My Pop Life #157 : By The Beautiful Blue Danube – Johann Strauss II

An der schönen blauen Donau   –   Johann Strauss II

I immediately smile when I hear the first few phrases of this and I don’t stop smiling until it’s finished.  What a truly tremendous piece of music.  Dance music, pop music, classical music, whatever.  Music.  It is a waltz, which means it is in 3/4 time.  When you play or dance a waltz you count 1,2,3 – 1,2,3.   Actually that’s the easy part.  As a self-taught pianist I’ve always struggled with beats in a bar.  Where’s the four ?? Anyway, you count 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3.  And don’t step on her toes.  Very important.

Der Donau near Vienna

The Danube is Europe’s 2nd-longest longest river (after the Volga in Russia) and runs from the Black Forest in Germany (where is is called der Donau) all the way through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary (called the Duna as it runs through Budapest rather beautifully), Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine where it deltas into the Black Sea.   It is (tragically today in late June 2016) the longest river in the EU.

Johann Strauss II

Johann Strauss II was Austrian and grew up by der schönen blauen Donau in Vienna. Photos of him suggest he was a biker, but this is a modern interposition because the motorbike had yet to be invented properly.   He also resemble a rocker, greased back hair and mutton chops.  He was clearly a dude.  He was as near as you got to a pop star for the 1850s/60s.   If you were a musician in the 19th Century you tended to gravitate to Vienna, much as New Orleans was a musical magnet in the first half of the 20th Century.

All of his family were musicians, and his father, Johann Strauss I,  was a popular composer and the leader of an orchestra.  Dad didn’t want number one son to become a musician and whipped him when he discovered the secret violin lessons he was taking (with a member of his own orchestra).  Undeterred, number one son eventually held his first concert for music he had written at Dommayer Casino in Vienna in 1844 after many other venues, fearful of Dad’s influence, shied away from hosting young Johann.  So enraged was Dad that he never played the Dommayer again.

                                                                                                       Johann Strauss I

In 1848 revolution swept through Europe and father and son found themselves on opposite sides of the struggle, father siding with the Habsburg Royal Family and writing his most famous piece the Radetsky March the same year  and son being arrested for playing the revolutionary anthem La Marseillaise in public.   The following year Strauss senior died and Johann the younger merged their two orchestras.  The waltz was then the most popular dance in Europe thanks to Johann Strauss I and his contemporary Joseph Lanner, and Johann Jr extended the form and took it into the stratosphere becoming probably the most successful composer of dance music in the 19th Century, touring Europe with his orchestra to great acclaim.  An Der Schönen Blauen Danube was written in 1866, and premiered in Vienna, Paris and New York in 1867.  It was a sensation.  It still is.  One of the world’s most popular pieces of music, but that’s never frightened me.  When I was younger I preferred the cool of undiscovered, unpopular music.  My ears led me here though.  Bless my ears.

I feel like this piece of music has been in my head forever.  I cannot remember when I purchased the vinyl LP, early 20s in London no doubt, but it was already familiar to me.  It is, it must be confessed, a tune.  The night I danced to it in ?1991? lingers lovingly in the memory since we had all been partying at the Archway Road flat since Saturday evening, and it was now Sunday morning.  The party was over but many people were still present, still drunk, still happy.  It was late summer I believe, Jenny and I had invited the gang round – why or who or what I cannot recall but  – among those present were : Jo Martin, Michael Rose, Roger Griffith, Jo Melville, Michael Buffong, Paulette, Beverley, Paul my brother, Colin, Michael too? Pedro ? Richard (Lady G?), Saffron Myers, Julian Danquah and….hmmm here it gets hazy.  If you were there please let me know !  In any event it was around five or six in the morning when we’d played all the Michael Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Marley, house music, Sly Stone and ska records in the collection and we needed a party closer.  I rustled around in the box and found the LP.

This is pre-CD by the way !   The response to those opening phrases was magical.  We each took a partner and waltzed gently around the front room, pretending we knew what we were doing, pretty sure I partnered with Saffron letting the alcohol lead our steps, slowly at first then with increasing vigour and abandon as the music swelled, swirling merrily around the carpet and onto the furniture, swapping partners, spinning, smiling, spinning.  We laughed we fell over we span and span around and around.  Exhilaration and satisfied exhaustion followed and we collapsed in a pile smiling.  Time for a coffee.   Happy days.  Happy happy music.

The piece is performed every New Year’s Day in Vienna by the Vienna Philharmonic  and beamed live around the world.   Here is the result from 2010.

and here is the wonderful Daniel Bahrenboim in 2014 :

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My Pop Life #129 : Get Close To Me – Thomas Jules

Get Close To Me   –   Thomas Jules

I hope you don’t mind I’m gonna speak my mind

Not good at sensitivity but I’m the sensitive kind

A bit A.D.D. don’t interrupt me and thank you so much

Don’t get me wrong I know you ain’t blind

Ain’t gonna patronise

but it’s my duty as a mate to make you draw the line

Now would you hear me like Oprah Winfrey or Jeremy Kyle ?

