Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 2 (Anthony Newley, Alan Klein)

More thoughts and connections suggested themselves after I finished the previous entry.  My own fault, I suppose, for picking up Spencer Leigh's book (below) again. But it is a very enjoyable read.  Drawing on interviews with over a hundred musicians for a radio series, the story of the early days of British pop is told almost entirely through the words of the musicicans involved, and there is a mass of detail which I haven't read elsewhere. Apart from a few chapters in individual artists it's arranged by theme - US stars on tour, novelty records, early British idols (including Anthony Newley), skiffle, TV programmes, the trad boom, etc.

In between each chapter there are a few pages of archive music paper cuttings, allowing you to see less than overwhelmed initial responses to records - did you know, for example, that Love Me Do "tends to drag about mid-way, especially when the harmonica takes over for a spell"? Glad I wasn't within Lennon's orbit when that little pronouncement appeared.

Another cutting announces that Stanley "Scruffy" Dale (a devious character known to me from Graham McCann's biography of Frankie Howerd) is the new manager of Johnny Kidd and that "this should get the 'Kidd' really going places."; in the main text one of Leigh's interviewees angrily laments the way the trusting Kidd was duped by his management.

Quotations are numbered, so it's very easy to use the index of contributors to focus in on individuals such as Newley (the book was first published in 1996) and Ken Pitt. You can buy it directly from the author's website, here, rather more cheaply than through a well-known shopping website. It's not a lavish volume but it is packed with fascinating comments from a whole herd of horses' mouths.

I've already mentioned my surprise on learning from the book that Ken Pitt, Bowie's early manager, was involved in Anthony Newley's management. Going systematically through all the the contributions from Pitt and Newley has yielded further information. The difference between Anthony Newley (above, on location for Jazz Boat, 1960) and performers who "came out of that rock'n'roll chain" is spelt out by the man himself.

For Newley, his acting background meant
I could afford to be silly and they couldn't. The whole rock'n'roll thing was so desperately serious and it all came from America but I sounded like a Cockney kid who was having a good time.

Re his reheated hit Why?, Newley's own attitude, as expressed to Spencer Leigh, seems a mix of pride in craftsmanship and a kind of contempt, further explaining that sense of distance which makes his recordings interesting:
I thought Why? was charming. We worked very hard to get me sounding as innocuous as the original American performance. Frankie Avalon was one of those watered-down teenagers who sang as if he'd only had lessons in potty training. The trick was to get Newley as simple as that and I think, to my credit, we succeeded.
Note the reference to himself - persona? product? - in the third person.

No Young Americans-type ambiguity,  however, about another song covered because of "company policy." And the Heavens Cried: "was by a black singer," Newley tells Leigh, "and I've never been able to cover black music effectively, and I think the most generous of my fans would agree with me."

You can hear what I presume is the original version, by Ronnie Savoy, here. Not exactly what I'd call soulful - or only in the sense that the 50s Platters were soulful - even if the vocal does seem carry rather more conviction than Newley's.

In fairness, it sounds a pig of a song to pull off, what with that gimmicky petulant crying sound seemingly built in to both the vocal and instrumental arrangement. It wasn't written by Savoy, apparently a "quite prolific songster" himself. Find info about him and his brother here; they were associated with a Detroit record label called Golden World and a doo wop group called the Nitecaps. There are also a handful of later, more soulful, sides findable on youtube. Oh, and Newley's version of And the Heavens Cried is here

Even if it many not have been a characteristic song for the English star, I couldn't resist a bit of a search for the composers, Gwynn Elias and Irving Reid. I haven't been able to find out much, though the fact that Reid's name comes up linked to various other writers for several fifties songs suggests Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building origins. Another composition on which Reid is credited (along with Vic Abrams) also bears the name of "Moishe", otherwise, according to this site, the notorious Morris Levy ... but that is a whole 'nother story which would defeat compression here.

The 1962 number below, which Newley cowrote with Leslie Bricusse, sounds much more like something the young Bowie might have cottoned onto. Like The Laughing Gnome, this could become extremely tiresome; luckily I only heard it for the first time a few weeks ago. He and Bricusse even find time to send up their own hit:

 Incidentally, Newley makes no mention in the Spencer Leigh book of his ever being sent a copy of Bowie's first LP. He does claim, however, that at some point he wrote and thanked Bowie for crediting him in the press as an influence "but I never got an answer!" so who knows the truth of it?

