Saturday 29 June 2019

Poem: 'Where Do All The Dead Birds Go?'


when I was nine I ask my Mother
where do birds go when they die?
the clock ticks on the mantelshelf,
the fire cracks and spits in the grate,
she turns the page of her magazine
as though she hasn’t heard my voice,
a bug’s life, to a bug, she says at length,
is as long as a human life to a human,
or a bird’s life to a bird, yet when they
near the end they get the calling deep
in their feathery hearts, gulls fly north 
beyond arctic glaciers and icebergs
where they freeze to snow-crystals
and fall in white shrouds until spring
melts them, terning them into new gulls,
pigeons build nests in the clouds where
they scrat and strut, disturbing rain droplets
into morning drizzle that falls on our faces,
ravens fly to the dark side of the moon
which is a cosmic bird-house, sparrows and
wrens wriggle through small crater-holes
onto perches in the moon’s hollow interior,
with thrushes, swallows, tom-tits and swifts
beneath the roosts of owls, herons and kestrels,
as the lunar phases wane, until the crescent and
its aviary of souls are reborn New Moon anew,
canaries and yellowhammers stream molten
into the sun to return in golden rays of summer,
then, if you look up at midnight
every star you see in the sky
is a starling ghost, each fiery streak
of a falling star marks their return
to the trees of their favourite forest,
I’m not sure I believe everything
my Mother told me, but now, when
the clock ticks on my mantelshelf
and I get the calling myself
I wish I’d thought to ask her
where do lost boys go when they die?

Friday 28 June 2019

DONOVAN interview: 'Tales From Urban Bohemia'


 Remember “Sunshine Superman”, “Catch The Wind” and “Mellow Yellow”…? 
Now forget them – Donovan Leitch has new things to talk about. 
Andrew Darlington was there to get the details

 ‘Good Morning Mr Leitch, Have you had a busy day? …’ 
 (“Fakin It” by Simon & Garfunkel) 

“Look here, look here” he enthuses, stealth-stalking like a cartoon-cat, beckoning with contagiously conspiratorial intrigue. Poking his way through the bat-wings into the ornate but miniature theatre-boxes. “We’re going to have a wonderful show here tonight. I know it. ‘Cos this hall is so beautiful. It’s a red velvet theatre, it’s like a Christmas cake. Have you been in here before?”

Well, yes actually, an hour earlier I’d been watching him sound-checking way down there on that compact stage to the familiar pulse of “Sunshine Superman”. Watched him attacking into “Barabajagal”, going ‘Ok, we’ll take it on the fly’, then ‘Sorry, I lost it there’. ‘No’ Tom the bassist contradicts, ‘you were on’. Gathered around him there were Stuart Donaldson’s congas, Rat Scabies’ drums, double-bass, and Joe Atkinson’s keyboards. He’d paused to glance around the venue, ‘it’s dry in here, lots of soft surfaces. I’m getting a midi-sound out of these speakers, and a warm sound out of those. It’s a boxy sound, too thin in the mid, a bit of true bass on the bottom. Yeah – that kind of stuff. Can you put a hair on it?’ Then it’s “Mellow Yellow”, he counts it in, “dah-dah-dah da-da dah-dah, chord chord chord”, then ‘right, let’s talk about the end….’ I’ve watched lots of soundchecks in my time. Very few of them, in fact – none that I can think of, quite as precise and painstaking as this one. Such care is as rare as unicorn dung…

He performs tonight in spiralling crawls of psychedelic lighting, and beneath huge monochrome images of three Beat-Generation writers – Jack Kerouac with his deep darkly sensual eyes, an early Allen Ginsberg wearing a tie, and the supernatural stare of William Burroughs. And the more he plays the new songs, the more the cool groove of his ‘Beat Café’ album (2004, Appleseed Records) makes sense. The resonant double-bass pulse. The brushed-drums and bop-vibes. The Django-guitar and Beat ambience. The free improvisation that shimmers around “Love Floats”. Barefoot and beret. Beat Girls. Dharma Bums. Existentialism. Françoise Hardy. ‘City Lights’ editions. ‘Blue Note’ albums. Galois. Jean-Luc Godard. A flickering candle stuck in a drained wine-bottle, wax tendrils running. A virtual Paris Left Bank ‘Les Deux Magots’ or ‘Café de Flore’ where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir once held court with Louis Aragon and Albert Camus. But it’s most apparent when he does the “Do Not Go Gentle” Dylan Thomas poem, which he departs live from the CD and does as a free-jazz foray with unexpected surges, vocal riffs and repetitions that don’t go exactly where they at first appear in the spaces between. He digs us digging him in Leeds.

Quite rightly… 

One time a crazy dream came to me... 
I looked in the closet, there was Donovan” 
 (Bob Dylan does ‘Talking World War 
Three Blues” live at the Royal Albert Hall) 

“Shall we get the drinks in? I’ll ask the waiter. I’ll have a glass… a wee glass of red wine. Carbonel Merlot.” He stretches back in the pause for the drinks to arrive, his black roll-neck and pants obviously distressed, not ‘distressed’ as in ‘hobo-chic designer distressed’, just distressed. “Well, I have to have a little break before the show, OK? Being inside, before a show, I get claustrophobic. Especially in those wonderful Music Hall dressing rooms. They’re small. They’re so SMALL!”

I have his attention only from soundcheck, to gig. So it’s necessary to compress the questions. But of course, Donovan doesn’t do soundbites, and there’s a mass to talk up. His name comes trailing clouds of imagery, he’s done every-stuff, a Ye Olde English Psychedelic sit-com of anti-Vietnam protest, love-beads, peace-signs, patchouli oil, ‘Granny-Takes-A-Trip’ shades, conservation, getting snarled at by Bob Dylan, kaftans, LSD, electrical bananas, hanging out with The Fabs and the Maharishi in India… to saving baby seals. He dates George Harrison’s wife’s sister, marries Brian Jones’ ex-girlfriend. He’s even there with Alice Cooper on “Billion Dollar Babies”. He has lots of hits.

So where to start… the beginning? “I was living in Hatfield, hanging out in St Albans. That was my manor. And at that time, all over the country people were saying ‘let’s get a few guitars together’, they were picking up guitars, and ending up being the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Who, the Hollies, the Zombies, the Animals – ha-ha-ha. Not all of them went to Art School, but they were hanging out at the Art School Balls. And I realised there was a Coffee House, a Jazz Club, a Folk Club, and an Art School in most of the old towns – and the old town for me was St Albans. Which, of course, is a Roman city, with a thousand-year-old Cathedral. And I used to hang out in the graveyard – we’d sleep there, and then we’d get chased on by the Police, while I was learning guitar from Dirty Hugh. In my book you’ll read about Dirty Hugh. He was a tall good-looking man with long hair, a long beard and a long coat, a really interesting guy. But he never bathed. He was a beautiful-looking man, more beautiful than Rasputin, but… I don’t know, sort-of like those ideas of wizards, y’know, not the ones with the hat-with-the-stars-on-it and the cloak. But the REAL wizards. And he played fascinating guitar styles that I wanted to learn. So I spent three days with him, and he stank to the high heavens. But one must suffer for one’s art mustn’t one? We used to sleep in the graveyard, then get up the next day, and he’d show me the next pattern. Patterns which I learned. I learned them. And Dirty Hugh taught me…”

