My Pop Life #172 : In My Chair – Status Quo

In My Chair   –   Status Quo

I saw her talking, now
My ears were burning
Her feet started walking, now
They started turning
My eyes were half open
But she didn’t see me there
We ran along, walking ‘cross the roof-tops
In my chair

I was working in Bude, Cornwall on Julia Davis’ series Nighty Night when I got the offer. Did I want to play Status Quo‘s road manager Barney in 3 episodes of Coronation Street to mark the 45th anniversary of Britain’s longest-running soap ?   Who’s gonna say no to that??   These are the moments in an actor’s life which really lift the spirit.  Straight offer.  No audition.  Working with a band I’d loved since I was knee-high to a wotsit.   Iconic.

Press play

And on a TV show with it’s sensational trumpet theme tune which had been with us all the way – a host of characters who were real – Ena Sharples, Hilda Ogden, Albert Tatlock, Elsie Tanner, Rita Fairclough, Ken and Dierdre, Vera Duckworth, played by actors who were even more real.  Reminding all of us soft southerners that this country of ours had a north, who spoke differently.  Working class people on TV.  And it was comedy too, unlike Eastenders the slit-your-wrists southern soap.  The combination of Status Quo and Coronation Street was earthy and righteous.   I said yes there and then, and a few days later the scripts arrived.  One of the things people always ask me when I get a job and I’m shooting some programme or film is this : “When is it coming out ?

Which is one thing I never ever know.  Some time next year, when it’s all edited and got a soundtrack and some PR behind it and blah blah blah.  But this was the one exception.  Coronation Street scripts come with the TX, or transmission date printed in capitals at the top of page one.  When’s it coming out ?  September 21st 2005.

I’d had hair extensions added for Nighty Night because I was playing a new-age sex therapist who was a bit of a twat (enjoyed that role very much and both Julia Davis and Rebecca Front (and the rest of the cast – truly blessed we were) are genius but that’s for another post) – so I kept the long hair for Corrie since I felt in my bone of bones that the old fella Danny the Dealer from Withnail and I would get another outing.  Withnail was shot in 1985 – then in the mid 90s I’d filmed Wayne’s World 2 and played another rock’n’roll character called Del Preston (for another post too!) and he had spoken with the rhotic ‘R’ sound & stoned delivery of Danny from Withnail, after I’d called writer and director of Withnail Bruce Robinson and asked him if he thought it was OK (it’s your character Ralph, do as you feel).   I felt that I would wheel him out once more, perhaps for the final time – indeed I haven’t played that character since then, but hey never say never.  There are people who wonder why I didn’t make a career out of that geezer, (I did : Ed) but I’ve always felt rather protective of him and kept his powder dry.    Coronation St with the Quo though felt completely right, so it was dangly ear-rings, maroon waistcoat, jeans, cowboy boots, a floppy yellow hat and permanently stoned gaze.

EXT. The Rover’s Return – day

My first scene was in The Rover’s Return, the legendary pub on the Corrie set, which nestles in the centre of Granada TV in the heart of Manchester.  Of course the exterior is in The Street while the interior set in inside a studio.  Obvious but there you go.   I’d met the band briefly before we went on set, invited to their dressing rooms (one each for Rick and Francis) and said hi – they were both very easy-going and normal and friendly -unsurprisingly because their image was of down-to-earth-fellas, because that is who they are.  Like me I hope.  And then we were in the pub – initially me at the bar and them in a booth.  Next to me at the bar was Jack Duckworth.

Julie Goodyear (Bet Lynch), Liz Dawn (Vera Duckworth) and Bill Tarmey (Jack Duckworth) in the pub in Coronation Street

If you’ve never seen the show it’s not easy to explain who this person is.  He’d been an extra on the show for ten years, playing darts in the background of The Rovers before becoming a regular character in the early 80s some 25 years earlier.  He was, in short, a fixture on the show, and on that particular set.  He spoke with a viscous throaty Manc growl, full of beer and fags and character, a kind of gloomy town crier that you used to be able to find at the bar in every pub in England.  In the scene he had to ask Barney who those geezers in the corner were, and I had to sing a section of Rockin’ All Over The World which he wouldn’t recognise, at which point I say “The Quo man?  Status Quo”  and carry the beers back to the lads.  It was fun.

