31.3.14

MOON - The Interview, Part 1

Somewhere along the line Keith gave me his home phone number, the only rock star of his renown ever to do so, and it was by calling him at his home and arranging to drive down to Chertsey on a Tuesday afternoon in April 1972 that the following interview took place. (And when reading it please bear in mind that this took place long before any books about The Who or its individual members were ever published.)
         Tara House was on the outskirts of Chertsey, off St Anne’s Hill, down a private lane behind a pub called the Golden Grove; a peculiarly-shaped modern dwelling, consisting of five pyramids and too much glass. It was set in extensive grounds and there were at least half-a-dozen expensive cars in the drive, all belonging to Keith. At that time the household also consisted of Keith’s lovely wife Kim, their daughter Mandy, Kim’s mother Joan and her son Dermott who, strangely, was about the same age as Mandy, who was his niece. All were dismissed as Keith and I settled down to talk in his playroom/bar.
         He took this interview quite seriously, for him at least. He was sober and, I think, anxious for once to come across as sincere, more than just the legendary Moon The Loon. One thing I remember most vividly was the awe in which he evidently held Pete Townshend. “Pete’s a genius,” he said more than once, clearly aware that his own good fortune rested squarely on the rather skinny shoulders of The Who’s guitarist and principal composer. For some reason this was edited out of the piece that MM published.
         It’s quite long, so I've divided it up into three parts. 

WHEN DID you first start playing drums?
Twelve years ago, roughly. A friend of mime had a set and a record player in Wembley. I used to pop over to his place and play to records. I had a job selling sticking plaster at the time.

What was the first group you played with?
I don’t think we actually had a name. If we did it was something like The Mighty Avengers or The Escorts or some polite name. We played Shane Fenton or Johnny Kidd & The Pirates or ‘Spanish Harlem’, and Shadows stuff, and Zoots. We played local town halls or factory dances, weddings a speciality. I played in several different groups and I joined one called The Beachcombers.

How did you meet up with the High Numbers?
We were working a circuit which a group called The Detours used to work, and people used to come up to us and say, "You’re not as good as The Detours. They’re a smashing band." After a couple of months of this I was fed up of people saying this and I decided to have a look at them. I had heard a rumour their drummer was leaving, too, so I went down to a pub near me, the Oldfield Hotel, to see them play.
         They were outrageous. All the groups at that time were smart, but onstage The Detours had stage things made of leather which were terrible. Pete looked very sullen. They were a bit frightening and I was scared of them. Obviously they had been playing together for a few years and it showed as well. I asked the manager of the club to introduce me to them. I was standing there and I had a few drinks, so I thought I’d play. I crept ‘round the side and asked Dave the drummer if I could do a couple of numbers. He said yes.
         They were doing a lot of blues numbers and ‘Roadrunner’ and really great stuff. I was fed up with ‘Spanish Harlem’ and wanted to get into this band, so I got on the drums and I must have been outrageous. I had dyed ginger hair, ginger cord suit. I was horrible. I looked a right state. I did a couple of numbers and broke the bass drum pedal, being rather heavy handed.      
         They asked me over for a drink but they didn’t say much. They didn’t ask me to join the group but they said they were having a rehearsal at some West Indian Club. Nobody said I had joined the group but I went along. This chap from Philips Records, Chris Parmenter, turns up with another drummer because they had been offered a record deal by Philips and they badly wanted the other drummer out.
         This chap from Philips turned up, and so did I, and it was rather embarrassing. He set up his kit and I set mine up and nobody was saying anything. The rest of the band just didn’t care. They were tuning up in one corner and it was dead embarrassing. Then they asked me to play in the first number, but the man from Philips wanted to play. I can’t remember it he played or not, but the group said they didn’t want him. So I just stayed with them. Nobody actually said I was in the group. I was just there and I’ve been there ever since. They were an amazing crowd and they still are.

How long were you with the group?
They were The Detours, then [early ‘64], on the circuit. Then they changed their name to The Who and they were The Who when I joined them. It was a friend of Pete’s idea to call them The Who. We went through various names, like any group. We had a manager called Pete Meaden who thought up The High Numbers and the mod image. I don’t think we quite knew what we were doing, but before we knew it, we had all this mod gear, feeling totally out of place. This phase lasted a long time and at the time there were these legendary fights within the group.

When did [managers] Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp arrive?
They arrived when we were playing the Scene Club as The High Numbers. Kit first saw us in Harrow, and from there we signed with Kit and Chris. We’ve been stuck with them ever since. Somebody’s got to look after them.

Is it true that when you first started playing the Marquee, fans were paid to come and see the Who?
This was the Shepherds Bush mod crowd who came to see us at the Goldhawk Road social club. Kit had an idea to get us into the West End and he wanted to form a nucleus of hard-core Who fans and call them the Hundred Faces. He would give them all a ticket and membership in the Hundred Faces, and make it very exclusive. This was the start of the Marquee sessions. We took the club on a Tuesday night because nothing ever happened on a Tuesday. We moved in and gave all these free tickets to these staunch supporters of ours from Shepherds Bush.
         A massive invasion took place with these guys – their chicks and friends and a few people must have wandered in. Gradually we built it up so that by the time we left the Marquee, it was getting packed. That was all our London following. It started from Goldhawk Road, the Marquee, and the West End. People started coming from all over, the Elephant and Castle and East End.

