12.6.16

PAUL McCARTNEY: THE BIOGRAPHY by Philip Norman




What must it be like to be Paul McCartney? Deluged by gargantuan levels of fame since the age of 21, he has remained squarely in the spotlight ever since. Other pretenders to his pop crown, not to mention Popes and Presidents, come and go but Paul, like the Queen, remains in place, the best known, most loved and most successful rock star on the planet, still at it at 73, his violin bass and cheery smile entertaining the multitudes with yet another chorus of ‘Hey Jude’. Meanwhile, having amassed a fortune as great as the Count of Monte Cristo, he somehow keeps his feet on the ground, always and forever Mr Normal.
It is a life that has been under the microscope many times before and Philip Norman is better placed than most to tell it again. The author of Shout!, the first Beatles biography to look seriously behind the deference that until its publication in 1981 had shielded the world’s greatest and best known pop group from detractors, Norman went on to write a thumping great biography of John Lennon, the Beatle he once suggested was three-quarters of the group. Now he turns his attention to the other senior Beatle who, it must be said, has good reason to detest him. Shout!, highly enjoyable and successful as it was, was so firmly on the side of John that Paul referred to it as ‘Shite’.
Adding to the debate that surrounds the publication of his bulky 850 page McCartney book is Norman’s position in the hierarchy of Beatle biographers, once unassailable but of late challenged by Mark Lewisohn, now widely recognised as the group’s foremost archivist. There is a well-defined difference between these two rivals, however. Lewisohn is a virtuoso historian, concerned with details, painstakingly unearthing previously unknown facts and anecdotes and, with scrupulous attention to accuracy, recording them at great length for posterity as demonstrated in the extraordinary Tune In, the first in what will surely become a remarkable and definitive trilogy of books that tell the Beatles’ story from birth to their formal dissolution in 1974. Norman, on the other hand, is a first-rate literary stylist, a craftsman whose elegant and evocative prose entertains, illuminates and gives pause for thought as he tells the story – the same story, of course, that he’s told twice before, at least up to 1970.
Norman begins his tale by laying his cards on the table, explaining in his introduction his difficult relationship with McCartney which seems to have finally reached a relatively amicable plateau. In what seems like a quid per quo trade-off, McCartney has evidently given his thumbs-up to this book while Norman has revised his opinions on his subject’s contribution to the group’s music. Hatchets buried, at least for now, we’re off and Norman’s opening chapter, a heart-warming description of the National Trust ride to 20 Forthlin Road, Liverpool, the house where McCartney spent his formative years, is as eloquent as it is charming, bringing back memories of my own experience of this same National Trust tour in 2010.
Thereafter we get chapters on the McCartney line – in which we are informed that Jim, Paul’s dad, was one of seven siblings who owned two pairs of shoes between then, one for the boys, the other for the girls, and that since the school they attended required all pupils to be properly shod they would take turns to attend, and those that did would repeat the lessons to the others on their return – and Paul’s childhood, followed by the best part of 300 pages on The Beatles. This takes us to about halfway through the book, so the years from 1970 to 2015 occupy the second half, an imbalance that suggests Norman’s interest still rests with the sixties.
It’s an all too familiar story now; how Paul met John at the village fete, joined the Quarrymen who morphed into The Beatles, who learned their trade in Hamburg and at the Cavern, became managed by Brian Epstein who smartened them up for George Martin to light the fuse beneath the firework called Beatlemania. Nevertheless, it is to Norman’s credit that in this, his third time of telling the same story, he still manages to inject it with the magic it deserves, even though this is a more streamlined version. This telling, however, not only shifts the focus towards McCartney but also presents him in a more favourable light than in either Shout! or his Lennon book. Tony Sheridan, for example, states: “Watching them, I used to think that Paul could probably make it without John, but John was never going to make it without Paul”, a particularly strong quote that I couldn’t find in either of his previous books. This surely implies that for this book Norman has adopted a selective policy that favours McCartney.
If it’s well told – and it is – I can enjoy the Beatles’ story again, even if there’s nothing much new of note here. That’s Lewisohn’s job, though even he would be impressed by details such as how Jane Asher’s father taught himself to write his signature upside down so as not to waste time turning around letters handed to him by his secretary. There is, however, new – or at least expanded – material about McCartney himself, and Norman is particularly strong on his close relationship with his father Jim and warm attitude towards his second wife that in time would cool; also his relationship with Jane Asher who, as ever, remains decorously mute, and Paul’s voracious appetite for other girls; his fondness for soft drugs and immersion in London’s alternative culture, led by my friend Barry Miles, which finally puts to the sword any ideas that John was the Beatles’ avant-garde envelope pusher; and family life at Peasmarsh and elsewhere in which Paul and Linda excel as parents. Throughout all this the group’s music seems to take a secondary role, perhaps because Norman realises it’s all been covered so well before, though he delights in hinting how real experiences find their way into Paul’s songs.
Linda’s arrival in Paul’s life is covered in great detail – as it should be – and she, along with Yoko, are held responsible for the break up of the group. As it fragments after Epstein’s death, Norman puts forward a convincing case against the wisdom of hiring Allen Klein to oversee their affairs, the implication being that if the other three had adopted McCartney’s suggestion that Lee Eastman, his father-in-law, be given the job they would all have benefitted to a far greater degree – and John and Paul might even have hung on to Northern Songs. In the event it was not to be, the malice clouding John’s judgement and upsetting the applecart to everyone’s detriment. Paul can be forgiven for being smug when it turns out he was right all along.
And so on to the solo years during which Paul, who always enjoyed performing, becomes the only Beatle to do so regularly (at least until Ringo formed his All Starr Band). Band On The Run (and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’) aside, Paul’s music thereafter rarely reached the heights it did when John was egging him on, and though Norman feels duty bound to cover it in detail there a sense of dutiful ennui to his coverage thereof. Of more interest is the coverage of the Japanese jaunt that saw Paul briefly jailed for importing marijuana, which Norman relates in fine detail, as he does with Linda’s decline and McCartney’s disastrous marriage to the dislikeable Heather Mills.[1]
Linda’s death clearly robbed McCartney of the rock on which he’d built his life, so in her absence seems to have been a bit of a loose cannon. Never one to defer to others, apart from her, we are presented with a man who is known to everyone but surprisingly isolated. Not even his children can prevent this ill-advised union, the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ syndrome having proved his undoing. Fortunately, in the closing chapters of Norman’s book the darkness is exchanged for light with the arrival of the far more suitable Nancy Shevell.
With regard to flaws, I feel duty bound to reiterate comments from other reviewers in that Wings was never a ‘glam rock’ band and that ‘God Save The Queen’ by the Sex Pistols was not a punk-style pastiche of the National Anthem, even if they do share the same title. More importantly, for a book that purports to be a definitive biography of McCartney I could find no discussion of his remarkable skills as a bass player, one of the best in the business. Having myself written a 2,000+ word introduction to a Beatles songbook aimed specifically at bass players (http://justbackdated.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/paul-his-basses.html), I find this unforgiveable, a very serious deficiency.[2]
As Norman brings the story up to date we learn how McCartney finally become reconciled to his past, realising in the end that this was where the love was made, and performing hugely enjoyable, ultra-professional concerts that continue to be celebrations of The Beatles. He is also resigned to forever being second, the second Beatle, after John but before George and Ringo. Indeed, Philip Norman perhaps recognises this as well, choosing to write first about Lennon and then McCartney, albeit with greater insight and depth with this book.



