“Oi’ll give it foive”

coat_of_arms_of_birmingham-svgBirmingham lies at the heart of England. It is the UK’s second city.

I first visited Birmingham in the 1960s. At that time I was living in Leek, just under 60 miles to the north in North Staffordshire. I moved to Birmingham in September 1970 when I began my graduate studies in the Department of Botany at The University of Birmingham, never envisaging that I would return a decade later to join the staff of the same department. Since 1981, my wife and I have lived in Bromsgrove, some 13 miles south of Birmingham in northeast Worcestershire (with a 19 year break while I worked in the Philippines).

birmingham

Birmingham city center, overlooking New Street Station, the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and Rotunda, and the BT Tower, and looking towards the Black Country further on.

Birmingham is one of seven metropolitan boroughs that make up the County of  West Midlands, from Wolverhampton in the northwest to Solihull and Coventry in the southeast, and encompassing the area known as the Black Country lying to the west of Birmingham proper.

To the ears of someone from outside the region, everyone in the West Midlands speaks with the same ‘Brummie‘ accent, rated the least appealing in the nation. Shame! There are subtle differences across the region, but I can understand why most outsiders maybe hear just a single accent. You can read (and hear) what one American writer has to say about ‘Brummie’ here.

It is rather interesting to note that one Brummie, accent and all, has made it big on US television. Comedian John Oliver came to the fore on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and now in his own Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Here’s a classic Oliver monologue about Donald Trump.

And there have now been three series of the cult drama Peaky Blinders about a gangster family in Birmingham just after the ending of the First World War. Again, it’s amazing that this became so popular on the other side of The Pond, given the strong Brummie accents, strong language, and explicit sexual content.

So what has me waxing lyrical this morning about all things Brummie? Well, last night, Heavy Metal band Black Sabbath (of Ozzy Osbourne fame) performed the second of two concerts in Birmingham at the end of an 81-date tour that began in January last year. After 50 years, Black Sabbath have hung up their guitars and microphones. Yesterday’s concert was the final one.

Birmingham is the birthplace of Heavy Metal, but it’s not a genre I appreciate. Nevertheless, this story about Black Sabbath got me thinking.

The ‘Merseyside Sound’ of the 1960s, 1970s is rightly renowned worldwide for The Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Cilla Black, just to mention three of a very long list.

However, there was—and is—a vibrant ‘Birmingham Sound‘, with musicians and bands having an enormous impact everywhere. Do any come immediately to mind? No? Well, among the most famous are: Jeff Lynne and ELO, Roy Wood (in The Move and Wizzard), The Moody Blues, Duran DuranUB40, Dexys Midnight Runners, Slade, even Musical Youth. As anyone who follows my blog will know, I’m a great Jeff Lynne-ELO-Traveling Wilburys fan.

Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie was born in Lancashire, but from early childhood was raised in Birmingham. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was born in West Bromwich in the Black Country, but grew up in Kidderminster, nine miles west of Bromsgrove.

So let’s enjoy some of the Brummie talent.

Flowers in the Rain was the first record to be played at the launch of BBC Radio 1 by DJ Tony Blackburn in 1967.

So what’s this Oi’ll give it foive business?

In the early to mid 1960s, there was a TV series, Thank Your Lucky Stars produced by the Birmingham-based commercial channel, ATV, and broadcast nationwide. In the show’s Wikipedia page it states: Audience participation was a strong feature of Thank Your Lucky Stars, and the Spin-a-Disc section, where a guest DJ and three teenagers reviewed three singles, is a very well remembered feature of the show. Generally American singles were reviewed. It was on this section that Janice Nicholls appeared. She was a former office clerk from the English Midlands who became famous for the catchphrase “Oi’ll give it foive” which she said with a strong Black Country accent.

Janice Nicholls released this dreadful single in 1963, but at least you can hear her say Oi’ll give it foive.

Among the notable comedians and actors proudly from the region are Sir Lenny Henry (who hails from Dudley in the Black Country), and Jasper Carrott and Julie Walters, who are true Brummies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guitar heroes

Life has been pretty good to me – most of the time. I’ve achieved many of the things I wanted. There are more places to visit, of course, and hopefully I can begin to knock some of these off my list year by year.

But as I reflect on things, there aren’t many that I wish I had done. Except one.

I wish I’d learnt to play the guitar.

Well, I can almost hear you screaming at the screen ‘Go on, there’s still time’. And being retired I guess I do have (in theory) time on my hands. But frankly, I don’t really have the aptitude – nor the patience.

