26.1.22

SEARCHING FOR JIMMY PAGE, a novel by Christy Alexander Hallberg




From the mid-sixties onwards, British groups touring America welcomed the attentions of free-spirited girls who hopped into their beds to ease the strain of being far from home in a foreign land. It was, I suppose, one of the perks of the job and it’s surely not unreasonable to suppose that during the early years of this touring era, when reliable birth control was not readily accessible to single women, such liaisons resulted in a few births to mothers who opted to keep the identity of the father to themselves. 

This is the premise on which Christy Hallberg has created her book, a coming-of-age tale about a go-getting girl from a redneck background in North Carolina called Luna. Just before she died, gratuitously violently by her own hand, Luna’s mother Claudia gave her daughter ambiguous reason to believe that her father might be Jimmy Page, a suggestion given credence by Claudia’s fondness for Led Zeppelin’s music and a photograph of Page, all in white with raven-black curls, she hung over her bed. This happened when Luna was quite young and now, having turned 18, she resolves to embark on a quest to discover the truth behind her mother’s claim, a voyage of discovery that takes her from the far-from-idyllic American home she shares with her grandparents to London, where she seeks out the former Zep guitarist – but I’ll stop there so as not to spoil the ending for anyone who might care to read the book for themselves. 

It’s very melodramatic, a rather spooky tale which, like the aura surrounding Led Zeppelin and their music, strays into areas of mysticism, tarot cards and scary things that happen at night beneath a full moon, with screeching owls and old men who stoop like the wood-gathering hermit on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV. The name Luna, of course, is a bit of a give-away. 

As you would expect, the story is liberally seasoned with references to Led Zep, carefully researched biographical details, song titles for its four parts, plus a Coda, but no lyrics, of course, lest copyrights are infringed, a bit of a sensitive issue these days what with that business over the origin of the descending arpeggios that introduce ‘Stairway To Heaven’. 

        Set in 1988, the book follows Luna from America to the UK where the story picks up pace and becomes more engrossing. She visits Page’s homes in London, hanging around outside Tower House in Holland Park, and also Windsor, where she glimpses Page’s then pregnant wife Patricia. She even takes trips to Rushock, where she nicks whiskey bottles from John Bonhams grave, and to Headley Grange, the former workhouse in Hampshire where much of Led Zeppelin IV was written and recorded. Now a private home, she is invited inside by its owner, ‘A distinguished-looking gentleman with sprigs of grey hair around his temples… a tall, reedy man, tidy and austere, his navy cardigan buttoned to the neck, his khaki trousers smartly pressed. “You’ve come to see the stairway, haven’t you?” he asked.’

         Impressed by the detail and accurate Zep research, I felt these were the book’s strongest scenes. 

        ‘Four Sticks’, the song about owls crying in the night, is a recurring theme, along with Luna’s aspirations to become a writer, all of which suggests an element of autobiography, it being assumed that the author is a die-hard Zep fan who in researching her book has visited the locations mentioned in her story. 

It’s an intriguing scenario with intriguing characters, stylishly written. Luna’s a bit of a misfit, bullied by more conservative peers, her only friend a coloured girl called Connie, and her need to exist outside of conventional society is reflected in the Mohican hairstyle she adopts for the trip. She’s also a bit careless, which leads her into financial difficulties, but she’s rescued by a bisexual London boy who works at the hotel in which she stays and becomes her friend and guide.

Searching For Jimmy Page is not fan fiction per se – Page himself appears only briefly and doesn’t speak – and the book pays no homage to anything previously published. Instead, it uses the mythology of Led Zeppelin as the landscape for a novel about one woman’s need to discover the truth about who she is and where she came from, a not uncommon scenario in literature old and new. Not overly long, it is slightly let down by substandard production, probably for reasons of economy, but Zep fans will love it. 


25.1.22

THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS


First released in 2016, this movie grabbed my attention last week when it was shown on Sky. Although much of the footage is familiar from other Beatles documentaries, authorised or otherwise, it was the first time I’d watched the whole 97 minutes, and what a gas it was.

