My Pop Life #215 : Top Cat – Hoyt Curtin

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Top Cat  –  Hoyt Curtin

“The indisputable leader of the gang”

*Warning : Cat Porn*

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Yes, that Top Cat.  The wise guy cartoon alleycat from New York City with his gang always trying to get one over on Officer Dibble.  It was a staple of my childhood in the 1960s and certainly contributed to my impression of the city where I now live.  As did the music.  Like many of Hanna Barbara’s cartoons – Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons – the music was composed and recorded by Hoyt Curtin, a Californian specialist in the punchy joyful bright slices of cartoon sound.  Top Cat the Theme Music is only 42 seconds long and is thus the shortest piece of music in My Pop Life to date.

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From the funky horn fanfare to the stuttering trumpet intro to the glamorous celebratory vocal shout (which reminds me somehow of Isaac Hayes’ Shaft (see My Pop Life #60)) and the crisp xylophone punctuation, this mini cartoon symphony is a marvel of crushed sound & misheard lyrics.

Top Cat ! whose intellectual close friends get to call him T.C.

Strode right in, it’s whipping to see…Top Cat !

Hmmm.  Well that is what I’ve always sung, from the age of five.  Nonsense.  Wait. OK according to the lyrics bible Genius.com (which is highly recommended by the way…) it is :

Top Cat ! whose intellectual close friends get to call him T.C.

Providing it’s with dignity…Top Cat !

I genuinely just found that out.  Prefer my five year old version somehow.  Anyway.  The  music always made me feel that it had been played on a single that jumped – we had some of these – a scratched record – where a groove was missed and the tune would jump forward 15 seconds.  Somehow Top Cat does this in its second 20 seconds.  Check it out – it is completely wild, and probably quite hard to play.  It is a masterpiece theme tune to a masterpiece cartoon that ran from 1961 for only 30 episodes.  Which were endlessly repeated.

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Top Cat, Benny the Ball, Fancy Fancy, Choo Choo, Brain & Spook

The format was as follows – a street gang of cats living in dustbins by a fence eating fish-heads, and thrown-away fast food.  Led by smart status symbol Top Cat – T.C. –  Benny the Ball, Choo Choo, Brain, Fancy Fancy and Spook were all expertly delineated characters in bright colours and working-class NYC accents.  Their enemy was Officer Dibble who was a human, constantly trying to foil their get-rich-quick schemes.  I suppose there was a strong symbolic element here – a representation of the poor underclass, finding ways legal or usually otherwise to make ends meet.  The voices were all superb.  Arnold Stang voiced T.C.

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Mimi, Roxy and Boy in Brighton : a very rare picture of them together

Cats.  Sacred scavengers.  Furry babies.  Highly evolved to be cute and employ human servants.   Back there in Sussex where I grew up we always had cats – indeed apart from a brief spell at the LSE and a handful of years in Los Angeles, I have always had a cat, or two, or three.  I believe them to be superior to dogs.  They clean themselves.  They bury their toilet. They give themselves their own status. They are spirit animals who give your home life and soul.  When they die, I am bereft for a long long time.

My first cat was called Caesar, a big male tabby given to me when I was one year old.  I remember burying him in the garden of our house in Selmeston when Dad was still at home, so I would’ve been seven or eight, and so would Caesar. Then we got white tortoiseshell Sheba and black & white Kitty Little.  I have no definitive recall of these animals apart from their names and colours.  We also had dogs during this period of my youth – Corgis Raq and Bessie, and then Welsh Sheepdog Brutus who used to chase cars.  When we became homeless in 1970 (see My Pop Life #84 ) I don’t know what happened to the animals.  After nine months the family were re-united in Hailsham and I think Sheba and Kitty Little were still with us but this may be a feline hallucination.  I’ll ask Mum.  I have a memory of finding Sheba dead under the kitchen tap one school morning in Hailsham because she had eaten string and was trying to drink water to lubricate herself.  Pets give you these horrific moments and even if they live long lives, they will inevitably die before you do.  Certainly by the time Rebecca was born we had grey/white Lucy who lived a very long life and eventually died as Becky turned 18.   Once I moved to London for university in 1976 there were no pets allowed in Halls of Residence beneath the Post Office Tower, however when I lived in Finsbury Park with Mumtaz in the early 80s we had Monty, another tabby.  Montgomery was named after Mr Clift the actor whom I had discovered as a young man.  We called the cat Montgomery Keshani Brown LLB., MCC & Bar with full English pomposit and when I left, in 1985, he stayed.  Or did he? I think maybe he moved in with me for a bit, then went back to Mumtaz…

