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:
Pookie joined with Billy Shelton and Calvin Fossett to form the 3 Bees (they were occasionally the 4 Bees, with the addition of bass William Dooley) ... they sang together until the spring of 1952, when all except Pookie graduated. ... Some other classmates approached him about joining them ... and the result was the Hudsonaires: Ernest Warren (first tenor), Willie C. Jackson (second tenor), and Gerald Gregory (bass).
Opal Courtney later joined as baritone, and a remark by Gerald Gregory's wife that they sounded "like a buch of dogs" led to the namechange. So these were the original Spaniels, responsible for the their early records on Chicago-based Vee Jay Records including Baby, It's You, Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight, and the atypical Play It Cool, a sort of nicotine-crazed recitation by Willie C Jackson packed with references to cigarette brands.



Marv continues:
Opal Courtney quit the group at the end of October 1954  ... Opal's permanent replacement was baritone James "Dimples" Cochran. Another member during this period was guitarist Jerome Henderson, who was a friend of Gerald. He was with them for about a year.

In February 1956 Ernest Warren was drafted and the group continued as a quartet. Willie C Jackson quit shortly afterwards. Not long after Willie C left, Pookie Hudson also decided to quit. He too was married and the money wasn't exactly rolling in. Instead, Pookie opted for a paying job (helping to make boxcars for a company called General America). As a replacement, Gerald brought in Parmaley "Carl" Rainge, another friend of Cochran's. Cochran, Rainge, and Porter had been a trio who had hung around with the Spaniels from the very beginning. They'd been used as fill-in members over the years, so it was only natural that they'd inherit the job. Therefore, by June, the Spaniels were Carl Rainge (lead tenor), Donald "Duck" Porter (second tenor), James "Dimples" Cochran (baritone), and Gerald Gregory (bass).
Soon afterwards, however, Pookie was prevailed upon to come back, and I suppose this was the Mark II version of the group.
By the fall of 1956, the Spaniels weren't doing well. Gerald was the only original member left and fans missed Pookie's voice. They all came to entreat Pookie to return and caught him at just the right time: his marriage had broken up and he had just written "Peace Of Mind." Therefore, by the time of their November 5 session, Pookie was back in the lead and the Spaniels had five voices once again. The four songs recorded that day were: "Please Don't Tease," "Jessie Mae" (led by Gerald), "I Need Your Kisses," and "You Gave Me Peace Of Mind."
Ernest Warren came back from the army, and for a time the group were a sextet:
Ernest came back just in time for the March 1958 session, at which the Spaniels recorded their classic version of "Stormy Weather" ... Therefore, for this session, the Spaniels were Pookie Hudson, Gerald Gregory, Donald Porter, Carl Rainge, James Cochran, and Ernest Warren.
In 1959 the group were Pookie Hudson, Gerald Gregory, Ernest Warren, Donald Porter, and James Cochran, and recorded songs including Red Sails in the Sunset, a particular fave of mine. You can read about subsequent permutations on Unca Marvy's Spaniels page, but regarding the 90s reunion of the original group Marv says:
In 1993, some of the originals got back together for a few shows: Pookie, Opal Courtney, Willie C. Jackson, baritone Billy Shelton (from Pookie's original group, the 3 Bees), and Billy's son, Teddy (a baritone/bass). They were occasionally joined by Gerald Gregory, but he's not on any of the tracks they did for JLJ Productions (owned by Pookie) that year. The only single issued at the time was "Someone" and "One Day At A Time," but many of the other tracks found their way onto the Collectables CD called The Spaniels: 40th Anniversary.
This is still easily obtainable and includes some acapella tracks. Presumably this was essentially the version of the group I saw in 1992 in London, although Gerald Gregory was most definitely part of the lineup: once seen, not easily forgotten. Marv concludes his Spaniels page with a sad roll call:
Gerald "Bounce" Gregory, booming bass voice of the Spaniels, passed away on February 12, 1999 from brain cancer. Pookie Hudson, the heart and soul of the Spaniels died on January 16, 2007 from cancer. Other original members Opal Courtney, Junior passed away on September 18, 2008 and Ernest Warren on May 7, 2012. 
A Goldmine article by Todd Baptista, readable here, also notes that Carl Rainge died in 2011 after a long illness. And sadly, I have just seen, in the Chicago Tribune here, that Willie C Jackson died earlier this year - the last survivng member of the orignal Spaniels. When was the clip in Rock 'n' Roll America (videocap below) filmed and was he still in the group? 


It's hard to be ceartain. Todd Baptista's article written in 2012, reports he was still involved at that point, and Marv Goldberg's article ends:
In 2010, original member Willie C. Jackson is keeping the Spaniels alive. The other members are: Billy Shelton, Senior (one of the 3 Bees), Hiawatha Burnett and Charles Colquit (both from the Goldenrods), and Wilton Crump. 
Any enlightenment about the precise lineup in Rock 'n' Roll America will be gratefully received. There is a photo in the Chicago Tribune, below, of the group being honoured in Gary, Indiana in 2014 with Willie C Jackson on the far right. Is that the same person who appears second from the right above?


Here is my review of Richard C Carter's book about the Spaniels:


Sad but compelling account of doo wop greats


This is the biography of one of the great doo wop groups who, as Logan Pearsall Smith said of Edmund Waller, floated to immortality on the strength of a phrase - or maybe a few bass notes. Gerald Gregory, the original singer of those notes, died a few years ago, and now lead singer and creative force Pookie Hudson has gone (with, in the UK at least, what appeared to be brief and grudging obituaries).

As one who was turned on to doo wop by the Spaniels I'm writing this review in the hope that someone in the UK apart from Spencer Leigh (who wrote the only halfway decent obit) might read this book, which is not a hagiography but a particularly saddening example of the exploitation of African American performers in the early days of rock'n'roll; even if you're not particularly interested in doo wop, this tells you a great deal about 50s America. (See the biography of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick or Sweet Soul Music by Gerri Hershey for more about exploitation in this period, or seek out the novel The Day the Music Died by Joseph C Smith aka Sonny Knight).
Given all the opportunities missed and all the rightful earnings withheld - especially as Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight has been exploited in film after film, so someone's obviously profiting - it is astonishing that the group persisted over the decades and that Pookie Hudson, even after a battle with cancer, continued to perform while in remission. The fact that there were two distinct groups of Spaniels (with Pookie at the helm in both) is also down to exploitation, as there was pressure on the original members to look after their families by taking regular jobs when it became clear after a couple of years that they weren't getting the rewards from singing. According to the book, the earlier group were more spontaneous, instinctive and the later one more technically able and correct but perhaps less warm (compare the two versions of Baby, It's You).

 
This book relies almost exclusively on the testimony of the members of the original group and their take on the others in their lives, so it's not a Peter Guralnick job, seeking out a variety of onlookers' viewpoints, and there's not much analysis of why the Spaniels' records are so good - that's taken as a given. But what gives this account its strength is the sad consistency of the story the individuals have to tell, and the fact that there seems little attempt to whitewash the characters of group members - Gerald Gregory's problems with drink are discussed in detail and everyone seems frank about personal conflicts.