        It’s incomprehensible nowadays to watch the chaos The Beatles caused across those countries in which they performed at the height of their extraordinary popularity. Through no fault of their own, other being themselves, they were responsible for massive, industrial-scale upheavals at airports, in city centres and whenever and wherever they appeared on stage (or off, if fans got to hear about where they happened to be). It was dangerous too, a miracle there wasn’t a fatality amidst the turmoil that followed The Beatles everywhere they went.   

        In the 21st century it’s no doubt possible to fake this kind of thing or, at the very least, to edit in footage from elsewhere in order to create an illusion, to manufacture the scenes so as to exaggerate the situation. But this wasn’t faked. Those scenes really happened. It was on the news and on the front pages, almost daily during 1963 and 1964. Hundreds, if not thousands, of girls from the age of 12 upwards really did become wildly hysterical if they caught a glimpse of them. The level of mayhem inspired by John, Paul, George and Ringo far and away outstrips anything that has occurred since for any other act, group, boy band or solo singer, that has followed in their wake over the past 60-70 years. Everything else, from The Monkees to One Direction, is simply tame by comparison.

        The film benefits from the presence of Larry Kane, the only broadcast journalist to travel with The Beatles on their US tours in 1964 and 1965. Kane was told by his superiors not to bother, that The Beatles would be forgotten about in six months’ time. In the film, however, he compares his experience on tour with the group to every other major world event in the second half of the 20th Century, from the assassination of JFK to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and feels uniquely privileged to have witnessed it. 

        It was nice to see the unflappable Derek Taylor telling a vast crowd of hysterical girls in some American city to calm down. “The Beatles have come a long way to play for you tonight,” he implores in his smooth British accent. “But they can’t if you don’t go back to your seats.” Others who worked with them, notably Brian Epstein and George Martin, are also featured, and there was a brief glimpse of Neil Aspinall, but I felt that their contributions, filmed long before the film was conceived, had been shoehorned in and therefore seemed slightly out of kilter with the live footage. Also, no one really thought to film The Beatles in the recording studio, not until much later in their career, which meant that when it skipped, perhaps unnecessarily, from the live footage to recording, Eight Days A Week had to rely largely on still photographs from Abbey Road, all of which had been seen many times before.

        But these are minor quibbles. The joy was seeing The Beatles performing on stage, in the UK, Europe, America, Japan and Australia, and to see the happiness they brought to the world during the three years when they were an active touring band. It all happened a long time ago now but I still find it enormously heart-warming to see John, his legs apart, his small guitar held high, singing his heart out; and Paul, shaking the long neck of that violin bass, and his hair, as he joins in on the other side of the stage; and George, dwarfed by his big Gretsch, concentrating on his lead lines then stepping forward to the microphone to join Paul; and Ringo at the back, his hair flopping about, bashing away, grinning like there’s no tomorrow.

        Because the film was authorised by them, there would have been an opportunity to improve the live sound, which was uniformly good, and I have no way of knowing whether it was enhanced or not. Either way, they sounded pretty damn good to me, especially when you consider the conditions in which they performed, the relatively inferior amplification equipment they were using compared to today and the tiny road crew that supported them. 

        And the audiences, crikey! It’s no wonder George wanted out, as did they all really. It couldn’t continue but while it did it was wonderful, as I saw for myself at Bradford 58 years ago last month. 

        The Beatles. The first. The best. Always. 


21.1.22

IT’S ALWAYS SUMMER SOMEWHERE: A Matter of Life & Cricket by Felix White


“When an old cricketer leaves the crease, you never know whether he’s gone

“If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly mid-on.”


The Who and others at the Oval, pictures of Jimmy Page and Elton padded up in cricket whites, a Wishbone Ash LP called There’s The Rub. Cricket and rock didn’t often collide when I was batting for Melody Maker, but the chorus of Roy Harper’s ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’ was warmly reassuring for a cricket fan like me when I first heard it in 1976. 

