My Pop Life #200 : Hello, Goodbye – The Beatles

Hello, Goodbye   –   The Beatles

I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello

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  • This blog celebrates my 60th birthday crossroads weekend, which was epic on almost every level.   Indeed it was also a living embodiment of this entire series of blogs, both musically and as a representation of the people in my life.  So this will be the fulcrum of it all I suspect.
  • The result is the longest and luvviest post of the 200 so far written.  Enjoy.

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On June 18th 2017 I was 60 years old.  It crept up on me like a hungry lioness, but I was ready for it, for I’d known for some time that it would be there, all six decades of it, shined up and sharp-toothed with a big zero on its pyjamas, an undeniable signpost to my future & inevitable death, an achievement, a relief, a triumph, a moment in time, a landmark, a shock to the system, a meaningless profound number.   Everyone has their own version of what this means, I certainly had mine.    Whatever lies, untruths and kind little stories I’d told myself up to this point, after June 18th I would be old.  OLD.  I was crossing a portal into another world.  It was to be celebrated with a party.  I needed my people to hold my hand and help me cross over.  I have always chosen to celebrate the big zero numbers.   I planned this party for the best part of three years.  As I mentioned in my speech on the night, the original celebration was to be a live gig, with all of my favourite songs, sung by me.  Like a massive indulgent splurge : “Of Me“.  As the months went by and I started to narrow down a playlist of sorts, the idea began to pall, to ever-so-slightly turn at the edges and discolour, until a faint whiff of hubris started to come off of its glittering carapace.   Each time I returned to plan the dreadful occasion it had gone a little more mouldy.   It was, in short, a rotten idea.  So bad was this idea indeed, that I felt embarrassed for having had it, and hoped that I hadn’t talked to too many people about it.  Me sing at a 60th birthday party !?  The utter gall.  The shame.

Brighton fam : Millie, Scarlett & Skye, Thomas, Delilah-Rose, Kerry

I decided to celebrate the big Zero of Six in Brighton, East Sussex, England, my home town, home of my football team, my band, my political party, my friends, where I’d lived for 20 years before moving to New York in 2014.   Some of my friends who ran the percussion ensemble and hit West End, Broadway and touring show Stomp have their HQ in Brighton in a lovely old venue called The Old Market (Hove Actually).  I chatted with dear Loretta Sacco who runs the company and it was fixed with ridiculous & welcome ease.  Loretta is married to Steve McNicholas who is half of Stomp along with my friend Luke Cresswell.  I had a date, and a venue.

Guest vocalist Lucy Jules with her sister Natasha

But I still wanted to hear the songs, so I came up with a marvellous plan B, seriously superior in every way to the first idea : to get other people to sing the songs TO ME, and then watch them with the rest of the party.  Now here was an idea I could run with, over the hills & far away.  But how to find the guest vocalists?  My first stop was family – my wife’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #134 ) and my nephew Thomas Jules (see My Pop Life #57  and  #129).   I wasn’t sure which song to start with but it was good to have a couple of great singers to kick things off (or close the show).  Then I hoped Pippa Randall would probably agree to sing me an Amy Winehouse song since we’d played in an Amy tribute band together (see My Pop Life #65).   And I dreamed that Lisa Abbott, who sings a wonderful Kate Bush tribute ‘Hounds Of Love‘ with most of my band mates from the Brighton Beach Boys : (Stephen Wrigley, Glen Richardson, Charlotte Glasson etc, ) would be agreeable to singing a little Kate for me…

I drew up a list of songs and shared it with Jenny.  She was polite but firm.  “Ralph my love,” she said, or words of similar joy, “it is going to be a party.  These songs are all depressing vibes.”   I looked down at the partial list :

Goodbye To Love  (Carpenters)

Too Far Gone (Bobby Bland) (My Pop Life #28)

My Old School  (Steely Dan)

Man With The Child In His Eyes  (Kate Bush)

We Will  (Gilbert O’Sullivan)

Stardust  (Nat King Cole) (My Pop Life #100)

Something  (Beatles)

Back To Black  (Amy Winehouse)

All Is Fair In Love  (Stevie Wonder)

I must admit I’d watch that set and clap loudly after each song, but I could see with my host hat on that she was right, too much sad ballad, so I had another think.  Meanwhile I worried about catering and invites.  Of course the two are interdependent.  I invited 300 people, perhaps 350.  Would they all come?  Would they fuck.   I had to guess on the catering numbers then.  People who know about these things told me that half the invitees turn up.  Slightly depressing statistic isn’t it?   So I catered for 200.  Better not to have hungry people wandering around.   Then I went back to worrying about the setlist & singers.  I’d promised to myself, and told the folk in the band that I would pay for rehearsals – initially imagining I think a whole week of rehearsals.  Naïve.  There was one rehearsal in the end on the Thursday before the party.  By then I’d emailed and phoned around and the setlist & singers had been finalised, and some of them were there in the rehearsal space, meeting the band for the first time.   So, here’s the final setlist and the beautiful brave singers who sang that night, some chose their songs, and others had songs thrust upon them.  Each song is either a showstopper, or gives me a lump in my throat, or both.  I love all of these singers, each & every one, forever :

  • Beatles : Hello Goodbye – Glen Richardson (My Pop Life #200!!)
  • Beatles : Getting Better – Glen Richardson
  • Rascals : How Can I Be Sure – Stephen Wrigley
  • Joni Mitchell : My Old Man – Meera Syal
  • Simon & Garfunkel : America – Tom White & Kit Ashton (My Pop Life #130)
  • Procol Harum : A Salty Dog – Leon & Hereward Kaye  (My Pop Life #37)
  • Herb Alpert : This Guy’s In Love With You – Lee Ross (My Pop Life #49)
  • Nina Simone : Ne Me Quitte Pas  –  Maureen Hibbert
  • Kate Bush : Moments Of Pleasure  –  Lisa Abbott
  • Cilla Black/Dionne Warwick : Alfie  –  Lucy Jules
  • David Bowie : Life On Mars  –  Glen Richardson
  • Monkees : Pleasant Valley Sunday  – yours truly (My Pop Life #168)
  • Ian Dury : What A Waste  –  Cush Jumbo
  • Amy Winehouse : Valerie  –  Pippa Randall
  • Ike & Tina Turner : River Deep Mountain High  –  Lucy Jules (My Pop Life #160)
  • Stevie Wonder : I Wish  –  Thomas Jules
  • Bruce Springsteen : Born To Run  –  Glen Richardson
  • Beach Boys : And Your Dream Comes True – the band

Me giving Paul a piggyback in 1961

The whole weekend was extraordinary in so many ways.  My brother Paul Brown had flown in from Shanghai where he lives.  He was staying in the Pelirocco Hotel, where Jenny and I were staying.  Regency Square.  It’s a self-consciously “rock’n’roll hotel” cliché with themed rooms but no fridges & weak wi-fi but after a rough teething period, we ended up loving it a great deal.  So great to see Paul after a couple of years.  He had a marvellous beard.

Breakfast with Paul

The Hotel Pelirocco reception area

Then Lynn Nottage and Tony Gerber and  their beautiful children Ruby and Melkamu arrived (from Brooklyn!) & checked into a seafront hotel near us.  They’d  told me the name of it in New York & asked me what it was like.  I’d said “it’s on the seafront“.  When I saw them a few weeks later in Brighton I asked how the hotel was.  “Wellit’s on the seafront…”  said Tony.  See what I mean.

Pippa & Jenny in Alfresco

Ralph, Paul, Tony in Alfresco

On the Friday Jenny, Paul & I hooked up with Pippa, Lynn, Tony, Ruby and Mel in Alfresco which is a lovely Italian restaurant above the beach.  About 4pm.  It was almost empty.  Perfect.  We drank wine and so on.  Ate food.  Walked along the seafront past the West Pier ruins,

West Pier : Ruby, Lynn, Pippa, Paul, Jenny & Melkamu

past the Fortune of War public house & the Victorian carousel up to the mighty Palace Pier and walked out into the sea on the boards.  Took some cheesy pictures.  Stretched out a bit.  It was a heatwave.  Sunblock and T-shirts.  It was very special to have my New York family there with my family in Brighton.  Fam.  So much love.

   

Embracing the cheese on the Palace Pier (Albion got promoted in May)

Melkamu

Paul

We started to make a habit of landing at The Regency Tavern across the square for a late-night pint.   Harveys, naturally.

Brighton Pavilion : Ralph, Tony, Paul, Lynn, Jenny, Ruby

Lulu & Jide arrived on Saturday after we’d shown Lynn & Tony the Royal Pavilion and took us to a lovely restaurant in the Lanes called 64 Degrees.  Rather movingly, the waitress there was Neil Cooper‘s daughter Sunny who we’d met in 2001.  Neil – or Spiderman as he called himself – had production-managed Jenny and I’s wedding in 1992 after working on my play Sanctuary with Paulette and I, then had taught me how to water-ski and generally been a very good friend over the years until he suddenly died about 15 years ago. Shocked and sad, we had gone to his funeral in Golders Green.

Alex Major-Brown with his father, Andrew Brown on Brighton Beach

Later that afternoon Andrew Brown my younger brother arrived from Bournemouth with his 15-year old son Alex, known as Bootsy to us all although he now prefers Alex I understand (see My Pop Life #138) and Alex and I walked up to The Old Market to fix some necessary arrangements for the following day.  We chatted together about school, music and his dad.  It was rather great to be an Uncle once again.

As fate would have it, The Brighton Beach Boys had a gig at the Open Air Theatre (aka BOAT) in Dyke Road that night, a Bowie tribute, and I’d agreed to take part.  Well, I was 59 still.  That has to be for another blog…but I will mention that Paul, Lynn, Tony, Ruby and Melkamu all came to the park (Jenny had a date with Lucy) and witnessed the strange truth : Britain is in thrall to a secret David Bowie cult.

Vintage Brighton Beach Boys photo with Theseus on drums

Another late-night pint at The Regency ushered in June 18th and my 60th birthday.  We sat on a table – Paul, me, Jenny, Lynn and Tony.  Suddenly a fracas occurred next to us, a dog had growled at a tough guy & suddenly he wasn’t looking so tough.  He was acting tough though.  “Fucking keep your fucking dog under control.”  The dog owners were a group of young hippy types who immediately decided to leave the pub.  The geezer was right next to us and Paul shielded Jenny from any aggro instinctively.  The very camp bar staff intervened and asked the pant-wetting guy to leave and after some more noise and the prospect of the police being called he went into the gents, smashed the mirror (symbolic!) and left with his girlfriend.  Happy Birthday!!

