My Pop Life #207 : How Great Thou Art – The Statler Brothers

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How Great Thou Art – The Statler Brothers

Then sings my soul, my saviour God, to thee

How great thou art, how great thou art

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It’s a christian hymn.  I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when this song became part of my consciousness, but it was via my wife’s parents, in the 1990s, at a church, in London, of that I am certain.

I became the luckiest man on earth when I married Jenny Jules.  Not only because she is so special, the kind of person that pours forth light and love over whoever happens to be with her, but because that light & that love come from her parents who received me into their family as a son, and who have loved me ever since that moment.

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Thomas & Esther Jules

It may have been a christening service, Mollie & Pete’s wedding, Anthony’s wedding or possibly even a funeral.  I heard the choir singing it, and the congregation including Mrs Jules, Jenny’s Mum,  with her beautiful clear soprano.  The melody is superb and it has since become one of my favourite church hymns (I last wrote about hymns in My Pop Life #127).  Although I am an avowed atheist I don’t mind going to a christian service as long as the pastor doesn’t start moralising too heavily, as happened at one of the children’s christening services in the Stonebridge Church where Mr & Mrs Jules worshipped regularly.  Quite shocking judgemental crap about women who use assistance in getting pregnant as I recall, not from the regular priest, but it illustrated the dangers of christianity for me quite clearly.

However.

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The dashing young couple from St Lucia shortly after they met in London

The parents, (the parentals, The Rentals), Tom and Esther, both came to Britain by sea from St Lucia over 50 years ago and met each other in Paddington which had quite a decent St Lucian community in those days.  In the early days of my life with the Jules family, they lived in the shadow of Wembley Stadium in the London borough of Brent.   My wife Jenny is right in the middle of the brood, with two older sisters Dee & Mollie, plus one brother Jon and two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy.  If I start using nicknames now it will all get very confusing.   But my early nickname was Jean Blanc.  Said with a French accent please, because St Lucian patois is french at the root.  At least I think that was the name, it could have been Gens Blanc but that would have been weird.

It didn’t really stick as a nickname longer than five years or so, after which I became Ralphie or as Mrs Jules would say it : Waffee.  I can tell that she loves me when she says it because she kind of sings it with a big smile on her face.   We call them a variety of names themselves but I’ll stick with Grandma & Grandad for now because since the little ones started to come along (around the time I joined the family) that’s what they have been.  So Tom and Esther = Grandad and Grandma.  They welcomed me with warmth and love from the very beginning, although I remember Grandad, at our wedding, laying an ancient father’s curse on the next two in line Mandy and Lucy with a warning to anyone who wanted to marry his two youngest that they were not available.

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Lucy, Mandy, Latifah, Jenny, Mollie, Dee.  

Grandma worked at Marks & Spencer for most of her working life which she enjoyed very much.  After retiring she started to enjoy making elaborate cakes, whether for special birthday occasions or weddings, or her famous and sacred black cake for Christmas, carefully wrapped in tinfoil and clingfilm to keep the treasure inside. Quite the best cake I have ever eaten.  Grandad was a drummer in St Lucia but gave that up as he made the crossing and spent his working life with London Transport as an engineer in the bus garage at Brent Cross.  Now retired, he still gets up every morning at 6am to make coffee and wake the various members of the family for work, including me when I stay over – tap tap on the door – “Ralphie ? Good morning.  Coffee.”  Bleary-eyed me : “Thank you Grandad”.  Then it is down the shop for the Daily Mirror – they are both socialists and republicans – and a good hour of checking the form of the horses that day, then to the Betting Shop for a small wager.  TV is a big favourite of them both too, Channel Four racing then re-runs of Dynasty or Bonanza or other 1980s shows. They bicker if they have an audience, making jokes at each other’s expense for our amusement.

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Grandad is a brilliant storyteller and dinner time (or lunchtime) is a family moment for a tale of something he saw, something that happened, always hilarious.  Such as the car which said, as he passed it “You are standing too close to this vehicle!  Please move away from this vehicle!”.  He loves that story.  He is incredibly fit for his age – he is into his 80s now – and doesn’t look a day over 55.  They’re both young for their years and completely family-centred, never happier than when the daughters bring their (now grown-up!) children and their children round.  Molly’s eldest Dominique has two beautiful children Tia & Kian, and two other daughters : my god-daughter Kimberley and Courtnie plus Robert whose birth I wrote about in My Pop Life #123.  Dee had Thomas, Jamie & Jordan and now  Thomas & Scarlett in turn have Skye & Lua.  Generations!  Brother Jon has three children but a schism in that marriage means that they are rarely seen.

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Grandad and Grandma can often be found listening to various kinds of music, let’s see : Jim Reeves is a favourite, Al Green and Perry Como; more left-field is Mexican-American tejano and country musician Freddy Fender;  their religious music, and then St Lucian and Trinidadian quadrille and soca – Caribbean dance music derived from calypso.  Downstairs in the kitchen the radio is on all day, tuned to Smooth FM usually, and that part of family life is deeply familiar to me !

