My Pop Life #149 : Little By Little – Dusty Springfield

Little By Little   –   Dusty Springfield

little by little by little by little

In 1985 I had established to my own satisfaction that I was an actor – I’d worked with Steven Berkoff in ‘West’ at the Donmar for five months in 1983, filmed it for Channel 4, done a whole series of ‘The Bill’ as P.C. Muswell, worked at the Royal Court, The Tricycle Theatre, Joint Stock and done some BBC Shakespeare.  But I was still harbouring musical fantasies, and still playing saxophone with a band I’d joined in 1980 called Birds Of Tin.  Most of the band lived on the Pullens Estate in Kennington, between Walworth Road and Kennington Park Road, SE17.  My links with this part of South London were manyfold – I also played football on Sunday mornings with a groups of geezers known as the Hoxton Pirates who also mainly lived there – although (with one or two exceptions) not the same people !  The link was Lewes probably, unwinding out to friends and relations of rabbit.  But I’ll save the Pirates for another post.

Birds Of Tin 1985

Early days – 1979/1980 – we had many many discussions about the name of the band, and initially, after rejecting The Deeply Ashamed (Pete Thomas suggestion) and Go Go Dieppe (I’ll claim that one) we settled on Parma Violets.  {I think that name has now been taken by another group.}   At some point I’d had a sax audition for Ranken’s Romeos aka The Operation, an outfit which contained Simon Korner AND his brother Joe but which was led by Andrew Ranken who’d been in the year above us in school and who was going out with Deborah Korner, Simon and Joe’s elder sister.  He would shortly join The Pogues as their drummer, but was lead singer in The Operation and Patrick Freyne was on drums.  I was nervous and a little underprepared.  In retrospect Andrew perhaps didn’t fancy my fashion-victim appearance and vibe I suspect, for he suggested without warm-up or pre-amble doing a song in the key of B.  It was a musical ambush.  I had never played a song in the key of B in my life – it’s not common, like E or A or G or D.   I know that’s no excuse by the way.

Emma Peters & I in Joe Korner’s flat, Glebe Estate, Peckham 1979

As I explained in My Pop Life #80 the saxophone is pitched 3 semitones above concert pitch (ie the piano) so sax players have to adjust 3 semitones down when the key gets called.  Thus my audition was in Ab.  A fucking flat.  I made an abysmal mess of an attempt and put the horn back into it’s velveteen lined case, tail firmly tucked between my legs.  The Operation carried on and now play as The Mysterious Wheels and a version of this band played at my wedding to Jenny (see My Pop Life #126) where I was on saxophone alongside Jem Finer from The Pogues and an extra fella called Chris because Andrew still didn’t think I had the chops (!)    Fair enough I probably didn’t.

Joe Korner on the keyboards, Tom Anthony on drums

But later that year – 1980 – after that miserable audition failure –  another band was formed : the aforementioned Parma Violets, to play mainly original material emanating from Joe Korner and old Rough Justice buddy Conrad Ryle.   For some reason Simon didn’t join Parma Violets.  But Patrick did, and Emma Peters on violin and vocals, and Joe’s mate Sam Watson, who was a friend of Leonie’s brother, on bass.  Leonie Rushforth was Simon’s girlfriend whom he’d met in Cambridge.   We used to rehearse at midnight in Mount Pleasant Studios off Gray’s Inn Road in a studio owned by Animal Magnet, a Cambridge band that Simon was also playing in.

Incestuous and vain, and many other last names.

This line-up : Joe, Conrad, Patrick, Emma, Sam and I – produced a demo tape in a studio in Guildford where’s Sam’s mate was doing a Music Degree and our five songs were part of his final year project.  Free to those who can afford it.  It was all of our first time in a studio and was really quite thrilling.  I double-tracked the saxophone on one song making a simple chord with myself.  The singular joy of harmony.  But in the end we weren’t that happy with the finished result.  Then Patrick left, then Conrad left and I took a sabbatical and went to Mexico in order to contract one of the major viral infections, Hepatitus B (see My Pop Life #31 or My Pop Life #24).  I came back and lay down for a few months.

Emma Peters on violin

We played two covers I recall – possibly more.  One was 300 lbs of Heavenly Joy by Howling Wolf, and the other was this song Little By Little by Dusty Springfield.   Emma loved this song.  People danced to it when we played it live.  It’s mid-period Dusty, 1966, so after those classic early singles I Only Wanna Be With You, Middle Of Nowhere and I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself but before the pinnacle of Dusty In Memphis and Son Of A Preacher Man (1968).

