Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Kursaal Flyers make bid for pop stardom

Sheet music

It was 40 years ago today. We were holed up in the now-demolished Queen’s Hotel, Westcliff-on-Sea, writing and learning songs for our third album. The hotel was still in business as a pub, ‘restaurant’, and dance hall, but the three upper storeys, that once offered 4-star accommodation for visitors to the town, were mothballed and patrolled by ‘security guards’. In a nightmare not far removed from The Shining, Alsatian dogs roamed the corridors and shat wherever they fancied. The canine excrement was rarely cleaned up, and we had to step over it each morning when we turned up for work during that long hot summer.

Queen's Hotel, Westcliff-on-Sea

Recording contract-wise, we had been dropped by Jonathan King’s UK Records after two poorly-selling albums. We were about to work with producer Mike Batt and ‘CBS were gonna pay a great big advance’. Kursaals guitarist Graeme Douglas and myself had written some songs, and Paul and Vic and Richie were also becoming productive. We had an item called ‘Little Does She Know’, which started life as a waltz time country song, music composed by Graeme. I had written the lyric and both Paul and Graeme added further musical ideas, including changing the time signature and transforming it into a 'Spectoresque' production with a 'Be My Baby' beat. By the time Batt got his hands on it at Wessex Studios, it became a grandiose production with orchestral sound effects.

Punk rock, as in the Pistols and the Damned, was still in development, yet little did we know the upset punk would cause; as a working group we made our living on the club and college circuit, but it wouldn’t be long before promoters and social secretaries were fancying a flutter on Rat Scabies and his custard pies rather than the more conventional entertainment approach that the Kursaals and similar bands offered. That August, ‘Clash’ would open for us at London’s Roundhouse, and the signs were obvious, to me at least. I loved the punk onslaught and have never stooped to using the word ‘energy’ in describing those groups.

Here are 'the Kursaals' on TV:

Come autumn 1976, we were signed to CBS and touring the UK and Europe in support of our ‘Golden Mile’ LP. ‘Little Does She Know’ was released as a 45 and it slowly scaled the hit parade, aided by our appearances on Top of the Pops. Though not all of us would admit it, we had generally longed to become ‘pop stars’, and for a fleeting moment we were. We are ‘one hit wonders’, as those who score a solitary fluke hit are often known. It was a briefly fabulous time and strangely feels like yesterday.

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Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Deathbed Confessions… a 2013 interview with Wilko Johnson, Part 2

Please forgive the lurid headline. When we spoke in April 2013, Wilko was expecting to die from terminal cancer within six months, yet he was philosophical and good-humoured about his predicament. Miraculously, he underwent life-saving surgery in 2014. 

You can read Part 1 of the interview here

The topics in Part 2 include Mickey Jupp, Lee Brilleaux, and Wilko’s departure from Dr Feelgood in 1977.

Q What do you think it was about the Southend area that gave rise to a good number of musicians making an impression?

Wilko: I’ve heard a lot of people theorise about Southend as a hotbed of talent, and say that seaside towns are very good for ‘IT’. The atmosphere of Southend as the seaside town of the East End is very fertile ground for rock’n’roll, but I think it was just lucky that there happened to be two great bands, the Paramounts and the Orioles. Then there was about a 10-year gap, but it was still high in my mind when Dr Feelgood started. I had this lingering respect for Mickey Jupp.

Q I remember you saying around 1974, ‘When Dr Feelgood make it I’m gonna come to Southend and grab Jupp by the scruff of the neck and make him a star.’ Do you remember that?

Wilko: Yeah, I always felt that the world ought to know about Jupp. It seemed a shame that he was a local obscurity. I thought it was necessary that he got to the kind of audience he deserved. I never really knew him personally, and I was always a bit intimidated by him. You’d see him working in the music shop and he’s just a geezer. No Oscar Wilde, but when he picked up a guitar it was spine tingling.

Q Isn’t image equally as important as the music, in terms of broadcasting yourself?

