Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Sutherlands, shakin’ ’em with the Rock Liberace

Tuesday, 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

Monday, 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)

Oh Boy!

Monday, 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

Monday, 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

Monday, 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

Monday, 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.

Interviewing Michael Jackson

Monday, November 1st, 2010

It’s January 1980, and I’m in California to collect interviews for a music documentary series which Capital Radio has commissioned me to write. Makin’ Waves – in the middle of what kind of night did I wake with that title in my head? – will cover the decade that’s just ended: from the break-up of the Beatles to synthpop and 2-Tone, via prog-rock, heavy metal, reggae, punk, disco, and, somewhere among its dozen hour-long episodes, the laid-back West Coast rock whose metropolis is the sun-kissed sprawl of Los Angeles. Having made trips like this before, for Radio 1, I know what to expect: fewer interviews than I’m hoping for and, undoubtedly, not as many big names as Capital is counting on. But the brief I’ve set myself is so broad that I’m ready to interview almost any of the active artists on every record company’s roster.

*  *  *

My outbound ticket had been London-Los Angeles, but I would be flying home from New York, and had a five-leg Travel America pass to get me from coast to coast, so, in theory, I would be able to visit most of America’s music centres. Neither time nor money was on my side, however, since the series was scheduled to start in March, and the budget benchmark for an hour’s airtime on commercial radio was always the cost of a presenter with a pile of records. I had pleaded my case to earn more than a rookie DJ on the graveyard shift, but I knew the only way I could extend a tight interviewing itinerary would be by a) eating into scripting time, b) working the extra days for nothing, and c) skimping on my expenses. In LA, where I planned to spend the best part of a fortnight, I was lucky. Rather than fork out for a hotel, I was able to stay with friends, my pal Ian McLagan, his wife Kim and her daughter Mandy having moved there in 1978.

I had a tape recorder, blank tapes, and an address book bristling with out-of-date phone numbers. What I didn’t have was a single appointment. In an era impatient for the arrival of e-mail or even the inefficient fax machine, spewing reams of made-to-fade thermal paper from wrong numbers onto the office carpet whenever you were out, the response to every phone call made before leaving London was, “Call just as soon as you hit town, John.”

So I’d spent my first days in LA making those calls, reciting names from my wish list, then waiting for the phone to ring. Where I waited – a house built artfully into a cliff, its supporting piles buried in the sand of Malibu beach – might sound idyllic; indeed it was idyllic, especially when compared to the room at the Ramada Inn on Sunset where I’d twiddled my thumbs on a previous trip, but I was nonetheless housebound. It took an indignant inquiry from Kim whether I didn’t think her capable of taking and passing on messages even to get me dipping a toe in the Pacific surf, still within shouting range, should a record company call.

During my vigil I practised operating the reel-to-reel Uher recorder. I looped ¼” tape, plugged in the microphone, watched the needles respond to my voice, then listened back to make sure the level I’d selected was suitable. I timed myself swapping spools, removing a full one from the right-hand spindle, replacing it with the empty reel from the left, and loading and lacing a new reel. This drill became as slick as a Ferrari pit-stop, but there was a point to it, beyond killing time. Each five-inch reel lasted twenty minutes, and I’d rarely talked to anyone for less. Sod’s law promised that the reel would run out while an ear-catching point, perhaps the interview’s only one, was being made, so the faster I could execute the change-over, the less chance that the golden train of thought would become uncoupled.

I left Kim in charge of the phone again while I shopped for groceries. Outside the supermarket I spotted Martin Sheen, handsome and beaming, in an open Jeep. From the kitchen window of the house on the beach, I’d already seen a bearded old man shuffling around next door, his age an illusion created by the cancer which would kill forty-nine-year-old Steve McQueen before the year’s end.

Each day the sun came up and began its slow slide across a sky unblemished by clouds. Kim took Mandy to school, then went back to bed to watch the morning soaps on TV. I made more phone calls, waited for more replies. Eventually the sun had teased me enough and ducked quickly behind a garish horizon. Time to admit office hours were over. My Alamo car had clocked up another day’s rent, but no meaningful mileage. Tomorrow it would be even more vital not to leave the phone in case I missed the call that told me Don Henley or David Crosby or Jackson Browne had okayed my interview request and expected me within the hour it would take me to drive in from North Malibu.

The wait seemed interminable, but it was only the third day when a call came from the Warner Records promotion office in Burbank. Bad news first: neither The Eagles nor Fleetwood Mac were talking – “not even to each other!” This leavening humour was lost on me, not least because Hotel California and Rumours had been the biggest albums of the decade. I held my breath for the good news.

