Yewtree, DLT, Gambaccini and me

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

Eleven months on bail, and no charge brought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not saying what Travis did was excusable.

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

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

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

Really? We’re not allowed to ask that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Cowell and the 1984 factor

Does anyone believe any more that X Factor isn’t scripted, contrived and edited to produce all those moments of ‘high drama’ and ’emotion’?

I stopped watching the show somewhere during series three, after a truly wonderful girl singer didn’t make it through to bootcamp. She had no backstory, wasn’t living in poverty and wasn’t doing it ‘for my nan’. She was just a beautiful girl with a thrilling voice, and that was clearly no longer enough. So I stepped away and never went back.

This week someone posted a link on my Facebook to one of those X Factor moments – let’s call it The Subo Effect – where we are supposed to feel we’re looking at a no hoper, and Simon Cowell gets tetchy.

The clip shows three nice looking boys, well presented, articulate, all with proper jobs. Which is astonishing since they’ve apparently grown up in the South Central area of LA, drug- and gang-ridden as it is.

It’s clear from the time they run on stage that the judges have been told they are perfect X Factor fodder. So as these three good-looking, sharply dressed and dignified brothers bounce on, Cowell scowls, and the other judges look distinctly uncomfortable – you know they want to smile, but they’ve been told to look sceptical.

During the ‘interview’, Cowell tells them to ‘stop weaving around; it’s like being on a boat; you’re making me feel sick”.

To add insult to injury, after they announce they’re going to sing Valerie, Cowell says: “I hate this song”, and then sits there looking flat-lipped as only he can. The camera lingers on the boys’ faces as they look like rabbits in headlights, because now they’re not so sure.

And then, off they go. Of course, the audience goes wild. Of course the judges faces light up. Of course, Simon Cowell begins to look impressed. It’s absolutely going according to script.

Except, that’s the problem. It’s so obviously, cynically, scripted.

When Paul Potts emerged on the first Britain’s Got Talent, it was a genuinely thrilling moment, that this podgy, shy and self-effacing man had such a surprising voice, and some actual talent to go with it.

Ditto Susan Boyle (although in her case, I wasn’t personally moved; I hate modern musicals, and most of the songs they contain, and she’s no musician’s idea of a great singer).

But of course, once you’ve had a couple of moments like that, you want more of them. So the research assistants have to go looking for unlikely chill-makers, and then the judges are tipped off, and now we’re on a production line of predictable and no longer so thrilling moments.

And the problem with AKNU, these three brothers, is they’re ok, but the singing’s not great, the dancing is sharp but limited and they just don’t have the, erm, X factor.

So the judges getting all misty-eyed and the audience going crazy all seems staged. Apparently, AKNU didn’t make it to boot camp (this was X Factor USA, last winter) and maybe we’ll never hear from them again, which wouldn’t be a tragedy.

But it set me wondering, and not for the first time, how pop music would have panned out if Simon Cowell had turned up in 1961 instead of 2001.

In 1961, pop was dominated by the likes of Cliff Richard, post-army Elvis, and blue-eyed white boys with names like Bobby (Darin, Vinton, Rydell, Vee) and girls who had the word ‘Little’ before their name (Eva, Peggy). In other words, totally unthreatening.

When John Lennon was told Elvis Presley had died, he said, “Elvis died when he joined the army” (in 1958).

Until then, Elvis had cut a genuinely threatening figure, “a national symbol of rebellion and untamed sexuality; a symbol of a new and dangerous way of being young”, in the words of American journalist David Seaton.

And his music seemed other-worldly in an age of Bing and Frank and Tony, David Whitfield, Donald Peers and Guy Mitchell.

But as the 50s turned into the 60s, and Elvis came out of the army and went off the boil, these older crooners were somewhat displaced by younger, prettier versions of themselves: Fabian, Bobby Vinton, Frankie Avalon – still crooners, but crooners your sister would swoon over, as opposed to your mom and your nan.

So imagine Simon Cowell stepping into that arena and playing to the gallery as he does now. How he would have loved Craig Douglas and Susan Maughan. He would have absolutely swooned over Kathy Kirby. Frank Ifield would have been told to “cut out the yodelling; it’s so 1949. Otherwise, good voice, good-looking guy. You’ll go far”.

But The Beatles? No chance – can’t sing, can’t play, hair’s too long. The Rolling Stones? Get the fuck out of here, and take a bath on your way out. Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Cream? You’re joking, right?

Bob Dylan. Well. Imagine the scene.

“What’s that song you’re playing?”

“It’s a Woody Guthrie song.”

“Woody Guthrie – who’s he? Is he a songwriter? If he is, he should stop now and spend the rest of his life listening to Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. That’s what I call song-writing.”

