My Pop Life #221 : Let’s Dance – David Bowie

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Let’s Dance – David Bowie

For fear your grace should fall
(Let’s dance)
For fear tonight is all
(Let’s sway)
You could look into my eyes
(Let’s sway)
Under the moonlight, this serious moonlight

Early 1983.  I am living in Finsbury Park with dear Mumtaz, under the eaves of the top floor on Blackstock Road.  Downstairs is Laurie Jones, a lifelong communist who supports Tottenham Hotspur, but also has a season ticket for Arsenal.  He watches football every Saturday as a result.  I will write a piece on Laurie.  Below him is Shirley, a Jamaican gentleman who tends the blues club in the basement.  Up in the top room, a bedsit which is the length of the house, Taj is doing legal exams, I am starting out on an acting career, and I’ve just finished a production of John Godber‘s expressionist adaptation of A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon on the King’s Road with various Yorkshire ActorsPaul Rider, Peter Geeves, Andy Winters.  Two years earlier in 1981 I’d done an adaptation of The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari with these fellas which toured the UK and ended up at The Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road as part of Bill Nelson’s Invisibility Exhibition.  Both productions were non-naturalistic, and partly took their inspiration from Jerzy Grotowski and Steven Berkoff.

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I think this was 1982

I’ve snaffled an agent from A Clockwork Orange having written to every single agent in the book with my photo and CV like you had to in those days.  David Preston had come to see the show and signed me up.  I was young, green and full of beans and this was my first agent so I was grateful.  David Preston had an office in Dean Street, a walk-up to a camp crimson velvet-curtained den where he presided over his boys.  I walked up to see him one day because I still got a weekly digest called PCR – the Professional Casting Report – and I’d read that my hero Steven Berkoff was auditioning for his new play, West.

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Steven Berkoff

Yes my hero.  When I decided to act for a living (detailed in My Pop Life #140)  – I’d seen one of his shows – East.  It blew me away.  Expressionist yobby Cockney Shakespeare like nothing else on the English Stage.  The language, the committed performances, the extraordinarily huge and expressive performances.  Hooked, I sought him out and in the subsequent years saw The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the Cottesloe and his one-man show A Tell-Tale Heart and Dog.  I think I’m right.  I’d seen three shows before I went for the West audition.

Back in the velvet cave I demanded that David Preston got me in there.  It was compulsory !  And to be fair he did get me an audition.  I can’t remember where it was but perhaps at The Donmar Warehouse.  We were seen in groups of four at a time which was odd to start with.  There he was, larger than life, a dark buzzcut cockney educated jewish voice explaining that we had all witnessed a terrible but exciting & bloody fight, and all we had to do was describe it in our own words to the gang when he pointed at us.  Bang.  Naturalism was out. Having seen the work I kind of felt that it was impossible for me to go over the top. Full cockerknee and ultraviolence courtesy of Clockwork Orange.  Male testosterone with thuggish eloquence.

I got it.  I cannot recall the phone call, or the recall, or whatever the details were, but I was cast in West.  Some time in early 1983 I found myself in a Kentish Town rehearsal room with the others : Rory Edwards playing the lead, Mike, Sue Kyd playing his girl, Sylv, John Joyce playing dad and Stella Tanner playing mum.  And three other fellas. Bruce Payne, Ken Sharrock and Steve Dixon. We were “everyone else”.  Which meant…?

Right lads.  Any part that isn’t Mike, you read those lines.  Just jump in when you feel like it OK?  Let’s go.

Bruce jumped right in and read the first TWO PAGES before I managed to elbow him aside as he drew breath, intervene and read a portion myself, then Ken jumped in, then Steve.  And so it went on, Bruce with the loudest mouth and most focussed ego, and me with the next and so on.  It was fucking exhausting.  Like a trial by combat, with words.  We got to lunch and we’d read the whole play.  It was a fantastic piece.

Well done everyone. Take an hour for lunch.  Lads, whatever lines you just read – they are your lines. OK thanks.”

WHAT???

But it was true.  The trial by dialogue had become Steven’s lazy way of dividing the lines between us.  Bruce had 50%, I had 30%, Ken and Steve had 10% each.  To our credit we all accepted it immediately, bonded as a gang, and got down to putting the play on its feet.  Bruce Payne was a smooth handsome blond from London with expressive hands, a student of Berkoff’s style and mannerisms.  Fancied himself.  Ken Sharrock was a scouser with a barrel chest and a deep growl which he started to convert into East End cockney.  Steve Dixon was smaller, chirpy & quick but with a vicious edge when he wanted.

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Rory Edwards was a tall, dark and yes handsome martial-arts specialist who rode a motorbike and black leathers.  I would work with him some 12 years later in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe for the BBC where we would play brothers – me as Prince John and him as Richard the Lionheart, the Crusader.  He was born to play these kinds of heroic parts.  Berkoff used him a lot in the 1980s, I remember seeing him as Jokanaan in Salomé, at the National Theatre with a long beard and matted hair.  Great actor.

Susan Kyd was a shapely red-head with excellent cheekbones and a beehive hairdo.  She gave as good as she got, and she got it between the eyes from Berkoff, who is not known for his kind, gentle manner.  He would berate her in the rehearsal room and she would snap something straight back whereupon he’d look at us and sneer “Mouthy Cow“.  Sue would snort in derision. She was pretty impressive.

The parents were both really sweet.  Stella Tanner, playing Mum, was a face, from Dixon of Dock Green, Corrie, and countless other TV shows.  She took Sue under her wing off-stage and was quite devastatingly hilarious because of her understanding of character.  She had some fantastic lines.  John Joyce had been with the Ken Campbell 24-hour play The Illuminatus which also spawned Bill Drummond of The KLF (My Pop Life #220). John was a gentle vague but kind soul who liked a puff, and was also hilarious, though not always when he chose to be.

