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Posts from the ‘Pop music’ Category

(Not quite) almost like being in love

One evening in the late ’70s I was at home watching The Shirley Bassey Show on BBC1 — not such a terrible idea, since she presented some interesting guests, from Mel Tormé and Janis Ian to Stan Getz and Johnny Nash — when something Bassey herself was singing stopped me in my tracks.

“Almost Like Being in Love” was written by Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner for their musical Brigadoon in 1947. It was a hit for Frank Sinatra, and became a standard. Shirley Bassey has sung it throughout her career, and on YouTube you’ll find several versions in conventional upbeat, ring-a-ding-ding arrangements celebrating the singer’s delight at half-concealing the rapture of love.

On this occasion, however, she and her musical director, Arthur Greenslade, did something different. They recast the song in a minor key, with slightly modified melodic and harmonic contours, setting it to a languid, understated Latin rhythm. I hadn’t heard it from then until now, more than 40 years later, but it always stayed in my head as the way the song ought to be sung.

So here it is, miraculously preserved, with its chiming vibes and pattering congas, hovering strings and 12 bars of beautiful Getzian tenor saxophone (Tony Coe, maybe?), and a bitter-sweet vocal performance that hints at layers of emotional complexity beneath Mr Lerner’s words. It sounds just as exquisite and ambiguous as I remembered. Imagine how cool it would be if Sade, Tracey Thorn or Paula Morelenbaum took this arrangement and recorded it today. Cool, yes, but no cooler than Ms Bassey.

Living for the weekend

To understand the full impact of Ready Steady Go!, you really had to live through the succession of British TV pop shows that preceded it: 6.5 Special (BBC, Jan 57-Dec 58, 96 episodes), Oh Boy (ITV, Sept 58-May 59, 38 episodes), Drumbeat (BBC, April-Aug 59, 22 episodes), Boy Meets Girls (ITV, Sept 59-Feb 60, 26 episodes), and Thank Your Lucky Stars (ITV, April 1961-June 1966, 250 episodes). Each of those series had something to offer the pop-starved teenager, but all of them — even the ones created by the great Jack Good — felt essentially as though they were made by grown-ups. That’s where Ready Steady Go! was different.

From its debut on the ITV network on 9 August 1963, it made a direct connection with its audience. Its creator, Elkan Allan, was smart enough to trust the creative instincts of the people around him — particularly those of the young Vicki Wickham, who started as Allan’s secretary but whose instinctive love of black music, absorbed from friends such as Dusty Springfield and Madeline Bell, became the show’s guiding spirit. Without Wickham’s enthusiasm and energy there would have been no Motown special, no James Brown special, no Otis Redding special to go alongside the regular appearances by the Who, the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. In essence, you knew that the people who made this programme believed, as you did, that Cilla Black’s cover version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was not a patch on Dionne Warwick’s original.

If you lived the the provinces, as I did, RSG! was an essential guide to what was happening in inaccessible London clubs like the Scene, the Ad Lib and the Scotch of St James. The show’s directors, from Bill Turner through Daphne Shadwell, Robert Fleming and Rollo Gamble to the brilliantly innovative Michael Lindsay-Hogg, allowed the members of the audience to crowd around the stage as if they were in a club and took the radical step of treating the cameras as part of the set. Graphics by Clive Arrowsmith and Arnold Schwartzman set the tone in the title sequences, which made use of fast-cutting images from popular culture. Responsible for shaping the whole package was the programme’s editor, Francis Hitching.

The story of RSG! has been told many times before, most recently in a fine documentary shown on BBC4 earlier thus year, but never so thoroughly, informatively and entertainingly as in Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here, a large-format (12″x12″) history by Andy Neill, who has been everywhere one could possibly go to unearth every scrap of information on the show’s birth, life and death.

You want a list of the precise contents of every episode? It’s here. You want a fantastic assembly of ephemera, such as tickets for the recordings at the original Associated Rediffusion studios in Kingsway and the later venue in Wembley, and hundreds of newspaper clippings? Also here. You want the memories of dozens of participants, from Mick Jagger to the dancers Patrick Kerr and Sandy Serjeant to Barbara Hulanicki, the founder of Biba and a regular at Kingsway? You want to know more about the presenters Cathy McGowan and Michael Aldred and the members of the production staff? You want the stories behind Ready Steady Goes Live, Ready Steady Win (the talent competition won by the Bo Street Runners), the Mod Ball and Ready Steady Allez!, the show broadcast live from the Locomotive in Paris in March 1966, with the Yardbirds, the Who, Hugues Aufray, Mireille Mathieu and Eddy Mitchell? You want an informed history of British TV’s treatment of pop music, along with Dennis Potter’s Daily Herald review of an early Beatles appearance on RSG!? You want a detailed history of its ratings, as well as the stories about Françoise Hardy’s refusal to sit down while wearing her new trouser suit and the letters from viewers disgusted by James Brown’s show? All here, in a volume with a great anecdote on practically every page, along with a fantastic selection of photographs.

