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.



Scott Walker and me. Oh dear…..

Scott Walker, eh?

I know, I know. You love him. I know you do!

Well I don’t, and I’m going to tell you why.

But first, some background so you understand where I’m coming from.

I joined Music Week two months after Sgt Pepper was released. I was 18.

Within a year I was the go-to guy when it came to new talent. It was hard work, but very exciting. Apart from an already alcoholic news reporter who didn’t really like music, I was the only writer under 30 and the only one raised on The Beatles. I understood what was going on post-Revolver.

I was the first to review a James Taylor album (earning a telegram of thanks from Apple Records’ Derek Taylor). I raved about the Bee Gees and Creedence Clearwater Revival, promoted the interests of Al Stewart and Roy Harper, interviewed American folk giant Odetta, and then followed up her tip to quickly acquaint myself with Richie Havens.

My joy was in being able to write about these people, and knowing that almost every record dealer (remember them?) in the UK would read what I said. So when the record company rep walked into the shop and tried to sell in records by Creedence Clearwater, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Al Stewart, James Taylor, The Incredible String Band, or Hawkwind the dealers knew they should pay attention.

I did this work for five years and my track record did not escape record company notice. Which was how I ended up working in the A&R department at CBS Records.

One of my tasks as an a&r man was to find songs for the artists on my roster. One of my artists was Scott Walker.

At the time, I thought of him as blessed with an exceptional voice. Beyond that, I found him embarrassing, a precocious child who felt he was not getting the attention he warranted. The whole Jacques Brel thing lacked authenticity for me. This was my critical evaluation before I met him.

In 1973 Walker was at a low point. He had tried, with Scott 4, to kickstart a new era under his birth name Noel Scott Engel. The album bombed, despite the fact that in the year it was released – 1969 – he had his own BBC tv series.

That is truly spectacular, A* failing; the kind you really have to work at. Like changing your name on a record. Genius.

But now he had a new deal with CBS Records, which is where I came in. It should have been a fresh start.

So I took myself down to Nova Studios, near London’s Marble Arch, where Del Newman was producing Walker’s first album for CBS, Stretch. The singer did nothing to endear himself to me – which was fine; why should he? But I watched him closely, and my sense of him was of simply not caring. Del Newman worked hard, as ever, contributing some of his trademark beautiful and carefully crafted arrangements. But the song choices were desultory at best. This album was not going to change Scott Walker’s life.

As I studied him, Walker seemed more interested in betting on this that or the other – the spin of a coin, the turn of a card, anything – rather than engaging with the music. I left Nova thinking: “This is a guy who needs some exceptional songs to reboot not only his career, but also his sense of himself as a major figure in music.”

I’m not going to drag this out. I found three songs for him. One of them was The Air That I Breathe, by Albert Hammond. Another was (You Keep Me) Hanging On, which I had heard in a brilliant version by Ann Peebles. Both of these were later hits – by The Hollies (Air) and Cliff Richard (Hanging On).

Scott turned them down. He wanted, he told me, to do an album of Bobby Bare songs. Bobby Bare was a country & western singer, in the days before country & western became ‘country’, when it was still frowned on and lampooned.

I gave up. Scott got on and did what he wanted. He didn’t make a Bobby Bare album. But he did do an album of c&w covers. He called it We Had It All. In fact we had nothing, not even a potential hit single. It didn’t make the album chart.

Which you might think would be the end of that. But then he was interviewed by Melody Maker and asked why he had made, of all things (Shock! Horror!) a country & western album. He blamed me! The gist of what he said was, “I didn’t want to, but the guy at the record company made me do it”.

Next time his manager called me up, ranting that we weren’t looking after his artist, I put the phone down.

He called me back. “Did you just put the phone down on me?”

“Yes. I. Did. And if you continue to rant at me, I’ll put it down again.” Which he did, so I did.

Five minutes later, managing director Dick Asher, a very hard-boiled Noo Yawker, was at my door. “Did you just put the phone down on Avi?” He was furious. But I just said, “Yup. Twice. If he wants to talk to me, tell him to show some respect.” I think my lack of contrition amused Dick. I never heard from Scott Walker or his manager again.

In 2006, he was still peddling the same self-serving crap. Talking about his career immediately post-69 he said: “The record company said you’ve got to make a commercial record… I was acting in bad faith for many years during that time… I was trying to hang on. I should have said, ‘OK, forget it’ and walked away. But I thought if I keep…making these bloody awful records… this is going to turn round. And it didn’t. It went from bad to worse.”

Yeah, right Scott.

Which brings me to this week’s song, which was written after my recent divorce. It’s called All Done and is about accepting responsibility for your life and moving on. One of the lines is: “When all is said and done, you have yourself to rely on“.

As I wrote about my experiences above, it occurred to me that the song could equally apply to Scott Walker and his career.

Mind you, I’d still like to hear his version of The Air That I Breathe.

All Done is from my 2012 album, Now That’s What I Call Divorce!!! available at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/now-thats-what-i-call-divorce!/id496551833 and also from Amazon.

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.