My Pop Life #201 : The Banner Man – Blue Mink


The Banner Man – Blue Mink

…and the Banner Man held the banner high he was ten feet tall and he touched the sky and I wish that I could be a banner man…

 This was, I can finally reveal, the first single I ever bought with my own money.  I suspect this money was from doing a paper round, or helping the farmer baling straw, or selling eels to Mr Catchlove, or maybe – just maybe – my mum gave me some pocket money and I saved it up.  The Regal Zonophone label, red and silver 45rpm single in a square piece of paper with a circle in the centre so you could see the label.

This would then be placed in the singles rack at home alongside the record player.  It would join my mum’s singles – Simon Dupree & The Big Sound, Joe South, The Casuals, Guy Darrell (see My Pop Life #181) until I bought a record player of my own for the bedroom, but even then I wonder if I didn’t leave it downstairs in the pop section.  The bedroom singles were religious artefacts for the shrine of Jimi Hendrix – 45rpm singles on Track records, Gypsy Eyes, Long Hot Summer Night, Burning of The Midnight Lamp, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).  What was Blue Mink doing with these inspirational songs?  It was like a throwback to my childhood  and I still can’t really explain it.  Taste changes fast when you’re 14.


It was May 1971 when the single first charted.  It reached Number 3 on the 20th June, two days after my 14th birthday.  This therefore becomes a fairly accurate indication of how cool I was as a teenager.  No older brother or sister to look up to, take taste from.  A mum who had her own particular taste, from Dionne Warwick singing a cover of The Rascals (My Pop Life #17) to The Kinks (My Pop Life #147).        I liked all of the above, and when I look at the charts of 1971 I think that mum must’ve bought Your Song by Elton John and Double Barrel by Dave & Ansel Collins for there they were in the singles rack.  Gosh the Proustian rush is too much, and  I’m in too deep now to walk back – or as Macbeth would say :

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er”

which means that, since 1971 is my year of sentience, I have to dive right in and indulge in that vivid musical touchstone of my life.  So with no further apology,  Here Is the Top 30 on my 14th birthday :

  1.    Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep          –     Middle Of The Road
  2.    Knock Three Times                         –     Dawn
  3.    I Did What I Did For Maria           –      Tony Christie
  4.    Banner Man                                     –      Blue Mink
  5.    I’m Gonna Run Away From You   –     Tami Lynn
  6.    Lady Rose                                          –     Mungo Jerry
  7.    He’s Gonna Step On You Again     –     John Kongos
  8.    Heaven Must Have Sent You         –     The Elgins
  9.    I Am…I Said                                       –     Neil Diamond
  10.    Indiana Wants Me                           –     R. Dean Taylor
  11.    My Brother Jake                               –     Free
  12.    Rags To Riches                                  –     Elvis Presley
  13.    Oh You Pretty Thing                        –     Peter Noone
  14.    Malt & Barley Blues                         –     McGuinness Flint
  15.    I Think Of You                                   –     Perry Como
  16.    Brown Sugar                                     –     The Rolling Stones
  17.    Just My Imagination                        –     The Temptations
  18.    Don’t Let It Die                                  –     Hurricane Smith
  19.    Co-Co                                                   –     The Sweet
  20.    Mozart Symphony Number 40       –     Waldo De Los Rios
  21.    Jig-A-Jig                                               –      East Of Eden
  22.    I Don’t Blame You At All                  –      Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
  23.    Lazy Bones                                         –      Jonathan King
  24.    Hey Willy                                            –      The Hollies
  25.    Rain                                                      –      Bruce Ruffin
  26.    Joy To The World                               –      Three Dog Night
  27.    Pied Piper                                            –      Bob & Marcia
  28.    Un Banc, Un Arbre, Un Rue             –      Severine
  29.    It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie                       –      Gerry Monroe
  30.    Double Barrel                                     –      Dave & Ansel Collins

It was, even to my clearly biased ears, a fairly fecund picture : plenty of irritating bubblegum at the top end, a decent smattering of pop reggae (Greyhound‘s Black & White was about to rise into the Top 30), some genuine originals in John Kongos, Hurricane Smith and East of Eden (written about in My Pop Life #141), some great Motown, some lovely bluesy stuff and a few songs for grandma.  For me the whole of 1971 imprinted itself on my ears, for it was when I learned what I liked, and what I didn’t like, and maybe even what the difference was and why.   Now, aged 60 as I write, I can find merit in all of these songs, yes, even the number one, which grated on us all at the time with its defiance of any kind of grooviness.   I bought Banner Man and brought it home, and now I’m wondering if I bought Jig-A-Jig at the same time, because it was a big song in our house and there it is travelling down the charts from a high point of number 7.


Blue Mink in 1971

Banner Man is terribly catchy, a genuine earworm.  Simple lyrically, a song about a marching band…

So we waved our hands as we marched along
And the people smiled as we sang our song
And the world was saved as they listened to the band

who march up to the top of the hill,

So we reached the square, on the top of the hill
And the music stopped and we stood quite still
And a few were saved and the people said

I also note that the the Banner Man had “an Allelujah in his eye” and that the chorus goes full gospel :

Glory, glory, glory
Listen to the band
Sing the same old story
Ain’t it something grand?
To be good as you can
Like a Banner-Man

It’s a brass band song, a kind of 2-step oompah rhythm, and the trombone does that cheesy slide down (glissando!) on “grand” and “can” .   I spell it all out like this because it is something of a mystery to me even now – what was I listening to?  What did I hear?  It is like a child’s nursery rhyme (rather like a fair section of that top 30), but I was 14.   There is something endearing in the fact that both Blue Mink and East of Eden (Jig-A-Jig) were crossing musical genres and spinning pop gold out of old forms, but I knew nothing of this at the time, I just liked the tunes I think.  Maybe something primal in that brass band sound though that gets under the skin – the New Orleans funeral march, the Second Line, the celebration of life after the body is interred.  The sound of something ancient, churchy but celebratory, harking back to “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” a popular song from 1907 :

I do like to stroll
Upon the Prom, Prom, Prom,
Where the brass bands play

and “76 Trombones” from 1957 which echoed through my childhood.   The Beatles of course made use of the brass during their psychedelic period, from Yellow Submarine through Sgt Pepper to Martha My Dear on The White Album.  Other brass band songs that made hit records include Peter Skellern‘s sublime You’re A Lady from 1973 and Mike Nesmith’s Listen To The Band for The Monkees from 1969.  And really that’s it, aside from The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band‘s single The Floral Dance in 1977.  The number of pop brass band songs can be counted on one hand pretty much.


Madeline Bell & Roger Cook

I remembered Blue Mink from their first single in 1969 “Melting Pot” with its call for racial harmony mixed up in racist language :

Take a pinch of White man
Wrap it up in Black skin
Add a touch of blue blood
And a little bitty-bit of Red Indian boy

Curly Latin Kinkies,  mixed with yellow Chinkees
If you lump it all together
Well, you’ve got a recipe for a get-along scene
Oh what a beautiful dream
If it could only come true you know, you know
What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough to take the world and all it’s got
Keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee-coloured people by the score

This song with Madeline Bell, a black American and Roger Cook, a white Englishman taking alternate verses reached number one and was part of a brief English soul boom in the late sixties which included mixed-race groups such as The Equals, The Foundations, Geno Washington’s RamJam Band and Hot Chocolate.

clockwise :  The Equals, The Foundations, Hot Chocolate, Geno Washington

But Blue Mink were different.  Formed by a group of session musicians, they were professional players working for a day-rate on other people’s music, like the famous Wrecking Crew out of Los Angeles who played on everything from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys, the Funk Brothers who played on every hit record from Motown or another mixed-race group Booker T & The MGs, the house band at Stax records, on all of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave’s records.


Herbie Flowers, Roger Cook, Maddy Bell, Barry Morgan, Roger Coulam, Alan Parker


Roger Coulam on keyboards hooked up with bass player Herbie Flowers, guitarist Alan Parker, drummer Barry Morgan and vocalists Madeline Bell and Roger Cook in 1969.   Bell, an American from New Jersey, had come to England with a gospel show in 1962 and stayed, met Dusty Springfield and had some hits herself.

By 1969 she already released three solo albums including her debut Bell’s A Poppin’ (1967) which had Dusty Springfield on backing vocals repaying her friend’s debt after Bell had backed many of Dusty’s blue-eyed soul hits.  Roger Cook had a successful songwriting partnership with Roger Greenaway established after they’d written You’ve Got Your Troubles for The Fortunes, and continued later with I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (and sell Coke), and Softly Whispering I Love You among many many others.  He now lives in Nashville.


Disc Jockey Tony Blackburn takes the place of Alan Parker in this shot

After the success of Melting Pot, the band stuck together for five more years 4 LPs and released a handful of decent, musical hit singles, including the vibrant Good Morning Freedom (1970).   They all continued working as session musicians in-between Blue Mink gigs and appearances on Top of the Pops, notably on Elton John‘s first LP.  Most of Blue Mink were also in C.C.S. (Collective Consciousness Society) another band which charted in 1971 with Tap Turn On The Water, and a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love which became the Top of the Pops theme music for years to come.  Flowers played on Lou Reed’s Transformer and Bowie’s Space Oddity, Labi Siffre’s It Must Be Love and was later a Womble and on David Live!  He now lives in Ditchling.  Bell sings on Rolling Stones & Dusty singles, and with Tom Jones, Elton John, Joe Cocker and Scott Walker.  Parker plays the riff on Rebel Rebel, Hurdy Gurdy Man and No Regrets among countless others, and now writes theme music for film and television.   Drummer Morgan played with Elton, Tom Jones, Nilsson and many others while Coulam played on iconic Serge Gainsbourg single Je T’Aime and the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and died in 2005.


It was in 2012 that I started work on a documentary project about session musicians.  I felt drawn to them as if they could help me to understand my own strange career as a character actor, a self-styled Lee Van Cleef, the hired gun, forever getting on my horse & leaving town clutching my fee after helping to kill the bad guys.  I called the putative film Red Light Fever and we worked for a good solid week, interviewing a group of players from the Brighton/M25 area – legend Chris Spedding, who sat in the guitar section of the GAK (Guitar & Keyboard) shop for his interview, Barbara Moore – voice of The Saint and Bedazzled and arranger of The Sign Of The Swinging Cymbal – Alan Freeman’s chart countdown music, Alan Parker and Herbie Flowers from Blue Mink, legendary drummer Clem Cattini (Telstar, much of The Kinks early stuff, Hurdy Gurdy Man, hundreds of others) and bass player Les Hurdle (Foundations, Donna Summer) who we talked to in Fatboy Slim’s shoreline studio (thanks generous Norm!).


Before we started shooting, one of my first interviews, with guitarist Big Jim Sullivan, was abruptly cancelled after he passed away.  I attended his funeral outside Worthing and saw many of the old session faces there, (including Chas Hodges).  There was a sense of time slipping away, an urgency to complete the project before it was too late.  I wanted to record a new piece of music which Barbara Moore would write and using all the old faces from the 60s and 70s London sessions, record it at Maida Vale Number One Studio, filming the whole get-together.  Maybe even a gig too like that great film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.  It was like a detective story piecing it all together, great fun and a proper buzz.  Sample joke : when I asked who played the trumpet on It’s Not Unusual about 50 musicians claim to have been in the studio that day, record-keeping was poor, and royalties are like gold-dust.   We shot enough for a decent trailer – here it is :

Red Light Fever Promo

you’ll need the password which is :  rlflatest

That is because my buddy David Cuff was working at Latest TV in Brighton in 2012 and the boss of that young channel Bill Smith liked the idea and generously agreed to front £500 to pay for the promo.  It all went on the camera crew.