Jagger talks about how he used to go along even when the Stones weren’t on, just to be there. “RSG! wasn’t safe, it took risks,” he tells Neill. “It waded right into the wonderful chaos of the times. You always thought you were slightly on the edge there.” Pete Townshend agrees: “It reflected the colour and vivacity of the times better than almost any other medium.” He remembers how, for the first of the Who’s 16 appearances, performing “I Can’t Explain” in 1965, they were allowed to bring along their own fans from the Goldhawk Club in Shepherds Bush. Wickham and Lindsay-Hogg, he says, “conveyed the sense that we were, all of us, breaking every rule of television. I felt they were breaking societal rules as well.”

My old friend Keith Altham, then a journalist on Fabulous magazine, remembers it as a meeting place for young people starting out in the music business. “It was like a glorified youth club where your mates played guitars or drums or were in the business of reporting on the beat phenomenon. The writers and musicians were all contemporaries.” And afterwards there would be parties for the in-crowd, maybe at Tony Hall’s flat in Mayfair, with a Beatle and a Ronette and a Stone in attendance.

The programme was killed in December 1966 after 173 episodes. Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan were featured in the penultimate show and Chris Farlowe duetted with Jagger on “Out of Time” and “Satisfaction” in the final episode, two days before Christmas. Times and tastes were changing, and the sense of novelty and excitement had dulled. The mainstream audience was getting its fix of chart music from Top of the Pops (BBC, January 1964-July 2006, 2,267 episodes) while the mods were turning into hippies and no longer looked for guidance from television programmes. But it would be a long time before anything came along to replace it.

I can’t think of anything I’d want this book to have that it doesn’t include. As a thoroughly comprehensive and endlessly entertaining time-capsule, put together in exactly the spirit that the show was made, it’s something to cherish. The story of what Elkan Allan, Vicki Wickham and their friends and colleagues created will never be better told.

* Andy Neill’s Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here is published by BMG (£39.99). Recommended listening: The ‘Sound’ of the R&B Hits, the first anthology of Motown tracks released in Britain back in 1964, now expanded from 14 to 28 tracks and released by Ace Records. For more about pop and rock on the small and large screen, there’s Docs That Rock, Music That Matters by Harvey Kubernik, published in the US by Otherworld Cottage (about £35), including chapters on American Bandstand, D. A. Pennebaker, Peter Whitehead’s Charlie Is My Darling, Concert for Bangladesh and many other subjects. The sequence of images at the top of this piece was created by Clive Arrowsmith for RSG!‘s title sequence in December 1964.

Listening to Lucio Battisti

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For no particular reason that I can pin down, I’ve spent a lot of this lockdown listening to the Italian singer Lucio Battisti. Well, maybe I just wanted music to remind me of being on holiday in Italy. The taste of a decent espresso. Traffic chaos in Naples. Olive groves on a Sicilian hillside. All of the stuff that seems so unreachable at the moment. Anyway, he’s been providing good company, as he has since I stumbled across his music almost 45 years ago. By that time he was already established as one of Italy’s biggest stars, with many hit singles and albums behind him.

The thing that first caught my ear in 1976 was a song called “Ancora tu”, on which he veered away from the singer-songwriter mode into an engagement with disco music. It’s an infernally catchy piece of music, but what also struck me were the words. Even with my rudimentary Italian, it was obvious that he was using dance music as a setting for one side of a conversation between two former lovers who’ve just bumped into each other again: “You again! How are you? Pointless question. You’re like me.” “Have you eaten, or not? Yes, I’m hungry, too.” “You look lovely. Younger than ever. Or maybe just nicer.” He tells her he’s given up smoking. At some point in your life, you may have had that kind of conversation. I liked the way the singer’s tone, conveying a mixture of fondness and concealed wounds, worked beautifully over the lightly pumping rhythm.

