My Pop Life #218 : Bad ‘N’ Ruin – The Faces

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Bad ‘n’ Ruin  –  The Faces

Mother don’t you recognise your son?

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A battered dog-eared copy of Long Player by The Faces sits upright on the floor resting on the wedge of other battered and dog-eared LPs, in no order, just a stack for flicking through.  Elton John is in there, Jimi Hendrix, The Pretty Things, Cream, King Crimson, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Simon & Garfunkel. Dr John.   I was 14 and a half going on 15 and I was sitting cross-legged in my friend Simon’s bedroom, flicking, flicking.  Stuff I’d never heard of.  The Incredible String Band.  Stuff I didn’t like the sound of.  Humble Pie.  Stuff I liked – The Faces.  Damn what a band.  I knew the singer Rod Stewart from his number one hit singles (all with The Faces but credited to Rod Stewart) Maggie May, Stay With Me and You Wear It Well.  He was impossibly cool – relaxed, confident, cheeky, couldn’t care less.  Husky voice. Feathered haircut around his cheek bones, satin scarf, flares, cuban heels.  The rest of the band also couldn’t care less but were the coolest band I’d ever seen.  The Beatles always looked hyper-aware of their status as cultural leaders, and by now – 1971 – they’d split up, leaving a bewildered scene behind them as the pop landscape fragmented and rebuilt itself.  A moment acknowledged on the last track of Long Player – as a live recording catches Rod Stewart saying “Here’s a tune you may well know, may not know, but if you don’t know it, I really don’t know where you been“.  And they break into the mighty ‘Maybe I’m Amazed‘ from McCartney’s first solo album.  Suddenly The LP was everything, the single was losing its grip on the teen population as Pink Floyd, Genesis and Led Zeppelin started to indulge their musical whims and song lengths were stretching.  Some of these bands didn’t release singles. 1970s singles were of course at least as good as the 1960s crop – Gamble & Huff’s Philly Empire, 10cc, Elton John, Al Green, Bowie, T. Rex, Rod Stewart and all of the pop kings & queens of my youth, but the fact remains that Sgt Pepper changed the pop landscape and all bands poured energy into the LP from that point.  Long Player dated from 1970, I discovered it a couple of years later.

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The Rainbow public house, Lewes High Street

The Faces were a band I just wished I was in.  They enjoyed themselves in an obviously infectious way, they genuinely liked each other I was sure.  They liked beer too which was important to me – I was by now drinking cider and beer.  Not in the pub – no, I couldn’t get in – but in the Magic Circle, too young to go into the pub and order a guinness & blackcurrant, lager & lime or pernod & orange.  We’d ask an older boy to buy us a quart bottle at the off-licence and carry it through the twitten and up the steps behind The Rainbow, where the bikers and greasers drank.  John Whippy (a white boy who had a ‘fro) Pete Davis & John Mote, Andrew Ranken and Simon’s sister Deborah Korner – all one or two giant years older than us.  The jukebox in The Rainbow was legendary but that would have to wait.  They were groovy older people with scruffy hair and gypsy-styled clothes.  They actually resembled The Faces come to think about it.

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Ian McLagan, Ron Wood, Ronnie Lane, Rod Stewart, Kenney Jones – The Faces

We were thirteen.  This does segue-way with an earlier story (My Pop Life #84) a small gang of urchins sat by Lewes Castle on a stone semi-circular seat under some trees passing the cider bottle and smoking Number 6 cigarettes.  Teenage laughter and giggles as we quickly got drunk on Woodpecker or Bulmers Cider.  Me, Pete Smurthwaite, Chris Clark, Conrad Ryle, Jon Foreman, Martin Elkins,  Simon Korner, Andrew Taylor, Adrian Birch, or any combination of these. We would just chat.  No portable music players then.  Music was for rooms.  Rooms were for smoking in.  We would wait our turn.  But in the meantime we could sit in Simon’s or Pete’s or Conrad’s bedroom and listen to records.  It was the main past-time of our teen years.  Playing football, listening to albums, drinking, smoking. Eventually girls.

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Ronnie Wood & Rod Stewart, early 70s

I did eventually buy this record but not until I left Lewes and went up to London for University in 1976.  It’s a wonderful piece of work – loose but tight, boogie-rock with mandolins and a Hammond organ, expressive and rhythmically funky and so full of character.  The Faces were formed out of The Small Faces who had produced a handful of explosive singles in the late 1960s – Tin Soldier, Lazy Sunday, Itchycoo Park – all with the incredible voice of Steve Marriott, a raspy bluesy rock voice that compelled attention.  When he left the band to form Humble Pie, the remaining members – Ian McLagan on keys, Kenney Jones on drums and Ronnie Lane on bass, joined with Rod Stewart & Ron Wood of The Jeff Beck Group to form The Faces.  They fitted perfectly.  The Faces made four albums together – Long Player was the 2nd – but by 1971 Rod Stewart was already making solo LPs, with the Faces as his backing band.  Then they became Rod Stewart & The Faces.  It almost goes without saying.  Ever-present on Top of the Pops, they effortlessly bestrode my impressionable years as the grooviest people and the best band in the universe.  The women in Rod’s lyrics were often older than him :

“the morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age, but that don’t worry me none in my eyes you’re everything”

a face like that you got nothin’ to laugh about….red lips, hair & fingernails, they say you’re a mean old Jezebel”

“a little old-fashioned but that’s all right”

and he’s often waking up next to them. But he sees them as real women, with power over him, he spars with them.  Women loved him, but then so did men.

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I was lucky enough to see the group at Reading Festival in 1972 when they headlined on Saturday night, August 12th.  It was an eclectic selection of music that now reads like a who’s who of groovers, including Matching Mole (see My Pop Life #202), ELO AND WIZZARD !!!, Focus (see My Pop Life #103), Genesis with Peter Gabriel singing and Welsh band Man.  The Faces with Rod : that night spiritual leader Ronnie Lane wasn’t present and Tetsu was on bass.  They were simply awesome, playing Memphis, Miss Judy’s Farm, Angel, Stay With Me, True Blue, I’d Rather Go Blind, Too Bad, That’s All You Need, (I Know) I’m Losing You – and an encore – Twistin’ The Night Away/Every Picture Tells A Story, then finally Maggie May.  There is a bootleg of the gig recorded by a photographer from the pit which is very good apparently.  I was drunk and stoned and quite smelly having not washed since Thursday.  I think I was with Martin Cooper and Adrian Birch.  It was the year when John Peel was DJing between bands and on the Sunday he introduced us to Roxy Music, playing the mighty single Virginia Plain and changing my life forever, although I was not to know this yet.

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Rod Stewart aficionados – and we are legion – will know the classic Python Lee Jackson single In A Broken Dream which he sang at a session in the late sixties for a set of car-seat covers apparently.  Wonderful.  I’m also very fond of You Wear It Well and his Tim Hardin cover Reason To Believe, as is Paul Weller.  I heard about this somehow and convinced Paul to cover the song for my film New Year’s Day (see My Pop Life #90) which I haven’t discussed in much depth to be fair.  Yet.

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And his first few solo LPs really were remarkably good, with backing by The Faces before he famously left the UK and The Faces behind with Atlantic Crossing in 1975 with a slow side and a fast side and I Don’t Want To Talk About It and Sailing as the big-selling singles, recorded with three-quarters of Booker T & the MGs.  Stewart was also quick to blame Harold Wilson, British Prime Minister for a top rate of tax of 83% – although you had to be earning a large whack to have it apply to you.  He both won and lost a number of fans, which happened in the 1970s to many artists, the concept of “selling out” was still currency back then.  I still have a soft spot for the old fucker, but I preferred his work with the band who backed him in the early 1970s.

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Ronnie Lane was the first to leave in 1973 and they never really recovered.  Japanese bass player Tetsu Yamauchi replaced him, although strangely, having checked all the dates, Tetsu was playing the Reading Festival gig in August 1972, a year earlier.  Ronnie Wood joined the Rolling Stones in 1975, and Kenney Jones replaced Keith Moon in The Who after the drummer’s death from alcoholism-related drugs in 1978.  Ian MacLagan moved to the USA and continued performing and writing.  From time to time the lads would reform and play at special occasions.  No hard feelings.  Rock royalty all right.

