Wednesday, 28 December 2011

THE PRODUCER

We reach a stage in life when it's sometimes hard to remember when we first met someone, or how, or sometimes even who they used to be.  They re-cross your radar, or you cross theirs, and the collision sends the mind scatter-gunning as it strains to reconnect the wires. 

Then there are the Unforgettables.  People like Steve Levine.  The kind I call constants.  Stalwarts of a music industry in such turmoil, confusion and disarray that at times you wonder how it still survives.  Despite the Cowell-ness and Karaoke-ness of the great business of making commercial music, however, it does survive - thanks to the modest handful who do it right.

I first met Steve in 1984. He signed a recording contract with Chrysalis, where I was working at the time.  The single was 'Believin' It All', co-written by Boy George, and featured John Alder as lead singer and Bob Marley's widow Rita on backing vocals.  By that time, Steve, then 26, was already a studio veteran with major awards under his belt, who had produced Culture Club, Bob Marley's children The Melody Makers, and even the Beach Boys. 

He'd begun on the bottom rung, arriving at the old CBS studios aged 17 with no experience and little knowledge.  His first job was as a tape-op, working on demos for new bands.  It was producer Bruce Johnson who hired him as an engineer.  Seduced by Steve's infectious enthusiasm and tireless dedication to the job, he took him to Los Angeles and encouraged him to become a producer himself.  Back in London, Steve signed a deal with Rondor Music, which paid him enough to buy a Linn drum computer.  One of the first in the UK, it instantly became part of the 'Steve Levine Sound'.

His turning point came in 1981, when he was approached by an oddball bunch who asked him to work on their demos.  They had a great image and some innovative ideas, but were all over the place technically. They needed someone to pull the sound together.  Shaking off a precarious start, the band signed to Virgin Records, and Steve set about turning the best song from their first proper session into a hit.  'Do You Really Want to Hurt Me' shot to Number One in the UK charts, and in a heartbeat the  world was in love with Culture Club.

Steve's done everything since.  These days, he runs his own label Hubris Records, is Chairman of the Music Producers Guild, and is still asked all the time what a producer actually does.
'In the old days there was no such term', he laughs.
'The originals, like Beatles producer George Martin, were called 'Artiste and Recording Managers'.  They did everything under the sun, down to telling the lads what to wear.  But the record industry has come a long way since then.  As a producer, you are responsible for what the finished record sounds like - but every producer has his own way of achieving that.  There's no right nor wrong way. We all find our own way.  Having said that, it's dangerous to become too recognisable in terms of sound.  It restricts you, and limits your range'. 

What goes around.  It was a thrill for me to learn, a year or so back, that Steve had taken under his wing a delightful band calling themselves Daytona Lights.  Their guitarist, Louis Souyave, has been a fixture at my kitchen table since he was about 12 years old.  Their debut album, 'This Modern Landscape', is out today, on Steve's label, Hubris.  It's sensational.

Many are already familiar with the Daytona sound through their enthusiastic live following on the London circuit, and through Channel 4's teen soap 'Hollyoaks' - on which the boys play themselves as the resident band.  Yep, there's quite a splash to come on New Year's Eve.  But why on earth Hollyoaks?

'There are two worlds out there - the X-Factor and the Indie world, which is being completely ignored by TV and many radio stations', says Steve.
'Bands like Daytona Lights don't have any way of having their music played on the mainstream.  So if you're an Indie band, there is no chance of getting your music out.  There is no Old Grey Whistle Test nor The Tube anymore'. 