I was doing A&R at Island back then, so I called up some of Battisti’s earlier work and lost myself for a while in albums like Il mio canto libero, Il nostro caro angelo and Anima latina, each of which showed a willingness to absorb and adapt a variety of approaches, from English progressive rock to Brazilian new samba. “Ancora tu” was the lead track of an album whose title — Lucio Battisti, la batteria, il contrabasso, eccetera — itself highlighted his new interest in disco. I also found out that while Battisti was responsible for the music, he hadn’t written those interesting words. The lyrics to all his songs were by a man named Giulio Rapetti, who called himself Mogol.

The more I listened, the more I liked the way Battisti made records that sounded thoroughly modern while retaining some quality of traditional Italian pop music. He’d got his start through things like the San Remo Song Festival, and just enough of that flavour survived in his music to set it apart from his Anglo-American influences.

What I didn’t know was his string of hit singles — like Mi ritorni in mente (1969) and I giardini di marzo (1972) — had persuaded a generation of Italian kids that, as well as worshipping the Beatles and the Stones, they could have a pop music of their very own, speaking in their voice. It secured him a special and enduring place in their hearts. “He has been a sort of musical background to our lives,” the writer Giorgio Terruzzi told me the other day, “when we were passing between childhood and adolescence.” But that wasn’t what I heard, because I was listening to it in a different place at a different time. And by then he was becoming something different, too.

At some point, somewhere or other, I met both him and Mogol. Then in London I took Battisti to lunch at the Trattoo, a very nice Italian restaurant just off Kensington High Street. I wanted to try and work out a way to get his records — none of which had been released in the UK or the US — to an Anglophone audience. I liked him: he was a reserved but thoughtful person, and he was very happy discuss the fortunes of his football team, Juventus. Sadly, the idea didn’t come to anything. (The following year, in Los Angeles, he did make an album for RCA called Io tu noi tutti, with Hollywood session men, which gave him a couple more hits at home, although an English-language version titled Images didn’t work at all.) So, as a fan, I just carried on buying his Italian albums.

By the end of the ’70s he’d acquired the habit  of recording in London, with English producers, arrangers and musicians. For a while the records got lusher and more dependent on electric keyboards and synths, as you can hear in “Donna selvaggia donna” from the album Una donna per amico (1978) and “Il monolocale” from Una giornata uggiosa (1980), both produced by Geoff Westley with musicians like the guitarists Pip Williams, Phil Palmer and Ray Russell, the bassists Paul Westwood and John Giblin and the drummers Gerry Conway and Stuart Elliott.

Then it all changed. After so many years of success, Battisti and Mogol parted company, for reasons that have never really been explained. On the singer’s next album, E già (1982), the lyrics were credited to his wife, Grazia Letizia Veronese, and the music was stripped right back to a sound bed of electronics, created in the studio by Battisti and his new producer, Greg Walsh. I found it very adventurous and striking, and a track called “Straniero” made a deep and lasting impression. Then, four years later, came an album called Don Giovanni: more conventional in its arrangements, richer in texture, with words by the poet Pasquale Panella, and featuring several classics, like the irresistible “Fatti un pianto”, with its beautiful tenor saxophone work by Phil Todd on the intro and coda.

By this time Battisti had removed himself from the public eye. He stopped giving interviews and simply released an album every couple of years, all on the Numero Uno label, which he and Mogol had founded in the early ’70s after Ricordi had been reluctant to release their extraordinary concept album, Amore non amore. Each of these new albums had a standard look — very minimal white covers featuring simple black line drawings and no photographs — and each, sadly, was increasingly unsuccessful with the public.

L’apparenza (1988), La sposa occidentale (1990), Cosa succederà alla ragazza (1992) and Hegel (1994) had different producers — Robyn Smith, Greg Walsh, and, for the last two, Andy Duncan — but I think of them as a continuous work: an extended suite of electro-dance music made by a singer-songwriter, the innate vulnerability of Battisti’s voice ensuring that it never lost its human warmth. Sometimes, at their most driving and joyous, as in “Cosa succederà alla ragazza” or “La voce del viso”, these late tracks make me think of the Pet Shop Boys holidaying on that stretch of the Tyrrhenian coast around Viareggio, warmed by the Tuscan sun. But it’s all pure Battisti, really.

Hegel turned out to be his last word. Four years after its release, in 1998, he died in a Milan hospital, apparently of cancer, aged 55. Although in recent years there has been some controversy over the ferocity with which his widow guards his legacy, his music is available to be discovered by anyone who, like me, came to it a little late and found a friend.

* Many of Lucio Battisti’s recordings, including the final quartet of “white albums”, were reissued two years ago by Sony Legacy / Numero Uno in limited editions of CDs replicating the original album artwork. They seem to be still available.

