Elvis died of medicine

Well, there’s cheerful, eh?

But I’ve written a new song, and that’s its title.

Yes, you read that right. It’s a song, and its title is Elvis Died of Medicine.

How do I explain? Well, here’s a starting point: there are drug addicts and drug addicts.

One of my favourite images – a perfectly staged piece of post-modern irony – is of Elvis with Richard Nixon.

In 1970 Presley wrote to Nixon, in his own hand, and persuaded the President to appoint him an honorary federal drug enforcement agent. Nixon even had a special Bureau of Narcotics badge struck for the singer.

Which one is The King? Elvis making the President look like a bank clerk.

Which one is The King? Elvis making the President look like a bank clerk.

Elvis, of course, had been taking a cocktail of drugs throughout his adult life, starting during his army service. By the time he met Nixon, he’d already had a full 12 years of increasing dependency on a whole cocktail of medicines.

But because these drugs were initially given to him by his superiors in the army, and later prescribed by doctors, he never thought of himself as a junkie.

When he wrote to Nixon, it was in a spirit of being anti drug-use of the illegal kind. It was the pot smokers, LSD gurus and heroin addicts Presley and Nixon had in their sights. These people were fomenting an anti-American revolution. (Mainly, they just wanted the Vietnam War to end, and their sons and brothers brought home safe. But in the fevered paranoid universe that inhabited Richard Nixon’s head they were all enemies of the state).

The Beatles were top of Elvis’s list. According to him, they had “come to America, made their money, and then gone back to England to promote anti-Americanism”.

Elvis was never the brightest bulb in the chandelier. The Beatles, of course, loved America. In John’s case, so much so that he made his home in New York, even outliving and defeating Nixon’s attempts – with the FBI’s help – to deport him.

As an artist, I bow to no-one in my admiration for Elvis (which I’ll write about in a later post). But he was an emotionally stunted individual for whom his manager Tom Parker, his Memphis Mafia (effectively just a bunch of freeloading hangers-on) and his doctors provided a support system that negated the need for him to grow up.

He wasn’t the first, and he most certainly wasn’t the last to fall prey to this kind of life.

It was common practice in Hollywood to hand out amphetamine pills so that actors could keep working beyond their natural cycle. This is what lead to Judy Garland’s dependence on a variety of drugs, and on the doctors who would prescribe them. Once you’ve taken amphetamine for prolonged periods, the only way you’ll get a good night’s sleep is by using heavy barbiturates. A side effect of all that will be constipation or its opposite, so now you’re going to need another drug to regulate your toilet habits….

All of this came to my mind a couple of weeks ago when I was listening to Joni Mitchell in the car. One of the songs – Sex Kills – has a line about “pills that give you ills”. Straight away, the songwriter part of my brain went into overdrive. The phrase “My mother died of medicine” lodged in my frontal lobe.

The last time I saw my mother functioning on any level at all, was watching her count her pill boxes, 15 in all. More than half of these pills were to counteract the side effects of the ones she really needed. Some of them were to counteract the side effects of the side effects. Even a self-confessed hypochondriac (moi!) should understand when enough is enough.

Within a few weeks, my mother was dead. At the end, it was a close run possibility that she was going to drown in her own bodily fluids. Fortunately, her heart gave out first. She literally died of medicine.

Now there’s a cheerful subject for a song. But let’s face it – legal drugs take their toll just as effectively as illegal ones. Michael Jackson, Elvis, Judy, Marilyn Monroe, Margaux Hemingway, Nick Drake, Brittany Murphy – these are the famous victims.

But I bet you all know someone who never thought of doubting their doctor. We’re hopefully a little wiser now.

So here we go with Elvis Died Of Medicine. It’s not a finished recording; two weeks from start to finish is way too fast a process for The Driver. But I hope it’s in good enough shape that no-one feels the need to prescribe further treatment.

The Beatles were very badly managed. Discuss

You look at The Bee Gees now and – setting aside the tragedy that only Barry is left – you’re looking at a stellar career that started 55 years ago. In retrospect, it all looks golden.

You certainly don’t hear anyone complaining that Robert Stigwood did a shit job of managing them.

But there’s a lot of hindsight and second-guessing when it comes to Brian Epstein and The Beatles.

When The Bee Gees started out, there were five of them. In addition to Barry and the twins, Maurice and Robin, there were Vince Melouney on guitar and Colin Petersen on drums.

Colin Petersen had an extraordinary career until he met me.