[1] I became convinced that this lady has a very distant relationship with the truth when she let it be known that when Paul smoked marijuana he became violent towards her; anyone with the slightest experience of cannabis use knows perfectly well it has the exact opposite effect. I wholeheartedly concur with the judge who firmly rejected her evidence during the divorce proceedings, reproduced here in all its fantasy detail.

[2] Other errors: a suggestion that The Who would have been managed by Nems had Robert Stigwod taken over is well wide of the mark. Joni Mitchell did not perform at Woodstock. Denny Laine was not a member of the Incredible String Band (it was the Electric String Band) and he is incorrectly identified as Jimmy McCulloch (and vice versa) in a photo in the third plate section. The Troubador in LA is certainly not ‘super-chic’. McCartney did not buy his MPL offices in Soho Square in 1977 but acquired the floors of the building one by one as they became empty from 1972 onwards, completing the ‘set’ in 1977 when he brought about a full scale refurbishment. Finally, I don’t believe Paul ever played a Fender bass on stage, as implied on page 627.

7.6.16

ABBA REUNITE (AGAIN) - The Truth




Reports that the four members of Abba performed together on Sunday night for the first time since 1981 seem to have been exaggerated, at least according to my well informed source who was with them at the Berns Salonger, a posh restaurant attached to a hotel in Stockholm. Not only didn’t the quartet all perform together but the songs that were performed, firstly by the boys alone and secondly the girls, were different from those reported in the press.
The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the date when Björn Ulvaeus first met Benny Andersson, on June 5, 1966, at a pop  festival on the Ålleberg hill, three miles southeast of the town of Falköping. At the time Björn was a member of The Hootenanny Singers while Benny was the keyboard player with The Hep Stars, and both bands happened to be playing the festival that day. Afterwards, at the hotel where The Hep Stars were staying in Linköping, the two future Abba songwriters were introduced and ended up with playing guitars together, sitting in a park until the sun came up, singing songs by The Beatles and The Kingston Trio.
Not surprisingly Björn and Benny never forgot their equivalent of the Woolton church fete and, on Sunday, 50 years to the day, they were joined by the female half of Abba, Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, to whom they were once married, to celebrate. That much seems to have been reported accurately enough by the media but that’s as far as it went.
“Contrary to reports, the four of them didn’t actually sing together,” I am told by my spy, who was present at the event. “Agnetha and Frida sang ‘The Way Old Friends Do’ and then Björn and Benny came onstage afterwards. But [there was] no actual group singing. The last number before Agnetha and Frida was Björn singing ‘Does Your Mother Know’ with Benny playing the piano.”
According to the erroneous reports the quartet sang ‘Me And I’, their ‘1980 hit’. Not only wasn’t ‘Me And I’ a hit – it was an album track from the Super Trouper LP, released that year – but they never sang it. “What happened was that the emcee introduced Agnetha and Frida by saying they were going to perform a song called ‘You And I’, which are the first words of the lyrics for ‘The Way Old Friends Do’,” reports my insider. “He should have known better, but there you go. Then one of the guests leaving the party told a reporter outside that they’d performed a song called ‘You And I’. And then the media must have concluded that “there’s no ABBA song entitled ‘You And I’ – oh, I guess they meant ‘Me And I’”. Voilá – a rubbish story is born.”
          Just Backdated – not necessarily first with the news but at least we get it right!




3.6.16

TIGHT BUT LOOSE - JPJ & BP Fallon's Story



Perhaps because fame wasn’t to his taste, perhaps because – as the consummate professional – he regarded his employment between 1968 and 1980 as just another gig (albeit a very lucrative one) or perhaps because he thinks he has less to lose than Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, but John Paul Jones has kept himself largely to himself since Led Zeppelin called it a day in 1980. Truth is he’s the kind of rock star I’d like to have been, acclaimed for his musicianship, richly rewarded yet unrecognised on the street. When I worked at Music Sales John Paul would come into our offices from time to time to meet with his publisher on the 5th floor, usually dressed in jeans and a scuffed jacket, and tell me whether or not the tube was crowded. The tube? Page and Plant are less likely to be seen on the tube than senior members of the Royal Family, unless of course they’re opening a new line named after them.
So it’s nice to see the eternally modest John Paul on the cover of the latest Tight But Loose, Dave Lewis’ superior Led Zeppelin fanzine which arrived this week. Inside he talks about what he’s up to (with a brief mention of his work for Dave Rawlings, musical partner of the very wonderful Gillian Welch) and a bit about his past and his thoughts on his legacy. No one ever seemed to want to interview John Paul in my Melody Maker days and he didn’t seem to mind one iota, happy as he was to do his job properly like the craftsman he is, and go home afterwards. Nevertheless, when he does decide to talk he’s forthcoming, friendly and comes across as the Mr Nice Guy he's always been.
Of equal interest, at least to me because I used to know him well, is an interview with BP Fallon, the impish Irish PR who took on the Led Zeppelin brief around 1973 and hung around doing the same job on and off until 1980. Having previously worked for EG management (King Crimson, ELP, Roxy Music) and Marc Bolan, BP’s arrival in the Zep camp took most of us by surprise, not least because he didn’t share the aggressive tendencies associated with their management. In the event this was a bonus. Already well liked by the press for his laid-back otherworldliness, BP was ideal for easing the rather touchy relationship between band and media that developed after the merits of Led Zeppelin III came under scrutiny in 1970.


