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

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Luck Be A Lady  –  Ian Charleson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Frank Loesser..

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

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

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

which is from the Guys and Dolls musical, Elvis sings

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

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

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

Bob Hoskins & Ian Charleson onstage in Guys & Dolls

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

Ian Charleson NY OST :

https://archive.org/details/luckBeALadyianCharlesonOntc

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

My Pop Life #153 : Small Hours – John Martyn

Small Hours   –   John Martyn

I met Colin Jones at the London School of Economics in 1976 and remained friends with him until he died in 1997 in a possibly deliberate car crash on the M6 when he drove into the back on a lorry parked on the hard shoulder somewhere in Cumbria.  We were shocked and saddened, but the happy-go-lucky LSE student, music lover, dope dealer, driving instructor and friend had turned into (revealed himself as?) a secretly deeply depressed man who struggled increasingly with his own private torments.  In the late 1980s his flat-mate Dave Moser had found him lying in his bed with slit wrists and a huge pool of blood around him on the floor, but Dave had called the ambulance and Colin had lived.  A cry for help no doubt.  Or was it ?

The London School Of Economics, Houghton St WC2

LSE 1976-79 was full of unreformed hippies, beatniks, groovers and fresh new student punks.  My gang was loosely grouped around the ENTS Room which organised live concerts and suchlike and was where you were guaranteed to score some dope or at least bum a puff of weed, a cloud of which hung like a signpost outside the door of the scruffy 2nd-floor office.  The other room which was near the ENTS Room was the Student Newspaper office – called Beaver, less druggy but still hippy-drenched and groovy.  I spent my spare time (which at university was plentiful) between these two rooms, and two other key groups – the LSE football team and the Drama group.  What a blessed time.  I was studying for a law degree, which I achieved with a lazy 2:2 in the summer of ’79, never intending to use it.  I would have been a good lawyer.  My mind works like a lawyer’s.  But I’d caught the acting bug by then, and regardless of shadow careers and what-ifs, it has been a true privilege to earn a living in this precarious and exciting profession.

The ENTS gang then :  Andy Cornwell, from Lewes Priory like me, the ultimate cool groover with a blond afro, pear-drop glasses and mushroom loon pants.  Permanently stoned, earnest and absurdly relaxed, he booked the bands that we all grew to champion : Aswad, Roy Harper, Vivian Stanshall and others.  He would later run the Legalize Cannabis Campaign, and perhaps still does.  Mike Stubbs, the previous Ents Chief, long wavy orange hair and pop-blue eyes, who stayed reasonably above the fray (he was a little older) but with whom I lived in my 3rd year (see My Pop Life 150).  He became a lawyer.  Pete Thomas, twinkly-eyed Everton fan from Hertfordshire, reggae disciple and expert joint-roller had a keen eye for business and had retired by the time he was 40.  His girlfriend and wife Sali Beresford, one of the only women in the crew, bright as a button, funny as fuck and fierce as a firecracker.  I lived with them and Nick Partridge from  ’78-’80 (see My Pop Life #59).  Their friends :  Colin Jones, Tony Roose, John Vincent.  Colin had frizzy ginger hair and a beard which looked glued on, round John Lennon glasses and a nervous but generous smile. He actually resembled Fat Freddy from the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in an admittedly blurry kind of way.

Fat Freddy and his cat

On closer inspection and the clear cold light of day of course, he didn’t look anything like him, but there you go.   He was warm, vulnerable and funny and he supplied the dope incessantly.  For decades.   Tony and John were a team within the team and they supported the eternal wearing of denim, throwing of frisbee, smoking of weed, drinking of beer.  John was very quiet and shy.  I went to Belfast with Tony on a Troops Out Delegation in 1981 (see My Pop Life #13), and we’re still in touch.  Back then we used to go to Regent’s Park, our nearest green space to Fitzroy Street, and play frisbee golf, a game which we invented.  (not strictly true, but we did : see Wikipedia ).   It involved declaring and indicating the next hole (That tree over there!) then throwing your own frisbee at it in turn until you hit it.  While stoned.  Subsequently I introduced this game to Brighton in the late 1990s, playing with the village gang Andy Baybutt, James Lance, Tim Lewis, Lee Charles Williams and Thomas Jules on a regular basis in the parks and green spaces of Brighton and Hove.  I recommend it to you all as a splendid pastime.

The rest of the LSE possee then  :  Anton who edited the Beaver, long hair down to his waist and a permanently amused lisp.  His team-mate and flat mate Nigel, the only other person other than me who dug Peter Hammill, lead singer of Van Der Graaf Generator who’d made a string of alarming and alarmingly good solo LPs.  Wavy hair down below his waist, Nigel turned me on to Todd Rundgren, for which eternal thanks.  Lewis MacLeod who was studying Law with me, speaking almost incomprehensible Glaswegian who liked a drink and a smoke and watching football so much that he would come down to the Goldstone Ground to watch the Albion with me.  We invented the Beatles A-Level  one stoned afternoon (sample question :  “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean. Discuss.”)  He is now a journalist at the BBC in Reading, specialising in Bangla Desh among other things.  Dave Moser, prematurely balding and brightly benign, shared a flat with Colin then moved to Australia in the mid-1980s.

I was with Mumtaz through all those years, and she would often be there with us, and was indeed one of us, still is, but often she would have to duck out of the incessant revelries because she was studying to be an actual lawyer rather than just playing at it.  And she didn’t enjoy frisbee.  She also became a lawyer.  The standard as I recall it through the haze, was high.  John Vincent was the don, his unerring accuracy gave us all something to aim for and raised our game.

Later Nick Partridge would join this crowd, after LSE finished  and lived in West Hampstead with us, he went on to run the Terrence Higgins Trust from 1991 until 2013 when he resigned, having become Sir Nick Partridge in 2009 to everyone’s joy and amusement.  In those balmy heady years after university the whole gang stayed effortlessly in touch and we still sought each other’s company, played frisbee golf and went to concerts together.  And of course got stoned together listening to Burning Spear (see My Pop Life #10), Spirit, Van Morrison and John Martyn.

Hard to choose a song for Colin, his favourite artist was Bob Dylan, favourite song Tangled Up In Blue.  But that doesn’t remind me of him.  Small Hours by John Martyn does.  A wonderful musician whom we all saw regularly in London at UCH, Bloomsbury and other venues, and he’d come up with a fantastic new LP in 1977 called One World.  It was on the record player a lot.  An early experimentalist with technology, Martyn at that point performed solo (or with just a bass player) utilising a repeat box of pedals which set up a groove for him to solo and sing over, a hugely effective trick which kept us all rapt.  A very original sound at that time.  We all loved the futuristic blues/folk/jazz of John Martyn, as did DJ John Peel.  Martyn’s early albums with Beverley Martyn his wife were subtle and beautiful, but once they’d divided their talents he changed his vocal style to a more slurred jazzy feel and hooked up with bass player Danny Thompson.   He then started a run of amazing LPs starting with Bless The Weather, followed by total masterpiece Solid Air (1973), dedicated to his friend Nick Drake (who died of an overdose of anti-depressants a year later).