There had been a provisional – and unexpected by me – yes from Van Morrison, whose 1973 concert at the Rainbow remained, notwithstanding all that had happened since, one of the musical highpoints of the decade. It would mean a trip to San Francisco, but I’d also put out feelers for Carlos Santana, who lived up there. Interviewing both would make the trip worthwhile, and the 400-mile flight would be cheap enough, I knew, to fund from my per diem, rather than squandering coupons that could get me to Memphis, Nashville or New Orleans. Despite my tight schedule, would I be willing to fly up there? You bet.

Alice Cooper had also said yes, so had Emmylou Harris, but Prince, whom I’d earmarked for the closing ‘Into The Eighties’ crystal ball episode on the emphatic evidence of his first single, ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’, had turned me down. I didn’t hide my disappointment.

“Did you explain what the interview was for?” I whined. “He’ll be singled out as someone to watch out for in the 1980s. On the most listened to music radio station in the UK,” I added, lying.

“Of course I did, John.” Like we were old friends, who both knew better than Prince. “It’s just that he’d rather let his music talk for itself.” Miffed as I was to be knocked back by a newcomer, I grudgingly admired the upstart’s attitude.

As if to compensate for the lack of Eagles or Fleetwood Mac members, more calls came in, more interviews were confirmed: recording artists, record producers, music industry movers and shakers. The remaining days of my limited stay would be busy. The handwriting in my diary shrank as I crammed in names, times and addresses, more often than not the home of the interviewee, because Mark Chapman was still eleven months away from murdering John Lennon and, besides, the word was that I was from the BBC, a misunderstanding that prompted no disabuse from me.

So, with three interviews lined up, I set off at 9.30 the next morning with my Uher and microphone, an optimistic dozen reels of tape, more questions than I needed to ask, and a well-thumbed Thomas Guide, the Los Angeles street bible. If three interviews sounds a less than arduous schedule, I’d already calculated, with Thomas’ help, that I would have clock up well over 100 miles by the time I returned to Malibu.

Poking the button on the car radio as I waited for a gap in the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, I caught Cliff Richard halfway through ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’. I had never expected to hear a Cliff Richard hit on American radio, but ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’ was in the Top 10 and, what’s more, sounded as if it belonged there. Although I owned none of his records and my interest in his music had not outlived Oh Boy!, the audacious TV show that had ended more than twenty years before, I was genuinely delighted for him, imagining how proud he must feel to finally be a success in the country whose music had provided his original inspiration. (It was only when I was back in London, my Billboard Hot 100 book open on my desk, that I realised that he had had a US Top 10 hit with ‘Devil Woman’ as recently as 1976.)

My first interview was in Hollywood. If I hadn’t known already, I would have been in no doubt when I arrived, because Alice Cooper’s eyrie nestled below the famous HOLLYWOOD sign, whose renovation the singer had helped to fund. He greeted me himself – not a flunkey in sight – and, before leading me from the main building to the pool house, where he thought the interview would work best, showed me part of his autograph collection, each signature on a themed mount: Marilyn Monroe’s cushioned on red satin, supposedly snipped from the dress she wore in The Seven Year Itch; Bela Lugosi’s in a frame fashioned like a coffin, an appropriately ghoulish touch, not least because Alice himself looked ready for a role in a horror movie. His wizened appearance at the door had shocked me. A ponytail pulled taut enough to perform a facelift could not uncrimp the folds in his sagging skin, but it was his stooping posture that surprised me most. It could have been Igor leading me through the house.

But Alice answered my questions animatedly and entertainingly, explaining that it was the Pretty Things that had got him started, rather than the Beatles; that he regarded Kiss’s appropriation of his make-up and theatrics as a compliment; likened his stage shows to, successively, The Exorcist, a Salvador Dali painting, and the ‘Springtime For Hitler’ sequence in The Producers; insisted that the sanatorium where he was treated for alcohol abuse had been a writer’s dream; owned up to hating disco – he was not alone; Chic concerts had recently been disrupted by protesters waving ‘DISCO SUCKS’ placards – and had no time for politics, an aversion that had not blunted his enthusiasm for the unwitting comedy of the Jeremy Thorpe conspiracy trial, which had him giggling again six months after the disgraced Liberal leader’s unlikely acquittal. Alice’s ambition for the eighties? As ever, to make audiences’ ears bleed.