The LP Long Player wears well and has stayed with me (is this a dreadful Faces pun sentence yet?) – although this dates to the vinyl age because I only ever listened to Side One which opens with that cracking tune Bad’N’Ruin.    Eventually I chose Bad ‘N’ Ruin as the music on my second Showreel proper.  The first one had Mahler’s 4th Symphony (see My Pop Life #62) a lush yearning romantic sweep that is possibly a little OTT, but hey, “You Got ta Put It Out There” as Sam Jackson once said on the set of Phantom Menace.

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So when I came to re-shoot and re-edit the greatest hits reel*, sometime in 2005-6 and beyond, updating it every so often, I needed some new music.  I didn’t worry about it for too long and went with The Faces because there’s something about the bounce and chop of the rhythm – Ronnie Lane on bass – Kenny Jones on drums – and Ron Wood bending the strings to get that blues shriek – oh and the line

Mother don’t you recognise your son?

which appealed to my strange sense of self.  Although the song is about (I think) a burglar going home to his mum (?), I turned it into an actor imagining his mum watching him on TV.   How ya like me now?  Given that I am a confirmed character actor now, an accent collector, enjoying the twists and turns of a rogue’s gallery of types and n’er-do-wells, it seemed appropriate.  But beneath this superficial and admittedly wrong reading of the song was I suspect a deeper sub-conscious impulse, and an even more backwards interpretation.  It was my song of escape from home, for I had joined the circus and run away. It is still my showreel music.

*With thanks to Richard Vaux and Take Five Studios in London’s Beak Street.

The record :

live on TV in 1971 :

 

the showreel :

https://vimeo.com/328316053

 

 

 

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My Pop Life #217 : Optimistic – Sounds of Blackness

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Optimistic – Sounds of Blackness

*

as long as you keep your head to the sky

*

I owe everything to my wife in the end.  Almost everything positive in my life has come from her incredible energy, her spirit, her capacity for love above all else.   This is her song.

I write from my dressing room on Broadway.

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dressing room, Jacobs Theatre, 45th & 8th

Last August 2018 it was – I was in Malibu with my friend Stephen Kalinich (see My Pop Life #169 : The Magic Hand) when Jenny messaged me – could I make a meeting at 4pm the following afternoon in Los Angeles – with her Agency?  She’d spoken to the boss – Scott Manners – and he’d decided to relax his rule about not representing married couples.  They had an office in New York, and one in Los Angeles.  The next day I am seated at a desk as seven agents, (including Glenn Salners & Michael Chance), ask me questions.  They all love Jenny, but what is my raison d’irt track ?  They’d seen the showreel and liked it.  Good range.  Well, I say, I like to do accents, characters, but I don’t do theatre.  It was a line I’d been using for thirty years.  Ever since playing Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman in fact, (see My Pop Life #108) although I had done one more play since then at the RSC in 1989, and one at The Bush in 2009.  I do camera.  TV, film. I’m not sure how to do theatre acting.  It seems to require lying on a large scale, expanding the performance to reach the back row, projecting, pretending TOO MUCH.  My wife Jenny Jules is very good at it, in fact she is excellent.  Quite superb.  Better than me by quite a way.  She does the stage stuff, I do the camera stuff, largely.  It’s an amicable if archetypal arrangement.

But that is the story.  They nod, we chat, it feels good.

About a month later, I meet the New York office, including Scott.  He says he is worried by some things I said at the LA meeting.  Specifically the part about Not Doing Theatre.  Well, I said, following my own pre-recorded script, the story I’d been telling myself for the last 30 years : that “I don’t do theatre”.  I was a camera actor, a minimalist whose talent was for microscopic changes of mood and thought that needed a camera close-up into my boat-race. The Agency listened, nodded and Scott said “Ralph, that’s going to be a problem for us.  We use the theatre to build careers.”

OK then”  I said,  “I’ll do some theatre“.

It was time.

They signed me up.  Two months later, Scott sends me the script and one particular scene from The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth.  I’d seen it in London with Paulette Randall earlier that year.    My audition, just before Christmas, was with director Sam Mendes who’d asked me why I was going back onstage.  I told him that my wife had scored a great gig (couldn’t say what!) which meant that I really didn’t need to work in 2019, so the shackles were off and maybe I felt it was time to get scared again after only one stage performance in the last 30 years.  He reckoned they could provide that.  I’d practised a Derry accent over the weekend listening to Martin McGuinness on Youtube, and learned the lines.  It felt good.  I was offered the part the following lunchtime.

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My shadow falls across Broadway, January 2019

 

Jenny is the theatre actor, she plugs in on stage and burns incandescent like the sun.  Anyone who has seen her, in Ruined, Sweat, The Homecoming, Wine In The Wilderness, The Crucible, Julius Caesar, Her Portmanteau, Two Trains Running, Gem of the Ocean, Pecong,  The Colour of Justice, The Vagina Monologues, Fabulation, Born Bad, Big White Fog, Death & The King’s Horseman, A Raisin In The Sun, Moon On A Rainbow Shawl or Father Comes Home From The Wars knows what I mean.  She is luminescent.   She makes my eyes water, always does.  So proud and moved, so thrilled to see her every time.  I usually go six or seven times to a show she is doing.  I make the money, she does the art.  What’s the story again ? – I subsidised the theatre via TV shows & movies.  Yaawn.  I think we’d both been telling this story to be honest, we’d just got used to it.   The story was tired and had become bollocks.

On day one of rehearsal Tim Hoare introduced himself to me as the director.  Sam wasn’t going to be around.  I told Tim “my story” and how intrepid and scared I felt going back into the theatre.  He told me how Paddy Considine had never done a play when he started in The Ferryman in London.   Tim then nursed me through the rehearsal process with ease, fairness, compassion and great emotional literacy.  I was back in my twenties, in a rehearsal room with a new family, working on a piece of literature that we would stand on its feet together.  Back when I fell in love with the idea of being an actor.

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The Ferryman

There are twenty-one actors in the cast plus a baby & the animals, it is a monster three-hour banquet of a play set in South Armagh & Derry in the North of Ireland in 1981 during the Hunger Strike.   I play IRA Commander Jimmy Muldoon. Most of the cast were new, and most of them were American.  Charles Dale, Fionnula Flanagan, Glenn Speers and the children (Brooklyn Shuck, Willow McCarthy Michael McCarthy & Matilda Lawler) were staying on from the Broadway cast.  Charles is Welsh, Fionnula and Glenn are southern & northern Irish.  The kids are all Americans doing a Northern Irish accent (very well).  The new company included the lovely Brian D’Arcy James as Quinn, Holley Fain as Caitlin and Emily Bergl as Mary, Fred Applegate as Uncle Pat and Annie McDonough as Aunt Pat, Graham Winton as Magennis the IRA man with the Prod surname, and Shuler Hensley as Tom Kettle the Englishman in Crossmaglen.  Sean Maloney and Terence Keeney came over from the West End company and the Guinness started to flow, Collin Kelly-Sordelet (Jersey boy!), Ethan Dubin (Brooklyn boy!!), Julia Nightingale (starlet) and Jack diFalco (doing the accent all day and all night) joined us in the various Irish bars of Hell’s Kitchen.  The belly started to grow.  Stories, politics, Ireland, the Troubles. We drank.  We bonded.

Then we moved to the theatre on 45th St.  The show was still on in the evening, so we worked from 12-4pm on the stage.  Shared dressing rooms with the company and had to clear out every day.  The day approached.  For my Broadway debut.  At the age of 61 and a half.  What blessings are these.

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Broadway virgins no more : Julia, Sean, Terry, me, Ethan and Annie

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Me and Brian D’Arcy James on opening night

What is inescapably extraordinary is this simple fact : the play is set in South Armagh in August 1981.  If you look back at an early entry in my story (My Pop Life #13 : The Green Fields of France) it is the story of a younger version of me in South Armagh, August 1981.  Crossmaglen.  The Troops Out Movement, protected by the IRA through the countryside on a delegation to the British Army barracks there.  A quite extraordinary circle back through my own history, which I discussed in rehearsals.  How could I not ?  Being told by Jean in West Belfast not to go down the shop in Ballymurphy for cigarettes on my own because I’ll get popped once they hear my accent.  Seeing The Undertones in Finsbury Park and other gigs with Fergal Sharkey stripping down one song at a time from a parka to bare chest as he warbled through their pop-punk repertoire.  Seeing Bobby Sands murals on the Falls Road the size of a house.  Being in a war-zone.  The violence of those years in England – Brixton going up in flames, the Falklands War, the NF, the miner’s strike, IRA bombs in Brighton (see My Pop Life #185 : Between The Wars).

