Friday, 26 August 2011

POEM: 'The Closest Thing To Prayer'


some nights disgourged from dancehalls and
street-corner drifting from dockside pubs
we take motor metallic-screaming bikes down
roads crystal-clear with amber lighting,
then overlooking the moon-crazy estuary
spidered with shipyard cranes and derricks,
past Salt End jetties and chemical plants
to the all-night cafĂ© where “Twist & Shout”
and “She Loves You” strike the air dumb,
vibrating the huge Wurlitzer jukebox and
pinball tables lit up like neon hoardings

drink acrid expresso coffee in Duralex cups
to kill alcohol swirling around the brain,
watching Honda and BSA in formation beneath
the arc of street-light. Talking trash

then drunk and chasing midnight girls
we pause to see the distant lights of
trawlers throb across the estuary stillness,
off for Iceland or Baltic fishing-grounds

and we pause
for a moment
to watch

Published in:
‘SLOW DANCER no.7’ (UK - December 1980)
‘GREEDY PIGS no.2’ (UK – October 1996)
‘CHANTICLEER MAGAZINE ISSUE 16 (1960’s Theme Issue)’ (UK – March 2007)
and in the anthology:
edit: Phil Bowen (Stride Publications) (UK – September 1995)



Remembered largely for easy-on-the-ear
Pop anthems “Windy” and “Cherish”, Association had
their moments at the cutting edge of weird…


I only ever saw Association once. And that was on TV. It was during their solitary British trip, playing isolated run-down and poorly-attended gigs, plus that one-off ‘Top Of The Pops’ slot. It was 1968 by which time they’d already peaked, but something of the charismatic power that – a short fistful of months earlier had made them the hottest property out of America’s West Coast was still apparent. I’d attempted to follow their ascent, greedily interpreting and assimilating tantalisingly hazy newsprint halftones and two or three-line rumours of their Stateside progress, plus occasional radio snatches of their trailblazing singles, “Along Comes Mary”, “Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies” or “Requiem For The Masses”. In the acknowledgement to his ‘High Priest’ book Timothy Leary pretentiously turns ‘our planet over to the young and their prophets’ – listing the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service – and Association in that role.

Such bands didn’t occur spontaneously, but in a series of waves throughout the mid-sixties, each ripple edging the corporate hit-factory a step further from the mass-production machine-mindset. The West Coast of San Francisco and Los Angeles was where this metamorphasis fermented most virulently. America’s ‘Cash-Box’ lists for the 18th June 1966, for example, was dominated by Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”. But way below it, between the forty and fifty positions were two singles destined to spark off mythologies. There was “My Little Red Book”, a Burt Bacharach composition treated as a Byrds/Rolling Stones hybrid by Arthur Lee’s enigmatic Love. And there was a song listing ‘the psychodramas and the traumas’ of “Along Comes Mary”, by the Association. Love’s Elektra-label single, a trailer for their definitive ‘Da Capo’ (February 1967) and ‘Forever Changes’ (November 1967) albums, fell on further stoney ground. But “Along Comes Mary” made the top ten within six weeks.

Written by Tandyn Almer, but accelerated by producer Curt Boettcher, the 45rpm plays-in with distorted organ fed through fuzz-tone blended with Fender bass, while a second guitar tuned like a string-harpsichord complements the build. Jim Yester mouths an ambiguous lyric in a hurtling cascading roller-coaster of internal rhyming onomatopoeic-repetitions – ‘I spend my time in rhyme and verse and curse those faults in me’, into lines that might be praising the hallucinogenic and therapeutic qualities of a girl called Mary, or – as journalist Lillian Roxon tartly observes, ‘aha, said the knowledgeable, the only Mary that does that is marijuana. And sales immediately tripled’! The whole thing climbs into a frenzied handclap-driven climax that is, at the same time, intelligently constructed and executed. A glimpse of Rock things to come. July the 16th saw it nudging Britain’s ‘Record Retailer’ chart at no.39. The following week it fell ten places, then vanished. Most likely due to being ignored by the promotion media, despite favourable, but isolated reviews. London was still in the Mod grip of the Zoot Money, Geno Washington Big-Band Soul thing, despite groundwork done for the new American white music by the Lovin Spoonful and the Byrds.

Association had come together a few scant years prior to their chart breakthrough. With Jules ‘Gary’ Alexander and Terry Kirkman defining its nucleus, playing the LA Folk-centric scene around ‘The Troubadour’ alongside other aspirants, David Crosby, Frank Zappa, Doug Dillard and Cass Elliot. Soon after their November live debut in Pasadena, there was a failed single for the obscure Jubilee label, lifting the traditional “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” from the 1962 ‘Joan Baez In Concert Part 1’ album (c/w “Can’t You Hear Me Call Your Name”, Jubilee 5505). Although revived a few years later to devastating effect by Led Zeppelin for their 1969 debut LP, in fairness it’s likely they by-passed the Association record in favour of homing in on the Anne Bredon original which Joan Baez had used. But then again, Robert Plant is an astute connoisseur of obscure Pop, so who knows? It might just have jolted his interest. It was followed by one previous release for Valiant. Since the Byrds and Turtles hit pay-dirt with “Mr Tambourine Man” and “It Ain’t Me Babe” respectively the Dylan-song route was – after all, routine. But although their take on the ‘Times They Are A-Changin’’ album-track “One Too Many Mornings” was a 1965 air-play hit around LA, it didn’t work its breakthrough magic outside the State, maybe its ‘restless hungry feeling that don’t mean no-one no good’ was a little too austere, despite their vocal sweetening (c/w “Forty Times”, Valiant 730). It was reintroduced into their repertoire in time for a 1970 Live double-album cut at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, a project maybe intended to refute persistent gossip that Association hadn’t necessarily played on all of their hit-tracks! For a while the group was ‘out to lunch’, as the lyrics of ‘Mary’ relate, until she arrives in their life, as ‘sweet as the punch’. A hit, but ‘does she want to give me kicks and be my steady chick and give me pick of memories’? The dilemma is resolved, ‘when the morning of the warnings passed, the gassed and flaccid kids are flung across the stars… the songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars’. It’s a song with wide enough scope to be reinterpreted later by Manhattan Transfer, and – with scant consideration for tune, by Bloodhound Gang!

Following “Along Comes Mary” (c/w “Your Own Love”, London HLT 10054), their second hit reverts to folk-beat roots gently overlayed with the faultless pin-sharp vocal-dexterity soon to become their trademark. Well within the West Coast Mamas and Papas close-harmony tradition, maybe, but focusing its own characteristic freshness around a degree of concise technical perfection seldom equaled since. Written by Gary Alexander “Cherish” was released through Valiant and distributed through Warner Brothers in America, and the distinctive black-and-silver London label in Britain (c/w “Don’t Blame It On Me”, HLT 10074). Yet beneath its lush romance lurks a more lyric-heavy content than most as it explores a semantic quandary, the limitations of words to express meaning – ‘I’m beginning to think that man has never found, the words that could make you want me, that have the right amount of letters, just the right sound that could make you hear, make you see’, near-Wittgenstein as regards most Pop lyrics. It entered the ‘Cashbox’ list on the 24th September at no.43. Three weeks later it topped the chart after jumping through sixteen to four. It remained on the ten for five weeks including two spent at the top slot.


A six-man band, the group then consisted of five-feet-three Gary Alexander – who the press hand-outs skewered with the epithet ‘elf-like’. As well as the alleged leader he wrote “Pandora” and played lead guitar. Terry Kirkman adds recorder, flugel horn and harmony vocals as well as scripting more of the hits. Russ Giguere was lead ‘vocalisator’ and contributed rhythm guitar. Ted Bluechel Junior, drummer and vocalist was a former zoology student and sex symbol of the band according to that same hand-out. Multi-instrumentalist guitarist Jim Yester also sang tenor harmonies. The sixth element was bassist – ‘flexible rhythm generator’, Brian Cole who contrived Association’s ‘Music Machine’ satire. The routine – a wacky attack on the over-commercialisation of the music industry, became an integral part of their act. Performed on the Smothers Brothers TV-show the hosts described it as ‘inventive and witty’. ‘We are musical machines’ they deliver in dead-pan, ‘a machine of our own construction’, against angular riffs and deliberately monotonous mechanical percussion.

