Monday, 18 August 2014

The making of How We Used To Live

Like most good stories, this one starts in a pub. For over a decade my band, Saint Etienne, has worked with director Paul Kelly on various short films and documentaries, beginning with Finisterre in 2002. Five years ago, Paul asked me to meet him at the Old Red Lion in Islington, North London, as he had an idea for a new film. He had seen Terence Davies’s rumination on his home city of Liverpool, using 20th-century archive footage, and wondered what an archive-only film of London could look like. We went back to his flat and watched the film three times on the spin. It was very moving, peppered with unexpected moments like footage of the Korean War soundtracked by the Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother , and Davies’s snarling dislike of the Beatles. It was very personal; it made Liverpool seem both grand and pitiable. The city Davies had grown up in was no longer there — he could never go home anymore. Could we make anything as impressive?

As luck would have it, I had been contacted by Tony Dykes of the British Film Institute, a gentle soul who knows more about public information films and the Children’s Film Foundation than anyone I’ve met. He had asked Saint Etienne to record new music for a couple of Design Council films from the Sixties; I went back and talked to him about Paul’s idea. Within a few weeks we were watching boxes of old video tapes in a breezeblock cupboard on the roof of the BFI’s offices, right next to a storeroom covered in hazard signs that contained canisters of highly flammable old films. We spent the next three months going through hours of BFI archive footage of London, 95 per cent of which involved Piccadilly Circus, the Royal Family or aerial shots of the Tower of London. If we weren’t to be blown up by flammable footage of Marie Lloyd first, we might just find enough material to make our own film.

One of our most exciting finds was a magazine series called London Line , which ran from the mid-Sixties until the early Eighties — the reason you may not remember it is because the series was distributed primarily to the Commonwealth by the Central Office of Information, and was never screened here. The presenter, Michael Smee, was engaging and likeable, somewhere between Thunderbirds’ Jeff Tracy and Nationwide’s Bob Wellings. He visited Carnaby Street, the new towns ringing London and the Rothamsted agricultural research centre where he tried “leaf protein”, a green sludge that was set to wipe out world hunger by 2000.

London Line exemplified an atmosphere that we wanted to get across in the film — the optimism of the “New Elizabethan era”. Davies’s film showed Liverpool in its brief postwar pomp, with celebrities visiting Birkenhead for film premieres, before its steady slide into poverty and unemployment thanks to recession, cack-handed redevelopment and an uncaring government. London’s fortunes since the 1951 Festival of Britain had ebbed and flowed but spirits were largely buoyant. The city may have smelt of damp wool and coal dust in winter, but from teenagers finding a sense of self in Fifties coffee bars through to the late Seventies when punks congregated outside the Rough Trade shop, there had been a sense of optimism.

Our film, How We Used To Live, ends with the dawn of the Thatcher era, a different time in which the Square Mile — almost always at odds with the actual inhabitants of London — began to assert its strength, starting with the land grab of the former docklands. The hopes of the New Elizabethans, and the bright primary colours of the Festival of Britain, were finally squashed to be replaced with shades of grey. In the Eighties money no longer chinked like small change in your pocket — it crackled like a forest fire.

How We Used To Live wouldn’t be a personal film, like Of Time and the City — it couldn’t be as we were too young to remember most of the period we were covering. Writer Travis Elborough was brought in as a researcher and adviser, bringing in folders full of astonishing stories, most of which — such as the vicious St Pancras rent strike of 1960 — never made it to the final script. My Saint Etienne partner, Pete Wiggs, came up with a complete, and quite beautiful, 70-minute soundtrack. For a short while we were unnerved by the news that Julien Temple was planning a similar film commissioned by the BBC, also using BFI archive footage. In the end, it worked to our advantage; watching London — the Modern Babylon last summer convinced us that telling the story chronologically wasn’t the way to go — whichever part of Temple’s film you were watching, you always knew what was coming next. London’s story is too familiar for a decade-by-decade telling. Paul edited the BFI footage we had uncovered impressionistically. It often looked like he had shot it himself, as if he had a Tardis and a Super 8 camera. The cherry on the cake was convincing Ian McShane to narrate the script, from the point of view of a London arriviste in the Fifties who had left again at the turn of the Eighties. His story wasn’t that dissimilar.