More than thirty years on, the original members came together to be inducted into a Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame (I don't know whether they were finally honoured by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and to perform again; the pressures to support families having eased, this second chance was an unexpected bonus after so much disillusion. It must have been this version of the group I saw around 1992 in London and I recall that they stood out from the other acts in seeming still involved in the material: unlike the glitzy incarnation of a Frankie Lymon-less Teenagers or a Dion-less Belmonts, for example, Pookie, still at the centre, sang as though he was still feeling and exploring the songs.
Now I know why: the original memmbers had no idea they were going to get a chance again, and the acapella version of Danny Boy which Pookie announced as having first sung with his friends at High School almost forty years before as a vocal warm-up must have felt as nostalgiac for them as it did for us.

In view of all the missing riches I don't know whether Pookie Hudson died a happy man, but I hope he did: he certainly continued to perform and to find an audience; the book even recounts how he made his peace with Vivian Carter (one of the owners of the 50s R&B label Vee Jay who issued Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight) on her deathbed. And those Spaniels recordings on Vee Jay - now, ironically, public domain in the UK, so they can be reissued and reissued without the current owners profiting - ensure that James Pookie Hudson's tremulous voice will live on.

Goldmine article by Todd Baptista on Ernest Warren here. Warren said in Richard G Carter's book, published in 1994, that he left the Spaniels by his own choice because of the conflict when he was ordained as a minister, though he did attend when the Spaniels were given a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation of the Smithsonian.
 We tuned up at the Smithsonian Awards and sounded good. But I don't think no one could ever really take my place as far as that's concerned because that's the original.




Although Warren never performed with The Spaniels publicly after being ordained in 1976, he was understandably proud of the group’s legacy. - See more at: http://www.goldminemag.com/article/spaniels-founding-member-warren-dies-at-78#sthash.fjeahpU7.dpuf

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.

But the achievement is a considerable one, regardless of that circumstance. Even on the topics which have subsequently been done to death, there is a freshness, and a sense that you are seeing a condensed, still potent truth: the Beatles episode, with Derek Taylor's assistance, is a case in point, conveying a sense of the Beatles in relation to a changing society in the late sixties.

I have read criticism elsewhere of Palmer's juxtaposition of music and imagery - and yes, many moments do seem impressionistic: more verve than strict accuracy. But what sticks in my mind most vividly are the cuts which suddenly illuminate what is being discussed.
In the country music programme, for example,  we are told of the evolution from the songs of the Appalachian (then the Ozark) Mountains to something more commercialised, but Palmer's genuis is in how he chooses to illustrate this at the end. He selects a three year old, supposedly the youngest ever recording star, singing Jambalaya while his daffily proud parents look on, he allows the camera to linger on the look of innocence on the child's face after he finishes, and then cuts to a young girl singing singing an unutterably beautiful Mountain song (below) to show us how far things have come from the purity of their roots.

And in the rock'n'roll programme footage of a polite, uncertain uniformed Elvis preparing for a press conference is enough (for me, anyway) to suggest his musical emasculation.

There is one particularly jarring note for me - though no doubt specialists in other areas will have their own niggles. A discussion by Leiber and Stoller about the first recording of Hound Dog is spliced together with what some fans may recognise as an oft-told account of the tuna-spitting response to the Drifters' There Goes My Baby, giving the false impression that it was Hound Dog which caused that reaction.

But it scarcely matters, given the scale of Palmer's overall achievement. Some episodes may be more incisive than others, some aspects may be rushed through, some lingered over perhaps a little too long in certain programmes (are some of the elderly interviewees overindulged?), but as a pioneering introduction to a range of related musical styles this is a huge achievement. Palmer's work is not the last word but it paved the way for later series with a narrower focus like Dancing in the Streets - and if you want to acquaint yourself with the world of twentieth century popular music in the widest sense (up till the mid seventies, anyway) there isn't another single series which covers quite so much. If it's available to buy secondhand, the lavishly illustrated hardback book (not the tiny paperback) is a useful companion to the DVD set.
And to Dancing in the Streets must now be added Rock 'n' Roll America. As I said in the previous post, to judge from its first programme it is commendably clear and incisive, but it has a far narrower focus than Tony Palmer's series, not to mention the benefit of a whole range of earlier documentaries, including Palmer's, to draw on. I still remember the excitement of seeing a Buddy Holly clip in All You Need Is Love for the first time; in those pre-youtube days I had no idea of his vivacity as a live performer. It looks like the same clip will be featured in Episode Two of the BBC series. So there can't be, for me anyway, the same thrill of excitment that some others might feel, but the pleasure and interest will be in seeing precisely how Holly is put in context. I should also say that some of the Beeb's archive footage of outraged reactions to the new rock'n'roll phenomenon can be found in All You Need Is Love. And I seem to remember that the cinema film Keep On Rockin' had a few clips of vintage outrage spliced in between the live acts.

Reading over the review I am reminded that there was a melancholy aspect to All You Need Is Love as well, though in that series the Tin Pan Alley merchants were the ones who seemed not long for this earth, not the rock'n'rollers (I must confess that the picture of Don Everly used to promote Rock 'n' Roll America gave me a jolt).


Doubtless in time there will be more series about the development popular music in the future where viewers will be thinking along the lines of: "Thank God they managed to interview Damon Albarn before it was too late ..." Luckily I probably won't be around to watch them. Ee, it's that Thomas Hardy all over again.


Comments on the youtube clip indicate that the uncredited singer at the end of the country music episode is Brooke Breeding. There are quite a few threads on the mudcat site, here, about the origins of Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier.

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).

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. A map of the States was a handy motif, used early on to indicate the migration of black workers (and their music) to the North with its car plants and steel mills, then finally to illustrate the lyrics of Chuck Berry's song Sweet Little Sixteen (also the title of this episode) proclaiming the spread of rock'n'roll to the nation's teens by the time of the record's release in 1958:
They're really rockin' in Boston, Pittsburgh PA,
Deep in the heart of Texas and 'round the Frisco bay.
All over St. Louis, way down in New Orleans,
All the cats wanna dance with sweet little sixteen.

Note the canny Mr Berry's invoking of earlier song titles, suggesting that  rock'n'roll is as much part of the cultural furniture as those works.

How does Rock'n'Roll America compare to other series such as Dancing  in the Street or the aforementioned Tony Palmer series All You Need Is Love? The answer is I dunno, without watching them again. And in a way it's a pointless question. It's a bit like the several thousand Morecambe and Wise, Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams documentaries out there: the participants may be slightly older or younger but if you're like me it's a story you will want to hear again and again regardless.