Happy birthday, Mr Isley

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Ronald Isley is 79 today. Not a round number, but never mind. A happy birthday to him anyway. Perhaps it’s because he’s been a member of a group for his entire career that he isn’t generally mentioned in lists of the greatest male soul singers. For he certainly is one, up there with Sam, Smokey, Marvin, Otis, Levi, Al, Bobby, Philippé, Teddy, Luther and whoever else you want to include. Listen to the Isley Brothers’ “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, “Hello, It’s Me”, or “Harvest for the World”: no much doubt, is there? And if 3 + 3 isn’t in your collection, I beg you to do something about it.

My subject here, however, is an album I’ve been playing a lot in recent weeks: Ron Isley’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach, which dates from 2003 and is nothing short of a masterpiece.

The circumstances of the recording were, by modern standards, exceptional. At the behest of DreamWorks Records’ John McClain, the two men prepared for sessions which took place over a handful of days in Capitol Records’ Hollywood studios: an orchestra of more than 40 pieces with Bacharach at the conductor’s podium and Isley at the microphone. Thirteen songs: 11 Bacharach and David classics plus two new Bacharach songs with lyrics by Tonio K.

And everything done live. On the spot. Rhythm section, string section, horns, and lead and backing singers. Together. Breathing the same air, feeling the same vibrations, responding to the same cues in real time. The way it used to be done. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t some touch-ups, but the principle is the thing.)

From the moment strings and harp usher in the first words of “Alfie”, the opening track, you realise that something special is happening. The exquisite delicacy of the singer’s delivery at the dead-slow tempo and the exacting control of his emotions bring something new to what might very well be the greatest of all the Bacharach/David songs. It’s hard to spoil lines like “If only fools are kind, Alfie / Then I guess it is wise to be cruel,” but Isley brings them a new poignancy. Bacharach’s arrangement manages to be both majestic and somehow weightless.

And the set goes on from there, Bacharach constantly inventing new way of reinvigorating familiar songs — the flugelhorn figures introducing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “The Look of Love”, for example. (Flugel and trumpet, a Bacharach trademark in his heyday, are used throughout as a counterpoint to the lead voice.) And the latter track has a light bossa/funk groove that you might feel you’d like to have running through the rest of your life. A solo alto flute introduces “Anyone Who Had a Heart”. Alone at the piano, Bacharach sings the opening lines of “The Windows of the World” in his husky tones before giving way to Isley’s polished virtuosity, like a weathered hand sliding into a fine kid glove.

The inclusion of the new songs might have been a quid pro quo for Bacharach’s agreement to participate in the project, but they pull their weight. “Count on Me” benefits from a lovely melody and “Love’s (Still) the Answer” has the qualities of a very good Sondheim song.

Most of all, though, there’s “In Between the Heartaches”, a great song hidden away on Dionne Warwick’s Here I Am album in 1965. Isley, who once dated Warwick, requested its inclusion; its composer had forgotten all about it. Neil Stubenhaus’s softly purring bass-guitar reminds me of Marcus Miller’s contribution to Vandross’s “Second Time Around”: there’s no higher praise. And when, on “Here I Am” itself, Ronald Isley adds flourishes of melisma, it’s never gratuitous: this is how it should be done.

Of course you’re not going to experience again the shock and the thrill of hearing Bacharach’s melodies and arrangements for the first time in the ’60s: a twangy guitar in the middle of silken strings, a fusillade of boo-bams, a sudden chromatic twist, a song whose first 11 words are all on the same note. But all I can say is that they’ve never sounded more gorgeous than this.

* The photograph is by the late, great William Claxton. Here I Am: Isley Meets Bacharach is on the DreamWorks label. Several songs from a PBS Soundstage concert in July 2004 are up on YouTube, including “Close to You” and “Here I Am”. There’s also a promo — with slightly compromised sound quality — for “The Look of Love”

‘Mercy’

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I’d imagine that a large number of people, on reading Duffy’s Instagrammed description of her recent problems, will have reminded themselves of what a great record “Mercy” was, and still is. When it came out in 2008, I must have heard it dozens of times before the penny dropped: it’s actually a 12-bar blues.

Well, not quite. The verse is a 12-bar which stays on the tonic in bars 5 and 6 and is extended to 16 by repeating bars 9-12. The chorus is a straight 12-bar. And I love that the tune, the singing, the weird hard-rubber bass, the cheap organ sound and the guitars — including that devastating bent double-stop against silence after the breakdown — are all drenched in the blues, an updated version of the Thames Delta sound of the early ’60s.

