Amy Winehouse: the magic, the tragic and the art of being classic

Rachel and I went to see the documentary film Amy last weekend.

It’s not possible for me to explain how I felt/feel about Amy Winehouse. I simply don’t have the words to do her justice.

She was an instinctual artist, in the true sense of that word. Before she was out of her teens, she had soaked up a phenomenal amount of influences that generally mean nothing to others of her generation.

Her contemporaries rarely have a cultural reference point that goes back further than the day before yesterday. I have a name for for them. I call them ‘one note sambas‘.

Of course, as a description of their current pop fave, it’s lost on young people. Post-punk generations don’t know what a samba is. The idea that they may ever have heard (or at least be conscious of) Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim’s clever and jokey One-Note Samba would be presumptious at best.

There’s an entire thesis to be written about this, but briefly it has to do with the proliferation of media. Why look back when just a sideways glance reveals an oasis of distraction?

When I talk to Rachel’s father, Don – 87-years-old and plenty old enough to be my own father – there’s barely a cultural or political reference we don’t both know. Despite our age difference, we grew up at a time when the past informed the present in a very direct manner.

The entire 20th century and even bits of the 19th furnish our playground.  But we’ve also had to keep pace with cultural and technological developments that sped up mightily from the mid-60s on. We’re not too shabby about the first decade and a half of the 21st century.

Post-punk generations can scarcely believe there was ever a world without computers and mobile phones. As for watching a black and white film, well, why would you? It never occurred to me that generations might grow up not knowing who Charlie Chaplin was, let alone Buster Keaton.

The first act I ever referred to as a ‘one-note samba’ was Oasis. They took their look from the back cover of Revolver and their sound from a Beatles B-side. For their entire career they barely varied anything. The only thing that noticeably developed was Liam Gallagher’s yobbish ego.

The Beatles had been steeped in Music Hall, Variety, big bands, crooners, jazz, Latin America, comic songs, war, silent movies, blues, Hitler, rock’n’roll, country & western, modern art, Labour and the unions, the establishment and the anti-establishment.

They had 60-odd years of popular culture and politics to draw on, and they drew on every single bit of it – from the late Victoriana of Marie Lloyd through Louis, Bing and Frank, Elvis and Buddy to the Everlys.

At their peak they didn’t stop. They imbibed inspiration from their working contemporaries. Their battles with the prodigious Brian Wilson are legend. But Shankar, Stockhausen, Moog and Dylan also kept them constantly on their mettle and moving forward.

And that’s how you get magic.

What separates contemporary greats – Blur, for instance, and Amy Winehouse – from the one-note sambas is an open mind and open ears married to a singular talent. You don’t repeatedly create magic by knuckle-headed adherence to a single card in the pack; nor, for that matter, to a single deck of cards.

I mostly hear Dinah Washington in Amy’s voice, with occasional echoes of Billie Holiday and Nancy Wilson. Others cite Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. I’ll allow the first two; but not the third. If you hear Nina Simone when you listen to Amy Winehouse, you’re not really listening to either of them.

Despite and because of her influences she was her unique self. But what made her unique also made her a huge star, and that made her uncomfortable. The letters a, r and t may be in the word ‘stardom’, but they’re not – necessarily – in the right order. They spell out instead something sticky, dark and vaguely unpleasant – which seems to be how Amy viewed her status.

As Tony Bennett says in the film: “Amy was a true jazz artist. And no jazz artist wants to look out at an audience of 50,000 people.”

Amy Winehouse’s lyrics told her story, and she was happier telling her story to a few properly appreciative and attentive listeners than to a huge crowd attracted to her stardom rather than her art.

There are moments in the film when she talks about writing, and it’s a revelation to see her working around a guitar fretboard looking for the perfect, or at least the most interesting chord for the note she’s singing. Not for her the repetitive four-chord turnaround of modern pop writing.

But her lyrics are the key. It’s easy to ignore that this fragile slip of a girl – so sassy, funny and tough, but also vulnerable – had a mind like a steel trap when it came to noting the passage of her minutes and days.

The way she wrote down her life was not as other writers do (except the very greatest). There’s the searing honesty for a start, not to mention the frequent and unembarrassed mentions of sexual moistness.

More to the point, reading her words, it’s not always easy to see the scan, catch the rhyme, feel the rhythm. That’s all in the phrasing, the performance.

In her song Wake Up Alone, she ends successive lines with the word ‘him’. Few would be so brave. But she ensures the rhyme with the preceding words: I stand before him; it’s all I can do to assure him.

If I was my heart
I’d rather be restless
The second I stop the sleep catches up and I’m breathless
This ache in my chest
As my day is done now
The dark covers me and I cannot run now
My blood running cold
I stand before him
It’s all I can do to assure him
When he comes to me
I drip for him tonight
Drowning in me we bathe under blue light

The scan, the rhythm and the rhymes are mostly in her head till you hear her sing it. Then it’s a heartbreaker.

As we sat in the cinema watching the film, you could have heard a pin drop. No munching, no scrunching, no slurping. I was very conscious that Rachel, mother of the pop star who lives in my house, might well be thinking: “My daughter? No way!”

As indeed she was. Any parent looking at Amy would have to take a close look at their own musically ambitious child – measure their strength, evaluate their vulnerabilities, assess the risks.

Amy Winehouse wasn’t best served by some of those around her – and that’s putting it kindly. Her friends were stalwart. Her record company boss did his damnedest for her. Others shouldn’t be sleeping too well.

But we have to get past that and simply celebrate a blazing talent, in no way a one-note samba.

The actual One-Note Samba by Tom Jobim perfectly demonstrates how the ear can be fooled into thinking it’s hearing a melody, when what’s really happening is that the underlying harmonies are changing under a single repeated note. It’s technical, but it’s fun.

Soccer Mom Hendrix or Jessie J? I know who my money’s on.

I was thinking about what it is to be an artist, as opposed to a common or garden performer.

Kate Bush is an artist. Bob Dylan is an artist. The Beatles were artists, but Paul McCartney probably isn’t. Jessie J certainly isn’t.

