17 September 2010

"Harold, where did you put the playing cards?"


Both Mondo and I have mentioned caravan holidays this week. Caravanning was the Rudds' principal way of an affordable family holiday in the 1980s and I really enjoyed it.

We went to Sandford Park in Dorset almost every summer from 1976 to 1985, with the exception of 1982, when we took our first ever foreign holiday as a family.

The Dorset trips would be much the same. Lots of "are we there yet?" naggerama from the two boys in the back seat of the Cortina (later Sierra) until, finally, the sign for Holton Heath greeted us and we turned into the park entrance. Us two lads would kick a ball around and get in the way while the parents did all the responsible stuff like sorting out the gas, the bog and the awning.

In the early years, when my brother and I were both still in the infant stage, we'd sleep in bunks at one end of the van while mum and dad had the other end. As I mentioned in the Bolan piece below, apparently the death of Elvis Presley occurred while we were on this very caravan site. I would have probably been pushing toy cars around while this momentous news sunk in.

The summer of 1979? Patrick Hernandez on the radio that piped into every permanent building within the campsite. I never heard Born To Be Alive again until I purchased a second hand copy in adulthood, but the song stuck with me. Heaven knows why, it isn't especially good. The other song that seemed to be on forever was Tragedy.

Also that summer, just after my brother and I had been put to bed and mum and dad were having a cuppa in front of the dodgy black and white telly, Rudd Major piped up with a question.

"Mum, what's 'sillick'?"

"What's what, love?"

"Sillick," said the insistent nine year old. "Is it some kind of food?"

"Where on earth have you heard that?"

"That song in the charts starts with 'Sillick and chips...'"

My big brother had got confused over the opening lyric of I Don't Like Mondays, riding high in the charts. On the bottom bunk, I listened with six year old bafflement.

Mum tried her best to explain that it was 'silicon chip' and also what it meant. There was a pause.

"And what's 'cider head'? Is it a drink?"

The answer came in stereo from both parents this time, followed by laughter.

"In-side-her-head!"

So even aged six, daft musical facts and memories were lodging in my brain.

The summer of 1980 holiday is very vivid indeed. As mentioned below, it was when Yootha Joyce died and my dad told us all via his freshly-acquired copy of the Telegraph from the onsite paper shop. "Oh really? They said she was very poorly," said mum. Don't know who 'they' were.

This year's memorable holiday song was Tom Hark, a tune I again didn't hear for years and years afterwards but now loathe with a passion thanks to its christ-mothering overuse by football clubs who can't trust their own supporters to make a spontaneous noise of glee when their team scores.

One night we had Top Of The Pops on the fuzzy, circular-aerialled black and white telly. I don't remember much of it, other than the Top 10 countdown which, clear as day, featured Tom Hark, Sheena Easton's 9 To 5 (Morning Train) and Abba's Super Trouper.

From 1981 onwards, we slept in the awning, and I'd like to think it wasn't because my parents wanted a break from the "what's 'sillick'?"-like idiocy from the inquisitive offspring behind the caravan's dividing curtain. From stable beds we went onto camp beds, the type where you have to sit down in the middle and horizontalise yourself with great care so you don't make the bed tip backwards.

This, nonetheless, happened a lot. Either one of us could have been having a dream that prompted much involuntary bodily movement and the camp bed would overbalance and wake us up with our head perched on the groundsheet, looking upwards at the rest of us, trapped in a sleeping bag. It was like being laid on the bottom side of a seesaw with nobody at the opposite end.

Only one way to get out of this mess...

"DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!"

The awning became our refuge though. All books, toys, games and other holiday paraphernalia was kept in there and we rarely had to enter the van at all. Dining would take place either in the awning or outside, depending on the weather. It got to the point when two growing lads were going on a caravan holiday without hardly ever needing to go into a caravan. That's the sort Clarkson would like, though he'd prefer a luxury hotel to an awning.

