My Pop Life #185 : Between The Wars – Billy Bragg

LicheinsteinintheskywithDiamonds

Between The Wars   –   Billy Bragg

Call up the craftsmen bring me the draughtsmen build me a path from cradle to grave     and I’ll give my consent to any government that does not deny a man a living wage

*

I wrote the piece below in the Spring of 1985 as this song was released. I was 27.

*

Blackpool.  Monday afternoon,  a wet October,  1984

Six actors, a director and a writer meet each other in the lounge of the Pendale Hotel (just off the town map) and plan their assault on the Labour Party Conference :  the largest collection of journalists to be found outside of a Fleet Street pub.  Our mission: to explore their world, their obsessions.  We have (valued possessions) press passes saying ‘Joint Stock’ pinned to our clothing, currently providing simple entry to the Winter Gardens.  We are naive, optimistic, nervous, brave.  We move in.

A fringe meeting upstairs from the bar is getting underway.  Entrance is through a sea of leaflets thrusting at you from Nicaragua to the Kent coalfields.  Inside, a large surreal Spanish galleon of a room is filling up.  TV cameras at the front, lights.  A sense of excitement.  The speakers tonight are Livingstone, Benn & Scargill.  I am looking for journalists.  What do they wear?  How do they talk?  Who do they vote for?  Why are they journalists?  Will they even talk to me?  I see two, identifiable by their press passes, and sit down next to them, a youngish woman and an older bespectacled man.

Hello,’  I offer boldly.  ‘Can I talk to you?‘  They look at me.  I launch in.  ‘My name is Ralph Brown and I’m up in Blackpool with Joint Stock Theatre Group and we’re researching a play about journalists and we don’t know what it’s about yet, and can I talk to you?’   They are both from The Sunday Times, covering the conference – she is on the Insight team, he is the local man in Lancashire.

‘We set the agenda for this conference’ he claims, ‘Three weeks ago our front page said Kinnock would be in trouble on three fronts at this conference – the police, the miners, the local authorities.  And that’s the way the conference will go.’  He evidently felt that this was the legitimate role of the paper, but perhaps feeling he had said too much started to move away.  ‘Talk to Ros,’ he said, ‘she’s the expert on the miner’s strike.’  Could I meet him later I asked, at the Imperial Hotel perhaps?  He smiled and nodded and moved off. The woman grabbed my arm. ‘Do you know who that is?’ she whispered.  ‘He’s the one you want to talk to. That’s Michael Jones, political editor of The Sunday Times.’  I was going to have to be a little smarter over the course of the next three weeks.  There was a stirring at the front of the hall.  Scargill was entering – he timed it well, and the room erupted as their hero moved onto the platform. The feeling was quite extraordinary. Suddenly the press became noticeable leaning against walls, slouching in chairs, bored. Even so, notebooks were produced, pens from inside pockets, and attention brightened a little: the studied boredom of their poses couldn’t quite smother the sense of history.

Arthur Scargill, leader of the miner’s union at the Labour Party Conference, 1984

Later, the bar and foyer of the Imperial Hotel provided the true flavour of the conference. The place was full of journalists and politicians, and Joint Stock valiantly camoflauged within.  Peter Hillmore (Observer) peered at my press pass suspiciously, exchanged a sentence with me and decided there were more important people to talk to. Sir Robin Day was decidedly the worse for wear and tottering on the steps with a young woman in black. I cornered Mick Costello, industrial editor of the Morning Star, smoking cigars and hobnobbing happily with capitalist comrades from the Telegraph and the Express. In fact there was an awful lot of hobnobbing going on. I think everyone there was drunk. I met Michael Jones again, he welcomed me with open arms, told me the play didn’t have a hope of understanding “the relationship between me and the office”, confessed to always having had ambitions to being one of the opinion-forming elite, and wished me the very best of luck, young man.  ‘Of course, it’s very different when the Tories are here,’ a wobbling hack confided.  ‘Last year it was wonderful though, Parkinson – you remember?’ Little did he suspect that the Tories would provide the best story for a decade only ten days later.

       

    It was Scargill’s week, undoubtedly. Adulated by conference, hated and adored by the press, ‘Coal Not Dole’ stickers everywhere and buckets being rattled at every door.  Quite a time.  We all had our adventures.  Simon Curtis followed a Sun reporter for one afternoon hoping to catch some juicy bit or other, and was spotted trying to listen in on a conversation.  I was finally confronted by this man, a stocky Scot, who told me that if my friend didn’t lay off he would receive a crack on the head.  I talked to him.  I was getting quite good at asking the right questions.  He told me how he’d always wanted to be a policeman and had fallen into journalism at a Spencer Davis concert in Glasgow.

The Joint Stock method meant that observation was crucial.  Each morning, we would present, one at a time, a character we had encountered the day before, with close attention to detail: accent, hand movements, figures of speech etc. Sometimes we would write notes. I found it easier and more accurate to rely on memory. If more than one of us had been there, we could present the group with a ‘scene’.  We slowly discovered which questions and lines of conversation gave the best ‘results’, but it was always the unexpected, the surprising, which caught the imagination of the group. It was for me a wonderfully exciting way to work.

