My Pop Life #181 : Skyline Pigeon – Guy Darrell

Skyline Pigeon   –   Guy Darrell

                  Turn me loose from your hands, let me fly to distant lands                              Over green fields trees & mountains, flowers and forest fountains           Home along the lanes of the skyways

Dear old Mum.  This was her favourite song of 1968 and she played it to death for the next few years because  it reminded her of dear Stan, who was with her when she bought it, but who then broke her heart, turning himself loose from her hands and flew back to the distant lands of Australia, flowers and forest fountains, green fields trees and mountains, home along the lanes of the skyways.  I’m absolutely certain that Paul, Andrew (4 years old at the time?) and I all know the words off by heart, and all the notes too.  We played with the lyrics a bit too, misheard some and deliberately misheard some others.  We had to take the curse off of it I suppose.  But we loved it too.  It was played so much it got warped, a 45rpm single on the Pye label, I think.  We didn’t know who Guy Darrell was, and he did nothing else, didn’t need to.  He’d done this song, and in a list of songs which I group together as “Mum’s Sacred Songs“,  I reckon this one is at number one.

Mum’s Sacred Songs then  – I’ve already written about :

 “People Gotta Be Free” – Dionne Warwick  (My Pop Life #17)

  “Days” –  The Kinks  (My Pop Life #147)

 “Games People Play”  –  Joe South    (My Pop Life #63)

and

 “Israelites”  –  Desmond Dekker    (My Pop Life #102)

Do I repeat myself?  A little, yes, but then hey.  I don’t have to think too hard to think of the others, which would be… :

 “Jesamine”   –  The Casuals

  “The Carnival Is Over”  – The Seekers

Part Of My Past”  –  Simon Dupree & The Big Sound

and

Skyline Pigeon”  –  Guy Darrell

I think Paul and Andrew would agree with me on those.  There may be one or two others – bound to be in fact – but these are eight of the top ten.  And now that I look at them I realise with strange unease that aside from The Seekers (an Australian close harmony band led by Judith Durham which mum absolutely loved because she could sing the harmonies) whose hit single The Carnival Is Over was released in 1965 – every single one of these sacred singles comes from 1968 !!! 

So two things are evident here.  One is that they are actually my sacred singles, posing as mum’s.   They are from the year I turned eleven, a mighty year for any boy.  I’d already seen plenty of life – as a witness, at close hand, the eldest, whose testimony this is.  A nervous breakdown suffered by my mum which lasted nine months, babysat by dad and nan, the return of mum, a negotiation with the hospital and the doctor which I was fully aware of somehow, a marital schism, dad leaves and lives in Eastbourne, a divorce, an empty house, a lodger, a love affair, a parting.

       Oh this dark and lonely room projects a shadow dressed in gloom                                         And my eyes are mirrors of the world outside                                                   Thinking of the way that the wind can turn the tide                                                 And these shadows turn from purple into grey

The shadow is actually cast in gloom but I always sang dressed up until – well today really when I discovered that he sings “cast in gloom“.   Who is the Shadow Dressed In Gloom ?  Slightly scary.  But then again.  Clearly myself.  Or Mum if she was singing it.  Whoever sings it is the Shadow.  Turning from purple into grey.  Then we get the soaring chorus which Paul and I sang as 9 and 11-year old boys :

   Projects a skyline pigeon dreaming of the ocean waiting for the day                           When he could Shredded Wheat and fly away again                                             Fly away skyline pigeon fly towards the things you left so very far behind

Shredded Wheat released us from the Shadow Dressed in Gloom turning from Purple to Grey.  And we couldn’t release the scurrilous satirical version lustily in full public view and hearing of Mother because the song, as has been mentioned already, was Sacred.  It was about her broken heart.  Don’t Laugh.  We found it desperately sad of course, but we didn’t really know it at the time.  Consciously.   It didn’t make us cry at least.  Mum would grab a box of tissues.  Now I find it unbearably moving.

Projects a Skyline Pigeon was actually ” For just a Skyline Pigeon

Ocean was “Open

Shredded Wheat was ‘spread his wings‘, of course.  It fit perfectly.

The other song – I’ve just recalled – that was an eggshell song was Freda Payne‘s number one hit single Band Of Gold which I absolutely adored at the newly-sentient age of 13 in 1970 – “Mum, mum, I love this one”  I may have bought it – or did she??  And when I played it one day she snapped – “How do you think it makes me feel ?”  I was like – er – band of gold – wedding ring – divorce – oh yeah !  Sorry Mum !!

I’ve been about that sensitive ever since I reckon.

       Just let me wake up in the morning to the smell of new-mown hay                           To laugh and cry through the night at the brightness of my day                                   I long to hear the pealing bells of distant churches ring                                           But most of all please free me from this breaking echoing

I was never sure about that last line.  I’ll come back to that.  The first three lines of verse two though described our little Sussex village – Stephen Criddle and I used to help the farmer baling at harvest time and we actually would wake up to the smell of new-mown hay,  it’s a good smell.  We did live opposite a farm with all the smells one associates with that countryside feature.    The second line is completely wrong but that’s what I always sang.  Kind of perfectly balanced crying and brightness – I wasn’t always sad, or happy, I was both.  We were a few hundred yards down the lane from the church which stood opposite the vicarage where we were allowed to play croquet now and again.  Tutored in the ways of righteousness.  Stephen and I (or was it David Bristow??) cleaned off loads of gravestones one summer around this time, sat on the grass and scraped off the moss (but a few of the verses, well it got me quite cross…).  Righteous.  But the last line was a bit more Freda Payne in the end – aching metal ring – not breaking echoing.    That was me – once again – personalising the song to mine own experience.  I had trouble going to sleep, saw shapes, heard breaking echoing.  Not every night.  And Shredded Wheat always sorted everything out in the morning with cold milk and a bit of sugar.  And a nice cup of tea.  I like a nice cup of tea in the morning, and a nice cup of tea for my tea.  I could do with a D.  Tetleys Make Tea Bags Make Tea.  Brooke Bond.  PG Tips.  Little picture cards,  traded at school, books with the complete set glued in with Uhu.  Trees Of Britain. Flags.  Butterflies of the World.

Eventually Mum couldn’t stand listening to the song so it stood in the singles rack in its sky blue and white paper sleeve and remained unplayed, long after we all moved out, and Rebecca was born, grew up and moved out, and there it still was, Skyline Pigeon, unplayed and living on in all of our minds as breaking echoing… Perhaps we played it once or twice but I always remember it being a mistake, unless Mum was in a particularly good frame of mind which was Rare.   And so rarely played.  One day I was helping Mum to move from Polegate to a house in Willingdon where she would live on her own after the third and final marriage broke down and a third and final divorce was agreed, amicably and with great dignity on the part of Alan, who’d become Becky’s dad.   Mum didn’t want anything from her past when she moved,  was throwing stuff out with abandon, pictures, books, all kinds of stuff had been lost already in the last hallucination, god knows what had gone into the dustbin so I retrieved some amazing black and white pictures and a handful of 45rpm singles, including this one.  It is warped and full of scratch hiss rasp and breaking echoing.  But I have it.

