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).





Lynsey and Cilla: a study in opposites

The sudden death of Lynsey de Paul, and the YouTube clips sent by friends, had me wistful, but once again laughing at memories of the day she terrorised a Rock God.

We’re at Air Studios, one of the smaller rooms, winding down after some rehearsal time with Mott The Hoople.

Drummers – always the last guys out of the room. All that screwing off, taking apart, putting into protective bags and boxes.

And I feel it would be ill-mannered of me – the rest of the band have gone – to walk out and leave Dale ‘Buffin’ Griffin to his own devices. So I hang around, chewing the fat while he deconstructs his kit.

And in walks Lynsey de Paul. She’s tiny, Lynsey. You could lift her with one arm. Pretty too. So pretty. And charming – kind, funny, much sexier than television or photos lead you to believe.

She walks through the door, a big cheeky grin on her face. She winks at me, and then says – to his back – “Hi Dale.” I can see she’s making mischief.

Buffin turns around, his eyes go wide. “What’re you doing here. You can’t be here!”

“How are you?” she says, ignoring the fact he’s going into meltdown.

“I’m ok, I’m fine – but you – you can’t be in here. My wife will find out!”

My ears are on full alert now. This is one of the funniest encounters I’ve ever seen. A rock drummer at the height of his pomp, and five feet of pop female has him quaking. This is one of Lynsey de Paul’s life motifs – don’t think of yourself as ‘the weaker sex’, and don’t act like it.

Lynsey’s in control, no question. She cocks her head to one side. “But how will she know, Dale? She’s not here is she?” She’s really enjoying his discomfort.

Panicking now, Buffin. “No, no she’s not here. But she’ll know. She will. She’ll know I’ve seen you!”

I don’t claim to know the background to this. My guess is as good as yours. But it was bloody funny to watch.

Lynsey de Paul was tougher than she looked, and more talented than her career appeared to allow for. She was the first female to win an Ivor Novello Award, and it wasn’t her last. Her name as writer or co-writer is on a lot more songs than those you remember her for.

She was a woman in what was, for sure, a man’s world. I’m not sure how she got involved with Mott The Hoople, but that was a seriously masculine (though not macho) environment.

You see what I’m saying. No shrinking violet would have survived. For all her female and feminine attributes, she held her own with the toughest, including Sean Connery and James Coburn.

Later, she learned self-defence and made documentaries on the subject, for other women. She donated to charities that helped battered women. Later still, she admitted her father had been violently abusive. Much of her post-pop life was devoted to bringing focus to ways in which women could protect themselves, mentally and physically.

So she wasn’t the pop poppet of her 70s image. She was a gifted musician, classically trained. After her pop career faded, she arranged and recorded various pieces of classical music, which she scored for her own style.

All of this is in sharp contrast to Cilla Black, whose profile has risen again after ITV’s three part biographical film. Cilla had no training, not even much experience, before she found herself in the main studio at Abbey Road.

And she’s demonstrated no significant post-career hinterland that might mark her out, like Lynsey de Paul, as having a more serious side.

But she was, is, much the bigger star.

I have no personal stories about Cilla, but I was a fan early on. Her first four singles were pop heaven.

Back then, the next best thing to a new Beatles record was one of their songs by someone else. Love Of The Loved only just reached the Top 40 (which was to say that it wasn’t considered a hit at all). But being a Lennon McCartney song it couldn’t have done a better job of announcing a new talent.

Then, two back to back number ones – including the divine You’re My World – followed by another Lennon McCartney song, the slightly jazzy It’s For You.

Say what you like about the Cilla ‘honk’ – and it did get out of control after she had her nose ‘fixed’ – in her lower register she was heaven on the ear. In the top register she had power to spare.

Her first musical falter was a slightly embarrassing version of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. It still made number two. She didn’t recover her mojo, for me, till Alfie. The story of the Alfie sessions are industry legend.

Burt Bacharach, as well as being a wonderful tunesmith, was/is also a talented and demanding orchestrator. Cilla, not keen to record a song called Alfie – “You call your dog Alfie!” – started to set conditions she never thought would be met.