Nowadays, of course, The Rolling Stones have a private box at Lords where Mick and his guests can watch Test matches but he kept his fondness for the game to himself when the Stones were in the ascendant, probably because the sport then seemed deeply unfashionable in rock circles. It probably still is, as cricket-loving Felix White readily acknowledges in his entertaining, witty and deeply personal book about how the game has impacted on his life. In making me remember these odd occasions when the only sport I truly love wormed its way into music, It’s Always Summer Somewhere not only reinforced my belief about cricket’s life-affirming virtues but promotes the theory that sports teams are much like rock bands; groups of people thrown together with one common goal who must weather success and failure together, travel to distant shores, and enjoy periodic moments of triumph yet grin and bear it when things don’t go their way. 

Felix White, of course, was the lively, left-handed guitarist with The Maccabees who in 2017 disbanded by common consent at the height of their popularity, a decision initiated by singer Orlando ‘Land’ Weeks, and accepted by colleagues that included Felix’s younger brother Hugo. Since then, Felix has cemented his relationship with cricket with Tailenders, the hugely successful podcast in which he is joined by Jimmy Anderson, England’s most successful bowler ever, and Radio One DJ Greg James. It’s Always Summer Somewhere is much like Tailenders, quirky, unpredictable and funny, albeit it in a sort of bittersweet way as it lurches from his feelings about the death of his mum to the rise and fall of The Maccabees and musings on his own character and place in a world he often finds difficult to understand.

        Part autobiography, part confessional, part revelation, we learn much about the inner workings of Felix’s group, how they came together, how they survived for a dozen years and how they created the four albums they released. As a candid account of how rock groups go about their business, his behind-the-scenes, fly-on-the-wall tales take some beating. Meanwhile, from the age of about six Felix has become fascinated by cricket, which acts as a constant safety net into which he can disappear when the mood takes him. Like all English cricket fans, he anguishes over the teams defeats, especially against Australia, and delights in their victories, occasionally with undisguised astonishment. 

        Brutally self-critical about his personal flaws, Felix escapes into cricket at every available opportunity. While well aware that his preoccupation isnt shared by others, he becomes absurdly knowledgeable about the game and feels utmost sympathy for those players who don’t quite come up to expectations, most especially bowlers whose ranks he once aspired to join. To this end, the linear first-person chronology of the book is interrupted by shortish chapters devoted to interviews with several of his cricketing heroes – among them Phil Tufnell, Chris Lewis, Michael Atherton, Nassar Hussain, Ashley Giles and Kumar Sangakkara – in which Felix teases interesting admissions about their great moments on the field, the importance of self-confidence and reactions to failure. 

        In between times we learn about Felix’s family, his love of his grandparents – his gran was Palestinian – the heart-breaking death of his mother following a lengthy battle with MS and how he dealt with it, and the entry into his life of three significant others, among them Florence Welch whose initials he shares and who, conveniently, lived close to the Kennington Oval. Among the books funniest moments is a dialogue between them in which Florence  bless her for trying – attempts to analyse the game. 

        Felix’s prose is intensely moving, carefully constructed and always evocative, quite unlike any rock memoir I’ve ever read before. Favouring emotion over facts, it takes you into the heart of his world, his thoughts and his demons, and at the end – which coincides with England’s heart-stopping victory New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup Final at Lords – you feel you’ve explored his soul and, like him, come out a winner. All thanks to cricket. 

        Highly recommended. 


17.1.22

FROM THE FLOORBOARDS UP! The Fans’ Perspective by Jon Abett



The sad passing of Charlie Watts left more than simply a vacancy on the Rolling Stones’ drum stool. Charlie was also, unquestionably, Britain’s best-dressed male rock star, a devout believer in good tailoring, a role in which he excelled for over 50 years. Meanwhile, nattily-suited Paul Weller, snapping at Charlie’s well-polished heels since first emerging with The Jam in 1977, staked his claim as heir. 

