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!"

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Afternoon tea with Graham Gouldman

Bowie was an ex-Anthony Newley impersonator. Bolan had been dealing in Tyrranosaurus Rex's fairytale whimsy for years. For the cynic it must have seemed that rock's new order of the early seventies was nothing more than cast-offs from the previous decade: Slade, Sweet and Mud had all frantically plugged failed 45s in 1968. 10cc had more form than any of them - singer Eric Stewart had previously served time with The Mindbenders, while Graham Gouldman and Kevin Godley enjoyed a hit-free career as two of The Mockingbirds.

Gouldman, though, was different. The Mockingbirds may not have taken flight, but as a songwriter for others he'd been astonishingly successful: For Your Love, Bus Stop, Look Through Any Window, No Milk Today and Heart Full Of Soul were stone classics in anyone's book. "The ones I gave away were hits, the ones we kept were misses. I'd always wanted to play guitar in a band, but I became resigned to the idea of being a writer. And then we started 10cc and that satisfied every aspect for me, everything I'd ever wanted to do."

In the garden of the Spaniards Inn, Hampstead, his trademark curls a little greyer, Graham Gouldman is telling me about his pre-10CC 1968 curio The Graham Gouldman Thing. Most of the songs on it had already been hits for the likes of The Yardbirds, Hollies, Hermans Hermits and Wayne Fontana - melancholy miniatures of life at bus shelters, evenings in bedsits, rainy romances that celebrated the magic of the every day as sure-footedly as John Betjeman or Ray Davies.

"Some things worked beautifully, especially Bus Stop. Listening to it now, the first thing I notice is how good it is to hear real instruments. (Arranger) John Paul Jones loved strings and woodwind - you hardly ever hear woodwind anymore." It sounds like Jones had been listening an awful lot to Bach and Eleanor Rigby. Thing's baroque majesty, though, must have seemed a little out of step with 1968's calls to arms - Street Fighting Man et al - and it "got nice reviews but didn't set the world on fire." In Britain, it wasn't even released.

Gouldman had been obsessed with music since he was seven, "and my parents encouraged me - the fact I was crap at school helped. My uncle bought me a radio so I could listen to Radio Luxemburg and I remember going to bed with it stuck in my ear. So I was learning in my sleep, the way you learn a language. I'd wake up with it half strangling me." 

He started to write songs while working in the back room of Bargains Unlimited, a clothes shop in Salford, unusually favouring minor chords which he found "more soulful. Major chords seemed pale and white. We used to go to the synagogue which must have had some sort of influence, the melodies there were very beautiful, mournful and aching." Gouldman met drummer Kevin Godley while rehearsing at the Jewish Lads Brigade in north Manchester and they formed The Mockingbirds - playing Gouldman's melancholy songs they soon earnt a deal with Columbia in 1964. One song Columbia rejected, For Your Love, was picked up by The Yardbirds, sold two million, and Gouldman the songwriter was on his way.

Hours spent in railway carriages between London and Manchester -"they had separate compartments then, a great environment for writing" - inspired songs like Look Through Any Window. But the greatest influence on Gouldman's mid sixties golden era was his father, Hymie.
"My father was a songwriter. No Milk Today was one of his titles. He used to call himself the mechanic - I'd bring him a broken lyric and he'd go 'D'you write them son? Ttcchh! Come back at five o'clock.' He used to say 'art for arts sake, money for God's sake.' I nicked that off him, too."

Just as The Graham Gouldman Thing was released, the hits suddenly dried up. "You're like a conduit when that magic happens. You think, how did I do that? What happened there? In 1968 I was still doing what I did, but I was out of sync with what has happening." After a short spell in The Mindbenders, Gouldman moved to New York and hooked up with the Kassenetz/Katz hit factory, responsible for timeless trash like Simon Says and Yummy Yummy Yummy.

"They wanted to legitimise themselves, find writers with more cred. It was pretty horrible." The final nail in the coffin was a song he wrote for Freddie And The Dreamers in 1969 called Susan's Tuba. "It was like The Producers - let's write the worst piece of shit imaginable!" The record sold a million in France. "I couldn't believe it. Where did we go right?" With the Graham Gouldman Thing and his sanity fast becoming a distant memory, a call came through from ex-Mindbender Eric Stewart who was setting up Strawberry Studios in Stockport. Still only 23, Gouldman boarded the next plane home, to join the ultra-successful band he'd always dreamt of.

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