Bacharach must write the arrangement.


Oh! Well then, Bacharach must come to London for the session.


Oh! Well then, Bacharach, as well as running the session, must also play the piano.


Oh. Shit!

Cilla remembers 18 takes. Burt thinks it might have been 31. I’m sure there’s an archivist out there somewhere (Chris White?) who’s seen the tape boxes and can give the correct number. Cilla and Burt can’t even agree on which take made it through to release.

Whatever, Cilla was put through the wringer. Take after take after take – singing live, with a full orchestra in the studio, Bacharach conducting from the piano, George Martin in the control room, a full quota of engineers, tape ops and microphone adjusters on hand.

It could have been humiliating. But Cilla was nothing if not tough. The slight and smiley girl of light entertainment was as competitive and brave as a boxer. Watch her here and – even if you’re a non-believer – ask yourself how many of today’s singers could deliver multiple takes under this much pressure.

And I can’t leave the subject without saying – Sheridan Smith as Cilla. Wow. Wasn’t she brilliant? Her singing of those classic songs was almost pitch perfect. She even managed to hint at the trademark honk – what George Martin called Cilla’s ‘corncrake voice’ – without caricaturing it.

By contrast, I’m not sure anyone will ever make Lynsey, or that any of Lynsey de Paul’s recordings would make the cut as ‘classic’. She was more skilled than Cilla, more talented. But whatever it is you need on top of that, or instead of that, Cilla had it.

Still, the respect and affection in which Lynsey was held might be gleaned from the fact that she was once invited onto the hippest show in town – The Old Grey Whistle Test. So that’s what I’ll leave you with.



Mick Jagger! Keith Richards! Phil Spector! Fight, Fight!

I spent an afternoon with Phil Spector in his suite at London’s Dorchester Hotel. Spector was always, to put it mildly, eccentric. But he could also be charming and lucid. I came away with at least four great tales (you’re reading them here for the first time).

I was there because Apple Records, the Beatles’ label, was reissuing A Christmas Gift For You, Spector’s fabulous 1963 album which I had bought on day of release, aged 14. Now, here I was, nine years later, in the room with the man himself.

Going off on a bit of a tangent, here’s an insight into the mind of a tabloid journalist. Also in the room was the Daily Express ‘music columnist’. Believe me, this person knew nothing about music. She was an embarrassment. (I was chatting to Harry Nilsson one day, when this buffoon cut across me with: “So, Nilsson, how did you come to write Without You?” Very quietly, Harry replied: “I didn’t.” And for her, the ‘journalist’, that was the story: Number One Hit Man Didn’t Write Song).

So, back at the Dorchester, Phil Spector has decided to put us all at ease by telling a funny story. The previous evening he and a couple of Rolling Stones (Jagger and Richards) and friends had gone for dinner in the hotel restaurant. Some American diners had taken exception to these long haired, dirty rock and rollers in their midst and made their feelings known both to the maître d’ and to the dirty rock and rollers themselves.

The Stones, according to Phil, were British manners personified. Keith Richards tried to mollify the tourists, showing how civilised he was by attempting humour to defuse the situation. But the Yanks stayed angry, and eventually stormed out, refusing to pay.

Now, here’s the tabloid mind for you: before he even finished the story, your Daily Express correspondent asked Spector if she could use the phone in his suite. Right there in front of us, she dialled out and demanded, “Give me the news desk”. Then she started to dictate her story: “Rolling Stones and American Producer in posh restaurant fight”.

Right there in front of us! No shame, no hint of embarrassment.

Spector walked over, took the phone out of her hand and replaced it on the stand. He put his hand on her shoulder, politely guided her to the door saying, “Please do that outside” and showed her out.

Unphased, Spector continued to be the perfect host, before excusing himself to make a phone call. I wasn’t taking much notice until I heard him say: “Get me Muhammad Ali.” Ali – possibly my biggest hero – was fighting that night in America and Phil wanted tickets to a cinema relay of the fight in London.