He talks softly and entertainingly, while seldom engaging you directly. A slightly sad smile that’s not easy to read. He could do this on automatic-plot. The fact that he so obviously isn’t is evidence of… what? Renewed energies? Reconnections forged by the self-archaeology of compiling his autobiography? He talks about poetry and music, about the oral song-tradition that goes back to Homer, epics rhymed for mnemonic performance, clear through to the Gambian Griot who recited family history to ‘Roots’-questing Alex Haley. Literature, and the Celtic vision that is at the root of his work. Evident clear through to “Celia Of The Seals” (March 1971), a song that uses Celtic mythology to comment on the brutality of the seal-kills, the so-called seal-‘culls’. “It does, yes. It was about the seal hunts. But it mixed mythology with it. Because in far northern Scottish mythology the seal-people and the humans, they would mate, and seal-children would be born. Of course – it’s a myth, but it’s a beautiful myth. ‘Cos the seals, just like the dolphins, are intelligent. They say they once lived on the land, and that they ran around, but that they eventually returned to the sea, just like the dolphins. But it’s also about a top model called Celia Hammond (wife Linda’s close friend), who walked away – purposely, from modelling. She refused to wear fur because she realised it meant they were killing animals. She went up to the ice-floes with Brigitte Bardot and protested against the seal… they called it ‘seal culling’, which is really the seal-killing. So I asked my American label if they would carry a photograph of a seal-hunter walking across the ice carrying his knife with blood on it, and a poor little seal with its skin cut off, and its mother crying beside it – and they said ‘yes’. So I recorded the song called “Celia Of The Seals”…”

Perhaps he’s drawing on Dirty Hugh’s patterns during the first – acoustic, half of tonight’s show. The first-phase hits, 1965’s “Catch The Wind”, “Universal Soldier” and “Colours”. Linking songs into a narrative, “To Try For The Sun” is ‘a hitch-hiking song’, the line about the ‘windy city’ where the two vagabonds sleep rough is not Chicago, but Manchester, more precisely the derelict site of the future-GMEX. “Sunny Goodge Street” (once covered by Judy Collins) is about ‘a trip up to London to buy a little bit of hashish’, while “Jennifer Juniper” was written ‘about Jenny, Patti Boyd’s sister’. On “Hey Gyp (Dig The Slowness)” you hear the matrix for the future Marc Bolan – as well as the prototype Led Zeppelin acoustic stomp.

Before shifting from what he terms ‘definitely a black-&-white Folk period’ into his own Celtic Acid-Folk sub-genre… Hey, Groovy

Donovan is as important and influential as Bob Dylan 
and we are… listen, the man’s a poet…’ 
 (John Lennon to ‘Life’ magazine, 1968) 

When he does an electric “Barabajagal” tonight, you tend to miss the ferocity and finality of Jeff Beck’s full-on guitar. Ronnie Wood, Nicky Hopkins, Madeline Bell and Suzi Quatro were also there on the vinyl original. He’s worked with the best, Jimmy Page, Chris Spedding, Jack Bruce – in fact he stands in for Robert Plant with the other three-quarters of embryonic Led Zeppelin on “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, yet no matter who he plays with it’s never less than a Donovan track… He’s name-dropping the Beatles too. And why not? He was there. He tells of being in India with four Beatles, one Beach-Boy (Mike Love), and Mia Farrow. Of John Lennon patting the Maharishi’s head saying ‘there’s a good Guru’. And later that night, sitting cross-legged on the bungalow roof with their guitars, George leans over and suggests ‘I could write a verse for that…’, the song that becomes “Hurdy Gurdy Man”. Of course, back then, singles don’t extend beyond 2:57mins, and mindful of play-list time-restrictions - despite having mid-wived the Animals “House Of The Rising Sun”, producer Mickie Most omits George’s contribution in favour of the single’s excoriating incandescent Jimmy Page guitar solo which leaves no space for it. But he sings George’s verse tonight - “when the truth gets buried deep/ beneath a thousand years of sleep…” Donovan also tells the story, and sings the full version on his live album. These stories are true. Donovan provides the ‘sea of green, sky of blue’ line for “Yellow Submarine”. Then McCartney appears on his “Mellow Yellow” single, and Donovan guests on Beatles recording sessions – singing along with the chorus of “All You Need Is Love” at Abbey Road. He claims to have forgotten the exact moment, but Flower-Power photographs record it all. Oh Gosh…

Around this period Donovan was big, bigger than you could imagine. A no.1 hit record now means you get a heroin-chic girlfriend, you’re snapped thumping a paparazzi outside the nightclub, then you detox, and get dropped by your record label when your third single only gets to no.13… only to get resurrected by an ‘I’m A Celebrity Island’ Reality TV slot. Way back then it was different. Then you were the Pied Piper. Voice of a Generation. Shaman. Philosopher-Poet. Prophet of Gentleness. A radical Whistle-blower, a paisley Town Crier. All that weight of belief and expectation. “Yeah, getting a no.1 in America with “Sunshine Superman” was very important. It was extraordinary, and fun to begin with. None of us – the Beatles, the Stones, I - or any of us, expected that kind of mania. I talked to Lennon, and I talked to Joni Mitchell about it – I asked them ‘did you intend it, do you actually want to do this? It wasn’t a stroke of luck all the way, was it? You wanted to do it!’ So yes, we knew we were going to do this. But the shock was, the amount of the success.” So how does Donovan react? He gets another no.1 with “Mellow Yellow” (later covered by Herbie Hancock), and follows it with Folk-psych top five jewels “There Is A Mountain” and “Hurdy-Gurdy Man”. Perhaps writing the book has sharpened the memories? Refreshed the sensations? Renewed the acquaintances and events?

Whatever, most covers of his “Season Of The Witch” – and there have been plenty (Al Kooper and Stephen Stills, Brian Auger’s Trinity and Julie Driscoll, Courtney Love’s Hole), stress the edgy supernatural elements of the song, certainly its use in the second ‘Blues Brothers’ (1998) movie drips with voodoo. Yet the way Donovan tells the tale, it’s more ‘season of the witch-hunt’, written about the series of drug-raids targeted at the newly-emerged Bright Young Things of the Sixties Rock aristocracy. “Of all the Pop and Rock Stars of the 1960s, I was the first to be targeted by the Drug Squad, the first to be busted” he confides. “In my book it tells how I was busted, and following me were the Stones, the Beatles, and lots of other people.” Telling how, one 4am ‘on a cold London dawn’ they came to raid a naked and ‘skinny little me’, wrecking his Maida Vale Beatnik pad in their search for two-ounces of grass, before the arresting officer takes him aside… and asks for his autograph. “Everybody knew me that day” he adds wryly, as the story hits the press. George Harrison phones supportively, suggesting he can make much money from this uninvited notoriety. But could “Sunshine Superman” have happened without LSD? even though the lyrics say ‘could have tripped-out easy/ but I’ve, changed my ways’. Hey, far out…

There are four recently-issued expanded CD reissues. Starting with the full ‘Sunshine Superman’ album (1966). Its bonus tracks include the first and most effective of successive revisions of “Superlungs” – a hit for Terry Reid, with its dope-smoking schoolgirl straight out of an ‘OC’ plot-line. And “Museum” – a hit for Herman’s Hermits, forming teasing snapshots of London’s social metamorphosis. Plus “Fat Angel” name-checking Mama Cass and Jefferson Airplane, the methadrine-powered rolling stuttering “The Trip” - a stoned excursion through LA’s Sunset Strip and the blurred hipness of its hippest club with Joanie (Baez) and Dylan (‘broken hourglass in his hand’). And two songs for Bert Jansch, John Cameron’s complex and subtle Morley-harpsichord arrangement on “Bert’s Blues”, and “House Of Jansch”. “Seasons Of The Witch” too. Then the ‘Mellow Yellow’ album (1967) with its run of lyrical gems carried on shimmering sitar-splashed resonances – “Writer In The Sun”, “Sand And Foam”, “Young Girl Blues” and “Hampstead Incident”. There are walk-on lyric-parts for Mary Quant and Allen Ginsberg, plus rare US-only single “Epistle To Dippy” and long-lost jazz-cool ‘b’-side “Preachin’ Love”.