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The Ferryman cast & crew in rehearsal, Feb 2019

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The infamous IRA scene at the top of Act 3 in rehearsal : Collin Kelly-Sordelet, Sean Delaney, Terry Keeley, Michael McCarthy, Jack diFalco

But beyond all of that, my own blood rushing through my veins every day as I boarded the Q train over the bridge to Manhattan with all the straphangers at 9.00am, finally feeling like a New Yorker.  I revisited my own love affair with acting, where I started, in the theatre.  Throughout my 20s I had done plays, above pubs, at the Edinburgh Festival, at the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Tricycle, the RSC.  I’d even written a couple.  Then after a terrible experience at Liverpool Everyman, revealed in My Pop Life #108 : Sumer Is Icumen In, I quit the stage and concentrated on TV and film acting.  Luckily Withnail & I  happened around the same time, and although it would take a few years to permeate the cultural landscape, my future was, unbeknown to me, already assured.  Lucky doesn’t cover it.  I am simply born protected & blessed and always have been.  I am forever grateful.  There was a moment of course in the joy of rehearsal when I thought – wow!  I should’ve gone back to the theatre YEARS AGO, but hey.  At least I got there.  I absolutely feel at home again.  Born again happy.

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Ben, associate director, and Tim Hoare at work

And as Tim said to me on the day of the Dress Rehearsal – “you are a stage animal“.  Such a terrific endorsement at a critical time.  I had the Juice.  I didn’t know that at the start of rehearsal but now I could feel it.  I was using an old muscle and it still worked.  This in itself has been a huge thrill.

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The Ferryman – the prologue : Glenn, Charlie, me, Graham

And all the while, there was Jenny alongside me as ever, nurturing and supporting, loving and healing, and holding her own secret, and rehearsing her own mighty show, for she had been cast back in September 2018 and signed an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) to not release the information to anyone.  We lived in a state of heightened purse-lipped security for three months.  Not even the word “Broadway” was to be uttered to any friends or relations of rabbit. The best gig she’d ever scored and she couldn’t tell anyone.  Until the day my deal was done, just before Christmas, and then there was the Press Release.

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Jenny Jules as Hermione Granger

Jenny was going into another hit Broadway show :  Harry Potter & The Cursed Child, replacing our friend Noma Dumesweni as Hermione Granger.  For a year.  At least.  This was the secret we had held for three months.  Mmmmmmnnnnn.  Biting the soles of our feet.  Such a Great Part.  Such a great show.  I’d seen it with Cush Jumbo & Sean Griffin and Rose Leslie in 2018.  Noma was in the cast.  So thrilling, such a wonderful piece of theatre, full of real magic.  So suddenly we were both Broadway Babes, inheriting parts in shows which were already hits, had already been reviewed and were running on with new companies.  Both produced by Sonia Friedman.  We were local hire in the two West End hit transfers.  Perhaps not that surprising, thinking about it.  It had taken us five years.  We were on Cloud Nine.

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Cloud Nine – kind of

Jenny started rehearsing long before I did, and didn’t open until a month after we’d opened – a fifteen-week rehearsal period all in all.  The Cursed Child show is in two parts, two complete plays, and they perform each one four times a week, eight show a week in all, the same as The Ferryman.

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Ron, Harry, Hermione – Broadway 2019

The Cursed Child is considerably more technical than our traditional play which obeys the unities of place and time, set inside a farmhouse in Armagh.  The Cursed Child has magic for a start.  To say more would be to spoil the surprises for those who haven’t seen it yet.  But they needed their fifteen weeks.  Jenny opened last night in Part One, and tonight in Part Two.  Her sister Mandy (Natasha, Reginelle, Bad) came over for the opening and is sitting there tonight.  She’ll come to see The Ferryman tomorrow night.  What a star.

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Max & his dad Sean

Yesterday dear friends Cush and Sean came to the Ferryman matinee.  They loved it.  They’d seen it twice before, and told me this was their favourite.  That was a secret of course.  This isn’t :  Jenny and I are Oddparents to their son Maximilian who is almost one beautiful year old.  After eating and walking up to the flower shop with them for Jenny’s first night bouquet, I split and bought a bottle of Yoichi Japanese whisky to take up to the lads’ dressing room after the evening show.  They hold an impromptu whiskey bar upstairs every night and it was time for me to contribute.  I deliberately use both spellings as we drink both whiskies.  We finished it in 40 minutes between the seven of us, then walked two blocks to Bar Centrale to meet Jenny, her sister Mandy, her room-mate Diane Davis (Ginny) and Charles Randolph-Wright our friend.  Sean and Terry came with me.  We had a few drinks and some toasty cheese and jumped in a taxi home.  Just a few mates from two shows.  It was a perfect end to a perfect day.  No need for Lou Reed after all.

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And it was Jenny who’d done it.  Who’d spoken to her agent and wondered if he would represent me.  Who’d sent the showreel. I’d been without an agent all year, since sacking Oriana Elia in January 2018.  Another tedious story.  I have a manager, Michael Lazo at Untitled in LA.  And I’d done a movie early in the year that he had organised as a straight offer – Gemini Man with Will Smith, directed by Ang Lee.  Nice gig.  But I hadn’t acted since.  I’d written a movie and co-written a 4-part TV show so I hadn’t exactly been idle.  But she’d moved some earth and sorted me out.  She didn’t want me idle when she opened on Broadway.  Something to worry about.  And now here we were both on Broadway, at the same time.  I will forever be grateful to her, for her optimism and faith and love.  For her fierce heart.  For her fire and her ice.  And for just being her beautiful self.  Did I mention I was lucky ?

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This tune literally lifts her heart.  From 1991, when we were courting, it is a gospel groove from Sounds of Blackness, a large soul/jazz/gospel ensemble out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Run by Gary Hines and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.  Jam/Lewis formed a band called Flyte Time with Alexander O’Neal in the 1980s who then supported Prince on tour (but now called The Time and with Morris Day on lead vocals).  They then went on to produce Just Be Good To Me for The SOS Band and Janet Jackson’s hit albums Control & Velvet Rope.

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In 1991 they nurtured their neighbours Sounds of Blackness, through their 2nd LP The Evolution of Gospel.  This – Optimistic – was the lead single.  It is pure UP music, and Very Jenny.  Very Infectious.  I swear she could heal the world on her own if she had time.  Their 3rd LP Africa to America : The Sound of the Drum is even better and I commend it also to thy ears.  Communal groove music.

Thank you my darling.  You are my world.

Never say die

 

 

My Pop Life #216 : MacArthur Park – Richard Harris

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MacArthur Park – Richard Harris

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again, oh no

*

We couldn’t believe those lyrics back in 1968 when this song was being played regularly on Radio One.  I was ten, almost eleven.  It was curious, hilarious, preposterous.  Utterly memorable.  The arrangement matched the baroque absurdity of the chorus : an ornamented rococo seven-minute Pearl & Dean phenomenon six long years before Bohemian Rhapsody was a twinkle in Freddie Mercury’s eye.   It caught the public ear and imagination and reached number 4 in the charts. It also drew a fair amount of ridicule I recall, even at the age of eleven I was aware of the pop culture poking fun at the cake image.  It stood big and tall, a large target for mirth.  It often makes Worst Song Ever lists.   I always found it haunting and strangely moving but rather silly and not one of my favourite songs at all.  That has happened in the intervening years.  It grows and grows, deepens and gets richer with time, age and experience.

What did I know of failed marriage in 1968?  Well I had witnessed my parent’s separation two years earlier, a depressing spectacle of fights and arguments, sulky silences and TV shows being switched off, being sent to bed, then a divorce and Dad was gone.  Gone to Eastbourne, 10 miles from Selmeston.   Selmeston O Selmeston.   Songwriter Jimmy Webb had already scored with some of the greatest tunes of the 1960s – Glen Campbell’s Galveston (O Galveston), Wichita Lineman and later By The Time I Get To Phoenix – they are all quite superb examples of complex emotional songwriting. But despite my mum confiding in the ten-year old me in faintly inappropriate conversations where I pretended to be old enough to understand, I still didn’t get MacArthur Park.  It wasn’t for me. Yet.

