CBGBs – A Report from the Front Line, Part 1

Although it opened towards the end of 1973, it wasn’t until the summer of the following year that CBGBs began presenting the kind of acts that would make it famous as New York’s premier showcase for what became punk rock. I went there many times between 1974 and ’76 to see all the usual suspects, not all of them ‘new wave’ – Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, for example, were mainstream rock – but it never occurred to me or anyone else that this scruffy bar would one day become legendary. It was probably Bob Gruen who told me to get my ass down there and I generally paid to get in too, willingly; the acts (or their record labels) that gave me free entry to more prestigious gigs everywhere else didn’t need my dollars, but this lot did. In November of 1976 I was sufficiently enthused by the scene at CBGBs to eulogise about it in Melody Maker, interviewing its owner Hilly Kristal and drawing comparisons between it and Max’s Kansas City, the other, much older and probably more famous NY downtown rock club.
         CBGBs closed in 2006, the surrounding area having ‘fallen’ into gentrification, and the building – now a clothing store – is on the US National Register of Historic Places. Funny that – the very last time I went there, in 1978 I think, I was chatting up this pretty girl at the bar when the singer of a sixties girl group who was a ‘friend of Dorothy’ came along and brushed me aside with the ease of a practised seducer. I think they were already acquainted. “C’est la vie,” said Chuck. “It goes to show you never can tell.”
         Here’s my 1976 MM report from CBGBs, which opens with a sort of state-of-play analysis of the downtown NY rock scene as things stood in November of that year; in three parts, part 2 tomorrow featuring an interview with Hilly, part 3 on its rivals will follow.

“Punk rock? What’s that supposed to mean? The bands that play at my club aren’t punks. They might wear leather jackets, chew gum and try to look tough, but they’re nice guys.
         “Even the Ramones are nice guys when you get to know them. They ain’t punks, and I dunno what the expression means. They’re just rock groups to me, and many of them are good rock groups.”
         Hilly Kristal seemed genuinely bemused at the thought of “punk rock,” in a broad sense, being used as a term to embrace the bands that appear at his now notorious New York bar, CBGBs. He’s right, too. Many of the bands on the current New York underground circuit these days sound more like Yes than Iggy Pop, though it must be said that almost all of them owe a debt to Lou Reed.
There are now many young bands emerging from the suburbs to appear at CBGBs (or at the other three establishments which cater for them). What began at the Mercer Arts Centre five years ago with the New York Dolls and Patti Smith has grown into a tidal wave of eager groups, all anxious to take part in a rock renaissance.
         And the record companies are starting to take notice at last. The latest count in the signing sweepstake is seven, including Patti Smith and the Ramones whose record deals have already yielded finished albums. The other five are currently in the studio, holding back until after Christmas:
         Television have been signed by Elektra-Asylum. They are currently in the studio working with Andy Johns, brother of famed producer Glyn Johns. Their album is expected in February.
         The Dictators have also been signed by Elektra-Asylum, although the release date of their debut album is “indefinite,” according to the record company. This band – a heavy-metal outfit of awesome proportions – is now managed and produced by Sandy Pearlman, who also manages and produces Blue Oyster Cult.
         Blondie have signed with Private Stock, and completed an album due for release in January. Originally they were signed to a deal for a couple of singles only but increased enthusiasm within the record company led to an album.
         Talking Heads have signed with Sire. They are due in the studio in January.
         Mink De Ville have signed with Capitol for the US and Canada and EMI for the rest of the world. They are due in the studio in January and hope to have an album out in April.
         And to keep the record straight, Patti Smith has just released her second album on Arista, while the Ramones’ first album on Sire has now been out six months. Also of note are Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, originating from Boston, who have had two albums released on the Berserkley label.
         Eight bands appeared on the first CBGBs compilation album which is being distributed by Atlantic, which has an option to sign any of the bands on the record. As yet they haven’t picked up the option on any of the bands, one of which (Mink De Ville) has already gone elsewhere. A second CBGBs album is in the making and RCA are showing a strong interest in picking up a similar distribution and option deal.
         Seven bands are featured on an album released last week by Max’s Kansas City which, like the CBGBs album, is being distributed independently unless a major picks it up.
         Richard Hell, whose name bears the closest resemblance to “punkdom” of any underground character in the city, has just released his first single, albeit on a private, independent label. Hell, one of the most original and expressive characters to have emerged from the scene, is a former member of both Television and the Heartbreakers. He now fronts a band called the Void Oids.
         All this leaves many of the better-known bands without immediate recording prospects. The Heartbreakers, whose act has improved immeasurably since their early days, are still on the hunt but record companies are doubtless scared off by the presence of Johnny Thunder, a one-time New York Doll. No-one likes being reminded how Mercury lost a small fortune by signing and promoting the Dolls.
         Lastly, the Dolls themselves (they’ve dropped the New York since re-organisation) are still battling forward under the leadership of David Johansen who refuses to lie down. No record prospects though.



JUST BACKDATED - 200,000 and counting...