OK, have a guess: how many times has a 12-bar blues topped the UK pop chart? Off the top of my head, I could think of only the Stones’ “Little Red Rooster” — straight from the Thames Delta! — in 1964. So I looked through all the UK No 1s from 1952-1999, and I could find only Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” and “Baby Jump” and T. Rex’s “Hot Love” that fit the spec (before you ask, “Hound Dog” only made it to No 2 for Elvis in 1956). Curious, isn’t it, that the basic foundational template of so much popular music should be so thinly represented?  If someone else wants to check through the last 20 years, be my guest — and please let me know if you find anything.

Anyway, all best wishes to Duffy. That “Mercy” link has been clicked almost 80 million times. And maybe, to paraphrase Ornette Coleman, this is when the blues leave.

Fantoni’s Sixties

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It’s fair to say that Barry Fantoni had a good Sixties. Now we can read all about it in A Whole Scene Going On, his memoir of the time when he wrote gags for Private Eye, appalled the Royal Academy with a pop-art painting of a Pope, a judge and a general, created the visual backdrops for Ready, Steady, Go!, had a girlfriend who shared a flat with Jane Asher, presented a TV youth programme of his own (from which his book adapts its title), had an abortive stab at becoming a pop star, became a brilliant cartoonist, and did all the other things that people did in that blessed time. He mentions finding an address book from 1966 that begins with Annie (Nightingale) and ends with Zoot (Money).

Others who passed through his life during that period, with varying degrees of intimacy, include Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithfull, Ray Davies, Ralph Steadman, Peter Osgood, John Mayall, Terence Donovan, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page (and his mum), and Felicity Innes, who wore a mini-skirt before Mary Quant. There are great stories about all of them, and about the early Private Eye gang: Ingrams, Booker, Rushton, Cook, Wells and so on. I loved the affectionate evocations of the brilliant designer Robert Brownjohn, the journalist Penny Valentine, the Nova art director Harri Peccinotti, a bloke called Bob who invented Gonks, the art critic John Russell, and Keith Goodwin, Fantoni’s press agent.

Goodwin also looked after Paul and Barry Ryan, Donovan, Cat Stevens, the Temperance Seven and Dusty Springfield, the subject of a chilling vignette: “You needed to know Dusty offstage to get the real picture. To see the face beneath the heavy makeup, back-combed hair and black eyeliner. What I saw was a rather frightened and plain-looking girl from the London suburbs with a bad temper and a desperate need to be loved.” Among those also sideswiped along the way are Tariq Ali, Robert “Groovy Bob” Fraser, Jeff Beck and Gerald Scarfe. The grudges, as is usually the case, add significant value: his resentment of David Hockney’s success is nothing short of epic.

I met him at the very end of this period, when he was contributing cartoons to accompany the wonderful Melody Maker column in which Chris Welch chronicled the adventures of an imaginary pop star called Jiving K. Boots, who was usually either getting banned from the Speakeasy or getting it together in the country: it was Spinal Tap avant la lettre, with a dash of Beachcomber’s random whimsy. I remember greatly coveting the Fantoni portrait of Denis Law that another friend, Geoffrey Cannon, had on the wall of his house in Notting Dale. Apparently that’s now lost, like the large quantity of Barry’s early paintings — including the famously scandalous “The Duke of Edinburgh in His Underpants” — taken off in 1963 to be shown in Los Angeles and never returned. “I have no idea where my work is now,” Fantoni writes of that episode. “Covered in goose shit, I expect.”

This was the Sixties, so not all the detail of Fantoni’s recollections is 100 per cent accurate. But that doesn’t matter. He brings alive a world in which dinner would be at a King’s Road trattoria one night and the all-night Golden Egg on Oxford Street the next, and when making art and having fun seemed to be all that mattered.

* Barry Fantoni’s A Whole Scene Going On: My Inside Story of Private Eye, the Pop Revolution and Swinging Sixties London is published by Polygon. His painting of the Beatles, first exhibited in January 1963 and reproduced above from the book, is now owned by Paul McCartney.

Clive James 1939-2019

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At school I was in a folk group with two chaps called Ian Taylor and Jeff Minson. Ian had the looks and the voice, Jeff had a 12-string guitar, and I just tagged along. When was this? Well, one Saturday afternoon we paused our rehearsal at Jeff’s parents’ house to watch the transmission of the very first episode of Dr Who. (Another clue: the coffee bar we played at was called the Jules et Jim.) Eventually Ian went up to Cambridge, where he joined the Footlights. In 1970 he invited me to one of their performances at the Hampstead Theatre Club, and that’s where I met another member of the troupe, the singer-songwriter Pete Atkin, and his lyricist, a talkative Australian called Clive James.