Had you started breaking equipment then?
We started earlier than that, actually. It was an accident at the Railway. Pete did it as a mistake. We were very visual onstage with theatrics, and Pete was always swinging his guitar about. One day – whack – the head fell off! The drums used to really disintegrate on their own – I hit them so hard. The fittings were designed for dance bands. When you got somebody like me, they just snapped off.
         My whole style of drumming changed when I joined the band. Before, I had just been copying straight from records, but with the Who I had to develop a style of my own. I took the ideal from Gene Krupa with all the stick twiddling and thought it was great. The sticks used to fly out of my hands because I was sweating like a pig. They’d just slide out. All these things had an effect on the audience. They’d wonder what was going on. There was a lot of raving going on in the States, but over here the ravers were outnumbered by the Shadows-type nice groups.

30.3.14

MOON - The End

I was living in New York on September 7, 1978, the day Keith died. It was early in the evening when my good friend and fellow Who fanatic Lisa Seckler called me up and told me the awful news. I was never quite sure how she heard, maybe from the radio or from another Who freak in London who rang her and was as devastated as she was. She knew I would be too.
That night I was due to meet up with my old MM colleague Chris Welch who was in New York to interview some band or other, and Chris and I ended up drowning our sorrows over Keith together. (Strangely enough I was with Chris, in Amsterdam, when we heard John Bonham had died. For the sake of all British drummers we have vowed never to meet abroad ever again.)
Although I’d left MM by this time the then editor Richard Williams called to ask me to write an obituary of Keith, but Chris, as a drummer, felt he ought to write something too. We agreed between ourselves that I would write about Keith the man and he would write about Keith the drummer. The pieces ran together, side by side, and I think they blended into one another well. Here’s a slightly edited version of what I wrote, rather hurriedly as I didn’t have much time to write it, nor the ease with which computers enable us writers to do our work today. With a monumental hangover that I figured Keith would have appreciated as he climbed the stairway to that great Premier kit in the sky, I dictated it over the phone the next day. It reads a bit cheesy now, in 2014, but I meant every word. A bit longer than most of my posts but here it is.


