My Pop Life #201 : The Banner Man – Blue Mink

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The Banner Man – Blue Mink

…and the Banner Man held the banner high he was ten feet tall and he touched the sky and I wish that I could be a banner man…

 This was, I can finally reveal, the first single I ever bought with my own money.  I suspect this money was from doing a paper round, or helping the farmer baling straw, or selling eels to Mr Catchlove, or maybe – just maybe – my mum gave me some pocket money and I saved it up.  The Regal Zonophone label, red and silver 45rpm single in a square piece of paper with a circle in the centre so you could see the label.

This would then be placed in the singles rack at home alongside the record player.  It would join my mum’s singles – Simon Dupree & The Big Sound, Joe South, The Casuals, Guy Darrell (see My Pop Life #181) until I bought a record player of my own for the bedroom, but even then I wonder if I didn’t leave it downstairs in the pop section.  The bedroom singles were religious artefacts for the shrine of Jimi Hendrix – 45rpm singles on Track records, Gypsy Eyes, Long Hot Summer Night, Burning of The Midnight Lamp, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return).  What was Blue Mink doing with these inspirational songs?  It was like a throwback to my childhood  and I still can’t really explain it.  Taste changes fast when you’re 14.

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It was May 1971 when the single first charted.  It reached Number 3 on the 20th June, two days after my 14th birthday.  This therefore becomes a fairly accurate indication of how cool I was as a teenager.  No older brother or sister to look up to, take taste from.  A mum who had her own particular taste, from Dionne Warwick singing a cover of The Rascals (My Pop Life #17) to The Kinks (My Pop Life #147).        I liked all of the above, and when I look at the charts of 1971 I think that mum must’ve bought Your Song by Elton John and Double Barrel by Dave & Ansel Collins for there they were in the singles rack.  Gosh the Proustian rush is too much, and  I’m in too deep now to walk back – or as Macbeth would say :

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er”

 

which means that, since 1971 is my year of sentience, I have to dive right in and indulge in that vivid musical touchstone of my life.  So with no further apology,  Here Is the Top 30 on my 14th birthday :

  1.    Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep          –     Middle Of The Road
  2.    Knock Three Times                         –     Dawn
  3.    I Did What I Did For Maria           –      Tony Christie
  4.    Banner Man                                     –      Blue Mink
  5.    I’m Gonna Run Away From You   –     Tami Lynn
  6.    Lady Rose                                          –     Mungo Jerry
  7.    He’s Gonna Step On You Again     –     John Kongos
  8.    Heaven Must Have Sent You         –     The Elgins
  9.    I Am…I Said                                       –     Neil Diamond
  10.    Indiana Wants Me                           –     R. Dean Taylor
  11.    My Brother Jake                               –     Free
  12.    Rags To Riches                                  –     Elvis Presley
  13.    Oh You Pretty Thing                        –     Peter Noone
  14.    Malt & Barley Blues                         –     McGuinness Flint
  15.    I Think Of You                                   –     Perry Como
  16.    Brown Sugar                                     –     The Rolling Stones
  17.    Just My Imagination                        –     The Temptations
  18.    Don’t Let It Die                                  –     Hurricane Smith
  19.    Co-Co                                                   –     The Sweet
  20.    Mozart Symphony Number 40       –     Waldo De Los Rios
  21.    Jig-A-Jig                                               –      East Of Eden
  22.    I Don’t Blame You At All                  –      Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
  23.    Lazy Bones                                         –      Jonathan King
  24.    Hey Willy                                            –      The Hollies
  25.    Rain                                                      –      Bruce Ruffin
  26.    Joy To The World                               –      Three Dog Night
  27.    Pied Piper                                            –      Bob & Marcia
  28.    Un Banc, Un Arbre, Un Rue             –      Severine
  29.    It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie                       –      Gerry Monroe
  30.    Double Barrel                                     –      Dave & Ansel Collins

It was, even to my clearly biased ears, a fairly fecund picture : plenty of irritating bubblegum at the top end, a decent smattering of pop reggae (Greyhound‘s Black & White was about to rise into the Top 30), some genuine originals in John Kongos, Hurricane Smith and East of Eden (written about in My Pop Life #141), some great Motown including the immaculate Smokey Robinson (My Pop Life #3), some lovely bluesy stuff and a few songs for grandma.  For me the whole of 1971 imprinted itself on my ears, for it was when I learned what I liked, and what I didn’t like, and maybe even what the difference was and why.   Now, aged 60 as I write, I can find merit in all of these songs, yes, even the number one, which grated on us all at the time with its defiance of any kind of grooviness.   I bought Banner Man and brought it home, and now I’m wondering if I bought Jig-A-Jig at the same time, because it was a big song in our house and there it is travelling down the charts from a high point of number 7.

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Blue Mink in 1971

Banner Man is terribly catchy, a genuine earworm.  Simple lyrically, a song about a marching band…

So we waved our hands as we marched along
And the people smiled as we sang our song
And the world was saved as they listened to the band

who march up to the top of the hill,

So we reached the square, on the top of the hill
And the music stopped and we stood quite still
And a few were saved and the people said
Amen

I also note that the the Banner Man had “an Allelujah in his eye” and that the chorus goes full gospel :

Glory, glory, glory
Listen to the band
Sing the same old story
Ain’t it something grand?
To be good as you can
Like a Banner-Man

It’s a brass band song, a kind of 2-step oompah rhythm, and the trombone does that cheesy slide down (glissando!) on “grand” and “can” .   I spell it all out like this because it is something of a mystery to me even now – what was I listening to?  What did I hear?  It is like a child’s nursery rhyme (rather like a fair section of that top 30), but I was 14.   There is something endearing in the fact that both Blue Mink and East of Eden (Jig-A-Jig) were crossing musical genres and spinning pop gold out of old forms, but I knew nothing of this at the time, I just liked the tunes I think.  Maybe something primal in that brass band sound though that gets under the skin – the New Orleans funeral march, the Second Line, the celebration of life after the body is interred.  The sound of something ancient, churchy but celebratory, harking back to “I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside” a popular song from 1907 :

I do like to stroll
Upon the Prom, Prom, Prom,
Where the brass bands play
Tiddly-om-pom-pom!

and “76 Trombones” from 1957 which echoed through my childhood.   The Beatles of course made use of the brass during their psychedelic period, from Yellow Submarine through Sgt Pepper to Martha My Dear on The White Album.  Other brass band songs that made hit records include Peter Skellern‘s sublime You’re A Lady from 1973 and Mike Nesmith’s Listen To The Band for The Monkees from 1969.  And really that’s it, aside from The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band‘s single The Floral Dance in 1977.  The number of pop brass band songs can be counted on one hand pretty much.