Just wanna make you smile…

 I’ve been watching over my nephew Thomas Jules since he was 7 years old or thereabouts.  I had just started going out with his Aunty Jenny and when I visited the family home in Wembley there was this cheeky bright-eyed sweetheart to greet me alongside Jen’s sisters Dee (his mother), Mollie, Natasha and Lucy and her brother Jon as well as her amazing parents Esther and Thomas.  A very close-knit loving family group – in great contrast to my dysfunctional scattered clan, they were welcoming and kind and polite and gentle.

confident Thomas aged 7  with friend Danny

And they still are.   Jenny and I used to look after Thomas particularly on summer holidays when we lived in Archway Road in the late 1980s/90s and he would visit Jackson’s Lane Summer School which was all singing, dancing, acting, performing – right up his street, and literally right up ours, about 400 yards in fact.   As the performing side of the family I’d like to think we gave him a little confidence and a few tricks to go with his natural talent and gifts, which are many and legion.  Of course Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (who sings with  Bryan Ferry, George Michael, Kylie and David Gilmour) represents the musical side of the family and has obviously had a huge influence on the young man both in terms of techniques, voice protection and business advice, along with Uncle Jon who has been a DJ since he was a teenager and was also in a band and who advised Tom in the early days.

Tom in 3rd Edge around 2002

Thomas was signed when he was 14 years old, had a hit single in 1997 with That Kinda Guy which was on the Bean film soundtrack, formed garage-rap-pop-boy-band 3rd Edge on Parlaphone around the millenium and had several hit singles and TOTP appearances from 2002-3 before breaking out to write and sing with a huge variety of singers and rappers in the noughties such as Wiley, Mystro, Shandra D, 2Play (another hit single with a cover of “Careless Whisper“) Mark Radford, Crookers and Scorcher;   singing back-up with diverse acts like Lulu and Professor Green before settling in as lead vocalist with UK Dance act Rudimental where he has been for over two years and where he still works.

 I’m happy to report that he has co-written a song on the new Rudimental LP We The Generation called Love Ain’t Just A Word, and has just had his latest co-write released : Do It Right by Anne-Marie – his co-singer in Rudimental and now signed to Black Butter for her first album.  Thomas has always worked hard at his craft both as a singer and top-line writer, and in a shark-infested industry has remained a decent guy who knows a lot of people, has good representation and has a lot of respect from his peers, who include Ed Sheeran, Disclosure, Jessie J, Wiley, Dizzee Rascal and many many others.

When Jenny and I moved down to Brighton in 1996/7 we knew no one in the town.  Shortly thereafter Jenny’s schoolfriend Millie moved down from London, then when Thomas outgrew his family home in Harlow we offered him a bedroom in our house.  He lived there for two years or so, met his girlfriend and babymother Scarlett on August 9th 2005 whereupon within a year she had moved in too.

 

Thomas and Scarlett

We were a happy house but eventually they wanted their own space and lived first in St George’s Road (down the hill), then Waterloo Street on the Hove border and now reside in Portslade with their gorgeous funny beautiful daughter Skye.

Skye Phoenix Jules-Pugh

I wrote about Thomas and I in My Pop Life #57 and explained that I am a 57 mystic or UNX.  In Loco Paternis.  We are close.   Whenever I see Tom the first thing he does is pull out a device and play me the new demo he’s just cut that day with so-and-so.  I love this part of the relationship.  In 2009 Tom decided to take a pass at a Robert Smith song called Close To Me which was a hit single for The Cure in 1985.  The resulting song, called Get Close To Me was a re-imagining – an r&b-flavoured pop/garage tune.  I was never a huge fan of the Cure but I like Tom’s playful intimacy in the verses, and hook-line for the chorus.  Tom’s then-manager Jake wanted a video to accompany it.  I volunteered to shoot it on my handy 3-chip DV Camera which was loaned out to almost every theatre company, band and political group in Brighton over the 18 years that I lived there.  We were on the beach, the pier, drove round the Downs, took the fabulous Staffordshire Terrier Cassie into a laundrette on St George’s Road, mucked about in the twittens in The Lanes and with the graff kids at Black Rock and the end result is the video you can see below.  Some local friends and fam sneak in towards the end – I’ll mention Kerry, Louie Cresswell, Maddy McNicholas, Tanisha Flynn-Pugh, Scarlett and probably her sister Simone but the others will have to shout out below because a) I can’t see them, b) I can’t remember, and c) the video is a wee bit downgraded.  It’s the best one I’ve got I’m afraid.   It’s very much Brighton 2009.  Good times.