Next morning in the Dollywood room I was showered with gifts and cards from my darling wife.  We had breakfast downstairs with a glass of champagne, then hooked up with the gang again for a good old-fashioned Sunday roast in Kemp Town at the Thomas Kemp pub, near our house.  Tony drove us up there in his rental and we piled into the walled garden, bathed in sunshine and shadow.  Lulu & Jide were there looking bonny, then Indhu Rubasingham arrived from London. Indhu directed Jenny in Lynn’s play Ruined at The Almeida (My Pop Life #180).  Kerry appeared, dear Kerry.  Even though Paul was there from China and didn’t know half of these people I somehow felt that he was guiding everyone through the day with grace and ease and charm, a natural facility he has with celebrations.  Very happy to have him there.  Beyond happy.  Then Scarlett arrived with her parents Maggie Flynn and Rob Pugh, warm, lovely people, (Rob greeted me in Welsh and Scarlett said “Dad!  Ralph, do you know what he just said to you?” I didn’t and still don’t !)  With them was Skye our 3-year old beauty with Thomas Jules my precious nephew.   We had a bench table or three and out came the meat (not for me), the potatoes,  yorkshire puddings & gravy and what we insist on calling “the trimmings“.  Then I had to run for a soundcheck & get-in at the venue.

I’d played The Old Market not three weeks earlier in Brighton Festival.  Magical Mystery Tour v Sgt Pepper.  I’d seen stuff there over the years.  Drank beers there.  Enjoyed Luke’s birthday fairly recently, rented out our house to one of Loretta’s staff, Helen at one point.  It was all very familiar and friendly but I was already feeling disembodied.  I had created a giant crossroads made of my life.  It was like a living breathing giant figure made out of all of these blog posts, music pouring from every orifice, made of love but still a giant puzzle, a huge inchoate emotional time bomb – 60 years of life ready to explode at any second.  I’d essentially invited everyone that I deemed myself to have had a proper relationship with, obviously they couldn’t all come, but nevertheless it was a daunting unknown test I appeared to have set myself.  All those plans, those hopes and fears – the desire beneath everything else to simply bring people together in a musical event, using the 60th as a hard-to-refuse invitation to a party, probably most likely, the biggest party I would ever throw.

The band arrived and started to unwrap gear, erect stands, plug in amplifiers, organise their sheet music at their stations, exchange pleasantries about the songs that they felt they didn’t know well enough.  Adrian in particular had a worry about one or two of the songs, and didn’t like to wear glasses on a gig to read the chord charts.  Oh well !  Tom White was setting up the drum kit, Jono the keyboards stage left, Glen the keyboards stage right.  The woodwinds were to the left of the drums, the strings to the right.  Stephen Wrigley the Musical Director, the co-author of this band with me, the genius who made everything possible, the man who had scored all of my favourite songs for this event, arranged for a 16-piece band and rehearsed on Thursday evening, Stephen was arranging his guitar sculpture in the centre of the stage.  I loved him so much that I couldn’t say it.

Stephen Wrigley

I popped out for a cigarette outside the back door – where the pub was which used to be called The Conqueror.  Theseus Gerrard was there, drummer for The Beach Boys and Bowie gigs but not for Beatles, and he wasn’t on the kit for this gig.  Almost a founder member of the group, a great rhythmist and free spirit, he divides the band because he is so dependent on the kindness of strangers, and such an itinerant addict, and so bad at learning new songs.  Unless he’s in the mood.  We have tolerated a lot from Theese over the years because he brings so much to the show, particularly regarding our relationship with the audience.  Theseus is a natural showman and communicator, whereas the rest of us are more nerdy and muso, staring at our instruments in order to get it right, engaged in some private musical examination, whereas Theseus is always aware that the gig is a relationship.  Audiences love him.  In the Sgt Pepper shows he is on percussion, but moves around the stage drawing focus onto whoever is singing, playing a solo or enacting some part of the song.  It really works.  He is a conundrum in many ways, a challenge to each and every one of us.  But then I think we all are like that to each other, in different ways.  Theseus sat there on the bench smoking a fag and looked at me, then said “Ralph – what do you want me to do in this gig mate?”  I think it was the year before when he’d sung me the Stones “Miss You” in another pub for my birthday, which was the highlight of that year.  I’d been in Brooklyn for nearly three years and it was touching.   I looked at him.  “You know what to do” I said.  He held my arm.  We were cool.  Although I partly wished I’d asked him to sing Miss You again, it also felt like an indulgence swerved.

I’d given my ipod to the bar -one mix.  And my computer to the main hall – another mix.  They couldn’t connect the two sound systems.  I’d made a rule – only one song per artist in each mix.  That was fun.  I remember hearing exactly one song at the party – It was a Rufus Wainwright song “I Don’t Know What It Is“.  Weird.  I asked the bar staff to turn the sound system up but it was playing at top volume apparently. I’d gone temporarily deaf for the night on top of everything else.  They were busy cutting oranges and cucumbers for the Pimms jugs which were to be free all night.

The band ran through a few numbers and now after the nerves and nail-biting and list-making, engineering party-organising, forgetting and mental-ness there suddenly appeared a moment of calm.  Music.  I wasn’t playing on most of these songs because I intended to be in the audience for most of the night.  Lisa sang Kate Bush, magically. Pippa went through Valerie.  So exciting.  Venue staff came and asked me stuff now & again, but I was suddenly peaceful.  Lucy sang Alfie, wonderfully.   The tears pricked me suddenly.  Something about that song.

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And so the party.  It was all so completely overwhelming seeing everyone who came and missing all those who did not.   Jenny looked extravagantly beautiful as ever, I knew she had my back, all night, and would make people feel welcome and loved even if I’d only spoken to them for a few moments.  She is my rock, my guiding star.  We walked up the stairs and looked briefly at each other and smiled a kind of “see you later” kind of smile.  Dressed in my gorgeous black & white puppy-tooth Jump The Gun suit with black & white short-sleeved shirt, loafers, I greeted my guests as they arrived, some carrying presents despite the urgent Red Cross Appeal Not To Bring Any Presents because I’d only have to leave them behind …I’d only brought one suitcase…

Of course the biggest and heaviest present came from Lucy & Graham.  A fully gigantic encyclopedia of hip hop made of some kind of stone or granite.  It is amazing !  But they weren’t the only ones.  Cards, books, all kinds of things.  There was even a book for people to sign.  Some did.    There were surprise arrivals to balance out the no-shows, Simon Korner brought his wife Leonie bless her, and his grown-up son Asher who had french girlfriend in tow.  Lewis MacLeod, Simon Lester, Norman Wilson, Dona Croll, Susan Kyd, Jo Martin, Eamonn Walker and Sandra Kane – I’d asked Eamonn to sing & he’d never answered so I didn’t know if he’d be there, my brother from another mother.  Catherine Walker came from Paris, and the Brighton gang were reunited in force.  Great turnout.  None better than Johanna Francis who’d just flown in from New York, our fairy godmother who’d sheltered us from the winter storm in 2014 just after we arrived in Brooklyn.  She’s become our homegirl.

Brooklyn gang – me, Sean, Johanna

On the night I knew that I would hardly get to speak to anyone, basically being magnetised by each new arrival for as long as it took until another one appeared over their shoulder and stole my attention.  Then they would start to leave and each moment would be just a moment.  Everyone, hopefully, would get a hello and a goodbye.  I knew this.  I mentioned it in my speech “Sorry I haven’t spoken to any of you yet.  I’m not going to speak to you later either.”  Got a laugh.  I alluded to the turnout being likely to be the same for my funeral, except that I would be dead, and therefore wouldn’t enjoy it as much.  Also got a laugh.  Also mentioned all the last-minute “sorry” texts & emails I’d received in the days leading up to the party as ‘little stabs‘ … ‘which didn’t hurt’.  Got a 3rd laugh!  Probably the biggest.  The speech finished with the greetings & partings acknowledgement which bled perfectly into Hello Goodbye as an opening number.   Because 2017 was the 50th anniversary of Magical Mystery Tour (the EP & the LP) we were all up to speed on this song, one of McCartney’s finest moments, an apparently simple song with simple lyrics, astoundingly well performed and produced, clear and clean and HAPPY.  I love it.

It was the perfect opener for the gig, the perfect hinge on my year and my evening.  We then played Getting Better from Sgt Pepper because it’s an uptempo positive song, and a 50th birthday for that album AND it was a party 😉  And then the first special request song – How Can I Be Sure – chosen by me for Stephen Wrigley to sing because I knew he loved it as much as I did.  I prefer the David Cassidy version to the original by The Rascals, but he prefers that one, so that was the one we did.  Fair enough.  Then I left the stage and watched the remainder of the show from the audience.

I’d waited for Paulette & Beverley to arrive before I started the entertainment.  They were drinking with old reprobates David & Eugene in the Pelirocco in the porn-themed room.  I was so happy that they’d all made it to the party.  Absurdly self-conscious as I had been onstage making my speech & participating in a few songs, I became positively opaque sitting in the audience, like a hair-trigger of emotion awaiting release, whilst knowing deep in my floppy sweet liquorice bones that I could not afford to plumb those depths, not here, not now, don’t cry, shut it down fella.

Meera Syal

Meera Syal was first up, singing Joni Mitchell‘s My Old Man from Blue – our joint choice.  We’d chatted about the key it should be in, but she’d only been able to make today.  She stood in front of the microphone and announced :  “Ralphy, I want you to know that you’re the only person I love enough to sing this song without any rehearsal“.  A ripple of excitement and expectation ran through the guests – oh, wow, no rehearsal.  The bravery, the love.  A little like watching a live X-factor gig where the band are fully rehearsed, safe group of hands, but the singers are all walking the tightrope.  Woop !  Meera was stunning of course, nailed the song and the emotion of the song with aplomb.  I helped her offstage and kissed & thanked her.

Ralph Brown, Andy Baybutt, Tim Lewis : Friston Forest

JennyTim Lewis were doing the MC honours, announcing the guest singers in turn.  Jenny had, as ever, been my right hand, my guiding star, my heart & soul and over half of my brain all weekend.   Next up were Tom White our drummer & Brighton musical genius in his own right (having played with his band The Electric Soft Parade since being at school with his brother Alex; also Brakes, The Fiction Aisle and many other outlets).  He has music running through his veins.  He teamed up with another Brighton musical legend Kit Ashton.  I’d hooked up with Kit when he was running his “Songwriter” gigs – he’d do one a year at Hanbury Ballroom with guest vocalists and one year he’d asked me if I wanted to sing a couple of Elvis Costello songs and I’d bitten his hand off and performed Alison & All Grown Up.  The following year he did Bowie and I got Glen involved, I did Station To Station and Glen did Drive-In Saturday and Life On Mars,  another memorable night since legendary bass player Herbie Flowers turned up to play his parts on Rebel Rebel & Space Oddity.  Tom and Kit got all acoustic together and sang me the Simon & Garfunkel classic “America” (see My Pop Life #130 ) which is deeply symbolic because Jenny and I walked off to look for America or something.  Such a beautiful song.