Dusty was a cool cat.   She was deported with her band The Echoes from apartheid South Africa in 1964 for playing an integrated concert in Cape Town – despite a clause in her contract – one of the first artists to refuse to play for segregated audiences.  She introduced the British public to Tamla Motown in 1965 when she fronted the Motown Revue on Rediffusion Television, with live performances from Diana Ross & The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and Martha Reeves, a show produced by Vicki Wickham from Ready Steady Go and now our dear friend in New York (see My Pop Life #135).  Dusty found a beautiful Italian ‘schmaltzy song’ as she called it, at a singing festival in San Remo in ’65 (she reached the semi final) and her friends Vicki Wickham and Simon Napier Bell wrote English words and she recorded it.  It went to Number One in June 1966 as You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me.  That autumn she had her own TV show called simply Dusty.

She is the greatest British female singer of my lifetime, and the most successful, certainly until Adele.  Her taste and her style were impeccable, and she graciously lived up to her billing as our greatest blue-eyed soul singer.  She also did backing vocals on friends’ LPs billed as Gladys Thong, notably Madeline Bell & Kiki Dee (both backing this single) and also Anne Murray and Elton John.    Little By Little was written by Bea Verdi and Buddy Kaye, who wrote several of her hits including Middle Of Nowhere.

I cannot remember if we continued to play Little By Little when the band reformed a little later as Birds Of Tin, but by then the new line-up had recorded a simply fantastic demo-tape in Joe’s flat with a drum machine called BoT.  It showcased the very best of his songwriting including one called It Never Rains :

Thursday night, General Election, Friday night, burns all the paintings

Sunday night, the separation, Tuesday’s gone in desperation…

It never rains…

I thought they were a great band and shortly after hearing that c90 cassette I rejoined.  I think it was now 1983.  Maybe I’d been doing The Bill or – more likely Moving Parts Theatre Company, who toured the land in a beat-up transit with self-written plays to politically educate the youth.  Hahaha – for another post I feel !!

Sam, Joe, Linsey, Emma

The new line-up had Tat on guitar (quiet, introspective, folk-oriented, but liked a laugh) instead of Conrad, and Tom Anthony on drums (amicable, rock-steady and played centre-half for The Hoxton Pirates on occasion) instead of Patrick.   Sam was the only one who hadn’t been at Priory – an essentially happy, friendly and easy-going fellow, he also played centre-half for Hoxton Pirates with Tom and played bass for Birds Of Tin.   Emma was a lovely clear singer and cracking violinist who went on to make LPs with The Clarke Sisters an Irish/folk outfit in the late 1990s. Then Linsey joined as a second vocalist around the same time as me, also playing percussion, lovely harmonies, and that became the classic Birds Of Tin combo.  We drifted towards the exotic sounds of Eastern Europe, did an instrumental called Smilkino Kolo which originated in Croatia I think (then called Yugoslavia of course), and another instrumental called Istanbul – could’ve been Turkish but it sounded Greek to me…

Me, Linsey on percussion, Tat on guitar

Emma did full spirited gypsy violin on these numbers and I made my sax sound like a battered didicoy trumpet.  We still played Joe’s songs, and some by Sam too – but with the same sax-and-violin attack.  There was a Madness influence if anything, maybe a sprinkle of Talking Heads and definitely hand-picked lucky dip World Music.  There was another song that I sourced from a Bollywood tape which Mumtaz and I had in our flat in Finsbury Park – can I remember the name, the film, the song – no!  but I wrote new lyrics inspired by William Blake and the new song was called Dangerous Garden.   That song really did swing.  I suspect it remains the only song I’ve ever written.

Linsey, Emma, Tat, Me

Musically we were a good band.  Good players and singers, good harmonies, tight rhythm section, good turnarounds and middle eights.  Interesting mid-80s crossover indie I suppose.  Pop music with flavour.  We never got a record deal anywhere.  We never had a manager, or any really decent contacts.  There was a kind of quiet refusal to wear any uniform or even matching vibes.  I – quite naturally – was happy to go onstage in full shalwa-kamiz of a soft blue colour, but Emma & Lins aside, the rest of the band balked at dressing up. Sam looked like Sting AND he played bass, and he used to wear pedal pushers and chinese slippers but Joe and Tat and Tom weren’t having a clothes-matching competition.  We did quite a few gigs too, a residency at The Four Aces in Dalston on Monday nights where the audience consisted of 3 rastas (“play more Russian music!“), some local SE17 events, some outdoor festivals and notably a support to The Men They Couldn’t Hang at the Corn Exchange in Brighton.

