My Pop Life #183 : Rocket Man – Elton John

Rocket Man   –   Elton John

She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine AM
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the earth so much I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
‘Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone

*

You’re not supposed to post the lyrics of a song in their entirety on the internet because copyright but if that’s the case why are there all those lyrics sites, all with the same mistake ?  As I gently age, with spurts of buckling and recovery, I find my mind grows dim, for things seem more mysterious to me now than they were forty five years ago when I was fourteen years old and grooving to Elton John in my bedroom, in particular this classic and the B-side which was, brilliantly enough, two songs :  Goodbye, and Holiday Inn.  Swoon.  The magic year of 1971, when my ears suddenly opened further, deeper, stronger and every tune held different mysterious beauty, had just passed and now we were in the spring of 1972 and I was on a musical jam roll.

We were in Hailsham.  I had a record player in my bedroom.  It was a luxury, like the view over the fields, and the broom-handle thumps on the kitchen ceiling reminded me of this privilege from time to time.  Rocket Man of course was a masterpiece, a song so perfect that I couldn’t stop burbling about it to my Nan, up visiting from Portsmouth, playing it to her downstairs on the record player while she looked at me with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.  She’d looked at me before like that, an old-fashioned look perhaps it’s called, but this time I noticed and felt my power.  I was fourteen after all, bursting out all over the place.

“Listen to this bit Nan –

‘ and all this science I don’t understand, it’s just my job five days a week…’

and of course by then I had done two and a half years of fucking science at school and found it baffling, like the smoke signal from the Vatican.  Talk about mysterious.  Perhaps it was the teachers, but perhaps MORE it was me.  Science ?  Nah.

Not for me.  Not my bag.  Not clever enough to understand it and perhaps it was never explained to me properly.  It is the basis of our civilisation after all – engineers and builders, along with medicine and war.    And in the song, when he sings all this science I don’t understand, the music goes all weird and synthesised and jagged suddenly with a staccato chord on the piano to punctuate the oddness.  Like science that you don’t understand, I explained to my Nan.  She looked at me.

Now I understand that it’s the producer’s job to do that sort of thing.  Like the two lines before that :

“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,

in fact it’s cold as hell” 

when the song empties out (like Mars, he added unnecessarily) and it’s just Elton and the piano – no drums  – then one slide guitar note on cold as hell to emphasise the emptiness.  It’s completely brilliant, very simple, like brushstrokes on canvas, the effect is concise and emotional.  Modern art is thus made.  And Gus Dudgeon, who produced this song was a genius in the studio, whatever he touched turned to gold around this time : Osibisa’s ‘Woyaya‘, John Kongos’  Tokoloshe Man, Audience’s House On The Hill, much of the Bonzos output, but he was known best for his work with Elton John.

And on the B-side was this stunning song Goodbye which haunted me then and still haunts me now.   Elton of course is a genius, his singing voice is quite superb and his music is exquisite, especially in the 1970s.   I’ve always loved piano pop more than any other kind of music, so Elton is on the high end of a list which includes Fats Domino, Ben Folds, Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, Marvin Gaye, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Dr John, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Brian Wilson, Fats Waller, Little Richard, Randy Newman, Georgie Fame, Alan Price, Harry Nillsson, Rufus Wainwright and so on and so forth.  But it’s the lyrics on this one folks.  I’m not a big on lyrics kind of guy.  Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  I’m a music kind of guy.  Chord changes and harmonies.  Some people are both, I know.  Maybe I am both, but I’m mainly musical, not lyrical.

But Bernie Taupin though.  What a lyricist.  Check this –

And if you want a drink, just squeeze my hand and wine will flow into my land and feed my lambs

He’s gone all William Blake there.  He’s young, they both are, they’re trying stuff. What’s he on about ?  Post-nuclear holocaust ?  Jesus Christ on the cross ?

And now it’s all over the birds can nest again

But by the end of the song, a mere one minute 40 seconds after it started, Elton’s singing I’ll Waste Away over and over again.  Meaning ?  Who knows ?  Allow it to be mysterious.  Not everything is to be named numbered and explained. Categorized. Collected.  Scored.  Understood. Filed, Forgotten.  I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme.

Sorry I took your time.