Hereward Kaye

Next up my old buddy Hereward Kaye – the man who taught me Good Vibrations for the Rock and Roll Shakepeare sci-fi extravaganza Return To The Forbidden Planet at The Tricycle Theatre in 1985 (see My Pop Life #190).  Herry took to the keyboard with his son Leon on vocals and tore into the prog-rock masterpiece known as A Salty Dog (see My Pop Life #37).  Leon fair took the roof off with his voice, rising to the occasion and the massive challenge of singing Gary Brooker, Procol Harum‘s lead vocalist and one of the great rock singers.   It was all getting a bit serious and intense, but here came Lee Ross my beautiful friend to give us a rendition of a Bacharach song This Guy’s In Love With You, originally sung by Herb Alpert (My Pop Life #49).

Lee Ross

Dear MC Tim Lewis had to improvise a story because Lee was having an emergency pre-stage leak in the gents downstairs.  He related how, in the early days of our friendship we had been on the phone organising something, and he’d ended by saying “Thanks lovely Ralph“.  I misheard him, and after a slight pause replied “I love you too Tim“.  Dear Tim didn’t have the inclination to correct me, but now took the opportunity to say that he loved me too.  Awwww.

Lee was unintentionally hilarious, his hat slightly askew, his lyrics sheet had a life of its own & kept leaving his hand or jumping off the music stand with every slight gust of breath.  He brought the house down and delivered the tune with great joy, cracked the atmosphere, now it was a party.  I wrote about Lee and Jo McInnes in My Pop Life #192 .

Jenny Jules, Pippa Randall, Maureen Hibbert at the party

Next up was Maureen Hibbert who deserves her own blog and her own story for I cannot do it justice inside this piece.  And I have to mention her daughter Chloe, my god-daughter who had travelled from Zanzibar (I think?) to spend the evening with me, to be there for me.  Maureen and Chloe ended up sleeping on our couch!  Mo sang, with huge courage and soul, the amazing Jaques Brel song Ne Me Quitte Pas, in the style of Nina Simone, in French.  Wow.   This was the most dramatic part of the show, easily.  In verse three she wasn’t happy with a vocal mistake and held up her hand “Wait wait, hold on!” she said.  The band stopped playing.  “I want this to be right for Ralphy” she said, “can we do that part again please?”  Stephen raised the baton “top of verse three?” And.  The bar kept being raised.

Lisa Abbott

Somewhere in the hall Scarlett’s dad Rob Pugh, writer of Reg which I’d filmed in 2015 (My Pop Life #119) muttered to Luke standing alongside him “here comes another piece of hippy shite“.  He is 100% Welsh of course.  I’m a mere 25%.

He was right too : The darling hippy Lisa Abbott took the microphone for my favourite Kate Bush song which never fails to bring water to the eye : Moments Of Pleasure from the Red Shoes album.  It was both uncanny and magical listening to Lisa sing for me on my birthday.  She just inhabits Kate Bush totally.  Her voice is quite exquisite.  I’d seen her sing the whole of the Hounds Of Love LP one night two years earlier in this very venue and it was nothing short of extraordinary.   I could see the people in the party who had yet to sing looking at her and thinking “Shit! I’ve got to follow that.

Lucy Jules

But it was Lucy Jules up next, singing Alfie.  The Bacharach arrangement, Steve conducting.  A string quartet, a woodwind quartet, a band of great players.  It is a great band and it was lovely to showcase them for my friends who had never seen us gig.  I really am so proud of this part of my life, and I miss it a great deal and try to get back to England as often as possible to play with them.  By now I was sitting down, Simon Korner to my right, Conrad Ryle to my left – Simon had joined me after America, Conrad after A Salty Dog.  My mates from school.  My surrogate families who rescued me in the 1970s.  My North & South Poles.

Lucy sang the first line :  “ What’s it all about, Ralphie?” and I smiled.  It was funny and bold and lovely & it stopped me from weeping once more.  Everyone in the room smiled I think.   I can’t really put into words what it meant, what it felt like.  She kept it up for the entire song.  “And if life belongs only to the strong Ralphie…” and each time she left a miniscule pause before the name as if deciding anew each time to change the name of the person she was talking to, and each time it was funny, witty, affectionate, very moving.  Especially in a song about love…

Brought the house down of course.   I was grateful to her for changing the song from Alfie to Ralphie.  Stopped my meltdown in its tracks which she later told me was why she’d done it.  Some people are very wise aren’t they?  I still feel like a young soul, like a 25-year old learning how it all works.  I look at people like say Bruno the Brighton & Hove Albion captain and I think “look at that old guy, he’s doing all right”.  Bruno is 37 years old.  I still feel, without thinking, that he & others like him are older than me.  This is a kind of psychic dissonance, a denial of time passing, arrested development or simply genius.  Does everyone feel this strange emotional eternal youth inside?  Only mirrors give me a shock –  Gulp : who the fuck is THAT??  Adjustment, temporarily.  Then I’m back, 25 years old, dealing with the next minute, then the next.

Lucy received a standing ovation for her performance and a thrill ran through the room.  It was a good gig all right !  I was thrilled to bits by now and had decided to go through with my song – I almost swerved it, but then also felt in one way that the singers who had yet to perform would be encouraged by watching me struggle a little musically, that I would bring the bar back down and that Cush and Pippa in particular would be imbued with renewed courage.  Maybe. I looked over at Cush and she raised her eyebrows at me like WOW.

our lead vocalist Glen Richardson

Who followed that emotional centrepiece ?  Why David Bowie of course in the eminent shape of Glen Richardson singing Life On Mars.  He and the band absolutely smashed it to pieces.  I then jumped back onstage fortified by ales and love and sang a rendition of the Carole King/Monkees classic Pleasant Valley Sunday which I dearly hoped we were all inhabiting by that point.  I then made my way to the horn section where my trusty alto saxophone was nestled on its stand and honked my way through the remainder of the set : a massive error on my part here, since I didn’t get to see the surprise package of the event, namely, Cush Jumbo singing What A Waste, unrehearsed, never met the band, just like Meera, apparently extraordinary…

Sean Griffin & Cush Jumbo

OK I’ve now seen the footage and Cush was outstanding.  Especially changing the chorus final line from “rock’n’roll don’t mind” to “my mum don’t mind” !!  Genius.  These two are our newest dearest friends, both English, moved over just after we did, they live down the road from us in Brooklyn and we try to hang out with them as often as we can.   She’d given a little speech before the song about how much she appreciated me befriending Sean in America and taking him to the dirty bar to play pool and get horribly drunk.  Aw.

Cush was followed by Pippa Randall singing Valerie with true relish, what a star she is, accompanied by Joe Kaye plugged in next to her, at which point Conrad & Gaynor and a whole bunch of other people decided to get up and dance (hooray!).  Maybe we’d gone on too long, but I love Conrad and Gaynor for always dancing !!!  Then Lucy came back to scale the mountaintop River Deep Mountain High with Lisa, Meera, Cush, Maureen & Pippa on backing vocals which apparently tore the roof off the sucker, and the throat out of dear Lucy, and finally darling Thomas who’d had a sore throat all weekend stepped up to sing Stevie Wonder‘s I Wish with Lucy on chorus high notes.  He was absolutely flipping amazing.

Thomas Jules

I missed it all, because the sound at the back of the stage was poor, only climbing back into the audience for Born To Run which Glen sang.  But my friend Steve McNicholas was filming it all, so I do believe that I will get to see these magic moments one day soon.

Charlotte Glasson, Danielle Flarty, Adrian Marshall

At the end of the gig we sang the Beach Boys acapella lullaby And Your Dream Comes True to Scarlett, who was heavily pregnant and about to DJ for the dancing part of the party with Thomas.  Yes, a Beach Boys song and a sad ballad but I felt it was a sweet way to end the set and serenade mum-to-be.  The beautiful Lua Blue Jules Pugh was born 20 days later, somewhat overdue but perfect in every way.

Mum Scarlett & baby Lua Blue 4 months later

end of the party : Alex, Ralph, Rebecca, Andrew, Paul

At the end of the party the gang split into two fact-finding groups –

group A) people who had to leave including my sister Rebecca Coleman and her kids Ellie and William who rode off into the night with her dad Alan Sully;  Jenny’s mother Esther Jules who was driven back to Wembley by Jenny’s sister & Thomas’ mum Dee, who then returned to Harlow, Essex with nephews Jordan and Jamie;  Uncle Lee who took Auntie Mame and Tete Sica back to Ramsgate (!);  the families Randall & Kaye with Roy & Robbie, Herry & Pat, Pippa & Joe, Tia & Lucy;  and plenty of others who’d booked babysitters…

and group B) people who hadn’t finished getting fucked up.  Well that group all walked down to the Pelirocco Hotel and drank until dawn.

Dawn : Kit Ashton, Ralph, Tom White, Paul

*

Much later I wrote an email to those who had participated including the band themselves :  Steve, Glen, Adrian, Charlotte, Theseus, Tom, Brian, Jane, Joe, Rob, Danielle, Jono, Simon.

First and most importantly, Thank You for helping me through the great gates of 60, daunting and aged though they were, an ancient stone portal which loomed ahead casting a shadow over the earth for the last few years, during which time I planned this event to avoid facing the tremendous fear beneath the celebration.  The numbers do not lie, and I am 60.  So thank you once again for holding my hand, bringing yourself and your love.  I felt it.  I was overwhelmed and did not surrender, but now I thank you.  You have o’erleaped the rest into my personal pop charts.  You are a Golden Great.  I may never do that again, but I will always cherish it.”   Lots of love, Ralph, aged 60

*

if anyone has any photos from the party, please send them to me !!

*

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My Pop Life #169 : The Magic Hand – Stephen J. Kalinich

The Magic Hand   –   Stephen J. Kalinich

I met Stevie in the summer of 2006 in Brighton.  The band were rehearsing in Scream, just off the Lewes Road for a series of summer gigs we were booked for, including headlining Herne Bay in Kent at their summer festival.  Paul Adsett, a local Beach Boys aficionado, promoter and regular at our gigs around town, suddenly turned up with a gentle affirmative presence whom he introduced as Stevie, a performance poet and lyricist who had written lyrics for two Dennis Wilson songs in 1968, Little Bird and Be Still, both of which turned up on the Friends LP.  We were blessed with his presence and he was, of course treated like royalty, (at least in our poor imaginations!) but all he wanted to do was sit and listen to a few numbers.  We played Friends (My Pop Life #5) and Heroes & Villains (My Pop Life #111) and Little Bird, which we’d just learned.  No pressure !