What's the music like?  'Intense, infectious and emotive shoestring-pop', enthused one reviewer.  You'll hear shades of Cocker and the Beatles - footage of them wandering around Abbey Road Studios, where they recently got to work, melts the heart.  You'll get flashbacks of Dahl. It's melodic and harmonious stuff, which resonates deeply.  Daytona Lights are bright sunshine in this grey, post-Christmas lull.  Go listen.

www.daytonalights.com
www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wLQcV9ff08&list=UU9MYx4cfYeUsVyokt5xmVaA&index=1&feature=plcp

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

SILENT NIGHTS

It was music which first took me to St. Bride's church, as it has taken me most places. A rookie showbiz reporter in the early Eighties, I found myself hustled there one December for the annual Fleet St. Carols. Hot off the Wine Press and with more than good cheer on our breath, our hack pack spilled through the church's North Doors to be tidal-waved by the choruses of Christmas, a sound which both thrilled and stilled. At that time of life when it seems irrelevant whether you have one, it stirred my soul.

Thus began a long association with the journalists' church – 'the Phoenix of Fleet Street', they call it, a church having existed on the site since the 6th Century and St. Bridget of Ireland. Destroyed during the Great Fire of London, it was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672. Its later addition, a remarkable tiered spire, has since inspired wedding cakes from Tokyo to Bogota. Gutted in 1940 during the Blitz, it rose yet again from the ashes, restored to magnificence at the expense of newspaper proprietors and journalists. In 1950 it became a Grade I listed building, and in 1957 was re-dedicated, in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen. It is a place which means much to me.

I served at St. Bride's for 7 years as a Guildsman. My marriage was blessed there, my children were baptised and confirmed there. This was where, after a decade of marriage, we re-made our vows. I withdrew, eventually, when my husband left us. That calm cathedral of refuge became for a time a cavern of unbearable memories. I could not cope.

Christmas, for so many, is a time of not being able to cope; for whom the enjoyment of traditional festivities and goodwill is rendered impossible by personal agony and heartache. It is so for our postman, whose mother passed away one Christmas morning, and who has never been able to handle the ritual since; for our friends whose 8 year-old daughter fell off her new bike on the common, a cerebral aneurysm extinguishing her life before their eyes; for the cab driver who took me to Chiswick this week, who lost his wife 3 years ago and who has never got the hang of 'doing it all'. 'Me missis, she done everything', he explained. 'All the buying, the wrapping. Christmas comes round, and it feels like I'm losing her all over again. I've done it all meself this year, not that I wanted to. I've made meself. I've even got a little tree up, just for me'.

The ghost of our own Christmas Past is the tragic image of my sportswriter father Ken Jones making his way to London Bridge station after The Independent office party, being swallowed by a swell of stampeding passengers responding to a platform change, then spat onto the tracks just as the late train rolled in, right over him. He lost his arm. This happened 19 years ago. The pain has not waned. The feelings of horror and helplessness which we experienced that night lie dormant for most of the year … but they haunt us at Christmas-time. And yet: he is still with us. Back at St. Bride's last weekend for the occasion of my youngest daughter's Confirmation, I was struck by the sight of my 80 year-old father, eyes glued to his granddaughter as she knelt before the Lord Bishop of London. Watching intently as the Bishop took Bridie's tiny face in his huge hands, my father raised his only hand to wipe a tear.

Even believers stand in churches at this time of year and ask themselves who God is. I rather like the Bishop's turn of phrase. 'God is a field in which our lives unfold … an unfathomable ocean which our minds simply cannot contain. It is in ordinary life – the birth of children, the call of love – that we sense Him. God communicated. He was generous. God so loved the world that He gave us the icon, the image, of the perfect life'. Might God also be about listening?  In which case, can we ever be quiet enough to hear?

A feast for thought, as much as a time for questions. No easy answers. Whatever Christmas means to you, may there be much love in it.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

MOORE THAN WORDS CAN SAY

First time ever I saw his face?  He was on stage at the Bedford, a big, brash pub in Balham, South East London, introducing acts from LIPA (the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts), which is housed in Paul McCartney's old school.  His bald head shone in the spotlight, his shirt was brighter than a vicar's smile, and he exuded a tangible excitement as he welcomed to the stage a seemingly endless stream of astonishing talent. He was in his element that night. He always is. Few can combine the arts of songwriting and performing with those of producer, artist manager, promoter, broadcaster, music pundit and club host  - all distinct and separate skills with at times conflicting agendas - the way Tony Moore can. The charm helps. Charm, not smarm.  He's a Pina Colada of a man.  You can't help but drink him.

