22.9.17

KEITH MOON'S LIVING ARRANGEMENTS


The domestic arrangements of The Who were never a mystery to journalists. Alone among acts of their stature during the early 1970s they welcomed music writers into their homes for interviews, and it was no secret that Roger Daltrey owned a manor house in the village of Burwash on the Kent-Sussex border, that John Entwistle lived in a relatively modest semi-detached house in Ealing, and that after staying in a series of rented flats in central London Pete Townshend had moved his growing family into a large house next to the River Thames in Twickenham, a stone’s throw from Eel Pie Island where on October 30, 1968, The Who had performed in the dance hall of the island’s small hotel. 
As might be expected, Keith Moon was less settled than his three colleagues, moving from his birthplace in Wembley to a flat in St John’s Wood, then to the top half of a house in Maida Vale, then to a flat above a garage in Highgate and then to a substantial house in North London’s Winchmore Hill. Along the way he had married a model named Kim Kerrigan and become the father of a daughter but while at Winchmore Hill his marriage to Kim faltered and she went back to live with her parents in Bournemouth, taking daughter Mandy with her. Keith promptly abandoned the North London house for a bachelor flat in Chelsea, but when Kim decided to give him another chance they bought a property off St Ann’s Hill Road, on the outskirts of Chertsey in Surrey. I would visit Tara House, as it was called, many times, both before and after it became notorious as Moon’s ultra-modern pleasure-dome, a futuristic fantasy house consisting of five pyramids, four at each corner with a giant one in the middle. It was set in its own grounds but not too far away from a pub, The Golden Grove, conveniently located at the end of a 300-yard lane that led to chez Moon and, unhappily for its occupants, one other property.
Keith and Kim bought the house for £65,000 (approximately £925,000 in today’s money) and moved in during the early months of 1971. On two of its corners were bedrooms, each with en-suite bathrooms, another housed a ‘den’, its walls decorated with murals of superhero comic characters, and the fourth the kitchen which led to a guest bedroom and thence to the garage. The strange layout of Tara consisted of rooms within rooms, and the main bedroom housed a bathroom within it, ie you could walk all the way around it. The bed-head was up against the outer bathroom wall, facing a huge wall-sized window, and there was a spherical TV hanging from a chain fixed to the ceiling. The loo was within the bathroom, and John Lennon’s gold disc for ‘She Loves You’ was mounted on the wall next to a mirror above the basin. Keith told me he’d swopped it for his gold disc for ‘My Generation’.
In the centre of the huge main room was a sunken conversation pit with seating on three sides, a brass chimney pipe descending from the apex of the pyramid to an open fire next to a built-in TV. Around the pit was a spacious raised area on all four sides. Three sides of the building boasted glass walls to a height of about six feet, a decidedly rash choice since the master of the household had a habit of walking into them, sober or otherwise.
In the manner of the modern day trend of B-listers for welcoming photographers from celebrity magazines into their homes in exchange for a sum of money and a picture spread within, the Moons announced their acquisition to the world by opening up the grounds for a July housewarming party that doubled as a celebration for the release of Who’s Next. The press were bussed in from London, many other rock stars were in attendance – among them George Harrison and Ronnie Wood as I recall – and the evening concluded with a firework display that climaxed with the words ‘Long Live The Who’ illuminated in the sky. Predictably there were complaints from neighbours and the police were called, a taster of things to come. 
The likelihood that Keith Moon would settle into quiet domesticity in his new home was remote. The household consisted of Keith and Kim, their daughter Mandy, Kim’s mother Joan, who was separated from Kim’s father, and her son Dermot, and despite the presence of two young children the atmosphere at Tara was constantly chaotic. Keith was at all times performing, at least when I was there, though he did let his guard down late at night when no one else was around. He had a habit of playing Beach Boys’ music extremely loudly, often the same song – ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ – over and over again on his juke box in the den. Such was the regularity of police visits that he and they became affably acquainted, largely because Keith was invariably genial towards the long arm of the law. “Come in chaps,” he’d say. “Have a brandy. Let’s listen to some music while we discuss what seems to be troubling you. I’m sure we can work things out.” In the fullness of time a relationship developed between ma-in-law Joan and a member of the Chertsey Constabulary that further reinforced the unlikely but convivial rapport between the drummer of The Who’s, rock’s wildest extrovert, and the forces of law and order in this deeply conservative corner of rural Surrey.
I never kept a diary, so I can’t remember all my visits to Tara that well. On one occasion, though, I rashly drove Keith in his great big lilac Roll-Royce to the Fox & Hounds pub in nearby Elglefield Green, where I once lived. It was hell to drive, like a big truck with very soft suspension, a mattress on wheels, and the bonnet with its Flying Lady mascot seemed to stretch out before you for ever, and each time you went around a corner you had to turn the wheel round and round and round again to make it. Keith sat in the back playing 8-track tapes at deafening volume. The drive back, in the dark after a few drinks, was even more nerve wracking. On this occasion I spent the night there, as I recall in Tony Fletcher’s definitive Moon biography Dear Boy. Keith gave me a sleeping pill that knocked me out until well into the following afternoon but before we hit the sack he had a disagreement with Kim, something about the soup she had made being insufficiently spicy, and he threw it at her. I thought she was an angel and I wanted to disappear.
On one of my last visits to Tara, in the spring of 1973, Keith was having a swimming pool built, complete with wave machine, and I remember riding around the grounds on tiny motor bikes he’d bought. During his occupation he acquired many expensive cars that were parked outside: two Rolls-Royces, one the lilac Silver Cloud III that I drove, the other a white two-door Corniche with an opening roof; a white Mercedes coupé; a red Ferrari Dino 426 that bit the dust on a nearby double-carriageway; a silver AC Cobra that once belonged to Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham; and his ‘fun’ vehicles, a milk-float, an old American ‘Al Capone’ style car with running boards at the sides, a hot rod and a hovercraft, not to mention the ‘ordinary’ cars for other members of the household. “Cars were simply toys for Keith,” says Peter ‘Dougal’ Butler, Moon’s long-suffering PA and chauffeur. “Most people see cars as transport, as a means of getting from A to B but for Keith they were things to play with, usually late at night when he was in the mood for a fast drive. He didn’t even have a driving licence.”
Keith’s bar bills from the Golden Grove were outrageous. He invariably bought several bottles on the slate to take home at closing time, usually vodka and Courvoisier, along with several of the customers. I had Keith’s phone number, which in itself was pretty remarkable as rock stars never gave out their phone numbers to anyone other than family, group associates and drug dealers, and after a while I thought nothing of calling up to ask what he was up to. If he was in he’d as likely as not say, “Come on over dear boy,” his typical greeting to all and sundry. 
I was by no means the only late evening visitors to Tara, and eventually Kim decided enough was enough. She left Keith for the second and final time in the autumn on 1973, subsequently moving in with Ian McLagan of The Faces whom she would eventually marry and settle down with in Austin, Texas. Keith remained at Tara for another year, hopelessly adrift in his ocean of disorder, and one night invited Jeff Beck, whom he had bumped into at the Speakeasy, back to his home, ostensibly to sell him the hot rod. “I realised that he was a bachelor in the true sense of the word although there was this girl lurking about [a girlfriend from Staines],” Beck told Tony Fletcher. “He showed me around the house and it was covered in dog shit. I’d never seen such a mess in my life. He hadn’t made the slightest attempt to clean it up. He was like, ’Mind the dog shit,’ like it had been there and it was going to be there. I mean, everyone has accidents, but this was in every room. [He hadn’t] any idea how to look after a dog. He opened up all the closets he had custom made, every single one was a disaster, stuff fell out on the floor and he didn’t put it back. It was as if a director had said, ‘Action!’ and coordinated the most incredible stunt of collapsing things… When we finally drank ourselves into oblivion, [the girl] tapped on the room where I was and said, ‘Do you mind if I come in?’ and I said, ‘No,’ and we wound up sleeping in the same bed even though she was purporting to be with Keith. She said, ‘I can’t take it any more, he’s driving me berserk.’”
Keith Moon sold Tara in 1975, the proceeds winding up in Kim’s bank account. It was bought by Kevin Godley of 10cc who in 1990 sold it to Vince Clarke of Erasure. Clarke demolished the house and built a new one on the same site, complete with a commercial recording studio called Ammonite. Moon found a second partner, Swedish model Annette Walter-Lax, and relocated to California where he lived in hotels and a series of rented homes until he settled down on Victoria Point Road in the Trancas area of exclusive Malibu. There, on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, he built a split-level house from the ground up, no expense spared, and became the Beach Boy of his dreams. The actor Steve McQueen and his wife Ali McGraw were his next-door neighbours, but the relationship was not cordial. Keith would remain there until September 1977 when, tired of America and virtually penniless, he returned to the UK, eventually moving into Flat 12 at 9, Curzon Square in the Mayfair district of London. It was here, on September 7, 1978, that Annette found his lifeless body and the rock world mourned one of its best loved sons. 