Little Bird is a really interesting song.  Stevie and Dennis Wilson were siting around in the sunshine when the song appeared as a meditation on the simple wisdom of nature and eternity (how it began…), and the bliss of a sunny California afternoon.  The arrangement, by Brian Wilson, is one of the Beach Boys’ finest moments in my view.   Trumpets, cello and the always-interesting backing vocals make the song a jewel and a favourite of fans.  We didn’t do it full justice but it didn’t matter.  Stevie was thrilled to hear it.   A few days later a small cavalcade of vehicles left Brighton to drive to Herne Bay, and Stevie travelled with me in the Jeep, up the M23, right onto the M25 and along the M20 to the North Kent coast.  He told me of his early life in Binghampton, upstate New York before he’d moved to California in the mid-sixties and fallen in with the hippy crowd in Los Angeles, and particularly The Beach Boys circle.  He spoke with love of Dennis and Brian, well, all of them to be honest, (and he still does) and of his other friends Alan Boyd, Tracy Landecker, Carol, actors Stacy Keach and Rod Steiger, who’d died in 2002.  Stevie was honest, gracious, funny and warm, and I responded with a few racy anecdotes of my own.  You know, the one about Sigourney Weaver, that kind of stuff.

Charlotte, Adrian, Stephen Wrigley, Stevie, me, Rory, Dom, Glen, Theseus

In Herne Bay we set up and sound-checked and awaited our gig time.  A picture records the moment just before Stevie passed me his mobile saying “Ralph – a call for you“.  I took the phone and said hello.  “This is Brian Wilson” said an unmistakable voice “How are you?”  Stunned, I looked at Stevie who was smiling at me.  “I’m great Brian” I said, “I’m just about to go onstage and sing loads of your songs!”   I couldn’t believe it.  “Well don’t forget to play California Girls !” he said, “that’s the best one!“.  “We’re playing it first “I replied before saying goodbye and handing the phone back to Stevie.  This moment has naturally gone down in my personal history as A MOMENT.  It was magic, simple, loving.

The gig was fine, and Stevie joined us onstage to sing Little Bird.  Did he do a poem as well?  I cannot recall.  He will remember.  His memory is excellent.  I have to write things down otherwise they’re gone.  Marijuana apparently.  Anyway, I still have the setlist.  We didn’t open with Cali Girls…

Aug 26th Herne Bay

1st half

You’re Welcome                                                        Db

Heroes and Villains                                              Db

I Can Hear Music                                                   D

Catch A Wave                                                                     Eb

Surfer Girl                                                                           D

All Summer Long                                                  B

You Still Believe In Me                             B

Waiting For The Day                     E

Here Today                                         A

God Only Knows                                                    A

Pet Sounds                                                                           Bb

Caroline, No                                                                                    G

Friends                                                                                             D

And Your Dream Comes True                                          C

Then I Kissed Her                                                  C

Little Bird                                                Gm/F

In My Room                                                                                    B

Don’t Worry Baby                                                                                E

Long Promised Road                                                                C

Surf’s Up                                                                              

**interval**

Stevie at Carol’s place in Malibu, 2011

Aug 26th Herne Bay   2nd half

Sloop John B                                                              Ab

Sail On Sailor                                                                      G

Our Sweet Love                                                                          G/E

The Little Girl I Once Knew                                                           B/F#

Break Away                                                                         C

You’re So Good To Me                                          F

Shut Down                                                    C

Little Deuce Coupe                                                     G

Little Honda                                                                                 C

Surfin’ Safari                                                                                             A

I Get Around                                                                                       G

Dance Dance Dance                                                            A

Surfin USA                                                                D

California Girls                                                                  B

Wouldn’t It Be Nice                                                                      E

Do It Again                                                                                                D

Darlin’                                                                                              A

Help Me Rhonda                                                            C

Good Vibrations                                                  

*

Fun Fun Fun                                                                        D

Barbara Ann           ?                                                          ?                     

Love and Mercy                                                    

I cannot believe we actually played that many songs.  We didn’t do Barbara Ann I don’t think because we all dislike it quite a lot, which is unfair, but there you are.   But vocally we were on point I seem to remember 😉 and the audience were enthusiastic, sang along and danced.   The next day we’d made the front page of the Herne Bay Observer.

The following day Stevie came round to our house to meet Jenny.  As Jenny came down the staircase to say hi, I may have said something foolish like : “This is Stevie, he’s a poet.”  This was the open sesame to the world of Stevie.  My friend Eamonn has seen him in action, and so have I, and he is a force of nature when he performs one of his poems.  Stevie opened his arms and there and then began The Magic Hand :

Poems can never make adequate explanations

For man and his many hesitations, and his constant deviation from what is real…

They love me through wooden eyes, the tree of love in one heart lies,

The bough brushes gently along the ground, for waiting souls long to touch it

We sat on the stairs and watched and listened.  I guess The Magic Hand is god, or love.   The poems moves through death, growth, evolution, love.  When Stevie finished Jenny had tears in her eyes.  It was outstanding.  We all had a cup of tea and everything was all right.

We have The Hand of Fatima in our kitchen for protection, an old mid-eastern tradition.   Later Stevie and I watched my film New Year’s Day and he cried sitting on my sofa.  Bonded in saltwater, we have been firm friends ever since.  I guess we just passed our tenth anniversary.  I have seen Stevie many times since that  August, he came back to Brighton the following year and performed in Brighton Festival with ace guitarist Richard Durrant with The Galactic Symphonies before touring the UK, a spoken-word installation with film, slides, music and poetry.  Whenever I’m in California I look him up and we take tea.

We go straight to the point whenever we see each other.  No small talk.  It’s like an affliction, a lack of social nicety that we both suffer from (such that when people have forgotten my name, their first guess is usually Frank !) but which works when we are together.  We solve the problems of the universe.  Stevie is the best company in the world.

He talks of Dennis, who died in 1983,  often and with great feeling.  When Dennis’ fantastic solo LP Pacific Ocean Blue (1977) was finally released on CD in 2008 it contained – along with Stevie’s song Rainbows – the unreleased and oft-bootlegged LP Bambu as an extra which has another Kalinich/Wilson collaboration on it :  Love Remember Me.   Dennis voice is full of soul on these records.  What a talent.  In 2008 The Galactic Symphonies was also released containing The Magic Hand (with music by Durrant), and other works such as Bring In All The Poets and The Tale Of Man.

2011 came with another new album for Stevie called California Feeling and many of the Brighton Beach Boys played and collaborated on this record – Glen Richardson, Charlotte Glasson and Stephen Wrigley are all present, along with other dear members of the Beach Boys extended family such as Carnie and Wendy Wilson (from Wilson Phillips) singing Little Bird and The Honeys singing the title track.  By now Stevie had signed a new deal with archival boutique record label Light In The Attic who re-released the legendary album which Stevie made in 1968 with Brian Wilson, a spoken word with accompaniment dreamscape called A World Of Peace Must Come.   The first manifestation of The Magic Hand comes from this beautiful record a real slice of late 1960s spiritual hope.

So yes, Stevie is the original beat poet.  Consistent, spiritual, artistic and clear, with a vision which has remained at the forefront of his negotiations with the world, a sensitive puzzled curiosity which sees through the bullshit and the commerce and what is cool and goes always to the heart of the matter.  It draws people in wherever he goes, and I feel constantly proud to know him.  He affects people.  He can be naive and annoying sure, but so can I.  So can you.   So many stories.  He knows everyone in Los Angeles.  Not all for this post.  This is like an introduction.  For example,  Stevie is now a part of the Brighton music scene, having written and recorded songs with both Paul Steel (My Pop Life #1) and Cold Crow’s Dead.   But meanwhile he is still friends with Brian Wilson, they meet and walk on the beach occasionally.  Stevie has repeated the phone trick to me on various occasions when we’re together.  The conversation is always pleasingly random and surreal.

Stevie wrote a song with Brian called A Friend Like You which is on 2004 LP Gettin’ In Over My Head, and features Paul McCartney  After The Beach Boys Stevie was a writer with Jobete Music during the 80s, working with Randy Crawford, Odyssey and Mary Wilson, and his most recent collaborations have been with Nashville producer and player Jon Tiven. Recently he’s taken up painting and one of his works will grace the cover of the new album.

I think the person I am most pleased to have met via Stevie is his friend Alan Boyd.  My friend Alan Boyd I should say.  Mentioned at small length in My Pop Life #111.   Producer of California Feeling, Beach Boys & Brother Records archivist, film-maker, engineer, singer and compiler of many recent out-take LPs such as Hawthorne, CA and famously, finally after a wait of some 35 years, SMILE for which he and engineer Mark Linett won well-deserved Grammies in 2011.  I think Alan and I are quite similar – we like cats, Stevie, Harry Nilsson, Laurel & Hardy and 1920s pop music.  The steps used in the 1928 short The Music Box are just around the corner from Alan’s place in Silverlake.

‘The Music Box’ Laurel & Hardy  1932   Silverlake, Los Angeles

And Alan is a great musician in his own right, having released a harmonic pop album called Channel Surfing in 2004.  Most of my Los Angeles memories of the last ten years involve Eamonn Walker of course (see My Pop Life #104 ) and time spent hanging out with Stevie, Alan and Tracy, who is a writer, singer in the band Walker Brigade and authority on the legendary 60s girl group The Shangri Las.  Good people.  No, Suzy and Tony and Gwen, I’m not forgetting you !!

