Through a glass darkly

In its first ever <report> on global trends for adolescent physical activity, the UN health agency stressed that urgent action was needed to get teens off their screens and moving more.


“We absolutely need to do more or we will be looking at a very bleak health picture for these adolescents,” study co-author Leanne Riley told journalists ahead of the launch.

In Top Gear Magazine recently, Chris Harris noted how, if you see someone driving in a hurry, they’re generally older drivers, aged at least 35 or 40+.  Apart from a diminishing car culture subset of rural young people, the vast majority of young people, by contrast, drive very slowly in their Polos, chilling.  Driving has always been crap for them and they have no expectation of anything better or faster.  Harris notes ruefully that the only thing speed-related that young people get exercised about is if the wifi isn’t fast enough …

3 photos illustrate the point:

Young people in 1963:

Kids in the 1980s:

Young people in 2019:

The Shock of the ’70s

In my lifetime, I suspect there’s never been a decade that marked such a break with the past than the 1970s.

Sure, the 50s (rock n roll, the invention of the teenage consumer) and the 60s (hippies, counterculture) started the ball rolling; but it was the 1970s when modernity / change went mainstream.

The pace of cultural change between 1969 and 1972 was startling.  It was as if somebody pulled a switch and re-calibrated everybody, almost overnight.  I only realise this in retrospect, now having lived through subsequent decades, and not noticed much difference between any of them, frankly, apart from, in this century, a gradually-increasing conservatism.  Subsequent decades have all segued gently into each other; but the ’70s was a dislocation decade; it kicked you up the arse, into the future.

In the late 1960s, things were pretty much culturally un-disturbed in my late parents’ world. Men wore 3 piece serge suits and shined their wing tip shoes and black lace-up boots before socialising and before church (finished off with Dubbin if walking in inclement weather).  “Dressing down” might mean replacing the waistcoat with a v-neck cardie over the shirt and tie.  Trilby hats were common; and flat caps were everywhere.  My folks drove a Morris Minor and listened to 78 records on a large gramophone with a polished wooden cabinet 5 feet tall.  The needles were copper.  The needle holder cum soundbox was an elaborate chrome affair.  Lighting was the soft glow of gas mantles.  They had vaguely heard of the Beatles, but thought they were silly.  Houses were whitewashed, with corrugated or thatched roofs. Fridges didn’t exist; we had an outdoor dairy with thick walls and buckets of milk cooling in a through-flow water bath; and salted pork in pitch-sealed half-barrels in the corner.

One day, when I was aged 4 or 5, I remember everything being piled into the Morris Minor.  I stood on our old house’s street (“yard”, in American-ese) at dusk, watching the Minor, with its chrome and curves, and open-down bootlid extended, driving slowly down the lane to the shiny new burnt orange 70s pebble-dashed bungalow.  In that moment, while I couldn’t elucidate it fully, the stab to my heart was the realisation that the family car was going through a time portal.  I remember seeing a violin case and a bottle of HP sauce atop the load.  Obviously, it was the last few items from the old house.  I don’t remember any other items being transported, but I remember the last run for the small items vividly, as if it was 5 minutes ago.  Generally, when a memory snapshot stays with you, that’s because that image at the time triggered some strong emotion.  I was ambivalent about the move; excitement at the new tempered with a feeling that we were abandoning the old.  The shiny new place, all chrome, lava lamps, plastic and steel chairs and bright electric lights, seemed glamourous but did not (yet) feel like home.  It felt like the ending of an era; and, in many ways, it was.

There was a real sense of “out with the old, in with the new” in the 70s.

Bungalows came out of nowhere; there was nothing Irish (or British) about them; but everyone wanted one.  Some of the designs – the inverted V model house to this day is fantastically modernist and minimalist in a way that Lloyd Wright would have approved of.  And yet, these things were being built by folk with no great (or any) interest in architecture.  Hard to find any examples on the Internet, and most have been either demolished or altered beyond recognition.  1970s houses had poor insulation, single-pane windows and death-trap wiring etc; so much objectively can and should be done to improve such houses’ efficiency and safety ratings.  Unfortunately, when carrying out such necessary updates, developers, if they haven’t unleashed the bulldozers, cannot resist the urge to “improve the design”.  That is, they make it more pretentious and more traditional.  Which misses the point completely; but that’s developers for you.  Fortunately, this old ’70s classic bungalow, a few miles away from where I grew up, somehow has survived the 1990s cull with its wonderful, unpretentious lines as yet intact and mercifully free of design “improvements”:

Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that this revolutionary instinct didn’t last long – by the 1990s, Irish houses had once again become much more conservative and once again sought to incorporate perceived “traditional” design references.

