STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN – a musical journey

A big event for our project was the stair case going in.  This finally meant I could access the top floor without having to clamber up a rather precarious ladder that had a tendency to shudder as you ascended and descended in a most disturbing manner.  It also meant that the temporary first floor could be removed and for the first time we could see what our double height entrance hall would look like, albeit through a somewhat strange blue filtered light due to the plastic glass protector on the windows.  

This of course is just the skeleton of what our final stair case will be – the design is simple and based on a number of ideas we have found on Pinterest,

As I ascended the stairs for the first time the strains of “Stairway to Heaven” came to mind and this made me reflect on how certain tunes resonate with certain significant moments in ones life.  I thought it would be fun for a change therefore to use this blog to reminisce about some of those tunes and moments on my life’s journey, not in a Desert Isands Discs way but in an eclectic way as songs come to me from different directions as I write.

Funnily enough the first tune that came to me is one I don’t actually like. It is the theme tune to: Sing Something Simple (https://youtu.be/YYlrgNyGUqI) a programme we seemed to listen to every Sunday evening whilst eating Crumpets in front of the fire in Otway Court, the first flat my parents eventually got when Barbara, my sister and I were 5 and 3 years old respectively. Up until then we had all lived together in one room in my Gran’s flat, the cramped conditions at least meant I escaped Sing Something Simple as my Gran did not like it either!! To this day I also detest crumpets though whether that is due to the association with the programme or their texture and taste I cannot honestly say.

The second song that springs to mind is again not one I like but it is about a particular episode in my life which captures my father’s wicked sense of humour. I was asked to sing a song in the Sunday School concert when I was 5 years old. They gave the lyrics to my mother who set about teaching me what would have been an appropriate but totally forgettable tune; however my father thought it would be more fun to teach me an alternative song, which he did in secret. Come the day of the concert I trotted up to the front when it was my turn to sing, the picture of innocence in my hair bows and dress. The pianist struck up a chord and I launched into a loud, lusty and tuneless rendition of “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” Funnily enough I was never asked to do a Sunday school recital again!

The Beatles formed the soundtrack to my early teenage years. But whilst I enjoyed some of their music I felt a growing resistance within me to “popular music” and found myself searching for something different. This ambivalence was resolved when I discovered the Grateful Dead. I loved the psychedelia, the sense of searching and experimentation, the hope and expectation and the raging against the status quo that the Dead and associates brought with their music. And of course the Californian Sunshine. Their music, and the music of other west coasters such as Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, The Doors, the Eagles and of course the Beach Boys to name a few became the theme track to my life for the next decade.

My first Grateful Dead Album was “Anthem of the Sun” but my abiding favourite to this day is American Beauty. And if I can only take one track to my desert island it would have to be “Box of Rain”: https://youtu.be/9r8aycpHmY0 .

Then as I started college I found Reggae, Ska and Bob Marley – who I first saw at the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park and from that grew an increasing fascination with everything West Indian. This eventually saw me going to live and work in Jamaica where I was when both John Lennon was shot and Bob Marley died. There are so many wonderful Marley tracks and iconic covers, particularly the cigarette lighter Catch a Fire, but Redemption Song will always be my standout Marley Song: https://youtu.be/kOFu6b3w6c0. There is something about the sense of freedom that Marley speaks of which resonates with me to this day, as he says: even from the hideous bounds of slavery, no one can control our minds.

Then we move forward again to when I returned to the UK from Jamaica and I find myself on a plane heading to Africa for the first time to visit a friend in Zimbabwe and who should I end up sitting next to but Hugh Masakela.  This was the start of my journey both into African music but more importantly into South Africa and the struggle against Apartheid and its transformation under the leadership of Mandela.  Little was I to know at that point that I would be fortunate enough to be living and working in South Africa at the time when Mandela became President and three songs from that period come immediately to mind:

The first is Stimela by Hugh Masekala  (https://youtu.be/650IZTWZa50) his evocative and moving song about migrant mine workers in South Africa.  I had the privilege of seeing Hugh perform this song several times at Kippies Night Club which at that time was at the centre of the African Jazz scene in downtown JoBurg.  It was then run by Sipho Hotsix Mabuse, himself a legend in the African Music industry.  I went there most weekends and saw many brilliant bands.  They also frequently had international artists drop by for a session.  Sadly I missed the Sting and Billy Bragg sets but I was fortunate to be there when Stevie Wonder turned up to jam with the local house band, he played drums, it was brilliant.

