My Pop Life #171 : Praying For Time – George Michael

Praying For Time   –   George Michael

I may have too much but I’ll take my chances
Because god’s stopped keeping score…

Listen Without Prejudice was released in September 1990 and this was the first single from the album.  We listened to the LP all that winter 90/91, and I don’t think George Michael has ever bettered it.  Cowboys & Angels, Freedom 90, Heal The Pain, lovely cover of They Won’t Go When I Go.  And Praying For Time.  “tune”

Listen Without Prejudice – 1990

That autumn I was doing a play called Earwig by Paula Milne at The Pit, somewhere under The Barbican in London with the RSC.  Then I got a call from the agent for a meeting in Pinewood studios for Alien 3.  This was terribly exciting.  I adored the first Alien film, and was less keen on the second, but devoured it hungrily nonetheless.  The combination of horror and science fiction was thrilling and brilliantly done.  I gleaned a few details before the meeting – it was going to be set on a prison planet with no women except Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.  It would directed by a young first-time director called David Fincher.   Much to the irritation of the RSC I had my (pretty long) hair shorn at Fish in D’Arblay Street – a number four if I recall.  I’d been going to Fish since I’d done West at The Donmar Warehouse in 1983, and they’d been close-up witnesses to the disappearing head-fur since then.  Anyway, I got offered the part of Aaron, or to be more accurate, Fincher recalled me and asked me which part I fancied playing.  HOW COMPLETELY THRILLING !!  (I thought)  IS THIS WHAT MY LIFE WILL BE LIKE NOW???  I chose Aaron.  The 2nd in command.  The survivor.  Good part.  Or so I thought. This is an extract from my diary at the time – an actor at his first Hollywood barbeque, getting burned.  Nobody explains what it’s going to be like, and even if they did, I didn’t listen.  Who does ?

*

Alien 3 – Paranoia in Pinewood

The six stages of Film Production : as seen carved into the wall in Pinewood, Studio Five, by someone presumably better-versed in the industry than I :

  1. Wild enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search For The Guilty
  5. Punish The Innocent
  6. Reward The Non-Involved 

 

17th Jan 1991.

Well.  After a heavy day’s filming on Scene 55 where Golic, (played by me old china plate  Paul McGann), is brought to the infirmary, I return to my dressing room to find rewrites have been pushed under my door.  Rewrites for the end of the movie.  I read them.  Disaster.  My character has gone from the everyman-yuppie-type-who-survives to something completely different : the thick-coward-type-who-gets-his-throat-cut-while-hiding-from-the-alien.   I feel like a horse has kicked me in the guts.  I march up to the director, David Fincher’s office, and demand a meeting with the writers, Walter Hill and David Giler, to discuss the part.  Having already filmed two scenes and therefore committed my character to celluloid, these changes are un-nerving to say the very least.  Fincher says he hates the rewrites, and don’t worry, it’ll be all right.  But he’s just the director.  Walter and David are also producing along with Sigourney herself.  I express with great and foolish bravery to Fincher that I need to know what I’m playing, and I need to know NOW.  We arrange a meeting for lunchtime next day.

18th Jan

At 11.am I get a call cancelling the meeting.  Panic.  I call my agent Michael Foster, the poison dwarf of Oxford Street whom I love dearly.  His advice : Don’t rock the boat, keep your head below the parapet, wear a tie and vote conservative (remember, this is 1991).  Above all, he advises, Do Not Upset Walter Hill, writer and producer of the film.  There are major Hollywood politics going on and I’m simply caught in the crossfire, my character being one pawn among many in a power game between the Giler/Hill axis and the Fincher/Fox camp.  It’s the moody stark Alien (1) vs the populist wham-bam Aliens (2).  I know what I prefer but evidently can’t afford to express my feeling to the wrong people.

At 2pm I get a call inviting me (since I’m not filming today) to the Halcyon Hotel in Holland Park – a car will be round to pick me up.  This is where Walter Hill and David Giler are staying.  The drive is smooth and tense. I go up in the lift to Room 50, and Walter greets me at the door wearing mirror shades.

