My Pop Life #223 : Overjoyed – Stevie Wonder

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Overjoyed – Stevie Wonder

And though you don’t believe that they do
They do come true
For did my dreams
Come true when I looked at you
And maybe too, if you would believe
You too might be
Overjoyed, over loved, over me

*

In the summer of 2008 the Olympic Games were held in China.  We had booked a holiday to start soon after that to visit to my brother Paul who was working in Nanjing.  He’d been in China for five years at that point, working in education, and it was time to see him there.  HE had made the intrepid move east after living in the Dominican Republic for five years, and a few months back in the UK had confirmed that he couldn’t live in England.  He’s now been in China some 16 years.  We flew to Shanghai and caught the bullet train in to our hotel in the French Concession area of the city.  We felt some initial trepidation that China might be a little racist, but the sensational performance of Usain Bolt in those Olympics, winning three gold medals and breaking the World Record each time meant that Jenny was greeted with joy everywhere we went.  In fact people asked if they could take photos with her.  You could of course argue that this is still racist, but I know which I prefer. We spent a couple of days with Paul who had come to Shanghai to greet us, doing the Art Museum, the old town, the finest restaurants and so on.

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We would be seeing this scenery for real shortly

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Then we travelled south, by plane, to Guilin.  There were Moon Cakes that night, and the following morning we embarked onto a riverboat for the four-hour journey downstream on the River Li to Yangshuo.  It remains one of the most astounding journeys of my life, through the karst limestone willow-pattern hills which were eye-poppingly wonderful in every direction.

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We disembarked past the cormorant fishermen, now a tourist staple of an older way of life and caught a taxi to The Giggling Tree, a converted farm which Paul’s ex-boyfriend Colin had recommended.  Surrounded by paddy fields and those spectacular hills, we relaxed and explored.  Took little wooden craft out on the river reminiscent of the gondola or the punt.  One night we went to a theatrical performance literally on the river with hundreds of performers, part dance, part music, choreographed and directed brilliantly by Zhang Yimou, the same Zhang Yimou who had just directed the Olympic Opening Ceremony in the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing (and was also responsible for many of the finest Chinese films of the last 20 years such as Ju Dou and Raise The Red Lantern).

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The rumours doing the rounds then regarded the performers at that Opening Ceremony having to wear nappies because Zhang didn’t approve of tea breaks, or sitting inside an upside down cup for eight hours on the day waiting for their moment.

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The Giggling Tree, Yangshuo

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with a British Olympian by the paddy fields

  One visitor to the hotel was a British woman wearing an Olympic shirt and we found our that she had represented the UK in the rowing competition. Some of the team had stayed on to explore.  One day Jenny and I hired bikes and cycled to the Assembling Dragon Cave there along the river, over bridges and along the paths.  It was the first time Jenny had cycled for a very long time, and the very first time we’d cycled together.  On the way back we stopped by a rustic bridge.  It was a warm day and I decided to remove my shirt and sneakers and jump into the river.  It was exquisite.

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We decided not to take a balloon ride, but enjoyed Yangshuo and the countryside for a few days before flying back north, this time to Nanjing, the old capital of China.  Nanjing lies on the great Yangtze River which flows 3,900 miles across China to the sea, the third longest river in the world.

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Paul was living on the 15th floor of a medium high rise dwelling and from his balcony we could see about three blocks before the smog obliterated the view.  The wind blew from the West, the same direction as the river flowed and it was full of industrial muck and eroded soil and sand.

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We visited his place of work, a college where Paul was headmaster and met some of his colleagues.

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On our last day in Nanjing I suddenly got very ill.  Sweating, fever, aching kidneys, diarrhea, vomiting. I stayed in bed that night as Jenny and Paul went out to the neon lights of the city, and the following morning Paul put us on the train to Shanghai, worried about my health.  I was weak and wobbly but we made it to the hotel and decided not to see a Chinese doctor but just get home and sort it out from there.  Which is what we did.

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Nanjing

The doctor in Brighton decided to X-ray my lungs which had a shadow on them, and conduct a series of blood tests.  Blood tests are a ‘yes or no‘ answer, you can’t just ask ‘what is wrong with this person?‘, you have to ask : ‘is it pneumonia?‘ and when the test says ‘no‘ then you have to ask the next question.  We went through nine of these tests with a negative answer each time.  So I was laid up in bed, weak as a kitten, wheezing a little, losing weight, and reading the entire Harry Potter series from beginning to end.

Meanwhile we had two tickets to see Stevie Wonder at the O2, a week after we’d landed.   Jenny worried that she would have to go with someone else, but I was determined not to miss my hero – only the second time I would see him live in concert.  We had a car, but Jenny didn’t think I should drive for some reason.  So I asked my friend Rory Cameron, one of the Brighton Beach Boys, if he would chauffeur us to the gig in my car for a small fee.  He agreed, bless him and off we went.

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We had pretty good seats – about the 12th row. Stevie was walked out onstage by his daughter Aisha (Isn’t She Lovely!), and rather remarkably opened with a harmonica take on All Blues the first track on Miles Davis‘ classic album A Kind Of Blue.

There were other surprises too among the classics. We’d come on a great night, entirely by chance, because on October 1st 2008 Stevie Wonder played the song  People Make The World Go Round !!! originally by The Stylistics which is one of my favourite songs of all time (see My Pop Life #193).   He also played Chick Corea’s Spain later in the set.  The band were just outstanding.  A quick word here for Nathan Watts the legendary bass player who has been with Stevie since 1974 and is now his musical director.

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Nathan Watts, Detroit’s finest

They played a decent chunk of songs from Hotter Than July (the stunning Lately,  plus As If You Read My Mind, Did I Hear You Say You Love Me and Masterblaster) and Innervisions (Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing, Higher Ground, Visions, Living For The City, Golden Lady) and a nice selection from Songs In The Key Of Life (see My Pop Life #39) including As, Knocks Me Off My Feet, Sir Duke and Isn’t She Lovely.

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Couldn’t have been happier.  Too ill to stand up, but luckily most folk decided to sit and enjoy the music.  Beautiful beautiful music.  Then he played a song that I didn’t know called Overjoyed.  A tune. It is on one of the 1980s LPs which musical snobbery long ago decided weren’t up to scratch after the power and soul of Hotter Than July, which came out in 1980.  It immediately struck me as a completely astounding song and in the ensuing weeks I bought all of Stevie Wonder’s catalogue which I didn’t already own, then decided to chase down all the songs he’d written for other people.  How could I have missed that ?!? Overjoyed is a song he wrote for the double LP Secret Life Of Plants (1979) but was not included on it.  That album was also critically derided but bears repeated listening.  So many ideas there, so much beauty.  The drops of water which form part of the rhythm of this song, the gentle pulse, the melody are all astoundingly good.   Jenny knew it.

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In Square Circle LP released in 1985 also includes Part Time Lover

What else did he play that night?  Wait…OK.  Look.  If you’re a born-again muso nerd like me it is possible nowadays to check on a gig you went to which despite being extremely memorable and seared into your brain for evermore still has huge holes in it for the brain cannot in general retrieve all of the information which is stored inside it.  That is now what the internet is for. And there is a site called setlist.fm which contains much information of this kind.  There are holes in that too, but slowly they are being filled by punters, by muso nerds and pop fans.  Have you forgotten that memory?  Well here it is.  (Of course the gig I went to remains a hole on that website !!  I’ll have to search my memory even deeper…) But yes, Superstition.

Rory was waiting for us outside and I’m sure we burbled at him all the way home to Brighton, but I must confess it was a relief not to be driving for now I was both elated and shrivelling gently.  Further blood tests produced no results, and a 2nd X-ray showed that the shadow had gone on my lungs. Within a few weeks I was up and about and I’d finished the entire Harry Potter series.

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In a tributary of the River Li catching Chinese pneumonia, probably

Jenny and I talked about what that illness was, and how I’d caught it.  We decided that it was a river-borne virus because that was pretty much the only thing which we hadn’t done together – a process of elimination I’d used in Mexico back in 1980 when I caught Hepatitus B and Paul hadn’t (see My Pop Life #72) and we established that I’d had sex with Xochitl in Pie De La Cuesta and he had not. When we caught up with her later in Mexico City she was also jaundiced like me.   But this time we just didn’t know what it was.  Maybe the Chines doctors would have identified it immediately but then maybe I wouldn’t have been allowed to fly with Asian flu – a similar scenario again to the Mexico trip.

The other post-script worth mentioning is that a few weeks after we’d returned from China, news came in on October 10th that one of the hot-air balloons in Yangshuo had crashed – plummetted to the earth, killing 4 Dutch tourists and injuring the other three people on board.

So the moral of the story is this – if you get a chance to go to Yangshuo – take it. Truly breathtaking place. Don’t be tempted by the hot air balloon ride.  And – if you get the chance to see Stevie Wonder – go. We all need to feel joy.  Seek him out.  He is a mighty force for good in a dangerous scary world.  He is a legend and a half.  My favourite songwriter, my favourite singer.

Overjoyed live at the O2 Sept 12th 2008

 

The LP track with water droplets as beats :

My Pop Life #220 : 3 A.M. Eternal (Live at the S.S.L.) – The K.L.F.

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3am Eternal (Live at the S.S.L.) – The K.L.F.

( The Ancients of Mu Mu )

*

Alien 3  –  Paranoia In Pinewood part 2

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

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

The above quote from the diary I kept in 1991 while filming Alien 3 in Pinewood Studios.  I released it into the atmosphere as My Pop Life #171 – Praying For Time.  I think it’s time for part 2, don’t you?

*

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Production still

Things settled down a little after the heart-thumping and deeply paranoid first month recorded in the previous episode.  No one was sacked.  I don’t think.  No one was re-cast.  There was a terrible accident one day when Sigourney’s make-up lady Linda was standing in a doorway on set – one of those science fiction doorways with a sliding panel which goes up and down with a swish.  It was a wooden contraption with a weighted pulley which failed, and it came down suddenly onto her face, right onto her nose. I wasn’t there but it was a nasty accident and she was rushed to hospital.  We never saw Linda again. Later I learned that she didn’t want to claim the medical expenses from the company, but having had a facial reconstruction and various operations I think that she eventually did settle.  Dangerous places film sets.

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The cast of Alien 3 with David Fincher on set, 1991

My relationship with Sigourney had subsided into a kind of sulk, and although she would make the odd remark, the earlier fire and brimstone had calmed down a bit.  Not that we’d made up at all.  Sadly we weren’t friends.  I’d confided in other cast members – Niall Buggy thought I was completely bonkers “What are you talking about Ralph, she’s lovely!”  Pete Postlethwaite and Phil Davis felt the same way.  Dhobi Oparei too.  I was happy that they were enjoying working with her, but just as I started feeling cornered, there was Charles Dance asking me how it was all going as we waited for a set-up.  I think I was tentative at first but eventually told him what had been going on.  He confessed that he’d had the same kind of experience. “Is that how you’re going to say it?” and all of the paranoia about how clean he looked, other competitive nonsense.  I felt relieved that I wasn’t going totally mad.  It was only people she had scenes with where the behaviour occurred.  Wait – was Charles Dutton also having this relationship with her?  No.  He was a friend already and he was not the enemy.  Charlie and I have been firm friends ever since.