Though I must admit that documentaries about my idols have an extra layer of melancholy. So many of these giants of the 1950s (in comedy or rock'n'roll) have now gone, and those left, along with their friends and fellow performers, won't have many more interviews to give. As David Morrisey says in the opening narration: "These are some of the last witnesses ..." and they aren't all looking in the best of health. He only appeared very briefly in Episode 1, but Jerry Lewis appeared uncharacteristically placid and avuncular, a long way from the showman of All You Need is Love or the happily raving figure, sealed in his own little world, in the raw footage of Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.

Assuming that you, too, will know the story of rock'n'roll in outline I won't go on to give a comprehensive account of the first programme but will content myself with pointing out some of the details I noticed.


Rocket 88, one of the contenders for the title of first ever rock'n'roll record (though Ike Turner wasn't so much as mentioned) was, we were told, written in Clarksdale, recorded in Memphis (by Sam Phillips) and released in Chicago (on Chess). How's that for statehopping?

We were taken into details about the rhythmic differences between the playing of Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Little Richard. Richard's drummer was on hand to relate how, before a rehearsal, Richard asked him to listen to the sound of a train - which became part of Lucille.

We saw Allen Touissant going around the site of Cosimo Matassa's studio in New Orleans, now a laundromat. (I checked to see whether Larry Williams's Bad Boy was recorded there. It was not.)

In Chuck Berry's Maybelline the narrator is driving a V8 Ford; the object of his affection is driving a Cadillac Coupe Deville - a rich person's car, we were told.


Glenn Ford's son was on hand to tell us that he, the son, was a big Bill Haley fan, and when the producer of Blackboard Jungle was looking for a song to put on the credits Master Ford had the record of Thirteen Women which had as its B side Rock Around the Clock. One tiny chance moment ... so many ripped cinema seats. Unless that was just in Britain.

Another detail relates to the rise of doo wop. I have read that part of the reason American teens congregated to harmonise on front stoops or under streetlights was that many homes didn't have air conditioning and wouldn't necessarily have television or any of the technological distractions afforded to today's youth. The programme doesn't see it in quite the same way. It wasn't that there was no TV but it had little appeal for adolescents. Televison may have been on the rise but the content was mostly pap, aimed at a family audience. And so as the general cinema audience began to tail off in the wake of TV teens were increasingly targetted by the film industry, hence The Wild Ones and Blackboard Jungle, where Glenn Ford's prized jazz records are gleefully destroyed by his class.

Talking of doo wop, I was pleased to see that it was given its, er, due here after being dubbed in a 1992 book as "The Forgotten Third of Rock 'n' Roll". Doo wop was, we were told, the first popular music by teenagers for teenagers, and the point was made that its exponents hadn't grown up in the South so their lyrics weren't going to reflect the darker themes of earlier bluesmen.

Nevertheless, I had mixed feelings about seeing what is presumably the current version of the Spaniels singing Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight. Afterwards I looked up the name of the person singing bass and found he had been in Pookie Hudson's very first group. But it was still odd, in a programme which was otherwise pretty good on selecting the telling detail, not to have the names of Pookie Hudson and Gerald Gregory (originator of that unforgettable bass intro) mentioned at any point.

Yes, yes, I know that the lineup of doo wop groups could change, but we're not talking the Drifters here. Although the Spaniels did cover a few standards Hudson wrote Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight himself. And it was about a real life "parting is such sweet sorrow" situation - R&J meets R&B - which would seem a perfect illustration of the "for teenagers by teenagers" line so why not credit its composer? Still, at least we got to hear the song, sung acapella and pretty well, though the absence of those tremulous Hudson tones, suggestive of adolescent gaucherie, meant an extra dimension was missing.

Anyway, that is all I wish to say for the moment but may return to later episodes. Along with the TV series there are going to be a lot of related radio programmes, mostly repeats as far as I can tell but very welcome. You can see the details, including documentaries on Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, here.

Finally, however, I'd like to end with this clip from Rock 'n' Roll America of the late Ben E King talking about Stand By Me. There's nothing new in it and he gives the impression, as he has done before, that the song was a happy afterthought in a session. But what I find touching is his singing, unaccompanied, the opening of There Goes My Baby. It was one of the songs which started it all, and it's a fitting final memory of a great yet humble man.

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.

I can't remember whether particular artists had something to plug, but these are most definitely not plug-type interviews, more attempts to assess the work as a whole and to uncover - but gently, with love, like Maggie in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof - what motivates the artists. All of which promises well for this meeting of Davieses. Whatever else, it will be an intelligent and civilised line of questioning which may draw well particlarly interesting things out of a man who, as I have said in earlier post, seems less prone to resorting to stock answers than some others of his stature.


Postscript:

I have now listened to the interview a couple of times. It's pretty good, although I had  forgotten the rather obvious fact that Ray Davies has rehearsed this material so many times via his autobiographies and autobiographical shows that little can really come over as new: this was more a case of Russell Davies trying to cover selected patches of ground familiar to devotees. Not that this in itself was without interest, especially given Russell Davies' interest in musicals. I had wondered why Paul Sirett, who had worked with Davies for some time and written Come Dancing (the musical), had not been brought in for Sunny Afternoon. We were told that five playwrights had been interviewed, but Penhall's keenness and determination had meant he was chosen.

Ray did, however, say there was "a hint" that Come Dancing might have a second life, with his role as narrator diminished and other parts written up. I saw Come Dancing at its first preview, and wonderful as it was to see Ray onstage, and so close, for so much of the time, I did wonder how that might pan out for a long run. It also felt eminently suited to the intimacy of Stratford East, so if it does have an afterlife I suspect the choice of theatre will be crucial.

There was a brief reference to an earlier musical, and some othere interesting observations which indicated this was more than a trawl through the greatest hits which a different sort of interviewer might have favoured, so it is certainly worth listening to even if it may not contain much in the way of revelations for dedicated followers of Davies.

I did wonder, however, whether more time - I mean for the raw interview - might perhaps have yielded more of interest. I don't know how much was recorded although I got the impression from what Russell Davies said that this might have been done as live, or at least without much leeway, as at one point he seemed aware of a need to push towards the end. But I could be wrong. Perhaps it's more to do with what Ray said at one point: that saying what he means is easier in a song.

Anyway, you can make up your own mind by listening here. I presume that as this is radio US listeners will also be able to access this. 

A couple of small niggles: there was a lot of discussion specifically about the Crouch End Festival Chorus version of Days, yet it was the original Kinks version which was played in the middle of that discusssion. I also noted that it was the "Coca-Cola" version of that Kinks anthem Lola which was played. Someone in the production chain wasn't paying attention - though in the latter case could it be that product placement is now tacitly accepted as a means of making up the shortfall brought about by all those license payment defaulters?
 

My own shameless plug:

I have cowritten Funny Bones, the autobiography of comedian/actor Freddie Davies (no relation); information here.

 Related posts:

They Turned Me On: Russell Davies
They Turned Him Off: Russell Davies show axed
Ray Davies documentary Imaginary Man
David Bowie and the Kinks
Waterloo Sunset

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.

