My Pop Life #168 : Pleasant Valley Sunday – The Monkees

Pleasant Valley Sunday   –   The Monkees

The local rock group down the street is trying hard to play their song…. 

to serenade the weekend squire who’s just come out to mow his lawn

We are into the territory of pure joy here.  Memories of watching The Monkees TV show which was on ITV (?) between 1966 and 1968 – clearly a manufactured band, created to match or at least run in the slipstream of The Beatles, who were dominating culture all over the world at this point.

I was nine years old when I heard Theme To (Hey Hey We’re) The Monkees, Last Train To Clarksville and Daydream Believer.  We loved the show.  Speeded up film, wacky sight gags, slapstick, pulling faces, always a song, four charming, mop-topped cheeky chappies.  Strangely familiar but American.  Davy Jones was the charming Macca-esque Manc Brit, Peter Tork the lugubrious butt-of-jokes Ringo, Mike Nesmith the quiet musical one while Mickey Dolenz was the unpredictable sarcastic Lennon figure.  He was my favourite, (you had to have a favourite!) he played the drums and he sings Pleasant Valley Sunday (1967), written by the great Gerry Goffin and Carole King (see My Pop Life #135 ) a sweet social commentary-type pop tune that the late 60s had coming out of its ears.  Guitar intro of wonder, lead vocal, lyrics, melody, harmonies, wispy weird middle eight, it’s the perfect pop single.

Peter Tork with Bob Rafelson 1968

The Monkees were formed as a TV show (!) by Producer/Director Bob Rafelson in LA who pitched the idea with his partner Bert Schneider to NBC.  Bob later went on to direct the Monkees in the psychedelic oddity Head (1968), then went on to make Five Easy Pieces (1971) starring Jack Nicholson and other movies such as Mountains Of The Moon which in a strange twist of fate I was employed to help him cast in June 1988, working alongside casting director Celestia Fox.  They saw two actors per day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, for the two lead parts, Burton & Speke, and I would work with the actor for three hours at a time under Bob’s direction.   Many of my mates came in: Adrian Dunbar, Bruce Payne, Gabriel Byrne, then others : Tom Conti (he was really good), Patrick Bergin (he got Burton) and Iain Glen (he got Speke).  When Bob asked me what part I should play I said Speke but they disagreed and offered me a smaller one – so being a twat I turned it down and old friend Chris Fulford got a trip to Kenya instead;  just as well, I’d have probably caught AIDS.  In those days I thought if I did too many supporting parts it would lessen my cracks at playing a lead.  It did, eventually.  So I didn’t work with him on a movie, which was a shame, but of course, I did too.

Bob Rafelson

{I later fell out with Bruce, did two movies with Gabriel (I, Anna & Diamond Skulls), became neighbours in Brighton with Patrick and in 2009 I went to Galway to work with Iain and old buddy Stuart Orme.}

Anyway,  The Monkees couldn’t put a foot wrong for this ten-year old boy, yet to worry about small parts and auditions (although that was the year of the Selmeston primary school nativity play in which I played cuckold Joseph), yet to discover that they weren’t in fact cool, because they were manufactured and didn’t write their own songs, yet to discover that despite all that they were still brilliant.   The TV show was great, the songs, often written by Boyce/Hart were classic pop music.   When I moved to Brighton in the late 90s and found Stephen Wrigley, Dave Barnard & Adrian Marshall playing live in my local pub The Dragon I used to look forward to going down there on a Monday night when Caribbean food was served.   They would open up the mic in the second set, and had a large book of lyrics on the pub table for hopefuls to peruse.  My kind of heaven !  One night we sang Pleasant Valley Sunday to assorted random locals.  It climaxes with a tremendous verse where the lyrics are all ba-ba-baa ba-baa bababa in three-part harmony. We were about as slightly drunk as we should be and ended up over the road in the jazz club, drinking further until we’d formed a Beach Boys tribute band in our heads.  Which became The Brighton Beach Boys.

