Saturday, 16 August 2014

Sketchiform - review of Free Fringe music-based revue

Bit of an unexpected show, this. Terrible title: Sketchiform, or possibly Sketchyform or even Sketch-y-form, like there's some kind of Welsh vibe going on, but never mind all that: this is, quite simply, the funniest revue I have seen in ages.

One year in the mid eighties I decided I would only see revues at the fringe. The warped logic was that happiness could not but be amplified further with each show. Alas, nohow and contrariwise. With the exception of a show called Writers Inc there were diminishing returns. I remember telling my then drama tutor, who I bumped into at the Fest, of my plan: he looked sceptical but sadly didn't forcibly stop me. Anyway, my money and my time I wasted.

Which is why Sketchiform (I'll stick with that spelling) at the Free Fringe has been such an unexpected delight. More difficult to describe than to experience - and the element of surprise is a big factor - but here are some of the items, though I don't know how they will come across in cold print (or on a lukewarm screen).

One of the best sketches recreated the recording session for Gone Fishin' with Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. The voices were just about acceptable, but it was the idea which swung it: Der Bingle sings, as per the record, and Louis Armstrong interjects, ditto, but what then happens is that Armstrong's asides become ever more baroque and bizarre while Bing quietly fumes or tries, without success, to get a word in. It's a routine which feels like it might have been around for decades but I've never actually come across it before. An instant classic, perhaps?

Another musical jape is perhaps more obscure, but I found myself laughing like a drain. Do you remember Bruce Ruffin's I'm Mad About You in the seventies? This was an okay reggae song enlivened by a comedy voice, like that of Mr Punch, interjecting comments and wholly undermining any serious intent - admittedly not exactly an Herculean task, as A.J. Wentworth's colleague Gilbert might have said. I vaguely remember reading that Ruffin's manager was the culprit.

Anyway, the audience is asked to choose from a list of about twenty songs and one of the cast members improvises a commentary on top. Basically, the more portentous the song the better. Elusive Butterfly and Always on the Mind were the choices at the performance I attended.

Finally there was another musical routine involving a mocked up University Challenge type quiz, only the teams were artists from two record labels, and the questions were designed to elicit terrible puns. In some cases I was ahead of them - just - but question put to the actress playing Dionne Warwick did cause a smile to play about my features. Asked how William Golding summed up Lord of the Flies, she mimed to the opening of Do You Know the Way to San Jose: "Woe, woe, woe, woe, woe-woe, woe-woe, woe, woe." The quizmaster (more Bamber than Paxo) then uttered these words: "No, it was 'Grief, sheer grief', but can we? Yes, I think we can take that."

Another bit of musical madness was again very simple. The Wurzels' I Am a Cider Drinker was not sung but recited, as though a half-proud, half-shameful declaration of an addiction.

So there we are. Not exactly biting satire but a happy way to spend one hour and ten minutes. And I ought to point out that the house band - well, three piece - did a nice line in unlikely arrangements of seventies pop hits. A strangely impassioned folky rendering of Paul Nicholas's Dancing With the Captain and Reggae Like It Used to Be reminded me of Bobby Vee's "adult" version of Take Good Care of My Baby under the name of Robert Thomas Velline (if memory serves) in the seventies. Unnecessary, because the original needs no apology.

The final sketch was my favourite: Bernie Taupin is arraigned in court for crimes against songwriting and is obliged to defend particular clunky phrases: " 'There's no one there to raise them if you did.' Did what, Mr Taupin?" The actor playing Elton's lyricist starts off arrogant but is reduced to a tottering wreck by the end, confessing everything and offering to pay back every album purchaser. There may, I suppose, have been something more serious hidden in the sketch about the difficulty of reparation but the image I will treasure is of Taupin gasping aloud when the topic of Have Mercy on the Criminal is raised. He knows what's coming - "blind to the wind of change" - someone's gotta pay for that.

I have to say that I seemed to be the only one laughing aloud by that point - alright, the sketch was probably extended beyond its natural life - but how refreshing to see a show which both gloried in its own stupidity and did, ultimately, have a point (of sorts) to make. At least I think it did. Pop music is a kind of poetry we consume daily and its makers ought to make a bit of bl**din' effort occasionally.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

And I Ran With the Gang: review of Edinburgh Fringe play about Alan Longmuir of the Bay City Rollers

A few days ago I saw And I Ran With the Gang, a play about, and starring, Alan Longmuir of the Bay City Rollers. As plays go, it's hardly the most ambitious piece in the world, but then it wasn't really written for me. It is, as the narrator (an actor playing a Rollers-era version of Alan) says, a celebration, and the darker side of things isn't really explored. It was undoubtedly a hit with the former Rollers fans who came on the afternoon I was there. It was written by Liam Rudden, who I understand is working on Alan Longmuir's autobiography.

The production, which lasts about seventy minutes, is in three sections: first of all three actors tell the story of how the group came into being, and there's no doubt it's a fascinating tale. It comes over as a kind of fairytale, such is the speed with which we skip to their colossal international success. This opening third is done quite effectively, with a bit of comedy (the actor playing Les McKeown forever appearing too early in the narrative) which enlivens the brisk canter through the key events in the Rollers' saga. I am not deeply read in Rollers lore so can't say whether this version is one which would be agreed upon in every aspect by all the other group members, though I have read that the real Les is coming to see the show on the day I am writing this, which seems to indicate an endorsement. There's a bit of music at the start but this first section isn't punctuated by full songs.