The guitar was – and continues to be – such a democratic instrument. How many thousands of young men got hold of a guitar in the 50s and 60s, learnt a few chords, and escaped from their quite humble backgrounds? And that continues today, although I have to confess that my music appreciation somewhat atrophied in the 1980s and earlier. My elder brother Ed was given a guitar in the late 1950s, and although he did master sufficient chords for us to play skiffle, I’m not sure how proficient he really did become.

But I love listening to guitar music. So here are some of my ‘guitar heroes’ (who seem to be about my age!) and some favourite tracks (sorry about the adverts on the YouTube clips).

Mark Knopfler
Here’s a young Mark playing Sultans of Swing, that Dire Straits classic, in a 1978 Old Grey Whistle Test appearance on the BBC.

I saw him in concert at Birmingham’s LG Arena in May 2010, just after I’d returned to the UK after retiring from IRRI. What a concert! Mark has moved away from a purely rock focus, evoking a broader folk and country base to much of his current music-making. But whenever you listen to a Mark Knopfler song/tune, there’s no mistaking it. He has a way of introducing refrains into the melody that are just so typical. Listen to this track (just click the title) Cleaning My Gun – you’ll hear what I mean. But Whoop de Doo is perhaps an even better example.

Lyndsey Buckingham
What more can I say? One fifth (one quarter now) of Fleetwood Mac, his guitar playing is truly inspirational. And his song writing is not bad either. Taken from the 1977 classic album Rumours, this has to be my favourite track: Go Your Own Way, filmed during their 1997 The Dance reunion concert:

I saw Fleetwood Mac in concert in St Paul, MN in 2003. Pity that Christine McVie had already left the band by then, but a night to remember. Read an earlier post about Fleetwood Mac.

Eric Clapton
When has Eric Clapton not been around. It’s said that Clapton became a superstar when he found his voice, when he had the confidence to believe in his own abilities as a musician and singer. Hard to choose a favourite track, but this comes pretty high up – Cocaine:

David Gilmour
I’m a big Pink Floyd fan, and it never ceases to amaze me how Gilmour’s musicianship added so much depth to PF songs. The track Comfortably Numb demonstrates just what I mean; sadly no longer available on YouTube from the Live 8 concert.

Of course, there are others I could also include in my top list: George Harrison, Jeff Lynne (and also read this recent post), Brian May (Queen’s The Show Must Go On with the inimitable Freddie Mercury), Tom Petty (Free Fallin’), Joe Walsh (he’s riffing in the background on this Eagles track, Life In The Fast Lane), and Carlos Santana (Samba Pa’ Ti). I never was a Jimi Hendrix fan (although I can appreciate his musicianship). And George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, and Tom Petty came together in the wonderful Traveling Wilburys (with Bob Dylan and the late Roy Orbison).

On the other hand, the outstanding folk/blues duo of the late Bert Jansch and John Renbourn (both of Pentangle fame) have to be on my list, somewhere. Ed had the vinyl LP Bert and John, released in 1966, which unfortunately was stolen from me when I lived in Costa Rica in the 1970s. I now have it as the CD After the Dance, released in 1992. But which of the great 15 tracks to single out? I think it has to be Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.

Here’s Rolling Stone’s take on the 100 Greatest Guitarists.

On the classical side, I very much admire John Williams. You would enjoy this CD (Sony SK 53 359), The Seville Concert, recorded in the Royal Alcázar Palace. And it includes Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. There’s quite a lot of music out there, originally composed for the lute, and now transcribed for the guitar.

Fleetwood Mac – a passion (almost obsession)

The weather has made a turn for the worse here in the UK. After summer-like temperatures just last week, we now have gales, rain or sleet, and temperatures hovering around 4°C; some parts of the country are covered in snow. So I’m sitting here enjoying the wonderful music of Fleetwood Mac.

Before I moved to the Philippines to join IRRI in 1991, I bought a new hi-fi system including, for the first time, a CD player. The first CD I purchased was Fleetwood Mac: Greatest Hits. I’m not sure now why I decided to buy this. I was, of course, familiar with the name, but actually had no real knowledge of their music. I knew the track Albatross, but had never followed their career as I had other bands. And I’d never heard of Peter Green.

Greatest Hits was a revelation, and I became an instant fan. In fact I developed a passion (some would say an obsession) for their music, and acquired several of their CDs. I was living in Costa Rica when their seminal Rumours album was released in 1977 – one of the highest selling albums ever – and I was totally unaware of it at that time. I’ve caught up since!

I guess it was the release of the reunion concert The Dance on CD and DVD in 1997 that cemented my attachment to their music. Just watch the virtuosity of Lindsey Buckingham on Go Your Own Way.