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Madeline Bell & Roger Cook

I remembered Blue Mink from their first single in 1969 “Melting Pot” with its call for racial harmony mixed up in racist language :

Take a pinch of White man
Wrap it up in Black skin
Add a touch of blue blood
And a little bitty-bit of Red Indian boy

Curly Latin Kinkies,  mixed with yellow Chinkees
If you lump it all together
Well, you’ve got a recipe for a get-along scene
Oh what a beautiful dream
If it could only come true you know, you know
What we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough to take the world and all it’s got
Keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee-coloured people by the score

This song with Madeline Bell, a black American and Roger Cook, a white Englishman taking alternate verses reached number one and was part of a brief English soul boom in the late sixties which included mixed-race groups such as The Equals, The Foundations, Geno Washington’s RamJam Band and Hot Chocolate.

clockwise :  The Equals, The Foundations, Hot Chocolate, Geno Washington

But Blue Mink were different.  Formed by a group of session musicians, they were professional players working for a day-rate on other people’s music, like the famous Wrecking Crew out of Los Angeles who played on everything from Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys, the Funk Brothers who played on every hit record from Motown or another mixed-race group Booker T & The MGs, the house band at Stax records, on all of Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd and Sam & Dave’s records.

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Herbie Flowers, Roger Cook, Maddy Bell, Barry Morgan, Roger Coulam, Alan Parker

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Roger Coulam on keyboards hooked up with bass player Herbie Flowers, guitarist Alan Parker, drummer Barry Morgan and vocalists Madeline Bell and Roger Cook in 1969.   Bell, an American from New Jersey, had come to England with a gospel show in 1962 and stayed, met Dusty Springfield and had some hits herself.

By 1969 she already released three solo albums including her debut Bell’s A Poppin’ (1967) which had Dusty Springfield on backing vocals repaying her friend’s debt after Bell had backed many of Dusty’s blue-eyed soul hits.  Roger Cook had a successful songwriting partnership with Roger Greenaway established after they’d written You’ve Got Your Troubles for The Fortunes, and continued later with I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (and sell Coke), and Softly Whispering I Love You among many many others.  He now lives in Nashville.

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Disc Jockey Tony Blackburn takes the place of Alan Parker in this shot

After the success of Melting Pot, the band stuck together for five more years 4 LPs and released a handful of decent, musical hit singles, including the vibrant Good Morning Freedom (1970).   They all continued working as session musicians in-between Blue Mink gigs and appearances on Top of the Pops, notably on Elton John‘s first LP.  Most of Blue Mink were also in C.C.S. (Collective Consciousness Society) another band which charted in 1971 with Tap Turn On The Water, and a cover of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love which became the Top of the Pops theme music for years to come.  Flowers played on Lou Reed’s Transformer and Bowie’s Space Oddity, Labi Siffre’s It Must Be Love and was later a Womble and on David Live!  He now lives in Ditchling.  Bell sings on Rolling Stones & Dusty singles, and with Tom Jones, Elton John, Joe Cocker and Scott Walker.  Parker plays the riff on Rebel Rebel, Hurdy Gurdy Man and No Regrets among countless others, and now writes theme music for film and television.   Drummer Morgan played with Elton, Tom Jones, Nilsson and many others while Coulam played on iconic Serge Gainsbourg single Je T’Aime and the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and died in 2005.

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It was in 2012 that I started work on a documentary project about session musicians.  I felt drawn to them as if they could help me to understand my own strange career as a character actor, a self-styled Lee Van Cleef, the hired gun, forever getting on my horse & leaving town clutching my fee after helping to kill the bad guys.  I called the putative film Red Light Fever and we worked for a good solid week, interviewing a group of players from the Brighton/M25 area – legend Chris Spedding, who sat in the guitar section of the GAK (Guitar & Keyboard) shop for his interview, Barbara Moore – voice of The Saint and Bedazzled and arranger of The Sign Of The Swinging Cymbal – Alan Freeman’s chart countdown music, Alan Parker and Herbie Flowers from Blue Mink, legendary drummer Clem Cattini (Telstar, much of The Kinks early stuff, Hurdy Gurdy Man, hundreds of others) and bass player Les Hurdle (Foundations, Donna Summer) who we talked to in Fatboy Slim’s shoreline studio (thanks generous Norm!).

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Before we started shooting, one of my first interviews, with guitarist Big Jim Sullivan, was abruptly cancelled after he passed away.  I attended his funeral outside Worthing and saw many of the old session faces there, (including Chas Hodges RIP).  There was a sense of time slipping away, an urgency to complete the project before it was too late.  I wanted to record a new piece of music which Barbara Moore would write and, using all the old faces from the 60s and 70s London sessions, record it at Maida Vale Number One Studio, filming the whole get-together.  Maybe even a gig too like that great film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.  It was like a detective story piecing it all together, great fun and a proper buzz.  Sample joke : when I asked who played the trumpet on It’s Not Unusual about 50 musicians claim to have been in the studio that day, record-keeping was poor, and royalties are like gold-dust.   We shot enough for a decent trailer – here it is :

Red Light Fever Promo

you’ll need the password which is :  rlflatest

That is because my buddy David Cuff was working at Latest TV in Brighton in 2012 and the boss of that young channel Bill Smith liked the idea and generously agreed to front £500 to pay for the promo.  It all went on the camera crew.