“Hey, Muhammad, how are you, Champ? Listen, can you arrange some tickets for me to see the fight in London? Great, yeah I know you’re busy. Go get ’em Champ.”

I was so naive I believed it. It was years before I realised that this was a perfect piece of Spector grandstanding. The idea that a man preparing himself for a fight, and on his way to regaining the World Heavyweight Title, could be got on the phone in a couple of minutes of 1970s transatlantic telephony – well, you get my drift.

But that’s the kind of chutzpah that got the young genius into the hit-making business in the first place.

Later, I told him I was a songwriter and had been an admirer ever since I made the connection between Zip A Dee Doo Dah (by Bob. B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans) and Da Doo Ron Ron (by the Crystals). By the time the Ronettes’ Be My Baby arrived I was completely hooked on Spector’s Wall Of Sound.

I don’t even remember how I knew he was the guy behind these records. The concept of ‘the producer’ was unknown to the public pre-Spector. But in 1963, within three records I knew who Phil Spector was, and I excitedly bought his Christmas Album totally on faith.

So, naturally, I asked him to divulge some secrets. Well, he said, one of his tricks was to record, say, the drums. Then he would feed them back out into the studio and put microphones in strategic places to get that big, bouncy echo.

It took me just two years to discover he was snowing me. I was at AIR Studios with Mott The Hoople and they wanted the Spector sound. Their engineer Bill Price was explaining how it could be achieved. I said, “No, Bill. This is how he did it”. We argued back and forth and finally, exasperated, I said: “Look Bill, I didn’t want to have to say this, but Phil Spector himself told me this is how he did it!”

He looked at me like a hole had just opened up in his world. “But he told me he did it THIS way!”

I’d love to be able to report that we both fell about laughing. In fact I felt deeply embarrassed. I’d thought I was in possession of a magical piece of knowledge, but the Wizard of Phil had just made up different stuff to keep his secrets safe.

I should have known better, because Spector did tell me one very obvious tall story at The Dorchester. At the end of the Christmas album is a sweet, string-laden Silent Night over which he speaks a little homily to Christmas. “The union called a strike just before that session,” he told me, “so I had to go into the studio and overdub 16 violin parts, one at a time.”

It’s just as well I have never subscribed to the idea that my heroes should live up to my personal expectations. But at least he sent a handwritten note, in a handwritten envelope – what more could you ask?

The handwritten note

The handwritten note

The handwritten envelope

The handwritten envelope

In truth, all I ask of my heroes is that they thrill me from time to time with their genius. And Phil Spector was a genius in the limited sphere that is pop music.

Which brings me to this week’s song, a cover version.

There are almost as many reasons for making a cover version as there are cover versions. You do it because you love the song as written; or because you think it will be a hit; or because you’ve seen something in it that no-one has seen before.

Phil Spector’s You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling (co-written with Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill) is a song that’s been covered countless times, a dramatic song that singers use to show off their power and range. I’ve never had much power as a singer, and my range has gone with the wind in the past two decades.

But what a song! And I’ve always loved singing it. So I challenged myself to approach it in a way where my limitations wouldn’t be an issue. What I came up with was: ‘How would Norah Jones do it?’ And my answer was: she would remove all the drama and simply rely on the song to tell its own story.

So that’s what I tried to do. And guess what? It’s impossible. The drama is all there, in the writing. It’s really, really hard to sing it low-key. I manage it, through an act of will. You’ll hear that I barely raise my voice. But even Norah Jones, the most understated singer I can think of, would struggle to remove all the drama. Have a listen and let me know, please, what you think.

And for the aspiring songwriters and producers out there, here’s a second version with the drums and reverb removed.

You’ll hear that it begins to feel even more intimate, but still no less dramatic. For a similar (but infinitely better) example of the low key approach to a dramatic song, have a look at Katie Melua singing Diamonds Are Forever, just her and her guitar. Whether you like her or not, this is a stunning performance.