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London 1990 – Honey, Hardy & me

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In the mid-80s I got a flat in in Archway Road N6 and when Jenny moved in we got two beautiful Siamese kittens, siblings Hardy and Honey.  It was our first try at having two cats, and we’ve stuck with the plan ever since.  It was also our first try at pedigree animals.  Large ears and inquisitive natures.  Proper child substitutes.

Hardy and Honey, about six months old

Such beautiful animals, they both talked a great deal and were sweet companions.  One night when we came in from a theatre show they were missing – then a small miaow led us to the top of the wardrobe where they were hunched, nervously looking down.  Then a movement under the bed – and a Ginger Tom ran out through the cat door into the back garden.  He had entered the sanctum.  Bullied them.  Eaten their food.  Ginger Toms apparently.  Or is that cattist?   Anyway a few weeks later the same thing happened.  There Hardy and Honey were again, on top of the wardrobe.  We had discussed what we would do if it happened again.  Plan A.  Jenny walked down to the cat door and locked it.  Then the Ginger Tom (for it was he!) ran back there and got trapped in the bathroom (which was the back room due to the weird Housing Association conversion we were in).  I ran a tap and filled a jug. Ginger Tom was hissing and growling and Honey had come down for a ringside seat and got trapped in the room too, but safely on the towel shelf.  I tipped water onto the Ginger Tom’s head until he submitted with a final hiss, then finally opened the catflap and out he went.  We never saw him again. Nor did Honey or Hardy.

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Hardy in Highgate, 1992

When we went to Scotland on holiday once a year – a 12-hour drive up to the West Coast & the islands – we would take the Siamese with us.  They would be locked in the cottage when we went for walks.  I remember Hardy growling at the sheep one morning.  They were good travellers.  When we were in Los Angeles early 90s Jenny’s school friend darling Betty would stay in our flat and look after them.  We would go back and forth.  Then when we returned from Los Angeles in 1995 we knew we wanted to move out of Highgate.

Honey got out the front door on the day we packed up the van to move temporarily to Kilburn and sometime that night got run over on that busy road.  Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to describe it.  I had to scrape her body off the road with a shovel and bury her strangely heavy body, heavier than she had ever been when alive, in the back garden, under the horse chestnut tree.  I felt sick.  We felt for Hardy who was now solo and missing his sister, so a little later we got another strange Siamese called Tia who never quite fitted in, never liked Jenny but used to swoon at me.  Hardy and Tia came to Brighton with us but we were away so much during that period – in LA and elsewhere that we eventually gave them away to a lovely old lady who had just lost her two Siamese and needed some grown ones because she couldn’t bear raising another kitten.  She would write to us about them every now and again which was lovely.  They died there in the Sussex countryside about ten years ago.

