Wednesday, 9 November 2011
Backstage with David Essex
"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."
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?"
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."
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."
"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!"
Posted by Bob Stanley at Wednesday, November 09, 2011