Sunday, 24 October 2010

Gnome Thoughts ... 19 (Reasons to be Cheerful, Lipstick on Your Collar, Joe Brown)

Further musical connections, presented in more fragmentary a form than usual; an explanation will be furnished for the above image in due course.

Engaged in the happy task of buying books for work for work on Thursday, I chanced upon a tome entitled Desert Island Lists. Yup, it did what it said on the tin: several decades' worth of the choices made by Plomley's guests.

On the offchance, I skimmed the index for Alan Klein: nope.

But Lionel Bart was there, and one of his choices was ... Peter Seller's Lonnie Donegan-style rendition of Any Old Iron.

Did that collision of things American and English - skiffle and music hall - help inspire Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be? Listening to it again (post 15, here), it rocks, however comical the intent. Which brings to mind Dave Marsh's summary of the Diamonds' cover of Little Darling (quoted way back in the Doowop Dialog[ue] here): a recording "as exciting as it is insincere."

On Friday I saw Reasons to Be Cheerful (above), a new musical featuring the songs of Ian Dury, at Theatre Royal, Stratford East - yes, the very same stage where the Fings ... mob and Alan Klein's characters in What a Crazy World first strutted their stuff. I'm not going to give a detailed review of it here except to say that it was a joyous occasion: the theatre is the right size to make musicals seem intimate, not overpowering.

It was written by Paul Sirett, also a benign overseer of proceedings as guitarist in the onstage band. hat interested me, and what I can't quite work out, is why it was so good - and I don't mean to be insulting to Paul, to whom I, like many others, have reasons to be grateful.

The story was a fairly simple one: the mission to get tickets for an Ian Dury gig - and how, as the publicity says, "events take a surprising turn." But I suppose the point was you wanted to be with the characters, you were given enough information to care about them, and the songs seemed inserted at the right moments, heightening the action: a jukebox musical it wasn't, in other words, even though Dury's biggest hits were used.

At one point the convention was playfully overturned when one of the characters said why shouldn't a certain song be inserted, and lo, it was. There was also a framing device, so that we were watching characters put on a fringe theatre show in a pub, which also helped keep us away from the unreality of a big West End production, and the fact that the show was being signed (it's a coproduction with disabled-led theatre company Graeae) and that characters who were onlookers participated so vigorously in the songs (the mother, played by Karen Spicer, above, was really going for it) accentuated the idea of a communal event that embraced the audience.

The best illustration of how the songs were used was the way in which the opportunity for a mawkish onstage death scene was resisted. It's not clear whether or not a certain character died on the night of the action, but a certain song, coming when it did, was enough to tell us what the protagonist felt about it when it did come, which was all we needed to know. (Pismotality is a fully accredited spoiler-sensitive blogger - remember, always look for the logo.)

So go to see it if you can - it runs to 13th November Tuesday-Saturday (details here). Paul Sirett collaborated with Ray Davies on the musical Come Dancing, which also played at Stratford East a couple of years ago. It's set at the time big bands in local dance halls were giving way to rock'n'roll:

 The snippets of song in the sizzle reel above only hint at the cumulative effect of the show: I remember, in particular, a song which suddenly stilled the action with a moment of reflectiveness which seemed wholly characteristic of Davies' work.

A Times article, here, places Come Dancing in 1959, a time when rock'n'roll had already made considerable inroads into British culture. Last Monday I finished watching Dennis Potter's TV series Lipstick on Your Collar, set at the time of the Suez crisis a few years earlier, in1956, coinciding with the discovery of rock'n'roll by Alan Klein and countless other British youngsters.

It features a scene in a dance hall where one of the characters, Hopper, played by Ewan McGregor, has his first big break playing drums in what is quaintly termed a "dance sextet." Unfortunately their first number is "a rather inspid and certainly orthodox" Try A Little Tenderness, a standard long before Otis Redding had been invented.