And it wasn’t just old houses that were discarded in the 1970s.  Usually conservative people went on a frenzy of scrapping anything that was old.  Once a family built “the bungalow”, all the everyday objects in the old house, most of which were still in good nick, were nonetheless dumped.  People seemed to want to shake off the everyday reminders of the previous era; as if they couldn’t bear to bring “old stuff” into the new house.

Our wonderful old gramophone cabinet was dumped in a barn and used to store vegetables.  Well-made (and well-nigh indestructible) artisan wooden furniture was dumped unceremoniously and replaced by less sturdy chrome and plastic 1970s chairs and new things called “sofas” and “pouffes”.  We also got a bright red cube (with integrated bumpers, a plastic dashboard and a gear lever coming out of the dash) called a Renault 5.  Compared to the gentle curves and chrome of the Minor, it was from another planet.  Houses, or indeed anything that could be painted “burnt orange”, were painted burnt orange.  Any dessert or food that came in a plastic packet was prized.  (I’ve dined at Michelin-starred places with their amuse bouches and their palate cleansers, but few things are as good as a proper packet lemon meringue pie, albeit with home-made base; and not forgetting Duck a l’Orange and the Arctic Roll.)  Very quickly, suits were abandoned, and young men started showing up at my Dad’s tailoring shop to request increasingly outlandish embellishments to their ’70s denim and velvet gear.  Young people who couldn’t afford a new pair of trousers, or who couldn’t source a sufficiently-outrageous flare in local shops, would come to Dad with extra fabric to be cut into triangles and sewn into the lower-leg seam.  Naturally, extra style points for flare-inserts with clashing colours (old curtains and patchwork bed-spreads were often pressed into service in this manner):

You have to remember Dad trained in the Tailor & Cutter Academy in London’s West End before WWII.  He was an exceptionally diplomatic man, and the customer was always right, but I wonder what he made of it all : )  I remember Dad smiling as he noted that one particular pair of custard yellow flares had the exact same dimension (30 inches) around the waist as they did around the bottoms …  Those flying banana trousers would be teamed up with (and I’m thinking of a neighbour lad a few years older than us, whom I looked up and whose style I tried to copy as best I could): hair curled out over your ears and down your back, a short, waisted, electric blue or green velvet jacket with very wide lapels, a shirt with ridiculous collars, a kipper tie or a medallion, brown plastic platform boots and the Brut 33 dripping off him.  Topped off with a 1.6 Ford Capri + furry dice if you were rich; any old heap of scrap if not.  Sorted …

I remember sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car in our local village in the early ’70s as 2 shabby apparitions walked past.  2 local young people, each with massive flares obscuring their shoes and trailing on the pavement, each with long hair down their backs, each with a shapeless oversized top.  Mum and Dad, tried, and failed, to guess whether they were 2 men, or 2 women, or 1 of each, or neither : )

I wanted to be like them, that was for sure.  Until punk happened 3 or 4 years later and then it was all about short hair and trousers so tapered that you had to use WD40 to get your foot out the bottom (not quite, but it would have helped).

The pace of<cultural change> in those years was unprecedented.  Fashions changed radically, and totally (none of your mix n match atomised you tubery here), every few years.  Ditto music.  It was an era when the revolution ceased to be a minority West Coast hippies pastime.  In the North of Ireland and in Britain, class war, political war, women’s rights, all came to the forefont; and all against a backdrop of glam rock, pounding disco and raucous punk.  There was a heady lawlessness, a general contempt for rules (1970s Health & Safety is a contradiction in terms) and for tradition and a general feeling that the old guard had no clothes.  Of course, along came Thatcher, but she too was a revolutionary. There was a cultural anarchy about the ’70s that has never been matched since.  And the cultural ruptures of that era found their echoes in the year zero nature of the brand new everyday artefacts of the times.  Here are some examples of how, in the 1970s, even one’s quotidien artefacts were iconoclastic:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To this:

Reminds me of an everyday scene in the playground at Omagh CBS in the 1970s – a circle of goons chanting “Oy! Oy! Oy!” while two flared long-hairs with stacked heels tried to knee and kick each other in the face : )

Essentially, in the early to mid-1970s, every bloke was trying (and failing) to look like Rod – I tell you, in the 1970s, I hardly knew any boy or young man that that didn’t desperately want to have a shaggy dog / artichoke haircut like Rod’s – of course, you would be expelled from school / fired from work with it nowadays, but, back then, this was the cut du jour if you wanted to be somebody:

(In the ’70s and ’80s, I had spiky hair and a mullet and a flick at my boys grammar; nobody batted an eyelid as most of the older lads had hair down their backs – even our school rules confirmed that, at our all boys school, one droopy ear-ring was fine.  If they’d tried to ban ear-rings, they’d have had to expel about 1/3 of the boys.  Ironically, the local girls convent grammar at the time only allowed stud ear-rings for the girls – the boys’ school had a more liberal ear-rings policy than the girls’ school.  It wouldn’t happen now …)  You look at pictures of old football teams from that era; they all looked like long haired layabouts – nowadays, by contrast, they all look like they’re in the army.  Certainly more conservative times.