London is currently going through its greatest structural upheaval since the Sixties. It can often feel as if everything I love about the city — its irregular architecture, its cafés and pubs, the anticipation that something new and great is just about to spring out of some unexpected corner — is under threat or disappearing. It can be dispiriting to see the return of Union Jacks on the Mall, the potential destruction of hundreds of homes to make way for HS2, the scale-defying glass and steel new-builds that are almost inseparable from buildings in Tokyo or New York or Jakarta. Yet going through the footage for How We Used To Live — the miles of film devoted to the Royals, the fawning to bankers and the City, the slivers we excised of real Londoners living their lives — it became obvious that nothing beyond the details had changed. How We Used To Live is remarkably similar to the way Londoners live now.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Big I Little i: the independent charts

I grew up obsessed with the charts. Like thousands of other kids, I'd listen to the new Radio 1 Top 30, with the Top 5 played in full on Tuesday lunchtime, then write down the new chart in an exercise book. Yes, I was there in 1976 when Manuel & His Music of the Mountains - with their highly undanceable Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto - were announced as the nation's number one at lunchtime, only to be demoted a few hours later (with no explanation from Radio 1, of course). Of such fragments, pop history is made. And then largely forgotten.

Of slightly greater long-term significance, I also remember hearing Paul Gambaccini sitting in for John Peel in the spring of 1980. He played Love Will Tear Us Apart, the new single by Joy Division, and then played their Peel sessions as a tribute to the late Ian Curtis. I knew from looking at the mysterious independent chart, and reading Ian Cranna's Independent Bitz column in Smash Hits, that Joy Division were signed to Factory, a Manchester label run by a local TV presenter called Tony Wilson. I'd seen the reviews of A Certain Ratio and Section 25, other Factory acts, which were largely negative but the sleeves looked great and I was intrigued.

Independent, at this point, was not a musical or artistic definition.  The independent chart, though, was largely about new music, difficult sounds, not the kind of groups likely to end up on a Radio 1 Roadshow in Tenby. As every pop student knows, Al Martino's Italianite ballad Here In My Heart was the first number one on the UK singles chart in November 1952; Spizz Energi were the Martinos of the independent chart, sitting at number one when the first chart was published in January 1980, with Where's Captain Kirk. The Fall turned out to be the Who of this alternative world, always seemingly at no. 2 (Totally Wired), or no.3 (The Man Whose Head Expanded), but never number one.

Geoff Travis's Rough Trade label were responsible for Where's Captain Kirk and several other singles in the very first Top 30: "We used to do our own Top Tens in the shop" he recalled, "but they were personal taste. The first independent charts were very important. It was significant if the Fall's LP was number one, it gave you a sense of achievement.
We were happy in our own world - there was a logic and beauty to it. And the real world's taste is so terrible." I wasn't quite as disdainful of the real world's taste, as the British public made Theme From M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless) the surprise number one summer sound of 1980. Also in the chart that year were nailed-on classics like Teena Marie's Behind The Groove, Squeeze's Another Nail In My Heart, Roxy Music's Oh Yeah, Dexy's Midnight Runners' There There My Dear. But the notion of a parallel pop universe, nonetheless, was fascinating.
The independent chart had been the brainchild of Iain McNay - then, as now, the boss of Cherry Red Records. While all the music papers were publishing their own separate lists, there wasn't an official one until McNay approached the trade sheet Record Business: "The rules were simple" said McNay. "Any record was eligible that didn't go through the major record distributors." The new listing would help shops to order records, alert the majors to new acts, and inform non-metropolitan music lovers (like me, stuck out in Surrey) that records had definitely been released. Within weeks of Record Business publishing the independent charts, the nascent Smash Hits began to print them, which is where I first came across them.

To a pop kid raised on Top Of The Pops and the Top 40, the song titles and band names conveyed vast mystique:
Get Up And Use Me by Fire Engines; Cabaret Voltaire's Seconds Too Late; Simply Thrilled Honey by the thrillingly named Orange Juice. At number 5 in the summer of 1980 was the Cramps' Drug Train. There could never be a song called Drug Train in the real chart, whose number 5 that week was Feels Like I'm In Love by Kelly Marie. The independent chart was a secret world where pop appeared to be deeper, more mysterious, a world from which Kelly Marie and her Seaside Special-disco tack were banished.

