Back in 1983, I really identified with the lyrics to Paul Young’s version of “Love of the Common People” (which I only recently found out was a cover version – originally written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins, and recorded by a variety of artists as rich and varied as The Four Preps, The Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Leonard Nimoy, John Denver, Stiff Little Fingers and Bruce Springsteen) because it communicated to me the emotion of being poor especially at Christmas time when everything seems to be fuelled by the urge to shop in the name of swapping gifts. This was prior to the age of Black Friday and the rampant commercialisation that now seems to have robbed Christmas of any sense of spiritual meaning.
Fancy having a listen to the Paul Young version?
The song deals with the impact of poverty – remember the time during which this version was released, as many families seemed to be reaping the rewards of Thatcherism’s new focus upon entrepreneur culture and wealth creation whilst other families, particularly those from areas of what were traditional industries, were rather feeling the impact as those industries were wound down and closed. The cover was originally released in 1982 but only succeeded in becoming a big chart success in the following year when it was re-released and became a Christmas song, and was included on his number one album “No Parlez”.
Living on free food tickets
Water in the milk
From a hole in the roof
Where the rain came through
What can you do, hmmm?
Tears from your little sister
Crying because she doesn’t have
A dress without a patch
For the party to go
But you know she’ll get by.
Paul Young was blessed with one of those “blue-eyed soul” voices that managed to take what he had essentially turned into a straightforward pop song and give it some sense of pathos to match the tone of the lyrical content. Listening to the song immediately reminds me of a time in my family’s history when life was quite difficult and challenging for us because my dad was unemployed, so money was obviously a significant concern to both my mum and dad as they tried to make ends meet.
Now, I don’t want to communicate that my life was a mass of poverty induced misery because that most certainly was not the case – but I also remember what it felt like to be one of those families who felt like the losers rather than the winners under Margaret Thatcher’s new economic realities. However, for so much of my childhood, I actually had no idea if we were poor or not because it simply didn’t register on my scale of concerns. Whilst “Love of the Common People” is not a specific Christmas song although the Paul Young version has become forever linked with the festive period due to the liberal use of sleigh bells throughout (and a heavenly crowd towards the end of the song), and then the 1983 re-release saw a video that linked it totally into the heart’s of the nation as a reminder of poverty and hardship whilst everybody is stuffing themselves at Christmas.
Have a look at the original video (and enjoy the better sound quality compared with the first linked clip):
Same song – same liberal use of sleigh bells but the video manages to set it slightly apart. However, in my memory, it will forever be linked with Christmas!
Talking about Christmas festivities, I don’t remember feeling particularly aggrieved over the quality or quantity of Christmas presents simply because, as a child, I don’t remember having particularly high expectations because the entire experience was magical to me. I don’t remember Christmas being anything other than fun and filled with happiness and mince pies (oh, and a lifelong love of brandy snaps – Christmas always brings a hunt for boxes of brandy snaps because Christmas does not seem to be right without them). The decorations may have been cheap and cheerful, and the Christmas tree may have been artificial rather than real but who cares – I can’t remember all the details but I do remember having a great Christmas for years and years.
However, those times don’t last forever because the only consistent thing in life is that everything changes – so I started to become a teenager right at the turn of the century as the 70s morphed into the 80s, and I started to become aware of things outside my immediate family circle that certainly had an impact upon my awareness and my feelings. Teenagers sadly often develop a slightly selfish tint to how they view their world, and I’m sure that I was no different. There may have been times when I put my parents through hell, and that feeling always fills me with huge sadness.
This is certainly not intended to be a “Look at how poor I was growing up, oh woe is me” extended politically righteous rant or miserable moan. If it feels like it when you are reading this, please feel free to stop reading it and do something more interesting instead. It is intended to explain why I have the attitude towards money that I do, and how this has influenced other things such as my attitude to work. One thing influences another that then influences another. I think it may be a circle of life kind of thing – but that is a completely different chapter, and indeed a different song.
There is one incident when it suddenly became very clear to me that I was actually very poor. I had a friend who had a massive collection of Action Man figures and associated merchandise stuff. I had one Action Man who no longer had fully grip-able hands (is that even a word? who cares) due to using him too close to our electric fire (important safety warning there folks!) and a really old cowboy figure from one of my older brothers who I was convinced was made from wood because of the brown colour that his clothes and face has become. (When I saw “Toy Story” for the first time years later, the character of Woody immediate made me remember that old cowboy figure and I felt a twinge of guilt that mum had insisted on throwing him out when I had become a grown-up). I was overwhelmed with jealousy that my friend had several Action Man figures and a tank (and a whole load of other stuff… more than I could possibly imagine) and I suddenly realised that my family was not like his for some reason that I couldn’t quite figure out.