Then followed  Inside Out,  and Sunday’s Child, at which point Chris Blackwell, boss of Island records, suggested that John take some healing time in Jamaica.  He did like to drink.   He has a backing credit on Burning Spear‘s Man In The Hills, and spent time with the great producer Lee Perry at Black Ark.   The shared ideas were poured into the One World album.  The track Small Hours was recorded outside at Woolwich Green Farm deep in the English countryside one night.  Engineer Phil Brown discusses the unique set-up around a lake in his book “Are We Still Rolling?“.  You can hear water, and the sound of geese on the track, haunting and wonderful.   Records (or albums, LPs indeed), were to be listened to in those days, and they also supplied us with mini-trays to roll joints on.  The selection of the album to roll on became a part of the ritual.  Joints were to be passed around, a social event.  And then when the brain was stoned, it listened to the music and fell in love with it.

After college we all helped Pete & Sali and Colin’s girlfriend Mary move a reasonably large upright piano into the infamous Huntley Street Squat, just round the corner from Heals Department Store off Tottenham Court Road.  Top floor, of course.  Up seven flights of stairs.  Most of the above-mentioned chaps were there.  It was quite simply one of the worst evenings of my life, and in the joke about visions of hell (tea-break over, back on yer heads) I would substitute an endless spiral staircase with an infinite line of pianos which had to ascend it as a particular torture which I never wished to revisit, even in hell.  A few years later we moved that same piano into a flat in Mornington Crescent, then years later when I got the Housing Association flat in Archway Road, Mary gave it to me, bless her.  About 20 years later I gave it in turn to our friend masseur Anna Barlow because her disabled son had asked her for a piano, and I then bought Andy Baybutt‘s gentler-toned upright.  Recently in the summer of 2019 I gave it back to Andy. The Frisbee piano circle continues.

Colin became a Driving Instructor (as did Mike Stubbs) and although I’d learned to drive (in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in the summer of 1976 in a Beetle), now I had to pass the test (on the wrong side of the road!), which thanks to Colin I did first time despite hitting the kerb on my reverse corner.   Colin also continued to provide most of the dope that we all smoked in copious amounts, either as a first choice drug, or increasingly to cushion the come-down of speed which had now entered our lives thanks to punk and the increased tempo of the music we listened to and watched live.  At some point after this I moved into the Finsbury Park attic room with Mumtaz, Colin met Wanda and they were married.  Later he transferred his talents to driving transport for the disabled for Camden Council, eventually as team leader.  He carried on dealing throughout.  But he never seemed to settle.  Neither did I by the way.  The flat with Dave Moser was a headquarters once again for all of us to gather and smoke and chew the cud, listen to music and solve the world’s problems.  Until the dark night when he slashed his own wrists.  We held a men’s group in the early 80s as a supportive response to the feminist movement, Colin was in that, as was Tony, and my mate Simon Korner.   But despite the suicide attempt Colin always seemed to me to be a together person, a proper grown-up.  I felt like a young soul next to him, he was wise and funny and sad, compassionate and thoughtful and very bright.  When we heard that he’d died in an accident on the M6 and the details filtered through, many felt that it was no accident, that this time he’d managed to kill himself.  We gathered for his funeral and wake near King’s Cross, drank and smoked, shocked and stunned, sad and looking at each other for support and understanding.

I still miss him.  In researching this piece I spoke with Pete, who confided to me that Colin had been sexually abused by his father as a child.  I can only guess at the torment inside him, never shared with me.  Given that burden I feel that his life was a kind of miracle.  He was a terribly kind and gentle man.   Were we all damaged, in different private ways, trying quietly and communally to heal together in the wee small hours, holy music washing over us ?

My Pop Life #140 : The Right Thing To Do – Carly Simon

The Right Thing To Do   –   Carly Simon

And it used to be for a while
That the river flowed right to my door
Making me just a little too free
But now the river doesn’t seem to stop here anymore

Spring 1977.  I’m nearing the end of my first year at LSE.  I’ve got a decision to make, because during the long summer break I won’t be able to stay in my lodgings, the Maple Street flats on the corner of Fitzroy St, London W1, because they are owned and run by the LSE and in the summer we can’t stay there.  Most of my gang are going home to Glasgow, Sussex,  Barnsley, or Bedfordshire.  I actually hadn’t worked anything out, but going back to Hailsham and that sin city council estate wasn’t even an option.  But I was no longer going out with Miriam, so the Ryles wasn’t an option, Simon Korner was going abroad and going back to Lewes somehow didn’t seem right anyway.   Then I spotted a notice on the college noticeboard :

ACTORS WANTED FOR NEW PLAY GOING TO EDINBURGH FESTIVAL
JUNE – AUGUST
AUDITIONS BLAH BLAH BLAH

I scribbled the phone number down and called it up and booked an audition.  I cannot remember a single detail of the audition, either where it was, what I had to do, anything. But I got it, and made immediate plans to stay in London for the rehearsals.

Only one pupil from Lewes Priory had gone to Drama School (Drama Centre I think?) – Helen Lane, who was in the year above me.  I knew her because I’d done a few plays at school – rehearsing after school usually with kids older than me.  So many stories there – but – I enjoyed it.  I knew I’d enjoy Edinburgh – although I’d never even heard of the Festival before.  During my first year studying law down on the Aldwych there were a few competing social activities – and after some thought I’d decided to play football on Wednesday afternoons.  It clashed with Drama which was also on offer.  But I’d played football for Lewes every Saturday morning for years, and subsequently played centre-half for the LSE.  The home games were in New Malden so some commitment was required !  But the point was, that I treated playing football and drama as the same kind of thing.  Like playing pool.  Things that you did for fun, in the evening and at weekends.  So a whole summer of that was cool by me.

Anyway, I told Helen about Edinburgh and she was very supportive and offered her floor for me to sleep on for rehearsals.  I think she lived in Camden Town or maybe Kentish Town.  Rehearsals were near Russell Square somewhere in Bloomsbury which was my route to college anyway, familiar.  Weird this – by now I was going steady with Mumtaz, and she was running the student accommodations so why didn’t I stay with her ?  The memory is no help once again.

Carly Simon, London 1972

Now it’s all going to go vague. I think a fella called Murray directed the play.  we did weird stretches and warm-ups in the mornings and played some drama games which I would remember for my National Youth Theatre Days a decade later (see My Pop Life #7).  I was playing a recruiting Lieutenant for the US Army.  The play was called The Death Of Private Kowalski.  The National Student Theatre Company, run by Mr Clive Wolfe was producing it at their inaugural season at Edinburgh.  We were in a theatre or perhaps it was a Church Hall in Broughton St ? York Place ? in Edinburgh.  Near Leith Walk ?  I think we shared it with a deaf theatre company.   I remember an altercation one night, just the silent fury of sign language.  I think an American actor called Tom played Private Kowalski.  I remember little very clearly.  But I’m absolutely certain that every single one of the cast EXCEPT FOR ME was at Drama School – either Rada, Drama Centre, Ealing, Mountview or the Old Vic.  I was an object of curiosity.

“What are you going to do when you leave college?”

I’m going to be a barrister.

“Oh.  Really?”

Yes.  Really.  Why, what are you going to do?

“What do you think?  I’m going to be an actor of course.”

> THUNDERSTRUCK <

Edinburgh 77

A trickle of an idea started to form in my left ear.  I didn’t dare speak it aloud, so daring , so brave and foolish it was.  One other student from LSE was in the Company, Nick Broadhurst who was studying Sociology.  I was quite impressed that he’d managed to snaggle the beautiful Tibetan student Kalsang as his girlfriend, but he listened to weird music like Elevator Coming Over The Hill.  He was helping Clive behind the scenes and secretly plotting a brave and dangerous idea of his own.   The other administrator was Jane who had curly brown hair and John Lennon granny glasses.  I think my digs were unremarkable, and all I remember of Edinburgh is the constant smell of sweetness in the air coming from the breweries.  Known as “Auld Reekie” Edinburgh was a cornucopia of delights, from the Castle to the Fringe club, to the streets full of actors and clowns and buskers all competing for audience.  This was 1977 remember, way before the comedians took over, and way before it became the commercial event it is today.  It was a theatre festival, and I remember seeing groups from Russia and New Zealand that year.

