My Pop Life #93 : One Day I’ll Fly Away – Randy Crawford

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One Day I’ll Fly Away   –   Randy Crawford

…still you made your mark, here in my heart…

They say that breaking up is hard to do.   They have no idea.    At all.   Talk about The Long Goodbye.   My relationship with Mumtaz lasted for nine years, off and on, from my first term at LSE in 1976 right through to the spring of 1985 when I left for the third and final time, without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.   We were about to get married.   My wedding suit had been brought back from Pakistan.  Shalwar-kameez, beautiful.   I was doing a play called Deadlines with Joint Stock Theatre Company at the Royal Court at the time.  But I’m running ahead to another time, another place.  Right now, September 1980,  Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away is released and gets to number 2 in the pop charts, and I buy the 12-inch single of this song because I love it.  But perhaps there was more to it than that.

The song appeared on my mixtape ‘The Immaculate Conception‘ that I made two years later in 1982 for members of Moving Parts Theatre Company, my first equity job (see My Pop Life #18). So it was a real favourite – songs don’t usually hang around for two whole years.   But let me re-wind because the crowd may have said Bo.   (Selector).

Paul and I finally saved up enough money by spring 1980 to buy flights to Mexico City – and enough to last for a theoretical year in Latin America on ten bucks a day.    It wasn’t a gap year – I’d done that between school and university and hitch-hiked around North America with Simon Korner for five months.  No – this was an adventure, but more than that, it was the end of my relationship with Mumtaz.   I didn’t expect her to wait for me to return, and I didn’t expect that we’d get back together again when I eventually did.   If I did indeed – although the actor plan was still alive, the idea of settling down in Peru with a local lass wasn’t entirely fanciful either – and in fact one friend of mine from Edinburgh Festival days, John, did just that.   Where is he now I wonder?

So I was out of there.   It was farewell and goodbye.   So I thought.   But as discussed earlier in My Pop Life 25, I contracted Hepatitus B in Mexico and was flown back to Coppett’s Wood Hospital in North London, thence to Tower Mansions, West Hampstead, and thence to Somerfield Road and Mumtaz’ flat in Finsbury Park.  We were back together again like Roberta & Donny with the exquisite irony of One Day I’ll Fly Away as our new tune.

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I was grateful to be nursed back to health, and Mumtaz was gracious enough to welcome me back despite suspecting (surely? perhaps…) that I would leave again, someday.   Love is always a gamble isn’t it?   People around us were happy that we were a couple again, which blurs things.   Very very few people are honest in the end.  They’d rather say nothing and stay friends.   But I didn’t know what was going on – I was 23 years old, and while intellectually bright after a fashion (I could pass exams and do comprehension – would have been a good lawyer in fact) I was emotionally dim and un-evolved.  No idea.  I do believe that some folk are old souls – I know a few – and some others, like me, are young souls.   Born with no knowledge, expected to pick it up along the way.   It makes everything fresh, but boy, looking back on those early years I wince with embarrassment at some of the stuff that was going on.   I can put some of it down to youth, some of it down to a dysfunctional early family life, but the rest is just the behaviour of an emotional shrimp.  Locked up within there was another dude, but he wouldn’t evolve for decades to come.

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Somehow I knew in my bones that this song was the truth.     Someday, I felt, I would fly away.   I tried it again in 1981 in fact, Paul and I squatted in a reasonably miserable ground floor council property just off the Holloway Road for a few intrepid and vivid months after he came back from New York City (see My Pop Life 72) and then we were burgled, and I limped back to Finsbury Park and Mumtaz again after that, unable to make anything work as a single man.  Weak.  Needy.  Vulnerable.   And still there was this song with its lilting melody and gorgeous bassline, teasing me with its continued excellence.   I simply didn’t have the courage or strength to leave Mumtaz, and it would be three more years before I left, for the third and final time.

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Randy Crawford had been the lead singer on The Crusaders’ immense single Street Life the year before where she met keyboard player Joe Sample, one of the great 12-inch singles of all time running a full eleven minutes, jazz-funk-soul of the finest quality.  The Jazz Crusaders had been around since the early 1960s, influenced by hard boppers Cannonball Adderley and Art Blakey, but were among the first jazz artists to embrace the funk fusion sound of the 1970s, and their Street Life LP was a huge success.    And herewith the blog must admit to a kind of internal tension, for I find Street Life to be a better song than One Day I’ll Fly Away.  Yet I choose not to blog it because my own experience of street life (rather like Bryan Ferry’s I suspect) is limited to a handful of chance encounters and a bit of busking and hitch-hiking, whereas my experience of wondering if I’ll fly away could cover several volumes.  Hence the blog title My Pop Life, not My Favourite Pop Songs.  

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Joe Sample and Will Jennings of The Crusaders wrote Street Life and One Day I’ll Fly Away, and both songs were produced by bass and saxophone player Wilton Felder.   The production is immaculate pop – the tremolo on the first guitar chord, the triangle pling ! the guitar harmonics that prick through just before the saxophone theme, repeated later by an oboe, the gentle strings just as Randy opens her mouth to sing – and what a voice she has, quite a sublime controlled vibrato with exquisite vulnerability.

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Randy Crawford would release a wonderful album called Secret Combination the following year  which contained hits Rainy Night In Georgia (a Brook Benton cover), Trade Winds and the title track.  And then she kind of disappeared.

Featured imageWhile searching for pictures to add to this blog I found this poster for a jazz trio gig in Japan with Joe Sample and Steve Gadd – session drummer extraordinaire on Steely Dan and Paul Simon LPs –  further evidence that after the break-up of The Crusaders (Felder became a Jehovah’s Witness) Sample and Crawford carried on playing jazz together.  Joe Sample died in 2014.

I could talk about this a lot more but I don’t think I will.   The depth of feeling involved at the time was epic.  Mumtaz kept my entire LP collection and all of my singles.  This is symbolic of course, for us both.  I think the fact that I’m writing my patchwork autobiography through music gives you a clue as to how important that record collection was to me.   Mumtaz knew that.   I felt guilty, she felt hurt.  C’est la vie, c’est l’amour, c’est la guerre.   If I try to analyse why the relationship didn’t work, I still don’t really have the tools available to me, young soul that I am, but she simply wasn’t the One, and deep down I knew that.   I feel sorry that I didn’t stay left when I left first time, but Mumtaz now has two beautiful children and a life of her own, and I am happily married to Jenny, who is clearly The One.

My Pop Life #92 : Cities – Talking Heads

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Cities   –   Talking Heads

…there’s good points !  and bad points ! 

it all works out…..sometimes I’m a little freaked out…

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August 1979 I was a Batchelor of Law with a 2:2.   It was ‘only’ a 2:2 because I didn’t do any work.   I didn’t do any work because I wasn’t motivated.   I wasn’t motivated because I wasn’t going to be a lawyer.   I wasn’t going to be a lawyer  because I was going to be an actor – but not yet.   Not yet because I was saving up to go to Latin America with brother Paul for a whole year.   I was going out with Mumtaz, but I was going, I was leaving, I was going to Mexico!  To Bogota !  To Lima !  Rio ! Ten dollars a day.  That’s $3650 I needed to make, on top of the plane fare to Mexico City.  I had a plan, and I’d already started to carry it out.  At the end of my last year at LSE I’d seen a notice on the ubiquitous noticeboard – it’s what we did before the internet – saying “Student wanted to paint exterior of house for cash” – and I’d answered it.   It was a guy in Pinner – I can’t remember his connection to the LSE – and I met him and he agreed that I was the chap for the job.  He provided all the paint, brushes and scaffolding and all I had to do was turn up every day and paint those damn windows and doors.

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West Hampstead Jubilee Line to Wembley, then Metropolitan line to Pinner.   If you’ve never been there, well it’s very English in a certain suburban kind of way.  Did Elton John come from there?  It’s a suburb of North West London, part of Harrow in fact.    It was actually a really pleasant summer holiday’s work, his wife was sweet, she made me tea at intervals and I had a radio like all British workmen.