The innate drama of the lyrics appealed to me greatly as a 14-year old glam-rock softy.  Sometime I wish I was back in 1972 with my poor Mum banging around the house either with or without her 2nd husband John Daignault, listening to records up in my bedroom. (My and Paul’s bedroom I should say.  We would turn out the light and talk for about an hour every night, both lying down talking at the ceiling.  About everything.  Precious moments.  Healing hours.)  We’d play football outside, watch TinTin and Blue Peter, Crackerjack and Morecambe and Wise.  Top of The Pops.  Match of the Day.  The Big Match on Sundays with Brian Moore.  Chart countdown  with Alan Freeman at 4pm.  Took the bus to Polegate every morning, then the train to Lewes for school.  No important exams.  Just lessons, football, girls, friends. Simple.

Oh well.

Rocket Man though jeez what a song.  It’s the twin brother of Space Oddity of course with the lead astronaut figure singing the song, both songs about loneliness in the end and space, too much space.   Both songs produced by Gus Dudgeon, a few years apart .  Fantastic melody, and fade out :
And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
Many many years later – let’s say 2009 when I was living off Mulholland Drive with my brer Eamonn Walker, a stupid big view of Warner Brothers, Universal and Studio City and the San Fernando Valley (The Valley) stretching down to the ocean beyond.  A local member of the wide Beach Boys family circle aka Adam Marsland announced that he was hosting an Elton John night on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice Beach with his band.  Did anyone want to sing a song?I jumped down his throat and picked Rocket Man and was lucky enough to get the nod.  I sang it at home a couple of times then drove down there.  No rehearsal as I recall or maybe there was a run-through?  The rather fantastic Evie Sands was in the band on guitar.    Other mates turned up : Stevie Kalinich (see My Pop Life 169), Alan Boyd,  Tracy Landecker and some people I recognised a bit.  I delivered the song as straight as I could, just down the line, no interpretation, as Elton as possible.  People clapped.  It was an honour.
Then in 2005 Jenny had been performing in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues in the West End and on tour with Sharon Osbourne & Lisa Riley.  She had a laugh with them, and Sharon liked her and thus we got invited to the Osbourne’s Christmas Party that year, somewhere behind Harrods.  Ozzie was shuffling around being rude to people and at one point I passed Elton John on the staircase.   I was so utterly nervous/selfconscious and tongue-tied that I completely ignored him, and as I walked up I could hear him going “Well, Really !” as if he was used to people going ahhhh I love you.  Which is pretty much what I should have done. <sigh>  Later on, upstairs I hooked up with David Walliams again (see My Pop Life #7) after many years, but never got to speak with Elton John.  My loss.  Jenny had met him earlier that evening before I arrived and had a nice chat…
Elton at Hove Cricket Ground
We saw him live a couple of times – Wembley in the 90s and Hove Cricket Ground in the noughties.  Brilliant both times.  The real deal.  Such a roster of great great songs.  He wheels them out time after time, knowing that we want to hear Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Bennie & The Jets.  I often think about success and what it means.  For an actor it means no privacy in public, but plenty of choices in work, new stuff all the time.  For a musician there is also no privacy but the work is essentially playing those 20 songs every night, with a few new ones.  When we saw Elton in Hove after about an hour he announced that he was playing a handful of new songs and that to pre-empt the inevitable rush for the toilets he actually suggested that we could all get up and go to the toilet or get a drink – and literally hundreds of people did just that.  “Sorry” said Elton, “We have to play some new stuff otherwise we’d all go completely mad“.   He had two of The Family Stone (as in Sly & The) as his backing singers – Lisa and Rose Stone.  They covered the high notes on the rearranged hits.  It was a fantastic show.
Late September 2012 a small crew – me, Jono Smith (who shot Sus) and Chris Williams with Diane Frangi on stills are shooting a promo for my documentary idea ‘Unsung Heroes’ about the session musicians of the UK Hit Factory 1963 – 1975, inspired by the film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown.  Probably emotionally echoing my own feelings as a character actor, out of the limelight, yet integral to the production I felt like I wanted to lift some of these musicians into a visible place, if only for 90 minutes.  One of the characters I’d lined up was Ray Cooper, legendary percussionist with Elton and others, and one of the producers on Withnail & I at Handmade Films. Spoken to Ray on the phone about it – he was out of the country for the promo dates.  Anyway.  By the time we’d shot five or six days worth of stuff the film was called Red Light Fever, after the nerves which afflicted those musicians who couldn’t take the stress of studio work, being handed sheet music and told to play a solo over bar 36 and so on.  None of the living legends of the studio I interviewed – drummer Clem Cattini, bass player Herbie Flowers, guitarist Chris Spedding, guitarist Alan Parker, singer and arranger Barbara Moore – suffered from Red Light Fever, but it was still a good title.  I wanted to get these interviews before they all died – James Jamerson the Motown bass player is not in the Motown film for example.
