‘Footprints on the Moon’, a Johnny Harris recording, contains a melody, delicately picked out on the piano, that is so exquisitely poignant that it hurts like hell. There is a sort of Satie-like simplicity to it, which is incredibly effective. Bookended by flute flutters, and pitched against symphonic strings and a celestial choir, while underpinned by a softly flowing rhythm, it still has the power to command attention. The whole thing is appropriately weightless and suggests a serene state of floating.
The track, perfect for its Apollo 11 giant steps connections, was composed, arranged and produced by Johnny Harris, one of the most fascinating figures in pop. His name first really registered here via his arrangements for femme pop hopefuls of the 1960s, and in particular Tammy St. John’s always astonishing recording of the haunting Fangette Enzel song ‘Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways’ and her stampede through Brute Force’s ‘Nobody Knows What’s Goin’ On’ which still seems like one of the wonders of this old world.
Johnny’s arrangements provide connections to Lorraine Silver’s ‘Lost Summer Love’, to Tawny Reed’s ‘You Can’t Take It Away’, to Nita Rossi’s ‘Untrue Unfaithful’, recordings that decades later appeal equally to open-minded Northern Soul dancers and to connoisseurs of the recordings by British Girls which have reappeared on CDs in a variety of series such as Here Come The Girls and Dream Babes, overseen by scholars such as Mick Patrick, a hero here, not least because he once put Teenage Jesus’ ‘Orphans’ in his all-time Top 10 for the Ace website. Or was that a dream?
Part of the appeal of recordings Johnny Harris made with these kids in the 1960s is the sense that they could be cast as attempts to escape from drab conformity, to defy convention, made by smart, sussed beat girls who came from nowhere and were destined to go straight back there, but in the meantime they gave their all. Ah! The essential enduring appeal of a young hopeful who disappears, extinguished, after making two or three 45s which, ironically, are worth infinitely more than many a lauded artists’ career-spanning canon.
Another track blessed by the Johnny Harris magic touch is the version of ‘You Baby’ by Jackie Trent, not a hit but destined to become a big Northern Soul favourite. Johnny worked a lot at Pye with the team of Tony Hatch and Jackie, and with Petula Clark, but even among all that activity ‘You Baby’ is quite extraordinary, and there is an incredible clip of Jackie performing it on the Morecambe & Wise Show in 1966 which is quite wonderfully sexy but not in any of the obvious ways. It must have seemed like a bomb going off when beamed into the living rooms of families back then.
‘Footprints on the Moon’ first appeared as a single in 1969, the year of the lunar landings, and was paired with ‘Lulu’s Theme’, the breakneck charge of a theme tune from Lulu’s TV series. Johnny himself posted clips on YouTube in which, as the show’s resident conductor, he got a starring role, an opportunity he seized with relish, playing up to the manic dervish persona with panache and plenty of paisley prints and moptop shaking. Appropriately, in one extract, he is lauding the film soundtrack work of Lalo Schifrin, very much a kindred spirit.
This was supposedly easy listening music, the world of light entertainment and variety, a show broadcast on early evening TV, so presumably Johnny loved stretching boundaries, pushing his luck, sticking his neck out, while understanding when it was appropriate to play it straight, which is partly to do with professionalism and a lot to do with being polite, and this makes the inventive-M.O.R. concept (distant echoes, inevitably here, of Dave McCullough interviewing Vic Godard when ‘Stop That Girl’ came out) all the more subversive. Brilliantly, one of the clips shows Johnny’s orchestra storming through a stunning arrangement of ‘Downtown’ which turns the song inside out and shakes the hell out of it in a very lovely way.
That gives an indication of the approach Johnny took on his Movements LP, the one with ‘Footprints’ on it as well as the stunning tracks he had composed for the film Fragments of Fear which were so far ahead of their time they would have made waves on Mo’Wax 25-years later. Most of the LP, however, was Johnny’s ultra-hip reinventions of recent hits, aided and abetted by some (rich in sample potential) performances from fantastic players like Herbie Flowers, Harold Fisher, Harold McNair, Chris Spedding, and Roger Coulam.
