Sunday, 18 October 2015

Flamingos # 1: Cross Over the Bridge

Listening to the audio clips in a recent post about Clyde McPhatter, here, I was struck by the difference between the Dominoes and the Flamingos. While Sollie McElroy's voice is not unlike that of Clyde McPhatter, hearing You Ain't Ready immediately after those McPhatter-era Dominoes records was mildly disconcerting: it felt like there was something missing, something I hadn't been aware of before. I had always believed that the Flamingos' records for Chance, jump blues and ballads alike, were uniformly superb.

This sent me back to Robert Pruter's book Chicago Doo Wop for guidance and succour. Here's what he says:
Like all R&B groups of the fifties, the Flamingos did an equal number of jump tunes ... but these are less successful than their ballad material-they’re too controlled. Peppy, up-tempo numbers seem to require a little more spirited anarchy.
Which puts it pretty good and offers a degree of comfort. "Spirited anarchy" was never what the Flamingos were about, even in their earliest days. The Five Keys' recording of Red Sails, also to be found in the McPhatter post, is much closer in spirit to the Dominoes' performances, not too far from potential chaos at certain moments. The Flamingos' best known uptempo tune from the Chance days, Jump Children (aka Vooit Vooit), has what I can only describe as a kind of jazzy relaxation about it: even the scatting sounds rehearsed.

Which is not to say that they are inferior to the Dominoes. There are other pleasures to be found in those recordings, and what I propose to do, as time and inclination permit, is to write about those Chance sides one by one, in between such other topics as may momentarily divert me from my labours. (Round Britain Quiz is resuming on Monday for a kickoff - that cannot go unremarked.)

For this first post I'm going to take Cross Over the Bridge. It was written by Bennie Benjamin and George David Weiss, who also wrote Wheel of Fortune, another song popular with doo wop groups. Both Benjamin and Weiss had long careers, also working with other collaborators. Benjamin's was one of many hands who wrote I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire, popularised by the Ink Spots.

Patti Page's version of Cross Over the Bridge was released in January 1954; the Flamingos' version followed in March. Another cover, by the Chords, followed in April on Atlantic subsidiary Cat, although it was the irresistible flip side, Shboom, which was to usher them into doo wop posterity.

It's interesting to compare the three versions. Here's Patti Page's original hit:

The bump'n'grind brass arrangement (orchestra conducted by Jack Rael) could seem at odds with the content of the song: essentially lighthearted advice to a man to reform and seek the one true way. "Cross over to the Lord" is the obvious inference (the giveaway word "redeemed" is used) although this is not presented as a gospel song, and the transition being urged is merely to that of a monogamous relationship: the "promised land" is the land of Love, with lessons taught by Life, not the bible.
If you're a guy who's had a girl in each and every port
And you've forgot the rules of love that Life has always taught
And if you broke as many hearts as ripples in a stream
Well, brother, here's the only way that you can be redeemed

Cross over the bridge
Cross over the bridge
Change your reckless way of livin'
Cross over the bridge
Leave your fickle past behind you
And true romance will find you
Brother, cross over the bridge

If you have built a boat to take you to the greener side
And if that boat is built of ev'ry lie you ever lied
You'll never reach the Promised Land of love, I guarantee
'Cause lies cannot hold water and you'll sink into the sea
I'm not sure whether Benjamin or Weiss was responsible for the lyrics, but I will charitably assume that the slipshod rhyming in the first verse was deliberate in order to reflect the lighthearted nature of the song. Might the perpetrator have had Noel Coward's 1945 effort in mind?

She refused to Begin the Beguine
Though everyone besought  her to
And in language profane and obscene
She cursed the man who taught her to
She cursed Cole Porter too

Moving swiftly on, possibly the brass in the Page recording is being used to suggest the hellfire subtext to this sermon masquerading as one-to-one advice. The term "brother" is used, which in this context suggests the Salvation Army, and there is a video clip of Dorothy Collins singing the song on a TV show called Your Hit Parade in what appears to be army garb. According to a website devoted to Collins, Your Hit Parade, a TV version of a longrunning radio programme, "featured the top seven songs of the week [and] attempted to dramatize the songs, with skits, beautiful sets and a multitude of performers."