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Charles Dance as Clemens

One day on set Sigourney and I had a scene on a balcony, after the fire. Men had died.  The Alien was trapped, locked in a loading bay. Dutton and his men were praying below us.  The scene wasn’t going well.  But we got it at around 8.00pm and Fincher pulled me aside.  “Dude.  She vampired that scene. Don’t worry I can cut around what you did, we got it.  But you’re letting her get to you.”  I think I said that I was trying to stand my ground.  “If you ever need to leave the set, take five minutes, regain your centre, just say it OK?  I got your back.”  It was another welcome acknowledgement that I wasn’t paranoid.  I went home, cuddled my lady and gritted my teeth for the long haul.  I had to try and protect my performance at the end of the day, that was what mattered.

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the balcony scene is in the “director’s cut” on the DVD

As the weeks progressed, all of the actors were called in every day, in case we were needed.  First thing – put through ‘the works’ – costume and make-up – and then sat in our dressing rooms to await the call, often all day.  I often went into the next-door dressing room occupied by the Prison Governor, my boss the legend Brian Glover, who’d memorably played the gym teacher in Ken Loach‘s heartbreaking film Kes.  Brian was from Barnsley and did the voice overs for Tetley Tea Bags : ‘Tetley. Make tea bags. Make Tea.

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Brian Glover as Andrews

Brian regaled me with stories from his days as a professional wrestler, fighting on the circuit with Giant Haystacks, Big Daddy and Mick McManus.There’s money in ugly Ralph‘ he would announce, his squashed ear a keepsake of his years playing rugby.  Every 45 minutes the lovely 2nd AD Marcia Gay would knock and pop her head around the door – ‘Gentlemen. You won’t be required for the next 45 minutes. Just relax‘.  This became alarmingly irritating until one day Brian swivelled his giant head in her direction and asked ‘Is the money the same?‘  Marcia was puzzled.  ‘Yes‘ she said. ‘Well Fook Off Then!‘ shouted Brian.  Rude and fucking funny.

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Fincher on the camera with Alex Thomson alongside him who had taken over as DP when Jordan Cronenweth was too ill to continue

There were eventually four units running at the same time – 1st Unit with David Fincher directing and another legend Chris Carreras as 1st AD.  The eye of any storm, the 1st AD basically runs the set, oversees all of the departments and keeps a keen eye on who is slowing the unit down.  The 1st AD is basically making the film.  Chris had an amazingly calm temperament but I saw him biting his tongue a couple of times.  Years later in 1999 I would contact him and ask him to 1st AD my film New Year’s Day, which he graciously agreed to do.  Without him it wouldn’t have got made. I was going to create a link there to the blog where I talk about the film that I wrote and which actually got made.  So scarred am I from this experience that 220 blog posts later I haven’t even started to think about discussing it.  Watch this space !

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Paul McGann as Golic

Meanwhile back in Pinewood, the other 3 units which might or might not need actors for any given day were :  2nd Unit with Martin Brierly directing (and Nick Heckstall-Smith assisting, whom I would also work with later), Action Unit doing Alien Stuff and other SFX, and a Fire Unit which set fire to things and put them out while stunt guys ran around with falmes one their clothes.   We were all required, at one point or another, on all of these units.  But there were interminable days when nothing happened.  Backgammon became institutionalised, with American actors Chris Fields and particularly Holt McCallany relieving us of our wages on a regular basis with ruthless use of the doubling dice. I soon saw the error of this form of time-wasting, likewise poker and other competitive pursuits. 

Paul Brennan, Pete Postlethwaite, Leon Herbert

One day when it was clear once again that nothing was going to happen a group of us decided to wander around the studio lot and see what else was going on.  Like a bunch of escaped prisoners escorted by a correction facility officer.  That was me.  We went into one of the bigger studio buildings (Alien 3 had the majority but some were still available for hire) – I can’t remember precisely who was in that gang but I think Peter Guinness, Paul Brennan, Clive Mantle and Danny Webb certainly were. Maybe Niall Buggy and Vincenzo Nicoli too. 

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Charles Dutton as Dillon

And there was a giant pyramid structure with lights on frames around it and people with cloaks wandering about.  We’d asked permission to visit of course, and the producers knew who we were, what we were doing there.  The band was The K.L.F. and they were shooting a video for their single 3am Eternal which had been at Number 1 in the charts that January.  A video it turned out, for the US market. We watched a take with smoke and lights, bleeps and heavy metal guitar chords, acid house beats and rap, capes and cloaks. It was all a bit mental.  Then they took a break.

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We wandered into the next studio through a heavy door.  And there was Kylie Minogue, dressed for the Shocked video. We were all introduced and I became suddenly aware of a tiny elfin Australian blonde woman being dwarfed by half a dozen dirty shaven-headed prisoners from outer space.  She shook everyone’s hand then gently wandered away and asked one of her people if they could ask us politely to leave.  Which we did.  Poor love.

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Kylie Minogue is Shocked at the power of love in 1991

There’s a curious link here because Bill Drummond, (who with Jimmy Cauty is The K.L.F.) had worked as an A&R man for WEA (now Warners) in London in the mid-80s and had apparently spent half a million pounds on a band called Brilliant who never quite took off.  Stock Aitken & Waterman were writers & producers for Brilliant, and Jimmy Cauty was in the band along with Martin Glover aka Youth from Killing Joke.  And Stock Aitken & Waterman were now writing and producing for Kylie, along with a vast stable of acts including Donna Summer, Mel & Kim and Jason Donovan.  Kylie & Jason had starred together in Aussie soap Neighbours, and to continue the odd waltz between the 2 acts, the K.L.F. had made a single called ‘Kylie Said To Jason‘ which was a hilarious rip-off of ‘Left To My Own Devices‘ by The Pet Shop Boys.  Confused Yet ??

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Bill Drummond & Jimmy Cauty

I didn’t make any of these connections at the time.  I was listening to George Michael, Public Enemy, The Breeders. Catching up with Bob Marley and Miles Davis.  Discovering Wagner – again.  Looming on the horizon was Massive Attack. The K.L.F. seemed to me a little like The Tubes, one of my favourite bands to be sure, or the Bonzo Dog Band (see My Pop Life #77), formed by musicians who wanted to lampoon the music and the industry and anything else they could gather into their fiendish net.  Like everything was in quotes. I mean who sang along with the phrase “Ancients of MuMu” without a silly grin on their face?

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And of course we were still recovering from the smiley-face rave culture moment from which the K.L.F. appeared to have emerged.  In fact they were rather more like a situationist art project that wanted to burn the whole thing down.  Anarchists.  Their career was inspired partly by the theatre show The Illuminatus Trilogy, written and directed by mad genius Ken Campbell in Liverpool where Bill had been the set designer.  He walked out one day to buy a sandwich and never came back. He formed a band called The Justified Ancients of MuMu with Jimmy Cauty and released a single in 1987.   After two? albums and a legal dispute with ABBA they became The Timelords with a big novelty hit Doctoring The Tardis, then The JAMS (Justified Ancients of MuMu) with the single What Time Is Love which got re-issued a number of times from 1988 onward, then The K.L.F.  Their brilliant warped career  peaked a year later in 1992 at the BRIT Awards when Drummond machine-gunned the audience of music industry execs from the stage, and a dead sheep was left at the door of the afterparty with the message “I died for you – bon appetit” attached. A few months later in May 1992 The K.L.F. announced that they had quit the music business and deleted their entire back catalogue.  Other stunts followed such as the infamous burning of a million pounds, the Soup Line, the 17 Choir and other innovative ideas.  Apparently Bill Drummond lived just down the hill from me when I was in Brighton but I never met him, I don’t think.

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Niall Buggy as Eric, Danny Webb as Morse

Back on the Alien3 set a few days later it was Valentine’s Day.  I had been sent a card and an AD delivered it to me as we relaxed between shots.  It was of course from Jenny my beloved.  We were not married at that point.  And I could swear Sigourney was looking over my shoulder to see who it was from.  Hahaha.  Fincher was shooting a lot of footage.  “I’m doing long pans & track so they can’t cut into my footage” he explained one day.  It meant that when we had a group scene we could open a book on how many takes it would be.  Anything under five was unpopular.  Over twelve was possible, common even.  I think we did a tenner per set-up.  Someone wrote the names down and the number they’d chosen.  Often no one would win because we went up to Take 17 and no one wanted to put ten of your earth pounds on that.

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Here’s an idea…

In fact Sigourney and I had one of our scenes discussing plans regarding telling the company their was an Alien on the planet, and playing a fella who wanted to go home to his wife and kids, rather than perish in some millennial cult group suicide, Aaron ’85’ suggested a plan.  Ripley’s response was tentatively ‘yes maybe‘.  We did a couple of wide shots, then into my single.  Can’t remember how many takes it was – probably around seven or eight.  Then turned round onto Sigourney.  David didn’t like her tone, which suggested that Ripley thought Aaron was a dick.  He didn’t think that was right at that point in the story.  So. One more.  Turn over. Sound Speed. Scene 178 take 17.  Mark it. And….Action! Blah blah blah.  Cut.  Same result.  He’s not your enemy.  Take 22.  Don’t sneer. Take 29.  You think it’s a good idea. Take 34. By which time we were all so exhausted and dizzy from the repetition that Sigourney said the line in a kind of dazed acquiescence and Fincher had the take he wanted.

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About a year later in Los Angeles, after the re-shoots, I had two days of ADR in a West LA studio on Olympic Boulevard.  David remembered the scene well, 34 takes.  He’d never done ADR before though – Automated Dialogue Replacement – where you can change the inflexion, emphasis, tone, shade and meaning of a line just by using your voice and matching the lip movements on screen in front of you precisely.  Movie magic.  Some actors hate it, I made friends with the process very early on after I had to voice the whole of my performance as Danny in Withnail & I for the US market. The test screenings had indicated that audience members couldn’t understand what he was saying.  Who could? I did that piece of work at Twickenham Studios in 1987 where the engineer consoled me having to re-do my entire performance at the same speed except more intelligibly by telling me that Michael Caine had done Alfie and Bob Hoskins had also done The Long Good Friday for America.  And yet we were expected to understand Stallone’s mumbles or Pacino’s – hey that’s what it means to be an outlying part of The Empire right?  I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen the US version of Withnail but I suspect it would be a bad idea.  But having said that the experience toughened me up for future sessions.  Especially the Alien 3 session which was two long days – the reason for that was the amount of atmospheric smoke and steam in the design of the film which was very noisy to produce.  Often back in the day on big movies the Sound Department knew that they were recording a guide track only, to be completed and polished in ADR.  So here we were down on W. Olympic and David says – if I’d known about ADR in Pinewood I would never have done 34 takes just for a vocal inflection…

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It’s hard to recall now in 2019 how difficult that experience was.  Jenny can remember quite clearly how I would come home every day, full of doubt, full of worry and anguish, just because I was trying to do my best work.  What a fantastic opportunity for me, but you know I was running fast just to stand still.   I remember a visual image I used to produce while trying to explain it to friends, as a learning curve which came from my chest, looped back over my head and stabbed me in the back.  I wondered if, at some point, whether the fact that we were making a horror film in space meant that we had to have a horrible experience in space.  I called Richard E. Grant one day who was shooting Hudson Hawk in Italy – another picnic – and he asked me how much I was getting. I told him. He said

well – that’s the amount of shit you have to eat then.”

