Mad Dogs, some Englishmen, and Joe Cocker’s road back

When Joe Cocker returned home in 1971 from the madness that was the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of America, he went off radar.

Before computers, before mobile phones, before texting and Face-timing, off radar really was off radar. Even having a phone was not the norm in the early 70s.

Alan Spenner, bassist with The Grease Band told me this story. “We had to go up to Sheffield to ask his parents what was up.” They (I don’t recall who Alan said was with him) arrived in the pouring rain. Joe’s mum answered the door.

Without even acknowledging who they were, she pointed away from the front door and said: “He’s in the back yard.” Alan and mate tramped through the house, and out to the yard.

“And he was standing there,” Alan told me, “in the rain, head up to the sky, stark bollock naked.” The concern on Alan’s face and in his voice as he recounted this was palpable. At the time he told me this story (maybe two years after the event) it was by no means clear that Joe had survived his adventures with his wits intact.

In the twelve months after I started writing this blog, 25 music notables died. Joe Cocker was one of them. In a list that includes Johnny Winter, Jimmy Ruffin, Pete Seeger and Bobby Womack, I’d still put Joe at the top of the page.

His first major artistic act was to take the psychedelic singalong of With A Little Help From My Friends and turn it into a heart-rendingly soulful crie de coeur. Then he took it onstage at Woodstock (still with Alan Spenner on bass) and tore the place up.

I had seen Joe live (for the only time that I recall) a few months earlier, at London’s Royal Albert Hall. What a weird old night that was. The Beatles and The Stones were there. But not to see Joe. We had all turned out to witness the phenomenon that was Tiny Tim, complete with symphony-size orchestra, conducted by the producer Richard Perry.

My memory tells me Joe opened the show with the fantastic Grease Band, ripped up the place and then gave way to Peter Sarstedt. Such a contrast is scarcely credible. But at least Sarstedt wasn’t as big a contrast to Tiny Tim as Joe would have been.

Tiny Tim came and went after just two albums. He carried on, but no-one was taking much notice. Peter Sarstedt was a two-hit wonder (one and a half, really. Although it made the Top 10, few people would mention One More Frozen Orange Juice).

We can speculate, of course, how much further Joe Cocker would have gone if it hadn’t been for Woodstock. But it’s a pointless hypothesis. He proved – time and time again – that when the chips were down, he could tear up a stage, and had an ear for a song on a par with Otis Redding’s. (Think of what Otis did with the old chestnut Try A Little Tenderness, and how he ripped up Ticket To Ride and Satisfaction).

The Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour seemed to us, when it happened, the most marvellous thing. You had to be a little bit hippy dippy to buy into the idea that all these fantastic singers and musicians were travelling around America, loving each other’s company, having a great time and putting on the show of their lives every night.

But, flawed as the rest of the scenario was, that last part was absolutely right. The film and the album from the tour are masterclasses in showmanship, commitment and musicianship. Bandleader Leon Russell emerged a star, only slightly tarnished by his opportunistic exploitation of Cocker’s vulnerability.

Joe emerged with a bunch of American hit records and a massively enhanced reputation. But also a nose full of heroin and a head full of problems that threatened to do for him way too early.

But, you know, his home town was a hard place, for hard people. And they were famous for their steel in Sheffield. It’s a convenient simile for Joe’s resilience: the steel in his spine and in his character.

Not only did he overcome his demons, but he would rise again and again on the back of another brilliantly chosen song: You Can Keep Your Hat On, Up Where We Belong, You Are So Beautiful.

A couple of years ago, even his most recent single, Fire It Up, caught my ear in the car. I didn’t realise it was Joe. The video that goes with it shows a bunch of young musicians and singers who seem just thrilled to be there with him.

Joe Cocker and all around him were a massive part of baby boomer culture. And now we are continuously told that our ageing generation will put increased pressure on the NHS and social care.

Well, musicians are certainly doing their share to take the pressure off.

Of the 25 who’ve gone since I started this blog, few made it past 70. The general trend seems to be to peg it sometime shortly after your mid-60s.