After that it all seems to have gone pear-shaped.

In 1973, shortly after I joined CBS Records, Colin turned up to work alongside me in the a&r department. No-one told me he was coming, but I knew who he was.

He was instantly recognisable as the kid who had played Smiley in the hugely popular 1956 film alongside Ralph Richardson. It had always been slightly disconcerting to see that famous face behind the drums on New York Mining Disaster and To Love Somebody.

So, after a career like that, what the hell was he doing working for peanuts at a record company?

I say peanuts – CBS had doubled my Music Week salary and given me a car. I was a pig in shit.

But surely that wasn’t comparable to being a film actor, or a pop star?

Some say Brian Epstein was a poor manager of the Beatles. Here’s what I think: anyone who, in hindsight, says they could have done better is a fantasist or a liar.

And in support of this view, I give you Robert Stigwood.

Fully five years after Epstein signed the Beatles to EMI, Stigwood negotiated a deal every bit as bad – or indeed good – for the Bee Gees at Polydor. The previous year, 1966, he had negotiated a similarly good/bad deal for Cream, the first ‘supergroup’, with Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.

Now, I don’t know this for a fact, but Colin Petersen told me that both the Bee Gees and Cream started on a royalty rate of 1.5% – that’s 0.3% for each of the five Bee Gees, 0.5% for each of the ‘superstars’ who made up Cream.

At the time I had no reason to doubt it. I still don’t. Ten years later I was offered a starting royalty of 3% for myself and Pete Zorn as Tax Loss. I turned it down and walked away. It was another year before I finally signed a deal for Driver 67/Tax Loss at a rate of 8%.

The penny a record that EMI paid the Beatles (one farthing each) in their early career was absolutely par for the course. Every deal Brian Epstein constructed – whether it was for record sales, concerts, television or merchandise – was either par for the course, or trailblazing.

It’s easy to look back now and say that the 90% he gave away on Beatles merchandise was stupid, but – pre-Beatles – where was the business model? The fact that five years later managers like Stigwood were still following or, perhaps, slightly improving on the Beatles model puts Epstein in a better context than looking back 25 or 50 years later and second-guessing him.

When I met Colin Petersen, he had accepted £10,000 to buy him out of his contract with Robert Stigwood and to relinquish all rights to anything Bee Gees for ever more.

Now, if you want to be a clever dick, you can look back 45 years later and say, “Wow, that was stupid”. But consider this: only two years after they had their first hit, the Bee Gees consisted of Barry, Maurice and Colin.

Vince Melouney had already left, and Robin had huffed off complaining that Robert Stigwood was favouring Barry as the front man. Stigwood was also trying to get rid of Colin.

A year is a very long time when you’re young, and a year in pop was even longer back in the 60s. Even the Beatles didn’t expect to last more than two years.

As for an afterlife of Golden Oldies, 24-hour a day pop radio and royalties in perpetuity – these were way off in the future, unforeseen by all but the most prescient. You certainly wouldn’t want to bet your livelihood on it. It really did seem to be all over for the Bee Gees.

So who among you would like to have been the one to advise Colin Petersen not to take the £10,000 on offer in 1970?

And who among you would now like to present the case for the prosecution against Brian Epstein?

And remember – no hindsight, no second-guessing.

You have to imagine yourself managing the family record store in Liverpool, mad about the boys, being turned down by every record company you approach.

And then you find yourself in charge of a phenomenon, the like of which has never been seen before. (Don’t use Elvis as a prosecution exhibit. He never left America, and Col Tom Parker, his manager, was no role model for anyone but sharks and charlatans).

All of which leaves me no time to construct a clever link to this week’s song, Slip Away, except to say that that seems to have been what Colin Petersen did, slipped away. Looking around the internet, what little information there is about his life more recently suggests a man who bitterly regrets his decisions.

The only YouTube clip for a Colin Petersen is here, but it’s a different guy, talking about religion and his local Church.

Slip Away, on the other hand, is about getting drunk and ending up with the wrong person – nothing to do with God, nothing to do with Colin Petersen. Get over it.

And here’s a clip of The Bee Gees in happier times, as an intact five-piece. That’s Colin Petersen on drums, Vince Melouney – looking for all the world like he also could have been a Gibb brother – in the white trousers, on guitar.

 

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.

Saying ‘no’ to John Lennon – not sure about that!

One of the great things about getting into record production in the mid-70s was that, with the exception of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, most of your heroes were still around.