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Marvin aged 20 weeks

At some point in 2004 we visited Stockholm with Amanda Ooms and met her sister Sara who had helped Andy Baybutt and I with The Murmuration (see My Pop Life #87) and met her new kitten Otis.  What a great animal!  He was a Devon Rex breed, with only one type of fur (most cats have three : down, fur & guard fur) and he was super-intelligent and friendly.  Bless Otis he passed away last week (Feb 2019) aged 15.  Anyway we were ready to re-cat ourselves and decided to get a Devon Rex, then found Marvin from a breeder.  Such a beautiful little boy he was, who would climb up from the ground up my legs, my body up to my shoulder and sit there.  He lasted a mere 9 weeks before cutting his mouth on a wicker basket and getting very weak. We took him to the vet who did a blood test and told us he had a factor 8 deficiency which meant his blood couldn’t clot and a transfusion wouldn’t work so that he would never live a long life.  That was simply awful.   I held Marvin’s little body to my chest through the night listening as his breathing got shallower and shallower, stroking him and whispering love into his absurdly large ears until he gave a big sigh, a final tiny rattle and passed over.  Jeez that was sad.

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Chester

Eventually in April 2008 we decided to brave another Devon Rex and Chester arrived.  What a cat he was.  Like an old chinese man.  Very communicative.  Very funny.  He would crawl under the duvet every night.  He had at least fifteen distinct expressions. After a year we decided to find him a mate.  By then we’d found a breeder that we liked, Michelle on the outskirts of Sheffield, whom we’d dropped in on one day while visiting my dad who lives in West Yorkshire.  Her house was full to the brim with cats, all friendly and smiling, purring and relaxed, draped over the furniture, window ledges, feeding kittens, greeting us.  She had all the queens inside – about twenty five females, plus the kittens, and all the males outside in the yard and a back shed.

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some of Michelle’s queen Orientals

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Devon Rex mum and smigel kittens at Michelle’s

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Mimi’s mum, and, possibly, a very young Mimi

It is an extraordinary house.  We saw the new brood upstairs of tiny little pieces of Russian Blue Cornish Rex fur and said we’d be back in 10 weeks for a girl.  Mimi came back with us in the Jeep on the 200 mile journey and Chester fell in lust as soon as he laid eyes on her.  He became a rape cat. We had to separate them for a few nights, then it was obvious (from the howling) that we would have to spey dear Chester. After that they got on famously….most of the time….

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Chester, me, Mimi – late 2008

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Mimi kitten with Chester aged 15 months

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Despite this clear blow to the head, Chester was not very good at fighting

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A very special animal, Chester also had a congenital problem, this time with arrhythmia – an uneven heartbeat.  He died aged four while I was filming in Nashville and Jenny and I weren’t getting on.  I flew back and we buried him in the back garden in floods of tears, his early death re-uniting us as a kind of awful sacrifice.

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Mimi we felt was lonely then.  We worried about her.  Michelle heard about Chester dying young and offered us another Cornish Rex so I drove up to Sheffield again and came back with the most affectionate cat I’ve ever met – Roxy, a bonkers tortoiseshell female.  Mimi hated her.

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Roxy is a one-off weirdo.  I would actually say she has special needs.  In the nicest possible way of course.  She loves to sit on a shoulder.  Feels safe up there. Then she will purr and push her face into my beard, squirming with joy.

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She would get out of the garden and wander down the road shouting at the top of her voice as if she was lost.  People would pick her up and say hi where do you live?  I could hear them over the garden trellis. We put a collar on her with the address and my mobile phone number engraved on it. One day, sitting in the Peace Statue cafe in Hove with Andy my phone went…

“Hello, do you have a cat called Roxy?”

“Yes I do”

“She’s in the hospital”

“OK thanks I’ll come and get her”.

Luckily I was on my bike and when I got home there was a nurse on my doorstep with Roxy and her winking eye, like butter wouldn’t melt.  After three months, Mimi still hated her. Roxy tried to make friends but no.  What to do?

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Boy’s first night in Brighton – oh god, there’s two other cats here…

Get another cat!  This time it was to Basingstoke and the last of a litter, a beautiful black Oriental.  I met his father who was a Siamese and his mother who was a mushroom Oriental softie.  Roxy swooned for the Boy as soon as she saw him.  She licked him, chased him and bit his throat which was rather alarming.  But that is what cats do when they play.  She was teaching him how to fight.

