So, some year that turned out to be in Midcentury land. We started with a good selection of events in the diary, including the potential to spend a full three days at the Rockabilly Rave for the first time. My new monthly DJ residency at a local pub was getting into its swing (barring the occasional bit of local flooding which kept the punters on the other side of the water), I’d a couple of guest slots lined up to spin records at the Gloucester Rock’n’Roll club so, with the occasional record hop at Smokey’s Joe’s diner in Cheltenham, it looked like the decks would be getting a regular outing. As far as places to go were concerned, things started well with the Colin Silcocks’ tribute gig in Rubery, at a venue that had great promise for some easily accessible gigs in the future – and then the virus arrived…
In truth, I’ve nothing to complain about: all at Midcentury Villas have stayed well, our jobs are safe and are the sort that need us to be on site most of the time, so we’ve had cause to get out of the house, and we’d even been lucky to have planned a short UK holiday this year that could still go ahead. So far, so smug, and comfortably boring.
We were afraid that life in lockdown would put the kibosh not just on gigs and venues but also on other aspects of our passion for all things vintage/retro, but again there have been compensations. We’re lucky that the Malvern Flea Fair is not only within easy travelling distance but, being held outside or in large, well-ventilated halls, was able to go ahead on a number of occasions. That gave us the chance not only to cruise the hundreds of stalls looking for those bits of ephemera we didn’t know we needed, but also to catch up with our pals from Timebomb Vintage at their stall and share a socially-distanced coffee and a lot of chat. Even at the height of restrictions, there always seemed to be lots of ‘must have’ little items making their way onto the market that had to come home with us, each of them requiring a bit of cleaning up and TLC that helped the weekends pass with some new bits of bric a brac around the house to show for it. I was also kept supplied with original fittings to encourage my project to make or refurbish record boxes in a 50s style, but where were the records going to come from?
Record fairs bit the dust, of course, but fortunately (or unfortunately when it comes to storage space!), we’ve been able to keep our vinyl addiction fuelled. During one of the rare periods when non-essential shops were fully open we chanced on a lovely new independent record shop over in Evesham in the shape of Desirable Vinyl, run by a welcoming proprietor in the shape of Jason. Our first couple of trips netted a fair haul of 45s and a handful of LPs, but as an expiring parking ticket called us away from one visit, a promising box of 78s under the counter in a far corner sent me scurrying back as soon as lockdown allowed for a better look and with it a bumper crop of shellac finds. We’ve been buying vinyl on line, of course, both from well-established outlets like Sounds That Swing, Bim Bam Records and Wild Streak, and from individuals selling individual items or collections on some of the trading groups. That’s netted us both some originals we’d never envisaged coming our way, together with some repros that are no longer available. This year has also seen a significant upturn in legitimate reissues – or in some cases pressings of records that had never before been issued on single – in many cases masterminded by friends from the rockin’ scene. The quality of these has been amazing, both in terms of sound and in presentation, with picture sleeves that would have put some contemporary 50s issues to shame. A steady stream has come from Steve Swann, in particular featuring some classic Sun tracks formerly only available on compilations of unissued material, and a new arrival on the scene has been our pal ‘Tall Mark’ Greenaway with his new TM Records label making its first issue just in time for Xmas.
And what to do with all this new material? Well, that’s been where one of the big compensations of this strange year has come in. When we first started watching the Facebook Live sessions broadcast by DJ friends, it seemed like something we couldn’t aspire to. Then the temptation steadily grew; after all, we’d got the records, the decks and an iPhone – why not give it a try? And so a little taster session one evening has turned into a weekly slot that’s now run for 34 weeks and counting. With an hour or so on line each time, and a minimum of 25 records per session, that’s around 900 tunes we’ve fired into the ether, landing with the 30+ listeners who’ve tuned in live (gusting up to 80 when there’s been some full-on sharing by some audience members) and the hundreds who’ve dropped in to view the videos when they go on line at the end of the session. With a purpose-designed lead from fellow DJ Little Carl ensuring that the sound from the decks goes direct to the phone without having to be picked up by the phone’s microphone, and the camera angled so that viewers can enjoy the sight of ‘real’ records being played (albeit backwards when it comes out on screen), the challenge is to get the right balance between the music (the important bit) and enough chat to make it personal and provide a bit of information.
For us, it’s a chance to spend an hour or so a week picking out a selection of tunes from the record boxes – usually with no specific theme and mostly on 45s, though we’ve both dipped into some of the great compilation LPs in the collection, both recent and from our early years of buying records in the late 70s and early 80s, to spin a track that’s either never made it onto a single or where owning a copy is still a distant dream. It’s fun seeing old pals pop up in the audience, especially when that includes others whose sessions we’ve enjoyed, but it’s also a real kick to have folk drop in from around the world, often hearing this stuff for the first time. Our hope now is that we can keep this going until gigs and clubs can re-open and we can enjoy this music the way it’s meant to be heard – and dance to it at the same time. In the meantime, it would be great if there were some tie-in between Facebook and the Performing Rights people that would allow live streaming to be recognised as a fully legitimate medium; at least I’m pretty sure we’re creating demand for the product that will be fuelling sales for the record companies.
And that was 2020 – not much fun but a lot better for us than for many others, for which we’re very thankful. If nothing else, a passion for social history helps to put this into context, and what will hopefully be just a year of staying indoors, playing records and devouring old movies and boxsets (The Marvellous Mrs Maisel and Boardwalk Empire being our period picks whilst working our way steadily through the original Twilight Zone series) pales into insignificance against what our parents went through in the 1940s and austerity of the 50s. We can’t wait to get out and about again, though – that first jive, or even an evening in the pub talking rockabilly b*ll*cks with old friends is going to be so good.
So here’s to 2021. Stay safe, keep the Midcentury faith, and see you on the flip side…