My Pop Life #175 : One Better Day – Madness

One Better Day   –   Madness

Further down, a photo booth, a million plastic bags
And an old woman filling out a million baggage tags
But when she gets thrown out, three bags at a time
She spies the old chap in the road to share her bags with
She has bags of time
Surrounded by his past, on a short white line
He sits while cars pass either side, takes his time
Trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear him say
Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes

Was there ever a more disappointing year for pop music than 1984?  Looking back at the album releases and the top singles I am staggered by the unifying theme – great artists releasing substandard material, and very few inspirational youngsters filling the huge gap. Exception and the big album of the year was Purple Rain by Prince, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood dominated the UK radio and singles charts but I bought very little current music in 1984.  I was filling gaps, discovering genres, crate-digging, conducting archeological excavations and sometimes realising that people I’d scorned as a teenager were actually pretty good.  The albums I did buy from 1984, in 1984 :

Goodbye Cruel World  –  Elvis Costello & The Attractions

The Pearl  –  Harold Budd & Brian Eno

Mister Heartbreak  –  Laurie Anderson

Diamond Life  –  Sade

Best of ‘The Poet’ Trilogy  –  Bobby Womack

Keep Moving  –  Madness

Not as many as usual.  Later I would buy Prince, The Bangles, Luther Vandross, Dr John, Franco & TPOK Jazz, Van Dyke Parks, Gilberto Gil, The Judds, Prefab Sprout, Youssou N’Dour, The Style Council, Steve Reich, Run DMC and Pat Metheny, but even with those additions I think you can see how thin on the ground 1984 was musically.  Springsteen made Born In The USA the title track of which became a republican anthem (he didn’t sing it live this year 2016).  Perhaps the date was casting shade.  1984.  Throughout my life we’d all lived under the spectre of George Orwell‘s chilling and prescient novel.   That collection of numbers, that date had loomed like the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey – the other magical sentient date..in The Future.  It always presaged doom, totalitarianism, a jackboot stamping on a human face into infinity.  Now we were here and…well, life went on, like it does.  Like it did in 2001.  And like it will next year.

The big singles were Relax, Two Tribes, The Power Of Love, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, the others were What’s Love Got To Do With It, I Feel For You, Ghostbusters, Any Love, It’s A Miracle, Careless Whisper, Smalltown Boy, Solid, Like A Virgin, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Hello, Take A Look At Me Now, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Do They Know It’s Christmas.

I liked very little of it.  Disappointing : Bowie with Blue Jean, Stevie Wonder (sigh), Elvis Costello’s worst LP to date, ditto McCartney, ditto Paul Weller.

And then Haircut 100 split up. ( Joke. )

And then Jerry Dammers and Special AKA released Free Nelson Mandela. (Not Joke)

Flying the flag for musical growth, and one step beyond their previous work The Rise and Fall (1982) was the Madness LP Keep Moving, in particular the song One Better Day, which haunts me even now and can move me to tears.  I’d loved the band since their first single The Prince,  multi-cultural British ska birthed in Camden Town via Jamaica. In those early days their skinhead fans and their whiteness made me feel a little uncomfortable at some of the gigs, although the majority of fans were not skins.  Then, aware of this stain on their pop life, the Madness videos started to include black people and the band rose above it all – for example Embarrassment is about a girl who’s going to have a baby with her black boyfriend.  The other groups who’d come up on the ska-revival Two-Tone wave The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter were all multi-racial anyway, but by 1984 they’d all split up.  Madness were on Stiff Records and this was their last LP with the maverick punk label.  It was their finest record to date – I’d bought them all, and they’d just got better and better.  So had The Undertones, but they’d stopped, so had The Jam and they’d split, so had Elvis Costello and he’d gone a bit over-produced, his songs weren’t to his impossibly high standard.   I’d also bought the collected videos of Madness which we watched endlessly, because they were so full of joy and nuttiness. I’m not sure there are a better collection of videos in pop history.  They made me want to be in the band.  Playing the saxophone.  Doing slightly robotic dancing.  Having a laugh with a gang.  