Norman Whitfield was late for our appointment at his Whitfield Records offices in the San Fernando Valley, north of the Hollywood Hills, and he kept me waiting longer while he met with the members of Rose Royce in a room separated from the waiting area by walls too thin to mute the boom of his big voice. Gwen Dickey, who had sung lead on ‘Car Wash’, ‘Wishing On A Star’ and ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’, had quit the group to go solo, and I could hear her marooned musicians pleading with Whitfield for a chance to show they could get along just as well without her. Evidently unimpressed by their arguments, he dumped them from his label, while I listened. As they exited past me, shoulders slumped, heading for obscurity, I was careful to avoid their eyes.

Four years previously, I had been kept waiting for another interview, in the lobby of All-Platinum Records in New York. I was preparing a documentary for Radio 1 on Women In Rock, which Marianne Faithful would voice with her leg in plaster from a sketchily explained fall, while her boyfriend shot up in a Broadcasting House basement loo. I wanted to ask Sylvia Robinson, a hit-maker as long ago as 1957 with Mickey & Sylvia’s ‘Love Is Strange’ and a solo million-seller in 1973 with ‘Pillow Talk’, what had made her want to run a record company.

While I waited, I overheard a planning meeting. I couldn’t miss it, these three hip black dudes sitting a few feet from me, getting boisterously excited about a new signing, a sixties R&B diva who was overdue a come-back. From what I picked up, All-Platinum was going to be her ticket back to the big time. Punctuated by laughter and the slap of high and low fives, it was nonetheless a predictable conversation about sourcing material and selecting musicians to play with her, and, as such, occupied only the periphery of my concentration as I scanned and re-scanned my notes, until I became aware that this apparently up-beat discussion masked a plot to scupper the woman’s career before she’d had a chance to revive it.

I felt myself redden with outrage as I heard what they had in mind. They would come up with names of musicians, bass players, for instance, and when they’d all agreed on one, they’d go through the laughing and hand-slapping routine, then one of them would let slip the truth.

“He’s bad.”

Next it would be guitarists, same thing, they’d pick the ‘baddest’, and so it went on, until they’d come up with a backing band composed, without exception, of the worst musicians around. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Their scheme still had me seething as, a tad distracted, I interviewed Ms Robinson. I would have let her in on it, since it was her money the saboteurs would be spending, but since these people were her representatives, I couldn’t be certain that she wasn’t in on the plot. Music was a tough business, and Ms Robinson had been in too long not to have made enemies. Perhaps she was getting her own back on an old rival. So I suppressed my anger and politely, professionally, conducted my interview.

Determined not to let the incident go unreported, the next morning I called Nelson George, a Billboard journalist I was counting on to provide me with an overview of black music in the 1970s. Now I had a trade to offer him: in exchange for an unpaid interview for my series, I would tip him off about the All Platinum scam. I listened to his laughter, wondering if the whole world apart from me was part of this plot, then turned red again as he set me straight. How was I to know? This was 1976, after all, and, where I came from, bad meant bad. Not the best.

Having sacked his act, Norman Whitfield sent out for a sandwich, and joined me on a vinyl sofa that squealed in painful protest each time he shifted his enormous frame. The sandwich still unfinished, he proposed in a tone that precluded any outcome except unquestioning assent that I should start the interview, so some of his early answers were unbroadcastably indistinct. Muffled in a mouthful of chicken and mayonnaise on wholewheat, the old Motown motto “Competition breeds champions” lost much of its gladiatorial ring, notwithstanding the speaker giving me the hard eye, just in case he had left any room for doubting the validity of this belief.

Whitfield’s favourite words were innovator, innovative and innovation, each of which, with rare exceptions, he applied exclusively to himself. At Motown, where he had been a writer, arranger and producer from the company’s early days in Detroit, you had to be an innovator to reap the rewards; his had been a plentiful harvest. ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ had been an innovative mix of soul and psychedelia with lyrics drawn from his own life experiences; it had taken his unique talent to express them so persuasively. The syn-drums he had recently plonked into the production of ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ were proof that he still had the power to innovate, although, to my ears, the most obvious impact of the electronic percussion had been to burden an otherwise soulful ballad with studio gimmickry that made the record unlistenable after half a dozen hearings. Not that I shared this view with Norman.

En route back to Hollywood, I pulled over by a telephone booth on Ventura Boulevard. Kim sounded agitated when she answered, but only because a publicist had left a message that if I couldn’t call her back before three, not to bother. It was 2.45. I had enough coins to make the call, but not enough to then call Kim to warn her that I would be late.