*

In 1976 aged 19, Simon Korner and I were hitch-hiking our way across the USA and we’d reached Los Angeles (see My Pop Life #130 and My Pop Life #30).  On July 4th it was Independence Day – in fact it was the Bi-Centennial of the United States’ independence from Great Britain – and they were celebrating 200 years of Freedom from the monarchy and the old colonial power.  We chose to visit Disneyland down in Orange County.   What a remarkable place.  Totally surreal, especially on this particular day, and being a little stoned as we were.  Not that we needed to be.  Walking in was like inhaling non-reality.  Like a whole town with different neighbourhoods – Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Bear Country, Snow White’s house, Cinderella’s palace, cascading waterfalls, Mississippi river steamers, large blue grinning cats playing the guitar, jazz, R’n’B and disco bands playing at every corner and a huge Uncle Sam float with the Statue of Liberty prancing weirdly beneath an eagle (and a giant US flag) as crowds lining the streets stand and cheer.  America On Parade.

Disneyland: ‘America On Parade’, July 4th 1976

We choose to take another ride – on The Matterhorn, an enormous rollercoaster, and as we round another hairpin bend hear the strains of “I’m a Believer”  floating through the brightly-colored air.   We climb off the ride and walk over to a nearby stage to find, rather astonishingly, The Monkees playing live – at that point comprising Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz  from the original band playing with their songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.

I guess legal reasons stopped them using the word Monkees

I mentioned this moment to Micky Dolenz when I met him in Liverpool a few weeks ago.  Funny old thing life.  The Monkees issued a new album in 2016 which got amazingly good reviews, but he was here for the same reason as me.  The Brighton Beach Boys had been invited to play “Pet Sounds”at Beatlesweek, which is a week-long celebration held every summer in that fair city.  We drove up from Brighton, checked in and scouted the locations – The Royal Court Theatre for the first set, and The Cavern for the 2nd set.  The atmosphere was bank holiday, sunny, the streets were heaving, music pouring out of every venue, everyone was drunk.  Reminded me of New Orleans – the crossroads historic coastal city drenched in music.

the great 1st album

We walked around the corner from The Cavern and went into The Hard Day’s Night Hotel which annoyed some of the entourage (we don’t belong in here).  But we had a drink and when Micky Dolenz turned up I chatted to him at the bar even though he appeared to be more interested in two youngish ladies to his right.  He remembered Disneyland.  They giggled.  “I think you’re in there” I remarked.  He smiled. Sensing my moment I pounced.  “Mind if the band have a picture with you?”

Later that afternoon he drove past us on Duke Street in a taxi with the same two girls and a glazed grin on his face.   He was on the same bill as us the following day, although we were on at 2pm and he was in the evening.  Legend.

So this manufactured pop has woven a golden thread running through my life from the moment it came out right up the present day.    I didn’t know what half the words were in 1967.  “Another pleasant valley Sunday, here in saddasimba land”.  But the thrill of the intro, the voices and the harmonies still work their same magic almost fifty years later, here in status symbol land.

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My Pop Life #124 : Beyond Belief – Elvis Costello

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Beyond Belief   –   Elvis Costello

…so in this almost-empty gin palace

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

you know she has no sins for all your jeaousies

in a sense she still smiles, very sweetly…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Declan McManus with a photo of his father, Ross McManus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elvis Costello & Roseane Cash: 10th November 2015

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

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

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

My Pop Life #118 : Glass Onion – The Beatles

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Being For The Benefit of the 3rd in an Occasional Series of Intellectual, Geographical and Lyrical Journeys Through the Cruciate and Baroque Interior of A Selective Selection of Several of The Splendid Songs of My Life.

See The Art Teacher 

and Where Are We Now?