So there we all were.  I cannot fully recall the absolute thrill of working with Steven Berkoff on his own play, of speaking his words, raising my game to unheard of levels where I felt positively uncomfortable, and still trusting the result.  A whole different kind of acting.  I wanted Berkoff’s approval and did my utmost to get it with my acting decisions.  I think we all felt the same.  Act Two opened with a kind of song by The Lads – Bruce, me, Ken and Steve – who played the Hoxton Mob as well as the Stamford Hill Gang.  Ken was the Hoxton Mob leader.  We were so keen that we would get into the rehearsal room an hour early at 9.00am to rehearse this scene without Steven Berkoff present, eventually revealing to him the “thing” that we had made.  A kind of flailing cockney machine of oiks, arms, elbows and arses thrusting with fuck gutteral Gertcha engine noises and “you what – you what?“.  Steven was delighted and said “keep working on it boys“.

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How The Hoxton Mob appeared in the C4 version of “West” with prosthetic make-up and Ray Burdis

The wardrobe fitting was a visit to an East End tailors in Bethnal Green called Cooper & Stiles, 390a Hackney Road ‘since 1954’. We were in the finest light 1960s-styled tailoring with snazzy shoes and thin ties.  I thought I’d landed.  I think I probably had to be fair. We looked like the dog’s bollocks.

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When we got to the Donmar for technical rehearsal we realised that we would be working on a seriously raked stage – one platform at the back with ten chairs facing out in a line, then a vicious sloped stage that everyone had to stand in action poses on to remain upright.  When our scenes onstage finished we would walk back to the chairs and sit facing the audience like statues.  Very Expressionist.  Berkoff had studied with Jacques Lecoq in Paris, who taught physical theatre and mime, Ariane Mnouchkine & Simon McBurney are among the alumni.  I’d seen the great Polish director Tadeusz Kantor at the Riverside Studios in 1981 doing his astonishing show Weilopole Weilopole, which was a stunning piece of imaginative physical theatre – and I’d become exposed to the theories of Jerzy Grotowski another Pole who wrote the influential book Towards A Poor Theatre in 1968.  This argued that theatre shouldn’t compete with film but concentrate on what was unique to the form – actors playing live in front of an audience.  What emerged was total theatre, using your body alone to suggest doors, cups, weapons or motorbikes. The power of the imagination.  Writer and director John Godber was one of the English practitioners of this kind of theatre back then including his production of A Clockwork Orange.   So were his protégées The Yorkshire Actors.  Devotees of Berkoff, naturally.  We were in that tradition in West.  A Black Box, actors and words and audience.  I fucking loved it.  A live musical and percussive accompaniment.   It was my full professional debut onstage – which is to say I was actually getting paid full whack to act in a play, written and directed by my hero.

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Ken, Bruce, Rory, Steve, Ralph – the Stamford Hill gang

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Two dressing rooms – boys, and girls.  It was terribly exciting.  We opened to great fanfare and burned it up.  Great reviews, suddenly we were the hot ticket in town, and we settled in for a five month run at The Donmar Warehouse in London’s West End.  It’s a tiny theatre and tickets were snapped up.  Word would trickle round – “Elvis Costello is in” , “Danny Boyle“, “Madness“.   David Bowie’s Let’s Dance was the song of the year, a thumping bouncy riff-tastic disco bop which started like The Isley Brothers’ Twist & Shout as played by The Beatles and finished like the Nile Rogers funk stomp which it actually was.  A Monster Tune.

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Then the curdle began.  The show was too long so Steven decides to make cuts.  My solo moment, doing the Berkoff walk on the spot, suit jacket on one finger over the shoulder : “walking home alone beneath the stars, through Stamford Hill down Amherst Road to Finsbury Park…” suddenly has a sharpened guillotine hanging over it.  “Please don’t cut that speech” I plead with Berkoff, “I live in Finsbury Park…”  He relents and the speech stays in.   A victory.  Other stuff got trimmed.  Every night before we went on Bruce would recite his entire part aloud until we kicked him out of the dressing room and he did it in a downstairs corridor.  Then Bruce started to manspread in his chair at the back when Mum & Dad were on, his knee and elbow forcing my body into contortions to avoid pain.  One night I resist with a stage whisper Fuck Off Bruce! and push back and he jumps two seats down and freezes.  A couple of scenes later we’re doing the gang scene in the toilets having a slash, backs to the audience, miming giant python knobs a la Berkoff and “who’s got a tanner for the jukebox?” as I dig deep and flick the imaginary coin across the heads of the gang who watch it arc across the stage to Bruce who catches it and pumps it into the slot. Not tonight. He pulled the coin out of his own pocket in a strange revenge moment and my flicked mimed coin lands “on the floor”. A chill went down my spine.  It sounds like a cliché but that is exactly what it felt like.  I realised that I could not trust Bruce onstage anymore.   The spell was broken and it became more tense, less magic.  But the play always takes over.  And what a play.  What words.  John Joyce would have a huge spliff before the Wednesday matinee every week then walk the plank live onstage getting fluffs and laughs in equal measure.  He would then spend the rest of the week trying to recapture the elusive laughs to little avail.

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Bruce Payne, Steve Dixon, Ralph Brown, Ken Sharrock @ Limehouse

Offstage I was going to Pineapple Dance Studios a couple of times a week and doing routines in that hotbox of spangle and leg-warmers.  What a blur it all is now. Walking around Covent Garden, Earlham Street, Neal Street then going into work for a testosterone-fuelled assault on the audience, a totally non-naturalistic Shakespeare-laced East-End tragedy of rage and tenderness and violence.  Steven was a difficult guy to get to know, but he pulled one of the great performances of my life out of me.  I wanted to please him, I needed his approval. I admired his work so much, his challenge to the audience, to the theatre establishment, to the actor.  He is the real deal.