Walter Hill, director of The Long Riders, 48 Hours, The Warriors, The Driver and more

By now I am shitting maisonettes but staying outwardly cool I hope.  Something to drink Ralph ?  I ask for tea, so we all have tea.  We chat, and Fincher is mentioned.  Non-committal words are exchanged.  Body language is tense, nervy from Hill, open, receptive from me.  I smile in what I hope is a relaxed fashion.  I’m wrong about one thing (probably more than one – Ed) – Walter Hill talks about going back to the simplicity of the first Alien movie, which cheers me up a bit.  So, Ralph, what about Aaron?  Well, I say, I’m here to ask for your help.  Hill doesn’t believe me.  Careful Ralph.  Be careful.  Be honest.  I talk about Fincher’s version of the character and how it conflicts with the rewrites. Hill shifts his weight and considers me.  “Aaron is a working class stupid guy, who is funny“.   I agree.  This is my bargaining position I say : I have no bargaining position.  Hill laughs.  He knows.    Is there anything I don’t like about the script?  Well, I say, can’t Aaron fight with the Alien??  If not at the end, then in the middle sequence with the fire? Astonishingly they agree with me and I gain a point.  But I can’t fight at the end.  And I have to be an 85 IQ – like Muhammed Ali or Danny from Withnail (they bizarrely console me with).  OK I say.  Fine by me I say.  Thrilled to be in your movie I say.  No heroics for me, and this will affect any Hollywood career I am to have, if indeed I am to have one.  “We all gotta serve the movie Ralph” says Walter Hill. who is getting paid something in the region of a million dollars serving the movie.  “I’m prepared to sit here til midnight until you’re happy with the way the character should be played…”  

I leave one and a half hours later, shaking hands.  I press the lift button.  I can still hear them and strain an ear down the corridor – what are they saying?  “Fuck the guy – get him off the picture”  ?    I don’t want to hear it anyway.  I walk out through the lobby feeling as tight and tense and screwed up as a piece of wire.  I feel like vomiting.  I am driven home, feeling shaky and weird.  Meet my brother Paul and go to see Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda at Screen on the Green – flawed but good (Brian Cox was excellent) – with the memorable line :  “Rule One : Look After Your Own Balls

Afterward to the pub and drinks and I start to unwind.  I am now paranoid about being cut from the film (like Veronica Cartwright was from Alien as Walter had gently reminded me earlier – I don’t want to alarm you Ralph but, well, yes, actually I DO want to alarm you.  Don’t end up like Veronica Cartwright…)  She was the one who cried a lot.  I suddenly remember that an actor was sacked after four weeks filming on Aliens because they found out that he was on acid or something (!) and so they re-shot all the scenes he was in.  So even after a month’s filming you’re not safe.  Damn.

David Fincher & Sigourney Weaver on the set of Alien 3, Pinewood 1991

Meeting with Fincher the next day.  Hi dude how was your meeting?  Walter and David said you’d reached a compromise.  Oh, that’s what they called it?  I felt as if I’d been taken slowly from behind.  I informed Fincher that although I loved him spiritually, I had in fact (sad to say) sold him down the river (still some quiver when I deliver) and that I had accepted the working-class thicko comic character idea to save my own balls (see Rule One above).  Fincher says “The fight’s not over.  Remember we’re working for 18th century Fox here”

Jan 21st

The rewrites come through.  As I expected.  Well, we all gotta serve the movie.  Fear stalks the set.  Everyone is applying Rule One.  And as we shoot mangled remains of Alien victims in dark corridors, the Gulf War is being prosecuted with extreme prejudice, and as Brian Glover soberly remarked, we could go to Baghdad and see the real thing.

my old mate Danny Webb with Sigourney on set

Someone steals a continuity photo of Sigourney with head shaved and sells it to the Today newspaper.  A mole on the unit.  Someone from props gets sacked.  We’re all looking over our shoulders.

Feb 4th

Picked up from Archway Road by Bill my driver who informs me that Jordan Cronenweth, legendary DP who shot Blade Runner had been replaced by Alex Thomson over the weekend.  Brian Glover is picked up in Fulham Road and gets severe wobbles for the rest of the day.  “It’s a portent Ralph, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film doesn’t get finished“.   Jordan’s disappearance has the opposite effect on me.  I finally reach my long-lost fuck-it level.  And I think : FUCK IT !   In the next scene I have only my vest and long johns, so my chest is showing.  Nick in make-up takes a long look : ” Ooh no, it’ll have to go”  What will?  “The chest hair love.  It’ll have to come off”   Jesus Christ.  I go all queenie for a second and flounce back to my dressing room to ponder my pectorals.  Shaved chest?  Never in all my born days….