Robert Maxwell, Mirror owner in July 1984

My final memory of Blackpool was a Daily Mirror press conference called by Robert Maxwell to present a granny from Essex with a huge cheque for one million pounds for winning Mirror bingo.  The scene was grotesque, and made its way into Deadlines – the play which resulted from this workshop – in all its surreal horror, with myself playing the elephantine Maxwell. I remember the poor woman standing there, with cameras clicking, TV arc lights, microphones and questions, a glass of champagne glued into her hand, a frozen smile on her bewildered face.  She turned to Marge Proops (Mirror Women’s Page) standing next to her and asked if it was all right for her to have a sip. Later, Kathryn Pogson and I spoke to her daughter. ‘ You’re not from The Sun are you? We’ve been told not to answer any questions.’   We explained that we were actors doing research and suddenly the woman recognised Kathryn: ‘You were on TV weren’t you?’  She immediately relaxed and took us into her confidence. ‘They’ve been ever so good. We’ve been to four hotels in four days. We had the phone call saying we’d won, and they just said pack a suitcase. We left the washing in the machine.’  Her son was whimpering. ‘Shut up,‘ said his dad, ‘I’ve bought you loads of things today.’  They had just won a million pounds. Mirror men were gently ushering people to a photocall with the trams. ‘Let’s hope we’ve got more friends than enemies’ was the daughters final thought as Kathryn and I left for the Big Dipper.

The local Sheffield paper : me, Paul Jesson, a journalist, Stephen Wakelam, Tricia Kelly, Alan David

The company left for Sheffield, the heart of the miner’s strike, and spent two days at the local paper – the Morning Telegraph and the Sheffield Star the evening version, who shared the same office, again asking questions and listening.  I suggested to the industrial editor (‘a close friend of Arthur‘ someone whispered) that being a local reporter was something of a luxury, being able to be accurate and honest and truthful. ‘No,‘ he said, ‘I just have to live here.’  It was becoming increasingly difficult to parry the obvious question: “What is the play about?”  We really had no idea, and the people we talked to, especially the journalists, couldn’t accept this.  ‘You’re going to expose us, aren’t you? All the drink and sex.’  And in truth we were beginning to behave more and more like journalists: finding ways of making people talk, being persistent, looking for angles.

The most famous photograph from the 1984-5 miner’s strike

Simon Curtis and I visited some picket lines at Maltby and Silverwood collieries and spent one afternoon talking to two miners who were on strike, one of whom, Jim, became a character in the play.  Throughout the two and a half hour conversation, Simon had been fingering a five pound note in his pocket, preparing to give it to the fund before he left. ‘Do you have a collection?’ he asked the young miner. ‘Sure, just give it to me, we’ll mek sure it gets t’ reght place.’  Simon pulled out his note and offered it. They both looked at it.  It was a twenty pound note. (more like a hundred pounds in today’s money). ‘Oh’ said the miner.  Simon’s eyes glazed over. ‘Oh thanks a lot’ said the miner. Simon’s fingers released the note, and he smiled weakly.  We drove off, Simon in some shock.

The company then moved to the hustle and bustle of London, Fleet Street, the TV Studios and radio stations.  The journey was important. The people we’d talked to 200 miles north were filtered and made into ‘news’ down here in the capital.  Stephen Wakelam (the writer) was particularly affected by this geographical change, and the play’s sweep covers the quiet of the South Yorkshire countryside to the claustrophobic newsrooms of London.  My favourite place was BBC Newsnight. ‘We’re doing a play about the media’ I offered as an introduction to Howard, sleeveless-jerseyed, Guardian-reading type. He swung round in his typical journalists swing-round chair. ‘Media!’ He glared at me, managing to look totally harmless. ‘Don’t lump us in with the bloody Express, Mirror and Beano.  This is a television news programme.’ 

   Presenter Peter Snow (right) had an SDP poster up in the room where he was working. I desperately wanted to ask him if it was his, but couldn’t find the words. It was very very difficult to ask journalists about their politics. They pretended they didn’t have any. Or they said ‘I’m nosy’ or ‘I’m an observer.’  Others were more approachable, notably those at The Express, where a considerable number of the writers are members of the Labour Party!  I was devastated by this disclosure, although the Express journalists I spoke to found it totally normal : ‘It’s the same at the Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph. You’ve got to earn a living.’ I suggested the two things might be incompatible. ‘I’ve never written a word against the Labour Party in twelve years on the Express.’  The man seemed proud of this, as if his principles were still intact.  Fiona Millar, one of the few women on the paper had an even worse situation, surrounded by pin-ups, being given the Royal stories or the animal stories because of her gender.  ‘My generation is terribly disappointed in the profession we’ve joined,’ she told me.  She is in her late twenties, and moved from the local paper to Fleet Street just as it was going down the drain : bingo, tits and circulation wars.  She was consoled by the fact that the Express was ‘a writer’s paper’ rather than a subeditor’s paper.  Subeditors – the back bench – are a strange group of men (invariably) who sift the paras, reorganise the stories, and in many cases rewrite according to the paper’s politics.

The Sun was more difficult.  We trooped up to the office and were told to wait by the door.  We huddled there, feeling like intruders. A nervous face told us about The Sun glancing over his shoulder now and again. One of us was escorted to the toilet and back. We were not allowed to talk to any journalists.  The face we were talking to had a plastic smile which it kept putting on to reassure us, and only succeeded in totally unnerving us. ‘We are a family newspaper. We never print anything unless it’s checked. We write for an average reading age of eight.’ He did, however, tell us the name of the cabinet minister whom the whole of Fleet Street knew was fucking small boys. And somehow, this one rather sordid point was a believable oasis in the desert of his insincerity.

And so to the Tories.  We took it in turns to visit the Tory Conference in Brighton (only had two press passes) and Tricia Kelly and I found ourselves on the train down just hours after an IRA bomb had wrecked the Grand Hotel.  There was security everywhere. The atmosphere inside the conference hall was extraordinary. Resilience, survivors. Thatcher got an emotional standing ovation just for being there. Tricia and I felt like enemies of the people in the midst of the mob, protected by the legitimate neutrality of our press passes. It meant we didn’t have to applaud. We could look cool and detached and professional. This was a relief. Thatcher was finally introduced as ‘a great statesman’ and she spoke for the whole hall about Tebbit’s bravery, property, owners and earners, and got a massive, absurd standing ovation at the end. Tricia made our way to the door and stopped to watch this display of political football hooliganism.  We were ushered out by a rather embarrassed man, as if this was a private Tory moment not to be witnessed by the unfaithful.