Raymond was absent, which was a hole, but I know he will be back later, as will Liz Crowther's character. Her character is wonderfully dopey, and clearly besotted with Raymond.

I shall watch the next episode with interest but I would dearly love to know the rationale behind this slimmed-down group of Crabtrees. Was it a cost-cutting exercise or had the new director ideas about revivifying the show by concentrating on key characters?

Which reminds me of the end of an episode from the densely populated era. Arthur, Trevor and Raymond are going off fishing. As they drive away, Raymond frantically squealing with delight like a five year old ("Me and Dad are going fishing!"), the family, who have all come out to see the trio off, walk back to the house in the evening sunshine, Vera peeling off to spend a lonely Trevorless night in her place. Then Beryl signals to her, and Vera opens her arms with joy to be escorted into the Crabtrees' home by the two sons. 


It's not particularly funny, indeed it's not funny, but it's a moment which helps explain why this often silly and unambitious and outdated comedy still has an impact - on me, at least. There's a heart which makes you forgive it a lot. So I shall stick with it, and continue to bring back bulletins from the frontline - or, if you will, my crumb-infested sofa. You deserve nothing less.

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.

Arthur and Beryl, despite having (separately) made other plans for a meal and a night away, had no choice but to succumb, but it was good humoured: even Vera, the meddlesome neighbour had a kiss bestowed on her from Arthur when she presented the couple with a commemorative salver - and, in a rare moment of self knowledge, she alluded to the "tolerance" her neighbours had shown her. And watching William Gaunt, cigar and drink in hand, there was a kind of end of term atmosphere to the proceedings which seemed to be about the actors as well as their characters. I have written in the past about episodes tailing off or deliberately ending on a downbeat, but on this occasion Arthur paid a sweet compliment to his wife and the whole thing ended on a note of warmth, with much cheering from the audience.

Well, the new term is rather different. Martin Clunes has left the show and his replacement, while not quite a lookalike, certainly borrows the mannerisms and the hairstyle, though the ears look distressingly normal. I have read that the actor playing the other brother sadly died before this series, but his replacement did not appear in this first episode.

There was - it seems absurd to say "darkness" about the proceedings, but without a swarm of family members, and with much talk of couples separating, the show seemed to be edging towards something more sombre. I don't know whether Marcia Warren reappears later, but the real bombshell of the episode was that Vera was staying with her sister, had got rid of most of her animals, and Trevor seemed to imagine the separation might be permanent.

Now, when Morecambe and Wise slimmed down their comedy famously got better, but when you remove or thin out the crowd of siblings and others who help with the farcical tempo then No Place Like Home becomes ... well, something else. (And I'm not using jive jargon in this instance, Daddio.)

There was a new director - hitherto it has always been Robin Nash, also the producer, or Susan Belbin - so I don't know whether that contributed to the change of atmosphere, but the overall effect was a little melancholy. At one point Arthur absents himself from involvement in his married daughter's breakup, goes and gets drunk with Trevor in the greenhouse, actually having beer, and although we are told he was dragged up to bed the episode ends with his being back in the greenhouse in the middle of the night, he and the newly single Trevor, riotously drunk, even though we only see and hear them from a distance. It's quite a serious note to end on, given the normal parameters of that little world. Beryl seemed quite distressed earlier about having to drag the drunken Arthur to bed.

So what will happen? Who knows? I can't find much online, and part of me doesn't want to know. But a show without Vera may be a bit like Hancock's Half Hour without the appearance of Kenneth Williams. Like Hancock, will No Place Like Home mutate into something else? Hard to imagine, but I know it ran for a fifth series, so we shall see. It was pleasing to see that Liz Crowther, the pesky Raymond's work colleague, had been brought back, and that Raymond himself, despite splitting up with Lorraine, was determine to stay in the family (her family) home. With the absence of Martin Clunes and possibly Marcia Warren, we will certainly need the regular injection of his energy.

So watch this space for further updates. It's not impossible that the show will reshape itself, but I don't feel optimistic. Arthur may be the centre of the show but he needs his batty satellites.



In a separate note, Marcia Warren was playing a child murderer on Casualty last Saturday. The actress is now thirty years older than she was on the sitcom but it was disturbing to note that the character's aggressive bonhomie seemed not a million miles from that of Vera, especially as the charm was turned on and off like a tap, replaced with an abruptness of manner.

Is this the way that No Place Like Home is going to go? Alright, probably not, but if I could send one message to the past it would be this plea: "Bring back Helen Durward." She has bags of experience playing Avis on Crossroads, and she is capable of the right sort of performance. She could easily be a different sort of annoying next door neighbour, and Trevor could come to love her, in time. (She's initially a lodger, let's say, having been ousted from her house, then things take a turn for the better. With her love for parrots, she couldn't be a better fit.)

So that's my message, my instruction, to Robin Nash. Thirty years too late: he and his directors have long ago already done whatever it is that they have done and like a chorus I must watch it. Be it good or bad I'll be there till the bitter end (assuming the Drama Channel is broadcasting all five series), never forgetting I have a self-imposed duty to inform and occasionally entertain the readers of this blog.

Postscript: *** SPOILER ALERT ***

I have just read that Marcia Warren did indeed leave after Series 3, so presume a large part of Series 4 will involve Trevor's efforts to find solace elsewhere (though after Vera, any termigant has to be a substantial improvement). Astonishly, however, I read that Vera is replaced by another actress in Series 5. That is quite a shock: Martin Clunes' part was relatively small but Vera's are pretty big shoes to fill. Nevertheless it means that Series 4, sans that big, big performance might indeed go in another direction, as the first episode suggests. We shall see.


Initial post about No Place Like Home here.
Further thoughts here.

Monday, 16 February 2015

TVDC5

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.

That said, you can see that there are two films in conflict with each other here: a wacky one with the group zooming around in a fun jeep (the film was called Wild Weekend in the US) following Clark and his girlfriend, versus a more reflective account of the emptiness of various values - beatniks, aristos, the advertising world etc. The remaining four group members are pretty redundant here except when the hero, seeing the model for what she is, is once more united with them at the end. So there aren't really personae fashioned for the group, as Owen famously did with the Beatles in Hard Day's Night: for better or worse, this is definitely a starring vehicle for one Dave Clark.

On the subject of Clark's acting I'm undecided: whether he is playing "saturnine" as the more complimentary reviews have it or whether (as Alun Owen was supposed to have done for the Beatles) Peter Nichols fashioned his script around the perceived limitations of the performer, I don't know.

And as I know nothing about the acting talents of the others maybe their lack of involvement is just as well, but one real deficiency of the screenplay, rather than the acting, is that some parts are slightly underwritten: the Clark character's disillusionment with his old teacher is achieved in doublequick time, for example. But finally it's good to have a film which is trying to say something about the times rather than simply cashing in on a pop group or settling for a sub-Cliff Richard type movie with its roots in a Hollywood of decades before.

