The agency for whom I worked, (before I decamped to Chrysalis, and then Charisma) had been taken over by a couple of record producers from Pye, and as they tried to build up a stable of credible acts, we had to contend with the previous proprietor’s list of talent, most of whom, in career terms, had seen better days. The agency had been running since the 1940s and prior to the take-over, had built its reputation upon supplying music hall acts in the golden post-war era.
So. Cilla Black. Queen of Saturday night eezee-view chav-tv. Chirpy front woman of seemingly endless sugary feel-good sofa Prozac television shows. Flag waving icon of Thatcherites, and professional Scouser.
It’s probable that Cilla was advised to head for the verdant fields of light entertainment because, in the 60s, girl singers tended not to be taken seriously, and came with an expectation that the hits would only last as long as their novelty value could be stretched out.
Cilla though, had her own, weekly, Saturday teatime television show at the age of twenty-four. To put that in a contemporary perspective, Lily Allen (her tv show had a 2% share of the total, potential audience) is also twenty-four.
Hal Blaine. Who? Hal Blaine. You’ve heard his work a thousand times and more.
Hal Blaine is one of the most talented (and certainly the most prolific) drummers, that has ever picked up a pair of sticks. Prolific, in Hal’s case, means having played on over four thousand records – but such records! In many aspects of life, quantity is often balanced with a diminishing quality, as numbers grow.
Hal Blaine plays on lots of records because he is good; very good. He’s the master of drumming styles, renowned for knowing just what to do. An instinct that allows him to roll up to a studio, tune in to what the artist and the producer are driving at, and somehow turn from a hired sideman into an absolutely essential player in pop history.
I was still a teenager in 1974, but I was already something of a veteran at managing the tours of a mixed up, jumbled up, shook up assortment of musicians. The Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, Little Feat, Graham Central Station, Chuck Berry (I can’t tell that story until he leaves this vale of tears); folkies like Steeleye Span and Amity, and well… Spike Milligan.
If anyone ever asks me about the trials of handling drug enhanced rock stars in the 1970s, I’m duty bound to answer that nobody gave me as many ‘issues’ as when I was attempting to ensure that Spike Milligan was not only fit and able, but also awake enough, to join Jeremy Taylor for their unusual tour of universities and colleges in 1974/5.
Now I am going to write about the trickiness of working with Spike’s awkwardness, but if you stick with me, we’ll end on a high note, and crikey, I learned a lot about life during that year, so I’m glad I was there.
There is an unspoken rule in entertainment, that generally holds true for TV, movies, books, radio; in fact just about all of the arts.
It’s the ‘Law of Heaven’s Gate’, which states that the longer a project takes, the more people involved, and the more money hoovered up in the making of the project, then the bigger the failure that venture will be.
That, somehow, Brian Wilson, in between two eras that saw him having such a massive panic attack on an airplane that he stopped playing live for decades, and a period in which he ingested vast amounts of drugs and food, that left him both obese and mentally ill, produced the finest piece of recorded work of a generation is remarkable indeed.
Potentially, Good Vibrations was Wilson’s Heaven’s Gate. It took nine months to complete, cost $100,000, of which $15,000 was spent on one instrument – the newly popular (in 1966), and handily psychedelic sounding, theremin.
The story begins with this bloke called ‘Ubi’, who, with his friend, Sid Rawle, ‘organised’ (I have to put that within inverted commas because there was very little organisation) the first Windsor Free Festival in 1972.
Although I had only just turned seventeen, both Ubi and Sid had been corresponding with me for some time, because of my interest in alternative politics, pirate radio, and publications such as International Times and Oz. They sent me lots of leaflets and tracts, which I later discovered were printed via the photocopiers of the Civil Service for whom Ubi worked during the day. He was an evening anarchist.
These one page leaflets seemed extraordinarily exotic to me, often printed on pink paper, and containing bizarre stories of UFOs, London squats, and police activity in Notting Hill.
Doctor Footlights is the name by which the phenomenon is known. You can be tired, perhaps even a little bit under the weather, but the moment that you’re called to make-up, and the chatter and the jokes begin, the day envelopes you and the camaraderie, the adrenalin and to be honest, the sheer joy of being there when something is being created, drives you through.
I’m writing this late in the evening and I’m in the middle of a few days run, taking a teeny-tiny part in a new British movie.
So what actually happens, behind the scenes and the caravans, trucks and courtesy cars that adorn the modern day film location?
A few weeks ago, we came to the conclusion that history’s most perfect pop song is Todd Rundgren’s ‘I Saw The Light’. To be fair, I suppose I should acknowledge that you didn’t have much say in the outcome, I just decided on your behalf.