I’ve always wanted to be in a gang, but never really surrendered to it.  I don’t surrender very easily.  I’ve been in some gangs, but always felt like an outsider in there.  Either a council-estate kid in a middle class environment as a teenager, or an educated kid in a working-class environment.  Or an actor in a football team.  Or an actor in a band.  Or just a weirdo who doesn’t fit in enough.  Must be a choice.  I resist surrender.  Because I do not seek oblivion I will never be an alcoholic or a junkie.  I’m scared of oblivion, of disappearing.  Most of the music I like is controlled.  It’s not messy, it’s not people losing control.  It’s beautiful, melodic, harmonic, sweet.  But I wanted to be in Madness so much.  They influenced the band I was in, Birds Of Tin, but not enough. See My Pop Life #149.

Mike Barson was the musical genius on the piano, but his influence infused every musician, from bass player Mark Bedford (who later guested on Robert Wyatt’s cover of Costello’s Shipbuilding) to gimmick side monkey Chas Smash who went from rude boy dancer to trumpet player, from Chris Foreman on guitar and songwriting to Lee Thompson on saxophone (who I wished I was), from Woody on the kit to Suggs on the lead vocals.  They were tight, musical, lyrically interesting and wonderfully arranged pop songs,  vignettes of British life from Baggy Trousers to Embarrassment, My Girl to House Of Fun. They were probably my favourite band in the early 80s – them and Costello and Talking Heads.

Sloane Square, Chelsea

But if 1984 was a meagre year musically for me,  theatrically it was promising.   Armed with a law degree 😉 – I’d been to Edinburgh three times, got my Equity Card,  played the Donmar in Steven Berkoff’s WEST.    Then in early 84 I’d worked at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs with Danny Boyle (directing an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown).   It was an extraordinary piece of work which ran for all of two and half weeks as I recall.  Worthy of a post of its own.   Then in the late summer the 3rd director in the building a brilliant young Simon Curtis invited me to be part of his first production which was to be a play for Joint Stock Theatre Company called Deadlines.  I was thrilled, and it turned out to be one of my most satisfying and rewarding theatrical adventures.  Simon was extremely encouraging, open, intelligent and funny.  I ended up playing six parts and getting a new agent out of it : Michael Foster.   Also cast : Kathryn Pogson, Paul Jesson, Shirin Taylor, Tricia Kelly, Paul Mooney.   Writer :  Stephen Wakelam.  Play : unwritten.

A young Simon Curtis in 1985, one year after Deadlines

Joint Stock was a unique theatre company.  Formed by Max Stafford-Clark and others in the early 1970s, it had become a collective in 1974 while they produced David Hare’s play about China ‘Fanshen’, co-directed by Max and Bill Gaskell.  This meant that every member who had ever worked for the company could attend company meetings and AGMs and vote.  In practice people deferred to Max and Caryl Churchill, both of whom were enthusiastic enough to actually attend meetings.  There was an administrator, but no Artistic Director – each big decision eg – what play shall we do next ? directed by who ? written by who ? was decided on a collective vote.  Some were already plays, but more often the show would be devised by the company.

This is now a forgotten way of life.  All of those Arts Council-funded theatre companies have gone :  7:84, Shared Experience, Joint Stock, Paines Plough.  Slashed by Thatcher’s reduction of the State.  1984 was the year of the miner’s strike, Coal Not Dole stickers, and the rise of cardboard city in Waterloo as new regulations on signing on created a new wave of homelessness, particularly of those between 16 and 20.  Suddenly there were people sleeping in shop doorways in London on The Strand.  Then there was an IRA bomb at the Tory Party conference in Brighton at The Grand Hotel.

*

one of the greatest band shots of all time: the cover of ‘7’ the 3rd Madness LP

Keep Moving was Mike Barson’s last album with Madness, and he left the band once they recorded a couple of videos – Michael Caine and One Better Day, which was their last for Stiff Records, and funded by the band themselves including Barson, seen playing the vibraphone, who flew in from Amsterdam for the shoot.

Arlington house, address: no fixed abode
An old man in a three-piece suit sits in the road
He stares across the water, he sees right through the lock
But on and up like outstretched hands
His mumbled words, his fumbled words, mock

Arlington House is behind Camden High Street.  It housed – and still houses among it’s more commercial premises – homeless men, and has since 1905.  It was the last of the Victorian workhouses, built by politician and philanthropist Lord Rowton in the 1890s to house London’s working poor.

Camden Lock

I used to shop for music shoes and clothes in Camden Town, whether in Dingwalls (‘The Lock’ in the lyrics) or the Record and Tape Exchange on the High St, or one of the many independent stores in that square mile of post-punk grubbiness.  Over the years I’ve been to many gigs in Camden Palace (Culture Club), The Electric Ballroom (The Vibrators) or Dingwalls (X-Ray Spex).  The Dublin Castle.   More recently at the re-opened Roundhouse or the Jazz Cafe.