After that, microphones are brought onstage and the real Alan Longmuir appears and sings alongside the actors playing young Alan and Les. Real guitars are played on top of what I presume is a backing track, and it's quite a moving sight: the real Alan stands there, virtually stock still, and your eyes can't help but go to him. I couldn't help thinking of Roy Orbison, immovable as everything changed around him. He is wearing a tartan waistcoat underneath a formal dark suit, which seems precisely right. His vocal cannot be distinguished from the others, so you can't tell how well or badly his voice stands up these days but that hardly matters: the mere fact of his survival has a dignity and a power which you don't need to be a fan to feel.

For me, as one appreciative of songs from that era but not really a Rollers fan, there were a few too many songs but how can you have a show about the Rollers without them? And they remain catchy pop songs. Listening to the original recordings once, I remember thinking that a few tricks were borrowed from Phil Spector. The lyrics are simple but they stick in the head - have done in mine for decades.

The third and final section was a brief Q&A, with former fans expressing their delight in the show. One woman who sounded quite middle class said, on the evening I was there, that she was surprised at how much pleasure hearing those songs again had given her. I took the opportunity to ask if he had reached a point where he accepted that he wouldn't be getting any money from his time in the Rollers and he replied cheerfully: "Nuh." So I hope that he does get something.

The evening would have been particularly significant for Rollers fans who knew that this public appearance had been the first time in many years that the real Alan had dipped his toe once again in the waters of Rollermania - something I only learnt later. He said they had been pleased with the response to the show so far, and I hope it goes on to be something - I was going to say bigger but maybe it's the right size. The play is a modest one and a larger theatre (this was a small function room in a hotel or restaurant) would probably necessitate a radical rethink. Maybe there is potential for another kind of show integrating the songs a la Jersey Boys or maybe the decision to have a dedicated segment is the right one: these are essentialy feelgood songs, pop at its purest, and I suspect it would be difficult to twist them into a narrative. Anyway, that's nothing to do with the matter in hand. The point is that the production worked on its own terms.

To sum up: if you're expecting a tell-all expose then this ain't it. But if you want to get up close to a former idol and to relive some memories in a roomful of people who want to do the same, then you won't regret going.

And I Ran With The Gang is Upstairs at Le Monde in George Street, venue 408, Sunday to Thursday, until August 21. Tickets £12 (£10).

Self-promotional bit: Rollers fans old enough to remember comedian Freddie "Parrotface" Davies and his seventies TV series The Small World of Samuel Tweet may be interested to know that Freddie's newly published autobiography Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy, cowritten by me, is available from the publishers here or amazon here.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Funny Bones the blog of the book ...

Doo wop fans might be relieved to know that a blog has now been created for the book Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy, so consider that destination, here, your one-stop (pet) shop for all things psittacine.

Radio interviews etc are all noted there, and there are a couple of recent ones. Kevin Cann (an expert on early Bowie, so maybe he'd like my Gnome Thoughts series) talks to Freddie on Channel Radio today, and Billy Butler of BBC Merseyside has already had an interview, listenable on ... but why not check out the other blog for details?

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Freddie Parrotface Davies book signing at Blackpool Waterstones Saturday 2nd August 1.00-3.00pm

Freddie Davies and Blackpool go way back - about sixty years, in fact - so he's delighted to be having a book signing at Waterstones Blackpool this Saturday, August 2nd, between 1-3pm.

Freddie's long-awaited autobiography Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy, cowritten with Anthony Teague, was published on July 31st - fifty years after his TV debut on Opportunity Knocks.

Freddie was brought up in Salford but Blackpool helped give him the taste for performing. As a teenager he would travel there for the day to see the shows, waiting outside the stage door for a glimpse of a star and the chance of an autograph, enjoying comedians such as Bill Waddington (later Percy in Coronation Street) and Joe Church, and singer David Whitfield.

Freddie was entertainment manager at the Butlins Metropole Hotel in Blackpool in the early sixties, a time he remembers fondly. "In those days Blackpool was a great place to go if you wanted to have a look at most of the premier acts of the age. On a good day, there was nowhere nicer: a walk along the prom then a star-studded show in the evening. Blackpool always enjoyed a longer season than most with the famous Illuminations extending it. And the stars shone bright in 1962 with Doddy at the Opera House, Tommy Cooper and Nina and Frederik at the Queens; all the piers had big stars at the top of the bill. It was quite a season for us as well, as they launched Smirnoff vodka from the Metropole!"

In 1963 Freddie made the big decision to leave the security of Butlins in order try his luck as a full time comic. Blackpool was the obvious choice for a base: "In the sixties there were still about ten major summer shows in Blackpool plus big nightclubs and pubs, all needing acts."

Samuel Tweet spluttered his first in a Manchester club, but the homburg hat which started it all was bought in a nearly new shop in South Shore for two and sixpence (12½p). "It was for an impersonation of Arthur Lowe, who was in Coronation Street at the time, but when someone shouted out for a joke about a budgie I put it on and the voice somehow just came out. A few months later I got the call from Opportunity Knocks and that was it - the next twenty years just flew by."

Freddie appeared in many summer shows in Blackpool over the years, and there is still footage of his 1966 appearance at the ABC Theatre, introduced by Tony Hancock: "I was playing on the same stage I was working on every night," recalls Freddie, "so it was easy - a home crowd, you might say. I remember going onstage around that time, and the audience was really going 'Wow!' Such wonderful memories."

Freddie lived in Blackpool until the early seventies and returned to produce pantos there in the early eighties. Later the Disney film Funny Bones was shot there in 1994, featuring Freddie and George Carl as double act the Parker Brothers, along with Jerry Lewis and Lee Evans. "It really captured the spirit of Blackpool as it used to be and is now seen as a cult classic," Freddie says.

Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy by Freddie Davies with Anthony Teague is published by Scratching Shed. There is a 19.99 limited edition hardback and a 14.99 paperback edition. If you can't make it to Waterstones you can order a copy on the Scratching Shed website here.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

What a Crazy World DVD review

I have just added the following review of the Network DVD release of What a Crazy World to a well-known shopping website. It rehashes some info from posts on this blog, so it's nothing regular readers won't already know, but I was keen to get something up quickly, and it might work here as an introduction to the posts about Alan Klein (click here) if you haven't read them.  

Readers directed to this blog by Network's newsletter may be interested to know that I have cowritten Funny Bones, the autobiography of veteran comedian Freddie "Parrotface" Davies, who was at Butlins Skegness around the same time as Alan Klein.

The stage version of What a Crazy World came about in 1962 when Gerry Raffles heard Joe Brown sing Alan Klein's song of that name on TV and commissioned him to write a musical for Theatre Workshop. Klein had tired of singing exclusively American songs during a stint at Butlins and wrote a song in the style of George Formby which didn't try to emulate the subject matter of American songs.

The resulting musical was a popular success despite some adverse critical reaction. Robert Stigwood offered to put it on in the West End with Mike Sarne in the lead but Klein opted for Michael Carreras' offer to make a film of it because "a film's gonna be there forever." And thank goodness he did, because now, more than fifty years on, we can still enjoy it on this Network DVD.

Existing fans of the film can be reassured that the restoration is fine. It's a joy to see such sharpness and clarity compared to the ropey off-air copy I have had to make do with until now. True, when the film begins, and at a few other points like a conversation between Joe Brown and Harry H Corbett, you hear a little faint scratchiness, but that's far preferable to overprocessing of sound. So to anyone who has been hesitating, worry no more - it's worth getting. And the film deserves a whole new generation of fans.

A Hard Day's Night has also recently been issued in a newly restored version. It was the film whose release suddenly made the film of What a Crazy World look like a period piece, according to Klein, but now both films can be seen and appreciated without any need for comparison.

Alan Klein says of What a Crazy World, "It was a document of its time ... All I was doing was saying what people felt." It's a world of disaffected youth, unemployment and the temptations of petty crime, and a yawning, seemingly unbridgeable gulf between parents and children. The title song mocks the parents for their negligence ("No one seems to notice me") and their preferring bingo and betting to quality family time, but there's a counterbalancing song shared by the mother and father, surrounded by their mates at the bingo hall and dog track, in which they protest that their supposed entertainments are not about having a good time but trying to win a bit of money to buy their kids the possessions and gadgets they were never able to afford in their own youth which their materialistic children demand as a right. As with Steptoe and Son, both sides of the generation divide are given a say.

What is very clear throughout the film, however, is that young and old haven't found a way of communicating with each other, and that isn't resolved by the end. Alf (Joe Brown) plays his family the record he has just made. This might have made for a triumphal ending in another sort of film but there is an almighty barney and the record is forgotten. So all that has happened by the climax is that grievances have been loudly aired, and the finale has everyone singing part of the title song, so that it no longer seems to belong to the Joe Brown character, the young complaining about the old, but allows everyone to have a go.

But if that makes the film sound like a gloomy prospect, it's anything but. And what makes the film special from a musical point of view is its successful marriage of rock'n'roll with music hall: throughout, there is a warmth and a verve that you can't resist. It may be a crazy world, but it's one you will want to embrace. The cast, including many Theatre Workshop regulars, are superb. Harry H Corbett is the father and Avis Bunnage the mother. Alan Klein himself is one of the layabouts who cluster around Herbie Shadbolt, played by Marty Wilde. Really the only slightly weak link is Susan Maughan, not really suited to the part of Alf's girlfriend. Wilde himself is very good, as is Joe Brown. The device of Michael Ripper as a kind of common man is also very effective.

I could say a lot more if time permitted, but all that needs to be said is that this is a long, long way away from your Cliff Richard musicals or other pop exploitation films. It has a foot in reality, even though it's carnivalesque at times, as in the scene in the labour exchange. Someone compared it to Quadrophenia, but it takes itself far less seriously. I urge you to take a chance on this modestly priced DVD for a film which is gritty, witty and, above all, teeming with life.

A guide to other posts about Alan Klein can be found here

Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy by Freddie Davies with Anthony Teague will be published on July 31st.

Monday, 7 July 2014

What a Crazy World DVD ... yes, it's good!

This is not a review of the film but simply a note to reassure anyone with doubts that the Network DVD release of What a Crazy World is indeed a good 'un. I have watched about half an hour so far, skipping ahead to see some of my favourite sequences (like Independence, filmed just off Denmark Street) and the picture quality compared to the ropey ebay copy I've had to tolerate up till now is remarkable: it's a joy to see such sharpness and clarity.

When the film begins and at some other points like a conversation between Joe Brown and his old man, Harry H Corbett, you can hear a little scratchiness, but that's far preferable to overprocessing. So to anyone who has been hesitating, worry no more - it's worth getting.

There is also something which Rich Podolsky, author of a recent book on Don Kirshner, would call ironic about the fact that a restored A Hard Day's Night has also recently been issued. I watched what I presume is the new version on TV last night. A Hard Day's Night was the film whose release suddenly made What a Crazy World look like a period piece, but here's hoping that now both films can be seen and appreciated without any need for comparison.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Ex nihilo or ex-Parrotface? a note on the tangled origins of Monty Python's Parrot sketch

The origins of Monty Python's Parrot Sketch have been well documented, but on the eve of the team's imminent reunion I think they could stand a little more examination. And as the cowriter of Freddie Davies' autobiography Funny Bones, to be published by Scratching Shed on July 31st, I may be able to add a further note.
The essence of the joke has been traced back to Ancient Greece but let's begin a little later, with Michael Palin's supremely evasive car salesman (above) in a sketch in the one-off pre-Python show How to Irritate People; if you are unfamiliar with it you can see it here.

