Saturday, 18 July 2020

Musical DNA


I’ve recently been watching some of the wonderful Ted talks, specifically about music. 

In one of these conductor and educator Michael Tilson Thomas describes a situation where he was visiting an elderly relative in a care home. While they were sitting in the lounge area another resident entered and shakily walked towards the piano using a walker. He then started tapping out some notes and Michael heard him say something like, “Me…boy…symphony….Beethoven” 


Fortunately Michael recognised from the few notes what it was he was trying to play. He approached and asked if this was what he was thinking of then played a short extract of Beethoven. The words came pouring out of the elderly man as he excitedly said, “Yes, yes I was a little boy. The Symphony. Isaac Stern, the concerto, I heard it.” 


Michael explained that this one event made him ponder how, even though this man’s faculties were fading, this piece of music still meant so much to him and clearly connected him with a memory of his youth.


This got me thinking about what I might call Musical DNA: the pieces of music that make up our own lives and help create our musical tastes that live on long after the time the music was first heard.


I’m not talking about our favourite Top Ten. I don’t have time for the idea of what is ‘the best music ever’ or why the Beatles are more important than whoever. Those intellectual appraisals have little value. What do interest me are those experiences of hearing some music that might have opened our ears to other similar forms or helped us establish ways of listening. They need not be our favourite pieces of music but they are ones which for a variety of reasons become embedded in our core – our Musical DNA. 


I decided I would try to write about a selection of experiences that created my own Musical DNA. If any of you readers are interested you might like to share some of your own experiences using the link at the end. If I get enough I'll publish them as Musical DNA Part 2.


So here goes:


I was nearly 10 years old when I first saw the Beatles on TV. I was sitting watching an early evening news and entertainment show with my parents when they introduced this new group from Liverpool.


The Beatles were singing (probably miming) their first single, Love Me Do. I ran into the next room where my older brother George was doing his homework and excitedly shouted words to the effect, “You must come and see. A group on television.” 


He cocked his head and said, “Oh yes, it’s the Beatles, I’ve heard them on Radio Luxembourg (the only regular outlet for pop music at the time).


Years later it occurred to me that pop songs of that era were generally quite short. Love Me Do is only 2 minutes 20 seconds long. So, my question was: why, at the age of 10, was I so moved, in the first 30 seconds of this simple pop song to run next door to tell someone about this new sound I was hearing? Now I realise that the opening stanza, played on a harmonica, was probably the first time I had ever heard an element of the blues, and certainly the first time it had entered my “Musical DNA”. 


Love Me Do by The Beatles


Over the next year or so I, like most other young people, became transfixed by the prolific output of the Beatles and the other guitar bands of the time. 


One day my brother was on his way home from school on the train and found a plastic carrier bag left on the luggage rack. In it were two early Bob Dylan albums: The Times they are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan. He brought them home but we didn’t have a record player but a nearby neighbour did and he borrowed their Dansette. 

[Note from brother: It may seem strange these days, but I did what was correct and went to our local police station to report the “lost property” I had found on the train. Amazingly, a few days later a man in his twenties made the 15-mile journey from Liverpool to collect the LPs (“long-players”) as they were known in those days. He was so impressed that I liked Bob Dylan’s “folk music” that he leant them to me for another fortnight and then made the 15-mile trip again to collect them.]


We had a reel-to-reel Grundig tape recorder which we used to record Top of the Pops and Alan Freeman’s radio show Pick of the Pops. We recorded both albums – the only full albums we had and I remember listening to these over and over again. What captivated me was Dylan’s stream of consciousness and surrealism. He opened me up to the wonderful ambiguity and lyricism that can exist in songs. And I was only about 10 years old.


Chimes of Freedom by Bob Dylan


The main music of my early adolescence was soul music. In the nearby village of Halton a dance was held in the church hall every Friday night where often a local band would play. What I remember is pretty good versions of Wilson Picket, Otis Reading and lots more.  In particular I loved Otis Redding and his seminal album Almost Blue

I got soul! I couldn’t quite explain what it was but I understood it when I heard it and it moved me. I remember involuntarily bursting into silent tears in a biology class when a friend whispered to me that Otis Redding had died in a plane crash. 