Sam Watson on the bass guitar

There were tensions in the band – it’s a band after all – and after Sam went out with Linsey for a large part of the middle period it all ended quite literally in tears and Sam subsequently listened to Elvis Costello‘s Man Out Of Time from Imperial Bedroom 20 times in a row in desolation one night.   Then a natural break came when I was offered Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman and I had to choose – acting, or music?

It’s a shame that no BoT songs survive on digital format – because I would include one here to showcase that moment in time.  But we have Dusty, and we have the treasure of these photos from IGA studios in 1985.  I always loved rehearsals and these pictures capture some of that joy – just making music together is a pleasure.   I distinctly remember walking around in that tartan suit that spring thinking “So – it’s tartan – what of it??” as people stared me down, but all photos of the garms in question have been in an attic box until now.  This set from Ian McIntyre, a whoosh into the past.  Who are those young kit cats ?

My Pop Life #136 : Sanson Ki Maala Pe Simrun Main – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Sanson Ki Maala Pe Simrun Main   –   Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

سانس لینے میں ہار     –   ‘necklace of breath’

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Sanson ki maala pe simrun main pi ka naam

Apne mann ki main janun aur pi ke mann ki Ram

With every breath I take, I chant the name of my beloved;  I know what’s in my heart, and God knows what’s in the heart of my beloved

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Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park

In 1983 I lived in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz.  We’d met in 1976 in Carr Saunders Hall on Fitzroy Street, part of the LSE student accommodation portfolio.  We’d been an item since then.   The Finsbury Park flat was a bedsit really, under the roof of a three-story building with two sloping ceilings.  I was 26 and just starting out on a professional acting career.  Mumtaz had completed her law exams and was embarking on a career as a solicitor in the criminal law.  Downstairs was Laurie Jones, an old Communist who looked like both Burl Ives AND Vladimir Ilych Lenin, a Tottenham fan with Season tickets to both Spurs and Arsenal.   A very interesting man.  A legend in fact.  On the ground floor was a blues run by a friendly Jamaican man called Shirley.

Mumtaz was born in Aden, now Yemen, to Indian parents, and her father was a doctor who had left India at partition in 1949.  The family left Aden in 1966 when it became independent and being muslims decided to settle in Karachi in  Pakistan.  Having gone to school high in the Himalayas in Murree, Kashmir, Mumtaz had come to London to do a degree in international history and politics, then decided to become a lawyer, which meant years of legal exams.   Her elder sister Nasreen was a barrister, younger brothers Mahmood and Mehboob would start an accountancy firm together.  When we ate in, which we usually did, Taj would usually cook something from her cuisine – Roghan Josh, Chicken Curry, Keema Peas, Aloo Gobi, Basmati Rice, Dal, Raita, flat bread (often pitta bread) – and over the years she taught me how to buy the ingredients and cook this food.  The spices were never mixed – we bought black pepper balls, cloves, sticks of cinnamon bark – dry spices, and these would be cooked before the oil was introduced.  They flavoured the oil. Or ghee – clarified butter.  Then the onions, then the meat or veg, and then the other spices – all with their Indian names – I’ll do a brief translation…

Garam Marsala – the combination of pepper, cloves and cinnamon

Haldi  –  Turmeric – which gives everything that yellow colour

Jeera –  Cumin –  in seed form or as powder

Dhaniya – Coriander powder, or fresh coriander often used as garnish.  Also called cilantro in the US and shadow-benee in St Lucia (!)

Chilli – in powder form, or chopped fresh.  It’s the white seeds which burn the tongue

Ginger – also in powder form or chopped fresh as is

Garlic – powdered or chopped fresh.

Every dish we made always had all of the above in, with salt and often mustard seeds too.  To be eaten with yoghurt (Raita) sometimes with lightly roasted cumin seeds if we could be bothered, never with cucumber like they do in the restaurants, and pitta bread, which was wetted with water and grilled very slightly so it was warm but still fluffy.  The morning after a meal, Taj would fry two eggs and serve the left-overs as breakfast. Delicious.