This was an art form, where arrangers would take popular songs and twist them into something new. Around the same time the likes of Quincy Jones and Gary McFarland were doing this sort of thing in the States, while over here John Schroeder was the grandmaster of hip orchestral reinventions. Not coincidentally Schroeder was a peer of Johnny’s at Pye, and they will have often worked together.
It seems likely the name Schroeder first really registered here via ‘Soul For Sale’, an Alan Tew composition, credited to the John Schroeder Orchestra, which appeared on Pye’s Great Disco Demands, an early Northern Soul compilation, and an early boot sale find for this boy, which has the guy among the Casino crowd on the cover who looks just like Kevin Keegan, and maybe it was?
There was a big interview with John Schroeder in issue no. 12 of the UK hip-hop magazine Big Daddy, from the early part of the new millennium, carried out by the guys from Hero No. 7., where particular attention was paid to John’s ace Working in the Soul Mine (which opened with ‘Soul For Sale’) and The Dolly Catcher titles. John Cameron was the arranger on the excellent (and very) 1967 Dolly Catcher set, and he also wrote the standout track, ‘Explosive Corrosive Joseph’, which was experimental paisley pop nonsense with real heft and groove.
The Dolly Catcher premise of a mix of originals and reinventions would also be the template for Johnny Harris’ Movements, where the highlight is another original, ‘Footprints on the Moon’. Another standout track from Movements is Johnny’s radical reworking of ‘Light My Fire’ which would become the basis of a version he made with Shirley Bassey, a track which immediately conjures up listening Gilles Peterson or Patrick Forge on the radio in the 1990s as much as, say, RPM’s ‘2000’ or Mèlaaz’s ‘Non, Non, Non’. The combination of Shirley and Johnny is incredible, and the track itself so very sensual and bluesy and dangerous. Once again, it was nominally aimed at the easy listening, light entertainment crowd, but this was incendiary stuff in that adult context.
Shirley and Johnny made an LP together, “Something”, which is phenomenal, as well as strikingly internationalist and cultured in its approach, with songs linked to France, Mexico and Greece, a selection of numbers from films and shows, as well as reinventions of recent pop choices, all of which shames the parochial rockers of the time. A personal highlight is ‘The Sea and Sand’, an absurdly dramatic performance of a song by (co-producer) Tony Colton and Ray Smith, who also wrote ‘I Stand Accused’ and ‘Big Time Operator’, songs covered by Elvis Costello and Dexys respectively in 1980.
‘The Sea and Sand’ story line seems to provide the cover setting which shows a visibly distressed Shirley on the seashore, alone, and the sunrise has caught her still in evening dress and she’s carrying her shoes, still searching for a sign of her lost love: footprints on the beach telling their own tale. A whole book could be written around that one photo and that single song.
From there it seems a small step to My Boy, the record where, in 1971, Johnny Harris worked with Richard Harris, another perfect match which produced a magnificent LP, one ignored here for years until a Zone CD reissue turned up in the local hospice shop. It had been ignored because the Richard Harris and Jimmy Webb collaborations, the absurd grandiloquence of A Tramp Shining and The Yard Went On Forever, seemed sacrosanct, but you can so easily be wrong. Dare one say My Boy works better, being less abstract and more of a defined conceptual work or song cycle?
Why there should have been any hesitation here is a mystery, especially as it contains a personal favourite Jimmy Webb song, ‘Requiem’, which also appears on the 5th Dimension’s visionary LP The Magic Garden and became a perfect vehicle for Richard Harris’ theatrics. And another song, ‘My Boy’, was familiar from the years when many of us were more aware of Elvis’ marital break-up recordings than his early hits, and the Elvis record in most homes was, wonderfully, the odd compilation Separate Ways, usually on a budget label. So, a generation grew up knowing the story of ‘Old Shep’ before it knew about ‘Hound Dog’.
Cannily Phil Coulter and Bill Martin had adapted ‘My Boy’ from a French original by Claude François, in the tradition of Paul Anka and ‘My Way’ a little earlier, and perhaps unexpectedly this boy’s favourite track on the Richard Harris LP is the gloriously over-the-top ‘This is Our Child’, also written and produced by Martin & Coulter. And recollections of childhood prompt the realisation that the songwriting team of Martin & Coulter haunted my generation’s musical youth which is not something one hears said every day.
