Friday, 8 December 2017

FIRING UP THE QUATRO ...



I interviewed Suzi Quatro at the Gibson Guitars studio in the West End last night, as part of Found in Music's 'In Conversation With' series for SAGA. The event, exclusive to members, with tickets won by ballot, drew fans from as far as Birmingham and as wide as Portsmouth. One couple told me they were so keen to attend, they'd actually set off from the south coast the day before. It only dawned on them when they'd driven as far as Guildford that they were twenty-four hours too early, and had to go back home ...
People make fun of me all the time for 'hanging out with ageing rock stars'. 'Why do you bother with all these old dinosaurs?', my hip-and-happenin' friends say. The answer is simple: they are more interesting. They've had breathtakingly creative, globe-trotting lives that armchair-theatre-goers can only dream of. They've been everywhere. Met everyone. Seen everything. They've jammed with their own idols. They remain idols themselves to millions who have followed them since they emerged. They have the greatest war stories, the most stamina, the kindest hearts, and they are rocking 'til they drop. Isn't that how we all want to be?
Detroit-born Suzi Quatro was a female pioneer during an age of male rock'n'roll rebellion. Micky Most brought her to London in 1971, not to be 'the new Janis Joplin' (Pearl having died the year before, and every music mogul and record producer was seeking a replacement), but to be 'the first Suzi Quatro'. She wrote with Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, and was massive throughout Europe and Australasia. But she could never really give it away back home until she was offered the role of Leather Tuscadero alongside the Fonz and Ritchie Cunningham in 'Happy Days'. The part was made for her, and she for it. She became a huge star in America and around the world. They offered her Leather's own spin-off series. She declined, not wishing to be typecast. The biggest mistake of her life,' crowed the naysayers. 'What has she ever done since?'
She has sold fifty-five million records. She has written and published three books - her latest an anthology of poetry entitled 'Through My Eyes'. She has starred in a West End musical, 'Annie Get Your Gun' (in 1986, when I first interviewed her). She's acted in 'Minder', 'Dempsey & Makepeace', 'Ab Fab', 'The Midsomer Murders'. She has two new albums: 'Legend', a compilation of twenty tracks, and 'Quatro, Scott & Powell', with Sweet's Andy Scott and Slade's Don Powell, out on Warner's. She's just headlined an arena tour with Hot Chocolate, David Essex and the Osmonds. She still lives in the moated Essex manor house where she raised her two children and now cares for her cherished grandchild. She has twice the energy of a woman half her age. She is sixty-seven, and shouts it. She made it all possible for the female rockers who came after her - Tina Weymouth, The Runaways and Joan Jett, Girlschool, the GoGos, even the Spice Girls - which is perhaps her greatest legacy. She inspired both women and men. She inspired me: I had her poster on my bedroom wall.

How does she do it? 'By being myself,' she says. 'I have never tried to be anyone else. I've always known where to draw the line.' A line that reminds me of cowboy Curly's advice to Billy Crystal's character in 'City Slickers', when he tells him that the secret of life is 'just one thing.' Yeah?' says Billy, eagerly, 'so what is the one thing?' Curly curls a crusty lip, and smiles: 'That's what YOU'VE gotta figure out ...'

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

WALKING IN THE AIR



'There was music in our house, and my mother played the piano,' said the composer of the greatest secular Christmas song of all time.
'We lived in this flat, and I had this tiny room, and there was an asbestos wall, and the piano was the other side of the wall, right up against my ear. I was six. And my mother would play the piano after I'd gone to bed, and it was deafening. And I just used to listen. And she played an A minor waltz of Chopin, and I thought, I've got to play that ... I learned to play by ear and read music all in one go. It never seemed difficult. It seemed the obvious thing to do.'
Howard Blake's disarmingly modest explanation of how he came to be a musician nutshells the words of so many artists I have interviewed down the years. Their charm lies in the fact that they kind of don't get it. The truly organic creative rarely perceives anything special in his or her talent. It just was. Is. It is 'obvious'.
How ironic that this mind-blowingly prolific creator of hundreds of ballets, concertos and film scores - including an orchestral score with Queen, for 'Flash Gordon' - is revered the world over for a children's song. But not just any old children's song. We're talking 'Walking in the Air', the nucleus of 1982's 'The Snowman', which generations have grown up on and which resonates to this day. My own three children are adults now, but we still bunch around the telly together every year to revisit it. Because the animation is without dialogue, it is the music that speaks, taking a little boy on a journey which has become every child's dream: for a snowman he has made in his back garden to come to life, and fly him to Lapland to meet Father Christmas. The relatively recent addition of the snow dog has taken the story up a notch. The themes are poignant and tragic. They thrum with heartache. They seize control of our emotions. They speak silently of the gradual, inexorable loss of innocence, and of the beckoning grave.