Sometime during the Brits broadcast on Wednesday night the number of hits on Just Backdated passed the 200,000 mark. It would be nice to think that this was because those who visit my blog were so bored with the annual music industry bash that they had nothing better to do than switch on to me instead but that’s probably not the case as most hits come from America where The Brits is a foreign concept but, happily, Just Backdated is not.
         Either way, it was another milestone, so thanks everyone. In the past I have celebrated these little milestones with some sort of survey but looking at the posts and hits on the ‘backstage’ data that I alone am permitted to see, nothing has changed, as David Bowie called his most recent hits compilation, incidentally a quote from the song ‘Sunday’ from Heathen, an album I like a lot. But I digress… by that I mean that the most visited posts are pretty much the same, the only change being that the one on February 13 that I called Launching Dear Boy (4,146 hits so far) has entered the charts at an impressive number three very quickly indeed (in the first week of release!), pushing everything else down one place, yet more agreeable evidence that Keith Moon is alive and well, at least in the world of cyberspace. Inevitably the next most popular of recent posts was the one about the Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp movie, so I can’t get away from The Who even if I wanted to, which I don’t.
         Each of the 416 posts averages 482 hits but again that’s skewed by the large numbers of hits on Who posts compared to the rest. Eliminate The Who – did I really write those three words?! – and we’re probably more in the region of 100 hits per post. Territorially the US still has about twice as many hits as the next placed country, the UK, but further down the list of countries I’m starting to get a few hits from Russia which is a fairly recent phenomenon. So, for their benefit… Добро пожаловать мои российские друзья.

Tomorrow, we’re time travelling, back to CBGBs, circa 1976. 



Just Backdated doesn’t really connect with the Brits and neither, on last night’s evidence, does the only musician to appear on the show that I have written about on this blog, specifically Jimmy Page, who looked about as at home on the elongated O2 catwalk as One Direction would do closing Saturday night on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. “I hope you’re having a great night. I am,” he said, most unconvincingly as the riff from ‘Kashmir’ pounded out in the background. Far and away the oldest fellow to appear and doing his best not to look too self-conscious, Jimmy presented the best group award to Royal Blood, a bass and drum (as opposed to drum’n’bass – the distinction is important) duo who at least injected a bit of balls into the proceedings. I thought their song ‘Figure It Out’ had a definite echo of Led Zeppelin about it, sort of minimalist ‘Whole Lotta Love’-era Zep with Page on a bass tuned high and played through the treble channel and Bonzo bashing away at his wildman best.
         Elsewhere, the winners and speeches were fairly predictable, Ant and Dec proving a ‘safe pair of hands’ even if they never seem to get any older and certainly deserve an award for services to inoffensiveness. Their interviews conducted table-side were spectacularly anodyne, as were their jokes, but this is light entertainment after all, an opportunity for ITV to screen performances by big stars who wouldn’t otherwise be available for prime-time midweek entertainment or, for that matter, help promote Mastercard.
         It was left to that erstwhile trooper Madonna to introduce the only other spark into the proceedings and she had to fall down a flight of steps to do so. Madonna has form as an upstager and, unintentional as it surely was, all the headlines and internet traffic this morning was about her trip, which surely speaks volumes about the blandness of everything else.

For female performers – and Kanye West – the Brits is all about what you wear, how many dancers you have (and what they wear) and fancy stage production involving flashing lights and elaborate gantries than the actual song – but there are pitfalls in all this. The more over the top the act the more danger there is of coming a cropper. So it was with Madge who tripped over her ridiculously large (Armani, it was noted of course) cape and went tumbling, and quite a tumble it was, probably painful too, poor girl, and it is to her credit that she carried on regardless. Ant and Dec gallantly declined to comment but next time Ms Ciccione, if there is a next time, why not perform in a simple dress, or jeans, a t-shirt and trainers, no dancers, no steps, nothing fancy, just sing the song? Now that really would be original.



