2. Building my Music Library

At the age of 11, I landed my first ‘proper’ job as a paperboy! Yes, it was bloody hard work, early mornings in all weathers, but hey – with my wage of £2.30 per week (badly paid, even back then!) I could buy some of the chart records that I was really into that particular week, which meant I could buy two, possibly three at a push.

I bought my first LP in 1979 too; Supertramp’s ‘Even in the Quietest Moments’ which I’d first become acquainted with at my mum’s sisters’ house. Their magnum opus ‘Fools Overture’ which monopolised side two, blew my mind! Shortly after this, I also bought The Police’s second album, ‘Regatta de Blanc’, which, let’s face it, is still a classic.

By September 1980 I learned I’d failed my 12+ exams, which meant that supposedly superior grammar schooling sadly wasn’t going to be an option. I seem to recall it being a big deal at the time, but in hindsight, Wellesbourne Secondary was a far better choice, a mixed comprehensive school, where I met some firm friends and received an excellent education.

At that time, electronic pop and new wave were the order of the day, which I was kind of into, but I was always keen to delve a little deeper to find the meatier cuts. Looking back, it appears I’d developed a fondness for progressive music. My Christmas present from Mum and Dad in 1978 was Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’, a glorious concept album of staggering pomp and complexity, featuring one of my favourite singles from that year; the sublime ‘Forever Autumn’.

My album collection was growing! It was followed by Mike Oldfield’s ‘Boxed’ for my 11th birthday in 1979. ‘Boxed’ really was a revelation, featuring quadraphonic mixes of Mike’s first three all-instrumental journey albums, plus an LP of singles and other collaborations, resplendent in a rather nice box with a full size booklet. To this day, a treasured possession. Consequently I think I was the only boy in the school to have ‘Mike Oldfield’ emblazoned on his bag, something I received endless ribbing for. I was still heavily into ELO – for my big Christmas 1980 present I received ‘Three Light Years’, a special edition featuring their first three albums. In parallel to this stuff, I was also enjoying listening to what was going on in the charts – amongst the singles added to my collection around this time included Kate Bush’s ‘Army Dreamers’, David Bowie’s ‘Fashion’ and The Flying Lizards’ ‘Money’.

From a personal perspective, this was the golden age of pop. Of course, music’s all about nostalgia and 1979/1980 hold some great memories for me. Looking at the official chart archive, I recognise most of the singles that made the Top 20; Paul McCartney was on a roll with his experimental electronic album ‘McCartney II’ – ‘Coming Up’ was one of my faves, along with the whole Coventry-centric 2 Tone ska and blue beat scene that was blowing up at the same time.

My Dad had always been a bit of a hi-fi buff, listening to his predominantly classical repertoire on a pretty high-end system, which comprised a Technics SL110 turntable with an SME arm, a Quad 33/303 amplifier and a pair of Quad electrostatic loudspeakers, which my Mum couldn’t stand, mainly due to the sheer size and the fact that they weren’t overly aesthetically pleasing. In actual fact, most of my schoolfriends mistook them for radiators.

Anyway, in 1980, he decided to upgrade his system, opting for a Linn Sondek LP12, which at the time was the holy grail of turntables, a more modern Quad 405 amp and a Nakamichi ZX7 cassette deck. Fortunately for me, he donated his old setup to me, Julie and Claire, so at the tender age of 12, I was the proud owner of an audiophile system. I can’t adequately express how chuffed I was! I had a classic vintage Technics deck, superb Quad amplification and a pair of Mission 700 series loudspeakers to lose myself in!

Anyway, I’m digressing somewhat…  where was I? I was conscientiously attending piano lessons, but unfortunately gradually losing interest and focus; sure, classical piano taught me certain musical disciplines, but it lacked freedom – there seemed to be a lot of constraint in general. Looking back, I think I’d have probably been more into studying jazz-based piano, but there again, it probably wouldn’t have meant that I spent an hour or so after I’d finished my daily practice just improvising with different chord structures and making up little pieces using lots of sustain pedal..

So around 1984, my Mum and I mutually concluded that my days of piano lessons were drawing to a close; teenage pursuits like discos and girls were getting in the way of regular practice. By this stage I’d reached the dizzy heights of Grade VI; when I recently looked back at the type of stuff I was learning, I quite surprised myself. I was competent enough to play some pretty highbrow pieces!