People get cross when I make these distinctions. “You’re being elitist.” That sort of thing.

Well, yes. And in reply, I’ll say, “Tonight, make yourself some beans on toast.

“And then tomorrow go to Murano, and have dinner prepared by Angela Hartnett.”

It’s a safe bet to say that any chef worth a Michelin star and a handful of AA rosettes is an artist. You and your baked beans, not so much.

This all came to the fore when I asked the pop star who lives in my house what was happening with Jessie J. Turns out she’s having a career break. Having a career break? What does that mean when you’re a songwriter?

I found this fabulous headline:

“Jessie J shows off her toned bikini body in a zebra-print two-piece as the hits the beach during idyllic getaway in Portugal.”

Substitute the name Kate Bush for Jessie J.

Just wouldn’t happen, would it?

I’m not picking on Jessie J in particular. In fact, I’m not picking on her at all. But what a treadmill it is being a pop star these days. And how soul-destroying it feels to listen to what passes for a song at the moment.

The pop star was listening to something on her phone. It was just sitting on the kitchen table (no headphones) and its tinny little speaker was mincing up an already bleak track that appeared to consist of one chord, nothing that could be called a melody, and a bunch of words that would never qualify as lyrics. Straight after came another song in the same key, with a similar riff. I seriously thought it was an extended fade of the first one.

And for some reason, my mind wandered off on my last trip to America, where, after maybe 1,000 miles of driving I ended up in Portland, Oregon.

At the time, Portland was taking over from Seattle as the indie music capital of the world. For about ten dollars, almost every night of the week, you could go and see two or three bands. And, honestly, they’d all be bloody marvellous.

I saw Cloud Cult, a sort of precursor of Arcade Fire. Lots of people on stage, all sorts of instruments, and an artist creating paintings as the others played. You could buy a painting at the end of the gig.

I saw Pseudosix, whose dreamy indie pop sent me straight to the CD table before they’d even finished their set. Seven years later I still love it, and they don’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

There was the frankly bonkers 31 Knots, fronted by Joe Haege, a frequently scary guy who can nevertheless play the varnish off a guitar neck. I felt sure he would come over to London and get something going.

Most of all, though, there was Anita Robinson.

Anita and her husband Kevin toured and recorded as Viva Voce. Viva Voce had some success, and toured Europe a few times. They made a handful of albums before they divorced and sadly split the band.

But the hook for me was Anita. She looked like a soccer mom, all neat and tidy, sensible dress, maybe from WalMart. But oh my God – when she started to play guitar it was like she was channelling Jimi Hendrix.

And there were no histrionics. She wasn’t showing off. She wasn’t playing as if every note had to be ripped from her very soul. She is just … a musician. It was one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen. This ordinary looking woman with her sensible hair and sensible clothes (she may even have had a string of pearls) just absolutely tore the joint up.

And I suppose that’s why my mind suddenly drifted back to Oregon. It was probably the last time I saw great, interesting new music live.

Not that I’ve seen nothing good since. I’ve seen Black Rebel Motorcycle Club for goodness sake. And Blur. And Kokomo.

But everyone I’ve seen has been a known factor, a guaranteed good time. Portland, Oregon, 2007 was the last time I saw seven or eight unknown bands, all of whom rocked my world to some extent. I came back with four cds, which I still treasure.

But most of all, Anita Robinson: where are you now? I guess the world just wasn’t ready for Soccer Mom Hendrix. But at least I had the pleasure.

This first YouTube clip will show you what I mean. You may not watch it all, but you’ll get the picture.

Then have a look at the second video, which is a neat rip-off of John & Yoko’s Bed-In. There’s a blistering guitar solo about two minutes in. Soccer Mom rules.

A legend is gone; the gentleman editor bows out


Do you remember it?

Revolution in the air. Something In The Air. John and Yoko naked. The Beatles in their pomp, unassailable Kings Of The World. Nixon in the White House. Muhammad Ali out of the ring and in the US courts. Monty Python’s Crunchy Frog and Dead Parrott.

That’s what you call a year, that is.

And at the heart of it, in London, in Carnaby Street, one man – imperturbable, immaculate, a gentleman to his fingertips – held court to pop stars and PRs in the alcohol dens of Soho.

Peter Jones was only the second person I knew to earn more than £100 a week. The first was Derek Taylor, PR to the Beatles. But Peter was fast on Derek’s heels.

Derek managed it by being a supremely talented part of a money-making machine.

Peter Jones managed it by writing, writing and more writing.

When I first met him he was Editor of Record Mirror, one of the four pillars of pop music journalism. There was New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Disc and Record Mirror – not necessarily, and certainly not always, in that order.

Peter would get into the office at some ungodly hour – certainly at or before 8 am. Believe me, in the music industry, that was ridiculous. Before the rest of us turned up and boiled the kettle, Peter had done the equivalent of one of our day’s work.

On the other hand, he would leave the office between 11.30 and noon, and be at his favourite spot at the bar of one of the pubs behind Carnaby Street. There he would be joined by the likes of Alan Clarke and Tony Hicks of the Hollies and other pop royalty, and a succession of supplicants seeking coverage for their clients.

But more important for his heritage, was the family of writers and contributors he built up at Record Mirror. Norman Jopling, whose recently published Shake It Up Baby contains some great Peter Jones stories, quickly spotted – as the newly employed office boy – that Peter Jones was a ‘proper’ journalist, unlike some of his colleagues.

But ‘proper’ was not as important to Peter as knowledge and enthusiasm. He encouraged those with particular tastes: Norman and his obsession with r’n’b; Charlie Gillett (within two years of his journalistic debut in RM, Charlie’s seminal Sound Of The City was published in 1970); James Hamilton, a dj who knew what was filling dance floors; Lon Goddard, an ex-pat American who became the go-to guy for your singer-songwriter updates and much more besides; and Rodney Collins, a radio obsessive whom Peter encouraged, and who built a career in the radio industry from that initial push.