Both singles were lifted from the debut album, ‘And Then – Along Comes The Association’ (Valiant, July 1966, reissued by Warner Bros in June 1967), produced in Hollywood by Curt Boettcher (pronounced ‘Betcher’), an enfant terrible fresh from working with Tommy Roe on ‘Sunshine Pop’ hits “Sweet Pea” and “Hooray For Hazel”. A Rock auteur he collaborated with Gary Usher on the ‘Sagittarius’ project, and was a founder driving force behind Our Production Company, a unit later responsible for some highly idiocyncratic psychedelic oddities. He’d been in at the conception of the band. At one time even considered for the line-up. Benefiting from his light witty interventions the album (issued in the UK as London HAT 8305) relies heavily on the headliner singles, plus future ‘B’-side “Standing Still” (flip of “Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies”). But once beyond the familiar tracks there’s the generational manifesto “Enter The Young”, an anthem for the New Consciousness which – they claim, had ‘not only learned to think’ but ‘to care’ and ‘to dare’. Then the equally impressive tambourine-rattling “Changes”, with the neat ‘sometimes words don’t make it… so I’ll play’, with a little guitar figure filling in where inexpressible sentiment lies, adding ‘you got the power and the reason for the rhyme’. There’s modest use of innovatory electronic effects on Curt and Tandy’s “Message Of Our Time” giving the set depth and subtlety. For the rest, with understated jazz inflections, they are group originals. Boettcher remembered ‘some of the songs were recorded in Gary Paxton’s (engineer) living room. I recall it was a really hot day, and his wife had left a bucket of dirty diapers in the corner, so I was in a hurry to finish the tracks!’ (to ‘Zig-Zag’ no.48). Others were recorded in a garage, with the recording equipment in a bus parked in the driveway. Surely no punk-band could claim a more ethically humble album production technique!

Although faring well on the American lists a release bottleneck delayed its British issue until the follow-up set was already on the Cashbox charts. An important time-lag that determined it missed out on UK sales impetus. In compensation they spoke to interviewers from the straight press – sent to evaluate their hip/square credibility on Dylanesque send-up mode, of America disappearing beneath the sea like Atlantis. Delivered with an earnest seriousness that bewilders and confuses the uninitiated. For, although the three-piece suits they wear for the album sleeve’s reverse, the matching ties and highly-polished patent leather shoes, seem out of context with their music, the vibe lies like fizzing background radiation permeating all around them. Hinted by liner-notes from ‘Teen’-magazine’s Phyllis Burgess, and the arty double-exposure photo on the upside front of the album. The following year, however, forced a personal and musical rethink. With three chart singles to their credit they were already dangerously regarded as establishment. They even guest on the Andy Williams syndicated TV show! With the definition of hip capriciously redefining itself month by month, week by week, the next wave was erupting from the West Coast – Sky Saxon’s Seeds, hitching a ride on the short-lived Flower Power thing, was auguring great things, Buffalo Springfield, featuring both Steve Stills and Neil Young were in the charts with the foreboding “For What Its Worth”. “Strawberry Fields Forever” was revolutionising the whole concept of what had been known as Pop music – and what was never to be quite the same again. While Association straddle the transition period uncomfortably. It’s not necessarily that they were weird. ‘Cos there’s a definite exploitable niche for weird. It’s not that they were melodic Sunshine Pop. There’s an even greener market for that. It’s that they flip-flop from one to the other without ever properly reconciling the twain.

Oddly, for the second album ‘Renaissance’ (May 1967, Valiant, UK London HAT 8313), they dump Boettcher in favour of Jim’s brother Jerry Yester. Maybe some acrimony was involved? Boettcher later confided his opinion that the group ‘were never able to handle their own success, it really changed them as people’ (also to ‘Zig-Zag’ in 1975). But Yester’s credentials look good. He’d later replace Zalman Yanovsky in the Lovin Spoonful, going on to record the excellent ‘Farewell Albederan’ album with errant Folknik Judy Henske (1969, Straight Records STS 1052). And, working at Hollywood’s prestigious Western Recorders studio – frequented by Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, he got Association its third straight hit record of 1966 with Gary Alexander’s “Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies” (London HLT 10098), earning them twenty-second position on the year’s charts point table. Said – wrongly, to name-check the Sunset Strip ‘Pandora’s Box’ Club, their most experimental ‘A’-side, like the Hollies “King Midas In Reverse”, delves into Greek mythology, to find the girl who opens the forbidden chest to unleash evil onto the world, ‘freeing locks, Pandora’s boxes, devils are expended and I’m finally free’. Echoing future trends by utilising strange almost out-of-tune harmonies, combined against what was assumed to be a sitar-driven back-drop (actually it’s a Japanese stringed instrument called a koto, played by Alexander himself), the ethereal lyrics – ‘I have walked along the paths of dark and light’ – take a sideways glance at pseudo-profundity, predating the explosion of acid-based imagery by a year. Telling how ‘when all the tears are finally cried and I’m finally clean inside, the gentle winds will come and they will dry my mind’, until with existential clarity, when he’s seen all that life has to offer, ‘now all that will be left for me to do is die’. Too downright weird for the kind of mass acceptance that carried their previous hits to the top it remains a totally charming and unique artifact of its time. Oblique and risky, brave or foolish. December 3rd saw it enter the US lists at thirty, it rose to 29, then 26 before falling to 32, 41, and vanishing. In Britain the Pirate radio stations became the bands most enthusiastic publicists. John Peel remembered seeing the Association sing “Pandora” at the famed ‘Whisky-A-Go-Go’ and was impressed. He played it later on his ‘Perfumed Garden’ radio show.

The album fared better on the American lists. More imaginative in conception than its predecessor, it’s indicative of the band’s dichotomy, going in two directions at once, into close-harmony work weaving in and around an amazing complexity, and into greater musical adventurism. Gary Alexander penned “Looking Glass” for the next single. Due to lack of reaction, by April 1967, it was flipped and Jim Yester’s softly romantic ‘B’-side “No Fair At All” (London HLT 10118) was promoted. It reverts to the beautifully flowing “Cherish” harmonies. But neither side achieved expected sales despite frequent airplays. Then Gary Alexander – always the most active advocate of their more imaginative path, quit the line-up. The spiritual bent indicated by his questing lyrics sent him on the Maharishi-trail to India. Although he’d later return, he was replaced by the amiable Larry Ramos, ‘stamped Made in Japan’ according to the Music Machine banter. An ex-New Christy Minstrel from Hawaii, he was to become an integral visual part of the act. His presence healing the divisions and infusing the group with a new lease of creative energy. His Hawaiian features allowed him to mis-introduce other band-members on stage, then declare ‘hey, all you white guys look alike to me’.


By mid-summer, Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” had happened, as had ‘Sergeant Pepper’, Timothy Leary and Haight-Ashbury. Yet Association were there at its epicentre, opening the legendary Monterey Festival alongside Simon & Garfunkel, Big Brother & the Holding Company and the first American forays for the Who and Jimi Hendrix. And Association re-emerged with the new line-up, and a bouncy million selling single, “Windy” c/w “Sometimes” (London HLT 10140). Written by fellow ‘Troubadour’-graduate Ruthann Friedman, it entered the chart at forty. Crisply commercial with luxurious harmonies, it was perfect feel-good Pop. Its lyric describing the complete flower-child, the girl with ‘a name that’s lighter than air’ who walks down the street ‘smiling at everybody she sees’. Although it’s difficult to see, in our more cynical age, how a girl named ‘Windy’ could get away without cheap fart-gags. It climbed by degrees through 18, 7, 3 then spent the entire month of July at number one. Although the song “Windy” became popular in the UK – as the kind of thing New Generation dance to on the ‘Cilla Black Show’ – and despite numerous cover versions, it was never a hit.