Pam & Reg, unknown, Bob & Jessie, my dad & Mum standing, his parents sitting 1965? Paul and I may be the two boys at the front…

As the years went by I searched for Guy Darrell.  No news.  One song – I’ve Been Hurt, which was a northern soul hit.  The only copy of Skyline Pigeon I owned for ages was by the fella who wrote it – Elton John, with lyrics and spreaded wings by Bernie Taupin.  It appeared as a strange harpsichord crystalline version on Elton’s first LP which came out the following year 1969.  Nobody bought it of course.  Nobody heard Elton John (knowingly) until 1970 when he released Your Song : “…it’s a little bit funny this feeling inside…“.  Later we all discovered he’d been voicing those Top Of The Pops albums with covers of the top 30, later still I would hear his ‘version’ of Skyline Pigeon, released as a piano solo version on an album of Elton Rarities in 1992, even later I would find him singing it in Rio, just like Guy Darrell did in 1968, the way it should be sung in my humble onion.  He didn’t sing the words right though.   The last line Elton sings “Open up this cage towards the sun“.    It’s pretty good Bernie, pretty good.  But from the age of eleven I always sang

Open up this face towards the sun

Guy Darrell has just had a retrospective released on CD last week which kind of prompted this post but I haven’t received it yet.  So I’ll leave you with a couple of Elton John performances and when the CD arrives I’ll post the track on Youtube, then on here. TTFN.

Elton John live in Edinburgh 1976 :

Elton John live in Rio 2015 :

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My Pop Life #180 : Boya Ye – M’bilia Bel

Boya Ye   –   M’bilia Bel

liputa nyonso epasuki eeh

I bought this beauty as a 12″ single in 1986 at Stern’s African Music Shop in Whitfield St W1, just north of Fitzroy Square, and just below Samuel French’s Theatre Bookshop on the corner of Warren St.  Opposite Stern’s was the Diwan-E-Khas restaurant which served the finest North Indian food in London back in the 80s, alongside their sister restaurant the Diwan-E-Am in Drummond Street, behind Euston about half a mile away.  (see My Pop Life #136 )
The counter at Sterns Records in the mid-80s
You can just about see a record by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on that picture in the corner (top left).  They also stocked zouk and calypso from the Caribbean and other bits and pieces.  The shop had opened in 1983 with a little ceremony on the pavement involving drums and blessings.  The vibe in the shop was outstanding, and so was the selection of music.  The first time -or apparently the 2nd (Fela Kuti !) –  I went in there was to find the Franco & TPOK Jazz LP ’20eme Anniversaire’ which I’d heard whilst buying weed in Islington one night and had my little musical ears blown off  (See My Pop Life #38 )  Since that auspicious purchase I had returned for further Congolese magic : Pablo Lubadika Porthos, Tout Choc, Zaiko Langa Langa, more Franco, always more Franco, Papa Wemba, a wonderful Gabonese singer called Regine Feline and this wonderful single from M’bilia Bel fronting Franco’s rival camp of Tabu Ley.  The now-familiar cascade of overlapping guitar cadences and rumba polyrhythms led by a simply joyous lead vocalist who had been discovered singing with Sam Mangwana by bandleader Tabu Ley Rochereau, who along with Franco was one of the giants of Congolese music.
Tabu Ley Rochereau
He’d written a song for her Eswi Yo Wapi, recorded it with his mighty band Orchestre Afrisa International, it became a smash hit, they’d got married and her next dozen singles dominated the musical and dance landscape not just of the Congo, but the whole of Africa for the next 10+ years, and loosened Franco’s grip on the musical landscape.  She was hugely popular.
This album – released on the Sterns label – documents these years superbly : they are all classic african pop/dance tunes that the rest of Africa calls “DRC Music” – dance music from the Democratic Republic of Congo.   Which is almost funny because Congo hasn’t been democratic since Patrice Lumumba the first president after independence was arrested, tortured and killed by a combination of familiar forces (MI6, CIA, Belgian troops) in 1961.    Without going into detail, the history of Congo since then has been one of corruption and arms-length control by foreign companies who have stripped the nation of its huge mineral wealth – particularly the southern state of Katanga which produces cobalt, tin, copper, uranium and diamonds, and where Lumumba was executed after 84 days in office.   Torn apart by war and conflict, other states have become involved especially in the eastern provinces alongside Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, with different forces representing somewhat shadowy interests fighting the Congolese Army and each other, including smaller private groups such as The Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda all crossing the border with impunity, terrorising the locals and raping the women as a weapon and tactic of war.
The prize is coltan, from which is extracted tantalum, used in most electronic components and devices including mobile phones.  During the war with Rwanda in the 1990s, Rwanda became a leading exporter of coltan, stolen from mines in Eastern Congo.  Competing militias funded their operations with this prized mineral, and who knows who took what percentage to turn a blind eye to the rape both of the land and the people.
Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer of Ruined in 2010
In 2009 Jenny was offered the lead in a play set in this part of the world : Lynn Nottage‘s Ruined, at the Almeida Theatre.  The play is set in a brothel in the war-zone near Goma, in the Eastern Congo.  This establishment is run by Mama Nadi, a fierce madam who takes in “ruined” local women to service the various militias who come through the territory. It is an extraordinary play which won the Pulitzer Prize for Lynn just before rehearsal started.
Indhu Rubasingham in rehearsal for Ruined at The Almeida
The director was Indhu Rubasingham who had already directed Jenny in Lynn’s earlier work Fabulation at The Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn in 2005/6.  So the team were reunited and set to work on this dynamic story, by turns dramatic, raw, amusing, tragic and inspiring.  It bears witness to some of the worst crimes in modern history and a series of stories buried, where women’s bodies mirror the nation they stand in, ravaged, fought over, ruined.   Mama Nadi was an extraordinary part for Jenny and she ate it up with great relish, much pain, and real commitment.  At some point before they started I remembered M’bilia Bel the great Kinshasa diva and dug out the 12″ single to play for Jenny.
By now we we on The Internet and there was footage of the singer we could watch – brilliant footage of her dressed to kill, dancing to seduce and singing to raise a revolution.   Jenny didn’t base her performance on the singer by any means but it was a window into a Congolese world of women and a certain tough independent proud defiance came through very strongly.    I made a CD of Congolese music for Indhu too – Franco & Tabu Ley of course, Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa Wemba and Werrason bringing us up to date, a wonderful sweep of sounds from Kinshasa.
The night before first preview in Islington the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull which had been simmering since late 2009 suddenly erupted with a vengeance and left a gigantic ash cloud sitting over the Atlantic Ocean & Europe, grounding thousands of planes and preventing Lynn’s husband Tony from flying in for the show.  The cloud hung for about a week and prevented Lynn from going home to New York a few days later.  It was all rather dramatic.
Jenny didn’t tell me anything about the play because she wanted me to experience it live on the night when I saw it for the first time.  This is usually the case when I see her productions.  I end up seeing them multiple times – between 5 & 10 normally, so the effect only works once.   It’s worth it though.  The 15th April 2010 was the first preview and when I entered the auditorium was thrilled to find it converted into an equatorial rainforest with a wooden-slatted speakeasy on a revolve nestled at it’s heart, presided over by an immensely powerful performance by Jenny as Mama Nadi, nurturing her girls, workers, prostitutes who’d been abused and raped and could no longer find a man to accept them;  serving soldiers who would sweep in and dominate the space, but need drink and music and dance in this unstable & constantly shifting war-zone.
Mama Nadi
An outstanding piece of writing, inspired somewhat by Mother Courage, but shining light on a hidden part of the world which we use- at arm’s length – without thought.  Brilliant and moving performances from Michelle Asante, Pippa Bennett-Warner and Kehinde Fadipe as the ruined girls living a nightmare as survivors gave voice to Lynn Nottage’s rarely-heard-from female characters, while Steve Toussaint, Lucien Msamati, David Ajala and Silas Carson portrayed the soldiers, the travelling merchant and the gem-smuggler.  The music  was played by Joseph Roberts and Akintaye Akinbode and written by Dominic Kanza and it provided a stripped-down yet infectious rumba soundtrack for the girls to dance to, either with a soldier who has been forced to leave his gun at the door, or with each other.
The title was explained early on : when a girl is raped with a bayonet, she is no longer capable of giving birth, and thus is “ruined”.
By the end of the show and Jenny’s last moments with Lucien I was in bits and had to leave the theatre and weep quietly on my own for fifteen minutes before re-entering the bar and the space and find familiar friends to congratulate and hug.  I was actually devastated.
It was a huge, magnificent performance and it changed both of our lives.  Some months later, Jenny won the Critic’s Circle Award as best actress, voted on by the nations theatre critics  – a massive acknowledgement of her achievement.  David Suchet won best actor and they were pictured together – we’d all worked together on NCS Manhunt in 2001.   A year later Jenny was cast to play Mama Nadi again, this time at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. in a production directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.  We later learned that Lynn had suggested Jenny for the lead.    Again it was a stunning production.
Now we live in Brooklyn where I eventually met Lynn’s husband Tony Gerber – a director – at dinner one night and we have become fast friends here.   Tony has been back to the Congo recently to make another documentary about the militias and although things have calmed down considerably it is still an unstable area.    And Lynn went back too.  After researching the play there she returned to see a five-hour production of Ruined in Kinshasa in 2011 which tested her artistic generosity since they had added great chunks of dialogue along with the inevitable 10-minute musical interludes.
I’ve still never been there, and it is a huge longing of mine, mainly for the music, but also for the great River Congo.   Franco died long ago, Tabu Ley in 2013 but M’bilia Bel is still going, although is based, like many successful African musicians, in Paris.  The younger generation are now sampling the golden age of soukous for hip hop tracks, rapping in the local language Lingala.  Despite a few attempts online I still cannot understand it so I can’t tell you what Boya Ye is about I’m afraid.
A few short weeks after Ruined closed (in triumph!) in London, Jenny and I flew down to South Africa for the first World Cup to take place on that continent.   One of my early memories of Cape Town was sitting in a taxi listening to some music pumping out of the speakers and asking the driver who was playing.  “DRC Music” he’d said.  On my birthday in Greenpoint Stadium England were once again a huge disappointment of course drawing 0-0 with Algeria.  We went on to Fatboy Slim’s party in town and celebrated just being there with Billy The Bee and others, but the World Cup isn’t about England.   It was moving and instructive to see how as the African teams got knocked out one by one – the host nation first ! until only Ghana were left, the fans coalesced around the Ghanaians, the whole continent willing them on to the infamous quarter final game in Soweto.   A sense of unity, unforced, non-tribal, celebratory.   The reason why we’d come.