Two weeks after his death Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay was released and became an international hit.


Sittin' on the Dock of The Bay by Otis Redding


My local town of Runcorn had a dance hall called the La Scala Ballroom. I’d been there a couple of times as a pre-teen for a Saturday afternoon children’s bop but all I can remember is being transfixed by the pinpoint reflections from the giant revolving disco ball and running round mindlessly with young friends trying to keep up with the rays of light, making ourselves breathless and dizzy. Wasn’t this what you were supposed to do in a dance venue?

 Not too many years later I pretended I was older than I was and managed to get past the doorman for a Saturday night dance with some other underage friends. 

As we walked towards the edge of the dance floor DJ Dave had stopped the music and held up the newly released Green Onions album by Booker T & The MG’s.


“And tonight for this evening’s prize album I want to know what is the difference between the Bar-Kays and the Mar-Keys. Like a shot I took off through the dancers towards DJ Dave to breathlessly explain, in the way that only nerdish soul boys can, that the Bar-Kays were the original Stax label session band, a number of whom died in a plane crash with Otis Redding, while the Mar-Keys was a name given to Booker T and the MG’s when a wind section was added. I won the album. 


Green Onions by Booker T & The MG's


For several years at Christmas our family of four had a tradition that on Boxing Day we would visit the Davidsons, a couple who lived eight miles away in the village of Helsby. As well as cold turkey salad there would be the traditional “family entertainment” on TV with all its Christmassy glitz and glitter. But this year I had made a special request. The Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour was premiering on television and more than anything else I wanted to watch it uninterrupted.

When we arrived at the Davidsons’ the old order was shaken by the presence of two other friends of theirs: a clipped-voiced, self-opinionated Scotsman and his timid wife (who had clearly been verbally battered into submission over the years).


The appointed time came for me to sink wordlessly into worshipping my heroes deliver their latest masterpiece but this bloody man just wouldn’t shut up! All the way through he snorted with derision before proclaiming, “Of course they didn’t write those songs themselves. They’re just a bunch of uneducated Liverpudlian scallies.”


But through the blizzard of self righteous opinion from this ignorant man one song was stamped on my brain: I Am the Walrus. It embodied my love of “wonky” rhythms, surrealistic imagery and tantalising vocal samples that have held a special appeal to this day.


I am the Walrus by The Beatles


As a 16 year old I wandered into a record shop in Chester. I couldn’t afford to buy any records but that was never an obstacle to browsing. After a few minutes I pulled out the weirdest looking album I had ever seen. It was a double album called Uncle Meat by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. I asked to listen to the first record and they directed me to a booth. 

 I remember the booth vividly – no bigger than a telephone kiosk and walls covered with white painted hardboard which I think was some sort of approximation of sound proofing but which I suspect was no more than it appeared, hardboard with holes drilled in it. I sat on the floor and while the album played I read all the liner notes and lyrics in the gatefold cover, plus there was a review from New Musical Express inside the plastic cover, which included the description, ‘Electronic water music.’ I’d never heard anything like it before. I was blown away, not by any particular track, but by the whole album, its sheer complexity and eclecticism.


Uncle Meat Variations by Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention


It was a couple of years before a record player arrived in our household permanently. This new arrival was not just a record player but a ‘stereogram’, a long teak-veneered cabinet on legs with Dynatronic multi-stacking record player plus radio. 

In truth, my parents weren’t really that interested in listening to music and, for my mother, its arrival was merely another step towards middle-class respectability. She didn’t need or want it to play music. Its very existence was all the comfort that she required and she decorated it with a large bowl of flowers that sat on top of it all the time, but which I had to remove and place on the floor in order to use it.