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She has taught him everything since.  They sleep together, wash each other, play and fight together. Mimi kept her disdainful character intact, and when it was that we came to move to New York City, we brought Roxy & Boy with us and left Mimi in Brighton.  Mimi is an outside cat, she was the queen of that hill in Kemp Town.

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Mimi & Delilah-Rose, Brighton 2008

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Eventually we found her a home with a lovely family in Norfolk and later received some  photos of her looking very pleased with herself as a nine-year old girl’s pet and the only cat in the house (her one true desire).

Roxy we wouldn’t allow outside because she got lost every time, and Boy could take it or leave it – and he liked to bring back worms and slow worms (legless lizards) from outside and leave them – alive – in the kitchen.  But we’d already decided not to let the cats out in Brooklyn because of

TOP CAT!

THE MOST EFFECTUAL TOP CAT !

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The local alley cats here have thick fur because they sleep outside in all weather. They slouch and have scars and behave like tough guys.  They are huge.  They are contemptuous. They probably have leukemia.  We imagined them meeting Roxy & Boy and speaking in Brooklynese :

Yo. What’s your name – puss-in-boots?  What you doin’ down here? Welcome to the hood.  You is European?! Don’t make me fuck you up kitty kitty.

Scarcely anyone in New York speaks like this anymore, they’ve all moved out to Long Island or Westchester, or Jersey.  I mean it’s noticeable when you hear that Top Cat twang on the streets, like an endangered species.  But I think the cats still talk like that even if the people don’t.  The cats haven’t been gentrified yet (although there are gangs of “cat lovers” who go out and spey them and give them injections for leukemia).   So Roxy and Boy stay in. They have space, pretend trees to climb, food, beds, water, toys, windows to look out of with sunshine coming in.  Now and again Boy demands go out out onto the stairs so he can scratch the stair carpet.  Actually he is very dog-like.  He plays fetch and guards the perimeters.  They are content.  I love them with all my heart as I have loved all my cats, but maybe a little bit more.  They are, of course, our little kids.

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Mimi & Chester in Brighton

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Boy & Roxy in Brooklyn

 

These are the two opening sequences I remember :

A sample of one episode ‘the maharajah of pookajee”

My Pop Life #81 : The Virginian Theme – Percy Faith Orchestra

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The Virginian Theme   –   Percy Faith Orchestra

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He was a cowboy in a black hat and a black shirt.   He didn’t have a name.  Played by James Drury for nine years between 1962 and 1971 he was The Virginian.  Blond blue-eyed Doug McClure playing Trampas became the star of the show with more back-story and affection than the mysterious Virginian.  We tuned in like clockwork.  This was the imprinting of young minds with propaganda – how the west was won, with hard work and punch-ups, no black people or chinese, a few dodgy characters here and there, but The Virginian always won the day, tidied them away and restored calm and peace on the ranch.  How we longed for the world to be like that.  A key show in my village youth, both in black and white and later in colour.

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And of course the show became the fertiliser for my cowboy games with Steven Criddle in the village fields and barns, using bits of wood as rifles and shotguns, running behind bales of straw and hay to avoid those pesky arrows being fired from the Comanche  or Sioux raiders.  Peeeow !  went the imaginary bullets.  We ducked, scrambled, shimmied along on our bellies, made frantic hand signals from behind tractors and hedges.  Steven Criddle’s house was full of dogs.  He lived nearest to the railway at the bottom end of the village.  It was a busy house, full of people, his mum, his dad, other kids, and pugs,  loads of pugs and puppies.  We would cycle from his house over the railway line and into the far-flung territory of Chalvington and Ripe, finding streams to fish in, learning the network of country roads.  The more complex army games would be in Selmeston itself, and probably took over from cowboy games when we were about 9 years old.

