Sutherlands, shakin’ ’em with the Rock Liberace

September 24th, 2013


AMERICA CAN either make a band or break its balls. But nothing, and nothing that happens to a band here is going to mean they don’t want to make it over there. America is the land of opportunity — where the money is.

The last time I saw the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver before New York was in Cheltenham. It was their last gig before they left the country to tour America with Elton John.

It took place in an athletics ground…not exactly Woodstock.

They did well enough, but the audience made no attempt to show appreciation until the customary demand for an encore.

At least they didn’t get the plugs pulled on them like the next band, but it must have been a strange memory to take to the States.

The tour with Elton John replaced a shorter one supporting various acts and crowned six busy months since the merger between the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver.

Before that merger Gavin and Iain Sutherland had worked first as a four-piece with bass and drums behind their guitars after signing with Island in July 1971. They made an album that way, The Sutherland Brothers Band, and stuck to the line-up for another nine months before deciding to perform as an acoustic duo.

The duo worked well enough musically, since the brothers did all the singing and guitar-work, but too many people thought they must be a folk act instead of the smallest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world and “nanana” ain’t no substitute for “turelureli” for a cross-legged audience.

The second album, Lifeboat, made that problem a crisis, for they recorded it with an array of sessionmen and instruments in which the keyboard-work of Rabbit Bundrick, John Hawken, and Steve Winwood was prominent. Performing songs from Lifeboat on stage with two guitars was hardly satisfactory.

Coincidentally Quiver had reached an impasse. Their albums had failed to attract widespread attention and they’d lost founder member, twin lead guitarist and songwriter, Cal Batchelor.

The merger between the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver was mutually beneficial if a sometimes confusing mouthful. (“Which” asked an intrigued American journalist, “one of you guys is Quiver anyway?”).

In the six-piece line-up Gavin and Iain both play rhythm guitar,Tim Renwick is lead guitarist Pete Wood plays keyboards, Bruce Thomas bass, and Willie Wilson drums. Their first session together produced one of the year’s best singles, ‘You Got Me Anyway’. It got radio play and sounded like a natural hit, but did nothing.

It was onstage that the arrangement really took off. Wilson and Thomas laid a bed an elephant could bounce on, Pete Woods took on Bundrick, Hawken and Winwood single-handed and won, while Renwick could soar sweeter than a kite on a warm breeze or dig down hard enough to crack tarmac, whichever he wanted.

And all the while Iain and Gavin hung those intuitive harmonies over the top, the way almost no one else has done since the Everlies.

In this way they won themselves some nifty fans.

And somewhere along the line Elton John decided he’d like the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver to open for him on 42 dates across the USA, which beats teachers training colleges in Catford and athletics grounds in Cheltenham.

As a first tour it’s one fat peach. Even if they don’t get to travel on Elton’s Starship, whose in-flight movie is the notorious Deep Throat and which costs a working man’s annual wage every time it takes off, they have his P.A. laid on and play to audiences whose eagerness to see the Liberace of rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t turn them into bigots.

Naturally they’ve had to make some changes to their act. For a start their set is only about 40 minutes long — less than half the time they’re used to playing — which imposes certain limits on what they do.

Iain: “The way we’re working without sound checks in different halls every night is difficult — we don’t really settle down until three or four numbers into the set, and by that time we’ve only got three or tour more before we have to come off again.”

The size of the gigs is restivtive too.

“You can’t try and be remotely informal with twenty five thousand people. It’s like speaking to a football crowd through a megaphone half the time.

“Nine out of ten people can hardly make out the words you’re saying, whereas in Britain you can talk to an audience. Here it’s ‘Hello, how are you? Here we go’…boom, boom, boom.”

In fact, they had made an attempt at informality on the first few gigs. In the Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas, they tried a couple of jokes that had the whole band falling over, but the audience remained impassive.

The shortness of the sets doesn’t make them any softer to perform, however.

Gavin: “We come off stage just as nackered as we’re used to coming off stage. I think we just cram a bit more energy into it, even if it’s subonsciously. We must do, because we’re definitely getting tired now after the gigs. We’re starting to feel it a bit”

That tiredness, of course, isn’t just a result of what goes down on stage.

Iain: “It’s the hardest work we’ve ever done in our lives. That’s why people talk about touring the States in terms of it being a make or break thing. You haven’t really done anything until you go there.

“Nine out of ten times the distance between gigs is like going from London to Aberdeen and back to Bristol and up to Inverness, which you wouldn’t dream of doing back home.

“And there’s always so much to do — especially first time around — because apart from the actual gigs you’re meeting all the record company and press people, you’re doing a lot of interviews and radio appearances.”

I first saw the band in New York at MadisonSquareGardens, an auditorium which makes London’s Rainbow seem like an intimate club. As they began ‘Have You Had A Vision?’ half the crowd were still searching for their places and the girl in the next seat nudged me and inquired, “Who is this?”.

That’s the deal for a support band, no matter where they play or whom they support. The sound floated above the audience in waves through the first three numbers, losing the excellent playing of Tim Renwick and Pete Wood and diffusing the natural energy of the songs themselves.

However, by the time they got around to ‘Real Love’, one of the stand-outs on the Lifeboat album, the sound was all there. The Sutherland’s voices were as strong and sure as ever and Renwick and Wood were beginning to carve up everything in sight.

The peak of the set was the single, ‘You Got Me Anyway’, which, ignored in Britain, is a top 30 hit in the States and still climbing.

It’s easy to hear why, for it’s compact and melodic with the sort of chorus that used to be described as catchy, but these days is usually referred to with a greater degree of cynicism as a hook.

Nassau Coliseum, the next night, was less spirited. Wood had been forced to swap his grand for a Fender electric piano and the sound lacked the chunky crispness only an acoustic piano can provide; it was also short on horse power.

BostonGarden, though, was something else entirely. The enormous arena was older, crummier than either MadisonSquareGardens or Nassau Coliseum, but the sound was sharper than a cold Budweiser. The numbers were the same as before, but it was one of those sets where everything comes together so right.

It was their 25th gig in six weeks, 17 to go. When they get back at the end of October they’ll be a different band from the one you saw before they went away. Maybe you never even saw them. Either way they’ll knock you dead.

NME (6/10/73)

A Case For Copyright Extention

November 1st, 2010

When I was stacking singles on my Dansette after school, I didn’t envisage a time when the musicians who played on them would be pensioners. But then, neither did I dare to foresee a future that would endorse Danny & The Juniors’ brash assertion that rock’n’roll was here to stay. Half a century after those records rescued me from homework, however, the outlook for their makers is bleak, because 50 years is the copyright term for sound recordings, a cut-off which means an end to an appreciable source of income for musicians in retirement.

Earlier this year, the European Parliament voted to extend that term from 50 to 70 years. Labelled “the Beatles Extension”, since it would prevent the Fab Four’s first hits losing copyright protection in 2012, an arrangement that would suit neither Sir Paul McCartney nor EMI Records, it might more aptly have been called “the Cliff Richard Extension”, since his earliest releases have already lapsed into public domain, an arrangement that suits neither Sir Cliff nor EMI Records.

The question – to extend or not to extend? – has been asked with increasing urgency the closer loomed the confluence of that 50-year limit and the demi-centenary of pop. If Eddie Calvert’s ‘Oh Mein Papa’ or David Whitfield’s ‘Cara Mia’ went out of copyright, who cared? Records like that had the fusty ring of post-war rationing or National Service. But the hits we – the first generation of modern teenagers – grew up with? They still stir memories, set toes tapping. The very best remain thrillingly alive.

In 2005, Gordon Brown – then Chancellor – commissioned the former Financial Times editor Andrew Gowers to advise on the future of copyright in the digital age. Published a year later, the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property rejected the case for term extension, an unexpected conclusion which provoked an instant response from more than 4,500 members of the UK’s music community, whose names, printed as compactly as the credits on an album sleeve, crammed a full-page ad in Gowers’ old paper, overprinted in red with an appeal for “fair play for musicians.”

Sceptics, unsurprisingly, pointed to the rich and famous among the signatories, suggesting, as the Times did, that “for many campaigners the extra income is probably not essential for paying the winter heating bills.” But by no means all the signatories were household names with money to burn. Although the Rs, for instance, included Robbie Williams, Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey, listed alongside them was Ronald Prentice.

Unless your special subject is session players of the 1960s, there’s no reason why you should know a name unmentioned on the labels of the records he played on. Google “Ron Prentice”, and the English bassist is outnumbered 20-1 by a vociferous American opponent of same-sex marriage. Even in his heyday, Prentice was a secret unshared with the pop public, and yet he played on more hit records than those other three illustrious Rs, among them Cilla Black’s ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’, Tom Jones’ ‘It’s Not Unusual’, Sandie Shaw’s ‘(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me’, and Dusty Springfield’s ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’. By then he had been a musician for more than a dozen years. Catching the music bug from George Formby 78s as a wartime evacuee, he joined the jazz revival when “trad” was a cult confined to the back rooms of pubs, but prudently realised a living could be made playing strictly slow-slow-quick-quick-slow in dance bands.

When ‘Rock Around The Clock’ topped the UK hit parade in November 1955, the sheet music propped on Prentice’s stand scored the week’s other big hits – ‘The Man From Laramie’, ‘Yellow Rose Of Texas’ and ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, tunes couples could waltz, quickstep and tango to – and for two more years at least there were enough new ballads, cha-chas and mambos to keep dancers on the floor and bands with ten-piece brass sections on the rostrum. But slow as rock’n’roll was to catch on, ultimately it was unstoppable, and as record companies sought home-grown singers to recreate American hits, they needed musicians to replicate the backings: real musicians, of course, since it stood to reason that a sight-reading professional would be more dependable than a kid with a quiff, three chords and a pelvic thrust.

Discounting Tommy Steele’s earlier travesties, British rock’n’roll was born in Abbey Road Studios on 24 July 1958. The opening guitar figure of the debutant Cliff Richard’s ‘Move It’, as zesty as a pools winner bounding downstairs to greet the postman, was an unequivocal announcement that you didn’t have to be a Yank to rock’n’roll. Wary of trusting Cliff’s teenage guitarist to pull off the riff in a take or two, the musical director recruited an experienced player, Ernie Shear. If there had been any doubt before, there was none after. Producing a pop session, you hired a pro.

With booking information as scant as date, time and location, session players rarely knew in advance the name of the artist they would be backing and had no sight of the score until they arrived at the studio. Both A- and B-sides of a record would be scheduled in a two-hour half-session, so the moment the big hand ticked past the top of the clock, everyone had to be on the ball. “Occasionally a mistake would occur in the run-through,” Prentice recalls, “but if it happened a second time, the MD would inquire sarcastically, ‘Is there a problem with your part?’”

Uncredited they might have been, but these players’ contribution to a record could be audibly conspicuous. It’s impossible to sing along to Tom Jones’ ‘It’s Not Unusual’ without vocalising the instrumental ‘ba-da-ba-da-ba-da’ line, while there can be few people on the planet whose pulse hasn’t quickened as Prentice danga-dang-dangs his six-string bass guitar over the opening credits of a James Bond film. And although many sessions required note-for-note reading, being confronted by a simple chord chart could be a sharper spur to creativity. When Big Jim Sullivan wah-wahed his way through Dave Berry’s ‘The Crying Game’ in 1964, he “made up that whole guitar part – nobody had heard a sound like that before, and that’s what made the record.” True.

Spending so much time in the studio that they rarely had the opportunity to hear their work on the radio didn’t mean they were unaware when a record had done well. “You’d make a single with some unknown singer, and when you went back to make the second one, he’d drive up in a Rolls Royce,” Sullivan reflects without rancour, since neither he nor Prentice had cause for complaint. In 1964, when the average weekly wage was £16, a three-hour session paid £9, plus 10 shillings porterage, an automatic bonus for bringing your own instrument. By Monday lunchtime, with a busy week ahead, they were already well up on most nine-to-fivers.

