Paid In Full – Eric B & Rakim
Thinking of a master plan, this ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand, so I dig into my pocket all my money’s spent, dig deeper, I’m still comin’ up with lint
rapper Rakim with his DJ Eric B in 1988
It’s late ’87 and I am flying, and occasionally happy. My hip-hop musical Sanctuary, a Joint Stock Production directed by dearest friend Paulette Randall has opened in Salisbury to good reviews and relief all round. My girlfriend Rita Wolf is in the cast, along with Gaylie Runciman, Carl Procter, Kwabena Manso, Pamela Nomvete and David Keys. It’s been the main purveyor of energy all year – the pitch, the workshop, the writing, the rehearsing. It has been truly immersive and stretched me magnificently into being a writer. Not a great one, or even a good one. But OK.
I wrote about the play in more detail in My Pop Life #86 but I’m sure the subject isn’t exhausted. By the end of October though as the tour came in to London I needed to get away from it all, and accepted an offer to play Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs in a film called Buster starring Phil Collins as Buster Edwards. Looking at photographs from the early 60s I suppose I did resemble a young Biggs somewhat. My diary from 1987 records that I wasn’t sure about accepting it at all – it seems that I was pretty fussy in those days. Probably thought that it would all add up to a narrative of some sort and make sense. Hahaha. Now all we have is this random meandering blog with 20-20 hindsight.
In any event I couldn’t prepare for the role very easily since Ronnie was rather famously living it up in Rio, recording songs with the Sex Pistols and generally being an embarrassment to the establishment some 24 years after the robbery which had taken place in August 1963. Almost all of the gang, including the mastermind Bruce Reynolds (played by Larry Lamb) had served considerable jail terms – double the normal sentences because of the high profile of the case. Biggs wasn’t a key player in the robbery, but had fame and notoriety because he’d escaped ‘justice’. Norma Heyman, the producer, arranged for me to have lunch with Reynolds so that I could discuss Ronnie Biggs, and gave me Bruce Reynold’s phone number. When I called him later that day and explained what the score was, I asked Bruce where he’d like to have lunch. Bruce’s immediate reaction was “ Who’s paying ? “
The Train Robbers : Bruce Reynolds is 4th from the left
I replied that the film company were paying. “Then we’ll eat at Manzi off Leicester Square” he said, and that’s where we met a few days later. A tall, bespectacled charming and erudite older man greeted me, and I liked him almost immediately. Bruce Reynolds was a major criminal, and for five years from 1963-68 was Public Enemy Number One. He had planned the Train Robbery from start to finish and got the main characters together to pull it off: Gordon Goody, Roy James, Charlie Wilson, Jimmy White, Tommy Wisbey, Bob Welch and others, including Ronnie Biggs who was an old friend, and roped in because he knew a train driver.
The robbery itself involved switching the signals on the Glasgow to Euston Mail Train in the wee small hours of a dark night, stopping the train, uncoupling the engine and the carriage with the mailbags from the rest of the train, then driving to a Bridge where the gang- all dressed in army fatigues in case they were spotted – would simply roll the cash down the embankment into waiting Land Rovers . They stole £2.6 million pounds, the equivalent of £50 million in today’s money, the largest haul to that date in Britain. The robbery had been carried off according to plan, but the establishment had thrown everything into the chase and investigation. Bruce had evaded capture and eventually gone to Mexico and lived high on the hog for years with his wife and son before a strange scorpion spiral movement found him back in England via Canada and the South Of France and back doing little jobs again before eventually being arrested by Flying Squad chief dog Tommy Butler (“Hello Bruce… “Cést la vie Tommy”). Bruce was given 25 years, of which he served 10, in Wandsworth, Durham, and the Isle Of Wight mainly.