 It's a while since I've read The Pitt Report, Ken Pitt's account of Bowie's early days, but it's definitely worth investigating. There is a strong sense of Pitt caring as much as Brian Epstein did about his charges, taking each setback as a personal defeat. Did Pitt actively encourage Bowie towards those comic songs? It does seem difficult to imagine someone with roots in fifties showbiz readily embracing the darker humour of a song like We Are Hungry Men, with its references to "legalising mass abortion" and turning "a blind eye to infanticide."

Against that, Pitt had also been the manager of Alan Klein, someone who might well have been another influence on Bowie's early writing. No, not the Tony de Fries of his day but a quirky English songwriter who wrote What a Crazy World for Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, later made into a film with pop stars Marty Wilde, Joe Brown and Susan Maughan (below) and who later released a solo album entitled Well At Least Its British [sic]. I haven't yet heard the album, but it seems "His style of delivery was very distinctive, not unlike contemporary Anthony Newley."

I am familiar with the film, which I last saw a couple of years ago. Coming across the above poster for its original 1963 release seemed to confirm the impression I retained that the the stage production had been watered down for the screen with pop hits of the day, but looking through the sleevenotes for a CD release the only outside material seems to have been Freddie and the Dreamers' cover of Short Shorts - complete with multiple debaggings - and a twistified Camptown Races, both in the context of a concert, so not interfering with the rest of the action.

Four new songs were penned by Klein himself for the picture - though of course it's possible they may have replaced less acceptable theatre material. Sally Ann, sung by Freddie and the Dreamers in the film, and later recorded by Brown, is certainly innocuous.

Another newly composed Klein song, Independence, is a charmer. Joe Brown's character, unemployed, visits music mecca Denmark Street in the hope of breaking into the business. He bumps into some pals who have gained honest employment nearby.


 Some passing musos (plausibly enough, given the locale), hear Brown's friends hymning the advantages of honest graft and obligingly improvise an accompaniment on what comes to hand, including the railings around a church and the workmen's ladder.

So this isn't the magical transformation of the train scene in Hard Day's Night (1964) where the Beatles suddenly have guitars, although there is something magical, nevertheless, in the nearby presence of a benevolence-radiating barrel organist, likewise happy in his work, not to mention the choric figure of Michael Ripper who appears in various guises throughout the film.

 I can't find a clip of this scene on youtube, so the above lobby card and screengrabs will have to suffice. The church in the background is St Giles-in-the-Fields.

If you are drawn to Bowie's early work you will find a lot to enjoy in this film. I want to say it's heavier on the social commentary than the whimsy, but "heavy" doesn't seem the right term.

Even a song which touches on immigration ends with the local layabouts goodhumouredly deciding to look for work as it's now taking too long to draw the dole on a Friday because of increased numbers. There's no hostility displayed towards the newcomers, only amusement at the flustered clerk (Michael Ripper again). It's one of the few numbers from the film currently available on youtube. (Wilde is on the left and Klein himself on the right in the above image.)

Regarding the sense of the music being watered down I may have been responding to the performance of Susan Maughan, who doesn't really seem to fit in this moderately gritty tale. Klein himself says in the CD notes:
She just wasn't right. They wanted current pop stars.
You can make up your own mind with a clip of Maughan singing in the film here. Penned by Klein or not, it sounds like a generic ballad of the sort which could be inserted into any pop vehicle at random - and there is no interaction with other characters.

Klein does praise Marty Wilde's performance in the film, however. And Brown wasn't a pop star transplanted into a theatre success to ensure cinema sales: he had been approached to play the lead onstage but had touring commitments (which, if his manager at the time was still Larry Parnes, notorious for working his stable, would undoubtedly have been considerable: at one point, according to Brown's own account in Halfway to Paradise, he worked for three years without a single day off, prompting a nervous breakdown and the  grudging gift of six days to recuperate).

