Bad Guitars? There’s No Such Thing!

It struck me, the other day, just how lucky we are as guitarists these days. What I mean is this: Can you think of a genuinely bad guitar that’s available now? I bet you can’t, can you? Sure, there may be guitars that aren’t quite right for you in terms of sound and/or playability. But there really aren’t any badly made guitars available now, no matter how tight your budget. This hasn’t always been the way of things.

As you may recall, about a year ago, I took delivery of a cheap Les Paul copy made by Harley Benton. It cost £120 and it ticks all of the Les Paul boxes…

  • Mahogany body? Check.
  • Mahogany set neck? Check.
  • Flamed maple body cap? Check.
  • Alnico Humbucking pickups? Check.
  • High standard of fit & finish? Check.
  • Well set up, straight out of the box? Check.
  • Great Les Paul tone? Check.

Contrast this with the Les Paul copy I owned back in 1979… Here’s a picture, of the very same make & model (not my actual guitar – I just found this pic on the web, but mine was identical):


It was a Satellite branded copy of a Les Paul Custom & in this picture it doesn’t look too bad, but trust me… it was! Let’s take a look at what kind of features a 1970s Les Paul copy had to offer…

  • Mahogany Body? No… plywood.
  • Mahogany set neck? No… I’m not sure what kind of wood it was, because of the thick paint but even if we assume it WAS genuine mahogany, it was attached to the body with 4 screws – it wasn’t a set neck.
  • Maple body cap? No… Some of the paint wore off, around the selector switch, after I’d had it a little while to reveal pressed fibre board sitting on top of the plywood body – it wasn’t even attached properly. You could press the arched top in about 1/8 of an inch in between the pickups, so there was obviously a gap between the body & the “arched” top.
  • Alnico humbuckers? No… cheap ceramic magnet single coils inside fake humbucker covers. The inside of these pickup covers were covered with the Pepsi logo & Japanese writing – they had been made from old soft drinks cans!
  • High standard of fit & finish? No… sharp fret ends, and a neck that could be moved from side to side by about a millimetre, even when the neck screws were fully tightened. Also, the plastic “mother of pearl” inlay at the 3rd fret fell out within the first week I had the guitar & had to be superglued back in.
  • Well set up, out of the box? No… It had an action that was borderline unplayable – you could fit a Bic biro under the strings at the 12th fret & if you lowered the bridge to bring the action down, it began to sound like a sitar with all the fret buzz.
  • Great Les Paul tone? No… it sounded cheap & raspy and was prone to squealing microphonic feedback if you got it anywhere near gig volume. Even when I replaced the pickups with that staple of 70s retrofit pickups, a set of DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbuckers, it just became a louder version of the same “fingernails-down-a-blackboard” tone.

And how much did this guitar, (which despite all it’s faults was my pride & joy as a 12 year old fledgling musician) cost? Well, I bought it out of my Saturday job money from my mother’s Great Universal Stores mail order catalogue for £80-00 @ £2-50 per week over 32 weeks. Let’s put that into perspective…

A quick check on a couple of websites, that compare the value of money from years gone by, reveals that eighty quid in 1979 is the equivalent of about £300 in 2016. Can you imagine paying that amount for a guitar nowadays? A guitar which had a poorly fitting neck, fake pickups inside covers made from old drinks tins, and a hardboard top sitting on a plywood body? Of course not! Any company offering such an instrument would be out of business in a heartbeat. A similar sum (£300) these days will buy you something like this…


Or this…


All the right tone woods & decent pickups. Professional quality, well made, well set up instruments. This is the new normal… good quality pro standard guitars for, what would once have been seen as, beginner instrument prices. Not a whiff of plywood or old Pepsi cans anywhere! These guitars cost £300 in today’s money, and if we take inflation into account over the passage of time, it turns out that £300 back in the late ’70s, would be nearly £1,100 now.

And, going in the opposite direction through time, don’t forget that £300 today was roughly £80 back then. So whichever way you look at it – a £300 guitar for about £80, or a £1,100 guitar for £300, the way prices have dropped, while quality has improved is astonishing!

As I said, guitarists are a lucky bunch these days!

Until next time, here are a few more of the horrible guitars we probably all remember fondly from the late ’70s/early ’80s which, by today’s standards would be judged as little more than firewood…

The Hondo Rainbow:

£95-00 in my local music shop & available in a range of day-glo colours:


This was a truly “aspirational” guitar as (despite it’s plywood body) it had GENUINE humbuckers!