Now, with sad inevitability, Weller has succeeded Charlie in this coveted spot, and the evidence is there for all to see in this 428-page photo book in which he is never less than smartly turned out, on stage at least, though I sometimes get the feeling that no matter where he is, even at the breakfast table, Weller checks the mirror to make sure his trousers are creased and that his shirt conforms to a high standard of sartorial elegance before slicing the top off his boiled egg.

        Since all those drawn to this remarkable book will already be well familiar with its subject, I suppose the publishers thought it unnecessary to mention Weller’s name in the title or even anywhere on the front cover. ‘From The Floorboards Up’ is a short, sharp, guitar-driven song on Weller’s 2005 album As Is Now and The Fans’ Perspective acknowledges the source of its contents: page after page of photographs of Weller on stage with his favourite guitars, from 1990 until 2019, every one of them taken by fans who sent them to author/compiler Jon Abnett, who took a fair few himself, and also designed the book. Former Mojo editor Pat Gilbert contributes the lion’s share of text that in three parts proficiently tracks Weller’s career moves during the eras covered by the book’s many photos. 

        Jon Abnett and I first crossed paths when the Kent-based print company of which he is a director produced several books published by Omnibus Press. As such I was able to offer some slight assistance in the birth of this book, suggesting a publisher and putting him in touch with Roger Daltrey, who contributes a brief but heartfelt foreword that salutes Weller’s role in the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts that The Who’s singer has regularly staged at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

        We begin at a Paul Weller Movement concert at the Manchester Academy on 25 November, 1990, with Paul in striped top playing Stratocasters, and end at Edinburgh Castle on 11 July, 2019, with Paul in black shouldering an Epiphone Casino. In between times only his hair has changed, growing longer and greyer, while his favoured guitar over the years seems to be a classic blonde Telecaster with black scratch plate. It’s noticeable, too, that the musicians behind him are no slouches in the wardrobe department either. 

        We see also how Weller has evolved from the young-looking idealist seeking a new path after The Jam and Style Council to the mature musician he is today, never content to rest on his laurels and, the odd encore aside, determinedly reluctant to look back. By diligently following his instincts, Weller has become a bridge between the idols of his teenage years, most noticeably The Who, and musicians many years his junior, like Oasis and Stereophonics, who have been inspired by his pragmatic approach and refusal to bend in the face of fleeting fads. Once a Mod, always a Mod.  

        It is a testament to the esteem in which he is held by fans that this book exists in the first place. I don’t think they are professional photographers but many of the shots, most in fact, look like they’ve been taken by pros, especially in the second half of the book. In an era when anyone with a mobile phone can become a photographer, I get the impression from the definition and pinpoint focus, including several close-ups, that fans were wielding Lumix, Canon and Nikon as opposed to Apple, Samsung and Sony.

        As well as the pictures there’s memorabilia galore, tickets, backstage passes and set lists. Printed on good quality art paper, the book is, like it subject, stylishly attired with a stiff cover, inside of which, at the back, are 128 pictures of PW posing with fans. From The Floorboards Up! is a treat for them all. 


13.1.22

RONNIE SPECTOR (1943-2022)


        I didn't know what a goddess looked like until I saw a picture of The Ronettes, three of them virtually identical, in the NME towards the end of 1963. 

        Brian Wilson believes ‘Be My Baby’ to be the greatest pop record ever made and claims to have listened to it every day of his life. My kids thought it – and its follow-up ‘Baby I Love You’ – were Christmas songs because the first time they heard Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound was on his Christmas album. I’ve loved both songs since I first heard them aged 16 in that coffee bar in Skipton, the one where I shovelled threepenny bits into a jukebox until I ran out. And they’re playing right now, as I type this tribute to Ronnie Spector whose death I learned about this morning on the internet.