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casual photobomb by Director John Frankau 

The show got picked up for the brand new Channel Four, and filmed at Limehouse Studios on the Isle of Dogs after we’d closed.  John Frankau directed.  It wasn’t as good as the play since it was trimmed quite a lot but it was a good craic.  We were measured for new 60s suits and I still have mine.

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Then, like in all shows, we scattered to the four winds.  Bruce and I’s relationship never recovered fully from that day, but he had immense early success as an actor and we ended up meeting again in Beverley Hills in the 90s, and Ouarzazate in the 00s.  Rory Edwards came in and out of my life like people do, a man of mystery and romance.  We met him at Heathrow on his way to St Lucia with his wife Julia Ormond one day.  I have no idea where he is now.  Ken Sharrock and I worked at the Royal Court the following summer in an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown, directed by Danny Boyle.  We played brothers, and Ken’s father died during the run. I remember him weeping backstage before we went on and I hugged him as he whispered “Use it, use it” as his cue approached.  For another post.

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Ken came to see me playing Macbeth at The Everyman in Liverpool (see My Pop Life #108) and gave me an hour of much-needed insight and support as I fought my way through that production, that life-changing experience that put me off the stage for 20 years and more.  He passed away in 2005.  Steve Dixon gave up acting a few years later.  (The internet tells me he is a professor and President of LaSalle College of the Arts in Singapore!)  John Joyce passed away in 2009. Where is Stella?  I think she passed in 2012. But I’m still happily in touch with Sue Kyd, who joyfully came to my 60th with legend Doña Croll and I spent a lovely evening with her last year when I went back to London to see Jenny in Congreve’s The Way Of The World at – The Donmar in 2018.  It was great to see Sue and hang out at her wonderfully located Covent Garden pad within touching distance of the theatrical & historical London she loves so much.

And Steven Berkoff.  We’ve stayed in touch through the years since then.  First the cast had been to his Limehouse pad on the river and met Clara his lovely partner, had drinks, talked shit.   The usual.  Later I got a phone call from my agent about 18 months after West had closed.  Steven was doing a new play of his called Sink The Belgrano at the Half Moon Theatre and would I audition for it?  I called Steven immediately.  “Hello Ralph” he rasped in his educated London growl, “How are you?“.  I told him I’d been asked to audition for his play that week – he said – “Ralph obviously it goes with saying that I know you and your work, and you don’t need to come in for that.”  I said thanks and hows your father, and I did not go to the audition which was the following day.  And I Never heard anything about the show since.  Haha.  Always go to the audition folks!

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A short time after that he called me to come and see a rehearsal of his one-man show Harry’s Christmas which is a sad tale of an old cantankerous git “celebrating” Christmas alone.  It was very bleak yet funny.  I gave him some thoughts.  He just needed an eye on it, and I was honoured to be asked, but my fantasy of getting a directing credit, and shepherding it to an opening was dashed into mirthless smithereens on my ego floor.

I’d see him in Brighton from time to time as he has a flat on the seafront and he’d spend weekends there with Clara.  We memorably had dinner with David Bowie one night when Steven & Bruce were performing Greek in St Martin’s Lane – scrawled into this blog at My Pop Life #54.  I saw Decadence with Steven & Linda MarloweMetamorphosis at The National with Tim Roth as Gregor.  And then he did a touring show at the Dome in Brighton in 2007, the Tell-Tale Heart, Dog, The Actor.  Jenny and I went backstage afterwards and he was all smiles and champagne and grace.

Then finally, in spring 2018, Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s opera “Greek“, with a libretto taken from Berkoff’s play, was at BAM, just down the road from where we live in Brooklyn. I bought a ticket and emailed Steven to see if he was coming.  He hadn’t decided.  In the end I watched it alone, and marvelled.  Steven didn’t come. Well he is now 82 years old.  I was proud for him all over again.   I’d love to have worked with him again, but it hasn’t happened.  That how it is right.  It’s life.  People come into your space and make their mark, have their moment, and leave you changed forever.

 

Steven Berkoff as I knew him in 1984 after we’d filmed West for C4:

Steven performs his monologue “Actor”:

Let’s Dance the original video filmed in Australia :

The most recent thing I could find :

 

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My Pop Life #212 : Use It Up, Wear It Out – Odyssey

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Use It Up, Wear It Out  –  Odyssey

Do it all night
Do it all night long
Do it all night long
Do it all night

Ever since my year of musical sentience – 1971 – I reckon I’ve been over 50% musical nerd, less than 50% emotional reaction.  Drawn to strange complex compositions from the likes of  Van Der Graaf Generator and Gentle Giant when I was 14, 15 then rock, pop, jazz and classical in my twenties, and all manner of “world music” in foreign tongues in my thirties and beyond.

Although I started my musical appreciation as a child I became a musical snob once I was at big school and anything too popular was to be sneered at, with a few exceptions – The Beatles, Motown, glam-rock and Simon & Garfunkel for example.  This wasn’t a rule just a strange affliction which got challenged regularly, particularly by my younger brother Paul’s taste.  Andrew, the even younger brother had even more of an intellectual & obscure prediliction than I, happily meandering into Bill Bruford, Brand X, Delius and Opera from a young age, but in his groovetastic favour are weaknesses for funk (see My Pop Life #138) and disco, which we all grew to love.  But Paul got there first, when it was actually happening.  He found a place to belong in that world when he didn’t find one at home. Ejected from the house by our mother at the age of 16, he lived in digs in Eastbourne and worked at the tax office.  He wouldn’t come out as gay (perhaps even to himself) until a few years later when in 1980 we travelled through Mexico together and I contracted hepatitus B (see My Pop Life #72).