Emmylou Harris lived off one of the canyons above Sunset in a mature, elegantly decorous cottage which smelled of cedar. Our interview was one of those tricky tête-à-têtes where the interviewee has been led to believe that the conversation will only cover topics pertinent to her current career, but the interviewer wants something more. Emmylou was gracious, patient and compellingly beautiful, which made my task trickier, but I needed an authoritative voice to talk about country rock, a fusion blueprinted by Gram Parsons in 1968 with the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo and whose now vilified apotheosis had arrived in the mid-seventies with the multi-million selling, but presently mute Eagles.

Politely, but firmly, Emmylou pointed out that she had only sung back-up on two of Gram’s albums, GP and Grievous Angel, that she hadn’t spent a great deal of time with him in Los Angeles, because she had been living in New York at the time and had a baby, that it was more than six years since his death, and, what’s more, like him she vehemently opposed the juxtaposition of the words ‘country’ and ‘rock’. So we talked about her own work with the Hot Band and the role of women in country music. It was good stuff, but it wasn’t really what I was after.

On another occasion, when the Eagles were talking and I had boned up for an interview with Don Henley, I would find myself, wide-eyed and momentarily speechless with surprise, in a room with Don Felder, who had a solo album to plug and no interest in discussing whatever bands he might once have been in. I had to inveigle him into giving me what I wanted by saying things like, “Making your own album must have been s-o-o-o much more rewarding than recording with the Eagles, who, as I understand it, weren’t always a whole lot of fun to work with,” prompting him to spend several minutes telling me he was not going to knock the Eagles because really they were just the greatest bunch of guys creatively you could ever choose to be with in a studio, blah, blah, blah, until his eyes narrowed and he refocused on the theme for the day. I would enjoy getting one over on the wrong Don, but I left Emmylou’s house embarrassed by my intent.

Instead of heading back to Malibu, I aimed my rental car north over the Hollywood Hills again towards the Valley. I would need to check the precise location in my Thomas Guide, but I knew the way to Encino, where my unforeseen – until that afternoon – fourth interview would take place. I had, of course, prepared no questions, but I knew a bar on Ventura, near Coldwater Canyon, called The Tail O’ The Cock, one of those places that was considered old for LA, having been there since the 1940s, when Clark Gable had reputedly knocked back whiskeys at the bar. I parked, locked the Uher in the boot, but took my notepad with me, so I could compose questions with a drink at my elbow. Once I’d written all I could think to ask, I raised the chunky glass, empty now apart from ice, and waved it at a waitress as a signal for a second Tanqueray and tonic, tore the page from the pad, and copied my questions neatly in large letters, so they would be easy to read with a glance.

It was dusk by the time I drove through the unguarded gates of 4641 Hayvenhurst Avenue. An alsation bounded up and bared his teeth, strings of saliva smearing the car window, paws skittering against the door. But barking dogs didn’t bother me, I knew it was when they switched to a growl that you were in trouble. This one barked a lot and bounced about in front of me, but I toughed it out until a woman I recognised as Shirley Brooks appeared under the porch light. Either she was nervous or knew more about the dog than I did, because she stayed where she was, beckoning from the lighted entrance, apparently ready to slam the door on the dog, and me too, no doubt, were it to turn its noisy attention to her. Shirley was a publicist for Epic Records, and we’d met before. As we shook hands, she told me I looked tired.

“Long day,” I explained, “but I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”

Permanently preoccupied throughout the short drive to Encino, in case I’d omitted a crucial question, I had been feeling drained and slightly drunk, but not any more. The dog, as much as anticipation for the interview, had seen to that. I waded through the shaggy ivory carpet, chandeliers twinkling on either side like lights in an elfin grotto, until, just as we were about to enter the next room, Shirley slowed, then stopped me with her arm.

“One thing,” she said, as if it was an insignificance she had overlooked and just remembered, “you don’t mind if his sister sits in on the interview, do you?”

Already aware of a distant figure on a marshmallow sofa, I shook my head readily.

“Of course not, Shirley,” I assured her with a smile. “What’s her name?”


“Janet,” I repeated.

“Oh, and one more thing…”

Shirley paused, to ensure she had my attention. Anticipating another trivial afterthought, I wasn’t ready for the bomb Shirley was about to drop.

“If you could direct your questions to Janet, she’ll put them to Michael.”

My mouth opened and I turned to query this extraordinary request, but the arm that had been barring my way was behind me now, launching me through a double doorway and down several carpeted steps into the presence of he-who-must-not-be-addressed-directly, while I struggled to convert a confused backward glance into a great-to-meet-you grin, and wondered whether I was permitted to say hello face to face or expected to channel my greeting via the kid sister too.