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Waffee and Grandma

Grandad & Grandma are both Catholic and deeply involved with their local church, singing in the choir, organising the collection and other behind-the-scenes stuff.  When they are in St Lucia where they have built a house in the village of Mon Repos, there is a church just down the road and we all went there one Christmas to listen to the Filipino priest sermonise us with love.  In 2007 in fact I decided not to go to the Christmas morning service because I’d done it once and not really enjoyed it.  Everyone knew I wasn’t a christian so it wasn’t too rude to swerve.

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Extended family in Mon Repos, St Lucia

But my god-daughter Chloe was with us that year, and she wanted to talk to me about it.  She was 13 and wasn’t at all sure if she believed in God.  I think she was being polite and had already decided that she didn’t to be honest.  Her Mum Maureen was going, so was Jenny, Mandy, Lucy, Robbie, Dee, Jamie, Jordan, Thomas, Scarlett, Grandad and Grandma.  I wasn’t, and Chloe decided bravely to join me in sitting it out.  I had realised at around 8 or 9 years old that I didn’t believe in the stories I was being told by the vicar or anyone else and when it was time for me to go to Big School in Lewes aged 11, I took the opportunity to drop Sunday school finally.

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Chloe in St Lucia Christmas 2007

But christian music is something else entirely.  I’m a believer.  From the gospel of The Edwin Hawkins Singers’ Oh Happy Day (My Pop Life #199) to Sam Cooke, Al Green, Paul Robeson, Monteverdi or Bach (My Pop Life #76) it is some of the most moving and uplifting music you can find.  I bought Gavin Bryar’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet in 1993 when we lived in West Hollywood and much to Jenny’s dismay played that tramp singing his faith every day for a couple of months.  When I was looking online for a version of How Great Thou Art I was astounded to find thousands of different renditions, according to Wikipedia there are 1700 recorded songs at least.  Which puts it up there with Hoagy Carmichael’s Star Dust or The Beatles’ Yesterday.

It’s a relatively new song : composed as a poem in 1885 by Swedish Pastor Carl Boberg, it travelled via Estonia and Russia to then be translated into English by missionary Stuart Hine who added two verses of his own.  The melody is either Russian or Swedish depending on who you read.  It became popular in the 1960s when evangelical preacher Billy Graham used it at his giant tent meetings and has since been covered by all and anyone, from Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn to Gladys Knight, Al Green and most famously Elvis Presley who made his 2nd gospel LP in 1967 and called it How Great Thou Art.

I chose The Statler Brothers out of the dozens that I’ve listened to today (it’s proper work this blogging y’know!) because it approximates most closely to the version I hear in my head.  Not too slow, like Mahalia Jackson or Elvis. Not a solo voice (as beautifully as Tammy Wynette or Gladys Knight sing it).  Not too many gimmicks or personal touches.  Not over-produced.  Just a lovely four part harmony delivered straight by a country gospel quartet who often backed Johnny Cash.  But so many to choose from….  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Mahalia Jackson.  Pentatonix.  Carrie Underwood.  Alan Jackson.  Dolly Parton.  Donna Summer.  Charlie Daniels.  Johnny Cash.  Willie Nelson….Some of these are attached so feel free to let me know your favourite in the comments below this blog.

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So in fact I may have heard it earlier in my life when I was around 10 or 11 in the late 60s without knowing what it was.  Maybe.  It is an amazing song and brings tears unbidden to my eyes, but it only became a favourite via Mrs Jules.  She would sing it gently to herself while bustling around the kitchen cooking some pemé & acqua (coconut tamale & chilli fish fritters) for Good Friday, or her famous chicken (when I ate chicken!), yam, dashin, plantain, rice & peas, bwa-pain if we were lucky – breadfruit, which grows in their garden in St Lucia along with avocados and bananas.  She has cooked me, and the whole family of course, many many fine meals.  Made with love. You can taste it to be sure.  They fill their house with love and laughter and gentle humour.  They are like my mum and dad and I love them both very much and thank them forever for allowing me to marry their beautiful daughter.  How great they are indeed.

The Statler Brothers :

Carrie Underwood & Vince Gill :

Elvis Presley live in 1972 :

The Vocal Majority (extraordinary) :

the brilliant Tammy Wynette :

Alan Jackson :

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My Pop Life #206 : Summertime In My Heart – Electric Soft Parade

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Summertime In My Heart – Electric Soft Parade

I gotta say that it often feels
There’s someone watching over me
I don’t pray and I certainly don’t preach
Maybe it’s just wishful thinking
You gotta take the rough with the smooth
If you’re prepared to tell your own truth
It certainly don’t make me look cool
And maybe it’s just all this drinking 

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Alex and Tom White.  Tom has the tie.