The second is Shosholoza. This was adopted as the theme song for the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Early on in the tournament the primarily Afrikaner crowds didn’t join in when the song was played but as the tournament went on and South Africa progressed to the final Dan Moyane, an African Radio personality, took on the role of leading the rendition of the song at the Rugby World Cup final. This was an African street song, a soccer song, a migrant workers’ song, a prisoner’s song. At Ellis Park that day on 24 June, 1995 it was belted out by African and Afrikaner fans together, it still sends a shiver up my spine to hear it. I sadly wasn’t at Ellis Park that day but was with friends in my house in Pretoria watching every moment of the game as it got tenser and tenser, moving into extra time, until that other incredible drop kick. Afterwards we jumped into cars and headed over to Yeovil District in Johannesburg to Tandoors nightclub – another stalwart of the African jazz scene – to celebrate. Driving though streets of jubilant, partying Africans and Afrikaners united for that brief moment in sporting history, “It was an amazing example of crossing the lines, of hearts changing.” https://youtu.be/2ivbm_ykTRE

But my favourite song of that period in my life will always be Johnny Clegg’s: Asimbonanga which he sang in the gardens of the Union buildings at Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first African President. I was privileged to be in the crowd there that day and danced with thousands in celebration of that moment. So if you only click on one link on this blog make it this one: https://youtu.be/BGS7SpI7obY

So that seems an appropiate point to stop this trip down my musical memory lane – part two will follow when our stair case to heaven is finished. If you have any musical memories you want to share please add them to the comments section of this post. Meanwhile stay safe and well and thank you for sharing this journey with me.

8 comments

  1. The house is looking fabulous Sue, and good to read your musical memories . Strangely the Dead and you came up in our conversation last night (the girls and their partners are in lockdown with us) when we were reminiscing about all the bands we had seen. And I too have the not so good memory of Sing Something Simple on a Sunday night, accompanying that flat end-of-the-weekend feeling and the dread of school the next day. I have so many weird and wonderful musical memories – I think maybe I should start a proper account of them all too! Among the weirdest has to be Captain Beefheart at the Stevenage Mecca Ballroom in the early seventies (playingto a mostly baffled audience) and Pink Floyd in a room above a pub in Kew (the landlord thought he’d booked a jazz quartet). And of course the stage collapsing as The Crazy World of Arthur Brown came on at the Sunbury Festival in 1968 which led directly to me meeting your fellow Deadhead George, Thanks for the prompt! Love to you both. xxx.

  2. Lovely to hear from you Vicky and your memories should definitely be shared. It was great fun doing it and hopefully brings some smiles to friends like you during these strange times. We really must get together when all of this is over, George and I are well overdue a serious Dead Heads’ session. Much love xx

  3. Sue, what a lovely post! Bob Marley will always remind me of my youngest uncle. He was still at secondary school when I was a child and his room was a heady mix of reggae infused politics and Bob fandom. It’d be tough but if I was going to pick one tune from that period it’d be Jammin’ because I love the sense of abandon. It was both adolescent and adult.

  4. An exciting and memorable history, Sue! I think there are going to be many of us visiting you and Mark in your new lofty abode, or on your desert island, if needs be.(Remember that statement?) You have forgotten at least three crucial songs though. I will forgive you, because all the excitement you’ve been through must inevitably lead to some forgetfulness. Here they are (please remember not to lash yourself): On the Road Again – Canned Heat. I Don’t Like Cricket… – 10 cc. Ripple – The Grateful Dead (there’ll have to be more than one of us on the said island…).

    • I love it…… you are right there are so many more and I remember Ripple was always your favourite Dead song – we can plan an entire weekend of Dead when you visit. Meanwhile lets Zoom soon – much love to you and speak soon xx

  5. Wonderful Sue! Love the look of the house and really enjoyed your musical journey. I can’t believe you saw Bob Marley at the Rainbow. By the time I got to Finsbury Park that iconic venue was a revivalist church. Your Southern African playlist feels very familiar!

  6. I love all your blogs Sue – they are so interesting! I absolutely loved this one about your musical journey. I am not sure which is my favourite Bob Marley song, but if I really had to choose, I would probably go for “No Woman NO Cry”. I look forward to Part 2 and all the others!

    • So lovely to hear from you Angela and I hope all is well in Montserrat – we have been trying to follow what is happening on Covid 19 in the Caribbean but not much is in the news. No Woman No Cry was my first ever Marley record and I love it too – there are so many brilliant ones it is hard to choose. I however think that for the next instalment Hot Hot Hot will have to feature…. with warm memories of times spent in Montserrat – stay well and safe in these difficult times xx

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