Tuesday, March 06, 2018

British Music and Top of The Pops

I like music. Not the hard core music lover. But more of the casual listener. One who’d go for catchy sounds, easy listening tunes and, maybe, the odd one or two rock numbers.
I was introduced to western music listening to the songs played over loudspeakers in the dining hall at Sekolah Menengah Sains Perlis in Kangar. During lunch, the speakers would blare out a selection of songs which included Paul McCartney’s Band on The Run, Eric Clapton’s I Shot the Sheriff and Rock the Boat by the Hues Corporation. I didn’t know who’d selected the songs. But I liked them.
Visits to my schoolmates’ homes further introduced me to groups like The Stylistics and Bee Gees as we’d go through their brothers’ record collections. But, at home, for me to have my real own music those days meant having to handle our battered family radio cassette recorder player. I would insert some Paul Mauriat cassette tapes in it one after another. Alternatively, I would have had to wait patiently for the FM Stereo program broadcasted nightly by Radio RTM. So, from 9.00 pm onwards, I would have the radio all to myself.
My six years stay in England opened me to a whole new horizon of music. But still, I wasn’t much of a full-fledged music devotee, as was the case with the MCKK boys Shaari and Jenggo, for example. For one, I did not own a top-notch hi-fi system like most of my mates. Secondly, I was merely a follower in the exploits of music appreciation, much influenced especially by my mates from the Malay College whilst in Blackpool.  Yes, somehow, those blokes always seemed to be at the cutting edge of rock and pop music. The Doobie Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alan Parsons, you name it, they really knew their stuff. And for good measure, Jenggo could easily blow you away with his guitar play and crooning, too.
But I was also much influenced by what I saw on the telly, and listened to on the radio, of course. In the UK – the land that gave the world the Beatles and Led Zeppelin – you were bound to catch some kind of TV shows and radio programs dedicated to music. They were everywhere. On the telly, two shows stood out most, namely, Top of The Pops and Old Grey Whistle Test.
Top of the Pops, was a weekly music chart television program by the BBC. It was broadcasted every Thursday at 7.30 pm and showcased performances from some of that particular week's best-selling pop music artists, with a rundown of the week's UK Singles Chart.
So, Thursdays would find most of my Blackpool housemates home early because of Top of the Pops. They’d fill up the living area, all nicely seated in front of our old telly in high anticipation of the show that was coming. Some of the artists I remember seeing for first time on Top of The Pops were The Police who belted out their number one hit Message in A Bottle, and Dr Hook performing When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Women. And I still remember the so-called “Christmas number one” single for 1979 on the program, which was Another Brick in The Wall by the rock group Pink Floyd.
The BBC Radio 1 was a radio station solely dedicated to current popular music and chart hits. Whenever I was not beating my brains out on Physics homework set by the stern old Mr Speight, I would tune in to Radio 1 on my double-speakered Sharp GF-9090 stereo radio cassette player within the comforts of my room. I remember some of the DJs of Radio 1 such as Dave Lee Travis, Noel Edmonds, Mike Read and Tony Blackburn as being very popular figures who’d also appeared as regular presenters on Top of the Pops.
So, it was by being fuelled on by Top of the Pops, Radio 1, and my housemate Shaari’s record collection that I went on to get to know and experience such favourites as the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Super Tramp. Other famous names those days included Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Genesis, Duran Duran, Queen, Eurythmics, and Hall & Oates just to name a few. There were also some funny and weird sounding names such as Siouxsie and The Banshees, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and what have you.
 As I was very much into photography those days, not much of my savings from the scholarship was spent on music. Instead, they’d been devoted mostly to films, lens filters and other photographic gadgets. However, Shaari did have a very good hi-fi system in his room and a wide collection of LP record albums neatly arranged on the floor in one corner of his room. 
Among others, Shaari’s collection included Bob James, George Benson, Steely Dan, Christopher Cross and Dire Straits albums. Often times, when I was taking a break from study, I would find myself wandering into his room just to relax, while listening to his collection. Fortunately, his taste in music was mostly agreeable to my ear. I even went to a concert with him just for the experience of it. It was Sad Café, a Manchester band with a hit single Every Day Hurts that reached number 3 on the singles chart.
But for all the music that I‘d enjoyed, there were tons more which seemed indiscernible and downright dreadful to me. I never liked stuffs like heavy metal, punk and gothic rock which I thought were just weird and nothing more than eardrum-bursting noise. But some of my friends, like Hussain, would swear by the headbanging tunes belched out by AC/DC and Judas Priest. To each his own, I suppose.
When I left Blackpool and entered university in Manchester, I had less time on my hand for music. Maybe that was a bit of an irony because, as I had learnt from my English mates, Manchester had a vibrant music scene, second two only to London. It was the birth place of many popular bands. In addition to Sad Café, other groups like the Bee Gees, 10CC, The Hollies and Barclay James Harvest were all product of Manchester in the 1970s or earlier.
But of course, being the good student that I was..ehem, I was more pre-occupied with project works and assignments. Moreover, the university accommodation, Cornbrook House, only had one telly located down in the common room to be shared with a hundred other students. So that spelt the end of my Top of The Pops days. I only followed music and the charts from a distance.
But once in a while, when I went window shopping at the Manchester Arndale Centre, if I went into the WHSmith or passed by one of the record shops, I’d have a quick glance and noted the chart toppers of the day. There would be some recognizable names initially. But as time went by, the names listed on the charts got more and more unfamiliar.
Down on the first floor of the Cornbrook House there was the Precinct Centre, an above ground shopping and amenities area with various shops and facilities including a music library. But the library was noticeably more popular with the elderlies – grannies and grandads – who came to while their ample free time away. On the few occasions that I’d decided to drop in, I discovered that most of the records and tapes there were classical music, and the few that were of count to me had all been borrowed by somebody else.  
The last three months of my undergraduate course were some of the most stressful period of my student life. Long nights at the studio, or at home, were normal as I sweated over my final year project work and thesis. That put me further away from any pleasurable pursuits, including music.
By the time I had completed my undergraduate course, and when it was time to pack up my little belongings and return to Malaysia, I had almost completely lost touch with current music. And my collection of cassettes had greatly diminished and was all over the place!
But by then my taste in music had already been developed, and set.