30.8.17

DAVID BOWIE – A LIFE by Dylan Jones




The longer we mourn David Bowie the more his absence becomes apparent. Nevertheless, in many ways the death of a great rock star nowadays affects only those to whom they were personally close, and makes little difference to most of their fans. Thanks to the heritage industry they no longer fade away: we continue to buy and listen to their records, watch their concerts on screens and read about them as if they were still alive. True, we can’t see them in person any more but, because David Bowie absented himself from public life for over a decade before his death, his actual absence is illusive, like the extinction of an endangered species, regrettable but remote. The obituaries have been written but the books keep on coming. 
I thought about this a lot as I read Dylan Jones’ David Bowie: A Life, a book I welcome, albeit with some reservations. Though advertised as a biography, it is in reality an oral history, Jones having interviewed and/or solicited contributions from 182 individuals with connections to Bowie; some – like myself – quite tangential and others – like his garrulous first wife, collaborating musicians and long term associates – with much more to say. Bowie’s story is told through their words, linked by Jones’ lucid and informative passages that set the scene and hurry things along, and the result is both enlightening and far-reaching, the best text-led Bowie book I’ve read since David Buckley’s Strange Fascination. It’s surprisingly pacy too and, with so many opinions to decode, Bowie’s fluid, restless and magpie-like character is fully developed well before fame beckons. 
As the present editor of GQ magazine, former editor of a few more and the author of 20 other books, Jones has been awarded the OBE for services to publishing, and his work ethic is clearly Herculean. This book is 556 pages long yet contains no images whatsoever, which is probably a first in the Bowie book industry, and pretty audacious since he remains far and away the most photogenic rock star the UK has ever produced. The format of the book precludes Jones from having to take a view on matters that some fans might find distasteful, thus enabling him to craft a ‘warts and all’ book that manages to avoid the rather prurient sensationalism of several other Bowie biographies I’ve read, yet include the debauchery anyway*. At the same time Bowie’s work is venerated through the opinions of experts: fellow musicians, record producers and prominent persons in the worlds of art and fashion. Some might consider this approach dispassionate but any such charges are mitigated by the scale of the undertaking, not to mention the wealth of information, much of it fresh, that can be gleaned from its pages. 
“The lack of subjectivity… should enable the truth to shine through,” Jones asserts in his acknowledgements, which is a nice way of saying that many of his interviewees speak their mind without concern for the feelings of others. There was always an element of bitchiness amongst those who surrounded Bowie, at least in the Mainman era and immediately afterwards, and the book certainly benefits from their candour and, probably, creative imagination. In this regard I would question the reliability of certain interviewees, not least a journalist who states that Bowie visited early manager Kenneth Pitt ‘just before Ken died’. I happen to know that Pitt is alive and well, now 95 and well cared for. This is but one dubious statement I found, not many but enough to create concern, leading me to discern a tendency in Jones to value the impact of a juicy quote over its truthfulness, with the old Fleet Street maxim of ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’ never far away. Bowie himself, of course, was no stranger to this tactic. 
Just about everyone is in awe of Bowie, and many of the anecdotes confirm the widely-held view that he could switch on the charm at a moment’s notice, disarm new acquaintances with his knowledge of just about everything under the sun and simultaneously take on the air of a pubbable bloke with whom you’d enjoy exchanging corny jokes over a couple of pints in your local. Most of the women interviewed, and some of the men, seem to have been willing to leap into bed with him in an instant, and Bowie wasn’t one to let such opportunities slip by. No one was immune to his allure, and even those who were cast aside ultimately forgive him and appear delighted if communication is restored. It is clear from the book that he had a profound effect on almost everyone with whom he came into contact and that he was adept at putting people at ease who might otherwise be intimidated simply by his proximity. One of the few dissenting voices was an old man walking his dog who in 1980 interrupted the filming of the ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video on Southend beach. ‘Do you know who this is?’ asked film director David Mallett. ‘Of course I do,’ he replied. ‘It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ “Sometime later,” Jones writes, “Bowie remembered, ‘That was a huge moment for me. It put me back in my place and made me realise, ‘Yes, I’m just some cunt in a clown suit.’”
Touches like this, and what I believe is a scoop about him singing backup on a Frank Sinatra recording during the Station To Station sessions, animate Jones’ book. Nevertheless, there are some important absentees, the missing voices: Iman Abdulmajid, Bowie’s second wife, granted only a few second-hand quotes; Corinne ‘Coco’ Schwab, his über-efficient personal assistant for upwards of 40 years, always a model of discretion, unafraid to offend A-list celebs who request an audience at the wrong moment; and Tony Defries, Bowie’s artful manager during the Ziggy period who, perhaps characteristically, tried to muscle in on the project and, when that failed, invoiced Jones (more out of hope that expectation) for $360,000 ‘for his contribution’. What was that about a leopard and its spots?
‘Never open a door yourself,’ was Defries’ sly advice to the client he signed in 1971, a bright, personable young man terrified he might become a one-hit wonder after his 1969 single ‘Space Oddity’, just about all he had to show for seven years as a professional musician, peaked at number five. Those seven years and the period before, Bowie’s schooldays, are covered well with family, childhood and teenage friends and early band mates, most of them the usual suspects, chipping in. Troubled stepbrother Terry looms large, clearly a big influence, and a contrast is drawn between supportive father Heyward ‘John’ Jones and his mother Peggy who seems like a very cold fish indeed.  
On the outside Bowie is the model of cool but inside a bundle of neuroses and it was probably desperation that led him to throw in his lot with Defries, a wonderful move in the short-term but disastrous a few years down the line. The colourful Mainman staffers have had their say in other books but it’s good to get them all together again to more or less confirm what we all suspected – fabulous presentation but absolute chaos behind the scenes – and many of their stories still raise a smile, especially as I was on nodding terms with most of them. Photographer Brian Duffy (who died in 2010) hits the nail on the head when he says that Defries ‘realised that in order to get the record company really going, you had to get them up to their neck in debt, which was… a masterstroke.’ It was a bit like a pyramid scheme which imploded leaving many investors skint, and that includes just about everyone apart from Defries and, to a lesser extent, Bowie from whose earnings the profligacy was debited. 
In the eye of the hurricane, Bowie realised he had to kill Ziggy and in the aftermath his life becomes disordered, as does the book. I was confused by the chronology in the period between the recording of Pin Ups and Station To Station; as if the disarray of Bowie’s daily life between 1974 and ’76, exacerbated by his copious cocaine consumption and the financial fallout of leaving Defries, was reflected in these pages. It’s not as if matters aren’t covered – Diamond Dogs, the ‘theatre tour’, Young Americans, ‘Fame’, the friendship with John Lennon (excellent quotes there), The Man Who Fell To Earth, the ‘Isolar’ tour – just that the sequencing is askew, and not until we reach the recording of Low and subsequent sojourn in Berlin is order restored, just as it was in real life. 
The Berlin period is fascinating, allowing Bowie to reconnect with reality after the horrors of Los Angeles, though I was surprised that more attention was paid to the cover of Lodger than the music it contained and that, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ aside, Scary Monsters was glossed over compared to the dire Just A Gigolo movie and Bowie’s heroic stage performance in The Elephant Man. ‘Heroes’, the song, gets the full treatment but not much else is said about the experimental music he made with Brian Eno. I don’t believe Jones is being deliberately selective here, just that revelations in the book are contingent on who’s willing to be interviewed, with the result that where witnesses are available whatever they witness gets fulsome coverage, and vice-versa when they aren’t accessible. 
Thanks mainly to Nile Rodgers no such problems occur with Let’s Dance, Bowie’s best-selling album ever, which for better or worse took him into the mainstream, and plenty of Bowie watchers line up to stick the knife into Tonight, which followed, and also Never Let Me Down. Plenty of associates talk about Absolute Beginners, the movie and the song, which like Jones I love, and he is especially good on Live Aid, which isn’t surprising as his 2014 book The Eighties: One Day, One Decade, focused on just that. Geldof’s charity bash, Bowie’s role in it and its repercussions get an enlightening chapter all to themselves. 
‘My biggest mistake during the 80s was to try and anticipate what the audience wanted,’ states Bowie as we move into the doldrums years, followed by the later years when David lived ‘like royalty in exile’, as Jones puts it. Though the 90s were not as interesting as the two previous decades, plenty of people come forward to talk about the less well known music that Bowie recorded in this more settled period of his life, his ongoing need to check out new trends and canny ability to avoid being recognised when he sought anonymity (often by wearing a hat and pretending to read a Greek newspaper), while a few testify to his tetchiness when things did not go precisely according to plan. A surprisingly large number of people met up with Bowie in the period after he abandoned live performance in 2004 to live privately, enjoy his marriage to Iman and raise their daughter, and we learn of projects that were mooted yet not acted upon and how remarkable it was that such secrecy was maintained before the release of The Next Day in 2013. Many interviewees confirm that the rumours concerning Bowie’s poor state of health were ill-founded, at least until the very end, and that he found peace in downtown New York where he could stroll unrecognised into book stores and coffee shops. Almost everyone assumes that his heavy smoking was fatal. 
        The final chapter is devoted largely to tributes, many of them heartfelt, and the conclusion I reached at the end was that it’s one hell of a shame that a man of Bowie’s talent, wisdom, influence and allure didn’t live to be 100. The comment that struck me most forcibly, however, came earlier in the book, from film-maker Julian Temple: “There have been many people who have liberated us politically, but David liberated us emotionally, sexually,” he says. “Ultimately he wanted to set people free.”


