Sexual confusion down the ages

Teenage.

Do you remember it?

I bloody do.

Tongue-tied around any girl I fancied. Always putting my foot in it, always with the best possible intentions.

At 15 I was besotted with a small, mysterious looking girl who I saw only once a week at a youth club. She had a mass of dark, curly hair you could have got lost in.

Finally I plucked up the courage to tell her, “I love your hair”. Oh dear.

Turned out it was the thing about her appearance she most hated. Tomorrow – yes, tomorrow! – she was getting it all cut off. She was offended. I was tongue-tied. We never spoke again.

This kind of excruciating experience is not, I know, unusual among pubescent males. But when you’re at the centre of it, hormones shut down your rational self and confusion reigns.

Mind you, you don’t have to be pubescent to get it wrong. In my 20s I told a girl I loved the soft, downy feel of her face – like a peach. Oh dear, again. She was personally revolted by it, and was about to undergo lengthy and painful electrolysis to rectify what she saw as a physical defect.

These are the sorts of memories that are at the heart of this week’s song, The Date.

At the time it was written, cross-gender dressing (Bowie et al), had taken hold. Boys were wearing makeup, and girls were cutting their hair short. The New Romantics were just emerging.

And the final piece of my narrative puzzle were the occasional outbreaks of male violence: Teddy Boys, mods, rockers, skinheads, punks. Pete Townshend articulated it brilliantly in My Generation, Can’t Explain and many other songs, this sense of alienation and confusion that leads young boys to anger and violence in the face of things they can’t control.

The Date starts with that tingling sense of anticipation we’ve all felt as we get ready to go out on a Friday or Saturday night. You’re fretting about your hair, you’re pulling on your best jeans. Like Terry and Julie in Waterloo Sunset, you’re anticipating the moment you meet underneath the station clock.

But it soon goes wrong. Boy doesn’t even make it to the meeting place. Girl is beyond furious. Violence erupts. Police are called. Tabloids wring their hands. Sound familiar?

Keeping it short this week. I’ll explain why next week.

But as an added treat, a link to Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran. The pop star who lives in my house played this for me in the car the other day and I was captivated, (which is unusual, as she’d readily tell you).

For boomers, the song is an enchanting reminder of the simple emotions of pop and soul long ago – of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and maybe a little Don McLean in the voice.

For Strictly Come Dancing fans, the video will be a charming bonus.

There’s a line in this song, “When the crowds don’t remember my name”. By the time you watch this video, it may have surpassed 80 million views. When the crowds don’t remember your name, Ed? Not in this lifetime.

 

Christmas. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again!

I get grumpy at this time of year.

Before you say “Bah, humbug”, let me tell you a story.

When The Wombles were at their height, Mike Batt came into my office and flopped down on my couch.

He looked exhausted.

“I’m exhausted,” he said.

He was. Exhausted. And he and I were about to get a lesson in the demands of the market over the welfare of the humans.

Mike Batt

Mike Batt

A Womble

A Womble

Mike Batt, lest it be forgot, did almost everything on the Wombles records apart from playing the violins.

He wrote the songs. And that was pressure, right there. Each song was under intense scrutiny from Elisabeth Beresford, who wrote the books. Elisabeth was not about to allow her creations to be involved in anything less than her own moral universe would allow.

Having finished the songs to Elisabeth’s satisfaction (and they weren’t always, and out would go the song), Mike would then write the arrangements.

If you listen to those records now, without your child’s ear, you will marvel at their cleverness. There was no era, no genre, no style, that Mike Batt could not recreate and incorporate.

Mozart? Check. The Beach Boys? Check. Thirties dance band? Check.

Having written these brilliant arrangements he would then produce the recording sessions with big orchestras under intense time pressure.

And then he would do the vocals, including most of the harmony voices. If you want to get a flavour of what that entailed, have a listen to Down At The Barbershop.  The only voice I doubt is Mike’s is the bass.

And when he had done all that, he would don the Womble suit, visit hospitals and schools, pop up around the streets of London for a photo opp, and sweat off pounds on Top Of The Pops.

Exhausted? Barely covers it really.

So, here we are in my office. He’s already gone through this process twice in eight months. Now he’s telling me CBS is going to want a Christmas album. It’s September already.

“Well, let’s go and tell them you can’t do it,” say I.

He smiles, but his eyes tell the story. ‘They’ are not going to want to hear that.

And here’s where we get the lesson. Or, more to the point, I get the lesson. We go up to see Dick Asher, the head honcho sent from New York to make some money.

“I’m exhausted, Dick,” says Mike.

“Dick,” I say. “Mike’s exhausted.”

Dick looks at me. I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking, “I’ll deal with you later.”

Then he turns his charm on Mike. Dick Asher being charming was like that moment when you look at the shark’s smile and think, “Oh, maybe he’s not going to bite my leg off”. And then he bites your leg off.

“We need a Christmas album, Mike. I know you’re tired, and we really appreciate all the work you’ve done. But there’s no way around it. This Christmas has to be a Wombling Christmas.”

And so it transpired that Mike Batt delivered his third Wombles album and seventh single in less than 15 months. And not just any old single, but a Christmas record that was held off the Number One slot only by Mud’s Lonely This Christmas.

The Christmas Number One. What a palaver.

