My Pop Life #111 : Three Lions – The Lightning Seeds

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Three Lions   –   The Lightning Seeds

Jules Rimet’s still gleaming…

Brooklyn, July 3rd 2018.  The Russia World Cup : When Eric Dier stepped up and sank the penalty winner in the last-16 game against Colombia it was the first time England had won a penalty shoot-out in an international football competition, ever.  My wife wept for ten minutes.  I was on the internet booking a flight to Samara.  As a message, it really couldn’t have been any clearer, so, wanting to make the world a better place I took a look at myself and made that change.  The man in the mirror was booked on a flight to Samara, Russia via Istanbul on Turkish Air.    Then I realised that I needed a visa and it was 7pm and the next day was July 4th when everything was closed.  Fluff.

Further internet search revealed that visa regulations would be suspended for the duration of the tournament, and that all I’d need is a Fan ID.  Passport photos from Walmart, ticket number for the loophole and I was all set.

At midnight the next day I was on the plane.  9 hours later I was in Istanbul.  Got some rubles. Flew to Samara and landed at 1am.  The following day I hooked up with The Characters: Billy The Bee, Puns, Andy Dubai Bee, Phil, Obi and Martin in the Balkan Grill near the Fifa Fan Park, downtown Samara.

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My Russian friends for the afternoon

Earlier I’d walked along the beautiful riverbank walk along the mighty Volga with a father & son who’d helped me navigate the all-Cyrillic alphabet subway system and then visited Stalin’s bunker where I learned that Samara had briefly become the capital of Russia when Hitler was only 20 kilometres from Moscow in 1942.

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Marx, Engels & Lenin in Stalin’s bunker, Samara

The city was warm and friendly, colourful and mixed – the mosques and the Orthodox churches share the same kind of architecture, golden domes and spires.

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Samara

People were happy to see foreign fans – Colombians, Mexicans, Swedes and English mingling with locals – they were happy and excited to be hosting the tournament, indeed when I met The Characters I was told that one of our number Obi had been asked for a photo by hundreds of Russians since he’d been here.  A far cry from the racism we’d been led to expect from the Marseilles 2016 incidents involving Russian hooligans attacking England fans, and Champions League games in Russia with racist chanting.  This was all swept underneath the FIFA carpet and normal human people replaced the Russian bogeymen  – helpful, curious hosts wielding their Google Translate Apps amidst plenty of sign language.

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Back in the Balkan Grill we watched France take Uruguay down and advance to the semi finals, then walked up to the giant fanpark to see Belgium v Brazil.  It was set in a huge town square full of old-school statues and grand buildings – I later learned that Samara has the largest square in Europe.  We stood in it drinking beer watching the big screen and listening to Russian techno music and the enthusiasm of the DJs and dancers.  A few English fans scattered here and there, but the vast majority of Fans are Russian.  Belgium tear Brazil apart in the first half – a footballing masterclass with Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku all finding acres of space across the Brazilian defence.  Half-time : 0-2 to Belgium.  We reconvene and drink further pints.  Billy and I wander back out into the crowd.  In the second half young Russians came up to chat to us as they realised that we were English.  Russians watches the Premiership on TV & the fans favour us as their second favourites for the tournament – the following day we would play Sweden and Russia would face Croatia.  Meanwhile the Spurs defence Alderweireld & Vertonghen alongside the mighty Vincent Kompany kept Neymar & Coutinho quiet and gave away zero free kicks around the box.  Brazil scored a goal but couldn’t manage a second. Game over.  Brazil were out, along with Argentina & Germany, what a thrilling World Cup !!

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We walked slowly out – like herding cats as ever – and found the Gareth Southgate lookalike outside Shannon’s the inevitable Irish bar.  Billy interviewed him.  Minutes later we were in the groovy nightclub Art & Fact with a few dozen Swedish fans and a bunch of happy locals.  The Swedes hadn’t been polishing their manners much : “England are shit.  We will beat you.”  It was possible – they’d had a decent tournament.  At 3am I developed a thumping headache and retired to Yandex the local Russian taxi App and my hotel.

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On the day of the game we met on the river at a bar/restaurant called Beluga.  It was sparsely populated with England fans from Bristol Rovers, Sunderland, Notts Forest.  The crew gathered slowly.  Tickets distributed.  A kind of rhythm was established where Andy and I got antsy first and wanted to leave, with others more or less gathering at half-speed to follow.  Billy was usually last with his head buried in his phone, local simcard, media hack, blogger and face of the fans 2018 thanks to visibility and the BBC filming his reaction to the penalty shootout, and using it as part of their introduction to the game.  The shootout victory had put the feel-good back into England.  We could go all the way – couldn’t we?  Memes started to appear “I’ve got a secret….”  and it became clear that this song was back once again.  Over in Samara we didn’t like to say it, to voice it, but it had been in our secret heart for months : this was a decent team with a good manager.  No egos.  No wankers.  Only a couple of weak players, all in all a prospect who might not let us down, again.

My birthday 2010 we watched England 0 Algeria 0 in Greenpoint, Cape Town, one of the worst footballing experiences I have ever had.  We’d gone out in the group stages in Brazil and lost to Iceland in Euro 2016.  The only way was up.  But to move from that to the hubris of ‘it’s coming home‘ after one penalty shoot-out victory?  We boarded the tram clutching our bottles of water.  Billy, Obi, Andy, Puns and I.  Phil had gone early, Martin we didn’t know.  The tram slowly filled up as it passed through the pleasant city toward the highest point where the new stadium stood.  We walked with the thousands of others, face painted, Brazil tops, Russians mainly.  A local TV crew stopped us and asked for a song, so I filmed the lads singing  “Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on” and “drinking all yer vodka”  the two most popular songs out here.  There were pockets of fans in England colours, we’d been told just under 3,000 in all in a crowd of 45,000.  Then inevitably Obi got asked for his 462nd photo of the World Cup by a Russian family.

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Obi aka Photos

That long walk from the taxi/tram/train/bus to the stadium is a feature of World Cups – and this was my 7th in a sequence that stretched back to Los Angeles 1994, when we lived in that fair city and had scored tickets to every game at the Rose Bowl Pasadena, including the Final.  Hooked, we’d travelled to France in 1998 and witnessed Marseilles being trashed by England fans fighting local North Africans, then met Billy on a train to Toulouse.  I’d flown to Japan in 2002 for the quarter-final game v Brazil with Julian Benkel and we’d gone on to Seoul in Korea for the semi final game between South Korea and Germany.  In 2006 Jenny and I drove from Copenhagen to Sweden to visit our friend Amanda Ooms in Sköne before travelling through Germany for a beautiful tournament and another penalty shoot-out defeat against Portugal.  2010 was the magical South Africa World Cup with it’s highlight quarter-final game in Soweto between Ghana and Uruguay (Suarez handball) after England had capitulated to Germany in Bloemfontain.  Then Brazil 2014 and Rio, Manaus, another group-stage exit for England.  Jenny had sworn not to come to Russia (see My Pop Life #109) and I thought I’d missed it but now I felt full, emotional, in the place I was supposed to be, 700 miles north of Kazahkstan on the mighty Volga, watching a quarter-final game between England and Sweden.