* The claim on page 155 by Lori Mattix that Bowie took her virginity when she was 14, sensationalised earlier this month in The Daily Mail as if it was a scoop, is from such an old interview that I honestly can’t remember where I first read it. It has been available to read on the internet for ages.

21.8.17

DAVID BOWIE: I WAS THERE by Neil Cossar



In June I reviewed on Just Backdated a book called The Who: I Was There, suggesting that it was a tribute to the group that their fans would contribute to a book of this kind and that only The Who inspired such affection from their followers. I was wrong, of course; so did David Bowie as this enjoyable book in the same series by a different author shows. (I contribute the introduction to this book, a slightly amended version of the text I wrote for a songbook that was published by Music Sales shortly after Bowie’s death in 2016, and which you can find elsewhere on this blog.)
This book follows the same format: a chronology of selected concert dates that were attended by fans and, in some cases, associates of Bowie, who offer their reminiscences of the shows, plus additional sightings of Bowie that merit attention. After a few recollections from teenage friends, among them David’s girlfriend Dana Gillespie (who at 14 looks more voluptuous than many women twice her age), we begin with The Konrads in June 1963 and work our way through to May 2006 when David appeared as a guest vocalist at a David Gilmour concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. As with the book on The Who, it is the stories from the devoted fans that animate its pages, all of them detailed and affectionate, and in many cases simply offering grateful thanks towards a performer whose brilliance on stage is remembered decades after the event. Some even stray into how seeing and hearing the music of David Bowie had a profound effect on their personal relationships. 
Between August 1972 and March 1976 I saw Bowie on six occasions – twice in the UK, thrice in the US and once in Canada – and four of these shows are in the book. Among them is the celebrated July 3, 1973, concert at Hammersmith Odeon when David announced the cessation of The Spiders in terms that could be misinterpreted as if this was his last concert ever and not the last concert by the Mick Ronson-led band that backed him throughout the Ziggy era. An element of mystery has attached itself to this episode ever since, specifically with reference to who knew and who did not know what Bowie was planning. Soundman Robin Mayhew, interviewed for this book, has the last word: “Mick Ronson and [crew member] Peter Hunsley were the only ones who knew it was going to happen. Peter told me that David was going to ‘break up the band’ over the intercom just before the last show began.” Just like the lyric then, except that manager Tony Defries was probably in on it too. 
It is surprising that Neil Cossar couldn’t find a witness to the show at the O’Keefe Centre, Toronto, on June 16, 1974, the third concert in that year’s bold, theatrical and hugely influential Diamond Dogs tour. I was among a party of music writers flown from New York to Canada to report on this and I can still recall my amazement at witnessing a show that paid no lip service whatsoever to traditional rock concert presentation. (I can also remember booking a 4 am wake-up call in my hotel room so as to dictate my quite lengthy report on the show down the phone line to the editor’s secretary at Melody Maker, it being a Monday – press day – and Toronto being six hours behind London.) Still, there is a report on a similar concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden on July 19, which I also attended, but the futuristic staging and props were best seen in a smallish theatre and didn’t really work in a 20,000-seat arena. Not long after this they were abandoned, largely due to the expense of carting them around, and the tour metamorphosed into what came to be known as Bowie’s ‘soul tour’.
Another show missing from the book is the one I saw on March 1, 1976, at the Cobo Hall in Detroit, now immortalised as the first ever rock concert that Madonna, then aged 17, attended. “It was a major event in my life,” she said later. “I was wearing my highest platform shoes and a long black silk cape… I don’t think I breathed for two hours. I came away a changed woman.” Regrettably, a similar quote from Madonna is attributed to a concert at the same venue in April 1978, the only mistake I spotted in an otherwise error-free book (unless, of course, Madonna attended both shows, which is unlikely since she moved to New York in 1977). 
That show was on the Isolar tour, with its dramatic black and white lighting and a besuited Bowie coolly puffing on Gitanes throughout. The ice-blue of the cigarette packet in the pocket of his black waistcoat was the only colour on stage. Though not as visually memorable as the Diamond Dogs show I saw in 1974, from a musical standpoint it was the most enjoyable Bowie concert I ever saw, the Station To Station material translating wonderfully to the stage, along with the same show on March 26 at Madison Square Garden, which is covered in the book.
From then on David Bowie just got bigger and bigger, and all the subsequent tours are covered religiously: Serious Moonlight, Glass Spider, Tin Machine, Sound + Vision, Outside, Hours, Heathen and Reality, which takes me up to the last time I saw Bowie, again at Hammersmith (now the Apollo) in October 2002. Bowie certainly worked hard, as this book testifies, and due attention is also paid to one-off events such as his four-song set at 1985’s Live Aid – still Bowie’s greatest ever big show concert appearance for my money – the Freddie Mercury Memorial Concert in 1992, and his Sunday night headlining appearance at Glastonbury in 2000. Missing, however, is the Concert For New York City at Madison Square Garden in 2001 when Bowie opened the show by sitting cross-legged and singing Paul Simon’s ‘America’, minimally accompanying himself on an Omnichord, a tiny portable keyboard. This prefaced a reading of ‘Heroes’ that, because he was singing for the firemen of 9/11, just about matched the emotional punch of Live Aid. Either way, Bowie – a consummate professional as well as pioneering visionary – always rose to the occasion when part of a multi-artist bill at era-defining events. 
The final Bowie concert covered in the book, as opposed to the David Gilmour show mentioned above, is at Prague on June 23, 2004, from which David Mackuu reports, sadly, that after 15 minutes he left the stage. “Shortly afterwards David came back on and tried to sing ‘Life On Mars’, but then suddenly apologised for being in pain and that was the end of everything.”
It wasn’t quite the end of everything. After a concert at Scheeßel in Germany the following day (not covered here) he was taken to hospital for emergency treatment. He would live on for 11-and-a-half more years and make a handful of guest appearances but his career as a live performer was effectively over from that night. From that point on David Bowie went into virtual hiding, so the book closes with a few random sightings and, appropriately, a series of heartfelt tributes from fellow performers and musical associates.

15.8.17

CAUGHT IN A TRAP: The Kidnapping of ELVIS – Extract 3





This is the third and final extract from my novel CAUGHT IN A TRAP: The Kidnapping Of ELVIS, which is published tomorrow, August 16, the 40th anniversary of Elvis' death.

The Stockholm Syndrome has set in. Elvis Presley has bonded with his kidnappers. A ransom note has been delivered to Graceland. At the cabin in the Kentucky Hills where he is held captive, Elvis and his three captors – Delmore Pandel, his wife Sandra and their friend Roy Kruger – have time to kill. It is time for an experiment.


