High Fives 2021 No. 18 – Graeme Wheatley’s Christmas presents

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Graeme’s been contributing to this feature since 2015 and all of his contributions have been entertaining. We all know that it’s been hard to find positives over the last two tears, so we really appreciate the effort that’s gone into this one to pay homage to Charles Dickens with the presents of Christmas past and a Christmas yet to come. It’s a great memoir from a working musician and songwriter and we’re honoured to be publishing it here.

Present Number 1 – Abbey Road.

This was a present from my best friend’s parents to me when I was a nipper. I think it was 1970, probably years after it was released. But that didn’t matter to me at all. Music was timeless then. I was into the Beatles before I knew anything about music. Before I knew why it mattered. Maybe their music WAS why it mattered. Dunno, cept this was my first “grown-up” album. So grown up and in pristine condition that it was allowed onto my Dad’s enormous stereo player rather than just my Dansette. So I heard it loud and clear. Time and time and time again. I’d lie on the floor, speakers to either side and vanish. OK, it’s not a perfect album. In particular, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is a stinker and Octopus’s Garden is a bit desperate. But the rest? Paul’s bassline on Come Together might be as significant to bassists as Sunshine of Your Love or Under Pressure – sheer genius. Here Comes The Sun? I Want You? Oh Darling? Something? All great songs. Then there’s the Medley. I’d never heard anything like it at the time. It was weird and wonderful to me. This was the first album where I was starting to think of myself as wanting to be a musician songwriter and I listened with ears that were trying to fathom what was going on. I must have learnt a million things from this album cos I must have listened to it a million times, but the one thing that springs straight to mind for this High 5 is hearing a love song that finds a clever way to say “I Love You” without being obvious.

“Something in the way she moves….. something in the way she moves ME”.

Thank you George. I learnt something from that.

Present Number 2 – Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

This was also a Christmas present given year a few years after it was released. I had no idea at the time that the subject matter of the album was also the subject matter of Something but the cry of pain across the whole of the album resonated with me and my discovery of blues music which was picking up pace at that time. I was heading backwards into my Dad’s record collection finding he had Bessie Smith performing one of the tracks from Layla “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” and my friend and I were trawling the record shops of Newcastle looking for old blues albums to listen and learn more about this fascinating music that spoke to us from another world. From the howl of Layla, the sob of Bell Bottom Blues, the wasted grief of Have You Ever Loved A Woman?, the torn soul of Thorn Tree In My Garden, I heard songs being used to communicate deep feelings lyrically and musically. I didn’t know how to do that, but I knew it was what I wanted to do. Just couldn’t put it into words or find the right notes! Sometimes you have to live a little.  Or a lot. But maybe not so much that 3 years of heroin addiction and 15 years of alcoholism is required to get over it. The first thing that comes to mind from this album now is again a new way of saying the old things. “There’s a thorn tree in my garden, if you know just what I mean”.

Present Number 3 – The Futurama Mk111

My first electric guitar. It was second hand and cost a whopping £25.00. I think I was vaguely aware that you got more guitar second hand than new. I have only ever bought one or two new guitars since. It came in a case and with a bottle of Selmar guitar polish. I was never the best guitarist, but I had the cleanest guitar. I can still recall the aroma of opening the case and smelling Selmar guitar polish. As heady a perfume as Sunday Dinner gravy, Fish and Chips, and all the other great aphrodisiacs. But here’s the thing. I’m left-handed. Now, I know Paul McCartney played left-handed, I must have even seen pictures of Jimi Hendrix playing his strat upside down. I probably hadn’t seen pictures of Albert King playing his Flying V upside down with the strings also upside down, and I don’t think that would have helped any. When I sat down and took out the cleanest guitar in all the world and my hands went one way and the guitar neck went the other, I sat and thought as my head swam. I’d persuaded my parents to buy me this guitar because my life depended on it. I couldn’t now go to them and say “err, I have a problem”. The guitar, to be honest, was already something contentious. It was being played on TV and Radio by people like said Mr Hendrix and other persons not on the family Christmas card list (you know who you are). My family were all old school trad jazz or even music hall. I was already swimming a little far from shore. So, I took the left arm and attached it to the neck of the guitar and the right hand was taped to the body of the guitar and I said to myself, get on with it. I think I was 14. We played our first gig when I was 16. We were awful. We split up after our second gig. Musical differences between us and music. It’s been on and off ever since.