In June 2003, on our way home to the UK from the Philippines for our annual leave, my wife and I visited old friends from CIP Jim and Jeanne Bryan in Seattle, as they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Then we travelled on to St Paul to stay with our daughter Hannah and husband Michael. And they had a very big surprise for me. Michael had been able to get three tickets for Fleetwood Mac’s Say You Will tour concert on the 19th, and held at the Xcel Energy Center in downtown St Paul. Joining more than 18,000 fans we were treated to a fantastic concert, the only disappointment being the absence of Christine McVie who had left the band and retired to the UK.

I’d never been to a rock concert before so didn’t know quite what to expect. As an undergraduate at Southampton University in the late 1960s I’d attended some small live concerts, but nothing on the scale of this Say You Will one. We had seats in Section 102 of the arena, just left of the stage and had a great view.

The concert began with The Chain – the thump, thump, thump of drums and bass. And as the music built up, I marvelled at being able not only hear the music, but also feel it! My viscera were dancing to the beat as well. But the thing that I most remember were the tears streaming down my cheeks – I just couldn’t hold back the emotion of the occasion. The music just took me over. Well, I recovered by the second or third song, and by then everyone was grooving. And I don’t think we sat down again for almost two hours.

And there’s one interesting snippet – an IRRI connection. Christine McVie’s brother, John Perfect, an entomologist, and his wife Anthea spent some time at IRRI in the late 1980s; I met them there some time in 1991 on one of their visits.

Catholic tastes in music – a challenge for a desert island castaway

A life without music is no life . . .

I need music around me almost all day long. Much of the time it’s the music I have stored on my iPod linked up to my stereo system; so am able to enjoy CD quality as I listen. But I do have some CDs that I’ve never ripped, especially my collection of classical music.

They say that looking at someone’s CD collection says a lot about them. And before you ask, yes, I do have my collection sorted alphabetically – it’s the taxonomist in me. My tastes are broad and varied: rock, pop, folk (especially Irish and Northumbrian pipe music), country, and classical. So I often wonder which eight records I would choose to take on an imaginary desert island.

Desert island? Have I completely lost the plot? Not at all. I’m referring to a BBC radio program first broadcast in 1942, and which celebrated its 70th anniversary recently (the guest was Sir David Attenborough). The format of Desert Island Discs is simple. Each week a guest is invited to choose the eight pieces of music, a book (in addition to the Complete Works of Shakespeare and the Bible), and one luxury that they would take with them as an imaginary castaway on a desert island. Discussion of this music then permits a broader appreciation of the guest’s life, career and other ideas. The current presenter is Kirsty Young, but the original presenter (who actually devised the program), Roy Plomley, was in charge until his death in 1985.

So when you think about it, the choices have to be ones that you’ll never (well, hardly ever) tire of listening to. For what it’s worth, and in no particular order, here are my eight pieces of music – but the list could change tomorrow (and through the wonders of Google and YouTube, I’ve been able to find a great link to each piece for your enjoyment):

Roberta Flack: Killing Me Softly with His Song

I’m not really a Roberta Flack fan – but this song has special memories for me, and these come flooding back whenever I hear it played (not so frequently these days). When I joined the International Potato Center (CIP) in January 1973 this song had just been released and was played all the time on radio stations in Lima. So this song takes me back to the beginning of my career in international agricultural research.

The Beatles: We Can Work It Out

Released in December 1965, as a double A side with Day Tripper. As a teenager in the 60s, I grew up with The Beatles – I was 14 when She Loves You was released and the group became an overnight sensation. I was hooked, and bought nearly all their LPs on vinyl (which were stolen during a burglary in Turrialba, Costa Rica in 1978 – but that’s another story).

When I moved to CDs (in 1991) I replaced all my Beatles albums. I could have chosen any one of many of their phenomenal output, but We Can Work It Out has always been a favorite, and the title reflects, to a certain extent, my philosophy in life. At one of the IRRI 50th anniversary events held in Manila in December 2009, a group called Area One performed a set of Beatles numbers, and played We Can Work It Out just for me! Click here to watch.

Fleetwood Mac: Don’t Stop
The first CD I ever purchased (in 1991) was Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits, just prior to my move to the Philippines to join IRRI. I’d never really been a fan of the group, although they were familiar to me, in a distant sort of way.  Since then, I have become slightly obsessive with their music, and certainly Rumours (released in 1977, and which went on to become one of the best selling albums ever) is a classic. Don’t Stop can be taken as a song of great optimism – even though Rumours was recorded when Fleetwood Mac and their tangled personal relationships were in meltdown. Don’t Stop was adopted by the Clinton campaign for the presidency in 1992, and Fleetwood Mac re-formed specially to play at the Clinton Inauguration Ball on 20 January 1993.