The next single enjoyed similar success, both produced by Bones Howe, previously noted for his work in the jazz field and for engineering classic pop-trash hits for Jan & Dean. “Never My Love” (London 10157) was written by Dick and Don Addrisi (later of the Addrisi Brothers Band, they’d already contributed “Don’t Blame It On Me” to the debut Association album), and it took the American number one in just six moves. Starting at 27 it went to 11, 6, 2, 2, then by October 14th 1967 it was top. For me, it’s one of the classic sixties singles, irresistibly lush. I’ll forgive Association every blandness they’re occasionally prone to, for just one spin of this delicious single. There’s a delightfully surprising drunken electric piano jazz coda in the fade, supplied by leading West Coast session-man Larry Knechtel. A later member of Bread he also supplied keyboard embroidery for “Windy”, for Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, the harpsichord on “MacArthurs Park” and was featured on the Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’ and Phil Spector productions. He points out (in ‘Zig-Zag’ no.55) that guitarist Mike Deasy, drummer Hal Blaine, bass-player Joe Osborne and himself supplied the backing tracks for the band’s two biggest hits – Association supplying vocals only. But this arrangement was hardly unusual, the same musicians also perform on the Mamas and Papas hits. Meanwhile, even the 4:07-minute ‘B’-side, “Requiem For The Masses” made American chart-waves. Developing out of the ‘Renaissance’ mood of eclecticism, Terry Kirkman drew on the Catholic Mass for its framework, just as the Yardbirds had used a Gregorian chant for “Still I’m Sad”. Opening with martial drums and Latin incantation, the metaphor of a dying bullfighter sketches sharp Vietnam comparisons, as with chilling classicism and flowing layers of airy ethereal voices they recite ‘black and white were the figures that recorded him, black and white was the newsprint he was mentioned in, black and white was the question that so bothered him, he never asked, he was taught not to ask’. So much so that, according to Kirkman himself, radio-play was killed off by a phone-call to WB from Nixon’s White House office.

The two hits re-establish Association. The US chart points table for 1967 racks them up at eighth position, beneath the Monkees at one, the Supremes at two, and Aretha Franklin at three. Their final project of the year, and their last for London records, was the album ‘Insight Out’ (January 1968, London HAT 8342). Naturally it leads off with “Requiem” along with the two hits, plus “We Love Us”, “When Love Comes To Me” and “Wasn’t It A Bit Like Now (Parallel 23)” with Kirkman’s subtitle referencing the circle of latitude passing through California. Their biggest-selling album, and one of the year’s highest grossing, it’s perhaps their most melodic and carefully crafted set, soaring with intricate harmony arrangements on cuts the Addrisi’s “Happiness Is” and “Sometime”. Sampling the work of other contemporary Folkie’s they do PF Sloan’s lovely “On A Quiet Night”, Tim Hardin’s “(You Got A) Reputation”, and Mike Deasy’s “Wantin’ Ain’t Getting”, glancing back – less effectively, to earlier sitar affectations. Around this time Valiant, the Four Star Television spin-off responsible for the Cascades “Rhythm Of The Rain” and Barry & the Tamberlanes “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight” – which had been bought out by Warner’s and run as a subsidiary, was folded. The Association however, went on. The first two albums were promptly reissued with new label number-designations.

“Everything That Touches You” c/w “We Love Us” (Warner Brothers Seven Arts WB 7163) continues the gentle sounds that had made them one of the most commercially appealing bands in America. Issued in February of the new year it stayed on the Cashbox lists for twelve weeks, reaching a peak on 9th March at number ten (the positions were 47, 31, 16, 14, 12, 10, 10, 11, 14, 22, 31, 34). It trailered ‘Birthday’ (June 1968, Warner Bros WS 1733), the sleeve-art reflecting their growth since the days of their first album. Sharp suits and short hair replaced by a sartorial extravagance heightened by graphic photographic tricks. Yet the charisma, the air of musical superiority and controlled authority remain. There’s a story that during recording, producer Bones Howe brought Jim Webb into the studio and pressured them to do a twenty-four-minute cantata Jim had written which included his “MacArthur Park”. After some wrangling, they declined, preferring to concentrate on their own material. It’s intriguing to conjecture what strange tangents their career might have taken if they’d had the hit version of the song, instead of Richard Harris. Things might have turned out very differently. Instead, there’s the inspirational “Come On In” with Kirkman and Giguere’s joint lead vocals, followed by the delicate if over-saccharine “Rose Petals, Incense And A Kitten”. “Like Always” has Ramos’ vocals laid over an intriguingly intricate backing-track, not only innovative, but highly distinctive. “Toymaker” and “Barefoot Gentleman” open side two. It’s difficult to think of another band, the Beach Boys excepted, who experiment as effectively with harmonies at this time. The set winds down competently with “Hear It Here”, and “Bus Stop”.

Their most determined assault on British shores came during a May tour to promote “Time For Living” c/w “Birthday Morning” (Warner Bros WB 7195) from the LP. The theme of taking off his watch, kicking off his shoes, and reconnecting with nature is right in there with Joni Mitchell’s hippie-mainstream ‘got to get ourselves back to the garden’. Their well-rehearsed visual presentation, maybe too damn polite, matched to cleanly executed sound for their only ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance, paling everything else on the show into ineptitude. Professionalism might have become a dirty word excuse for lack of musical discipline in certain areas of Rock, but Association show it can still fight its corner. They manage to extract what’s best from both, fusing them into a single joyous whole. They also guest on the ‘New Musical Express’ Poll Winners Concert, headlined by the Rolling Stones. “Time For Living” with vocals by Giguere and Ramon, enters the British charts on May 25th 1968 at 35. Their only UK hit it climbed through 26 to 25, then a reversal to 28 and back to 26. It peaked at 23, fell to 24 and then vanished. Back in the States it followed a similar pattern. Entered the lists at 34 on 1st June and climbed to a peak of 23 a fortnight later. September saw them back in the American Fifty with Terry Kirkman’s autobiographical “Six-Man Band” c/w “Like Always” (Warner Brothers Seven Arts 7229), which peaks at no.30. There’s a stronger more assertive guitar line, a traveling-band lyric about ‘I’m a California man, my instrument in hand, I’m electrified’, seriously bearded and long-haired in the promo-clip. But there would be little more to come.


For a while they release few, and uncommercial singles targeting neither the charts nor the heavy Rock crowd from which they’d become estranged. A comfortably low-key “Goodbye Columbus” (c/w “The Time It Is Today”, lifted from ‘Birthday’) emerged on WB 7267. Jim Yester wrote the ‘A’-side as title-song for the successful Philip Roth-derived sub-‘Graduate’ movie-comedy directed by Larry Peerce starring Ali McGraw with Richard Benjamin. The flip involves a mildly novel left-channel right-channel dialogue. They also contribute “It’s Gotta Be Real” and “So Kind To Me” to the otherwise instrumental soundtrack (‘Goodbye Columbus’ September 1969, WB W 1786). But any expectation of yielding the kick-back Simon & Garfunkel enjoyed from ‘The Graduate’, were not to be realised. Instead, “Windy” c/w “Never My Love” (Warner Bros 7119) was re-issued in May 1969 to promote their neat ‘Greatest Hits’ (January 1969, WB WIWS 1767) resumè. Charting their development, in sequence from “Along Comes Mary”, “Enter The Young” (an inferior alternate take) and “No Fair At All” trailblazing their formative period, through those singles I once caught occasional radio snatches of. Monochrome might add a certain enchantment to TV performance-clips of those hits now, but watching ‘YouTube’ it’s not always easy to detect the element of hipness there. Sometimes distance – as for me, greedily piecing their story together as it happens from tantalisingly hazy newsprint halftones and two or three-line rumours, adds mystique. Significantly “Pandora” – one of the tracks that still looks good, and their most experimental cut, is missed off the Hits history. It concentrates instead on the distinctive harmonies unifying the development of the concept called Association, through which they’d best-reached commercial heights. Looking backwards now. No longer forwards. Yet harmonies directly in line of descent from the West Coast folk-rock style best represented by the Mamas and Papas, but also characterised by lesser entities such as the Critters, Changing Times, We Five and Beau Brummels.