My own experience with Peter was less glorious. When Billboard bought Record Mirror in 1969, I was seconded to RM to help with production, which meant sub-editing the copy and laying out the pages.

The reasoning was sound. As the youngest Music Week employee, I was also the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the current music scene. Unfortunately, having been trained in the disciplines of a business magazine, I was utterly unfit for purpose at a consumer weekly.

Peter was incredibly patient. The worst criticism I heard from him was, “I do find it troubling that no-one here seems to be able to picture a page that might look good to the reader”.

‘No-one’ was me. My secondment lasted a year – which demonstrated inordinate tolerance on Peter’s part.

But there was one incident that slightly altered the balance sheet in my favour. The illustrator Alan Aldridge was causing a stir with his absolutely brilliant psychedelic art. It seemed like a coup to commission him to create the cover for a Record Mirror relaunch.

It arrived late, the day before the magazine was due at the printer. I can’t remember if it was Elvis or Jimi (Lon Goddard will certainly remember).

But it was a rock god, with a guitar and, no question, it was amazing.

Unfortunately, on not-too-close examination, the head of the guitar – the bit where the tuning keys are – revealed itself as the head of an erect penis. The left hand of the guitarist appeared to be masturbating the neck.

It was a fantastic analogy. But even in the revolutionary air of 1969, the senior management at Billboard UK had a panic meltdown. It could not be used.

Lon Goddard and I stayed behind that night, Lon creating a new, non-pornographic artwork, me watching as it took shape, and creating a front page around it. The only cover line I remember writing was ‘Plastic “Oh No! Banned”‘. It wasn’t the classic cover it might have been with the Aldridge drawing, but it saved the day.

I went on my first transatlantic flight with Peter Jones, to Montreal in 1972. I was 23 and very excited. Peter’s sang froid and alcohol intake was breathtaking. He bought me my first drink in a Montreal bar – all dark wood, and low lighting, just like in the films.

We travelled by train from Montreal to Toronto. Such a baby was I, I went to Niagara Falls just so I could look at America across the water. Peter just went to another bar.

Forty years after these events, Record Mirror had a reunion in 2009. I was fortunate to be included. I wasn’t really one of ‘the family’.

But Rex Gomes – the sweetest of men – was coming over from Australia and contacted me. Before we knew it, a full blown get together was taking shape and Lon Goddard planned a trip to London, staying at mine. Photographer Allan Messer, once Dezo Hoffman’s assistant, flew over from Nashville.

Val Mabbs was there, she of the definitive 60s look and innumerable pop star interviews. She kept guard over Peter’s office and became a presence to be reckoned with. And Derek Boltwood, an urbane and witty man who singlehandedly reminded me of the civilised qualities that so enraptured me – an exile from the English Midlands – in my earliest days in London.

Charlie Gillett was there. He never mentioned he was sick, and it was the last time anyone of us saw him.

Most of us gathered again seven months later for Peter’s 80th birthday. That was a more crowded event, including the legendary Clem Cattini, drummer on Telstar, the first US number one by a British group, and Barry Cryer, best man at Peter’s wedding, and lifelong friend.

As you might imagine for a journalist who cut his teeth on 1950s showbusiness, there was barely great star that Peter hadn’t seen.

One day I was burbling away about all my own favourites. “Do you know who was the greatest performer I ever saw live?” he asked me. I thought he was going to say The Beatles; maybe, at a push, Tom Jones, or maybe Judy Garland.

“Billy Fury,” he said, and described in vivid detail the almost supernatural power Billy had over the females in his audience. So here’s a reminder of an underrated star (also, very possibly, Britain’s first pop singer-songwriter).

Thanks, Peter. Enjoy Paradise. You deserve it.

Michael Jackson: a magpie, not a genius.

I’m sitting in my regular coffee bar, reading the latest John Grisham. It’s about massively important issues – strip mining, public health and workers’ welfare.

But that doesn’t stop my brain becoming alert to the music playing in the background.

I can tell it’s Michael Jackson. But it’s also Horse With No Name – the America song that sounds like Neil Young, but Neil Young with glossy makeup and a permanent wave.

I never rated Michael Jackson except as a singer and performer. Ooh, I can hear the multiple intake of breath from here!

But let me ask you, seriously – without Motown’s Corporation (a quartet of writers formed by Berry Gordy to write Jackson 5 material), the Holland brothers, Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton where would Michael Jackson’s reputation be?

And that’s not to mention Don Black and Walter Scharf who wrote the wonderful Ben, which gave MJ his first solo number one.

It was album five of his solo career before MJ even got one of his own  songs on one of his own albums.

Off The Wall opens with Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. I’d hesitate to call it a song. It uses fives notes, in two repeated patterns, over two chords. That’s not a song; it’s a riff.

What Don’t Stop is, though, is a great track. And that’s down to Ben Wright’s thrilling strings and Quincy Jones’s arrangement and production. All those wonderful string and guitar riffs that stick in your head, the driving rhythm and the superb scoring for strings and brass.

Now before you get too far on your high horse and start sticking pins in my effigy, a little perspective.

Elvis Presley was 21 when he recorded Heartbreak Hotel, the same age Jackson was when he made Off The Wall. And, in a world where singers sang and producers produced, Elvis produced Heartbreak Hotel, as he did most of his records from there on. And he did it with musical giants such as Floyd Cramer and Chet Atkins in the room.

If you want to use phrases like ‘revolutionary’ and ‘ground-breaking’ (as have been used about MJ), let’s be sure we give them full meaning. What Elvis did with Hotel, and Blue Suede Shoes, and Teddy Bear, and Don’t Be Cruel, and Paralyzed – that was revolutionary. With only a couple of years studio experience under his belt, Elvis Presley turned the system and popular music on its head.

Mind you, I’ll grant you that Elvis never wrote a song that was worth a damn. So let’s look at another 21 year old and what he’d achieved by the age of consent.

Paul McCartney was born in 1942. Before his 22nd birthday he had recorded three albums with the Beatles, all but 13 of the songs written by him and John Lennon. They’d topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and – like Elvis before them – turned the music world upside down.

