Sunday, 29 May 2016

Interview: JOE BROWN



 Joe Brown was one of Britain’s first home-grown 
Rock ‘n’ Roll stars with real musical ability. 
is his first new album for many years. And while 
he’s quite happy to talk about the album, about his 
work with Billy Fury, Nick Lowe, Eddie Cochran
and Gene Vincent, just... don’t 
 ask him to talk about Techno!

‘The thing that REALLY bores me is the CONSTANT BEAT! When you’ve got a throbbing beat that keeps the same time all the way through!!! It gets in your BRAIN, y’know?’ Joe Brown leans forward, enthusiastically warming to his subject. ‘Yeh, what I mean is, you get two guys with synths just standing up there and, every now and then, they lean forward and press their finger on ONE note, THAT’S the thing that REALLY BORES me!!! I mean, I sometimes wonder what it would sound like if Beethoven or any of those Classical guys had had synths available. It would still have been great music, obviously, because whether it’s good or not depends how you use the technology. You just use what’s right. And that’s the difference between a good musician and a bad one!’

Joe should know. I guess. Think “A Picture Of You”, Joe’s no.2 hit from June 1962. The one about Kodak voyeurism, a sneak photo of the girl on the crest of a hill. Then the sharp guitar kick. ‘In the night there are sights to be seen, stars like jewels on the crown of a queen.’ A face glimpsed on the Streetcar, or in a café. Yeah, that one. It’s on every Sixties hits compilation you ever heard. It’s one of the microdots of all our yesterdays.

And like the Movie title says, Joe’s lived a Life Less Ordinary. He turned fifty-six on 13 May 1997, and he issued ‘56 And Taller Than You Think’ (1997, Demon FIENDED 790), his first new album in a long while, to mark the occasion. It comes through the respected Demon label, and all the evidence you need is here, in its fourteen tracks. Joe Brown has always been a musician, first and foremost. It’s there in the down-to-earth normalcy of his anti-Pop Star name. In the grin they couldn’t surgically remove. And it’s the role the legendary Jack Good originally assigned him for those ground-breaking late 1950’s TV Rock Shows. It was his guitar skills that got him the back-up gigs with Eddie Cochran, Billy Fury, Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent and the rest.

Of course, he’s put on various faces since then, Pop Star, Cheeky Chappie, Character Ac-tor, Radio Presenter, Spiky-Haired ‘Alf Hitchens’ in Michael Carreras’ movie ‘What A Crazy World’ (1963), and Variety Artist, but the music’s always been there as the underlying continuity. And, as (daughter) Sam Brown told me prior to the interview, ‘I watched Dad go into Cabaret. Then I watched him come out unscathed.’ And although the album has some admittedly duff moments, it’s salvaged by some music of genuine power. Some Nick Lowe songs. Some songwriting co-credits with Chris Difford and Roger Glover. And a ragged weary breadth of vision taking in four decades of British Rock ‘n’ Roll culture.

Nick Lowe’s “Rose Of England” is a stand-out. ‘It IS a good song that, in’it?’ he agrees. ‘It’s a bit Folksy, but it’s nice, it’s a good track that. When my son Peter, who produced my record, started out as a recording engineer a number of years ago, he used to work with Nick. He always liked Nick’s stuff. And I do too. ‘Cos he’s got that natural thing about him. So we looked at Nick’s songs when we started doing the album, and we found two. “Rose Of England” is one, and the other is a nice perky little number that we put in our act called “Without Love”. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek that one, really. But it’s good bouncy Country-style stuff, y’know?’

Joe began in the late 1950’s with Skiffle, and comes neatly full circle back to Skiffle again. He narrated a Four-Part Radio Two Rock-umentary about it, called ‘The Rock Island Line’ (from 17 January 1996). And there’s a stage musical written with Roger Cook called ‘Skiffle’ waiting in the production wings. Although he was born in Swarby, Lincolnshire, Joe’s London credentials were established when the family moved to Plaistow to run the ‘Sultan’ public house. He started out as part of a group called The Spacemen who played East End Pub knees-ups and Butlins Holiday Camp Hops. Exploits narrated in Joe’s book ‘Brown Sauce’ (Collins, 1986).

‘It was quite an interesting era that Skiffle business’ he begins. ‘‘Cos it only lasted two years. But it created havoc when it came on the scene. ‘Cos every kid in the world could play it, y’know? And that’s what it was all about. It was sort-of derived from the American Rent Party thing, where they’d get everybody round their house with some beer, and they’d play their songs. And everyone would chip in a few quid towards the rent. That’s how that all started. They used to use Tea-Chest Basses, Wash-Boards and... anything that came to hand that they could make music on. And everybody could do it. Then Lonnie Donegan really opened the whole thing up over here. At one point in 1957 it was estimated that one-in-nine of the male population was in a Skiffle Group. That’s a fact. There you go.’ Other members of that one-in-nine were a young Cliff Richard, and a guy called John Lennon playing with the Quarrymen Skiffle Group in Liverpool.