This is the sort of wanker I was in those days : one day at lunch I was chatting about this and that with his wife – they were in their 50s I guess, I was 22, and I asked her what he did for a living?  She said he was in business and left it at that.  I demurred.  I didn’t like business I said.  I didn’t believe in business.  She was quite shocked but too polite to be annoyed.  She simply said that business was necessary.   I remember that conversation quite clearly.  funny the things you remember and the things you don’t.  But I was clearly a wanker who thought he was Elvis Costello “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me“.   Anyway.   I also had blues – amphetamine sulphate in tablet form, otherwise known as speed, powder blue in colour, which I was then dealing from behind the bar at the Scala All-Nighter on Saturdays (see My Pop Life #23) and eating the proceeds.   Literally.   Come lunchtime on the scaffold outside the Pinner house I was starting to flag, so I’d pop a couple of blues and hi-dippetty-dee, whistle while you work.  Sing-alonga radio one.   Of course then the comedown would come crashing in around 6pm or so, because I couldn’t take two more or I’d be up all night so I would start to slump and frazzle just after I’d got back to Tower Mansions in West End Lane where I lived with Pete, Sali and Nick (see My Pop Life #59) and to soften the deadening empty slump of a blues comedown what do you do?  Yes.  You roll a joint.  And then another.  And listen to music with your mates.

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Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, David Byrne 1979

Reggae mainly, but also everything else : soul, jazz, Emmylou Harris, Frank Zappa,   and some classic post-punk singles in picture sleeves : Spizz Energi, The Slits, Buzzcocks, Shoes For Industry, Gang Of Four, PiL and so on.   Albums on the turntable that summer were Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps“, Robert Fripp’s “Exposure“, The Gang Of Four’s “Entertainment!“, Ry Cooder’s “Bop ‘Til You Drop“, and Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ “Do It Yourself“.  Punk had been pronounced dead by the critics – Sid Vicious had died in January, but The Clash released London Calling and Stiff Little Fingers produced a couple of classic singles – and pop was alive and kicking in the UK in the shape of Squeeze, Elvis Costello, The Undertones and the two-tone explosion – Madness, The Specials and The Selector all broke through.  Disco was king & queen though, Jackson’s Off The Wall and Chic’s Good Times and Donna Summer’s Bad Girls were ubiquitous records.

 But for me personally the LP that was head and shoulders above all the rest in 1979 was Talking Heads’ 3rd album “Fear Of Music“.

Featured imageFeatured imageI’d already seen them twice by then when they toured England with the first LP “77” and the amazing second LP “More Songs About Building And Food” which I still love to death.  How could their third LP be better than THAT?  Well it was, and is.  “Fear Of Music” is a giant concept album, a jittering funk-rock classic with jagged edges, bouncing bass lines and hooks and riffs and clever lyrics galore.  Most of the songs have single-word titles :  Air, Paper, Drugs, Mind and my favourite : Cities.

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The first line of the single was completely awesome: as the music fades up :

Think of London : small city…

Is he kidding ?  London is huge.  I’d been living there three years and got to know it a bit – the West End, Honor Oak SE23 for my final year at LSE, West Hampstead, Hammersmith, Pinner ! – and Camden Town where I’d seen Talking Heads play in the Roundhouse, supported by Slaughter & The Dogs.

Featured imageLater in 1979 they would tour again with this album, this time playing Hammersmith Palais where everyone played that year : The B52s supported them this time I think.  They were so exciting, so poppy, so funky, so urgent, David Byrne would sing a line then skitter across the stage and they were as tight as any band I’ve seen.  Married couple Chris Frantz on the kit and Tina Weymouth on the bass, Jerry Harrison completing the line-up on keyboards.  They would go on to even greater success with “This is not my beautiful house” and “Road to Nowhere”, album producer Brian Eno would do a weird sampled-collage LP with David Byrne called My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, but this LP was just them at their pop peak, or maybe just before it.

dark… dark in the daytime…

people sleep… sleep in the daytime

if they want to – if they want to !

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It had a black sleeve with raised dashes on it like a weird manhole cover and neon green lettering : Fear Of Music.  Jerry Harrison designed the sleeve and came up with the title.   It was art-pop, it was post-punk, it was music for head, hands and feet.  We loved that band.

..did I forget to mention, forget to mention Memphis ? 

home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks…

My Pop Life #91 : The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine – Laurel & Hardy

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The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine   –   Laurel & Hardy

Give the gentlemen the best in the house !  

Yes Sir !  

I’ll be back in a minute…

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One of the weird things about getting old – or getting older I should say, and listen, whoever you are you ARE getting older – is realising with some chagrin that people who are younger than you don’t necessarily understand your references.    There are some exceptions to this – there are cultural moments that seem eternal, whatever your age, whatever TV shows you watched as a child, whatever music you loved as a teenager – and I would humbly suggest that perhaps Laurel & Hardy are one – or two -of these treasures.  Perhaps I’m wrong.   I watched them throughout my life – they were always on the TV in the 1960s, and the 1970s, particularly at Christmas I seem to remember, in the morning.  They are the funniest double-act I’ve ever seen, I can literally weep until it hurts watching their foolishness.

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Is it possible that people don’t know about these guys?  I’ll have to surrender that point.  Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel were already established performers and had already worked together (although not as a team) when they were both signed up by Hal Roach’s Studio in Hollywood in 1926.  Their first film was called Putting Pants on Philip (1927) and they worked together from that date until the late 1940s, starting out as silent comedians and finishing their considerable careers together in a music hall tour of the UK and Ireland, where they were adored and celebrated wherever they went.

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The early films were all 3-reel shorts – up to 25 minutes usually, including the classics Pardon Us, The Music Box and Big Business, to name but three and they turned to features in 1933, including Sons Of The Desert and Way Out West, although carried on making shorts too.  They were astoundingly consistent – overweight, pompous vain Ollie is the perfect foil for scaredy-cat dimwit physical comedian Stan.  In fact Stan Laurel, who was English, produced almost all of their films, although he largely went uncredited.  My favourite moments though are almost all Oliver Hardy, his comic timing is impeccable and his incredulous looks directly into the lens are quite simply awesome.

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Irritation has never been so utterly hilarious.  But in truth they are a double act and Ollie’s looks and internal fury would not be funny without Stan clowning cleverly around in befuddlement, breaking things, spilling things, dropping things, losing things, and crying.

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James Finlayson

In 1937 they made the feature Way Out West with regular foil, actor James Finlayson and co-star Rosina Lawrence as the heroine in distress.

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At one point in the saloon bar of the western town they sing The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine : after a young cowboy sings the opening verse, Ollie takes verse two, then they harmonise the chorus together before the comic finale.  Earlier in the film they dance outside the saloon bar to another song – “At The Ball, That’s All” by The Avalon Brothers, another sweet and funny moment, also linked, but not embedded, below.

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The song Trail Of The Lonesome Pine was written in 1913 by Ballard McDonald & Harry Carroll,  Tin Pan Alley turned Broadway songwriters and it was the title song in a Broadway play of the same name, itself based on a novel.  In 1936 Henry Hathaway directed the film version of Trail Of The Lonesome Pine starring Fred MacMurray, Silvia Sydney and Henry Fonda and the title song was sung over the opening credits.  A 78 record by The Hillbillies may have inspired Stan and Ollie to cover the song with The Avalon Brothers as it has a similar harmonic arrangement.

                                                                                    Harry Carroll

Almost all of Laurel and Hardy’s short films   have a comic piece of music which introduces them – their signature tune called KuKu or The Cuckoo Song was composed by Marvin Hatley and originally features two clarinets, one pompous and pleased with itself, the other playing two simple cuckoo notes – Oliver Hardy heard it at the studio and asked if they could use it for their shorts.  It was later orchestrated and I include a link to the original double clarinet version below.

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This song – Lonesome Pine – though short, is rather wonderful, even without the visuals it works as a record – indeed it was released as a single in 1975 and got to number two in the charts in the UK, on the back of an LP release of their music “The Golden Age Of Hollywood Comedy“.   John Peel played the single three times in one week and it climbed almost to the top of the charts that Christmas, only being held off the Number One slot by another novelty record but of a completely different kind : Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.

