27.7.18

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN




Love or loathe Abba – and the longer we live the fewer there are who need to be won over – it’s impossible not to like this great big, warm-hearted, funny, touching and occasionally silly movie. Like the clothes Abba once wore it’s OTT and, like the original film, it’s a feast of colour and attractive people, all of them cavorting about in sunny, picturesque locations where everyone has a habit of joyously bursting into song and waving their arms about as another Abba classic is performed by cast members, not always with the same skill as Agnetha and Frida but with enthusiasm and knowing smiles that more than make up for any shortcomings in their vocal attributes.
         Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, like Godfather II, a shifting prequel and sequel to the 2008 film but unlike Godfather II no one avenges family honour by arranging a violent death. Tears and heartbreak, misfortune and indignity are smoothed away with an Abba song, 16 in total, a few of which are reprised from the earlier film – how could you not include 'Dancing Queen'? – though many are album tracks uncollected on either Gold or More Gold and therefore not quite so well known. Part of the fun, as before, is guessing when they’re about to arrive through slightly oblique turns in the story and appropriate bits of dialogue.
         It has to be said that those unfamiliar with the plot of the original film – a girl’s quest to identify her father from among her mother’s three boyfriends – might take a while to cotton on to what’s happening here. Lily James plays young Donna, the role played by Meryl Streep in the original film, and her story not only takes up most of the screen time but also packs the emotional punch. We meet her at her graduation ceremony – cue for ‘When I Kissed The Teacher’ – after which for reasons unexplained she heads for Greece via Paris where she meets the first of her three lovers, to be followed in quick succession by two more on the island of Kalokairi.
         The scenarios in which Donna falls into bed with these three personable young men – all of whom appear youthful in the past and mature in the present – are developed and explained at some length, and while it might not be unreasonable to assume that a girl who shags three blokes, one after the other within what is probably no more than a month at most, is asking for stern censure from moralists, Lilly plays Donna as so damned kind-hearted and lovely, with a smile that could rouse the dead, that we just accept it and forgive such unseemly indiscretions, completely reasonable behaviour in fact. 
         Intercut between the scenes of young Donna’s dalliances is the present day story of how Sophie, her daughter, now in her twenties, is refurbishing the holiday hotel on Kalokairi that she has inherited from her mother, presumed dead. She is joined there by her mother’s two best pals, played, as before, by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski, both of whom we meet as their younger selves in the Lily James scenes, and who between them contribute the lions share of the film’s laughs. A grand re-opening is planned and all looks to be going well until a fierce storm ravages the island, wrecking all the preparations, just as, coincidentally, a fierce storm on the island long ago complicated Donna’s plans. Still, help is on hand when two of her three fathers decide to fly there despite having previously declined to attend – the third already lives nearby – and along the way pick up a retinue of local guests who all arrive by boat and give us a rousing performance of ‘Dancing Queen’, Abba's masterpiece, which actually seemed to me less important than the pleasantly ambient Abba music heard in the background throughout the entire film. The surprise guest at the grand party is Sophie’s grandmother, played imperiously by Cher, who resembles an alabaster statue with her flawless skin and blonde wig.
         Despite a bit of will he, won’t he earlier, Sophie’s boyfriend also decides to come over for the party and, on the night or just before, Sophie discovers she is pregnant, much to his delight. The hotel opening is, naturally, a huge success, enlivened of course by song and dance. Cher discovers that the hotel’s manager is an old flame called – wait for it – Fernando, and serenades him appropriately. Finally, the film closes nine months later with the christening of Sophie’s baby, the scene intercut with – concentrate now – Donna, ie Lily, bringing her baby, ie Sophie, to the same chapel twenty-odd years earlier, their intermingling faces reflected poignantly in the font. With the tugging of the heart-strings now reaching breaking point who should arrive but the ghost of her mother, Meryl Streep making a brief cameo at the end, singing ‘My Love My Life’ though we are left to assume that only the cinema audience can actually see her. The whole wonderfully happy business ends with the christening party where Cher sings ‘Super Trooper’ in a key a few semitones lower than the original.