It really doesn’t bear thinking about, and it makes you wonder how much energy, attention and money Cowell’s empire has sucked out of the marketplace at the expense of genuine creative talent. I’ve no animus against Cowell personally, and I genuinely admire people who build businesses and make a fortune – as long as they’re not Russian oligarchs who’ve stolen all the money in the first place.

But there’s no doubt that X Factor and Got Talent have proved George Orwell’s contention in 1984 that music can be manufactured as a soporific, to keep people amused and occupied in a way that requires no real thought, and doesn’t inspire them to rebellion.

When was the last time you heard a song that made you feel like you did the first time you heard Blowing In The Wind, or Give Peace A Chance, or War (What Is It Good For?). Or, for that matter, Paralyzed by Elvis Presley?

So, you’ll find the AKNU clip here:

But for me, the most authentic clip of the week was this – 30 seconds long, partially scripted, but rounded off in the most surprising way that had me crying with laughter. It would never have got past Simon Cowell.


Not dazzled by the Headlights

No-one ever sets out to be a one hit wonder.

When I was first offered a record deal Car 67 hadn’t even been conceived, let alone written.

The song everyone thought was going to be the first hit was Headlights. I certainly did. So did several record companies, the music publisher and all the musicians who played on it.

Headlights was part of a package of songs that Pete Zorn and I had amassed over a three year period. There wasn’t a novelty song among them.

We were what the industry back then regarded as  an ‘album act’. Pete Zorn wrote seriously complex and brilliant songs about creeping urbanisation, friendship and the American desert.

I tended to the more commercial – songs about love, heartbreak and longing. It’s very rare for me to write a song about something that has nothing to do with my life, or the way I feel.

But Headlights is a straight up story. It came to me in a dream and was in my head when I woke up in the middle of the night. I always kept pen and paper by the bed, and I quickly scribbled down the words that appeared to be on a radio playing in my head. Then I fell groggily back to sleep.

A test of a song’s strength is when it takes up residence in your head. When I woke up next day, it was still there.

Also there in my head was the atmosphere and feel of it: moody and threatening, set on one of those mysterious back roads in American horror films that start nowhere and go nowhere. The sides of the road are thick with trees, and the full moon occasionally spills through to illuminate the tarmac.

For some reason, a girl is stranded on the road and is picked up by a truck driver. As the song progresses, he decides she’s easy prey; she tells him to back off and show some respect. He persists in his advances.

Somehow – I didn’t even try to resolve the means – the girl escapes from the truck and the rest of the song has the asshole driver following her and menacing her: “I can see your fright in the dead of the night. I can pick you up in my headlights”.

I think it took no more than 20 minutes after picking up a guitar to write the whole thing down and figure out how the guitar could set the mood: kind of JJ Cale style. The process was thrilling – I was convinced this was a top 10 song in the making. When we recorded the version I’m posting here, guitarist Mart Jenner said that in all the sessions he had done and in all the bands he had ever played with, he was never more sure that he was playing on a hit.

The original deal I negotiated with Logo Records was for me and Pete Zorn as the mainstays of a project we called Tax Loss. Headlights was the jewel in its crown.

But while the album deal was being negotiated, I wrote and demo’d Car 67 and the record company wanted it right here, right now!

I knew they were right. I knew it would be a hit. But I had no idea what the consequences would be for my future.

Oh dear. If we could take back time…

Barely stopping for breath after the success of Car 67, in May 1979 we released Headlights in a special sleeve on luminous vinyl. Once again Radio One demonstrated its awesome power.

One play on the station drove Headlights straight into the Top 75.

But that was the only play it got. Here’s what happened.

The dj introduced the record by saying, “If you thought Driver 67 was a one hit wonder, think again. Listen to this and see if you agree with me that we’ll be hearing a lot more from him”.

At the end of the record, the dj came back on and said, “Ah, it appears we won’t be hearing that record again”.

And that was that. No explanation, no intervention by the record company. My own interpretation was that the brass at Radio One had decreed that Car 67 was a novelty record, and as such constituted a one hit wonder. This dj hadn’t got the memo, but his producer had intervened while the record was on air.

Others thought differently – that Headlights was unsuitable for a teenage audience; that they couldn’t play a record in which the protagonist appeared to be threatening rape.

I really want that to be true, and it is credible. Terry by Twinkle had been banned because it was about a boyfriend dying; similarly Leader Of The Pack by the Shangri-Las.

I’m not going to post-rationalise Headlights. It’s a horror film in three minutes. It’s not a pleasant subject. But then neither was They’re Coming To Take Me Away Aha, or Midnight Rambler, or Cold Turkey. What it was was a bloody good record.

I’d put money on it being played on Radio One if it had been by Eric Clapton (I Shot The Sheriff), or the Stones (Brown Sugar), or Gary Puckett (Young Girl). And all of these songs predated Headlights by between five to ten years. So it’s not like I was carving out a new frontier.

