Song of the Day: Space in Music (Day Four). “Hats Off, Hats Off to Mars, Let’s Align Our Footsteps with the Stars”.

Glam rock was the era in which music openly acknowledged its superficiality.  Originating in the United Kingdom in the early 1970s and characterised by artists wearing outrageous clothes, makeup and hairstyles.  Platform-soled boots and glitter were commonplace and the flamboyant costumes and visual styles of glam performers were often camp or androgynous.  Artists such as Marc Bolan and T-Rex, David Bowie, Sweet, Roxy Music and Gary Glitter enjoyed extraordinary success.  However, for every one of these artists there were scores of glam divas waiting in the wings.

Take for example, Jobriath, the first openly gay rock star, who released two wonderfully camp and epic albums in the early 1970s, Jobriath (1973) and Creatures of the Street (1974) before the few members of the public who had been turned onto him turned against him.  He lived out the rest of his days in the Chelsea Hotel, where he became one of the first rock casualties of the AIDs virus in 1983.

Whilst Jobriath briefly managed to release his music, the subject of today’s Song of the Day was dealt a more cruel fate.  That subject is Brett Smiley, who to all intents and purposes had the makings of a successful glam rock superstar.  Young, blonde, beautiful and androgynous, Smiley began his career as a child actor, playing Oliver on Broadway before being discovered by Rolling Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham at the age of 16 in 1972.  Two years later, he was given a $200,000 recording deal and recorded the album Breathlessly Brett.  The album was produced by Oldham and featured Steve Marriott on guitar.  The first single from the album was the glam-stomping rock thrash out, Va Va Va Voom.

Va Va Va Voom was filled with all the elements that should have made it a glam classic, including wonderfully noisy guitars and a masterful sax line as worthy as those found in Bowie songs such as Suffragette City (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972).

The Bowie influence is also prevalent on Va Va Va Voom’s B-side, Space Ace.

Space was a regular theme in glam rock music, think T-Rex songs such as Spaceball Ricochet …

… and Ballrooms of Mars (both from The Slider, 1972) …

… and of course, probably the main source of inspiration here, Bowie’s most famous character creation, Ziggy Stardust.

The sound on Space Ace is suitably cinematic, fitting for the era in which it was born, whilst the lyrics, sung in Smiley’s distinctive and breathy voice, spiral like a freefall through outer space.

Around the time of the single’s release, Smiley appeared on the Russell Harty Plus TV programme, where he was interviewed alongside Andrew Loog Oldham and gave a startlingly over the top performance of Space Ace.

Unfortunately for a single that by all rights should have become a classic, it bombed and the album was shelved.  Smiley all but disappeared, save for a blink and you’ll miss it cameo in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980), as well as starring roles in a few ill-advised pornographic movies, and wasn’t heard from again until 2003 when RPM Records acquired the master tapes for the Breathlessly Brett album.  In the intervening 29 years, Smiley had been wallowing in a gargantuan drug addiction somewhere on skid row.  In 2005, Smiley was the subject of Nina Antonia’s book The Prettiest Star:  Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley.  Now free of his drug addiction, Smiley is back recording and performing, mainly around New York City.

Song of the Day: Places in Music (Day Seven). “It’s All Too Beautiful”.

Released as a single in 1967, Itchycoo Park by The Small Faces is a tale of skipping school and taking drugs in the park.  But is that all Itchycoo Park is about?  Sure, The Small Faces made other references to drugs in their music.  Take for example, the band’s previous single, Here Come the Nice (1967), with its overt references to taking speed with “the nice” being the drug dealer: “He makes me feel like no-one else could, He knows what I want, He’s got what I need, He’s always there, if I need some speed”.   Speed was a popular drug in the 1960’s, particularly with the Mods.  Like most bands in the late 1960’s, the Small Faces had effortlessly fallen into the drug culture of the time, regularly using speed and the new creative drug of choice, LSD, which is often said to have informed the content of Itchycoo Park.  Under the influence of infamously over-controlling manager Don Arden, it is doubtful that the Here Come the Nice single would have ever seen the light of day but new manager Andrew Loog Oldham, he of Rolling Stones fame, had no qualms releasing the single on his Immediate record label.  Here Come the Nice reached number 12 in the UK singles chart in June 1967 whilst Britain was fully in the grips of the flower power culture.

“The life we was living, if you didn’t have a few dubes, you couldn’t do it, you know.  We were up and down the motorways eight days a week.  Our drug of choice was hash actually, we used to smoke all the time … Steve particularly wanted to turn everybody on, but it was a secret, you know”.

– Ian McLagan, Jukebox Heroes, BBC, 2001.