Next ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’ set (1968), Steve Hillage later reinvigorates, or re-discovers the power of “Hurdy-Gurdy Man”. Eartha Kitt, the Butthole Surfers too, doing their own version in July 1990. With the addition of “Jennifer Juniper” (later a November 1990 novelty hit for Singing Corner, aka comedians Trev & Simon), plus “Teen Angel”, and movie-theme “Poor Cow”. Until the more disparate and uneven ‘Barabajagal’ album (1969), with his mystic visionary tone-poem “Atlantis”, plus Graham Nash adding laser-guided harmonies to “Happiness Runs”. Also silly throw-away sing-along’s “Pamela Jo” and “I Love My Shirt” – surely based on the ‘keep going well, keep going Shell’ TV-ad? But expanded with Don’s own demo of “Lord Of The Reedy River” covered by Mary Hopkins… and Kate Bush, and “Poor Man’s Sunshine” that will eventually appear thirty-five years later on 2004’s ‘Beat Café’. While “Barabajagal” itself will be covered in 2000 by Dope Smugglaz (in league with Shaun Ryder, about whom, more later…).

beat: the timeless code of the self exiled 
always, bohemians and beats challenge hypocrisy and greed.
they represent an attitude of dissent, focusing a bright
light on the absurdities of society. usually expressed in
lifestyle through one of the arts, bohemian and beat 
self-exiles continue to gather the free atmosphere of the café 
(Donovan, sleeve-notes to ‘Beat Café’

Quit whatever you’re doing. Drop all those predigested notions. Take this trip to ‘Donoleitcho’s Island’, and grab a look around. It’s stranger than you know. To some, it’s nothing more than an escapist ‘Land That Doesn’t Have To Be’. And sure, there’s comic-strip references here - Green Lantern and Superman (even if the latter comes adorned with Nitzschean embellishments). Plus Beat and hipster references too. All infused by playful narcotic indulgences. So his is an art for the higher and lower self? Yet there’s no darkness in Donovan. And critics enjoy their flirtations with ‘close-enough-to-say-you’ve-been-there’ darkness. They like their heroes ‘elegantly wasted’ or ‘psychedelically deranged’. Donovan’s not like that. There’s no miserablism. Sad wistfulness, yes. Haunted melancholy, yes. Mystery and magic seen through the ‘microscopic circles in the fluid of my sight’ (‘Sand And Foam’). Swords broken and cast into enchanted lakes. Sounds conjured from the ether, draped in John Cameron’s sometimes over-decorous arrangements, even when they seem an unnecessary and distracting prettification. After all, this is the minstrel who assumed ‘The Pied Piper Of Hamelin’ (1972) movie-role, didn’t he? then went on to write the score for Franco Zefferelli’s St Francis of Assisi bio-pic ‘Brother Sun Sister Moon’ (1972).

Yet he can deal teasing sexual innuendo, ‘softly I enter her garden/ parting her veil with a sigh’ (‘Bleak City Woman’). He writes with sensitivity from a female point of view too. From the ‘Palais Girl’ who kisses ‘John & Paul’ goodnight on her wall, to that first-ever lyric-reference to female masturbation, ‘yourself you’d touch, but not too much/ you hear it’s degrading’ (‘Young Girl Blues’). A sensitivity to both the anima – or feminine side of the gender equation, and Gaia, the natural power of the world. This is what Patti Smith – on the sleeve of ‘Horses’ (1975), calls ‘beyond gender’, explaining later ‘by that, I meant that as an artist, I can take any position, any voice, that I want’.

“Yes, these female… aspects, in my songs, are what I brought in. I brought in the ‘feminised male’. In the songs I sang I used words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘lovely’ and ‘kind’ – and they were usually attributed to the feminine part of our race. As if only women had those emotions. And men don’t. Why is that?, I account that to two world wars and the Depression. When men were put in uniform, had their hair cut off, were de-humanised, demoralised, given weapons to kill, until all softness and all humanity was sort-of squeezed out of them. And I brought that back in the Sixties into songs. And at first they thought I must be gay. Gypsy Dave will tell you – half my audience in New York and San Francisco at a couple of early concerts were gay, and they were knocking the doors down to meet me. And I’m saying ‘yeah yeah yeah, I’m hetero guys, I’m actually hetero, but I understand exactly where you’re coming from. You have a feminine aspect, and you want to celebrate it’. So, yeh, I was doing all that – singing from other points of view. But I have children’s songs as well….” And if Donovan’s belief in the natural innocence of ‘all the golden children’, and their childlike innocence, the idea that we’re born wise but that our vision gets muddied, is now tarnished, then that’s our loss, not his.

six cheap people in an empty hotel,
every last one with a story to tell...
could have tripped out easy, but I decided to stay” 
 (“Donovan” by The Happy Mondays on the 
album ‘Thrills Pills & Bellyaches’ 1991) 

What’s so funny ‘bout Peace, Love & Understanding…? Donovan, the shooting star who fell to Earth, never had another chart hit after he hitchhiked off the edge of sixties-end, that lost long-haired, loose-hipped, flower-powerful dreaming decade. In all probability, if it had been issued just three years earlier, 1973’s “Cosmic Wheels” would have gone Top Ten. Little doubt about that. The fact that it doesn’t is less down to Donovan than it is to those ‘Changin’ Times’. But others didn’t survive the transition at all, in a blur of myth, martyrdom and conspiracy Hendrix, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison all died at that black-magic age 27. While for Donovan, according to his album title, he was merely faced with the more problematic ‘7-Tease’ (November 1974). ‘Around about 1970 I had achieved everything I could have possibly dreamed of and more’ he told Sylvie Simmons. ‘There was nowhere else to go. I didn’t burn out, I wasn’t a drug addict, but I was wounded in some way. I came home to my cottage in England, married Linda and walked away from fame, the Rolls-Royce, the yacht, the mansion…’ (in ‘Night & Day’ 29 September 1996). Yes, he married long-term muse ‘girl-child’ Linda Lawrence. They have two daughters together, Astrella Celeste and Oriole Nebula. Plus a grandson Sebastian. And stepson Julian Brian (through 16-year-old Linda by Brian Jones). There’s also the ‘children I didn’t raise’ with Californian Enid Stilligoe, actress Ione Skye who appears in ‘Rivers Edge’ (1986), and the movie of the Martin Amis novel ‘The Rachel Papers’ (1989), and musician Donovan Leitch Jrn who played in glam-band Nancy Boy, and...

No matter what else he does he’s always going to be Donovan. The Donovan who kicked 3,000 blooms into the audience at the Hollywood Bowl. The gentle flowerchild Donovan in kaftan. That’s good, it means he’ll never be without a cult audience. That’s bad in that, no matter how he tries, no matter how many reinventions he attempts, no matter how he strives to attach his name to happening bands, like the Happy Mondays or Trevor & Simon, or work with producers like Rick Rubin, he will never ever be allowed to expand outside that audience. “And – er, I go on stage at eight… so, I can only afford another ten minutes. And you’re not even looking at your questions…” adding playfully “you’d better get to some key ones in case you say to yourself later ‘oh, I didn’t ask him that one…’

So, some time later, during the late-1980’s, he tours with Happy Mondays - who also write and record a track called “Donovan” for their ‘Thrills Pills & Bellyaches’ album (1991), which quotes “Sunshine Superman” lyrics. Perhaps he sees similarities with what they were doing in that e-necking ‘Second Summer Of Love’, and the 1960s drug scene? “Mmmm, the Mondays were the Rolling Stones of the eighties, they were incredible” he concedes. “And those young bands respect me, ‘cos I take chances, because I break the rules. I broke the rules in songwriting and recording. And that’s an inspiration to a young band. They feel they have to follow a certain line… and I say ‘no’! Don’t follow any lines. Break the rules. And the Mondays loved that in me. So, they came looking for me. And they found me. I was doing solo gigs up north somewhere, I can’t remember where (actually, it was Colne, Lancashire). I was with Julian – my stepson, who was acting as my Roadie. And there was a knock on the door. Julian answered, he went and I heard him say ‘I’ll ask’, then he came back and said ‘there’s five guys here from Manchester, they’re called the Happy Mondays and they want to take you now, capture you, put you in their van and take you to the ‘Hacienda’’… So, we met, and I hung out with the Mondays and went on six of their performances with them. Then Shaun (Ryder) fell in love with my daughter, and his brother Paul fell in love with my other daughter. And there’s a beautiful grandchild from Shaun with my daughter Oriole Nebula, called Coca (Sebastian). And so… that was Madchester. It was the eighties.”