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One of the joys of Top Of The Pops (our weekly Thursday night fix of pop music on TV) was seeing this clip from Way Out West followed by the early pop promo efforts of Freddie Mercury and his pals.  If you listen to the song without watching the film you can hear James Finlayson (the Scottish regular in their movies) set them up with a drink before Chill Wills from the Avalon Brothers sings the first verse.  Ollie takes over then Stan and Ollie sing in harmony.  Oliver Hardy actually was a trained singer and his is the higher voice.  When Stan starts “singing” in a foolish bass voice – he’s actually miming over Chill Wills who provided the bass part – you can almost hear Ollie summon the barman to give him a hammer, and you can definitely hear him “testing” it on the bar before giving Stan a bop on the head.   The song finishes with Stan miming the soprano part, provided by co-star Rosina Lawrence, and falling over into the spittoon.  Perfect.

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I have the 45rpm 7-inch single somewhere among my treasures, with “Honolulu Baby” on the B-side.  John Peel played that too.

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Trail Of The Lonesome Pine from Way Out West, not embedded by request just click on the link :

and here are The Hillbillies from a 1930 78rpm Regal Zonophone record :

and here is a piano roll from the early 1920s – probably Mae Brown :

Dance Of The Cuckoos :

you’ve got this far, why not click below on the classic dance routine by Stan and Ollie to the Avalon Brothers with Chill Wills singing “At The Ball, That’s All” from 1937 :

My Pop Life #90 : Didi – Cheb Khaled

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Didi   –   Khaled
…la zhar la memoon la aargoob zine

didi, didi, didi, didi, zin di wah….

I’m just fated to have bad luck,

take, take, take, take this beautiful girl away…

This song is such a dear favourite of the amazing woman that I married, as were the last two songs I posted (Silencio in My Pop Life #88 and Some Folks Lives Roll Easy in My Pop Life #89) that I am seriously considering calling this section My Pop Wife.   It’s dance music for the world, and was a huge hit across the Mediterranean and far beyond in 1992, the year of our marriage, and the ripple carried through to 1993, getting as far as India.  Didi was used in a Bollywood film, and performed by Khaled at the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony.  It is his best-known song and I have proof of its dance-floor credentials from personal experience.

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I first came across Cheb Khaled (as he was known in 1984) when I bought his LP Hada Raykoum – it was raw and thrilling, the sound of raï music from Algeria.  At that time I was living in Finsbury Park with my muslim Pakistani girlfriend Mumtaz.  We went to see Khaled at the Royal Festival Hall where he had the whole venue up and out of their seats – he and his band were electrifying.  Khaled was born in Oran in 1960 and became well-known as a teenager through his cassette tapes.  He is an amazing singer.  Raï music was frowned upon for many years in Algeria, being considered a bastardization of traditional islamic music.

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Cheikha Remitti (3rd left)

Raï started out as a cross between Sephardic Jewish, Spanish, French and Arabic music in Oran, a vulgar street music which rejected conservative islamic values and definitions of what could and couldn’t be heard.  The first and still most influential star of the genre was the legendary Cheikha Remitti who popularised the bawdy and earthy songs which had previously only been heard behind closed doors at weddings and other events.  The association of ‘fallen women’ with the music kept raï music unrespectable, and she was banned from TV and radio by the first independent Government of Algeria in 1962 (because she’d sung in French-controlled areas during the revolution), and yet the working-class poor adored her and Khaled no doubt would have heard her as he grew up.

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She died, still performing and recording at the age of 83, in 2006.

Pop raï was born in the 1960s when music and instruments from other cultures, (including Jamaica) started being adopted, and the moniker Cheb (chief) was used for the popular performers to distinguish them from the previous generation.  Cheb Mami for example also had a huge following in France among the Algerian diaspora.  Cheb Khaled though rose head and shoulders above the pack, and when World Music was promoted in the UK by the likes of Earthworks and Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD in the early 1980s, raï was among the new styles and sounds that we hungrily consumed.

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Hada Raykoum was my first raï purchase in 1984, a stunning slice of Maghreb soul with accordion and drums of various kinds (I don’t know what they are called I’m afraid, please feel free to add details below!) providing the backing for Cheb Khaled’s aching emotional voice.  He would drop the prefix “Cheb” later and by 1992 when his breakthrough LP “Khaled” was released, (produced by Don Was), he was called simply “Khaled”.   The new sound had bass guitar and synthesisers, but still retained the Algerian raï flavour.  It was a massive crossover hit.

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In 2001 the film I’d written “New Year’s Day” – the most scarring experience of my professional life (see My Pop Life #75,) – had its UK Premiere in Brighton, my home town.   It was probably November.  In the Marina cinema.   Although I haven’t told you, dear reader, about exactly why it was the most scarring experience of my professional life, for now all you need to know is that Jenny and I nearly got divorced during the making of the film.   Now revealed in My Pop Life #226 Exit Music For A Film and the following two posts, 227 and 227.  We both fell out badly, and finally, with the director of the film, (why should I name him?) who nevertheless turned up all smiles to the Premiere.

Before we went in the local paper was taking pictures of the famous people (jeez) who’d swung by : Richard E. Grant and Kevin Rowland, Mark Williams and maybe me.   Then I saw Bobby Zamora at the sweets counter and went a little mental.   “Bobby” I said, “Hi !” ( I should add that we knew each other a bit thanks to the small world of Brighton and Hove Albion – the football team I supported and which he played for in 2001.  Played for?  He was our star centre-forward ! )   I burbled at him unnecessarily about my premiere, and he smiled and offered congratulations.  “Why don’t you come in and see the film?”  I asked like a burbling twerp.  “No thanks” he said.  “I’m going to see blahblahblah”.  My crest probably fell, but not for long.   Oh well.   Back in Screen 1, the premiere was chock full of friends old and new, including people who were, in disguise, portrayed in the film.   I made a little speech which was emotional (the film is very much a testimony of sorts) and thanked Danny Perkins and Will Clarke from Optimum who were distributing the movie, and then we watched it.   It was good.   Mainly.   Afterwards we crammed into taxis and perhaps a double decker bus which took us down to the PARTY which was in the Zap Club.  As it was still called in those days.

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And we had already decided who was DJ-ing, and prime position was taken by my pop wife, Jenny Jules.  And yes it was November because not two months earlier the Twin Towers had been destroyed in New York by two piloted planes, not to mention the Pentagon, and we all knew the world would change forever and yes – the anti-islamic feeling which we all take for granted now in 2015 was just starting to surface.  We knew it would.  And Jenny played this song Didi by Khaled at the height of the party.  And we danced to those muslim rhythms and those arabic words.  And shortly afterwards, one of our friends Naima, a Moroccan lady with two beautiful daughters and an English husband Steve who had converted to Islam to marry her, went up to Jenny and hugged her tight.  “Thank you for playing that” she said, “you don’t know what the last two months have been like”.

My Pop Life #89 : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy – Paul Simon

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Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy  –   Paul Simon

…some folks lives roll easy, some folks lives…never roll at all…

…most folks never catch their stars…

It’s a slight, unshowy track on Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon’s masterpiece.  It’s a magnificent album chock-full of hits and flashy songs, the title track alone is the work of a genius, but then there’s My Little Town, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Have A Good Time – for me this is the perfect LP.  Look at it this way – you’ve written the song.  You have wonderful chords, searching lyrics, you’ve done well, you’ve chosen only the creme de la creme of your work.  And then :  you arrange them.

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 I’m a sucker for a great arrangement, something with a bit of thought, a bit of TLC.   Paul Simon shares this arranging fetish with Bob Marley – rarely is a song a straight guitar strum 4×4 and drum beat with a few bvs.  No – there is a careful consideration of how to tell the story of the song musically – and this means instruments dropping out, only appearing for the turnarounds, treating pop music a little more like a classical composition.  Brian Wilson went there with Pet Sounds, Kate Bush lives there.   There is something about jazz musicians playing pop arrangements that delivers delicious music (he generalised : eg Motown) – the line-up of A-list session players on Still Crazy After All These Years is long and distinguished and includes the celebrated Steve Gadd on drums and Mike Brecker on saxophone.