Thomas ripping it up live with Rudimental

Not having children ourselves means that all of our nephews nieces and god-children (quite a few) and of course our cats(!) are all very special to us.  I have always felt that the very worst part of parenting a child must be that moment when she leaves home to make a new home.  And you are left waiting for phone calls, text messages and emails.  After 20 years or so of sharing space, opinions, jokes, food, and small talk suddenly there is silence.  I think it must be unbearable.  But everyone bears it.  It’s natural, apparently.  I’m not so sure.  I do know that moving to New York has had serious implications for my relationships with my little ones (most of whom are now grown up big people in their twenties).  They feel further away from me.  This means I am still in touch with reality because they actually are further away from me.  Geography, the most real of all.  This morning at 6am Jenny’s phone rang downstairs and to my inchoate sleeping anger she got up and went down the spiral stairs to answer it.  It was Thomas, on tour with Rudimental in Australia, wanting to talk to someone because Nanny Bet had her funeral yesterday in Great Yarmouth (see My Pop Life #122) and Tom thought he’d had a ‘bad show’ in Melbourne and felt isolated and far away.  He is far away !!  Aunty Jenny managed to make him laugh and eventually she came back to bed.  My anger was mainly protective of her sleep because she has two shows today and two more tomorrow (Henry IV, all-women) and she gets very tired on the weekends.  But her selfless good fairy quality made her rise and twinkle, for she knew deep in her genius bones that someone needed her love.  She is a good Aunty.  Aunx perhaps.   I didn’t get up and answer the phone, but I did write a blog later.   Miss you Tom, and love you very much.

Skye, Thomas, Jackson, Cassie

In the clip beneath the “official video” Tom and Ed Sheeran  (his long time friend and brer) play an acoustic version of Close To Me.  Some people prefer it, but :  it doesn’t have Cassie…

Acoustic version with Ed Sheeran accompanying :

My Pop Life #114 : There’s Nothing Better Than Love – Luther Vandross

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There’s Nothing Better Than Love   –   Luther Vandross

…what in the world could you ever be thinking of ??…

This song makes me melt, because of the music, the words, the rhythm, the notes, and where it takes me – to 1989 and falling in love with Jenny.   We had started dating in the summer of ’88 and following a mad American road trip at the end of that year I had finally almost accepted that she WAS the ONE.  1989 we were together.  We were in Portsmouth where I proposed, in New York City and Washington D.C., but mainly we were in London, in Highgate N6, on the middle section of the Archway Road.

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Jenny had introduced me to Luther Vandross in the shape of two LPs : Give Me The Reason and Any Love.  Probably three actually because I remember Never Too Much from this era too.  Luther was new to me, although I’d unknowingly heard him before singing background vocals on David Bowie’s Young Americans in 1974 and co-writing the song Fascination.  He also sang on the LP Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, one of the greatest soul albums of all time, released in 1972, which includes the first incarnation of Where Is The Love.  He also sang backing for Diana Ross, Chic, Chaka Khan, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer and Carly Simon among others.  I found all this out later.

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One Thursday evening in late January we lay in bed together and I summoned the courage to tell Jenny that it was all over, that I didn’t think it would be a good idea if we carried on seeing each other.  “Why not?” said Jen, who was lying on my shoulder, my right arm around her.  “Well,” I said, “Because I don’t want you to fall in love with me.”  Luther Vandross was on the stereo singing this song !  “I’m already in love with you…” she answered.  The answer that stopped my breathing, and halted the celestial cycle and melted my heart, and softened my very bones.  I pulled her toward me in an embrace.  We have been together since that moment.

My courting of Jenny had reached the point of going to meet the parents, so one Sunday I was formally introduced to Esther & Thomas Jules a handsome and loving St Lucian couple who had produced a houseful of gorgeous girls and one son.  They were very kind and served me a classic West Indian Sunday roast : chicken, plantain, yam, corn, greens, roast potatoes, dashin and gravy.  Delicious.  Mr Jules insisted that I drink a whisky or a rum with him.  I complied happily.  Jenny had two older sisters : Dee and Mollie, and two younger : Natasha and Lucy.  Jon the brother was slightly older than Jenny.  They were all very warm and friendly toward me because they all loved Jenny very much and didn’t want to upset their sister.  But also because they have all been brought up with love, and have it in abundance to spare.  It was just the family I needed and wanted to become a part of.  Solid, secure, easy, supportive and loving.   I’d already proposed to Jenny in February ’89 but hadn’t asked her father yet – but that is for another song and another story.

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Luther Vandross is the soundtrack to those young lovers though.   At the time he was an unfeasibly smooth, handsome and sultry soul singer with a very modern sound – his music is forever attached to the 1980s.   Those LPs were played a lot in Archway Road.  Beautifully produced – but what a voice.   One of the great singers of my lifetime, so expressive, so pure, gentle, and sensitive.  In a line of greatness back to Teddy Pendergrass, Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke, the record you play after you’ve gone to bed.  Love music.  Of course women also sing this music – Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Sade, Gladys Knight, Toni Braxton, Roberta Flack and on and on.   Is anyone still doing it you ask ?  Oh yes – Usher, Ciara, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Frank Ocean, Lianne La Havas, and on and on.    It will always be made of course.

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My soul development went something like this :  60s – Motown on the radio, 70s – Al Green on TOTP, discovery of James Brown, Otis Redding, Stax & Atlantic then through Philly, back to Sam Cooke and Jacky Wilson, Barry White & Teddy Pendergrass, Earth Wind & Fire into DISCO, Donna Summer and all that somehow emerging into the 80s with Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC, Electro LPs and Prince.  So I had completely missed the soul continuum that Luther Vandross represents.   Jenny introduced him to me, and soon I loved him too.

