Tuesday 5 September 2017

My review of Rock Paper Slippers by Tony Shelley

I first met this book and its author, Tony Shelley, on the Harper Collins authors' site 'Authonomy' when it was very much still a work-in-progress.

Fast forward seven years and it's now published.  It's a real gem of a book, witty, incisive and a social document of my era, covering the author’s love of music, TV and football. The book begins with Shelley’s 50th birthday - ‘middle age hit me hard. I wasn’t expecting it and it certainly wasn’t invited. It just showed up...’ Something we can all relate to when we hit the middle years. As you may have guessed from the title, music plays an important role in Shelley’s life. Says Shelley ‘ Music is the lover and friend that has always been there when I’ve needed it and even when I’ve been foolish enough to think that I didn’t’. It is Shelley’s 50th birthday bash at the beginning of the book, and he discusses the importance of playlists (in relation to deciding on the playlist with his band reunion in honour of his 50th birthday). Each chapter in the book is also part of a playlist of Shelley’s life – usually with the title of a well-loved song or a line from the same.

Shelley then takes us on a tour of his childhood and his earliest memories, those same Watch With Mother programmes – Andy Pandy, The Wooden Tops and Bill & Ben (the Flowerpot Men) that signposted all our childhoods back them.

Like Shelley, I too was excited about the Top 20 every week, eagerly awaiting what had risen and fallen in the charts, and sometimes writing out the chart lists too, though probably a lot less fervently than Shelley. A couple of years younger than me, we mostly shared the same influences. But when you’re young, those two years are gigantic, so unlike Shelley’s female contemporaries, in 1972 I’m proud to say that I also sneered in the face of those foolish girls who swooned over Donny Osmond or David Cassidy! It was David Bowie and Alice Cooper all the way for me! So I was thrilled to see Mr Bowie got a good mention in the book as Ziggy Stardust was my first album and Bowie the first concert I went to.

Like Shelley, too, a group of records charting around the same period instantly transport me back to a time, like the period in early 73 he refers to when records like Killing Me Softly and Hello Hurray were in the charts. What’s more, someone else other than myself has written more than a few lines about those unhipsters; Gilbert O’Sullivan, Leo Sayer and Dean Friedman! In fact, it was no doubt our shared conversations about Gilbert - featuring in both our books on Authonomy - that sparked our authorial friendship. 

In 1974, Shelley became a bit of a Sparks fan while his father looked on at Top Of The Pops in horror (my own father, on the other hand, was quite fascinated by Ron Mael!) But Shelley felt it broke an unwritten rule of buying pop records when his father bought the same record as him and that was very true of that time, though I have to say that my own father bought pop records before us children so I liked it when my dad enjoyed a record on Top Of The Pops rather than wearing a scowl!

Next we have Shelley’s dalliance with 10cc and I love his shameless confession. The first song I ever heard from 10cc was ‘Oh Donna’ which I felt would have – should have – deterred any self-respecting pop connoisseur right there and then. A bit like Gilbert and Leo, first impressions are hard to shake, which is a shame as Godley & Creme did have good songwriting skills and I do admit to liking many of their hits myself (although not so much as the guilty pleasure of falling in love and out of love as Shelley describes in the chapter aptly named ‘I’m Not In Love’). That hit has for me, mostly lost its magic, due to mass overplaying but can in rare moments take me back to that long hot dreamy whoozy summer of 1975.

In discussing his liking for Queen, Shelley even mentions something that I dine out on – the fact that I saw Queen as the support band to Mott The Hoople! Most people these days haven’t heard of Mott The Hoople, so it was great to see that tour get a mention. In fact, Queen had come to my attention a few months before that tour as I recall with ‘Keep Yourself Alive’.

But a lot of the book is dedicated to Shelley’s love affair with The Beatles which he didn’t properly discover until the 70s, an alien concept for someone such as myself in Liverpool during the 1960s at the height of Beatlemania, absorbing the music osmotically during my infancy. Some of my earliest memories are of hearing records recommended by Mr Epstein himself when my father would buy records from his record shop, pre-Beatlemania. One of my earliest memories is of singing ‘She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah’. The song Eleanor Rigby is so embedded in the time for me, I can’t imagine it otherwise: those strings, that autumn, our family name. Yellow Submarine is also so tied up with the moving away from Liverpool to an alien place. But he who becomes a Beatles fan last becomes one longest. This is certainly the case with Shelley. None more than when he finally gets to meet his hero, Paul McCartney. Shelley’s metaphors to describe his relationship with music are simply brilliant. ‘...if an album’s worth getting to know, it’s worth allowing it to flirt with you, tease and touch you, until you fall for it completely...’

