Monday, 5 June 2017

THE ROCK STARS' ROCK STAR





I'm regularly asked the inevitable 'Who's your favourite rock star?' That's as easy to answer as 'Who's the best person you've ever interviewed?' Where do you start? So many stand out, for predictably compromising reasons. But 'best'! You'll get more out of me by asking after the 'worst' (Richard Gere in Philadelphia: but let's park him for a slow day.)
Back to the rockers. I've banged on for decades about the technical brilliance, sardonic humour and propensity for mischief of Who bassist John Entwistle, whose fifteenth anniversary approaches at the end of this month. About the gifts and gab of Glaswegian singer-songwriter Jim Diamond, almost two years gone, say it ain't so. About the unique Steve Harley who, thirty years ago, promised to sing 'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)' at my funeral, and who asks me every time I see him if I've got a date. About the artists to whom I have devoted years of my life and about a million and a half words: David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Marc Bolan et al.
I've not banged on very much about Rick Wakeman. It is remiss of me. It is not that familiarity breeds contempt. It perhaps has more to do with the fact that Rick's disarming pragmatism and self-deprecating humour long ago felled the barriers between 'us' and 'them', to the point that he no longer projects, is hardly ever perceived, as a 'rock star' ... let alone a Grumpy Old one.
But he is one. 'Rock star' less in the sense of international hell-raiser and rebel-rouser, ground-breaker and heart-breaker, risk-taker and music-maker - though he has long been all these in spades. Watching him kill the keys last night at Canterbury's exquisite Marlowe Theatre, absorbing his titillating anecdotes (a few of which I knew by heart), I found myself floored again by his virtuosity and humility.
He'd never claim this himself, but Rick created the electronic symphonic album concept back in 1972, with his album 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII'. Having studied classical piano from the age of four, inspired by his dear father who also played, Rick made it to the Royal College of Music but became sidetracked by rock and pop. He sessioned for so many, including the obvious: David Bowie, Cat Stevens, T. Rex. In 1970 he joined the Strawbs for sixteen months, and replaced Tony Kaye in Yes a year later. This was when he metamorphosed into a keyboard wizard, embellishing the band's at times flatulent sound with flair, technique and classical influence. By 1974 he was out on his own, following up 'Six Wives' with further solo albums. 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth', with its magnificent stage interpretation, was a massive success. 'The Myths and Legends of King Arthur' was staged on ice at the Empire Pool, Wembley, with a forty-five-piece orchestra and a forty-eight-piece choir. It made a ton of money but left him skint. Hardly surprising when you tot the payroll. On with the solo recording, then, while rejoining Yes for three more years until the turn of the Eighties, when his fortunes took a turn. Health, women, finances, the usual. It was not until his visionary album '1984', for Charisma (when we first met) that Rick was off the rocky road and back on the yellow brick one. I adored him in 'Listzomania'. Fleet Street coined 'Baroque and Roll'. It was Rick to a 'T'. He was double-handedly responsible for bringing keyboards to the fore in rock. Yet we are yet to see a knighthood. Shabby.

The 'Piano Portraits' album is a perfect collection of favourite pieces, several of which he created the piano parts to. It was inspired by his live performances on Simon Mayo's BBC Radio 2 show last year in tribute to David Bowie. Such was the demand that the recordings were made available for purchase, with all profits donated to Macmillan Cancer Support. This in turn inspired the album, which led to the tour, which now segues into ... twenty more UK dates; back on the road with Yes; the band's upcoming fiftieth anniversary; the anniversary of Rick's own fifty years in rock. 'After which,' he swore blind last night, 'I'm gonna jack it all in.' Yeah, right. As you were, RW.

Friday, 5 May 2017

A LONG-FORGOTTEN WHAM! SCANDAL?