Spring was never waiting for us, girl
It ran one step ahead
As we followed in the dance

Between the parted pages and were pressed
In love’s hot, fevered iron
Like a stripéd pair of pants

Dad and I never had these emotional confidences.  He immediately became even more emotionally distant than he had been at home.  We’d see him, go for walks, listen to football results, eat crumpets and talk about  literature or politics or school, but nothing emotional.

How’s Heather?”  or “How’s your Mum?” never got asked, or answered.  Locked away inside were all those questions.  We each dealt with them privately, silently.  And Mum wasn’t so great to be fair.  I rewrote my family history so that the nervous breakdown and first visit to hospital (nine months : see My Pop Life #55 ‘Help!’) became the other way around.  The separation and divorce caused the breakdown.  I understood that story.  In fact the breakdown came first.  I didn’t understand that sequence so easily.

Anyway.

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MacArthur Park looking east towards downtown LA

In the 1990s my wife and I lived in Los Angeles –  in West Hollywood just off Beverley Drive near Jans where the cops ate, or the King’s Road Cafe where the hipsters ate.  We chose the former naturally.   If you drive east from there and drop down a few blocks down to Wilshire Boulevard, where my boutique agency lived (Susan Smith & Associates), past the La Brea Tar Pits through the Mid-Wilshire deco district and The Wiltern Theater on towards Downtown LA, through Koreatown, there just after Rampart Blvd you find MacArthur Park, either side of the road.  It has a lake, trees, grass.  It’s nice.  In the late 1960s Jimmy Webb lived near here and he and his girlfriend Susie Horton would meet there for lunch, and court, and spark.

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The early years of cake and rain

They’d been high school sweethearts in Colton, California and now Susie was working for Aetna Insurance nearby.  Jimmy had written some hits already – ‘Up, Up & Away‘ for The 5th Dimension for example – but he was still smitten with his Susie…

I recall the yellow cotton dress
Foaming like a wave
On the ground around your knees
The birds like tender babies in your hands
And the old men playing checkers
By the trees

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Jimmy Webb

It seems that he was more smitten than her because the song MacArthur Park is a tragic break-up outpouring from the heart.  In later years Webb would admit that everything in the song is real, seen and true, yes even the cake.  It only takes a small leap of imagination to see it as a wedding cake melting in the rain.

My friend Paul Carafotes lived near there in early 2002 after his own marriage to Paula had crumpled.  We’d been to their wedding in New Orleans in 1997 along with his buddy James Gandolfini but that’s for another story.  In 2002 Paul was living alone and working out in the park at the playground where people could do pull ups and sit ups and so forth.  I have some old time photos of us in the park somewhere in a box… actual photos.

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And of course we would see actor Richard Harris (who sang MacArthur Park) down in Santa Monica for the football early on Saturday mornings -7am in the Cock & Bull on Lincoln Avenue, full of Arsenal, Liverpool or Man Utd fans.  During the World Cup in 1994 Harris had a permanent Irish shirt on and was always totally sozzled and in high spirits.  Happy.   He was 64.  I’d first seen him on our black and white TV set in Selmeston O Selmeston during the mid-1960s in This Sporting Life in which he played a rugby league player, married to the wonderful Rachel Roberts.  Sensational film.  Directed by Lindsay Anderson, another hero of mine (see My Pop Life #41 ‘Poor People’).

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Rachel Roberts & Richard Harris – This Sporting Life 

His final screen performance was in 2002 as Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets, the 2nd in the series.  Back in 1968 when Harris recorded MacArthur Park he was at the height of his career having just been nominated for an Oscar for playing King Arthur in Camelot, a role he would play on Broadway for years.  Somehow he’d rubbed shoulders in Hollywood with Jimmy Webb (who’d just been rebuffed by The Association who didn’t like MacArthur Park) and Harris subsequently recorded the LP called A Tramp Shining : written, arranged and produced by Webb.

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The seven-minute 20-second single reached number 2 on the Billboard charts in the USA and sold a million copies. Frank Sinatra (& also the Four Tops) famously recorded only the middle eight, or “the bridge” if you prefer, which is completely stupendous –

There will be another song for me
For I will sing it
There will be another dream for me
Someone will bring it

I will drink the wine while it is warm
And never let you catch me
Looking at the sun

And after all the loves of my life
After all loves of my life
You’ll be the one

I will take my life into my hands
And I will use it
I will win the worship in their eyes
And I will lose it
I will have the things that I desire
And my passion flow like rivers through the sky
Oh and after all the loves of my life
After all the loves in my life
I’ll be thinking of you
And wondering why

Other versions abound, notably by Waylon Jennings, Donna Summer and The Three Degrees.  In the magnificent original, Harris mispronounces the name of the park in the song throughout, calling it “MacArthur’s Park“, even after it was pointed out to him.  That’s what Camelot does to you. Or drink.

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The song floated back into my consciousness when I was much older, in my 40s, the early 2000s.  God knows why.  I started to listen to it over and over and over, ten or fifteen times a day.  I think Stephen Wrigley and Glen Richardson (Brighton Beach Boys both) were obsessed with Jimmy Webb the songwriter and went to see him playing live in Brighton, shook his hand and glowed in the dark for a few weeks afterwards.  Then one night in 2016 they were doing their regular night at The Greys in Brighton, a wonderful pub venue, and had decided to do a Jimmy Webb night.  I was back from New York that week, living at Millie’s just up the hill there and turned up at the interval, wondering if they’d already sung MacArthur Park?  No said Steve, and you’re very welcome.  So to a small but enthusiastic crowd in the pub I sang all seven and a half minutes, after explaining the backstory of Jimmy & Susie to the audience.   By 2016 I was completely obsessed with the song and could recite it backwards.  The best version – far and away – is Richard Harris’.  Not a natural singer, but the performance is so emotional and direct.  He understands the song completely.  And that counts for a great deal.  It is simply a masterpiece.

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Oh and after all the loves in my life, after all the loves in my life – I’ll be thinking of you and wondering…

Why?

 

Richard Harris live :

My Pop Life #215 : Top Cat – Hoyt Curtin

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Top Cat  –  Hoyt Curtin

“The indisputable leader of the gang”

*Warning : Cat Porn*

*

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Yes, that Top Cat.  The wise guy cartoon alleycat from New York City with his gang always trying to get one over on Officer Dibble.  It was a staple of my childhood in the 1960s and certainly contributed to my impression of the city where I now live.  As did the music.  Like many of Hanna Barbara’s cartoons – Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons – the music was composed and recorded by Hoyt Curtin, a Californian specialist in the punchy joyful bright slices of cartoon sound.  Top Cat the Theme Music is only 42 seconds long and is thus the shortest piece of music in My Pop Life to date.

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From the funky horn fanfare to the stuttering trumpet intro to the glamorous celebratory vocal shout (which reminds me somehow of Isaac Hayes’ Shaft (see My Pop Life #60)) and the crisp xylophone punctuation, this mini cartoon symphony is a marvel of crushed sound & misheard lyrics.

Top Cat ! whose intellectual close friends get to call him T.C.

Strode right in, it’s whipping to see…Top Cat !

Hmmm.  Well that is what I’ve always sung, from the age of five.  Nonsense.  Wait. OK according to the lyrics bible Genius.com (which is highly recommended by the way…) it is :

Top Cat ! whose intellectual close friends get to call him T.C.

Providing it’s with dignity…Top Cat !

I genuinely just found that out.  Prefer my five year old version somehow.  Anyway.  The  music always made me feel that it had been played on a single that jumped – we had some of these – a scratched record – where a groove was missed and the tune would jump forward 15 seconds.  Somehow Top Cat does this in its second 20 seconds.  Check it out – it is completely wild, and probably quite hard to play.  It is a masterpiece theme tune to a masterpiece cartoon that ran from 1961 for only 30 episodes.  Which were endlessly repeated.

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Top Cat, Benny the Ball, Fancy Fancy, Choo Choo, Brain & Spook

The format was as follows – a street gang of cats living in dustbins by a fence eating fish-heads, and thrown-away fast food.  Led by smart status symbol Top Cat – T.C. –  Benny the Ball, Choo Choo, Brain, Fancy Fancy and Spook were all expertly delineated characters in bright colours and working-class NYC accents.  Their enemy was Officer Dibble who was a human, constantly trying to foil their get-rich-quick schemes.  I suppose there was a strong symbolic element here – a representation of the poor underclass, finding ways legal or usually otherwise to make ends meet.  The voices were all superb.  Arnold Stang voiced T.C.

