My Pop Life #123 : Philosophy – Ben Folds Five

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Philosophy   –   Ben Folds Five

..I see that there is evil and I know that there is good

But the in-between I’ve never understood…

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Ben Folds Five

It was on the radio in August 1995 that I first heard Ben Folds Five.  They were amazing.  The music sounded hand-crafted specially for me – pure major-chord bright-eyed sophisticated pop music fronted by a piano; witty songs, arrangements and lyrics and brilliant music with no guitars.  I’ve never been a huge fan of the guitar to be honest – so of course here follows a list of exceptions <sigh>  :  Jimi Hendrix, Joe Walsh, Blue Oyster Cult, QOTSA, Sex Pistols, George Harrison, Elmore James, Django Reinhardt, Paco de Lucia, Guy Clark, Franco & TPOK Jazz, The Ramones etc etc

But the piano.  Come on.  The finest musical instrument.  An orchestra in two hands.  Bach. Chopin.  Erik Satie.  Debussy.  Scott Joplin.   James P. Johnson.   Rachmaninov.  Ellington.  Fats Waller.  Teddy Wilson.  Art Tatum.  Count Basie.  Fats Domino.  Ray Charles.  Randy Newman.  Alan Price.  Ian McLagan.  Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Kate Bush.  Ben Folds.

Hey – whose Pop Life is it anyway ?

Ben Folds was the pianist.  Darren Jessee was the drummer.  Robert Sledge played bass.

Just three of them, and they called the band Ben Folds Five.  Sounded better I suppose.

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The first single was called “Underground” and it sounded amazing on the radio.  Amazing enough for me to go out and find the CD somewhere.  Called “Ben Folds Five“, it had a picture of a piano on the front cover.   It was excellent.   Packed chock-full of ideas, the songs were about college, leaving college, being a young adult, looking back, growing up.   Many styles.   Some were like Elton John, some were rock music, some were like music hall/ragtime, others like prog.   And they could play.   Folds himself is clearly classically trained, returned to pop.  The fuzz bass is a huge part of the sound.  And the backing vocals.  My favourite track on that first LP is called Philosophy and it is a little impenetrable lyrically – theories abound that it is about an architect, the Statue of Liberty, Ben’s cock.  Seriously.  (He made a joke about it once and everyone remembered it).   But I think it’s about having your own self-image, your own take on life and your path through it.  Your own philosophy that “keeps your feet on the ground, keeps you walking when you fall down”.    Without that you’re a cypher.

I immediately set about learning it on the piano.  It is a beautiful thing.   But very soon I was off to Australia on a gig, and by the time I came back we were completing on a house purchase in Brighton.

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Mollie Jules-Crompton

Cut to November 1996, one year later and Jenny and I are babysitting for Mollie’s girls Dominique, Kimberley and Courtnie (who was only one year old!) in Ruislip for a week.   Mollie – Jenny’s older (but not oldest) sister, married to Pete a year before us – was in hospital under observation because she was pregnant again, and she’d already lost two previous pregnancies desperately trying for a boy.   Mollie & Pete had three very beautiful and fabulous girls – still do – but they both wanted a boy, even at some risk to Mollie’s health.  It was a worrying time for us all.  Mollie was also showing signs of auto-immune disease Lupus once again to complicate things.   At this point at the end of November she was six months pregnant and there had been some alarm so Jen and I stepped in and said we could stay overnight there for a few nights.   Pete was working nights at that point.

Anyway, come November 26th we got Jenny’s two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy to stand in for us as babysitters because we had two tickets to see Ben Folds Five at the Astoria in London’s Charing Cross Road.  Over a year after the album was released this was their first tour of the UK.

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The Astoria, Charing Cross Road, London

The Astoria was one of those great London venues which has now been destroyed to make way for Crossrail, the project that allows bankers to whizz into the City from Heathrow in half an hour.   It is responsible for the current destruction of Soho as a unique bohemian corner of London.   I didn’t see that many shows there, but David Bowie in 2001, and this from Ben Folds Five are up there with the best moments.