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Now I’m a grown up cowboy I can see what a one-sided view we were all given.  In 1971 Soldier Blue came out but I’ve never seen it.  Buffy Saint Marie did the haunting song.  We all became aware of the story of the United States being drenched in blood.  And it was a story that we had started back in 1504, in Virginia, a story re-told in Terrence Malick’s outstanding film The New World.   Growing up, we had Bonanza, Rawhide and The Virginian.  Films like The Big Country, High Noon, My Darling Clementine, Rio Bravo, The Magnificent Seven, Cat Ballou.  All had these sweeping soundtracks which seem to my untrained ear to be linked in some vague musical way.  Stephen Wrigley would know the answer to this – maybe they’re all major chords with 6ths or something, anyway, by the late 60s and 1970s the spaghetti western took over, darker stories with darker characters, with outstanding soundtracks by Ennio Morricone.   The Wild Bunch directed by the great Sam Peckinpah, McCabe and Mrs Miller directed by Robert Altman, The Outlaw Josey Wales directed by Clint Eastwood are all among my favourite films.  The western always had a basic appeal to me, the scenery, the scenario.

Featured imagePercy Faith wrote the music for The Virginian.   A Canadian bandleader and orchestrator he became known as the king of easy-listening, softening the big-band arrangements of the swing era and heralding a new era of pipe-and-slippers lounge music, “The Light Programme” as the BBC would have it – the kind of music you simply have to hate when you’re a teenager – gentle light arrangements of famous tunes, elevator music, stuff that Brian Eno would be getting into by the late 1970s, but which Percy Faith was exploring in the 1950s.  Theme From A Summer Place was his big hit in 1960, but there are many many great tunes including this evergreen theme song from the hit TV show The Virginian.  I could write at least a dozen different pages for TV theme songs for some of them are simply outstanding, but this one I believe is head and shoulders above the rest.

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My Pop Life #61 : Fight The Power – Public Enemy

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Fight The Power   –   Public Enemy

…Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
‘Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps…

After another election night betrayal, another public display of democracy that makes you want to vomit, all we have left is “each other” people.  We have to fight the powers that be.  England will kick off this summer, once again, the familiar ritual of burning and brick throwing.  Once again Labour has failed to appeal to its core constituency and some of them have voted Green, others UKIP, still others Conservative. Many others didn’t vote at all.

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…What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless, you say what is this ?   My beloved lets get down to business, Mental self defence and fitness…

The greatest band to come out of the 1980s was Public Enemy.  PE burn with righteous fire against injustice, racism, the media, corruption, laziness, selfishness, privilege, ignorance.   They were one of the reasons that I became a writer in 1987.

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 When I heard their  first LP “Yo Bum Rush The Show” I was excited by power and truth combining with beats and rhyme, it was exciting and inspiring – but could not prepare me for the monster work of their 2nd LP “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” in 1988.  It was a tidal wave of sound and righteous fury and I couldn’t get enough of it.  I saw them twice live in London that year – or maybe two years running.  Brixton Academy ’87 – ’88.

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I went with Miss P who was directing my first as-yet-unwritten play and the cast of same as-yet-untitled play:  Rita Wolf (my girlfriend), David Keyes, Kwabena Manso, Gaylie Runciman, Pamela Nomvete and Carl Procter.  We were all researching a play about homelessness, to be expressed at least partly through hip hop.  That’s how it was pitched to the Joint Stock Steering Committee “led by” Caryl Churchill and Max Stafford-Clark.   The resultant play was called “Sanctuary“, directed by Paulette Randall and designed by Jenny Tiramani, and it won me the Samuel Beckett Award 1987 for best first play.

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Leader, writer and inspiration behind Public Enemy Chuck D is now an elder in the rap world.  In 1987 he was a revelation.  His lyrics, his delivery, his fury, his tone are all second to none.  I don’t think technically he is the best rapper – that honour goes to Rakim for me – but Rakim pretty much sticks to one subject ie: what a great rapper Rakim is.  Chuck D and PE cover the waterfront.   DJ Terminator X was also scratching records in ways unheard of at that point, not just samples, but noise pure and simple, and the production team of Hank & Keith Shocklee and Eric Sadler “The Bomb Squad” invented a whole new vocabulary of sound : screeching, chopped up quotes from many sources, layered, punchy, visceral and powerful.  The genius addition of Flavor Flav, the joker in the pack, wearing a huge clock “so you know what time it is” and chirruping support from the sidelines (“yeeeah boyeee“) made the package complete – a black gang to take on the white establishment and kick it in its holy nuts.