My musical interests at this time were increasingly eclectic; I was soaking up anything and everything, finding myself leaning towards the progressive rock end of the spectrum I suppose, listening to a lot of Pink Floyd, Yes and Led Zeppelin, but still feverishly buying as many singles as I could afford to buy. Consequently I have to this day an eclectic aural snapshot of early eighties chart music on 7″ vinyl, which I still play on a regular basis.

I’d managed to save up for a budget hi-fi cassette deck too. It was a Yamaha K320 which I plumbed into my system with relish. I could now make up professional-sounding compilation tapes, messing around with sound snippets that I mashed up between tracks. I even had a go at re-editing David Bowie’s ‘Andy Warhol'; repeatedly recording the weird intro studio banter to stretch the track out a bit. Being a bit nerdy back then, I tried to make my tapes look ever more professional, even resorting to typing out the tracklistings and timings on the TDK inlay cards. This was the golden age of cassette tape and the marketplace was filled with some excellent quality merchandise, such as the TDK MA-R90, a metal alloy tape with a matching housing. These days, if they ever come up on eBay or other auction sites, you’d be hard pushed to pay anything less than £50 per tape – mad, but true.

It was 1984, and it was the year I had to take my ‘O’ level exams. I wasn’t the most academic of pupils; in actual fact I was more interested in being the class clown. My old school reports provide quite amusing reading now; most typically stating that ‘Bruce could do much better if he listened to what was being said’. So I wasn’t expecting to pass many of the seven exams I was due to take, especially when any revision time was more than often frittered away making up compilation tapes or getting into new music.

I ended up achieving two A grades in English language and literature; all the more remarkable if you take into consideration that I hadn’t even read two of the set books. As you can imagine, neither of my parents were overly ecstatic about these results, and it was decided almost on the spot that I was to apply for the sixth form, where I had the opportunity to possibly redeem myself by retaking, and hopefully passing the exams I’d just failed spectacularly.

The majority of my old sparring partners had decided that enough was enough and had applied to go to Wycombe College, either to study something seriously with a view to cracking on with some kind of life vocation, or to gain membership of the SU bar and get as shitfaced as possible. Or both. So when I went back to school in September 1984 I had the utmost good intention to make the most of the next academic year. And in some respects, I did – I enrolled for English and Art ‘A’ Levels and worked hard to make amends for the fuck up that had occurred the previous year. I met my first serious girlfriend in early 1985 who in hindsight was a bit of an ol’ nutter, but it was good for a laugh at the time. Time was ticking away, and I was just filling in time really, just putting off the evil hour when I had to go out into the big wide world and look after myself. Before I knew it, my year in 6th form was over, I’d passed the majority of my ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels thankfully, and summer beckoned.

Believe it or not, I was still going to venture scouts once a week, again, not because I really wanted to, but because my parents thought, rightly or wrongly, that it might provide me with some kind of moral compass in later life. Either that, or it was a way to get me out of the house once a week… I was chipping away at my Duke of Edinburgh award, and I learned that I could go straight to the top of the heap and earn my gold if I did an expedition to Morocco with a group of ten other lads for a month. Well, I wasn’t doing anything else, so me being the adventurous guy I obviously was back then, I packed a large rucksack and sleeping bag and caught a flight out to Tangiers.

It was an immense trip, quite arduous and one hell of an experience – bear in mind that the only time I’d left England’s green and pleasant lands was to venture over the border into Scotland and Wales a few times, and that doesn’t really count, does it. Oh, I’d gone on a school trip to Bruges in ’83 as well… Morocco was a proper eye-opener and we spent the majority of our time ascending and then descending Jebel Toubkal, which at 4,167m is the highest mountain in the Atlas. No mean feat. I’m still quite proud of that achievement.

Upon my return, fit, victorious, lean and tanned, my mood was somewhat dampened when I learned from my Dad that we were relocating to a place called Harrogate in North Yorkshire, which sort of threw me somewhat; after all, I’d laid down some serious roots in Buckinghamshire; I had a girlfriend, OK she was slightly unhinged, but she was my girlfriend, and more importantly some really close friends too. I wasn’t over the moon about the prospect of moving away, so I did my best to stay put for as long as I could.

