Thursday 15 December 2011

Worlds Within Worlds: Basil Kirchin

This is an interview I did with Basil Kirchin in 2002, three years before his death. Please bear this in mind when I refer to dates. Since I wrote it, Jonny Trunk has done a superb job of sorting and issuing the Kirchin archive, much of which had never been given a commercial release, a favourite of mine being Charcoal Sketches. Oh, and I should say that Basil was more obsessed with music than anyone I have ever met.

Basil Kirchin's home may be in Hull, but he spends most of his time in a place most of us are hardly aware of, in "the 834th of a second before thought comes rushing in. In a state of alert inactivity. I spend 90 per cent of my time there so the other reality, keeping a roof over my head, has to make it on the remaining 10 per cent. Which gets pretty difficult at times. The key is, you have to try and act before there's time to think."

Very charming, very intense, Basil Kirchin, 76, has spent the past 40 years sculpting music from "sounds never before heard by human ears, music from another dimension". His reputation rests on a series of works called Worlds Within Worlds, parts of which surfaced on two albums in the early Seventies and which have remained out of print but highly prized ever since. Brian Eno cites them as a primary influence on his ambient music. At the other extreme, he is praised by industrialists such as Coil and Nurse with Wound. He is one of the great innovators in postwar British music, and he remains - very much against his wishes - a well-kept secret.

This should change with Quantum, the first in a series of reissues from Kirchin's startling catalogue. It's jazz, of a sort. Hornbills replace bassists, a bassoon and some geese overlap until you can't tell which is which. There are guitars, amplified insects, saxophones, trams, lions and the voices of autistic children.

It's thrilling, sometimes terrifying, and - though over 30 years old - feels very new.

Kirchin joined his father's big band, aged 13, as a drummer in 1941. "When the war started, I'd come home from school and my old man used to let me play with the band. I was eaten up with it. For two and a half years I slept in Warren Street station and played thirteen and a half sessions every two weeks. One afternoon off - in which I played with the relief band for free. Insane." After the war, Kirchin played with Harry Roy and Ted Heath before taking over the leadership of the Kirchin Band in the mid-Fifties. They acquired famous fans - Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor - while Billy Eckstein and Sarah Vaughan would tour Britain only if the Kirchin Band backed them. "I was the loudest drummer in the world. I was known as the Fall of Tobruk."

Uniquely, the Kirchin Band owned a PA system, which enabled Kirchin to record every show. They broke attendance records and starred in Melody Maker polls, but by 1957 skiffle and rock'n'roll were hitting the band's popularity and in any case Kirchin "realised it wasn't enough, because you're a prisoner of rhythm. And I was fed up playing other people's music."

He chucked it all in and escaped to India, where he spent five months in the Ramakrishna Temple on the Ganges. His next stop was Sydney, where disaster struck.

As his luggage was being taken from the ship, something snapped and it all fell into Sydney harbour. All Basil's tapes of the Kirchin Band, basically his whole life, was lost. It still distresses him.

In 1961 Kirchin returned to Britain to work on a "music that was individual". He stayed with his parents in Hull and worked with a local lad called Keith Herd on electronic music. He made some fabulous music for the De Wolfe library, all with odd time signatures, a Kirchin trademark: highlights were the flute and harpsichord suite Abstractions Of The Industrial North (a perfect, self-descriptive library title) and Mind On The Run, which sounds like an alternative Avengers soundtrack. Film work naturally followed; The Shuttered Room, The Abominable Dr Phibes, and an incredibly beautiful, fragile score for I Start Counting, a Jenny Agutter thriller set in freshly built Bracknell new town.

But it was experimentation with tapes and sound manipulation that created Kirchin's big breakthrough. "There is no such thing as a long note," he explains.

"If you take the human voice and slow it down five octaves, immediately everything you can hear drops away. Take birdsong, all those harmonics you can't hear are brought down -sounds that human ears have never heard before. Little boulders of sound. In 1964 it was hard to capture. There was only reel to reel tape, and it took eight or nine years of my life. It was long and hard and painful. Now with the new technology you can hear these boulders of sound without changing the pitch, which is miraculous!"

On and off through the Sixties and Seventies, Kirchin stayed in an autistic community at Schurmatt in Switzerland. "These autistic children, the sounds they make when they try to communicate are unbelievable. They jabber away and of course it's gibberish and meaningless. But if you record it and apply the techniques I've me, you can hear what they're trying to convey. There's a lot of them in Quantum."

Since the two Worlds Within Worlds albums, Kirchin has written 40 pieces, 12 of which have been recorded but none released. He's now very ill, but is "still working, still roaring, even if it is three months at a time. People of any age should know never to give up. I'm still young, I can't help it if my body's falling apart." This is the first time he's visited London in 15 years, and he seems genuinely delighted that people want to talk to him about his music.

"I'm only good for two things in this world. One is music and the other is this knowledge. It sounds so pretentious, man, my toes are curling, but I have to say it. I want to try and leave something for young people who are starting in music and looking for something as I've been looking all my life. The challenge is, you have to make your life meaningful. Because life is meaningless, the universe is meaningless. It's hilarious really."

Friday 9 December 2011

"Can you tell me where he's gone?": Dion in 1968

When Dion signed to Columbia Records in 1962, a year after Bob Dylan, he was already a wealthy and very famous singer: The Wanderer, A Teenager In Love, Runaround Sue, and - most angsty of all - (I Was) Born To Cry had made him the teen idol most loved by American girls, most admired by American boys. Columbia must have thought they knew what they were getting, and it wasn't someone who, with a New York accent as heavy as Al Pacino-on-rye, would say things like "the blues is the naked cry of the human heart, like someone waiting to be in union with God."

What happened after his run of hits was four years of heroin addiction, and a total immersion in New York's folk and blues scenes. This was the start of a slow-burning process that led to a Grammy nomination for 2006's Bronx In Blue, an album of Hank Williams, Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Reed covers. Personally, I think it should have gone to the record that brought Dion back from the teen idol graveyard in 1968 - it was originally called Dion but is usually given the title of the hit single taken from it, the delicate Abraham Martin And John.

"Lemme tell you about that record" he begins, a practised storyteller. "After Martin Luther King was shot, Bobby Kennedy was at his coffin and he said 'Who'll be the next victim of a senseless act of violence?' And three months later he was assassinated. The record came out of a frustration. These guys are reaching for a state of love. People are cutting them down but we're not going to give up. The song was trying to be part of a solution."