Fuck It.  I don’t even phone Jenny to moan at her, because as soon as she hears my anxious paranoid actor’s whinge she’ll just search for things to say which won’t upset me.  No.  It’s my decision and I’ll shave the fucker.  Jesus Christ !  I’m an actor!!  Actors do all that shit!  It’s for the part, and the money.  Aaron shaves his chest.  I suddenly saw, for the first time since I was 15, what my body actually looked like.  I have to report that it could have been better.  Went straight home to the bench press and weights That Night.  But it was a liberating shave, a plunge into Fuck-It-Dom which released much of my tension and anxiety about the film.  FUCK IT !!!

Feb 5th

The canteen sequence.  Rewrites still coming in.  An IRA attack on Downing Street provides a fitting backdrop.  Sigourney is taking no prisoners today.  First it’s the hair:  “Your hair is too long Ralph, we should put some lice in it”   Then an hour later it’s the costume:  “How come Aaron gets to wear a nice clean shirt, while we’re all in dirty crap here?”     “It’s vanity pure and simple”  says the deep Barnsley burr of Brian Glover.  Thanks mate.   “So the stupid Aaron 85 looks really cool then” says Sigourney.  “Mr Normal”.  She stonks off.   I feel really weird now.  All my paranoias confirmed !   I think she is anxious about having a shaved head, but she has successfully managed to dump her insecurity onto me.

spoiler : Brian Glover is taken by the Alien in the canteen

 McGann wanders over and I tell him what has happened.  Sigourney walks past us :  “Oh look – a little tete-a-tete between Mr Sublime and Mr Ridiculous.  I’ll leave you guys to work out who’s  who”….  Paul turns to me.  “She’s going the right way for a smack in the mouth”.    At the tea break another actor tells me that Sigourney didn’t want any stars in the film and doesn’t speak to Charles Dance.  I am reminded of having my close-ups cut from Buster, and Phil Collins’ performance on Wogan, when he was asked who was playing Biggs (me) and he replied “Oh some new younger actor”.    You’re nobody in this town ’til everybody thinks you’re a bastard.

Aaron ’85’

Feb 6th

I’m being made up on set as Sigourney glides past.  “Don’t make him look too pretty I have to walk past him”…   ‘Trust your image Sigourney’,  I reply.  She hovers, so for something to say I tell her that my death has now been re-written FIVE TIMES so far, including : Alien eats me, Golic cuts my throat, I fall into lead mould, Company machine-gun me.  “I asked them to kill you off on page ten” she says.  A couple of hours later she pokes her tongue out at me.  Hey!  It occurs to me, perhaps she wants to fuck me !

She should be so lucky.

*

Years later I discover that Walter Hill has an eye condition that means he had to wear protective shades even indoors.  That Jordan Cronenweth was too ill to finish the shoot even with his son Jeff assisting him due to Parkinson’s.   After the premiere, Sigourney apologises for being mean.  Fincher encourages me to move to Los Angeles or LaLa as he calls it, so after our wedding in 1992, we do.   And later still.  Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #135) gets to sing with George Michael on two world tours.  One night he sang Praying For Time.  I still think it’s his best song.

 

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My Pop Life #98 : When Something Is Wrong With My Baby – Sam & Dave

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When Something Is Wrong With My Baby   –   Sam & Dave

…we stand as one…and that’s what makes it better….