I blame John Lennon. I don’t remember the Christmas record being ‘a thing’ until Happy Xmas (War Is Over). Readers will correct me, I’m sure.

There are obvious songs we associate with Christmas. Mary’s Boy Child by Harry Belafonte was the first in my memory. Little Donkey by Nina & Frederik came  four or five years later. In between there was Little Drummer Boy. The version I preferred was by Michael Flanders of Flanders & Swann fame.

But the specially designed Christmas single didn’t really get going until Lennon showed the way, more or less telling the world, ‘it’s ok to be sentimental – it’s Christmas, for fuck’s sake’. War Is Over didn’t make Number One, but it did open the floodgates. So, thanks for that, John.

Yet I can’t find more than 12 songs that are about Christmas (or religion) that have been Number One since charts began 60-odd years ago. And three of those are Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Which kind of makes my point, really. That Christmas is about money and consumption. And Mike Batt’s exhaustion. And Dick Asher’s crass commercial imperative.

And that’s why I get grumpy at this time of year.

I’ve experienced Christmas in at least eight different ways. As a young child – Irish Catholic – it was a religious celebration. The music was fabulous, the feeling was profound and the sense of community was palpable.

Presents? What presents? That’s not what it was about. There was no sleepless Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa. We were poor, working class and it was about the baby Jesus, not some pagan ritual.

When I was eight, everything changed. My mother (divorced since I was two) remarried. My protestant step-father was lower middle-class, an only child, and Christmas for him was about spoiling everyone. It certainly wasn’t about Jesus (of whom he disapproved) or Church (which he tried to forbid).

This was the version of Christmas I carried forward to my own children. Having long abandoned religion, family and celebration seemed the right focus. The music, of course, was still fabulous (I’m talking about Carols, not Slade – although I might just mention Phil Spector’s Christmas Album).

But as my kids got older, I noticed the piles of presents getting bigger, until one year I couldn’t open the living room door because the boxes had collapsed in the night, blocking the room up.

That is the exact moment my seasonal grumpiness began.

Later, I discovered a different Christmas – divorced, my children with their mother and other family (quite right), I would leave the country and ignore the whole damn thing. Suited me fine.

Then I started another family. Went through the whole process again. Except this time, the excess was there from the start. Presents for my kids from people I didn’t know, friends of their grandmother, people I had never clapped eyes on. Rooms set aside for presents, there were so many of them.

At this point, I started to pine for the simplicity of my Irish roots and the Catholic celebration. Without Jesus, what was the point? The point had become, clearly, money, consumption and competitive buying.

So I resigned. From Christmas. I stay out of preparations and avoid, as much as possible, the preamble. Thank God for Tivo. I never watch a commercial, haven’t even seen the new John Lewis.

Of course, every time I go to buy bread and milk, the shops are saturated with all those yucky songs. So thanks again, John Lennon.

But really, I count it a triumph if I haven’t become too stressed by Christmas Eve, have plans to see my family, and wake up in my own bed on Boxing Day – all over for another year. And that is really, sincerely, how I feel about it.

So, now, altogether – Bah, humbug…..

But not before we remind ourselves that Mike Batt was no one-trick pony. For me, still being capable of a song as romantic and heart-wrenching as this in your mid-50s is an inspiration. As for Katie Melua – I don’t care what you think (unless you love her). If the current crop of pop divas would just once sing a song with this level of control, tone and emotion I might take them a bit more seriously.

 

Insomnia In Song. So Wrong It Keeps Me Awake At Night.

It’s five o’ clock in the morning. Birds are singing. Somewhere far away I can hear church bells ringing.

These are things of beauty to someone else, I know. But in my sleepless brain, they’re just another form of cruelty.

Or, as John Lennon put it: ‘I can’t sleep. I can’t stop my brain. It’s been three weeks. I’m going insane.’ (I’m So Tired).

I don’t expect you to take a sudden interest in insomnia, but it’s interesting that if you Google “songs about insomnia” most people’s choices are songs about sleeping. Ruminating on ignorance like this keeps me awake at night.

The worst thing about insomnia is that it stops you from sleeping. The best thing about insomnia is that it stops you from sleeping.

On the one hand, it can literally be painful. Unchecked, it will lead to serious mental illness.

But on the other hand – all those extra hours in the day to get more things done!

My insomnia started when I was eight years old. I know why it started, and I’m not going to tell you about that.

But I had just learned to read, which was a nice coincidence. Inability to sleep meant I had extra hours to devour books under the bedcovers, illuminated by a night light I can still picture. I can even summon up the way the light felt in my hand, and the little button that clicked it off if I heard the wicked stepfather approaching.

When I went to London aged 17, I took to leaving the house at one in the morning, taking the night bus from Brixton to Waterloo, and walking along the Thames, calmed by its relentless movement.

A year later, I was in the thick of the music industry whose night-owl habits suited me fine. But a year after that, I was married with a child on the way (we didn’t hang around in the 60s, y’know).

Through my 20s and 30s, insomnia was my friend. I would do a day’s work, leaving the house around nine in the morning, getting home anywhere between 8pm to 2am the following morning.

If I got home early, I’d see my kids, have some dinner and then go straight into my ‘studio’ (the front room of my house, furnished with a piano, a tape recorder and a microphone).

