My Pop Life #178 : It’s Up To You – The Specials

It’s Up To You   –   The Specials

What you gonna do, when morons come for you?
They won’t go away, they want the whole world painted grey…

The classic version of this song was recorded at The Moonlight Club in West Hampstead on May 2nd 1979, the eve of the United Kingdom General Election which was won by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party.   It opens with lead singer Terry Hall saying :

“I haven’t got much to say. It’s the eve of the election.  It’s up to you”  

That gig appeared on a bootleg which did the rounds. The Specials first album proper, produced by Elvis Costello on Two-Tone Records was released in October of that year a few months later.   I remember it all so vividly.   Life in England had felt like a fight for some time.  In the spring of 1978 a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney was organised by Rock Against Racism, culminating in a concert where The Clash, Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69, reggae band Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson and X-Ray Spex among others played to a huge crowd of punks, skinheads, rastas and rude boys.  It was in response to a rising tide of racist attacks and a poisonous atmosphere of hate which had been building for some time in the 70s.  It was about taking sides.  Black/White, Unite/Fight.  

The Specials embodied that attitude – a gang of kids from Coventry led by songwriter Jerry Dammers, singer Terry Hall and toaster Neville Staple, guitarist Lynval Golding and bass player Horace Panter, graced by legendary Jamaican trombonist Rico Rodriguez on their first single A Message To You Rudy, a cover of the Dandy Livingstone ska classic.  Indeed their sound was a punky update on classic Jamaican ska and two-tone rude boy music from the 1960s and that first album had a number of covers of Prince Buster, Toots & The Maytals, Lloyd Charmers and The Skatalites.  The energy and politics were as one, and their live performances were a joyous combination of dancing and fury like most gigs in the late 70s, fuelled by lager and little blue pills.  There was usually a frisson of violence too because skinheads would turn up and bounce around at the front looking for a fight.  If it got too out of hand the band would stop playing and start lecturing them.  With humour of course.

Margaret Thatcher and her mates, 1979

It was the start of four consecutive Conservative election victories and a massive swing to the right in Britain.  Thatcher took on the unions, the Irish republicans, the Argentinians, the gas board, train services, water and electricity and appealed to naked nationalism and people’s innate selfishness.  “There is no such thing as society” was her mantra, Reaganomics was her doctrine.  Trickle-down.  An arrogant, cruel sneering at the poor marked out the so-called national mood as people slept in doorways, lost their rights, signed on for work at lower pay.  Compassion was deemed sentimental.  Sentiment was deemed weakness.  And strength was a lack of care as people fell by the wayside and through the safety nets built up by decades of the welfare state.

The Specials live in 1979

It always felt normal to me to be in opposition.  It still does.  Once again we are faced with a period of bare-faced nastiness, appealing to people’s basest primal fears, blind nationalism, pitting people against each other while the rich cream off the cream, hoping that we’re all looking the other way.  History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats.

The Moonlight Club, 100 West End Lane NW6

I moved into 134 West End Lane, yards from The Moonlight Club in the summer of 1979 as I graduated from the London School of Economics with a 2:2 in Law, scarcely deserved, but a qualification to match my three splendid years in WC2 as a student punk.  I had no intention of ever using the degree or continuing in the Law.  I knew that I was going to be an actor – just not quite yet.   I moved in with other graduates Pete and Sali and their friend Nick Partridge who’d just completed a degree at Keele University.  Thus started a wonderful period of rolling joints, listening to reggae and post-punk picture-sleeve singles, dropping blues or amphetamine sulphate and painting and decorating to save money for a trip to Latin America with my brother Paul.  We started learning Spanish at an evening class in Swiss Cottage.  And we played frisbee and watched Brighton & Hove Albion finally playing in Division One, went to gigs at The Hammersmith Palais, the Music Machine in Camden (later called Camden Palace) the Rainbow in Finsbury Park and yes, The Moonlight Club down the street.   I touched upon this fondly-recalled era in My Pop Life #92.

A band called Spizz Energi released a fabulously mental single called “Where’s Captain Kirk” and played the Moonlight one night, then changed their name the following month to Athletico Spizz 80.  Pete would come home clutching singles by bands such as Wavis O’Shave, Shoes For Industry or Wah! Heat while I would enthuse about The Flying Lizards, The Undertones or the Gang Of Four and Nick would offer Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop while Sali championed The Pretenders.

It’s hard to describe just how out-of-fashion ska music was until The Specials revived it.  They spearheaded a movement which included Madness, The Selector and The Beat but it is a little like some kids today suddenly playing dancehall and it almost overnight becoming the most popular music on the radio.  Such an inspiring moment.

Years later – in 2009 – I shot the lowest-budget film of my entire career, based on Barrie Keeffe‘s searingly brilliant play ‘Sus‘ which is set on the eve of the 1979 election and based on a true story he heard in the pub one night in South London.  A black man is arrested after his wife is found dead and grilled by two policemen who are convinced that he has murdered her.  As the election results trickle in the boys in blue look forward to a new dawn where they will be able to flex their muscles with much more sympathy from the powers that be.  Just two years later in 1981, Brixton, Toxteth and other inner-city areas of the UK would erupt in flames as a furious reaction to this newly-confident police aggression.

Writer Barrie Keeffe (The Long Good Friday, Sus, Barbarians, Abide With Me)

Actor and buddy Clint Dyer – whom I’d met on the TV version of Lock, Stock in 1999 -had been doing the play Sus on stage and tried to talk me into playing the character of Karn the previous year at the Young Vic.  I was honoured, but had to explain to Clint that I wasn’t keen on being onstage in anything.  I just didn’t enjoy stage acting that much.  Months later Clint had raised the money for a film version of the play with Barrie’s blessing, executive produced by Claire Castera and he’d recruited Rafe Spall as the other police officer when he came back to me with the offer to play Karn onscreen.   What a part.  A solid Thatcherite racist policeman, beautifully written by Keeffe, a man who spends the night grilling Leroy the innocent suspect with increasing violence and disdain.  We had two weeks and a fifty thousand pound budget to make this happen, absurdly low.  But where there is a will : a skeleton crew led by line producer Oliver Ledwith, and helmed by the wonderful Jono Smith as director of Photography and first AD’d by Tom White.  Costumes by Linda Haysman, Make-up by Alison Hanken, 3rd AD was Keiron Mahon.  All legends.  Clint’s friend Rob Heath directed us on a set built at Elstree by Mark Sutherland, a single cell in a police station off the Old Kent Road.  And Rob it was who chose this song – It’s Up To You (live at the Moonlight) to accompany the film’s opening credits, which I’ve linked to below, helped by archive footage courtesy of Don Letts.  It is the most perfect distillation of music, time and place that I can think of.  And the end result is a film that I am hugely proud of.  Clint is quite devastating in the lead role. Rafe Spall is a marvellous twerp-like bully.  It looks great.  And I can actually watch myself – very rare indeed.  Which makes it my favourite piece of work out of everything that I have done over the years.  Funny how this particular character, so diametrically opposed to me , should fit me like a glove.  There’s mystery !

And so now here we are, in early 2017, facing another period of opposition, another moment of decision, another call for solidarity.  To be honest I’ve never felt that any government has represented me, or my politics.  They’ve all been corrupt, all sold us down the river (still some quiver when I deliver).  I am permanently in opposition, it kind of defines who I am.  I am against stuff.  Maybe I’ll mellow out as I get older.  Doesn’t seem very likely somehow.  But you never know.  It’s up to me.