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Hence the Elvis/John Wayne quote above.   Deliberately provocative, it comes from a lifetime of being a second-class citizen in a first-world nation.   The pure anger in their work becomes a creative force in itself, and the potency of Fight The Power, (taken from album number three Fear Of A Black Planet which should have been released in 1989 but eventually appeared in 1990) has not been matched by any protest song or rallying cry ever recorded.  It is a seriously pumped-up rhythm, sampling James Brown, The Isley Brothers, Syl Johnson and 16 other tracks in a huge sound which was ubiquitous that summer of 1989 when it soundtracked Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, and the hot summer in Brooklyn kicking off.

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In 1989 I was still in full B-Boy mode.  I’d adopted the hip-hop look in 1987 when the sounds and culture of rap bowled me over.   I had written an American version of Sanctuary that summer called Sanctuary D.C., researched and set in Washington DC.   And I had the genesis of a new piece forming, all in verse, commissioned by the BBC.   George Faber it was who asked me in early 1990 to write something in rap from that culture, I was the white emissary from the front line.   I came up with a rhyme play called The House That Crack Built, set in Washington DC and based on the street life I had experienced there in the summer of 1989, the summer of Do The Right Thing.  I nearly got stabbed in D.C. outside a downtown men’s shelter when my bicycle was surrounded by homeless guys who wanted to know what I was doing.  “you’re a european” one of them accused.  “How did you know?” I answered with naive foolishness “I’m English“.  He meant I was white.  There were 20 of them around me, one guy circling the outside giving me glimpses of a large knife inside his coat.  He looked insane.  I spoke sincerely about my desire for a colour-blind future and they probably pitied my twattishness and let me cycle off.  My general foolhardy youthful naivitée probably saved me a few times that summer, researching the American version of my English hit play.  Chatting to crack dealers on the wrong corner.  At night.  But somehow I got away with it.

Back in London 1990, George Faber didn’t get the play I’d delivered at all.  He asked me to produce a week’s workshop and show him a handful of scenes.  I’d anticipated this, and hired a handful of actors who had to prove they could rap in a brief audition.  My lead was the amazing Roger Griffith, one of my favourite actors.  His buddy was played by Michael Buffong, now a first-rate prize-winning director at The National theater, Royal Exchange and Talawa.  Mum was ‘Dame’ Dona Croll of course, whose five-year old daughter had just arrived from Jamaica – so cute – with best friend Jo Martin, the bad guy was Calvin Simpson, who tragically died shortly after the workshop, a lorry knocking him off his bicycle on Waterloo roundabout.  That was a terribly sad funeral.   We filed past the open casket in church, and he was so dead.    I remember him as a great actor and a man who insisted on wearing odd socks.  Years ahead of his time.   Chris Tummings and Jenny Jules completed the cast, but Jenny got a bad asthma attack and was hospitalised and had to be recast at the last minute.  Did Pamela Nomvete fill the breach?  Ashamed to say I can’t remember….but I think so….anyway we worked hard all week, bringing a few scenes to life, learning how to rap in dialogue.   It worked really well, rap is naturally really dramatic and perfect for stage or dramatic work – it’s not unlike Shakespeare or Greek drama.  But Faber and his small BBC gang who came to watch on the Friday afternoon (including his secretary – his barometer) didn’t get it.  He had a meeting with me the week after and said “why is it set in America?“,  I said “Because there’s no crack scene in the UK“.   He said “well change the drug then“.  The casual lazy sweeping generalisation.  Crack was different to every drug I’d ever come across.   Totally.  His well-meaning liberal racism was shocking in the end.  “We brush past these people in the street every day – what do they feel?“.    So depressing.   The piece wasn’t taken forward, and has never been produced anywhere.   If it was mounted now it would be proper old skool rap history, all about Bush and Amerikkka.