This treatment of the song (her accompanists are a puppet witch and snake, along with one Madam Oglepus) offers further evidence that this was intended as a pop novelty with no aspiration to be anything else. According to Albin Zak (in his book I Don't Sound Like Nobody: Remaking Music in 1950s America):
Cross Over the Bridge ... bore the sturdy and familiar earmarks of professional songcraft: artful manipulation of the title metaphor and expert handling of contemporary musical conventions.
This is borne out by the ultimate twist in the final verse:
I know it isn't easy to resist temptation's call
But think of how your broken heart will hurt you when you fall
'Cause some day you will find that you are hopelessly in love
And she'll belong to someone else as sure as stars above
Hardly an impassioned gospel song, then, nor yet the sort of slow ballad which could be drenched in reverb a la Golden Teardrops. The intricacy of the lyrics doesn't offer much opportunity for vocal acrobatics from the lead singer. The Chords' version tries for a Dominoes-style performance, but you can hear the lead struggling: too many words to fit in, no real opportunity to let loose.

"The grown-ups at Atlantic", Zak says,  couldn't imagine that Shboom would be a hit, but DJs such as Huggy Boy in Los Angeles started playing the "zany come-on", as Zak describes it, in preference to the A-side.

The lasting appeal of Shboom is, I suppose, about the immediacy of that rendition: as a piece of craftmanship it may not be up to much, but as a spontaneous-seeming expression, whether of love, lust, sheer joie-de-vivre or some compound of the three, it cannot be faulted. I recall reading (can't remember the source) that the lead singer's bit of scatting seems to bubble up out of his throat, unbidden.

Which leaves us with the Flamingos' version. Presumably the group, or Chance Records, were drawn to this song, at least in part, for commercial reasons: an R&B version of a proven hit, which was probably also the reasoning behind the Chords' recording the song at Atlantic. (Released the following month, was that a conscious attempt to "kill" the Flamingos' record?)

Which is not to say that the Flamingos considered themselves to be slumming it by such a release. In their early club days before they began recording they were already singing songs associated with Patti Page, as Marv Goldberg explains in his highly recommended R&B Notebooks feature on the group, here:
Their material was influenced by the places they played: mostly mellow, with a few jump numbers thrown in. But, according to Sollie [McElroy], they stayed away from blues, because that wasn't the kind of music that got people to sit down and buy drinks. Sollie said that the material was mostly picked out by Zeke and Jake [Carey], who tried to come up with songs that fit Sollie's voice.
Marv goes on to quote McElroy's description of their early act:
We would get up there. We had a couple of songs that we did. The one that was real popular that they [the Ink Spots] did: "We Three." You know how Bill [Kenny; lead singer of the Ink Spots] used his hands and everything? Well, this is what people wanted to see. They weren't into Rock & Roll as yet, so we had to do such things as "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window," some other things by Patti Paige... "September Song." In other words, it was quiet music. You stand up clean: you had your makeup on, you had your hair done, your shoes were perfect. And you had one guy on a mike, four on another. So, everything was blending together. You sang. You used your hands to express [waving around a zircon ring his mother had given him - in the same way Bill Kenny waved around his diamonds]. And that's how we became known as balladeers. And that's how we got into the better clubs. We didn't play no juke joints. The only time we played small clubs in the city was in between gigs, for some pocket money.
So they were used to singing pop. And as I will discuss more fully in later posts, the Flamingos did not come from a background in gospel singing, which was perhaps an advantage in dealing with a strange kind of hybrid number like this. Sollie McElroy, singing lead, delivers the song clearly, and although Red Holloway's Orchestra is looser and jazzier than the musicians on Patti Page's recording, the instruments do fall completely away as McElroy delivers the payoff line to each verse: it's all about serving the lyrics, in other words.

Well maybe not quite all. While the song is a clever bit of craftsmanship, treated with due care and attention in the lead singing and the band arrangement, it's what might be termed the unnecessarily beautiful harmonising which continues to make this recording listenable.

Ah. I see that Marv Goldberg has listed Sollie McElroy and Johnny Carter as joint leads. I assumed in Carter's case that referred to the falsetto weaving in and out of the verses; listening again it may be that Carter is singing lead on the verses, though McElroy is undeniably prominent on the choruses. There are other Chance recordings where there is a kind of falsetto doubletrack effect so either McElroy or another group member was capable of switching.

Alright, let's hear it now:

Update: since writing the above I got in touch with Marv, who said that he wasn't sure about who is singing lead on the verses but agreed that it was Sollie McElroy on the chorus. Marv kindly contacted Billy Vera, who said:
I think your original guess is correct. In the verses, we hear Johnny's falsetto behind Solly's lead. In the choruses, no background falsetto, then Solly comes in on top of Johnny's chorus where there's no room for a breath.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

NRBQ (Not Round Britain Quiz)

Round Britain Quiz will be starting soon on Radio 4 ... or will it? There are no clear indications on the Beeb's website. Still, that gives me an excuse to collect the attempts at RBQ-type questions scattered through this blog. Some were actually sent to the programme and not used, but (a bit like Keith Richards) we are not concerned with your petty quality control restrictions. So why not find a partner from the same region, book yourself into a remote but luxurious location and pretend that you are one of the RBQ teams? If you are not from Northern Ireland or Wales, please substitute alternative places.