Sadly, the hits package casts the tired inadequacy of their John Boylan produced ‘Association’ (October 1969, WB 1800) into sharper relief, with only “Look At Me”, “Boy On The Mountain”, Giguere’s “Broccoli” and “Yes I Will” standing above the general level on uninspired mediocrity. Lightweight and aloof, drawing country-tinged elements from the mood of the times, a ballad, “Under The Branches” – is a stab at a kind of sub-“Heroes and Villains” cut-up, which some consider impressive. And Brian Cole got his first writer-credit, in collaboration with Gary ‘Jules’ Alexander for a poor “I Am Up For Europe”. Warner-Reprise promoted the set by including “Dubuque Blues” on ‘Schlagers’ – one of their ‘Loss-Leader’ budget-price double albums available only through the mail. Re-united with the errant Gary Alexander – making them a ‘seven-man band’, and linking back with Curt Boettcher, there was a further single in May 1970, called “Just About The Same” (c/w “Look At Me, Look At You”, WB 7372). It was a Boettcher composition he’d previously done as the final manifestation of his Millennium group, even dubbing their vocals onto the same backing-track. Despite which the title’s maybe a tad too descriptive of its musical content. The vein of originality that once powered them through an arc of hits seemed exhausted. They worked out their Warner’s contract with their seventh, and least visible album ‘Stop Your Motor’ (1971, WB WS-1927). No hits. A lowly no.158 on the ‘Billboard’ chart. Only Jimmy Webb’s song “PF Sloan” attracted favourable attention, despite the intrusion of a drawling talking break. It was produced by Ray Pohlman who’d been responsible for their ‘Association Live’ (1970, WB 2WS 1868), another exercise in summing-up what had gone before.

There was more. More or less. On August the 2nd 1972 Brian Cole, who’d never missed a gig in ten years, was found dead in his hotel room of a heroin OD (although his son Jordan plays keyboards in a later Association line-up). There was a brief revival of interest prompted by Swedish band Blue Suede’s revival of “Never My Love”, and Rod Peters’ heavily air-played resurrection of “Cherish”. Nina Simone did the same Terry Kirkman song, and David Cassidy – no less, headlined an album with “Cherish”. Then Association themselves issued their first single in a long while, via a new CBS contract negotiated by Clive Davis. Their close-harmony arrangement of John Sebastian’s “Darlin’ Be Home Soon” (c/w “Indian Wells Woman”, June 1972, CBS 8062) was a taster for the album ‘Waterbeds in Trinidad’ (August 1972, CBS 65009) which followed. Neither single nor album made any chart headway, but affirmed their presence and technical proficiency over their now-more commercially successful West-Coast contemporaries. Advertised as ‘the most beautiful Association album yet’, the faces on the sleeve look different. The hair is longer. According to the liner notes they’re now Terry (Kirkman), Larry (Ramos), Jules (Alexander), Brian (Cole), Ted (Bleuchel) and ‘Same’ Yester plus Richard (Thompson, replacing Russ Giguere) – with thanks for help ‘in some beautiful way’ to Carole King, John Sebastian, Gerry Goffin, and production chores by Lewis Merenstein. The sounds within the sleeve seem deliberately less disciplined too, with John Stewart’s “Little Road And A Stone To Roll” and Ron Davies’ particularly attractive “Silent Song Through The Land”. Goffin & King’s “Show Queen” comes illuminated by tight harmonies, while “Please Don’t Go (Round The Bend)” is uncharacteristically up-tempo, driven by sax and choppy vocal patterns. “Kicking The Gong Around” extends the pulse almost into the funk-zone. Trace-elements of the old charisma remain, especially in Kirkman’s tragically beautiful “Come The Fall”. Despite inevitable modifications, it’s a vibrant and alive album. Critical reaction was largely positive.

Elsewhere, other stars from the same constellation were still spinning. Curt Boettcher issued his only solo album – ‘There’s An Innocent Face’ (March 1973, Elektra K42124), track-listing evidence that he retained an affection for his time with Association, particularly on “I Love You More Each Day”. Produced with multi-instrumentalist Webb Burrel, the ideas hang together something like Harry Nilsson meets the Beach Boys on “She’ll Stay With You”. While “Love You Yes I Do” is an exercise in instant 1950’s nostalgia that breaks into “The Book Of Love” and “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, a song-selection perhaps indicative of the deeper roots of Association harmonies? After a diverse career in some of music’s most intriguing configurations Curt died 14 June 1987, following a lung infection. While Association remain, still extremely competent technicians of pleasing harmony and stylish arrangement, even if the third ingredient – innovation, has long since departed. They continued with various line-ups pretty much to the present day, consigned to the nostalgia circuit.

Despite an impressive roster of American hits and some diverting albums they’d become known to British record buyers largely through inferior – and ‘MOR’, cover versions. “Never My Love” from Danny Williams. “Windy” by Andy Williams. Both strong Association originals hallmarked by clear precise vocals that somehow fell on blind British ears during their period of greatest creativity. And then were too readily forgotten. But the six-man band was important, not only for the hits, but as a catalyst in the development of West-Coast Rock. In 1966 it was not only acid-drooling Tim Leary who spoke of Association in the same breath as Doors, Buffalo Springfield and the Airplane.


Larry Knechtel plays on ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ a September 1968 LP by singer-songwriter Marc LeVine (Hogfat HLP-1, reissued on CD Dynamic DYLP36) with Ry Cooder, & on Stephen Bishop’s 1977 debut LP ‘Careless’ (ABC ABCD-954) with Jim Gordon, & on Art Garfunkel’s ‘Fate For Breakfast’ in 1979

Tandyn Almer co-writes “Sail On Sailor” for the Beach Boys

Jerry Yester was an ex-member of both Modern Folk Quartet and The New Christy Minstrels (of which Larry Ramos was also a former member). After his work with Association he recorded two duo albums with Judy Henske, the second being ‘Rosebud’ (Reprise RS 6426). Replacing Zal Yanovsky in Lovin’ Spoonful he played on their final LP ‘Everything’s Playing’

Curt Boettcher produced two albums by his own group, The Goldbriars, before working with Assocation – ‘The Goldbriars (Epic BN 26087) & ‘Straight Ahead’ (Epic BN 26114). After the Association he recorded instrumental albums with session players as Your Gang (Mercury SR 61094), and Friar Tuck & his Psychedelic Guitars (Mercury SR 61111). He was a member and co-producer of Sagittarius (‘Present Tense’ Columbia CS 9644) and Millennium (‘Begin’, Columbia CS 9663). He also worked with the Beach Boys on ‘L.A. (Light Album)’ (Caribou CRB 86081), and appears on Bruce Johnson’s July 1977 LP ‘Going Public’ (CBS)

John Boylan started out as a member of Appletree Theatre (with brother Terence) who recorded the LP ‘Playback’ (MGM 2353). After production-work for Association he produced albums for Linda Ronstadt, Boston, Little River Band and Roger McGuinn

After leaving Association Russ Giguere recorded a solo I-Ching themed LP ‘Hexagram II’ (1971, Warners WS 1910) which includes sidemen Gary ‘Jules’ Alexander (bass), Larry Knechtal (keyboards), Bernie Leadon (future Eagle on guitar), Bobby Womack, Chris Ethridge (of Flying Burrito Brothers), with Jerry Yester, Judy Henske and Merry Clayton providing backing vocal. It includes Judy Sill’s “Range Rider”, Randy Newman’s “Lover’s Prayer” and a John Boylan song – “Brother Speed”, which he’d originally done with Appletree Theatre

Subsequent Association albums include:

April 1983 – ‘New Memories’ (Hitbound Records 51-3022/ HB 1005) largely cover versions of mainstream hits “Dock Of The Bay”, “Oh Pretty Woman” and “It’s All In The Game”

1983 – ‘Vintage’ (CBS Special Products BT-19223)

1988 – ‘Golden Heebie Jeebies’ (Edsel ED 239) intelligent UK compilation of hip earlier tracks selected by Brian Hogg

1995 – ‘The Association ‘95: A Little Bit More’ (Track Records)

also single March 1973 “Names, Tags, Numbers & Labels” c/w Rainbows Bent” (Mums MUM 1300), a previously unissued track featuring Brian Cole

with thanks to Trevor Hodgett (‘Record Collector’ June 1989)

Earlier version published in:
‘MADCAP’ (UK – July 1974)

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Stan Barstow: When The Raging Calms


The movie posters announced ‘A Kind Of Loving that knew
no wrong – until it was too late!’ It was a novel which
defined its time. Now Andrew Darlington meets Stan Barstow,
and asks what happens when that Raging Calms…?