I was clearing out the recipe cupboard. A recess barely visited this century. I tossed hundreds of torn pages of Sunday Times magazines, pouting Nigellas, gurning Jamies, furtive-looking Lucas Hollwegs, smug Mary Berrys and the eggy rest. Sixteen contradictory recipes for fish pie: out. Too many dramatically different ways to cook a Christmas turkey: out, out. A collect-by-the-week series produced by YOU magazine, of laminated cookery cards slotted into a garish wipe-clean green binder: out, out out. What struck me was how much of that food has since become unfashionable. I might hurl together a 'desconstructed' (loathe that expression) prawn cocktail on the odd occasion; but I wouldn't be seen dead presenting the throng with a fondue, an asparagus quiche or a Black Forest gateau.
Among the faded bits of newspaper and crumpled magazine clippings, I found a letter from a boy I cannot remember, about a Wham! party I cannot recall attending, at which something thrilling or outrageous must have occurred to have prompted him to write about it (though the actual news cutting is long-lost). I have no idea what that occurrence might have been. But the fact that he went so far as to fear legal action (‘Don’t threaten to sue me or anything’) suggests that I ought not to have forgotten it. Which got me thinking about memories.
The letterhead - that of a Nottingham newspaper publishing company - made me think that I must have met this lad at a Wham! gig at the Nottingham Royal Centre in November 1984. But the Club Fantastic tour, promoted by Harvey Goldsmith Ents and warmed up by Gary Crowley on the decks, did the rounds the year before. I checked. There appears not to have been a Notts gig during the 1984 Big Tour. So the performance, and the party which the author of the letter and I attended must have been somewhere else ... but where?
It's so long ago, it probably counts as a childhood memory. But what good is a memory if we cannot remember it? We must not always trust the accuracy of long-ago memories, because they will so often have been influenced by other people talking about them. Not to mention remembering things inaccurately. Science informs us that our brains discard half of all new knowledge within the first hour. A month later, we will have retained only a couple of per cent of it. There are certainly a few people who can recall experiences and occurrences from toddlerhood, but we ordinary mortals tend to have recall only from the age of about seven or eight. Even then, the recollections are patchy. There is rarely continuous narrative. Only the highs and lows hang nebulously in the mind.
I have learned five languages during my lifetime. French and Spanish I studied for years, and took exams in them. I endured evening classes in Danish because one of our gang was from Denmark, during our sojourn as language students in Paris. I was once engaged to a Sicilian, and had always loved the lilt of the lingo. So I took up Italian for a laugh, during my second pregnancy. I can still read a newspaper in these languages. At a push, a book. And I can order an edible dinner in any of those countries, as well as converse to a limited degree. As they say, it's rusty, but it comes back when you're there. All that grammar and vocabulary, all those clauses and conjugations, are still stored away in there somewhere. But where? We know that childhood events can continue to affect our behaviour long after they've been forgotten. Everything must linger. But when memories surface, we should be wary of them. Our distant yesterdays sometimes brim with false memories, of events both wondrous and hideous that never occurred. It is common to have no recollection of events until we are asked about them. Therein lies danger, as Paul Gambaccini and similar victims know to their cost.
Sigmund Freud was obsessed with the subject he called 'Infant Amnesia': childhood memories that we cannot recall. Did such early-days things really happen, or did somebody make them up? Taking it right back, is it possible to remember anything that occurred before we acquired the ability to communicate in language? Will it ever be possible to rewind to the moments of our mothers' very labour, and experience again even the moment of birth? I doubt that science will ever achieve this. Because, as babies, our brains had not yet developed sufficiently to store complete memories. No-brainer.
There is a time and a place, I imagine, for imaginary memories. Without tangible proof, such as the letter I found - which says so much and yet so little - I find myself wondering whether we can believe our memories at all. I have always been an assiduous diary-keeper. Not even the diaries tell the whole truth. I should be thankful for that.


Friday, 21 April 2017

THE QUEEN'S SECRETS





Our longest-serving monarch celebrates her ninety-first birthday. We pause and ponder. The image that swirls is one of snowy froth and crinkled eyes, a discreetly-slicked lip, trusty pearl and diamond earrings, a triple-rope pearl necklace, a glinting brooch. Robust hat and handbag. The Anello & Davide shoes that somebody else wears in for her. Modest, dedicated, dignified public outfits, as befit a head of state. Sovereign. Mummy. Granny. Great-Granny. Long live our gracious Queen.
What was she like as a child? What games did she play? What did she fantasise about? What scared her? She'd survived a world war and was barely a woman when she ascended, before we were born. She was a mother at twenty-two. How did her pregnancies affect her? How did she really feel when she was forced to put duty before motherhood, and leave her children for long periods? What about her surgeries, her dental treatment, her menopause, her ninety-one birthday cakes? What did she think about the Munich air disaster, Beatlemania, England winning the World Cup, the assassination of JFK, the EEC, the miners' strikes, Watergate, Concorde, Red Rum, Thatcher, Lady Di, the Falklands, Reagan, the IRA, Live Aid, Fergie, Lockerbie, Mandela, the royal divorces, the burning of Windsor castle, AIDS, the Euro, 9/11, Camilla, Obama, Michael Jackson's demise, William and Kate, George and Charlotte, Blair, Cameron, May, ISIS, Brexit, the relentless crowds of subjects thronging beyond the gates of Windsor and of Buckingham Palace? The huge headlines that have punctuated her reign read like a variation on Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire'. It was always burning, since the world's been turning ... and inside, a fragile woman, an ordinary mortal, with the most extraordinary story to tell.