The song exploded, a Top 5 hit. It had a soulful humanity that people hadn't heard from Dion Di Mucci before. And it coincided with a relocation - in the old tradition - from New York to Florida.

"I'd just moved here and I'd just sobered up. What could you say? The mid sixties was kind of a lost time for me. Musically I was woodshedding but, y'know, drugs can take their toll and kill your ambition. So I'd come down to Miami to get away from myself. Lo and behold, I came along with me. I got down here, went to a church, got on my knees and said a prayer and I haven't had a drink or drug since. April the first, 1968. And a few weeks later this song came along. To me, it was like it dropped out of heaven."

"The album was done, and all the arrangements, within a week. They were songs I sang around the house. I just went in with my little nylon string guitar. John Abbott from Staten Island did the arrangements. He was a beautiful guy. He always had some french fries. He'd lead the band with a french fried potato."

It includes woodwind-borne, blue sky renditions of Leonard Cohen's Sisters Of Mercy, Dylan's Tomorrow Is A Long Time, and, most intriguingly, Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze alongside the originals. The album brought Dion in from the cold, and re-united him with Laurie Records, the New York indie that had realised most of his monster hits. The Columbia deal, signed in '62, had started sweetly enough with Ruby Baby, one of his best and biggest 45s. "Then (A&R man) John Hammond played me Robert Johnson's Preachin' Blues that he was putting on a compilation. I realised that this music was probably the undercurrent to everything I did in my life."

After Drip Drop was a Top 10 hit in early '64, Dion began to release singles like Hoochie Coochie Man, Willie Dixon's Spoonful and his own folk-blues The Road I'm On. The latter made it onto the young Marc Bolan's setlist but Dion's teenage fans were more than a little confused: a few months later they'd be lapping up imported versions of the same songs by the Stones, Yardbirds and Pretty Things.

"There was a guy called Buddy Lucas, he played sax for me on The Wanderer, a 300 pound guy. Big guy. He recruited a bunch of guys from the Apollo Theatre. Blues were their roots and they supported me, tried to help me out. I was experimenting." Columbia, who were hoping he'd become a "legitimate" singer like Bobby Darin, were in no mood for experiments. Among the finest, and rarest, of his Columbia 45s is the folk rock stormer Tomorrow Won't Bring The Rain - teeth-clenched, ringing like the bells of Rhymney, it's a match for any Byrds or Dylan 45. Its rarity suggests just what Columbia thought of it.

"I had to leave! They didn't know what I was doing! Tom Wilson, my producer, he encouraged me. And I sat in on a couple of Bob Dylan sessions. But they'd signed a popular rock 'n' roll artist, not a guy who hung out in the Village with Tim Hardin and Richie Havens."

The label let a few singles dribble out, but the full force of Dion's folk-blues revelation could only be felt on Wonder Where I'm Bound, a 1969 album Columbia issued to cash in on the success of Abraham Martin & John; these recordings were firmly in the collectors-only camp until a couple of Sony cds (The Road I'm On and Bronx Blues) were released in the nineties. In 1968, after six years away,  Laurie welcomed the returning prodigal who could do no wrong for them, more than happy to release a whole album. Abraham Martin And John "came from sitting in my little back yard, under a tree, and there was a little canal back there, sitting there with my guitar and a pitcher of lemonade. Am I right? Doesn't it sound like that?"

Yes it does. Looking back, Dion's career - and his forays into folk, blues, soft rock and doo wop - makes a lot more sense than it would have done to Columbia in 1964. There is a love of American music in Dion that he shares with Dylan: few other singers could pull off an album as diverse and delightful as Abraham Martin And John. Maybe the pick of the whole set is a heartfelt version of the Motown-written Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever.

"That was a Four Tops songs. How did I end up recording it? Probably they were playing it the night before in a saloon or something!

"The way I explain it is I don't sing white and I don't sing black. I sing like Bronx. I don't know exactly what that is, but it's definitely black music filtered through an Italian neighbourhood. It comes out with an attitude."

Tuesday 6 December 2011

My favourite Beatle

"This is a serious message", it begins. "Peace and love", it says at least once too often. Ringo Starr's weird trashing of his own reputation, first on his website and then all over on Youtube in 2008, made for painful and hilarious viewing. To give him credit, the man has attempted to sign everything he's been sent by fans since 1963; he was almost 70 and wanted to tell the world he couldn't keep up. Of course, it might have helped if he hadn't added that all future fanmail "will be tossed", or delivered this minor news item with the scary line "I'm warning you with peace and love."

Ringo probably wouldn't have been the people's candidate for favourite Beatle before this outburst, not because of any other ill-advised Youtube postings, or for any animosity towards Thomas The Tank Engine, but simply because he was the fourth member of a group that featured three of the most talented singer-songwriters of his generation.

In spite of their oneness, and the inability of anyone outside Britain to tell them apart in 1964, everyone tends to have a favourite Beatle. At various points in their career and afterlife the world seems to have had a collective favourite. In the eighties, after his death, it was undoubtedly John Lennon; when Oasis and the Anthology series brought their music back to the Britpop table in the nineties, John was still regarded as the most innovative, the most significant, the sharpest Beatle.

George was the underdog, the indie Beatle. It might be something to do with the recent folk boom, or the general feeling of achievement by understatement in the most lauded pop (Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective) of the last few years, but a straw poll amongst friends, colleagues and musicians places George at the top of the table in 2011.

Of course, favourite Beatle and best Beatle aren't the same thing. "It's a peculiar testament" says Todd Rundgren, whose links to the group are a public spat in the NME with Lennon in the seventies and played in Ringo's All Starr Band two decades back. "'Favourite' used to just mean the cutest, or the funniest. Now each has his own body of work it's different."

Ringo could probably have claimed the crown when the Beatles first broke in the States, a time when they - and Ringo especially - were regarded as some new breed of being: half human, half haircut. "I did several tours with Ringo and he was terrific to work with" says Rundgren. "Briefly I worked with him pre AA, on a Jerry Lewis Telethon in the late seventies, and he wasn't at all like John Lennon on the rampage, he was... a little more jovial. It was the first time I'd had any dialogue with Ringo and he must have remembered it fondly because he called me up years later. He was always level headed and easy to deal with. It was the other crazies in the All Starr Band I had to look out for! Half the band were in AA and the other half needed to be. But Ringo was terrific. He just enjoys playing music, it's obvious."