When he returned to London in the early 80s the first flush of disco was over and house music was in its early days. He would take me out to gay clubs with his friends and we would dance.

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Odyssey were more popular in the UK than the USA

But if I’m honest I never really fully embraced Disco as the genius music it truly is until much later.  I now have three Chic albums, Sister Sledge, the Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack and a whole collection of wonderful one-off hit singles from the likes of Wild Cherry, Cerrone, Andrea True Connection or Silver Convention. Not to mention MJ, Q and Sylvester.  I have burrowed into this world with the devotion of a born-again funkster disco queen because it is simply wonderful music, brilliantly composed & arranged, and perhaps more importantly, quite fantastic to dance to.  Or exercise to.  In my old age – yes that happened – I now do a work-out routine pretty much every day, in our apartment. Based on Pilates, a disco or a reggae soundtrack is essential. And every time this song comes on an extra spring in the step appears.

It’s a deceptively simple construction, but my entire thesis in this post is that I over-think music when I’m not stoned.  I’m a young soul, not born wise, and my education has somewhat interfered with my appreciation for the beauty of simplicity.  I have noticed throughout my life that intellectual or educational intelligence is valued much more highly than emotional intelligence.  Thinking wins over feeling.  What is emotional intelligence?  What – you mean you don’t know? I have had to learn it, or re-learn it, for I had an inkling of it as a child, as did we all.  My two cats have it.  They know when to approach, when to walk away. Empathy.  Understanding.  A little less analysis, a little more instinct and love.  A little less middle 8 a little more groove.  I’m not explaining it very well.  And ironically one of the great musical intellectuals of the 20th century made some of the very finest disco records. I’m talking about Quincy Jones work with Michael Jackson of course, so my entire thesis, apart from being vague and vaguely dodgy is simply nonsense.   But then Q is a fairly exceptional human being on every level, intellectual, emotional, musical, who can count the ways?

I said :

1  2  3  shake your body down

 

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So emotional intelligence then. Women have it.  They develop it too.  If it isn’t used in their career, respected in the system, conjoined to the intellectual and given space, then it becomes an alternative way, a parallel path.  I remember the girls at school in our year going out with older boys.  But perhaps I’m doing myself a disservice.  “I’ve always.. I’ve never..” phrases that should be banned in domestic squabble.

What I’m saying more simply is this : I value dance music more now as I grow older.  I rarely actually dance (shame) but my love is stronger.

But I still analyse even the simplest things, it’s how I am built.  Hard to let go and just dance.  I think the closest I get nowadays is exercising.  Really I should dedicate this song to the last four years of pilates. It is about breathing and posture mainly. We’ve adapted it a little and added a few weights here & there, a few stretches and so on.  But breathing is the thing that gets the blood flowing and lifts the adrenalin and generally the mood, the capability and the life within and without.  When a friend of mine confessed he was feeling depressed earlier this year and that he felt that I was perhaps someone who could help, I said – simply so that there could be no thought – move.  Move your body.  Dance, pilates, run, cycle, swim. It works.  It has lifted me through so many bipolar episodes when I wake up in the dark and cannot shake it any other way, with drugs or otherwise. Move.  Move yourself in some way dammit.

And stop thinking. Just move.  Your body and your brain Are The Same Thing.  They need oxygen. Give it to them.

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Ain’t nothin’ left in this whole world I care about

I think when I was younger I moved as a sportsman – playing football twice a week for decades – and jumping up and down at gigs – The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, The Specials – and actually danced too, to The Bee Gees, Odyssey and Chic among others.  So keep moving everyone.   There was a point in there about emotional intelligence wasn’t there?  What was I trying to say?  You should be dancing? Get lost in music.  Young hearts run free.  Check out the groove. Good times. Dance, dance, dance. Love is in control.  How you gonna do it if you really don’t wanna dance? Get your back up off the wall. Off the wall. Watcha doin’ in ya bed? Shake your body, blame it on the boogie, can you feel it?, can you feel the force? jump to the beat, take it to the top and don’t stop til you get enough. Get on the floor, more, more more, burn this disco out and the beat goes on, gotta Use it Up and Wear It Out.

I said

1  2  3 shake your body down

My Pop Life #189 : Lost In Music – Sister Sledge

Lost In Music – Sister Sledge

we’re Roxy Music caught in a trap no turning back

we’re Roxy Music

Yes confession time as I count down the days towards my 60th birthday.  To be filed alongside My Pop Life #11 where I discussed the merits of the Bay City Rollers having decided after listening to 2 uncredited radio minutes that I liked them.  This one is perhaps more embarrassing, perhaps more forgivable.   Perhaps not.

Spring 1979.  My final term at LSE.  Living in Honor Oak, SE23 with Mike Hil and Rosie (see My Pop Life #151).  Very post-punk, my ears were switching from Talking Heads to The Undertones, Teddy Pendergrass to Elvis Costello, Donna Summer (On The Radio) to The Specials.   Just around the corner was Off The Wall, one of the greatest records of the 20th century, Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones re-writing the rules of dance.  The sound on the streets of London was no longer punk, the three-chord snotty-nosed kids had grown up and were playing reggae and funk covers.  London’s Calling was a long way from The Clash’s first LP.  And coinciding with punk rock subsuming into the mainstream was the disco backlash.  But not in London.  London was always open-minded about music I’d like to think, and my brother Paul had always sought out nightclubs on weekends and had a special penchant for Disco music, right from it’s early days in 1975, when it wasn’t called Disco, just dance music – I’m thinking of Barry White, The O’Jays Love Train, Fatback’s The Spanish Hustle, and George McCrae’s Rock Your Baby.  Not to mention the great Johnny Bristol.