*

Glass Onion   –   The Beatles

I told you ’bout strawberry fields You know the place where nothing is real

Well, here’s another place you can go Where everything flows

Looking through the bent backed tulips To see how the other half live

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the walrus and me, man You know that we’re as close as can be, man

Well, here’s another clue for you all The walrus was Paul

Standing on the cast iron shore, yeah Lady Madonna trying to make ends meet, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah

Looking through a glass onion

I told you ’bout the fool on the hill I tell you man he living there still

Well, here’s another place you can be Listen to me

Fixing a hole in the ocean Trying to make a dovetail joint, yeah

Looking through a glass onion

Which four places in Liverpool are mentioned in Beatles’ lyrics ?  Penny Lane yeah, Strawberry Field (no S) yeah.  Yeah.  And  ??  Clue  :  It’s on the last LP Let It Be.  Playing the songs they played as kids in 251 Menlove Avenue – Aunt Mimi’s house where John lived for 20 years, old rock’nroll covers and R’n’B songs, or more commonly at Paul’s parents’ house in 20 Forthlin Road.   “oh Dirty Maggie May they have taken her away and she never walks down Lime Street anymore…”   That’s three.   And number four is – and only locals and Beatle nuts know this – The Cast Iron Shore.   A real but mythical place in Liverpool.    Apparently south of Albert Dock, near Dingle, the whole area used to be dockyards but the heyday of the Liverpool Docks at that end of town – South Liverpool – was 100 years ago.   So-called because the rusting metals in the dock cranes and buildings and man-made waterways turned the river water metallic orange.  I went to look for it today, to stand there, as John Lennon talks about in the song Glass Onion, which appears on side one of The White Album.

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Strawberry Field, 2015

It’s a song that appears to tilt at the windmills of their own mythology as Beatles.  The opening line “I told you bout Strawberry Fields,  you know the place where nothing is real” sets the self-referential tone, but Strawberry Field, as I’m sure you know, is very real, and John could see it from a tree in Aunt Mimi’s garden…  “no one I think is in my tree…

It was an orphanage, and the locals kids used to break into the grounds sometimes to play football on the green.  But John Lennon and his pals Paul, George and Ringo now know “how the other half live” because they made it as Beatles.  When they were kids would they be “standing on the bent-back tulips to see how the other half live” in someone’s garden peering through Georgian windows at their future in “the other half”  ??

Looking through a glass onion.  Like a crystal ball, but looking back, and forward at the same time.

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inside the White Album ‘The Beatles’ 1968 were four pictures

John teases the fans who were reading cryptic messages into all Beatles lyrics by 1968, referencing the death of Paul in a famous example, a rumour that refused to be stifled but that was clearly bonkers.  DOA on his Sgt Pepper jacket. And so on.  Lennon skewers it all.  On the Anthology off-cut version he even shouts “Help!

Well here’s another clue for you all : the Walrus was Paul”

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Still from I Am The Walrus film 1967

Maybe, in this picture, he was.  In the next verse John’s told us about “the fool on the hill”, the 3rd song from Magical Mystery Tour that’s he’s referenced.   Each of these moments also has a musical echo of the song – here are the flutes from Fool On The Hill.  You can have fun finding them for yourself.  The other two of the five Beatles songs inside the skin of Glass Onion are even more recent, a 1968 single : Lady Madonnatrying to make ends meet, yeah” and from 1967 and Sgt Pepper :  “Fixing A Hole in the ocean…

I went looking for the Cast Iron Shore today, driving around the east side of the River Mersey where it’s all been re-built, cleaned up, nice waterfront developments, marinas, business parks.  Asked a few locals where it was.  They’d all heard of it: “The Cazzie, yeah” but no one was quite sure exactly which bit it was.   The first place I found had holes in the ocean as you can see

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Holes in the ocean at the Cast Iron Shore, yeah

because it was low tide.   But many believe that both Fixing a Hole, which is a McCartney song,  and this song reference heroin which John Lennon was sampling in the year 1968.  Two years later he would be screaming Cold Turkey into a microphone as he came off the drug.   The softer drug marijuana is also alluded to.   I tried “to make a dovetail joint” in woodwork class once at Lewes Priory school and it wasn’t great, but I suspect that I will be forever remembered for the Camberwell Carrot, a Dovetail Joint that I smoked in the film Withnail and I.  My character, Danny the drug dealer explains that the Camberwell Carrot “can utilise at least twelve skins…”