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My seat was in the gods high above the SW corner flag, strangely close to the two Sunderland fans from earlier.  Russians were supporting Sweden, Russians were supporting England but as we found out later, Russians were supporting Russia. I could make out the England players warming up far below me.  Then they left the field and the build-up started.  I was completely ambushed when they played Three Lions through the tannoy system, with a karaoke highlighted lyric line.

…everyone seems to know the score, 
They’ve seen it all before
They just know, they’re so sure
That England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away
But I know they can play,
‘Cause I remember…

And bugger me if I didn’t have a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye as the emotion swelled inside me, completely sidelining any defensive cynicism, any secret irritation for the constant repetition and squashing down of hope to protect the inevitable disappointment, the emotion flooding through me and drowning the irony, we just want to see these players turn up and believe in themselves like they do every week for their clubs.  Sometimes – Algeria, Iceland – it feels as if the very shirt is infected with doubt, a curse is on the land and all who wear it.  But I know we can play…

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We started slowly but were in possession immediately and often and all the corners were right below me.  After 15 minutes Harry Maguire thumped home a magnificent header and we were 1-0 up and cruising.  Sterling could and should have scored a couple more before the whistle blew for half-time.  I made my way down, down, down and around to the far side of the beautiful stadium where the England fans were gathered.  No one asked me for a ticket at any point.  Little pockets of fans were smoking in corners beneath the stands with stewards ignoring the rules.  When I’d got behind the goal at the other end I walked in, and the 2nd half had already started.  It was easy to spot Billy, standing on his seat, so I squeezed over, joined Obi and Puns and Andy then met two youngers Cass and Stu and we sang, we sang, we sang for the entire second half.   To the tune of Earth Wind & Fire’s September :

Oh wee Oh, England Fans in Russia Oh wee Oh, drinking all yer vodka  Oh wee Oh, England’s going all the way……………

Then a corner.  It goes out to Lingard. He crosses to the far post, right in front of us and DELE ALLI BULLETS A HEADER INTO THE BACK OF THE NET !!!  The place erupts in noise, arms waving and beer spraying everywhere, screaming, jumping, celebrating, hugging, drenched in beer, happy, delirious.  What a moment.  I was soaked in beer and my glasses were spattered with lager but we were 2-0 up and heading for the giddy heights of a semi final.  The singing intensified now, glorified, the other song became the favourite :

                   …On our way, we’re on our way, to The Moscow we’re on our way                             how do we get there I don’t know, how do we get there I don’t care – all I know is England’s on the way….

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Puns, me, Billy Grant, Andy 

Something so wonderfully right about singing The Moscow and literally being on our way there for a semi final that we sang it over and over and over again, long after the final whistle and the England players had walked over and at least three of them had danced to our chanting, hands waving – Lingard, Walker and Stones I believe – and Gareth – now inevitably Sir Gareth Southgate had come and punched the air with lion-esque passion at us.  And there it was again

It’s coming home it’s coming home it’s coming Football’s coming home…

We sang it.  The sacred phrase It’s Coming Home which encapsulates so much disappointment and hope.

Where has it been ?  Brazil mainly.  Germany.  Argentina.  Spain.  France.

The highly charged emotive word “home” referring to the modern game’s development in the British Isles in the late 19th Century before becoming the world’s favourite game.  The reason why footballers and football fans around the world HATE the song so much and hate to hear The England singing it.  The utter hubris.  The entitlement.  And they might be right.  Baddiel certainly went to Oxford.

It was written for Euro ’96 which was held in England, so perhaps we all read too much into it.  But it was been dusted down & polished up and sent out to bolster our hopes each time there is a tournament – every two years.  I had always treated it in an ironic way, like a piece of kitsch.  But hearing it in the context of a competitive England match it becomes something else entirely.  It becomes an expression of longing and hope.  A real one.

We left the ground in a daze, taking pictures of the moment, recounting the goals and saves, wondering who we would play in the semi final.  The tram was crowded and unreal.  Some 3000 England fans had been inside the ground and sang their hearts out and now we were trying to get back to the fanpark to see Russia play Croatia.  It took forever, we started a countdown to kickoff and eventually jumped off, then walked ten blocks and jumped back on – or at least four of us did, Billy, me Cass & Stu.  It became apparent that the rumours of overcrowding at the fanpark were true (in the largest square in Europe) as we saw thousands of fans gathered around the corner entrance being turned away.  We stayed on the tram and it swung north.  After a while we jumped off and found a pizza restaurant with a screen on the pavement, surrounded by scores of people.  We went inside.  It was heaving but there was a queue for the bar. Facing the screen.  Then Russia scored.

The noise was incredible.  Billy started filming but there was real alarm on his face as the chant Ross-i-ya arose from the faces around us, deep, gutteral, primal.  Or maybe I imagined it.  We edged nearer to the bar & beer.  The atmosphere was electric and intense.  Then Croatia scored.  Silence.

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We got to the bar.  Sorry there’s no more beer.  Gin ?  Vodka ?  No No more alcohol.  Like a bad dream where you are stuck somewhere hostile but no one is admitting it.  Four cokes please I said.  We only have three : Sprite?  Fine.  Three cokes and a Sprite and back on the tram heading south again.  Andy had gone back to his hotel so we headed there back past the fanpark, still mobbed outside but now it was halftime. At the top of the Slavy Square stands the Glory Monument dedicated to the Kuybyshev aircraft manufacturers of WW2 who made over 30,000 planes.  We descended to the hotel amid the surreal excitement of a city in thrall to a football match happening hundreds of miles away.

In the Volga hotel we were rejoined by Andy, who had my cases in his room, Puns and Obi and we watched the second half with a large number of Russians, a few English, the odd Swede, some Kazahks, three Bolivians and a handful of Brazilians.  They also ran out of beer as we arrived at the bar.  Vodka and orange then.  Vodka and coke.  And finally these mythical imaginary drinks arrived.