Most recently Alan wrote to me to ask if I wanted to contribute a track to the newest Kalinich album “Be Still : The Works Of Stephen J. Kalinich” with the corollary that it had to be delivered within seven days because the producer Al Gomes wanted to enter the resulting LP into the spoken word category of The Grammys this year.   Of course I said yes, and so did Jenny.  A few days later we were in my buddy Tony Gerber‘s office in Gowanus, a heavy curtain draped across the room to dampen the sound, speaking our chosen poems into a high-def microphone.  I did two takes of Bring In All The Poets and ran to the dentists and Jenny did The Tale Of Man three times.     The sound files were delivered, polished and produced and a CD was delivered to me here in Brooklyn this week – what a thrill. Stacy Keach has three pieces, Rose Weaver has two and Alan Boyd with Tracy Landecker, Lisa Haley, James Michael Tyler (another friend), Samaire Armstong and Al Gomes with Connie Watrous all have one each.  As do I and Jenny.  And Stevie contributes his signature piece The Magic Hand (not the version below) and an unheard out-take from A World Of Peace Must Come with Brian Wilson of ‘Be Still‘ itself.  What a thrill.  I listened to it.  Each song, each poem, is a work of art in its own right, except that mine, well.  I immediately wished I’d had the chance to do another take.  Always.  This is the artist’s way.  No, it’s all true.  As Leonardo Da Vinci once said – a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned.  It sounds abandoned to me, but who am I to judge?  What do I know?  Less and less and less I’m sure.  My brain is shrinking.  Dwindling.  This is a good thing.  It was way too big.  Big brains don’t make happiness or peace, quite the opposite. Our big brains are stopping us from empathising with each other, with animals, with ourselves.   So what do I know?  Right now, from my friend Stevie, and from my wife Jenny, I know that all that matters is kindness.  I want it to be how I live from this point onward.  The rest is sound and fury, money and doubt, self-esteem and anxiety.  Kindness.  Love.  Kindness.

Be still and know you are.

from A World Of Peace Must Come :  The Magic Hand

My Pop Life #154 : Within You Without You – The Beatles

Within You Without You   –   The Beatles

try to realise it’s all within yourself no one else can make you change 

and to see you’re really only very small and life flows on within you and without you

*

when you see beyond yourself then you will find peace of mind is waiting there

and the time will come when you see we’re all one + life flows on within you and without you

‘laughter’

Track 1, side 2 of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  A song written by George Harrison inspired by his love of Ravi Shankar‘s records and his newly-found spiritual awakening to Indian philosophy and religion.   After the pop glories of Lovely Rita and Getting Better and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds have become over-familiar, Within You Without You retains its mystical glowing power after many repeated listens and starts to become the warm central heartbeat of the LP.  Often claimed to be the greatest LP of all time, (though more usually placed way down a list of great Beatles albums), Sgt Pepper was a cultural phenomenon that even I was aware of at the age of 9 on June 1st 1967 when it was released.   It was played on Radio Luxembourg all day, and John Peel played it on his eclectic late night show The Perfumed Garden on Radio London without interruption.  Artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa all fell under its strange English spell, and despite years of claim and counter-claim –  ‘holy grail‘ versus ‘not very good really‘ criticism, it still towers over most of pop’s major records as a Legendary Thing, combining the first concept LP (despite the concept not holding up for more than three songs), the pop-art sleeve by Peter Blake, and the music itself, a rather eccentric combination of psychedelic rock, end-of-the-pier Edwardian recital, classical Indian music, and pure pop.  The first two songs recorded for the LP were Penny Lane (see My Pop Life #36) and Strawberry Fields Forever, but they were released as an extraordinary double-A sided single in April by a zealous EMI.  It’s a testament to the depth of the Beatles’ songwriting that this commercial decision didn’t sink the subsequent LP.

George was always third in the Beatles.  John, Paul…..and George.  And Ringo.  It was simple – he was youngest.  Ringo was last because he was last in, and because he was the drummer.  And our family has a similar shape.   Ralph, Paul…..and Andrew.  And Becky.   George traditionally got one song per album if he was lucky, but by the end of the 1960s his songwriting was so strong that Abbey Road had to include Here Comes The Sun AND Something, the finest song on the LP.

Roger McGuinn & David Crosby in the early days of The Byrds

It was The Byrds‘ guitarist and legendary stoner David Crosby who first showed George a sitar in California in 1965 at an LSD-drenched party in the hills, although Roger McGuinn later insisted that he had shown George the instrument.  I can’t imagine any of them actually remember the details, but George then played one on Norwegian Wood in October of that year.  The following April Harrison went full Indian on Love You To, which is on the LP Revolver.  The accompanying musicians were uncredited but came from the Asian Music Circle,  an organisation founded in Finchley in 1946 by Ayana Angadi and his wife Patrica Fell-Clarke, and where Harrison had been taking sitar lessons.

Ravi Shankar was guest of honour at the Finchley house in June 1966 when he first met George, who thereupon humbly asked him if he could become his pupil.  Ravi accepted.  They became firm friends and the most rewarding fruit of their work is Within You Without You, also recorded with uncredited members of the Asian Music Circle on the Indian instruments tamboura, swarmandel, dilruba and tabla.

Unknown musician, George Harrison & Ravi Shankar in 1967

With a string section arranged by producer George Martin and George Harrison, none of the other Beatles are on the track.  George plays the sitar, much improved from his first attempt.  The effect is mesmerising, musically adventurous and unembarrassingly spiritual.    He was determined to master the instrument, but after a conversation with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix (!) Harrison realised that he had started his lessons fifteen years too late, and that he would never achieve true mastery.   He put the sitar down, and went back to electric guitar, playing some astonishing pieces after the Beatles’ split, including How Do You Sleep? on the Imagine LP, and some beautiful slide guitar on My Sweet Lord and Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth) among others.

George Harrison & Ravi Shankar

When the Brighton Beach Boys decided to tackle Sgt. Pepper, we sat around and threw our names into the hat for lead vocals.  Within You Without You was my first choice.  Clearly the angelic and profoundly moving voice of Glen Richardson would sing most of the McCartney vocals – She’s Leaving Home, Fixing A Hole, When I’m 64 etc.  Tom and Stephen tussled over Paul’s opening screamer.  That left John,  George & Ringo among the remaining five singers.  I got Ringo’s A Little Help From My Friends and the John part of A Day In The Life and this amazing song.  Rehearsing it was odd, because we couldn’t really play it without the strings.  So I sang it at home on my own to the record and tried to hold my nerve.

Very rough Sgt Pepper live event in The Robin Hood pub, 2005.  From the top : Stephen Wrigley, me, Adrian Marshall, Tom Arnold

In May 2005 we had a very rough run-through of Pet Sounds v Sgt Pepper in the Robin Hood pub in Brighton one Sunday afternoon in front of a few customers and friends.  Landlord Neil Hayward had come up with the idea so it was his fault.  We’d already done Pet Sounds at Komedia on May 7th – the first time.  I simply cannot remember how we did WYWY, perhaps we didn’t, or perhaps we had an electric tamboura by then (plug-in, switch on, choose key = instant spangly drone and lots of “mine’s a chicken korma” jokes) and Charlotte played the string part solo.  Or perhaps not.

Soundcheck for Within You Without You in the church.  Steve is playing harmonium (on the vibraphone!)

But history (and Tom Arnold) does record that the first time we played this gig was at the Brighton Festival, May 21st 2006.  We had a tabla player just for this one song which we later considered to be a luxury, and since then Tom Arnold has played a variety of tabla and djembe and other percussion in the song.  Rory Cameron played the sitar part on a Danelectro sparkling blue guitar belonging to Stephen Wrigley.  Later he would learn the part on an actual sitar which of course is visually rather marvellous.  Rory has now left the band.  Glen found a swarmandel sound on his synthesiser – like a zither or metallic harp.   And Steve also scored the string quartet.  For this gig we added a string quartet and an extra flute and sax, and percussion, bringing the total to 16 players, and called the ensemble The Psychedelic Love Orchestra.  Stringers being expensive people who insist (with complete justification) on being paid for rehearsal, I think we may have had just the one rehearsal with them.  (We didn’t have any rehearsals with the stringers this year!)  We then rehearsed during the sound-check, always a nerve-wracking experience.  No pressure.  It kept breaking down in the call-and-answer section between the first violin and the sitar, and the timing was controversial too – was it in 2/5 ??  For my part I had simply listened to the track ENDLESSLY and knew every twitch and sigh, so when I heard my cue, in I droned with the opening line:

 “We were talking . . . about the space between us all…”

St George’s Church, Kemp Town with full Psychedelic Love Orchestra

That night the space between us all was a packed Georgian church – St George’s  in Kemp Town, Brighton.  We were set up on the altar thanks to a groovy priest who no longer runs the place – as a result the altar is now out of bounds, and we can’t fit into the space left.  So those six or seven church gigs were unique and special, in a beautiful wooden structure with wonderful acoustics and an intimate setting.  We lit  incense as the tamboura warmed up, Stephen played the harmonium I think, and it was there, singing live in front of people that I discovered the soul of the piece, how heartfelt and warm it was, how true.  How it was a miracle that somehow we got to the end without breaking down as we had in almost every single run-through.  How I made the pranam prayer Hindu shape with my hands and bowed into the applause, and how we then slid effortlessly (apparently) into the soft shoe shuffle of When I’m 64, such is the clever sequencing of the LP.   How proud I was that we had, collectively, scaled an Everest of a song in English pop culture, inspired by another tradition many miles away.  How I could never count the bars, but always had to rely on instinct, which is much scarier.  We’ve done the show ten times now, and it is always for me the scariest section of the show, and the part I look forward to the most.  A bit like a ghost train.

Practise makes fantactiss

When we moved to New York City in 2014, my great sacrifice was seeing the godchildren growing up – Delilah Rose, who is eight years old, and Skye who is almost two. Uncle Ralph flies back as often as he can to see these precious little people.  The other sacrifice was the band.  It was touch-and-go for a few years whether it would continue at all – not just my absence, but Rory moved to Bury St Edmunds, Charlotte had a baby boy Cosmo, and Tom joined the endless tour of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.   A chance visit in December 2015 found me in Brighton on the same night as a gig at The Brunswick with the rock’n’roll version of the Brighton Beach Boys complete with legend Chris Spedding on the guitar.  I played on that gig (from memory, almost forgetting a key chord in Good Vibrations) and then said that if they booked the Pet Sounds/Pepper gig, I would fly back for it from Brooklyn.

May 28th 2016, Pet Sounds v Sgt Pepper live

Thus it was that almost exactly three years to the day since we last tackled these two pop landmarks The Brighton Beach Boys were reunited at The Haunt, in Pool Valley Brighton on Saturday May 28th 2016.  No Spedding this time, but a lovely guitarist and singer called Jono Harrison.  The band had had two rehearsals, but the woodwinds and strings hadn’t been there.  The same four key players : Nicky and Brian on violins, Sarah on cello and Rob on viola joined us for the soundcheck on Saturday afternoon and we had a quick run-through of Within You Without You.  As usual it was rubbish, well, not rubbish, but covered in errors and hesitations and poor timings, mainly from me.  As usual when we performed it live it was fine.  Some enthusiastic audience members even insisted that it was great.

Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away on 11 December 2012.  George Harrison left us on 29 November 2001.  They remained great friends.

Now and again I tiptoe towards the wisdom embraced by the song – seeing both within myself to change the sadness, and seeing beyond myself to find – sometimes – that peace of mind is waiting there.  I hope I can grow old gracefully.  At the moment the tempest shows no signs of abating.  But life.   Life flows on within you, and without you.