As is well known to aficionados, that situation was reworked for a Python sketch with the garage replaced by a pet shop and, at Graham Chapman's suggestion, a parrot replaced the car as the faulty object. (At one point a toaster had also been mooted, which suggests it took a while for the shop's identity to settle.)

 You will find occasional references online to the idea being stolen from Freddie "Parrotface" Davies. That would be getting rather silly, as the late Colonel Chapman might have put it. Nevertheless, it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that Freddie's standup act may have made a small contribution towards this enduring sketch.

It's quite conceivable that Chapman's idea of a parrot may have come from a memory of seeing Freddie perform on TV, as he was a ubiquitous presence at the time. This had begun with a 1964 appearance on the talent show Opportunity Knocks: Freddie did a joke he had honed in the clubs about a furious but essentially idiotic customer complaining to a pet shop owner about a budgie he had been sold which didn't talk, as promised.

It wasn't original, just a favourite old joke - you can find a version as told by Terry Thomas here - but Freddie's characterisation of the two people involved made it something special. Freddie's affronted customer, with a homburg hat pulled down over his ears and a curious delivery somewhere between a lisp and a rasp, was seen by around twenty million viewers in those two-channel days. It made him famous overnight. After that, the joke became associated with him and the customer was given a name: Samuel Tweet.

In later TV appearances Freddie performed variants on the joke, further altercations with the pet shop owner who persistently sold him "duff budgies". In fact you can see one online here, taken from a a 1966 show at the ABC Theatre in Blackpool, where Freddie was doing a summer season. (Younger viewers may need to be informed that a birdseed company's slogan was "Trill makes budgies bounce with health.")

So there you have it: my small contribution to Python lore. When Chapman made the suggestion which brought the sketch to life could it have been inspired by the man who became known as "Parrotface"?

Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy by Freddie Davies will be published on July 31st. Find more details and preorder a copy on the Scratching Shed website here.[UPDATE: IT'S AVAILABLE NOW, AS A PAPERBACK OR LIMITED EDITION HARDBACK]

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Gerry Goffin Pt 2

 (headline on Sky News website)

Two points as a follow-up to the previous post. I have found suggestions online that the singer of the demo of Up on the Roof is Tony Orlando. Think I assumed it was Goffin himself, without knowing or bothering to investigate whether he had any kind of voice: yes, that's the kind of attention to detail which this blog offers as standard. If it is Orlando, then that would certainly make sense: if you want your song to be recorded by Ben E King, then get someone who can make a demo in his style.

Secondly, thanks to the magic of the internet (or wundaweb, as we Bernard Cribbins fans cry it) I find myself transported back to that gig at the Jazz Cafe in Camden - or rather twenty fours earlier to the previous night's performance, but close enough - and Ben E King does sing Up on the Roof. The arrangement borrows from a later recording by James Taylor or Carole King, possibly both, and as I've remarked earlier his voice isn't what it was, but it's still worth hearing.

To close, here is a verified Tony Orlando (with Dawn, making this probably early seventies) singing Up on the Roof. The arrangement isn't the most sympathetic, perhaps, but Orlando's singing is pretty darned good, and there are certainly strong similarities to the demo voice:

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Gerry Goffin and The Man with the Golden Ear

The recent death of Gerry Goffin has been widely reported, and the importance of his contribution to popular music appropriately acknowledged in the British newspaper obituaries and articles I have looked through. You will find plenty of detailed obits online, and this post is not intended to compete with these, only to add a few personal notes.

One is very personal indeed: the memory of an evening in 2003, walking home from work, when the verse from It Might As Well Rain Until September popped into my head for some reason, and I was struck afresh by its simplicity and perfection: it's not particularly clever or witty but it sets up the song as well as any equivalent introduction crafted in pre-rock'n'roll days by the sort of writers who used to throng the Brill Building.

I immediately thought of the person I could share that thought with, the friend who would undoubtedly get it, and understand why it was important. Then I remembered that from now on it was no longer possible to do that.

Which is probably why those words of Gerry Goffin's had come to me in the first place. They said everything without a word wasted.

As it happened I was in the middle of reading Rich Poldolsky's book on Don Kirsher and Aldon Music, The Man with the Golden Ear, when I heard the news about Goffin's death. As might be expected, it has a substantial amount on Gerry Goffin and Carole King; Goffin talked directly to the author for the book. It's not the best written book in the world and has a certain amount of extraneous detail: the author is obsessed with letting us know, in the body of the text, the circumstances of each interview. I'm also not entirely sure that he understands the term "ironic" - which, given his penchant for employing it, is little short of ...

But these are minor flaws. It's still very readable and enjoyable. I would recommend Ken Emerson's Always Magic in the Air as a more stylish book and perhaps a better general introduction to the Brill Building pairs of songwriters.There's no doubt, however, that Podolsky assembled an impressive list of contacts, and it's a useful complement to Emerson's book because you do get a lot of extra detail from individual players which you don't find in Emerson. I haven't crossreferenced Emerson for the purposes of this post, but Podolsky quotes Goffin as saying, matter-of-factly, when asked about Neil Sedaka's attitude to Carole King joining Adlon, that Sedaka didn't want the competition.

There are some interesting details in Podolsky about the writing of Up on the Roof.
 By the time Gerry started writing full-time, he was the only one at Aldon with family responsibilities ... While everyone else was enjoying a freewheeling lifestyle in the music business, Goffin went home to his tiny three-room apartment to change diapers and write songs. ... While the rest of the Aldon songwriting commune continued to distract teenagers with light and airy songs, Goffin's preoccupation with his own problems and the Cuban Missile Crisis led to his creation of Up on the Roof.

