The Summer Before The Summer Of Love

Anytime I like, I can close my eyes and transport myself back to the summer of 1966.

The sun is shining and pop is becoming sublime.

Monday Monday, Summer In The City, Sunshine Superman, Paperback Writer, Good Vibrations, Revolver, Pet Sounds – it’s easily the best summer for pop music to date. Possibly ever.

It’s the summer of me, John O’Sullivan, Jenny Cropper and Jenny’s cousin.

John is moping about the cousin. Jenny is moping about John. I’m moping about Jenny.

The cousin isn’t bothered either way.

Talk about (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.

Still, aged 17, everything points to a future of magic, hope and optimism. The next few years were not to disappoint.

Talking about 1966 and classic songwriters, Michael Brown is not a name that would spring to many people’s minds. But he did write one stone cold classic. He was 16 when he wrote Walk Away Renee with two of his bandmates in The Left Banke. It made number 3 in the UK charts, number 14 in America.

It was a nice record, but not a great one.

Given where pop was by 1966, Left Banke were slightly behind the curve. The singing is rigid and uncertain and the production and arrangement are over-elaborate. They’re trying too hard. Phil Spector or George Martin would have sorted it, although they might have struggled with Michael Brown’s vocals.

But George and Phil didn’t get the gig. It fell to Motown’s top production team – Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier – to reveal the true greatness of the song when The Four Tops recorded Walk Away Renee for their phenomenal Reach Out album.

This was an album that included 7 Rooms of Gloom, If I Were A Carpenter, Standing In The Shadows Of Love and Bernadette. Any song would have its work cut out to shine in this company. But Walk Away Renee fearlessly followed the smash hit opener, Reach Out I’ll Be There, and did the job so brilliantly it became a pop standard.

At number 220 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time, it sits just above Walk On The Wild Side, Pretty Woman, Dance To The Music and Good Times.

So Michael Brown has his own little corner of pop eternity.

He died earlier this week. In keeping with the pop fraternity’s efforts not to live into old age and become a burden on society, he was only 65.

In the last month alone Lesley Gore (68), Andy Fraser, bass player with Free (62), Chris Rainbow (68) and Steve Strange (55) have all done their bit to reduce our burden.

I was saddest about Chris Rainbow. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, Chris and my music partner Pete Zorn did a lot of work together. They would frequently end up back at my sister’s in Gipsy Hill for mind altering substances and the best cheesecake on the planet.

Chris spent the last years of his life on the Isle Of Skye.

After I chose Denis Blackham to master my 2012 album, Now That’s What I Call Divorce!!!, it turned out Denis was also living on Skye. (Skye Mastering. Duh!). It stood to reason he would know Chris.

Sadly, he told me, Chris was suffering from dementia. He also had Parkinson’s Disease.

Remembering a young man who had scared the pants off me driving around London in his Rover 2000 (once was enough) and – despite a debilitating stammer – could have you laughing into the early hours of the morning, it seemed a terrible end.

No worse than for anyone else who suffered similarly, I’m sure. But Chris Rainbow was preternaturally talented, and it’s a cruel God who doesn’t allow full rein to such gifts.

Back to that summer of 1966. As it drew to a close, I was on my way to London in a black Humber Hawk estate (‘the hearse’ my mother called it). On the radio Satisfaction was still being played, and Monday Monday.

Listening to music cocooned in a big car was a much better way to experience it than on our Dansette player back home. Everything was enhanced. Most of all from that four hour journey I remember Lee Dorsey’s Working In The Coalmine.

Obsessed as I was with The Beatles, I was unaware that r’n’b and soul music had crept up on me. Hearing Lee Dorsey as if I was inside a hi fi speaker suddenly coalesced my taste for something different – the rougher, tougher descendants of the blues.

As the summer before the summer of love turned into the actual Summer Of Love, you would find me dancing myself dizzy at parties all over London to Arthur Conley’s Sweet Soul Music.

I didn’t need a dance partner. Didn’t want one. I was in what was then the greatest city in the world, at the best time it was possible to be there. I was 18, and I was a dancing fool. Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Joe Tex, Aretha Franklin, Carla Thomas, Booker T – oh my goodness, were there ever such riches? It’s a wonder Sgt Pepper got a look in.

And the fun didn’t really stop until round about the mid-70s, when the beginning of years of social unrest revealed the fine line that separates civilisation from our more primitive selves.

But even the three day week and the winter of discontent couldn’t take away those memories of 1966.

And, for me at least, there’ll never be another summer like the summer before the summer of love.

Hard to find decent video for Walk Away Renee from that time, but you should watch at least the first 30 seconds of this, if only to see how hard the stylists and the cameraman have worked to make Michael Brown look like Paul McCartney (15 seconds in).