Joe made it to 70, which was 43 years after we’d all given up on him. He also seems to have spent his later years fruitfully and settled. Who could hope for more?

And he left us a treasure trove of great music, brilliant and original interpretations of The Beatles, Dylan, Cohen, and other songs we might never have heard had the man from Sheffield not had such a great ear for tunes and lyrics that would resonate with millions.

So, Joe, you can keep your hat on. We raise ours in salute.

 

John Lennon not a genius. Ooh-er missus! But that’s not what I’m saying.

The biggest problem Paul McCartney has with his career is that he lived.

The comparisons with John Lennon are so highly coloured by Lennon’s early death that McCartney is mocked just for surviving.

Here’s the accepted wisdom: Lennon was the soul of The Beatles; the tough rocker; the genius with words; the psychedelic heart of the more experimental days.

Now here’s the truth: Paul McCartney wrote, undoubtedly, some of the greatest songs of the 20th century.

Alongside his more sentimental songs, he wrote songs that made your parents sweat – Why Don’t We Do It In The Road, Helter Skelter.

And it was McCartney who was ‘underground’, who stayed in London and mixed with the cultural avant garde while the other three Beatles retired to their Surrey mansions.

Sgt Pepper was entirely his vision.

He was also the greatest rock ‘n’ roll singer Britain ever produced. Listen to his version of Long Tall Sally, or I’m Down, the b-side of Help.

On the other hand, if you think John Lennon was incapable of sentimental pap, you clearly haven’t registered that he wrote Goodnight, specifically for Ringo to sing. It has to be the single most saccharine song the Beatles ever recorded, with the possible exception of ‘Til There Was You, which they didn’t write, so I’m not counting it.

For every Lennon rocker, I’ll give you a Macca roller. For every Lennon gem, I’ll give you a McCartney diamond. For every genuine Lennon-McCartney classic, I’ll just give thanks.

This whole ‘Lennon the genius’ vs ‘McCartney the crass’ argument is such arrant bollocks. When you say ‘crass’ or ‘sentimental’ or simply ‘rubbish’ are we talking about the same man who wrote Penny Lane, Yesterday, Fool On The Hill, Blackbird, Hey Jude, Let It Be, I’ve Got A Feeling, We Can Work It Out, Drive My Car, Get Back, Here There & Everywhere?

It’s often forgotten that McCartney, having been in the biggest band the world has ever known, followed it up by forming – erm – the biggest band in the world. Again.

Wings were HUGE. For a generation born too late, Wings IS Paul McCartney.

You might say, well John never had the chance. But he did. By the time John was murdered, Wings had been on the road for nearly 10 years.

John Lennon made, for me, two stupendous albums – Plastic Ono Band and Imagine. Which is not to forget the wonderful Rock’n’Roll – an album beset by Phil Spector’s increasing paranoia and John’s legal problems over Come Together. (His early mantra, ‘If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best’, came back to haunt him).

But it was an album of covers, John’s last album until Double Fantasy in 1980. So it seemed, at the time, a last lazy throw of the dice by an artist who had run out of steam.

And it’s forgotten, at this late stage, that Double Fantasy was seen on release as corny, sentimental and just not a fitting comeback for the onetime Picasso of Pop. The first single, Starting Over, struggled to number 8 in the UK top 10. A week later it had dropped down to 21. In America it peaked at number six.

And then John was shot, and all critical and commercial bets were off.

Now Starting Over was a tragic swansong for a cultural hero, and the album – even Yoko’s bits – was seen in hindsight as a post-modern expression of domestic bliss and parental devotion. And history was rewritten in the blink of a bullet.

So let’s remember some other incongruities: There was a brief period post-Beatles when Ringo Starr had the most successful solo career. What! Really?

Yes.

And George Harrison did more, all at once, with All Things Must Pass than the other three combined. He also had the first post-Beatles number one with My Sweet Lord.