Michael Jackson stood up. I stuck out my hand and so did he. I held his flimsy fingers carefully, fearful that I might hurt him. He was stick thin, with fine skin and hairs that had never seen a razor sprouting feebly here and there on his cheeks and chin. He still had his own nose, brown skin and an afro, as Off The Wall’s cover shot confirms. The voice that welcomed me was tremulous. When I turned to say hullo to Janet, she grinned as if this might all be a game. Michael sat down again, and I perched on a hassock between brother and sister, separated by the glass top of a low table. Shirley Brooks had melted deep into the room, but not, I would have bet the programme budget on it, out of earshot. I un-slung the Uher from my shoulder, set it on the floor beside my seat, plugged in the microphone and fumbled with the controls. Then I leaned across the table, waving the microphone like a metal detector in front of me, unsure where to point it.

I found out later that I wasn’t the only interviewer who had been asked to go along with the wacky ritual of using thirteen-year-old Janet Jackson as a conduit for questions. While it was happening, I was too taken aback – and too concerned that a transgression of this ridiculous rule might bring the interview to an abrupt end –  to ponder Michael’s motives, but I wondered about them afterwards. Could it have been that it was Whitey he didn’t want to be addressed directly by? It didn’t seem likely. Nothing Michael ever said or did suggested he was a racist. Indeed he would publicly berate his father Joe for a provocative comment on the colour of his white managers, adding, “One day I strongly expect every colour to live as one family,” as emphatic an anti-racist statement as the video he made for ‘Beat It’.

Was he acclimatising a treasured sibling, intent herself on musical stardom, to the irritating, but necessary attention of interviewers? Just possibly, but again unlikely. In the end I concluded that what Michael craved wherever and whenever it could be accomplished was the erection of a protective barrier between himself and the rest of the world, symbolised by his habitual wearing of dark glasses – and later, several notches more bizarrely, a mask – in public.

As long as he was the nabob of Neverland, he could justify his reclusion by claiming that owning a theme park and zoo meant never having to leave home. This hermetic lifestyle mirrored that of Elvis Presley, who had his own cinema and a TV room with one of several screens featuring a 24-hour feed from a CCTV camera mounted by the Graceland gates, so he could watch real people to-ing and fro-ing along the boulevard that bore his name. It was a dangerous isolation, which contributed to Elvis’s decline just as surely as the daily Demarol. When I met Michael, even though our verbal communication was indirect, we sat face to face, eye to eye, breathed the same air, pressed flesh on flesh. Our interlocutor apart, he was actually no odder than Norman Whitfield. It’s easy to conclude that what would change him was fame. Granted he had already been famous for ten years, but the eminence that awaited him in the eighties was of an entirely different magnitude.

For a sizeable stretch of the years that separated Muhammad Ali’s retirement from the ring – too many big fights too late – in December 1981 and Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster Prison in February 1990, Michael Jackson must have woken each morning with a giggle. How else to treat being the most famous black man on the planet? He hadn’t achieved that status by thrilling the world with agility and sleight of hand and unprecedented speed allied to reckless bravery, then risking all he had won to assert his belief; nor had he languished in prison for 28 years, hoping to live, but prepared to die for his cherished ideal of a democratic, free and equal South African society. No, during those eight years of world domination the greatest danger Michael Jackson faced was during a shoot for a Pepsi TV commercial, when an exploding firework set light to his hair. But he did make the biggest-selling album of all time, a record whose sales have topped 40 million copies.

True, in achieving this Guinness-Book-Of record, he united black and white record buyers in greater numbers than any other recording artist, and even overcame apartheid of a kind when Thriller and its seven top ten hit singles were played on otherwise lilywhite American radio stations. But Jackson was an exception and, unlike Ali or Mandela, changed no rules.

As his fame spread across the globe, his behaviour became incrementally erratic. He dressed like a foppish despot, pampered himself with the gewgaws of a princeling, raised a drawbridge between himself and the outside world, eventually completing his metamorphosis into a chimp-hugging, fairground-owning, toddler-dangling, pigmentation-denying, cosmetic-surgery-junkie, underage-bed-sharing freak.

Did I miss media-shunning? That was one of the first symptoms of his unravelling. In the whole of 1982, he would grant just one interview, to Rolling Stone, and after that none – not one, just eleven years of total silence – until his vainglorious, self-defeating confessional with Martin Bashir in 2003. But in January 1980, with his Off The Wall album cresting the album charts and its sublime stand-out track, ‘Rock With You’, a No 1 single, he had agreed to be interviewed by me. Was it the weight of this honour that had me clearing my throat several times?