I could almost understand why Bill Drummond had formed The K.L.F.

 

My Pop Life #216 : MacArthur Park – Richard Harris

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MacArthur Park – Richard Harris

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again, oh no

*

We couldn’t believe those lyrics back in 1968 when this song was being played regularly on Radio One.  I was ten, almost eleven.  It was curious, hilarious, preposterous.  Utterly memorable.  The arrangement matched the baroque absurdity of the chorus : an ornamented rococo seven-minute Pearl & Dean phenomenon six long years before Bohemian Rhapsody was a twinkle in Freddie Mercury’s eye.   It caught the public ear and imagination and reached number 4 in the charts. It also drew a fair amount of ridicule I recall, even at the age of eleven I was aware of the pop culture poking fun at the cake image.  It stood big and tall, a large target for mirth.  It often makes Worst Song Ever lists.   I always found it haunting and strangely moving but rather silly and not one of my favourite songs at all.  That has happened in the intervening years.  It grows and grows, deepens and gets richer with time, age and experience.

What did I know of failed marriage in 1968?  Well I had witnessed my parent’s separation two years earlier, a depressing spectacle of fights and arguments, sulky silences and TV shows being switched off, being sent to bed, then a divorce and Dad was gone.  Gone to Eastbourne, 10 miles from Selmeston.   Selmeston O Selmeston.   Songwriter Jimmy Webb had already scored with some of the greatest tunes of the 1960s – Glen Campbell’s Galveston (O Galveston), Wichita Lineman and later By The Time I Get To Phoenix – they are all quite superb examples of complex emotional songwriting. But despite my mum confiding in the ten-year old me in faintly inappropriate conversations where I pretended to be old enough to understand, I still didn’t get MacArthur Park.  It wasn’t for me. Yet.

Spring was never waiting for us, girl
It ran one step ahead
As we followed in the dance

Between the parted pages and were pressed
In love’s hot, fevered iron
Like a stripéd pair of pants

Dad and I never had these emotional confidences.  He immediately became even more emotionally distant than he had been at home.  We’d see him, go for walks, listen to football results, eat crumpets and talk about  literature or politics or school, but nothing emotional.

How’s Heather?”  or “How’s your Mum?” never got asked, or answered.  Locked away inside were all those questions.  We each dealt with them privately, silently.  And Mum wasn’t so great to be fair.  I rewrote my family history so that the nervous breakdown and first visit to hospital (nine months : see My Pop Life #55 ‘Help!’) became the other way around.  The separation and divorce caused the breakdown.  I understood that story.  In fact the breakdown came first.  I didn’t understand that sequence so easily.

Anyway.

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MacArthur Park looking east towards downtown LA

In the 1990s my wife and I lived in Los Angeles –  in West Hollywood just off Beverley Drive near Jans where the cops ate, or the King’s Road Cafe where the hipsters ate.  We chose the former naturally.   If you drive east from there and drop down a few blocks down to Wilshire Boulevard, where my boutique agency lived (Susan Smith & Associates), past the La Brea Tar Pits through the Mid-Wilshire deco district and The Wiltern Theater on towards Downtown LA, through Koreatown, there just after Rampart Blvd you find MacArthur Park, either side of the road.  It has a lake, trees, grass.  It’s nice.  In the late 1960s Jimmy Webb lived near here and he and his girlfriend Susie Horton would meet there for lunch, and court, and spark.

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The early years of cake and rain

They’d been high school sweethearts in Colton, California and now Susie was working for Aetna Insurance nearby.  Jimmy had written some hits already – ‘Up, Up & Away‘ for The 5th Dimension for example – but he was still smitten with his Susie…

I recall the yellow cotton dress
Foaming like a wave
On the ground around your knees
The birds like tender babies in your hands
And the old men playing checkers
By the trees

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Jimmy Webb

It seems that he was more smitten than her because the song MacArthur Park is a tragic break-up outpouring from the heart.  In later years Webb would admit that everything in the song is real, seen and true, yes even the cake.  It only takes a small leap of imagination to see it as a wedding cake melting in the rain.

My friend Paul Carafotes lived near there in early 2002 after his own marriage to Paula had crumpled.  We’d been to their wedding in New Orleans in 1997 along with his buddy James Gandolfini but that’s for another story.  In 2002 Paul was living alone and working out in the park at the playground where people could do pull ups and sit ups and so forth.  I have some old time photos of us in the park somewhere in a box… actual photos.

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And of course we would see actor Richard Harris (who sang MacArthur Park) down in Santa Monica for the football early on Saturday mornings -7am in the Cock & Bull on Lincoln Avenue, full of Arsenal, Liverpool or Man Utd fans.  During the World Cup in 1994 Harris had a permanent Irish shirt on and was always totally sozzled and in high spirits.  Happy.   He was 64.  I’d first seen him on our black and white TV set in Selmeston O Selmeston during the mid-1960s in This Sporting Life in which he played a rugby league player, married to the wonderful Rachel Roberts.  Sensational film.  Directed by Lindsay Anderson, another hero of mine (see My Pop Life #41 ‘Poor People’).

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Rachel Roberts & Richard Harris – This Sporting Life 

His final screen performance was in 2002 as Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets, the 2nd in the series.  Back in 1968 when Harris recorded MacArthur Park he was at the height of his career having just been nominated for an Oscar for playing King Arthur in Camelot, a role he would play on Broadway for years.  Somehow he’d rubbed shoulders in Hollywood with Jimmy Webb (who’d just been rebuffed by The Association who didn’t like MacArthur Park) and Harris subsequently recorded the LP called A Tramp Shining : written, arranged and produced by Webb.

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The seven-minute 20-second single reached number 2 on the Billboard charts in the USA and sold a million copies. Frank Sinatra (& also the Four Tops) famously recorded only the middle eight, or “the bridge” if you prefer, which is completely stupendous –

There will be another song for me
For I will sing it
There will be another dream for me
Someone will bring it

I will drink the wine while it is warm
And never let you catch me
Looking at the sun

And after all the loves of my life
After all loves of my life
You’ll be the one

I will take my life into my hands
And I will use it
I will win the worship in their eyes
And I will lose it
I will have the things that I desire
And my passion flow like rivers through the sky
Oh and after all the loves of my life
After all the loves in my life
I’ll be thinking of you
And wondering why

Other versions abound, notably by Waylon Jennings, Donna Summer and The Three Degrees.  In the magnificent original, Harris mispronounces the name of the park in the song throughout, calling it “MacArthur’s Park“, even after it was pointed out to him.  That’s what Camelot does to you. Or drink.

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The song floated back into my consciousness when I was much older, in my 40s, the early 2000s.  God knows why.  I started to listen to it over and over and over, ten or fifteen times a day.  I think Stephen Wrigley and Glen Richardson (Brighton Beach Boys both) were obsessed with Jimmy Webb the songwriter and went to see him playing live in Brighton, shook his hand and glowed in the dark for a few weeks afterwards.  Then one night in 2016 they were doing their regular night at The Greys in Brighton, a wonderful pub venue, and had decided to do a Jimmy Webb night.  I was back from New York that week, living at Millie’s just up the hill there and turned up at the interval, wondering if they’d already sung MacArthur Park?  No said Steve, and you’re very welcome.  So to a small but enthusiastic crowd in the pub I sang all seven and a half minutes, after explaining the backstory of Jimmy & Susie to the audience.   By 2016 I was completely obsessed with the song and could recite it backwards.  The best version – far and away – is Richard Harris’.  Not a natural singer, but the performance is so emotional and direct.  He understands the song completely.  And that counts for a great deal.  It is simply a masterpiece.

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Oh and after all the loves in my life, after all the loves in my life – I’ll be thinking of you and wondering…

Why?

 

Richard Harris live :

My Pop Life #211 : Three Lions – The Lightning Seeds

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Three Lions   –   The Lightning Seeds

Jules Rimet’s still gleaming…

Brooklyn, July 3rd 2018.  The Russia World Cup : When Eric Dier stepped up and sank the penalty winner in the last-16 game against Colombia it was the first time England had won a penalty shoot-out in an international football competition, ever.  My wife wept for ten minutes.  I was on the internet booking a flight to Samara.  As a message, it really couldn’t have been any clearer, so, wanting to make the world a better place I took a look at myself and made that change.  The man in the mirror was booked on a flight to Samara, Russia via Istanbul on Turkish Air.    Then I realised that I needed a visa and it was 7pm and the next day was July 4th when everything was closed.  Fluff.

Further internet search revealed that visa regulations would be suspended for the duration of the tournament, and that all I’d need is a Fan ID.  Passport photos from Walmart, ticket number for the loophole and I was all set.

At midnight the next day I was on the plane.  9 hours later I was in Istanbul.  Got some rubles. Flew to Samara and landed at 1am.  The following day I hooked up with The Characters: Billy The Bee, Puns, Andy Dubai Bee, Phil, Obi and Martin in the Balkan Grill near the Fifa Fan Park, downtown Samara.

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My Russian friends for the afternoon

Earlier I’d walked along the beautiful riverbank walk along the mighty Volga with a father & son who’d helped me navigate the all-Cyrillic alphabet subway system and then visited Stalin’s bunker where I learned that Samara had briefly become the capital of Russia when Hitler was only 20 kilometres from Moscow in 1942.

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Marx, Engels & Lenin in Stalin’s bunker, Samara

The city was warm and friendly, colourful and mixed – the mosques and the Orthodox churches share the same kind of architecture, golden domes and spires.

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Samara

People were happy to see foreign fans – Colombians, Mexicans, Swedes and English mingling with locals – they were happy and excited to be hosting the tournament, indeed when I met The Characters I was told that one of our number Obi had been asked for a photo by hundreds of Russians since he’d been here.  A far cry from the racism we’d been led to expect from the Marseilles 2016 incidents involving Russian hooligans attacking England fans, and Champions League games in Russia with racist chanting.  This was all swept underneath the FIFA carpet and normal human people replaced the Russian bogeymen  – helpful, curious hosts wielding their Google Translate Apps amidst plenty of sign language.

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Back in the Balkan Grill we watched France take Uruguay down and advance to the semi finals, then walked up to the giant fanpark to see Belgium v Brazil.  It was set in a huge town square full of old-school statues and grand buildings – I later learned that Samara has the largest square in Europe.  We stood in it drinking beer watching the big screen and listening to Russian techno music and the enthusiasm of the DJs and dancers.  A few English fans scattered here and there, but the vast majority of Fans are Russian.  Belgium tear Brazil apart in the first half – a footballing masterclass with Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku all finding acres of space across the Brazilian defence.  Half-time : 0-2 to Belgium.  We reconvene and drink further pints.  Billy and I wander back out into the crowd.  In the second half young Russians came up to chat to us as they realised that we were English.  Russians watches the Premiership on TV & the fans favour us as their second favourites for the tournament – the following day we would play Sweden and Russia would face Croatia.  Meanwhile the Spurs defence Alderweireld & Vertonghen alongside the mighty Vincent Kompany kept Neymar & Coutinho quiet and gave away zero free kicks around the box.  Brazil scored a goal but couldn’t manage a second. Game over.  Brazil were out, along with Argentina & Germany, what a thrilling World Cup !!