There are no villains in Stan Barstow’s fiction. Only victims. When you think in terms of his working class background, and the outlook you could expect to develop from such roots, that may seem strange. Yet the vehemence and two-dimensional political polemics you might expect from a writer who so obviously retains an understanding of those who did not so escape, is missing. Politically, Barstow’s characters say only what he feels they would say, never what he feels they should be saying. Possibly it’s the legacy of West Yorkshire hard-headedness that disallows such a Barstow Socialist ‘Grand Gesture’? Or perhaps it’s a form of Thomas Hardyesque acceptance? – his stories contain a fine thread of the irony that is so characteristic of Hardy. But the most obvious reason for Barstow’s apolitical style is his interest – not in issues, but individuals.

‘A Kind Of Loving’ – his second novel, but first published novel, came in 1960, and it’s a book that exactly defines its time. Becoming a movie that perfectly catches the realist New Wave Of British Cinema. Book, and film, came as part of a creative Northern Uproar of gritty ‘Angry Young’ writers, including Alan Sillitoe (‘Saturday Night And Sunday Morning’), John Braine (‘Room At The Top’), Shelagh Delaney (‘A Taste Of Honey’), and David Storey (‘This Sporting Life’), each with a strong regional and – by implication, left-political bias. Yet ‘A Kind Of Loving’ is essentially a romance, with all its misunderstandings and uncertainties. Twenty-year-old office draughtsman Vic Brown is infatuated with Ingrid, and finally gets a date with her for Wednesday, ‘…I just don’t know how I’ll live till then’. Everything seems to be going well, until for their third date she turns up with ‘friend’ Dorothy, and they endure an uneasy three-way dialogue until the wary truce breaks down in a vivid slanging match. Is Ingrid trying to finish with him? Is she using Dorothy as an excuse? He overcomes his reservations, and asks her out again – yet she seems to be standing him up. Is it over already? No. She sends him a sweet letter, and the making-up leads to a breathlessly tactile feeling-up on the Ravensnook Park bandstand. ‘Vic… you don’t think I’m common, do you?’ It’s all narrated in Vic’s racy first person ‘historic present’ vernacular (girls are ‘bints’, ‘tarts’ or ‘birds’). A style that talks just the way you do ‘when you’re thinking yourself, I suppose’ he muses while skimming brother-in-law David’s ‘Ulysses’.

The tone is exactly right, each mood-change itemising the fine now-lost nuances of slight class signifiers. ‘The Old Lady doing her impression of Lady Docker.’ The bickering extended family dialogue at sister Chrissie’s opening wedding scenes flowing to-and-fro with a perfectly transcribed naturalism catching the various Aunties and Uncles with the precision of a time-frozen group-photograph. Vic’s house has three plaster geese ‘flying across the wallpaper’. Ingrid has a posh house, ‘two-thousand five-hundred at today’s price, I reckon’. The bantering friction between Vic and ‘the Old feller’ (‘I’m nobbut a collier, y’know, not a mill-owner’). A new generation with expectations higher than their parents ever dreamed of, in transition from blue-collar to white-collar office jobs, growing into comparative prosperity. Yes – you feel, this is how it was. A more morally constricted time. Vic’s feelings towards Ingrid oscillate, cooling from infatuation to ‘passing fancy’ where ‘sex and dream have got all mixed up inside me’, into the obligatory marriage when she falls pregnant (made even more ironic when she loses the child).

‘The Daily Telegraph’ at first compares Barstow – stylistically, to Emile Zola, and the analogy could be more telling than it at first appears. In a particularly indicative passage in Zola’s notes for ‘Germinal’ the French novelist outlines ideas that could be taken as the basis for those of Barstow’s. ‘To get a broad effect’ Zola writes ‘I must have my two sides as clearly contrasted as possible and carried to the very extremes of intensity. So that I must start with all the woes and fatalities which weigh down on the miners. Facts, not emotional pleas… The bosses are not deliberately vindictive… On the contrary, I must make the Bosses humane so long as their direct interests are not threatened; no point in foolish tub-thumping. The worker is the victim of the fact of existence – capital, competition, industrial crises’. As a result of these stated intentions Zola even makes the mine-owner, Monsieur Hennebeau, envious of his striking employees who he imagines ‘went off fornicating behind the hedges, laying girls without bothering about who had done so before’. He has food in plenty, but that doesn’t prevent him ‘groaning in anguish’. The stance is beyond issues. It views all as victims.

To Vic, commenting on a French-language film-version of ‘Gervaise’ seen by colleague Rawley, Zola ‘sounds like a game, like Bingo or Ludo or Canasta’. No, corrects Rawley, he was ‘an excellent writer. Surprisingly modern to say he wrote sixty or seventy years ago’. Not ‘sexy’ – but ‘outspoken for his time’, ‘shall we say ‘direct’?’ Wilf Cotton, the central character of Barstow’s ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’, knows Zola’s work too. ‘He found (Zola) over-blown, but admired his brutal energy in ‘La Bete Humaine’ and the power of his narrative sweep in ‘L’Assommoir’ and ‘Germinal’ ’. Wilf Cotton, a struggling writer, probably reflects many of his creator’s literary attitudes. Barstow, for example, was initially – inevitably, also compared to DH Lawrence, a charge Cotton dismisses with ‘there are resemblances, but I think they’re probably all superficial’.

Stanley Barstow was the only son of a coal-miner, born in 1928 in the West Yorkshire town of Horbury. They lived in Shepstye Road, and he was first educated at the local Council School. To borrow Wilf Cotton’s interpretation ‘he was perhaps a little brighter at school than many, but not as clever as some. When a scholarship at eleven took him to the Grammar School at Calderford he felt little sense of movement away from his class.’ Barstow’s own eleven-plus took him to Ossett Grammar, near Wakefield. He later began his working life in the Drawing Office of a local Engineering Firm (‘Dawson Whittaker & Sons’ for Vic, ‘Charles Roberts Engineering’ of Horbury Junction for Stan). For, although his fiction is never directly autobiographical, there are undeniably autobiographical clues that can be traced through his real-life ‘In My Own Good Time’. His father’s name is Wilfred (as Wilf Cotton), his father plays cornet in the Gawthorpe Victoria Brass Band (as Vic’s father plays trombone in the local band). One of Barstow’s colleagues in the drawing office quits after a row about pay, very similar to the incident in ‘A Kind Of Loving’.

He began writing short stories in his spare time, an event precisely dated to September 1951, soon after his marriage to Connie (nee Kershaw), who ‘put the idea into my head’. ‘I was 23 (he told a 1969 interviewer), I didn’t think for a moment anybody would take me seriously as a writer or that there was anything in me worth taking seriously. I began to regret the years of slacking at school but I was looking for some kind of creative outlet’. Soon, like Wilf, ‘the need to express the throb and quiver of life on the page, had become part of him’. ‘Once I got underway and became hooked, I learned very fast’ (‘In My Own Good Time’). But ‘I sold nothing in that first phase. The envelopes came back’, until eventually ‘I sold four short stories in eight years’, some of them broadcast on the BBC, including the then-popular ‘Light Programme’ series ‘Morning Story’. ‘I’d earned £77 18s 6d’, enough to buy a Remington portable typewriter. ‘Certainly there was no question of my taking myself seriously, of thinking I had anything serious to say, but if there were people making money by writing for these publications, I might as well become one of them…’

Until the publication, and instant success of ‘A Kind Of Loving’ (through Michael Joseph, then the distinctive orange-jacket Penguin paperback). It became the ‘Book Society choice of 1960’, with the sale of movie-rights close behind, enabling him to turn fully professional inside two years. ‘As a miner’s son’ he confessed, ‘I had to think twice about such a step. My mother could never understand how I live and even I’m a bit surprised with myself when I think about it seriously. There’s an idea floating around that I made so much money from the film ‘A Kind Of Loving’ that I never need do any more work. That’s not true, though it did enable me to give up a bread and butter job.’ But ‘I was learning, and the first thing I learned was that even with a reasonably fluent flow of words such as I could command, writing insincerely rarely works. Those who write meretriciously have to believe in it while they’re doing it.’