 At one point he can't stand it anymore and lets rip "with an almost manic frenzy", only slipping back to the normal tempo when it's too late and he's already been sacked by the "shaggin' penguin" of a far from amused dancehall manager, representative of the old guard (top). It's a moment which reflects a wider dissatisfaction - with his clerical job at the War Office, with the state of the nation - and his sense of an imminent change, as he tells workmate Francis:

 You just got to look around, entcha? I mean, you can't put your finger on it, but it's there - definitely there.[...] Change! [...] I'm not just talking about the music, Frank. [...] There's something in the - well, in the air - in the - I mean, that git down there dressed as a shaggin' penguin is - people like that don't know what's going on. It's the same in the office. Ennit? [...]  But it's not just the army - it's - oh, more than that - (struggles for the thought, the words.) I mean - we're all in uniform, even those who aren't. In Britain, I mean. On parade. All in different ranks and (Gives up)
Later, with his soulmate-to-be, he articulates the same sense of dissatisfaction with the music dominating the charts as Myles Rudge in the previous post, even echoing his words. The songs he likes, he tells her, are

The sort where moon don't rhyme with June and you're not up to your backside in bloody buttercups. Songs that aren't about your mum and dad. A bit rough. A beat that busts up the old way - the old stodge - the Empire and knowing your place and excuse me and the dressing up and doing what you're told and not once being asked [...]
Which all boils down to his mantra when trapped in the tedium of his tasks at the War Office, waiting not just for demob but some less definable release: "Roll on."

Lipstick on Your Collar is, in part, a jokey emulation of the style of fifties musicals, which makes it lighter than some other Potters but - he is Dennis Potter - not that light. For understandable commercial reasons the newly released DVD is being marketed as a Ewan McGregor vehicle, which may be unfair on costar Giles Thomas and the superb older actors, but there's no doubt that we experience the force and significance of rock'n'roll largely through Hopper's eyes.

Quite apart from his active but short-lived participation, we see how music is incorporated into his daydreaming at work to make his day tolerable and place him literally centrestage, where he can be Presley, Gene Vincent, or whoever, against the mahogany panelling and the portrait of Churchill, and his superiors are reduced to a chorus of capering fools - played with lunatic conviction, especially by Clive Francis (bottom right)

 There is also a very effective scene outside work. A night out with a girl has gone horribly wrong and she walks off, leaving him in the coffee bar - the 2i's, in fact. He immediately conjures a fantasy where he becomes that night's performer and she returns to swoon over him, spotlit in the enraptured crowd, as we hear the recording of Sanford Clark's The Fool.

Which neatly demonstrates the difference between a fifties musical, Potter-style, and the genuine article: as with that great scene in Pennies From Heaven (below) where Bob Hoskins lies alongside his unresponsive wife in bed and mouths Down Sunnyside Lane, Dennis Potter understands our profound need for the balm of music, but he never pretends it can be anything other than a momentary illusion.

Oh, except possibly at the end of this comparatively lighthearted series - but I won't spoil it for you. If you can endure the adverts, you can watch it on Channel 4 On Demand, here: the dancehall scene referred to above occurs about twenty five minutes into Episode 4.

There is even an Alan Klein connection: another of those "rather inspid and certainly orthodox" dancehall numbers is So Tired, a song which dates from 1949. This is one of a handful of standards recorded by Klein in Tristram mode which can be found in between the Geoff Stephens songs on the New Vaudeville Band CD, which I've been listening to with great enjoyment over the last week or so.

 I've left off writing about  it in detail, as I'm not sure what to say yet. But whatever Klein thinks of his voice, it commands attention, and you enjoy the tension: he's sending up a certain style of singing but at the same time he seems to be caressing the songs, bringing them to our attention. So Tired is sort of sickly (as a song, I mean) but also charming. In fact, the temperature only really drops in this collection when Klein isn't lead: there are some pop songs, including A Kind of Hush, later a big hit for Herman's Hermits, sung in a serviceable but not particularly distinctive pop style which doesn't seem to fit the group.

Thinking about Herman's Hermits leads inevitably to thoughts of I'm Henry the Eighth. Which now prompts me to inform you that yesterday evening, in a venue no more than twenty minutes away from where I type these words, I sat and watched the song being performed by he who first rocked it up ... Joe Brown (below, during an earlier tour with Marty Wilde).

It was a very enjoyable gig, which I only chanced to hear about a few days ago, with an interesting mix of styles and periods and quite a few of the hits ... but alas, no What a Crazy World.

Not that I was really expecting it: as you may remember he told Spencer Leigh in 1996: "I don't mind playing the old songs although it's hard to sing 'Dad's gone down the dogtrack' now. If my dad were alive, he'd be 103."

The closer was, inevitably, I'll See You in My Dreams which, in addition to the Concert for George at the Albert Hall he said he had played at his dad's funeral. You could hear people quietly singing along to the chorus.