This is probably the most compassionate song I know.  The concept of the piece – that some folks’ lives roll easy, while others don’t, is relatively simple, and yet not commonplace in pop at all.  There are songs which celebrate, defiantly, being working-class – Dead-End Street by The Kinks, most of The Streets output, The Clash – and there are songs celebrating or lamenting the easy life – large chunks of hip hop, Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks, disturbingly large amounts of Bryan Ferry – but there are very few songs it seems to me which put these two universes together in the same song.

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The narrator – Mr Paul Simon – contemplates the fact that “most folks never catch their stars”  – this alone is an astounding line in a pop song and the truth of it stabs you unexpectedly with its clear-eyed compassion.  Then we’re in the middle eight and the narrator suddenly becomes the self-confessed supplicant speaking directly to his “Lord” – at his place of business, despite having “no business here”.  He speaks directly to his God :

“You said if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted?”

The music around this repeated middle eight is tremendously affecting. first time around a simple string section supports and leads us away from this humble prayer,  then it repeats :

here I am Lord, knocking at your place of business, and I know, I got no business here

but you said, if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted…”

and this time the horns punch us back to the first verse “Some folks’ lives roll easy, some folks never roll at all, they just fall, they just fall…” but this time with a soaring three-part harmony which tears your heart open.   If you have one, naturally.

There is no chorus in this song which is unusual, but what is more unusual is the narrative that it offers.  We think we know this story, but when we hear the song, we hear it all over again on another level.  It’s pretty damn special.

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I didn’t buy solo Paul Simon until the 90s, but this song quickly became one of my wife’s favourites.   I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, I had singles and greatest hits as a very young teen.  They were the sound of my youth.   I thought, and still think, they were totally amazing.   But I never did bother to follow up and get into Paul Simon until I was deep into my thirties.  This LP, his 4th, came out in 1975 and is perfect, as described above.  Of course there is Graceland which broke the boycott but helped make Ladysmith Black Mambazo into international stars, Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon, ah look, there’s a kind of endless tapestry of brilliant songs and LPs to be honest, right up to the present day (2011’s So Beautiful or So What), consistency applied – he never appears to write a bad song, and his taste in musicians and arrangements is impeccable.

Featured imageJenny and I went to Liverpool for the year of culture in 2008 and had an absolutely brilliant long weekend – again a subject for another post (!) but we did see Paul Simon at the new Echo Arena on the River Mersey, with his incredible band which includes South African Bakithi Kumalo (pictured) on bass (with Simon since Graceland in 1986), and Cameroonian Vincent Nguini on guitar.   He didn’t play this song, but did sing Sound Of Silence, The Boxer, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Gumboots, Boy In The Bubble, Duncan, Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard, Mrs Robinson, Still Crazy, Slip Slidin’ Away and You Can Call Me Al.  Among others.   An amazing night.

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So, cut to : at some point in 2010 I’m basically giving up every Saturday morning, sometimes the whole day to canvas on behalf of Caroline Lucas of The Green Party in the Brighton Pavilion constituency for the 2010 election.   A Party which I’d recently joined, partly due to renewed political optimism engendered by Barack Obama‘s first election victory (white Americans voted for a black man – there is hope).  The Green Party understands that some folks lives roll easy, some don’t.  Many former Labour supporters joined the Greens, myself included,  depressed by the right turn of Blairism, and the pusillanimous surrender of the Labour Left to the City – see the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) for the NHS if you doubt my words.  So:  I’m meeting Green volunteers who’ve taken the train down from all across the UK to Brighton to support the big push, and they’re getting into my 4×4 Jeep Cherokee (converted to LPG!!) and being taken out to places like Withdean and Hollingbury.   To leaflet every household.  And Radio 3 has a show being presented by Richard Curtis, with whom I’d worked the previous year on The Boat That Rocked his film about Radio Caroline (yes yes there will be posts about that obviously ! see My Pop Life #205 Sure Nuff ‘n’ Yes I Do) and really enjoyed his humourous positivity.  He’s actually not particularly English, probably because he grew up in diplomatic surroundings in dozens of different countries.  And maybe that gives him a slightly dewy-eyed view of England.  Anyway enough Freud, he was on Radio 3 this very day in 2010.   And he was playing his six most personal favourite songs.  And one of them was this one : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy by Paul Simon.   It made me love him even more.   The UK public are as hard on Richard as they are on Paul McCartney – big soppy rich so-and-so they appear to mutter under their breath – we prefer snarling mean people, like us.  Well sod you all, mean people.  Richard Curtis is one of the sweetest people I know, generous, funny, loves music and is genuinely supportive.  You may not like his films, or Blackadder, or Comic Relief, but if that is the case, have you actually sat down and asked yourself what is wrong with you ?

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Compassion is not to be sneered at.  It’s what makes us grow.  The best bit of ourselves.  Let’s nurture it.

My Pop Life #88 : Silencio – Ibrahim Ferrer

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Silencio   –   Ibrahim Ferrer with Omara Portuondo

…Duermen en mi jardin
Las blancas azucenas, los nardos y las rosas,
Mi alma muy triste y pesarosa
A las flores quiere ocultar su amargo dolor…

Jenny and I went to see the film Buena Vista Social Club in 1999 upon its release.  Directed by Wim Wenders, it charts the rehearsals of a group of Cuban musicians, some in their 90s as they play some of the old Cuban boleros and ballades and sones from the heyday of the pre-Castro era in 1940s & 1950s  Havana.  Featured imageThe accompanying LP had been released two years earlier in 1997 with Ry Cooder producing and his son Joaquim on drums and percussion.  It was an instant classic, most particularly the opening track “Chan Chan” which became ubiquitous in coffee-shops around Brighton and parts of London (and indeed the entire world).   The ageing stars all became actual stars, and one of the more moving scenes in the film is the musicians arriving in Manhattan and marvelling at the architecture, presumably never dreaming they’d visit New York City.   Compay Segundo played tres and sang, Ruben Gonzalez piano, Cachito Lopez was on double bass, Eliades Ochoa was on guitar and vocals, Ry Cooder played slide mainly and Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo sang.

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One of the highlights of the film was the Rafael Hernandez song “Silencio“, performed by Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo both in rehearsal and onstage in Amsterdam.    For some reason the song wasn’t on the Buena Vista Social Club LP, but instead turned up on Ibrahim Ferrer’s first solo LP “Buena Vista Social Club introduces Ibrahim Ferrer“, also produced by Cooder in 1999.   His incredible vocal style, reminiscent of Nat King Cole in it’s delicacy, melts me every time I hear it, and this in combination with the lyrics has confirmed this piece as one of Jenny and I’s all-time special songs.  We bought it on CD, and it came with a very thorough little colourful booklet which had the Spanish lyrics to every song, and the English translation on the opposite page.  We actually decided to use the CD as a language tool and tried to learn Spanish in time for our winter visit to Cuba 1999/2000.  The first verse sets the scene :

…Duermen en mi jardin 

Sleeping in my garden

Las blancas azucenas, los nardos y las rosas,    

the white lilies, the agave and the roses

Mi alma muy triste y pesarosa  

my soul so very sad and regretful, 

A las flores quiere ocultar su amargo dolor…      

the flowers want to hide my bitter pain…


I want to hide my bitter pain from the flowers ?

The conceit of the song is that the flowers are sensitive to him : “I do not want them to see my true feelings“, and the punchline is right there in the last line, repeated : “si me ven llorando, moriran”   :  “if they see me crying, they will die“.

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It is a very beautiful song indeed, and in the live version on film we see tears in Omara’s eyes as she sings that line, Ibrahim Ferrer notices and wipes them away, an extremely affecting moment.