Jimmy Page with BP Fallon aboard the Starship in 1973, photo by Bob Gruen

Whenever BP rang me up with some news about a client he would open the conversation by announcing: “Hey man, I need to lay a verbal on you.” He never ceased to fascinate, to intrigue. Nevertheless, like the eternally absent-minded Simon Puxley with Roxy Music, PR for BP was really just a hook on which to hang his hat. His real skill was advising his clients on how best to present themselves to the world, and in so doing to engender sympathetic media coverage at a time when the UK music press was becoming far less deferential towards the artists that peopled its pages. When Bolan was in danger of becoming a trifling teen-idol, BP gave him integrity, and when Led Zeppelin appeared too high and mighty, BP did his best to present them as humans, not quite cuddly but certainly less belligerent than their reputation suggested. Also, there was an obvious affinity with Jimmy Page; both of them small, dark and a bit mysterious, sometimes whimsical, sometimes deep, and both of them powerful magnets for immensely attractive women. After Zep BP went on to work for U2 for a spell, wearing a laminate that read: ‘Guru, Viber & DJ’ – a perfect job description really.
Elsewhere Tight But Loose contains the usual news of what Page, Plant and Jones have been up to, information about records, gigs (including a Deborah Bonham Band show at which Plant got up to sing ‘When The Levee Breaks’ and ‘Shakin’ All Over’) and bootlegs, opinions from fans and everything else the committed Zep fan needs to know. It’s also nice to know that the three men who inspire the magazine’s success and continuing existence now so appreciate the work that Dave does on their behalf that they are happy to support it in the way they do.


30.5.16

A BANK HOLIDAY STORY


Five years ago, on the summer Bank Holiday that takes place today, I said farewell to the oldest friend I ever had, and here’s how it happened.
Richard Southwell was born on May 18, 1947, two days after me, at Elmhurst Nursing Home, a maternity hospital at Bingley in West Yorkshire where our mothers were in adjoining beds. This led to a friendship between our families that lasted for years, and a camaraderie with Richard that was strong until I left Yorkshire for the south of England in 1969. Thereafter it was intermittent but it was rekindled on the summer Bank Holiday of 2011, two days before he died from cancer at his home in Steeton near Keighley.
The friendship was probably at its strongest when Richard and I boarded together at Malsis School between 1955 and 1960. On the outskirts of the village of Cross Hills between Skipton and Keighley, Malsis was once a lavish country home in its own extensive grounds, its impressive pillared frontage approached by a long drive that wound past a small lake through woods and playing fields. As well as spending time together in school – we were in the same year, in the same classes – we visited one another on a regular basis during the school holidays too. He lived at Eldwick, above Bingley, not far from where my maternal grandparents once lived. His mother and father, Bob and Dorothy, became friends with my mum and dad and on the eve of every new term we would all eat out together at the Overdale, a dining and dancing club in Skipton.
        In my time at Malsis I discovered a love of reading, especially Conyan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and one term Richard and I produced and wrote the script for a stage adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles in which I played Holmes and Richard played Doctor Watson. The official school entertainment was the annual production of Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, The Mikado, Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe and others, but it was soon established that I was tone deaf and I never took part in any of them. Neither did Richard who also couldn’t sing for toffee, but it was at Malsis that I discovered and first came to love rock’n’roll and pop music; Richard too but not with the same obsession as myself. We would have been nine when we first heard Elvis Presley singing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ on a 78 rpm record played on a wind-up gramophone that belonged to another Malsis boy. In quick succession we also heard ‘Diana’ by Paul Anka, ‘Last Train To San Fernando’ by Johnny Duncan & The Blue Grass Boys, ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Long Tall Sally’ by Little Richard and two other early Elvis recordings, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. I remember visiting Richards house where he had a Frankie Vaughan 78, ‘Garden Of Eden’, and Harry Belafonte’s 1957 number one, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’. Neither of these songs were rock and roll but I soon became absolutely hooked on it all, and from that age the acquisition of rock’n’roll and pop records (and knowledge about those who performed them) became an all-consuming passion that has sustained until this day and to a large degree provided me with a life.
        Of course, it’s far too simplistic – and probably also a great exaggeration – to suggest that the course my life would follow was decided for me at the age of nine by whomsoever it was that brought a wind-up record player and a pale blue labelled HMV Elvis Presley 78 rpm recording back to school with him. If I hadn’t discovered Elvis and Little Richard at this school I would probably have discovered them elsewhere, probably heard them on the radio, and still become hooked on them – but not only can I recall the actual room where I heard my first rock’n’roll record, but also where the wind-up gramophone was located and even where I was standing in relation to it.
        But I digress. Richard and I went to different schools after Malsis but because we never forgot how close our birthdays were we often exchanged greetings, cards and phone calls until the arrival of faxes and then e-mails. My Skipton band The Pandas played at a party at his family home in Eldwick around 1966, and my dad and I were at his (first) wedding in the early seventies. We stayed in touch in other ways too, me occasionally dropping in to see him at his home in Shipley when I went up to visit my dad in Skipton before he died in 1997. In 2009 Richard and his (second) wife Janet visited us at our home in Surrey. We always had a lot of catching up to do.
Richard worked as a travel agent in Bradford but in May 2011 he didn’t respond to the e-mail I sent on his birthday, nor had he e-mailed me on mine two days before his, so I called his office and was informed that he was off sick. So I called Janet and was shocked to learn that he was in the final throes of cancer. I wrote to him as follows:
“As Janet will have told you following my phone call earlier today, by a circuitous route I have just discovered to my profound sorrow how sick you are. I was quite lost for words actually as I had no idea whatsoever that you were ill, let alone how serious it was. It is an understatement to say that you and your family have my every sympathy.
“We were 64 last week. On the eve of my birthday Olivia, my daughter, who is now 19, played the appropriate Beatles song and handed over a bottle of wine, as per the lyrics. Sam, now 16, said he liked the song because Paul McCartney sounded so cheerful. I told him that Paul had written the song long before The Beatles became famous, when he was 16, your age. ‘How do you know?’ he asked. ‘Because it’s my job to know these things,’ I told him. Then we all sat down to a roast lamb dinner and, for once, I was excused the washing up. For desert Lisa produced home-made crème caramels, my favourite, from the fridge. The following morning, my birthday, I stayed in bed an extra hour but still went to work. I don’t think I’ll retire next year, nor do I think Music Sales will insist upon it. Just because I turn 65 doesn’t mean my accumulated knowledge of the history of rock and pop will disappear overnight. I’ll still know that Paul wrote ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ when he was 16.”
        After a paragraph or two of family news I closed my letter to Richard as follows:
“Sixty-four years ago this week ago our mums occupied adjacent beds at the Elmhurst Nursing Home in Bingley, and I would like to have been a fly on the wall, listening to the conversation:
“Good morning Betty, how’s little Christopher at three days old?”
“Hush Dorothy, he’s sleeping.”
“I wish I could get my Richard to sleep. He was awake half the night.”
“Just think… all their lives stretch out in front of them. I hope they become friends Dorothy.”
“I think they will Betty. I think they will.”
        I closed the letter: “All the best wishes I can possibly offer from your oldest friend,” and added as a PS: “Janet – if you think it’s practical for me to drive up to Steeton in the next week or two let me know. I don’t mind setting off early in the morning, maybe spending a night with a friend in Skipton.”
In the event I drove up the following Sunday because it was the Bank Holiday the following day, staying with friends who live in Knaresborough, and drove over to Richard’s house in the village of Steeton the following day. On a whim, as I passed through Cross Hills I called into Malsis School, up that winding drive, and parked my car in front of the pillared entrance. It was deserted, and the front door was locked, but as I wandered around the outside of the old building I thought about how Richard and I had roller-skated together along these same pathways over 50 years ago.
Then I drove to Richard’s house. Janet made me a cup of tea and told me Richard was sleeping upstairs. She would wake him soon. I chatted with her and their children, some from their marriage and others from Richard and Janet’s previous marriages. Then I went upstairs. Richard was lying in bed, looking 20 years older than me, as thin as a pencil and with a long white beard. I thought he looked like Rip Van Winkle, barely recognisable from the boy and man I once knew. He looked very frail. He smiled but didn’t talk much, and even when he did I barely recognised his voice, so I did most of the talking, about music, about families, about my visit to Malsis, about how long we had known one another. Janet sat on the other side of the bed and listened. Eventually she said the visit was tiring him out so I shook hands with Richard for the last time, gave him a hug, went back downstairs, made my farewells and drove back down south.
Two days later Richard died. Janet called to tell me and to say that my visit had seemed to act as a closure for my oldest friend, the friend I knew from the day he was born to two days before he left us. I didn’t go to the funeral. “There’s no need,” said Janet. “Your visit was all that Richard wanted. It made him so happy.”