My Pop Life #160 : River Deep, Mountain High – Ike & Tina Turner

River Deep, Mountain High   –   Ike & Tina Turner

Well I’m gonna be as faithful as that puppy, no I’ll never let you down

June 18th 1966 I was 9 years old.  Mum had walked out of Hellingly Hospital but on the advice of Dr Maggs had volunteered to go back for a short while.  When she finally returned home, she’d been away for nine months.  I was happy when she came home.  Her mum, my nan, had been helping Dad to run the house, and us.  Andrew had been in Portsmouth, still a baby, but by now he was walking and talking.  A little boy.  Paul and I shared a bedroom and we talked after the lights went out.  The staircase went up and then forked right and left, we were on the left and Mum and Dad were on the right.  The cat used to have its kittens on top of the wardrobe in Mum’s bedroom.   At the halfway point of the staircase I could sit and listen to my parents arguing.  Sometimes I was already downstairs when they started fighting, and Mum had a technique.  She went for Dad’s glasses.  That was that – pretty much – he’s blind without them.    Bt if I was upstairs when the fight started, Paul and I might walk down the four steps to the mini-landing.  Down the stairs we could see a french window onto the back garden. To the right was the door to the living room with the record player and the table where we ate.  The TV was in the front room. Rationed.  A dog, and a cat would be somewhere around.  Bookcases.  And, right now, my mum and my dad were having a high-decibel screaming match.  Or rather my mum was.  Dad’s parries were usually low-key, murmured dissents, accusing my mum of stupidity.  Since he had gone to Cambridge and she’d left school at 15, this was something of a blue-touchpaper-lighting moment on his part :  fireworks guaranteed : If she was stupid, what did that make him ?  An utter imbecile for using the taboo words, for climbing onto an intellectual ledge of education he had climbed alone and casting rocks and stones down into the newly-despised slough of ignorance from whence he had climbed !   His mother was proper working class, and his dad too.  John was the only one of his family (he had four older sisters) to go to Grammar School, and then the only one to stay on, then take Cambridge Entrance Exam and go up to Downing College in 1955.  Totally intrepid, there were two other working class boys in his year, one from Yorkshire, one from the midlands.  A fish out of water.  People talked down to him, for the first time in his life he wasn’t the best.  He was the lowest of the low amongst the Etonians, Winchester boys, Harrow snobs, privately-schooled little empire-builders.  At the end of that first year, he’d gone back to Portsmouth and married Heather, and together they’d embarked on his 2nd year at Downing.  I was born some 9 months later, in Cambridge.

But intellectual intelligence is probably less than 20% of the story.  Maybe a little more, but not much.  Emotional intelligence, which boys have less of, is a little more precious, certainly to me.  Then – no.  I had no idea.  Maybe younger lads have more emotional intelligence, but evidence points to the opposite.  They’re into riding bikes, collecting bird’s eggs, fishing for frogspawn and fighting with David Bristow.  Collecting comics and not washing properly.  Doing stupid things.  Anyway – I’m wandering.  This particular half-formed 9-year old was sitting listening to an offstage fight between mum and dad from the T-bone of the staircase.  Paul had joined me.  I don’t think we were that interested in what they were actually saying, but I think we needed to go downstairs.  So we stopped, slightly guiltily because it meant we were now eavesdropping.  I can’t remember a word of it, I never was much cop at lyrics, but the music I can recall, because both of them have spoken to me in a similar key, before and since.

But just then a jar of marmalade flew horizontally through the barely-visible doorway downstairs and smashed violently against the wall below me.  Orange jelly, glass and peel started to slide down the wall.  It was a stunning moment.  The pitch of the argument went up, then became teary and finally included moments of some silence.

Did Paul and I then walk down the stairs and out into the garden leaving them far far behind ?  Out to the village with it’s curious green paths that ran everywhere, along the roadside, into the fields, down to the sand-pit and far away.

Or did we tiptoe back upstairs and read comics ?

It was so intense that the rest is blank.  Either, both.  Perhaps we went downstairs and saw that Mum had Dad’s glasses in her hand, and he was demanding their return.  But now I feel that they were actually arguing about getting divorced, because Dad, as Paul once said many years later, “had a roving eye” and he’d been taking the piss for years, later confided to me in far too much detail by Mum.  They were divorced later that year and he moved out.  I used to remember it as the other way round.  That they had a fight, then divorced, then Mum went into hospital.  Linear.  Blame.  Made sense as a memory.  But maybe when I was in my thirties I suddenly realised that Dad looked after us with Nan for 9 months, and was still there when she came out.  But maybe that was when the eye roved.  Can’t say I even knew what that meant then.  But somewhere over that murky summer, I pedalled furiously along country lanes with Stephen Criddle even beyond the railway line, to Chalvington and Ripe.   And swung on a black bent tractor tire over a pond with Martin Coleman and his dog Boffin.  And on the radio, there it was, amongst the Paperback Writer, Sunny Afternoon, Sloop John B, Strangers In The Night and Sweet Talking Guy, this monster single which appeared to be made of something else entirely.

