My Pop Life #78 : Then Came The Last Days Of May – Blue Öyster Cult

Featured image

Then Came The Last Days Of May   –   Blue Öyster Cult

They’re OK, the last days of May, but I’ll be breathing dry air

I’m leaving soon, the others are already there

You wouldn’t be interested in coming along ?  Instead of staying here…

It’s said the west is nice this time of year, it’s what they say…

Featured image

One of the towering theme songs of my adolescence, Blue Öyster Cult‘s Then Came The Last Days Of May seems an appropriate choice on May 31 2015 as I write this blog at 5.00am.  Evocative, stirring, tragic and beautiful, it is the last track on BÖC’s first self-titled LP.   I carried this LP around the competitive corridors of the Lower Sixth when taste began to carve out the cliques.  New kid Andy Shand had introduced Andy Holmes (“Sherlock”) to the Cult as he was a Seaford clan member, taking the train into Lewes for school.  Andy Shand was also the bass player in Rough Justice, the band I had joined who rehearsed at Waterlilies, Conrad Ryle‘s place in Kingston.   I’ll save the mighty Rough Justice for another post, but suffice it to say that Andy Shand (he never did have a nickname) and I were so enamoured of this LP that we included a section of “Before The Kiss, A Redcap” (at 1.39 it’s a bass riff naturally enough) in a Rough Justice song that had a nice indulgent instrumental middle section (and also featured the riff from You Really Got Me), which I think guitarist Andrew Taylor (Tat – ) had suggested, with Conrad’s approval.

Featured image

We all walked around school with little badges on, the cross and hook symbol that the band used on all their LPs – there were 3 LPs out already in 1974 – in Greek mythology the sign of Kronus, King of Titan and Father of Zeus – and furthermore, symbol of the chemical element for lead, the heaviest of metals.  For Blue Öyster Cult were a very streamlined and polished heavy metal band, one of the first.    They were the first band to use an umlaut (ö) over one of the letters in their name (Motörhead, Queensrÿche, Mötley Crüe would follow) – and as any German speaker or Arsenal fan would know, an umlaut changes an Oh into an Er.  Özil – the German international World Cup winner who currently plays for the Arsenal and won the FA Cup yesterday v Aston Villa – is pronounced Erzil.   But at school we never went around saying Blue Erster Cult.  Sounds stupid right?   Manager Sandy Pearlman came up with the name, thought it conjured up Wagner.   What it all meant was that we thought we were the grooviest kids in the school, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.   We were pretentious twerps.   But the band was undoubtedly great, and many many years later, the records still hold up as crisp riff-laden metallic shiny rock craftsmanship.  Really metal is not my thing – nor is rock – I never took a shine to Deep Purple (except for the incredible Fireball) or Black Sabbath, and the bluesey side of guitar rock never grabbed me much either (Stones, Zepp, Free etc).  I was a pop tart awaiting my conversion to soul and dub reggae.  And hip hop.  But these days I can listen to anything and find joy in it – classical, country, metal, folk, electro-pop, balkan gypsy, trad jazz, disco, soukous, mbaquanga, samba, salsa, son.  Bring me your music !

Featured image

This song is tragically a true story.   Then Came The Last Days Of May was written by lead guitarist Donald Roeser – known as Buck Dharma – it tells the tale of a group of lads going west to score a huge dope deal, : “each one had the money in his pocket to go out and buy himself a brand new car”  crossing the border to Mexico in a rented Ford and being murdered for their money.   The tragedy is played out in the guitar solos which open and close the song, and comment on the story throughout.   The playing is impeccable, the song immense.   Of course, being the only ballad on that great first LP, it’s the one I hold dearest to my heart.  You should know me by now !    It still plays a part in the band’s live shows today.   We worshipped at the altar of this song in the mid-seventies.  Like a biblical tale of temptation in the desert and the one who turned down the chance to go with them, and survived to write a song about it.    The rest of the band – the classic 70s line-up – were Eric Bloom on lead vocals, brothers Albert and Joe Bouchard on drums and bass, and Allen Lanier on rhythm guitar.

Featured image

They hailed from Long Island and had a long gestation – from The Soft White Underbelly in the late 60s through The Stalk Forrest Group who issued one sought-after single What Is Quicksand? (which of course I have) before settling at Pearlman’s insistence on Blue Öyster Cult.   The name stuck and so did the music.

Their 2nd LP is called Tyranny and Mutation and is more of the same tight dark melodic tremendosity:

Featured image

Their 3rd LP is probably my favourite – Secret Treaties – a proto-metal manifesto with strange lyrics and twisted muscular riffs :

Featured image

Their 4th LP was a mighty live album called On Your Feet Or On Your Knees which is a stunning testimony to their tightness and power:

Featured image

then came the mighty Agents Of Fortune in 1976 with the huge sound and big hit “Don’t Fear The Reaper“.   One of Jenny’s favourite songs.   Rifftastic!

Featured image

I’ve never seen them live, but one day perhaps I will be granted that treat.  There was a period when they were my absolute favourite band in the universe.  I still like them.  But I didn’t follow their followers into metal – although I have soft spots for Metallica and Slipknot – most of those bands don’t have the softer melodic side that the Cult have.   They wrote great songs.  I followed them through albums 5 and 6 :  Spectres and Mirrors and then they faded as I grew into Stax and Channel One, DefJam and Blue Note.

This time of year is my favourite.  We’ve already moved into Gemini, my sign but we’re not quite in June.   They’re OK the last days of May.   Hats off to Blue Öyster Cult.

Featured image

guitarmy

My Pop Life #77 : Shirt – Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

Featured image

Shirt   –   Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

Good morning, could I have this shirt cleaned express, please?
Yes, that’ll be three weeks, dearie,

three weeks?   But the sign outside says 59-minute cleaners
Yes, thats just the name of the shop love, we take three weeks to do a shirt

Just the name of the shop?
Yes, that’s if theres an R in the month otherwise its four weeks
Your name does begin with a P, doesnt it?
Well, no, actually, of course its, uh

Well, that’ll be five weeks, then,

five weeks? Blimey !

Featured image

The above absurd dialogue nestled in the central section of this “song” – a series of sketches and musical ideas linked only by the title – “Shirt“.   I never fail to enjoy this song when I hear it, there are elements of true genius at work.    The man’s voice you can hear doing the interviews on Willesden Green – “yes brrr it is a bit chilly..” is the one and only Vivian Stanshall, lead singer of the Bonzos, professional glint-eyed fool, ginger geezer, effete prankster, florid purveyor of onomatopoeiac confabulations, and educated yobbo.    Britain’s zaniest pervert.

I first saw him as a youth, watching our black and white television, a show entitled “Do Not Adjust Your Set” on Thames TV in 1968.   This comedy sketch show starred David Jason, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Denise Coffey and Terry Jones – three of whom would go on to form Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969.

Featured image

Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Denise Coffey, Eric Idle, David Jason

 The house band on Do Not Adjust Your Set were the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band who performed one song per week, and whose performances were notable for the large number of goofy props and comedy eyeballs, fluffy sticks and signs saying “Where?”  and “Why Not?”. They were a seemingly unrehearsed surreal happening marshalled with charm and glee by the suave Vivian Stanshall.

Featured image

I loved them.  When I discovered that they actually made albums I went and bought one called Tadpoles which was a compilation of the TV stuff.  In 1968 they’d had a hit single called I’m The Urban Spaceman written by Neil Innes and produced by Paul McCartney under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth, with The Canyons Of Your Mind on the B-side (“in the wardrobe of my soul, in the section labelled “Shirts”).   The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were a mixture of many things – musicians Neil Innes, Rodney Slater, Legs Larry Smith and Sam Spoons and mischief-makers Vernon Dudley Bowhay-Nowell, Vivian Stanshall and Roger Ruskin-Spear could all play something musical and based their sound on trad jazz, 1920s pop and vaudeville croons, peppered with music-hall and of-the-time psychedelia, all overlaid by comedy and foolishness.  They rarely did a straight song in a straight way, although Tubas In The Moonlight may be the one exception – on the same LP.