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We walked slowly out – like herding cats as ever – and found the Gareth Southgate lookalike outside Shannon’s the inevitable Irish bar.  Billy interviewed him.  Minutes later we were in the groovy nightclub Art & Fact with a few dozen Swedish fans and a bunch of happy locals.  The Swedes hadn’t been polishing their manners much : “England are shit.  We will beat you.”  It was possible – they’d had a decent tournament.  At 3am I developed a thumping headache and retired to Yandex the local Russian taxi App and my hotel.

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On the day of the game we met on the river at a bar/restaurant called Beluga.  It was sparsely populated with England fans from Bristol Rovers, Sunderland, Notts Forest.  The crew gathered slowly.  Tickets distributed.  A kind of rhythm was established where Andy and I got antsy first and wanted to leave, with others more or less gathering at half-speed to follow.  Billy was usually last with his head buried in his phone, local simcard, media hack, blogger and face of the fans 2018 thanks to visibility and the BBC filming his reaction to the penalty shootout, and using it as part of their introduction to the game.  The shootout victory had put the feel-good back into England.  We could go all the way – couldn’t we?  Memes started to appear “I’ve got a secret….”  and it became clear that this song was back once again.  Over in Samara we didn’t like to say it, to voice it, but it had been in our secret heart for months : this was a decent team with a good manager.  No egos.  No wankers.  Only a couple of weak players, all in all a prospect who might not let us down, again.

My birthday 2010 we watched England 0 Algeria 0 in Greenpoint, Cape Town, one of the worst footballing experiences I have ever had.  We’d gone out in the group stages in Brazil and lost to Iceland in Euro 2016.  The only way was up.  But to move from that to the hubris of ‘it’s coming home‘ after one penalty shoot-out victory?  We boarded the tram clutching our bottles of water.  Billy, Obi, Andy, Puns and I.  Phil had gone early, Martin we didn’t know.  The tram slowly filled up as it passed through the pleasant city toward the highest point where the new stadium stood.  We walked with the thousands of others, face painted, Brazil tops, Russians mainly.  A local TV crew stopped us and asked for a song, so I filmed the lads singing  “Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on” and “drinking all yer vodka”  the two most popular songs out here.  There were pockets of fans in England colours, we’d been told just under 3,000 in all in a crowd of 45,000.  Then inevitably Obi got asked for his 462nd photo of the World Cup by a Russian family.

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Obi aka Photos

That long walk from the taxi/tram/train/bus to the stadium is a feature of World Cups – and this was my 7th in a sequence that stretched back to Los Angeles 1994, when we lived in that fair city and had scored tickets to every game at the Rose Bowl Pasadena, including the Final.  Hooked, we’d travelled to France in 1998 and witnessed Marseilles being trashed by England fans fighting local North Africans, then met Billy on a train to Toulouse.  I’d flown to Japan in 2002 for the quarter-final game v Brazil with Julian Benkel and we’d gone on to Seoul in Korea for the semi final game between South Korea and Germany.  In 2006 Jenny and I drove from Copenhagen to Sweden to visit our friend Amanda Ooms in Sköne before travelling through Germany for a beautiful tournament and another penalty shoot-out defeat against Portugal.  2010 was the magical South Africa World Cup with it’s highlight quarter-final game in Soweto between Ghana and Uruguay (Suarez handball) after England had capitulated to Germany in Bloemfontain.  Then Brazil 2014 and Rio, Manaus, another group-stage exit for England.  Jenny had sworn not to come to Russia (see My Pop Life #109) and I thought I’d missed it but now I felt full, emotional, in the place I was supposed to be, 700 miles north of Kazahkstan on the mighty Volga, watching a quarter-final game between England and Sweden.

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My seat was in the gods high above the SW corner flag, strangely close to the two Sunderland fans from earlier.  Russians were supporting Sweden, Russians were supporting England but as we found out later, Russians were supporting Russia. I could make out the England players warming up far below me.  Then they left the field and the build-up started.  I was completely ambushed when they played Three Lions through the tannoy system, with a karaoke highlighted lyric line.

…everyone seems to know the score, 
They’ve seen it all before
They just know, they’re so sure
That England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away
But I know they can play,
‘Cause I remember…

And bugger me if I didn’t have a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye as the emotion swelled inside me, completely sidelining any defensive cynicism, any secret irritation for the constant repetition and squashing down of hope to protect the inevitable disappointment, the emotion flooding through me and drowning the irony, we just want to see these players turn up and believe in themselves like they do every week for their clubs.  Sometimes – Algeria, Iceland – it feels as if the very shirt is infected with doubt, a curse is on the land and all who wear it.  But I know we can play…

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We started slowly but were in possession immediately and often and all the corners were right below me.  After 15 minutes Harry Maguire thumped home a magnificent header and we were 1-0 up and cruising.  Sterling could and should have scored a couple more before the whistle blew for half-time.  I made my way down, down, down and around to the far side of the beautiful stadium where the England fans were gathered.  No one asked me for a ticket at any point.  Little pockets of fans were smoking in corners beneath the stands with stewards ignoring the rules.  When I’d got behind the goal at the other end I walked in, and the 2nd half had already started.  It was easy to spot Billy, standing on his seat, so I squeezed over, joined Obi and Puns and Andy then met two youngers Cass and Stu and we sang, we sang, we sang for the entire second half.   To the tune of Earth Wind & Fire’s September :

Oh wee Oh, England Fans in Russia Oh wee Oh, drinking all yer vodka  Oh wee Oh, England’s going all the way……………

Then a corner.  It goes out to Lingard. He crosses to the far post, right in front of us and DELE ALLI BULLETS A HEADER INTO THE BACK OF THE NET !!!  The place erupts in noise, arms waving and beer spraying everywhere, screaming, jumping, celebrating, hugging, drenched in beer, happy, delirious.  What a moment.  I was soaked in beer and my glasses were spattered with lager but we were 2-0 up and heading for the giddy heights of a semi final.  The singing intensified now, glorified, the other song became the favourite :

                   …On our way, we’re on our way, to The Moscow we’re on our way                             how do we get there I don’t know, how do we get there I don’t care – all I know is England’s on the way….

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Puns, me, Billy Grant, Andy 

Something so wonderfully right about singing The Moscow and literally being on our way there for a semi final that we sang it over and over and over again, long after the final whistle and the England players had walked over and at least three of them had danced to our chanting, hands waving – Lingard, Walker and Stones I believe – and Gareth – now inevitably Sir Gareth Southgate had come and punched the air with lion-esque passion at us.  And there it was again

It’s coming home it’s coming home it’s coming Football’s coming home…

We sang it.  The sacred phrase It’s Coming Home which encapsulates so much disappointment and hope.

Where has it been ?  Brazil mainly.  Germany.  Argentina.  Spain.  France.

The highly charged emotive word “home” referring to the modern game’s development in the British Isles in the late 19th Century before becoming the world’s favourite game.  The reason why footballers and football fans around the world HATE the song so much and hate to hear The England singing it.  The utter hubris.  The entitlement.  And they might be right.  Baddiel certainly went to Oxford.

It was written for Euro ’96 which was held in England, so perhaps we all read too much into it.  But it was been dusted down & polished up and sent out to bolster our hopes each time there is a tournament – every two years.  I had always treated it in an ironic way, like a piece of kitsch.  But hearing it in the context of a competitive England match it becomes something else entirely.  It becomes an expression of longing and hope.  A real one.

We left the ground in a daze, taking pictures of the moment, recounting the goals and saves, wondering who we would play in the semi final.  The tram was crowded and unreal.  Some 3000 England fans had been inside the ground and sang their hearts out and now we were trying to get back to the fanpark to see Russia play Croatia.  It took forever, we started a countdown to kickoff and eventually jumped off, then walked ten blocks and jumped back on – or at least four of us did, Billy, me Cass & Stu.  It became apparent that the rumours of overcrowding at the fanpark were true (in the largest square in Europe) as we saw thousands of fans gathered around the corner entrance being turned away.  We stayed on the tram and it swung north.  After a while we jumped off and found a pizza restaurant with a screen on the pavement, surrounded by scores of people.  We went inside.  It was heaving but there was a queue for the bar. Facing the screen.  Then Russia scored.

The noise was incredible.  Billy started filming but there was real alarm on his face as the chant Ross-i-ya arose from the faces around us, deep, gutteral, primal.  Or maybe I imagined it.  We edged nearer to the bar & beer.  The atmosphere was electric and intense.  Then Croatia scored.  Silence.

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We got to the bar.  Sorry there’s no more beer.  Gin ?  Vodka ?  No No more alcohol.  Like a bad dream where you are stuck somewhere hostile but no one is admitting it.  Four cokes please I said.  We only have three : Sprite?  Fine.  Three cokes and a Sprite and back on the tram heading south again.  Andy had gone back to his hotel so we headed there back past the fanpark, still mobbed outside but now it was halftime. At the top of the Slavy Square stands the Glory Monument dedicated to the Kuybyshev aircraft manufacturers of WW2 who made over 30,000 planes.  We descended to the hotel amid the surreal excitement of a city in thrall to a football match happening hundreds of miles away.

In the Volga hotel we were rejoined by Andy, who had my cases in his room, Puns and Obi and we watched the second half with a large number of Russians, a few English, the odd Swede, some Kazahks, three Bolivians and a handful of Brazilians.  They also ran out of beer as we arrived at the bar.  Vodka and orange then.  Vodka and coke.  And finally these mythical imaginary drinks arrived.

Extra time.  Croatia scored again.  Modric was playing a blinder.  I turned to Billy at one point and said – there is a giant Croatian pin heading towards a big Russian balloon.  Surely it was all over.  But no – Russia equalised with minutes left and we were down to penalties.  I had a plane to catch at 3.45am going to Moscow – I’d got the last seat – but I couldn’t leave yet.  Russia had beaten the Spanish on penalties thanks to their goalkeeper Akinfeev but this time they couldn’t go the extra mile to the huge immediate palpable disappointment of a vast nation. Croatia were through to the semi final and a match with England.  I grabbed my cases and said my goodbyes – we’d all meet again in Moscow but character’s planes weren’t until Tuesday in the main. Outside it was drunken and mobbed, taxis everywhere but I had my Yandex App.  It didn’t work.  No wifi suddenly after three days.  I stood on the street corner and watched the Russians high on drink and disappointment crossing the road, singing, smoking, laughing in some cases.  They appeared to be taking it well.  I saw a cab across the road and dragging my cases, walked over.  “Airport?”  I wondered.  She nodded and off we went.