I cut the promo at home on Final Cut and took it to Luke Cresswell’s brother Addison and he hawked it around the industry (see My Pop Life #183 for the full terrible story).   I didn’t have much money at the end of 2012 but I thought something might break for us, and the trailer was decent (despite all the Super-8 footage being out of focus so that we couldn’t use it).  I was still working on the interviews.  Just before Christmas Madeline Bell finally relented to meet and chat while she was visiting from Spain.  Jenny and I had lunch with her at The Delauney on the Aldwych.  She was great company, very funny and warm.  She promised to grant us an interview if we got over to Spain with our camera and we parted on very positive terms.  The film would not be finished though due to tragic circumstances already described in the above link to Elton John’s Rocket Man.

If I find a spare 10 grand I will finish that film in my own time.  The musicians deserve the accolade after all these unsung years, just as the Funk Brothers did with their film.

Meanwhile 1971 will forever glow in the dark like a lighthouse to my soul.  My friend Martin Steel (father of Paul who opened this blog (My Pop Life #1) has been trying to link me up with an audio version of writer and broadcaster David Hepworth’s book Never A Dull Moment : 1971 – Rock’s Golden Year.  It feels like it was written for me and I look forward to disagreeing with its contents while saluting its general premise. (I strongly suspect that it is rockist i.e.) Perhaps he values album statements over 45rpm pop singles too, which will be seen in years to come as an historic mistake.  The pop single is the late 20th century’s highest form of popular culture as any fule kno.  I know Simon Price is with me on that one.  They are also, in particular, spangly dayglo markers for our emerging personalities.  Every one of us has this sentient musical moment, and commonly it will be our early teens, probably coinciding with puberty.  Awakening. The chrysalis unfurls and there we are in all our contradictions.


Trust me : make a playlist up from your year of musical sentience, say the moment you turned from 13 to 14 and then listen to it in pure joy as the waves of discovery once more wash through your soul, and you rediscover that you know every lick, every drumbeat, every intake of breath for they are forever imprinted upon you like rhythmic & melodic DNA.  Almost as if, as you grew into your body and the cells expanded, the music you heard then got into the cracks and became part of you.


I wonder if I liked Blue Mink because of Madeline Bell ?   I married a black British woman some years later and we created our own mixed-race band, me, Jenny, two different breeds of cat.  Very open-minded, inclusive.   But the mystery at the heart of this blog though is why that song?  One’s first single purchase is supposed to be an indicator of something. Some tribal moment, some groove, something that will not be denied.  Perhaps all this is blurred by my mum’s pop purchases, after all she was only 34 at the time, and our musical tastes crossed over considerably.  It wasn’t just me – thousands of people bought the single and it reached number 4 eventually.  Maybe we all wanted a bit of Glory Hallelujah dressed up as pop music – Oh Happy Day with a brass band, or a hippie Salvation Army?  Or… maybe… when I was a wee child in Portsmouth, Mum had taken my brother Paul and I in the pram down to Southsea where the funfair was, where you could see the Isle of Wight and the giant ships coming in and out of Portsmouth Harbour, where H.M.S. Victory stands in dry dock, where a bandstand hosts the occasional concert.   A very early childhood memory.   Did we like to walk along the prom prom prom to hear the brass band play tiddly om pom pom?

Well I’ve been reluctant to press the “Publish” button on this post for over 24 hours now.  Something beyond a mystery.  Looking back at My Pop Life #84 which is set in 1970 and which precedes this by a profound 9-month period of my life, it is starting to become clear that my memory is unreliable.  The Hendrix era had been the previous year, and surely I had bought those single already.  Why this song always pops into my head as “first single” I do not know, but it cannot be.  It doesn’t matter.  I definitely bought it, and Jig-A-Jig, and All Along The Watchtower.  I’m glad I did.


My Pop Life #200 : Hello, Goodbye – The Beatles

Hello, Goodbye   –   The Beatles

I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello


  • This blog celebrates my 60th birthday crossroads weekend, which was epic on almost every level.   Indeed it was also a living embodiment of this entire series of blogs, both musically and as a representation of the people in my life.  So this will be the fulcrum of it all I suspect.
  • The result is the longest and luvviest post of the 200 so far written.  Enjoy.


On June 18th 2017 I was 60 years old.  It crept up on me like a hungry lioness, but I was ready for it, for I’d known for some time that it would be there, all six decades of it, shined up and sharp-toothed with a big zero on its pyjamas, an undeniable signpost to my future & inevitable death, an achievement, a relief, a triumph, a moment in time, a landmark, a shock to the system, a meaningless profound number.   Everyone has their own version of what this means, I certainly had mine.    Whatever lies, untruths and kind little stories I’d told myself up to this point, after June 18th I would be old.  OLD.  I was crossing a portal into another world.  It was to be celebrated with a party.  I needed my people to hold my hand and help me cross over.  I have always chosen to celebrate the big zero numbers.   I planned this party for the best part of three years.  As I mentioned in my speech on the night, the original celebration was to be a live gig, with all of my favourite songs, sung by me.  Like a massive indulgent splurge : “Of Me“.  As the months went by and I started to narrow down a playlist of sorts, the idea began to pall, to ever-so-slightly turn at the edges and discolour, until a faint whiff of hubris started to come off of its glittering carapace.   Each time I returned to plan the dreadful occasion it had gone a little more mouldy.   It was, in short, a rotten idea.  So bad was this idea indeed, that I felt embarrassed for having had it, and hoped that I hadn’t talked to too many people about it.  Me sing at a 60th birthday party !?  The utter gall.  The shame.

Brighton fam : Millie, Scarlett & Skye, Thomas, Delilah-Rose, Kerry

I decided to celebrate the big Zero of Six in Brighton, East Sussex, England, my home town, home of my football team, my band, my political party, my friends, where I’d lived for 20 years before moving to New York in 2014.   Some of my friends who ran the percussion ensemble and hit West End, Broadway and touring show Stomp have their HQ in Brighton in a lovely old venue called The Old Market (Hove Actually).  I chatted with dear Loretta Sacco who runs the company and it was fixed with ridiculous & welcome ease.  Loretta is married to Steve McNicholas who is half of Stomp along with my friend Luke Cresswell.  I had a date, and a venue.

Guest vocalist Lucy Jules with her sister Natasha

But I still wanted to hear the songs, so I came up with a marvellous plan B, seriously superior in every way to the first idea : to get other people to sing the songs TO ME, and then watch them with the rest of the party.  Now here was an idea I could run with, over the hills & far away.  But how to find the guest vocalists?  My first stop was family – my wife’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #134 ) and my nephew Thomas Jules (see My Pop Life #57  and  #129).   I wasn’t sure which song to start with but it was good to have a couple of great singers to kick things off (or close the show).  Then I hoped Pippa Randall would probably agree to sing me an Amy Winehouse song since we’d played in an Amy tribute band together (see My Pop Life #65).   And I dreamed that Lisa Abbott, who sings a wonderful Kate Bush tribute ‘Hounds Of Love‘ with most of my band mates from the Brighton Beach Boys : (Stephen Wrigley, Glen Richardson, Charlotte Glasson etc, ) would be agreeable to singing a little Kate for me…

I drew up a list of songs and shared it with Jenny.  She was polite but firm.  “Ralph my love,” she said, or words of similar joy, “it is going to be a party.  These songs are all depressing vibes.”   I looked down at the partial list :

Goodbye To Love  (Carpenters)

Too Far Gone (Bobby Bland) (My Pop Life #28)

My Old School  (Steely Dan)

Man With The Child In His Eyes  (Kate Bush)

We Will  (Gilbert O’Sullivan)

Stardust  (Nat King Cole) (My Pop Life #100)

Something  (Beatles)

Back To Black  (Amy Winehouse)

All Is Fair In Love  (Stevie Wonder)

I must admit I’d watch that set and clap loudly after each song, but I could see with my host hat on that she was right, too much sad ballad, so I had another think.  Meanwhile I worried about catering and invites.  Of course the two are interdependent.  I invited 300 people, perhaps 350.  Would they all come?  Would they fuck.   I had to guess on the catering numbers then.  People who know about these things told me that half the invitees turn up.  Slightly depressing statistic isn’t it?   So I catered for 200.  Better not to have hungry people wandering around.   Then I went back to worrying about the setlist & singers.  I’d promised to myself, and told the folk in the band that I would pay for rehearsals – initially imagining I think a whole week of rehearsals.  Naïve.  There was one rehearsal in the end on the Thursday before the party.  By then I’d emailed and phoned around and the setlist & singers had been finalised, and some of them were there in the rehearsal space, meeting the band for the first time.   So, here’s the final setlist and the beautiful brave singers who sang that night, some chose their songs, and others had songs thrust upon them.  Each song is either a showstopper, or gives me a lump in my throat, or both.  I love all of these singers, each & every one, forever :

  • Beatles : Hello Goodbye – Glen Richardson (My Pop Life #200!!)
  • Beatles : Getting Better – Glen Richardson
  • Rascals : How Can I Be Sure – Stephen Wrigley
  • Joni Mitchell : My Old Man – Meera Syal
  • Simon & Garfunkel : America – Tom White & Kit Ashton (My Pop Life #130)
  • Procol Harum : A Salty Dog – Leon & Hereward Kaye  (My Pop Life #37)
  • Herb Alpert : This Guy’s In Love With You – Lee Ross (My Pop Life #49)
  • Nina Simone : Ne Me Quitte Pas  –  Maureen Hibbert
  • Kate Bush : Moments Of Pleasure  –  Lisa Abbott
  • Cilla Black/Dionne Warwick : Alfie  –  Lucy Jules
  • David Bowie : Life On Mars  –  Glen Richardson
  • Monkees : Pleasant Valley Sunday  – yours truly (My Pop Life #168)
  • Ian Dury : What A Waste  –  Cush Jumbo
  • Amy Winehouse : Valerie  –  Pippa Randall
  • Ike & Tina Turner : River Deep Mountain High  –  Lucy Jules (My Pop Life #160)
  • Stevie Wonder : I Wish  –  Thomas Jules
  • Bruce Springsteen : Born To Run  –  Glen Richardson
  • Beach Boys : And Your Dream Comes True – the band

Me giving Paul a piggyback in 1961

The whole weekend was extraordinary in so many ways.  My brother Paul Brown had flown in from Shanghai where he lives.  He was staying in the Pelirocco Hotel, where Jenny and I were staying.  Regency Square.  It’s a self-consciously “rock’n’roll hotel” cliché with themed rooms but no fridges & weak wi-fi but after a rough teething period, we ended up loving it a great deal.  So great to see Paul after a couple of years.  He had a marvellous beard.

Breakfast with Paul

The Hotel Pelirocco reception area

Then Lynn Nottage and Tony Gerber and  their beautiful children Ruby and Melkamu arrived (from Brooklyn!) & checked into a seafront hotel near us.  They’d  told me the name of it in New York & asked me what it was like.  I’d said “it’s on the seafront“.  When I saw them a few weeks later in Brighton I asked how the hotel was.  “Wellit’s on the seafront…”  said Tony.  See what I mean.

Pippa & Jenny in Alfresco

Ralph, Paul, Tony in Alfresco

On the Friday Jenny, Paul & I hooked up with Pippa, Lynn, Tony, Ruby and Mel in Alfresco which is a lovely Italian restaurant above the beach.  About 4pm.  It was almost empty.  Perfect.  We drank wine and so on.  Ate food.  Walked along the seafront past the West Pier ruins,

West Pier : Ruby, Lynn, Pippa, Paul, Jenny & Melkamu

past the Fortune of War public house & the Victorian carousel up to the mighty Palace Pier and walked out into the sea on the boards.  Took some cheesy pictures.  Stretched out a bit.  It was a heatwave.  Sunblock and T-shirts.  It was very special to have my New York family there with my family in Brighton.  Fam.  So much love.


Embracing the cheese on the Palace Pier (Albion got promoted in May)



We started to make a habit of landing at The Regency Tavern across the square for a late-night pint.   Harveys, naturally.