Edinburgh Festival 1977

Then, one afternoon, after the show (once a day at 3pm I believe) I was downstairs in the toilet having a slash.  Innocent, unformed and alive, I was about to experience what I would later understand was akin to a Damascene conversion.  In an Edinburgh toilet. Beside me a large man who asked me, in a strong Texan accent

“Where are you from in America son?”

Is it strange that I had my cock in my hand at this revelation, as the stars changed course and the earth swallowed my life up and spat me back out ?

I’m from England

I replied, shaking drips and re-corking the underpants.  “Well,” said the Texan,

“Fooled me.  Great Job !”

Thank you I said, covering my earthquake and zipping up the trouser.  It was a bolt of lightning which went to my very core and rewired my entire life.  At that point I realised that I could be like those other kids.  I could be an actor.

*

Why Carly Simon ?  Really ?  Well, it was ubiquitous that summer.  No idea why – it had been out for years by then.  But music lasted in those days.  This LP, No Secrets by Carly Simon, was an ever-present that summer.  I think Helen had it in her flat in Kentish Town.  Jane definitely had it.  I kept seeing girls carrying it.  It was a girls record.  All the girls I knew LOVED IT.  And I became exposed to it, there was a record player somewhere and on it went.  It is an amazing LP.  Of course I already knew You’re So Vain from Pan’s People dancing to it on Top Of The Pops and finding clouds in their coffee.  No Secrets was her 3rd LP on Elektra Records, making number one in the billboard charts for 5 straight weeks in 1972.  I love every song on this record.  Lovely chord changes on The Carter Family and When You Close Your Eyes and emotional bombs going off all over the place.  The Right Thing To Do is the opening song and has a lazy 70s feel that takes me right back to the joints smoked, the relaxed vibes, the flares, the girls.

Trident Studio (as was), St Ann’s Court

Later I would discover that No Secrets was recorded at Trident Studios in St Ann’s Court in Soho, now a Film Production house where I’ve done numerous voice recordings, ADR sessions and so on.  Transformer, Space Oddity and many other great albums were recorded there in the 60s and 70s.  The studio musician credits on No Secrets now reads like a who’s who of the London Sessions, about which I almost made a documentary a few years back.  Another story.  Andy Newmark on drums, Klaus Voorman on bass, Jimmy Ryan on guitars.  With contributions from my old friend Ray Cooper (from Handmade Films) on percussion (listen for the ripple of the congas after the first line of The Right Thing To Do), Jim Keltner, Paul Buckmaster, Paul & Linda McCartney, Mick Jagger, Lowell George, Bonnie Bramlett, James Taylor, Bobby Keys, Nicky Hopkins, Doris Troy with Liza Strike and Vicki Brown doing the bvs for this song.  Richard Perry produced. Everything clearly just fell into place. There is an ease and a freshness to these songs, both in the writing and the recording.

*

I’ve often wondered in subsequent years, perhaps on a daily basis whether a career in acting was The Right Thing To Do.  I went back to LSE that autumn a changed man, but I completed the final two years of the law degree and I am indeed LLB or Batchelor of Law. So I have a complex relationship with my ghost career as a barrister, and often peek over to see how he’s doing.  How’m I doing ?  Possibly my least favourite question.  Gemini.  Always needs an option.   I sadly discovered while writing this blurry memory that Clive Wolfe passed away last year.  RIP.  He was at  least partly responsible for where I am today.

Live !!

My Pop Life #121 : Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long – Roberta Flack

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Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long   –   Roberta Flack 

First you’re here, then you’re gone,
It’s that same old heartbreak story;
Thought that you’d be in my life
For more than just one night.
But you say you got to leave,
It destroys me, boy, it hurts me;
Tell me what did I do wrong
For you to leave me all alone?

1981 was a very strange year for me.  I have virtually no clear memories of it, only strange images and moments, meetings, fleeting whispers.  I was 24 and still hadn’t “become an actor”.  I had a degree in Law from the London School of Economics.  Whoopee.  I was living in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz, whom I’d left in spring 1980 to take a year off on the Gringo Trail with my brother Paul through Latin America, then been forced to come home prematurely five months later after contracting Hepatitus B, jaundiced and weak.  Mumtaz and I had reunited but I was scratchy.  Any discussions we had about the relationship were along the lines of “are you staying or going?” and then debate was shut down.  I was working in an office above the ICA in The Mall for a group called SIAD.

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More about that later.  Finally in the spring of ’81, Paul had returned from New York City where he’d been living with Jim (whom he had met in San Cristóbal Las Casas in Mexico) and needed a place to live in London.  After making a few enquiries at a squatting collective in Hornsey, we identified an empty ground floor flat in a council block called McCall House on Tufnell Park Road, just down from the old Holloway Odeon and broke in.  Changed the lock.  Cut another set of keys.  Soon after this I left Mumtaz for the second time, found a mattress from somewhere and moved in with Paul.

We knew other squatters – The Huntley St squat down in Tottenham Court Road where Colin and Mary lived and where we’d lifted a small but incredibly heavy piano up six flights of stairs one day. Never again!  But we knew the squatting drill.  And London at this point felt a little like a battleground.  Thatcher was in power.  Ghost Train by The Specials was waiting in the wings, as were the Brixton Riots – and Toxteth, Wood Green and other areas.  It was nervy, aggressive and rough.  Normal enough, but heavy.

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There must have been running water and electricity.  We made rudimentary curtains in a hippie punk style and set up a small record player.  Photos from Mexico, Sussex and London were blue-tacked to the wall above the fireplace, which didn’t have a fire.  We added to these pictures on a daily basis.  Then a young gay guy from Mexico turned up and he stayed there for a while, kind of uninvited.  Maybe I moved out for a bit.  Really can’t remember.  Then a Kiwi girl Paul had met in Mexico called Eppy turned up and stayed too.  How did she find us?  No mobile phones or internet in those days.  Almost beyond understanding.  Eppy then invited some fucking heroin dealer round who boasted of his connections with Clappo – Eric Clapton – and the following day while we were out the flat was broken into and cleaned out.   Eppy was told to fuck off.  Soon after that we both fucked off too – Paul to a friends and me, tail between my legs for a second time, back to Mumtaz.  Before we left though, two main memories surface from those strange days in that flat…

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The Scala Cinema, Tottenham St W1, 1979-81

First – speed.  Amphetamine sulphate.  I’d been dealing it and taking it before Mexico andhad come close to becoming hooked.  It does bad things to your teeth, not to mention your brains, but the buzz was excellent.  There was clearly still some knocking around and one bleak Sunday we swallowed a couple of blues each and walked down to The Scala Cinema in Tottenham St W1, where I worked on Saturday nights at the famous all-nighter (see My Pop Life 23).  Lee Drysdale, who used to work there with me, still remembers me coming back from Mexico (once I was out of hospital) and turning up at the Scala orange-skinned and yellow-eyed with Hepatitus B.  It’s not infectious once you go orange, but I guess I looked pretty alarming.  No more so than the usual punters probably.