I have to write a post on the White brothers.   It was, of course, music that brought us together.  Dear Kit Ashton, when he lived in Brighton, used to do a songwriter’s evening once a year, and I suspect it was Julian Deane – once of Toploader and now running Raygun Records – who suggested he contact me.  Kit emailed probably and said he was doing a David Bowie night, and which song would I like to sing?

Wow.

I said, without any hesitation, ‘Station To Station’ which rhymes, and the resulting rehearsals and live gig were among the highlights of my musical life.  Honest – I will write about the lowlights too at some point, but my favourites are the highlights.  They just are.  Call me old-fashioned.   I missed the earlier incarnations of Kit’s annual event, but they included Rufus Wainwright which is a show I’d have loved to have been involved in.  The following year we’d done Elvis Costello (or was it the previous year?) and that was brilliant too, mainly doing backing vocals and some sax, and singing a couple of leads.  Worth its own post.

Anyway the band on the Bowie gig included some folk I knew : killer guitarist Rachel Wood I’d seen in Paul Steel’s band, some special guests : Herbie Flowers, Glen Richardson, and some folk I didn’t really know, Joe on keyboards and Alex White on drums.  He was outstanding.  Was it the same night of the gig when we went back up Abbey Road to our house and got high and compared notes on depression and strategies for dealing with it?  And then Alex made me a CD with some cracking songs I’d never heard of – including: Ambrosia’s Running Away ; a blast from my own past which he’d somehow unearthed: Deaf School’s What A Way To End It All; a shared joy: Van Dyke Parks & Brian Wilson’s Orange Crate Art;  and most astoundingly, a cover that Alex had made by himself of a Todd Rundgren song All The Children Sing.  This blew my tiny mind, because it is a multi-layered exquisite piece of work in the original and Alex had somehow re-created its vibe note-perfectly.

I undoubtedly made him some kind of CD too, but lacking the cover version moment with me playing all the parts and singing all the harmonies.  I jest.  As any fule kno.  At this point I suspect I went back to listen to Electric Soft Parade all over again.

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Electric Soft Parade were Alex and his brother Tom White, previously members of Feltro Media, a Brighton band who’d recorded three (!) self-released albums in the late 90s.  I’ve not heard any of these.   Electric Soft Parade’s first album Holes In The Wall came out in 2002 and was nominated for a Mercury prize, two other great albums followed which I won’t go into here, but from around 2007 everything they’ve done together or singly has been self-produced.   When I met Alex, the band was on an extended hiatus, the two brothers being busy with their own projects as well as playing with Brakes – another Brighton outfit formed with members of British Seapower & Tenderfoot.

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Alex and Tom as youngers

I bumped into Tom White one day in the framing shop in The Lanes and said ‘hi, I’m a friend of Alex‘.   I went to see Clowwns at the Prince Albert one night, Miles Heathfield‘s excellent band, Tom was on drums.   The brothers kept popping up at gigs around town.  Then, suddenly, their Mum died.  In their grief, a benefit concert was arranged down at The Concorde on the seafront, almost directly below our house.  I went along and saw the cream of the Brighton musical establishment playing for the brothers, including Field Music and Electric Soft Parade themselves, playing their first gig for some time.

What was great for me about discovering further musical riches in my home town was that sense of things being joined together.  Pretty much any musician I talked to knew them.  Among my joyous memories of local bands (or bands who’d based themselves in Brighton) were Mike Lord‘s tremendous outfit Stars & Sons in which Paul Steel played bass and Luke Sital-Singh played guitar – both now incandescent solo acts with Julian’s Raygun Records along with ace punk-rock group The Xcerts.  My friend Tim Lewis was now dating a beautiful young lady named Beth Hannah. Her father is Ian Hannah of this parish, a massive music fan who enjoys going to local gigs (like me) and would always be seen at anything involving the White brothers.  He is their biggest fan I reckon!  So  often the crowd would be me, Tim and Ian with maybe Andy or Will or Keith or whoever we can rustle up.  The live scene there is ace.

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Tom White, Alex White : The Electric Soft Parade : “Idiots”

The following year or maybe the year after that they released their fourth album “Idiots” which was on the Helium label and had a rather brilliant front cover (see above).  One of the songs on this album caught my ear and never let go.   Summertime in My Heart is a wonderful piece of songwriting & playing by the brothers White, conjuring up endless sunny days, carefree afternoons and long lazy evenings with people you love and bottles of cider.  It references sounds like The Byrds jangly guitar pop, The Las from Liverpool and the fresh punk-pop of The Undertones.  But really it sounds just like them.  My wife Jenny adores the song with its sibling harmonies mixed high in the production, and references to catching “the first bus into town“.  Perfect pop.

I don’t know if Idiots” got much traction, had good reviews or sales, but it seems not which is one of the many crimes against perfect pop that have been perpetrated over the years.  I reference here one of Brighton’s other fine musicians, Paul Steel, and his 2nd album Moon Rock which was released in Japan and is now available on iTunes, but very few people know about it.  Such a shame.