The airport was an hour away.  My driver had a translation App and switched it on immediately.  We started talking – had an entire conversation in fact.   She told me she had a man in Italy and she wanted to move there but that her friend had warned her about Italian men and now she wasn’t so sure.  She told me her daughter was her sole reason for living after she called in and they’d chatted.  She told me she wanted to leave Russia.  I became a counsellor for an hour.  Keep your goals in mind, focus and keep your self-esteem high. You can have whatever you want if you keep it front focus.  And so on and so forth.  Then she said – written on the App in front of me :

I am terrified of the loneliness

I became quite moved and we were silent for the last ten minutes.

There were a handful of drunk England fans in Samara airport among the vast majority of media workers and like loud people everywhere they changed the environment for everyone.  Even on the plane they continued to repeat the same few simple melodies and words I have already outlined above, like some broken clockwork toys before I fell asleep.  We all got about an hours sleep before we landed in Domodedovo Airport near Moscow at 4.30am.  We staggered onto buses and commenced a 15-minute drive to the terminal while I realised that I had left my phone on the plane.  Taken to Lost Property I sat there for half an excruciating hour before the stewardesses came in with it in their hand.  Exhausted relief.  Got a bus through the green field and forests south of Moscow to the Metro then a Metro to Tverskaya.  When I got up the escalator to the subway exit there was a monsoon outside.

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A monsoon.  I waited.  The address of the hotel was 14 Tverskaya and I was steps from 18.  When I finally took those steps though some 25 minutes later I was nowhere near 14.  When I got there I was wet – and the number 14 just told you which chunk of the block we were on, then it was building 4.  No one could tell me where it was.  Round the corner.  Into the alley.  Ask at the flower shop.  He didn’t know. He asked his mate.  He didn’t know.  There was no internet on my phone and I was getting very wet now.   I also had sharp pain every time I put down my right foot and realised that I must have blisters from walking around Samara for hours the previous day.  I squeezed my foot to protect it and limped my way into an apartment building in Number four thinking there might be a secret hotel on the top floor but no go.  At least it wasn’t wet in there.  My England jacket was drenched so I changed into the Burberry raincoat.  I stood under an archway for about half an hour watching the torrential downpour before realising that I had to move, somewhere, anywhere.  I walked back around to the cafe which was opposite the grand old grocery which I later learned was the famous Eliseyev Food Hall:

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A cleaner told us the cafe was closed until 10am – it was 8.30 by now – and the two chaps who had come inside looking for a cafe with me told me in broken Russki English that MacDonalds had wifi.  Back down the underpass, out the other end and into a vast Micky D with breakfast roll egg Macfuckface and fries with black coffee AND WIFI.   Connection.  Suddenly all the messages and email come rolling in.  Loads of WhatsApp messages from EnglandOnTourRussia2018 and plenty involving last night’s party in Samara which developed into dawn selfies with girls and loads of photos of people with fingers to their lips.  I later worked out that this referred to people resisting the urge to say

It’s Coming Home

under any circumstances and to keep radio silence as far as winning the world cup was concerned…Meanwhile back in England that’s all anyone could say and non-football fans were in secret righteous fury vowing to kill the next person who said it.  When drunk of course, people say it louder and more often.  Was it to become our secret undoing ?  I couldn’t get the stupid phrase out of my head.  Or the Three Lions On A Shirt bit.  It was taking over my brain.  Worst of all I was re-writing it to stop it being repetitive brain injury.  Sealions on a Skirt.  Felines on a Flirt.  Or that evergreen Scaffold cover in praise of laundry Three Shirts On A Line.

Of course I wanted England to win the World Cup and now and again in my secret heart I thought they could.  But my undrunk morning self knew that we were underdogs, that we didn’t have a midfielder like Luka Modric who could run a game.  Nevertheless the hope was planted by this carefully constructed and rather sweet song from 1996.  The music was written by a Liverpool musician Ian Broudie and the lyrics by a Birmingham comedian Frank Skinner with a London comedian David Baddiel and recorded by Broudie’s band The Lightning Seeds.   It contains famous pieces of commentary describing the England team as disappointing.  It is indeed a song about failure, about how the team never quite rise to the occasion, although sometimes, it feels as if they might. There are moments.  Lineker’s goal against Germany in Rome 1990.  Gazza.  And of course Bobby Moore and 1966 at Wembley.   The England squad of 1996 appear in the video and sing the chorus.  It has become the England supporters’ anthem and rises into the charts during most football tournaments, the torture of watching England playing football once again like a recurring nightmare that will never go away. It’s the hope that kills you.  Like itching powder I couldn’t soothe the damn tune out of my ears.  But Southgate has made all the difference hasn’t he ?? And here we are.

  A World Cup semi-final in Moscow for fuck’s sake.

At 10.am I went back to the cafe and it was finally open.  The Uzbeki waiter Jim spoke good English and was a budding film-maker.  He wanted to follow me on Instagram because I was an actor.  He now does.  He also realised that I’d been looking at 14 Tverskaya Street, rather than it’s cross street Tverskaya Bul Var, or Boulevard.  OMG.  I’d been walking through a monsoon for the last four hours and I was drenched.  I changed my shoes and my socks and headed in hopefully the correct direction.  The area was really nice.  After further fluffing in almost every direction I finally found the East-West Hotel hidden carefully behind a cool restaurant called Didi and checked in at 11am.  My room was small and perfect.  I examined my right foot.  Two blisters.  I broker them both and promptly fell asleep.

When I awoke some hours later I noticed that all the beer stains on the back of my England Jacket had been washed out by the monsoon rain.   It was time to walk out into the Russian capital and see what I could see.  In the small reception area of the hotel the TV was showing the defeated Russian players being paraded across the stage at the FanPark near Luzhniki, with their manager, thousands of Russians filming it on their phones.  The receptionist and I watched.  I turned to him and put my hand on my heart.   “Are you proud?”  I asked.  “No”  he said.  “Sad?” I asked.  “Yes” he said.  Fair enough I thought your team got knocked out on penalties.  “But do you feel patriotic?”  I asked again.  He rolled up his right trouser leg and showed me a thing white crescent scar around his kneecap.  “I was a footballer”  he said,  ” It could be me up there“.   I said I was sorry and walked out onto Tverskaya Bul Var.  As I walked in the bright sunshine I felt a lump in my throat and tears coming to my eyes.  The conversation had opened me right up.  Russia was making me feel emotions

My Pop Life #210 : The Carnival Is Over – The Seekers

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The Carnival Is Over – The Seekers

High above the dawn is waiting
And my tears are falling rain
For the carnival is over
We may never meet again

1965 was the year of The Seekers, The Shangri-Las, The Skatalites, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Bert Jansch & Ken Dodd, The Byrds & The Beatles, Bob Dylan & Tom Jones, Mum’s nervous breakdown and subsequent divorce from my father.  That all bled into 1966 too.   I was young – 8 years old – but not that young.

I previously wrote about the time my mum spent in Hellingly Hospital in My Pop Life #55 – Help! by The Beatles but it was all a blur in the end, apart from those few memories.   The songs of that year stand out as beacons of clarity in a world turning darker and confusingly indeterminate – twinkling shards of light in the doubt – but looking back the only ones I strongly remember were the number 1s (of which The Seekers had two).  And I wonder if that is because my dad and my Nan were looking after us,  and they didn’t have the radio on much, or maybe it was 1965 and they didn’t play Radio Luxemburg or Radio Caroline.  So only the ones off the telly got through to my ears.  Strange thought. Like a rent in the sound firmament.

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Me holding my brother Paul in the early 1960s

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Even though The Seekers break-through year was 1965, I rather feel that this song is set in 1966/7 after Mum had come out of hospital and bought The Best Of The Seekers LP and played it quite a lot.      Especially the first three tracks : Morningtown Ride, A World Of Our Own and The Carnival Is Over.

Mum had escaped from hospital by pretending to go for a walk one day.  She’d earlier made friends with a woman who was on the same meds as she was and a few beds along, and one day the woman had disappeared.  I actually remember Mum telling us this on one clear autumn day, when Dad took me, Paul and Andrew into the visiting room at Hellingly.  Mum, Heather Brown as was, said that she assumed the woman had gone home, got out of that place and was back with her family.   Then one day Mum had gone upstairs for something (?) and there was that same woman walking along the corridor, drugged up to the eyeballs and not recognising Mum at all.  We didn’t like that story and neither did Mum because shortly after that visit she was back home.  She’d just walked out and got on a bus.

Later on, maybe 1967 or even later, she told me of the circumstances of the escape and how the doctor had phoned her at home and said she would have to come back and she said no.  For a few days they negotiated, Dad, Mum, Dr Maggs and then she voluntarily went back to hospital for a short while, on the strict understanding that it was for a few weeks only.  I can’t remember how long for.  But a deal was struck and so at some point she was finally back at home to our huge relief.  I can’t claim to remember the celebrations, the hugs and kisses or the arguments that followed, just a few images of marmalade pots flying into the wall; glasses being removed and held high in the air; “don’t be so stupid“;  regular use of the words ‘bugger‘ and ‘off‘ and even the occasional ‘sod‘.  We hated it.

All this time or thereabouts, Lynne was babysitting for us.  She was a kind of flowery hippy type, skinny with long frizzy ash-blonde hair.  She would marry our dad in 1973 if memory serves.  There’s an infinitely sad photo of Ralph, Paul and Andrew with John & Lynne outside the Brighton Registry Office.  The tear-drop shirts give me the date.  Years later mum would tell us of others, and other things that happened before the divorce was granted sometime in 1966 on the grounds of “mental cruelty”.   I didn’t really understand at the time, and actually remembered the entire two year period later as – a divorce followed by a nervous breakdown.  My memory had literally re-ordered the universe so that it made sense.  The divorce caused the breakdown.  We can all understand that, so some degree.  But no.  It was actually the other way around.  I unpicked the actual facts much later when I was fully grown and older than my parents were in 1966.

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I was going to school half a mile away towards the Downs and life went on as before but without Dad.  Nan still came up now and again, or more commonly it was Wendy who turned up who was our cousin from Portsmouth and must have been a teenager by then.  I wrote about her in My Pop Life #102 when she visited a few years later and went to Eastbourne with Mum to see Desmond Dekker.

The sacred music from this mid-sixties era is imprinted onto me like a stick of rock, all the lyrics, harmonies and tunes.  The Sound Of Music.  Oliver!  Motown. The Beatles.  Dionne Warwick.  And, yes – The Seekers.

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They were part of that early-60s folk wave of clean-harmony middle-class white folk who had a particular confidence, and a bright, clear and gently righteous sound – Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio, The Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary, The New Christy Minstrels, Joan Baez and John Denver.  The Seekers were somewhat more poppy folk from Australia and their first release was a version of Waltzing Matilda, which I have to report reluctantly is not as good as Rolf Harris’.  They travelled to Britain by ship then performed alongside Dusty Springfield (see My Pop Life #149) whereupon they also met her brother Tom who had earlier been in a popular group with his sister called The Springfields.  He wrote and produced a song for The Seekers called I’ll Never Find Another You in 1964 which eventually got to Number 1 in the UK. He also wrote The Carnival Is Over, Georgy Girl and A World Of Our Own.  The clear female voice is that of Judith Durham whose pitching is straight as an arrow clean centre of every note, supported by the three fellas whose harmonies thrillingly nestle under that clear pure voice, supporting and stretching the melody to its full promise and providing hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck every time.