What I wouldn't give to read her autobiography. What I wouldn't give to write it. She will all too soon be gone. The dense linings of her heart, her throbbing thoughts, a lifetime of echoes piled and toppling from the groaning shelves of her mind, will soon be gone too. Halted. Silenced. Done. Ninety, ninety-five, a hundred years of precious, priceless memories will be wasted. It is thus for all of us. Unless we write them down. Why didn't she?

Friday, 14 April 2017

BECKHAM: THE BLAND LEADING THE BRAND




'Poor kid,' withered Piers Morgan. 'Brand it like Beckham,' sneered everyone else. 'It is unprecedented to trademark a five year-old,' admitted the UK Intellectual Property Office. But trademark her little girl is precisely what Victoria Beckham has gone and done. Not exclusively here, either, either, but right across the European Union. And not only Harper, but also her brothers Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz. The whole family is trademarked to the threaded eyebrows now. I'm guessing there's also an American deal in there somewhere. To be fair, eighteen year-old Brooklyn is already modelling, lucratively. Romeo, four years his junior, has been strutting the catwalk and the studio since the age of ten, and fronted Burberry's Christmas campaign in 2014. Cruz launched his 'pop career' with a charity Christmas single last year. What was it called, again?
It's a family affair. Not that it is going to help David's damage-limitation campaign, hastily launched after his bitter failed bid for a knighthood. This clan is worth some £500 million and counting. The media, as if they wouldn't, have gone for the throat. The Beckhams' excuse? 'Future-proofing'. So it prevents their baby from being exploited, right? Wrong. Stable door, horse, legging it. Her own parents got there first. There's already a Harper fashion blog (harperbeckhamfashion.blogspot.com/). Brace yourselves for Harper make-up, perfume, dolls, books, films, fashion, music and 'entertainment'. Whatever that means, in this context. Whatever it takes to spice up a rich girl's life.
Tiny stars pay the biggest price for fame. I've had a little first-hand experience of this. Some years ago, when the firstborn was a tot, I walked away from the chance of banking a million bucks. I wouldn't even have had to do very much for it: simply turn over my child to the system, sit back and watch the star-makers do what they do best.
I was sitting beside the pool of the Sunset Marquis, West Hollywood. Mia was playing with the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. Bruce Springsteen was reading at a table nearby. Grace Jones was creaming her legs on a sun lounger. The usual. The studio casting director who approached me did not mince his words.
'Take my advice, baby,' he said. Not that I'd asked for it. 'Drop your typewriter in the toilet and get your ass out here on a permanent basis. You are sitting on a million dollars. I've seen cute, and that is as cute as cute gets. Believe me, we are talking Macaulay Culkin's little English cousin in 'Home Alone 3'. She is IT. we'd like her to do a screen test.'
Reader, I confess. I considered the offer. Until next morning, when I dialled him to decline. Could I imagine living with a Drew Barrymore in ten years' time? Whom stardom turned into an alcoholic, sex-crazed, narcotic-addicted teen whose own mother disowned her? I'll give it a swerve, thanks. His response: 
'You screw up the kid's life, you'll have the money to pay for the therapist.'
To get them off my back, I agreed to them 'at least' shooting some footage in the grounds of the hotel. Mia put on a floaty dress and my lipgloss, and skipped in and out of the flowerbeds. The director swooned. I stood imagining people asking her for her autograph in supermarkets. I felt a cringe coming on.
Oh sure, there are child stars who survive to well-adjusted adulthood. Shirley Temple, Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields spring to mind. Mara Wilson, the little girl in 'Matilda'. But for each of them, a Macaulay Culkin - who toppled off the rails in spectacular style, and divorced his parents. A Lindsay Lohan. A Miley Cyrus. A Gary Coleman. A Britney. A Justin. Sometimes, they recover and get a grip. Or they do a Michael Jackson. I'm betting Victoria Beckham has never heard of Bobby Driscoll. A movie star at six, an Oscar-winner at eleven. By the age of seventeen he was a junkie has-been, arrested countless times on robbery, forgery and drug charges. In 1968, his corpse was uncovered in an abandoned New York tenement. The body was not formally identified. The child star who had earned $60,000 a year was buried in a pauper's grave. 