Wilko: That could well be. Confronted by Mickey Jupp I’m just taken by his voice, and his music, and that’s sufficient for me, but how it’s presented or put across, I don’t know. I don’t really know him, but you’re probably right. He’s not a sparkling wit, but he is the man who wrote ‘My Typewriter’! When I saw him working in the music shop it used to amaze me how mundane he seemed, with all the usual shopkeeper’s stock jokes, like, ‘What can I do you for?’ Then you hear some of his brilliant lyrics…

Q When did you first feel that you fancied a bit of success?

Wilko: Even when I was a schoolboy, I really loved playing in local bands, but I never ever thought that maybe I could live off it, or achieve success. I was just happy playing down The Studio, or The Cricketers. When I went to university I stopped. I put my mind to other things and got less snobbish about music. We’d all be sitting around listening to Country Joe and The Fish or whatever, and my guitar was under the bed for about four years. Until I bumped into Lee that day in the street, and his band needed a guitar player. I thought, yeah, why not? I’d just got a job as a schoolteacher, but I don’t think I saw either of them as my future. I was teaching by day and playing down The Railway in Pitsea by night.

Q What happened next?

Wilko: Chris [Fenwick, manager] got us gigs in Holland. We played in these youth houses they have, the first time we played in front of a young audience, rather than playing background music for drinkers down The Railway. It was all right. I remember on the ferry on the way back I was talking to Lee, and I said, ‘Why don’t we try and go for it?’ Lee was reluctant. I said, ‘Bloody hell man, you’re 19, you want to be a solicitor’s clerk?’ Almost immediately after that we started playing down The Esplanade, for an audience that wanted to hear music. Then when we went up to London there was an explosion of interest in us and it was absolutely convincing.

Q What was Lee’s reluctance?

Wilko: I just don’t know. When I first encountered Lee and we put that band together, I always looked on him as a star. It came naturally to him. I wouldn’t have set out to do it by myself. I just thought with a guy like that we could make something of this. I was painting pictures at the time. It was my only aspiration, but that got blown away by the rock’n’roll.

Q Having Lee standing next to you on stage, such a natural, was it a kind of lucky break?

Wilko: Fucking hell, yeah! People go on about, ‘Who was the front man of the Feelgoods, or was it a double act?’ Actually ‘no’ - Lee was the bloody front man. I used to take all my cues from him. In all the pictures of Lee and I on stage, I’m looking at him, like in that famous picture on the Stupidity sleeve. I’m looking at him, but he’s looking out. That was the feeling I used to have when we played, that I was the lieutenant and he was the boss. I would never have gone in for it if it hadn’t been for Lee. I just knew he was a star.

Photograph: Ebet Roberts, 1977

Q When you started jumping up in the air, was that when Lee started doing the press-ups?

Wilko: Yeah! Dr Feelgood was one of those things that had that magic. We’d do things and get a reaction so we’d do it again. We never discussed it or rehearsed it.

Q You always kept a straight face, but you must have been pissing yourself with laughter inside…

Wilko: Oh, you mean the scowls and the glares. It was a game. You’re playing cops and robbers and you’re really feeling ‘this is a machine gun’. But actually it’s a guitar. Come on. You know it’s a guitar, and the audience knows, but it would be silly to have a soppy grin on your face when you’re firing a machine gun!

Q That was what was different about the Feelgoods, mean and moody. One or two other bands later adopted it - The Jam, for example. Never smile. Wasn’t there only ever one candid photo of you smiling? And it got into the NME by mistake?

Wilko: Yes! [laughs] That was the way you felt. That was what people wanted to see and it was part of the connection between the audience and the band.

Q Don’t you think the Feelgoods were the perfect band? Figure could jump-start the van, Sparko could re-wire the joint, and you and Lee did the decorating…  like fours legs of a table?

Wilko: Yes. It made me laugh in the late 60s and 70s when they would put these super-groups together and they were all so hopeless. I’ve never really been managed, and some of the musicians I’ve had were just people who drifted into view. Now I’ve got the most amazing band. Norman is an attraction in his own right, and Dylan has been brill. But then you get cancer and it’s finished [said Wilko, speaking in 2013]. It feels great to be alive, but I regret I can’t have a bit more time doing that.

Q Have you found that people have reacted to your situation in different ways?

