I Was A Faces Roadie (Part 2)

November 1st, 2010

The Faces’ 1972 end-of-year tour opened in Dundee. “Why not Glasgow?” I’d asked Pete, keen for him to know I was aware of Green’s Playhouse, but he explained that the Faces had only played there in June. We travelled up to Scotland the day before the gig, Chuch and Russ, with several hours’ head start, in the equipment truck, the rest of us in a red Volvo estate. As soon as we had checked into our hotel, we went to recce the venue. That night the Caird Hall was host to the Scottish National Orchestra, so the stage was out of bounds, but we were able to explore the access. The only approach to the stage was up a flight of stone stairs. The thought of carrying the contents of a three-ton truck up and down those steps made me feel weak. But that was tomorrow.

Back at the hotel we commandeered a table for an early dinner. Andy, who had been appointed social secretary for the evening, was eyeing the waitresses, evidently wondering which of them he might ask for advice.

“Forget it,” I told him. “It’d be like asking your grandmother to recommend a night out. Unless you fancy the bingo, that is.”

He grilled the least matronly, whose tip was Tiffany’s discotheque, although she couldn’t be persuaded to join us; neither could Russ, the first victim of a flu bug that would work its way through the crew. By nine o’clock we were installed in a booth beside the dance floor, the first round of drinks on its way. A female disc jockey with cropped, blond hair and a permanent smile was playing records for the dance floor’s only occupants, a foursome who were still dressed and drunk from a wedding that must have taken place many hours before. Perhaps the 30p admission was a deterrent, but Tiffany’s midweek Dance Night was not a big draw on the first Wednesday in December.

The foursome’s taste was limited. The women liked Donny Osmond’s ‘Why’ and his brother Little Jimmy’s ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’, the men Lieutenant Pigeon’s ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ and, especially, Chuck Berry’s ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, which was No 1 that week, a source of sadness rather than celebration for anyone aware of Berry’s part in creating rock’n’roll. The women sang along with Little Jimmy, the men with Chuck, their loud laughter suggesting familiarity was no deterrent to enjoying a priapic double entendre. When Andy asked me if Lieutenant Pigeon was a relative, I pointed out patiently that, unlike the bird, my name was spelled with a ‘d’, but that didn’t stop him calling me ‘Lieutenant’ instead of John for the evening, a habit, I was relieved to note, which only caught on with him.

When ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ came on for a second time, I was sent to the DJ’s podium to request an alternative.

“Have you got the O’Jays’ ‘Backstabbers’?”

The DJ must have been pleased to have something different to play, because she flashed me a broad smile and bent to find the record in the rack. When she stood up again, her cheeks were glowing.

“Anything else?”

“‘Family Affair’?”

“I like your taste.”

“Just trying to save us from that mindless ding-a-ling and those obnoxious Osmonds.” I had another thought. “‘Burlesque’?” This had been a hit for Family a few weeks before, a record with a riff as raucous as Roger Chapman’s voice.

“I thought you’d be asking for ‘Angel’.”

“Why’s that?”

“Aren’t you with Rod?”

“We’re with the Faces.”

She shrugged to suggest I was splitting hairs.

“You going?” I asked.

“I haven’t got a ticket.”

I gave her a wink. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“My name’s Lindsey.”

‘Backstabbers’ went down well, so did ‘Family Affair’, but Pete made a face and gave me a look when ‘Burlesque’ came on.

“Come on, Pete, it’s a good record.”

“It’s Family.”


“They’re on our label. The drummer’s wife works in the press office. They get preferential treatment.”

The notion that the Faces were hard done by would manifest itself again, but I noted that, despite his antagonism, Pete couldn’t resist moving to the record. One of the wedding party wasn’t a Family fan either, because he appeared to be taking issue with Lindsey’s latest selection. When she nodded towards our booth, his eyes followed hers. I didn’t want to get into a fight with a drunk Scotsman, and was relieved when he staggered back to his friends. ‘Angel’ came on, reminding me of my promise to Lindsey. I told Pete.

“Bring her back to the hotel, and I’ll see what I can sort out.”

Records gave way to a band called Grass, who played their repertoire of recent hits with the blithe disregard for context and continuity shared by all cover bands, while someone switched coloured lights on and off, occasionally in time with the music, prompting around our table what would have sounded to an eavesdropper like an earnest discussion about the dangers of witnessing visual psychedelics with unprotected eyes. I’d heard a similar response from Pete earlier in the day, when the Moody Blues’ ‘Nights In White Satin’ had come on the car radio. This reminder of the journey had me involuntarily stretching my legs, which had been pinned apart for eight hours by Pete’s driver’s seat, tilted like a deck chair so he could drive straight arm-style.

Led by Pete and Chuch, at the end of each number we stood and applauded extravagantly. The members of Grass, having acknowledged the first few of these outbursts with appreciative nods and waves, came to understand that the clapping, whooping, hollering and stamping had an ironic intent, and took to showing us V-signs instead.

When the records came on again, the wedding drunks had gone, but there were now at least a dozen dancers in their place, most of whom were female, prompting optimistic speculation that girls would be queuing up to accompany us back to the hotel. I couldn’t help wondering whether goosing passers-by and tossing ice cubes underfoot was the right way to advertise your good intentions, but what did I know? They were old hands, and this was my first night out with them. So I was surprised when Pete shook his head and speculated aloud, “Why does this always happen? We always blow it with girls by being too rowdy.” It was as if he was paraphrasing the refrain from the Faces’ ‘Too Bad’: “All we wanted to do was to socialize/Oh you know it’s a shame how we always get the blame.”

By the time Lindsey had packed up and put on her coat, there were only two other girls waiting.

“Is there really a party?” one of them asked nervously as we headed into the night.

I was in my room, talking records with Lindsey, satisfied that having been seen slipping into the lift with her was proof that I’d succeeded where the others hadn’t, when there was a knock at the door. Mike Gill’s warning was nowhere near my thoughts. As soon as I turned the handle, the door was pushed hard against me, forcing me back into the wall, where Chuch held me, his arms muscled knots where I tried to get a grip on them. I heard a snap, like a wishbone dried in the oven, then Pete pushed a wad of damp, sickly smelling tissues under my nose. Was I fighting for breath or did I breathe in hard through both nostrils because I sensed that’s what I was supposed to? Either way, I reeled back and watched, giddy, hot and expecting the back of my head to explode at any moment, as Pete and Chuch stripped the pillows, sheets and blankets from my bed and bundled them out of the window, then ran, giggling, from the room, without a hello or a goodbye or bothering to close the door. Their intrusion had had Lindsey jumping from the bed and backed against the wall, her face a horrified mask. I went to shut the door, just in time to stop Chuch reentering my room with a fire extinguisher. I locked the door and sat on the edge of the bed. I felt Lindsey’s arm across my shoulder.

“They’re your friends?”

When I walked Lindsey to her taxi, Chuch was in the foyer, ordering sandwiches from the night porter. She squeezed my arm in silent warning and quickened her step, but Chuch laughed out loud to see me.

“Better add another couple of rounds,” he told the porter. “That man looks hungry.”

We went up to Pete’s room to wait for the food. Chuch knocked, then banged on the door, but no one opened it. I heard a voice insisting, “I’ll scream. I will.” There was a pause, then a small scream. “I’ll scream louder.” And she did. The door opened and one of the girls from Tiffany’s – the other having already left, I guessed – marched between us, her eyes blazing, her fingers working the buttons on her dress.

Over sandwiches and brandy, another new word, ‘poppers’, was added to my vocabulary, which was expanding daily. That wad of tissues had been wrapped around a glass phial. The noise I’d heard had been the glass breaking as Pete snapped the phial open, and accounted, onomatopoeically, for the nickname given to amyl nitrite, a drug infrequently prescribed as a heart-starter. What I found hard to believe, given the violent intensity of the rush I’d experienced, was that amyl nitrite was legal, available over the chemist’s counter. The phial Pete had popped under my nose had come in a box of twenty-four that he’d bought from the Markham Pharmacy in the King’s Road. I wondered whether that meant there were twenty-three more to be popped.

When I left the room, some time after two, Pete was still paraphrasing ‘Too Bad’. So far, so good, I thought. I was going to fit in just fine.

*  *  *

Truant schoolgirls were already lined up in front of the Caird Hall, their absurdly early arrival explained, not by their desire to meet the Faces’ road crew, but by the venue’s ticketing policy. The seats for which they had already queued once were unnumbered, so the best would be bagged by first-comers.

Chuch backed the truck so the tail-lift would drop inches from the stage door, and we got to work. For the best part of an hour the hydraulic platform whined up and down, and the loads Chuch rolled on and we rolled off were heavy and hard to handle. The cases that contained the ‘back line’, the amps and speaker cabinets, had handles on each side, but had been fitted with the kind of castors that turned supermarket trolleys into drunken crabs; whereas the twelve monstrous PA cabinets had true wheels, but no handles, nowhere to grip, and, to make matters worse, were covered in an abrasive fabric that might have been industrial carpet, which burned when it slipped through your hands. The flight case that held the 3,500 watts of PA amplification must have weighed several hundredweight, but its bulk and the Caird Hall’s unhelpful ingress meant there was only room for two handlers, while the Hammond organ, heavier still and harder to handle, had to be manoeuvred on a ‘dolly’, a tiny, yet robust four-wheeled trolley, which, naturally, was no use on stairs. The last items out of the truck were a dozen 12’ x 6’ mirrored Perspex panels, again not the easiest on which to get a grip.

Nothing had been less than heavy or easier than awkward to move, but I’d been meticulous in taking my turn by the tail-lift and made sure I carried just as much just as quickly as anyone in the crew. Two or three times I’d wondered whether Chuch had given flight cases an unnecessarily firm shove in my direction and had once had to grab in an bruising bear hug a PA cabinet that had toppled from the raised platform, but I knew any sign of weakness would be noted and exploited. So I wasn’t going to complain or request a breather before anyone else.

The lighting rig had already been unloaded when we arrived, a separate crew hanging the floodlights and manhandling the unwieldy spots onto the balcony, where they would operate them during the show. A brutal torrent of banter and abuse ping-ponged unendingly between the two crews, but no one had time to stop and laugh.

Pete ran a tight ship. Although no one in the audience that night would complain that the music wasn’t loud enough or the lights less than brilliant, every item of sound and lighting equipment and every instrument (apart from a Steinway grand piano, provided by a local firm) had emerged from the back of two three-ton trucks. Within a few years some bands would measure their stature by the size of their fleet of articulated trucks and the headcount of the crew who offloaded and operated their contents. ELP’s crew in 1977 would number more than a hundred; less than five years before, setting up for one of the biggest bands in Britain, we were eleven.

The mirrored floor was laid on the stage, the back line erected like a wall behind, the PA cabinets stacked like giant nursery bricks left and right of the stage front. The rostrum – ‘riser’, I added to my roadie’s dictionary – that Kenney Jones’ drum kit sat on was erected in the middle of the back, Ian McLagan’s Hammond stage left, his hired nine-foot Steinway nosing into the wings. The organ came with a special speaker cabinet – a ‘Leslie’, named after its inventor apparently – which contained the rotating horns that provided the instrument’s characteristic vibrato. Once this cabinet had been positioned in the wings and microphones aimed at the sound holes, the entire structure was covered with the padded jacket that protected the organ in transit and several extra blankets. Seen in woodland, rather than beside a stage, it would have looked like a hermit’s hideaway. Pete pointed a finger at it.

“During the gig, Mac’s Leslie’s going to be your responsibility. You’ll stand this side of the stage and make sure nobody comes near it. It’s incredibly sensitive to noise and movement. Bit like Mac, really.”

I nodded apprehensively.

“Right, let’s you and me get the mixing desk up into the balcony.”

Which we did, wedging the console between the backs of the front seats and the railed parapet, before uncoiling the ‘snake’, a fat, multi-core cable which would link the audio channels in the desk on the balcony to the PA system on stage and which we hung, using the ubiquitous gaffer’s tape, more or less out of the audience’s reach. Then, while Pete put his ear to every PA speaker in turn, seemingly immune to the thunderous level to which he had cranked Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You, I got down on my hands and knees and whistled along to the Crystals’ ‘Santa Claus was Coming To Town’ and the Ronettes’ ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’, while I scrubbed and polished the mirrored panels. When I’d finished, the floor was covered over, to safeguard the shine from foot traffic and to keep it concealed until the Faces were about to appear. Stumble, the opening act, would have to perform on top of the tarpaulin. Pete saw me trying to smooth the creases from its rumpled surface.

“Fuck that,” he advised. “It’s only the support band.”

I sensed a break was imminent, but I was wrong, and was handed a roll of kitchen foil and told to wrap the five monitor speakers lined up along the front of the stage. I did a tidy job, but couldn’t help wondering just how far from the stage you would have to sit for the monitors to look like burnished silver, rather than gargantuan wrapped snacks.

Breakfast was a long time ago, but eventually two of the truant schoolgirls were recruited from the queue outside to buy filled rolls for our lunch. The promoter turned up with a case of beer, and I took my cue to sit down. As I chewed a cheese roll, I looked round. To my inexperienced eyes the stage looked ready for the show. Between now and the gig there would be time to go back to the hotel for a shower and a change of clothes. A break would also allow me to make some notes about the day’s events, then clear my head to concentrate on the gig review for NME. But when Stumble turned up to sound-check, these plans were put on hold.

As each instrument was plugged in and turned on, a new buzz or drone began, and when any of the musicians approached a microphone, feedback shrieked through the auditorium like sonic lightning. I quickly became aware that my colleagues in the crew were less trained professionals than enthusiastic amateurs, their knowledge acquired not from books, but from previous crises confronted, past problems solved. If every day of these roadies’ career had been trouble-free, my guess was they would have been none the wiser, but luckily there had been many other days like this one. Their method, if that’s an appropriate word for such a haphazard routine, was as follows. The likeliest source of an unwanted hum was a faulty lead, so the scapegoat cable was swapped for another one, which, it occurred to me, could also have been faulty. If the noise persisted, the plug at each end of the lead was dismantled and its connections re-soldered, whether they were loose or not. Stumble’s roadie kept repeating, “It’s the first gig… it’s the first gig… it’s the first gig…” as if he were trying to remind himself that everything would be all right by the second show.