Eve of the election :

SUS – the opening credits

SUS – The Trailer

My Pop Life #175 : One Better Day – Madness

One Better Day   –   Madness

Further down, a photo booth, a million plastic bags
And an old woman filling out a million baggage tags
But when she gets thrown out, three bags at a time
She spies the old chap in the road to share her bags with
She has bags of time
Surrounded by his past, on a short white line
He sits while cars pass either side, takes his time
Trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear him say
Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes

Was there ever a more disappointing year for pop music than 1984?  Looking back at the album releases and the top singles I am staggered by the unifying theme – great artists releasing substandard material, and very few inspirational youngsters filling the huge gap. Exception and the big album of the year was Purple Rain by Prince, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood dominated the UK radio and singles charts but I bought very little current music in 1984.  I was filling gaps, discovering genres, crate-digging, conducting archeological excavations and sometimes realising that people I’d scorned as a teenager were actually pretty good.  The albums I did buy from 1984, in 1984 :

Goodbye Cruel World  –  Elvis Costello & The Attractions

The Pearl  –  Harold Budd & Brian Eno

Mister Heartbreak  –  Laurie Anderson

Diamond Life  –  Sade

Best of ‘The Poet’ Trilogy  –  Bobby Womack

Keep Moving  –  Madness

Not as many as usual.  Later I would buy Prince, The Bangles, Luther Vandross, Dr John, Franco & TPOK Jazz, Van Dyke Parks, Gilberto Gil, The Judds, Prefab Sprout, Youssou N’Dour, The Style Council, Steve Reich, Run DMC and Pat Metheny, but even with those additions I think you can see how thin on the ground 1984 was musically.  Springsteen made Born In The USA the title track of which became a republican anthem (he didn’t sing it live this year 2016).  Perhaps the date was casting shade.  1984.  Throughout my life we’d all lived under the spectre of George Orwell‘s chilling and prescient novel.   That collection of numbers, that date had loomed like the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey – the other magical sentient date..in The Future.  It always presaged doom, totalitarianism, a jackboot stamping on a human face into infinity.  Now we were here and…well, life went on, like it does.  Like it did in 2001.  And like it will next year.

The big singles were Relax, Two Tribes, The Power Of Love, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, the others were What’s Love Got To Do With It, I Feel For You, Ghostbusters, Any Love, It’s A Miracle, Careless Whisper, Smalltown Boy, Solid, Like A Virgin, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Hello, Take A Look At Me Now, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Do They Know It’s Christmas.

I liked very little of it.  Disappointing : Bowie with Blue Jean, Stevie Wonder (sigh), Elvis Costello’s worst LP to date, ditto McCartney, ditto Paul Weller.

And then Haircut 100 split up. ( Joke. )

And then Jerry Dammers and Special AKA released Free Nelson Mandela. (Not Joke)

Flying the flag for musical growth, and one step beyond their previous work The Rise and Fall (1982) was the Madness LP Keep Moving, in particular the song One Better Day, which haunts me even now and can move me to tears.  I’d loved the band since their first single The Prince,  multi-cultural British ska birthed in Camden Town via Jamaica. In those early days their skinhead fans and their whiteness made me feel a little uncomfortable at some of the gigs, although the majority of fans were not skins.  Then, aware of this stain on their pop life, the Madness videos started to include black people and the band rose above it all – for example Embarrassment is about a girl who’s going to have a baby with her black boyfriend.  The other groups who’d come up on the ska-revival Two-Tone wave The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter were all multi-racial anyway, but by 1984 they’d all split up.  Madness were on Stiff Records and this was their last LP with the maverick punk label.  It was their finest record to date – I’d bought them all, and they’d just got better and better.  So had The Undertones, but they’d stopped, so had The Jam and they’d split, so had Elvis Costello and he’d gone a bit over-produced, his songs weren’t to his impossibly high standard.   I’d also bought the collected videos of Madness which we watched endlessly, because they were so full of joy and nuttiness. I’m not sure there are a better collection of videos in pop history.  They made me want to be in the band.  Playing the saxophone.  Doing slightly robotic dancing.  Having a laugh with a gang.  

I’ve always wanted to be in a gang, but never really surrendered to it.  I don’t surrender very easily.  I’ve been in some gangs, but always felt like an outsider in there.  Either a council-estate kid in a middle class environment as a teenager, or an educated kid in a working-class environment.  Or an actor in a football team.  Or an actor in a band.  Or just a weirdo who doesn’t fit in enough.  Must be a choice.  I resist surrender.  Because I do not seek oblivion I will never be an alcoholic or a junkie.  I’m scared of oblivion, of disappearing.  Most of the music I like is controlled.  It’s not messy, it’s not people losing control.  It’s beautiful, melodic, harmonic, sweet.  But I wanted to be in Madness so much.  They influenced the band I was in, Birds Of Tin, but not enough. See My Pop Life #149.

Mike Barson was the musical genius on the piano, but his influence infused every musician, from bass player Mark Bedford (who later guested on Robert Wyatt’s cover of Costello’s Shipbuilding) to gimmick side monkey Chas Smash who went from rude boy dancer to trumpet player, from Chris Foreman on guitar and songwriting to Lee Thompson on saxophone (who I wished I was), from Woody on the kit to Suggs on the lead vocals.  They were tight, musical, lyrically interesting and wonderfully arranged pop songs,  vignettes of British life from Baggy Trousers to Embarrassment, My Girl to House Of Fun. They were probably my favourite band in the early 80s – them and Costello and Talking Heads.

Sloane Square, Chelsea

But if 1984 was a meagre year musically for me,  theatrically it was promising.   Armed with a law degree 😉 – I’d been to Edinburgh three times, got my Equity Card,  played the Donmar in Steven Berkoff’s WEST.    Then in early 84 I’d worked at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs with Danny Boyle (directing an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown).   It was an extraordinary piece of work which ran for all of two and half weeks as I recall.  Worthy of a post of its own.   Then in the late summer the 3rd director in the building a brilliant young Simon Curtis invited me to be part of his first production which was to be a play for Joint Stock Theatre Company called Deadlines.  I was thrilled, and it turned out to be one of my most satisfying and rewarding theatrical adventures.  Simon was extremely encouraging, open, intelligent and funny.  I ended up playing six parts and getting a new agent out of it : Michael Foster.   Also cast : Kathryn Pogson, Paul Jesson, Shirin Taylor, Tricia Kelly, Paul Mooney.   Writer :  Stephen Wakelam.  Play : unwritten.

A young Simon Curtis in 1985, one year after Deadlines

Joint Stock was a unique theatre company.  Formed by Max Stafford-Clark and others in the early 1970s, it had become a collective in 1974 while they produced David Hare’s play about China ‘Fanshen’, co-directed by Max and Bill Gaskell.  This meant that every member who had ever worked for the company could attend company meetings and AGMs and vote.  In practice people deferred to Max and Caryl Churchill, both of whom were enthusiastic enough to actually attend meetings.  There was an administrator, but no Artistic Director – each big decision eg – what play shall we do next ? directed by who ? written by who ? was decided on a collective vote.  Some were already plays, but more often the show would be devised by the company.

This is now a forgotten way of life.  All of those Arts Council-funded theatre companies have gone :  7:84, Shared Experience, Joint Stock, Paines Plough.  Slashed by Thatcher’s reduction of the State.  1984 was the year of the miner’s strike, Coal Not Dole stickers, and the rise of cardboard city in Waterloo as new regulations on signing on created a new wave of homelessness, particularly of those between 16 and 20.  Suddenly there were people sleeping in shop doorways in London on The Strand.  Then there was an IRA bomb at the Tory Party conference in Brighton at The Grand Hotel.