Extra time.  Croatia scored again.  Modric was playing a blinder.  I turned to Billy at one point and said – there is a giant Croatian pin heading towards a big Russian balloon.  Surely it was all over.  But no – Russia equalised with minutes left and we were down to penalties.  I had a plane to catch at 3.45am going to Moscow – I’d got the last seat – but I couldn’t leave yet.  Russia had beaten the Spanish on penalties thanks to their goalkeeper Akinfeev but this time they couldn’t go the extra mile to the huge immediate palpable disappointment of a vast nation. Croatia were through to the semi final and a match with England.  I grabbed my cases and said my goodbyes – we’d all meet again in Moscow but character’s planes weren’t until Tuesday in the main. Outside it was drunken and mobbed, taxis everywhere but I had my Yandex App.  It didn’t work.  No wifi suddenly after three days.  I stood on the street corner and watched the Russians high on drink and disappointment crossing the road, singing, smoking, laughing in some cases.  They appeared to be taking it well.  I saw a cab across the road and dragging my cases, walked over.  “Airport?”  I wondered.  She nodded and off we went.

The airport was an hour away.  My driver had a translation App and switched it on immediately.  We started talking – had an entire conversation in fact.   She told me she had a man in Italy and she wanted to move there but that her friend had warned her about Italian men and now she wasn’t so sure.  She told me her daughter was her sole reason for living after she called in and they’d chatted.  She told me she wanted to leave Russia.  I became a counsellor for an hour.  Keep your goals in mind, focus and keep your self-esteem high. You can have whatever you want if you keep it front focus.  And so on and so forth.  Then she said – written on the App in front of me :

I am terrified of the loneliness

I became quite moved and we were silent for the last ten minutes.

There were a handful of drunk England fans in Samara airport among the vast majority of media workers and like loud people everywhere they changed the environment for everyone.  Even on the plane they continued to repeat the same few simple melodies and words I have already outlined above, like some broken clockwork toys before I fell asleep.  We all got about an hours sleep before we landed in Domodedovo Airport near Moscow at 4.30am.  We staggered onto buses and commenced a 15-minute drive to the terminal while I realised that I had left my phone on the plane.  Taken to Lost Property I sat there for half an excruciating hour before the stewardesses came in with it in their hand.  Exhausted relief.  Got a bus through the green field and forests south of Moscow to the Metro then a Metro to Tverskaya.  When I got up the escalator to the subway exit there was a monsoon outside.

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A monsoon.  I waited.  The address of the hotel was 14 Tverskaya and I was steps from 18.  When I finally took those steps though some 25 minutes later I was nowhere near 14.  When I got there I was wet – and the number 14 just told you which chunk of the block we were on, then it was building 4.  No one could tell me where it was.  Round the corner.  Into the alley.  Ask at the flower shop.  He didn’t know. He asked his mate.  He didn’t know.  There was no internet on my phone and I was getting very wet now.   I also had sharp pain every time I put down my right foot and realised that I must have blisters from walking around Samara for hours the previous day.  I squeezed my foot to protect it and limped my way into an apartment building in Number four thinking there might be a secret hotel on the top floor but no go.  At least it wasn’t wet in there.  My England jacket was drenched so I changed into the Burberry raincoat.  I stood under an archway for about half an hour watching the torrential downpour before realising that I had to move, somewhere, anywhere.  I walked back around to the cafe which was opposite the grand old grocery which I later learned was the famous Eliseyev Food Hall:

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A cleaner told us the cafe was closed until 10am – it was 8.30 by now – and the two chaps who had come inside looking for a cafe with me told me in broken Russki English that MacDonalds had wifi.  Back down the underpass, out the other end and into a vast Micky D with breakfast roll egg Macfuckface and fries with black coffee AND WIFI.   Connection.  Suddenly all the messages and email come rolling in.  Loads of WhatsApp messages from EnglandOnTourRussia2018 and plenty involving last night’s party in Samara which developed into dawn selfies with girls and loads of photos of people with fingers to their lips.  I later worked out that this referred to people resisting the urge to say

It’s Coming Home

under any circumstances and to keep radio silence as far as winning the world cup was concerned…Meanwhile back in England that’s all anyone could say and non-football fans were in secret righteous fury vowing to kill the next person who said it.  When drunk of course, people say it louder and more often.  Was it to become our secret undoing ?  I couldn’t get the stupid phrase out of my head.  Or the Three Lions On A Shirt bit.  It was taking over my brain.  Worst of all I was re-writing it to stop it being repetitive brain injury.  Sealions on a Skirt.  Felines on a Flirt.  Or that evergreen Scaffold cover in praise of laundry Three Shirts On A Line.

Of course I wanted England to win the World Cup and now and again in my secret heart I thought they could.  But my undrunk morning self knew that we were underdogs, that we didn’t have a midfielder like Luka Modric who could run a game.  Nevertheless the hope was planted by this carefully constructed and rather sweet song from 1996.  The music was written by a Liverpool musician Ian Broudie and the lyrics by a Birmingham comedian Frank Skinner with a London comedian David Baddiel and recorded by Broudie’s band The Lightning Seeds.   It contains famous pieces of commentary describing the England team as disappointing.  It is indeed a song about failure, about how the team never quite rise to the occasion, although sometimes, it feels as if they might. There are moments.  Lineker’s goal against Germany in Rome 1990.  Gazza.  And of course Bobby Moore and 1966 at Wembley.   The England squad of 1996 appear in the video and sing the chorus.  It has become the England supporters’ anthem and rises into the charts during most football tournaments, the torture of watching England playing football once again like a recurring nightmare that will never go away. It’s the hope that kills you.  Like itching powder I couldn’t soothe the damn tune out of my ears.  But Southgate has made all the difference hasn’t he ?? And here we are.

  A World Cup semi-final in Moscow for fuck’s sake.

At 10.am I went back to the cafe and it was finally open.  The Uzbeki waiter Jim spoke good English and was a budding film-maker.  He wanted to follow me on Instagram because I was an actor.  He now does.  He also realised that I’d been looking at 14 Tverskaya Street, rather than it’s cross street Tverskaya Bul Var, or Boulevard.  OMG.  I’d been walking through a monsoon for the last four hours and I was drenched.  I changed my shoes and my socks and headed in hopefully the correct direction.  The area was really nice.  After further fluffing in almost every direction I finally found the East-West Hotel hidden carefully behind a cool restaurant called Didi and checked in at 11am.  My room was small and perfect.  I examined my right foot.  Two blisters.  I broker them both and promptly fell asleep.