I love the Pink Floyd. And the sound of David Gates, Alan Parsons or Dire Straits, even if heard quietly in the background, could still stir up nice feelings in me. Enough to bring fragments of memories of my years in the UK to come flowing back.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Glorious Blackpool Illuminations

The Blackpool Illuminations was one of the most iconic sights in British culture which I managed to see and experience up close.

And what a sight it was, too.

It was nothing quite like I’d ever seen in Malaysia. Perhaps the closest to what could be called an illumination display back home for me was the annual panjut displays in Kota Lama Kanan, Kuala Kangsar. Every year, during Ramadhan, to coincide with the malam tujuh likur, folks residing along the main road from Kuala Kangsar leading towards the Iskandar Bridge over Sungai Perak would decorate their housing compounds with lanterns. After buka puasa, hordes of locals would take slow drives to enjoy the spectacle on display on both sides of the road.

But this one in Blackpool was totally something else altogether. All bright and colourful, it was super extravagant and on much a bigger scale. It was that particular time of the year when as if Blackpool was having one big, two-months-long carnival along its sea front.

At ten kilometres long, and using over a million bulbs, the Blackpool Illuminations was said to be the biggest free light show in the world. The original illuminations started back in 1879. But the first event similar to the current, modern-day displays began over a hundred years ago in 1912.  It was to mark the opening of a new section of the Blackpool promenade by a member of the British Royal family. Thousands of lights were festooned and lighted up along the promenade. They created so much interest – and not to mention good business – that the local business community decided to stage the Illuminations again the following year. The rest, as they say, was history.

The event usually ran for sixty-six days from late August to early November each year. It is, in a way, Blackpool’s shrewd strategy of lengthening its holiday season. When other resorts have pulled down the shutters for the year, Blackpool continued to pulsate with activities attracting millions more well into autumn.

The illuminations run along along the entire length of the Blackpool seafront promenade from the Starr Gate in the south to Red Bank Road at Bispham. It is launched every year with a Switch On concert whereby top celebrities are invited and given the honour to flick on the Lights.True to its tag as the premiere seaside resort in Britain, the illuminations displayed the town's gaudy grandeur at its best. All along the main road and tram ways a variety of stunning colourful light displays could be seen from lasers, to neon, light bulbs, searchlights and floodlights, all attached to lamp posts or buildings and linked together with festoon lighting.

The lights were also presented in the form of scenic designs and features displaying all sorts of patterns, popular cartoons and famous TV characters. I remember some of the more popular displays being Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy from the Muppet Shows. Another firm favourite was Dr. Who, the main character from a hit British television adventure drama with a cult following. The trams which went up and down the Promenade would also be specially illuminated and designed almost like parade floats. Three hugely popular ones were the Rocket Tram, the Boat Tram and the Train Tram.

Most visitors drive through the Illuminations by car, coach or bus, making the main road on the promenade jam packed. Then of course there were the trams, some of which with open tops which would allow passengers to get a closer view of the lights. The trams would trundle along very slowly on their tracks to allow the passengers to soak in the sights on display. My friends and I used to just foot it. We tried once or twice to hop on one of the open top trams. But it would have been our lucky day if we could board the overcrowded trams. 

I remember the first time we went to see the Illuminations. The pedestrian walkways by the road sides would be full of people gawking at the lights. The busiest areas were the promenade near the Gynn Square, as well as in front of the three famous Blackpool piers namely the North Pier, Central Pier and South Pier. It was quite normal to have people accidentally bumping into you as most had their eyes transfixed on the lights rather than watching where they were going. As it was autumn, the nighttime weather could be quite unforgiving. Most people could be seen walking with their hands planted deep in their winter jacket pockets with collars folded up and shoulders hunched to protect from the cold draughts.

My friends and I would start our walk from Gynn Square as a few of our friends stayed nearby at Hodgson Road. From Gynn Square we would make our way southwards. We walked and walked, stopping occasionally to admire the more impressive and captivating sets of displays. The Blackpool Tower would be all lighted up, and at 350 meters tall it became a landmark point helping us with our bearing and indications in terms of distance already covered.

Often times though, we got carried away, literally. We would walk on for miles enchanted by the lights until we were so far away from Gynn Square and too cold to walk back.

In the end, we had no choice but to take the tram back to Gynn Square. But have you tried standing in a long queue, waiting for a tram on a cold and windy night? It was pure misery. The night breeze would get noticeably colder every minute that we stood still in the line.

We would reach home cold and hungry but still gabbing away, excited by the sights and sound of the Blackpool Illuminations. A quick meal of the now soggy fish and chips that we took away from the local chippy, and were contented and ready for bed.