Disheartened they may have been but it didn’t dent their confidence, as evidenced by the next move.  Around this time they both produced albums on their own – Alex made a perfect copy of Steely Dan’s Katy Lied :

https://theelectricsoftparade.bandcamp.com/album/katy-lied

while Tom made an equally perfect copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours :

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Because why not? !!

Alex was also making an album inspired by his mother called Interlocutor at The Levellers‘ studio near Brighton College playing-fields with mates and wanted some of my alto saxophone on it.  The dates never quite worked and I’ve never heard the finished product, if indeed it was ever finished.

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Tom made a handful of solo LPs, including Yalla recorded in Egypt (all his stuff is great by the way) and then formed a new band called The Fiction Aisle.  I love this band too.  Their first album was a stunner, called Heart Map Rubric. To date they have produced four albums – three studio releases and a live LP  which came out last month (April 2018) with Alex playing guitar which was welcome news since every time I’d seen Alex recently he hasn’t been buoyant.  The previous last time (I think) was at a Fiction Aisle gig in Brighton in December 2016 where Alex was on DJ duties and we went back to his mate’s flat for a few beers and smokes afterward.  It was nice to see him again.

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Earlier Tom had spied me on the pavement smoking eternal cigarettes as ever & I’d congratulated him on the gig and yet expressed disappointment that it didn’t sound like my favourite album of theirs Fuchsia Days.  Different line-up, instruments, energy.  Tom was full of joy and told me that he and Alex had been hanging out at Preston Park earlier in the year listening outside the perimeter fence to Brian Wilson & his band playing Pet Sounds and melting into their musical boots.  I was inside with Paul Steel & his partner Hollie his partner & Martin his dad (see My Pop Life #1 and #2) and wondering why Brian was singing like Frank Sinatra and breaking up the rhythm of the phrases.  There is a school that believes that Brian can do whatever he wants and there is a smaller group of devotees like myself who want to hear the song, not the singer’s experimentation.  Ah fuck it, he can do whatever he wants, course he can!  He’s a living savant.

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Brian Wilson at Together The People, Preston Park Brighton 2016

So Tom says “we loved Brian Wilson and we’d like to play in your band if there’s space“.  My band being The Brighton Beach Boys who started out playing the music of Brian Wilson then The Beatles, now Bowie, John Barry and everyone you like (see My Pop Life #111,  My Pop Life #154,  My Pop Life #169  and others…)   There was a little bit of band politics to follow, but in the end we needed a new drummer who lived in Brighton for we were at that time rehearsing The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour LP for its 50th Anniversary to play alongside Sgt Pepper and… well, our regular Ringo the reverend Thomas Arnold was out in Macau and other exotic loci with a Michael Jackson show entitled Thriller.  Early in 2017 I flew back to the UK for a rehearsal and there was Tom White on the kit.  Very happy to see this fresh injection of talent and energy.   And a new generation.  Good for the band I thought.  And he loved the lack of stress, as he put it, playing other people’s music.   Not sure if all the band felt that way!  The following months were a joy for me, and all of us, he gobbled up everything we threw at him, including, of course, backing vocals by the score.  And fake animal heads of course.

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Tom at rehearsal playing er…I Am The Walrus

(the walrus was Paul : see  My Pop Life#118)

That summer (time in my heart) of 2017 we happy few played Brighton Festival, Windsor, Liverpool (!) and London together.  Enjoying those two mighty albums. For another post no doubt, it will remain one of the highlights of my life.

Alex meanwhile had retreated into not really wanting to play music.   Until he turned up on the 4th Fiction Aisle (live) album sounding quite amazing.

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I really should mention the drummer Damo Waters too who is a monster player and who spreads himself among the high end Brighton music scene like caviar on Armenian toast – I’ve seen him with Clowwns, Field Music, ESP and others, always outstanding.

*

 I really wanted the brothers to play Summertime In My Heart at my 60th birthday concert in the summer of 2017 (see My Pop Life #200) but Alex was in the slough of despond and didn’t like being in rooms full of people, or even know if he wanted to play music any longer.  I think he’s better now.   I hope so.  I know that struggle.   Tom sang Simon & Garfunkel’s America with Kit Ashton, closing the circle of karma with which we started 1932 words ago and we all ended up on the beach at dawnIMG_2993 Tom White & Paul Brown my dear brother, dawn, June 19th 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you : the White brothers as the magnificent Electric Soft Parade :

My Pop Life #205 : Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do – Captain Beefheart

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Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do  –  Captain Beefheart

Well I was born in the desert, came on up from New Orleans
Came up on a tornado, sunlight in the sky
I went around all day with the moon sticking in my eye

The song itself doesn’t really mean anything to me. So what’s it doing here then?  It’s a blues copy of an old jugband song by Gus Cannon which is a shout out to young girls to come on by  and spend some time.  Sure, why not.  But Captain Beefheart was a sound I’d heard at school round my friend Simon’s house, possibly even at Pete’s too, and I was pretty sure I didn’t like it much.  But in the spirit of the great John Peel, DJ from the early 60s through to 2004, it tops this blog as a song which he introduced to me. 