A Bristol-born guitarist, keyboard-player and singer whose first professional gig was as a backing musician for a young, up-coming band called Iron Maiden, Tony went on to score a Number One hit in Holland with Radio Java.  In 1987 as part of the Cutting Crew line-up, he again enjoyed top-slot chart success when the band's biggest hit 'I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight' smashed it in 17 countries. 

It was to be a good ten years before he found his true calling as the godfather of new, unsigned acts.  For 6 years, until 2003, his Kashmir Klub thrummed under a pizza joint near my old college stomping ground, Marylebone High Street. Many of the unknown, unsigned young artists who got to make their mistakes in sympathetic company and perfect their art on its modest basement stage went on to become household names - K.T. Tunstall, Damien Rice and The Feeling among them.  Paul McCartney turned up once night, and sat quietly in the audience.  Chrissie Hynde, Mick Fleetwood, Sheryl Crowe, Emmylou Harris and a plethora of other established stars came too.  It was that kind of place.  Then the pizza place's lease ran out, Tony found Balham and the Bedford, and the rest is kind of history. 

How does he find time to get involved in such an exhilarating list of ventures?  Your guess is as good as mine.  The Regal Room venue, upstairs at the Distillers public house, Hammersmith;  his annual Midem showcase;  his reciprocal jaunts overseas;  his television, radio and charity work;  masterminding the career of his fabulously talented young artist, Ilona;  not to mention his own songwriting and recording.  I will never know how he found the resources to study for and achieve a private pilot's licence, but achieve it he did.  He then used it selflessly to fly around the country raising money for the Teenage Cancer Trust. That's Tony. There is more than a page of magic to his spells.

We found ourselves sitting side by side for Paul McCartney at the 02 the other week.  The smile never left his face. He even sang to me, quoting Beatles, Mc Cartney and Wings release dates and chart positions softly in my ear.  I stared at him, surprised, not having taken him for an anorak. He used that word on himself, once or twice, so at least I was off the hook. Last Sunday, as I sat beside him yet again in a BBC Radio London studio, listening to his appraisals of two terrific artists, Mark Hole and Katy Carr, I was humbled.  I'd been invited on Jo Good's Sunday Sessions show only because Tony wanted to help me promote my new biography of Freddie Mercury. He needn't have bothered, but that's him. There are a few as good as Tony in the business of making music. But not enough.

UNSUNG HEROES

I'm less of a Christmas party animal than I used to be.  Stop sniggering at the back.  The reception I never miss is thrown annually by PPL (www.ppluk.com), the organisation which licenses recorded music played in public and broadcast on the radio, TV and on the internet.  PPL also distribute licence fees to those who created the music in the first place. They are worthy people doing worthwhile work, and they simply get on with it.

PPL's board, drawn from within the music industry, comprises an impressive list of unsung heroes.  I am always reminded, when I pitch up for their generous seasonal shindig, just how many such folk in the music industry there are.  Their names and faces are rarely known outside the business, but their contribution is huge.  Fran Nevrkla has served magnificently as chairman and CEO of PPL, and has never done it other than with great style and dignity. Then there's Jonathan Morrish, their director of PR & Communications, with whom I go back all the way to CBS and then Sony Music days.  Jonathan was Michael Jackson's publicist, becoming his close friend and confidant for 28 years. My  eyes water when I recall some of the stunts we got up to in the BAD old days. 

Another PPL party fixture is Andy Hill, CEO of I Like Music (www.ilikemusic.com) - sole supplier of music across all genres to the BBC and some 300,000 commercial clients worldwide.  Andy did a brilliant thing some years ago, when he rescued an incomparable record collection and created an entire business around it, just like that. This was of special interest to me, as the man who created that record collection has been a cherished friend of mine for 3 decades, as well as another unsung hero of the music industry. Let me tell you about him.