I cut the promo at home on Final Cut and took it to Luke Cresswell’s brother Addison and he hawked it around the industry (see My Pop Life #183 for the full terrible story).   I didn’t have much money at the end of 2012 but I thought something might break for us, and the trailer was decent (despite all the Super-8 footage being out of focus so that we couldn’t use it).  I was still working on the interviews.  Just before Christmas Madeline Bell finally relented to meet and chat while she was visiting from Spain.  Jenny and I had lunch with her at The Delauney on the Aldwych.  She was great company, very funny and warm.  She promised to grant us an interview if we got over to Spain with our camera and we parted on very positive terms.  The film would not be finished though due to tragic circumstances already described in the above link to Elton John’s Rocket Man.

If I find a spare 10 grand I will finish that film in my own time.  The musicians deserve the accolade after all these unsung years, just as the Funk Brothers did with their film.  If I don’t, I have faith that someone will carry that torch.

Meanwhile 1971 will forever glow in the dark like a lighthouse to my soul.  My friend Martin Steel (father of Paul who opened this blog (My Pop Life #1) has been trying to link me up with an audio version of writer and broadcaster David Hepworth’s book Never A Dull Moment : 1971 – Rock’s Golden Year.  It feels like it was written for me and I look forward to disagreeing with its contents while saluting its general premise. (I strongly suspect that it is rockist i.e.) Perhaps he values album statements over 45rpm pop singles too, which will be seen in years to come as an historic mistake.  The pop single is the late 20th century’s highest form of popular culture as any fule kno.  I know Simon Price is with me on that one.  They are also, in particular, spangly dayglo markers for our emerging personalities.  Every one of us has this sentient musical moment, and commonly it will be our early teens, probably coinciding with puberty.  Awakening. The chrysalis unfurls and there we are in all our contradictions.

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Trust me : make a playlist up from your year of musical sentience, say the moment you turned from 13 to 14 and then listen to it in pure joy as the waves of discovery once more wash through your soul, and you rediscover that you know every lick, every drumbeat, every intake of breath for they are forever imprinted upon you like rhythmic & melodic DNA.  Almost as if, as you grew into your body and the cells expanded, the music you heard then got into the cracks and became part of you.

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I wonder if I liked Blue Mink because of Madeline Bell ?   I married a black British woman some years later and we created our own mixed-race band, me, Jenny, two different breeds of cat.  Very open-minded, inclusive.   But the mystery at the heart of this blog though is why that song?  One’s first single purchase is supposed to be an indicator of something. Some tribal moment, some groove, something that will not be denied.  Perhaps all this is blurred by my mum’s pop purchases, after all she was only 34 at the time, and our musical tastes crossed over considerably.  It wasn’t just me – thousands of people bought the single and it reached number 4 eventually.  Maybe we all wanted a bit of Glory Hallelujah dressed up as pop music – Oh Happy Day with a brass band, or a hippie Salvation Army?  Or… maybe… when I was a wee child in Portsmouth, Mum had taken my brother Paul and I in the pram down to Southsea where the funfair was, where you could see the Isle of Wight and the giant ships coming in and out of Portsmouth Harbour, where H.M.S. Victory stands in dry dock, where a bandstand hosts the occasional concert.   A very early childhood memory.   Did we like to walk along the prom prom prom to hear the brass band play tiddly om pom pom?

Well I’ve been reluctant to press the “Publish” button on this post for over 24 hours now.  Something beyond a mystery.  Looking back at My Pop Life #84 which is set in 1970 and which precedes this by a profound 9-month period of my life, it is starting to become clear that my memory is unreliable.  The Hendrix era had been the previous year, and surely I had bought those singles already.  Why this song always pops into my head as “first single” I do not know, but it cannot be.  It doesn’t matter.  I definitely bought it, and Jig-A-Jig, and All Along The Watchtower.  I’m glad I did.

My Pop Life #200 : Hello, Goodbye – The Beatles

Hello, Goodbye   –   The Beatles

I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello

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  • This blog celebrates my 60th birthday crossroads weekend, which was epic on almost every level.   Indeed it was also a living embodiment of this entire series of blogs, both musically and as a representation of the people in my life.  So this will be the fulcrum of it all I suspect.
  • The result is the longest and luvviest post of the 200 so far written.  Enjoy.

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On June 18th 2017 I was 60 years old.  It crept up on me like a hungry lioness, but I was ready for it, for I’d known for some time that it would be there, all six decades of it, shined up and sharp-toothed with a big zero on its pyjamas, an undeniable signpost to my future & inevitable death, an achievement, a relief, a triumph, a moment in time, a landmark, a shock to the system, a meaningless profound number.   Everyone has their own version of what this means, I certainly had mine.    Whatever lies, untruths and kind little stories I’d told myself up to this point, after June 18th I would be old.  OLD.  I was crossing a portal into another world.  It was to be celebrated with a party.  I needed my people to hold my hand and help me cross over.  I have always chosen to celebrate the big zero numbers.   I planned this party for the best part of three years.  As I mentioned in my speech on the night, the original celebration was to be a live gig, with all of my favourite songs, sung by me.  Like a massive indulgent splurge : “Of Me“.  As the months went by and I started to narrow down a playlist of sorts, the idea began to pall, to ever-so-slightly turn at the edges and discolour, until a faint whiff of hubris started to come off of its glittering carapace.   Each time I returned to plan the dreadful occasion it had gone a little more mouldy.   It was, in short, a rotten idea.  So bad was this idea indeed, that I felt embarrassed for having had it, and hoped that I hadn’t talked to too many people about it.  Me sing at a 60th birthday party !?  The utter gall.  The shame.

