Thursday, 14 October 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 14 (Alan Klein: corrections & clarifications)

Consider this post a Guardian-style Corrections and Clarifications column for earlier entries, as this is the first opportunity I've had to read the sleevenotes for the Well At Least Its British and New Vaudeville Band CDs.

Most of the information below, including direct quotations from Alan Klein, comes from these sources; Kieron Tyler and Mark Frumento are the respective writers.

First of all, the friend with whom Klein toured Europe before turning professional wasn't necessarily George Bellamy (above): Klein formed his "country and western duo" with Bellamy after the season at Butlins where the Tornado-in-waiting had been the guitarist with the Al Kline Five, though I suppose they could have been friends before that. And I note the pair played folk as well as country - which helps to explain the range of styles on Well At Least Its British:
Success seemed assured: appearances on the BBC's Saturday Club and billings with Alma Cogan and David Whitfield meant George and Alan [as the duo were called] were on their way.
But Klein eventually "had enough of interpreting the transatlantic sound and split from George," so it would seem that What a Crazy World was the result of his disenchantment with playing rock'n'roll at Butlins and country music with George Bellamy- plus a hefty dose of irritation with the charts:

Everything was so Americanised. All the hit records were covers of American songs.
Klein also worked on another project in between the film of What a Crazy World and Well At Least Its British: a version of the 50s stage musical Grab Me A Gondola, inspired by the real-life story of Diana Dors' 1955 publicity stunt at the 1955 Venice Film Festival, "floating down the Grand Canal in a gondola wearing a mink bikini":

Dors catching her death in Venice
"I spent a lot of time doing Grab Me a Gondola and was on wages," Alan says. "Then suddenly film musicals went dead. It was to do with a Cliff Richard one that didn't make any money [..] so the plug was pulled and that was the end of it."

I don't know whether he was adding new songs, working on the screenplay, or both, but one number from the original stage production, written by James Gilbert and Julian More, might well have appealed to someone jaded with American music: described in the review linked to above as "a rock'n'roll monstrosity," it makes Paddy Roberts' number for the titles of Violent Playground (here) seem straight out of Memphis: American and other readers who can't access spotify ought to be grateful that nothing will happen when they try to listen to Rockin' at the Cannon Ball here.

Regarding my earlier doubts about whether Well At Least Its British could be considered a concept album, it looks like Stephen T Erlewine got that right, at least: Klein makes it clear that when he did turn to Well At Least Its British ("my idea was still to do my own thing"), he was indeed thinking conceptually, right down to the conscious statement of the album cover:
They wanted to pretty you up for the cover. Decca weren't too pleased with it but I did insist on it as it was making the point. There were still [World War II] ruins in London. It was quite disgusting that you looked around and other cities in Europe were being rebuilt but London was still like this. No one was saying it's the load of crap I've grown up with, it's what I know.
But - as I was sort of groping towards - the concept is to be found in the general approach to songs, rather than adherence to a single style:
Thematically, Alan was concerned with an idea of the self that ran counter to the glossy, exaggerated characters propogated in pop. "The whole point was satirising," he explains."All the singers used to sing with rock bands about the guy who would do it, be certain, the big guy. But my songs are 'I might be, maybe I will, maybe I won't.' All the songs around at that time were too definite. It was my reaction against being the big hero." That sense of a lack of commitment is to the fore in I'll See You Around and explored in the reflective Big Talk From A Little Man.
Have to admit, however, I'm slightly puzzled when Klein says
The Birds and Bees was as cynical as I could be at the time. You really had to work on your lyrics to get things across.
But maybe I've been put off by what seems to me a rather on-the-nose arrangement which shouts "comedy song."

That slight misfire apart, however, the arrangements serve the songs well: Tyler's notes inform us that the players were seasoned pop musicians to help with the "gentle subversion," including Big Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page, the latter "particularly prominent on First Taste of the Blues," so his must be the Scotty Moore role.

The musical director was Les Reed, using the pseudonym Mark David. The players drew from Carter-Lewis and the Southerners [above, including Page] - John Carter, Perry Ford and Ken Lewis were on backing vocals. 
Tyler also says that:
Although As Long As You Love Me A Little sported a country lilt, it remained British, like the songs Alan had written for Joe Brown.
which I presume to be a reference to the consistency of that diffident, "British" sensibility which permeates the collection:
"The whole thing was conceived as an album," notes Alan. "I can't remember anything else going before it like that, or with a front cover that didn't glorify yourself. I didn't go around consciously thinking this is a concept album, you just did it."
He fills in a little more about Decca's lack of promotion:
Decca would issue a lot of American hits but they didn't know what I was all about. I have no idea why they spent money on it and then didn't do anything with it! I was disappointed, it got a couple of reviews but that was it [...] With the Rolling Stones around at the time, who were Decca going [to] promote? Not me!
Klein's later Parlophone single, It Ain't Worth the Lonely Road Back, is described by Tyler as "a pretty straight country-leaning song"; the only other details to note are that his version had the Ivy League as backing singers and the cover by the Pozo Seco Singers (on a youtube clip at the very end of post 11) featured a young Don Williams.

