My Pop Life #166 : Pacific 202 – 808 State

Pacific 202   –   808 State

The last few days of 1989 :  a Ford Granada with me driving, Jenny in the jump seat and my brother Paul and his boyfriend Colin in the back is driving the long endless East German autobahn towards West Berlin.  It’s cold outside and the road goes on forever.  We’ve been driving from England since morning.  For the last six months news reports coming out of the Eastern Bloc of change :  East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in particular seethe with popular unrest, and since November 17 the famous Wall dividing East and West Berlin has been tested and breached by demonstrators.  Refugees from East Germany have been granted asylum in Hungary.   Berlin is in flux.  Gorbachev is in power in the USSR talking about Perestroika (re-structuring : also the name of his book, which I read in 1989) and glasnost (open-ness), a new way forward, relaxing the tight rules on state power and movement of peoples and now in front of us, the Iron Curtain is creaking.


Mikhail Gorbachev stated in 1989 that German re-unification was a German matter

Historic times indeed.  Then on Christmas Day, hated dictator President Ceaușescu of Romania and his wife are executed by firing squad after a trial lasting one hour.  We decide to see in the new year in Berlin, in the centre of it all.  Armed with an address provided by Jonathan & Roberta, Paul and Colin’s friends from college, we finally arrive at around 10pm, climb the three flights of stairs to find a lovely two-room apartment, empty save for two Italians who had also been told that they could use the space for the New Year.  Mutual surprise all round, but these were pre-internet days.  The four English end up on two single mattresses in the main room.

Checkpoint Charlie : he didn’t crack a smile

The following morning we wake too late for hot water, our Italian friends having got to the bathroom first.  After breakfast Jenny and I drive through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin, receiving a small passport made of cardboard which is stamped, and we are told that we have to return before midnight.  East Berlin is eerie and strangely gentle.  At the first large square – almost deserted, very few shops open, there are rabbits hopping around.  We visit a large department store and buy AyeAye, a 1970s Donny Hathaway hat which we still have – a beautiful, madly out-of-date-in-a-good-way fashion piece, so out-of-date that it was back in fashion in the west.  We ate some unimpressive food in a quiet restaurant and made our way back to the western side.

 West Berlin was heaving with people, simply full up. Jenny and I had decided to get a hotel room, but there weren’t any.  She was something of a distraction for everyone, being black and sporting her eighteen-hole DMs.  That night, New Year’s Eve, we queued for an Italian restaurant (against my religion to Q for food : unless I’m in prison), only to be told it was a private party.  At another Italian the waiters took exception to Paul & Colin being gay, so Jenny gave them a piece of her mind and was escorted physically from the building.  We did finally eat somewhere, but seven million other people had had the same idea as us and West Berlin was rammed.  Still, if you can’t be original, join in, that’s my motto.  Sounds better in Latin.  si non potest esse prima iungas..  Imagine it on a little crest.  A badge.  Oh, never mind.

Approaching midnight and Paul and Col had gone clubbing somewhere, Jenny and I made our way to the Wall at Potsdammer Platz near Brandenburg Gate where crowds of revellers were partying on top of the Wall in full view of soldiers from both sides, dancing, smoking weed and chipping pieces of the Wall away with chisels and hammers.  An extraordinary atmosphere.  We stood in one of the holes in the Wall and could see No Man’s Land and the towers and barbed wire of the East.  I had a mini boombox and played a previously-recorded Martin Luther King “I Had A Dream” speech when a soldier told me to turn it off, despite clearly not speaking English and not understanding what it was.  I didn’t turn it off and there were too many people around to make a fuss.  In amidst the party atmosphere was a strange tension as many of the West Berliners felt decidedly ambiguous about everything opening up.  A kind of tense excitable hysteria, who are all these people?  The future was uncertain, and there were already some East Germans crossing the border, changing the nature of the enclave forever.

New Year’s Eve at The Wall 1989

We listened to cassettes on the drive over, handmade by each of us, or purchased at Our Price or Woolworths.  Certainly one of these was a best of 1989 compilation – and it was a great year for dance music in particular.

Hip hop had already come, seen and conquered.  Now we were into the Daisy Age thanks to De La Soul, while Heavy D & The Boyz had serenaded Jenny and I in D.C. with their own New Jack Swing thang  (see My Pop Life #33).  Janet Jackson was in the Rhythm Nation, Shabba Ranks was being Wicked Inna Bed, and in the summer I’d  choreographed a dance to Redhead Kingpin & The FBI‘s monster song Do The Right Thing (see My Pop Life #7) in a theatre workshop with a young David Walliams and 25 other teenagers for the National Youth Theatre.  Not to be confused with the Spike Lee film of the same name which had a terrific soundtrack featuring Public Enemy, Perri, Teddy Riley, Guy and Take 6.

