When I was sixteen or so, I read my first Bronte novel; it was, inevitably, Wuthering Heights. The edition I (and all my fellow students at White Oaks) had wasn’t the Penguin edition but the US one, bought at the start of the year in the office where they sold books in high school. It looked like this. The reason I mention it isn’t because I liked the novel (I struggled with Joseph’s dialect and had to work at the novel’s structure, even though a convenient family tree was part of the introduction) but because of what was said about the author. Especially what her sister, Charlotte, said about her* : “Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.” Well, I thought, that’s an odd thing to say about someone who has written something so complex; but Emily’s general stoical nature (I seem to remember, but can’t find, something about her removing a nail or tooth or some such thing from her skin with utter calm) appealed to me. And so did the instruction of Patrick Bronte, to Mrs. Gaskell, on her writing about Charlotte – “No quailing, no drawing back!”
And so it is with this blog – some might want me to draw back from writing about certain people, certain songs, and while a few – a very few – I am avoiding for my own sanity, the rest I can and will write about. Indeed, I would be cheating myself if I skipped anything, especially since the very things that some might object to I didn’t hear in the US; and they are part of UK pop culture, whether UK pop culture is willing to admit this, or not. Some might object to my writing about Jonathan King – in this case, about his smash hit “Johnny Reggae” (an NME #2) – and some others just might feel a little…uneasy. All things considered, I can understand that; to this day, I have noticed, for instance, that chart shows (radio shows that go through charts of the past – Pick of the Pops, Double Top Twenty, etc.) always conveniently swerve around or contrive to avoid King’s works; I am not sure if this is a legal matter, a matter of taste, or something of the two combined. As a man with a criminal past – of a sexual nature – I am not sure if the radio silence is some odd kind of shunning, a continuing punishment.
We are in the depths of something here, dear readers, that goes beyond the Void and into some kind of re-writing of history, as if songs like “Johnny Reggae” never happened in the first place, where the industry that King thrived in for a long time suddenly turned on him, in a way that looks a bit scapegoatish to me. That he did time for terrible things is well-known; but then Phil Spector and Joe Meek’s productions still get played, and they both murdered someone, something far worse than what King did. To an outsider like me, this is unfair; something like an aesthetic as well as a legal judgement has been wrought.
This UK quailing and drawing back from what actually happened, what lots of people actually bought and danced to – because hey, I’m sure this was played at a lot of parties at the time – is a shame; this is a fine song, King’s foray into reggae, with one girl telling another about her fine fine boy, and how she’s so into him, and vice versa. It’s just suggestive enough to be real, detailed enough so that you too can imagine how handsome and cool the guy is. Not for one minute is it trying to be real reggae (the girls have Cockney accents) and if it was deemed a novelty at the time, well, it was a popular one, one written and produced by King, who had already had hit (“Everyone’s Gone To The Moon” from ‘65), named the band Genesis and helped them with their first album, and otherwise was one of the stars of King’s College in Cambridge in the mid-60s (along with fellow students at the time Nick Drake and Ian MacDonald; I’m not sure if they knew each other though)**. King thus covers a lot of ground here, from prog rock to bubblegum, a man who could sense a trend or geist and get a hit – such as this one – with a kind of irreverence balanced with an actual understanding and love for pop.
But the UK media has swept all this away under its figurative carpet; and so in the mosaic that is 70s pop, there are bits and pieces missing, because it cannot, for whatever reason, separate the person from their works, observe Larkin’s Law, and understand its past. That sweeping has removed this song from pop currency, for all intents and purposes; and as a lot of you well know, this is not the first time I will have to deal with music that is unplayed, unknown by anyone under 40 or so, in this blog. As uneasy as I know it will be for some, I will be trying to understand the 70s and how they were, and in this case how the UK deals, or doesn't, with those who have done their time and are all but outcasts, who were famous in the 70s and beyond and how they are seen (or rather not seen, not to mention not heard) now.
Next up: and so the legacy begins.
*I realize that what Charlotte wrote might be an exaggerated or romanticized view of Emily’s character, but at sixteen I had no idea about this.
*This recent interview with King provides a lot of information on his conviction, the murkiness of the law, and how he sees himself - as a man who did bad things, but not nearly as much as what he has been accused to doing.