When I awoke some hours later I noticed that all the beer stains on the back of my England Jacket had been washed out by the monsoon rain.   It was time to walk out into the Russian capital and see what I could see.  In the small reception area of the hotel the TV was showing the defeated Russian players being paraded across the stage at the FanPark near Luzhniki, with their manager, thousands of Russians filming it on their phones.  The receptionist and I watched.  I turned to him and put my hand on my heart.   “Are you proud?”  I asked.  “No”  he said.  “Sad?” I asked.  “Yes” he said.  Fair enough I thought your team got knocked out on penalties.  “But do you feel patriotic?”  I asked again.  He rolled up his right trouser leg and showed me a thing white crescent scar around his kneecap.  “I was a footballer”  he said,  ” It could be me up there“.   I said I was sorry and walked out onto Tverskaya Bul Var.  As I walked in the bright sunshine I felt a lump in my throat and tears coming to my eyes.  The conversation had opened me right up.  Russia was making me feel emotions

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My Pop Life #210 : The Carnival Is Over – The Seekers

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The Carnival Is Over – The Seekers

High above the dawn is waiting
And my tears are falling rain
For the carnival is over
We may never meet again

1965 was the year of The Seekers, The Shangri-Las, The Skatalites, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Bert Jansch & Ken Dodd, The Byrds & The Beatles, Bob Dylan & Tom Jones, Mum’s nervous breakdown and subsequent divorce from my father.  That all bled into 1966 too.   I was young – 8 years old – but not that young.

I previously wrote about the time my mum spent in Hellingly Hospital in My Pop Life #55 – Help! by The Beatles but it was all a blur in the end, apart from those few memories.   The songs of that year stand out as beacons of clarity in a world turning darker and confusingly indeterminate – twinkling shards of light in the doubt – but looking back the only ones I strongly remember were the number 1s (of which The Seekers had two).  And I wonder if that is because my dad and my Nan were looking after us,  and they didn’t have the radio on much, or maybe it was 1965 and they didn’t play Radio Luxemburg or Radio Caroline.  So only the ones off the telly got through to my ears.  Strange thought. Like a rent in the sound firmament.

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Me holding my brother Paul in the early 1960s

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Even though The Seekers break-through year was 1965, I rather feel that this song is set in 1966/7 after Mum had come out of hospital and bought The Best Of The Seekers LP and played it quite a lot.      Especially the first three tracks : Morningtown Ride, A World Of Our Own and The Carnival Is Over.

Mum had escaped from hospital by pretending to go for a walk one day.  She’d earlier made friends with a woman who was on the same meds as she was and a few beds along, and one day the woman had disappeared.  I actually remember Mum telling us this on one clear autumn day, when Dad took me, Paul and Andrew into the visiting room at Hellingly.  Mum, Heather Brown as was, said that she assumed the woman had gone home, got out of that place and was back with her family.   Then one day Mum had gone upstairs for something (?) and there was that same woman walking along the corridor, drugged up to the eyeballs and not recognising Mum at all.  We didn’t like that story and neither did Mum because shortly after that visit she was back home.  She’d just walked out and got on a bus.

Later on, maybe 1967 or even later, she told me of the circumstances of the escape and how the doctor had phoned her at home and said she would have to come back and she said no.  For a few days they negotiated, Dad, Mum, Dr Maggs and then she voluntarily went back to hospital for a short while, on the strict understanding that it was for a few weeks only.  I can’t remember how long for.  But a deal was struck and so at some point she was finally back at home to our huge relief.  I can’t claim to remember the celebrations, the hugs and kisses or the arguments that followed, just a few images of marmalade pots flying into the wall; glasses being removed and held high in the air; “don’t be so stupid“;  regular use of the words ‘bugger‘ and ‘off‘ and even the occasional ‘sod‘.  We hated it.

All this time or thereabouts, Lynne was babysitting for us.  She was a kind of flowery hippy type, skinny with long frizzy ashblonde hair.  She would marry our dad in 1973 if memory serves.  There’s an infinitely sad photo of Ralph, Paul and Andrew with John & Lynne outside the Brighton Registry Office.  The tear-drop shirts give me the date.  Years later mum would tell us of others, and other things that happened before the divorce was granted sometime in 1966 on the grounds of “mental cruelty”.   I didn’t really understand at the time, and actually remembered the entire two year period later as – a divorce followed by a nervous breakdown.  My memory had literally re-ordered the universe so that it made sense.  The divorce caused the breakdown.  We can all understand that, so some degree.  But no.  It was actually the other way around.  I unpicked the actual facts much later when I was fully grown and older than my parents were in 1966.

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I was going to school half a mile away towards the Downs and life went on as before but without Dad.  Nan still came up now and again, or more commonly it was Wendy who turned up who was our cousin from Portsmouth and must have been a teenager by then.  I wrote about her in My Pop Life #102 when she visited a few years later and went to Eastbourne with Mum to see Desmond Dekker.

The sacred music from this mid-sixties era is imprinted onto me like a stick of rock, all the lyrics, harmonies and tunes.  The Sound Of Music.  Oliver!  Motown. The Beatles.  Dionne Warwick.  And, yes – The Seekers.

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They were part of that early-60s folk wave of clean-harmony middle-class white folk who had a particular confidence, and a bright, clear and gently righteous sound – Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, The Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary, The New Christy Minstrels, Joan Baez and John Denver.  The Seekers were somewhat more poppy folk from Australia and their first release was a version of Waltzing Matilda, which I have to report reluctantly is not as good as Rolf Harris’.  They travelled to Britain by ship then performed alongside Dusty Springfield (see My Pop Life #149) whereupon they also met her brother Tom who had earlier been in a popular group with his sister called The Springfields.  He wrote and produced a song for The Seekers called I’ll Never Find Another You in 1964 which eventually got to Number 1 in the UK. He also wrote The Carnival Is Over, Georgy Girl and A World Of Our Own.  The clear female voice is that of Judith Durham whose pitching is straight as an arrow clean centre of every note, supported by the three fellas whose harmonies thrillingly nestle under that clear pure voice, supporting and stretching the melody to its full promise and providing hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck every time.

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The Carnival Is Over is sung to an old Russian folk melody called Stenka Razin with original lyrics written by the poet Dmitry Sadovnikov in 1883 – and he told a historical tale of the Volga boatmen – a terrible dark story :

The Ballad of Stenka Razin

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
ships of Cossack yeomanry.

On the first is Stenka Razin
With his princess by his side
Drunken holds in marriage revels
With his beauteous young bride

From behind there comes a murmur
He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too.

Stenka Razin hears the murmur
Of his discontented band
And his lovely Persian princess
He has circled with his hand.

His dark brows are drawn together
As the waves of anger rise;
And the blood comes rushing swiftly
To his piercing jet black eyes

I will give you all you ask for
Head and heart and life and hand.
And his voice rolls out like thunder
Out across the distant land.

Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Wide and deep beneath the sun,
You have never seen such a present
From the Cossacks of the Don.

So that peace may reign forever
In this band so free and brave
Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Make this lovely girl a grave.

Now, with one swift mighty motion
He has raised his bride on high
And has cast her where the waters
Of the Volga roll and sigh.

Dance, you fools, and let’s be merry
What is this that’s in your eyes?
Let us thunder out a shanty
To the place where beauty lies.

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
ships of Cossack yeomanry.