“Yes… so, er, I was going to… I mean, um,” I began, ever the polished professional, looking from one Jackson to the other, unsure whose eyes to settle on, “if we could sort of go back to er… to er, you know, when you got started… er, when the Jackson Five got started… um, I was going to ask Michael how… they… fitted in to the Motown set-up?”

A pause.

“Michael, how did you fit into the Motown set-up?”

Thank you, Janet. Yes, that’s what I was trying to say.

A longer pause.

“Errrrrr…” Michael’s own hesitation was prolonged and curiously musical. If it had cropped up on a vocal track, his new producer Quincy Jones would, I’m sure, have kept it on the record for texture. “We were doing a show at the Regal Theatre in Chicago and it was like a talent show type of thing and we won, and Gladys Knight was there as well as a guy named Bobby Taylor, and they told Motown about us, and Motown was interested in seeing us audition for them…”

The version originally offered for public consumption was that Diana Ross had discovered the Jackson 5, so I was chuffed to hear Gladys Knight given due credit, especially as she was an infinitely superior singer to la Ross and her and the Pips’ ‘Didn’t You Know You’d Have To Cry Some Time?’ was one of my favourite records.

“…So we went to Berry Gordy’s mansion in Detroit – indoor pool – and all the Motown stars were there, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Marvelettes, the Miracles, and we auditioned and they loved it, and Diana Ross came over to us special after the concert we did for them and she kissed us all and said we were marvellous and she said she wanted to play a special part in our career and that’s how it started…”

Berry Gordy’s mansion made a big impression on Michael and his brothers, the indoor pool especially. It was by far the biggest house the Jacksons had ever been invited into. Their own place in Gary, Indiana, was one storey with two bedrooms, one for parents Joe and Katherine, the other for their nine kids. Signing to Motown split the family up, some of the boys moving in with Gordy, the rest with Diana Ross, until Joe bought the house on Hayvenhurst Avenue in 1971.

“…And we did our first single, ‘I Want You Back’, it was gold, as well as ‘ABC’, ‘The Love You Save’, ‘Never Can Say…’, on and on and on.”

A tinkerbell giggle.

“That’s how it started.”

And that’s how the interview continued: me pinging a question to Janet, she ponging it to Michael, he pinging it back to the microphone. I almost got used to the process.

“Motown was supposed to have been one big happy family. Was it still like that when the Jacksons were there?”

“Was Motown like a big family then, Michael?”

“Yes, that’s very true, they were. Everybody worked together. You’d be doing a session and Berry Gordy would just walk in and change things around and nobody would get mad. It was like the way Walt Disney would go from one studio to the other like a bee, you know, and pollen, just go from one place to another, just stimulating people, keeping them on the right track. Berry was wonderful with taking a song and leading it to the right direction, giving it the right flavours to make it a hit. He knew just what it takes and everybody can’t do that. He’s really something.”

That something, I reminded myself silently, was a heavy-handed patriarch who allowed his energy to be diverted by a hubristic desire to make Diana Ross a movie star and himself a Hollywood mogul.

Although no one close to the corporation was going to admit it, especially with my Uher running, Motown had been in trouble from the moment Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers jumped ship in 1968. True, Norman Whitfield still had several masterpieces up his sleeve, notably a trio of chart-topping Temptations singles, whose apogee was the six-minute psychedelic soul symphony of ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’ in 1972, the same year Stevie Wonder came out with Talking Book and a year after Marvin Gaye’s magnificent, troubled What’s Going On. But with Holland-Dozier-Holland went Motown’s bread and butter – though that is altogether too mundane a meal to represent the rich and varied diet of black pop they served up time and time again through the mid-sixties. More than any other in-house team or individual, Smokey Robinson included, it was the records Brian, Eddie and Lamont wrote and produced for the Supremes and the Four Tops that propelled Motown, and with it black music, into pop’s mainstream.

However persuasively Motown’s mouthpieces might insist that the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland had not been lastingly hurtful, it was a fact. Mary Wells, Motown’s first major solo star went, the Supremes lost founder Florence Ballard and became, ominously, Diana Ross and the Supremes, and in spite of their continuing success, Wonder and Gaye, like their counterparts in white rock, were turning their attention to albums rather than singles. The label that Berry Gordy started in 1959 with the money he’d made writing crossover hits for Jackie Wilson had become the most profitable black-owned business in America, but by the end of the 1970s, the decade of my documentary, its boast of being ‘The Sound of Young America’ no longer rang true.

