Two visits to the Apollo Theater, Harlem

With Debbie

When we visited New York City in May 2007, my wife and daughters proposed a shopping trip to Bloomingdale’s. We agreed that everyone would have a better time if I did something else instead, and there was something I very much wanted to do. I’m a huge fan of music, and much of the music I love is by African-American artists. I was thrilled to learn that you could visit and tour the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, so I took a yellow taxi to West 125th Street.

A charming fellow called Billy Mitchell welcomed the guests on the tour, with shout-outs for those of us who had travelled from overseas. He showed a montage of photos on the wall of many of the stars who had appeared there: the famous names just kept on coming. There was a large party of black schoolchildren, a few adult black Americans, and just one other white person – like me, an Englishman. As we filed in to our seats, I found myself in line behind him. I took my seat in a different row, not wishing to create a tiny white ghetto.

Billy is a fascinating character. One of fourteen children, he had a tough upbringing, spending much time in foster care away from his parents. I suspect, like many other small guys, he learned to live on his wits and his sense of humour. Hard work and a likeable and engaging personality probably helped too. He first got involved with the Apollo in 1965 at the age of 15: his mother had sent him to borrow some money from his aunt, who lived near the theater, and he was waiting outside when owner Frank Schiffman said “Hey kid, you want to make some money?” The job turned out to be running errands for Berry Gordy, who had brought his Motown show to the Apollo.

The show that night featured the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Billy has been associated with the Apollo in some or other capacity ever since, and is now the official Apollo historian and tour guide.

Billy filled us in on the history of the theater. It opened in 1913 as Hurtig & Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. Surprisingly, in view of the building’s later history, there was a strict “Whites Only” policy: in the past Harlem (formerly New Haarlem) had been largely a Dutch and Jewish quarter. After Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned burlesque in New York, the theater reopened as the Apollo in 1934, catering to the black community. In 1983 the theater was protected by the conferral of state and city landmark status.

Billy told the story of the famous Tree of Hope. When this landmark Harlem tree was felled in 1934 as part of the widening of 7th Avenue, the owner of the Apollo bought a piece of the stump and had it set on a pedestal onstage. Performers would touch the tree as they went on stage for good luck, a tradition which continues to this day.

Alice and the Tree of Hope in 2022

Billy’s history with the place was fascinating. “I started meeting all the stars that were performing here. Imagine, I saw Stevie Wonder when he was 15. Eventually, I saw Michael Jackson and his brothers. Michael was nine years old when they first came and performed on the Amateur Night.”

If the Apollo Theater had a king, it was James Brown. He played there more than any other performer, and recorded his legendary, thrilling album Live at the Apollo there in October 1962. Brown lay in state there after his death in December 2006. Mitchell said that Brown took a keen interest in his schooling:

“I met James Brown who convinced me the importance of getting a good education. He kept asking how my grades were going. He would give me money if the grades were taking off. He convinced me to raise my hand in class if there was a time the teacher was teaching something I didn’t understand.”

That evening was Amateur Night, and a group of the children would be attending. Billy told us how it worked. The audience was famously demanding: if they’d seen enough of an act, they would start booing, and a fellow known as “the executioner” would appear with a broom from the side and sweep them off the stage. Vaudeville tap dancer “Sandman” Sims played this role, from the 1950s until 2000. The unfortunate performer might also be chased offstage by a man with a cap pistol, accompanied by the sound of a siren. Billy explained the rules to the people who would be in the audience that night. “If the act’s no good, you gotta boo. I don’t care if it’s your grandma, if she’s no good, you boo her ass right off that stage!”

Then came the opportunity to sing in our own miniature Amateur Night. I was tempted by the chance to perform on that legendary stage, but lack any talent to do it justice, and stayed in my seat. Billy had a stern warning for young rap artists. “I do not want to hear the N-word on this stage. That word has been used to oppress, hurt and humiliate black people for many years. If I hear it today, I will test your jaw.”

The show was charming. Several of the children sang beautifully, while others recited poetry. My compatriot had a decent stab at Tracks of My Tears.

Billy Mitchell published his entertaining autobiography in 2010

I had enjoyed my visit so much that when we visited NYC again in April 2022, I wanted to repeat it, and this time I persuaded my family to join me. I emailed ahead to request that we could be added to a scheduled tour: a visit was arranged for 11 am on Tuesday, and we took the subway to Harlem.

Billy greeted me like an old friend, although I’m pretty sure I remembered him better than he remembered me. Once again there were introductions and shout-outs for each party. The main group of children were shiny, bright, well-behaved and enthusiastic, putting me in mind of the kids Jack Black leads astray in School of Rock. We were the only British representatives: otherwise there were families from Florida, Ireland, France and Spain.

Once again, I was struck by the absence of white Americans at this special place. Of course, on a Wednesday morning many would be working. But given the history of the Apollo, many of the potential visitors would, like me, be of retirement age – and, New York, like London, has plenty of domestic tourism. Were these Americans nervous of visiting Harlem? Or less interested in celebrating the huge contribution of African-Americans to American music? It recalled for me the British Invasion of the 1960s, when it took bands like The Rolling Stones and The Animals to bring an appreciation of rhythm and blues music to a mainstream American audience.

With “Mr Apollo” Billy Mitchell

After Billy had taken us through the history of the Apollo, he again offered us the opportunity to perform. We were told that you didn’t have to be good, just take to take your chance to be there: and that although booing was part of the deal at Amateur Night, it was not allowed in our little show unless a performer walked past the Tree of Hope without touching it. That disappointed one of the boys who complained “But we want to be booed!” This time I had come prepared, so that when Billy motioned to me that I might like to join the volunteers on stage, I was able to gesture expansively to Alice, who as our talented singer had been delegated to represent the family, and was already up there.

The first man to perform sang some lines of gospel so beautifully that the volunteers waiting their turn suddenly looked twice as nervous. Was this going to be the standard? But Billy helped set their minds at rest by getting him to confirm that he was a professional singer. Everyone did their bit – the French fellow sang us Frère Jacques – and was warmly received. Alice elected to sing Gershwin’s Summertime, a song she had often heard as a lullaby many years ago, and which she sang in a school concert when she was eleven.

Alice Edwards of The People Versus sings Summertime

The word “historic” hardly does the Apollo justice – Billy Mitchell even showed Michelle Obama and her daughters round in 2010. Here is the astonishing list of some of the acts who have performed at the Apollo. While by far the biggest contribution has come from African-American artists, all communities have been part of the story, and the Apollo’s reputation has made it a bucket list venue for leading white performers like Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift. Quite a few acts had their first big break at the Apollo’s legendary Amateur Night:

  • Aretha Franklin
  • Art Blakey
  • B.B. King
  • Ben E. King
  • Bill Cosby
  • Billie Holiday
  • Bob Marley and The Wailers
  • Buddy Holly and the Crickets (courted the audience by playing more blues-style material – recreated here for The Buddy Holly Story (1978))
  • Buddy Rich
  • Count Basie
  • Dave Brubeck
  • Diana Ross & The Supremes
  • Dionne Warwick (performed and won at Amateur Night)
  • Dizzy Gillespie
  • Duane Eddy
  • Duke Ellington
  • Ella Fitzgerald (made her singing debut in 1934 aged 17 at the Apollo, and later won the Amateur Night first prize of $25)
  • Elvis Costello (recorded his excellent TV music series Spectacle at the Apollo)
  • The Four Tops
  • Gladys Knight (performed at Amateur Night) and the Pips
  • Guns N’ Roses
  • Harry James
  • The Isley Brothers
  • James Brown (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Jimi Hendrix (won an amateur musician contest in 1964)
  • Joe Tex (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Big Joe Turner
  • Keith Richards (played Gimme Shelter at a benefit concert in 2015)
  • King Curtis (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Lauryn Hill (had to contend with booing after a shaky start in her Amateur Night performance in 1987 at the age of thirteen – but persevered and won the crowd over)
  • Little Richard
  • Luther Vandross
  • Mahalia Jackson
  • Marvin Gaye
  • Mary J. Blige
  • Michael Jackson (performed at nine years old at Amateur Night in 1967 as one of the Jackson Brothers. Jackson played a free concert at the Apollo on April 24, 2002, said to be his final on-stage performance before his death in 2009)
  • Mick Jagger: “I came to watch James Brown…I was sitting down at the back. He asked me to come onstage and I tried to run out…and they forced me to come onstage.”
  • Ne-Yo
  • Otis Redding (here singing Pain in my Heart from 1964 – a woman in the audience calls out “Sing it pretty!” – and he does, he does)
  • Pearl Bailey (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Patti LaBelle
  • Paul McCartney (played there in 2010. He described it as “the Holy Grail”, adding that he “dreamed of playing here for many a year” On arriving at the theater, he asked to see Billy Mitchell, and asked Mitchell to introduce him on stage.)
  • Quincy Jones
  • Ray Charles
  • Richard Prior
  • Ronnie Spector (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Ruth Brown (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Sam Cooke
  • Sammy Davis Jr.
  • Sarah Vaughan (performed at Amateur Night)
  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe
  • Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (here in 1963 singing You Really Got a Hold on Me)
  • Stan Getz
  • The Staple Singers
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Taylor Swift
  • The Temptations
  • Tony Bennett
  • Wilson Pickett (here singing In the Midnight Hour, introduced by Rod Stewart)
  • Woody Herman

On many tourist experiences the punters are herded like cattle and milked for cash at every opportunity, and ticking off the big sights can be dispiriting. But our visit to the Apollo was intimate and joyful. Billy Mitchell’s knowledge and enthusiasm was infectious, and it was a privilege to hear those stories and walk on that stage. If you love your music and find yourself in New York City, be sure to visit the Apollo Theater, Harlem.