Nothing improved, tempers deteriorated, until eventually Pete reached the point in his own diagnostic check-list where he examined the power supply, and ascertained instantly that the Caird Hall’s in-house electrician had run the stage power and the lighting through the same circuit, triggering an earth loop. The fault was corrected in less than a minute. No hum, no buzzes, no more painful feedback. It was as if a time bomb had been diffused with seconds showing on the counter. Frowns and scowls were shed, shoulders straightened, grins were shared. In his relief, Andy gave voice to his now dissipated fears.

“That’s our gig, man,” he explained unnecessarily. “If the band came on stage and there was all that buzzing, they’d…” – he shook his spaniel mane, unable to express the outcome, so I completed his unfinished sentence in my head – “…realise how incompetent we are?”

Pete took a different view. “See what happens when you book the drummer’s brother-in-law as support act?” he observed, the moment Stumble had left the stage. I didn’t have time to ask him what he meant before the doors at the back of the auditorium opened and several hundred screaming teens stampeded for the front row.

Although there was nothing for me to do during Stumble’s set, I hung around my side of the stage, practising how and where I was going to stand, eyeing the Leslie cabinet as watchfully as if it were the prize exhibit in a museum and I its curator. Pete, Chuch and Russ were in one of the dressing rooms, changing into their stage outfits, so I couldn’t ask them for any last minute tips. I felt absurdly apprehensive, the way I did before an important football match, and found myself going through the same kind of stretching and loosening routines I would before I left the changing room. Relax, I told myself, everything’s under control.

The last number was followed by the muted applause that always sends support acts on their way and another of those frenzied burst of activity that punctuate the roadie’s day, as we spirited Stumble’s equipment from the stage. Then, like Wimbledon ground staff after a rain break, we hauled the tarpaulin from the floor, the sight of the mirrored surface as the lights hit it releasing as audible an expression of anticipation from the crowd as the removal of Centre Court’s covers. That hubbub intensified as a single mic stand – constructed from the lightest alloy, so Rod could toss and twirl it like a drum major’s baton – was set centre stage. Chuch stopped banging tuneless chords on the piano, so Andy could recite the roadie’s “One-two… two-two…” litany into Rod’s gold microphone, while Pete set the level on his mixing desk.

I hadn’t met John Barnes, but knew it must be him, when a man with neatly parted hair that gleamed from a recent wash, a dark suit and tie, and a nimbus of aftershave, began to set up a makeshift cocktail bar a few feet from me. I watched as he pulled an array of bottles from two attaché cases and half a dozen glasses from a cardboard box, and lined them up, together with an ice bucket and tongs, on the top of a flight case. Barnes, whose father Cyril was Rod’s personal chauffeur, ran a limo hire firm, but on this tour he was acting as the Faces’ personal assistant: valet, guide, confidant, pourer of drinks, and more. At all times he exuded an air of unflustered efficiency as redolent as his scent.

It was when the house lights went down and Chuch propped Ron Wood’s guitars on a pair of stands that the clamour of anticipation rose to a howl. I pressed myself against the wall, willing myself invisible, as a circle of light bobbed across the floor from the backstage stairs towards my feet. Barnes was also pointer of the Faces’ flashlight. The group paused momentarily in front of me, oblivious to my presence, before bounding into a burst of light and a barrage of screams. I watched the fans who’d queued all day for this moment jump in unison from their seats, faces flushed, eyes bright, arms outstretched, fingers clawing at the space that separated them from their idols, as if the gesture would drag them closer. I realised I was grinning the way they were and, like them, singing along with the opening number, ‘Too Bad’.

When several girls managed to clamber from their front row seats onto the stage, stewards rushed from the wings and tipped them back where they’d come from. Then the stewards refused to leave the stage. As Rod signalled for calm, and Lane, McLagan and Wood circled the singer’s mic, repeating the chorus – “All we wanted to do was to socialize/Oh you know it’s a shame how we always get the blame” – Chuch shoved the stewards, like reluctant skydivers, one by one from the stage, cheered on by the audience. The last of them, looking for a way to avoid the same happening to him, glanced my way and edged back between the curtains, taking up a spread legs, arms crossed bouncer’s stance immediately in front of the Leslie cabinet. This was bad news. Worse still, I realised that while I’d been watching what was happening on stage, a group of people had emerged from the backstage area and were now encircling the other side of the cabinet. From the way they were dressed and the drinks they were holding, I guessed they’d come from the dressing room area. My hunch was confirmed when I recognised one of them as Maggie Bell, a Glaswegian singer with a voice that could split rock, who had duetted with Rod on the title track of Every Picture Tells A Story. That meant they had to be guests of the band, so, presumably, had been told they could watch the show from there. I could hardly ask them to move. And yet Pete had said…

This internal monologue continued as the opening number ended, but stopped abruptly when Mac raced over, his face like thunder, and began pulling people away from his Leslie. He might have ignored me at rehearsals, but he knew who I was, because now he was drilling me with the deadliest look.

“What the fuck are these people doing all over my fucking Leslie?” he yelled. “Get them the fuck out of here.”

“I’m going nowhere, son.”

The man with a crooked nose and steward’s badge was only a few inches taller than the keyboard player, but the height difference seemed to disappear altogether as Mac spun to face him, his chest swelling inside his silk shirt.

“Fuck off!” he screamed, spittle flying. Then he skewered me with another look. “Get rid of them. Now.”

Nice meeting you, Mac. He might have been small, and his stage outfit improbably gaudy for a man picking a fight, but the steward was sufficiently disconcerted by his encounter with this wild-eyed fiend for me to hustle him through the door that led to the auditorium. When I turned back to confront the trickier issue of the band’s guests, they were already behind me, heading for the same exit, hands raised apologetically, faces sagging with shock.

“Didn’t mean to land you in it,” one of them said.

“Sorry,” I shrugged, adding regretfully, “If it was up to me…”

After the initial pandemonium, the show settled into a mood of joyful chaos, like a crowd scene from a Marx Brothers film. Christmas had come early to Dundee, and tonight was party night. The band provided the music and invented their own games, running races across the stage, playing hide-and-seek with each other, and musical chairs with Mac’s piano stool, and inevitably – a-tishoo, a-tishoo – they all fell down.

It was nearly ten years since I’d stood in the cramped back room of a Windsor pub, swaying, bouncing, sweating in a crush of proto-Stones fans, as we chorused “Bye… bye… bye… bye…” with Mick Jagger, one hand circling above our head like his, fingers waving farewell to Johnny B. Goode, but, through the intervening years, I had not come across an audience that followed their leader so slavishly, worshipfully, mesmerically, as this one. When Rod swayed, the entire Caird Hall congregation swayed. When he held a tartan scarf that had been thrown to him above his head, so did they. When he put his hands together, they clapped too. And every time he opened his mouth to sing, three thousand voices joined in harmony.

They all knew the familiar favourites, but many had already memorised the songs on Never A Dull Moment and were able to match his phrasing, note for note, on the previously unperformed ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’. When Ron Wood sketched the opening chords of ‘Angel’, a roar of delight erupted, not that self-congratulatory yes-we-know-this-one applause of recognition, but a spontaneous expression of joy: their moment had come, and they were going to make the most of it. More than once the singer appeared genuinely overwhelmed by the audience’s response, his voice trailing away as he conducted the choir with his arms spread wide and a broad grin beneath his nose or sank to the floor with a disbelieving shake of his head.

Although a crescendoing performance of ‘Twisting The Night Away’ should have sucked the last drop of energy from the Faces and their followers, the tattoo of stamping feet demanding an encore shook the building’s floor and walls. Rod returned first to the stage, juggling a plastic football on his thigh before booting it high into the balcony. Another ball was bounced to him, which he trapped, flicked up with a deft roll of his foot, and aimed into the rear stalls. A curly-haired promotion man from the band’s record company had a sackful of them, each stamped with the name of the Faces’ next single, ‘Cindy Incidentally’, the one entirely unfamiliar number they’d played that night. He bounced more balls across the stage as the other Faces emerged, but, lacking the singer’s consummate ball control, they swung their legs like kids who would never make the team. Rod was still going through his moves when the others launched into ‘Losing You’.

A ragged, valedictory chorus of ‘One Last Sweet Cheerio’, sung acappella, arms looped around each other’s shoulders, glasses raised in salute to the audience, then they were gone, and it was time to load out. Once the crowd had drifted to the exits, the damage done to the front rows of seats was impossible to ignore, and the silent apoplexy of the hall manager prompted pass-it-on nudges and suppressed sniggers among the crew. Like an automaton whose clockwork was running down, he would slowly stoop, pick up a piece of splintered frame or a handful of ragged upholstery and horsehair, then let it fall from his fingers into the ankle-deep debris that had been rows A, B and C.

Anxious that Pete shouldn’t hear about my incompetent policing of the Leslie from Mac, I positioned myself near the tour manager, counting on an opportunity to get my version of the problem in first. Luckily he asked me to help him with the mixer. When there were just the two of us on the balcony, I quickly explained what had happened, highlighting my dilemma over Maggie Bell and the other guests.

“Bastards,” he said, though he said it affably and without specifying who the bastards were. Then, “They’re always doing that. People’ll be backstage before the show and they’ll ask where they can watch from. Nine times out of ten the band’ll say, ‘Side of the stage,’ fully aware that everyone in the crew knows that’s not going to happen. So these people expecting VIP treatment get shoved out front with the punters and come backstage at the end of the gig, bellyaching about how badly they’ve been treated. While the band are tut-tutting and apologising for the roadie’s lack of respect, they’re giving a wink to whoever it was did it.” He concluded, “Who the fuck wants to watch a show from the side of the stage anyway? I mix the sound to be heard out front, not in the wings.” A pause, while he unhooked the snake. “They look happy.” He drew my attention to the hall manager, who had been joined by two dour men in overcoats. “Local Watch Committee, I reckon. Somehow I don’t think the Faces will be playing Dundee again.”

The load-out took a lot less time than the load-in, but it was another two hours before we were back at the hotel, where I was dispatched to the band’s hospitality suite to find out what free drink was left. Only Rod was there with John Barnes and Mike Gill, and the atmosphere was subdued. As I surreptitiously pocketed bottles of beer, I eavesdropped.

On Saturday, a night off for the Faces, a production of The Who’s Tommy with an orchestra and guest singers was being staged at the Rainbow Theatre, and Rod had been invited to repeat his performance of ‘Pinball Wizard’ from the recent all-star orchestral recording. Although it was now past midnight on Thursday, he still hadn’t committed, and it sounded as if he needed to be persuaded. Feeling uncomfortable and in the way, and clinking like a shoplifter in an off-licence, I aimed a silent hello-goodbye gesture at Mike Gill, and left.

Rod’s eleventh-hour prevarication notwithstanding, the conversation I’d overheard hadn’t seemed especially significant. He would be appearing as the Local Lad for one night only, and that a night when the Faces had their feet up, but the significance, missed by me at the time, was that with every solo outing, every new success as Rod Stewart, rather than the Faces’ singer, one more nail was banged into their coffin.

I Was A Faces Roadie (Part 1)

November 1st, 2010

It’s Thursday, 6th July 1972. The Guardian lies on the doormat, its front page torn, as usual. I’ve questioned the paperboy. He says the slot’s too narrow, but the flap has a fierce spring, and I reckon he’s frightened of getting his fingers caught. Whatever the reason, I leave the paper where it is, and walk to JJ’s, the newsagent’s next to the Greek shop on North Street. Guarding against an unusual demand for this week’s New Musical Express, he’s kept a copy for me under the counter.

My fingers are ink-stained by the time I get home. Walking along Lillieshall Road with the sun warming my back, I’ve been reading the NME or, rather, thumbing through to the centre pages, where the weekly Gig Guide was printed. Today’s edition contains a new section, which fills a third of the double-page spread. It’s a film guide. It says so in red capitals under photos of Mick Jagger in Gimme Shelter and Country Joe McDonald, Graham Nash and Santana from the Woodstock documentary. Under FILM GUIDE, I’ve read the words I was looking for: Compiled by John Pidgeon. I catch myself smiling. I’m in the NME, the UK’s leading pop paper, read weekly by a quarter of a million music fans and by me since the age of ten, when I first encountered rock’n’roll.

I pick up The Guardian, lay it on the kitchen table, and attempt to smooth the creases from the front page without worsening the tear. Momentarily I regret not having taken it with me to show the newsagent the daily damage. Another time, I tell myself, and open the NME again.

Half the space in my film guide was taken up with rudimentary listings like:

Darlington Odeon: From Nashville With Music

  • Wednesday only. Performances by Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride and others prop up a lame narrative. Strictly for country fans.

But there are longer analyses of other films, my name was in 16pt and bold; what’s more, Concert For Bangla Desh, The Harder They Come and Keep On Rockin’ are all due for imminent release and a Film Guide review; and, I remind myself, it’s a start.

I fillet the middle pages from the rest of the paper, checking there’s nothing else I should read. I scan reviews of Pink Floyd at the Brighton Dome, Deep Purple at the Rainbow, the J Geils Band at the Lyceum – in which Charles Shaar Murray relates a scurrilous exchange between Muddy Waters and the band’s Peter Wolf – and Led Zeppelin in Los Angeles, which are sandwiched between ads for the Crystal Palace Garden Party with Arlo Guthrie headlining and newcomers Roxy Music footing the bill, and the Goose Fair Festival in Nottingham, where the Faces, Atomic Rooster, Status Quo and Marmalade are listed to appear. I fold the pages precisely, slip them into a hanging folder in my new, red two-drawer filing cabinet, and wonder what to write on the label.

* * *

Open a music paper in 1972, and the odds were that someone was on the road in the States with the Rolling Stones or the Moody Blues or, yes, Led Zeppelin. For bands and their record companies it was an opportunity to tell fans, you think we’re big in the UK, you should see the audiences we play to over there. For most music journalists it was an irresistible jaunt, a free holiday, give or take the 2,000 words that would have to be written in exchange.

This was five years before Freddie Laker’s Skytrain pioneered cheap transatlantic flights, so only the privileged few visited the States for pleasure, and it seemed to me that these lucky writers just couldn’t resist rubbing in – as if their enviable intimacy with the band wasn’t enough – just what their readers were missing.

Air-conditioning was unknown in the UK, so the Siberian temperature of cars and hotel lobbies was always mentioned, as were swimming pools (especially on rooftops), pancakes eaten for breakfast, any drink more exotic than beer (and beer too, as long as the bottle bore an exotic name and was drunk from the neck), cities and streets referenced in songs, radio station call signs, room service, 24-hour television, lawn sprinklers, Muhammad Ali, LA’s smog, and sunshine. Articles stuck to a similar template.