Q1  Northern Ireland

A Lawrentian betting aid; a Beatles album before a Family intervention; a hillbilly's tribute to the military; seventies popsters who went sky high. In what sort of concerto might you reasonably expect to find all of these and why?

Q2  Wales

If a Dutch rodent's domicile initially leads you to a proprietorial disease, which organs might be affected by some additional Nancy-ish behaviour (without a late mime's soundbite)?

Q3  Northern Ireland

Music Question

If germs lurk unseen, what kind of doctor provides a solution for all three?

Q4 Wales

Music Question 

 Why might efforts towards the cessation of a nagging pain lead you into a wood of this sort?

 Q5  Northern Ireland

Addressing a female creator of bovine pastries more formally than usual may call this man's nemesis to mind, relatively speaking. But why might situating him at the end of a Mayfair shopping mall out him as a late riser?Alternatively, if a hound from the Daily Mail followed behind, why might that effect a Spanish transformation to his name - at least, if you hail from the North of England?

Q6 Wales

To find the hometown of a female authority on the longevity of Lucy's accessories, put muddy feet on a victorious leaf. To identify a female authority on the companionable qualities of said accessories, bid a guttering farewell to Bobby's alleged girl (amongst others). A former drifter could be instrumental to this answer - unless, that is, you'd prefer a bunch of fake gladiolas associated with another leaf.

 Q7 Northern Ireland

If the only way is up for an American Professor's admission, and down for a sleepy combo's combinations (as engineered by their manically grinning bespectacled leader), furnish me with the boy to make this answer thrice-blessed dramatically.

Q8 Wales

Even if a now-you-see-her romance of the Earl of Cricklewood's and an old buck rabbit's exhortation both lead to the blues can happy days be far behind?

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Clyde McPhatter

Prompted by Colin Escott's book on Clyde McPhatter (above), I have now listened to a representative sample of McPhatter's work with the Dominoes and the Drifters plus his solo work on Atlantic, so here are a few more thoughts.

First, no real surprises about the solo sides: my vague recollection of the arrangements being rather poppy and old hat was confirmed. But the less cluttered they are the better, as with A Lover's Question or Deep Sea Ball - or the classic Without Love, which reeks of gospel: you are hearing a sermon being preached. True, it ain't just a piano backing but the arrangement is restrained and supports the vocal, never overwhelming it.

Nevertheless, the solo work on Atlantic isn't a case of a performer being forced to betray his deepest instincts: Jerry Wexler says that "Clyde wanted to be Perry Como" and the material was slanted to the pop market, though he maintains Atlantic didn't go in for "vomitacious" productions - in fact the only regret he expresses is about their decision to use a white backing group. Ahmet Ertegun, however, talks about the "leaden feet" of the arrangements, likening the resultant recordings to a chrome-heavy 1940s car which has dated less well than a sleeker earlier model.

The Dominoes' and Drifters' recordings retain their power,although for sheer raw exhuberance and gospel abandon perhaps the best of the Dominoes sides have the edge. As with the Flamingos and Moonglows on Chance, there are particular performances where the backing band is a big part of the overall effect: the guitar, in particular, is another voice, interweaving with McPhatter's, commenting on his phrasing, prompting him to greater heights - to say nothing of the other singers also pushing him, as on a number like I'd Be Satisfied (not to be confused with a similarly titled Jackie Wilson song). There is a gospel-style climax, complete with handclaps.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Few Thoughts on Clyde McPhatter

"A few thoughts" is right in this instance, as this is by way of a note about a forthcoming post which is likely to be sketchy. Influential as he was, there is no mammoth biography of McPhatter to draw on, and he isn't someone to whom I've been listening for years. But I recently bought a slim volume by Colin Escott billed as "a biographical essay" about the singer, and it occured to me that I really ought to write something about him, given that he features in the story of Ben E King, is lauded by Bill Millar in his book on the Drifters, and is a prominent figure in Street Corner Soul, the excellent BBC Radio 2 documentary series about the rise and fall of doo wop.

But as I haven't listened to him steadily, as it were, over the years, tonight I have tasked myself rectify this. I shall be heading homewards with the sounds of the Dominoes, the McPhatter-era Drifters, and a compilation of his solo Atlantic recordings ringing in my ears. I shall report back on the results of my experiment tomorrow.
Some years ago I did buy a Charly compilation of solo McPhatter (so presumably Atlantic) but didn't listen to it more than once or twice: didn't like the pop-style backing. Will I still feel the same? Only time can tell. 