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Ben Folds Five live

They played the whole album and some interesting covers – Ray Charles You Don’t Know Me and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer – and absolutely smashed Philosophy and Underground with Ben jumping onto the piano and playing it with his fists and feet at one point.  Good show.  We came out and Jenny immediately called her sisters to find out if all was well.  We’d driven in from Ruislip – I think I had a Jag at that point – some gas guzzling blue monster that I loved driving – and Jenny suddenly burst into tears on the street as we walked round to Soho Square.  “Mollie’s had a baby boy” she said through sobs…”he’s in an incubator”.

We drove to the hospital and found Mollie, exhausted but happy, wth Pete, and Jenny’s Mum & Dad, and there was a tiny little precious baby boy in a transparent incubator, tubes going into his nostrils as his tiny hands tried to pull them out – it was a good sign.  He was three months premature.  He weighed less than a bag of sugar – 2lbs.  In those early days there was much worry about brain damage and stunted growth and all kinds of things, but those early struggles to remove his nose tubes were a sign of strength through adversity and slowly but surely he was removed from the incubator and grew into the healthy young nephew that Jenny and her sisters called ‘Boy’ after the youngest, Cookie had named him.

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Robert, Jordan and Cookie in 2006

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Robert – June 17th 2007 when he was 11

Robert is now 18 years old and a more throughly great young man I couldn’t wish to know.  Thoughtful, funny, gentle but nobody’s fool.

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Robert Jules-Crompton and I in 2013

 I’m not sure he even knows this story about his nativity – from our side anyway.  I doubt he’s heard this song.   But I know he has his own philosophy which keeps his feet on the ground.  Jenny and I took him to see Tottenham v Chelsea one day for a birthday present a few years ago.  All Jenny’s family are Tottenham Hotspur fans.  Oh well.

It’s now November 2015, some 20 years after that first Ben Folds Five LP was released, and two days ago Robert’s nan Bet, Pete’s Mum, passed away in Yarmouth.  Cycles of birth and death.  She will live on inside us all, inside all who knew her.  But death is a loss, and it has been a sad week. Rest in Peace Nanny Bet.

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Pete, Kimberley, Bet, Dominique in 2013

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Ben Folds Five did two more LPs : Whatever & Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – both outstanding;  an LP of B-sides, and then split.  Ben Folds did some cracking solo LPs himself – notably Rockin’ The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, and Ben Folds Five reformed for one last LP The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind in 2012.

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Robert with his nephew Kian, Dominique’s son in 2012

Philosophy, the song, has a moment towards the end when everything goes mental and Ben’s pounded piano solo turns into a quotation from Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, that mighty work from 1924 which has come to symbolise New York, via Woody Allen’s Manhattan and various other cultural markers.  Soon I will get the famous cadence – the theme from Rhapsody in Blue – tattooed onto my left arm. Sometime this November.

LP track

Live from Jools in 1996

Reformed band in 2010

My Pop Life #66 : Untold Stories – Buju Banton

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Untold Stories   –   Buju Banton

I’m living while I’m living to the father I will pray
Only him know how we get tru’ every day
 all the hike in the price, arm and leg we have to pay
While our leaders play…

…all I see people a rip and a rob and a rival tief never love fe see tief wid long bag… no love for the people who are sufferin’ bad, another toll for the poll may god help we soul…

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1995.   Q : What do actors do when the work dries up?

a)  Go mad

b) Start a business, and go mad

c) go to the gym, read and go mad

d) go to Los Angeles, and go mad

e) take drugs, drink, and go mad

f) go on a bike ride, do voluntary work, and go mad

g) write a film, and go mad

I’ve tried all of the above – except b) naturally.  Start a business ?  I think not.  But I’ve started a couple of Production Companies – 1507 Productions with Beverley Randall (fond memories) and Apricot Films with Gwen Wynne and others (actually still exists).   I suppose they are businesses.  In 1995 I had been unemployed for a year in Hollywood.  I’d done one job for the BBC in Italy – nice, Florence, Napoli – another story – but zilch in LaLa.  Grrrrrr.