Brighton Pavilion : Ralph, Tony, Paul, Lynn, Jenny, Ruby

Lulu & Jide arrived on Saturday after we’d shown Lynn & Tony the Royal Pavilion and took us to a lovely restaurant in the Lanes called 64 Degrees.  Rather movingly, the waitress there was Neil Cooper‘s daughter Sunny who we’d met in 2001.  Neil – or Spiderman as he called himself – had production-managed Jenny and I’s wedding in 1992 after working on my play Sanctuary with Paulette and I, then had taught me how to water-ski and generally been a very good friend over the years until he suddenly died about 15 years ago. Shocked and sad, we had gone to his funeral in Golders Green.

Alex Major-Brown with his father, Andrew Brown on Brighton Beach

Later that afternoon Andrew Brown my younger brother arrived from Bournemouth with his 15-year old son Alex, known as Bootsy to us all although he now prefers Alex I understand (see My Pop Life #138) and Alex and I walked up to The Old Market to fix some necessary arrangements for the following day.  We chatted together about school, music and his dad.  It was rather great to be an Uncle once again.

As fate would have it, The Brighton Beach Boys had a gig at the Open Air Theatre (aka BOAT) in Dyke Road that night, a Bowie tribute, and I’d agreed to take part.  Well, I was 59 still.  That has to be for another blog…but I will mention that Paul, Lynn, Tony, Ruby and Melkamu all came to the park (Jenny had a date with Lucy) and witnessed the strange truth : Britain is in thrall to a secret David Bowie cult.

Vintage Brighton Beach Boys photo with Theseus on drums

Another late-night pint at The Regency ushered in June 18th and my 60th birthday.  We sat on a table – Paul, me, Jenny, Lynn and Tony.  Suddenly a fracas occurred next to us, a dog had growled at a tough guy & suddenly he wasn’t looking so tough.  He was acting tough though.  “Fucking keep your fucking dog under control.”  The dog owners were a group of young hippy types who immediately decided to leave the pub.  The geezer was right next to us and Paul shielded Jenny from any aggro instinctively.  The very camp bar staff intervened and asked the pant-wetting guy to leave and after some more noise and the prospect of the police being called he went into the gents, smashed the mirror (symbolic!) and left with his girlfriend.  Happy Birthday!!

Next morning in the Dollywood room I was showered with gifts and cards from my darling wife.  We had breakfast downstairs with a glass of champagne, then hooked up with the gang again for a good old-fashioned Sunday roast in Kemp Town at the Thomas Kemp pub, near our house.  Tony drove us up there in his rental and we piled into the walled garden, bathed in sunshine and shadow.  Lulu & Jide were there looking bonny, then Indhu Rubasingham arrived from London. Indhu directed Jenny in Lynn’s play Ruined at The Almeida (My Pop Life #180).  Kerry appeared, dear Kerry.  Even though Paul was there from China and didn’t know half of these people I somehow felt that he was guiding everyone through the day with grace and ease and charm, a natural facility he has with celebrations.  Very happy to have him there.  Beyond happy.  Then Scarlett arrived with her parents Maggie Flynn and Rob Pugh, warm, lovely people, (Rob greeted me in Welsh and Scarlett said “Dad!  Ralph, do you know what he just said to you?” I didn’t and still don’t !)  With them was Skye our 3-year old beauty with Thomas Jules my precious nephew.   We had a bench table or three and out came the meat (not for me), the potatoes,  yorkshire puddings & gravy and what we insist on calling “the trimmings“.  Then I had to run for a soundcheck & get-in at the venue.

I’d played The Old Market not three weeks earlier in Brighton Festival.  Magical Mystery Tour v Sgt Pepper.  I’d seen stuff there over the years.  Drank beers there.  Enjoyed Luke’s birthday fairly recently, rented out our house to one of Loretta’s staff, Helen at one point.  It was all very familiar and friendly but I was already feeling disembodied.  I had created a giant crossroads made of my life.  It was like a living breathing giant figure made out of all of these blog posts, music pouring from every orifice, made of love but still a giant puzzle, a huge inchoate emotional time bomb – 60 years of life ready to explode at any second.  I’d essentially invited everyone that I deemed myself to have had a proper relationship with, obviously they couldn’t all come, but nevertheless it was a daunting unknown test I appeared to have set myself.  All those plans, those hopes and fears – the desire beneath everything else to simply bring people together in a musical event, using the 60th as a hard-to-refuse invitation to a party, probably most likely, the biggest party I would ever throw.

The band arrived and started to unwrap gear, erect stands, plug in amplifiers, organise their sheet music at their stations, exchange pleasantries about the songs that they felt they didn’t know well enough.  Adrian in particular had a worry about one or two of the songs, and didn’t like to wear glasses on a gig to read the chord charts.  Oh well !  Tom White was setting up the drum kit, Jono the keyboards stage left, Glen the keyboards stage right.  The woodwinds were to the left of the drums, the strings to the right.  Stephen Wrigley the Musical Director, the co-author of this band with me, the genius who made everything possible, the man who had scored all of my favourite songs for this event, arranged for a 16-piece band and rehearsed on Thursday evening, Stephen was arranging his guitar sculpture in the centre of the stage.  I loved him so much that I couldn’t say it.

Stephen Wrigley

I popped out for a cigarette outside the back door – where the pub was which used to be called The Conqueror.  Theseus Gerrard was there, drummer for The Beach Boys and Bowie gigs but not for Beatles, and he wasn’t on the kit for this gig.  Almost a founder member of the group, a great rhythmist and free spirit, he divides the band because he is so dependent on the kindness of strangers, and such an itinerant addict, and so bad at learning new songs.  Unless he’s in the mood.  We have tolerated a lot from Theese over the years because he brings so much to the show, particularly regarding our relationship with the audience.  Theseus is a natural showman and communicator, whereas the rest of us are more nerdy and muso, staring at our instruments in order to get it right, engaged in some private musical examination, whereas Theseus is always aware that the gig is a relationship.  Audiences love him.  In the Sgt Pepper shows he is on percussion, but moves around the stage drawing focus onto whoever is singing, playing a solo or enacting some part of the song.  It really works.  He is a conundrum in many ways, a challenge to each and every one of us.  But then I think we all are like that to each other, in different ways.  Theseus sat there on the bench smoking a fag and looked at me, then said “Ralph – what do you want me to do in this gig mate?”  I think it was the year before when he’d sung me the Stones “Miss You” in another pub for my birthday, which was the highlight of that year.  I’d been in Brooklyn for nearly three years and it was touching.   I looked at him.  “You know what to do” I said.  He held my arm.  We were cool.  Although I partly wished I’d asked him to sing Miss You again, it also felt like an indulgence swerved.

I’d given my ipod to the bar -one mix.  And my computer to the main hall – another mix.  They couldn’t connect the two sound systems.  I’d made a rule – only one song per artist in each mix.  That was fun.  I remember hearing exactly one song at the party – It was a Rufus Wainwright song “I Don’t Know What It Is“.  Weird.  I asked the bar staff to turn the sound system up but it was playing at top volume apparently. I’d gone temporarily deaf for the night on top of everything else.  They were busy cutting oranges and cucumbers for the Pimms jugs which were to be free all night.

The band ran through a few numbers and now after the nerves and nail-biting and list-making, engineering party-organising, forgetting and mental-ness there suddenly appeared a moment of calm.  Music.  I wasn’t playing on most of these songs because I intended to be in the audience for most of the night.  Lisa sang Kate Bush, magically. Pippa went through Valerie.  So exciting.  Venue staff came and asked me stuff now & again, but I was suddenly peaceful.  Lucy sang Alfie, wonderfully.   The tears pricked me suddenly.  Something about that song.


And so the party.  It was all so completely overwhelming seeing everyone who came and missing all those who did not.   Jenny looked extravagantly beautiful as ever, I knew she had my back, all night, and would make people feel welcome and loved even if I’d only spoken to them for a few moments.  She is my rock, my guiding star.  We walked up the stairs and looked briefly at each other and smiled a kind of “see you later” kind of smile.  Dressed in my gorgeous black & white puppy-tooth Jump The Gun suit with black & white short-sleeved shirt, loafers, I greeted my guests as they arrived, some carrying presents despite the urgent Red Cross Appeal Not To Bring Any Presents because I’d only have to leave them behind …I’d only brought one suitcase…

Of course the biggest and heaviest present came from Lucy & Graham.  A fully gigantic encyclopedia of hip hop made of some kind of stone or granite.  It is amazing !  But they weren’t the only ones.  Cards, books, all kinds of things.  There was even a book for people to sign.  Some did.    There were surprise arrivals to balance out the no-shows, Simon Korner brought his wife Leonie bless her, and his grown-up son Asher who had french girlfriend in tow.  Lewis MacLeod, Simon Lester, Norman Wilson, Dona Croll, Susan Kyd, Jo Martin, Eamonn Walker and Sandra Kane – I’d asked Eamonn to sing & he’d never answered so I didn’t know if he’d be there, my brother from another mother.  Catherine Walker came from Paris, and the Brighton gang were reunited in force.  Great turnout.  None better than Johanna Francis who’d just flown in from New York, our fairy godmother who’d sheltered us from the winter storm in 2014 just after we arrived in Brooklyn.  She’s become our homegirl.

Brooklyn gang – me, Sean, Johanna

On the night I knew that I would hardly get to speak to anyone, basically being magnetised by each new arrival for as long as it took until another one appeared over their shoulder and stole my attention.  Then they would start to leave and each moment would be just a moment.  Everyone, hopefully, would get a hello and a goodbye.  I knew this.  I mentioned it in my speech “Sorry I haven’t spoken to any of you yet.  I’m not going to speak to you later either.”  Got a laugh.  I alluded to the turnout being likely to be the same for my funeral, except that I would be dead, and therefore wouldn’t enjoy it as much.  Also got a laugh.  Also mentioned all the last-minute “sorry” texts & emails I’d received in the days leading up to the party as ‘little stabs‘ … ‘which didn’t hurt’.  Got a 3rd laugh!  Probably the biggest.  The speech finished with the greetings & partings acknowledgement which bled perfectly into Hello Goodbye as an opening number.   Because 2017 was the 50th anniversary of Magical Mystery Tour (the EP & the LP) we were all up to speed on this song, one of McCartney’s finest moments, an apparently simple song with simple lyrics, astoundingly well performed and produced, clear and clean and HAPPY.  I love it.

It was the perfect opener for the gig, the perfect hinge on my year and my evening.  We then played Getting Better from Sgt Pepper because it’s an uptempo positive song, and a 50th birthday for that album AND it was a party 😉  And then the first special request song – How Can I Be Sure – chosen by me for Stephen Wrigley to sing because I knew he loved it as much as I did.  I prefer the David Cassidy version to the original by The Rascals, but he prefers that one, so that was the one we did.  Fair enough.  Then I left the stage and watched the remainder of the show from the audience.

I’d waited for Paulette & Beverley to arrive before I started the entertainment.  They were drinking with old reprobates David & Eugene in the Pelirocco in the porn-themed room.  I was so happy that they’d all made it to the party.  Absurdly self-conscious as I had been onstage making my speech & participating in a few songs, I became positively opaque sitting in the audience, like a hair-trigger of emotion awaiting release, whilst knowing deep in my floppy sweet liquorice bones that I could not afford to plumb those depths, not here, not now, don’t cry, shut it down fella.

Meera Syal

Meera Syal was first up, singing Joni Mitchell‘s My Old Man from Blue – our joint choice.  We’d chatted about the key it should be in, but she’d only been able to make today.  She stood in front of the microphone and announced :  “Ralphy, I want you to know that you’re the only person I love enough to sing this song without any rehearsal“.  A ripple of excitement and expectation ran through the guests – oh, wow, no rehearsal.  The bravery, the love.  A little like watching a live X-factor gig where the band are fully rehearsed, safe group of hands, but the singers are all walking the tightrope.  Woop !  Meera was stunning of course, nailed the song and the emotion of the song with aplomb.  I helped her offstage and kissed & thanked her.