Well respected certainly but hardly a flower to be looked at and most unlikely to laze around in the afternoon, sunny or otherwise. The life of Ray Davies that Johnny Rogan puts under his all-seeing microscope is indeed complicated, involving a relentless tug of war between The Kinks and his personal ambitions, a brutally toxic relationship with his younger brother Dave, obduracy that time and again stymies professional advancement, workaholic propensities that scupper three marriages and a penny-pinching miserliness that, as Kinks producer Shel Talmy drolly puts it, ‘makes Rod Stewart look like a philanthropist’.
         Having already written two Kinks books[i], it was to be expected that Rogan would one day write the definitive Ray Davies biography, though he kept it to himself until late last year when Amazon offered the book as a pre-order and let the cat out of the bag. As it was the author, a personal friend of many years’ standing, gave me a proof edition to read over Christmas which I did, spotting the odd (Who-related) error, now duly amended, which I conveyed to him, and promising not to post a review until the late February embargo.
         Well, this is a massive, sprawling book, containing everything you would want to know about Davies and quite a few things you probably wouldn’t, written to Rogan’s customary high standard of literacy, scrupulously researched and as eye-opening as it is conclusive. It also serves as a first-rate Kinks biography, of course, and a pretty good primer on the rise of the UK beat group scene in the sixties and all the important social changes that made the decade swing.
         While clearly admiring Davies’ great skills as a songwriter, Rogan spares no blushes in disclosing personal flaws that repeatedly expose his subject as duplicitous, devious and mean-spirited. Davies has driven several managers to distraction by causing endless unnecessary problems in the belief that anyone who makes money off the back of him and The Kinks needs to work very hard indeed for that money, but at the same time such intransigence has operated to his and the group’s detriment time and time again. The book contains numerous examples of this deliberate ‘awkwardness’, best epitomised by the case of the manager who calls Davies to inquire whether The Kinks would be willing to play a festival in Belgium. “How does Dave feel about it?” Ray asks. “Dave’s keen to do it.” “Then I don’t think we’ll bother,” replies Ray, the inference being that if Dave wasn’t keen, then Ray would have replied: “Let’s do it.” This selfish, stubborn attitude, the constant need to gainsay his brother and try everyone’s patience, goes a long way to explaining why The Kinks never achieved the same measure of success enjoyed by their great rivals The Who, a rivalry that forms one of many sub plots as the book develops.
         The frugality is introduced in the opening paragraph of the introduction wherein Rogan relates how before a pre-arranged luncheon interview with Davies a PR calls with an urgent inquiry; not – as might be expected – a request that Rogan limit his questions to matters musical with nothing personal broached, but to obtain an assurance that the meal will be paid for by the magazine for whom Rogan is working and to convey the vital message that ‘in order to avoid any embarrassment’ Ray must not be presented with the bill. Here is a multi-millionaire, with homes in London, Surrey, Ireland and New York, whose publicist fears the consequences should his client have to pay for a modest lunch. It’s the first of many such instances throughout the book, a litany of stinginess that alienates many well-meaning admirers who back away as a result and more often than not don’t come back.
         It may be that this disagreeable character trait was formed in childhood. The Davies family was dirt poor, six sisters[ii] and their two younger brothers crammed into a tiny terraced house in Fortis Green, and there’s a touch of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen about his upbringing – “We were poor but we were happy” – with Rogan painting a touching portrait of a messy working-class household where everyone was welcome to drop by after the pubs closed on a Saturday night, especially if they brought a bottle and had a song to sing, causing the stuffy, uptight, miserable Joneses next door to order their son Peter not to mix with the Davies clan. In the event Peter would become a Kinks’ roadie, one of many who toiled on their behalf for little reward – and this includes musicians too, not least Peter Quaife and Mick Avory, the other two original Kinks whose hapless fate is intrinsically bound up with the warring Davies brothers.
         This family background would inform Ray Davies’ writing for all time. Although Davies was enamoured of R&B and the first wave of American rock’n’roll stars, Rogan argues convincingly that his real inspiration was much closer to home, the old time music halls where lilting melodies brought out the sing-along character of the English at play. In this regard The Kinks’ great opening salvo, ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘All Day And All Of The Night’, seems like an aberration compared to the hits that followed, the wry observational songs like ‘A Well Respected Man’, ‘Dedicated Follower Of Fashion’, and ‘Sunny Afternoon’, all of which would have gone down well at the Hackney Empire when it opened in 1901. Rogan’s eye for detail in regard to the lyrics of Davies’ songs reveals not just their music hall roots but how so many of them contain snippets from family recollections of his childhood and teenage years. The ‘dirty old river’ of ‘Waterloo Sunset’, for example, was the view of the Thames from the window of a hospital near Westminster Bridge where in 1958 Ray, aged 14, was hospitalised to have his jaw reset following a childhood accident.
         Then again, the miserliness might have had something to do with the unusually complex managerial structure behind The Kinks. Initially they were managed by a well-meaning friend who was ousted by a couple of toffs, Grenville Collins and Robert Wace, but these two were soon joined by former pop star Larry Page whod moved from singing to management because that was where the money lay. Producer Shel Talmy also had his finger in the pie, as did music publisher Eddie Kassner, so all these individuals put their oar in and took their percentage out, leaving only small change for the boys in the band, at least until the situation was resolved, and this gives rise to Davies’ lasting distrust of the music industry. Rogan unravels this intricate web as best he can but it’s not easy, nor, as he admits, is a clear understanding of quite why after their first US tour in 1965 The Kinks were banned from, or at least unwelcome in, America for the second half of the sixties. Essentially, it was a combination of bad luck and bad management coupled with yobbish belligerence towards persons of influence, but whatever the cause it set them back five years in the race for US fame and fortune with the result that during the years when the Stones, Who and others prospered mightily on American soil, The Kinks would remain a cult act there, at least until Ray deliberately targeted US tastes with a series of harder rocking but less imaginative albums in the late seventies and eighties.
         All of this is explained in great detail as The Kinks release their glorious run of hit singles between 1964 and ’67, then stumble through their concept album period, their shows increasingly resembling variety acts, with Ray camping it up in a floppy bow-tie in the stubborn belief that this is the way forward, much against the inclinations of brother Dave. Meanwhile Ray’s first marriage (to Rasa Didzpetris, the mother of his first two daughters[iii]) falls apart, he becomes more and more reliant on alcohol and his health, both mental and physical, deteriorates alarmingly. As time moves on and the personnel of The Kinks varies but never really solidifies, Ray seems quite unable to turn down prospective commissions from TV and film companies, many of which fall by the wayside leaving him bitter and unfulfilled. Further personal relationships, including two more marriages and his fractious involvement with Chrissie Hynde, also come undone and, as the book enters its final quarter, the picture we have of the master songwriter is that of the lonely artist, misunderstood, paranoid about his money, the bottle his only friend, his work his only salvation. And this is never resolved.
         As would be expected Rogan is particularly good on the music, with every album dissected, just about every song analysed, and this partly explains why the book stretches to 600 pages. Davies is and always has been prolific, even if the standard of his wonderful sixties songs becomes progressively more difficult to sustain as he approaches his pensionable years, but Rogan often finds something to admire in later, lesser known Kinks and solo recordings. Interestingly, in an elegant segment devoted to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ that extends over several pages, he suggests the inspiration for Davies’ most cherished song might be ‘Ol’ Man River’, the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein number from the 1927 musical Showboat, an observation I’d never considered before.
         Inevitably with a book of this size the lion’s share is devoted to the first 30 years of Davies’ life, with a concentration on the period 1963-73 and the last 40 years squeezed into the final 100 pages or so. The shooting incident in New Orleans in 2004 is dealt with in some detail and it somehow comes as no surprise that the reason why Ray Davies recklessly chased the armed mugger who’d snatched his date’s handbag was because earlier that evening he’d stashed his own wallet and cash in there. Plus ça change.
         Highly recommended.