Carole had written the melody first and suggested he write something about getting away from it all. The idea for the lyrics came to him while sitting on a friend's rooftop on West End Avenue in Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River ... But he was stuck for  one final rhyme.

"I went to Jerry Leiber", Goffin recalled. "He was like the big daddy. I needed a rhyme for roof, and he said, 'How about proof?' Then I had it: 'I found a paradise that's trouble-proof.' And he laughed and I laughed too. Then I wrote 'There's room enough for two up on the roof.' I was very proud of myself. Looking back, I think it's my best song."
Leiber also worked with Goffin on the bridge, says Podolsky:
Together he and Gerry came up with the solution. Said Leiber, "I suggested: 'On the roof's the only place I know / Where you just have to wish to make it so.' I was always afraid that people would think that I lifted that line from Snow White." 
 There is also the intriguing information that Goffin had hoped, or rather prayed, that Leiber and Stoller would get Ben E King to sing it, but he had left the Drifters by that point. (It's Rudy Lewis who sings lead on the Drifters' recording.)

Incidentally, does anyone share my feeling that Ben E King ought to cover Tony Orlando's hits, given that Orlando was singing in King's style? Bless You as sung by Ben E King would make perfect sense.

I am now trying to remember whether Ben E King sang Up on the Roof when I saw him at the Jazz Cafe in Camden. I recall being slightly put out when he sang the Drifters hits he hadn't recorded, as though he was giving in to the imperfect memories of less than dedicated fans who just thought: "This is the Drifters guy, let's hope he sings all the hits." So if he did sing Up on the Roof that night in Camden, that would actually have been alright after all.

And I suppose it makes more sense than copying himself being copied by Tony Orlando; that way Elvis lies.

To close, the demo for Up on the Roof: 

Review of Always Magic in the Air by Ken Emerson here.
Review of Ben E King at the Jazz Cafe here.
Post about Goffin and King's When I Did the Mashed Potatoes With You here.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

It approaches is nigh.

Another videocap from the clip of What a Crazy World in the previous post, out in a month's time.  From left to right, Marty Wilde, David Nott, Alan Klein and Barry Bethel (I think).

Go to the Reel Streets website, here, for six pages of comparing locations as they were at the time of filming with today.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

What a Crazy World DVD release delayed?

It looks as though the Network DVD of What a Crazy World has been delayed - the popular online shopping site where I ordered it now says it won't be delivered until July 7th, and that's the date now given on Network's own site.

But the good news is that Network have recently put up a clip on youtube which suggests that the transfer will, indeed, be as good as hoped: the above is a screengrab from that clip which is far sharper, and more subtle tonally, than the ropey off-air version I bought from a well-known auction website.

If you are new to this blog there are several posts about composer Alan Klein here - and I hope that at some point I will be able to provide more detailed information about his career.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Breakfasted he is, and yet he's breakfastless

After the demise of my favourite record shop Cheapo a few years back (see here), another blow: I learnt this morning that the cafe in my local supermarket is to close at the end of this month. As I told the assistant, now I'll have to start making my own breakfast.

Alright, in some ways this will be no bad thing - and I have made my own breakfast in the past, I hasten to add. (Yes, really.) But the cafe was more than just a place to eat a meal prepared by other hands. It was a kind of refuge, providing an uncluttered table top when my own desk was messy (yes, yes, maybe I ought to address that too sometime), and over the last three years I have written or planned a substantial amount of my forthcoming book there.

Why? Well, unlike other local cafes - whose competition has, I'm told, finally proven too much to bear - once you sat down with the contents of your tray you were left alone: no passive-aggressive enquiries about whether you were finished; no whisking away of cups and plates, necessitating a mumbled "thank you" or an awkward and guilty silence - either way, something which you had to deal with, drawing you back to the workaday world.

And that certainty of not being interfered with has been a very pleasing, relaxing and freeing thing on the many mornings when I sat in that cafe over the last three years. I could spread out my index cards or leaf through my scrapbook of transcribed interviews and enjoy the process of willing the right order for all this material into being, alone with my thoughts; the cards or some other item of stationery might have been freshly bought in the supermarket so the whole thing seemed new.

The downside of that delicious sense of liberating isolation within a large and busy establishment was that other people had an irritating habit of taking advantage it too for their own selfish purposes. I have often found myself resenting noisy conversations between groups of women or men (rarely mixed) justified by no purchase bigger than a single cup of coffee each; I felt that I had the greater moral entitlement, having paid for a full meal. And besides, my brand of enjoyment wasn't encroaching on others.

Not, of course, that I was ever brave enough to point this out. Besides, such diners - if they can, indeed, be graced by such a term - tended to come later in the day: my golden time was from around 8am to 9.30am. And I learnt that a certain table at the far end, facing a wall, also helped in the privacy/quiet stakes.

Three years ... it's quite a few breakfasts. I should point out that a fair number of them were after an invigorating swim in the nearby council-run pool,  though that doesn't undo the fact that they were not terribly healthy options. And if you're wondering about my reluctance to use the library, which was similarly close by, it's partly because it didn't open till half nine but mostly because there was always a chance of being forced to hear children chanting nursery rhymes in the adjoining junior branch (no, no, no, not cute - and certainly not soundproofed) along with the hazard of mobile phones.

Ah, and maybe that is the key attraction of my soon-to-vanish cafe: as far as I know - I didn't test it myself - you couldn't get a phone signal in that specific area.

