Top Of The Pops: Power Mad and Irrelevant

One of my Facebook groups recently put up a post of what looked like an old newspaper – yellowed, crumpled and a headline about miming on Top Of The Pops.

Turns out it was dated January 4, 2015. Yes, this January we’re living in now.

Forgive me for being churlish, but the headline TOTP: THE MIME HAS COME didn’t fill me with joy.

Top Of The Pops is a spent force whose audiences slumped from a peak of 19 million to a low of barely one million by 2005. It was cancelled a  year later.

It was also a horrible programme to be on.

But first, the audience. And also, why the programme’s not worth resuscitating.

Audience problems started when Matthew Bannister took over as Controller at Radio One. The station was peopled with the big beasts of pop radio – Dave Lee Travis, Simon Bates, Johnnie Walker, Alan Freeman, Steve Wright.

They were not, as Bannister noted, in the first flush of youth. But they were attracting audiences of 16m+.

From the 60s on, mainstream pop was exactly what it said on the tin: mainstream. Records sold in their millions. You frequently had to sell half a million in a week to hit the top spot.

So you, your mum and dad, and quite likely your Gran and Granddad were watching Top Of The Pops. And many of them were also listening to Radio One.

And that presented a problem in Matthew Bannister’s world. The BBC has an almost pyschotic attachment to the notion that R1 is for 13-24 year olds. Thirty is pushing it. R2 is aimed at 35 upwards. As you move through the age range, their belief is some of you will start also listening to R4 in your 40s and 50s.

But people don’t behave so predictably, particularly generations X and Y.

Anyway, Bannister programmed to get rid of the oldies. Mainstream – out. Genre – in.

He was right about one thing. Not many of us wanted to listen to rap. Or hip hop. Or grime. Or house. Or drum’n’bass.

The unintended consequence of his policy was that as fewer people listened, so he narrowed the audience, and thus he narrowed the market for record buyers. Pretty soon, there was no mainstream.

And there was a further unintended consequence of his unintended consequence. As the pop market split into sub genres of specialist tastes and the mainstream drained away, Top Of The Pops – which wasn’t even his remit – found itself booking artists who had sold 10,000 records in the week.

Now, it’s not rocket science, is it, that many records selling hundreds of thousands of copies in a week = a programme that many millions will watch.

Whereas, a bunch of one hit wonders selling a few thousand copies in niche markets = not much of an audience.

Coincidentally, at the same time in America, FM Radio – another genre medium – was knocking AM Radio out of the ballpark. AM was mainstream radio, and stations throughout the country played much of the same music, creating enormous selling megahits.

In the following period, the music market became even more fractured by genres and sub-genres. Music sales have slumped from $30bn in 1998 to less than half of that today.

Does that sound like a recipe for an exciting return of a programme that had already outlived its usefulness?

Plus the miming. What a joke. This was the Top Of The Pops scam. They pretended everyone was playing live. You had to go back into the studio (at your own cost) the night before filming, and re-record especially for the show, and put on a new vocal.

To make sure you did this, they’d send a Musicians’ Union rep down to the studio to watch you do it. Except they didn’t. They were easily distracted by pluggers and record company types. So you’d go through the motions, do a quick desk mix from the master, and off they’d go with their ‘live’ track for next day’s recording.

The next shock was getting to the studio the next day. I turned up with my full band – all of us fully paid-up MU members, and certainly (me excepted) exceptional players, ready to do their stuff.

Time for run through. I strap on my guitar and get ready to sing to the track. A very cross man in a very cross shirt strode across the studio in his horribly cross trousers saying, “No, no, no, that’s not what we’re doing”.

He didn’t even introduce himself. He just told me they were setting up a ‘controller’s desk’ with phone and other props and I would do the talking bit live in the studio.

I say live. They wanted me to mime.

I’m sorry – you want me to mime to a spoken part while a bunch of pubescent girls pretend to dance around in front of me?

Yes. He did.

And what about the singing bits? “When the show’s over, you’ll stay behind” (what is this? Fucking school?) “and we’ll bring in a car and shoot you through the screen”. Isn’t that going to look a bit odd – where will the microphone be? “We don’t want you to sing it. We want you to mime”. Oh dear God.

I watched all day as they treated everyone like cattle. It was appalling. Old hands like The Shadows were used to it. But there were several of us newcomers for whom this day was supposed to be a dream come true. The BBC staff were officious, apparently power mad, no interest in music, and certainly no interest in what a prat I was going to look.