It is indicative of the sudden domination of beat groups in the early sixties that those magic recordings reached only numbers four and 11 respectively in the UK charts. Above ‘Be My Baby’ at number four on November 21, 1963, were Gerry & The Pacemakers, The Beatles and The Searchers, while above ‘Baby I Love You’ at number 11 on February 27, 1964, were The Bachelors, The Searchers, The Dave Clark Five, The Merseybeats, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Manfred Mann and Brian Poole & The Tremeloes. Topping the charts that week was Cilla Black with ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’, originally recorded by Dionne Warwick.

Nevertheless, it’s a pound to a penny that every single member of all those groups, and Cilla of course, would doff their hat to Ronnie Spector, or Ronnie Bennett as she was then, the lead singer on both the records. 

“When The Ronettes made their public debut with their first single, it was immediately obvious that they were to the bright, chirpy little Crystals what Elvis was to Pat Boone,” writes my former Melody Maker colleague Richard Williams in his Phil Spector book Out Of His Head. “The year they hit the chart, Helena Rubinstein’s profits certainly doubled. They looked dangerous, a threat to any average male’s self-esteem, but despite the challenge in their eyes they performed love songs in which they pleaded with their boys… This marvellously piquant contract between promise and performance was made possible because of the emotions roiling within Ronnie Bennett’s hugely quavering, massively sexy voice, a pure pop instrument the like of which no one had ever heard before. [Phil] Spector had found his instrument, and she had found her setting.”

Estelle, Ronnie & Nedra

Ronnie was 19, her sister Estelle was 20 and their cousin Nedra Talley was just 18 when they recorded these two songs. All three girls had jet black bouffant hair piled way up high, wore tight dresses in shiny material or slinky pants suits and looked simply gorgeous, their bloodline a mixture of white American, black African and a hint of Irish. Their eyes, beneath the mascara and false lashes, bore through you. Their sound was that of a massed choir, backed by Spector’s multi-instrument landscape, the biggest reverb in the world, part gospel, part Wagner, part symphonic, seductive yet yearning, beguiling, breathless and oh so seductive. They danced with Ringo at the Peppermint Lounge and when they toured the UK with The Rolling Stones in 1964 Phil Spector tagged along as chaperone in case Mick and Keith had ideas. 

The Ronettes went on to make many more great records, as did Ronnie on her own, but none sounded as good as these two. Ronnie married Phil, or rather Phil imprisoned Ronnie in the unhappiest of marriages, but she escaped and became the legend she deserved to be. I saw her once, in 1976, when she performed at the Bottom Line in New York with Southside Johnny & The Asbury Dukes. It was, of course, a night of nostalgia but anyone who was anyone in NY turned out to see her that night, and she sang the songs we wanted to hear. 

        “They could sing right through a wall of sound,” said Keith Richards who recalled that 1964 tour when he inducted The Ronettes onto the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on 2007. “They touched my heart there and then, and they touch it still.” 

(I found both the photos on the internet uncredited. I think the bottom one is a promo shot taken for Philles Records in 1963, with the top one taken a bit later.)

4.1.22

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

The news that David Bowie’s heirs have sold the rights to his music for something in the region of $250 million comes as no surprise to me. His catalogue is just the latest in a long line of work by ‘heritage’ acts, some dead, some alive, whose music has been snapped up by large corporations in the hope they’ll get their money back many times over through streaming, dwindling sales of CDs, mechanical copyright earnings, song publishing revenues and exploitation in movies, TV and advertising usage.

        Some people ask why. My guess is that David’s widow Imam, now in her sixties, their daughter Lexi, and David’s son Duncan Jones, simply don’t want to be bothered with the effort and expense involved in exercising control over the music that their husband and father left behind. Far better to bank (and enjoy) the money than to spend years fretting over how best to administer and make use of the legacy themselves. This would require difficult decisions, loads of meetings, reams of paperwork, expensive lawyers and constant policing, a heap of headaches best left in the hands of persons better qualified for this kind of work than themselves. Banking a pirate’s treasure certainly looks like the better option to me. 