So it was the Sixties, Vidal Sassoon was a stellar name in hairdressing, and Cass Elliot, ample American Mamas and Papas vocalist, was one of his many celebrity clients.  The junior she always asked for was a tongue-tied, pop-obsessed teenager called Phil.  She would slip him a £5 note each time: in those days, a fortune.  When Cass died in 1974 aged 32, little did she know of her contribution to what would become the world's largest and most comprehensive record collection.

Hairdressers say it's all in the tips.  It was for Phil Swern.  Addicted to the pop chart since its inception in 1952, Phil grabbed his gratuities and made for the record shop on South Molton Street, snapping up the new releases.  He spent so much time in there, hanging out with fellow record collector Reg Dwight - better know to the world today as Elton John - that the owner gifted Phil his samples and demos.  Thus began an obsession with records which would consume his life, lead to careers as a record producer, songwriter and television writer, and to Phil becoming one of the most acclaimed  producers in radio. 

Responsible today for Radio 2's Pick of the Pops with new boy Tony Blackburn (who replaced the long-serving Dale Winton), Sounds of the Sixties with octagenarian Brian Matthew, and Ken Bruce's Popmaster quiz, Phil has produced shows for everyone from Bob Harris to the late Roger Scott and Tommy Vance.  He also continues to update his own collection, which currently comprises some 3 million titles and is accessible online through I Like Music. 

That collection is housed these days in a lovely old converted church hall in Richmond.  Before it moved there, and the last time I had seen it, it choked 3 bedrooms, the back room and half the staircase in Phil's bachelor semi in Wembley Park.  It's journey had been hazardous.  There was indeed a time when Phil feared it lost for good.

I first met Phil when I was a graduate with a cameo role in a long-forgotten Eurovision video. He was making his name at London's Capital Radio, where he later launched Capital Gold. The video agent was our common denominator: he happened also to be Phil's. 
'Tell him your date of birth', said the agent,
'he'll tell you off the top of his head what was Number One that week.  Never gets it wrong'.

Nor did he.  Nor did he fail when listeners phoned his show, Vinyl Vaults, with requests.  Phil pledged to locate any record within 60 seconds: a doddle in this digital age, but which then involved a fumble through racks of dusty vinyl stored by catalogue number.  Phil knew these numbers by heart, and the process had to be seen to be believed.  When the You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet (YAHNY) quiz started, I became a regular guest on the show.  Phil and I, together with pop journalist Robin Eggar, wrote the best-selling Sony Rock Review.  Radio and television ensued.  Decades later, we collaborated on Vintage TV ... but that's another story.

'My problems began when I started replacing all my vinyl with CD, and then put my vinyl collection on loan to the BBC', recalls Phil.

'They paid me a retainer for the vinyl, as mine was in perfect condition.  Theirs had been damaged -out on roadshows, or left in the sun, or had got scratched.  They'd run out of decent copies of many classic tracks.  I let them use mine. But then they lost the collection.  200,000 records.  Dave Price, Head of Resources, was the guy given the task of curating the collection.  Unfortunately, Dave suffered from diabetes.  He went out on Hampstead Heath with his dog one morning, had a fit, fell in the pond, and drowned.  It was tragic.  But it got worse:  the BBC had only just asked Dave to move my collection.  Only he knew exactly where it was.  It was years before it turned up in a storage space somewhere - by which time it was in dreadful disarray. I almost had a breakdown when I heard about it. They asked me to sort it out, but I didn't have time'.

Enter knight on white charger.  Andy Hill, an entrepreneur with extensive online experience at companies like IBM, knew the legend of Phil Swern.  He was aware of Phil toiling away with a vast CD collection, making some of the finest music shows on radio.  Hill convinced Phil to maximise the collection's worth by applying digital technology.  He took the CDs, brought back the vinyl, and found a building in which to house it all.  Their original company Broadchart metamorphosed into I Like Music when Hill added to the mix young James Suddaby:  founder of the I Like Music online magazine. 