None of which, of course, addresses the question of quality. McCartney had the first number one album (in America) post-Beatles with McCartney. Now there’s an underrated piece of work. Maybe I’m Amazed, Every Night, Man We Was Lonely. The final track, Kreen Akrore, is the sound of a man still stretching himself, experimenting, seeing where things will go rather than pushing them. It’s not entirely successful, but that’s not the point.

The follow up, Ram, is still an incredible piece of work. Without even listening carefully, you’ll hear The Beach Boys, rock’n’roll, The Beatles (showing how much McCartney shaped the later sound of the Fabs) and, for those looking for a darker side, a little biting satire. Too Many People is a message to John which is a lot subtler than John’s own How Do You Sleep – where he tells Paul, “The only thing you done was Yesterday”.

Nearly 30 years later, well into phase two of his solo career (post-Wings) he was beset by poor reviews and the burgeoning view that he was nothing without Lennon. Mull Of Kintyre and The Frog Song became emblematic of a man derided as having his eye only on the crass and commercial.

Well, I’ll tell you something about The Frog Song. It’s a very sophisticated piece of work. My guess is that most average musicians couldn’t even pick out the chord sequences. I’m not a fan of the record, but I’m an admirer of the talent it required.

And then, in the middle of this miasma, and nearly 30 years after the Beatles split, he released Flaming Pie – an album my youngest daughter picked up on, unbidden by me, and became in her own right a bona fide Macca fan. She’s 23 this year.

It’s too much to ask that everyone take the time to re-evaluate McCartney’s later career. But I’m telling you now: when he dies, you’ll wish you’d listened to Flaming Pie. Even now, Little Willow – written for Ringo Starr’s first wife, who died of cancer – will make you cry.

And you’ll also realise you should have listened to bits of Chaos & Creation In the Backyard, and to most of Memory Almost Full. Even New, his most recent solo album (2013), has songs to warm the heart of Beatles fans. But it also contains tracks any writer would be proud to have created.

So, can we buck the trend, and appreciate McCartney’s continuing ability while he’s still alive?

Or do we have to wait till he kicks it?

I’m pompous, sanctimonious and ignorant, and I don’t know jack shit about rock’n’roll. Apparently.

I recently came across a YouTube video titled Old Time Rock’n’Roll – Legends in Concert.

I pressed play expecting some Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, maybe even Fats Domino.

But what I got was a melee of early 60s pop singers mixed in with some Motown and a bit of Brill building r’n’b.

Obviously, I left a comment. I thought you might be entertained by the consequences of my folly.

Me: Don’t want to spoil the party, but with the possible exception of The Crickets, no-one here counts as rock’n’roll. Mostly they are pop or r’n’b acts from the early 60s. Rock’n’roll was Little Richard, Bill Haley, earliest Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Del Shannon, Bobby Vee, Troy Shondell, Billy J. Kramer, Brian Hyland were all post-1960 pure pop. Martha Reeves and The Contours were on Motown; Spencer Davis was British r’n’b; The Dovells were a 60s doo-wop throwback; Joey Dee (not Vee) is on the Twist bandwagon here. So, where’s the rock’n’roll? Rock’n’roll was over by 1959.

Jon Emery: If you think that Del Shannon isn’t Rock n Roll, all I can say is you don’t know jack shit about Rock n Roll……

Charles C: Clearly, you didn’t grow up during rock’s early years.  Here’s a FACT for you, my pompous, sanctimonious, ignorant friend: In the dawn and early years of rock and roll, the term “rock and roll” embraced a wide umbrella of all types of music, including what we now categorize as rhythm & blues, folk, country, blue grass, soul, and even country.

So, the next time you tout an ignorant “opinion” as “fact,” I suggest you do your homework.

Me: I was born at the beginning of January, 1949, Charles. Don’t know whether that qualifies me as ‘growing up during rock’s early years’ for you? But also, you make the mistake of confusing rock with rock ‘n’ roll.

Rock ‘n’ roll was over by the time Elvis came out of the army. Rock started when Bob Dylan plugged in.