I think it was.  Truly.  In early 1966 when River Deep, Mountain High was recorded, it cost over $20,000 to make, unheard of at that time.  But let’s re-wind a little.  The second married couple in this story, Ike & Tina Turner were married in in Tijuana in 1962, but are now almost impossible to think about without Angela Bassett‘s glorious performance in What’s Love Got To Do With It?  immediately filling the frame as Lawrence Fishburne glowers behind her.  Domestic violence poster children all grown up.  But there’s more to Ike Turner than wife-beater.  Rocket 88, recorded in 1951 with  Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, is considered by many to be the first rock’n’roll single ever recorded.    Who cares right ?   Their tempestuous marriage lasted until 1976 when Ike cocaine habit was so out-of-control that he had burned a hole in his nose and would get regular nosebleeds.  She escaped and never looked back.  But amongst the violence and drugs, they had made some great music together.   Tina’s original name was Anna Mae Bullock, and she dated the saxophone player of Ike’s band The Kings of Rhythm in St Louis, Missouri before singing one song at one show.  The rest is herstory.  Tina Turner has one of the most soulful soul voices of any era.   The first single for Ike & Tina Turner was A Fool For You was on Sue Records, but by 1964 Ike Turner had sacked them and was prowling around the record business looking for a pop hit.  Ike & Tina Turner had been touring the southern soul circuit for hundreds of days per year, and had produced a series of great LPs, and great singles, all of which would be dwarfed by this cavernous, gothic piece of work.  Ike signed up with Warner Brothers where he met Bob Krasnow who would start to manage the husband and wife team and introduced them to Phil Spector.

Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry in 1964

Our third married couple, Ellie Greenwich and her husband Jeff Barry were New York songwriters who married in late 1962 and then decided to exclusively write together from that moment, upsetting previous songwriting partnerships.  But three years later they’d composed Be My Baby & I Can Hear Music for The Ronettes, Da Doo Ron Ron for The Crystals (see My Pop Life #),  The Dixie Cups’ huge hit Chapel Of Love and The Shangri-Las’ mighty single Leader Of The Pack.   

Quite a cv.  All of the above (bar Leader Of The Pack produced in New York by George Morton) were produced by Phil Spector in Los Angeles, and he always had a cut on the publishing too.  Greenwich, Barry, Spector became a badge of a hit record.  But in late 1965 control-freak Spector hadn’t had a hit record for a whole year.  He paid Ike Turner $20,000 to stay away from the sessions, and recorded with the Wrecking Crew whose members Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco and many many others had already sat in on many of the big songs of the decade, often on Spector’s signature wall-of-sound productions.  You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. Mr Tambourine Man.  I Got You Babe.  As well as all those with The Ronettes and The Crystals.  This though was to be Spector’s biggest production to date.

Tina, Phil, Ike, Goldstar, 1965

Late ’65 they were all in Gold Star Studios at Santa Monica & Vine, running through the chord changes and orchestrations.  Days and days later they were still recording.  Tina was down to her bra, scorching hot and howling into the microphone one of the great vocal performances in all music.    The final peak at 3 minutes is unmatched in pop I would suggest.   A genuine tingle every time I hear it.  It certainly isn’t matched by the combined force of The Four Tops & The Supremes in a 1971 cover which only takes off on the bridge section.  Diana is game, Levi Stubbs is is too polite on his puppy verse, but that was Motown right there.  Aimed at the white audience, so more polite, less gutsy and raw, more pop, less black.    A bigger hit than Spector’s I’m guessing, in America, although Tina’s is now considered one of the pinnacles of pop history.  Les black ?  Weird to think of it like that, perhaps that’s a racist construction but in any event, the gospel element is often subsumed in Motown records, less so at Stax, Specialty, Sue, Atlantic or other soul labels.  But whatever is pop and whatever is soul, greatness is greatness, and all of the acts mentioned above are truly great.   Tina Turner didn’t sing Remember Me after all.   But Spector reckoned River Deep, Mountain High was his greatest moment.  So did George Harrison among others.

Tina Turner & Phil Spector at Goldstar, late 1965

Extraordinarily, River Deep, Mountain High was not a hit in the USA at all, either on the pop charts or the R’n’B charts, and opinions ranged from “too white for the black chart” to “too black for the pop chart“, and Spector retired in disgust, remarking later that he understood famous American traitor Benedict Arnold which told us a) how very hard he took the record’s failure, and b) how bonkers he was.   He didn’t work until 1970 when John Lennon and George Harrison gave him the Twickenham Sessions and he went away and made Let It Be, later producing many of the pair’s solo records in the 1970s.

However, River Deep, Mountain High was a chart hit in England in July 1966.  At some point that summer England won the World Cup.  I know because I was in the village shop and the shopkeeper smiled at me.  “England won The World Cup” he said.  I was so happy.  Even though we hadn’t watched it.  I didn’t really know what it meant to be honest.  Perhaps that means that my dad wasn’t at home then and had already left.   Funny things memories.  Intense though.

full song –

the original promo with Ike singing along, which he doesn’t :

My Pop Life #138 : Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker) – Parliament

My Pop Life #137 :  Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)  –   Parliament

we gotta turn this mother out….

…Owww…we want the funk, gotta have that funk…

My brother Andrew was born in Mum and Dad’s upstairs bedroom on May 6th 1964.  Mum wondered afterwards if she’d been given too much gas, but Andrew was a perfectly healthy bonny boy.   One year later Mum was in Hellingly suffering a severe mental breakdown.  She was there for nine months all told.  (Discussed in My Pop Life #55).  Within a year after coming out of hospital she and dad had divorced on the advice of her doctor.   It was a turbulent start to my brother’s life.  Mum’s second marriage in 1969 and 2nd divorce in 1972 happened before he was 10 years old.  Middle brother Paul and I were only 2 years apart, and we shared a bedroom, it was always RALPH, PAUL………..(and Andrew).  In that order.  Always.  We joked about it.  We still do.  I’m sure growing up with two parental divorces, numerous maternal hospitalisations for mental illness and two older brothers who didn’t include you much was traumatic and scarring.   But Andrew has turned out all right, when he lifts his head from the bellybutton of self-pity which we all get tempted by in our family, Rebecca excepted.  Rebecca is the youngest, our sister.  Resilient as fuck.  But we all are in our way.  None of us went to prison, got addicted to drugs, vote Conservative.  Dysfunctional childhood sure, but who didn’t ?

the great George Clinton 

Andrew suffered my 1970s taste as he grew, before he could afford to buy music, he had to listen to ours, being forced to consume the likes of Gentle Giant, Osibisa, Jimi Hendrix, The Sweet and The Moody Blues alongside Mum’s pop genius – Motown, Joe South, Johnny Nash and Hurricane Smith and Paul’s adoption of Bowie & Roxy while getting more into disco as the decade advanced and he moved out to Eastbourne:  Barry White.  Chic.  Candi Staton.  Andrew had a lot to choose from, plus we all watched TOTP together for years, and religiously tuned into the Top 40 Countdown on a Sunday afternoon, almost always presented by Alan Freeman.  I think initially he drifted towards prog rock.