*

one of the greatest band shots of all time: the cover of ‘7’ the 3rd Madness LP

Keep Moving was Mike Barson’s last album with Madness, and he left the band once they recorded a couple of videos – Michael Caine and One Better Day, which was their last for Stiff Records, and funded by the band themselves including Barson, seen playing the vibraphone, who flew in from Amsterdam for the shoot.

Arlington house, address: no fixed abode
An old man in a three-piece suit sits in the road
He stares across the water, he sees right through the lock
But on and up like outstretched hands
His mumbled words, his fumbled words, mock

Arlington House is behind Camden High Street.  It housed – and still houses among it’s more commercial premises – homeless men, and has since 1905.  It was the last of the Victorian workhouses, built by politician and philanthropist Lord Rowton in the 1890s to house London’s working poor.

Camden Lock

I used to shop for music shoes and clothes in Camden Town, whether in Dingwalls (‘The Lock’ in the lyrics) or the Record and Tape Exchange on the High St, or one of the many independent stores in that square mile of post-punk grubbiness.  Over the years I’ve been to many gigs in Camden Palace (Culture Club), The Electric Ballroom (The Vibrators) or Dingwalls (X-Ray Spex).  The Dublin Castle.   More recently at the re-opened Roundhouse or the Jazz Cafe.

When I started acting in Moving Parts Theatre Company in 1981 two of the company’s founders – Ruth MacKenzie and Rachel Feldberg – lived in Oval Road just behind Arlington House with the young director Roger Michell who would later go on to direct The Buddha Of Suburbia, Notting Hill and many other successful films.  I would see him years and years later at Michael Foster’s 50th birthday party and he hailed me “Haven’t you done well !”  I looked behind me.  No, he meant me. I smiled.  “Me?  What about you !!” I realised that seen from the outside, my journey looks good and fine, but what about the invisible thrashing through the undergrowth with a blunt machete to reach a small ledge of safety that no one ever sees ?  Eh ?!?  WHAT ABOUT THAT?

Gentrified many times Camden still retains its scruffy down-at-heel ambience, partly due to scruffy down-at-heel junkies, and partly due to people who want to look scruffy and down-at-heel.  But there have always been homeless people there – see Waterloo, see Soho, see Bayswater. And having been homeless myself for a period of time as a teenager (see My Pop Life #84 All Along The Watchtower) I always felt moved by this song, describing a couple walking the streets of NW1.  Street people.  Nowhere to store their stuff, carrying it all around.  Nowhere to wash apart from the hostel, who close their doors at 8am.  I would be interviewing some of these people for my first play Sanctuary in 2 years’ time, using The Joint Stock Method.  And later, some of them would be invited to The Drill Hall to see the play.

The woman in the video is Betty Bright – Sugg’s wife.  Graham McPherson – Suggs – who wrote the song with Mark ‘Bedders’ Bedford – looks impossibly young in the video, but wears the kind of clothes that I used to try and find, and still do to be fair.  Checks.  Tartans. Doc Martens.  There’s a DM shop on Kentish Town Road next to Camden tube which makes an appearance in The Sun & The Rain video.  I had a pair of red patent leather DMs.  In fact I still have them.  I owe some of my so-called style to Madness Suggs chic, (some to Bryan Ferry chic, some to rock’n’roll and some to Laurel & Hardy).

The chorus is unbearably sweet, given the subject :

She’s trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear her say

‘Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes
The feeling of arriving when you’ve nothing left to lose…’

My Pop Life #174 : Learning To Be – Eleven

Learning To Be   –   Eleven

***

Slipping away I get closer each day I been looking for love to find me

Digging away I will search I will pray I been waiting for truth to blind me

Only perceive and the world will conceive there’s a seat in my heart that binds me  

awake in a dream I believe it’s extreme, ruling out that all this is magic…

“If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters both the same…”  said Rudyard Kipling in his incomparable poem “If…”.   Well I can’t.  I pretend I can, but no, I prefer the triumphs.  Is that what they’re called ?  Those goals into the top corner.  Those victories.  Yes, I prefer those imposters to the failures.  But people always say wise self-help guru stuff like “you learn more from your failures”  or “crisis and opportunity is the same word in Chinese”  or even “I get knocked down but I get up again”.  You know?   I prefer not to get knocked down at all.   I feel like my life was built on crises.  But still they come.

David Fincher

In 1994 I was living in Los Angeles.  It was David Fincher‘s idea.  He’d directed Alien 3 in 1991 and suggested that Jenny and I move to California.  “Come to LaLa” is actually what he said.  In 1992, after we’d got married and shot Undercover Blues in New Orleans which coincided with our honeymoon, (see My Pop Life #158) we rented an apartment in West Hollywood and stayed for three years.  David was very disappointed with Alien3 because the studio hadn’t accepted his cut, indeed had hacked the shit out of his cut, and after the glamorous premiere in LA and razzamatazz opening weekend fizz had died down, it was a film which didn’t knock everyone out, neither the public it seemed nor the critics.  David took it very badly – personally and professionally.  He spent the following two years silently fuming and plotting his revenge, and his next move.  We spent a lot of time together, round his apartment which at the time was on Beverley & La Brea with his new wife Donya Fiorentino, and Rachel his PA, her boyfriend Paul Carafotes, and David’s friends Chip & Carol, Ron, James, Marcie, and other friends.  We had a handful of friends already there – Anita Lewton from Moving Parts days (early 80s) was in Venice Beach, Suzy Crowley and Tony Armatrading were hanging out too.

Donya Fiorentino

We ate out a lot – on Sunset Strip, on La Brea, at Pane e Vino on Beverley.  We went to the movies together.  We got drunk.  We visited Lake Arrowhead one weekend and played pool and ate mushrooms.   We drove to Malibu.  Venice.  Went to gigs, clubs, parties.  We hung out in other words.

I got a gig on the film Wayne’s World 2 playing a roadie named Del Preston, and it was rushed out only a few months after it was finished (unusually).  David and Donya were round at our place on King’s Road when the LA Times review came out – it was great for me, and David said something along the lines of “I hope you remember me when you collect your Oscar“.  He wasn’t joking, he was feeling the pain of not working for two years.  Oh the irony !   Then one day some months later we were round his apartment off Beverley and he gave me a script, saying “there’s a great part in this for you Ralphie“.   It was a film called Seven.

Awake In A Dream by Eleven

There was an album that we listened to a lot that year called Awake In A Dream, by a group called Eleven, who were from LA.    A three-piece band writing intelligent glossy pop/rock with great melodies and unusual chord changes.  Their genesis was entwined with another LA band, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and then later after Eleven split, Natasha Shneider played bass with Queens Of The Stone Age in their early days before sadly dying of cancer in 2008.  The other two band members were Alain Johannes (who also joined QOTSA in 2005) and Jack Irons.   Their first LP from which this song comes was released in 1991.   Two songs stood out – Learning To Be and Rainbow’s End… 

…Here at the rainbow’s end, there is no pot of gold, no matter what you’re told…

which was clearly a song about LA itself.   It was a sign.  An omen.

Me, Anita Lewton, Jen, Gary Kemp, Donya, David, Annie & Paul McGann

I’d always had a dream of Hollywood, and I’d never chased it, for fear I would fall flat on my face.  I’d been turned away from LA in 1989 on a trip across the USA in Auto Driveaway cars (see My Pop Life #147) getting as far as Phoenix on Christmas Eve before turning back to El Paso.  I’d always wanted Hollywood to ask me in, even in a small way, and in 1991 they did.   I had to shoot some extra Alien3 scenes and Fox paid for Pete Postlethwaite and I to travel to Culver City in LA (for another story).  I’d got an agent, got a job, got an apartment, and now a few years later I’d got the massive opportunity that eventually comes around.