Rick Parfitt, Francis Rossi : the stars of Status Quo

After four or five takes they stopped to fiddle with a lamp and Bill Tarmey – or Jack – turned to me and said, with all sincerity :

“Ralph lad, you’re doing very well. Very well.  I’ve had top actors in here, A-listers stand at this bar and I’m telling you lad, their knees have gone”

Christ it was funny.  I wondered who he was talking about – Ian McKellen? Ben Kingsley? – and carried the beers back to Francis and Rick, and we had a sup and they called cut.  Rick Parfitt and I lit up a Benson & Hedges each.  A runner ranneth over, doing his job (running).  “Sorry you can’t smoke on set gentlemen you’ll have to go outside“.  We looked over at Jack Duckworth who was perched, nay, carved into the bar with an Old Holborn roll-up permanently tucked and smouldering inside his hand.  “Jack’s smoking” I said.  The runner assumed an air of private suffering.  “That’s Jack though”  he smiled weakly.  Rick and I looked at each other, made a decision to say nothing and walked outside for a quick puff.

Francis Rossi had formed a band with Alan Lancaster at Catford High School in 1962 who evolved into Status Quo, adding Rick Parfitt in 1967,  Andy Bown in 1977, and John Rhino Edwards who replaced Alan Lancaster on bass in 1985, all of whom are in the current line-up and present on set in Manchester.    Quo have had over 60 chart hits in the UK and specialised, since 1969, in denim-clad 12-bar boogie.

Status Quo in 1970 when they released ‘In My Chair’ as a single

Their peak era was the mid 1970s, with a run of hits including Softer Ride and Down Down just as I and my friends from school Conrad, Tat, Andy Shand and Tigger were forming our own band called Rough Justice based in Kingston nr Lewes.   We wrote our own material, but also played a nice wedge of covers – two by The Beatles (Birthday and Get Back), two by Elvis Presley (Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock – see My Pop Life #80) and THREE by Status Quo :  Paper Plane, Caroline and this song In My Chair.   In My Chair is a very low-temperature boogie with delightfully surreal lyrics and a terrific old school guitar solo, and if it got any slower it would slowly slide off the sofa and fall asleep on the floor, yes, but it’s also a tune.  My favourite Quo song along with Gerdundula, which was actually the B-side on Pye Records.  (Francis Rossi had later told me that Gerdundula was written for a German couple they knew in the late 60s called Gerd und Ula.  So now you know 😉   Rough Justice loved the Quo, but we also found these songs relatively easy to play – 12-bar songs with a rhythm guitar part (Conrad playing Parfitt) and a lead part (Tat playing Rossi).   I would then sing the relatively undemanding nasal lead vocal (Ralph singing Rossi).   Although as I recall I played bass on Caroline (three whole notes!!) and Andy Shand sang the lead vocal.  People could dance to them too.  Of course I told the Quo all this, and they were pleased.   They were pleased to be in Coronation Street, with lines, acting, thrilled to bits to be honest.  Which was very sweet.  I asked them who they liked and they said Jeff Lynne of ELO and Hank Marvin, guitarist with The Shadows.  Rick had sat next to Hank at some variety TV show where the audience is filled with celebrities, and told us that he’d spent some of the time looking down at Hank Marvin’s  right hand, thinking – that hand played those licks!  They were lovely fellas all right and they made me feel very welcome.

I appear to be happier than The Quo

Later that night Rick and I had a few too many in the hotel bar and Rick actually fell into a glass table covered in drinks, causing mayhem, spillage and jokes.   Kind of gratifying.   We ran along walking across the rooftops in my chair.   Three weeks later we would return to Manchester for the following episode.  Now read on dot dot dot.

Jack Duckworth, the character, passed away in 2010 asleep in his chair.  Millions mourned. He was the 2nd-longest serving male character on the show – over 30 years.  Two years and one day later Bill Tarmey the actor passed away in Tenerife at the age of 71, of a heart attack.  We mourned all over again.  Here’s to you Bill.

Late note : as I was writing this blog, Rick Parfitt was suffering a massive heart attack. Thankfully he lived and is now in recovery, on the mend.  My thoughts are with him.