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Jenny and I flew to Havana in December 1999, just as the entire planet was getting ready to celebrate the millennium.  Fidel Castro, alone among world leaders, had declared that the millennium was actually one year hence, when 2000 became 2001, since 2001 was the first year of the new millennium, and if you think about it, (do the math!) he is absolutely correct.  The year 2000 signals the end of the 99th year of the century.  But the speedometer numbers turning together became a far more potent symbol and the world sheepishly followed the digits.   Meanwhile Air France lost all our bags en route (we flew via Paris, and having missed the plane because it wasn’t announced in the lounge, had to overnight in Madrid where we went clubbing briefly).  They turned up six days later in Havana Airport (where we went every day to the same desk in case our bags had been flown in), minus one bag which never did turn up.  They also lost a bag on the way home.  Never fly Air France readers !

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Havana was extraordinary, crumbling like a beautiful classy kind old lady, a once-magnificent colonial city on the sea with two economies, local and tourist.   Jenny was often mistaken for a local cubana which meant that a)  I’d bought her, and that b) now and again we paid the tourist price (2p for an ice-cream).   We thought we’d see some of the Buena Vista musicians playing somewhere, but that was our naïve European dream.   We met Carlos & Manolo, theatre director and lighting designer (via Miriam Ryle‘s contact) and they showed us their beautiful city.    Their aunt ran a local restaurant downstairs, called a paladare, the night we ate there our hotel companion John Singleton (director of Boyz n The Hood) was also there with his family.  We celebrated New Year’s Eve with Carlos & Manolo and their friends at a rooftop party, and ended up dancing on the Malecon – the long sea wall – at 5am.  It’s a magical city.   After a few nights in an Old Town Hotel we moved to an apartment in one of the majestic crumbling blocks near the centre with Manolo’s uncle’s family.   It keeps the tourist money in the community.   After about a week there, and various adventures which I’ll account for another time (see My Pop Life #173 Como Fue), we received a phone call from Jenny’s sister Lucy who was house-sitting for us in Brighton. She told us that we’d been burgled.   We cut short the holiday by three weeks and flew back to England to deal with insurance and nonsense.  We’ve never been back to Cuba, but I’m sure it’s different now.

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I should briefly salute the great Ry Cooder, whose musical career has been one of true wonder, from playing on Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk, The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Little Feat’s Willin’, Randy Newman’s 12 Songs, and The Beach Boys’s Kokomo to producing Bobby King & Terry Evans, playing with Ali Farka Toure, as well as producing countless great LPs of his own, most notably perhaps Bop Til You Drop and Chavez Ravine and the soundtrack to Paris, Texas.  I’ve only scratched the surface of his work to be honest.  We got to see him live later in New York – see My Pop Life #208 I Can’t Win.

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There are two versions of Silencio below, both by Ibrahim Ferrer. It’s a latin classic written in the 50s by the Puerto Rican Gershwin/Cole Porter/Irving Berlin, national treasure Rafael Hernandez and which has been covered by many great stars from Trio Los Principes in 1960 to Venezualan tenor Felipe Pirela in 1966.  The version from the film has Ry Cooder’s slightly intrusive slide guitar, tastefully toned down somewhat for the studio version recorded some two years later.  Both, however, are utterly stunning.   I prefer the solo LP version personally, but the film with them singing live is so moving…

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Buena Vista Social Club, directed by Wim Wenders :

Silencio, from Ibrahim Ferrer’s first solo LP :

My Pop Life #87 : Prélude a l’àprés-midi d’un faune – Claude Debussy

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Prélude a l’àprès-midi d’un faune   –   Claude Debussy

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There used to be two working piers in Brighton.  The Palace Pier, which still stands and contains the Victorian helter skelter and a pub ‘Horatios’, and the West Pier where I saw my first gig (The Barron Knights – see My Pop Life #63) and which was closed in 1975 due to high maintenance costs.  Built and designed by Eugenius Birch in 1866 it was Grade 2 listed despite slowly rotting away, and in the late 1990s a little momentum gathered to apply for English Heritage and Lottery money for a full restoration.  The owners of the Palace Pier, the Ignoble Organisation (sic) were not happy at all, scenting competition.  In 2003 not one but TWO fires occurred on the West Pier’s rotten structure, home only to bird’s roosts and the odd pop video, and it burnt to a shell.

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It felt like the entire population of the town was on the beach that morning to watch it burn away.  Earlier, a speedboat was spotted leaving the scene of the crime, and in my view the Latin phrase ‘cui bono‘ is the appropriate pointer to who was ultimately responsible.  After the fires English Heritage deemed it unfit for restoration, and it was partly demolished to make way for the i360 which may also be a cause of competition for The Palace Pier, (unnecessarily re-named Brighton Pier for similar ugly reasons).

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But before the fires, Andy Baybutt and I used to enjoy sitting on the stones and watching the starlings wheel and spin at sunset every night in a glorious and mysterious ballet before roosting in their thousands beneath the structure.  We decided – in a moment of stoned genius naturally – to film this local safari and so for twelve almost consecutive evenings in 2000 we shot the birds wheeling and falling through the air on their singular and collective missions with two mini-DV cams.  The lighting was hugely different each night.  We asked and received permission to film the spectacular event on the pier itself from Rachel at the West Pier Trust, and walked down the rickety iron walkway through the derelict ballroom to the theatre at the end, shooting through broken glass at the starlings flying in their thousands past the decay.

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We’d already shot a pop video for The Crocketts on the West Pier with local mate and actor Mark Williams for a song called “Host” – which you can find on YouTube – we also shot on the Palace Pier for that video…so the pier filming wasn’t unique, but the idea of filming nature was.   There’s a mini-murmuration in the “Host” video, but now we were after the full thing.  {Murmuration is the collective noun for a group of starlings}.  They gather just before dusk and start flying in seemingly-random-but-stunning formations over and around the pier, splitting, soaring, swooping, changing direction and shape like a shoal of fish or a galaxy exploding, atomic particles under a microscope.   It really is quite mesmerising (whether you’re stoned or not).

One day before shooting we sat there watching it with various songs in the headphones wondering what would work.  As soon as Claude Debussy‘s flute line came lilting through my ears I knew it was right – and once the orchestra starts to play, in the same tempo as the birds are flying, the music really found its purpose.

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Claude Debussy

Written in 1894 and inspired by a poem by Mallarmé, this impressionistic piece of music – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in English – is often cited as the start of modern music in that it never concludes or resolves itself.   The poet was unhappy about someone writing music to his poem – until he heard it.  Claude Debussy himself spent time in East Sussex and wrote another impressionistic masterpiece “La Mer” (the sea) in Eastbourne in 1905.

Featured imageDebussy was a hugely influential composer, particularly on Ravel, Gershwin, Delius, and Stravinsky among the classical composers, and Ellington, Miles Davis, Monk and John Williams among the jazz and film composers.    Prélude a l’àprès-midi d’un faune was danced as a ballet in fact in 1924 by the great Nijinsky and caused much furore when he appeared to masturbate as part of the production – despite this being one of the themes of the piece.  In the original poem a satyr or puck-like figure follows some nymphs one summer’s afternoon, becoming aroused, but cannot catch them and have his wicked way so instead falls asleep in the afternoon sun.  It is a beautiful piece of music and immediately accessible, even with its key changes and tempo adjustments, the flute keeps reappearing and serenading us into bliss.  When matched with the starling’s ballet some serendipitous magic appears to be at work – surely they can hear it?

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As to why the starlings fly in this way – we do not know.   I have researched it a great deal – they are my favourite birds – and theories abound.  They’re making a defensive formation against peregrine falcons.  They’re enjoying themselves before they go to bed.  Fish do it as a defensive collective measure.  So perhaps.  Best theory I know is this :  they’re trying to get a roosting position next to the strongest flyers, the ones who can turn speed and direction fastest, because they’ve eaten best that day, and in the morning they’ll wake together and follow them out to the feeding ground.  Who knows ?

Andy Baybutt and I met as mutual friends of Mark Williams, an actor I’d met at the RSC in 1990 (my last time on stage until 2009) and who’d moved to Brighton just before Jenny and I.  Mark had surrounded himself with young people in Brighton – still friends of ours many of them : Josh, Keith & Yarra, Andy & Jo (then together), Patrick, Kirsty, Sorya, Louise.    Andy and Jo got married shortly thereafter.   For some inexplicable reason I always treated Andy B like a long-lost younger brother, possibly because I have two younger brothers.   When he and Jo split up later on it felt like all of our mutual friends sided with Jo.   I always want to stay friends with both parties, but this naive approach has got me in trouble in the past.  Somehow I managed to do it in this case, and Jo Thornhill and Andy Baybutt are still two of my close friends to this day.