There are priceless moments to make the journey worthwhile. Such as last night's: Howard Blake on the Sir Peter Blake 'Sgt. Pepper' piano at the Groucho Club, without warning - playing 'Walking in the Air'. I'm still pinching. Howard, in his eightieth year, retains the wide-eyed innocence of the little child in his story. I was thrilled to meet him. 

Thursday, 19 October 2017

IS THAT A WEINSTEIN ON YOUR DRESS, OR ARE YOU JUST PLEASED TO SEE ME?




What surprises me is that anybody is surprised.
We know that sex abuse is endemic: in religious institutions, in church schools, in residential care homes. Sexual violence and molestation of pupils and students is on the rise. Harassment in the workplace is rampant: you wouldn’t want your daughter to work in the average bar, would you, facing endless abuse from beer-swilling louts?
We’ve had it in television, in radio and in PR. We’ve had it in football and other sports. Even in politics. And we have long known about the casting couch.
So why was anybody shocked about Harvey Weinstein?
Because he had so much money that they believed he could walk on water?
Because he owned Hollywood?
Because he could do no wrong?Let’s see who else falls out of the woodwork. I'm guessing Michael Winner, for one.
And now Sir Tom Jones, revealing that it was rife in the music industry, and not only against women. It happened to him.
Blow me down. Of course it went on in the music industry. It probably still does.
I remember feeling deeply shocked, during the Eighties, when I worked for a record company, on hearing from my friend at a rival label that the boss of that outfit - a male, for the avoidance of doubt - had slept with every one of his female employees. It was a joke in the industry. He was a legend because of it. It seemed almost expected. You would know who I mean.
I had another friend who was PA to a world-famous British rock star. He seduced her at the first interview. She got the job, yes, and she worked for him for twenty years. He paid her extremely well, but was that right? Well, no.
I was once taken to a party at Dolphin Square, the exclusive residential complex in London, by a household-name DJ. Again, you would know who I mean. I was twenty-two. He was a giant, and I was a slip of a thing in size six jeans. He fed me a lot of champagne and, at the point of no return, backed me through a pair of double doors with the palm of his dustbin-lid hand, pushed me down onto a huge double bed and flung himself on top of me. I was felled, like a tree. I tried to scream, but nothing came out. I grabbed him by the barnet and I’ll never forget it, his hair came away in my hands. It was a wig, complete with bits of double-sided tape and bobby pins. He was so shocked that he jumped up, clutching his raw head, and made a run for it.
Did I ever tell anyone?
NO!
I was ashamed.
My mother would have killed me for having gone there in the first place.
I always believed, when such things happened, that it was my fault in some way.
Is it a sex thing? A power thing?
Sometimes one, sometimes the other. But probably both.
We live in the twenty-first century, in the first world, in an enlightened society. Nobody’s asking the thousands of female Muslim victims of military rape in Myanmar what they think about Harvey Weinstein.
Certain types are banging on about the fact that the predators are not always men, and that the victims are not always women. Which changes nothing. it must be talked about. it has to stop.

I can think of a few old-timers who must be quaking. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

THE ROCK STARS' ROCK STAR





I'm often asked '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? Many stand out, for all the wrong reasons. But 'best'! You'll get more out of me by asking who was the worst (Richard Gere in Philadelphia, but let's park him.)
I've banged on for decades about John Entwistle, whose fifteenth anniversary fast approaches; about  Jim Diamond, almost two years gone; about Steve Harley who has 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 and about a million and a half words: David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Marc Bolan.
What about Rick Wakeman? He is 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, rebel-rouser, ground-breaker, heart-breaker, risk-taker, music-maker, though he has long been all these. Watching him last night at Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre, absorbing his anecdotes (a few of which I knew by heart), I found myself floored.
He'd never claim this, but Rick created the electronic symphonic album concept back in 1972, with 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII'. Having studied classical piano from the age of four, inspired by his father who also played, Rick made it to the Royal College of Music but became sidetracked by rock and pop. He sessioned for many, including David Bowie, Cat Stevens and T. Rex. In 1970 he joined the Strawbs for sixteen months, and replaced Tony Kaye in Yes a year later. 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 vast stage interpretation, was a huge success. 'The Myths and Legends of King Arthur' was 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 consider the payroll. On with the solo recording, while rejoining Yes for three more years until the turn of the Eighties, when his luck changed. Health, women, money, the usual. It was not until '1984', for Charisma (when we first met) that Rick was back on the yellow brick road. I adored him in 'Listzomania'. Fleet Street coined 'Baroque and Roll'. He was double-handedly responsible for bringing keyboards to the fore in rock. But where's the knighthood? Shabby.