It would be cheering to picture the pair of them in comfortable retirement, but when you work for yourself, there are always more pressing payments than putting something by for old age. Now neither can afford to keep his feet up. A 1996 amendment to the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act produced an annuity of sorts in the form of a broadcast royalty for “non-featured artists”, but the response of those musicians who had known for years about their US counterparts annually banking six-figure cheques as their share of income channelled through their union, was not a thankful tug of the forelock, but a chorused “About time too,” if not “Too little, too late.”

What’s more, to qualify for payment, musicians had to prove which records they had played on. Even those with dusty work diaries in their attic were pushed to provide evidence, because a date, a time and a studio aren’t as conclusive as, say, Marianne Faithfull: ‘As Tears Go By’. Sullivan played on every Tom Jones record from 1963 to 1975, but it took a letter from the singer’s manager to corroborate what was common knowledge throughout the music business, while Prentice has abandoned hope of establishing some bass lines as his own, aware that another musician must be wrongly receiving his share.

Reluctant to pry into the finances of people I barely know, I quizzed a session-playing pal: last year’s income from broadcast royalties amounted to £8,000, less than a fortune, but more than the annual state pension for a couple – a significant top-up. The first records Prentice played on were released in 1958, so his royalty payments ceased as corks popped last New Year’s Eve and, if the copyright term remains unchanged, remuneration from 1959’s hits will stop in three months’ time.

Gowers’ advice to the government not to tamper with the term didn’t convince the last Culture Secretary Andy Burnham, who suggested in December 2008 that there was “a moral case for performers benefiting from their work throughout their lifetime.” Dismissing this as “pretty silly”, Gowers restated his view that “copyright extension has high costs to the public and negligible benefits to the creative community.” But the argument was soon to gain a wider airing in Strasbourg, and the law was passed – by 377 votes to 178 – on 23rd April.

Besides approving a 70-year copyright term, the legislation also establishes an entirely new fund – for session musicians, not superstars – in the form of a 20% share in record sales to complement the broadcast royalty; allows artists to renegotiate 50-year-old recording contracts, signed in the dark age of analogue serfdom; and contains a use-it-or-lose-it clause to restore unissued or deleted recordings to the ownership of the artist. But what appeared in April to be a significant breakthrough is still several signatures short of implementation.

Though approved by MEPs, the legislation has yet to be ratified by the European Council, and the EU presidency is currently held by Sweden, whose six-month stint is more likely to focus on climate change, health and “dignified ageing” than copyright, a touchy topic domestically following the April imprisonment of the founders of file-sharing site Pirate Bay, sentences which provoked such a tide of public antagonism that a hastily formed Pirate Party now has a seat in Strasbourg.

When the EU first moved towards extending the copyright term, Feargal Sharkey, the head of the industry group UK Music, declared, “I am especially pleased that the announcement focuses on the ‘invisible’ members of our industry… who could derive real benefits from this move at a time in life when their earning power would be severely diminished.”

All music fans with a grasp of pop history should be equally pleased. We should applaud the prospect of a more comfortable retirement for those invisible, invaluable musicians. So, fingers crossed they won’t have to wait too long for “the Prentice Extension” to finally come into force.

(Originally published in September 2009)

Crossword Culture

November 1st, 2010

That ‘Groundhog Day’ in last Tuesday’s crossword and ‘Trekkies’ in Wednesday’s caught my eye confirms what I’ve felt for some time: contemporary terminology is all too uncommon.

I made my first frustrating attempts to solve cryptic crosswords in the school library as an alternative to A-level revision around the time the Beatles were beginning to impinge on a wider public consciousness than the minds of teenage pop fans like me. Aware that this was an adult activity, I was unsurprised by the lack of references to my kind of culture. Coming across ‘John and Ringo alternately missing from home up north’ (3) would have been as unexpected as catching the headmaster whistling ‘She Loves You’.

Besides, I enjoyed the erudite world into which crosswords drew me. Greek mythology, opera, literature, language, history, concealed in a coded formula that was a challenge to crack: learning made fun. Almost half a century later, however, setters are still marooned in the same pre-1960s world. Recent crosswords have clued Alan Ladd and Leslie Caron, whose acting careers peaked in the 1950s, and Leslie Charteris, who created The Saint in 1928, while Wednesday’s puzzle, alongside its nod to Star Trek – which, on second thoughts, has probably been attracted pointy-eared obsessives since the original sixties series – had Ustinov, dead just five years, but whose presence in my memory is as a goateed wit on black-and-white TV.

40 years after the Beatles broke up, pop remains underrepresented, despite Wednesday’s crossword cluing Sisyphus with Rolling Stone, inviting an ageist joke that I’ll resist. Observer Everyman solvers might classify January 18th’s Simply Red reference as contemporary, not least because Mick Hucknall won’t leave us in peace, so it’s worth pointing out that his imminent world tour marks a 25th anniversary. Lulu makes occasional appearances, not that she’s relevant 45 years after ‘Shout’, but ‘backing singer’ does lead amusingly to ‘ululant’. Indeed, so rarely do pop names crop up that I clearly recall a Listener puzzle from the early nineties whose solutions included not only the Beatles, but Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard and INXS.

Not that I’m proposing modernity at any cost. I won’t advocate the introduction of text speak – hevn 4fend! – or suggest that cryptic crosswords should dumb down (and across). I don’t want to abolish the old. I know infinitely more operas from crosswords than from childhood visits to Covent Garden, can correctly name flora and fauna, and first identified words like avatar, carpel and grampus (all in Saturday’s puzzle) in the dictionary I searched for verification. I certainly don’t want crosswords to be easier. Those occasions when I write the answers as I read the clues are only briefly satisfying. Like all solvers I want to engage in a battle of wits with the setter, succeed, then tip my metaphorical hat in acknowledgement of a clever clue set fairly. And yet, were I twenty years younger, would I find myself inserting words not because I knew them (or their clued components), but only because I knew they must be right?

In the world of crosswords, Sam Browne, whose inventor died in 1901, is still a belt and John Bull an Englishman, while Mae West lives on as a lifejacket. Who, under the age of 50 recognises these terms? I’m not urging setters to embrace Big Brother, nor would I welcome ‘French gamble on goalkeeper found in gossip columns’ (5,6). Deferring to convention, my goalie is not James or Given, but a keeper who last pulled on an England jersey two decades ago. Why is the footballer in crosswords invariably Best, Law or Pele. Give us ‘Australian long jumper born at Yarra’s source, represents England’ (6) or ‘Overpaid Brazilian Nottingham Forest defender never overdrawn’ (7).

In boxing, expect Ali, not Hatton, behind the wheel Moss or Hill (senior, no doubt). Post Beijing, have Bolt, Hoy and Cooke entered the lexicon? Not that I’ve noticed. Monty remains the hero of El Alamein, not Montgomerie or Panesar, because golfers are Hogan or Snead, and cricketers Dexter or Grace, for goodness sake, who hit his last century more than a century ago. And before anyone writes in, yes, I did notice Viv Richards, a scant 15 years retired, in Thursday’s puzzle, which also included the most Googled name of 2008: Sarah Palin. Gordius clearly has his finger on the zeitgeist. What next? Britney Spears? Lindsay Lohan? Miley Cyrus? No thanks. But Obama would make a change from Abe and Ike.

The crossword, let’s face it, is an old person’s pursuit. Trying to book youngish guests for a crossword series on Radio 4 a while ago, the producer found just one – Simon Russell Beale. His passion for crosswords might define him as old before his time, but he wouldn’t get a look-in as ‘actor’ – not as long as there’s a Kean (1789-1833) and a Tree (1952-1917). Which is a missed opportunity, because he gives good clue: ‘unreliable slimeball with complex neuroses’ and ‘versatile, obese, insular, embodying unnatural smell,’ to slander him just twice.

I must have heard the one crossword joke I know more than 30 years ago. A commuter is doing his daily crossword on a crowded train. Beside him, a passenger with no newspaper of his own sneaks look after irritating look. Eventually the first man murmurs thoughtfully, “Busy postman…” “How many letters?” comes the eager reply. “Bloody hundreds – now leave me alone!” These days a commuter chewing on a pen while staring at a folded newspaper is more likely to be tackling sudoku, but the joke doesn’t work when the first line spoken is, “I think you’ve put that seven in the wrong square.”

Not long ago I saw ‘Pluckley’ defined as ‘one stop from Ashford’, and concluded that solvers’ numbers must be in such serious decline that setters were tailoring clues to specific commuter routes. Clearly that’s not the case, but what is apparent is that unless the crossword nudges itself into the 21st century and updates its less than topical references to connect with younger solvers, it will become as endangered a pastime as morris dancing.

(Originally published in February 2009)

Oh Boy!

November 1st, 2010

It was as if the launch of Oh Boy! was timed as my treat at the end of a testing first week at grammar school. A reluctantly short-trousered eleven-year-old, I owned the beginnings of a record collection – Little Richard and Lonnie Donegan 78s; Crickets, Fats Domino, and Everly Brothers EPs – and had already intuited that if Tommy Steele was Britain’s answer to Elvis Presley, then, as some wag put it, we must have misheard the question.

I’d seen Steele on Saturday evening’s 6.5 Special and sensed something equally hokey about the BBC’s flagship teen show: the cable-knit jollity of a church youth club, with hosts Pete Murray and Jo Douglas as the would-be with-it vicar and his wife, both blithely clueless as to what appealed to young people. All we wanted on a show that started in February 1957, with ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’ in the hit parade, was rock’n’roll, not a hotchpotch of jazz, skiffle, classical, choirs and crooners, never mind the comedy, sport and eggy interview slots.

More than three years on from ‘Rock Around The Clock’, the music fanfared by that record had fallen short of undisputed pre-eminence and, through the months leading to Oh Boy!’s launch, the pop papers bristled with articles bashing the big beat. Melody Maker’s curmudgeonly Steve Race was not alone in railing against “that particular kind of infantile and often suggestive chanting known as ‘rock’n’roll’,” while Methodist minister Donald Soper, deploring “the undue emphasis on sex in so many songs” and calling for censorship to shore up artistic and moral standards, claimed, “I watch 6.5 Special sometimes – as a penance. I’m perplexed. I can’t understand how intelligent people can derive any sort of satisfaction from something which is emotionally embarrassing and intellectually ridiculous.” The populist ‘Dr Soapbox’ could have been having a dig at 6.5 Special producer Jack Good, whose intelligence, vouched by an Oxford degree, had not blinded him to the effervescent glory of rock’n’roll.

In fact, Good had quit the programme – and the frustrations of the BBC – early in 1958 and begun almost at once to plan a music show for the rival commercial network, unencumbered by the baggage that too often slowed 6.5 Special to a stumble. This was to be his masterpiece: a spell-binding visualisation – through movement, camerawork and lighting – of rock’n’roll.

The resistance to rock’n’roll aired in the music press prevailed at school. Most of my peers had been brow-beaten by parents or older siblings into disbelieving Danny & the Juniors’ brash assertion that rock’n’roll was “here to stay”, so being a fan was like belonging to a secret society. I looked for signs among the thousand other boys: a brylcreemed quiff, trousers taken in on mother’s Singer, tie worn the wrong way round, fat end tucked away, thin end dangling slim jim-style from a Windsor knot. I bonded with a boy in my form because he wore Buddy Holly glasses, and found a musical mentor in the older brother of a form-mate who had seen me inscribe Little Richard’s name in illuminated text on the back cover of my rough book. Pomdadoured Pete Briggs would introduce me to Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’, Jesse Hill’s ‘Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo’ and Larry Williams’ ‘She Said “Yeah”’, this last the B-side of a record that wasn’t even a hit in the States. How could a sixteen-year-old from the home counties have come across it?

Twenty-seven-year-old Jack Good was mentor to Marty Wilde, who had appeared on 6.5 Special. It was Good who introduced him to American Jody Reynolds’ ‘Endless Sleep’, Wilde’s cover of which brought him his first hit in July 1958 and remained a top five fixture the week Oh Boy! began.