Forgotten Moments in Music History

If I had a pound for every time someone asked me how this cartoon series got started, I’d have, um, about six pounds. Readers of this blog, and anyone who has met me, will know that I’m passionate about music. And that I have a strange sense of humour. My brain frequently puts the two together: it’s wired to constantly search for music related jokes.

For example, I saw a house called Mayfield yesterday, and was immediately seized by the desire to put a sign outside the house on the left saying Curtis. Another called The Hollies? Someone should buy the house next door and call it Herman’s Hermits. What car did Gerry Marsden drive? An Audi Adooit. And I have a plan one day to move to the nearby village of Seer Green, just so I can call my house Skyer Blue and have the best address in England, maybe plonk a big yellow submarine in the front garden to clarify. And so on.

I can’t switch these thoughts off, and some time about 2007, a cartoon gag idea came into my head which refused to go away:

A very young Elton John is in the JobCentre, looking at job offers. Among the cards offering jobs as warehousemen and sales assistants, we can make out one saying “Wanted: sculptor” and another saying “Can you make up potions?”. Suggested caption: “Key moments in music history”.

I didn’t try to draw it up as I’m hopeless at art. I just wrote the idea on a small piece of paper and left it in a box on my desk, and there it stayed while I got on with my busy life. After four years I had a second idea (they were coming thick and fast), this time not music related:

A boffin-looking (sic) man is in a supermarket scratching his head, in front of a display of cat food.

Caption: Schrödinger in the supermarket.

Now I had two gags, surely I was virtually a professional writer? I wondered whether there were any cartoonists who would consider other people’s ideas – I like to try these things – and found a Q&A forum on the Cartoonists’ Club of Great Britain’s website. In 2011 I proudly posted my gags, asking whether any cartoonists fancied drawing them up, and waited for the stampede.

There was no stampede, but a few politely encouraging responses – it’s a supportive community. Then I had a response from a cartoonist called Wilbur Dawbarn, saying he’d like to draw up the Schrödinger gag. I said yes please! and we agreed terms. He very sensibly suggested that I should remove the idea from my post on the forum, which I did, and the Elton gag was left all alone there – and eleven years later, it’s still standing:

Very soon Will (as Wilbur called himself in normal life) had drawn up the gag. As any cartoonist knows, there’s a big difference between drawing a cartoon and getting it published, and I wasn’t counting any chickens, but when he sent it through I was already thrilled to see my idea rendered by a professional:

And I was even more thrilled when he told me the cartoon had been accepted by Prospect, a British current affairs and general interest magazine. It was published in the July 2011 edition, and of course I bought a copy, spending a fair percentage of my writer’s fee.

Will encouraged me to send him more ideas, and I was grateful for that: not many cartoonists seemed to be open to collaboration. I had nothing else in the locker at the time. But now I had made the contact, I returned to my Elton John idea. Perhaps I could get a series of music gags going?

I realised that I’d never found it difficult to think up the jokes – what I had failed to do was capture them. So I made a point of scribbling them down when I thought of them, and even sat and brainstormed for the odd hour, focusing on quirky performers and songs with lyrics which could be portrayed from an amusing, unexpected angle. I found a moderate intake of alcohol aided this process, although I followed the writer’s maxim “write drunk, edit sober”. The floodgates opened and the ideas came in rapidly. Before long I had about thirty gag ideas, which I tidied up and sent to Will.

Before long he emailed back saying that he thought the idea could work: he would like to draw up five of the gags and try to get a magazine interested in the series. Some of the ideas he found too cryptic or too obscure – reflecting the strange workings of my mind, and my obsessive pop music knowledge respectively – or simply not funny, but he said he really loved a few of them. So after some to-and-fro we settled on the series title Forgotten Moments in Music History, and Will got to work drawing them up. I was the Gilbert, if you will, to his Sullivan. Soon I was thrilled to get his brilliant artwork through – featuring my scruffy little signature:

The days when tabloid newspapers published a whole page of cartoons every day were long gone: there were few potential buyers. Will tried some music magazines without success, and then pitched to the fortnightly satirical magazine Private Eye, who were, and remain, by far Britain’s biggest buyer of cartoons.

After a while, he had a reply saying they were considering it. I say “they” – in fact all main decisions at the Eye are made by the editor Ian Hislop. (At the time of writing he has been editor for 35 years, having done the job since he was 26.). Then it all went quiet for a few months, and we started to assume that it had been, well, forgotten.

But eventually the Eye told us they were going to give the series a trial run, and they published the first in the series in issue no. 1318, 13-26 July 2012:

At the bottom left there

I was so happy. I could come up with all the daft music jokes I liked, and they would be seen by a readership of over 200,000. And even get paid for them. And if Debbie suggested that I should stop making stupid jokes in conversation, I could point out how lucky – privileged – she was to hear them for free, when Britain’s leading (well, only) satirical magazine was happy to pay me for them. This was so much more exciting than the day job. But I started feeling pressure – they had accepted five cartoons, but wouldn’t print the Christmas themed one until December. I would need to come up with more ideas quickly, and the other 25 of my initial pitch to Will had been ruled out.

In the event, I had more time than I expected: early publication was erratic. Some issues carried our series, some didn’t. When it did appear, it kept moving around the magazine. We were slightly discouraged, but I pointed out to Will – rather grandly – that the BBC had moved Monty Python’s Flying Circus around the schedule when it first aired.

Eventually the series found a regular (and, I thought, prestigious) spot on the letters page, and my gag ideas flowed, if not freely, at least adequately to keep it ticking over. From each batch of eight or so, Will knocked back about a third of my gags as either too obscure, too cryptic or just not funny – although he was always fair, and would try one he wasn’t keen on if I really rooted for it. Then he would submit a list of six, of which the Eye would typically go for two or three. This meant typically only about one gag in four made it from conception to publication, so roughly two gag ideas a week were needed to keep the series in play.

From the first, the geeky subject matter attracted contributions to Pedantry Corner, perhaps encouraged by the proximity of the two features. Some were fair enough: the departure board for the midnight train to Tbilisi should indeed have shown 00:00, not 12:00. And Paul McCartney was wrongly shown holding the gun right-handed. (OK, it turns out he’s left-handed – who knew?). Some of it we batted away: in the books and on the TV he’s Great Uncle Bulgaria, but in The Wombling Song he’s plain Uncle Bulgaria.

But the most irritating strand of pedantry insisted on identifying the song with the writer rather than the singer. Should we make the joke about Bernie Taupin instead of Elton John, because he wrote the lyrics? I’m sure Will could draw an excellent likeness of Bernie, but how many readers would recognise it? I tried to shrug off the ill-informed pedantry – it at least showed engagement and raised the profile of our series – but I’m so proud of my nerdy pop knowledge that I found it difficult not to rise to the bait.

There was sometimes creative tension between Will and me about my gags. I tended to embrace the obscure and the cryptic. I was in search of the perfect gag: I would be happy to have just one reader understood it, if they thought it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. Will was obliged to be more practical: he preferred gags based on song titles, where no knowledge of the lyric was required. And he knew that we had to get it past Ian Hislop.

Ian Hislop is famously not “down with the kids” and he makes no effort to be. I stalked his Desert Island Discs choices from 1994 for some pointers as to what might be well received. I was unable to come up with any rib-ticklers based on Handel’s Zadok the Priest or Monteverdi’s Exulta, filia Sion, although I did manage a Madness joke. Fortunately for us, according to Will’s insider at the Eye, Hislop recognised his cultural blind spot and accepted help from colleagues in choosing between our ideas.

Many of the cartoons were as much puzzle as joke – I have been asked whether we publish the solutions anywhere. With most batches of gags I sent to Will, he would reply seeking explanations of one or two. Usually my replies weren’t enough to save them: he rightly reasoned that if he didn’t get them, nor would the readers. It might be possible to Google the ‘solution’, but no reader wants to work that hard. Will did get this one through, though, after a little nudge – and it is one of my favourites:

As the series approached its first Christmas, once the Eye had run the Roy Wood Christmas gag, Ian Hislop requested another festive themed cartoon. Maybe it’s the Scrooge in me, but I always had trouble thinking of decent Christmas jokes. Luckily Will rode to the rescue with one of his own. I did, however, get to write one of the Private Eye Christmas cards one year:

Initially Will specialised in Christmas gags, but over time he started contributing more of his own ideas. I was rather protective at first, but he is a top cartoonist who regularly comes up with extremely funny jokes – why would he not also come up with first rate music gags? And of course I needed his help to keep the series going – it was becoming a struggle to come up with enough ideas to satisfy the Eye. This is my all-time favourite of Will’s:

There are two ways to tell whose it is. Mine tend to be more oblique, and cryptic than Will’s, sometimes with a reference to the lyrics, not just the title. More obviously, mine carry the “Rik” scribble. In the later years of the series, Will and I were contributing ideas roughly equally.