It is a darkly male, anti-love, pro-warrior kind of song.  Not many of those in my Pop Life.  It alarms me that there is a strand in song – in men – with this death-cult kind of feeling being expressed and I copy it here for interest and as a kind of appalled question – is that who we are?  Really?  It actually appears very Greek – Medea killing her children.  According to Wikipedia  “the Dutch traveller Jean Jansen Struys (1630—1694), says that the murder was meant as a sacrifice with which Razin hoped to appease the much loved and feared Volga River”.

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In the Tom Springfield re-write the darkness disappears and we have a simple yearning lament for something lost, perhaps a brief affair with a lion-tamer or a clown, but the circus is leaving town and we get sympathetic lines :

Like a drum, my heart was beating
And your kiss was sweet as wine
But the joys of love are fleeting…

My mother, consciously or not, must have used this as an of anthem for her own doomed marriage.  It has a funereal beat to it, tragic and fated but yet graced with ethereal & beautiful harmonies that really lift you up from tragedy into a place of light and joy.  Quite an extraordinary effect.  It worked on Mum, and it still works on me. Some of the best songs have both joy and sadness in them.  And it hasn’t escaped me that I have avoided the in-depth discussion of my parent’s divorce and instead devoted some time to an exploration of the song.  There is a pattern here I believe.  Most of my traumatic moments, my lonely moments, my brave moments have been hidden inside my personal soundtrack.  The music made it all bearable.  Now older, I can be ambushed by all kinds of things which operate the hidden triggers to open those boxes of feeling, not always musical.  And I’m not sure if I have very much to say about my parent’s divorce anyway, except that it put me off marriage – or so I thought.  Once I was in fact married, I realised that it was divorce I wasn’t interested in.  Marriage was fine, as long as it was for ever.

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Andrew, Selmeston East Sussex 1965

Morningtown Ride opened the Seekers album and was our lullaby that we used to rock baby Andrew, now two, three years old :

Train whistle blowing, makes a sleepy noise

Underneath the blankets for all the boys and girls..

Rockin, rollin’ ridin, out along the bay

All bound for Morningtown, many miles away…

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Andrew it was who was hit hardest by the divorce because he had no real memory of his father being at home.  In that sense I became his father-figure at the tender age of 8.   In later years I always placed my younger brother in goal so that I could score past him, and he would get revenge by entering Paul and I’s bedroom and breaking carefully constructed airfix kits.    Middle brother Paul’s version of the damage control that comes from a broken home was a simple but devastating remark he made when I was 30 years old : “Ralph, you got the lion’s share of the confidence in our family”.  This is undeniable – as the oldest of three boys left at home with a recovering single mother, I’d had seven years with both parents, a reasonably stable base from which to build a person.  Paul had five years, Andrew one.  But having two parents isn’t the be-all & end-all of a healthy childhood.  Many other things come into play.  The carnival might have been over, but we could all still sing about it and we were all still together.

This blog contains 1965 words.

My Pop Life #209 : Classical Symphony in D – Sergei Prokofiev

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Classical Symphony – Sergei Prokofiev

I should be on my way to Russia right now.  Quick stopover in Moscow then on to Ekaterinberg, the furthest east of all the World Cup 2018 venues.  That was the plan.  Targeting the game there on Friday – Egypt v Uruguay.  After the season that Mo Salah has had I’d like to see him at a World Cup.  Will he be fit ?  Hmmm

However here I am at home in Brooklyn having spent the afternoon on a reconnaissance trip to Brighton Beach.  Little Odessa, not Hove, actually.  Looking for World Cup vibes because we’re spending this World Cup in New York City.   We’ll be seeking out neighbourhood cafes and restaurants showing games, in particular representing the teams which are playing.  So, on Friday we’ll be heading to Bijans,  an Iranian restaurant in Boerum Hill, just down the road, for the must-win game for both Morocco and Iran since the other two teams in that group are mighty Portugal and Spain.

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Jenny and I in Soweto, World Cup 2010

But why aren’t we going to Russia then?  Jenny and I have been to the last six World Cups – in Los Angeles ’94, France ’98, Japan/Korea ’02, Germany ’06, South Africa ’10 and Brazil ’14.  Amazing times.  Truly.  But Jenny decided about a year ago that she didn’t fancy the Russia World Cup because of the continued racism at games in that country.  We met some Russians in Rio in 2014 on their way to the Maracaña to see Russia play Belgium.  I asked them where they were from and they, all fresh-faced and covered in flags, said “Irkutsk”.  Wow, I thought, remembering the Risk board from my teens, Siberia !!  They’ve come a long way.  And they seemed so sweet and naive and I remember thinking – the World Cup in Russia will be cool.  I still hold to that.  But Jenny has been in England for 4 months doing a play at the Donmar and only just got back, I don’t really want to fly off to Russia on my own, leaving Jenny behind,  in the hope of hooking up with our old football buddy Billy The Bee who has a slightly more England-centred agenda than me.  I did want to, but I didn’t.  I wouldn’t.  I haven’t.

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Me, Melissa (her 1st game!!) & Bella Bee at Griffin Park after 2-1 win v QPR

When I travelled to London in April to see Jenny in the play ‘The Way of The World‘  by William Congreve, I decided to see Billy to break the news to him that I wouldn’t be accompanying him to Russia.  I went west on the Piccadilly Line from Covent Garden to Northfields and walked down to The Globe, where I have been many times before for Brighton & Hove Albion away matches v Brentford, for Billy the Bee is, yes you guessed it, a Brentford fan, and today they were at home to West London Rivals Queens Park Rangers.  (Brentford won 2-1). As the afternoon and beers progressed, a number of Billy’s mates, including dear David Lane who I know, came up to Billy and expressed worry on his behalf in Russia.  None of them were going.  I added my forthcoming absence to his day.

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Billy the Bee in Johannesburg, World Cup 2010

Jenny and I met Billy on a train from Paris to Toulouse during France ’98. We watched the England v Romania game together on a pavement TV after failing to score tickets for the match, and found each other at every World Cup since then.  We were in Jo’burg together in a large house, went to Soweto pretty much every day.  You can find these stories on my other blog.  Rather weirdly they read from the bottom up.  Gonna see if I can fix that.

Anyway.

Russia.  I wish I was going.  But I’m not.  The country, the nation, its politics and culture has had a huge part in my life since I was small.  Always held up as the reason why people weren’t communist, or the reason why they were.  The 20 million war dead who stopped Hitler alongside the British and the Americans always turn up in arguments, rightly so.  I read Marx at school (he was German I know but his writing had a profound effect on Russia) and wondered why his teachings, which resembled those of Jesus in the New Testament, were so reviled in my own country.  I pieced it together fairly quickly, indeed to the extent that I chose to go to University at the LSE rather than Cambridge, and studied Lenin and the revolution.  There in the late 70s I did a course entitled “Soviet & Yugoslav Legal Systems” which made up 25% of my 3rd year, and was taught by Law Professor Ivo Lapenna who was a Slav.  Four or five times a class he would utter the famous formulation “according to Marxism…” and this almost made the three years of law worthwhile, indeed privileged was I to spend part of my youth sitting in educational establishments learning these things.  Ten years later in 1989 I read Mikhail Gorbachev‘s book Perestroika and was there in Berlin when the wall came down at the end of that momentous year (see My Pop Life #166).  There was a shrinkage of the Soviet state down to its essence, Russia, and the gangsters took over.