1975 had been the year of the fifth and last Roxy Music LP – entitled Siren, it contained mighty smash hit Love Is The Drug, and extended triptych song Sentimental Fool which Paul had suggested in a Roxy Music competition for Smash Hits (perhaps) was their greatest song, giving reasons why of course.  He won that competition and my respect and a complete set of Roxy Music LPs, which he already had. The band then announced that it was over and they split up.   Wow I hated that.  Bryan Ferry continued to produce solo LPs, using Roxy band members : guitarist Phil Manzanera, drummer Paul Thompson and sax player Andy Mackay on Let’s Stick Together, In Your Mind and in 1978 The Bride Stripped Bare (which is a tremendous record by the way).  Being a full-on dyed-in-the-wool Roxy Music fanclub member and aficionado I bought all of these without question, without reading the reviews in the music press, without any doubt that they would make me happy.  They kind of did, but not like a Roxy Music record would.  And pining for this great band to reconvene, I heard that in the spring of 1979 they were playing a more dance-oriented style, less rock, less art-rock, more r’n’b.  They’d gone disco!  They’d always changed up from album to album, but this was tantalising!

Then listening to the radio one day I heard “We’re Roxy Music” clearly being sung by women over a disco beat, but in a very laid-back way.  “Caught in a trap.  No turning back.”  It was catchy, bouncy, smooth.  There was an itchy rhythm guitar scratching over a bubbling bassline and and eight-count hi-hat.  “We’re Roxy Music”.  And pretty weird too, singing the name of the band like that, like an advert.  Post modern and typically art-school pretension, I thought.  I liked it.  No.  I flippin’ LOVED IT.  What a rhythm guitar lick! How the beat slides behind itself on every turnaround!   The bass line was speaking to me!  IT WAS PERFECT!

IT JUST WASN’T ROXY MUSIC! YOU DICK!

WOW.  Disappointed and embarrassed as I was to learn that it wasn’t my heroes performing some arch all-knowing song with tongue firmly planted in cheek and that it was in fact an American group called Sister Sledge singing about being lost in music.  Which I clearly also was.   Without a paddle.  In fact Roxy Music had reformed and their new LP Manifesto was released that autumn of 1979 along with hit single Dance Away which was a dance-floor filler but even so.  Even so.

The shame can only now be shared.  Luckily I have recovered and the song Lost In Music hooked its way into my subconscious and my legs and it is an irresistible moment in any party of nightclub.  It is a disco classic and I love it.  It reminds me of Off The Wall from the same era – the idea of leaving your 9-5 up on the shelf and getting out on the dance floor was just as radical as any punk stance.  And of course we are now told by pop historians that disco was black, gay, female, latino and revolutionary and everyone remembers – something.  Not me because I wasn’t there.  I was walking outside in eye make-up and ripped jeans and dyed hair.  But disco music was huge alongside my punk era, largely indulged through my brother’s taste.  He was right.  He was being supported and acknowledged in his own identity while simultaneously discovering the idea of being Lost In Music.   Lose Yourself To Dance as Daft Punk (with Nile Rogers) encouraged us to do in 2015.   It is a fantastic musical form and will stand the test of time against any other pop trend of the last 70 years.  For me personally I have become fonder and fonder of Disco music as I’ve grown older.

But it has always been my favourite music to dance to  – along with ska.  I just always liked the groove, the beat.  The arrangement.  Like a jigsaw puzzle.  The syncopation. The timing.  All of it.  Many memories of dancing in formation with Millie, Jenny, Mandy and others to Odyssey, The Bee Gees or Michael Jackson.  Or of course Chic, the genius pair behind this song.

Chic was Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, rhythm guitar and bass, songwriters from New York City, the heart of disco in 1976.  Rahter incredibly I recently learned that Nile Rogers was partly inspired by seeing Roxy Music live in 1975 to form Chic.  Without getting into the whole history of disco, it was he who heard Donna Summer’s Love To Love You Baby in a discotheque getting mixed by the DJ into the next track amid a heaving multi-racial gay/straight dance floor mix all in a trance pulsing to the beat.  He was sold.  The heart beats at 60-90 bpm while at rest, but once you’re in the club and the DJ puts on Sister Sledge you fill find your heartbeat going up to around 120bpm, and many disco records are around this pulse.

Off The Wall – 119 bpm

You Should Be Dancing – 123 bpm

Le Freak – 120bpm

Don’t Leave Me This Way (Thelma Houston) – 121bpm

I Will Survive – 117bpm

Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground) – 118bpm

We Are Family – 119bpm

Maybe this is why these records – and my disco playlist – is perfect for a morning workout and stretch, pilates, weights, floor crunches and so on.  The body understands the beat, the gentle acceleration is what it needs each day to get the blood flowing round.  So for the last couple of years Jenny and I have put on either a reggae playlist  – also with a friendly bpm – or the classic disco playlist.  Usually my favourite record is Odyssey’s Use It Up, Wear It Out but that will have to wait for a more pure day.  This post has mainly been about the humiliation, the embarrassment, the acceptance.

In 2012 I read a book called 33 & a third Revolutions by Dorian Lynskey which was a history of the protest song from Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit to American Idiot by Green Day, covering civil rights, gay disco, anti-war songs, riot grrl and punk.  If he updated the book it would have to include Russia’s Pussy Riot and something from the grime scene, but I loved it (of course) and got in touch with the writer.  We had lunch in Groucho one day in 2012 and talked about the possibility of making a documentary based on the book.  Neither of us had ever made a documentary before of course.  But enthusiasm is all, and over the next few weeks we produced a pitch document.  The key to getting it made was asking Public Enemy frontman Chuck D to do the voice-over, or maybe even front up the doc, take us through the protest song.  Fight The Power (My Pop Life #61) was one of the songs in the book.