For the follow up single to Here Come the Nice, the band took the name Itchycoo Park from the nickname of Little Ilford Park on Church Road in the London suburb of Manor Park, where singer, guitarist and co-songwriter Steve Marriott grew up.  Little Ilford Park was where members of the band used to go whilst playing truant from school, hence the lines: “You can miss out school, won’t that be cool?  Why go to learn to the words of fools”.  The park is referred to as Itchycoo Park because of the stinging nettles which grew there. The appeal of the song in no small part comes from the fact that everybody knows an ‘Itchycoo Park’, so much so that there is some dispute within the band as to which park the song refers to.  Drummer Kenney Jones told NME in 2014:

“Itchycoo Park was the bomb ruins, in the East End, where I used to play and we all had short trousers as kids and then there was these great big stinging nettles, you know, really horrible, the big ones, you know, and when they stung you, God, it was terrible so it was itchy, so itchycoo.  In fact, all of us had an Itchycoo Park around us.  Steve Marriott had one in Ilford, which was called Itchycoo Park and there’s another one in the city that I found as well.  So there’s a few around.  But my one was the bomb ruins”.

Whilst this meaning of the song is more widely known, the actual starting point for the song came from bassist and co-songwriter Ronnie Lane reading a magazine article on the virtues of Oxford, which mentioned its “dreaming spires”.  Whilst the song tapped firmly into the drug culture of the time with lines such as “What did you do there?  I got high”, Itchycoo Park is actually more about education and privilege.  Whilst the line “Under dreaming spires” refers to Oxford, the opening line of the song, “Over Bridge of Sighs” refers to Cambridge.

“Itchycoo Park basically came to me.  I lifted it from a hymn, God Be in My Head, and I also got the theme to the words in a hotel in Bath or Bristol.  There was a magazine in the room with a rambling account of some place in the country and it was about ‘dreaming spires’ and a ‘bridge of sighs’ – there was a write-up on this town – and I just thought they were nice lines”.

– Ronnie Lane, Record Hunter magazine, 1991.

The message of Itchycoo Park is that the band didn’t need privilege or education when they could find beauty in the local park.  The band made many protestations that the song was not in any way about drugs; much like John Lennon continually said that The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967) wasn’t about drugs.  In an interview with Creem magazine in 1975, Steve Marriott said of the song:

“The thing about Itchycoo Park was that the era was wrong, and the word ‘high’ freaked everybody out.  All the radio stations.  But that song was real.  Ronnie Lane and I used to go to a park called Itchycoo Park.  I swear to God.  We used to bunk off school and groove there.  We got high, but we didn’t smoke.  We just got high from not going to school”.

Talking about the song to Uncut magazine in an interview alongside drummer Kenney Jones in 2014, keyboardist Ian McLagan said:

“I never liked Itchycoo Park because me and Ronnie had to sing, “It’s all too beautiful” and you sing that a few times, and you think … It’s not”.

Upon the single’s release, it was immediately banned by the BBC because of what they deemed to be overt drug references in lines such as “What did you do there?  I got high” and “I feel inclined to blow my mind, get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun, They all come out to groove about, Be nice and have fun in the sun”.  In order to get this ban lifted, Andrew Loog Oldham’s business partner, Tony Calder explained to the BBC that the song had a perfectly innocent meaning.  In Paolo Hewitt and John Hellier’s biography of Steve Marriott, All Too Beautiful (2009), Calder says:

“We told the BBC Itchycoo Park was a waste ground in the East End which the band played on as kids.  We put the story out at ten and by lunchtime we were told the ban was off”.

The fears of the BBC and questions over its perceived advocation of drug use only went to strengthen the song’s performance in the UK charts, reaching number 3 in August 1967.  Despite the success of Itchycoo Park, the band themselves weren’t happy with the song being released as the follow up to Here Come the Nice.  Kenney Jones told NME in 2014:

“Itchycoo Park was a song that we did that we didn’t particularly want to release.  It was whilst we were away in Germany, Andrew Oldham, who made hit records, went in the studio and sort of dug through the stuff we were doing and we were away at the time.  And then, it got released, we didn’t realise it was being released, so that’s how that came about, you know.  We’d only done the song for a laugh really … it was a lovely song but not the ones that we wanted to be known for, because it was a bit commercial and stuff.  A great song, don’t get me wrong.  We didn’t get a say in what we released so that’s wrong for a start, along with Lazy Sunday.  All we were trying to do was shake this teeny bop pop image that we had and we just couldn’t shake it for the life of us and so that was kind of another nail in our coffin the fact that that was put out, when we really wanted to put out songs we were doing like Here Come the Nice and Tin Soldier”.

The biggest achievement of Itchycoo Park is that whilst it is steeped in childhood recollection of bunking off school and one of the band’s favourite hang outs as children, it is also very much a song of its time.  Even if you weren’t there during the empowerment of youth and counterculture revolution of the 1960’s, the Small Faces somehow manage to take you there in the space of a 3 minute pop song.  This is in no small part helped by the song’s apathy towards educational establishments and disdain for authority. Over the years, the band may have been coy with regards to the allusions to drug use in Itchycoo Park, but this, other than it just being a great song, is one of the many things that has helped the song’s longevity.