In turn, independent became indie, then Indie - the charts unintentionally led to a more homogenous, less eclectic mix of sounds. In its prime, though, the independent chart could mean Delta 5's Mind Your Own Business, 
Discharge's Never Again; it could mean the atmospheric instrumental work of the Durutti Column, or the animal skin-clad metallers Manowar, or even Stalin Wasn't Stallin' by Robert Wyatt. Almost every independent hit lacked airplay, they were often no more to me than titles written on paper, never to be heard; Dome 2 by Dome - what could it possibly sound like? This distance, as well as the wildly varied music, was part of the romantic appeal. I've still never heard Subliminal by Drinking Electricity, or Banned From The Pubs by Peter & the Test Tube Babies but, thanks to the independent charts, the names are lodged in my memory forever.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Corky Hale, queen of harps

The latest Croydon Municipal release is from the little known but wonderful harp player Corky Hale, and it's a gorgeous, summer evening of an album, a collection of instrumentals from 1957. Her Zelig-like career has, in more recent times, seen Corky play on Bjork’s album Debut, and George Michael's Songs From The Last Century, though she neglected to release an album of her own for four decades after her own debut. Fifty years after it was released, Corky finally made her Carnegie Hall debut - as a piano soloist - in 2007.

Corky Hale was born Merrilyn Hecht in Freeport, Illinois, and started taking piano lessons almost as soon as she could walk. At the age of seven, while on a family vacation n Florida, Corky was heard playing in the hotel lobby by resident bandleader Horace Heidt who had a little band jacket made for her and began to feature her in his evening show. Quite the prodigy, young Merrilyn began studying piano at Chicago Conservatory at the age of seven, and harp a year later.

Heidt and his specially designed jacket must have instilled the show-biz bug in Merrilyn, and she ran away from home – well, she ran away from UCLA where her dad had enrolled her – to play the harp on Freddie Martin's TV Show in the early '50s. 

The novelty of a gorgeous teenage harpist was one thing, but she was evidently a real talent. As soon as the show was aired she received a call inviting her onto Liberace's show. His only stipulation was that she dye her dark hair blonde, as he thought it would show up better under the spotlight. She went on to accompany him for three years at a time when he was one of the world's most famous entertainers.

Her parents were entirely unaware of all this malarkey until she turned up, platinum blonde, on their TV screen in Freeport. At 18, Merrilyn had her own flat and a white Buick convertible. She was asked to play harp on Cecil B De Mille's the Ten Commandments, and had a regular slot at the Coconut Grove nightclub, reunited with the Freddie Martin Orchestra, where she started as a harpist, then played piano during intermissions, and even had a few singing spots. Sharing the stage with Frank Sinatra (who she briefly dated), Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee, with Lana Turner, Robert Taylor and Van Johnson in the audience, it was just about the glamorous place Freeport's Merrilyn Hecht could have found herself.

It was during her stint at the Coconut Lounge that Merrilyn Hecht became Corky Hale – her Saturday shows were broadcast on the radio and she needed a more Hollywood-friendly name. Her one and only studio recording session was supervised by promoter and jazz enthusiast Gene Norman who put together a stellar line-up to back Corky's harp playing: on vibraphone was Larry Bunker who had recorded with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee; bassist Red Mitchell was a sidekick of Ornette Coleman and Andre Previn among others; drummer Chico Hamilton had his own respected West Coast jazz quartet, and he brought along flute and tenor sax player Buddy Collette, who had played with Charles Mingus when he was just 16; finally there was session guitarist Howard Roberts who would go on to play on everything from Peggy Lee's Fever to the Munsters theme.

After the album was released, Corky's parents moved to LA and opened up a clothes shop on the Sunset Strip (called Corky Hale) which she was obliged to run, sidelining her performing and recording career. She met and married an Italian knitwear salesman, and her hair returned to its natural colour. After they divorced, she spent time in Italy and London before finding herself in New York in the late '60s, where once again she began playing her harp and piano, on recording sessions for the likes Judy Collins, James Brown and Barbra Streisand, who also hired Corky for three TV specials. She also met her second husband, Mike Stoller of the famous Leiber/Stoller team, in New York – they married in 1970 and are still together.
Outside of music, Corky has been honoured as a Champion of Choice by NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) due to her lifelong support for women’s rights; with husband Mike, she is also a strong advocate of the Southern Poverty Law Centre and serves on the board of the National Coalition to Ban Gun Violence.

Did I mention she also ran Corky's Restaurant on the Lower East Side in the '70s? No wonder she hardly ever had time to go to the studio. All hail Corky Hale, an all-round super lady and a wonderful musician - it's a pleasure to put her very first album back in the racks.

