Archive for the ‘A Musical Journey’ category

Destinations Along the Way

December 20, 2018

It’s another long read. This is the fourth and final part of ‘A Musical Journey’.

4. Destinations Along the Way

I’ve always had a liking for the underdog. It may not be entirely a coincidence that Okinawan music caught my attention as the Okinawans are a people with a sad history of control and occupation by bigger powers after a long period as an independent kingdom. For them the Second World War isn’t over yet, as much of their land is still under occupation by American forces. Their plight and the democratically expressed wishes of the people are routinely ignored by the colonizers of Japan.

The late American guitarist Bob Brozman had a few radical music theories. One of them, expressed in The Power of Okinawa book, was that “colonizing cultures tend to play music on the downbeat and colonized cultures tend to play music on the offbeat…Japanese music is heavily downbeat oriented, and Okinawan music is offbeat.” And in comparing the cases of Hawaii and Okinawa he also believed “they are two fairly unique musics in that they are quite consistently in major keys, but quite sad. They both have the sound of a fragile culture being trampled.”

Whatever the truth, the fact was that for a long time, and still now, it was Okinawan music that appealed to me most of all and this in turn led to my making numerous visits to Okinawa’s main island and to many of the smaller Miyako and Yaeyama islands further south. It meant finding out about the history and culture of the islands as well as the music.

Since moving from Mie Prefecture to Okinawa I’ve met many more musicians and am happy that my interest in their music and in writing about it has always been warmly received. It has perhaps been an advantage too that many of the musicians whose albums I reviewed may have been unable to understand English well so have been satisfied simply that I’m writing about Okinawan music without really knowing what I’ve been saying. For on Okinawa there is a tendency for the media not to assess music critically and musicians are unused to frank reviews.

Sachiko Kina in brother Shoukichi’s band at Chakra (Photo: Stephen Mansfield)

Throughout these years another thread had been emerging in this musical journey and it’s one that runs alongside the Okinawan one. This is my interest in the music of the Basque Country. It’s a world which on the surface is very different from Okinawa but has underlying similarities, not least in that both are territories where music, culture and identity are very important. Unlike the Ryukyu Kingdom, the Basques have never enjoyed independence as a unified nation but they do share a similarity in being a territory controlled by bigger powers, in their case by Spain and France.

My first encounter with Basque music was through the UK music magazine fRoots. It probably took place during the Kobe earthquake year of 1995. At least this is when the album Uhinez uhin was released by Maixa ta Ixiar. The album’s first track is the glorious dance song ‘Espartzinarena’ and it was this that I heard first on one of the sample CD compilations given away with the magazine. A few years later I started writing articles for the same magazine, initially on Okinawan music and only much later about the Basques.

Maixa ta Ixiar were two young women who played trikitixa (accordion) and panderoa (tambourine) the popular combination found in roots music throughout the Basque Country. To these instruments were added electric guitar, bass and drums to create the genre known as triki-pop (sometimes triki-folk) that was in its heyday in the 1990s. I had my breath taken away by the Maixa ta Ixiar song. It was the same as the feeling I had when I first listened to Shoukichi Kina and then to Nenes.

I was writing about music for Kansai Time Out so I contacted Maixa ta Ixiar’s record company Elkar to ask if I could get a copy of their album for review. Before long I had a response from Elkar producer and coordinator Anjel Valdes. He sent me their album on CD together with a press release in English. More than that he soon afterwards sent a package with many CDs of Basque music releases and has continued to do so to this day.

The small album reviews in KTO magazine hardly justified his faith in sending these new releases all the way to Japan. As well as trikitixa and triki-pop there were releases of other roots, pop and rock music and a strong tradition of literary singer-songwriters led by Mikel Laboa, Benito Lertxundi and Ruper Ordorika. In time I was to learn that Anjel was not just concerned with selling records but keen to spread the word and establish friendships and good relations with like-minded people wherever they may be.

It wasn’t until many years later I discovered Elkar didn’t even produce press releases in English. They were all in Basque, Spanish or French. All this time Anjel had been writing the English ones just for me. My French has improved in leaps and bounds since I eventually let slip that I had some understanding of the language having learned it in school a lifetime ago. Now he only sends me the French ones.

One of the other early CDs I received was of triki-pop duo Alaitz eta Maider. This was another good surprise as their music was, to my ears, even better than Maixa ta Ixiar’s. I reviewed their debut album and some of the others I was getting for KTO and was then excited to discover a short tour of Japan had been arranged for Alaitz eta Maider by a promoter in Tokyo.

The trikitixa duo of Alaitz Telletxea and Maider Zabalegi – then both 24 years old – arrived together with manager and guitarist Jean-Lou Corrihons plus a bassist and drummer and they played two concerts in Tokyo with a third in Osaka sandwiched in between. I was invited to the Osaka gig which took place at Banana Hall on 6th December 2000 – the same venue where I had seen Nenes for the first time several years earlier and been equally blown away.

Alaitz eta Maider in Japan, 2000

It was great to finally meet up with some real live Basque musicians and they were all very friendly, while the music was melodic, joyous and life-affirming. And so, it was almost inevitable that, just as I had visited Okinawa after being so enticed by the islands’ music, a trip to the Spanish Basque Country was in order. It was arranged for the following year.

When the albums began arriving from Elkar Records I was initially puzzled that their address was in a place called Donostia that I couldn’t find anywhere on the map. This was the Basque name for San Sebastian, the beautiful and elegant seaside resort city. Of course, a company priding itself on its Basque language albums (and Basque books) is hardly going to prefer using the Spanish name to the Basque one. Together with Midori and our son Akira we spent a few days in the Basque Country in the summer of 2001. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet up with Anjel, who was away on a family holiday of his own, but I did meet guitarist Jean-Lou who drove us all the way from Donostia to the small town of Arrasate where Alaitz eta Maider were playing at an outdoor festival. After a late dinner with Alaitz, Maider and the band (everything happens late in the Basque Country) and a visit to the festival to see them play, we were driven back to our hotel in the early hours by Maider herself.

After three albums and some success in their homeland, Alaitz eta Maider went their separate ways a couple of years later. Roots music rarely leads to riches and it always seems a shame that even making a modest living through music is such a struggle for many creative people while lesser talents sometimes flourish. I was making a change too as I applied for the early retirement offer from Kogakkan University and moved to Okinawa in 2009.

When living in mainland Japan I had visited the Ryukyu Islands every year for holidays and spent much of the time investigating Okinawan music and visiting local folk and roots music venues. I once spent an entire week hanging out at Shoukichi Kina’s ‘live house’ Chakra and became such a fixture there that they put me on the staff list so I could eat and drink for free. A fair chunk of my university research allowance was also spent on ordering Okinawan CDs and DVDs from Campus Records in Okinawa. Bottles of awamori began to appear at my local supermarket in Mie Prefecture and were snapped up. And, of course, I avidly watched Churasan the morning drama series on NHK TV about an Okinawan family from Kohama Island.