The Woolworths Top Twenty:


My first ever electric guitar. I paid £25 for it, second hand, in 1978. Sort of what you’d get if you described a strat to someone who’d never seen one before and asked them to draw what you’d told them. I plugged this little beast into the mic socket on my Amstrad “music centre” and drove my parents mad!

Kay Les Paul Copy with built-in effects…


Don’t let the glossy finish fool you – this was another plywood, bolt-on LP forgery with those fake humbuckers again. But, it had hi-tech on board effects. All the 70s staples of phase, chorus, fuzz and trem-echo (whatever that was). There was a lad a couple of years above me at school who had one of these & he could play Rockin’ All Over The World… my first guitar-hero worship!

These were the kind of guitars that those of us who remember the 1970s learned to play on… invariably made badly out of cheap materials. We didn’t know how horrible they were, compared to a “real” Fender or Gibson, because the nearest we ever got to a good instrument was to stare longingly at one in a guitar shop window. My local music shop had one, just ONE, Fender Telecaster on display for about a year (the rest of their stock was all the usual Kay, Columbus, Hondo & CSL plywood planks). Me and my friends would go into town on a Saturday morning and spend ages just looking at it and imagine what it would be like to actually play a guitar as good as that!

So next time you hear someone complaining that the latest incarnation of the Squier Strat, tele or Epiphone Les Paul is sub-standard because it doesn’t have Sprague Orange Drop capacitors on the tone control, or because the neck profile isn’t accurate for a 50s/60s re-issue, or that the pickup selector isn’t a genuine Switchcraft part… just do what us middle aged old farts have been doing since the beginning of time & tell them that they don’t know they’re born. Young ‘uns these days, eh?

Have Fun!


John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

Music… Who Cares If It’s Cool?

A curious thing happened the other day. Well, I thought it was curious, anyway. I was having a cuppa with a mate who’d popped round for a natter & I had my mp3 player plugged into the speaker system in the living room. I had it set to random shuffle, so my entire music collection of 500 or so albums was being regurgitated in a manner which paid no heed to age, genre or artist. A little Metallica followed by some Frank Sinatra or Beethoven, then Nina Simone or Status Quo leading into Green Day… that sort of thing.

Anyway, there we were, two middle aged blokes bemoaning the state of the world (as you do), when he suddenly stopped mid-sentence. It seems that the track which had suddenly burst forth from the speakers had put him off his stroke a little. The song in question was an old Euro-pop hit from the ’70s – “Movie Star” by Harpo. “Oh my God” he said (neither of us are of the generation that would actually say “OMG”). “I remember this tune! This brings back some memories, doesn’t it?” And it’s true, it’s one of many tracks which take me back to the long hot halcyon summer days of my childhood when it never rained, there was endless fun to be had from riding a Raleigh Chopper & climbing trees and the most you had to worry about was whether to spend your pocket money on a bag of sweets or The Beano. This is why I have an entire compilation of about a hundred tunes from the mid-70s permanently loaded onto my mp3 player. Nostalgia, pure & simple… one of the joys of hitting of middle age.

What’s curious about any of that then? Well, what shocked me was his next reaction when I’d told him about my 70s compilation. “Oh, that sounds brilliant, can you do me a copy? I can listen to it when there’s no-one else around.” When I enquired about his plans to enjoy the soundtrack to his childhood with the curtains drawn & the doors locked, he told me that whilst he would get much pleasure from reminiscing along to this music, he wouldn’t want anyone to know of his “guilty pleasure” as he called it. What’s more, the way he put it was as if he thought it was obvious… “Well, you wouldn’t want anybody to catch you listening to that kind of stuff would you?

His reticence puzzled me but without making a bigger deal of this than I wanted to, I couldn’t pick at it any more. However when the She-Boss got home, I told her about the exchange & she looked at me as if I were enquiring about why someone would not want to be caught sleepwalking naked down the High Street. “Well, perhaps he’d be embarrassed.” She said. “Maybe he doesn’t want people to know that he listens to all that old stuff”. It was at that point that I realised there was an entire phenomenon that I’d managed to live nearly 50 years without knowledge of… the aforementioned “guilty pleasure” of enjoying music which would somehow embarrass you if people found out you enjoyed it. Seriously, I’ve bumbled along throughout my entire adult life blissfully unaware that music could have this effect. How many times has someone cast an eye over my music collection and had a little snigger to themselves & thought “Oh… Really? You forgot you’d left THAT one on show hadn’t you?” Has the world always been this way? Or did I blink and miss the moment when it stopped being OK to just like what you like and not worry what people thought?