Wilko: There have been all sorts of reactions. In Japan, I played with local musicians, although some of them are stars over there. It was while I was in Japan that the news broke that I was ill. In Tokyo the street was full of fans, they had to put screens up to control the overspill from the venue. I came back with a carrier bag full of letters people had handed me, all expressing this personal affection that I didn’t realise existed. I’m popular over there, and a bit of an influential guitarist, but these letters were very moving. I was doing ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ and there were tears everywhere.

Q What are the things you’ve achieved with your music that you are most proud of?

Wilko: Erm… I don’t know… well, it’s got to be Dr Feelgood hasn’t it? I just luckily found myself part of this great thing. It’s been a lingering influence. There are teenage bands doing ‘IT’, now. There’s a band in Glasgow, 15 and 16-year-olds, doing my songs and doing them good. That’s great.

Q What about the Solid Senders, and the album with the sticker ‘Sales Point Wilko’

Wilko: I did everything wrong. Everything started going wrong for me when Feelgoods broke up. The way it broke up… it was partly my fault. With the wisdom of hindsight, that would never have happened. If I’d had a little bit of the sus I’ve got now.

Q You became isolated. Was that to do with their drinking culture?

Wilko: That was quite a big part of it actually. We’d be on the road and I would be up in my room doing whatever, and they would be down at the bar, getting lushed out. And I’d be thinking, ‘What’s happening? Who are they talking about?’

Q Paranoid?

Wilko: No!

Q So they really were out to get you?

Wilko: There were occasions when Lee would be in the next hotel room and the walls were not soundproof. In Germany I think, Lee was drunk and they were all in there, and Lee was giving me a drubbing. Cursing me. I overheard it.

Q Hadn’t there been a bond between Lee and Sparko and Chris that went back to the jug band days? And you came in, as an outsider, and it bonded well and for several years worked brilliantly. But maybe the bond between them was stronger than the bond between you and them?

Wilko: Could well be. But there were all sorts of things about that. When they got me into the band, and remember I am five years older, they first encountered me as – wow – someone to look up to. Lee had quite a bit of admiration for me. What he probably didn’t know was that I had this tremendous admiration for him. I saw him as the star. And the thing is you never tell each other that do you? You don’t say, ‘Hey man, I really admire you!’ If maybe the pair of us had realised the respect we had for each other, it might not have happened. Yes, I did become isolated, cos I was the songwriter, and I had all that bloody worry.

Q Did you really find it hard to write the material, say for the ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ album?

Wilko: Lee and I went to Atlanta, to the CBS convention to meet [producer] Bert de Coteaux, cos the Americans wanted that to be their album really. Lee and I were forced to be together for a number of days, and we were getting on all right. Then after that Lee would start coming round my house in the afternoon, and we’d both be sitting there, and we both knew that we were just trying to be friends. I really appreciated him doing that, and I started writing the songs shortly before we went to Rockfield to record that album. In fact, I was still writing some of them while we were there. I was actually writing when they all burst in on me on that final evening and started tearing me to bits. I remember I was feeling really optimistic, thinking ‘it’s all happening’, really pleased with the way it was going, but I now know that while I was sitting there feeling enthusiastic, their knives were already out.

Q Do you think you might have been a bit up yourself at certain points in that period, a bit of a prima donna?

Wilko: I was difficult. Like I say, I’ve never looked back on it and tried to blame anything or anybody, but a lot of the reason I was difficult was because I was isolated and unhappy. The communications had broken down. In fact, during that final ruck, Lee started complaining about me, and he said, ‘It’s just these fucking… silences!’ [laughs loudly] What could I do? I’m sitting there feeling so lonely. And they’re getting uptight, thinking, ‘He’s doing it again, being heavy.’ Really I was just unhappy.

Q They may have seen it as – they were there, four of them including Chris, and this gulf has come about, and they are automatically thinking that the gulf is between them and you. But the gulf might have been between you and the world. The focus is turned on the band but what if you flip it round the other way?

Wilko: You could be right, and I do know that I would have handled things a lot differently if I could be there again now. But then my reaction was to retreat into myself, and throw wobblers just to try and defend myself. From what, I don’t know. I didn’t understand about compromising or anything then, which I understand a little bit better now.

Q What about ‘Lucky Seven’, credited solely to Lew Lewis. I was told recently that all Lew had was the words, and that Sparko produced Lew’s words and Bert de Coteaux sat down at the piano and started riffing on it….

