Al Stewart, Kokomo, and the end of the hippie dream

What a great few weeks.

Nick Hornby read my Kokomo blog – yes, the Nick Hornby; I’ve had Tony Bird (last week’s story) on the phone from New York; and Tony O’Malley of Kokomo calling me from a surprisingly genteel part of England.

Kokomo still hold a lot of people in thrall. Nick Hornby, he of High Fidelity, About A Boy and Fever Pitch, apparently wants to know when he’ll be able to buy the tracks I made with the band at Apple in 1974. He’d been a big fan back in the day.

And the buzz about the band’s imminent reunion tour would please any working musician. I will certainly be at one of those gigs ( details here ).

It’s also wonderful to see that, in all the fuss, no-one has forgotten the brilliant Alan Spenner who died of a heart attack 23 years ago at the ridiculously young age of 43.

Rooting through Tony O’Malley’s back pages, I found his blog about a memorable night when the hippie dream crumpled like paper in the hands of a gang of suited and booted young toughs. They came looking for a fight and created mayhem.

Despite appearances, there weren’t that many real hippies back in the day. My neighbours thought I was a hippie. I had the long hair, the beard and the very stupid ‘loons’.

But I also had two children, a mortgage and a job. Proper hippies definitely went in for the children thing – a necessary by product of one of their favourite activities. But the mortgage and the job? No way, man.

So all those people you see when you watch film clips of Woodstock, or the Stones in Hyde Park (I was there, right at the front, in the press enclosure) were mostly people like me. We liked the clothes, and the general philosophy of peace and love. But in reality, we were holding down a fairly normal life.

And then came the night Kokomo played a gig at the Hard Rock Cafe on London’s Old Park Lane. The band was set up in the middle of the restaurant’s front section. And that became the focus of attention for a group of young boys only initially notable for their matching sharp suits and short haircuts.

They drew attention by carrying their drinks from the bar, and straight through the band’s space. At first it seemed just an act of bad manners. But then they did it again, and again, deliberately jostling the musicians.

They were there for a fight. They were a new breed, and they came to kill the hippies. They didn’t have to walk through the band. They chose to in order to get the violence under way. Tony O’Malley’s recollection is that guitarist Neil Hubbard cracked first and pushed back. I most remember Alan Spenner with blood pouring down his face.

Eventually the police were called. Out on the pavement, the heathens even took them on. One I remember vividly picking up a bicycle by the frame and rushing a copper, pedal to the face. They were all adrenaline, totally fearless.

I spent the rest of the night ferrying wounded Kokomos across to St George’s hospital, conveniently just two exits away across the Hyde Park roundabout.

And it had all started out so agreeably. The band was on great form, and I had watched in disbelief as a stunning woman brought herself to orgasm on her partner’s thigh as they grooved along to the rhythm.

Ah, the music life – such contrasts.

Only a few weeks later, I was in a Camden music hangout with Al Stewart and his manager, the exceptional Luke O’Reilly. We were minding our own business. I was intent on persuading Al to stay with CBS for one more album. We were talking intently, confidentially, doing nothing that might draw attention.

But somehow, we offended a group across the room. There were seven of them, and they were in a recently signed band. I think just the sight of Al Stewart being Al Stewart goaded them into a mood of envy.

A couple of them came over to the table, and I rose to greet them, making sure they knew that I knew who they were. But handshakes and civility were not on their minds. They let us know that as soon as we were out of sight of any witnesses, we were going to get a thrashing. No reason. No explanation.

People like me and Al Stewart, we weren’t fighters. We wouldn’t have known where to start. So when we got outside, we raced to our cars and quickly started our engines. Poor Luke O’Reilly was too slow and was pounded to mincemeat. Al ruined his beloved BMW driving over parking posts to get at Luke’s attackers.

I drove off to find police. When I did, they took one look at my hair and my clothes and said, “Yeah, well, probably six of one, half a dozen of the other”. I did an illegal u-turn right in front of them and sped off well over the limit. That got them on my tail. Back at the restaurant, there was Luke lying in the car park, barely conscious and covered in blood. The police still weren’t convinced. “I can name the culprits.” Nah, not interested.

Next day, I phoned the band’s manager and gave him a bit of a talking to about his ‘lads’. He wasn’t phased at all. “Well, if he will go round being all Al Stewart, what do you expect”. I told him to be sure never to come knocking on CBS’s door looking for a deal.

But these two incidents were a bit of a wake up call. Time to toughen up, no question. There were people around who meant us harm. I never rolled over again.

There was an album around at the time, by the American stand-up comedian, Murray Roman. The album was called, You Can’t Beat People Up And Have Them Say ‘I Love You’. It was very funny.

A couple of years back, I wrote a song where I quoted Murray. It’s called What Have You Done (Murray Roman Said) and ostensibly it’s about spousal abuse. But more generally it’s about what a waste of life violence is. The slightly bouncy, rockabilly flavour is deliberately designed to offset what is, essentially, a very dark subject.

The group that threatened to beat up Al Stewart, and put Luke O’Reilly in the hospital? Never heard from again. The guys who picked a fight with Kokomo? Probably Millwall supporters with beer bellies and grandchildren by now. Certainly not known or notable.

Whereas, Kokomo and Al Stewart, and not to forget Tony Bird who sang about racial violence – well, those are lives well lived, enriching others with their talent.

So here’s my hymn to those who prefer violence and abuse over peace and love. What have you done?

 

6 Comments

  1. Not necessarily entirely connected to the above, but I was horribly late latching on to Al Stewart, only picking up on his work after finding a few of his albums being sold cheaply in a charity shop. I’ve since spent a long time digging back through all his albums, and it’s staggering how – unlike many artists I could name – his creative ability has never waned. “Somewhere In England 1915” from 2005’s “A Beach Full of Shells” is probably the finest song he’s ever written, and incredibly appropriate listening at the moment given the WWI centenary and how sorry 2014 itself has been.

    I just don’t think he’s ever been given the volume of critical respect he’s due in the UK, but I do know a few highly acclaimed young poets who own his albums and love his work. “Being all Al Stewart” sounds fine to me.

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  2. Well said, David. I was lucky to get on to Al even before his first album. Getting to CBS five years later and finding no-one but the marketing director (Maurice Oberstein) cared about him was pretty shocking. I’ll tell the rest of that story in another post.

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  3. Pingback: Al Stewart, Kokomo, and the end of the hippie dream | Tony OMalley

  4. Hi Paul, I just wanted to say I’m enjoying your posts – you’re an excellent writer! I set up the Facebook group Bring Back Kokomo a couple of years ago – having been a big fan of the music but not had the joy of seeing them live, I selfishly wanted to see them play again one more time. Tony has been instrumental in making the reunion happen, together with many others. The group now has over 350 members from all over the world. Please do feel welcome to join the group if you’re on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/bringbackkokomo/?fref=ts

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  5. Hi – enjoying your blog which I discovered via Tony O’ M’s F/B page . Saw Al Stewart last weekend at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention ( I first saw him at B’ham town Hall in 1970 – so that dates me ! ) – still singing & playing as good as ever – nice touch to bring on Tim Renwick to play on a few songs
    Regards

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