"What does it all mean, Keith?" I once asked him, not really knowing what to expect for an answer.
         He waited a moment or two before answering. The loopy grin with the missing front tooth disappeared and the wild eyes became reflective instead of challenging. He spoke more slowly, choosing words carefully, as if the pressure of seriousness was, indeed, a difficult chore.
         "On stage," he replied, his mind travelling to some gigantic stadium where The Who had triumphed at some concert or other. "That's what it's all about. Being up there in front of all those people and watching them enjoy something that I've helped to create. Nothing, nothing at all, can replace that feeling. Everything else is bullshit, really.
         "I love playing the drums for The Who. Just to be up there and hear that roar. That's the biggest, most exciting feeling that a man can have. Thanks to The Who, I've known that feeling and I am eternally grateful to them for giving me that. I never want it to stop."
         I can’t pretend to have known Keith Moon very well. Keith was extraordinarily gregarious, the kind of man who knew thousands of people, and thousands more knew him back. Our paths crossed many times whilst I wrote for Melody Maker, especially since my admiration for The Who slipped into print on more than one occasion. Also, I lived for a while in Englefield Green, not far from Chertsey and Tara House where the demon drummer came home to roost from time to time. He always welcomed a stray journalist as a drinking companion.
         It is my contention that very few people knew Keith Moon very well. Keith revelled in an enormous variety of disguises and costumes: the upper-class twit, the East-End upstart, the drunken oaf, the filthy pervert, the romantic dreamer and, most of all, the practical joker. To his audience, and that means off-stage as well as on, he was an irresistible fool, an irrepressible comic and a very lovable idiot. In one way or another he was always performing, always being the Keith Moon of the newspaper headlines, always living the role he had chosen for himself and never revealing his true identity.
         From the very beginnings of The Who, from their earliest days in Shepherds Bush, Moon determined to become the most outlandish character in pop. Legend has it that the night he joined The Who, standing in for Doug Sandon at the Oldfield in Greenford, he destroyed a drum kit that had served its previous owner for 20 years. He was dressed in orange with orange dyed hair and he was hired on the spot. The absence of money in those days did not deter Keith's resolution; while Pete was running up the bills by poleaxing Rickenbackers, Keith was matching him pound for pound in the Soho nightspots. The pattern remained the same for fifteen years.
         Keith Moon stories are legend, and everyone has their favourite. Many have been told and retold until the truth is embellished with fiction to the extent that the yarn becomes a classic of rock folklore. Simply to have inspired such a legend is no mean feat, but the fact that the majority of famous tales have their roots in actuality put Keith Moon in a class by himself. No performer in rock ever came close to enjoying the reputation for outrageousness that Keith earned for himself.
Keith had the knack of being utterly charming one moment and devastatingly delinquent the next. Some of the worst excesses occurred on The Who's early American tours when the discomforts suffered doubtless warranted a protest of some kind. The infamous front tooth was lost, I believe, in Flint, Michigan, during a party to celebrate Peter "Herman" Noone's birthday. Keith, fleeing from a catastrophe that involved a cake fight and a car in a hotel pool, tripped at the feet of the law, lost his tooth and spent a night in jail.
         He never changed. More recently, at a Los Angeles hotel, Keith was reprimanded by the manager for playing a tape of The Who By Numbers too loud. "It's a noise," exclaimed the irate official. One hour later the door of Moon's suite shattered in an explosion that sent vibrations echoing throughout the entire hotel. "That was a noise," explained Moon, to the astonished manager. "What you heard before was The Who."
         As a practical joker, Keith Moon had few peers. No one who was around at the time will ever forget the Nazi uniform incident with Vivian Stanshall at the Speakeasy nor, I suppose will the customers at the Trafalgar Square Beerkeller where they ended up later that night. Then there was the time when he wrapped himself from head to toe in bandages and stepped out into the streets of London, first to gain sympathy and then to astonish the sympathisers by sprinting off to his waiting Rolls-Royce. That might have been the time he was dressed as a priest, or maybe not.
         Clerical garb was always a favourite. Another time, in Windsor during the filming of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, he dressed as a nun and climbed from an upstairs window of the hotel where he was staying to the balcony of another guest, nuns breaking into windows in the middle of the night being the sort of thing that appealed to Keith. The last time I saw his name in print was due to some lunacy on a trans-Atlantic flight. There were so many times, so many outrages, recalled over double brandies before captivated listeners, when the booming laugh would ring out like a foghorn, madly infectious and totally captivating. Fact? Fiction? Who knows? Or Cares. 
         "Come in dear boy," Keith, the host, would say, welcoming visitors to the chaos that was Tara House, his home in Chertsey. And, once inside, the visitor was sucked into the dizzy whirlpool of Moonmania. Music from record players, tape machines, radios and juke boxes blared from every room, television sets and video machines were switched on and off. Friends shouted above the din, and cars and motorcycles and hovercrafts were revved up outside or inside to compete with the din.
         On the bathroom wall, believe it or not, was John Lennon's gold record for 'She Loves You' and in the garden the genteel host, dressed in a gold smoking jacket, would be taking pot shots at birds with a high-powered rifle and telling some mystified acquaintance the sad saga of Billy Fury's pet owls that were left at Tara for safekeeping. The poor owls would have been safer in the Sinai desert.
         He was the most generous of men. The distinction between genuine friends, admirers and bloodsuckers became blurred when Keith was in a partying mood. He liked to be surrounded at all times, to be the leader of the pack. He even bought a pub near Oxford where he could play host to both friends and strangers. The manufacturers of Remy Martin brandy will be amongst those who mourn him most deeply, even if the same cannot be said for the Hotel Proprietors Association of America.
         It must be said that Keith paid dearly for his excesses; extravagances were always paid for in the end, and in hard cash too. I had a passing acquaintance with an accountant brought in by Keith to examine his financial affairs, a task of horrific proportions that she was reluctant to discuss, as befits a professional with private information. She did mention, however, that Keith had one day driven past a garage near Egham that dealt exclusively with selling Ferrari cars. Our hero ordered three, one red, one white and one blue. They were never delivered, a conversation between the accountant and garage owner having established the imprudence of this transaction. Keith never mentioned the matter again; apparently he forgot the purchase completely.
         Although he never held a driving licence, his stable of cars was impressive. There were two Rollers, one a white open-topped Corniche and the other the lilac Silver Cloud II. The latter was his special favourite, apart from the AC Cobra, a terrifying machine acquired from John Bonham that ended up wrapped around a bollard somewhere between Egham and Staines. There was a magnificent white Mercedes-Benz, too, as well as the ancient Chrysler, an Al Capone-mobile that boasted bullet holes in the windows and always carried a spare machine gun.
         If I have dwelt too long on the outrage, I apologise, for there were other sides to Keith Moon. He exhibited a terrifyingly fierce loyalty towards The Who. What was said behind locked doors was one thing, but woe betide any man who uttered a criticism of his three colleagues. More often than not John Entwistle was Keith's partner in crime, but he always spoke of Roger, and especially Pete, in glowing terms. Keith would – and did – spend time with any rock musician on the planet, but he never allowed his admiration for others to interfere with allegiance to The Who. Outwardly modest, he was enormously proud of The Who's achievements, convinced that he played drums for the finest rock band ever to take the stage.
         Amidst all the craziness, Keith Moon's talents as a rock drummer were often overlooked. No other drummer in rock ever put quite as much energy into a performance as Moon; while his peers would be content to fix a solid back-beat, juggling between their snare and hi-hat, Moon would consistently extend himself over the entire kit.
         And what a kit it was. Twin kick drums the size of timpani, four floor toms (one for use as a drinks tray), as many smaller toms as there was space and crash and ride cymbals galore. He was a comical sight, a tiny bundle of white energy, skating across so many drums, rolling sticks, pulling faces and always, but always, catching the end of the roll in perfect time. He was happiest, I suspect, when the music reached one of Townshend's crescendos, when he was called upon to pummel the floor toms for all he was worth, both arms striking the drums together and, of course, making as much bloody noise as he could.
         His work in the studio could be as controlled as his live work-outs were flamboyant. The best example is on Who's Next, when producer Glyn Johns tightened the Who's sound to produce their most perfect record. It is interesting to compare this album with Live At Leeds when Moon's attack is at its most ferocious; yes, it is the same man on both records.
         Keith Moon never took a drum solo. "They're boring," he'd say, and there are many who would agree. Neither did he talk drums much; he admired Ringo Starr, but I suspect that had more to do with Ringo's group than Ringo's drumming. He also spoke highly of Bob Henrit.
         It is doubtful whether Keith could have played with any other group. His awesome technique suited The Who to a tee, but with any other musicians he would have overshadowed the lead instruments. The Who's sound was based on Townshend's rhythmic flair, carried along by the powerhouse drums and thunderous bass. Curiously, Keith's early musical influence seemed to be surf music; he was a fanatical admirer of The Beach Boys and other surfing bands. At home he would sing along to this music, invariably off-key, turning the volume up to a deafening level to camouflage his catastrophic pitching.
         The first time I met Keith Moon was in 1970, a few weeks after joining the staff of Melody Maker, at La Chasse Club, a small drinking den above the Marquee in London's Wardour Street. I’d seen The Who perform at Dunstable Civic Hall a few weeks earlier and submitted a rave review. It was the first time I’d actually written about The Who in the pages of MM, although I had been a fan since I first saw them on Ready Steady Go! in 1965.
         On the Friday of the following week, two days after that issue of Melody Maker became available, Keith Moon called me at the MM office to thank me for the good review. I was astonished that an artist of Moon's status would do such a thing; it hadn't happened before and, I might add, it rarely happened since.
It was the beginning of a friendship I shall always cherish. RIP Keith.