Incidentally, for those of a sociological/Media Studies bent this is Media Studies maven Andy Medhurst's take on the film from from the bfi publication The Celluloid Jukebox, an examination of the development of the pop movie:

"The fact that the Dave Clark Five were less well known and individuated than the Beatles curiously enhances the film's impact; they're more malleable, more usable as iconographic shorthand for the liberating jolt of now-ness that permeates the film. The stock narratives and Rooney-Garland conventions that dogged the likes of (a film such as) Be My Guest are thrown away, the sociology of What a Crazy World vanishes in favour of pure semiotics. Even A Hard Day's Night had half a foot in kitchen-sink naturalism, but Catch Us If You Can, especially in its first startling 30 minutes, goes all out for the shiny plastic immediacy of the moment. It is, in short, where the pop film becomes the Pop film."
I don't propose to add a detailed review of the documentary although I did have a few thoughts as I watched. Despite all the praise heaped on them by some big name celebs, the documentary, controlled by Clark's company, came over, to this (UK) viewer at least, as a remarkable piece of marketing more than anything else. There were, occasionally coy, references to the Beatles but the spectre of that group's Anthology documentary series loomed large over proceedings - at least for me. Quite a number of the DC5's American hits seemed to be covers, however well done, and there wasn't the sense of development and evolution which characterised the Beatles' output. I noticed that a particularly silly record, The Red Balloon, which I remember as being a sizeable hit in the UK, was omitted from consideration entirely. So let's have it here:


It was also notable that it took some time before Mike Smith was eventually given his due in the film, and you couldn't but be aware that just about every scrap of film, no matter how fleeting, had to ensure that Clark's beaming presence was in the shot. Then each recording from his Dominion Theatre musical Time bore Clark's production credit.

Then again, at a time when ripoffs were rife, Clark's story was and remains a triumphant one, a success story in business terms. He leased his masters to record companies and has not had to suffer the court battles of so many. He has known how to market and manage himself and his group. And the interest in acting led to his studying at London's Central School, though I'm not sure how much acting he did afterwards.

But when certain individuals were praising his achievement in producing the musical Time, originally starring Cliff Richard and a "hologram" (actually a projection, I believe, as there used to be of a fortune teller in the penny arcade at Brighton) you got the sense that the tactful emphasis was on the fact of its being staged, and what an achievement that represented in itself. It certainly had a mixed critical reception. And Tom Hanks' speech inducting the (then) three surviving members of the group was fed to us in segments throughout the programme, possibly because no one else had gone into such raptures before or since.

Put it this way: if I were a member of a sixties pop group I'd be delighted if Clark made a film about me. I'd know that I was being given the best possible shot, portrayed in the best possible light. But as a viewer with a keen interest in sixties pop who wasn't a particular fan of the Dave Clark Five I couldn't help thinking that two hours was a bit too long to sit through a litany of praises for Mr Clark. And much as I like Catch Us If You Can, as detailed above, the documentary gave me the same feeling as the feature film: a lot of the music seemed nondescript.

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.



The other piece is a song which Joe says was passed onto him by his friend Alvin Lee: Chris Smithers' Leave the Light On, hitherto unknown to me. It's delivered at a steady pace, rather slower (as I subsequently found) than the versions to be found on youtube by its composer. 



Both approaches work, I think, but the less tentative online performances by Smithers certainly correspond to what he says about his work in an interview to be found on youtube. The song is about a dawning sense of the imminence of death, but the briskness of Smithers' guitar (and the foot tapping in one video) suggests a no-nonsense attitude on the part of the narrator. 



In the (presumably intended for radio) interview Smithers talks about how, for him, the guitar part comes first when trying to write, then a bit of scat singing ultimately followed by a line or two which then suggests the rest of the lyrics.

 

I recently heard John Kander say in an interview that the best ideas often come remarkably quickly, and those which didn't often sounded as though a lot of work had gone into them. For all its complexity - and I make no pretence that I have figured out the lyrics line by line yet - Leave the Light On sounds like one of the former: that title, assuming it was indeed the first line which came to Smithers, seems to anchor the song, determining its content. 

I have now found another online interview, viewable here, which puts the apparent ease of songwriting in context. Smither says that he shares with all the other songwriters he's talked to a sense of the mystery of the process: he can't ultimately work out why or how it's coming out, although he seems to have learnt to trust that most times it will.

Anyway, I look forward to exploring Chris Smither's work more fully, and if you wish to hear more of that Joe Brown concert, here is a link to the youtube playlist to hear the songs in order. The concert is also available on DVD.


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.

The writing, however, I am less sure about. I suspect that portions would make for dreary reading on the page. But then again it was written to be played, not read.

By and large there aren't many outside characters in individual episodes, but yesterday's plotline, about Vera's crazy menagerie getting out of control, involved a protest by a group of neighbours whom Arthur sees queueing up to complain outside Vera and Trevor's house.

And here's where I get confused - but in a good way. At first I scanned the faces,  predictable suburban types, but then I got drawn to one in particular, who had quite a substantial chunk of half-surreal dialogue about a disappearing parrot who had made his escape posing as one of the plastic birds in the cage (it could have been written for Freddie Davies).

And as I listened and marvelled I thought several things. Where the h*ck had I seen her before? The answer is that she was Helen Durward, who played Avis Tennyson ("no relation") in Crossroads, a particularly feckless waitress who succumbed to a cutprice Bilko called Bill, and even took him back when he returned to the series after some duplicity had been exposed.

But I was also wondering: "What's this going to lead to for the episode as a whole?" And the answer was: nothing. The neighbours did not show up at the subsequent court hearing, for all their protesting, and we saw Ms Durward's character no more. I do hope we might see her again, but who knows?

So all there was was a perfect little cameo which allowed the actress to play a kind of exaggerated version of Avis, or a near relative. Now, in terms of plot structure, that was sort of bad. But in the minute or two that her musings lasted we were given all we really needed to know about the character. So the decision was sort of right. And both the performance and the sheer quality of the writing justified this detour up a cul de sac. And soon the spotlight was firmly put on Vera, giving an impassioned defence of her animal kingdom.

There are many moments in No Place Like Home where individual lines and aspects of plot development feel like they need tweaking. But it matters and it doesn't. The characters come on and they entertain and beguile us, and that's enough. I also recall what my friend late of North Berwick once said about an episode of Simon Nye's Hardware. Structurally it was slipshod and lazy, but it made him laugh (as it did me). No Place Like Home is, I suppose, the lightest of fare, but played beautifully, and I look forward to returning to the Crabtrees' home tonight.


Earlier post here.
Further further thoughts here.

Friday, 23 January 2015

No Place Like Home (80s BBC sitcom currently being repeated)


The world will little note nor long remember my thoughts on the 80s sitcom No Place Like Home yet I feel compelled to record them. If you'd like to look over my shoulder - if, indeed, you too have been watching the current reruns on the Drama channel - then feel free.