27.5.16

KEITH MOON - A BEACHCOMBERS STORY




Any day now Omnibus Press will publish A Tribute To Keith Moon: There Is No Substitute, compiled by Ian Snowball, designed by Who designer Richard Evans and produced in association with the Moon Estate, headed by Amanda De Wolf, Keith’s daughter. ‘There Is No Substitute’, of course, is the inscription on the plaque at Golders Green Crematorium where Keith’s last rites were held, on September 13, 1978.

With an introduction by Pete Townshend, the book is chock full of contributions from fellow drummers, Keith’s friends and Who fans. Focusing as much on Keith’s extraordinary talents as a drummer as his notoriety as a prankster, the book reflects the deep affection that this madcap genius inspired amongst all those with whom he came into contact.
Packed with photographs, many previously unseen, the interviewees include fellow drummers like Kenney Jones, Rick Buckler, Carl Palmer, Mick Avory, Max Weinberg, Don Powell, Clem Burke and many more, as well as other musicians like Jack Bruce and ‘Legs’ Larry Smith, various Who associates and some who’d known Keith since before he was famous.
Among the latter is John Schollar, the rhythm guitarist in The Beachcombers, the Harrow-based group for whom Keith played drums before he joined The Who. Keith was a Beachcomber for almost 18 months, from December 1962 to April 1964, and after he left John maintained his friendship with him though all the turbulence of The Who years, right up to the end. After Keith’s death John continued to visit Kit, Keith’s mum, on a regular basis, and he recalls Kit telling him in the eighties that if Keith had remained in The Beachcombers he’d still be alive. Kit, incidentally, is still alive, aged 95, now cared for by her daughter Leslie.
John Schollar’s contribution to There Is No Substitute is among the most poignant in the entire book, and I’ve reproduced it below. John also sent me the photograph below which wasn’t used in the finished book; taken at the Kodak Theatre in Harrow, probably very in early 1963, not long after Keith joined The Beachcombers. “He brought the gold lame suit with him,” John told me last night. “He’d worn it in his last group but he soon wore out the trousers, couldn’t sit still could he?”
          From left to the right The Beachcombers are John Schollar, Moonie, Tony Brind on bass, singer Ron Chenery (aka Clyde Burns) and lead guitarist Norman Mitchener. The picture was taken by their friend Roger Nichols who drove the group from gig to gig in his van.