Maybe I genuinely don’t give a hoot about what other folks think of my tastes, but I find it truly bizarre that a person’s taste in music should be a source of red-faced embarrassment to them. Granted, I would find it a bit odd to come across a middle aged person listening to One Dimension or some other teenybopper act – let’s face it, once you’re past 24 years of age, you’re not part of the target demographic for that kind of stuff. However, the cheesy pop that was in the hit parade (as it was called in those days) when I was a callow youth made a big impression of me and every now and then I enjoy a trip down memory lane. This does not cause me any sense of shame whatsoever. Why should it? Will the teenagers of today be mortified in twenty-five years time to be caught listening to the likes of Katy Perry? They will have all sorts of happy memories associated with this kind of music so why should they deny themselves that pleasure in years to come. Likewise, why should I feel any sense of discomfiture when I enjoy a hit of Showaddywaddy every now & then?

Perhaps the biggest chart act of my formative years was ABBA. Upon investigation (ie asking a few mates) they all admitted to loving ABBA songs when they were growing up but were a bit cagey about whether or not any ABBA songs resided on their iPods these days. Take any ABBA song apart & you will find well crafted, clever chord progressions; stunning production values; memorable hooks; rhyming schemes which manage to avoid tired cliches; and superb vocal harmonies. Why aren’t these songs judged on these merits? Especially when they may hold all sorts of happy memories for the person listening? Why is it that many people who spent their childhood in the 1970s will be uneasy at having an ABBA track blasting from their car window, and will only listen to it one headphones? It seems the answer is that ABBA, along with many other bands I love listening to (Dire Straits spring to mind) are simply not “cool” now.

I can’t imagine how complicated it must be to have to live your life by factoring the “cool” element into everything you do. I mean I know it applies to clothes (not that I take any notice), and now I learn that it applies to the music you’re “allowed” to enjoy too. Does it also come into any decision you make about what to eat? I imagine it probably does… “Oh, I love a cottage pie… but that’s SO last year, isn’t it?” There are undoubtedly people out there who think like this – if they regard their musical tastes in this manner why would they be any different with their other likes & dislikes including food, after all?

Well, stuff it. I’m not cool and I don’t try to be. I like what I like and I don’t care a tuppeny damn what the fashion police think. So there! To round off, here are the 1st ten tracks that came up when I shuffled my mp3 player & I’m not ashamed of a single one of them:

  1. Every Time You Go Away – Paul Young
  2. Patricia – Art Pepper
  3. The Beatles – Love Me Do
  4. The Feeling – Never Be Lonely
  5. The Jarrow Song – Alan Price
  6. Positively 4th Street – Bob Dylan
  7. Some Girls – Racey
  8. Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor – Beethoven
  9. Hysteria – Muse
  10. Blues To Elvin – John Coltrane

Until next time, have fun!


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John Robson… Guitarist

Back On Air!

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that last year I had a little dalliance with radio broadcasting. I presented a show on a local community station in Redcar (Palace FM). It began as a mid-week lunchtime slot, and then I was offered the chance to co-host the Friday evening drive show. Before long I was also presenting a late night jazz programme too. Sadly the station closed down due to technical problems which needed more money to fix than the station could afford.

Undaunted, I decided to set up my own online radio station, Guitar-FM. I had a roster of presenters who sent me their shows which I then uploaded to the server of the hosting company. Sadly, this venture, whilst immensely enjoyable, proved short lived. The problem was that the station sounded too professional & the company hosting it insisted that if I wanted to continue running a “serious” station I would need to upgrade to a pro-grade hosting package, which was beyond my means.

The only other alternative (or so I thought) was to do what many people do and just podcast my shows, without the relevant licences to cover copyright etc., and just hope for the best. Being a musician myself, I baulked at this – if us musicians want to earn a living at our craft then it is beholden upon everyone in the broadcasting industry to pay for the right to use the music they play. So, that was that… broadcasting was something I had enjoyed but now it’s over… well, not quite.

