My Pop Life #149 : Little By Little – Dusty Springfield


Little By Little   –   Dusty Springfield

little by little by little by little

In 1985 I had established to my own satisfaction that I was an actor – I’d worked with Steven Berkoff in ‘West’ at the Donmar for five months in 1983, filmed it for Channel 4, done a whole series of ‘The Bill’ as P.C. Muswell, worked at the Royal Court, The Tricycle Theatre, Joint Stock and done some BBC Shakespeare.  But I was still harbouring musical fantasies, and still playing saxophone with a band I’d joined in 1980 called Birds Of Tin.  Most of the band lived on the Pullens Estate in Kennington, between Walworth Road and Kennington Park Road, SE17.  My links with this part of South London were manyfold – I also played football on Sunday mornings with a groups of geezers known as the Hoxton Pirates who also mainly lived there – although (with one or two exceptions) not the same people !  The link was Lewes probably, unwinding out to friends and relations of rabbit.  But I’ll save the Pirates for another post.

Birds Of Tin 1985

Early days – 1979/1980 – we had many many discussions about the name of the band, and initially, after rejecting The Deeply Ashamed (Pete Thomas suggestion) and Go Go Dieppe (I’ll claim that one) we settled on Parma Violets.  {I think that name has now been taken by another group.}   At some point I’d had a sax audition for Ranken’s Romeos aka The Operation, an outfit which contained Simon Korner AND his brother Joe but which was led by Andrew Ranken who’d been in the year above us in school and who was going out with Deborah Korner, Simon and Joe’s elder sister.  He would shortly join The Pogues as their drummer, but was lead singer in The Operation and Patrick Freyne was on drums.  I was nervous and a little underprepared.  In retrospect Andrew perhaps didn’t fancy my fashion-victim appearance and vibe I suspect, for he suggested without warm-up or pre-amble doing a song in the key of B.  It was a musical ambush.  I had never played a song in the key of B in my life – it’s not common, like E or A or G or D.   I know that’s no excuse by the way.

Emma Peters & I in Joe Korner’s flat, Glebe Estate, Peckham 1979

As I explained in My Pop Life #80 the saxophone is pitched 3 semitones above concert pitch (ie the piano) so sax players have to adjust 3 semitones down when the key gets called.  Thus my audition was in Ab.  A fucking flat.  I made an abysmal mess of an attempt and put the horn back into it’s velveteen lined case, tail firmly tucked between my legs.  The Operation carried on and now play as The Mysterious Wheels and a version of this band played at my wedding to Jenny (see My Pop Life #126) where I was on saxophone alongside Jem Finer from The Pogues and an extra fella called Chris because Andrew still didn’t think I had the chops (!)    Fair enough I probably didn’t.

Joe Korner on the keyboards, Tom Anthony on drums

But later that year – 1980 – after that miserable audition failure –  another band was formed : the aforementioned Parma Violets, to play mainly original material emanating from Joe Korner and old Rough Justice buddy Conrad Ryle.   For some reason Simon didn’t join Parma Violets.  But Patrick did, and Emma Peters on violin and vocals, and Joe’s mate Sam Watson, who was a friend of Leonie’s brother, on bass.  Leonie Rushforth was Simon’s girlfriend whom he’d met in Cambridge.   We used to rehearse at midnight in Mount Pleasant Studios off Gray’s Inn Road in a studio owned by Animal Magnet, a Cambridge band that Simon was also playing in.

Incestuous and vain, and many other last names.

This line-up : Joe, Conrad, Patrick, Emma, Sam and I – produced a demo tape in a studio in Guildford where’s Sam’s mate was doing a Music Degree and our five songs were part of his final year project.  Free to those who can afford it.  It was all of our first time in a studio and was really quite thrilling.  I double-tracked the saxophone on one song making a simple chord with myself.  The singular joy of harmony.  But in the end we weren’t that happy with the finished result.  Then Patrick left, then Conrad left and I took a sabbatical and went to Mexico in order to contract one of the major viral infections, Hepatitus B (see My Pop Life #31 or My Pop Life #24).  I came back and lay down for a few months.

Emma Peters on violin

We played two covers I recall – possibly more.  One was 300 lbs of Heavenly Joy by Howling Wolf, and the other was this song Little By Little by Dusty Springfield.   Emma loved this song.  People danced to it when we played it live.  It’s mid-period Dusty, 1966, so after those classic early singles I Only Wanna Be With You, Middle Of Nowhere and I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself but before the pinnacle of Dusty In Memphis and Son Of A Preacher Man (1968).

Dusty was a cool cat.   She was deported with her band The Echoes from apartheid South Africa in 1964 for playing an integrated concert in Cape Town – despite a clause in her contract – one of the first artists to refuse to play for segregated audiences.  She introduced the British public to Tamla Motown in 1965 when she fronted the Motown Revue on Rediffusion Television, with live performances from Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Martha Reeves, a show produced by Vicki Wickham from Ready Steady Go and now our dear friend in New York (see My Pop Life #135).  Dusty found a beautiful Italian ‘schmaltzy song’ as she called it, at a singing festival in San Remo in ’65 (she reached the semi final) and her friends Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier Bell wrote English words and she recorded it.  It went to Number One in June 1966 as You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.  That autumn she had her own TV show called simply Dusty.