Planet stardom is a precarious place. A parallel universe. Incomprehensible. It is inhabited by the desperate, which is what such folk are, no matter how much money they've got. They all become has-beens in the end. It is not a place for normal people. Thank your lucky stars that you're not them.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

BRIAN MATTHEW: KILLED SOFTLY WITHOUT A SONG




Take away the thing a man lives for, and he loses the will to live. Deprive him of the single pursuit that gave shape and meaning to the otherwise bleak process of shuffling heavily towards the grave, and you puncture a person's soul. This is what The BBC did to Brian Matthew when they kicked him off Sounds of the Sixties. They as good as killed him softly without a song.
Not content with the slaughter, they proceeded to make insensitive bordering on callous comments in the press; to re-jig the schedule and appoint successors in a way that clearly left no possibility of an eventual return. Then, to add the greatest of insults to the untimely injury, they falsely announced his death, a full three days before he expired. What I've been told is that his family prepared a statement in readiness for the inevitable, which was then passed to the BBC to hold on file. There is nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary about this. When I started out on staff at the Daily Mail, I was regularly placed on 'obit duty', updating the substantial obituaries of luminaries that were kept, ready to roll. I remember rewriting Elton John's and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's on the same day. Which had symmetry, when you think about it. But the blessed BBC stuffed up, and rushed to declare that Brian had already died. The error was unforgivable. They have not apologised publicly for it.
The last time I saw Brian was in the BBC studio where he recorded his show with producer Phil Swern, with whom I was going next door to the BBC Club for a glass of wine or four. Brian declined to join us. His carriage awaited, he said. He had to get home, he added. To Pam? 'To nothing, really,' he replied, mournfully. 'I get up to nothing, and I go home to nothing. I'd live here in the studio if I could.' Which was no insult at all to his stalwart wife. She knew her husband inside out. She knew to give him room.

We all know the man as a legend. He was also a man of honesty, dignity and integrity, who was so proud to be an important part of our rich industry heritage. He will be forever missed. God rest you, dear Brian Matthew. You were not only the voice of the Sixties. You were the voice-over of our lives. 

Monday, 20 March 2017

THERE'LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND: HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, DAME VERA LYNN





I write this almost seven years to the day that I almost killed Dame Vera Lynn with a saucepan of soup. Not a lot of people can say that they've washed a Dame's kitchen floor, either. Not that it wasn't spotless when I arrived.
Paul Gambaccini, producer Clare Bramley, a camera crew, make-up artist and I trekked to Vera’s home in Sussex, to film a documentary. When it was time for tea, I volunteered to wash the cups. Just as she was digging out the Fairy Liquid from under the sink, in through the back door, right beside the draining board, came DVL's daughter Virginia (who lives next-door), with soup for Mother's lunch. Startled by the flinging-open door, I jumped, knocked the saucepan flying, and its steaming contents over everyone present. At least I caught the brunt of it. I spent the remains of the day dripping in apparent vomit.
Vera laughed like a trouper. She turned not a snowy hair. I understood why as I listened to her reminisce about expeditions to Burma during the Second World War, when she endured long, arduous journeys by seaplane and on foot to bring a shred of home to far-flung, homesick soldiers.
'I slept on a stretcher between two chairs,' she said. ‘There wasn't always water to drink, let alone to wash with. Dinner was most often a bowl of rice with a spoonful of jam. It didn't bother me. Those were the conditions our boys were putting up with. Who was I to demand better? They were the ones who were risking their lives, not me.'
She was ninety-three at the time. Her face was beautiful in the flesh. Like a child’s. There was a poignant moment in her bedroom, while she was dressing for the shoot, when she couldn't bend down to do up her shoes. She asked me if I'd mind doing it. Thus did I kneel at the feet of one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century. I think of it to this day.
Divas take note. All those backstage demands, all those far-fetched contract riders - piles of fluffy white towels, Smarties with the orange ones taken out, crates of perfectly-chilled Bollinger - you're having a laugh. Dame Vera, a legend and an entire nation's sweetheart, left her toddler at home and suffered unthinkable hardship to sing for servicemen offering their lives in the name of liberty. There ain't nothing like a Dame.
There'll Always Be an England. We'll Meet Again. Happy 100th Birthday and God bless you, Ma’am. Everyone buy the record: 'Vera Lynn 100', featuring the likes of Alfie Boe and Aled Jones. She becomes, today, the oldest artist in history to release a new album.