The video shows the group performing at that event (not the best performance, however – watch Michael Jackson and other celebrities join FM on stage towards the end of the video). In 2006 I went to a Fleetwood Mac concert (along with 60,000 + fans) in St Paul, Minnesota. What an event – you could feel the music vibrating every organ in your body. And I’m not ashamed to say that I just couldn’t hold back the tears; what an emotional event. Pity that Christine McVee (née Perfect, and brother to entomologist John Perfect who worked at IRRI for a while in the 1980s) had decided no longer to tour with the group. A great concert, nevertheless.

Pink Floyd: Comfortably Numb (The Wall)

I’ve become an avid fan of Pink Floyd only in recent years, and really taken with the guitar mastery of Dave Gilmour. His solos in this song makes the hairs on the back of my head stand up. The version in the video link is from a Roger Waters concert of The Wall at the O2 Arena in London in 2011, with a special appearance of Dave Gilmour.  I was never really aware of the group in the 60s, and was abroad during the 70s when they really made a name for themselves. We didn’t hear much Pink Floyd on the radio in Peru or Costa Rica. However, I do remember, on one trip to Guatemala in late 1979-early 1980, switching on the TV in my hotel room and seeing a video of Another Brick in The Wall. I was fascinated by ‘the marching hammers’.

Dire Straits: Sultans of Swing
Dire Straits – what more can I say.

I have been a consistent fan since the early 1980s, and have followed Mark Knopfler ever since Dire Straits broke up. Mark is probably the greatest guitarist performing today. Sultans of Swing is a vehicle for Mark’s virtuosity, and although included on the album Dire Straits, it was the group’s first release as a single in 1978, but didn’t become a hit until the following year when it was re-released. Even today, Mark cannot play a concert without a rendition of Sultans of Swing. I was fortunate to go to one of his concerts at the LG Arena in Birmingham in May 2010 (tickets were a Christmas present from my daughters), and the live performance was stupendous.

Chopin: Mazurka No. 23 in D Major, Op. 33, No. 2 (but I’d like all the mazurkas, waltzes, and polonaises).

I’ve always appreciated the music of Fryderyk Chopin. So I felt privileged during a visit to Poland in 1989 (I gave a series of lectures on crop evolution and genetic resources at a couple of research institutes) to visit Chopin’s birthplace. Some of his music was being played in the house that is now a museum. And as I strolled around the garden, I could hear this particular mazurka. Although it’s a favorite, it’s also a proxy for all his other wonderful music. The version played here is by Turkish concert pianist, Idil Biret.

Gluck: Che farò senza Euridice (and the whole opera, of course)
I’ve known this particular aria from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice since I was a small boy. But the version I knew then was by the famous English contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, who died of cancer in 1953. But her version was sung in English as What is Life (this recording is from 1946). In the 1990s I used to travel quite often from the Philippines to Europe (especially Rome) in my capacity as Head of the CGIAR Inter-Center Working on Genetic Resources, and mostly flew with Lufthansa then. Lufthansa had (and I assume they still do) a terrific classical music audio stream, and on one journey I came across the version of Che farò senza Euridice listed here. In many productions the part of Orfeo is sung by a contralto (there’s a video of Dame Janet Baker on YouTube), but in fact it was originally written for a counter tenor. In this recording, counter tenor Derek Lee Ragin gives a stunning performance of the aria – you will be amazed that you are listening to a male singer.

JS BachThe Brandenburg Concertos (all six – I’m cheating)
I don’t think any music selection would be complete without a piece by Johan Sebastian Bach. And so I have chosen The Brandenburg Concertos – I find it hard to choose just one of the six. The complexity – and timeless quality – of Bach’s music is a continued inspiration. The video shows the Concerto No. 1, Allegro Moderato.

So, these are my eight choices. I could have included more from Eric Clapton, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Traveling Wilburys, R.E.M., ELO, Crowded House, South American music, The Chieftains, Alison Krauss, and of course a host of baroque composers such as Vivaldi, Boccherini, Haydn, Mozart, and later composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, etc. If I were to make the list in 12 months time, maybe there would be some changes.

And the extras . . .
So what would be my one luxury item and book? Well, I think I’d choose a pair of binoculars – that way I could spend some time birdwatching (assuming my desert island is suitably forested), and to scan the horizon for passing ships to rescue me. And the book? Well, since I reckon I’d have a lot of time on my hands to play word games, I think a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus would be very useful. Incidentally, the Bible would have to be the King James 1611 – I’m not a religious person, but the English text of this version is wonderful and has given so many phrases to modern English usage (and it just celebrated its 400th anniversary).

PS. I’m also an ABBA fan!