Gem Archer's own Beatles obsession began when he was fed tapes by his cousin from the age of 8. "I remember hiding The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl in the schoolyard. Punk was happening and people thought they were poofs, because they wore ties and stuff. Some kid came to my door and sold me his sister's copy of Imagine for 50p. I was known as the Beatles fan in the village."

Lennon was his favourite, "of course. It was a journey with him. It still is, man. He's still there with all of us. He was perfect - the Rickenbacker, the hair, the boots - but he was imperfect. Completely human. He let his hair down on all of us."

The odd thing about John Lennon, the most anti-establishment Beatle, is that he is now the one with an airport named after him, the one who wrote the cosy, fathomless, unofficial world anthem Imagine, the one who created proto-Live Aid 'event pop' with All You Need Is Love, and thus, in 2011, the most revered by the establishment. Gem Archer's wife "is a teacher, and they teach him now: Recent History, year 5. It's because he grew up in the war, and then he preached peace. And of course there's no danger of him spoiling it by shooting some granny now."

In the days before every Beatles-related event meant blanket media coverage, a small film like The Birth Of The Beatles could sneak out on the BBC almost unnoticed. Forgotten by many, it can now only be found on pirated dvds. The kid with the quiff playing Hamburg-era George was John Altman, who would define small screen infamy a few years later when he first appeared in Albert Square as Nick Cotton. His favourite "was always George. He was a Pisces, like me, and I thought I looked a bit like him. Similar ears. I think that's one of the reasons I got the part in Birth Of The Beatles. This kid used to flick my ears from behind in the playground, you know what kids are like. My mum said don't worry, Clark Gable had ears like that and he was a pin-up. So that made me feel better. I wonder if George got stick for it at school."

Altman's first taste of the Beatles "was Please Please Me, on the radio in the wintertime. I'd never heard that sound before. It was a bit like the first time I heard Hendrix, exciting and vibrant. The next stage in my Beatles habit was getting Please Please Me, the album, for Christmas. I left it on the Dansette record player, and it warped. I remember desperately trying to iron it flat on an ironing board with a damp towel on top. A sad end."

As he grew up with the band Altman would "listen out for George's contributions, the songs on Rubber Soul and Revolver, like Taxman. They were quite special. And they built up to All Things Must Pass - every musician has an apex and I think that was his."

They never met. "Pete Best was the technical advisor on Birth Of The Beatles, and he was the only Beatle I met. The only quote I heard from any of them about the film was that Ringo found it quite amusing." Altman still sounds slightly disappointed by this.

George's allure could also be down to his vagueness, which allows fans to fill in the blanks any way they wish. John and Paul are open books, foibles exposed, but if George had a dating profile it would be of the one photo, one-liner variety, mystique unquestionably enhanced. He was the only Beatle without an obvious role. "Paul was the cute one" recalls Todd Rundgren, "John was the smart one; each had a bailiwick they were in charge of. Ringo was the cuddly one. The short, homely, cuddly one. Girls liked Ringo, at least girls who thought Paul was out of reach, too cute by half."

Rundgren's favourite is also George. "For me, his contribution was to elevate guitar to a special status. I'm unaware of anyone using the expression 'lead guitar' before The Beatles, and that was a position highlighted by George Harrison. It drew guitar players into taking their playing more seriously. Solos on records could've been anything - a saxophone, an ocarina - but on Beatles records I'd always look forward to how that little interlude would be filled by lead guitar. In the case of George Harrison it was concise, accessible, a bit clever. It was also short and accessible enough for most guitarists to work out, even without George's finesse."

In the early eighties, while he was still Orange Juice's singer, Edwyn Collins had his My Top Ten list printed in Record Mirror. Alongside entries by Al Green and George McCrae was The Beatles' She Said She Said - Edwyn wrote that he particularly liked "George's astringent guitar". I was a huge Orange Juice fan - I remember having to look up "astringent".

When Edwyn Collins met his partner Grace Maxwell he told her his "favourite guitarists were John Fogerty and George Harrison. When people say they don't like The Beatles, they may as well say they don't like fresh air. 'I hate fresh air!' It's ridiculous."

After Collins had a stroke in 2005, lying in a hospital bed, he didn't want to hear any music. Three years before, he had written a song called The Beatles, which managed to lyrically condense their career inside four minutes. "After nine or ten weeks Grace brought in an old tape I'd made, a compilation. The first track, I remember, was Promised Land by Johnnie Allen, and the second had me in tears."
"Tears?" laughs Grace, "You were in floods! You were bawling."
The song was Photograph, sung by Ringo Starr, and written by George Harrison.

Mojo has featured some combination of Beatles on their cover more than a dozen times in just under 200 issues. Editor Phil Alexander reckons there are still plenty of untold, or at least unexplored, stories to make them newsworthy. He has noted George's ascent to the summit. "You can see why people say George now - he was the coolest. Not acerbic like Lennon, not thumbs aloft, and he wasn't playing the Ringo good guy role. He was mystical and cool. He's the fashionable choice. Stupid as it might sound, I think the unsung hero of The Beatles today is Paul."

If favourite Beatle and best Beatle are not the same thing, it could be true that Paul McCartney - the most successful songwriter in British pop history - is undervalued. "It's just deeply unfashionable to say Paul is your favourite" says Alexander. "It sounds callous to wonder how people would feel if he died tomorrow because it might just happen, and I don't mean to use death as a barometer, but it's true - I think they'd say he was the best Beatle. After John Lennon died, Paul said that his exterior had been a front, and I sometimes wonder how he views his own exterior. The way he often says 'we were a pretty good little group', that kind of false modesty, can be irritating, but if he believed everything people said about him he'd go mental. To have survived what he survived, you have to respect him."

As a teenager, Anneliese Midgley worked in Liverpool's Beatles Shop on Mathew Street. "People would ring up and say 'Can I speak to The Beatles?' We got a bundle of letters for them every day. Not everyone was a loony, some were just asking for mugs, or fridge magnets, or where Paul lived, but quite a few would say 'I LOVE YOU' in scrawly capital letters. Paul got the most, definitely. George? No. He was really the outsider, not like today. He was not as fashionable."

In her nineties stint at the shop, Anneliese met all three surviving Beatles - Paul left the greatest impression on her. "I was 14 and I'd got a Saturday job there. It was just before he did the Liverpool Oratorio. He was rehearsing at the Philharmonic one week, and me and my best friend waited outside. His crew were really nice - they could tell we were just kids, not crazy fans. We went most days, and Paul would come out and say hello. It must have been easter, 'cos one day he brought us all creme eggs."