From this:

To this (this was a 1970s tranny – means something very different today!):

From these:

To these:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To this:

From this:

To these (I had a 70s skateboard, orange, naturally):

The Sound and the Fury

Walter Röhrl 

In the ’80s, I was confident that our local back roads would sort out Röhrl. 

As a wide-eyed teenager, I was privileged to hear and see the rallies down the narrow back roads near our house in rural Co. Tyrone in the 1980s. One of the advantages (for people like me) of growing up living in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by “bad” (i.e., good for rallying) roads, meant that you had a ringside seat at major car rallies.

Röhrl did the Ulster Rally in 1984; and he and the big quattro was a game-changer moment. He blitzed the worst that Ulster’s roads could throw at him.  Suddenly, all those RWD Fords and Opels were history.  The quattro was something else, and so was the tall, ascetic German who drove with an urgency that bordered on insanity.  It’s as well they pay him for driving; as he’d do it anyway.  He and his wife decided not to have children; as he felt he could only devote himself to driving.  Nutter, you might say; but there’s never been anyone quite like Walter.  

Famously ascetic, a non-drinker, a downhill skiing coach, an expert horseman, and a keen mountain biker, in a drivers’ poll in 2000, Walter was voted the “Driver of the Century”. Initially, Audi sent Röhrl to the Ulster Rally, simply to test their car. (Other drivers were using the lesser LWB quattro, but this was the first outing for the real quattro.) Walter officially was here just for “testing“. Naturally, the TV interviewer asked did that mean he’d be backing off the pace as little. The very idea of ever going less than flat out of course appals Walter, who is at pains to reassure the interviewer that he will be driving even more like a maniac than usual – flat out all the way, or, as he puts it, “always, always flat“:

In a sport where winning overall by a few seconds is impressive, Walter ended up over 4 minutes clear of the No 2 driver. Most of the field were over half an hour behind him. He was pulling out a lead of over 2 seconds per mile. The local rally boys had never seen or heard anything like it. As one local headline of the period put it: “A big German hammer to crack a wee Ulster nut!“:

It is that near-religious devotion to the gods of speed that so endears his fans to Walter. He never plays the %s. Flat to the mat all the time …

In 2007, Michael Schumacher, test-driving for Ferrari, was testing the new Ferrari 599GTB at the Nurburgring.  He was on it, hurling the new Fezza round the track.  To his astonishment, he noticed another 599, an identical car, closing on him.

He was Schumacher; at the height of his powers!  Who the hell was this?

To his disbelief, the mystery 599 then overtook him and pulled out a lead on him.

Puzzled, Schumacher followed the other car to the pits, just to see who it was.

And who was it?

Walter Röhrl (who else). Even though he was now officially a pensioner, Walter was still Porsche’s head test driver, the man they selected over all the young bucks to carry out the really high-speed stuff. Porsche had asked him to road test a standard Ferrai 599, just so they could benchmark their own cars against it. And Michael obviously drove for Ferrari in F1.

Apparently, Schumacher said something like: “Now I see it’s you who has passed me, that’s OK with me“.

In reality though, he was furious and went back to his mechanics and got them to pull the car apart to see what was “wrong” with their “shite” car … and speculated that Porsche must have worked some magic on the 599’s chassis.  In reality, both 599s were bog standard.

Pretty hard to take I imagine.  You’re the greatest driver ever – and an old rally guy has just dusted you.

As they say: “Schnell. Schneller. Röhrl.”

Here, Walter has a chuckle about the time he smoked Schumacher at the Nürburgring:


I think you can’t beat driving on snow for crack – provided your car is old, light, narrow-tyred and with a proper handbrake (to help you steer).  I float about gently on snow and generally enjoy the sensation of the car constantly moving about.  I’m slow on snow, but I get there and, unlike most nervous ninny drivers in Ireland or Britain, I very much enjoy it.


And then you see how to really do snow – this clip from 1986 is a short test run on the Col’, Walter with no helmet, talking in an almost-bored manner to his team, relaying information back:

Check how loose and relaxed his posture is and check how much beans he’s giving the car.  Then, to your surprise, you realise the hoor is on snow, on a road with a major drop off the right hand side.  Walter der Eisverkäufer!  And you think – if he can be that confident and aggressive on snow, dry road driving must have been a stroll in the park.

Here’s Walter again, during his Gruppe B days with the quattro.  Check out the footwork:

Arguably the greatest wheel-man who has ever lived.