Let me explain.  This is from Captain Beefheart’s first LP Safe As Milk which came out in 1967, and when I finally started to dig this Magic Band in the year 2008 I was working on a British film called The Boat That Rocked, playing a DJ broadcasting from a pirate radio station moored on a sandbank in the North Sea, just outside British territorial waters.   Set in 1966/7, the film attempts to encapsulate british pop culture at a time when, despite The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Motown, Dusty, The Beach Boys et al, the incredibly fecund and musically diverse pop boom that was the mid-sixties, the nation was being fed a musical diet of trad jazz & light entertainment by the BBC.  Pirate radio stations filled the gap.   Based on both Radio Caroline & Radio London (but always denied by Working Title Films for legal reasons) the film portrays a who’s who of the deejays of the mid-1960s most of whom went on to Radio One when it was formed in 1967 as the law changed and the pirates ceased broadcasting.

I am actually old enough to remember Radio Caroline and Radio London – ‘the Big L’.  I remember Emporer Rosko and Keith Skues and Johnny Walker and even the jingles.  My mum would tune in from leafy East Sussex.  I was 8, 9 years old.  Where else could we find the pop music we loved?  Radio Luxembourg, Radio London, Radio Caroline.  It’s hard to conceive that until summer 1967 there was no pop radio in the UK (a few hours on Saturday BBC) apart from the Pirate Radio stations.

In December/January 2007/8 I was actually on stage doing a play (for the first time since 1990!) at the Bush Theatre in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.  I’ll write about it another time, but it was about a punk band revived in their later years for cash.  Damn good piece of work.  One of the cast Pierce Quigley had auditioned for Richard Curtis and told me about the set-up of the movie.  Right up my street, down my valley, into my top pocket, straight to the heart on my watch I felt.  I wondered if I had a shout, but it sounded pretty much all cast.  In January though I travelled to Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill and met Richard, Hilary Bevan-Jones the producer, Fiona Weir the casting director and Richard’s girlfriend (and mother of his four children) Emma Freud. I read my version of “Bob” the late-night DJ, the hermit, the whispery groovy stoner and Hendrix lover (“this young man is really quite good at playing the guitar”).

Nailed it.

Next up was a table read in London’s Soho with a shiny selection of insecure yet quixotic talent – Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Davenport, Chris O’Dowd, Tom Sturridge.   Jason Isaacs was sitting next to me but he was only keeping a seat warm, he assured me, for Rhys Ifans who couldn’t make it.  The critical part of The Count, the American DJ – the Emporer Rosko part – had not apparently been filled.  No one else had been cast.  Actually I think Bill & Rhys and Nick & Ken had been cast, but all the “smaller parts” had not.  It was like a giant open audition.  Jeez.

We read the script aloud, someone was taping it.  No pressure.

We were all cast a few days later.  Except Jason Isaacs.

I was to play Bob, and Richard wanted to change the name.  Clearly lawyers were all over this script to stop it being likened to Radio Caroline or the others.  Bob reminded the lawyers of Bob Harris from The Old Grey Whistle Test and they wanted to avoid litigation.  During my research period I met Bob Harris at the BBC while he recorded his country show for Radio 2, and told him of the discussion of names.  He insisted that the character be named Bob, because even though he wasn’t on a pirate ship, Harris felt a huge affinity for those characters, and came up in the same generation.  “Bob” my DJ was a mix of John Peel and Whispering Bob Harris really, a laid back groover, bringing alternative sounds to a pop generation.  I was in method-acting heaven.  Bob was officially my DJ name and I’m still friends with Mr Harris.images.duckduckgo-3

Bob Harris

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John Peel

I read all the books by & about Bob Harris and John Peel, with whom I had grown up in the 1970s.  Harris on OGWT with the best live music, including Bob Marley and Focus, Peel’s late night show on Radio One, his dry appearances on Top Of The Pops, his scouse wit hidden beneath a monotone of intelligence, his music choices bloody minded, but 90% of the time right on the money.  Reggae, folk, psychedelic rock, punk, post punk, Vivian Stanshall  and alternative music were his forte.  He had a massive vinyl collection at his home near Ipswich.

