsthrough the backstreets of Stirchley. A brown, sepia sound, heard especially in John Lennon’s Hammond Organ solo. ‘The Fool on the Hill’ really frightened me as a child, and even now, the flutes and recorders and backwards sections unnerve. ‘The eyes in his head.’ What’s that about? I asked my mum. What does that mean? ‘You’ve got eyes in your head you daft bat’ she’d say. I didn’t like it and always told her to skip it, refusing to appreciate its brilliance until I heard Sergio Mendes’ version.
It was the flute and recorders. I feel the recorder especially an organic instrument. Passing the greenery of the Bournville Village Trust, smelling the mud and damp grass. Mud and damp grass of graveyards or woodland with birds twittering a kaelidoscope of sounds – a ‘quosh’ as I like to call it. And ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ has it as well, especially with the mellotron and backwards everything. (Why backwards? The regression to childhood obviously in this and ‘Penny Lane’ but there’s past-life regressions here.) Even though I liked the song more than ‘Fool on the Hill’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ still spooked me.
It wasn’t til I was in my thirties that I heard the coda after the songs end. My Uncle had not included it for some reason, segueing straight into ‘Penny Lane.’ When I first heard the coda, my ears pricked up and I got the old fears back. The backwards flutes haunted my mind and I remember waking up in the middle of the night sweating with this section of the song. The night was turning into the dawn, and the greyness, combined with the music in my brain haunted me.
And when everybody had gone from the Craven Arms, I heard it again. I’m sure they were playing it on their music system. I felt strange, and looked down at the carpet, which now seemed to vibrate and twist of its own accord. Tentacles and offsets, twirling circles. Looking for all the world as the heavenly resting place at the end of ‘Watership Down.’ The Black Rabbit was saying “you’ve been feeling tired haven’t you?” to me. I needed to get out of there. Maybe if I’d stayed I could have unlocked some secrets. Maybe I should go back into the Craven Arms and say “Tell me about your carpet.” Who else has seen such carpets of other-worldly intrigue? Maybe the barfly who stares, biding his time, sees the Black Rabbit and speaks to him, day after day, alone on the hill. And that’s probably why you see so many lone men in pubs. Speaking to their Gods.
I’d like to finish with an email I sent to a mate of mine, detailing my thoughts after watching ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ for the first time last year. I’ve copied and pasted it in verbatim so you will get a feel of what I was trying to get at, and is hopefully encapsulated by what I’ve written up there.
“I’d been looking forward to watching Magical Mystery Tour on Saturday as it would have been the first time i’d ever sit down and watch it all the way through – I remember my Uncle bringing a VHS of it around to mum and dads when it was released in the late 80s but we got waylaid and didn’t watch it. Of course I knew the songs – I remember being spooked by Fool on the Hill when I was about four – i’d been spoon fed the Beatles and enjoyed the oddness that surrounded them, particularly their Sgt Pepper and singles/EPs era. I was in tune with the psychedelia in the back on mum’s car driving through Selly Oak and Stirchley.
Missed the actual showing of MMT and the documentary on Saturday so got up extra early on Sunday and watched it, the film first and then the documentary. So good I want to watch it again and again. I love the links between music hall and psychedelia, the seemless marrying of underground and the popular culture. The lights in Ivor Cutler’s glasses before “I Am The Walrus” comes on (and that orchestral version of ‘All My Loving” is fantastic.)
Have we talked about the fairground motif that’s prevalant in Blur’s ‘The Great Escape’ – it’s appears in most of the songs (and a fair few on ‘Parklife’ as well.) In this motif I sense madness, a unravelling, a losing the plot – I think it’s why my younger self was so unnerved by ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ when I first heard it. Magical Mystery Tour has this oddness all throughout – as you said on Facebook – it’s a bitta Python, a bitta League of Gentlemen and a whole lotta Beatles – it’s the youthfulness and willing to experiment, but done in a very excellent and subtle way, it doesn’t hit you over the head, it makes you explore it. The extended ‘marathon’ sequence does this very well. Reminds me a lot of ‘Carry on At Your Convenience’ – pink elephants on parade on the B roads and army bases via the mewses and avenues (John Shuttleworth also springs to mind.)
John’s face when he’s serving up the spaghetti!
I don’t think I heard Blue Jay Way or Flying until I was in my twenties, but they’ve always been in my life. You can get ‘Flying’ when you walk in suburbia – very Reggie Perrin houses (don’t worry i’m building on all this.)
That stripper’s hot as well. They don’t make’em like that anymore. Great turn by Viv Stanshall.
I think i’m going to stick it on again for more inspiration. Glad i’ve finally seen it. It does mean turning off Susanna Reid on BBC Breakfast before she goes at 0915 but a change, they say, is as good as a rest.