Brighton fam : Millie, Scarlett & Skye, Thomas, Delilah-Rose, Kerry

I decided to celebrate the big Zero of Six in Brighton, East Sussex, England, my home town, home of my football team, my band, my political party, my friends, where I’d lived for 20 years before moving to New York in 2014.   Some of my friends who ran the percussion ensemble and hit West End, Broadway and touring show Stomp have their HQ in Brighton in a lovely old venue called The Old Market (Hove Actually).  I chatted with dear Loretta Sacco who runs the company and it was fixed with ridiculous & welcome ease.  Loretta is married to Steve McNicholas who is half of Stomp along with my friend Luke Cresswell.  I had a date, and a venue.

Guest vocalist Lucy Jules with her sister Natasha

But I still wanted to hear the songs, so I came up with a marvellous plan B, seriously superior in every way to the first idea : to get other people to sing the songs TO ME, and then watch them with the rest of the party.  Now here was an idea I could run with, over the hills & far away.  But how to find the guest vocalists?  My first stop was family – my wife’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #134 ) and my nephew Thomas Jules (see My Pop Life #57  and  #129).   I wasn’t sure which song to start with but it was good to have a couple of great singers to kick things off (or close the show).  Then I hoped Pippa Randall would probably agree to sing me an Amy Winehouse song since we’d played in an Amy tribute band together (see My Pop Life #65).   And I dreamed that Lisa Abbott, who sings a wonderful Kate Bush tribute ‘Hounds Of Love‘ with most of my band mates from the Brighton Beach Boys : (Stephen Wrigley, Glen Richardson, Charlotte Glasson etc, ) would be agreeable to singing a little Kate for me…

I drew up a list of songs and shared it with Jenny.  She was polite but firm.  “Ralph my love,” she said, or words of similar joy, “it is going to be a party.  These songs are all depressing vibes.”   I looked down at the partial list :

Goodbye To Love  (Carpenters)

Too Far Gone (Bobby Bland) (My Pop Life #28)

My Old School  (Steely Dan)

Man With The Child In His Eyes  (Kate Bush)

We Will  (Gilbert O’Sullivan)

Stardust  (Nat King Cole) (My Pop Life #100)

Something  (Beatles)

Back To Black  (Amy Winehouse)

All Is Fair In Love  (Stevie Wonder)

I must admit I’d watch that set and clap loudly after each song, but I could see with my host hat on that she was right, too much sad ballad, so I had another think.  Meanwhile I worried about catering and invites.  Of course the two are interdependent.  I invited 300 people, perhaps 350.  Would they all come?  Would they fuck.   I had to guess on the catering numbers then.  People who know about these things told me that half the invitees turn up.  Slightly depressing statistic isn’t it?   So I catered for 200.  Better not to have hungry people wandering around.   Then I went back to worrying about the setlist & singers.  I’d promised to myself, and told the folk in the band that I would pay for rehearsals – initially imagining I think a whole week of rehearsals.  Naïve.  There was one rehearsal in the end on the Thursday before the party.  By then I’d emailed and phoned around and the setlist & singers had been finalised, and some of them were there in the rehearsal space, meeting the band for the first time.   So, here’s the final setlist and the beautiful brave singers who sang that night, some chose their songs, and others had songs thrust upon them.  Each song is either a showstopper, or gives me a lump in my throat, or both.  I love all of these singers, each & every one, forever :

  • Beatles : Hello Goodbye – Glen Richardson (My Pop Life #200!!)
  • Beatles : Getting Better – Glen Richardson
  • Rascals : How Can I Be Sure – Stephen Wrigley
  • Joni Mitchell : My Old Man – Meera Syal
  • Simon & Garfunkel : America – Tom White & Kit Ashton (My Pop Life #130)
  • Procol Harum : A Salty Dog – Leon & Hereward Kaye  (My Pop Life #37)
  • Herb Alpert : This Guy’s In Love With You – Lee Ross (My Pop Life #49)
  • Nina Simone : Ne Me Quitte Pas  –  Maureen Hibbert
  • Kate Bush : Moments Of Pleasure  –  Lisa Abbott
  • Cilla Black/Dionne Warwick : Alfie  –  Lucy Jules
  • David Bowie : Life On Mars  –  Glen Richardson
  • Monkees : Pleasant Valley Sunday  – yours truly (My Pop Life #168)
  • Ian Dury : What A Waste  –  Cush Jumbo
  • Amy Winehouse : Valerie  –  Pippa Randall
  • Ike & Tina Turner : River Deep Mountain High  –  Lucy Jules (My Pop Life #160)
  • Stevie Wonder : I Wish  –  Thomas Jules
  • Bruce Springsteen : Born To Run  –  Glen Richardson
  • Beach Boys : And Your Dream Comes True – the band

Me giving Paul a piggyback in 1961

The whole weekend was extraordinary in so many ways.  My brother Paul Brown had flown in from Shanghai where he lives.  He was staying in the Pelirocco Hotel, where Jenny and I were staying.  Regency Square.  It’s a self-consciously “rock’n’roll hotel” cliché with themed rooms but no fridges & weak wi-fi but after a rough teething period, we ended up loving it a great deal.  So great to see Paul after a couple of years.  He had a marvellous beard.

Breakfast with Paul

The Hotel Pelirocco reception area

Then Lynn Nottage and Tony Gerber and  their beautiful children Ruby and Melkamu arrived (from Brooklyn!) & checked into a seafront hotel near us.  They’d  told me the name of it in New York & asked me what it was like.  I’d said “it’s on the seafront“.  When I saw them a few weeks later in Brighton I asked how the hotel was.  “Wellit’s on the seafront…”  said Tony.  See what I mean.

Pippa & Jenny in Alfresco

Ralph, Paul, Tony in Alfresco

On the Friday Jenny, Paul & I hooked up with Pippa, Lynn, Tony, Ruby and Mel in Alfresco which is a lovely Italian restaurant above the beach.  About 4pm.  It was almost empty.  Perfect.  We drank wine and so on.  Ate food.  Walked along the seafront past the West Pier ruins,

West Pier : Ruby, Lynn, Pippa, Paul, Jenny & Melkamu

past the Fortune of War public house & the Victorian carousel up to the mighty Palace Pier and walked out into the sea on the boards.  Took some cheesy pictures.  Stretched out a bit.  It was a heatwave.  Sunblock and T-shirts.  It was very special to have my New York family there with my family in Brighton.  Fam.  So much love.