When I started acting in Moving Parts Theatre Company in 1981 two of the company’s founders – Ruth MacKenzie and Rachel Feldberg – lived in Oval Road just behind Arlington House with the young director Roger Michell who would later go on to direct The Buddha Of Suburbia, Notting Hill and many other successful films.  I would see him years and years later at Michael Foster’s 50th birthday party and he hailed me “Haven’t you done well !”  I looked behind me.  No, he meant me. I smiled.  “Me?  What about you !!” I realised that seen from the outside, my journey looks good and fine, but what about the invisible thrashing through the undergrowth with a blunt machete to reach a small ledge of safety that no one ever sees ?  Eh ?!?  WHAT ABOUT THAT?

Gentrified many times Camden still retains its scruffy down-at-heel ambience, partly due to scruffy down-at-heel junkies, and partly due to people who want to look scruffy and down-at-heel.  But there have always been homeless people there – see Waterloo, see Soho, see Bayswater. And having been homeless myself for a period of time as a teenager (see My Pop Life #84 All Along The Watchtower) I always felt moved by this song, describing a couple walking the streets of NW1.  Street people.  Nowhere to store their stuff, carrying it all around.  Nowhere to wash apart from the hostel, who close their doors at 8am.  I would be interviewing some of these people for my first play Sanctuary in 2 years’ time, using The Joint Stock Method.  And later, some of them would be invited to The Drill Hall to see the play.

The woman in the video is Betty Bright – Sugg’s wife.  Graham McPherson – Suggs – who wrote the song with Mark ‘Bedders’ Bedford – looks impossibly young in the video, but wears the kind of clothes that I used to try and find, and still do to be fair.  Checks.  Tartans. Doc Martens.  There’s a DM shop on Kentish Town Road next to Camden tube which makes an appearance in The Sun & The Rain video.  I had a pair of red patent leather DMs.  In fact I still have them.  I owe some of my so-called style to Madness Suggs chic, (some to Bryan Ferry chic, some to rock’n’roll and some to Laurel & Hardy).

The chorus is unbearably sweet, given the subject :

She’s trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear her say

‘Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes
The feeling of arriving when you’ve nothing left to lose…’

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 #90 : Didi – Khaled

Featured image

Didi   –   Khaled
…la zhar la memoon la aargoob zine

didi, didi, didi, didi, zin di wah….

I’m just fated to have bad luck,

take, take, take, take this beautiful girl away…

This song is such a dear favourite of the amazing woman that I married, as were the last two songs I posted (Silencio in My Pop Life #88 and Some Folks Lives Roll Easy in My Pop Life #89) that I am seriously considering calling this section My Pop Wife.   It’s dance music for the world, and was a huge hit across the Mediterranean and far beyond in 1992, the year of our marriage, and the ripple carried through to 1993, getting as far as India.  Didi was used in a Bollywood film, and performed by Khaled at the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony.  It is his best-known song and I have proof of its dance-floor credentials from personal experience.

Featured image

I first came across Cheb Khaled (as he was known in 1984) when I bought his LP Hada Raykoum – it was raw and thrilling, the sound of raï music from Algeria.  At that time I was living in Finsbury Park with my muslim Pakistani girlfriend Mumtaz.  We went to see Khaled at the Royal Festival Hall where he had the whole venue up and out of their seats – he and his band were electrifying.  Khaled was born in Oran in 1960 and became well-known as a teenager through his cassette tapes.  He is an amazing singer.  Raï music was frowned upon for many years in Algeria, being considered a bastardization of traditional islamic music.

Featured image

Cheikha Remitti (3rd left)

Raï started out as a cross between Sephardic Jewish, Spanish, French and Arabic music in Oran, a vulgar street music which rejected conservative islamic values and definitions of what could and couldn’t be heard.  The first and still most influential star of the genre was the legendary Cheikha Remitti who popularised the bawdy and earthy songs which had previously only been heard behind closed doors at weddings and other events.  The association of ‘fallen women’ with the music kept raï music unrespectable, and she was banned from TV and radio by the first independent Government of Algeria in 1962 (because she’d sung in French-controlled areas during the revolution), and yet the working-class poor adored her and Khaled no doubt would have heard her as he grew up.

Featured image

She died, still performing and recording at the age of 83, in 2006.