The British had a great year – a new confidence in the air manifest by Soul II Soul and that Keep On Movin’ LP which dominated the summer.  Other acts which popped through were Rebel M.C. with Street Tuff, Neneh Cherry with Buffalo Stance and Stone Roses with Fool’s Gold.  But none caught my ear quite like this record.  Radio One played it every day – Gary Davies I think – until it was eventually released in November 1989 and became an immediate hit. An immediately intoxicating sound whether you had dropped ecstasy or not, we hadn’t heard much like it before on the radio.

I depended on Paul and Colin for bringing me club tunes since I didn’t really go clubbing.   I did go to legendary gay club Heaven with them a couple of times under the Charing Cross Arches but they were out listening to Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers, Phuture and the other stars of House Music regularly, and this year’s big song was French Kiss by Lil Louis.  Earlier in the year Paul had introduced me to seminal techno house track Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald, out of the Manchester underground, later a big hit, and this track Pacific by 808 State has his fingerprints all over it.

Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson, Martin Price – 808 State

808 State were formed in Manchester by Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald), Graham Massey and Martin Price in 1987 and named after Gerald’s Roland TR-808 drum machine.  Pacific aka Pacific State, Pacific 717 Pacific 202 etc etc was and remains a delicious electronic chilled dance tune featuring a wonky alto sax line and a collection of strange bird noises and it heralded Acid House and the Manchester rave scene, about which I know next to nothing.  My Manc friends Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill, Keith Davey and Josh Raikes all came of age through those Madchester years and I’ll leave it to them to explain it all to you (they all moved to Brighton though – make of that what you will…).   As for me, I never did like Happy Mondays, The Charlatans or Stone Roses THAT much and I certainly never bought the 2nd Summer Of Love designation, but I would never pour cold water over it either, I’m sure it was an intoxicatingly hypnotically fantastic and exciting time to be up in the north west of England.  Especially when Pacific State came out !   I bought the 12″ single on ZTT (Paul Morley, Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair’s label) which had Pacific 707 (the 7 inch version) and Pacific 212 and one other mix ?  There are about 20 versions out there.  The one below is Pacific 202.  I think.  It was released in America on TommyBoy Records in 1990.

We found a hotel and a bathroom on Jan 1st 1990 in West Berlin while Paul & Col made friends with their new Italian flatmates and stayed for three more weeks.  Jenny and I explored the groovy anarchist squat scene in Kreuzberg and went back to The Wall and picked up some orange spray-painted sections for keepsakes and drove back home shortly afterward one morning.  I went back to Berlin last year and invented the David Bowie : Where Are We Now ? tour (see My Pop Life #97) and some 25 years later the city is almost unrecognisable.  Only a few parts of the wall remain, tourist attractions, protected.  I stayed in the old East Berlin, now simply Berlin.  It is thrumming with activity and endeavour, much of it artistic, simply full of energy.

As we drove home through Germany, then Belgium, we were stopped on the French border for our passport.  Most cars were getting waved through and we were blocking the road.  The passport was in my suitcase in the boot, so I offered to pull over while I got out and unpacked.  No said the French border police.  Stay in the road.  I got annoyed with him and so they decided to search the car.  Jenny and I were processed through the system, stripped,  and searched.  And then made to wait in the little central booth as the border police tooth-combed the car.  While we waited, and waited, I noticed cars queuing to get into Belgium from France looking at me with quizzical eyes.  They were asking for permission to cross the border.  There was no one else there, so I started to nod at the drivers, and they would drive through.  It was ridiculous but fun.  Eventually we were interviewed by the boss.   He explained that busloads of tourists came this way from Amsterdam every day.  I told him that we’d come from Berlin.  Earlier in 1989 I had been filming in France (see My Pop Life #9) playing Eugene Delacroix the painter who appeared on the 200 Franc note (sadly now replaced by the Euro).  As I explained this to the police chief, he asked me if I smoked weed – “and is it used for inspiration, like Baudelaire?”  I agreed that I imagined it was.  “Ah you artistic types” he sighed.

We crossed the Channel at Ostende and landed in England in the brave new world of 1990.   Capitalism won, after extra time.

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My Pop Life #122 : The Sensual World – Kate Bush

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The Sensual World   –   Kate Bush

…And how we’d wished to live in the sensual world
You don’t need words–just one kiss, then another.
Stepping out of the page into the sensual world…

June 18th 1997 was my 40th birthday.  In a happy turn of events, I was working.  Even happier, and this was no co-incidence, I was working with Jenny Jules, who had been my wife since 1992.  We were filming a BBCtv drama series about slavery called A Respectable Trade.

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Emma, Warren, Ariyon

 It starred Warren Clarke, may his soul rest in peace;  Emma Fielding, who has since then taken up residence around my childhood holy grounds of Hailsham, and now Kingston nr Lewes;  Ariyon Bakare, Clinton Blake, Hugh Quarshie, who would soon be working with me again (funny how that happens);  Graham Fox, Richard Briers, Anna Massey, Tanya Moodie and some wonderful children who played, along with Ariyon, Jenny, Tanya and Clinton, the slaves.  It was a good show, centred around a love affair between unhappily married Emma and handsome slave Ariyon, and it didn’t pull any punches…

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Richard Briers in particular playing a slave trader who wanted a woman (Tanya) “brought up” for sex, so that they could “mix the stock” in one memorable and ugly scene.  He knew that his fans would be shocked to see him playing this character, but he was determined to nail his colours to the mast and expose the dark reality of English history.  We filmed in Bristol in the Slave Museum complete with manacled cellar; Longleat House, Bath, and Charlestown in Cornwall.  The show was an adaptation by Philippa Gregory of her own historical novel and has never been repeated by the BBC, despite auspicious anniversaries coming and going.  I can only wonder how on earth it got made in the first place.