Today, in a similar spirit of one-handed democracy, ‘we’ are going to contemplate the greatest pop performance of all time. For although Todd turns in a cheery offering, as he reminds us that he ran out before, but he won’t do it anymore, he doesn’t make us go gooey inside, and make us want to marry him and father his children, unlike the heart-sappingly delicious woman who, by a clear margin, produced the greatest vocal ever heard in popular music history.
It might (just) be overstating it to say that everyone who works in Broadcasting House is stark staring mad, but my experiences over the years have led me to the conclusion that being unhinged does seem to guarantee you a role in Portland Place.
In 1974, as John Peel’s teenage roadie (a difficult role, considering I hadn’t learned to drive) I spent many a cheerful evening sitting on the floor of Continuity Studio 1a, while Peel played obscure Can tracks, or a session by Slapp Happy. If I was there early we would discuss a wide range of esoteric subjects (I say ‘discuss’, he talked and I listened, in the main) from the vogue for fondue sets, to the relative merits of Liverpool FC against my fondness for Chelsea. The only Chelsea football player that Peel had any time for was Gary Locke, the shaggy-haired full back.
1. Never, ever, let it run for more than three minutes. Two minutes and fifteen seconds is ideal.
2. Remember – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus, fade.
3. Employ a jingly jangly guitar.
4. In the real world, nobody refers to a woman’s ‘charms’, so find another rhyme for “take me in your arms”.
5. Chapman and Chinn.
“When this old world starts getting me down,
And people are just too much for me to face,
I climb way up to the top of the stairs,
And all my cares just drift right into space,
On the roof, it’s peaceful as can be,
And there the world below can’t bother me.”
I can relate to that. We all need somewhere, a space, whether literally, or conjured up in our minds, where we can escape the worries of the day. Indeed, somewhere where our cares just drift right into space.
Everyone needs some relaxation time. Some ‘me’ time, as the Americans would have it.
Do the teenagers you know talk excitedly about inequality, racial discrimination or pollution? If so, they may be exhibiting the first signs of drug addiction.”
Thus runs the opening paragraph from a pamphlet issued by a concerned religious group from Ohio.
Perhaps though we can carry a greater understanding of this concern when we consider the other end of the rainbow, where we find the ‘Eight Circuit Model of Consciousness’ where it is posited that, through the use of hallucinogenics, “differing levels of being can be achieved with a human’s nervous system”, according to an over-excited follower, Timothy Leary. To which many rather more enlightened individuals might respond, “You carry on mate, but leave my nervous system to me…”
Links between drugs, music and ‘young people’ have troubled society’s guardians for many a generation, and despite changes in attitudes, more liberal times, and wider understanding of the effects of drugs, the use, and ‘glamour’ of the (particularly illegal) potions continues.
Yet for those intoxicated or influenced by latter day drug buffoons like Pete Doherty, it may come as a surprise that they are inventing nothing that is new. It isn’t big and it isn’t clever, as any ancient Egyptian, his head filled with mandrake, opium or blue lotus, would confirm.
In researching this piece, and coming across a large volume of drug related songs from the jazzy world of the 1920s and 1930s, it seems odd that many biographers state with certainty that Ella Fitzgerald was vehemently against the use of drugs when one listens to her jaunty performance of ‘Wacky Dust’ in 1938:
“Oh I don’t know just why; It gets you so high; Putting a buzz in your heart; You’ll do a marathon; You’ll wanna go on; Kickin’ the ceilin’ apart.”
Ella’s first husband (it appears she married him on a whim) was a convicted drug dealer, and she soon had the marriage annulled. Her reputation has survived such quirks, but for Harry Gibson, recording a dope related song in 1947 proved to be a career buster. “Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs Murphy’s Ovaltine?” might seem rather innocuous, even tame, in today’s world, and I have a passing suspicion that it was the rhyme that seduced Gibson, rather than the subject.
However, his young career was over, ostensibly, and as his own use of drugs extended rather farther than the relatively mild Benzedrine, it took a remarkable turn of events in the 1960s and 70s before he perceived a more laissez-faire approach to his views on the recreational use of drugs, and found himself playing in blues and rock bands in his fifties and sixties.
Back though, to Dr. Timothy Leary, for whom, of course, John Lennon wrote ‘Come Together’ as a campaign song when Leary stood for the Governorship of California.
Leary was also present when John and Yoko recorded ‘Give Peace A Chance’ in a Montreal hotel room. From these and other examples of Leary’s influence, it would be a simple step to assume that the taking of mind altering drugs inevitably leads to coolness and the capacity to write great, enduring songs of spiritual clarity and depth.
However, for every ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ there is also the hairdresser/psych/rock of the Moody Blues; and every ‘Itchycoo Park’ and ‘Astronomy Domine’ is balanced by the dull noodlings of the Grateful Dead or the pub-rock-psychedelia of Procol Harum.
The ‘Summer Of Love’, 1967, in Haight Ashbury, ended in the cool of the December of that year with many of the influx of young hopefuls, seeking help for addiction, suffering from malnutrition and attending clinics for a variety of unfashionable diseases.