Present Number 4 – Gibson Thunderbird

I can’t recall when I made the change permanently from guitar to bass. I know why I made it. Cos my best friend was 100 times better than me on guitar. So it was easier to change than remind myself every time we played. In my defence, I’d always really loved Paul and Jack. Great songwriters, singers and players. Then along came Andy Frazer, Phil Lynott, James Jamerson, Flea, Sklar, Carol Kaye and so many more into my line of vision and inspiration. It never really bothered me that Paul played bass with a plectrum. He was the bassist in the greatest band in the world and had written the greatest pop songs that will ever be written. I broke my wrist snow-boarding many years back and so, ended up using a pick more and more myself.

I have bought and sold many basses. Hofner Violin Bass, Gibson EB0, Rickenbacker 4001, Fender Jazz, Kramer, Status etc. This one will be the last one. I had to venture into the dark dangerous underworld in order to rescue it. It was held captive in a stygian dungeon called North London. I found it wounded and wasted and managed to carry it to safety and civilisation, South London, of course, and hence straight to the local Vet for shots and restorative care. (a shout out to John Procter – luthier of this parish – https://johnprocter.com/ ). What makes it so special? Dunno really. The Fender Jazz and the Status are easier to play. Almost all of them are lighter. It’s just iconic. I love the look. Are there any major bassists who have played one? John Entwhistle springs to mind. He also modified it into a Fenderbird. I just think it appealed cos of it’s total lack of obvious appeal! Anyway, what’s done is done. It has gotten under my skin like it or not.

Present Number 5 – The No Nukes Concert DVD

OK, this is the Ghost of Christmas Presents To Come. I have asked Santa for this pressie this year, but I dunno if it’s gonna be under the tree. I think I’ve been a nice boy all year. Christ, there’s not been much chance to be anything else! I am hoping it will be there on Christmas morning but the tree is currently still in the loft, so, who knows? If he’s checking his list once or twice, he ought to know this. Brucie was probably the last of the 20th C great songwriters to overwhelm me. I’d been overwhelmed by John and Paul, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen at various points. I think I’d been aware of Bruce but pre Darkness on the Edge of Town, he’d seemed less relevant to a kid in a small town in the industrial north of England. But then, through the airwaves, I heard something.

“Badlands, you gotta live it everday,

let the broken hearts stand, that’s the price you gotta pay

keep pushing til it’s understood

The Badlands start treating us good.” The guy across the water was as miserable as me. And as articulate as Joe Strummer and Elvis Costello. I learnt a lot more about songwriting. And then I saw him and the band. Nothing really prepared me for that (maybe Rory Gallagher). Three hours plus of sheer soul, glory, rock and roll. Delivered. I have never seen a better gig. Seen some I’d put up alongside it, but never bettered. Not by Brucie either I’m sorry to say. For me, and this is just for me, The River is a dreadful album. Too many awful fillers. I felt very let down by that album. So, it’s with Great Expectations that I’m looking forward to Christmas morning to be looking back to 1979!!

Now, what if I’m disappointed with the concert?

What if, on review, I decide that Abbey Road isn’t as good as I originally felt?

What if I decide that I can’t accept the genius of Layla with the foolish old man that Eric Clapton seems to have become and have to lay it aside?

What if my fingers get so stiff from lack of use, that I accept my playing days are over? In that case, I have prepared here for Allan my list of 5 Rules of Songwriting THAT CANNOT be broken under any circumstances, they are, in order of importance, as follows:

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