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see Jenny at the bottom of pic with slave collar

Perhaps because of the darkness of the story and subject matter we were a tight and close company and with a couple of exceptions, notably the director, have remained in touch.  We had a bloody laugh actually.  I’ll talk about the whole experience in another post, but

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on my birthday we had been filming in Charlestown, a small port village south of St Austell in Cornwall that is a perfectly preserved Georgian quayside complete with tall ships.  I think we were all in the pub during the early part of the evening when my agent Michael Foster called.  Early days of mobile phones I expect.  Pretty sure I had an Eriksson.  I don’t think Michael wished me Happy Birthday, agents don’t usually do things like that, they have enough to think about, but he did tell me that I’d been offered a role in the new Star Wars film which was to be The Phantom Menace.  Episode One.  I started to become happy when he pulled me up.  “Wait” he said.  “The money is shit” he said.  “It can’t be” I said, “It’s Star Wars, the most successful franchise in film history.”  “I’m sorry ”  he said.

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They want you for four weeks,” he said, “at five grand a week, total buy-out.  No repeat fees, no royalties, residuals, extras, billing, fruit or flowers.”  He didn’t actually say the bit about the fruit and flowers but the offer was clear, stark, final.  “Oh and they also said that if you said ‘no’, there were forty people in line behind you for that part, who would in all likelihood be prepared to take even less money.”  Of course they would.  “Sleep on it” said Michael, dear Michael.  “Have a good evening.”

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Clinton, Emma, Jenny, Graham, Ariyon in 1997

We did, dear reader.  We all retired to our wee cottage on the hill and got drunk and stoned, listening to my wife DJ-ing till the wee small hours.  It was my birthday you see.  It’s a kind of tradition.  The hit song that stayed with us was Kate Bush singing The Sensual World.  The sexiest song ever.  Jenny loved to play it at houseparties and watch people dance together, occasionally joining in if they were lucky.  I was lucky since it was er my birthday, but Ariyon and Clinton were too I believe.

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This song has followed Jenny and I around since it came out in 1989, the year when we finally decided that we would…yes…be a couple.  Played at home, in car journeys, at parties, on Sony Walkmen and ipods.  It opens with church bells like one or two other classic English pop songs I could mention, but which have now evaporated from my mind like so much of my life.  Then a light whip of the Fairlight synthesiser and Kate’s “mmmm…yes” takes us into an entirely sexual and original song, comprised of pieces of the world and Kate’s mind.  She was playing with the Trio Bulgarka around this time, getting inspiration from more eastern sounds, as she had with “Hello Earth” off Hounds Of Love which uses a Georgian choral hymn.  A Macedonian wedding song inspired the music of The Sensual World, with Irish instruments and James Joyce‘s Ulysses inspiring the idea, the moment when heroine Molly Bloom has the final word of the novel and leaps from the page into the sensual world :

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “

The Joyce estate refused permission for Kate to use those words as lyrics for the song, so she wrote her own, referencing Blake’s JerusalemAnd my arrows of desire rewrite the speech” using a mesmerising melody on the Uileann pipes for the hook, played by Davey Spillane.  In the video Kate dances through the woods, barefoot.   

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Later in 2011 a new LP called Director’s Cut was released, on it new versions of much of this LP and 1993’s The Red Shoes, particularly this song, now renamed Flower Of The Mountain recorded with the now-allowed Joyce passage as lyrics, and the same breathy, orgasmic “Yes…” dominating the soundscape.

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I think it’s one of the sexiest songs ever recorded.  I listened and danced to it as I turned 40.   I prayed for wisdom, but little came.   I burned for success and yes, it came and slapped me down, hard.  I longed for happiness, and when I let go and stopped longing, well then, eventually, it came.

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from The Sensual World 1989 :

Nevestinsko Oro, or Macedonian Bride’s Dance :

Flower Of The Mountain, from Director’s Cut (2011)

My Pop Life #114 : There’s Nothing Better Than Love – Luther Vandross

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There’s Nothing Better Than Love   –   Luther Vandross

…what in the world could you ever be thinking of ??…

This song makes me melt, because of the music, the words, the rhythm, the notes, and where it takes me – to 1989 and falling in love with Jenny.   We had started dating in the summer of ’88 and following a mad American road trip at the end of that year I had finally almost accepted that she WAS the ONE.  1989 we were together.  We were in Portsmouth where I proposed, in New York City and Washington D.C., but mainly we were in London, in Highgate N6, on the middle section of the Archway Road.