Lily James as Donna

         All of which sounds like a very frothy confection indeed but I expected no less and came away delighted with what I’d seen. There are many funny asides that I won’t dwell on here and Lily James, who sings and dances beautifully, walks away with the honours. Then again, everyone involved plays their parts to perfection and there’s even brief cameo appearances by Bj√∂rn and Benny, the former as a university don and the latter as a pianist in a restaurant.
         I laughed a lot while the film was playing and even reached for my handkerchief once or twice, and as the credits rolled while Cher belted out ‘Super Trooper’ I was reminded of a paragraph that my friend Carl Magnus Palm wrote in Bright Lights Dark Shadows, the Abba biography that I commissioned for Omnibus Press in 2000 which went a long way towards sealing my admiration for the Abba and their music.
         At the end of the chapter immediately before the one that deals with Abba’s revival in the Nineties, Magnus wrote: “Perhaps as a reaction to the cold chill that swept not just across Sweden but across the entire western world, there appeared on the horizon at the beginning of the Nineties a nostalgic yearning for the more colourful and carefree Seventies. Who better to spearhead this celebration than the most popular recording artists of that decade, the group whose wild costumes epitomised the fun and the fearlessness of Seventies fashion, and whose music reached out to absolutely everyone, majorities and minorities alike?”
         This week I read that the UK might have to bring in emergency food rations and medical supplies as a result of the disastrous Brexit vote, and a couple of weeks ago I was among the thousands who marched against the policies of America’s unspeakable President. Abba can’t stop all this but watching Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again this afternoon at least made me forgot about it all for two hours. Try it. 

6.7.18

BAY CITY ROLLERS – Part 2, America



In September of 1976 I had my second close encounter with the Bay City Rollers, in Philadelphia and then Boston, where the havoc at Logan Airport was exacerbated by the police grossly underestimating the threat to order posed by the group’s arrival. They refused to allow the Rollers' limousine to pull up alongside their plane and as a consequence the boys had to make their way through the airport, me alongside them, where over 1,000 fans were waiting.
“We have the situation under control,” a State Trooper told us, when in reality it was nothing but. “Just walk towards the exit and you will be surrounded by other Troopers like myself. There will also be a number of airport security men surrounding you. If any of you fall over in the rush, it will be taken care of. We will drag you out.”
         This didn’t sound promising, I thought, glad that I didn’t look like a Roller. The fans did, though, and the police couldn’t tell them from the real thing in the melee. A fan might end up in the group’s limousine while a Roller might be torn limb from limb. The cops, of course, were livid, not just because they’d misjudged the threat – which made them look foolish – but because they disapproved strongly of the effect the Rollers had on America’s girlhood.
“What followed,” I wrote for MM in a piece headlined ‘Rollers American Civil War’, “was the nearest thing to a nightmare that I have experienced while fully awake. On leaving the plane, the tightly-knit group that comprised the five Rollers and their immediate entourage came up against over 1,000 screaming fans who had waited for their arrival since radio stations announced the time earlier in the morning. The majority were held back by barricades, but it seemed only too obvious that these would soon collapse.
“They screamed as if in terrible pain, as if red-hot needles were being driven into their bodies. They pushed and they broke through. They crushed against the Rollers and fury erupted, suddenly but not without warning. The route to the limousine was, perhaps, just over 100 yards. By the time the party had travelled half this distance, it was surrounded. They fell down and tumbled over one another. The State Troopers, who didn’t know Rollers from lookalikes, yelled angrily at each other at the same moment, confusing everyone.
“Glass doors blocked the way and, in the time taken to open them, the mob engulfed the Rollers, who stood their ground while security people shoved off attacks from all quarters. Fans were waiting by cars and police threw them aside, vainly trying to create a pathway. Ian Mitchell, the newest Roller, was thrown aside too. Some cop didn’t know the genuine article from the ranks of tartan that blurred before his eyes. Mitchell clawed his way back to the car, while Paddy Callaghan, the Rollers’ full-time bodyguard, spread his arms wide so that his charges could slip inside. They climbed on the car as it moved slowly away, they fell off as it accelerated and the scare was past. Only [US tour manager] Gary McPike had been left behind in the melee. He came along later in the luggage van.”
         I came to learn that the Rollers’ American campaign wasn’t helped by the garrulous promoter Sid Bernstein announcing that the group would perform in front of 55,000 at New York’s Shea Stadium, where he’d promoted two famous Beatles’ concerts in 1965 and ’66. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed and the Rollers played regular halls, 3,000-seater places, apart from Toronto where they could fill an arena. They also side-stepped the big cities like New York and Los Angeles, perhaps in order to avoid press scrutiny. Elvis Presley did the same, both very early and very late in his career.
I was sceptical about their US prospects until I arrived in Boston but the truth was that what the US fans lacked in numbers they made up in enthusiasm, all stoked by 16 magazine which specialised in promoting toothsome young pop bands to adolescent girls.