 1994 was a watershed year for me, looking back.  After that incredible review in the LA Times I did not work for a whole year.  “Kim Basinger is fantastic and Christopher Walken marvellous, but walking away with the whole picture is Ralph Brown as Del Preston” is what it said.  It was the kiss of death of course.   I was going up for three films per week.  Everything that was made in 1994, I auditioned for.  Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.  The Usual Suspects.  Crimson Tide.  Devil In A Blue Dress.  Heat.  Jumanji.   True Romance.  The Quick & The Dead.  And many many others lost to the mists of time.  Learning lines, forming character, turning up with well-chosen clothing and delivering the scene, over and over and over.  Fincher helping me with auditions sometimes (True Romance – offered to Christopher Walken).   Meeting after meeting.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  No.  And No.   I’d hit the glass ceiling.  Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken were getting the gigs.  My gigs.  How could I break through that invisible barrier ?

In June the World Cup gave us some welcome respite.  We got tickets for all the Rose Bowl games in Pasadena, just by sending off for them – an advert in the LA Times, and a country that wasn’t interested, bar the foreigners, the Latinos, Africans and Europeans.  We decided to support Cameroon in an early game v Sweden and met Ashley Joyce (English) and Jeremy Thomas (Welsh, just separated from Drew Barrymore after two months of marriage) who ran The Room a groovy bar just off Hollywood Boulevard.  They are still friends of mine.

The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, 1994 World Cup Final 

The month that followed was glorious – wall to wall football, no England to disappoint us (we didn’t qualify) – over 100 degree heat for a Colombia v USA game, a July 4th game USA v Brazil in San José, a quarter final in Pasadena Romania v Sweden, a semi-final Brazil v Sweden and tickets to the actual final Brazil v Italy, a 0-0 draw, and Roberto Baggio blasting his penalty over the bar, cue Brazilian Carnivale, and meeting my old friend Stephen Woolley from Scala Cinema days and The Crying Game outside the stadium after the Final – in town doing screenings for test audiences of Interview With A Vampire.  “That’s no way to make a film” I said.  “Asking the audience which characters they prefer”  “When you’re spending 40 million dollars, it’s the only way to make a film”  he replied.  I was so green, really, so innocent.  But I was certainly living life.   Learning To Be.

Roberto Baggio has just missed a penalty at the World Cup Final

The best game was Romania 3 Argentina 2 after Maradona had been sent home for drug abuse and Hagi’s sweet left foot sent the East Europeans through to the quarter finals.   I think Germany were beaten by Bulgaria, who in turn lost to Italy.  Klinsmann was playing, Roger Milla, Alexi Lalas, Stoichkov, Romario.  We particularly enjoyed watching games on TV with absurd, nay, surreal commentary from US commentators deciphering a game they scarcely understood:  “The ball has crossed the end line” or “great touch by the goal-handler“.  Or the Latin American channels with the hyperbole of the gods :

GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL!!!!

We had a laugh.    Then as summer turned to late summer and even later summer (you don’t really get winter in Los Angeles) – our thoughts turned to work and I carried on getting NO from meetings.  They’ve gone another way.  They loved you but it’s not going to work out this time.  Or even worse : silence.  The dwindling hope that finally extinguishes.  And then David gave me the script for Seven.   I read it – and as I’m sure you know dear reader, it was dark and clever.  My character was called John Doe.   David assured me that he wanted me to play it.   It was my gig.  This was great news.   I hadn’t worked for almost a year and was a) going slightly mental, and b) running out of money.   David then called one afternoon and said the producer would like to meet me on Thursday.  Would I mind reading?  “Course not”  I said, “no problem”.   I prepared the scenes in my own accent and also in an American accent.  I’d had an accent coach since one of the films I’d gone up for (The Ice Cream Story) had insisted on me reading again and again ( I went in 3 times and still didn’t get it).  My accent coach told me that my accent was perfect – nailed on.  But the director was nervous, and was projecting his nerves onto me.   I rationalised bitterly.

Wilshire and Fairfax in LA

So Thursday rolls around and I sit in that old space-age diner Johnie’s just above Wilshire Boulevard on Fairfax while I wait for the meeting across the road.   Then I cross Wilshire and go in.  David greets me all smiles like an old friend – he is an old friend.  Introduces me to the producer who in my memory was Arnie Kopelson.  The casting director was there too I think, Billy Hopkins who since Alien3 which he’d cast with Priscilla John had got me in for loads of things, including Speed which is for another post.  Maybe he wasn’t.  But there were a few people there watching me, and I immediately felt uncomfortable.  Like I was on the spot.  I suddenly realised that I had to make David look good.  We did some small talk then someone suggested we read.  There was probably someone there to read the off-lines.  I was shit.  My accent was terrible.  I apologised.  David smiled “It’s cool dude, just do your thing”  I tried it again.  I was shit again.  “Just use your own accent Ralphie” said Fincher, “Just do what you do“.    He was so kind and supportive.  I was in pieces. It was excruciating.

Sometimes I think that eternity blinks paying no due respect to logic

I’ve thought about this moment many times, and I don’t know why I didn’t seize it.  His dream must have seemed so close that he could scarcely fail to grasp it.  He could not know that it was already behind him…wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald…The Great Gatsby’s final paragraph.

I didn’t get the job.  Kevin Spacey did.  He smashed it.  He took a few jobs off me that year.  It was his year.  And the following year certainly was too.  We ended 1994 with one BBC job in Italy and nothing in Hollywood, broke.  We decided to move back to England, but not before I’d written a movie called New Year’s Day which would eventually get made in 1999 (see My Pop Life #75) and which is about – ouch – The Importance Of Disappointment.

..Give me your hand we are part of this plan we can force all this chaos to rhyme…

At some point during the post-production for Seven or Se7en as it was then written, David and Donya separated.  This was painful for everyone, and Jenny and I attempted our usual even-handed response to these painful events and stayed in touch with both parties.  David didn’t like that, or perhaps Donya used us against him in an argument.  In any event I have hardly seen him since 1995.   No bad feeling, just the end of an era.

Donya’s photograph of my wife Jenny Jules, 1994

It was an incredible opportunity in retrospect.  If I’d been cast in that role, it would certainly have changed my career.  I absolutely under-anticipated the stress of that meeting, thinking in my foolishness that David holding the door open would be perhaps enough to swing it for me.   It was a harsh lesson.   Many times I have played it over in my mind, re-entered the room, better prepared, psyched-up, played the scene properly like I’d planned it.  (Spacey played it exactly as I’d rehearsed it in the finished movie).   But I didn’t get it.  Even today, writing this, it bites me.  It was a gift horse and I gave it a thorough dental examination.   Oh well.  I’m still here.  Some things are just not meant to be.  No regrets.  Learning To Be.

Like all hinge moments one cannot eventually regret the way it went.  If I’d been cast in Seven we would have stayed in LA.  Or at least I would.  First and biggest problem.  We wouldn’t have bought a house in Brighton.  Tom, Millie and Lucy wouldn’t have moved down.   Scarlett and Tom wouldn’t have met.  Skye wouldn’t have been born.  I wouldn’t have played in The Brighton Beach Boys.  And on and on.  You cannot unmake a moment, even in your wishes.  And thus, once again, writing out one of my haunted moments in a blog post has allowed to me to understand the wound and clarify the misty darkness which surrounds it a little bit more.   And it becomes not a defeat but just another chapter in My Pop Life.