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Jenny had introduced me to Luther Vandross in the shape of two LPs : Give Me The Reason and Any Love.  Probably three actually because I remember Never Too Much from this era too.  Luther was new to me, although I’d unknowingly heard him before singing background vocals on David Bowie’s Young Americans in 1974 and co-writing the song Fascination.  He also sang on the LP Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, one of the greatest soul albums of all time, released in 1972, which includes the first incarnation of Where Is The Love.  He also sang backing for Diana Ross, Chic, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer and Carly Simon among others.  I found all this out later.

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One Thursday evening in late January we lay in bed together and I summoned the courage to tell Jenny that it was all over, that I didn’t think it would be a good idea if we carried on seeing each other.  “Why not?” said Jen, who was lying on my shoulder, my right arm around her.  “Well,” I said, “Because I don’t want you to fall in love with me.”  Luther Vandross was on the stereo singing this song !  “I’m already in love with you…” she answered.  The answer that stopped my breathing, and halted the celestial cycle and melted my heart, and softened my very bones.  I pulled her toward me in an embrace.  We have been together since that moment.

My courting of Jenny had reached the point of going to meet the parents, so one Sunday I was formally introduced to Esther & Thomas Jules a handsome and loving St Lucian couple who had produced a houseful of gorgeous girls and one son.  They were very kind and served me a classic West Indian Sunday roast : chicken, plantain, yam, corn, greens, roast potatoes, dashin and gravy.  Delicious.  Mr Jules insisted that I drink a whisky or a rum with him.  I complied happily.  Jenny had two older sisters : Dee and Mollie, and two younger : Natasha and Lucy.  Jon the brother was slightly older than Jenny.  They were all very warm and friendly toward me because they all loved Jenny very much and didn’t want to upset their sister.  But also because they have all been brought up with love, and have it in abundance to spare.  It was just the family I needed and wanted to become a part of.  Solid, secure, easy, supportive and loving.   I’d already proposed to Jenny in February ’89 but hadn’t asked her father yet – but that is for another song and another story.

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Luther Vandross is the soundtrack to those young lovers though.   At the time he was an unfeasibly smooth, handsome and sultry soul singer with a very modern sound – his music is forever attached to the 1980s.   Those LPs were played a lot in Archway Road.  Beautifully produced – but what a voice.   One of the great singers of my lifetime, so expressive, so pure, gentle, and sensitive.  In a line of greatness back to Teddy Pendergrass, Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, the record you play after you’ve gone to bed.  Love music.  Of course women also sing this music – Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Sade, Gladys Knight, Toni Braxton, Roberta Flack and on and on.   Is anyone still doing it you ask ?  Oh yes – Usher, Ciara, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Frank Ocean, Lianne La Havas, and on and on.    It will always be made of course.

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My soul development went something like this :  60s – Motown on the radio, 70s – Al Green on TOTP, discovery of James Brown, Otis Redding, Stax & Atlantic then through Philly, back to Sam Cooke and Jacky Wilson, Barry White & Teddy Pendergrass, Earth Wind & Fire into DISCO, Donna Summer and all that somehow emerging into the 80s with Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC, Electro LPs and Prince.  So I had completely missed the soul continuum that Luther Vandross represents.   Jenny introduced him to me, and soon I loved him too.

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March ’89, Wembley

He was playing at Wembley Arena in March 1989 and Jenny’s sister Dee asked if we wanted to go, so together with Mick her boyfriend, we did.  It was a sold-out ten-night run in the Arena, which is massive – and Luther was the first artist to sell that many tickets, he was huge in England in the late 80s.  Rightly so.  We sat to his left, he wore silver and black, we swooned and went home happy and high.  The concert was released on video/DVD sometime later in 1991 but we’ve never seen it.   This song was on the brilliant LP Give Me The Reason in 1986, and is a duet with Gregory Hines.   I think it’s time to have a look at that night in March 1989.  Because – you know – and I know – there is nothing better than love.

My Pop Life #61 : Fight The Power – Public Enemy

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Fight The Power   –   Public Enemy

…Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps…

After another election night betrayal, another public display of democracy that makes you want to vomit, all we have left is “each other” people.  We have to fight the powers that be.  England will kick off this summer, once again, the familiar ritual of burning and brick throwing.  Once again Labour has failed to appeal to its core constituency and some of them have voted Green, others UKIP, still others Conservative. Many others didn’t vote at all.

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…What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless, you say what is this ?   My beloved lets get down to business, Mental self defence and fitness…

The greatest band to come out of the 1980s was Public Enemy.  PE burn with righteous fire against injustice, racism, the media, corruption, laziness, selfishness, privilege, ignorance.   They were one of the reasons that I became a writer in 1987.

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 When I heard their  first LP “Yo Bum Rush The Show” I was excited by power and truth combining with beats and rhyme, it was exciting and inspiring – but could not prepare me for the monster work of their 2nd LP “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” in 1988.  It was a tidal wave of sound and righteous fury and I couldn’t get enough of it.  I saw them twice live in London that year – or maybe two years running.  Brixton Academy ’87 – ’88.