When everyone else was tucked up in bed, that’s when I would write my songs and make my demos. God knows what the neighbours made of these strange goings on floating through the window at all hours.

ATT88981

Later, when the music career had gone, a combination of a manic episode and insomnia proved to be seismic. I could do anything I put my mind to – more energy and more time than the next guy.

And then, aged 42, the insomnia left me. Just like that.

I’d go to bed. I’d go to sleep.

That was novel.

In some ways, I felt bereft. How was I going to cope without those extra hours? Eventually, though, it just felt normal to be asleep by one am, or even before, and get six or seven hours.

About ten years later, it came back with a vengeance, all the crueller for having allowed me a taste of ‘normality’. If insomnia and a manic episode could be seismic, insomnia and depression combined to be, well, even more fucking depressing.

Having previously felt like a friend, a co-conspirator in getting things done and achieving dreams, now it felt – still feels – like an enemy.

And you get unwanted – and unwarranted – advice.

“Just get into bed, lie down and shut your eyes. You’ll soon go to sleep”.

No I bloody won’t!!!!!!

Al Pacino portrays it brilliantly as a detective in 2002’s Insomnia, with Robin Williams and Hilary Swank. He’s not helped by being up in Alaska, during a season of perpetual daylight. Watch the scene where he tries to black-out his room. It’s sheer torture.

Tonight, if I don’t take at least half a sleeping pill, I’ll still be awake at six or seven tomorrow morning. It’s a given. Which brings me back to Googling ‘songs about insomnia’.

The Beatles I’m Only Sleeping features a lot. But that’s a song about sleeping and dreaming, and not wanting to be woken from a pleasant experience.

Others that turn up – Asleep by The Smiths, Sweet Dreams (Patsy Cline), California Dreaming (The Mamas & The Papas) – show that insomnia is woefully misunderstood.

In penance, I think the people who chose those songs should all be forced to listen to Insomnia by Megadeth, turned up to 11, until they beg for mercy.

But I’ll let you off lightly by directing you to my own song on the subject, One AM.

It’s more country rock than death metal, and it has no references to ‘the guilty past I’ve buried’ or ‘my swollen bloodshot eyes’  (© Megadeth, 1999).

But if you listen closely, you’ll hear that the first lines of this post are the third verse of the song. And the backing vocals were arranged by the very wonderful John Howard, the first time we’ve worked on something together since 1975.

Sleep well tonight.

Let’s talk about sex, baby. And mental health, while we’re at it.

I recently had a Tweet from a reader asking me to retweet as part of her campaign to bring herself to the notice of Joni Mitchell.

Two weeks later, my reply is still being retweeted and favourited by people I’ve never heard of.

You  never know with the internet, do you? You work your socks off trying to be noticed (blogging, Facebooking, SoundClouding) and then an off the cuff remark grabs all the attention.

This is what I said, in reply  to @SarahGSings, who wants to be noticed by Joni Mitchell:

SarahGTweet

I did, honest! On release in 1976, I reviewed Hejira for a weekly music magazine (long gone). Obviously, I raved about it. I finished up the review with the observation that “it’s better than sex”.

I wasn’t knocking sex. But while you can’t always get what you want in some spheres of life, music is always available to thrill, caress and lift you to heights…..oh, you know what I’m saying.

I was in a funny place in my life in 1976. After nine years of secure employment since leaving school, work was scarce and unreliable.

I was also going through an episode of what was later diagnosed as depression.

I felt, in a word, transient.

And then along comes Joni with a whole album about transience. The word Hejira derives from the Arabic for migration, or exodus.

She had already hit unbelievable heights with Court & Spark. But with Hejira she entered a whole new domain – she became, overnight, one of those rare birds in popular music. You could now regard her as an artist rather than as a mere musician or singer.

In one song, she’s talking to her lover, a ranch owner who is “brushing out the blue mare’s tail, as the sun is ascending, and I’ll just be getting home with my reel to reel” (that’s a pre-digital studio reference for you young’uns).

In Amelia, she addresses the wanderlust of aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. Joni’s “driving across the burning desert“, when she spots “six jet planes, leaving six white vapor trails“. They are “the hexagram of the heavens, the strings of my guitar“.

You need to be unattached, restless, with a lot of time on your hands to notice these things and write them down. But you need to be an artist to come up with that last line.

Lyric after lyric on the album spoke to the deepest depths of my soul.

But my favourite lines, which are never far from my mind, are:

There is comfort in melancholy, when there’s no need to explain.                                                                        It’s just as natural as the weather in this moody sky today“.

I imagine those words resonate with everyone who has suffered from depression. Melancholy is a familiar state of mind, and – naturally – it feeds creativity (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?).

It’s a funny thing, depression (or, in my case, bipolar). Unless you’re at the extremes of the spectrum – being sectioned or even straitjacketed – even friends find it difficult to accept that you’re not well, simply because you have learned to cope and behave in a ‘normal’ way.

I had not begun to talk about my condition, which had been diagnosed 20 years earlier, until nine years ago. Mostly I was met with comments of the “you’re not depressed!” or “pull yourself together!” variety. The breakthrough for me came when Stephen Fry did his two-part documentary for BBC in 2006.

As Fry described his manic phases for the tv cameras – shopping for England, buying again things he already had, moving at 100 miles an hour – friends were calling or texting me saying, “Oh my God, it’s like being with you!”

