My Pop Life #175 : One Better Day – Madness

One Better Day   –   Madness

Further down, a photo booth, a million plastic bags
And an old woman filling out a million baggage tags
But when she gets thrown out, three bags at a time
She spies the old chap in the road to share her bags with
She has bags of time
Surrounded by his past, on a short white line
He sits while cars pass either side, takes his time
Trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear him say
Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes

Was there ever a more disappointing year for pop music than 1984?  Looking back at the album releases and the top singles I am staggered by the unifying theme – great artists releasing substandard material, and very few inspirational youngsters filling the huge gap. Exception and the big album of the year was Purple Rain by Prince, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood dominated the UK radio and singles charts but I bought very little current music in 1984.  I was filling gaps, discovering genres, crate-digging, conducting archeological excavations and sometimes realising that people I’d scorned as a teenager were actually pretty good.  The albums I did buy from 1984, in 1984 :

Goodbye Cruel World  –  Elvis Costello & The Attractions

The Pearl  –  Harold Budd & Brian Eno

Mister Heartbreak  –  Laurie Anderson

Diamond Life  –  Sade

Best of ‘The Poet’ Trilogy  –  Bobby Womack

Keep Moving  –  Madness

Not as many as usual.  Later I would buy Prince, The Bangles, Luther Vandross, Dr John, Franco & TPOK Jazz, Van Dyke Parks, Gilberto Gil, The Judds, Prefab Sprout, Youssou N’Dour, The Style Council, Steve Reich, Run DMC and Pat Metheny, but even with those additions I think you can see how thin on the ground 1984 was musically.  Springsteen made Born In The USA the title track of which became a republican anthem (he didn’t sing it live this year 2016).  Perhaps the date was casting shade.  1984.  Throughout my life we’d all lived under the spectre of George Orwell‘s chilling and prescient novel.   That collection of numbers, that date had loomed like the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey – the other magical sentient date..in The Future.  It always presaged doom, totalitarianism, a jackboot stamping on a human face into infinity.  Now we were here and…well, life went on, like it does.  Like it did in 2001.  And like it will next year.

The big singles were Relax, Two Tribes, The Power Of Love, When Doves Cry, Purple Rain, the others were What’s Love Got To Do With It, I Feel For You, Ghostbusters, Any Love, It’s A Miracle, Careless Whisper, Smalltown Boy, Solid, Like A Virgin, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Hello, Take A Look At Me Now, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Do They Know It’s Christmas.

I liked very little of it.  Disappointing : Bowie with Blue Jean, Stevie Wonder (sigh), Elvis Costello’s worst LP to date, ditto McCartney, ditto Paul Weller.

And then Haircut 100 split up. ( Joke. )

And then Jerry Dammers and Special AKA released Free Nelson Mandela. (Not Joke)

Flying the flag for musical growth, and one step beyond their previous work The Rise and Fall (1982) was the Madness LP Keep Moving, in particular the song One Better Day, which haunts me even now and can move me to tears.  I’d loved the band since their first single The Prince,  multi-cultural British ska birthed in Camden Town via Jamaica. In those early days their skinhead fans and their whiteness made me feel a little uncomfortable at some of the gigs, although the majority of fans were not skins.  Then, aware of this stain on their pop life, the Madness videos started to include black people and the band rose above it all – for example Embarrassment is about a girl who’s going to have a baby with her black boyfriend.  The other groups who’d come up on the ska-revival Two-Tone wave The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter were all multi-racial anyway, but by 1984 they’d all split up.  Madness were on Stiff Records and this was their last LP with the maverick punk label.  It was their finest record to date – I’d bought them all, and they’d just got better and better.  So had The Undertones, but they’d stopped, so had The Jam and they’d split, so had Elvis Costello and he’d gone a bit over-produced, his songs weren’t to his impossibly high standard.   I’d also bought the collected videos of Madness which we watched endlessly, because they were so full of joy and nuttiness. I’m not sure there are a better collection of videos in pop history.  They made me want to be in the band.  Playing the saxophone.  Doing slightly robotic dancing.  Having a laugh with a gang.  

I’ve always wanted to be in a gang, but never really surrendered to it.  I don’t surrender very easily.  I’ve been in some gangs, but always felt like an outsider in there.  Either a council-estate kid in a middle class environment as a teenager, or an educated kid in a working-class environment.  Or an actor in a football team.  Or an actor in a band.  Or just a weirdo who doesn’t fit in enough.  Must be a choice.  I resist surrender.  Because I do not seek oblivion I will never be an alcoholic or a junkie.  I’m scared of oblivion, of disappearing.  Most of the music I like is controlled.  It’s not messy, it’s not people losing control.  It’s beautiful, melodic, harmonic, sweet.  But I wanted to be in Madness so much.  They influenced the band I was in, Birds Of Tin, but not enough. See My Pop Life #149.