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I went with Miss P who was directing my first as-yet-unwritten play and the cast of same as-yet-untitled play:  Rita Wolf (my girlfriend), David Keyes, Kwabena Manso, Gaylie Runciman, Pamela Nomvete and Carl Procter.  We were all researching a play about homelessness, to be expressed at least partly through hip hop.  That’s how it was pitched to the Joint Stock Steering Committee “led by” Caryl Churchill and Max Stafford-Clark.   The resultant play was called “Sanctuary“, directed by Paulette Randall and designed by Jenny Tiramani, and it won me the Samuel Beckett Award 1987 for best first play.

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Leader, writer and inspiration behind Public Enemy Chuck D is now an elder in the rap world.  In 1987 he was a revelation.  His lyrics, his delivery, his fury, his tone are all second to none.  I don’t think technically he is the best rapper – that honour goes to Rakim for me – but Rakim pretty much sticks to one subject ie: what a great rapper Rakim is.  Chuck D and PE cover the waterfront.   DJ Terminator X was also scratching records in ways unheard of at that point, not just samples, but noise pure and simple, and the production team of Hank & Keith Shocklee and Eric Sadler “The Bomb Squad” invented a whole new vocabulary of sound : screeching, chopped up quotes from many sources, layered, punchy, visceral and powerful.  The genius addition of Flavor Flav, the joker in the pack, wearing a huge clock “so you know what time it is” and chirruping support from the sidelines (“yeeeah boyeee“) made the package complete – a black gang to take on the white establishment and kick it in its holy nuts.

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Hence the Elvis/John Wayne quote above.   Deliberately provocative, it comes from a lifetime of being a second-class citizen in a first-world nation.   The pure anger in their work becomes a creative force in itself, and the potency of Fight The Power, (taken from album number three Fear Of A Black Planet which should have been released in 1989 but eventually appeared in 1990) has not been matched by any protest song or rallying cry ever recorded.  It is a seriously pumped-up rhythm, sampling James Brown, The Isley Brothers, Syl Johnson and 16 other tracks in a huge sound which was ubiquitous that summer of 1989 when it soundtracked Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, and the hot summer in Brooklyn kicking off.

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In 1989 I was still in full B-Boy mode.  I’d adopted the hip-hop look in 1987 when the sounds and culture of rap bowled me over.   I had written an American version of Sanctuary that summer called Sanctuary D.C., researched and set in Washington DC.   And I had the genesis of a new piece forming, all in verse, commissioned by the BBC.   George Faber it was who asked me in early 1990 to write something in rap from that culture, I was the white emissary from the front line.   I came up with a rhyme play called The House That Crack Built, set in Washington DC and based on the street life I had experienced there in the summer of 1989, the summer of Do The Right Thing.  I nearly got stabbed in D.C. outside a downtown men’s shelter when my bicycle was surrounded by homeless guys who wanted to know what I was doing.  “you’re a european” one of them accused.  “How did you know?” I answered with naive foolishness “I’m English“.  He meant I was white.  There were 20 of them around me, one guy circling the outside giving me glimpses of a large knife inside his coat.  He looked insane.  I spoke sincerely about my desire for a colour-blind future and they probably pitied my twattishness and let me cycle off.  My general foolhardy youthful naivitée probably saved me a few times that summer, researching the American version of my English hit play.  Chatting to crack dealers on the wrong corner.  At night.  But somehow I got away with it.

Back in London 1990, George Faber didn’t get the play I’d delivered at all.  He asked me to produce a week’s workshop and show him a handful of scenes.  I’d anticipated this, and hired a handful of actors who had to prove they could rap in a brief audition.  My lead was the amazing Roger Griffith, one of my favourite actors.  His buddy was played by Michael Buffong, now a first-rate prize-winning director at The National theater, Royal Exchange and Talawa.  Mum was ‘Dame’ Dona Croll of course, whose five-year old daughter had just arrived from Jamaica – so cute – with best friend Jo Martin, the bad guy was Calvin Simpson, who tragically died shortly after the workshop, a lorry knocking him off his bicycle on Waterloo roundabout.  That was a terribly sad funeral.   We filed past the open casket in church, and he was so dead.    I remember him as a great actor and a man who insisted on wearing odd socks.  Years ahead of his time.   Chris Tummings and Jenny Jules completed the cast, but Jenny got a bad asthma attack and was hospitalised and had to be recast at the last minute.  Did Pamela Nomvete fill the breach?  Ashamed to say I can’t remember….but I think so….anyway we worked hard all week, bringing a few scenes to life, learning how to rap in dialogue.   It worked really well, rap is naturally really dramatic and perfect for stage or dramatic work – it’s not unlike Shakespeare or Greek drama.  But Faber and his small BBC gang who came to watch on the Friday afternoon (including his secretary – his barometer) didn’t get it.  He had a meeting with me the week after and said “why is it set in America?“,  I said “Because there’s no crack scene in the UK“.   He said “well change the drug then“.  The casual lazy sweeping generalisation.  Crack was different to every drug I’d ever come across.   Totally.  His well-meaning liberal racism was shocking in the end.  “We brush past these people in the street every day – what do they feel?“.    So depressing.   The piece wasn’t taken forward, and has never been produced anywhere.   If it was mounted now it would be proper old skool rap history, all about Bush and Amerikkka.