[i] The Kinks: The Sound And The Fury (Elm Tree, 1984); The Complete Guide to the Music of The Kinks (Omnibus Press, 1998).

[ii] One of whom, Peggy, Rogan reveals, gave birth out of wedlock in the early fifties to a girl they called Jackie whose father was a mysterious African who returned there not long after the child was born. It is to Davies matriarch Annie’s enormous credit that Jackie was raised within the family without any concern for the potentially scandalous consequences.

[iii] Rasa (who incidentally discloses she saw The Beatles in Bradford in December 1963, the same show I attended) proves a valuable source of information for the author, speaking candidly about the strain of being married to Ray, his penny-pinching and their challenging domestic circumstances. Ex-wives and former (let alone current) partners of male rock stars are all too often missing from rock biographies, no doubt silenced by their former husbands under pain of losing maintenance payments or simply unwilling to dredge up painful memories. Those biographers who succeed in persuading the girls to grant interviews invariably discover a rich seam of material with which to illuminate their books. Two examples from the Omnibus catalogue are Dear Boy: The Life Of Keith Moon whose author Tony Fletcher succeeded in persuading Kim McLagan, formerly Kim Moon, to speak candidly about life with the unconventional drummer, the first and most substantial of only two interviews she ever gave, and Had Me A Real Good Time, Andy Neill’s biography of The Faces, for which he managed to round up a posse of former WAGS, all of whom were refreshingly indiscreet in their recollections.



Kit (right) & Chris in Sixties, photographer unknown

Yesterday’s Observer carried an article about two films in the works about Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, The Who’s original managers, one a documentary, the other a ‘feature’, which probably means actors will play the roles. Oddly, I never met Stamp while I worked for Melody Maker but I came across Lambert a lot, the first time at a gig at the Lyceum on the Strand where Chris Welch introduced us. I was delighted to meet him but it was clear Kit was three sheets to the wind, hog-whimpering drunk as they say in some parts, so even though I was keen to chat he was incapable of responding.
         I saw Kit at Track’s offices a few times over the next year or two and thought he was magnificent, so over the top as to be down the other side. He didn’t seem to be at many Who gigs, though he was at the Oval in September 1971 and was among the party that went out to dinner afterwards that included Pete, John and Keith, ‘Screaming Lord’ David Sutch, and me and my sister. I think Kit may have picked up the bill. I know I didn’t.
         The next time we met was the most dramatic, backstage at Madison Square Garden on Monday June 10, 1974. As I relate in an appreciation of Kit elsewhere on Just Backdated, he was in the dressing room after the gig which had not been one of The Who’s best. Everyone was shouting at everybody else, trying to pinpoint the reasons for the shortcomings; bad sound, no new material to perform, an aversion to the Garden as a venue and, certainly, too much alcohol consumed by everyone apart from Roger. At one stage Bob Pridden, their ever-loyal soundman, ran from the room threatening to resign and I followed him, steering him an empty room nearby and telling him not to – as if!
         Meanwhile, Kit – as drunk if not drunker than anyone in the room – was demanding to mix the on-stage PA in future, a ludicrous suggestion. It was at this point that I re-entered the dressing room and Peter Rudge, The Who’s tour manager, pleaded with me to somehow remove Kit from the scene, which I somehow succeeded in doing, steering him towards one of several limousine parked backstage. On the ride back to the Navarro Hotel on Central Park South, I asked Kit to request the driver to stop so I could buy a packet of Marlboros. We stopped and Kit himself rushed out of the car and into a liquor store. He came back with two cartons – 20 packets.
“I only wanted one pack,” I said.
“Bah… never do things by halves, old boy.”
         The last time I saw Kit Lambert was in South Kensington in, I think, 1980. I can’t remember what I was doing there but I was walking past a Rolls-Royce dealership when I spotted him looking into the window, admiring some fancy Roller. He looked very dishevelled, a bit woebegone, and I’m not even sure he recognised me.   
         “Thinking of buying one?” I asked for want of anything better to say.
         He looked at me and screwed up his eyes. “Maybe,” he said. Then he wandered off, evidently unwilling to engage in conversation. Of course I had no idea that he’d lost all his money, and I hope he didn’t think I was being facetious. That didn’t occur to me until much later.
         Kit died the following year, virtually destitute, from a brain haemorrhage incurred after falling down a staircase at his mother’s house in Fulham.