Featured image

The early LPs – Gorilla, The Doughnut In Granny’s Greenhouse, Keynsham, and Tadpoles are endlessly listenable nonsense, both musical and funny.  For me the peak moments were always provided by Stanshall’s invented posh accent (described as talking complete nonsense at a Buckingham Palace Garden Party).  In this track he actually interviews members of the general public about “Shirts” and the results are there for all to hear.

Featured image

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band

The Bonzos split and reformed at least seven times after 1970, and their most recent incarnation Three Bonzos and A Piano starred my friend and band member Charlotte Glasson’s dad David Glasson on The Piano.  I went to see them a few times in the Brighton area and their ramshackle anarchy and sense of unrehearsed surrealism was still intact and a joy to witness, even though Stanshall had passed and Innes was elsewhere.

I had the opportunity to meet Viv Stanshall in the late 1970s and I grabbed it.  By then we were all listening to the John Peel Show late night on Radio One, playing punk, reggae, and some spoken word segments entitled Sir Henry At Rawlinson End, with all characters voiced by Vivian Stanshall.   Some shrewd folk were taping it straight from the radio – and it remains one of the finest and funniest things I’ve ever heard.  Sir Henry was an old-school colonial racist and Rawlinson End was his country pile inhabited by a random selection of strange characters including Mrs E and Old Scrotum, the Wrinkled Retainer.  Vivian was lined up to perform the entire show at the LSE Old Theatre.  I think it was 1978.  Someone from the LSE student rag “Beaver” had to go down and interview Mr Stanshall in his houseboat near Roehampton.  Crikey.  I stepped into the breach and took directions down.

Featured image

Viv Stanshall on the Thames towpath in 1978

The boat was called The Searchlight and was moored near Shepperton.   The door was answered by Pamela Ki Longfellow his american girlfriend, I was made a cup of tea, introduced to Viv, sat down and off we went.  I recorded the man talking to me for almost three hours – about Leigh-On-Sea in Essex, teddy boys, rococo theatres, turtles and “losing the cosy” before Pamela broke it up and said that Vivian was feeling tired.  It was probably the most thrilling three hours of my life up to that point.   What joy I took away with me.  Sitting with my hero in his house, doing comedy voices, talking nonsense, making me laugh, making me feel stupid, but mainly, making me feel happy.  I asked him about Shirt and he revealed that he had done all those interviews.  What a joyous man.

Featured imageI travelled back to London in a bit of a daze.  I still have the C120 tape that I interviewed Viv on, my chirpy young gauche voice and Vivian’s world-weary cultured tones and quips.

The interview was written up for the student paper, and a sold-out Old Theatre welcomed Vivian Stanshall a few weeks later.   I distinctly remember two things he said to me – first when he asked me what The Old Theatre was like, and I immediately answered “It’s definitely cosy” – he arched his eyebrow and quizzed further : “Ah.  But is it rococo?”   Then when I tried to ask him about Sir Henry and those wonderful stream-of-consciousness narratives therein he held up his hand with a smile : “Nonsense dear boy, I worked on those pieces for bloody hours, days even.  They are painstakingly put together and worked on, re-written and polished…stream of consciousness my arse!!”

Featured image

 He was difficult to work with sometimes, became full of rage in later life, disowned the LP of “Sir Henry…” as being rushed out and unready – and in truth it never did match the peerless John Peel sessions somehow – and eventually died in a house-fire in Muswell Hill in 1995.  A true and endearing National Treasure, massively influential, intelligent, compassionate, bored and funny as fuck.  There’s a fellow out there – Michael Livesley – doing “Sir Henry at Rawlinson End” live – I saw it a few years back and can reveal that it is a loving and very good tribute to the man.  As for the Bonzos, their remnants appear and re-appear, split and re-form and will doubtless continue to do so.  They have also brought countless joy to many.

My Pop Life #76 : St Matthew Passion – Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott – J.S. Bach

Featured image

Kommt, Ihr Töchter, Helft Mir Klagen   (St Matthew Passion)   –   J.S. Bach

Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott  (St Matthew Passion)   –   J.S. Bach

Erbarme dich, mein Gott,
Um meiner Zähren Willen!
Schaue hier, Herz und Auge
Weint vor dir bitterlich.
Erbarme dich, erbarme dich!

Have mercy, my God,
for the sake of my tears!
Look here, heart and eyes
weep bitterly before You.
Have mercy, have mercy!

I cannot remember where and when I first heard this piece of music.   Or why.   It wasn’t the first piece of Bach I bought – that was the Brandenburg Concertos, which I saw live in The Hollywood Bowl when I was 19 years old (along with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – clearly it was pop classic night).    Then I think the Orchestral Suites were next (includes Air On A G String) which a gang of us went to see in Brighton Festival around 1999, sat in the front row of the balcony of St George’s Church, the first few notes of that famous section float up to us from the ensemble at which point Luke Cresswell turns to us and whispers “Tune!“.    But anyway, at some point in my late 20s/early 30s I bought John Eliot Gardiner‘s version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on CD.   It is my favourite piece of classical music, along with Chopin’s Ballade #1 (My Pop Life #9)and Debussy’s Prelude A L’Aprés-Midi d’un Faun (My Pop Life #87).

Bach is the daddy of classical music – his output, between 1708 and 1750 is immense, including organ works (Toccata & Fugue), violin concertos, over 200 sacred cantatas, 2 passions, a Great Mass, the Goldberg Variations, Brandenburg Concertos, Cello Suites,  and Orchestral suites among many other pieces.  He is considered to be a baroque composer.  Everything I’ve heard (about 10% of his output at a guess) is extraordinarily beautiful, rich and contains great depth of feeling.  It is not complex music (to my ears) but it is endlessly rewarding.  Don’t worry I’m not going to post the entire two and a half hours of the Passion here – but you should hear it once before you die.  You’ll hear it plenty of times after you die I’m quite certain of that, but the experience of listening to it whilst alive is quite excellent, and highly recommended.   But I will post the opening Kommt Ihr Tochter which is going to blow your head off, and also Erbarme Dich… which is transcendent.

Being a Passion, this means that the lyrics (the libretto, or oratorio) are taken from the New Testament of the Bible.  I’ve never actually followed the story, and I’ve heard the music many many times, I always get lost in the music and forget completely about the story it is telling – the life and particularly I suspect, the death of Christ.   It really sounds like church music though, perhaps one of the reasons I like it – the hymnal qualities, the shapes of the chords.  The layered choral effect of the opening Kommt Ihr Tochter Helft Mir Klagencome you daughters, help me lament – played by two orchestras and three choirs is probably the most fantastic and exciting piece of music ever written.  Thus it starts at the end of the story with the daughters of Zion weeping over the dead body of the lamb, our saviour.

I always heard this piece of music in my head when I was writing New Year’s Day (NYD) (See My Pop Life #75).   Not for any intellectual reason, but because it has an immense feeling of something about to happen, something huge and undefinable.  In NYD, our two boys have survived a terrible tragedy at the beginning of the film, Christmas comes & goes with funerals, memorial services, counselling and piles of wreaths outside the school gates.  When the final death happens on New Year’s Eve, the two boys arrange to meet on the clifftop the following day.  In the first draft of the film (set in Lewes, East Sussex) they cycled from Lewes to Eastbourne, (Beachy Head more specifically a 600 foot cliff) – perhaps we’d have used Seaford Head and the Seven Sisters – but a decent 15-20 miles cycle ride by two teenage boys with this massive dramatic music of Bach supporting them.  It is a matter of life and death for them.