“We cruise out of Los Angeles airport and head for Hollywood… The limo was cool, the California sun kept at bay behind tinted windows… We register at the Continental Hyatt House – in universal band parlance, the Riot House – overlooking Sunset Boulevard… By the roof-top pool I catch a knowing wink as the band mug patiently for a local photographer… I watch the show from the side of the stage, close enough to count the beads of sweat which form on his oh-so-handsome face… After a third, tumultuous encore, I wait for the crowds to disperse before slipping backstage… The door opens and I am beckoned into the sanctum of their dressing room, where the air was scented with exotic smoke… We move on to a reception at the Roxy, the newest, hottest night-spot on the Strip… The band, a hand-picked posse of groupies, and the by now inevitable hangers-on head back to the hotel, where a party was promised in a penthouse suite…”

We? When I started reading New Musical Express in the 1950s, its journalists were all but invisible, their sole function to introduce the reader to the latest chart contender, any expression of their own personality generally restricted to word play: “Bobby Darin was all set to make a splash…” or “Brenda Lee was a little girl with a big, big voice…” If the star’s name didn’t form the opening words, you could be sure it would appear before the first full stop: “‘I’m no Elvis imitator,’ Cliff Richard was quick to point out…” or “If anyone can be consigned to the ‘controversial’ category, it’s Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Now journalists brazenly positioned themselves at the centre of their story, flaunting their insider status as if their main aim was to rouse the reader’s envy. And yet I remained suspicious as to how close most of them actually came to the artists with whom they claimed to be on first name terms. It might have been to mitigate my own undeniable envy that I summoned an image into my head of the writer propped up in bed, portable typewriter cradled in his lap, tapping out his half-truths while he did his best to ignore the distant, distracting hubbub of the penthouse party to which, unlike those other hangers-on, he hadn’t been invited.

Having talked my way onto the NME’s freelance staff, I was keen to do more than compile my weekly film guide, wait for the next new movie with sufficient music on its soundtrack to justify a review – those three July releases amounting to beginner’s luck rather than a trend – and pick over the unwanted left-overs in the record cupboard, while the eyes of the full-time writers, their familiar by-lines made flesh and blood, drilled into my back and I imagined them muttering, “Who the fuck does he think he is?”

If I could get a more substantial article commissioned, I figured I might feel less of an outsider. I knew that meant finding a story with a unique angle, a hook that was mine alone. It came to me, as many ideas did and still do, in the night. I would go on the road with a band, but not as yet another hanger-on, which had to be how those other writers were viewed by the musicians they were shadowing, distinguishable only by their notebook, ballpoint and cassette recorder. Me – 6’ 3”, 175lb, twenty-five, and fit – I would earn my keep, and the band’s respect, as a member of the road crew.

I scoured the NME for news of upcoming tours and noted that Ten Years After were due to hit the road. Although their status had been elevated to a level of eternally unrealisable expectation by a fortuitous appearance in the Woodstock movie, they were somehow still riding their luck and what was left of their reputation. A couple of phone calls connected me to the band’s tour manager. The job title had an impressive ring: after all, managing a band’s tour, with all that must entail, surely took some doing. But the man I met looked little different from the roadies I’d seen scurrying across the stage of the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park in that hunched stoop they seemingly believed rendered them invisible to the audience. I explained my proposal, appended with a list of credentials relating to my age, fitness, strength and intelligence, tactfully refraining from pointing out that I was younger, taller, keener-eyed and fitter-looking than he was. But he weighed my offer of unpaid help for a dismissively scant few seconds, shook his head, and said it would take a minimum of a month for me to learn to pull my weight. Excuse me? I’d seen roadies at work. What was there to learn that could possibly take a single morning and afternoon, let alone four weeks?

He concluded earnestly, “I just couldn’t take dead wood on the road.”

And there was I thinking that’s precisely what he would be doing. Other spiteful, yet sweetly consoling thoughts crowded into my head. Could Alvin Lee have been aware as he slouched, sweating, from the most famous of festival stages, his pulverised guitar held high in triumph and acknowledgement of the crowd’s applause, that Ten Years After’s career path was peaking at that very instant? That this was it – the pinnacle – a few minutes after 8pm on Sunday 17th August 1969 atop a muddy field in upstate New York? And that it would be all downhill from then on? Hang on, why the hell did I need consoling? It wasn’t me who was going to have to sit through those eleven interminably noodling minutes of ‘I’m Going Home’ every night for three long weeks.

Although Ten Years After had not been my pick of the blues bands which had emerged in the John Mayall-led blues renaissance of the late sixties, I had been prepared to go on the road with them in the cause of professional advancement. Now that they had turned me down, I relegated this trio of hopeless has-beens to a section of my record shelves that existed nowhere other than in my vindictive imagination: never-liked-the-bastards-in-the-first-place.

My next try was Cat Stevens. A university acquaintance was working for his management company, so I had a head start. The winsome teen popster turned earnestly bearded singer-songwriter might not have been one of my all-time favourites, but, unlike Ten Years After, at least his career was bouyant and I even owned one of his records. David was optimistic. He would put in a word for me. He called back a few days later.

“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, John, but I’m afraid it’s not going to happen.”

I asked why on earth not, and had to bite my tongue while David explained that, being a sensitive artist, Steve could easily be unsettled by the presence of a stranger within his aura. Give me a break. If his tour was to make money, he’d have several thousand different strangers in or around his aura every single night. Again, I wasn’t heartbroken. It didn’t sound as if touring with Steve – a name I would now never get to call him – would be a lot of laughs.

Perhaps I wasn’t aiming high enough? Certainly, going for the second division was getting me nowhere. Two upcoming UK tours had already caught my eye: Led Zeppelin and the Faces. Although I was a fan of both bands, each tour posed a problem. Led Zeppelin’s ran from late November until Christmas, but then resumed in January for a further four weeks. For the money I’d make from the article, I couldn’t afford to be out of circulation for two months, but I couldn’t imagine that dropping out halfway through would suit anyone but me.

The problem with the Faces was Rod Stewart, or so I anticipated, since repeated requests to interview him for my as yet unpublished history of British blues had got me nowhere. True, over the previous twelve months, ever since ‘Maggie May’ and Every Picture Tells A Story, the album ‘Maggie’ was from, had achieved the unprecedented feat of simultaneously topping British and American charts, the popularity of the singer who had fronted Long John Baldry’s Hoochie Coochie Men whenever the band’s lanky leader took a break at the bar had sky-rocketed, but all I’d been after was half-an-hour of his time to speak on a subject which I was certain must still be close to his heart, and he hadn’t been prepared to grant me that. However, the man who had fielded my calls, publicist Mike Gill, had always said no with such faultless charm, that I knew if I got turned down again, at least it would be politely and painlessly. As it was, Mike laughed down the telephone at my proposal and promised to put it in the appropriate hands.

Days passed, and I had begun to think this was not one of my finest ideas and that I’d have to come up another one, when Mike rang to say he’d had provisional approval from the group, so I should arrange to meet their tour manager, Pete Buckland, at the Gaff Management offices at 90 Wardour Street in Soho, an address I knew as the home of the Marquee.

“I’m here to see Mr Buckland,” I told the receptionist, whose guarded smile widened to a grin.

“Are you John Pidgeon?”

“That’s me.”

I nodded. A second girl glanced up from the photocopier, then turned away, too late to hide another grin. What was so funny? I scanned the reception area; I was the only one there, it had to be me. Relax, stop being paranoid, I told myself. But no, look, now they were sharing an unmistakably conspiratorial smirk. Was someone about to play a trick on me? If so, who? And why? Maybe Mr Buckland was having a laugh at my expense? Was I going to be put in my place for presuming the Faces would want a New Musical Express journalist as part of their crew? Would I be hearing the dead wood argument again? I hadn’t yet met the man, but I was already concluding that this visit would be a waste of my time. I almost found myself wishing Cat Stevens hadn’t been so picky. But the receptionist came out from behind her desk and led me through a splintered door into the tour manager’s office.

“John Pidgeon,” she told Mr Buckland, who was, I would soon realise, one of the most un-mister of men, then she apologized for interrupting his phone call, and left. The tour manager cupped a hand over the receiver.

“Just changing the hotel reservations in Dundee,” he explained. “I usually wait till we get thrown out to do that.” He laughed and turned back to his desk, so I wasn’t certain whether he was joking. I echoed his laugh, in case he was.

When he came off the phone, we shook hands. He was a few inches shorter than me and, I guessed, a couple of years older. There was a twinkle behind his steady gaze.

“Thank fuck you’re not a midget.”


“I’ve just booked three weeks of hotels for you. You might not have been up to it.”

“So I’m-”

My response was interrupted by a compact, wirily muscular man with a beard and an expansive afro somersaulting into the room.

“Meet Chuch.”

The gymnast sprang to his feet.

“Chuch?” I repeated uncertainly.

“Otherwise known as Royden Walter Magee the third,” Pete added helpfully. I settled for Chuch.

I finished what I’d started to say before. “So I’m definitely on the tour?”

“Is the Pope a Jew?”

Struggling to suppress a satisfied grin, I exchanged cheerful goodbyes in reception and was ready to take the stairs two at a time, when one of the girls called after me, “Have fun!” and the other laughed explosively through her nose. I started a slower descent, the back of my neck hot with embarrassment, while the pair of them cackled like witches round a cauldron.

When I got home, I phoned Mike Gill to thank him for helping my project happen. He seemed embarrassed that I should have taken the trouble. When I thought we’d said all there was to say, his voice took on a serious tone.

“Whatever you do, don’t ever leave your room unlocked, and tell the desk clerk at every hotel you stay at that no one – but no one – has your permission to borrow a pass key.”

Mike’s ominous warning pushed second thoughts into my head, but even if Chuch, an American from Michigan, had acted a little oddly, Pete Buckland’s positive attitude to my involvement instantly dispelled any doubts. Besides, this was going to be my first big story.

Now that it was definitely going to happen, I needed to find an outlet for my article. Although it was only a matter of months since editor Nick Logan had found room and a fee for my film guide in the NME, I’d recently met Rolling Stone’s London editor Andrew Bailey. I knew the Faces were big in the States. How much cooler would it be to appear in America’s premier music publication? I rang Bailey, who sounded keen. That was enough for me. The next time I was in the NME’s offices in Long Acre, I looked for Logan.

“Would you be interested in a first night review of the Faces’ UK tour? It starts in Dundee. I’m going to be there.”

“I thought you were writing a tour diary.”

When did I mention my plan to him? How could I have forgotten?

“Ah, that’s for Rolling Stone,” I mumbled.



“I could take 200 words.” Which would cover a week’s rent. I wondered what Rolling Stone’s rates were.

So, on Monday 4th December, one of those overcast, depressing winter days, when the damp clings to your skin and it never gets properly light, I set off for rehearsal, as nervous as a new boy on the first day of school. The Faces hadn’t gigged for two months, so Pete Buckland had booked two days in the back room of The Fishmonger’s Arms in Wood Green, one of those legendary London music pubs where countless bands had played the blues before they became famous. Ten Years After – bless them for not hiring me – would have played there; Eric Clapton certainly did as a member of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers; Rod Stewart too, no doubt, with the Hoochie Coochie Men, Steam Packet or Shotgun Express.

Calculating that an hour would allow me more than enough time to drive from Clapham to N22, I left home at one, but traffic was thick and sluggish as treacle, making me ten minutes late for the scheduled two o’clock start. I parked behind a yellow truck in an alley at the back of the building, and hurried to the door, which was locked. I tried it again, looked for another way in, then went round to the front, to the part of the building that was a pub. I pushed through the door.

“What kind of time d’you call this?” Pete Buckland demanded, tapping his watch. I was ready to explain about the traffic, when he grinned and said, “Drink?”

Other voices chorused, “Another little drink wouldn’t do us any harm.”

While Pete went to the bar, I sat down, and Chuch introduced Russ, another American, and Andy. Then, as we drank, I listened to their banter, answered questions I was asked, and eventually wondered aloud what time the Faces’ two o’clock rehearsal might start.

“Well, the first gig’s on Thursday, so hopefully some time before then.”

We stayed in the bar until closing time, then unlocked the rehearsal room, where the Faces’ equipment had been set up. The draughty hall was in need of refurbishment, its décor untouched for at least a decade, judging from the scraps of posters here and there advertising bands that once must have packed the place. Wall-to-wall bodies would be the only way to have warmed this tatty venue, I speculated, because the stingy radiators weren’t up to it.

It was past four by the time the band were all there, not that their late arrival was a spur to work. They fooled around with bits and pieces of songs, cracking each other up with a shambolic chorus of the Osmonds’ current hit, ‘Crazy Horses’, Rod pulling faces that I recognised from photographs. There was more laughter when Pete spotted a notice on the wall – ‘In the interests of local residents you are requested to keep NOISE to a minimum’ – which he declaimed as if the size of the letters was a guide to voice level.

I spent the scant hour the Faces were there with my head down, busying myself with nothing in particular, simply anxious to avoid eye contact that might prompt a request I wouldn’t be able to carry out. There was talk of gaffers and crowns, neither of which meant anything to me, until Pete ripped the sign he’d read from the wall and asked where the gaffers was. He was handed a roll of broad silver-grey adhesive tape, which he used to stick the sign to the side of the console on which he balanced the band’s instruments and Rod’s voice. I’d already learned that was the mixing desk, and made a mental note to ask him about the crowns, some time when no one else was in earshot.

The next afternoon, the final rehearsal, the band made at least a half-hearted effort to run through their set. With no Faces album since 1971’s A Nod’s As Good As A Wink, the new material the band would be playing was from Stewart’s follow-up to his breakthrough Every Picture Tells A Story album, Never A Dull Moment, released in August and already the source of two big singles, the chart-topping ‘You Wear It Well’ and a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Angel’, which had taken up residence in the top ten in time for the tour.

As the seventies progressed, Stewart would appear hell-bent on making it hard for his apologists, of which I was one, to stick up for him. Turning tax exile in Beverley Hills didn’t help; nor did a deliberate repositioning of press priority from the music weeklies to the red tops, on whose front pages he was happy to pose in outfits the fabled Emperor would have left in the wardrobe, even if loyalists were able to divert the blame for his worst sartorial excesses – a boater, for Bertie’s sake! – on to his ‘Bond girl’ partner Britt Ekland. And he had recorded ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy’ in 1978, it was pointless trying to convince anyone that Rod wasn’t a tosser.