Wilko: Well, I don’t know because I wasn’t there, was I? I ain’t even playing the guitar on that track – that’s how bad it had become – but Lew had written this song, on the back of a fag packet I believe, and he wanted to come down to Rockfield but they wouldn’t let him. I didn’t see Lew at the time. I had nothing to do with him. I didn’t like ‘Lucky Seven’, and that was part of the argument, but it wasn’t what the argument was about

Wilko continued to tell me the story of his departure from Dr Feelgood - nearly 40 years ago - and the precise moment that he knew it was all over. Wilko’s autobiography is about to be published.

 ‘Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life’ by Wilko Johnson is published by Little, Brown on 26 May 2016

Further reading:
'Lee Brilleaux: Rock'n'Roll Gentleman' by Zoe Howe is published by Polygon

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Keith Emerson - Seeing Daggers

The recent and tragic death of Keith Emerson has caused me to reflect on a brief period in which we collaborated on a song, as unlikely as that may seem.  As a lad I saw The Nice several times when they ruled the Marquee. They were extremely exciting and their debut album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjak dominated my turntable during the cold winter of 1967/68. 

I had never knowingly heard ‘ELP’, except for their 1977 hit single, however in 1983 my then music publisher was looking out for ‘projects’ he could pass my way in an effort to generate some royalties and claw back the generous advance I had been paid. One day I was told that Keith Emerson, no less, needed a lyricist to work on a song for a film he had been hired to compose for. I was sent a rough cut of the movie, a drug smuggling caper shot in Spain and starring John Heard and Levon Helm. It needed a theme song.

I met up with Keith at his club (Morton’s in Berkeley Square), and listened to his requirement. He struck me as a bit of a cold fish, and quite humourless. I thought he was a bit of a square, but I couldn’t allow that to stand in the way of a commission. A week or so later we met at his apartment in a mansion block close to Olympia. He was in training for the London Marathon and came to the door in shorts and Nike trainers. He played me the tune on a keyboard and handed me a cassette containing the film’s theme song to go away with and put words to.

Whilst I was quite confident, over-confident maybe, of my ability to write lyrics, this was a real challenge. Nothing too clever, nothing ironic - think ‘Eye of the Tiger’. So I scribbled down some obscure nonsense that scanned, and perhaps reflected the movie’s storyline. To present my effort (entitled ‘Playing For Keeps’, which was the working title of Best Revenge) to Keith, I was invited down to his impressive pile in East Sussex. I was a bit nervous and enlivened my train journey to Battle with an illicit pick-me-up.

He met me at the station in his rag-top Morgan with wire wheels, the works, and whisked me off to ‘Stonehill House’, formerly the home of Peter Pan author, J M Barrie. Electric gates, gravel drive, beams, beams, and more beams. After a coffee, Keith wanted to leave me alone in his kitchen to do some further work on the eight lines that would hopefully enhance his theme, while he went to his private gym to exercise. An hour or so later he appeared and offered to ‘show me round’.

He took me into an enormous barn that contained some recording equipment and a rehearsal space. There, on a high podium, sat his white Hammond organ. He turned it on, cranked up the volume and, I swear, commenced to play the bass riff to ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’. And as he stood there pumping it out, very skilfully I have to admit, he shot me a glance that kind of said, ‘Cool, eh?’

When we returned to the kitchen he looked over my lyrics. ‘Erm…’ he said, ‘not bad.’ He needed time to think about it, to see how they might fit his tune, and offered to run me back to London where he had some appointment. We chatted on the way, and I asked him some fan-boy questions about The Nice. He dropped me off in Fulham and that was the last I saw of him.

I heard nothing more and thought that either the film had been dumped or my lyrics hadn’t quite cut it. But then, about a year later, as I was casually viewing Film 84 on TV, I heard Barry Norman say, ‘And now a film about a drug smuggling operation, set in Spain, and starring John Heard…’ There was a brief clip from Best Revenge and that was that. ‘Good for Keith,’ I thought. ‘His theme music has seen the light of day.’

