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My Musical History Part 7

May 29, 2021

Marking Time before everything changed.

In many ways, 1978 was a year where very little seemed to happen. After the drought in 76 and the Jubilee in 77, it was a year with no obvious focal points. As a student of politics, however, I can see it as laying the groundwork for the following year’s election.

After years of Post-War Consensus, where both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party agreed on Nationalisation of vital sectors, a large welfare state and high taxes, the speeches of Margaret Thatcher, the opposition leader indicated that she wasn’t interested in continuing with that approach. Most commentators, however, saw it as political positioning, prior to an election that could come at any time, so ingrained was the idea of that consensus. Thatcher’s position as Prime Minister in waiting grew in strength as the year continued and the Labour Party under Jim Callaghan became a minority government reliant on support from small parties to stay in power. The next election had to be no later than November 1979, and although Labour limped through to the end of 1978, it was clear that they were highly unlikely to get that far. 

She was connecting with voters by being prepared to move outside the coded political language of the time. In February 1978 she used the word ‘swamped’ in relation to immigration which, deliberately or not, echoed the language of far right MPs such as Enoch Powell and reflected a number of prevailing attitudes in the UK at the time. For example, the first black footballer to play for England, Viv Anderson, made his debut in a European Championship qualifying game against Czechoslovakia in November 1978. Although he was hugely talented and there on merit, he faced volleys of abuse from his own fans. Every week in the league for Nottingham Forest he faced fans throwing bananas at him and shouting racial abuse at him in every game, as did the growing number of talented black footballers like Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis. Although their talent laid the groundwork for the increasing profile of, and opportunities for, later generations, they had to face huge amounts of abuse in an era when football was an expression of attitudes that were even more hostile than those in wider society. The National Front, a fascist party who were close to winning seats on local councils at the time especially in London and the West Midlands, were still active and activists could be found handing out racist literature at Secondary schools in areas where it had some support, like Kent where I lived at the time.

The start of a children’s TV institution

in February 1978, the cosy middle class world of children’s television was shaken up by a new programme set in a North London Secondary school called Grange Hill. It tackled issues such as racism, poverty, bullying and domestic abuse. The topics had hardly ever been brought up in a mainstream children’s programme before, and it was extremely controversial right from the start. Parents hated it and kids loved it because it showed the reality of school beyond the gates and away from the carefully constructed image of parents’ evenings and the open evenings, where junior school children and their parents were given the picture of a supportive environment with kind teachers and well behaved students. The reality was, of course, bullying by staff and other students in a place where the law of the jungle ruled. Phil Redmond nailed the nastier side of school so well that those, who like me saw that side as their daily reality, but parents who were apparently suffering from amnesia after leaving their own schools 25 years earlier, were up in arms!

The cast of children were the polar opposite of the RP stage school types that otherwise dominated children’s TV. There was a reality about them that made Grange Hill more documentary than drama. The main characters for the first series were Tucker Jenkins (Todd Carty), Benny Green (Terry-Sue Patt), Alan Humphries (George Armstrong), Trisha Yates (Michelle Herbert) and Justin Bennett (Robert Craig-Morgan). These characters lasted for the full 5 years – no sixth form for Grange Hill at that time! – but it was Judy Preston (Abigail Brown) who I most identified with, even though she only appeared in the first series and the final episode of Series 2. She was shown on her first day being terrified of the school after the stories she’d been told, only to have those fears rubbished by her mother. She was considered to be ‘posh’ as indeed I was having been to a private school for three years and was worried that this would make her stand out. When she got there she found that the stories were absolutely true, and by Episode 3 she was involved in serious bullying both during and after school. Luckily for her, Trisha is around to help her, resulting in a major crush on Trisha on my part(!), but for many of us there was no Trisha to help so the bullying continued unchecked. The teaching staff were also realistic with the odd, nice teacher like Mr Hopwood (Brian Capron) and Mr Mitchell (Michael Percival) very much at odds with the old guard of unapproachable and occasionally bullying staff who saw children as the enemy.

It is impossible to overstate the effect that Grange Hill had on children at the time. There were finally people and situations recognisable in real life played out on our television. Todd Carty and Michelle Herbert in particular became household names because they were flawed, but essentially nice, kids who were looking for a way through school with as little damage, physical and emotional, as possible. The new reality that Phil Redmond brought to the series paved the way for series like Tracy Beaker in later years, which in many ways would make Grange Hill’s early series look quite cosy! It was very much our programme, an impression reinforced by adult hatred of this new series. Once your parents started complaining about a show you knew it had to be a good thing!

The home grown Starsky and Hutch!

During the first three months of1978, Friday nights were set aside for the most exciting UK series since The Sweeney made its debut. The Sweeney started its final series in 1978 so it was good timing. With an explosive theme tune and the close, but definitely blokey, professional and personal relationship between the two lead characters, Bodie and Doyle, the Starsky and Hutch influence was clear. However, being British TV, the storylines could be more controversial, the action more brutal and the language nearer to the knuckle. Martin Shaw, already an experienced actor with an appearance in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth playing Banquo under his belt, played Ray Doyle, a no-nonsense former policeman. Lewis Collins played the ex SAS hardman, William Bodie, although he was only ever known by his surname. The interesting aspect of Bodie’s character was the fact that he was actually allowed to be as intelligent as Doyle, but he kept it hidden from all but his close associates. Overseeing the two CI5 agents was Gordon Jackson, who had become a household name as Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs, as George Cowley. Tough and uncompromising, Cowley was prepared to accept that Bodie and Doyle would go to any lengths to get a result, but they knew that if they let him down or directly disobeyed him that he would waste no time in getting rid of them.