At school a few of us had informally set up what we called the Blues Club which was an excuse for us to borrow the school record player at lunchtime. I think the first couple of meetings we actually did play blues music but before long different people started bringing in more current music which was part of the emerging blues-rock scene including records by Fleetwood Mac, Cream and then off at a tangent with The Deviants and Strictly Personal by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.


I remember while we were playing Beefheart one of the older boys knowledgably and dismissively tried to interrupt saying something along the lines of, “Oh, he just sounds like Muddy Waters.” To me it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. It was part of the emerging psychedelic music scene which to our young ears advertised the joys of “pot” and LSD. We hadn’t tried either but musical advertising was so powerful that we were very open to future possibilities.

Strictly Personal by Capt. Beefheart became the first album I bought myself. At home one day I was lying on the lounge carpet with my friend Bill listening to it when my mother stormed in complaining that it was dangerous to put the vase of flowers on the floor in case someone knocked it over – though she was the only person moving in the room. When we were unmoved by her cajoling she added, “And why are you listening to this druggy music?” We both looked at her shocked. How did she know?


Ah Feel Like Acid by Capt. Beefheart and His Magic Band


My first festival was in June 1969 when I attended the Bath Festival of Blues, which took place in a park in the centre of the town. Fleetwood Mac topped the bill in their first incarnation as a blues band before they hit America and became a worldwide sensation. But the blues band that I remember vividly was Ten Years After. Their super-fast guitarist Alvin Lee held the audience in rapt anticipation, waiting for him to really kick off with his lead guitar break, what for them was the high point of the song.

Going Home by Ten Years After


Despite the title “Blues” many of the bands weren’t blues at all but more what was termed at the time “progressive”. I watched in amazement as keyboard showman Keith Emerson with his band The Nice stuck daggers in his keyboard during his epic version of America. A foretaste of the overblown performances a few years later with Emerson, Lake and Palmer and probably the dawn of what came to be known as Prog Rock.


 America by The Nice


The Isle of Wight Festival came a few months later headlined by my hero Bob Dylan. I wrote some very precocious reviews of many of the acts in a notebook noting that Bob Dylan spoiled his songs by giving them a country twist and horror of horrors some of them, “Didn’t sound like the records."


My abiding memory of that festival though was during a performance by the Doors. An American girl in front of me shouted out at one point, “Gee, I wish they’d sit down. They’re such a beautiful band to look at”. By which of course she meant that Jim Morrison was beautiful to look at.

Strangely enough although I enjoyed the festival, I can't now remember a single song that any of the bands played.

However, the festival also had a theme tune - a psychedelic rework of an old gospel song Amazing Grace which was played at the start and end of each day, plus whenever there were delays in bands setups which happened regularly in the early festivals.

Amazing Grace by The Great Awakening

A psychedelic folk instrumental, Banjo by Kaleidoscope was also regularly played to whenever the audience was flagging. Once it had been played a couple of times we got used to it and I remember hundreds of people bouncing around joyously to this trippy little ditty.

Banjo by Kaleidoscope

I hated school and only later discovered that this might in part have been due to the fact that I was undiagnosed dyslexic. I found my escape route: Art College. At that time there were two options. You could study at school to A-level standard and then do a one-year Art Foundation Course before setting off for a degree course. Or you could leave school at 16 and do a two-year Foundation Course. I was out of school like a rocket at 16 to Northwich College of Art.


The main part of my foundation course was an advanced course in taking psychedelics and listening to lots of music including Ska, Jazz and Soft Machine. This put a new complexion on my festival going which I pursued with enthusiasm.


The second Bath Festival of Blues, held outside the town this time, was the precursor to the Glastonbury Festival. The line-up was stunning, but by now I was getting into the fun of the festival rather than just watching the bands.

 Everything was running late and in the early hours of the morning Dr John, the Night Tripper, took to the stage with the strangest looking band I had ever seen. 

His slow-moving rhythms from the bayou had the audience gently rocking back and forth. At one point Dr John said, “If you think Dr John is trying to hypnotise you, you’re right”. I looked around and everyone seemed to have been caught in a trance.


Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya Dr John the Night Tripper


The 1970 Isle of Wight festival was headlined by Jimi Hendrix. It had been a long weekend. He came on stage late on Sunday night, played his version of God Save the Queen and I fell asleep. 


Jimi Hendrix live at The Isle of Wight festival 1970


The second Glastonbury Festival in 1971 was financed by some haute couture hippies and was free. I hitch-hiked there and when I arrived on the Friday night it was pouring with rain. I only had a sleeping bag with me and crawled under an old army lorry to sleep.


In the morning I awoke covered in engine oil that had leaked out of the lorry’s sump. I spotted some Hell’s Angels tramping about in the mud, happy as pigs in shit. That was the lowest part of the festival.


A few hours later I hooked up with some friends, dropped some LSD, and spent the day floating around as the bright sunshine dried the muddy ground so it felt like we were walking on marshmallow. I only found out years later that David Bowie was on. Not sure how I missed him, but I do remember crying with joy as Melanie sang Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma.


Look What They've Done to My Song Ma by Melanie


Without doubt the best festival I ever attended was called the Hollywood Festival near Stoke on Trent in 1970. It was glorious sunshine. The band Free performed All Right Now for the first time and Mungo Jerry sang In the Summer Time. Everyone was so taken by the Mungo Jerry “jug band” and their summer anthem that the on Saturday the audience simply refused to stop shouting for more till the announcer came on stage to say they would be coming back on the Sunday afternoon.

Family and Traffic were perfect performing the best of British psychedelia. And Jose Feliciano – on stage at midnight in the pitch dark, lit up by a single spotlight moved us to tears. 


But the big discovery of the weekend for me was a band I had never heard of: The Grateful Dead. At one point during the concert I said to my brother that I was going to go to the toilets. I started walking through the crowd, got hooked in the music and simply turned round and came back. About half an hour later I again said to my brother that I was going to the toilet. He said, ‘Haven’t you just been?”


Their gentle psychedelic rock got under my skin. I later read in his biography that, before joining a rock band, Jerry Garcia had played banjo. A banjo player’s most prized quality is his dexterity. When he switched to playing guitar he brought that dexterity with him. So while other guitarists were busy distorting their sound and bending strings he just played thousands of beautifully clear notes in increasingly complex filigree patterns.

Jerry Garcia guitar solo


But they had a slightly country tone which was not favoured by the British audience, so after an hour or so people started booing. They wanted the return of the less subtle Mungo Jerry.

And when Mungo Jerry eventually came on stage everyone was ready. After an afternoon of boozing they had empty cans at the ready to bang along in time to the music so we could barely hear it.


In the Summertime by Mungo Jerry


A couple of years later I took a change of direction, leaving the Fine Art course I had started in London and going to study drama in Birmingham. There I met and became enchanted with a girl from the year above me called Jo. She was decidedly upper class and had a cut-glass accent that fitted in perfectly with the few Noel Coward plays that were staged at the college. One day she perfectly illustrated to me the difference between upper and middle class sensibilities.


As a child I was always told off for saying “What?” when I didn’t hear what someone had said. “Don’t say ‘What’,” I was told, “say ‘Pardon’.”


One time I said “Pardon?” to Jo. She spat back at me in impeccably enunciated English: “Howard, when you can’t hear what someone is saying, don’t say, ‘Pardon me for not hearing you’. Say, ‘What the fuck are you trying to say? Speak more clearly!’”


I immediately saw the difference between the ingratiating, apologetic middle-class mindset and the confident, “We run the world” view of the upper classes.


Jo also introduced me to classical music. I remember one evening after being lulled into a warm fuzzy place by a couple of bottles of Hirondelle red that she played me Brahms’s Violin Concerto. I heard the orchestra playing a theme and then “the guitarist” (though in this case of course it was a violinist) took centre stage and played their solo. I instantly got it and this became my passport to enjoying all sorts of classical music. Same music, different instruments.