Being manic was wonderful. Almost everything I’ve achieved in my life of any note (other than my children) has been during a manic phase. I can move mountains. Nothing gets in my way. I say “was wonderful” because I haven’t had a manic episode for nearly 10 years. I really miss them.

But it is odd that people can recognise that aspect of your behaviour, but still struggle to understand that the other end of the spectrum, the depression, is anything more than feeling a bit down.

It’s also quite sad that people you’ve known for years suddenly start treating you like a leper. Not close friends, not people you can sit and talk frankly with. But some quite important bits of my life fell apart when I opened up about being bipolar.

Well, in the immortal words of J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs, ‘Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke’.

I wrote my own song about it, comprised in large part of things I used to tell people to try and help them understand. It’s called Trouble With Me.

I’m going to leave you with that. I don’t think it’s a ‘depressing’ song. It’s really a country blues. In the tradition, the lyrics are personal and explicit about feelings and about the reason for the feelings.

Joni Mitchell is much, much, much better at that than me.

Hallo? Joni? Are you listening…..

Sorry, @SarahGSings – can’t help. Joni’s just not paying attention.

 

 

A vintage month in the departure lounge, and the queues aren’t getting any shorter

Wolverhampton. What a town. What a life.

Bet you never thought you’d read those words. And certainly not in that order.

For all the jokes and brickbats, Wolverhampton was a great place to be growing up in the 50s and early 60s.

Rolling Stone magazine called it ‘a grimy northern city’. It wasn’t ‘grimy’ and it wasn’t northern.

Nor was it a city. It was the biggest town in the UK and it was (is) in the West Midlands. By the time I was born, it was almost 1,000 years old and a fixed and thriving spot on the map.

Rolling Stone, to be fair, was interviewing Slade at the height of their fame. Maybe it played into Noddy Holder’s working class roots to describe his home town so disparagingly. That was in the mid-70s.

I left Wolverhampton in 1966, and that ten-year gap is crucial. It was still a vibrant place, just beginning to feel the effects of immigrant culture and the consequent racism and resentment. We were only 20 months away from Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech.

But I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to talk about a town that had:

A music scene that incorporated skiffle, blues, amazing folk music (The Black Country Three) and a Civic Hall where the world’s greatest orchestras and conductors performed.

One of the greatest football clubs in the history of the game.

The most respected local newspaper in the country, the Express & Star, where a young Boris Johnson cut his journalistic teeth.

And the beginnings of a pop and rock movement that, while it never truly shook the world (we can’t really take credit for Led Zeppelin) has consistently, and to this day, drip-fed major talent into the mainstream.

At that time, we had Steve Brett & The Mavericks, The Montanas, Robert Plant, The Black Diamonds (later The Californians), Giorgio & Marco’s Men and The n’Betweens (later Slade).

There was also a little band called The Concords (later The Manhattans), featuring a 15-year-old lead singer who went on to become a one-hit wonder…..

But you’ve heard that story.

Occasionally, we’d glimpse the likes of The Spencer Davis Group, venturing out of their native Birmingham. Fourteen-year-old Stevie Winwood causing girls to crawl across his piano in a kind of ecstasy. The rest of us 14-year-old boys looked on in awe.

But for the most part, we were happy with what we had. So we didn’t really know that over in Birmingham, The Move, The Moody Blues, The Idle Race, Black Sabbath and The Applejacks were all revving up for an assault on the charts.

The Scousers and the Mancs, though, had got there first.

The Hollies, The Beatles, The Big Three, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Billy Fury, The Dakotas (before Billy J. Kramer), Rory Storm & The Hurricanes, The Searchers, The Swinging Blue Jeans – this first flush of what became the British Invasion takes up page after page of Wikipedia, almost every name replete with memories.

And it all happened in such an amazingly small period of time. No more than three years.

It only took Love Me Do and Please Please me to spark off an incredible outpouring of proletarian creativity.

Reminiscing with my pal Geoff Mullin following the death this month of Johnny Gustavson of The Big Three, Geoff made several references to the interplay between these now legendary Liverpool and Manchester groups. Given the lack of communication between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, this came as a surprise to me.

If not actually close friends (and some were), The Mancs and Scousers were certainly mixing it up in pubs and clubs up and down the newly opened M1.

It was mostly one way traffic, though, in the admiration stakes. Liverpool’s tight, experienced bands had their raucous roots in generally unheard American blues and soul. Manchester had Herman’s Hermits and Freddie & The Dreamers.

Still, legend has it that Graham Nash, then of The Hollies, taught John Lennon the lyrics to Anna, a standout song  on The Beatles’ first album.

From my own limited experience, little of this happened between the Wolverhampton and Birmingham scenes. Maybe that explains why they weren’t as influential.

I got to thinking about all this after a vintage month in the departure lounge. It seems October, not April, is the cruellest month – for the moment at any rate.

We are going to have to get used to this from now on. As even the youngest of our heroes approach their eighth decade, more and more will be booked on the outward flight.

On this month’s one-way trip, only Paul Revere had made it past 75. Some didn’t even reach 70.

Lynsey de Paul, Johnny Gustavson, John Holt, Alvin Stardust, Tim Hauser (of Manhattan Transfer), Raf Ravenscroft and Jack Bruce all achieved lift off in the last four weeks.