The reality of actually living in Okinawa inevitably meant some changes and modifications to the image I’d had. In my first few years I hardly set foot in a folk music bar after previously gravitating towards them as a visitor to the islands. Many are run as shows for the benefit of tourists who want just a taste of the local music and culture as part of their holiday experience. And it gets tedious to be taught how to dance kachashii night after night.

If the live minyo venue can sometimes disillusion, the reality of music in everyday life really does live up to its reputation. I was once invited to a housewarming party on Miyako Island and seeing a sanshin in the corner proceeded to show off my limited skills rather proudly. It soon turned out that everyone in the room could play sanshin and all of them much better than me. The sanshin is still ubiquitous along with the sugar cane, the goya, and sadly, the Naha traffic jams and American military bases of the main island. While Churasan presented a stereotypical image of the relaxed Okinawan lifestyle it avoided entirely any reference to the problems that also face the islanders such as the unfair burden of the military bases. Hardly surprising given that it was produced by the Japan government’s NHK TV channel.

Anjel Valdes

I finally met up with Anjel Valdes in the Spring of 2014. By that time, he had been sending me albums and keeping me up to date on music for almost twenty years. My second visit to the Basque Country was just for three days on the way back from a trip to England to see family and friends. At last Anjel and I were able to meet in person and he came to the airport at Bilbao to greet us and take us to our hotel in the city. His thoughtfulness and hospitality were truly remarkable. This is best illustrated by a look at my diary for the day after our arrival. The entry for Tuesday 1st April reads (in part) like this:

“Anjel met us in the hotel at 9:30 a.m. and drove us all the way to Donostia-San Sebastian. We arrived at 11 and Anjel suggested we ‘take one beer’ before we visited the Elkar offices and recording studio… Then Anjel took us to the EITB television and radio studios and we were introduced to lots of people. We were shown around the building and saw several radio studios then went to a television studio where a show was being recorded … We went into Donostia for lunch with Anjel … After that it was on to the Etxepare Basque Institute where we met the director Aizpea Goenaga and others… Then to a café and a walk near the beach. After this we were driven by Anjel to the small town of Orio to meet the great Basque singer Benito Lertxundi. We sat with him outside a café and talked while Anjel interpreted. Finally, after an incredibly busy but very enjoyable day, Anjel drove us all the way back to Bilbao to our hotel.”

The next day he took us south to Vitoria-Gasteiz to meet the singer Ruper Ordorika and later to Durango – where Anjel lives – to meet his wife and son. We left on an early morning flight the next day and he insisted on driving to Bilbao to pick us up at our hotel and deliver us to the airport. He joked that if his work at Elkar ever fails he can always start a business as a tour guide.

Coming back to Bilbao three years later, this time for a week, I had very fond memories of the earlier stay and didn’t imagine that it could possibly be topped. But it was, and we had more time now and once again Anjel arranged many things including a concert by Ruper Ordorika and a meeting in Donostia-San Sebastian with musicians Beñat Igerabide and Gorka Urra. Also joining us after a gap of sixteen years was Maider Zabalegi of Alaitz eta Maider. Now a mother of two children, she had returned to the music scene and had just released her first solo album Zuei.

Ruper Ordorika and band, Basque Country, 2017

After retirement from my full-time job at Kogakkan University and arrival in Okinawa, I began teaching a couple of days a week at Okinawa University. I taught an English seminar course on Okinawan roots music and in 2015 expanded this to include the roots music of the Basques. The objectives in the syllabus were:

“…to listen to and learn something about the roots music of the people and its development in the Ryukyu Islands and then to compare it with the music and culture of the Basque Country (Euskal Herria)… Okinawans and Basques inhabit very different parts of the world but have many shared experiences and these will be explored with music as the starting point.”

In practice I became a glorified DJ as I got to show students lots of videos of music I liked. The Okinawans are too numerous to mention but the work of both Rinsho Kadekaru and Shouei Kina was explored first in detail as two of the early recording artists. From the Basques we watched and listened to a mix of singer-songwriters, trikitixa and txalaparta players, and rock bands, such as Laboa, Lertxundi and Ordorika, Kepa Junkera, Oreka TX, Beñat Igerabide, Alaitz eta Maider (of course), Kirmen Uribe, Mikel Urdangarin, Korrontzi, Elustondo, Esne Beltza, Fermin Muguruza and more.

Thankfully, the response from students to all this was generally very positive. Many of them didn’t know much about the evolution of Okinawan roots music so it was by no means a case of taking coals to Newcastle as I’d feared. And most had never even heard of the Basque Country let alone its music. Some found the txalaparta to be rather weird and wonderful. As always there were surprises and frequently the more traditional music was more popular than expected. At the same time one student wrote that her favourite song of all was Chihiro Kamiya’s ‘Coral Song’: “since I love nature and her song made me think how we can preserve the beautiful ocean and coral of our islands.”

We began a Basque Ryukyu Bridge page on Facebook. Its purpose to share the music and culture of the Basque Country with the Ryukyu Islands and the outside world. However, during my stay in the Basque Country in 2017 Anjel came up with an idea to take things further. After introducing me to the singer and songwriter Mikel Urdangarin, whose music I was already familiar with and had introduced to the university students, it was decided that Mikel himself would come to Okinawa to learn about Okinawan music and culture and to play with local musicians. So began what became known to us as the Basque Ryukyu Project.

Mikel visited Okinawa at the end of April 2018 staying with us on the island for five weeks and performing concerts, playing at a festival, doing radio and newspaper interviews, as well as collaborating with Okinawan musicians. In addition to all this a Basque film crew who were making a documentary on his career joined him in Okinawa for some of the time. As a result of all this Mikel now has what he calls his Okinawan trio along with singer and sanshin player Mutsumi Aragaki and percussionist Makoto Miyata. It was very exciting after all this time to be able to help put together some Basque and Okinawan music and musicians and I hope it won’t end there.

A view of Bilbao from Artxanda

A Few Words More…

On a bright sunny Wednesday in September I bought a ticket and boarded the funicular railway that climbs the short steep distance from Bilbao station to Artxanda. The journey takes only three minutes and I wished it took longer. At the summit it’s a different, quieter world after the busyness of the city. From the top there is a panoramic view over Bilbao and you can pick out its most famous landmark the Guggenheim Museum. Out there too is the San Mames stadium where I would be going that evening to see Athletic Club de Bilbao take on Atletico Madrid.

I felt happy to be in this oasis of calm and privileged too that my musical journey was still going on after all this time. Later that day I would meet Jean-Lou again, the French Basque who had played guitar with Alaitz eta Maider. It would be my first meeting with him for sixteen years. He would also bring his daughter who had been just two years old then and was now a college student.