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Annie McGann, me, Paul McGann, Hope St Hotel, September 2015

It felt appropriate to have a puff on the cast iron shore today and contemplate The Beatles and Liverpool and my love of them and the city.  Last night (and the night before) I’d been out with Paul McGann and his wife Annie, up in town for a Comedy Festival screening of Withnail, and happily staying in the same hotel as I.   We ate, we drank, we met Austin and Yvonne, we met Tim Roth and Sandra Butterworth with whom I am currently working on Jimmy McGovern and Bob Pugh‘s screenplay “REG” for the BBC and LA Productions.  We watched England lose to Wales at Twickenham in a disco pumping out house tunes and hosting the totteridge and whetstone of Liverpool L1.  We’d signed autographs with fans and taken pictures after the screening.  We’d drank more drink.  Lovely weekend, making a circle of reference.  I’ve known Paul since we made Withnail and I in 1985, when we were babies.  Such a charming, gentle, gracious, intelligent, well-read man who is hugely relaxed about life and who appears to have no grey hair.

Featured imageThis is an outrage as I am both bald and grey at this point.  Tim Roth at least has the decency to be grey.  I’ve known Tim since the days of going out with Rita Wolf – mid 80s too, and Tim and Paul were both on the ‘Brit Pack” cover of The Face in 1985 – with some other creatures great and small.  But Tim and I have deeper roots since he went to Dick Shepherd School in Brixton with my friends Paulette and Beverley Randall, Eugene McCaffrey and David Lawrence.  So the circles carry on.  I’m now staying on Hope Street again, just along the road from The Everyman Theatre where I performed Macbeth and which put me off theatre for life in 1987 (see My Pop Life #108)

Tomorrow I’ll try and find Ringo’s house at #9 Madryn Road, and George’s at 12 Arnold Grove in Wavertree because Jenny and I visited John’s and Paul’s family homes – mentioned above – in 2008 when we had a holiday in Liverpool.  I know !  But we did, and we loved it.  Year of Culture, all that.  For another post.  But both Lennon and MCcartney’s properties are now run, brilliantly, by The National Trust, which is also rather spookily mentioned in a song from the White Album “Happiness Is A Warm Gun“, to continue the circle of myth.   I totally recommend that tour, probably the single best thing to do as a tourist in Liverpool.

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251 Menlove Avenue where John was brought up by his Aunt Mimi

REG” is about Reg Keys whose son Tom died in Iraq in 2003 along with five other military policemen.  When the no WMD declaration was made, Reg Keys decided to stand for Parliament in Tony Blair’s Sedgefield constituency in 2005 as an independent candidate fully against Blair’s Iraq war policy.  Tim Roth is playing Reg, Anna Maxwell-Martin his wife and I’m playing his election agent, ex-MP Bob Clay.  It is an honour to represent this true story to the nation.  The 90-minute film will be released at the same time as The Chilcott Report apparently – the official Enquiry into the debacle and falsehoods behind the decision to go to war.  Jeremy Corbyn, new Labour Party leader as I speak, (elected by a greater majority than Tony Blair had when he was elected leader), will this week apologise on behalf of the party for the Iraq War.  This is a big deal.   It’s one of the those jobs that I’ve been lucky enough to get where I feel like I’m inside current history.  An earlier experience – for another post naturally – was the Joint Stock workshop for the play Deadlines, when Tricia Kelly and I found ourselves at the Tory Party Conference in Brighton the day after the IRA blew up the Grand Hotel, watching Thatcher, who’d so very nearly died in the explosion, speak to the Hall.  Powerful stuff.