But you didn’t become as successful as Rod did by being a tosser, and he wasn’t one. Having served his apprenticeship in the tall shadow of Long John Baldry, then scrapped for his share of attention amid the rumbustious cut and thrust of the Jeff Beck Group, in 1968 he was advanced £1000 by Mercury Records’ London chief Lou Reizner to record a solo album. Although it wasn’t until his third record, 1971’s breakthrough Every Picture Tells A Story, that Stewart was named as producer, Reizner had done little to earn his production credit on the first two, according to his signing. “He sat there and made sure we were all in tune,” Rod told me, “but he didn’t need to be there.”

What Every Picture did was to fine tune a process Stewart had pursued since the start of his solo career, when he had assembled a group of musicians (including Ron Wood and Ian McLagan) with whom he would continue to record until his move to the US in 1975, and hit upon a loose, but abiding formula for his albums’ musical content: a handful of originals, a couple of folksy tunes, and several reworkings of old or recent favourites of his, always imaginative, sometimes surprising. And if his early attempts at lyrical themes could be dismissed as clumsy, even mawkish, they were nonetheless identifiable stepping stones towards ‘Maggie May’’s consummate distillation of adolescent sexuality. How many solo singers have been able to realistically regard themselves as producer, arranger, songwriter, and a skilful interpreter of others’ songs? I’m not counting, but I know Rod Stewart was one.

Since every new hit as Rod Stewart, rather than the Faces, eroded not only their fans’ notion of the group as musical equals, but the musicians’ own sense of their individual worth, it was a paradox that Rod’s fourth – and, so far, most successful – solo album should be the closest of all his recordings, in sound and spirit, to a Faces record. By the end of the afternoon the set list included no less than five numbers from Never A Dull Moment : ‘True Blue’, which I found out a few days later would have been a Faces track if sessions for their fourth album hadn’t slipped so far behind schedule; Sam Cooke’s ‘Twisting The Night Away’; Etta James’ ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’; and the two hit singles, which, thanks to Chuch’s imperfect spelling, appeared as ‘You Were It Well’ and ‘Angle’, not that I pointed out the errors. I wouldn’t have felt right scoring points off him, having let him down earlier.

It was Chuch who had told me that crowns were the PA amps, but it was also Chuch who had sent me out to change a $100 bill Ian McLagan had handed him. He assured me he’d got one changed only that week in Marks & Spencer, but it surely couldn’t have been the Wood Green branch, where the cashier looked at me as if I’d asked for paisley Y-fronts. There was a Barclays Bank further along the High Road, so I tried there.

“Certainly, sir. If I could just see your passport?”

Cue actorly patting of pockets, impatient tutting, unmistakable signs of self-reproach.

“I must’ve left it at home.”

When I handed the note back to Chuch, he shared a look with the keyboard player which left me in no doubt that I’d failed my first test. Otherwise, thankfully, the band acted as if I wasn’t there. They showed little interest in Andy either, their indifference explained when Pete told me he was hired help, taken on for the duration of the tour. Only Pete and the two Americans were on the Faces payroll, their favoured status confirmed when they were presented with monogrammed uniforms to wear on stage, black satin waistcoat and trousers, a more appropriate outfit for a cocktail barman than a roadie, it struck me, though I kept the thought to myself.

The Fishmonger’s Arms backed onto a school, and when Rod, the band’s lone non-smoker, stepped outside to suck in some fresh air, the windows beyond the playground filled with waving teenagers, and, come four o’clock, the alley behind the pub filled with laxly uniformed boys chanting ‘Rod-nee’ in the cadence familiar to QPR fans and girls with heavy make-up and their skirts hitched up, who drew initialled hearts in the dirty paintwork of the singer’s yellow Lamborghini.

Interviewing Michael Jackson

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.

Peter Meaden

November 1st, 2010

The Who weren’t mods, they were groomed to look that way by Peter Meaden, a pill-popping publicist with so many ideas in his unnaturally active mind that he couldn’t always spot the right one. The mod image was a sound plan; changing the group’s name to the High Numbers and pasting a self-consciously mod lyric onto a Slim Harpo tune wasn’t, and ‘I’m The Face’ died a death. When would-be entrepreneurs Kit Lambert (posh) and Chris Stamp (street-sharp) showed up, Meaden was rowed out, and the group became The Who again.

More lastingly important than the look, which, on all except Townshend, sat awkwardly, as if their clothes were the wrong size and their hair cut for another head, and which, in any case, would soon give way to second-hand ‘op art’ graphic devices, was the care Meaden took to indoctrinate the group into mod culture via visits to the Scene Club in Soho. Townshend absorbed most from the Scene’s scene, the explosive spark for the group’s trio of 1965 hits, ‘I Can’t Explain’, ‘Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere’ and ‘My Generation’.

Eight years on and not for the first time, I met the immensely likeable Meaden, shortly after Townshend had completed his mod opus, Quadrophenia. We talked about the drynamil days. He showed me a letter from Townshend, mounted like a picture in a frame and hung on the wall behind his desk. It was Townshend’s thank you – a cheque had been enclosed – for uncovering this precious lode of inspiration that he had lately mined once more.

I only saw him once more, at the start of the Who’s 1975 UK tour to promote The Who By Numbers. The venue was Bingley Hall, near Stafford, an inhospitable shed in which the stink of a recent cattle auction hung like fog. I was writing a review for NME, Meaden was managing the Steve Gibbons Band, their support spot further evidence of Townshend’s enduring allegiance. We were pleased to see one another. Unsurprisingly, Meaden was still popping pills; given a minute and a chronically weak will, so was I.

Although the gig was on a Friday, it wasn’t until Monday morning, with the shadow of a midday deadline as oppressive as my hang-over, that I searched for my notes. Experience had taught me what to expect, for I had doggedly followed my motto: live and don’t learn. I knew, from too many other Monday mornings, that when I located those notes, folded minutely in my wallet or, ratcheting my panic several notches, still stuffed in the shirt or jeans I’d worn to the gig, the layers of paper stuck with sweat or a drink someone had tipped over me, they would comprise at best an inadequate jumble of cock-eyed observations and bons mots, as if I had set out intentionally to play tricks on my hung-over self, or, at worst, entirely undecipherable: words written blindly in darkness, the ink run into a Rorschach blot, leaving me with nothing more to rely on than my memory, fallible when my brain was in the gym every day, but after a bender of a weekend, as safe a repository for my thoughts as if I had written them in sand with a stick as the tide turned to come in.

I stared at the sheet of paper I’d fumbled into my ancient typewriter – an office Olympia to which I had been known to pray in the absence of inspiration – aware that I had to wrench five hundred words from what was left of my brain. I turntabled The Who By Numbers and stilled my shaking hand sufficiently to lower the pick-up onto one track after another in the false hope that at least one number would trigger a productive memory, and rued my old-fashioned view that I – the intrusive ego – should be absent from the articles I wrote. I knew writers who would go for the hey-get-me-I’ve-been-on-a-booze-and-pills-bender-with-The-Who’s-muse angle, but, apart from my journalistic principles, another concern stopped me, which was that, daft as it seemed even to me, ten years after I’d left home, I didn’t want my parents to know I did drugs.

I took a break to submerge myself in a scalding bath with a cold flannel compress on my head, and read what I’d managed to write, while I leaked sweat from heat and fear, then returned reluctantly to my desk. Somehow I wrung out the remainder of the required words, hurtled recklessly along the Embankment and through the old Kingsway tram tunnel to the NME’s office in Long Acre, where I left my car on a yellow line. The reviews editor made a show of counting off the final seconds on his watch as I panted to his desk.

To help me recover from my stressful morning, I stopped off on the way home at The Plough on Wandsworth Road. Over the first pint of a new week, I promised myself that next weekend I’d wait until the gig was over and my notes intact and stored in a safe repository, before I got completely out of it.

When Peter Meaden overdosed at his parents’ north London home in July 1978, weeks before Keith Moon, the verdict was suicide. There was no connection between these deaths, of course, apart from the haunting link of Townshend’s line: “Hope I die before I get old.”

Ronnie Lane

November 1st, 2010

It may well have been his ‘Song Of A Baker’ on the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake that first had me believing that Ronnie Lane was wise beyond his years. The opening line caught my attention. “There’s wheat in the field and water in the stream,” he sang, which had me wondering, “A song that opens with the basic ingredients of bread? That’s not something you hear every day.” Then, as the theme unfolded, I realised that it was about more than baking. What the singer was saying was that as long as there’s wheat in the field and water in the stream, there’s no reason why you should ever go hungry or thirsty, provided you’re prepared to make the effort to turn that wheat into flour and to fetch drinking water from the stream.

In essence, and without finger-wagging, ‘Song Of A Baker’ was preaching the benefits of self-sufficiency, and in 1968 that struck me as deep for a pop song. Ronnie even made the loaf’s ‘texture and… flavour’ a rhyme for the baker’s ‘labour’. I found out later that he had borrowed his theme from a Sufi parable. To have considered the writing of a Muslim mystic suitable source material was impressive erudition from a 21-year-old from Manor Park in east London.

I guessed the song was Ronnie’s because he sang it rather than Steve Marriott, as clear an assertion of ownership as John Lennon singing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ or Paul McCartney ‘Eleanor Rigby’, and it was because of that conclusion, no doubt, that I listened more closely than usual to the lyrics. Like Lennon-McCartney, the joint Marriott-Lane credit was essentially a convenience, since few of their songs were either written in the same room or derived from equal input. Across a handful of singles or the two sides of an album those individually unequal contributions would balance up, but, more importantly, as writers, each needed the other’s spur. The songs that emerged from their association could not have been written in isolation, only with the direct or indirect input of the partner. “We would come up with something to knock each other out,” he explained, so, with ‘Itchycoo Park’, the Small Faces’ most famous song, Ronnie had knocked Steve out with a melody he had lifted from a hymn, ‘God Be In My Head’, and words he had concocted after reading a magazine article about the attractions of Oxford, which had spotlighted the city’s “dreaming spires” and its “bridge of sighs.” “It wasn’t me that came up with ‘I feel inclined to blow my mind, get hung up, feed the ducks with a bun’ – that wasn’t me!” he protested, though arguably Marriott’s tongue-in-cheek, East Ender’s take on the spirit of ’67 contributed as much to the song’s success as Ronnie’s verses.

The real worth of the melody and poetry that Ronnie brought to their partnership was only revealed once Steve Marriott had abandoned the Small Faces to form Humble Pie. Whereas Ronnie continued to develop as a songwriter, his one-time mentor atrophied. In fact, it’s hard to come up with a single notable song with Marriott’s name on after the Small Faces’ melancholy cheerio, ‘The Universal’.

Humble Pie’s American fans were at least partly to blame for his slump. After all, it was they who cheered his black-white-boy shtick and whooped and hollered at his vocal histrionics and hyperactive posturing, and, if all it took to send an audience into an orgasmic frenzy and propel an album as unimaginative as 1972’s Smokin’ into the US top ten was a handful of overloud blues chords, a repertoire of – for a pint-sized Cockney – improbably throaty growls and trills, and a stage persona prone to throw extravagant shapes, why bother with the hard slog of actually writing words and a tune?

Ronnie’s songs, meanwhile, fitted the born-again Faces perfectly, nowhere more obviously than on the group’s third and most cohesive album, A Nod’s As Good As A Wink… To A Blind Horse. Despite sharing their blokey, anti-intellectual, working-class-and-proud-of-it philosophy, his songs are not only musically less flamboyant than the Rod Stewart-Ron Wood rockers, but lack their rampant hedonism. Even in a song about sex, where the road-wise roué of ‘Stay With Me’ trades a groupie’s promise to be gone by the morning for a post-coital cab fare home, Ronnie, in ‘You’re So Rude’, was reliving an in flagrante teenage fumble in the front room of his parents’ house; while in ‘Debris’, as if consciously counterbalancing the rowdy bravado of ‘Too Bad’, Ronnie explores childhood memories of his father, underpinning the evident reality of both these songs by setting them with chronological precision on a Sunday morning and evening, and, in lines like “Oh, you was my hero,” by deliberately expressing himself in vernacular that would have earned him a detention from his English teacher.

*  *  *

“If you’re going to be on the road, you might as well be on the road,” he once told me, “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. What’s wrong with life on the road? I can’t understand this rushing there and rushing back business.”

True to his word, he would do his best not to rush on the Faces’ US 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 faithless distancing of himself from the record.

On 12 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. During the set he spat an obscenity at Ian McLagan, the keyboard player retaliating with a vicious kick which left 10,000 West Virginians wondering whether it was part of the act. One more US date, four nights to fulfill in London, then Ronnie was gone.

Fortuitously, the timing of his exit from the Faces and his decision to pursue a more eclectic, rootsier music closely followed the surge of a forceful undercurrent in London’s music community. Either bruised by the business or uninterested in what it had to offer, bands like Brinsley Schwarz, Kilburn and the High Roads, Bees Make Honey and Eggs Over Easy had deliberately taken a detour from the well-mapped highway to Hitsville onto a musical B-road, where they could perform, freed from the pressures of commerce or fashion, on an array of interchangeable instruments, a seemingly off-the-cuff mix of R&B, rockabilly, country, jazz, even post-war, pre-rock’n’roll jump jive – styles altogether too diverse to lump together under any more meaningful banner than the name of the modest venues where the bands chose to play. Pub rock, as it was known, was to provide three key members of Ronnie’s next band, Slim Chance: Bees Make Honey’s Ruan O’Lochlainn (saxophone, keyboards, guitar); Charlie Hart (keyboards, fiddle, accordion) from Ian Dury’s ramshackle first band, Kilburn and the High Roads; while the group Steve Simpson (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) left behind became pub-rock regulars as Meal Ticket.

Slim Chance brought a broad musicality to the melodic charm, conversational lyrics, and subtle themes of Ronnie’s songs, and, bolstered by this band, his voice, by his own 1975 description “an instrument I only picked up eighteen months ago”, grew strong, emotive and sure, able to skip nimbly and sure-footedly along the melody lines. Whenever he sang, it was hard not to smile, harder still not to join in.

The multi-instrumental abilities of O’Lochlainn, Hart and Simpson weren’t employed to impress, but to allow Ronnie to follow diverse musical directions and to provide his material with an apparently infinite variety of sympathetic settings. On record the unseen interchange of instruments was efficient, but, owing in part to that invisibility, unremarkably low-key. On stage, however, once his musicians had freed themselves from the recorded arrangements and made the songs their own, a Slim Chance gig was an intoxicating event, a cross between a pub sing-song and a country hoedown. The set was not only neatly balanced, but, in the manner of pub rockers, wilfully challenged the convention that confines set lists to past hits and excerpts from the current album. Naturally, Ronnie didn’t ignore ‘How Come?’, his first (and only substantial) solo hit, or its bafflingly underachieving follow-up, ‘The Poacher’, but both were enormously enhanced in live performance.

