Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Backstage with David Essex

In 1968 David Essex was offered the chance to record a song called Build Me Up Buttercup - he turned it down and it became a million seller for The Foundations. At this point, he already had four years of flops behind him dating back to 1965's And The Tears Came Tumbling Down. Mostly they were mediocre blue-eyed soul; the best song he cut in these lean years, So Called Loving, sat unreleased in Decca's archive until it was dug up to capitalise on his fame in the seventies. Partially his run of eight flop 45s in the sixties was down to bad luck, partially it was down to picking weaker songs than Build Me Up Buttercup as A-sides, but largely it was because the young David Essex didn't sound much like David Essex, the cockney sage of his later, golden years.
"It was before I was a writer. I suppose I was doing a second-hand Tom Jones effort. I did one single about mini-skirts called Thigh High."
Any good?
"Shocking."

If Thigh High had been a novelty hit maybe he'd only have be remembered as Canning Town's answer to Leapy Lee, a sixties one hit wonder pining for his days as a West Ham apprentice. Luckily for all concerned, Essex didn't score until his first self-written single came out in 1973.

Rock On was a masterpiece of minimalism, seemingly made up of nothing but echoes, rumbles, and spectral atmosphere. Today it still sounds like nothing else, as avant garde as any of Roxy or Bowie's contemporaneous tunes. It was part of the soundtrack to That'll Be The Day, a  film that made for a three-day-week flavoured UK counterpart to the soda-pop nostalgia of American Graffiti. A grimy look at late fifties Britain and the nascent rock boom, it starred Essex as a bit of a bastard called Jim McLaine, shagging his way through life after dropping out of school and becoming a fairground grease monkey. Along with Slade In Flame, it was a lament for a lost pop era shot in Get Carter's long shadow. "We were shooting on the Isle Of Wight for seven weeks. Not exotic but big fun, amazing. I could tell you some stories, especially about the all night shoots" he teases, but of course he doesn't.

Rock On is as much about the confusion of early seventies Britain as it is with the hardness and desperate Gaumont pop of the pre-Beatles era. Everything that Bowie's Pin-Ups struggled to get across - a nervous farewell-cum-tribute to the early rock era, clothed in the gladrags of '73 - was encapsulated in Rock On's three and a half minutes. "Where do we go from here? Which is the way that's clear?"

"I'm glad Rock On did it, 'cause you just went anywhere you wanted after that, it was so unusual." And that's what David Essex did. The follow-up hit, Lamplight, featured a middle eight that sounded like the soundtrack to a Josephine Baker routine; his first album also included the dry, driving Streetfight, a pop precis of A Clockwork Orange that was later sampled by Massive Attack.

In 1974 came the Jim McLaine sequel Stardust, in which the anti-hero becomes a rock star: "It was really difficult because so much of what I was fictionalising was actually happening. I'd walk off the set into exactly the same situation."

At one point, superstar McLaine lives in a Moorish castle. "Me and Adam Faith (his manager in the film) made enquiries into buying the place. But there were troglodytes living underneath it and I had visions of them coming up to the castle with flaming torches - 'we want more cattle!' And us pouring boiling oil on them. It was very strange. Bit of an identity crisis going on. At least making Stardust taught me not to be a recluse and not to commit suicide live on worldwide TV, little things like that."

As Mike Leander's sparse and startling productions worked miracles for Gary Glitter, David Essex had the lab-coated Jeff Wayne to thank:"We used to try and be as experimental as we could in the studio. There's a fire extinguisher on Lamplight. For Stardust we had a bath filled up with water, and a gong which we whacked then dropped in so it went *bo-whoa-whoa*. It sounded great! If you listen to the track you can hear this drip-drip-drip as we take it out of the bath. The studio was flooded.

What with his gong-soaking antics and being "drawn towards Dr John", the NME and the heavy press loved Essex at first: "they saw me as a Lou Reed of England if you like. Then the Jackie magazine thing took hold - I hadn't changed musically but they dropped me like a ton of bricks." This kind of press reaction has inspired some dreadful self-pity over the years, epitomised by Stereophonics' bilious Mr Writer. "The cutting edge media response was 'Oh no, he's David Cassidy after all!' Essex responded with the self-effacing Gonna Make You A Star and scored another number one.

Thirty-odd years on from his Jackie period, he divvies up his time as Patron of the Gypsy Council ("an honour I gladly accepted"), member of Amnesty International ("playing Che in Evita was very important, the South American thing intrigues me, the people who disappear in the middle of the night") and West Ham season ticket holder. His dream of visting Cuba and meeting Fidel Castro came true a few years back. "It's an emotionally important place for me."

His back catalogue has been slowly re-appearing in full out on Demon and Cherry Red over the last few years. The recent appearance of Coming Home on this year's '76 TOTP re-runs sent me back to its parent album, the largely forgotten Out On The Street. Produced by Jeff Wayne and engineered by Martin Rushent, its eight, mostly lengthy, tracks make up an urban psychodrama that again bears comparison with Bowie - Diamond Dogs in this case. It lacks that album's over-cooked dramatics (none of 1984's goggle-eyed "into the woods I have to go"), and is advantaged by the '68-in-'76 vogue for the multipart epic (think 10CC's I'm Mandy Fly Me, the Four Seasons' Silver Star). The single City Lights was even released as a 12" to accomodate it's full 6.48 running time without compressing the sound too much (for better or worse, it is also the musical start point for Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds). It sounded like a Top 3 hit all the way, but stalled at 24, as did Coming Home, while the whispered al dente funk of Ooh Love didn't even reach the Top 50. Out On The Street, like Essex himself, is still largely underrated by the rock media. He knows he's not super hip. It hardly seems to bother him; after The River and EastEnders, he understands why the Mojo cover is some way off.

"I suppose I've done some funny things along the way like A Winter's Tale, you know, which... errm... OK, I've just done 'em!"

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