Footnote on the doc: thanks to the greed and deceit of its backers, the film has never yet been aired. Out of respect for Dame Vera, it absolutely should be. I saw Paul Gambaccini at Mike Batt’s new musical Men Who March Away on Friday night (the lead character, Katherine Grayling, is Vera personified). Paul, like Clare and me, is enraged. There are other villains to tackle right now. But we’ll get there.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

HOW TO WRITE A HIT MUSICAL



What are the magic ingredients of Musical Theatre? Some cite the first five minutes of the Lion King, the innovation of Chess, the staging of Miss Saigon. Others maintain it's the familiarity of the numbers in the so-called Jukeboxers - Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, We Will Rock You, Beautiful - that draws audiences in droves. Les Miserables and Wicked tick some boxes. Phantom's a favourite. Book of Mormon has done it for millions, but not for me. West Side Story, Singin' in the Rain, Cabaret, The Sound of Music and Oliver! are more my speed, pop pickers. Any minute now, let's hear it for La La Land on Broadway, homeward-bound for a theatre somewhere near you.
If there were a formula, they'd all be cackling on down to Coutts.
There is perhaps no more crucial component than the ten thousand hours. And perhaps no finer example of self-belief and indomitable endurance than the musical I saw last night.
Men Who March Away, which received its world premiere at St. Anne's church, Limehouse, was not only a masterclass in the art of never giving up on a dream, but also the magic in a nutshell. My friend Wendy Baker, Mrs Danny, holed it in one:
'The songs were amazing because they were all brand-new, but somehow sounded familiar,' she said. I couldn't have put it better.
It's the art of creating something that everyone thinks they've heard before. Something comfortable and resonant, that makes us consider a subject, an era, an aspect of the human condition, that we may not have paused to think about, hitherto - or not in any focused way.
Mike Batt wrote this musical twenty five years ago, when his The Hunting of the Snark left the West End after a brief run in 1991. He toyed with staging it, down all the years, but was always sidetracked by demands on his time and talent. He met Katie Melua in 2002, and gifted her 'the one' of the many best songs from Men Who March Away: 'The Closest Thing to Crazy'. That hit debut single catapulted her to a multi-million selling career. Mike joked last night that now everyone will think he just bunged the song into this 'new' musical to give it a hit. The irony.
It is, of course, a love story. Musicals essentially are. Its backdrop is war - in this case, the first and second world wars with the Spanish Civil in between. War's devastating impact on the lives of ordinary people, its power to throw human relationships into disarray, is handled both brutally and tenderly. We are conflicted throughout, by vulgarity and gentility, cruelty and compassion, love and loss. Every song resonates. Every note haunts. Every lyric is both blunt and poetic. No less could be expected of the composer who gave us 'The Phantom of the Opera' (written with Andrew Lloyd Webber), 'A Winter's Tale' (with Tim Rice), and 'Bright Eyes'.
In this one-night-only staging, Mike conducted the magnificent Docklands Sinfonia - the only symphony orchestra in the East End, which was founded by conductor Spencer Down. He is the grandson of a docker and trumpeter in the working men's clubs. It showcased not only the marvellous musicianship of these extraordinary youngsters, but the talents of rising stars Alice Frankham, Alex Southern and Oliver Bower. As a delicious taster for a planned touring production, it was an unforgettable start. On your marks, now, guys. They'd better be looking for a West End venue and backers this morning. Men Who March Away is the most musical of all musicals. Get it on, Mike Batt. I am so proud of you. Go, give Hamilton a run for it. I'll be cheering from my front-row seat.