Up in Glasgow, Grace Maxwell had to use her imagination for a Beatle fix. "You know the metal poles that hold up clothes lines? There were four in our back garden. We'd make each one a Beatle. You'd run over, snog the clothes pole, and say which Beatle it was. Mine was Paul. Does that sound weird?"

"Paul is the best Beatle" reckons Anneliese. "It's obvious. Take Double Fantasy and McCartney II, made in the same year (1980). I heard Front Parlour (from McCartney II) in a club in Shoreditch a few years ago, and everybody was asking what it was, everyone thought it was some German electronic group. Paul was thinking of the future, how the eighties would be. On Double Fantasy, John was going back to his roots, again. Boring, really. Paul still makes a real effort, and maybe that's just not fashionable."

Phil Alexander is inclined to agree. "John's crusading mentailty made him a cult figure, compounded by his passing. He was the bravest - the records he made with Yoko are still controversial, so ahead of their time, but Paul still wants to do new things even to this day. The last Fireman record was really musical and brave, despite the bizarre, politician aura around him."

Todd Rundgren, possibly keen to start another spat with a Beatle in the British press, feels a little differently. "George peaked around the Bangladesh concert. Ringo did Photograph, that was a good song. John's career was healthy because of album oriented radio, he wasn't played so much on AM. But Paul was getting regular Top 40 attention, even if it was a crappy piece of junk like Silly Love Songs. He's so erratic. He pulled it off with Band On The Run. But the stuff with Michael Jackson - Say Say Say and The Girl Is Mine? Dreck! It's weird. He's too willing to do anything. When he thinks he's not on AM radio enough he makes an attempt to do it and it comes out embarrassing, back to his baby talk again. He doesn't realise how much things have changed."

A compilation of tracks from the last five McCartney studio albums would, I reckon, be enough to cement his legend. They contain songs that are at least equal to any of his post-Beatles output, and good enough for the thumbs aloft, 'good little band' persona to be forgotten: The End Of The End is quite possibly the saddest, and most elegant song written by any sexagenarian pop star.

The Beatles' reach goes beyond just their music. "If anybody was going to make the sixties explode it was John Lennon" says Gem Archer. "It wasn't David Crosby. It certainly wasn't Elvis. And Dylan didn't put himself up for it, did he?"

And Ringo? His comments about Liverpool on the Jonathan Ross show have to be seen as tongue in cheek, his fanmail comment the outburst of a grouchy 69-year old having a bad day. Anneliese Midgley, who has only had to field a fraction of the questions from Beatles nuts that overworked Ringo has, nails the conundrum.

"My favourite Beatle is The Beatles. They're like four quarters that make up a circle. They're inseparable."

Monday 5 December 2011

At the movies with Patrick Hamilton

In The Midnight Bell, his first great novel, Patrick Hamilton paints a picture of the pub at one minute to five: "a faint bustle of preparation in the other bars, but deep silence in the saloon. The governor had now reached the door. He slid back the upper bolt... a sharp click, a grunt of achievement, and The Midnight Bell was open." The similarity to the hush of anticipation before a theatre curtain goes up is intentional - to Hamilton, the pub (most likely The Prince Of Wales' Feathers on Warren Street, Fitzrovia) was his theatre. Same characters but a different performance every night, and he rarely missed a show.

Peter Ackroyd has called Patrick Hamilton one of London's great voices. Born into a reasonably wealthy Sussex family in 1904, he fell disastrously in love at 23 with a West End prostitute called Lily. While moping after her he spent much time in saloon bars, lounge bars, public bars, hanging out with small-time crooks, broken bar staff, fascist sympathisers, and other misfits and losers. According to his brother Bruce, it played havoc with his complexion and hairline, but gave him an ear for a turn of phrase and a talent for finding gold in the everyday. It also catapulted him from minor writer into the role of critics' choice when The Midnight Bell was published in 1929.

Yet neither The Midnight Bell nor 1941's grimly terrifying Hangover Square are what Hamilton is best remembered for. In 1929 he also wrote a play called Rope; ten years later he wrote another called Gaslight. Both were enormously successful, running for years around the world, and both were turned into Hollywood films. Separating art and commerce, he considered Rope "a thriller, nothing but a thriller" but his plays made him a fortune at a time when writing stage melodramas was still, in the early days of cinema, a viable career. Even so, he thought of them as popular entertainments, and almost entirely unrelated to his novels.

Compared to The Midnight Bell, Rope was a strange, stilted thing. It concerned two students of Nietzsche who attempt the 'perfect' murder purely for kicks, and was based around a gimmick: centre stage throughout the play was a trunk containing the victim's body. The story seemed to be based on the case of Leopold and Loeb, two rich, smart American kids who kidnapped and killed 14-year old Bobby Franks. Brandon, the more manipulative killer, is one of the thoroughly heartless types who crop up in most of Hamilton's work - whether it is Netta, the bitchy actress in Hangover Square, or Ralph Ernest Gorse, the clinical anti-hero of a post-war trilogy.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film of Rope is best remembered for being shot in a sequence of eight minute takes. It also played up the Leopold and Loeb link, inferring the killers were gay (Loeb was killed in prison after making advances to another inmate) which was enough to see the film banned in Chicago, Seattle and Memphis. The tension of the script, though, is dissipated by both Hitchcock's experimentation - you can't for a second forget that the takes are v-e-r-y long - and Farley Granger's continuous darting around the screen like a sweaty chicken. His performance couldn't be further from Hamilton's cold, clipped script. The author was unimpressed, describing the film as "sordid and practically meaningless balls."

Gaslight was a different story. By 1938 Hamilton was a confirmed Marxist, and the grisly greed of the evil Gregory, quite happy to spend years driving his wife to madness in order to gain some jewels, reflected his belief that capitalism - accelerated by the rise of the Nazis - was coming to an end. The British film from 1940, directed by Thorold Dickinson is desperately claustrophobic with Gregory (Anton Walbrook) marked out as Bella's (Diana Wynyard) persecutor from the off. Everywhere there is melancholy and menace. "A dirty evening for a stroll, sir" remarks a policeman. "There are a lot of dirty things in London" replies Gregory.