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I’ve documented some of this chapter of my life in My Pop Life #15, the hustle for work, the desert drive, the agent meeting,  the return to England.   What I didn’t mention was my last stretch in LA, knowing I was coming back to England, finishing up, finishing the lease, finishing my first screenplay.   We’d been on King’s Road in West Hollywood for two years, lovely apartment with a piano and back yard, walking distance from the Beverley Centre, just across from the King’s Road Cafe, even though we preferred to patronise Jans on Beverley (where the LAPD eat) because of the Monte Cristo sandwich and unselfconscious clientele.   LA man, I dunno, it’s a trip you know ?

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And I had an idea for a film.  A good film.   I knew what the story was, I’d talked about it with a couple of people, including the screwface who eventually directed it Suri Krishnamma.  Looking back it’s amazing how little confidence I had in myself.  My front page is full confidence, but behind that is a person who needs constant encouragement, and when that isn’t forthcoming doesn’t have the sheer chutzpah to smash through the indifference and just DO IT.   Although I have done that a couple of times, it’ just not my personality really.  Funny old game innit.   Anyway.

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I organised my CDs in alphabetical order and played them one at a time starting with A.  I like to write to music.  Doesn’t really matter what it is.  I didn’t want to choose a CD every time one finished, so I just took the next one.  I sat in the bedroom at a small table with my Apple, opened Final Draft and started to write my screenplay.    I vomited it up like an ayahuasca purge.   Based loosely on my adolescence at Lewes Priory School, the story is about two 16-year-old boys who make a suicide pact at the top of a steep chalk cliff overlooking the sea, then give themselves one last year of life before they die together.   It took me two weeks to write, and the first draft that resulted could have been made into a very good film.   Of course though, there were re-writes, seventeen in all.   It eventually got made in 1999, but that’s a long and tremendously irritating story.    I will tell it.    The film is called New Years Day.   It always was, even at first draft stage.  An annoying title, because when you google it, all kinds of shit comes up.   Word to the wise – choose a standout title, something eye-catching like My Beautiful Laundrette.   Sgt Pepper.   Songs For The Deaf.   Everyone remembers those.   “New Years Day”.    Cah.   What was it called again ?  Anyway, done, dusted.  It’s out there on DVD now, I haven’t spoiled it by unravelling the plot.    I am, despite the teeth-grinding betrayals and back-stabbing, proud of the finished product.

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Untold Stories was on Buju Banton‘s fourth LP ‘Til Shiloh which was his 1st since becoming a Rastafari faith member, and the change in style and lyrics was immediate – gone (almost) were the lyrics about women and batty men, violence and so on, in were more thoughtful pieces like Untold Stories, Not An Easy Road and “Til I’m Laid To Rest.   We all deserve a second chance, right?  Untold Stories itself has a marvellous feel to it, spiritual, neo-realist, earthy and full of wisdom.   It is one of my favourite pieces of music from Jamaica and speaks to the struggle we all go through, whoever we are. It’s not an easy road.   Who feels it knows.   I had an untold story.   I told it.   I’m still telling it.

 “…I could go on and on, the full has never been told…”

My Pop Life #45 : If You Love Me – Brownstone

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 If You Love Me   –   Brownstone

…but if you want my heart then it’s time that you start
To act like you’re mine in the light and the dark…

We finally moved into our new house in Brighton in March 1996, after Eamonn Walker (brother from another mother) and I had sanded and varnished the floors of three rooms, and Tony Roose (expert!) had helped me lag beneath the floorboards.   Lovely wooden floors in place, Jenny was welcomed down, previously restricted from visits due to her asthma.   The dust now settled, we brought the cats down and moved into the top room with views of the Palace Pier and across to Worthing and Chanctonbury Ring on the Downs.   It was a great move.   A new life.