In My Chair from 1971 :

clearer visuals :

the B-side Gerdundula played live in 2004

My Pop Life #134 : ‘The Emporer’ – Haydn

String Quartet #62 in C op 76 ‘The Emporer’  –   Joseph Haydn

I reckon Haydn is a bit under-rated.  You never hear much about Haydn do you?  Not like you hear about Mozart or Beethoven, his contemporaries and friends.  Or Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky.  Bach.  Elgar, Prokofiev and Ravel.  Haydn is like – well I was going to say obscure but that would be absurd.   He feels less celebrated.   Probably my hallucination.  He wrote 106 symphonies, yes that is correct, 106  symphonies between 1759 and 1795 which works out to about 3 per year : one of his nicknames is “the father of the symphony“.   He also wrote 68 string quartets over this period, giving him a 2nd nickname “the father of the string quartet“.   The mother of these things is not revealed.   His work tends towards the optimistic and positive, and the pieces develop their themes quickly : his symphonies are short (each movement between 4 and 9 minutes) and easy to listen to.   Largely written for royalty and for dancing, he was in many ways the pop lord of his day.

Pop Lord Haydn c 1770

He was tremendously popular in England and lived in London on two separate and happy occasions between 1791-95 while still working on the continent, sometimes with a certain Ludwig Van Beethoven as his pupil.   Towards the end of his prolific life he sat down and composed three longer and more serious works – all oratorios, called The Creation, The Seasons and The Seven Last Words Of Christ.  These influenced Beethoven to levels of genius.

I love Haydn.  They are works that make you feel happy.  There is a level of complexity in the music that your brain can grasp immediately.  Very pleasing.   They are also “Tunes”, as my friend Luke Cresswell once described a Bach piece.   I think the first Haydn CD I bought was on the Naxos label and had the 85th, the 92nd and the 103rd Symphonies on there.   I had no idea what I was buying, but that’s often how I buy music, as a kind of lucky dip.  It was around 1996, I’d just moved to Brighton, and perhaps I’d just finished A Respectable Trade which was set in Haydn’s era and had come across the name there.   I wrote a little about that TV show, which was about British slavery and in which I played a doctor opposite my wife who played a slave, in My Pop Life #122.  Life is long indeed.  I liked my Haydn CD very much and for a while listened to nothing but.

As I recall I quickly went out and bought another one which had the 45th, 94th and 101st Symphonies on it.  I can report that it was also most excellent.   If you are reading this and have never knowingly listened to Josef Haydn then I would advise you first not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount available.  There’s a lot of Billie Holiday out there too, and Duke Ellington.  But just dive in.  It’s refreshing and wonderful stuff.

In September 2005 I was cast in a Hollywood film adaptation of Christopher Paolini‘s book Eragon, written when he was 15 years old.   Dragon with an E.  It starred Ed Speleers as the dragon-tamer, Jeremy Irons, Djimon Hounsou, John Malkovitch, Sienna Guillory and Chris Egan and others and we were all flown out to Budapest in Hungary in early October.    I’d been there before of course, first in 1975 (see My Pop Life #70), then again in 2000 on Last Run, a film with Ornella MutiJurgen Prochnow and Armand Assante.  Once again, Budapest had changed quite a lot.  Mafia types hung around the centre after dark.  There were no more cimbalom players gracing the quaint restaurants. Now in 2005, things seemed a little harsher.  Still the beautiful Blue Danube (copyright Johann Strauss) flowed through the centre.  One of the oldest subway systems in the world.  We were fitted for our costumes and my head was shaved, then we shot for a couple of days at the studio where I met scottish actor Gary Lewis for the first time and an old friend from Benin Djimon Hounsou again.  We had worked together on Spielberg’s film Amistad in 1996 in Newport, Rhode Island, where he’d played the slave leader Cinque and I was a Lieutenant in the US Navy.

Me with Djimon Hounsou in the Budapest studio

Lots of imaginary dragons to act with, one giant one.  Shortly thereafter I am driven for a few hours down the road to a small settlement called Celldömölk in the west of the Hungarian countryside.  This will be where the rest of the film is shot, in an amazing extinct volcanic crater.

The design of the set in this green calderon is stunning.  I am playing bald twins, one of whom is evil.  It is quite good fun.  But I have made no close buddy here, and on days off I have to amuse myself.  I decide to hire a car and drive around.  They don’t let me, but give me a driver and a car instead.  One day we drive north to Sopron a beautiful town near the Austrian/Slovakian border.  Indeed it is only a few miles from both Vienna and Bratislava.