George Cukor's 1944 slow-burning remake finds a lambent Ingrid Bergman cast as Bella, rather than the ageing spinster Hamilton envisaged. Charles Boyer, away from his usual matinee idol roles, is well cast as a more insidious Gregory than Walbrook's. Still, amidst the gloss there is plenty of room for Hamilton's casual English banter; on a train journey, a woman offers Bella a digestive biscuit - "unpleasant name, isn't it? I always call them diggy biscuits!" When the maid Nancy (a slatternly Angela Lansbury in her debut film) first appears, Gregory asks "I hope you're not a flighty girl."
"I don't think so, sir" she replies, with a sly air that Hamilton must have been quite familiar with.

The only novel that made it to the big screen was Fox's 1945 take on Hangover Square. Suffice to say that in place of the novel's alcohol-drenched pre-war paranoia is a period drama about a bunch of fancy Edwardians who live in Hangover Square, Fulham. It really is that crass. A fine, forgotten actor called Laird Cregar (also in This Gun For Hire with Veronica Lake) loved the book and persuaded Fox to make the film only to see it bowdlerised beyond recognition - as George Henry Bone, the principal character, he was probably more embarrassed by the results than even Patrick Hamilton and died of heart failure, aged just 28, before the film was released. All Hangover Square has to recommend it beyond Cregar's browbeaten performance is the quite beautiful Linda Darnell (Rex Harrison's wife in Preston Surges' Unfaithfully Yours) as Netta, and an early Bernard Herrmann score that anticipates his Hitchcock work.

The BBC chose Hamilton's best early work for their 2005 adaptation, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, a trilogy in which Hamilton captured the whole rootless population of London by focusing on just a few characters, and one setting - The Midnight Bell. Bob and Ella work behind the bar. He is young and handsome, but drinks heavily, and fatally falls for a prostitute called Jenny who slowly tears his life to shreds; Ella, secretly in love with Bob, watches helplessly.

Oddly, it is filmed in an impure monochrome, like a colourised film that has been left in a damp cellar: once you get used to it, the relentless greys, greens and browns of thirtiess Fitzrovia look all the glummer for it. This is just about the only liberty taken - the screenplay adheres to Hamilton's dialogue without missing a beat. Which puts a lot of pressure on the performances. Zoe Tapper's Jenny is as dizzyingly pretty, blonde and coquettish as she is blank, a combination intriguing enough to ensnare Bob beyond all reason. When he proudly points out that Dickens used to live on the same street as her, Jenny giggles "Dickens! Silly old bugger, ain't he?"

Ella is clearly warm-hearted but, rejected by Bob, can find no outlet for her genorosity. The doe-eyed Sally Hawkins, fresh from Fingersmith, has a permanently melancholy expression that betrays Ella's endless disappointments. Still, her stoicism can't prepare her for the leech-like attentions of Mr Ernest Eccles (Phil Davis): his family are "army" he keeps reminding her; he's a "good catch" everyone else chips in. You can smell his rotten teeth, his stale port and stilton breath. He is horrid. The only real flat note is Bryan Dick's Bob: streetwise and smirking, flat cap fixed at a rakish angle, he seems far too savvy to fall for gauche Jenny's looks alone. Hamilton's creation was surely more bookish. While Jenny's daft comment on Dickens  should ruin the learned Bob's whole evening, here he just rolls his eyes as if it to say "Women, eh?"  We never really understand his intentions - why he doesn't just slip her a tenner and get it over with.

It's hard to fault the settings (recognisably Fitzrovia) or the score (think Pennies From Heaven), though, and the attention to detail in a BBC period drama is something to be treasured after catastrophes like their make-over jobs on Casanova and Beau Brummel. The final episode - with Ella fending off the grisly, grasping Eccles - is particularly claustrophobic, engrained with sooty black humour. No small feat: this is the first time anyone can claim to have captured the real fug and fog of Hamilton's novels.

Hamilton naively believed that the end of the war would lead to a bright new Britain and he became quite disillusioned, seeking solace in the sauce more than ever. "Even Marx was the victim of the same pathetic illusion" he wrote to his brother. "He could see the bloody struggle ahead. What he failed to see was that the bloody struggle was so horribly distant." The contentious character that grew from Hamilton's increasing misanthropy was Ernest Ralph Gorse, a thoroughly believable monster who gently, ruthlessly destroyed everybody around him before moving on, from Brighton to Henley to some other town full of willing victims. There is no love and precious few sympathetic characters in the Gorse trilogy (loosely adapted in the eighties by ITV as The Charmer) which was poorly received at the time. Today Gorse's inscrutable evil feels blackly convincing. He is a man cut from the same cloth as fifties petty crims turned killers like George Smith, John "Acid Bath" Haigh and Neville Heath. Far too nihilistic to be filmed, he may be Hamilton's strongest, if most elusive, creation.

In the end, Patrick Hamilton's true life's work was unfilmable. While his plays invariably ended with truth and justice emerging victorious, the hours he spent in gin palaces, chasing hopeless romances and wasting small fortunes, were worked into deeply atmospheric novels of great humanity and obliterating darkness. With little hope of redemption to be found in the bottom of a bottle, Hollywood turned away.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Diana Dors: Lady Godiva Rides Again

"I said to this priest 'Am I expected to believe that if I went out and had an affair that God was really going to be upset? If no one is any the wiser what the hell difference does it make?' He was lovely. He told me the Commandments were laid down for a lot of guys living in the desert."

Collective memory suggests that the early fifties was an era smeared with boredom, with Billy Cotton on the wireless and rationed gruel for dinner. In a country where everyone mucked in to muddle through, and where the blitz spirit meant that Vera Lynn could still score a number one hit as late as 1954, Diana Dors' beauty and easy charm must have seemed like an insult.

New York gave us Veronica Lake, Swindon gave us Diana Dors. For recent generations, the one-time Diana Fluck is best remembered, if at all, for appearing as a fairy godmother in an Adam And The Ants video. My first memories of her are as an overweight woman advertising her kiss-and-tell stories in the News Of The World; with no knowledge of her fifties heyday, I found her faintly repellent. "There is something a bit rubbish about her" says biographer Damon Wise, "rubbishy and British."

Like G-plan, for post-war Britain that was enough. By Hollywood standards she was a little plump, and she wasn't exactly pretty, but this didn't matter. Bursting onto UK cinema screens in all her curvaceous splendour, Diana Dors was the definition of a glamourpuss; she also looked like a whole heap of fun and a sack load of trouble. American stars were on another planet, but girls in Dewsbury knew they could be her, boys in Dartford knew they could meet her.