Good could spot home-grown hits too, inking Cliff Richard for the opening show the moment he flipped the seventeen-year-old’s first single and heard ‘Move It’. “This disc could sell 50,000 copies on its first eight bars alone,” he enthused in his 9 August Disc column. “Even as I play it over again for the hundred and first time, I still can’t believe it. That this disc comes from Britain and not the States is fantastic – absurd. If this is not a hit, I have never heard one.”

While I was finding my feet in 2C, Cliff Richard, Marty Wilde and the regulars recruited for Oh Boy! – house band Lord Rockingham’s XI, wide-eyed Cherry Wainer with her upholstered Hammond organ, Leicester doo-woppers the Dallas Boys, and the leggy Vernons Girls, whose short shorts would have dads’ eyes glued to the tube – were rehearsing at an Islington club, where every movement, every look was minutely observed through the producer’s owlish lenses. Richard, clearly in the thrall of Elvis, wore sideboards and an acoustic guitar slung across his chest. Shaping his hands in front of his face to approximate a TV screen, Good studied the young singer, and made a note to have a word with him.

The next day New Musical Express’s Keith Goodwin interviewed the debutant, who “set about telling me of his sudden attack of nerves. ‘It’s wonderful to be going on TV for the first time, but I feel so nervous that I don’t know what to do. I mean, I only turned professional five weeks ago, and before that I was working as a clerk and only playing at local dances and things in my spare time. I wore sideburns then, but I shaved them off last night – Jack thought it would make me look more original. I think he’s right,’ he said.”

“Make no mistake,” the singer insists fifty years later, “Jack Good was the boss. He was totally in control, always. Unless he permitted it, you couldn’t do it! I’ve said many times that it was Jack who created the beginnings of Cliff Richard. He didn’t want an Elvis look-alike, so off came the sideburns, away went the guitar, and in came the sneer, the curled lip, and that sultry look up at the camera. I was one hundred per cent directed by him but, oh boy, did he know what he was doing!”

Oh Boy! was screened live, with a five-minute start on 6.5 Special, from London’s Hackney Empire, whose stage was overhung with high-watt spots to generate dazzling chiaroscuro effects: circles of stark white light across which danced angular black shadows cast by the singers, each gyration mirrored in negative monochrome, intensifying the screams – already whipped to crescendo during Good’s frenetic warm-up – from the teeming balcony.

There was a host – Tony Hall one week, Jimmy Henney the next – but no waffle; songs chased songs relentlessly, many condensed into medleys to maximise the output. And although few family TV’s had a screen larger than a laptop today, the scale of Good’s production was cinematic. Performers were backed by as many as thirty supporting musicians and singers, marshalled into teaming-and-toning, individually choreographed groups, the ensemble urged on from the wings by the inexhaustible producer.

Good’s preparation was never less than meticulous, as Marty Wilde confirms. “I don’t know anyone else who would have spent the time that he did. He would rehearse for hours and hours and hours to get things right, and it really paid off. He produced, he directed, and people like myself, Cliff and Billy Fury would have gone to the ends of the earth for him. If he’d have said, ‘Boys, at the weekend we’re jumping from the cliffs of Dover,’ we’d have gone, and we’d have jumped, because we believed in him totally.”

When he wasn’t framing shots with his hands, Good was plotting sequences on paper. “He would have a pencil and a board,” Wilde explains, “and he would draw a square, shade it in and say, ‘I’m going to shoot under your jaw here, and this is what it’ll look like, then here, I want you to look slightly to your right, and the camera will be there, and I want you to look down.’ He would tell you where the camera was going to be and what he planned to do with it.”

“Television was just black-and-white in those days, of course,” Richard points out, “but the dramatic effect you could achieve with white light stabbing through the blackness was stunning. Frantic, fast-moving camera shots reinforced the excitement, which produced something totally new for the small screen. Nothing had been done like it before – and again it was entirely Jack Good’s doing.”

Vernons Girl Joyce Baker, who would become Joyce Wilde when she married the lanky heartthrob in 1959, highlights another aspect of Good’s production: “Jack would have some marvellous idea about a hit song someone had sent from America, and he’d get the girls to do dance routines around that song. He’d pick a couple of girls out to do an Everly Brothers number or whatever, and the others would be like a backdrop.” Wilde concurs, “Jack would often pick up songs that weren’t high in the American charts, he’d just pick out something that he really liked. He had amazing foresight in that direction really. He would pick out a song and say, ‘This is going to be great.’” So, on the opening show, Wilde sang the Leiber-Stoller rocker, ‘Baby I Don’t Care’, Ricky Nelson’s new UK hit, ‘Poor Little Fool’, and Buddy Knox’s rarely-heard ‘Somebody Touched Me’.

Richard, who sang Milton Allen’s ‘Don’t Bug Me Baby’ as well as ‘Move It’, observes, “What we did was, in essence, very simple: we presented the charts to people. The UK couldn’t get Elvis or Jerry Lee or Conway Twitty, so we did their music for them – and everyone was a winner. The fans happily accepted covers of US hits from their favourite UK pin-ups, music publishers were thrilled to have their material promoted here, and there were certainly no complaints from the original American stars, who saw their record royalties increase on the back of soaring UK popularity.”

By November, the show’s nationwide popularity, which would soon prompt the BBC to drop 6.5 Special for the brazen Oh Boy! clone, Dig This!, was confirmed when Lord Rockingham’s XI’s ‘Hoots Mon’ topped the charts, but the protectors of public morality continued to keep watch, and in December NME’s Alley Cat columnist harrumphed, “Producer Jack Good must be held responsible for permitting the most crude exhibitionism ever seen on British TV – by Cliff Richard last Saturday. His violent hip-swinging during an obvious attempt to copy Elvis Presley was revolting – hardly the kind of performance any parent could wish their children to witness.” In unapologetic protest that this show had been singled out, the singer claimed cheekily, “After all, I’m always sexy,” while Good’s response was to book him as often as he could, and it was inevitable that Oh Boy!’s most sensational discovery should perform the closing number – a duet with Marty Wilde – of the 38th and final show on 30 May 1959.

A second series was anticipated in September, but by then both name and format had changed. Although Boy Meets Girls disappointingly abandoned the breathless pace and brio of Oh Boy!, it didn’t stop Good making British heroes of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, a cheery Southerner whom he spectacularly transformed into a brooding, leather-clad Richard III.

Wham! followed in 1960, but the upbeat exclamation mark could not disguise the truth that pop was in the doldrums, and in 1962 Good moved to the States “for a year” that stretched to many more.

Time crawled through my teens, and it seemed a lifetime later that I saw the Rolling Stones in the back room of a Windsor pub, and yet it was less than four years on from Oh Boy!. This was British R&B, a new beginning and, for its acolytes, bigger than the Beatles. By August 1963, it had spawned its own stylish music show, which I watched across the ironing board as I pressed my tab-collar shirt and John Stephen strides before heading into an amphetamine-fuelled all-night, but not even the iconic Ready Steady Go! could surpass the feverish excitement of Oh Boy!.

(Originally published in September 2008)

My Jukebox

November 1st, 2010

When the iPod in your pocket can accommodate an entire record collection, it might seem perverse to park a machine the size of a Transit cab* in your sitting room just to play a hundred singles, but anyone old enough to remember the 1950s should have a place in their heart, if not their home, for a jukebox. The classic machines – chrome and plastic fantasies, built by Wurlitzer, Seeburg and Rock-Ola, but conspicuously indebted to the drawing boards of Detroit – are core components of rock’n’roll’s iconography.

That keen-eyed chronicler of teen America, Chuck Berry, confirmed as much in ‘School Days’. On the dot of an enviably early three o’clock finish, his students closed their books and hit the local juke joint, where they would ‘drop the coin right into the slot’ to hear ‘something that’s really hot.’ The closest to a juke joint during my school days was a café near the station whose teddy boy clientele rendered it out-of-bounds to grammar boys, so when four o’clock rolled around I headed home to my Dansette, stacked the spindle with singles, lay on the floor with my head by the speaker, and willed my homework to do itself.

Although I had no idea whether a dime was worth five or ten cents, I did know from Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ that as long as you had one, the music would never stop. But the rampant ambitions of post-rock’n’roll recording artists saw the two-and-a-half minute form supplanted by the LP’s half-hour-plus, and by 1968 singles were outsold by albums. The styling of a 1950s jukebox seemed as passé as a razor-finned Cadillac, its clunky mechanism and monaural sound similarly anachronistic, its rack of 45s old hat.

Some time in the early 1970s I picked up a 1957 Seeburg KD200 Select-O-Matic from a café in the Old Kent Road for £100. A used car deaIer might have classified it as a good runner, but the selection mechanism worked, the valve amplifier and big speaker made the singles I still collected sound the way they were meant to, and guarding the speaker grill were those three tall chrome fins, their inset taillights glowing red.

The jukebox in ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ blows a fuse; over the years, mine merely began to show its age. Like a senescent relative, my Seeburg’s once silent functions became both audible and unpredictable. I played it less, and the passing of its 50th birthday without a single celebratory record being selected pricked my guilt. Eventually I googled ‘jukebox’ with the name of the man who had last fixed it twenty-five years before, and found Rob Edwards still in Thornton Heath and still repairing jukeboxes.

While my Seeburg underwent an overhaul that included a complete ‘re-cap’ – worn capacitors, Rob explained, being the primary cause of those intrusive noises – I washed the singles and swapped some with others I hadn’t heard in years. I also downloaded software for printing period labels, which I shuffled and reshuffled into five piles, wondering where else Larry Williams would rub shoulders with J J Cale and Scritti Pollitti, and working myself into feverish excitement at the prospect of hearing the exhilarating opening instrumental bars of the O’Jays’ ‘For The Love Of Money’.

As it was, the first record that came to hand when Rob asked me to check no part had suffered in transit was ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, and what struck me as the stylus wound through the grooves was that Chuck Berry hadn’t being fanciful when he’d described listening to a jukebox as ‘feeling the music from head to toe,’ because its output is a visceral as well as aural experience. A jukebox doesn’t do background music. Not only is conversation killed when it’s cranked up, but the look, lights and moving parts are unavoidably eye-catching. And when did you put on a record and watch everyone in the room get up and dance? When the right 45 is playing on a jukebox, it happens every time.

*This is an illusion. A tape measure showed that it’s not even as tall or wide as a Smart.

(Originally published in November 2008)

The Lefsetz Letter

November 1st, 2010

Read just one Lefsetz Letter ( and you’ll feel you know its writer. The no-frills font, the colloquialisms, the undeleted expletives, the phrases hammered out with the caps lock on, the bristling spikes of exclamation marks, all lend it the look and tone of a dashed-off e-mail from a friend rather than an authoritative music industry polemic that was first published more than twenty years ago.

Its accessibility is enhanced by the top-of-the-head nature of Bob Lefsetz’s writing. When he ends with an insightful statement, it’s clear the conclusion is triggered by the preceding train of thought, rather than being a point he planned to make from the start. One letter closed with the statement, “Playing music is a calling,” as if the notion had not struck him until that moment. A new subscriber, I’d been carrying the same thought in my head since I’d seen stellar sideman Tim Renwick playing guitar in a pub band in Cornwall. I shared my thought with Bob and, unexpectedly, Bob e-mailed back.

His regular round-ups of readers’ feedback show others share that sense of familiarity, which, despite the letter’s informal look and style, is not inevitable, given that Lefsetz doesn’t set out to be liked: he can be arrogantly opinionated, blunt, shouty (that caps key) and sarcastic, though rarely less than interesting. His “tens of thousands” of readers include the movers and shakers of the industry he declares moribund, but he seems pleased to share their responses with the rest of the readership, as if his role is validated by their reciprocation.