Barbara Moore in 2012
Barbara Moore lives in Bognor Regis, just down the road from us in Brighton and we ended up filming her twice because the fellas fell in love with her.  She’ll appear in another post but for now, the story she tells me that first afternoon in her beautiful conservatory is of meeting Elton John in Olympic Studios in Barnes in the late 1960s.  She’d walked past an open door and heard this beautiful piano and vocal coming out – and there was this scruffy fella playing something.  She popped her head in the door and said “That sounds nice” or something similar.  Reg said thanks (for it was he) and said that he was going in to try and sell some of his songs to a producer and get a deal.  “Good luck”  she said. At lunchtime that day in the local pub she asked him how it had gone – he wasn’t too confident, but she then asked if he could join her choir for the afternoon because she was a voice short, someone had let her down.  He said OK, because that’s how he was earning money in those days.
1972
 It was probably two years later that her phone rang.  “Is this Barbara?” said the voice.  “I need some help with a song, would you come down to the studio tomorrow?”   She agreed, and then arranged and led the choir on Border Song which appeared on Elton John’s 2nd LP, entitled simply ‘Elton John‘.  A standout track which Aretha Franklin covered – adding (Holy Moses) to the title – to greater success than the original, although it is now seen as an Elton classic.  The backing singers were Madeline Bell, Tony Burrows and Roger Cook, all of whom were slated to be interviewed for Red Light Fever  – Jenny and I met Madeline Bell for lunch the following Christmas in London (she lives in Spain).  She had been co-lead singer with Roger Cook of Blue Mink, a band created by session musicians including Alan PArker and Herbie Flowers ! with hit singles – Melting Pot, Banner Man, Good Morning Freedom.  Roger Cook was the songwriter behind I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing and many others – some of which Tony Burrows sang on – the session voice of Edison Lighthouse, White Plains, The Pipkins, The Flowerpot Men and The Ivy League and who infamously got banned from Top Of The Pops for appearing three times in one show with three different bands.  “People will think it’s a fix” said the BBC.  But he was the singer on all three songs!  As you can see already, it was a very tight, very small world, and a film exploring it all would be such fun.
Addison Cresswell
What eventually happened after editing the footage forever on my laptop was that Luke Cresswell’s brother Addison Cresswell took my five minute promo, (paid for by Latest TV, a new venture in Brighton run by Bill Smith) and made various people in TV Land watch it.  Addison I knew through Luke and we’d met a number of times, in pubs, at Luke & Jo’s Boxing Day parties, New Year’s Eve parties and he’d invited me to his office one day for a meeting to discuss this doc.  Addison had immense power in UK TV world because he managed all of the main comedians in the UK, including Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Michael McIntyre, Jonathan Ross and Kevin Bridges and had the ear of all the producers.  His style was all swagger and front, larger than life, a Rocket Man indeed and he was very good at his job.  Only BBC4 came back with an offer of £10k, all in for the show once it was complete – they’d buy it, but they wouldn’t fund it.  I couldn’t possibly make it for no money, so we waited for other responses over Christmas 2013, still planning and lining up interviews such as Madeline Bell and Ray Cooper.   Then Addison died at home of a heart attack on December 23rd, a death which shocked me to my bones, causing devastation to his family and shock throughout Brighton, his friends and colleagues, his clients and the TV industry as a whole.  He was 53 years old.   So so sad.  The Boxing Day social was cancelled and a giant hole filled the landscape where Addison had stood.  He was an extremely warm and generous man underneath his bark and laddish flex.  Something that perhaps I appreciate having had a few laddish years myself in my youth.  Addison’s love of his brother Luke, my friend, was also visible and echoed my own feelings for Paul and was the reason why he gave me so much of his time.  He is hugely missed.