Over the years I learned a little Urdu, and at one point made an effort to start reading it.  That was a challenge I never met.  But Taj would speak to me in Urdu, and things would sink in.

“Mai ghar jana Chahiye” =  I want to go home.

 “Bukle ghi hai ?” =  are you hungry ?

Mumtaz was a practising muslim – she prayed every day, perhaps not five times a day, and she covered her head when she prayed usually.  We never did go to the mosque together, and I never did meet her parents, who lived in Karachi in any case.  Taj was a relaxed muslim – clearly since she was living with an Englishman in sin, and drinking fine wines, smoking cigarettes.  We got on very well in my memory.  When we went out it was to plays or films or gigs – The Specials, Talking Heads, Nina Simone, Al Green, Todd Rundgren, Roxy Music.   King Sunny Ade (see My Pop Life #115).  Then one night Mumtaz took me to a Pakistani gig.

I cannot remember where she got the tickets, but there we were in the front row of the balcony inside Shoreditch Town Hall, before it was a hipster neighbourhood.  It was the top of Brick Lane, essentially.  The audience was almost entirely filled with sub-continentals, ie Indians and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, perhaps some Sri Lankans.  One or two white faces including mine.  At risk of repeating myself, it was around this point that “world music” had started to leak into the country, via WOMAD (see My Pop Life #67),Stern’s Music Store in Whitfield St (see My Pop Life #38), the John Peel Show, and word of mouth.  But this gig felt very much like an underground show, not one which the cognoscenti were attending. Unlike King Sunny Ade earlier that year, which despite being full of Nigerians, also had it’s complement of musical tourists.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would have been 35 years old at this point, almost ten years older than me.  A mountain of a man, with a beatific child-like face, he sat cross-legged on the carpeted stage and made himself comfortable, to huge applause from the audience.  The tension and apprehension was palpable.  Alongside him, a harmonium player.  Also a tabla player, perhaps another drummer.   I can’t be sure if there was a swarmandel or a tamboura – (a stringed instrument, not a sitar), but behind the front four chaps were four more seated fellows who were essentially the vibes – singing and clapping.  I had very little idea of what to expect, but as Nusrat indicated that he was ready to start you could almost hear the intake of breath before the absolute silence in the hall.

The harmonium played a note or three.  Nusrat raised a hand, concentrated, a bead of sweat already trickling down his face.  The entire hall was focussed on this man, his hand expressing some inner spiritual moment.  Then he opened his mouth and sang.  Long tones, which were immediately picked up by the fellows behind him, harmonising, echoing.  A melody was picked out and repeated.  Now I wish I’d studied Urdu better, but these were Sufi religious songs, ghazals and bhajans and qawwalis praising the prophet Muhammed either literally or poetically.  But I had no idea they were so powerful, so beautiful, so technically incredible.

Qawwal & Party

As the beat started to throb and the hand claps set the rhythm, the mood became celebratory, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan started to lose himself in the music, started to float upon the bed of song that was being created around him, started to improvise.  Now the full glory of this man became apparent.  He sang slow, he sang fast, he chattered like a woodpecker, he made up impossible melodies as they occurred to him, he slowed down to careening hymn-like swells, all the while the band would follow his every note, with him all the way, supporting, lifting, praising, at one.  Quite sensational and unlike any concert I’d ever seen before.

The songs were over 20 minutes long and the audience were encouraged to clap along.  The atmosphere was quite mesmeric and spiritual, without being religious at all.  I could enjoy it in my own way as I’m sure devout muslims in the audience could as well.  It was quite simply one of the most astonishing things I’d ever witnessed.  Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan got hot and undid layers, got wet and dabbed away the sweat, got thirsty and drank water.  But I’d never heard anyone sing like that ever before.  It was like James Brown and Aretha Franklin combined with Al Green and Otis Redding.  Feverish, impassioned, live.  He was quite literally lost and found in the music.  His hand would trace the melody in the sky as he searched for new shapes to sing.  Now and again the familiar chorus line would swing back into view and everyone would clap along, then a new space would appear for Nusrat to improvise and extemporise into.  It was astounding.   We were witnessing one of the greats in his pomp.

By the end of the show we were drained and exhausted but moved beyond our wildest craziest dreams and the man next to me turned with a smile “Did you like it?”.  I was dazed and happy and said yes, I’d loved it.  “Better than your opera !” the man said, pretty sure of himself, not joking, full of fervour and pride in his own culture, proud to have it represented to his foreign neighbour.  He was right.