Ralph Brown, Andy Baybutt, Tim Lewis : Friston Forest

JennyTim Lewis were doing the MC honours, announcing the guest singers in turn.  Jenny had, as ever, been my right hand, my guiding star, my heart & soul and over half of my brain all weekend.   Next up were Tom White our drummer & Brighton musical genius in his own right (having played with his band The Electric Soft Parade since being at school with his brother Alex; also Brakes, The Fiction Aisle and many other outlets).  He has music running through his veins.  He teamed up with another Brighton musical legend Kit Ashton.  I’d hooked up with Kit when he was running his “Songwriter” gigs – he’d do one a year at Hanbury Ballroom with guest vocalists and one year he’d asked me if I wanted to sing a couple of Elvis Costello songs and I’d bitten his hand off and performed Alison & All Grown Up.  The following year he did Bowie and I got Glen involved, I did Station To Station and Glen did Drive-In Saturday and Life On Mars,  another memorable night since legendary bass player Herbie Flowers turned up to play his parts on Rebel Rebel & Space Oddity.  Tom and Kit got all acoustic together and sang me the Simon & Garfunkel classic “America” (see My Pop Life #130 ) which is deeply symbolic because Jenny and I walked off to look for America or something.  Such a beautiful song.

Hereward Kaye

Next up my old buddy Hereward Kaye – the man who taught me Good Vibrations for the Rock and Roll Shakepeare sci-fi extravaganza Return To The Forbidden Planet at The Tricycle Theatre in 1985 (see My Pop Life #190).  Herry took to the keyboard with his son Leon on vocals and tore into the prog-rock masterpiece known as A Salty Dog (see My Pop Life #37).  Leon fair took the roof off with his voice, rising to the occasion and the massive challenge of singing Gary Brooker, Procol Harum‘s lead vocalist and one of the great rock singers.   It was all getting a bit serious and intense, but here came Lee Ross my beautiful friend to give us a rendition of a Bacharach song This Guy’s In Love With You, originally sung by Herb Alpert (My Pop Life #49).

Lee Ross

Dear MC Tim Lewis had to improvise a story because Lee was having an emergency pre-stage leak in the gents downstairs.  He related how, in the early days of our friendship we had been on the phone organising something, and he’d ended by saying “Thanks lovely Ralph“.  I misheard him, and after a slight pause replied “I love you too Tim“.  Dear Tim didn’t have the inclination to correct me, but now took the opportunity to say that he loved me too.  Awwww.

Lee was unintentionally hilarious, his hat slightly askew, his lyrics sheet had a life of its own & kept leaving his hand or jumping off the music stand with every slight gust of breath.  He brought the house down and delivered the tune with great joy, cracked the atmosphere, now it was a party.  I wrote about Lee and Jo McInnes in My Pop Life #192 .

Jenny Jules, Pippa Randall, Maureen Hibbert at the party

Next up was Maureen Hibbert who deserves her own blog and her own story for I cannot do it justice inside this piece.  And I have to mention her daughter Chloe, my god-daughter who had travelled from Zanzibar (I think?) to spend the evening with me, to be there for me.  Maureen and Chloe ended up sleeping on our couch!  Mo sang, with huge courage and soul, the amazing Jaques Brel song Ne Me Quitte Pas, in the style of Nina Simone, in French.  Wow.   This was the most dramatic part of the show, easily.  In verse three she wasn’t happy with a vocal mistake and held up her hand “Wait wait, hold on!” she said.  The band stopped playing.  “I want this to be right for Ralphy” she said, “can we do that part again please?”  Stephen raised the baton “top of verse three?” And.  The bar kept being raised.

Lisa Abbott

Somewhere in the hall Scarlett’s dad Rob Pugh, writer of Reg which I’d filmed in 2015 (My Pop Life #119) muttered to Luke standing alongside him “here comes another piece of hippy shite“.  He is 100% Welsh of course.  I’m a mere 25%.

He was right too : The darling hippy Lisa Abbott took the microphone for my favourite Kate Bush song which never fails to bring water to the eye : Moments Of Pleasure from the Red Shoes album.  It was both uncanny and magical listening to Lisa sing for me on my birthday.  She just inhabits Kate Bush totally.  Her voice is quite exquisite.  I’d seen her sing the whole of the Hounds Of Love LP one night two years earlier in this very venue and it was nothing short of extraordinary.   I could see the people in the party who had yet to sing looking at her and thinking “Shit! I’ve got to follow that.

Lucy Jules

But it was Lucy Jules up next, singing Alfie.  The Bacharach arrangement, Steve conducting.  A string quartet, a woodwind quartet, a band of great players.  It is a great band and it was lovely to showcase them for my friends who had never seen us gig.  I really am so proud of this part of my life, and I miss it a great deal and try to get back to England as often as possible to play with them.  By now I was sitting down, Simon Korner to my right, Conrad Ryle to my left – Simon had joined me after America, Conrad after A Salty Dog.  My mates from school.  My surrogate families who rescued me in the 1970s.  My North & South Poles.

Lucy sang the first line :  “ What’s it all about, Ralphie?” and I smiled.  It was funny and bold and lovely & it stopped me from weeping once more.  Everyone in the room smiled I think.   I can’t really put into words what it meant, what it felt like.  She kept it up for the entire song.  “And if life belongs only to the strong Ralphie…” and each time she left a miniscule pause before the name as if deciding anew each time to change the name of the person she was talking to, and each time it was funny, witty, affectionate, very moving.  Especially in a song about love…

Brought the house down of course.   I was grateful to her for changing the song from Alfie to Ralphie.  Stopped my meltdown in its tracks which she later told me was why she’d done it.  Some people are very wise aren’t they?  I still feel like a young soul, like a 25-year old learning how it all works.  I look at people like say Bruno the Brighton & Hove Albion captain and I think “look at that old guy, he’s doing all right”.  Bruno is 37 years old.  I still feel, without thinking, that he & others like him are older than me.  This is a kind of psychic dissonance, a denial of time passing, arrested development or simply genius.  Does everyone feel this strange emotional eternal youth inside?  Only mirrors give me a shock –  Gulp : who the fuck is THAT??  Adjustment, temporarily.  Then I’m back, 25 years old, dealing with the next minute, then the next.

Lucy received a standing ovation for her performance and a thrill ran through the room.  It was a good gig all right !  I was thrilled to bits by now and had decided to go through with my song – I almost swerved it, but then also felt in one way that the singers who had yet to perform would be encouraged by watching me struggle a little musically, that I would bring the bar back down and that Cush and Pippa in particular would be imbued with renewed courage.  Maybe. I looked over at Cush and she raised her eyebrows at me like WOW.

our lead vocalist Glen Richardson

Who followed that emotional centrepiece ?  Why David Bowie of course in the eminent shape of Glen Richardson singing Life On Mars.  He and the band absolutely smashed it to pieces.  I then jumped back onstage fortified by ales and love and sang a rendition of the Carole King/Monkees classic Pleasant Valley Sunday which I dearly hoped we were all inhabiting by that point.  I then made my way to the horn section where my trusty alto saxophone was nestled on its stand and honked my way through the remainder of the set : a massive error on my part here, since I didn’t get to see the surprise package of the event, namely, Cush Jumbo singing What A Waste, unrehearsed, never met the band, just like Meera, apparently extraordinary…

Sean Griffin & Cush Jumbo

OK I’ve now seen the footage and Cush was outstanding.  Especially changing the chorus final line from “rock’n’roll don’t mind” to “my mum don’t mind” !!  Genius.  These two are our newest dearest friends, both English, moved over just after we did, they live down the road from us in Brooklyn and we try to hang out with them as often as we can.   She’d given a little speech before the song about how much she appreciated me befriending Sean in America and taking him to the dirty bar to play pool and get horribly drunk.  Aw.

Cush was followed by Pippa Randall singing Valerie with true relish, what a star she is, accompanied by Joe Kaye plugged in next to her, at which point Conrad & Gaynor and a whole bunch of other people decided to get up and dance (hooray!).  Maybe we’d gone on too long, but I love Conrad and Gaynor for always dancing !!!  Then Lucy came back to scale the mountaintop River Deep Mountain High with Lisa, Meera, Cush, Maureen & Pippa on backing vocals which apparently tore the roof off the sucker, and the throat out of dear Lucy, and finally darling Thomas who’d had a sore throat all weekend stepped up to sing Stevie Wonder‘s I Wish with Lucy on chorus high notes.  He was absolutely flipping amazing.

Thomas Jules

I missed it all, because the sound at the back of the stage was poor, only climbing back into the audience for Born To Run which Glen sang.  But my friend Steve McNicholas was filming it all, so I do believe that I will get to see these magic moments one day soon.

Charlotte Glasson, Danielle Flarty, Adrian Marshall

At the end of the gig we sang the Beach Boys acapella lullaby And Your Dream Comes True to Scarlett, who was heavily pregnant and about to DJ for the dancing part of the party with Thomas.  Yes, a Beach Boys song and a sad ballad but I felt it was a sweet way to end the set and serenade mum-to-be.  The beautiful Lua Blue Jules Pugh was born 20 days later, somewhat overdue but perfect in every way.

Mum Scarlett & baby Lua Blue 4 months later

end of the party : Alex, Ralph, Rebecca, Andrew, Paul

At the end of the party the gang split into two fact-finding groups –

group A) people who had to leave including my sister Rebecca Coleman and her kids Ellie and William who rode off into the night with her dad Alan Sully;  Jenny’s mother Esther Jules who was driven back to Wembley by Jenny’s sister & Thomas’ mum Dee, who then returned to Harlow, Essex with nephews Jordan and Jamie;  Uncle Lee who took Auntie Mame and Tete Sica back to Ramsgate (!);  the families Randall & Kaye with Roy & Robbie, Herry & Pat, Pippa & Joe, Tia & Lucy;  and plenty of others who’d booked babysitters…

and group B) people who hadn’t finished getting fucked up.  Well that group all walked down to the Pelirocco Hotel and drank until dawn.

Dawn : Kit Ashton, Ralph, Tom White, Paul


Much later I wrote an email to those who had participated including the band themselves :  Steve, Glen, Adrian, Charlotte, Theseus, Tom, Brian, Jane, Joe, Rob, Danielle, Jono, Simon.

First and most importantly, Thank You for helping me through the great gates of 60, daunting and aged though they were, an ancient stone portal which loomed ahead casting a shadow over the earth for the last few years, during which time I planned this event to avoid facing the tremendous fear beneath the celebration.  The numbers do not lie, and I am 60.  So thank you once again for holding my hand, bringing yourself and your love.  I felt it.  I was overwhelmed and did not surrender, but now I thank you.  You have o’erleaped the rest into my personal pop charts.  You are a Golden Great.  I may never do that again, but I will always cherish it.”   Lots of love, Ralph, aged 60


if anyone has any photos from the party, please send them to me !!


My Pop Life #199 : Oh Happy Day – The Edwin Hawkins Singers

Oh Happy Day – The Edwin Hawkins

he washed my sins away…

It’s the piano, echoing like some dark shadow from a cavern, rolling along with a loose stride, moving up, moving along, but the voice the voice the voice, rich and deep and strong.  Always thought it was a woman then learned it was the Edwin Hawkins Singers and wondered at his range especially when the handclaps start and we take off to heaven.  When Jesus Walked, Oh when he walked, he washed my sins away.  Later, years later it became apparent that the lyric was When Jesus Washed, Oh When He Washed, He Washed My Sins Away (Oh Happy Day).  There’s a fantastic rhythmic ripple on the word Jesus which makes him Je-ZER-us.  The chord change on the second line swallows me every time, the response choir, the gospel chorus takes the word “day” into a new space, a lifting up of the heart occurs and I swoon into being and nothingness.  Hypnotic.  Spiritual.  Massive.  The first time I had heard the word ‘Jesus’ outside of  a church or a bible class.