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So I must have worked there on the Saturday night, all night, noticed there was a film on Sunday night I wanted to see, crawled home at dawn, slept, got up, popped some blues and walked down Camden Road to Fitzrovia with Paul.  The film was Tarkovsky‘s sci-fi epic Solaris which had come out in 1972 and which I’d managed to miss at every opportunity.  It’s a stunning strange hypnotic empty film, and coming down from amphetamines, in-un-endingly desolate and grim.  Brilliant, beautiful but, well, apt somehow.  Soon after this The Scala moved to King’s Cross, Steve Woolley started Palace Pictures (with whom I would do a few films later) and I didn’t move over to Kings Cross with it.  I started another chapter.  Acting.

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My second memory of the squat though is one of the greatest LPs ever made.   It was one of Paul’s and we played it a lot while living there.  Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway is a short, 35-minute, seven song masterpiece of soul disco released in late 1979.  Originally planned as a second duets LP between the two friends and singers, Donny Hathaway only sings on two of the tracks “Back Together Again“and “You Are My Heaven“.  Roberta finished the album on her own after Donny ‘apparently’ jumped out of his apartment window on 15th St after suffering from paranoid delusions early in 1979.

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Donny Hathaway

They had originally met at Howard University in Washington D.C. studying music in the 1960s, had success individually, then recorded a hugely successful LP together in 1972 called simply Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway.  It includes the songs You’ve Got A Friend and Where Is The Love.  Donny’s condition led to a breakdown in the relationship with Roberta through the 1970s, but they did record The Closer I Get To You on Roberta’s Blue Lights In The Basement LP in 1978, then decided to record a second LP together.  Sadly Roberta had to finish it on her own.  The result however is stunningly beautiful.  Every single song is a stand-out.  Stevie Wonder co-wrote You Are My Heaven with producer Eric Mercury then gave Roberta one of his greatest songs “Don’t Make Me Wait Too Long“, which is the song which leapt out at me in that Holloway squat.

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The immense bass-line is one of those disco show-off lines which compel you to dance, and is played, as are all the instruments on this song, by Stevie Wonder himself apparently –  or is it?  Surely it’s more likely that Stevie’s longstanding bass player Nathan Watts is the uncredited player.  It is similar in style and flexibility to Stevie’s Do I Do, which was recorded around the same time.   Luther Vandross sings backing vocals along with Gwen Guthrie, Stevie, and possibly Jocelyn Brown.  It has been a favourite song of mine since 1981, and I have often played it at houseparties where I may have been DJ-ing.  One notable memory was in Upper Abbey in Brighton when we had a houseful of playmates, and this song got dropped.  Jenny and two of her sisters immediately went into full disco mode and mayhem ensued.

Roberta Flack is still very much alive and I’m lucky enough to have seen her live a couple of times in recent years.  She doesn’t play this song, but still plays Back Together and Where Is The Love live along with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, the song which rocketed her to stardom back in 1969.  She is a classically-trained musician who enjoys covering other writers work, particularly Lennon/McCartney/Harrison and Marvin Gaye. She is also a superb singer.  Her back catalogue has considerable pedigree, from the dark soul of Reverend Lee to the frothy disco of Uh Uh Ooh Ooh Look Out (Here It Comes).  

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I knew there was another reason why I loved Roberta

I don’t think I can imagine a song which less suits the bleak spring of 1981.  There we were in that druggy council squat that had all its windows smashed by some junkie scum and forced us back onto the street, and back into a relationship I’d finished twice already.  But life isn’t always neat and tidy like that.  And memory plays tricks.  This is one of them.

I have to thank my brother, currently living in Shanghai, for major assistance with remembering this episode in our lives.  His recall, though also blurry, is considerably better than mine.  Thanks Paul x

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

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Ma J’aiye Oni   –   King Sunny Ade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the original LP track:

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

My Pop Life #98 : When Something Is Wrong With My Baby – Sam & Dave

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When Something Is Wrong With My Baby   –   Sam & Dave

…we stand as one…and that’s what makes it better….

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Sam and Dave in 1967

When I landed at LSE in 1976 to study Law I was a country boy from Sussex who’d grown up in a town where the 1960s were still being celebrated.   Lewes wouldn’t go punk until around 1979-1980.   My musical taste was – I thought – pretty wide.    It wasn’t.    I’d discovered soul and reggae in 1971 in the magical forms of Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Dave & Ansel Collins and Bob & Marcia – all chart acts though.  All the non-chart music I liked was stuff like:  prog (VDGG & Gentle Giant), US country rock (Commander Cody, Joe Walsh) and groovy english rock (Man & Roxy Music).  Random additions in the shape of Osibisa, Joan Armatrading and Blue Öyster Cult completed the patchy picture.   My new friend at LSE was Glaswegian Rangers fan Lewis MacLeod, also studying Law, with absurdly long wavy hair and an almost unintelligible accent, especially when drunk.   We bonded while writing a Beatles ‘A’ Level Paper together one stoned afternoon (I’ll blog it one day).   We were hungry for more music.   Together we would go on a voyage of discovery into the deepest realms of soul music.  Classic soul music.

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I suspect the first major purchase of this period was James Brown’s 30 Golden Hits, all the singles from Please Please Please through to the most recent Sex Machine.   This was a record to savour.   But it wasn’t enough, oh no.    Next up was the Stax Gold LP which was the creme de la creme from Memphis, but only scratched the surface of that great record label (William Bell and Judy Clay – Private Number, Mel & Tim –  Starting All Over Again, The Staple Singers – Respect Yourself, Jean Knight – Mr Big Stuff – all will have their day!).

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I don’t think Sam & Dave were represented on this LP because for arcane reasons their records were all owned and distributed (?) by Atlantic, the parent company who completely stiffed Stax in the late 1960s.  Although I have some of their 45s on the Stax blue label. Curious.  We dug deeper – Sam & Dave recorded all their hits at Stax Records under the supervision of soul gurus David Porter and Isaac Hayes,Featured image with the house band Booker T & The MGs playing the instruments – two white fellas Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn on guitar and bass, and two black fellas Booker T Washington on keys and Al Parker on drums (pictured right).   This is a major band of brothers.   Together with the Memphis Horns – white trumpeter Wayne Jackson and black saxophonist Andrew Love they created an unparalleled run of songs that define southern soul music.   All of the singers were black: Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Carla Thomas, The Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett (also released by Atlantic), William Bell, Johnnie Taylor, blues guitarist Albert King.  The owners were white : Jim Stewart, who formed Stax Records in 1959 with his sister Estelle Axton (St-Ax) and who personally engineered many of these records up almost until the takeover of the company by Al Bell in 1970.   I mention the race of the participants because it both was and was not important – it wasn’t important to the musicians at all, nor to Jim and Estelle, but Memphis, Tennessee was a racially segregated city when they were all growing up, and yet they worked together making classic soul music for all those years.   However once Dr Martin Luther King was shot just up the road from Stax in the Lorraine Motel in 1968, the atmosphere and racial politics of America and the record label changed.   The story of Stax Records is for me the most compelling portrait of America in the 1960s and I have long nurtured projects about Booker T & The MGs, Otis Redding and the label itself.  There are many documentaries, and books (Rob Bowman wrote the best one) and a museum now stands where the studio was, overseen by previous Stax secretary Deannie Parker, whom I have spoken to on the telephone while trying to get a Stax stage play off the ground.  She was very sweet and helpful.