Later there were sessions with Rap-Metal meister Rick Rubin too (the 1996 ‘Sutras’ album). Yet although seasons change, he’s still letting his freak-flag fly, there’s still this corner of a foreign field that is forever sixties… ‘I never thought it was going to last another day. Each day… well, it could have been the last, but it didn’t matter if it was. I never felt it was a job, it was a life-style, a vocation’. If I pull a hit record, well good… but otherwise I’ll just continue making nice records’ (to ‘New Musical Express’ January 1975). Then, as now. And now, there’s the book – ‘my autobiography, ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’, it’s on the Century imprint’, there’s the albums… the ‘Fortieth Anniversary Tour’, and he’s in a good place. “OK Andy, there it is. And I hope you’re coming to the show tonight…?” I assure him I will, “Thank you man. See you later…’ It’s only then, as he’s walking away, that I remember the other questions I should have asked him. The ‘oh, I didn’t ask him that one…’ syndrome.

Published in:
‘ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.1 Jan/Feb’
(UK – December 2006)

More Donovan on 'Eight Miles Higher'...
and here...

Thursday 27 June 2019

R.E.M. Live in Huddersfield, 1995


R.E.M. at ‘The Alfred McAlpine Stadium’, 
Huddersfield (Tuesday, 25 July 1995) 

Credibility. It’s a fluid thing. An unstable fissiparous element. If ever there was a prototype Indie group it was REM. And the Smiths. They had cult credibility. They were an insider thing. They belong to their elitist audience in ways that undercover Rock bands do, defining more than just music, but entire life-style. So what happens when they have hits…? How do they balance the two elements, cult and mass sales? An impossible conundrum. For REM it happens with ‘Out Of Time’ (1991) – their seventh long-player. Two tracks, “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People” became massive hits, shoving the album to no.1 on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Automatic For The People’ (1992), eighteen months later, compounds the status-shift. “Everybody Hurts” is a perfectly good album track. It’s not REM’s fault that, as a mass-market single, it gets taken up as anthem for all kinds of shallow emotionalism, provoking the lighter-in-the-air kind of ritual bonding.

The McAlpine Stadium was opened in 1994, named for the man whose construction company built the M6 Toll, as a venue for Huddersfield Town football team. There’s seating for 24,500 people. The town, converging on Stadium Way down from the town-centre, is gridlocked for the concert. We shuffle through endless security zigzags in tribe-less queues. REM can no longer claim to be insiders. They can no longer pretend to be cult. Judging by the audience they’re attracting, they’re pretty-much mainstream. How can they pull this weirdness off, and stay true? They attract stadium-crowds, but surely they can’t devolve to the stadium cliché theatrics? Yet the logics persist. To be seen from the heights of the upper tiers, even with big screens, it’s necessary to exaggerate, to be larger than life, which is the antithesis of what REM have claimed to be.

This is the ‘Monster’ (1994) tour. Another watershed album. One that uneasily grapples with their problematic fame, and attempts to shrug it off. Peter Buck seems to have discovered loud distorted guitar tones, which he uses to deluge and disfigure, not only the singles from this, their ninth studio album, but all over the previous ‘hits’ too. A deliberate rupturing, slurring preconceptions. A scribbling hard edge overlaid across the Folk-Rock harmonies. A grit in the balm. The first three songs they do, and the fifth, are from the new album. Singles “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth” and “Crush With Eyeliner” both punk-strong reverb-heavy throw-away songs done ‘in character’, which is a distancing strategy legitimising observation over confession. Cut-ups of media items picked up and found-news incidents. Again, an ironic escape device from REM, into faux-REM.

The fourth song – “Orange Crush”, is from ‘Green’ (1988), and is an anti-military attack on the defoliant produced by the Monsanto Corporation for devastating atrocity during America’s Vietnam debacle. Buck’s guitar repaints it into a Pop-art caricature, navigating around its original meaning and forcing it through destabilising changes. Playfully disrespecting their own legacy, but also recasting it into new shapes. Michael Stipe is less pretty than before. Head shaved, emphasising the wire arcing from his right ear. Buck wears sequins on his pants, striking mocking Jimmy Page stances. When they do “Star 69” Stipe announces it as the sixty-ninth gig they’ve played this tour, which is a nonsense he’s apparently repeated at each venue. But it betrays the playful edge they’re using to undermine the ‘star’ dignity of the occasion. His delinquent dancing is also a ludicrous thing. That they do “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts” is perhaps a concession to expectation. But by the time they’re into the encore with a breathlessly perfect “It’s The End Of The World” they’ve little left to prove. A kind of equilibrium has been established, very much on their terms.

Does it work? Today the sun shines, and it works for me…

Full Set List:
(1) “I Took Your Name”, (2) “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”, (3) “Crush With Eyeliner”, (4) “Orange Crush”, (5) “Circus Envy”, (6) “Try Not To Breathe”, (7) “Bang And Blame”, (8) “Undertow”, (9) “Welcome To The Occupation”, (10) “Strange Currencies”, (11) “Revolution”, (12) “Tongue”, (13) “Man On The Moon”, (14) “Country Feedback”, (15) “Half A World Away”, (16) “Losing My Religion”, (17) “Pop Song 89”, (18) “Finest Worksong”, (19) “Get Up”, (20) “Star 69”. Encore: (21) “Let Me In”, (22) “Everybody Hurts”, (23) “Fall On Me”, (24) “Departure”, (25) “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

Wednesday 26 June 2019



 Book Review of: 
 (Viking, 1993 – £9.99 – 280pp – 
ISBN 0-670-84890-5)

Problem with being Cutting Edge is, modern don’t stay State-of-the-Art long. By shoving electrodes into old Harlan Ellison and Philip K Dick ideas Gibson grabbed the Gosh-Wow factor of electronics’ Third Wave. With ‘Neuromancer’ (1984) and ‘Burning Chrome’ (1986) cyberspace was still the SF variant of a Prozac-tab – the wonder-drug that lifts depression, escalates intelligence, improves business acumen, increases sexual pleasure and sets texts luminous. Then Nintendo turn in disappointing sales returns, Virtual Reality is everywhere overdosing in soft-porn and Shamanic Chill-Out Rooms, and even Billy Idol misinterprets the message with a disastrous concept-CD called ‘Cyberpunk’ (1993).

This novel is barely even SF. It’s more exaggerated gimmicked-up reality, with attitude. An image-intensified Shoot-‘em-Up Cop thriller with ‘Bladerunner’ add-ons and ‘Hacker Conspiracy’ peripherals. With jaunty Mirrorshades set to dazzle. Short phrases that stab with clipped speed-sharp scatological dialogue and jargonisms heavy with pre-digested technospeak and brandnames, real and to come. Style-aware to a fault. It’s twitchy tightly-machined prose in which silver eyes reflect the red of passing taillights. The Death Star Satellite downloads datascapes to you, you get AIDS vaccination, and TV mulches past and future into an endless now. Heaven, Hell and Los Angeles.

Gibson’s is an imagology, a dystopian world busy manufacturing illusions, cruising the already gridlocked infotainment superhighway where reality is only skin-deep. Where a Chinese girl gets her newspaper ‘printed out so there’s never any mention of scandal or disaster, but with a triple helping of celebrity romance, particularly anything to do with the British royal family.’