Violin Concerto by Brahms


At first I lived in a house full of drama students. I lived on the ground floor in a large room with a bay window looking out on the jungle that was once a garden. One Friday night I was listening to John Peel on the radio and he played several new tracks of an artist I had not heard of before called Bob Marley and his first album Natty Dread.


Most of the songs on this album are now so familiar and part of our collective DNA it's hard to imagine a time when we weren’t familiar with them. Now, whenever I play any of these songs at a gigs, I can look round and guarantee that a number of people will be silently mouthing the words. Although often serious subject matter, the music is joyous. I was smitten. This was powerful music. 

Next morning I caught a bus into the centre of Birmingham to buNatty Dread. By 11am I was back home. I put my stereo speakers by the bay window and opened them up. I played the whole album at high volume with the intention that, “Everyone must hear this!”


Years later my friend Glenn, who lived in the flat above me with his girlfriend, recollected they were just getting up when I turned it on. At first he said, their reaction was, “Oh, what’s Howard up to now?”


By the second track he was running downstairs to find out what I was playing. I think that album had a similar effect on a lot of white Brits.


Lively Up Yourself by Bob Marley & The Wailers


After a couple of years I moved two doors away to a house shared by a group of Brummie friends, each with our own rundown flats. Dave, who lived below me, wrote songs, as I did. We used to play our songs to each other. He introduced me to The Clash and Elvis Costello and both these songs immediately take me back to the crumbling house we shared. 

Allison by Elvis Costello

I never really got into the Punk scene because I was a drama student and we were way too interested in our smart appearance to join the scruffy punks.

I'm so Bored With the U.S.A by The Clash


Dave started training as a fireman and was in week five of his basic training with, I seem to remember, just one week to go before he had completed his course. They were assigned an exercise of putting out a forest fire. A fire was lit in the middle of a field and they had to run their hoses across the field as quickly as possible to dowse the flames. By the time Dave got to the fire he could barely see or breathe, not because of the smoke but because he suffered from extreme hay fever. That was the end of his prospects as a fireman.


But with one door closing another one opened. 


Dave decided to put more effort into the band he had formed with a few mates. Just before I left Birmingham Dave played me a new song on acoustic guitar. It had a bit of a reggae lilt and I can remember saying, “It’s a nice song Dave, but not much melody.”


Within a year Mirror in the Bathroom was a major hit for his band The Beat. 

Mirror in the Bathroom by The Beat 

After a brief period as a rather poor actor (poor in acting ability and also financially) I eventually found my way into TV and video production. During much of the 80’s while I now know that there was some fantastic music being produced, very little captured my imagination and I spent much of my time filling in my collection from the 70's with the ridiculously prolific output of Zappa and The Grateful Dead


In 1986 a film was released called Round Midnight, set in the Paris jazz scene of the 1950s and based on the memoir of author Francis Paudras and his experience of befriending jazz pianist Bud Powell. It tells of that period in history when the greats of American Jazz, while facing terrible prejudice in their home country because of their colour, found acceptance and accolade in Paris.

Miles Davis didn’t feature in the film but it opened my ears to the vibe of his early music and I gradually worked through virtually his whole library and am a great fan to this day of his tone which often, to me, sounds as though it is coming from a slightly out of tune radio. It also turned out that he had recorded a version of the song that tune that gave the title to the film


Round Midnight by Miles Davis Quintet.


I used to have an old Roberts radio sitting in the bathroom which I would turn on as I was getting showered and ready for the new day. One Monday morning in the late 80’s the dial must have got knocked and it came on with some very interesting banging music. I remember thinking that this was a bit upbeat for a Monday morning. Only later did I realise it was catering for those who were still going strong from the weekend.


Some time later a friend Chris invited us to his 40th birthday celebration in a Soho restaurant after which he said, "Here, take this" and led us to the nightclub Heaven. My mind was opened to a new musical scene and suddenly I was no longer interested in rock music.