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Sam and Dave in 1967

When I landed at LSE in 1976 to study Law I was a country boy from Sussex who’d grown up in a town where the 1960s were still being celebrated.   Lewes wouldn’t go punk until around 1979-1980.   My musical taste was – I thought – pretty wide.    It wasn’t.    I’d discovered soul and reggae in 1971 in the magical forms of Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Dave & Ansel Collins and Bob & Marcia – all chart acts though.  All the non-chart music I liked was stuff like:  prog (VDGG & Gentle Giant), US country rock (Commander Cody, Joe Walsh) and groovy english rock (Man & Roxy Music).  Random additions in the shape of Osibisa, Joan Armatrading and Blue Öyster Cult completed the patchy picture.   My new friend at LSE was in the shape of Glaswegian Rangers fan Lewis MacLeod, also studying Law, with absurdly long wavy hair and an almost unintelligible accent, especially when drunk.   We bonded while writing a Beatles ‘A’ Level Paper together one stoned afternoon (I’ll blog it one day).   We were hungry for more music.   Together we would go on a voyage of discovery into the deepest realms of soul music.  Classic soul music.

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I suspect the first major purchase of this period was James Brown’s 30 Golden Hits, all the singles from Please Please Please through to the most recent Sex Machine.   This was a record to savour.   But it wasn’t enough, oh no.    Next up was the Stax Gold LP which was the creme de la creme from Memphis, but only scratched the surface of that great record label (William Bell and Judy Clay – Private Number, Mel & Tim –  Starting All Over Again, The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself, Jean Knight – Mr Big Stuff – all will have their day!).

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I don’t think Sam & Dave were represented on this LP because for arcane reasons their records were all owned and distributed (?) by Atlantic, the parent company who completely stiffed Stax in the late 1960s.  Although I have some of their 45s on the Stax blue label.    Curious.    We dug deeper – Sam & Dave recorded all their hits at Stax Records under the supervision of soul gurus David Porter and Isaac Hayes,Featured image with the house band Booker T & The MGs playing the instruments – two white fellas Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on guitar and bass, and two black fellas Booker T Washington on keys and Al Parker on drums (pictured right).   This is a major band of brothers.   Together with the Memphis Horns – white trumpeter Wayne Jackson and black saxophonist Andrew Love they created an unparalleled run of songs that define southern soul music.   All of the singers were black : Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, The Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett (also released by Atlantic), William Bell, blues guitarist Albert King, Johnnie Taylor.  The owners were white : Jim Stewart, who formed Stax Records in 1959 with his sister Estelle Axton (St-Ax) and who personally engineered many of these records up almost until the takeover of the company by Al Bell in 1970.   I mention the race of the participants because it both was and was not important – it wasn’t important to the musicians at all, nor to Jim and Estelle, but Memphis, Tennessee was a racially segregated city when they were all growing up, and yet they worked together making classic soul music for all those years.   However once Dr Martin Luther King was shot just up the road from Stax in the Lorraine Motel in 1968, the atmosphere and racial politics of America and the record label changed.   The story of Stax Records is for me the most compelling portrait of America in the 1960s and I have long nurtured projects about Booker T & The MGs, Otis Redding and the label itself.  There are many documentaries, and books (Rob Bowman wrote the best one) and a museum now stands where the studio was, overseen by previous Stax secretary Deannie Parker, whom I have spoken to on the telephone while trying to get a Stax stage play off the ground.  She was very sweet and helpful.

Sam & Dave came up through the gospel circuit in the South and met at an amateur night in Miami.  They became a duo that night and were later signed to a local record label by Henry Stone.  Stone it was who suggested them to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records (based in New York) and Wexler decided to ‘loan them out’ to Stax because he thought their style suited the label.   He was right.   While Steve Cropper and Jim Stewart worked on the first few songs, they were soon passed to relative label newcomers Isaac Hayes and David Porter who proceeded to shape their act into a more passionate call-and-response Southern roots gospel sound, and who then wrote and produced a run of hit singles that was only bettered in the R&B charts by Aretha Franklin in the 1960s, including huge pop hits Soul Man and Hold On I’m Coming.

Sam Moore has the higher sweeter voice, a Sam Cooke template if you will, while Dave Prater is the gruffer urgent baritone reminiscent of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops.   Together they were Double Dynamite or The Sultans Of Sweat, the most compelling live act of the 1960s (and that includes Otis and Aretha).   They wore lime green suits with red handkerchiefs to mop up the sweat, the righteous sweat that they produced onstage as they whipped the crowd into a frenzy.   The music was infectious, the double act irresistible.