The slender narrative threads come spiked on Berry Rydell – an IntenSecure private cop, and Chevette Washington – a kind of literal Tank Girl bicycle courier who lives in a low-tech shantytown on the earthquake-wrecked tunnel-bypassed derelict Golden Gate bridge. Bicycle courier? Gibson says that in the electro-infonet where all datafeed can be commonly accessed and intercepted, nothing can be kept private. Except in physical packages carried by physical couriers. ‘Modernity was ending. Here, on the bridge, it long since had.’ These characters randomly intersect through the medium of some thefted black Virtual Light datashades, eyephones logging them into agents of the Sunflower Pacific Rim nasties. Then God-Eater, and the Republic of Desire digital underground. Bruce Sterling once wrote that ‘mirrorshades – preferably in chrome and matte black, the Movement’s (ie, Cyberpunk’s) totem colours – appeared in story after story, as a kind of literary badge.’ Here, perhaps referencing Sterling, they become the crux of a novel.

But that’s largely an excuse for flash-frame writing impaled on barbs of ironic wit which spills off the page and interacts with presets in your head. A Gibson character muses ‘he thought that was probably bullshit, but he sort of liked the sound of it anyway, like what happened to old people on television.’ The media-literate reader connects to its hidden visual vocabulary on just such slight suggestions. Because we’ve seen the same programmes. There’s a Rock Star called Chrome Koran who has a hit with “She’s God’s Girlfriend”. Chevette recalls earlier stars like ‘that black guy who turned white, and then his face fell in.’ We know who she means. We’ve read ‘Q’.

The problem is, we’ve done ‘Virtual Light’ too. We not only read it, we live it, through all those ‘Horizon’-style VR and Cyberspace-race docudramas, magazine spreads, ‘Wired’ and ‘Mondo 2000’ back-issues. Hell – Gibson himself is IN most of them. And this likeable novel is no longer so much Cutting Edge Future Shock as a glow of pleasing glitch-free familiarity. ‘We are come not only past the century’s end’ Gibson comments, and ‘the millennium’s turning, but to the end of something else. Era? Paradigm? Everywhere, the signs of closure.’

Tuesday 25 June 2019

ANTHONY NEWLEY: The Pop Career Of 'Sammy Lee'


Review of: 
 With Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens, 
Wilfred Brambell, Warren Mitchell 
(British Lion Films, April 1963, DVD digitally restored 
StudioCanal November 2016)

The council sprinkler truck sprays its way past empty market stalls down Soho streets. Parking meters pace the early-morning pavement, where old tenements give way defiantly against new towerblocks. Pigeons scatter and take wing. Kenny Graham’s haunting theme sets the melancholy black-and-white tone. There’s a fast blur drive-past of cosmopolitan eateries, Pakistani, Italian ‘Toscana’ Trattoria, Indian, French ‘Chez Auguste’, ‘Choys’ Chinese, with a sprinkling of lost product names, ‘Players’, ‘Toby Ales’, ‘Senior Service’. Then a fleeting glimpse of ‘The Two I’s’ Coffee Bar, now nothing more than a plaque on the Old Compton Street wall, in 1963 the ‘Birthplace Of British Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and still very much a going concern. The basement where Tommy Steele once strummed, Terry Dene, Cliff Richard and Vince Eager played, where Lionel Bart worked and Larry Parnes talent-spotted. Then the perspective shifts, from dustbin-men emptying garbage outside dodgy ‘Books And Magazines’ shops and the ‘Moulin Rouge’ striptease, to the Cameo Moulin cinema with glamour-model Pamela Green postered for Harrison Marks’ nudie-sexploitation ‘Naked As Nature Intended’ (1961), and ‘Revudeville’ at the famous Windmill Theatre. Although they ‘never closed’ during the war, they would finally shut down 31 October 1964. Leaving this fleeting film reference.

Wide-eyed Patsy (Julia Foster) strolls curiously down the street, in her neat white coat and matching white handbag, carrying her small suitcase as far as the downbeat ‘Peepshow Club’ entrance where there are pin-up photos of the dancing girls in glass cases outside, and one framing club compére Sammy Lee (Anthony Newley). Going inside, she tells the cleaning women she’s looking for Mr Lee. ‘Alright ducks’ she responds wearily. Patsy has made the ‘big exit’ and escaped two-hundred miles down from Bradford to the Smoke, on a vague promise after Sammy fed her some chat-up lines doing Summer Season at a Holiday Camp. As the cleaner knows, Sammy is a chancer. His bachelor pad has a Sammy Davis LP on the record player, ‘Variety’ magazine in the floor, bongos on the side-unit, plus posters of him at the Palace and the Scala.

Born in 1943, a teenage Julia had started out as a student nurse in ‘Emergency Ward Ten’, one of ITV’s first Soap Opera’s, before a brief uncredited part in school drama ‘Term Of Trial’ (1962), with a pacifist teacher accused of inappropriate behaviour with an underage pupil, then she was ‘Gladys’ in Alan Sillitoe’s classic ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ (1962) with a sullen and rebellious Tom Courtenay. While appearing with Oliver Reed in ‘The System’ (1964) she would be part of the perfect celebrity couple, married to Lionel Morton of squeaky-clean Popstrels the Four Pennies who topped the chart with “Juliet”.

But, attractively naive and vulnerable, this was Julia’s first major role in what would be an impressive TV and filmography. In club owner Gerry Sullivan’s (Robert Stephens) cluttered office she auditions for him, he impatiently demands ‘are you sure you’re eighteen?’ then talks on the phone as she undresses – urging ‘c’mon, let’s have a look at you,’ her eyes downcast as her bra comes off. He’s sufficiently impressed to offer her a job at £20 a week… just as Sammy bursts in, to advise her ‘you don’t want to work in a dump like this.’

Sammy opens the show with the throwaway ‘well, thank you for that thunderous ovation. Good afternoon, gentlemen, and welcome to the ‘Peepshow Club’… and you’re welcome to it.’ It’s a seedy down-at-heel Soho dive. With his role modelled on real-life ‘Windmill’ compéres such as Bruce Forsythe, Tommy Cooper or Peter Sellers, who valiantly perform to huge indifference bordering on active hostility, between sets by the dancing girls, who are the real attraction. ‘We’ve got a wonderful show here for you today so I want you to forget about the wife and make yourselves comfortable. Not too comfortable there, sir, thank you. We were raided last week. Sit back, relax, enjoy yourselves. We’ve got some really beautiful girls here, some really beautiful girls.’ As an impatient heckler shouts ‘well, let’s see ‘em then!’

‘Keep your seat-belt fastened sir, all in good time’ quips Sammy. The Peepshow Lovelies dance in a ghost of the Windmill’s tableaux vivants where the Lord Chamberlain’s censorial power determined that onstage nudes were forbidden to move, hence they form elaborate immobile presentations as excuses for nudity. There’s a humorous bubble-bath scene for Evette who protests the water is too cold, a dance of The Seven Veils, a Tribal Sacrifice, and a stripper who uses a prop-chair to arch her leg as she removes her black stockings in a slow tease to Dixieland jazz. ‘Waggle it, waggle it’ coaxes the stage manager as they rehearse dance moves. Although, with one cautious eye to certification, there’s no real nudity, with Burlesque nipple-pasties in place as required. ‘Now first of all, there’s Jacky’ announces Sammy. ‘Now Jacky, she’s a really lovely girl. She started off as a fan-dancer, saved up enough money to feather her nest...’ and when there’s no reaction, a dismissive ‘forget it.’

Expanded from a 1958 television play which also united Newley with writer/director Ken Hughes, Sammy Lee is first seen playing Poker in a card school – and losing. He punts on a cert at Newmarket, although he’s over his credit limit and they refuse to accept his bet. The horse loses. Heavily in debt to hoodlums he sees another of their victims in the café, who’s scarred face required twenty-four stitches, and he only owed them £200! Sammy’s £300 doesn’t sound like a great deal now, although at today’s rate it would be more around the £6012 mark. It’s the kind of problem that could easily be resolved with a simple bridging pay-day QuikQuid loan. But after desperate wrangling in the dressing room, he’s given a five-hour extension – they’ll come back at seven, or ‘they’re going to cut me up.’ Time for Sammy’s desperate bid to raise the outstanding cash by any means necessary.