Still with The Beatles, there is a chapter with a lot of hilarity describing imagined scenarios of having to make love to music – say to a favourite album like Sgt Pepper – and the various problems one might be faced with. ‘What if, miracle upon miracles, I actually made it to the end of side one? Then what? Stay exactly where I was, in a blissful silence, or waddle uncomfortably to the turntable, trying desperately not to trip over the trousers around my ankles…?’ And there’s plenty more where that came from!

Shelley moves on from there to punk. He embraced it late (not as late as I did, though in secret I embraced it much earlier), but you couldn’t be 17 or 18 in 1977 and not feel its influence. Shelley’s account of buying a Sex Pistols record in a suit reminds me of my own experience of buying a Boomtown Rats record in Bootle Strand in my Civil Service garb and being told ‘you don’t look like a Rats fan to me’. Something inside me balked. I should look like one, I wanted to look like one, I was going to look like one. For Shelley it was the influence of Dave The Punk in Asman’s record shop (who he saw some time later on Top Of The Pops in The Ruts). And synchronicity would have it that another friend of mine just happens to have been at that same Dave’s 50th birthday party bash recently!

Like Shelley, I have the same feelings about The Clash. I feel I should like them more than I do, I do like them, but I wasn’t in love with them. But where Tony and I diverge is in our attitude to the 80s. While we both agree on the miserable politics, musically I loved all those early/mid 80s bands, emerging from punk/new wave into New Romantic, ska, dub reggae and gothic. But I guess it all depends what you were doing at the time. I can see why Shelley has a downer on the 80s as he was struggling with a young family and a mortgage and didn’t have any spare dosh for records so he largely missed out. But for me they were exciting times, having moved down to Bournemouth from Liverpool in the spring of 1981, and the music from that time is so evocative, coinciding as it did with a vibrant scene.

For Shelley, Live Aid was the pinnacle of the 80s, as he was part of it, whereas I saw it as another of the very noble causes kicked off by Bob Geldof – beginning with Band Aid, to Live Aid and continuing to this day with Comic Relief (which started out as Red Nose Day in the late 1980s). But Wembley Stadium just doesn’t do it for me. Unless you’re in a good position, the artists are remote. Maybe it’s just that the only time I went I had a particularly bad experience, but I always prefer small intimate venues.

But on the subject of live music, like Shelley, I’m not a fan of the live album either. In fact I hate them, by and large. Although I was probably the last person during the initial Compact Disc era to actually buy one, Shelley put up a bit of a resistance too but eventually relented so he could buy his record collection all over again in high fidelity. About CDs he says, ‘What was actually happening was Thatcherism for records, right there in my front room. What I was doing was no better than what she did to the miners.’ And another chapter follows on the importance of your listening equipment. Of today’s equipment Shelley states: ‘speakers are so brazen these days, they don’t even have the modesty of the black gauze covering their ample woofers.’ He concluded that magazines about them should be on the top shelf as ‘unadulterated hi-fi porn.’ I don’t know about the top shelf but those lines had me rolling on the floor laughing or ROFLing in today’s parlance (along with so many of Shelley’s turns of phrase).

Of course, Shelley not only takes us on a musical journey through his favourite records and bands, but also on his progression playing with various bands, beginning at the age of 16 when he bought his from his first drum kit, to various other incarnations including The Fabulous Heseltines, So Last Century and Strongbox.

So, by the end of the book, Shelley has reached 50 and is a little lighter on the head: ‘I have come to terms with my bald patch – you could say I’ve taken a shine to it.’ See? There’s always some of Shelley’s sparkling self-deprecating wit to be had.

It’s hard to do this memoir justice and I could have equally picked a thousand other quotes. But better to buy the book yourself and see what resonates with you. I can assure there will be lots! A must-read for all ages. 

Rock Paper Slippers is available to buy at Amazon as an ebook or in paperback.