Sandford Park had lots of caravan aisles and surrounding greenery which allowed for footballs to be kicked, swingballs to be set up (I'm now gagging for a game of swingball) and badminton courts to be erected. Like everyone else, the communal lavatories were the preferred option when caught short, with in-van buckets only permissible during the night. Which was just as well for my brother and I, as upon waking up with a mild pressing urge to use the loo, the process of extricating oneself from the sleeping bag without toppling the bed took us to the stage of being completely desperate, and running to the brickwork stalls was totally out of the question.

There was a restaurant, though it acted mainly as a daytime cafe and did a roaring trade in sausage and chips. There was a games room, full of 1980s multi-button standards like Space Invaders, Scramble, Defender and any number of pinball machines. I loved pinball and my holiday spends went into those machines every year.

There was a family entertainment lounge where an acoustic duo would entertain the punters with versions of Darlin', Cruel To Be Kind, I Only Want To Be With You and If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me. Back then, I took the second half of the title as a literal usage of the beautiful body, as opposed to the probable meaning of bearing a grudge. They also, I recall, were obsessed with the Berni Flint back catalogue and had a song that to this day I can't identify, which was about a favourite pair of Wellingtons. The chorus went "Oh, me wellie boots..." and, er, that's it. I liked that song and through it, received the family nickname of Wellie which, to a mixture of shame and misplaced pride, still remains.

Then there was the Peacock Lounge Bar. This was the Holy Grail of Sandford Park, complete with beshielded knight outside (well, a bloke in a black suit and tie). I was barred from this place as it said, very strictly indeed, on a sign on the door "Children under 14 are not allowed in this bar". Unlike the brand of parent for whom alcohol and me-time was more important than their kids, my mum and dad never went in there but often I found myself loitering outside, jealously asking teenagers how old they were as they sauntered in and out.

The days out were memorable. We'd go to Studland beach regularly, there was always one trip to Poole, one to Bournemouth and one to climb on the ruins of Corfe Castle. Shopping was done in Wareham and most years we'd book our trip to coincide with Weymouth Carnival. Other places I remember from the road signs were Blandford, Morden and Swanage, plus the county town of Dorchester which, perhaps bizarrely, I don't think we ever visited.

I think I probably last visited Sandford Park with the folks in 1985. A year later we had a family holiday in Palamos, Spain, which I remember for my brother's inability to settle down on the coach journey home because his O-level results were waiting on the mat. That was the last holiday he went on with us; a year later, he had a sixth-formers jaunt to the same resort and I got on a coach to Blanes, another Spanish resort, about which I remember not much except for striking up conversation with a similarly aged German girl on the beach who had developed Barbara Windsor's assets quickly in life.

The last family holiday was in 1996, when I copped a free trip to Turkey with my parents as I was on such a low salary that my annual leave just meant going home or, if I was lucky, a train ride to my brother's house and a sleeping bag on his floor. That 1996 occasion was also my first time on an aeroplane. There are people who to this day cannot believe this, not realising that flights in the 1980s were comparatively expensive and so a coach trip to the continent was the more viable option.

Or, of course, a trip to a caravan site like Sandford Park. It still exists, as my brother took his own family there a couple of years back on the reasonable proviso that because he liked it so much there as a child, his kids should be allowed to as well. And they did.

16 September 2010

He ain't no square with his corkscrew hair


Marc Bolan died 33 years ago today. As his car crash took place only one precise month after Elvis Presley fell over in his khazi, the death of one of the most charismatic rock stars the UK has produced was overshadowed at the time and remains so today.

I still suspect his legacy and assessment of the impact his music had on the British charts and culture as a whole suffered. He should be mourned and talked about on a scale similar to Freddie Mercury or Brian Jones.

I was four when he died and hadn't a clue, and my parents were not Bolan fans so they don't remember a thing either, though they tell me we were on our favourite caravan site in Dorset when the news of Elvis Presley's demise was announced. Oddly, we were on the same caravan site three years later when Yootha Joyce died, and that I do remember as my dad revealed it to my mum upon returning from the onsite newsagent with a copy of the Telegraph.