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Mimi, Roxy and Boy in Brighton : a very rare picture of them together

Cats.  Sacred scavengers.  Furry babies.  Highly evolved to be cute and employ human servants.   Back there in Sussex where I grew up we always had cats – indeed apart from a brief spell at the LSE and a handful of years in Los Angeles, I have always had a cat, or two, or three.  I believe them to be superior to dogs.  They clean themselves.  They bury their toilet. They give themselves their own status. They are spirit animals who give your home life and soul.  When they die, I am bereft for a long long time.

My first cat was called Caesar, a big male tabby given to me when I was one year old.  I remember burying him in the garden of our house in Selmeston when Dad was still at home, so I would’ve been seven or eight, and so would Caesar. Then we got white tortoiseshell Sheba and black & white Kitty Little.  I have no definitive recall of these animals apart from their names and colours.  We also had dogs during this period of my youth – Corgis Raq and Bessie, and then Welsh Sheepdog Brutus who used to chase cars.  When we became homeless in 1970 (see My Pop Life #84 ) I don’t know what happened to the animals.  After nine months the family were re-united in Hailsham and I think Sheba and Kitty Little were still with us but this may be a feline hallucination.  I’ll ask Mum.  I have a memory of finding Sheba dead under the kitchen tap one school morning in Hailsham because she had eaten string and was trying to drink water to lubricate herself.  Pets give you these horrific moments and even if they live long lives, they will inevitably die before you do.  Certainly by the time Rebecca was born we had grey/white Lucy who lived a very long life and eventually died as Becky turned 18.   Once I moved to London for university in 1976 there were no pets allowed in Halls of Residence beneath the Post Office Tower, however when I lived in Finsbury Park with Mumtaz in the early 80s we had Monty, another tabby.  Montgomery was named after Mr Clift the actor whom I had discovered as a young man.  We called the cat Montgomery Keshani Brown LLB., MCC & Bar with full English pomposit and when I left, in 1985, he stayed.  Or did he? I think maybe he moved in with me for a bit, then went back to Mumtaz…

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London 1990 – Honey, Hardy & me

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In the mid-80s I got a flat in in Archway Road N6 and when Jenny moved in we got two beautiful Siamese kittens, siblings Hardy and Honey.  It was our first try at having two cats, and we’ve stuck with the plan ever since.  It was also our first try at pedigree animals.  Large ears and inquisitive natures.  Proper child substitutes.

Hardy and Honey, about six months old

Such beautiful animals, they both talked a great deal and were sweet companions.  One night when we came in from a theatre show they were missing – then a small miaow led us to the top of the wardrobe where they were hunched, nervously looking down.  Then a movement under the bed – and a Ginger Tom ran out through the cat door into the back garden.  He had entered the sanctum.  Bullied them.  Eaten their food.  Ginger Toms apparently.  Or is that cattist?   Anyway a few weeks later the same thing happened.  There Hardy and Honey were again, on top of the wardrobe.  We had discussed what we would do if it happened again.  Plan A.  Jenny walked down to the cat door and locked it.  Then the Ginger Tom (for it was he!) ran back there and got trapped in the bathroom (which was the back room due to the weird Housing Association conversion we were in).  I ran a tap and filled a jug. Ginger Tom was hissing and growling and Honey had come down for a ringside seat and got trapped in the room too, but safely on the towel shelf.  I tipped water onto the Ginger Tom’s head until he submitted with a final hiss, then finally opened the catflap and out he went.  We never saw him again. Nor did Honey or Hardy.

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Hardy in Highgate, 1992

When we went to Scotland on holiday once a year – a 12-hour drive up to the West Coast & the islands – we would take the Siamese with us.  They would be locked in the cottage when we went for walks.  I remember Hardy growling at the sheep one morning.  They were good travellers.  When we were in Los Angeles early 90s Jenny’s school friend darling Betty would stay in our flat and look after them.  We would go back and forth.  Then when we returned from Los Angeles in 1995 we knew we wanted to move out of Highgate.

Honey got out the front door on the day we packed up the van to move temporarily to Kilburn and sometime that night got run over on that busy road.  Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to describe it.  I had to scrape her body off the road with a shovel and bury her strangely heavy body, heavier than she had ever been when alive, in the back garden, under the horse chestnut tree.  I felt sick.  We felt for Hardy who was now solo and missing his sister, so a little later we got another strange Siamese called Tia who never quite fitted in, never liked Jenny but used to swoon at me.  Hardy and Tia came to Brighton with us but we were away so much during that period – in LA and elsewhere that we eventually gave them away to a lovely old lady who had just lost her two Siamese and needed some grown ones because she couldn’t bear raising another kitten.  She would write to us about them every now and again which was lovely.  They died there in the Sussex countryside about ten years ago.

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Marvin aged 20 weeks

At some point in 2004 we visited Stockholm with Amanda Ooms and met her sister Sara who had helped Andy Baybutt and I with The Murmuration (see My Pop Life #87) and met her new kitten Otis.  What a great animal!  He was a Devon Rex breed, with only one type of fur (most cats have three : down, fur & guard fur) and he was super-intelligent and friendly.  Bless Otis he passed away last week (Feb 2019) aged 15.  Anyway we were ready to re-cat ourselves and decided to get a Devon Rex, then found Marvin from a breeder.  Such a beautiful little boy he was, who would climb up from the ground up my legs, my body up to my shoulder and sit there.  He lasted a mere 9 weeks before cutting his mouth on a wicker basket and getting very weak. We took him to the vet who did a blood test and told us he had a factor 8 deficiency which meant his blood couldn’t clot and a transfusion wouldn’t work so that he would never live a long life.  That was simply awful.   I held Marvin’s little body to my chest through the night listening as his breathing got shallower and shallower, stroking him and whispering love into his absurdly large ears until he gave a big sigh, a final tiny rattle and passed over.  Jeez that was sad.

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Chester

Eventually in April 2008 we decided to brave another Devon Rex and Chester arrived.  What a cat he was.  Like an old chinese man.  Very communicative.  Very funny.  He would crawl under the duvet every night.  He had at least fifteen distinct expressions. After a year we decided to find him a mate.  By then we’d found a breeder that we liked, Michelle on the outskirts of Sheffield, whom we’d dropped in on one day while visiting my dad who lives in West Yorkshire.  Her house was full to the brim with cats, all friendly and smiling, purring and relaxed, draped over the furniture, window ledges, feeding kittens, greeting us.  She had all the queens inside – about twenty five females, plus the kittens, and all the males outside in the yard and a back shed.

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some of Michelle’s queen Orientals

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Devon Rex mum and smigel kittens at Michelle’s

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Mimi’s mum, and, possibly, a very young Mimi

It is an extraordinary house.  We saw the new brood upstairs of tiny little pieces of Russian Blue Cornish Rex fur and said we’d be back in 10 weeks for a girl.  Mimi came back with us in the Jeep on the 200 mile journey and Chester fell in lust as soon as he laid eyes on her.  He became a rape cat. We had to separate them for a few nights, then it was obvious (from the howling) that we would have to spey dear Chester. After that they got on famously….most of the time….

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Chester, me, Mimi – late 2008

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Mimi kitten with Chester aged 15 months

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Despite this clear blow to the head, Chester was not very good at fighting

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A very special animal, Chester also had a congenital problem, this time with arrhythmia – an uneven heartbeat.  He died aged four while I was filming in Nashville and Jenny and I weren’t getting on.  I flew back and we buried him in the back garden in floods of tears, his early death re-uniting us as a kind of awful sacrifice.

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Mimi we felt was lonely then.  We worried about her.  Michelle heard about Chester dying young and offered us another Cornish Rex so I drove up to Sheffield again and came back with the most affectionate cat I’ve ever met – Roxy, a bonkers tortoiseshell female.  Mimi hated her.

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Roxy is a one-off weirdo.  I would actually say she has special needs.  In the nicest possible way of course.  She loves to sit on a shoulder.  Feels safe up there. Then she will purr and push her face into my beard, squirming with joy.

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She would get out of the garden and wander down the road shouting at the top of her voice as if she was lost.  People would pick her up and say hi where do you live?  I could hear them over the garden trellis. We put a collar on her with the address and my mobile phone number engraved on it. One day, sitting in the Peace Statue cafe in Hove with Andy my phone went…

“Hello, do you have a cat called Roxy?”

“Yes I do”

“She’s in the hospital”

“OK thanks I’ll come and get her”.