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Paul, Tim, Ralph

And fitting that I would feel those prickly feelings again in Liverpool, a city which I have great affection for, and which is probably the most political city in the UK.  Hmm Ok well there may be other contenders – I’m thinking of Belfast (see My Pop Life #13) but Liverpool has a deeply and profoundly anti-establishment tradition.  They don’t buy The Sun here, thanks to that rag’s coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy.   Maybe I’m romanticising.   But c’mon !  There’s a Slavery Museum here!   And, And… It is a city of music, like New Orleans, a great port city which connected it to the outside world.  The whole world.  The very reason why The Beatles came out of Liverpool rather than Manchester or Leeds or Birmingham is the docks.  Those great ships would come in from New York in the 1950s, and on board along with passengers, imports like cotton and sugar and manufactured goods would be secret stashes of cool shirts, loafers, slacks and RECORDS.  45rpm singles.  They heard Elvis Presley here in Liverpool before anywhere else in the UK.  And no, I don’t know what a glass onion is.  Maybe if I’d taken heroin I would.  But if you peel away the layers, expecting to find the answers inside (like people were doing with Beatles lyrics, and what I am clearly doing now) you’ll see that in the end, it was transparent all along.

My Pop Life #89 : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy – Paul Simon

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Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy  –   Paul Simon

…some folks lives roll easy, some folks lives…never roll at all…

…most folks never catch their stars…

It’s a slight, unshowy track on Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon’s masterpiece.  It’s a magnificent album chock-full of hits and flashy songs, the title track alone is the work of a genius, but then there’s My Little Town, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Have A Good Time – for me this is the perfect LP.  Look at it this way – you’ve written the song.  You have wonderful chords, searching lyrics, you’ve done well, you’ve chosen only the creme de la creme of your work.  And then :  you arrange them.

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 I’m a sucker for a great arrangement, something with a bit of thought, a bit of TLC.   Paul Simon shares this arranging fetish with Bob Marley – rarely is a song a straight guitar strum 4×4 and drum beat with a few bvs.  No – there is a careful consideration of how to tell the story of the song musically – and this means instruments dropping out, only appearing for the turnarounds, treating pop music a little more like a classical composition.  Brian Wilson went there with Pet Sounds, Kate Bush lives there.   There is something about jazz musicians playing pop arrangements that delivers delicious music (he generalised : eg Motown) – the line-up of A-list session players on Still Crazy After All These Years is long and distinguished and includes the celebrated Steve Gadd on drums and Mike Brecker on saxophone.

This is probably the most compassionate song I know.  The concept of the piece – that some folks’ lives roll easy, while others don’t, is relatively simple, and yet not commonplace in pop at all.  There are songs which celebrate, defiantly, being working-class – Dead-End Street by The Kinks, most of The Streets output, The Clash – and there are songs celebrating or lamenting the easy life – large chunks of hip hop, Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks, disturbingly large amounts of Bryan Ferry – but there are very few songs it seems to me which put these two universes together in the same song.

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The narrator – Mr Paul Simon – contemplates the fact that “most folks never catch their stars”  – this alone is an astounding line in a pop song and the truth of it stabs you unexpectedly with its clear-eyed compassion.  Then we’re in the middle eight and the narrator suddenly becomes the self-confessed supplicant speaking directly to his “Lord” – at his place of business, despite having “no business here”.  He speaks directly to his God :

“You said if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted?”

The music around this repeated middle eight is tremendously affecting. first time around a simple string section supports and leads us away from this humble prayer,  then it repeats :

here I am Lord, knocking at your place of business, and I know, I got no business here

but you said, if I ever got so low I was busted – you could be trusted…”

and this time the horns punch us back to the first verse “Some folks’ lives roll easy, some folks never roll at all, they just fall, they just fall…” but this time with a soaring three-part harmony which tears your heart open.   If you have one, naturally.

There is no chorus in this song which is unusual, but what is more unusual is the narrative that it offers.  We think we know this story, but when we hear the song, we hear it all over again on another level.  It’s pretty damn special.