At five she had elocution lessons, quickly losing her West Country burr. At twelve, she was hanging out with GI's at a nearby army base. Most of the time, Dors was in the local Roxy, and at school she filled exercise books with the name of every movie star she could think of. She dreamed of having a cream telephone - an unimaginable luxury in forties Swindon. Dors attended LAMDA with classmates Christopher Lee, Pete Murray, and fellow pin-up Sandra Dorne, and soon landed some minor roles. But it was on meeting her first husband, Dennis Hamilton, that she created the Diana Dors legend. Hamilton encouraged her to live beyond her means - driving a Rolls Royce, wearing a mink, all on borrowed money - and suddenly, in the monochrome austerity years, the press couldn't get enough of her. "The problem with British films in the fifties is the lack of emotion" says NFT curator Jo Botting. "They de-sexualised women. But Diana Dors just looked fabulous, really. She looked dangerous."

Diamond City was Dors' first starring role in 1949 (her first line: "You shut up!"). She played barmaid Dora Bracken in a South African diamond mining town in the 1870's. It was an attempt at a British western, though the starchy David Farrar - a cut-price Stewart Granger - is no kind of hero. Instantly typecast, Dors is fighting for the attention of Farrar with bible-bashing Honor Blackman in a real battle of the busts. The two actresses end up in a saloon catfight, Dors finally decking Blackman with her diamond-encrusted fist. Still brown-haired, just seventeen, Dors often turned up on set without sleeping, having been up all night with the Chelsea set. "The make-up man had the devil's own job with my eyes, which grew baggier and smaller as the weeks went by" she later recalled.

Dors is frequently referenced as Britain's 'answer' to Marilyn Monroe, but her fifties films show an actress with a decidedly English sass. She didn't feel the need to be caught reading Sartre, or marrying playwrights, and was more than happy to play the party girl - it suited her demeanour, and on-screen she was closer to Mae West than Marilyn. If she became typecast as the knowing innocent or the sexual predator it didn't bother her, and her saucy roles were unique in post-war British cinema. As model Dolores August in Lady Godiva Rides Again, she claims to have met a pair of suitors at the Festival of Britain - "I picked them up in the Dome Of Discovery" - while her startling cameo as an actress in 1956's As Long As They're Happy leads Jack Buchanan to "capture her for posterity". "You leave my posterity out of this" she winks back.

The films were frequently smaller than her presence. Released on a BFI DVD last year, My Wife's Lodger (1952) has a script riddled with puns so weak ("Have you been creating a career for yourself in Korea?", "No, I was committing suicide in Suez") you'd think jokes were being rationed. An odd mix of Three Stooges slapstick and pre-war music hall, it is an intriguing curio, but Dors - playing a girl called, with characteristic British glamour, Eunice - cuts through the austerity fug with a jitterbugging exhibition. The main reason for her appearances in such minor movies (she was making an average of four a year in the fifties) was her husband and agent Dennis Hamilton. Down from Luton, he was a failed actor and was working as a door-to-door salesman when he spotted his golden ticket and wowed her with huge bouquets of flowers. Off camera, he initiated Dors into the world of sex parties and two-way mirrors; he also stunted her career like an ungodly mix of Colonel Tom Parker and Simon Cowell by guiding her away from serious roles, roaring "to hell with all that acting rubbish!" Light entertainment, as ever, was where the money was.

Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary (1953) was fresher, and captures her on the brink of stardom. While Britain gave her second billing to bumbling ur-Englishman David Tomlinson, the French poster was topped by the legend "la ravissante Diana Dors", and in Italy the rest of the cast weren't even mentioned - the poster featured Diana alone, perched on a cloud in a slinky blue gown. Candy Markham was the perfect role for her; the script was undemanding, a bedroom farce with a few good lines, but she sashays assuredly through every scene knocking men aside like bowling pins. Britain had never seen anything quite like this. After Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary, she would never play a character called Eunice again.

Meanwhile in 1953, Marilyn Monroe was shooting the film that made her an international phenomenon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. There was no reason to suppose, prior to this, that Monroe was anything other than healthy competition for a shapely blonde, but from '53 onwards Dors was walking in her shadow.

Nonetheless, she looked spectacular in Value For Money (1955) which found her in a succession of gorgeous gowns and swimsuits. Platinum-blonde and rid of her puppy fat, she is the only reason to watch this drowsy comedy about a tight-fisted Yorkshireman (John Gregson) who meets a gold-digging showgirl in London. "She'll throw our money around like confetti" warns Gregson's father, "it'll roll off every curve of her sinful body!" It was a fun farce, but not a patch on Yield To The Night (1956). This was her best role, and also her least glamorous. It is loosely based, like Dance With A Stranger, on the Ruth Ellis case, and Dors as Ellis spends much of the film in a cell awaiting execution. Director J Lee Thompson (Woman In A Dressing Gown, No Trees On The Street, Tiger Bay) had previously found the best of Dors in another prison drama, 1953's The Weak And The Wicked. "Putting glamour and serious acting into separate compartments" she said at the time "makes me sick."

By now a huge star at home, a spell in Hollywood proved her undoing. At a housewarming party with a guest list including Tony Curtis, Lana Turner, Doris Day, Eddie Fisher and Gregory Peck, Dors was dunked in the swimming pool by a photographer. Dennis Hamilton went nuts and kicked the photographer senseless, earning a National Enquirer headline "Go home Diana - and take Mr Dors with you." She was nicknamed Marilyn Bovril and given a couple of tired, obvious roles (The Unholy Wife and I Married A Woman) and did a 1960 Vegas cabaret stint before returning home.

The sixties were not Diana Dors' era. The second Julie Christie appeared on screen in Billy Liar, the game was up: Diana Dors was pre-Beatles. Still she maintained her fame while her Rank starlet contemporaries - Sandra Dorne, Christine Norden, Carol Leslie - drifted into obscurity. Like Brigitte Bardot, Dors made some exquisite records as her acting career tailed off. Pick of the bunch are the Morrissey-approved So Little Time (1964), urgent and sexual as hell, and Garry (1966), a breathy British take on Phil Spector. Both sound homegrown, a little gauche, but therein lies the appeal.

Diana Dors knew her limitations, pushed bare-faced cheek to the limit, and never played the tragedy queen. When she was broke between films in the fifties, she went round Hertfordshire with Dennis Hamilton selling water softeners - an episode which ended with the pair climbling down knotted sheets to avoid paying the hotel bill. Later on, as a "diet buster" agony aunt on TV AM, she would be weighed with all her jewellery on, then remove it in the toilet to miraculously lose weight by the end of the programme. Her choice of friends (Freddie Starr, PJ Proby, 'Dandy Kim' Waterfield) was unfortunate, her husbands (Hamilton, who died of syphilis, the depressive drunk Alan Lake) worse. A relentless self-documentarist, books like Swingin' Dors are feisty, but have a wistful quality. In a way, she seemed genuinely innocent. "Nobody ever had a bad word to say about her" says Damon Wise.