One day I heard the track Tears by Frankie Knuckles and Robert Owen. Something attracted me to the synthesiser sound of the keyboards. Up till this point, in the main music came from identifiable instruments. It was a guitar with a wha-wha peddle or a fuzz box. Listening to this hammering keyboard I imagined that the percussion was like hitting a radiator with a spanner, while the resonance was similar to that of a grand piano.


I realised at that point that music had reached a new period of inventiveness, based on the creation of new sounds. I became missionary-spirited, playing this new music to unappreciative contemporaries, some of whom condemned it as computerised nonsense. “No, you’re missing the point. Listen to the soul.”


Tears by Frankie Knuckles with Robert Owen


I walked through the door of “dance music” and discovered an ever-evolving genre of music. 


I’m not quite sure how but when The Ministry of Sound opened we had a friend who had a friend. This meant that with a quick phone call we would be put on the guest list for the VIP room at the Ministry. We enjoyed this privilege for a couple of months till one day a friend took me to a small club in Dalston called Labrynth (that’s how it was spelt). 

It was an old music hall. Inside it was a packed wonderland of dayglo murals and a ready supply of consumables but no alcohol. From that moment on MoS felt like a ‘posers paradise’ whereas Labrynth was rough and ready with lots of heart. Around midnight they would open the doors to the garden – which really was little more that a yard. Steam would billow out together with sweat-drench grinning and friendly clubbers.


There are certain musical artists who you can recognise instantly by the first couple of notes: BB King, Mark Knopfler, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and James Brown are good examples. In Labrynth, when the first notes of a current favourite track came on you felt a surge of joy spread through the club as everyone leapt to their feet to dance. This was one of them. 


Deep In My Heart by Clubhouse


For a lot of the 90’s I was flying around the world working on film/video productions but I always carried with me several cassette tapes recorded from London pirate radio stations. DJ’s sending out “shouts” to listeners in Bethnal Green often seemed incongruous on my headphones in Cairo, Singapore or Thailand. Most of these tapes have long since been lost but this is one I saved and which I think captures the spirit of this period with the DJ announcing the meeting points for the various illegal raves taking place that evening. I gave this the title, Getting Ready Music because I recorded it just as we were getting ready to set off for another evening at Labrynth.

The heyday of the illegal raves was coming to an end when I got involved with the scene in 1989. However, we privileged to experience one rather special event. It was called New Moon Rising and was held in the grounds of stately home in Kent. My favourite electronic rave band Fluke were playing.

I distinctly remember the tickets saying, "Dress - make an effort" I towards this end I was wearing the most expensive T shirt I have ever bought with a subtle design printed white on white, designed to vibrate under UV lighting.  The ticket also promised a champagne reception before Flukes start time of 10pm. We were urged to arrive early.

It was a beautiful summer evening and we arrived to a well tended and extensive garden with candles outlining the pathways. Tressle tables were set up to dispense a glass of champaign but it seems that there had been a bit of a problem with ticket sales with many less sold that anticipated. Consequently there was an excess of champagne and instead of a glass, each person was simply presented with a bottle which we drank relaxing in deck chairs in the garden.

Just before 10pm we walked through an entrance tunnel with strobe light leading into the marque which had been erected for Flukes performance. This is what we heard as we left the tunnel.

Around ’97 I spent two months filming in Saudi Arabia. I had often heard people talk about spending time in the Middle East and how once back at the camp or complex where Europeans were housed there was very little sense of restrictions.


We, on the other hand, were travelling around the country staying in hotels. For two months I didn’t exchange a single word with a female. Sometimes when we went into restaurants I could hear the sound of female voices behind a screen in the family section but that was the limit of my connection with the opposite sex. 

As the job came to an end I called my wife and asked her to book a cheap and cheerful package holiday for us anywhere in Europe. We decided to go to Ibiza where our friend Rachel had recently relocated with her daughters.


We arrived in a hotel somewhere near Playa den Bossa in the early hours of the morning. The room was plain but that was fine. When we woke up Berri told me we had a free breakfast as part of the deal so made our way downstairs looking for the breakfast room.