Mike Barson was the musical genius on the piano, but his influence infused every musician, from bass player Mark Bedford (who later guested on Robert Wyatt’s cover of Costello’s Shipbuilding) to gimmick side monkey Chas Smash who went from rude boy dancer to trumpet player, from Chris Foreman on guitar and songwriting to Lee Thompson on saxophone (who I wished I was), from Woody on the kit to Suggs on the lead vocals.  They were tight, musical, lyrically interesting and wonderfully arranged pop songs,  vignettes of British life from Baggy Trousers to Embarrassment, My Girl to House Of Fun. They were probably my favourite band in the early 80s – them and Costello and Talking Heads.

Sloane Square, Chelsea

But if 1984 was a meagre year musically for me,  theatrically it was promising.   Armed with a law degree 😉 – I’d been to Edinburgh three times, got my Equity Card,  played the Donmar in Steven Berkoff’s WEST.    Then in early 84 I’d worked at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs with Danny Boyle (directing an incredible play called Panic! by Alan Brown).   It was an extraordinary piece of work which ran for all of two and half weeks as I recall.  Worthy of a post of its own.   Then in the late summer the 3rd director in the building a brilliant young Simon Curtis invited me to be part of his first production which was to be a play for Joint Stock Theatre Company called Deadlines.  I was thrilled, and it turned out to be one of my most satisfying and rewarding theatrical adventures.  Simon was extremely encouraging, open, intelligent and funny.  I ended up playing six parts and getting a new agent out of it : Michael Foster.   Also cast : Kathryn Pogson, Paul Jesson, Shirin Taylor, Tricia Kelly, Paul Mooney.   Writer :  Stephen Wakelam.  Play : unwritten.

A young Simon Curtis in 1985, one year after Deadlines

Joint Stock was a unique theatre company.  Formed by Max Stafford-Clark and others in the early 1970s, it had become a collective in 1974 while they produced David Hare’s play about China ‘Fanshen’, co-directed by Max and Bill Gaskell.  This meant that every member who had ever worked for the company could attend company meetings and AGMs and vote.  In practice people deferred to Max and Caryl Churchill, both of whom were enthusiastic enough to actually attend meetings.  There was an administrator, but no Artistic Director – each big decision eg – what play shall we do next ? directed by who ? written by who ? was decided on a collective vote.  Some were already plays, but more often the show would be devised by the company.

This is now a forgotten way of life.  All of those Arts Council-funded theatre companies have gone :  7:84, Shared Experience, Joint Stock, Paines Plough.  Slashed by Thatcher’s reduction of the State.  1984 was the year of the miner’s strike, Coal Not Dole stickers, and the rise of cardboard city in Waterloo as new regulations on signing on created a new wave of homelessness, particularly of those between 16 and 20.  Suddenly there were people sleeping in shop doorways in London on The Strand.  Then there was an IRA bomb at the Tory Party conference in Brighton at The Grand Hotel.

*

one of the greatest band shots of all time: the cover of ‘7’ the 3rd Madness LP

Keep Moving was Mike Barson’s last album with Madness, and he left the band once they recorded a couple of videos – Michael Caine and One Better Day, which was their last for Stiff Records, and funded by the band themselves including Barson, seen playing the vibraphone, who flew in from Amsterdam for the shoot.

Arlington house, address: no fixed abode
An old man in a three-piece suit sits in the road
He stares across the water, he sees right through the lock
But on and up like outstretched hands
His mumbled words, his fumbled words, mock

Arlington House is behind Camden High Street.  It housed – and still houses among it’s more commercial premises – homeless men, and has since 1905.  It was the last of the Victorian workhouses, built by politician and philanthropist Lord Rowton in the 1890s to house London’s working poor.

Camden Lock

I used to shop for music shoes and clothes in Camden Town, whether in Dingwalls (‘The Lock’ in the lyrics) or the Record and Tape Exchange on the High St, or one of the many independent stores in that square mile of post-punk grubbiness.  Over the years I’ve been to many gigs in Camden Palace (Culture Club), The Electric Ballroom (The Vibrators) or Dingwalls (X-Ray Spex).  The Dublin Castle.   More recently at the re-opened Roundhouse or the Jazz Cafe.

When I started acting in Moving Parts Theatre Company in 1981 two of the company’s founders – Ruth MacKenzie and Rachel Feldberg – lived in Oval Road just behind Arlington House with the young director Roger Michell who would later go on to direct The Buddha Of Suburbia, Notting Hill and many other successful films.  I would see him years and years later at Michael Foster’s 50th birthday party and he hailed me “Haven’t you done well !”  I looked behind me.  No, he meant me. I smiled.  “Me?  What about you !!” I realised that seen from the outside, my journey looks good and fine, but what about the invisible thrashing through the undergrowth with a blunt machete to reach a small ledge of safety that no one ever sees ?  Eh ?!?  WHAT ABOUT THAT?

