THE SOUND OF FURY
DVD Review of:
HIS WONDROUS STORY’
(2007 – Odeon Entertainment ODNM007)
The tragedy – if tragedy it is, is not only that Billy Fury died so early, at just forty-two. It’s that he’d started out as a songwriter. It was as a songwriter that he first approached impresario Larry Parnes at the Birkenhead ‘Essoldo Theatre’ on 1st September 1958, hoping to interest him in some potential songs for bill-topper Marty Wilde. And his “Maybe Tomorrow” is a powerful piece of early Brit-Rock writing. But, like Leo Sayer or Gene Pitney who also both started out writing hits for other artists, as the former Ronald Wycherley’s career took off he became increasingly reliant on other people’s songs, and allowed his own songwriting skills to atrophy. So that when the music scene shifted and his career became stranded out of time, unlike Neil Sedaka or Marty Wilde who retained the ability to fall back on writing for others, Billy was left reviving antiquated hits such as Bobby Vee’s “Devil Or Angel” or Bobby Rydell’s “Forget Him”. What remains of his recorded legacy is nevertheless a powerful presence that resonates down the decades through the artful poses of ABC’s Martin Fry, Bryan Ferry or Morrissey.
This DVD tells the tale, from Fury’s beginning, as part of the Formby Sniffle Group (sic), made up of the crew of the Mersey tug-boat on which he worked as a deckhand. His brother Albie tells how Billy wrote “Collette” after they’d watched a French movie together – ‘it wasn’t a naughty one’ he insists in his broad Liverpool accent. And how he wrote lyrics on the back of household bills, or on the inside of cigarette packs. He tried out some material at Percy F Philip’s two-track studio-booth at 38 Kensington – where the Beatles also recorded demos, and toyed with the stage-name ‘Stene Wade’. Instead, he took “Maybe Tomorrow”, and another song – “Just Because”, to the ‘Essoldo’ ‘Rock Extravaganza’, where fan-reaction convinced Mr Parnes-shillings-&-pence that his potential lay more centre-stage. Once signed by Parnes’ agency he set out from his Dingle home with his guitar in a pillow-slip, because he had no guitar-case. Parnes put him on a £20 weekly wage, later raised to £50 when the hits started. The moody wistful “Maybe Tomorrow” was used as the theme-song for Ted Willis’ ‘Television Playhouse’ ARTV-play ‘Strictly For Sparrows’, which helped elevate it into the chart (no.18 in March 1959). Later, Decca A&R-man Dick Rowe moved him away from Parnes’ stifling influence, and towards the power-ballad covers he delivered in the kind of heavy-lidded sleepy-eyed sensuality that took him yet higher in the charts. To Paul Gambaccini his breakthrough version of Goffin/King’s “Halfway To Paradise” surpasses Tony Orlando’s American original hands down (and peaked at no.3 in May 1961). Drummer Clem Cattini of the Tornadoes, and John Leyton add tour memories, as Billy was banned from performing in Dublin’s ‘Theatre Royal’ due to his ‘objectionably’ wild highly-sexed stage-movements.
He wrote two more hits – “Colette”, dual-tracked into a kind of Everly Brothers harmony-style (no.9 in April 1960), and “That’s Love” (no.19 in June 1960), which was also included as part of one of the most enduring and sought-after UK rock albums – ‘The Sound Of Fury’ (issued April 1960 as Decca LF 1329). A ten-inch ten-tracks mono LP recorded in a single day, it placed on vinyl the closest to authentic rockabilly Britain had thus far produced, featuring Joe Brown on session-guitar, a production job from Jack Good contriving a kind of virtual low-tech ‘Sun’ sessions sound, and every song a Billy Fury original, some of them written under his curious alias ‘Wilbur Wilberforce’ (an impressive total that stacks up pretty well against the eight Lennon-McCartney originals on the Beatles first album). Yet beneath the Rocker – ‘a cross between James Dean and Elvis Presley’ according to Vince Eager, there was always a genuine sense of vulnerability. Fury was essentially a quiet reserved guy. ‘When I go on stage, it is an act’ he admits in the rare interview-footage he only reluctantly subjected himself too. Long-time partner Lee Alkin Middleton (later partner to Kenny Everett) agrees that on stage he was acting the part of ‘Billy Fury’ – ‘he oozed sex on stage’ but ‘every pose was practised, every angle was practised’, and he was a totally different, more private person off-stage.