In what I thought would be a futile gesture, I posted a message on an online broadcasting forum ( pitching a show idea. I never imagined anything would come of it, but, guess what? It worked! Within 24 hours my show had been picked up by who wanted it for their service. The show is a 2 hour 70s themed nostalgia show featuring all the great (as well as some of the “not-so-great”) music from the 1970s. In addition to the music there is a weekly round-up of what was in the news in the seventies and a regular slot dedicated to re-living the TV highlights from that decade – essentially it’s like climbing into a TARDIS and travelling back to the heart of the 1970s!

I decided to call the show “The Hitch Hikers Guide To The 70s” (I’m a bit of a Douglas Adams fan, too you see) and it’s on every Sunday evening at 8pm (UK time) HERE. Why not drop by as the weekend draws to a close and check it out. If you miss a show, then you can check out a shorter version of it, on demand, at RYARA RADIO, a service run by a couple of my old colleagues at Palace FM. Whilst you’re there you can listen to some of the other excellent content made by Ryara Radio, including and alternative 60s music show, a rockabilly themed programme & topical discussion shows. If you fancy having a go at making your own radio show, then why not get in touch with the guys at Ryara who are always on the lookout for new on-air talent. No experience is necessary, just a keen enthusiasm for the music you want to play and talk about. I promise you this… once the radio bug bites, it doesn’t let go – you’ll be hooked 🙂

Anyway, back to more guitar-centric stuff next time, so until them… Have FUN!


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John Robson guitar Tuition

Ten Giveaway Signs You Grew Up in the 1970s

  1. You refer to your digital music library as a “record collection”. You simply cannot shut up about the marvel of being able to fit that whole shelf full of LPs, which used to take up an entire wall of you student bedsit, onto a device the size of a fag packet.
  2. You still mentally divide albums up into “side one” and “side two”. This is understandable if it applies to something which originally came out in 1974 on vinyl, but you still do it with new releases. And it’s not just a case of dividing the album in half either. No… there are certain qualities which make a good “opener” for the second side of a record. You have even been known to re-arrange the running order of the mp3s if the band or artist in question “got it wrong”.
  3. Some tedious boy band do a cover of an old ABBA or Blondie song and you can’t resist telling everyone it’s nothing more than a pale, lacklustre, limp-wristed imitation. Who would choose to listen to this sterile, sanitised forgery when the glorious, full-blooded original is still available? It’s like seeing filet mignon on the menu but ordering one of those microwave burgers instead. Whether or not anyone else is listening, or even in the room, when you make this point (maybe not for the first time) is neither here nor there.
  4. You have a zero tolerance policy for rap, hippety-hop and that other thing where people in track suits and baseball caps (the peak is supposed to face the front, by the way) attempt to do drum machine impersonations by spitting saliva-filled raspberry-type fart noises into a microphone. It’s about as closely related to actual music as a beagle is to a geranium. Well, honestly!
  5. You can’t help wondering just what IS going on at Glastonbury? Who on earth keeps booking these tiresome children’s entertainer, teenybopper pop stars? I mean… Kylie Minogue on the Pyramid Stage? Has the world gone mad? Back in the ’70s this would have been like The Bay City Rollers headlining The Monsters of Rock. If this isn’t nipped in the bud it won’t be long before Simon Cowell is running it and the whole thing will be nothing more than a round in the X-Factor. Mark my words!
  6. You notice a distinct lack of extended, ten minute drum, keyboard (and above all) guitar solos in the work of the today’s rock bands. Once upon a time, any half-decent rock act could be relied upon to be a beacon of self-indulgent, virtuoso expression and improvisation. Whatever happened to the lost art of “the jam”? The Kings Of Leon, Coldplay and Nickelback may be filling stadiums, but if they are this generation’s equivalent of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet, then the golden age of the solo is over. What a pity.
  7. One good thing you’ve discovered is that you can pick up a greatest hits compilation, by your favourite band, in a supermarket for under a fiver. Result!
  8. The “antics” of today’s “bad boys” seem a little erm… pathetic. In your day, a rock star was expected to reduce a room at the Holiday Inn to rubble, drive a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool, live fast, die young & leave a hideously grinning corpse. Justin Bieber smokes a joint & urinates into a mop bucket and he’s a “rebel”? He’s a bloody amateur!
  9. You refer to something called “the hit parade”. This is what the charts used to be called back in an era when the Diet Coke was only drunk by people who were actually on a diet, red meat was good for you, and you could put two sugars in your cuppa without incurring the wrath of the lifestyle police.
  10. You have this bizarre notion that “live” music should not involve miming. You do not care how many times people roll their eyes or tune you out when you point out that Madonna, Kylie and Katy Perry (to name but a few) have all committed fraud by selling tickets to a “live” show which was largely lip-synced. It’s usually done in order to ensure the dance routine, and visual aspects of the “performance” are as perfect as the video. The musical aspect is of secondary importance, it seems. Strangely, putting on a visual extravaganza whilst actually playing & singing live was never a problem for bands like The Who, Van Halen, Pink Floyd and Alice Cooper. This is probably due to an abundance of something called “talent”.