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Midcentury Minx

Some days, it isn't so hard to see why rock'n'roll pissed off so many people. While the pop charts of the immediate pre-rock era were top-heavy with novelty songs about doggies in the window and baby's dimples, it was also a fabulous time for vocal jazz records, especially for women. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy and Chris Connor were at their artistic and commercial peaks, and there were plenty of rivals in waiting. Some of their voices were sweet and lightly swinging (Doris Drew), while some smouldered in the Julie London style (take a bow, Dolores Gray). This was the age of the Midcentury Minx, and it would be all but wiped out by rock'n'roll.

Plenty of talented girls whose albums were beautifully housed, whose arrangements and voices were imaginative and seductive, are now largely forgotten. Take Toni Harper, who began as a child star. Her unnervingly mature voice earned her a spot in a 1945 follies at the same Los Angeles theatre where Judy Garland had been discovered. She appeared on Ed Sullivan's early TV shows in 1949 and 1950 and in 1955, aged 18, hit the jazz big time when she recorded Toni Harper Sings with the Oscar Peterson Trio for Verve. It's a wonderfully warm record – Toni went on to record two more fine albums with Marti Paich, toured Japan with Cannonball Adderley in 1963, before retiring completely in 1969, aged just 29.

Other singers were very highly regarded by other musicians but never really clicked with the public. Chicago singer Lurlean Hunter was singing in clubs before the war, accompanying big bands, and cut four albums between 1956 and 1960 with such ace arrangers as Al Nevins, Quincy Jones (who described her voice as “like clothing”) and Al Cohn. Cohn also worked with Irene Kral, a regular vocalist on The Steve Allen Show in 1959. This led to her first solo LP for United Artists Records, entirely written by Allen, and awkwardly titled Steveireneo. The same year, she cut The Band And I with Al Cohn. By 1961, Kral had moved to Tarzana, California to raise a family, and she was off the scene until the late '70s: “Now when I'm old enough to appreciate them”, she sighed, “almost all the really good bands are gone.”

Like the great Ethel Ennis, Sallie Blair (left) was a Baltimore native. She sang with the Johnny Otis band and got her big break on TV's Chance Of A Lifetime in 1956 singing Cry Me A River – this won her a residency in a Miami nightclub. She sang with Cab Calloway and was adored by columnist Walter Winchell, whose praise earned her spots on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson. Somehow she only got to cut two albums, the coyly named Squeeze Me and Hello Tiger.   

Dolores Gray began as a cabaret artiste in San Francisco before moving to London and studying at RADA. She worked mostly in theatre but had a plum role in the film Designing Woman (1957) as Gregory Peck's former squeeze. The come-hither stylings of Warm Brandy, her only album, appeared in the same year. Theatre critic Michael Phillips once said that Dolores's voice was like "a freight-train slathered in honey." Anne Philips cut just one album in 1959 LP, but had a long career as a New York demo singer in the '50s and '60s. She sang all the backing vocals on Carole King's It Might as Well Rain Until September in 1962 (think of the smooth “til September” part towards the end of the song). Born To Be Blue was was recorded over three dates at the Brill Building writers' favourite Bell Sound Studio in 1959.

Beverley Kenney's voice was breathy and girlish, not dissimilar to Blossom Dearie's. She died tragically young, committing suicide in 1960 when she was only 28. In the '50s she had sung with the Dorsey Brothers, appeared on TV in the Steve Allen Show (on which she sang I Hate Rock'n'Roll) and Playboy's Penthouse in 1958, and had released six albums by the time of her death. Revered in Japan, a collection of 1954 demos entitled Snuggled On Your Shoulder was the first of three Japanese-only collections of unreleased material. Here's a clip of her singing and chatting with Hugh Hefner on Playboy After Dark:

Jane Fielding, even in the digital age, is extremely obscure. The sleevenotes to 1956's superb Embers Glow reveal she was an ice skater who suffered an injury and retired early. Singing slightly behind the beat, her breathy voice was supported on her debut album by a stellar group: Kenny Drew (piano), Joe Maini (alto sax), Ted Efantis (tenor sax), Leroy Vinnegar or Paul Chambers (bass) and Larance Marable (drums). She was a blue-eyed redhead who recorded one other album – Jazz Trio with Lou Levy and Red Mitchell – and that's all we know.