   

Embracing the cheese on the Palace Pier (Albion got promoted in May)

Melkamu

Paul

We started to make a habit of landing at The Regency Tavern across the square for a late-night pint.   Harveys, naturally.

Brighton Pavilion : Ralph, Tony, Paul, Lynn, Jenny, Ruby

Lulu & Jide arrived on Saturday after we’d shown Lynn & Tony the Royal Pavilion and took us to a lovely restaurant in the Lanes called 64 Degrees.  Rather movingly, the waitress there was Neil Cooper‘s daughter Sunny who we’d met in 2001.  Neil – or Spiderman as he called himself – had production-managed Jenny and I’s wedding in 1992 after working on my play Sanctuary with Paulette and I, then had taught me how to water-ski and generally been a very good friend over the years until he suddenly died about 15 years ago. Shocked and sad, we had gone to his funeral in Golders Green.

Alex Major-Brown with his father, Andrew Brown on Brighton Beach

Later that afternoon Andrew Brown my younger brother arrived from Bournemouth with his 15-year old son Alex, known as Bootsy to us all although he now prefers Alex I understand (see My Pop Life #138) and Alex and I walked up to The Old Market to fix some necessary arrangements for the following day.  We chatted together about school, music and his dad.  It was rather great to be an Uncle once again.

As fate would have it, The Brighton Beach Boys had a gig at the Open Air Theatre (aka BOAT) in Dyke Road that night, a Bowie tribute, and I’d agreed to take part.  Well, I was 59 still.  That has to be for another blog…but I will mention that Paul, Lynn, Tony, Ruby and Melkamu all came to the park (Jenny had a date with Lucy) and witnessed the strange truth : Britain is in thrall to a secret David Bowie cult.

Vintage Brighton Beach Boys photo with Theseus on drums

Another late-night pint at The Regency ushered in June 18th and my 60th birthday.  We sat on a table – Paul, me, Jenny, Lynn and Tony.  Suddenly a fracas occurred next to us, a dog had growled at a tough guy & suddenly he wasn’t looking so tough.  He was acting tough though.  “Fucking keep your fucking dog under control.”  The dog owners were a group of young hippy types who immediately decided to leave the pub.  The geezer was right next to us and Paul shielded Jenny from any aggro instinctively.  The very camp bar staff intervened and asked the pant-wetting guy to leave and after some more noise and the prospect of the police being called he went into the gents, smashed the mirror (symbolic!) and left with his girlfriend.  Happy Birthday!!

Next morning in the Dollywood room I was showered with gifts and cards from my darling wife.  We had breakfast downstairs with a glass of champagne, then hooked up with the gang again for a good old-fashioned Sunday roast in Kemp Town at the Thomas Kemp pub, near our house.  Tony drove us up there in his rental and we piled into the walled garden, bathed in sunshine and shadow.  Lulu & Jide were there looking bonny, then Indhu Rubasingham arrived from London. Indhu directed Jenny in Lynn’s play Ruined at The Almeida (My Pop Life #180).  Kerry appeared, dear Kerry.  Even though Paul was there from China and didn’t know half of these people I somehow felt that he was guiding everyone through the day with grace and ease and charm, a natural facility he has with celebrations.  Very happy to have him there.  Beyond happy.  Then Scarlett arrived with her parents Maggie Flynn and Rob Pugh, warm, lovely people, (Rob greeted me in Welsh and Scarlett said “Dad!  Ralph, do you know what he just said to you?” I didn’t and still don’t !)  With them was Skye our 3-year old beauty with Thomas Jules my precious nephew.   We had a bench table or three and out came the meat (not for me), the potatoes,  yorkshire puddings & gravy and what we insist on calling “the trimmings“.  Then I had to run for a soundcheck & get-in at the venue.

I’d played The Old Market not three weeks earlier in Brighton Festival.  Magical Mystery Tour v Sgt Pepper.  I’d seen stuff there over the years.  Drank beers there.  Enjoyed Luke’s birthday fairly recently, rented out our house to one of Loretta’s staff, Helen at one point.  It was all very familiar and friendly but I was already feeling disembodied.  I had created a giant crossroads made of my life.  It was like a living breathing giant figure made out of all of these blog posts, music pouring from every orifice, made of love but still a giant puzzle, a huge inchoate emotional time bomb – 60 years of life ready to explode at any second.  I’d essentially invited everyone that I deemed myself to have had a proper relationship with, obviously they couldn’t all come, but nevertheless it was a daunting unknown test I appeared to have set myself.  All those plans, those hopes and fears – the desire beneath everything else to simply bring people together in a musical event, using the 60th as a hard-to-refuse invitation to a party, probably most likely, the biggest party I would ever throw.

The band arrived and started to unwrap gear, erect stands, plug in amplifiers, organise their sheet music at their stations, exchange pleasantries about the songs that they felt they didn’t know well enough.  Adrian in particular had a worry about one or two of the songs, and didn’t like to wear glasses on a gig to read the chord charts.  Oh well !  Tom White was setting up the drum kit, Jono the keyboards stage left, Glen the keyboards stage right.  The woodwinds were to the left of the drums, the strings to the right.  Stephen Wrigley the Musical Director, the co-author of this band with me, the genius who made everything possible, the man who had scored all of my favourite songs for this event, arranged for a 16-piece band and rehearsed on Thursday evening, Stephen was arranging his guitar sculpture in the centre of the stage.  I loved him so much that I couldn’t say it.