Mumtaz and I floated home.   We knew we’d been treated to a rare soul.

The following year the LP Allah Hoo was released in the UK, then Qawwal & Party Volume One.   I’ve bought a fair bit of his stuff over the years, but he’s made over 160 LPs on Oriental Star Agencies recordings alone (based in Birmingham UK), and I don’t have many of those to be honest.   I have about 60 songs I guess and I can play Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan all day long and not get tired of it.  It is made as spiritual music and perhaps that is the effect it has on me.  It lifts me certainly.

This song : Sanson Ki Mala Pe, is an old bhajan from the early 14th century originally sung in praise of Hindu god Lord Krishna.   It was first sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in 1979 as a Sufi praise song and was hugely popular.  The title and repeated phrase translates as

On the garland of my breaths I have bejewelled my beloved’s name

but other translations use the phrase rosary of breath.  The thing about Urdu, and Arabic, is that they are written in Arabic script, from right to left.  When you write it out in English, there are always these discrepancies in the spelling of words like Mala – Maala etc.  Not a good example – Mala = found and Maala = beads (the necklace or rosary).  Anyway (!) Urdu is an extremely poetic language and resists easy translation of the more beautiful poems and ghazals.  But I’ve never needed to know what Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is singing to be honest.  The music sends me, as my Mum used to say.   And I feel extremely lucky and honoured to have witnessed one of the greatest singers of my lifetime performing live on stage, not once but twice.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died in August 1997 of kidney and liver failure.   He was 49 years old.

the short version : an excerpt –

the full genius 25 minute experience :

My Pop Life #115 : Ma Jaiye Oni – King Sunny Ade

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Ma J’aiye Oni   –   King Sunny Ade

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The winter of 1982-3.  Finsbury Park.  Top floor attic room, living with Mumtaz.  I think I must have got myself an agent by now – David Preston.  More about him later.  He came to see me in A Clockwork Orange on the King’s Road, the John Godber adaptation.  More about that later too.  My memory is dim of these events and their surrounding characters, much much more so than other people I talk to.  Some people can pin point what things people were wearing on certain days.  WOW.   I mean, my memory is seriously hardly there to be honest.  So why would I embark on a marathon blog attempting to chart my life through music if I can’t remember two thirds of it ?  Well partly to get those bits that I do remember down on virtual paper before they too disappear and become smokey robinson’s barley water, wisps of smudge on a page that once held such vivid clarity.  I live in the moment mainly so it isn’t a vast un-ending tragedy, but it can be a handicap.  My friends can nudge me into memories, and when I really concentrate for a length of time… the mists seem to part and there, just out of reach, an arm breaches the waterline, and in its clenched fist a sword, and then I know that I’m actually making it all up.   But I’m not dear reader, I’m not.  All these Pop Lives happened.

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Anyway the attic room in Finsbury Park.  It was around this point that World Music started to leak into the country, via WOMAD (see My Pop Life #67), Stern’s Music Store in Whitfield St (see My Pop Life #38), the John Peel Show, and word of mouth.  I’m not sure where the term “World Music” came from but certainly on June 21 1982 France held a Fête de la Musique for the first time, at the behest of Culture Minister Jack Lang, and have held it ever since.  Many other countries have joined in – the day is devoted to playing music in the streets – from Russia to the US to Brazil to Italy, but it seems that the United Kingdom has deigned not to join in for reasons I can only speculate over.  In any event, African music started being played now and again on the John Peel show and in late 1981 the compilation of West african music Sound d’Afrique was released by Island Records with groups such as Etoile De Dakar containing the future superstar of world music Youssou N’Dour.  1982 brought a second volume which I bought, and then King Sunny Ade came to my attention via his LP Juju Music.

Featured imageIt was splashed all over the NME front page and could hardly be missed.  On the Mango label, produced by Frenchman Martin Meissonnier and very definitely aimed at the western market,  (at me!) it’s a brilliant record, a showstopper, showcasing Ade’s trademark Nigerian juju rhythms with a slight electro tinge.  His best songs, usually 20 minutes long in their Nigerian context, are here shortened and sweetened, but not too much.  The key component is the talking drum, held under the arm and squeezed, you can change the note of the drumbeat.  So-called because they have been used as communication tools in West Africa for forever.  As a musical instrument they are thrilling.  I have one !  The other unexpected element is the beautifully evocative slide guitar.  The production is immaculate and the whole package was a winner.  I’ve chosen a beautiful song Ma Jaiye Oni to represent his juju beat.