Sopron, western Hungary

My driver and I took lunch together and drove into the countryside toward the huge lake.  We spotted a sign for Esterháza and something clicked in my mind.  We went to find it.  It was a beautiful clear autumn day, blue sky, warm.

Esterháza, Hungary

There it was, a stunning golden palace set in formal gardens.  We walked around the grounds, went inside and found a little information.  Yes, this was the home of the Austro-Hungarian, (formerly Habsburg) Esterházy family, principal patrons of Josef Haydn who was their Kapellmeister from 1761 until his death.  He was permitted to travel to England for the 1790s when Prince Anton’s reign did without the service of musicians, trying to save money.  But this was where he worked and lived and produced all of his key works, almost in total isolation from the rest of Europe and the other composers.  It was a good find.

After his reportedly joyous time in London and Oxford where Haydn was feted and adored, he returned to Esterháza and composed his final works including the late String Quartets and the hymn Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser which was inspired by the British national anthem God Save The King – an anonymously composed tune which is frankly a dirge.  Nevertheless Haydn wanted Austria/Hungary (as it was then) to have its own patriotic anthem so he composed it as a birthday gift for the Emporer Francis II.   It premiered in 1797 and also appeared in String Quartet #62 – the 2nd Movement, ever since known as ‘The Emporer’.    It will be immediately apparent to listeners that the entirely memorable and beautiful tune lives on to this day as the Deutschlandlied or the German national anthem.   Haydn didn’t write the words but I’ll note in passing that “Deutchsland Deutschsland über alles“, the opening line, is often misrepresented as a nazi slogan when it actually refers to national unity.  Germany didn’t exist in 1797 and the small states and principalities the lyrics appealed to were only unified in 1871.   

I was brought up hating Germans.  My parents were evacuated during World War Two and Paul and I played on bomb debris sites in Portsmouth in the early 60s.  As a child playing bang bang war games ‘The Germans’ were always the enemy.  Six months after completing Eragon I was on my way to Germany with my wife Jenny in a Citroen draped in the St George’s Cross.  Oh the clashing ironies.  I believe St George was Macedonian.  Popular in Bulgaria too.  Haha.  Nationalism is of course the last refuge of a scoundrel, but football will do that.   I’m not a fan of National Anthems either but some of them are just great tunes, just like some flags are great designs….

The 2006 World Cup that summer was one of the best we have been to – brilliantly organised yes, but also charming, funny, gentle, relaxed, modern and fun.  Germany had left the past behind long before the rest of us.

Shortly after our drive from Hamburg to Nürnberg, Bad Kreuznach to Dortmund I received a phone call from Hollywood from the producer of Eragon.  “I’m sorry Ralph” he said, “But we’ve cut the Twins from the film, they came in too late for any more new characters and we needed to get to the fighting.  Nothing personal – you were great, and thanks, but apologies”.

“Thanks for letting me know,”  I said.  “You didn’t have to do that”.

When the film was released in December 2006 it was one of the worst-reviewed films of that year.  I wasn’t in it at all.

I still got paid, and I still get royalties.

Mozart and Beethoven both loved Josef Haydn.

So do I.

*

the performance below is by The Lindsay Quartet who tend to be the people we look for when purchasing string quartets, particularly by Haydn or Beethoven.   This is the 2nd movement only – seek out the rest.

My Pop Life #106 : A Wedding In Cherokee County – Randy Newman

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A Wedding In Cherokee County   –   Randy Newman

…maybe she’s crazy I don’t know

maybe that’s why I love her so…

The Old Market, Hove, Sussex August 13th 2005.   Not quite Cherokee County but it’s a universal tale isn’t it ?   Hmm maybe not.   Anyway.   Cherokee County could refer to Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, South or North Carolina or Texas.   The song is written by Randy Newman and is off his 5th LP entitled “Good Old Boys” and the LP has a theme – the South of the USA.   All of the songs are concerned with life, history or the mentality of living in the South.    When he plays live he compares it to Quadrophenia.   He’s joking.   In case you missed the debate, The South or The Confederacy, finally lost the Civil War in 1865 when Reconstruction began and the abolition of slavery was final.   However, the effects of that war have never disappeared as is only too obvious.    President Abraham Lincoln was shot dead on April 14th 1865 just as hostilities had ceased, a victim of his support for the abolition of slavery,  The South was poor (relatively speaking) for at least 100 years afterwards, voting rights weren’t granted finally until 1964 (Selma) and the Confederate Flag – the flag of the six breakaway states (the ones with the most slaves) – was finally taken down from the Town Hall in Columbia South Carolina this month in July 2015.  But this song isn’t about slavery.  Or Civil War.  It’s about marriage.