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I didn’t buy solo Paul Simon until the 90s, but this song quickly became one of my wife’s favourites.   I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, I had singles and greatest hits as a very young teen.  They were the sound of my youth.   I thought, and still think, they were totally amazing.   But I never did bother to follow up and get into Paul Simon until I was deep into my thirties.  This LP, his 4th, came out in 1975 and is perfect, as described above.  Of course there is Graceland which broke the boycott but helped make Ladysmith Black Mambazo into international stars, Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon, ah look, there’s a kind of endless tapestry of brilliant songs and LPs to be honest, right up to the present day (2011’s So Beautiful or So What), consistency applied – he never appears to write a bad song, and his taste in musicians and arrangements is impeccable.

Featured imageJenny and I went to Liverpool for the year of culture in 2008 and had an absolutely brilliant long weekend – again a subject for another post (!) but we did see Paul Simon at the new Echo Arena on the River Mersey, with his incredible band which includes South African Bakithi Kumalo (pictured right) on bass (with Simon since Graceland in 1986), and Cameroonian Vincent Nguini on guitar.   He didn’t play this song, but did sing Sound Of Silence, The Boxer, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Gumboots, Boy In The Bubble, Duncan, Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard, Mrs Robinson, Still Crazy, Slip Slidin’ Away and You Can Call Me Al.  Among others.   An amazing night.

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So, cut to : at some point in 2010 I’m basically giving up every Saturday morning, sometimes the whole day to canvas on behalf of Caroline Lucas of The Green Party in the Brighton Pavilion constituency for the 2010 election.   A Party which I’d recently joined, partly due to renewed political optimism engendered by Barack Obama‘s first election victory (white Americans voted for a black man – there is hope).  The Green Party understands that some folks lives roll easy, some don’t.  Many former Labour supporters joined the Greens, myself included,  depressed by the right turn of Blairism, and the pusillanimous surrender of the Labour Left to the City – see the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) for the NHS if you doubt my words.  So:  I’m meeting Green volunteers who’ve taken the train down from all across the UK to Brighton to support the big push, and they’re getting into my 4×4 Jeep Cherokee (converted to LPG!!) and being taken out to places like Withdean and Hollingbury.   To leaflet every household.  And Radio 3 has a show being presented by Richard Curtis, with whom I’d worked the previous year on “The Boat That Rocked” his film about Radio Caroline (yes yes there will be posts about that obviously !) and really enjoyed his humourous positivity.  He’s actually not particularly English, probably because he grew up in diplomatic surroundings in dozens of different countries.  And maybe that gives him a slightly dewy-eyed view of England.  Anyway enough Freud, he was on Radio 3 this very day in 2010.   And he was playing his six most personal favourite songs.  And one of them was this one : Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy by Paul Simon.   It made me love him even more.   The UK public are as hard on Richard as they are on Paul McCartney – big soppy rich so-and-so they appear to mutter under their breath – we prefer snarling mean people, like us.  Well sod you all, mean people.  Richard Curtis is one of the sweetest people I know, generous, funny, loves music and is genuinely supportive.  You may not like his films, or Blackadder, or Comic Relief, but if that is the case, have you actually sat down and asked yourself what is wrong with you ?

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Compassion is not to be sneered at.  It’s what makes us grow.  The best bit of ourselves.  Let’s nurture it.

My Pop Life #36 : Penny Lane – The Beatles

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Penny Lane   –   The Beatles

Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
And though she feels as if she’s in a play
She is anyway

Possibly the finest lyric from the 1960s or any other time, Paul McCartney is reminiscing about growing up in Liverpool.   This was a monster single when it came out in early 1967 on a double-A-side with John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, also a psychedelic childhood impressionistic work.   They were the first two songs (along with When I’m 64) to be recorded for their new LP Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but EMI wanted a spring single and producer George Martin offered them these, thus both songs were subsequently not included on that LP.   This double-A side of masterpiece pop theatre – surely one of the peaks of the entire genre of 7″ vinyl – was the first Beatles single since their debut Love Me Do in 1962 (unfeasibly only 5 long years earlier) to fail to reach the Number One position in the charts, being kept stubbornly in the Number Two position by Engelbert Humperdinck’s schmaltzy  “Release Me”.   It presaged the end of The Beatles as a completely dominant cultural force, although the single did reach Number One in the US and they would of course continue to make extraordinary music for the next three years together.