Grand Hotel, Brighton, the morning after an IRA bomb, October 1984

   We moved out onto the beach.  The Grand Hotel had a huge hole knocked out of it, the beach was roped off, police were everywhere. Earlier, I had tried to have a few words with  of the Observer, one of our contacts.  ‘Haven’t got time,’ he said, rushing away. ‘Best story for twenty-five years.’  There were journalists everywhere.  Every paper and TV station had quintupled its Brighton staff. By now, we Joint Stockers were behaving like journalists ourselves, moving towards huddles of people instinctively for titbits trading information, becoming strangely distanced from the event. The process was not dissimilar : the workshop, the story.

I remember the feeling standing on Brighton beach, so clearly. An exhilarating sense of history. It was all happening around me: the strike, the conferences, the bomb. I felt at the centre of the universe.

*

Jenny Stoller, Tricia Kelly and Amelda Brown in Caryl Churchill’s ‘Fen’

The piece above was the last chapter in The Joint Stock Book, published by Methuen in 1997 and reprinted here for information. I do not claim copyright.  I think the book is now out of print.  Subtitled The Making Of A Theatre Collective, the book is a tribute to the working method of Joint Stock, a unique theatre collective in the UK as I was starting out in the 1980s.  It started around 1974 and had built a formidable reputation for itself as a producing house for new, often devised work.   The company operated as a self-managing collective with only one permanent member of staff, the administrator, everyone else was invited to meetings and made decisions, on a collective level.  I met a lot of very good people over the three years that I was involved with Joint Stock, including my next girlfriend, Rita Wolf, who had been in Borderline written by Hanif Kureishi and was thus on the collective.  The book contains contributions from members of the collective about the work of the company, ranging from Max Stafford-Clark to Roger Lloyd-Pack to Bill Gaskill to Caryl Churchill to Kenny Ireland to Danny Boyle to Miriam Margoyles to Pauline Melville.  It remains for me the finest way to create a play, both as an actor and as a writer.  I was lucky enough to do both – the play Sanctuary came two years later in 1987 – Deadlines premiered in Sheffield in February 1995 before touring the UK.  Both plays were written about and for a community : journalists and homeless youth.  Later in 1985 Jane Thornton wrote Amid The Standing Corn about the miner’s wives for Joint Stock.  She is from Yorkshire where my dad lives now (married to a Barnsley lass, dear Beryl) and Jane is also married to a Yorkshireman John Godber who is instrumental in my working life (A Clockwork Orange, Up’n’Under).  A strain of decency and pride running through the county.  I think the most rewarding part of both Deadlines and Sanctuary for me  were the nights when the community came to see the play they’d helped create.  When the journalists at the Sheffield Star came to the Crucible Theatre, sitting alongside striking miners and their familes.   When the homeless familes and charities like Centrepoint London came to The Drill Hall for a benefit one night to see themselves represented onstage.  The highest form of emotional.  Lucky to have experienced it twice.  To think that Thatcher had called the National Union of Mineworkers ‘the enemy within’ still makes me enraged to a level which frightens me to this day.  Turbulent times.  A historic defeat.  La lotta continua.  Here’s Billy.

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My Pop Life #176 : Luck Be A Lady – Ian Charleson

Luck Be A Lady  –  Ian Charleson

They call you Lady Luck. but there is room for doubt. at times you have a very un-ladylike way of running out.

You’re on this date with me. the pickings have been lush. and yet before this evening is over you might give me the brush

You might forget your manners. you might refuse to stay.   And so the best that I can do is pray….

There are two extremely well-known versions of this song by two extremely famous people, but I choose them not.   Now read on dot dot dot.   This hard-to-find version was the one I sang at auditions in 1982 and 1983, an aspiring thespian with a paper-thin resumé and a hopeful willing heart.  I knew nothing, and very few people were explaining things.  Normal life in other words.   A keen, inexperienced, hungry young soul.  By which I mean that I really don’t feel as if I’ve been here before AT ALL, and thus all my wisdom – such as it is – has been hard-won this time around.   And I had very little aged 24, 25, 26.  Choose me !  I’d probably just about got my Equity Card via Moving Parts Theatre Company and done a cracking John Godber-directed production of A Clockwork Orange at Man In The Moon theatre in the King’s Road which secured me an agent.  Earlier that year my girlfriend Mumtaz and I had been to The National Theatre one night to see Guys and Dolls, the Frank Loesser musical based on Damon Runyon‘s slang-crackling low-life characters, wise guys & lippy girls, gamblers, hustlers, tough guys and dames.  It was a brilliant production, directed by Richard Eyre and a real eye-opener.  Starring Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit, Julia McKenzie as Adelaide, Ian Charleson as Sky Masterson, David Healy as Nicely Nicely and Julie Covington as Sister Sarah, and my old friend Jim Carter.  It is without exaggeration one of my best nights out in the theatre ever, and it had a profound effect on me, cementing my desire to be an actor, inspiring me to think song-and-dance, and causing me to realise, finally, that film actors and stage actors can crossover into each other’s arenas and triumph.  It was simply quite exhilarating.

So much so that – gasp – we bought the soundtrack LP in the foyer with these classic tunes on it : Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat, Adelaide’s Lament, Take Back Your Mink, If I Were A Bell, Sue Me and Luck Be  A Lady, the latter sung by Ian Charleson.

What a song.  The show was also my introduction (along with my Billie Holiday LP), to The Great American Songbook, a loose collection of jazz-pop songs usually written for stage musicals and films between 1920 and the early 50s, by the all-time great songwriters Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Hoagy Carmichael, Dorothy Fields, George & Ira Gershwin and others. Songs like Summertime, The Way You Look Tonight (My Pop Life #162 ), Cheek To Cheek, Fly Me To The Moon, Bye Bye Blackbird, I Get A Kick Out Of You, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Pennies From Heaven, Someone to Watch Over Me and on and on, all covered by all the major singers of the time, and many more since then.