Quite odd to be at a rock concert where I was among the younger ones, but so it was. There wasn't much pretence at the ritual of an encore at the end, just a quick nipping offstage and back for I'll See You in My Dreams: "I was coming back anyway," he told us. The applause wasn't deafening - the crowd were no longer of an age to go bananas - but everyone, including me, seemed to have had a good time.

It was also quite a small venue - at one point he remarked it was like somebody's front room - so it was quite intimate and up close. He has a good line in self-deprecating patter - Marty Wilde may still do Teenager in Love, he said, but he will only sing songs in keeping with his stature, or words to that effect. At which he promptly went into That's What Love Will Do - a song about taking an eighteen year old "bird" to the pictures.

But when playing, it was clearly a serious business, eyes down on the guitar, still caring about the outcome, the showmanship reserved for the between-songs patter. The closing number for the first half was an entirely fitting Gallagher and Lyle song:
Stay young, keep your wheels in motion
The first half of the show was a smaller scale presentation, with the drummer away from his kit and tapping a box and various percussion instruments, with a wider range of styles: an old Hawaiian song went down particularly well. At times he dropped back, letting his son, who is in the band, take the lead. The second half, with the drummer behind a full kit, was louder, but some of the hits had been tweaked, so that they were more country rock - which again, I suppose, keeps his interest. And the revisions seemed to fit.

I have just noticed that Stay Young was also covered by Rick Nelson - "Ricky" as was - an artist who famously had occasion to consider the relationship between performer and audience when he moved from pop to country rock. But as Neil Diamond informed us, when you take the blues and make a song, you sing them out again, and Garden Party was the result - a late-flowering hit now enshrined in the "Best of" collections. Stay Young is a kind of gentler version of the same thing, but the bite of one couplet in Garden Party is something to behold:

If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck
But if memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck
Is that the old R&B trick of making you anticipate a ruder rhyme (as in Amos Milburn's House Party Tonight)?

Another of the songs Joe Brown played in the first half was by Chas and Dave - after all, he said, he was a Cockney too and it was a good song. There was quite a funny routine about phoning up Chas to ask permission: each question was answered by an impenetrable mumble from one half of the duo who, he said, made him sound like Noel Coward.

Which brings me to my next connection: on Wednesday I am off to see the first night of a musical using the songs of Chas and Dave entitled Stop Dreamin'. I don't know how good or bad it's going to be, although it was written by master farceur Ray Cooney, whose Run For Your Wife, in its first production, was perfection of its kind: I have an abiding memory of Richard Briers controlling the waves of laughter like a sussed Canute. Royce Mills, the Bertie Wooster who never was, was hilarious too (I see he's also in the above), and the police  inspector was played by  ... Bernard Cribbins.

Which circularity seems as good a place as any to stop. Stop Dreamin' is at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guilford from Wednesday 27th October to Saturday 6th November - details here. I'm not a particular fan of Chas and Dave, but as it's an East End musical by a duo who have been doing something which has possible parallels with Alan Klein's work, it has to be worth a look - especially as I have a stalled vaguely musical project of my own (unrelated to the East End), so seeing how songs and action are combined, especially in the hands of a master techician like Cooney, will be instructive.

Finally, I may as well take advantage of the capacious holdall which is this post to reassert that this remains a series about Bowie's early influences, even if the diminutive bombardier or major-in-waiting may appear by now to be floating in his tin can at some considerable distance above the proceedings.

But the response of real and fictional characters to the sludge in the 50s charts must surely include the young David Jones (even if one can never be sure in his case which category is the better fit). He  is part of this wider story of musical and social change, latching on to the freshness of Anthony Newley's novelty songs and that voice which could not possibly be mistaken for anything American; so, too, are Myles Rudge and Alan Klein, with the comic alternatives they offered to the cliches of American song.

And just to tie things up for the mo with a sense of neatness, according to the bowiewonderworld website, here, church choir apart, the first songs Bowie is known to have performed in public (at Bromley Scouts Annual Camp circa 1958) were two Lonnie Donegan numbers, Gamblin' Man and Puttin' On the Style (whose message the youngster obviously absorbed). Oh, and it seems
Around the campfire David played a ukelele.
One final connection, in the form of a question.

Look closely at that last screengrab of Ewan McGregor as Hopper in fantasist mode.

Now can you tell me which iconic image (replicated in a recent biopic about this person's formative years) is thereby called to mind of one who identified closely with an habitue of ice floes and was not unacquainted with Bowie in later years, Ging Gang Goo Goo Goo Joob?


Give  up?

No, not a shaggin' Penguin.

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