Stephen Wrigley

I popped out for a cigarette outside the back door – where the pub was which used to be called The Conqueror.  Theseus Gerrard was there, drummer for The Beach Boys and Bowie gigs but not for Beatles, and he wasn’t on the kit for this gig.  Almost a founder member of the group, a great rhythmist and free spirit, he divides the band because he is so dependent on the kindness of strangers, and such an itinerant addict, and so bad at learning new songs.  Unless he’s in the mood.  We have tolerated a lot from Theese over the years because he brings so much to the show, particularly regarding our relationship with the audience.  Theseus is a natural showman and communicator, whereas the rest of us are more nerdy and muso, staring at our instruments in order to get it right, engaged in some private musical examination, whereas Theseus is always aware that the gig is a relationship.  Audiences love him.  In the Sgt Pepper shows he is on percussion, but moves around the stage drawing focus onto whoever is singing, playing a solo or enacting some part of the song.  It really works.  He is a conundrum in many ways, a challenge to each and every one of us.  But then I think we all are like that to each other, in different ways.  Theseus sat there on the bench smoking a fag and looked at me, then said “Ralph – what do you want me to do in this gig mate?”  I think it was the year before when he’d sung me the Stones “Miss You” in another pub for my birthday, which was the highlight of that year.  I’d been in Brooklyn for nearly three years and it was touching.   I looked at him.  “You know what to do” I said.  He held my arm.  We were cool.  Although I partly wished I’d asked him to sing Miss You again, it also felt like an indulgence swerved.

I’d given my ipod to the bar -one mix.  And my computer to the main hall – another mix.  They couldn’t connect the two sound systems.  I’d made a rule – only one song per artist in each mix.  That was fun.  I remember hearing exactly one song at the party – It was a Rufus Wainwright song “I Don’t Know What It Is“.  Weird.  I asked the bar staff to turn the sound system up but it was playing at top volume apparently. I’d gone temporarily deaf for the night on top of everything else.  They were busy cutting oranges and cucumbers for the Pimms jugs which were to be free all night.

The band ran through a few numbers and now after the nerves and nail-biting and list-making, engineering party-organising, forgetting and mental-ness there suddenly appeared a moment of calm.  Music.  I wasn’t playing on most of these songs because I intended to be in the audience for most of the night.  Lisa sang Kate Bush, magically. Pippa went through Valerie.  So exciting.  Venue staff came and asked me stuff now & again, but I was suddenly peaceful.  Lucy sang Alfie, wonderfully.   The tears pricked me suddenly.  Something about that song.

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And so the party.  It was all so completely overwhelming seeing everyone who came and missing all those who did not.   Jenny looked extravagantly beautiful as ever, I knew she had my back, all night, and would make people feel welcome and loved even if I’d only spoken to them for a few moments.  She is my rock, my guiding star.  We walked up the stairs and looked briefly at each other and smiled a kind of “see you later” kind of smile.  Dressed in my gorgeous black & white puppy-tooth Jump The Gun suit with black & white short-sleeved shirt, loafers, I greeted my guests as they arrived, some carrying presents despite the urgent Red Cross Appeal Not To Bring Any Presents because I’d only have to leave them behind …I’d only brought one suitcase…

Of course the biggest and heaviest present came from Lucy & Graham.  A fully gigantic encyclopedia of hip hop made of some kind of stone or granite.  It is amazing !  But they weren’t the only ones.  Cards, books, all kinds of things.  There was even a book for people to sign.  Some did.    There were surprise arrivals to balance out the no-shows, Simon Korner brought his wife Leonie bless her, and his grown-up son Asher who had french girlfriend in tow.  Lewis MacLeod, Simon Lester, Norman Wilson, Dona Croll, Susan Kyd, Jo Martin, Eamonn Walker and Sandra Kane – I’d asked Eamonn to sing & he’d never answered so I didn’t know if he’d be there, my brother from another mother.  Catherine Walker came from Paris, and the Brighton gang were reunited in force.  Great turnout.  None better than Johanna Francis who’d just flown in from New York, our fairy godmother who’d sheltered us from the winter storm in 2014 just after we arrived in Brooklyn.  She’s become our homegirl.

Brooklyn gang – me, Sean, Johanna

On the night I knew that I would hardly get to speak to anyone, basically being magnetised by each new arrival for as long as it took until another one appeared over their shoulder and stole my attention.  Then they would start to leave and each moment would be just a moment.  Everyone, hopefully, would get a hello and a goodbye.  I knew this.  I mentioned it in my speech “Sorry I haven’t spoken to any of you yet.  I’m not going to speak to you later either.”  Got a laugh.  I alluded to the turnout being likely to be the same for my funeral, except that I would be dead, and therefore wouldn’t enjoy it as much.  Also got a laugh.  Also mentioned all the last-minute “sorry” texts & emails I’d received in the days leading up to the party as ‘little stabs‘ … ‘which didn’t hurt’.  Got a 3rd laugh!  Probably the biggest.  The speech finished with the greetings & partings acknowledgement which bled perfectly into Hello Goodbye as an opening number.   Because 2017 was the 50th anniversary of Magical Mystery Tour (the EP & the LP) we were all up to speed on this song, one of McCartney’s finest moments, an apparently simple song with simple lyrics, astoundingly well performed and produced, clear and clean and HAPPY.  I love it.

It was the perfect opener for the gig, the perfect hinge on my year and my evening.  We then played Getting Better from Sgt Pepper because it’s an uptempo positive song, and a 50th birthday for that album AND it was a party 😉  And then the first special request song – How Can I Be Sure – chosen by me for Stephen Wrigley to sing because I knew he loved it as much as I did.  I prefer the David Cassidy version to the original by The Rascals, but he prefers that one, so that was the one we did.  Fair enough.  Then I left the stage and watched the remainder of the show from the audience.

I’d waited for Paulette & Beverley to arrive before I started the entertainment.  They were drinking with old reprobates David & Eugene in the Pelirocco in the porn-themed room.  I was so happy that they’d all made it to the party.  Absurdly self-conscious as I had been onstage making my speech & participating in a few songs, I became positively opaque sitting in the audience, like a hair-trigger of emotion awaiting release, whilst knowing deep in my floppy sweet liquorice bones that I could not afford to plumb those depths, not here, not now, don’t cry, shut it down fella.