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And of course I’ve had to parse the media throughout my life regarding stories and attitudes to The USSR as it was known until I turned 33.  United Soviet Socialist Republic. Stories are inevitably negative until you read The Morning Star, or go to the source material, the history, the books that Marx or Gorbachev or Solzhenitsyn actually wrote.  They’re very good by the way.  The current Western bad guy is once again the Russian Bear, personified, as these short-hand attitudes always have to be, by a figure, in this case, Mr Vladimir PutinRandy Newman had a song called Putin on his last album which contained the opening line

Putin puttin’ his pants on

which is both hilarious and childish.  But now we’re supposed to be interested in these cartoon personalities and their egos.   Forgive me if I don’t get into politics, right now.

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And in parallel to these political revolutions and counter-revolutionary upheavals, I was reading Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn as a teenager.  Crime & Punishment, The Idiot,  One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch, and Cancer Ward.  I actually wrote a short story whilst at school entitled One Day In The Life of Ivan ‘eadache Mum, which was a kind of parody of me being late for school as I recall.

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 I read Turgenev and the amazing Nikolai Gogol as a student, surrealist and hilarious material in the case of the latter, and my first Leo Tolstoy novel Boyhood.

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I finally read Tolstoy and Pushkin as an adult.  Of these, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is my favourite, I relished it, every word.  I will read it again if I live long enough.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes so well about people and I’ve always felt that The Brothers Karamazov perfectly described my two brothers and I.  But I was a teenager when I felt that and it may not stand up to detailed scrutiny to be fair.   The Idiot is quite superb.   The Peter Sellers film Being There is based on it.    I’m saving Anna Karenina for a rainy day, but remember clearly my first girlfriend Miriam Ryle reading it when she was 16.  I never got on with The Master & Margerita I must confess, but I’m prepared to have another go, neither have I got around to Nabakov yet.  Plenty of time for that I hope, and I have been told how great he is.

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I haven’t seen the Bolshoi Ballet, but I have seen a Russian ballet company from St Petersburg during the Brighton Festival with my friend Millie (who loves ballet) performing Tchaikovsky‘s Nutcracker Suite & Swan Lake.  It was a classic performance which for me meant it was a bit of a museum piece but it was breathtakingly beautiful.

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One of my top five films is Russian – I refer to Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Andrei Rublev, made in black & white in 1965.  It is a three-hour meditation on the life of the medieval icon painter Rublev, but that doesn’t even begin to touch at the remarkable achievement of this film. Seek it out and enjoy if you haven’t seen it.  I know it doesn’t sound like a film that you want to see, and there’s nothing much I can say to change that, except that it is absolutely breathtakingly brilliant.  All of Tarkovsky’s films are extraordinary in different ways – I name-checked his sci-fi masterpiece Solaris in My Pop Life #121.  The final film, made in Sweden is called The Sacrifice and again it is quite an astonishing piece of work.

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Original poster for Battleship Potemkin, 1925

Other Russian films I have marvelled at include Elem Klimov‘s ‘Come and See‘ about the effect of war on a young man, some of the images from that screening sometime in the early 1980s are seared onto my brain.  And of course Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky are both essential viewing for film buffs as is Bondarchuk‘s War & Peace.  And just last year I was sent a BAFTA dvd for the film Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev which was quite superb.

I have managed to avoid Dr Zhivago both in print and on screen.

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Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov of course was a genius, if there is such a thing, and his plays have thrilled me. From The Seagull with John Hurt to Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya -they are all exceptional, exquisite. My friend Simon Korner was pleading with me to read Chekhov’s short stories when we were both 18, and I finally read them in my 40s.  They are indeed quite the finest short stories I think I have ever read, although James Baldwin still takes some beating.

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‘Day of the Artist’ by Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall is Russian isn’t he ?  Belorussian.  I love his work.  And the propagandists of the revolution created some incredible stuff.   And Kandinsky.  I’ll only get into trouble if I start rabbiting on about Constantin Stanislavski and the method school of acting.  I read his book as a young man – of course I did, having not trained as an actor it was the least I could do.  I’ve never really got past the “if you’re acting it you have to experience it” thing though, having played a number of killers myself over the years and never actually killed someone to see what it feels like.

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Sergei Prokofiev

And so to the music.  I should have listened to Peter & The Wolf as a child but I have no memory of it.  Sergei Prokofiev wrote it in 1936 when he was 45 years old, and had finally settled in Moscow after leaving Russia in 1918, although he was never an exile from the Revolution as I understand it.   I suspect Tchaikovsky was the first Russian music I listened to – Swan Lake no doubt which I even suspect we may have owned on 78 rpm and played on our portable wind-up gramaphone (see My Pop Life #43).  Once you’ve heard of someone, you keep hearing it of course.  Everyone’s a Fruit and Nut Case was a commercial on British TV (Cadbury’s chocolate) to the tune of Sugar Plum Fairies.  Then it was probably the 1812 Overture  with it’s cannon gimmick, then he gets a mention in Harold Pinter’s  The Caretaker which I did for A-level English Literature, then the Ken Russell film The Music Lovers.  Of course I must mention Mussorgsky because in 1971 I bought the Emerson Lake & Palmer LP Pictures at an Exhibition which introduced me to public humiliation being a prog-rock canter through his song suite of the same name and deeply uncool.

Sergei Rachmaninov crept in at some point in my 20s – particularly the 2nd Piano Concerto which Eric Carmen borrowed for the pop song “All By Myself“.  Later I would buy an album called Rachmaninov Plays Rachmaninov which I recommend very highly indeed.  He had very large hands and could play a natural 12th on the piano with ease.   Anyway, I never really considered Prokofiev or Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky to be Russian.  They were “Classical” composers who became international and of no nation almost because of the music.  I’m still learning though, because classical music went through a very nationalistic phase 100 years ago when each nation’s composers started to celebrate their own folk music and turn it into high art, and the Russians participated in this too.  Did Borodin try it ?  Not sure.

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Scheherezade – painting by Léon Bakst

My current swoon is Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Sheherezade which is a suite based on the Arabian Nights and is stunning.  I listen to it once a week, it is quite tremendous.   I didn’t start checking out Dimitri Shostakovitch or Igor Stravinksy until later – but in-between these musical giants  I fell in love with the genius of Sergei Prokofiev.