Of these, Johnny Gus was the least known, I would guess. And yet when the London record scouts got Liverpool fever in 1963, he would have been many a fellow-muso’s tip for stardom. No-one ever questioned that The Big Three’s live version of Some Other Guy put even The Beatles in the shade.

But somehow, the power and raw energy of The Big Three never made it onto record, and neither did they have a powerhouse writing team like Lennon & McCartney.

So, at this melancholy time, a melancholy song. The title alone sets the tone.

And yet Wet Wednesday Afternoon isn’t designed to depress. It’s a celebration of the awakening of a 13-year-old boy, his appreciation of his surroundings, and the joy of music that promises great things ahead.

Wednesdays were half days for us. For some reason lost to history, we attended school on Saturday mornings. So Wednesday afternoons were for going round each other’s houses, listening to music. Or going to the cinema to the see the latest Elvis (or, at a push, Cliff). Or sitting in cafes, listening to the jukebox or the radio. Or going to Beattie’s, the local department store, and trying out instruments we were never able to afford.

That’s what Wet Wednesday Afternoon is about. “What a town, what a life, what lucky people we were to be young….”

The Illuminati. Oh Lord, Really? Conspiracy theories are so tiring!

Paul McCartney, as we all know, was killed when he crashed his Aston Martin on his way home from Abbey Road studios late one night in 1966. A very sad night.

His place in the Beatles was taken by William Campbell, a lookalike-soundalike about whom nothing much is known except that he is the singer of every ‘McCartney’ track on every Beatles single and album post-Revolver. Who wrote those songs is not really discussed.

Buddy Holly, on the other hand, didn’t die when his plane crashed in 1957. He was just horribly disfigured and didn’t want his public to see him. So he hid out in a secure house in a remote part of America. He’s never been seen in public since.

Elvis Presley, of course, has often been seen in public since his death was announced in 1977 – in supermarkets and by sightseers around his Memphis home. Well, where else would he be? A real home-boy, our El.

I mention all this because of an increasing belief among young people that the music industry is controlled by the Illuminati.

I say young people. Actually, I know some of their parents also believe this and won’t hear a word of argument. It’s all over the internet, you see. There are videos on YouTube, some of them even showing artists and executives explicitly admitting that, yes, it’s true.

Except, of course, no-one is explicitly saying anything of the sort.

And it’s not true.

I prefer the older conspiracies myself. Paul is Dead is a stonker.

That William Campbell. What a bloody nerve! It was him broke up the Beatles you know. Can you believe the sheer brass neck of the man?

At one point, on the Let It Be sessions, he even tells George Harrison not to play on one of the songs. It’s there, on film! George says to William, “Well, if you don’t want me to play, I won’t play”. And Campbell says, “I seem to have a way of upsetting you”.

Bloody right. Coming in here with your airs and graces, thinking you actually are Paul McCartney.

What an ungrateful sod. He gets the opportunity of a lifetime to step into the shoes of a Pop God. All he has to do is play his part and become stinking rich.g

Instead, he sows discontent, refuses to acknowledge Allen Klein as manager, tears Apple Corps apart and then announces he’s leaving the group. “I’m leaving the group,” he told the Daily Mirror in 1970.

Not long after, he formed a new group, this fake McCartney, and bugger me, Wings became the biggest band in the world!

Lennon, Harrison and Starr must have looked on in wonder and asked themselves: “How the fuck did that happen?”

In the meantime Campbell/McCartney writes a song (Too Many People on the Ram album) in which he tears John Lennon off a strip, saying, “You took your lucky break and broke it in two. Now what can be done for you?“.

That’s just cold, isn’t it? Not to mention a pot, a kettle, and the colour black.

John struck back. In How Do You Sleep? (on the Imagine album) he tells William Campbell: “The only thing you did was Yesterday“.

See what he did there? He took Campbell back to the actual Paul and let him know that he, Campbell, couldn’t write a song as good as anything by Paul.

Anyway, in the immortal words of Jimi Hendrix, “Enough of this rubbish”.

Professor Diane Purkiss, Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, had this to say last week, on the subject of conspiracy theories: “All conspiracy theories are dangerous.”

Her thesis is that the more you feel that they are not listening to you, the more you feel that they are keeping the truth from you. And that’s where conspiracy theories are born. But they’re more dangerous than we might imagine.

“Conspiracy theories excused most of the genocide that took place last century – the idea” (for instance) “that the Jews are conspiring against everybody else.

“Stalin’s purges were part of a conspiracy theory. You take action against the people who are supposedly conspiring against you. If we’re lucky, we end up with a Mark Chapman. If we’re unlucky we end up with a Hitler or a Stalin.

“Conspiracy theories are one of the greatest menaces to democracy. Where it gets dangerous is when you decide that people are deliberately keeping the truth from you, and to resolve that, you have to kill them.”

So come on kids. Listen up. True dat, what the Prof say. Ya feel me?

The Illuminati of legend has been around since 1776. Having, according to rumour, fomented the French Revolution, the Wall Street Crash and the Second World War, wtf do you think they’d be doing messing around with pop music?

The irony is that the original Bavarian Illuminati – which was real – had the aim of opposing superstition and prejudice. They also wanted an end to religious influence and abuses of state power. They even – in 1776 – spoke up for gender equality, starting with the education of women.