She is the greatest British female singer of my lifetime, and the most successful, certainly until Adele.  Her taste and her style were impeccable, and she graciously lived up to her billing as our greatest blue-eyed soul singer.  She also did backing vocals on friends’ LPs billed as Gladys Thong, notably Madeline Bell & Kiki Dee (both backing this single) and also Anne Murray and Elton John.    Little By Little was written by Bea Verdi and Buddy Kaye, who wrote several of her hits including Middle Of Nowhere.

I cannot remember if we continued to play Little By Little when the band reformed a little later as Birds Of Tin, but by then the new line-up had recorded a simply fantastic demo-tape in Joe’s flat with a drum machine called BoT.  It showcased the very best of his songwriting including one called It Never Rains :

Thursday night, General Election, Friday night, burns all the paintings

Sunday night, the separation, Tuesday’s gone in desperation…

It never rains…

I thought they were a great band and shortly after hearing that c90 cassette I rejoined.  I think it was now 1983.  Maybe I’d been doing The Bill or – more likely Moving Parts Theatre Company, who toured the land in a beat-up transit with self-written plays to politically educate the youth.  Hahaha – for another post I feel !!

Sam, Joe, Linsey, Emma

The new line-up had Tat on guitar (quiet, introspective, folk-oriented, but liked a laugh) instead of Conrad, and Tom Anthony on drums (amicable, rock-steady and played centre-half for The Hoxton Pirates on occasion) instead of Patrick.   Sam was the only one who hadn’t been at Priory – an essentially happy, friendly and easy-going fellow, he also played centre-half for Hoxton Pirates with Tom and played bass for Birds Of Tin.   Emma was a lovely clear singer and cracking violinist who went on to make LPs with The Clarke Sisters an Irish/folk outfit in the late 1990s. Then Linsey joined as a second vocalist around the same time as me, also playing percussion, lovely harmonies, and that became the classic Birds Of Tin combo.  We drifted towards the exotic sounds of Eastern Europe, did an instrumental called Smilkino Kolo which originated in Croatia I think (then called Yugoslavia of course), and another instrumental called Istanbul – could’ve been Turkish but it sounded Greek to me…

Me, Linsey on percussion, Tat on guitar

Emma did full spirited gypsy violin on these numbers and I made my sax sound like a battered didicoy trumpet.  We still played Joe’s songs, and some by Sam too – but with the same sax-and-violin attack.  There was a Madness influence if anything, maybe a sprinkle of Talking Heads and definitely hand-picked lucky dip World Music.  There was another song that I sourced from a Bollywood tape which Mumtaz and I had in our flat in Finsbury Park – can I remember the name, the film, the song – no!  but I wrote new lyrics inspired by William Blake and the new song was called Dangerous Garden.   That song really did swing.  I suspect it remains the only song I’ve ever written.

Linsey, Emma, Tat, Me

Musically we were a good band.  Good players and singers, good harmonies, tight rhythm section, good turnarounds and middle eights.  Interesting mid-80s crossover indie I suppose.  Pop music with flavour.  We never got a record deal anywhere.  We never had a manager, or any really decent contacts.  There was a kind of quiet refusal to wear any uniform or even matching vibes.  I – quite naturally – was happy to go onstage in full shalwa-kamiz of a soft blue colour, but Emma & Lins aside, the rest of the band balked at dressing up. Sam looked like Sting AND he played bass, and he used to wear pedal pushers and chinese slippers but Joe and Tat and Tom weren’t having a clothes-matching competition.  We did quite a few gigs too, a residency at The Four Aces in Dalston on Monday nights where the audience consisted of 3 rastas (“play more Russian music!“), some local SE17 events, some outdoor festivals and notably a support to The Men They Couldn’t Hang at the Corn Exchange in Brighton.

Sam Watson on the bass guitar

There were tensions in the band – it’s a band after all – and after Sam went out with Linsey for a large part of the middle period it all ended quite literally in tears and Sam subsequently listened to Elvis Costello‘s Man Out Of Time from Imperial Bedroom 20 times in a row in desolation one night.   Then a natural break came when I was offered Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman and I had to choose – acting, or music?

It’s a shame that no BoT songs survive on digital format – because I would include one here to showcase that moment in time.  But we have Dusty, and we have the treasure of these photos from IGA studios in 1985.  I always loved rehearsals and these pictures capture some of that joy – just making music together is a pleasure.   I distinctly remember walking around in that tartan suit that spring thinking “So – it’s tartan – what of it??” as people stared me down, but all photos of the garms in question have been in an attic box until now.  This set from Ian McIntyre, a whoosh into the past.  Who are those young kit cats ?

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  1. Trackback: My Pop Life #175 : One Better Day – Madness | Magicmenagerie's Blog

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