Suddenly there's a Vallee ...

Of the New Vaudeville Band, Klein is quoted as saying:
I thought I'd go along for the ride, see what being a pop star was like. I did that for a couple of years and then went into the theatre.
He seems to have enjoyed it along the way, as photographs reproduced in earlier posts (and above) suggest. Perhaps a little too much, as another band member, Henri Harrison, says:
Alan really played it up. At one point some people really thought he was an earl. 
Wish I'd been there when he was introduced to members of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Canada.

Mark Frumento's sleevenotes casts some doubt on the famed Bonzos controversy, although nothing seems definite. The key points are that neither Bob Kerr nor Henri Harrison can confirm the Bonzos were invited to join the New Vaudeville Band, even though Neil Innes is on record as having said this in Alan Clayson's book Beat Merchants. And while Bob Kerr admits he may have brought aspects of the Bonzos' stage act to the New Vaudeville Band he says he brought ideas to the Bonzos too.

Regarding the word balloon biz, band member Henri Harrison says
We used some of the same props as the Bonzos but those props weren't anything new for comedy bands when the Bonzos started using them. 
And it's Bob Kerr's opinion that Vivian Stanshall's claims about the New Vaudeville Band stealing the Bonzos' act were partly about trying to get publicity for his own group, especially as the New Vaudeville Band had had chart success so were stars in comparison.

Toodle Pip, Old Bean

There doesn't seem much point in following this controversy further, although I will say that a eulogy to Stanshall in Mojo magazine (with the above photo as the main cover image) had several interviewees emphasising Stanshall's ambition, and it's my impression that side of his character was downplayed in the later biography Ginger Geezer.

But with Kerr part of the briefly reunited Bonzos (above), and still leading his own Whoopee Band,
... all's closed now, despite Time's derision.     
In addition to the later collaborations with Ken Hill mentioned in the previous post, leafing through a Lionel Bart biography I found brief details of one other Stratford East production written, as far as I can tell, by Alan Klein and Frank Norman, with the addition of some songs by Lionel Bart.

Costa Packet, starring Avis Bunnage, who played Mrs Hitchens in the stage and screen versions of What a Crazy World (she also created the role of the mother in A Taste of Honey) ran from 7th October to 15th December 1972. Ken Hill featured in an acting role. Bart's songs, among the last he wrote, have been dubbed "unmemorable" by Michael Coveney in an article on Bart's life here. It was also Joan Littlewood's last ever show at Stratford East.

However sad the circumstances, mention of Lionel Bart and Frank Norman takes us full circle, as the success of Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be in 1959 may have encouraged Gerry Raffles to take a punt on an untried songwriter who was also interested in portraying a more realistic London.

Which - for this post, at least - only leaves us with The Bowie Question. This is what the sleevenotes have to say:

Alan is certain that Well At Least Its British had an impact on Bowie, his style, musical direction and general approach. Anthony Newley was acknowledged as an influence but Alan was never mentioned. "Although I never met David Bowie, I knew about him because Ken was always saying, 'you've got to hear this.' I know my stuff was an influence on Bowie, of course he heard Well At Least Its British."
Which, short of a comment at this late stage from Bowie himself, may be as far as we're ever likely to get on the matter.

As to why David Bowie should choose to acknowledge one influence and not another, a cynical response would be that he didn't have much choice in the matter of Newley: listen to a few bars of any song on the Deram album.

But could he have reasoned that borrowing someone else's vocal style was less damaging a thing to admit to  than adopting of someone else's attitude? Just an impish - or gnomic - thought.

On the Ray Davies front, Striped Purple Shirt is described by Kieron Tyler as "an amazingly prescient forerunner" of Dedicated Follower of Fashion with an element of self parody: Klein is quoted at the time as saying it "takes the mickey out of clobber blokes like me."

He does look distinctly moddish in some pre-Tristram 60s photographs like the one below. The original caption reads: "Author against background. Alan Klein goes back to the world which inspired his song."

As mentioned in an earlier post, Dedicated Follower of Fashion sounds musically similar to What a Crazy World: not a huge leap to imagine George Formby tackling either.

Which set me thinking: what was it about those Formby-style chords which made Alan Klein see them as more suitable for English content?