What we found was a massive canteen with a couple of hundred Brits eating platefuls of bacon and eggs. This wasn’t my idea of a romantic Mediterranean holiday!


Fortunately a German friend of ours, on hearing that we were headed for Ibiza, had written a small Post-it note that simply read: ‘Salinas beach. Sa Trinxa bar. DJ Jonathan. Man with Spanish guitar sells drugs’.


When we arrived everything was in place. 

This was the first time I had heard Jonathan playing the decks and over the next few hours had my first introduction to the Balearic vibe and the idea of “an eclectic musical journey”. We went back there every day during our holiday.


The following track epitomises that first visit to Ibiza. For years after I kept looking for this wonderful tune called Sandy Verona. It never occurred to me that there was no sand in Verona in mainland Italy. Then eventually I found it. The title was actually Sangue de Beirona which means “Blood of Beirona”, Beirona being an area in the Cape Verde islands.


Sangue De Beirona  by Cesaria Evora (Francois K Remix)


Although I can distinctly remember listening to Jonathan’s music and thinking, “I’d love to do that” I didn’t suddenly become a DJ. I was pretty busy with TV work, latterly making documentaries about film and music. 


Around the turn of the century reality TV came along. It suddenly and unexpectedly wiped out my TV career. I started working with Mac computers and set up a small repair company. After a couple of months I was contemplating the way forward. I was making a living but was now spending most of my time sorting out problematic computers and their owners. I was used to being creative. I thought of writing a book, but that was a very solitary affair. 


One night I was at a party. I was engaged in conversation with a friend when behind me I heard a very excited voice saying, “Hey, I was round at a mate’s house the other night and he’s got this new gadget that you can plug into a computer and use it to digitally mix audio tracks”. 

I didn’t join in the conversation but went into town the next day to buy one of these new devices.

After a couple of weeks of digitising my by now extensive dance music collection, I approached my local north London pub where a large upstairs room had recently been refurbished. I was trying to be so cool as I spoke to the landlord who I knew.


“You probably don’t know but I’ve been ‘mixing it up’ for years.” In retrospect I am surprised he didn’t laugh at my attempt at being “street” but instead he went with it, launching a four-year period of playing every Friday night and learning some of the basics of DJing. Sometimes the chilled Balearic tone was abandoned and I will never forget one night when people were dancing on the tables and someone shouted, “Rewind!” as a Damian Marley track came to an end - and so I did.


Welcome to Jamrock by Damian Marley


Ten years later I finally arrived in Ibiza to live and now spend much of the summer playing at beach bars and restaurants and taking people on my own musical journeys. 

Love Howard.


If you have stayed with this so far, I would be really interested to hear some of your tales of Musical DNA. My plan is to post some of the best ones on my next Diary of a DJ blog. But first you have to send them to me.


Email me at

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Once Upon A Time With Morricone

In a previous life I used to make documentaries. In 1999 it was my great pride to be asked to write and direct a documentary, Once Upon a Time – Sergio Leone, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of this great Italian director’s death. 


You can’t talk about Leone without also mentioning his lifelong friend and musical accomplice Ennio Morricone. So it was that our researchers scheduled an interview to take place in his apartment in Rome. This was the first interview of many that we would conduct for the production and on the appointed day I set off nervously with my Italian-speaking producer, who would act as translator for the interview. We were nervous not only because this was obviously an important interview but also because the scene had been set by his PA who informed us that he always insisted on being addressed as Maestro. 


His apartment was grand, in the classical Italian style: dim lighting, archways, alcoves and heavy drapes. As we set up in the living room we were told that we were free to take some general shots but that we must not, under any circumstances, film near the window. My producer explained that the view outside the window was of a very famous monument and that if we had filmed this all Romans would have immediately learned where Morricone lived.


About half an hour later the rather serious and imperious Maestro appeared. From the start of the interview he made it quite clear that in his opinion his relationship with Leone was one of equals. His role as composer was not merely that of a hired hand but that he saw his job as being of equal importance to the actual filming and that he enjoyed working with Leone particularly because of the importance which Leone gave to the music of his films.