The second piece – Erbarme Dich Mein Gotthave pity on me my god – is just pure emotion.  Sung by a counter-tenor usually – a man with a high voice – this short piece of music really transcends intellect and debate, description and enthusiasm.  I would like it to be played at my funeral as the most beautiful piece of music I had the pleasure to hear in  my life.  It makes me weep every time I hear it, unless I’m washing up at the time.   Joke.    Now, I’m not religious as you know (see My Pop Life 24 : Faure’s Requiem) but I like to play classical music on a Sunday morning, whether it be religious or not, an LP of Chopin’s Etudes, a Mozart or Brahms symphony, Erik Satie, or some Bach.  Whatever my newest discovery is – currently Corelli a contemporary of Johan Sebastian.   It makes the day seem without stress.   Often on Sunday mornings I’m off to work – the film industry isn’t christian – but one always notices.  Sundays – or Saturdays – or Fridays – doesn’t really matter – but one day should be for resting.   St Matthew Passion is played more than any other piece of music in our house on a Sunday.

I’ve never seen SMP live.  I will though.  One day.   In the meantime, I have these….

John Eliot Gardiner conducts The Monteverdi Choir, The London Oratory Junior Choir, and The English Baroque Soloists :  

Kommt, Ihr Töchter, Helft Mir Klagen

Erbarme Dich sung by Michael Chance, John Eliot Gardiner conducting :

Erbarme Dich with Karl Richter conducting, Julia Hamari singing:

My Pop Life #75 : Still Life – Suede

Featured image

Still Life   –   Suede

…this still life is all I ever do

there by the window, quietly killed for you

this glass house, my insect life

crawling the walls under electric light

I’ll go into the night, into the night…

In 1994 Jenny and I were living in West Hollywood, just south of Beverley Boulevard, along from the Beverly Center.  We’d eat breakfast in Jans.  Lie around in the sunny cactus-filled backyard, studying script pages for endless auditions.   Learning lines.  All the American actors were off the page.  5% extra to push you over the line.   But.  Didn’t go over the line.   Stayed unemployed all year.  Analysed and over-analysed why work wasn’t landing.  And, eventually, wrote a raging angry nihilistic screenplay.

Featured image

The 2nd Suede LP was called Dog Man Star.   We listened to it’s gloomy sexual gothic splendour endlessly that year and the next.  The guitar by Bernard Butler was exquisite, the songs were inspired by all elements of Bowie and others : Bush, Floyd, Scott Walker, and actually delivered, the voice of Brett Anderson really carries the whole album as a glorious doomed romantic slice of dark glamour, finer than anything by Oasis, the Manic Street Preachers or Blur from the same period.

Featured imageSuede’s debut LP from 1993 was very good indeed, again evoking the spirit of Bowie, in particular the decadent drug-wasted sexual nihilism of Diamond Dogs.  There were a handful of huge expressive singles : Animal Nitrate, The Drowners, Metal Mickey.  But for Jenny and I, receiving cultural information from London, carefully labelled ‘The London Suede’ in case there was any confusion (actually a lawsuit), the 2nd LP was even better.  By then Bernard Butler had left the band but his music and guitar playing remained.  Standouts were the superb single The Wild Ones and central towering track The Asphalt World – nine and a half proggy minutes long, full of drama and atmosphere, beautifully produced (by Ed Buller, after much tension with Butler) – and the final track Still Life just blew us away with its orchestrated splendour.  But more than any of this, Still Life became the unofficial soundtrack to my screenplay for “New Year’s Day“.

New Year’s Day is loosely based on a conversation I had with Simon Korner in New Mexico in 1976 while we were hitch-hiking across North America.  We speculated on defying fate and history and writing the future – writing down a ten-year plan for us both with a detailed itinerary of what each year would hold – where we would go, which languages we would learn,Featured imagewhich instruments would be played, which books read.   We felt that there may have to be some kind of impartial judges, for it would become a competition quite quickly – who’d done it, who hadn’t.   I added a suicide pact to this cocktail, one last year to complete the list of tasks before jumping off the cliff on New Year’s Day.   The dynamic of the two lead boys was taken from my personal life, one boy from a single-parent family with missing father and younger needy siblings, mentally fragile mother;   one boy from a middle class 2-parent family which was more distant.   So the second boy was really out of my imagination and didn’t originate either with Simon or Conrad Ryle in reality.   The character of Stephen in the screenplay, and as played brilliantly by Bobby Barry in the film is insouciant, nihilistic and isolated, intelligent, lonely and destructive.  He is trapped in a kind of still life after the film’s opening ten minutes, and this song for me painted his interior monologue, and the deathly stillness at the heart of the story perfectly.   If you make a suicide pact with your best friend, the film explores what it is that keeps you going, what it is that makes you stop.  It’s a kind of frozen moment in time – a still life.

Featured image

Of course that meant that it would never be on the film’s eventual soundtrack, along with my other signature tunes – the opening of The St Matthew Passion by Bach, Erbarme Dich from the same piece, Focus ll, Roxy Music.   But the disappointments of NYD are for another day.   For today I salute the dark bitter heart of the screenplay and its furious teenage manifesto, its refusal to grow up and be sensible, its rage at the joke of death, and life.   I’ve read since that the song is a bored housewife scenario, while the video (below) has an old man contemplating mortality but it’s my song and I can make it whatever I want.  It’s Bobby Barry in New Year’s Day with his pet insect vivarium, plotting silently and sadly.   Andrew Lee-Potts who played Jake (ie me) would have a different song.

Featured image

We eventually saw Suede at The Royal Albert Hall, probably in 1995.    They were brilliant.

 

And in an acoustic set in 2013, the song stands up as a complete classic 

My Pop Life #74 : We Major – Kanye West ft. Nas, Really Doe & Tony Williams

Featured image

We Major   –   Kanye West  ft. Nas, Really Doe & Tony Williams

*

you mu-fuckers better do your job and roll up, and watch how we roll up

An’ I can’t control it, I can’t hold it, it’s so nuts –

I take a sip of that gnac I wanna fuck

I take a hit of that chronic I wanna fuck  – But really what’s amazin’

is how I keep blazing, towel under the door, we smoke until the days end

puff puff and pass don’t fuck up rotation, Hypnotiq for Henny ?

now nigga that’s a chaser, turn nuttin to somethin now pimpin that’s a saviour

Best things are green now pimpin’ get your paper

High off the ground from stair to skyscraper

cool out thinkin’ we local – c’mon homie we major

We Major…

Kanye West restored my faith in hip hop.  Being an old-skool purist for years, disillusioned with gangsta rap and the 90s scene I turned away and only paid cursory attention – to Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, PE and little bits and smatterings that escaped.   But Kanye West was something else.

Featured imageHe has now made (May 2015) six LPs on the bounce starting in 2003 which have individually been astoundingly good, and collectively represent the most important artist of the 21st century.  Kanye comes with original ideas, smooth flows, comedy, orchestration, samples, pop, raps, and pretty much paved the way for a number of 21st century musical innovations and trends.  His last LP Yeezus (2013) was monumental in its sound design and another game-changer – but this track I’ve chosen right here is a personal favourite from the second album Late Registration.  Not an obvious pick, not a single, but somehow this is the one that got under our skin chez Brown/Jules.   Already you can hear the music straining on the first few bars – the sound of a sound trying to escape from its boundaries, pushing against the barriers, smooth, powerful, strong and melodic.  Good chords.   The hook chorus is written above, rapped by old Chicago buddy Really Doe.    I always thought the last line was “too low thinkin’ we local“…  Rap Genius website has it as “cool out, thinkin’ we local…“.   I prefer my version because of the word-play on low and local.   Oh well.    Kanye employed Jon Brion – multi-instrumentalist and orchestrator – to help him on this LP.   Brion had produced Brad Mehldau, Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright and written the music for the films Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before co-producing Late Registration in 2005.   He did a splendid job.