Pop raï was born in the 1960s when music and instruments from other cultures, (including Jamaica) started being adopted, and the moniker Cheb (chief) was used for the popular performers to distinguish them from the previous generation.  Cheb Mami for example also had a huge following in France among the Algerian diaspora.  Cheb Khaled though rose head and shoulders above the pack, and when World Music was promoted in the UK by the likes of Earthworks and Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD in the early 1980s, raï was among the new styles and sounds that we hungrily consumed.

Featured image

Hada Raykoum was my first raï purchase in 1984, a stunning slice of Maghreb soul with accordion and drums of various kinds (I don’t know what they are called I’m afraid, please feel free to add details below!) providing the backing for Cheb Khaled’s aching emotional voice.  He would drop the prefix “Cheb” later and by 1992 when his breakthrough LP “Khaled” was released, (produced by Don Was), he was called simply “Khaled”.   The new sound had bass guitar and synthesisers, but still retained the Algerian raï flavour.  It was a massive crossover hit.

Featured image

*

In 2001 the film I’d written “New Year’s Day” – the most scarring experience of my professional life (see My Pop Life #75) – had its UK Premiere in Brighton, my home town.   It was probably November.  In the Marina cinema.   Although I haven’t told you, dear reader, about exactly why it was the most scarring experience of my professional life, for now all you need to know is that Jenny and I nearly got divorced during the making of the film.   We both fell out badly, and finally, with the director of the film, (why should I name him?) who nevertheless turned up all smiles to the Premiere.    Before we went in the local paper was taking pictures of the famous people (jeez) who’d swung by : Richard E. Grant and Kevin Rowland, Mark Williams and maybe me.   Then I saw Bobby Zamora at the sweets counter and went a little mental.   “Bobby” I said, “Hi !” ( I should add that we knew each other a bit thanks to the small world of Brighton and Hove Albion – the football team I supported and which he played for in 2001.  Played for?  He was our star centre-forward ! )   I burbled at him unnecessarily about my premiere, and he smiled and offered congratulations.  “Why don’t you come in and see the film?”  I asked like a burbling twerp.  “No thanks” he said.  “I’m going to see blahblahblah”.  My crest probably fell, but not for long.   Oh well.   Back in Screen 1, the premiere was chock full of friends old and new, including people who were, in disguise, portrayed in the film.   I made a little speech which was emotional (the film is very much a testimony of sorts) and thanked Danny Perkins and Will Clarke from Optimum who were distributing the movie, and then we watched it.   It was good.   Mainly.   Afterwards we crammed into taxis and perhaps a double decker bus which took us down to the PARTY which was in the Zap Club.  As it was still called in those days.

Featured image

And we had already decided who was DJ-ing, and prime position was taken by my pop wife, Jenny Jules.  And yes it was November because not two months earlier the Twin Towers had been destroyed in New York by two piloted planes (apparently), not to mention the Pentagon, and we all knew the world would change forever and yes – the anti-islamic feeling which we all take for granted now in 2015 was just starting to surface.  We knew it would.  And Jenny played this song Didi by Khaled at the height of the party.  And we danced to those muslim rhythms and those arabic words.  And shortly afterwards, one of our friends Naima, a Moroccan lady with two beautiful daughters and an English husband Steve who had converted to Islam to marry her, went up to Jenny and hugged her tight.  “Thank you for playing that” she said, “you don’t know what the last two months have been like”.

My Pop Life #60 : Theme From “Shaft” – Isaac Hayes

Featured image

Theme From ‘Shaft’   –   Isaac Hayes

“…who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks ?  Shaft !  Damn right

Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?  Shaft !  Can you dig it?

Who’s the cat that walk about when there’s danger all about ?  Shaft !  Right on…”

Featured image

I first met Paulette Randall in the spring of 1984, at some rehearsal rooms in north London – I think – where she was Assistant Director to Danny Boyle, directing a play by Alan Brown for the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court called PANIC!    The first read-through took us around five hours, and it had been even longer than that.  The rehearsal period was short, and concentrated on making the play shorter.  The play was mental.  There were scenes between pets that spoke (they had mini-speakers inside them).  David Fielder played Pan, with hairy legs and a giant cock and balls, and he was castrated on Polaroid halfway through the second half.  The set was a house on a clifftop about to fall into the sea.  the family were from all over Britain – Dad was Welsh (Alan David), Mum was Geordie (Val McClane), oldest son was scouse (Ken Sharrock RIP), his wife was home counties (Marion Bailey), second son was cockney (me) and daughter was west country (Harriet Bagnall).   I believe we ate the brains of the indian newsagent for dinner, listened to Parsifal and Beethoven and waited for the apocalypse.   Danny marshalled all of this joy with charm and humour assisted by Paulette.  I liked Paulette very much and we started to hang out together.   I met her sister Beverley shortly afterwards, perhaps once the play had opened in a wine bar on Sloane Square.   Little did I know at the time that I had entered a very special world.