So, again: wtf, kids!?

Go in peace and listen to your music, free of superstition and prejudice. And if you want some real fun, I heartily, absolutely and totally recommend you read the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

I can think of at least three current conspiracy theories that are a direct result of feeble-minded people actually believing that Shea and Wilson’s satire was, in fact, contemporary history.

And while you’re waiting for that corporate behemoth Amazon – surely bent on global domination of a much more sinister kind – to deliver your books, have a listen to Paul Is Dead on the BBC iPlayer. It’s all sorts of fun, and all sorts of interesting.

And, obviously, it’s also part of a conspiracy to convince us there is no conspiracy. If you meditate on that too long, your head will explode.

So here’s a little fact to calm you and ground you. Paul McCartney’s house in St John’s Wood was less than 10 minutes walk from Abbey Road Studios. Who in their right mind would drive to the studio, smoke pot and drop acid all day and then drive home…….oh……….I see what you’re saying, man.

Yeah. Heavy.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04l0tvb

Yewtree, DLT, Gambaccini and me

Paul Gambaccini sits at home, his diligently structured 40-year broadcasting career in tatters – a career built on hard work, intelligence, deep knowledge, a carefully cultivated public persona, and a courteous manner in private that never seems to flag.

Eleven months on bail, and no charge brought.

Did we even know that was possible? Are we not shocked that it’s legal?

This is Operation Yewtree at work, in which police and prosecution services seem to have dispensed with some of the hardest-won and longest established tenets of British justice.

I launched this blog at the beginning of 2014, just as BBC4 started running repeats of Top Of The Pops from 1979, including my own appearances.

Since then, many editions of the repeats have been cancelled because they were hosted by presenters who have come under Yewtree’s magnifying glass. More will be cancelled in the coming years – or else they’ll be edited to remove the guilty (or even the arrested-but-not-charged).

I’m not here to talk about the hateful crimes of Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris. Good riddance to them, and God bless and help their victims.

What I am saying is: surely our police and prosecution services might have foreseen that the public would discern a difference between heinous paedophiles and rapists, and groping pillocks like Dave Lee Travis?

More to the point, they might have realised that the public would be seriously perturbed at the effect on the lives of those the police haven’t even charged. When do you think we will next hear from Cliff Richard?

But neither the police or the media seem to pay much attention to public feeling. To this extent, they appear to be acting more akin to Cotton Mather (the Salem Witches) than William Blackstone (Fundamental Laws of England).

The Facebook group Popscene has over 350 members. A significant portion, maybe half of them, are female. Throughout Yewtree, I haven’t seen a contribution from anyone, let alone a female, that says, regarding sexist gropers being prosecuted, “About time too”.

The thing that binds Popscene, apart from a love of pop music, is that many members are of a certain age. So a lot of these women have been through the era when, we are told, female employees were routinely assaulted and too afraid to do anything about it.

And yet Popscene women appear furious at Yewtree’s tactics in publicly outing those they are ‘investigating’, whether they charge them or not.

Jimmy Tarbuck, Jim Davidson and Freddie Starr are just three of those arrested, given maximum publicity, and released without charge. Others – no use to the police for publicity, so not named – have also been arrested and released without charge.

But they did manage to charge Travis with 12 offences. Unfortunately for them, after two trials, only one of the charges stuck, and then only for a short suspended sentence. Which tells you something about how the rules of evidence are being degraded.

I’m not saying what Travis did was excusable.

Also, just so you know, I never liked the man. That’s just me. Doesn’t matter why. It’s personal.

But still, imagine yourself in court, and the Crown’s QC is telling the jury: “It’s not for you to judge degrees of guilty.

“Don’t ask why we are trying something that could have been dealt with by a slap in the face.”

Really? We’re not allowed to ask that?

It doesn’t matter, she said, that the allegations “are not the most serious that courts have to deal with. ‘Is it serious enough?’ is not a question you have to worry about.”

Wow. I would have thought that was partly what juries were for – to tell the Courts at the very least when they are overstepping the bounds of common sense.

All of this has resulted in a spate of reminiscences and newspaper stories of ‘inappropriate’ (God, I hate that word) behaviour. Some of these stories are of events that happened less than 20 years ago. In the 1990s, The Spice Girls led us to believe that girl power had taken over, and that women knew how to deal with sexists like Travis.

But it seems not. Janet Street Porter recently told the story of a female editor of a 1990s television programme. The editor’s star presenter routinely presented himself ‘stark naked in the bath’ for daily meetings in his dressing room.

Complaining that you allowed yourself to be subjected to this indignity every day, day after day – isn’t that just whingeing?

I’ve spent a week trying to frame this blog in the least controversial manner. But it’s an almost impossible task. You’re reading my 53rd draft, and still I know it will offend. Because – all special pleading aside: we are a victim if we say we’re a victim – this is not how we conduct justice.

So let’s make it personal for a second. At the age of fourteen I told a fully mature 6′ 4” man – father of two toddlers I had just babysat – that, no, I didn’t want him masturbating me while I took a bath. Surely by the 1990s a grown woman could take personal responsibility for telling a grown man they should meet in an office, rather than in his bath?

In the Sunday Times this week, Camilla Long recounts her 2012 interview with Dave Lee Travis.

