A Whiter Shade Of Pale – King Curtis
1987 Wardour Street W1. A basement screening room in Soho, Central London, which serves as the centre of the British Film Industry – in other words : A small group of overwhelmingly decent men and women in smallish offices talking on the telephone, often to each other. Of course we have Pinewood and Shepperton Studios out on the M25, but this is our Hollywood:
De Lane Lea on Dean St. Palace Pictures used to be in Wardour Mews off D’Arblay Street, near Fish where I used to get my haricut. Working Title. Mike Leigh’s office is in Greek Street. The Groucho Club. Soho House. Century. Blacks. The Sound Studios. The Edit Suites. The Distributor’s offices. Old Compton Street. Marshall Street. Meard Street. Frith Street. Lexington Street. Berwick Street. Soho Square. The Dog and Duck. The Coach and Horses. The French House. Kettners. Ronnie Scott’s. Bar Italia. Oxford Circus tube. Shaftesbury Avenue. Lunch in Chinatown if you fancy. A small tight and dedicated community squashed into the narrow lanes next to prostitutes walk-ups, strip clubs, pubs, bars and gin joints. And more recently : chichi hotels and Japanese restaurants as the seedy down-at-heel glamour of the area turns into another monied area of the capital of the world’s capital. Oh well. Everything changes right ?
The British Film Industry has been described as a cottage industry, as a few people on the phone, as punching above its weight, as a contradiction in terms. I’ve worked with many of these dedicated and frankly faintly insane people over the years. It’s been my honour to have done so. To make a film in the United Kingdom you need to be more than a little mad. It takes years of hopeless and often unrewarded effort to get the money, the group of people, the script, the whole thing to work, and often the punishment is a sniffy review by a critic who prefers the latest Hollywood offering to your carefully nurtured baby, your precious flower on which you have spent weeks, months, years, lunches, breakfasts, dinners, blood, sweat, tears, rages and sleepless nights to bring to the general public. Only to have it shat on. And for you to come back for more. It’s like a drug and we can’t get enough.
On this particular day, this auspicious day, one of the better days, it was exciting to be rolling up at 2pm to an underground screening room in a hallowed Soho with a handful of actors : Richard Griffiths, Richard E. Grant, and Paul McGann and a director, Bruce Robinson, a producer Paul Heller, a composer David Dundas and one or two other faces for the first showing of Withnail and I, a film we’d all worked on 18 months earlier in 1985. I was excited, nervous, worried, hopeful and frankly thrilled to bits. I hadn’t done that many films at that point. In fact aside from The Hit, in which I scarcely spoke, this was my first film. I was almost 30 years old, done a bit of TV and walked off The Bill because I wanted to do films. This had been the first one that turned up. It had been a blast to make but that’s for another story. Here I am now sat next to lovely Richard Griffiths in the second row of the tiny theatre and the lights go down. Only friends in here.
The first image on the screen is Paul McGann looking utterly wasted, fading drugs seeping through his pores as he smokes a roll-up. He wears John Lennon glasses and his hair is wavy. A kind of pained exhausted beauty. And as he sits and smokes we hear King Curtis playing that saxophone cover version of A Whiter Shade Of Pale, the huge Procol Harum hit single from 1967. I’d never heard it before. The saxophone seemed to be be sweating and feeling queasy and unsteady on its feet and then it found its purpose again and magnificently reaffirmed its point before spinning into a personal journey of emptiness and beauty that was so clearly a live version played by a person who was solid gone. I mean crazy.
I enjoyed the film. I though Paul and Richard were fantastic. I laughed. I loved them. Then I came on, wearing shades and holding a fucking saveloy. I was speaking s o s l o w l y that I cringed inside with embarrassment. All that lovely vibe that Richard and Paul had built up to that point had been thrown away – I was so totally off the pace it was like I was in a different film altogether. Excruciating. Rich Griffiths next to me patted my leg with enthusiasm : “Marvellous dear boy, marvellous“he whispered. I looked at him quickly in alarm. “I’m talking too fucking slowly” I hissed at him. “Nonsense dear boy, wonderful” he replied and we shut up to concentrate on the next scene.
Richard Griffiths in Withnail
There were other musical highlights that day, but all involving songs I already knew really well. I loved the movie. It was the one I had read in my flat in the Archway Road a couple of years earlier. Funny, well-written, and sad. I though everyone was great except me. It was a reaction that would come back to haunt me on a regular basis every few years, most recently in Bristol in early 2014 when Paul and I attended a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail and were interviewed on the stage afterwards by Phil Jupitus. I made the mistake of watching the film again, and once again fell into the pit of finding myself wanting. I have enjoyed my own performance on one or two occasions, and I still enjoy doing ‘the voice’, although I have rationed its professional use. But I will never watch it again I suspect.
We retired to a bar afterwards and I found that Richard Grant’s reaction had been even stronger than mine – I believe he vomited and subsequently vowed to never watch one of his own performances ever again. We enjoyed each other’s acting however and Bruce was happy and the mood was bright and happy so we drank some drinks and cheers’d ourselves and clinked and drank some more and went home glowing and happy.
The rest was a slow burn to infamy.
King Curtis had the kind of career as a saxophone player that I could only dream of. When, at the age of 27, I was considering whether to be a professional saxophone player or an actor, I tried to imagine what a successful horn player’s life would be like. At best I could imagine being a good session player, doing a solo on a Pink Floyd LP or Listen To What The Man Said, maybe being in a pop band for a few years like Madness or UB40, shagging loads of birds, taking drugs, becoming unpleasant and sad by the time I was 40 or disappearing into the jazz world and becoming a brilliant elusive junkie. Curtis was the king of the instrument all right, starting as a jazzman with Lionel Hampton and others before making his mark in the pop world from The Coaster’s Yakety Yak, to John Lennon’s It’s So Hard, LaVern Baker’s I Cried A Tear, Clyde McPhatter’s A Lover’s Question and co-writing Reminiscing with Buddy Holly.
King Curtis, Percy Sledge, unknown, Jimi Hendrix
In the mid-sixties he played in a soul band with Jimi Hendrix on guitar backing Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Cornell Dupree. He also had his own band The Kingpins who opened for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965 and cut sides for Atlantic Records including the hits Memphis Soul Stew, Games People Play and Ode To Billy Joe before opening for and arranging Aretha Franklin at the Fillmore West which became two live albums (one by Aretha, one by King Curtis) and from which A Whiter Shade Of Pale is taken. Much loved by the Rock Establishment – Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Lennon and others, he was murdered in an altercation with junkies outside his apartment in New York five months after this concert.
On the DVD for Withnail & I (which Paul McGann and I did a commentary on for the special edition) I make a spurious claim, now crystallised for all eternity, that Curtis died on the night of the Fillmore West gig, just after recording the emotional genius of Whiter Shade Of Pale. I can be wrong tha knows…
In the end the art of film-making hopes for a similar end result to the musician – to affect the audience. To move you in mysterious or obvious ways. Language is often a blunt tool, but in this opening sequence to the film that changed my life, there are no words, either on screen or in the sobbing song which accompanies it. A man of quintessential loquacious eloquence like writer and director Bruce Robinson knew when to let the music and the actor do the work.