And every one of those chart toppers, and their B-sides, were written by McCartney and Lennon. In the next six years they wound up the gold standard to heights that have never been equalled, experimenting, pushing boundaries, testing their own abilities, testing their own sanity, and pushing everyone around them to previously unimagined heights of creativity and achievement.

Now – Michael Jackson.

Well, he’d been performing since he was six years old. He was an absurdly talented entertainer and right from the off – when he sang lead on I Want You Back at the age of 12 – you were clearly listening to a natural born singer.

He had his first solo release at the age of 13 and continued to make albums with his brothers.

But it’s eight years, five solo albums and 10 group albums before he gets to record one of his own songs.

You have to ask yourself: was MJ totally unambitious; or was he just a really slow learner?

Or was it the case, as I believe, that he just didn’t write terribly good songs?

Let’s not forget that his Motown stablemate, Stevie Wonder, was 15 when he cowrote his second international chart record, Uptight. He also co-wrote I Was Made To Love Her at the age of 17. Age 21, he wrote the entirety of his Where I’m Coming From album with Syreeta Wright. We know that Stevie had to fight all the way for artistic control with Motown. But he did fight, and he did win.

Go and listen to Never Dreamed You’d Leave In Summer. Did Michael Jackson ever in his life write such a gorgeous, technically accomplished song?

And he also never managed a ‘classic period’ such as Wonder’s, which started with Music Of My Mind (every song by Wonder, one co-write with Syreeta), continued with Talking Book and ended, arguably, seven years and six albums later with The Secret Life Of Plants. During this period, Wonder wrote, arranged and produced everything – with some help, but still …

Can anyone argue that Michael Jackson really ever did anything to match that? While you rage and fulminate, let’s talk about his dancing.

Fact: Michael Jackson was a great dancer. Really? If so, then what were Bill Robinson, Pearl Primus, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly? There aren’t the superlatives to cover the distance between MJ and their talent.

And, back to Elvis, who personally choreographed the iconic Jailhouse Rock sequence in the film of the same name. Look at that sequence again and tell me it wasn’t the prototype for every classic pop and rock posture.

MJ had about six moves, none of which he invented. Even ‘the moonwalk’ wasn’t his. Watch this clip if you don’t believe me. There’s Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Cab Calloway, Bill Bailey and a bunch of others, some of whom you will recognise.

Maybe you’ve never seen some of these entertainers; but that doesn’t mean MJ hadn’t. He knew the move existed. He asked dancer Jeffrey Daniels to teach him how to do it.

So my point is, Michael Jackson was a great entertainer. But he was also vastly overrated as a musical artist, as a songwriter and as a dancer. He had a lot of help, and even by the time of Thriller he wasn’t able to fill an album with his own songs. Four songs out of the nine are by MJ. Thriller itself was written by Rod Temperton.

Thriller was released three years after Off The Wall; Bad came nearly five years after Thriller. That’s three albums in eight years. Stevie Wonder managed six classic albums in seven years, all self-written and co-produced.

Which brings me back to my coffee shop and this song that’s nagging in my head. Turns out it’s called A Place With No Name.

Horse With No Name/Place With No Name. I swear it’s even in the same key. By the stuff you leave on the shelf shall you be judged. It is beyond unoriginal, shamelessly filched and completely beneath a supposedly great artist.

And I find another song on the same album called Slave To The Rhythm. But it’s not the Grace Jones song. (I’m gonna write a song called Heartbreak Hotel – why not?!)

He was a magpie, Michael Jackson. He collected other people’s dance moves; other peoples riffs and song titles; he feathered his nest with great songwriters; and with Quincy Jones and, frequently, Rod Temperton. And only when this team had fed, raised and trained a new song was it allowed to leave the nest. At which point, MJ got all the credit.

So let’s celebrate a great entertainer and performer. But let’s cut down a little on the ‘genius’ side of things. And just to illustrate my point about how little of a ‘song’ there is in Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, have a look at this.


Watching Kanye at Glasto, so you don’t have to

It’s official. Kanye West is a nob.

Not that I’m saying he’s without talent. Though for the life of me I can’t see what it is. Without autotune, his singing is close to dire.

The first time he spoke to his Glastonbury audience – about half an hour in – it was …. autotuned! As quickly as it was turned off, it was still a massive giveaway.

Anyway, here’s a question for you: has there ever been a less charismatic Pyramid stage headline performer than Kanye West?

This is a man who clearly believes he oozes charisma. He so doesn’t.

What he does ooze is the attitude of a spoilt eight-year-old brat who believes you should be paying more attention.

And after God knows how many ‘muthafuckas’ and ‘niggas’ I found myself asking: is this what Martin Luther King died for?

That question first popped into my head about 15 years ago when I came across a hip hop channel on cable TV. Naked women, greased up and shining, gyrated while gangsta types threw money at them; or groped them; or in some other way degraded them.

The message seemed to be: we’ve got money, we can buy all the women we want, and you can’t.

And in that same vein, one of Kanye’s songs makes a reference to ‘Audemars losing time’. I had to Google ‘Audemars’. They are a line of watches retailing for as much as $800,000.

Now you might be very familiar with spending twice what your house cost on a watch. Me – not so much.

None of which would matter if the man was an electrifying performer who could silence his critics with the roar of the crowd. But here you have a problem.

Even Elvis Presley would have struggled, alone on a stage. And Elvis had stagecraft and charisma by the truckload. And, of course, he could sing.

Kanye’s stagecraft is virtually non-existent. He seems to feel it’s enough to simply stand on stage, doing nothing, while long intros play out.

There may have been musicians with him at Glastonbury, but you couldn’t see them. The suspicion was that what was happening behind him was backing tracks.

This suspicion wasn’t helped when a self-styled ‘comedian’ invaded the stage during Black Skinhead. So discombobulated was Kanye that he had to start again.

It wasn’t quite as joyous as the moment Jarvis Cocker pricked Michael Jackson’s pomposity during the 1996 Brits. But in a few precious seconds, Kanye was revealed to be a man without humour, and in need of security to deal with a man half his size.