The years rush by inexorably. It was nearly two decades since I first met Alaitz and Maider and Jean-Lou. Thirty years since I first listened to Okinawan music. I had been in that massive crowd at Blackbushe in 1978 when Bob Dylan sang ‘Changing of the Guards’ which began with the line: “Sixteen years”. We thought he was referring to the time he had spent as a musician. It seemed like an age but now it seems no time at all.

I’ve been having trouble lately reading the small print on CD booklets and sometimes need a magnifying glass. That may not be a problem much longer. Even the way we listen to music is changing and it’s becoming rarer for me to buy CDs nowadays when there are so many other quick and convenient ways to listen.

Athletic Club lost the football match that evening. Anjel says we should learn how to lose. In life we can win only once or twice so it’s better to learn how to get through all the setbacks and losses. To continue is more important than to win. It’s a lesson from a philosophical man. The Basques I’ve known are not afraid to be philosophical. They are also concerned with identity, perhaps even more so than Okinawans. The Athletic team only fields players with Basque backgrounds. It’s hard to imagine FC Ryukyu doing something like that even if it were possible. The Basques are simply keen to celebrate their heritage. It should be perfectly possible to do that and, at the same time, maintain respect, friendships and good relations with all around us.

In a way Okinawans see themselves as one big family and this is probably why they don’t criticise when Okinawan musicians sign with a major Japanese record company or achieve commercial success regardless of the consequences. All very well but I sometimes wish they would go it alone and think more about independence in every sense.

I still felt happy while thoughts like these ran through my head as I sat in the sunshine. Then I walked to the little station at Artxanda and took the ride back down on the funicular railway.

Many of the music people I’ve met became the focus of articles for fRoots and Songlines magazines that can now be read in the Features Archive of this blog.

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New Horizons in Japan

November 28, 2018

Here is the third part of A Musical Journey. It’s a long one…

3. New Horizons in Japan

I’m a late developer. I didn’t discover Dylan until his fifth album. It wasn’t until moving to Japan that I began to properly appreciate the traditional English folk music that had been on my doorstep back home. I didn’t take much notice of the burgeoning punk scene either until it was already past its prime: I did see The Clash but that wasn’t until the 1980s. And when I arrived in Japan in the middle of that decade I had no idea a very late encounter with the Sex Pistols was also on the cards. More of that later.

The eighties was the most significant decade for me as I left the UK and moved to Japan. During the early years in my new home I published my first book (on education, not music), got married, became a father, and made the decision to stay on in Japan for at least a bit longer. In the next decade I completed an MA and then moved to another part of the country to take up a university job. Now I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was a hot summer night when I arrived in Japan for the first time. I was here to teach at St. Michael’s International School in Kobe for two years. When I boarded the plane in London for the seemingly endless flight, George Michael was number one on the UK chart with ‘Careless Whisper’ and I was to see him in concert as one half of Wham! a few months later.

Wham! on tour in China and Japan, 1985

As part of my new job it was possible to earn some extra salary by teaching English to adults in the evenings at the night school attached to the international school. A helpful American named Randy was responsible for organising the language classes at the night school but most importantly he introduced me to the delights of the Railroad. This was the name of the bar under the railroad tracks run by one of the language school’s former students. A custom had grown up that after classes every Wednesday evening a handful of staff and students would walk down to the bar in the centre of Kobe’s entertainment district of Sannomiya.

The small bar was tucked away from the busy street up a steep flight of stairs and it seated around twenty or so customers. Never advertised – other than by word of mouth – it became a regular haunt of ours and the owner welcomed us on Wednesdays and other nights too and kept me supplied with food and beer throughout the early days in Japan. At weekends it was often the first port of call on a night out that frequently kept us up until the morning.

On a typical night maybe four or five of us would meet at the Railroad before moving on to the Retreat yakitori bar, then perhaps on to another bar or izakaya and finally to the Second Chance which stayed open until 5 a.m. All conveniently within walking distance of each other in the Sannomiya district. Occasionally the closing time of 5 a.m. was too early for some of us and at these times a final drink was in order at Valentino’s the only bar that kept open until seven in the morning. From there it was into a taxi for the ride home and a much-needed sleep. Such was the lifestyle in eighties economic bubble-era Kobe when there seemed to be money everywhere and an inexhaustible round of parties and good times.

The soundtrack to these nights was the synth-pop that had become all pervasive in the 1980s. A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ seemed to be forever playing in the background. It was also the first time I bought a CD player. Not having any CDs it was necessary to make a trip to the shop and buy some to test this new technological wonder and the first CDs to grace the machine were the albums Remain in Light by Talking Heads and ABC’s The Lexicon of Love.

Tom Waits was another relatively late discovery though I had been initiated into his world shortly before leaving the UK. Especially impressive was his early masterpiece Small Change with its memorably seedy cover photo and melancholy songs of late night excess and regret. His next album Heartattack and Vine continued the theme. It also contained ‘Ruby’s Arms’, a gem that was just right for those late nights and early mornings. By this time Waits himself was already transforming his early style into a new tougher and more innovative way of telling stories. This frequently involved much clanking of pieces of metal. I liked this a lot too.

Many Western musicians included Japan in their overseas tours and this usually meant a date in Osaka just a half hour train ride from Kobe. Among the many concerts I attended was a visit to see the Pet Shop Boys. I also went to solo concerts by George Harrison and Ringo Starr (though I’d rather have seen the other two Beatles). Most memorably there was another outing to see Bob Dylan, this time with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at Osaka-jo Hall on their 1986 tour.

An essential part of life in Kobe at that time was the English language monthly magazine Kansai Time Out which already had a firm foothold in the foreign community and in bookshops throughout Kansai when I arrived. Not just a guide to what’s on, it also contained many in-depth articles on a variety of topics. The magazine ran for 32 years, publishing its last issue in 2009. One thing it didn’t have when I came to Kobe was a regular music page and so it was that while lamenting this omission one evening in the Railroad I happened to find myself sitting next to the current editor. She asked me to write a music page myself (just one) and submit it. This I did. The article was a mish-mash of reviews of Western albums I’d been listening to plus a report of a visit to see a local Japanese band. It was a bit all over the place but somehow received the editor’s approval and was published in the magazine. Soon a monthly music page was included and I contributed regularly to its features.

Shoukichi Kina (Photo: Heiko Junge)

It was around this time, at the end of the eighties, that the great music revelation occurred when I finally discovered Okinawa and its music through my wife Midori unearthing a couple of tapes by Shoukichi Kina and Champloose. A friend of hers had briefly been a member of Champloose and had passed the tapes on but they had remained neglected and unplayed. I didn’t know it at the time but it’s not too dramatic to say that the course of my life was irrevocably changed.