Today, the world-famous Phil Swern Collection includes a CD copy of every UK Top Forty hit since the charts began in November 1952, as well as original, mint-condition single and album vinyl versions where recordings were released.  The armoury also contains almost all recordings which made the US Hot 100 singles chart since 1954, and a vast selection of non-chart pop, jazz, country, comedy, classical, musical and film soundtracks.  It is the most complete collection of its kind, anywhere in the world.

It was always going to take a very complacent wife.  Die-hard bachelor Phil rediscovered Lyndsey, a former Radio One colleague, over the coffin at Alan Freeman's funeral in November 2006.  They got married.  Like the rest of his life, you couldn't make it up.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

ON THE RUN

It began simply enough: a meeting at the Rugger-Bugger's school with yet another master whose moist-eared youth and soapy demeanour practically had me trashing his office for Champagne. This at 8.15am. There was a time when only constables had this effect on me.  I must be losing it.  His enthusiasm for Freddie Mercury bought him time.  The meeting was inconclusive, as school meetings tend to be.  I never know why I bothered, and the teachers rarely seem to have a clue.

No amount of bribery nor persuasion was going to get Saffy and the R-B to the 02 for Paul McCartney ... only for Olly Murs, and that's not until February.  With loaded heart, alone, I hit the long road to the Greenwich Peninsular (a euphemism?), losing my front number plate to a White Van Man who at least got out after backing into my Porsche (it thinks it's a Porsche) and attempted to screw it back in.  This is a man thing.  He was quite charming.  Thought of offering him my other Macca ticket, but you know, only fleetingly.  Common sense kicked in.  It sometimes does.

She was up there in the gods somewhere, the Welsh Honey.  I knew that, because she was tweeting me. I waved wildly at 20-odd thousand people, just in case she saw me.  I knew I'd never find her - at gigs, it's other people who find YOU. Talking of which, then who should rock up, and right in my ear, but Dave Stark, Tony Moore and crew. Couldn't have made that up, it was extraordinary.
There is no such thing as coincidence, Tony and I agreed. These are the ways of the universe.  Reminding us that it's there.

With Stella McCartney right behind us, and her brood of bruisers screaming 'Grandad!' at Paul throughout, I was not thrown, to the right, by lovely Lady Martin, nor to the left, by stiffly beautiful Victoria Beckham, nor even in between, by Ronnie Wood, with his melted-in-the-microwave looks: a rock-n-roll Horrid Henry on a perma-quest for mischief.  He's insane. I was cool with it until he took to the stage with his old rival for a bit of a searing blast. Wow. Ronnie rocks, but remains the new boy.  He'll never be a Rolling Stone, not until Keith dies. 

As for Macca.  His band is sensational, he played all the hits, paid homage to John and George (but not Ringo - ??) has lost none of it.  Highlights?  Maybe I'm Amazed:  in my humble opinion, the finest song he ever wrote.  Here Today, the conversation he never got to have with Paul.  Something. Blackbird. Yesterday. The Long And Winding Road... all the way to the the Beatles' farewell, during the second encore, the line last on Abbey Road: the final album they recorded together (Let It Be was the last they released, but it had been recorded earlier).

'And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make'. 

This featured the only drum solo Ringo ever performed as a Beatle. How I wish they'd brought him on, Monday night, to do it. According to Geoff Emerick, who engineered the album, the guitar solos are in the order Paul, George and John. Paul wanted to go first, and John last.  Ain't life. 

Paul's suit was in homage to original Beatles style, stitched by Stella no doubt, its jacket blind-buttoned and with a black velvet mandarin collar, flash-lined with shocking pink silk.  He dropped the jacket to reveal the braces, still wears the trousers too short.  Black Chelsea boots, what else.  He doesn't look almost 70.