Anthony Newley was the child actor who became the darling of the Las Vegas cabaret circuit. His brief flirtation with Rock ‘n’ Roll happened during his transition period from one to the other. Born in Hackney, London 24 September 1931, his most famous juvenile role was as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s ‘Oliver Twist’ (1948) – a role later played on stage by Phil Collins and Steve Marriott. In 1959, having efficiently bridged the chasm to minor adult roles, he plays a conscripted Rock ‘n’ Roll singer in the John Antrobus-scripted film ‘Idle On Parade’ (1959) – sometimes referred to as ‘Idol On Parade’. It touched several bases. Conscription into military service was a compulsory right-of-passage, a familiarity inspiring TVs ‘The Army Game’ and the debut ‘Carry On’ film – ‘Carry On Sergeant’ (1958), to which Antrobus contributed.

Elvis Presley had become the high-profile victim of the US draft-board, while Terry Dene’s brief run-in with National Service proved a hot newspaper controversy. The combination was irresistible. As spoof cockney Pop singer ‘Jeep Jackson’, Newley sang and co-wrote the title song – ‘I’m a guy who doesn’t dig that stuff’, an infectious Rock number, despite the fact that it was primarily intended as parody. Check out the huge giveaway wink on the cover-photo as well as the amount of vocal-echo on “Sat’day Night Rock-A-Boogie” and “Idle Rock-A-Boogie”. Yet it accidentally launched him into an unlikely recording career. Despite being an EP it entered the ‘NME’ singles chart at no.17 (9 May 1959), then climbed to no.13 as Elvis’ “A Fool Such As I” took over the top slot. His throbbing power-ballad “I’ve Waited So Long” – played during the soundtrack NAAFI scene, was spun-off that same EP – to hit no.3 (6 June 1959) in its own right! Incidentally, this was also one of the first song-writing successes for Jerry Lordan (as Lauden). They’d both go on to greater things.

At that time home-grown Rockers were thin on the ground, Lonnie Donegan was still around, Marty Wilde had already scored a few hits, and a sultry young Cliff Richard was the new upstart on the ‘Oh Boy!’ block. Nevertheless, already the wrong end of his twenties and rubber-faced in a not obvious teen fan-mag way, Newley had his foot in the Pop door. He’d been offered a chance, and he ran with it. The obvious thing to do was to cut a follow-up. So his unconvincing cover of “Personality” found itself in direct competition with Lloyd Price’s US original – and let’s be honest, superior version. Both were in the 4 July 1959 Top Ten with Newley three places higher at no.6.

Then, Frankie Avalon scraped into the Top Twenty with his big American chart-topper “Why”, but Anthony Newley’s more mature cover easily outshines its teen innocence, logging four weeks at no.1 from 6 February 1960, effectively denying Cliff’s “A Voice In The Wilderness” top slot. It was also being played all over the Pop radio shows as Elvis was being demobbed. As critic Patrick Humphries points out, ‘he wasn’t afraid of singing in his natural London voice, instead of opting for a slick mid-Atlantic accent’ (‘Record Hunter’, May 1991). The catchy finger-snapping “Do You Mind?” – written by Lionel Bart for the movie ‘Let’s Get Married’ (with Newley and stooge Bernie Winters) gave him his second no.1, for the single week of 23 April. Then he saw the year out with two more hits, plaintive ballad “If She Should Come To You” (no.4, July), and the more playful “Strawberry Fair” (no.3 in November), followed into 1961 by “And The Heavens Cried” (no.6, in March).

Never a natural teen idol or Pop Star, it nevertheless gave him profile enough to springboard him into other projects. His surreal six-part TV series ‘The Strange World Of Gurney Slade’ (22 October 1960) saw him wandering off a stylised ATV sit-com set for strange encounters as he meanders through London, with Bernie Winters, a talking dog called ‘Rags’, a conversation with a statue, a dustbin, and a girl from a ‘Klean-O De Luxe’ advertising Hoarding (Una Stubbs). In a similar way, Sammy Lee talks to his reflection in the mirror while shaving, then sticks a paper hat on his head and wishes himself ‘Happy New Year’. Written with Sid Green and Dick Hills of ‘Morcambe And Wise’ fame, ‘Gurney Slade’ was judged too baffling at the time, but has subsequently been reclaimed as a groundbreaking foray into postmodern comedy, part ‘The Prisoner’ in his refusal to be part of a scripted life, while ‘Gurney In Wonderland’ sequences anticipate ‘Hard Days Night’ and the wacky ‘Swinging London’ movies to come, with internal monologue and glimpses into the thoughts of passing strangers. The jazzy Max Harris theme was reconfigured into “Bee Bom” which – coupled with his bizarre reinterpretation of “Pop Goes The Weasel” gave him his last hit, up to no.12 in June 1961.

Three more lesser items, “Gonna Build A Mountain”, “Once In A Lifetime” and “What Kind Of Fool Am I?” (which inexplicably got no higher than no.36 in August 1961, despite being regarded as one his classic compositions), were all mainstays of ‘Stop The World, I Want To Get Off!’, the innovative stage musical he wrote with Leslie Bricusse in 1961, taking its title from some graffiti he’d noticed on the wall. The show not only broadened and revitalised the regimented structure of the musical, but also established the public image of subsequent Newley personas, of the dynamic, but tortured all-round entertainer. “D-Darling” in January 1962 (no.25) seems like a conscious last shot at replicating the breezy Pop of “Do You Mind”, and then the seriously silly novelty disc “That Noise” in July (no.34) – a subsequent ‘Junior Choice’ favourite, rounds out his chart career. The latter spoofs the recording of “What Kind Of Fool Am I?” with ‘I went down to the studio to record my latest hit, a sentimental ballad that I thought was full of… (pause)… potential.’ As a postscript to his Pop career, David Bowie deliberately imitates Newley’s vocal mannerisms as one of his early models, making Newley inadvertently responsible for “The Laughing Gnome”.

Meanwhile, teamed with assistant Harry (Wilfred Brambell), Sammy Lee desperately scams his way through the seedy London underworld in attempts to raise the outstanding cash, from one potential contact to the next, past the Whitechapel Tube station, down alleys and through the garbage in the street market gutter, to a cool jazz vibraphone soundtrack. He thumbs through his book of contacts. There’s the wonderful pairing of Warren Mitchell with Miriam Karlin as Sammy’s henpecked brother and disapproving sister-in-law. ‘You married me because I was smart and attractive’ she bitches as a reason for not advancing money, ‘I’m just trying to stay that way.’ Then teaming a camp Derek Nimmo with Roy Kinnear as Sammy benefits from broken glassware for their Lucky Seven Club opening. He checks out a black jazz combo to set up a pot score. He sells American Bourbon Whiskey and haggles a box of (allegedly) fifteen-jewelled Swiss watches, with ‘Steptoe’ Brambell delivering in a borrowed van. He finally agrees to sell his mother’s chair.

‘All my bleeding life I’ve been running’ says Sammy, like one of those white mice in a wheel ‘the faster you run the faster you don’t get anywhere.’ Back in his flat with a drummer rehearsing above, he’s in bed with an apparently naked Patsy. Despite her tearful protestations, he advises her to go back to Bradford, and even phones her travel arrangements. He misses the ‘Peepshow’ opening. ‘I know it’s a lousy show, but it’s got to go on’ protests Sullivan. ‘You’d think it was Sunday Night At The bloody Palladium’ he argues back. And – previously only waiting tables, Patsy strips in the ‘Garden Of Allah’ Arabian ‘hysterical… er, historical’ fantasy, to get his job back. ‘Tell your friends, but don’t tell the wife’ Sammy quips to the audience. Until, with his life falling apart around him, he delivers a final withering onstage blast – ‘well, Gentlemen, and I use the word loosely,’ telling how ‘the birds back here hate you, you make them sick’ and the Club is ‘the most second-rate nasty small-minded dirty little show in the West-End, and by the look on your faces it’s exactly what you deserve.’