As I didn’t have any direct contact with the Eye, I didn’t get to go to their occasional cartoonists’ get-togethers, although I did meet Ian Hislop once, at a book launch in December 2012 – even if I had to pay to do so. I attended the launch of Private Eye: A Cartoon History at the Olivier Theatre, no less, in September 2013. After paying my £25 I joined the queue to get the book signed, and when I reached the desk, introduced myself to Ian as the writer of Forgotten Moments. He stood up, shook my hand and said how much he liked the series: earlier that day he had chosen the next three ideas, and he mentioned two of them, confirming to me that he was personally involved in the choice. I mentioned it could be hard work coming up with acceptable ideas. “Well, there’s enough” he replied.

I had other plans for the franchise. Knowing how important pop music is to the boomer generation, I felt it would make a good set of greetings cards, so I touted the idea around a number of companies. Eventually, one called Peartree Heybridge went for it, and published a range of eighteen cards from the series. Sportingly, Ian Hislop raised no objection, provided Private Eye was credited on the back.

Will and I attended the launch at the Progressive Greetings Live trade fair in May 2014. At the Peartree Heybridge stand, our dreams of retiring on the proceeds were already starting to look fragile: there was a buzz around a few of the stands, but not, sadly, at this one. Sales indeed proved very modest: they ran it for a couple of years before pulling the plug. One card from the series outsold the rest by some way: our dark take on Space Oddity.

More ambitiously, I even conceived the idea of a jukebox musical, loosely based on the Forgotten Moments theme. It starts off with the ghosts of Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and a youthful Elvis Presley meeting up by the Dakota building in New York on 8 December 1980, waiting to greet John Lennon. They then form a kind of superhero zombie band who go round having crazy adventures and righting wrongs in chaotic fashion. That’s as far as it got. Just as well probably, I don’t think any producer could have afforded the music rights.

I sometimes sent Will non-music ideas, but the economics of one-off cartoons can be brutal. An artist expends time, skill and effort drawing up ideas to have the great majority knocked back, and revenue sharing with a writer then makes the economics virtually unworkable. The advantage of a series like Forgotten Moments for Will was that the Eye would accept or reject ideas on the basis of a verbal summary, so he knew before starting work on them that he would get paid for it. But he did draw up a few of my non-music ideas, and one was accepted by the Eye:

Towards the end of 2020 (and after quite a few lockdown gags) we got the news we had been fearing: after a run of eight and a half years, and 216 cartoons, Will received the message “Ian thinks this has run its course.” The final cartoon in the series appeared at the end of the year. The last non-Christmas joke was quite apt:

After 35 years in the job, Hislop probably knows what he’s doing. I had felt that the series was becoming a little stale – certainly, my favourite gags tend to come from earlier in the series. Happily, Will was invited to pitch a new series, and his Eco Chamber now dispenses laughs and dire warnings from the same Eye letters page.

Never one to leave a dead horse unflogged, I have started my own Forgotten Moments greetings card shop on Etsy. Sales have once again been modest, but it’s satisfying to run it (except when a card is struck out for image rights infringement – I can’t say which it was for legal confidentiality reasons, but I did find it rather ironic) (oh, and I don’t think I’ll be exploring Wimbledon Common after dark) and I do get a little thrill every time my phone goes ka-ching to announce a sale. The best sellers in the range of eighteen are not only both Bowie gags – they are both based on the same actual song. That man’s fans are so devoted. Neil and Buzz is one of them, of course. This is the other:

But what, you ask, happened to the joke that started it all, Elton John at the JobCentre? It was rejected from the first batch, but I persisted. After a tweak, we sneaked in as fm41:

You can also find a Forgotten Moments in Music History blog, where the cartoons are sporadically released onto the internet – eventually they will all be out there. Fly, my pretties!

The Panic Brothers

At university I never missed a chance to see the V.I.P.s, the home-grown punk pop band managed by fellow Warwick student Clive Solomon. Their future seemed bright. Eventually their single The Quarter Moon reached 55 in 1980 – the only dent they made on the charts.

I went to see them playing the prestigious 100 Club in London, supporting a swingin’ soul band called Q-Tips. I concluded that Q-Tips were a great band, but that their singer was the weak link. Yes, the singer who went on to fame and fortune as Paul Young.

A few years on, I was absolutely certain that the wonderful Mint Juleps would be huge, but they never came closer to world domination than records which peaked at 62 and 58 in the British charts.

Are you seeing a pattern here? Maybe my musical tastes were a little bit too niche. It’s just as well I didn’t work in the business, because my track record at picking winners was hopeless. But perhaps that was about to change.

Early in 1986 my go-to live music was the many retro bands who played fifties and sixties R&B, country music, rock’n’roll and soul in pub venues around Camden like the Dublin Castle – where Madness (previously) and Amy Winehouse (later) made their names. One night I was there breathing the cigarette smoke and enjoying the Cajun R&B of the Balham Alligators, when during their break a couple of young guys came on stage, introduced as the Panic Brothers.

They were a revelation. Their musical influences were pretty obvious – two guys playing acoustic guitars and singing close harmonies inevitably recalled the Everly Brothers – but also taking inspiration from Hank Williams and the roots of contemporary country music. They performed entertaining original songs with a large helping of shrewd observation, humour and sharp social comment – with an edge of left-wing protest, which informed rather than overwhelmed the music – at a time when most country music came from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

I was so impressed that I typed out a review and sent it in to London fanzine Capital M – and they printed it:

Reading this now, I wouldn’t change much, although I’m not sure why I suggested they should do covers when their original songs were so good.

Reg Meuross and Richard Morton. Brothers in spirit.

I banged the drum for them one more time. After attending a gig on 21 September 1986 I sent the fanzine a second review. I justified my enthusiasm in the covering letter:

I’m sorry to bang on about the Panic Brothers again, but if you were at the Dublin Castle last night you would have known it was a very important gig. After all, it’s not so often that a pub-rock act breaks through nationally and I think it can’t be far away for these guys.

If the enclosed review looks like hype – I can only say it’s sincere, and that it takes a lot to impress this cynical old pub-rock veteran.

Panic on Parkway

City Limits be blowed, it was in Capital M back in April that you first read that the Panic Brothers would take the world by storm. To judge from their tumultuous reception at their return gig at the Dublin Castle, they’re over halfway there already.

A large and lively crowd was captivated by the Panic recipe of excellent singing and playing, witty original songs and waggish introductions. There were signs of an act about to break big; a fiercely partisan audience, calling for their favourites, and knowing the words by heart.

The essence of Panic appeal remains their songwriting ability. Like truly great pop, their songs combine economical lyrics with simple, memorable tunes. Some are already Panic classics – “Sober”, “Payoff” and “Bivouac”. “No News” is an indictment of the yellow press on a par with “Pills and Soap”. Best of all though, the new songs – they go on getting better. What a privilege, to attend the birth of these future classics: “Almost as Blue as Hank Williams”, “I Made a Mess of a Dirty Weekend” and the exquisite, wistful “My Friends Don’t Come Drinking Any More.” These won friends immediately, and all three were demanded as encores.

To judge from the rate of increase in Panic popularity, Reg and Richie will not be around the pub circuit for very long. Treat yourself now.

Waggish? Really Rik? I don’t think this piece was ever published, but for a while they were on a promising trajectory. In 1987 they released In The Red, a “mini album” – a 12-inch vinyl disc containing ten songs which played at 45 rpm. To underline the joke, the first track, Bivouac starts with a glissando to mimic the sound of the record adjusting after mistakenly being started at 33 rpm – as it no doubt often was. They also had a video made for In Debt, but the single was never released.

My favourites were, and remain, the poignant My Friends Don’t Come Drinking Any More, the brilliantly funny I Made a Mess of a Dirty Weekend, (“With my British Rail Red Rover I’m a real Casanova”) another drinking song, I’ve Forgotten What it Was That I Was Drinking To Forget, a not-drinking song, I Feel So Sober I Could Cry, (“But I gave it up! I wonder why? Tonight I feel so sober I could cry”). And there’s Almost as Blue as Hank Williams (“On the bicycle of life I’ve got a spanner in my spokes” – surely up there with Hank’s own “I’m going down in it three times, but Lord I’m only coming up twice”) and No News (“Lying in the gutter press, watching the stars undress”). Their songs are funny or beautiful, or both, and unlike many comedy songs, the quality of the music repays repeated listening.

Over the next five years they were frequently on TV: among other appearances they sang Bivouac and My Sony Walkman Just Walked Out On Me on Channel 4’s Friday Night Live in 1988, and a snippet of them singing Almost as Blue as Hank Williams and commenting on the appeal of Country music in Britain was shown on NBC News. Three of their songs were used for a 1989 BBC Scotland Play On 1. They performed at the Edinburgh Festival, and at Glastonbury.

As you might have guessed, they never made it big. But they both launched successful solo careers. The stage banter was always a big part of their appeal, and for Richard the comedy outgrew the music, and he became a popular stand-up comic – once described as “Newcastle’s answer to Billy Connolly”, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jack Dee and Jo Brand, and has often featured on the radio.