 

My Pop Life #146 I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – The Beach Boys

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times  –   The Beach Boys

…they say I got brains, but they ain’t doin’ me no good.  I wish they could…

Late August 2003.   On the set of Red Light Runners, Harvey Keitel kneels by the altar. Mike Madsen walks slowly up the aisle and kneels next to him.  Keitel is first to speak.

Have you come to kill me dyood ?   he says

That’s how he says it.  Dyood.  The word I wrote is dude.   It’s my screenplay and we are in The Church Of Our Most Holy Redeemer, Exmouth St, Clerkenwell.  I cannot believe my ears.  The scene continues and finishes with Madsen walking back out.  The line-up is finished and the actors go back to their trailers while the lights are assembled and the camera positions established.  Nick Egan the director and I have a quick conflab.  Did you hear what he said ?  Dyood ??   What is going on ?  Nick decides that as the writer, I will go back to Harvey’s trailer and ‘discuss his problems with him’.  So a message is sent via a runner, and five minute later I’m knocking on Keitel’s wagon.

the church interior in Exmouth St

His PA invites me in.  Within a minute it is very clear that Harvey has not read the script. He thinks he is playing an Englishman, and he thinks we talk funny.  We clear that up.  It’s dude.  DUDE.  He asks me about another line.  I explain that his character, Sandy, an ex-CIA priest with a Fagin-esque gang of street kids at his beck and call, is gay.  He is horrified.  It gets weird.  I decide to leave and get myself some breakfast.

Director Nick Egan

I report back to Nick and Michael Wearing and we at least have Mike Madsen on our side. Eventually we get a decent scene, after much huffing and puffing.  I don’t think we turned over until just before lunch though.  By now Harvey is looking over at me after they cut each take and asking “was that OK?“.  It is all quite surreal.   But Red Light Runners was a very strange experience.  See earlier blogs My Pop Life #144 and My Pop Life #145 for the early part of the story.  Nick Egan was very cool and allowed me to sit by the monitors with headphones on, despite the producer Nigel whispering in his ear “Why are you letting Ralph sit there?  It looks weak”.  Nick told him to fuck off.  The central creative team, me, Nick and Michael Wearing were tight, and we weren’t about to be split up.  Various weird things were happening, some of which I knew about and some I didn’t.  But day by day, we were making a film.  It was thrilling.  Jenny was cast.  I was staying in Nick Egan’s flat a couple of days each week rather than slog down to Brighton every day.

           

 Mike Madsen   &   Harvey Keitel

The following day we had to shoot a later scene – Madsen killing Keitel by shooting him through the confession box grille.  It was now clear that one of Harvey’s techniques was to extend the rehearsal part of the day for as long as physically possible, for literally hours at a time, so that we would go over schedule and he would get an extra day’s wages.  It’s an old shitty trick and he was running with it.  So tedious.  Madsen was getting irritable too, but he held it down.  The other issue was very simple : Harvey didn’t want to die onscreen.  He was trying to talk his way out of it at one point and we had to stand firm on the script – we’re shooting this scene, now.  Oh yes we are !  It was truly mental.  Eventually we got it in the can, a day later than scheduled.  Later, much later when Harvey had wrapped and fucked off to Italy while the hotel bill for Claridges was run up – he’d left all his stuff in there – we were shooting another scene in a hotel when Madsen talks to Harvey on the phone.  On one take Madsen lost it and said something along the lines of “I’m glad you’ve wrapped Harvey because you’re a fucking pain in the ass, not only that but I killed you and everybody is gonna know that I killed you, so fuck you.”

There is a Hollywood actor pecking-order of those who have killed, and those who have been killed.  And by whom.  Think about it.

the green dome of the British Museum from Centrepoint roof

Earlier Mike Madsen and I had shot a scene on the balcony at the top of Centrepoint at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road overlooking the British Museum, where we’d planned a major heist  (I was also in the cast).  We’d done car chases through central London, down the Embankment, Blackfriars all the way to the Millenium Dome, then an unused leftover from the celebrations.  We’d flown helicopters over the gherkin building and the river.  We’d shot the White Cube Gallery in Hoxton at a swanky art opening with the cognoscenti, a Turkish arms dealer off Green Lanes in Haringey, and a council block in Southwark with yardie gangs.  I’d had a long chat with Tricky on the top of a London bus (see My Pop Life #61) discussing Chuck D, Public Enemy and Elvis Presley (Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me) before I offered him my headphones and played him Todd Rundgren‘s  Just Another Onionhead from A Wizard, A True Star one of my top ten LPs.  I told you Red Light Runners was strange.

We’d had a Red Light Runners heist meeting in Centrepoint too, on the day when the bond company sent a man onto the set.  An interesting mix of actors : me, Madsen, Cillian Murphy, Kate Ashfield, Tricky,  Joe Van MoylandHeathcote Williams.  The DP Nick Knowland was great but (like Brian Wilson) deaf in one ear.  The Bond man was obsessed with the two Nicks not apparently communicating properly and demanded that one of them had to go.  We carried on and went to another bond company.  All films need a bond company to insure against loss, otherwise…well.  Let’s say it was a warning.

Chiswick – the CIA headquarters.  My friend Doreene Blackstock did a set visit.  Jonathan Ross and Film 2003 were there, filming interviews with the main cast and director.  Wossy was a big supporter of the project, and there was a buzz around the film by now.  We’d been filming for four weeks with two units: the main unit, and the car and stunt unit.  We had eight weeks of stuff in the can.  Roy Scheider was in town playing the CIA chief and lending an air of gravitas and utter professionalism to a scene with Madsen, Crispin Glover and Rich Hall in the HQ.

Roy Scheider, Rich Hall, Crispin Glover – the CIA

Crispin had his raw foods thanks to a lady from Birmingham we’d found specially.   But the producer Michael Casey wasn’t happy.  Stuff was going on behind the scenes, some kind of power struggle.  We still weren’t bonded.  Casey and his wife decided that day that they were personally taking over the funding of the film, and sacked all the co-producers.  They started talking about actors using the tube to get to work, sacking all the drivers, cutting corners.  Meanwhile none of us had been paid yet.  Normally on a movie the principles – the director, designer, writer, producers – get paid their fee in full on the first day of principal photography.  That day had come and gone.  It was four weeks ago in fact.  And Chris the designer decided that he wasn’t coming in on Monday unless he was paid.  It became clear that the caterer had been feeding the unit with his own money.  The word went round the set – we wouldn’t be shooting on Monday, but on Wednesday.  The schedule meant that Monday was in Salisbury, blowing up a church in the Iowa cornfields, the opening sequence and Jenny’s scenes.   Jenny had cancelled her last week on the Vagina Monologues in order to be in Red Light Runners.  We also had Peter O’Toole lined up for Salisbury Cathedral.  Now it wobbled.

Tuesday another phone call came – we wouldn’t shoot on Wednesday but the following Monday.  Then another call.  Then another.  Then another.  After two months of this Nick Egan flew back to Los Angeles, leaving his suits and luggage in the rented flat where he’d been staying and which was now locked by the landlords because they hadn’t been paid either.

Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good going for myself and what goes wrong ?

O cuando sere? Un dia sere” (“When will I be? One day I will be”)

Sometimes I feel very sad…

Originally I chose 2+2=5 for this story, because that was the feeling, and it was a 2003 song.  But it’s a Thom Yorke song about society, about passivity and 1984 so it was rejected for an ironic Hey Ya by Outkast, also a 2003 hit.  But it wasn’t right either.  Next up was Bowie’s Quicksand because that line

Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief…

was my primary feeling to emerge from this fiasco.  But that song doesn’t line up either and deserves better than this story.  I didn’t want to write another film, or a play, or anything.  My friends in StompLuke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas actually did commission a script in November from me, like a soft landing, that’s for another story, and after that another half-hearted film which flickered briefly and fell.  But my heart wasn’t in it, and in many ways still isn’t.  How easily discouraged I am.  How fragile the ego.  Where’s the resilience, the iron will, the inner strength.  No idea.  I squashed it I think.  I felt weak, I felt destroyed to be honest.  Devastated.

In the end I’ve gone for a Pet Sounds song from 1966, a very personal brave lyric from Tony Asher and Brian Wilson about Brian feeling that he was too advanced musically for his band The Beach Boys and that he was literally living in the wrong era.  It doesn’t fit either, but many of the lines kill me to this day, and the feeling is right.   It’s a mournful, rich, delicate ethereal song that is somehow true.   By then the Brighton Beach Boys, my beautiful tribute band were learning this number and preparing to unleash it with string quartet and horns and full harmonies.  It’s a tricky beast to learn but when we committed to it, it was and is glorious.  A mighty tune about disappointment, with oneself, with life, and everything.

Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into…

I had the golden ticket but it was fake.  No film.  No money.  No explanation.

The American actors got paid – Mike Madsen, Harvey Keitel, Roy Scheider, Crispin Glover. The Screen Actors Guild deal protects actors from this kind of thing, which isn’t actually that rare sadly.  Equity, the British equivalent of SAG, is hopeless.  Since living in the USA I have found that the Unions here have far more power than their British counterparts.

Michael Wearing

I was told by Michael Wearing later as the phone calls became fewer that Casey and his wife had decided to take over, sack the entire crew and re-employ them on worse rates.  As a hotel builder,  which is what he did before becoming a “Film Producer”- sorry a little bit of sick just came into my mouth – this was his mode-d’emploi – sack the workforce and undercut their wages.  It might work in the building trade in Portugal but it wasn’t going to wash in the film industry.  Then they started hawking the film around to other co-producers but if you collapse a film half-way through without paying key personnel, you essentially own a debt.  Who wants to buy that ?  It was over and the hope dwindled week by week, like water wearing down a stone.  It was a tunnel with no light at the end.

But things could always be worse.  The designer, Chris, clearly had other issues.  He was involved in a messy divorce apparently, and within weeks of the film closing down he had set light to a set building in our base at Three Mill Island, fire brigade were called but it was destroyed.  He then shot and killed his son, and himself.  Tragic.

The rest of us just carried on living, a little more cynical, a little more beaten down, a little more angry inside, but we carried on.  Anyone working in the film industry – this business we call ‘show’ – has dozens of stories like this.  I have at least a dozen.  This one perhaps the worst.  I still feel bitter about it.   But it’s just a film after all.   And I’m still here.

London now from the top of Centrepoint

And somehow matching this beautiful sad song with this moment of devastation makes me feel a little more healed.  This is the power of music.  If anyone knows and practises the healing power of music it is the fragile genius of Brian Wilson.  This may be his best piece of work.   In 2011, Brian said: “It was like saying: ‘Either I’m too far ahead of my time’ or ‘I’m not up to my time.’ … [The feeling has] stayed the same … a little bit, in some ways not … [but now] I do feel I was made for these times.