In the BFI publication Celluloid Jukebox media expert Andy Medhurst (well, he once described Noel Edmunds as "Airfix man in excelcis," which'll ding-dang-do for me) contributes a chapter entitled It sort of happened here: the strange, brief life of the British pop film. He singles out What a Crazy World as one of the few pop films of the period with a specific sense of place and roots, drawing on music hall antecedents in its light-hearted social commentary:

Wilde plays a tearaway, Brown a would-be singer whose family have no interest or belief in him. Even at the conclusion when he brings home tangible proof of his achievement in the form of a 45, the family are more interested in continuing their usual argy-bargy than lending an ear - even though the song is no rehash of things American but a withering account of their home life:
Dad's gone down the dog track, Mother's playin' bingo
Granny's boozing' in the parlour, you ought to see the gin go
No one seems to notice me, isn't it a sin
What a crazy world we're livin' in
Klein's solo album has recently been made available on CD along with some other recordings - details on the RPM Records website, here.

Interesting to note on the website that Damon Albarn, famously partial to the Kinks, cites Klein as an influence, adding: "I can’t believe that David Bowie didn’t know him inside out, and the same with Ray Davies."

The soundtrack CD of What a Crazy World was issued on the Castle label in 2001 and still easy to get hold of cheaply via a well-known shopping website - although it sounds like the numbers were rerecorded for album release. To see more than the odd clip of the film you may have to resort to a well-known auction site to obtain a DVD of questionable provenance. Alternatively, videobeat is a good and reliable place to buy an extensive range of obscure pop-related films. They're not that cheap, but the discs often include interesting extras.

So what became of Alan Klein? His wikipedia page, here, indicates that in addition to his solo work he wrote a fair numbers of songs for other people in the 60s - though as they included such rebels as Donald Peers and the Bachelors it would be reasonable to assume he saved the satire for his own recordings.

I don't know how successful or otherwise Klein's own album was at the time - it took until 2008 for a CD release - but he did have an odd sort of pop success later, as lead singer of the New Vaudeville Band. The group was created essentially to service Geoff Stephens' Winchester Cathedral, already recorded by session men, although Klein did collaborated with Stephens on at least one follow-up hit, Finchley Central.

Not a proto-Ziggy, exactly, but he did perform in character as  "Tristram- Seventh Earl Of Cricklewood," looking, in the above detail from a group photograph, like a svelter Oscar Wilde. And certainly at an ironic remove from the material, whether penned by himself or Stephens, as it was a 20s pastiche of the sort popularised a few years earlier by the Temperance Seven, complete with Rudy Valee-style megaphone on occasion..
Various sites suggest that the touring version of the New Vaudeville Band which included Klein only lasted for a couple of years - they had at least four hits in the New Temperance Seven vein - but a debased version of the band certainly continued to earn money, at least in the UK. I have vague memories of seeing them around the mid seventies on something like the Wheeltappers and Shunters Club in cabaret mode. The high spot of their act seemed to be a version of the Morecambe and Wise signature tune with the lyrics reworked as:
Make me happy
Through the years -
Never bring me
Any queers
Even though Eric Morecambe once opined that "Life isn't Hollywood, it's Cricklewood," the Earl would, I trust, have made a discreet exit long before then: certainly his wikipedia page suggests he was recording solo again by 1969. As far as I know he is still alive and he contributed, as I said, to the notes for the CD release of What a Crazy World in 2001.

Let's end with an example of Klein-as-Tristram's louche performing style in this 1966 TV clip, selling a version of Englishness to the Americans - unfortunately there are no Top of the Pops clips, which is how I remember him. It's Klein who sings - or rather lipsynchs, throwing a further set of inverted commas around the whole enterprise - the first number, Peek-a-boo.

The US chart placings of follow-ups to Winchester Cathedral, viewable here, suggests that British audiences were ultimately more partial - for at least a little longer - to the parochial subject matter of those songs: Green Street Green was a bit of a stretch from Carnaby Street, despite Klein (or Stephens') assurance that "everything is kinda groovy here."

In fact, I had no real idea where it was until I happened upon The London Nobody Sings, here, a blog dedicated to songs about London, which tells me that Green Street Green is technically part of the London Borough of Bromley ...

... where one David Robert Jones (middle row, far left) spent his early years. And spookily, it's as though the song conjures up then offers advice to the young, suburb-bound Bowie, if part of the lyric is considered alongside a quotation from David Buckley's Strange Fascination:
Green Street Green,
Get yourself a little scene ...

To live in the suburbs convyed [...] an element of being the outsider looking in, and Bowie's whole career is a macrocosm of this search to be other, married to this desire to be part of a scene 
Belted earl and a beltin' prophet? Now that's jazz.

Part Three
Guide to Gnome Thoughts series

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