Andy is a camera expert and and a very good director in his own right (see Something For Nothing : The Art Of Rap) and we made three short films together in those Brighton years –  “The Murmuration” is the best of them and quite probably the best thing I have ever done.  No words, no people, just starlings and music, a perfect match.   When we edited the footage on my computer in 2001 the music gave us a finite timeline – just over eleven minutes – and the differing skylines and colours of those 12 sunsets had to appear to be the same day – and so we had our work cut out.   The wind was also a factor, any gust of wind would cause a tremble in the picture (no tripods!) – so the edit was a major challenge in retrospect.   The finished product isn’t perfect but it does work as a piece of art – ‘ambient film‘ perhaps.   I always wondered if it could be a pre-flight soother, or play in dentist’s waiting rooms.   There is untapped commercial potential but my hustle isn’t really built for that.   For a while Andy and I sold DVDs of the film at The West Pier Trust office but that fizzled out – there must be a few hundred out there somewhere.   I don’t actually have a copy of the film myself anymore.   Andy and I talk often about putting it on youtube, but we never do.  Extra footage was shot by Amanda Ooms‘ sister Sara Kander while Andy and I were on the Pier itself, she was on the beach when tens of thousands of birds were wheeling around the crumbling structure, that was an amazing day, and some of our most spectacular footage.   Help with production was generously offered by Jo Thornhill, Jenny Jules, Steve McNicholas & Luke Cresswell.

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The last day of filming was a little overcast.  Andy thought it wouldn’t match for light, but I was a little addicted to the process and went out in drizzly weather and staked out a position at 90 degrees to the pier, looking directly out to sea.  After shooting for some 35 minutes, the battery light started to flash red.  At that exact moment the birds appeared to fly together in a series of mesmerising turns just to the west of the pier, with a section landing at each turn, the mass murmuration becoming gradually smaller and smaller.  I watched in alarm as this beauty unfolded in front of me – the camera was balanced on a 10p piece on the railing – the light flashed, the starlings dwindled, the light faded and finally the last few birds settled beneath the pier and all that remained were the grey waves and the derelict structure.  And then the battery ran out and the camera went dark.  Luck, magic, faith, love…   But there’s more.   When Andy and I realised that the footage from that day had to be the final shot of the film, as the music gently relaxes and fades, we lined up the last bird landing with the last note of the music, and then watched it back.  On at least three occasions the birds turn precisely in time with the music.  Quite extraordinary…

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There are many many versions of this online, ranging from 7 minutes (Paganini – ridiculously fast!) to over 11 minutes, which is my personal preference, and the preference of the starlings themselves I believe…

If anyone reading this has a copy of The Murmuration perhaps you could let me know…

POST-SCRIPT !  In the final moments of 2015 Andy made a digital copy from the master beta tape, and uploaded the whole damn thing onto YouTube.  So here it is pop-lovers, starlings, the West Pier, and Debussy…

My Pop Life #86 : I Know You Got Soul – Eric B & Rakim

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I Know You Got Soul   –   Eric B & Rakim

…I got soul – that’s why I came, to teach those who can’t say my name

first of all I’m the soloist the soul controller Rakim get stronger as I get older…

The first rap I could recite all the way through, so hooked was I on its combination of beats rhymes and lyrical wisdom.  Rakim remains my favourite rapper as a technician and for his flow – second to none.  I’m very fond of Chuck D and Busta Rhymes and Eminem, people keep telling me about Big Pun but Rakim is the man in the end.  For me.   He almost always raps about one fairly narrow topic : ie what a great rapper he is : “Ego to M.C. is my theme”.  He manages to explore this potentially barren subject matter in ways that indicate major creative talent.  The subject of how great he is at rapping appears to be an inexhaustible source of words and rhymes, quite extraordinary.   In another song he states “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard, flip it, now it’s a daily word.”   

Eric Barrier and William Griffin are from Long Island, New York City.  They came together in the mid-80s and hooked up with Marley Marl who they paid to produce their first single Eric B Is President.  In 1987 they recorded their first LP “Paid In Full” also with Marley Marl and MC Shan.  Reportedly, Rakim was writing the rhymes on pieces of paper in the studio and then reading them in the booth when he was recording.  The result was dynamite and possibly the greatest hip-hop album ever made, certainly one of the most influential.  “I Know You Got Soul” samples Bobby Byrd, James Brown and Original P on a dry tough rhythm bed laid down by Eric B.  Rakim’s delivery of the lyrics remains unmatched in hip hop history except perhaps by himself on “Follow The Leader” – there’s no shouting, no threats, no guns, no wasted energy, just a beautiful display of lyrical talent and finesse.

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I was obsessed with this song and this LP in 1987 when it was released.  Along with Raisin’ Hell by Run DMC and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back by Public Enemy it remains one of the three cornerstones of my golden age of hip hop.  The sides of the pyramid are filled with great singles by KRS-One, EPMD, Kool Moe Dee, Salt-n-Pepa, Big Daddy Kane and Roxanne Shanté.

These songs became the essential research materials for the play I was writing for Joint Stock Theatre Company, which was to be a rap musical.  I’d pitched it to the Joint Stock steering committee with Paulette Randall my friend and director and after the great writer Caryl Churchill had asked me “wasn’t I nervous about writing my first play?” and I’d answered “not really, I just want to do it…” they’d given us the thumbs up.   This meant we had a three week workshop to research the play, I had a ten-week “gap” to write it, we then had a six-week rehearsal period to mount the finished product.  It remains for me the best way to create new work which is based around a community, which the community then hopefully get to come and see.  In this case the community was homeless teenagers around London and the South West, including the hippie convoy people who became the 1990s squatting movement.  We cast my girlfriend Rita Wolf (she was the best candidate frankly), David Keyes, Kwabena Manso, Carl Procter, Gaylie Runciman & Pamela Nomvete.  Jenny Tiramani was our designer and joined Paulette and I on the workshop.

Here’s how it worked. The rehearsal/workshop room in Bethnal Green had a permanent hot-seat at the end of the room where we would sit and testify, about who we’d met and talked to (real people living rough, in bed and breakfast, cardboard city etc).  Those conversations between homeless people and actors would then be dramatised in the workshop room.  Like testimonies.  Then we discussed too our own experience of housing, and often found that we had homeless moments ourselves (particularly Paulette and I).  But generally I was busy at the other end of the room writing furious notes on these encounters, research for the play I was about to create.  And I think I started to realise why I was writing this play in the first place.  It was undoubtedly due to my own vulnerable housing history, noted across this museum of recollections and particularly in the following pages (see My Pop Life #84 All Along The Watchtower, and My Pop Life #121 Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long to start with).

So we were like journalist/researchers, discovering the world of homeless, the hidden homeless in particular the bed-and-breakfast hotels filled with broken families on Social Security.  The Joint Stock Method – which is the gold standard for this crucial type of work – I had been lucky enough to experience with director Simon Curtis & writer Steven Wakelam in a play about journalists called Deadlines.  I wrote about the workshop, Arthur Scargill and the IRA in The Joint Stock Book and reproduced that chapter in My Pop Life #185 Between The Wars.  It wasn’t all politics and misery and survival though.  For kicks the company went en masse to see Run DMC, Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys live in Brixton, and I saw LL Cool J, Public Enemy & Eric B & Rakim  in Hammersmith on the DefJam Tour.  Marvellous times.