My Pop Life #120 : I Love It : Icona Pop ft. Charli XCX

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I Love It   :   Icona Pop featuring Charli XCX

I threw your shit into a bag and shoved it down the stairs

I crashed my car into the bridge – I don’t care !

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Trashy electro bubblegum pop of the very finest kind.  And I’ll tell you why.  It was April 2012 and my sister was turning 40.  One of those moments when you realise that a large number of years have passed by and that young baby who was born in the 1970s was now a grown woman with three kids – which meant I was officially middle-aged.  Age ain’t nothing but a number they say – and they’re right – the inside of my head feels largely the same as when I was 25, but boy some things make you stop short and gulp.

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Rebecca and Alan

Rebecca’s dad-in-love (if not in blood or law) the rather wonderful Alan Sully had booked my band The Brighton Beach Boys to perform at this event, in The Fishermen’s Club in Eastbourne – eastern Eastbourne, somewhere beachside.  I’ll save the band moment for a later post – but just to say that it all went down very well, and remains the only time that my Mum ever saw the Brighton Beach Boys play live.  But for another day.  The band packed up their instruments and gear and drove back to Brighton, leaving Jenny and I to celebrate with the family and friends.  Mum had come with Darren her oldest and dearest friend, both pushing 80, the youngest people there weren’t even 10.  Alan was there with his bowling club mates, Becky’s friends were social workers and teachers.  Mollie, Becky’s oldest daughter was 15, Ellie was 13 and William was 9.  I think.  There were sausages on sticks, cheese sandwiches, a huge cake and lots of drink.  Lots of drink.  We would eventually get the train back to Brighton so no designated driver.

Rebecca was born in Hailsham East Sussex on 29 April 1972 almost exactly two months after her dad John Daignault was kicked out by Mum.  She wouldn’t get to meet him until she was in her 30s.  Born in the midst of a dysfunctional family storm that lasted for at least the first decade of her life, she grew up largely with Mum.  I left home in 1975 at 18 years old, but had spent much of the previous two years in Kingston nr Lewes with the Ryle family.  Paul left home, or was kicked out by Mum, the same year.  Andrew stayed until he too was 18 four years later, then left for college.  So Becky’s prime relationship was always with her Mum.  They bicker, they fight, but they are close – perhaps too close at times.  When Mum met Alan and married him in 1987 her and Rebecca moved into Alan’s house in Polegate by the railway station and Becky called Alan ‘dad’ from then on, and he treated her as his daughter.  Although that marriage also didn’t last a lifetime Alan always kept true to his word and looked after Becky, and this birthday was one of his finest hours.  He proudly paid for everything, and didn’t impose his will on anyone – as far as I know!  I am 15 years older than Bex and have always felt protective of her, although she never appeared to need protection to be honest.  She has ploughed her own furrow through life and is a strong, versatile, funny and warm woman, a great mother and a totally supportive and loving sister.  I love her to bits.  We don’t see that much of each other, but I don’t think we’ve ever really had a seriously cross word.  there’s the shared history of dealing with Mum of course which we all have, but Andrew and I occasionally fight, and Paul and I have had some legendary fights.  Becky and I – never.  Always aligned somehow.

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Proud Mum and her daughters :  Mollie, Rebecca, Ellie

So we drank and ate, admired the cake and drank some more.  The kids were dancing but the adults mooched around the edges.  And then this song dropped.  A churning plumb drop of electronic bass and a thumping 4×4 drumbeat with fierce young ladies chanting in punk pop rant above it.  “I don’t CARE : I LOVE IT”.  The room became instantly transformed into a bouncing melee of mental dancing – young, old, friends, foes, people who didn’t dance and people who absolutely DID.  It was a moment.  Mollie and Ellie were drunk ravers by now and raised the bar on the dance floor.  What was really great was the Everyone loved this song.  Half an hour later Rebecca was in her absolute element and took the party and the dancefloor by the throat.  I have never ever seen her so drunk as that night.  It was glorious – like performance art, she strutted, twirled, span around and around, made shapes and poses, flung her head back, pointed at the sky and ruled.  We howled.  She loved it and so did we.  A memorable event of a night, and yes there are pictures, but to protect the sister who needs no protection I will only post the one below.  There are others…

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can I kick it

I suspect this song has been responsible for quite a few moments, at weddings, birthdays, clubs and raves.  It’s quite simply a stonker.  In a perfect story, my two teenage nieces would have shouted the line

you’re from the seventies but I’m a nineties bitch

at me, their aged uncle Ralph who is indeed from the seventies, but given their ages they scarcely merit the 90s bitch claim.  Ah well they probably sang it at me and their Mum anyway !

*

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Charlie XCX

Written by Charlotte Aitchison when she was a relatively experienced songwriter at the age of 19 (having started public performance aged 14 encouraged by her parents), she didn’t think I Love It would suit her style at the time (2011).  It was picked up by Swedish producer Patrick Berger who’d previously worked with Robyn on her influential dance record Body Talk Pt 1 and in particular Dancing On My Own.  Swedish producers currently rule the world of pop on both sides of the Atlantic – notably Max Martin (Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry) and Tove Lo who also worked with the Swedish band Icona Pop.  Icona Pop were formed in 2009 by Stockholm teens Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, they hit the jackpot with Charlie XCX‘s “I Love It” on which Charlie was a featured artist. Although the song was released in the US in 2012 it didn’t reach the UK charts until 2013.

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It is cheesy trashy irresistible fist-pumping pop of the finest lowest-common-denominator kind, a call to arms to unburden yourself of any conformist instincts for the duration of its 2 minutes and 37 seconds and thus takes its place in the great canon of perfect pop.  It’s a destroyer of the generation gap.  It’s a fucking classic.   Make sure the DJ plays it at your party.

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My Pop Life #116: Left Bank Two (Vision On : Gallery Theme) – The Noveltones

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Left Bank Two   –   The Noveltones

(Vision On :  The Gallery theme)

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Tony Hart

Unmistakable, gentle, playful vibraphone jazz shuffle which evokes immediate memories for my generation of a BBCtv show called Vision On which ran from 1964 to 1976 thus neatly encapsulating my entire life in East Sussex as a youth.  My family moved from Portsmouth in 1964 when I was just seven, Dad having scored a teaching job at Falmer School just outside of Brighton.  We moved into a semi-detached house in Selmeston, a small village of some 200 people, bordered by a railway line at one end and the A27 at the other.

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Selmeston Church

That one-mile stretch of road was my universe until the age of eleven by which time my dad and mum had divorced, mum had spent nine months in a mental hospital and I’d passed my eleven-plus exam and would take a bus into Lewes every day.   Two years later we would all be separated as a family as the landlords – horsey toffs from Sherrington Manor – made us homeless and wiped our debt to them at one stroke.  For the remainder of the 1970s we were in a council house in Hailsham, although I left for Laughton Lodge in 1975, and London in 1976.

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Pat Keysell, Tony Hart

Throughout this period Vision On was on BBC TV.  It was a programme for deaf children, and had almost no spoken words.  It was watched by all children.   Filled with speech bubbles and mime it was largely a visual show.  Presented by Tony Hart and Pat Keysell, who spoke in sign language and spoke, with Tony spening much of the show (so it seemed to me) drawing things.  Encouraging children to create.  Awakening our latent interest in expression.  The centrepiece of each show was The Gallery where the camera lingered over pictures that viewers – ie children – had sent in, with their name and age displayed, and a notice explaining and apologising that pictures could not be returned but that a prize would be given for those shown.  What that prize was we never found out.  We never sent one in, but were transfixed, at least partly by the music.  For this section of the programme was played out to a piece of music which, with its dreamy melody and nimble simplicity appeared to come from another planet.  In fact it came from Holland.

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Left Bank Two was a piece of Library Music originally.   Library Music is licensed differently than other music and is often used for TV shows.  It is much cheaper for producers to use, as the broadcaster in general will pay the royalties, maybe a dollar each time it is played.  If it is a long-running series, over the years this can add up.  If it is a commercial, you could be, as composer, quids in.  I found out a little about Library Music when I was directing an aborted documentary (called Red Light Fever) on British Session Musicians in 2012, inspired by the great doc ‘Standing In The Shadows Of Motown‘.  I’m still learning.  But all of the people I interviewed – singer and composer Barbara Moore, guitarist Chris Spedding, bass players Herbie Flowers and Les Hurdle, drummer Clem Cattini, singer Madeline Bell – all of them great session musicians, arrangers, songwriters, all exceptional musicians as session players have to be – (deep breath it’s a long sentence) – all of them have played Library Music on a regular basis.   How to explain it?  There are some production houses which specialise in this kind of music.  De Wolfe Music is the big one, started in 1927 to provide cheap music for the talkies.

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 They hire a composer to write : seascapes, exciting car chase, a creepy scene, ghostly atmospheres, romantic swoons, mood music of various types.   The Composer will hire a group of session musicians to come and read the dots and they will be paid a session fee.  The pieces of music will be grouped together and issued to TV production companies who can use a short piece – eg Grange Hill written by Alan Hawkshaw – and the broadcaster will cover the royalties.  All the musicians who played on the piece will get a cut, unless they signed that percentage away, in the deal – a “buy-out”.  And if you’re a session musician you never know which piece will suddenly get picked up.  Indeed these days when hip-hop producers and DJs are constantly looking for new samples, obscure beats and licks that other producers haven’t used yet, Library Music is now being plundered like every other form of music.   Barbara Moore provided the marvellous wordless vocal on the theme tune to The Saint.  Les Hurdle ended up playing with Giorgio Moroder‘s band in Munich when Donna Summer turned up and disco was born.   And this particular piece – called Left Bank Two – was an afterthought on one of those De Wolfe sessions in 1963, at the end of the day with half an hour still on the clock – I love these stories, this one reminiscent of Otis Redding’s big break – “has anyone got anything we can play here?”