It's a treat to uncover, more than five decades later, the many fine singers who were operating out of New York and LA like Toni Harper and Marcy Lutes, but it must have been galling for them, so talented but still so unknown; unless they had really hit the big time, their careers were usually wounded by rock'n'roll, then killed off by the Beatles' inspired beat boom. While the Japanese have long appreciated female vocal jazz, elsewhere it has largely been bracketed with exotica and the lounge boom since the '90s. The enormous intimacy of this music deserves to be separated from records which only ever sold for their cheesecake covers.

These singers had delicacy, accuracy and cool; their arrangements were hip, dry and understated. Croydon Municipal is happy to give them a home together on the Midcentury Minx compilation, available in all good record stores, or at Amazon if you must.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

An interview with Dory Previn

The second release on the Croydon Municipal label is Dory Langdon's My Heart Is A Hunter from 1958. It's a jazz vocal album with a rambunctious tomboy charm. It was originally titled The Leprechauns Are Upon Me! which probably did it few favours at the time as it sold very little, despite being on the prestigious Verve label. Dory married pianist and arranger Andre Previn shortly after they recorded the album, and her career took off from there. I interviewed Dory in 2008, before I'd ever heard this album, and reproduce the article here. Dory Previn passed away on Valentines Day 2012.

An irregular inclusion on Terry Wogan's breakfast show over the year was a quaint song about a girl's bumbling advances to a date: "Would you like to stay til sunrise? It's completely your decision." In spite of the prettiness of the melody, though, it is clear there is more to the song than freshman student embarrassment. Wogan was wont to comment "Here comes that strange lady again." Jarvis Cocker, picking the song for one of his Desert Island Discs, said “I remember very vividly first hearing this record. I had moved to London. I was living in this squat and I was trying to put a curtain rail up. I was listening to the radio and it’s one of those moments where you have to stop what you’re doing and pay full attention.”

The song was Lady With The Braid by Dory Previn. She had been the wife of Andre Previn in the sixties, and successfully worked with him on music for films such as Inside Daisy Clover, Valley Of The Dolls, and The Sterile Cuckoo - which won her an Oscar. When Andre left Dory for Mia Farrow she had a breakdown. One way out of her crisis was songwriting for herself, not for the movies. She was already in her mid-forties by the time her first, deeply confessional, album On My Way To Where came out in 1970. "They were all based on true experiences" she tells me. "The music I write for films is not. These songs were for me. I know myself better than anyone else, so it helped me. It was self-revelation".

Songwriting as self-help therapy after a break-up or a breakdown has produced some of pop's more startling works: the splendour of Amy Winehouse's Back To Black was pinned on her jagged relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil; thirty years previously, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours documented two disintegrating relationships; the drawn out demise of Abba's two couplings, laid bare on 1981's The Visitors, produced arguably their best album, which included the eerie, fever-dream of Like An Angel Passing Through My Room.

Dory Previn would never back away from admitting Lady With The Braid and other songs are autobiographical. "There's nothing I wouldn't say. I don't want to sound like I'm always talking about myself, but I've been there. In life and on stage. I've been in mental hospitals, I've been up and down those stairs."

Her New Jersey upbringing is still apparent in her voice. She was born in 1925 and, after a strict Catholic upbringing, decided to become a chorus girl. "When I was a kid I was the star of Woodbridge, New Jersey. I thought I could it do the same thing in other towns, so I did. I was a walk on and each night I'd add things and get laughs. I was getting more laughs than (main act) Rust Hills, the comedian. One day he said 'I wanna talk to you, in my office'. I thought he was going to say what a good job I was doing but he said 'Don't do that again, ever.' He got me fired. I've got his picture on the wall. When I get bum raps I like to hang 'em on the wall!"

Chastened, she took a train to Hollywood in the late fifties where she landed a job at MGM. "Andre was head of the musical department at MGM. We became partners. It was nice. He was a bit miffed when I showed up because in those days women didn't know very much, apparently. He said 'show me something.'  So I played some material I'd been doing in a little club - I was very shy about this - and he said 'These are good'. Like I didn't know! Next thing we got married.