Look in the eyes of the water that falls
Hiding behind every flower and rock
Why do we dance on the wheel and forget
Life is a child that will never regret
Learning to be, be, be
Stepping away, I get closer each day
I’ve been looking for love to find me
Digging away, I will search I will pray
I’ve been waiting for truth to blind me

Learning To Be :

and Rainbow’s End – it’s not a great quality video, but it’s all there is :

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

In My Chair   –   Status Quo

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

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

Press play

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

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

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

EXT. The Rover’s Return – day

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

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

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

Rick Parfitt, Francis Rossi : the stars of Status Quo

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

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

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

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

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

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

I appear to be happier than The Quo

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

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

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

In My Chair from 1971 :

clearer visuals :

the B-side Gerdundula played live in 2004

My Pop Life #166 : Pacific 202 – 808 State

Pacific 202   –   808 State

The last few days of 1989 :  a Ford Granada with me driving, Jenny in the jump seat and my brother Paul and his boyfriend Colin in the back is driving the long endless East German autobahn towards West Berlin.  It’s cold outside and the road goes on forever.  We’ve been driving from England since morning.  For the last six months news reports coming out of the Eastern Bloc of change :  East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in particular seethe with popular unrest, and since November 17 the famous Wall dividing East and West Berlin has been tested and breached by demonstrators.  Refugees from East Germany have been granted asylum in Hungary.   Berlin is in flux.  Gorbachev is in power in the USSR talking about Perestroika (re-structuring : also the name of his book, which I read in 1989) and glasnost (open-ness), a new way forward, relaxing the tight rules on state power and movement of peoples and now in front of us, the Iron Curtain is creaking.


Mikhail Gorbachev stated in 1989 that German re-unification was a German matter

Historic times indeed.  Then on Christmas Day, hated dictator President Ceaușescu of Romania and his wife are executed by firing squad after a trial lasting one hour.  We decide to see in the new year in Berlin, in the centre of it all.  Armed with an address provided by Jonathan & Roberta, Paul and Colin’s friends from college, we finally arrive at around 10pm, climb the three flights of stairs to find a lovely two-room apartment, empty save for two Italians who had also been told that they could use the space for the New Year.  Mutual surprise all round, but these were pre-internet days.  The four English end up on two single mattresses in the main room.

Checkpoint Charlie : he didn’t crack a smile

The following morning we wake too late for hot water, our Italian friends having got to the bathroom first.  After breakfast Jenny and I drive through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin, receiving a small passport made of cardboard which is stamped, and we are told that we have to return before midnight.  East Berlin is eerie and strangely gentle.  At the first large square – almost deserted, very few shops open, there are rabbits hopping around.  We visit a large department store and buy AyeAye, a 1970s Donny Hathaway hat which we still have – a beautiful, madly out-of-date-in-a-good-way fashion piece, so out-of-date that it was back in fashion in the west.  We ate some unimpressive food in a quiet restaurant and made our way back to the western side.

 West Berlin was heaving with people, simply full up. Jenny and I had decided to get a hotel room, but there weren’t any.  She was something of a distraction for everyone, being black and sporting her eighteen-hole DMs.  That night, New Year’s Eve, we queued for an Italian restaurant (against my religion to Q for food : unless I’m in prison), only to be told it was a private party.  At another Italian the waiters took exception to Paul & Colin being gay, so Jenny gave them a piece of her mind and was escorted physically from the building.  We did finally eat somewhere, but seven million other people had had the same idea as us and West Berlin was rammed.  Still, if you can’t be original, join in, that’s my motto.  Sounds better in Latin.  si non potest esse prima iungas..  Imagine it on a little crest.  A badge.  Oh, never mind.

Approaching midnight and Paul and Col had gone clubbing somewhere, Jenny and I made our way to the Wall at Potsdammer Platz near Brandenburg Gate where crowds of revellers were partying on top of the Wall in full view of soldiers from both sides, dancing, smoking weed and chipping pieces of the Wall away with chisels and hammers.  An extraordinary atmosphere.  We stood in one of the holes in the Wall and could see No Man’s Land and the towers and barbed wire of the East.  I had a mini boombox and played a previously-recorded Martin Luther King “I Had A Dream” speech when a soldier told me to turn it off, despite clearly not speaking English and not understanding what it was.  I didn’t turn it off and there were too many people around to make a fuss.  In amidst the party atmosphere was a strange tension as many of the West Berliners felt decidedly ambiguous about everything opening up.  A kind of tense excitable hysteria, who are all these people?  The future was uncertain, and there were already some East Germans crossing the border, changing the nature of the enclave forever.

New Year’s Eve at The Wall 1989

We listened to cassettes on the drive over, handmade by each of us, or purchased at Our Price or Woolworths.  Certainly one of these was a best of 1989 compilation – and it was a great year for dance music in particular.

Hip hop had already come, seen and conquered.  Now we were into the Daisy Age thanks to De La Soul, while Heavy D & The Boyz had serenaded Jenny and I in D.C. with their own New Jack Swing thang  (see My Pop Life #33).  Janet Jackson was in the Rhythm Nation, Shabba Ranks was being Wicked Inna Bed, and in the summer I’d  choreographed a dance to Redhead Kingpin & The FBI‘s monster song Do The Right Thing (see My Pop Life #7) in a theatre workshop with a young David Walliams and 25 other teenagers for the National Youth Theatre.  Not to be confused with the Spike Lee film of the same name which had a terrific soundtrack featuring Public Enemy, Perri, Teddy Riley, Guy and Take 6.

The British had a great year – a new confidence in the air manifest by Soul II Soul and that Keep On Movin’ LP which dominated the summer.  Other acts which popped through were Rebel M.C. with Street Tuff, Neneh Cherry with Buffalo Stance and Stone Roses with Fool’s Gold.  But none caught my ear quite like this record.  Radio One played it every day – Gary Davies I think – until it was eventually released in November 1989 and became an immediate hit. An immediately intoxicating sound whether you had dropped ecstasy or not, we hadn’t heard much like it before on the radio.

I depended on Paul and Colin for bringing me club tunes since I didn’t really go clubbing.   I did go to legendary gay club Heaven with them a couple of times under the Charing Cross Arches but they were out listening to Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers, Phuture and the other stars of House Music regularly, and this year’s big song was French Kiss by Lil Louis.  Earlier in the year Paul had introduced me to seminal techno house track Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald, out of the Manchester underground, later a big hit, and this track Pacific by 808 State has his fingerprints all over it.

Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson, Martin Price – 808 State

808 State were formed in Manchester by Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald), Graham Massey and Martin Price in 1987 and named after Gerald’s Roland TR-808 drum machine.  Pacific aka Pacific State, Pacific 717 Pacific 202 etc etc was and remains a delicious electronic chilled dance tune featuring a wonky alto sax line and a collection of strange bird noises and it heralded Acid House and the Manchester rave scene, about which I know next to nothing.  My Manc friends Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill, Keith Davey and Josh Raikes all came of age through those Madchester years and I’ll leave it to them to explain it all to you (they all moved to Brighton though – make of that what you will…).   As for me, I never did like Happy Mondays, The Charlatans or Stone Roses THAT much and I certainly never bought the 2nd Summer Of Love designation, but I would never pour cold water over it either, I’m sure it was an intoxicatingly hypnotically fantastic and exciting time to be up in the north west of England.  Especially when Pacific State came out !   I bought the 12″ single on ZTT (Paul Morley, Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair’s label) which had Pacific 707 (the 7 inch version) and Pacific 212 and one other mix ?  There are about 20 versions out there.  The one below is Pacific 202.  I think.  It was released in America on TommyBoy Records in 1990.

