So, it was LPs we turned to for our pleasure. On our parents' radiograms while they were out at a dinner dance/bingo/the pub, or in the privacy of our bedrooms if we were lucky enough to have a Dansette record player.
Mine was a Curry's Westminster. Mono, of course.
The flashier amongst us might have a Ferguson Hi-Fi system with smoked-glass effect lid and separate speakers, strategically positioned in opposing corners of the through-lounge. His Master's Chair would be placed at the apex of a sonic triangle so the stereo could be marvelled at. The sounds of a passing train, perhaps. Or monks, chanting their way around cloisters. This system was designed to impress technically: what it played was a minor detail.
Except on the record players of we bright young things.
This rather elaborate scene having been set, it is on one particular LP I wish to focus. El Pea, in fact. This double album was a sampler for the Island label which then, as now, had something of reputation for cutting edge music. Like Chrysalis records, Island would 'take a risk' with artists who had been shown the door by the labels who were all looking for the next Marmalade or Chicory Tip. In fact, the door probably hadn't even been opened to the long-haired layabouts. They were, most likely, told to go away by an A&R guy's secretary shouting at them through the letterbox.
So, back to the old school. There were no girls (hence the interest in the Miss World contest) and the place was packed with an eccentric mix of masters, as well as pupils. These ranged from the old professors who wore linen jackets on summer days and openly smoked in the staff room, to the younger ex-Oxbridge set who were racy enough to team desert boots with their brown suits. And one chap who, for these purposes, shall be referred to as Mr R.
Mr R was something of a legend: a Welshman with the face of Max Boyce crossed with an old boxing glove. A Rugby player who, it was rumoured, had chosen a career in Chemistry over his national sport, and driver of a slightly shabby Frog Eyed Sprite. Something of a maverick within the hallowed walls.
On a Friday lunchtime (and possibly others too) this burly chap's throaty-sounding convertible would whisk him into town, where he would prop up the public bar of an atmospheric old half-timbered inn, and relax over four or five pints. Before driving back quite safely. People drove better in theses days after a few pints. Or at least they thought they did.
(I refer to him as Mr R in case this blog causes his career to be retrospectively examined. AndI wouldn't want that. Read on!)
As a consequence of his convivial lunchtimes, Mr R's lessons on a Friday afternoon were to be much enjoyed. These incidents are all true: Mr R once tried to demonstrate the creation of 'plastic sulphur' and caused a minor explosion. Another time he set fire to a lad's trousers and said 'shit, tell my mother you're sorry!' after he'd thrown water on the burning garment. On more than one occasion he forgot his desk was on a small stage and fell off the edge with humorous effect. Sometimes he couldn't really be bothered to teach and would offer the option of a quiz: he would deduct points if he thought anyone was talking while the answers to his questions were being considered.
"I haven't said anything, sir!"
"Right, minus ten!"
But when all was said and done, Mr R was a great teacher. Particularly affable on Fridays, but always something of a gentle giant. And I have one thing in particular to thank him for, apart from failing my O-Level chemistry. Although, to be fair, Dr W (fifth form teacher) was responsible for this exam disaster as he had the capacity to make a boring subject even duller, so I stopped listening. Not an exploding test tube in sight during my final year of study.
So, I had purchased El Pea (as mentioned several paragraphs previously) for the princely sum of 99p in ashop called Universal Stationers. I was attracted by the double album's value as well as the artists thereon - progressive rock was a big thing in those days. It had tracks by Mountain, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Free, Cat Stevens and Mott the Hoople among others. I'd agreed to lend said album to a friend and it was in the process of being passed under the desk in the half-life of a Friday Chemistry Lesson when a voice said…
"RIGHT!!! BRING THAT HERE!!!" …. and it was sheepishly placed into the firm hands of Mr R. Who, while the class was pretending to be engrossed in the whys and wherefores of the periodic table, could be seen studying the sleeve notes.
Saved by the bell. Class dismissed, and I skulked back up to Mr R's desk. "Can I borrow this?" he said, surprisingly politely. And, furthermore, surprisingly soberly. Jabbing his finger at one of the sleeve's line drawings which depicted the artists featured on El Pea, he added "There's some good stuff on here."
And indeed there was. When I got the album back, unscratched, thank God, I gave it a proper listen from start to finish.
For there, sandwiched between the likes of Quintessence and Heads, Hands and Feet, were offerings from Amazing Blondel, The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention. Some of the best performers and songwriters ever to grace the folk/acoustic genre on one double album.
Mr R opened my ears to a whole new sphere of music, for which I thank him greatly.
If you are wondering where his finger landed in particular, it was on Tir na nOg. Probably the greatest Prog Folk writers ever to come out of Ireland, who achieved a cult following and were much admired by the late John Peel. By coincidence, forty years on Tir na nOg are touring the UK again and - I am delighted to say - have allowed me to include their song 'Our Love Will Not Decay' (as featured on El Pea) as the sound track to this block. To listen, click the button below.
You can find more about Tir na nOg's history and their current tour dates by visiting http://www.tirnanog-progfolk.com/
Finally, if anyone out there remembers El Pea, I wonder if they can solve a mystery? Nick Drake's track is listed on the cover as 'One Of These Things First' yet on the record (or at least on my copy) it is 'Northern Sky.' Is this just a mistake - or do I have something very rare stored away in my archives?