The chorus of ‘How Come?’ became impossible not to sing along with, such an audible show of public affection endowing it with a far heftier status than that of a single that hadn’t quite made the top ten, while the somewhat prissy oboe and string arrangement that had made ‘The Poacher’ a lightweight 45 was replaced by the duelling fiddles of O’Lochlainn and Simpson to create a show-stopping knees-up. Oldies Ronnie had revived, like Fats Domino’s ‘Blue Monday’ and Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ (both on 1975’s Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance), were there too, but several live Slim Chance highlights, notably covers of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sweet Virginia’ and Leroy Van Dyke’s ‘Walk On By’, never made it onto record.

His new-found freedom meant he could even find room for the forty-year-old Depression ballad, ‘Brother, Can You Spare Me A Dime’, a song weighed with poignant meaning in the wake of 1974’s Passing Show, an ill-judged attempt to take his music to the people, when a caravan of decrepit circus vehicles limped from town to town with insufficient advance publicity to attract enough paying customers to the big top, pushing him to the very edge of financial ruin. What bailed him out was the American Airstream caravan, sleek as a cigar tube, that he had had kitted out as a mobile recording studio during his last days with the Faces. Hired out to Led Zeppelin, The Who and Bad Company, it generated enough income to disguise, albeit temporarily, his fragile finances.

In the autumn of 1975 Ronnie used that mobile studio to record a third album at his farm on the Welsh borders. With One For The Road he created something unique in British music: a genuine form of native country music, no capitals, no inverted commas, not anglicized Nashville, just music that came out of the country and could not conceivably have been created anywhere else. When that record didn’t sell, he had to let the band go, unable to fund the full-time wages of five musicians and a road crew from his own, diminishing income.

Broke, he approached Pete Townshend for a loan. An old pal and, like Ronnie, a follower of Meher Baba, Townshend turned him down, but proposed instead that they should make a record together, which, if for no other reason than that it represented half a solo album by the leader of The Who, was bound to generate record company interest and, with it, an advance: a financial boost for Ronnie without the burden of debt. Although Rough Mix was less than a true collaboration, with only the title track co-written by Townshend and Lane, the album contained the most enchanting, sublime song Ronnie ever wrote.

It’s a cliché to call a song timeless, but ‘Annie’ sounded as old as the century. It could also have been the work of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie or George Gershwin. Or a century older and by John Newton or Charles Wesley, since, sung in church by a choir, it would certainly have sounded like a hymn. Expressed most directly in its “God bless us all” plea, the song was infused throughout with a hymnal tone, its melody uplifting, its message that in spite of mortality, life was ongoing, that even in death was optimism. A hymn by Ronnie Lane would almost be worth going to church for.

An unforeseen outcome of the Rough Mix sessions was an immediate opportunity for Ronnie to resuscitate Slim Chance, opening for Eric Clapton on his spring 1977 tour. Clapton, whose acoustic work on the Rough Mix sessions highlighted the selfless restraint and sensitivity he could bring to a supporting role in the recording studio and earned him a co-writer’s credit on ‘Annie’, had fallen under Ronnie’s spell, envying the freewheeling eclecticism and determinedly low-key approach that offered an antidote to the pyrotechnics commanded by Clapton’s own audiences. The guitarist even adopted Ronnie’s Romany look of bucolic shirt, scarf and waistcoat.

In his early thirties the symptoms of multiple sclerosis became harder to ignore, and the next time I saw him he walked as if he was permanently tipsy. Being forced by the remorseless creep of immobility to accept the role of observer rather than participant intensified the aura of wisdom that had surrounded Ronnie as long as I had known him. More than ever, he came across like an ancient sage, one with a long lifetime’s knowledge and experience to impart, the appearance of a younger man adopted to disguise his age. But if increased wisdom was a side effect of MS, it was a cruel trade-off.

In 1984, Julia and I had a son who was born too soon and lived for a day and a half. Ronnie telephoned with a question.

“You know when you see a baby bird dead on the ground? Well, if you look up, there’ll be a nest, and in that nest there’ll be more, healthy babies. It’s like a little Pidgeon has fallen out of the nest. There’ll be more, you’ll see.”

There was more solace, humanity and hope in that succinct analogy than in a hundred Bible stories or Sunday sermons. Julia and I weren’t short of love or support, but nothing made the future look less bleak than the simple, life-affirming image suggested by Ronnie.

He was living in Kentish Town, but within weeks had moved to Texas, where he had been promised regular access to hyperbaric oxygen treatment in Houston. Because the claims made in some quarters for HBO treatment encouraged unreasonable expectations for what it could achieve, the therapy was controversial, but Ronnie knew, having tried it in London, that spending an hour a week in a sealed chamber where the normal amount of oxygen in the air was multiplied many times worked for him. It wasn’t a cure for MS, but it alleviated some of the symptoms. Undeniably, it made him feel better.

I was keen to visit him, but hard up. Someone told me you could fly for free as a DHL courier in exchange for escorting their mail sacks through customs, so I signed up for the Houston run. There was a 48-hour stop-over, and I spent two nights at the house Ronnie shared with his carer, James ‘Big Bucks’ Burnett, an amiably goofy young Texan who drove Ronnie to and from his weekly sessions at the HBO Medical Centre and for a daily swim at the YMCA. I was happy to be able to tell Ronnie that Julia was pregnant again, and repeated our thanks for the help and hope he had given us.

“There’s another Pidgeon in the nest.”

He tilted his head as he looked at me, one eye slightly off to one side, his bony fingers cupped over the top of his walking stick.

“You sure it was me said that?”

Part of Ronnie’s exercise regime was a daily walk, but even though spring had not yet turned to summer, Houston’s climate was debilitating, and I watched him wilt, oppressed by the cloying humidity, so I was relieved to learn that he had moved to Austin, 130 miles west, in Texas’s more temperate hill country. I visited him there in March 1990. He had signed up for a short tour of Japan, a bold undertaking for someone whose central nervous system was under daily attack. Having recruited a band of Austin musicians, he twisted Ian McLagan’s arm to play keyboards. I’d wanted to record them both for my Radio 1 series, Classic Albums, for which the Small Faces’ Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake was an overdue candidate, and figured that, with Mac at his side, Ronnie would be a livelier interviewee than on his own. I was right. The interview, recorded at Ronnie’s house between rehearsals, was punctuated with laughter and impromptu repartee, hilarity I hadn’t heard from them since 1973. But, back in Austin two years later, when I phoned him to say I was in town and would love to drop by, he replied, “No, that won’t be possible.”

“I only want to pop in to say hello.”

“Sorry, mate.”

“See you then, Ronnie.”



Like George Harrison, Ronnie Lane played in the shade of louder talents. Like him too, he left an undeniably impressive body of work. His influence is quiet, but enduring. Ronnie Lane mattered, and still does. And I haven’t even mentioned his bass-playing.

Early Rolling Stones Recordings

November 1st, 2010

In March 1963 the Stones recorded five songs – Bo Diddley’s ‘Diddley Daddy’ and ‘Road Runner’, Jimmy Reed’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ and ‘Honey What’s Wrong?’, and Muddy Waters’ ‘I Want To Be Loved’ – at the instigation of Glyn Johns, a friend of Ian Stewart’s, lead singer of south London R&B group the Presidents, and a sound engineer at IBC Studios in Portland Place, north of Oxford Circus. The band were delighted with the finished tracks, not least Brian Jones, whose unwavering aim was to replicate the authenticity of the original records. The session tape would be spooled and re-spooled for every visitor to the group’s Fulham flat, but attracted no meaningful record company interest.

Two months later, with Andrew Oldham installed as their manager, the Stones tried another studio, Olympic, in south west London, where the novice Oldham doubled as producer to supervise the recording of the A- and B-sides of the band’s debut single, ‘Come On’ and ‘I Want To Be Loved’. The second was one of the tracks they’d recorded at IBC, but, although ‘Come On’ was a Chuck Berry song, it was not in the band’s repertoire. Oldham’s influence was already evident: he had insisted that they should consider covering only the most commercial-sounding records in their collection.

In the same week that the Stones recorded that first single, the Record Mirror’s Norman Jopling, having seen the band at the Station Hotel, reported, “(The Stones) are probably destined to be the biggest group in the R&B scene. Unlike all other R&B groups the Stones have a definite visual appeal. They play and sing in a way one would expect more from a coloured US R&B team… They have achieved the American sound better than any other group over here.” Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames’ fans at the Flamingo All-Nighter would have taken issue with that last assertion, but Jopling had accurately foreseen the Rolling Stones’ destiny.

It was a destiny not mirrored throughout R&B. Even from the dulling distance of the next decade, Alexis Korner’s frustration at the record industry’s reluctance to back Blues Incorporated animated him. “They didn’t want to know,” he fulminated. “We had a single-length version of ‘(I’ve Got My) Mojo Working’ on that first session in 1962. It was the tune of that period. It would’ve caught on, it would’ve sold, but they wouldn’t release it. In January 1963, we put down a version of ‘(Night Time Is) The Right Time’, which Decca completely messed up by dubbing choirs and I don’t know what else on and finally issued about a year later on one of those (various artists) albums. It was the time of the first Ray Charles tour here, and ‘The Right Time’ was his big number. They didn’t want to know. They couldn’t get used to the idea that a wailing band could possibly sell any records.” No doubt there was an element of ageism at play too, because, although Blues Inc’s then frontman Ronnie Jones was young and handsome, the majority of the band’s personnel were unmistakably, as Charlie Watts observed, “eccentric old men”, unmarketable in a teen-oriented music industry.

Released at the end of June and promoted on Thank Your Lucky Stars, ‘Come On’ peaked at No 21 in September. By then the band had cancelled upcoming club dates to join their first nationwide package tour, opening for John Leyton, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and the headlining Everly Brothers. They had also recorded ‘Fortune Teller’ and ‘Poison Ivy’, both familiar to anyone who had seen them live, as a second single, but, following an eleventh hour change of heart, this pairing was shelved. If their first hit’s sole connection with the Stones’ core repertoire had been its originator, Chuck Berry, the replacement follow-up came from an entirely unaccredited source: John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

In April the four Beatles had checked out the Stones at the Station Hotel. Then, in August, following a chance encounter in the West End with Andrew Oldham, briefly a Beatles publicist, Lennon and McCartney showed up at a Stones rehearsal and ran through a new song of theirs, which they felt would suit the band. With the Beatles at No 1 for the third time since January, what group with ambition would turn down a Lennon-McCartney composition? Not the Rolling Stones.

In truth, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ was not out of Lennon and McCartney’s top drawer. Had it been, then surely either John or Paul would have sung lead on the Beatles’ own version? As it was, when it appeared on their second album, With The Beatles, the vocal was Ringo’s. But it was an adept pastiche of British R&B and, reinforced by Brian Jones’ trademark slide guitar, made it to No 12. Of the Stones’ next eight singles, only two would fail to top the charts. Even ‘Little Red Rooster’, a valedictory version of what might be termed a post-modern blues by Sam Cooke, reached No 1. The Rolling Stones had turned rhythm and blues into pop hits. For themselves, at least.

The Flamingo Club

November 1st, 2010

One warm spring Friday night in 1964, cooling off between sets outside the Ricky Tick club in Windsor, I share a match flame with a sharp-suited mod whose jaw works in perfect time with the record wafting from the upstairs room. He chimneys a lungful skywards and asks have I seen Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames? I haven’t. He says they’re the best band around by far and that they’re on at the Flamingo – “up west”, indicated with a head tilt towards London – every Saturday night. I thank him for the tip-off, but figure if a group’s that good, they’ll turn up at the Ricky Tick before long. Although I don’t see him the following week, the Friday after he wants to know what I reckon. When I tell him I haven’t seen them yet, he exhales a smoky sigh and walks away.

Saturday nights soon take on a new pattern. Dex and I still rendezvous in the Antelope, but we leave before closing time and aim my Ford Pop east along the A40, watching house lights go out in the cosy commuter country of Beaconsfield and Gerrards Cross, the suburban estates of Greenford and Perivale, built when being handy for Western Avenue’s sclerotic arterial was a selling point, and the Lego-like semis of Acton, as yet unspoiled by stone-cladding and secondary glazing. We stop off at the bowling alley by Gipsy Corner for as long as it takes to rinse down half a dozen doobs with a waxed-paper cup of coke, and by the time the car is parked in W1, in a space vacated by the straights and squares who’ve already headed home after their idea of a night-out, the amphetamine magic is working, and we are doing our mod swagger down Wardour Street, hoping the Marquee-ites, homeward bound themselves, will notice our dark, dilated pupils, the urgent way we chew our gum, and our walk – oh yes, a walk so cool it ought to be a dance.

At most clubs where R&B groups play, back rooms of pubs, like the Ricky Tick, with a bar in one corner and a makeshift stage, the audience is art-studenty, the scruffy side of smart, with Stones-length hair or longer. The Flamingo, a firetrap of a basement south of Shaftesbury Avenue, attracts an altogether different crowd. Because the All-Nighter operates from midnight to six, they come from a netherworld where people don’t keep regular hours: US servicemen from Mildenhall and Lakenheath on 48-hour passes, determined not to waste pay on a hotel room or precious leave asleep, young West Indians from Notting Hill and Brixton, insomniac musicians, drunks, junkies, hookers, and drynamil-fuelled faces. Mods will be misremembered as the pansy prey of rockers, but the mods-versus-rockers match-up is essentially a media invention, and the notion that a dedicated dress sense is a disqualification from violence a dangerous misconception.

Like the Marquee up the road, the Flamingo was a jazz club originally, modern jazz though, unlike the Marquee’s trad. An illuminated sign assures punters who are unimpressed by the nondescript entrance between a Chinese restaurant and a shoe shop that, “Here is the internationally famous Flamingo Jazz Club.” An arrow points at the doorway leading to a flight of stairs. A second sign, on which a pink flamingo is depicted cartoonishly, boasts that the place is “Britain’s Finest Modern Jazz Venue”. Only on a third sign, smaller than the other two and unlit, are the words ‘Allnighter’ and ‘Rhythm & Blues’ printed. But it’s the word ‘Jazz’ – in jazzy lettering, naturally – that I have fixed on to legitimise my Saturday nights. That and the fact that Dex happens to have a barrister uncle in Belgravia. Even though my old man is less bothered about me spending an evening in sinful Soho than that I’ll be having my ear bent by the modern jazz he abhors, my mother is relieved that I’m avoiding a late drive home by staying over in SW1. If only.