I don't think I ever saw this when it was originally broadcast but now, thanks to the magic of Freeview, I have been able to watch most of the first two series over the space of a couple of weeks. 

And I still haven't come to a decision about it. I do recall seeing William Gaunt in a more recent sitcom with Penelope Keith (Next of Kin) in which his role was essentially that of feed to Ms Keith, but with occasional opportunities for pathos which made me wonder how he would be as the centre of a sitcom.

Well, unknown to me, he'd already been in such a role - and No Place Like Home ran for four series. What's more, it had an early role for Martin Clunes. Here are all the family members (sans appurtenances):


It's an odd sitcom to judge, or so it seems to me now. It's undoubtedly mainstream, and at least some of the time in a kind of sitcom neverland, but it also pushes, or at least gently nudges, at the boundaries a bit in an effort to reflect the changing social attitudes in the 80s. The four overgrown kids who return to the parental home (that's the premise) have sex, live with their partners, and the father ruefully accepts the situation. He's not having a mid-life crisis like Ria in Butterflies - or, for that matter, Reggie Perrin. It's more like a kind of slow deflation as new and confusing events dance around him. It's no longer a world he recognises but he continues to bankroll, and therefore tacitly condone, his offspring's behaviour, aided by a bit of nudging from his wife.

The setup could allow for something much darker, but however irritated Gaunt gets there is no fundamental change in his passivity. He was the breadwinner through his kids' childhoods and that is what he continues to be.


There are cartoonlike aspects. The meddling neighbour, Vera, played by Marcia Warren, is useful for pushing the plot forward at times, but the performance seems at odds with that of the actor playing her husband. Early on in the first series there were some variety-style high jinks with the husband trying to restrain an offscreen brute of a dog, in exactly the same manner as a Morecambe and Wise routine, and there is much talk of the menagerie of animals the neighbours supposedly have. Yet the husband also has naturalistic conversations with William Gaunt as they try to hide from their respective families.

Gaunt's wife is also an interesting figure. Her children try to encourage her to be more independent, and in the last episode I saw there was a plot revolving round what she might do with her husband's redundancy money (set up a pet shop with Vera was the unlikely answer), but she seems as much the slave of her children's demands as her husband's.

Watching it now, none of this ought to work terribly well, and indeed there are times when I'm not entirely sure why I'm watching it. But as one who religiously sat through every episode of Ben Elton's The Wright Stuff I obviously have a high tolerance threshold, and the question of why a sitcom doesn't quite come off is every bit as interesting to me as why one does. And having a daily sitcom waiting on your hard disk drive for you to come home - well, you may as well watch it before you delete it forever.

And last night, with two episodes on my hard drive needing to be watched, I found myself warming to it more. One plot revolved around Gaunt's character Arthur meeting his first girlfriend again. The opportunity for wilful misunderstanding by neighbour Vera was duly taken, although (spoiler alert!) the reunion never had any chance of progressing beyond friendship,and the entire family later sit down to have a meal together with this notional threat - who, it transpires, only wanted to put a bit of business (no, not that sort) in her old boyfriend's way.

In the subsequent episode Arthur is facing the threat of redundancy unless he relocates to Manchester. Once his family point out to him that they couldn't survive without his patronage (and free accommodation) he has a change of heart and storms in to see his boss (John Barron, giving a performance of an eccentricity surpassing that of Marcia Warren's Vera) only to discover that everything's okay: another employee is now willing to make the trek North.

It's a sitcom about a man who is, at worst, mildly exasperated with his family, and there is really very little at stake ... and yet, on the basis of the last two episodes I know I am going to watch it to the end, even if the Drama Channel shows all four series.

Why? Well, it's partly down to the quality of the performances, despite the lurches between something like naturalism and something rather bigger. And Gaunt's hangdog face, and manner, makes him right for the role: difficult to imagine Richard Briers keeping a lid on his propensity to fizz. The scenes where he commiserates with his neighbour are very pleasing, which reminds me of the equivalent characters in the sitcom All About Me, which featured Jasper Carrot and Meera Syal (though she wisely jumped ship after Series One). Whether it was about bad writing or bad performing I couldn't say at this distance, but Carrot's character had a confidante at work who was so patently a cipher that it was painful to watch. And my feeling about those two most recent episodes of No Place Like Home was that everything possible had been wrung out of the storylines by the performers. The writer, Jon Watkins, may not be delving into the hot heart of human suffering but those episodes, in particular, felt fully realised. And the series was originally broadcast on the Beeb, so more time to delve into character. Granted, the four children don't always seem fully distinguished from each other, but the focus is on how Arthur reacts to them.

I'm not quite sure what else I want to say other than the series seems ... well, warmhearted, I suppose. By which I don't mean the bolted-on moment of sentimentality which afflicted the endings of episodes of the Carrot sitcom All About Me (it really wasn't very good). It's not afraid to have slightly downbeat endings. Is it unambitious? I suppose it is. Nothing ever really goes too wrong. The wife will never (I'm guessing) break free, nor the chicks leave the nest. And we know, for all his complaining, Arthur doesn't really want it any other way. But I find myself enjoying the playing out of these small tensions. No Place Like Home isn't groundbreaking. But it is very well made, with small incidents mined to the full. I don't know Jon Watkins' other work, and perhaps I'll explore it after this. 


Postscript: 

Watched another episode tonight, centering around the idea of a curfew and found myself laughing out loud at the moment where, for reasons which need not detain us here, the various offspring set off in cars in the middle of the night and bumped into each other. 

That oughtn't to be terribly funny, but I think I was responding to a rhythm, a pace - a music, one may as well say. Judged coldly on the page individual lines might, I imagine, fall a little flat, but onscreen it's all so engaging. It's a sitcom which doesn't set its sights too high and yet ... it's polished entertainment, for one thing. It doesn't feel "Beneltoned" - a term coined by Richard Herring meaning underwritten. Candyfloss light the situations may be but there is ... I dunno, something which makes me want to surrender, and I can only put it down to the musical thing: an act of hypnotism akin to the experience of seeing (and hearing) the Master Musicians of Joujouka at the Royal Festival Hall.

Anyways, I shall stick with it and report back if my feelings change. 



Further thoughts here.
Further further thoughts here.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

CHRISTMAS QUIZ 2014

Hello, and welcome to my fifth annual Christmas Quiz.

This year, there is a difference. No, the questions have not been dumbed down but after a considerable number of complaints from contestants there are less of the convoluted Round Britain Quiz type questions. This does not mean the questions are any easier. DARE you try it?

Remember it's only a bit of fun. Answers will be posted in three days' time. 


[update: there is now a link to answers at the end]


1. Which troubadour proclaimed: "Love is hot, truth is Motown"?

2. What do these hits have in common; "Well I Ask You", "Breakfast on Pluto" and "I Am a Cathedral" ?

3. She was a well-known female folk singer in the late 1960s and recorded an album track/B-side entitled Fields of Sand. Who was she ?