Guys and Dolls premiered on Broadway in 1950, and was a massive hit.  A film adaptation followed in 1955 with Marlon Brando singing Luck Be A Lady poorly and wearing a shit-eating grin to compensate opposite Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah.  Below : the movie trailer fronted by Ed Sullivan reading an autocue with glimpses of the lead characters, including Vivian Blaine from the original Broadway production who UNUSUALLY got to play the same character in the movie (mainly because Marilyn Monroe wasn’t available).

Frank Sinatra played Nathan Detroit in the film but later he made Luck Be A Lady his own signature tune along with Come Fly With Me and Under My Skin.  His version is below too.  It’s brilliant, magnificent even, but it’s not the version that I used to sing at auditions.

My generation was one of the last who had to present a Shakespeare speech and sing a song to get a job.  Not at the same time.  But nearly.  Certainly to get a place at a drama school or work at one of the regional Repertory Theatres.   I think I used to do Richard the 2nd, but I can’t really remember.  I had secured an offer for the Drama Studio in Ealing early in 1982, but I couldn’t get a grant and couldn’t afford the fees.  I’d already had a grant from East Sussex to study for a Batchelor of Law at the LSE, so why should I get a post-grad one year change-of-career hand-out?  My generation were gilded by that grant system, and the accompanying soundtrack of punk, funk, reggae and disco.  But there I was – out the other side, changing horses, wasting my education.  What a rebel!    I was out there on my own, learning Shakespeare speeches and singing Luck Be A Lady along to Ian Charleson in our attic flat in Finsbury Park.  Buying the sheet music, making sure it was in the right key so I could give it to the pianist in the audition.  I guess musical auditions still operate like this – I haven’t done one for over 30 years.  But I’m sure the pianist usually knows the score.

The song has a dramatic opening, in common with many American Songbook pieces – Stardust for example (see My Pop Life #100) – a whole section in a different key which sets the song up.  This one really appealed to me.  You’re walking into a gambling salon in your finest threads talking to your dice.  I had no idea what those dice did – not blackjack which I had played with my Grandad, but ‘craps’ which still baffles me to this day.  On my Las Vegas trips I have always concentrated on roulette, and occasionally the other type of blackjack (the card game) but not dice.  But that didn’t put me off the song, where Sky is singing to Lady Luck, and imagining that she is an actual dame.  A hackneyed yet brilliant conceit :

A lady doesn’t wander all over the room and blow on some other guy’s dice 

*

Frank Loesser..

..had a classical upbringing in New York, but he broke away from his parents’ ambitions to wrote for Tin Pan Alley  – and he struggled for years before getting published. Probably his best known song is the peerless Baby, It’s Cold Outside which he used to sing with his wife Lynn Garland at supper club parties to end the evening, then irritated her by selling the song to MGM.  It won him a best song Oscar and was subsequently covered by every famous duet partnership you can think of, most brilliantly I think by Ray Charles & Betty Carter in 1960.   Loesser also wrote, among 700 others, Praise The Lord & Pass The Ammunition during the 2nd World War,  Let’s Get Lost, Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling and the lyrics to Hoagy Carmichael’s Two Sleepy People and Heart & Soul.

Weirdly, the musical Guys and Dolls cropped up again that year of 1982 on Elvis Costello‘s brilliant Imperial Bedroom sessions (see My Pop Life #124) in the exquisite song Heathen Town (which inexplicably ended up on a later B-side rather than on the album), where, instead of singing

and the devil won’t drag you under by the sharp lapels of your chequered coat – sit down sit down sit down sit down, sit down you’re rockin’ the boat

which is from the Guys and Dolls musical, Elvis sings

cos the devil will drag you under by the sharp tailfin of your chequered cab – and I can’t sit down I’m going overboard in this heathen town

which is both a brilliant twist on the original lyric (Runyon’s sinners in the Sally Army praising the Lord) and a confession that New York City (the heathen town) is swallowing him alive and he’s loving it.    They used to call it Sin City now it’s gone way past that…  Honestly someone could do a phD thesis on Elvis Costello’s lyrical and musical quotations so rich and varied they are.   Don’t look at me !  I’m doing broad church brushstrokes, not digging down into one particular speciality.  Butterfly mind moves on.  Anyway, maybe Costello went to the NT show too, not so mysterious…

I never was in Guys and Dolls or any other big musical.  No no, please don’t pity me, it’s a whole other type of person who usually does that kind of thing.  I’m a camera actor.  Usually.  Bob Hoskins bless him was a collector’s item and showed me that it could be done.  It’s more usual in the USA for actors to sing and dance on camera and onstage (the triple threat) and even write and direct too.  They encourage it in fact.  In the UK we are encouraged to specialise, not to dilute the craft by trying to do it all.  The narrow approach.  The suspicious approach of anyone who steps outside of their box.

Bob Hoskins & Ian Charleson onstage in Guys & Dolls

Ian Charleson was a Scottish actor who trod the boards playing Shakespeare including Hamlet twice, before famously portraying Eric Liddell in Chariots Of Fire and Charlie Andrews in Gandhi in 1981 and 82.  Despite both films winning Oscars, he didn’t move to Lala Land but rather his next move was appearing onstage in the National Theatre’s production of Guys & Dolls as Sky Masterson and he got glowing reviews.  In 1986 he was diagnosed with AIDS and he died in 1990 aged 40.   I have heard better performances of this great Frank Loesser song than his, but not many.   Sinatra’s is better – it’s jazz.  But Brando’s isn’t, it’s just terrible, lacking drama, energy or feeling, so un-Brando.   Alex Harvey could’ve sung it.  Fee Waybill.  David Bowie.  Rufus Wainwright.  Or me, maybe.