Meanwhile Reg has become an established act in the folk world. He specialises in telling local stories, sometimes commemorating tragedies. But my personal favourites are the more pop styled songs which could have been drawn from personal experience: Your Face Again, the achingly sad Good with his Hands, and the marvellous The Goodbye Hat. The last of these shows that Reg took all of his lyrical bite into his solo career:

Now it doesn’t necessarily follow 
That she’s been going out with somebody else
But it’s starting to look
Like she’s found a new book
While this one gathers dust on the shelf
Reg and Richard c. 2015

In the Red was at last released in CD format in 2015. Richard and Reg have got together for the occasional Panic Brothers reunion in recent years, and when they scheduled a gig at the Dublin Castle in 2017 I was there. I wasn’t disappointed: it was well attended, and the playing, singing and banter were as sharp as ever. They even gave me a shout-out and played my request. I thought I was a superfan, but I saw a fellow there of about my age singing the words to every number, who had brought along his young adult son and daughter. A true apostle. If the Spotify stats are any guide, Panic Brothers fans are now few in number. But we remember, and we are strong in faith.

***************

You’ll be wondering, given my record of picking winners in the pop music world, who I’m tipping for stardom now. Well, this time, it’s a little closer to home: my daughter’s band, The People Versus. As I always loved music but had zero talent for it, Alice is livin’ the dream for me. I’m bound to get it right eventually, no?

The Mint Juleps

In the 1980s, going to gigs was my default form of entertainment. Living in Kentish Town in north London, it was a short walk down to Camden, where I spent many happy nights in the Dublin Castle on Parkway, and other nearby venues.

But the Mint Juleps home patch was east London: they emerged from youth theatre at the Half Moon on the Mile End Road, where they had all worked as volunteers. So I don’t remember how I first found them – I don’t think it was round my way. But from the minute I saw and heard them, I was under their spell. Their personalities, their vivacity, their banter, but mostly their glorious voices and harmonies, were an irresistible wave of joy, “like a bolt of sunlight breaking through low hanging cloud” as one fan described it. Their gigs were simply the most enjoyable I’ve ever been to.

They were six girls: the four Charles sisters Debbie, Sandra, Lizzie and Marcia, and two of their school friends, Julie Isaac and Debbie Longworth. (“Four of us are sisters, but I bet you can’t tell which four.”) They had no musical training, and it seems they never set out to be stars: they started the journey to become professional singers when they agreed to a gig in a pub, after the owner had heard them singing at the Half Moon.

They sang unaccompanied, or a capella, and each took her turn in the spotlight, stepping across the stage to sing solo. They handled rhythm and blues, pop, soul, reggae and gospel from the fifties and sixties with complete assurance, style, and an infectious sense of fun.

Sandra would win a roar of appreciation for her astonishing extended “We-e-e-e-e-e-e-ll” at the beginning of Shout. Marcia’s resonant bass lines drove the songs along. And when super-cute, sweet-voiced Julie stepped out to sing One Bad Stud, every guy in the audience imagined she was singing just to him. Debbie Longworth and Lizzie were also great singers – Debbie playfully introduced herself as “the token white”. There were no weaknesses – every song was a delight, and you couldn’t keep the smile off your face.

For me the highlight came when Debbie C took a turn to sing gospel, with Jesus Gave Me Water – a number associated with Sam Cooke among others. Her vibrant, warm contralto, and especially her performance on this song was thrilling, and on the video there’s a lovely moment 56 seconds in when she shoots a look at the camera in annoyance after a slight fluff.

And it seemed to me, in my optimistic and naive twenties, to suggest – even in the midst of the Thatcher era – that we were on the dawn of an age where race would become irrelevant, where people would at last be judged on the “content of their character”, and this joyous music would lead the way. Perhaps it was the lager talking, but we seemed to be travelling so fast. How disappointing that thirty-five years later we are no closer to this destination. If I were black, disappointing wouldn’t cover it.

The group had a decent measure of success. They toured with Sister Sledge, Billy Bragg, Kool & the Gang, Lenny Henry, Shalamar, Fine Young Cannibals and provided backing vocals for Bob Geldof, the Belle Stars, Alison Moyet, Al Green, Gabriel and Dr. Feelgood. They worked with artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and appeared in Spike Lee’s 1990 TV production, Do It Acapella.

They were signed by legendary new wave label Stiff Records, who implicitly acknowledged that they were at their best as a live act by recording them live at the Shaw Theatre in London for their 1985 debut album One Time. They broke into the lower end of the charts with a charming version of Neil Young’s Only Love Can Break Your Heart in 1986 and with Robert Palmer’s Every Kinda People in 1987. They provided the final release on Stiff Records before the label folded: the rap-styled Girl to the Power of 6, produced by the highly successful Trevor Horn – celebrating girl power nine years before the Spice Girls came on the scene.

But their single releases abandoned the joyful a capella style. Their production leant towards 1980s fashions, leaving behind the variety which had been the foundation of their shows. They wrote some good numbers – in particular Debbie Longworth’s Don’t Let Your Heart, which I thought of as their signature song – but their studio recordings weren’t distinctive enough to grab the imagination of the record-buying public.

Some of the records sounded like a natural solo number had been hastily rearranged into a group song, to give all the girls a role. The records never quite captured what made them so special live, and some group members sensed that. In a 2013 interview Debbie Charles recalled frustration at Trevor Horn’s approach to production: “We’ve got a sound already, why’s he trying to give us a new one?”

Arguably Stiff Records lacked confidence in the genre: although the Flying Pickets had shown a couple of years before that a capella groups could have big hits in the UK, they had quickly faded from the charts, being seen as a novelty act.

Listening to the vitality and sheer joy of their live performances decades on, it seems incomprehensible and plain wrong that they didn’t take the world by storm. It may be that the lack of a single focal point made the Mint Juleps difficult to promote, but for me that was one of the attractions – the girls clearly had a lot of fun together, and supported each other as a team. As their career progressed, Debbie Charles and Julie Isaac were increasingly assigned lead vocals, and who knows, perhaps they were offered solo contracts (update – see blog comment below, only from DEBBIE CHARLES herself, no less), but the group stayed together.

I should admit to a track record of championing acts which fail to hit the commercial heights their talent merits. I confidently backed The Panic Brothers (who?) for stardom. I saw a swingin’ soul band called Q-Tips, and concluded that they were a great band, but that their singer was the weak link. That’s right, the singer who went on to fame and fortune as Paul Young. So what do I know? Sorry if I jinxed it for you, ladies.

But happily they seem not to dwell on coming so tantalisingly close to stardom, and in this 2013 interview the two Debbies focus on the things they got to do and the fun they had. From Debbie L: “We were like kids, just messing about and having a good time, but we were getting paid for it as well.” From Debbie C: “Absolutely no regrets at all, I would not change anything. People ask me if I miss the Mint Juleps…I miss sitting in our minibus with those five other people, because we used to laugh till we cried.”

There are other fans who refuse to forget the Mint Juleps. Like Niall McMurray, who has written eloquently in praise of their single Docklands. And like American superfan Robert Doyle, who wrote an outstanding blog piece on them in 2014 (see Part 2: The Music), and started the excellent Mint Juleps tribute page on Facebook the following year. He’s done a great job of keeping the flame alive, finding lost video gems from the past and building a fan community. Mint Julep members sometimes make cameo appearances in the comments – as four are sisters, it’s not difficult for them to stay in touch.

I have no doubt they can all still sing beautifully. Unhappily the Half Moon Theatre is now a JD Wetherspoon pub. But if Debbie, Debbie, Julie, Lizzie, Marcia and Sandra ever feel like getting together for a reunion concert in their east London patch, I’ll be first in line for a ticket. Or perhaps second in line. Just after Robert Doyle.

Cecil Parkinson, Ken Livingstone, music and me

With no qualification besides being an obsessive fan, I was invited to give a sixth form lecture at Watford Grammar School for Boys – my alma mater – on 20th January 1984, on the subject of popular music. The invitation arrived due to the enthusiasm of my cousin Phil, who by coincidence was now teaching Classics at the school – and perhaps due to the credulity of John Holman, the teacher tasked with organising the sixth form lectures.

I was flattered, although initially hesitant. But I had given a best man’s speech the previous year which went down well, so I thought, why not? I prepared a lecture entitled “Songs and Stories”, consisting of ten songs, from the 1950s through to the 1970s, each accompanied by a brief introduction, and arrived at the school at lunchtime. I had left the school in December 1974: nine years later Mr L.K. Turner was still the headmaster. He had always seemed a remote figure, so it was a strange feeling, returning as an adult to sip sherry in his office with a couple of other teachers.

Off duty from enforcing discipline, Mr Turner – or Trog, as I will always think of him – was relaxed. Conversation turned to some CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) graffiti which had adorned the school wall all through my career there. He mused whether any contemporary issue would arouse the same strength of feeling – this was Margaret Thatcher’s fifth year in power – and I thought he sounded a little wistful that the youth had become apathetic. This surprised me, I remembered him as the embodiment of “The Man”. We concluded that CND at the time was probably still – or rather, again – the issue most likely to stir young people to protest.