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Beatles documentaries repeated

The image above is only a screengrab, so don't bother clicking, but this is to alert readers in the UK that the documentary Love Me Do: The Beatles '62 has just been repeated on BBC 4 and as a result will be available on BBC iplayer until October 18th. (As far as I'm aware American readers are only able to access radio programmes on the iplayer.) Click here for my review of the original broadcast plus a link to iplayer.

It's not only about the Beatles - they don't crop up in the first half hour - but another documentary, Produced by George Martin, was repeated yesterday on BBC 4 and is likewise available for a month on iplayer. Click here for my review and links to iplayer and two other posts about Martin-produced comic songwriters Myles Rudge and Ted Dicks (or "Dead Ticks", as Martin called him)

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Theatre Book Prize judge Viv Gardner on Funny Bones

If you haven't visited the blog dedicated to Freddie Davies's autobiography Funny Bones, which I cowrote, here is a review of the book from Professor Viv Gardner, one of the judges of the 2014 Theatre Book Prize:
This is one of those stories that just have to be told. It is unique – there has never been quite such a long and varied a career as Freddie Davies’s - but it is also the story of popular entertainment over the past 70 plus years: the hey day and decline of variety, clubs, cabarets and cruise entertainment, the rise of television comedy and subsequent changes in fashion, and the shifting relationship between popular and ‘high brow’ performance. Freddie Davies has played every type of theatre in the country, from working men’s clubs and Butlins to the Royal Shakespeare Company, television and film, though his earliest memories are of the halls and variety theatres of the forties where his grandparents worked. His autobiography is replete with names and places, many long since forgotten, details of acts – his own and others’ – and whole bills. It is also a ‘back-stage’ story. Davies has worked not just as a performer, but also as a producer, so the autobiography charts not just his own stage career but also the challenges of working with and supporting other artists – the ups and downs, the nuts and bolts of the entertainment business.  A researcher’s dream.  It is a fascinating and important story, not just a personal but also a social and performance history.

Viv Gardner
Professor Emerita, University of Manchester
Judge, Society for Theatre Research 2014-15

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

More radio plays about AA Milne ... and a film

Prompted by the play discussed here, I found two other radio plays available online about A.A. Milne - not on the BBC iplayer but preserved on the blog of their author, Brian Sibley. You can find them here and here.

I listened to both at their time of their original broadcasts on Radio 4, and the impressions I retained have been confirmed by subsequent listenings.There is some overlap - both provide an outline of Milne's career - but I preferred Not That It Matters, which draws upon Milne's autobiography It's Too Late Now.

This half hour piece is announced as "a radio portrait" so it doesn't really aspire to be a drama: we simply hear Milne telling the story of his writing career with some illustrations from his work. Pooh does not make his appearance until two thirds of the way in, and the importance of Punch in the writer's career is given due prominence. There are also some tantalisingly brief clips from some of his plays, played in a bright manner which appeals.

The production also benefits from having an actor, Hugh Dickson, whose voice conveys the sense of incisiveness I imagine in Milne's. Well, I say "imagine" but you can hear a recording on youtube of his reading a passage from Winnie the Pooh (though I don't know whether he would have been all that keen on being bookended by Billy Mayerl). I'm pretty sure Milne wrote somewhere about trusting the words do the work.

Alec McCowen supplies the voice of the elder Milne in Mr Sibley's It's Too Late Now and it sounds - to my ears, at least - more petulant and mannered a performance; Dickson's Milne is comparatively flatter and drier.

This second piece has the framework of a play: Milne has a new physiotherapist after the stroke which debilitated him in later years and over several sessions tells her his story. For me, however, it doesn't quite come off: she is too obviously a feed for much of the time and we're not presented with a compelling reason for Milne to tell his tale.

Admittedly I could be an unreliable critic, burdened as I am with my own failure to fashion an effective play out of Milne's life, as briefly described here. Nevertheless, I think there are hints, in Ann Thwaite's superlative biography of Milne, of darker aspects of his later years which might have been followed up, in particular the isolation and loneliness which would justify a compulsion to talk to a stranger: this was a man who would book unnecessary massages simply to break the monotony.

And Milne's wife remains offstage, except in flashbacks, so the suggestive detail in Mrs Thwaite's biography that she was referred to by an employee as "the bloody Duchess" is not seized upon, nor is their relationship in the play's present explored.

I listened to It's Too Late Now again while revising this piece. While I still have reservations about it as a piece of drama, the folding in of passages from Pooh is well done. And it's not simply a retread of the earlier piece: this play is more full-on about Winnie the Pooh, and parental worries about the effect of publicity on the real Christopher Robin.

