I may be horrible at picking out boyfriends, but I have never had any worries about my instincts about music. I have always loved music, and with older siblings who took themselves very seriously I always had a consciousness that back then, music wasn’t just about something to listen to, it was a statement about who you were, and what your tribe was. I dare say it is much the same now.
Probably more than other girls my age, I felt a lot older than my years. I’d say I had almost teen sensibilities by the time I was in school. It didn’t make for a happy childhood. I was always the weird one, who saw things from a definitely oblique and rather scary angle. I watched the news every day and I was interested in politics, in Vietnam, in Northern Ireland, in the Space program long before I hit my fifth birthday and could read fluently at three. I remember the assassinations of RFK and MLK as if they were yesterday. I never was that little carefree kid that maybe I should have been. I was aware of far too much and, sadly as a consequence I’m sure the only thing others my own age were getting from me was pity and condescension. None of their games made sense to me. I preferred to sit out rather than join in, but to tell the truth maybe that was because I was never asked to join in. I wanted to be around older children always; my ideal being my sister’s friends, five or six years older who were into music and fashions. I loved to spend time with my neighbour Jayne who would play me all the hit singles of the day on her portable record player. What a neat thing that was, like a suitcase. We listened to them all and, following the lead of Jayne and my sister I became a pint-sized music nerd. I found everyone around me ridiculously out of touch, my parents most of all. I think I enjoyed the feeling of separateness
When my contemporaries were still singing Disney tunes, I was already a passionate fan of early 70’s rock & pop-rock stars. Maybe I was a pioneer of the pre-teen pop babies
It’s the hair. It must be the hair… and the music.
I was always a music nerd. I wanted to be a rock journalist, or a pop star, or a record company PA. It never occurred to me to want to be anything ordinary. What an idiot, right? I would skive off school whenever I could, just to listen to the radio and be the first with the new chart. The only person who cared was me. I would make graphs charting the rise and fall of records. I would chart how often certain “Oldies” would be played. Radio One was my little haven, and then in the evenings, Radio Luxemburg would be the night-life.
Anything and everything with pop music was for me, but I was well aware when I was being talked down to most of the time. Pop shows that were for kids that included musical comedy acts or the latest West End Musical star with some horrible novelty record didn’t fool me for a moment. I knew such shows were put together by people who were aiming for the end of the pier, summer season variety, lowest common denominator. The urge for program makers to include a pop music element became embarrassing. Only Top of the Pops ever got the balance right. It didn’t pretend to be doing anything more than reflecting the current sales. You could forgive the awful rubbish on there often because you knew something good would be on next, usually. Then there was the rise of the anodyne teen idols, like the clean cut Osmonds and David Cassidy They were not for me, I wanted Marc Bolan, I wanted Slade, Wizzard, CCR and Free. I wanted to read about the Stones and Woodstock, about Jimi and Janis. I had already moved along. By the time The Bay City Rollers came along I was listening to Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and ELP with my sister and brother. I never understood the appeal of BCR… I put them in the box with Rod Stewart and stepped away from their laddish aggressive heterosexuality which seemed a world away from the delicate beauty, androgyny and finesse of early T-Rex.
When I was ten years old The Bay City Rollers had a TV show called “Shang-a-lang” that was on directly after I got in from school. My brother and I would watch it idly and without enjoyment. It was pretty horrible to be honest, it was everything we hated about music TV aimed at young people. When it is your dream to be allowed to stay up to watch The Old Grey Whistle Test, Shang-a-lang was rather a poor substitute. The production was shoddy and the guests were nothing that appealed to me until Marc Bolan went on once late in the run. It ended at Christmas in 1975.
The following spring the show was replaced by “Arrows” The show was from the same production company, with much the same aesthetic. We still watched it, my brother still mocked it, there were still a few dodgy guests, but there were also some pretty awesome ones as well, people with some real credibility, Slade whom we all loved (What a great band they were!) and Marc Bolan also turned up on one occasion. There were still a few off moments, but the standard was much higher in general and there was that one thing. The show was presented by The Arrows.