Before they slept they checked on Elvis in the locked bedroom. He was sleeping soundly. The following day, after breakfast, all four of them, Elvis, Del, Sandra and Roy, squeezed into the truck and drove into the Daniel Boone National Park, stopping at a gas station on the outskirts of Montecello to buy food for a picnic lunch. Elvis was in a buoyant mood and had to be persuaded to stay in the truck with Roy while Del and Sandra went inside to pick up the provisions, and when they returned he pleaded with them to be able to step outside.
        “I just want to be able to be normal in the midst of ordinary people,” he said. “That’s something I never had, not since I was famous anyway. Let me use the bathroom. I won’t try anything.”
        Del and Roy looked at one another. “Should we let him?” asked Del.
        “Yes,” said Sandra. “I trust him.”
        “OK, but you gotta wear this hat,” said Roy, handing Elvis a floppy hat in green camouflage material that he wore while out shooting. Elvis reluctantly placed it on his head. 
        Elvis Presley’s public appearances were almost always pre-planned, tightly choreographed and reported in the press, no matter how brief. On such occasions Elvis made sure he looked the part, dressing up in his capes, buckles and belts, the way he and his fans thought he ought to look. He usually wore outsize sunglasses. Elvis would no sooner slip out of the house in everyday clothes to pick up a quart of milk than the Queen of England would be seen in her nightdress.
During pre-production meetings in Los Angeles for the Singer special in May of 1968 its producer Steve Binder had suggested he and Elvis step out of his office on Sunset Boulevard and mingle with passers-by. Elvis was appalled by the suggestion, fearing that he would be mobbed on the street and some sort of disturbance ensue. He was therefore deeply humbled when no one recognised him. “We were just four guys standing in front of this building,” said Bones Howe, Binder’s audio engineer said afterwards.
It was quite another thing, however, for Elvis to use the bathroom in a roadside gas station without a security detail checking out the building first, making sure no one else was inside and waiting outside while he relieved himself. However, Elvis had been a captive now for five nights and, although he’d been given a change of clothing – the overalls and t-shirt he loathed so much – he hadn’t had a shave in all that time, nor been able to wash properly and re-dye his hair as was his custom. As a result Elvis’ natural brown colour was just starting to show at the roots and, as each day passed, his stubble had continued to grow but it wasn’t black like the dyed hair on his head, more salt and peppery. The camouflage hat only added to the obvious reality that he no longer resembled anything like the Elvis Presley that the world would recognise.
“OK,” said Roy. “But I’m coming with you.”
Elvis stepped down from the truck and walked across the forecourt to the bathroom. The only other customer, a young man dressed in a check shirt and similar overalls to those Elvis wore, was filling up a station wagon, and as they approached the bathroom a middle-aged woman pulled up in a sedan, got out and walked towards the shop. Neither gave Elvis and Roy a second glance. 
Inside the bathroom was another man, splashing water on his face at the basin. He turned and stepped aside as Elvis passed close by him, glancing at Elvis but showing no signs of recognition. When they had finished Elvis and Roy walked back to the truck, passing close to the woman from the sedan who was lingering by a newspaper stand close to the entrance to the shop. She ignored them.
Back in the truck Elvis appeared overjoyed. “You have no idea what that felt like for me,” he said. “That’s the first time in 20 years I’ve been able to walk around outside in public and not be recognised. Now I know what it’s like not to be Elvis Presley.”
Emboldened by the success of their experiment at the gas station, the quartet drove on into the National Park, eventually stopping at a picnic area and eating lunch. Although the area was far from crowded, a handful of other groups of picnickers settled nearby, among them a family of four: father, mother and two boys below the age of 10. After their meal the boys began to throw a football to one another and when one boy failed to catch the ball it rolled to where the group was sat. Elvis glanced at the others. Roy nodded. Elvis picked up the ball, stood up and threw it back to the boy. 
“Thanks mister,” he shouted from about 10 yards away. The father of the boys waved in acknowledgement and Elvis waved back. He smiled and sat down. The King of Rock’n’Roll was beginning to enjoy normality.
In the afternoon the four of them continued their drive through the National Park, stopping now and then and getting out of the truck to admire the scenery. At one particular spot they mingled with a coach party. Elvis again went unrecognised. Driving back to the cabin in the early evening they passed a roadside diner and Elvis suggested they stop to eat. “I can’t remember what it was like to go into a restaurant and be served, just like a normal person, no one making a fuss,” he said. 
There were only three other vehicles parked outside, and it was safe to assume one of them belonged to the staff. Roy parked the truck and sent Sandra inside to check on how crowded it was.
“There’s only two tables occupied,” she reported back. “A young couple on one and an old guy on the other.”
“OK,” said Del. “I’m sick of eating in the cabin anyway.”
“Me, too,” said Elvis. “But that’s not to say I don’t like your cooking Miss Sandra,” he added hurriedly.
Sandra smiled at Elvis, and Elvis grinned back. It seemed like any natural exchange between old friends. 
“You sit facing the wall Elvis,” said Roy. “If anything happens we’re out of here quick.”
The four of them ate burgers and fries washed down with coke. No one paid them the slightest notice. Elvis said little throughout the meal, relishing his anonymity. It never even occurred to him to go up to the counter and identify himself, not that the waitress would have recognised him anyway. As they walked back to the truck he asked, “Do y’all trust me now?”
“I guess so,” said Roy. “But I still had this with me, just in case.” He opened his jacket to reveal the .38 stuffed into his belt. 
Elvis winced. “You didn’t need that,” he said. “I gave you my word.” 
Sandra thought she detected a touch of hurt in his voice. “I believe you,” she said.  
Back at the cabin Elvis joined Roy, Del and Sandra on the porch before they turned in for the night. Roy and Del were drinking beer, Elvis and Sandra coke. “Did you guys serve in the army?” Elvis asked them.
Roy and Del nodded.
“Vietnam?”
“Yea,” said Roy. “But we don’t talk about it.”
“They don’t like to,” said Sandra. “Even I can’t get them to tell me anything about what they did there.”
“Why not?” asked Elvis.
“The way the Americans treated the Vietcong,” said Del. “It wasn’t good.”
They lapsed into silence. Then Roy spoke. “I’ll tell y’all one story. We took a prisoner once, me and Del. A stray Vietcong man we found in the jungle. We ought to have killed him but we didn’t. We couldn’t. Not in cold blood. He wasn’t a soldier, just a simple man, a farmer maybe. So we tied him up and took him with us, back to where we thought our camp was located. But we got lost in the jungle, didn’t know where we were, lost our sense of direction. It was night, there were no lights, nothing, just a torch that I had.”
Elvis nodded. “So what happened?”
“The Vietcong guy sensed that we were lost and he showed us the way,” said Del, picking up the story. “He couldn’t speak no English and we couldn’t understand him but he led us out of the jungle even though he was our prisoner. And when we got near the camp he pleaded with us to let him go because he knew that if we took him into the camp he’d be shot.”
“Did you let him go?” asked Elvis.
“Yea,” said Del. “He’d saved us. We thought maybe he had a wife and kids. He could have led us back to where his people were, and we’d have been captured or killed.”
“He ran off back into the jungle as fast his legs could carry him,” said Roy. “The thing is… we trusted him and he trusted us. We repaid his trust.”
“Just like today,” said Elvis. “You trusted me, and I repaid it. I can’t lead a normal life, and never will, even after you let me go. But you showed me what it was like. Millions of men dream of being Elvis Presley, and I dream sometimes of being one of those millions. Today a little piece of that dream came true for me. Because of the same trust you shared with that Vietcong guy in the jungle.”


13.8.17

BYRDS: Requiem For The Timeless, Volume 2 by Johnny Rogan




Until Mark Lewisohn began his detailed investigations into The Beatles, no music writer had devoted more time, words or commitment to chronicling the history of a group than Johnny Rogan with the Byrds. For Johnny, like Mark, it is an ongoing life work, not a project that is over once the book is published but, instead, a kind of mission – I hesitate to call it an obsession – to set down all the facts in all their wondrous detail as they continue to evolve. No surprise then that Johnny has followed up 2011’s Requiem… Vol 1 (1,200 pages), which concentrated on the group, with Vol 2 (1,248 pages), which tells the individual stories of the six Byrds who have left us: original members Gene Clark and Michael Clarke, together with Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin. Rogan has written individual chapters, two of them book-length, about all six that could be construed as separate biographies in themselves, yet has chosen to publish them all within the same volume.
A bit of history: Johnny Rogan and I first became acquainted in 1982 as a result our association with a publisher called Proteus Books, and neither of us today looks back fondly on this alliance. Johnny had written a book for them on Neil Young and I had written one on Pete Townshend. Both of us were invited to their Christmas party which was held that year in a function room on Sale Place in Bayswater, and we somehow ended up talking to one another while drinking as much free booze as we were able to stomach. Both of us had come to the unspoken conclusion that Proteus was not a company whose ethics were whiter than white, and that taking as much advantage of their hospitality as humanly possible was a prudent course of action. Not long afterwards we sat next to one another at a bankruptcy hearing for Proteus Books held in the ballroom of a hotel on The Aldwych at which the Irish rock photographer Finn Costello raised a huge cheer when he reproached the company’s MD in spectacularly colourful language. Johnny and I were amongst those who cheered the loudest and we’ve been friends ever since.



But back to the Byrds. The first edition of Johnny’s Byrds saga, then titled Timeless Flight, was published in 1981 by Scorpion/Dark Star and the second, which I still have, in 1990 by Square One Books. Johnny inscribed this one to me: “No 3 in the charts this week. Beaten out by Omnibus. Fix!” which sounds a bit like a Donald Trump tweet. Neither of these editions boasted the heft of the third edition, Timeless Flight Revisited: The Sequel, which came out in 1997 and, at 720 pages, drew a line in the sand as far as extent was concerned in terms of rock biography. Requiem… Vols 1 and 2 together, of course, make even that look like a mere pamphlet.
In the first volume of Requiem Johnny explained his incentive by recalling how he first heard The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ in June, 1965: “McGuinn’s strange vocal inflexions, that distinctive Rickenbacker and the sumptuous harmonies all contributed to a record that sounded unlike anything I had ever heard before… Several radio plays later I was completely entranced.” Johnny longed to get his hands on a Byrds album but family finances were tight in those far off days and to avoid parental ire at squandering hard-earned pocket money on something as superfluous to their daily existence as an LP, he bought record tokens which he mailed to himself with a faked note congratulating him on winning a competition sponsored by Radio Luxenbourg. “That’s how I came to purchase the first albums I ever owned,” he writes. “[The Byrds’] Mr Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!