Furious, I phoned my record company boss and said I didn’t want to do it. “Well Paul,” he said, in a very reasonable voice, “that’s entirely your choice. And I sympathise. I really do.

“But let me just put this thought in your head: at the moment, you’re selling 5,000 copies a day. Once this show goes out, you’ll be selling 20,000 a day.”

It didn’t take me long to figure out that 20,000 copies a day over a six-day week meant I would be Number One next week. So I went ahead, made a prat of myself.

Most of you know how this story ends. Yes, we got orders for 20,000 a day. 120,000 in the week. Only the record company got stuck in the queue at the pressing plant. So instead of going to Number One, I dropped down to Number 11.

And don’t get smart and tell me there’s two number ones in 11.

I couldn’t give a toss for Top Of The Pops coming back. It looked good when you watched it, when everyone on it was selling bucketloads of singles.

But when you were on it, it was disgusting.

And it didn’t look so good when no-one on it was selling worth a bean. And then everybody stopped watching.

Leave it where it is. Don’t embarrass yourself.

I did want to show you my most memorable clip from the show, but I can’t find it. When Cyndi Lauper went on to do Girls Just Want To Have Fun my memory is of her running around the whole studio, then climbing up scaffolding. The cameramen seemed to have no clue and were just trying to keep up with her. Still, here’s another clip of her giving Tom Jones a bit of a seeing to. Video’s crap, but you can feel her extraordinary energy. When I saw this on its first broadcast, you could see the surprise on Tom’s face as she matched him phrase for phrase. The performance starts about 1m 30s in.

Lazy-assed Driver overtakes himself

I consider myself a lazy person, on the basis that I could always have done more.

At the very least, I’m easily distracted by visual, aural or olfactory stimuli. However peripheral the distraction, I’m on it like a snake on a rabbit.

So it’s quite a surprise to look back at 2014 and find that I’ve not only written a book – 65,000 words and counting – but that this is my 46th blog, which accounts for another 50,000 words. Well over 100,000 in the year.

In addition, I’ve written and recorded eight new songs and two instrumental pieces that I hope to release as an album in the Spring.

If I wasn’t so lazy and easily distracted, I might have had the time to achieve my wildest ambition – to run the country (kidding!).

Since that’s never going to happen, I’ve constructed a new website from which, in the run-up to the May general election, I hope to sell some reasonably amusing political slogans on t-shirts.

Oh yes, that’s something else I’ve been working on: the political t-shirt website.

Actually, now I look at my 2014 in the round, it’s making me feel tired. I think I’ll go and have a lie down.

But before I do, I’d like to ask you to have a listen to my last track of the year. Return Journey is named for this blog and for all the wonderful people who have paid it even the slightest attention since it launched just under eleven months ago.

It really has felt like a return of sorts.

I said back in February that I had spent decades trying to hide from the spectre of one-hit-wonderdom. Having finally given in and owned my cab-driving alter-ego, I have discovered a whole world of appreciation.

Most of all, I’ve realised I had nothing to be embarrassed about in the first place. The most recent comment I’ve had is from Benjamin Lee Matthews who says he’s a “70s-born 80s child”. He recently downloaded the Driver 67 album, Hey Mister Record Man, and has “just discovered The Secret. What a fabulous song. Why didn’t this become a million seller?”

Well, Benjamin, I wish I could tell you, but I don’t know. That’s the thing about music and the music industry – you never can tell. But I can tell you this: the sort of feeling you get from being told, out of the blue, that something you did 30-odd years ago still gives pleasure cannot be bought.

So thank you, Benjamin.

An equally warm feeling is to hear that something you’ve done recently has hit the spot. Malcolm Coles wrote, back on December 12, that he “can’t get enough of More Like That” which is from my 2012 album, Now That’s What I Call Divorce!!!

Malcolm, thank you.

So, here’s Return Journey, my last track of 2014. It’s an instrumental. Stylistically, it’s what used to be called ‘chill’ music. Pour yourself a gin and tonic, relax and give yourself over to the atmosphere.

I’d really love to hear, from anyone who has the time, what story appears in your head as you listen. It will be your story, not mine, and I would love to know what the track conjures up for you.

Meanwhile, let’s look forward to 2015.

Apart from anything else, the election promises to be gripping. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Scottish Nationalist Party ran enough candidates for Westminster that they ended up holding the balance of power in a new coalition?

I speculated about that on Facebook during the week following the Scottish Independence Referendum, and I still don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility. We do live in interesting times.