“I grew up in an area not far from Wembley, where Keith grew up. Most of the early Beachcomber gigs were in venues in that area. We had a drummer, but he wasn’t really up to scratch, so we kicked him out and auditioned a few drummers. Keith was one of them and he was just superb. He was also very young, I don’t think even sixteen, but when he started playing we all looked at each other and knew he was something special. For a little bloke he produced so much energy and noise. And he made the most of what kit he had. Even with us he rarely used a hi-hat.
        “When The Beachcombers started out we were playing Shadows numbers and listening to Elvis, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, and when the surf stuff came in we did some Beach Boys and Jan & Dean songs too. In fact people on the circuit knew us as the shadows of The Shadows. Can you imagine Keith playing drums on Shadows songs? He was shit-hot at it and would add a bit more drive to it. We had to drop some ballads because Keith would rock them up a bit too much. Plus he pranked about. Whilst playing ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight’ one night Keith produced one of those duck decoy calls, the ones people blow when they go duck shooting, and in the middle of the verse he would blow it making the ‘quack quack’ sound. He even had a starting pistol one night and accidently shot our singer.
        “We had some laughs in The Beachcombers. There was a time when a friend managed to get hold of a pantomime horse, from the Wembley Ice Rink. He brought it to one of our shows and Keith loved it. He climbed inside it, fooled around and we couldn’t get him out. Keith held onto the pantomime horse’s head and took it to some audition we had to do in central London. He spent most of that night inside it charging around Piccadilly Circus. I remember we both went for a wee in one of the public urinals in Leicester Square. Keith kept the horses head on. God knows what people thought when they saw him. Another time he tried to get on one of the old London buses, the ones where you have to jump on the back. The conductor tried to refuse him but Keith just replied, ‘It’s okay we’ll go upstairs and don’t worry, the horse don’t smoke.’ The whole time Keith was in The Beachcombers it was non-stop laughter.
        One of the things that doesn’t really tend to come out in books about The Who or Keith is what a nice bloke he was and even back then he was. I was only talking to one of Keith’s sisters at the weekend and we were saying that there were only a few people that really knew him and saw that side of him. Even when he was a huge rock star he would still ring me up and invite me to gigs; several times, in the early Who days, I ended up bringing Keith home in my car. And there was never a hint of ‘how big I am’.
        “I remember he was on Top Of The Pops one time and just after the show he rung me up and asked, ‘So how was it mate?’ He did several things like that. In the early days there were times when he’d tell me about a gig and the next thing I knew I would be picking him up and taking him to it. It was only when The Who got much bigger did he become a bit distant and a bit wild.
        “The Who were lovely blokes. I knew them when they were The Detours; we played the same clubs on the circuit. I was there on the night Keith got up and played drums with them. We all knew that Doug (Sandom) had left the band. I mean Keith wouldn’t have done it otherwise. As soon I heard Keith play with them I just knew that he had found the band that he should be in and they had found their drummer.
        “I remember when The Who did a University tour. Keith rang me and said, ‘John we’re playing in Brighton, do you want to come? Come over and we’ll drive down in the Rolls’. I said I did and my girlfriend (now my wife) and me drove over to his place. But when I got there Keith had left a note on the door where he had scribbled some message about having to go and pick someone else up and see you in Brighton. The problem was I didn’t have a clue where he was playing in Brighton.
        “We drove to Brighton and flagged someone down who told me The Who were playing in the Sussex University. So we drove there. We parked up and headed for the venue. We walked through the doors and walked up some steps but got stopped by the bouncers. I said, ‘We are invited by Keith,’ to which he replied, ‘Yeah and plenty of others. No tickets. No entry.’
        “Thankfully, a few minutes later Keith turned up, headed straight for us and gave my missus a big hug. I then told him that we were having trouble getting in. ‘Right,’ he says and goes and demands that the manager comes and speaks with him. The manager appeared and Keith explained that he had invited some friends down from London and the bouncers wouldn’t let them in, but there was still a no ticket, no entry type attitude. ‘Hmm,’ says Keith, ‘Have you ever seen The Who play without a drummer? I tell you they are bloody awful.’
        “By this time there’s a reasonable sized group that had gathered around us, all listening to what was going on. The manager seeing this eventually gives in and says it’s okay for Keith’s friends to go inside. To this Keith turns to the crowd and shouts out, ‘The manager says that any of my friends that don’t have tickets can go in. Who doesn’t have tickets?’ To which about a dozen hands go up in the air. We all got it and that was what Keith was like.
        “The missus and I followed Keith into the dressing room and there was John and Pete sitting around a little table with a bottle of brandy. They filled up small plastic beakers and handed us drinks and we chatted. They were also being interviewed by some journalist and as soon as Keith got involved it just turned into the Goon show. It was very funny to watch.
        “There was a bit of time before the show so we decided to go to the bar to get a drink. When we got there the barman says, ‘Oh mister Moon, these people have been waiting for you to arrive because they want you to open a tab, so that they can have a drink.’
        “‘Oh okay,’ says Keith, get them a drink. But I stepped in and said. ‘Sod them Keith, just have a drink with me’ and I ordered some brandies. The barman said, ‘But what about them?’ pointing to the crowd. Keith looks at them, then at me and replies, ‘My friend says sod them, they can wait.’
        “After a drink Keith had to leave us and go and do the show but before he left he told us that he had arranged for us to sit in one of the balcony booths. We sat down and the waiter appeared with a tray full of drinks for us. Keith had arranged that too. Keith could be incredibly thoughtful and generous. He was a great friend.
        “I was mortified when I heard that Keith had died. Unfortunately, I heard about it on the news. I came in, sat down, turned on the TV and the news about Keith was on the telly. I just couldn’t believe it. Then the phone started ringing and people were asking me if I had seen the news. I was so upset. And then I had to ring Keith’s mum Kitty. We spoke and she was so upset. We even talked about the funeral and she said she wanted a private event and didn’t want it turning into a circus.
        “The funeral was held at Golders Green Crematorium and was an actually brilliant but sad day out. Every major rock star was there and after the service they were all sitting around telling stories about Keith, it was amazing. In fact the table that I was sitting on was getting louder and louder and Kitty came over. I looked at her and said, ‘Oh sorry Kit’ but she said, ‘No John, you’re telling stories aren’t you, you carry on, that’s what Keith would have wanted.’
        “I remember looking around the room and seeing Charlie Watts laughing and Pete Townshend in a hell of state. It was obvious that everybody loved him, even though he had done so many things to also piss people off.
        “There were loads of flowers too. Roger had sent a large bunch fashioned into a floral television set with a smashed champagne bottle hanging out of it. I spent some time reading the labels attached to the flowers and there were so many from famous people like Eric Clapton and members of The Rolling Stones. There was also a small posy of flowers and I looked to see who they were from. It turned out to be from a Children’s Home that Keith had helped out at some point.
        “After the service Kit asked me (and two members of The Beachcombers, Tony and Norman) to go back to the house. The house was jammed packed with people, you couldn’t move so Kit said to us, ‘You boys go out into the garden for a bit of privacy.’ We went to the garden and found Roger, Pete and John standing there. There was complete silence. It was very sad.
        “The other sad thing was that people were expecting something to happen to Keith. I thought he’d end up having an accident in a car. I think we just sensed that he was never going to make old age. At first the media tried to make out that Keith had committed suicide but that was nonsense. Kit even said to me: ‘I don’t know what this suicide business is all about.’ I replied: ‘No Kit, it’s rubbish, he was too much of a coward to do anything like that. He couldn’t stand any pain. Anyway, if Keith was going to do anything like that he would have hired Wembley Stadium and blown himself up in a coffin or something.’
        “A few days after the funeral Kit phoned me and told me that someone had rung her to tell her that lots of Keith’s stuff was in a room over in the Shepperton Studios. She asked me to go over and have a look to see what was there. There was loads of stuff just lying around and anyone could have walked in and walked off with anything, and quite possibly some people did. But I phoned Kit and told her that she needed to get Keith’s stuff out and store it somewhere safer.
        “Kit went over and collected the stuff. There were gold discs and all sorts. Kit then rung me and asked me to pop in and see her after work one day. So I went over to her place and she had piles of gold discs and awards scattered around her living room. It was an amazing sight and she told me to just pick whatever I wanted. There was some very rare stuff and I explained to Kit that she had some priceless stuff and should hold onto it. But she wanted me to have something so I took one of the gold discs for Tommy, which I have on my wall to this day.”




