There wasn’t much music in our house when I was a kid. There were no records, or Hi-Fi, but I knew the songs of Hal David and Burt Bacharach off by heart. I`d learnt them while hanging onto my mum’s apron strings. Mum, before she’d had me, was a pop music nut. She loved to sing, and dance. She’d serenade me with top tunes from the teenage 45s that she’d been forced to sell to make ends meet. Stuff by Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black, and Dusty Springfield – her favourite. Belt out The Walker Brothers’ Make It Easy On Yourself. This last one a spiraling epic of heroic, fall on your sword, martyrdom.
They were all exploding orchestral firework display-like arrangements, of swooning, soaring melancholy, that made heartbreak sound like the meaning of life. I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself, Always Something There To Remind Me, Anyone Who Had A Heart…Tear-jerking fantasies that made hurting seem so good. That made me think that it was better to be unrequited. That way no one would know how worthless I was.
I guess everyone growing up in the `70s had these pieces, and more, etched into their memories, as they fast became standards that were covered by an army of light entertainers on Saturday night TV variety shows. The Carpenters’ Close To You, for example, would strike terror – oh no not again – into me as an infant, but as an adult it’s become a heavy hit of nostalgia. Not only for those evenings spent stealing sips of my Nan’s Babycham, as she snored, sparko in front of the cathode glow – when she was supposed to be baby-sitting – but also for the pictures of perfect love that it painted in my head.
Out of short pants other staples penned by Burt and Hal took on more significance. In my late teens I found some un-ironic solace in B.J. Thomas’ saccharine Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head, a subsequent chart hit taken from George Roy Hill’s Paul Newman and Robert Redford starring tale of a sentimental, sepia-tinted, Wild West. Lifted from the bit where the bank robbers with hearts of gold goof about with Katherine Ross on a bike. The film perhaps a love letter to the American landscape*, and a comment on the end of the “freewheeling” `60s.** The friends forever wise-cracking right up to the frozen, iconic, ending. Adrift, alone in bed-sit land things could sometimes seem bleak, but I could take another pill, snort, swig, toke, and forget about it `til later.
“I`m free, nothing’s worrying me.”***
Then there was The Look Of Love from Casino Royale, soundtracking the scene where Ursula Andress seduces a rather square looking Peter Sellers. Husky Dusty leading a smoldering swinging sorta bossa nova. Stoned, it conjured kitsch, two-tone, checkerboard, mod dreams. Beautiful Bond girls, and beautiful Bond. Lava lamps, exotic cocktails, sipped in equally exotic locations. Snug in the sunken lounge of space ace bachelor pad, entertaining a mental parade of smiling Playboy bunnies. A movie where I am jet-set, charming, irresistible. Cinema made a big, big mark on me as a kid. As I said, there was little music in my childhood, so instead these are where my codes and role models hid.****
Bill Naughton and Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie remains a reminder of where I come from. Michael Caine’s tour de force, as the titular fourth-wall breaking flash cockney Herbert, is a heartless, callous, cruel, most definitely misogynistic, anti-hero. One who perhaps inflicts pain, to avoid, or hide his own. The script barely hints at the hurt that created the monster. The love and care he never received himself. He is without a doubt totally unsympathetic, and might be a deliberate caricature, but these are the men and the language, the attitudes, that I grew up with. Was surrounded by. It’s why my sole ambition was to get out. In a rare moment of humanity, when he’s not on the prowl, a predator, or “having it off”, Alfie says, “It’s how the heart hungers for something that makes it beautiful.” Burt & Hal’s theme song, sung by Cher, in turn searches for “Something for non-believers to believe in.” States that “Without love we just exist.” “What’s it all about?”, of course, is the eternal question.
Written in memory of Burt Bacharach.
*For the middle third of the movie there`s pretty much no dialogue, just shots of the ill-fated pair attempting to out run the posse. Horses galloping against beautiful, striking scenery. Honestly all Newman and Redford do is take it in turns to ask, “Who are those guys?”
**The die is cast for the duo when a friendly sheriff tells them that their time, their era, is over.
***The Theme From M.A.S.H. was another on the surface kitschy soundtrack classic that helped me through.
****At 21 I considered quitting Uni and signing up for film school, until a genetics tutor talked me out of it.