I first heard of Marc Bolan in 1985 when the Power Station did that beyond-all-realms-of-awfulness cover of Get It On. Back then, I didn't know it was awful, of course, as I had no notion of the original recording nor the bloke who composed it. I only found out about it when reading the sleevenotes on Now 5, on which it appeared. To this day it's a travesty, that version. They managed to make it two minutes longer while only featuring half of the verses. It served only as an excuse for Andy Taylor to show the other half of Duran Duran - they were having a trial separation at the time - that he really could play elongated, directionless, self-absorbed guitar solos.

Still only 12, I was not yet at the stage where I wanted to find out more about a dead rock star when every new pop star coming through and every single being released was an exciting event. I was for the now, not the then, something which makes me despair when I do my retro club nights and people half my age just don't appreciate what they're hearing. Bah.

The next time I heard the name of Bolan, and T Rex, was when my brother was in a sixth form band that recorded a professional demo and sent it out to record companies and music critics. One of them said they sounded like T Rex, which was a disappointment for this group of moody denim-clad teenagers as they were hoping to show AC/DC influences. But they took it as a compliment, even though none of them had heard T Rex before. It prompted them to buy a T Rex album for the first time and listen to it.

That was in 1988, and I was into Depeche Mode and the Cure. But not T Rex.

Then out came that Levi's ad with Brad Pitt in it.



This got 20th Century Boy back into the charts, 14 years after Bolan's death. And I bought the single. That riff remains one of the greatest written and has been much imitated by subsequent composers. This was the moment for me. From here onwards, aged 18, I wanted to know more about Bolan and spent quite a few years listening to him more than any other artist. It was the first time my musical tastes had ever regressed, and since the end of the 1990s that's all I've ever done.

What I like about Bolan is that he was all that was required of a rock star and all that was required of a pop star without alienating either. He was a musician and a looker, a writer and a performer, someone who appealed to kids and adults without either party feeling like they were unusual. Younger girls could do the screaming and worshipping, older lads could examine his guitar playing and delve into those lyrics.

As for the legacy he left, it remains one of the great under-reported achievements in chart history that Bolan had four UK No.1 singles in little more than a year, from Hot Love in the spring of 1971 to Metal Guru in the early summer of 1972. Fleshing it out a little, the eight singles he released from the end of 1970 - the breakthrough, drumless "straighten your curls" hit Ride A White Swan - to the end of 1972 - the stop-start, death-premonition song Solid Gold Easy Action - got to either No.1 or No.2. Back then it was an arduous task to establish yourself in the charts but Bolan made it look easy. The public only stopped him from having more No.1s thanks to their irritating ear for a novelty single - three of Bolan's runner-up hits were held off by "comic" songs.

20th Century Boy wasn't one of those eight. It was the ninth of the sequence and got to No.3, still no bad thing. But for period from 1973 to 1977 was Bolan's down phase, with a solitary Top 20 hit per year and severe problems with marriage, money and drugs.

That he is regarded as a forefather of punk is a bit of a misnomer. I do wonder if the likes of Rat Scabies or Bruce Foxton were avid listeners to Telegram Sam or Jeepster five years before Bolan stepped in to give them an audience. I'm equally uncertain as to whether Bolan thought the emerging new wave bands of 1977 were especially good but he knew they would get a new crowd to his shows and get people watching his TV programme. Smart man. He did it to revive his own career as much as to start theirs. And the bands in question weren't going to turn down such mega publicity. So, Bolan took the Damned on tour and got the Jam on Marc and the punk teenagers embraced Bolan as someone who was helping promote their culture. And even now, British society has never really accepted punk as a viable musical genre, greatly rated by the mainstream, even though much of that mainstream is now in its 40s and 50s and were of punk's target generation. Punk still resuscitates tales of swearing on telly, treason and early deaths before anyone mentions the songs. And Bolan is allegedly an "inspiration" for this? He might have seen the need to promote new music but that didn't mean he necessarily rated the music he was helping to promote. Anyway, with glitter on his face and wildly colourful clothes and headgear, he seems to be more of a New Romantic inspiration, though because he smiled a lot and rarely used synthesisers, he doesn't get mentioned as much as Roxy Music or David Bowie.