And now that it’s all over
The birds can nest again
I’ll only snow when the sun comes out
I’ll shine only when it starts to rain

And if you want a drink
Just squeeze my hand
And wine will flow into the land
And feed my lambs

For I am a mirror
I can reflect the moon
I will write songs for you
I’ll be your silver spoon

I’m sorry I took your time
I am the poem that doesn’t rhyme
Just turn back a page
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away
I’ll waste away, I’ll waste away

 
B-side : Goodbye
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My Pop Life #178 : It’s Up To You – The Specials

It’s Up To You   –   The Specials

What you gonna do, when morons come for you?
They won’t go away, they want the whole world painted grey…

The classic version of this song was recorded at The Moonlight Club in West Hampstead on May 2nd 1979, the eve of the United Kingdom General Election which was won by Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party.   It opens with lead singer Terry Hall saying :

“I haven’t got much to say. It’s the eve of the election.  It’s up to you”  

That gig appeared on a bootleg which did the rounds. The Specials first album proper, produced by Elvis Costello on Two-Tone Records was released in October of that year a few months later.   I remember it all so vividly.   Life in England had felt like a fight for some time.  In the spring of 1978 a march from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park in Hackney was organised by Rock Against Racism, culminating in a concert where The Clash, Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69, reggae band Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson and X-Ray Spex among others played to a huge crowd of punks, skinheads, rastas and rude boys.  It was in response to a rising tide of racist attacks and a poisonous atmosphere of hate which had been building for some time in the 70s.  It was about taking sides.  Black/White, Unite/Fight.  

The Specials embodied that attitude – a gang of kids from Coventry led by songwriter Jerry Dammers, singer Terry Hall and toaster Neville Staple, guitarist Lynval Golding and bass player Horace Panter, graced by legendary Jamaican trombonist Rico Rodriguez on their first single A Message To You Rudy, a cover of the Dandy Livingstone ska classic.  Indeed their sound was a punky update on classic Jamaican ska and two-tone rude boy music from the 1960s and that first album had a number of covers of Prince Buster, Toots & The Maytals, Lloyd Charmers and The Skatalites.  The energy and politics were as one, and their live performances were a joyous combination of dancing and fury like most gigs in the late 70s, fuelled by lager and little blue pills.  There was usually a frisson of violence too because skinheads would turn up and bounce around at the front looking for a fight.  If it got too out of hand the band would stop playing and start lecturing them.  With humour of course.

Margaret Thatcher and her mates, 1979

It was the start of four consecutive Conservative election victories and a massive swing to the right in Britain.  Thatcher took on the unions, the Irish republicans, the Argentinians, the gas board, train services, water and electricity and appealed to naked nationalism and people’s innate selfishness.  “There is no such thing as society” was her mantra, Reaganomics was her doctrine.  Trickle-down.  An arrogant, cruel sneering at the poor marked out the so-called national mood as people slept in doorways, lost their rights, signed on for work at lower pay.  Compassion was deemed sentimental.  Sentiment was deemed weakness.  And strength was a lack of care as people fell by the wayside and through the safety nets built up by decades of the welfare state.

The Specials live in 1979

It always felt normal to me to be in opposition.  It still does.  Once again we are faced with a period of bare-faced nastiness, appealing to people’s basest primal fears, blind nationalism, pitting people against each other while the rich cream off the cream, hoping that we’re all looking the other way.  History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats.

The Moonlight Club, 100 West End Lane NW6

I moved into 134 West End Lane, yards from The Moonlight Club in the summer of 1979 as I graduated from the London School of Economics with a 2:2 in Law, scarcely deserved, but a qualification to match my three splendid years in WC2 as a student punk.  I had no intention of ever using the degree or continuing in the Law.  I knew that I was going to be an actor – just not quite yet.   I moved in with other graduates Pete and Sali and their friend Nick Partridge who’d just completed a degree at Keele University.  Thus started a wonderful period of rolling joints, listening to reggae and post-punk picture-sleeve singles, dropping blues or amphetamine sulphate and painting and decorating to save money for a trip to Latin America with my brother Paul.  We started learning Spanish at an evening class in Swiss Cottage.  And we played frisbee and watched Brighton & Hove Albion finally playing in Division One, went to gigs at The Hammersmith Palais, the Music Machine in Camden (later called Camden Palace) the Rainbow in Finsbury Park and yes, The Moonlight Club down the street.   I touched upon this fondly-recalled era in My Pop Life #92.