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King Sunny Ade and His African Beats played a gig at the Lyceum Ballroom on the Strand in January 1983.  I went along with Mumtaz.  I can’t remember who supported him, if anyone, but this was an astounding gig.  Full of Nigerians as well as curious music fans it was an unmitigated triumph.  A huge line-up onstage of drummers, guitarists and singers, pure joy emanating from the performers.  They played for a long time.  One West-African tradition that I was unaware of will forever stay with me from this show.  Ade would be playing a guitar solo in the middle of a song – the crowd would be dancing and encouraging him, a definite energy going back and forth between band and crowd – then a man dressed in robes, or a suit maybe would walk up to the front and in an uber-ostentatious way pull out a roll of £20 or £50 notes and place them one at a time on King Sunny Ade’s body as he was playing, sticking them to his sweating forehead or his arms.  I was waiting for security to get involved, but this was a ritual with no danger – money is going forward.  I have seen it many times since at African gigs but that was the eye-opener.   I know plenty of British and American musicians who wish it was a tradition in the “West” too.  Oh well.

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It was a window onto another world for me, so much more than sitting down and getting stoned and listening to the record – great thought that is – this was an immersion into the music that went far beyond the comfy chair.  I was hooked on African music thanks to King Sunny Ade and have been ever since. I then bought his earlier LP Check-‘E’ (see pic above) and the follow-up Synchro System which was a huge hit too.  He is still going strong playing his music around the world and I commend him to thee.

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Here is some tremendous footage from Japan in 1984 – this is exactly the show we saw at the Lyceum.  Subtle, powerful, mesmerising, infectious, delicious.

Here is the original LP track:

but the shorter song from JUJU MUSIC is not on youtube sadly.  You may have to buy it !

My Pop Life #65 : Wake Up Alone – Amy Winehouse

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Wake Up Alone   –   Amy Winehouse

He’s fierce in my dreams, seizing my guts
He floods me with dread
Soaked in soul
He swims in my eyes by the bed
Pour myself over him
Moon spilling in
And I wake up alone

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This is an incredible song from a deeply talented songwriter and singer who sadly left us at way too young an age.   She has many imitators, but none who can match her artistry.   I was working on a film called Tower Block on the day she died – 23rd July 2011 – with an accomplished gang which included Russell Tovey, Jack O’Connell, Julie Graham, Nabil Elouahabi, Kano, Montserrat Lombard, Jill Baker and Sheridan Smith.  Towards the end of the shoot I was suddenly aware that Sheridan was in floods of tears so I went over and asked her what was wrong.  “Amy” she said, “she’s gone“.  It was a terrible moment, and without further explanation I knew that she was dead.  Sheridan was one of her friends.  What an utter and tragic waste, that we all saw enacted in front of our eyes.

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In 1984 I did a play at the Tricycle Theatre in north London called Return To The Forbidden Planet.  I played the saxophone.  The MD was Hereward Kaye.

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In 2012 I was playing saxophone in The Amy Winehouse Experience at a music festival, with Hereward Kaye’s sons Joe and Rory Kaye, and my wife’s childhood friend Pippa.   Wait.  I’ll explain.

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Rewind to north west London and two young girls : one with St Lucian parents, one jewish, doing dance routines for their own imaginary TV show.  My wife Jenny was the black girl, her best friend was Philippa Randall.  They danced together, sang into hairbrushes, choreographed steps and roped in siblings to ‘assist’.   As the years went by they stayed in touch, Jenny became an actor, Pippa a nail technician.  When Jenny got married, all of Pippa’s family came, when Pippa got married to Tony, Jenny and I went.   When Jenny and Pippy’s Nanny Flo died, we all went to the funeral.   Then Philippa’s wonderful parents Roy and Robbie decided to move to Spain for their retirement.  Pippa and her Prince-lookalike husband Tony joined them.  We missed Pippa when she was in Spain but she seemed to like it there and flourished.  Her marriage wasn’t working though, despite two beautiful girls Tia Bliss and Lucy Bear.   After the inevitable split with Tony, Phillippa came back to the UK with her parents and 2 girls and her new man Joe Kaye, whom she’d met in southern Spain, and whose own parents were also very special, Hereward and Pat.   Yes, the same Hereward who’d been my musical director at the Trike.   The extended family moved back from the Costa Brava to Linfield, (just outside Haywards Heath a few miles north of Brighton) and Herry & Pat opened a Rock School nearby with Joe, who is  a very good guitarist and musician in his own right.