Soul music is a 60s category for an offshoot of r’n’b, and there was definitely no bluegrass in rock’n’roll. Those early country artists were horrified by rock’n’roll, given that it came out of ‘race’ music. If you want more, I’ll give you more.

Jon Emery: Believe that if you want to, but you can’t make me believe it. I guess CCR didn’t rock either, right? Del Shannon was the first to write Rock n Roll songs in a minor key. I happen to be a big fan of all those other artists that you named, but, in my opinion, Rock n Roll didn’t stop there……

Me: Rock music is very different from Rock ‘n’ Roll. Rock ‘n’ Roll derived from some very specific riffs and beats that developed in the late 40s. The first Rock ‘n’ Roll record is often cited as Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston (actually Ike Turner). If you listen to collections like The Black & White Roots of Rock & Roll, you’ll see that even Rocket 88 wasn’t the first. But by the time Elvis came out of the army, Rock ‘n’ Roll was over. From then on it was mainly pop or r’n’b, some of it – for sure – with a decent back beat.

Rock music, on the other hand, started the day Bob Dylan plugged in and turned up to 11. That’s when things started to get loud. Just because you don’t agree with what I’m saying doesn’t mean you can rewrite history. Go and listen to some Big Joe Turner, or Ella Mae Morse or Big Mama Thornton, or That’s Alright Mama by Elvis and tell me what they have to do stylistically with Del Shannon or any of the other artists in this video.

Charles C: You state that rock ‘n’ roll was over by the time Elvis came out of the army and that rock started when Bob Dylan plugged in.  I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to call you out:  You’ve made dogmatic statements without supporting them with an iota of evidence, reference, or verification.  My friend, you may be selling, but I’m not buying.  At least, not until you back up your statements with documentation.

Me: First of all, Charles, I’m not ‘selling’ anything that I need you to ‘buy’. But – here goes for a little context.

Rock’n’roll was that wild and exciting music as practised by, among others, Little Richard, Wynonie Harris, Jackie Brenston, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and, of course, Elvis in his Sun days and his early RCA recordings. This was music rooted in r’n’b, although the white boys brought some country (western swing) to the mix. If you listen to House Of Blue Lights by Ella Mae Morse (there are dozens of other examples) you can hear the roots of rock’n’roll going back to the 40s. But this is still r’n’b, and a little bit more polite.

What Little Richard and Chuck Berry did was take that template, rough it up, add a back beat so the rhythm drove really hard. Jerry Lee’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ is a perfect example. The two things that did for rock ‘n’ roll as a commercial enterprise were Elvis going into the army and the payola scandal.

By the time Elvis came out of the army, the record industry had wrested control of the music back and started feeding white bread pretty boys like Frankie Avalon, Bobby Vinton and Pat Boone to the public. Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper were dead, Jerry Lee was in disgrace for marrying his 13-year-old cousin and Elvis found it easier to hit the number one spot with songs like It’s Now Or Never and Are You Lonesome Tonight rather than A Mess Of Blues.

From there on, Tin Pan Alley dominated (with some admittedly pretty great pop music, but also a lot of dross) until The Beatles came along (in the UK at least) at the end of 1962. The quality and excitement levels went up, but this was still pop music.

And then Bob Dylan plugged in and turned it up LOUD and began to play what we can now recognise as rock music. He influenced The Beatles, they influenced him. By 1968, The Stones had gone back to their roots, The Beatles were recording influential and loud rock music like Helter Skelter, Everybody’s Got Something To Hide and I Want You. Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton threw off their blues roots and we were off on the big rock adventure.

I didn’t set out to write a history of the music industry, Charles! I only came on this thread to say that none of the people in the video above – bar, briefly, The Crickets, and only with Buddy Holly – qualify as rock’n’roll. They are all from the pop era that immediately followed the payola scandal and Elvis’s transition to crooner.

Jon Emery: You think you’re the only rock historian? I know about the history of rock music because I’m a musician who has been playing this music for over 50 years. So tell me that I’m rewriting Rock n Roll if you want to, but I know about Rock History because I’ve been a part of it.