It won’t surprise you that much to know that the documentary remains unmade as I type.  But in November that year Dorian – who lives in London and writes music reviews and interviews with singers and bands for a living – put up on Facebook a spare ticket to Chic that night, playing in Kentish Town at the Forum.  I’d never seen them, and it was time.  We met nearby and went in.  Bernie Edwards had died in 1996 but there was Nile playing that scratchy catchy insistent rhythm guitar – that signature sound.  It was an incredible gig – the sound was perfect, and Rogers played us through his repertoire, not just Chic’s Everybody Dance, I Want Your Love and Le Freak but also Sister Sledge’s He’s The Greatest Dancer AND We Are Family, Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Diana Ross’ Upside Down, and cherry icing on the cake of love, Sheila E. Devotion’s wonderful single Spacer, all songs produced by Nile Rogers & Bernie Edwards and often written by them too, mainly after the Disco Sucks backlash, a racist homophobic spasm in the summer of 1979 that shames the perpetrators.   At the finale of the gig Chic played monster song Good Times with that massive bassline which kickstarted hip-hop and invited people onto the stage.  I walked to the front but stood in front of a speaker and danced with glazed eyes in a happy trance.  I both wanted and didn’t want to be onstage at that point.

They didn’t play Lost In Music which has a bpm of 114, representing a very slightly laid-back groove but nevertheless still an insistent disco heartbeat rhythm.   Sister Sledge themselves are from Philadelphia, the daughters of Broadway people and Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy really are Family – they’re sisters, naturally.  How extremely odd that I should mistake their close harmony vocal for that of Bryan Ferry, presumably buried in the mix in my foolish analysis.   Or perhaps not – they’re not so very different.  But disco had the last laugh, and in no way does it suck.  It never did.  I remain, as ever, Lost In Music.   Joni Sledge passed away this year aged 60 of unknown causes.

The music is my salvation

Joni Sledge sings lead :

 

My Pop Life #121 : Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long – Roberta Flack

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Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long   –   Roberta Flack 

First you’re here, then you’re gone,
It’s that same old heartbreak story;
Thought that you’d be in my life
For more than just one night.
But you say you got to leave,
It destroys me, boy, it hurts me;
Tell me what did I do wrong
For you to leave me all alone?

1981 was a very strange year for me.  I have virtually no clear memories of it, only strange images and moments, meetings, fleeting whispers.  I was 24 and still hadn’t “become an actor”.  I had a degree in Law from the London School of Economics.  Whoopee.  I was living in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz, whom I’d left in spring 1980 to take a year off on the Gringo Trail with my brother Paul through Latin America, then been forced to come home prematurely five months later after contracting Hepatitus B, jaundiced and weak.  Mumtaz and I had reunited but I was scratchy.  Any discussions we had about the relationship were along the lines of “are you staying or going?” and then debate was shut down.  I was working in an office above the ICA in The Mall for a group called SIAD.

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More about that later.  Finally in the spring of ’81, Paul had returned from New York City where he’d been living with Jim (whom he had met in San Cristóbal Las Casas in Mexico) and needed a place to live in London.  After making a few enquiries at a squatting collective in Hornsey, we identified an empty ground floor flat in a council block called McCall House on Tufnell Park Road, just down from the old Holloway Odeon and broke in.  Changed the lock.  Cut another set of keys.  Soon after this I left Mumtaz for the second time, found a mattress from somewhere and moved in with Paul.

We knew other squatters – The Huntley St squat down in Tottenham Court Road where Colin and Mary lived and where we’d lifted a small but incredibly heavy piano up six flights of stairs one day. Never again!  But we knew the squatting drill.  And London at this point felt a little like a battleground.  Thatcher was in power.  Ghost Train by The Specials was waiting in the wings, as were the Brixton Riots – and Toxteth, Wood Green and other areas.  It was nervy, aggressive and rough.  Normal enough, but heavy.

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There must have been running water and electricity.  We made rudimentary curtains in a hippie punk style and set up a small record player.  Photos from Mexico, Sussex and London were blue-tacked to the wall above the fireplace, which didn’t have a fire.  We added to these pictures on a daily basis.  Then a young gay guy from Mexico turned up and he stayed there for a while, kind of uninvited.  Maybe I moved out for a bit.  Really can’t remember.  Then a Kiwi girl Paul had met in Mexico called Eppy turned up and stayed too.  How did she find us?  No mobile phones or internet in those days.  Almost beyond understanding.  Eppy then invited some fucking heroin dealer round who boasted of his connections with Clappo – Eric Clapton – and the following day while we were out the flat was broken into and cleaned out.   Eppy was told to fuck off.  Soon after that we both fucked off too – Paul to a friends and me, tail between my legs for a second time, back to Mumtaz.  Before we left though, two main memories surface from those strange days in that flat…

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The Scala Cinema, Tottenham St W1, 1979-81

First – speed.  Amphetamine sulphate.  I’d been dealing it and taking it before Mexico andhad come close to becoming hooked.  It does bad things to your teeth, not to mention your brains, but the buzz was excellent.  There was clearly still some knocking around and one bleak Sunday we swallowed a couple of blues each and walked down to The Scala Cinema in Tottenham St W1, where I worked on Saturday nights at the famous all-nighter (see My Pop Life 23).  Lee Drysdale, who used to work there with me, still remembers me coming back from Mexico (once I was out of hospital) and turning up at the Scala orange-skinned and yellow-eyed with Hepatitus B.  It’s not infectious once you go orange, but I guess I looked pretty alarming.  No more so than the usual punters probably.