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March ’89, Wembley

He was playing at Wembley Arena in March 1989 and Jenny’s sister Dee asked if we wanted to go, so together with Mick her boyfriend, we did.  It was a sold-out ten-night run in the Arena, which is massive – and Luther was the first artist to sell that many tickets, he was huge in England in the late 80s.  Rightly so.  We sat to his left, he wore silver and black, we swooned and went home happy and high.  The concert was released on video/DVD sometime later in 1991 but we’ve never seen it.   This song was on the brilliant LP Give Me The Reason in 1986, and is a duet with Gregory Hines.   I think it’s time to have a look at that night in March 1989.  Because – you know – and I know – there is nothing better than love.

My Pop Life #109 : New Jack Hustler – Ice-T

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I got nothing to lose, much to gain, on my brain I got a capitalist migraine

I gotta get paid tonight, you motherfuckin right…

…go to school ? I ain’t goin’ for it – kiss my ass, bust the cap on the Moet !

*

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Deep in 1991.  I’ve finished shooting Alien 3 in Pinewood.  The Gulf War is over.  Jenny and I are living in Archway Road, and we’ve holidayed in Positano (My Pop Life #29).  The Channel Tunnel is almost completed.   Tottenham Hotspur have won the FA Cup and Paul Gasgoigne has ruptured his cruciate ligament.  People are going to prison over the Poll Tax, including Labour MPs.   To come : Jenny will play Mediyah in Pecong at the Tricycle Theatre, and I will film The Crying Game in Hoxton and meet David Bowie one night (see My Pop Life 54).   Musically we were at a crossroads – Nirvana released Smells Like Teen Spirit which blew my head off, Massive Attack released Unfinished Sympathy which put it back on, Jenny was hugging Optimistic by Sounds Of Blackness, and we were both digging Seal, Prince and Lenny Kravitz.   Hip hop was at a true crossroads with Gangsta Rap bidding to take over the commercial end of the scene from more ‘conscious’ hip hop acts from the old skool.   Huge sales for Tupac, Biggie and others followed OG Ice T and his role in the film New Jack City which came out in England in August 1991.

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Wesley Snipes in New Jack City (1991)

The scene I’d witnessed in Washington D.C. whilst working on my hip-hop play Sanctuary in 1989 (see My Pop Life 33) was now writ large on the screen with Wesley Snipes in the lead role, Ice-T playing a cop and providing much of the soundtrack.  I’d get to work with Wesley a few hundred years later in Bulgaria on The Shooter – he’s a solid decent-enough guy.  By then (2004)  he was about to go to prison for non-payment of tax.  He still had a loyal and very cool entourage of eleven people.  All of whom depended on Wesley continuing to make movies…

New Jack City was written by Thomas Lee Wright and directed by Mario Van Peebles, who also appeared himself.  We heard about it months before it came out, one of the most anticipated films of 1991.  A hip hop crack gang movie inhabiting the same space as my newest play “The House That Crack Built” which had just been commissioned and then rejected by the BBC (see My Pop Life 61).  It concerned a young man whose father was absent and whose family was about to be evicted from their apartment-above-a-diner in Washington DC.  He decides to sell crack to help his mum which initially works well, but when she becomes addicted and his ambitions make him enemies who are armed and vicious it all goes horribly wrong.  A cliche perhaps, but somewhat inspired by my own adolescence.  Of course all the characters in the play were black.  This was what I had found in DC.  Crack was a new drug, a crystallisation of cocaine and tremendously powerful.   One hit will send you into space.  Users feel powerful and indestructible.  Horrible shit is what it is.  Any illegal drug will be the province of gangsters and underground big business.  In a way the black community in the USA were having their “mafia moment” like the Italians, Irish, and English had done before them.  Their piece of the pie.  America being built on slavery and criminal activity, genocide and gang-war, this is all perfectly normal.  New Jack City had Ice-T playing a New York cop going undercover into Wesley Snipes crack-dealing gang, who were in their turn facing off with another gang for turf and profits.  Pawns in a divide and rule game?

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Russell Wong, Mario  Van Peebles, Judd Nelson, Ice-T

So familiar, but with black faces, pretty new.  Judd Nelson is the only white character, We also meet Bill Nunn, a young Chris Rock, and Allen Payne with Michael Michelle and Russell Wong being stereotypical black woman and asian (techy) man.  It’s Hollywood folks.  But we were all completely thrilled by this new genre becoming so mainstream so quickly.  The result of New Jack Swing – the soul beat of the early 90s – with Blackstreet, Guy and Teddy Riley, singers like Bobby Brown and Keith Sweat – colliding with the new genre of hip-hop and producing stuff like Ice-T’s album OG and Heavy D and The Boyz (see My Pop Life #33) – it was an exciting moment.  Jenny and I completely loved – and still love – the track New Jack Hustler.  It is right up there with the very best moments in hip-hop culture, a monster song.