Words flow with the assurance of a draftsman who only lifts his pencil from the paper when the image is complete. I had in my head Hockney’s drawing of Auden, which appears to have been created by a single, nerveless line, but when I asked Lefsetz how he writes, he compared himself to another artist. “It’s like action painting, the Jackson Pollock style… I’ve got to get in the mood, inspired, I’m in a trance when I write… I’ve found, over years, if I edit after the fact, I fuck it up. I, of course, reread, at least twice, everything I write, but I’m looking for obvious mistakes, spelling/grammar/factual inaccuracies. And, I don’t plan in advance, it’s the trance… Getting the inspiration down on paper.”

Among his recurring themes are atrophying album sales, the irrelevance of music radio, unreasonable CD and concert ticket pricing, downloads, new technology, and the inevitable extinction of the dinosaur record companies and their obsolescent execs. Even when a topic doesn’t interest me – I don’t share his enjoyment of skiing or video games – I know it won’t be long before the next letter arrives in my inbox. Often less than a day. Last month I received five in 24 hours, prompting me to ask Lefsetz what fuels his output: “Inspiration! Passion! I’m reacting to the world and want to share!”

His views on the music business are compelling, but if it weren’t for his manifest enthusiasm for the music itself, his opinions wouldn’t – as Bob might put it – COUNT FOR SHIT! He has me checking out new artists on YouTube and pulling CDs from the shelf that I haven’t played in years. He’s like the friend you visit, who tells you at the door, “You have to listen to this.”

Now 54, Lefsetz was brought up on the East Coast (“my real home”), but moved to southern California, where he attended Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. He worked as an entertainment business lawyer and headed Sanctuary Music’s American division, before launching the Lefsetz Letter in 1986. Originally a fortnightly niche publication for industry insiders, in 2000 it went online, where its circulation increased virally.

One work-in-progress topic is the delineation of an alternative business model for bands – forget record companies, forget radio, build a fan base via the internet, release individual tracks, not albums, create a community of followers who will pay to see you live and will grab every tidbit you feed them online – but he has no time for whingers who blame their lack of a break on the current state of the music industry. Of two recent letters on the subject, he finished one with an advisory “Fuck off” and the other like this: “It’s about making music. If it’s good, put it on the web, energize your fans, they’ll spread the word. But you probably suck and are looking for the easy way out. And crying that you just can’t make any money. Boofuckinghoo.”

(This article was originally published in June 2008)

Rewriting Pop History

November 1st, 2010

In March 2008’s Observer Music Magazine, DJ Johnny Walker recalled, “The impetus for Radio Caroline came when the founder, Ronan O’Rahilly, discovered Georgie Fame.” Were they not dead, Larry Parnes and Rik Gunnell might contest O’Rahilly’s role as Fame’s discoverer: Parnes, since it was he who, having hired pianist Clive Powell to back Billy Fury, renamed him Georgie Fame; Gunnell, because he oversaw Fame’s metamorphosis into the Hammond-playing hipster whose No 1, ‘Yeh Yeh’, was honed at his Soho club. Walker was repeating a claim aired often enough for it to have transmuted, like the legend of the man who shot Liberty Valance, into truth, his endorsement further enhancing its authenticity.

A Guardian obituary should engender as much trust as a revered radio veteran. Recently one was headlined: “Rock’n’roll pioneer who was a primary influence on Elvis.” Who had died? Little Richard? Chuck Berry? Fats Domino? Jerry Lee Lewis? No, Freddie Bell, leader of the Bellboys, a Las Vegas lounge act given momentary prominence by an appearance in Rock Around The Clock. It may not be the most important chapters in pop history that are being rewritten, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth correcting.

Possibly Kris Kristofferson’s claim that his was the first beard in country music didn’t really warrant a letter pointing out that goateed Burl Ives had recorded country hits while Kristofferson was still a clean-shaven soldier, but that didn’t stop me writing one or this paper printing it, prompting Tom McGuinness to ask me, how could I have overlooked hirsute Gabby Hayes’ even earlier ‘Who’s Been Spittin’ In My Spittoon?’. Before I promulgate another porky, he was joking.

The Manfred Mann bassist has his own reasons for mistrusting music history. Watching a BBC documentary, he heard the Shirelles’ Shirley Alston assert that the Manfreds’ cover of ‘Sha La La’ killed the girl group’s original. “As theirs was a small US hit in March 1964 and ours got to No 12 in November,” he notes, “I can only say theirs took a long time dying. If my memory doesn’t fail me, it was in a section of the programme about black artists being ripped off, particularly galling as we always gave credit to those black artists who had inspired us.”

No less an authority than Charlie Gillett, whose The Sound Of The City was the first reliable rock history, admits to having promoted a myth by stating that Gene Vincent’s Capitol contract was the prize in a talent contest to find the next Elvis. “I don’t know where I got the notion from,” he says, “but although there was no such competition, the story has been repeated many times.”

The most popular myths are less about the music than events: Mama Cass choking to death on a ham sandwich (she didn’t); Keith Richards snorting his father’s ashes (a joke, according to his publicist); Paul McCartney dying in a car crash in 1966 (in which case, his stand-in hasn’t done a bad job protecting the family fortune).

The long and lively career of a band like The Who inevitably incites ambiguities, which Pete Townshend is happy to dismiss. He didn’t smash Abbie Hoffman over the head with his guitar at Woodstock. “If I had, he would have been dead.” Keith Moon driving a Rolls Royce into a swimming pool is an erroneous conflation of two incidents. In one, he left the handbrake off, and the car rolled into a pool, which was under construction and waterless. In the other, he charged a new car to the band, who refused to foot the bill, so Moon “drove into a muddy pond in his garden and called the dealer to pick it up.” Townshend is even willing to share the credit for pioneering feedback with The Kinks’ Dave Davies – “although he used quite small Vox amplifiers, so it wasn’t particularly loud.”

The one fiction that really bothers him is that he had a “serious tiff” with Jimi Hendrix about who went on first at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival. There was a civil discussion before the running order was settled with the toss of a coin, although “Jimi did stand on a chair and start to play guitar before John Phillips tossed his coin. Jimi playing the guitar meant he’d left the room – really rather rude, but understandable.”

So, if you’re still around to read Sting’s obituary, and it describes him as a reggae pioneer and primary influence on The Sex Pistols, don’t let it go uncorrected.

The Police 2007

November 1st, 2010

On page 253 of his compellingly readable memoir, One Train Later, Andy Summers logs the April 1978 release of the Police’s ‘Roxanne’, adding tersely, “It gets reviewed by John Pidgeon in Melody Maker.” That short statement telescopes a more convoluted reality. True, for one issue only, I was MM’s singles reviewer, though not until mid-October, by which time ‘Roxanne’ was a six-month old stiff. But that record was still a hit on my turntable, so I made it the yardstick by which I would judge the new releases.

‘Roxanne’ had come at me out of nowhere on a wavering car radio signal, as so much rock’n’roll of my short-trousered youth had, title or artist’s name or both obscured by static, leaving only a half-heard lyric and melodic hook lodged in my brain, along with a memory of the palpable thrill they had provoked. It took a trawl of record shops to track it down. “It was the Police’s ‘Roxanne’, and it still makes me tingle,” I preambled. “I had no idea who they were, and I still don’t really, but I don’t care. ‘Roxanne’ is simply a great single.” And if that reads like an all-too-obvious endorsement of an acknowledged pop classic, remember: ‘Roxanne’ was a flop, a sleeper that wouldn’t chart until May 1979.

My singles column appeared on Thursday 12 October. No one had matched ‘Roxanne’, not Elton John, not PiL, not Bruce Springsteen. That afternoon the A&M Records’ press office rang, asking would I be free to spend some time on the road with the Police in November? Let me check my diary. In the States? I’m free.

I had already seen the Police play live, at one of the scant ten gigs they had played since April. The venue was the Nashville Room in West Kensington, and I was accompanied by two pals, former Faces keyboard player Ian McLagan, who’d been every bit as excited as I had on hearing ‘Roxanne’, and lugubrious, lovable Kevin Coyne, in whose band Andy Summers had played and who was intrigued by his erstwhile guitarist’s punk make-over. While Kevin chuckled over Summers’ bottle-blond hair, Mac and I scoured the sparse crowd for someone who might be Sting, our only sight of the singer having been an arty Xeroxed image on the single’s sleeve. It was the parachute suit and peroxide crop that persuaded us we’d found him, but, to be certain, Mac asked, “You’re Sting, aren’t you?” To which Sting responded, “Yes, but you’re Ian McLagan.”

Half a lifetime later, on 28 July 2007, after the first of two formidable performances at Boston’s Fenway Park on the US leg of their reunion tour, the Police are convoyed back to their hotel with a full lights-and-sirens police escort, each intersection cleared of cross traffic, every red light run as green. Having sprinted from stage to car, Stewart Copeland heads for his room to shower. A couple in the lift have seen the cavalcade arrive the wrong way up a one-way street. The woman will rail against this extravagant abuse of her top-rate tax dollars, but, before she does, her husband asks the still sweating drummer what he has done to merit such treatment. Copeland grins and says, ‘Easy, why d’you think I named my band the Police?’ My band. Which it had been originally. Having tired of the unwinnable race to recoup record company advances, been invigorated by the punk scene, and spotted a singing bass player in Newcastle, ready to try his luck in London, Copeland had not only come up with a name for the group, but composed its entire repertoire of mile-a-minute thrash and found a three-chord Corsican guitarist, Henry Padovani, to help play it.

“It was a difficult period,” Sting, that singing bass player, confided in 1978. “Stewart had wanted to form a new wave group, but I’d just come down from playing in a jazz group and I wasn’t exactly keen, but I was inspired by the amazing energy of the whole thing, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m new to London and I’m totally unknown, so I’ll give it a go.’ We did a 15-minute lightning set and I squealed and screamed.”

Then Summers, already an experienced player, saw them at the Marquee. “I thought there was fantastic potential in Sting and Stewart,” he explained. “I’d always wanted to play in a three-piece band and throughout all my years of playing I never had. I felt that the three of us together would be very strong. They just needed another guitarist and I thought I was the one.” The group played a French punk festival as a four-piece; then there were three.

The effect of Summers’ arrival was instant. “One by one, Sting’s songs had started coming in,” Copeland explained, “and when Andy joined, it opened up new numbers of Sting’s we could do, so the material started to get a lot more interesting and Sting started to take a lot more interest in the group.” Despite the lack of progress represented by those ten UK gigs in seven months, Copeland insists today that he never doubted for a second – “never for a second” – that the trio would make it, the core of his unshakable confidence: Sting.

“The minute I saw Sting,” he recalls, “playing in the refectory (of St Mary’s College, Newcastle), I thought, ‘There is a unique talent that is going all the way to the top.’ Once we were in a band together, I would go on stage knowing that whatever was going to go wrong, Sting was going to kick ass, and he wasn’t going to quit until he’d got the place going.”

Having joined the Police in August 1977, timing that lends this tour the symmetry of a 30th anniversary, Summers owns up to moments of doubt during those first twelve months. “We’d been at it for a year, and just basically hanging by a thread,” he recalls. “There wasn’t anything happening. There was no point in doing gigs, because we’d end up with about two quid each a night. Then we lined up that first little tour of the East Coast of the US, and that’s where it started.”

I met them in Washington D.C. on 10 November 1978, and took advantage of my tab at the Watergate Hotel, several stars swankier than the band’s budget accommodation, to treat them to dinner. After two shows at the Atlantic Club, I joined them in their van for the drive to Philadelphia, where they played the half-empty Grendel’s Lair, then we drove to New York for two final gigs at CBGB’s.

The tour had been made possible by three things: Freddie Laker’s pioneering Skytrain, which delivered the trio and their tour manager to New York for £100 each; an Econoline van with two rows of seats and space behind for equipment, which their manager Miles Copeland (Stewart’s brother) had bought earlier in the year for a Squeeze tour, but which suited the three-piece and their tour manager better than Squeeze’s five-man line-up; and the support of a third Copeland, Ian, an agent who would not have picked up the phone to book $200 club gigs for anyone other than his kid brother. That fee covered two modest, shared hotel rooms, fuel for the van, and a $20 per diem each for food and drink. Some nights they made more, which took care of extras and their flights back to the UK.