Sam & Dave came up through the gospel circuit in the South and met at an amateur night in Miami.  They became a duo that night and were later signed to a local record label by Henry Stone.  Stone it was who suggested them to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records (based in New York) and Wexler decided to ‘loan them out’ to Stax because he thought their style suited the label.   He was right.   While Steve Cropper and Jim Stewart worked on the first few songs, they were soon passed to relative label newcomers Isaac Hayes and David Porter who proceeded to shape their act into a more passionate call-and-response Southern roots gospel sound, and who then wrote and produced a run of hit singles that was only bettered in the R&B charts by Aretha Franklin in the 1960s, including huge pop hits Soul Man and Hold On I’m Coming.

Sam Moore has the higher sweeter voice, a Sam Cooke template if you will, while Dave Prater is the gruffer urgent baritone reminiscent of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops.   Together they were Double Dynamite or The Sultans Of Sweat, the most compelling live act of the 1960s (and that includes Otis and Aretha).   They wore lime green suits with red handkerchiefs to mop up the sweat, the righteous sweat that they produced onstage as they whipped the crowd into a frenzy.   The music was infectious, the double act irresistible.

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Featured imageThey went on tour to Europe in 1967 – The Stax/Volt Revue  – with Otis Redding, Arthur Conley (Sweet Soul Music), Eddie Floyd and The Mar-Keys.  Booker T & The MGs backed every singer and Otis was naturally top of the bill.  The story goes that he would watch Sam & Dave from the wings every night as they ripped through their hits, kicking up a storm with their gritty gospel soul and leaving the audience high – then he’d have to go on and top it – solo – every night.   He’d never worked so hard in his life.   At the end of that tour he told his manager Phil Walden never to book him with Sam & Dave again.   But tragically Otis would be dead before the year was out,  killed in a plane crash on December 10th 1967 near Madison, Wisconsin just three days after recording Dock Of The Bay.   There are now recordings of this amazing Stax/Volt tour available out there.   I’d just love to have been at one of those shows.

When Something Is Wrong With My Baby was Sam & Dave’s only ballad (there I go again!) released in January 1967.   It didn’t dent the UK charts, and I certainly didn’t hear it as a 9-year old.   I first heard it in my crate-digging soul years when I amassed over a period of some years a rather splendid collection of rhythm and blues 45s and LPs which I subsequently lost in the split with Mumtaz in 1985 (see My Pop Life #93), and then slowly rebuilt from (spiral) scratch.   I’m certain that this essential song is on the Soul Tape that I made for Jenny when we were courting (see My Pop Life #29 & My Pop Life #28).    It became one of “our songs”.   Well, it would wouldn’t it?    What an amazing record.   Wayne Jackson himself said it was the best record he played on, or heard in the 1960s.   Rob Bowman’s book calls it “one of the most sublime records in soul music’s history“.

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So that when I was invited to be interviewed by Peter Curran for Greater London Radio to promote either a film or a TV show (cannot remember!)  that was about to be released, I travelled down to the cosy GLR Studios in Marylebone clutching my Stax 45rpm 7″ copy of this single, hoping that the young Northern Irish DJ would indulge the youngish Sussex actor.   I think it was 1990, but I wouldn’t put money on it.   And bless Mr Curran’s cotton socks because when he saw a 7-inch single in my hand he immediately said “Great – you’ve brought in some music – what is it?” instead of wittering on about the playlist like some radio stations I could mention.  And he played it.

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Eddie Floyd, Sam Moore, Steve Cropper, Otis Redding, Wayne Jackson and Arthur Conley on tour with Stax/Volt in Europe 1967

A few days later I was at Jenny’s parents’ house in Wembley and Dee was there – Jenny’s eldest sister (Tom’s Mum) and her partner Mick Stock.   They ran a pub together in Alperton, just down the road.   Mick was in the kitchen when he saw me, and said, “I heard you on the radio the other day Ralph.  GLR?”  “Oh yes. Did you?”  I answered, always embarrassed by these kinds of conversations, especially then, before I’d learned the human art of grace-under-pressure.   Mick was happy though.  “I love that Sam and Dave song – brilliant choice!” he said  – and shook my hand.   “Great stuff”.   What a lovely endorsement.

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Jamie with Mick in 1992

Sadly for us all, Mick Stock – Jamie and Jordan’s father – passed away in 2013 of a heart attack and is deeply missed.    I dedicate this song to him, and to Dee.

vinyl single :

outstanding live version where Dave sings the 1st verse solo, Sam the 2nd :

My Pop Life #93 : One Day I’ll Fly Away – Randy Crawford

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One Day I’ll Fly Away   –   Randy Crawford

…still you made your mark, here in my heart…

They say that breaking up is hard to do.   They have no idea.    At all.   Talk about The Long Goodbye.   My relationship with Mumtaz lasted for nine years, off and on, from my first term at LSE in 1976 right through to the spring of 1985 when I left for the third and final time, without doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.   We were about to get married.   My wedding suit had been brought back from Pakistan.  Shalwar-kameez, beautiful.   I was doing a play called Deadlines with Joint Stock Theatre Company at the Royal Court at the time.  But I’m running ahead to another time, another place.  Right now, September 1980,  Randy Crawford’s One Day I’ll Fly Away is released and gets to number 2 in the pop charts, and I buy the 12-inch single of this song because I love it.  But perhaps there was more to it than that.

The song appeared on my mixtape ‘The Immaculate Conception‘ that I made two years later in 1982 for members of Moving Parts Theatre Company, my first equity job (see My Pop Life #18). So it was a real favourite – songs don’t usually hang around for two whole years.   But let me re-wind because the crowd may have said Bo.   (Selector).

Paul and I finally saved up enough money by spring 1980 to buy flights to Mexico City – and enough to last for a theoretical year in Latin America on ten bucks a day.    It wasn’t a gap year – I’d done that between school and university and hitch-hiked around North America with Simon Korner for five months.  No – this was an adventure, but more than that, it was the end of my relationship with Mumtaz.   I didn’t expect her to wait for me to return, and I didn’t expect that we’d get back together again when I eventually did.   If I did indeed – although the actor plan was still alive, the idea of settling down in Peru with a local lass wasn’t entirely fanciful either – and in fact one friend of mine from Edinburgh Festival days, John, did just that.   Where is he now I wonder?

So I was out of there.   It was farewell and goodbye.   So I thought.   But as discussed earlier in My Pop Life 25, I contracted Hepatitus B in Mexico and was flown back to Coppett’s Wood Hospital in North London, thence to Tower Mansions, West Hampstead, and thence to Somerfield Road and Mumtaz’ flat in Finsbury Park.  We were back together again like Roberta & Donny with the exquisite irony of One Day I’ll Fly Away as our new tune.

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I was grateful to be nursed back to health, and Mumtaz was gracious enough to welcome me back despite suspecting (surely? perhaps…) that I would leave again, someday.   Love is always a gamble isn’t it?   People around us were happy that we were a couple again, which blurs things.   Very very few people are honest in the end.  They’d rather say nothing and stay friends.   But I didn’t know what was going on – I was 23 years old, and while intellectually bright after a fashion (I could pass exams and do comprehension – would have been a good lawyer in fact) I was emotionally dim and un-evolved.  No idea.  I do believe that some folk are old souls – I know a few – and some others, like me, are young souls.   Born with no knowledge, expected to pick it up along the way.   It makes everything fresh, but boy, looking back on those early years I wince with embarrassment at some of the stuff that was going on.   I can put some of it down to youth, some of it down to a dysfunctional early family life, but the rest is just the behaviour of an emotional shrimp.  Locked up within there was another dude, but he wouldn’t evolve for decades to come.