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So I must have worked there on the Saturday night, all night, noticed there was a film on Sunday night I wanted to see, crawled home at dawn, slept, got up, popped some blues and walked down Camden Road to Fitzrovia with Paul.  The film was Tarkovsky‘s sci-fi epic Solaris which had come out in 1972 and which I’d managed to miss at every opportunity.  It’s a stunning strange hypnotic empty film, and coming down from amphetamines, in-un-endingly desolate and grim.  Brilliant, beautiful but, well, apt somehow.  Soon after this The Scala moved to King’s Cross, Steve Woolley started Palace Pictures (with whom I would do a few films later) and I didn’t move over to Kings Cross with it.  I started another chapter.  Acting.

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My second memory of the squat though is one of the greatest LPs ever made.   It was one of Paul’s and we played it a lot while living there.  Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway is a short, 35-minute, seven song masterpiece of soul disco released in late 1979.  Originally planned as a second duets LP between the two friends and singers, Donny Hathaway only sings on two of the tracks “Back Together Again“and “You Are My Heaven“.  Roberta finished the album on her own after Donny ‘apparently’ jumped out of his apartment window on 15th St after suffering from paranoid delusions early in 1979.

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Donny Hathaway

They had originally met at Howard University in Washington D.C. studying music in the 1960s, had success individually, then recorded a hugely successful LP together in 1972 called simply Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.  It includes the songs You’ve Got A Friend and Where Is The Love.  Donny’s condition led to a breakdown in the relationship with Roberta through the 1970s, but they did record The Closer I Get To You on Roberta’s Blue Lights In The Basement LP in 1978, then decided to record a second LP together.  Sadly Roberta had to finish it on her own.  The result however is stunningly beautiful.  Every single song is a stand-out.  Stevie Wonder co-wrote You Are My Heaven with producer Eric Mercury then gave Roberta one of his greatest songs “Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long“, which is the song which leapt out at me in that Holloway squat.

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The immense bass-line is one of those disco show-off lines which compel you to dance, and is played, as are all the instruments on this song, by Stevie Wonder himself apparently –  or is it?  Surely it’s more likely that Stevie’s longstanding bass player Nathan Watts is the uncredited player.  It is similar in style and flexibility to Stevie’s Do I Do, which was recorded around the same time.   Luther Vandross sings backing vocals along with Gwen Guthrie, Stevie, and possibly Jocelyn Brown.  It has been a favourite song of mine since 1981, and I have often played it at houseparties where I may have been DJ-ing.  One notable memory was in Upper Abbey in Brighton when we had a houseful of playmates, and this song got dropped.  Jenny and two of her sisters immediately went into full disco mode and mayhem ensued.

Roberta Flack is still very much alive and I’m lucky enough to have seen her live a couple of times in recent years.  She doesn’t play this song, but still plays Back Together and Where Is The Love live along with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, the song which rocketed her to stardom back in 1969.  She is a classically-trained musician who enjoys covering other writers work, particularly Lennon/McCartney/Harrison and Marvin Gaye. She is also a superb singer.  Her back catalogue has considerable pedigree, from the dark soul of Reverend Lee to the frothy disco of Uh Uh Ooh Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes).  

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I knew there was another reason why I loved Roberta

I don’t think I can imagine a song which less suits the bleak spring of 1981.  There we were in that druggy council squat that had all its windows smashed by some junkie scum and forced us back onto the street, and back into a relationship I’d finished twice already.  But life isn’t always neat and tidy like that.  And memory plays tricks.  This is one of them.

I have to thank my brother, currently living in Shanghai, for major assistance with remembering this episode in our lives.  His recall, though also blurry, is considerably better than mine.  Thanks Paul x

My Pop Life #72 : La Vie En Rose – Grace Jones

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La Vie En Rose   –   Grace Jones

Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Il me parle tout bas
je vois la vie en rose
Il me dit des mon amour
des mots de tous le jours
Et ca me fait quelques choses…

*

When he takes me in his arms
and speaks softly to me 
 life is a bed of roses…

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Lyrics were written by Edith Piaf in French, covered by many many singers.  An early English translation didn’t attempt to find an apt phrase for “La Vie En Rose” – literally Life In Pink.  My own attempt is above – life as a bed of roses.  I see life as rosy ?  Rose-tinted spectacles?  We don’t have an idiom which translates.   Here’s the English-language version – by Louis Armstrong for example, not translating the untranslatable :

When you kiss me heaven sighs
And though I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose.

Featured imageGrace Jones sang it in French on her first LP Portfolio in 1977.   The 12″ 7-minute single version was released in October and became her first international hit.   It has a short english verse in the middle : la vie en rose becomes “everything is lovely“.   I’ll always associate this song with the 80s though, with my brother Paul and the London gay scene.  In fact it was re-released about four times until it finally became a big hit in the UK as a double-A side in 1985 with “Pull Up To The Bumper”.

Paul and I got separated in Mexico in 1980 when I contracted Hepatitus B and after week of terrible kidney pain, sweats, vomiting and fever I went jaundice-yellow and weak as a kitten.  All the kids in that Mexico city flat had to be isolated and inoculated and Paul was hunting for a flight home for me – BA said Heathrow doctors wouldn’t take me back, so I flew KLM to Amsterdam and flew a short flight back.  Straight to the doctors, who put me straight into Coppett’s Wood Hospital for Infectious Diseases near Muswell Hill.  I had my own room, and nurses would come in with masks and gloves and trays of food.  I was there for weeks.  One day a letter appeared from Mexico from Paul.  I was very happy to receive it as our glamourous trip down the gringo trail to Argentina was now well and truly off, but he was still going on, alone.  The letter was astounding, wonderful, life-changing.  It said that having reached San Cristobal Las Casas  Paul had met an American man called Jim and after a long night and day climbing the hills alone Paul had walked into town, met Jim, got together and they were now lovers.  Paul was in love, for the first time, with a man.