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Years later in 2003 I was on the set of another aborted project which I’d written – a film called Red Light Runners.  Bits of it are online somewhere.  Long bitter story – for another post.  That was the experience that stopped me writing.  Bookend contribution.  I was talking to Tricky, who was in our cast, about Fight The Power since he had covered the Public Enemy track Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos on his first album rather brilliantly with Martina Topley-Bird sing-songing the rap lyrics.   We were sitting on the top deck of a bus waiting for something or other to happen.  Probably filming at Centrepoint ?  Anyway, I asked him about the exact quote at the top of the page about Elvis Presley, and we went on to talk about how brilliant Elvis was, especially in the early days.  Elvis was a hero to me, but so were Public Enemy.  I didn’t have a problem with that but I couldn’t quite articulate why.   But I trust Chuck D.  We agreed he was a provocateur and stirring the shitpot.  There’s always been debate about the good ole boy Elvis and how he treated black people, but you’ll need to listen to the ’68 comeback tapes to get the rest of that story.  Racist – in the sense that any kid from Memphis was racist in 1954 – probably.  But Racist with a capital R – no, don’t believe it.  He melded black and white music together.  He listened to gospel music on the radio and loved it, mixed it with hillbilly music.  Elvis = no racist.  But the racial divisions of America are so deep and so scarred that you can see them from the moon, and Chuck D and PE needed to hold up white icons in order to shoot them down.   It’s a polemic.   It’s a position.

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Chuck has since blurred the quote : on the LP it’s scarcely audible.   You can hear it on the original single, and the film soundtrack clear as a bell however.  Its impact was huge.   They always flirted with controversy, particularly in the shape of Minister of Information Professor Griff, who left PE after an unfortunate quote about Jewish people, but at their heart they are fundamentally about telling the truth to power.

We all have to carry on, despite defeats, setback and disappointments.  What choice do we have?  In the late 80s, Public Enemy were the soundtrack to change.  They still are.  Live – I’ve seen them five times – they are astonishing, nowadays using a live band and covering songs like Edwin Starr’s “War”.   The retain all their power and urgency.  For what, if anything, has changed ?

clip from Do The Right Thing :

My Pop Life #60 : Theme From “Shaft” – Isaac Hayes

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Theme From ‘Shaft’   –   Isaac Hayes

“…who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks ?  Shaft !  Damn right

Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?  Shaft !  Can you dig it?

Who’s the cat that walk about when there’s danger all about ?  Shaft !  Right on…”

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I first met Paulette Randall in the spring of 1984, at some rehearsal rooms in north London – I think – where she was Assistant Director to Danny Boyle, directing a play by Alan Brown for the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court called PANIC!    The first read-through took us around five hours, and it had been even longer than that.  The rehearsal period was short, and concentrated on making the play shorter.  The play was mental.  There were scenes between pets that spoke (they had mini-speakers inside them).  David Fielder played Pan, with hairy legs and a giant cock and balls, and he was castrated on Polaroid halfway through the second half.  The set was a house on a clifftop about to fall into the sea.  the family were from all over Britain – Dad was Welsh (Alan David), Mum was Geordie (Val McClane), oldest son was scouse (Ken Sharrock RIP), his wife was home counties (Marion Bailey), second son was cockney (me) and daughter was west country (Harriet Bagnall).   I believe we ate the brains of the indian newsagent for dinner, listened to Parsifal and Beethoven and waited for the apocalypse.   Danny marshalled all of this joy with charm and humour assisted by Paulette.  I liked Paulette very much and we started to hang out together.   I met her sister Beverley shortly afterwards, perhaps once the play had opened in a wine bar on Sloane Square.   Little did I know at the time that I had entered a very special world.