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Brighton was local newspapers, slower pace, less happening, and trains to London.   After a few months we wondered if we’d made a Terrible Mistake.    Then people started to come down – the first visitors were Paulette and Beverley Randall, and we moved the kitchen table out into the garden and ate alfresco whilst drinking quantities of wine.   Summer arrived and we started to really fall in love with being in Sussex, taking trips out to my childhood haunts, finding lovely country pubs and walks and butterfly sanctuaries, lying on the beach with the tourists, becoming deeply involved in the Brighton & Hove Albion story as chairman Bill Archer announced that my beloved Goldstone Ground was to be sold “to pay debts” – and there were no plans in place for an alternative home ground.   1996-7 was a dreadful season to follow the Seagulls, but the fans were amazing, letting the board know their feelings about having our home sold from under our feet.   We were rooted to the bottom of the entire league for weeks that autumn, manager Jimmy Case was sacked and it felt like the people running the club would be happy for it to fold.   The fans and players eventually saved Albion in dramatic fashion – but this is not the place for that reminiscence.

I turned 40 in the summer of ’97 and held a legendary party in our new house to celebrate and mark the passage of time.   It was attended by neighbours from across the street, new friends from Brighton, and many old mates and new who had travelled down.   It was billed as running from midday June 21st to midday June 22nd – a proper midsummer night’s dream.    I finally crashed out at lunchtime on the Sunday.  It was a big old-fashioned dirty young people’s party and I kissed goodbye to my 30s in defiance.  Dancing went on literally all night, guests such as Chiwetel Ejiofor (with whom I’d just shot “Amistad”) slept on the bouncy castle erected in the garage, people went down for a swim in the sea at dawn, I became 40 high on ecstasy, drink, marijuana and dancing.

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Brownstone’s “If You Love Me” was a key song for Jenny and I.   I can’t remember where we first heard it (Trevor Nelson? or maybe before we left Los Angeles…) but the tune, the lyrics, the voices, the swing of it became our sound in the party years 1996-2000.   Jenny enjoyed DJ-ing too, and she always targets her DJ set at the women on the dancefloor.  Once the women are dancing, the guys will tend to follow…  So there’s a bit of Whitney, some Bee Gees, Abba, TLC, Prince, Ghetto Heaven, Aretha…and Brownstone.  Turn the lights down low, turn up the bass, and grab the nearest honey…

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Brownstone formed in the early 90s.    Nichole “Nicci” Gilbert, who co-wrote If You Love Me, Monica “Mimi” Doby, and Charmayne Maxena “Maxee” Maxwell (who sadly passed away after an accidental fall in February 2015) met at various auditions around Los Angeles, were signed with Michael Jackson‘s label MJJ and recorded the LP From The Bottom Up in 1994.   They had a number of line-up changes in the years since.   This song transcends all the hype and music-biz PR by simply using great singing – three excellent voices in harmony.  Song was nominated for a Grammy in 1996 (but lost out to TLC’s “Creep”).

and here is an acapella version :

My Pop Life #15 : Original Nuttah – Shy FX & Apache Indian

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Original Nuttah   –   Shy FX & Apache Indian

…rude boys inna London…bad boys inna Inglan….