Featured image

Beverley and Paulette were brought up in Brixton and Clapham by their Jamaican parents during the 60s/70s.  They were the first black people I’d actually made friends with.  Or who had made friends with me.  I’d studied with, worked with, but never really hung out.   At some point that summer of 84, waiting for the apocalypse, I ended up on Clapham Common near to where P lived, and still does, on William Bonney Estate.  She introduced me to her friend David Lawrence, a postman with an absurd streak and a wry sense of humour.  I can’t remember what we were drinking but it could have been a bottle of whisky.  We sat on a bench in the wee small hours laughing.  Laughing hard.  I remember little about what made us laugh so much.    In fact was Beverley there too ?  I wonder – she worked at Coutts the bank at the time on the Strand.   Lost to drink now – except for two distinct moments.  At one point around 3am we stopped talking and just sang.  One of the highlights of the night was “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town” by Kenny Rogers, a performance that David can actually conjure up on command like a performing seal, and so, to be fair , can I.    This never fails to bring the house down when David does it, unless he does it twice…or three times…then he will be cussed.   Of course, we all knew all the words.  The other song was Shaft by Isaac Hayes, in particular the lines quoted above which I knew off by heart, and performed as if in an Isaac Hayes cover band..

“…they say this cat Shaft is a bad mother – ‘shut your mouth!’

but I’m talking ’bout Shaft  –  ‘then we can dig it’

He’s a complicated man, but no one understands him but his woman

John Shaft !”

… almost made Paulette wet herself.  I guess you had to be there.

Featured image

For many years we would gather at Paulette’s flat, usually on a Saturday night, call it Club 61 and drink and smoke until we fell over, playing loud music and shouting at each other.  A clan of regulars would congregate – and I’m cutting forward now to the 90s when I was with Jenny – including Eugene McCaffrey, Nicky, Randall cousins Janet & Donna, Pat, cousins Jackie & Debbie, Sharon Henry, Elaine McKenzie, Michael Whiting, cousin Atlee, many others, whoever Paulette was working with at the time, people would arrive at all hours, drink would be drunk, people would dance, Paulette would DJ, people would shout more.   It was funny.  It was great.  It was release.  It was family.  With the exception of Simon Korner, soul brother from school, Paulette has remained my best friend.   She would go on to direct Sanctuary, the play I wrote for Joint Stock, she would witness my wedding, I was one of the first people she called when Danny Boyle asked her to help him to direct the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games.   She and Beverley are chalk and cheese but inseparable and equal.  They were living together when we met, peas in a pod.  It’s a long story.  Theme From Shaft was one of our early bonding moments.  How powerful a song can be.

Featured image

Isaac Hayes joined Stax Records in 1963 as a session musician, started filling in for Booker T on keys when he was away at Indiana University and in1965 wrote Sam & Dave’s first hit : I Take What I Want with partner David Porter.  Porter/Hayes would write and produce a string of brilliant soul singles for Sam and Dave almost unmatched in the 1960s for the consistent level of genius.  His 1969 solo LP Hot Buttered Soul was Stax Records bestseller of that year, and was followed up by 2 more in the same vein before he was asked to write the music for Gordon Park’s black detective movie hero Shaft, played by actor Richard Roundtree in 1971.   The resulting single was a new level of symphonic soul which was very much of its time – the Temptations and Stylistics were on similar ground as was the whole Philadelphia Sound.  The wah-wah guitar shape is simply iconic, the piano dark and dramatic, the arrangement tight and superb, it changes shape adds instruments, textures before the break and those words “who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”  I mean, by then – 2.30 into the song (a record length intro) we actually want to know, this is the genius of the song.  Shaft !   It’s got a bit of Pearl and Dean, funked out of its tiny mind and forced to groove.  It’s a Theme, more than a song.  It’s a moment in musical culture.  It’s an extra-ordinary tune.