Kanye’s invader, Lee Nelson, is also a nob. But he is an alter ego, and a nob is what his creator Simon Brodkin means him to be.

Kanye – well, what’s his excuse? Watching him on telly (albeit on a 46″ screen with the sound turned up) it seemed to me that the audience was less than overawed.

This impression was confirmed by Neil McCormick in The Daily Telegraph who reported that “down front, hard core fans were lapping up his confrontational delivery; but from about the middle of the crowd and up the rest of the hillside, there were just gaps.”

And I love this observation: “Perhaps (they were) uncomfortable with the expectation that a majority white audience would chant “all day niggaz” on cue.

Mind you, there were many wonderful musical moments during the set. Unfortunately they were all samples.

There was what sounded like Gary Glitter’s drums on Black Skinhead; there was Foreigner’s Cold As Ice; Curtis Mayfield’s Move On Up; and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody which was a sort of karaoke singalong that showed up Kanye’s ‘singing’ for what it isn’t.

But if you really want to get a measure of Kanye West, study Blood On The Leaves. It opens with a sample of Nina Simone’s singing Strange Fruit, except you wouldn’t believe it was Nina Simone because it’s been transposed to a key and register she never sang in. In itself, that’s disrespectful.

But then, oh my, let’s not forget that the ‘strange fruit’ of the song are lynched black men, hanging from trees. The song is a gut-wrenching crie de coeur for the plight of black Americans, written as a protest song by Abe Meeropol in 1937.

So what does Kanye do with this profound and legendary piece? Here’s a sample of his ‘lyrics’:

So I’m a need a little more time now
Cause I ain’t got the money on me right now
And I thought you could wait
Yeah, I thought you could wait
These bitches surroundin’ me
All want somethin’ out me
Then they talk about me
Would be lost without me
We could’ve been somebody
Thought you’d be different ’bout it
Now I know you naughty
So let’s get on with it

You wait and wait for this to reveal itself as something more meaningful. But you wait in vain. The last verse starts:

To all my second string bitches, trying to get a baby
Trying to get a baby, now you talkin’ crazy
I don’t give a damn if you used to talk to Jay-Z
He ain’t with you, he with Beyonce, you need to stop actin’ lazy

You can try all you want to satirise Kanye West. Or you can try to defend him and find the heart at the heart of his work.

But in the end, he is beyond satire, and he is beyond defending. Oh, I get the heavy beats and the singalong hooks and all that.

But a man so without irony that he can sample one of the greatest songs ever written, a political songs whose message cries down the decades, and bounce off it with this:

All that cocaine on the table you can’t snort that
That going to that owing money that the court got
On and on that alimony, uh, yeah-yeah, she got you homie
‘Til death but do your part, unholy matrimony

That is not a man I want to have another conversation about. For me, the jury’s back, and the verdict’s in.

As for ‘the greatest rock star on the planet’, as he describes himself … Give me a muthafuckin’ break.


The drug dealer and the crossbow. And the great Wrigley’s heist.

You do some stupid things when you’re young.

Unfortunately, I have no such excuse.

I was probably 30 when the following story happened. It has only a tangential connection to music, in that you do all sorts to feed your creativity – including trying out various illegal substances. I had a short acquaintance with speed, which I found to be a lot of fun, until I realised I wasn’t sleeping for days on end, was talking at about 100 miles an hour, and grinding my teeth to the point of migraine.

Still, any experience in life that produces a good story is worth having (as long as it doesn’t ruin your life). So here goes, with a story I need to tell you up front is absolutely true. Nothing here is made up, or exaggerated.


I’m in my second day of an amphetamine binge and not yet ready to stop. But the supply has run out. So my friend Pat takes me to her dealer’s house, which is in the bowels of Plumstead, South London.

The guy’s front room is like a sweet shop. Literally. All around the room are confectioner’s sweet jars on shelves, full of black pills, blue pills, red pills, yellow pills, all the colours of the rainbow.

The man himself is seated in a Captain’s chair, in the middle of the room, talking very fast. As he talks, he’s spinning around in the chair – talking to us, talking to the wall, talking to us again, now the wall again.

Which is pretty disturbing in itself. But what makes it really scary is that he’s brandishing a crossbow. And it’s loaded. We know it’s loaded, because he’s shown us how it’s done, by doing it. Loaded, ready for action.

“So what’s with the crossbow?” asks Pat, keen to distract him from the mechanics of the trigger. He taps his nose. “A job,” he confides. The ‘job’ requires a weapon, and he’s always fancied owning a crossbow. So the crossbow is his fee for ‘the job’.

Then his head comes up, like he’s emerging from a reverie. “Want some shoes?” he asks, apropos of apparently nothing.

I’m still speeding, but I’m coming down. The combination and the situation is really messing with my head. I don’t know what’s going on. Shoes? What’s that about? I’m still glued to the crossbow – back and forth, up and down.

“Upstairs. Front bedroom,” he says.

I’m losing the plot, but Pat leads me up the stairs, and there in the front bedroom is a mountain of shoes. No bed, of course.

“Back of a lorry,” says Pat. They’re not even in pairs. And they’re all children’s sizes. So she starts hunting for shoes for her two nephews, first finding the style they’ll want, in the size they need. And then searching for the matching shoe. It’s not a short process.

There’s a knock at the front door. No concern of ours. But then there’s a commotion downstairs and the house is plunged into darkness.

Suddenly, it is our concern.

I look over the banister. Our dealer is creeping down the unlit hallway towards the door, crossbow still in hand. “Who’s there?” he rasps, whispering and shouting at the same time.

“It’s me,” comes the answer.

“Who the fuck’s ‘me’?” In the circumstances, it seems a reasonable question.

“Me, you stupid fuck. Open the door, quick.”

Caution to the wind, the dealer opens the door, and a guy rushes in with a pile of boxes, followed by two more guys with more boxes. Back out they go, back in they come with more boxes.