New Jack Hustler perfectly encapsulates the paradox of black capitalism (like all capitalism it starts with a hustle) empowering the self while spreading fear through the neighbourhood, being a big man while murdering brothers (niggas – of course).   Ice-T’s brilliant rap is both a boast and a warning, his self-awareness of the ghetto contradiction makes this a truly exemplary piece of work.  And it isn’t without humour too, the imaginary impressionable kid gazing up at his gold chains and guns asking “how can I be down?” gets this answer :

What’s up? You say you wanna be down?
Ease back, or muthafucka get beat down
Out my face, fool I’m the illest
Bulletproof, I die harder than Bruce Willis

Got my crew in effect, I bought ’em new Jags
So much cash, gotta keep it in Hefty bags
All I think about is keys and Gs
Imagine that, me workin’ at Mickey D’s

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One of the highlights of the major hip-hop doc ‘The Art Of Rap‘ is the moment when Peruvian-American rapper Immortal Technique raps those very lines at Ice-T as they stand on the New York sidewalk, to both of their amusement.   My old compadre Andy Baybutt shot and directed that film after making a deal with Ice-T that it would be called “An Ice-T film, directed by Ice-T” but c’mon, Andy made it.   Ice chose the characters and conducted the interviews.  He would open his address book and say “come to the corner in 15 minutes, we’re shooting a rap movie” and they’d just shoot the result.  It’s a superb film about how these guys actually put a rap together, and although Missy Elliott should be there, and two or three others, the cast is everyone who matters (and who’s still alive) in the history of rap.

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Ice-T is an interesting dude.  Born Tracy Marrow on the East Coast, he moved to LA after both parents died.  He got his name from being able to recite chunks of black-pimp-turned novelist Iceberg Slim for his schoolmates in Crenshaw High.   Seriously interested in heavy metal he co-founded Body Count a hard rock band in 1991 and their track Cop Killer was hugely controversial.  He’s done reality TV, straight acting, married a swimsuit model ‘Coco Marie‘ and put her on his LP covers, appeared as a regular in Law & Order and run a record label.  I still think this song is his finest hour.  The deceptively smart lyrics contain their own commentary on the ghetto and the way out :

Is this a nightmare? Or the American dream?
…Pregnant teens, children’s screams
Life is weighed on the scales of a triple beam
You don’t come here much, and ya better not
Wrong move (Bang) Ambulance cot

I gotta get more money than you got
So what, if some muthafucka gets shot?
That’s how the game is played
Another brother slayed, the wound is deep But they’re givin’ us a band-aid
My education’s low but I got long dough
Raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro

Sleep on silk, lie like a politician
My Uzi’s my best friend, cold as a mortician
Lock me up, it’s genocidal catastrophe
There’ll be another one after me – a hustler

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D.J. Aladdin

All mixed by genius turntablist and producer D.J. Aladdin who combines samples from the ubiquitous James Brown (Blues & Pants provides the horn rise), Sly & The Family Stone (the magnificently cracked-out drum sample – my heart pumps nitro – with a break from You Can Make It If You Try), while the guitar twang is sampled from Bobbi Humphrey‘s Jasper Country Man.   The whole piece is like a gangsta manifesto, but dressed up as a cautionary tale and it was the point where I stopped buying hip-hop.  Rappers took the ironies in this song and flattened them out into macho posturing.  A whole generation of kids grew up on guns, hoes, cars, gangs and death and were convinced that they were all cool.  Capitalism won as it usually seems to.

Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that just as the black community started to get organised and angry, spearheaded by figures like Public Enemy, Ice-T and KRS-One, the ghettos were suddenly flooded with cheap weapons and crack cocaine.  The next 15 years were all about black-on-black crime and prison, major labels reaping the big profits.

Ice-T could see it coming.

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Ice-T pointing his fingers at you pretending he has a gun

My Pop Life #105 : Come Rain Or Come Shine – Ray Charles

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Come Rain Or Come Shine   –   Ray Charles

…days may be cloudy or sunny….

….we’re in or we’re out of the money…

I first heard this song on my wedding day, 23 years ago July 25th 1992.   Dear Ken Cranham (who has graced these pages before) made Jenny and I a ‘wedding tape’ which we played at home after the church ceremony in Holy Joe’s, Highgate Hill (St Joseph’s) and reception afterwards in Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park (next door).   I actually carried Jenny over the threshhold of 153 Archway Road N6  like you’re supposed to, much to the amusement of the two ladies opposite who ran the sweet shop who waved at us, beaming.   I smiled.   I didn’t have a free hand as I recall.    Jenny waved – she was still in her golden frou-frou wedding dress and we were both drunk on champagne and love and words and Chopin and wedding cake and delirious happiness abounded.  There was a huge reception in the evening at the Diorama, and dear gorgeous departed friend Neil Cooper was sorting that side of things, so we had a few hours to change and feed the cats etc.   Ken’s cassette (of course) had a wonderful selection of wedding songs and love songs which will be forever associated with the day, and I’ve done similar tributes on CD, paying that moment forward to other couples about to get hitched.  Nothing more glorious than a wedding playlist, and no better party than a wedding party.  Please, whoever is reading this, invite Jenny and I to your wedding !