Luckily I was on my bike and when I got home there was a nurse on my doorstep with Roxy and her winking eye, like butter wouldn’t melt.  After three months, Mimi still hated her. Roxy tried to make friends but no.  What to do?

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Boy’s first night in Brighton – oh god, there’s two other cats here…

Get another cat!  This time it was to Basingstoke and the last of a litter, a beautiful black Oriental.  I met his father who was a Siamese and his mother who was a mushroom Oriental softie.  Roxy swooned for the Boy as soon as she saw him.  She licked him, chased him and bit his throat which was rather alarming.  But that is what cats do when they play.  She was teaching him how to fight.

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She has taught him everything since.  They sleep together, wash each other, play and fight together. Mimi kept her disdainful character intact, and when it was that we came to move to New York City, we brought Roxy & Boy with us and left Mimi in Brighton.  Mimi is an outside cat, she was the queen of that hill in Kemp Town.

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Mimi & Delilah-Rose, Brighton 2008

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Eventually we found her a home with a lovely family in Norfolk and later received some  photos of her looking very pleased with herself as a nine-year old girl’s pet and the only cat in the house (her one true desire).

Roxy we wouldn’t allow outside because she got lost every time, and Boy could take it or leave it – and he liked to bring back worms and slow worms (legless lizards) from outside and leave them – alive – in the kitchen.  But we’d already decided not to let the cats out in Brooklyn because of

TOP CAT!

THE MOST EFFECTUAL TOP CAT !

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The local alley cats here have thick fur because they sleep outside in all weather. They slouch and have scars and behave like tough guys.  They are huge.  They are contemptuous. They probably have leukemia.  We imagined them meeting Roxy & Boy and speaking in Brooklynese :

Yo. What’s your name – puss-in-boots?  What you doin’ down here? Welcome to the hood.  You is European?! Don’t make me fuck you up kitty kitty.

Scarcely anyone in New York speaks like this anymore, they’ve all moved out to Long Island or Westchester, or Jersey.  I mean it’s noticeable when you hear that Top Cat twang on the streets, like an endangered species.  But I think the cats still talk like that even if the people don’t.  The cats haven’t been gentrified yet (although there are gangs of “cat lovers” who go out and spey them and give them injections for leukemia).   So Roxy and Boy stay in. They have space, pretend trees to climb, food, beds, water, toys, windows to look out of with sunshine coming in.  Now and again Boy demands go out out onto the stairs so he can scratch the stair carpet.  Actually he is very dog-like.  He plays fetch and guards the perimeters.  They are content.  I love them with all my heart as I have loved all my cats, but maybe a little bit more.  They are, of course, our little kids.

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Mimi & Chester in Brighton

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Boy & Roxy in Brooklyn

 

These are the two opening sequences I remember :

A sample of one episode ‘the maharajah of pookajee”

My Pop Life #214 : Belle – Al Green

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Belle   –   Al Green

Belle….it’s you that I want, but it’s him that I need

A song which turns the history of African American music on its head, the rhythm & blues universe being filled with gospel singers who turned to secular music, including Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Toni Braxton, Sam & Dave and James Ingram – to name but a few – here however, a soul man from Memphis has found Jesus and started to sing gospel music.  I say ‘started’ because although he grew up in the gospel tradition, and had a group called the Greene Brothers in the late 50s with his brothers, he was kicked out of the band by his father when he was caught listening to Jackie Wilson.  The big sinner.  He wouldn’t sing gospel again for 20 years.  Belle is  lodged into my cortex as the great turning point in Al Green’s life when he renounced pop music and went back to God, as suggested in the line quoted above, but lodged in  my heart perhaps as something else.  Maybe I seek God in my life but, I’ve never been a religious man and this morning I felt it more likely that this refers to my need for a father figure?  Let’s explore that possibility for a minute.

Indeed it may in fact roll out to be the same thing.  Safety.  Arm around the shoulder.  Protection.  He knows best.  I must have felt some degree of this from my father for the first seven years of my life.  There he was, getting up, going to work, getting some bread in Portsmouth once he’d finished his English Degree at Cambridge.

where’s dad ?  Gone to work, get some bread

This was actually my first sentence, circa late 1958, according to mum.  He told us stories at bedtime, often made them up on the spot.  We had no idea – we being Paul and I who shared a bedroom.  Various creatures inhabited these stories – The Grimp and The Cahoodler spring out immediately although their shapes have always been blurry and indistinct.  They were cartoon animals though in my unformed mind.  We used to go on long walks together, always, and that continues to this very day when we see each other.  Nature, fresh air, leaves, butterflies, the sky, farms – all part of our shared experience.  Musically Dad never liked Pop Music so never joined in Mum’s and our dances in the kitchen or singing harmonies in the chorus in the living room.  If he was in a bad mood he’d walk in and turn it off and we’d all be sat on the settee and told to listen to Mozart or Beethoven and Paul would giggle first then Mum and we’d be ordered out, banished.  Banish. Ed.  I have some pictures of this era which was I guess 1957-1965.

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Cambridge 1958, Mum, Dad, me

When I look back on it all now, how lucky I am to be able to do this, my parents seem so ridiculously young.  How did they do it?  Three kids in the first six years of marriage.  It broke.  He strayed.  He moved out. I’ve told this story before.  But the thing is, emotionally, Dad became missing.  Never hugely physically affectionate in my memory at least, now he was out of the house, almost out of my life, and I missed him.  I’ve missed him ever since.

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But.  I’ve never really had a true father figure in my life since then.  Dad is still there, up in West Yorkshire with Beryl, and he and I have a good relationship, we speak fairly often.  So I don’t know if that is why I love this song.  It may seem like a long shot in the end, because there’s a lot deep yearning in there.  It doesn’t belong in Al Green’s gospel catalogue though, because it is still a sexual love song sung by a soul man.  The chords, the changes are fantastic.  Smoky, sultry, sexy even though he’s ultimately struggling with it.  Maybe that’s the twist for me – the magnetic attachment I have to the song, ie  maybe I’m gay !   Haha all theories welcome.

a)  I’m actually deeply religious just haven’t acknowledged it yet

b)  I’m gay, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

c)  I always needed a father figure, just haven’t acknowledged it yet

d)  It’s a sexy song, and I like sex, just haven’t acknowledged etc

e)  It’s a spiritual song, and it feeds my soul, just haven’t blah blah

f)  it’s a fine tune !!

g)  it is actually Al Green’s best performance on record

 

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                    Belle – The Lord and I have been friends for a mighty long time…              Belle – leaving him has never ever really crossed my mind

 

The Belle Album was released in 1977 just as punk was sweeping the UK and I was busy joining in (like a good law student).  I think I bought it after the gig though.  I was going steady with Mumtaz, and we were both fans of Al Green.  I wrote about the Damascene conversion I had in 1971 in My Pop Life #101.   By then my father had been gone for six years and was about to remarry and move to Yorkshire.   I was going to see Al Green with my girlfriend.  The gig was in The Venue, Victoria Street  and it was 1978.  It was a little like The Forum/Town & Country in Kentish Town, but we were sat at little tables which were spread around the downstairs – cabaret seating with waitresses and food.  Slightly raked seating?   It was actually a tremendous place to see someone live, but it didn’t last that long as a venue.  I did see Todd Rundgren there four nights running in 1978, which is pretty fanboy-esque, a series of gigs that became a live album called Back To The Bars.

I scarcely remember the Al Green gig except that it was exquisite. He had a kind of jumpsuit on as I recall, a cravat, and cuban heels. He sang all the greats, the  highlights were Love & Happiness, Tired Of Being Alone, Can’t Get Next To You, and this song Belle.  When he sang Let’s Stay Together he came down into the tables and chairs and distributed stem roses to us, holding the mic and singing to each table.  It was my first time seeing Al Green and it was extraordinary, but every time I’ve seen him since (about eight times) he always does this – walks down, touches people, sings to them, a ripple of excitement goes through the audience every time.  But in the end it’s the singing with Al.  The voice of course is extraordinary but it’s what he does with it, the turns of phrase, the whoops, the ad-libs, the phrasing, the grace notes, the pure inhabiting of every note in every song.  It all comes from within the great man’s soul.

