Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Sedaka's Backstory or Neil Sedaka: King of Song (BBC 4 documentary available on iplayer)

[19/3/17: this programme was recently repeated on BBC 4 and is once again available on iplayer until 17th April 2017- the link below has been updated]

I almost didn't watch the recent documentary about Neil Sedaka, thinking it was a repeat of something which had been on BBC 4 a couple of years ago.

Nohow and contrariwise. Well, alright, not too contrariwise, as this programme, like its predecessor, was firmly in Mr Sedaka's corner: "more tribute than assessment" as the Daily Telegraph said here. I wiped the earlier show from my hard drive so can't make a detailed comparison but it's certainly my impression that Neil Sedaka: King of Song is several notches above the previous effort.

Maybe it was down to the carefully chosen talking heads: you got Phil Cody, his post-Howard Greenfield lyricist; you got a producer; a guy from Rolling Stone; a biographer; wife Leba and not too many other voices apart from Sedaka himself, always willing to demonstrate the secret workings of a particular song, beaming at a just-off-camera interviewer as he plays piano and obliges with the relevant section. This happened all the way through the programme so you got, straight from the horse's mouth, handy little encapsulations of how his songs work, and even if you know nothing technically about music it's not difficult to see that this is a man with a justifiable pride in his achievements and one who has worked hard to get to where he is.

I didn't quite appreciate quite how much effort, how much determination there had been until this programme: Leba talks about his working the tough clubs in the North of England in the early seventies when there was no work in the States, competing with drink and conversation (and Leba was doing the lights). An image (above) of the famed Batley Variety appears in the programe, but that represented the cream of those clubs, so we can only guess at the worst which this one time teen idol had to contend with.

This was partly forced onto him when his mother and her lover seem to have spent the earnings which ought to have bolstered the lean years - something which was certainly touched on in the earlier documentary but not, to the best of my recollection, hammered home in quite the same way.

He wasn't instantly restored to his previous status by "the 10ccs" as Sedaka calls them, and it took a repackaging of UK tracks and a helping hand from Elton John to make him successful in the US again. But Elton saw in the intrinsic quality of his music what others had forgotten: "It's like handing me gold bricks."

Straight after the documentary was aired there was a live performance from, I think, the eighties and early on a rather slimmed-down Sedaka (he boasted of losing three stone) essayed a bit of a dance or, more accurately, a jump around, a polite pogoing. 

This reinforced the unspoken but inescapable impression I suspect most viewers had already formed from viewing footage in the documentary: charisma is something Sedaka doesn't have, at least not in the conventional sense. But he has those great songs, is able to immerse himself in them (he is in tears even in the act of recalling Solitaire) and so transparently enjoys performing that you cannot help but respond.

One of the drawbacks of documentaries about most of the artists I admire is that they - the artists - are inevitably showing signs of age. For a while Sedaka seemed to eschew a toupee but now it's back on. Maybe it's for the best. He is fleshier about the neck and a slight lisp or blurriness is now evident in his speaking voice. But when he tirelessly demonstrates yet another song he is alive, animated, and the drive which kept him going through those Northern clubs and the drinking, chatting punters, is still in evidence. So see it if you can.

The programme is available on BBC iplayer here until 17th April 2017 - though you probably have to be in the UK to see it. 

Read my post about his early flop Crying My Heart Out For You (a personal fave) here.

1 comment:

  1. This documentary finally gives credit to Harvey Lisberg who was the hidden hand behind Neil Sedaka's second sitting. In the early seventies on hearing Amarillo, Lisberg placed it with his client Tony Christie and once it had become a smash hit throughout Europe convinced Neil Sedaka to record some tracks with his other client, Graham Gouldman and friends (soon to become 10cc). Neil Sedaka returned to Strawberry Studios in Manchester, U.K. to record 'Love Will Keep Us Together' which featured on his album 'The Tra-La Days Are Over'.