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I think I bought the Classical Symphony when we were living in Los Angeles in 1992-5.  Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard was a giant Emporium of music – I remember bumping into Meera Syal & her then husband Shekhar Bhatia in there one afternoon, a basketful of CDs in the crook of my arm.  I think they were on holiday, but perhaps Meera was auditioning for things.  Bless her.  Perhaps Prokofiev was in there.  It is his 1st symphony, written in Russia in the summer of 1917, weeks before the October Revolution. He called it the Classical Symphony himself, because he felt that one of his heroes Franz Josef Haydn (see My Pop Life #134) would have written in that style were he alive.  Indeed, all of Haydn’s 106 symphonies are very short and the form then got heavily stretched by Mozart,  Beethoven and later Mahler so that you might be sitting for 95 minutes watching and listening to Mahler’s 3rd Symphony.  In contrast, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is very short – in my version by Leonard Bernstein & the NY Philharmonic it comes in at under 14 glorious minutes.  It is a sprightly, melodic, wonderfully-arranged piece with massive dynamics which still thrill me today when I listen to it.  It has both old-fashioned and very modern elements which the ear picks up on immediately.  It does its thing & gets out, rather like Haydn did with his 12-minute symphonies in the 1790/1800s and is similarly instantly accessible and hugely enjoyable.

Prokofiev didn’t stick with the short format for his symphonies, indeed his 5th Symphony which appeared on the same CD is 40 minutes long and very different musically, though similarly popular.  Other works of his which I like very much include the 3rd Piano Concerto, often paired with Ravel‘s 1st Piano Concerto and one of the finest works of the 20th century to my sweet-toothed ear.  His other best-known piece perhaps is the troika from Lieutenant Kije which actually sounds like a three galloping horses pulling a carriage across a white winter landscape.  The Brighton Beach Boys played it at our Christmas gigs and I was charged with playing the melody on my alto in a duet with the French horn.  Greg Lake including the melody in his miserable Christmas hit I Believe In Father Christmas at the suggestion, apparently of Keith Emerson.  It’s the best part of the song.

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I also have David Bowie narrating Peter & The Wolf, where each character in the story is played by a different instrument.  I’m sure you know it.  I have the first 2 Violin Concertos.  There is plenty of his work I have yet to hear, and I can’t claim to be any kind of authority on him.  I just love this piece of music.

So I’m indebted to the Russians for much of my cultural and political nourishment.  Russia is a major slice of me as I hope I’ve illustrated above.  I hope they put on a good World Cup and enjoy it, particularly the non-racist fans.  I hope those visitors from all over the world have a splendid time there over the next four weeks.  I’ll be watching from my sofa and in the various Egyptian, Colombian, German, English, Senegalese, Iranian, Spanish, Nigerian, French, English and Brazilian restaurants of New York City.   I think Brazil will lift the trophy,  who knows.  But deep down, I wish I was there too.

Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in 1968

My Pop Life #208 : I Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

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Can’t Win – Ry Cooder

9th June 2018

We went to see Ry Cooder last night in the Town Hall a wonderful old venue with a really intimate feel on 43rd St, built in 1921 by suffragette supporters.  Jenny knew the venue from an event a couple of years ago directed by her godfather Nicolas Kent – it was a staging of the transcripts of Trump’s picks for Attorney General I think.  The beer is served in plastic cups with logos which cost $5 thus the first round was $28.  She did warn me to be fair, and they only charge you for the cup once.  What a world.

Ry Cooder opened with an old song called Nobody’s Fault But Mine which was written by Blind Willie Johnson then covered by everyone including Led Zeppelin.  He sat centre stage with a battered old acoustic guitar, his white hair covered with a blue wool bobble hat (without the bobble) and there was a young man playing a treated saxophone at the side.  Treated electronically, acoustically, sonically who knows it was haunting all night.  Cooder delivered the song with the authority of a delta bluesman, picking notes, sliding his bottleneck up and down the strings which twanged and shuddered and whispered under his touch.  He was so connected to this song, with the changes and the lyrics, it was evident in every note.

I was introduced to Ry Cooder by Sir Nick Partridge.  He wasn’t Sir Nick in those days, he was Nick P., a fresh-faced and pleasant young man who lived in the flat on West End Lane that Pete and Sali owned and that I lived in too.  He was my flatmate. Known Pete since schooldays.  I’d just finished my degree in Law at the LSE and Nick had graduated from Keele University doing International Relations.  We were all post-graduates suddenly.  I was saving money for a further “year off” as we called them back then.  This was 1979 and the future lay ahead of us. Education and academia was, it seemed, finally behind us.  We used to go record shopping together because there was so much to discover !  There still is some 40 years later !!!

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Nick Partridge and Ralph Brown in a North London record shop, 1979.  Picture taken by Pete Thomas.

I was painting and decorating that summer in Pinner, and later moved onto a house in St John’s Wood, definitely worthy of its own post.  My previous mentions of this vivid era of my young adult life were in posts about Talking Heads (My Pop Life #92 ) John Martyn (My Pop Life #153) and The Specials (My Pop Life #178) and Nick features in all of them.  We were a little musical commune up there between the railways of the Jubilee Line to the south and the Thameslink line to Hertfordshire to the north PLUS the North London Line which carried nuclear waste past our building overnight while we listened to Ry Cooder and The Gladiators.  My girlfriend Mumtaz was in Mecklenburgh Square and would come and squat cross-legged on the floor with us as we passed the bliss.

In the evenings and at weekends we were all obsessed with listening to music and going to gigs.  Pete was very much a reggae aficionado but also fond of the quirky post-punk world emerging from the rubble of 1977, a plethora of independent labels issuing interesting stuff of all kinds like Wah! Heat, SpizzEnergi, Flying Lizards, or The Auteurs all with picture sleeves and original music.   In my capricious memory Sal was more into rock and I was a student new wave ex-punk who listened to soul, but Nick was always different.  Later he would live on a houseboat in Amsterdam doing a blues radio show but that’s another story, if you’re lucky.

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It was Nick who had Boomer’s Story and Paradise & Lunch and in the stoned democratic disc jockey world of West End Lane between the rails, when he got his turn for an LP side, it would often be one of these Ry Cooder records which were kind of country kind of bluesy kind of funky, but often with an added flavour from somewhere else.  Americana it would be called now.