A week or so later I noticed that Best Revenge was playing the ABC Edgware Road. So I went along to see it, dying to hear its theme tune and the words that presumably some other lyricist had set to Emerson’s music. But when it blasted out over the cinema speakers, there were MY WORDS! Several lines of them! How could this be? What would my publisher say? I sat through the film credits, as one does, only to see: ‘Theme song “Playing For Keeps” by Keith Emerson and Brad Delp’.

At this point, and I hope this doesn’t come across as a hard luck story, I recognised the name ‘Brad Delp’ as the vocalist from ‘Boston’, hit makers of ‘More Than A Feeling’ (what a great record!). Maybe Brad also had a way with words, a way maybe of having it away with MY WORDS! I contacted my publisher: ‘I’ve been cheated!’ I exclaimed. Investigations commenced and Mr Emerson was sent a robust letter.

I am not a litigious person, but can be quite tenacious, even though I knew any royalties would be minimal. It was a matter of principle. Several years elapsed as reams of paperwork piled up; letters to and from publishers, royalty collection societies, lawyers, managers, and Keith himself. In 1988, he accepted that some of my lyrics had been used by Brad Delp and promised to contact him.

It took him three years to track down Mr Delp, who eventually did agree to us sharing the credits and royalties. During this lengthy period I harboured a grudging dislike of Emerson as I felt he must have known that Delp had incorporated some of my work into the song, but on revisiting the correspondence over 30 years later I can see that he was probably too busy to get involved in such minutiae and I now appreciate that he made a sterling effort to contact Delp on my behalf and persuaded him to agree to sharing the credit.

I don’t expect anyone to be that interested in this rambling story about an obscure piece of music, although it did subsequently earn me a four figure sum which at least made a small dent in the publishing advance I had received back in ’83.

You can hear some of my dreadful lyrics here

‘Out of a timeless age, independent in their way… taking a chance on a dance, partners in crime waltz away…’ 

Who writes this nonsense?!

Brad Delp died in 2007. Sadly, like Keith Emerson, he had committed suicide.


Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Vinyl Crisis

As an A-grade nit-picker I was determined not to be irked by the inevitable anachronisms in Vinyl (HBO/Sky Atlantic). I would sure as hell find them, but I didn’t want any trivial inaccuracies to spoil my enjoyment of what promised to be Mad Men on Tin Pan Alley. From a TV drama series point of view, it was crying out to be made, and this show has been at least five years in development and production, so it should be good.

I soaked in the scene in which lead protagonist Richie Finestra (played by Bobby Cannavale) is guzzling on a fifth of some dark spirit, then rips the rear view mirror from his unloved car interior to furnish a glass surface from which he can snort from a quarter of ‘blow’, freshly purchased from an over-animated street dealer. Then I heard in the background the giveaway refrain of ‘Stranded In The Jungle’, only to wonder why followers of what had to be the ‘New York Dolls’ run towards ‘The Mercer Arts Center’, in an era when cool indifference was the teen and twenty norm. ‘Personality Crisis’ heralds the first sighting of this non-fictional act, and ’Johnny Thunders’ is quite authentic.

Finestra, perhaps loosely modelled on Sire Records’ Seymour Stein, is a fan at heart, hopelessly hooked on early rock’n’roll and, like Stein, has an uncanny knack of just happening to rock up to some dive that is giving birth to the next big music craze. It’s ‘1973’ remember, and although the presence of the New York Dolls is credible (their debut album on Mercury appeared that year), the suggestion that this is also the dawn of hip-hop - represented by 12” platters on twin turntables being lightly ‘scratched’ by a deejay’s hands - is ludicrous.

But this is not a series that has been created for jaded music biz execs, seen-it-all musicians, and cynical hacks. It is aimed fair and square at the gawping TV market that sits through Nashville, and was probably glued to Rock Follies all those years ago. And producers Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese are both masters of the over-exaggerated gesture and spectacle.

So, breath deeply, unfurrow the brow and stay tuned… we see Finestra in his well-upholstered New York pad with full park view, while his wife and small kids appear to live elsewhere in the city. Although the wife’s character requires some development if their relationship is to drive Finestra’s angst, it’s a back story that rings true; an adolescent obsession with early R&B and doo-wop; a penchant for Bo Diddley; the discovery and recording of a young black singer who would be exploited and literally beaten by some shady mobsters (apparently muscling in on a record label boss, presumably fashioned on Sid Nathan or Morris Levy), and a bizarre and empty marriage.