Towards the end of a two-hour hagiography of the Dave Clark Five – The Dave Clark Five And Beyond: Glad All Over broadcast last Saturday night on BBC2, Elton John stated: “The three giants of rock and roll to come out of the UK in the sixties were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Dave Clark Five.”
         As a general rule Just Backdated tends to adopt a fairly charitable stance towards the music and musicians covered here. That’s the beauty of having your own blog – you need only write about what you like and ignore the rest. Every so often, however, something gets up its goat and a more robust position is necessary. A case in point was this.
         The accepted wisdom with regard to the pecking order in the great UK sixties rock group Olympiad is that The Beatles took the gold medal, The Rolling Stones the silver and The Who the bronze. This is arrived at by a combination of single and album sales in the UK and US, chart positions in both territories, concert ticket sales and general acclaim from both critics and fans – with all of these combined for the entire decade and beyond. Also in the final heat were The Kinks, Small Faces and Cream, and arguably a couple of others who arrived in the late sixties, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, who didn’t really fulfil their potential until the seventies. Then there was a second tier that included groups like The Animals, The Yardbirds, The Hollies, Them and The Jeff Beck Group, from which individual members graduated to significance, and further down the order were scores of also-rans, among them The Dave Clark Five who were no better and no worse than dozens of others from the same era. And while it is true that like so many of those others they mounted a brief but futile challenge to The Beatles and Stones – “The Tottenham Sound” (!) – the DC5 fell away pretty quickly, unable to progress after pop morphed into rock, thereafter settling into obscurity like so many of the rest.
         Interestingly, sometime in the eighties Dave Clark astutely acquired the rights to what remained of Rediffusion TV’s ground-breaking pop show Ready Steady Go!, scooping up in the process the footage of all those shows that hadn’t been wiped. No one is quite sure how many shows Clark owns but in the late eighties and nineties a series of ‘mash-up’ RSG!s were shown on Channel 4. These included clips of the DC5 from US TV shows like Shindig! and Ed Sullivan in an attempt to mislead viewers into thinking they were actually clips from RSG! Although the DC5 did appear many times on RSG!, the obvious conclusion is that those shows were wiped and therefore not in Clark’s possession. Nevertheless, he felt the need to include his group alongside The Beatles and Stones so as to create the impression they were their equals.
         Clark was also savvy enough to secure the rights to everything his group recorded and this may explain why he is so dedicated to such shameless revisionism. Others who lost the rights to their work have neither the means nor incentive to indulge in this kind of thing. However, I'll now let the facts speak for themselves. The DC5 had only one number one hit (‘Glad All Over’ in 1964) and a further seven top ten hits in the UK. They had just two albums in the UK charts during the sixties and one further top ten album in 1978, a compilation called 25 Thumping Great Hits which, of course, contained nothing like 25 hits, thumping or otherwise. Placing them in the same hierarchy as The Beatles (22 top ten hits between 1963 and 1970, including 18 number ones) or Stones (20 top ten hits to 1981, eight number ones) is therefore sacrilege, and let’s not even get into comparisons with the Beatles and Stones’ vastly superior presence on the album charts (or ongoing concert ticket sales over succeeding decades for solo Beatles or still-at-it Stones, Who, Floyd, Zep etc). In the US the DC5 had eight top ten hits, including one number one, and three top ten albums. The Beatles had 21 number one hits from 31 top tenners... need I go on? The DC5 toured America and, like every other UK pop group of the era, were screamed at by excitable young girls. Then again, they screamed at Freddie & The Dreamers too.
         The Dave Clark Five And Beyond: Glad All Over, of course, was produced by Big 5 Productions, Dave Clark’s own company, and designed in every way to extol his group, hence the emphasis on their belated induction into the strangely prejudiced Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (see other posts). But quite why BBC2 should allocate two hours of prime time Saturday night television to this kind of non-objective self-promotion is beyond me.
         So sorry Elton. You  and all the rest of the rock stars who appeared in this film and ought to have known better  got it very wrong. 


ANNI-FRID LYNGSTAD – When All Is Left Or Right

Yesterday a man of my acquaintance of wealth and taste sent me a file of unusual photographs, as he is prone to do from time to time, and among them was this one, captioned: “At 5:00 pm on September 3, 1967 Sweden changed from driving on the left side to driving on the right. This was the result.”
         In fact the picture was taken much earlier in the day, on Kungsgatan, one of the main streets in central Stockholm. They got the date right though and by a curious coincidence it was the same day that Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the future singer with Abba, competed in the finals of a singing competition in Stockholm arranged in conjunction with the EMI record label. And not only that – the new driving regulations introduced that day led indirectly to Frida’s début TV appearance. I know this because it’s mentioned in Carl Magnus Palm’s Abba biography Bright Lights Dark Shadows, and it always struck me as being one of those weird arcane details that fascinate those of us with an eye for strange pop trivia. 
         According to Magnus’ book, the new traffic regulations came into force at 5am that Sunday morning, contradicting what it states in the caption. Either way, Frida left her villa in Eskilstuna, about 110 km west of Stockholm, at 6am to begin her journey to Sweden’s capital, and she remembered that late summer morning vividly. “The roads were empty, it was just me and a girlfriend in an old Volvo. I was pretty nervous: it was a two-hour car drive to Stockholm, driving on the right side of the road for the first time, and then taking part in finals where I was supposed to sing well enough to win the contest.”
Frida came through the semi-finals in the morning and in the afternoon finals sang ‘En ledig dag’ (‘A Day Off’, a cover of the fairly obscure song ‘Weekend In Portofino’). It was a cool, uptempo bossa nova number, in line with her repertoire at the time. She had discovered the song a few months earlier when it was a minor radio hit.
The finals, starting at 1pm, took place on the Solliden stage at the Skansen park. Frida was nervous: her belief in herself, shaky at the best of times, was under severe strain in this high-profile situation. The compere, popular television personality Lasse Holmqvist, picked up on her nerves and tried to comfort her. “In the south of Sweden, where I come from, we don’t have long-legged girls like you,” he told Frida. This silly remark somehow gave her the extra boost of confidence she needed.
Frida went on stage in a dark, elegant two-piece outfit, her brown hair swept up according to the fashion of the day, and delivered a stellar performance of the song, complete with improvised virtuoso parts in her highest register. The jury was impressed, and before long the verdict was announced: Frida was the winner. “It must have been the tension of that whole day that made everything work out so well,” she said later.