Andrew went to school in Hailsham but was so many years below Paul that seeing his older brother crossing the playground in 4-inch stack heels and red flares with his friend Vince was probably like spotting a badger at dusk.  I was 25 miles away in Lewes.  I’ve become closer to Andrew as we’ve got older, as the age difference narrows as it must, now we’re both in our 50s it seems foolish for him to still look up to me, but he does.  We’re just not on equal footing.  So he asks questions, and I answer them in an irritable voice.

When Andrew was young, in Selmeston village in the 1960s, we enjoyed watching him learn how to talk.  Sugar was “oog“.  Yellow Submarine was “Mam Mamfreen“.  And Andrew, his own name, was “Godrib“.    That was so biblical and semi-satanic that it stuck, we have called him it for years, and then Andrew himself adopted the moniker so that now he often signs off emails and letters as Godrib.   Thus early scars become tattoos.  Perfectly normal.

At some possibly pre-ordained point in the 1980s when Andrew was studying either in Anglesey where he read Ecology or perhaps in Bristol where he and Debbie settled post-education he got seriously involved with The Funk.  This moment combined with Andrew picking up a bass guitar and deciding that it was his instrument.  And the deadly combination of The Funk and The Bass Guitar could only mean One Thing.

Bootsy Collins.

Bootsy Collins, a native of Cincinatti, Ohio, has been playing music since the 1950s.  His funk band The Pacemakers, which included his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins, Phillipé Wynne and Frankie Waddy, joined James Brown in 1969 after Brown had sacked his entire band.  In 1970 they played on Sex Machine, Superbad, Soul Power and über-sampled The Grunt (as The J.B.s) before they too parted ways with the exacting Mr Brown, and thereupon moved to Detroit in 1972 to join forces with the genius of George Clinton and Parliament, who’d released one record at that point, called Osmium.  It was a match made in heaven, and together Collins and Clinton with their outstanding band of funkateers re-invented funk music using science fiction, LSD and fake fur.

Parliament/Funkadelic early 70s looking normal

Parliament/Funkadelic mid-70s looking trippy

There followed a string of outlandish and brilliant funk records where Clinton placed the black man (and woman) in situations where they would not normally be found, notably science fiction.  When Parliament and their sister band the rockier Funkadelic toured, their stage show was a massive supersized spaceship, The Mothership, and the psychedelic clothes, make-up and drug intake was almost unique in black musical culture. Perhaps Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone got there first, and perhaps Rahsaan Roland Kirk got there before them…but this band were like no other before them to be honest.  A little bit of ELO, a touch of The Tubes, some Hendrix, but no one had done theatricality and funk music quite like this before or since.  Genesis had their moments when Gabriel was the lead singer, and The Tubes were pretty astounding too.  Most bands just stand there and play though don’t they ?  Parliament looked like they were having a whole load of fun onstage and the crowds loved them for it.

George Clinton steps out of the Mothership

I was lucky enough to see this show at Hammersmith Odeon in December 1978 in my 3rd year at LSE, when a bunch of us got heavily stoned jumped on the Piccadilly Line and became One Nation Under A Groove.  It was an amazing show.   But after that night I really didn’t keep up with the groove I have to admit.  Or the funk.  I was very much post punk/two tone around then, with an interest in reggae and pop, and George Clinton & Bootsy Collins faded from my radar.  In this sense I have to hold my hands up – both my younger brothers are groovier than I.   Paul was by now deep into disco, and Andrew was following Bootsy and George.

It was around this point that Collins created Bootsy’s Rubber Band, releasing albums alongside the continued Parliament/Funkadelic LPs, some claim them to be the funkiest records ever released.  Andrew would be among these disciples.  Andrew has always been attracted to ‘difficult’ music – difficult to play at least – including Bill Bruford, King Crimson, Herbie Hancock, Delius, Messiaen and yes, Van der Graaf, and I’m guessing that he tried to play some of these, including Bootsy Collins on his bass guitar.  Funk might be simple, but making it sound funky sure ain’t.

Bootsy’s star-spangled bass guitar

Andrew next travelled to the Colombian and Peruvian rainforests for ecology work then split with Debbie, moved to London and met Katie at Middlesex College.  They had a beautiful baby boy called Alexander together in Enfield around the turn of the century and we have a photo of Andrew throwing his two-week-old son into the air.  They moved to Bournemouth together to make house, and ever since his birth my nephew has been affectionately known as Bootsy.  Even at primary school he was called Bootsy.  We call him Bootsy too, but when secondary school started a few years ago there was a general feeling that Alex would be the preferred name.  Alex is a fantastic bright and funny cricket mad young man who has carried on the family tradition of rapping, loves his video games and sees Andrew his dad on weekends and holidays since Katie and Andrew separated.  Having a teenage son has kept Andrew in Bournemouth, an honourable decision for a father.  Paul and I have no children, and Rebecca has three.  Whenever Andrew whinges about wasting his life, wishing he’d done this or that, wondering what to do for a career, I remind him that he has created and nurtured this child.  Alex.  Bootsy.

Bootsy’s Rubber Band 2nd LP 

In actual fact Andrew has links with many of Dorset’s wildlife projects, helps on the heathlands, is a trained bat-spotter, and runs the dragonfly society and website of Dorset from his flat.  It’s a terribly competitive world to get paid work in, but it gives him real pleasure, and again having grown up in a tiny Sussex village, we both share an affinity for the changing seasons and the local flora and fauna.  Bird-watching we both enjoy, and while my passion is butterflies, Andrew has adopted the dragonfly as his creature of excellence, and become an expert.

Bootsy Collins

Our musical tastes overlap slightly – we both adore Wagner, Debussy and Mahler, we are both capable of buying tickets to see Van Der Graaf Generator (see My Pop Life #85 ) when they occasionally play live and swooning over a track from Pawn Hearts being included in the set list, and we’re both inordinately fond of The Stylistics (see My Pop Life #70).  We both love Public Enemy and other early hip hop, and this love has passed to Alex who has grown up with rap as a natural form of communication.  And we both love this track, from Parliament’s 4th album Mothership Connection (1975) and the big hit that allowed them to play stadiums.  I’ve recently bought a load of Parliament albums (more of a soul vibe),  I prefer them to the harder rockier sound of Funkadelic, and today I downloaded the first three Bootsy’s Rubber Band albums in honour of my nephew Alex and his Dad.   They sound great.   Hopefully as I gently approach 60 years of age I can get a little funkier, a little more funktastic, perhaps a lot more funkadelic with a little help from Dr Funkenstein, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Andrew, my funk soul brother.

short hit single version :

P-Funk live 1976 at their interplanetary best :

My Pop Life #127 : He Who Would Valiant Be

To Be A Pilgrim

he who would valiant be ‘gainst all disaster

let hm in constancy follow the master

there’s no discouragement can make him once relent

his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim…

At some point in 1966 my mother was still in Hellingly Hospital near Herstmonceux in East Sussex, receiving ECG and taking various medications, mainly Largactyl.   She’d had a Nervous Breakdown.  She would be there for 9 months in all.  I wrote about this period in My Pop Life #55.  My dad was struggling to cope with three young sons and a full-time teaching job in Brighton and initially he’d been helped by our Nan, Ruby Laming who’d travelled up from Portsmouth and lived with us in the village.   Apart from missing Mum terribly our lives hadn’t changed all that much – we still walked up the road to the little village school, played football, fought in the playground, saved up for a packet of crisps and hid in the bales of the barn opposite our house.

Mum came home eventually 9 months later, but Dad moved out under a cloud pretty soon after that after being caught with the babysitter.  So then it was Mum and three boys.   These years blur and blend, but perhaps it was 1968 when she must have returned to hospital again.