Featured image

Summer 2005 I was in Bude, North Cornwall making series 2 of Julia DavisNighty Night.  We had the run of this gorgeous clifftop house which became The Trees Therapy Centre.  I was Jacques, the main therapist and counsellor, a kind of abusive self-centred hippy twerp.  Really enjoyed this part very much.   Jenny and I had watched the first series and howled with laughter – we thoroughly enjoyed the dark humour and the character of Jill in particular.   At the audition on Tottenham Court Road Julia Davis had put me through my paces, and when I appeared to be a possible choice, called in Rebecca Front from a nearby room (surely I’m mis-remembering this?) and they proceeded to improvise scenarios with me, both of them in character with Julia as narcissistic sociopath Jill and Rebecca as zero-self-esteem fusspot Cathy, constantly undermined and manipulated by Jill.   It was as much as I could do not to burst out loud laughing (lol) as they created mini-scenes for me to exist in with them.   I stayed manfully in character as not-recovering sex-addict Jacques – a kind of po-faced ultra-serious egotist who nodded sagely at other’s suggestions while not really listening to them at all.   And got the job.

Featured image

Georgie, Ruth, Ralph, Julia, Miranda, Bude 2005

We were all in a little B&B in Bude – the main cast were all either massively successful, or about to be massively successful.  Angus Deayton, always slightly bemused that you’re actually talking to him, Rebecca Front, genuinely lovely and funny lady, Ruth Jones, busy writing her masterpiece in her spare time which turned out to be Gavin & Stacey, Miranda Hart who turned out to be Miranda!, and Mark Gatiss who turned out to be Mark Gatiss.   Nighty Night also starred my old friend Felicity Montagu, Georgie Glen and Llewella Gideon.  We had an absolute blast.

Featured imageOn the first morning there, Julia took me to lunch in Bude where she established that I was married with no cats.   She is a completely unpretentious, funny, sweet and lovely lady and bright as a button.   We almost all worked every day.   I had extensions put into my hair for Jacques and tended to wear floppy hippyish clothes.   The summer was glorious, the views spectacular, I had worked with half the crew before and we had a laugh.  Not really my world the TV comedy scene -it’s pretty competitive – but I’m terribly happy that I’ve been invited into it on a few occasions – (Him & Her, PramFace) – being funny is hard work and I love the challenge.    I have total respect for Julia – I think she is one of the most original and talented people working in the UK, and I thank her for letting me be a part of Nighty Night.

Featured image

Regarding Kanye, I could have chosen any number of his songs to feature in my patchwork quilt of a musical auto-biography:  Gold Digger, Diamonds From Sierra Leone, Flashing Lights, No Church In The Wild, Black Skinhead, Blood On The Leaves, Jesus Walks, Through The Wire….   He’s attracted a lot of hate recently and over the years mainly because of his antics, but sometimes simply because he is a successful black man.   Obama called him a jackass “off-mic” and Kanye enjoys stunts which can backfire.   He has been banging his head on the glass ceiling for a few years now, documented on Yeezus, indeed all his music is like a kind of running commentary on his achievements, desires and obstacles.   I always swing in and defend him on social media, not because he needs me, but because the mob mentality really bothers me, I like to poke a stick into its spokes.   All I know is that when the history of 21st Century music is written Kanye West will be Chapter One.   And when the history of 21st century TV comedy is written, Julia Davis will feature.  They’ve both been hugely influential.   My Pop Life introduces them to each other.   Big up!

Featured image

The final verse on We Major is penned by Nas – who changed the world of hip-hop with his debut album Illmatic in 1994.   These are the final few lines on the Kanye track :

I’m Jesse Jackson on the balcony when King got shot

I survived the livest niggas around, last longer than more than half of you clowns

Look, I used to cook before I had the game took,

Either way my change came like Sam Cooke

After five minutes and twenty seconds the song fades and silence hovers for a beat.  Then :

can I talk my shit again?

And the song busts back into multi-platform day-glo life again with Tony Williams singing the outro.  “he sings quite beautifully don’t you agree?”   It’s a glorious sound.  ‘Why d’you call it Late Registration Ye?  Cos we taking these motherfuckers back to school!!”  Feel free to sing along….   

My Pop Life #73 : ‘Til Tomorrow – Marvin Gaye

Featured image

‘Til Tomorrow   –   Marvin Gaye

Hey girl what you doin’? gettin up?  You got to go ? …ah, don’t go just yet baby…Tu es encroyable…that’s French baby…it means you are incredible…mm?  …why you got to go?  baby don’t go, don’t go right now I can’t stand it please….

Now here’s a pop star who translates as he goes, unlike Grace Jones.  Tu es Encroyable.  And he has a decent accent too.   This is because he’s been living in Belgium for a year, coming off cocaine and becoming fit, healthy and writing songs again.  Marvin Gaye was in a terrible state in the early 80s, a cocaine/crack addict, owing the Revenue millions of dollars.

He was rescued by little-known Belgian entrepreneur Freddy Couseart who made a connection in London through boxing, one of Marvin’s soft spots, and offered him shelter and sanctuary in his pension in Ostend on the Belgian coast.

Featured image

Marvin & Freddie in Ostend, 1982

Marvin, worn out with Motown (who had just released In Our Lifetime “before it was ready” which infuriated Marvin)  and drained of energy, dread and desire, needed a rest, needed a break, needed a change of scenery.  He found all three in this unlikely setting and started getting clean, getting physically fit, and writing songs.  By the end of 1981 he had an album’s-worth of material and a number of record labels flew over to Belgium to bid for the next MG product.  CBS were wise and sent Harvey Fuqua who’d sung with Marvin in The Moonglows back in the 1950s before Motown and all that excitement, and CBS got the final LP Midnight Love (released in October 1982) and the lead single Sexual Healing.  Marvin went back to the USA, scored a huge hit single, paid his tax, sang the National Anthem at the 1983 basketball final, (an astonishing performance), moved back to his parent’s house and got shot by his father on April 1st 1984.

Featured image

I bought Midnight Love when it was released in 1982 and played it a lot.  I was living in Finsbury Park at the time with Mumtaz.  I’d started acting, in Moving Parts Theatre Company – (see My Pop Life #18), and then in pub theatres such as The Man In The Moon on the King’s Road doing an expressionist Clockwork Orange adapted by John Godber who I knew from Edinburgh days, also starring Paul Rider, Andy Winters, Pete Geeves.   I was a hopeful monster.    Some of my new feminist friends from Moving Parts came to see it and were horrified to find their pet man doing ultraviolence.   But I scored an agent – David Preston – a shaven-headed queen ensconced in his purple velvet-lined office with brass candlesticks somewhere in deepest Soho – well I had to start somewhere…

Featured image

This track ‘Til Tomorrow was the one that stood out for me (alongside the obvious charms of Sexual Healing) – the only ballad on a funky jazzy synth-heavy set, and with lyrics and instrumentation that are sparse to say the least, and a spoken Marvin-persona intro (which I include above) which is frankly hilarious, but somehow still sexy.  That’s just how he was.  I think my favourite Marvin Gaye LP(apart from WGO) is Live At The London Palladium from 1976, all the between-song chatter is fantastic, his voice is amazing, the band are great.  Only the duets are a little weak.

Featured image

Marvin Gaye in Ostend, Belgium, 1981

In 2013 I was cast in a Marvin Gaye biopic called Sexual Healing.   Julien Temple was directing a script by Matthew Broughton about the last three years of Marvin’s life, (played by Jesse L. Martin) centred on the Ostend story with some flashbacks to Dad (Dwight Henry from Beasts Of The Southern Wild) and Mum (S. Epatha Merkers).  Freddie Cousearts was Brendan Gleeson.  I was Jeffrey Kruger Marvin’s tour manager in wig and large specs, the man who started London’s Flamingo Club a real music person, and a real person who now lives in Brighton.  I never did look him up – it’s weird playing real people – you want to be true to them, but you don’t want to feel obliged, and in the end you have to play the script and what is written.