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Ray Charles was always there somehow.  I must have heard Hit The Road Jack on the radio in 1961 when I was 4 yrs old, living in Portsmouth, & the Hoagy Carmichael evergreen Georgia seems to be made of earth and stone it feels like it has been around forever.   The other big hit from the early 1960s was I Can’t Stop Loving You off the LP Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, syrupy choir singing backing vocals, smooth like chocolate sauce, it’s almost too sweet.  But not quite.   But it was lounge music to me as I became sentient.   I would have to grow up a bit and grow some ears before I understood the genius of Ray Charles.

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Like Frank Sinatra or Elvis, he is a giant of music and in particular of interpretation and arranging of other people’s songs.   Not to say he didn’t write music – he did – unlike Elvis or Frank,  Ray Charles wrote plenty of music including some stone-cold red-hot classics :  I Got A Woman, Hallelujah I Love Her So, A Fool For You and the monster What’d I Say, which may or may not have been improvised live (as the film Ray would have it).   It’s difficult to encapsulate the full breadth of his work in one blog, so I won’t even try.  But if a martian were to land in my room today and say “One artist will represent pop music” it would have to be Ray Charles.  He’s played every kind of music from blues and jazz to soul (which he invented some say) gospel and country, big band and ballad to funk and pop.  It’s the phrasing in the end which is so astonishing – the phrasing and the arrangements are impeccable rhythmically, melodically, all delivered with taste, groove and soul.  Plenty of imitators, but only one Ray Charles.

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When I was going through my soul education period in 1978-9 (see My Pop Life #98 for example) I bought a large box set called Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-1974.  It remains “the answers” for anyone seeking to understand American music of the 20th century.   I guess it’s a CD box set now – I have five double LPs squished into a box.  It sounds like a lot – but it’s actually a surface skim of a huge period of artists and tunes, from race-music and blues 78s through R&B, soul, Stax/Volt right up to Roberta Flack.

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Ray turns up on Side Two and Three and Four with classics including I Got A Woman, the mighty Mess Around and the searing genius of Drown In My Own Tears which so many great artists have covered.  I had hit a golden seam of fantastic music and next I bought a triple LP box called The Birth Of Soul  now available on CD :

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which covered the same period as Sides 2,3 & 4 of the Atlantic collection but also had all the other songs they missed out – so many favourites but I’ll briefly mention What Kind Of Man Are You? which features one of the Rae-Lettes miss Mary-Ann Fisher on lead vocals, and which was a highlight of  the film Ray.  The story about the Rae-lettes is that they all had to Let Ray or they’d be out of the band.  The line-up changed frequently.

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 left to right : Gwen Berry, Merry Clayton, Clydie King, Alex Brown

Next I purchased Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music from 1964 – the smooth silky sound which includes the heartbreaker You Don’t Know Me, one of my all-time favourite songs,  Ken then turned me onto Ray Charles & Betty Carter (1961) which is a completely fantastic LP –

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Betty Carter is a wonderful jazz vocalist with sensational phrasing too and together they did the ultimate versions of quite a few songs including Baby It’s Cold Outside and Alone Together.    Then there was What’d I Say (1959) – pure R&B grooves, and Genius + Soul = Jazz (1961 again!) an instrumental big band jazz LP.  And then I probably sat down and patted myself on the back for buying loads of Ray Charles albums whom by now I completely adored.  But you see the thing with Ray is, he keeps on coming.  He was clearly prolific, just looking at what came out of 1961 for example it’s almost impolite how much music was produced.

Featured imageSo then came the wedding tape in 1992 and there was Come Rain Or Come Shine.   What a beautiful song.  The muted trumpets at the beginning are so romantic and late-night New York nightclub.   Lyrically it reminds me loosely of the wedding vows themselves which I guess is why it works as a wedding song.  And then there’s that middle eight :

I guess, when you met me
It was just one of those things
But don’t ever bet me
‘Cause I’m gonna be true, girl if you let me…

Pictured : composer Harold Arlen

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Johnny Mercer, lyricist extraordinaire

Written by the wonderful Johnny Mercer with music by ‘Over The Rainbow‘ composer Harold Arlen in 1946, it became a jazz standard almost immediately and has been covered by many artists both vocal and instrumental including Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, James Brown, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.   I can’t imagine any of them being better than this version though.   Although I can be wrong tha’ knows.Featured image

Come Rain or Come Shine appeared on an LP from 1959 called The Genius Of Ray Charles where he takes a stroll through the Great American Songbook and sings Sammy Kahn, Irving Berlin, Hank Snow (!) and others, stretching out from his R&B and gospel roots.  He would continue to stretch until he passed away.  There is still so much to discover – I recently heard his take on The Beach Boys’ Sail On Sailor and it was – like his Eleanor Rigby – a revelation.  Yes he was a musical genius.   Once you’ve heard him sing a song, his phrasing feels like The Way to Sing It.   Elvis and Frank also have this gift, yes it’s true.   As do others.  Ray Charles always felt to me like one of those bedrock people in music, you know when people talk about standing on the shoulders of giants, he is one of those giants. He may be the giantest giant.