Soon, in the brave new world which looms, I must either learn to tidy up and eat at home or find somewhere else. There is, in fact, a new supermarket which has opened, offering a higher quality of grub in its far larger cafe. But 70s American music is constantly played at a lowish level, and there is no secluded corner. I have already used it for more boring parts of the writing process, like proofreading, but it's a short bus ride away and can't be dropped into like my previous haven.

But look, I don't want you to worry. I will get through this somehow, will learn to adjust. After all, things change: mango dessert emporia, to take one instance at random, are not made of stone.

There is also something fitting, perhaps, in the cafe closing just as my book is about to be published: it draws a line under the process. I recall asking a literary manager if playwriting got easier with each play; he replied that no, it didn't: each play was a new world you had to understand. If my book is any kind of success it may mean more writing of that sort: I've certainly found it a hell of a lot easier than playwriting. But now that the cafe which brought the book into being is gone it feels like there are new skills I will have to learn, new places I will have to discover so that creativity may flow freely.

It's all probably some kind of metaphor.


I began revising the above then realised I was in danger of losing the overall shape, so here's what I took out:

The promise of new stationery rarely delivers, in my experience, but continuing to buy it is an act of hope. Which reminds me of a Clive James interview with Jonathan Miller and Robbie Coltrane, viewable here, in which the good doctor goes off on a two minute riff about things and Robbie Coltrane eagerly joins in. What isn't mentioned, and may be relevant, is Coltrane's background as an art student: there is a shop in the basement of Glasgow Art School, and another - at least there was - a few blocks away; I still remember the joy, aged about fourteen, of my first Rapidograph: such perfect things I'd be drawing from then on ...

That didn't quite work out, as alluded to in an earlier post here. And substituting the interior of my local supermarket for the basement of Glasgow Art School is a bit of a leap: I think back to a moment of skipping down those narrow steps for more supplies, flush with the success of a life drawing I'd just finished. But working on the book has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, and I have taken a great deal of pride in making it as pleasurable, easy and musical a read as possible. Which is something. You can read about it here if you want.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

It was a Madd, Madd, Madd, Madd, Madd world ... but not anymore.

I happened to notice that Madd, the mango dessert  emporium which took over the former home of Cheapo Cheapo Records in Rupert Street, Soho, is no more. A blog post says:

After 3 sweet years of dessert loving, we have bid our final farewell to our beloved Rupert Street location. The MADD team would like to send a very big thank you to every customer, staff and Soho “character” that has walked through our fluorescent yellow doors and joined in the experience. Leaving your first home is never easy but we are excited about our move and will never forget the memories here.
Thank you letting us be a part of your Soho experience and we look forward to seeing you very soon at our next grand launch.
"Never forget the memories"? Oh well, I suppose they're entitled to their own mango-themed brand of nostalgia. I would like to know the full story but I suppose today's economic climate is explanation enough. No one wants to go out and buy CDs, and they obviously aren't all that keen on mango desserts which were not, from my occasional forays, all that cheap.

Wonder what will take its place? Could there be scope for a Daniel Kitson-type show about all those businesses which alight there over the next few years, filled with an optimism which gradually leaks away ... I don't know how long Phil reigned there but I would like to think that he would have carried on had his health permitted. An article about Roy Orbison's years in the commercial wilderness (but still singing his heart out at county fairs or whatever gigs he could get) likened him to a mighty oak tree, staying the same, unmoveable, while all around him changed.

Death got him in the end, obviously, as it did Phil, but it feels right that the Madd house has not endured in the same way: Cheapo was a gnarled tree, capable of withstanding the worst weather, not a squashable fruit. We didn't need board games as an enticement to enter the shop: the merchandise - that glorious, tatty merchandise - was enough.

Guide to other posts about Cheapo here.

Friday, 4 April 2014

"Eat your heart out, Temptations!"

Doo wop being on my mind in the last few posts, perhaps now is a good time to remind you of the documentary Life Could Be a Dream, which I have reviewed here. It has been uploaded to yout*be, though who knows how long it will be there, so it's worth having a look. Thanks to the magic of the internet I can even take you to the precise place I mentioned in the review, namely the sequence at the end when lots of singers, including one of the Teenagers and Earl "Speedo" Carroll, have a bash at a couple of Smokey Robinson songs. It's ragged but will bring a smile to your face if you are anything like me.

You could say it's a slightly odd choice - these songs are associated with Motown - but doo wop and soul are, as Kenny Everett would have put it, intertwangled. There is also something odd about hearing these songs performed by what is, in effect, a large choir, not a quartet or a quintet: not much time for subtlety, just a general affirmation that this music is important.

Those of you who haven't just alighted on this blog may be wondering what happened to my plan to do a one hour presentation on doo wop. The answer is that it's ongoing - and the next couple of weeks may actually be an ideal time to do it. So watch this space. Possibly. The trick will be to feel that whatever I have written is a clear and concise intro which also satisfies me. If I do complete it I will put an audio link up.

There are several doo wop-related projects I have on the go, actually. I can't promise that any of them will be completed but as readers of this blog are the ideal audience I'm beginning to realise it would be silly not to have a go.

I don't really have much to add to the review of this documentary. It's not thoroughly satisfying and exhaustive but it certainly gives a taste of the music. Pity the DVD doesn't have lots of extra interview footage; the programme feels like it has been carefully cut down in order to fit a slot. Still, it remains (as far as I know) the nearest to a clear introduction on film.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

On the Beat doo wop special featuring interview with Little Anthony available on BBC iplayer until 29th March

I have now listened to the On the Beat doo wop special and it can be thoroughly recommended. I think it's possible for US readers to access it too, so click here, wherever you are, if you want to hear an engrossing interview punctuated by lots of doo wop. The programme, which is on BBC Radio Merseyside and presented by Spencer Leigh, lasts two hours. I don't have the time to give a blow by blow account but will add a few thoughts here.