In the eventual audit, Harry has accepted a cheque in lieu of cash, leaving Sammy well-short of the necessary £300. ‘In my day all the villains wore black hats’ he muses, ‘very smart, snap-brim.’ There are two enforcers. ‘There’s nothing personal in this’ says the older one as he slips his gloves on, and the younger more impatient thug locks the dressing room door. At first he tries to make a break for it. They pursue him. Patsy is catching a coach at Victoria Station. As Sammy gets a ticket to join her, the heavies appear – he pauses, and allows the coach to pull away. He resigns himself to the inevitable. He turns and gets into their waiting car. They drive into a derelict site beneath the railway, and beat him up as cool jazz plays. He ineptly fights back, but they leave him sprawled in the dirt, with his inadequate money-stash intact.

His laughter into the final credits is echoed into manic repetition.

As with ‘Gurney Slade’, Anthony Newley’s ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’ was initially deemed a failure, and lost money at the box-office. Yet has since been reclaimed, not least due to the fascinating glimpses it provides of a bohemian Soho low-life caught and preserved in crisply atmospheric monochrome. Just as the 1959 film ‘Expresso Bongo’ had opened with a long tactile tracking shot through a now time-lost Soho, so real you can smell its odours. This is the Soho that I remember from my late-teenage hitchhiking trips down to London, in all its intoxicating sleaze. The first film to be reviewed by Philip French in his ‘Observer’ column, it has only increased in critical reputation through the years since.

As he moved out of the orbit of his Pop career into more ambitious ventures, up and down, but never afraid of tackling high-risk projects, 1963 was also the year Anthony Newley married Joan Collins. He appeared in ‘Eastenders’ as a disreputable car dealer in 1998. And died aged 67, 14 April 1999.

THE SMALL WORLD OF SAMMY LEE(Bryanston Films/ Seven Arts Pictures, through British Lion Films, April 1963) Producer Alec C Snowden. Director and Screenplay Ken Hughes. With Anthony Newley (as Sammy ‘Lee’ Leeman), Julia Foster (as Patsy), Robert Stephens (as Gerry Sillivan), Wilfred Brambell (as Harry), Warren Mitchell (as Lou Leeman), Miriam Karlin (as Lou’s wife Milly), Kenneth J Warren and Clive Colin-Bowler (as muscle-men Fred and Johnny), Toni Palmer (as Joan), Harry Locke (as ‘Peepshow’ stage manager), Al Mulock (as Dealer), Cyril Shaps (as Maurice ‘Morrie’ Bellman), Roy Kinnear (as Lucky Dave), Derek Nimmo (as Rembrandt), Alfred Burke (as Big Eddie), Lynda Baron (as Yvette). Music by Kenny Graham. (DVD digitally restored BFI/ StudioCanal November 2016) 107-minutes

Monday 24 June 2019



Retrospective Review of: 
(1972, Polydor 2383-132)

‘Bring Bring.’ A voice imitates a phone chime.

It opens a direct-call from the distant planet Uranus for the Pink Fairies. ‘This is Uranus calling Pink Fairies’ with a vaguely Irish accent. And just enough Ur-Anus in the pronunciation to imply a tongue firmly-in-cheek.

The alien caller offers the band fifteen-hundred-thousand Galactic Credits to play a gig on frozen gas-giant Uranus. But uncharacteristically they decline. ‘No way man!’

The uncertain prologue dialogue closes ‘Have Fun. Get It On. Don’t Forget To Boogie. And – Up The Pink!’

There’s a tendency among vinyl cultists to build up luring mythologies about great lost American bands – The Stooges, MC5, Seeds, The Dictators or the Flamin’ Groovies, their mystique enhanced by distance and rarity value, to the extend that they sometimes overshadow their more accessible but equally worthy UK equivalents. Around that same turn-of-the-decade 1960s into the 1970s there were ‘Community Bands’ who operate around the battered edges of the fledgling counter-culture, at Happenings, Benefits, Free Festivals and Hippie Clubs, names such as Hawkwind, the Edgar Broughton Band, the Deviants… and the Pink Fairies. The baffled major record companies suspected there was some kind of product there, if only they could work out a way to market it. Polydor had the temerity to sign the singularly unpromising Pink Fairies – tested the water with a try-out single “The Snake” c/w “Do It” (Polydor 2058-089), then they issue three studio albums across three years, ‘Never Never Land’ (May 1971, Polydor 2383-045), ‘What A Bunch Of Sweeties’ (July 1972) and ‘Kings Of Oblivion’ (June 1973, Polydor 2383-212). It’s fair to say that none of them set the charts ablaze, but each is a unique and occasionally vital oddity, artefacts of a bizarre period of Brit-Rock’s evolution.

I’m just as bad as those other vinyl cultists. I bought ‘What A Bunch Of Sweeties’ from a second-hand record dealer in Hull, but wasn’t initially too charmed by its rough-edged pile-driver bludgeoning. It lacks the sophisticated interplay of a Jefferson Airplane album, or the lyrical-melodic invention of Love. But re-listening to it now, it’s full of surprise irreverence and playful pleasures. No arty Prog pretentions, more a direct continuity link from the earliest hard-line Rock ‘n’ Roll insurrectionaries, all the way to the minimal Punk intensity that was still a few years into the future.

There’s a gatefold sleeve that opens up into a colour Edward Barker cartoon strip, a visual style familiar from the pages of ‘It: International Times’. ‘It was a dark stormy night. The Terrible One who walked backwards, did so with gay abandon. When from out of the west came a teapot and he was stupid and with him there were three crows. And the three crows had with them three trees in their hands and were wise beyond reason and knew nothing…’

“Right On, Fight On” runs muscular drums and crunching riff around a Zappa-style break into plucked string distortion. Its rough Chuck Berry bones swell into builds and strong ‘Get Back’ guitar over shuffle-rhythms as loose as hell. Slurred subterranean off-mike vocals surface about ‘right on, for what you believe in.’ As a devotee of the strangely esoteric, Julian Cope explains how the track relates the story of police busting-up a Pink Fairies’ joint free gig with Hawkwind, held beneath the Westway overpass just off the Portobello Road. According to the sleeve cartoon-legend ‘they wondered greatly at the prowess of Mad Half-Breed guitar-picker Paul Rudolph. And smacked their lips when they heard the crazed Albanian Dwarf drummer Russell Hunter beat his meats. And swooned to the driving rhythms of suave Duncan Sanderson’s bass guitar.’ In fact, Hunter stomps through the whole thing as Rudolph mouths hoarse repetitions of the title, exhortations to ‘come together’ and to ‘keep a strong position’ in what Cope calls ‘a rallying cry over the loosest, blareing-est of street jams’.

The sleeve-photo establishes the band’s counter-culture provenance, with a dish of paraphernalia collected by roadie Boss Goodman. There’s a Rizla-pack for the recreational smoking of Mother Nature, ‘The Good Old Grateful Dead’, ‘Georgia Straight’, ‘Boogie With Canned Heat’, ‘Fight For Free Radio’, ‘I Am Enemy Of The State’, ‘Soledad Brothers’ and a ‘Progress For All’ JFK election button alongside a Deputy Sherriff badge, pen, pills and capsules. Based around the squats and low-rent Ladbroke Grove bohemia, Rudolph, Sanderson and Barry Russell Hunter emerged from the ruins of the Deviants following their traumatic American West Coast tour. The group’s manager, Jamie Mandelkau, had written a Tolkien-style short story from which Farren spoofed the name ‘The Pink Fairies Motorcycle Club And All-Star Rock ‘n’ Roll Band’.

