Belatedly, I must both thank and blame Huw, the Welsh lothario with whom I shared a flat on Thorpe Road in Norwich — in the days shortly after cave paintings.
When Huw moved out, he took his record player with him, and the three of us who were left as tenants — me and two young women teachers — never quite got around to replacing it. Well, we couldn’t agree on whose turn it was to riddle the solid-fuel Aga, so we certainly couldn’t arrange to co-finance a new stereo.
Having nothing on which to play records posed a bit of a problem. As well as being Norwich City correspondent for the EDP, I wrote a weekly music column for the Eastern Evening News. It was called “Here and Now”, which was naff even then.
I used to preview and review concerts (nobody had coined the word “gig”), interview local bands, and write about new records. Some weeks, it was all record reviews, because I was sent free albums and it was easy for me to fill my allotted space by waffling on about them.
But it became less simple, clearly, once Huw had moved away, taking his record player (and his white, flared trousers and some, um, interesting stuff to smoke).
Fortunately, there were usually Press Releases included with the records sent to me. Failing that, there were sleeve notes. So I could be informative about albums without actually hearing a solitary guitar chord.
One week, as an album sat, un-played, alongside my typewriter, I noted that one of the exceedingly hairy chaps involved had been a session musician on a couple of Bob Dylan’s releases. So I riffed a bit on that fact. Without explanation I used Dylan’s real name, Robert Zimmerman, but changed it, hilariously I believed, to Robert Zimmerperson. It might have been because of some of Huw’s left-over tobacco, or it could have been that I had a lot of space to fill that week. Perhaps it was because Women’s Lib was a thing. Probably it was because I was a pretentious twat.
But at the UEA, where Women’s Lib was a very big thing, my mention of Robert Zimmerperson was so well received that I was invited to speak in a debate.
So, thanks Huw. If you and your record player had stayed, I wouldn’t have needed to regurgitate sleeve notes and would not have had my exceptionally brief and entirely bogus period of minor fame as a New Man.
But Huw, man, it’s your fault that I stopped listening to music. I got out of the habit and music ceased to be significant as I married and then landed a football job in Fleet Street. I even turned down the chance to join a journalist mate’s punk band; they called themselves Nasty Media and had one track played by John Peel, but I was too busy being part of the really nasty media, at The Sun.
Later, when I was a sports desk executive, first at the Daily Telegraph and then at the Evening Standard, I stopped even listening to music while driving. I needed to keep abreast of news and opinions — not just in sport, but in politics, and, you know, stuff — so as to hold my own at daily editorial conferences. The soundtrack to most car journeys was provided by Radio Four or Five.
Then, when I started doing quite a bit of broadcasting myself, I listened entirely to TalkSport, Five Live or local talk programmes.
But, soon after I retired, an unexpected, joyous, life-enhancing thing happened. I discovered the power of choral singing.
A couple who are near-neighbours run a smallish theatre and performance school. Parents, entranced by the sounds drifting into the street as they waited to pick up their kids, persuaded the couple to put on sessions for grown-ups. And my wife suggested I should go along.
So, I am a member of the Gobstoppers Glee Club.
Singing with others is known to lower stress, relieve anxiety and elevate endorphins. It improves cognition by increasing blood flow to specific areas of the brain. Members of choirs begin to synchronise their heartbeats, because they are synchronising their breathing in order to sing the same notes in (more or less) the same order.
My group is not Rock Choir. It’s definitely not Gareth Malone (who kicks out all but the best singers). But we put on charity concerts and our ethos — no auditions, nobody turned away, but let’s do this as well as we can in the time we have — is so powerfully enabling.
Last summer, in the garden of a massive, grand country house I sang in public for the first time since being a schoolboy soprano. And I performed a solo — Under The Boardwalk since you ask.
Without forgetting that we’re doing it all for fun, we try hard not to sound like a mass Karaoke session. So for our obligatory, sold-out Abba night, there were complicated harmonies and four or so groups singing different bits (I believe that is the technical term) at the same time.
And, I have to say, it’s a lot like being in a football crowd: not the sound, I hope, but the same sense of sharing emotions, the same sense of belonging, the same catharsis. At our performances there is some rudimentary, choreographed movement as well. So, it’s official: I am a happy clapper!
- Not Till Tomorrow (Ralph McTell) – Folksy, but some clever lyrics and very easy to remember and sing.
- The Greatest Showman (various artists) – I sing the “lows” part to This Is Me. It’s defiant and ebullient.
- Duets (Frank Sinatra and various) – There is never any mishearing of lyrics when Francis Albert enunciates them with careful ease. It’s sacrilege to try to sing along with him, but since he’s got others joining in on this — greats including Aretha Franklin — well, who’s going to hear me anyway?
- The Singles: The First Ten Years (Abba) – I would rather have stapled my testicles to the ceiling than bought an Abba album when this was released in 1982. Now I wallow in those harmonies.
- 2nd Vault Of Golden Hits (The Four Seasons) – I saw Frankie Valli performing at Epsom Racecourse a few summers ago. He is about 172 years old, but, that voice, those ear-worm choruses.
- Zimmerman Blues (Ralph McTell) – I loved that surname 20 years before Christoph was born.
- Starmaker (The Kids From Fame) – You have to sing this with a well-rehearsed choir to have an inkling why such saccharine is so satisfying.
- Lean On Me (Bill Withers) – Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow…
- (Sittin On) The Dock Of The Bay (Otis Redding) – This is what I wanted to do as a solo when I ended up singing Under The Boardwalk.
- One Of Us (Abba) – Contributing to the harmonies can generate a tribal sense of belonging that speaks to an ancient, ingrained need.