It is 1969 and I am living in the village, travelling on the bus to Lewes Grammar in my dark blue and sky blue school uniform complete with cap, a new bug in a new world of rules, bells, prefects, lessons with different teachers.  I’m watching Top Of The Pops on Thursday evenings at 7pm.  This is my religion.  I can’t remember seeing the Edwin Hawkins Singers on the show, or whether Pan’s People danced or there was a film, but the record got to number two.  Not even certain if we bought it, but fairly sure we did, and my mum, who was the 45 purchaser in 1969, had always been a religious woman, certainly in her teens had been a bit of a holy roller.  Church didn’t move me in any way though and I stopped all church-related activity once I left primary school.  My dad (who lived in Eastbourne) was what he called a ‘confirmed agnostic’ which always felt to me like sitting on the fence.  I suppose he wanted to look at both sides from up there.  I was fairly certain that there was no God, anywhere in the Universe.  Jesus had certainly existed and had been clearly an interesting radical, but he had constantly related his life to his Father, God, so I could only go so far with that story.   But I never had any issues with this song, which is right on the nose.  He Taught Me How To Wash, Fight and Pray (Fight and PRAY!).  Then another mistake : IN HIM rejoy… sing… ev….ery day.  Apparently it is :

and living rejoicing every, every day

Doesn’t Matter.  It was the first gospel tune that I responded to.  It didn’t convert me to Jesus, or God, but it converted me to gospel music.  A choir, a rhythm, a call, a response.  Apparently it encouraged George Harrison to write My Sweet Lord, another spiritual groove from the era.  I have a handful of key gospel tunes that move me, sometimes to tears and this was the first.

We currently live in Brooklyn and our back garden is up against a huge church wall inside which is the Institutional Church of The Living God.  They rehearse Thursday evenings usually and have a service or two on Sundays, starting around 10.30am.  When we first moved in 30 months ago I swore that I couldn’t live with the noise, especially in the summer when all the windows are open !  Then as the months passed I realised that my objections were narrowing down and starting to find a focus- the choir were good, the keyboards were fine, the preacher sounded powerful.  It was the drummer.  The bloody drummer !!  He was atrocious.  Just whacking away at the snare and bass drum like a metronome.  No rhythm.  No feel.  Just whack whack whack.  Like a military drummer without the skill.  Shockingly bad.  Eventually I confided my hatred for this non-musician to my dear neighbour Libby, who has a piano in her apartment next door.  We often play at the same time !  She told me that the neighbourhood has had long run-ins with the Pentecostal church, asking on numerous occasions for double glazing over the stained glass windows – or are they just pieces of coloured paper over the glass – anyway it looks pretty at night and doesn’t stop the sound of the shit drummer from penetrating my apartment or my brain.  Libby also told me that the drummer was the grandson of the pastor so we are all doomed to eternal metronomic whacking unto infinity (and beyond!)

I’ve wondered about visiting the church for a service, but I’d feel like an intruder, an imposter, a spy.  Christmas Eve I like to go to the local Emmanuel Baptist Church on Lafayette Avenue & Washington where the band and the choir are first class and the drummer is ace, as are all the singers, hairs on the back of the neck stuff.  Where a Church Service is close to being a concert.  But they make us all feel welcome, they know it’s the only day we even think about going to church, and I’m there for the band and the singers, for the gospel music, not for the message.

Although – when everyone turns and greets their neighbours with ‘bless you’ – the sign of friendship – it is extremely moving.

So Edwin Hawkins passed away yesterday, aged 74.  The song was recorded on a two-track machine with Dorothy Combs Morrison singing the lead vocal.  So that was a woman, I finally accept.  It sounded like a woman.  Edwin was on the piano, with all the feel.  That is how you play the piano.  Aretha knows.

It was the happiest song of my youth bar none.  Oh Happy Day it was called.  We chose it for our wedding, discussed a few times already in this blog (see My Pop Life #126   and My Pop Life #56  ).  We had a choir and a few solo singers which we rehearsed in our flat in Archway Road.  Here is a picture of a rehearsal :

Antonia, Maureen, Jenny, Millie, Beverley, Paulette

In the end we picked Oh Happy Day to play us out of the church – St Joseph’s on Highgate Hill – instead of the usual cascade of organ chords by Mendelssohn from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  On the day, Maureen Hibbert was our lead singer and the choir of angels – our nearest and dearest (who could sing !!) which included my dad John and his wife Beryl, Paulette and Beverley Randall, Antonia Coker, Sharon Henry, Millie Kerr, and Maureen Hibbert, all marshalled by our M.D. and choirmaster Felix Cross.  They made quite a good racket for such a small choir – but here’s the thing : we walked out of the church so damn fast and so full of excitement that we missed the legendary rendition of Oh Happy Day by Maureen who apparently according to all reports, absolutely flipping Smashed It !

Since those glorious days in 1969 when this song reached number 2 in the Pop charts, I have learned that you don’t need to believe in God to appreciate religious music, and that it has a great deal of power & emotion & beauty, and is of course some of the greatest music ever written – some of which has made its way into these pages, notably Bach‘s St Matthew Passion and Fauré‘s Requiem, both Christian, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who I was privileged to see sing twice, who was a Sufi.   And then there is the song of my namesake Ralph Vaughan Williams – To Be A Pilgrim from 1908, collected from an old hymn and re-birthed as an inspirational song (see My Pop Life #127 ).

When we went to see Aretha Franklin live a couple of years ago she had a gospel element to the show when she sang Old Landmark off the Amazing Grace album which she made with her father in 1972, testifying over her backing singers about her cancer and her faith, and it was the best part of the evening, quite stunning.  For years after Al Green stopped singing pop music in the mid-70s I went to see him every time he came over to England, it was a pure gospel show.  Electrifying as only Al Green can be.   Saw Mavis Staples in LA, absolutely fantastic.  But all of them – Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, James Brown they were all schooled in gospel.  It’s simply the root of all soul music and R’n’B.

Oh and that chord change – simple like all the best ones, but brilliant.  We’re swinging from C sharp to F sharp until that second vocal line.  Then we suddenly drop from C# to Bb7.  So only one note changes -the C sharp goes up a semitone to D while the bass moves from C sharp down to B flat.  Glory ensues.

I always used to separate gospel out, because of God.  Now I join it all up.

My Pop Life #198 : Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out) – The Arcade Fire

Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out) – The Arcade Fire

I went out into the night, I went out to pick a fight with anyone


In the summer of 2006 Jenny and I drove from Sweden down into Germany for the World Cup, saw a few games in Nuremberg and Dortmund, then drove back to our friend Amanda Oom’s house in Skåne (pronounced Skohner) for the midsummer party.  It was rather great, though somehow shadowed by an undefined unease.

Soder Åby in Skåne, south Sweden, June 2006

Upon returning home I went for a film audition in London, usual kind of thing, I’d had a couple of days to look at the scene and read the script.  For once I really fancied it – set in a lowlife milieu of East London my character was an ex-UDI paramilitary gun-runner.  One of the accents I most enjoy wrapping my chops around is Belfast, so armed with the Protestant version thereof I auditioned the shit out of it.  Thought I’d done quite well, and decided that if I got the part I would resemble Lemmy from Mötorhead with giant rockabilly muttonchops and proceeded to grow them over that summer.

After about 5 weeks I learned that I had failed to be cast in said film, Andy Serkis having pipped me at the post.  I’ve still never done the Belfast accent.  The regular disappointment, spiced with whiskers.  So I decided to carry on growing them, to my wife’s irritation.  If there’s one type of face fuzz she can’t stand (and she does like a beard does Jenny) it’s the aforementioned mutton chops.  Still, nothing to lose I thought.  We drove over to see old friend and Withnail writer/director Bruce Robinson and his wife Sophie out in the bucolic eden of Herefordshire on their farmhouse for a few days.

Rural Hertfordshire with Sophie and Bruce Robinson

He showed me his work on the Jack The Ripper book and claimed “I’ve got him Ralph !”  Can’t remember who it was, or maybe he didn’t tell me more likely.  Secret !!   Always great to see the old fucker though.  We pottered around the farm, did a workout on a nearby hilltop and talked about the good old days, ranted about the bad old days.  It is always thus. Back in Brighton we had our summer son down for the school holidays, Jordan Jules-Stock and he was a delight.  He come down every summer for a few years.

Jordan and I resting while we serve our Lady Jenny, Arundel

We went to Arundel Castle and pretended to be knights of the holy grail with our Lady Jenny.  We went to Drusillas my old childhood retreat and to the Anchor pub on the River Ouse at Balcombe which has boat trips and wasps in the garden with friends Jo and Loretta and their children Maddy, Milo and Inka.  It was always great that Jordan had some people his own age to hang out with.

Inka, Maddy, Jordan & Milo at The Anchor, Barcombe Mills

At some point in September I believe I went for another audition, this time for a TV show with casting director Gary Davies.  To play a slightly freaky policeman.  I still had the muttonchops.  I learned the lines as usual and played the scenes on tape for him.  Within days I had the offer…and the instruction : “And Don’t Shave!!

At a wedding in 2006 – Jenny wishing I’d shaved

Jenny’s nightmare scenario.  The show was a six-episode thriller about a strange community of witness-protection anonymity, all with a dark past, all hiding in this pastel-shaded modern development.  I was the town copper who had acid flashbacks and a dark streak, Wintersgill.  Great part.  I was picked up for work at an unearthly hour by my lovely driver who lived in Folkestone (!) and driven to an odd designer estate just off the M26 in Kent where the entire show was shot.  It was called Cape Wrath.

Created by Robert Murphy, episode one was directed by Duane Clark, an American whom I got on with very well.  My co-stars (gawd I mean fellow actors) in the cast were David Morrissey and Lucy Cohu with their kids played by Felicity Jones and Harry Treadaway.  Also – major friendships were struck with Melanie Hill, Tristan Gemmill, Ella Smith and Nina Sosanya, not to mention Scot Williams and Tom Hardy and his dog.  Yes, that Tom Hardy.

Wintersgill (me) & Danny (David Morrissey), in his rabbit hutch

I had to spend an entire episode strangling Morrissey almost to death in the underground cell of the police station, forcing him to confess to a murder.  It was pretty intense.  I’d already worked with David on Steven Woolley‘s film Stoned about Brian Jones and we’d met in Marrakech in the old town.  I’d meet him again in Prague years later.  Proper good fella is Dave Morrissey.  Genuine, funny, talented, heart in the right place.  A good man to have to strangle.  Loads of trust needed.

Harry Treadaway getting frisky

I also struck up a great relationship with young Harry Treadaway based on music sharing and other cultural chat.  He and his twin brother Luke had already made a strange punk film about conjoined twins who become pop stars called Brothers of the Head in 2005.  We swapped music, probably CDs I can’t remember the format, but he lent me the first Arcade Fire album from 2004 called “Funeral“.  I cannot remember now what I lent Harry, and I wonder if he can, but after about two days Funeral was seriously under my skin.  What a brilliant record.

Funeral – Arcade Fire

Something truly affecting about the music.  Harry had seen them in a loft in Montreal playing to a few dozen people and immediately swooned.  I could see why.  Something intensely passionate with strong hooks and yet a loose quality, almost like a live rehearsal.  Anthemic but lo-fi.  Little did I know that it wouldn’t last, but I worked it out for myself after the second gig.  We had the chance to go and see them live during the shoot because they were doing a warm-up tour for their imminent 2nd LP Neon Bible.  It was Porchester Hall in Feb 2007 when I saw them first.  What a gig.  They played 4 songs from Funeral : Power Out, Haiti, Rebellion/Lies and Wake Up which they played acoustically as they walked out through the audience.  People sang along lustily.  Pretty damn good.  I was hooked.

Brixton Academy : Neon Bible, time to push to the front !