John Peel sadly died in 2004 and is now enshrined as a national treasure, so I was doubly honoured to portray even a pretend version of his early years on the pirate ship.  In fact in 1966 he had an eclectic radio show called The Perfumed Garden which broadcast every night from midnight until 3am.  He played strange new bands like Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane and The Incredible String Band, and read poetry and passages from children’s literature – which was all the rage in mid-sixties pop land – Piper At The Gates of Dawn is from Wind In The Willows, White Rabbit from Alice In Wonderland.  He did speak incredibly quietly into the microphone, unlike the daytime DJs like Kenny Everett or Tony Blackburn, who would create a party atmosphere and keep it upbeat.  Peel would imagine his audience were stoned, lying on rugs and cushions with joss-sticks burning, smoking cigarettes and joints, and he was largely right.  Of course some of his audience were at home with their parents listening in that infamous cliché under the bedclothes to a tiny transistor radio, so the whispering worked well for them too.  It was Peel who introduced Captain Beefheart to the UK.  He also championed Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and other blues artists who had already been picked up on by John Mayall, Cream, The Rolling Stones & the Animals.  It was a shame that I couldn’t talk to John, but I felt close to him and I wanted to honour his memory and his massive legacy.  In the end I didn’t contact Sheila his widow, in case there were some restrictions or anxieties, but I did find a fan – Gray Newell -who had taped The Perfumed Garden and made CDs of about a dozen shows, recreated with mp3s of the songs he played. I’ll be forever grateful to Gray who very kindly sent me a handful of the CDs – treasure !  Like listening to Radio Caroline in 1966…

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Bob Silver, The Dawn Treader

We had a weekend rehearsal on the boat we would be shooting on in Portland harbour, Dorset.   All the boat cast were there, including Philip Seymour Hoffman who was playing the Count.  We were berthed in the cabins, complete with posh moisturiser and shampoo courtesy of Emma.

Innocence.  For some reason I had a little Brighton Beach Boys interview on my computer – me talking about 1966/67 and why we did these live shows presenting the pop highs of the era, Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper, and I guess I felt it was so On Point that I offered it to the assembly.  Maybe I thought Richard would book us for the wrap party? (he didn’t).  Thinking back on it now it does seems like appalling hubris on my part.  But it was innocently offered to be fair.  We would be a community of sorts in the months that followed but – for me – we would never really gel together as a family, despite everything that was laid on for us, the best efforts of the producers and all the crew.   Early days we were all invited up to Eric Fellner’s Elizabethan mansion in Bucks to eat and drink and bond.  It was a stunning day with red kites landing on the lawn.  One of the lawns.

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Pressure – for a British film it had a big budget (£30 million), and although this was a subconscious pressure it was nevertheless there.  It was hard work and there was plenty of it.  We’d get ferried out to the boat every morning, and if you weren’t in the scene you’d hang out below deck or somewhere out of vision.  The crew was huge – but people didn’t want to be seen to be chatting and hanging out when they should be working.

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script supervisor Emma Thomas

Strangely on the very last day I was chatting to the script supervisor Emma Thomas who had been good fun & friendly throughout, and found that we had strong mutual friends, namely Paulette & Beverley Randall.

I discovered on the same day as the unit slowly relaxed that Luke the B-camera operator was my pal Jemma Redgrave’s brother!  I thought that showed how focussed we were, how tight everyone had been, that those cross-discipline friendships didn’t really happen even on a five month gig.  A shame.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

Drugs.  Who knows, now that Phil is no longer with us, what he was doing and with whom on that gig.  There may have been an off-set hang that didn’t involve me, and this happens all the time in “real life” – if you don’t participate in other people’s drugs, you don’t get invited.  Fair enough.  Big LA thing, that is.  I don’t know.  Rest in peace lovely man.

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Phil, Tom W, Rhys, Rhys, Tom S, Chris, Ike, Nick, Katherine, me, Bill

Cast. The huge cast of name actors playing name DJs certainly was surreal.  I can’t put my finger on why that might be so.  Some competitive joke telling.  Who could make Philip Seymour Hoffman laugh the most.  Some scrambling for screentime in the big ensemble scenes.  Actually loads of that.  Who were they? Well,  Rhys Darby was recruited from Flight of the Conchords to play the Kenny Everett character.  He was shy like me I think.  And he pronounced six as sux.  Somehow Nick Frost, Chris O’ Dowd, Rhys Ifans and Tom Wisdom inhabited the souls of Dave Lee Travis, Tony Blackburn, Johnny Walker, Tony Prince, Simon Dee and Johnny Vance between them.

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Rhys Ifans

Rhys Ifans was zonked for most of the film, and after he split with Sienna Miller halfway-through the shoot even monosyllables were like gold dust.  I worked with him later (2014) on the show Elementary in New York, and he was sweet as a nut.  Bill Nighy played the owner, an oasis of calm and saturnine urbanity and like me, in his musical element.  The younger ones – Tom Sturridge who never bothered to befriend me at any point, Tom Brooke, Will Adamsdale, Katherine Parkinson, Ike Hamilton and Talulah Riley who did bless their cotton socks.

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Ike Hamilton, me, Tom Brooke

January Jones was delightful, but refused to reveal the secrets of Mad Men.   Kenneth Branagh was charm and warmth as ever, and dear Emma Thompson with whom I’d worked in France many years before was just gorgeous. (See My Pop Life #9).