I delivered my speech to a fairly passive audience, perhaps tired on a Friday afternoon, perhaps a little surprised and indignant that they were expected to pay attention to a 27-year old’s views on pop music – quite reasonably wary of this sacred youth territory being annexed by the curriculum. Or maybe they found the lecture dull. Certainly it proved a tougher audience than a good natured and slightly tipsy wedding gathering. The talk was enlivened when my final music selection suddenly came on at twice the volume of the previous nine: presumably this was a way for the boys tasked with the audio to show appreciation for their favourite – perhaps the only one they liked.

In the discussion afterwards one boy pointed out that I had omitted so many great artists – what about Hendrix, for instance? Of course, Hendrix was indeed mighty, but being limited to ten records, I couldn’t cover everything. A teacher posed the question: was pop music just a sop to keep youth from protesting or getting involved in politics? I had, and still have little sympathy with this view – the music is real. I responded tartly: “That sounds like the question of a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t like music.” That got a few sniggers at his expense, but I later regretted my sharpness – he had only been trying help me by breathing life into the flagging conversation.

Thirty-seven years later, I have stumbled on my notes. It doesn’t seem like my tastes have changed very much: if called upon now (and I’m not holding my breath) my music choice would be little changed from 1984, although I would phrase a few things differently. And I might omit the Rascals song, which though it still sounds great, doesn’t define a genre as the others do.

With my notes was the programme of sixth form lectures for the Spring Term. I had completely forgotten, if I ever knew, what august company I was keeping. Later that term one speaker was the Rt. Hon. Cecil Parkinson MP – previous holder of two cabinet jobs, later holder of two more – who also served two terms as Chairman of the Conservative Party. Another was Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council, which was to last just two more years before it was abolished by Thatcher’s government. Livingstone later bounced back to serve two terms as Mayor of London.

I don’t think I was aware of these political heavyweights being on the same bill that term, and just as well: I was nervous enough already. Thankfully I didn’t have to follow them on stage.

***************

SONGS AND STORIES (20 January 1984)

Good afternoon.

I want to talk to you about various aspects of popular music over the last thirty years. I should say right at the beginning that I won’t be attempting to give a full history of pop music – I couldn’t begin to do justice to the subject in the time available – nor will I attempt to draw a tidy conclusion at the end. All I want to do is to play some records which have been important in the development of pop music, and to talk about each in isolation. This is, I should emphasise, a purely subjective choice.

Some of you probably aren’t interested in pop music; others of you may enjoy it, but may not expect to see it reduced to being a compulsory subject in the school curriculum. To both, I apologise. But if some of you come to discover and enjoy the music played today, I’ll be well satisfied.

**********

The first record I want to play is by the Robins, later known as the Coasters, recorded in Los Angeles in 1954. America during the 1950s had hundreds of black vocal groups making records, often with very little to distinguish them. But what set the Coasters apart was their hugely talented songwriters and producers, Leiber and Stoller. The Coasters churned out a long string of records, each of which was a miniature opera – a perfectly formed piece of theatre in three minutes.

Their better known records include Charlie Brown and Yakety Yak which both have a flippant teenaged theme. But the song I’m going to play is Riot in Cell Block Number 9 which is possibly the most menacing and hard hitting drama on record. Full use is made of sound effects, while the singer’s voice is tinged with sufficient brutality to be convincing as a man doing time for armed robbery.

The Coasters – Riot in Cell Block Number 9

**********

Elvis Presley is these days most often recalled as a grossly fat 40-year old crooning ballads to to blue-rinsed matrons in Las Vegas. This image does no justice to the fiery and controversial figure he once was. During the 1950s Presley became a huge star by the violence of his music, his moody good looks and his lithe and suggestive dancing. American television found his stage act so profoundly shocking that they would only show his performances from the waist up.

Presley was born into a very poor family in Mississippi where he grew up surrounded by and enjoying black music. His success came about because he combined in his music the rhythm and mood of black rhythm and blues music with the sharp lyrics and energy of white country music. To understand the impact Presley made in the 1950s it’s important to realise what went before him. The music scene was dominated by soft ballad singers like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Ray and Rosemary Clooney; there was no appreciable teenaged audience. This was partly because teenagers had very little money to spend, and partly because the music scene was too middle aged and sedate to be of interest. But the emergence of rock’n’roll, epitomised by Presley, and the growing affluence of the fifties was to change that. The record which best demonstrates the violence and youthful energy of rock’n’roll is

Hound Dog – Elvis Presley

**********

Doo-wop is the slightly comical term applied to a very popular ballad style of the 1950s. It is so called because nonsense phrases like doo-wop would often be used as harmony against the lead vocal.

Literally hundreds of black American vocal groups used the style, and would actually sing on the street corners of their neighbourhood. They would often sing unaccompanied, sometimes to avoid detracting from their intricate vocal harmonies, but more often for reasons of economy. Recently the unaccompanied, or a capella style has made an unexpected come back with The Flying Pickets.

The proliferation of groups singing in this style meant that thousands of records were made, usually very cheaply and mostly of indifferent quality. Sharp-eyed producers would pull a local group into the studio, set up some beers, press a few dollars into their hands, and ask them to sing. The results were often appalling.

The Five Satins would have been forgotten with the rest of them, had it not been for the extraordinary quality of one of their records, In the Still of the Night.

The first reaction on hearing this song is probably one of amusement at the weird arrangement and the deliberately dumb backing vocals. But if you listen closer you might hear the simplicity and understated power which makes this, in many enthusiasts’ view, the finest record ever made. They say the song hangs in the air over New York City on summer nights. I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean but it’s probably true.

The Five Satins – In the Still of the Night

**********

Elvis Presley may have had a shattering effect on the calm of Eisenhower’s America, but he was ultimately assimilable. For all his raucous shouting and obscene gyrations, he loved his mum, he ate mashed banana sandwiches, and he was proud to do his bit for Uncle Sam when he was called up in 1958. He was, in spite of everything, an all-American boy. Little Richard made no such concessions, and no one has ever understood him.

Little Richard would sing and play piano with demonic energy, standing and bashing at the piano as if he was trying to smash it. He had a powerful voice, always on the edge of hysteria; he would sing with a passion and commitment which belied the fact that the lyrics were usually quite meaningless.

From 1956 to 1958 Little Richard had a string of million-selling records. His manager found himself without any new material to promote, and with a typical disregard for commercial considerations, Little Richard refused to go back into the studio. Instead, with casual genius, he sent in a rough demo tape lasting less than a minute, called Keep A-Knockin’. This was dressed up in the studio to a respectable length and became another million seller.

If rock’n’roll was marvellous drivel, Keep A-Knockin’ is a fine example. It is so brash and confrontational that you have to take sides – you either love it or hate it. This was very much the stuff that helped create the generation gap.

Predictably, no performer could keep up this level of energy and commitment for long. While touring Australia in 1957, a fire had broken out in the plane he was travelling in. Convinced that he would die, he got down on his knees and promised that if he was spared he would give up “the devil’s music” and devote himself to the gospel. The plane landed safely, and Little Richard was as good as his word – since when God has never looked back.

Little Richard – Keep A-Knockin’

**********

In complete contrast to Little Richard, Sam Cooke was the very model of urbane sophistication. Well-groomed, polite and clever, he had frequently sung in American night-clubs, and sang in a smooth, sweet style that owed much to his training as a gospel singer.

From 1960 to 1965 he made many fine soul records. Unfortunately he had to fight a running battle with his record company, who wanted to turn him into a second Sammy Davis Jr. But Cooke’s voice was distinctive and beautiful enough to transform the slightest song or the most sickly arrangement into something worth hearing.

But his finest record is Bring it on Home to Me from 1962, in a straightforward gospel style, making much use of close harmony and call and response with a second vocalist.

Cooke was never popular with the white American establishment; he was too clever, too successful for their taste. Incidentally, he was a close friend of Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and was among the first into the ring to congratulate him after beating Sonny Liston.

Sam Cooke died in a shooting incident in a hotel in 1964. Some have speculated that this was a CIA set-up.

Listening closely to the slightly hoarse quality of Cooke’s voice, it’s easy to see why Rod Stewart claims Cooke as a major influence. However, it is debatable whether Stewart has ever conveyed such powerful emotion in his singing.

Sam Cooke – Bring it on Home to Me

**********

The only record producer ever to acquire the status of legend in his own right is Phil Spector.

After singing, writing and producing a few fairly ordinary hits in the early 60s, Spector slowly developed the production style that was to make his name. Where other producers used a four or five piece rhythm section, Spector used overdubbing to create a multi layered, symphonic effect which he called the “wall of sound”. He took pride in the craftsmanship he lavished on what critics described as trash; he was fond of referring to his “Wagnerian approach to rock’n’roll – little symphonies for the kids”.

By the age of 23 he was a multi-millionaire. Then the problems set in. He put six months work into recording a Christmas album which was released on 22nd of November 1963, the date of president Kennedy’s assassination. Suddenly nobody wanted to hear his version of Frosty the Snowman. Three months later the Beatles arrived in America, crushing all opposition before them. Finally, the enemies he had made by his idiosyncratic behaviour conspired to bring about the failure of what he regarded as his greatest record – Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High.

Humiliated, he went into virtual retirement, an increasingly enigmatic figure in dark glasses surrounded by bodyguards. Always image conscious, he enjoyed this reputation; he was quoted as saying “It isn’t funny when you see your father’s head blown apart by a shotgun.” We have no evidence that anything like this ever happened to him. Either way we can only agree: it isn’t funny to see your father blown apart by a shotgun.