Gentrified many times Camden still retains its scruffy down-at-heel ambience, partly due to scruffy down-at-heel junkies, and partly due to people who want to look scruffy and down-at-heel.  But there have always been homeless people there – see Waterloo, see Soho, see Bayswater. And having been homeless myself for a period of time as a teenager (see My Pop Life #84 All Along The Watchtower) I always felt moved by this song, describing a couple walking the streets of NW1.  Street people.  Nowhere to store their stuff, carrying it all around.  Nowhere to wash apart from the hostel, who close their doors at 8am.  I would be interviewing some of these people for my first play Sanctuary in 2 years’ time, using The Joint Stock Method.  And later, some of them would be invited to The Drill Hall to see the play.

The woman in the video is Betty Bright – Sugg’s wife.  Graham McPherson – Suggs – who wrote the song with Mark ‘Bedders’ Bedford – looks impossibly young in the video, but wears the kind of clothes that I used to try and find, and still do to be fair.  Checks.  Tartans. Doc Martens.  There’s a DM shop on Kentish Town Road next to Camden tube which makes an appearance in The Sun & The Rain video.  I had a pair of red patent leather DMs.  In fact I still have them.  I owe some of my so-called style to Madness Suggs chic, (some to Bryan Ferry chic, some to rock’n’roll and some to Laurel & Hardy).

The chorus is unbearably sweet, given the subject :

She’s trying to remember one better day
A while ago when people stopped to hear her say

‘Walking round you sometimes hear the sunshine
Beating down in time with the rhythm of your shoes
The feeling of arriving when you’ve nothing left to lose…’

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My Pop Life #171 : Praying For Time – George Michael

Praying For Time   –   George Michael

I may have too much but I’ll take my chances
Because god’s stopped keeping score…

Listen Without Prejudice was released in September 1990 and this was the first single from the album.  We listened to the LP all that winter 90/91, and I don’t think George Michael has ever bettered it.  Cowboys & Angels, Freedom 90, Heal The Pain, lovely cover of They Won’t Go When I Go.  And Praying For Time.  “tune”

Listen Without Prejudice – 1990

That autumn I was doing a play called Earwig by Paula Milne at The Pit, somewhere under The Barbican in London with the RSC.  Then I got a call from the agent for a meeting in Pinewood studios for Alien 3.  This was terribly exciting.  I adored the first Alien film, and was less keen on the second, but devoured it hungrily nonetheless.  The combination of horror and science fiction was thrilling and brilliantly done.  I gleaned a few details before the meeting – it was going to be set on a prison planet with no women except Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver.  It would directed by a young first-time director called David Fincher.   Much to the irritation of the RSC I had my (pretty long) hair shorn at Fish in D’Arblay Street – a number four if I recall.  I’d been going to Fish since I’d done West at The Donmar Warehouse in 1983, and they’d been close-up witnesses to the disappearing head-fur since then.  Anyway, I got offered the part of Aaron, or to be more accurate, Fincher recalled me and asked me which part I fancied playing.  HOW COMPLETELY THRILLING !!  (I thought)  IS THIS WHAT MY LIFE WILL BE LIKE NOW???  I chose Aaron.  The 2nd in command.  The survivor.  Good part.  Or so I thought. This is an extract from my diary at the time – an actor at his first Hollywood barbeque, getting burned.  Nobody explains what it’s going to be like, and even if they did, I didn’t listen.  Who does ?

*

Alien 3 – Paranoia in Pinewood

The six stages of Film Production : as seen carved into the wall in Pinewood, Studio Five, by someone presumably better-versed in the industry than I :

  1. Wild enthusiasm
  2. Disillusionment
  3. Panic
  4. Search For The Guilty
  5. Punish The Innocent
  6. Reward The Non-Involved 

 

17th Jan 1991.

Well.  After a heavy day’s filming on Scene 55 where Golic, (played by me old china plate  Paul McGann), is brought to the infirmary, I return to my dressing room to find rewrites have been pushed under my door.  Rewrites for the end of the movie.  I read them.  Disaster.  My character has gone from the everyman-yuppie-type-who-survives to something completely different : the thick-coward-type-who-gets-his-throat-cut-while-hiding-from-the-alien.   I feel like a horse has kicked me in the guts.  I march up to the director, David Fincher’s office, and demand a meeting with the writers, Walter Hill and David Giler, to discuss the part.  Having already filmed two scenes and therefore committed my character to celluloid, these changes are un-nerving to say the very least.  Fincher says he hates the rewrites, and don’t worry, it’ll be all right.  But he’s just the director.  Walter and David are also producing along with Sigourney herself.  I express with great and foolish bravery to Fincher that I need to know what I’m playing, and I need to know NOW.  We arrange a meeting for lunchtime next day.

18th Jan

At 11.am I get a call cancelling the meeting.  Panic.  I call my agent Michael Foster, the poison dwarf of Oxford Street whom I love dearly.  His advice : Don’t rock the boat, keep your head below the parapet, wear a tie and vote conservative (remember, this is 1991).  Above all, he advises, Do Not Upset Walter Hill, writer and producer of the film.  There are major Hollywood politics going on and I’m simply caught in the crossfire, my character being one pawn among many in a power game between the Giler/Hill axis and the Fincher/Fox camp.  It’s the moody stark Alien (1) vs the populist wham-bam Aliens (2).  I know what I prefer but evidently can’t afford to express my feeling to the wrong people.