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Somehow I knew in my bones that this song was the truth.     Someday, I felt, I would fly away.   I tried it again in 1981 in fact, Paul and I squatted in a reasonably miserable ground floor council property just off the Holloway Road for a few intrepid and vivid months after he came back from New York City (see My Pop Life 72) and then we were burgled, and I limped back to Finsbury Park and Mumtaz again after that, unable to make anything work as a single man.  Weak.  Needy.  Vulnerable.   And still there was this song with its lilting melody and gorgeous bassline, teasing me with its continued excellence.   I simply didn’t have the courage or strength to leave Mumtaz, and it would be three more years before I left, for the third and final time.

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Randy Crawford had been the lead singer on The Crusaders’ immense single Street Life the year before where she met keyboard player Joe Sample, one of the great 12-inch singles of all time running a full eleven minutes, jazz-funk-soul of the finest quality.  The Jazz Crusaders had been around since the early 1960s, influenced by hard boppers Cannonball Adderley and Art Blakey, but were among the first jazz artists to embrace the funk fusion sound of the 1970s, and their Street Life LP was a huge success.    And herewith the blog must admit to a kind of internal tension, for I find Street Life to be a better song than One Day I’ll Fly Away.  Yet I choose not to blog it because my own experience of street life (rather like Bryan Ferry’s I suspect) is limited to a handful of chance encounters and a bit of busking and hitch-hiking, whereas my experience of wondering if I’ll fly away could cover several volumes.  Hence the blog title My Pop Life, not My Favourite Pop Songs.  

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Joe Sample and Will Jennings of The Crusaders wrote Street Life and One Day I’ll Fly Away, and both songs were produced by bass and saxophone player Wilton Felder.   The production is immaculate pop – the tremolo on the first guitar chord, the triangle pling ! the guitar harmonics that prick through just before the saxophone theme, repeated later by an oboe, the gentle strings just as Randy opens her mouth to sing – and what a voice she has, quite a sublime controlled vibrato with exquisite vulnerability.

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Randy Crawford would release a wonderful album called Secret Combination the following year  which contained hits Rainy Night In Georgia (a Brook Benton cover), Trade Winds and the title track.  And then she kind of disappeared.

Featured imageWhile searching for pictures to add to this blog I found this poster for a jazz trio gig in Japan with Joe Sample and Steve Gadd – session drummer extraordinaire on Steely Dan and Paul Simon LPs –  further evidence that after the break-up of The Crusaders (Felder became a Jehovah’s Witness) Sample and Crawford carried on playing jazz together.  Joe Sample died in 2014.

I could talk about this a lot more but I don’t think I will.   The depth of feeling involved at the time was epic.  Mumtaz kept my entire LP collection and all of my singles.  This is symbolic of course, for us both.  I think the fact that I’m writing my patchwork autobiography through music gives you a clue as to how important that record collection was to me.   Mumtaz knew that.   I felt guilty, she felt hurt.  C’est la vie, c’est l’amour, c’est la guerre.   If I try to analyse why the relationship didn’t work, I still don’t really have the tools available to me, young soul that I am, but she simply wasn’t the One, and deep down I knew that.   I feel sorry that I didn’t stay left when I left first time, but Mumtaz now has two beautiful children and a life of her own, and I am happily married to Jenny, who is clearly The One.

My Pop Life #92 : Cities – Talking Heads

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Cities   –   Talking Heads

…there’s good points !  and bad points ! 

it all works out…..sometimes I’m a little freaked out…

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August 1979 I was a Batchelor of Law with a 2:2.   It was ‘only’ a 2:2 because I didn’t do any work.   I didn’t do any work because I wasn’t motivated.   I wasn’t motivated because I wasn’t going to be a lawyer.   I wasn’t going to be a lawyer  because I was going to be an actor – but not yet.   Not yet because I was saving up to go to Latin America with brother Paul for a whole year.   I was going out with Mumtaz, but I was going, I was leaving, I was going to Mexico!  To Bogota !  To Lima !  Rio ! Ten dollars a day.  That’s $3650 I needed to make, on top of the plane fare to Mexico City.  I had a plan, and I’d already started to carry it out.  At the end of my last year at LSE I’d seen a notice on the ubiquitous noticeboard – it’s what we did before the internet – saying “Student wanted to paint exterior of house for cash” – and I’d answered it.   It was a guy in Pinner – I can’t remember his connection to the LSE – and I met him and he agreed that I was the chap for the job.  He provided all the paint, brushes and scaffolding and all I had to do was turn up every day and paint those damn windows and doors.

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West Hampstead Jubilee Line to Wembley, then Metropolitan line to Pinner.   If you’ve never been there, well it’s very English in a certain suburban kind of way.  Did Elton John come from there?  It’s a suburb of North West London, part of Harrow in fact.    It was actually a really pleasant summer holiday’s work, his wife was sweet, she made me tea at intervals and I had a radio like all British workmen.

This is the sort of wanker I was in those days : one day at lunch I was chatting about this and that with his wife – they were in their 50s I guess, I was 22, and I asked her what he did for a living?  She said he was in business and left it at that.  I demurred.  I didn’t like business I said.  I didn’t believe in business.  She was quite shocked but too polite to be annoyed.  She simply said that business was necessary.   I remember that conversation quite clearly.  funny the things you remember and the things you don’t.  But I was clearly a wanker who thought he was Elvis Costello “I wanna bite the hand that feeds me“.   Anyway.   I also had blues – amphetamine sulphate in tablet form, otherwise known as speed, powder blue in colour, which I was then dealing from behind the bar at the Scala All-Nighter on Saturdays (see My Pop Life #23) and eating the proceeds.   Literally.   Come lunchtime on the scaffold outside the Pinner house I was starting to flag, so I’d pop a couple of blues and hi-dippetty-dee, whistle while you work.  Sing-alonga radio one.   Of course then the comedown would come crashing in around 6pm or so, because I couldn’t take two more or I’d be up all night so I would start to slump and frazzle just after I’d got back to Tower Mansions in West End Lane where I lived with Pete, Sali and Nick (see My Pop Life #59) and to soften the deadening empty slump of a blues comedown what do you do?  Yes.  You roll a joint.  And then another.  And listen to music with your mates.

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Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, David Byrne 1979

Reggae mainly, but also everything else : soul, jazz, Emmylou Harris, Frank Zappa,   and some classic post-punk singles in picture sleeves : Spizz Energi, The Slits, Buzzcocks, Shoes For Industry, Gang Of Four, PiL and so on.   Albums on the turntable that summer were Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps“, Robert Fripp’s “Exposure“, The Gang Of Four’s “Entertainment!“, Ry Cooder’s “Bop ‘Til You Drop“, and Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ “Do It Yourself“.  Punk had been pronounced dead by the critics – Sid Vicious had died in January, but The Clash released London Calling and Stiff Little Fingers produced a couple of classic singles – and pop was alive and kicking in the UK in the shape of Squeeze, Elvis Costello and the two-tone explosion – Madness, The Special and The Selector all broke through.  Disco was king though, Jackson’s Off The Wall and Chic’s Good Times and Donna Summer’s Bad Girls were ubiquitous records.

 But for me personally the LP that was head and shoulders above all the rest in 1979 was Talking Heads’ 3rd album “Fear Of Music“.

Featured imageFeatured imageI’d already seen them twice by then when they toured England with the first LP “77” and the amazing second LP “More Songs About Building And Food” which I still love to death.  How could their third LP be better than THAT?  Well it was, and is.  “Fear Of Music” is a giant concept album, a jittering funk-rock classic with jagged edges, bouncing bass lines and hooks and riffs and clever lyrics galore.  Most of the songs have single-word titles :  Air, Paper, Drugs, Mind and my favourite : Cities.