4. Who are the illiterates:
 

"He never ever learnt to read or write so well / But he could play a guitar"

"Talking on the phone is not my speed, / Don't send me no letters cause I can't read"


"All the words of hurt unfold / For within my heart is the power of gold"

5. Who are the wrappers:

"I will bring you happiness, / Wrapped up in a box and tied with a yellow bow"
 

"Save the girls upstairs for later ... Wrap them up in Christmas paper"
 

"In mute and glorious cellophane / His body struts on the azure possibly 'astral'] plain"

6. Complete the title by Katz Singing Orchestral Circus: Quick Joey ...

7. What connects the leaders of the Midnighters and the Dreamers?

8. What links Liza Minnelli to the doo wop hit Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight?

9. Who wrote the theme to the film version of Porridge?

10. Who wrote the theme to the film of Till Death Us Do Part?

11. Carlene Fisher recorded an answer record entitled Alright, I Won't Take My Love to Town, Don't Go On About It. Name the original song.

12. Who wrote the musical "Oliver" as well as Cliff Richard's hit "Living Doll"?

13. Although he never had a number 1 hit, Billy Fury reached the top 3 on four occasions; name ONE of those four songs.

14. In Cliff's early tours his roadie was one Andy More. Why was he nicknamed "Love"?

15. Who did Lulu pinch Shout! from?

16. He's Very Good With His Hands. Name the composer of this obscurity.

17. Identify these canine ditties:

"Solving crime's his asset, / Which ain't too bad for a long-eared bassett"

"Old MacDonald he made us work / But he paid us for what it was worth"

"I turned around to solve this mystery / And who d'ya think was sittin' next to me?"

18. They say you shouldn't mix your drinks or drink and drive, but why do Bonaparte Shandy, Cherry Cola and unmarked cars belong together?

19. What links Happiness Is a Warm Gun, A Day in the Life and Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner?

20. What links Charlie Drake, Elia Kazan and "Auntie" Jean Morton?



Update 28th December: Answers here. Good luck and Merry Christmas!



Monday, 22 December 2014

Days of 49


It's called "49ing" or "bridging" (the former alludes to The 49th Street Bridge Song aka Feelin' Groovy) and it is, at least according to an article I read, the latest craze for music fans of a certain age - usually male. It's very simple, but has really taken hold now that just about everyone has a microphone of sorts connected to their PC for skyping etc.

The idea is that you improvise a deliberately portentous speech over the instrumental section of a favourite track, rather as the Ink Spots and some of their successors in the doo wop age did. But the trick is to produce something that the listener can - sort of - believe just might have been on the original recording, so some kind of digest of the sentiments of the song lyrics (allied to an ability to ape the spoken tones of the original vocalist) seems to work best.

Most of the efforts I've heard seem to work in one of two ways, though there is some overlap. On rare occasions the spoken bit really does seem to encapsulate the song, a bit like the old-fashioned introductory verses in those pre rock'n'roll songs. 


More usually, however, the effect is to point up the limitations of the original lyricists, so it can feel a bit smug and superior. At best, however, it's done with affection, and I have read comments on forums which suggest that the act of searching for appropriate songs has given some "49ers" fresh interest in their collections.

Not all songs lend themselves to this cheerful defacing. David Bowie's After All (from The Man Who Sold the World) seems to have become a bit of a favourite already, for some reason - maybe because the hint of Kurt Weill in the arrangement means that a spoken section feels a logical step. Anyway, here it is (sans speech if you don't count Bowie's vocal) if you want to have a try yourself.


Already I have seen suggestions on forums that it's all a bit Mojo Magazine-ish, a bit clever-clever by middle-aged males who have forgotten what it means to be moved by music. Maybe so, but anything that sends people back to their old records, searching for something in them they haven't heard before, seems like a good thing to me. 

And maybe it's good not to be too precious about one's music. The recordings are hardy enough to withstand a bit of sonic doodling - and if they're not, well, maybe it's good to recognise that too. 

The musical interlude on After All starts about 1' 56'' in: 

 

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sam Cooke documentaries on BBC Radio 2


[screengrab]

I don't know whether they are connected but there are two Sam Cooke documentaries on BBC Radio 2 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death. The first, (Don't Fight It) Feel It: the Sam Cooke Story, was broadcast on Tuesday and is now available on BBC iplayer here - I'm presuming in America too. It will be accessible for four weeks.

The second programme, The Shooting of Sam Cooke, will be broadcast next Tuesday and available on iplayer here shortly afterwards - the page is worth visiting beforehand as it suggests original research:
With the help of a private detective, Dotun Adebayo examines the never-before-aired coroner's report, searching for signs of foul play, and scrutinises testimonials. He interviews key witnesses, like Grammy-winning record producer Al Schmitt, who was the last person to see Sam alive, and speaks to Sam's living relatives. Dotun takes a magnifying glass to the events of that fateful night, with the intent to unravel what really happened.
Is there really more to be uncovered beyond speculation? We shall see.  Meanwhile, here is a guide to posts on this blog about Sam Cooke:

The Elusive Man and His Accessible Music
Discusses Peter Guralnick's biography Dream Boogie, the CD box set of Specialty Recordings and A City Called Glory, the BBC radio play by Neil McKay.

Waxing/waning crescent moon (Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers) 
Discussion of the Specialty gospel sides with audio clips.

Ben E King at Jazz Cafe and repost of Stand By Me
A comprehensive account of the origins of Ben E King's Stand By Me, including a discussion of Cooke's Stand By Me Father and Tindley's gospel original.

Don't Stand So Close By Me
A Junior Parker song closely modelled on Cooke's Stand By Me Father plus other examples of musical "borrowing."

Whatever happened to ... the Sam Cooke biopic?
Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais talk about their rejected film treatment.
 

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Review of Hancock's Ashes, BBC Radio 4


I have just listened to Hancock's Ashes, an Afternoon Drama written by Caroline and David Stafford which is currently Radio 4's Play of the Week. It's very well done: there's a narrowness of focus which means the story is perfectly suited to the forty five minute slot. I wonder, in fact, if it has its origins on the stage, as it all takes place in one location, and despite a few offstage murmurs is essentially a duologue between Willie Rushton (Ewan Bailey) and an Australian customs official (Richard Dillane), adamant that the eponymous remains which Rushton wants to take back to England must travel in the hold of the plane. On the other hand, I suppose you could say it's a perfect chamber piece for radio.

Without going into too much detail, as that would ruin the surprise of the piece's twists and turns along the way, the play quickly establishes itself as a battle of wits, the official claiming he doesn't have a TV and isn't interested in the news, so despite the headlines about his recent suicide "Mr Hancock" is an unknown quantity to him. Surely unlikely, but you need that for the play to work: always put more pressure on the protagonist, as they say, and it means the Rushton character really has to struggle to state his case and woo this Antipodean jobsworth entirely lacking in residual fondness for the great comedian.