Bon voyage!

 

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.

 

The Sound Of Music. The Sound Of U2. The Sound Of Me, Running A Mile.

Imagine a time when a record is released and you have to leave your house with real money in your pocket. You take the bus into town and go to a shop.

You go up to the counter and ask for the record. The retailer has it behind the counter. You hand over your money, she hands you the record.

Bus back home, rush in, fire up the turntable and gently – gently, now! – lower the stylus onto the shiny black vinyl. Heaven.

This dreamlike image appeared in my head recently after I woke up to find a U2 album on my iPhone.

We’re all entitled to our little irrationalities, and I hold it as a badge of honour that I’ve never owned a U2 album.

Ditto, I’ve never seen The Sound Of Music.

I had an amusing exchange on Twitter recently after I posted about tracks I produced with Vince Hill and 101 Mandolins.

@BeoirFinder tweeted “Bugger – wrong Edelweiss”.

I tweeted back “Surely not!? What were you expecting – I’m intrigued” and he sent me a link to a YouTube mashup called Bring Me Edelweiss. It’s so many levels of wrong and bad, it might actually be brilliant.

In a later tweet, he explained: “I have a project where I’m going to destroy The Sound Of Music.”

This was our last exchange:

Edelweiss4

So, imagine if I woke up one morning to find that, during my sleep, someone had discovered a way to show me The Sound Of Music from beginning to end in my dreams. Once seen, I could never unsee it.

It’s not far from that to waking up to find U2 on my iPhone.

I had thought this particular prejudice was unique to me. Turns out I’m not alone. My friend Peter Mate discovered pages of Bono/U2 jokes on Wikipedia. Facebook was crawling with people outraged by, at the very least, what they considered an invasion of privacy. Fuck privacy. Taste is far more important.

But the funniest thing was posted by my son Remi. It’s a note from Captain Beefheart to Bono, who had been trying to interest the Captain in a collaboration. The note read:

Dear Bongo, I don’t know who you are, or what you want from me, but don’t call me again.”

It’s the ‘Bongo’ that cracks me up. I don’t believe the story’s true (Beefheart died in 2010, so there’s no way of finding out).

But surely, being Bono, it must puncture his pride to see this stuff so widely circulated?

Seems not.

Why else would he think it’s a good idea to force his new album on 500 million unsuspecting iTunes account holders? There’s more hubris attached to that than could be contained in a Jumbo Jet.

I checked and discovered U2 have reportedly sold 150 million albums in their career.

Rihanna has sold more. Not to mention Garth Brooks, Celine Dion and Mariah Carey.

What must it feel like to know that history is going to record you as 14th on a list (with all chances of slipping down) where Madonna is in fourth place?

So then I started calculating. Are you paying attention, Bongo?

I figure that if your hardcore fans had bought all 14 albums, that would make roughly eleven million people in the world who own a U2 album.

Let’s be kind and say that your hardcore fans account for half of your sales, and that 75 million other people have bought one album each. That’s still fewer than 90 million people (and that’s really pushing it, I know) who’ve actually bought a U2 album. In reality, I reckon it’s probably closer to 25 million.

In which case, what made you think that 475 million people who had never bought one of your records would want one now – even for free?

So, here’s a reality check for you, Bono. It’s a clip of you and the boys being drunk and disrespectful to Phil Collins, who is tirelessly tolerant – but has also sold a quarter of a billion albums. You’re never gonna get there. You know that, don’t you?

My next dream involves the pop star who lives in my house, winning an award, which you present. She won’t be drunk when she comes up to accept it. Oh no. It’s much, much worse than that.

She has absolutely no idea who you are. “Sing me a U2 song, pop star who lives in my house.”

“Are you for real, P-Dog? Wtf is that?”

And here’s the Edelweiss mashup that BeoirFinder wants to use in his destructive remake of The Sound Of Music. I’m with you, BF.

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.

 

 

Through The Door At Apple Corps (Episode 2)

Paul McCartney. Height of The Beatles. In your village, Sunday afternoon. Ooh, got a new song. Let’s all go down the pub. Hey Jude…..

This is my favourite Beatles story, which I first heard from my friend Alan Smith.

Alan was a Liverpool journalist who journeyed south in the wake of The Beatles. He went on to become an iconic editor of NME. He took it from a 16-page weekly, struggling to sell 50,000 copies to a veritable door-stopper that topped out at 272,000 copies a week. He achieved this stunning turnaround in 18 months. He also hired Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons.