My main impression is, I suppose, of relief - hearing a singer from that era who still sounds like he can sing, and who is being offered more opportunities to do so.

Although Little Anthony was, I suppose, the first doo wop singer I ever heard (on Mike Raven's R&B Show on BBC Radio 1) I haven't followed his fortunes particularly closely so it was interesting to hear how much he was bound up with figures I do admire. First of all, it was pleasing to hear that the Flamingos' Golden Teardrops was a major influence on him:
That is the song that made me say I want to be a singer, I wanna do that stuff.
And we then heard it. Yep, Golden Teardrops on the BBC. That made my weekend.

We also got to hear early sides like You on Winley Records, a delightfully raw performance and a local hit in the New York area. This attracted the attention of a neighbour needing a lead singer for his group; Anthony agreed to go along, and they auditioned for Richard Barrett and Gone Records. They had a song called Just Two Kinds of People and based the arrangement on the Channels' The Closer You Are. Richard Barrett called in George Goldner, and both were excited that they had another Frankie Lymon on their hands, eagerly asking if their parents could come around at five and sign contracts.

And so a career was started whose longevity and variety Anthony is careful to credit to the good men around him, especially Richard Barrett (above), who saw him as a crooner and started him off on standards, as Barrett and Goldner also did with the Flamingos. In fact, Anthony sort of distances himself from doo wop, or at least points out that doo wop is not all he is. And with Teddy Randazzo and Don Costa he certainly went on to create a series of songs in the sixties which were something else again. He didn't meet Sinatra but Costa passed on that Frank said: "Tell the kid he sings good." And when we hear Sinatra's record of Goin' Out of My Head it doesn't sound as good as Little Anthony's version.

I was also interested to learn that his gospel-style song I'm Alright benefited from being finished off by ... Sam Cooke. It was a number worked up for his live performances which George Goldner noted didn;t have a bridge and Cooke was eager to oblige. It also sounds, to my hears, that Cooke might have schooled him in how to sing it: as with his proteges on SAR, the label Cooke set up as a pet project, Anthony's phrasing is recognisably Cooke-ish.

Anthony is aware of his impact and importance - more than once he says "we were barnstormers of that kinda stuff", referring to his willingness to experiment with different styles - but this is balanced by a genuine belief that he possesses a gift. Only one of the Imperials is left, although the group really ended in 1973 in terms of being a close-knit group of  brothers - though Anthony recognises that that's not what the fans want to hear.
But I'm still here, and I've been gifted and blessed with a voice [... ] on loan.

[Spencer Leigh] So you genuinely feel it's a gift -

I know it's a gift because it ain't natural. I'm not supposed to sing like this at my age. I was told by one of the acts here, he said Man, my gosh, I was listening to in the wings, he said, you're singing better now than you ever sung. I remember the great Michael Jordan, he once made a tremendously difficult shot, and when he made it it was almost like he wasn't even looking at the basket, and when he made it he was like how come I did it and when I go out it's the same thing, I don't know how, it just comes out I go on stage, and there is my world, there is where I'm at peace with everything.
In addition to work with Paul McCartney and a planned duets album, Anthony Gourdine will have an autobiography out shortly. I look forward to reading it.

You can learn more about Richard Barrett's work with Little Anthony and the Imperials here. It's part four of a series entitled The Musical Legacy of Richard Barrett which can be found on the Classic Urban Harmony website - main page with all sorts of other links here. The Spectropop obituary of Richard Barrett can be found here.

And Spencer Leigh must be commended for a typically sensitive interview which seems to have brought out the best from his subject. (Is there any area of 50s/60s music with which this man is not on intimate terms?) I have mentioned earlier that I'm trying to work up a presentation about doo wop and Anthony's account in the interview of hearing the Crows' Gee for the first time really conveyed the excitement of a new discovery: it was blues and it was something else. On the Beat is one of the few programmes I listen to regularly, and I commend it to readers: if you like the spread of music discussed in this blog then you will get a great deal from this programme. A year or two ago there was the possibility of its being axed; as I argued at the time, its appeal is far wider than the Liverpool area and Spencer's eclectic sensibility guarantees that even a musical nut will learn something new most weeks.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

On the Beat Doo Wop Special on BBC iplayer soon

This is to alert readers that there will  be an On the Beat doo wop special with Little Anthony and the Imperials available on BBC iplayer shortly for one week - I only caught the very end of the progamme live so can't review it yet. Anthony Gourdine was part of the David Gest soul package in Liverpool recently but only got to sing two songs - though he is still in good voice, according to Spencer Leigh, who relayed the happy information that there might be a bit of a Little Anthony renaissance on the cards: he has a track on an album with Paul McCartney, there will be an album of him singing with other big names, and he has an autobiography coming out soon.

I will be interested, in particular, to read about his relationship with Richard Barrett, a name who ought to be more widely known to the general public.I have read in an excellent series of articles about Barrett that Anthony Gourdine resented, at the time, Barrett's disciplinarian and seemingly overprotective ways but now he understands what it was all about. You can find a series of articles about Barrett on the Classic Urban Harmony website here; scroll down and you will links on the left. Part 4 focuses on Little Anthony and the Imperials.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Now you can listen to some of those Decca sides ...

Seven of the nine Decca sides on Jasmine's Time Was Flamingos compilation can be found on yout*be. Sound is reasonably good except in the case of Jerri-Lee (a girl rather than the pumpin' piano man), which is a pity as the vaguely Spanish or South American backing is rather nice. Anyway, here, to save you effort, are those available recordings and handy notes. Think I'll stop now.