We found a hotel and a bathroom on Jan 1st 1990 in West Berlin while Paul & Col made friends with their new Italian flatmates and stayed for three more weeks.  Jenny and I explored the groovy anarchist squat scene in Kreuzberg and went back to The Wall and picked up some orange spray-painted sections for keepsakes and drove back home shortly afterward one morning.  I went back to Berlin last year and invented the David Bowie : Where Are We Now ? tour (see My Pop Life #97) and some 25 years later the city is almost unrecognisable.  Only a few parts of the wall remain, tourist attractions, protected.  I stayed in the old East Berlin, now simply Berlin.  It is thrumming with activity and endeavour, much of it artistic, simply full of energy.

As we drove home through Germany, then Belgium, we were stopped on the French border for our passport.  Most cars were getting waved through and we were blocking the road.  The passport was in my suitcase in the boot, so I offered to pull over while I got out and unpacked.  No said the French border police.  Stay in the road.  I got annoyed with him and so they decided to search the car.  Jenny and I were processed through the system, stripped,  and searched.  And then made to wait in the little central booth as the border police tooth-combed the car.  While we waited, and waited, I noticed cars queuing to get into Belgium from France looking at me with quizzical eyes.  They were asking for permission to cross the border.  There was no one else there, so I started to nod at the drivers, and they would drive through.  It was ridiculous but fun.  Eventually we were interviewed by the boss.   He explained that busloads of tourists came this way from Amsterdam every day.  I told him that we’d come from Berlin.  Earlier in 1989 I had been filming in France (see My Pop Life #9) playing Eugene Delacroix the painter who appeared on the 200 Franc note (sadly now replaced by the Euro).  As I explained this to the police chief, he asked me if I smoked weed – “and is it used for inspiration, like Baudelaire?”  I agreed that I imagined it was.  “Ah you artistic types” he sighed.

We crossed the Channel at Ostende and landed in England in the brave new world of 1990.   Capitalism won, after extra time.

My Pop Life #165 : My Love – Paul McCartney & Wings

My Love   –   Paul McCartney & Wings

my love holds the other key to me…

 I bought the Wings LP Red Rose Speedway in the spring of 1973 because of the single My Love which had got to number one.  I thought it was McCartney’s best effort since the Beatle’s split – or to be fair at least as good as Another Day from 1971.  The album Red Rose Speedway was vilified and booed from the rafters.  Critics scorned it.  Schoolkids in the 5th year weren’t having it.  Pink Floyd & Led Zeppelin had taken over.  Roxy Music had arrived. David Bowie was blowing our minds.  Elton John was on the Yellow Brick Road and Genesis were Selling England by the Pound.  Everyone was still growing their hair.  Wearing loons, stack heels, denim, embroidered shirts, tear-drop collars.  Were we hippies, greasers, bikers, rude boys or what.  Marvin was Getting It On and Stevie was having Innervisions – I wouldn’t hear that until the following year.  The Isleys had a summer breeze on.  And Hawkwind were delivering Sonic Attack (see My Pop Life #159).  Confusing.  Which tribe to join ?  All, and none.  This photo is from early ’73 :

Ralph, Andrew, Paul, Rebecca 1973

and henceforth I will use any excuse to place it into the blog.  You can see the clash of fashions already.  Hippie with a fringe ?  Macca influenced.  Hippie with a teardrop collar ??  Be your own judge.  I love this picture.  Happiness, innocence, time frozen in an instant.  1973 was a big year for me.  I turned 16 in June.  Took my first LSD trip (see My Pop Life #133), lost my virginity, joined a band (see My Pop Life #80).   But I didn’t join the army, get married or go to prison.  My uneventful pop life.  

Paul McCartney has always made me feel comfort, happiness, sweet feelings, those fleeting safe feelings that major chords and harmonies can bring.  This LP has no edges of any kind.  I think the harshest moment is on the song Single Pigeon when Paul sings

“did she throw you out?  Sunday morning fight about Saturday night”

Which is entirely not harsh in any way.  Otherwise my loves, it’s My Love, Lazy Dynamite, One More Kiss, Hold Me Tight, Hands Of Love and probably my favourite Wings song Little Lamb Dragonfly.  I should have chosen it as the song, but it’s not as good as My Love.  It’s a little indulgent, a little long, and little soft and gentle.  That’s why I love it.  This LP is like a big barn bed covered in a warm blanket with a log fire, a view of the valley and warm slippers with a cat or three lying around.  And what’s wrong with that ?  I’d like to know.  Cos here I go again…

Denny Seiwell, Linda McCartney, Paul, Denny Laine, Henry McCulloch

McCartney was always derided by groovers for being too pop.  Too soppy.  Too lovey dovey.  “Lennon gave him the edge” is the concept.  Together they were great, they lifted each other to higher standards, pushed each other and then when they split and wrote as solo artists, apart, well we all moved on didn’t we ?  Nothing to see here.   It’s like a permanent talent show with judges stroking their chins, thumbs down for that, naaah mate.

But you miss so much music that way.  Let it be.  Let him be.  After the Ram LP, which critics hated, Paul and Linda made two edgy singles that were both banned : Give Ireland Back To The Irish which was a political response to Bloody Sunday and which was referred to on the chart countdown (#16) as “a song by Wings“, and in December ’72 the raunchy sex’n’drugs boogie Hi Hi Hi  which contained the line

gonna make you lie on the bed get you ready for my body gun

except that Paul always insisted, and still does, that the lyrics actually say  “polygon” but such was the BBC in 1972.  The song also certainly claims that he is

“going to do you, do it to you sweet banana, like you’ve never been done…. ” 

Whatever that means.  The B-side C Moon got the radio airplay.

I love this early period Wings/McCartney stuff.  They were having fun.  I love that the band were named after the difficult birth of Stella, Linda and Paul’s 2nd child, which was touch and go at the time and a worried Paul had visions of angels protecting his child, and Wings came from that moment of panic, faith and trust.  I love that they toured England in the spring of 1972 without a tour being booked, they drove up the motorway in a van and phoned Nottingham Students Union and said “can we play there tonight?”  This was repeated up and down the country.  Great scenes.  Didn’t play any Beatles songs.  At all.  But the music of this period is joyous and lovely.  For example – the harmonies of Linda McCartney on Red Rose Speedway are a wonder on almost every song – not the expected thirds and fifths but way more adventurous and unexpected.  Lovely.  Lennon and McCartney did have this much in common as they left the greatest group of all time to strike out on their own – they didn’t want to do it on their own.  Yoko and John worked together musically right up to his untimely death in 1980.  She was his confidante, his editor, his collaborator.  And famously, Linda joined Wings along with Denny Laine from The Moody Blues and was given a keyboard and shown middle C.  And despite ridicule (from males mainly), her contributions are really excellent.  Linda sings the high harmony on Let It Be by the way pop fans…

Ram is a fantastic album, credited to Paul & Linda McCartney

…while Red Rose Speedway is credited to Paul McCartney & Wings.  Gentle, undemanding cosy beautiful songs from people in love.  I don’t need all my music to thrust and challenge and have edge.  I don’t need my life to feel like that either.  I play it all the time.