Their great successes, ‘Puppet on a String’, ‘Congratulations’, and ‘Back Home’, transcend personal taste in the sense that they were everywhere and in the very air we breathed. And then came the Bay City Rollers, and there are strange memories here of the group, before they made it really big, doing the great Martin & Coulter song ‘Shang-A-Lang’ one afternoon on TV, Magpie maybe or failing that Crackerjack, wearing cool, matching American football tops with big numbers on the front, all very much like the young Jack Kerouac or Jackie Duluoz, the time he writes about so well in his beautifully bittersweet book Maggie Cassidy (who was really Mary Carney, so oddly close to home). And the Rollers on this occasion seemed to have quite an aggressive presence. Was all this simply imagined? Is that possible?
Soon they were all over the place, but the football tops had gone, and instead they dressed in tartan and those daft shrunken jumpers, very cute and sounding so soft compared to the beloved shaping forces of The Sweet, Mud, Suzi Q., Glitter Band and all that, but the young girls loved it and every one of them at school seemed to have scrawled on their arm the name of their favourite Roller. And, so began a recurring pattern of initial euphoria and optimism turning into dreadful disappointment, like all those later Peel sessions or live shows or early singles never ever being matched by subsequent records, especially the ones on major labels.
Then Martin & Coulter’s next big project was Slik, who in 1976 had such a great image with their baseball shirts (a definite theme here), contrarily short hair, drainpipe jeans and the relatively-new Kickers curiously. Slik appeared much younger than most other pop groups around, and also seemed like a real band you’d want to be in. To a kid of 11 or 12 they were, in 1976, really glamorous, and there is still a soft spot here for ‘Requiem’, a bold move by Martin & Coulter with its gloriously moody intro that seems to suggest a mix of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the Gregorian chant of the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos: sketches of Spain indeed. It then mutates into a sort of bubblegum Brecht & Weill Berlin cabaret song, wonderfully like The Archies do ‘Alabama Song’ with quiffs and Harrington jackets, singing: “Oh what a wreck, this is a requiem”.
‘Requiem’ was only a very minor hit here, which seemed like a heinous crime at the time, and so again a pattern began: never underestimate the ignorance of consumers. And then the next single sank without trace, but was a source of fatal fascination here in the endless summer of 1976 with its mention of James Dean and all that: ‘The Kid’s A Punk’ or, as it was heard here, ‘The Kids Are Punk’. Being too young for Dirty Harry and only very vaguely aware of the term punk being used in connection with The Ramones and Sex Pistols in the weekly copy of Record Mirror, this was a mystery and the dictionary didn’t help at all. And the bass player would wear a shirt with 43rd Street Punks on the front. What did it all mean? Remember, this was recorded before the Pistols played Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, before the 100 Club Punk Festival, and long before the Bill Grundy incident.
Slik’s Midge Ure apparently hated this Martin & Coulter song, and writhed with embarrassment singing it. The irony was, we later learnt, that Malcolm McLaren and Bernard Rhodes had seen Midge as a possible candidate for the band they were putting together, before John Lydon turned up with his jukebox jive. Midge’s revenge came when he teamed up with Glen Matlock to form the Rich Kids who were wonderful as they wound the punk purists up no end.
The Rich Kids felt like a vindication, and even now a couple of the group’s singles sound fantastic: Midge’s anti-fascist anthem ‘Marching Men’ and Glen’s ‘Ghosts of Princes and Towers’: “You've either got it honey or you ain’t”. The Rich Kids, for a brief moment, very much had it: in my mind’s eye there they are, one Saturday evening, on the pilot show for Mickie Most’s punk TV series Revolver with Peter Cook acting the oaf and the audience dancing like there’s no tomorrow.
Then a year later they were gone, and the musical landscape had changed again. The mod revival was what annoyed the snobs who didn’t have a clue. Dexys Midnight Runners were part of what was happening, and before too long there they were at number one with ‘Geno’ (so sometimes the public could be trusted to get it right!) and there is a clear recollection here of trying to get a sense of what Kevin Rowland might have experienced back in 1968 and listening to a jumble sale find of Geno singing ‘Hi-Hi Hazel’, a song written for him by Martin & Coulter.