The voice still soars, rips at your heart strings, draws out the insecurities of gone-wrong youth.  I grew up on McCartney, post-Beatles.  'Band On The Run' was the first album I ever bought.  I remember carting it to parties in its sticky plastic cover.  I knew every word.

I still know every word, and I wept the next day as I sat over coffee at the kitchen table turning the programme pages. 
'It's only an old rocker, Mum', said R-B. 
'She's not crying again', snorted Saff.
'Why does it matter that much, Mum?' asked The Eldest.  'It was only a gig'.
It wasn't, though.

The thing is, music was different then.  We consumed it very differently when I was a teenager. There wasn't so much of it, for a start. The artists we worshipped were young, and doing it for the first time. Breaking that ground.  There was Radio 1, and Top Of The Pops, and Whistle Test. We had record players in our bedrooms.  We waited, and saved up birthday money and Christmas money for albums which took forever to emerge. We played them over and over.  We didn't just know the names of the bands, and the lyrics:  we knew the producer, the sound engineer, the backing vocalists, where the album was recorded.  Where they'd rehearsed. We pored over, soaked up and absorbed these details as if life depended on it. Maybe it did.  I get a bit itchy when I hear the term 'the soundtrack of our lives'.  It's a cheapener.  Everything else out there was the soundtrack.  The music we dedicated ourselves to, which we explored, the bands we chose to follow, were no less than our identity.  They spoke volumes more about us than clothes. 

I don't want to sound like a washed-up hag.  But music was life and death for many of us born in the 50s, 60s and 70s.  We didn't take it for granted.  For some of us, it became our living.  Some of us danced in the aisles at the New York Paramount. Kissed the Spiders goodbye at the Odeon in 1973.  Some of us were lucky enough to work in the music business, as managers, journalists, producers, promoters, publicists.  Some of us even learned how to play, could tell an Alembic Explorer from a Hamer 8-string, or were backing singers, or dancers, or would have been groupies, for the hell of it.  Most of us only got that close in our dreams.

As Paul said and sang the other night, in so many words, rock music wasn't just music.  It was civil rights. Equal rights... and it was live. Every drop of it.

Kids will remind parents that we are only young at heart. Single, married, divorced, widowed, with or without kids, even grandkids, we're getting on.

Who cares.  Elasticated waistbands are anathema. I can take or leave the Soaps. Actually, leave, thanks. I am not ready for a honey-blonde bob, nor a Volvo estate, nor a cruise. Kicking and screaming, ladies. My eventual geriatric fantasy is a groovy kind of love in a rock and roll nursing home, with album-cover artwork and jukeboxes in every personalised psychadelic suite. Who's counting?  In our memories, why shouldn't we be Linda McCartney meets Patti Boyd-Clapton meets Stevie Nicks?  Ok, Joplin. 

Want to know what I do when I'm home alone?  I play Hendrix, on vinyl, until the walls thrum. I fantasise about Ian Hunter and Ian Dury, about Ziggy and Bruce.  I still think about all the girls I used to know who slept with Mick Jagger.  I still lust secretly after Jon Bon Jovi.  I go to live gigs as often as I can.  Does this make me a sad old has-been rock chick?  I don't care.  So my hair's long, my eyes are smudged, my denim is as tight as I get, some nights.  I feel great, and thank you for the music. Same as it ever was. 

The old record business was a great place to live. It's not the same now, but then it wouldn't be.  But like the idols of my youth whom I could never let go, I still love it.  I still thrive on the legend, the scandal, the gossip, the intrigue, the who's-had-who.  I still relish the thin line between outrageous fact and frivolous fantasy.  Whatever my reflection is telling me in the morning, I still want to have fun at night.

The media is not speaking to the likes of me.  Forget the Shepherd's pie mags. Why is none of it nourishing my soul?  Might have to start my own, at this rate ...