Be My Baby by the Ronettes is probably not Spector’s best recording but it is the one that best illustrates his dictum: symphonies for the kids. A little girl’s voice, singing a lyric of unashamed banality, is surrounded by great waves of sound; one girl and a thousand-piece orchestra. Like it or not you have to agree: it’s way over the top.

The Ronettes – Be My Baby

**********

John Lennon claimed in 1971 that the Beatles made their best music before they ever signed a recording contract. This remark was probably made to shock rather than to inform. But what he meant was that before the Beatles ever reached the studio, they had a raw pace and excitement which was never quite captured in their more polished studio recordings.

From 1960 to 1963, hundreds of beat groups sprang up in Liverpool, and many of these make the trip to Hamburg, where their rough and ready music was very much in demand at the local night clubs.

Conditions in these night clubs were appalling. The groups had to play for stints up to eight hours; they would consume vast countries of alcohol and drugs, and more than once their performances were interrupted by violence between rival gangs.

The track which I’m about to play comes from the Live at the Star Club album. This was not released until 1976; it was taken from an amateur recording of the Beatles performance. This explains the poor sound quality. But it is difficult to listen to this recording without getting some feeling of how exciting those early performances must have been, and without an intimation of the huge talent that was to take the world by storm in 1963 and 1964.

The Beatles – Shimmy Shimmy

Listening to this today, it is hard to believe that the man playing bass guitar and singing backing vocals is currently at number one with Pipes of Peace.

**********

Aretha Franklin with the daughter of a black preacher in Detroit, the Reverend CL Franklin. This man was a wealthy and by all accounts devastating Baptist preacher, who held sway over a huge and devoted congregation, and commanded large fees for his appearances.

The influence of gospel music and the church was the foundation of Aretha’s success, but this success took a long time in coming. From 1960 until 1966, she made scores of records with CBS; but while everyone agreed she was very talented, none of the records were artistically or commercially successful.

1966 saw her move to Atlantic Records. and November of that year saw the historic recording session with Atlantic’s top producer, Jerry Wexler. With the rest of the American music business looking on with interest, Wexler decided to set Aretha loose. Where before she had recorded in a clipped, polished style, Wexler encouraged her to sing her heart out, over a taut, understated backing. The result was definitive soul music; pure, uninhibited and powerful.

Aretha Franklin – I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You

**********

The Rascals didn’t just play soul music – they understood it. What made this unusual was that they were white, at a time when for white people to play soul music was virtually unheard of. Blue-eyed soul they called it.

Besides that I have to admit that their story is not particularly interesting. But they left us one monumentally exciting record. The frenetic Good Lovin’ which was a US number one in 1966. In Britain it never did a thing.

The Rascals – Good Lovin’

**********

They wouldn’t agree, but in many ways the Sex Pistols can be seen as the true successors to Little Richard. Both rely on uncompromising attack; both produce a violent confrontational sound. Significantly, both produced their finest records in a period of less than 12 months; it was simply not possible to maintain the intensity of feeling – in the Sex Pistols case hatred – which inspired their most powerful work.

Their manager Malcolm McLaren has always claimed that he created the group from nothing, that they were totally untalented and owed all their success to his promotion and publicity stunts. This is simply not true; for despite the Sex Pistols indifferent musicianship and unpleasant behaviour, they make uniquely powerful records, which again like Little Richard, forced the listener to take sides.

Sadly, Sid Vicious started to believe his own publicity; he stabbed his girlfriend to death and later killed himself – a born victim carrying on his shoulders the accumulated hang-ups and neuroses of his generation.

The Sex Pistols – Anarchy in the UK

That just about concludes the talk. I hope you found something to enjoy. Thank you.

Take a Trip to No Dragon Wood

When the plans you made are a total dead loss
Just take a right on your way to Maple Cross
Take a trip to No Dragon Wood
Take a trip to No Dragon Wood
They had it checked and they know it’s clean
Of dragon dung since 1415
Come and chill in No Dragon Wood
Come and chill in No Dragon Wood
Oh they used to call it Bottom Wood
A bummer of a name, no it weren’t no good
Meet you down at No Dragon Wood
Meet you down at No Dragon Wood
They got birds, squirrels and maybe frogs
They got fallen trees and mossy logs
All to see at No Dragon Wood
All to see at No Dragon Wood
There’s lynxes, bears and crocodiles
You’ll have to take your chances
You’ll prob’ly have to fend off
Rhinoceros advances
But you don’t have to worry in the least
‘bout incineration by a mythical beast
If we carry on for a couple more miles
We can get a ourselves a beer in Chalfont St Giles
And you don’t need no more excuses
To sample those Creative Juices
Come on down to No Dragon Wood
Come on down to No Dragon Wood
Oh yeah
Get your ass down to No Dragon Wood

Matthew and Son

Up at eight, you can’t be late

You lucky, lucky bastard. I used to set my alarm for quarter to six when I commuted to London. I’ve always imagined Matthew and Son as a mucky old factory, probably in the north of England, one that L S Lowry might have painted. Cat took the name from his tailor, Henry Matthews, but the lyric goes on to mention “the files in your head”. Perhaps it’s an office where accountants or lawyers toil. Or maybe a hand tool factory.

In fairness, Steven Demetre Georgiou, known to the world as Cat Stevens – later as Yusuf Islam – was only 18 in 1967 when this song was a big hit in the UK. Perhaps he didn’t experience work drudgery himself before he became a pop star. Although his girlfriend did, according to his later comment:

“I had a girlfriend, and she was working for this big firm, and I didn’t like the way that she had to spend so much of her time working… There was a bit of social comment there about people being slaves to other people.” So this shot across the bows of capitalism was inspired primarily by resentment of his girlfriend’s employer – and only incidentally by a sense of injustice. It is not recorded whether this is the same girlfriend whom he loved no more than his dog.

For Matthew and Son,

Matthew hasn’t called his company Aviva plc or G4S: no, he’s happy to put his name above the door, and be judged on his record by customers and employees. And employees’ boyfriends, it seems. Matthew has put his personal reputation (and his son’s) on the line. Clearly a man of integrity. (Or possibly a narcissistic t*** like Trump.)

he won't wait.
Watch them run down to platform one
And the eight-thirty train to Matthew and Son.

Well, I used to run down to platform one for the six-forty three train, that’s one hour and forty-seven minutes earlier, matey. And I don’t know how far you live from the station, but I do wonder whether thirty minutes is enough time for you to wake up/go to the loo/shave if applicable/shower/get dressed/have a nutritious breakfast/brush your teeth/make up if applicable/gather your stuff/get to platform one. All the things you should do to arrive at Matthew & Son presentable and ready for work.

Matthew and Son, the work’s never done,

That’s what work is, right? If all the work was done, you wouldn’t have a job any more, would you?

there’s always something new.

Stimulating work then.

The files in your head, you take them to bed, you’re never ever through.

Right, let’s assume it’s not a hand tool factory.

And they’ve been working all day

All day?

All day

No employer would expect less.

There's a five minute break and that's all you take,
For a cup of cold coffee and a piece of cake.

Cake? You get cake? Do Amazon delivery drivers get free cake? Luxury!

He’s got people who’ve been working for fifty years

A steady employer. A job for life. Probably a decent pension scheme. How many young people entering the job market in 2021 can expect that sort of loyalty from their employers? Uber pension, anyone?

No one asks for more money ‘cause nobody dares

There’s a whole world out there, guys. Go work on someone else’s files. Retrain. Emigrate.

Even though they’re pretty low and their rent’s in arrears

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Matthew and Son don’t pay a decent salary. Perhaps their employees are profligate.

Matthew and Son,
Matthew and Son...
etc

Cat was a precocious talent, and this song still sounds fresh. But he couldn’t have imagined how, half a century later, the march of Thatcherism and Reaganomics – followed by the rise of the gig economy – would make the workers at Matthew and Son look like the lucky ones. If they were recruiting today, applicants would be queueing around the block. Or rather, they’d crash the servers.

Matthew, and his Son – or by now his Great Grandchildren – are just trying to run a business. Give them a break. But make it a twenty minute break. And make sure the coffee’s hot.

Songwriter: Cat Stevens
Matthew and Son lyrics © Cat Music Ltd.

Smokey’s 49-year vacation

Why do I sometimes remember things that no-one else does? Do I make these memories up?

When, in January last year, I wrote Teacher’s Pet about my time at Watford Field Junior School, and put the article on a local Facebook group, a former fellow pupil called Andy Skinner commented on the article, and we began a dialogue.

Something then stirred in my memory: something to do with Skinner, a party, my brother Rob, and a Motown single. Eventually it took shape. In about 1970, we – well, Rob – had owned a copy of the sublime Tracks of My Tears, by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and then he didn’t.

Lamenting its absence from the collection of singles in his collection he had blamed “Skinner” – we used surnames a lot at school, there were too many Johns and Richards – a boy in the year between us. As I recall, Rob had been at a party some time in the early 1970s, and he told me that Andy Skinner had “borrowed” the record to tape it. (Home Taping was Killing Music.)