Discovered at a Southend audition Joe was immediately recruited as featured guitarist for Jack Good’s monochrome ABC-TV ‘Boy Meets Girl’ (1959) – a show constructed as a Marty Wilde vehicle, and ‘Wham!’ (1960) which soon became personality showcases for his blonde crew-cut and exuberant winkle-pickered Rock Cockney. He also got to play as part of Eddie Cochran’s backing band on the star’s fatal last tour through the early months of 1960. It seems weird now when everyone from toddlers on up know all the Rock ‘n’ Roll poses and memes, that it took Britain a long decade to come to terms with it. The studio musicians used on the early shots at Rock – the Tommy Steele, Terry Dene and Jim Dale records, were slumming Swing Band jazzers who neither understood nor respected the New Music. To them, Rock was a twitchy upbeat fad, an easy session fee to finance more serious music. Those with a genuine feel for Rock were few, Big Jim Sullivan – guitarist with Marty Wilde’s Wildcats was one. Whereas Joe took advantage of the long punishing Eddie Cochran tour to hang out with the American musician’s in the hotels and tour coach, supplementing his natural enthusiastic energy by learning tunings and fingering techniques direct. Eddie was generous with his time. Joe was a voracious pupil.

It’s evident when Joe played session guitar on what is arguably Britain’s first great home-grown Rock album, Billy Fury’s ‘The Sound Of Fury’ (May 1960). ‘The great thing about that was that we went in the studio... I think it was round about two o’ clock in the afternoon, and we was out by three! We’d done all the album, everything, and out, finished in one take, the whole thing done in an hour. And it turned out very well.’ Yet oddly, his own launch onto vinyl proved problematic. Following a single for Decca at the tail-end of 1959 – “People Gotta Talk” c/w “Comes The Day”, he was sidelined into playing to his comic novelty strengths with “Darktown Strutters Ball” (no.34 in March 1960), “Jellied Eels”, “Shine” (no.33 in January 1961) and a jaunty version of “I’m Henry The Eighth” that Herman’s Hermits would later replicate all the way to an American no.1! It was Pete Oakman – a survivor of the Spacemen and bassist with Joe’s Bruvvers, who wrote “A Picture Of You” that rapidly sold 400,000 copies. So that, as Joe’s own hits began, he found himself touring on bills with Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Exciting times? ‘I remember years ago, the first time I heard Ray Charles. There was a singer / compére guy called Davy Jones on our show. He was American and he’d brought all this Ray Charles stuff over, which we hadn’t heard before. Georgie Fame was on that tour as well. And it just knocked us out. We’d heard nothing like it before. And we didn’t hear it again for another two years. But he was there with it. So – you know, you do get to hear the good stuff if you’re mixing in the right circles.’ Brian Epstein promoted some of Joe’s shows in the North of England, ensuring that his protégés the Beatles played the opening slot. They needed the exposure that a big chart name like ‘Joe Brown’ could provide. While Joe’s hits – and there are quite a few of them – “Your Tender Look” (also by Pete Oakman, no.31, September 1962), “It Only Took A Minute” (no.6, November 1962), “That’s What Love Will Do” (no.3, February 1963), “Nature’s Time For Love” (no.26, June 1963), and “Sally Ann” (no.28, June 1963), carried him through the Sixties.

It’s fair to say that the clean melodic Hank Marvin was the guitarist everyone aspired to be, but Joe Brown was a respected guitar hero before they even got around to inventing the term. Tucked away on the ‘B’-sides of those hit singles were guitar-instrumentals that young would-be-muso’s listened to with awe, working out the fingering of “The Spanish Bit” or “Hava Nagila”. And you want to know where Jimi Hendrix got that playing the guitar behind the head bit, yes, Joe was doing it way back then. One of his last sixties hits was a cover of Epstein’s protégés “With A Little Help From My Friends”. It lost out in a chart battle to Joe Cocker’s version, but still scored a respectable no.32 (in June 1967), and anyway ‘by the time the Beatles came along I was already into other things. I was doing TV Shows and Pantomimes and stuff, so it didn’t really bother me that much.’

Ominously it looked for a while as though Joe had become a casualty of the Celebrity Game-Show circuit. There were high-profile Movies and West End Shows, a role in ‘Pump Boys And Dinettes’ with the legendary Cyd Charisse (name-checked on Madonna’s “Vogue”) and three TV series of ‘The Joe Brown Show’, ‘Set ‘Em Up’, alongside guest slots on the likes of ‘Junior Showtime’. And there were some dodgy records too, including an instrumental “All Things Bright And Beautiful” done St Winifred’s-style in 1977 with the Dovedale Junior School Choir! ‘Ah well – there you go’ he comments philosophically.