“Just turned over a delivery van,” says one of them. The lights go back on. Now we can see clearly. These desperadoes have turned over a delivery van full of – Wrigleys chewing gum. Boxes and boxes of it. Even in my muddled state, I know this is not the best-planned heist in history.

The dealer is incandescent. Now he has a house full of drugs and children’s footwear. And chewing gum.

Pat’s given up on finding matching shoes. All shoes in the mountain of leather appear to be for left feet. So we go back down, me hoping for a fast getaway, but Pat still remembering we haven’t got what we came for.

The dealer is really agitated. His movements, and his control of the crossbow, are looking even more erratic. He’s shouting at the Great Train Robbers, and they’re shouting back. Something about how it was supposed to be cigarettes. How were they supposed to know it was chewing gum?

I’m standing partially shielded by the door frame, eyes fixed on the crossbow. But Pat marches through, takes one of the sweet jars off its shelf and pours pills straight into her jacket pocket. In the middle of the room, she hands the dealer fifteen quid. He doesn’t question it. “Yeah. Cool.” And then carries on berating the Great Train Robbers. We leave, supply renewed, limbs intact.

Three weeks later a news story in the local paper catches my eye. A car abandoned near Crystal Palace has caught the attention of the police. Having attracted a small blizzard of parking fines, it’s eventually been clamped and finally booked to be removed.

But the removal guy smells something funny. So the police attend. They agree with him. That’s not a normal stale kind of smell. It’s something more pungent and unpleasant.

They force open the boot. Inside they find the body of a man, clearly dead for some time.

And there’s a crossbow bolt between his eyes.

Brian Presley here. My brother’s famous.

Did I not tell you about The Brians? Really? Well, let’s put that right, right now.

Mind you, I’m not making any promises. You probably had to be there. But it ranks as one of the maddest and funniest experiences I ever had making music.

It started with a phone call. My friend John Williams needed help. “Help!” he said. He was in Matrix Studios, where Driver 67 had recorded all of his hit. Oh, and his album.

“Working on a track here,” said John. “Struggling a bit. Could you and Pete pop by and lend a hand?” So I called Pete Zorn, and off we went.

John explained he had two problems. Actually he had three, but we didn’t find out about the third one till much later on. (And the third problem had problems of its own).

Problem one: the track had to be delivered to the record company, mastered and ready, at 9am the following morning.

Problem two: he just couldn’t seem to pull all the disparate parts together to make a coherent record.

So we had a listen. Well, Pete and I, we laughed like drains. This was a seriously funny concept, and mostly brilliantly executed.

The Brians are made up of the unknown brothers of big and famous stars. There’s Brian Brando, Brian Travolta, Brian Presley and Brian Costello. You’ve never heard of them, naturally.

The song, written by John Williams and his flatmate Anthony Pryce, was a series of rants about how ungrateful the famous brothers were. “My brother Frank, he did it his way. But none of the cash came my way!”

The vocals had been done by the engineer, Simon Heyworth – he of Tubular Bells and Car 67 (and the guide to the Driver’s Last Guided Tour. Versatile chap, young Simon).

It didn’t seem such a big deal. Mix the track, have some dinner, go home. We’d done it 1,000 times. But, when we started listening, really listening, and pulling up different instruments, the problems began to manifest themselves.

To cut a long story short (because there’s a much better one to follow) we eventually focused on the guitar as the problem. So we got the guitarist back in and re-recorded his parts. Since he was imitating all sorts of iconic players (Hendrix, Harrison, Clapton, Richards) it required a tour de force. But he was more than up to the task and we got what we needed.

Hours later, Pete and I thought we had it pretty much fixed and the stress levels were descending. John Williams even took a nap on the studio sofa. At 3am, we shook him awake to have a listen.

“That’s great,” he said. “Now, what about the B-side?”

Which was problem number three. Well, three, four and five. First of all, there was no B-side. There wasn’t even a song to go on the B-side.

But – and here’s where you kinda had to be there – the song that hadn’t been written or recorded did have a title.

And the title had already been printed on the labels.

And the master for the B-side also had to be delivered at 9am, with the A-side.

So, five hours to write, record, mix and master. No dinner. No sleep. Definitely no going home.

And so it was, at 3.30 in the morning, that Pete Zorn started scouring Matrix Studios for any spare instruments, while I sat at the piano trying to write a song – a song whose title had to be “Brian’s Sister’s Sue“, because ….. that was the title already printed on the label!

Now I don’t want to make a fuss, or claim that songwriting is a mystical art that requires some form of alchemy. But, honestly, the last place to start is with a title. And what kind of title is “Brian’s Sister’s Sue“? It’s a bit too precise in its punctuation to leave much room for poetic licence.

This was my first verse:

“My sister’s name is Sue, and I’ll tell you what I’d do, if I was you, I’d stay away from Sue. She’s a mean kind of mother. She’ll make a mess out of you”.

By the time I came up with that gem, Pete had found a rusty old Fender in a cupboard under the stairs. The strings were about fit for building a chicken coop. He also found a bass drum and a cymbal.

As he set it all up, he listened to my first verse and delivered one of his own:

“She drinks her own bathwater through a dirty straw and as sure as my name is Brian, I swear she ought to be against the law.”

Honestly, I don’t know how we did it for laughing. The very long day had definitely been chemically enhanced and by 6am it was all getting a little hysterical. Simon Heyworth, true pro that he was, foreswore anything but coffee, and kept the show on the road.

Of course, he had to learn the song, and sing it. Vocalist on the A-side; vocalist on the B-side – no getting away from it. He delivers it perfectly seriously and with some fabulous little emphases that rescue some dire lyrics.

But the funniest thing on the track, for my money, is Pete Zorn’s guitar solo. It is beyond wild and crazy. It’s the kind of thing Captain Beefheart would have given his right hand for; but Pete just did it. I can’t help it. Every time I hear it, I burst out laughing at the sheer balls of it. It’s so bad it’s brilliant.

And there we were, 9am the following morning, frazzled and hysterical (well, I was anyway) and in walks this perfectly coiffed and tailored woman, just to remind us that most people had had a night’s sleep, and were at the beginning of a new day.