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Randy Newman was born in Los Angeles to musical parents.  His first self-titled LP came out in 1968 and it was immediately clear that he was a distinctive and original songwriter.  Mordant, satirical, ironic, witty, irreverent and clever, there is no other writer like Randy Newman.  Instead of attacking he goes underneath and makes you smile.  I bought his 4th LP Sail Away in the 1970s after hearing it at Simon Korner’s house (or so I thought, Simon has since denied this) – it contained one of my then favourite songs Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear which I knew from the pop charts and Alan Price.   Randy wrote it.   The entire LP is a masterpiece and I’ll blog it another day – we’re inside the next one – from 1974.   ‘Good Old Boys’ is what men from the south call each other.  “Them good ole boys was drinkin’ whisky and rye singin’ this will be the day that I die..”   That line is a perfect example of the stereotypical sentimental self-pity of the southern man in art and song, a strange mixture of pride and defiance, racism and whisky.  “I sang Dixie as he died“.   I think this LP is also a masterpiece and I will definitely be blogging five of the songs on it so I won’t go on and on.   But just to note in passing that the opening track Rednecks goes where few songs dare and calls out both the southern racism and the northern hypocrisy faced by black people in America.

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Meanwhile, Keith & Yarra were getting married.  They had a beautiful boy called George who had been born the previous January.  But they decided to tie the knot,  get hitched,  get wed, do matrimony, nuptials, get spliced and legalise publicly and forever their cohabitation and love, and they wanted me to do a reading at the ceremony.  Did I have any suggestions?  And could I suggest any music?

They both worked in the music business so I was sure they had everything they needed, but I made a few suggestions : Aaron Neville’s Ten Commandments Of Love,  Elvis Presley’s Hawaiian Wedding Song,  A Wedding In Cherokee County by Randy Newman.  The last song wasn’t a great choice to be honest because is it incredibly disrespectful, intentionally hilarious and pretty likely to get the relations kicking off especially if they’ve had a few.   Check the lyrics :

There she is : sittin’ there
Out behind the smoke house in her rockin’ chair
She don’t say nothin’, she don’t do nothin’
She don’t feel nothin’, she don’t know nothin’
Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so

But of course Keith and Yarra loved it, and not only did they love it they decided that they wanted me to read it out as a poem at the wedding.  Jeepers Creepers !   Not for that first verse, which is funny, but for verse two particularly.  I’d never met either set of parents, and now I was expected to stand up in my nice sky blue suit and read :

Her papa was a midget, her mama was a whore
Her granddad was a newsboy ’til he was eighty-four
What a slimy old bastard he was
Man don’t you think I know she hates me
Man don’t you think I know that she’s no good
If she knew how she’d unfaithful to me
I think she’d kill me if she could

They both assured me that it would be fine, that the parents would find it amusing, and that even if they didn’t that was what they wanted me to read.   I was honoured to be asked of course so I agreed.   I was also a little thrilled.   How daring !

..I’m not afraid of the grey wolf
Who stalks through our forest at dawn
As long as I have her beside me
I have the strength to carry on…

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Extensions from Nighty Night – me and Lyndsey

Keith and Yarra I’d met via Mark Williams when Jenny and I moved down to Brighton in 1996, they were part of the great loose endless party by the sea that seemed never-ending and full of cider and cocaine.  Keith unusually was a Manchester lad who supported Chelsea.  He has a streak of decency that is immediately recognisable and very welcome in a seaside town, and Yarra is similarly precious to me.    I think he used to work in rock and roll promotion in the biz, but he graduated to design later – for example designing the whole package of Paul Steel’s first LP April and I (see My Pop Life #1) which was like a Mr Men book.  I bought four of them to hoard.  It’s a brilliant record and a brilliant package.  But Keith has done tons and tons of stuff.  Not least been a  great Dad to George and Milla (who was born a few years later).