They recorded an album of Dory's songs, as Dory Langdon, for the Verve label in 1958. And for a while life was sweet, with regular film work through the sixties. "I'm not the kind of person where things happen and everything's wonderful. But me and Andre started fooling around, I asked if he would accompany me, and suddenly we were doing a movie. We did songs for Judy Garland and men and women of that ilk. I received an Oscar!  It was wonderful." At this point, Mia Farrow arrived on the scene. Dory expressed her outrage in Beware Of Young Girls a few years later: "She was my friend, my friend/oh what a rare and happy pair, she inevitably said/as she glanced at my unmade bed."
"Andre and I were married. But he had a long term commitment to work, not to marriage. I understand that. She was young and beautiful and blah blah blah. He went to South America or somewhere and got a divorce. It frightened me, being alone, having to write with people I didn't know."
Does she know if Farrow ever heard the song?
"With her ego? Of course she did. She's probably got the record framed in the bathroom! It's OK. These experiences do us a lot of good. I got through."

Though she was twice their age, Dory Previn's early seventies albums sat well on sensitive student shelves alongside open-wound, female songwriters like Janis Ian and Laura Nyro."Who else was I listening to? I was listening to myself. If your father says you're not his child, if your mother had terrible experiences, a life like that is so outrageous... you begin to reveal in songs what you don't reveal even to your friends". Stories surfaced from memory like Left Hand Lost, a song about being born "sinister" but being forced by the nuns at her school to write with her right hand. "Yes, they hit me, those darling girls.  When you write a song, you can get an answer to something that's been bugging you for years. Over time I'd begin to feel I wasn't using my correct hand, like I needed to get a better grasp on a pen, on a word, an idea. It resulted in my nervous breakdown."

Like Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman, Dory's songs drew largely on Americana, with vaudeville leanings that made them blackly humorous. Contemporaneous to On My Way To Where was John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album which was somewhat shorter on laughs. Maybe it was something in 1970's grey post-Aquarian air; Dory Previn's Twenty Mile Zone was about an occasion where she  "was screaming in fury and frustration in the car. This so-called shout therapy lead to the unwanted attentions of the law."

Lennon's childhood had been a mess. Dory Previn likewise had an alcoholic father. Her relationship with him is told in the extremely unsettling With My Daddy In The Attic. "He locked my mother and me up in a room for several weeks. He was like a lover but I wasn't old enough then to understand at the time. It was tough stuff. Later I realised it wasn't just me - I was it for him. My mother was ignored. When she had another child it was better because she had someone too."

Even now it seems hard for her to break out of her mental binds. Trying to explain whereabouts she lives these days, she tells me "That's a question that's hard for me to answer. I'm where I live. I'm in the country, on a farm, with horses. And that's what it is. Where I live inside myself, that's quite a different question."

It seems hard to square this person with someone who could have played Carnegie Hall with just a piano for accompaniment. "They had to escort me down the stairs, I was so nervous I couldn't stand up. I was on stage, alone! Strange? I can't begin to tell you... The best part was that I was a strictly raised Catholic singing on stage to a whole row of nuns. They must have planned it, because when I sang Did Jesus Have A Baby Sister they all got up and walked out! All in their nunny caps. Everyone started laughing."

1976’s We’re Children of Coincidence And Harpo Marx was Dory's last album. Her autobiography, Midnight Baby, was published in 1977, and music took a backseat. In 1997 she was working once more with André Previn on a piece called The Magic Number, performed by the New York Philharmonic.

Art therapy for Dory Previn now consists of keeping a small pile of books handy "so that if a thought goes through my head I can look into it to see if I can make sense of it. I've got this Pope encyclopedia by my bed, though I'm not religious at all. And the book of Lilith, which I love. One called Mind Prophecies, and one of my own to remind myself that I can do it."

Yet in spite of all the red-raw confession in her songwriting, I start to think I may have been prying too much, poking at old wounds. "Listen" she laughs, a little fiercely. "The world has delved into my life. It knows all my secrets! That's what I'm here for."

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Why I wrote 'Yeah Yeah Yeah'

A few years ago I reviewed a DVD box set of Tony Palmer's mid-seventies TV series All You Need Is Love for the Guardian. An epic history of twentieth century popular music, it ended with Stomu Yamashta and the ambient drift of Mike Oldfield's Ommadawn as Palmer gamely predicted the pop music of tomorrow. By the time the series aired in 1977, punk rock was at its peak and Palmer's prediction - his entire series, even - seemed a grand folly. How could it have been anything else? It was like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Pop music by its nature is unpredictable and ever-changing, and I concluded that it is a fool's errand to ever attempt a written history; it would be out of date by the time it was published. The day after my review ran, a publisher and a literary agent both got in touch to say I was wrong, that it could it be done, and that, as a pop obsessive, would I like to give it a go myself?