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Featured imageThey went on tour to Europe in 1967 – The Stax/Volt Revue  – with Otis Redding, Arthur Conley (Sweet Soul Music), Eddie Floyd and The Mar-Keys.  Booker T & The MGs backed every singer and Otis was naturally top of the bill.  The story goes that he would watch Sam & Dave from the wings every night as they ripped through their hits, kicking up a storm with their gritty gospel soul and leaving the audience high – then he’d have to go on and top it – solo – every night.   He’d never worked so hard in his life.   At the end of that tour he told his manager Phil Walden never to book him with Sam & Dave again.   But tragically Otis would be dead before the year was out,  killed in a plane crash on December 10th 1967 near Madison, Wisconsin just three days after recording Dock Of The Bay.   There are now recordings of this amazing Stax/Volt tour available out there.   I’d just love to have been at one of those shows.

When Something Is Wrong With My Baby was Sam & Dave’s only ballad (there I go again!) released in January 1967.   It didn’t dent the UK charts, and I certainly didn’t hear it as a 9-year old.   I first heard it in my crate-digging soul years when I amassed over a period of some years a rather splendid collection of rhythm and blues 45s and LPs which I subsequently lost in the split with Mumtaz in 1985 (see My Pop Life #93), and then slowly rebuilt from (spiral) scratch.   I’m certain that this essential song is on the Soul Tape that I made for Jenny when we were courting (see My Pop Life #29 & My Pop Life #28).    It became one of “our songs”.   Well, it would wouldn’t it?    What an amazing record.   Wayne Jackson himself said it was the best record he played on, or heard in the 1960s.   Rob Bowman’s book calls it “one of the most sublime records in soul music’s history“.

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So that when I was invited to be interviewed by Peter Curran for Greater London Radio to promote either a film or a TV show (cannot remember!)  that was about to be released, I travelled down to the cosy GLR Studios in Marylebone clutching my Stax 45rpm 7″ copy of this single, hoping that the young Northern Irish DJ would indulge the youngish Sussex actor.   I think it was 1990, but I wouldn’t put money on it.   And bless Mr Curran’s cotton socks because when he saw a 7-inch single in my hand he immediately said “Great – you’ve brought in some music – what is it?” instead of wittering on about the playlist like some radio stations I could mention.  And he played it.

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Eddie Floyd, Sam Moore, Steve Cropper, Otis Redding, Wayne Jackson and Arthur Conley on tour with Stax/Volt in Europe 1967

A few days later I was at Jenny’s parents’ house in Wembley and Dee was there – Jenny’s eldest sister (Tom’s Mum) and her partner Mick Stock.   They ran a pub together in Alperton, just down the road.   Mick was in the kitchen when he saw me, and said, “I heard you on the radio the other day Ralph.  GLR?”  “Oh yes. Did you?”  I answered, always embarrassed by these kinds of conversations, especially then, before I’d learned the human art of grace-under-pressure.   Mick was happy though.  “I love that Sam and Dave song – brilliant choice!” he said  – and shook my hand.   “Great stuff”.   What a lovely endorsement.

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Jamie with Mick in 1992

Sadly for us all, Mick Stock – Jamie and Jordan’s father – passed away in 2013 of a heart attack and is deeply missed.    I dedicate this song to him, and to Dee.

vinyl single :

outstanding live version where Dave sings the 1st verse solo, Sam the 2nd :

My Pop Life #79 : People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

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People Get Ready   –   Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

People get ready – there’s a train coming

You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board

All you need is faith to hear the diesel hummin’

Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord…

I bought The Impressions Anthology double LP at some point in the late 70s during my soul conversion years.   The album collects songs from 1961 to 1977 and every one is a classic, but one song stood out for me as head and shoulders above the rest.  More like a hymn than a pop song, this is one of the reasons why pop music is so potent.  To take a church form and turn it into a gospel/political plea of this simplicity and strength takes skill, it’s like a William Blake poem or a Martin Luther King sermon,  it hits you right between the eyes, and goes straight for the heart.