And now here we are 52 years and five books later, and that’s just on the Byrds. Rogan, of course, has also written 19 other books, eight of which I published while running the editorial department at Omnibus Press. One of them was Morrissey & Marr: The Severed Alliance, the first significant book on The Smiths which, by rock book standards, became an international best seller. Morrissey disapproved of course, though its title – which implied that the Smiths’ singer and guitarist were the key members of the group – was cited as evidence on Morrissey's behalf in the court case brought by drummer Mike Joyce over what he claimed was an unjust distribution of royalties. 
But back to the Byrds. Because of the way it is structured, there’s no need to begin Requiem… Vol 2 at the beginning, so I didn’t, skipping around at my leisure and relishing Rogan’s absurd attention to detail. In all six cases Rogan has unearthed hitherto unreported facts and stories, most notably on Kevin Kelley, about whom nothing has been published prior to now, and also on the better known Gram Parsons and Clarence White. Nevertheless, whichever way you turn, it’s a rather bleak read, quite the opposite of a fairy tale. Four of the six – Clark, Clarke, Kelley and Parsons – pretty much drank and/or drugged themselves to death, the upshot of the rock’n’roll lifestyle (though in Parsons’ case it ran in the family), while White was tragically killed in a road accident and Battin was a victim of Alzheimer’s. Then there’s the temptations of the flesh that occur around all successful rock bands, and Rogan is especially good at tracing, and telling the stories of the women involved, thus adding a tasty spoonful of human interest that is all too often lacking in rock biographies. Naturally, such overindulgence in just about everything available to them had an injurious effect on their relationships with one another and on those close to the first four, especially their wives, girlfriends and offspring, with the result that recriminations and bitterness persisted for years, legacies were fought over and absolutely no one felt a whole lot better when they were gone. 
At almost 400 pages*, Gene Clark gets far and away the weightiest treatment, and rightly so in view of the fact that he was the first to leave the mothership; the great underachiever whose wonderful album No Other remains a cult favourite for connoisseurs everywhere and to whom an air of otherworldly remoteness clings to this day. No one better deserves the honorary tribute ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. Clark’s tale is perhaps the saddest of the lot, though it’s run a close second by his almost namesake Michael Clarke (135 pages) whose post-Byrds career never really amounted to much and who, like some of the others, later became involved in bogus editions of the group that angered his former colleagues. 
Second in order of coverage, perhaps inevitably, comes Gram Parsons (208 pages) whose riches-to-rags, well not quite, life story has already inspired two substantial biographies and whose adventures with The Flying Burrito Brothers, not to mention The Rolling Stones and Emmylou Harris, make him the ex-Byrd with the highest profile. Born into a fortune founded on orange juice, Parsons was a precociously talented songwriter as well as a gilded prince, arguably the originator of Americana, yet somehow doomed as the Byrd who flew too close to the sun, though if you believe Chris Hillman Parsons was never a Byrd at all. I’m inclined to think that this is sour grapes from the only other Byrd with a rightful claim to being a pioneer of country rock, and who still rankles at the posthumous acclaim that clings to Parsons. Either way, after several pages devoted to legal wrangling over Parsons’ song copyrights, Rogan concludes the chapter by rightly asserting that, “Only David Crosby and Gram Parsons have arguably transcended the group legacy by daring to create, or having thrust upon them, an equally enduring myth based on their own image.”
White (122 pages), Battin (96) and Kelley (82) are less well known but still interesting case studies, and like the first three covered in the kind of detail you would expect from Rogan. It is instructive to be reminded that White appeared on eight Byrds albums and was a full time member of the group for longer than all the originals barring McGuinn. Without doubt the finest instrumentalist to have flown as a Byrd – in the same class as James Burton and our own Albert Lee in my opinion – he was modest, unassuming and, by Byrds standards, relatively abstemious. One night at the Whisky in Los Angeles a flamboyantly dressed well-wisher told him: “I just want to tell you how much I love your guitar playing.” As Rogan relates, “White accepted the praise with characteristic good grace and later enquired of his fellow Byrds, ‘Hey, who was that guy who came in to talk to me?’ ‘That was Jimi Hendrix,’ they told him.”
Bass player Skip Battin, the oldest Byrd by some distance, is a relatively minor figure, another who became involved in later, ersatz, editions of several bands with whom he was associated, including the Byrds. Kevin Kelley, a cousin of Chris Hillman, was enlisted as drummer in 1967, lasted less than a year and worked as a session player between failed attempts to launch an independent career. Rather like the surviving John York, Kelley is a forgotten Byrd who, for much of his post-Byrd life, delivered flowers for a living. 


Left to right: Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Kevin Kelley,
Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Skip Battin

In the chapter devoted to Kelley, Rogan writes despairingly: “The Eighties was a decade of reckoning for every one of the surviving Byrds. All were forced to readjust their lives and find meaning in a world that no longer considered them gods or even fallen princes. Some sought salvation in the Lord, others in the bottle or the free-base pipe. Few seemed destined ever to record for a major label again. It was a time when the phrase ‘the good old days’ was no mere cliché but a brutal reality.”
The reality of a post-fame life for those who fell from grace, those who once sat alongside The Beatles in the pop charts, who were once screamed at on stages from London to Los Angeles, and who might once have appeared on the front pages of the music press, is an overriding theme of Johnny Rogan’s biographies of the Byrds, and no more so than in this latest book. Only a relatively small number of the great rock performers from the past find themselves living in the lap of luxury several decades on from their glory years; the remainder, the vast majority, scratch a living from a past that is recycled like the endless sub-par sequels to hit movies. Johnny Rogan’s telling of the Byrds’ story is therefore a salutary lesson that the joys of being ‘toppermost of the poppermost’ are more often than not short-lived. Nevertheless, the surviving Byrds and those who left us are fortunate to have attracted such a conscientious biographer, and those of us who love reading about the world of rock in all its ungainly, bloody and often mind-blowing detail are fortunate to have him too. For those who relish such authenticity, Rogan’s the man


* This includes copious credits, references and notes, over 60 pages following the Gene Clark chapter alone, and there are similar notes, relative in length to the chapters themselves, after the rest. The discography (of solo recordings by all the members of the Byrds, not just the six covered in this book) occupies a further 171 pages at the end of the book.