On my own (non-Laker) flight home, I composed the opening paragraph of my piece: “The Police are not punk. The Police are not disco. The Police are not heavy metal. The Police are not power pop. The Police are just the best rock and roll band I’ve seen in years.” I assured MM’s editor they would be the next big thing and, as such, deserved the cover, but when the issue appeared, they had been demoted to an inside spread, with no-hit-wonder, rockabilly voodoo weirdos the Cramps on the front instead.

By then the Police were back in the UK, supporting student favourites Albertos Y Lost Trios Paranoias on a short tour, during which it became clear to Summers that “there was something serious happening. The period of self-doubt probably disappeared with the Albertos gig in Bath (on 1 December), where there was just this mob scene and hysterical girls, and that was the moment when we went, ‘Wait a minute.’ That was a turning point, and we started to go like a rocket after that.”

Six years earlier, my first major assignment as a music journalist had been to tour, riotously, with the Faces, and as recently as July 1978 I’d caught the end of the Stones’ US tour in California, more fun and games. But in Washington, with the Police, I visited the National Air and Space Museum; on a night off in Philadelphia we went to the cinema; and in the van we talked about books. Photographed in New York, Sting hid neither his glasses nor the copy of Daniel Martin he was reading. I remember thinking, sure, the other way is fun, but there’s no denying theirs is a practical, economic approach to touring. Those thoughts stayed with me, until, reading One Train Later, I came across Summers’ sardonic description of his on-the-road self in 1982: “I am a rock-and-roll asshole, an emaciated millionaire prick.” How did he get to that from where I’d left them? Could the clue be in the penultimate word? “It got much more dissolute as time went on,” he confirms. “It did turn into the usual clichéd stuff, where everywhere we turned up there was a party. The rot set in. You know, the water keeps hitting the rock and it finally starts to crumble.” Sting’s assessment of their excess is more moderate. “We never really qualified as rock and roll animals ever. It never crossed my mind to trash a hotel room or get completely fucked up. We dabbled.”

The Police had by then, of course, become the biggest band in the world, legendarily playing Shea Stadium in New York, a marker for mega-popdom set in 1966 by the Beatles. This was in August 1983, by which time the three were reputed to be permanently at each other’s throat. Yet, in 2005, when Stewart Copeland got round to editing the fifty hours of Super-8 he had shot on the road and in the studio for his film, Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out, and he reached the moment where the band broke up, the only footage he could find was of them goofing around. While pointing out that when they weren’t getting on, he would not have been filming, he admits that Sting’s anguished look, inserted to signify strife, was in reality a frown of concentration, as the singer worked on a vocal harmony.

“People have asked what went wrong back in the day,” Copeland expands, “and the answer is it didn’t go wrong, it went rather well actually. We broke up at exactly the right time. What would have gone wrong is if we had stuck together to the point where we hated each other and started to hurt each other and self-destruct. That would have been wrong.”

After the final gig in Melbourne in 1984, all three, he says, “hit the ground running.” Each made signally non-Police music. Sting’s first solo album, The Dream Of Blue Turtles, was “a real patchwork of all kinds of styles. I was just having fun as a songwriter, and I carried that on in the interim.” Summers formed new musical alliances, played jazz, pursued his interest in photography. Most strikingly, for a decade Copeland didn’t pick up a drum stick. “I was a film composer, and not only that, but I was desperate to escape type-casting as the drum score film composer, and so for many years I was writing scores with no discernible rhythm at all. I went a little too far, as you do when you’ve got something to prove.”

In his memoir Summers writes of “the ache of something unresolved… The problem with the demise of our group is that we didn’t play out all our potential,” though he now admits, “We had it all there in a way. But I definitely felt wounded afterwards. It felt like something was stolen and I had to deal with it. Then I occasionally thought, ‘Maybe it was the best thing to do.’ I didn’t just want to be in a pop band.”

Distilled into a two-hour live show, the Police’s musical history feels fulfillingly complete. Every stage of their musical journey, from the proto-punk of ‘Next To You’ to the enigmatic universality of ‘Every Breath You Take’, is revisited, and, surprisingly perhaps, although the songs are all familiar, they still sound vital, visceral, with emotion or meaning still to impart.

Confounding red top gossip, the three are emphatic that some form of alliance survived the intervening years. Copeland says, “We have a basic underlying respect and, I would say, love for each other, the three of us. There’s a bond there that none of us can shake off.” Sting concurs, “Relations with Andy and Stewart have always been cordial. We didn’t see much of each other, but it’s bullshit that we’ve been at loggerheads for years and years.”

“Over the last twenty years,” Copeland adds, “people in my company have assumed that what I like to hear is Sting-bashing, so I hear a lot of it, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what the opinions are. I tell these friends of mine, ‘If Sting was here now with a guitar in his hands, you would within moments realise he’s the most talented, gifted musician you’ve ever met – ever.’ Because he is.”

“Despite all the crap written about us, how we all hate each other, we’re not like that, it’s such bullshit,” Andy confirms. “If that was the truth, we wouldn’t have been able to come back together and do this. Whatever we do, this is always going to be the seminal band we were all in.”

While Copeland was assembling his film, Summers was writing his book, a project with the potential, he became increasingly aware, to put paid for good to any chance of a reunion, but he stuck to his aim “to be completely honest, not to do some varnished story. What I was interested in was the fragility of it, how it’s always about to collapse at any point, and how difficult it is to bring three egos together and sustain it for a long period of time. It was necessary to talk about the arguments, the difficulties, the tension, as well as paying tribute to the talents of the other two. When I got the book out, I thought they may never speak to me again, but in fact the reverse happened. Sting was very complimentary.”

Recalling his suggestion for Synchonicity’s running order, Summers wrote spikily, “Sting likes this idea, and thus it is ordained.” If a reunion was ever going to take place, Sting would need to like that idea too. As eventually he did, surprising even himself.

“I woke up one morning in November last year, and the John Dowland record (Songs From The Labyrinth) had just gone in the charts, so I was very happy about that, and I thought, ‘What do I do now? Should I do that again? No, that’ll paint me into a corner. Do I do another Sting album? No, I’m not really ready for it.  What do I do to surprise people? Or surprise myself even?’ And this little voice said, ‘You reform the Police.’ And another little voice said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, you don’t want to do that,’ but this persistent voice said, ‘No, that’ll really surprise everyone.’ And surprise, as you know, is everything in this business. So I had a meeting with my manager, floated the idea, and she fell off her chair. We phoned Andy and Stewart, and they didn’t believe it either, because I’d been so adamant. If you’d asked me the day before, I would’ve said, ‘You’re out of your fucking mind. I don’t want to do that.’  But suddenly everybody clicked with it, it just triggered something, and the timing was perfect.”

With Sting long accustomed to tailoring the musical setting for his solo shows – “having my own way or ‘You’re fired!’” – what form would the line-up take? Backing singers? A keyboard player? Horns? Summers, for one, was initially apprehensive. “In the early days we did one tour with backing singers and one with saxophones, which I personally hated. I thought, it’s got to be the band, the three of us, or not at all, and there was absolutely no contest about that. Because Sting is a natural musician, he’s a player. He’s not some singer who’s got old and fat, he’s the real thing.”

“My instinct was it should be us raw, warts and all,” Sting says, “and I was pleasantly surprised at the first rehearsal. Although it certainly wasn’t polished, there were still moments of, ‘Oh, that’s why we were good, that’s why we were successful.’ So rehearsal was just about joining those moments together and expanding them, and I think we’re still on the way.”

Their once teenage fans are now in their forties, and from his drum stool Copeland has observed other changes, “At the front we used to have a lot of teenage females fainting, now we have grown men weeping.” Weeping for what? Their lost youth? “I guess that’s what it is. There are certain songs, and I look out there and they’re weeping inconsolably. It makes me feel good. It hits me with, ‘I guess it must be important what we’re doing.’ I mean, it isn’t, it’s just music, but it does affect people – and that affects me.”

The reunion is scheduled to end in February 2008, when Stewart is looking forward to getting back to being a composer and suburban dad, and Andy will be braced for a post-tour crash, before immersing himself in diverse projects. Sting, as always, is eager to embrace the future, “Nothing goes on forever, and once you accept that, that’s a great relief. If I thought I was agreeing to be manacled forever to this thing, like Sisyphus, I wouldn’t have come into it. I think freedom, even to go back, is what I want – to contradict myself, to go back on what I thought was dogma, to be open.”

So what is this bond, the shared chemistry that took these three from half-empty clubs to the biggest stages in the world, and still has people filling stadiums to see them? Does the man who formed the Police have the answer? “There are times when Sting and I shake our heads at the disparity in our music values,” Copeland offers, “and yet there are 60,000 people out there that want to hear us play together. How’s that possible? We disagree so deeply and profoundly about fundamental pillars of our artistic philosophy that sometimes we look at each other and it’s not just like we come from different planets, but that different rules of physics apply, and, like I say, we shake our heads and wonder at the strangeness of life that you put these two value systems together and something happens that makes people cry.”

The Police 1978

November 1st, 2010

Perhaps the regular writer had been reassigned to cover the fatal stabbing by Sid Vicious in a room littered with the detritus of drugs in New York’s Chelsea Hotel of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. But that was still a long way short of explaining why Melody Maker editor Richard Williams had thumbed more than halfway through his address book before he found a reviewer for the week’s singles.

I hadn’t been asked before, but then I’d only written once previously for the paper, a profile of Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, whom I’d interviewed that summer while the Stones were on the road in the States. I’d tagged along on the Californian leg of the tour to see my pal Ian McLagan, who’d played on their current smash, ‘Miss You’, on stage with the band, sleeping on the sofa in his suite at the Westwood Marquis, then moving to a sofa in Chuch McGee’s apartment off Sunset Boulevard. The article had been my way of covering the cost of the trip, but waiting for Bill and Charlie to be ready was like Almost Famous.

I was nervous about accepting Richard’s invitation, because I knew there would be no prevaricating. I would be shut in a room in the paper’s temporary premises near Waterloo with a stack of new releases, a record player, and a typewriter. It would be like writing an paper exam. At a given moment my time would be up and what I’d written would be taken away from me and printed. To cover myself and to save time reading press releases, I devised a strategy, which I explained at the top of the page under a photograph, snapped outside the review room, that I had been unprepared for: even cropped to hide a dilapidated jean jacket and worn-out T-shirt, the photo showed a scruff with a busby of unkempt hair, several days’ stubble, and the hint of a jazz tuft tickling my lower lip. What I wrote was this:

When I started listening to singles, I wore short trousers and our old wireless had valves and dial marked with strange names like Droitwich and Hilversum that still glow as luminously in my memory as they did then in the dark.

I’d scout the airwaves for rock’n’roll, twitching the knob as sweetly as a safe-cracker, and pick up snatches here and there amongst the static. As often as not, I wouldn’t catch the title or the singer, no matter how tightly I jammed my ear against the grill. But somehow I discovered Little Richard that way, Buddy Holly, Dion and the Belmonts, and Ray Charles.

Later, rattling with doobs down the Flamingo and the Scene, I dug bluebeat and the beginnings of soul, hung on to half a name or a shred of a chorus and spent the next week searching shops and stalls for something that sounded halfway similar. Some I found are still hits on my jukebox.

The point is when I heard all those things I didn’t know what the hell they were. I had no prior knowledge, no preconceptions. They just jumped out at me, grabbed my ears and bored in to my brain.

I went on listening to records and the radio, but something changed. There were no surprises any more. That’s not nostalgic noodling, it’s the truth. Here’s why. Airwaves got busier, reception got cleaner; disc jockeys started talking too much; I strated looking at ads and reading reviews, buying the albums the singles came from. Or they were the same old singers pushing the same old songs, and I’d heard it all before, even when I hadn’t. It all became as predictable as a Monday morning hangover. And about as much fun.