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Black American music has long used biblical imagery in the context of freedom – the crossing of the River Jordan, the walls of Jericho, let my people go (from Egypt) – the language of slavery from the Moses era of the Old Testament perfectly fit the plantation south.  Trains have also been prominent in freedom songs.  The Underground Rail Road was the name for the hidden path to freedom for escaped slaves, a series of marks on trees, directions remembered, safe houses, places to avoid.   The songs Wade In The Water, The Gospel Train and Swing Low Sweet Chariot all refer to the freedom train, or the underground railroad.   Harriet Tubman was one of the main conductors on this train, freeing hundreds of slaves to the Northern states.   The Gospel Train (Get On Board) was sung by contralto Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when she was denied entry to the Constitution Hall in 1939 by the “Daughters Of The Revolution”.

With the aid and support of Eleanor Roosevelt she sang an outside radio broadcast to 75,000 people with millions listening on the radio.   She was later the first black performer at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955.  Incidentally she has also sung “Erbarme Dich” from the St Matthew Passion (see My Pop Life #76).

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Marian Anderson

So Curtis Mayfield‘s song is in a tradition, it may have the appearance, melody and structure of a gospel tune, and the subject matter of a religious song about God, but Black American music always has significant symbolic aspects of freedom hidden in plain sight.   People Get Ready is very much a song of the Civil Rights era, two years after the march on Washington, and released in the same year of the Selma to Montgomery marches.   A year ealier the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public places – the “coloured” drinking fountains and rest rooms, bars and restaurants, but in some parts of America it was impossible to register to vote.  The freedom train was coming though.   Lyndon B. Johnson‘s presidency was actually more radical than Kennedy’s before him and created many of the institutions of America still existent today – Medicare and Medicaid, public broadcasting, voting rights and public housing.

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The arrangement of the song is special – a choir hums the intro with a xylophone and strings, then the Impressions – Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler and Fred Cash – sing the song.  Guitar lines, trumpets and vocal harmonies grace the key change and then we get taken home, musically.  Something about the chord structure answers a deep yearning for completions and resolution and the song rose into my all-time top ten within a year of buying it.  I put it onto Jenny’s Soul Tape (see My Pop Life #29) along with Gladys Knight, Bobby Bland (My Pop Life #28) and others, and then in the early 1990 we saw Curtis Mayfield live at the Town & Country in Kentish Town Road.  I think most people’s highlight was Move On Up (and fair enough, what a tune), but when he played People Get Ready, in the same arrangement as the original, simple and direct, we melted.    A few months later a lighting rig fell onto him in Flatbush New York and he was paralysed from the neck down.  He still continued to write and play until diabetes lost him the use of a leg.  He died in 1999.

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 His output remains an inspiring and uplifting body of work, from the early Impressions songs through Pusherman and Freddie’s Dead to the last LP New World Order, and perhaps no other artist has contributed so many black pride anthems, from Keep On Pushing through to Move On Up.   But he also managed to balance the righteous freedom politics with an uber-cool image that peaked with Superfly in 1971.

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I’ll just briefly note in passing that Bob Marley is among the artists who covered People Get Ready.  And Stevie Wonder played it with India Arie last month in Brooklyn (see My Pop Life #39).   A towering song.

My Pop Life #62 : 4th Symphony (#3 : Ruhevoll) – Gustav Mahler played by Chicago Symphony conducted by Sir Georg Solti with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa

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4th Symphony (#3 : Ruhevoll)  –   Gustav Mahler

I know next to nothing about classical music, but I’ve been steadily educating myself for the last 30 or so years in a hit-and-miss fashion.   I treat it like any other form of music – in other words, I either like it, or I don’t.   I’ll always give it a chance though.   This piece was a very early discovery for me, at some point in my mid-twenties I bought a cassette of Mahler’s 4th symphony – it has a 4th movement song and the singer was Dame Kiri Te Kanawa whom I found both attractive and recognisable.  Call me shallow, but decisions are formed from such primal simplicities.

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Furthermore, the conductor was Georg Solti whom I had also heard of, and have since discovered to be one of the great dependable elements, especially when purchasing Wagner.   I’m sure he’ll forgive me if I don’t call him Sir Georg.    In fact there are better versions, but it’s all taste so go and hunt down your own.   There are three different conductors below this piece.   So there I was aged twenty-something, with a small handful of classical LPs and an even tinier selection of cassettes – useful for car journeys of course in those days.   I’m particularly fond of long car journeys – if I’m driving especially.   And this cassette got plenty of plays because it is a very sweet-sounding and romantic piece of work.  My favourite part is the 3rd movement – so yearning and pleading and tragic that I used it on my first ever showreel – an actor’s ‘greatest hits’ – shouldn’t be too long, in and impress them and out.  If you can.