Joey Dunlop

Mesmerising old 1983 footage of vintage Joey around the Isle of Man on the V4 Honda:

– pushing 200mph in places, walls, trees, leaning over, no run offs, medics or gravel traps, some parts are dark under the trees – it has an almost dream-like quality and you have to remind yourself that this is not a playstation game.  Makes me smile to hear Joey’s matter-of-fact description of how you have to be “careful” – as if the concept of “being careful” and wheelying over yumps at 200mph were somehow compatible(!)  Check also Joey’s Antrim accent shining though on the way he says “quick” – click to full size to get the best “on board” effect.

A local UTV documentary on Joey revealed just how highly the Honda top brass thought of him. Some of Joey’s own DIY modifications so impressed the Honda engineers that they introduced them on the production bikes.

Joey was never very comfortable around anyone wearing a tie (didn’t trust them shiny boys), so the very polite Honda people had a habit of taking off their ties before meeting Joey.

Joey’s training methods with his brother Robert on Castlerock beach involved an old Marina van, one of the lads lying across the bonnet and the other doing handbrake turns at speed to practise “falling
off”.

After being mis-quoted early in his career, Joey was wary of a certain type of journalist – “tell them boys nothing” was his advice to a contemporary.

His DIY charity trips to Romania were typical of the man – quiet, practical – load up the truck and go deliver it.

In a divided community, Joey transcended both politics and sport.  A genius, a legend and an absolute gentleman.

Ari Vatanen

Known to all petrol-heads as the man who invented left-foot braking, Vatanen, like so many of his country-people, exemplified the old motorsport saying: “if you want to win, hire a Finn”.

Check out this clip from the 1983 Isle of Man, serious staging from Ari – check for the wobbly moment half way through when Ari rescues a major crash when his car has a blow-out going over a cattle grid – when the co driver exclaims “dear God!” – not many atheists in rallying:

Stefan Roser

No available pics of Stefan, the Yellowbird will have to do

So much car stuff on you tube is staged rubbish from imbecilic frat-boy show offs.  But this grainy, un-hyped and un-doctored clip from the early 1980s, of Stefan Roser in the (very unshaven) Ruf-tuned “Yellowbird” 911 (top speed 211mph) is the real deal.  The rule for older 911s is counter-steer like hell continually and no matter what happens, never lift – I’ve been round the Nurburgring Nordschleife in a V10 M5 and I’d say most drivers attempting this unrelenting velocity would have crashed at least 20 or 25 times during this lap and literally would have been dead long before it was over:

Michèle Mouton

WRC winner and winner at Pikes Peak – the latter still makes me smile – Pikes Peak, bastion of alpha-male US motorsport.  Then along comes a French woman in a funny German car and kicks all their asses:


They talk about female “role models” among the various brain-dead oompa-loompa slebs; but oh that today we had more women in popular culture possessed of the talent and integrity of Mouton.  

Here’s another great photo of a group of petrol-head legends – Mouton, with Walter demonstrating something (Hannu Mikkola to the left; Christian Geistdörfer to the right) at, I think, the 1981 San Remo – but when Walter retired with mechanical problems, Mouton won the race.  Mikkola was in p4 I think.

And here’s a great clip of Mouton, now retired, being interviewed by a journalist as she does some light-hearted practice for an upcoming classic.  Some pensioner:

And here she is reminding us how much we need noise in motorsport – top woman:

She is of course correct.  

Your noise is my symphony:

I remember the wistful sound of race bikes on a hot dry mountain road in Andalucia, somewhere between Ronda and El Chorro, the wolf-pack crescendo echoing off the rocks.  Me with the hire car stopped, out listening, rapt.  My better half thinking my head was away : )

I remember one morning outside our holiday gaff near Èze, S France, very early, at dawn, along the rural part of the Avenue des Diables Bleus, the urgent baritone roar of a GT3 911 being driven at imprisonable pace, micro wheel chirps at every bone-dry corner, being lost in admiration at the blurred violence of his progress past our gate.  Better than morning coffee! That guy, whoever he was, was no ordinary driver.  Perhaps Delecour, or one of the F1 guys who live in nearby Monaco?  Made my morning : )

I remember Notting Hill, London, out walking with the family, the roar of superbikes approaching from behind along the Bayswater Road; then, looking round, startled, not superbikes, but in fact an Audi R8 and a Lamborghini Huracan, stopping, by good luck, engines grumbling, at the lights just beside us.  I looked in at the lead Lambo driver, winked, thumbs up and pointed quickly at the road ahead.  He grinned back, nodded, and he and the R8 guy behind fish-tailed off like escapees, bouncing off the rev limiters, the sonic shock waves rippling through our chest cavities.  The kids were enthralled, and chattered excitedly for ages, the big kid with them inwardly no different.  