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The first line of the single was completely awesome: as the music fades up :

Think of London : small city…

Is he kidding ?  London is huge.  I’d been living there three years and got to know it a bit – the West End, Honor Oak SE23 for my final year at LSE, West Hampstead, Hammersmith, Pinner ! – and Camden Town where I’d seen Talking Heads play in the Roundhouse, supported by Slaughter & The Dogs.

Featured imageLater in 1979 they would tour again with this album, this time playing Hammersmith Palais where everyone played that year : The B52s supported them this time I think.  They were so exciting, so poppy, so funky, so urgent, David Byrne would sing a line then skitter across the stage and they were as tight as any band I’ve seen.  Married couple Chris Frantz on the kit and Tina Weymouth on the bass, Jerry Harrison completing the line-up on keyboards.  They would go on to even greater success with “This is not my beautiful house” and “Road to Nowhere”, album producer Brian Eno would do a weird sampled-collage LP with David Byrne called My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, but this LP was just them at their pop peak, or maybe just before it.

dark… dark in the daytime…

people sleep… sleep in the daytime

if they want to – if they want to !

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It had a black sleeve with raised dashes on it like a weird manhole cover and neon green lettering : Fear Of Music.  Jerry Harrison designed the sleeve and came up with the title.   It was art-pop, it was post-punk, it was music for head, hands and feet.  We loved that band.

..did I forget to mention, forget to mention Memphis ? 

home of Elvis and the ancient Greeks…

My Pop Life #67 : Yun Na Thi – Asha Bhosle

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Yun Na Thi   –   Asha Bhosle

..Yuun na thi mujhse berukhi pehle
Tum toh aise na the kabhi pehle.. 

you were not so indifferent towards me earlier….

you have completely changed from how you were…

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Asha Bhosle sang her first Hindi film song at 10 years old, and had eloped with a man 15 years older than herself aged 16.   Three babies later she left her husband with his name and returned to the maternal home in Mumbai, still singing for a living.  Her older sister Lata Mangeshkar was also singing Bollywood film songs, but Asha was determined not to just be Lata’s younger sister and looked for ways to follow her own path.  This meant often singing the ‘fallen woman’ role in B-grade movies, but as the 1950s drew to a close she and her sister dominated the Hindi film industry having sung more ‘playback songs’ than anyone else.  Her speciality was often seen as western-style and more sensual songs.  Her success and popularity grew from there.  Ashaji is now the official most-recorded singer in world history, having sung over 13,000 songs.  Most of these were for Bollywood, but she has also sung ghazals (such as this song Yun Na Thi), Indian classical pieces, pop, folk songs and qawwalis among others.   She was the subject of Cornershop‘s single Brimful of Asha (on the 45) in 1997.  She continues to sing and tour today, at the age of 82.    Some of her greatest work has been the most recent, a duet LP with young Pakistani singer Adnan Sami in 1997, an LP of Indian classical music with sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Kahn getting a Grammy nomination.  But she will always be loved for her Bolllywood songs, the mainstay of her career and the Indian music industry.

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Dil Cheez Kya Hai from Umrao Jaan

It is impossible to overstate the importance of film songs in the overall picture of Indian music, rather like pop music in the UK, millions listen to it, go to the films and buy it.   Among her ‘greatest hits’ which are too many to include on one LP would be Dil Cheez Kya Hai from Umrao Jaan (1981), Dum Maro Dum from Hare Krishna (1971), title track Chura Liye Hai Tumne (2003) and Aaiye Meharbaan from Howrah Bridge (1958).

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She sings in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, English –  in fact 20 languages in all.   Perhaps the most remarkable facet of her long life and singing career has been her relationship with her sister Lata Mangeshkar, who is the 2nd-most recorded singer in history, and is herself still singing aged 85.

I didn’t hear any Indian music when I was growing up – apart from Within You Without You, Love You To (Revolver) or Peter Sellers taking the piss.   Ravi Shankar came to educate us all in the ways of Indian classical music, having made friends with George Harrison, and received a standing ovation for tuning up his sitar at his first English concert.  He smiled and thanked the audience for appreciating his craft and hoped they would enjoy the actual music.   Then we saw what he could do at the Concert For Bangla Desh.  But Ravi was the classical end of things – a sitar player.  Asha Bhosle was the filmi end of things – a singer.

Part of the problem for western ears are the instruments used : sitar, tabla, sarod, dilrubi, saranga, bansuri, tambura, shehnai, swarmandel, harmonium.  We used some of these instruments when we played The Sgt Pepper show, eg the swarmandel as played by George in Strawberry Fields Forever.

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Sarod                     Swarmandel  player                                Sarangi

The other part of the problem is the pitch – shruti – in hindi which translates as the smallest possible difference in pitch the human ear can distinguish between two tones.  Thus our 12-tone scale,  in Indian music becomes 23 tones – quarter tones to us westerners, often heard as “blue notes” ie notes sung in a blues between two other notes, either sliding up or down.  Pianists are unable to play blue notes – they can’t bend the note like a singer or guitarist or saxophone player, but they overcome this by playing the two notes alongside each other together, creating a dissonance which is rather pleasing.  Indian music to my cloth ears relies heavily on these subtleties of pitch which seem to appeal directly to the heart and the emotions.  When Lloyd-Webber employed AR Rahman he called it “cheating” but really, what does he know ?

*

Within weeks of starting my law degree at LSE I had a steady girlfriend – Mumtaz, who was born in Aden (Yemen) to Pakistani parents, the family had then moved to Karachi in the 1960s.  Mumtaz was schooled in Murree, in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Kashmir.   She had come to London to study law, and having graduated the summer before was now studying for part 2 of the Law Exam.  Over the next nine years we would be, off and on, a couple.  Most of that time was spent in an attic flat in Finsbury Park as we both established footholds in our chosen careers.  Mumtaz’ parents never accepted me as a potential son-in-law because I am not a muslim, and although Taj’s older sister Naz had married an Englishman, it hadn’t lessened that pressure, and maybe made it worse.

Mumtaz introduced me to north Indian cuisine, and I can still cook basmati rice, perfect every time, rogan jhosh and prawns courgette, partly thanks to Madhur Jaffrey it must be said.  Taj taught me how to cook pitta bread – lightly brush water over each side then lightly grill it until it starts to puff up then whip it out, cut in half, careful not to burn your fingers.   We ate regularly at the Diwan-e-Khas in Whitfield St, and the Diwan-e-Am in Drummond St.  I learned all the spices, some Urdu, some basic tenets of islam.  And we saw a few Indian movies, with singing.  Not so many, but enough to introduce me to the whole world of Bollywood:  Awaara, Pyaasa,  as well as the more serious Indian cinema of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Mehboob Khan’s epic 1957 film Mother India.   I found some Bollywood cassettes somewhere, bought them and played them, their incredible arrangements, timings and melodies started to work their way into my ears.  Indeed one of these tunes I CANNOT REMEMBER WHAT IT’S CALLED OR WHO SANG IT, (but it wasn’t Asha or Lata or Mohamed Rafi) became the basis for a song I wrote for Birds Of Tin, the band I was playing in at the time with Joe Korner – a song called Dangerous Garden.  In fact I think the cassette was by Shamshad Begum.  More about Birds Of Tin on another day.  Mumtaz also introduced me to the Beach Boys LP Holland, the band Earth Wind & Fire (My Pop Life #21), Fulfillingness’ First Finale and The Isley Brothers.