At 2pm I get a call inviting me (since I’m not filming today) to the Halcyon Hotel in Holland Park – a car will be round to pick me up.  This is where Walter Hill and David Giler are staying.  The drive is smooth and tense. I go up in the lift to Room 50, and Walter greets me at the door wearing mirror shades.

Walter Hill, director of The Long Riders, 48 Hours, The Warriors, The Driver and more

By now I am shitting maisonettes but staying outwardly cool I hope.  Something to drink Ralph ?  I ask for tea, so we all have tea.  We chat, and Fincher is mentioned.  Non-committal words are exchanged.  Body language is tense, nervy from Hill, open, receptive from me.  I smile in what I hope is a relaxed fashion.  I’m wrong about one thing (probably more than one – Ed) – Walter Hill talks about going back to the simplicity of the first Alien movie, which cheers me up a bit.  So, Ralph, what about Aaron?  Well, I say, I’m here to ask for your help.  Hill doesn’t believe me.  Careful Ralph.  Be careful.  Be honest.  I talk about Fincher’s version of the character and how it conflicts with the rewrites. Hill shifts his weight and considers me.  “Aaron is a working class stupid guy, who is funny“.   I agree.  This is my bargaining position I say : I have no bargaining position.  Hill laughs.  He knows.    Is there anything I don’t like about the script?  Well, I say, can’t Aaron fight with the Alien??  If not at the end, then in the middle sequence with the fire? Astonishingly they agree with me and I gain a point.  But I can’t fight at the end.  And I have to be an 85 IQ – like Muhammed Ali or Danny from Withnail (they bizarrely console me with).  OK I say.  Fine by me I say.  Thrilled to be in your movie I say.  No heroics for me, and this will affect any Hollywood career I am to have, if indeed I am to have one.  “We all gotta serve the movie Ralph” says Walter Hill. who is getting paid something in the region of a million dollars serving the movie.  “I’m prepared to sit here til midnight until you’re happy with the way the character should be played…”  

I leave one and a half hours later, shaking hands.  I press the lift button.  I can still hear them and strain an ear down the corridor – what are they saying?  “Fuck the guy – get him off the picture”  ?    I don’t want to hear it anyway.  I walk out through the lobby feeling as tight and tense and screwed up as a piece of wire.  I feel like vomiting.  I am driven home, feeling shaky and weird.  Meet my brother Paul and go to see Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda at Screen on the Green – flawed but good (Brian Cox was excellent) – with the memorable line :  “Rule One : Look After Your Own Balls

Afterward to the pub and drinks and I start to unwind.  I am now paranoid about being cut from the film (like Veronica Cartwright was from Alien as Walter had gently reminded me earlier – I don’t want to alarm you Ralph but, well, yes, actually I DO want to alarm you.  Don’t end up like Veronica Cartwright…)  She was the one who cried a lot.  I suddenly remember that an actor was sacked after four weeks filming on Aliens because they found out that he was on acid or something (!) and so they re-shot all the scenes he was in.  So even after a month’s filming you’re not safe.  Damn.

David Fincher & Sigourney Weaver on the set of Alien 3, Pinewood 1991

Meeting with Fincher the next day.  Hi dude how was your meeting?  Walter and David said you’d reached a compromise.  Oh, that’s what they called it?  I felt as if I’d been taken slowly from behind.  I informed Fincher that although I loved him spiritually, I had in fact (sad to say) sold him down the river (still some quiver when I deliver) and that I had accepted the working-class thicko comic character idea to save my own balls (see Rule One above).  Fincher says “The fight’s not over.  Remember we’re working for 18th century Fox here”

Jan 21st

The rewrites come through.  As I expected.  Well, we all gotta serve the movie.  Fear stalks the set.  Everyone is applying Rule One.  And as we shoot mangled remains of Alien victims in dark corridors, the Gulf War is being prosecuted with extreme prejudice, and as Brian Glover soberly remarked, we could go to Baghdad and see the real thing.

my old mate Danny Webb with Sigourney on set

Someone steals a continuity photo of Sigourney with head shaved and sells it to the Today newspaper.  A mole on the unit.  Someone from props gets sacked.  We’re all looking over our shoulders.

Feb 4th

Picked up from Archway Road by Bill my driver who informs me that Jordan Cronenweth, legendary DP who shot Blade Runner had been replaced by Alex Thomson over the weekend.  Brian Glover is picked up in Fulham Road and gets severe wobbles for the rest of the day.  “It’s a portent Ralph, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film doesn’t get finished“.   Jordan’s disappearance has the opposite effect on me.  I finally reach my long-lost fuck-it level.  And I think : FUCK IT !   In the next scene I have only my vest and long johns, so my chest is showing.  Nick in make-up takes a long look : ” Ooh no, it’ll have to go”  What will?  “The chest hair love.  It’ll have to come off”   Jesus Christ.  I go all queenie for a second and flounce back to my dressing room to ponder my pectorals.  Shaved chest?  Never in all my born days….