She was Carol Wilson, the boss of the label this masterpiece was to be released on. We handed her the tapes, and we shot the breeze. I got the impression she was a bit surprised that it was all done and dusted, but she didn’t actually say so. She was perfectly lovely, and perfectly professional. Our paths crossed twice again, years later, nothing to do with music. She’s a big shot in the world of Professional Coaching now.

We ended up on TV, y’know, The Brians. We don’t have the clip (it’s not on YouTube). But I have ITV searching for it as we speak. My friends in the FB group Popscene tracked it down. (Thank you, guys). It’s catalogued, and it’s officially available. If I get my hands on it, you’ll be the first to know!

There’s a last little irony to this story. John Peel, in his eternal search for the bizarre and ridiculous, played the Brians. But he didn’t play the A-side. Well, he wouldn’t, would he? He was John Peel.

But I can say that the maddest song I ever wrote, accompanied by my most hackneyed piano playing, is the only track I’ve ever been associated with that was played on the John Peel Show.

Brian’s sister Sue achieved at least that much immortality.





‘Serial starter’ or ‘completer finisher’? Well, yes and no…

Early in 2014 I took on a commission to write a book about the music industry in the 21st century.

I’ve never written a book. Oh, I’ve tried! But as Rachel (mother of the pop star who lives in my house) never tires of telling me, I’m not a completer-finisher.

‘Completer-finisher’ was a term I’d never heard till we got together, and frankly, I wish I never had. Labels, once attached, have a tendency to be self-fulfilling.

When I was a kid, constantly injuring myself (including breaking both my wrists in two separate accidents) my mother told me I was ‘accident prone’. To an eight-year-old that sounded like ‘a thing’. I thought I was doomed to a life of breakages, bruises and bandaging.

This belief was compounded age 11 when I lost the sight in my left eye, playing with swords backstage at the school production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Princess Ida. (This was back in the Irony Age, before Health & Safety was invented).

In due course, I found a cure for ‘accident prone’ syndrome. It wasn’t hard. I just learnt to take care, watch where I was going, and understand my physical limitations.

‘Complete-finisher’ though – that’s harder.

I am a serial ‘starter’. Which is why, currently, there are five musical projects sitting on my hard drive in various states of undress.

Some are fully clothed, ready to hit the town. Others are virtually naked. Others still look slightly foolish in socks and underpants, unable to decide on smart-casual, or the fully suited and booted look.

When I say ‘project’, I mean album. So, five albums – that’s 60 tracks or more. Ask me why I don’t finish one track before starting another. Go on. I dare you.

I imagine most songwriters think, as I do, that the song they are currently writing is among the best they’ve ever written. Which is fine if you’re in a band, or have a record deal and can get in a studio with a producer and other musicians. You can go in the studio tomorrow and fully realise your song in two or three hours.

But if you’re me, you have to write them, record them, add all the instruments yourself, produce it, arrange it, engineer it and mix it. After a while the process gets in the way. Another song comes along, fresh as a daisy, so you hop on for the ride.

And that, my friends, is how you end up with 60-odd songs at various stages of development. Don’t give me ‘completer-finisher’.

And in any case, I finished the book. Yes I did. It’s now with the designer and in a week or so I’ll be reading the finished proofs from beginning to end, and then it will be let loose on unsuspecting teenagers with £6.99 to spare and a smartphone or tablet on which to download it.

My ‘book’ (which will be an App) might end up being the Brief History Of Time for wannabe music stars. We all bought Brief History, didn’t we? Nine million of us. But did we read it? No, we did not. Well, a few did, and came out none the wiser.

At least The Music Business is easy to read. Its ‘big bang’ (the invention of the phonograph) is not quite as complex as the beginning of the universe. And there are no black holes to explain (well, except, where did the artists’ money go?).

But would I care if even one million people buy it and no-one reads it?

There’s a lot of crap spouted about the music industry. And if you have the energy to go and check the ‘facts’ as reported by the media, you’ll find the internet an absolute cauldron of spite, inaccuracy, debt-settling and bungle-headed opinions.

I’ve spent 16 months reading and discarding this rubbish on your behalf. I’ve distilled 200 years of history and millions of internet words of advice into a book of somewhere between 80-100,000 words. (Yes, I lost count. So shoot me.)

I talked to people in the industry, some of whom were incredibly nice, and incredibly helpful. Others were mealy-mouthed and miserable. But all their wisdom, separated from their dross, is in there.

I suffered all this for you – well, you and the other 990,000 people I hope will buy it. So, funnily enough, yes – I do care if no-one reads it. I feel a bit like comedian Flip Wilson, who would finish his act by explaining to the audience why he’d like some applause; “a big hand”.

As he put it: “Damn right, I want a big hand. Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr want a big hand, and $10,000 a night too. All I want is a little old jive big hand.”

And while we wait for that big hand, life slowly returns to what passes for ‘normal’ in my world. Hopefully, for instance, this blog may pick up pace again. And if I can stifle my natural instincts, perhaps I’ll work on one song at a time, till I’ve finished each project.

But am I going to become the consummate ‘completer-finisher’? Hmm. Sorry, Rachel. I seriously doubt it.


John and Paul, a new record, 40 years on!

Sorry … what?

Oh don’t be ridiculous. Of course it’s not.

No, it’s me and John Howard.

John wrote a fabulous song called The Time Of Day, which I’ve now recorded, with John adding backing vocals and harmonies. How Fabs is that?

This is what happened.

Five years ago I was in the throes of depression – divorced, but stuck with my ex-wife in a house that refused to sell.

I had just celebrated (!) my 60th birthday and it was very clear that once the house sold, I would be all but broke.

Always one to like sharing life, it occurred to me that I may spend the rest of mine alone. Who would be interested in a broke, overweight 60-year-old with no work, and no prospects of any?

And then John Howard sent me his album, As I Was Saying. As I listened, alone in my garrett (well, the top of the house, which I had colonised), this lyric poked through:

“Who in his right mind would give the time of day
To a man, no longer young, the space to stand and say: 
I am young in my heart, I am young in my heart.
Though some days I look much older than I feel.”

