Itchycoo Park

• The Small Faces classic, released 50 years ago today.

As it ended up overshadowing their “serious” work, the band may have grown to regret recording Itchycoo Park. Nevertheless, with the help of George Chkiantz and Glyn Johns, it all too beautifully melded pretty much every element of groovy 1967 psychedelia into something both unique and emblematic. Though the Beatles (with George Martin and Geoff Emerick) can claim the first high profile use of psychedelic flanging in Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Itychooo Park was the first pop single to use the Summer of Love’s signature effect.

It’s hard to know whether the Small Faces were playing catch-up with the Beatles here, or, like Traffic’s Hole In My Shoe, just having a poke at John Lennon’s pretentiousness. The fact the band didn’t really want the single released at all, and regarded it as a bit of a joke, suggests the latter. In style, subject and structure, the song is a lightly camouflaged parody of Strawberry Fields Forever. Both concern wild, hidden locations within large cities where kids could escape the drudgery of school and have some illicit fun. But Marriott and Lane, although dreaming of touching the sky, bring things down to earth. The abstract “nothing to get hung about” in SFF becomes the commonplace “get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun” in IP.

In both cases, the imagery is surreal nonsense (in the Lewis Carroll non-sense) and so the “meanings” have been endlessly “interpreted”. A particularly nice over-analysis of Itchycoo has it that the “Bridge of Sighs” and the “dreaming spires” refer to the privilege of an Oxbridge education, which the writers eschew in favour of finding true beauty in an Ilford park. In truth, many of the ‘interpretations’ were conjured up by the band’s management in a (successful) effort to get the BBC’s initial “overt drug references” ban overturned. But, of course, not before the ‘censorship’ had provided valuable publicity.

In the end, whether the band liked it or not — and pastiche or otherwise — the song, so of its time and timeless, is a classic that subverts and transcends its genre. Have a listen and let it blow your mind.

David Bowie

It’s fifty years ago today that Sgt Pepper told the band to play. But it wasn’t the only LP to be released on June 1st, 1967. Almost completely unnoticed—and overshadowed by the Beatles’ monumentally significant pinnacle of 60s pop—the young and (almost) unknown David Bowie also gave us his eponymous first album. Had he not gone on to become… well, David Bowie, it would almost certainly have remained—imperfect as it plainly is (or “terrible”, as Rolling Stone less politely put it)—an obscure, discarded, cult relic.

Some of it is terrible. The excruciatingly twee baroque pop of Love You ’till Tuesday certainly is, though if we’re honest no worse than some of the questionable Paisley Pop that Bowie’s contemporaries were coming up with (Tomorrow, Kippington Lodge and The Idle Race spring to mind): these were strange times. Other tracks don’t really work, either. The attempts at sub-Kinks contemporary satire in Join The Gang certainly haven’t aged well. And the whimsical songs—Maid of Bond Street and Sell Me a Coat—are hardly fully polished, rough-edged and flawed, though Bowie did go on to build on and then perfect their whimsy, briefly, with Letter To Hermione.

And that’s the point: although it’s hard to buy the “‘She’s Got Medals‘ is his first foray into gender-bending” thing, it is, like so many other songs in this collection, an early sketch for the masterpieces to come. Most striking is We Are The Hungry Men, an obvious precursor to Diamond Dogs, Saviour Machine and the rest, with its tale of a messiah offering salvation to a futuristic dystopia prowled by desperate flesh-eaters (see also Trump, D.) 

And there’s more shrouded brilliance in there. Coincident with Syd Barrett’s psychedelic, fairy-tale dabblings, Bowie adds in some of the darkness of Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen, adding new twists to the European-flavoured macabre. In this vein, Uncle Arthur and Please Mr Gravedigger become rough prototypes for later songs like After All and All The Madmen, while Rubber Band demonstrates another clear European influence: the songs of Jacques Brel, popularised initially in the English-speaking world by Rod McKuen’s early ’60s translations. Bowie continually revisited European themes throughout his career, as we know, covering several Brel songs himself (Amsterdam and My Death), and, later, Brecht/Weill (Baal’s Hymn and Alabama Song).

When David Bowie was released, nobody (including Bowie) had heard the “groundbreaking” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Yet both albums were pushing the same boundaries. And while George Martin managed to tame the Beatles’ weirdness just enough, Bowie was allowed to exhibit unbridled experimentation. The problem for him wasn’t this experimentation: it was the unbridledness. His quality filter wasn’t yet fully functional and we’d have to wait another couple of years for the first ‘real’ Bowie album. This was, though, in hindsight, a hugely significant base camp for the thrilling expeditions to come.

That’ll Be The Day

Buddy Holly’s first hit was released 60 years ago today

With its title famously taken from the John Wayne line in the 1956 movie, The Searchers, That’ll Be The Day marks, for me, the point where the various undercover strands of blues, gospel, C&W, bluegrass and rockabilly emerged from the segregated, black and white South as fully evolved, quality, multi-coloured mainstream pop.

Inevitably derided then (and now) by purists of those genres, Holly and the Crickets nevertheless became the blueprint for thousands of bands. That’ll Be The Day – their second single – was the first song recorded by The Beatles (then The Quarrymen), effectively kicking off a new sound and the subsequent “British Invasion”. This softening – this whitening – of the edgy, pained harshness of blues offered a template for The Stones and The Beatles and others (The Stones’ first big hit a few years later was Holly’s Not Fade Away) to sell themselves to a bigger audience – and to flog the blues back to white America, to begin the complex, tense processes of appropriation, bartering, merging, partnering, stealing, hostage-taking and illicit affairs that set rock and pop music on their wobbly, winding, joyous paths.

It’s easy, of course, to mock Holly’s apparent lack of cool, the misleading niceness of his voice, the band’s stiffness. But watch and listen – the blues is still here, its drive and agony hasn’t completely disappeared, and there’s a real unease in the lyrics – this isn’t quite a love song. And – though Holly’s clearly no Elvis – there’s a visceral aspect to his voice and his movement, to his presence, that was always going to attract the rough and ready Yankophile kids in London and Liverpool.

Buddy Holly was 22 when he died.