I remember, growing up on our farm, at various times,  the sound of the rally in the distance.  A demonic opera, sound coming at you in waves, rising, falling.  And, cutting through the chorus, the noise of the short quattro.  That demented, Minotaur bellowing, punctuated with frantic wastegate chirping and machine-gun rattles, as stones peppered the bodywork.  It made the hairs on your neck stand up.  On one such occasion, instantly dropping all chores (as my Dad shook his head resignedly at the follies of car-obsessed youth), my brother and I sprinted towards the sound.  Sonic devotees …

Stefan Bellof

Nurburgring lap records are two-a-penny. Every manufacturer, especially Japanese ones, seems to have some caveated version of a Nordschleife lap record.  Basically, anything under 8 seconds is very quick.  
Of course, all these years of desperate big-budget attempts to shave a few seconds here and there for some production class ‎record (usually secretly running bespoke race rubber and funny petrol, but that’s another, murkier, story), there only ever was one true record – the insane 6m11s record set by the late, great Stefan ‘sideways’ Bellof in 1983 in the Porsche nine fifty-six.
For over 35 years, nobody has gotten within an ass’ roar of Bellof. 
Until 29 June 2018, when Porsche itself, in the nine nineteen hybrid, knocked nearly a minute off Bellof’s time.  
If you’ve ever been round the Nurburgring, you’ll appreciate ‎the unfathomable nature of that 5m 19s time – and just how surreally-scary that sort of double-ton pace would have been through Flugplatz!  I looked at the footage. Car seems to have a sequential box with cut gears and the suspension is so extreme he avoids all kerbing, even through Karussell, where the driver is usually glad of the kerbing.   About double the power Bellof had and obviously different-league aero, but still an astonishing feat.
In the raw courage stakes though, there’s still only one winner for me.  It’d be interesting to see how many of those boys would get close to Bellof’s insane time, if they had no electronic traction aids, no modern rubber and no modern aero …  
Michael Schumacher

The complete professional, with an unbelievable competitive spirit, and the most successful F1 driver of all time.  Which pretty much says it all, really.  Let’s hope we see Michael back on his feet reasonably soon.  And best of luck also to Mick Jr in his racing career.
Juan Manuel Fangio

El Chueco! Arguably, his performance as a 46 year old at the 1957 Grand Prix at the Nurburgring was the most outrageous comeback of all time.  Fangio popularised shuffle steering and feathering the wheel, whereby you don’t apply a constant radius, but take the corner in a series of small “bites”, turning in slightly and then straightening away from the curve and then immediately repeating etc.  The benefit is that you can carry more speed – the micro-straightening regains traction and then you immediately attack the turn again. Cf throttle feathering, where you continually adjust the inertial mass of the car in fast sweeping bends.  That is, in a front drive car on a fast long corner, lift off and the car will tuck in towards the centre of the road; apply and the car will move towards the apex.  You can essentially steer the car on motorway curves with little or no inputs from the steering wheel. Channeling your inner Fangio : ) There is a statue to the great man in the centre of Monaco, much beloved of tourists.

Ayrton Senna

I was in St. Andrews in Scotland in 1994 when I heard the bad news.  People stood around, staring at TV screens, in disbelief. Senna had that aura of invincibility that you also associated with Joey Dunlop. A probable future Brazilian president; honoured with a 3-day state funeral.  See the <extract from the book about his funeral>. He reportedly was a formidable commercial negotiator and as uncompromising off the track as he was on it.  An outrageous talent, Senna was even better in the wet – soaking tracks and spray allow the true artists to display their abnormal levels of finesse and courage.  Intense, driven, honourable and often difficult; famously, after he moved to England, he split up with his then girlfriend who reportedly was fed up with his refusal to socialise.  Apparently, he preferred to stay in and read the bible … His tussles with his fellow-genius, the laid-back Prost, were the stuff of legend – see the excellent documentary, <Senna>; and here is a snippet of the master at work, in an era when there was no power steering, and minimal suspension (ignore the “Video unavailable” message, just click below to “Watch on YouTube”):

James Hunt

And then you have a bloke who almost certainly didn’t waste too much time reading the bible : )  Hunt was a swashbuckling exemplar of the irreverent decade that was the 1970s. A posh playboy and party animal whose champagne-filled nights and boudoir antics just before races gave rise to the “sex – the breakfast of champions” – adage; James nonetheless was a fantastic natural talent and a ferocious competitor. And there’s never been anyone like him in F1 ever since.

Alain Prost

A genius racer and every bit Senna’s match on the track.  Nicknamed “the Professor” for his thoughtful, dispassionate and analytical racing style.  Easy on his cars and on himself.  