The following month they were back, this time in the cavernous Brixton Academy, and this time they played Tunnels the wonderful opening song from Funeral along with most of Neon Bible.  I met Harry and Luke in a pub I think and in we went, pushed right down the front like teenage students, probably the final time in my life when I actually wanted to do that.  It was the music, a major discovery for me, and the company, these two bright buttons the Treadaway brothers and one of their friends.  We bounced around like idiots to the drums, sang the choruses at the top of our voices and got the shivers down our necks when this song started.

I felt towards the end that Arcade Fire would never play a small venue again, not only were the songs anthemic but the whole trajectory of the band felt that way, a U2-esque quality that was all going one way > into the stadium.  Unfair possibly, but the raggy studenty unrehearsed vibe was giving way to more purposeful statement-rock.  The great disappointment was the 2nd encore after Wake Up which was brilliant, when they then played the Clash song Guns of Brixton.  I think most people loved it but I can’t stand gun songs – for example Johnny Cash’s first single Folsom Prison Blues which always gets a cheer on the line “I Shot A Man In Reno Just To Watch Him Die” especially when he plays it in a prison. Really ?  Man in Black is it ?  Fuck off.   Just no.  And I feel the same way about Paul Simenon’s song.  I know it’s a rebellion ditty but I am pretty anti gun I’m afraid.  They’re only good for one thing.  And yes, I would’ve signed up to fight Hitler if that’s the next question.  But Guns of Brixton?  No thanks middle class rebels.

At some point that spring the cast of Cape Wrath were invited to a screening of episode one at Channel Four.  Glasses of wine and so on & so forth.

Marvellous Melanie Hill in Cape Wrath

Felicity Jones & Tom Hardy in Cape Wrath

Good news : US channel Showtime had bought it and was calling it Meadowlands (the name of the designer estate in the show).  Bad news : the series was going out in July and August.  This was truly disappointing.  Then the Head of Drama at Channel 4 who had commissioned and championed the series told us he was moving on.  It all fell into place.  A new head of drama was inheriting somebody else’s Big Cock of a TV series and needed to deflate it and replace it with his own Big Cock.  Thus we were to screen in the summer holidays when no one watches TV and the resulting low figures would be pulled out with a shrug to explain why the series wasn’t going to a second year.  We were kicked into the long grass in effect.

Which was a shame, because the show was really good.  A strong central idea, great writing and directing with a stonking cast.  It was like a US TV series just when everyone was complaining that the UK didn’t make that kind of show.  So there you go.  I got to meet Harry and Luke, saw Arcade Fire and got to Strangle David Morrissey and I’ll always be grateful for that.   And Power Out still sends shivers down my spine.

As for Arcade Fire, I became their number one cheerleader for a year in Brighton among the gang – Andy, Tim, Jo, Arron & Alice, Jimmy, Lee and all (see My Pop Life #192).   That summer – 2006 – some of them had gone down to Bestival and eaten handfuls of mushrooms, possibly LSD too. As they’d wandered through the fields, tripped off their collective tits, a couple of fellas had passed them going the other way and muttered “Bag of Snakes” under their breath.  My lot collapsed in laughter – if I’d been among them it would’ve been a classic bad acid moment for me but they are built of sterner psychedelic stuff than I – and they decided to start a band – called Bag of Snakes of course.   I distinctly remember Tim Lewis, dear Tim, deciding to play Power Out on his drum kit as a warm up every day.

Win Butler & Régine Chassagne

Arcade Fire are from Montreal, led by husband & wife team Win Butler and Régine Chassagne and including William Butler, Richard Reed Parry, Tim Kingsbury and Sarah Neufeld among their ranks.  They exploded onto the scene with Funeral in 2004 and a live cover of Bowie’s Five Years which brought them to David’s attention.  The 2nd album Neon Bible is full of dark anthems including No Cars Go and Black Mirror which may or may not have inspired the TV series.  But for me their sound has streamlined and straightened out over the years, and I’ve become less and less interested in their output on a steadily declining curve since those legendary two shows where they were as exciting and powerful as any band I’ve ever seen live.  My final fling as a genuine sweaty squashed fan, gazing up at the band, arms aloft, eyes shining.   Thanks Harry !

My Pop Life #197 : My Adidas – Run D.M.C.

My Adidas – Run D.M.C.

My Adidas
walked through concert doors
& roamed all over coliseum floors
I stepped on stage, at Live Aid
All the people gave & the poor got paid
And out of speakers I did speak
I wore my sneakers but I’m not a sneak
My Adidas cuts the sand of a foreign land
with mic in hand I cold took command
my Adidas and me, close as can be
we make a mean team, my Adidas and me
we get around together, rhyme forever
& we won’t be mad when worn in bad weather
My Adidas.
My Adidas.
My Adidas

It was September 1986.  My girlfriend Rita Wolf and I had gone on holiday to San Francisco together, and stayed with her friends Lisa & Bryan alongside Alamo Park, picturesque wooden houses around a green square with a view of downtown off to the north.  We were both in our late 20s, working actors, no kids.

Alamo Park, San Fransisco

The plan was to enjoy the city a bit, then hire a car and drive out to Lake Tahoe – I think we’d both been to San Fran before, and explored Alcatraz, Haight-Ashbury, Berkeley and Golden Gate Park, so fancied a trip in a car, one of my favourite things to do in the world.  Hire a car and D R I V E.  I’ve written about a few of these trips before : Lost Highway, America, two songs about travelling through this nation, by Hank Williams and Simon & Garfunkel (My Pop Life #148  and #130 ).

This trip took us east across the Bay Bridge to Oakland and up Highway 80 past El Cerrito.  Terrible memories of Simon Korner and I being trapped with a weird Vietnam vet back in 1976 – a guy with a head so full of shit that he wouldn’t stop sharing with the two teenagers he picked up hitch-hiking.  As the road stretched on and the miles fell away, the memories faded.  Sacramento.  Then Highway 50 to the lake.  Took about 5 hours I reckon.  What a beautiful place Lake Tahoe is.  Fringed by pine and fir trees, it’s at a high elevation and has a number of top ski resorts in the winter months.  We drove around the California side of the lake to the address on the piece of paper (pre-internet or mobile!!) which read

Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, U.S. 50, Stateline, NV

which meant that we were just inside Nevada and that our hotel was also a casino.  We checked in and looked out of the window, which was like this :

and since it was early evening by then, descended to the restaurant to eat.  Imagine our surprise dear reader when it became clear at some point after sitting down and perusing the menus that we were sitting by a stage and that in 15 minutes, the great Donna Summer was going to come on and sing us a few songs.  Extraordinary.  But that is the thing with these casinos – the whole Nevada experience – a show, then gamble gamble gamble.  We’d gone there for the trip, for the lake, the desert, but Donna was a completely delightful shock.  She had a mini-orchestra with the band and performed all the great disco-era songs – or almost all anyway : Bad Girls, Hot Stuff, On The Radio, I Feel Love, She Works Hard For The Money, Love To Love You Baby… she was amazing and in a normal blog, she would be the point of the story.  This is her in that era, singing with Joe Esposito in Sahara, Lake Tahoe :

Amazing right?  It would only be right and fair to remember that around this time, Donna had made a born-again Christian mistake regarding gays and AIDS/HIV, a statement which she regretted for the rest of her life.  She apologised for it in 1989 – apologised to her significantly gay fans, such as my brother Paul, who felt betrayed after lifting her up in the disco years only to be brushed aside as the terrible disease struck in the mid-80s.  The whole Vegas part of a career is odd I think – like a bubble which exists off from reality, where people go to hide and make money, protected by the Mob.  I’m thinking Elvis, Frank, Louis.  Names so big they don’t need a second name.  Donna wasn’t in that bracket, but she was making somebody serious money and had been for over 10 years.

We were very happy to see her.  One of my favourite artists, regardless of her religious shallows.  The following day Rita and I drove around the lake and visited Carson City the state capital, then on to Virginia City, an old Wild West style town in the Nevada desert.

Great.  So far, so travelogue, with the open goal of a live gig by Donna Summer spurned by the blog.  Ye cannot top that young man surely.

Maybe not, but the point of this chapter is hip hop.  By 1986 we’d all heard The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, the former lifting Chic‘s ‘Good Times‘ note-for-note with a bippity-boppity rap over the top, the latter painting a vivid picture of New York’s urban decay with the memorable punchline :

“It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”

which Rita and I had altered slightly in our childish schtick to –

“it makes me mumble how I keep from going crumble”

I was bumbling along in 1986 at 29 years of age, done my youth cults, been a hippie, a skinhead, a mod, a punk, a glam rocker.  I dabbled in a fashionista sense in the new romantics style without really embracing the music much – Culture Club, yeah, Duran Duran, nah.  I just didn’t like half of the songs of that cult.  I was into Madness & Elvis Costello, Crowded House & Talking Heads, Kate Bush & The Pogues & The Style Council.  A smattering of african pop – Sound D’Afrique LPs and Fela Kuti, some Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Youssou N’Dour, some soul music courtesy of Randy Crawford, Prince & Sade, bit of Dr John, bit of Laurie Anderson.  Y’know.

Then I heard it.

Barrelling along Interstate 80 coming back into Oakland we’d picked up a local radio station.  A local BLACK radio station.  Sadly segregation in the USA is still practised widely even now in 2017, and certainly was in 1986.  Even today there are very VERY few radio stations that play black AND white music in the same programme.  The fact that it is possible for me to write “black music” and assume that everyone knows what is meant by that is actually pretty depressing to be honest.  Like : google ‘Darius Rucker’ for example.  I’ll tackle it on another blog – but I live in this big stupid segregated world with my black family. I’m white.  We’re humans.  But that’s a whole other subject.  At this point in my short sweet life I was going out with an English Bengali woman,  “whatever” – right ?

tic ta tic tic – a dumbadumdum

A bass-line which came from below the car, below the street, and a hi-hat which was a metallic scratch from a distant satellite dish.  Stretched between these two extremes of sound, a scrunchy crunch like a door slamming & a car crashing – the whip-scratch of a vinyl record being dragged back under a stylus on a turntable, all overlaid with a man’s voice talking about his trainers – in rhythm. That’s it.  A drum-kit & a voice – and a deep deep bass that you could hardly hear, but was inside your bones.  If you listen to this track on a computer, it sounds tinny & trivial, although the rap itself is till tougher than leather – heh heh see what I did there…No,  you have to have the bass, on speakers or headphones.  In a car you get all that top & bottom, and to have this crunching space-age noise with all the clear blue sky in-between each element was perfect, my perfect introduction to hip hop, the new sound of America.

Obviously I was late.

Hip hop had been developing very nicely thank you since The Message, especially in the South South Bronx, Brooklyn and the other boroughs of New York City.  Run-D.M.C. were on their 3rd LP by the time this Pauline conversion hit me & the shining light came down from above and converted me to the five elements of hip hop (9 or 4?  5 for me) which I would immerse myself in over the following years.  I was hooked after one song.  This was like the legend of heroin or crack – one puff and you’re hooked For Life Mate!  It was true after all.

Graffiti is one of the five elements of hip hop – 5Pointz, Long Island City

I bought the album Raising Hell within days, with Peter Piper, It’s Tricky, You Be Illin’, the mighty Walk This Way.  It is no exaggeration at all to say that this LP changed my life completely.  If you were mean you might say that I appropriated this black culture and made it mine, stole it, used it, colonised it.  If you were me you might say that this was my culture too, because all the culture I receive and have always received is mine to have and to hold.  It comes from somewhere of course, but where it goes is everywhere.  We’re sharing, aren’t we?

Yes, I was late late late- but what had I missed ?  The first Run-D.M.C. album called simply Run-D.M.C. (above) had been released two years earlier in 1984 and had a tighter, sparser, punchier sound than the hip hop of that era which was still decidedly funky and rolled along with melodic hooks (Kurtis Blow).  They followed that with King Of Rock in 1985.  But even before the 1st album they’d released the seminal single It’s Like That (That’s The Way It IS) with Jason Nevins in 1983 – and this is the groundbreaker sonically.  Those spaces I’d heard on My Adidas were carved out of thin air back in 82-83.