Until then I had been underwhelmed by the Japanese pop music I’d listened to as it seemed too in awe of Western music and the Japanese rock bands I had listened to seemed pale imitations. Or else there were boy bands such as Hikaru Genji, and innocuous female ‘idols’ such as Miho Nakayama and Kyoko Koizumi (now a fine actor in middle-age). Kina and his exuberant Okinawan-style music was something else and this led to my meeting him for the first time in Kyoto and featuring him in an interview in KTO magazine. Thereafter to the discovery of much more music from Okinawa, visits to many of the islands, and eventually to the first The Power of Okinawa book. And some years later, of course, a move to Okinawa. It was no great surprise that the emphasis in my music articles gradually changed from UK and Western pop to Okinawan music and to other roots music in general.

The arrival of Dominic Al-Badri as the editor at KTO meant the chance for a little more music coverage as he was a music enthusiast with wide tastes. His encouragement led eventually to the idea for a book on Okinawan music. The music section built up gradually so that a page of album reviews was now included every month. In my early days of writing for the magazine I had once contacted more than twenty record companies in Japan requesting review copies of their releases but didn’t get a single response. But now we began to get plenty of review copies and could even afford not to accept tapes any more but only CDs for consideration.

I was able to meet and interview musicians whose music interested me. Among the first, after Shoukichi Kina, was Japanese singer Sandii who made a number of adventurous albums in the nineties with influences from South-east Asia. Then there was Jamaican reggae artist Bob Andy; Okinawan singers Nenes, Yoriko Ganeko, and Yasukatsu Oshima, English folk musicians Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick; and, on a visit back to England, Kate Rusby. Contributing to the magazine also enabled me to write about subjects other than music and so there were features on alternative education, film, literature, women’s football, Shinto, and a travel piece on Nabari in Mie Prefecture where I had moved in 1998 to take up my post at Kogakkan University.

But before the move to Nabari there was the earthquake. At 5:46 a.m. on 17th January 1995 the Kansai area was struck by what became known as the Great Hanshin Earthquake which claimed well in excess of 6,000 lives. For a long time afterwards (and still sometimes now) we measured time in pre and post-quake terms. After three days without electricity and with water in short supply we left our damaged house to stay for the next two weeks with friends whose home was relatively safe from the devastation we saw all around us in downtown Kobe.

I had already seen Osaka band Soul Flower Union a couple of times by then but the earthquake and its aftermath drew me closer. It’s well-known that the rock band unplugged to play for some of the most stricken victims of the earthquake in the hard-hit Nagata district of Kobe. This led to their emergence in an acoustic alternative incarnation known as Soul Flower Mononoke Summit who incorporated chindon street music into their repertoire.

A year after the quake they returned to play at Nagata Shrine and I interviewed them for a KTO feature. Members Takashi Nakagawa and Hideko Itami were welcoming and friendly and for some years Midori and I cooperated with them by translating their original song lyrics into English for the CD booklets of their numerous releases and went to see them play whenever possible. Here was a band that was becoming aware of roots music from around the world and dabbling into Irish, Korean and Okinawan styles and instrumentation. They were not a high-profile band but were always far more rewarding than most of the bigger names – and with a political edge too which quickly found them cast aside by their major record company Sony. Years later, Hideko Itami moved to Okinawa and was very helpful and supportive during and after my own move to the island.

Writing for KTO was not without the occasional mishap. Smokey Mountain were a young band of two boys and two girls from the Philippines. They had visited Japan to appear on national television and came back later to promote their second album release. I was asked at very short notice – the same day I think – if I would go to Osaka and meet them in a hotel where they were giving interviews. Not having listened to them at all I cobbled together a few generalised questions. It did not go down well when (forgetting about their Japan TV appearance) I began by asking them if they had ever been to Japan before. One of the boys answered with an indignant “Yes!” He managed to stretch the word to several syllables.

Possibly worse was the calamity that occurred when I had the task of writing a monthly column to preview upcoming concerts in the Kansai area. These were often of artists I knew little about so had to check the facts. But when it came to James Taylor I was on safe ground, or so I thought, and previewed his visit with a summary of the Boston singer’s past glories. At least one irate person phoned the KTO office later to complain that she had bought a ticket and then been shocked and dismayed to discover the concert was for a completely different James Taylor.  I like to think that at least it opened her ears to some new music.

It was not through the magazine but an acquaintance in London that I got to meet up with two of the UK’s biggest musical icons to tour Japan. A friend in London had introduced me to Pat who was a roadie or ‘guitar technician’ for several high-profile musicians. Over a few drinks in a South London pub Pat said he would soon be coming to Japan with Rod Stewart and would get in touch. I thought no more about it but Pat was true to his word and phoned me after his arrival in Osaka. It was the day before Rod Stewart’s concert at Osaka-jo Hall. He had VIP passes for the whole family but first he asked me to come over to Osaka that afternoon as Rod wanted to get some people together to play a game of football. I hadn’t kicked a ball in earnest for many years but duly turned up in tracksuit and trainers and took part in a full-scale game which found me on the opposing side to Rod Stewart who was far and away the best player on the pitch. I recovered enough to take my seat the next evening at the concert at a sold-out Osaka-jo Hall. We arrived in the afternoon and Pat gave us a backstage tour. After the show, Rod Stewart gave our son Akira (then six) a signed football and uttered the memorable words: “I hope you’re a better player than your dad.”

Pat returned to Japan later that year but this time he was with the Sex Pistols on their Filthy Lucre reunion tour of 1996. He got in touch again. The Sex Pistols were playing four nights in Osaka at a smaller all-standing venue. I missed the first night but went to the next three and even took advantage of Pat’s (or the Pistols’) hospitality by staying overnight after the last date and sharing Pat’s hotel room. A group of us including Pat and three of the Pistols went out a couple of evenings to eat and drink and I was put on the list as ‘interpreter’ so I didn’t have to pay.

The one absent member of the Sex Pistols on these nights out was John Lydon (or Johnny Rotten, I should say) who kept away from the rest of the band except for their appearances on stage. Each night when I arrived Pat ushered me into Johnny’s dressing room where there was always a box full of beers which Pat proceeded to take from freely and give to me as sustenance during the gig. Not that the concerts were over-long. They were just one hour including encores. I ran into Johnny only once. I was standing at the urinal in the backstage toilet five minutes before one of the shows was due to start. He came in and stood beside me. Not a word was spoken by either of us. The Sex Pistols were doing this for the money but it was great to see them and their performances were all I had hoped they would be, full of passion and in no way were they going through the motions.

The Pogues

But these were diversions from the direction I was taking. After a long hiatus from listening to English roots music I was now back there again and it all happened because of being away from home. The discovery of Okinawan music opened up the realisation that all roots music has connections and things in common.

The Pogues were doing with Irish music what Shoukichi Kina was with Okinawan and I saw them a few times in Osaka too, including the last but one appearance of Shane MacGowan with the band. There was an Irish boom in Japan in the 1990s and I could see musicians such as Altan, Mary Black, Sharon Shannon, Mairead Ni Dhomhnaill and Donal Lunny. There was African music too and Mory Kante’s Akwaba Beach album introduced me to another kind of roots music and to concerts by Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour. I had also discovered the music and culture of the Basque Country but that’s another story.

