On January 1st 1991 I spent the day with Ben, Anne, Paul and various other people. The routine had been the same every January 1st for about ten years: lunchtime pints, a walk in Windsor Great Park (including the dropping of high catches and watching Ben get annoyed with rich people riding horses), Christmas cake back at Ben and Anne’s house, silly games, more beer, curry, Calvados, “Groundhog Day” and a sleep on the sofa. In the early hours of January 2nd 1991 I was violently sick and woke up all of Ben and Anne’s family and assorted guests, one of whom was Roo, whom I had barely met before. At around 8 o’clock on January 2nd 1991 I was woken by Roo’s head peering round the corner of the door with a look which managed to combine concern and ridicule in equal proportions.
The next time Roo and I met was also at Ben and Anne’s when they invited us both to a their daughter Katie’s Junior school fund raising event in June 1991 which consisted of a gig by appreciative fathers of children at the school who called themselves The Grateful Dad. Over the next few months a few phone calls resulted in us getting together in October and we haven’t looked back since with rarely a cross word in nearly thirty years. I was never able to complete a crossword.
Roo was working as a ward sister in Cardiff having recently completed a Masters in Nursing. I was teaching at a not especially easy comprehensive school in Harlow where lessons ended at 3:15 every day, including Friday when I would run to the Lada and beetle round the M25 aiming to get onto the M4 by 4:00 and Cardiff by 6:00. Occasionally, Roo would come and stay with me in Harlow. There were corners of my flat that I never knew existed until I cleaned them in preparation for her
inspection visit. It was hard to decide whether Harlow or Cardiff was a better place to spend a weekend. Possibly Cardiff just won out and a visit to Spiller’s records was compulsory every Saturday morning. At the time the dock area was being re-developed and one Sunday we were wandering around and saw a temporary stage in a large open area with a small notice saying “Live performance here today at 3:00 by The Rockingbirds”. This was very exciting for me as I had recently bought their eponymous first album and loved it. We went back at 3:00 expecting a big crowd to have formed but there was nobody else there. I said that it was probably a joke but at 3:00, The Rockingbirds climbed onto the stage and played a brilliant set for about forty five minutes. By the time they had finished, there were probably about ten people watching. I can remember really enjoying their music but feeling quite self conscious as all members of the band kept looking at me. Jason Isbell said “There can’t be more of them than us” but at the start of this set it was true.
The Rockingbirds style is country rock and they made a concerted effort to sound like they came from Nashville whereas in fact they were all from London. They were signed to the Heavenly label and this album was the second full length release from this record company who subsequently released albums by Manic Street Preachers, Beth Orton and Doves.
“The Rockingbirds” is a really lovely album – it reminds me a lot of a country version of Brinsley Schwarz. There is a variety of different styles but all within a country rock genus. “Time Drives A Truck” is hard rocking with some great guitar work and lovely harmonies. “Further Down The Line” features slide guitar and a banjo. “Standing At The Doorstep Of Love” and “The Day My Life begins” are a gentle ballads. The whole album is a cornucopia of varied musical listening experiences.
“Jonathan Jonathan” was a single and is an homage to the great Jonathan Richman. The track starts with the 1-2-3-4-5-6 intro from “Road Runner”. There is a reference to Jonathan Richman once saying that “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground was one of the most beautiful songs he’d ever heard. Only the mad genius of Jonathan Richman could think that this paean to hard drugs was beautiful. The song also lists all the members of The Modern Lovers and Alan Tyler (the writer of all the songs and the lead singer) recounts how he once shook Jonathan Richman’s hand at The Hammersmith Odeon. The song ends with the chord sequence from the end of “Road Runner”. It’s a great song and is very funny.
My favourite song is “Searching”, which The Rockingbirds performed on “Later”. It’s got a great melody and lovely harmonies. Towards the end the tempo increases and the song builds towards an intense climax which is genuinely exciting. “There is no promised land just a mirage of sand”. Profound.
The opening track on the album and another single is “Gradually Learning”. The video shows the lifestyle that the band wishes they had, waking up in a lovely sunlit flat with Bobbie Gentry playing on the record player before they all meet up on a corner in Austin, Texas and start playing the song. As they wander round the city they bump into cowboys, men on stilts and a cool dude on a skateboard. The final few minutes of the song are blissfully happy as Alan Tyler realises that he is gradually learning “thanks to you”. A bit like me over the last thirty years although Roo would have me believe that the word “gradual” has more significance than “learning”.