If any of the above struck a chord with you, then you are undoubtedly a music lover, a connoisseur of virtuosity, an appreciator of talent and above all, a child of the ’70s. Don’t worry… it’s the world that’s gone mad, not you!


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The John Robson Jazz Project

We Live In An Age Of Magic

A good friend of mine & I were talking a while ago about the demise of the small independent record shop. It seems that from the early ’90s onwards they have been closing at an alarming rate as the record buying public were lured away, first by the big music retailing chains, then in recent years by online music sales. Most of my early record collection came from the Teesside institution that was Alan Fearnley Records in Middlesbrough. Alan finally pulled down the shutters for the last time in 2004, and it felt like the end of an era.

Shops like Alan’s were more than just the place you went to buy a copy of your favourite band’s new album. They were an essential part of a Saturday morning. The whole weekend stretched ahead of you, and what better way to start than at the record shop? A place where you knew you’d run into your mates; where you might see that girl you fancied (and what better way to impress her than make sure she saw you browsing through all the “right” records); where you could chat about music with people who were as crazy about it as you were.

Then there was the excitement of sitting on the bus on the way home with your newly purchased 12” long player, reading the sleeve notes, admiring the artwork, looking at the song titles and imagining what wonderful music they were going to reveal once you got that big, black circular vinyl treasure onto the turntable and plugged in your curly-cabled headphones. The anticipation was delicious!

Having said all of that, you might imagine that the rest of this week’s blog will consist of a misty-eyed, rose-tinted nostalgia-fest. A middle-aged man bemoaning the loss of a fondly remembered part of his youth, and it’s all the fault of progress and modernity. Not a bit of it. Bring on the brave new world of downloads, streaming, and online subscription services, I say!

Let’s pretend you could jump into a Tardis and travel back to some point in the late ’70s or early ’80s. You could meet up with your younger self and tell them how the future would shape up. You would find yourself describing a world where the music you want could be had instantly. No more waiting for the shop to order that obscure foreign import you desperately had to have; no more hoping you can find something in the racks by that new band who piqued your curiosity in an article you read; no more getting home from the record shop and discovering the album you’ve been waiting weeks to own skips when you try to play it. No… you can have it NOW, without leaving the house, and it will be superb high quality (much like those new-fangled compact discs that were just coming onto the market back then).

Next, imagine the look of wonder that would cross your young face when you tell yourself about how little this all costs. Here’s how I would describe Spotify to my 19-year-old self…

You can listen to pretty much the whole back catalogue of just about every record label in the world, and all the new releases which come out by all your favourite bands. You have what amounts to unlimited access to every piece of music ever recorded, and it’s FREE… as long as you don’t mind the occasional advert in between songs. You music collection is infinite!”

Can I tape it all and play it on my walkman when I leave the house?” is a question your young counterpart may venture.

Well, not exactly…” you’d reply. You’d then continue with…

But for £9.99 a month you can save it all to a device the size of a single cassette case and take it with you wherever you go. That’s right… for the paltry sum of a tenner every four weeks, you can have, to keep, a CD quality copy of every album you ever wanted, or ever will want and you can listen to it all anywhere you like… at home, on the bus, in the car, or even out walking the dog.”

Just think how someone from the relatively recent world of the 1990s would react to that image of the future. They would, quite rightly, be amazed and impatient for the future to arrive.