Outlined as it is above, this could have turned out as a kind of playwriting by numbers, so all credit to the writers, Caroline and David Stafford, for creating someone who seems a worthy foeman for Rushton - again, I can't say more without spoiling it. And the play wittily exposes the problem of trying to explain Hancock's appeal to someone who hasn't seen him. After all, there are no real gags you can quote, and how do you describe one of those facial expressions? I seem to remember that at some point even Roger Wilmut (in his book Tony Hancock: "Artiste") had to fall back on saying: "He was funny because he was funny." And I remember an acquaintance at art school, of a vintage to have the programmes when they originally came out, saying that he and his friends would turn the sound down, just to watch that wonderfully mobile face.

But if you're not a Hanock nut, don't worry. The play isn't concerned with making a detailed case for Hancock in order to convert non-believers. In fact it doesn't really depend on any knowledge of the comedian at all - nor, indeed, of Willie Rushton - to be enjoyed. Those who are familiar with both men may remember a particular connection between them, which is employed to very good effect in the play, but the piece can be enjoyed simply as a culture clash: Rushton's role as satirist and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam war are also woven into the narrative.

Hancock's Ashes is such a great idea that I can't help wondering why no one has thought of it before - but (as with a radio play about Stan Laurel, similarly narrow in focus, reviewed here) it's also very well executed. I should also make clear that it isn't simply a talk piece: there is enough in the way of narrative suspense to hold an audience. And if it's possible to make a reasonable guess at the story's eventual outcome - it's Radio 4 in the afternoon, not Radio 3 on a Sunday night or the late lamented Friday evening slot on 4 - there are pleasing surprises en route.

And if it is, as I suppose, an intentional nod towards the typical Hancock situation - the Lad coming up against a petty-minded authority figure - then, for reasons I can't go into without spoiling your enjoyment, it's very satisfying that Willie Rushton should be his representative on this occasion.



Hancock's Ashes, by Caroline and David Stafford, can be heard on the BBC page here for the next four weeks. (The page also has a link to the Drama of the Week podcast where I presume it can be downloaded over the next week, at least.) 

Self-promotional bit: I am the cowriter of Funny Bones: My Life in Comedy by veteran comedian Freddie "Parrotface" Davies - details here. Freddie appeared with Tony Hancock on The Blackpool Show in 1966. The above is a screengrab but you can see a clip, introduced by Hancock, here.


Hancock biographer John Fisher has written about Funny Bones here.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Praise from John Fisher


There is now a dedicated blog for Funny Bones, the autobiography of comedy legend Freddie Davies what I cowrote, but I can't resist posting some wonderful words of praise from John Fisher in this blog as well.

John, if you don't know, is the author of Funny Way to Be a Hero and producer of the related TV series Heroes of Comedy. He has also written biographies of Tommy Cooper and Tony Hancock. This is what he was kind enough to say:
I can’t get over how good Funny Bones is. Freddie Davies’ autobiography, co-written with Anthony Teague, is unquestionably one of the most honest and illuminating books I have read about the practice of comedy, never losing sight of the pressures and insecurities of a job that is prone to more ups and downs than a roller coaster. Along the way it provides fresh insights into other comedy greats, not least Sid Field, Sir Norman Wisdom, Frankie Howerd, Jerry Lewis, George Carl, Charlie Drake and Davies’ ostensible grandfather, the underrated revue comic Jack Herbert, who was a major influence on Field. It also vividly evokes the hollow shabbiness of so much of the late twentieth century British show business scene in that period betwixt the Beatles and Blur. In every way, a cornerstone of its genre. 


                                               John Fisher, writer and producer

Buy Funny Bones here.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Jake Thackray and Songs DVD now out


For those who don't yet know and would benefit from knowing, I bear the happy news that a DVD of extracts from the series Jake Thackray and Songs has just been issued. I have ordered it but have not yet seen it. This is from the product description on am*zon:

At last Jake Thackray's legendary television series, 'Jake Thackray and Songs', is released on DVD, by arrangement with BBC Music. ....  'Jake Thackray and Songs', broadcast in 1981, captures him at the height of his powers; it paints an intimate portrait of Jake as a live artist, playing to audiences in the small venues where he felt most comfortable. This DVD features all of his performances from the series: thirty of his greatest songs, along with his inimitable between-songs chat and storytelling. Also included are previously unreleased performances by three outstanding guest artists: Ralph McTell, Alex Glasgow and Pete Scott. 
If you haven't read my posts relating to Jake Thackray, the main one is here followed by two related post which also discuss Ralph McTell here and here.

Looking at the Jake Thackray website, I see that a great deal of his TV output appears to have survived. No indication, alas, of the appearances on the show Tickertape which have stayed in my mind (in particular a song which may have been called Sophie and William), but I was glad to see this note:
THE CAMERA AND THE SONG
This is a half hour film with visuals by Philip Bonham-Carter (lots of countryside scenes to match up with the music) and music by Jake Thackray (very different versions of familiar songs featuring piano and brass band accompaniment). It was first broadcast on 28/12/73.

The songs are as follows: The Rain on the Mountainside The Brigadier The Poor Sod The Cenotaph Old Molly Metcalfe Country Bus Little Tommy Haverley 
I recall seeing it and really enjoying it. If you saw the documentary about Jake, you may have seen the performance of Kirkstall Road Girl with a light, jazzy arrangement very different from, and far superior to, the record. That, and many other recordings from the Bernard Braden era, have survived. Victor Lewis-Smith's original radio documentary, which led to the TV one, included a bit of audio from an edition of Braden's Week I recall watching at the time in which Jake, as it were, strung out his part, prompting Bernard Braden to congratulate him for getting eight minutes out of a three minute song. (The Thackray website page with details of surviving TV appearances is here.)

There is also a page of radio material. Sadly, it's long gone, but I used to have a reasonable off-air recording of the Pete Drummond show featuring The Jolly Captain, Sister Josephine and some others. I still remember some of Mr Drummond's patter after The Jolly Captain. This isn't precisely word for word, but fairly close. If you are familiar with song you will know (SPOILER ALERT) that the captain's wife is a "whey-faced old nagbag" and when she dies he promptly marries "an apple-cheeked girl". Warned that he has remarried too soon and that his first wife will come back to torment him:
She'll scratch and she'll claw her way up from the grave,
Hacking her way back again with furious fingernails ...
the captain replies: "I buried her face downward, she's a long way to go."

Mr Drummond then said something along the lines of: "Which reminds me, I was scrambling around Box Hill with my girlfriend the other day - well, not scrambling, I was genteelly walking - when I saw a grave which said so-and-so was buried here face downwards. He was an eccentric." Could this become the equivalent of the Eleanor Rigby gravestone in Woolton Parish Church? Will Box Hill similarly become part of a Jake Thackray landmarks tour? There's a page about that resident of Box Hill here.