Today we will be married
And all the freaks that she knows will be there
And all the people from the village will be there
To congratulate us
I will carry her across the threshold
And I will make dim the light
And I will attempt to spend my love within…

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Yarra, Keith and George

So the day of the wedding came and all was well.   They’d planned it down to the inch.  I knew many of the guests but by no means all – but our Brighton and Hove gang were well represented by Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill (then married and together), Lyndsey, Louise Yellowlees,  Erika Martinez, Alex Campbell & Natasha, Lorraine and John and Mark, Emma, Josh, Patrick surely and Adam Mellor must have been there and when I just looked at my crap pictures I could swear that the bass player of Elbow is there, and he might well be because they are mates of Keith’s from Manc-land and I met them all one night in Pool Valley in Brighton after a gig.  It was a good wedding needless to say.  A good mixture of rock ‘n’ roll and class, flowers, nice clothes and drink and drugs.  The congregation were very welcoming when I arose to read out the Randy Newman poem, but the following third verse got a laugh and in the end we were all rather moved :

…though I try with all my might
She will laugh at my mighty sword
She will laugh at my mighty sword
Why must everybody laugh at my mighty sword?
Lord, help me if you will
Maybe we’re both crazy, I don’t know
Maybe that’s why I love her so

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Randy Newman ‘sometime in the 1970s’

Randy Newman’s songs sound like they were written 100 years ago.  They have an incredible weathered quality, the key changes, the simple choices, some of them sound like hymns, some like campfire songs, some like Tin Pan Alley or early vaudeville.   I’m not sure how he achieves this stardust 78rpm quality, I’ve watched him very carefully playing piano both live and on the TV and he scarcely moves his fingers up and down the keyboard – everything is bunched together and one new note and a shift of bass line and he achieves miracles.   Very little guitar – all strings and brass and piano.  Now and again a lick of slide.   Only the lyrics give away the non-historical nature of these songs – they are all massively contemporary even when he is pastiching older musical tropes.   And just listen to the drum on the first verse of Cherokee County.  It’s so late it almost misses the bus.

With a song that somehow expresses the opposite of its subject, which talks about hate, stupidity and mistrust and yet makes you feel sentimental and weepy-eyed about getting married I think Randy Newman had hit the motherlode of genius – but all of his songs are like this.  Short People.  Sail Away.  Political Science. On and on.

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Yarra, Keith, Milla & George

Happy Anniversary Keith and Yarra – ten years in a couple of weeks.  And I wouldn’t have dared have this song played or read at my wedding.  Are you kidding ?  Have you met Jenny’s Mum ?  So respect…

This never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

a taste of the man himself playing live in 1978 :

My Pop Life #82 : Lilizela Mlilizeli – Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens

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Lilizela Mlilezeli   –   Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens

Ululate/Applaud

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I talked about Tom Hark and South African kwela music in My Pop Life 51 and made a passing reference to the music which evolved out of that late 1950s flute jive – mbaqanga or Township Jive, which electrified the whole scene and replaced the flutes with saxophones around 1960 in Johannesburg, Soweto and beyond.  Featured imageThis is the most powerful music I know, the most urgent, the most bouncy, the most potent.  Perhaps apartheid repression contributed to this eruption of musical energy which lasted for at least 30 years to 1990 and beyond.  We first got exposed to it in the UK with the LP The Indestructible Beat Of Soweto which caused a storm upon its release in 1985.   Malcolm McLaren, ex-manager of The Sex Pistols and international musical huckster had already used the bass-line and rhythm of “3 Mabone” by The Boyoyo Boys on his hit New York skipping single Double Dutch, (and was successfully sued by them) but this was our first exposure to the bands behind that immense sound : Amaswazi Emvolo, Abafana Busequdeni, the Magkona Tsohle Band and Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens.  Almost more than the seductive soukous of Kinshasa and Franco & TPOK Jazz, (see My Pop Life #38) this music excited me beyond anything else from this era – although Run DMC Public Enemy and KRS-1 were also creating and building something exciting in New York called hip hop.

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Simon Mahlathini Nkabinde is what they call a groaner, singing so impossibly deeply that the sound appears to come from his boots.  The Mahotella Queens – on this record a reunion of Hilda Tloubatia, Nobesuthu Mbadu and Mildred Mangxola, had been singing since the early 1960s and appeared together on many many South African LPs and singles.  Featured imageThey were backed by the great Makgona Tsohle Band (“the band who can do anything“) who in effect were the creators of this sound and performed as the house band at Gallo Records, who had poached talent scout Rupert Bopape from EMI (see My Pop Life 51).