        I find it less surprising that Bowie’s heirs have taken this decision than the similar deals that have been made by artists still living. Bruce Springsteen remains creative into his seventies, one of few big acts of his generation to maintain a steady output of quality new material, so the reason for his decision to sell, along with, say, Neil Young, another perennial achiever – who sold 50% of his catalogue about a year ago – is less clear. It’s not as if Bruce needs the money, topping the list with a reputed $500 million in his case, and I’ve long maintained the view, perhaps naively, that he was never in it for the money in the first place. Maybe he just wants to make sure that none of his descendants wind up like father Doug, bitter and twisted after years in that dead-end factory job, his anger and frustration the source of so many of his son’s songs.

        In fact, the list of acts who’ve sold their catalogues is virtually endless. Anyone interested can visit a website* which lists 54 acts, ranging from Bob Dylan to Bing Crosby, most with the price attached, and a further thirty-odd who’ve sold portions of their catalogues for undisclosed sums. I don’t think it’s a complete list either, as there’s no sign of Pete Townshend on it, nor of Dusty Springfield who, unless I’m mistaken, was one of the first artists to enter into this kind of deal, thus ensuring she could spend her final years without a care in the world at a very pleasant cottage near Henley. 

        It’s perhaps more pertinent to note who hasn’t sold their work, and there are some big names holding out, all of them British, which suggests that American acts are more inclined to bank the cash than the Brits. Paul McCartney isn’t on the list, and neither are The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Ray Davies, Elton John or Rod Stewart. U2 and R.E.M. are also absent. It might be the case that some act’s catalogues aren’t theirs to sell, insofar as somewhere along the line they lost control of their work or, like Elvis – see below – were swindled out of it by some nefarious wheeler-dealer. Asked recently about the issue, Elton’s manager David Furnish said it was “unthinkable” for his client and partner to sell his songs, adding: “I can’t think of anything more agonising, and neither can Elton, than sitting and watching someone else take his and Bernie [Taupin’s] songs and do what they want with them.”

        I know, or I think I know, how that might feel. David would certainly wince if an enterprising confectionary brand launched a chocolate bar called Heroes and promoted it with David’s song of the same name, or a toy company produced an astronaut doll they called The Starman. 

        All of this ties in quite neatly into a book I’m reading right now called Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates by Eamonn Forde, a music biz expert whose last book The Final Days of EMI: The Selling Of The Pig I edited while at Omnibus Press. Leaving The Building takes as its starting point the remarkable rehabilitation of Elvis Presley’s estate which, at the time of his death in 1977, was almost threadbare, at least by the standards you would expect of a singer who’d sold nigh on a billion records in his lifetime.  

        Though its likely he didn’t realise what was going on, Elvis was quite probably the first artist to enter into a deal along the lines of the one that David Bowie’s heirs have just concluded. In 1972, with sales of Elvis’ records in terminal decline, Col Tom Parker, his manager, reached an agreement with RCA Records that he and Elvis would relinquish all future royalties on Elvis’ back catalogue sales in exchange for $5 million in cash that was split 50/50 between them. Naturally Elvis paid tax on his share – leaving him with just over $1 million for his life’s work, a paltry sum in view of its significance and heritage. From RCA’s point of view, however, this deal was as sweet as they come – they now owned Elvis’ back catalogue outright – and for Parker the deal provided a handsome nest egg for his eventual retirement. 

        Happily, Priscilla Presley, acting on behalf of their daughter Lisa Marie, rescued the estate – and turned around that awful deal with RCA – but that didn’t stop Lisa from selling out eventually anyway.

        I called this post Money, Money, Money, after the song by Abba, another act whose catalogue is doubtless worth a nine-figure sum. So I’ll close by mentioning that Voyage became the fastest-selling album of 2021, which can’t have done their stock price any harm at all. When Bj√∂rn and Benny decide the time is right, will Abbas catalogue top Bruce’s $500 mil? My money says it will. 

*https://www.ajournalofmusicalthings.com/heres-a-running-list-of-artists-who-have-sold-some-or-all-of-their-song-catalogues-to-a-new-breed-of-company/