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Ralph & Emma : we’d had sex in a previous film…

Me.  Perhaps it was me.  Not joining in as usual.  Method-acting a stoner hermit  who set himself aside from the gang in almost every way.  My first scene in the film is in the mess-hall where The Count, Philip Seymour Hoffman, says “hey man, who are you??” because I’m the invisible man on board.

Weeks later up on deck Phil and I were chatting about something, and as he turned away I heard him mutter under his breath “funny little, nerdy little guy“.   So I guess I never wandered too far from my character, and just didn’t join in much.  But then later he gave me the biggest hug.

The crew  included dear Christine Blundell on make-up, who had designed  my film New Year’s Day.   I love her, despite her Oscar.

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Christine Blundell – make-up dept.

And Joanna Johnson designed my hippy costume.  I’d hook up with her again on Jack The Giant Slayer, with an old friend of Jenny’s Fiona McCann

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Joanna Johnson & Fiona McCann – costume dept.

So mainly I suspect it was funny little nerdy little me, playing a music-loving hermit, spending the days asleep, the evenings preparing the show and the nights broadcasting.  Not really part of the pop radio scene.  When I did appear in scenes with the chaps my default was a kind of stoned shyness, mixed with hidden musical snobbery & arrogance of course.  Because my show went out between 3.00am and 6am I called it The Dawn Treader…after the Narnia cycle.

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Emma Freud

Emma Freud directed 2nd unit and was in fact, along with Richard Curtis himself, the friendliest person on the movie.  Probably the single best thing that happened to me on this job was her genius idea to film each of the DJs broadcasting their radio show for a whole hour.   The actors had to research and compile the show, source the vinyl and other bits & pieces, then learn how to use the equipment which we’d already done, and off we went in real time.  It was such a brilliant idea that none of it, as far as I know, made the final cut or indeed any DVD-extras footage.  Nevertheless we were not to know this.

Since I had quite a few episodes of The Perfumed Garden to listen to, I had a great template for The Dawn Treader show, but all the songs, album covers, anything I wanted to use had to be cleared by the companies who had copyright, by the lawyers, and by Richard himself.

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Art Department prop

For reasons that emanate from Bob Silver, The Dawn Treader himself, the character wanted to open this to-be-filmed show with Donovan’s Sunshine Superman. But before that – the intro music!! – the signature sound of the show which would be played every night.  I had a song in my collection called 3am Boogie by Willard McDaniel and blow me down if it didn’t sound EXACTLY like a radio show intro piece from 1967.   You’ll have to buy it though because it isn’t on Youtube I’m afraid.  Maybe Spotify.  What I knew though was that I had to have track one, side two of Are You Experienced? by Jimi Hendrix somewhere in there.  ‘May This Be Love’.  An album I owned already – but on Polydor.  When it came out in 1966 it was on Track Records, and since it would be on camera, that was the one I needed.  I soon discovered that it is something of a collector’s item.  I made a bid for it on ebay but it went for £600.  Whoosh.  Now what.  I visited one of the vinyl Emporia of Brighton’s North Laine, in particular Wax Factor, a kind of holygrail willywonka cave for vinyl junkies.

waxx8I told the man what I needed and he said he thought he could source a damaged copy for me, at a reduced price.  Sounded perfect. A few days later it was in my possession…

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It cost me £150.

I know that will shock some people but clearly in my secret heart I wanted to collect it.  I do have a beautiful vinyl collection.  ‘Course I do.  The other albums I bought for ‘research’ were the Captain Beefheart LP Safe As Milk, The Yardbirds first LP, Fresh Cream and Highway 61 Revisited, all reasonably priced.  And 45s of Pink Floyd, Jefferson AirplaneNina Simone & The Small Faces.   So here is The Dawn Treader hour – now a playlist on my computer, but in reality a set of vinyl records, 45s and LPs…

The Dawn Treader

intro : 3am Boogie : Willard McDaniel

Sunshine Superman  – Donovan

Alone Again Or  – Love

White Rabbit  –  Jefferson Airplane

{Reading from Alice Through the Looking Glass}

Eight Miles High  – The Byrds

May This Be Love   –   Jimi Hendrix

Here Come The Nice  –  Small Faces

Dust My Blues  –  John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers

Highway 61 Revisited  – Bob Dylan

Sure Nuff ‘N Yes I Do – Capt Beefheart

Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys

Hang On To A Dream  – Tim Hardin

Dreaming  – Cream

Water Woman  – Spirit

{Reading – Icarus Allsorts by Roger McGough

I Put A Spell On You  –  Nina Simone

Killing Floor  –   Howlin’ Wolf

Dedicated To The One I Love – The Mamas & the Papas

* * *

We recorded it in one take one afternoon, complete with letters from readers asking for The Strawberry Alarm Clock, weather reports, playing Howlin’ Wolf at the wrong speed “by mistake” – Peel was quite famous for this – poems, whimsy and some gentle self-reflexive humour. I do think it’s one of the most perfect things I’ve ever experienced – I don’t mean I was good at it, what I mean is that I revelled in it, the planning, designing, writing and recording of it.  Thankfully I’ve never had to watch it.  Or listen to it… I know we all dream of having a radio show – if you’re reading this it’s probably because you love music and share that same fantasy – well, lucky me, I got to do it for an hour.  Thanks Emma!   And thank you Richard for approving the idea, the playlist, the actor…