This was a challenge which dominated the next five years of my life, resulting in Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop. The narrative of how and why pop music developed hadn't been attempted for decades, and Tony Palmer stood before me as an example of how deeply you can dig and still get it wrong. I knew I had to avoid other pitfalls, too, which may not have been so obvious to writers in the seventies and eighties. There were snobberies and anti-snobberies at every turn - soul and R&B historians tended to be afraid of that dread word 'manufactured'; the mod take on pop was basically a ranking of cool, scared of any mess; while the traditional rock history was largely suspicious of electronics, and even the intellect (with David Bowie as the key dividing figure).

The simplest way around this was for me to base my book on the charts, singles and albums, an engine of pop which dates back to the critical year of 1952. That was also the year when the first New Musical Express was published, the first seven-inch, 45rpm singles were issued in Britain, the first portable record player - the Dansette - was launched, and the NME printed the first Hit Parade, with Al Martino's Here In My Heart at the top of the pile. These four mediums formed the very basis of modern pop, and the music (in 1952, largely ballads, film themes and novelty records) would eventually catch up with their new, plastic thrill on Bill Haley's Rock Around The Clock three years later. For the next forty-odd years, the charts would remain the closest we could get to a pop consensus, and give us a sense of direct participation in popular culture.

Where to end the book became apparent as I was writing a list of contents. The year 2000 had always promised to be a line in the sand and so it proved, though not necessarily for musical reasons - the first number one of the new millennium was Westlife's cover of Seasons In The Sun, after all. But 2000 was the year iTunes was launched, with the iPod arriving a year later, rapidly ushering in the digital revolution and leaving the music industry – which had barely changed in almost five decades - in turmoil. Since the dawn of the digital age great records have continued to be made, of course: the current number one act, Katy Perry, is a model pop star; Blurred Lines and Get Lucky will be party regulars for years to come. Pop lives on. Yet there is little sense of community, and it has become easy to stop caring about the Top 40. Pop has become less wantable.

We are in a state of what writer Douglas Rushkoff calls 'present shock': the past is now a constant, re-fashioned to our current tastes and needs, while no one talks much about how music will sound in the future – the sense of pop's evolution and progression has gone. The feel and grain of the modern pop age, from the fifties to the end of the nineties becomes gradually harder to recall. With Yeah Yeah Yeah, I wanted to capture how it felt to live through that era, through the bad and the ugly as well as the good. Context is crucial in understanding how and why pop developed, and can be easily lost in the digital age.

Most importantly, though, I didn't want to write a dry history of 'classic pop', leaving it "sitting on its ass in a museum", to quote Claes Oldenburg. My opinion on who has been influential in pop may not chime without everyone else's. No one in the world is going to read Yeah Yeah Yeah and agree with everything in it - not everyone likes Del Shannon or T Rex or the KLF as much as I do. But this is how the era felt to me, and how it has ruled my life, firing playground spats and pub arguments, filling my home with the iconography and detritus of pop music: posters, records, cassettes, biographies, ticket stubs, box sets, a lifetime of devotion. I knew that one day I needed to get all this stuff out of my head and into a book, and the result was Yeah Yeah Yeah.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Sparks: 'Kimono My House'

"Heartbeat, increasing heartbeat." Sparks put the fear of God into pre-teens in 1974 with their debut Top Of The Pops appearance. As pretty boy Russell Mael flashed his eyes and the agitated, almost oriental glam of This Town Ain't Big Enough rang out, the whole nation wanted to shout "Watch out! Hitler's sitting behind you! And he's playing the piano!" You had to laugh or you'd be terrified.

Ron And Russell Mael were child models, and later ice cream salesmen, born and raised in southern California. They formed a band called Halfnelson in 1968 and were soon taken under the aegis of eccentric rabbit-boy Todd Rundgren. After two low-selling albums and a name change - to something midway between the Marx Brothers and pure electricity - someone smart suggested they try their luck in England. "It was a fantasy" says Russell, "we were real Anglophiles. And we were too naive to be paralysed by thoughts of failure."

It was 1973. Initially they were holed up in Beckenham, Kent. It may have a proud musical tradition (Bowie, Siouxsie, Haircut 100) but it held little allure for our Hollywood exiles. "We got tired of catching the 10.49 from Victoria every night. So we moved to South Kensington, to the basement flat of Kenneth Tynan's house."