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Beverley and Paulette were brought up in Brixton and Clapham by their Jamaican parents during the 60s/70s.  They were the first black people I’d actually made friends with.  Or who had made friends with me.  I’d studied with, worked with, but never really hung out.   At some point that summer of 84, waiting for the apocalypse, I ended up on Clapham Common near to where P lived, and still does, on William Bonney Estate.  She introduced me to her friend David Lawrence, a postman with an absurd streak and a wry sense of humour.  I can’t remember what we were drinking but it could have been a bottle of whisky.  We sat on a bench in the wee small hours laughing.  Laughing hard.  I remember little about what made us laugh so much.    In fact was Beverley there too ?  I wonder – she worked at Coutts the bank at the time on the Strand.   Lost to drink now – except for two distinct moments.  At one point around 3am we stopped talking and just sang.  One of the highlights of the night was “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town” by Kenny Rogers, a performance that David can actually conjure up on command like a performing seal, and so, to be fair , can I.    This never fails to bring the house down when David does it, unless he does it twice…or three times…then he will be cussed.   Of course, we all knew all the words.  The other song was Shaft by Isaac Hayes, in particular the lines quoted above which I knew off by heart, and performed as if in an Isaac Hayes cover band..

“…they say this cat Shaft is a bad mother – ‘shut your mouth!’

but I’m talking ’bout Shaft  –  ‘then we can dig it’

He’s a complicated man, but no one understands him but his woman

John Shaft !”

… almost made Paulette wet herself.  I guess you had to be there.

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For many years we would gather at Paulette’s flat, usually on a Saturday night, call it Club 61 and drink and smoke until we fell over, playing loud music and shouting at each other.  A clan of regulars would congregate – and I’m cutting forward now to the 90s when I was with Jenny – including Eugene McCaffrey, Nicky, Randall cousins Janet & Donna, Pat, cousins Jackie & Debbie, Sharon Henry, Elaine McKenzie, Michael Whiting, cousin Atlee, many others, whoever Paulette was working with at the time, people would arrive at all hours, drink would be drunk, people would dance, Paulette would DJ, people would shout more.   It was funny.  It was great.  It was release.  It was family.  With the exception of Simon Korner, soul brother from school, Paulette has remained my best friend.   She would go on to direct Sanctuary, the play I wrote for Joint Stock, she would witness my wedding, I was one of the first people she called when Danny Boyle asked her to help him to direct the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games.   She and Beverley are chalk and cheese but inseparable and equal.  They were living together when we met, peas in a pod.  It’s a long story.  Theme From Shaft was one of our early bonding moments.  How powerful a song can be.

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Isaac Hayes joined Stax Records in 1963 as a session musician, started filling in for Booker T on keys when he was away at Indiana University and in1965 wrote Sam & Dave’s first hit : I Take What I Want with partner David Porter.  Porter/Hayes would write and produce a string of brilliant soul singles for Sam and Dave almost unmatched in the 1960s for the consistent level of genius.  His 1969 solo LP Hot Buttered Soul was Stax Records bestseller of that year, and was followed up by 2 more in the same vein before he was asked to write the music for Gordon Park’s black detective movie hero Shaft, played by actor Richard Roundtree in 1971.   The resulting single was a new level of symphonic soul which was very much of its time – the Temptations and Stylistics were on similar ground as was the whole Philadelphia Sound.  The wah-wah guitar shape is simply iconic, the piano dark and dramatic, the arrangement tight and superb, it changes shape adds instruments, textures before the break and those words “who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks?”  I mean, by then – 2.30 into the song (a record length intro) we actually want to know, this is the genius of the song.  Shaft !   It’s got a bit of Pearl and Dean, funked out of its tiny mind and forced to groove.  It’s a Theme, more than a song.  It’s a moment in musical culture.  It’s an extra-ordinary tune.

Bev and Miss P – I love you x

Theme From Shaft :

the actual film credits – slightly faster music and re-recorded, or mixed differently :