23.5.16

TOMMY – A Bluegrass Opry by The Hillbenders




Forty-seven years ago today saw the release of Tommy, the first and – to my mind – still the best rock opera recorded by anyone, and that includes Quadrophenia which runs it a close second. There have been many subsequent interpretations of Tommy, including three – Lou Reizner’s orchestral LP, the film soundtrack and the stage musical – in which The Who, or individual members of the group, took part, not to mention live versions, or extracts thereof, released by The Who themselves, on Live At Leeds, re-issues of Tommy and various other live albums. I’m sure there’s many more versions out there that might not have come to the attention of The Who though I’ve yet to learn about Tommy – The Ballet, but it’s not beyond the realms of imagination to visualize a line of rake-thin tu-tu clad ballerinas pirouetting around the deaf, dumb and blind one leaping across a stage in tights.
A couple of weeks ago I came across a poster for a bluegrass version of Tommy to be performed live by an American quintet called The Hillbenders at the Union Chapel in Islington in North London. I took a picture of the poster and posted it on FaceBook which prompted FB followers to steer me to a CD which has actually been on release for just less than a year now, so I’m a bit surprised I hadn’t found out about it before. I’ve been playing this on and off for a couple of weeks now, on the iPod and in the car and once I got over the shock of listening to Tommy without any drums, I’ve concluded it’s definitely a worthy addition to the Walker family.
The cover is an almost true facsimile of Mike McInnerney’s original blue cover for The Who, except that the cross-cross lattice on the front is made from what looks like wood, as befitting this acoustic recording. Within the lattice are the five members of The Hillbenders, guitarist Jim Rea who also arranged the piece, mandolin player Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves, banjoist Mark Cassidy and stand-up bass player Gary Rea. All five handle the vocals, sometimes individually, sometimes as a choir. They are based in Springfield, Missouri.
The five clearly revere The Who as the arrangements hardly vary from The Who’s original. There are 23 tracks, one less than The Who, ‘Underture’ presumably omitted because they felt unable to do it justice without drums and, in any case, the basic score is the same as ‘Sparks’. Elsewhere, it’s uncannily similar to the Tommy we know and love, from the ‘Overture’ to ‘getting the story’ at the end of ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’.
In many respects the stand-up bass makes up for the lack of percussion, though I think someone taps the body of an acoustic here and there, and I found myself warming to the two instrumentals – ‘Overture’ (taken at a frantic pace) and ‘Sparks’ as much as anything, as well as the dobro/banjo solo in ‘Acid Queen’. Guitarist Jim Rea follows Pete’s lines closely, on acoustic of course, and the rapidly picked banjo throughout seems perfectly natural once you’ve got your head around the fact that this is a bluegrass interpretation. The guitar/banjo opening on ‘Pinball Wizard’ is particularly effective. Towards the end, as one of the quintet offers up Roger’s ‘See Me Feel’ plea, it verges on the operatic, and when all five chime in on the closing lines – ‘Listening To You’ – the banjo speeds up like an express train.
Dedicating their record to ‘the power of The Who’, The Hillbenders are clearly in awe on them and their Tommy is without doubt a respectful tribute, in homage to them if you like. On the internet I spotted a picture of Pete with the five guys so we can assume the creator of Tommy has given them the green light. They’ve done him proud.




21.5.16

TONY BARROW - PR To The Beatles






Rather late in the day I discovered this morning that Tony Barrow, one time Beatles Press Officer, died last weekend, aged 80. I knew Tony well during my Melody Maker years, though by this time he’d long since moved on from the Fab Four – a term he coined, incidentally – and was running Tony Barrow International (TBI), a PR firm housed in an office block in Hanover Square, just off Regent Street. Among his clients were The Kinks, Deep Purple, Cilla Black and, once he’d shaken off the other three, Paul McCartney, with and without Wings.
Born in Crosby, near Liverpool, Tony was part of the inner circle of Beatle advisors from the very beginning, along with Brian Epstein, George Martin and music publisher Dick James (and roadies Neil Aspinall & Mal Evans), though his position was eventually usurped by the more urbane and whimsical Derek Taylor whose lively imagination and droll humour was more likely to appeal to JPG&R when they ceased to be Fab.
Famously, Tony wrote the sleeve notes for the first three Beatles albums and various concurrent EPs and though his words seem a bit cheesy nowadays they nevertheless convey the breathless enthusiasm of the first flush of Beatlemania. A trained journalist, Tony reviewed records for the Liverpool Echo under the pseudonym Disker, and he also wrote sleeve notes for artists signed to Decca Records, for whom he helped arrange The Beatles’ ill-fated audition on New Year’s Day, 1962.
Mark Lewisohn’s outstanding Beatles biography Tune In contains a lovely fly-on-the-wall account of Barrow’s first meeting with The Beatles in November 1962 in a pub near EMI’s London HQ at Manchester Square. First Paul comes to socialise, taking drinks orders but paying with Epstein’s money, then George takes a keen interest in what Barrow might do for the group and finally John remarks: “If you’re not queer and you’re not Jewish, why are you coming to work for Nems?” Ringo appeared too withdrawn to join in the conversation. “All the traits that came out at that initial meeting were consistent with what followed,” observes Tony.
By the time I got to know Tony Barrow he was an established, slightly old school PR, a bit of a veteran on the pop scene, the publicist for various US musicians when they toured the UK and few odd bods like Victor Borge, the Danish comedian and pianist, and Tom Paxton, the American folk singer. He seemed to have a foot in two camps, the traditional showbiz end of the market, acts like Cilla Black, and the rock world, exemplified by Deep Purple and The Kinks, though they were both handled by his assistant Marion Rainford who fixed up the first interviews I did with both these bands. Tony himself handled McCartney/Wings until Paul switched his business to Tony Brainsby who was a bit flashier. Also, TBI was superbly efficient and each Monday morning, news day on MM when I was the paper’s News Editor, I would receive in the mail a typed report on grey headed paper of all the activities that TBI’s acts were undertaking.
This job brought me into contact with all the rock and pop PRs operating in London in the early seventies, some of whom were younger and trendier but rarely as business-like or reliable. Tony’s only rival in this strata of the industry was Les Perrin, who’d snatched up John, George & Ringo and who also handled the Stones. Like Les Perrin Associates, TBI was an incredibly professional, well run set-up and even though the boss was occasionally prone to a drop more of the hard stuff than was good for him – a trait he shared with many in the PR trade – I liked him a lot.
For years and years I received a Christmas card from Tony, long after I’d left MM. He retired to Morecambe where he lived until his death last Saturday. RIP old mate.