Frida in 1967

At 7pm it was time for the awards ceremony. Standing on stage after receiving her prize – a transistor radio – she was happy but exhausted. Any reflections on what would happen now, except that there was a slight possibility of a record contract, had to wait until tomorrow. Holmqvist casually asked her, “So, what are you going to do tonight?” “I’m going home to Eskilstuna to get some sleep,” she replied. Holmqvist smiled. “No, you’re not. You’re going to appear on television!”
In an attempt to keep people off the roads on the day the traffic changed from left to right, a special edition of the most popular television show in Sweden at the time, Hylands Hörna (Hyland’s Corner, a Swedish mix of The Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show) was aired. The tantalising title of this extra broadcast was H-trafik rapport: Ikväll (R-traffic Report: Tonight). In all secrecy, the arrangers of the talent contest had agreed with Swedish television that the winner would début live on the show that very same night.
A surprised Frida was whisked away to the studio by car. It was a dream come true: winning a talent contest was all well and good, but she knew that a television appearance was all-important if she was to get ahead in her career. Minutes later she was being interviewed by host Lennart Hyland in front of an audience of millions. At the time, Sweden still had only one television channel and Hyland’s show was watched by virtually every family with a TV set.
The confrontation between the patronising, self-absorbed Hyland and the nervous and highly-strung Frida didn’t run smoothly. She conveyed a mix of shyness and distrust, and many of her replies to his questions were surprisingly ambiguous. She claimed she wasn’t very experienced in talent contests, when in fact she was doing them all the time. When Hyland, referring to her long career as a dance-band vocalist, remarked that she was “a professional young lady”, only the physical pat on the head was missing. Frida rolled her eyes up and didn’t say anything.
“And what do you do for a living,” asked Hyland. Her determination to succeed as a homemaker shone through in an answer that sounded almost pre-rehearsed: “I’m married with two children – that’s my profession.” It was a popular reply that was met with spontaneous applause. But when asked what she would do with her children if this contest win should lead to a greater career, she fell silent for a few seconds. The reply was almost whispered: “I can’t answer that question.” It was as if the conflict was raging within her at that very moment.
Frida’s television début gave the impression of a determined woman with a mind of her own who wasn’t going to let Hyland have his way with her. This might have been a good policy for her self-esteem, but it probably didn’t help her much in winning the hearts of the audience. Nor was her performance of the winning song especially successful in that respect.
Although it was clear she was firmly in charge of her voice, there was that knowing sophistication and tendency to hold back, which didn’t do her any favours in communicating with the majority of viewers. But her delivery was exact, in tune and collected, striking a chord with the more discerning professionals in the music business.



Jerry Allison, Buddy Holly and Joe B. Mauldin, photographed in the UK in 1958. 
(I found this shot on the internet, credited to Steve Bonner)

It was remiss of me last week not to mark the passing of Joe B. Mauldin, the bass player with The Crickets, who on February 7 died from cancer aged 74. I belong to the school of thought that believes The Crickets to have been the first ever rock ‘group’, insofar as they were the first to feature the classic line-up of two guitars, bass and drums. Furthermore, they were adept at backing vocals, had a name prefaced by ‘The’ and because Holly wrote their material were self-sufficient in every way, just like The Beatles and all who followed. More to the point, they sounded like an integrated rock band, unlike other American rockers that broke out in the fifties, Elvis included, who sounded more like a singer with his backing musicians.      
         Though the earliest groups Holly fronted went through a few changes, a line-up eventually settled around Buddy, on vocals and lead guitar, that included a rhythm guitarist (Niki Sullivan), a drummer (Jerry Allison) and Mauldin on bass, initially stand-up but later Fender Precision. Sullivan quit after finding the pace too hot and the returns too cool, eventually to be replaced by Tommy Allsup, but Mauldin and Allison remained true to the cause, forming the core trio with Holly, the definitive Crickets ensemble that carried on in fits and starts even after Buddy’s death in the tragic plane crash on February 3, 1959, right the way up into the 21st Century.
         Unbelievably, Mauldin was just 16 in 1957 when he joined up with Holly who had been dropped by Decca after three recording sessions failed to produce material that satisfied their A&R men. Holly wasn’t supposed to record the same songs for anyone else but he got around this by crediting the re-recordings to a group, The Crickets, thus launching the band, though subsequently – and confusingly – he would record under his own name as well as with the group, Holly recordings appearing on the Coral label and Crickets recordings on Brunswick. Holly further underscored the ‘group’ dynamic by insisting that their income was shared by all, telling Mauldin, ‘If it wasn’t for you guys, I couldn’t perform the show I put on.’   
         All of this is insignificant compared to the wonder of the great records they made together, beginning in 1957 with ‘That’ll Be The Day’ (which didn’t feature Mauldin – he joined not long after this recording), and followed by, amongst many others, ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘Oh Boy’, ‘Maybe Baby’ and my personal favourite ‘Rave On’. Though I was far too young to see Buddy and The Crickets on their 1958 UK tour, I had all these singles, and the LPs The Chirping Crickets and The Buddy Holly Story which was released shortly after Buddy’s death. I still have them and the inner sleeve of the latter (below) is decorated with pictures cut out from NME and lovingly pasted on.