Me: Why don’t you Google me?

Jon Emery (several hours later): Well, I’m impressed with your track record—Looks like we’ve both been around the block—I take back the ‘You don’t know Shit” statement with my apology.

Charles C:  I wish to thank you for your most informative information.  It was not only enlightening, but interesting and nostalgic as well.  Indeed, reviewing and researching your information took me on a pleasant stroll down memory lane. I shall, of course move forward, continuing to enjoy rock, pop, & rock ‘n roll music, but now with a broader and deeper understanding of its history.  Take care, my friend.  Cheers.  And, thanks again.

And we all lived happily ever after…..and no reason not to watch this great line-up of pop legends in concert. Just don’t tell me it’s rock’n’roll.

And now we can get into the really geeky arguments with all the people who actually know something. Bring it on Geoff; bang a gong John; rant and rave, Dave. Let’s Have A Party….

 

 

Twelve Months of Wonderful Things

It’s a year since I launched this blog, and this is my 50th post.

I’ve written about The Beatles, Mott The Hoople, Scott Walker, The Wombles, Driver 67 (of course!), Yewtree’s investigations and Simon Cowell.

And which post got the most readers?

I’d give you 50 guesses and you’d finally get there.

Wonderful thing No 1: Kokomo – they were the subject of my most read post. A band most people have never heard of.

Those who have, though, are passionately devoted. As am I. So it was wonderful to get a rush of attention for writing about artists who have never hit the charts, or sold a million.

And it didn’t happen just the once. When, a few weeks later, I recounted an incident that ended with several of the band in A&E, the numbers peaked again. Maybe I should just start a Kokomo blog!

Wonderful thing No 2: Because I wrote about Kokomo, Nick Hornby read my blog. Say no more.

Wonderful thing No 3: If this blog says anything about me, it’s that I have half a foot in the past, but most of me is in the present. Using computer technology and social media to create and promote my own new songs caught the eye of a book publisher.

He wanted a book which would guide young music hopefuls through the maze of the digital age.

So I was commissioned to write that book. Nearly done. Out by Spring, we hope.

Wonderful thing No 4: In my fifth post, I wrote about being backstage at a Bob Dylan concert in 1978 with my friend Heather.

Completely coincidentally – nothing to do with the blog – she contacted me last week. We hadn’t heard from each other for almost 35 years.

She asked if I remembered her. The usual response is, “Of course I do!” whilst searching your mind for some clue. But I was able to point Heather back to my post last February, and there she was.

We’ve since been reminding each other of escapades we got up to, including leaving the fabled Wembley ELO spaceship gig after just two songs. We weren’t much for the grandiose, Heather and I. Although we did go to a party Barry Manilow threw for Bette Midler. That doesn’t count as grandiose, does it?

Wonderful thing No 5: I was invited to join the Illuminati. Yes! I was!

And what had earned me this privilege? Last September I wrote about the ‘Paul Is Dead‘ conspiracy and talked about the current online obsession with the Illuminati.

I had an offer from illuminati.com to get (notice that: ‘get’) $2,500 every three days, and $1,000,000 ‘membership blessing for doing what you love to do best’.

“Change your life for the better, We holds the world.”

Those mistakes are not mine – that is verbatim how the invitation was put. I don’t care how much money is involved. Where grammar and punctuation are concerned, you can’t buy me.

Wonderful thing No 6: In November last year, I wrote about mental health. It was a slightly nervous post – not the happiest of things to admit to, being bipolar, or to talk about.

But the post attracted attention from outside the music sphere, and ended up in my Top 10 posts of the year. That’s pretty wonderful, don’t you think?

Wonderful thing No 7: One of my (very small) band of Twitter followers, @maxkelp tweeted “You are responsible for the Beta Band. Thank you.”

I was baffled. I had never heard of The Beta Band. I had certainly never imagined a one hit wonder inspiring anyone. So I took his ‘Thank you’ to mean, ‘You git’.