Meera Syal

Meera Syal was first up, singing Joni Mitchell‘s My Old Man from Blue – our joint choice.  We’d chatted about the key it should be in, but she’d only been able to make today.  She stood in front of the microphone and announced :  “Ralphy, I want you to know that you’re the only person I love enough to sing this song without any rehearsal“.  A ripple of excitement and expectation ran through the guests – oh, wow, no rehearsal.  The bravery, the love.  A little like watching a live X-factor gig where the band are fully rehearsed, safe group of hands, but the singers are all walking the tightrope.  Woop !  Meera was stunning of course, nailed the song and the emotion of the song with aplomb.  I helped her offstage and kissed & thanked her.

Ralph Brown, Andy Baybutt, Tim Lewis : Friston Forest

JennyTim Lewis were doing the MC honours, announcing the guest singers in turn.  Jenny had, as ever, been my right hand, my guiding star, my heart & soul and over half of my brain all weekend.   Next up were Tom White our drummer & Brighton musical genius in his own right (having played with his band The Electric Soft Parade since being at school with his brother Alex; also Brakes, The Fiction Aisle and many other outlets).  He has music running through his veins.  He teamed up with another Brighton musical legend Kit Ashton.  I’d hooked up with Kit when he was running his “Songwriter” gigs – he’d do one a year at Hanbury Ballroom with guest vocalists and one year he’d asked me if I wanted to sing a couple of Elvis Costello songs and I’d bitten his hand off and performed Alison & All Grown Up.  The following year he did Bowie and I got Glen involved, I did Station To Station and Glen did Drive-In Saturday and Life On Mars,  another memorable night since legendary bass player Herbie Flowers turned up to play his parts on Rebel Rebel & Space Oddity.  Tom and Kit got all acoustic together and sang me the Simon & Garfunkel classic “America” (see My Pop Life #130 ) which is deeply symbolic because Jenny and I walked off to look for America or something.  Such a beautiful song.

Hereward Kaye

Next up my old buddy Hereward Kaye – the man who taught me Good Vibrations for the Rock and Roll Shakepeare sci-fi extravaganza Return To The Forbidden Planet at The Tricycle Theatre in 1985 (see My Pop Life #190).  Herry took to the keyboard with his son Leon on vocals and tore into the prog-rock masterpiece known as A Salty Dog (see My Pop Life #37).  Leon fair took the roof off with his voice, rising to the occasion and the massive challenge of singing Gary Brooker, Procol Harum‘s lead vocalist and one of the great rock singers.   It was all getting a bit serious and intense, but here came Lee Ross my beautiful friend to give us a rendition of a Bacharach song This Guy’s In Love With You, originally sung by Herb Alpert (My Pop Life #49).

Lee Ross

Dear MC Tim Lewis had to improvise a story because Lee was having an emergency pre-stage leak in the gents downstairs.  He related how, in the early days of our friendship we had been on the phone organising something, and he’d ended by saying “Thanks lovely Ralph“.  I misheard him, and after a slight pause replied “I love you too Tim“.  Dear Tim didn’t have the inclination to correct me, but now took the opportunity to say that he loved me too.  Awwww.

Lee was unintentionally hilarious, his hat slightly askew, his lyrics sheet had a life of its own & kept leaving his hand or jumping off the music stand with every slight gust of breath.  He brought the house down and delivered the tune with great joy, cracked the atmosphere, now it was a party.  I wrote about Lee and Jo McInnes in My Pop Life #192 .

Jenny Jules, Pippa Randall, Maureen Hibbert at the party

Next up was Maureen Hibbert who deserves her own blog and her own story for I cannot do it justice inside this piece.  And I have to mention her daughter Chloe, my god-daughter who had travelled from Zanzibar (I think?) to spend the evening with me, to be there for me.  Maureen and Chloe ended up sleeping on our couch!  Mo sang, with huge courage and soul, the amazing Jaques Brel song Ne Me Quitte Pas, in the style of Nina Simone, in French.  Wow.   This was the most dramatic part of the show, easily.  In verse three she wasn’t happy with a vocal mistake and held up her hand “Wait wait, hold on!” she said.  The band stopped playing.  “I want this to be right for Ralphy” she said, “can we do that part again please?”  Stephen raised the baton “top of verse three?” And.  The bar kept being raised.

Lisa Abbott

Somewhere in the hall Scarlett’s dad Rob Pugh, writer of Reg which I’d filmed in 2015 (My Pop Life #119) muttered to Luke standing alongside him “here comes another piece of hippy shite“.  He is 100% Welsh of course.  I’m a mere 25%.

He was right too : The darling hippy Lisa Abbott took the microphone for my favourite Kate Bush song which never fails to bring water to the eye : Moments Of Pleasure from the Red Shoes album.  It was both uncanny and magical listening to Lisa sing for me on my birthday.  She just inhabits Kate Bush totally.  Her voice is quite exquisite.  I’d seen her sing the whole of the Hounds Of Love LP one night two years earlier in this very venue and it was nothing short of extraordinary.   I could see the people in the party who had yet to sing looking at her and thinking “Shit! I’ve got to follow that.

Lucy Jules

But it was Lucy Jules up next, singing Alfie.  The Bacharach arrangement, Steve conducting.  A string quartet, a woodwind quartet, a band of great players.  It is a great band and it was lovely to showcase them for my friends who had never seen us gig.  I really am so proud of this part of my life, and I miss it a great deal and try to get back to England as often as possible to play with them.  By now I was sitting down, Simon Korner to my right, Conrad Ryle to my left – Simon had joined me after America, Conrad after A Salty Dog.  My mates from school.  My surrogate families who rescued me in the 1970s.  My North & South Poles.