The Stones

R.I.P. Charlie Watts 1941 – 2021. Watts was an understated guy and an understated drummer. When the Stones played Slane Castle in Ireland in 1982, onlookers were amused to note that Charlie’s drum kit was smaller and less elaborate than that of the support act! Of course, a flamboyant drummer would have ruined the Stones – his understated jazz-influenced drumming style left the spaces for the improv of the other guys and, of course, the flamboyance of Mick:

Mick proving you can never be too skinny, too rich, or too cocky : )

Mick finds Jesus

Glad I got off my ass and caught them in Dublin in 2018:

Here’s the set list:

  • Sympathy for the Devil
  • Tumbling Dice
  • Paint It Black
  • Just Your Fool
  • Ride ‘Em on Down
  • Neighbours
  • Wild Horses
  • You Can’t Always Get What You Want
  • It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)*
  • Honky Tonk Women
  • Before They Make Me Run
  • The Worst
  • Miss You*
  • Midnight Rambler
  • Start Me Up
  • Jumpin’ Jack Flash
  • Brown Sugar
Encore:
  • Gimme Shelter
  • (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction*

Typical Stones’ work ethic – a tight, barn-storming set lasting over two hours. I’ve starred the ones I thought were superb – as in better than I’ve ever heard them before, live or recorded. What a finale that was:

As I tried desperately to get a place to park, it felt like I was going to a Tyrone match. Streams of people, annoying rickshaw drivers, buskers, inner city folks bawling “hats and headbands” and guards with security barriers blocking streets off. I ended up parking two miles away, in the fancy Convention Centre car park. The weather was beautiful – bright and sunny. As I hurried up some inner city streets, an old bloke in his garden cheerfully asked if I was “going up to see Mick Jagger?” Indeed I was.

 
 

I missed the band coming on stage.  Newly wristbanded, I was being funnelled through a tunnel in the vast Croke Park labyrinth when the opening drumbeats of ‘Sympathy’ started, and, with one accord, we just ran.

The audience was a very eclectic mix of people, as befits the broad and long-standing appeal of the band. People with mohawks and dreadlocks and metallers happily alongside preppy guys in blue blazers and sharply-pressed chinos and women in chic cocktail dresses.  A couple of well-dressed 70-somethings, standing alone, rapt. Beside a 20-something in a hoodie who couldn’t stand up. Teenagers and 20-somethings, heavily-tanned bohemian 30- and 40-somethings, a tipsy bunch of merry Irish grandmothers. They probably remembered the band from half a century ago …  Overall, I’d say that the vast majority of the crowd were younger, and in many cases much younger, than the band.

A friend of my brother’s, at school in 1982, had a t-shirt with the sarcastic message: “Mick Jagger lives on”. Even then, Mick’s age and longevity was attracting wiseacre comments, as the “Rolling Bones” entered their third decade on the road. 1982 was 36 years ago folks …

How then were the Stones last night? In a word: quality. As today’s Irish Times review noted:

“… astounding … genius … pummelling your senses with some of the best rock music ever …”

As today’s RTÉ coverage noted: “The Rolling Stones pull off a Croker corker”.

As today’s Irish Independent noted: “Rolling Stones storm Croke Park and rock 70,000 with stunning show.”

Cue old pros, old dogs and hard road clichés:

 

As Jagger reminded us, their first Irish gig was in January 1965, at the long-since departed Adelphi Theatre. I wasn’t even born. They know what they’re at. This probably is the last time for the boys. They could be forgiven for going through the motions and being their own cover band. Not a bit of it though. The professionalism, the enthusiasm, the masterful embellishments of well-loved classics, funkier and blues-ier than ever, the pride in doing a great show, the energy, the sense of fun and good humour, all very evident:

Copyright © Bjornulf Vik 2018
Copyright © Bjornulf Vik 2018

As you have probably worked out, the two photos immediately above were taken by a bloke with an actual camera : )

There had been two full-length rehearsals on Tuesday and Wednesday. A casual listener might be taken in by the jamming, free-wheeling nature of the Stones’ blues-rock oeuvre. But you don’t get to be that musically louche without first working your dayglo socks off. This was a supremely professional show by a bunch of guys who gave the distinct impression they could jam all night for the love of it. Respecting your audience? 110%.

As I suspected it might be, from an older fan’s perspective, it was slightly emotional. You look at them and in one sense you’re looking at human time capsules from the utopian cultural days of the 60s and 70s. They’re from there – and, somehow, here they still are. In, but never fully of, our time. Too cool for that. And still showing the young pups how it’s done:

I said previously that going to see the Stones is nowadays some sort of cultural duty, a homage to the long-haired libertines who made some of the songs my babysitter sang to me in the late ’60s, a homage to history and to perhaps the only outrageously-successful band that are still worth listening to. I was wrong about the “duty” bit though – they rocked the place out for over two hours – it was a real privilege.

 

As the Irish Independent review put it:

 
“Back in Croker, darkness fell not on just the edge of town, it fell on one of the most flamboyant bands the world has ever seen. It was a night, maybe even the last night on the sacred soil, to remember their very special brand of the blues.”

A Festival of Squares

Belated recognition that one-size-fits-all music festivals suck.  However, bloke in this article is having a moan:

Festivals and weddings used to be one of the few places where different generations and different types of people came together.