Helpless (everything but the kitchen sink: bells, white-sounding chorus and ending OTT in a bad way)
Where Mary Go (not unpleasant: sounds vaguely Jamaican-y in a Harry Belafonte way)
The Rock and Roll March (this is very corny, like something even  the Ravens would have turned up their noses at - possibly it was meant for them as there is a bass lead)
Ever Since I Met Lucy (a pop confection I can take or leave which doesn't seem to fit the group)

Kiss-A-Me (almost very good but production lets down)
Jerri-Lee (pleasant, Spanish-tinged pop)
Hey Now! (bit like Chance recordings but sounds a bit more regimented, formulaic - wonder if hearing higher quality recording would make a difference?)

Now click below if you can't see the clips.

The Flamingos 1953-1962

Below are my reviews of the two Flamingos compilations as posted on a well-known shopping website. They don't really contain anything which hasn't already been said on this blog, but they may be more concisely expressed.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

New Flamingos compilation includes Decca sides

Wow! At last there is a Flamingos compilation which includes the sides they recorded for Decca.

It's issued by public domain label Jasmine, responsible for the earlier Dream of a Lifetime 2CD set, and the perfect complement to it in terms of track selection as it collects the End label recordings they missed out before - there was just a selection - so if you have both sets I presume that that will cover everything commercially issued by this superlative group up until the end of 1962.

Rather cannily, that earlier collection ended with I Only Have Eyes For You on the End label, thus ensnaring the casual purchaser, but at the expense of chronology as their Decca sides came in between Chess and End.They only included Ladder of Love from Decca.

There is an earlier post about the Dream of a Lifetime collection here. But to cut a long story short, it was the first compilation to assemble their Chance, Parrot, Chess and a selection of their End recordings in one place and was fairly cheap, as befits a public domain issue.

To my ears, however, sound quality was okay rather than great. If you listen to the Flamingos CD issued as part of the Chess 50th anniversary celebrations, or the Chance recordings issued alongside those of the Flamingos in 1993 (by what seems to be Vee Jay itself) then you can hear just how clear and full those original recordings really are. Jasmine, by contrast, don't seem to want to get too trebly and exposing of their (presumably vinyl) sources.

The Chess CD even includes what sound like master tapes masters from Parrot which far outshine the sources on Jasmine - or, for that matter, Donn Filetti's two Golden Era of Doowops: Parrot Records compilations. As to how those masters ended up in Chess's vaults, who knows? And annoyingly, it's only a few Parrot sides. Wonder if the others still exist somewhere?

If I'm getting in too deep for some readers the main point is that the Flamingos' best recordings are so good if you like this kind of thing that it is worth searching out the best sources - or at least I am impelled to point such sources out in the belief that someone else might also care. 
For those happy few who remain reading, I am - just for you - listening to the Decca sides just now, but as it's only on Sp*tify (the free version, so not the highest quality) I can't really judge them sonically. They are certainly seem a step up from the low quality mp3s on which I've heard most of them up to now. Kiss-A-Me can be heard on yout*be from what sounds like a vinyl source - rather scratchy and tinny.

Once the Decca sides are done, however, we are, for the most part, on the aural valium trail. Very pleasing for late night nodding-off but far removed from the sublimity of Golden Teardrops.

And yet ... listen to their rendition of Marvin and Johnny's Dream Girl. Alright, it doesn't have the magic of the original pair's rough Specialty recording (a demo which couldn't be improved upon, I believe) but it is certainly an excellent fit for the valium-era Flamingos and works on its own terms.

I will give a comprehensive list of links to the Flamingos material which peppers this blog at the end of this post but I'm pretty sure I've said something along the way about the group's ability to endure - and that was about adapting and surviving. They became a self-contained unit, playing instruments, so didn't have to be reliant on the vagaries of backing musicians as Johnny Keyes of the Magnificents recounted in his memoir Du-Wop. If they had to change with the times the longevity of their career is all the argument that's needed to justify that.

If you haven't worked it out aleady I won't be visiting their End sides all that often, but I'm very glad they've been collected, and that their Decca recordings are finally out there in digital form. The set closes with a very nice Drifters-style song I hadn't heard before entitled Come on to My Party:

Talking of less than pristine sound quality, I note that Charly, a label not renowned for care in that department, have issued a 10 (count 'em!) CD set of Vee Jay material - bit of a step up from their earlier 4CD set, which I have. On a well-known shopping website there was an argument between punters about the relative merits of the Charly set and a Shout Factory package. Someone said the sound on Charly was fine. Well, it wasn't, but as I bought it for my place of work, and it only cost £9.99 that wasn't too big a deal for me. The selection of tracks was certainly good.

If you're wondering why I'm going on about this in  post dedicated to the Flamingos there is a reason. (I'm not just writing at random, you know) Unlike their earlier set, the 10 CD collection includes the Flamingos' Golden Teardrops. It was originally issued on Chance but was later reissued on Vee Jay with a guitar overdubbed. As this was the form in which I first heard Golden Teardrops I am still sort of attached to it - and I have never, ever come across it on a CD. Will this new Charly set be the one to include it at last? Sadly it won't be available in North America and I don't fancy spending £45 to check it out so I can only hope that some UK reader might be able to enlighten me.

:See the complete track listing for Chicago Hit Factory - The Vee-Jay Story 1953-1966 on Charly's UK website here. I haven't heard it.

Links to selected Flamingos-related posts on this blog:

On first hearing Golden Teardrops (part of the "doo wop dialog" with Clarke Davis)
Earlier Flamingos set on Jasmine (includes more Flamingos links at end)
The Flamingos' Decca sides Part 1
The Flamingos' Decca sides Part2
Johnny Keyes' memoir Du-Wop (part of a post about the Magnificents)