David’s dead? Could we just slow the world down a bit?

It was depressing enough to find three people who’d died during 2015 aged 67 – the age I became on January 1 this year.

But to wake up on January 11 2016 and find that David Bowie has died aged just 69 is simply shocking.

Country star Lynn Anderson (I Never Promised You) A Rose Garden; Chris Squire, guitarist with Yes; and Jimmy Greenspoon, Three Dog Night keyboard player, all served to remind me of my own mortality during 2015 as New Year’s Day 2016 crept nearer. They all died aged 67.

Still – all respect to their families’ loss – these were journeymen artists. Millions enjoyed them, so God bless ’em.

But what are you supposed to say about David Bowie that hasn’t been said a thousand times before?

Millions of words will be written and spoken about him over the next few days. The same stories, tropes and cliches will be repeated ad nauseam and young people will be wondering what all the fuss is about. He wasn’t Ed Sheeran, was he?

But we know, don’t we, we who were sentient in the 1950s? We were ready for the greatest explosion of popular culture ever known – Elvis, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Monty Python, James Bond, Muhammad Ali, Woodstock, even the first man on the moon and Concorde.

And that was when David Bowie just got his toe in the door with Space Oddity, an ‘overnight success’ in 1969. Seven years of frustration, failure and feeling his way through the treacherous music industry served well to strengthen his artistic resolve when times were tough, and they often were. He was the best part of 20 years into his career before he might safely assume financial comfort and the security of his reputation.

Artistically, he’s up there with with the absolute greats.

Only Dylan and The Beatles could be said to have been more influential. He was as restless as The Beatles, who reinvented themselves pretty much album by album. The difference being, they did it for six years; Bowie did it continuously over six decades.

I’ve been loving Blackstar, his latest album, released two days before his death. Unlike Double Fantasy – not well received, peaking at number 14 in the UK charts and plummeting to 46 before John Lennon was killed – Bowie’s latest (last?) is challenging, admirably uncommercial and containing lyrics over which we will now pore for clues to his state of mind.

Dollar Days, for instance, has the lines:
If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to me
It’s nothing to see


Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you
I’m trying to
I’m dying to

Is Blackstar a cry for authenticity, but not at the expense of an ethical life?
How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar)

Oh, David. What are we going to do now?

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

It’s official. Kanye West is a nob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Prince vs The Beatles: when the entourage hit town

It was 1985 when I got my first glimpse of where pop stars were headed. I was at the Brits (before they became ‘The Brits’) and Prince turned up to collect an award.

He came through the back of the room, a tiny figure, surrounded by seven or eight really big guys who – in the absence of any prior experience of such a thing – we had to assume were ‘bodyguards’. It looked and felt utterly ridiculous.

I’m a big admirer of Prince. In my iTunes library he ranks fifth for number of tracks, after The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Stones and…..John Howard,  about whom I wrote last week.

But it is still beyond me why he felt the need for this show of muscle at an industry event. Only music industry people were present (back then, the public was not allowed in). And it was held in a London Hotel (not Earls Court or the 02). Prince was literally showing off.

Nevertheless, he showed us where things were going. No-one is surprised today when even the most minor pop tarts turn up with an entourage and a list of demands.

The last time I saw Paul McCartney was about four years ago in London’s Denmark  Street. He got out of a car (admittedly driven by someone else), and went alone into  a shop that specialises in bass guitars. He emerged about an hour later, happily chatting to the guitar-maker, stood on the pavement for a while and got back into his car.

(I was there by chance: at the time, I was importing guitars from America and they were being sold from one of the shops in the street. I was visiting my instruments.)

Between him getting out of the car and getting back in, everyone in the street had been tipped off that “McCartney’s on the street!”. But no-one bothered him; no-one approached him; no-one hassled him.

You might think that at the height of Beatlemania, things would have been a little different.

The first time I saw Paul McCartney in the flesh was when my sister insisted we had to go to Wimpole Street where we might catch a glimpse of him. We were on holiday in London, and I had no idea how she knew where a Beatle lived.

But sure enough, we stood on a corner looking up Wimpole Street, and in no time at all, a Mini pulled up, and out got McCartney and Jane Asher. This was probably 1964, definitely after I Wanna Hold Your Hand, and around the time A Hard Day’s Night came out.

It’s only looking back that I can see, comparing today’s pampered and protected celebrities, how almost ‘normal’ The Beatles lives were. One night in 1967, sometime after Sgt Pepper’s release, I was walking into the Bag O’Nails club, and coming towards me were John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They were deep in conversation, heads almost touching. At the time I thought, “Wow, they’re much smaller than I imagined”. (Publicity had led us to believe they were both 5ft 11in, while George was 5ft 10 and Ringo was 5ft 8. You could probably knock two or three inches off all of those).

It didn’t feel weird or unusual at the time. But looking back, how amazing. No entourage, no security, no surging crowds. Just two of the most famous people on the planet, strolling, oblivious to everything but each other.

At this time, and for at least another 20 years, the only person I saw surrounded by an entourage was Janis Joplin. At an event to publicise Cheap Thrills, instead of mingling and chatting to journalists – as was expected – she sat on the floor, bottle of Southern Comfort in hand, surrounded by a circle of a dozen or so hippies. She looked sour and unhappy, cutting herself off from the record company executives and journalists who were there to help her sell albums.

Contrast that with the night in 1969 when, finding myself in the company of Les Perrin – a man you might enjoy Googling – he insisted we stop off at the Albert Hall. With no challenge from anyone, we walked through the stage door, and made our way to the dressing rooms where Jimi Hendrix was preparing to go onstage.

