The Danish saying, to come from a home with a piano, instantly pins social status on an individual. From an earlier era, it classed you as upper class, sophisticated and well educated. In those days, working class homes had neither money to purchase a piano nor time to learn to play the piano, never mind playing it. It was a frivolous pastime reserved for the more well-off. And make no mistake, the piano was for classical music, not the sub-standard, vulgar jazz or, heaven forbid, Jerry-Lee Lewis’s filthy rock’n’roll that turned young people into sex craving monsters.
My childhood home had no piano and neither of my parents had grown up in homes with a piano. Classical music was foreign to both of them. They were not particularly ‘in’ to music. When my mother sang it sounded awful by her own admission and we teased her. My father, on the other hand, sang to embarrass us. He knew the lyrics and melody to only one song, about a heroic soldier going to the Danish-Preussian war in the mid-19th century and it dagged us out in disbelief.
But my parents were into good design and in 1972 my father bought a Bang and Olufsen stereo system to complement the interior design of our new house. My mother owned a few singles her teenage self had played on her long-since disposed of mobile record player. One single was Nina and Frederik and I used to admire Nina’s straight long blond hair against the black cover, wishing my own to be longer, less mouse coloured and less matted. They played calypso and the 1957 single Mary’s Boychild brought them international success. Unusual for Danish music, it featured in the UK charts at no 26. To this day, my English-born father-in-law insists we sing this song when I make my Australian family sing Christmas carols on Christmas eve before we open the presents.
Being of the times, my parents acquired the long play album of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The title song is particularly memorable as we used to giggle wildly when singing along in Danish, altering the lyrics to ‘Jesus Christ Superstar, han går rundt med røven bar’ (he walks around with his bottom bare). As I grew older, I understood better the lyrics and teenage angst meaning of I Don’t Know How to Love Him, beautifully song by Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. We never were religious and this form of story-telling was too deliciously controversial for my parents to resist, especially as newcomers to the small puritan community on the heath.
I was only nine when friends of my parents took me to the my rock concert in 1977. Gasolin’, a Danish band, had just released their sixth studio album, Efter endnu en dag and toured Denmark, coming to my hometown in January. We sat high up on the stalls in the great convention centre hall that also hosted the cycling races, we had attended with our father. But this was something completely different, Danish style rock music, proudly sung in Danish and an electric atmosphere in the hall. My brother and I came away sporting each our t-shirt emblazoned with the image of our idols.
I still love the Gasolin’s ultimate Danish love-song, Kvinde Min, so much so that in 2014, I wrote a sing-along song based on the tune for my beloved aunt’s 65th birthday (even though I mistakenly wrote as if she turned 60).
Around about this time, I bought my first album. It was the cassette tape Værsgo’ by the lead singer from Gasolin’ Kim Larsen. I played it over and over on the little tape recorder in my room. The music was not the hard rock of Gasolin’ but somehow more cosy and happier, sing-songs. My brother hated it for that reason and hence I could listen in peace, turning its tunes into something uniquely mine. The lyrics were important to me, speaking directly to my pre-teen experiences and longings, but also fuelling my budding political views and social justice sentiment encouraged by my parents. I loved the poetry of the songs and could soon sing all the words. To this day I still love the sentiment of Joanna, song by 13-year-old Søren Bernbom. Its poetry juxtaposes a child’s dreams of freedom to experience the world with the need for guidance and support to do so safely, a recurrent theme in my own upbringing.
My brother became obsessed with old singles, early rock’n’roll from the 1950s when rock’n’roll emerged with Bill Hayley and His Comets, The Platters, Frankie Avalon, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers and, of course, Elvis Presley. From the late 1970s, each time he was in London, either with the family or travelling on his own to visit our family friend in Hammersmith, he would spend hours in the plentiful second-hand record shops, flicking through the old 45rpm singles. In no time he had an impressive collection and I too was hooked on the happy-go-lucky music that had been so controversial when it first came out. It seemed more grounded than the 1970s glam of Boney M, Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, The Osmonds, all of which my brother despised.
I discovered a stack of original Elvis Presley albums in the collection of our neighbour who looked after my younger sister and brother. She lent them to me to record on tapes. In particular I loved the sound tracks of Elvis’s B-Grade movies: Love Me Tender, King Creole, Blue Hawaii, Kissin’ Cousins. I sat by the stereo, reading every word on the album covers, marvelling at his handsome looks, and transferring the information carefully onto home-made sleeves for my tapes. I could sing the lyrics of the songs off by heart. When Elvis died in 1977, I was only 10 and still loved best his early music. But for x-mas I got the Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite album (1973) on tape and gradually I came to love a fuller range of Elvis music. Again, it was the words that spoke loudest to me and to this day I can hear his voice, intonation and tune and recall the lyrics nearly word perfect in my head. Secretly, I am still partial to a bit of Presley to this day.
My own childhood music creation was limited to playing the recorder and singing in the school choir. And singing along to the music I loved. At one point I took lessons in keyboard, but had to give up because we did not have a keyboard at home. No piano, no classical music. It was simply rock’n’roll and I liked it.