Featured imageHe created the Mavuthela subsidiary of Gallo which specialised in black music from the townships. Earthworks re-released a number of fine LPs from this period, and all are rather fantastic.  The Makgona Tsohle Band comprised of Joseph Makwele on the bass, Lucky Monoma on drums, West Nkosi on saxophone and Marks Makwane and Vivan Ngubane on guitars.  The result was hit after hit after hit.  This was like the Jo’burg Motown.

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After Paul Simon broke the artistic boycott in 1986 with the Graceland LP a worldwide appetite for South African music grew stronger, with increased exposure for Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba. This, along with  the success of the Earthworks Soweto LPs, compelled West Nkosi to pull the band back together for one shot at the international market.  The LP Thokozile is the result.  Many of the tracks are re-recordings of classic mbqanga/”mgqashiyo” hits, including Lilizela Mlilizela, written by Marks Makwane, and produced by West Nkosi.   The album was an international smash hit.

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They played at Hackney Empire in 1987 to promote the album and blew the roof off the place.  Mahlathini is dressed in leopard skin and growls lasciviously into his microphone.  The Mahotella Queens are pumping 300 lbs of heavenly joy and have more energy than a hydro-electric power station.  The band are frighteningly good.  I went along with friends from the Scala days – now film industry colleagues – Steve Woolley, Dominique Green and Don MacPherson.  My girlfriend Rita Wolf and David Keyes (who were both in the play Sanctuary at the time) also came.   They all wondered how I knew about this band.  But that’s our secret isn’t it readers 😉

Featured image It wasn’t the only time I saw this great band in action, but that can wait for another post.  But the first time that I got to work in South Africa was in 2005, in Cape Town in the show “Flood” about a tidal wave coming up the Thames.  One of my first stops was the music shop on Long Street where I found the History of Township Music CD and an album by Abafana Busequdeni.  Musical riches !   I always like to buy music from wherever I’m visiting, I could have bought the entire shop in Cape Town.

Incidentally “mgqashiyo” means “to bounce”.  In Xhosa – the click language.  You can hear them click every time they sing it.  Listen to that bass line and bounce along !

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My Pop Life #74 : We Major – Kanye West ft. Nas, Really Doe & Tony Williams

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We Major   –   Kanye West  ft. Nas, Really Doe & Tony Williams

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you mu-fuckers better do your job and roll up, and watch how we roll up

An’ I can’t control it, I can’t hold it, it’s so nuts –

I take a sip of that gnac I wanna fuck

I take a hit of that chronic I wanna fuck  – But really what’s amazin’

is how I keep blazing, towel under the door, we smoke until the days end

puff puff and pass don’t fuck up rotation, Hypnotiq for Henny ?

now nigga that’s a chaser, turn nuttin to somethin now pimpin that’s a saviour

Best things are green now pimpin’ get your paper

High off the ground from stair to skyscraper

cool out thinkin’ we local – c’mon homie we major

We Major…

Kanye West restored my faith in hip hop.  Being an old-skool purist for years, disillusioned with gangsta rap and the 90s scene I turned away and only paid cursory attention – to Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, PE and little bits and smatterings that escaped.   But Kanye West was something else.

Featured imageHe has now made (May 2015) six LPs on the bounce starting in 2003 which have individually been astoundingly good, and collectively represent the most important artist of the 21st century.  Kanye comes with original ideas, smooth flows, comedy, orchestration, samples, pop, raps, and pretty much paved the way for a number of 21st century musical innovations and trends.  His last LP Yeezus (2013) was monumental in its sound design and another game-changer – but this track I’ve chosen right here is a personal favourite from the second album Late Registration.  Not an obvious pick, not a single, but somehow this is the one that got under our skin chez Brown/Jules.   Already you can hear the music straining on the first few bars – the sound of a sound trying to escape from its boundaries, pushing against the barriers, smooth, powerful, strong and melodic.  Good chords.   The hook chorus is written above, rapped by old Chicago buddy Really Doe.    I always thought the last line was “too low thinkin’ we local“…  Rap Genius website has it as “cool out, thinkin’ we local…“.   I prefer my version because of the word-play on low and local.   Oh well.    Kanye employed Jon Brion – multi-instrumentalist and orchestrator – to help him on this LP.   Brion had produced Brad Mehldau, Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright and written the music for the films Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind before co-producing Late Registration in 2005.   He did a splendid job.