Now : Philippa just happens to be a spitting image of Amy Winehouse, a terrific singer, and being a North London jewess I guess all the pieces were in place.  The whole family had come to see The Brighton Beach Boys one night playing our big concert – Sgt Pepper v Pet Sounds and absolutely loved it.  Herry’s other son Rory is also a guitarist and now has his own band playing rock.  Joe and Philippa asked me to step in on sax for some gigs.  I was a huge fan of Amy, so I agreed.

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Then I had to learn the songs!  I had both LPs, “Frank” was a breath of fresh air in 2003 with it’s jazzy vibe, but certainly didn’t prepare us for Back To Black in 2006 which is quite simply a modern masterpiece.  Produced by Mark Ronson, with the analogue old-school New York soul band The Dap-Kings providing almost all the session musicians, as well as being her touring band in 2006, it was a perfect confluence of elements.  Every track is special.  And having had to learn them all for the horn parts, I can tell you that they have very unusual and intriguing chord sequences.  Take “Wake Up Alone” which is the best song on the album for me :

verse :       A     A    G#    G#    C#m   C#m    C     C

Emaj7   Emaj7    C#m   C#m   C    C    F#m   F  

bridge :         Dsus4      D     G     E7b9   x3

chorus :          C     Bm    E7b9

See what I mean ?   I’m joking – that’s for the musos reading.    But take my word for it – that’s a wonderful series of chords.  The lyrics are even better…

…That silent sense of content that everyone gets

Just disappears as soon as the sun sets…

It is a song of deep longing, unfulfilled.  Plenty of water references – he swims in my eyes by the bed is an incredible line,  Pour myself over him….  This is soul music,  as good as it gets.   I never did see Amy live, and I wish I had.   I know many who saw the slurring, shaky performances of those last few years.  Terribly terribly sad.  I prefer to remember her with the swaggering yet vulnerable poise of that incredible show from 2006 in Ireland, at the St James’ Church in Dingle on Dec 3rd, or the Shepherd’s Bush concert from the same year.   But I got great pleasure in playing her songs with a lovely tight band based around my friends, old and new and my wife’s  friend Pippa, giving her own trembling chutzpah and antsy tottering to the Winehouse legend, tattoos carefully drawn on, beehive in place, that dark trembling voice just about intact.

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A remarkable circle of life – Herry and I had played Good Vibrations on stage every night at the Tricycle, the show there, written by Bob Carlton, being a rock’n’roll musical of the sci-fi film Forbidden Planet, which itself is a re-imaging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.   The notable thing about the Tricycle’s production of this show, (which originated at Bubble Theatre and went on to grace the West End), was that it introduced the novel idea of having black actors in the cast – the inhabitants of the magical island – this being part of the theatre’s brief, and their local audience.   Ram John Holder played Prospero, and found me a place to live since I was once again homeless as that show ended its run.  In a further spiral to this circle, my wife Jenny was schooled at the Tricycle Youth Theatre during the 80s, and is now on the Board of that great venue.   Jenny has also performed Amy – at a special celebration fundraiser for Nicholas Kent, who was artistic director of the Tricycle for many years – singing Love Is A Losing Game with Graham Kearns accompanying.  I’d love to have seen that, but I saw Jenny rehearsing it many times !

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 I only played a handful of gigs with the Amy Winehouse Experience, but it was worth it for the opportunity to get inside these tremendous songs.    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, in various incarnations – Amy Winehouse.

track 8 from Back To Black :

incredible live performance at Shepherd’s Bush :

The Amy Winehouse Experience live, 2012 :

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Amy-Winehouse-Experience/390986427614883

My Pop Life #42 : African Children (live) – Aswad

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African Children (live)   –   Aswad

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Finsbury Park in 1983 was a crossroads of the world.   I started taking photographs of the shops on Blackstock Road with some kind of exhibition in mind.   Turkish, Bengali, Nigerian, Indian, Moroccan, Jamaican, Polish, Italian, Pakistani, Greek, Portugese, Ghanaian, and on.   You know when you’re young and you think everything you do is important.   I loved living there.   The park was a stone’s throw away with it’s gentle hill and giant trees.  You could buy weed in the Finsbury Park Tavern in times of need from the Jamaicans.