23.7.17

CAN'T STAND UP FOR FALLING DOWN: Rock’Roll War Stories by Allan Jones



The Age Of Deference had yet to lapse when I joined Melody Maker in 1970. Four years later, when Allan Jones joined the paper, that era was withering on the vine, rendered obsolete by the New Musical Express writers Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray. MM, its circulation in decline and about to be surpassed by NME, needed to counter attack and Jones gamely volunteered to go into battle or, as he put it in a letter to editor Ray Coleman, be the gun whose trigger needed to be pulled. Much to his surprise, considering his lack of experience in our trade, Coleman gave him a job.
Aged 21, highly opinionated and disinclined towards MM’s staple diet of sound musicianship coupled with reverence towards those who displayed it, Jones was a square peg in a round hole when he arrived, viewed with deep suspicion by his immediate superiors, features editor Chris Welch and assistant editor Michael Watts, then and now both close friends of mine. But Watts, though a tad imperious in his dealings with junior staff, knew a good thing when he saw it and recognised in Jones a rebellious spirit that might just counter NME’s offensive. Watts and Coleman were right and in time Jones would rise above us all*, becoming MM’s editor in 1984, a position he held until 1997 when he became the founding editor of Uncut. None of these career advancements, however, would alter his innate lack of respect for the high and mighty of the rock world, and while at Uncut he wrote a shoot-from-the-hip monthly column called Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before which, in revised form, is the basis of this book.
That Jones survived his 40-year stretch on the front line of UK rock journalism is something of a miracle; not just the fierce and sometimes violent reprisals of those he mocked but the colossal intake of drugs and alcohol that was necessary to numb him against the slings and arrows launched by stars like Tony Iommi, Roger Waters and Lou Reed. It was also, of course, an era when the largesse – booze, slap-up meals, travel, freebies galore – doled out by record companies reached herculean proportions, as I know from first-hand experience. Either way, we are fortunate that Jones did survive, living to tell the tales between these pages, his recollections of more than 70 encounters with rock musicians from his MM years, each one four or five pages long which makes it an ideal book for dipping into. The vast majority of these encounters, of course, did not pan out in the way that the artists or the music industry machine intended, many of them ending in confrontations of some sort, hence the subtitle Rock’n’Roll War Stories.

Allan with Lou Reed in Philadelphia in 1978
(Pic by Waring Abbott)

First and foremost, it’s bloody hilarious. I was laughing out loud as I turned the pages, skipping through stories about Alex Harvey’s threat to knife The Doobie Brothers, Bryan Ferry’s pretentious gaucho outfit, Patti Smith’s disrupted press conference and Gregg Allman and Cher’s marital discord. Jones had a knack for getting into scrapes, for finding himself in situations that required delicate handling which he was unable to execute because he was undiplomatic by nature and almost always far too intoxicated. Like Keith Moon, he didn’t seem to know the meaning of the word embarrassment. (There are no Who stories, by the way.) But getting in and out of tight spots is only half the fun: he’s a great comic writer, perhaps the funniest of us all, a dab hand at a droll turn of phrase: Van Morrison, for example, looks at Jones “like I’ve just sold his children into slavery”, Lemmy “looks like someone who hasn’t slept since the earth cooled”, while in Lake Tahoe on an assignment to interview Olivia Newton-John, hardly his specialist subject, Jones finds himself in a hotel suite “as big as a housing estate” where he orders a Neptune salad, “and end(s) up with Kew Gardens on a plate the size of an ice-rink”.
Back in the real world, Jones was drawn towards pub rock and its aftermath, punk, but always seemed at his happiest in the post-Pistols new wave that created artists like those signed to his beloved Stiff Records, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, and groups like The Pretenders, XTC and Squeeze. An early introduction at art school in Newport to Joe Strummer, then John Mellor but known to one and all as Woody, grants him an entrée into all matters Clash, about whom Jones writes with great authority. His girlfriend at the time gave Joe his first rockabilly haircut but this and encounters with The 101’ers fail to impress Bernie Rhodes, their manager, who insists, Trump-like, that anything pre-Clash is fake news. Rhodes is just one of many rather unpleasant characters from the rock world, not necessarily musicians, that suffer at the hand of Jones’ penmanship.  
In many ways Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down has a touch of the Hunter S. Thompson about it. Like Thompson, Jones tells it how it is and not how the PRs would prefer it to be told. The rock stars and other characters that people his stories, however, are individuals, not creations of a marketing meeting, and all, bar perhaps Tony Iommi, are the better for it. It’s long been my contention that most rock stars would look better in print if they ditched the spin and came across as they really are and not how some PR thinks is best for their public image. In Jones’ book all their faults and flaws, their egos and angst, their failures and sometimes their triumphs, are exposed for all to see – and most of the time it does them no disservice at all, meaning we laugh with them and not at them. There’s a lesson here, as well as a damn good read.


* At the time I was MM’s US Editor, stationed in New York, and although I came back to London from time to time Allan and I never worked together in the same office.

18.7.17

PINK FLOYD – THEIR MORTAL REMAINS



At the start of the V&A’s Pink Floyd exhibition there is a photograph of the first ever van that transported the four-man group and their equipment from gig to gig. It’s a fairly ordinary black Bedford van that Syd Barrett chose to decorate with a white stripe. It cost them £20 and Nick Mason, seen in the picture unloading his own drums, describes it as ‘unreliable’.