A band called Spizz Energi released a fabulously mental single called “Where’s Captain Kirk” and played the Moonlight one night, then changed their name the following month to Athletico Spizz 80.  Pete would come home clutching singles by bands such as Wavis O’Shave, Shoes For Industry or Wah! Heat while I would enthuse about The Flying Lizards, The Undertones or the Gang Of Four and Nick would offer Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop while Sali championed The Pretenders.

It’s hard to describe just how out-of-fashion ska music was until The Specials revived it.  They spearheaded a movement which included Madness, The Selector and The Beat but it is a little like some kids today suddenly playing dancehall and it almost overnight becoming the most popular music on the radio.  Such an inspiring moment.

Years later – in 2009 – I shot the lowest-budget film of my entire career, based on Barrie Keeffe‘s searingly brilliant play ‘Sus‘ which is set on the eve of the 1979 election and based on a true story he heard in the pub one night in South London.  A black man is arrested after his wife is found dead and grilled by two policemen who are convinced that he has murdered her.  As the election results trickle in the boys in blue look forward to a new dawn where they will be able to flex their muscles with much more sympathy from the powers that be.  Just two years later in 1981, Brixton, Toxteth and other inner-city areas of the UK would erupt in flames as a furious reaction to this newly-confident police aggression.

Writer Barrie Keeffe (The Long Good Friday, Sus, Barbarians, Abide With Me)

Actor and buddy Clint Dyer – whom I’d met on the TV version of Lock, Stock in 1999 -had been doing the play Sus on stage and tried to talk me into playing the character of Karn the previous year at the Young Vic.  I was honoured, but had to explain to Clint that I wasn’t keen on being onstage in anything.  I just didn’t enjoy stage acting that much.  Months later Clint had raised the money for a film version of the play with Barrie’s blessing, executive produced by Claire Castera and he’d recruited Rafe Spall as the other police officer when he came back to me with the offer to play Karn onscreen.   What a part.  A solid Thatcherite racist policeman, beautifully written by Keeffe, a man who spends the night grilling Leroy the innocent suspect with increasing violence and disdain.  We had two weeks and a fifty thousand pound budget to make this happen, absurdly low.  But where there is a will : a skeleton crew led by line producer Oliver Ledwith, and helmed by the wonderful Jono Smith as director of Photography and first AD’d by Tom White.  Costumes by Linda Haysman, Make-up by Alison Hanken, 3rd AD was Keiron Mahon.  All legends.  Clint’s friend Rob Heath directed us on a set built at Elstree by Mark Sutherland, a single cell in a police station off the Old Kent Road.  And Rob it was who chose this song – It’s Up To You (live at the Moonlight) to accompany the film’s opening credits, which I’ve linked to below, helped by archive footage courtesy of Don Letts.  It is the most perfect distillation of music, time and place that I can think of.  And the end result is a film that I am hugely proud of.  Clint is quite devastating in the lead role. Rafe Spall is a marvellous twerp-like bully.  It looks great.  And I can actually watch myself – very rare indeed.  Which makes it my favourite piece of work out of everything that I have done over the years.  Funny how this particular character, so diametrically opposed to me , should fit me like a glove.  There’s mystery !

And so now here we are, in early 2017, facing another period of opposition, another moment of decision, another call for solidarity.  To be honest I’ve never felt that any government has represented me, or my politics.  They’ve all been corrupt, all sold us down the river (still some quiver when I deliver).  I am permanently in opposition, it kind of defines who I am.  I am against stuff.  Maybe I’ll mellow out as I get older.  Doesn’t seem very likely somehow.  But you never know.  It’s up to me.

Eve of the election :

SUS – the opening credits

SUS – The Trailer