Ironically, many years later Kevin himself would sing a Phil Coulter song, ‘The Town I Loved So Well’, on Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul in 2016. This was the song that really stood out on that set, partly because Kevin’s performance is so dramatic and perhaps because it was the first time this boy had heard the song, which just goes to show that however well you think you know your music, you don’t. No matter how good Dexys’ emotional version is, nothing can really prepare you for hearing how Luke Kelly sang it with The Dubliners back in 1973.
And it really is a remarkable song. It seems innocuously bittersweet and sentimental at first, the writer reminiscing about growing up in Derry, then it takes a sharp detour and switches its attention to The Troubles, forensically, and the effect that they had on the place, before delivering a partly defiant, partly wistful message at the end. It is hard to think of another song that manages to even come close to capturing everyday life in Northern Ireland, while being so successfully humanitarian and non-sectarian.
‘The Town I Loved So Well’ was one of three exceptional songs Phil Coulter composed for The Dubliners in the early 1970s. Just as hard-hitting and emotionally raw is ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’, a song which Phil wrote in memory of his son, born with Down’s Syndrome, whose life was painfully short. It must have been an incredibly cathartic experience to write this and then witness Luke Kelly singing it. If you look on YouTube there is a remarkable clip of Luke performing it on a 1974 TV show which is so astonishingly moving that your heart stops beating. Larry Jon Wilson’s ‘Bertrand My Son’ is heartbreakingly beautiful, and astonishingly personal, but ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’ is something else.
The other Phil Coulter song written for The Dubliners which is much loved here is ‘Hand Me Down My Bible’, a blatant and successful attempt at getting the group back on top of the charts back home. It is ridiculously joyous, like a wonderful mess of The Byrds doing ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’ and Dexys’ infectious ‘Let’s Get This Straight From The Start’. And Phil wasn’t just writing these incredible songs: he produced a series of Dubliners LPs and, when nobody seemed interested, the first few Planxty LPs. This was serious stuff, and one doesn’t get the impression that the strong characters in The Dubliners or Planxty would suffer fools gladly. So, brilliantly, Phil was in effect leading a double life, doing so much for the new Irish music, while in the day job he was associated with (and scorned for the simplicity of) his Eurovision and teenybop successes.
Over the past 40-odd years Phil has very effectively created his own space, with light orchestral Celtic variations and meditative music which has proven to be enduringly popular. Mention of a recent project involving John Field’s nocturnes piqued interest here, as these (discovered by pure chance, coupled with some Chopin nocturnes in a budget 2CD set) have become incredibly important, played often when only piano music at the end of a day can offer a brief period of respite from thinking about what tomorrow will bring. Some evenings it pays to put on the Naxos collections of John Field’s nocturnes and piano sonatas, so that the healing can, hopefully, begin.
And speaking of Van, that’s somewhere else that Phil Coulter’s name appeared when growing up. When he and Van were just starting out, Phil wrote ‘I Can Only Give You Everything’ for the angry young Them, which is an out-and-out punk classic, and a song first heard here via Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ Destiny Street which came out around the end of 1982 or early 1983, which to a kid felt like a lifetime after Blank Generation but with its punky sneer and covers of Them, Dylan and Kinks songs captured a new back-to-basics mood. And it’s a record associated here with things like the Blue Orchids’ Agents of Change EP (in its plastic bag!), Violent Femmes, Go-Betweens’ ‘Hammer The Hammer’, Jazzateers’ ‘Show Me The Door’ and accompanying LP, which oddly are all Rough Trade releases, so suggesting a different story than the Scritti and Smiths nonsense usually trotted out.
Over the years Van and Phil would occasionally continue to cross paths. Phil is there on a few tracks from Days Like This, for example, and oh that title track and the wisdom of Van. It’s a song that only really makes sense as you get older and can recognise the importance of days like that. Then just before that Phil helped Van with No Prima Donna, a 1994 project based on Van’s songbook, which made no impression here at the time, being too busy with 4hero, Tortoise, DJ Shadow, Autechre, Tricky, whatever.