The identification of Milne pere with Eeyore (which Christopher Milne made in The Enchanted Places) is hammered home a bit, rather than being implied: "Not very how?" the physiotherapist says - though in fairness she is presented as a fan of the books. And if, as his son said,"such sadnesses as there were put on cap and bells" as Eeyore, then perhaps that simple acknowledgement of a sadder side is as much exploration as is necessary for a play which announces itself as being "in celebration" of A.A. Milne.

And is a darker play about Milne "necessary because possible", as they might ask in a Birthday Party at some distance from the Hundred Acre Wood? The restraint I referred to in Christopher William Hill's play Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares! may suggest why a searing, tell-all (or at least tell-more) kind of play could be problematic. Hill's imagined meeting between Shepard and Christopher Milne was convincing because it didn't seem to contradict what is known of the two men. And the play became an increasingly fascinating story about two people who, while far from being intimates in the ordinary way of things, were nevertheless so intimately bound together in one respect that it scarcely needed to be articulated.

But Christopher Milne came to terms with his father and the legacy of the Pooh stories only in the writing of his own autobiography, long after A.A. Milne's death. There is no reported knock-down confrontation with his father to draw on for a play. And how far can you twist the facts to create a play when the son's testimony has been widely circulated?

After writing the above I had a look online for more about Milne's propaganda work for MI7 as there was a piece about it in a newspaper yesterday and found to my surprise that there is in fact a forthcoming film about A.A. Milne's relationship with his son. It is called Goodbye Christopher Robin. Details are provided in a casting call for the role of Christopher Robin in March of this year:
Written by Simon Vaughn, Ronald Harwood & Frank Cotterell Boyce and to be directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, Woman In Gold) in the UK Summer 2015 ... playing range is from 6 to 9yrs old.
We are told "the story focuses entirely around the young Christopher Robin" but I don't know whether it means it stops at the age of nine. It seems to have been in development for some time as a synopsis on the Enchanted Serenity blog, here,  appears to date from 2010, citing a different director (Nick Hurran). Given the time which has passed the synopsis may not be wholly reliable but it does seems to indicate that the film ends with Christopher's going to boarding school and Milne's decision not to write any more Pooh stories or verses.
As Milne’s career soars, his son discovers that being Christopher Robin comes at a heavy price – other children taunt the boy while the media clamours for his attention. With a father obsessed with writing, and a mother busy luxuriating in the family’s new-found fame and fortune, Christopher Robin gets little support from the adults around him. Looming before him is the new terror of boarding school and the inevitable bullying – just for being himself. Slowly, Christopher Robin starts to withdraw into his own world. Realising the problems that fame has brought, AA Milne tries to prepare the young boy for the rigours of boarding school and the new term ahead – triggering a number of changes which rock the foundations of Christopher’s world.

Christopher’s life-long nanny and best friend, Nou, is dismissed from service, and the childish games he has always played in the woodland around the family home are suddenly discouraged. Even visits to the zoo and his friendships with other local children now seem to be out of bounds. At the same time, AA Milne is making his own sacrifices - after much soul searching, he decides to stop writing stories about the boy and his bear. As the summer draws to close, the Milne family must face up to the fact that life can never be the same again.
Hmm ... I don't know about soul searching. There was an essay Milne wrote, explaining why he wasn't going to write more stories, which seemed eminently sensible and logical. He was always keen to move on to new projects regardless of what his publishers or the general public wanted or expected from him. In his autobiography he talks about wanting to escape, "having said goodbye to all that in 70,000 words" or something of the sort. Anyway, we shall see. And some of the other details seem questionable. Someone has left a comment on the blog:
... neither of the Milnes were apt to lay their hearts very bare before others, at least compared to what many another sort of person might do, and the mere synopsis of this film emotes more sadness than Christopher's books themselves do.

On other Milne matters I am currently in the middle of rereading Ann Thwaite's biography, which I devoured on its first publication, and will write about in more detail at a later date.

Oh, and on the Today programme on Radio 4 I have just heard an engineer being interviewed about how to win at Poohsticks.

Review of Christopher William Hill's Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares! here.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Anthony Neilson play Penetrator at the Hope Theatre, Islington until 22nd August

I enjoyed, if that's the word, Penetrator by Anthony Neilson, a revival of which is currently at the Hope Theatre, Islington, until 22nd August (tickets available here). I should say from the outset that I am not a huge Neilson fan, but I found a lot to admire here.

I can't say too much in the way of specific detail without ruining the effect of the various twists and turns. We see a relationship, cozy after a fashion but with hints of tensions, which is suddenly disrupted by a figure from the past.