The rediscovery of English roots in Japan was kicked off when I listened to Kate Rusby’s first solo album Hourglass and I began to see what a rich vein of folk song also existed in my own country. Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick came to Osaka and I interviewed them. I even started listening to the esoteric traditional recordings of Peter Bellamy and wondered why I had ignored them before.

Richard Thompson (Photo: Ron Sleznak)

Back in 1969 I had been at the Royal Festival Hall in London when Fairport Convention unleashed folk-rock on England. Richard Thompson’s work with the band that night and in the decades that followed has been phenomenal and he – like Rusby – is someone who has the gift of being able to write songs that are so much influenced by the English tradition that you cannot see the join. Decades later I saw him twice in Japan. The second time was an evening at Osaka’s Club Quattro where he played one of the best solo concerts I’ve ever seen: just the man and his acoustic guitar mesmerising the audience. On that night I didn’t have to write about him or do an interview and I was just there to enjoy the music. And it was wonderful.

The inevitable eventually happened and after years in Kobe and Nabari I finally decided to take early retirement from my university and move on, and where better than to Okinawa. The music was the catalyst for the move. I had already written a book to introduce it and wanted to update and write a better one with the music and culture close at hand. We moved to Okinawa in 2009.

The Kansai Time Out interviews with Bob Andy, Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick, and Kate Rusby can all be found now in the Features Archive.

Discovering Roots Music

October 23, 2018

Here at last is the eagerly awaited (by me anyway) second part of what I’m calling A Musical Journey.

2. Discovering Roots Music

The first time I set foot in a folk club was a week or two after my seventeenth birthday. Until then my taste in music had been largely shaped by the UK charts, pirate radio, and television programmes such as the BBC’s weekly ‘Top of the Pops’.

A blurry distinction is often made nowadays between folk songs and traditional songs, especially by those in America (Japan too) where any singer-songwriter playing an acoustic guitar can and will be labelled a folk singer. This isn’t the case in England where folk songs are more often thought of as having been handed down over generations by the common people and not possessing a known composer.

I was a bit surprised to find the late American ‘folk singer’ Dave Van Ronk also went along with this way of thinking about it in his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. He writes that for about two hundred years up until the 1950s the folk singer was someone who passed on songs learned within a community. And so, crucially, “the word ‘folk’ describes a process rather than a style.” It wasn’t until Bob Dylan and the singer-songwriters of the 1960s that there was a bit of mixed up confusion about the definition. In a recent interview, Tom Rush (who was one of those ‘60s singers), reiterated that for him ‘folk’ means the traditional songs handed down by ear from generation to generation.

That’s enough pedantry about ‘folk’. I’ve usually gone along with the ‘folk means traditional’ camp but there is a grey area too. Nowadays I’d probably call it all roots music anyway for want of a more precise term. Or perhaps: ‘local music from out there’ as it’s found all over the world in every culture, played on many different musical instruments (or no instruments) and sung in numerous different languages.

The folk club I first went to didn’t have any policy about what was or wasn’t folk. Almost any kind of music was acceptable if there was room for the performers to fit onto the small platform that passed as a stage. It wasn’t much like other folk clubs of its time either as there were probably more singer-songwriters than traditional singers on its weekly list of guest artists. And, if anything, the sedate image of the UK folk club where everyone sits in rows of chairs listening to the performer in respectful silence was held in some contempt at the club where I was a regular. The noise from the bar and the largely standing audience also made sure the unaccompanied singer would have a pretty hard time of it.

It was named the Jacquard Folk Club and it congregated on Thursday evenings in the back room of a pub in Norwich. The club was run by two brothers, Tony and Albert Cooper. Tony was fond of organising and had previously been involved with a jazz club in the city, while Albert was a fine classically trained singer who had also developed a repertoire of blues and contemporary songs. The establishment of the folk club gave him a regular venue to belt out these songs every week in his stirring and powerful voice usually accompanied by a 12-string guitar plus harmonica and double bass.

As a folk newcomer and a refugee from the pop scene (although I maintained an interest in that as well) I was listening to many of these songs for the first time and it was a revelation. I was being initiated into the world of largely American roots, blues and Civil Rights songs as a teenager in an English pub: not by the original artists of whom I was mostly unaware but by a local resident singer.

Beer was another discovery. As folk music was frequently played in the back rooms of pubs it was almost obligatory to sample the delights of English bitter. I had long seen people getting so excited about the stuff that they couldn’t guzzle down enough of it so imagined it must have an amazing taste – like strawberries or the cream soda of my childhood. It was therefore with a mixture of puzzlement and slight disappointment that I sipped my first pint. All rather warm, flat, bland and lacking in real tastiness. I soon got used to it though.

Sandy Denny

Sometimes I gave a bit of help at the club on Thursdays and once found myself attending to the needs of Sandy Denny who was the guest that evening. She was just a year older than me but appeared infinitely more composed and confident. I offered to buy her a drink and she immediately called for a large whisky. This was in the days when she toured the folk clubs of England on her own as a singer and guitarist. I was to see her again more than once (albeit from a distance) when she became a member of Fairport Convention who went on to invent folk-rock. She left one of her fingerpicks behind after that first visit to the club and I kept and returned it to her the next time she came back. A few years later she was dead at the age of 31.

Norwich and the surrounding Norfolk countryside was already home to its own remarkable traditional singers such as Walter Pardon and the fisherman Sam Larner. They became and remain a huge influence on younger generations of singers but I was oblivious to their contribution until many years later and didn’t even listen to their recordings until the singers were long gone. A local singer I also discovered far too late was Peter Bellamy who eventually became a favourite – but not until I was living in Japan and rediscovering the roots I’d left behind. When I lived in Norwich he was once pointed out to me by someone in the street as a famous folk singer and appeared as a long-haired figure walking in front of us, no doubt on his way to the shops or perhaps to the library to research some archive field recording.

It was the visiting Americans who often made the biggest impact and there were plenty of them touring England at that time to play an extensive list of venues such as folk clubs, pubs, and sometimes concert halls. One evening Jesse Fuller was the guest in Norwich and I was able to see close-up his vaudeville-style one-man-band show with 12-string guitar and fotdella (his own invention, a kind of foot-operated percussion bass) along with the kazoo that he hummed into on songs such as his classic ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’. He was almost seventy at that time.

Among the numerous other renowned American singers and musicians I was able to see on their visits to Norwich – some of them more than once – were the New Lost City Ramblers, Clarence Ashley and Tex Isley, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Bill Clifton, Hedy West, Paul Simon, Carolyn Hester, Tom Paxton, and Judy Collins.