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Wow.  I often wondered after that whether that would have happened if I’d stayed in Mexico and not caught Hep B.  Whether Paul would have met Jim, have fallen in love.  Before that point, Paul was not acknowledging himself as gay.   So neither was anyone else.  Since that moment, he has.   And the family acknowledged it in their own time.  Another story.   It was a true turning point.  Jim and Paul travelled further south to Guatemala and Belize, then went back to Jim’s apartment in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side of Manhattan until the spring of 1981 when they had a big fight and Paul flew back to London.  I hadn’t seen him for almost a year.  We ended up squatting together in a council flat just off the Holloway Road with boarded up windows and no heating (see My Pop Life #120 ).  We got burgled too while there.  Then I moved back in with Mumtaz in Finsbury Park and he found a place further down Blackstock Road.  At that point Paul was going out with Michael.  Sweet curly-haired working class guy from Essex.  Then there was Pedro – still my friend – from Kilburn with Dominican mum, and then Colin from Durham, again still mine and Jenny’s (and Paul’s!) good friend.  Big relationships which sustained and still do.   The gay scene is very supportive and constructive in that way.

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Of course the early 80s was when AIDS struck and devastated everyone, Section 28 – (eventually passed in 1988 and repealed in 2003) stated that “a local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”.   My friend Nick Partridge (from Tower Mansions, West End Lane)  came back from living on a houseboat in Amsterdam and joined the Terrence Higgins Trust, later to become the Director, be knighted and generally join the anti-establishment establishment.    Paul’s gang of gay friends became solid and established, and become the legendary Get You Crew which survives to this day – Lady G, or Richard Davies, Max, Hugh & Ben, Ray & Tim, Colin, Michael, and many others – and sometimes I would join them on a night out, or round The Fallen Angel in Islington.   (Later Jenny would be found in The Fallen Angel when she worked at Theatre Centre with all the lesbians).

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I went to Heaven a few times with the gang underneath the arches of Charing Cross Station.   I’ve been to Heaven with Jenny too, in the 90s and it’s always a good night.  Other definitely gay places I’d been in with Paul and others in those 1980s would be The Vauxhall Tavern,  and of course The London Apprentice in Hoxton filming on The Crying Game with every transvestite in the South East of England.   Can’t remember if Paul came down for any of that.  I’m thinking Marc Almond and Jimmy Somerville, George O’ Dowd, Stephen Wakelam, Ian McKellen, the Scala All-Nighter and the ridiculous slightly baggy yet tapered clothes I started to adopt in the mid-eighties not to mention the haircuts, the shoes.  Chinese kung-fu slippers I recall.  I was never gay though.  I kissed Richard one night at some houseparty in Belsize Park, but that was fun, a tease and that was it.   Gay people like getting off with straight people though.  They like a challenge.

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But the thing is with Paul, you’d never know he was gay unless you knew.  So we’d just as often go to The Flask or The French House or Camden Lock, Dingwalls, the Princess Louise, The Lamb.  Paul never wore the badge of gay, or particularly enjoyed the scene – it has its own pressures.   But things were different then.  It was fifteen or so years since Stonewall, but there was always a sense of resilience, of defiance even, going out as a gang in the 80s, part of being young probably.  But also part of being a community under threat, both legally and actually, the possibility of aggression at street level always present, living in Thatcher’s Britain we were in opposition and everything was a battle, sometimes literally.   The Miner’s Strike, Anti-Apartheid, the poll-tax, section 28, Greenham Common, the Women’s Movement, Chile, Ireland, Gay Liberation, CND – these were all part of the same battle to change the world.   Some of those battles we won – South Africa, Gay Lib, Ireland? – some we lost – the miners, CND, Greenham.    I think it was Jesse Jackson who I heard talking about a rainbow coalition, co-opting the gay emblem – every colour of the rainbow except pink!    I guess drugs were taken, but I was generally on the weed, speed or booze.  Never really liked cocaine, or the effect it has on some of the people I’m with.  Or poppers.   Not really a pillhead after Mexico. E was great.  But a glass of bubbly and a cigarette and I’m delirious, usually.

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This song was a floor-filler.  An anthem.  It always has been, since Edith Piaf sang it in Paris in 1946, the lyrics a defiant triumphant claiming of the power of love, a beating heart, being in the pink, the rosy life, none of the translations work do they ?   There was a Pink Paper.  A pink pound.  Pink triangle from the nazi camps wasn’t it?  Another sign co-opted.   At house-parties or nightclubbing the hands would rise, the room would spin, the euphoria would go up several notches, we were alive.    This song is marvellous, so French, so black, so disco, so bossa nova, so gay, so theatrical, so triumphant, so universal.  Mon couer qui bat……

(Look it up !)

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At the end of the decade July 1989 I was in Paris, filming a Chopin film called “Impromptu” with Hugh Grant, Judy Davis, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin  and others, and a splendid time was guaranteed for all.  (see the Chopin post My Pop Life #9)   Hugh and I waltzed around the brasseries, the train appeared to carry some gravy.   One night Julian Sands and I went to a club – or was it a party ? – and met Grace Jones and some other glamourous Parisiens.  We drank champagne, I smoked cigarettes. Possibly even French ones.

 La Vie En Rose indeed.