They’d had three hits already and I had liked them all, they were poppy and fun, too much so for my brother and sister, but just right for me, one of my guilty pleasures. They were very pretty boys of course, especially the lead singer Alan who had a great voice. I got all the posters and covered my walls. I got a bit over-excited when they were on and after a while my brother was so disgusted with me he wouldn’t watch with me anymore because I was such an embarrassing little girl whenever Alan Merrill was on screen I got told off for licking the screen, big time. To him, the Arrows were no different from The Bay City Rollers, but I thought they were poles apart. I knew the show was still tacky and condescending, but there were some great people on it. It was certainly many steps up from Shang-a-lang at least, besides, there was Alan Merrill
At the end of the run of the TV show It was up to senior school for me, and to some extent, a putting away of childish things. There would be no more kids TV shows, my commute to and from school would rule all of that out. I was still obsessed with music of course, but I wasn’t able to be as plugged in as I had been before. There was still Top of the Pops.
The Arrows didn’t have any more hits. I don’t think I heard from them again. I do remember liking some songs by a band called Runner in the late 70s, but had no idea there was a connection at the time.
Years later, when I was at Sixth Form College and seriously immersed in the music of the Woodstock generation I heard a beefed up version of the song “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”, one of the old Arrows hits, done by an American woman called Joan Jett, whom I’d never heard of. It didn’t make much impression on me to be honest. I hadn’t thought of the Arrows in five or six years at that point. I had forgotten they existed.
Dial forward thirty-one more years. I’d long since forgotten many of the bands I’d liked as a kid. I never became a rock star, but I had managed to stow a fair quantity of booze and drugs away nonetheless and never amounted to anything much at all on account of severe depression and substance abuse. Yay me!
Living with depression can be hard, especially if you can’t find work or any way forward out of the mess you’ve got into. Learning to cope without medication, essential if you are phobic about any kind of intervention, involves developing coping strategies that get you through. About five years ago I discovered Weird Al Yankovic. Something about him just smacked me right between the eyes. There was a dogged uncomplaining courage about a person who could carry on doing what he did and being successful at it for so long. There was something strong and steadfast in him as a person that gave me hope. I was over my childish snobbishness about comedy acts now. I “got it” finally. There could be dignity in absurdity, strength in foolishness and order in chaos. I was hooked.
I’d been aware of his existence since he had his hit song “Eat It” in the UK back in 1984.. Weird Al seemed to vanish as quickly as he appeared. I had no idea he had developed a long career and huge following in the USA. British people remembered “Eat It” but little more. In getting myself up to speed on Al’s career I learned about the role of Jake Hooker in Al’s history. I watched a documentary. I saw Jake Hooker talking, he seemed familiar, but that was all. I knew he had been responsible for the original version of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll”, which Al had turned into “I Love Rocky Road” early in his career. Throughout that five years I was only dimly aware that I Love Rock’n’Roll had been a minor hit for an obscure British band. I can’t really explain this. I am normally amazingly good at pop trivia. I can only think I blanked out some of the stuff I had got really very silly over. Who knows?
Anyway, Weird Al was a big deal. It was imperative that I meet him, which I managed to do within six months of becoming a fan. It’s hard to impart just how energizing and positive this new interest and direction was in my life. In the last six years I have been to the USA four times, been to 11 Weird Al concerts and spoken to him personally on the majority of those occasions. I’d go so far as to say we are on very friendly terms and there is a mutual bond of trust I think. Al has always been very sweet and sensitive towards me, particularly when my father died, and subsequently.
My life, particularly my social life is almost entirely via computer nowadays and social media has been an absolute saviour. I like to think I’m at the vanguard of Al’s army of fans, spending large chunks of time trying to keep ahead of any breaking news about what Al is up to next, whether it’s concerts, a book tour, podcast or theatre appearance. It’s always fun to get the “scoop”
One day, just over a month ago, as I was trawling through Twitter I spied someone called @TheAleecat talking about Weird Al and “I Love Rocky Road” We got talking. He was a nice fella. He told me that it was he who had written the song “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” Then he linked me to this
I remembered it all, all the words of all their songs, like it had all been in there all along. Is that weird or what?
Turns out my teen heartthrob Alan Merrill is a super nice, intelligent interesting person and we’re friends, good friends I think. I think my love of music has turned out rather well in the long run after all, and the sheer volume quality and depth of his back catalogue of work is going to keep me entertained for years to come. Many of his more recent songs are just phenomenal.
What a strange collection of coincidences and connections have led to me writing this piece. I felt I needed to set this all down, even if only for myself. The synchronicity is quite delightful to me and the sense of being given back something that time and a troubled mind has taken from me leaves me so grateful both to @alyankovic and @TheAleecat two extraordinary, phenomenally talented people whom it is such a privilege that I can call my friends.