29.3.14

MOON - The Beginning

As well as being their drummer and resident comedian, Keith Moon was The Who’s PR man. Journalists unfamiliar with the group may have had to contact their long-suffering official PR Keith Altham to obtain access but once the wall had been breached Keith Moon, uniquely for one in his position, not only made himself available virtually any time to anyone with a pen and notebook but pro-actively sought out journalists to help boost the group’s media profile.
         On July 25, 1970, three months into my staff job on Melody Maker, I reviewed The Who for the first time at a concert at the Civic Hall in Dunstable, about 30 miles north of London. Having already seen them a few times (and been a fan for around five years) by this time, and being as how they were at the top of their game in 1970, I gave them a rave review. “They lived up to their name as the most exciting stage act in the world,” I wrote, or something to that effect.
         The following Friday, two days after my review appeared in MM, the phone rang on my desk.
         “Hello.”
         “Is that Chris?”
         “Yes.”
         “Keith here. Keith Moon. From The Who.”
         Indeed, I thought. Is there any other? I’d actually been introduced to him briefly at La Chasse Club on Wardour Street a few weeks previously.
         “I’m just ringing to say thanks for the nice review of the group you wrote.”
         “Er… it’s a pleasure, Keith. I love The Who.”
         “So do I. We must have a drink sometime, dear boy.”
         “I’d love to.”
         “Meet me in La Chasse, or the Speakeasy. Come and say hello.”
         “I will, I promise. Bye.”
         I was flabbergasted. I hadn’t been at MM very long and I’d written positively about a few other acts, yet none had called to thank me. Now here was Keith Moon, a member of a band that was far and away the most skilled and successful of all the bands I’d reviewed, calling up to thank me for a good review. Neither he nor The Who actually needed a good review to help their career at this stage – unlike some of the others – yet Keith saw fit to call. I was immensely impressed, and this certainly helped cement my love for this great group.
         The next time we met, at the Speakeasy this time, Keith invited me to be his guest at a Who concert at the Hammersmith Palais, on October 29, 1970. On the night I met him in central London, at Track's offices on Old Compton Street, we were driven from there to Hammersmith in his lilac Rolls-Royce which pulled up outside the front doors in full view of fans waiting in line to get in. When Keith stepped out of the car the crowd parted like the red sea to allow him to walk through, cheering him as he went by. The security on the door – such as it was – stepped aside and saluted him. Keith acknowledged the ovation, grinning and waving. I was by his side and it was like walking into Old Trafford alongside George Best, just a tremendous feeling of elation.
         That night was the first time I met the other three members of The Who too.

28.3.14

ELBOW - The Take Off And Landing Of Everything

Most of my blogging is nostalgic in tone, but now I’m getting back into the groove of writing about music, here’s my thoughts on a new album that’s at number five in the UK LP charts this week.