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The Carnival Is Over is sung to an old Russian folk melody called Stenka Razin with original lyrics written by the poet Dmitry Sadovnikov in 1883 – and he told a historical tale of the Volga boatmen – a terrible dark story :

The Ballad of Stenka Razin

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
ships of Cossack yeomanry.

On the first is Stenka Razin
With his princess by his side
Drunken holds in marriage revels
With his beauteous young bride

From behind there comes a murmur
He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too.

Stenka Razin hears the murmur
Of his discontented band
And his lovely Persian princess
He has circled with his hand.

His dark brows are drawn together
As the waves of anger rise;
And the blood comes rushing swiftly
To his piercing jet black eyes

I will give you all you ask for
Head and heart and life and hand.
And his voice rolls out like thunder
Out across the distant land.

Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Wide and deep beneath the sun,
You have never seen such a present
From the Cossacks of the Don.

So that peace may reign forever
In this band so free and brave
Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Make this lovely girl a grave.

Now, with one swift mighty motion
He has raised his bride on high
And has cast her where the waters
Of the Volga roll and sigh.

Dance, you fools, and let’s be merry
What is this that’s in your eyes?
Let us thunder out a shanty
To the place where beauty lies.

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
ships of Cossack yeomanry.

It is a darkly male, anti-love, pro-warrior kind of song.  Not many of those in my Pop Life.  It alarms me that there is a strand in song – in men – with this death-cult kind of feeling being expressed and I copy it here for interest and as a kind of appalled question – is that who we are?  Really?  It actually appears very Greek – Medea killing her children.  According to Wikipedia  “the Dutch traveller Jean Jansen Struys (1630—1694), says that the murder was meant as a sacrifice with which Razin hoped to appease the much loved and feared Volga River”.

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In the Tom Springfield re-write the darkness disappears and we have a simple yearning lament for something lost, perhaps a brief affair with a lion-tamer or a clown, but the circus is leaving town and we get sympathetic lines :

Like a drum, my heart was beating
And your kiss was sweet as wine
But the joys of love are fleeting…

My mother, consciously or not, must have used this as an of anthem for her own doomed marriage.  It has a funereal beat to it, tragic and fated but yet graced with ethereal & beautiful harmonies that really lift you up from tragedy into a place of light and joy.  Quite an extraordinary effect.  It worked on Mum, and it still works on me. Some of the best songs have both joy and sadness in them.  And it hasn’t escaped me that I have avoided the in-depth discussion of my parent’s divorce and instead devoted some time to an exploration of the song.  There is a pattern here I believe.  Most of my traumatic moments, my lonely moments, my brave moments have been hidden inside my personal soundtrack.  The music made it all bearable.  Now older, I can be ambushed by all kinds of things which operate the hidden triggers to open those boxes of feeling, not always musical.  And I’m not sure if I have very much to say about my parent’s divorce anyway, except that it put me off marriage – or so I thought.  Once I was in fact married, I realised that it was divorce I wasn’t interested in.  Marriage was fine, as long as it was for ever.

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Andrew, Selmeston East Sussex 1965

Morningtown Ride opened the Seekers album and was our lullaby that we used to rock baby Andrew, now two, three years old :

Train whistle blowing, makes a sleepy noise

Underneath the blankets for all the boys and girls..

Rockin, rollin’ ridin, out along the bay

All bound for Morningtown, many miles away…

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Andrew it was who was hit hardest by the divorce because he had no real memory of his father being at home.  In that sense I became his father-figure at the tender age of 8.   In later years I always placed my younger brother in goal so that I could score past him, and he would get revenge by entering Paul and I’s bedroom and breaking carefully constructed airfix kits.    Middle brother Paul’s version of the damage control that comes from a broken home was a simple but devastating remark he made when I was 30 years old :

Ralph, you got the lion’s share of the confidence in our family”.  

This is undeniable – as the oldest of three boys left at home with a recovering single mother, I’d had seven years with both parents, a reasonably stable base from which to build a person.  Paul had five years, Andrew one.  But having two parents isn’t the be-all & end-all of a healthy childhood.  Many other things come into play.  The carnival might have been over, but we could all still sing about it and we were all still together.

This blog contains 1965 words.

My Pop Life #206 : Summertime In My Heart – Electric Soft Parade

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Summertime In My Heart – Electric Soft Parade

I gotta say that it often feels
There’s someone watching over me
I don’t pray and I certainly don’t preach
Maybe it’s just wishful thinking
You gotta take the rough with the smooth
If you’re prepared to tell your own truth
It certainly don’t make me look cool
And maybe it’s just all this drinking 

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Alex and Tom White.  Tom has the tie.

I have to write a post on the White brothers.   It was, of course, music that brought us together.  Dear Kit Ashton, when he lived in Brighton, used to do a songwriter’s evening once a year, and I suspect it was Julian Deane – once of Toploader and now running Raygun Records – who suggested he contact me.  Kit emailed probably and said he was doing a David Bowie night, and which song would I like to sing?

Wow.

I said, without any hesitation, ‘Station To Station’ which rhymes, and the resulting rehearsals and live gig were among the highlights of my musical life.  Honest – I will write about the lowlights too at some point, but my favourites are the highlights.  They just are.  Call me old-fashioned.   I missed the earlier incarnations of Kit’s annual event, but they included Rufus Wainwright which is a show I’d have loved to have been involved in.  The following year we’d done Elvis Costello (or was it the previous year?) and that was brilliant too, mainly doing backing vocals and some sax, and singing a couple of leads.  Worth its own post.

Anyway the band on the Bowie gig included some folk I knew : killer guitarist Rachel Wood I’d seen in Paul Steel’s band, some special guests : Herbie Flowers, Glen Richardson, and some folk I didn’t really know, Joe on keyboards and Alex White on drums.  He was outstanding.  Was it the same night of the gig when we went back up Abbey Road to our house and got high and compared notes on depression and strategies for dealing with it?  And then Alex made me a CD with some cracking songs I’d never heard of – including: Ambrosia’s Running Away ; a blast from my own past which he’d somehow unearthed: Deaf School’s What A Way To End It All; a shared joy: Van Dyke Parks & Brian Wilson’s Orange Crate Art;  and most astoundingly, a cover that Alex had made by himself of a Todd Rundgren song All The Children Sing.  This blew my tiny mind, because it is a multi-layered exquisite piece of work in the original and Alex had somehow re-created its vibe note-perfectly.

I undoubtedly made him some kind of CD too, but lacking the cover version moment with me playing all the parts and singing all the harmonies.  I jest.  As any fule kno.  At this point I suspect I went back to listen to Electric Soft Parade all over again.

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Electric Soft Parade were Alex and his brother Tom White, previously members of Feltro Media, a Brighton band who’d recorded three (!) self-released albums in the late 90s.  I’ve not heard any of these.   Electric Soft Parade’s first album Holes In The Wall came out in 2002 and was nominated for a Mercury prize, two other great albums followed which I won’t go into here, but from around 2007 everything they’ve done together or singly has been self-produced.   When I met Alex, the band was on an extended hiatus, the two brothers being busy with their own projects as well as playing with Brakes – another Brighton outfit formed with members of British Seapower & Tenderfoot.

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Alex and Tom as youngers

I bumped into Tom White one day in the framing shop in The Lanes and said ‘hi, I’m a friend of Alex‘.   I went to see Clowwns at the Prince Albert one night, Miles Heathfield‘s excellent band, Tom was on drums.   The brothers kept popping up at gigs around town.  Then, suddenly, their Mum died.  In their grief, a benefit concert was arranged down at The Concorde on the seafront, almost directly below our house.  I went along and saw the cream of the Brighton musical establishment playing for the brothers, including Field Music and Electric Soft Parade themselves, playing their first gig for some time.

What was great for me about discovering further musical riches in my home town was that sense of things being joined together.  Pretty much any musician I talked to knew them.  Among my joyous memories of local bands (or bands who’d based themselves in Brighton) were Mike Lord‘s tremendous outfit Stars & Sons in which Paul Steel played bass and Luke Sital-Singh played guitar – both now incandescent solo acts with Julian’s Raygun Records along with ace punk-rock group The Xcerts.  My friend Tim Lewis was now dating a beautiful young lady named Beth Hannah. Her father is Ian Hannah of this parish, a massive music fan who enjoys going to local gigs (like me) and would always be seen at anything involving the White brothers.  He is their biggest fan I reckon!  So  often the crowd would be me, Tim and Ian with maybe Andy or Will or Keith or whoever we can rustle up.  The live scene there is ace.

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Tom White, Alex White : The Electric Soft Parade : “Idiots”

The following year or maybe the year after that they released their fourth album “Idiots” which was on the Helium label and had a rather brilliant front cover (see above).  One of the songs on this album caught my ear and never let go.   Summertime in My Heart is a wonderful piece of songwriting & playing by the brothers White, conjuring up endless sunny days, carefree afternoons and long lazy evenings with people you love and bottles of cider.  It references sounds like The Byrds jangly guitar pop, The Las from Liverpool and the fresh punk-pop of The Undertones.  But really it sounds just like them.  My wife Jenny adores the song with its sibling harmonies mixed high in the production, and references to catching “the first bus into town“.  Perfect pop.

I don’t know if Idiots” got much traction, had good reviews or sales, but it seems not which is one of the many crimes against perfect pop that have been perpetrated over the years.  I reference here one of Brighton’s other fine musicians, Paul Steel, and his 2nd album Moon Rock which was released in Japan and is now available on iTunes, but very few people know about it.  Such a shame.

Disheartened they may have been but it didn’t dent their confidence, as evidenced by the next move.  Around this time they both produced albums on their own – Alex made a perfect copy of Steely Dan’s Katy Lied :

https://theelectricsoftparade.bandcamp.com/album/katy-lied

while Tom made an equally perfect copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours :

https://theelectricsoftparade.bandcamp.com/album/rumours

Because why not? !!

Alex was also making an album inspired by his mother called Interlocutor at The Levellers‘ studio near Brighton College playing-fields with mates and wanted some of my alto saxophone on it.  The dates never quite worked and I’ve never heard the finished product, if indeed it was ever finished.

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Tom made a handful of solo LPs, including Yalla recorded in Egypt (all his stuff is great by the way) and then formed a new band called The Fiction Aisle.  I love this band too.  Their first album was a stunner, called Heart Map Rubric. To date they have produced four albums – three studio releases and a live LP  which came out last month (April 2018) with Alex playing guitar which was welcome news since every time I’d seen Alex recently he hasn’t been buoyant.  The previous last time (I think) was at a Fiction Aisle gig in Brighton in December 2016 where Alex was on DJ duties and we went back to his mate’s flat for a few beers and smokes afterward.  It was nice to see him again.

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Earlier Tom had spied me on the pavement smoking eternal cigarettes as ever & I’d congratulated him on the gig and yet expressed disappointment that it didn’t sound like my favourite album of theirs Fuchsia Days.  Different line-up, instruments, energy.  Tom was full of joy and told me that he and Alex had been hanging out at Preston Park earlier in the year listening outside the perimeter fence to Brian Wilson & his band playing Pet Sounds and melting into their musical boots.  I was inside with Paul Steel & his partner Hollie his partner & Martin his dad (see My Pop Life #1 and #2) and wondering why Brian was singing like Frank Sinatra and breaking up the rhythm of the phrases.  There is a school that believes that Brian can do whatever he wants and there is a smaller group of devotees like myself who want to hear the song, not the singer’s experimentation.  Ah fuck it, he can do whatever he wants, course he can!  He’s a living savant.