I had some unease about the early stages of this invasion: when a character strays lunar distances beyond logic where's the struggle? But that was to underestimate Mr Neilson: whether wholly consciously or otherwise, be assured that the third character most definitely has an agenda.

This is gradually teased out, with breaks for laughter (of sorts), but towards the end the tension is increasingly ratcheted up and possible truths forced out. Again, I can't be too specific without diluting the effect, but the ending succeeded in feeling both surprising and inevitable. The final tableau, and the haunted look on one character's face, was masterfully done.

If, like me, you have your doubts about Neilson, then all I can say is that the overall structure of this three-hander is satisfying. And there can certainly be no complaints about the performances: Alexander Pardy, Jolyon Price, and Tom Manning as the interloper from the past draw you in to the claustrophobia of their situation. There's - well, not exactly an olde worlde charm about the two flatmates, but you buy into their friendship, part laddish, part infantile, and sufficient time is given to establish it before it's put under threat. The play is directed by Phil Croft.

In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I am not unacquainted with those involved. But on the night I was there someone came to see it for a second time. If that's not an endorsement, what is?

Penetrator is at the Hope Theatre, Islington until 22nd August, above the Hope and Anchor pub; you can book here.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares! (review of BBC Radio 4 play about E.H. Shepard and Christopher Robin Milne)

I have just listened to Hush! Hush! Whisper Who Dares, a Radio 4 play imagining a meeting between Winnie the Pooh artist E.H. Shepard and the adult Christopher (Robin) Milne, son of A. A. Milne.

It works very well, partly because of its narrowness of focus. And it's unsensational, by which I mean that although their meeting in later life (Shepard is ninety) is a product of playwright Christopher William Hill's imagination, the parallels which Hill draws between their respective situations are convincing. He even alights on a entirely plausible reason why Christopher Milne might have felt impelled to seek Shepard out at that particular time (presumably late '69 or early 1970, given Shepard's age).

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Morecambe, Wise and Nathan

Last night's BBC 2 repeat of Episode Seven of The Perfect Morecambe and Wise, a compilation series drawing on their time with both the Beeb and ATV, prompted this repost of an extract from The Laughtermakers by David Nathan, a book very influential in my life.

In the chapter entitled Mixed Doubles, mostly about Morecambe and Wise, Nathan writes about being present when the very first sketch in last night's episode, which can be viewed on BBC iplayer here until August 24th, was recorded.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Rock 'n' Roll America Episode Three (BBC 4 documentary series)

The final episode of the BBC's Rock 'n' Roll America was delayed by almost an hour - blame the corporation's decision to persist with live coverage of a golfing event - but it proved worth the wait.

I did wonder, initially, whether the need to cover all the many offshoots of rock'n'roll in this final programme meant that we might only be scratching the surface, but that was a misunderstanding of what the series is trying to do. There may have been more genres to be covered than in earlier episodes but once again the programme makers did a pretty of good job of selecting key moments and remarks which conveyed the essence of a range of styles without losing a sense of the bigger picture.

Which, in this episode, was rock'n'roll's transition into various strands of pop, for good and ill, followed by the impact of the Beatles on a moribund US chart.

We started with the main figures "missing in action" - through death, religion, the army or scandal.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Rock 'n' Roll America Episode Two (BBC 4 documentary series)

Episode Two of Rock 'n' Roll America follows the pattern of the first programme: well-chosen clips, interviews with surviving key players and sidemen, the whole a canny mix of the story's essentials and some illuminating extra details along the way for those who already know the basics. At present it can only be seen on in the UK on BBC iplayer here, but if it makes its way to the US it is well worth watching.

Incidentally, of the sidemen interviewed in the first two episodes there seems to have been a disproportionate number of drummers. Do they tend to be the survivors of rock'n'roll? I suppose having a regular workout as part of your job doesn't hurt in the longevity stakes.

By coincidence, a film about Ginger Baker (not quite new but presented as such in Alan Yentob's Imagine series) had been shown a few days earlier. After all those jokes about the supposed slowness of drummers (in the wit department) could it be that they are now having the last laugh, or at least the last word?

The focus in this episode is on the major stars once rock'n'roll was established as a force: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. The Elvis Presley material, and the business of his singing Hound Dog to an actual canine on the Steve Allen Show, will already be familiar to most readers, although it does mean something to hear directly from drummer DJ Fontana that Elvis really didn't want to do it and as a result "didn't like Steve till the day he died."

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The Spaniels # 2

The previous post was a bit convoluted so I am going to add something today which will, I hope, be clearer. In the meantime I have been rereading Richard G Carter's book on the Spaniels, which can be recommended. It's not necessarily superbly written throughout, but where it scores is that there is a degree of frankness about it which made me wonder at times whether it was wise for the group to embark upon it - at least if they were expecting a PR job.