Featured imageSo there we were in Luxembourg in nice hotels, working with a lovely local crew (mainly) and immersed in the world of Marvin Gaye – I discovered (much like Columbus ‘discovered’ America) his 1981 LP In Our Lifetime which has some classic moments including opening song “Praise”, and I enjoyed working with Julien since we had a lot of mutual friends.  I flew back to Brighton with one more day to complete – backstage at the Royal Albert Hall.  We never shot it.  The crew flew to Ostend and shot all of that stuff, but the London end of things was never completed, neither was the film, and nobody got paid.  Another one of those stories.  Julien hawked the rushes around for a couple of years, maybe still is doing so, but nothing doing.  Essentially he’s trying to sell a huge debt with a possible money-spinning film behind it.  Given that every film ever made is entirely a leap of faith, when one comes off the rails it is very very very hard to put it back, no matter who is involved or how sexy the project looks from the outside.  Or the inside.  Damn shame.  A story that needs to be told as much as any I’ve ever done.

Featured image

The Gaye family recently won a lawsuit against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for stealing Got To Give It Up, but I have no doubt that the decision will be reversed on appeal.  The idea that you can copyright a groove is frankly preposterous.

But Marvin’s legacy is still being fought over, Berry Gordy holds on tight to the Motown era songs, there has been a play based on Frankie Gaye‘s book Marvin Gaye My Brother, but somehow we had got the rights to the CBS LP Midnight Love so some of his tale could be told.  Too many crooks as ever in this dirty business.  Damn shame.    Frankie Gaye died in 2001, and I would recommend the book.  Frankie went to Vietnam and his experiences there in the late 1960s inspired Marvin to write and record What’s Goin’ On.   Marvin’s son is also named Frankie.

So I miss Marvin Gaye.  Miss him twice.   ’til tomorrow…  Thinking about him again, I have to say just this – his backing vocals are always completely amazing.  Cluster chords, stretching what is vocally possible behind his soaring lead vocal.  The guy was a master.

Featured image

Oh but I didn’t mention our cat, our kitten Marvin.  A Devon Rex with large ears and short fur, he would crawl up my body to sit on my shoulder whether I was wearing clothes or not.  We bought him at 9 weeks old and he lived for another eight blessed weeks.   Bled to death after cutting his mouth on a wicker basket, chewing it.  Took him to the vet but he had genetic Factor 8 deficiency.  Bless him the blood wouldn’t clot.  He died lying on my chest in the middle of the night.  Buried with full honours in the back garden.  Wept buckets.  So yeah, I miss Marvin three times.

Featured image

Ralph Brown & Jesse L. Martin, Luxembourg, 2013

My Pop Life #72 : La Vie En Rose – Grace Jones

Featured image

La Vie En Rose   –   Grace Jones

Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
je vois la vie en rose
Il me dit des mon amour
des mots de tous le jours
Et ca me fait quelques choses…

*

When he takes me in his arms
and speaks softly to me 
 life is a bed of roses…

Featured image

Lyrics were written by Edith Piaf in French, covered by many many singers.  An early English translation didn’t attempt to find an apt phrase for “La Vie En Rose” – literally Life In Pink.  My own attempt is above – life as a bed of roses.  I see life as rosy ?  Rose-tinted spectacles?  We don’t have an idiom which translates.   Here’s the English-language version – by Louis Armstrong for example, not translating the untranslatable :

When you kiss me heaven sighs
And though I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose.

Featured imageGrace Jones sang it in French on her first LP Portfolio in 1977.   The 12″ 7-minute single version was released in October and became her first international hit.   It has a short english verse in the middle : la vie en rose becomes “everything is lovely“.   I’ll always associate this song with the 80s though, with my brother Paul and the London gay scene.  In fact it was re-released about four times until it finally became a big hit in the UK as a double-A side in 1985 with “Pull Up To The Bumper”.

Paul and I got separated in Mexico in 1980 when I contracted Hepatitus B and after week of terrible kidney pain, sweats, vomiting and fever I went jaundice-yellow and weak as a kitten.  All the kids in that Mexico city flat had to be isolated and inoculated and Paul was hunting for a flight home for me – BA said Heathrow doctors wouldn’t take me back, so he flew me KLM to Amsterdam and then London.  Straight to the doctors, who put me straight into Coppett’s Wood Hospital for Infectious Diseases near Muswell Hill.  I had my own room, and nurses would come in with masks and gloves and trays of food.  I was there for weeks.  Sick and weak as a puppy. One day a letter appeared from Mexico from Paul.  I was very happy to receive it as our glamourous trip down the gringo trail to Argentina was now well and truly off, but he was still going on, alone.  The letter was astounding, wonderful, life-changing.  It said that having reached San Cristobal Las Casas  Paul had met an American man called Jim and after a long night and day climbing the hills alone Paul had walked into town, met Jim, got together and they were now lovers.  Paul was in love, for the first time, with a man.

external-content.duckduckgo

Wow.  I often wondered after that whether that would have happened if I’d stayed in Mexico and not caught Hep B.  Whether Paul would have met Jim, have fallen in love.  Before that point, Paul was not acknowledging himself as gay.   So neither was anyone else.  Since that moment, he has.   And the family acknowledged it in their own time.  Another story.   It was a true turning point.  Jim and Paul travelled further south to Guatemala and Belize, then went back to Jim’s apartment in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan until the spring of 1981 when they had a big fight and Paul flew back to London.  I hadn’t seen him for almost a year.  We ended up squatting together in a council flat just off the Holloway Road with boarded up windows and no heating (see My Pop Life #120 ).  We got burgled too while there.  Then I moved back in with Mumtaz in Finsbury Park and he found a place further down Blackstock Road.  At that point Paul was going out with Michael.  Sweet curly-haired working class guy from Essex.  Then there was Pedro – still my friend – from Kilburn with Dominican mum, and then Colin from Durham, again still mine and Jenny’s (and Paul’s!) good friend.  Big relationships which sustained and still do.   The gay scene is very supportive and constructive in that way.

Featured image

Of course the early 80s was when AIDS struck and devastated everyone, Section 28 – (eventually passed in 1988 and repealed in 2003) stated that “a local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.   My friend Nick Partridge (from Tower Mansions, West End Lane)  came back from living on a houseboat in Amsterdam and joined the Terrence Higgins Trust, later to become the Director, be knighted and generally join the anti-establishment establishment.    Paul’s gang of gay friends became solid and established, and become the legendary Get You Crew which survives to this day – Lady G, or Richard Davies, Max, Hugh & Ben, Ray & Tim, Colin, Michael, and many others – and sometimes I would join them on a night out, or round The Fallen Angel in Islington.   (Later Jenny would be found in The Fallen Angel when she worked at Theatre Centre with all the lesbians).

Featured image

I went to Heaven a few times with the gang underneath the arches of Charing Cross Station.   I’ve been to Heaven with Jenny too, in the 90s and it’s always a good night.  Other definitely gay places I’d been in with Paul and others in those 1980s would be The Vauxhall Tavern,  and of course The London Apprentice in Hoxton filming on The Crying Game with every transvestite in the South East of England.   Can’t remember if Paul came down for any of that.  I’m thinking Marc Almond and Jimmy Somerville, George O’ Dowd, Stephen Wakelam, Ian McKellen, the Scala All-Nighter and the ridiculous slightly baggy yet tapered clothes I started to adopt in the mid-eighties not to mention the haircuts, the shoes.  Chinese kung-fu slippers I recall.  I was never gay though.  I kissed Richard one night at some houseparty in Belsize Park, but that was fun, a tease and that was it.   Gay people like getting off with straight people though.  They like a challenge.