Last weekend the new Elbow album, The Take Off And Landing Of Everything, was a constant companion on my walks with the dog, and I’ve no hesitation in recommending it to anyone who likes to pause for reflection amidst an earful of melody. Singer Guy Garvey suggested in interviews before its release that Elbow was heading off into an ‘experimental’ direction with this sixth album but I think he was kidding. ‘Experimental’ albums rarely hit the top of the album charts, let alone in their first week of release, though this achievement does suggest that throwing those curtains wide did its job rather well; perhaps too well since ‘One Day Like This’ has become so omnipresent as to be a contender for the next national anthem should Parliament ever agree with me that the wearisome ‘God Save The Queen’ has outstayed its welcome.
         The ascendance of Elbow is to be welcomed. In another era they might have been pigeon-holed as prog rockers for their music is far from simple and takes on many hues, often within the same song, but this is to do them a disservice. Elbow’s music is far more listenable than the rather uneasy-on-the-ear stuff we used to call prog, and has far more depth than its close cousin, mood music.
Elbow are at their best when they throw in the whole caboodle behind a gorgeous melody, as on the title track of this new record, a great swirling wall of sound that fills the head with a rich and stately sense of grandeur, but Garvey pricks any hint of pomposity with his warm, avuncular voice and the endearing way he has of pronouncing words with a hard u in them so that cup comes out as coop and, even more pragmatically, fuckers as fookers.
The key to their sound comes not from guitars but from an array of keyboards that summon up a whole electronic orchestra, within which are more than a few sounds from no instrument I can immediately recognise. They favour bell-like chimes and by that I mean huge bells such as might be found in church spires, though despite the hint of spirituality in their chorales there isn’t a trace of the church in there. There are mournful trumpets, keening strings and pealing guitars that add to this ensemble sound with the kind of infinite sustain that David Gilmour conjured up on Pink Floyd epics like ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’.
Much of this tends to come together towards the end of longish songs, the opener ‘This Blue World’, ‘My Sad Captain’ and the title track, all of which have anthem-like codas that ice the cake already lovingly baked by Garvey’s thoughtful lyrics. ‘Blue World’ switches into another dimension at 4.30, with acoustic guitar chords drawn into the mix that are eventually joined by those chimes of endless sustain. On the title track the drums are held back until 1.25 when they enter to drive the song relentlessly forward; at around 3.30 a synthesiser joins in to add a lovely counter-melody over the top; and by the time we’re five minutes in that whole caboodle is in place, swirling and swaying like the rolling waves of a turbulent sea.
Without recourse to the lyrics – that’s the trouble with buying albums from iTunes – I’m not sure what Garvey is singing about half the time but his thoughtful delivery and the fact that he makes no attempt whatsoever to disguise that no-nonsense Northern accent leads me to believe his concerns are sincere, wholesome and, probably, politically left of centre. That said, I love his ‘perfect waste of time’ judgement in ‘Sad Captain’ and how he rhymes ‘net’ with ‘Lafeyette’ in a song whose title escapes me for the moment. Either way, he sounds eminently pubbable, and that’s OK with me.
Acts that are concerned with preserving their integrity after releasing hugely popular albums occasionally follow them up with something completely different, and in doing so risk alienating new fans in the process. In this regard some of the songs here, those featuring sparser instrumentation and trickier time signatures, are less likely to inspire the ubiquitous cigarette lighter moment, but The Take Off And Landing Of Everything is an album that is designed to be listened to in its entirety, its mood and pace as carefully constructed as you would expect from this group. Years of learning their craft have served Elbow well, as they always do. They are without doubt amongst the most expressive, listenable and generally appealing groups to have emerged this century. 

27.3.14

R.E.M. - On The Road

This is an extract from Tony Fletcher’s R.E.M. biography Perfect Circle, which benefited from his long friendship with the group, especially guitarist Peter Buck. I’m envious of Tony. He saw all three of their shows on first visit to the UK in 1983 and at least once on every one of their five subsequent trips up to and including 1987.
         The book wasn’t ‘authorised’ in the sense that it was ‘official product’ or that R.E.M. profited from it, and the fact that they helped Tony without asking for anything in return endeared me to this group all the more. Actually that’s not strictly true. When a Japanese edition was published Peter Buck was so delighted he asked for several copies to send to his friends as Christmas presents. I was happy to oblige and I got a limited edition R.E.M. Christmas single in return.
         We’re in 1982, the Chronic Town EP and ‘Radio Free Europe’ are spreading the word but life on the road is far from a cakewalk.  


R.E.M.’s following grew steadily, but there was always a badly advertised or ill-arranged show to bring them back down to earth. In May 1982, living on the road to make the most of ‘Radio Free Europe’’s surprising success, they followed up a couple of prestigious New York dates with a midweek trip to Detroit on a night that the venue rarely even opened.
“There were five people there who happened to be driving by who were all on mescaline,” recalls Peter Buck. “They enjoyed the hell out of it, they all had a great time. They asked us for an encore, and we came back out and said, ‘Listen, this is ridiculous, there’s as many of us as there are of you. We’ll just take you to dinner.’ We made $300 that night, so we took them to this Greek restaurant.”
Such occasions did nothing to dampen R.E.M.’s collective spirit. “I remember playing at The Antenna Club in Memphis,” says Buck, “and we were playing really well. But there were only about eight people there, and two of them were this old wino man and woman, and they were dancing in front of us, like waltzing, and slobbering on each other, and groping. Some people would think that’s humiliating, but I thought ‘We’re playing really well; I don’t care if there’s old winos having a good time and six people at the bar.’ Even if you only had three people, those three people would be saying ‘God, they’re pretty good’.”
On signing to I.R.S., and with the backing of [booking agency] F.B.I., R.E.M. might have assumed those days were over. Their two most sublime shows were yet to occur.
Driving out to the west coast in August 1982 for that first month in California involved a 1,400-mile, week-long void between Austin and San Diego. With no ‘new wave Mondays’ or progressive pizza restaurants in this neck of the woods, F.B.I. could come up with just one date, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The band drove into town only to find they were opening for a Hot Legs contest.
“These professional strippers were coming and doing obscene dances,” says Peter Buck, whose memory of the club is a drunken audience a thousand strong chanting for ‘tits and ass’. The promoter looked at the oddly-dressed bunch of Athens ex-college boys, at his raucous crowd of cowboys, and back again.
If you go on before these naked women, he told the group, I’m worried that these guys are going to kill you. Better I pay you your $500 and you go on your way. A flabbergasted R.E.M. took the cash and hurried off on the next 700 miles of their journey before the promoter could change his mind.
More than a year later, with their début album causing a noticeable stir and a considerable following in much of America, F.B.I. booked them and Mitch Easter’s new group Let’s Active into an Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. Michael Stipe’s sense of déjà vu as they drove up to a compound all too familiar from his childhood was enforced when they took the stage to face a sea of rednecks with crewcuts. The music that was winning them critical acclaim across America did not score points with the men of the USAF.
“There were oranges flying out of the audience,” recalls Peter Buck. “They were passing notes: ‘If you play one more song like this, you DIE, faggots!’”
“These guys would not get really violent, because they’d be arrested by the MPs,” said Michael Stipe a year later. “But they had this mock violence and mock threatening and that was more frustrating to me than just having them come up and smash our heads in.”
Not even the group’s repertoire of Rolling Stones songs could appease a crowd hungry for ZZ Top and Van Halen. Finally, Bill Berry stormed offstage, leaving Sara Romweber from Let’s Active to take his place and finish the show to thunderous booing.
“I remember Peter demanding the band break up over that, (because) it was so unprofessional,” recalls [record producer] Mitch Easter of Bill’s abrupt departure. “It was actually sort of funny. Everybody got mad with everybody, and everybody was gonna quit, and so and so wasn’t ever going to play in a band with so and so again. There were varying degrees of temper within the band. It takes a long time for it to sink in just why you have to put all of that aside.”
A night straight out of the celebrated rock ’n’ roll satire documentary This Is Spinal Tap, the events of Wichita Falls were matched only by the drive from New Jersey to Michigan for that ill attended Detroit show.
High up in the mountains of Pennsylvania in the still of night, Bill and Peter pull the van over at the Howard Johnsons to get coffee and relieve themselves. They ask if anyone needs anything, but are greeted by silence. Everyone is asleep.
Almost a full hour after resuming the long journey north, Mike Mills wakes up. He asks what happened to [manager] Jefferson [Hope]. Peter tells him he’s asleep in the back. Mike insists he’s not. Michael Stipe wakes up and confirms it: Jefferson is not there. Realisation sinks in. Their manager had got out at the service stop without telling anyone, and the group had driven off without him.
With Jefferson carrying the tour float, they must turn around. But on this winding mountain road with a fence running along the central reservation, there is nowhere to do so. It’s a further twenty miles before they find an exit, another hour and a half before they return to the Howard Johnsons. There, a despondent Jefferson Holt sits by the kerbside, waiting patiently. No one says a word as he gets back in and the group resume their journey, almost 200 miles and two and a half hours behind schedule.
Years later, travelling in luxury coaches with bunk beds. VCRs and stereos, to towns where their equipment would already be set up and five-star hotel bookings under individual pseudonyms had been pre-paid, where the shows were already sold out and the strippers were confined to the local go-go bars, they would look back on those days in the faithful Dodge van, on the sleepless nights, the endless drinking, the disasters, the triumphs and the pocket-sized crowds they knew by name, and think, We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