I know I will never convince the hard-core vinyl junkies out there. To some folks, the smell of the record sleeve, the ritual of handling the LP by only the edges as they reverently place it on the turntable, and the perceived warmth of the sound are a vital part of the way they appreciate music. That said, I’ve yet to come across a person of this persuasion who will agree to a blind test to see if they can actually distinguish vinyl from digital. Even if they could, I’d wager it would be the surface noise – the inherent imperfections in sound reproduction caused by the needle on the record – that would tell them they were listening to music on technology perfected in the 1950s.

For me, enjoyment of music is all about losing myself in the emotional response created by the interaction of melody, harmony, lyrics and rhythm. I want to hear the music as I would if I’d been in the studio listening while the band were performing it, without anything (like tape-hiss or the sound of a stylus in a groove) colouring it or getting in the way. The medium it is stored on, and the packaging it is sold in matter not one jot. That great visionary, Arthur C. Clarke once said “Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.” When it comes to the infinite wonderland of instantaneous music we now have I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It’s magical.


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The John Robson Jazz Project

Fish Fingers, Showaddywaddy & Crackerjack…

When I was 10 years old, my favourite meal was fish fingers with instant mashed potato covered in a well known brand of instant cheese sauce. I would usually be served this on a Friday evening whilst watching Crackerjack on the telly. If you’re not old enough to remember this programme, it was essentially a game show for kids – various rounds of games hosted by (in my era) Ed “Stewpot” Stewart, interspersed with comedy sketches featuring Peter Glaze and Don Maclean (no, not the bloke who sang American Pie). Contestants would battle it out to get to the final round where the prize was often a coveted Raleigh Chopper bike, and runners up got the legendary Crackerjack pencil as a souvenir of their appearance on the show. When I was ten, this was the best thing on TV. The only thing I loved more than Crackerjack was to see my favourite band, Showaddywaddy on Top Of The Pops.


By the time I was in my mid 20s, all of this had changed, Crackerjack ended in 1984, Showaddywaddy were relegated to the Butlins summer season cabaret circuit, and I’d acquired a taste for chicken jalfrezi in place of my fish fingers, mash & cheese sauce combo of the 70s. By then, the music I was into had changed too… I didn’t miss the music of my youth – Showaddywaddy weren’t around and I didn’t care. As a 25 year old I was listening to Pink Floyd, Boston, a little bit of jazz and lots of blues. My taste in TV shows was different, too… I’d developed in interest in current affairs by then so would regularly watch the news (something no normal 10 year old would ever do), and shows like Spitting Image & Auf Wiedersehen Pet would regularly be underlined in my copy of the Radio Times.


Recently I had my 40th birthday… and even more recently, I had my 47th. And guess what…? My taste in TV, food and music has changed again… I watch more documentaries now, eat less spicy food in favour of good old fashioned British cuisine (mince & dumplings… yes please!), and as for music, it’s all about Frank Zappa, progressive rock, cool jazz and symphonies for the most part nowadays.

Where am I going with all this, you ask? Well, I recently caught the end of a TV show about a well known boy-band. The lead singer was surprising one of his fans by singing at her wedding. This lady was in her mid-late 20s, and her favourite music was the same sort of adolescent pop stuff she’d listened to when she was 10 years old. Yes, I know we all have the nostalgia thing from time to time (I dip into my childhood reminiscences as much as any other middle aged old fart), but this was a grown woman whose musical tastes had not matured, or changed, since childhood!

It really shocked me that adults like this existed in (apparently) such large numbers. Once upon a time, parents listened to “grown up” music like (in my day) Dire Straits & Fleetwood Mac, and left the Rick Astley and Kylie Minogue stuff for their teenybopper offspring. These days you’re just as likely to be a Kylie fan at the age of 40 as you are at the age of 14. Is it not natural for our tastes in all things to alter over time? Can you imagine, for example, a grown adult who lists their favourite TV channel as CBeebies or The Cartoon Network? Or how about a 27-year-old going out for a meal to a smart restaurant and ordering Alphabetti Spaghetti because it had been their favourite meal since they were a kid? Why is the idea of someone’s musical taste being so frozen in time in exactly the same way any less discordant to us, I wonder? And what does it say for the future of music as an art form when music industry’s main source of revenue seems to be from promoting children’s entertainment to children and adults alike? Makes you think, doesn’t it?

What’s Your Favourite “Unknown” Album?