In my mind this was tentatively associated with another Motown single of lesser status – although still a decent single – that we had in the pile, Do What You Gotta Do by the Four Tops, which peaked outside the top ten in 1969. My recollection was that it was a temporary swap which had become an indefinite one, as Rob and Andy’s paths hadn’t crossed again – at least not when they were carrying these Motown hits. In view of the difference in quality of the two records we felt somewhat cheated.

And here I was, unexpectedly in touch with Andy, someone I remembered from school, but only vaguely, as is the way with kids in a different year. So in a message to him I wrote, tongue in cheek, that Rob would like his copy of Tracks of My Tears back.

Perhaps unsurprisingly after so much time had elapsed, Andy replied that he had no memory of ‘blagging’ the record, nor did he remember Rob from school, and doubted if he owned the record. But when I tentatively suggested that if he found it, he might return it out of the blue to Rob, it appealed to his sense of humour and he readily agreed.

To Andy’s surprise, he did find Tracks of My Tears when he searched in his loft, so he dispatched it to Rob’s address with exactly the message you would send when returning something after 49 years.

I pictured Andy, in the Spotify era, wiring his cassette recorder up to the hi-fi like we all used to. I waited for the joke to find its mark, and in January 2020 Rob received the record and Andy’s note in the post. Rob and I have pranked each other in the past, so I wasn’t surprised that he sensed my hand in this and messaged me “This arrived today, without any address or any other clues. Don’t suppose it rings any bells with you?” I took that as a coded accusation. Well, really.

I tried to nudge his memory by sharing initially ‘vague’ recollections which soon became more specific, but in vain. He knew nothing about it, and the joke had fallen flat. I was prepared to leave it at that, and leave a bit of mystery in his life. But I wrote a follow-up article to Teacher’s Pet which mentioned Andy, and the game was up. Rob wrote “The Andy Skinner you wrote about. He wouldn’t be the same Andy Skinner that mysteriously returned the Tracks of My Tears single to me a couple of weeks ago, would he?” So: no joke, no mystery. Ah well.

So, did I make the whole thing up? Did I unintentionally spoof someone I barely remember from school into going up to his loft, locating a vintage 45 and randomly sending it to my brother? If so I’m actually quite proud. I understand that Picasso’s Girl With a Dove is on anonymous loan to the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. I might ask to have it back, if they don’t know where they got it from.

Perhaps I just remember something they don’t, even though I wasn’t directly involved: where music is involved my memory seems to be sharper. Or possibly, I remember the incident accurately, but have pinned it on the wrong guy. But it seems to be corroborated by Andy finding Tracks of My Tears when he didn’t think he owned it: also to some extent by the confirmed presence of Do What You Gotta Do in Rob’s collection – although Rob doesn’t recall how he acquired it, and Andy doesn’t recall ever owning it, so it hasn’t made a journey in the opposite direction. Most people are just too busy living their life to mentally archive it as they go.

But did you spot that line of marker just under the sleeve window? Perhaps there is writing behind that which might shed light on the mystery. I must ask Rob to take a look.

Come join the u3a

(To the tune of Cabaret, sung by Liza Minnelli, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb)

What good is sitting
Alone in your room?
You’re never too old to play.
Come join the u3a, old chum,
Come join the u3a.
We find that it’s fitting
To learn how to Zoom
‘cause now it’s the only way
To come to the u3a, old chum,
Come to the u3a.
Come taste the tea,
Come hear the talk
Come sing your song
Start educating;
Right this way,
Your group is waiting.
A friend of mine took Wine
Appreciation
And quickly learned the art of
Degustation
She got to know her
Merlot from her Claret
And now she runs
A winery in Sarratt
A fellow thought he’d go and join
The Striders
He walked eight miles and then had
Seven ciders
And when they said “There’s
Four more miles you know”
He just laughed and told
Them where to go
A lady in our road was
Learning Scrabble
But sad to say it soon became
A rabble
They threw her on the street
Because you see
In every single game
She put down "qi"
Another chap joined Politics
Discussion
But someone started arguing
in Russian
And though they tried they
Couldn’t seem to mute him
Then they found his name was
Mr Putin
My neighbour went to learn
The ukelele
But when he tried to sing it was
A fail-ee
Instead of sounding
Confident and warm he
Always came out very like
George Formby
No use permitting
Some prophet of doom
To wipe every smile away
Come to the u3a old chum
Come to the u3a!
Please don’t be quitting
We’re gonna resume
After this holiday
Come join the u3a, old chum
Welcome to u3a, old chum,
And I love the u3a!

(New lyrics by Debbie and Rik Edwards, July 2020)

Cryptic Music Quiz: difficulty level – extreme

Here are 50 questions: each describes a song. All you have to do is identify the song title – the artist is not required. To help you, I have given the year the song first became popular – the correct answer is a song from that year. As you will see, some of them go back a little way: if you’re under fifty, it might be worth teaming up with somebody who isn’t. The answer may come from the title or the lyrics of the song. Enjoy!

Feel free to contact me for answers if you get stuck.

Which song…

1)  …permits triple winter precipitation?      (1946)

2)  …is sung by a man with remorseful leg-ends?    (1984)

3)  …is sung by a man admiring a girl on an underground train?  (2005)

4)  …describes a firm where workers have to get up at eight?    (1967)

5)  …recommends an osculatory judgement?    (1991)

6)  …laments the death of a local shopkeeper?   (1967)

7)  …is sung by a girl made pregnant by a boy she met in Alabama?   (1971)

8)  …tells the story of a boxer convicted of robbery and murder?   (1975)

9) …is sung by a man whose music career has come to grief in Central Valley, California? (1969)

10) …offers the listener an opportunity to stay dry? (2007)

11) …celebrates the end of the scholastic year?    (1972)

12) …refers to a sweet smelling missile?      (1875)

13) …describes an ill-fated space voyage?        (1969)

14) …celebrates surviving a long pop career?   (1983)

15) …describes a courtroom murder?    (1969)

16) …laments a romance that ended just over a fortnight ago?   (1990)

17) …describes how a deceased soldier saved the singer’s life in Vietnam?     (1986)

18) …recalls amorous times in NW3? (1985)

19) …takes a boat trip in northwest England?   (1964)

20) …invites one of your children to a massacre?    (1991)

21) …describes the aftermath of a racially motivated murder?   (1939)

22) …asks whether an Italian clown can do a Spanish dance?   (1975)

23) …contradicts an Osborne play?         (1996)

24) …points out the ineffectiveness of medication?     (1997)

25) …is narrated by an unhappy newsboy?      (1972)

26) …dictates a letter written too late to save a murder and suicide?   (2000)

27) …refers to a feline visual organ?     (1982)

28) …is a plea of innocence by a boy accused of killing a girl?   (1992)  

29) …looks good but lacks content?       (1977)

30) …requests ignition?       (1967)

31) …mourns a lover lost to Hades by a glance?           (1762)

32) …suggests she might serve drinks again?      (1981)

33) …celebrates improved visibility? (1972)

34) …boasts of climbing skills?       (1970)

35) …complains of paresthesia?       (1964)

36) …follows a route between Portman Square and Regents Park?    (1978)

37) …includes a request that the biscuits be passed?      (1967)

38) …bemoans rotating runners?        (1994)

39) …patriotically begins with a conjunction?    (1916) 

40) …tells of a 3,219 km journey to reach a wet place?      (1968)

41) …warns of insomnia?   (1926)

42) …displays ignorance of Iberian weather?   (1956)

43) …confuses inconvenience with irony?         (1996)

44) …describes fortifications on inadequate foundations?   (2008)

45) …might refer to Coca-Cola or cherry cola? (1970)

46) …draws strength from borrowing books?          (1996)

47) …recounts a nocturnal trip in Egypt?            (1979)

48) …tells of an assault on an American mystery writer?    (1967)

49) …shows repeated resilience in the face of excessive drinking?  (1997)

50) …extols reverse festive ambulation? (1956)

Let’s do this

Tuesday 17 October 2017, Tooting Tram and Social. Her first time on stage since a couple of things at school. She looks good but nervous. The older girl has done a few open mic nights before, and chats with her reassuringly, hugs her, helps her bring the microphone stand down. Finally the nine-piece band has finished tuning up and running sound checks and they launch into their first number, Barefoot. She sings beautifully, but keeps her movements small. The band is enthusiastically received, with help from friends and family in the audience. Apart from the other girl, her bandmates didn’t realise this was her first performance in public – she hadn’t told them so they wouldn’t fuss her.

The following May she came with me to see the Rolling Stones at London Stadium. She has never needed any lessons in stagecraft, but if she had, it was a good one. The support act was Liam Gallagher: as we entered the stadium he was in his default state of aggressive moaning.

We could see him on the big screen of course, but from a distance it took me a full five minutes to locate him in person on stage. He wore dark blue against a dark background, he stood there and barely moved. He didn’t look as if he was enjoying himself. So what chance did we have?

Liam is famously a huge Beatles fan: had he not, then, heard the story of Bruno Koschmider yelling “Mach schau! Mach schau!” (Put on a show!) to enliven the five young lads from Liverpool, passive as they played their instruments in the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg in 1960?

When the Rolling Stones came onstage, the change in mood was immediate and thrilling. Jagger, of course, still appeared a tiny figure, but he wore a shiny silver jacket and moved ceaselessly to every corner of the stage – you couldn’t miss him – and he transmitted an energy belying his 74 years to the whole stadium.  When it grew dark he wore a billowing red silk shirt which glowed like a beacon.  We had paid for a show, and by god we were going to get one.