Featured imageEvery now and again you could hear a muffled roar of delight from Highbury as Arsenal scored.   Not that often obviously.   I was with Mumtaz in the attic flat, corner of Somerfield Road.  Laurie Jones was downstairs, communist, comrade, veteran of the Cable St riots against Moseley’s blackshirts and maker of his own wine.  I’ll talk about Laurie later.   Also for later :  the premiere and run of Steven Berkoff’s “West” at the Donmar Warehouse in May of that year.   My first fully professional, fully paid proper acting job.  We ran there for five months.   And, yet again for later – my beloved Brighton & Hove Albion’s cup run in 1983 took us to a semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury.   Down the road.  1983 was clearly a blessing all round.

    I’m playing in a local band called Arc Connexxion, whose afro-beat/soul grooves were the brainchild of genial Nigerian Londoner George (Adebayo ? I can’t remember his surname :-()   I’m in the horn section with three others, and we play some of George’s songs like “Agar Grove” (a street in Camden) and also some covers.  I’m still playing the same silver saxophone I bought in Lewes in 1972.  We think we sound a bit like Fela.  I don’t suppose we do,  we don’t get many gigs, but they are joyful affairs.  Then one day George comes into rehearsal beaming.  We’re playing Notting Hill Carnival !  General joy all round – this is frankly the top gig you could possibly get as an unknown unsigned no records band and we get seriously into rehearsal.

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Rumours start to spread nearer the time that Aswad are playing Carnival too.  This band were all over my 20s.   They are a London reggae band formed in the mid-seventies by a group of 2nd-generation West Indian musicians from Holland Park school, near Ladbroke Grove.   They were the sound of West London while I lived there, along with The Clash.   When I started studying law at the London School of Economics in 1976, Aswad played in The Ents Room in Freshers Week.   They were probably the first reggae band I saw live.  I was hooked, and they were amazing.  In those days Brinsley Forde was singing lead and Drummie Zeb Gaye was on the kit.  They played LSE at least twice more while I was there, and I bought all their records from then on – 1st LP Aswad 1976, 2nd LP Hulet 1978, then the mighty mighty 12 inch single Warrior Charge which really didn’t leave my turntable for months, especially the dubplate on side B “Dub Charge“.   What was even more exciting than listening to the track was watching them play it live – and they could.  I lost count of how many times I’ve seen them.   And of course they were Burning Spear’s backing band at the Rainbow in 1977 (see My Pop Life #10).  The next two albums A New Chapter and A New Chapter Of Dub really put them on the map musically, their strong melodies and song structures giving their reggae roots a real pop twist – although the dub elements left all that in their wake.

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 Not Satisfied, released in 1982 is a landmark reggae album.   I used the title track in my first play as a writer “Sanctuary” for Joint Stock when I wanted the busker character Raz in the underground to sing something – but that was years later in 1987.  But here we were in 1983 Carnival and Aswad are now a 3-piece – the classic line-up with Tony ‘Gad’ Robinson on bass with Drummie and Brinsley.  We couldn’t drive anywhere near the stage, so had to unload gear miles away.  At least we were sharing the drum kit?  I had to carry my sax around, so we decided to hang around Meanwhile Gardens, Westbourne Park end of the Carnival since that was our stage there and we were going to play on it.   Just by the canal.  We would be last up.

Featured imageCarnival was amazing that year.  Who knows why ?  I’m sure it’s always amazing, but it seemed happy, packed, and the weather was perfect.  Everyone was against Thatcher.  Food was fantastic.  And then In the afternoon at about 2pm Aswad took the stage and played one of the most beautiful powerful and righteous sets of reggae and dub that I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.  When I say they could play Warrior Charge/Dub Charge live – they could, they did.  The horn section was sweet and tight, and they would go into a breakdown with Drummie staggering the beats and echoing the horn stabs to create the dub effect.  Brilliant.

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 They played Not Satisfied, African Children and Roots Rocking.   We got on eventually just as the stage was closing and got to play two songs – all that rehearsal !! – one of which was Dancing In The Street by Martha and the Vandellas.  We smashed it, and plenty people danced as the sun set.  Happy memories.

Some months later Aswad released a live LP called Live & Direct.  It was that set.   It opens with the words of Brinsley Forde “We are Live and Direct.  You know what Live and Direct mean?  It mean Live an Direct !”  Stunning.