18.5.16

MILES AHEAD - Film Review




Back in the autumn of 1970 the phone rang on my desk at Melody Maker’s offices on Fleet Street and, to my surprise, on the other end, calling from New York, was Miles Davis, asking to speak to Chris Welch. I passed the phone to Chris who took it with a look of apprehension, like the protagonist in ‘Worried Man Blues’.
“We spoke for quite a while,” confirms my old friend and colleague. “Miles was upset at my review of his performance at the Isle of Wight festival which I thought was embarrassingly awful. Terrible jazz rock made worse by his posing as a rock star. I was cross with Miles because his real music was so much better. But I never expected him to read MM. After a long complaint, he said, ‘I’m going to leave CBS’.”
I was reminded of this strange exchange last night as I watched Miles Ahead, the quasi-biopic of Davis directed by Don Cheadle who co-wrote the screenplay and takes the starring role. Miles never did leave Columbia, or CBS as the label was known in the UK. But he did have his ups and downs with the label, as the film makes abundantly clear.
Judging by the wardrobe, the film is set in the mid-1970s although there are flashbacks to the 1940s when Davis was in his pomp and courting the gorgeous dancer Francis Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the muse he clearly still adores. Thirty years on and Davis is a reclusive, drug-addled nowhere man, a volcano of fear and paranoia who answers a knock on his door from Rolling Stone writer Dave Brill, played occasionally and, I thought, inappropriately, for laughs, by Ewan McGregor, who is seeking an interview. Thus ‘Dave’ finds himself caught up in the crazy world of Miles Davis, in which guns and car chases play an important role in their quest to track down a tape recording of recent sessions that Columbia wants to release and which, with Dave’s connivance, has been stolen from Davis’s apartment.
        All of which is exciting to behold and mixes plenty of drama into a movie that I thought would be more biographical than it was. I don’t know how much liberty has been taken but since I never encountered a Rolling Stone writer called Dave Brill during my stay in New York, which coincided with the period in which the ‘reality’ part of the film is set, I am assuming this story line is pure fiction. Nevertheless, I’m inclined to trust the authenticity of Cheadle’s top-class portrayal of the great trumpeter, a performance that dominates the film in every aspect. Davis was a proud but difficult man, barely in control of his life, brought down by heroin, racism and the certain knowledge that the music he made after the mid-sixties wasn’t what his audience wanted or appreciated, a dilemma that has almost certainly led to problems other star musicians have faced when that star begins to fade. All of which might suggest that Davis is a violent brute but this doesn’t stop us rooting for him as he chases his tapes through the mean streets of New York, gun in hand and sidekick Dave at the wheel of his speeding Jaguar.
        While this aspect of the film seems a bit too much like every other cops’n’robbers movie, it is counterbalanced by some outstanding musical scenes, either in a studio or on stage, almost all of which are from the earlier period, and in which Cheadle as Davis is joined on stage by a host of illustrious jazz musicians. The continuity between the two eras shifts cleverly as scenes are juxtaposed on the crash of a cymbal or the blast of a trumpet, the only issue with this being that – his receding hairline aside – the young Davis doesn’t seem to have aged anything like 30 years by the mid-1970s. Nevertheless, Cheadle’s portrayal of Miles as the fighting underdog, smoking incessantly, barely audible in his hoarseness, desperate to prove he’s not a has-been, is immensely powerful.
        In the end the tape is retrieved but I won’t spoil the fun by saying what it sounds like. Sufficient to say that my old pal Chris Welch was probably lucky that in 1970 the real Miles Davis was calling him from New York and not a pay phone in Fleet Street.

       

19.4.16

STAIRWAY TO THE HIGH COURT - Part 2, The Mary Poppins Connection


I have been shown a copy of the deposition signed by Jimmy Page in relation to the lawsuit over ‘Stairway To Heaven’ that I wrote about here last week. It is dated February 24, 2016, not long ago, and although the other two surviving members of Led Zeppelin are mentioned Jimmy seems to be the only member of the group to have been asked to give evidence. In a nutshell, he denies completely any suggestion of plagiarism, says he never heard the Spirit song ‘Taurus’ until 2014, states that descending chord progressions like this have been prevalent for years, citing several examples, and shunts into touch any suggestion that because Led Zep were on the same bill as Spirit back in 1968 (once) and ’69 (twice), some cross-fertilisation may have taken place. Fuck off, in other words.
“I composed the music to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ with the intention to create a long work,” he states at the outset, “with multiple different parts that would unfold with increasing complexity and speed culminating in a guitar solo that was preceded by a distinct fanfare, followed by the last verse concluding a climax to the song.” He confirms that Robert wrote the words after he’d composed the music and goes on to state when and where it was recorded, and when it was first performed live. “It was included on the album usually referred to as Led Zeppelin IV,” he adds, thus (almost) giving a name to a record he has consistently declined to refer to by its title since its release in 1971.
“The beginning of ‘Stairway…’ includes a chromatic descending line chord progression and arpeggios, over which I played an ascending line,” he points out, adding that he considers descending chromatic lines and arpeggiated chords “basic skills learnt by a student of the guitar”. “As a guitarist I was aware of descending chromatic lines and arpeggios long before 1968,” he adds, and few would doubt him on this.
To illustrate his point, Jimmy refers to a demo of a track called ‘Spring Is Near’ that he worked on in 1960 for Chris Farlowe, which seems unusually early as JP would only have been 17 at the time and Farlowe & The Thunderbirds were barely past the rehearing-in-mum-and-dad’s-bedroom stage by then. Nevertheless Jimmy’s penchant for hoarding has evidently come in useful as he is able to lodge a pressing of this demo with his lawyer. “The beginning of ‘Spring Is Near’, recorded in 1960, is a guitar playing a descending chromatic chord progression,” he points out helpfully.
This is far from the only example that Jimmy mentions, citing “songs by the Beatles” (he doesn’t say which but I’ll opt for ‘For No One’) and the intro to Davey Graham’s instrumental reading of ‘Cry Me River’ which can be found on YouTube and does indeed feature a few lines that sound a bit like ‘Stairway’. More interestingly, Jimmy cites ‘Chim Chim Chimree’ from the film Mary Poppins as an example of a song wherein the music “is going at a counterpoint, and I used that and similar ideas in my music.” Finally he mentions a session he did in 1968 for a group called Cartoone on song called ‘Ice Cream Dreams’ which also has a descending line. “I participated in that session in the fall of 1968 before Led Zeppelin went to the US in December, 1968,” he adds, stressing the significance that this occurred prior to the gig with Spirit in Denver on December 26, 1968.
If the evidence thus far is designed to demonstrate how the descending figure in ‘Stairway’ is very common in songs, the rest is designed to refute suggestions that Jimmy was aware of Spirit’s song ‘Taurus’, at least until he first heard in in 2014. “I never heard ‘Taurus’ or even heard of it,” he states. “I am very good at remembering music and am absolutely certain that I never heard ‘Taurus’ before 2014. I do not recall ever seeing Spirit perform live. I am absolutely certain I never heard them, or anyone else, perform ‘Taurus’.”
The evidence that follows confirms that Led Zeppelin and Spirit did play on the same bill but Jimmy is at pains to point out that even though this was the case he and the other members of Zep never actually saw them. “Generally, in my experience, when bands play on the same bill, each band or performer used their own guitars, amplifiers, keyboards, drums and other equipment,” he states, clearly believing that whoever is reading this disposition has no knowledge whatsoever of the rock world. “In between performances their respective road crews would set up or dismantle and remove their equipment and that took anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes depending on the extent of the equipment. In my experience the set up interval between bands meant that we did not encounter any other bands entering or leaving the stage.”
A suggestion by the plaintiffs that Led Zeppelin and Spirit were introduced to one another by someone from whom Zep had leased a plane is also kicked into touch. “Led Zeppelin did not lease an aeroplane for touring until 1973, long after the concert in Denver in 1968,” he points out.
Jimmy concedes that he owns a copy of Spirit’s first album but maintains he has never played it. “I have several thousand albums of many different kinds,” he says. “They include albums I purchased, albums people gave me or albums that were simply left at my home. Like a book collector who never gets round to reading the books they collect, I have never listened to many of the albums.” He does not know how the Spirit album came to be in his collection. “It may well have been left by a guest. I doubt it was there for long because I never noticed it before [this litigation].”
Jimmy concludes his deposition by stating that many documents and demo recordings have been lost or stolen over the years – “stolen from my home in the 1980s” – but those that he does still own have been produced for use as evidence in this action. Finally, he alludes to the passing of John Bonham, Peter Grant and Andy Johns (who engineering the recording of ‘Stairway…’) who may have been able to support his deposition.