26.3.14

R.E.M. - In My Eyes

No new band gave me greater pleasure in the eighties than R.E.M.. I went to see them a couple of times (and was utterly charmed when they all swapped instruments for one song) but I was quite late discovering them really. It was my Omnibus colleague Andy King who turned me on to them around the time of their fourth album in 1986. He’d been banging on about them at work and very kindly made me a cassette of Murmur which sat around my flat for a week or two until I got around to listening to it one Saturday night when I’d got back from the pub and skinned one up, on my own and in the mood for some music I’d never heard before, loud through cans, before I called it a night.
          Mmmm, what have I been missing, I remember thinking, as ‘Radio Free Europe’ and ‘Pilgrimage’ filled my head. When ‘Perfect Circle’ came on I realised that Andy was right. One of the things I came to learn about R.E.M., something that either fascinated or annoyed in equal measure, was that you never knew what Michael Stipe was singing about, not until much later in their career anyway. It wasn’t that his voice was low in the mix (like Mick Jagger on most Stones’ records) but his words were oblique, ethereal, strung together like tone poems, and not designed to convey a message or tell a story but simply to sound pleasing to the ear regardless of whether they made any sense or not. Put your hair back, we get to leave/Eleven gallows on your sleeve… Standing too soon, shoulders high in the room.” Don’t ask me what he’s on about but it doesn’t matter a jot because these meaningless words float above such a gorgeous melody that R.E.M. seemed to me to have invented a kind of music wherein the vocals were simply part of the instrumental wash, projecting a strange, haunting quality that was shrouded in a blanket of deep harmony.
          Back in the flat I was nicely mellow by the time ‘Shaking Through’ came on and it was at the moment towards the end when Michael Stipe sings the words “in my eyes” and repeats them as the vocals all fold together in a deluge of harmony that I really got it. I got R.E.M. for the first time and it was a great moment. I stopped the tape, rewound it and listened to that 30 seconds again. It was like being immersed in a warm bath. (Lyrics on the internet, unavailable when I first heard it, state Stipe is singing “In my life” here, but I don’t think it matters what he sings. With R.E.M. it’s what you hear that counts.)
          The next week I bought all R.E.M.’s CDs up to that point, the first four albums, and the Chronic Town EP, and of course they sounded much superior to Andy’s cassette. To digress for a moment… this was around the time that the record industry was making a big fuss about home taping, but the fact is that it was thanks to a ‘home tape’ that I discovered R.E.M. and went out and spent £50 or so on their official recordings which I might not have done otherwise. Before long, because no ‘best of R.E.M.’ album had been released, I made up my own cassette of R.E.M. favourites to play on my Walkman and in cars and, like Andy, banged on about them to everyone I met, and even gave cassettes away. Maybe they did for others what Andy’s cassette did for me. Either way, I went on to buy every single CD they ever released, and they’re all on my iPod, some 274 songs now. And it all began with a home tape.
          Like many others I was seduced by Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, at which point they became huge. There’s so much R.E.M. to choose from now that I find it hard to pick later favourites but ‘Nightswimming’ always gets to me, as does ‘Find The River’, which closed Automatic. Although the lyrics on albums from Green onwards tended to be easier to interpret, it’s never straightforward to decode what Michael Stipe is singing about but, as always, the melody on their slower songs sucks you in so that it doesn’t matter, and on ‘Find The River’ it seems to me that Michael is singing about leaving somewhere, heading off on his travels, while his bandmates create a combination of pathos and fulfillment, sad to see him go but wishing him bon voyage as they wave him on his way. Beautiful backing vocals enshrine the song in an initial well of sadness that by the end of the song has somehow moved from a dark tunnel into bright sunlight, like the night turning into day.
          Somehow I wasn’t all that surprised when R.E.M. called it a day. They’d always seemed to me to have integrity to spare and in this regard were never the kind of band that would hang in for the money, which they didn’t need anyway. Like others I was frustrated by some stuff after … Hi-Fi, though I think they ended on a high with the live album recorded in Dublin, Accelerate and Collapse Into Now.
          But whatever else, my love for this great band really goes back to hearing Murmur for the first time on Andy’s home tape that Saturday night in Hammersmith, lying back on my couch at around 1am, listening to ‘Perfect Circle’ and ‘Shaking Through’… “Yellow like a geisha gown… In my eyes”.
          Tomorrow I’ll post an extract from Tony Fletcher’s R.E.M. biography Perfect Circle, originally published as REMarks in 1989, and subsequently updated several times until retitled Perfect Circle in 2013, this final edition covering the dissolution of the group in September 2011. 