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Summer 2005 I was in Bude, North Cornwall making series 2 of Julia DavisNighty Night.  We had the run of this gorgeous clifftop house which became The Trees Therapy Centre.  I was Jacques, the main therapist and counsellor, a kind of abusive self-centred hippy twerp.  Really enjoyed this part very much.   Jenny and I had watched the first series and howled with laughter – we thoroughly enjoyed the dark humour and the character of Jill in particular.   At the audition on Tottenham Court Road Julia Davis had put me through my paces, and when I appeared to be a possible choice, called in Rebecca Front from a nearby room (surely I’m mis-remembering this?) and they proceeded to improvise scenarios with me, both of them in character with Julia as narcissistic sociopath Jill and Rebecca as zero-self-esteem fusspot Cathy, constantly undermined and manipulated by Jill.   It was as much as I could do not to burst out loud laughing (lol) as they created mini-scenes for me to exist in with them.   I stayed manfully in character as not-recovering sex-addict Jacques – a kind of po-faced ultra-serious egotist who nodded sagely at other’s suggestions while not really listening to them at all.   And got the job.

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Georgie, Ruth, Ralph, Julia, Miranda, Bude 2005

We were all in a little B&B in Bude – the main cast were all either massively successful, or about to be massively successful.  Angus Deayton, always slightly bemused that you’re actually talking to him, Rebecca Front, genuinely lovely and funny lady, Ruth Jones, busy writing her masterpiece in her spare time which turned out to be Gavin & Stacey, Miranda Hart who turned out to be Miranda!, and Mark Gatiss who turned out to be Mark Gatiss.   Nighty Night also starred my old friend Felicity Montagu, Georgie Glen and Llewella Gideon.  We had an absolute blast.

Featured imageOn the first morning there, Julia took me to lunch in Bude where she established that I was married with no cats.   She is a completely unpretentious, funny, sweet and lovely lady and bright as a button.   We almost all worked every day.   I had extensions put into my hair for Jacques and tended to wear floppy hippyish clothes.   The summer was glorious, the views spectacular, I had worked with half the crew before and we had a laugh.  Not really my world the TV comedy scene -it’s pretty competitive – but I’m terribly happy that I’ve been invited into it on a few occasions – (Him & Her, PramFace) – being funny is hard work and I love the challenge.    I have total respect for Julia – I think she is one of the most original and talented people working in the UK, and I thank her for letting me be a part of Nighty Night.

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Regarding Kanye, I could have chosen any number of his songs to feature in my patchwork quilt of a musical auto-biography:  Gold Digger, Diamonds From Sierra Leone, Flashing Lights, No Church In The Wild, Black Skinhead, Blood On The Leaves, Jesus Walks, Through The Wire….   He’s attracted a lot of hate recently and over the years mainly because of his antics, but sometimes simply because he is a successful black man.   Obama called him a jackass “off-mic” and Kanye enjoys stunts which can backfire.   He has been banging his head on the glass ceiling for a few years now, documented on Yeezus, indeed all his music is like a kind of running commentary on his achievements, desires and obstacles.   I always swing in and defend him on social media, not because he needs me, but because the mob mentality really bothers me, I like to poke a stick into its spokes.   All I know is that when the history of 21st Century music is written Kanye West will be Chapter One.   And when the history of 21st century TV comedy is written, Julia Davis will feature.  They’ve both been hugely influential.   My Pop Life introduces them to each other.   Big up!

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The final verse on We Major is penned by Nas – who changed the world of hip-hop with his debut album Illmatic in 1994.   These are the final few lines on the Kanye track :

I’m Jesse Jackson on the balcony when King got shot

I survived the livest niggas around, last longer than more than half of you clowns

Look, I used to cook before I had the game took,

Either way my change came like Sam Cooke

After five minutes and twenty seconds the song fades and silence hovers for a beat.  Then :

can I talk my shit again?

And the song busts back into multi-platform day-glo life again with Tony Williams singing the outro.  “he sings quite beautifully don’t you agree?”   It’s a glorious sound.  ‘Why d’you call it Late Registration Ye?  Cos we taking these motherfuckers back to school!!”  Feel free to sing along….   

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 :