Meanwhile, Vic is still exhibiting all the feelings of unease that could so easily have been developed by other writers into political condemnation. The disturbing suspicion that there should be more to life than the sordid cycle he’s trapped into. Following a disastrous first period of marriage, he determines to accept the situation. They try again. He sublimates his unease in favour of compromise. He is Zola’s ‘victim of the fact of existence’. Barstow’s characters are continually pressured by circumstances. Buffeted by their feelings of responsibility and reacting to simple incidents of human relationships. They inevitably compromise or acquiesce. ‘The Desperadoes’, a collection of short stories published as his second book features – among others, “The Human Element” (1961). A story featuring Joe, a rather dull, unimaginative youth content to spend his life in the factory, cleaning his motor-cycle at weekends. He’s pressured – unwillingly, into a country outing with his Landlady, her husband and daughter Thelma who he doesn’t really like, but wants even less to offend. On the bus ride to the country, he goes out of his way to make it clear he doesn’t consider himself Thelma’s ‘young man’, but the reader knows that already he’s a marked man (‘this is where my husband and I came courting’ drools the Landlady!). Following a furtive peep up her dress and an unintended – at least by him, feel of her breast, he finds himself engaged to Thelma. As the story closes Joe says he’ll break the engagement, but the reader’s left with the sneaking suspicion that he’s as good as wed. Perhaps here Barstow hints at a kind of Shavian (‘Man And Superman’) idea of woman as the hunter, man the unwilling, but so-easily snared prey? It seems more likely he’s just telling a story about recognisable individuals in a particular situation.

It’s possible to view each of the stories in ‘The Desperadoes’ as variations on this theme. That of the ‘not-so-tender-trap’. Each one develops the ‘victims of the fact of existence’ idea in a slightly different direction. The emotional trap of the predatory marriage-hungry woman. The financial trap of poverty. The trap of remorse, of bitterness, of aging. Each character never quite aware of the nature of their own particular cage. They accept, adding to the irony that becomes apparent as each tale evolves. People are meshed in trivia, an emotional and intellectual wasteland partly of their own creation, partly the result of the corrosive effect of their social environment. A 1950’s atmosphere pervades the collection to a greater or lesser degree, with the directionless violence of the title story’s Teddy-Boys near-definitive of their time. To be fully appreciated their actions should be seen in the context of the Palais Dance, Brylcreme, DA hairstyles, crepe soles and ‘all the latest Pop stuff here for the fans, Frankie Vaughan, Tommy Steele, and Elvis’. Even the protagonist’s name – Vince, perfectly catches cheap Rock ‘n’ Roll pseudo-Americanisms (remember Vince Eager, Vince Taylor…?). Barstow’s rare attempt to make Vince a spokesman for his generation by blaming the Bomb, and the War – the effect of which was still very much apparent, is largely unconvincing. Although the roots of their violence can theoretically be traced to such causes (evidenced by Jeff Nuttall’s excellent ‘Bomb Culture’ history of teenage dissatisfaction), surely it was more intuitive, lacking eloquence or exact motivation? It was ‘felt’, rather than articulated. Yet the story conveys its fifties feel very well. And Vince finds his own particular trap when an explosion of pent-up anger and frustration results in murder. With near-Faustian precision, the violence that is to Vince his means of escape, winds up ensnaring him.

A theme that’s equally well-exploited elsewhere. A wife kills the caged rabbits that – she feels, are alienating her husband’s affection. Thereby further estranging what she’s attempting to salvage. The wife who locks the door on her drunken husband, causing his death, just as he’s won his longed-for Pools Dividend. Lack of personal communication is an emotional trap. The tragedy is not that a wife gets her long hair caught in the factory machinery (another attempted expression of freedom that rebounds horribly?), but that her husband is unable to reach any meaningful level of communication with her. Or the husband who unwittingly despoils the ‘sanctity’ of the couple’s first home, in his wife’s eyes, by trashing the paint-work to spite the next occupants. There are no villains, only victims. Finger-pointing, or Zola’s ‘tub-thumping’ would be too easy. For Barstow is not a political writer. Nor a consciously philosophical writer. The stories, the situations, are the statements. The fact of the working-class economic and cultural deprivation that’s the unspecified spectre behind these ‘traps’ is never stated.

Never prolific – with a total career-output of ‘a dozen novels and forty-odd short stories’, Barstow instead becomes an early-adaptor at maximising the media-spread of his work, from radio and TV versions, to film and stage productions. The next novel ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’, soon also appears as a radio and stage play. Then ‘Joby’ – an evocative story of an eleven-year-old boy’s ‘last summer of innocence’, is adapted by Barstow into a two-part TV series filmed in his Horbury home-town. ‘A Raging Calm’ from 1968 is destined to become a successful television serial too, paving the way for his treatment of the Winifred Holtby classic novel ‘South Riding’, also for ITV. Some of the short-stories from the ‘A Season With Eros’ collection will be adapted for ‘The Cost Of Loving’ TV series. His small-scale character-driven plots are ideally suited to either page or screen. Although the process of transfer – as in his TV-rewrite of “The Human Element” (with Thelma played by Paula Wilcox), can alter emphasis. Where the original closes with Joe’s unfocused doubts about his impending marriage, the extended revision shows the ‘snare’ of the marriage to be more double-edged. There is, he suggests, no alternative but bleak acceptance of its compromises.

Yet, in whatever medium, Barstow writes most convincingly about things he knows. About his West Riding background. About working people and their problems. Cressley, the town that features in so much of his fiction is based, in part, on Dewsbury, ‘a stone town, I preferred the stone’ (‘odd… to find how much sensuality was bottled up behind the respectable exterior in this town’ he comments in ‘A Raging Calm’). One of his characters even takes the name of another local town, Sam Skelmanthorpe. While ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’ speaks eloquently of a personal drive to escape from the meaningless cycle of industrial factory-based life-styles. It is probably more autobiographical than any of his other books…


I first meet Stan Barstow in 1973. By then he was an established literary figure living in Goring Park Avenue in Ossett with wife Connie, plus son Neil and daughter Gillian, in ‘a big old stone-fronted house’ built by a Victorian speculator. With a high local profile, maintaining his interest in Brass Band culture to the extent of introducing concerts at the local Town Hall, and competing in the Inter-pub Quiz and dominoes team at his local – ‘The Little Bull’ (his team lost). As for books, he was sitting with Jeff Nuttall and poet George Kendrick on the ‘Yorkshire Arts Association’ Literary Panel. And most weekends drove some fifty miles to a little writer’s cottage in a terrace of three rented from the painter Lawrence Toynbee in Ganthorpe, a hamlet in a corner of the Castle Howard estate. I’d written about him in a literary ‘underground’ magazine. He contacts me in response to my essay. And invites me round. The house, enforced by his status, is intimidating. I’m suitably intimidated. The bristling beard familiar from the book-jackets and magazine features. Music playing from an impressive hi-fi system, and I recall a character in ‘A Raging Calm’ commenting ‘whether you believed in god or not, a love of this radiant music was surely in itself a passport to whatever heaven existed’ (speaking of Bruckner).

This was my first encounter with the writer who’d begun with Vic’s formless disquiet, and evolved through Wilf Cotton’s literary aspirations. And it was a highly politicised time. Rock vinyl was proclaiming the inadequacies of the political establishment, modern classical composer Hans Werner Henze was premiering his works under the red flag, and Jean Paul Sartre, prophet of existentialism, was distributing radical propaganda at factory gates. Art was expected to be ‘valid’. The artist, the writer, the ‘creator’ was expected to point directions. So it wasn’t difficult for me to make the accusation that, as a writer no longer financially forced to accept the restrictions of working class culture, it was easy for Barstow to eulogise its nobility. It was not difficult to dismiss Barstow’s ‘revolt’ in purely personal terms. Writing, especially novels dealing with experiences and situations so obviously open to political analysis – such as ‘A Kind Of Loving’, could form a potential direct means of attacking the sterility he portrays. Literature can, and arguably should offer a viable alternative to the race for the capitalist ‘plastic carrot’. It can point questions, it can raise doubts – it can offer solutions, it can even use its capacity to release ideas to become the solution. And to be the catalyst of individual change is to be the instigator of social change.