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Those are the facts.   Psycho-geographers and groove-diviners could probably find a mystical mid-way point between the two real locations of Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields in Liverpool which would mark the actual centre of the pop universe.   It still thrills me to listen to it, the soaring harmonies, the bright blue suburban brass in the chorus, the English-pop confidence of the characters in & around the barbershop and the Goon-esque BBC comedy line “very strange” at the end of each verse.   Every time I go for a haircut I sing the opening line to myself  : “In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known”.    We meet the banker – clearly a lower-middle class figure of fun – was this a dim memory even in 1966? – the patriotic fireman with a portrait of The Queen in his pocket (more Englishness) and the nurse selling poppies (not real poppies, we somehow know this refers to Nov 11th Armistice Day and the wearing of poppies in remembrance of the war dead).   We get the illicit sexual behind-the-bus-shelter line “a four of fish and finger pies” which doesn’t refer to frozen food, and the fireman’s bell ringing a clear F sharp to herald in the simply magnificent piccolo trumpet solo, played on the session by David Mason, inspired by Paul watching him play it in Bach’s 2nd Brandenburg Concerto on the telly a few nights earlier.   Brilliantly engineered as ever by Geoff Emerick the result is a perfect encapsulation of childhood memory become pop art.

I’ve taken the trip down Penny Lane, been to Paul’s old house at 20 Forthlin Road where the teenage Beatles taught each other Little Richard and Chuck Berry songs, I’ve been to John’s Aunt Mimi’s house at 251 Menlove Avenue, (when John was “in my tree” in the back garden he could see Strawberry Fields) and then along to Strawberry Fields’ gate round the corner, seen a gig at the new Cavern and patronised other Beatles-related tourism in Liverpool.   All highly recommended, very well curated, and makes for a magical mystery tour of a day.  Or a week.

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I’ve bought the T-shirts, seen the tribute bands and even bought the road sign.   It hangs from my vibraphone, currently on loan to Charlotte Glasson from The Brighton Beach Boys, a band I played in for 10 years in Brighton.    I add hastily I wasn’t very good on the vibes, but really loved playing them.

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After being together for five years and mastering most of the Beach Boys 20 Golden Greats we moved on to Pet Sounds – the whole LP, then with an heroic attempt at the impossible decided to try Sgt Pepper.  Some bright spark (Neil Hayward of the Robin Hood pub in Brighton) suggested we play both LPs live back to back to settle the old baby-boomer argument about which was better. And so it was that for eight years consecutively we used to play all of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper live with a string quartet and brass & woodwinds in the Brighton Festival each spring.   These evenings remain as some of the very brightest moments in my life.

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We’d end the show and bring the house down with the final chord of A Day In The Life (it’s an E major popfans) and take the applause – then the first encore just had to be Penny Lane.  I played the alto line in the chorus.  Such joy.   Stephen Wrigley arranged the strings and brass.   Heroic work was undertaken by Dominic Nunns on the French Horn as he would play the piccolo trumpet solo and somehow hit that top note to a burst of applause mid song.  And lead vocal duties were delivered with uncanny accuracy by Glen Richardson who has a crush on St Paul anyway (and is also in a play, but has never sold poppies).

My knee jerk response to that impossible question “what is your favourite Beatles song?” is “Penny Lane” 90% of the time, when I’m not being a smart-arse, or just wallowing in some indulgence.  I love Strawberry Fields too of course, and playing that song live made me appreciate its brilliance even more.  I can’t compare the two songs, they are two sides of the same shiny acid-drenched musical coin, from my favourite musical era, the post-LSD 1960s when for about 2 years all the great songwriters and singers added harpsichords and bells, trumpets and brightly-coloured imagery to their work – Itchycoo Park, Autumn Almanac, I Can See For Miles, Sunshine Superman, See Emily Play.  But there is a purity to this song that eclipses all those great great songs – and it’s there, for me, in the simple, bright blinding light of the chorus:

“…Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes…”