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It was young vibes player Wayne Hill who offered ‘a thing he’d been playing around with’.   The group of Dutch musicians with whom he was playing (who called themselves The Noveltones) quickly learned it and recorded the vibraphone-led piece.  Carefully listening musos will hear the guitarist having a slight crisis over chords towards the end, the only clue to the tune’s end-of-session nativity.  TV viewers would never get to hear that anyway since The Gallery would only last a minute usually.  Seemed longer though didn’t it ?  A minute is a long time on television…

I bought a vibraphone in 2004 once The Brighton Beach Boys had decided to perform “Pet Sounds” live.  There is one tune on that LP which requires vibes, and although my keyboard has a good vibes sample, the visual of seeing someone strike the keys with beaters as Darian Sahanaja had done with the Brian Wilson Band earlier that year had stuck with me.  I want to be him, I thought.  I wanted to play vibes on “Let’s Go Away For A While“.  I’ll save it for another post.  But the first tune I attempted to play, once I’d set it up and worked out how to use the foot-pedal, was the Vision On Gallery Theme.  Of course !  And wheeling it into rehearsal with the Brighton Beach Boys, everyone wanted a go, and I think almost everyone wanted to play that tune.  Maybe it was just me ;-0

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Live in St George’s – my Penny Lane vibes – concentration is key !

My vibraphone currently resides in the Charlotte Glasson Musical Museum of Earthly Recollections in Brighton’s sexy Surrey Street, being carefully nurtured and oiled.

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Morph

Tony Hart is a children’s TV legend.  An early (ie before my time) Blue Peter presenter, he designed the logo for the Blue Peter badge, and took a buy-out rather than the requested 1d per badge.  After Vision On was discontinued in 1976 would go on to use Left Bank Two as the theme music for his next show Take Hart, and John Williams‘ Deer Hunter Theme Cavatina would take over as the Gallery Music.  He often appeared alongside Aardman Animations creation Morph in the late 70s and 80s until he retired with two Baftas in 2001.  Tony Hart died in 2006, his reputation unbesmirched like others of his generation.

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Left Bank Two – the Vision On Gallery Theme – is often referred to as ‘easy-listening music’ or even ‘elevator music’.   It’s library music.   It’s TV theme music.  And – yes – it’s jazz.

My Pop Life #111 : Heroes & Villains : The Beach Boys

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Heroes & Villains   –   The Beach Boys

I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost & gone & unknown for a long long time…

*

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This extraordinary creation was one of the songs on The Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats, one of the handful of LPs in our council house in Sussex in the mid 70s.  The album pulled together all the big singles, and had a couple of interesting choices including this song, which we also had on 45rpm Capitol Records black label 7-inch from 1967 when it was released.  My mum must have bought it – I was 10 years old in ’67.

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Back in those days, The Beach Boys were a chart-pop act for me, even when Simon and I hitch-hiked around the USA in the summer of 1976 the great discovery was their greatest hits LP Endless Summer which contained songs I hadn’t heard before like Be True To Your School and the exquisite jewel Girls On The Beach.   I had no interest or awareness in their LPs until I got to college later in 1976 and my girlfriend Mumtaz had the LP Holland from 1973.  I think Surf’s Up (1971) was the next Beach Boys LP I was aware of, during the LSE days, but they remained a singles band for me apart from those two exceptions.   Pet Sounds you ask ?  Didn’t hear it – in full – until the early 1990s when Jenny and I were living in Los Angeles.    Perhaps it was because they are the quintessential LA band that I bought the box-set Good Vibrations in 1993 in Amoeba Records – an Aladdin’s cave of musical treasure – and played it endlessly due to the immense discoveries thereon – including the Pet Sounds songs.  Featured image

The 1966 LP Pet Sounds is for another post – but for now I’ll simply acknowledge it as an extraordinary piece of music – a deep, rich, carefully arranged and orchestrated work of delicate beauty, terrible sadness & infinite fascination.  It was Beach Boy’s head honcho and songwriter Brian Wilson’s response to hearing the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, an inspirational leap into the studio and the possibilities of playing pop music in a completely different way.   The Beatle’s responded with Sgt Pepper,  itself influenced by Pet Sounds, but while they were recording Pepper, Brian Wilson was working on his own follow-up to the Pet Sounds album.   One of the problems for The Beach Boys was that Pet Sounds hadn’t shifted large numbers of units, and even today it is considered complex and less obvious than most of the music of 1966.

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Brian salvaged his pure pop credentials with the single Good Vibrations in October ’66 which outsold the Beatles and won Single Of The Year in all the polls.  This pop rivalry was pushing the respective songwriters to unheard-of peaks of creativity.  Good Vibrations was recorded at four different studios in Los Angeles and endlessly polished before release – but it is an undoubted masterpiece which was Brian Wilson’s first installment on the Pet Sounds follow-up LP – to be called “Smile”.    The album never came out.   But the second single Heroes & Villains did – and it is another towering slice of baroque harmony pop which goes where no 7″ single has gone before.   Apparently the bigwigs at Capitol Records in Hollywood weren’t impressed with it (??) and the start of Brian’s great mental decline can be measured from this song.   Which kind of makes this a peak moment in 1967.

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I’ve always been obsessed with Heroes & Villains.   Jimi Hendrix called The Beach Boys ‘psychedelic barbershop‘, and some people took that as an insult.   But it applies here.   The vocal arrangement is second-to-none in a pop milieu.   It sounds impossibly complex, but the Beach Boys would happily sing it live.   They had a natural blend – three brothers and a cousin plus one mate – and in a live setting they could pull off the most beautiful layered harmonies either acapella or rockin’ out.  The 1993 Good Vibrations box-set though had something else going on – at least 3 other songs called “Heroes & Villains” with different words, different tempos, different arrangements, little pieces of music using parts of the song like strands of sound, stunning piano shapes, harpsichord modulations, vocal experiments, percussive expressions, doo-wop, strings, animal noises, hand-claps, swoons, cantinas, laughs, a whole universe of sound.  A series of clues.  This was like a suite of songs all with the same title.  It’s just a little bit mental.  The final release of SMiLE in 2011 had over 30 tracks called Heroes & Villains.

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Indulgent ?  LSD ?  Genius  ?  Or just unable to settle – a spasm in D minor which couldn’t be resolved.  Probably all of these.  Brian Wilson was mentally disintegrating as he was writing his greatest work, and the pressure to compete with Sgt Pepper, the lack of support from other band members and the record company, and Brian’s own inability to shape the endlessly brilliant pieces of music he was giving birth to into a coherent whole meant that the SMiLE project was finally ditched in May 1967.   It wouldn’t surface again until 2004 when I saw the Brian Wilson band playing it live onstage at The Royal Festival Hall in London – a world premiere.  I went to see it a further five times that week.  It is clearly a masterwork in the pop medium, but apparently, isn’t as it was originally intended.  Sadly no-one can remember what was originally intended least of all Brian himself.  My own theories are centred on this song, it was clearly a musical thread which was to run throughout the work, but don’t forget that in those days all tape was analog and pieced together one part at a time – not like today’s digital world where we can shuffle pieces of music at the touch of a click and experiment with what sounds best.  Brian had written and recorded a musical puzzle which no-one could put together.  He spent the first few months of 1967 shaping Heroes & Villains into a reasonably regular pop song, and it remains a high water mark of musical joy.

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Original artwork for the aborted SMiLE LP by Frank Holmes

In September 1967 a Beach Boys album called Smiley Smile was released, with Good Vibrations and Heroes & Villains on it, and a few survivors of the abandoned project.   It is an average album, a cobbled-together record-company compromise, not a masterpiece, and not a Pet Sounds 2.   It would be 2011 when Alan Boyd and Mark Linnett would finally put together the box-set The Smile Sessions with the Beach Boys approval.  It is everything I hoped it would be, a fitting companion piece to Pet Sounds, and better in many ways, even more adventurous musically  containing humour, American history (care of lyricist Van Dyke Parks) and the masterpiece Surf’s Up – a kind of choral farewell.  Wilson called SMiLE ‘a teenage symphony to God‘ and I can’t better that LSD-drenched description.

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Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love & Dennis Wilson in 1967

When Stephen Wrigley and I formed The Brighton Beach Boys in early 2002 we started with In My Room, Surfer Girl and Surfin’ USA.   Joined by Glen Richardson, Adrian Marshall, Charlotte Glasson, Rob Breskal, Rory Cameron and Theseus Gerrard we did our first gig later that year, in the Hanbury Ballroom.   Paul Gunter joined on percussion, Rob departed and Tom Arnold arrived.   Andy Doe joined on French Horn, left and was replaced by Dom Nunns.   We started doing some of the more complex songs.  Wouldn’t It Be Nice.  And Your Dream Comes True.   And – yes : Heroes & Villains.   Glen did all of our vocal arrangements and taught us the notes, and week by painstaking yet thrilling week we pieced the song together.   I sang the lead part – it’s right in my range – and it’s the easiest part – and we wheeled it out one night in a live show.   It brought the house down because it sounds so impossibly complex, Glen’s brilliant arrangement giving us each a specific vocal job.   And the song itself is so thrilling, a rush of words and music.   It was an absolute privilege to perform it each time we played live.

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Charlotte, Adrian, Stephen, Stevie, me, Rory, Dom, Glen, Theseus – Herne Bay 26.08.06

Later on the band would be introduced to beat poet and lyricist Stephen J. Kalinich who wrote a number of songs with Dennis Wilson, and later with Brian too.  Stevie was in England for a mini-tour, and he sat in on a BBB rehearsal then travelled to a gig with us in Herne Bay, Kent, which I’ll save for another post.   But I’ve been friends with Stevie ever since and we always spend time together when I am in Los Angeles.  He is a gentle and lyrical soul with a unique sensitivity to life which he expresses in words and poems.  Featured image

Stevie in Los Angeles 2012

Again I will save Stevie for another post (see My Pop Life #169) but he introduced me to Mark Linnett while Stevie was living in his house in Glendale in 2009-2010.    Stevie also introduced me to other members of the wider Beach Boys family including David Marks, guitarist on the first five LPs, Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford, Brian’s first wife and her husband Daniel, and also the wonderful Alan Boyd, The Beach Boys’ archivist and the only person that all former and current members actually talk to.   Alan is a beautiful man with a fine collection of vintage celluloid and 1920s pop music and it was he who laboured night and day to put the final 2011 SMiLE Sessions Box-Set together, with Mark Linnett engineering.   He won a totally-deserved Grammy for his pains.   I’ve talked to Alan about the Heroes & Villains conundrum and he agrees that the musical pieces are the cornerstone of SMiLE but the many parts mean that it is impossible to know how to assemble it satisfactorily or otherwise.   Alan has spent more time with this song than anyone since Brian Wilson in 1966-67, and I think it drove him a little bit bonkers trying to piece it all together.   In the end Heroes & Villains takes up a whole side of vinyl on the box-set, its different parts laid out for us to all to hear and make of what we will.   It is astonishing.   Me – I always liked the original single, but Al Jardine always said that the actual original was way better.    I’ll leave you with the Stereo Mix from the 2011 SMiLE Sessions.  It’s a little bit like the one The Brighton Beach Boys used to sing live, and perhaps will again one day…

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