“I don’t think it’s like that any more and it’s a shame really. You go somewhere now and it’s specifically aimed at you and your type of mates and there are other places aimed at other groups in society. You don’t really have that cross-generational thing.”

Saville agrees. “There’s a lot of snobbery around clubland and commercialisation of house music but there should be a degree of open-mindedness in clubbing,” he said. “Dance music was always hinged on everyone being allowed to feel comfortable in their own skin, whatever gender or class they were.”

Article <here>

This may be true of dance music – if your only reference point starts from ’90s rave culture.  However, this eclecticism is relatively recent and arguably confined to dance music.  Or, what yer man means by dance music.  70s disco was dance music and it attracted a very specific audience.

I was once accosted by some right-wing skinheads.  “Are you a punk or a mod?”, they wanted to know.  I talked my way out of it, but the wrong answer would have gotten me a hiding.  Once, on a late train, a bunch of punks were being a bit noisy.  Other passengers fled the carriage.  I went down and said hello.  We had a great chat about the system, about Holts spray cans for graffiti, about whether glue or hair gel was best and about Dead Man’s Shadow’s new album. They looked a bit scary, but because they had fantastic Mohicans, I just knew they were basically sound.

Couple of years ago, outside the Opera House in Belfast, I walked past a bus full of young people going to a local music festival.  The lads all looked very stupid.  50p haircuts, grey branded tops, grey incontinence pants.  Lagered-up, sniggery, loutish, thick as planks.  I know music and I know music fans.  Those cretins were not music fans.   The girls all looked very stupid.  Hairspray, fake tan, high heels, incessant vacuous giggling.  These empty-headed dullards were not music fans.

They were exactly the type of brain-dead, right-wing assholes I partly got into punk rock to avoid.  The idea that you could go to a music festival somewhere and see these vicious, tone-deaf cnuts everywhere depressed me.

I enjoy gigs for two reasons:

– For the band and the music
– To be among your musical tribe

Modern music festivals tend to be eclectic.  I still shudder at the memory (I wasn’t at it) of an Irish festival in the 00s that featured Madonna and Iggy Pop – at the same event.  How is that even legal?

Previously, you had gigs and you had line-ups for a festival.  In a gig, the support would be from the same tribe as the lead act.  In an e.g. metal festival, if you had Twisted Sister, you could be sure to find two other metal acts in tow.

It was great to go to such events.  It’s like going to a bike show or agricultural machinery show or classic car show.  You’re among people you have something in common with and everyone gets along and you can chat about your obsession with like-minded idiots.

But just imagine going to an agricultural machinery show and finding it full of townies sniggering about farmers.  Or finding your classic car show taken over by vegan cyclists.  Or conversely!  Or going to see an indie rock band at a festival and finding yourself among 3000 Chelsea fans and UKIPpers chanting “get your tits out for the lads” at the black female keyboard player or morons having a picnic just when the band is playing an iconic encore that, for you, has an almost-religious significance.

The whole point of popular musical tribes, from the 50s onwards, was to carve out a tribal identity.  Bowie got it.  In ‘Fashion’, when singing about the brand new dance style, he notes, with just the correct amount of suspicion in his voice, that, “they’re doing it over there; but We Don’t Do It Here”:

Pop culture was unashamedly elitist and exclusionary.  That was half the bloody point.  As a student, I often refused to date a woman if she wore the wrong clothes or was into the wrong bands.  If someone wore kitten heel pumps and was into some bland chart shite, seriously, what was the point?  These weren’t trivial signifiers.  You knew you’d disagree with her on everything else as well; and off you went in search of a woman with Doc Martens and sticky-up hair.  You knew you both would have the same views on just about everything.

Hopefully, the new elitism is a trend that will continue.

As <this article> notes, ‘ music taste has become less tribal and more pluralistic than before‎’.

Which is just a polite way of describing those people who ‘like a bit of everything’ and who go to music’ festivals ‘for the crack’. 

Back in the day, I’d have called them scum.

The Comics

Did you ever:

1. climb onto a roof of a farm building; and
2. tie car springs to your feet with baler twine; and
3. open an umbrella; and
4. wobble over to the edge of the roof (the car springs made walking difficult); and then –
5. jump?

You didn’t?

Ha! Easy knowing you never read “The Comics”.

In comic-land, this escapade worked a treat. The altitude and the umbrella meant you’d surely float or fly. And, even if that didn’t go to plan entirely, you’d a Plan B with the car springs. Assuredly, at the very least, you’d be making huge marsupial bounds across the farmyard, BOINNNG! BOINNNGING! away, a new world conquered.

As I launched myself excitedly off the edge, I distinctly recall thinking what a good idea jumping off a roof clutching an umbrella was and how come people weren’t doing this sort of thing more often.  What fun it was!