Of all the American guests who came to England during the 1960s the one I listen to most often nowadays is probably Hedy West. For a long while the Georgia singer and banjo player was underappreciated and her recordings out of print. A revival occurred after her death and is rightly continuing. When I was still a teenager she came to Norwich and through her Appalachian songs and ballads I was able to visit a world I had only glimpsed in novels by Carson McCullers. Her unadorned vocals and banjo accompaniment have something of the same appeal found in the great traditional singers and sanshin players I was to discover years later in Okinawa.

There was no shortage of rising stars on the UK scene either including singer-songwriters Al Stewart and Roy Harper, and on one memorable occasion, for me at least, there was a visit from Scottish duo the Incredible String Band.

By early 1967, when they came to Norwich, the Incredible String Band had already released a debut album and must have been at work on its follow-up The 5,000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion which came out to much acclaim later that year. It contains the song ‘Painting Box’ with these lines that resonated with me at the time:

“My Friday evening’s footsteps plodding dully through this black town / Are far away now from the world that I’m in”.

The departure of Clive Palmer meant the original trio were now a pair: Mike Heron and Robin Williamson. Their performance that night was probably the first time some of their exotic-looking instruments had been seen in these surroundings, though what seemed to some like hippy psychedelic eccentricity would, a couple of decades later, be routinely accepted as an exploration of ‘world music’.

Mike Heron (right) and Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band in 1967. (Photo: BBC Photo Library/Redferns).

I don’t recall too much of what they played that night but do remember very clearly the subsequent misunderstanding about accommodation. Heron and Williamson had thought they were booked into a hotel but that wasn’t the case and instead I was asked if I could put them up for the night. I was eighteen and living with my parents, so the pair came back there to spend the night. They must have slept in the same bed in my sister’s vacant room. She had married and left home a few years before.

Listening to Incredible String Band albums now, the vocals on their recordings don’t seem to have impenetrable Scottish accents at all but Robin Williamson’s was enough to confuse my mother when they made their brief stay in our house. After a night possibly spent sleeping in his trousers Williamson came downstairs and asked her if he could borrow an iron to smooth out the crumpled garment. She didn’t understand his accent and he ended up miming the ironing action before all became clear. I think everyone I knew imagined the ISB were destined for bigger things – world domination was on the cards – but despite a longish career the early successes of the first few years were never quite replicated in later days.

On the night that the ISB played the folk club in Norwich a small man with a northern accent appeared with a guitar and asked if he could play. He went on and performed to a very enthusiastic response. This turned out to be Michael Chapman. He almost stole the ISB’s thunder with his songs and guitar skills and a couple of weeks later was booked to play as guest at the club. He soon became a regular visitor to the area and his second album Fully Qualified Survivor contained ‘Postcards of Scarborough’ a song that to this day brings back many memories – even though I’ve still never been to Scarborough.

Chapman soon became a fixture on the folk circuit and went on to a long career with numerous albums. In the 1990s I finally ran into him again in London when I went to see him play at a small club and he was just as good as ever. During the break he introduced me to a white-haired man in the audience. This was Wizz Jones who had been another regular guest a few decades before at the folk club in Norwich.

All this exposure to the likes of master guitarists such as Chapman meant there came a time when as a young man I decided to have a go myself. At least to learn a musical instrument rather than just listening to others playing them, and so it was that I bought a guitar. The guitar style I admired most and tried to emulate was the fingerpicking I’d listened to on recordings of Elizabeth Cotten best known as the composer of ‘Freight Train’. She played left-handed in an inimitable and seductive style of her own. I didn’t achieve anything to rival that but did have some fun trying.

This foray into the guitar world didn’t lead to anything much but for a very brief period – perhaps only a few weeks – a ‘band’ was formed along with two friends and we called ourselves the Unreliable String Band. The USB (as no-one called us) performed an extremely short set comprising some poetry-reading accompanied by guitar (it was a thing back then), a couple of songs, and a sort of ragtime guitar instrumental. The first song we learned was Bob Dylan’s ‘Drifter’s Escape’ chosen because it could be played with only two chords. After a couple of appearances at local venues we called it a day.

Paul Simon at the Jacquard Folk Club, 24 August 1965.

Paul Simon was a still relatively unknown solo singer-songwriter who lived for a time in London and played the folk club circuit around England. He very definitely didn’t call it a day. Before going on to achieve lasting worldwide fame he played to an audience of sixty or seventy people at the Jacquard Folk Club on an evening in August 1965. I was there that night to see him give a remarkable performance with just his voice, acoustic guitar. and a handful of original songs. They included ‘The Sound of Silence’ and his then current single ‘I Am a Rock’.

In Japan audiences enjoy listening to musicians talking in between songs – sometimes endlessly – and regard the chatting, explanations and anecdotes as an integral part of the live experience. This was obviously not the case in Norwich that night when Paul Simon’s not especially detailed account of how he came to write one of his songs was interrupted by a heckler who urged him to “stop the preaching and get on with it”. Simon did just that and blasted everyone away with the rest of his songs and performance.

If anyone eclipsed Simon in my early discoveries in roots music it was Bob Dylan, of course, about whom so much has been written that there is nothing much more to be said. I was a bit late to the party, not discovering his songs until the release of his fifth album Bringing It All Back Home but I soon put that right by catching up with all previous recordings. If it was Dylan who helped draw me into folk clubs and folk songs he was also the one responsible for leading me away from them again with his leap into electric guitars, surrealist lyrics, and rock music that went beyond anything I’d heard up until then.

I didn’t see him live until 1978 when I was among a crowd of more than 200,000 for ‘The Picnic at Blackbushe Aerodrome’ in Surrey. (The previous year I had another first when I saw the great Leonard Cohen in concert in Leicester). I went down by train to London and then on one of the many special trains put on solely to convey people the rest of the way to Blackbushe. I missed the friend I was supposed to meet and spent the whole day on my own listening to all the music culminating with Dylan and his band who played for the best part of three hours. It was completely worth the discomfort of spending the early hours of the next morning on Waterloo station waiting for the first trains and the stinging watery eyes from lack of sleep that occurred when I eventually arrived back home. I’ve seen Dylan at least ten times since then, and the last was in Osaka at a much smaller venue in March 2010 when I was able to stand closer to the stage than ever before.

But as I have already said, it was Fairport Convention who invented the English version of folk-rock by playing traditional songs on electric guitars, bass and drums. I witnessed the unveiling of this phenomenon with their concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London to promote their Liege and Lief album which came out at the end of 1969. (Nick Drake was one of the support acts that evening). As the curtain went up on Fairport a new era of English roots music was born.

The next time I saw Fairport was not until their annual Cropredy Festival in 2001. The band Brass Monkey played at the same festival that year and I was able to speak briefly with member Martin Carthy who I had met and interviewed in Japan a few years before. My move to Japan, perversely, meant I was going to rediscover English roots music after a long hiatus – and many other kinds of music too.