Featured image

But the thing is with Paul, you’d never know he was gay unless you knew.  So we’d just as often go to The Flask or The French House or Camden Lock, Dingwalls, the Princess Louise, The Lamb.  Paul never wore the badge of gay, or particularly enjoyed the scene – it has its own pressures.   But things were different then.  It was fifteen or so years since Stonewall, but there was always a sense of resilience, of defiance even, going out as a gang in the 80s, part of being young probably.  But also part of being a community under threat, both legally and actually, the possibility of aggression at street level always present, living in Thatcher’s Britain we were in opposition and everything was a battle, sometimes literally.   The Miner’s Strike, Anti-Apartheid, the poll-tax, section 28, Greenham Common, the Women’s Movement, Chile, Ireland, Gay Liberation, CND – these were all part of the same battle to change the world.   Some of those battles we won – South Africa, Gay Lib, Ireland? – some we lost – the miners, CND, Greenham.    I think it was Jesse Jackson who I heard talking about a rainbow coalition, co-opting the gay emblem – every colour of the rainbow except pink!    I guess drugs were taken, but I was generally on the weed, speed or booze.  Never really liked cocaine, or the effect it has on some of the people I’m with.  Or poppers.   Not really a pillhead after Mexico. E was great.  But a glass of bubbly and a cigarette and I’m delirious, usually.

Featured image

This song was a floor-filler.  An anthem.  It always has been, since Edith Piaf sang it in Paris in 1946, the lyrics a defiant triumphant claiming of the power of love, a beating heart, being in the pink, the rosy life, none of the translations work do they ?   There was a Pink Paper.  A pink pound.  Pink triangle from the nazi camps wasn’t it?  Another sign co-opted.   At house-parties or nightclubbing the hands would rise, the room would spin, the euphoria would go up several notches, we were alive.    This song is marvellous, so French, so black, so disco, so bossa nova, so gay, so theatrical, so triumphant, so universal.  Mon couer qui bat……

(Look it up !)

Featured image

At the end of the decade July 1989 I was in Paris, filming a Chopin film called “Impromptu” with Hugh Grant, Judy Davis, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin  and others, and a splendid time was guaranteed for all.  (see the Chopin post My Pop Life #9)   Hugh and I waltzed around the brasseries, the train appeared to carry some gravy.   One night Julian Sands and I went to a club – or was it a party ? – and met Grace Jones and some other glamourous Parisiens.  We drank champagne, I smoked cigarettes. Possibly even French ones.

 La Vie En Rose indeed.

My Pop Life #71 : Song For Sharon – Joni Mitchell

Featured image

Song For Sharon   –   Joni Mitchell

…I went to Staten Island
To buy myself a mandolin
And I saw the long white dress of love
On a storefront mannequin

Big boat chuggin’ back with a belly full of cars
All for something lacy
Some girl’s going to see that dress
And crave that day like crazy…

Featured image

The first Joni Mitchell song I heard was Both Sides Now – but sung by Judy Collins –  “…it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all…” It was 1968 and I was living in a small village in East Sussex with my Mum and two younger brothers.  We had Radio One on all day.  It seemed like a sad song.

The second Joni Mitchell song I heard was Stardust – but sung by Crosby Stills Nash & Young – “…we are stardust we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…”   It was 1970 and unbeknown to me I was in the last few weeks of my idyllic village life.  It was a wise song, biblical yet green, and also rather yearning.

The third Joni Mitchell song I heard was Big Yellow Taxi – sung by Joni herself – “…they took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum, then they charge all the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em..”  It was 1970 and she sounded like a teenage girl, but she was already on her 3rd album.   I was 13 and billeted with Pete Smurthwaite and his Mum Sheila in Lewes since we’d got evicted from the village house for not paying rent.  This song was an eyes-open description of a catastrophe.

Featured image

The first Joni Mitchell LP I bought was Court and Spark in 1974 with its brilliant title track, the thrilling Raised On Robbery, the swooning Help Me and the stunning Free Man In Paris  “…stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song…”.    I was in Hailsham,  had a new young sister, and I was a late-flowering 16-yr-old glam-rock hippy.  Joni was urgent, caustic, clever and brilliant to mine ears.

Featured image

LSE 76-79.  “Blue”  The masterpiece.  Much later, in the 90s this would become one of mine and Jenny’s top LPs, top five listens that would go on the turntable, or later the CD player on a daily basis – All I Want, Carey, A Case Of You, River, The Last Time I Saw Richard.   The shapes of those songs, of those melodies, the sense of a fully-formed musical genius spilling out her feelings is a pure joy.   Jenny sang A Case Of You for Amanda Ooms at a Bohemia Special Birthday Party one night in Brighton – acapella – and years later Glen sang “River” one Christmas at a Brighton Beach Boys gig at The Old Market accompanying himself on piano.  Two magical moments from a magical LP.

And over the years I’ve filled in the dots, bought The Summer Of Hissing Lawns, For The Roses, Clouds, Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Mingus, Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm, Taming The Tiger, Ladies Of The Canyon and Herbie Hancock‘s 2007 album The River which is a jazz tribute to her music.  There is a wonderful depth to her music, both lyrically profound, often startlingly honest, and the music itself, rhythmically loose and swinging yet played with such crisp feel by Joni herself and the amazing musicians she assembles to play her creations.  Every album is worth examining, plunging in, submerging, re-emerging refreshed and moved.

Featured image

No song of Joni’s touches me more deeply than Song For Sharon, from the 1976 LP Hejira.  It’s very much set in New York City, opening on the Staten Island Ferry in the opening verse. She sees a wedding dress in a shop window, and this triggers an 8-minute meditation on love and marriage, success, family and dreams.

Featured image

Shine your light on me, Miss Liberty
Because as soon as this ferry boat docks
I’m headed to the church to play Bingo
Fleece me with the gamblers’ flocks

That’s a pretty astounding lyric, using the double meaning of “fleece” but she tops it in the next verse, talking about gambling with her heart :

I can keep my cool at poker
But I’m a fool when love’s at stake
Because I can’t conceal emotion
What I’m feeling’s always written on my face

There’s a gypsy down on Bleecker Street
I went in to see her as a kind of joke
And she lit a candle for my love luck
And eighteen bucks went up in smoke

Joni is laughing at herself here and goes on to talk about leaving her man behind at a “North Dakota Junction” and moving to the Big Apple to “face the dream’s malfunction“…why don’t her relationships last, why isn’t she married ?  The song, admitted by Mitchell to be written whilst on cocaine, fades in and out of her past memories, to her present on the Ferry, to her reactions to a woman friend drowning herself and the depression that then flooded in, and the advice from those around her on how to cope.   Then she’s back in teenage Canada again:

When we were kids in Maidstone, Sharon
I went to every wedding in that little town
To see the tears and the kisses
And the pretty lady in the white lace wedding gown

And walking home on the railroad tracks
Or swinging on the playground swing
Love stimulated my illusions
More than anything

So Sharon is her childhood friend, and is married with children and a farm.  Joni has never settled down.  The contrast for Joni is stark and she explores it further, deeper…

And when I went skating after Golden Reggie
You know it was white lace I was chasing
– Chasing dreams –
Mama’s nylons underneath my cowgirl jeans

He showed me, first you get the kisses
And then you get the tears
But the ceremony of the bells and lace
Still veils this reckless fool here

Joni is alone, and it seems to her, terminally so.  She actually had been married in 1965 to Michigan folk singer Chuck Mitchell, just after giving up her out-of-wedlock first child for adoption, (Little Green on “Blue” is about this girl) but the relationship had lasted less than 16 months.  After her affair with Graham Nash of The Hollies she hooked up with David Crosby and then others but none of these affairs took root.    Sam Shepherd, Jackson Browne, Don Alias, none of them could couple with her restless spirit, so evocatively captured in the swooning backing vocals and sexy rolling shuffle of the rhythm guitar, played by Joni herself throughout the winding sinuous storytelling of Song For Sharon.   The song is, in its unfolding of doubt and longing, its honesty and questioning, a masterpiece.  Or should that be mistresspiece ?  Her mother suggests ecology to counter the blues but –