Rudolph had already worked on drummer Twink’s ‘Think Pink’ (1970, Polydor 2343-032) solo LP. As John Charles Edward Alder, ‘Twink’ had led an R&B group called the Fairies, who issued three singles, a cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” for Decca in 1964, and two for HMV a year later. He graduated into the Mod-pleasing In-Crowd, which in turn evolved into psychedelic band Tomorrow. Then he drummed with the Pretty Things. Now, he drums on ‘Never Never Land’. Together the Fairies play the first-ever ‘Glastonbury’ festivals (appearing on one side of the 1972 ‘Glastonbury Fayre’ souvenir triple-album), and at ‘Phun City’ where Twink and Russell fall out of their clothes onstage and embrace naked. When they aren’t invited to play they turn up outside the Bath and Isle Of Wight Festivals anyway, and play for nothing off the back of trucks, according to the dictates of their anarcho free-music ethos. They carry the freak banner, and stagger beneath it too, not only projecting the Underground myths, but doing their best to live ‘em out too. By the second album, Twink was gone, but Trevor Burton – formerly of chart-gods the Move, guests ‘tasty licks’ on the first two tracks.

Burton can be heard on “Portobello Shuffle”, a fast boogie-beat, with a spine-shivering heavy guitar solo, slowing into a reverb fade, ‘he’s drunk and he’s stinking’ but ‘I would hope that maybe, we could get it on’. Then “Marilyn” takes a blues-riff over speeding drums for what the ‘It: International Times’ review called ‘a cautionary tale that all god’s chillun should take to heart,’ adding ‘Oh Marilyn, whatcha carrying’’ this song should be compulsory background music at all clap clinics across the land,’ asking the groupie ‘you gave the band the clap, why d’ya wanna do that?’ intercut with swift riffing and the kind of drum solo that jazz-savvy Ginger Baker gets away with, but few others have the chops to attempt. There’s an almost Zeppelin-like attack interplay between guitar and drums here, deep and echoed.

Arcing back to the Prologue in a kind-of thematic continuity loop, “The Pigs Of Uranus” closes the first side, taking its lyrics from Gilbert Shelton’s grossly amusing ‘Wonder Warthog And The Invasion Of The Pigs From Uranus!’ cartoon-strip as featured in ‘Hydrogen-Bomb And Biochemical Warfare Funnies’ (1970, Rip Off Press). As the artist also responsible for ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ and ‘Fat Freddy’s Cat’ Shelton’s instantly-recognisable art-style was ubiquitous across numerous underground magazines, often regardless of any copyright considerations. The track takes a more playful hoe-down feel spattered with snorts and honks, ‘we’re big and smart and famous’ then ‘if you don’t like Uranus, you can pick up and get yourself out’, with a riffling circular section spiralling down to the end.

The inner comic-strip continues ‘and for 3000 years and a bit longer the Earth hung like a gleaming tit in the inky vastness of space.’ Until ‘at last one of the trees blossomed and its fruit was rotten.’ The rotten fruit bears a Hitler moustache. ‘And lo, the second tree also blossomed and its fruit was off.’ A frazzled female fruit. ‘And eventually the last tree blossomed and its fruit was pink. And the pink fruit was fell upon by all the creatures of the Earth who named it ‘Dope’ and couldn’t get enough of it.’ Nothing subtle here.

The major retread of the Ventures hit instrumental “Walk Don’t Run” is another album standout, written by jazz-guitarist Johnny Smith in 1954, it peaked for the Ventures at a ‘Billboard’ no.2, 25 July 1960, to return as “Walk Don’t Run ‘64” as high as no.8, 8 January 1964. In the UK it hit no.8 (6 October 1960) despite competition from an opportunistic John Barry Seven cover – beneath the Shadows “Apache”, and one slot above Duane Eddy’s “Because They’re Young”. What they’d think of the Pink Fairies version is anyone’s guess. It’s spun out to 9:13-minutes, and to 10:32 on an outtake later issued as a CD bonus track. A shimmering Hendrix guitar, cymbals and drum-kicks lead into a heavily-distorted reconfiguring of the familiar guitar-figures, as you never imagined them. Credited ‘Johnny Smith: arranged Pink Fairies’, whether Smith was consulted about the inclusion of a vocal verse is open to conjecture. Largely written by Rudolph, ‘I saw her yesterday, I saw her look my way’ leads into ‘and then she said to me, can we have some fun?’ It’s a straight pick-up that takes an absurdist turn when ‘I went up to her room, she hit me with a broom, yeh, and then she said to me, Baby – walk don’t run, you’ve gotta walk don’t run.’ There’s a hasty reprise of the verse, with stereo phasing shocking left-right, left-right through the Leslie speakers, and a ‘middle run’ that rifts into zones that – incredibly, anticipate Television’s “Marquee Moon”! before returning to the statement-figures into an intense Hawkwind wall of noise. A stunning track.

How to follow that? With “I Went Up, I Went Down”, a token softer more melodic shot, even venturing into harmonies. Again there’s the story of a casual street-meeting that takes an unexpected turn. ‘I met a girl the other day, she asked me if I’d been to see a milky way, I told her no, but would she show me a way I could escape reality?’ It’s stoned cosmic Robert Crumb cartoon-banter, with frames that reel inside your head, ‘and then she said lay on the bed… I took a pill, it was a thrill.’ Suddenly colours never-seen are all-spinning, and psychic energies bright with visions thrum up beneath solid ground. There are surges of what sounds to be reverse-tapes imitating oriental tunings, buzzing and tripping, rising into steady solid drumming and smashing Who guitar into the fade.

The jagged “X-Ray” is another eccentricity, Rock-literate in a way that recalls Mick Farren’s lapsed input, with ‘I’m ready, steady, to Rock and Rave, c’mon let’s set the town ablaze.’ And ‘the hand-jive never went so slow’ – maybe a masturbation reference, because he’s waiting for his lover’s return, ‘is my Baby coming home at three?’ With oddly British sense-of-humour he recalls how we ‘dance until the music stopped, and then we went into the Fish-and-Chips shop.’ How can he tell if she’s coming home? He invests technology with supernatural properties, ‘X-Ray, you can see through me, X-Ray tell me what you see, do you know what is about to be?’

The album closes with a fairly straight concise 3:09-minute cover of “I Saw Her Standing There”, the first track on the Beatles first LP, the inaugural countdown to Rock ‘n’ Roll’s biggest adventure. Although the ‘alright John’ aside into the instrumental break – surely it should be Paul? From that same studio sessions the relentless Don Nix hard-Blues outtake “Going Down” – as recorded by Freddie King, was later included as a CD bonus. Proving the Pink Fairies could Rock worthy of a ZZ Top, altering the lyric only as far as ‘going down to Birmingham,’ with piano surfacing in the pounding mix.

There’s nothing fragile or effete about these Fairies. Moving from the Deviants shambling looseness into tighter harder guitar-driven heavy Rock. An uncompromisingly focused attack intent on pummelling the audience into submission with its sheer Punk-intensity. It’s nasty and it’s in your face, ‘a mystifying jumble of tracks as exuberant as they are shambolic’ (Julian Cope). But ‘it was at this point that the Fairies unique self-destruct mechanism came into play,’ as Mick Farren writes in the ‘New Musical Express’… revealing ‘the rumours behind the truth’ (26 April 1975). By the time of ‘Kings Of Oblivion’ Rudolph had quit – going on to work with Eno and Hawkwind, with various line-up changes resulting in Larry Wallis taking lead guitar. Which was it, for now. There was a one-off reunion for the ‘Live At The Roundhouse’ LP (Big Beat WIK14), recorded 13 July 1975 but not issued until a revival of interest in 1982. There were various other incarnations, for the attention of obsessives and vinyl cultists. But really, all you need to know is here and now.

Meanwhile, ‘Have Fun. Get It On. Don’t Forget To Boogie. And – Up The Pink!’

The ‘Julian Cope Presents Head Heritage’ site…
Full album…