In 2012 she reported “I don’t think there was a part of my body he didn’t grope”.

In 2014 she reports that she “left the interview feeling like a non-person, odd and dirty and used”.

Is it just because I’m male that I find it difficult to understand why she didn’t say that first time around?

After all, Camilla Long is no shrinking violet. She is caustic and controversial. Last year she won the Hatchet Job Of The Year award for her review of the book Aftermath. She described author Rachel Cusk as “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish”, who “describes her grief in expert, whinnying detail”.

So this is where we’ve got to, 45 years after Germaine Greer’s watershed work. A tough, professional woman, willing in print to attack a ‘sister’, but afraid to slap an ageing dj or knee him in the balls, or even just tell him to fuck off, despite the fact his wife and a photographer were in the vicinity. She put up with Travis’s behaviour for 90 minutes, she says. Why?

My mother and my grandmother, feminists before the word gained currency, would have wanted a word with Camilla. They’d have also wanted ‘a word’ with DLT. He would have regretted it.

No music this week. It seems, erm…..inappropriate.

Instead, here’s a clip of Morgan Freeman, around the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, suggesting we stop talking about racism. I’m wondering if there is a woman out there, in the 45th anniversary year of The Female Eunuch, brave enough to address the discussion of sexism with a similar breath of fresh air.

Meanwhile, I’d like my 1970s back, please. But maybe that’s too much to ask. Or too trivial……

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?

 

Stage fright and poetry – why?

I played live last Friday night.

In a club.

On a stage.

In front of an audience.

I only played one song, but I was trembling with fear.

The pop star who lives in my house was also playing (booked, on the bill), and believe me, she’s born to it.

It’s like the stage is where she was always meant to be.  She charms the audience into submission, and then breaks their hearts with her own songs that sound like they could be by Rihanna or Beyonce, but have a dark underbelly that says, “I may bounce around like Tigger, but, seriously, you don’t want to know what’s going on in my head.”

I never had her facility. I started gigging when I was 15, and had no problem remembering the words to Walking The Dog, or I’ll Go Crazy. But songs with a bucketful of words, like Johnny B. Goode, were more problematic. I didn’t dwell on it. I either repeated verses, or made some up.

Later I jumped into the folk scene, where simple songs were the order of the day.

So it was quite late on when I finally realised I lacked a talent specific to performing – and it is a very, very underrated talent.

Remembering words.

Even my own songs do not stick. I need the lyrics, typed out, on  a stand in front of me, when it comes time to record.

It’s no surprise, then, that I have no real experience as a gigging musician. Occasionally I have been dragged up on stage by, say, Bill Zorn, or the guys from Show Of Hands, but I bet I haven’t performed in front of an audience more than ten times since that first teenage flush, which ended when I was 19. That’ll be ten times in 45 years.

So why did I put myself through it on Friday?

Let me start explaining by telling you something that will appear unrelated, but isn’t. I’ve never been a fan of poetry. And that’s putting it mildly.

When I read poetry, I want to hear a tune behind it. On its own, on the page, it has absolutely zero emotional resonance for me. I know this is my failing, but I don’t have that many, so forgive me. (If you believe that, please get in touch; I know a good therapist).

And then, a few months ago, I was dragged kicking and screaming to Come Rhyme With Me, a poetry event, for God’s sake. The pop star who lives in my house had been invited to do the open mic part of the evening (they sometimes include music) so I couldn’t not go.

We got there way too early, and we didn’t realise food was served (ordered and paid for in advance). So I sat like a sulky teenager for over an hour, listening to people eat and chat, more and more tempted to say, “Screw this” and tantrum my way out the door.

And then the poetry started.

Oh. My. God. Brilliant scarcely covers it.

I’ve been back three more times and have been staggered by talent you may never hear of. Some of it is literally thrilling – wherever you have hairs on your body, they will stand up.

And you will laugh. Laugh yourself silly. Or you will come close to tears.

On my third visit, I foolishly, and jokingly, suggested to Deanna Rodger – co-compere with fellow poet Dean Atta – that I might do an open mic next time.

Deanna is a bundle of energy, emotion, fun and neuroses that you’d probably be better off not trying to get to the bottom of.

But she is utterly magnetic and engaging and her enthusiasm forced me to think well, maybe I should.

Big mistake.

On the night, I was nervous before I got there. And it was hot and sticky. Even before the gig started, repeated washing of my hands failed to rid me of the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to pick the guitar strings cleanly.

And then the open mic slots started. As each one finished, I thought, ‘My turn’. But no. I think there were maybe six acts before I was called up as the last of the open mic turns. By which time I was utterly terrified, shaking like a leaf and unable to find the strings, let alone play them.

I have no idea what followed. I played Iron & Fire, which I wrote about here, but the rushing noise in my head drowned out any sense of ‘feeling’ the audience, and I could not say with any certainty even whether there was applause at the end.

But Deanna Rodger and Dean Atta were very sweet, and friends smiled reassuringly.

What brought me back to sense and sensibility was the performance of Toby Thompson. A tall, lanky, blonde 20-year-old, so cute that all the older women in the room wanted to take him home and mother him (several of them said as much!).

Let me tell you this. Toby Thompson is a dazzling talent.

Just hearing him will convince you what a talent it is to remember your words. Blizzards of them stream from him, and even when he appears to falter, he’s not faltering. It’s stagecraft. Almost witchcraft, in fact.