There was one last job I had to do – choose the LP which Bob would save from the water as the ship is sinking – a sequence where I carry a box of vinyl out of the cabin and suddenly disappear down into the hold and underwater, records floating everywhere.  Bob grabs one and he and his son surface together to be met by Nick Frost who takes the LP off me, glances at it and throws it back into the water.  I chose The Incredible String Band‘s record “The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion” mainly because it had a good cover but also because I don’t like it very much.

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Peel loved this band and really gave them a push but I’ve never been able to listen to more than half of a song.  It was a good gag in the film, but I couldn’t do that to a Bob Dylan album for example (one of the suggestions!)  Sacrilege.  Well, I could’ve done, but I didn’t.  The record I’m listening to as my son rushes in and scratches to tell me we are sinking is The Grateful Dead first LP, also accurate to Peel’s (and Bob Harris’) taste.

The underwater sequence dubbed into Italian

All I had to do then was the acting.

We were in Weymouth for the first part of the shoot, a lovely English seaside resort with a harbour at Portland where the Radio Rock boat was moored offshore, and plenty of welcoming pubs.

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Chester and Jenny came to Weymouth for a week

Later we went to Shepperton Studios to film all the interiors.  Meanwhile in real life, god-daughter Delilah-Rose was three months old…

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I discovered during filming that Richard Curtis was at the same level of music nerd enthusiasm as I – vividly illustrated in the finished product, which bangs seven shades of sugary shit as a musical evocation of the mid-sixties.  The soundtrack is exquisite, and the filming of needles being gently lowered onto vinyl singles has never been bettered.  I can’t say fairer than that.  We discussed our passion in quiet breaks., and one morning after we’d finished shooting the film the doorbell rang and there was a cardboard package “fragile” delivered to my hand – a framed, signed photo of The Beach Boys.  Sent from Richard Curtis.  I thought, that’s a flagrant short-cut to my heart, how very dare you !

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Richard had a laser operation on his eyes before shooting so he didn’t need glasses

There’s a point in the script where Simple Simon (Chris O’ Dowd) is to marry Elenore (January Jones) and all the other DJs take him on a stag night ashore through London’s West End, via Paul McCartney’s house in St John’s Wood (where he lived in 1967 round the corner from Abbey Road Studios).  Paul didn’t like the scene where The Count pays homage to the Gods of Pop because he didn’t like fans outside his house, and George Harrison had recently been attacked in his house, so he veto’d it.  But all the scenes we did shoot that night – it was an all-nighter – were to the musical accompaniment of The Beatles’ I Should Have Known Better a kick-arse John Lennon song from A Hard Day’s Night.  So – literally – all night long, there would be : turn over, sound speed, mark it, music: BEATLES and then Action!   We walked to the beat of Ringo, we got drunk to John’s harmonica, we crawled out of pubs to George’s guitar solo, we fell into star shapes at the National Gallery at dawn in Trafalgar Square to Paul’s harmonies.  And it never made the film. A different song is on that sequence : Lazy Sunday by the Small Faces.  Which has exactly the same BPM. By necessity !

Richard told me later that it was too expensive – around £400,000 for a Beatles song – then years later said that Paul didn’t want it in the film.  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that a film about Radio Caroline & 60s pop music Has To Have A Beatles Song In It Somewhere.  Surely.  But : you can get ten great songs vs one Beatles song for that price.  I’ve never had to make that call.

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Tamana Bleasdale, Alan’s daughter, working as a PA

I found it righteously difficult to choose a song to illustrate this entry.  So many to choose from.  In the end, to honour John Peel himself, I chose the song which he turned me onto.  Not something I loved anyway.  I didn’t care for a lot of Peel’s musical taste, but I liked him tremendously.  He supported independent record labels after the punk explosion, and even played songs from unsigned bands to the nation.  He encouraged the great Viv Stanshall to record Sir Henry At Rawlinson End for the radio, and the result was never bettered, not by the album or the film of that mythical hero.  Peel had a vast musical appetite and an extremely wide musical taste.  It was an honour to bob on the same coastal waters as the great man.   And if there’s a little Bob Harris smudged in there to blur the lines, so much the better, for his radio show remains one of the finest ways to spend a couple of hours in the UK.  Again, like John, a supporter of the music first and foremost.