Rev Run, DMC, Jam Master Jay in 1985

Run-D.M.C. come from Hollis in Queens, which is way out past Jamaica, Queens on the Long Island Rail Road (on the way to Long Island where Public Enemy emanate from).   Joseph Simmons (Run) and Darryl McDaniels (DMC) used to rap in the park together, although Simmons had already DJ’d for rapper Kurtis Blow who was managed by his brother Russell Simmons of DefJam Records.  Run and DMC rapped in front of DeeJay Jason Mizell one day in the park – Jazzy Jase he was known at the time – and they all hooked up.  They wouldn’t record anything until they left high school, and Russell Simmons oversaw their first single It’s Like That/Sucker M.C.s at the end of 1983, with Jam Master Jay on the decks as Jason was now known.

The first album broke the mould of hip hop – not only with its sound, but with the style of the band which had come from Jay – Kangol hats, one-colour track suits and sneakers with the laces taken out.  This was “street” and cool, because it came, like later fashion tropes, from prison garb.   But it was the music, the stripped-down, rhythmic interplay between DMC and Reverend Run (who became ordained as an actual minister in 2004), set against the crisp turntabled beats, rockin’ bells & occasional rock guitars produced by Jam Master Jay and producers Russell SimmonsRick Rubin which became an integral part of the bedrock of old-skool hip hop.  I went on to see them live three times in the 1980s, all in London, they were always immense.

hip hop block party in New York City, late 70s

The great tidal wave of hip hop that crashed into my life was partly me doing catch-up on these early days of Run-D.M.C. along with Afrika BambaataKurtis Blow, Boogie Down Productions, LL Cool J, Eric B & Rakim and Public Enemy, Salt’n’Pepa, Roxanne Shanté, Biz Markie, Schooly D, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, The Juice Crew, EPMD and Doug E. Fresh.  A great surge of creativity from the streets.  It was extremely exciting.  And then it was all about keeping up with what was coming out right then in the late 80s – 7A3, N.W.A., De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers, The Beastie Boys, Tone Loc, Queen Latifah, Young M.C., Spoonie Gee, through to Tupac, Ice-T, De La Soul and Master Ace.  I should also mention the British hip hop scene – Richie Rich, Demon Boyz, London Possee, Cookie Crew, Derek B et al.  Rapping even then in an English accent. I would go off a lot of the hip hop in the early 90s after the gold came back, the social comment of PE and KRS-1 got drowned out by the gangsta rap and macho rubbish that followed.  But until 1991 I bought pretty much every single and album that came out, all on vinyl.  Always been an old skool head.

So obsessed did I become with this new music that it occurred to me that it was going to change the world.  A few of us felt the same way – but it must be recorded that the vast majority of people (that I knew at least) :

a) didn’t like hip hop or rap, or whatever it was

b) thought it wouldn’t last longer than a couple of years, and then

c) real music would come back

In contrast to this I was deep in the flow, going forward.  I felt that this was new, like rock ‘n’  roll was new in the 1950s – a new form – and it wasn’t going anywhere.  It was pregnant with possibilities:  musically, as a dance form, in graffiti, in poetry and, I felt very strongly, in my own arena – drama.  It felt inherently dramatic – it felt as if whole dramas could be constructed out of this new speech.  It was thrilling.  My diary for 1986 records a meeting that I had with Paulette Randall in the latter part of this year.  We talked about creating a play about the hippie convoy (my idea) and urban homelessness (Paulette’s idea) using raps between the scenes or maybe even in the scenes (like a musical).  Soon we would take the project to Joint Stock, where I had worked (with Simon Curtis directing) on Deadlines in 1984/85 (see My Pop Life #185 ). Using the same working method, Paulette & I created Sanctuary, a hip-hop musical which would later transfer to Washington D.C.   See My Pop Life #86, My Pop Life #137 for further adventures.

Little did I know that almost 30 years later I’d be watching “Hamilton” at the Public Theatre in New York, before its Broadway run, using all these ideas and more –  like an opera where all the dialogue is rapped.  Brilliant game-changing show. This was my inchoate dream in 1986 – but it had taken this long to become a commercial reality.  It was truly inevitable given the power and dynamism of the form, but perhaps it needed an audience born after 1990 to appreciate it, to allow it to flourish and grow.  Some things change slowly.

I changed quickly though.  I’ve always been a faddist, and I embraced this new fad with an irritating born-again fashion victim’s zeal & passion.  Money would be spent on vinyl.  Gigs would be attended.  Plays would be written.  This LP in particular was hugely influential on my style of rap writing, which would win me writing awards in two years time. Meanwhile Rita & I enjoyed the remainder of our trip to California and got back to London to find that she was expected for work in Manchester the night before.  One bowl of grape nuts later & we were driving up the M6 in my spangled blue Vauxhall Wyvern ‘Eddie’ to Chester Zoo and the set of ‘One By One’.   Rita was in front of the cameras within 20 minutes of arrival as I changed a flat tyre.

As for those Adidas, well, talk about a signpost to the future.  I still have my pair of Adidas Sambas.  It’s impossible now to speak in a generalised way about “hip hop” as you could in the 1980s, it is so diverse and has so many branches & flowers & languages.  Not only do we now live in hip-hop wallpaper, we now live in sneaker ubiquity.  The idea of the label.  Logo as clothing as status.  Never mind beats in a rhyme. The song is a damn commercial for Adidas & Lee denim!!

standin on 2 Fifth St.
funky fresh & yes cold on my feet
with no shoe string in em, I did not win em
I bought em off the Ave with the black Lee denim
I like to sport em that’s why I bought em
a sucker tried to steal em so I caught ’em and I fought ’em
& I walk down the street & I bop to the beat
with Lee on my legs & Adidas on my feet
& now I just standin here shooting the gif
me and D & my Adidas standing on 2 Fifth
My Adidas.
My Adidas.

Tick ta tick tick ~ Badumbadumdum.

The space inside this song is ridiculous.

My Pop Life #196 : Pullin’ Back The Reins – k.d. lang

Pullin’ Back The Reins – k.d. lang

Out of nowhere this gust of wind 
brushed my hair and kissed my skin 
i aimed to hold a bridled pace 
when with love itself i came face to face

She was our queen in the late 80s when we first met – and on one memorable night in Kentish Town she appeared to be made of golden stardust, towering over the venue, the music, the songs and our lives like a goddess.

Like the young soul I am I became curious & interested in country music around the time that the New Musical Express gave away a free C90 cassette taped to the front cover of its weekly paper perhaps the spring of 1988 – bright yellow I recall, with an exciting playlist from artists I have loved ever since : Nanci Griffith, Randy Travis, Patti Loveless, The Judds, Dwight Yoakum, Lyle Lovett and k.d. lang.   I was rehearsing a weird new drama for the BBC called The Black & Blue Lamp and I’d met Kenneth Cranham (see My Pop Life #177 and My Pop Life #46) which in retrospect was a seriously influential moment in my musical development;  indeed it was a portal.  Ken asked me what I was listening to and we shared and enthused, and two weeks later we were standing with beers in The Half-Moon off Putney Bridge, a wonderfully intimate music venue just south of the river Thames where devotees of this ‘New Country’ were gathered to see Lyle Lovett, supported tonight by k.d. lang & the Reclines.  The country music these bands & the others played was stripped down of orchestration & sweeteners and was a return to traditional  sawdust shit-kickin’ down-home country ‘n’ western music – not that I knew the difference then.  All I knew was Glen Campbell (Galveston), Johnny Cash (A Boy Named Sue, Ring of Fire) and Emmylou Harris & Gram Parsons (Love Hurts, Ooh Las Vegas).   Oh and the New Riders of The Purple Sage.  Hippie country.  Nashville is capital of country music but there were & still are many ways to write and perform a country hit, from Willie Nelson to Taylor Swift.

When k.d. lang came onstage she was a boyish scruff with a hot band, fiddle, pedal-steel and all, but when she opened her mouth to sing – my god – the hairs on the back of my neck literally prickled.  Ken turned around to look at me – yes, I nodded, she’s really good.   I particularly remember her rendition of Three Cigarettes (In An Ashtray) that night, a song from Patsy Cline‘s self-titled first LP in 1957, and a rendition that k.d. performed with compelling languid drama and total authority – we were all sat in the palm of her hand listening to this extraordinary instrument – her voice – swooping & sighing with perfection.  Lyle Lovett the headliner didn’t stand a chance after that frankly, although he was entertaining in a wry twinkly way, the night had already been stolen.

Completely converted, I bought the first LP Angel With a Lariat which was basically what I’d just seen live, discovered that the lady was from Calgary on the Canadian prairies and was about to release an LP of classic country songs produced by Nashville royalty Owen Bradley,  producer of most of Patsy Cline‘s great songs, and many others : Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent among them.  k.d. had tempted him out of retirement and it felt like stamp of approval from the conservative establishment, and a tip of the hat from k.d. herself to the classic ‘countrypolitan’ sound of the late 50s/early 60s, invented by Bradley himself where the hoedown fiddles & honky tonk of basic country were replaced by sweet string pads and choice piano licks. Country went mainstream.

k.d. lang & Owen Bradley, 1988

The resulting LP Shadowland, released later in 1988 was sleek, polished, tasteful and entirely superior music, filled with licks from the great session players of Nashville, and an amazing collaboration.  Surprisingly,  when she put together her own country compilation album Reintarnation in 2006 k.d. lang would only include one song from Shadowland – Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes.  Who can say why she had gone off this musical high point ?

The following year though was almost all self-penned songs (with her collaborator Ben Mink from the Reclines) – a collection called Absolute Torch and Twang (1989) which has been a favourite of both Jenny and I ever since.  Often camp country tunes performed with gusto and warble, lovely instrumentation, really good songs.  Luck In Your Eyes got a grammy nod I think but my favourite is this one : Pullin’ Back The Reins, a lovely ballad about reticence & control & dignity, not letting the horse of love gallop madly across the prairie with its mane on fire.  Playing the long game, which we were already doing only a year and a bit into the relationship.

She played the song at The Town & Country Club in Kentish Town in May 1990 along with the rest of the album and other favourites including a few knockouts from Shadowland.  It was a shit-kicking country gig, but with the voice of an angel.  She came out like Elvis Presley, with a raunchy lick of hair and a swagger in her hips, a curl of the lip and a smile in her eyebrows.   She was simply dynamite that night.  We moved closer.  She took the guitar off and sang torch style, the extraordinary voice filling the space.  You could hear a pin drop between notes, we were that spellbound.  The rapture in the room was almost too much to bear and Jenny near-fainted, moving back and then actually outside into the street.  I think she had been converted to the infinite delights of Sappho and she looked at me as I had a quick puff of something while she fanned herself back to earth.  We were both shining with devotion.  Wow.  One of the greatest gigs in my museum of recollections.  Outstanding.

Two years later we were married, living in Los Angeles and there was Ingenue on the new CD player regularly, lush, airbrushed harmonies, full of Constant Craving and Miss Chatelaine and a strong move away from country into exquisite pop music.  k.d. lang hasn’t dropped a beat since then to my ears – guaranteed quality with every song she sings – including the LP with Tony Bennett and the Canadian covers record ‘49th Parallel‘ which has songs by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Ron Sexsmith (but not Rufus Wainwright !?!).   Funny how you lose track of some artists – it was only today that I discovered the 1995 album called All You Can Eat so I bought it and listened.  Magnificent, of course.