Fuck It.  I don’t even phone Jenny to moan at her, because as soon as she hears my anxious paranoid actor’s whinge she’ll just search for things to say which won’t upset me.  No.  It’s my decision and I’ll shave the fucker.  Jesus Christ !  I’m an actor!!  Actors do all that shit!  It’s for the part, and the money.  Aaron shaves his chest.  I suddenly saw, for the first time since I was 15, what my body actually looked like.  I have to report that it could have been better.  Went straight home to the bench press and weights That Night.  But it was a liberating shave, a plunge into Fuck-It-Dom which released much of my tension and anxiety about the film.  FUCK IT !!!

Feb 5th

The canteen sequence.  Rewrites still coming in.  An IRA attack on Downing Street provides a fitting backdrop.  Sigourney is taking no prisoners today.  First it’s the hair:  “Your hair is too long Ralph, we should put some lice in it”   Then an hour later it’s the costume:  “How come Aaron gets to wear a nice clean shirt, while we’re all in dirty crap here?”     “It’s vanity pure and simple”  says the deep Barnsley burr of Brian Glover.  Thanks mate.   “So the stupid Aaron 85 looks really cool then” says Sigourney.  “Mr Normal”.  She stonks off.   I feel really weird now.  All my paranoias confirmed !   I think she is anxious about having a shaved head, but she has successfully managed to dump her insecurity onto me.

spoiler : Brian Glover is taken by the Alien in the canteen

 McGann wanders over and I tell him what has happened.  Sigourney walks past us :  “Oh look – a little tete-a-tete between Mr Sublime and Mr Ridiculous.  I’ll leave you guys to work out who’s  who”….  Paul turns to me.  “She’s going the right way for a smack in the mouth”.    At the tea break another actor tells me that Sigourney didn’t want any stars in the film and doesn’t speak to Charles Dance.  I am reminded of having my close-ups cut from Buster, and Phil Collins’ performance on Wogan, when he was asked who was playing Biggs (me) and he replied “Oh some new younger actor”.    You’re nobody in this town ’til everybody thinks you’re a bastard.

Aaron ’85’

Feb 6th

I’m being made up on set as Sigourney glides past.  “Don’t make him look too pretty I have to walk past him”…   ‘Trust your image Sigourney’,  I reply.  She hovers, so for something to say I tell her that my death has now been re-written FIVE TIMES so far, including : Alien eats me, Golic cuts my throat, I fall into lead mould, Company machine-gun me.  “I asked them to kill you off on page ten” she says.  A couple of hours later she pokes her tongue out at me.  Hey!  It occurs to me, perhaps she wants to fuck me !

She should be so lucky.

*

Years later I discover that Walter Hill has an eye condition that means he had to wear protective shades even indoors.  That Jordan Cronenweth was too ill to finish the shoot even with his son Jeff assisting him due to Parkinson’s.   After the premiere, Sigourney apologises for being mean.  Fincher encourages me to move to Los Angeles or LaLa as he calls it, so after our wedding in 1992, we do.   And later still.  Jenny’s sister Lucy Jules (see My Pop Life #135) gets to sing with George Michael on two world tours.  One night he sang Praying For Time.  I still think it’s his best song.

 

My Pop Life #122 : The Sensual World – Kate Bush

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The Sensual World   –   Kate Bush

…And how we’d wished to live in the sensual world
You don’t need words–just one kiss, then another.
Stepping out of the page into the sensual world…

June 18th 1997 was my 40th birthday.  In a happy turn of events, I was working.  Even happier, and this was no co-incidence, I was working with Jenny Jules, who had been my wife since 1992.  We were filming a BBCtv drama series about slavery called A Respectable Trade.

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Emma, Warren, Ariyon

 It starred Warren Clarke, may his soul rest in peace;  Emma Fielding, who has since then taken up residence around my childhood holy grounds of Hailsham, and now Kingston nr Lewes;  Ariyon Bakare, Clinton Blake, Hugh Quarshie, who would soon be working with me again (funny how that happens);  Graham Fox, Richard Briers, Anna Massey, Tanya Moodie and some wonderful children who played, along with Ariyon, Jenny, Tanya and Clinton, the slaves.  It was a good show, centred around a love affair between unhappily married Emma and handsome slave Ariyon, and it didn’t pull any punches…

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Richard Briers in particular playing a slave trader who wanted a woman (Tanya) “brought up” for sex, so that they could “mix the stock” in one memorable and ugly scene.  He knew that his fans would be shocked to see him playing this character, but he was determined to nail his colours to the mast and expose the dark reality of English history.  We filmed in Bristol in the Slave Museum complete with manacled cellar; Longleat House, Bath, and Charlestown in Cornwall.  The show was an adaptation by Philippa Gregory of her own historical novel and has never been repeated by the BBC, despite auspicious anniversaries coming and going.  I can only wonder how on earth it got made in the first place.