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The song Belle is extraordinary.  You think it is finished as the music fades but he has a whole other level to go to, and he goes there.  He is testifying to us and his woman that he wants her more than she can imagine, but he needs The Lord even more than that.  And at that point in his life, he meant it.  Four years earlier, and for reasons that I have not fully understood, but reported to be his refusal to marry her (she was already married with children), his girlfriend Mary Woodson White had cooked a pan of grits (like semolina) and thrown them over him causing severe burns on his back and arms before shooting herself dead with his pistol.  A note in her purse gave the reasons.  After this a shocked and changed Al Green became ordained as a pastor and even as his record sales were falling was moving away from sexual music towards holy music, and a holy life.  Just after we saw him at The Venue he fell off a stage in early 1979 and took it as a sign that he had to change direction finally and forever. I was lucky to see him on the point of renouncing sinful music…

In the song we hear Al Green struggling with his love for a woman and sings at one point, about Jesus :

he’s my bright morning star

The Morning Star is of course the planet Venus, generally associated with the sacred feminine.  The other line that always pings out for me is :

“I know that you can understand a little country boy”

Al was born on a farm in Dansby, Arkansas in 1946 to a sharecroppers family.  I spent ten years in a small village called Selmeston in East Sussex, opposite a farm.  We used to help with the harvest in August.

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The next time Al Green  came to London it was with a gospel set and a huge choir, and none of his soul material got an airing, not even Belle.  This happened fairly regularly through the 80s, usually at Hammersmith Odeon.  The Reverend would always sing Let’s Stay Together (Jesus) though, often coming down into the crowd for that song, walking among us as it were, sometimes handing out roses.  I saw a fair number of these shows as an avowed atheist simply because he was my favourite singer in the world.  I once saw Kevin Rowland in the audience,  paying homage.  No one can touch Al frankly, not even Smokey Robinson, my other favourite, Otis Redding, or Queen Aretha may her soul rest in peace.  Al for me tops all of these.  Maybe Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would eventually nestle on the pinnacle, technique and passion to burn, but come on – I’d always choose Al Green to be honest.

It was in the late-eighties I guess (?) when Rita and I went to see him at Festival Hall – and he’d started putting some of the old soul classics back into the show after ten years and ten gospel albums. He sang Otis Redding‘s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long and Sam & Dave‘s Hold On I’m Coming (I think?) and one of his ? but I can’t remember which one, maybe the mighty Love & Happiness.  Over the next ten years he slowly left gospel music behind and started producing pure soul music again in 1995 with the album Your Heart’s In Good Hands which is magnificent, like a sigh of relief almost. On the track Love Is A Beautiful Thing  Al sings the words let’s stay together, cos I’m still in love with you, call me, for the good times, tired of being alone, here i am…  a veritable litany of the titles of his old soul hits which are clearly coming back through his nerve endings into his pores into his heart and out of his mouth.  The great return was a celebration – he is still a Reverend, but now he was back and singing everything.  Our friends Lynn and Tony saw him in Central Park in this period when the concert was almost rained off, then the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine struck Al Green directly centre stage and he announced he was going to sing Love and Happiness for the first time for years. Magical.

In 1988 I went on a long road trip across the USA from D.C. to Phoenix Arizona, written about in My Pop Life #148 .  On the way out west I stopped in Memphis for a day and hit up the various landmarks of that fine city : Graceland of course, the Lorraine Motel where a homeless lady gave me a history lesson, Beale Street where I got suckered, then the next morning driving down to Hale Road in South Memphis to find Al Green’s church, the one he bought as he was recovering from the burns.

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He wasn’t there, but I’d needed to set eyes upon the place which was his physical and spiritual base, especially since I’d just lost the bulk of my cash and was about to embark on a strange week of driving without money.

With Jenny in 1999 we would see Al Green at The Royal Albert Hall when Lucy was singing with support act Beverly Knight, then later that year we travelled down to Glastonbury (our only visit) and saw him there too.  Quite a contrast, or not.  Two great English cathedrals of music. Magnifique, as ever.   I think my favourite Al Green album (the one that gets the most plays = the favourite doesn’t it?) is Al Green Explores Your Mind from 1974.  It is perfect.  Has the songs Take Me To The River,  The City and Sha-La-La.  But he hasn’t made a duff album.

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I always call it “Al Green Explodes Your Mind”.   Which is a more accurate title.

The next record was in 2002 – I Can’t Stop which was when he came back to the UK again and we saw him live, once again, singing soul music.  The voice hadn’t gone anywhere and was still extraordinary.

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He’s still handing out roses!

Watching Al Green live I would look forward to his favourite moment, my favourite piece of the ceremony  : you know when singers go high and they move the microphone away from their mouths?  Al does that until his arm is completely straight and he can’t get the mic any further away – so he will just put it down at his feet and sing without amplification.  The audience hush and he draws us in. It is an immaculate moment. He gets the spirit like this at absolutely every gig and it is always the highlight.

 

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Top Al Green tunes that never make it onto Greatest Hits albums you ask?  I can help you there.  Old Time Lovin from 1971’s Let’s Stay Together is as good as anything he’s done. Guitar-based song, which is unusual for Al.  His long-time friend and producer Willie Mitchell played keyboards, often the bubbling Hammond organ on many of Al Green’s songs and it became a signature sound on the Hi record label, all recorded at Royal Studios in Memphis, along with folk like Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles and O.V. Wright.  I should note here that Willie was the first person to visit Green in hospital after his second & third degree burns were skin grafted, they made 11 amazing albums together, but the year before Belle was released they’d parted company because Willie wasn’t interested in producing gospel music.  Al Green produced The Belle Album himself.

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Another great song is Home Again on the wonderful album Living For You (1973).  Strings and organ dominate the groove, with tasteful horn flourishes and pads.  His singing is exquisite. Willie Mitchell and Al Green in sync.

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My favourite is I’m Glad You’re Mine on the LP I’m Still In Love With You (with its stunning title track !) from 1972. Incredible drumming from Al Clark of Booker T & the MGs across town at Stax Records, who co-wrote many of the early songs with Al Green & Willie Mitchell, and played on most of them. And finally I’d recommend the last track on the masterpiece LP Call Me (1973) which is called simply Jesus Is Waiting.  Enjoy.

Rare live performance of Belle on my birthday 1978 in Japan :

Playlist of all the tunes mentioned above :

My Pop Life #213 : Long Tall Sally – Little Richard

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Long Tall Sally – Little Richard

Going to tell Aunt Mary about Uncle John
He claim he has the misery but he has a lot of fun…

I have written a great deal in this blog about a production of Return To The Forbidden Planet at the Tricycle Theatre in 1985.  It is where I met my wife after all (see My Pop Life #190) even though we had to wait three plus years until our first date…

It was also where I met Hereward K who was MD of the show, a musicman who would turn up 25 years later in Sussex (see My Pop Life #65) and who made the call on the encore every night.  Basically we did the first encore every night, which was the Boris Pickett & The Crypt Kicker Five cartoon song The Monster Mash (it was a Graveyard Smash), memorably covered by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.  For this song, as for many of the others in the show, I was on the saxophone, although I should add in passing that we all changed instruments in the show to give the impression that we could all play everything. Thus I was on the drum-kit for Go Now and the bass guitar for All Shook Up, keyboards for Teenager In Love.  Or something like that. But generally I was on the alto sax, the same trusty horn I’d bought when 15 years old (see My Pop Life#19).

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There are no bad Specialty singles (fact)

But the 3rd encore was Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally and we only did it if the crowd were going apeshit.  Which was on average, once a week.  Friday night usually.  There is an unwritten law in the theatre that Friday night is the best night – people can argue, but it is.  Saturday is for people who book in advance and who (in general) sit back with arms folded thinking “go on then – impress me“.   We never did Long Tall Sally on a Saturday night.

The key thing about Long Tall Sally was that I was the fella singing it.  Probably the worst singer in the company, my only lead vocal contribution during the show was the humiliation of singing the first verse of “Who’s Sorry Now” the 1957 Connie Francis evergreen pop hit – humiliating because the baton was then passed to fellow thesp Nat Augustin (trombone player & Ariel the robot) who warbled magnificat for the rest of the tune.  Proper singing mate.  So when every seven days Hereward gave us musical max factors the magic signal to go back out there and re-engage with the audience, I would walk up to the lead microphone, strike some kind of archaic pose and snarl “Let’s have some rock ‘n’roll“.  Writer and recently-passed legend Bob Carlton used to enjoy that moment, and told me so.  He must have liked me, because it was half-way through this production that I upped and left my girlfriend of 9 years, and then found myself without anywhere to live, not for the first time in my life.  Homelessness not being a good enough reason to stay in a relationship which has run its course.