Well, there’s a wide wide world of noble causes
And lovely landscapes to discover
But all I really want right now
Is find another lover…

Featured image

Last summer, 2014, Jenny’s older sister Marlyn came to visit us from Grenada where she is lives as a nun and teaches teenagers.  Or more accurately, a Franciscan Sister Of The Sorrowful Mother.   We were sub-letting in Washington Avenue at that point, and I slept on the sofa for ten days.  One day we took the ferry from DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan-Brooklyn Overpass) to Wall St, walked down a few blocks and boarded the Staten Island Ferry which is a giant yellow edifice towering over Battery Park and facing due south.  It is a free service, run by the City and runs 24/7.  From it, you get the most impressive views of Downtown Manhattan receding, and it chugs right past the Statue Of Liberty too, and Ellis Island.  Marlyn, Jenny and I had a little walk along the Staten Island shore, saw the 9/11 Memorial and then took the ferry back, Joni Mitchell’s beautiful clear voice singing through my head all the way across the harbour.   Marlyn is a beautiful woman, so open and sweet-natured, not heavily promoting her faith at all, but supported and strengthened by it.  We laughed a lot during her visit.

There are two versions of Song For Sharon below – the original from Hejira, stunning, eternal, majestic, then below that a live version from Wembley 1983 with an entirely different arrangement, no backing vocals, rocked-up, bold, brilliant.

…It seems we all live so close to that line, and so far from satisfaction…

My Pop Life #70 : Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love) – The Stylistics

Featured image

Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)   –   The Stylistics

…If I had money I’d go wild buy you furs dress you like a queen
And in a chauffered limousine
We’d look so fine.
But I’m an ordinary guy and my pockets are empty
Just an ordinary guy
But I’m yours till I die…

In July 1975 I hitch-hiked to Hungary with my friend Martin Cooper.  In our last year at Lewes Priory he’d been Head Boy, and I’d been Deputy Head Boy, voted by the students of the sixth form.  This really only meant that every now and then we had a meeting with the headmistress about things that have entirely slipped my memory, but probably involved social events and smoking in the toilets.  An honorary title really, but there was a channel open at least.  Martin was a carrot-topped football fanatic and we would often go to the Goldstone Ground together to see Brighton & Hove Albion playing in League Division 3 against the likes of Preston North End, Gillingham and Aldershot.  We’d finished 19th that season.  Coops was also captain of the school football team, being the son of a vicar and a sensible sort of chap, head boy and all that.  We played on Saturday mornings – Coop was in midfield and I played centre forward in that last season at school.  I did about three good things over the course of the season in my recall.   I may be placing this event in the wrong year – but for some reason – perhaps because his reasonableness was in fact a curse – Martin Cooper put his foot through a train window one day and severed his achilles tendon.  To say we were all shocked is an understatement.  Completely out of character and rather more violent than anyone else in the school would have managed, even under stress.  He spent a few months hobbling around in plaster poor chap, and John Trower, star of the javelin,  took on the captain’s mantle, and the sexiest girl in the school Sarah-Jane Cumner.

After the A-level exams (see My Pop Life #112 – The Night), I’d got a job at Sussex University for a few weeks and stayed at Waterlilies in Kingston at Rosemary Ryle‘s insistence, despite her daughter Miriam having finished with me.   I had my own room (see My Pop Life #47).    I think Rough Justice, the band I played in with Conrad Ryle and Tat and Andy Shand played one last gig at school but were somewhat upstaged by a new band from the lower 6th who covered Jo Jo Gunne’s Run Run Run rather impressively.

And as The Stylistics started to climb the charts with this magnificent single, Coops and I started our thumbs-only journey through Europe.   The first part was easy – ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe.   We had a two-man tent and erected it somewhere or other that night.  I cannot really remember the French section of the journey, but we got to Grenoble on day three amidst stunning Alpine pastures.  Thence through the Great St Bernard Tunnel to Italy and the Aosta Valley, then right across North Italy.  We ended up in a small car with a funny old bloke who only said one word to us : “Udine“.  Ooh-Dinn-Ay.  We checked on the map and there it was just north of Trieste.  After a frankly bizarre lift where the little man kept saying Udine every five minutes we got out and pitched the tent on the Trieste road.  Next day we got as far as Ljubljana in western Yugoslavia which felt pretty foreign, (very pretty, very foreign), and so we stayed a couple of days in the Youth Hostel.   Nice place.  Next up was Zagreb which we skimmed and then headed north for the Hungarian border which we reached at about 6pm.  There was a little cafe just before the border post, so we went in and had some food.

The locals were aghast.  We were going to Hungary ?  Alarmed looks all round, heads shaking, pitying glances !  They insisted on buying us a farewell drink each – our last taste of freedom I believe it was called, except that it wasn’t our last – there were about three more.  Each.  As dusk fell we staggered under the sudden weight of our rucksacks and with the waves of our new comrades ringing in our ears, walked in a drunken manner to the border post, showed our visas and stepped over the Iron Curtain.

 

Featured image

Now what?  We knew there was a campsite about ten miles up the road.  How we knew this I have absolutely no idea but pre-internet it actually was possible to discover things you didn’t know.   We stood there and hitched as cars drove past us, then started walking as the light faded.  Before ten minutes had passed a huge army truck stopped just in front of us, full of soldiers.  The Hungarian Red Army.  Now bloody what.  We’d been intrepid to plan the trip and then we’d actually got there, had no idea what to expect.  Hungarian words v English words.  Soldiers.  Sixth formers.  There was only one word that all of us, me Coops and the soldiers all knew.  “Camping”.   Nods.  They gave us seats in the back of the truck with them and drove us to the campsite.  I think we managed to share the simple fact that we were English, on holiday, but I’m not sure they understood the holiday bit.   When we pulled into the darkened campsite, they took our rucksacks from us, unpacked the tent and proceeded with military efficiency to erect it there and then, shook our hands and jumped back in the truck, headlights disappearing into the night.  We looked at our little tent and thought: “Bloody communists“.

Featured image

No of course we didn’t.   We thought “Welcome to Communist Eastern Europe”   The next day, with a Yugoslav liquor hangover, we hitched to Lake Balaton and met some East German girls in the youth hostel.   Detente.  Stayed a few days in that beautiful part of Europe, and thence to Budapest where our A-levels results were going to be posted in a few days time.

Featured image

We ate in restaurants with live bands playing Hungarian folk music, using an instrument I’d never seen before called a cymbalom which is like a stringed vibraphone-type thing, or perhaps a piano on it’s side played with padded sticks;  alongside violins, cellos, bagpipes.  We spent some time in Buda, which we loved, and some time in Pest, which was more commercial.  Then one day a huge display of weaponry along the beautiful blue Danube (see My Pop Life #157), with red flags alongside every Hungarian red white & green flag – gunboats, a flotilla bristling with armaments.   A local told us that the red flag was Russian.   Our A-level results were collected on time the next day, poste restante Budapest – we both got what we wanted, which means I got an A in Geography and two Bs in English and Economics.  I’d be going to LSE in a year’s time, after taking a break from education for a while.   A few days later we took the train to Vienna and separated, I was heading for La Chaux De Fonds in Switzerland, which is another tale, and Martin was going to Germany.   When I eventually got “home” which was nowhere really, but anywhere in East Sussex in actual fact, The Stylistics were number 1.