And suddenly we were shipped out to Brighton – or at least Paul and I were.  Andrew was only 3 or 4 years old at this point and would have been transferred to Mum’s sister Valerie in Portsmouth.   Separated not for the first or the last time.   But at least we weren’t in care.   Being abused somewhere.   Lucky us.   I think Paul and I were 10 and 8 years old respectively.  It may be 9 and 7.  Someone may help me pin the year down.  It won’t make that much difference.

We were taken to a house in Lauriston Road where a colleague of my Dad’s lived with his family.  Phil was a teacher at Westlain Grammar too.  His wife Moyra also worked but I cannot remember her job.  They had two children called Ceri and Eleri – the daughter Eleri was one year older than Ceri.

Lauriston Road is opposite the top end of Preston Park in Brighton.    Us country boys from a small village with one shop were suitably gobsmacked by this development.  Just down Preston Road was the Rookery Rock Garden, right opposite the park and we explored that with delight.  Twisty paths, ponds with fish, rocks and overhanging trees, all built on a hillside between the main road north – the A23 and the railway line.  It has a slightly Japanese feel in design, and was built in 1935 using tons of imported Cheddar rock and stone.   It is still a delightful place to visit.  It was my first taste of Brighton.

We were all taken to their primary school the next morning, but Paul refused to go, hanging onto the baluster of the staircase and screaming his head off.  Moyra got quite upset with him – I imagine she was being made late for work, and there was nowhere else for us to be at that age.  Eventually his hands were prised free from the staircase and we were bundled into a Morris Traveller and taken to school.

Christian reads his Book :  William Blake

The school was terrifying of course.  We’d been used to a tiny classroom with a dozen kids, three or four of them my own age.   Now we were lined up at desks with 25-30 strange faces and a large female teacher whose name I have erased.  She read to us every day from a large book about a man called Christian and his journey across a strange forbidding landscape – the Hill Of Difficulty, the Valley of Humiliation and carrying this weight everywhere he went – a book.  When Christian was captured by The Giant Despair and imprisoned in his Doubting Castle I started freaking out.

The psycho-geography of Pilgrim’s Progress

Then I caught chicken pox.  Then Paul caught chicken pox.  Then Ceri caught chicken pox.  Then Eleri caught chicken pox.  That was the end of school !!  We were bedridden for at least a week, maybe more.  Phil would read us bedtime stories at night bless him.  In loco parentis.  We never really made friends with those kids and I don’t think we ever saw them again.  It was like an unearthly interlude with illness – and probably felt like chaos to my parents.

John Bunyan (detail) – painting by Thomas Sadler

Later I realised that the book that was being read aloud to us was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a christian allegory the first part of which was published in England in 1677 while Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching without a licence.   Perhaps it was an abridged version, or a child’s version we were listening to.  In any event the looming Celestial City and the Valley Of The Shadow Of Death both represented the same thing to me – horror.  I can’t ever remember enjoying Christian stories, whether Old Testament, New Testament or books like Pilgrim’s Progress.  They always felt slightly threatening.  Perhaps it was the context, or the character of the teller.

6th-former, Lewes Grammar 1964 by the Chapel

Later when I was at Grammar School in Lewes we sang in the School Chapel, the whole school assembled to stand in pews and hold hymnbooks and sing together.   Me in shorts, uniform, striped dark blue and light blue tie and cap.   And there was that word again, in a tune that filled my heart :  To Be A Pilgrim.  I never heard any version of this on record or anywhere else, my entire memory of it is as a hymn sung in a church.  Little did I know that the words of the hymn were taken from Bunyan’s book, slightly modified in 1906 by Percy Dearnal, and set to music in the same year by my namesake Ralph Vaughan Williams.   Later on Vaughan Williams would write an opera called Pilgrim’s Progress which premiered in 1951.

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

Young Ralph – he was 34 at the time – took the music from a Sussex folk song called Monk’s Gate, named after a village near Horsham, the tune being collected by a Mrs Harriet Verrall of that parish who was also responsible for the Sussex Carol.  The resulting tune and words are forever stirring and pleasing to mine ear, and do not remind me of the shadowy days listening to Pilgrim’s Progress in some strange forbidding grey school in Brighton.  I can pick up and discard these associations in my own time – luckily – for the hated Thatcher’s funeral also featured this very hymn.   In fact I’m quite fond of the word Pilgrim.  I like to set myself random tasks, usually psycho-geographical in nature, oft times muso-geographical, and then become a pilgrim for the length of a day, a week, a year.  An example is to be found at My Pop Life 16 when Jenny and I visited the Metropolitan Museum in 2014 seeking the paintings from Rufus Wainwright‘s The Art Teacher, or at My Pop Life #97 when I sought out the locations in Berlin that David Bowie references in “Where Are We Now?“.  In both instances I was a pilgrim.  There is a staggeringly good Van Der Graaf Generator song called Pilgrims which I am inordinately fond of.

And there is a Wishbone Ash LP called Pilgrimage which captured our teenage imagination at one point with its twin lead guitar attack and which I have not revisited this long century since.   But it means so much more than this.  Remember the Canterbury Tales?

The Hajj to Mecca ? The Pilgrimage Of Grace ?

Benares ?  

These mass movements of the devoted are peaceful in nature, the very opposite of a crusade.  And yet and yet.  I have to reject the religious way, the idea of such certainly being handed to me in a book, from a man, located in a place, a system of beliefs laid out for me.  The centre of the universe is surely everywhere as Sitting Bull once observed.

Pilgrims are focussed.  Single minded.  Valiant – possibly.   They seek, they search, they have a reason to go on.  Following a master ?  Don’t know about that.  It would certainly make it easier though wouldn’t it ?  Make it easier to be a pilgrim.

Maddy Prior who used to be in Steeleye Span :

My Pop Life #125 : Chickery Chick – Sammy Kaye

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Chickery Chick   –   Sammy Kaye Orchestra

“Chickery chick, cha-la, cha-la
Check-a-la romey in a banonika
Bollika, wollika, can’t you see
Chickery chick is me? “

My mother, Heather Ruby Laming, was born in June 1935 in Portsmouth to mother Ruby née Price and father Horace Laming.  Ruby had come down to Pompey from Abergavenny in her teens and worked ‘in service’ until the birth of my mum.  Below stairs in a rich families’ house in other words.  Something happened there that she almost told me once, then changed her mind.  I’d travelled down to Copnor in North Portsmouth in the 1980s to talk to her about her life.  My Nan would have been late 80s by then, still painting occasionally-interesting abstracts, still lives and strange scenes from road accidents or desolate sea shores.  The house was full of her paintings.  She appeared to be fond of me, regarding me with a tolerant, knowing chuckle as if I couldn’t put one over on her.  She came out with some odd things regarding my Mum – “Heather has always been difficult – she wouldn’t even take the nipple as a baby”.  

That’s a bit dark, I thought.

Her dad Fred Price was a lovely old geezer who used to write funny letters to my Mum when she married my Dad and moved away from Portsmouth, first to Cambridge, then to Sussex. “Winter – drawers – on” he wrote as we entered December.  Clever old stick.  Ruby would have us believe that she was the eternally long-suffering wife of a dreadful husband – Horace, and I wrote about the strange atmosphere pervading his funeral in the late 1960s in My Pop Life #49.

