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Miscellaneous - Singer-Songwriters at the BBC

  by Owen Peters

published: 9 / 2 / 2015

Miscellaneous - Singer-Songwriters at the BBC


In his 'TV Music Memories' column, in which he looks at music programmes on television, Owen Peters watches an archive programme of singer-songwriters from the 1960s and 1970s

Singer-Songwriters at the BBC Season 2 Episode 1 This month's column has the theme of hair. Everyone in this star-studded line-up seems to have hair, lots of it. Some of the guys have longer hair than the women. Maybe you shouldn’t be surprised as we are transported back to the late 1960s and mid 1970s via 'Singer-Songwriters at the BBC'. No one seems to be aged over 30. The artists, the audience, it’s the youth and hair show. The line-up exemplifies how a well written song supported only by an acoustic guitar can become an anthem to generations and generations of music lovers. I have two personal favourites which I believe have stood the test of time. More of my opinions later. Some of the artists had brief affairs with fame. Some didn’t live long to enjoy it. Others either stepped out of the limelight or moved on to different music careers. If the late 1960s amd early-to mid 1970s were your formative years, I’m sure these artists and songs will take you back to school, university, apprenticeship. If like me you weren’t part of these iconic years (cough, cough), then you have a new world of singer-songwriters to experience. Our BBC announcer is a “frightfully nice chap” - collar and tie, scholarly spectacles with sensible hair, neat, tidy and not over the ears. Definitely Director General material. He introduces the programme which opens with Tim Buckley doing 'Coming Home'. The song has a jazz base, especially on percussion. It a performance from 1968, although its arrangement is hard to place in terms of a time frame. It could fit in most decades. We stay with 1968 as Leonard Cohen duets and lusts (Sorry, but he does) with and over Julie Felix on 'Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye'. Both perched on stools, Cohen doesn’t lose eye contact with Felix throughout the song. Felix is much stronger on vocals, while Cohen clearly has other things on his mind. 'Fathers and Sons' finds Cat Stevens in storytelling mode about rules for a young lives, and provides our first glimpse of the 1970s - Cheesecloth shirt, bearded, hair without a brush through it for weeks. Yes, it’s coming together nicely. Here at around twenty-five years old, he sings the line, “I am old but I’m happy.” Not surprisingly it carried more gravitas when performed on 'Later...with Jools Holland' in 2011, after he had served his thirty year hiatus from music. For some of the artists here, their full potential was never realised due to untimely deaths. Sandy Denny, who died in 1978 due to a fall, is seen here playing 'The North Star, Grassmans and the Ravens'. It features just her wavering vocals and a piano, and provides thoughts of what could've been. Next is the first of what I deem to be one of the best songs ever written from this period, Don McLean’s 'American Pie' from 1972. The song is performed without any additional instruments other than McLean’s guitar, and doesn’t he make it hum? The audience couldn’t have know what they they were witnessing as they sit attentively but unmoved by his performance. This is the full version, all eight minutes and thirty three seconds. He turns the song into a sing-a-long, but there is a youthful anger and melancholy to lines which are almost whispered - “Not a word was spoken/All the church bells were broken.” The passion in his vocal delivery and guitar dexterity makes this one to watch, again and again. 'Peace Will Come (According to the Plan)' also came out in 1972. Who wrote and sung this one? Correct, it was Melanie, who belts out this message of hope and peace in the new world. She made her breakthrough at Woodstock back in 1967, and was still wowing the crowds with her Glastonbury set in 2011. When this next song is played everyone seems to know the lyrics. It is Stealers Wheel's 'Stuck in the Middle with You', again from 1972. That wonderful line, “Clowns to the left of me/Jokers to the right”, has been taken out of context as a put down line over the years. It was in fact the band's real life situation when dealing with what they termed “hot shot music executives”. Gerry Rafferty on lead vocals had numerous hits such as 'Baker Street' before his passing in 2011. In this age of digital technology who knows when a musician or vocalist are performing live? There are no doubts with our next performer. During a cosy chat on the 'Parkinson' show, our folically-challenged maestro picks up his guitar and gives a note perfect rendition of 'Homeward Bound'. It’s 1975, it’s Paul Simon. Myth, legend, history or truth have scribed the song was written by Simon at Warrington Bank Quay railway station in 1963. The ease and grace he emanates whilst singing this song of longing and loneliness is a sheer joy. In terms of attire we have a 1975 smart-looking Elton John, wearing a jacket, collar and tie and with 'Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word'. We also get our first glimpse of music video style shots. There are lots of long angle shots, panning in and out,and replication and duplication of him and his piano. It is all very distracting. Who could have known we would have these type of camera distractions throughout the 1980s? Songs and melodies are sometimes put together and are never bettered by the individual, duo, band team etc. Clifford T. Ward's 'Home Thoughts from Abroad' from 1976 fits that bill. A broken cistern, sleeping in front of the TV and life in Worcestershire all come together as a love song which pulls hard on the emotions when away from a loved one. I wonder how many scholars took up Shelley, Keats, Browning and Wordsworth due to this song. Sadly he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and died in 2001. There have been some memorable, poignant songs and artists in the programme which may serve as a reminder of better times, or simply different times. It closes with my second favourite from this programme. A single spotlight shines on the artist, who is alone on stage with a flat bed guitar. The audience is hushed. She begins, “Just before our love got lost you said I am as constant as a northern star”. Shiver and tingle alert...Joni Mitchell performs 'Case of You'. This track was taken from her album 'Blue', reportedly written regarding the break-up of her relationship with Graham Nash. Her soaring vocal range allow the passion and pithiness of the hurt to literally explode across the auditorium - “You're in my blood like holy wine/You're bitter but taste so sweet/I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.” It’s one thing being able to write such a line, but to express it as part of a relationship crash that’s talent.The song is a commentary on what has been said between them, what has come to pass. A moment in time, at certainly does it for me. If singer-songwriters are for you, then so is this programme. Enjoy. 'Singer-Songwriters at the BBC' was shown on BBC4. It is also available on iPlayer.

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