         I’d seen Marc Bolan’s T. Rex die a death in New York when the group’s on-stage deficiencies were brutally exposed before an audience that sat and listened instead of screaming, but no such fate befell the Rollers who inspired the same pandemonium they had in the UK. They had a more powerful PA system than before, however, and I tried my best to review their shows objectively, as I would acts whose audiences were more discerning: “The Rollers have improved beyond measure since [I last saw them], probably through the experience of playing together as a band more often,” I wrote. “They’ve developed into a tight, harmony-conscious group, with few pretentions, though their limited repertoire still leaves little or no chance for individual instrumental talent to shine.
“As main guitarist, Eric Faulkner is improving all the time, while Stuart ‘Woody’ Wood, who has taken over on bass from Alan Longmuir, and drummer Derek Longmuir maintain a solid rhythm section which essentially holds the band together. Newcomer Ian Mitchell, who turned 18 on the tour, plays second guitar but contributed little, apart from some vocal harmony, and singer Les McKeown has yet to establish any real identity as a lead vocalist. He blends in with the rest but shows no signs of pushing a limited vocal range any further than necessary.
“The concerts open with a magician, whose task is the least enviable of anyone in the theatre, followed by a short film of the group, which effectively whips up fever. A sort of Cape Canaveral count-down leads into the group’s appearance... three, two, one... a light flashes, a smoke bomb explodes and there they are.
“Much of the Rollers’ material seems based on rock and roll that predates them by up to twenty years. Included in their current set are ‘Party’, the old Elvis Presley number, and ‘Shout’, which was Lulu’s first hit way, way back. Their new single, ‘I Only Want To Be With You’, was a hit for Dusty Springfield in the early Sixties. Their own material, too, is inspired largely by the music of Chuck Berry. Faulkner’s little solos, though expertly played, utilise well-tried notes on well-trodden ground. And they sometimes make mistakes – doesn’t everybody – that Wood and Longmuir manage to cover up before too much damage occurs. Not that the audience would notice.
“Their biggest asset seems to be vocal harmonies, which, with the enlarged PA system, came over as a dominating force. It’s a facet of the band they should work on in the future, rather than relying solely on the somewhat anonymous Les McKeown’s vocal attributes. He spends more time waving to the crowd than singing anyway.
“Each concert builds up to a climax of ‘Saturday Night’ and ‘Money Honey’, and the Rollers are away without encores or fanfare. They play for just over an hour, which means their concerts are over by 9 p.m., a ridiculously early time by rock standards. Presumably their audiences have to be tucked up in bed by 10 p.m. – as the Rollers themselves seem to be most nights.”
         As in the UK, the group was strictly controlled by manager Tam Paton. “At their hotels on the road, the group are prisoners,” I noted. “Outside, a constant vigil is maintained by parties of fans who, as elsewhere, dress up in those rather ungainly short/long trousers with a side stripe of tartan, tartan scarves and badges that denote their allegiance to one particular member of the group. Obtaining tartan material is not as easy in the US as it is in Britain and, as the uniforms are home-made, one can only marvel at their needlework and determination to acquire the raw materials.”
         Meanwhile, inside, the Rollers “lead a strangely celibate and temperate life-style, at odds with just about every other band that’s travelled the Holiday Inn circuit. They drink milk or Coke and girls are chased away by muscular bodyguards before they pick up the scent of their tartan heroes. Even the road crew are obliged to follow the same regulations – no booze on room service and no girls in their rooms. The Rollers, too, exist on a diet of room service and television, though most of them smoke constantly. Visits to radio stations punctuate their days, but they are always obliged to exist in a goldfish bowl into which fans stare, and from which they wave.”
         I spent the afternoon in Bostin in Eric Faulkner’s hotel room, an encounter that the girls outside would no doubt have willingly gone without food or drink for a month to experience. As in the UK I found him the most affable, down-to-earth and musically inclined member of the group, perhaps even a shade embarrassed at the reaction they received and the way they were perceived by many in my line of work. He was certainly embarrassed about the talk of playing Shea Stadium and the constant comparisons with The Beatles. He shook his head gloomily. “That was hype and we really hated it,” he said. “It didn’t come from us but it made the immediate connection between us and The Beatles. We don’t want to be another Beatles, we want to be the Bay City Rollers. We don’t base our music on anything in particular, just pop music.
“The older rockers, like Chuck Berry, appeal to me but when I was in the early Rollers and we were just gigging every night, our material was whatever was in the charts. The only Beatle song I ever played was ‘Get Back’.”

Tam Paton, shortly before he died in 2009

         Tam Paton later talked to me about the group’s forthcoming plans, their potential earnings and the likelihood that they might become tax exiles, all of which is a bit ironic considering the dreadful financial position in which the group would eventually find themselves. This is another story altogether and it would be 40 years until I learned the truth about it, or that Paton in later life ballooned to 26 stone and became a major-league slum landlord and drug dealer. In 2016 I edited When The Screaming Stops – The Dark History of the Bay City Rollers by Simon Spence, a 568-page Omnibus Press biography of the group published that year in which the whole messy BCR saga is laid bare. As the blurb on the back states: “Dazzled by sudden global fame and corrupted by Paton’s unquenchable sexual appetites, the Bay City Rollers soon became part of his world of depravity, victimhood, crime and psychosis.
“Band members became hooked on drugs, and their fall was almost as rapid as their rise, leaving them penniless and emotionally destroyed. Three years after they fired Paton in 1979 he was finally imprisoned, convicted of gross indecency with teenage boys.”
You have been warned.