And who could disagree? You only have to see the poster of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and your brain starts to hum the signature theme.

He explained that prior to working on film scores he had been very active in researching avant-garde music and that in this realm the use of sounds was often given as much import as the musical notes. 

Thus it was that when he composed the music for Leone’s first film with Clint Eastwood, Fistful of Dollars, he used a variety of bells, whistles and abstract vocal yelps that would establish the tone of all the films scores he composed for Leone's westerns. 

Link to Fistful of Dollars theme

By the time he was composing for Leone's third film the range of effects had taken on an almost symphonic level using gun shots whips and whistling and animal yelps. 

Link to The Good the Bad and the Ugly theme

As far as he was concerned these were all part of the musical pallet. In fact his involvement with the avant-garde was more than a passing fad and from 1964 up to their eventual disbandment in 1980, Morricone was part of the Gruppo d Improvvisazione Nuova Consananza, a group of composers who performed and recorded avant-garde free improvisations.  


I asked him if he composed at the piano and he scowled, saying, “Only amateurs compose at the keyboard. I write directly onto the musical page.”

In my mind I wanted to challenge him with the retort, “Do you mean amateurs like Beethoven?” but I was awestruck by the thought that he had mastered music notation to such a degree that could write directly from his musical imagination with no need to be reminded what the notes sounded like.

He went on to explain how he composed the music for Leone’s films before the films were shot and that Leone would often use extracts of his music to play on set to help create an atmosphere before a take. 


He then explained how his love of the avant-garde prompted him to take Leone to a see a performance artist perform Symphony for a Metal Ladder, in which a heavily amplified set of steps was used to create a whole range of weird and wonderful sounds. This, he explained, gave Leone the inspiration for the opening scene of his epic western Once Upon a Time in the West

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the whole movie, but the opening sequence must certainly be one of the most transfixing opening scenes of any film. Seven minutes of sound symphony as three gunmen await the arrival of a train at an isolated and primitive railway station. Throughout the whole sequence the ‘musical beat’ is maintained: the repeated rusty squeak of a dilapidated windmill used to pump the water for locomotives. 


Link to opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West 


In a later sequence, music also composed prior to filming, Claudia Cardinale is seen arriving at another railway station. She is arriving to meet her fiancĂ© who is not at the station to greet her and the music somehow captures the romance and deep sadness of the scene. Leone was able to use the music and its crescendo to choreograph this single shot and its reveal of the bustling town that is springing up in response to the arrival of the railroad. 


Link to Claudia Cardinale's arrival by train 

The range and magnitude of Morricone’s compositions is immense. In one year alone he was reported to have composed 20 film scores. 

Without doubt one of his most lauded scores was for Leone’s final film, Once Upon a Time in America

Once again the score was written before the film was shot with Leone playing it on set to help create an ambience for the scenes being shot. 

Deborah's theme from Once Upon a Time in America


In this epic gangster film the story jumps from one time period to another as the jigsaw of the story is gradually revealed. The director’s cut, released in 1984 at the Cannes film festival to rapturous applause, was 3 hours 49 minutes long.

But Warner Brothers, who were distributing it, decided that in order for the film to be a commercial success they would rearrange the film chronologically and edited it down to 2 hours 19 minutes. This act of vandalism made it the only film ever to be voted by screen critics as both the best and the worst film released in the same year based on the two edits. 


Sadly, one of the results of this shoddy editing by Warner was that Morricone’s name was edited off the credits, thereby excluding him from an American Academy Award on a technicality. (That year the award for best score was won by the film The Right Stuff – does anyone remember the score?) 


I suspect that Morricone was unmoved by this omission as it was apparent from my time with him that he had no doubt in his ability and expertise as a composer and was much more concerned with the job at hand. He died on July 6th 2020 at the age of 91 and was composing new scores till his last days. 


I believe he was, without doubt, deserving of his preferred epithet. Thank you, Maestro Morricone.


Link to Morricone biog.