Bolan remains my only musical hero who was before my time and yet, oddly, was the last musical hero I ever had. Bit of a contradiction. I'm not alone. There is a big post-Bolan generation of fans out there. When I worked for KCFM, we had a Bolan weekend to mark the 30th anniversary of his death, playing loads of his records and giving away albums. My boss dug out a Revox recording of an interview he conducted with Bolan in the last year of his life when the man himself was in Hull for a gig. I listened, and shivered throughout, as if I'd been locked in the freezer for the night.

I suppose the most prominent use of Bolan's work in recent times was I Love To Boogie's inclusion in Billy Elliot. That's a sharp and short ditty but it was from 1976, when Bolan's life was desperate, and it isn't remotely representative of his best art. You need Electric Warrior or The Slider for that. And I've just put one of them on now to mark the date.

14 September 2010

O2 be with a better mobile company


My mobile phone bill arrived yesterday, and nearly sent me to the local cardiac ward.

I'm already annoyed with O2 for the considerably weak or non-existent signals that they frequently transmit to vast sections of the country. I cannot make a phone call from most of the downstairs area of my house and there are swathes of the M62 corridor which kills the signal stone dead.

Now it turns out that they have been playing with my account to the extent of making it, suddenly, six times more expensive for a monthly payment.

My bills fall between the £40 and £55 threshold per month. I have a certain allocation of webtime and a fixed number of calls. I also have unlimited texts, and it is with the latter that the problem has been caused.

I am a prolific, addictive texter. Always have been. I have no reason not to be proud of this, it's fun and sometimes it's necessary. My bills on an old tariff were too high so a couple of years back, I went to O2 to renegotiate. I was told, in no uncertain terms, by the chap behind the counter that they didn't offer unlimited texts in a package, so I said I would find a network that did, and exited the store.

The next day a customer services person rang me, with that slightly over-eager tone of voice, to enquire as to why I'd given notice on my account. I explained that it was because I needed unlimited texts and couldn't have them. She immediately said I could and changed the terms of my contract there and then. It turns out that customer services folk in the call centre have far more power than the hapless people in loud ties who stand in the Carphone Warehouse writing down postcodes all day.

So I got the new deal I needed, and the bills dropped to a manageable level. All was well.

Then yesterday I received a bill for just over 300 quid.

I couldn't believe my eyes. Instantly I looked for the customer services telephone number - which is easier said than done, of course; I know these places prefer not to have one-on-one contact with their customers but for a mobile phone network to actively prefer customers to email them is moronic - and eventually, got through to someone.

She had a Scottish accent. Everyone in a call centre has either a Scottish or subcontinental accent, irrespective of who you are ringing.

She told me that it was texting that had caused the high bill. I pointed out that my bills in previous months had been a sixth of the value without any change in my habits. I pointed this out again and again.

My assumption had been that they had not realised (or chosen not to realise) that I was back from my holiday in France and so were charging me overseas roaming. But this was not the case.

I was getting nowhere until I uttered the words "go somewhere else for my phone". Then suddenly I was asked if I would mind being put on hold, while they looked at my bill history.

I listened to Something In The Air by Thunderclap Newman two and a half times. I used to like that song.

Then she reappeared. Apparently, someone had removed my entitlement to unlimited texts "in error". This was now to be restored and the bill recalculated.

So, blessedly, I was right to complain. The error was theirs and now I'll get a bill for something more manageable. It's amazing what you can get a phone company to do when you start mentioning their rivals.

But they should have been checking my old bills and the terms of my contract before the prospect of losing a customer to Vodafone was mentioned. That's what customer service is. A customer gets in contact with a concern; the company deals with that concern, rather than trying to stave it off.

My main worry, though, is that this "error" was made. Given that they didn't bother searching for this "error" for some time when I called, I can't help but suspect something more sinister was going on. The logistics of it interest me; is it as simple as a ticked box next to the words "unlimited texts" being unticked? If so, then someone has manually done that.

My history shows they clearly don't like giving out unlimited texts entitlements to begin with, so it wouldn't surprise me that a few "accidental" removals of the right are authorised every so often, just to see how many customers don't notice or don't want to make a fuss, and just pay up the increased amount.

And customers like me, who do kick up a stink, get a bit of resistance followed by a hollow apology on the grounds of "error". I don't think it's error, I think it's sabotage.