In many ways her talent was under-developed - her real life lines were funnier and saucier than most she was given by scriptwriters. In 1964 she sat on a Juke Box Jury panel next to Rolling Stones manager Andrew Oldham, who'd had a boyhood crush on her. As he nervously picked up a glass of water it spilt all over Diana's lap - "My my", she purred off mike, "you couldn't wait." You can't imagine Marilyn coming up with a line like that, let alone the wobbly Jayne Mansfield. Diana Dors was knowing, effortless, mischief personified. Leaning on a bar in My Wife's Lodger she sighs "I don't know what to drink - I'm so hot." "Lady", says the wag next to her, "you said it."

Sunday 20 November 2011

DIY: "It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it."

 It wasn't Punk (necessarily). It wasn't Post Punk (too many angular/Joy Division/semi-Goth connotations). But the DIY record boom, which operated in tandem between 1977 and 1982, was one of the most influential scenes in the British pop saga. One of the most underrated too. It took rabid American and Japanese collectors to remind us in Britain, the home of DIY, that it ever happened. Names like The Petticoats, Thin Yogurts, Take It, Tronics, and Puritan Guitars barely figured in record collecting price guides until the last few years, let alone on nostalgia radio. But from C86 indie, to jungle/drum'n'bass white labels, to electronica innovators like City Centre Offices, their influence is wide and the debt is deep.

The sound was art school mirth. A kind of urban British folk inspired by Vivian Stanshall, music hall, and Dada. It was rickety, semi-musical, anyone could do it - it related to punk in the way skiffle had to rock'n'roll. DIY archivist Johan Kugelberg describes it as "the wild enthusiasm of being seventeen and discovering Alfred Jarry and the beauty of children's drawings." Strange, redundant keyboards were a common feature, as punk had laid waste to anything outside the guitar/bass/drums set-up and this old gear was going cheap (Martin O'Cuthbert's Vocal Vigilante EP lists a Dubreq Stylophone and a Crumar Performer as his instruments, both highly desirable now but obsolete technology in the post-punk heat of Feb '78).

The look was monochrome, handmade, an A4 photocopied sleeve wrapped around a hand-stamped seven inch single. Photos of the bands were rare. Grinder were an exception - their sleeve shows four blokes, three with moustaches, the other with a Rocky Horror tee shirt. DIY had no time for poseurs. Pseudonyms abounded, most probably so the dole office wouldn't get wind - after all, some of these records were selling thousands of copies, and you wouldn't want the DHSS to confuse you with a professional musician. Bearing this in mind, the sleeve to the sole EP by Hornchurch's What Is Oil?, on the Oof Potato Enterprises label,  has the band members listed as Dunk, Mike, German, Stuntman, Falsk, Stoat, and - playing "toast with cheese" - Dungheap.

How and why the DIY craze happened is unclear, but the prize for being first out of the blocks goes to Desperate Bicycles' Smokescreen, released in the spring of '77. The band were formed "specifically for the purpose of recording and releasing a single on their own label." Their second release, The Medium Was Tedium, railed against the industry ("Just another commercial venture!") with as much righteous anger and ur-English humour as Anarchy In The UK, only the drums were cardboard, and Steve Jones' guitar had been replaced with Nicky Stephens' Winfield Farfisa. "It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it" ran the chorus and the sleeve boasted that the complete cost of recording and pressing a few hundred copies of Smokescreen was  153. "If you can understand, go and join a band." The floodgates opened.

Like the folk revival of a few years before, DIY was fiercely localised. One of the genre's most directly emotional singles was by Hornsey At War. Then there was The Good Missionaries' Deranged In Hastings, and Wickford's So Boring by the moustachioed Grinder. These were truly private projects. No one expected their records to reach beyond their home town's boundaries so contact addresses rarely appeared on the sleeve. It was far more common to find a list of pressing plants, printers and costs worked out to the penny - the Desperate Bicycles' £153 was the real benchmark of DIY. Competition over who could function on the smallest budget was intense. Johan Kugelberg: "Distributors like Rough Trade and Small Wonder couldn't get enough of these records. Punk was global. Buyers were hurting for records. There were at least 900 made in that window of opportunity between '79 and '81." In reality, these records left Hastings or Hornsey and, via the eager distributors, some copies ended up in Stockholm, San Francisco, Tokyo. The result was chaotic 45s like Do You Wanna Dance by The Silver, a band from Finland aged 12.

The Instant Automatons from North Lincolnshire are a classic DIY tale. Originally there were two schoolmates, Mark and Protag (aka Martin Neish). They decided to form a band but were held back by the fact they couldn't play, had no instruments, and didn't have a clue how to get a record deal. These were the rules of rock - in 1974 there was no alternative. Mark: "Like many teenagers I was painfully aware of my own mortality, so I started off writing poetry." Next they dabbled with signal generators and amps in the physics lab, pleased with their ability to approximate the German pulsebeats of Can and Kraftwerk. Then two major events happened - they left school and the Sex Pistols happened. "It's difficult to convey the sense of freedom that came with the rise of independent record labels and the bands that founded them. I suppose it was akin to witnessing the demolition of the Berlin Wall." Liberated, Mark and Protag got themselves a home-made synthesiser and a drum machine. They wrote various words on bits of paper, put them in a hat, pulled out "instant" and "automaton" and found a name. They called their label Deleted. Their first release was a C90 called Radio Silence - The Art Of Human Error and they advertised it in the music press. To get a copy you just had to send them a blank tape and an SAE. This was a first.

Like other one chord wonders, the Instant Automatons recorded at a London studio called Street Level. It was run by one Keith Dobson, known as Kif Kif Le Batteur, a former member of art hippies Here And Now who also worked for the still functioning International Times. Inspired by the Automatons, Kif Kif started his own cassette label - Fuck Off Records - and put together the Bad Music Festival at the Acklam Hall under the Westway in 1980 featuring bands from the cassette scene. Between 40 and 60 copies of Fuck Off cassettes were produced, most now lost or taped over. Danny And The Dressmakers recorded a box set of three C90s called 200 Cancellations. Johan Kugelberg is "utterly charmed by its total redundancy. Naive art school music, barely one chord, as subtle as Riesling." Distribution for Fuck Off and other cassettes duplicated by Kif Kif was provided by Better Badges, a company on the floor above the Street Level studio. NME and Sounds had weekly columns on cassette albums. This was a genuinely underground scene, about as far removed from corporate rock as you could ever get.