Clive died on Sunday. He and I once joked that we should start a club for people who had voluntarily stepped down from presenting a BBC television series; the two of us would be the only eligible members. But a couple of years later he returned to the small screen and went on to a fame far beyond that which he earned from his wonderful weekly TV reviews in the Observer.

He did a lot of stuff, and sometimes he overdid it, but what will last for me are some of his more serious poems — such “Japanese Maple”, the one in which, writing in 2014, he foresaw his own death — and a handful of his lyrics. The latter could be archly funny, like “The Only Wristwatch for a Drummer”:

The Omega Incabloc Oyster Acutron ’72 / Without this timepiece there’d have been no bebop to begin with. / Bird and Diz were tricky men to sit in with / Max Roach still wears the watch he wore when bop was new. / Elvin Jones has two and Buddy Rich wears three, / One on the right wrist and one on the left / And the third one around his knee.

A number of his lyrics were about musicians, always informed by his huge reservoir of knowledge and an understanding of the condition of, for instance, a session man or a pianist accompanying a torch singer. Above all, he knew how to draw popular culture into the art songs he and Pete wrote together. For me, their magnum opus was the title song of the 1971 album Driving Through Mythical America, in which James imagined the four students shot dead by the National Guard during an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University the previous year hurtling to their tragic destiny through the landscape of the American imagination: Baby Face and Rosebud, Moose Molloy and Herman Kahn, Norman Rockwell and FDR, Jersey Joe and the Kansas City Seven. Being Clive James, he even chose their cars with precision: a Studebaker Golden Hawk and a Nash Ambassador.

James and Atkin took a high-risk approach to singer-songwriter music in the early ’70s. The combination of music, lyrics and voice didn’t always work. But it was a risk worth taking, and it still has an audience.

* The photograph is taken from Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin by Ian Shircore, published in 2016 by RedDoor.

Me, me, me

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Big disappointment, that Elton John. I’d been expecting his autobiography, Me, to contain a chapter gratefully acknowledging all the people who wrote about him with warmth and enthusiasm in the British music weeklies at a time when he couldn’t get arrested on Denmark Street. I’m thinking of Penny Valentine, Lon Goddard, Caroline Boucher. And, yes… me.

How soon, how completely, they forget.

For the benefit of readers who don’t get British irony: I’m joking. To an extent, anyway. But I interviewed him several times in 1970, his annus mirabilis; the first occasion, on April 7, seems notable in retrospect because he actually made his way by himself to the Melody Maker office on Fleet Street in order to be interviewed. He was that obscure. He was also a nice chap: quiet, seemingly modest and happy to talk about the music he loved, particularly the Band and Robbie Robertson. Later in the summer I bumped into him backstage at a rock festival — it might have been the one in early August at Plumpton racecourse — and after we’d said hello I asked him how things were going. I’ve never forgotten the substance of his reply.

Well, he said, he’d been giving it some thought and he’d decided to make his act more dramatic, more extrovert, more theatrical. More like the Jagger with the Stones, maybe. You know, get some costumes, leap about a bit more. He liked that kind of thing.

I was a bit flabbergasted. I looked at him. He was wearing his usual gear, something completely unobtrusive in that dressed-down environment, maybe jeans and some sort of brown jacket. I might even have said, “What on earth do you want to do that for?” But he was insistent. Heigh ho, I thought. Fair enough, if that’s really what he wants. But it seemed a bit of a shame. It wasn’t really the way the world was going.

Two years later he was at the Hollywood Bowl in an outfit covered in white marabou feathers, taking a stage occupied by five grand pianos whose lids flew open to release dozens of white doves, with an audience going wild. So there we are.

I never saw any of the tours where his love of flamboyance was on full display. In fact the two best Elton John gigs I ever attended were memorable for everything except his own performance. The first of them is something else that doesn’t get a mention in Me.

It was on October 30, 1970 at the Revolution Club in Bruton Place, just off Berkeley Square — a Mayfair alternative to the Speakeasy as a late-night hangout for rock musicians on the way up, and also sometimes a place where record companies put on showcase gigs. This night was a double showcase. Elton and his band — Dee Murray on bass and Nigel Olsson on drums — had just returned from their breakthrough in the US, where every star in Hollywood had turned up to see them at the Troubadour. (“Dylan Digs Elton!” was the front-page headline in the Melody Maker — a Ray Coleman special.) They were about to go back the next day, but their record label wanted the British media to see them in their new, confident flowering.