Lucy sang the first line :  “ What’s it all about, Ralphie?” and I smiled.  It was funny and bold and lovely & it stopped me from weeping once more.  Everyone in the room smiled I think.   I can’t really put into words what it meant, what it felt like.  She kept it up for the entire song.  “And if life belongs only to the strong Ralphie…” and each time she left a miniscule pause before the name as if deciding anew each time to change the name of the person she was talking to, and each time it was funny, witty, affectionate, very moving.  Especially in a song about love…

Brought the house down of course.   I was grateful to her for changing the song from Alfie to Ralphie.  Stopped my meltdown in its tracks which she later told me was why she’d done it.  Some people are very wise aren’t they?  I still feel like a young soul, like a 25-year old learning how it all works.  I look at people like say Bruno the Brighton & Hove Albion captain and I think “look at that old guy, he’s doing all right”.  Bruno is 37 years old.  I still feel, without thinking, that he & others like him are older than me.  This is a kind of psychic dissonance, a denial of time passing, arrested development or simply genius.  Does everyone feel this strange emotional eternal youth inside?  Only mirrors give me a shock –  Gulp : who the fuck is THAT??  Adjustment, temporarily.  Then I’m back, 25 years old, dealing with the next minute, then the next.

Lucy received a standing ovation for her performance and a thrill ran through the room.  It was a good gig all right !  I was thrilled to bits by now and had decided to go through with my song – I almost swerved it, but then also felt in one way that the singers who had yet to perform would be encouraged by watching me struggle a little musically, that I would bring the bar back down and that Cush and Pippa in particular would be imbued with renewed courage.  Maybe. I looked over at Cush and she raised her eyebrows at me like WOW.

our lead vocalist Glen Richardson

Who followed that emotional centrepiece ?  Why David Bowie of course in the eminent shape of Glen Richardson singing Life On Mars.  He and the band absolutely smashed it to pieces.  I then jumped back onstage fortified by ales and love and sang a rendition of the Carole King/Monkees classic Pleasant Valley Sunday which I dearly hoped we were all inhabiting by that point.  I then made my way to the horn section where my trusty alto saxophone was nestled on its stand and honked my way through the remainder of the set : a massive error on my part here, since I didn’t get to see the surprise package of the event, namely, Cush Jumbo singing What A Waste, unrehearsed, never met the band, just like Meera, apparently extraordinary…

Sean Griffin & Cush Jumbo

OK I’ve now seen the footage and Cush was outstanding.  Especially changing the chorus final line from “rock’n’roll don’t mind” to “my mum don’t mind” !!  Genius.  These two are our newest dearest friends, both English, moved over just after we did, they live down the road from us in Brooklyn and we try to hang out with them as often as we can.   She’d given a little speech before the song about how much she appreciated me befriending Sean in America and taking him to the dirty bar to play pool and get horribly drunk.  Aw.

Cush was followed by Pippa Randall singing Valerie with true relish, what a star she is, accompanied by Joe Kaye plugged in next to her, at which point Conrad & Gaynor and a whole bunch of other people decided to get up and dance (hooray!).  Maybe we’d gone on too long, but I love Conrad and Gaynor for always dancing !!!  Then Lucy came back to scale the mountaintop River Deep Mountain High with Lisa, Meera, Cush, Maureen & Pippa on backing vocals which apparently tore the roof off the sucker, and the throat out of dear Lucy, and finally darling Thomas who’d had a sore throat all weekend stepped up to sing Stevie Wonder‘s I Wish with Lucy on chorus high notes.  He was absolutely flipping amazing.

Thomas Jules

I missed it all, because the sound at the back of the stage was poor, only climbing back into the audience for Born To Run which Glen sang.  But my friend Steve McNicholas was filming it all, so I do believe that I will get to see these magic moments one day soon.

Charlotte Glasson, Danielle Flarty, Adrian Marshall

At the end of the gig we sang the Beach Boys acapella lullaby And Your Dream Comes True to Scarlett, who was heavily pregnant and about to DJ for the dancing part of the party with Thomas.  Yes, a Beach Boys song and a sad ballad but I felt it was a sweet way to end the set and serenade mum-to-be.  The beautiful Lua Blue Jules Pugh was born 20 days later, somewhat overdue but perfect in every way.

Mum Scarlett & baby Lua Blue 4 months later

end of the party : Alex, Ralph, Rebecca, Andrew, Paul

At the end of the party the gang split into two fact-finding groups –

group A) people who had to leave including my sister Rebecca Coleman and her kids Ellie and William who rode off into the night with her dad Alan Sully;  Jenny’s mother Esther Jules who was driven back to Wembley by Jenny’s sister & Thomas’ mum Dee, who then returned to Harlow, Essex with nephews Jordan and Jamie;  Uncle Lee who took Auntie Mame and Tete Sica back to Ramsgate (!);  the families Randall & Kaye with Roy & Robbie, Herry & Pat, Pippa & Joe, Tia & Lucy;  and plenty of others who’d booked babysitters…

and group B) people who hadn’t finished getting fucked up.  Well that group all walked down to the Pelirocco Hotel and drank until dawn.

Dawn : Kit Ashton, Ralph, Tom White, Paul

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Much later I wrote an email to those who had participated including the band themselves :  Steve, Glen, Adrian, Charlotte, Theseus, Tom, Brian, Jane, Joe, Rob, Danielle, Jono, Simon.

First and most importantly, Thank You for helping me through the great gates of 60, daunting and aged though they were, an ancient stone portal which loomed ahead casting a shadow over the earth for the last few years, during which time I planned this event to avoid facing the tremendous fear beneath the celebration.  The numbers do not lie, and I am 60.  So thank you once again for holding my hand, bringing yourself and your love.  I felt it.  I was overwhelmed and did not surrender, but now I thank you.  You have o’erleaped the rest into my personal pop charts.  You are a Golden Great.  I may never do that again, but I will always cherish it.”   Lots of love, Ralph, aged 60

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if anyone has any photos from the party, please send them to me !!

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