Ian Charleson NY OST :

https://archive.org/details/luckBeALadyianCharlesonOntc

for contrast, Brando’s strange weak delicate take on it :

My Pop Life #119 : The Pest – John Cooper Clarke

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The Pest   –   John Cooper Clarke

the pest pulled up, propped his pushbike at a pillar box, pulled his ‘peen, paused at a post and pissed.

‘piss in the proper place’ pronounced a perturbed pedestrian, and presently, this particular part of the planet was plunged into a panorama of public pressure and pleasure through pain.

*

Convivia

Dinner with Godber, lunch with Bob Pugh

Feed me a diet of Good Men and True

Late in the evening, drinking my wedge

Slurping the Guinness smoking Benson & Hedge

Spotting a hero, meeting a Ledge

*

John Godber I’ve known since 1978 and the Edinburgh Festival 2nd attempt

18-stone Yorkshireman beef on his plate, and pen in his hand, hair slightly unkempt

Fast forward nigh on 40 years or so we’re now both nearly 60 with buzzcuts and show

Sharing stories of Corbyn & Allam & dough, over breakfast at Hope Street with daughter in tow

In the corner hunched over his mushrooms on toast a poet of England (I don’t like to boast)

Dr John Cooper Clarke and his man Johnny Green, I decide not to bother them, exit the scene.

So to work, up in Crosby where down on the shore, there’s Anthony Gormley‘s ghost figures & more

looking out to the line where the sea meets the sky a salute to infinity stretching my eye

meanwhile back in my rabbit hutch, one third of space,  I climb into costume, rearrange my face

suddenly I become – from ungrateful fat wretch : an old school left winger (not much of a stretch)

Transformed I eat lunch with the writer Bob Pugh (co-writer with Jimmy McGovern it’s true)

He is one of the family since 2005 when Thomas met Scarlett and the love became live

Fast forward nine years and Skye has been born, a blessing on all of us now a new dawn

A new day a new life a young baby so precious to Bob and to me – both grandparents bless us

So onto the set and the hustle the story, representing the soldiers who died in Iraq

Tim Roth plays Reg Keys in his humble true glory standing up to the Blair the scumbag the Tory

The election in 2005 is the story and the names of the fellas who never came back.

The day is a good one we all say goodnight and I’m taken to Hope Street and to my delight

The old Philharmonic is hosting a crowd of interesting types in the gathering shade

I walk past the stalkers & ask who is playing it’s John Cooper Clarke and it’s Squeeze – I’m up-made

I snaffle a ticket returned by a punter and walk straight inside to Clarkey’s Manc chunter

Delight is immediate, happy Ralph Brown and he closes with Evidently Chickentown

I jump back to Hope St and up in my room a puff on the pipe in the darkening gloom

Downstairs in the hotel the great intersection

Cillian Murphy arrives yet another connection

(we made Red Light Runners or rather – we didn’t;  the plug was pulled on it

– so fuck it – good riddance)

and Cillian knew Tim from way back when so a quick Guinness later I’m back in the pen

Glen Tillbrook, Chris Difford the magic of Squeeze, the hits and the new songs are written to please

an old pop tart like me who cannot resist the rise of a third the fall of a fifth

(and it goes like this the fourth the fifth the minor fall and the major lift)

and Tillbrook is drenched in classic vignette : sweet chords that you hum, lyrics never forget

by the way he can’t half play the bloody guitar he’s a musical genius bona fide star

I’m so happy to see them, I’d missed them before with Jools on the Piano three quid on the door:

Is That Love ’81 to Annie Get Your Gun, then Labelled With Love stands the hairs on their feet

And Tempted we stand clap along to the beat

A lump in my throat as my heart starts to function & there’s Clapham Common 

& there’s Up the Junction

Then quickly in line shake the hands of the band & it’s thanks very much there’s nothing to sign

Back in the hotel glowing and shiny there’s John Cooper Clarke again smoky and winey

I walk over say hi sit down and we chat have a fag and a laugh so how about that?

A day sent from heaven not burdened with trivia

A day of good people fine wines and convivia

A poem that contains a few words I made up

And if you don’t like reading it, make your own up

Written out in the spirit of John Cooper Clarke

A wordsmith, gentleman, doctor and lark

This morning at breakfast I met Johnny Green

His gentleman traveller, know what I mean ?

He managed The Clash and made the odd million

We reminisced about Hastings Pier Pavilion,

He then worked in Texas with Townes Van Zandt

Guy Clark, Willie Nelson – we had a good rant

and now I am back up ensconced in my room

Feeling lucky and happy and thankful to whom

I’ll just say in conclusion, that this song “The Pest

Was played to me last week by Elliott Ness

Or Elliott Tittsenor as he’s actually known

A fine young actor whose cover now blown,

Can roll me a spliff whenever he pleases

(I hope when he reads this he knows who Squeeze is)

The coincidental tight circles we move in

the shrinking world the connection degrees

Talk to young people as you age to keep grooving

And life will still feel like bloody good wheeze

So I’ve written some doggerel scribbled some shite, the kids’ll be happy the kids are all right

Dinner with Godber, lunch with Bob Pugh

Feed me a diet of Good Men and True

then late in the evening, drinking my wedge

Slurping the Guinness smoking Benson & Hedge

Spotting a hero, meeting a Ledge

Dr John Cooper Clarke – and thank you to REG

*

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Bob Pugh, standing and director David Blair, no relation

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Anthony Gormley figures, Crosby Beach, 5th Sept 2015

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Bob Clay (me) and Richard Keys (Elliott Tittsenor) working on REG

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convivia with John Cooper Clarke outside the Hope St Hotel

