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

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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…

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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.

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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 !

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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.

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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:

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

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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:

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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!

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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.

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guitarmy

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

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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 !

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!!”

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 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

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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 (include 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 and Debussy’s Prelude A L’Aprés-Midi d’un Faun.

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 the libretto, or oratorio is 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).   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 and 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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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‘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 aFeatured image 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.  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 albums-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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.

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Ralph Brown & Jesse L. Martin, Luxembourg, 2013

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

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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…

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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 I flew KLM to Amsterdam and flew a short flight back.  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.  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.

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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.  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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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 !)

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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.

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