But I'm glad they did, because you really are taken into the heart of things. Although the book was published in 1994 it ends before they have gone to London, so presumably the MS was completed around 1991. There is a lot of optimism and hope from the various members at the end, though I couldn't say precisely how much success the group had in later years. Group members seem to assume they're on the verge of a huge breakthrough - or at least are entertaining the possibility - and that finally they will get the money and acclaim which is their due. Whatever level of success they did enjoy I don't think it matched up to their expectations.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Spaniels

After seeing the current version of the Spaniels in the BBC's Rock 'n' Roll America I resolved to find out a bit more about the group's various lineups. The above is a videocap from the programme; all I can say for certain is that Billy Shelton is on the far left.

From my memory of Richard G Carter's biography of the Spaniels there were two main lineups of the group which recorded on Vee Jay, and the original members were more instinctive singers than the Mk II version. It was the originals who were reunited in the 1990s and whom I saw perform in London.

Detailed information about personnel changes can be found online in Unca Marvy's R&B Notebooks, an invaluable resource for the doo wop fan. His page about the Spaniels, based on interviews with Pookie Hudson, can be read in its entirety here. Pookie's first group was formed in 1949 at Roosevelt Junior High in Gary, Indiana, when he was fifteen. Billy Shelton was a member of this, though the group which were to become the Spaniels were a separate entity:

Monday, 6 July 2015

All You Need Is Love (Tony Palmer's documentary series)

Having mentioned Tony Palmer's pioneering 1970s series All You Need Is Love, a history of the many strands of popular music, in the previous post here is a review I wrote at the time of its first DVD release in 2008.
I saw the original series when in my teens and have seen many, many documentaries on myriad aspects of popular music since then. So is this worth buying? The answer has to be a resounding yes: the original film material and the range of authorities Tony Palmer gathered together for this mammoth 70s project mean that it remains a vivid account of the genres which coalesced into rock.
Yes, some sections feel a little dull, and the quality of the film transfer doesn't help in the immediacy stakes, but Palmer has two big things going for him: recognised experts in their fields (eg Sondheim on musicals; Lyttleton on swing) wrote the scripts which became the basis of each programme and - crucially - interviewees are given ample time to talk. You get the likes of Hoagy Carmichael and Irving Caesar discussing their own songs, and there's even a bizarre turn from Phil Spector (who appears to be singing his hits in the style of Bob Dylan). Whatever the outcome, Palmer would have deserved our heartfelt thanks simply for the foresight to do something on this scale while the names involved were still around, if occasionally frail.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Rock 'n' Roll America (BBC 4 documentary series)

Just watched Episode One of the new BBC 4 series Rock 'n' Roll America, which will be available on BBC iplayer for a month (for those in the UK, anyway).

It was a particularly clear and effective retelling of what has become an oft-told tale, with enough freshness in the detail to mean that it can serve equally well as an introduction to the social roots of rock'n'roll and as a reminder of the music's importance for those who have read the books and seen the other documentaries. Archive clips seemed to have been very carefully selected and, crucially, the programme's length meant a decent chunk of time was devoted to the consideration of the contributions of key individuals. Each episode (this was the first of three) is an hour long, though the pace never seemed to flag in this debut show.

The great strength of the programme was the way in which the social background to this upsurge of a new kind of music was firmly sketched in.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Johnny Vegas Television Show

Don't know how long it'll be there, but someone has recently uploaded The Johnny Vegas Television Show to youtube.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Russell Davies interviews Ray Davies

This is to alert readers to the fact that Russell Davies recently interviewed Ray Davies for his The Art of Artists series on Radio 2 and it can be heard on BBC iplayer, here, for 28 days.

I haven't listened to it yet, and will add a note to this post when I have done so, but it has been interesting to hear Russell Davies as interviewer, as opposed to presenter of his sadly departed Sunday afternoon/evening music programme with those superbly scripted links. The unhurried, hour-long format seems to suit him, and as with the departed music programme you can tell he's done his homework and is, in any case, bringing a considerable breadth of cultural reference to the table, what with being Russell Davies and everything. I recall, in the interview with Sandie Shaw, her surprise and palpable pleasure at being taken seriously, and I think she has put the interview on her website.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Leiber and Stoller documentary

The 2001 Leiber and Stoller documentary which I mentioned in the post about Stand By Me is available on youtube, at least at the time of writing. There Goes My Baby, Spanish Harlem and Stand By Me are discussed and Ben E King is among the interviewees.