With this in mind you can be forgiven a sharp intake of breath when, towards the end of the exhibition, in a room dedicated to the Division Bell tour of 1994, we are informed that for this undertaking the now three-man Floyd required one Antonov military freight plane, two Boeing 747 cargo planes, eight tour buses, 18 production trucks and 53 additional articulated lorries. Such was the scale of this final Pink Floyd tour that three separate but identical stages were required. While one was in use another was being set up and the third taken down, all three leapfrogging one another along the way because of the time required to construct and dismantle them.
I suppose this is as good a way as any of measuring the extraordinary career progress of this most inscrutable of groups, a bit of a national treasure in many ways, whose shows became increasingly gargantuan in scale while its individual members chose to disappear into relative obscurity, at least while Roger Waters was at the helm. With all manner of distractions going on around them, Pink Floyd sang about alienation, British reserve, space travel, the futility of war, madness and death, the combination of which set them apart from their peers yet earned them a devoted following worldwide. The session singer Clare Torry certainly sounded as if she was in mid-orgasm during ‘The Great Gig In The Sky’ on Dark Side Of The Moon, but – unlike every other artist you care to name – courtly romance was absent from the music of Pink Floyd.
Neither did they dress up. Jeans and t-shirts, usually black, was their preferred kit, nothing remotely ostentatious that might distract from the music, films and props, and this was another distinctive Floydian trait. The David Bowie Is and Revolution 1966-1970 exhibitions at the V&A were chock full of clothes, the Ziggy outfits and more for DB, the Sgt Pepper Beatle uniforms and Roger Daltrey’s fringed Tommy coat in the latter. But as far as Pink Floyd are concerned, they might just as well have performed naked on stage for all that this exhibition reveals. In many ways, however, this was part of their charm. As John Peel is famously quoted early on in the exhibition, “They could have joined the audience at one of their own gigs without being recognised.”
So unlike those other exhibitions we get no stage clothes on showroom dummies. Instead we get Fender guitars, enough to stock a high end music shop, and amps, and gadgets, stage props galore, some of them gigantic, posters and flyers, photos, some handwritten lyrics and lots of that magically surreal Hipgnosis artwork, most notably the famous refracting prism from the cover of Dark Side, the burning man of Wish You Were Here and the flying pig that slipped its moorings and caused such a fuss in the skies above Battersea Power Station.
It’s a shame, then, that my old pal Storm Thorgerson is no longer around to admire so much of his handiwork. Knowing Storm as I did, however, I have no doubt that had he not left us in 2013 he would have demanded a key role in staging this show, and in the process made life hell for everyone involved. I published his books at Omnibus Press and as a result happen to know that this exhibition ought to have been staged a good deal sooner than now. Countless delays occurred because Waters and David Gilmour don’t often see eye to eye and to get them to agree on anything is as vexed an issue as sorting out the endless squabbles in the Middle East.
No matter. An accord was reached and the exhibition subtly avoids any mention of the internal struggles that rent the Floyd apart after The Final Cut in 1983. Waters was livid when after a four-year hiatus the other three opted to continue without him, not least because the fans didn’t seem to miss him either, so he would have had to swallow a bit of pride to accede to this exhibition’s latter rooms, when Gilmour led a Pink Floyd with Mason on drums and Richard Wright on keyboards, augmented by session musicians.
Quite rightly, due space is given to the group’s founding mastermind Syd Barrett whose blue Telecaster with small round mirrors attached can be seen in a display dedicated to this most famous of acid rock casualties. This early tableaux serves to remind visitors of the time when Pink Floyd was a pop group just like any other, appearing on Top Of The Pops and having their photographs taken kicking their legs in the air dressed in Carnaby Street finery; floral shirts, stripy trousers and Edwardian jackets long ago consigned to the trash.
Once Syd was out of the picture the group’s main pre-occupation was to distance themselves from all that, simultaneously drawing attention away from themselves as people or, heaven forbid, personalities. This served to establish Pink Floyd as a brand, as distinctive as it was enigmatic, recognisable only by their props, the weird artwork and Gilmour’s sustained guitar lines. This modus operandi reached its logical conclusion during The Wall concerts in 1980 and ’81 when four lookalikes briefly took Floyd’s place on stage, a neat sleight of hand represented in the exhibition by the four face masks worn by the imposters. ‘We are not really here,’ was the prevailing message from a group whose members quite literally turned their backs to the camera.
Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols famously wore a Pink Floyd t-shirt on which he had scrawled ‘I hate’ before the band’s name, a dig at the group’s perceived pretentiousness, and this too makes an appearance, though it is made clear that Lydon, as he became, later admitted to liking Pink Floyd after all.
So did I and millions of others, and I was pleased that the final room showed footage from the last (and, subsequent to 1981, only) occasion when Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright performed together, the Live 8 concert in Hyde Park in the summer of 2005. Somehow that day the hatchets were buried and Pink Floyd’s final performance was as emotional as it was out of character for them. As I wrote at the time: “Bereft of their usual crowd-pleasing props and light show, Floyd’s music, clearly well-rehearsed, seemed to take on an added warmth as the night drew in. The moving sight of this much-loved British band together again for the first time in 24 years was made all the more poignant when Waters dedicated ‘Wish You Were Here’ to Syd Barrett, their founding genius.”
In that final room they perform ‘Comfortably Numb’ behind a brick wall that falls away, and at the close, hesitantly, they put their arms around each other in an uncharacteristic display of brotherly affection. Perhaps behind their moody music and magnificent stage props Pink Floyd had a soft centre after all.