Nevertheless, it has some wonderful stuff on it, particularly Cassandra Wilson’s gorgeous take on ‘Crazy Love’, Elvis Costello’s gospel acapella version of ‘Full Force Gale’, and Marianne Faithful doing (living!) ‘Madame George’ works wonderfully well, too, as does Lisa Stansfield doing ‘Friday’s Child’, a song loved here ever since hearing it on a Rock Roots of Them compilation where, along with ‘The Story of Them’ and ‘Mighty Like A Rose’, it became an obsession. God bless the day that a cassette edition was found for 99p in OK Records along the Broadway in the late 1970s.
Another highlight is the gorgeous version of ‘Tupelo Honey’ by the Phil Coulter Orchestra. Many of us will immediately associate the Phil Coulter Orchestra with ‘A Good Thing Going’, a terrific piano-led instrumental that became a Northern Soul favourite. Originally released in 1967, it was first heard here via an Inferno compilation Out On The Floor Tonight, another early boot sale find in the 1980s. Inferno was Neil Rushton’s label, whose name was familiar from his fantastic “primer for the new soul rebels” which appeared in the Hard Times issue of The Face in September 1982 and featured a great A-Z of Northern Soul playlist which was studied here in forensic detail at the time and for a long while afterwards.
There are some real classics on that Inferno compilation (first released in 1979) including Sandy Wynns’ ‘A Touch of Venus’, Frankie & Johnny’s ‘I’ll Hold You’, The Crow’s phenomenal ‘Your Autumn of Tomorrow’, The Ad-Libs’ ‘New York in the Dark’, and indeed the Phil Coulter track which was described as “the best Northern Soul instrumental of all-time”.
If you look at the label on the original single or the Inferno reissue of ‘A Good Thing Going’ you will see that it was a KPM production, for at that time the Martin & Coulter team was tied to Keith Prowse Music. KPM is now most closely associated with library music and the immortal green sleeves of the KPM 1000 Series. An early entry in that catalogue was The Sound of ‘Pop’, and yes, those inverted commas rightly give the impression it was all a bit arch, a bit conceptual and maybe satirical.
Most of the tracks were by Martin & Coulter while Alan Hawkshaw also contributes a few. A handful of numbers from this LP appear on a recent Trunk (sadly vinyl-only) collection, Spider-Jazz, which draws together library music used in the original animated series of Spiderman. These include the excellent Martin & Coulter instrumentals ‘Big Bass Guitar’, ‘Mods & Rockers’, and ‘L.S.D.’, which together with the vocal ‘Pop’ tracks could easily form part of a Swinging London film about a young group who make the big time.
If pressed for a favourite Martin & Coulter composition it would be the pop-art themed ‘Supermarket Full of Cans’, recorded by the Welsh group Eyes of Blue which it is impossible to resist calling blue-eyed soul. It was first heard here via The Mod Scene CD, part of an occasionally excellent Decca series. Another great Eyes of Blue track, ‘Heart Trouble’, appears on The Northern Soul Scene where the highlight is very much The Flirtations’ ‘Nothing But A Heartache’ with its wonderfully dramatic intro.
It also opens Sounds like the Flirtations, one of the great LPs of the late-1960s, which was reissued on CD by the dependable RPM label. Featuring mainly (often excellent) Wayne Bickerton and Tony Waddington songs, the musical director was Johnny Harris. Various Flirtations songs find favour on the Northern Soul dancefloors, and Johnny Harris credits are not uncommon on the scene: apart from ‘You Baby’ and ‘Lost Summer Love’ a particular favourite here is Kenny Lynch’s ‘Movin’ Away’, which is a gorgeous beat ballad, and then there’s Frankie & Johnny’s ‘I’ll Hold You’, or was that someone else?
Wayne Bickerton’s concept for The Flirtations shrewdly tapped into a variety of traditions: big band blare and Eurovision bounce, marching songs and terrace singalongs, Motown memories and rare soul all-nighters. And yet the sound, which Johnny Harris helped realise, was also looking forward, for this was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius with Concorde on the horizon, so a truly Transatlantic supersonic, symphonic, surround sound, sensory assault was just the thing, with the singers strong enough as a unit and individually to make themselves heard.
It is so easy to imagine Johnny going frantic, conducting in the studio, whipping the seasoned session men into a frenzy for The Flirtations, just like you can see him doing with his orchestra on ‘Satisfaction’ in an astonishing clip from a fin-de-sixties TV special. It’s no wonder his LP of the time was called Movements. The man knew a thing or two about music and movement.