Featured image

The Stylistics were one of my favourite bands in those days – long before I decided that I liked soul music, they just had a string of amazing singles between 1972 and 1975,  (My Pop Life #193).  The voice of Russell Thompkins Jr is a thing of great sweetness joy and beauty and twice now I’ve had tickets for a live show and been unable to make it on the night.  Such are the vagaries of self-employment.  They are a Philly soul band, a symphonic soul band, initially under the wing of Thom Bell at Avco Records who produced all of their hits up to 1974, when Van McCoy took the reigns and gave his signature sound to Can’t Give You Anything.  The opening trumpet glissando and melody with that twinkling piano arpeggio behind it is breathtaking every time I hear it.   And the voice!   The Stylistics are still playing together, still performing.  Catch them when you can, these old soul guys really know how to put on a show.  But be warned – Russell Thompkins Jr. is singing with The New Stylistics which he formed in 2004.

Meanwhile, Hungary is now in the EU and not such an exotic destination as it was in 1975.  It was always a more independent country than a lot of the Eastern Bloc, but now it has swung violently to the right, has a popular fascist party (Jobbik), and anti-Roma feeling is running high.   There’s also a strong organised crime element to Budapest, as there is with Sofia and to a lesser extent Bucharest, all places where I’ve worked on films, (for example My Pop Life #134 : Haydn).  The border where we crossed is now open all day.   And  Ljubljana is now the capital of new country (old country) Slovenia since the break-up of Yugoslavia, and Zagreb the capital of Croatia.  Am I mourning the old communist bloc then ?  Well what do I know ? Hungary 1975 was very warm and friendly.  You have to watch yourself these days.

I think Martin Cooper and I saw each other once, maybe twice more after that.  Ever.  Martin got married and I wrote to him (at Durham University) or maybe he settled in the North-East, anyway I got his wife’s name wrong, called her Bridget, his sister’s name, he got annoyed, I felt shame and we haven’t spoken since.    Such are the chapters of life.   We come together, we separate. Now read on dot dot dot…

Featured image

My Pop Life #69 : Love Me Always – Dennis Brown AND Angolian Chant – Joe Gibbs

Featured image

Love Me Always   –   Dennis Brown

Angolian Chant   –   Joe Gibbs

I wanna dub you, dub you always….

there ain’t nobody else….

Time for a version excursion on my pop life.    Two songs for number 69 –  they are the same song, but they’re not, really.    Lovers rock becomes dub plate tune.   I cycled up to Williamsburg today on a citibike, nice Sunday afternoon, looking for graffitti spots in Bushwick, enjoying the weather.  Called in at an address on N10th St and rang a random bell, and Annie McGann opened the door.   Hooray!  Inside, her son Joseph McGann, Sam Barrett, Chris Ebdon and Imogene Tavares.   Introductions all round, and food is being prepared.  Reggae and dub is playing.   I’d met Joe before, when he was very young (in Los Angeles Annie reminded me!) and then throughout the years, most recently with his dad Paul at a Withnail & I event in Bristol.   I introduced myself to the cat that Annie is catsitting and – suddenly – one of those proustian moments rushed in as this song came on.   I left Annie and the cat Schmo and ran to the ipad.   There was this picture.   Treasure from beyond.

Featured image

I’ve been looking for this song for years.  Using the wrong search terms “I wanna dub you” and so on.  The song is called Love Me Always by the great Dennis Brown, and the dub version, which has been stuck in my ear for over 30 years is called  Angolian Chant.  Now that’s not even a word as far as I know!    So, so sweet to hear it again.  What did it remind me of ?  Well : Club 61 for starters – Paulette‘s legendary parties in Clapham (see My Pop Life #60).  And certainly also West End Lane, Pete, Sali, Nick, Colin, Tony (see My Pop Life #59).  This kind of music was for a) slowdancing – at Club 61…  and b) getting stoned to – in West End Lane.   Dub is perfect for smoking marijuana.  And vice versa of course.  And both are great for slowdancin’.   Just how the world is meant to be sometimes.

Featured image

The music comes out of Joe Gibbs & Errol Thompson‘s stable in Kingston Jamaica where they were known as “The Mighty Two”. The house band were called The Professionals and had Sly Dunbar on drums, Robbie Shakespeare on bass (also known as Fatman Riddim Section and later to become international hit machine Sly & Robbie & Earl “Chinna” Smith on guitar as the rhythm section par excellence.  This team produced over 100 number one hit records, for Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru, Culture, Mighty Diamonds, Althia & Donna, Prince Far-I, Junior Byles, Jacob Miller, Big Youth, Dillinger, John Holt, on and on.                                                                                 Joe Gibbs

And yet beyond all the hit records, Joe and Errol also produced a stream of incredible dub plates many of which are gathered together on the seminal LPs African Dub All-Mighty.  Angolian Chant is from Chapter 3.

Featured image

I used to have this on vinyl – and it is one of the LPs that I failed to replace when I lost my whole collection in 1985.  Just a missing piece of my brain.   The thing is – if you’re listening to dub, you’re quite likely to be stoned.  Things get lost in the haze.  But seriously, dub reggae is a huge part of the musical universe, and technologically way ahead of its time.  Lee Perry, King Tubby, Augustus Pablo, Prince Far-I, Errol Thompson, Mad Professor – and all of those other guys – they might have been stoned when they produced this music, but they were on the money, sharp, and knew exactly what they were doing.  The dub plates of 12″ reggae singles go much further than just being an instrumental, a track which can be used, versioned, recycled.  A different melody is put on top, a new singer, a new band, another hit!   As reggae had been doing since the 1960s.   The dub plate went way beyond that into a version which sampled itself and using faders and echoes like musical instruments themselves, created a new song from bits of the old one.   This of course has totally influenced every genre of popular music since then – rock, pop, hip hop, house, as well as grime, Drum&Bass, dubstep, ambient and electronica more generally.

Featured image

Dennis Thompson, Errol Thompson, Clive Chin & Augustus Pablo

Errol Thompson engineered at Studio One, and is credited with producing the first instrumental reggae LP in 1970,  before becoming one of dub’s pioneers.   Joe Gibbs learned his trade with Lee Perry, producing the Heptones and others before branching out on his own in the early 1970s.  His first international hit was Nicky Thomas’ “Love Of The Common People“.  Errol and Joe Gibbs joined forces in 1975.

Featured image

Dennis Brown

Dennis Brown was born like me in 1957 and started singing aged nine.  He was Bob Marley’s favourite singer – he dubbed him “The Crown Prince of Reggae”.   Dennis cut his first single aged 12 for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One.  He recorded over 75 albums, and had many hit singles of which the most famous internationally is “Money In My Pocket” produced by his close friend Winston “Niney” Holness on behalf of Joe Gibbs.  He recorded with all of the great Jamaican producers in his long career, one notable track with Lee Perry is called “Wolf and Leopard” and is also worth seeking out.  In 1977 he made the LP Visions Of Dennis Brown with Joe Gibbs which was a huge success and contains the vocal track Love Me Always.

Featured image

Joe Gibbs HQ

What is great about all this is that I only ever remembered the dub version “I wanna dub you” – try googling that !   Serendipity is a great thing.  So thanks to Annie for inviting me over and to Joe and his gang. (Joe goes out as a grime DJ under the moniker Kahn, his partner is Neek, he also works as Gorgon Sound).  Thanks for playing that damn tune !  Or was it actually Annie ??   Probably.    Annie likes a lot of the same era reggae as me.   I’ve known Annie since 1985 when I shot Withnail & I with Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant and Richard Griffiths, all being conducted under the passionate inspiration of Bruce Robinson, who also wrote it.  Wow, we were all kids really.  I’ll write about that another time, but Paul and Annie have stayed in my life ever since, as have Richard E. and Bruce.  Sadly Richard Griffiths passed away a couple of years ago.  I drove up to Stratford for his funeral.  Life passes so quickly.   Dennis Brown died in 1999.  The Prime Minister of Jamaica, and previous PM Edward Seaga both attended his funeral.  He was an inspiration to a whole generation of Jamaican singers.  This is my favourite song of his, returned to me like the prodigal son.  I have just listened to it eight times in a row.

Featured image

Dennis Brown – the Crown Prince Of Reggae

Previous Older Entries