Even while the Temptations were hitting their peak, Motown’s status was under threat, not just as chart leaders, but in the black music marketplace as well. The sound that took its name from the Detroit ‘motor town’ of its birth was losing ground to the sweet soul of another industrial centre, Philadelphia. The Philly sound was smoother, slicker than Motown’s, and it earned a whole slew of hits for the Stylistics, the O’Jays, Motown refugees the Spinners, the Three Degrees, and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. As with Motown, acts and material were often interchangeable. The crucial constants were in the back room: arranger-writer-producers Thom Bell and the hit-making partnership of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Confirmation that the city was hot, if wall-to-wall platinum discs in the Philadelphia International offices weren’t enough, came when David Bowie chose Sigma Sound Studio as the location to record his 1975 Young Americans album. So, when the Jacksons – Berry Gordy having used the law to reinforce Motown’s claim to the Jackson 5 name – moved to CBS in 1976, naturally their new record company put them into a studio with Philly kings Gamble and Huff.

“We came up with some pretty good songs with them – ‘Show You The Way To Go’, which was a big hit, as well as, um…”

Janet had to prompt Michael here, “‘Enjoy Yourself’.”

“‘Enjoy Yourself’ – thank you,” he giggled, as did his sister, but excused himself by adding, “so many songs. And, er, since we’d been in the studio so many years, something just told us that we should start doing our own thing, so we went in and we wrote the Destiny album, and that was double platinum.” The memory of this achievement released another cascade of giggles.

Sales statistics clearly counted with Michael. All he had to say about the wonderful ‘I Want You Back’ was that it went gold. Who else gave a damn how many copies it had sold? What mattered was that it was two minutes and forty seconds of pop-soul heaven. And Destiny? Double platinum. As if that made it better than ‘I Want You Back’, which it wasn’t. Come March 1984 CBS would host a party to celebrate Thriller’s inclusion in the Guinness Book Of Records as the biggest-selling album of all time, prompting Michael to admit that his entry in the book marked the first time in his career that he felt he had accomplished something. But if art were all about sales figures, then surely Vladimir Tretchikoff, painter of the blue-skinned ‘Chinese Girl’, would be revered as the No 1 artist of the 20th Century, rather than Pablo Picasso.

There was room in my head for these thoughts, because I was barely listening to Michael’s answers, which were consistently unilluminating. It quickly became clear that he had little understanding either of the history of black music or of his place in it. In almost every interview there are moments when things are said that allow you to put a tick against a list – there’s my opener, that’s the closing observation, more ticks for key points commented on between – but the second reel was already underway and, as yet, there had been none from Michael. Not a single killer quote. I wondered whether this would be my least revealing interview since quizzing QPR’s twinkle-toed wizard Stan Bowles for Time Out, when the one interesting thing I learned was that he’d skipped training that morning, not because he told me, but because a greasy breakfast plate had only lately been abandoned and half an inch of striped pyjama leg was showing between his jeans and carpet slippers.

Aware that I couldn’t expect insights, I knew nonetheless that I had what I had come for: the voice of Michael Jackson on tape. So I didn’t bother correcting Janet when my question about Destiny – “Apart from its commercial success, since the Jacksons had written and produced the album themselves, were they also pleased creatively with what the record?” – emerged from her mouth as, “D’you think your brothers could’ve done better?” In fact, it was what I should have asked him.

“I certainly did. I’m sure the brothers did too, because I’m never satisfied with anything ’cause I do believe deeply in perfection. I’m still not satisfied with a lot of things, and I like to stay that way, because if you’re satisfied with everything, you’re just going to stay at one level and the world will move ahead.” A thought that had him laughing again. “That’s not good either.”

The Destiny recording was the last time the Jacksons enjoyed Michael’s undivided attention. Even while they were on tour promoting the record, he was flying back to LA, as often as the schedule allowed, to work on tracks for Off The Wall. This was the first record for which he had been allowed to choose his producer, and he had picked Quincy Jones, whom he had got to know two years before during the filming of The Wiz, a Motown-produced remake of The Wizard Of Oz in which Michael played The Scarecrow and Diana Ross an absurdly over-aged Dorothy. Jones had been musical director. The film was a disaster, and ironically, in view of what happened subsequently, Jones made a hash of his brief, which was to inject the score with danceable music.

“I called Quincy up one day, I said, ‘Quincy, I’m ready to do a solo album, I’ve written the songs that I want to do, but I want a real good producer to work with me.’ I said, ‘I’m going to produce it too, but I want somebody to work with me.’ I said, ‘Can you recommend somebody?’ And I wasn’t trying to hint around at all” – Michael laughed at the notion – “I didn’t even think about him, and he said, ‘Smelly’ – he calls me Smelly (the nickname deriving from Michael’s aversion to the word ‘funky’) – he said, ‘Smelly, why don’t you let me do it?’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’”

Michael knew this story by heart. Just a month or so before, in conversation with Stephen Demorest, another interviewer who was asked to channel his questions through Janet, he had told it all but word for word: “Quincy calls me Smelly and he said, ‘Smelly, why don’t you let me do it?’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea.’”