A Question of Musical Upbringing

March 16, 2018

Here is the first part of something I’m calling A Musical Journey. It’s about the music I grew up listening to a very long time ago. 

1. A Question of Musical Upbringing

I always thought the first record I ever bought was ‘A Teenager in Love’ – the cover version by Marty Wilde. Or else it was ‘Whole Lotta Woman’ by Marvin Rainwater. I still remember buying both of them.

‘Whole Lotta Woman’ was released in 1958 and reached Number One on the UK chart. I never imagined I’d be looking it up decades later – or that I would ever listen to the song again. Having done so I realise it’s not to my taste at all now, which is a relief as I hope this shows I’ve developed a bit in my musical appreciation since I was a child. ‘A Teenager in Love’ stands the test of time only a little better and there were three different versions of it in the charts in May 1959. The song is full of longing and the lovelorn angst of the teenager (and pre-adolescent) and it suited the mood of an eleven year old boy very well.

But wait. Lonnie Donegan released his single ‘Jack O’ Diamonds’ before either of those so that clinches it. I definitely remember buying that one as well because the B side was called ‘Ham ‘N Eggs’ and it’s not something you can easily forget. At that tender age I imagined ‘Jack O’ Diamonds’ was an original penned by Lonnie himself but years later discovered it was a Texas gambling song popularised by Blind Lemon Jefferson in the 1920s.

The first time I bought an LP, as we called it, was a bit later when I acquired How Do You Like It by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The title was a canny combination of the Liverpool singer’s first two hit singles: ‘How Do You Do It’ and ‘I Like It’. Ever since I started thinking about it (and I haven’t really thought about it at all until now) I regarded it as an album of its time containing those two early hit songs plus a lot of uninteresting filler tracks. In fact, a quick search reveals neither of those songs was even on the album, though Gerry’s third hit ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was. This is memory not history.

One thing I’m sure I’ve got right is being given a fearsome dressing down by my mother for buying that Gerry and the Pacemakers record. This was not because she preferred Freddie and the Dreamers but because she had already bought a copy to give to me for Christmas and had been keeping it a secret. It’s a telling off that I still recall and was delivered for my selfishness and impetuousness in not being able to wait and see if I was going to be given the LP as a present on Christmas Day. One of us had to go back to the record shop to ask for a refund.

Years later I saw Gerry with his group (possibly all different members) when they played a nightclub in Leicester in front of a fairly disinterested and certainly inebriated audience. How Do You Like It isn’t very good anyway. Definitely nowhere near as exciting as any of the albums by The Beatles. I now have just three Beatles albums – Revolver, Sergeant Pepper, and Abbey Road – and never need to play any of them or listen to any other Beatles songs as they are all so deeply ingrained in my consciousness. The Beatles made a huge impression and their brilliance and inventiveness seemed to come out of nowhere.

Willson’s was the shop where I did most of my early record buying. It was in the centre of the city where I grew up and very close to Norwich Castle. The ground floor was a general music store selling instruments and sheet music. The records were kept upstairs in a fairly small room. Two young female assistants worked behind the counter. They would play any record if you asked them. The only albums I clearly remember buying, though there must have been a few, were With the Beatles and, before that, The “Twang’s” the “Thang” the second album by American guitarist Duane Eddy.

Eddy played electric guitar instrumentals with a characteristic deep ‘twangy’ sound frequently accompanied by a wailing saxophone and vocal whoops and yells from his group The Rebels. His big hit (not on the album, so I bought the single) was the theme from the American high school film Because They’re Young which had an orchestra playing behind the twangy guitar. It was the best thing he ever did. I don’t think I saw the movie but have always liked high school films and it’s a taste that continues to this day.

My purchase of With the Beatles at Willson’s was not without its problems. This time it was the LP’s second side, as the first track, a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, got stuck after a few seconds and to my great dismay wouldn’t play properly. The next day I took the record back to the shop and before I could speak the assistant said: “Side two, track one?” A whole batch of them had the same defect and a replacement was immediately produced and popped into a paper bag.

Gene Vincent

There were other shops in the city where I used to listen to records and sometimes buy them. There was a department store just a few minutes walk from Willson’s where records were sold on the top floor. This was a much bigger space and contained a number of listening booths along the wall opposite the counter. In the early 1960s it would still have been much more common to buy singles than albums. I often went to this store with a friend on Saturday mornings and would ask the assistants to put on a single to listen to in one of the booths. This happened so often that I was once asked slightly menacingly if I was really intending to buy anything.

Most of the records we listened to were American pop songs. Often these were covered by British singers so there were at least two different versions of the same song to choose from. The record labels and their colours and sleeve designs stick in the mind. MGM had a yellow label, London was black with a stripy paper sleeve, Pye was purple. Then there was Top Rank with a picture of a man banging a gong and whose artists never seemed to make the charts. The guitarist Bert Weedon was one of those but I loyally bought all his records.

One of the singles I bought after sampling it was a song called ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ and this was the cover by Welsh singer Ricky Valance. It was a controversial song at the time because of its subject matter which was thought to be in bad taste. The title quoted the last words of the song’s young hero who took part in a stock car race to impress his girlfriend but died from his injuries after being pulled from the twisted wreck of his crashed car. Doom-laden melodrama was dangerous but also a big seller.

My sister, ten years older, had her own record player which was an antique thing with a handle on the side to wind it up when the music slowed down. There was also a container for the needles that had to be constantly replaced as they wore out. In general I didn’t care a lot for her music collection which contained an unfeasibly large number of songs by ageing crooner Donald Peers who sounded far too straight and conventional for my burgeoning radical tastes. Bob Dylan and the Sex Pistols were still some years in the future though.

Guy Mitchell’s ‘Singing the Blues’ was another song that got frequent plays on my sister’s record player but she eventually made the local newspaper and had a moment of fame when Bill Haley came to England on tour and played a date in Norwich that she went to see. He was all the rage before Elvis Presley upstaged him with more daring rock ‘n’ roll but my sister’s photo got in the local paper as she had somehow been the first person to obtain his autograph.

My father had his own record collection and all of them were breakable 78s which sometimes fractured into several sharp pieces when he absent-mindedly sat on them. He liked sentimental songs and stirring marches. ‘Blaze Away’ was a particular favourite with its opening line that he often sang along to: “We’ll make a bonfire of our troubles and we’ll watch them blaze away”.

I was influenced by at least one of my sister’s records.  This was an album named The “Chirping” Crickets and it was a revelation as all the songs were good, right from the opening ‘Oh, Boy!’ to the end: even though (or perhaps because) all the tracks were short and it was all over in less than half an hour. It seemed long at the time. It was the first inkling I had of just how brilliantly exciting pop songs could be. And it was my discovery of Buddy Holly who may already have been dead by the time I listened to the Crickets album on the large radio gramophone in our family living room.