But, having fought his way out of the restrictions of social injustice, perhaps Stan Barstow’s resentment has served its purpose? After all, Wilf Cotton finds ‘the gratification (in writing) came with the knowledge that his people, among whom he so often felt alien, respected achievement even in a field strange to them’. Like so many of his characters who haven’t rebelled against the ‘repressive, inhibiting atmosphere, with Puritanism and philistinism almost oozing out of the stones’ (1969 interview), ‘so much as try to wriggle out of it, until in the end they are forced to live with’ it. It was so easy for me to demand why his youthful personal resentment had not been extended to become a judgement of society…

‘Now then Arthur, that’s enough’ censures Vic’s Old Lady, ‘there’s no need to get arguin’. (He’s) entitled to his opinion.’

‘No man’s entitled to an opinion till he knows the facts. I’m just straightenin’ him out’ counters his Old Feller.

So argue it this way. There was, after all, the example of John Braine who – having attained his ‘Room At The Top’, went on to embrace the right-wing philosophies his early novels satirised. Perhaps Barstow was disguising a similar about-face? Can this switch be substantiated by his novels? ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’ defines the lines of demarcation between writers who are ‘creators’, and those who are ‘caterers’. Cotton, and therefore presumably Stan Barstow’s allegiances lie with the former. At the time the phrase ‘pure literature’ was in terminal decline. The idea that ‘creative’ literature could be above life, impartial to social conditions, divorced from any greater reality and concerned only with its own internal logics, was seen as the fallacy it is and always has been. After all, any product of the imagination, just as any selected fact, when communicated through the mass-media becomes opinion. The pulp love story in the woman’s magazine, just as the advertisements that frame it, promote a definition of what is normal, hence defining the standards by which other’s live life, and are made to appear to live desirable or undesirable lives, from which behaviour patterns and standards are assimilated. Shouldn’t the creative novelist take that into consideration? By writing, as Barstow appears to, on the premise of surface reality, by reflecting and thereby confirming those standards, isn’t he helping to perpetuate them?

In ‘Close The Coal-House Door’, an early piece by Barstow’s contemporary – Hull playwright Alan Plater, there’s a more blatant left-wing bias, almost to the point of then-trendy Socialist Realism. It’s a play dealing idealistically with the history of West Riding Trade Union activity, with a ‘message’ that hits you like a thirty-ten Continental super-truck. Yet there’s a nagging suspicion that had Barstow treated the same subject, his observational skill at characterisation could have infused an added humanity, a greater fluidity of issues, making it not only a more convincing illustration of the miner’s grievances, but a more effective vehicle for the ideas too. Yet, time and time again Barstow’s work reflects political antipathy.

‘I’m not going to peddle… propaganda’, declares Wilf Cotton, demanding ‘wouldn’t (the Socialists) let you all stand on street corners if it furthered his ends? With him it’s the cause for the sake of the cause. It’s not the struggle at each stage for the righting of a separate injustice’. He goes on to accuse the novel’s Union activist of working for ‘a complete change of system, for absolute power’. That ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’ passage is closely paralleled in ‘A Raging Calm’. ‘The average Labour voter, for instance, is as reactionary as most Tories. He’s a hanger, a flogger, a keeper-down of homosexuals and an advocate of sending the black man back where he came from’. He balances the comments with the observation that ‘the only thing is, there’s a bloody sight more excuse for his thinking that way than there is for the others’. Although the book’s main theme is marital infidelity, a large section of it is devoted to local by-elections. Yet never are issues allowed to interfere with characterisation, except when Simpkins opines ‘every (political) issue was one of conscience’. A stance that seems to reflect the writer’s own. Barstow writes, again through the words of Wilf Cotton ‘we only vote the so-and-so’s in; we can’t do their job for them’. A political philosophy that remains curiously aloof and neutral. ‘I’m not a political animal, just a human being. I’m prepared to see all sides of an immediate question… that’s where the confusion comes in.’ An apoliticisation that only becoming open-ended when he adds ‘in an age of doubt and anxiety isn’t the other side of the coin a healthy questioning of values and standards and an urge towards reform?’

Repeatedly, Barstow’s fiction exhibits this tradition of the ‘total view’. Perhaps he’s saying that where there’s total understanding of the system, black and white politics present only incomplete pictures? That strict lines between ‘us and them’ adopted for the sake of political expediency, are therefore misleading? It’s a stance referring clear back to Zola’s ‘Germinal’ observation, that the class system and its materialist basis enslaves the apparent enslaver as well as the obviously enslaved. That the entire hierarchy of capital is constructed from tiers of dissatisfaction. ‘I don’t like totalitarianism of either the right or the left’ (‘Ask Me Tomorrow’). But is that really enough?

I doubt if any writer could have captured the drab meaninglessness of the factory environment, and its inherent frustrations, as Barstow does in ‘A Kind Of Loving’ without first experiencing those frustrations. And though ‘A Kind Of Loving’ now seems like a time-capsule from another world, it had a momentum of its own, and there were sequels. ‘If someone had told me to leave the first novel on its own, he might have had a case. But once the second was written, a third was needed to finish the story.’ So ‘Watchers On The Shore’, time-fixed by opening with the Cuba Crisis, is the unsatisfactory second instalment of what is now termed ‘The Vic Brown Trilogy’. An adequate novel, defined by a period in which Vic leaves Cressley to squirm and struggle through the pain of infidelity as he waits for Ingrid to join him, it inevitably loses the urgency and concision of its progenitor. When he follows Conroy to Joyce & Walstock in the more anonymous suburban Essex of Longford, the tale losing both focus – what Barstow calls ‘no frame around’ it, and grounding. Although Wilf Cotton gets a walk-on part as a northern writer refocusing south. It continues Vic’s ‘is this all?’ questioning, through to his painful final-chapter rejection of compromise, and determined break with Ingrid. Until the appearance of ‘The Right True End’ in 1976 brings the cycle to a close, with the end of his marriage, Vic is now a divorced man in London, meeting actress Donna Pennyman for a second time.

In the meantime, in the world outside of literature, those who inherit Vic’s direct problems remain, in intensified and complexified forms. Appearances alter during the transition from fifties through sixties, and beyond, but the basic anger stays unchanged. Frustration of potential is as corrosive to both self and society now as then. The suppression of natural creative energies is just as applicable to Barstow’s Teddy-Boy Desperadoes as Anthony Burgess/Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ Droog superpunk of the fictional 1990’s. Or ‘Trainspotting’. Or their counterparts today. The garb, the scale changes, the frustrations remain the same. While Barstow’s sequels shift markedly from the original’s vague dissatisfactions, there’s no discernible connection to the social upheavals of the late-sixties, and no apparent purchase on the 1970’s, only a gradual acceptance of the inevitability of compromise. As time alters circumstances.

Yet Barstow, unlike his creation, escaped the trap. His writing provided the wings to outdistance Vic’s suffocating spiritual vacuity. But he must have escaped with an acute awareness of what he’d escaped from. His writing provides undeniable proof of that. Undoubtedly his position as a writer offers just as many frustrations of a different nature (such as upstart articles in literary magazines?). Yet they are problems concerned with self-determination and creation. Don’t get me wrong – I admire Barstow’s work. There are few living writers who can encapsulate and ‘fix’ the complexity of relationships, particularly within the Northern industrial context, as he can. I’m also happy with the arguments he does advance in his books, that of the ‘victims of the fact of existence’. I don’t expect polemics. Surely the mere exchange of one dogma for another is to be condemned? Yet the niggling feeling remains, that with Barstow’s unique insight, combined with his unparalleled ability to express that insight, perhaps there could be, perhaps there even should be, a little more concern with direct issues.