My Love starts with a long sustained A natural, then ‘falls’ into a Bb major seventh chord for the opening line

“and when I go away I know my heart will stay with my love”

which musicians will know is actually a semitone UP from A, which means that it rises, but it sounds as if it falls.  How does this work ?  The A is the major seventh of Bb – a favourite chord of Bacharach – but that’s the magic of music.   Beautiful chords on this song.  When they recorded My Love McCartney had planned to play the guitar solo after the bridge, but Henry McCulloch who’d joined Wings after playing with Joe Cocker, (and who wouldn’t turn up for the Band On The Run sessions in Lagos, Nigeria which followed this LP), insisted (as far as one can insist with a Beatle I’m imagining) that Paul allowed him to play the guitar solo.  And the result is rather marvellous.  In fact the production on this song is outstanding, understated horns and strings, a lovely clipped guitar, harmonies from Linda, prominent fat bass as ever on a Paul song, subtle tasteful drums.  It’s a beauty.  He may never have surpassed this song since 1973.

with James, Stella and Mary later in 73

I’ll find out for myself on Sunday since we have two tickets to see McCartney at Meadowlands in New Jersey.  Been a long time since I saw him playing live.   1979 at Wembley.  Live and Let Die was the standout that night, recorded during the Red Rose Speedway sessions but produced by George Martin – all lasers and smoke – while at the other end of the scale a solo acoustic I’ve Just Seen A Face followed by Blackbird was breathtaking.  He didn’t do much Beatles in those days, still looking over his shoulder, running from his legacy,  and trying to create a new one.  These days he plays for three hours and crams them all in, Beatles, John songs, George songs, the lot.  Can’t wait.

This is Jenny’s favourite Paul McCartney song.   She thinks it matches God Only Knows and Just The Way You Are (Paul’s favourite songs that he wishes he’d written).  High praise indeed !   I share a birthday with Paul McCartney.  And I Love Him.

My Pop Life #163 : Early (ft BOOTS) – Run the Jewels

Early (ft BOOTS)   –   Run the Jewels

And he still put my hands in cuffs, put me in the truck
When my woman screamed, said “shut up”
Witness with the camera phone on saw the copper pull a gun and
Put it on my gorgeous queen
As I peered out the window I could see my other kinfolk
And hear my little boy as he screamed
As he ran toward the copper begged him not to hurt his momma
Cause he had her face down on the ground
And I’d be much too weak to ever speak what I seen
But my life changed with that sound

*

When we moved to New York City in February 2014 we felt positive, optimistic and excited.  As a mixed-race couple (I am ‘white’, my wife is ‘black’) we were looking forward to living in a multi-racial city of immigrants where the old blocks of black/ white/ jewish/ korean/ italian/ hispanic /chinese had at least been partly broken down.  Brooklyn was mixed and thriving and beautiful.  The last time we’d been here (apart from the Julius Caesar run in late 2013 see My Pop Life #143) had been the late 80s when we’d stayed in Alphabet City and been shocked by the homelessness, the filth everywhere, and felt at street level the racial tension in the city.  The block mentality appeared to be based on racial origin depressingly.   It was 1989 just after the Central Park incident when five black and hispanic teens were arrested and indicted on robbery and sexual assault charges against a white middle-class female jogger.

White fury 1989 believing in the rape narrative of the Central Park 5

The city prickled with palpable suspicion and anger.   In June 2014  the five men – who were between 14 and 16 when they were arrested – settled for $40 million in compensation after many years of jail, followed by negotiations with the city.  They were all innocent.  The perpetrator, Matias Reyes, had acted alone and confessed in 2002, some 12 years earlier.

On July 17th 2014 Eric Garner was selling cigarettes outside a store on Staten Island.  Bystander footage shot on mobile phones showed five policemen forcing him to the floor, one with a chokehold as Garner said on numerous occasions “I can’t breathe“.  He died on the street, on camera.  The Black Lives Matter Movement had been born in the wake of the murder acquittal of George Zimmerman who shot 17-yr old Trayvon Martin in Florida the previous year.   A protest group coined the phrase and it stuck.  It doesn’t have an “Only” in front of it, but it might have a “Too” after it.  It’s not offensive, or divisive, in the context of the regular dehumanisation of black life in America.

Ferguson, Missouri 2014

Between these two murders was the shooting of 18-yr old Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri which had ignited the nation – a black man shot multiple times by a white policeman and left dead on the street for over five hours – a white officer also later to be acquitted by a white Grand Jury, in a secret hearing.

Since then we have had a rising tide of unacceptable black death at the hands of the police, often captured on camera : Tamir Rice, 12 years old from Cleveland (no indictment of the officer), Eric Harris from Tulsa was shot in the back while lying on the ground (this case resulted in a manslaughter conviction), Walter Scott from North Carolina, shot in the back while running away (a murder charge has resulted from the camera phone footage) Sandra Bland in Texas who apparently committed suicide in her prison cell after being arrested for ‘not signalling when she pulled over’.  And Freddie Gray in Baltimore whose spine was broken while he was handcuffed in the back of a van driven at deliberately high speeds around corners after his arrest.  He died.  All the Freddie Gray cases have resulted in acquittals for the group of officers involved, dripping through the news bulletins one a week in 2016.

Then two weeks ago Baton Rouge had another cop shooting a black man – Alton Sterling – outside a store, and on the same day in Minnesota we had a live Facebook feed from the girlfriend of Philando Castile, shot in his car by an officer as he was handing the cop his legal gun licence.

moments after the shooting of Philando Castile

All this exploded further 14 days ago when – at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas against these last two shootings – a sniper shot and killed five police officers and was himself killed by a police robot bomb.  Then 4 days ago another (black) sniper who was also ex-military shot and killed three police officers in Baton Rouge, which has been extremely tense ever since the killing of Alton Sterling.

I am aware of my white privilege, especially in newly-gentrified Fort Greene, Brooklyn.  I’m not going to discuss the ins and outs of gentrification here because it is quite complex and more to do with money than race – and there are good points, and bad points – but walking down the streets and avenues of Brooklyn, I never feel threatened by the police.  That’s just my reality.   I’m not in the matrix that says – young black men commit most of the crime, so target them, shake them down, stop and frisk.  We know the NYPD profile young black men.  We know they have quotas and monthly targets.  And whatever irrational fear I may have of groups of young black men with hoodies on the street – the reality is that they have a far more rational fear of me as a white man.  Historically and actually.  White people run things.  It’s not a black problem all this.  It’s a white problem.

My white privilege allowed me to attend a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles in 2015 while I was shooting Agent Carter at Disney, a rally then a walk along Hollywood Boulevard with a few hundred protestors past the 101 Freeway entrance blocked by LAPD thence to Hollywood & Vine where we were invited to sit down on the intersection and block the road, to actually lie down as if we were dead on the street.  It felt vulnerable and brave, there were LAPD all around us, but I never felt in danger.  I was a white middle-class English protestor after all.

How ironic, how tragic indeed that all of this is kicking off at the end of the second term of the USA’s first black President.   Barack Obama did speak up about the Trayvon Martin murder saying “he could have been my son” – and NRA membership shot up, as did gun purchases and registrations.  Obama backed off after that, thinking clearly not to stir the hornet’s nest, but it stirred itself anyway.  One of the things I didn’t realise before moving here was how little command & control the President has over the police.  Police Departments are run on a state-by-state basis and controlled by the State Governments.  The Federal Justice Department can however intervene in high-profile cases and seek an indictment, they have done so in the Alton Sterling case.   But Obama often feels side-lined by this issue.  Some, like Cornel West, and I would fall into this category too, feel that Obama has not done enough as a black President to reform a racist police culture.