Whatever Michael’s mounting problems, his voice, an instrument of rare beauty and expression, was not one of them. The purity of note, the timbre, was, I suppose, an accident of nature, but in order to express feelings, a singer has to be able to feel, to have felt. Yet Michael’s mollycoddled existence must have isolated him from a multitude of essential feelings. So from where did the experience come that imbued his beautiful voice? My question didn’t quite come out like that, especially after it had been paraphrased by Janet, but Michael got the gist of it.

“There is no real explanation. It’s nothing to do with personal experience. My singing is just – I’ll say it simple as possible – it’s just Godly really. It’s no real personal experience or anything that make it come across, just feeling and God, I’ll say, mainly God.”

Michael was twenty one at the time I talked to him, and he had been a star half his life. Ten years is a longer career than most in music. How did he see the next ten?

“I think secretly and privately, really deep within, there’s a destiny for me. I’ve had strong feelings for films, that something’s directing me in that way for motion pictures, musicals and drama, that whole thing, to choreograph the films as well, even get into writing the pictures and doing the music.”

The closest he has come to realising that destiny was the fourteen-minute werewolf video he created for Thriller, hardly a Hollywood career. He also recorded a narrative E.T. spin-off album, The E.T. Storybook, at Steven Speilberg’s invitation. The package included a poster of Michael with his arm round E.T.’s shoulder, the two most easily identifiable eighties icons side by side. But I didn’t know that at the time, so I couldn’t contradict him. Instead I asked him how he felt about his music being labelled disco.

“I hate labels, because it should be just music. Call it disco, call it anything, it’s music to me, it’s beautiful to the ear, and that’s what counts. It’s like you hear a bird chirping, you don’t say, ‘That’s a bluejay, this one is a crow.’ It’s a beautiful sound, that’s all that counts, and that is a ugly thing about men. They categorise too much, they get a little bit too racial about things, when it should all be together. That’s why you hear us talk about the peacock a lot, because the peacock is the only bird of all the bird family that integrates every colour into one, and that’s our main goal in music, is to integrate every race to one through music, and we’re doing that.”

On the sleeve of the Jacksons’ Triumph album, released later that year, Michael would write, “In all the bird family, the peacock is the only species that integrates all colors into one… We, like the peacock, try to integrate all races into one, through the love and power of music.” Evidently he wanted to try the image out on me before airing it to a wider public. Just as well that I nodded approvingly.

“When you go to our concerts, you see every race out there, and they’re all waving hands and they’re holding hands and they’re smiling. You see the kids out there dancing, as well as the grown-ups and the grandparents, all colours, that’s what’s great” – cue one last nervous giggle – “that’s what keep me going.”

The second reel of tape was about to spool off, so I told Janet that sounded like a good place to end, pressed stop, wound off the rest of the reel and stowed it carefully in the box from which I’d unwrapped it. Michael withdrew from me the moment the interview was over. He remained in the room, but he wasn’t there for me. Shirley Brooks showed me out without offering an explanation for her extraordinary precondition. The alsation had either been locked away or, knowing I was unafraid, couldn’t be arsed to come out and bark. When I keyed the ignition in my car, ‘Rock With You’ came on. I lowered the volume and drove west on Ventura Boulevard, then took Topanga Canyon to the coast, slowing where Topanga crested Mulholland Drive so I could look back at the Valley lights glittering all the way to the horizon.

My thoughts were a mixture of amusement and annoyance at the pantomime I’d allowed myself to take part in and disappointment that I hadn’t learned anything about Michael Jackson or Motown that I didn’t already know. I reminded myself that I hadn’t really expected to, and, as long as my Uher hadn’t let me down, I had his precious voice on tape. I could even hear the bit about the peacock in one of my programmes.

As I skirted the ocean, I turned off the radio and rolled down the passenger window, so I could hear the surf. The flames of a small bonfire burning on Zuma Beach reflected in the wet suits of surfers as skinny and angular as matchstick men. Night had fallen more than an hour ago. Surely they hadn’t been surfing in the dark? It was January, but in Southern California it was endless summer. This was the land mythologised in Brian Wilson’s early Beach Boys songs, and for some that dream was evidently still alive. Meanwhile a different dream, a dark, incursive nightmare, was disrupting the lives of other Californians.