Crump! Oof & ooyah! As I picked myself up (fortunately the ground was relatively soft and not yet concreted), I remember my main feeling was one of relief that no-one had witnessed the debacle.

I was 5 years old and a true believer. As a kid, many of my recreational ideas were lifted straight from the pages of The Dandy, The Beezer, The Topper and The Beano. I built a den. I made several go-karts. I “hunted wild animals” and engaged in shoot-outs with other gangsters. I explored. I played (numerous) pranks on adults. I built a dam over the exit stream from the duck-pond at the bottom of our farm-yard (and damn nearly flooded our farmhouse – I hadn’t counted on how quickly the water would rise and how difficult it is to remove a dam once it’s trapped under water pressure). I built a raft. I built a tree-platform. I spied on “shady strangers” and took their car numbers. I put 50p in a box and buried it, for the thrill of finding it again. (I never found it, of course – how big the earth is, how small a spade was and how unreliable our sense of location thereon is, but sure wasn’t the challenge great?) I threw knives at hay bale targets. I swung from hay-tethers at the roof of haysheds, Tarzan like (I thought) and dropped onto a handful of straw on the ground below. “Buck-eejiting” my parents called it. “Base jumping” and “corporate bonding entertainment” they’d call it now. I made a kite. I made a sleigh. With bricks and planks, I set up ramps to do stunts on my old inherited Raleigh bicycle. I dug holes, covered the top with twigs, newspaper and grass and waited for people to fall in. No-one ever did. Using an upturned wine-glass, I eavesdropped on conversations in adjoining rooms and reported the news on the bean-can and string 2-way radio. (Of course, I could more easily just have went into the next room, but where would have been the fun in that?) I wrote letters using lemon juice. I tried to fish. I made a pop-gun. I collected frog-spawn. I learned new words. Again aged 5, I remember reading about the adventures of ‘Claude Hopper’, the bloke with the very big feet. As someone tripped over them, poor Claude, embarrassed, rushed to assist, saying, “I must apologise”. The context taught me the meaning, even though I pronounced it “appol-ogg-guise”, until corrected. I made pirate swords and set up a gangplank for other kids to walk along, at “sword”-point (the sea into which the scurvy protesting varlets would fall was a bathtub full of mucky water).  I roamed the fields, bogs and moors, spotting small animal trails and tracks and imagining the seeming-humanity of their existences (animals were as human as humans in the comics).  Donning meal-sacks to “protect” our trousers, we set up mud slide trains down the side of an empty loch (in local folk memory, the night the loch burst its banks was accompanied by a mighty roar; but to us it was a peaceful place of unusually tall trees and unusual vegetation, with usefully steep sides, great for “sliding”).  A tar-barrel (intended to hold salted meat) and a short shovel made for an entertaining “boat” (the design flaw was in the circularity – the thing spent most of its time spinning in drunken circles, but hey, we were floating).

There were the general comics and there were gender-stereotype comics. The latter, for boys, were exclusively about soccer and war; and, for girls, seemingly about social agonies and the dynamics of female gossiping and female social politics. I liked the football and war comics fine, but much preferred the anarchy of the general traditional comics. It should be noticed in passing that all the general traditional comics always had a sprinkling of very strong female characters – Minnie the Minx, Beryl the Peril, Dyna Mo, etc.

That was the thing about the comics.  The kids and characters in them were constantly outside, doing stuff.  The idea of a kid as a role model being someone who sat indoors, whey faced, weak and rule-ridden, well, ugh.  (In the comics, there were such characters, but they were pitiful and not to be emulated, such as ‘Walter the Softy’.)  Looking back, I begin to appreciate anew the importance to my sense of self and my personal development of growing up on a farm surrounded by a ready-made adventure playground, and, crucially, an abundance of sheds and work-tools (saws, hammers, nails, screws, screwdrivers, wood planes, vices, discarded machine parts, wheels and bric-a-brac of all sorts) with which one could fabricate all manner of contraptions.  However, the comics were an important catalyst for much of what I did. Being trapped in a house, full of soft furnishings and fragile ornaments and adult do-goodery and pessimism, was no place for any self-respecting kid of my generation.

And now, countless cow pies later, The Dandy is coming to an end, in paper format anyway, at the end of this year.  Dandy editor Craig Graham said: “Following extensive research, we discovered The Dandy readers were struggling to schedule a weekly comic into their hectic lives. They just didn’t have enough time. They’re too busy gaming, surfing the net or watching TV, movies and DVDs.”

Hectic my foot.  How about “over-protected, inactive kids who can’t read”?  It’s inevitable.  Who wants to read daft, un-PC stories illustrated with ropey line drawings when you could slump on your couch and download an app.

Sad to see it go; and I do not envy today’s passive, chaperoned kids.  We had freedoms that are un-thinkable nowadays.