*

Years later in 2003 I was on the set of another aborted project which I’d written – a film called Red Light Runners.  Bits of it are online somewhere.  Long bitter story – for another post.  That was the experience that stopped me writing.  Bookend contribution.  I was talking to Tricky, who was in our cast, about Fight The Power since he had covered the Public Enemy track Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos on his first album rather brilliantly with Martina Topley-Bird sing-songing the rap lyrics.   We were sitting on the top deck of a bus waiting for something or other to happen.  Probably filming at Centrepoint ?  Anyway, I asked him about the exact quote at the top of the page about Elvis Presley, and we went on to talk about how brilliant Elvis was, especially in the early days.  Elvis was a hero to me, but so were Public Enemy.  I didn’t have a problem with that but I couldn’t quite articulate why.   But I trust Chuck D.  We agreed he was a provocateur and stirring the shitpot.  There’s always been debate about the good ole boy Elvis and how he treated black people, but you’ll need to listen to the ’68 comeback tapes to get the rest of that story.  Racist – in the sense that any kid from Memphis was racist in 1954 – probably.  But Racist with a capital R – no, don’t believe it.  He melded black and white music together.  He listened to gospel music on the radio and loved it, mixed it with hillbilly music.  Elvis = no racist.  But the racial divisions of America are so deep and so scarred that you can see them from the moon, and Chuck D and PE needed to hold up white icons in order to shoot them down.   It’s a polemic.   It’s a position.

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Chuck has since blurred the quote : on the LP it’s scarcely audible.   You can hear it on the original single, and the film soundtrack clear as a bell however.  Its impact was huge.   They always flirted with controversy, particularly in the shape of Minister of Information Professor Griff, who left PE after an unfortunate quote about Jewish people, but at their heart they are fundamentally about telling the truth to power.

We all have to carry on, despite defeats, setback and disappointments.  What choice do we have?  In the late 80s, Public Enemy were the soundtrack to change.  They still are.  Live – I’ve seen them five times – they are astonishing, nowadays using a live band and covering songs like Edwin Starr’s “War”.   The retain all their power and urgency.  For what, if anything, has changed ?

clip from Do The Right Thing :

My Pop Life #33 : We Got Our Own Thang – Heavy D & The Boyz

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We Got Our Own Thang   –   Heavy D & The Boyz

…you’re a chicken mcnugget and I’m a Big Mac…

This is the end of a long story, and the beginning of an even longer one.   From way back “when I was a writer”… I’d been invited over to Washington D.C. by the No-Neck Monsters Theatre Company who’d happened to see my play Sanctuary performed by Joint Stock at the Drill Hall in 1987, and wanted me to write an american version of it.  At first I said no, then they said they would re-write it, then I said NO even more, then I decided to go over and plunge in.

Featured imageThat’s for another story;  the workshop on the streets of Washington (the play is about homeless teens) and so is the writing period, up in Mount Pleasant having an affair with the woman next door who worked at The Pentagon, and yet another tale is show opening in the Unitarian Church in Adams Morgan in late ’88 and the epic empty road trip that followed.

But now, here, I’m flying back to America with my brand new girlfriend one Jenny Jules because my play has been nominated for best musical in the Helen Hayes Awards, and actress Deidra Johnson has a best supporting actress nod too.   We fly to New York and stay in Jim’s mini walk-through apartment in the Lower East Side at 7th St and Avenue A – Alphabet City.  This part of Manhattan is scuzzy, broken down, graffiti’d and druggy and has a very definite edge.  You gotta remember this is 1989 and there are homeless people with mounds of belongings in tow, dealers hustling in Tompkins Square Park, squeegee merchants at every corner squirting grey water onto your windscreen if you’re unlucky enough to be driving in the Lower East Side and get caught on a red light.  There’s a racial whiff in the air too and it’s unpleasant.  Jenny is my first black girlfriend, and here we are getting chups and spat at on the sidewalk by angry black men, the Nation Of Islam in Times Square berating Jenny for selling out to the devil and miscegenating with the white man (all this from the lips of a mixed race brother).  And then the Central Park rape case exploded.

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 In this atmosphere we took the Amtrak train 4 hours south to the nation’s capital and a nice hotel in leafy Georgetown.    I had to show Jenny around since I’d spent four months in D.C. the previous year – we went to the Capitol Building, the Lincoln Memorial, up to Dupont Circle which figured in the play, the Adams Morgan district, walked along the Potomac River, explored the Smithsonian Institute and we met Herbert again, a social worker who’d been a great resource while I was re-writing the piece.  Herbert invited us a to a barbecue in his yard where everyone sang the Temptations “My Girl” and told us about The Mack Man, Herbert later escorted us down to Anacostia Park in South East D.C. to an almost 100% black event at which Jesse Jackson spoke thrillingly, and we heard the famous I Am (“I Am”) *pause* Somebody (“Somebody”) speech.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that as well as appropriating a black woman, I had also appropriated black culture and written a hip-hop musical, called Sanctuary D.C.  I’d been wrestling with this particular dilemma since the first incarnation of the show in London and found most of the barriers to be inside my own head.   But here in Washington D.C. which is 80% black, where people work side by side all day but then socialise in distinct racial groups in the evenings, where there are white areas, and black areas, and somehow we were in a mixed gang forging a middle path and to be honest, I was on a pretty steep learning curve regarding black culture, particularly black american culture.   But it’s a curve I am still happy to be on.