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Then in 1979 he brought home an LP that looked like a new wave record, bright pink with a guitar player who looked a bit Nick Lowe but no.  It was the new Ry Cooder album called, unfeasibly, “Bop Til You Drop” and now we would all choose this record when our DJ turn came around.  Opening with a cover of Elvis Presley’s Little Sister but thereafter delving into obscure 60s R’n’B – Go Home Girl, Don’t You Mess Up A Good Thing, Trouble You Can’t Fool Me, Look At Granny Run Run – and a brilliant original song called Down In Hollywood (‘better hope that you don’t run out of gas…’), the album had a fantastic production quality on the guitar and backing vocals particularly.  In fact Bop Til You Drop was the first album ever recorded digitally.  Cooder is a magnificently rootsy guitarist, not a show-off in any way, but just tries to get the soul out of the instrument, and the backing vocals on the album were by Terry Evans & Bobby King who would later record their own record with Ry Cooder producing and playing on every track.  What I didn’t know until last night (too stoned to read the liner notes or maybe just not that nerdy after all) was that Chaka Khan sings on Down In Hollywood and Good Thing.   He had roughly the same line up last night – although not the same players.  Jenny turned to me at one point – probably during The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Will Make Me Poor) and said “What would you call this music?”  I said “country soul?”.  She could hear mariachi.  It’s funky.  It’s hawaian.  It’s blues.   It’s music.

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Cooder plays without any ego at all, and often uses the concert (and indeed many of his record releases) to showcase other people and give them a turn in the spotlight.  Last night it was his wonderfully relaxed backing singers The Hamiltones who played a couple of numbers while he left the stage, then joined them on guitar for another.  Earlier it had been his son Joachim who opened proceedings with his own music.  Ry Cooder it was who travelled to Havana in the 1990s breaking the boycott and encouraging the old stars of the 1950s to team up and record again, the resulting film and album opening up Cuba to the world once again and introducing me to Ruben Gonzales, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo playing together as the incomparable Buena Vista Social Club.

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He has recorded with the great Malian blues guitarist Ali Farke Toure on Talking Timbuktu, with Captain Beefheart on Safe As Milk (see My Pop Life #205) with Taj Mahal in the band Rising Sons, with Randy Newman on 12 Songs, the Rolling Stones on Let It Bleed & Sticky Fingers, on Lowell George‘s original version of Willin’.  All playing slide guitar or bottleneck.  In 1984 he composed the soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ film Paris, Texas which starred Natassia Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton and following that became a sought-after soundtrack composer using his signature slide guitar.  He’s made albums with the latino community of Los Angeles such as Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti (Chavez Ravine) and if left to his own devices appears to be following in the footsteps of his hero 1940s political folkie Woody Guthrie.  Or one of his heroes.

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Woody Guthrie 1943

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In a new song last night he sang of a meeting between Jesus & Woody in heaven, looking down on what is happening now, from the vantage point of the 1950s when we had beaten the fascists and the world stretched out before us.

Jesus & Woody

Well bring your old guitar and sit here by me
Round the heavenly throne
Drag out your Oklahoma poetry, ’cause it looks like the war is on

And I don’t mean a war for oil, or gold, or trivial things of that kind
But I heard the news, the vigilante man is on the move this time

So sing me a song ’bout this land is your land
And fascists bound to lose
You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too

Once I spoke of a love for those who hate
It requires effort and strain
Vengeance casts a false shadow of justice which leads to destruction and pain
Some say I was a friend to sinners
But by now you know it’s true
Guess I like sinners better than fascists
And I guess that makes me a dreamer too

It was a chilling song but it wasn’t the only time that the name of Jesus was called.  One of his biggest hits was gospel standard Jesus On The Mainline,  and with The Hamiltones‘ soulful harmonies it was a standout moment at the gig.  And it became clear to Jenny and I that we were really at a gospel show.  In the sense that the black church in America has long been a vehicle for resistance to oppression, using the biblical metaphors and stories to illustrate the struggle and gospel music to inspire and strengthen courage.  Cooder never went preachy, but he was very clear where he stood.  He mentioned Trayvon Martin before playing a song called The Vigilante.  It was the lack of ego that was most striking in the end.  Playing the guitar to try and find the most expressive notes, not to show-off or strike poses.

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Ry Cooder With Taj Mahal, 1968

And indeed, it seems to me this morning thinking back on Sir Nick as a young man in West Hampstead, smoking dope with a generous smile and a ready laugh that he had no ego then or indeed now.  He always had an easy manner where embarrassment was never far from the surface, mixed with laughter and great empathy.  I went to Hampstead Magistrates with him one day and watched him with his gentle phrasing and easy manner talk his middle-class way out of a conviction and get a finger-wagging in its place.

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Sir Nick with Kirsten O’Brien

Shortly after the Amsterdam year he joined The AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust in 1985 becoming Chief Executive in 1991 and finally moving on in 2013 after 28 years of service and a knighthood which followed his OBE.   We formed a close bond in those 1979-1980 days and nights and beyond into the frisbee-playing, gay nightclubbing, political 1980s, stayed in touch right up until today.  I had no idea that he was gay back then but he’s never made a big deal out of it or changed his basic persona of decency, sincerity and jokes.

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Sir Nick talks with brother Andrew, Whitstable Bay.  My dad can be seen with check shirt on the pebbles between them

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Paul Brown is 50 in his beach hut and quite a tremendous shirt

The first time any of us saw Nick after he was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours was at my brother Paul’s 50th birthday celebration which he held in Whitstable, Kent.  It was a wonderful weekend of family – Dad & Beryl came down from Yorkshire, Becky was back in Sussex by then and Jenny and I had summer son Jordan in tow – Dee’s youngest who had a key period of spending the summer with us in Brighton.  Sir Nick was there in the beach-hut, Paul was back from Shanghai mixing cocktails in a straw hat, Richard Davies (Lady G) was probably DJing and drinking at the same time and a splendid time was guaranteed and enjoyed by all.

Nick and his husband Simon have been to New York since we moved here – I remember him asking me what he should see on Broadway – it was 2016.  I had a one-word answer : Hamilton.  He bought tickets online, then I had to go to work when he was here so I missed him, but he saw the show and, of course, loved it.

Paulette & Beverley Randall, Paul Brown & Sir Nick Partridge, London 2015

I did see him the year before when Paul was in London for his birthday a couple of years ago – 2015 I guess.  And then he came to send me off on my 60th birthday last summer when I hardly spoke to anyone, but hugged everyone.   I am extremely fond of him and will always be grateful for his friendship and for bringing Bop Til You Drop (and Memphis Slim…) into my life.

The last song on the album is called I Can’t Win and it is a haunting and soulful three-part harmony, simply a beautiful song about being in love with someone who isn’t responding.  We’ve all been there, but I haven’t made a habit of it thank god.  When the gig finished last night the entire band went off for about 90 cursory seconds then returned immediately as we all stood and clapped for the encore.  And they sang I Can’t Win with piercing harmonies that made the hairs on the back of our necks stand on end.  It was the pinnacle on a great night.  And it’s already up on Youtube.

Live at Town Hall June 8th 2018:

Album Version :

 

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 :

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.

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 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.

 

 

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