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Paulette Randall

I was convinced that rap was inherently dramatic as a form, and totally suited to drama and plays.  We called the result “Sanctuary” and it was a kind of rap musical, with raps instead of songs.  There are many other pieces here about the whole experience, just type Sanctuary into the search box top right.  We didn’t have the money for a DJ or to sample tunes, but the crowds came, it was deemed a hit, we toured the UK, and the following year the play won the Samuel Beckett Award for best first play.   I should publicly thank Karen Mistry for that, Joint Stock administrator at the time, since she insisted on sending in the manuscript to the judges (C4, Royal Court, Faber & Faber).  I had lunch with a C4 woman in Fitzrovia who asked me what I wanted to do.  I said “direct a film“, and she snorted in derision.  The Royal Court shunned me completely, and Faber & Faber didn’t publish the play.  However, thanks to the actual judges – (two playwrights one of whom was the wonderful writer Brian Friel) I still won the accolade for which I was very grateful.

Very little rap drama was forthcoming after Sanctuary.  I did the play in Washington D.C., (see My Pop Life#137 The Word/Sardines and others) and wrote a new one commissioned by the BBC set in DC which was all verse, like a rap opera, but the BBC rejected that and it has never been performed.  There have been the odd moments – Ragamuffin in London was terrific, but little else really until Lin Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights in 2005 onwards and then of course “Hamilton” which Jenny and I saw this year (2015) at The Public Theatre, NYC.  It is a bio-play about Alexander Hamilton, Founding Father of the USA, written entirely in verse and rapped and spat by a multi-ethnic company where George Washington was played by a black man and the lead was a Puerto Rican American Manuel Lin Miranda himself who also wrote the music.   It’s opening on Broadway in July.  I was smiling all the way through it.  I was right.  Rap is inherently dramatic.  Only took everyone 25 years to work that out.

It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you

Without a strong rhyme to step to

Think of how many weak shows you slept through ?

Time’s up – sorry I kept you

Thinking of this you keep repeating your miss

The rhymes from the microphone soloist

So you sit by the radio hand on the dial soon – as you hear it

Pump up the volume…

Sampled of course by M/A/R/R/S for their number one hit single of the same name.  I Know You Got Soul is a massive massive tune which I could never do justice to in a single 1000-word blog.  It’s still my all-time favourite hip-hop tune.  Thanks for reading.

My Pop Life#85 : The Undercover Man – Van Der Graaf Generator

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The Undercover Man   –   Van Der Graaf Generator

here…at the glass…all the usual problems…all the habitual farce..

you uncertain voice..what you should if there were a choice..

..but to carry on..miming the song..

..and hope that it all works out right

Didn’t need to look up the lyrics for this song.   Burned into my brain.   The man who wrote them, Peter Hammill, he of the extraordinary angelic devil’s voice, was a constant companion of mine through the 1970s.  I bought H to He (Who Am The Only One) from Simon Korner in 1971 (?) Van Der Graaf’s second LP, quite possibly my first album that was all mine;  terribly weird and prog, heavy and jazzy, literate and dense.   I loved it.   I still do.  I first heard this track from their 5th album on the John Peel show late one night in my bedroom in Hailsham.  Van Der Graaf Generator were so underground and unloved at school (Lewes Priory) that I was astonished to hear their name and their music on the actual radio.  The song is from an album called Godbluff.   This and the follow-up Still Life are my favourite musical moments from VDGG.   There is something about the intensity of Hammill’s lyrics and his uncompromising vocal delivery, his fury and his passion, his feeling and his focus that drilled through the teenage me, through all the layers of coping and pretence and bearing up, all the capability that I summoned at each maternal nervous breakdown, each visit to the phone box to call the doctor and complain about the latest bottle of pills prescribed to Mum, each battle in the kitchen over food, washing up, coal, cats, milk bills, noise, TV channels or haircuts.  The music exposed my innermost panic.  It cut through the pop fluff and the melodic flair to the gritty bone of loneliness that was my very private world.  In a way it was quite good that no one else in school liked Van Der Graaf Generator because I didn’t want to share my feelings with anyone.   Of course I used to feel that my spectacularly dysfunctional family was a kind of pin-up of affliction, that the cross I bore, heavy and splintered and surely too much for one teenage boy to carry, was heavier and harder than anyone else’s.   It was a badge of honour, a hidden scar that I would only reveal to girlfriends, look, this is who I really am, then they would want to make it better, and they did !

Now an adult I see my childhood as just another suburban tragedy. Everyone has one.

I bought this LP in 1975 when it came out – late October as the leaves fell from the trees.  I’d left school, left home and been left by my girlfriend in the same week (see My Pop Life #58).

My first day of work on B Villa, Laughton Lodge I had thirty strange faces staring at me – the new nursing assistant in a white coat with name badge.  The friendliest bloke Martin had Down’s Syndrome and immediately introduced himself “hello sir!” with a strong lisp.  He shouldn’t have been in there.  But who should ?  Described on the entrance hoarding as a “Hospital For The Mentally Sub-Normal”, Laughton Lodge in 1975 was what local people called the loony bin, ‘bedlam’ or the madhouse.   On B Villa all the 30 men could walk, feed themselves and take themselves to the toilet.   Critical distinctions.   It meant our work was watching out for epileptic fits, walking the hyper Michael Payne round the grounds because he upset the other “residents”, taking a select group to ‘work experience’, or maybe into Lewes, sorting out problems and fights and helping with tying of shoelaces, distribution of drugs (I wasn’t allowed to do this except with another nurse) and subduing of violence.  The drug of choice was Largactyl, the chemical cosh.  Half of the ward walked around like zombies under the effect of this powerful sedative.  The other half either behaved, or were headed the same way.  Ian was severely autistic and didn’t speak, kind of yelped when he was upset.  He had memorised all the puzzles in the day-room, he would pick up a piece and know where it went immediately.  Ronnie was a 19-year old murderer, and a pyschopath with a sickly grin.  Gerald was a big dangerous intelligent man who would explode with violence from time to time, attack another patient, he smashed the acquarium one day, it would take six male nurses to hold him down.  when a patient went “up the wall” they acquired superhuman strength from deep within and furniture would go flying.  We had largactyl injections, straightjackets and a padded cell upstairs.

Michael Payne was the saddest case. A handsome gentle man in his thirties, he’d witnessed a motorbike accident at close quarters and his mind had cracked.  Somehow through the system he’d found his way onto B Villa Laughton Lodge.  He talked incessantly and we would take it in turns to walk him around the grounds, answering his questions, never quite sure what was a memory and what wasn’t.  “Did you see that tiger on television last night Mr Brown?  Scratched me right down my face!”   The Charge Nurse Ray Lucas explained to me that he was on a decreasing cycle of experience, his ups and downs were getting closer together, at that point he was three days up (walk around the grounds talking ten to the dozen) three days down (slumped in green plastic armchair on the ward).  As the wavelength got shorter he would be more difficult to manage and when the up and the down met eventually he would short-circuit and burn out, and become like the monosyllabic zombies.  This made me terribly sad.

The whole place was incredibly sad.  There were psychiatric patients mixed with murderers.  One fella Nick got picked up by his Mum and Dad every Saturday and brought back every Sunday night.  Apart from a twisted hand and club foot he was perfectly fine: intelligent but damaged.  The nurses were compassionate and coped well.   There was no abuse or piss-taking that I witnessed.   All the patients, and some of the staff were institutionalised – stuck in routines and ways of thinking.   I was only there for nine months, I couldn’t change anything.  Eventually one of the nurses from C Villa (the women’s ward) invited me to dinner one night in Ringmer.  While she was cooking, she handed me a book saying “this is what I’m interested in“.   Christine Glinkowski – a Polish woman in her late 20s – had given me “The Joy Of Sex“.  Readers, I was 18 years old.  “We can’t have sex on the first date” said Christine, “but we can do this…”

After work I would walk across the fields to the Nurses Home where I lived, a huge manor house divided into living quarters for the staff.  I shared a kitchen with two Mauritian gentleman who cooked gentle curries and were very friendly and sweet, occasionally they would offer food, I would accept.  I would read a book, watch TV or play records on my little record player.  My first independent flat.  No surrogate mum.  Just me and my dope and cups of tea and vinyl LPs : Van Der Graaf Generator, Wings, Joe Walsh, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Gentle Giant, Stevie Wonder, Spirit, Commander Cody, Osibisa, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, Focus, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, John Lennon, Man, The Beach Boys, The Doors, Greenslade, Hawkwind, The Faces, Audience, Blue Öyster Cult, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and Peter Hammill’s solo albums.  White people !  Apart from Jimi, Stevie, Osibisa.  To be fair I had a box of singles too, 45s which were nuggets of gold, among them Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Dave & Ansel Collins. But yeah, East Sussex is white.  And so am I, kind of.