My Pop Life #115 : Ma Jaiye Oni – King Sunny Ade

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Ma J’aiye Oni   –   King Sunny Ade

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The winter of 1982-3.  Finsbury Park.  Top floor attic room, living with Mumtaz.  I think I must have got myself an agent by now – David Preston.  More about him later.  He came to see me in A Clockwork Orange on the King’s Road, the John Godber adaptation.  More about that later too.  My memory is dim of these events and their surrounding characters, much much more so than other people I talk to.  Some people can pin point what things people were wearing on certain days.  WOW.   I mean, my memory is seriously hardly there to be honest.  So why would I embark on a marathon blog attempting to chart my life through music if I can’t remember two thirds of it ?  Well partly to get those bits that I do remember down on virtual paper before they too disappear and become smokey robinson’s barley water, wisps of smudge on a page that once held such vivid clarity.  I live in the moment mainly so it isn’t a vast un-ending tragedy, but it can be a handicap.  My friends can nudge me into memories, and when I really concentrate for a length of time… the mists seem to part and there, just out of reach, an arm breaches the waterline, and in its clenched fist a sword, and then I know that I’m actually making it all up.   But I’m not dear reader, I’m not.  All these Pop Lives happened.

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Anyway the attic room in Finsbury Park.  It was around this point that World Music started to leak into the country, via WOMAD (see My Pop Life #67), Stern’s Music Store in Whitfield St (see My Pop Life #38), the John Peel Show, and word of mouth.  I’m not sure where the term “World Music” came from but certainly on June 21 1982 France held a Fête de la Musique for the first time, at the behest of Culture Minister Jack Lang, and have held it ever since.  Many other countries have joined in – the day is devoted to playing music in the streets – from Russia to the US to Brazil to Italy, but it seems that the United Kingdom has deigned not to join in for reasons I can only speculate over.  In any event, African music started being played now and again on the John Peel show and in late 1981 the compilation of West african music Sound d’Afrique was released by Island Records with groups such as Etoile De Dakar containing the future superstar of world music Youssou N’Dour.  1982 brought a second volume which I bought, and then King Sunny Ade came to my attention via his LP Juju Music.

Featured imageIt was splashed all over the NME front page and could hardly be missed.  On the Mango label, produced by Frenchman Martin Meissonnier and very definitely aimed at the western market,  (at me!) it’s a brilliant record, a showstopper, showcasing Ade’s trademark Nigerian juju rhythms with a slight electro tinge.  His best songs, usually 20 minutes long in their Nigerian context, are here shortened and sweetened, but not too much.  The key component is the talking drum, held under the arm and squeezed, you can change the note of the drumbeat.  So-called because they have been used as communication tools in West Africa for forever.  As a musical instrument they are thrilling.  I have one !  The other unexpected element is the beautifully evocative slide guitar.  The production is immaculate and the whole package was a winner.  I’ve chosen a beautiful song Ma Jaiye Oni to represent his juju beat.

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King Sunny Ade and His African Beats played a gig at the Lyceum Ballroom on the Strand in January 1983.  I went along with Mumtaz.  I can’t remember who supported him, if anyone, but this was an astounding gig.  Full of Nigerians as well as curious music fans it was an unmitigated triumph.  A huge line-up onstage of drummers, guitarists and singers, pure joy emanating from the performers.  They played for a long time.  One West-African tradition that I was unaware of will forever stay with me from this show.  Ade would be playing a guitar solo in the middle of a song – the crowd would be dancing and encouraging him, a definite energy going back and forth between band and crowd – then a man dressed in robes, or a suit maybe would walk up to the front and in an uber-ostentatious way pull out a roll of £20 or £50 notes and place them one at a time on King Sunny Ade’s body as he was playing, sticking them to his sweating forehead or his arms.  I was waiting for security to get involved, but this was a ritual with no danger – money is going forward.  I have seen it many times since at African gigs but that was the eye-opener.   I know plenty of British and American musicians who wish it was a tradition in the “West” too.  Oh well.

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It was a window onto another world for me, so much more than sitting down and getting stoned and listening to the record – great thought that is – this was an immersion into the music that went far beyond the comfy chair.  I was hooked on African music thanks to King Sunny Ade and have been ever since. I then bought his earlier LP Check-‘E’ (see pic above) and the follow-up Synchro System which was a huge hit too.  He is still going strong playing his music around the world and I commend him to thee.

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Here is some tremendous footage from Japan in 1984 – this is exactly the show we saw at the Lyceum.  Subtle, powerful, mesmerising, infectious, delicious.

Here is the original LP track:

but the shorter song from JUJU MUSIC is not on youtube sadly.  You may have to buy it !

My Pop Life #100 : Stardust – Nat King Cole

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Stardust   –   Nat King Cole

…And now the purple dusk of twilight time

…steals across the meadows of my heart…

High up in the sky the little stars climb

always reminding me that we’re apart

*

Such a melancholy yet beautiful lyric on such an unusual, strange and compelling melody.

Featured imageHoagy Carmichael wrote the melody to Stardust when he was 28 years old in Bloomington Indiana, imagining as he composed it that one day his hero – cornet player Bix Beiderbecke – would play the tune.  The way the song winds and swerves through different keys is a challenge for any singer – but originally Stardust was an instrumental.    A jazz instrumental.    The saxophone player Bud Freeman once said ‘Carmichael’s songs are the only songs on which you don’t have to improvise much, because the improvisation is already in them‘.  So Hoagy recorded the instrumental and it was played by Ellington, Calloway and others until in 1929 Irving Mills decided the tune needed lyrics and asked young Mitchell Parish to write some.

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The resulting ballad (first performed by Isham Jones in the form we know it today)  is simply the most exceptional combination of words and music that I know of, my favourite song of all time, and the song which was covered more than any other (over 1500 covers to date) up ’til McCartney dreamed up Yesterday (covered over 3000 times).