Anyway, he told me the story about the day in 1968 he had been driven up to Yorkshire with Paul McCartney and Derek Taylor. Derek is often referred to as The Beatles’ publicist, but he was so much more than that. We’ll get to Derek.

Up in Yorkshire, McCartney was producing Thingumybob by the Black Dyke Mills Band.

On the way back down the A1 (it might have been the M1, but this isn’t a Monty Python sketch) Paul asked for the road map. They needed a break, maybe some food. He looked through the names of nearby towns and villages. Decided he really liked the sound of Harrold, in Bedfordshire.

They went to Harrold.

According to Alan Smith (and I later read in Derek’s book, As Time Goes By) Paul strolled through the village, chatting to the locals who were doing their weekend chores – clipping hedges, mowing lawns, washing cars.

They all ended up down the pub, and McCartney sang – for the first time to an audience – Hey Jude. What would you give to have been in the Oakley Arms, Harrold, on June 30, 1968? To know that you were the first people in the world to sing along at the end – “Na na na nana na na”?

Alan’s first wife, Mavis, worked at Apple. She was a tiny, beautiful girl who could be quite fierce, but also vulnerable. She it was who named Hot Chocolate, whose first recordings were released on Apple.

There’s Errol Brown and his chums, in a crowded office. Someone says, “Name this band.”

Erm….

“Hot Chocolate!” says the secretary on the middle desk.

Done. And a 40-year career is launched.

And at the centre of this chaos was Derek Taylor. His office at 3 Savile Row was always what used to be called a ‘scene’.

But Derek appeared calm, above it all, languidly, wittily having his way with the world.

One time a bunch of us were just passing time. Derek was having fun with one of the writers from Disc magazine who had described Apple’s offices, in print, as “swish”.

“Well,” says Derek, “you do know what ‘swish’ means in America?” Always sardonic. “As long as you think you know what you’re doing……”

And before he can finish the thought, in walks George Harrison, trailed by a ragged band of colourful folk.

John and Paul were smaller than their publicity (I wrote about that here). George was even shorter. But the charisma emanated from him like testosterone from a prize fighter. By his side, Phil Spector seemed insignificant.

“Derek, I don’t know if you’ve met Phil Spector?”

So much musical history in that one sentence. Here was Phil Spector, in town at Allen Klein’s behest (if you believe Allen Klein) or George’s and John Lennon’s (if you believe Wikipedia) to rescue the Get Back tapes from a locked cupboard and turn them into the album that became Let It Be.

Later, Spector would produce George’s stunning solo debut, All Things Must Pass, and then John Lennon’s first two solo albums. Although Ringo remembers it rather differently, commenting that he barely witnessed any input from ‘Phil’ on the Lennon sessions. No such doubts with All Things. Spector was all over it.

So, this was the world that whirled around Derek Taylor. A difficult man to describe. Urbane, witty, charming – but none of that will get you close to the experience of his use of the English language. Almost poetry on the hoof.

There are rare instances of him caught on YouTube. But nothing gives you the flavour of a man who could make even a mundane statement sound like Edward Lear thinking out loud.

Once, confronted with a transatlantic telephone call from a radio station ‘checking that Paul was dead’, Derek pointed out that “the best possible proof of Paul McCartney still being alive is that he is, in fact, still alive.”

And no, he didn’t believe Paul talking to the station in America would prove anything. People would just say it wasn’t Paul.

“The only proof we need that Paul is alive is that he is. You don’t have to produce yourself, or appear on television, or speak. You just have to be alive.”

With this kind of directness of tone, but also a beautiful lyricism, Derek wrote a memoir, As Time Goes By, which is about more than his time with the Beatles. This is a guy who came down from Liverpool – where he was an experienced and established journalist, eight or so years older than John and Paul – and ended up working not only with The Beatles, but in America with the Byrds, The Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson and, one of his own favourite moments, The Monterey Pop Festival of 1967.

From the age of about 30, his entire life was like that day in Harrold in 1968. If you like this story, there are plenty more like it in It Was 20 Years Ago Today and As Time Goes By, both available from Amazon. Put them on your Christmas list. They’re not cheap, but well within stocking filler range.

Meanwhile, all this talk of the 60s made me nostalgic, so I made this cover version of one of my favourite pre-Beatles songs. It’s made with loops of electronic chill music. But my guitar and vocals drag it back from contemporary to slightly cheesy. Hope you find it an interesting version.

 

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