25.3.14

UNMASKING AN IMPOSTER

Apropos of nothing in particular here’s an odd thing that happened to me once in a long lost and fondly remembered local, The Thatched House in Dalling Road between Hammersmith and Chiswick in West London. I used to live less than five minutes’ walk away.
         On this particular night the then landlord and his wife, Michael and Nuala, an Irish couple, were celebrating their wedding anniversary and I’d been invited to linger for afters, along with several other regulars and a few friends of mine hosts.
         It was Michael who sauntered up to me and suggested I might like to meet his Scottish friend who “used to play saxophone in the Average White Band”. Michael knew I was in the rock trade. I was duly introduced to a short, balding, Scottish chap. He certainly wasn’t either Molly Duncan or Roger Ball, the AWB’s horn duo.
         “Oh, did you play with Molly and Roger then?” I asked.
         The man just looked perplexed.
         “I used to know the AWBs quite well once, back in the Seventies when they lived in New York,” I went on. “Hamish is playing with Paul McCartney now isn’t he?”
         The man was glancing around, looking worried. He didn’t respond.
         “And Steve Ferrone has made quite a name for himself playing with people like Eric Clapton,” I continued. “S’funny, I don’t remember you. This was the era when they had that big hit with ‘Pick Up The Pieces’. They were living out on Long Island in a house owned by Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic, their record label. Did you join later?”
         The Scottish bloke’s perplexed look was rapidly turning to one of embarrassment. Michael the landlord looked on bewildered.
         “Er... Nice to meet you but I have to go and talk to some friends over on the other side of the bar,” the “AWB saxophone player” finally said, beating a hasty retreat.
         “What was all that about?” asked Michael.
         “That guy never played with the Average White Band,” I said. “He didn’t even know who they were, or what I was talking about.”
         “What were you talking about?”
         “The Average White Band, of course.”
         “Well, he’s been telling everyone for years he was in that band.”
         “Believe me Michael, he wasn’t.”
         “Well, well, well. Bugger me. What you’re havin’?” 
         In the general scheme of things it’s probably a pretty safe bet that you can go around the world telling people you played saxophone in the Average White Band, especially if you’re Scottish, and no-one is likely to challenge you. They were never that well known, after all, there were six of them, the sax players stood at the back, and it’s been a long while since they played together or troubled the chart compilers. But this fellow had the misfortune to come up against someone like me, who just happened to have known the Average White Band and a bit about their history.
         So, if there any other imposters like this around, take note that there are people like me out there ready to expose you and you never know where we’ll find you. 