I replied: “Sounds like you don’t think that’s a good thing!”

And he replied: “No, they’re good, but they sound like you.”

So of course, I had to check them out. Seems the main guys would have been at primary school when Car 67 was a hit. So I guess it’s possible that Driver 67 became part of their cultural subconscious.

But I’m not claiming it. They remind me more of The Grease Band or Black Rebel Motorcyle Club, and I suggest if you like your music more on the acoustic and interesting side, The Beta Band is well worth a YouTube visit.

Wonderful thing No 8: Did I mention – Nick Hornby read my blog?

Wonderful thing No 9: I sent a box of 40-year-old tapes off to be digitised and received back a treasure trove of memories. Sessions I’d produced in some amazing studios: Apple, Air, CBS (mostly CBS, to be fair – I did work for the company!), Olympic.

As a result, I wrote my Kokomo post, wrote about South African Tony Bird, and about some completely bonkers sessions I did with crooner Vince Hill. Sadly, I haven’t heard from Vince, but Tony called me from New York and we talked for over an hour.

I have to say again, if the wind had been in the right direction, you would not now be needing me to tell you that Tony Bird is one of the greats.

Wonderful thing No 10: A couple of weeks ago, comedian Tim Vine Tweeted: “Hey who likes Car 67 by Driver 67?”

I love Time Vine (my favourite line: ‘Velcro. What a rip off!’). I like him even better now.

His Tweet resulted in a sequence of tweets mostly consisting of lines from Car 67. Even for an old cynic like me, that was heartwarming.

Wonderful thing No 11: In May last year, I wrote about my friend John Howard, and how the powers that be at Radio 1 deliberately stifled his career in the mid-70s.

I put up a video of John singing My Beautiful Days. It describes a trajectory where today, if you’re attractive enough, being camp is a career move (think Graham Norton, Rufus Wainwright).

But back then, his handlers were trying to make him more ‘butch’. My Beautiful Days is a very affecting song. I’ve seen people reduced to tears by it.

One Very Famous Person emailed me to thank me for introducing him to the song, which he had duly downloaded from iTunes. “What a should-be classic!” is how he put it.

Wonderful thing No 12: The Driver 67 catalogue (all 21 songs!) was reissued (online only) – after 35 years languishing in the vaults – by Cherry Red Records.

This year, I will release the follow up (!) album, called The Return Journey. This old cab still has some fuel in the tank.

I’m going to indulge myself here (it is the blog’s birthday!) and show you a performance by Lisa Hannigan, whose videos kept popping up while I looked for The Beta Band.

Lisa achieved some prominence as part of Damien Rice’s band. But solo, she is a revelation. Not since Joe Cocker have I seen anyone whose movements and facial expressions suggest such total immersion in the music. Except in Lisa’s case, it’s sexy. (Sorry, Joe).

 

 

 

 

Let’s have an argument about Nick Drake. I’ll chuck in Donovan for starters

After last week’s post about the excess of musical talent in my family, my friend Slavena posted on Facebook, “Well Paul, maybe you could excel in writing…..”

She was trying to cheer me up, and also, maybe, tell me that she likes the way I write.

Of course, what she doesn’t know – and neither do you – is that my dad, in addition to being a phenomenal pianist (and holding down a day job at the Southern Electricity Board) also wrote about 70 crime novels that sold millions.

Which is not to mention that my brother Dudley is now trying to get his first novel published.

So, no Slavena, my family won’t even let me have writing to myself!

But at least I have this blog, where I can talk about what I want to.

And this week I want to ask you:

So, where do we stand on Donovan?

Bit of a bore now? A bit full of himself? Talks self-importantly, making frequent references to his influence on The Beatles.

Certainly hasn’t made any music of note for a very long time.

Now, where do we stand on Nick Drake?

Beautiful young man, genius songwriter, brilliant guitarist, left a wonderful legacy. Tragic he died so young. So sad.