The Professionals threw its two heroes into a variety of situations that, in one case, was too much for even the more relaxed TV censors of the time. Klansmen was an episode based around a racist group in London, and the language, in an era where racial terms were used with a certain amount of freedom, was too much so the episode was never shown on terrestrial television. Of course, we knew nothing about that at the time and the 12 episodes that were shown made The Professionals a must watch series.

The Scottish star of Saturday nights

The BBC was still the channel to watch on Saturday night, and in September of 1978 they made the decision to continue The Generation Game despite Bruce Forsyth’s defection to ITV. Forsyth had made the show, where two pairs of related couples like Mother and Son, Father and Daughter, Uncle and Niece or Aunt and Nephew, competed against each other for the chance to win prizes from a conveyor belt at the end of the game. Quite honestly though, I wasn’t tuning in for the show or the new host Larry Grayson, brilliant though he was. I was tuning in week after week for Isla St Clair, his Scottish co-host, and another huge crush, who was the first celebrity to send me a signed photo! As you can imagine that was a picture that took pride of place on my wall for a good few years!  

Grease is the word – pretty much all year!

The biggest film at the UK Box Office in 1978 was Grease, so it isn’t too surprising if the film soundtrack for the film had spawned a hit or two. Except, it didn’t just do well, it dominated the charts. Although it felt like a whole year when you couldn’t escape from it, it seems that my memory was playing tricks on me. The first single to hit the charts was You’re the One That I Want by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. It stayed at Number 1 for 9 weeks from the beginning of June and is the fifth bestselling single of all time in the UK, having exceeded the 2 million mark.

Even if you weren’t a big fan of it, you had to admit it did everyone a favour by keeping one of the worst novelty songs ever off of the top spot. The Smurf Song by Father Abraham and the Smurfs was at Number 2 for a frankly baffling 6 weeks. At the time I wondered who was buying it, and the radio was turned off every time it came on. Even Top of the Pops was muted it was that bad!!

After a five week breather, the second mega single from the film, Summer Nights, (definitely my favourite of the two) hit the charts in September and spent 7 weeks at Number 1 selling a ‘mere’ 1.6 million copies. As well as this, Sandy by John Travolta and Hopelessly Devoted to You by Olivia Newton John both hit Number 2 in November, Grease by Frankie Valli got to Number 3 in September and Greased Lightning again by John Travolta got to Number 11 just before Christmas 1978. Between those six singles they shifted nearly 5 million copies and Travolta racked up nearly nine months in the Top 10 on his own! I never saw the film until years later and I never bought any of the singles, but in 1978 Grease was inescapable!

L S Lowry has a brush with musical fame

One of the most unusual Number One records of 1978 was also my favourite. Like Vincent, 6 years earlier, the subject was an artist who became famous for his individual style. L S Lowry was a painter from Salford near Manchester who painted scenes featuring the industrial landscape of the city. It was his instantly recognisable matchstalk figures that gave Brian and Michael (actually Kevin Parrott and Michael Coleman) a very unexpected hit. The song’s chorus that became so familiar was in some ways as apparently simple as the art that inspired it, but as with the art it hid a real talent in plain sight. The song appealed to record buyers of all ages and was Number 1 for 3 weeks. When I bought the single I started to listen more carefully to the words of the verses which told the story of Lowry’s life with economy and understanding, and which are true masterpieces of the songwriter’s art. The third verse probably demonstrates their brilliance most effectively as they are written with wry humour and a certain dismissiveness of ‘experts’.

Now canvas and brushes were wearing thin
When London started calling him
To come on down and wear the old flat cap
They said tell us all about your ways
And all about them Salford days
Is it true you’re just an ordinary chap?

The hidden gem on the B Side is ‘The Old Rocking Chair’, a song that made me very misty eyed when I first listened to it, and indeed every time since. It wasn’t just me who was left emotional. The Ivor Novello award for best lyric went to this incredibly beautiful B Side. I will just leave you to consider the chorus, sang by an old man about his wife.

She was bonny, she was fair
And we made a lovely pair
I’d give half the world to see her
In the old rocking chair.

The best of the rest

Showaddywaddy, in their last really successful year, had three more Top 5 hits. At the time, my least favourite of the three was A Little Bit of Soap. That wasn’t to say that I didn’t like it, but it didn’t appeal to me. I changed my mind after my first trip to see them in concert at the Chatham Central Hall. Listening to Dave Bartram singing that song live gave it a whole new feel and it became a firm favourite from then on. Obviously, I couldn’t admit to kids at school that I had gone because they were as uncool as you could get by then, but I know that everyone else missed out seeing one of the finest live acts of the time!

Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty was one of the most recognisable and classy hits of the year with an incredible saxophone solo that blew me away and gave me a lifelong affection for that song and made me a fan of any song that made use of a saxophone solo! When I was preparing for this blog I wanted to see how long it was Number 1 for. I had a feeling it was 3 or 4 weeks. The answer? It never got to Number 1! It spent two weeks at its highest position of Number 3. Despite this it has to be one of the greatest records of the decade.

The Christmas Number 1 of 1978 was the third Top 10 hit of the year for Boney M, who couldn’t put a foot wrong in 1978. Rivers of Babylon got to Number 1 for 5 weeks in May, outselling You’re the One That I Want, the third biggest selling single of the decade, to become the best-selling single of the year! A fairly accurate historical account of the life and death of Rasputin was a relative failure peaking at Number 2 behind Summer Nights. Their Christmas Number 1, Mary’s Boy Child became the fourth biggest seller of the entire decade. In a year of Grease dominance they were the one act who more than held their own.

Next time

A new occupant in 10 Downing Street and a New Wave carries me away!    

From → Musical History

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