The 'Piano Portraits' album is a 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 Bowie. Such was the demand that the recordings were released, with all profits to Macmillan Cancer Support. This 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; Rick's fifty years in rock. 'After which,' he swore blind last night, 'I'm gonna jack it all in.' Right. 

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 rest. Sixteen contradictory recipes for fish pie: out. Too many dramatically different ways to cook a Christmas turkey: dumped. A collect-by-the-week series produced by YOU magazine, of laminated cookery cards slotted into a garish wipe-clean green binder: be gone. What struck me was how much of that food has become unfashionable. I might hurl together a 'desconstructed' (loathe that expression) prawn cocktail now and then, but I wouldn't be seen dead serving a fondue, asparagus quiche or Black Forest gateau.
Among the faded bits of newspaper and crumpled magazine clippings, I found a letter from a boy I can't remember, about a Wham! party I fail to recall, at which something must have occurred to prompt him to write about it (though the actual cutting is long-lost). I have no idea what it might have been. But the fact that he feared 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 - of a Nottingham newspaper publishing company - made me think that I must have met this chap 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. There appears not to have been a Notts gig during the 1984 Big Tour. So the performance and the party we attended must have been somewhere else. Where?
It's so long ago, it probably counts as a childhood memory. But what good is a memory if we can't remember it? We shouldn't always trust the accuracy of long-ago memories, because they will so often have been influenced by others talking about them. Not to mention remembering things inaccurately. Science says that our brains discard half of all new knowledge within the first hour. A month later, we will have retained only two per cent. There are a few who can recount experiences and occurrences from toddlerhood, but most of us 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 studied five languages, including English. French and Spanish I took tertiary exams in. There were evening classes in Danish because one of our Paris gang was from Copenhagen. I was once engaged to a Sicilian, and had always loved the lilt of the lingo. So I took up Italian, during my second pregnancy. I can still read a newspaper in those languages. At a push, a book. And I can order an edible dinner in any of those countries, as well as converse to a degree. It's rusty, but it comes back when you're there, as they say. All that grammar and vocabulary, all those clauses and conjugations, are stored in there somewhere. But where? We know that childhood events can continue to affect our behaviour long after they've been forgotten. Everything lingers. But when memories surface, we should be wary of them. Our yesterdays can brim with false memories, of events both great and small 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 others 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 we ever be able to rewind to the moments of our mothers' labour, and re-experience the trauma of birth? I can't see it. Because our baby brains were not yet up to the task of storing complete memories. 
There is a time and a place for imaginary memories. Without proof, such as the letter I found, which says both much and nothing,I find myself wondering whether we can believe our memories at all. I have always been an obsessive diary-keeper. Not even diaries tell the whole truth.


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 behind? 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 at the gates of Windsor and of Buckingham Palace? The huge headlines that have punctuated her reign read like a variation of Billy Joel's 'We Didn't Start the Fire'. It was always burning, since the world's been turning. Inside, a fragile woman, an ordinary mortal, with the most extraordinary story to tell.

What I wouldn't give to read her autobiography. To write it. She will all too soon be gone. The dense linings of her heart, her secret thoughts, will be lost. Ninety, ninety-five, a hundred years of priceless memories will be wasted. It is the same for all of us, even queens, unless we write them down. 

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 what Victoria Beckham did. Not exclusively in the UK, either, but across the European Union. And not only Harper, but also her brothers Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz. The whole family is trademarked to the 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?
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? Stable door, horse. Her 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. 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 my firstborn was a tot, I walked away from the chance of banking a million. I wouldn't have had to do very much for it: simply turn over my child to the system, sit back and watch the star-makers do their thing.
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.'
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? Stardom turned into an alcoholic, sex-crazed, narcotic-addicted teen whose own mother disowned her. I said I'd 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 shooting test footage in the hotel grounds. Mia donned 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. 

There are child stars who survive. Shirley Temple, Jodie Foster, Brooke Shields. 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. Lindsay Lohan. Miley Cyrus. Gary Coleman. Britney. 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 found in an abandoned New York tenement. The body was not formally identified. The child star who had earned $60,000 a year wound up in a pauper's grave. 

Planet stardom is a precarious place. A parallel universe. Incomprehensible. It is inhabited by the desperate, which is what they are, no matter how much money they've got. They all become has-beens in the end.