The other shining stars among a lot of tacky pop were the Everly Brothers and I first listened to them on regular Saturday night visits to the Firs Stadium where speedway meetings were held most weeks. Speedway was big then and reputed to be the most popular spectator sport in the UK after football. My parents and sister were all speedway fans though my father eventually stopped going as he claimed the races were no longer competitive and had become more like processions.

The Everly Brothers: the epitome of cool in 1960

Music was played loudly over the public address system. It also blared out between each of the heats that made up a speedway meeting and there seemed to be an unusually large number of American country-flavoured pop songs among those on the playlist. The Everly Brothers rivalled Buddy Holly in popularity and surpassed him in coolness and sophistication. As a result, I bought the first ever single released on the new Warner Brothers label. This was the duo’s song ‘Cathy’s Clown’ and it became a big hit in England in 1960. Despite this great musical revelation I don’t recall ever buying another record by them.

The package tour was another great British institution. These were concerts that toured the country showcasing a number of different artists on the same bill. In Norwich they usually took place at the Theatre Royal. Frequently, the headline act would be an American star who was touring the UK and the rest of the show would be made up with British pop acts, sometimes with a local group kicking things off. There was also an MC who came on stage to introduce each of the musicians.

The MC sometimes had a hard time of it. I was at one of these shows when an American MC came on between each act to tell jokes and fill in some time before he introduced the next artist – in this case Gene Pitney. The audience were eager to see Pitney and didn’t take kindly to any delay so some of them started hurling abuse at the MC. He was ready for it and barked back at one young woman: “Lady, you’ve got a kind face. The kind I’d like to run a truck over!”

Sometimes there was a double bill of two American stars. One of these was the visit to the city of Freddy Cannon and Gene Vincent. I was just twelve and Cannon was the one I was more interested in as he had had a couple of big successes with ‘Way Down Yonder in New Orleans’ and ‘Tallahassee Lassie’ which began with lines enough to make a modern listener shudder:

Well, she comes from Tallahassee / She got a hi-fi chassis  / Maybe looks a little sassy / But to me, she’s real classy

He was due to top the bill that night with Vincent ending the first half of the show. However, when we got to the theatre a notice outside announced that Freddy Cannon was ‘indisposed’ and so Gene Vincent would take over top billing. The rumour went round that Freddy was the worse for wear and was being plied with strong cups of black coffee and walked around the car park at the back of the theatre to try and sober him up. If so it didn’t work.

It’s strange now to think I was disappointed not to see Freddy Cannon because Gene Vincent has, over time, become the far more remembered, almost legendary performer for many British people. That night he came on stage looking moody and rebellious and with a severe limp – he nearly lost his balance and fell at one point. He may have been wearing a metal support on his leg which had been broken just a few weeks earlier in the car accident that killed Eddie Cochran. With a hint of defiance he sang what he said was his soon to be released single ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama’. His record company had refused permission for him to perform it live before its release but Gene was having none of that.

Brenda Lee: Little Miss Dynamite

The other big American star I saw at the Theatre Royal was Brenda Lee or ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ as she was known, because she was only 145 centimetres short. After the show I waited outside the stage door to get her autograph, along with a handful of other fans. She kept us waiting for quite a while but eventually came outside and obliged. I thought she was great and both her singing and her behaviour seemed very mature at the time. She was still seventeen years old.

It was also the time of the instrumental guitar group and while America had The Ventures (amazingly still popular in Japan today) it was The Shadows who ruled England with hits such as ‘Apache’ that seemed to stay in the charts forever. Again, I saw them at the same theatre and was on the front row for this one. They seemed pretty wild to my young eyes and I squirmed in my seat when rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch looked directly down at me with a challenging mixture of contempt and disdain.

At school everyone had to play football whether they liked it or not. Most did and so it became a big part of our growing up. Going to see the local professional team was also a rite of passage but none of my family were interested in football and so it was a friend of my sister’s who initiated me by taking me to their stadium when I was around eight or nine years old.  It turned out she was also interested in music but with a more sophisticated taste than us and was a bit of a fan of Frank Sinatra.

Every summer our family went on holiday to North Wales where we would always stay for a week in the same bed and breakfast place in the town of Llangollen. Dad drove and it took him all day to get us there. We would start early in the morning and finally arrive at our destination in the late afternoon – sometimes early evening –depending on how often we got lost or made stops along the way. My father’s sight was poor in one eye and my mother sat next to him and acted as navigator with a special route map on her lap. My parents had never been abroad so Wales was the closest they came. Its appeal was the mountains that were so different from the flat land of Norfolk and all of us enjoyed visiting the ruins of numerous castles.

As a football fan I took the opportunity to take off on my own during these holidays and went to Wrexham to have a look at their ground and to Chester where I managed to watch a pre-season friendly. On one occasion we all took a trip to Liverpool where I went off to pay a visit to Anfield. As a fan of The Beatles it was obligatory to seek out the Cavern Club, though it was daytime and I only saw the outside of the building. By this time The Beatles were already famous and so I must have been a teenager. It may well have been in Liverpool that I bought The Beatles’ Twist and Shout EP.

Llangollen itself was famous for the annual International Eisteddfod. This was held for a week in a large field but also in various other venues around the town and was notable for its choir contests and performances, especially by the Bulgarians and the Welsh. I wasn’t particularly interested in the choirs and not at all in the classical music but the whole spectacle was quite thrilling not least because much of it was held outdoors in large marquees erected in the field. The sheer power of all the united singing voices was impressive, but at the end of the day I was still more excited by pop music.

If it was ‘A Teenager in Love’ that initiated me into the world of lovelorn youth and unrequited love it was another song around the same time that was really the soundtrack of summer. The American Jerry Keller recorded his own composition ‘Here Comes Summer’ in 1958 and the following year it made number one in the UK chart. It was the only hit he ever had and prefigures my own penchant for watching high school movies. The song’s narrator – presumably Jerry himself – can’t wait for the school holidays so he can spend more time with his girlfriend. Jerry sings of grabbing his girl and holding her tight, but he’s a gentleman too and doesn’t want to coerce her so he sings: “If she’s willing, we’ll go steady right away.” He anticipates swimming every day and moonlit walks in the park, and hopes the sun will “shine bright on my happy summer home”.

In Norwich the summer sun rarely shone as brightly as it did in Jerry Keller’s song. I was eleven when ‘Here Comes Summer’ became a hit so girls were still just something to dream about in some future life that seemed a long way off. Neither could I have imagined that several decades later I would be listening to the Japanese song ‘Natsu Tourai’ by Osaka band Soul Flower Union. This is a different song in almost every way and about as far from Keller’s adolescent simplicity as it’s possible to get – though both refer to moonlit evenings. I helped translate the lyrics into English for the band’s CD booklet. Its title means ‘Here Comes Summer’.