The evening was shared with Randy Newman, brought over by Warner Brothers to promote his second album, the great 12 Songs. By that time I was a lot more interested in Randy Newman than Elton John, so I turned up in a mood of great anticipation. By the time Randy came on the drinks had been flowing for a while and the assembled company — all embroidered denim, satin loon pants and Anello & Davide snakeskin boots — had been tucking into the free canapés. The waitresses were dashing round filling glasses and taking orders. Seated at ringside tables, the audience chattered away.

Randy sidled on to the stage and sat down. He gave no sign of being impressed by the significance of the occasion. He had his owlish glasses on, and his pursed expression, and he seemed to be in the clothes he’d worn on the flight over from LA. He started into his first song without ceremony, and then did another one. I’m pretty sure they were “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Lover’s Prayer”. They were wonderful. He hadn’t said a word. But the conversations were still going on, and the waitresses were still circulating busily.

Still without a word, he changed the mood, going back to his first album for “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, a song of despair for the human condition. First verse: quiet, intense, spellbinding if you happened to be listening. Still the ringside noise went on. Second verse: “Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles / With frozen smiles chase love away…” And he lifted his hands from the keyboard, paused for a couple of seconds, very quietly said, “That’s all, folks,” and got up and walked off. Most of the audience barely noticed his departure.

I’ve never admired Randy Newman as much as I did that night. For me, it was a perfectly judged reaction to the environment in which he found himself. Extraordinarily brave, too, in the circumstances. That’s not how a new artist with a major record company behind him is expected to behave when they’ve been flown 5,000 miles for a showcase gig. A little while later Elton and his band were rocking out, getting an ovation from people keen not to be missing out on what looked like being the latest sensation.

Elton owns up to the second memorable gig, at Wembley Stadium on June 21, 1975, a night when he topped the bill but might as well not have turned up at all. On that glorious midsummer’s afternoon the Beach Boys grabbed the sunshine and simply wiped out the headliner. It became a music-business legend how, after their exhilarating surf-ride from one hit to another, Elton’s attempt to present the unfamiliar songs from the brand-new Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy turned into a catastrophe. Almost from the start the audience were making for the exits like thousands of iron filings drawn by powerful magnets.

Maybe it was a kind of widescreen karmic revenge for the time at the Albert Hall, five years earlier, when he’d done to Sandy Denny and Fotheringay what the Beach Boys did to him. That’s something else he owns up to in Me, which is so expertly ghostwritten by Alexis Petridis, the Guardian‘s chief rock critic, that the reader never pauses to consider that the vividly remembered anecdotes, so amusingly drenched in self-mockery, aren’t coming directly from the man whose name is on the cover.

You’ve probably read the extracts and the reviews, which concentrate — understandably enough — on the vast quantities of coke and sex and some of the dafter things that can happen to a chubby boy from Pinner, like dancing to “Rock Around the Clock” with the Queen of England and having an epic row with Tina Turner. It’s a cracking read on that level alone. But in the final chapters you’ll find a lot of very moving stuff about less exotic subjects: doing the school run, getting treated for cancer, that kind of thing.

I wanted more detail about what was discovered when he subjected his dealings with his longest-serving manager to an independent audit in 1998. I also think it would have been a graceful gesture to have identified the local-paper journalist who tipped him off in 1974 that Watford FC could do with his help, since it led to a period of great personal happiness. And I wish he’d said a bit more about the music, and the musicians who worked with him along the way and never became famous. But that’s just me.

* Me is published by Macmillan.

The Uptown Soul of Teddy Randazzo

Teddy Randazzo

What do we mean when we speak of Uptown Soul? A mixture of early-’60s R&B and lush pop that featured gospel-trained voices, big orchestral arrangements, often a Latin tinge to the rhythm, a hint of girl-group sweetness, and an echo of Broadway craftsmanship in the songwriting, all of it bathed in the neon glow of the city. A kind of grown-up music for teenagers, or possibly vice versa. Its presiding geniuses and their protégés included Burt Bacharach (Dionne Warwick and Lou Johnson ), Jerry Ragovoy (Garnet Mimms and Lorraine Ellison), Bert Berns (Solomon Burke and Barbara Lewis) and Teddy Randazzo, whose work is featured in a new Ace Records compilation called Yesterday Has Gone.

Like Bacharach, Randazzo wrote the melodies, created the arrangements, and produced the records. Other people wrote the words: among his regular collaborators were Bobby Weinstein on Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “I’m on the Outside (Looking In)” and “Goin’ Out of My Head” (the latter heard here in Warwick’s version), Weinstein and Lou Stallman for the Royalettes’ “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” , and Victoria Pike for Mel Tormé’s “Better Use Your Head”.