I am grateful to Richard Morton Jack for sending me a copy of Jimmy Page's deposition.

15.4.16

STAIRWAY TO THE HIGH COURT



Like a nasty dose of some STD that simply won’t go away, the issue of whether or not Jimmy Page and, to a lesser extent, Robert Plant, nicked the opening bars of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ from an instrumental by Spirit entitled ‘Taurus’ grabbed many column inches earlier this week, causing Just Backdated to listen very carefully to the music in question. ‘Stairway’ is credited to both Page and Plant but it’s a safe bet to assume that Page wrote the melody and Plant the lyrics, so if culpability becomes an issue then it is Jimmy who is in the frame.
We are concerned with just the introduction to ‘Stairway’, no more and no less, and those in Spirit’s camp will argue that this is its key element, four crucial notes that are nowadays as well known to rock fans as any Chuck Berry intro that took the fancy of Keith Richards. ‘Taurus’ does not open with this melody but reaches it at around the 45 second mark, but apart from this similarity each song thereafter does its own thing, ‘Stairway’ reaching for the heavens as it inflates and develops, ‘Taurus’ noodling along at the same pace throughout, enhanced by strings as it reaches its conclusion but never really working up much of a sweat.
Both songs hover around an A-minor key. The descending sequence of notes on the D-string are identical, no doubt about it. The tempo or meter, too, is identical, ditto the general, slightly medieval feel which is Zep’s case is enhanced by John Paul Jones playing a bass recorder. ‘Stairway’, however, has a simultaneous ascending run of notes on the top E-string and the phrases in each song are resolved differently. ‘Taurus’ seems to hang loosely, while ‘Stairway’ moves down to a D chord, then a slightly discordant F-major 7th, then a G major and an A minor chord, a far more satisfactory and pleasing sequence to my mind. In ‘Taurus’ the tranquil little sequence is repeated several times with pretty much the same feel and intensity while in ‘Stairway’ Jimmy pushes down on the power button as each verse comes around, thus disguising and diminishing the similarity.
‘Taurus’ first appeared on Spirit’s debut album released in 1968, a full three years before Led Zeppelin IV, on which ‘Stairway’ appeared. That Spirit debut album also included the song ‘Fresh Garbage’ which Led Zeppelin covered at the beginning of their career, which proves that Jimmy Page was aware of the album. Also, in those early days before Zep established themselves as a top flight attraction, they were on the same bill as Spirit; among the dates they shared Zep’s first ever appearance in America, at Denver on December 26, 1968. They also appeared together at two festivals in 1969, at Atlanta on July 5 and Seattle on July 27, but I have no way of knowing whether Spirit included ‘Taurus’ in their sets; probably unlikely as meandering instrumentals are hardly festival fare.
The lawsuit has been brought by the Estate of Randy California (whose real name was Randy Wolfe), Spirit’s leading light and songwriter, who died in a drowning accident in January 1997, rescuing his 12-year-old son in the process.
The big question, of course, is why it has taken so long – over 40 years – for the Estate to bring the case. Surely Randy, when he was alive, was aware of the similarities between the two songs and, had he felt sufficiently aggrieved, would have brought the case himself. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ will have generated a tidy sum in royalties but far be it for me to suggest that in the present era, when litigation has become a nice little earner, pecuniary motives are at the heart of this. Many plaintiffs bring a case in the hope that a quick out-of-court settlement will resolve an issue and save high legal costs but Jimmy Page has a deep pocket and I don’t see him capitulating easily.
It’s worth pointing out, too, that descending chord sequences in a minor key such as this are as common as muck. Zep used something similar in ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, which isn’t that different from George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on The Beatles’ White Album. Jack Bruce once told me that JS Bach was the master of the descending bass line and, were he alive today, might have a case against loads of rock songwriters, not just Procol Harum. On the negative side, it’s also worth adding that Led Zep have a bit of previous in this regard too: ‘Whole Lotta Love’ = ‘You Need Love’ (Muddy Waters); ‘The Lemon Song’ = ‘Killing Floor’ (Chester Burnett); ‘When The Levee Breaks’ = Memphis Minnie; and a hush seems to have settled over ‘Dazed And Confused’ which songwriter Jake Holmes claims to have written (another descending sequence of notes) and which it is believed was the subject of an out-of-court settlement in 2011.
I wouldn’t like to predict the outcome of the ‘Stairway’ issue but if I was on the bench I’d award a small settlement to the Randy California Estate, perhaps 5% or less of the money the song has generated. This judgement is based on the fact that only 50% of the song is the melody (and 50% the lyrics, which is not the issue), and of that 50% only 10% – at the most – can be attributed to ‘Taurus’, the remaining 90% – not least the entire second half of the song after John Bonham comes tumbling in – pure Page/Led Zep.