It was hard leaving Mumtaz.  But it had to be done.  Taj didn’t agree, but we had no future together.   It just wasn’t right.   I ended up in Bob Carlton’s flat in Bow in a tower block, with all my books and none of my records.   I never saw my records again.  Taj’s revenge.  Well, records : they’re just things, right ?  as this blog will testify…..

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In 1985 I was a disciple of WOMAD.  World Of Music Arts & Dance.   I bought their first LP Music and Rhythm (see My Pop Life #4) in 1982 and had spent the next three years listening to anything that wasn’t some skinny white kid playing guitar – Irish music, south african township music, calypso, greek songs, jazz, classical, gypsy music, arabic, burundi drumming, algerian rai, flamenco, salsa, samba, showtunes, mexican pop music, and hindi film music, what a beautiful world of music there was out there and I wanted to eat it all up, to explore, to mine those golden seams of rhythm and melody, to hear strange languages, strange beats, unusual instruments, see then how things joined up, how distant relations were joined, the cuba-congo axis, the irish/scottish/quadrille/african birth of jazz in New Orleans, the music of Brahms and Jobim, Eric Satie and Oum Kalthoum, the Bhundu Boys and Sergio Leone.

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So when WOMAD brought out a Talking Book LP called Asia 1 I immediately bought it full price and consumed it with joy.  Asha Bhosle sang Yun Na Thi as the last track on side B.  Well, you can’t follow that really.  Indeed, how foolish it is to create an LP of “Music From Asia” – which included the desert musicians of Rajahstan, Kurdish music from Siwan Perwer (brilliant), Yemeni Ofra Haza, tabla solos, Iranian goblet drummers and Temple musicians of Sri Lanka ??  Absurd to group them all together – but – it was a sampler made especially for people like me who were trawling the world for their music, who’d got fed up with the radio, whichever station it was, who wanted to explore with their ears.  It was, I have to say, a completely brilliant album, but the outstanding songs on it were from Şivan Perwer and Asha Bhosle.

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Ashaji had made Abshar-e-Ghazal – the source album for this track – as a break from Hindi film music.  She was a hugely respected and wealthy star in India, had restaurants in the Gulf and could do what she wanted.  She wanted to do some more classical and traditional music.  All the music on the LP was written by Hariharan and the lyrics are ghazals – an ancient pre-islamic form of poetry.  As near as I can get to an understanding of this form is the Sonnet – all of the rhymes must be a certain way.  A ghazal is a love poem, always about unrequited love, and often takes the Sufi form – a poem about love of God, the ultimate unrequited love.  A famous Persian ghazal poet Rumi, who died in 1273, is known a little in the west, although scarcely enough – but the ghazal goes back at least 500 years before him.

I’ve asked for translations of the words to this ghazal, when they come I’ll add them to this blog.   Perhaps the unrequited love is Mumtaz’ for me.

Yun na thi mujh se berukhi pehle

tum toh aise na the kabhi pehle

jismeain shaamil tunhaari marzi thi

humne chaahi wahi kushi pehle

jab talak woh na tha toh ai raahi

kitni aasaan thi zindagi pehle

My Pop Life #59 : Looks Is Deceiving – The Gladiators

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Looks Is Deceiving   –   The Gladiators

…old time people dem used to say when short mouth tell you, you can’t hear

so when long mouth tell you, you must feel it feel it…

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What we used to call a cracking tune.  1979 and Virgin Records released a sampler LP of Jamaican roots reggae called The Front Line, with a fist holding barbed wire, blood trickling down the wrist.  It cost 69p.   This was one of the tracks – there were two from The Gladiators, the other being the mighty Pocket Money which I also tag below because youtube has the great 12 inch version complete with Dub Version.   Weird to think now how influential reggae was in the late 70s, how much was played on the radio – John Peel in particular was religious about it, and people bought the records too, in 12″ format and albums – not just Marley who was huge, but Culture, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, The Mighty Diamonds, Augustus Pablo, Lee Perry, U-Roy.  Much weed was smoked to accompany this music, indeed Dub in particular turned out to be the perfect music to get stoned to, perhaps because the people making it were themselves stoned.  A kind of perfect circle.  Heady righteous days.  Home-grown reggae was having its moment too from Black Slate to Aswad to Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse.  Linton Kwesi Johnson would appear in 79.

At the end of my 3rd year at LSE I had scored a pretty average 2:2 degree in Law, due to not studying particularly hard, which meant I was an LLB or Bachelor of Law.  And so I would remain for all eternity because this marks the precise moment when I turned my back on the law and became an actor.  I had promised that I would.  Except that :  I didn’t.   You see, I had this rather harsh image of acting being rather like a pedigree horse-race where I was the horse, wearing blinkers, running, running, racing.   I thought to myself, probably while stoned : I’d better have a look round before I put those blinkers on.  And so it was that I moved into the flat at Tower Mansions, 134 West End Lane where Pete Thomas and Sali Beresford had two rooms to let.  I’d met them through LSE Ents, gigs, drugs, college events, but mainly musical sympathies.  The other flatmate was Nick Partridge (now Sir Nick!) who’d been at Keele, an amiable knowledgeable and sweet man. We were all out of college and on the rampage in North London.   We were in a bit of a gang too : Colin Jones, red hair, glasses & fuzzy beard who taught me how to drive, Tony Roose an old mate of Pete’s with whom I went to Belfast in 1981, John Vincent, shy and sweet but deadly with a frisbee, Andy Cornwell, alpha groover, edging towards the Legalise Cannabis Campaign and permanent tickets for all gigs in London.  All from the LSE except for Nick, who fitted in without a hint of catching up or “fitting in”.  And of course Mumtaz, my girlfriend, who’d left LSE 3 years earlier and was now almost an actual solicitor.

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I became a painter and decorator over that summer, working in Pinner for a businessman and his wife.  I think that’s when I became addicted to amphetamine sulphate in the form of blues.  But I rather suspect that’s for another story,  we’re on the weed and the reggae here.  The evening sessions rolling joints on record sleeves like More Songs About Buildings And Food by Talking Heads or One World by John Martyn, inhaling, passing to the left, listening to reggae, loving it a lot, playing backgammon, talking politics and music.  Out of the window, West End Lane -and three railways lines.  I had a plan – to save up enough money to take another year off, travelling – this time with brother Paul through South America…

The song Looks Is Deceiving is a series of Jamaican sayings that are received wisdom from the elders, older than the Bible (and rastafarians are really fond of the bible).  Don’t under-rate no man.  Don’t watch the tool what him can do – watch the man that behind it.  The man laugh first – him no laugh, the man laugh last – catch it full.  The cow don’t know what him tail for til the butcher cut it off.  

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The Gladiators, being rastafarians, are making their records in Babylon, so they give it to us in a parable.  On Pocket Money – another outstanding slice of roots reggae – they take the Old Testament and preach – from Genesis to Exodus…my sheep heard my voice… hypocrites evil doers, beware of those unseen eyes…then you feel like running away from yourself…Jah will cut you down !  A good friend is better than pocket money…

At this moment in time The Gladiators – Albert Griffiths on lead guitar, Clinton Fearon on bass, Gallimore Sutherland on rhythm, (all three singing) were backed by a stunning Studio One session band with Sly Dunbar on drums, Lloyd Parks on bass, Sticky Thompson on percussion, Ansel Collins on keys and Earl Lindo on synthesizer.  The great Joe Gibbs mixed, Tony Robinson produced for Virgin.   Pure greatness.

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