El-P and Killer Mike : Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels was formed by black rapper Killer Mike and white rapper/producer El-P in 2012 after they had toured together.  Killer Mike debuted on Outkast‘s Stankonia LP in 2000 before releasing 5 full-length independent political trap/hip hop albums out of Atlanta.  El-P is outta Brooklyn, original member of Company Flow and owner of Def Jux records where he produced Cannibal Ox‘ The Cold Vein among other independent hip hop albums.  A well-respected hip-hop producer he has also released 5 LPs, two as Company Flow and three as El-P.

Run The Jewels first LP was a free download in 2013, self-titled with the strange logo that has got me into a few odd situations – severed, bandanged hands holding onto a gold chain – what ?  But it has been hugely effective in establishing them as a force – political uncompromising, old skool, with a political angry content to match a punchy noisy style -they remind me of Public Enemy, committed hip hop from the underground, sent to upset the apple cart.  Run The Jewels 2 was released in October 2014, was again free, and included this track Early, featuring a new face BOOTS aka Jordan Asher who had risen to glory from nowhere in 2013, writing three and producing no less than NINE of the tracks on Beyoncé‘s self-titled 5th LP ‘BEYONCÉ‘ along with a roster of up-to-the-minute talent.  His contribution to this song ‘Early’ is quite stunning.

Killer Mike rapping live in 2015

The first verse, partly quoted above is delivered by Killer Mike, reminiscent in rhythm to Young M.C.’s ‘Know How‘ and in rhyme pattern to Run DMC’s ‘Walk This Way’ : a black male under arrest for weed “could it be that my medicine’s the evidence”   while his partner and child protest and are held by the police

‘cos I respect the badge and the gun,

and I pray today ain’t the day when you drag me away, right in front of my beautiful son

His queen gets shot at the end of that verse “and my life changed with that sound“.

The chorus is devastating, eerie, other-worldly from BOOTS –

Get out get out get out feelin this feelin this too early…”

and appears to be in a different song altogether.  A startling moment where everything you know suddenly floats untethered and the sky is falling in.

Then El-P’s verse – the white verse – starts with the same couplet

It be feelin’ like the life that I’m livin’ I don’t control
Like every day I’m in a fight for my soul

– he agrees with Killer Mike that his life ain’t his own, but he talks about the system – there’s a they – and how things are rigged but it ain’t a game if it don’t pause with the sound of Pacman dying in the mix behind him.   He sees the street cameras watch the birdie but it doesn’t record the cop shooting the woman… he finishes with hearing the sound of gunshots maybe two blocks away but he’s going to bed he’s going to sleep, getting up early, unfazed.  White privilege.

This song is both the darkness and the light.  As it should be.

I had tickets to see Run The Jewels in late 2014 and couldn’t go – I had to be in Los Angeles for work on Agent Carter.   I gave to tickets to my Brooklyn friend and gig buddy Tony Gerber, also a white man, also married to a black woman Lynn Nottage, and he went to the gig with Aaron Nottage, his wife’s brother.  I was glad the tickets were used, and glad they were a gift.  I spent that Christmas alone (sob) in Brooklyn with the cats, as Jenny flew back to London to be with her family.  Tony and Lynne invited me round to their house for Christmas Day which was extremely kind of them, and I had a wonderful day.  Presents were exchanged, and Tony had bought me the Run The Jewels T-shirt complete with bandaged severed hand holding the gold chain.

Suzan-Lori Parks wasn’t sure about this T.  I couldn’t explain it

One of my friends here in NYC is a police officer.  We drink.  We argue.  We laugh a lot.   But she tells me things about things.  The gang mentality.  The win mentality.  The shoot-to-kill training.   Social media has heightened the issue a great deal and given us all access to Sandra Bland’s aggressive arresting officer, the shooting of Walter Scott or the shocking view of Philando Castile dying in front of our eyes.  We are not inured to these incidents, rather we are woken by them, they are brought into our homes, our phones, our lives.  What can we do ?  We can join Black Lives Matter, go out onto the streets and show our anger.  We do.  What else ?

Well I think one critically important step we can take is to acknowledge that we all live in a world built on white supremacy, and still operating through it.  White lives matter more, count more, than black lives.  Cops see a black face and see a) guilt and b) danger.  The fear count goes UP.  Each terrorist atrocity in Europe is lamented, people paste the flag of France or Belgium onto their Facebook profile and express sorrow and defiance.  But terrorist atrocities in Mali, Ivory Coast, Turkey or Iraq scarcely get a mention, let alone a flag of sympathy.  Not our tribe.  “A plane came down in Kenya yesterday. Two Britons were on board. ”  Oh.   So what kind of message does that send ??  Our kids are running off to Syria in their hundreds to join ISIL.  Why might that be ?  We live in an increasingly polarised world at the moment. Capitalism is wobbling seriously once again, the 2008 crash did not adjust our system in any meaningful way, and there is less money going round.  We all feel it.  But the banks were bailed out, over and over again.  Was Greece ?

Divide and rule, the old tactic is still taking our eyes off the ball.  These are dangerous times.  Reminiscent of the 1930s.  It feels like we need to pick sides, and people are very ready to do that.  I chose my side many years ago when I married my beautiful black wife.   My family is black.  Although I think I had been on this side for at least fifteen years before that.  And I’ve always felt like an internationalist.

If I had a child and I lived here in Brooklyn they would be mixed-race, or black – and I would feel the fear more keenly, the fear this nation always feels built on.  Across the USA, parents of black children raise them to simply get home alive.  If a police officer stops you, be polite, be respectful, do not move your hands, obey, don’t argue, don’t raise your voice, get home alive.  Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote his book Between The World and Me as a letter to his son about coming home alive and it was a best-seller in 2015.  The ABCtv show Blackish felt compelled to address the Black Lives Matter issues in one episode of their sitcom, now in its third series, and the Oscars were dominated by the issue of racism, and brilliantly helmed by Chris Rock on the night.  We are undoubtedly going through another major civil rights movement – but what will change ?   The root is deep, as deep and dark as slavery, and that went on for hundreds of years and made black skin into a commodity, dehumanised, valuable but like the pelt of an animal.  Even after the civil war – fought over the South’s refusal to free their slaves – Reconstruction meant that there was no price to be paid for losing the war.  Robert E. Lee kept his rifle and his Dixie flag and was sent home by Ullysses Grant and no black family got 40 acres and a mule.  The slave-hunters who had profited from bounty turned into the  Sheriffs, Deputies and then Police Officers of the Jim Crow South.  Lynchings, Strange Fruit.

Racism – the great white problem – has never gone away because the root has not been dug out.  The skin grows over it, and it lies there festering until the next breakout.

Charleston, South Carolina  July 2015 – a young white racist shoots 9 black people dead in a church as they pray, and when the police find him hours later they give him a bullet-proof vest and get him a burger.  South Carolina in the weeks that followed finally took the Confederate Flag off the State buildings – to much hostility from white supremacists, for it is their flag.  Quite why it ever became the flag of rock’n’rollers like Lemmy or Mick Jones from the Clash is beyond my comprehension.

And on we go.   In the end compassion is the only way.  Kindness.  We’re in a bit of a finger-pointing era though right now, picking sides, othering.  This song for me shows another way – a white man and a black man working together and seeing the world through each others eyes.  This is the way forward.  I realise too, that this has all been very male, and another great step for me, and for us all, is for MAN to see the world through WOMAN eyes.

Stay safe.

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