Given all that, where do we think we’d stand on Donovan had he died after 1968’s A Gift From A Flower To A Garden?

My guess? We’d all be bewailing a tragic loss.

But no-one listens to Donovan any more. His first two albums were incredibly influential on young starter-guitarists like me, and then, in 1966, Sunshine Superman took it to another level. But after 1970 – well, it’s a long way down.

Which just goes to show, as some mega-cynic once said, that dying young is a great career move.

This all came to mind because my friend John Howard mentioned he was reading Gabrielle Drake’s biography of her brother Nick. I found myself thinking “I’d like to read that”.

But then I asked myself, “Why wouldn’t you want to read a biography of Donovan?” And the answer was: actually, I would.

Just for context, Donovan had released five albums, one of them a double – before Nick Drake started recording his first.

What’s Bin Did And What’s Bin Hid was released in May 65. For emerging folkies like me, it was a revelation. I didn’t want to sing sea shanties, but Bob Dylan was too intimidating. The Times They Are A-Changing held a definite message, but it wasn’t one you could hope to credibly carry at age 16.

Catch The Wind, on the other hand, was beautiful, simple and easy to sing. And the album which that song leads you into had at least five other songs you could incorporate into your set. Car Car was like a child’s nursery rhyme – but it was written by Woody Guthrie, so everyone would happily sing along; no credibility problems back then.

Six months later, Fairytale was released. Apart from the hit single, Colours, it showed – as was common back then – artistic and musical development from the first album.

In particular, Sunny Goodge Street was quite jazzy. It was also lyrically a little oblique for 16-year-olds from Wolverhampton with its references to hash-smokers, Mingus, and ‘smashing into neon streets in their stonedness’.

I would hazard a guess that this song was a touchstone for 17-year-old Nick Drake, still three years away from beginning to record his first album, which was eventually released in 1969.

Not to take anything away from Nick Drake, but back then singer-songwriters were ten-a-penny (as we used to say pre-decimalisation).

At Music Week, I was the only teenage staff writer. So all the folk, progressive, underground and far-out stuff came my way.

Before you even heard their albums, you would have been to see Al Stewart, Roy Harper and Cat Stevens. You could watch James Taylor, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen. Certainly, after their debut release there would be important showcase gigs.

It’s beyond doubt that at least one of Nick Drake’s albums came across my desk. What I said about it, what I thought about it I can’t possibly remember.

I might well have raved about his first, as I did about Joni Mitchell’s, Leonard Cohen’s, Kris Kristofferson’s, Randy Newman’s – it’s a long list.

But the thing about Nick Drake was, he didn’t follow through. He didn’t gig and he wouldn’t do interviews. In a maelstrom of emerging talent – it was an absolutely extraordinary time – he didn’t get lost; he actively hid.

You might say, “But it should really be about the music”. And I might reply: “Oh, get over yourself”.

Nick Drake’s albums emerged into an overcrowded world of pop, folk and rock music that was exploding in an unprecedented display of talent, the existence of which was previously unimaginable. Who knew?

But my main point today is not to knock poor benighted Nick Drake. Forty years later, we can all see that if he’d gigged, if he’d done the publicity rounds he might well have been a contender.

Or he might not. Many weren’t, for various reasons. But what is clear forty years later is that he made music that survives all fashions, all fads.

And it is also clear – to me at least (and I think John Howard) – that if Donovan Leitch had died after the release of his 1968 double album, A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, today we would all be talking about what a loss Donovan was.

The fact that he’s still around to bore us with his tales of how he taught Lennon and McCartney to fingerpick – resulting in songs like Blackbird, Julia, Dear Prudence and Mother Nature’s Son on the fabled White Album – only goes to say how damaging to your heritage it can be to live too long.

So, to somewhat redress the balance, here’s Donovan and Sunny Goodge Street. Have a listen, and then we can start the arguments about whether Nick Drake might have been influenced by Mr Leitch.

And, for comparison, here’s Nick Drake’s At The Chime Of A City Clock.

 

 

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.