Finestra goes on to found a mainstream record label, ‘American Century’, with midtown offices in (where else) ‘The Brill Building’. The walls are adorned with gold discs, but this appears to be a hollow enterprise built on hype and payola. In an A&R meeting Abba’s ‘Ring Ring’ is given a brief assessment, and we are told (if I heard it right), ’They’ve just signed to Atlantic in the UK’… ahem.

An hilarious meeting with the label’s German backers, in an office adorned with Deutsche Grammophon LP sleeves, possibly echoing Polydor’s dabbling in the US rock scene, allows for some some mild anti-Semitism and humorous digs at the Nazis – touché!

While the background music is knowing - Blue Cheer, Edgar Winter, some light country rock - the show is marred by a scene so crass and laughable that the whole premise is blown. Finestra is backstage at a ‘Led Zeppelin’ concert, and we are led to believe that their record contract (with Atlantic, or possibly Epic) is up for renewal. And while manager ‘Peter Grant’ is berating the promoter, effing and blinding in a scene taken directly from The Song Remains The Same, Finestra gets into a dialogue with ‘Robert Plant’ in which there is a crude discussion about contractual detail and royalty rates. My cringe-o-meter was off the scale.

And then there’s a nasty murder, naturally, and a cinematic climax featuring what appears to be one of New York City’s extremely rare earthquakes, sort of implying that the Dolls rock so hard they can literally bring the house down. But even if a dose of sensationalism is necessary to drive the ratings, the show itself falls down on one major detail; there simply isn’t enough cocaine.

As Brian Moylan notes in The Guardian: ‘There is a great show to be made about pop music and how it shapes our culture, but this isn’t that show.’

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Glenn Frey: there's a new kid in town

Glenn Frey, Eagle

The sad death of Glenn Frey on 18 January, in a short period that has seen rather too many sudden check-outs, has caused me to reflect on the place (the) Eagles have held in my musical affections since first seeing them at the Royal Festival Hall in 1973. Frey, as some have recently pointed out, was the leader of the band, even if the golden-throated Don Henley was the main creative force. Together they were a formidable team, both vocally and as songwriting partners.

Eagles – there was never a ‘The’ they insisted – supported my theory that the perfect four-piece rock band comprises an architect, an interior designer, a plumber, and an electrician. In other words, a visionary, a focal point, a grafter, and someone who can get out of the van on the road at 2am and fix the carburettor. Although there are exceptions, and they usually break up after the first album – imagine a band with four leaders – this sweeping generalisation does fit most successful rock quartets.

As for Eagles, they started out the near-perfect combination. Founder members Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner (the plumber and the electrician maybe, no slight intended) were great instrumentalists and vocalists, but both quit - at different points - roughly around the time the band went multi-platinum. Replacements and augmenters comprised the apparently difficult Don Felder, the eminently suitable Timothy B Schmit, and the rather incongruous Joe Walsh.

The golden vocal blend of Frey and Henley (with other members complementing the harmonies) was their trademark sound, used to good effect outside of the band on Randy Newman’s ‘Rider In The Rain’. It was this ‘ear candy’ that Eagles detractors found cloying, and annoying, especially when combined with Frey and Henley’s singleness of purpose and undoubted ambition. But had they not have aspired to producing ‘perfect’ records, with appealing melodies and lyrics that spoke to their fans, they would have been left behind with the other country rock under-achievers, such as the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco.

I am not a total fan – much of Hotel California I found dull; The Long Run was makeweight; lines such as ‘you’ll have to eat your lunch all by yourself’ are simply stupid, and I’m not crazy about ‘Chug All Night’, or ‘James Dean’. But the high points – ‘Take It Easy’, the opening guitar chords of which heralded the arrival of some serious contenders; their sophomore Desperado LP, the artistic high point, and great songs such as ‘Lyin’ Eyes’, ‘One Of These Nights’, and Bernie Leadon’s ‘My Man’, place them among the all-time greats. 

Beach Boys on horseback, if you will.

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