Before I begin, let me define what I mean by “unknown”… I’m not talking about new material by an unsigned band or artist. I’m not referring to some niche-market, obscure release by a band who never made the charts either. No… by “unknown” I mean an album (or even a whole body of work) by a band who were pretty much household names at the time, but have subsequently been collectively forgotten.

This kind of thing happens all the time it seems. Not only in music, but there have been some fantastic TV shows & films which were pretty well known when they were “current” but people nowadays seem never to have heard of. Most people who were around at the time, (or even those who weren’t) recall 70s TV shows like “Blake’s 7”, “When The Boat Comes In” or “The Six Million Dollar Man”.

I would wager that most folks who gave a nod of recognition to those titles would scratch their head in a bemused fashion at the mention of “The Fantastic Journey”. No, I don’t mean that film where a bunch of scientists, including Raquel Welch, get shrunk to microscopic proportions and get sent on a mission inside the body of a cold war defector to foil an assassination attempt. That was called “Fantastic Voyage”. Nor do I mean the Disney tale about a bunch of domestic pets who cross the wilderness to be reunited with their owners – that was called “The Incredible Journey”. No, “The Fantastic Journey” was a US sci-fi series, shown on Friday evenings, getting huge prime time ratings in the UK in the mid-late 70s. Here’s the premise of the show, courtesy of Wikipedia…

“The series concerns a family and their associates who charter a boat out into the Caribbean for a scientific expedition. After an encounter in the area of the Bermuda Triangle with an unnatural green cloud the group find themselves shipwrecked on a mysterious uncharted island from which they are unable to escape.”

The point is that this was a pretty popular show at the time, getting audiences as big as many shows which are remembered to this day, but for some reason, this show dropped out of the collective consciousness.

As I said, the same thing happens with music too. The mid-late 70s (very much my era, as you may have gathered by now) was responsible for many musical trends which endured… punk, disco, the beginnings of synth-pop, the resurgence of ska to name but a few. Anyone remember the ‘50s rock ‘n roll revival from that era too? OK, so you do. Fair enough, which band was at the vanguard of that movement? I bet you’re thinking of Showaddywaddy, aren’t you? And it’s true, they were a massively popular band back then, but I bet you didn’t think of these guys… 

They were huge back then & even now still play to happy doo-wop loving audiences all over the country, albeit with one or two line-up changes since those heady days. They even counted a certain Mr “Rotten”, John Lydon among their fans. However nowadays, I’d all but guarantee they’d fail to appear on any 70s compilation CD or even an entire box-set of music from that era. For some reason, they have been airbrushed out of the “official” collective memory of the 70s music scene, as defined by the nostalgia industry. As much as I love this band, they aren’t responsible for MY personal favourite “unknown” album (they were very much a singles act, anyway). No, the honour of being the huge selling album no-one has heard of (at least when I mention it) goes to… (drum roll)…

“The Snow Goose” by Camel.

See, I told you that you wouldn’t have heard have heard of it didn’t I? I won’t go through the whole Wikipedia entry here, as I’m sure you’re capable of doing so yourself if you’re interested. Suffice to say it’s a good old fashioned bit of indulgent ‘70s prog rock. An entirely instrumental rock band-meets-orchestra work based on the novella of the same name by American author Paul Gallico. It is an utterly beautiful piece of music from beginning to end (in the best prog tradition, each track morphs into the next). It attained a respectable chart position in the UK, reaching the top 20 in the album sales chart, so it’s hardly “an underground classic” qualifying for “cult status”, to coin a couple of clichés. No, this was pretty much mainstream stuff at the time. Here’s the band themselves from an Old Grey Whistle Test session playing excerpts from the album: 

The only time I’ve heard any of this album in the media recently was, of all places, on Top Gear. The Stig often listens to odd choices of music when doing fast laps in whatever supercar is being tested that week. I caught an old repeat on Dave (a UK TV channel) the other week & he was listening to a track from The Snow Goose as he blasted round the track. Jeremy Clarkson explained that The Stig was going through a “Prog Rock Phase” which would explain it. It comes to something when the only other person who seems to have heard of your favourite album is a mute anonymous, “tame racing driver”. Still, such is life, I guess. Do feel free to post your own much-loved but largely forgotten albums in the comments section. I’d love to know I’m not the only person this has happened to.

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