Ultimately a writer writes as his conscience and powers of creativity dictate. To ask otherwise would be as unreasonable as it would be futile. It could be argued that Barstow captures the reality of a compromise that is far more a facet of life than the revolutionary slogan. That by portraying the compromise – by giving voice to the ‘raging calm’, he’s making a political statement far more effective than blatant sloganeering. A truth made apparent, rather than imposed. Ideas to be assimilated, if unconsciously so, by his readers. He presents the reality of a situation, leaving the reader to decide its implications. And if what was once bitingly current now seems a heartbeat away from costume drama, and Vic’s original preoccupations with pair-bonding and marriage seem inexplicable in today’s easy commitment-free times, his dilemma still prompts you – the reader, to re-examine the choices in your own life, your own compromises and the might-have-beens of your own failed relationships. Is that enough? The answer to that question probably decides the writer’s status as ‘creator’ or ‘caterer’…

Back then, in his front room in Goring Park Avenue, Stan Barstow fields my accusations with good-natured indulgence, arguing back reasonably. At one point he leans forward to assert to me “I’ll tell you what the young committed writer should be doing now, working with the immigrant population, writing about them.” He said that to me over forty years ago. I’ve thought about it many times since. His instincts, of course, were absolutely correct. Decades before Zadie Smith, Monica Ali or Hanif Kareshi. Except, of course, that it was essential for such writers to emerge from within that community, not from outside it.

He closes his autobiography with ‘I have lived by my writing since 1962. I have brought up my children and provided for those it has been my duty to support. That this has been achieved solely through my own efforts, without subsidy, grants, paid fellowships or awards with monetary gifts attached should, I feel, be a cause for some pride. It has all been worked for, year on year. I have been a professional. I have survived.’ Perhaps that’s enough?

STAN BARSTOW (28 July 1928 – 1 August 2011):

Following the original publication of this feature Stan Barstow moved to Pontardawe in South Wales, where he lived with his partner Diana Griffiths. His children, Gillian and Neil Barstow, his grandson Elliot and his wife Connie Barstow, still live in the Wakefield area…

1960 –
‘A KIND OF LOVING’ novel (Michael Joseph)

1961 –
‘THE DESPERADOES’ short stories (Michael Joseph) features “Freestone At The Fair”, “The Actor”, “The Fury”, “Living And The Dead”, the story from which the collection takes its title, and “The Human Element”

1962 –
‘ASK ME TOMORROW’ novel (Michael Joseph), + ‘Twenty Pieces Of Silver’ short story in ‘Argosy’ (Oct), and ‘A Kind Of Loving’ film, John Schlesinger’s debut as director, scripted by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, starring Alan Bates (Vic) and June Ritchie (Ingrid), Thora Hird (Mrs Rothwell), Jack Smethurst (Conroy), James Bolam (Les), Leonard Rossiter (Whymper). It cost £165,000 to make, and grosses £450,000 in the UK alone (DVD Momentum Pictures 2001).

1963 –
‘Estuary’ and ‘Love And Music’ short stories in ‘Argosy’ (July and Dec issues)

1964 –
‘JOBY’ novel (Michael Joseph), + ‘A Kind Of Loving’ BBC radio play, ‘The Desperadoes’ BBC radio play, ‘The Human Element’ ATV-TV play, ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’ play written with Alfred Bradley at Sheffield Playhouse, ‘Casual Acquaintance’ short story in ‘Argosy’ (Nov)

1965 – ‘The Luck Of The Game’ BBC-TV episode of ‘Z-Cars’, + ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’ BBC radio-play, ‘A Kind Of Loving’ play written with Alfred Bradley at Sheffield Playhouse

1966 –
‘THE WATCHERS ON THE SHORE’ novel (Michael Joseph), + ‘The Pity Of It All’ ABC-TV play, ‘A World Inside’ Granada-TV documentary, ‘Ask Me Tomorrow’ in June 1966 as a play-text by Alfred Bradley (Samuel French)

1967 –
‘The Pity Of It All’ BBC radio play

1968 –
‘THE RAGING CALM’ novel (Michael Joseph), + ‘THROUGH THE GREEN WOODS’ as anthology editor (EJ Arnold), ‘Bright Day’ BBC radio play adapted from JB Priestley

1969 –
‘THE HUMAN ELEMENT’ short stories from ‘The Desperadoes’ (Longman), + ‘An Enemy Of The People’ adapted from Ibsen for Harrogate Festiva1, ‘End Of An Old Song’ short story in ‘Argosy’ (May)

1970 –
‘Listen For The Trains, Love’ musical play for Sheffield Playhouse, + ‘Lines Of Battle’ Granada-TV episode for 52-part ‘A Family At War’ series created by John Finch , ‘The Assailants’ short story in ‘Argosy’ (Dec)

1971 –
‘A SEASON WITH EROS’ short stories (Michael Joseph, an Corgi paperback), + ‘A Kind Of Loving’ play-text (Blackie), ‘The Watchers On The Shore’ BBC radio play, ‘Stringer’s Last Stand’ play written with Alfred Bradley for York Theatre Royal, ‘Mind You, I Live Here’ BBC-TV Omnibus film, ‘Huby Falling’ short story in ‘Argosy’ (March)

1972 –
‘Stringer’s Last Stand’ as BBC radio play, and play-text (Samuel French)

1973 -
‘The Pity Of It All’ radio-play broadcast in Radio Four’s ‘Afternoon Theatre’ series in May
1974 –
‘A Raging Calm’ Granada-TV 7-part drama, directed by June Howson & Gerry Mill, with Alan Badel, Diana Coupland and Nigel Havers + ‘South Riding’ 13-part Yorkshire-TV drama adaptated from the Winifred Holtby novel, directed by James Ormerod & Alastair Reid with Dorothy Tutin, Nigel Davenport and Hermione Baddely, ‘We Could Always Fit A Sidecar’ BBC radio play from ‘The Human Element’ (voted ‘Best Radio Drama Script of 1974’ by the Writer’s Guild)

1975 –
‘Joby’ Yorkshire-TV 2-part drama, with Richard Tolan and David Clayforth

1976 –
‘THE RIGHT TRUE END’ novel (Michael Joseph), + ‘A CASUAL ACQUAINTANCE’ short stories from ‘A Season With Eros’ (Longman)

1977 –
‘Joby’ text of TV-play (Blackie), + ‘We Could Always Fit A Sidecar’ text of radio-play from ‘Out Of The Air’ (Longman), ‘The Cost Of Loving’ seven Yorkshire-TV plays including ‘The Human Element’ with Paula Wilcox

1978 –
‘Travellers’ BBC2 ‘Premiere’ series film, + ‘The Right True End’ BBC radio play, ‘An Enemy Of The People’ play-text (Michael Joseph)

1980 –
‘A BROTHER’S TALE’ novel (Michael Joseph)

1982 –
‘A Kind Of Loving’ 10-part Granada-TV drama covering all three Vic Brown novels, produced by Pauline Shaw, directed by Oliver Horsbrugh & Gerry Mills and Jeremy Summers, starring Clive Wood (Vic) and Joanne Whalley (Ingrid), with Susan Penhaligon and Constance Chapman, + ‘The Vic Brown Trilogy’ single-volume edition (Michael Joseph)

1983 –
‘A Brother’s Tale’ 3-part Granada-TV drama, directed by Les Chatfield, with Trevor Eve, June Ritchie (from ‘A Kind Of Loving’ 1962 movie!) and Kevin McNally

1984 -
‘THE GLAD EYE AND OTHER STORIES’ (Michael Joseph), + ‘The Human Element & Albert’s Part’ two TV-play texts (Blackie)

1986 –
‘JUST YOU WAIT AND SEE’ novel (Michael Joseph)

1987 –
‘B-MOVIE’ novel (Michael Joseph)

1988 –
‘The Apples Of Paradise’ BBC-radio play

1989 –
‘GIVE US THIS DAY’ novel (Michael Joseph)

1990 –
‘Foreign Parts’ BBC-radio play

1991 –
‘NEXT OF KIN’ novel (Michael Joseph)

1993 –
‘The Man Who Cried’ Tyne Tees-TV screenplay adapted from Catherine Cookson, directed by Michael Whyte, with Ciaran Hinds, Gemma Craven and Kate Buffery + ‘My Son, My Son’ 5-part BBC-radio drama from Howard Spring

2001 –
‘IN MY OWN GOOD TIME’ autobiography (Smith Settle) launched 24th October at Bradford ‘National Museum Of Photography Film & TV’

Revised version of a feature originally published in:
‘LUDDS MILL no.9’ (UK – September 1973)