And that’s why this week, instead of putting up one of my songs, I’m linking you to one of Toby’s YouTube videos.

And let me also draw your attention to Sally Jenkinson, whose quiet, unhistrionic delivery is very touching. However Big You Think You Are, written for her adolescent sister, is worth two minutes of anyone’s time.

Come Rhyme With Me has a night each month at The Writer’s Place in Jew Street, Brighton. The same bill then plays the following Friday at Cotton’s in London’s Exmouth Market.

Their blog is here:

http://comerhymewithus.blogspot.co.uk

and they’re on Facebook

Muhammad Ali and the power of charisma

I’ve met a lot of famous people. As a journalist in the music industry, a&r man, pop singer and producer, and editor and publisher of film and tv magazines, it’s always been part of the day job.

I wouldn’t say I was blasé, but I have to admit that, from day one, I’ve rarely been overwhelmed.

The day I started at Music Week, for instance, in August 1967, I was sent to London Airport. The Mamas & The Papas were coming into town and there would be a press conference.

An 18-year-old boy, barely a year out of Wolverhampton, hob-nobbing with the world’s press and one of the best-selling acts around – I should have been excited. But, honestly? No.

Every now and then, there’d be a frisson, like the time I got the phone call from George Martin which I told you about last week.

But there’s only been one brain-jolting, stomach-turns to-jelly, honest to goodness melting moment, and that was when Muhammad Ali came into the room.

It was a big room, a community centre on a north London council estate. There were maybe 200 people already there. At the very moment Ali came through the door I was on the opposite side, a good 40 feet away, with my back to the door, deep in conversation.

And yet, my stomach did turn to jelly, and I knew he was there. Maybe it was a change in atmosphere caused by those who saw him immediately.

But I have never, ever in my life felt someone change the energy in a room so utterly.

I turned around, and there he was: the Parkinson’s-stricken hero of my boyhood, still picking out the closest child, mock-boxing him, making him feel the centre of the universe.

Undeniably in his prime the most beautiful man in the world, he was now a shuffling relic of himself, and yet still possessed of the charisma that had made him the most famous man on the planet, a charisma that could literally be felt.

I watched in awe as he made his way through the room, confronted by, surrounded by and followed by love.

At the same time, the journalist in me picked up on the reactions of two other quite well-known guys also present: former (and soon to be again) world heavyweight champion George Foreman; and former world heavyweight champion Joe Frazier.

Foreman regarded the only man who had ever knocked him out with clear affection. Frazier, on the other hand, just looked irritated. Frazier’s relationship with Ali was very complex, with some serious – and, to be fair, quite justified – bitterness thrown in.

Watching George Foreman with Muhammad Ali was touching in the extreme. He looked after Muhammad like an attentive brother. I talked to George and he encouraged me to talk to ‘The Champ’. “He’s still all there, inside,” he told me.

So I did, and I told Ali that, as a child, I had been allowed to get up at 3am in the morning to listen to the live BBC broadcasts of Floyd Patterson’s three fights against Ingemar Johansson. The thrill of being awake in the early hours of the morning, and the noise of the crowd and the excitement of the commentary turned me into a lifelong boxing fan.

Then, one Saturday lunchtime, I caught Fight Of The Week on BBC television’s Grandstand, and there was this boy-man, just seven years older than me, and utterly mesmerising. I was hooked. Apart from his first fight with Sonny Liston, when I – along with every boxing expert in the world – thought he was going to be killed, I never lost faith.

I told him I was 15 when he beat Liston. He said something I could barely hear, so I put my ear close to his mouth, and he repeated, in his whisper: “I know. I can’t believe Muhammad Ali is 50.”

Even Muhammad Ali talks about ‘Muhammad Ali’.

Growing up in the era of Ali, The Beatles, American Civil Rights, John F. Kennedy and Bob Dylan, gave millions of us belief that the future was bright and golden; just……better.

My song this week is about my own disappointment that that faith proved to be false.

Two episodes sparked the song. One was watching a programme where Louis Theroux was in an American prison talking to lifers and Death Row inmates about what it takes to survive in such a place.

One of the prisoners was describing the mind games played in the constant search for a place at the top of the heap. Then he said something that I didn’t understand at first. He said it in a chilling voice, with a throwaway smile. “Gabos.” Louis looked as puzzled as me. So the inmate explained: “Game ain’t based on sympathy, man.”

Whoah! What he was saying was, there was no value placed on higher feelings. It was dog eat dog, and if you didn’t look after number one you were dead.

Which set me thinking about the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda and their merciless treatment of each other. And of the child soldiers in Sierra Leone who would overrun villages, round up the men and boys and ask them to choose, “Short sleeve, or long sleeve?” Which meant they had a choice for their hand to be cut off at the wrist, or their arm above the elbow.

I’m not a pessimist by any means. Generally I find the world an exciting and fascinating place. But by the same token, I’m not blind to the wickedness evident all around me.

Maybe I should have written a song about the need for more heroes. Where is the new Muhammad Ali? Where are The Beatles for our children? Is there a JFK or a Bob Dylan on the horizon?

But I didn’t. I wrote this song, called Time Rushes By. The recording is a work in progress, so I hope you can see through the faults.