Recently, though, some of the excitement has come back to singles. Even Top Of The Pops is watchable most weeks. And occasionally the buzz still bites. A few months ago I was out in the sticks in the car, one of those places where Radio 1 fades in and out – on my radio anyway. From the time of day I guessed Anne Nightingale was on, but I couldn’t make out a word she said.

Suddenly I had to stop the car, just pull over and listen. It didn’t help the sound much, but I could hear enough to tingle. A couple of days later I found out what it was and went straight out and bought it. It was the Police’s ‘Roxanne’, and it still makes me tingle. I had no idea who they were, and I still don’t really, but I don’t care. ‘Roxanne’ is simply a great single.

So I thought, right, that’s how I’ll review these singles: blind, as if they were coming at me out of the airwaves.

Not just a thesis, but almost 500 words written already, insurance against an uninspiring batch of records. Plus, I’d excused myself from reading any of the press releases stuffed inside the sleeves for lazy hacks to regurgitate. The weakness of my blindfold test was that I recognised most of the artists. What’s more I disliked most of what I heard: Slade, despite the syn-drums on ‘Rock’n’Roll Bolero’, sounded “old and irrelevant”, while the “piece of flotsam” that was the Moody Blues’ ‘Driftwood’ was “as tasteful as a Tretchikof”. I was unmoved by Black Sabbath, Boston, David Essex, Hall & Oates, Elton John, the Kinks, Leon Russell, Peter Skellern, Bruce Springsteen, Al Stewart, Uriah Heep. There only records I would willingly have put back on a turntable were PIL’s debut ‘Public Image’ and Sham 69’s ‘Hurry Up Harry’.

The edition of Melody Maker with my singles column came out on Thursday 12th October 1978. Before the end of the day I’d had a phone call from the Police’s press officer at A&M Records to ask if I was free to fly to Washington the following month and spend a week on the road with the band. You bet I was. I checked with Richard Williams; he said he would be happy to publish my piece. (When it appeared, it was supposed to be the cover story, but Richard put The Cramps on the cover instead. He apologised to me for his erroneous judgement twenty-five years later.)

* * *

THE POLICE are not punk. The Police are not disco. The Police are not heavy metal. The Police are not power pop. The Police are the best rock’n’roll band I’ve seen in years. I kid you not.

The group was formed by American drummer Stewart Copeland in January 1977 as much out of disenchantment with the old as infatuation with the new. Two years before, he had defected from college in California to join a British band managed by his brother Miles. The band was Darryl Way’s, and during the course of its formation it metamorphosed into a approximation of Way’s former successful group, Curved Air, taking its name, partial personnel and the remnants of a reputation from the early 70’s. For Copeland, the transition from college combo to limos and lights was initially exciting then one day he worked out how many albums they had to sell to recoup the 40,000 pounds they’d just spent in the studio. “It suddenly began to dawn on me that the whole thing was completely bogus,” he recalled. “The advances were so preposterously high that every album we made had to be a hundred thousand seller just to break even. Consequently, we couldn’t take any chances – everything had to be commercial.”

While Curved Air was dissolving in debt, Copeland was hearing rave noises in London. He tested the temperature of the new wave with a toe, and then dived in. He remembered Sting, a bass player with a rare voice from a jazzy outfit he’d seen on a night off from the biggish time in Newcastle, and found him ready to leave the north-east and his day job. The guitarist he picked with a pin.

A three-piece: the Police. High energy, low expenses. No roadies, no recording contract, no manager. Copeland took care of what business there was himself. He booked the gigs and when they wanted to make a record he formed a label, Illegal Records, with an £800 loan from a friend. They spent £150 in Pathway studio and the rest pressing 2,000 singles and printing a sleeve. ‘Fall Out’ eventually sold 10,000 copies, though, according to Copeland, “It sold purely on the strength of the cover, because of the fashion at the time. Punk was in and it was one of the first punk records – and there weren’t very many to choose from. The average punk had every punk record that was available and when the next one came out which was the Police record, he bought that, too. But still I think it was a good record, so it did more than the average punk single.”

Copeland’s commitment and enthusiasm were enough to keep the band going, but elsewhere within the triangle there were dangerous tensions. “It was a difficult period,” Sting said. “Stewart had wanted to form a new wave group, but I wasn’t sure. I’d just come down from playing in a jazz group and I wasn’t exactly keen, but I was inspired by the amazing energy of the whole thing which was something new, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m new to London and I’m totally unknown so I’ll give it a go.’ It was just another facet of experience as a musician, as far as I was concerned. I didn’t have much to offer apart from singing ability and being able to play bass and generally be the front man, and so I just went along with it. We did a 15-minute lightning set and I squealed and screamed. It was largely Stewart’s material n the beginning, but as time went on I found that I wanted to say more, I wanted o use my voice better, so I started writing material in that mould, but one problem I kept coming up against all the time in my writing was the limitations of our guitarist.”

Those limitations were equally apparent to Copeland, who had played the major guitar part on ‘Fall Out’, so when Andy Summers expressed an interest in joining, he didn’t have to ask twice. His c.v. includes stints with Zoot Money, the Animals, Soft Machine, Tim Rose, Kevin Coyne and Kevin Ayers, as well as three years studying classical guitar at college, a career long enough to raise whispers about his eligibility to stand alongside today’s young turks. “Personally, I don’t give a shit,” he said, “because I’m proud of everything I’ve done. I’m not ashamed of anything, because they’ve all been good bands.”

A week after playing with Sting and Copeland at a Gong festival, he watched the Police at the Marquee. “I thought there was fantastic potential in the band-in Sting and Stewart anyway. I could see they were really good musicians with something to offer, but they’d put themselves into something that didn’t really suit them, and I felt they weren’t bringing it off in a manner that was convincing to me. The real punk bands came off as being more authentic, but at the same time there was definitely great potential there. They were selling themselves short in a way and there was a lot of pressure – things changed overnight – and if you didn’t like that or play like that…They were playing faster and harder than anybody else and they were almost losing the audience because of it. But we’d jammed a lot so I knew what else they could do. I found it really exciting and I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, this is what I’ve been looking for for ages.’ I’d always wanted to play in a three-piece band and throughout all my years of playing I never had, and at that point I’d just been playing behind people all the time and I was getting pretty frustrated with it. Then I saw these two and I felt that the three of us together would be very strong. They just needed another guitarist and I thought I was the one.” The group played a French punk festival in August last year as a four-piece, then there were three.


The effect of Summers’ recruitment was immediate. “One by one, Sting’s songs had started coming in,” said Copeland, “and because he’s a writer and they’re really good stuff, you can’t just turn them down, so when Andy joined the group it opened up new numbers of Sting’s we could now do, so the material started to get a lot more interesting and Sting started to take a lot more interest in the group.”

They spent most of September rehearsing, then left for an abortive string of European dates on a promise – from management partnership – of money, gigs, equipment, records, promotion, the works, on their return. All they got however, was another rehearsal room. According to Copeland, “They’d done nothing, they hadn’t accomplished a thing, and we rehearsed in their studio for a month, maybe two months, waiting for them to get something together. There were no gigs, the group just disappeared off the scene. People were saying, ‘What happened to the Police? Are you still together?’ We’d blown all the momentum that we had and all the credibility that we did have was all gone, though at least by this time Andy had been worked into the group, because we’d had all that rehearsal. We were in a pit and one day we just decided, ‘f*** these guys!’ and we loaded our equipment into our cars and just pissed off.”

At this low point, Miles Copeland turned fairy godmother and offered to put up the money to make an album for Illegal Records, which he would market. They began recording in January, 1978 at Surrey Sound Studios essentially transposing their set onto tape, until Sting turned up for a session with a love song, as slow as it was unfashionable, a serenade to a Parisian prostitute. Lately they’d been getting into reggae at rehearsal, so they tried that feel behind the verse between rock hard choruses: ‘Roxanne’.

When Miles Copeland popped in for a progress report, they thought twice about playing it to him. “We did it as a throwaway,” said Sting, “and played it to him with trepidation, feeling that he would hate it because it was totally the wrong thing. And he flipped out. He thought it was great, a classic song, and the next day he took it to A&M and came into the studio that night and told us they were going to release it as a single. I was just over the moon because I actually did like it and it was a total offshoot from what we’d been doing – and it was immediately recognised by a record company as being commercial. That was the turning point for the Police, that and Andy joining, which enabled us to do more sophisticated material.”

The deal with A&M was for that one single. But when it was released in late spring, the group was in Germany, Miles Copeland (by now their manager) was in the States, and a French whore was persona non grata on the playlist. Nonetheless, A&M weren’t put off by the sales sheets and took an option on a second single later in the summer, ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’, which bubbled under, but similarly disqualified itself from mass airplay with a theme of threatened suicide.

“The BBC at the moment seem to be the arbiters of poetic metaphor,” beefed Sting, “and the reason they didn’t play ‘Can’t Stand Losing You’ was apparently because it had the word ‘kill’ in it. There are countless songs about suicide in the history of pop and anyway it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, it’s not a serious song. I felt very strongly about ‘Roxanne’, because that was a serious song about a real relationship. There was no talk about f****** in it, it wasn’t a smutty song in any sense of the word. It was a real song with a real, felt lyric and they wouldn’t play that either on the grounds that it was about a prostitute. But write a silly song about f***ing that hasn’t got the word ‘f******’ in it, and you’ve got a hit. It gets a bit depressing.”

The record company’s predilection for these two songs and a growing band of punters consolidated the new Police style, and some of the early mile-a-minute material was relegated from probables to possibles for the album; basically, Copeland’s compositions gave way to Sting’s.

Sting is a singer who chokes on other people’s songs, as Copeland was forced to concede. “A lot of my songs Sting won’t sing and the songs of mine he will sing, he changes the words. We’re very different people with different ways of projecting ourselves and when he expresses himself in a song, the way I write just doesn’t fit him at all.”

No hard feelings though, especially since Copeland found an alter ego to record the songs the Police wouldn’t. His ‘Don’t Care’ has been tried out by the group but Sting couldn’t identify with it, so Copeland took the song into a studio on his own played all the parts, and sang for the first time in his life, in or out of the tub. It came out on Kryptone, picked up airplay and wound up selling 35,000 copies on A&M. The name on the label was Klark Kent. Ask Copeland and he’ll say he doesn’t know him from Superman. Yeah, and my name’s Jimmy Olsen.

Sting, meanwhile, snatched the role of Ace in ‘Quadrophenia’ after appearing in television commercials and the Sex Pistols film. A&M found themselves with an album option on a group with a film star as front man and a cult hero behind the kit. Guess what? Outlandos d’Amour was released.

This history was pieced together after chasing the trio’s coattails from Washington, D.C. through Philadelphia and on to New York, The last time I’d seen them was at the Nashville, in London, but I hadn’t been taking notes on that night; instead, I’d gotten more excited than I had at a gig in a long time. Because on stage, the Police are so good it’s criminal.

In all great bands, the whole is a deal more than the sum of the parts, and to describe the controlled athletic aggression of Copeland’s drumming, the spark and subtlety of Summers’ licks, Sting’s spare, strong bass lines, the hair-raising intensity of his vocals and his undeniably charismatic presence – Sting (you’d better believe it) is a star – is to draw less than a complete picture of the Police for those parts are powerfully combined. What’s more, it’s like describing a joke instead of telling it. If you’ve seen the band, you’ll know; if you haven’t, then do. Soon. They’ve got energy, they’ve got style, they’ve got songs, real songs. And they don’t overplay their hand. Unlike much of the competition, they know how to leave holes: less means more is their motto, and they stick to it.

But another American tour already? So much so soon? Street credibility blown worse than when they got caught browsing the jazz racks or arguing the toss between the original and revised versions of The Magus? Hardly.

The conventional way of breaking a British band in America is to wangle a support gig on a major tour, rope in the record company, cross fingers touch wood and never walk under ladders. It’s worked dozens of times. Guess how many times it hasn’t? And ever if it does work or half worked, the band ends up with a debt to the record company that takes more than a gold album to wipe clean.