Oddly, when I met Bruce Reynolds he was 55 years old, younger than I am now. I don’t know why this feels odd to me. Probably because I haven’t been in prison. We talked about Ronnie Biggs, the robbery, films, books and prison life, and he was charming, well-read and funny. Manzi was an expensive fish restaurant opposite the Swiss Centre behind Leicester Square and one of the poshest places I’d ever been to in my young life. We had a slap-up meal with wine on someone else’s tab. But then Bruce had spent his entire life on someone else’s tab. My friend Jan lent me his autobiography last time I was in England, and I finished it today. A scallywag’s journey through burglaries, safe-breaking, fast cars, hanging off gutters and crawling across flat roofs, running through the streets pursued by plod, drinking in bars and clubs with off-duty plod, swanning around Cannes with women, fast cars and the odd robbery accompanied occasionally by his wife and son Nick and then inevitably serving the odd bit of monotonous, violent, and dull time in prison. Visits to the South Of France, wearing Turnbull & Asser shirts, drinking Dom Perignon, always the best suits and shoes, cars and watches. He’d made it sound exciting, daring, nail-biting and terribly sad depending on which page you were turning. I knew nothing of this in 1986 – just a young actor meeting an old master criminal who was happy to eat at one of his favourite restaurants and now pay the bill, and he said marvellous twinkly things like – “Bread before morals, Ralph – Goethe“. He didn’t mention me in his book so I clearly didn’t make much of an impression on him. lol
On the press night of Sanctuary at the Drill Hall I was filming the train robbery on a night shoot in Leicestershire with Phil Collins, Larry Lamb (playing Bruce), Michael Atwell (who would later be cast in New Year’s Day), Chris Ellison and John Barrard, all together we were The Firm re-making the biggest robbery in Britain in the 20th Century. The main prop was a 1960 Diesel train in full working order. I still have a black and white picture of Phil, Larry, me and Mike in front of the train on the wall in Brighton. I’ll see if I can find it online. (I can’t)
Me as Ronnie with Larry Lamb as Bruce in “Buster”
Collins was reasonably friendly without being warm, I think he thought I was a bit of a cock, and I probably was. Playing the most famous train robber was also definitely A Thing, and the following year when Terry Wogan had Phil Collins on his show as a guest, one of the Wogan questions was “So, Phil….who’s playing Ronnie Biggs in the movie then ?” Collins was ready for this curve-ball attempt to take the shine of his moment and answered “Oh some new young actor, can’t remember his name…”
Larry, me, Mike
Back at the Drill Hall where Sanctuary, my hip-hop musical about homeless teenagers was playing, I was making mental notes of other knives hovering over my back – how the business of Show really works, no honour among thieves like in Bruce’s gang, just sharks, peacocks and jealous judgy cats, or even worse I now discovered, people simply not coming. To see the play. Not bothering. Absense. I found the power of absence to be quite profound, and remembered every person who didn’t come. Yes, that petty I’m afraid. But it is a real thing. And I was absent on Press Night myself, absent from my company, my director, my company manager and the audience. I called Rita at 2am from a field and she told me it had gone well. The punters seemed to like it. Another day of life.
I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid, so I think of all the devious things I did I used to roll up, this is a hold-up, ain’t nuttin’ funny, stop smilin’ and still don’t nothing move but the money…
Rakim, Eric B in 1987
It seems incredible to me now, but Sanctuary had been researched, written and presented before Public Enemy‘s 2nd LP It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back had been released. An album I place in the highest esteem. Fuck knows what I was on. But I was certainly on Run DMC, Roxanne Shante, KRS-One, Salt ‘n’Pepa, Schoolly D, Big Daddy Kane and Sweet Tee with Jazzy Joyce aswell as the mighty Rakim rapping with Eric B, Eric B & Rakim, fellow New Yorkers on the first wave of hip hop. This was the title track off their first album. A landmark moment. A lazy, loping sample from Dennis Edwards‘ great 1984 tune Don’t Look Any Further featuring Siedah Garrett. A list of the managers, agents, record company and A&R people involved with Paid In Full. This is a manifesto. This is how you get Paid In Full. You go into the system. Get representation. Inside the wheels of production. Here’s our list. “Who we rolling with then?” “Rush” “That’s right Rush Management…” Then the verse –
Thinkin’ of a master plan, this ain’t nothin’ but sweat inside my hand…
just one verse, and they’re out. This classic was remixed somewhat controversially six months later by production crew ColdCut as Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness) and featured Ofra Haza‘s hit Im Nin Alu and plentiful spoken word jokes “This is a journey into sound” and Pump Up The Volume with “I think you’d better speak to my mother” and so on and so forth. It was early days of hip hop, and I was up to my neck in it. The following year I would win an award for Sanctuary then take the show to Washington D.C. to become Sanctuary D.C. (see My Pop Life #136) and soon after that write a new hip-hop play for the BBC (set in D.C.) which remains un-performed to this day. Definitely not paid in full. Who we rollin’with ??
MTV Raps (what’s the haps on the craps)
Coldcut Remix Seven Minutes Of Madness