And this will hopefully take you to Spotify for a pristine Four Tops.

Walk Away Renee – Single Version (Mono) – Four Tops

Mad Dogs, some Englishmen, and Joe Cocker’s road back

When Joe Cocker returned home in 1971 from the madness that was the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour of America, he went off radar.

Before computers, before mobile phones, before texting and Face-timing, off radar really was off radar. Even having a phone was not the norm in the early 70s.

Alan Spenner, bassist with The Grease Band told me this story. “We had to go up to Sheffield to ask his parents what was up.” They (I don’t recall who Alan said was with him) arrived in the pouring rain. Joe’s mum answered the door.

Without even acknowledging who they were, she pointed away from the front door and said: “He’s in the back yard.” Alan and mate tramped through the house, and out to the yard.

“And he was standing there,” Alan told me, “in the rain, head up to the sky, stark bollock naked.” The concern on Alan’s face and in his voice as he recounted this was palpable. At the time he told me this story (maybe two years after the event) it was by no means clear that Joe had survived his adventures with his wits intact.

In the twelve months after I started writing this blog, 25 music notables died. Joe Cocker was one of them. In a list that includes Johnny Winter, Jimmy Ruffin, Pete Seeger and Bobby Womack, I’d still put Joe at the top of the page.

His first major artistic act was to take the psychedelic singalong of With A Little Help From My Friends and turn it into a heart-rendingly soulful crie de coeur. Then he took it onstage at Woodstock (still with Alan Spenner on bass) and tore the place up.

I had seen Joe live (for the only time that I recall) a few months earlier, at London’s Royal Albert Hall. What a weird old night that was. The Beatles and The Stones were there. But not to see Joe. We had all turned out to witness the phenomenon that was Tiny Tim, complete with symphony-size orchestra, conducted by the producer Richard Perry.

My memory tells me Joe opened the show with the fantastic Grease Band, ripped up the place and then gave way to Peter Sarstedt. Such a contrast is scarcely credible. But at least Sarstedt wasn’t as big a contrast to Tiny Tim as Joe would have been.

Tiny Tim came and went after just two albums. He carried on, but no-one was taking much notice. Peter Sarstedt was a two-hit wonder (one and a half, really. Although it made the Top 10, few people would mention One More Frozen Orange Juice).

We can speculate, of course, how much further Joe Cocker would have gone if it hadn’t been for Woodstock. But it’s a pointless hypothesis. He proved – time and time again – that when the chips were down, he could tear up a stage, and had an ear for a song on a par with Otis Redding’s. (Think of what Otis did with the old chestnut Try A Little Tenderness, and how he ripped up Ticket To Ride and Satisfaction).

The Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour seemed to us, when it happened, the most marvellous thing. You had to be a little bit hippy dippy to buy into the idea that all these fantastic singers and musicians were travelling around America, loving each other’s company, having a great time and putting on the show of their lives every night.

But, flawed as the rest of the scenario was, that last part was absolutely right. The film and the album from the tour are masterclasses in showmanship, commitment and musicianship. Bandleader Leon Russell emerged a star, only slightly tarnished by his opportunistic exploitation of Cocker’s vulnerability.

Joe emerged with a bunch of American hit records and a massively enhanced reputation. But also a nose full of heroin and a head full of problems that threatened to do for him way too early.

But, you know, his home town was a hard place, for hard people. And they were famous for their steel in Sheffield. It’s a convenient simile for Joe’s resilience: the steel in his spine and in his character.

Not only did he overcome his demons, but he would rise again and again on the back of another brilliantly chosen song: You Can Keep Your Hat On, Up Where We Belong, You Are So Beautiful.

A couple of years ago, even his most recent single, Fire It Up, caught my ear in the car. I didn’t realise it was Joe. The video that goes with it shows a bunch of young musicians and singers who seem just thrilled to be there with him.

Joe Cocker and all around him were a massive part of baby boomer culture. And now we are continuously told that our ageing generation will put increased pressure on the NHS and social care.

Well, musicians are certainly doing their share to take the pressure off.

Of the 25 who’ve gone since I started this blog, few made it past 70. The general trend seems to be to peg it sometime shortly after your mid-60s.

Joe made it to 70, which was 43 years after we’d all given up on him. He also seems to have spent his later years fruitfully and settled. Who could hope for more?

And he left us a treasure trove of great music, brilliant and original interpretations of The Beatles, Dylan, Cohen, and other songs we might never have heard had the man from Sheffield not had such a great ear for tunes and lyrics that would resonate with millions.

So, Joe, you can keep your hat on. We raise ours in salute.