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Stardust is a song about a song about love.  Lost love – all that’s left is the song.  The star has gone, all that’s left is stardust.  The image of Star Dust (original title) is a powerful one and has been used many times – Bowie called himself Ziggy Stardust during 1972, and Joni Mitchell sang  “we are stardust we are golden” about the Woodstock generation.   The idea that music can contain in it the dust of a feeling, of a relationship, of a love is a very beautiful one, and of course it is also the idea behind this very blog.  So it seems fitting to me that as I reach the satisfying figure of 100 pieces of music written about, 100 feelings converted into stardust, that this song marks the auspicious occasion.

Featured imageI first became obsessed with Stardust around February 2008 – yes, quite specific…   And once again I am indebted to Kenneth Cranham for his musical guidance.    In a small-world twist of fate, he was now playing patriarch Max in Pinter’s The Homecoming at The Almeida Theatre – and my wife Jenny Jules had become the first black woman to ever play the role of Ruth in the same production.    Harold Pinter clearly fancied her in fact and would insist on sitting next to her at dinner and so on.   His wife Lady Antonia Fraser was terribly patient.    I walked home with Uncle Ken one day, probably after rehearsal, because he lives not far from the theatre round the back of Caledonian Road.   I had been cast in Richard Curtis‘ film The Boat That Rocked, playing late-night DJ Bob Silver, a kind of John Peel template, but with the difference that I was an old geezer in 2008 compared with Peel’s early 20s in 1966 on the pirate radio station Radio Caroline.   Uncle Ken being my musical guru I asked him, if I’d been 50 in 1966 then who would I have grown up listening to?   Apart from a reference to Muddy Waters there were no clues in the script.   A week later I was at rehearsal again, or maybe first night, and Ken thrust 3 whole C90 cassettes into my grubby paw.    I know.   It was 2008 and he was still making C90s.   They were completely brilliant.   “They’re all writer-based“,  Ken explained, “the first one is Ellington, with plenty of covers too, the second is Harold Arlen who wrote Somewhere Over The Rainbow and Stormy Weather, and the third is Hoagy Carmichael, and there’s even a track of Hoagy singing on that one”…

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The track of Hoagy singing was Stardust.  There were three other versions on the cassette – one I already had at home by Nat King Cole, probably purchased in the mid-eighties after a John Godber-directed show, (perhaps A Clockwork Orange at The Man In The Moon theatre on King’s Road in 1982).  John’s parents were addicted to Nat King Cole and some of John’s writing acknowledges his greatness as an artist, mainly as a crooner.   The other two versions were by Willie Nelson and The Mills Brothers.   Four of the best versions.   I could not stop listening to the damn song.   I started collecting covers of it.   There are a lot.   At the last count I had 57 cover versions of it – all different, most of them terrific.  They range from wild jazz instrumentals from the likes of Charlie Christian, Ben Webster and Oscar Aleman to staggering vocal journeys by Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald or Bing Crosby.   Some odd ones – by The Shadows (it’s ace), The Mills Brothers – an instrumental version AND a sung version, but all done by their voices (amazing), and Frank Sinatra – only sings the introduction (!!).   He had a history of picking the bits he liked though, did Frank (see eg: Jimmy Webb’s MacArthur Park).   Then there’s Louis Armstrong‘s simply astounding cover which bounces along on the one & the three like a song possessed while the trumpet riffs above it – until Louis starts to sing and makes up the words, scats along, it is simply brilliant and probably the “best” version.  Unique, certainly.

Featured imageBut my favourite is Nat King Cole.  He had a long career as a jazz pianist playing some classic trio cuts before his vocal ability took prominence and he started to sing more – his version of The Christmas Song (“chestnuts roasting…”) in 1946 made him a superstar, (although the famous version still played today was the 4th time he recorded the song in 1961).  By 1956 he had his own syndicated TV show in America, the first black performer to do so.  In 1957 – the year I was born – he released his version of Stardust, his vocal melisma and jazz sophistication perfectly suiting the song’s temperament.  The string arrangement – can’t find out who it was – is beyond perfect – the opening violin swell is like someone breathing in and out it is so organic.    As Nat reaches the word at the end of the introduction “the music of the years gone by” the strings are clearly on the “wrong” note, but resolve with exquisite delay.

When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration…

What a line – and don’t we all know that feeling ?  Now sadly gone but he has the song….

My stardust melody – the memory of love’s refrain

The lyrics are full of stars – in the sky reminding him that “we’re apart” and at the end again as he sits beside a garden wall

when stars are bright and you are in my arms…”

*

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To be honest there’s only so much you can write about a piece of music like this. Without getting overly muso – the use of semitone intervals – going up and down is extremely effective.  “Sometimes I wonder…” the first four notes are a semitone climb up that line of the first verse which leads you into the reverie.  Then later “Though I dream in vain…”  the last three words are semitone falls, perfectly in sympathy musically with the lyric.    I don’t want to go overboard at the deep end so I’ll just leave this here.   I will doubtless come back to other versions and covers in future posts.  And of course Hoagy wrote other songs too – Georgia On My Mind and many others.  But Nat King Cole sings Stardust and he wears the crown for My Pop Life #100.

Nat Cole :  LIVE !

My Pop Life #73 : ‘Til Tomorrow – Marvin Gaye

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‘Til Tomorrow   –   Marvin Gaye

Hey girl what you doin’? gettin up?  You got to go ? …ah, don’t go just yet baby…Tu es encroyable…that’s French baby…it means you are incredible…mm?  …why you got to go?  baby don’t go, don’t go right now I can’t stand it please….

Now here’s a pop star who translates as he goes, unlike Grace Jones.  Tu es Encroyable.  And he has a decent accent too.   This is because he’s been living in Belgium for a year, coming off cocaine and becoming fit, healthy and writing songs again.  Marvin Gaye was in a terrible state in the early 80s, a cocaine/crack addict, owing the Revenue millions of dollars.