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Brian Wilson at Together The People, Preston Park Brighton 2016

So Tom says “we loved Brian Wilson and we’d like to play in your band if there’s space“.  My band being The Brighton Beach Boys who started out playing the music of Brian Wilson then The Beatles, now Bowie, John Barry and everyone you like (see My Pop Life #111,  My Pop Life #154,  My Pop Life #169  and others…)   There was a little bit of band politics to follow, but in the end we needed a new drummer who lived in Brighton for we were at that time rehearsing The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour LP for its 50th Anniversary to play alongside Sgt Pepper and… well, our regular Ringo the reverend Thomas Arnold was out in Macau and other exotic loci with a Michael Jackson show entitled Thriller.  Early in 2017 I flew back to the UK for a rehearsal and there was Tom White on the kit.  Very happy to see this fresh injection of talent and energy.   And a new generation.  Good for the band I thought.  And he loved the lack of stress, as he put it, playing other people’s music.   Not sure if all the band felt that way!  The following months were a joy for me, and all of us, he gobbled up everything we threw at him, including, of course, backing vocals by the score.  And fake animal heads of course.

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Tom at rehearsal playing er…I Am The Walrus

(the walrus was Paul : see  My Pop Life#118)

That summer (time in my heart) of 2017 we happy few played Brighton Festival, Windsor, Liverpool (!) and London together.  Enjoying those two mighty albums. For another post no doubt, it will remain one of the highlights of my life.

Alex meanwhile had retreated into not really wanting to play music.   Until he turned up on the 4th Fiction Aisle (live) album sounding quite amazing.

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I really should mention the drummer Damo Waters too who is a monster player and who spreads himself among the high end Brighton music scene like caviar on Armenian toast – I’ve seen him with Clowwns, Field Music, ESP and others, always outstanding.

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 I really wanted the brothers to play Summertime In My Heart at my 60th birthday concert in the summer of 2017 (see My Pop Life #200) but Alex was in the slough of despond and didn’t like being in rooms full of people, or even know if he wanted to play music any longer.  I think he’s better now.   I hope so.  I know that struggle.   Tom sang Simon & Garfunkel’s America with Kit Ashton, closing the circle of karma with which we started 1932 words ago and we all ended up on the beach at dawnIMG_2993 Tom White & Paul Brown my dear brother, dawn, June 19th 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you : the White brothers as the magnificent Electric Soft Parade :

My Pop Life #205 : Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do – Captain Beefheart

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Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do  –  Captain Beefheart

Well I was born in the desert, came on up from New Orleans
Came up on a tornado, sunlight in the sky
I went around all day with the moon sticking in my eye

The song itself doesn’t really mean anything to me. So what’s it doing here then?  It’s a blues copy of an old jugband song by Gus Cannon which is a shout out to young girls to come on by  and spend some time.  Sure, why not.  But Captain Beefheart was a sound I’d heard at school round my friend Simon’s house, possibly even at Pete’s too, and I was pretty sure I didn’t like it much.  But in the spirit of the great John Peel, DJ from the early 60s through to 2004, it tops this blog as a song which he introduced to me. 

Let me explain.  This is from Captain Beefheart’s first LP Safe As Milk which came out in 1967, and when I finally started to dig this Magic Band in the year 2008 I was working on a British film called The Boat That Rocked, playing a DJ broadcasting from a pirate radio station moored on a sandbank in the North Sea, just outside British territorial waters.   Set in 1966/7, the film attempts to encapsulate british pop culture at a time when, despite The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Motown, Dusty, The Beach Boys et al, the incredibly fecund and musically diverse pop boom that was the mid-sixties, the nation was being fed a musical diet of trad jazz & light entertainment by the BBC.  Pirate radio stations filled the gap.   Based on both Radio Caroline & Radio London (but always denied by Working Title Films for legal reasons) the film portrays a who’s who of the deejays of the mid-1960s most of whom went on to Radio One when it was formed in 1967 as the law changed and the pirates ceased broadcasting.

I am actually old enough to remember Radio Caroline and Radio London – ‘the Big L’.  I remember Emporer Rosko and Keith Skues and Johnny Walker and even the jingles.  My mum would tune in from leafy East Sussex.  I was 8, 9 years old.  Where else could we find the pop music we loved?  Radio Luxembourg, Radio London, Radio Caroline.  It’s hard to conceive that until summer 1967 there was no pop radio in the UK (a few hours on Saturday BBC) apart from the Pirate Radio stations.

In December/January 2007/8 I was actually on stage doing a play (for the first time since 1990!) at the Bush Theatre in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.  I’ll write about it another time, but it was about a punk band revived in their later years for cash.  Damn good piece of work.  One of the cast Pierce Quigley had auditioned for Richard Curtis and told me about the set-up of the movie.  Right up my street, down my valley, into my top pocket, straight to the heart on my watch I felt.  I wondered if I had a shout, but it sounded pretty much all cast.  In January though I travelled to Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill and met Richard, Hilary Bevan-Jones the producer, Fiona Weir the casting director and Richard’s girlfriend (and mother of his four children) Emma Freud. I read my version of “Bob” the late-night DJ, the hermit, the whispery groovy stoner and Hendrix lover (“this young man is really quite good at playing the guitar”).

Nailed it.

Next up was a table read in London’s Soho with a shiny selection of insecure yet quixotic talent – Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Davenport, Chris O’Dowd, Tom Sturridge.   Jason Isaacs was sitting next to me but he was only keeping a seat warm, he assured me, for Rhys Ifans who couldn’t make it.  The critical part of The Count, the American DJ – the Emporer Rosko part – had not apparently been filled.  No one else had been cast.  Actually I think Bill & Rhys and Nick & Ken had been cast, but all the “smaller parts” had not.  It was like a giant open audition.  Jeez.

We read the script aloud, someone was taping it.  No pressure.

We were all cast a few days later.  Except Jason Isaacs.

I was to play Bob, and Richard wanted to change the name.  Clearly lawyers were all over this script to stop it being likened to Radio Caroline or the others.  Bob reminded the lawyers of Bob Harris from The Old Grey Whistle Test and they wanted to avoid litigation.  During my research period I met Bob Harris at the BBC while he recorded his country show for Radio 2, and told him of the discussion of names.  He insisted that the character be named Bob, because even though he wasn’t on a pirate ship, Harris felt a huge affinity for those characters, and came up in the same generation.  “Bob” my DJ was a mix of John Peel and Whispering Bob Harris really, a laid back groover, bringing alternative sounds to a pop generation.  I was in method-acting heaven.  Bob was officially my DJ name and I’m still friends with Mr Harris.images.duckduckgo-3

Bob Harris

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John Peel

I read all the books by & about Bob Harris and John Peel, with whom I had grown up in the 1970s.  Harris on OGWT with the best live music, including Bob Marley and Focus, Peel’s late night show on Radio One, his dry appearances on Top Of The Pops, his scouse wit hidden beneath a monotone of intelligence, his music choices bloody minded, but 90% of the time right on the money.  Reggae, folk, psychedelic rock, punk, post punk, Vivian Stanshall  and alternative music were his forte.  He had a massive vinyl collection at his home near Ipswich.

John Peel sadly died in 2004 and is now enshrined as a national treasure, so I was doubly honoured to portray even a pretend version of his early years on the pirate ship.  In fact in 1966 he had an eclectic radio show called The Perfumed Garden which broadcast every night from midnight until 3am.  He played strange new bands like Moby Grape, Jefferson Airplane and The Incredible String Band, and read poetry and passages from children’s literature – which was all the rage in mid-sixties pop land – Piper At The Gates of Dawn is from Wind In The Willows, White Rabbit from Alice In Wonderland.  He did speak incredibly quietly into the microphone, unlike the daytime DJs like Kenny Everett or Tony Blackburn, who would create a party atmosphere and keep it upbeat.  Peel would imagine his audience were stoned, lying on rugs and cushions with joss-sticks burning, smoking cigarettes and joints, and he was largely right.  Of course some of his audience were at home with their parents listening in that infamous cliché under the bedclothes to a tiny transistor radio, so the whispering worked well for them too.  It was Peel who introduced Captain Beefheart to the UK.  He also championed Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and other blues artists who had already been picked up on by John Mayall, Cream, The Rolling Stones & the Animals.  It was a shame that I couldn’t talk to John, but I felt close to him and I wanted to honour his memory and his massive legacy.  In the end I didn’t contact Sheila his widow, in case there were some restrictions or anxieties, but I did find a fan – Gray Newell -who had taped The Perfumed Garden and made CDs of about a dozen shows, recreated with mp3s of the songs he played. I’ll be forever grateful to Gray who very kindly sent me a handful of the CDs – treasure !  Like listening to Radio Caroline in 1966…

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Bob Silver, The Dawn Treader

We had a weekend rehearsal on the boat we would be shooting on in Portland harbour, Dorset.   All the boat cast were there, including Philip Seymour Hoffman who was playing the Count.  We were berthed in the cabins, complete with posh moisturiser and shampoo courtesy of Emma.

Innocence.  For some reason I had a little Brighton Beach Boys interview on my computer – me talking about 1966/67 and why we did these live shows presenting the pop highs of the era, Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper, and I guess I felt it was so On Point that I offered it to the assembly.  Maybe I thought Richard would book us for the wrap party? (he didn’t).  Thinking back on it now it does seems like appalling hubris on my part.  But it was innocently offered to be fair.  We would be a community of sorts in the months that followed but – for me – we would never really gel together as a family, despite everything that was laid on for us, the best efforts of the producers and all the crew.   Early days we were all invited up to Eric Fellner’s Elizabethan mansion in Bucks to eat and drink and bond.  It was a stunning day with red kites landing on the lawn.  One of the lawns.

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Pressure – for a British film it had a big budget (£30 million), and although this was a subconscious pressure it was nevertheless there.  It was hard work and there was plenty of it.  We’d get ferried out to the boat every morning, and if you weren’t in the scene you’d hang out below deck or somewhere out of vision.  The crew was huge – but people didn’t want to be seen to be chatting and hanging out when they should be working.

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script supervisor Emma Thomas

Strangely on the very last day I was chatting to the script supervisor Emma Thomas who had been good fun & friendly throughout, and found that we had strong mutual friends, namely Paulette & Beverley Randall.

I discovered on the same day as the unit slowly relaxed that Luke the B-camera operator was my pal Jemma Redgrave’s brother!  I thought that showed how focussed we were, how tight everyone had been, that those cross-discipline friendships didn’t really happen even on a five month gig.  A shame.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

Drugs.  Who knows, now that Phil is no longer with us, what he was doing and with whom on that gig.  There may have been an off-set hang that didn’t involve me, and this happens all the time in “real life” – if you don’t participate in other people’s drugs, you don’t get invited.  Fair enough.  Big LA thing, that is.  I don’t know.  Rest in peace lovely man.