Born on Brooklyn in 1935, Alessandro Carmelo Randazzo was a good-looking Italian-American boy who started out as a singer, first with vocal groups and then as a solo artist. He made records under his own name until the late ’60s (one of them, the excellent “You Don’t Need a Heart”, is included here), but he preferred the business of making records and in 1964 the commercial success of his work with Little Anthony Gourdine and the Imperials set him on his way.

The 25 tracks of the Ace album, recorded between 1964 and 1976, for a variety of labels, include nothing that is less than cherishable, from the soulful saloon-bar heartbreak of Derek Martin’s “You Better Go” through the froth of the Kane Triplets’ “Buttercup Days” and the proto-Northern Soul of Porgy and the Monarchs’ “Think Twice Before You Walk Away” to the gorgeous balladry of Frank Sinatra’s “Rain in My Heart”. Timi Yuro, Tony Orlando, Esther Phillips, Billy Fury and the Stylistics are among others to benefit from the attentions of a master of his craft.

At the moment my particular favourites from this set are Howard Guyton’s “I Watched You Slowly Slip Away”, a great 1966 dance track with an undertow of sadness, and the Manhattans’ lovely “A Million to One”, from five years later, both of them demonstrating the composer’s wonderful instinct for building into a song the sort of chord-changes that functioned as hooks. He may have been less overtly ambitious than Bacharach in musical terms, with more of a pop sensibility, but he never lacked sophistication.

Randazzo died in 2003, having retired to Hawaii and Florida with his family. It’s wonderful to have this anthology, compiled by Mick Patrick, as evidence of his contribution to a genre that continues to cast a spell.

* Yesterday Has Gone: The Songs of Teddy Randazzo is out now on the Ace label. The photograph of Randazzo is from the booklet accompanying the CD.

Bill Frisell at Cadogan Hall

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“If somebody makes a so-called mistake,” Bill Frisell says near the end of the promotional film for his new album, “that can be the most beautiful thing that happens all night, if everybody’s open to what that sound is and embraces it and makes it sound good. If everyone’s watching out for each other and everyone feels like they can take a risk, it gives the music a chance to keep going and evolving.”

Last night at Cadogan Hall it was his turn to flub an ending, the mistake quickly finessed by his three colleagues — the singer Petra Haden, the cellist Hank Roberts and the bass guitarist Luke Bergman — with grace and smiles. And right there was the humanity of any music in which Frisell has a hand.

His mission to demonstrate and explore the consanguinity of all forms of American vernacular music — from Charles Ives to Thelonious Monk, from Hank Williams to Henry Mancini, from Muddy Waters to the Beach Boys — was accomplished many years ago, but with Harmony, the title of his first album on the Blue Note label, it seems to have reached another peak. The empathy, flexibility and modesty of this quartet make it an ideal vehicle for another exercise in creative juxtaposition.

The concert began quietly, with Haden’s beautifully plain voice enunciating the wandering, wordless, childlike line of Frisell’s “Everywhere”. The first high point came with Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”, on which Roberts and Bergman joined Haden in the sort of three-part Appalachian harmonies guaranteed to strike instantly at a special place in the emotions. There was a wholehearted ovation for that. “Lush Life”, fiendishly difficult to sing, was another highlight; also included in last year’s solo concert at the same venue and on Epistrophy, his recent live duo album with the bassist Thomas Morgan, Billy Strayhorn’s great ballad is clearly a preoccupation, and its intense chromaticism brought out the Jim Hall influence in Frisell’s work on his double-cutaway semi-acoustic instrument.

There was an interesting recasting of “On the Street Where You Live” (from My Fair Lady) and a lovely harmonised version of the traditional “Red River Valley”, interspersed with little instrumental pieces making sparing use of the guitarist’s loops and effects. The set ended with a segue from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, rendered in full and apparently without ironic intent. For an encore, demanded with fervent enthusiasm, they returned to stand at the microphones and deliver “We Shall Overcome”, inviting us to join in; well, at least now they know what English hymn-singing sounds like.

It was a mystery that, for the latest project from this great musician, a hall which was packed for his solo appearance a year ago should be so thinly populated last night. Perhaps the concert was badly advertised. The album is not yet out, which probably didn’t help. But anyone who wasn’t there missed a quietly remarkable night.

* Harmony is out on November 1. Epistrophy was released by ECM earlier this year. The photograph of Bill Frisell is by Monica Frisell.