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see Jenny at the bottom of pic with slave collar

Perhaps because of the darkness of the story and subject matter we were a tight and close company and with a couple of exceptions, notably the director, have remained in touch.  We had a bloody laugh actually.  I’ll talk about the whole experience in another post, but

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on my birthday we had been filming in Charlestown, a small port village south of St Austell in Cornwall that is a perfectly preserved Georgian quayside complete with tall ships.  I think we were all in the pub during the early part of the evening when my agent Michael Foster called.  Early days of mobile phones I expect.  Pretty sure I had an Eriksson.  I don’t think Michael wished me Happy Birthday, agents don’t usually do things like that, they have enough to think about, but he did tell me that I’d been offered a role in the new Star Wars film which was to be The Phantom Menace.  Episode One.  I started to become happy when he pulled me up.  “Wait” he said.  “The money is shit” he said.  “It can’t be” I said, “It’s Star Wars, the most successful franchise in film history.”  “I’m sorry ”  he said.

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They want you for four weeks,” he said, “at five grand a week, total buy-out.  No repeat fees, no royalties, residuals, extras, billing, fruit or flowers.”  He didn’t actually say the bit about the fruit and flowers but the offer was clear, stark, final.  “Oh and they also said that if you said ‘no’, there were forty people in line behind you for that part, who would in all likelihood be prepared to take even less money.”  Of course they would.  “Sleep on it” said Michael, dear Michael.  “Have a good evening.”

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Clinton, Emma, Jenny, Graham, Ariyon in 1997

We did, dear reader.  We all retired to our wee cottage on the hill and got drunk and stoned, listening to my wife DJ-ing till the wee small hours.  It was my birthday you see.  It’s a kind of tradition.  The hit song that stayed with us was Kate Bush singing The Sensual World.  The sexiest song ever.  Jenny loved to play it at houseparties and watch people dance together, occasionally joining in if they were lucky.  I was lucky since it was er my birthday, but Ariyon and Clinton were too I believe.

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This song has followed Jenny and I around since it came out in 1989, the year when we finally decided that we would…yes…be a couple.  Played at home, in car journeys, at parties, on Sony Walkmen and ipods.  It opens with church bells like one or two other classic English pop songs I could mention, but which have now evaporated from my mind like so much of my life.  Then a light whip of the Fairlight synthesiser and Kate’s “mmmm…yes” takes us into an entirely sexual and original song, comprised of pieces of the world and Kate’s mind.  She was playing with the Trio Bulgarka around this time, getting inspiration from more eastern sounds, as she had with “Hello Earth” off Hounds Of Love which uses a Georgian choral hymn.  A Macedonian wedding song inspired the music of The Sensual World, with Irish instruments and James Joyce‘s Ulysses inspiring the idea, the moment when heroine Molly Bloom has the final word of the novel and leaps from the page into the sensual world :

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “

The Joyce estate refused permission for Kate to use those words as lyrics for the song, so she wrote her own, referencing Blake’s JerusalemAnd my arrows of desire rewrite the speech” using a mesmerising melody on the Uileann pipes for the hook, played by Davey Spillane.  In the video Kate dances through the woods, barefoot.   

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Later in 2011 a new LP called Director’s Cut was released, on it new versions of much of this LP and 1993’s The Red Shoes, particularly this song, now renamed Flower Of The Mountain recorded with the now-allowed Joyce passage as lyrics, and the same breathy, orgasmic “Yes…” dominating the soundscape.

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I think it’s one of the sexiest songs ever recorded.  I listened and danced to it as I turned 40.   I prayed for wisdom, but little came.   I burned for success and yes, it came and slapped me down, hard.  I longed for happiness, and when I let go and stopped longing, well then, eventually, it came.

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from The Sensual World 1989 :

Nevestinsko Oro, or Macedonian Bride’s Dance :

Flower Of The Mountain, from Director’s Cut (2011)

My Pop Life 108 : Sumer Is Icumen In

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Sumer is Icumen in   (Summer Is A Coming In)  –  traditional

sumer is icumen in ludu sing cucu

bloweth sed and groweth med and springst the wood anew

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summer is a coming in, loudly sing ‘cuckoo’

Seeds blow, meadows grow, the trees are sprouting anew..

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Old old song.   It appears in one of the world’s most famous medieval music manuscripts, Harley 978.   Written in 13th-century England, (c1275), probably by the monks of Reading Abbey, the book in question also contains the fables of Marie de France and the poems of Walter Map, medical texts and recipes and a glossary of herbs.   

But the key text is this one :  the Featured imageMiddle English rota “Sumer Is Icumen In“, a composition for six voices to be sung in the round, written in square notation on a five-line red stave.