Friday, 20 February 2015

Get Carteret or No Place Like Home - again

I may as well give in and admit to myself that these entries on the 80s sitcom No Place Like Home, currently being repeated in the UK on the Drama Channel, are starting to become a diary. If you want to look over my shoulder at the entries, feel free, although other diversions are but a click away.

Unfortunately my PVR did not record No Place Like Home on Thursday but I did manage to watch Episode 3 of Series 4 today.

Again, most odd compared to the approach of earlier series. The episode was sparsely populated, with the new Nigel established as being the only one now living at home, and the story centred around trying to get a new lady friend for Trevor. Beryl and Arthur thought the object of his fancy was the matronly florist but oh, SPOILER ALERT, it turned out to be the much younger part timer - oh dear - but then she took umbrage at Trevor's not being married, so problem solved. But then Trevor got a new girlfriend, a rather butch policewoman, so Bravo, I say. Which is the sort of weak half-pun Jon Watkins has often included in the show in the past. I do hope they will return. (Maybe there'll be a spin-off series about Trevor's pursuit of his new love called Get Carteret?)

But as with the first episode the emptiness of that formerly heaving home really hit me. It can't have been much fun for the younger actors in the earlier series, often with little to say, but as I've said earlier the crowd effect helped create a frantic, confused speedy jumble, and the actors and script seem more exposed now. The new Nigel was given far more lines than Martin Clunes had ever been given, though I couldn't help wondering how Mr Clunes would have delivered them.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Further further thoughts on No Place Like Home

For those who may care about such things, the Drama Channel has just started repeating the fourth series of No Place Like Home - and by the show's previous standards the tone is distinctly odd.

The Series 3 finale, shown the previous day, was crammed with characters as usual, only more so, as the Crabtrees celebrated their silver wedding and non-speaking uncles thronged the living room. The plot, revolving around rival attempts to celebrate the occasion while those involved affected to know nothing about it, was properly farcical, even if the plotting was rather less intricate  than Fawlty Towers, and Raymond, the annoying but sort of endearing son in law, did an Eamon Andrews as the kids covertly arranged their surprise for their parents: a This Is Your Life type reunion of relatives.

Monday, 16 February 2015


A recently broadcast documentary about the Dave Clark Five - it's currently available on BBC iplayer here, if you are resident in the UK - makes me think some readers might be interested in my review of the group's film Catch Us If You Can.
Two Films in Conflict

Though he wasn't much of a musician (someone in Melody Maker once opined a list of the shortest books in the world would include Lessons in Drumming Technique by Dave Clark) Clark had aspirations to be an actor and this film (scripted by Peter Nichols, better known for his stage work, and the directing debut of John Boormanm) is a sort of road movie-cum-anti-advertising satire bolstered by a cast of interesting character actors. It's got great period charm and, as other reviewers have said, it stands up very well - it's certainly streets ahead of many other low budget pop movies.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Rich picking (Joe Brown and Chris Smither)

In the last week or so I've been listening a lot to a recording made of a Joe Brown concert at the Liverpool Philharmonic. I think this was the same show I saw, and briefly wrote up here, at the Millfield Theatre in Edmonton, although a few of the song choices are different. But there is still that same sense of the performers' enjoyment, that this is rather more than a greatest hits package, so I thought I'd share a couple of those video clips here.

The first is a rendition of Mystery Train, sung by drummer Phil Capaldi with an effect on the mike which really does suggest an Elvis Sun-era voice, along with a nice guitar solo by Brown. But the key thing is that the overall effect is of everyone, as they say, gettin' it on, and it's sheer pleasure to watch and listen. It's not a carbon copy of the famous recording but it seems to capture its spirit.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Further thoughts on No Place Like Home

I am still watching No Place Like Home (on the Drama Channel, if you are UK-based and have Freeview), and still trying to puzzle out precisely what it is I feel about it. And an episode broadcast yesterday has helped me along the way, hence this second post.

First of all, when I was talking about tempo in the previous post - well, it's obvious now. It's not a farce as such, but it is played at a farcical pace: that's why you're drawn in (if you are anything like me), and even as you register the improbabilities it is a place you want to be.

Because the performances are, uniformly, superb. From the morose Arthur (William Gaunt) holding it all together, to the manic son-in-law (Daniel Hill), a  sort of oversized child or puppy, repellent and endearing in equal measure, everyone seems to get the most out of the dialogue. My sense that neighbour Vera (Marcia Warren) was out of place no longer seems relevant: naturalistic it ain't. I can't remember now whether initial episodes were perhaps less certain, but the sense now (meaning in the middle of the third series being repeated as I write this) is that everyone gets it. It's not the same, but one of the joys of Third Rock From the Sun was that everyone had locked into a way of playing.