Van Der Graaf were the original pretentious art-rock prog band par excellence.  Formed by Peter Hammill and Chris Judge-Smith, the classic line-up became Hammill, organist and bass pedals Hugh Banton, sax-player David Jackson and drummer Guy Evans.  You’ll note that there’s no guitarist.  They are still going, although Jackson doesn’t appear with them often, I saw them at The Barbican in 2009 and they were, as ever, amazing.  The voice of Hammill which goes from a whisper to a blood-curdling scream, from a sweet melody to a harsh monosyllabic bark is one of the wonders of the world, and has influenced many singers including Johnny Lydon.  Hammill’s solo albums are more introspective and personal, while the Van Der Graaf catalogue is often science fiction speculation, Hammill being a fan (like me!) of Philip K. Dick.  For all their harsh pretentious beauty the band soothed me through my troubled teens.   Perhaps just knowing that someone else felt fierce anguish and wasn’t afraid to express it was enough.  I was always afraid to express it.  I still am.

My Pop Life #84 : All Along The Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix

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All Along The Watchtower   –   The Jimi Hendrix Experience

“…No reason to get excited

The thief he kindly spoke

There are many here among us

Who feel that life is but a joke…”

I felt that life was but a joke in September 1970.  I was thirteen and staying in Lewes with one of my surrogate familes, foster-mum Sheila Smurthwaite.   But first quick – a little re-wind selector…backstory…

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The second time our family was split up, I was 11.   I’d just got to Lewes Grammar School For Boys by passing the 11-plus.  Three of us from the little village school in Selmeston had done it : Me, Cedric the postman’s son Graham Sutton and David Bristow, much to the delight of Miss Lamb, the headmistress who used to bring goose-eggs to school as prizes, and who taught us how to make porridge, play Men of Harlech on the recorder, and probably what a slide rule is for.   It was daunting, travelling into Lewes on the bus wearing the uniform with cap, being in this giant school full of big hairy boys, playing rugby and being bullied by prefects.  I think Pete Smurthwaite and I probably shared a detention together for being scruffy.  No cap on.  That kind of thing.  He was in my class, 1R.   Anyway.   Mum had to go into hospital again so me and my two brothers went to three different houses – Andrew to Portsmouth and Aunty Val (he was about five years old), Paul down the road to Gilda and Jack (he was still at Selmeston school being 2 years younger than me) and I went to stay with Pete Smurthwaite and his mum in Ringmer, which was near Lewes, but not near Selmeston.   Really.   When I go back there now, through the green fields of East Sussex, Glyndebourne, the Downs, Firle Beacon, it’s all deliciously close together, but aged 11 it felt like a foreign country.  To be fair, Ringmer actually is a foreign country, despite being a mere 4 miles from bohemian, pope-burning, witchy, cobbled Lewes.  But Sheila Smurthwaite made up for Ringmer’s lack of charm with her own hippy spirit and welcoming vibes.  Jimi Hendrix posters. Gaugin’s Tahitian women.   Guernica.

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Two years later, and a different crisis – we were evicted from our tied feudal cottage for not paying rent – and we were all split up again.   By now Mum had re-married, to John Daignault.   He was a chef, but then worked at Caffyns on Lewes High St, then lost his job.   I’ve got a feeling that we all went to the same places we’d been 2 years earlier, and I definitely stayed with Sheila and Pete again – only now they were actually in groovy Lewes where they belonged, Pete had a baby brother called Jake (whose dad Nick was Sheila’s 19-year-old lover) and Jimi Hendrix was all over the walls and loudspeakers.  There was a board-game inventor down the road and Pete and I got to go round there and try them out – war-games and one evolution game shaped like a tree.  We all ended up as sharks every time we played it.

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I smoked my first joint in that house, and helped local legend Noddy Norris roll a two-foot long joint by sticking forty or fifty cigarette papers together, along with a bunch of mates (Pete, Conrad, Spark, Fore, Martin Elkins, Dougie Sanders, Tat?).   My mum smoked roll-ups, so I was au-fait with the apparatus.   The Camberwell Carrot had nothing on this monster.   At least two feet long.   But thinking back now, what was an 18-year-old ex-con doing hanging out with a bunch of 13-14 year olds?   That was Lewes though.   Hendrix and The Doors and The Beatles were always playing.   Soft Machine.  Cream.  Santana.  Dirty hippy music.  Always the older kids were groovier than us, had longer hair, better afghan coats and boots, had groovier record sleeves tucked under their arms, could actually play the guitar and drums.   I had my first wank in that house, in the bath.   It was completely alarming, but tremendous and I never looked back.   Smiley face.   And then Jimi died.


The house went into shock.   I remember composing a giant memoriam on my blue school rough book which said Jimi Hendrix RIP Sept 18th 1970.  (I’ve found it now three years later and it too was three years later).  We listened to the four LPs and a handful of singles – Are You Experienced?, Axis Bold As Love, Electric Ladyland (number one LP for me and All Along The Watchtower is on this album) and Hendrix In The West with the amazing version of Little Wing (see My Pop Life #222).   Simon Korner later bought Cry Of Love the scribble-cover LP but I never listened to it because it was released after he died and so I suspected it of being inferior and somehow not meant to be.   In fact it was a rush-released version of the 4th Jimi Hendrix LP which never got finished.  In 1997 a more carefully crafted version of this record called New Rays Of The Rising Sun was released, and it is as near as we’ll ever get to that follow-up to Electric Ladyland.  It’s fantastic.   We could not believed Jimi had gone.  He was so young, so full of fire and love.  He was the future of music, we knew it, you could hear it in the way he played and sang in perfect sync with himself.  He was an incredible poet, musician and person.   We mourned.   We were stunned.   We played the records again.   And then in the weeks that followed, or possibly in the weeks preceding this calamitous death, I’d gone to see my Mum in Eastbourne.  She looked terrible.  She had a large black shape on her cheek vaguely covered with make-up.  She told me it was barbiturate poison because she’d taken an overdose.  She’d been living in a caravan in Pevensey Bay with John Daignault and they’d fought and scratched and punched each other to a standstill.  My mind was reeling – not by the fighting – that was happening in Selmeston before we’d all moved out.   In one comic interlude Mum had thrown eggs at JD (as he then became known) and one of them had landed and broken in his hair.  He’d walked up to the police station in the village up on the A27 to file a complaint.  With an egg on his head.  No – it was the overdose that was frightening.

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Then weeks after this meeting I received a letter in New Road Lewes from Mum.  It explained that we’d have to wait another nine months before we got housed.   Nine months !   I crumpled in a heap on my bed and wept like a baby.   What could I do?  Bear it.  Get on with life.  I bought Hendrix 45s which became god-like items, played them over and over again.  Gypsy Eyes.  Long Hot Summer Night.  Stone Free.  All Along The Watchtower – like a hurricane blowing through my body every time I heard it.  A song of devastation.  A testimony of chaos.

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“There must be some kind of way out of here, Said the joker to the thief,  

There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief….”

I had no idea that Bob Dylan wrote it.  It was Hendrix through and through, round and round.  It was a terrifying record, an exhilarating record, it was everything I ever hoped to be, everything I feared, a prophet crying in the wilderness.   A distillation of pain and despair.   I completely misheard many of the lyrics.

  “Mr Splendid – drink my wine….ploughman take my urn…

no one will level out of mind, nobody else in this world”

And despite now knowing the actual words now : “Business men, they drink my wine, Plowman dig my earth, None were level on the mind, Nobody up at his word“.  Really ??  No I prefer mine and I still sing Mr Splendid drink my wine.  

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The song perfectly expresses the joke of my life in 1970.  It is still burned into my heart.   Jimi Hendrix RIP  September 18th 1970.

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