But Joe Brown has always been a musician, first and foremost. More recently he toured with daughter Sam in the experimental setting of the Subway Soopa Stringz quartet. And his 1993 ‘Come On Joe’ album proved to be a major step back to credibility. Part-written out of a song-deal for the US Country market during trips to Nashville, it came with occasional guitar supplement from Alvin Lee on tracks like the gruff “Battle Hymn Of Love” and “He Can’t Hold Still”. ‘You’ve got to keep up with it’ he explains with a verbal shrug. ‘Even now, when I hear an obscure record on the radio or something, I write the number down and ‘phone up the next day and order it, y’know. Just heard a great one by Junior Wells which is a version of “That’s Alright Mama”, the Presley song, and it’s a great track. Great, different thing. Different groove, you know? It’s not case of availability. It’s a case of going out looking for it…’

While the hits provide a basis for endless tours. ‘After being on the road for forty years, you learn some tricks because you have to make it appear that you’re singing the songs for the very first time. The very worst thing you can do is to try and remember the next line because its odds-on you’ll forget it. And of course, there are some of the songs, like “A Picture Of You”, “It Only Took A Minute” and “That’s What Love Will Do” that you’ve always got to do otherwise people feel short-changed.’

And now there’s ‘56 and Taller Than You Think’, an album that quotes from all the most vital stages of his career, with revealing autobiographical material drawn from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life Less Ordinary. All driven by a kick of guitar. His Country influences shine in a Billy Joe Shaver cover, or the tactile instrumental “Brother Can You Spare A Dime”. Then his own songs, “The Corner Of Our Street”, a Cockney ‘Old Vic’ knees-up co-written with Squeeze mainman Chris Difford, the more affectionately reflective “When I Write My Book” about ‘playing guitar with Little Richard on the radio’, or the title track looking back to ‘when I was younger’ and ‘they all saw me on TV’. A song that poignantly concludes ‘in their mind’s eye that boy will never be extinct…’

Been there then. Back for more now. ‘And you won’t really hear me making derogatory comments about today’s music’ he begins tactfully. ‘I’m very careful about what I say. It’s just that... these days it’s 90% image and about 10% music. In our day you still had to get up and do it. You had to have that bit of music in you. With a lot of groups now, you don’t. As long as you can move, and so long as you look good, you don’t need to sing or anything. You just get up and do it.’

But aren’t there parallels there with Skiffle? Weren’t you just saying that was cheap get-up-and-do-it DIY music as well? ‘I guess that’s true, because when I started out they said THAT was a load of rubbish too. But you’ve taken it a little bit out of context with what I mean.... anyway.... good luck to them I say’ as a throw-away afterthought.

And what about bands like Oasis and U2 (Joe does “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on his 2008 ‘More Of The Truth’ album)? ‘Oh, they’re good. You see, they’re very good. They don’t fall into the category of what I was saying. I had more in mind…’

Boy Bands, Techno, programmed drum machines, Dance Music? ‘Yes. THAT’s what I was talking about. ‘Cos I have used drum machines. They lay down a real solid beat, but what happens musically when you’re playing is that you get excited and you try to push ahead of it, but as soon as you start pushing, the bottom falls out of the whole thing. It goes to pieces on you and you just lose interest in it. A real drummer will move around, he gets faster, then slower, and it makes for more life in the music. D’yer know what I mean? It’s weird. THAT’S what I was trying to say. The thing about drummers is that everyone always has problems with drummers. It’s probably ‘cos they wanna HIT things, yeh? But I always prefer ‘em. It’s like anything else that’s got such a wide range. Sure, you have it all available to you, but you don’t have to use everything all of the time. I mean, I have a little sixteen-track studio set-up that I lay my demos down in. And when I’m writing songs on my own them things are very handy. If I haven’t got a drummer available then I’ll use an electronic beat to keep it together. I always lay the beat track down first with those things, but every now and then I’ll tweak ‘em. Where the chorus comes in I just edge it up a notch, so it gets faster. It’s hardly noticeable but it just pushes it on a little bit. People listen to my demo’s and say to me ‘how do you do that? it’s an electric drum thing but it gets FASTER at the end ?’ And I say ‘well, I just bloody TURN IT UP!’ And they go ‘I never fort of that.’ But I wouldn’t put it out on a record. I’ll take it off afterwards and stick a real drummer on. D’yer know what I mean, mate? ‘Cos the thing that REALLY bores me is – the CONSTANT BEAT! When you’ve got a throbbing beat that keeps the same time all the way through! It gets in your BRAIN...!!!’ Joe Brown leans forward, enthusiastically warming to his subject.

Joe should know. I guess.


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