This is a story about an extraordinary song, and its extraordinary history.
I can say with utter confidence that you’ve never heard the story. I’m just as sure you’ve never heard the song.
This is how the story starts. I get a call from my friend Jamie Jauncey and he asks if I can meet him at Ralph Steadman’s house in Parson’s Green.
For those of you who don’t immediately know who he is, Ralph Steadman’s art will still be very familiar to you.
His work with American journalist Hunter S. Thompson is legendary. Thompson’s writings about Richard Nixon in Rolling Stone Magazine – Fear & Loathing On The Campaign Trail – made him a hero to me. And, of course, Ralph Steadman’s artworks were a major part of that.
My detestation of Richard Nixon knew no bounds. I was obsessed with the man, champing at the bit for him to be brought down.
I was familiar with all the characters involved in Watergate. One of them was John Dean, who was married to Maureen (Mo). That’s important to this story, so bear with me.
Anyway, of course I want to meet Ralph Steadman – on any pretext whatever.
So I take myself across urban London into the slightly leafier style of Parson’s Green and am confronted with an imposing terraced house of considerable height and several floors.
Inside, it’s just as imposing, featuring the kind of Sunday Times Magazine style and ambience I’ve often aspired to. This cartooning lark clearly pays. Jamie’s there with Ralph, and Ralph talks away in his disconnected fashion – he doesn’t draw like that by accident, you know. He thinks like that.
And I pick up the fact that Bill Murray is going to star in a film about Hunter S Thompson called Where The Buffalo Roam.
I also pick up the fact that Ralph has written a song. And he’s written it with Hunter S. Thompson and – wait for it – Mo Dean. Told you. It’s always worth paying attention.
Somehow, Ralph and Jamie have hooked up, and Jamie has suggested that my band, Tax Loss, might help out in recording the song that Ralph, Mo and Hunter have written. The hope is that it will serve as title music to the film.
Well, now I’m in pig heaven. Bill Murray – funniest man on the planet – stars as my hero Hunter S Thompson; I’m in the room with another hero, Ralph Steadman; and Tax Loss might get to feature on the soundtrack of a film we would all pay to go and see.
So I say a big resounding “Yes” on behalf of my four bandmates (I’ll work that out later. I always do), and Ralph celebrates by crossing the room to call Hunter and tell him the news. “Yes, yes, we’re going to record it really soon, and, and Hunter, you’re gonna love this, the group, the people we’re gonna do it with – they’re called Tax Loss! Yeah, I know. Knew you would.”
Which is how, several months later, Rolling Stone Magazine reports, in an interview with Hunter S Thompson, that the title music for the film has been recorded in London by a band called Tax Loss. Mentioned in Rolling Stone. It’s like being mentioned in despatches.
And now we’re at the studio – me, Jamie, Ralph, Pete Zorn (bass), Dave Mattacks (drums), Mart Jenner (guitar) and Ian Lynn (keyboards).
It turns out that this song, Those Weird & Twisted Nights, is well over 10 minutes long, with several sections. This is not going to be easy. Ralph is going to sing, and it turns out Ralph can actually sing. As if, growing up in Wales, it’s imbibed with the tap water.
But, he’s a novice, and the song is complex, and there is no score to read from. This is why musicians like my Tax Loss bandmates earn their money in triplicate. So it wasn’t an easy session. There were some stresses and strains.
But, my word, what came out was extraordinary.
At the end of the session, Ralph pulled out posters of his Alice In Wonderland drawings and said to Mart Jenner, “Sorry, Mart, what did you play?” “Guitar,” said Mart. Whereupon Ralph takes his felt tip and signs a poster, ‘Mart, thanks for the guitar’.
He goes around the room and the routine repeats. Lastly he gets to me, and says. “And what were you doing, Paul?” “Producing,” I say. He hesitates, and says: “Oh. So what does a producer do?” “Nothing,” I smiled.
And that’s how I come to have a Ralph Steadman poster, signed by the artist, “To Paul, For Nothing”.
Jamie Jauncey has memories of staying on and mixing the track till 3am, and then driving Ralph out to Heathrow Cargo Terminal to put the tape on a plane to LA.
And that’s the last anybody heard of it. Of course it didn’t make it into the film. They had Neil Young for that (but hadn’t told Ralph or Hunter).
Back in February, Jamie left a comment on the second post of this blog saying he hoped this story would be part of it. I replied that it should be, but I didn’t have the song. Jamie climbed into his loft that weekend and unearthed a 35-year-old reel to reel tape that simply said, ‘Ralph Steadman’. Jamie sent it to me, and I threw it in a box I was about to send off with a pile of other tapes to be digitised.
Last Friday I received a bunch of mp3 files from Adrian Finn at Great Bear in Bristol (lovely operation for digitising your old cine, video and music). It was like Christmas. Songs I hadn’t heard, some of them, in 40 years. And there was Those Weird & Twisted Nights, sounding like it had been recorded yesterday.
So here it is for you. If you’re a fan of Hunter S Thompson or Ralph Steadman, or both, it will have special resonance. But even if you’ve never heard of either of them, turn it up, and listen. Immerse yourself. It’s a real trip.