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One of the Brighton Beach Boys felt the same way as me about Ray – notably Rory Cameron, now moved away from Brighton (as have I) – he would enthuse regularly on his timing and impeccable choices.

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I chose this song today because last night I was sitting alone in the local pub here in Prague, The James Joyce, nursing my third vodka and tonic, and thinking about my wedding anniversary, which was yesterday, and all the lovely Facebook family and others who took time to send Jenny and I love on our day of love.  And then this song came on.

My Pop Life #56 : Morning Has Broken – Cat Stevens

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Morning Has Broken   –   Cat Stevens

Sweet the rains new fall, sunlit from Heaven
Like the first dewfall on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass…

Hands up who knew about that line “where His feet pass” ?   Wedding choir members and choir master not you !   Blimey…

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1971.  Six long years since my mum’s first epochal stay in Hellingly.  So much turmoil in those late 1960s, with more to come.  A divorce, more hospital admissions, another marriage, a separation, a nine-month period of homelessness when we were all separated, me in Lewes with Pete Smurthwaite & his mum, Paul in the village with Gilda and Jack, Andrew back in Portsmouth with Aunty Val and Uncle Keith, Mum in a caravan in Pevensey with John Daignault, whom she married in 1969.   We hardly saw each other.  Some bad stories.

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That hole in the family was refilled when we were offered a council house on a brand new estate in Hailsham, right on the edge of town.   When we moved in the grass area was still clods of mud and earth with diggers parked on it.  It was called Town Farm Estate, but locals dubbed it Sin City.  All the single-parent families, dysfunction, prison, drugs and drink lumped together out of town.  It was rough, probably.  It was home.  We were together.

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Paul and I shared a big bedroom which overlooked the fields at the back.  Just grass.  We could see Herstmonceux Observatory a few miles away, and we were horribly close to Hellingly Hospital too, a shadow on our lives.  But I was a bus ride from Polegate where I could catch a train to Lewes, a journey of 25 miles which took an hour.  I was 15 and established at school (Lewes Priory, now a comprehensive),  so the authorities gave me leave to be a “far-away pupil”.   Paul started at Hailsham school having been at Ringmer for two years.  He had a more difficult adjustment than me.   And Andrew went to the local primary school, now aged eight and perfect for playing in goal in the back field while Paul and I fired shots at him.  He had his own, smaller bedroom overlooking the “grass” outside the front door – I think it was grass after about 6 months – and the houses opposite.   John Daignault didn’t move in with us and we were glad.  Mum had met him at a dance in Eastbourne and after maybe six weeks of courting they’d got marrried.  He was ten years younger than her and a chef.  We went to their wedding but I can’t really remember it.  But they’d fought quite regularly in Selmeston, and even more so in Pevensey apparently, so we moved in as Mum plus three boys.  It wouldn’t last long – but that first six months in the brand new house was like clear blue sky after a long night of exile.  Mum was still wobbly and unpredictable and on tablets of one sort or another, and there were Social Workers involved too and a new GP to argue with.   Next door was Monique whose husband was ‘inside’ and her kids Tim and Joanna.  Tim was Paul’s age and they became friends.  I never made friends in Hailsham.   With anyone.   All my friends were in Lewes or Seaford or Kingston.

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This song was a favourite in our house.  Paul and I in particular liked the phrase “on the wet garden” it seemed to us absurd and hilarious.  Possibly why I never heard the following line  about His feet.   The piano introduction is a delight, played by Rick Wakeman, the melody is strong and uplifting and beautiful.

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Cat Stevens was born Steven Georgiou, son of Greek Cypriot father and Swedish Baptist mother.  He changed his name to make pop music, then changed his music after a near-death experience from TB in 1969.   His writing became more spiritual upon his recovery,  and he moved from Deram to Island Records with a decent run of classic albums in the 1970s.  He would have another near-death experience and another name change – to Yusuf Islam – before the 70s were over, converting to Islam.   Morning Has Broken is from his 1971 LP Teaser And The Firecat (occasional sightings in the school corridors, tucked under an arm, usually a girl’s), and is taken from a hymn written in 1931 by Eleanor Farjeon to a Scottish gaelic tune called Bunessan.    Remarkably Ms Farjeon lived in Alfriston, not five miles down the River Cuckmere from where we now lived in a fold of the South Downs.  Morning Has Broken reached number 9 in the national charts.

It is a simple song about the most profound experience – rebirth, renewal, awakening.  Each day of our lives this happens, and it is a miracle every morning.  I think I prefer the piano to the lyrics, but the feel of the song is what counts, the brightness, the delicacy of the singing, the strength and poise of the piano.