24.3.14

DAVID BOWIE'S TEETH

How I was conned by an unscrupulous TV production company…

I should have seen it coming really, especially after the interviewer referred to ‘Changes’ as a ‘recent’ David Bowie song, but in the event I was stitched up good and proper.
         A few years ago I was approached by a researcher for a London-based company called RDF Media. They were producing a programme with the working title of The Changing Face Of Celebrity, and wanted me to put them in touch with Kenneth Pitt, David Bowie’s first manager. I declined but said I would pass a letter on to him. I received a letter, via e-mail, which I printed out and forwarded to Ken. In it were the following sentences: We will be focusing on Bowie's work and life over the last four decades, focusing on how his changing personas through the seventies and eighties helped to create this legendary performer. I am particularly interested in how Bowie has used his image to market himself and his music, and in this case, study his transformations over the years.”
         Demonstrating the wisdom of his years, Ken declined to be involved, as he almost always does, then – because I’d interviewed DB and once worked as Bowie’s PR at his record label, RCA – I was duly invited onto the show myself and, after agreeing a fee, I consented.I am keen to interview you as I believe you can provide a great insight to this biography,” wrote RDF.
         The interview took place in an expensive two-room suite at the posh Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge. I explained to the interviewer that my ‘expertise’ on Bowie was probably his relationship with the media and the first few questions were about his skill at manipulating the music press to his advantage. We moved on to his music, his ‘personas’ (Ziggy, Thin White Duke etc), and skirted his drug use in the Seventies. At one point I was asked to ‘summarise Bowie’s career in the seventies’, to which I responded: “How long have we got?” much to the amusement of the camera crew. They were equally amused when, after the interviewer asked me my opinion on recent Bowie music ‘like “Changes”’, I responded by stating that ‘Changes’ appeared on David’s Hunky Dory album, released in 1971. Hardly recent, I pointed out.
         It was soon clear that the interviewer knew sod all about David Bowie, but somewhere in among the questions the subject of Bowie’s teeth was brought up, and I was asked when Bowie had had his teeth job. I replied: “In the early Eighties, I think. Why do you want to know about his teeth?” “Oh just… never mind.” And, then, after more chat about David’s career in the eighties and nineties, there was another throwaway question about his teeth, something about whether his smoking habit had discoloured them. “I guess it must have done,” I replied. I did confirm that Bowie was once a heavy smoker, hardly a secret. I also asked, jokingly, why she was so concerned with Bowie’s teeth. It was laughed off. I made it clear that Bowie’s dentistry was not a subject about which I was well informed. Then it was back to more questions about music and his career.
         It was all over in half an hour and after being assured they would inform me when the programme was going to be aired (which they didn’t) I was on my way home. Eventually I got paid and that was that. Or so I thought.
         Two months later my pal Johnny Rogan called me. He’d seen me on TV the night before, he said, talking about David Bowie’s teeth. What? David Bowie’s teeth? You sure? “Yes, on some programme about celebrity make-overs… you were quoted as saying that his heavy smoking had stained his teeth… most of the show was some orthodontist discussing Bowie’s teeth with a board and a stick. They had a giant photograph of David Bowie’s mouth.”
         And then it dawned on me. The whole ‘music and career’ interview was an elaborate subterfuge designed to lure me into commenting on David’s teeth job, to be used on a show called Celebrity Surgery: Who’s Had What Done? Mindful that I would almost certainly have been unwilling to appear on such garbage, the shysters at RDF Media had cleverly constructed a scenario designed to make it appear as if the programme for which I was interviewed was a respectful documentary about David Bowie’s life and career. In reality it was something entirely different.
         I won’t get fooled again. 

23.3.14

LONG TALL SALLY & DON'T LET ME DOWN

I have almost 15,000 songs on my iPod now and these two are my most played Beatle songs. Here’s why.

Long Tall Sally
March 1, 1964. One take! John once said that in the years before they exploded on to the public consciousness there was no band in the UK that could touch The Beatles when it came to playing straight rock – and on this evidence no one in their right mind would disagree with him. This is what I imagine the Cavern Beatles would have been like, the group that returned from Hamburg at the end of 1960 and blew the roof off Litherland Town Hall on December 27. That was the night Beatlemania first broke out and, boy, do I wish I’d been there. Billed as ‘Direct from Hamburg’ the audience thought they were German. “They said, ‘Christ they speak good Enghlish,’” said John. “Which we did, of course, being English. But that’s when we stood there being cheered at for the first time.”
The Beatles take Little Richard’s song and wring it dry, simply shred it, in a shattering, full-tilt performance with George Martin duplicating Richard’s piano-thumping, Paul on throat-searing lead vocal, his finest up-tempo performance ever in a recording studio, and George weighing in with a couple of slightly sloppy solos that perfectly suit the mood, especially the ascending chord run second time around. The power of The Beatles on this song matches the stupendous ‘Twist And Shout’, recorded for their first LP slightly over a year earlier, and in this respect it’s Paul’s answer to his songwriting partner: anything you can do I can do, whack.
 This track first appeared on an EP in 1964, a year in which their confidence was at an all-time high – and it shows. Remember, one take! It’s all over in two minutes and three seconds. It took them as long to record it as it does to listen to it.

Don’t Let Me Down
From Paul on a high to John on a low, his cri de coeur for Yoko, and my choice as his finest late period Beatle song, used as the B-side of ‘Get Back’, which they just happened to record on the same day, January 28, 1969. I believe this was recorded live in the studio, with a minimum of overdubs or studio trickery and it set the tone for John’s style of recording for the next two years or so. Not unlike Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’ in the drama of its delivery, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ opens with its sublime chorus and hovers precipitously on two chords during the verse before descending back into John’s cry from the heart.
         I first fell for this song when it was played endlessly on the jukebox in La Chasse Club on Wardour Street, the private members bar up two flights of stairs a few doors along from the Marquee, and used by music industry types who wanted to avoid the crush there. Three songs seemed to be on permanent rotation here, ‘Wigwam’, the instrumental from Dylan’s Self Portrait album, ‘Sweetness’ from the first Yes LP (Jon Anderson once worked behind the bar at La Chasse, washing glasses) and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. Inexplicably, it had been left off The Beatles’ Let It Be album – though it’s now added to Let It Be Naked – and, since I didn’t buy the ‘Get Back’ single because I had the album (in its original box, with accompanying book), I missed out on it until I heard it here.
          Much covered, I like the c&w style version by Gene Clark & Doug Dillard which I dusted off a week ago after watching the Gene Clark documentary The Byrd Who Flew Alone. And my friends Goldrush used to do a mean version when they played in the Compasses, my local pub, too, so thanks Rob, Gavin and Cam for that!