It was good to see director Gwen again, and the cast who’d worked so hard but with whom I’d largely fallen out (another story).   We all got dolled up to the nines in black tie and ear-rings and attended the Helen Hayes Awards in the Kennedy Centre.  What a lovely glamourous evening.  We didn’t win, and Gwen invited us all back to her apartment in Georgetown afterwards and we drank and laughed.

Sanctuary D.C. was a rap musical and was largely inspired by a handful of old-skool rappers, notably Run DMC, Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim, Kool Moe Dee, Roxanne Shanté, Salt ‘n’ Pepa and KRS One (Boogie Down Productions).    All started (for me) by Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.  By 1989 we’d heard from NWA, Ice T and the stirrings of Gangsta rap which would put me off following hip hop in the same way that I had in the 80s.   In the late 80s I bought everything that came out from a vinyl shop in Soho on 12″ – EPMD, Stezo, 7A3, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, Schoolly D, Biz Markie, and I still have all those singles, and albums.  I couldn’t sustain that level of purchasing, the huge volume of bands that suddenly appeared, the genres went in all directions at once and it became impossible – and expensive – to follow.  Although I wrote a second rap musical, based on my Washington D.C. experiences, it has never been produced.   Hip Hop was splintering into factions, East Coast and West Coast, conscious rap and gangsta rap, and yet ! here was Heavy D with his own Thang.

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Heavy D

Mixed by Teddy Riley this was New Jack Swing with a rap and it was a great funky bouncy pop soul mix.   It reminded me of the joy of rap, the delivery of the words being their own reward, the syncopation of those tumbling syllables on the beat giving such major satisfaction.   There is some creative disrespecting inside this song.   This is the jam.

“It started with a POW and I’m a end it with a BANG”

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And 20 years later Jenny Jules returned to Washington D.C. and the Helen Hayes Awards with a production of Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined”, and won “best production”.  Happy endings.

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…Be your own guy, follow your own movement…

My Pop Life #9 : Ballade #1 in G minor – Frderick Chopin, played by Artur Rubinstein

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Ballade #1 in G minor  –  Frederick Chopin, played by Artur Rubinstein

1989 Paris.   Hugh Grant and I are sitting in La Coupole on Montparnasse, yards from our hotel, eating oysters, drinking bubbly. And why not? We’ve been given great wads of ‘monopoly money’ (or French francs)  as per diems, expected to feed ourselves with it since we’ve been cast in a film called Impromptu, written by Sarah Kernochan, directed by her husband James Lapine and filming in Angers and Paris for seven weeks.  Hugh and I decide there and then to sample all the great brasseries of Paris over the ensuing weeks, with all their proudly preserved Art Nouveau splendour, piles of ice and shellfish, tart tatin and cheese to savour, a white-aproned garçon and maitre-d to patronise us, and quite frankly, the finest wines available to humanity to evaluate at our leisure.

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Blimey, I thought, I’m on the gravy train.  Who wouldn’t ?  I wasn’t, as it turned out, but just for a few weeks there, I so was.  The film – Impromptu – concerned the affair between Polish genius Frederick Chopin (Hugh) and French novelist Georges Sand (Judy Davis) in the 1830s (the Ballade #1 dates from 1831) and particularly an enjoyable weekend with their friends Franz Liszt (Julian Sands), Eugene Delacroix (me!) and Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) at a pretentious nouveau-riche chateau and their hosts (Emma Thompson and Anton Rodgers).

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Bernadette Peters and Georges Corraface completed the cast as spurned lovers.  It was a gas.  Too much to relate in a pop music blog to be honest, but as Hugh and I weaved our wicked way through the highways and often the byways of Paree, he often had to take time off to learn how to play the piano like Chopin.  Had a little keyboard in his hotel room to practice on.  I’d never really been exposed to this music before and it was simply overwhelmingly beautiful stuff.  Chopin wrote almost exclusively for the solo piano, (four piano concertos notwithstanding) : waltzes, nocturnes, etudes, scherzos, ballades.  They are to my ears – and indeed to Georges Sands’ and even Liszt’s – the pinnacle of all music.  I bought a CD of Artur Rubinstein playing the Greatest Hits – and trust me there’s not a duffer on that LP.   I’m only partly joking.   I used to play it over and over.  I still do – although since then I’ve bought the giant box set of Rubinstein playing everything Chopin wrote.  I’ve heard many many other people playing these pieces – Pollini, Kissin, Horowitz, Ashkenazy are all great, but I always come back to Rubinstein. Maybe it’s because he’s Polish as well, who knows, maybe it’s because he doesn’t stick to the beat, there is a delicious hesitation before he lands on certain phrases.  It is all exquisite.  But most likely because that’s what I heard first.