The manuscript is the oldest known musical round (rota) with English words.  Singers, however, can choose between the Middle English lyrics in black ink which celebrate the arrival of spring and the rising of the sap, or the lyrics in Latin (Perspice Christicola) written in red ink which are religious.  The tune remains the same.  This double version was not unusual in those days.  A straight holy song and an earthy secular song using the same tune.  Which came first ? We shall probably never know.

I first heard this song in a rehearsal room in Liverpool in 1986.   I’d finished Return To The Forbidden Planet at the Tricycle Theatre (written by Bob Carlton, started life at Liverpool Everyman)  in the spring of 1985, and then talked the director Glen Walford into casting me as the lead in Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman the following year.   I walked up the stairs to her Old Compton St flat in Soho and said I wanted to play the tragic Scottish king.    It was a fateful move.    Little did I know that the entire experience would put me off doing theatre forever.

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After Macbeth, which is one of the nightmare memories of my life as an actor, I did one more play at the RSC in London, then there is a gap of nearly 20 years before I decided to do Mike Packer‘s brilliant punk comedy The Dysfunkshonalz at The Bush Theatre in 2009.  And I don’t see myself treading the boards again anytime soon.  No, the very woman who had seen something in me to allow me to play the lead in Macbeth with no previous experience of playing Shakespeare, was the same woman who would drive me out of the theatre with her ugly working methods and foul personality.   She wouldn’t allow any of the actors to hold the script during rehearsal – she would read the lines out loud and we had to copy her.   Loudly.  It was murder.  When I asked her at what point do Lady Macbeth and her husband decide to kill King Duncan? she answered “Don’t keep bothering me with all that psychological bollocks“.    I felt isolated from the rest of the cast who were almost all acolytes of hers, although they bore me no ill-will, I moved out of my digs into the Adelphi Hotel and spent the entire rehearsal period trying to learn the lines in my hotel room, and making a scrapbook for Rita Wolf my girlfriend.   I did actually call my agent Michael Foster during rehearsal and said perhaps I should drop out of the production.  I was hating everything.   He advised me not to, so I just buckled down and got on with it.

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Once we’d opened I took back the performance line by line, night by night.  Walford would give us all notes in the afternoons, but I stopped listening and ploughed my own lonely furrow.  It was already a high enough peak to climb and somehow I’d doubled it by falling out with the director, and isolating myself from most of the cast.   Much joy was had when one of the weird sisters fell ill and couldn’t go on, so Glen the director had to appear in costume and make-up as a witch.   The fear in her eyes when she spoke to me onstage was like sweet nectar from heaven.

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Many Liverpool actors came to see the performance and hated it, and me.    Ken Sharrock, a scouser and one of my mates from Berkoff’s “West” also came and told me that he couldn’t see what I was doing.   Until I came to the front.  “She’s done you Ralph, she’s taken your confidence” he said.   I carried on improving.   My feelings for Liverpool were not affected – I love the city, my favourite in the UK.    And it didn’t affect my feelings for the play either – my favourite Shakespeare.   It just all should have been better.   My father came across from Huddersfield towards the end of the run when I’d pretty much reclaimed the role for myself in its entirety and he enjoyed my performance and was proud of me.   That’s all I needed to make it all feel worthwhile.   At the last-night party the director got drunk enough to tell me that “people come here to see my productions, not to watch some Joint Stock actor wanking about onstage“.    But strangely this particular post is a happy memory of that time, perhaps because it is a musical one.

Awe blateth after lomb louth after calue cu

The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows after the calf

The musical director for ‘Macbeth‘ was Paddy Cunneen, a tall straggly bespectacled enthusiast who whipped our unruly gang of actors into musical shape.   His girlfriend Andrea Gibb (now a successful writer) was one of the weird sisters.   And one of the things Paddy did was teach us this song, using the Middle English as written above. We sang it every day.

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It’s a merry little tune and the words are faintly rude –  Sumer Is Icumen In is an important historical song but it is also famous for being the first written recorded example of the word fart in the English language.  In Olde Wessex English it is “averteth“.   Apparently  :

Bulluc sterteth buc averteth ludu sing cucu

Bullock prances, billy-goat farts, loudly sing cuckoo !

Actors love a dirty joke so once this had been translated we were all onside.   We sang it as a round every morning.  This is normal for companies in rehearsal – there are various warm-up techniques, bonding exercises and vocal flexes, and singing a round achieves all three at the same time.  Previous songs I’d sung in rehearsal room rounds were London’s Burning and Rose Rose Red.  Readers may remember Frére Jaques (one syllable per word in French but always pronounced Frerer Jaquer in English…) from primary school.

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I don’t actually have this song in my musical collection, but online trawling has given me a number of interpretations.  The Hilliard Ensemble sang it as a standard round and I’ll post it to illustrate the effect of singing it in the round, but it is very strangely sprightly, polite and bourgeouis.  I rather suspect ex-Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson has much the better spirit when he sings it on his live LP 1000 Years Of Popular Music – track one, naturally.   A strange modern translation was provided by playwright Anton Shaffer in his screenplay for The Wicker Man (1973) and sung by the islanders as they burn Edward Woodward at the film’s pagan climax.  It’s a powerful cinematic moment.