In September 1975 I interviewed Norman Petty, who produced most of Holly’s work, for a lengthy Buddy Holly retrospective feature in MM, and also spoke with Jerry Allison. For some reason I never spoke with Mauldin. Like all the best music of the first wave of American rock stars, there is something utterly timeless about the records these musicians made together, their simplicity accentuating their charm, the little guitar breaks, the catchy choruses, the bounce of the band. Mauldin was a little chap with a big instrument, and in the few videos of the group that can be found on YouTube he has an easy, effortless style, his right foot tapping the beat, swaying along to the songs as if his big bass is his dance partner. I have 44 songs by Buddy Holly on my iPod and a further six credited to The Crickets, and whenever any of them crop up on shuffle I’m grateful for the delight they continue to bring.
         RIP Joe. 



This is the second half of the interview that Keith Hayward did with me for his book Tin Pan Alley: The Rise of Elton John, pictured below.

I saw Elton many times after that, at the Festival Hall, Hollywood Bowl and small provincial gigs as well, and I went to his house in Sunningdale where we played table tennis. We got on really well because he was a real record buff and so was I. He collected records and had good taste and you could sit down and chat with him about old records, obscure ones, and you could discuss things like great B-sides with him. I remember when I was in Los Angeles with him he was DJ-ing and I went along to watch him, it was about the same time as he did the Hollywood Bowl show, the same week, he had taken a cottage in the Beverley Hills Hotel at the time, and I remember watching him doing his stint and commenting on his choice of records.
         The Hollywood Bowl was a big night for Elton because they were promoting the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album that had just come out. The show started with ‘Funeral For A Friend’ and Linda Lovelace came on stage to introduce various look-alikes from the world of pop, rock and film.  Then Elton came down and he had five pianos and when their lids were opened they spelt ELTON. This was the most memorable Elton show I had seen. I had a good seat at the front in a box and there was a big party afterwards at the On The Rocks club.
         I remember going to a luncheon for John Reid’s birthday around the same time and they gave him a great big brass cock. I already knew that Elton was gay or probably gay. He didn’t seem to have any girls around him, apart from those that worked for him. You could tell when you’re with rock groups who are predominately heterosexual by the number of girls that are around and the way they offer themselves, dressing to attract them. That wasn’t happening around Elton.
         When I went to Sunningdale, just by Wentworth Golf Course, there was no evidence of John Reid there because I think Elton lived there with his mum and Fred Fairbrother. I remember his games room where we played table tennis. He was extremely competitive but by chance I was quite good at table tennis because when I was a teenager I used to play in the local town team in a league. Elton was probably used to playing people who couldn’t really play but he realised after three or four points that I knew what I was doing and I beat him. He was a bit surprised and insisted on another game and I think it ended one all.
         I remember America in 1976 when he was a major star. This was at his height when he had his own plane, The Starship, and a big entourage and he would get to the airport and there were several limousines to take them to the hotel and to the gigs. What I really remember was how I got there because I was the only journalist on the road with him because he remembered me from his early days. I rang up and said I wanted to do an interview with him and travel on the road with him and the American PR was a bit snooty about this and I asked him just to mention my name please, and he got back to me within a few minutes.
         The Starship was a 707 and most of the seats had been taken out. You could walk up the gangplank and turn right and it’s a carpeted area and with couches at the sides and beyond that were dining tables with soft dining chairs, two on either side of the plane, and beyond that was a bar on the left, about six foot long. At the end of the bar was an electronic keyboard. At various points on the planes were TV screens which you could use as videos so you could watch what you wanted. There was a wall behind where the electronic keyboard was and then you went down a corridor and there were two private rooms, one was full of cushions where people could lounge around on the floor and another room further on was a bedroom, with a double bed and then a bathroom. There were one or two bathrooms at the back and an en suite for the bedroom. The livery on the outside was painted with Elton John. Other bands used it and the livery changed accordingly. It was leased from a company in Los Angeles and Frank Sinatra used the same plane as well as lots of other artists, like Led Zeppelin, and you paid for it on a daily basis whether you went anywhere or not, about $25k a day. There were a couple of stewardesses on it as well who were chosen for their looks and they were dispensing food and drinks. You could tell them what you wanted beforehand and they’d get it, and there was an unlimited supply of booze and loads of videos when videos were just coming into play in the mid-seventies which was a novelty then. I seemed to remember Elton loved Kentucky Fried Chicken.
         When you have your own plane you can run the tour from one city so you stayed in one hotel in Chicago and from there in the afternoon they would get on the plane and go to another city to play and the tour was planned to be within an hour’s flight from the hotel city. Set off at 4.00pm in the afternoon to get there and do the sound check and do the show and then after the show it was into the cars back to the airport onto the Starship, a night flight then back to the same hotel. The show finished about 10.30 and you are back in your hotel by midnight. The convoys of limousines would have a police escort as well so you would whiz through the traffic, through red lights too. Then they would move to another central point and start again for a couple of weeks.
         Elton had a huge portable wardrobe in his dressing room because he wore these spangly outfits and you would open the wardrobe and there would be 30 pairs of shoes, 200 jackets to choose from, drawers and drawers of spectacles but he was always very good natured about it all. He realised it was all over the top and he was self-mocking about it. He thought it was all a big laugh really.
         On that tour he told me he was retiring and that was a real scoop for me. He said it was getting all too much for him and he was going to retire and run Watford FC instead. I knew he was gay. Well, everybody did but you didn’t mention things like that in the press in those days and MM didn’t mention things like that, or drugs. We just wrote about the music. When Elton came out to Rolling Stone I remember reading that and thinking, ‘Why are they making such a big deal of it. I‘ve known about that for years.’
         When Captain Fantastic came out they had a party in New York and it was at a lunchtime, a Thursday. I’d been invited to this party of course but I had deadlines to meet for MM and I had a courier coming round at between 1 and 2pm to collect my copy. The phone rang at about 1.30 and it was one of Elton’s assistant who told me Elton had noticed I wasn’t at his party and he wanted to know why. I said tell him I’ll be along in a minute but I’m busy. The assistant said Elton was worried that I didn’t like him anymore! When I did get there he came running over and gave me a great big hug and said he thought I wasn’t coming and I said I was sorry but I had a lot to do that day. I said I had to write about people other than him, you know, and he said yes he knew that. It sounds silly now but that’s how he felt. It was nice in a way, to know that he cared that those who’d known him since before he was famous still liked him. 