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Hugh hated doing the Polish accent and vowed never to change his voice again for a movie.  Four Weddings & A Funeral was in the can and he had high hopes for it.   He could do all the accents on earth, a lot of people don’t get that he is a mercurial actor but chooses not to be.  We ate at Bofinger, Lipp, Brasserie Flo, Au Pied De Cochon, La Coupole and Terminus Du Nord.   And others.   Richard E Grant joined us one night because he was filming across town.   Liz Hurley turned up (I’d worked with her earlier in a Dennis Potter film Christabel) and then we moved to Angers  (Loire Valley white wines are the finest known to humanity:  Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Muscadet, Vouvray, Savennieres)  where Kenneth Branagh arrives and Ken, Hugh and myself play a round of (very poor) golf one afternoon.   Ken very sweetly asked me to join his company but I declined, favouring the wide open unknown spaces of my uncertain future (was I on the gravy train?)…  It was in Angers that I played my sex scene with Emma – the Duchess.  She was a model of professionalism, funny, warm and very kind.  One night after work driving back to the hotel from the chateau our driver ran over a rabbit and he braked hard, jumped out and disappeared.  “Has he gone to see if it’s all right?” asked Em.  We heard the boot open then close with a small thud. “No I think that one’s for the pot” I replied.  She wasn’t happy.

24 years later I’m working in Vilnius, Lithuania on a TV show (The Assets) and sitting in a trendy coffeeshop with book-lined walls,  a dog and a piano.  A young man walked in, sat down and proceeded to play Ballade number 1 in G minor on that piano while people ordered coffee and surfed the internet, came and went. I filmed him on my phone. He made a couple of mistakes.  It was kind of perfect.

My Pop Life #7 : Do The Right Thing – Redhead Kingpin & The FBI

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Do The Right Thing  –  Redhead Kingpin & the FBI

…brothers are stealing & dealing & big wheeling, and to a younger mind that stuff is appealing – so

what do they do? they gather up a crew, go out & steal or rob instead of gettin’ a job…

Summer of ’89 I was living in Archway Road N6 and directing a summer school at the National Youth Theatre in Holloway – a 3 week workshop with a mixed gang of wannabe hopefuls from all over the UK.  We had a presentation to make at the end of the fun. So we started to build a show – based on an eco-disaster idea I’d had called Zone. We met each morning in Parliament Hill School gym and did warm-ups, games and hot-seating. They were a talented gang – one of them (Frank) became a writer, another (Kerry) became Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East and another (David) became David Walliams.  My assistant director was David Steinberg from Tel Aviv, who is still a close friend  (I travelled to see him during the 2nd intifada).  The local estate kids used to “invade” the school every day and run amok, the caretaker did nothing of course – we were the ‘incomers’.  I challenged them one morning with the phrase “off you go”, which the leading kid echoed back incredulously “off you go?”, then off he went.  But that lunch hour my leading actor Rob was slashed with a knife outside the sandwich shop on Highgate Road and was rushed to hospital with a cut cheek. Disaster. Police were called, nothing happened, we finished the last few days of the workshop in Holloway Road at basecamp.  In the final show I used two pieces of music – one was a choreographed dance routine to a hip hop song which had stormed my ears that summer.  I brought in two hip-hop choreographers whose names escape me now, they used to do all the videos from that era – the Cookie Crew, London Possee, Gee St Records kinda thing, and they took this disparate group through their B-Boy paces.  Good dancers stood at the front, less good ones at the back, but NO ONE was exempted, despite protestations.  Walliams in particular, despite doing an impeccable and hilarious Kenneth Williams impersonation on a regular basis, really wasn’t a natural dancer, but I never treated him any different to the rest of them despite evidence to the contrary, and to his credit he gamely danced on.  It really was the highlight of the “show” when we presented it to parents and the NYT.  It’s got great lyrics and a real new-jack swing bounce to it.  Despite the title (which you cannot copyright thank god) the song has nothing to with the Spike Lee film of the same name which also came out in 1989, and was also in the form of a cautionary tale of hard-won wisdom.

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Many years later Jenny was working with Sharon Osbourne in The Vagina Monologues and we were invited to the Osbournes Christmas Party just behind Harrods.  Elton was there, I ignored him out of nerves (regret) and David Walliams, now star of hit show Little Britain was also there.  He took my elbow : “Ralph I need to thank you for the National Youth Theatre workshop – you didn’t treat me differently to the others, and I had such a good time I went back the following summer, and met Matt Lucas.”  That was nice.  David also devoted part of a chapter in his autobiography to the experience which he then sent to me, and we’re now back in touch.  Life is long.

Later in 1989 I went to a live hip hop concert in London with KRS-One headlining, EPMD (?) and Redhead Kingpin performing this song.  It’s still a classic.