After three years of living in West Hollywood the work dried up.  I’d done 2 movies : Undercover Blues, and Wayne’s World 2 ;  scored the best review of my life in the Los Angeles Times, to no effect;  been up for every film they were making in 1994 – an average of three auditions per week – and done precisely zero. A whole year without work, save for one BBC show in glorious Italy.  The parts I’d been up for were taken by Kevin Spacey (Seven, The Usual Suspects),  Dennis Hopper (Speed, True Romance) and Christopher Walken (True Romance, Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead) among others.  Glass ceiling.  Head bumping.  Break On Through To The Other Side.   Maybe we should have stuck it out, but a) we had no money left and b) Jenny hated LA.  We did an epic desert drive to Salt Lake City via Monument Valley and back through Death Valley in my 2-door Lincoln Continental being the ultimate posing ponces on a road trip to our jewish friends in the book of Mormon and then Jenny went back to London and I spent the last month there writing a screenplay in a ferocious rage.  One of my last missions in California  was to my agency on Wilshire Boulevard – Susan Smith & Associates – to tell her that I was no longer interested in doing any meetings or auditions.  “Well”  she said, eyeing me up, “It’ll be very difficult for me to find you any work then.”  I smiled.  “Good”  I said.  “I have no interest in working.”   I flew back to London after giving the car away and had a similar meeting with Michael Foster, my English agent.  Fuck acting I thought, what a fucking useless fucking waste of time, I should have done part 2 of the Legal Exam and I’d be a successful barrister by now instead of which I’m a sad unemployed failure of a git.  I missed LA but had a whole social life back in London to plunge back into.   I remember we started looking for somewhere else to live around this time.   Crouch End and Highgate where we were living by the suicide bridge on Archway Road.  You couldn’t get much bang for your buck even then.  Musically Britpop wasn’t really doing it for me, although I liked Suede and Supergrass.  I’d got disillusioned by the appropriation of the hip hop scene in the US by gangsta rap and turned off the whole thing.  Then I heard this song while out driving one day in North London.  WOW.  Like a breath of fresh air.  I’d missed out on a whole new subscene whilst living in California.  Jungle.  LTJ Bukem had released Logical Progression in 1991 just before we’d left for LA, it was called drum and bass – and Roni Size and Reprazent were a whole two years away – and this song Original Nuttah sounded completely mental, but homegrown mental.

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I loved the introduction in patois and cockney, the manically fast electronic drum machine, the similarly deranged stuttering delivery but mainly I think, I loved the fierce energy of England as a mixed-up melting pot of youth cultures which clashed together into this new music.  UK hip hop had a brief surge in the late 80s which I’d been deeply involved in and written a hip hop musical called Sanctuary but it felt that the scene had come to very little – probably Monie Love being the peak flow – top of a small pile which included The Cookie Crew, London Possee and MC Duke, Asher D, The Ruthless Rap Assassins and Demon Boyz.  Maybe it was just me that had moved away.  One difficualty was that somehow the british accent wasn’t acceptable in a rap – Jamaican was OK, british not.   It was a cultural lack of confidence – hip hop was american, but an English kid rapping in an american accent seemed way more problematic than an English pop star singing in one.  I’d had a similar train-wreck with my 2nd rap piece “The House That Crack Built” which was commissioned by the BBC and never made – was it English culture or American ?  Loads of my favourite singers deliberately sang British – Bowie, Ferry, Suggs, Ian Dury – but rapping in a British voice just wasn’t catching on.  It would be another seven years before Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Kano bust open the local accent as grime artists, underground east London drum and bass mixed with UK garage.  There are so many names and sub-genres around this period (early 2000s) that I get lost – but in 1995, jungle was IT, and this was the tune that showed its fin above the waterline, underground music surfacing on the pirate radio for a brief period.  It made me feel proud to be British again, and a little happier to be back in the smoke. Shy FX later worked with Dizzee and many others, while the singular vocals on this track are from Birmingham MC Apache Indian a British Indian ragamuffin bhangra artist who specialised in toasting in west indian, english and indian and had an influential LP out called “No Reservations”.  This was the England I’d missed without even realising it – the mix-up, the cultural smashing of the empire striking back.  Quite a relief after vanilla LA and all that shady sunshine, and radio stations that only play one genre of music.  This is what we do best.  Mash it up man !