The Police actually pocketed royalties on ‘Roxanne’. A single that only sells 11,000 copies is a loser but the Police came out with enough to fly Laker to New York last year with the instruments as baggage. Here, the manager helped. He’s been taking bands to the States for years, making money, losing money but working out why and why not. Early last year, he bought a van with two rows of seats and just enough gear to play clubs and still stow in the back.

A handful of dates were lined up in the East: New York, Boston, Toronto and back into the States; all clubs, some smaller than others, none more than a day’s drive from the next stop. And in the van, just the trio and Kim Turner – tour manager, mixer, roadie, driver, pal.

Work it out on your fingers – I did. Hotel rooms are between twenty-five and thirty-five dollars a, night, never fancy, sometimes crummy, and always two to a room. That’s fifty to seventy dollars in the debit column. Then there s petrol for the van and a twenty dollar per diem each for food and drink. If they could leave a club with two hundred, they’re ahead. In Boston, Toronto and New York they more than doubled that – air fares home and extras taken care of.

Initially, at least, A&M in America didn’t want to know. To support a group that was touring with no album to promote (Outlandos d’Amour wasn’t released until January 1979) was bad business. So the band made their own noise, and got results. “Something we’ve discovered on this tour,” said Stewart, “is we get much better exposure and make much more of an impression on a city doing it this way. If we’d played Boston, say, as a support act at a bigger theatre to several thousand people, with the record company hustling people in, giving free tickets away people would probably have got there just in time to catch one number of our set and maybe given us a line in their review. But this way, going out and doing it ourselves, we get journalists and radio people who really do care, who really are turned on to ‘Roxanne’, and we dominate the gig. It’s our gig and I’m sure we get much better exposure because of that.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the tour was simply that they’d played. In four weeks they’d done more gigs than they had in the last year. They discovered what works and what doesn’t on stage, they honed their set, dropped some numbers, remodelled others. And they became a band. “It’s made a lot of difference to us,” said Andy, “and the more we do, the better it’ll get all the time. I really love it because it’s a very fresh situation, it’s still full of challenges. We’re definitely on the up at the moment. We’re very new. It’s great!”

And now they’re back again. Go and see them.

* * *

Sting and I didn’t become best friends. I don’t spend summers with him in Tuscany. I dropped in at the studio in Leatherhead where they were recording their second album, went to a couple of gigs, though nowhere larger than a college, and only saw him once after they made it big, when he wagged a finger at me as he walked past and said, ‘It’s your fault, you know, all this fame and fortune.’ I even lost touch with Andy Summers, with whom I had most in common: Zoot Money, Kevin Coyne, age. Then, in 2005, when I was moonlighting from my day job running BBC Radio Entertainment to produce a series for Radio 4 about the use of music in modern crime fiction, I remembered a reference in Robert Crais’s first Elvis Cole novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, to the detective hero looking like the Police’s guitarist. I contacted him, he agreed to an interview, and I recorded him reading the relevant sentence. When I heard the Police were going to reform for a 30th anniversary reunion tour, I put a proposal to him.

But I was never asked to review the singles again for Melody Maker.

I Was A Faces Roadie (Part 3)

November 1st, 2010

It was on that same Saturday night, which we spent in Blackpool, ready to set up for Sunday’s show at the Opera House, that I should have spotted another threat to the ongoing equilibrium of the band. We were staying at the inhospitable Norbreck Castle, whose plaster turrets and crenellations were as flimsy as its aspirations to grandeur, but although we were residents, we weren’t allowed to eat in the hotel’s restaurant, because we didn’t have ties, and it was only on the say-so of a benevolent receptionist that we were grudgingly accommodated in the less pretentious Cabaret Grill, which was where, halfway through our meal, we were joined by Ronnie Lane, his partner Kate, and their baby son Luke. Unlike the rest of the band, who were commuting to each gig from London in a private plane, Ronnie was driving from town to town with an AA road map and his Land Rover.

“If you’re going to be on the road, you might as well be on the road,” he told me later, “and if you want to live at home, you might as well live at home, because if you don’t totally accept that you’re on the road and that’s it, that’s your lot, private jets back to London for a few hours a day ain’t going to make it home. You’re living a split, and you ain’t going to get any benefit out of it at all. What’s wrong with life on the road? There’s nothing wrong with it if you make it a life on the road. You say, ‘I won’t take the motorway here, I’ll take the B-road, because it goes through this country and that village, and I’d like to see this and I’d like to see that.’ You might as well enjoy it. I can’t understand this rushing there and rushing back business. I ain’t going to rush anywhere, not unless I absolutely have to.”

True to his word, he would do his best not to rush on the Faces’ next American tour in the spring of 1973, renting a Winnebago camper whenever time and distance allowed. Even so, somewhere between Minneapolis and New York an unarguable truth hit him: this wasn’t why he’d learned to play guitar, not this uninspiring, sapping routine of travel, gig, hotel, no. The equally inescapable consequence was that he would have to leave the group.

Once he had started thinking that way, it wasn’t hard to come up with other reasons for not staying in the Faces. He was in no doubt that Rod held back his best songs, as he had most recently with ‘True Blue’, for his own records. He would not turn a blind eye to the looming shadow of Rod’s solo success, which he recognized as a threat, not just to the longevity, but to the very entity of the Faces. He couldn’t ignore the slow, but unstoppable spread of separate billing on posters – Rod Stewart and the Faces – by promoters bothered more by the prospect of missing a single potential ticket sale than bruising musicians’ egos. And he felt gagged as a singer, especially on stage, where his vocal role was reduced to backing harmonies and the opening verse of ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ – “and not in my key either, you can guess whose key it was in.” He was also frustrated by the slow progress of the Faces’ follow-up to A Nod’s As Good As A Wink, especially Rod’s infrequent attendance at sessions and unhelpful appraisal of tracks necessarily recorded in his absence, and, when Ooh La La was eventually released, he was disappointed by its critical reception, and appalled by Rod’s deliberate, disloyal distancing of himself from the record.

On 12th May 1973, as the Faces were waiting to go on stage at the Civic Centre in Roanoke, West Virginia, Ronnie said the words that had been used countless times by different members of the band, but until now only in fun, parodying a pop star’s foot-stamping tantrum at a trivial setback, like a lukewarm cup of tea or a brandy-and-coke with no ice: “I’m leaving the group!” He left no one in doubt that he meant it. December’s high jinks were a distant memory and when, during the set, he spat an obscenity at Mac, the keyboard player caught him with a vicious kick, leaving 10,000 West Virginians wondering whether it was part of the act. There was one more US date, four nights to fulfill in London, then Ronnie Lane was gone.

Was Kate Lambert the Faces’ Yoko Ono? Clearly she was the one who had Ronnie’s ear, and he did leave the group, but that’s too crude a connection. At that restaurant table in Blackpool, the most obvious sign of her influence was the way he dressed, more like a poacher than a pop star.

John Peel turned up at the Opera House, his second appearance already on the tour. The Faces fan had previously attended the Newcastle show, arriving early enough to join the crew in a Chinese restaurant round the corner from the City Hall. He sipped a light ale while the roadies ate, but, back at the venue, his chronic shyness got the better of him and he spent the hours that remained until show time hiding in a lavatory cubicle.

Newcastle was also notable for the number of apparently jobless young men hanging around the back of the City Hall, offering to lend a hand. Most left when it became clear that carrying stage cases wouldn’t earn them a private audience with Rod Stewart, but one who stayed couldn’t stop telling us how he was going to be a star himself. A record company was interested in his songs and any day he would be on a train to London to sign a contract. It would be serendipitous to reveal that the would-be pop star was a milkman’s son called Gordon, who wore a striped black-and-yellow jumper. But this wasn’t Sting and, though I kept an eye out for the young man’s face, I never did see his photo on a record sleeve or in the music press. That deluded hope, doubtless recited to Led Zeppelin’s crew a week before, must have been what got him through the day.

The second week of the tour included three London dates, the first at what was now the Brixton Academy, the other two at the Edmonton Sundown. Their décor identified both venues as twins of the more famous Rainbow Theatre, but, with their stalls stripped of seats, they were infinitely preferable places for a party. Especially a party with no limit on the numbers. Watching the crush that started in front of the stage, but soon spread to every corner, I wondered if anyone was counting those coming in, concluding that they couldn’t be, because at Brixton the capacity must have been exceeded several times over. Even the seated balcony looked over-full and anything but sedate, its parapet bouncing like a trampoline under the fans’ pounding feet, and that was before the band came on. Downstairs, meanwhile, conditions looked manifestly dangerous.

It didn’t help that the Faces were late, or that the wait sent the temperature soaring from tropical to uninhabitable rain forest, but during the show I must have pulled more than thirty girls, giddy or on the point of passing out, from the crowd and carried them to the relative cool of the stage side. It wasn’t easy, because they weren’t all size zero and bodies were squeezed so tight it was like drawing a cork from a bottle. To make my job harder, Rod insisted that under no circumstances was I to put myself between him and his audience, so some girl would be screaming at me that her friend had fainted, while I watched helplessly as the floppy corpse starting to sink into the sea of bodies, counting down the choruses until Ron Wood took his solo and I could mobilise myself.

Barely given time to get their breath back, they were offered a choice: out through the stage door, where there was unlimited fresh air, but no re-admission, or back into the crush beside the stage. Not one of them picked the first option. Waiting to re-enter the arena for the encore, casually balancing a vinyl ‘Cindy’ football on his red Anello & Davide pump, Rod grumbled that I’d been conned.

“They’re just faking it to get backstage.”

I indicated the obvious: that there were no girls backstage, not in the area I looked after, anyway.

“Didn’t do them much good then, did it?”

After the second night in Edmonton, a kick-about with one of the promotional plastic footballs turned into a full-blooded match, for which the carpeted expanse of stalls was almost ideal, only the slope towards the stage giving it the tilt of a Cup giant-killers’ ground, although, by playing from side to side, across the auditorium, the gradient advantaged neither side. It was easy to pick out Rod’s mates, because they knew how to play, but otherwise it was like a pick-up game in a primary school playground, with a mob myopically pursuing the ball and most players wanting to be in Rod’s team. I was happy to pick myself against him and trade occasional nods of acknowledgement at passes successfully struck to a player in space or two-footed tackles avoided. I played in a tough Sunday morning league, so I could handle being hacked, but even so I ended up with more bruises and grazed skin that I ever collected on Hackney Marshes.

All too soon we were in Manchester for the last night of the tour. It was a Saturday, and I knew Rod had been to watch United. I also knew the result, so I was surprised to find him irrepressibly chirpy, considering Leeds had equalised moments before the final whistle. On the way to the stage he spiked me with an elbow.

“Guess what I saw this afternoon?”

I shrugged. He grinned.

“Denis Law’s knob.”

Fast-forward to 1975. Discovering I was in LA, Rod invited me to turn out for his Coldwater Canyon Casuals one Saturday afternoon. I climbed out of my car at his house in Bel Air, carrying the trainers I’d bought that morning, but he greeted me with a frown.

“Where’s your kit?”

“I thought this was a proper match. I assumed it would be supplied.”

“Shirts, not shorts or socks.”

“I’m hardly going to find a sports shop round here.”

“Well, you’re not playing for my team in jeans.”

“I’ll watch.”

“Fuck off, you’re playing. I’ll see what I can find.”

Rod returned with socks and a pair of shorts.

“Here, these are too big for me.”

They might have been too big for his scrawny hips, but they were more than snug on mine. It was like pulling on a corset. I got into them, but anything more vigorous than short – and, as I was instantly aware, unintentionally mincing – steps threatened not just the seams, but the fabric stretched taught across my buttocks. I sensed these would not be my finest ninety minutes, and I was right. I hadn’t performed so tentatively since reluctantly making up the numbers for an important cup-tie in the disconcerting grip of gastroenteritis. I was little more than an observer. Apart from Rod, who would have shone at any level of amateur football, the outstanding player was the Average White Band’s Hamish Stewart, tall, well-built, athletic, a handful for the opposition defence.

