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 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).





Mad Mandolin Man, Neil Sedaka and the man from Edelweiss

I’m at one of the biggest dinner parties I’ve ever been to, maybe 40 people around the table.

About ten seats down to my left is a dark-haired and very pretty woman. I feel sure I know her.

Then someone says: “Norma, pass the potatoes?”

“Norma! That’s who you are,” I call down the table, like she doesn’t know her own name. “The tape op at CBS.”

She looks at me for a few seconds, scrolling back 20 years through her memory: “Oh my God – you’re Mad Mandolin Man!”

Shall I explain? I think I should.

Towards the end of my time at CBS, with half a foot out of the door, they signed Vince Hill, a British crooner who had narrowly missed the number one slot with his signature hit, Edelweiss from The Sound Of Music.

At that time, I was developing a sound in my head, a sound gleaned from a few seconds of a Bob Dylan track.

If You See Her Say Hello, from Blood On The Tracks, has a magical sonic accident where a guitar and a mandolin, just for seconds here and there, react together in a way that really caught my ear.

From these snippets, I built a sound in my head where I used more and more guitars, and multiple mandolins.

Then Vince Hill came along, and he had been talking to Neil Sedaka.

Sedaka was embarked on a major comeback and writing the best songs of his career. One of them, The Hungry Years, he had promised to Vince.

When I heard The Hungry Years, I knew this was the song on which to try out my sound. It’s a long way from Bob Dylan to Vince Hill, I know, but they don’t call me Mad Mandolin Man for nothing.

I telephoned arranger Keith Mansfield and asked him to score the session for me. No way, he said. Sounds bonkers. I’m not getting involved with that.

So I did it myself.

Now consider. I had never written an arrangement. I could write music, very slowly. But an arrangement? That was ridiculous. There would be more than 50 musicians in the studio, and I’d have to hire a conductor. If I failed it was going to be spectacular. It was also going to be very expensive.

But I’m nothing if not determined. And stubborn.

I scored three songs, including The Hungry Years, for 20 violins (in four parts), 10 cellos, five double basses, six 12-string guitars, six 6-string guitars, six mandolins, drums, bass and electric guitar. Oh, and a harp.

Actually, I didn’t score for the harp. I asked Skaila Kanga – the most revered harpist in the country – if she’d be ok with me giving her the chord sheets and she could just vamp it.

How mad is that? You get 50-odd players in a studio, and ask one of them – a classical musician who’s worked with Otto Klemperer, Andre Previn, Daniel Barenboim and Simon Rattle – to make it up as they go along. Looking back, I’m embarrassed at my own chutzpah.

On the day I’m about as nervous as it’s possible to be without falling over. Vince is there, along with his musical director, Ernie Dunstall.

Keith Mansfield turns up. “What are you doing here?” I ask. He laughs. “I’ve come to watch you fail.”

The booker’s there too. This is the guy who books musicians for sessions. They never go to sessions. They’d never get any work done. I’m getting a bit paranoid now. He explains: “You’ve got just about every guitarist in London here, so I’ve got nothing else to do. I thought I’d come along and see what you’re up to.”

With all this pressure and anticipation building, I’d love to tell you it was brilliant.

So I will. It was. It was brilliant.

Ernie Dunstall had been watching intently through the studio window as perspiration became preparation became pin-drop quiet as the conductor lifted his baton.

About one minute in, Ernie turned round, beaming. “Mr Phillips, I think you’ve triumphed.”

Skaila Kanga, front and centre with her beautiful concert harp, had been perfectly willing to go with my flow. Now she was also smiling.

It was absolutely thrilling, the sound coming from that studio.

Later, Vince put his vocals on, and even added harmonies. I’ll never forget the look on his face just before he left the sessions. “No-one’s ever gone to this much trouble for me,” he said. “Thank you.”

Unfortunately, back at the record company, they got the jitters. They hadn’t signed Vince Hill as an experimental artist (which is a laugh: listening now it’s a really sweet sound; nothing shocking about it at all. It just didn’t adhere to the formula).

I knew what they wanted. For a singer like Vince, the formula was to find a bunch of songs that were going to be in the charts in three to four months time, put them all on an album arranged much like the originals and pray that one or two of the songs would be in the Top 10 when the album was released.

So that’s what I did. By the time the album was released – arranged by Keith Mansfield, and minus my mad mandolins – its title track, Mandy, had been number one for Barry Manilow. A couple of the other songs were either in or on their way out of the charts. So we cracked the formula.

My Vince Hill/Bob Dylan collaboration was never released, not even finished. The sessions were never mixed.

All I have to remind me of one of the biggest challenges – and thrills – of my life are the monitor mixes where the magical harmonics caught between 12 guitars, six mandolins and 20 violins are not really apparent.

But maybe, somewhere in there, you can apply your own imagination to my wall of sound and hear at least some of what I heard on the only occasion in my life when 50+ musicians played arrangements that I had written down.

And Vince – I know you’re having the toughest of years. This one’s for you, just to remind everyone that you really did have what it takes. And you let a 25-year-old mandolin fool mess with your career. Thank you.


PS: Of course, that wasn’t the end of me and mandolins. Car 67 features a bunch of ’em.