Today, if I was in school in similar circumstances, I would have been identified as a Pupil Premium child by my school – back then I don’t even think mum and dad claimed Free School Meals for me until I got until sixth form, and that was primarily because I wanted to stay in school rather than walking home for lunch as I had previously done (which I’m sure was another factor that kept me stick thin as a teenager). I remember the humiliation of having to line up during break to sign for my free meal ticket (but this was the price that the system demanded of me if I wanted to stay in school to work on my art or rehearse any drama productions) – I can only imagine how it must have felt for younger students. Thankfully, technology has no moved on so this kind of ritual is no longer necessary as students can now pay via finger-print technology. This is one area where I should become more involved as an educational professional because, looking back now, I wish that I had access to teachers who may have experienced the same issues when I was young and needed some guidance or even inspiration.
One area where this certainly had an impact upon my life was my hatred of National Health glasses. Now, in the hipster era in the 2010s, the chunky geeky frames (either in solid black or brown tortoise-shell) would have some kind of ironic status attached to them. The fact that my eldest son now chooses to wear glasses with heavy black geeky style frames shows how far we have moved on with this particular issue. However, back then they were a sure fire indicator of poverty and therefore become a guaranteed indicator of bullying victim status. When I got into sixth form, I really hated the thought of continuing to wear those hated frames so I nagged my parents (mercilessly probably) into finding the money (as I knew grants were available for me as a post-16 student by now) to pay for a pair of metal circular frames – back then we called them John Lennon style but now they would be called Harry Potter glasses. They did wonders for my self-esteem and confidence because there was no longer a visual symbol of what I felt everybody could identify as my poor background right there on my face for everybody to see. I made sure when my two boys required glasses, due to inheriting my appallingly poor eyesight, they would always be able to have their preferred choice of frames because I didn’t want them to experience that sense of isolation even if it was self-inflicted or imagined – having to wear glasses can be a bad enough experience in itself, so best to go the Elton John route and make them a part of your identity rather than have an identity forced upon you. I hope that both boys have had a much more positive experience as spectacle wearers than I experienced during my childhood.
Living on a dream ain’t easy
But the closer the knit
The tighter the fit
And the chills stay away
‘Cause we take ’em in stride
For family pride
You know that faith
Is in your foundation
With a whole lot of love
And a warm conversation
But don’t forget to pray
It’s makin’ it strong
Where you belong
If you understand these facts about my past, then you will understand why (when my children were born) I decided to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to provide for my family, and to do whatever work was necessary to provide safety and security. I didn’t intend to become a teacher out of some childhood ambition. My decision to explore teaching didn’t appear until the final year of my creative arts degree as a result of working with a youth theatre company for a work experience placement – however, it is also true to say that I became a teacher because I wanted a secure job, and there would be a bonus of regular holidays that I could spend with my family, and we could choose to live and work in almost any part of the country where there was a secondary school. Easy, eh?
Life would be sweet. Of course, it didn’t quite work out the way that I imagined – but that is also another chapter (again).
As a complete side issue – how do you fancy having a listen to a couple of those different versions? Yup, me too! I love to hear how a song can be reinterpreted in new and interesting ways depending upon the musical direction of the artist involved. Shall we start with Springsteen?
I have to say that I really like that version – it retains the soul aspect of the Paul Young version but gives it a much bigger big band swing due to the inclusion of a great brass section – and I really love a proper brass section to give a song some oomph!
Well compare that with this version that is supplied courtesy of punk veterans Stiff Little Fingers. Apprarantly, Paul Young checked with them that it was ok to release his version of the song – there you go (fans of obscure facts).
Love the contrast between the two version – Springsteen’s seems to emphasise the joy and love of being part of the protection of the family unit despite the deprivation being inflicted upon them (or suffered by them, depending upon your point of view) whilst the Stiff Little Fingers version ramps up the pollicised anger (helped by a little rejigging of the lyrics) that clearly shows their Clash inspired politicised take on punk rock.
Which version do you prefer? Get on YouTube and have a butcher’s at the various other attempts at this song. Please leave a comment or get an argument started if you are passionate are all crap when compared with the Waylon Jennings cover or the Everly Brothers version.