I crashed at Simon’s in Stoke Newington for two weeks, then Bob offered me the key to his Bow flat, 22 floors up overlooking the Mile End Road.  I spent the summer there while another member of the company, actor Ram John Holder, organised a Housing Association interview for me at West Hampstead.  Sometime later that year I moved into a condemned (by a Motorway plan) ground floor flat on Archway Road which I eventually bought, with Jenny.

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Meanwhile back on stage I was singing Long Tall Sally all wrong.  Ironic this, because Little Richard wrote it to bamboozle his white tribute act Pat Boone who’d taken his vanilla cover of Tutti Frutti to the “top” of the charts (ie number 12) in late 1955 and was sure to attempt a cover of the follow-up single too. According to producer Robert Blackwell ‘Long Tall Sally” was deliberately sped up so that Boone couldn’t follow the words. Well, neither could I.  I sang “Long Tall Sally she’s pretty sweet” for example, and the lyrics actually are “…she’s built for speed“.  Clear when you know and watch the Youtube clip below but we didn’t have Youtube in 1984 and neither did Pat Boone in 1956.  Other notable covers came from Elvis Presley and The Beatles with St Paul singing the ripping falsetto quite impressively.  I never had the equipment or the bottle to attempt that kind of singing so I just kind of grunted through it and gave it some animal attitude to cover my vocal shortcomings.

What I found out later was rather amazing though. Future wife Jenny being occasionally out there as an usher, it seems that it was her friend Kate and herself and the other youth theatre crew who kicked up the noise on Friday nights so that they would get an extra song.  It’s enough to make a stone heart melt so it is.

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Little Richard of course is one of the true originals – full camp, in full make-up, singing about sex & dancing & more sex, he smashed the mid-to-late fifties music scene with his iconoclastic energy and irrepressible confidence & charm.  One of a group who changed the world along with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Apparently the song is based on a real woman with only two teeth who used to get drunk on sugared whisky because she had a cold, and then got a worse cold, leading to further tots, but the early verse was written by a young girl who’d won a radio competition :

I saw Uncle John with Long Tall Sally, they saw Aunt Mary coming so they jumped back in the alley

and Richard Penniman did the rest, although he changed her words to “baldheaded Sally…”   Clearly a major influence on music in general, in particular he inspired Jimi Hendrix and Prince, both of whom took his extraordinary attitude to showmanship and ran with it.  Unlike both of those huge talents, Richard himself is still alive (as of September 2018).

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Richard Penniman in 2017

He followed Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally with a string of hits – Rip It Up, Ready Teddy, The Girl Can’t Help It, Lucille, Send Me Some Lovin’, Good Golly Miss Molly, Hey Hey Hey Hey, many others.  Later on I would discover All Around The World (a B-side) thanks to the film Gremlins. Fantastic song.  What an artist.  What a wife.

My Pop Life #212 : Use It Up, Wear It Out – Odyssey

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Use It Up, Wear It Out  –  Odyssey

Do it all night
Do it all night long
Do it all night long
Do it all night

Ever since my year of musical sentience – 1971 – I reckon I’ve been over 50% musical nerd, less than 50% emotional reaction.  Drawn to strange complex compositions from the likes of  Van Der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant when I was 14, 15 then rock, pop, jazz and classical in my twenties, and all manner of “world music” in foreign tongues in my thirties and beyond.

Although I started my musical appreciation as a child I became a musical snob once I was at big school and anything too popular was to be sneered at, with a few exceptions – The Beatles, Motown, glam-rock and Simon & Garfunkel for example.  This wasn’t a rule just a strange affliction which got challenged regularly, particularly by my younger brother Paul’s taste.  Andrew, the even younger brother had even more of an intellectual & obscure prediliction than I, happily meandering into Bill Bruford, Brand X, Delius and Opera from a young age, but in his groovetastic favour are weaknesses for funk (see My Pop Life #138) and disco, which we all grew to love.  But Paul got there first, when it was actually happening.  He found a place to belong in that world when he didn’t find one at home. Ejected from the house by our mother at the age of 16, he lived in digs in Eastbourne and worked at the tax office.  He wouldn’t come out as gay (perhaps even to himself) until a few years later when in 1980 we travelled through Mexico together and I contracted hepatitus B (see My Pop Life #72).

When he returned to London in the early 80s the first flush of disco was over and house music was in its early days. He would take me out to gay clubs with his friends and we would dance.

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Odyssey were more popular in the UK than the USA

But if I’m honest I never really fully embraced Disco as the genius music it truly is until much later.  I now have three Chic albums, Sister Sledge, the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack and a whole collection of wonderful one-off hit singles from the likes of Wild Cherry, Cerrone, Andrea True Connection or Silver Convention. Not to mention MJ, Q and Sylvester.  I have burrowed into this world with the devotion of a born-again funkster disco queen because it is simply wonderful music, brilliantly composed & arranged, and perhaps more importantly, quite fantastic to dance to.  Or exercise to.  In my old age – yes that happened – I now do a work-out routine pretty much every day, in our apartment. Based on Pilates, a disco or a reggae soundtrack is essential. And every time this song comes on an extra spring in the step appears.

It’s a deceptively simple construction, but my entire thesis in this post is that I over-think music when I’m not stoned.  I’m a young soul, not born wise, and my education has somewhat interfered with my appreciation for the beauty of simplicity.  I have noticed throughout my life that intellectual or educational intelligence is valued much more highly than emotional intelligence.  Thinking wins over feeling.  What is emotional intelligence?  What – you mean you don’t know? I have had to learn it, or re-learn it, for I had an inkling of it as a child, as did we all.  My two cats have it.  They know when to approach, when to walk away. Empathy.  Understanding.  A little less analysis, a little more instinct and love.  A little less middle 8 a little more groove.  I’m not explaining it very well.  And ironically one of the great musical intellectuals of the 20th century made some of the very finest disco records. I’m talking about Quincy Jones work with Michael Jackson of course, so my entire thesis, apart from being vague and vaguely dodgy is simply nonsense.   But then Q is a fairly exceptional human being on every level, intellectual, emotional, musical, who can count the ways?

I said :

1  2  3  shake your body down

 

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So emotional intelligence then. Women have it.  They develop it too.  If it isn’t used in their career, respected in the system, conjoined to the intellectual and given space, then it becomes an alternative way, a parallel path.  I remember the girls at school in our year going out with older boys.  But perhaps I’m doing myself a disservice.  “I’ve always.. I’ve never..” phrases that should be banned in domestic squabble.

What I’m saying more simply is this : I value dance music more now as I grow older.  I rarely actually dance (shame) but my love is stronger.

But I still analyse even the simplest things, it’s how I am built.  Hard to let go and just dance.  I think the closest I get nowadays is exercising.  Really I should dedicate this song to the last four years of pilates. It is about breathing and posture mainly. We’ve adapted it a little and added a few weights here & there, a few stretches and so on.  But breathing is the thing that gets the blood flowing and lifts the adrenalin and generally the mood, the capability and the life within and without.  When a friend of mine confessed he was feeling depressed earlier this year and that he felt that I was perhaps someone who could help, I said – simply so that there could be no thought – move.  Move your body.  Dance, pilates, run, cycle, swim. It works.  It has lifted me through so many bipolar episodes when I wake up in the dark and cannot shake it any other way, with drugs or otherwise. Move.  Move yourself in some way dammit.

And stop thinking. Just move.  Your body and your brain Are The Same Thing.  They need oxygen. Give it to them.

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Ain’t nothin’ left in this whole world I care about

I think when I was younger I moved as a sportsman – playing football twice a week for decades – and jumping up and down at gigs – The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, The Specials – and actually danced too, to The Bee Gees, Odyssey and Chic among others.  So keep moving everyone.   There was a point in there about emotional intelligence wasn’t there?  What was I trying to say?  You should be dancing? Get lost in music.  Young hearts run free.  Check out the groove. Good times. Dance, dance, dance. Love is in control.  How you gonna do it if you really don’t wanna dance? Get your back up off the wall. Off the wall. Watcha doin’ in ya bed? Shake your body, blame it on the boogie, can you feel it?, can you feel the force? jump to the beat, take it to the top and don’t stop til you get enough. Get on the floor, more, more more, burn this disco out and the beat goes on, gotta Use it Up and Wear It Out.

I said

1  2  3 shake your body down

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