Before leaving for Morocco, I’d managed to land a temporary job working in the record department of WHSmith until Christmas, so I wasn’t going anywhere until I’d honoured that job contract.

I started work there around September time; it was a busy little store and I had to get to grips with the cataloguing system pretty quickly. You have to remember that at his time, there wasn’t any retail computerisation involved – everything had to be recorded manually. I worked with a couple of girls who were a little older than I was, but we all got along famously together – it was actually a right craic.

Things appeared to be going well – I was earning a wage of sorts and was able to order stuff in that I wanted to add to my personal collection. As you’d imagine, the WHSmith stocklist played it somewhat safe and it wasn’t a massive store, so anything slightly obscure had to be ordered in specially. For some reason I was buying a fair few albums on cassette around this time, I recall getting hold of Kate Bush’s brand new album ‘Hounds of Love’ the day it came out on cassette and playing it to death – an amazing listen back then, and just as relevant today. I was also discovering the whole Laurel Canyon sun-soaked singer songwriter scene, so Joni Mitchell and James Taylor were also added to my collection. The back end of 1985 saw ‘Ladies of the Canyon’, the first Joni LP I bought, pretty much on constant rotation.

Working in any retail environment over the Christmas period is, to be frank, a bloody nightmare. You have to be patient in the extreme and be entirely subservient towards obviously stressed and downright rude people who’ve left their gift purchases to the last minute. Unfortunately for me, I was on the receiving end of one particular woman’s vitriol. It was the Saturday before Christmas and the queues were lengthy; I was fed up with it. The woman in question accused me of being rude; OK, I probably was, but either way she deemed it necessary to go and complain about my attitude to the general manager of the store. He was an older man who’d worked for Smiths all his life and was somewhat old-fashioned in his approach to things. I’m afraid we’d already crossed paths prior to this bollocking as I’d been deviating from the strict playlist that head office enforced throughout their stores. Rather than playing some current chart topper such as ‘The Power of Love’, by Jennifer Rush, I was entertaining customers with ‘Atom Heart Mother’ by Pink Floyd, which he didn’t appear to appreciate.

Anyway, he was clearly of the age-old opinion that the customer was always right, and I received short shrift in our brief meeting – either I towed the line, or I was to be relieved of my position. Seeing as I only had about 4 weeks left before my temporary contract was due to expire, I thought it best to be on my best behaviour for the remainder of my time there if I was to gain any kind of decent reference.

I was also missing my family; by early 1986, my Mum, Dad and sisters had moved to the snowy wastes of North Yorkshire and, whilst I was enjoying myself, I was keen to see them all again, so as soon as I’d fulfilled my contract with Smiths, I packed my shit and caught the train up to Harrogate.

By this time I was knocking on eighteen; the tricky business of deciding what the hell I was going to do for income was looming – dossing around the house wasn’t an immediate option as I was getting hassle from both parents to pull my finger out and seek some kind of gainful employment.

After scouring the local rag for potential career opportunities, the only avenue that seemed open to me was a job as a vacuum cleaner salesman. The sales techniques encouraged on the two day training course I went on with Vorwerk were unbelievable. Put it like this; your modern day consumer TV programme would have a field day! I lasted two days there.

Then there was the sous chef career in a new pub that was opening on the west side of Harrogate. I was offered the job, but when they told me that I was expected to work on Sundays with no extra pay, I made up some lame story about being a staunch christian and unfortunately there was absolutely no way that I could work on the sabbath.

However, it was all about to come good. After a few interviews with Virgin Hi-Fi in Leeds, I was told that I’d landed a position with them as a junior salesman. Again, work in a field that genuinely interested me! OK, the commute from Harrogate into Leeds was a bit of a ballache, but it was averagely well paid and I was able to play around with all that lovely audio gear. However, predictably, it all soon turned to shite. My manager turned out to be a class A cretin who enjoyed power tripping; he made my life a misery. I wasn’t hitting sales targets either, I’m simply too honest to be a salesman of any worth. Couple this information with the fact that I’d managed to get arrested for drink driving and had consequently lost my driving licence and it wasn’t really a surprise that after a rather depressing 8 months at Virgin, I was unceremoniously sacked. The manager of the store invited me to his office and told me that ‘I didn’t fit in with the Virgin ethos’.

Man, was I at a low ebb. And I didn’t have any mates, either.