At the peak of his British popularity he played American dates, renewing his association with Jack Good. Billy had first made his initial impact on Good’s Saturday evening ITV ‘Oh Boy’ show which sent shock-waves through staid British television, but by then – later in both of their careers, Good had graduated to producing the US coast-to-coast ‘Shindig’ show. Now, Billy guested on ‘Shindig’ too. But visiting Elvis on the set of the ‘Girls Girls Girls’ movie, as ‘New Musical Express’ journalist Chris Hutchins, who was also there, relates the incident, much to Elvis’ bemused reaction, Billy found himself too scared and intimidated to even talk to Presley. Perhaps there had been some initial intention of interesting Elvis in recording some of Billy’s songs – and wouldn’t it have been a revelation to hear the one-time King of Rock ‘n’ Roll singing a composition by the young UK pretender to that throne? But if so it worked out in reverse. Instead, Billy took a song from the movie soundtrack, and charted with his own version of “Because Of Love”. Then went on to star in a low-budget musical of his own – ‘Play It Cool’ (March 1962) as ‘Billy Universe’, the first feature film directed by a tyro Michael Winner. By March 1963, as the Beatles were making their first assaults on the world, the glossy ‘Billy Fury Monthly no.1’ appeared on the newsstands and survived for forty-two issues. His mother Jean speaks movingly about how he bought them a new parental home – called after his 1960 hit ‘Wondrous Place’. No ‘Graceland’ perhaps, but a powerful expression of his show-biz status.
Meanwhile, Billy’s own increasingly infrequent compositions were to be found tucked away on neglected ‘b’-sides, as late as “What Do You Think You’re Doing Of” on the flip of “Like I’ve Never Been Gone” (no.3 in February 1963). The play-in to his next hit “When Will You Say I Love You” (no.3 in May 1963) consists of a vast quasi-classical piano-concerto opening, setting the mood for Fury’s dark vocals which are fully equal to its gravitas, acting out the drama of unrequited love with all the theatricality that Shadow Morton would bring to the Shangri-Las, or Jim Steinman to Meatloaf, yet never for a moment tainted by their excessive bombast. Its levels of romantic angst are spelled out verse-by-verse like the frames of the ‘Love-Stories-in-Pictures’ magazine to which he’d become a regular pin-up cover-star. There’s no knowing post-modern self-awareness, no irony, no hint of a tongue anywhere near the cheek. To all intents and purposes Billy Fury means every word he sings, and at least for the 2:25-minute duration of the song you’re allowed no scintilla of doubt that the hurt and tortured anguish he feels is anything less than real. Within the narrow confines of the 45rpm teen-Pop single, it’s an amazing piece of work.
As the Pop landscape shifted and reconfigured around him, with the old star-hierarchy crashing out of visibility, Billy merely moved onto a new level of popularity. There’s a passing nod towards Mersey Beat – perhaps specifically at Billy J Kramer, in the guitar motif of “Do You Really Love Me Too (Fool’s Errand)” (no.13 in January 1964), but largely he continued in a parallel continuum, as a balladeer. There was even a new movie, ‘I’ve Gotta Horse’ (July 1965), during the filming of which he had a brief affair with co-star Amanda Barrie. But by decade’s end his worsening health, and the onset of yet more extreme Rock fashions, eclipsed him out of visibility. Plagued by chronic ill-health since an attack of childhood rheumatic fever had left him with weak heart valves, a situation complicated by tax problems inherited from his earlier career-mismanagement, he seemed as content to retreat into the semi-retirement of his farm in Wales and his passion for bird-watching, as he ever had been assuming the guise of ‘Billy Fury’ and being a star. Like the Who he’d never scored a no.1, but with a run of 281-weeks with some twenty charting titles, he didn’t really need one. And there were to be sporadic reappearances – a cameo in the ‘That’ll Be The Day’ (April 1973) movie in which – as ‘Stormy Tempest’, he virtually re-played his earlier self. Bringing it all a kind of full-circle. There was the first of a series of big-selling hits-compilations in 1983, followed by a sixty-three-track ‘40th Anniversary Anthology’ 2CD (Deram 844-874-2) set in 1998. What might have been more appropriate would have been a new album of his own songs? But whatever potential he’d once had as a songwriter, had long since passed. In memory, the Billy Fury story must be told in monochrome. He may have guested on the launch edition of the Mod extravaganza ‘Ready Steady Go’, but he performs the high drama of his hits, collar turned up, shoulders hunched inwards concentrating the energy, most perfectly against the elaborate sets of ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’, introduced by the precise enunciation of Brian Mathews. As such, he was seldom bettered.