How do you solve a problem like Maria? And other musical family matters

What do you suppose it feels like to be the runt of the litter in a family of super-talented people?

Well, I’ll tell you. Because I am that runt.

I’ll start at the beginning, which is when I met my dad.

What?

I met my dad when I was fourteen. He and my mom had split up when I was about 15 months old. She took my sister and me back from London to her home town, Wolverhampton. I never saw him again till I was a teenager.

Anyway, in my milieu in Wolverhampton, I was pretty hot stuff musically. Aged 8, I’d won first in class in my first competition at the Wolverhampton Music Festival.

Later, having achieved a distinction in my Royal Academy Grade 5 exam, and a credit at Grade 6, I was two grades away from a home run.

And then I went to London to meet my dad. Of course, I had to play for him. I can’t remember what I played, but what I do remember is that when I’d finished, he came over to the piano and said: “Have you thought of trying it like this?”

He sat down next to me on the piano seat and proceeded to deconstruct my whole view of what a musician should be. It was the best piano-playing I had ever personally witnessed. I was mesmerised. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Families, eh? Nobody had told me. The man was unbelievable. He knew the entire Great American Songbook, with chords even Cole Porter hadn’t thought to use.

And he could boogie woogie like nobody’s business. To this day people say to me, “Come on, you must like Jools Holland!”, and I say, “You never heard my dad”.

When I got back home to Wolverhampton, I refused to attend any more piano lessons, and insisted my mom buy me a guitar. Within three months, Beethoven, Mozart and the piano were forgotten. I could play the three guitar chords required to form a group and rip up the Milano Coffee Bar in Queen Street.

I might now be only the second best musician in my family, but the flame still burned.

Fast forward a few years, and on a train from Dublin to Killarney I meet an American named Pete Zorn. He’s just been signed to a record deal, and we hit it off famously. Then he meets my sister, and they hit it off even better, so they get married.

Now I’m the third most musically talented person in my family. But there’s a long way to go yet.

Because then it turns out that my brother, Dudley, instead of studying at university, has been sitting in his lodgings playing bass all day. He’s been doing this for some time. He is, in fact, the embodiment of the 10,000 hour rule. If you don’t know it, it’s a theory that says the people who are best at anything (music, writing, computers, sport) have put in a minimum 10,000 hours of practice before they break through.

Dudley, the little bastard, had put in his 10,000 hours and then some. Not only is he a brilliant bass player – you might have seen him here and there with the likes of Mark Knopfler – but his understanding of jazz and harmony is such that he lectures at the Guildhall in London, and other places around the country. He plays the piano better than I do, and he’s a bloody bass player!

So by the time I’m 30 (Dudley’s 12 years younger) I’m now the fourth most talented person in my family.

And we’re not talking slim margins here. We’re talking aeons. We’re talking the difference between you running the 100 metres, and then finding yourself in a race with Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis and Donovan Bailey.

Still, we’re not done yet. Because I made the mistake of bequeathing a bunch of instruments, the makings of a primitive recording studio and 30-odd years worth of vinyl albums to my then 16-year-old son. And how did he show his gratitude? You guessed it – by becoming a better musician and a better songwriter than me by a factor of, ooh, about 20.

He worked his way so quickly through my albums that by the time he was 18 he had put away childish things and was ingesting Steely Dan and Frank Zappa like they were his mother’s milk.

Now I love Steely Dan, but frankly they’re in a different league musically and it’s beyond my ken. Still, I know the songs, and can even dance to some of them.

Frank Zappa on the other hand – well, nice bloke and all, but some of his music is so complex it makes my head hurt. I’ve certainly never found myself tapping my foot and humming along.

Not my son, though. Somehow or other, Noel decided to teach himself composition and harmony. Next thing I know he’s leading a band of pretty amazing players and he is the Frank Zappa figure, the master of ceremonies, the writer, the arranger, the almost virtuoso keyboard player. It’s stunning. A revelation.

Worse than that, I’m now the fifth most talented person in my family, and in terms of the 100 metres race, it’s all over before I’m out of the starting blocks.

And believe me, it’s not going to get any better. Two of my grandsons are already showing promise – one as a drummer, the other as a guitarist. And one of my granddaughters is already ‘making up’ her own songs which, while they’re never going to get played on Radio 2, would certainly make the nether regions of weirdness on Radio 6. She’s 8.

There are moments when I’ve just wanted to give up. In fact I did give up, for about 30 years. But I can always cheer myself up by reminding myself, “You’re the one who made the Top 10, you’re the one who sold half a million singles, you’re the one who appeared on Top Of The Pops.”

And then there are the moments like the time Noel, then in his mid-20s, played me a song he’d written and recorded called Maria. At first, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. And then about one minute in there’s a moment that just overwhelmed me, and the tears started.

Sometimes, being the runt of the litter has its advantages…

So here’s Noel’s 20-year-old demo of a song I believe would by now be a stone classic if he’d ever signed a deal and recorded it.

https://soundcloud.com/driver-67/maria

 

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