If the link between brain changing narcotics and ground-breaking music wasn’t already dead by the end of 1969, then Charles Manson and Altamont were responsible for burying it alive.
By 1970, Syd Barrett, Peter Green, Brian Wilson; their artistry and in the latter’s case, their genius, stolen by paranoia, confusion, panic attacks and anxiety.
The legacy of the use of LSD by musicians was felt by those left standing in fields in Windsor and Aldermaston, watching Hawkwind perform from the back of a truck, the sound swirling away on the wind, with the hopes of the love generation, who by then, were either working for the council, in prison, or living in their mum’s attic.
There are arguments for the use of relaxing drugs; there are arguments for the use of prescribed drugs to help with specific conditions. In such cases, it is to be hoped that the user, or patient, retains control; but the damning indictment against Leary’s “turn on, tune in, drop out” is that it is the dropping out aspect that becomes the driver. Control is taken by the drug and not by the user.
And as soon as we lose control of our own minds, then we have no control over our artistry, our performance, our creativity, and most important of all, of ourselves.
Terence Dackombe – March 2015
He died twenty years ago this week. He was a clever man, but he could be difficult. Very difficult indeed. However, I was close to Viv when life was proving particularly difficult for him; so don’t judge him from my memories – they’re just a snapshot.
1974. The Bonzos had split up four years earlier and Viv Stanshall was not only at a bit of a loose end, he was broke.
One day, the agency for whom I worked, in that less than rock and roll environment of a mews in Paddington, found its rooms enveloped by a tall, eccentric looking, but immaculately dressed Stanshall. He wanted to go back on the road as a solo artist, but had neither a manager, nor any vague idea of what he would do if he found himself on stage. We took him on immediately.
Now I say he wanted to perform, but I was later to learn that it was, in fact, the very last thing on earth he wished to do.
Apologising – it’s hard to do it without digging yourself in deeper. It’s also scary and that’s why we avoid the pain. We want so badly to plead our case and tell our story. The bad news is that everyone has a story. Everyone has a version of how things went down and how they participated. It’s hard to untangle facts and feelings.
That’s Amy Poehler from her recently published memoir, ‘Yes Please’.
‘Persistent standing is not allowed’.
It’s not just about football. In fact, it’s hardly about football at all, but football is the conduit; the release valve, perhaps.
I don’t go to watch Chelsea Football Club so much now, and it quite hurts me to write that.
My father carried me through the turnstiles at Stamford Bridge when I was just a baby, so keen was he to ensure that I wasn’t swayed by the Tottenham double winning team, or by the lure of glamorous Manchester United.
An episode of ‘Tipping Point’ or ‘The Chase’ any afternoon on ITV; standing at the podium is James from Winchester, who tells us he is in his final year at university, where he is taking a degree course in media studies.
“The capital of the United States is…
1. New York
“OK… I’m not too sure on this one… Geography isn’t my strong subject…”
“You said that about history and literature too!”
James laughs, nervously.
I’ll tell you what you want, what you really, really want.
You don’t know what you want. Neither do I.
Whatever it is that we don’t know that we want – what I do know about it is that whatever it is, we want it all and we want it now.
There are some people who believe that the best possible way to entertain themselves on a cold, drizzly, winter’s evening, is to leg it to a rather grim industrial estate, just off a roundabout on the outskirts of Borehamwood, and yell “GET PEREZ OUT!” into the dark, dark sky over Elstree Studios.
I seem to go to a lot of funerals. I went to Lance Percival’s funeral last week, on a bitterly cold afternoon, at Putney Vale Cemetery. But this won’t be a sad story, because Lance was a man who made me laugh.
We were friends for nearly forty years. In the 1970s we used to go to Chelsea football matches together, and we used to create joy from despair.
At the time Chelsea were at a very low ebb, struggling to survive in the second tier of English football and most of the games we attended were dire struggles for our team, and made for disheartening viewing. I particularly recall a dismal away draw at Oxford.
As we had a few bob between us at the time, we used to make sure that before every game we enjoyed a big lunch at the poshest restaurant we could find in whatever town we were visiting – and we travelled to some grim places in those years.
A bunch of local (to me) newspapers closed down last month. One of them was gracious enough to publish columns of mine over the years and now I worry that my pieces on Surrey issues may have been the last straw for the publishers, and that they felt they had to protect the readership from me by closing the paper down.
One of the papers rash enough to feature my work had been in existence for over a hundred years.
A thought drifted into my normally vacant mind this afternoon.
A generation ago I used to write scripts and storylines for the television show, Spitting Image. If you’re too young to remember the show, I won’t trouble you with a lengthy synopsis here as there is plenty of information available through a click or two on Google, and there are hundreds of clips on YouTube.