Outside the Flamingo, the audience from the evening session, over at eleven, has gone. Everyone waiting now is here for the midnight hour. The white-knuckle ride of a rush from the pills has smoothed into a surge of euphoria so intensely exhilarating it nearly takes my breath away. Inevitably I turn to Dex and whisper hoarsely how fantastic I’m feeling.

Inside, the lights are dim, and the heat, under the false ceiling, ferocious. Tony Clarke’s ‘Ain’t Love Good, Ain’t Love Proud’ comes over the PA, or James Brown’s ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’, which I hear for the first time queuing on the stairs to the basement, and inevitably before the night is over, since it is a favourite of John Gunnell’s, Lord Kitchener’s priapic ‘Dr Kitch’. Gunnell, who runs the club with his older brother Rik, introduces the acts and, between the sets, plays records from the band room beside the stage, spicing his MC’s patter with a crude parody of Jamaican patois, which nevertheless amuses, rather than offends the West Indians in the audience. There are always two bands on, each playing two alternate sets, with Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band or Chris Farlowe and the Thunderbirds or Ronnie Jones and the Nightimers opening, and Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames closing the session.

The Blue Flames were once Billy Fury’s backing group, and it was Fury’s manager, Larry Parnes, begetter of Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, et al, who changed their pianist’s name from Clive Powell to Georgie Fame. But since the start of their Flamingo residency in 1962, Fame and the Blue Flames have undergone an extraordinary evolutionary process. Other bands have likewise added horns and replaced piano with Hammond organ, but what is unique about the way their music has developed is the input of the Flamingo’s audience.

Much of the band’s material has come from the GIs who frequent the All-Nighter. Keen to replicate the music they would be dancing and drinking to back home – were they not guarding us from the red menace that lurks behind the Iron Curtain – and gratefully aware that Fame and his fellow musicians are not only capable of meaningful interpretation, but enthusiastically open to influence, they lend him their own records. If Fame likes what he hears, the song will be in the band’s set the following weekend, just like James Brown’s ‘Night Train’, Rufus Thomas’s ‘The Dog’, the Phil Upchurch Combo’ ‘You Can’t Sit Down’, even Paul Anka’s ‘Eso Beso’. And, of course, it’s a GI who has introduced him to maverick jazzer Mose Allison, reshaping his singing style overnight. The album that hooked him is I Love The Life I Live, its title track now a staple in the Blue Flames’ set, along with Allison’s ‘Parchman Farm’ and ‘Work Song’.

Even when I search out Allison’s originals, I don’t like Fame’s approximation any less. Plus I am now a sucker for Hammond organs and horn sections, and there isn’t one number in the Blue Flames’ repertoire I don’t think is great. The Rolling Stones may have been lost from the Ricky Tick to the wider world of pop, but I don’t care any more, because Georgie and the Blue Flames make the most exciting music in town. The All-nighter is unmissable.

From midnight to six we dance and fidget and talk nonsense, start to feel not so great, swallow more pills and feel great again, and suddenly we’re outside in the cold, cold light. Those six hours can flash by so fast, I once ask on my way out why the bands haven’t done two sets tonight. “What’re you on, son? Here, you sure you’re old enough to be in this joint?” I wasn’t.

We have a wash at Charing Cross station, a coffee in the Strand, occasionally shop for bluebeat records at a stall in Petticoat Lane, anything to put off the return to the real world and the inevitable come-down. Some hardcore Flamingo fans even go back for more. There’s a Sunday afternoon session, where John Gunnell, easing his way through the day with a bottle of Scotch, heckles the bands he’s booked. In theory, and in amphetamine-powered defiance of fatigue, you can attend six sessions between Friday and Sunday.

For out-of-towners, like Dex and me, whose alibi of the bed in Belgravia means there’s no hurry to get back to High Wycombe, the morning-after usually begins with a time-killing detour via the 24-hour Heathrow Bowl on the A4 until it’s late enough to be starting a normal Sunday. Except by now my jaw aches, my eyes sting, my synuses burn, my feet throb, my throat is raw, my stomach convulsed, and my penis shrunk so small I struggle to pull it from my pants for the dribble of dark urine which is as much as I can summon. On my tongue there’s a permanent ball of spit, which taints everything I taste. Not that I have an appetite.

We can’t go to anyone’s house unless they’re in on our secret and their parents, who would think us ill, are out, so we usually wind up in the one coffee bar in the entire town that is open on a Sunday afternoon. It becomes such a regular sanctuary that I start taking one of the waitresses home after her shift. A fumble in my car, parked at the end of her drive, momentarily reverses the day’s downward spiral.

Bottoming out of my come-down at school on Monday, I meet Dex by the tuck shop and swear I’m never going to the All-Nighter again. I’m still adamant on Tuesday, but by Wednesday we’re singing snatches of that new number that went down a storm. What was it called? ‘Yeh Yeh’? Georgie and the band ought to record that. Who knows, it could be a hit. On Thursday we scan the Flamingo’s weekly ad in Melody Maker to see who the other group’s going to be. Friday I hand Dex the money for my doobs. I can’t wait for Saturday night. I love the Flamingo, right until the weekend before I leave for university, when I realise what a dangerous place it is for a middle-class boy masquerading as a mod.

Blues Incorporated

November 1st, 2010

Alexis Korner’s Parisian birthplace, Austro-Greek parentage, noble features and languid growl endowed him with an aura of exoticism unreflected in his musical partner Cyril ‘Squirrel’ Davies, a balding, ex-banjo-playing panel beater from Denham with a villainous streak, who could nevertheless make a harmonica sing the blues like noone else in England. The pair had already done their bit for the evolution of homegrown R&B with their London Blues and Barrelhouse Club, whose guests at the Thursday evening sessions in an upstairs room of a Soho pub included Muddy Waters.

Long John Baldry, a young, would-be Big Bill Broonzy, who saw Waters there and in concert at St Pancras Town Hall, was impressed. “Up to that time,” the late, lanky singer told me in 1971, “we thought of blues as being strictly acoustic music, and Muddy came over with this electric guitar and a big amplifier, and a lot of people said, ‘Ooh, sacrilegious, dreadful, dreadful, he’s selling out the blues,’ and all that. It was the same reaction as there was when Bob Dylan came over (in 1966) and first did his electric thing – people actually booing, because they were used to people playing acoustic guitar, in various styles, but never amplified. But Cyril, Alex and myself looked at this and thought, ‘Hmm, this is interesting,’ and we started trying ourselves.” Korner concurred, “Many people didn’t like the St. Pancras concert because Muddy was playing electric, and they didn’t think blues should be played electric. Cyril and I were already being kicked out of clubs for taking in amplifiers.”

In 1960, Korner and Davies were co-opted by Chris Barber to play the closing half-hour of his jazz band’s Wednesday residency at the Marquee Club in Oxford Street, a climactic blues set that had even the most leaden-footed audience members dancing. But, despite its popularity, this blues-jazz fusion was doomed, not least because Davies interpreted his supporting role on harmonica as an opportunity to outwail the redoubtable pipes of Barber’s singer Ottilie Patterson.

“Backing his own singing, he wouldn’t play except in the gaps, because he couldn’t,” Barber explained, before highlighting another problem, “and the trouble with Alex was, you’d beat a number in, ‘One, two, three’ – du-duddlu-du – but Alex was likely to go, ‘One, two, three, four,’ and we got sick of starting on the wrong beat, and decided that, if playing electric R&B in England meant working with Alex, we wouldn’t do it. Besides, Alex wanted to do it all night, and we didn’t.”

Offloaded by Barber, but buoyed by the Marquee audience’s response to their music, Korner and Davies resolved to form their own band. As the first electric blues band in Britain, Blues Incorporated was sufficiently unique to be stuck for places to play. Not only was the music was too earthy by half for pop promoters, but, to pop’s teenage audience, the band’s members would have appeared not merely eccentric, but avuncular, if not outright elderly. Korner, pushing thirty-three, was a dozen years older than contemporary pop stars Adam Faith and Cliff Richard, while Davies, who would die three years later, looked far older than twenty-nine. And whereas their looks would not have been out of place on a jazz club stage, Blues Incorporated’s amplified music was too loud, too close to rock’n’roll for trad-dom.

Their solution was to open their own venue in a west London suburb. The Ealing Club opened on 17th March 1962 – St Patrick’s Night, an appropriately date, given that the premises were known to Davies as an after-hours drinking den – in a basement accessed by a flight of steps between a jeweller’s and a teashop across the road from Ealing Broadway underground station. If they were to attract an audience, it would be by word of mouth on the burgeoning London blues grapevine, because, as Korner remembered, “We opened with a few posters around Ealing and practically no advertising.” But, if he and Davies were worried their venture might fail, their concern would have been dispelled before Blues Incorporated took the stage, because the place was packed from that first night.

Blues Incorporated’s original line-up, headed reluctantly by Alexis Korner – “I didn’t want to lead a band, I just got lumbered into doing it” – on guitar, with harmonica-player and singer Cyril Davies his dishevelled lieutenant, had Art Wood, older brother of Ron, as second singer, plus Keith Scott (piano), Andy Hoogenboom (bass) and Charlie Watts (drums). Wood soon left to form his own Art Wood Combo (later the Artwoods), then Jack Bruce and his white double bass replaced Andy Hoogenboom, and Ginger Baker took over from Charlie Watts, whose commitment was curtailed by a day job as a graphic designer. Dick Heckstall-Smith added tenor sax to the line-up, and there was a succession of pianists. Besides Davies, Long John Baldry would take a turn at the microphone, as would a still short-haired Mick Jagger, who Baldry described as being “all lips and ears – he looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy up there on stage.” Another regular, Eric Clapton, is remembered not for his guitar-playing, but for singing ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, shyness gluing his gaze to the floor. And Keith Richard – no ‘s’ then – would be in the audience with Dick Taylor, bass guitarist with the proto-Stones.

Saturday night at the Ealing Club was more than a regular date in London blues fans’ diary, it was London blues and, what’s more, the London blues scene was the only blues scene in Britain, which is why, most weekends, Brian Jones hitch-hiked ninety miles along the A40 trunk road from his home town of Cheltenham, picking up Paul Pond in Oxford on the way. Calling himself Elmo Lewis, a name with a bluesier ring than the one his parents had given him, the future Rolling Stone duetted with the future Manfred Mann vocalist, who would soon change his own surname from Pond to Jones. Brian Jones’ speciality, learned from Elmore James records, was bottleneck slide guitar, a technique every bit as mind-boggling on first sighting as the most accomplished conjuror’s sleight of hand.

Although Blues Inc members’ knowledge of the blues and approach to the music differed, what did unite the band – and their audience – was a shared antipathy for the tiresome mummery of traditional jazz. “(Blues Incorporated) was basically a reaction against trad,” Korner confirmed. “Most of the people in the first band had played trad jazz at one time or another. Cyril had worked with local trad bands in West London, and I’d worked with Barber and various other bands. Jack Bruce, when he came to us, came straight from Jim McHarg’s Scotsville Jazzband, Ginger Baker had worked with Acker Bilk, Dick Heckstall-Smith had played Bechet-type soprano at one time in a university band. Most of us had been through trad jazz, and for various reasons we wanted to play something that was the complete antithesis of trad jazz, which by then had got very finicky and very kitsch altogether. Trombones played specific parts and clarinets tweedled over the top, and everyone played every beat exactly the same way, and we got fed up with it. You couldn’t have found anything more fundamentally opposed to the concept of trad jazz than Muddy Waters.”

Despite disenchanting Korner’s crowd, trad – the populist monosyllable symbolic of its musical atrophy – had become a pop phenomenon. Having entered the Top Twenty in December 1961, Acker Bilk’s fourth top ten hit, ‘Stranger On The Shore’, was barely a third of the way through its year-long stay in the charts; the Temperance Seven, boatered and blazered like an am-dram chorus from Salad Days, had vodeo-doed their way to a string of hits, including the chart-topping ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’; and, like Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen had been in the charts since the previous year with ‘Midnight In Moscow’, whose formulaic follow-up, ‘March Of The Siamese Children’, was already in the Top Ten.

Two and three-quarter hours of Saturday evening air-time was given over to the BBC Light Programme’s Trad Tavern, while BBC TV had Trad Fad, whose presenter Brian Matthew also hosted the Light Programme’s weekend pop shows, Saturday Club and Easy Beat, their running-orders peppered with trad singles and live sessions.

Matthew had appointed himself the trad boom’s chronicler. In Trad Mad, his feverish account of the era, he recorded the rules laid down by Trad Fad’s (and future Top Of The Pops’) producer Johnny Stewart: “No beatniks and no weirdies! He wanted no one on the screen wearing jeans, and all the girls admitted had to wear skirts. He knew, of course, that in any jazz club you will always find some members of the great unwashed, with their bizarre clothes and off-beat habits, but he felt that they represented only a very small minority of jazz fans, and were completely unnecessary to the programme. ‘Jazz is still jazz,’ he said, ‘whether it is played on Salibury Plain or the lounge of a luxury liner. But it is not enhanced by dingy surroundings and odd hangers-on. I want to prove to its detractors that it is a most interesting form of music, which does not have to be presented in dirt and discomfort. I have built a clean, bright set, and I want it filled with clean, bright people who enjoy jazz’.”

But the trad bandwagon was dangerously overcrowded. In London alone, an estimated fifty trad bands were vying for work, most more intent on making a living than meaningful music. Ted Heath, a bandleader as old as the 20th century, who had been repeatedly wrong in predicting the demise of rock’n’roll and the return of his beloved big bands, was spot-on for once about trad, when he declared, “There’s no future in trad from the musical point of view. As long as people are given the lowest forms of musicianship, they won’t discern between good and bad. Some of us tried, with some success, to get the public to appreciate taste and musicianship. Now the fancy dress boys are teaching youngsters to associate jazz with funny clothes.”

There would be few more trad hits, and by 1964 the music would be dead and buried, but while Brian Matthew had attributed trad’s success to the fact that “rock fans require more from the music than a sheer jungle beat,” what got feet stomping in that damp basement in Ealing and still had heads nodding and toes tapping on the homeward tube was the closest rhythm to a jungle beat since Tarzan’s came up with the chest-thump tom-tom.