I had only played one lead part by then (I have permanent supportyitis) which was a Channel 4 drama called Say Hello To The Real Dr Snide.  I played an alcoholic who thought he turned into a black cat when he was drunk.  My wife was the incomparable Celia Imrie and my therapist the equally brilliant Linda Bassett.  Lucky me.  Directing was the young Peter Cattaneo who would go on to direct The Full Monty, go to Hollywood, come back and the last time I met him he was directing Rev, a BBC series about a vicar.  Such is showbiz.   Ups and downs, swings and roundabouts, ripples, waves and all that.  And there we were in London 1990 filming this drama, and I enjoyed most of it and did all right I thought.   Mostly.   Celia Imrie was a total delight.   Linda Bassett was wonderful.   Not sure how great I was though, in retrospect.    I distinctly remember one scene where I was lying against a wall in some derelict area, drinking from a whisky bottle and talking to myself, in denial, in crisis.   Looking back, I really didn’t do the scene that well.   I didn’t melt – I couldn’t melt – as Paul Schrader would say years later about de Niro (he’s wrong by the way {Awakenings?} but it was interesting that he would say that about such a great actor in front of other actors).   I was too tightly wound to be able to collapse my personality on camera and the scene ends up being too tight and forced.   I watched it while making the showreel.   I may have even included it, I can’t actually remember, but if I did I would have plastered Mahler 4 all over it to try and make it more acceptable hahaha.  The music alone makes me melt these days.   Music can do this to me without warning, tears in the eyes.   When I was young – no, I liked it, but no tears.  I have no trouble melting now that I’m older and more vulnerable than I ever was when I was a young man : “the survivor”.   Now that I’ve apparently survived, I am unpeeling gently, unwinding, slowly, and letting the world in.   I was screwed up tight because I’ve always been terrified of having a nervous breakdown – due to my Mum’s particular affliction, whatever label is currently in vogue for her vulnerability.   So I compacted myself inside when I was young, and kept it there.  No ambush could unlock it.  Weird now I think about it that I could even have a career as an actor.  My own feelings were hardly available to me.  I was forced to ACT.   And sometimes I just didn’t get there.  I can say that now, looking back.  I have got better since then, but I still have limitations.  (Everyone does).

And sometimes if you put great music under a limitation, people don’t notice.

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Gustav Mahler was a jewish Bohemian by birth who converted to Catholicism to secure the directorship of the Vienna Hofoper (now State Opera) due to the anti-semitism of the era.   I don’t believe he was religious at all in fact, but spent his life having to deal with anti-semitism.   He conducted for the early part of his life, famously Wagner, and wrote in the summer holidays.   The 4th Symphony was completed in 1900, thus Mahler’s work bestrides both the Romantic era and the modern.  I’m not going to discuss Der Knaben Wunderhorn, a series of German folk poems which inspired the first 4 symphonies because I’m well out of my depth there.   Don’t panic.   I like all of his symphonies now that I’ve heard them all.   I’ve watched my father singing with Huddersfield Choral in the 8th Symphony, performed with up to one thousand voices (Symphony of a Thousand);  the 2nd Symphony (Resurrection) is powerful and exciting;  the 5th is famous for its use in the film Death In Venice, and a vocal symphony (8 and a half?) called Das Lied Von Der Erde (Song Of The Earth) is probably my favourite work.  This – the 4th – was my first, and is the most familiar to me.  The yearning, tragic 3rd movement is utterly fantastic and is below this piece of writing if you have a spare twenty minutes.  It is astoundingly beautiful.

Kiri Te Kanawa sings the 4th movement of the 4th Symphony

the entire 4th symphony conducted by Claudio Abbado

the romantic doomed magnificent 3rd movement of the 4th symphony (George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra) 

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.