The Runyon Canyon hike

So fast-forward to 2009/10 and I’m living with Eamonn up in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, just off Mulholland Drive.  I started getting fit – the perennial obsession – and without wanting to haunt some sweaty bollocks gymnasium or sit on a static bicycle in an surging class of lycra, or join E in some boxing pain, I decided to walk Runyon Canyon every morning.  Whichever way round I went it was downhill all the way down to Fairfax and uphill all the way back to Mulholland and it is a great workout in the sun.  Wildlife too – hawks, eagles, snakes, chipmunks, all kinds of stuff.  Popular with Hollywood types, some of whom run it, while others just walk the dog or gossip with their mates.  There are various routes and one which ends up going around the back of the canyon into a sweet little path with bushes & butterflies & birds, and naturally I often gravitated to that option.

This was where k.d. lang, somewhat larger than in 1990, would sometimes be walking her dog and talking on the cellphone.  It was cool to share a deserted piece of Canyon with her and although I so so wanted to say hi to her, to talk to her about that flash of lightning in our lives, to thank her for the Half Moon Putney, and all the records,  she always turned gently away perhaps to protect herself against intrusion and so I always honoured that choice and let her be.

What a Queen !

My Pop Life #195 : Do What You Gotta Do – Nina Simone

Do What You Gotta Do – Nina Simone

Man I can understand how it might be
Kinda hard to love a girl like me
I don’t blame you much for wanting to be free
I just wanted you to know
I’ve loved you better that your own kin did
From the very start it’s my own fault
What happens to my heart
You see I’ve always known you’d go…

I have avoided writing about Nina for almost 200 entries now.  Daunting, difficult, mysterious and magnificent, she defies easy category or glib biography, but she has touched me over and over since 1976 when I first heard her.  But now in October 2017 I feel compelled to attempt at least an introduction to the most haunted, most incredible, most heart-breaking performer I ever saw live – on three occasions during the 1980s.

The first occasion I was with my girlfriend Mumtaz Keshani at the Barbican Centre in London.  We’d come to pay homage to the great jazz and blues singer in one of the great halls of England.  It was 1982.  Nina was guided out onto the stage by a male assistant/stage manager/manager/husband?  She settled at the piano and scowled at us.  She wasn’t in the mood.    Over the years I’ve come to realise that she rarely was.  Funnily enough her LP Live In Concert 1964 has one song ‘Go Limp’ when she is clearly enjoying herself.  But this is unusual.  Nina didn’t really specialise in happy songs, or indeed in happiness.  She famously hated My Baby Just Cares For Me which is by some measure her most positive track, mainly because it never earned her any money.   The bouncy jazz standard was written by Donaldson & Kahn and recorded by Simone on her first album in 1958, but languished in obscurity until it was used for a Chanel Number 5 commercial in the mid-1980s and the LP was subsequently re-released by Charly Records, and the single was a hit.  It became a dance-floor favourite, and still is.  (It closed my sister’s 40th birthday party celebration for example, a fact which my brother Paul enjoyed immensely).  But when Nina played it live she usually passed some caustic remark “here’s the song you wanna hear…”

Soon into the show at the Barbican we realised that this was going to be a very particular kind of concert.  Her performance perfectly matched her mood and thus was extremely honest, but her mood was quixotic and combative.  She didn’t appear to be capable of pretending or indeed of singing anything unless she really wanted to.  We got renditions of some of her angry songs – mainly from the 1960s when she was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement – Mississippi Goddam (“this is a show tune….the show hasn’t been written for it yet”), See-Line Woman (join in – you can do better than that!)  and the Brecht/Weill Pirate Jenny which was terrifying and magnificent.  The audience cheered and the ghost of a smile troubled her heavy features.  But actually she then stood up to take the applause and proceeded to walk slowly back offstage with some assistance.  The band gamefully struck up a jazz  shuffle but the gaping hole on the stage was undisguised.  Would she come back?  When Nina appeared a few minutes later I swear I could see a slight stain on her blue full-length dress, like water (she took pills) or vodka (she took vodka).   This time she stared at us for a longer period of time and decided we needed a good talking to.  I cannot remember what she said but it was painful and bruised and brooding.  She appeared to resent being there.  Forced to sing songs for money.  She started to play the opening cadences of Randy Newman’s Baltimore from the 1978 LP of the same name –

a fantastic record which includes Everything Must Change, Balm In Gilead, and the hugely affecting Judy Collins song My Father.  Baltimore is one of Newman’s best songs and opens with a simple piano phrase and a sad lonely image, perfect for Nina  :

beat-up little seagull on a marble stair

tryin’ to find the ocean, lookin’ everywhere

when she suddenly stopped dead and announced that she wasn’t playing that song, it was written by a white man.  The atmosphere changed.  It was uneasy, it was thrilling, it was a tightrope walk and we didn’t know if she, or we, would fall.  A few people left which made the rest of us dig in and wait for the undoubted moment or two of illumination which would surely come.  And sure enough among the huge wobbles and disappointing shrugs Nina Simone became more magisterial with each passing minute, one moment surveying us like insects, the next singing her sobbing bluesy delivery with real pain.

My fantasy had been, of course, that she would be the singer-songwriter/interpreter of the classics that I had discovered on the LP Little Girl Blue.  Recorded in 1958 on Bethlehem Records it contains that song My Baby Just Cares For Me, plus Love Me or Leave Me, Little Girl Blue, I Loves You Porgy, You’ll Never Walk Alone.  It’s the classic introduction to the artist.  When she made it she was 26 years old and living in New York.  We’d fallen in love with the record and played it A LOT.  It was much later that I discovered that Nina had been bought out of her royalties for $3000 – about 25 thousand in today’s money – and her decision I understand.  She moved to Colpix Records immediately after this, but when My Baby Just Cares For Me eventually became a huge hit in the 80s she didn’t get a cent.

Back at The Barbican Nina was delivering a sulky version of something I didn’t know, turning in a perfunctory rendition of something I did, and causing quite a number of the audience to leave.  By the time we were half-empty it felt like a defiant decision to stay – those of us who did stay witnessed that rare thing – an artist delivering a perfectly honest live performance, a performance that was a mirror of exactly where she was at in her life – and it wasn’t a good place.  Tired of hiding.  Tired of being managed.  Tired of singing for money.   Towards the end she cheered up and had us clapping and singing along, and she bowed in faux elegance, strangely dainty but unsteady, proud and deeply vulnerable, bloody-minded and unrepentant.

We were on our feet clapping and whistling.  She didn’t come back for an encore.  We knew she wouldn’t.  I can’t remember the rest of the setlist, but she didn’t sing I Loves You Porgy, or Little Girl Blue or Love Me or Leave Me or my very first love : Do What You Gotta Do.

I bought the single from a Soho record shop in my first year at LSE – late 76/early 77 – when I was educating myself in soul music and english law.   The song was the B-side to Ain’t Got No, I Got Life which a mash-up of two songs from the musical Hair and had become a hit single (#2 in the UK) in 1968.  Her performance is extraordinary.  The song was written by the inimitable Jimmy Webb (Galveston, Wichita Lineman) for Johnny Rivers in 1967 and Nina covered it a year later with the same arrangement but with a considerably heavier delivery.  The words are dredged out from her very soul of her bones as she delivers the frankly pathetic final line of the chorus :

Come on back and see me when you can

and she changes the nature of the song from a paean dedicated to a wild sweet firehorse of a free-spirited girl, to a tragic hymn for a weepy slumped & broken woman waving her philandering man off the premises, heartbroken.  It is an extraordinary performance and it has haunted me from the very first time I heard it, and throughout the years since.

It is also, strangely, Nina Simone’s only “soul” record really, based on the arrangement.  She was a jazz singer, a blues singer, a folk singer, a show-tunes singer, a ballad singer, just a singer – and she preferred to be known as a “Freedom Singer”.    I’m fairly sure I put this song on many soul compilation tapes – c90s – and almost certainly on the soul tape I made for Jenny not long after we started ‘dating’.  God knows why – it is utterly inappropriate.

For the young, the young-at-heart and those interested in 21st century pop,  Do What You Gotta Do was sampled heavily on Kanye West’s song Famous in 2016, appearing on his LP The Life of Pablo, although I should note that it isn’t the Nina Simone version, it sounds rather like someone has re-recorded it.

Over the years, as I collected her LPs from the simple beauty of Nina & Piano in 1969 to the majesty of the arrangements on 1965’s I Put A Spell On You (which includes Feeling Good and Ne Me Quitte Pas) I realised that whatever the song, whatever the genre, the same bruised quality is there – the voice wavers, worries, and hangs in the air like a teardrop about to fall from a melancholy eye.  Ne Me Quitte Pas is the Jacques Brel song which is one of her signature performances and which dear Maureen Hibbert sang for me at my 60th birthday party.  In French.  Quite magnificently !

What we are listening to here, every time, is disappointment.  The disappointment of not getting into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, her dream, because she was black, and forging a career as a cocktail lounge singer instead in Atlantic City, playing blues, jazz, classical, calling herself Nina rather than use her real name Eunice Waymons and risk her mother finding out that she had fallen so low.  She carried this disappointment all her life and, along with the anger that flowed deep beneath, it imbues every song she sang.   But there is something else.   She had awful luck with partners, both business and romantic.  The royalties she never earned, the sometime abusive marriage to Andrew Stroud who became her manager.  But again her wounds seem deeper than this too.  There are terrible stories of her walking naked through hotel corridors holding a knife, stories of despair so deep, and sadness so enveloping that her very survival seems to be a triumph.  Watching her walk this line onstage, so vulnerable, so defiant, so talented and yet so churlish was always an extremely moving experience.  She demanded worship, but we applauded her bravery.

I saw her twice more after that show and the same feelings were repeated : awe, concern, amazement and yes, disappointment.  She could share that all right.  The second time was at The Dominion Theatre in London’s Tottenham Court Road with Rita Wolf in 1986 when she stood at the front of the stage and shouted at us all with her hands on her hips, the Priestess of Soul, the Queen of Disdain commanding us to kneel and pray.  She was immense.  She was so much better, physically, mentally, spiritually than she’d been in 1982.  Spellbinding is how I remember it.

The final time I saw her was at Ronnie Scott’s in 1987, again with the small band, drums, bass and Nina on piano.  It was intimate and all the more excruciating for it.  She was extremely perfunctory and tired, complaining about the heat, the theft of her music royalties and other betrayals, her hands playing those heavy chords which so often supported her weary aching voice.  It was like witnessing something private and painful, but was of course, public and captured for all eternity on the LP Live At Ronnie Scotts released that same year.

We are thrilled when our heroes and heroines put their souls on the line, bare all for their art, sob into the microphone or disintegrate onstage before our very eyes.  All for the price of a ticket.  But is it an act ?  Or a craft ?   Nobody can fall apart every night on cue can they ?

Well yes they can – ask my wife Jenny Jules who I’ve seen do it night after night.  It breaks my heart.  Jenny saw Nina towards the end of her life at the Festival Hall when she lit a cigarette onstage and nobody dared ask her to put it out.   Nina Simone had the craft as a singer, a songwriter, an interpreter, a performer – but she couldn’t hide her pain when it was real.  And when it wasn’t there, she didn’t act it – perhaps she couldn’t at this late stage.  Her renditions were often perfunctory and irritable.  Nevertheless, we still lined up to pay to see her.  She took medication for depression for most of her life and appeared, from the outside at least, to stagger from disaster to despair and back.  She lived in Barbados, Liberia, Holland, France and Switzerland after quitting the USA.  She counted Lorraine Hansbury, Miriam Makeba and Martin Luther King among her friends.  She used to threaten people with a shotgun and once fired it at a neighbour’s pool, hitting a teenage boy.   I think on reflection she was disappointed primarily with herself, like we all are, and couldn’t quite pretend not to be.

I have more to write about Nina Simone, but it’ll have to wait for now.  While searching for the pictures to accompany this blog I found this jewel of Nina enjoying her breakfast in bed somewhere in the world, and smiling.  I’m glad she had some genuine moments of joy as well.

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