Whatever the reason, Headlights was stopped in its tracks, and the record company didn’t have the clout or the gumption to challenge the decision. Shame. If one play could put it in the top 75, imagine what 10 plays would have done. And then I’d have had a very different career.

Apart from my home demo version, I recorded Headlights three times with different musicians. I was never completely satisfied, but the closest we came to what was in my head was the version that was eventually released in May 1979. That was in large part due to Mart Jenner’s playing. There’s real menace in his guitar parts.

Listening to it 35 years later, it still sounds like a hit to me. Judge for yourself and check your answer here: 

Cliff Richard and voyeurism: not happening!

Saturday morning, 9am. Sometime 1980. Last night was a heavy one. The phone rings. ‘Bugger that,’ I think, and turn over in my bed. But someone answers anyway. Next thing I know, my friend Pam is shaking me, saying, in quite urgent fashion, “It’s Jonathan King for you”.

“Tell him I’ll call him back,” I croak.

“I’m not telling Jonathan King you can’t talk to him!” says Pam. Easy to forget what a big deal Jonathan was back then. So I get up, go downstairs and pick up the phone. “Hi Jonathan, how are you?”

Let me tell you a couple of things about Jonathan King. The first time I met him was in a pub in Beak St, during Carnaby Street’s heyday. I was working at Music Week, the music industry’s bible. Every Monday lunchtime – press day – the Editor would take us off to the pub and try to get some luminary to join us. This particular week it was Jonathan King.

At some point in the conversation I decided to say something. I was 19, two years out of Wolverhampton, and perhaps not quite as suave as I thought I was. Hearing me speak, Jonathan looked at me quizzically and said: “Would you mind saying that again, only this time opening your mouth and enunciating?”

It would be wrong to suggest he and I became friends. Nevertheless, seven years later, out of work for the first time in my life, I took a gig freelancing at Midem, the music industry’s biggest European festival. It would be no exaggeration to say that at this point in my life I was a complete nobody.

Only a year before, I had been a minor somebody. Music Week had conferred its own magic status, and all doors had been open and welcoming for seven years. You got used to being wanted and courted.

I had left in 1973 to work in Artists & Repertoire, talent scouting at CBS Records, another job where I was courted assiduously and got to work with the likes of Mott The Hoople, Mike Batt and David Essex.

But in 1975, CBS fired me because I’d spent half a million quid and signed no hit artists. By 1976 I had no job and no status.

And yet when I arrived in the foyer of the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, the fabulous Tony King (the Beatles marketing guy, no relation) and Jonathan broke away from their group of music industry bigwigs and came over to make such a fuss of me that everyone in the place wanted to know who this newcomer was. God bless the Kings (and queens).

So what was it Jonathan wanted on this Saturday morning in 1980? He was phoning to tell me he’d heard one of my songs, The Waltz. “I want to tell you, Paul, this is one of the best songs I’ve heard in the past 10 years”. You can’t buy the kind of feeling you get from moments like these, and Jonathan King has given me two of those moments in my life.

The Waltz was written sometime in 1977 at the height of Punk. I loved Punk. There’s a book by Nick Cohn called Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom. You should read it. It’s great fun and fizzes off the page. Plus he explains, very convincingly, that every time pop music gets tired and lazy, someone comes along who really upsets the grownups and the establishment, and that’s “the next big thing”.

So if I had still been an a&r man I would have signed the Sex Pistols in a heartbeat.As luck would have it, I was out of work. Instead, I visited all the heads of a&r at that I knew and told them, for God’s sake sign the Pistols. As an example, the guy at RCA Records said: “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” he said. “It would  upset my other artists.”

“What,” I said. “Jack Jones? Bonnie Tyler? Middle Of The Road (Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep – remember?). Fuck ’em.” Needless to say he didn’t.

Much as I welcomed Punk though, I couldn’t help speculating about their sex lives. How would it happen, I thought? So I wrote The Waltz, whose opening line is, “Do young men kiss their girls these days?”. It was hard to think of green haired, spiked and safety-pinned kids being romantic.

Later, my song publisher told me that Cliff Richard loved the song and was going to record it. Well, that’s what you get for writing an old-fashioned song, and I wasn’t going to complain.

Unfortunately, when Cliff got the lyric sheet in front of him he realised what the last verse signified. “And there, in the dark, what does she do, she watches you watching her“. Whoops. Cliff the Christian wasn’t going to be singing about that kind of how’s your father. Which meant no big payday for me.

But I still love The Waltz. I could have given it a less enigmatic title, but it is in waltz time, and I don’t think punks did a lot of waltzing. So the title just accents the irony of a song about sex and romance with spitting and safety pins involved. I hope you like it. And thanks to the joys of computer technology, I’ve been able to add a harmony I felt was missing for 35 years.

Here it is then, this week’s song – The Waltz. Think about the Punks when you listen. It does add a certain je ne sais quoi.