After the match Rod drove me back to his place to collect my car. Mick Jagger’s brother Chris, a spectator at the match, had squeezed into the back seat of Rod’s Excalibur, an American millionaire’s cock-eyed vision of a pre-war European sports car and a rich man’s toy if ever there was one, as ostentatious as it was impractical. Rod seemed to like the looks he got driving it, though. Outside his house, he took me aside.

“Make sure you take him with you.”

I asked Chris where I could drop him.

“Where are you headed?”

“The Ramada Inn on Sunset, then the Troubadour to see Maria Muldaur.”

“That’ll do me.”

“How d’you mean?”

“I’ll tag along with you. They know me at the Troubadour.”

When I went to shower, he was channel-hopping, the remote control pointed at the TV like a pistol, but by the time I re-emerged from the bathroom, he was ordering a meal on room service. He’d picked up my key to read out the room number, but if he was embarrassed at being caught out, he hid it well. He cupped his hand over the phone.

“D’you want anything?”

I only ever played once in London with Rod, in Highgate, not far from where he’d been brought up. It was meant to be a friendly, but you could tell what the opposition were thinking as we lined up for kick-off. I recognised several players from Sunday morning football, in particular two brothers who took no prisoners. Watching Rod skip round and over tackles and, when he did get whacked, jump straight up and get stuck in again, I had to admire his bravery, as well as his skill. He didn’t shelter in the safety of celebrity games, where who you were counted for more than how good you were, and the unspoken motto was “I won’t kick you, if you don’t kick me.” He played with his non-showbiz mates, exposing himself not only to the routine violence of metropolitan football, where former apprentices and failed professionals you’ve dared to dribble the ball past gob at your feet and tell you deadpan, “Do that again, and I’ll break your fucking leg,” but also to the special treatment reserved for those with anything to envy, and when it came to being flash, Rod ticked every box: fame, money, and all that went with them. He must have come up against opponents who figured he deserved a kicking for no other reason than his poster was on their girlfriend’s wall. But he didn’t hide, he took them on, earned their respect, and accepted their eager handshake at the end of the game.

It was after that match, in The Wrestlers pub on North Road, that he asked me where I’d bought my boots. A sports shop in Battersea, I told him.

“I need a new pair.”

He’d told me he was renting a flat in the West End. “What’s wrong with Lillywhite’s?”

“No, I’d rather get them in a proper shop. I’ll pop down to your place. Tell you what, name a pub and I’ll pick you up there.” I wrote directions to The Plough on the back of a beer mat. We picked a date and a time, two in the afternoon.

Rod was late, as I had expected him to be, and it was almost closing time when he turned up. Having been kept waiting and, as a consequence, having downed more pints than I’d meant to, I was all for going, especially since those three o’clock stragglers who weren’t gawping at Rod were peering through the gaps in the etched front window at the chauffered Rolls Royce outside. But Rod insisted on a quick one, so it was well after three when we got to the shop. After my embarrassment in the pub, I was pleased that we had the place to ourselves, but disappointed when, after trying on several styles in different sizes, Rod couldn’t find what he wanted. But it wasn’t an entirely wasted visit, because he ordered a pair. The manager filled out a slip, but clearly felt uncomfortable having to ask Rod Stewart for a deposit.

“That’s all right, mate, I’ll pay upfront.” Rod pulled out his wallet and made a show of looking inside. “Change a hundred dollar bill?”

The manager answered with an old-fashioned look, then checked his watch. “You’ve missed the bank too.”

Rod turned to me. I reached for my pocket.

It would offset the unavoidably mythical nature of this tale to report that a cheque dropped through my letterbox first post the following day. But it didn’t. I collected Rod’s boots a week or so later and, the next time I was in the West End, took them to a mansion block near Regent’s Park. The concierge said he thought he’d seen Mr Stewart go out, but phoned the apartment anyway, without response, so I left the parcel at the desk. I had to wait for my money until the next time Rod toured the UK.

* * *

I don’t recall exactly when Pete Buckland owned up about The Plan, but it must have been at a point in the tour when I’d been accepted into the Faces family. This plan, by then aborted, had been hatched the moment Mike Gill had phoned Pete to say a New Musical Express journalist wanted to join the road crew for their UK tour. The Faces had had a fractious relationship with the UK music press, who, like the British public, had been slower to embrace the band’s brash showmanship than their American counterparts, and here was an opportunity to get their own back. This hack would be worked just as hard as anyone in the crew, and he couldn’t grumble, because that’s what he’d volunteered for. And being more used to pushing a pen than humping gear, he’d be a physical wreck by the end of the first load-in and on his way back to London with no story, certainly not one he wouldn’t be embarrassed to see his byline above.

It was as if the band had anticipated the abrasive review of their live Coast To Coast/Overture And Beginners album that Charles Shaar Murray would write for the NME thirteen months later, and resolved to get their retaliation in first. But the plan hadn’t worked. They’d picked the wrong guy or, rather, the wrong guy had picked them. I’d handled whatever they’d thrown at me, even – and I was now more convinced than ever that it hadn’t been an accident – a PA cabinet. However they had tested me, I’d passed. I’d drunk as much as anyone, done as many drugs, chatted up more girls.

What surprised me was that I hadn’t been aware that anything unusual had been going on, having quickly got over the laughter in Gaff Management’s reception and dismissed Mike Gill’s warning as spinsterly advice. Even Pete and Chuch’s first night intrusion had seemed no more than what anyone ought to expect to happen on the road. Just as surprisingly, I didn’t notice any difference to the way I was treated, once I had been accepted and the plan abandoned. If I hadn’t felt hard done-by before, I didn’t sense any soft-pedalling now, but I felt good about myself, because the roadying, which I’d viewed as a means to an end, an opportunity to collect material for an unusual story, had been a real job, and I’d done it.

That final night – December 23rd – was a fitting end to the tour. Roared on at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall by a full-house as ecstatic as Old Trafford’s Stretford End must have been when United had taken the lead that afternoon, the Faces pulled off their finest performance. At the end Rod gestured thanks, and reminded the crowd, “Manchester, you’ve never let us down.” Us. Twelve months later, he would drum a fist against his heart and repeat, “My people, my people.”

It was when the house lights blazed after the final encore that it struck me this was the end, not that there was time for sentiment or reflection with the last load-out to be done double-quick, if we were going to catch the band in their hotel suite for a farewell drink. As it was, when we got there, most of the bottles were empty and the Faces were ready to leave, and there was only time for Rod to lead one arm-in-arm, knees-up chorus of ‘Auld Land Syne’ before the goodbye hugs.

Back in London, writing up my piece, I found myself missing life on the road and questioning who I would see again, and when. Sooner than expected was the second answer, because I had a call from Pete in the first week of January, asking if I’d like to help out on a gig instigated by Pete Townshend to pull Eric Clapton out of his reclusive heroin addiction: rehearsals at Ron Wood’s house in Richmond, then Guildford Civic Hall, and the concert itself at the Rainbow Theatre on January 13th.

Clapton had been a hero of mine since the Yardbirds, so naturally I said yes, and wound up acting as assistant to LMS recording engineer Ron Nevison. The letters LMS stood for Lane Mobile Studio, and we towed the silver Airstream caravan from Richmond to Finsbury Park with the Land Rover Ronnie had favoured over nightly flights on the Faces tour.

In March, the Faces and the Who headlined a made-for-TV music festival in a massive indoor sports arena in Den Haag, Holland, and I was back on the crew for a weekend notable for a prodigious intake of amyl nitrite and amphetamine sulphate, the Eagles’ first appearance outside America, and, after we’d climbed the rigging to man the spotlights when the Dutch technicians insisted on taking a break just as Rory Gallagher was about to go on, a fat cash bonus from the promoter that made it the most lucrative day’s work I’d ever done.

For the Faces’ end-of-year UK tour though, the crew was fully manned. I sat at my desk in Clapham, tapping typewriter keys and counting the days until Christmas Eve’s closing show at the Edmonton Sundown. It was the 12th when Pete called to ask what was I up to? Winding down to Christmas, I told him. Why? One of the crew had got into a fight with a steward in Manchester and been beaten so badly, he was in hospital. There were three days off before the last seven dates. Could I fly up to Glasgow and join them there? I delayed my answer just long enough to make him think there were alternatives to weigh up.

The Faces weren’t the same with Tetsu Yamauchi on bass. With Ronnie Lane’s departure, the gentle working class ballads that were the yin to Stewart and Wood’s boisterous yang had gone too. The Faces would carry on for two more years, but when Rod, spurred by Ron Wood’s dalliance with the Stones, announced his inevitable exit, he was able to excuse himself by lamenting that when Ronnie Lane left, the heart went out of the Faces. By then, the ‘them and us’ that had once defined a disobliging outside world and a misappreciated band now signified those musicians and their allies in the crew who spent their off-stage time hell-bent on heavy drug use and those who didn’t. The band was too addled, too divided, too terminally sick to continue, but none of those things meant that this wasn’t true: that for a couple of years at least the Faces were the best rock and roll band in the world.

By then Mac and I were not only pals, but songwriting partners. A song we wrote together was covered by one of the Beatles. Okay, so it was Ringo, but a Beatle’s a Beatle. My biggest thrill, though, came with a song that was never released.

‘Good Idea At The Time’ was one of several songs tendered by Mac when, in 1976, he, Steve Marriott and Kenney Jones reunited as the Small Faces, with Rick Wills in for Ronnie Lane on bass. Along with several more of our songs, ‘Good Idea At The Time’ got recorded and, although Mac took the lead vocal, Steve’s voice, as unmistakably his as it had been on ‘Watcha Gonna Do About It’ in 1965, came in for the chorus, as clearly as if he’d elbowed Mac away from the mic: ‘Didn’t think about it/Never stopped to doubt it/It just seemed like a good idea at the time.’

* * *

What did I learn on the road? That, for a sixteen-hour day, a roadie’s pay was pitiful. That sleep was scarce, and regular meals and a balanced diet unimaginable. That much of the work was heavy, some of it even dangerous. That roadies were – and doubtless still are – driven by an unwavering devotion to the band they work for and a justifiable pride in their ability to construct, in a day and often against long odds, the most favourable circumstances in which their employers can perform, then to dismantle that habitat and recreate it somewhere else the following day. That the best of them are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of most: driver, engineer, electrician, labourer, bodyguard, servant, jester. That they look forward to the first gig of a tour, long for the last, then wish they were back on the road again.

The Faces treated their close-knit crew well. Pete, Chuch and Russ were more than workers, they were companions. When the band split, so did the crew. Pete helped Rod hand-pick a new backing band and went on the road with him; Russ had followed Ronnie Lane in 1973, his voice a fount of reason sometimes drowned by the babble of dreams; Chuch, Ron Wood’s right hand, went to work for the Rolling Stones, and was still working for them when a heart attack killed him in 2002 at the age of fifty-four.

What I found in the Faces was family: a family that was, unlike my real family, demonstrably loving, loyal, supportive, tactile, truthful with one another and, above all, fun to be with, lots of fun. I took to them at once. By the tour’s end, Pete Buckland felt more like a brother than my real brother ever did. Mac became my brother too. And brothers are what we’ll always be.

Bound by these new ties, I rethought much of what I knew, conscious of the irony that, although I was the one who’d been to university, I was learning more from them than they would ever learn from me. Unsurprisingly, one of the things I learned from them was: education was overrated. Like other musicians I admire, they could have breezed into university, had they not previously been let down by a post-war school system that noted – and vigorously punished – the disruptive influence, but failed to spot the bright spark. It was education’s loss though, not theirs.

The Faces gave me the confidence to go my own way, and the self-belief to get to where that would take me. I learned to laugh at adversity, to celebrate success, to show those you love that you love them. I adopted the group’s catchphrase of “Fuck the gig” and found it worked in other contexts, not least “Fuck the bank.” Because the only thing that really counted was not to fuck your family, not to fuck your friends. For pointing out which, I thank them.