Noting the buzz about Blues Incorporated, Chris Barber extended another helping hand to Korner and British R&B. As co-custodian (with Harold Pendleton) of British jazz’s Oxford Street bastion, he booked the band to play the Marquee’s first ‘Rhythm & Blues Night’. Through the summer of 1962, the audience for Blues Inc’s Thursday residency, which had initially been populated almost exclusively by refugees from the Ealing Club, unable to wait for Saturday to come round, swelled weekly, prompting the first press coverage of rhythm and blues in August, when Melody Maker’s Chris Roberts urged readers to “take a trip to the Marquee Club on a Thursday night when Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies are stomping along with Blues Incorporated. That is, if you don’t mind people standing on your head – the club’s popularity has to be seen, heard, and felt to be believed. Their kind of music – using a line-up of guitar, harmonica (amplified), sax, piano, bass and drums – is sure to put in a big take-over bid in rock clubs and dance halls all over Britain.”

Interviewed in the same paper later that month, Korner ventured, “I think the music has a very strong future. In fact, I believe it will be the next ‘big thing’. The audience we get includes trad fans, modern fans, beat fans, real R&B fans, and folk music fans, and it includes most age groups. All of them like to dance, and many twist themselves to a standstill… And basically, whatever else we try to do, we are a dance band. We want to play for dancing. The point is, we are not following a popular trend. There’s never been a band like this in Britain.”

Asked if he thought rhythm and blues could break trad’s stranglehold, he offered this prediction: “I don’t think it can this year, but some time next year it may, if trad stays as it is, of course. I anticipate that there’ll be a hell of a lot more R&B bands by the end of the year.” He wasn’t wrong.

As well as alerting the music press, Blues Incorporated also attracted the attention of BBC Radio’s Jazz Club, whose producer booked the band to perform a live session on 12th July 1962, a red letter day in rock’s calendar – not that Blues Inc’s broadcast was the musical milestone. The date being a Thursday, doing Jazz Club meant finding a band to fill in at the Marquee, but, before attending to that arrangement, Korner had to resolve a dispute with the BBC, who refused to contract the entire line-up to perform a scant handful of songs, arguing that the teenager who took an occasional turn as singer was the most dispensible. Korner baulked, the BBC refused to budge, and a band meeting was held, at which Mick Jagger gamely offered to end the stand-off by fulfilling the Marquee date with a band of his own: the Rollin’ (sic) Stones.

Blues Incorporated and the Rolling Stones

November 1st, 2010

The first public appearance of what would one day be touted as “the greatest rock and roll band in the world” was hardly headline news, claiming no more than a couple of column inches on an inside page of the July 1962 issue of Jazz News. The date of the debut was Thursday 12th July; the venue the Marquee Club (then a basement below the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, whose tent-like décor had been designed by the surrealist photographer Angus McBean); the band the Rollin’ – with an apostrophe – Stones. These details were followed by a quote from singer Mick Jagger, expressing the fragile hope that the audience in that bastion of musical correctness wouldn’t “think we’re a rock’n’roll outfit,” and the expected line-up, which, alongside the snake-hipped “R&B vocalist”, featured guitarists Keith Richard and Elmo Lewis (Brian Jones’ blues alter ego), pianist Ian Stewart, bass guitarist Dick Taylor and drummer Mick Avory.

Whether Avory actually appeared is uncertain, and other drummers would come and go in the six months before Charlie Watts could be persuaded to abandon a day job in graphic design to pursue a full-time career with the Stones, but on Thursday 12th July the band’s future drummer could be found in the Marquee’s audience, from where he noted a phenomenon that set this new group apart from Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, with whom he had previously played. “The thing was,” he told me in 1978, “the bands that were doing that stuff, like Alexis’, were really eccentric old men. Now the Stones, the front line at any rate, were young, so there was obvious appeal for the kids who wanted to dance. Alexis’ band was a joke to look at, but this lot sort of crossed the barrier. They actually were like rock stars, I suppose, but they could play.”

The Stones’ Marquee debut was no springboard to overnight success. Although they reappeared at the club, they were dropped by the club’s manager Harold Pendleton after a meagre five more bookings in as many months because, as Pendleton’s partner Chris Barber argued, “they weren’t authentic enough, even then they’d gone into British” – intoned with unmissably dismissive emphasis – “R&B.” (The slight was not quickly forgotten: filming a TV special at the Marquee eight years later, Keith Richards petulantly swung his guitar at Pendleton, but missed.)

During the months before he left the Stones to pursue an unfulfilled aim to attend the Royal College of Art, bassist Dick Taylor had little reason to suppose they were about to break into the big time. “We played very few gigs,” he conceded. “I remember somewhere way out in the sticks, though it probably wasn’t as far as Watford, and we all went by train, took all our gear on the train, and we played in this completely empty hall. The only audience was outside, looking through the window. No one came in, but we really enjoyed ourselves.”

The Stones were welcomed back regularly at the Ealing Club, and also tried out at the Flamingo Club in Soho. Run by brothers Rik and John Gunnell, the club’s renowned All-Nighters – midnight-to-six sessions on Saturday nights – were popular with black Londoners and US servicemen on 48-hour passes from their bases at Mildenhall, Lakenheath and High Wycombe, reluctant to waste on overnight accommodation the pay they had earned guarding Britain against the Red Menace or to spend an unnecessary moment of their precious leave asleep. The audience also included the first mods, their stamina boosted by drinamyl and dexedrine. For die-hards with nowhere else to go, there was a Sunday afternoon session, which doubled as audition time. The Stones’ turn came in November 1962, as John Gunnell told me nine years later.

“We were all pissed from the night before, pouring out afternoon whiskies, and this band comes down, when long hair wasn’t in, and we were thinking, ‘Fuck, who are these? They’ve got to be kidding.’ But they went on stage and they were great, so we gave them a Monday night. This was when they had Ian Stewart on piano and Carlo Little from Screaming Lord Sutch’s band on drums. And they drew no one, because the Flamingo was a black club, a real R&B club. It was saxophones and screaming, and the Stones died a death, no one was there, like one person would come in, which was five bob (25p). I remember paying Mick Jagger off and telling him, ‘If your R&B ever takes off, you can kiss my arse.’ When it did, he came back down to remind me.” The Stones’ truncated four-week residency in January 1963 was nonetheless notable for the first appearance of the soon-to-be familiar line-up of Jagger, Richard, Jones, Wyman and Watts, plus pianist Ian Stewart, who, because his face didn’t fit, would be relegated to roadie by soon-to-be manager Andrew Oldham.

The musical background of the Rolling Stones’ two most recent recruits could hardly have been more polarised, yet Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman, who joined a matter of weeks before the drummer in December, typified the diversity of musicians drawn to R&B.

Wyman had been playing what everyone else played in his corner of south-east London: “Shadows stuff, Ventures stuff, all those semi-instrumental groups, because there were never really any good singers about. So most of the bands had an echo chamber and a good lead guitarist who could play ‘FBI’ and all that shit, and experiment and try and play some American music, but it was always the wrong stuff – it was ‘Poetry In Motion’ and ‘Personality’, all those things – whereas the band I was trying to get together, we were trying to play the R&B kind of American music that was coming over, more like Little Richard, the Coasters, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, black artists, not the Pat Boones and the Bobby Vees. I wasn’t involved at all with the jazz thing that was going on in London, or even the R&B thing. I was more into rock’n’roll, rather than the Korner thing, so (joining the Stones) was very strange to me, and it was only Chuck Berry that held me in with the band for the first few weeks, because I knew all those Chuck Berry songs, and I knew Bo Diddley vaguely. I didn’t know any of the blues people, but at least when they said, let’s do ‘Reeling And Rocking’, I knew it backwards, and doing a blues on the bass was fairly simple anyway. It was just popular music that was being played by black artists instead of white, really, that was the difference, and we suddenly realised it was better.”

By contrast, Watts “came out of the school that never listened to rock’n’roll, or refused to until I was about twenty-one. I was never really that good to play what you might term ‘jazz’, particularly at that time, so I just used to play with anyone really, which was mostly jazz people, but not on a very high musical level, not the best, though some of them turned out to be the best as time passed.”

Blues Incorporated had provided Watts’ introduction to R&B. “When I first played with Cyril Davies in Alexis Korner’s band, I thought, ‘What the fuck is happening here?’ because I’d only ever heard the harmonica played by Larry Adler, but Cyril was such a character, I loved him. But the rest of it! I didn’t know what the hell was going on. Although I knew about playing a heavy backbeat, it wasn’t like Chicago, which was what Cyril wanted. On a good night it was amazing, but a total cacophony of sound. It was like a cross between R&B and Charlie Mingus, which was what Alexis wanted. By the time I joined the Stones, I was quite used to rock’n’roll… to Chuck Berry and that, but it was actually sitting up endlessly with Keith (Richards) and Brian (Jones) – I was out of work at the time I joined them and I just used to hang about with them, waiting for jobs to come up, daytime work – just listening to Little Walter and all that, that it got ground in.”

While the Stones were consolidating their style, the turbulent, cacophonous clash of R&B and Mingus observed from his drum stool by Watts, had brought to an untimely end Alexis Korner’s long-standing association with Cyril Davies, who quit Blues Incorporated in November 1962. “Cyril wanted to work with a sort of recreation of the mid-fifties Muddy Waters band,” Korner told me, “but my argument was, it’s already been done, what’s the point of doing it again? So Blues Incorporated was getting to be this riffing-type R&B band, and I’d always liked horns.” With Davies gone, Korner brought in altoist Graham Bond to complement Dick Heckstall-Smith’s tenor – “and we got some tremendous riffing things going with them and Jack (Bruce) and Ginger (Baker).”

Following his abrupt departure, Davies did not waste time hand-picking individual musicians to play with, instead annexing in its entirety Screaming Lord Sutch’s backing group, the Savages – Nicky Hopkins (piano), Bernie Watson (guitar), Rick Brown (bass), and sometime Rolling Stone Carlo Little (drums) – adding Long John Baldry as second vocalist and a trio of black backing singers, The Velvettes, recruited from the cast of the West End show, King Kong. He named his new band Cyril Davies’s R&B All-Stars.

While welcoming his liberation from Davies’s belligerence and dogma, Korner continued to miss his old partner. “We’d worked together on and off for a long time, Cyril and I, and as long as things were going badly for us, as long as there was a fight, even to find somewhere to play, we were okay together. It was a musical partnership, and once we were playing, we forgot about all the rest. Sometimes we played some extraordinary things together, Cyril and I. We got things going together that I’ve never got going with anybody else, never, not those particular things that I used to get going with Cyril, that he used to get going with me.”

The post-Davies “riffing” line-up of Blues Incorporated lasted barely three months. Recruited as an altoist, Graham Bond made no secret of his desire to double on organ, a move vetoed by Korner, who had “got it very clear that Bondy came in as an alto player. He occasionally did a piano feature, but we had a pianist – Johnny Parker. When he started wanting to play organ, I said it didn’t fit into the band, it wasn’t that sort of sound. Besides, I have a thing about organ players, because they do tend to ride over everything else, they’ve got all that power, and they do tend to bloody well use it, so they swamp the more delicate things that are going on elsewhere. After some arguments, not bitter ones, but some fairly positive arguments about this, that and the other, he left (in February 1963), persuading Jack (Bruce) and Ginger (Baker) to form a trio with him.”

Unwanted at the Marquee, but established at the Ealing Club and the Star & Garter Hotel in Windsor, the Stones next set up camp at the Station Hotel in the Thames-side suburb of Richmond, where they played on Sunday nights from February 1963, making it one of those venues, like the Cavern in Liverpool or the 100 Club in Oxford Street, where, in order to assert earlier-than-thou allegiance to the Beatles or the Sex Pistols, you had to claim to have seen them.

The Sunday evening sessions were run by Georgio Gomelsky, a desultory entrepreneur who might have managed the Stones, had he been half as sharp as he thought he was. Helping Gomelsky was Hamish Grimes, a young graphic designer, who witnessed at first hand the mushrooming popularity of their Crawdaddy Club. “There was only a small group to whom mention of the Rolling Stones would have meant anything at all,” Grimes recalled, “but the word spread that this was something totally different, and every week the figures doubled until the place was absolutely full to capacity. People would queue for hours, literally, on a Sunday afternoon. They would start queuing about five o’clock, people sitting outside the door, so they could be first in and get next to the stage. It was difficult to move around, and if you went out to the bar to get a drink, you could never get back to a good vantage point. It was absolutely mad.”

As at the Ealing Club, when Blues Incorporated had first played there, the audience for the Stones’ sessions at the Station Hotel was peppered with would-be bluesmen and apprentice pop stars, among them schoolfriends Jim McCarty and Paul Samwell-Smith, who, having had enough of the same Shadows instrumentals that had bored Bill Wyman, would soon team up with members of a Kingston art school band, the Metropolitan Blues Quartet, to form the Yardbirds. Another regular was future Small Face Ian McLagan, who affirmed, “There were a lot of musicians who used to turn up early, drink a couple of quick pints, and get to the front of the stage to watch mainly Brian for me, funnily enough, and Stu (Ian Stewart). And that’s when I realised maybe white boys from London can play the blues, because they could, so it gave me a bit more confidence: yeah, maybe we can play the blues and get paid for it.”

By the time the Stones unloaded their gear at the Station Hotel, they had already played one gig, an afternoon set at the Ken Colyer Jazz Club at Studio 51 in Great Newport Street, where Soho meets Covent Garden. This new residency in such a stronghold of traditional jazz, on behalf of which Colyer had remained a tireless campaigner, said much about R&B’s take-over from trad. Although Acker Bilk’s ‘Stranger On The Shore’ was by far the biggest-selling record of 1962, even before the end of its twelve-month chart run Melody Maker was asking “Has Trad Had It?”: “Let’s face it. The trad boom is on the wane. Only a few big names can pull in the crowds – and not all of them are doing the big business of six months ago. A lot of newly-formed trad bands around today are going to the wall.”

The article went on to blame the top bands for following the same big money circuit – “no wonder the fans are beginning to get bored” – but identified as the essential reason for trad’s decline the fact that many of those fans were not genuine jazz enthusiasts. “So many so-called trad fans are really camp followers of the pop disc parade. Thousands of youngsters who buy the trad-pop singles have about as much musical appreciation as those who rush to purchase the latest rock or twist hit. Jazz fans? Not on your Nelly!”