Impressively, Sparks earnt themselves a month's residency at the Marquee Club straight away, which led to an Old Grey Whistle Test performance. "In the US we'd played to six people at the Whiskey A Gogo; in London there were queues around the block. We started a new life." With the rest of the original band heading home, the Maels placed ads and found Adrian Fisher, Martin Gordon, and drummer Dinky Diamond. Island Records signed them and very soon they had recorded a blinding third album.

Even compared to the quickfire pop of the previous records, Kimono My House was hyperactive. There's a theory that British bands play higher, tighter and faster than American counterparts (think Beatles vs Byrds, Sex Pistols vs Nirvana) because it's the best way to keep warm in a damp, cold rehearsal room. Ron Mael claims the faster pace was purely down to the classical music he was listening to - but maybe, thirty years on, they've forgotten the biting reality of the English climate. Their first UK-honed single in April '74, This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us, was an astonishing blend of old Hollywood, Roxy Music, and Monty Python which fulfilled pop's primal needs by getting ever louder, faster, and shriller over its three and a half minutes. With the greatest of ease, it hit the Top Three within a month.

Kimono My House - released in June - was no letdown, a hypoid, Dada-ist stream of potential 45s: Amateur Hour was also eatern-guitar-flavoured (plucked to become their second top tenner), and a tribute to adolescent dancefloor hell; Here In Heaven was sung by a dead lover to his girlfriend on earth who had chickened out of a suicide pact; the dense, superloud Thank God It's Not Christmas was a straightforward thumbs-up for the 364-days-a-year party life. "Their music is so obviously and totally different from anything we've heard before" said Todd Rundgren. So clever and sharp, so quirky and immediate, such intense fun. Anita Loos would have adored them.

"We had the screaming girls and other fans who thought there was a deeper side to what we were doing. They didn't like the screaming girls." Ron and Russell soon settled into London life. Once they went to a cinema and a rat ran over Russell's feet - "that didn't really happen in southern California. Or stores closing on Sundays. Reality hit us after living in England a while. But we got to see Roxy Music and the Sweet, who were really good, and we were fans of Indian food. So that was on our positive checklist. Tandoori chicken... sorry, Morrissey. We've since cleared up our act. There are very few chickens in our lives now."

As a bona fide pin-up Russell was asked to contribute a weekly column to girls' magazine Mirabelle. "Heady stuff. Favourite sweets. The pro's and cons of pies. Colours - do you like them?" Moustachioed Ron, unsurprisingly, was spared the ordeal - it is likely that no feature was written on Sparks in 1974 that didn't mention Hitler, or child molesters, at least once.

By the year's end the band started to fragment with the acrimonious departure of bassist Martin Gorman, but - barely pausing for breath - they released another fine album, Propaganda, in November. Melody Maker voted them brightest hope for 1975 as the utterly beautiful Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth graced the Christmas Top 20. Guitarist Fisher was next to go, ahead of the Indiscreet album which delved into Gilbert and Sullivan and flapper ditties, maybe a little too deeply. The kids didn't need their own Hinge And Brackett, and 1976 saw Sparks disappear from the charts completely. For a while it had all fitted just so - the shock, the ambiguity, the thrill of the falsetto - and by the dawn of punk it was all used up. The Maels returned to the States in '77 to lick their wounds and await the first of several rebirths.

The sauce and cheek of Kimono My House ("You mentioned Kant and I was shocked, because where I come from none of the girls have such foul tongues") had a strong effect on the young Morrissey. As a neighbour in LA, he was invited chez Mael to hear the premiere of 2002's Li'l Beethoven, a beat-free album which bore no resemblance to any previous Sparks album, or anything else in pop for that matter. Russell considers it "unique and bold" and it's hard to disagree.

The Maels' bravery was rewarded with international praise and an invite to play Morrissey's Meltdown. "We're both kind of detached from the real world" reckons Russell. They settled on Kimono for the first set, the whole of Li'l Beethoven for the second.

"Kimono My House was an important album in Morrissey's formative years. We had mixed feelings about doing it - we were really flattered, but we've re-established our group as a current creative force. We didn't know how we could justify doing it to ourselves, but doing both albums made it an interesting and conceptual show. Li'l Beethoven" concludes Russell, "is a modern equivalent of what Kimono My House represented."

He sounds a little fidgety and unsure, like he took a lot of persuading. Ron, a silent and slightly eerie presence up until now (as if you would expect anything less), finally speaks. "It took me a lot more. But people grabbed me by the shoulders, and they shook me. Physical force always works on me. Eventually."

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