Bev and Miss P – I love you x

Theme From Shaft :

the actual film credits – slightly faster music and re-recorded, or mixed differently :

My Pop Life #50 : Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba) – Julia & Company

Featured image

Breakin’ Down  (Sugar Samba)   –   Julia & Company

…I’m telling you this, you can’t resist you gotta get up and dance, breakin’ it down…

It’s hard to remember just how dominant dance music was in 1984 – punk and new wave had been and gone, leaving Elvis Costello and Paul Weller to re-invent themselves with each LP (they both did dance LPs around this time) 2-tone had sealed the deal, and the disco underground of the 1970s was now mainstream chart music.  Bestriding the world like a colossus was Michael Jackson, who was burned filming a Pepsi Commercial in January just before the release of his ground-breaking and game-changing video film for Thriller, the final single from that record-breaking album.   Number one in Britain for weeks were Frankie Goes To Hollywood with “Relax“, a genuine british dance hit record which the BBC refused to play presumably because it references orgasm.   Their 2nd single Two Tribes would also reach number 1 in April.  In the previous year, when I’d been at the Donmar Warehouse for five months (!) in Steven Berkoff’s WEST, even David Bowie had gone disco with Nile Rogers and Let’s Dance.

Featured image

And this surge of popularity gave many smaller acts their chance in the spotlight: Sharon Redd, The Pointer Sisters, and Washington D.C. resident Julia Nixon who produced a stunning 45rpm 7-inch single called Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba) first on a local label District of Columbia then later on London Records – the one which I bought in a picture sleeve.  It is a major groove and will, under almost any conditions, make people dance…

  Featured image  Knowing nothing about this group until recently when I learned that Julia Nixon had replaced Jennifer Holiday in Dreamgirls on Broadway, and that after this cracking single in 1984 and the follow-up I’m So Happy, she finally released her first solo LP in 2007 some 23 years later.

Now, I’ve been an actor for some 33 years myself, and I consider myself lucky to have lived for the bulk of my working life doing what I am capable of, and what I enjoy.  To be precise : what I enjoy is the actual act of acting.  The business of show less so, because of revelations like this : a clearly great singer (listen to the song) with a hit single who has had to wait for over 30 years to get one miserable solo LP released.  She is clearly a better singer than the majority of chart acts, but pop music is merciless with talent, as is the TV and Film industry.  I’ve thought about this many times, why does person a) get work and person b) doesn’t ?

I’m not pretending to know the answers to this but certain things are clear.  Talent isn’t enough to succeed.  There are other elements at work :  luck, connections, and the greasing of the wheels.  Whether someone wants to have sex with you or not.  Whether they think that you’ll make them some money.   In the acting industry the disappointment of rejection becomes your regular companion;  if you took every defeat on the chin you’d never get up.  Some don’t.  In the music industry again the rejections may or may not fuel the fires of creativity, or someone younger and sexier might just jump into the gap.  Good actors often decide that the lack of control they feel doing screen work can only be balanced by regular stage work, where the actor is king.  Screen work generally is paid 10 times stage work.  Good musicians will often be happier with regular paid session work, playing on other people’s hit songs, or writing other people’s hit songs (secret corn!) than sitting at home trying to plot an assault on the charts under their own name.   And in both industries there are filters at work;  gatekeepers, paid to streamline the flow of artists into the hallowed name positions.

Julia Nixon has carried on acting and singing, and still earns her living from doing it.  She was recently nominated for a Helen Hayes Award in ‘Caroline, or Change’ in Washington D.C.

Featured image

I was at the beginning of my working life when I heard this song, which I still love today, if I ever DJ for a brief nostalgic hour at a party or some such this record is Always In The Box along with Kid Creole & The Coconuts and TLC.   I didn’t really have a plan in 1984, no strategy, no idea what I was doing frankly.   Following my nose.  No one ever sat me down and explained the industry to me.   People just don’t do that.   I wouldn’t have listened anyway.   Young people don’t listen – they surge, they feel, they deal with it.   The endless thought process dealing with “how it all works” is like trying to understand the dawn of time, or how dogs can smell cancer, or the endless mystery of why people are racist.   Why does the river flow into the sea?  Why is the sky blue ? (oxygen molecules)  Why can’t I bend my left leg in the same way as my right?  Does it matter?

We all get our moment in the sun.  This is a superb song.  Smooth, funky, sexy.  I give you the seven-inch :

London Records re-mixed the 12-inch version :

the original District Of Columbia 12-inch single :