The song reappeared in my life in a beautiful way.  On July 25th 1992 I married my love Jenny Jules in St Joseph’s Church, Highgate Hill to general approval.   We had the wedding we wanted, eventually, after two years of planning and changing our minds, and reaffirming, and planning again.  We asked the nearest and dearest who wanted to (and were able to!) to form a wedding choir.  Dear Felix Cross was our musical director and we held rehearsals in our Archway Road flat on the old honky-tonk stand-up piano.   Jenny and I didn’t join in, and neither did my Dad and his wife Beryl because they lived in West Yorkshire,  but they were kept in the loop by Felix, and rehearsed on the morning of the wedding, although my recall of this detail is hazy, largely because I wasn’t there.  I was putting on cuff-links with my brother and best man Paul.  Miles away, Jenny was being princessed, queened primped and sculpted in Wembley.

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Holy Joe’s – St Joseph’s Church, Highgate Hill

Morning Has Broken was one of the songs we chose for the service, and our brave and wonderful choir had to sing it in church in front of both of our families and all of our friends.  So they all get a proud namecheck here : love and thanks to Felix Cross, John & Beryl Brown, Paulette Randall, Beverley Randall, Sharon Henry, Millie Kerr, Maureen Hibbert, Antonia Couling, Ragnhild & Jens Thordal, and dear Cora Tucker, who sadly died of stomach cancer aged 46 in 2005.

As Jenny and I sat in our finery, shy and happy, glowing within and without, these dear friends sang for us and are forever blessed.  Very special.

My Pop Life #46 : Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) – Dolly Parton

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Deportee  (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)   –   Dolly Parton

The airplane caught fire over los gatos canyon
A fireball of lightning that shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio said they were just deportees

A song that was passed to me by fellow actor Kenneth Cranham when we were working together on the 1st of three shows we would make together in the space of two years in the late 80s.  He’d caught me listening to a cassette which came free with the NME that week containing what it called “New Country” – k.d. lang, Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakum, Nanci Griffith.   Ken is a huge country fan, in fact he’s a huge music fan and we exchanged tapes for a while, although I had to work hard to find a song that he didn’t already know about (I eventually did ; Oleta Adams version of Everything Must Change – My Pop Life #20).  But mainly it was one-way traffic from the older guy to the younger fella – Elvis tapes, country, and more recently a songwriter’s selection from Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael – brilliant).

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Kenneth Cranham

The first C90 Ken gave me was called simply “Country”.  I was living in Archway Road with my girlfriend Rita Wolf at that point in late 1987.  I’d just shot “The Black & Blue Lamp” at the BBC, a satirical and savage lampoon of TV policemen which took particular aim at Dixon of Dock Green and was written by the slightly touched and rather brilliant Arthur Ellis, who was to crop up again later in my career.  Karl Johnson and Kenneth Cranham took me up to the BBC Canteen at North Acton where we bumped into Patrick Malahide, of their generation, a legend to me for his appearances in Minder as DS Chisholm.  “Hello Patrick” said Ken, “what are you doing here?”  Patrick looked morose : “Oh, just some television” he said without enthusiasm.  It was an early taste of cynicism for me, still young and fresh, in in my first decade in the business, still thrilled to be in the BBC Canteen and actually acting for a living.

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Deportee was written by Woody Guthrie in 1948 detailing the true story of a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, Fresno County California, which resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 28 of whom were Mexican migrant workers being taken back to Mexico.  The music was scored some ten years later by Martin Hoffman.  The song is a lament for the shoddy racist treatment of the foreigners, the deportees treated as outlaws and thieves by the American Press and public, named in the song as Juan, Rosalita, Jesus and Maria.

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Dolly Parton was born into a large family in Tennessee whom she describes as ‘dirt poor’, moved to Nashville the day after she graduated aged 18 and rose to become the most-decorated female country singer of all time.  She has always presented a healthy sense of self-parody (eg 2008 LP Backwoods Barbie) alongside her own songwriting talent.

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Elvis Presley wanted to sing her song “I Will Always Love You” but insisted on half of the publishing, as he (and manager Tom Parker) did with every song he covered.   Dolly refused and some years later Whitney Houston famously took the song to the top of the charts and into the film “The Bodyguard”.    Dolly Parton’s best selling pop-country single was, in fact, “9 to 5” which she wrote, followed by 1983’s duet with Kenny RogersIslands In The Stream” which was written by The Bee Gees.    The fact that she was at the peak of her popularity when she recorded “Deportee” in 1980 is a tribute to her humanity and her well-documented philanthropical side.   It appears on the soundtrack LP for the film ‘9 To 5′ which she also starred in with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and also on Dolly’s 1981 LP “9 to 5 and Odd Jobs“.

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Although the song has been covered by many artists, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Christy Moore and Bruce Springsteen, this is my favourite version – the haunting piano phrases, the emotional singing from Dolly herself, and the production, all make this a classic protest song, a classic country song,  quite simply a classic song.

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I’ll dedicate the song today to all those poor souls drowned in the Mediterranean Sea after attempting the crossing from North Africa to Italy.   Dangerous overcrowded boats run by people-traffickers take hundreds of people every single day, and thousands have drowned.    The news reports refer to them as refugees.  Migrants.  Child migrants.  Or, as I prefer to call them, people.

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