Well, you can imagine, can’t you?

I had tentatively started writing and recording again after 30 years, and this just seemed like a gift. There was no question I was going to record it.

First of all, let me say that John Howard is a proper musician. He plays the piano as if it is his orchestra. And he has a particularly expressive and emotive voice. He also happens to be gay.

But for him, Time Of Day had nothing to do with sexuality or even romance. It is “an introspective song to oneself about the process of getting older physically”.

When I heard it, the word ‘his’ immediately transposed to ‘her’ and it became a song about how no-one in their right mind would take me on at this stage of my life.

Which provides an opportunity to demonstrate for you the influence a producer can have on a song.

I’m not saying it’s a good influence, or that I haven’t ruined a perfectly beautiful song. But it is a perfect – as the Americans say – case in point.

John’s own version is a slow, elegiac lament, accompanied by a wonderfully controlled piano arrangement. I have no doubt many will prefer it to mine.

There was no point me trying to match John’s style. I don’t play like he does, and I don’t have the voice or the technique to carry off his soulful balladeering.

So I thought, I wonder how this would sound if it was covered by an indie band?

And that’s what I did. Built it up from an indie drumbeat and a non-stop eight-to-the-bar bass, some jangling acoustics and a lead guitar.

But when he heard it, John immediately wanted to put “a big backing vocal wodge of harmonies coming in and out”. Eventually, we got round to that, and it changed my version all over again. We are a pair of Beatle nuts, and his contribution introduced that element.

It took me quite a while to remix and incorporate John’s harmonies. In the end, I had to let go of the ‘indie’ idea, and go with what I was working with. After all, a Driver 67 track, featuring John Howard – irresistible. It’s forty years since we last recorded together. There’s a perfect symmetry to it.

So here it is – my version, then John’s (although you can listen any way round you want). Decide for yourself (it’s not a competition!). I still prefer John’s. It’s a stunning rendition of a beautiful song.

But I’m glad I recorded my version, which I hope to include on a new album to be released later this year.

Well, I didn’t wake up this morning….How the blues gave me the blues

It’s one of my favourite music jokes – the shortest blues ever.

You may not be amused, because you’re not familiar with the genre. So let me completely ruin the joke…

No, no. Not ruin it. I’ll deconstruct it. That sounds more, I dunno, Radio 4.

Many, many blues songs open with the line, “I woke up this morning” or something similar. There follows a litany of miseries the like of which would fell a tree.

But if your first line is, “Well, I didn’t wake up this morning….” there’s nowhere to go.

Which always makes me chuckle.

Unfortunately, and generally speaking, a cul de sac opening line would more often than not be a blessing these days. Because, good Lord!, there’s a lot of shit passing as ‘der blues’ in the 21st century.

I was listening to the Paul Jones Blues show on Radio 2.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Why would you do that, Driver (as my friends call me. More formally I’m addressed as Mr 67). 

But, y’know, it’s Monday night, you’re in the kitchen and in a panic to stifle the Archers you quickly flick the dial and there’s some grown guy going, ‘I love you baby, I really love you baby, you don’t know how much-a I love you baby, and I got the blues’

And I think to myself, What?

This is definitely not what Robert Johnson had in mind when he met the Devil at the crossroads. Robert Johnson sometimes wrote lyrics of heartbreaking beauty; sometimes they were chilly and scary. So this, for instance:

And I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand,
And I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand.
Well, it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell, when all your love’s in vain,

And this:

Me and the Devil
Was walking side by side

And I’m going to beat my woman
‘Til I get satisfied

What he never did was throw off a lyric just to showcase his guitar skills, which were phenomenal.

Unfortunately, that seems to be the model today.

The old blues guys, they knew it needed more than some slick riffs on a pawn-shop Gibson or, more commonly, something from the Sears catalogue costing $10. (Some of those old catalogue guitars are now worth small fortunes by the way).

Lead Belly, for instance, brought a whole bunch of classic songs out of the cotton fields and into the daylight of popular culture. Rock Island Line, Black Betty, Goodnight Irene, Midnight Special, Pick a Bale of Cotton.

If you already love Lead Belly, or want to know more, follow this link .

For Robert Johnson, Lead Belly and all the greats, the song was the thing. Always the song. When white guys began singing the blues – the Stones, Peter Green, Eric Clapton, Jeremy Spencer – they either covered the great songs, or wrote their own great songs.

Sometimes, they were covering the covers. Jeremy Spencer learned his slide guitar from Elmore James. Elmore James learned Dust My Broom from Robert Johnson.

(By the way, Dust My Broom is neither about a broom, nor about dusting.

‘I’m a get up in the morning, I believe I’ll dust my broom….’

Now what do you suppose he means by that?)

My favourite Robert Johnson song is Come On In My Kitchen.

Woman I know
took my best friend
some joker got lucky
stole her back again
he better come on
in my kitchen
it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors
Well she’s gone
I know she won’t come back
I took the last nickel
out of her nation sack
you better come on
in my kitchen
well, it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors

You haven’t got a clue, have you? What is he talking about and what’s a ‘nation sack’ (Google it); who is it that better come on in his kitchen; and why a kitchen?

But it sounds great, and even in your incomprehension, it paints a picture.

It’s a long, long way from ‘I loves ya baby, you done did me wrong, if I don’t wake up tomorrow, you know it’ll be too long‘. I made that up, as I was typing. Took me as long to make it up as it took me to type it. And that seems to be the standard of many of today’s blues lyrics.

Which is a shame, because in the right hands, the blues can still surprise and entertain. Have a listen to this Joe Bonamassa track. The first few seconds is a mini-history of the blues – the African roots, the familiar guitar lick. And then off he goes into a mix of Cream and Led Zep, but with his own maestro touch. Man, he can play.

But those lyrics – they are dark. This is the song of a man who knows he is gonna wake up tomorrow, and suffer all over again.

And from reader M. Sacree of Hove comes this much pithier deconstruction of the blues cliche.