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Phil, Tom W, Rhys, Rhys, Tom S, Chris, Ike, Nick, Katherine, me, Bill

Cast. The huge cast of name actors playing name DJs certainly was surreal.  I can’t put my finger on why that might be so.  Some competitive joke telling.  Who could make Philip Seymour Hoffman laugh the most.  Some scrambling for screentime in the big ensemble scenes.  Actually loads of that.  Who were they? Well,  Rhys Darby was recruited from Flight of the Conchords to play the Kenny Everett character.  He was shy like me I think.  And he pronounced six as sux.  Somehow Nick Frost, Chris O’ Dowd, Rhys Ifans and Tom Wisdom inhabited the souls of Dave Lee Travis, Tony Blackburn, Johnny Walker, Tony Prince, Simon Dee and Johnny Vance between them.

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Rhys Ifans

Rhys Ifans was zonked for most of the film, and after he split with Sienna Miller halfway-through the shoot even monosyllables were like gold dust.  I worked with him later (2014) on the show Elementary in New York, and he was sweet as a nut.  Bill Nighy played the owner, an oasis of calm and saturnine urbanity and like me, in his musical element.  The younger ones – Tom Sturridge who never bothered to befriend me at any point, Tom Brooke, Will Adamsdale, Katherine Parkinson, Ike Hamilton and Talulah Riley who did bless their cotton socks.

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Ike Hamilton, me, Tom Brooke

January Jones was delightful, but refused to reveal the secrets of Mad Men.   Kenneth Branagh was charm and warmth as ever, and dear Emma Thompson with whom I’d worked in France many years before was just gorgeous. (See My Pop Life #9).

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Ralph & Emma : we’d had sex in a previous film…

Me.  Perhaps it was me.  Not joining in as usual.  Method-acting a stoner hermit  who set himself aside from the gang in almost every way.  My first scene in the film is in the mess-hall where The Count, Philip Seymour Hoffman, says “hey man, who are you??” because I’m the invisible man on board.

Weeks later up on deck Phil and I were chatting about something, and as he turned away I heard him mutter under his breath “funny little, nerdy little guy“.   So I guess I never wandered too far from my character, and just didn’t join in much.  But then later he gave me the biggest hug.

The crew  included dear Christine Blundell on make-up, who had designed  my film New Year’s Day.   I love her, despite her Oscar.

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Christine Blundell – make-up dept.

And Joanna Johnson designed my hippy costume.  I’d hook up with her again on Jack The Giant Slayer, with an old friend of Jenny’s Fiona McCann

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Joanna Johnson & Fiona McCann – costume dept.

So mainly I suspect it was funny little nerdy little me, playing a music-loving hermit, spending the days asleep, the evenings preparing the show and the nights broadcasting.  Not really part of the pop radio scene.  When I did appear in scenes with the chaps my default was a kind of stoned shyness, mixed with hidden musical snobbery & arrogance of course.  Because my show went out between 3.00am and 6am I called it The Dawn Treader…after the Narnia cycle.

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Emma Freud

Emma Freud directed 2nd unit and was in fact, along with Richard Curtis himself, the friendliest person on the movie.  Probably the single best thing that happened to me on this job was her genius idea to film each of the DJs broadcasting their radio show for a whole hour.   The actors had to research and compile the show, source the vinyl and other bits & pieces, then learn how to use the equipment which we’d already done, and off we went in real time.  It was such a brilliant idea that none of it, as far as I know, made the final cut or indeed any DVD-extras footage.  Nevertheless we were not to know this.

Since I had quite a few episodes of The Perfumed Garden to listen to, I had a great template for The Dawn Treader show, but all the songs, album covers, anything I wanted to use had to be cleared by the companies who had copyright, by the lawyers, and by Richard himself.

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Art Department prop

For reasons that emanate from Bob Silver, The Dawn Treader himself, the character wanted to open this to-be-filmed show with Donovan’s Sunshine Superman. But before that – the intro music!! – the signature sound of the show which would be played every night.  I had a song in my collection called 3am Boogie by Willard McDaniel and blow me down if it didn’t sound EXACTLY like a radio show intro piece from 1967.   You’ll have to buy it though because it isn’t on Youtube I’m afraid.  Maybe Spotify.  What I knew though was that I had to have track one, side two of Are You Experienced? by Jimi Hendrix somewhere in there.  ‘May This Be Love’.  An album I owned already – but on Polydor.  When it came out in 1966 it was on Track Records, and since it would be on camera, that was the one I needed.  I soon discovered that it is something of a collector’s item.  I made a bid for it on ebay but it went for £600.  Whoosh.  Now what.  I visited one of the vinyl Emporia of Brighton’s North Laine, in particular Wax Factor, a kind of holygrail willywonka cave for vinyl junkies.

waxx8I told the man what I needed and he said he thought he could source a damaged copy for me, at a reduced price.  Sounded perfect. A few days later it was in my possession…

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It cost me £150.

I know that will shock some people but clearly in my secret heart I wanted to collect it.  I do have a beautiful vinyl collection.  ‘Course I do.  The other albums I bought for ‘research’ were the Captain Beefheart LP Safe As Milk, The Yardbirds first LP, Fresh Cream and Highway 61 Revisited, all reasonably priced.  And 45s of Pink Floyd, Jefferson AirplaneNina Simone & The Small Faces.   So here is The Dawn Treader hour – now a playlist on my computer, but in reality a set of vinyl records, 45s and LPs…

The Dawn Treader

intro : 3am Boogie : Willard McDaniel

Sunshine Superman  – Donovan

Alone Again Or  – Love

White Rabbit  –  Jefferson Airplane

{Reading from Alice Through the Looking Glass}

Eight Miles High  – The Byrds

May This Be Love   –   Jimi Hendrix

Here Come The Nice  –  Small Faces

Dust My Blues  –  John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers

Highway 61 Revisited  – Bob Dylan

Sure Nuff ‘N Yes I Do – Capt Beefheart

Pet Sounds – The Beach Boys

Hang On To A Dream  – Tim Hardin

Dreaming  – Cream

Water Woman  – Spirit

{Reading – Icarus Allsorts by Roger McGough

I Put A Spell On You  –  Nina Simone

Killing Floor  –   Howlin’ Wolf

Dedicated To The One I Love – The Mamas & the Papas

* * *

We recorded it in one take one afternoon, complete with letters from readers asking for The Strawberry Alarm Clock, weather reports, playing Howlin’ Wolf at the wrong speed “by mistake” – Peel was quite famous for this – poems, whimsy and some gentle self-reflexive humour. I do think it’s one of the most perfect things I’ve ever experienced – I don’t mean I was good at it, what I mean is that I revelled in it, the planning, designing, writing and recording of it.  Thankfully I’ve never had to watch it.  Or listen to it… I know we all dream of having a radio show – if you’re reading this it’s probably because you love music and share that same fantasy – well, lucky me, I got to do it for an hour.  Thanks Emma!   And thank you Richard for approving the idea, the playlist, the actor…

There was one last job I had to do – choose the LP which Bob would save from the water as the ship is sinking – a sequence where I carry a box of vinyl out of the cabin and suddenly disappear down into the hold and underwater, records floating everywhere.  Bob grabs one and he and his son surface together to be met by Nick Frost who takes the LP off me, glances at it and throws it back into the water.  I chose The Incredible String Band‘s record “The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion” mainly because it had a good cover but also because I don’t like it very much.

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Peel loved this band and really gave them a push but I’ve never been able to listen to more than half of a song.  It was a good gag in the film, but I couldn’t do that to a Bob Dylan album for example (one of the suggestions!)  Sacrilege.  Well, I could’ve done, but I didn’t.  The record I’m listening to as my son rushes in and scratches to tell me we are sinking is The Grateful Dead first LP, also accurate to Peel’s (and Bob Harris’) taste.

The underwater sequence dubbed into Italian

All I had to do then was the acting.

We were in Weymouth for the first part of the shoot, a lovely English seaside resort with a harbour at Portland where the Radio Rock boat was moored offshore, and plenty of welcoming pubs.

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Chester and Jenny came to Weymouth for a week

Later we went to Shepperton Studios to film all the interiors.  Meanwhile in real life, god-daughter Delilah-Rose was three months old…

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I discovered during filming that Richard Curtis was at the same level of music nerd enthusiasm as I – vividly illustrated in the finished product, which bangs seven shades of sugary shit as a musical evocation of the mid-sixties.  The soundtrack is exquisite, and the filming of needles being gently lowered onto vinyl singles has never been bettered.  I can’t say fairer than that.  We discussed our passion in quiet breaks., and one morning after we’d finished shooting the film the doorbell rang and there was a cardboard package “fragile” delivered to my hand – a framed, signed photo of The Beach Boys.  Sent from Richard Curtis.  I thought, that’s a flagrant short-cut to my heart, how very dare you !

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Richard had a laser operation on his eyes before shooting so he didn’t need glasses

There’s a point in the script where Simple Simon (Chris O’ Dowd) is to marry Elenore (January Jones) and all the other DJs take him on a stag night ashore through London’s West End, via Paul McCartney’s house in St John’s Wood (where he lived in 1967 round the corner from Abbey Road Studios).  Paul didn’t like the scene where The Count pays homage to the Gods of Pop because he didn’t like fans outside his house, and George Harrison had recently been attacked in his house, so he veto’d it.  But all the scenes we did shoot that night – it was an all-nighter – were to the musical accompaniment of The Beatles’ I Should Have Known Better a kick-arse John Lennon song from A Hard Day’s Night.  So – literally – all night long, there would be : turn over, sound speed, mark it, music: BEATLES and then Action!   We walked to the beat of Ringo, we got drunk to John’s harmonica, we crawled out of pubs to George’s guitar solo, we fell into star shapes at the National Gallery at dawn in Trafalgar Square to Paul’s harmonies.  And it never made the film. A different song is on that sequence : Lazy Sunday by the Small Faces.  Which has exactly the same BPM. By necessity !

Richard told me later that it was too expensive – around £400,000 for a Beatles song – then years later said that Paul didn’t want it in the film.  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that a film about Radio Caroline & 60s pop music Has To Have A Beatles Song In It Somewhere.  Surely.  But : you can get ten great songs vs one Beatles song for that price.  I’ve never had to make that call.

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Tamana Bleasdale, Alan’s daughter, working as a PA

I found it righteously difficult to choose a song to illustrate this entry.  So many to choose from.  In the end, to honour John Peel himself, I chose the song which he turned me onto.  Not something I loved anyway.  I didn’t care for a lot of Peel’s musical taste, but I liked him tremendously.  He supported independent record labels after the punk explosion, and even played songs from unsigned bands to the nation.  He encouraged the great Viv Stanshall to record Sir Henry At Rawlinson End for the radio, and the result was never bettered, not by the album or the film of that mythical hero.  Peel had a vast musical appetite and an extremely wide musical taste.  It was an honour to bob on the same coastal waters as the great man.   And if there’s a little Bob Harris smudged in there to blur the lines, so much the better, for his radio show remains one of the finest ways to spend a couple of hours in the UK.  Again, like John, a supporter of the music first and foremost.

 

 

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