 Almost all of the stories I heard about my Nan were bad, and my own experience talking to her backed them up.  She favoured Mum’s sister, Aunty Valerie, deeply favoured her.   She used to drink heavily when Heather was growing up and going out with my Dad, and once or twice he intervened to stop Horace and Ruby coming to blows.  Or to stop Ruby beating on my Mum.  In any event it didn’t sound like the most closely-knit family.   I remember one Christmas round there when I was about five – where we had to behave.  Keep quiet.  Ssshhh.

Of course when Mum had her first nervous breakdown (that I was aware of) in 1965 (see My Pop Life #54), Nan came up from Portsmouth to look after us while Dad went to work teaching.  She must have lived with us in 2 Manor Cottages, Selmeston, for nine months, for that was how long Mum stayed in the hospital in the end.  The Mental Hospital it was called.  I can’t remember much about that period, having successfully wiped it out of my memory and grown up without its haunting disabilities at the front of my brain.  Buried so deep that it rots my soul from within.  But Nan must have been alternately strict and loving with us, me, Paul and Andrew.  Thinking about it, this was when Andrew was disappeared to Portsmouth to stay with Aunty Valerie and Uncle Keith, so Nan was only looking after Paul and I.  We shared a bedroom.  We talked before we fell asleep, after the light was turned off.  It kept us sane.  Kind of.

Later on, when Nan sold the house in Copnor and moved into a nursing home in Southsea, Mum travelled down to see the house for one last time.  the same one we’d gather in for Horace’s funeral, for Christmas, for strange visits which I dreaded.  When Mum got there the house was empty.  Literally.  No art.  No china.  No furniture.  “Oh“, she said to Ruby, “I thought I could have taken one thing to remember this house by, a saucer or a vase or something“.   Ruby then answered with one of her classics :  “I gave everything to the woman over the road.  She’s been like a daughter to me.” 

When my Mum told me this story I was horrified.  I said “You can’t go on taking this shit, it’s abusive, designed to hurt you.”  Nan was still alive, we were still visiting her in the nursing home.  She was in her 90s now.  “No,” said Mum, “I don’t want to upset her.”  I had another clue to the cause of the mental illnesses mum had been plagued with for what seemed like the bulk of her life.  Not to mention my own bipolarity.

Bollika Wollika.

My friend Richard went to see her one day with Paul and we had an interesting chat about it later.  He thought there was a possibility that she was a lesbian who’d never owned it, let alone come out.  Pretty charitable I thought.

*

This may well be the happiest memory I can retrieve of my Nan…and perhaps have been the first pop song I ever heard, although it would have been from my Mother’s lips.  She remembers it from World War Two when Ruby sang it to her, enjoying the nonsense words.  I remember Mum singing this all through the 1960s.  She actually sang “Wollika Wollika can’t you see” rather than the actual words “Bollika Wollika” which clearly don’t have the same connotation in America and which were carefully screened from our young English ears.   I never did know what she was talking about until one day looking through some old sheet music in a shop, I found this.

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So it had been a Number #1 hit song in the U.S. and in the charts for over 4 months, played by the Sammy Kaye Orchestra.  The odd words were written by Sylvia Dee, and the music by her regular songwriting partner Sidney Lippman.  Sammy Kaye had over 30 hit songs in the swing era, and six number ones.  “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye”offered the tag-line, and young Nancy Norman auditioned aged 16 and 4’11” high and got the job of female vocalist.  Her mother would chaperone her all over the United States to sing Chickery Chick.  The man’s voice is country singer Billy Wiliams.   Many other stars covered the song, including The Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Gene Krupa & Anita O’Day, and Evelyn Knight and The Jesters, which is my actual favourite.

The word banonika is still in use in our house here in Brooklyn.  It is used to denote a wrapping into which the special needs cat Roxy will position herself, enjoying the cosy created therein.

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Not a banonika

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Not a banonika, strictly speaking

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a carboard box I’d call that

When she is under the duvet or inside some clothing then :  “Are you in your banonika darling?”we will ask in slightly high-pitched voices as if talking to a child.  Which we are really.  A furry child substitute.  Maybe we should sing Chickery Chick to our cat.  I’m sure people have.

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Roxy and I agree that we have no banonika pictures

*

Sammy Kaye, featuring Nancy Norman & Billy Williams :

Evelyn Knight & The Jesters :

My Pop Life #124 : Beyond Belief – Elvis Costello

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Beyond Belief   –   Elvis Costello

…so in this almost-empty gin palace

through a two-way looking-glass, you see your Alice..

you know she has no sins for all your jeaousies

in a sense she still smiles, very sweetly…

I have been writing this musical patchwork quilt of a memoir for over a year now and somehow not mentioned Elvis Costello.  I hold his work in the very highest esteem, and have loyally bought his LPs as they are released, with The Attractions, or other collaborations :  singing country, classical, pop, jazz-stylings, americana or urbana, rock or baroque, rockabilly or punk, crooning or spitting.  His output is fecund, his quality high.  I really like most of it, dislike very little and absolutely love a great deal of his work.  I have seen him live at least thirteen times over the years, in Brighton, London, Santa Barbara and New York.  When I was younger and living in North London, my brother Andrew was at Middlesex College and going out with Debbie whom he’d known since school and who was at least as big an Elvis Costello fan as I – in fact we went to a few gigs together.  Debbie would always appear in the street afterwards, joining me having a fag, clutching a set-list which she’d snaffled for herself or from a kindly roadie.  I wonder if these treasures are stored somewhere?

It is now possible to access one’s live music memories via a website : setlist.org.  They don’t have the hand-scrawled mementos though.  I have quite a few set-lists myself from different eras, in particular the Brian Wilson band era of the early 21st century.  And then sometimes I lose interest in ephemera and just want the musical memories.  Unfortunately this approach has the downfall of being as ambiguous as your own memory.  Will you remember every song that you saw live?  Of course you bloody won’t !

It’s a damn shame, but I have had to face my fading life-story as I write it down, trying to pin wraiths up in a smoky room, nailing down wisps of certainty amidst clouds of doubt.  Others have helped – remembering things that have long gone, gigs, bands I’ve played in, moments, triumphs, disasters.  I try to treat these two imposters both the same of course, but I prefer the triumphs.  Just a little secret.  But in writing this series of blogs the disasters have often been better pieces of writing.  Perhaps each entry should contain healthy selections of both.

Last night I went to see Elvis Costello again, but this time he was in conversation with old friend Roseanne Cash, talking about his newly-published autobiography Unfaithful Music  & Disappearing Ink at BAM in Brooklyn.   His pop life in fact.  I’m half-way through reading the 700 pages as I write and it is a hugely enjoyable journey through his life and work, non-linear also, joining different moments together from different times, using music to trigger images, constantly relating asides about singers, songs, lyrics, musical pick-n-mix reminiscenses about listening to the radio, meeting your idols, playing Top of the Pops or playing a gig to three people and a dog.  His father is prominent, so is Liverpool, and there is a fine sense of musical history running throughout the narrative.  Costello comes across as an uber-fan as much as anything, his encyclopaedic knowledge of other people’s work is infectious and inspiring.  You can hear his appreciation in his songs, almost thirty years of quoting others among his own razor-sharp and original lyrics.