He was rescued by little-known Belgian entrepreneur Freddy Couseart who made aFeatured image connection in London through boxing, one of Marvin’s soft spots, and offered him shelter and sanctuary in his pension in Ostend on the Belgian coast.  Marvin, worn out with Motown (who had just released In Our Lifetime “before it was ready” which infuriated Marvin)  and drained of energy, dread and desire, needed a rest, needed a break, needed a change of scenery.  He found all three in this unlikely setting and started getting clean, getting physically fit, and writing songs.  By the end of 1981 he had an albums-worth of material and a number of record labels flew over to Belgium to bid for the next MG product.  CBS were wise and sent Harvey Fuqua who’d sung with Marvin in The Moonglows back in the 1950s before Motown and all that excitement, and CBS got the final LP Midnight Love (released in October 1982) and the lead single Sexual Healing.  Marvin went back to the USA, scored a huge hit single, paid his tax, sang the National Anthem at the 1983 basketball final, (an astonishing performance), moved back to his parent’s house and got shot by his father on April 1st 1984.

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I bought Midnight Love when it was released in 1982 and played it a lot.  I was living in Finsbury Park at the time with Mumtaz.  I’d started acting, in Moving Parts Theatre Company – (see My Pop Life #18), and then in pub theatres such as The Man In The Moon on the King’s Road doing an expressionist Clockwork Orange adapted by John Godber who I knew from Edinburgh days, also starring Paul Rider, Andy Winters, Pete Geeves.   I was a hopeful monster.    Some of my new feminist friends from Moving Parts came to see it and were horrified to find their pet man doing ultraviolence.   But I scored an agent – David Preston – a shaven-headed queen ensconced in his purple velvet-lined office with brass candlesticks somewhere in deepest Soho – well I had to start somewhere…

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This track ‘Til Tomorrow was the one that stood out for me (alongside the obvious charms of Sexual Healing) – the only ballad on a funky jazzy synth-heavy set, and with lyrics and instrumentation that are sparse to say the least, and a spoken Marvin-persona intro (which I include above) which is frankly hilarious, but somehow still sexy.  That’s just how he was.  I think my favourite Marvin Gaye LP(apart from WGO) is Live At The London Palladium from 1976, all the between-song chatter is fantastic, his voice is amazing, the band are great.  Only the duets are a little weak.

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Marvin Gaye in Ostend, Belgium, 1981

In 2013 I was cast in a Marvin Gaye biopic called Sexual Healing.   Julien Temple was directing a script by Matthew Broughton about the last three years of Marvin’s life, (played by Jesse L. Martin) centred on the Ostend story with some flashbacks to Dad (Dwight Henry from Beasts Of The Southern Wild) and Mum (S. Epatha Merkers).  Freddie Cousearts was Brendan Gleeson.  I was Jeffrey Kruger Marvin’s tour manager in wig and large specs, the man who started London’s Flamingo Club a real music person, and a real person who now lives in Brighton.  I never did look him up – it’s weird playing real people – you want to be true to them, but you don’t want to feel obliged, and in the end you have to play the script and what is written.

Featured imageSo there we were in Luxembourg in nice hotels, working with a lovely local crew (mainly) and immersed in the world of Marvin Gaye – I discovered (much like Columbus ‘discovered’ America) his 1981 LP In Our Lifetime which has some classic moments including opening song “Praise”, and I enjoyed working with Julien since we had a lot of mutual friends.  I flew back to Brighton with one more day to complete – backstage at the Royal Albert Hall.  We never shot it.  The crew flew to Ostend and shot all of that stuff, but the London end of things was never completed, neither was the film, and nobody got paid.  Another one of those stories.  Julien hawked the rushes around for a couple of years, maybe still is doing so, but nothing doing.  Essentially he’s trying to sell a huge debt with a possible money-spinning film behind it.  Given that every film ever made is entirely a leap of faith, when one comes off the rails it is very very very hard to put it back, no matter who is involved or how sexy the project looks from the outside.  Or the inside.  Damn shame.  A story that needs to be told as much as any I’ve ever done.

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The Gaye family recently won a lawsuit against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke for stealing Got To Give It Up, but I have no doubt that the decision will be reversed on appeal.  The idea that you can copyright a groove is preposterous.

But Marvin’s legacy is still being fought over, Berry Gordy holds on tight to the Motown era songs, there has been a play based on Frankie Gaye‘s book Marvin Gaye My Brother, but somehow we had got the rights to the CBS LP Midnight Love so some of his tale could be told.  Too many crooks as ever in this dirty business.  Damn shame.    Frankie Gaye died in 2001, and I would recommend the book.  Frankie went to Vietnam and his experiences there in the late 1960s inspired Marvin to write and record What’s Goin’ On.   Marvin’s son is also named Frankie.

So I miss Marvin Gaye.  Miss him twice.   ’til tomorrow…  Thinking about him again, I have to say just this – his backing vocals are always completely amazing.  Cluster chords, stretching what is vocally possible behind his soaring lead vocal.  The guy was a master.

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Oh but I didn’t mention our cat, our kitten Marvin.  A Devon Rex with large ears and short fur, he would crawl up my body to sit on my shoulder whether I was wearing clothes or not.  We bought him at 9 weeks old and he lived for another eight blessed weeks.   Bled to death after cutting his mouth on a wicker basket, chewing it.  Took him to the vet but he had genetic Factor 8 deficiency.  Bless him the blood wouldn’t clot.  He died lying on my chest in the middle of the night.  Buried with full honours in the back garden.  Wept buckets.  So yeah, I miss Marvin three times.

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Ralph Brown & Jesse L. Martin, Luxembourg, 2013