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I find it rather fantastic that people are still singing a song which is probably 1000 years old.  It was a religious tune, a celebration of summer, and possibly a sexual innuendo (cuckoo being a multi-layered word in English).   It reflects a dark period in my life, but I take heart that even in these darkest hours, some light can shine.

The Hilliard Ensemble :

Richard Thompson :

The Wicker Man :

My Pop Life #15 : Original Nuttah – Shy FX & Apache Indian

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Original Nuttah   –   Shy FX & Apache Indian

…rude boys inna London…bad boys inna Inglan….

After three years of living in West Hollywood the work dried up.  I’d done 2 movies : Undercover Blues, and Wayne’s World 2 ;  scored the best review of my life in the Los Angeles Times, to no effect;  been up for every film they were making in 1994 – an average of three auditions per week – and done precisely zero. A whole year without work, save for one BBC show in glorious Italy.  The parts I’d been up for were taken by Kevin Spacey (Seven, The Usual Suspects),  Dennis Hopper (Speed, True Romance) and Christopher Walken (True Romance, Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead) among others.  Glass ceiling.  Head bumping.  Break On Through To The Other Side.   Maybe we should have stuck it out, but a) we had no money left and b) Jenny hated LA.  We did an epic desert drive to Salt Lake City via Monument Valley and back through Death Valley in my 2-door Lincoln Continental being the ultimate posing ponces on a road trip to our jewish friends in the book of Mormon and then Jenny went back to London and I spent the last month there writing a screenplay in a ferocious rage.  One of my last missions in California  was to my agency on Wilshire Boulevard – Susan Smith & Associates – to tell her that I was no longer interested in doing any meetings or auditions.  “Well”  she said, eyeing me up, “It’ll be very difficult for me to find you any work then.”  I smiled.  “Good”  I said.  “I have no interest in working.”   I flew back to London after giving the car away and had a similar meeting with Michael Foster, my English agent.  Fuck acting I thought, what a fucking useless fucking waste of time, I should have done part 2 of the Legal Exam and I’d be a successful barrister by now instead of which I’m a sad unemployed failure of a git.  I missed LA but had a whole social life back in London to plunge back into.   I remember we started looking for somewhere else to live around this time.   Crouch End and Highgate where we were living by the suicide bridge on Archway Road.  You couldn’t get much bang for your buck even then.  Musically Britpop wasn’t really doing it for me, although I liked Suede and Supergrass.  I’d got disillusioned by the appropriation of the hip hop scene in the US by gangsta rap and turned off the whole thing.  Then I heard this song while out driving one day in North London.  WOW.  Like a breath of fresh air.  I’d missed out on a whole new subscene whilst living in California.  Jungle.  LTJ Bukem had released Logical Progression in 1991 just before we’d left for LA, it was called drum and bass – and Roni Size and Reprazent were a whole two years away – and this song Original Nuttah sounded completely mental, but homegrown mental.

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I loved the introduction in patois and cockney, the manically fast electronic drum machine, the similarly deranged stuttering delivery but mainly I think, I loved the fierce energy of England as a mixed-up melting pot of youth cultures which clashed together into this new music.  UK hip hop had a brief surge in the late 80s which I’d been deeply involved in and written a hip hop musical called Sanctuary but it felt that the scene had come to very little – probably Monie Love being the peak flow – top of a small pile which included The Cookie Crew, London Possee and MC Duke, Asher D, The Ruthless Rap Assassins and Demon Boyz.  Maybe it was just me that had moved away.  One difficualty was that somehow the british accent wasn’t acceptable in a rap – Jamaican was OK, british not.   It was a cultural lack of confidence – hip hop was american, but an English kid rapping in an american accent seemed way more problematic than an English pop star singing in one.  I’d had a similar train-wreck with my 2nd rap piece “The House That Crack Built” which was commissioned by the BBC and never made – was it English culture or American ?  Loads of my favourite singers deliberately sang British – Bowie, Ferry, Suggs, Ian Dury – but rapping in a British voice just wasn’t catching on.  It would be another seven years before Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and Kano bust open the local accent as grime artists, underground east London drum and bass mixed with UK garage.  There are so many names and sub-genres around this period (early 2000s) that I get lost – but in 1995, jungle was IT, and this was the tune that showed its fin above the waterline, underground music surfacing on the pirate radio for a brief period.  It made me feel proud to be British again, and a little happier to be back in the smoke. Shy FX later worked with Dizzee and many others, while the singular vocals on this track are from Birmingham MC Apache Indian a British Indian ragamuffin bhangra artist who specialised in toasting in west indian, english and indian and had an influential LP out called “No Reservations”.  This was the England I’d missed without even realising it – the mix-up, the cultural smashing of the empire striking back.  Quite a relief after vanilla LA and all that shady sunshine, and radio stations that only play one genre of music.  This is what we do best.  Mash it up man !