As a lyricist I don’t think Costello can be surpassed.  I would actually place him above Bob Dylan in that respect.  I remember when I was playing in Steven Berkoff’s “West” at the Donmar Warehouse in London over the summer of 1983, we would get rumours of “who was in tonight” trickling back to the dressing room.  One night fellow thespian Bruce Payne came into the brightly-lit mirrored space and slyly remarked that ‘the greatest living poet was in the audience tonight’.   My agent was a strange creature, and I was young and green, because I never did the requisite moving and shaking during this summer to increase my career prospects.  We had all kinds of people watching the show, I guess we were the hot ticket, but for me that was enough.  I’m not a natural hustler.  I just like doing the work.  Hustlers always do better, get further, climb higher.  It’s a natural fact of life.  It doesn’t mean that they’re less talented, although if you have small talent you clearly need to hustle, no, it just means they have that aspect of their personality to the front and centre.

I got to the theatre last-minute as ever.  It had been raining all day, and my friend Johanna and I had been out driving around looking at thrift shops in Brooklyn and Manhattan, we must have walked into at least ten that afternoon, and come home with two inappropriate tables, no teapots and a rather beautiful black piano in my sights.   Johanna reminded me to take my book as she dropped me home.  It was still raining as I stepped into the theater (sp) and bought a ticket.  No book thanks.  Got one.  And into the auditorium.

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BAM is a series of performance spaces including a cinema and a beautiful old opera house. We’d seen Youssou N’Dour there last year with the entire Senegalese population of New York City.  A film was playing as I walked in, a film of Allen Toussaint playing the piano, and Elvis Costello singing “The Greatest Love“.  One day earlier, Toussaint had died in Madrid aged just 77 as he toured Europe with his quintet.  A giant of New Orleans music as a session player, songwriter (Coalmine, Ride Your Pony, Fortune Teller, Southern Nights) and producer (The Meters, Labelle’s Lady Marmalade, Dr John etc) he and Elvis Costello collaborated on an LP together after playing benefit concerts for the Katrina tragedy which almost finished New Orleans.

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The River In Reverse is a wonderful record which was released in 2006 and is a fine chapter in both musician’s output.

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Declan McManus with a photo of his father, Ross McManus

Then Elvis and Roseanne Cash came onstage and spoke for about two hours about the autobiography which Elvis read some passages from, notably about – his own father’s death, seeing Desmond Dekker onstage miming his hit Israelites in 1975 (see My Pop Life #102 ) working with Allen Toussaint, songwriting, showbusiness and family, but mainly and always about music music music about which Elvis is an unending stream of knowledge and enthusiasm.  By way of illustration of his songwriting technique he picked up an acoustic guitar and gave us a rendition of Shipbuilding which he tied into a story about the evacuation of children to Canada during the 2nd World War, a ship leaving Liverpool without his mother on board which was sunk by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic, most of the children dying of hypothermia in the lifeboats after they had been picked up.  Diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls.   Then he played a brittle precise acoustic arrangement of one of the most exciting songs in his back catalogue, the song I’ve chosen to select from his vast library of evocations : Beyond Belief.

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Lyrically astounding and musically powerful, it opens the bejewelled and baroque collection of songs he entitled Imperial Bedroom.  The mighty fifth album.

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My previous favourite EC record – 1980’s ‘Get Happy‘ – was a stunning collection of songs all played in the style of Stax house band Booker T & the MGs with a bit of Muscle Shoals and Willie Mitchell thrown in for good measure – it was a mod album, white boys playing post-punk soul shapes with bitter intelligent lyrics.  Imperial Bedroom though was pure pop, horn sectioned, string-arranged, harmony-vocalised pop music and a mightily rich and ornate musical statement as you could find in 1982.  When it came out I was touring England in a Ford Transit van with socialist/feminist theatre group Moving Parts, acting and playing music in self-written pieces ‘with a discussion afterwards‘, changing the world one unemployment drop-in centre at a time.  We were in Scunthorpe, Nottingham, South Yorkshire, Leicester, Newcastle, London, up and down the M1.   We played songs in the style of Adam and The Ants & Madness, The Undertones & Dexys (see My Pop Life #25) while snotty-nosed kids threw polo mints at us because we’d shut down the pool table and assembled a wonky wooden set with crap PA and toy drum kit in the centre.  There was racism, threats and boredom, but there was also much fantastic connection, and every day was actually a thrill.

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top-right: Costello, clockwise : Pete Thomas, Bruce Thomas, Steve Nieve

When this LP Imperial Bedroom came out I think I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever heard.  The band were outstandingly good – Pete Thomas on the drum-kit had gone to my school but been slightly older and cooler than I, and has remained out of reach for the remainder of my life.  Bruce Thomas was on bass guitar with his high-fret jumping lines which elevate each turnaround, and Steve Nieve (a punk affectation but no more than “Elvis Costello“!!) played all the keyboards and arranged the orchestral parts – his contribution doing the most to place the LP in the category of adorned pop masterpieces where it happily sits to this day.

When you hear the songs that they recorded and rejected for the final cut – stuff like the brilliant ‘Heathen Town‘ and the title track – it is no surprise that there isn’t a bad track on the record.   “Just like the canals of Mars and the Great Barrier Reef, I come to you beyond belief”.  

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Elvis Costello & Roseane Cash: 10th November 2015

Roseanne and Elvis did a number together which I didn’t know called April 5th co-written by Kris Kristofferson, then it was over.  My hardback copy of the book was heavy in my black crombie pocket as I established that there would be no book signing in the foyer that night – all the onsale copies were already signed – but mine wasn’t so I sought out the Stage Door.  It was still raining and I went the long way around.  Eventually I was told to wait, and sure enough there was Caroline Clipboard from Artist’s Services asking for my name after I’d let her know that I wasn’t on the list.  I told her it.  Perhaps he’d know who I was.  Other guests were listed and went in.  A handful of hopefuls waited as people came and went.  Some gave up.  Caroline Clipboard kept appearing and she got progressively ruder each time she came down.  “He’s not doing any signings tonight” she said at one point, giving me what she thought was a withering look after I’d been waiting 25 minutes and the security guard had waved me away from the covered vestibule into the rain because I was smoking a cigarette.  Eventually everyone gave up and went into the rain.  I stayed.  Walking home would’ve felt bad at this point.  Miserable book-clutching rain-soaked twat approached in my imagination.  I felt like Billy Stage-Door, the middle-aged loser who wants a quick word with the object of his fandom.  And indeed I decided to inhabit this person.  It was just true.  I would just wait, and sooner or later he’d come out.  It was risky because he might’ve been even ruder than Clipboard Cow, and withered me with a proper withering look, and then I’d have been forced to hate him forever.  Yes, it was risky.  But I knew he wouldn’t.  And I knew he’d come out.

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And he did.  I said “Elvis,” and he turned and looked at me – a man who looked a little like him with the same jaunty hat and black-frame glasses approaching 60, and he said “Yes?“.  I said “They wouldn’t let me upstairs, so I waited down here.” He asked me who I was and I told him my name and said I was an actor.  He said “I’m sorry they didn’t let you upstairs” and I said that they were just doing their job.  I said I just wanted to say Thank You For The Music but I didn’t mention Abba.  He was charming and sweet.  We briefly discussed Withnail, The Crying Game and The Boat That Rocked (“there’s a better film to be made of that story“) then he signed my book, we shook hands and we parted company.  “See you further down the line” he said.  Funny that.  It’s something I say.  Still a hero.  Phew.

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I worked out that he’d probably seen me, on stage and in films, about the same number of times that I’d seen him over the 35 years or so of our careers.  About 13.  Doesn’t really matter.   I’d like to think though, that given time and space we’d get on.  We have mutual friends and acquaintances.  Alan Bleasdale.  Andrew Ranken.  Bound to be others.   But.  He hasn’t listened to any of my albums though.  I don’t have any albums.

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