That’s how you put on a show, I said, as if she needed telling. The nine-piece band she sang with worked well musically, but its members had very different personalities, and the negativity some brought to group discussions may have inhibited her stage performances. But her confidence was quietly growing with experience and positive feedback. When they played their most prestigious gig yet at a festival, other band members said “It’s 400 people, aren’t you nervous?”  She replied “No, 40, 400, 4000, we play for people so we can play to more people, that’s the point. This is why we’re doing this.”

The nine piece evolved into a smaller, more flexible band which had the advantage of not needing such a large stage, and not taking so long to do its sound check. Just as important was the personal chemistry between members: they were also mates. Confident of the band’s support, her performances became freer and more energetic.

The band is finishing its sound checks. She’s chatting to me, quite relaxed, three or four rows back in the crowd. The announcer leaves the stage to a burst of applause, and she has to push her way through. The teasing opening riff of Like I’m Lonely/Driftwood starts up as she climbs on stage smiling and looking at ease. Now she’s on stage the show can start.

She brings down the mic and starts to move to the music. She hasn’t started singing yet and we already know we’re going to have fun. Let’s do this.

Cliff Richard and The Shadows, O2 Arena, 26 September 2009

History books will tell you that From Me To You was the Beatles first UK number one. That’s not how I remember it. Rob and I were listening to Pick of the Pops on the BBC Light Programme with Alan Freeman on our radiogram in Oxhey, in March 1963. Rob was nine, I was six and a half. Cliff Richard was our hero, and we were not pleased to hear that Cliff’s Summer Holiday had been knocked off the number one spot by a noisy song called Please Please Me by some upstarts called the Beatles.

(The reason for the discrepancy is that the standard reference for chart history, The Guinness Book of Hit Singles, used Record Retailer charts, while the BBC at the time compiled its own averaged chart.)

Mum and Dad were great music lovers. Opera was their thing, but they indulged our enthusiasms. I remember being taken to see Summer Holiday at the cinema. Later Mum made a great sacrifice by taking us to see A Hard Day’s Night: the only tickets available were in the front row, and she had a terrible headache from the frantic unceasing movement. They even took us, early in 1965, to see Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp – a panto at The London Palladium starring Cliff and the Shadows. (Oh no they didn’t…)

Rob and I were thrilled to see Cliff and the Shadows live. Mum and Dad enjoyed seeing Arthur Askey as the Widow Twankey. Dad was tickled by the gag where Hank Marvin tried and failed to scare someone by wearing a ghost mask – until he gave up and revealed his face, whereupon the victim screamed in horror.

When the Beatles, the Stones and everyone else burst onto the scene in 1963/4, Cliff was able to retain his popularity – if not his relevance – by continuing his trajectory from young rock’n’roller to family entertainer. The low point was Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha. In doing so, he jettisoned most of the respect he once enjoyed for his early recordings, and all of his cool.

But you don’t forget your first heroes, and I retained a fondness for Cliff Richard long after he became deeply unfashionable. I was thrilled in 1969 when Cliff and Hank made what I thought was a superb record, Throw Down a Line – an apocalyptic song which Hank Marvin has said he wrote with Jimi Hendrix in mind – now that would have been something. His artistic renaissance in the 1970s produced the exquisite Miss You Nights, and his biggest US hit, Devil Woman. He could still pick a song.

*******

I came to Move It late – understandably, as I was two when it was released. Without question, it is the first authentic rock’n’roll song produced outside the USA. Before the arrival of the Beatles, the only other undisputed non-American classic is Shakin’ All Over by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.

Like Cliff, the Shadows became uncool during the 1960s, but Hank Marvin’s reputation was later burnished as heroes of later musical generations – Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Dave Gilmour, Brian May – queued up to pay their respects. Cliff, though, has found such respect harder to come by. Is that fair? When Move It was made, Hank wasn’t even in the Shadows, or the Drifters as they were called at the time.

But just listen to it: the throbbing, angry rhythm, the polite but committed and insistent vocal. Jazz critic Steve Race had written in Melody Maker “So rock’n’roll is dead, is it? All right, then. My funeral oration consists of just two words: good riddance.” He went on to say he didn’t know what the next craze would be. Ian Samwell, an early member of the Drifters, was inspired to write the song as an angry riposte: he really did want to know what could replace it. He composed the song on the top deck of a Green Line bus (the 715) on his way to Cliff’s house in Cheshunt.

It serves still as a passionate war cry and anthem for the music. Move it was first released as the B-side of the insipid Schoolboy Crush, but fortunately TV producer Jack Good heard Move It and insisted that Cliff should sing that one if he wanted to appear on Oh Boy! The record was flipped and reached number two in the charts.

The implication wasn’t lost on British fans. Just as Buddy Holly had shown that ordinary looking guys could become rock’n’roll stars – not just exotic godlike figures such as Elvis Presley and Little Richard – so Cliff proved you didn’t have to be American to make it. There were earlier British attempts at rock’n’roll, of course, but to properly understand the impact of Move It, what it meant to teenagers at the time, it’s worth listening to dire previous offerings like Tommy Steele’s Rock With the Caveman.

Cliff became such a fixture in British life that it’s not always appreciated how desperate he was for success and how hard he worked for it. A story about High Class Baby, his follow up to Move It, is revealing. After recording the song, he went home and cried, believing that his early success had been a fluke. “I thought that was it” he said. “It just didn’t compare in any way to Move It.” He was right about that record, but soon broke through again with Livin’ Doll and never looked back.

Many of Cliff and the Shadows’ early recordings still sound good today: rock ballads like Livin’ Doll, Travellin’ Light and The Next Time, out and out rockers like Please Don’t Tease and We Say Yeah, pop/rock songs like Bachelor Boy, Dancing Shoes and Don’t Talk to Him, and the big film themes The Young Ones, and Summer Holiday. And those two films are cheesy but still fun and full of youthful energy, in a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney kind of way.

My wife and I had seen Cliff Richard in concert many years before, but when we heard that he was getting back with the Shadows for some 50th anniversary concerts, billed as the Final Reunion Tour, we knew we had to be there: they very rarely played together these days, and having the Shadows along would keep Cliff to his more rocky early material. I invited cousin Phil, nostalgia king and an even longer-standing Cliff fan, to join us.

Known for years as “The Peter Pan of Pop”, it was claimed that Cliff had fans from nine to ninety. In truth, there were few under fifties there. We did spot a nerdy looking 12 year old boy with his parents: I assumed he was there under duress, but later we noticed him mouthing the lyrics like a true fan.

When the lights went down, the years dropped away and we all felt like teenagers again. They opened with a pulsating We Say Yeah, and the mood for the evening was set. (A version of which Johnny Hallyday has also used to good effect to open his show). “Please sit down – you’ll only get tired” said Cliff considerately, viewing the frenzy his opening number had unleashed. The Shadows, always consummate musicians, were tight and energetic, and Cliff looked delighted to have them back on stage with him. They were all having a great time.

It was full set, stretching to three hours, and fans would struggle to think of any big hits that were left out. Cliff performed with an energy belying his 68 years. The Shadows had the stage to themselves for a while to play some of their hits, which they did with accuracy and intent – for example the cleanest, sweetest Wonderful Land you could imagine. They even threw in some trademark dance steps.

The audience had a huge helping of exactly what they wanted: it was, without doubt, the best a Cliff Richard and the Shadows gig could be. When I expressed my opinion in that way, it was sometimes greeted with a smirk, but I meant it as a high compliment. We had a wonderful time. When eventually they had run out of hits, Cliff introduced their final number by saying that when, if ever, we met again, we will still be The Young Ones. Not a dry eye in the house.

Cliff Richard has always been polite, and lacked the air of danger which characterises true rock stars. He was never going to be Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury or Ray Davies. But he’s definitely Cliff, and he’s served up some great music over the years, and if, as he’d feared, he’d faded away straight after Move It, his legacy would still be substantial. And for people of a certain age, he’s just always been there, part of the British fabric, like David Attenborough or the Queen. We understand that you’ll never be cool. But we love you, Cliff.

Set List

  • We Say Yeah
  • In the Country
  • Gee Whiz It’s You
  • A Voice in the Wilderness
  • Livin’ Doll
  • Dancing Shoes
  • I’m the Lonely One
  • A Girl Like You
  • Do You Wanna Dance?
  • Shadoogie
  • Wonderful Land
  • The Savage
  • Sleepwalk
  • High Class Baby
  • I Could Easily Fall (In Love With You)
  • Willie and the Hand Jive
  • Sea Cruise
  • C’mon Everybody
  • Dynamite
  • Lucky Lips
  • Travellin’ Light
  • Time Drags By
  • All Shook Up
  • Please Don’t Tease
  • Apache
  • Foot Tapper
  • Atlantis
  • F.B.I.
  • I Love You
  • The Next Time
  • Don’t Talk to Him
  • On the Beach
  • Summer Holiday
  • Bachelor Boy
  • Nine Times Out of Ten
  • It’ll Be Me
  • Visions
  • Move It (encore)
  • Singing the Blues
  • The Young Ones