ELTON JOHN – Some Recollections in an Interview

This picture was taken in 1976 and in the centre is my good friend Ashley Pandell whose bar and restaurant on Fifth Avenue and 13th Street in New York – Ashleys – was the favourite music biz hangout in the city in the mid-seventies. It was taken there by Bob Gruen.
         I’d been friendly with Elton since the summer of 1970, and a year or two ago I was interviewed by Keith Hayward for his book Tin Pan Alley: The Rise of Elton John, not the first time biographers have come a-calling to talk about the (small) part I played in his early trajectory. Keith sent me a transcript of the interview and this is what I told him, more or less verbatim, somewhat repeating some of the info in a previous blog about EJ:

In the summer of 1970 I went to this festival at a place called Krumlin near Halifax in Yorkshire. I came from Skipton in Yorkshire which wasn’t far away and Melody Maker had asked me to cover it because I could stay at my dad’s there. I would not have gone on my own accord, especially as the weather was so bad at the time. The organisers of this festival had advertised other more famous groups as being on and it might have been Pink Floyd or The Who, who where much bigger draws than Elton back then, but they had lied because they did not have any contracts with these groups and I have a feeling that some of those who were there had gone to see these bands and may have been disappointed when they didn’t show up.
         The gig was in a field and it wasn’t a particularly well organised affair. There were about 2,000 people there, maybe more. It was cold, wet and miserable. Elton came on in the early evening. Now you would think that being the summer it would not be dark by seven or eight in the evening but I think it was getting dark because of the weather. On he came with his trio with Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass and after about three numbers he realised that he could not play slow stuff, that he needed to do fast stuff to rock this place out and he did. He was doing one or two Rolling Stones numbers in those days and he realised he needed to keep the crowd warm because of the weather and he did a cracking show. Towards the end of the show he got these bottles of brandy – Courvoisier I think it was – and he had some plastic cups and he said if you are cold come and have some brandy and of course this went down really well and I was really taken with him. This guy was really trying hard here under difficult conditions to cheer everyone up. He was the star of the show and an unknown. 
         After his set I went backstage. I didn’t know what his songs were called. I knew one was called ‘Border Song’, another ‘Lady Samantha’ and he probably played ‘Your Song’ as well but I didn’t know it at the time. So I went backstage and found him. He was in a caravan getting changed and relaxing because he was energetic on stage and I knocked on the door and someone answered and I said I was from Melody Maker. “Is this where Elton John is? I would just like a quick word with him.” Elton overheard this and said if this is someone from Melody Maker then let him in. I was formally introduced to him and I said that was a real cracker of a show you did really well and I asked him about his songs, ‘Take Me To The Pilot’, ‘Your Song’, and so he clued me in on the titles of the songs. I remember Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention was in the caravan as well and we all chatted together. I didn’t stay at the festival for much longer after his set.
         So I went back to my dad’s house in Skipton and then the next day drove back to London and wrote this piece on the Krumlin Festival and that the shining light was a newcomer called Elton John, a keyboard player, and I said I think we are going to be hearing a lot of this man in the near future, he was fantastic. The review came out and the following week Elton’s publicist Helen Walters called me and thanked me and said Elton was really thrilled and has asked if you want to meet him again. I agreed and I did an interview. Suddenly and within the next two months it all started happening for Elton John so I had caught him just before all that.
         In those days Elton lived in an apartment building on Edgware Road called the Water Gardens which was luxury flats near the raised area of the M40 and I didn’t live that far away, Sussex Gardens, and I bumped into Elton in the Edgware Road area just by chance. I remember distinctly bumping into him in a dry-cleaners when he was getting his stuff and I think I had a drink with him in a local pub and I also met him at The Speakeasy a few times. The music business was very insular in those days and everyone used to go to the same places. I think that he and his future manager John Reid lived together at the Water Gardens.
The momentum for Elton started building in the second half of 1970 and I had done another interview by the end of the year. In December he supported The Who at the Roundhouse. I was quite friendly with The Who and Elton was supporting them and I remember seeing Elton backstage again and we exchanged a few words and he was saying how fantastic it was to be supporting The Who and playing to this large crowd. I remember he did a fantastic show and when The Who came on Pete Townshend introduced Tommy and dedicated it to Elton John because he said he was going to be very big.
         Then just like Pete said Elton became huge and you couldn’t get Elton tickets for love or money and the market was flooded with Elton products, Tumbleweed and film soundtrack called Friends. He was really prolific, banging out records all the time. Within six months of that year Elton was one of the biggest names in the business, all happened really fast.

I’ll post the second half of this interview tomorrow.