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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 #20 : Everything Must Change – Oleta Adams

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Everything Must Change   –   Oleta Adams

…the young become the old and mysteries do unfold
cause that the way of time nothing and no one goes unchanged…

Jenny – my wife – absolutely loved this first LP from Oleta Adams with the hit single “Get Here (If You Can)” and the dancefloor groove “The Rhythm Of Life”.  Very good.   This was the classic song hidden in the depths of the LP, written by Bernard Ighner.   Covered by many others.   The early 90s.     Not kids anymore, getting on with being grown-up.  Jenny and I decided to get married in 1990, and a giant discussion emerged which would last for several years.   I exaggerate only slightly.  The big questions were when? and where?

We lived on Archway Road at that point, the middle section which runs from suicide bridge up to the tube station and Jackson’s Lane.  London N6.   Since Jenny’s family are Catholics, and mine are do-what-you-want, we arranged a meeting with the priest at St Josephs on Highgate Hill, a large and rather formidable catholic church perched next to Waterlow Park, where we could hold some kind of reception.  Father Patrick, a white-haired kindly Irishman spoke to us about the arrangement.  We book the church for one year later – June 1991 would be ideal.  We’ll have to do some evening classes ‘in marriage’, which we’re quite happy to do, and we’ll be expected to attend Mass on a Sunday morning about once a month.  Or Jenny will at least.   It all seems jovial and easy and we shake on it and walk up to Highgate Village for a celebratory drink.  There are some nice pubs in Highgate, notably The Flask, but for some reason we walked back down Jacksons Lane to The Black Lion on the upper reaches of Archway Road near the woods.   We had a few, and had a fight, about what I simply cannot remember but it was a serious fight because the following day we walked round to the church and asked to cancel the wedding.

Luckily we hadn’t announced the date, or got any cards printed up or booked the hall/cake/car/band.  So the wedding was off then.   We weren’t off, but the wedding was.   We were secretly relieved, and disappointed at the same time.   But underneath all the bickering and hesitation, we clearly agreed on one crucial thing – the wedding mattered, and it had to be right.   For entirely different reasons I’m sure.   My reasons?  Both of my parents had, at that point, been married three times – each – and I’d attended the various ceremonies with Paul & Andrew and Rebecca.   There’s one particularly grim photograph of us boys at the Brighton Registry Office marriage of our Dad (whom we called ‘John Brown’ after the divorce from my mum) to Lynne Brewer, his girlfriend and former pupil.   Andrew (10) has a fringe and a smile rather plastered onto his face, Paul and I have groovy teardrop collar shirts – I guess it’s 1974 – and truly miserable glum faces.   That was my dad’s 2nd wedding.   His third, to wonderful Beryl, was a happier affair, and lasts to this day I’m happy to witness.   My mum’s three marriages were a) to my dad, b) to JD (Rebecca’s dad), and c) to Alan which worked for a while, but only for a while.   So marriage for the younger me was a bit of a joke to be honest.   Fraught with issues to say the least.   The fight in the pub was a sign that I wasn’t ready to be married – perhaps, as I’d always claimed, I didn’t really want to be married.   That’s how I grew up, all my 20s “I’m never getting married”.   Beware of what you say in your 20s.   You may be mistaken.   I sure was.   But neither of us were ready to get married in 1990 – even in a year’s time.  When we cancelled the wedding we didn’t cancel each other.   We got closer, eventually.   But these moments of certainty are so fleeting, the moments of doubt so pervasive.  That’s partly what marriage is, a pegging out of cloth in the wind, pinning down one area of doubt at least, making a shelter in the woods that will be there at the end of day.

Things were changing – aren’t things always changing ?  Mandela is released from prison, Poll Tax riots in Trafalgar Square, the Soviet Union melting like a globally-warmed iceberg, Saddam invades Kuwait.   And at some point that autumn I am offered the role of Aaron – ’85’ –  in Alien 3 by David Fincher.   I’ll save that for another song, but it meant that we could afford to get married – at some point in the future.   When we were ready…

As for Oleta Adams, she was “discovered” by Kurt Smith and Roland Orzabal and invited to join Tears For Fears as singer and pianist, and she appears on the Seeds Of Love LP.  Her own debut Circle Of One, from where Everything Must Change comes, was released a year later.  I’ll confess that we didn’t keep up with Ms Adams who has released six further LPs, but she still performs from time to time with TFF to sing Woman In Chains.