Some of my heroes were likely the same as yours. But there was a second tier of people to whom you might not give a second thought. For me they were fascinating.

So it was, for instance, that I booked David Mason, the guy who played piccolo trumpet on Penny Lane, to come and work his magic on a track I was producing, the Mister Men theme song as performed by a duo with the unlikely name Bugatti & Musker.

On the same session I had Captain Mainwaring, disguised as Arthur Lowe. I stood by his side as he listened back to his contribution. He muttered to himself: “Silly old c***”, before turning his head slightly sideways, giving me a knowing smile.

Or you could book Tommy Reilly, the harmonica player you’d known all your life – the man who played the theme tune to Dixon Of Dock Green.

Amazingly, you could also call on the services of Geoff Emerick, who won a Grammy for his engineering work on Sgt Pepper.

As a journalist, I’d known Geoff for a while. He was a quiet, gentle and unassuming guy – excellent credentials for an engineer, a job that required the patience of Job whilst employing deep knowledge of all that was required to create sound out of thin air.

It probably never occurred to you – did it? – that while The Beatles were spending six months (an unprecedented amount of time back then) creating Sgt Pepper, there were people up in the control room, spending hours, days, weeks, months of their lives waiting to turn on the red light; having to remain focused for take after take after take of songs we now regard as classics; but which for them became like Chinese water torture.

There’s a track on Revolver, the Beatles’ seventh album, called Tomorrow Never Knows. It sounds like an engineer’s nightmare. For starters, John Lennon wanted a sound like “a thousand Tibetan monks chanting on a mountain-top”. This was Geoff Emerick’s first song as engineer on a Beatles track. By George Martin’s account, Geoff got stuck in, and was specifically responsible for the, at the time, very strange sound of John Lennon’s vocal.

If you were paying proper attention to The Beatles, Tomorrow Never Knows was the final confirmation that the Mop Tops had gone, to be replaced by an exciting enigma that was exploring music and recording in ways that no-one had ever done before.

Geoff Emerick made a massive contribution to that. You don’t win Grammys for just turning up. I’ll talk about working with Geoff in a future post.

But all this Beatle talk, and Revolver in particular, reminds me that when I first heard Yellow Submarine it struck me with a sense of profound melancholy. I didn’t hear it as a singalong, but as an other-worldly excursion into all sorts of sub-conscious emotions that I couldn’t put my finger on.

I know what you’re thinking. Oh yes I do.

But in 1966, in Wolverhampton, we didn’t even know drugs existed. We could just about afford three pints of scrumpy on a Saturday night.

Fast forward eight years, and my next appointment walks in. He’s a guy named Pete Bennett, and he records under the name Rhys Eye.

Usually, in these situations, you were handed a tape, or a cassette, and you’d listen and then say “No”. Very, very occasionally you would say “Yes”.

But Pete Bennett was extraordinarily nervous. “I’ve got this brilliant idea.”

“Well, let’s hear it then”.

“Trouble is, it’s so simple, if I let you hear it, you’ll nick it”.

To cut a long story short, we finally agreed that he would come back the next day and I would present him with a signed statement to the effect that, whether I liked it or not, his idea was his idea and I would do nothing to compromise his ownership.

Which is how I came to record a cover version of Yellow Submarine that exactly fit with my own emotional reading of the song.

This is a version which might never have seen the light of day. I made the mistake of giving a copy to my contact at ATV Music, which by then owned the Lennon-McCartney publishing rights. I calculated that they would love this new lease of life for a song that was hardly built for cover versions, and would add their weight to promoting it.

How wrong I was. A few days later, he called me and asked me not to release it. “Why on earth not?” I asked. “Well, I’ve played it to John and he doesn’t feel it truly represents the song he wrote.”

To this day, I have no idea what this sham was about. Here was a publisher turning down a cover version and – get this – lying to me! No way had he played Rhys Eye’s version to John Lennon. (In any event, it was Paul McCartney who wrote the song, as John related in a 1980 interview).

But at the time, I had to make a decision. Effectively I was being told I would be defying John Lennon’s express wishes. In other words I would be upsetting one of my greatest heroes, and one of the world’s biggest and most revered stars.

Well, obviously, I released the record. I loved it; still do.

But no-one need have worried. It really didn’t see the light of day. Never got a play on Radio One, died the proverbial. If you’re still out there, Pete Bennett/Rhys Eye, I kept the faith.