With about three minutes to go before he walked up the tunnel to the stage, Hendrix emerged from the toilet, zipping up his crushed velvet pants. He smiled broadly when he saw Les, clearly pleased to see the man. Les said: “Jimi, this is Paul Phillips from Music Week”. He turned to me with another dazzling smile. “Oh, hey man, good to meet you” and he shook my hand, apologised for keeping it short, and off he ambled to play his now legendary gig.

Things have changed phenomenally. We can’t, of course, forget the fact that because John Lennon was used to walking around unprotected it was easy for Mark Chapman to murder him.

But the pop star who lives in my house is going to have a very different life from those of my era. And I can’t help thinking it’s a shame. Fame today means being cut off from anything remotely normal. Did you see the One Direction film? One of the mothers has a cardboard cutout of her own son in her house, because she has rarely seen him since the 2010 X Factor final in which, let us not forget, 1D came third.

All of which provides a very tenuous link to this week’s song, More Like That. Yes, I do wish that some things were a bit more like that, a bit more like they used to be. But that’s not what this song is about.

It’s about a day I spent with an old friend on the coast after a very unpleasant divorce (is there any other sort?).

Her kindness that day, listening to me babble about all my problems, prompted me to write a song in which I wished that my ex could have been “more like that”.

But all’s well. Events of that day are the reason I now live on the coast, and how come there’s a pop star that lives in my house. And things are, now, more like that; more like they should be.

Saying ‘no’ to John Lennon – not sure about that!

One of the great things about getting into record production in the mid-70s was that, with the exception of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, most of your heroes were still around.

Some of my heroes were likely the same as yours. But there was a second tier of people to whom you might not give a second thought. For me they were fascinating.

So it was, for instance, that I booked David Mason, the guy who played piccolo trumpet on Penny Lane, to come and work his magic on a track I was producing, the Mister Men theme song as performed by a duo with the unlikely name Bugatti & Musker.

On the same session I had Captain Mainwaring, disguised as Arthur Lowe. I stood by his side as he listened back to his contribution. He muttered to himself: “Silly old c***”, before turning his head slightly sideways, giving me a knowing smile.

Or you could book Tommy Reilly, the harmonica player you’d known all your life – the man who played the theme tune to Dixon Of Dock Green.

Amazingly, you could also call on the services of Geoff Emerick, who won a Grammy for his engineering work on Sgt Pepper.

As a journalist, I’d known Geoff for a while. He was a quiet, gentle and unassuming guy – excellent credentials for an engineer, a job that required the patience of Job whilst employing deep knowledge of all that was required to create sound out of thin air.

It probably never occurred to you – did it? – that while The Beatles were spending six months (an unprecedented amount of time back then) creating Sgt Pepper, there were people up in the control room, spending hours, days, weeks, months of their lives waiting to turn on the red light; having to remain focused for take after take after take of songs we now regard as classics; but which for them became like Chinese water torture.

There’s a track on Revolver, the Beatles’ seventh album, called Tomorrow Never Knows. It sounds like an engineer’s nightmare. For starters, John Lennon wanted a sound like “a thousand Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain-top”. This was Geoff Emerick’s first song as engineer on a Beatles track. By George Martin’s account, Geoff got stuck in, and was specifically responsible for the, at the time, very strange sound of John Lennon’s vocal.

If you were paying proper attention to The Beatles, Tomorrow Never Knows was the final confirmation that the Mop Tops had gone, to be replaced by an exciting enigma that was exploring music and recording in ways that no-one had ever done before.

Geoff Emerick made a massive contribution to that. You don’t win Grammys for just turning up. I’ll talk about working with Geoff in a future post.

But all this Beatle talk, and Revolver in particular, reminds me that when I first heard Yellow Submarine it struck me with a sense of profound melancholy. I didn’t hear it as a singalong, but as an other-worldly excursion into all sorts of sub-conscious emotions that I couldn’t put my finger on.

I know what you’re thinking. Oh yes I do.

But in 1966, in Wolverhampton, we didn’t even know drugs existed. We could just about afford three pints of scrumpy on a Saturday night.

Fast forward eight years, and my next appointment walks in. He’s a guy named Pete Bennett, and he records under the name Rhys Eye.

Usually, in these situations, you were handed a tape, or a cassette, and you’d listen and then say “No”. Very, very occasionally you would say “Yes”.

But Pete Bennett was extraordinarily nervous. “I’ve got this brilliant idea.”

“Well, let’s hear it then”.

“Trouble is, it’s so simple, if I let you hear it, you’ll nick it”.

To cut a long story short, we finally agreed that he would come back the next day and I would present him with a signed statement to the effect that, whether I liked it or not, his idea was his idea and I would do nothing to compromise his ownership.

Which is how I came to record a cover version of Yellow Submarine that exactly fit with my own emotional reading of the song.

This is a version which might never have seen the light of day. I made the mistake of giving a copy to my contact at ATV Music, which by then owned the Lennon-McCartney publishing rights. I calculated that they would love this new lease of life for a song that was hardly built for cover versions, and would add their weight to promoting it.

How wrong I was. A few days later, he called me and asked me not to release it. “Why on earth not?” I asked. “Well, I’ve played it to John and he doesn’t feel it truly represents the song he wrote.”

To this day, I have no idea what this sham was about. Here was a publisher turning down a cover version and – get this – lying to me! No way had he played Rhys Eye’s version to John Lennon. (In any event, it was Paul McCartney who wrote the song, as John related in a 1980 interview).

But at the time, I had to make a decision. Effectively I was being told I would be defying John Lennon’s express wishes. In other words I would be upsetting one of my greatest heroes, and one of the world’s biggest and most revered stars.

Well, obviously, I released the record. I loved it; still do.

But no-one need have worried. It really didn’t see the light of day. Never got a play on Radio One, died the proverbial. If you’re still out there, Pete Bennett/Rhys Eye, I kept the faith.