It began to wind down when the leading bands either got writers block (The Instant Automatons) or became musically proficient (Scritti Politti). "Most musicians are careerists" reasons Kugelberg, "their music becomes more professional, the distributors and journalists respond. Between '81 and '83 there was more of a focus on dance rhythms, the music was closing in on the mainstream." Bristol's avant screechers The Pop Group provide a case study as they splintered in 1980 producing a batch of new groups, all heavily rhythmic - The Mafia, Maximum Joy, Pig Bag, and Rip Rig And Panic whose singer, Neneh Cherry, completed the process by becoming a star at the end of the decade. How to get from the Rough Trade shop to Buffalo Stance in three easy stages.

If you can find them, DIY records are extraordinary artefacts, the last hurrah of the Angry Brigade, good hippy aesthetics, and the punk/situationist interface. And most are still relatively cheap (The Medium Was Tedium is thought to have sold 12,000 copies). If you can't find them, then the Messthetics series of CDs (available from provides an in. This was the sound of the underground; the hiss of the tape, the amateur pressing, the sloppiness and the sheer sense of glee, the feeling of liberty. To quote Hornsey At War, "They won't play this on the radio because it poses a threat."

Many thanks to Johan Kugelberg, Geoffrey Weiss, and Dan Fox at Frieze.

Saturday 12 November 2011

The Pedway: London on the first floor

Walk around parts of the city of London and you stumble across them - strange walkways, stair wells and bridges, all seemingly heading nowhere. Like something from a brutalist CS Lewis novel, they are forgotten concrete portals to a vision of London that foundered in the Thatcher years. Now as mysterious and eerie as urban stone circles, these are the remnants of the abandoned Pedway scheme.

Its story is one of London's stranger secrets: planned obliteration not by the Luftwaffe or terrorists but by the GLC. The general idea was to wipe out central London as we know it and replace it with a massive road network at ground level, with pedestrians, shops, homes and offices at first floor level. Pretty Doctor Who you're thinking, but take a look at the Barbican, the most intact section of Pedway, and you'll get an idea of how the City fathers and the GLC envisaged a brand new London. I love the Barbican like a concrete brother, but I think I might miss the Temple, Leadenhall Market, and Newman Passage if they were all replaced by mile long corridors and rain-streaked pebbledash.

Steering pedestrians away from the stinky, overcrowded streets of London has been on the planning agenda since the nineteenth century. Back then, Holborn Viaduct and Tower Bridge in the city, and Rosebery Avenue and Clerkenwell Road to the north carried passengers along airy platforms away from the soot and grime. Charles Holden, of Piccadilly line station fame, and planner William Holford came up with a blueprint for rebuilding post-war London's financial centre in May '47; it included an eye-catching chapter called Pedestrian Ways which were to be "as fit for the traffic it carries as any of the main streets."  Soon plans were drawn up for the Barbican and Paternoster Square developments which included towers, podiums and walkways, a modernist way around plot ratio and daylighting controls. The City Of London Corporation, usually the most conservative of bodies, was very taken. By 1965 an obscure corporation document, sinisterly named Drawing 3400B, made specific mention of the 'Pedway' for the first time - a thirty mile network from Liverpool Street to the Thames, from Fleet Street to the Tower. Within a couple of years, developers had to provide walkways - dedicated public rights of way -  as a condition for planning consent. The future would be created by stealth, without the public knowing.

Straight away, the Pedway encountered problems. The fire brigade was struggling to find equipment suitable for the walkways having experimented unsuccessfully with some Austrian appliances. The police were unsure of their legal powers on the Pedway. Maintenance, cleaning and lighting bills for the corporation soared.

The biggest, and ultimately insurmountable, problem for the Pedway was the growth of the conservation lobby. Ironically, its seat of power was in the Barbican development, and its activists the very occupants of the one successfully completed network of "highwalks." They didn't object to the Pedway system itself (they hardly could when they weren't aware of its existence), but the networks of service roads and loading bays springing up at street level in anticipation of its completion.  In 1971 eight conservation areas were devised for the city, a number which grew until the mid eighties when, scared of business emigrating to the Docklands, the city's conservation gave way to rampant redevelopment. Even air rights were sold - Terry Farrell's clunky Albangate scheme obliterated the spaciousness of London Wall, another Pedway jigsaw piece.

Tracing the remaining parts of the Pedway today is surprisingly easy, in spite of the City's mania for security. Large stretches of the 1976 minimum network - when the idea was largely abandoned - remain. Starting at Barbican station, the only listed part of the Pedway network takes you past the flats on Seddon Highwalk to the Museum Of London. The point at which concrete walls give way to tiles delineates the border of the listed area and the London Wall development. Passing through Albangate you reach a 1969 adjunct to the Pedway plan: kiosks, built to encourage pedestrians off the streets and onto the walkways. A green marble building - now the Young Bin restaurant - was originally a Midland Bank; nearby is a row of tailor's shops and an empty pub with the telltale name The Podium. The trail runs cold at Moorgate, though until this year grey/brown abutments for a never-built bridge left a curious hole  above the station; the building was recently demolished. Bridges across Wormwood Street lead to amazing alleys that weave in and out of office blocks - all public space. But it's disappearing fast. Other Pedway pieces survive on Upper Thames Street, Leadenhall Street and around the stock exchange - now fenced off for security reasons. Gradually, chunks are disappearing as the building stock of the sixties is replaced.
The remaining Pedway provides a fair idea of how it could have worked. It is surprisingly bright with a great sense of space in the most densely built-up part of the city, especially when you consider private developers constructed most of it against their will. The air on the walkways is noticeably cleaner, too. Only the semi-abandoned stairwells feel claustrophobic.

How the walkways would have worked in other parts of London is more questionable (in 1967 the plan was expanded as far west as Soho and south to Elephant and Castle), and the planners' dreams of wholesale demolition and a pedestrian network to rival the quays of Paris now seems faintly embarrassing. Chicago and Hong Kong may have completed the job with marble, steel and glass: the London Pedway exists only as a concrete folly.

first photo copyright
second photo copyright Smoke: A London Peculiar
many thanks to Elain Harwood

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?

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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