And could Lonnie Donegan be a possible bridge between Formby and Klein, especially as Klein has said somewhere that Donegan was more of a role model for him than Lionel Bart? Not sure, especially as that remark may well have referred to his generation's discovery of American music via Donegan.

But I then thought of two Donegan hits before What a Crazy World which, to my ears, were music hall-sounding: Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour and My Old Man's a Dustman ... but these are both 20s American songs.

I phoned a friend who's a Donegan fanatic for possible elucidation; he didn't see anything music hall-ish about his idol and was able to confirm that Donegan's interest stayed with American music. Though I suppose even if My Old Man's a Dustman did have Formby elements it wouldn't take away from Klein's innovation: biting satire it certainly ain't. (As I write, the line in the Kinks' Sitting in My Hotel about "two-tone daisy roots" comes to mind, but I swat it from me as one diversion too many for this post.)

 Anyway, he obligingly listened to a few Formby tracks as we spoke. Interestingly, he thought the backing wasn't that different from American big bands of the time.

 But regarding Formby's delivery and the songs themselves (written by composers such as Fred E Cliffe, above, who worked closely with Formby), between us we came to the conclusion that rock/blues tends to be repetitious lyrically whereas with Formby's style more words, and therefore a more detailed narrative, could be crammed in. And Formby's vocal style was self-effacing: delivering a story safely rather than drawing attention to the manner of the delivery.

Which is where I think I'll leave it for today. Not sure how much more there might be to say, although I hope I may be able to get some more information to fill out the gaps in Alan Klein's career. Again, I would appeal to those who might be able to offer further corrections, clarification or additions to get in touch. It seems a great pity to me that there is so little about Alan Klein's career online.

Postscript, June 2011:

I subsequently asked the members of the Mudcat Cafe forum about the song What a Crazy World and recently realised I hadn't included it in the blog. You can read the whole thread, from October 2010, here or an abridged version below:


Alan Klein has said that the song came about after he'd had enough of playing American rock'n'roll and country music professionally and wanted to write his own songs about what he was seeing around him. But the important point is he says he found the twelve bar blues sequence wouldn't fit what he wanted to say and he turned to "ukelele chords, George Formby-type chord sequences" for that song.

As far as I can work it out, the difference between the two forms is that rock/blues tends to be more repetitious lyrically whereas with Formby's style more words, and therefore a more detailed narrative, can be crammed in. And Formby's vocal style is self-effacing, delivering a story, not drawing attention to the manner of its delivery.

But my specific question is how much of an innovation did Klein's song represent - was there anyone else doing something similar in the interim? Are Lonnie Donegan's two big comedy songs, Does Your Chewing Gum ... and My Old Man's a Dustman comparable?

Will Fly:

The comedic songs that were performed by Joe Brown and Lonnie Donegan, like George Formby's songs, were really (IMO) a throwback to the Victorian and Edwardian music hall. They didn't break new ground, musically, though they were indeed very different from the rock'n roll output of the time.

I'd take issue with you about Formby's vocal style. I think it was purposely droll and mannered to bring out the (mainly) innuendo in the words. In fact I think it was right up front and in your face - but that's just a personal opinion.


Perhaps what I should have said is Formby's singing seems at the service of the songs: he's not, like a rock'n'roll, jazz or soul singer, producing vocal flourishes which might draw attention away from the narrative.

Alan Klein has been upfront about borrowing from Formby so it may be that the only innovation is in the lyrical content, describing the London of that time from the point of view of a working class youth.

But I'm not a musician so what I'm trying to determine is whether Alan Klein was the first person of that generation to see the potential in using Formby-type chord sequences for the rock'n'roll/pop audience. In other words, are Lonnie Donegan's two big comedy songs (which predate What a Crazy World) comparable, stylistically, to Formby, as they come from American roots?

Cpt Colin:

I see what you mean Pismotality and I think the answer is no. That cliched chord sequence was very common in the thirties and offhand I can't think of examples of it being revived, with Formby-like narrative lyrics, in the rock and roll era until Crazy World- although of course I don't quite know everything. "Dustman" (although actually a very old song) is musically much more basic and not comparable in any way whatsoever. I suppose Crazy World had some very vague stylistic similarities to "Chewing Gum" but that was a 1930s song anyway, if not earlier, and I can't imagine that it was in Klein's mind when he wrote "Crazy World". So although Klein copied a genre I don't think he copied the idea of copying a genre. I don't know whether that helps but hope so.


Yes, that does help, thank you - so the idea of borrowing that form at that time was new, and the directness of the lyrics certainly was.

Cpt. Colin:

Klein came up with an outstanding song there, and a rather unusual construction in having no middle eight (hence the key change at the end to compensate presumably)- it still sounds good today. He's always been a mini-hero to me - more so now that I know he reacted against Americanisation - and a rather mysterious figure.

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