Bandleader Alan Elsdon blamed “certain agents and promoters (who) have flooded the jazz clubs with inferior bands,” while Mike Cotton, whose Jazzmen would emerge from an R&B make-over in 1964 as the Mike Cotton Sound, conceded, “There is no doubt the big boom is on the wane.”

Rhythm and blues was seen as a universal remedy: a cure for dwindling club audiences, an elixir for uninspired musicians, and ultimately a money-earner for the record industry, although not until its London-based, but Liverpool-fixated A&R men had recovered sufficiently from the tunnel vision brought on by Merseybeat to spot what was happening in their own back yard.

Chris Barber: Father of British R&B

November 1st, 2010

By 1963 everyone I knew had a TV. Two black-and-white channels: the one that was on and “the other side”. So when the Rolling Stones appeared on Thank Your Lucky Stars at teatime on Saturday 7th July, miming to their first single, ‘Come On’, I knew millions of teens would be watching the band I had seen at the Ricky Tick club in Windsor almost every Friday night for the last five months. I’d talked the Stones up weekly to my fellow sixth-formers, without persuading one to make the trip to Windsor with me, but I walked into school the following Monday, knowing my less hip peers would by now have had at least a three-minute monochrome glimpse of the best band around.

Anticipating approval of my excellent taste and congratulations on my foresight, what I got instead was a comprehensive thumbs-down, endorsed by sneers, some laughter, even a feeble impression, plus a new nickname – Mick – since, ignoramuses all, they had failed to identify Brian Jones as the model for my blond mop. Their response had me momentarily wondering, not for the last time in my life, whether an absolute belief that my band was heading for the big time was misplaced. No, I quickly concluded, I’m right, they’re wrong, and, what’s more, even if the Stones didn’t make it, I’d rather hear them wailing the blues in the back room of a pub, than too-eager-to-please Liverpudlians yeah-yeah-yeahing their winsome way to No 1.

In the bigger picture, the Stones’ TV debut was confirmation that R&B had become part of pop. Its emergence had been a long time coming, ten years in all – twice the lifespan of modern pop music – since the beginnings of a blues movement in Britain had huddled in the unlikely Trojan horse of traditional jazz. Through the early fifties, the traditional or Dixieland jazz movement, dedicated to the revival of New Orleans’ vernacular music, had been steadily gathering a momentum which, by the end of the decade, would generate a “trad boom”. In its vanguard was trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber.

It was in 1953, four years after he led his first amateur jazz band, that Barber formed the Ken Colyer Jazzmen with the eponymous trumpeter, lately returned – a reluctant, but revered deportee – from the fabled Crescent City itself. Colyer explained the band’s mission in the jazz-friendly music weekly, Melody Maker: “We are going to try to popularise New Orleans music without distorting it, aborting it, or slapping any gimmicks on it.” Having established a Monday night residency at Mack’s (later famous as the 100 Club, a basement at that address in London’s Oxford Street), in September they recorded New Orleans To London, an album which yielded traditional jazz’s first hint of a pop hit, ‘Isle Of Capri’. Although the band bore his name, Colyer grew increasingly disenchanted with its musical course, which, as he saw it, was being plotted solely by Barber, rather than by mutual agreement, and he quit in May 1954, after a final disagreement, remembered by Barber as “a blazing row”. Without him, the band became Chris Barber’s Jazz Band, its new name leaving no ambiguity as to its leader.

Unlike the more tunnel-visioned Colyer, Barber was eager to share with his band’s – and traditional jazz’s – escalating audience his singular conviction that the syncopated jazz born in New Orleans around the start of the century was not the only form of black American music worthy of their attention. There was another: dark, primitive, driven by raw emotion. The blues. Determined to disseminate what he saw as “the folk music of the American Negro” without jazzing up its unsophisticated instrumentation, Barber initiated within his band a stripped-down, skeletal trio to perform this rudimentary music more accurately than any arrangement for a Dixieland line-up would allow.

The trio, which took to the stage during the main band’s interval break, was recruited from existing personnel, and comprised vocalist Beryl Bryden mutely, but eye-catchingly, thrumming washboard percussion, with Barber himself on double bass, while the jazz band’s banjoist Tony Donegan played guitar and sang, the personable Glaswegian’s wholehearted commitment to the material going a long way to compensate for a pinched vocal tone that impeded a broad interpretation of the blues. As Barber acknowledged in our 1971 interview, “Lonnie loved the blues, but he could only sing it in a certain kind of way – he could get quite near to that particular nasal sound of Leadbelly’s.”

The unexpected popularity of the blues trio’s interval sets led to the inclusion of two of their favourites on the Barber band’s 1954 album, New Orleans Joys. Eventually paired as the A- and B-side of a single released late the following year, ‘Rock Island Line’ and ‘John Henry’ showed up in the new year’s first Top Ten, where the record remained until the end of March, a three-month run that turned Donegan – by now calling himself Lonnie in homage to his blues idol, Lonnie Johnson – into a bona fide British pop star who would enjoy a prolific run of hits.

Donegan topped the UK charts three times, an impressive enough feat, yet two other statistics underline his pre-eminence. Between 1956 and 1962, the number of weeks in which Lonnie Donegan had a record in the charts was surpassed only by Elvis Presley, while his thirty hit singles outnumber even the totals attained by those pop colossi, the Beatles and Abba. And if Donegan was seduced by popstardom into recording ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Over Night)’ and ‘My Old Man’s A Dustman’, red-nosed novelties that owed more to music hall than any ethnic tradition, he nevertheless continued to use his records and live performances as platforms to popularise blues, folk and country music.

Of course, the music Lonnie Donegan brought to the attention of British record buyers was not known as blues. His version, communicated like a musical Chinese whisper, emerged as skiffle, originally an American term applied to the jug bands and rent party combos of the 1920s and ’30s, especially those employing home-made or improvised instruments, such as cigar-box guitars, washboards, and blown bottles and jugs. Re-adopted in the UK in the 1950s, the name not only suppressed the music’s true identity, but encouraged disapproving adults, marooned on the wrong side of the recently mapped generation gap, to rhyme it with ‘piffle’.

Besides catapaulting Lonnie Donegan into the big time, ‘Rock Island Line’ opened the charts to Top Ten hits by Chas McDevitt and Nancy Whiskey, the Vipers, and Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys. Nevertheless, this handful of hits and Donegan’s dozens notwithstanding, skiffle’s seismic impact was not on record sales.

What the success of ‘Rock Island Line’ did was to launch Britain’s first nationwide – north to south, coast to coast – pop craze. Skiffle was ideal everyman music, accessible to anyone with the will to have a go, since its essential instrumentation was as inexpensive as its chords and rhythms were uncomplicated. Adequate equipment to enable a group to perform at a local youth club – where many made their first (and, almost as many, their last) appearance – could be purchased for a few pounds, and didn’t even necessitate a visit to a music shop.

In the lingering austerity of a predominantly white goods-free post-war era, the washboard that skiffle substituted for a drum kit could be found in the ironmongery that was ever-present in British high streets, the same shop providing the broom-handle neck for the bass, whose sound box was a tea chest, still redolent with the aroma of Darjeeling or Assam, a dusty residue dancing in its corners as the string stretched tight to the top of the neck was slapped and plunked. Even a guitar could be bought cheaply by mail order from a ubiquitous newspaper ad, illustrated with a drawing of a check-shirted musician whose beaky features were a dead ringer for Lonnie Donegan.

The fad spread across the UK like an epidemic. In London, Soho’s streets bristled with skiffle clubs; in Liverpool, a teenage John Lennon, having bought – and, as soon as he’d learned the song, sold – a 78 of ‘Rock Island Line’, had his momentous meeting with Paul McCartney at a performance by the skiffling Quarrymen.

In the village where I lived, our fresh-faced, novice vicar startled visitors to the summer fete by fronting his own skiffle group on the back of a flat bed lorry, the skirt of his cassock swinging above his sandalled feet like a bent church bell. Doubtless he genuinely enjoyed the singing and strumming, but, still short-trousered, I was suspicious of the church’s wiles. Surely the follow-up offer of free guitar lessons came with a catch? Wasn’t the group for which he really wanted recruits his confirmation set? Jesus would have to go on wanting me for a sunbeam, my Sundays weren’t worth sacrificing for a few chords.

Skiffle’s runaway popularity was not what its unwitting instigators had intended, and prompted Chris Barber to adopt a different approach to his proselytising. Redoubling the irony, Barber’s jazz band could be fingered for the fanfare that announced the arrival of the trad boom, when their 1959 recording of Sidney Bechet’s ‘Petite Fleur’ – the bandleader’s trombone blamelessly absent from this showcase for his misanthropic clarinettist Monty Sunshine – became one of the year’s biggest hits. Skiffle’s success might have taken Barber by surprise, but he couldn’t fail to notice the looming trad boom. He watched the music’s popularity build year by year, month by month, gig by gig, and, with characteristic altruism, saw his band’s favoured status in this onrushing golden age as an unmissable opportunity to step up his blues crusade.

“From 1955 we had the trad boom to ourselves,” he told me. “We were filling halls everywhere, we had money to spare, we couldn’t get any more people in or charge any more money for the tickets, but we thought we ought to get people to understand that jazz was really this – and all that. There was more to it than what we were doing.” So, early in 1957, he offered his fans a first-hand taste of the blues by stumping up to take on tour as support for his band Big Bill Broonzy and Brother John Sellars. “It was the first British concert tour with blues artists, I think. Big Bill had been over before (he had, more than once, en route to or from Paris) and done a couple of club dates, but not a concert tour. There was no meeting with the British public, only with a few dedicated fans. We were doing so well that we were able to do what we wanted and have these people guest with us. Brother John was doing a kind of Joe Turner blues act, and they both went down marvellously with the audience. Big Bill did waffle a bit, according to how much whisky he’d drunk before he went on, so his ratio of talk to songs used to vary from concert to concert, but people didn’t object to it, they loved it.”

Later that same year Barber brought over Sister Rosetta Tharpe, then, in May 1958, the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee – “unbelievable, marvellous tour, it was fantastic” – and, crucially, before the year’s end, Muddy Waters. Like Tharpe two years before, Waters offended finger-in-the-ear folk-blues doctrinists by plugging his guitar into an amplifier, but the Barber band’s less pedantic fans were open-minded. According to the band’s singer (and Barber’s wife) Ottilie Patterson, “Our fans were ready to take what was given, because it was our scene. The thing that made them accept the electric guitar was that it was played by a black person – ‘It must be all right, because they’re genuine, they’re the real thing’.”

What Waters was playing was rhythm and blues: not the acoustic country blues that had previously found favour with British jazz and folk revivalists, but the urbanised, electric mutation of post-war black America. Barber, unblinkered as ever, was hooked. “We were all pretty aware of Muddy’s records in the band, but we weren’t doing any of his numbers at the time. We were doing some numbers in the style – almost – but, of course, not being electric, you wouldn’t notice it particularly. But after Muddy did the tour in ’58, we were obviously more keen on his thing.”

Waters had come to Britain with only his pianist Otis Spann, but just weeks later Barber and his band undertook their first American tour, which provided the opportunity to experience the real Muddy Waters on his home turf in Chicago, supported by his own band – for Barber “an unbelievable experience. One of the most enjoyable things ever was to see Muddy performing ‘I’m A Man’ to a black audience – those screams you hear on a live recording, they were all laughing. It was a rave for a black audience.” The night was a memorable one too for Ottilie Patterson, once Waters had managed to coax her onstage. “I was shit-scared,” she admitted. “Here I was, white, English, in a black blues club in Chicago singing, ‘I wonder why that southbound train don’t run.’ How were they going to take that? Luckily they recognised it for what it was.” She and Barber fell so deeply under Waters’ spell that not only did Patterson become the first British singer to regularly perform his ‘(I’ve Got My) Mojo Working’, making it the earliest anthem of the British blues boom, but, six years after kick-starting skiffle, Barber assembled a second offshoot of his band with the aim that every Waters number they performed would approximate the sound of the amplified original that had knocked them out at Smitty’s Corner in Chicago.

“We were playing these numbers of Muddy’s for a year or two,” he explained, “and I thought we really ought to do it the proper way. None of the jazz band’s instruments had a resonant tone. The sound goes on as long as you blow, and then it stops. So we thought, ‘Electric guitar – we’ll give it a go.’ I had known Alexis Korner for years – he was in my first band, ten years before – and we heard he was doing electric blues in England, so someone said, ‘Let’s get together,’ because it seemed we’d get more of a sound.” But the association with Korner and his chalk-and-cheese partner Cyril Davies proved to be problematic from the start and, despite his audience’s delirious response to the R&B repertoire, Barber dropped the duo, just as he had earlier abandoned the skiffle group. Although he continued to include blues numbers in his band’s repertoire and to bring American bluesmen to Britain, notably James Cotton in 1961, his immeasurable contribution to the development of British R&B ceased with that split.

Trad was by then a nationwide fad, but while a caravan of costumed charlatans peddled their vacuous novelties like placebos to a gullible public, Barber stayed true to the spirit of New Orleans and Chicago. So it was an unpalatable irony that when, in 1964, he updated his band’s instrumentation – electric for stand-up double bass, electric guitar for banjo – and returned to R&B, he was branded an opportunist.

“When our difficulties began,” Ottilie Patterson reflected a few years later, “when R&B came up and traditional jazz went down, I remember Chris saying that the blues fans we had brought into the concerts were the ones who were now the nucleus of British R&B fans.” Barber affirmed, “If we hadn’t brought those singers in, because we liked that music and thought other people ought to appreciate it as well, blues would not have been brought into their consciousness.”

Candidates for the paternity of British blues are few, and the line-up for a DNA test does not include John Mayall. Not to belittle his achievement in making membership of his Bluesbreakers an apprenticeship programme whose graduates form their own blues Who’s Who, but Mayall didn’t move south from Manchester until 1963, too late for fatherhood or midwifery. Cyril Davies, dead by 1964, inspired harmonica players specifically. Because the lineage from skiffle to R&B is direct – it is a lot quicker to count the musicians who didn’t start in skiffle than those who did – Lonnie Donegan belongs on the short-list. Which leaves Chris Barber and Alexis Korner.

Recounting the story of British R&B to a 24-year-old would-be chronicler in November 1971, Korner held my eye to add weight to his words as he said, “I must point out that one of the people most directly responsible for the R&B boom was Chris Barber, who must have known perfectly well what he was doing. He was cutting his own throat, and he did it quite deliberately.” Korner, who made no claim for himself, knew who the real father was.