16.7.17

ROLLERCOASTER – Surrey’s Top Wedding Band




A couple of Saturdays ago I gate-crashed a wedding. Well, perhaps gate-crashed is too strong a word. Like Miss Pamela, I was With The Band, and I took my assigned role of 'front of house mixing engineer' seriously, standing at the back with a contemplative look on my face as if gauging the quality of the sound mix, then making a gesture that was intended to convey that the drummer’s vocal mike was too low or the violin was inaudible. It was fun, especially as fulfilling this task enabled me to observe Rollercoaster, Surrey’s finest ‘function’ band, at work, and then write about them on my blog. 
Time for a disclaimer. As a general rule Just Backdated concerns itself with the music and careers of artists that headline Glastonbury, Wembley or the O2. However, just to ring the changes, I am stepping out of that rarefied zone and into a different – but not necessarily inferior – one, and all because one member of Rollercoaster, the guitarist, happens to be a friend of mine. It’s also an interesting story.
Imagine, if you will, that one of our most popular and successful groups, anyone from The Who to Coldplay via The Smiths, fell by the wayside after their second album, and instead of scaling the heights became just another also-ran, left with a few press cuttings, a few cult fans and fond memories of a time when the future seemed bright and blazing. Nevertheless this group is equipped with the same vocal and instrumental skills of those that did become rich and famous, of those who have headlined Glastonbury, Wembley or the O2. What to do, they ask themselves. They have no interest in becoming plumbers, middle-managers or even working in guitar shops. They are, after all, musicians, and good ones too.
So they grit their teeth, cut their hair, put on suits, change their name and become a function band, one of the best in the business and, when they ply their trade, performing immaculate covers of ‘Twist And Shout’ or ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ or ‘500 Miles’, the wedding guests or corporate clients on the receiving end have the time of their lives, little knowing that the group on stage has another identity and could, if they were so minded, abandon the covers and become a different group entirely, and play original material that to my mind sounds a bit like Nirvana crossed with Radiohead, not that it would go down anywhere near as well as ‘I’m A Believer’ or ‘Pretty Woman’.
That Saturday night, as Rollercoaster, they could be found in the barn adjacent to a 16th Century stately home near Guildford, playing one of the 70 or more weddings and corporate events they do each year. Depending on requirements they can appear as a trio, quartet, quintet, sextet and more besides, and can even provide music during the ceremony, maybe a Bach cantata, as well as rock up a storm after the reception. On Saturday they were a quintet: guitar, bass, drums, violin and girl singer, who happens to be the wife of the bass player, though the fact that everyone sings at one time or another gives them a choral reach any band would envy.
Their repertoire is as broad as it is eclectic. It can veer from fairly conservative country music – ‘Nine To Five’ – to the carnal delights of Kings of Leon – ‘Sex On Fire’ – and takes in fifties rock’n’roll – Chuck, Elvis – and ‘classic’ rock – Beatles, Stones, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ – and ballads, first waltzes being a specialty, at this particular wedding Elton John’s ‘Your Song’. Since everyone dances when wine is flowing freely, modern R&B is another specialty, so Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ and Amy’s ‘Valerie’ go down a treat, as does anything with an Irish or Scottish flavour, being as how Rollercoaster’s violinist isn’t the only man in the room wearing a kilt tonight. The other one offers us a swig from a hip flask containing malt whisky that’s older than himself – or so he says – and a lady of advanced years who looks like she’d be more at home in a pew at tomorrow’s Matins seems to know all the words to a Killer’s song. Old folks these days, tut tut.
So what’s the story here? How come musicians as technically accomplished as this lot are grinding out covers on a Saturday night for an upmarket wedding knees-up. How come a band as tight as this isn’t performing their own songs in front of 10,000 fans somewhere? How come, how come, as the guitarist used to sing when he covered that Ronnie Lane song in The Hurricanes, a duo that performed in my local when I first settled in these parts and where we first encountered one another.
The Rollercoaster story begins 30 years ago when two teenage boys, Alistair Cowan and Rob Blackham, met at Bishop Vesey Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield. Both were hooked on rock to the exclusion of everything else, so Alistair took up the bass and Rob the guitar. By the early nineties they had teamed up with Alistair’s guitarist brother Angus and Guildford-born drummer Chris Hughes in an alt-rock group called Redwood that was active for the rest of the decade. Alistair sang lead and, with Rob and Chris on back-up vocals, they released an album called Colourblind in 1997 and a second, Redwood, in 2000 before splitting up amidst the usual mountain of debts that bands without fortunes accumulate. After briefly changing their name to Lazydog, they stopped working together and did their own thing, a bit of production here, a bit of session work there and a solo album from Alistair. Then Alistair and Chris saw the financial wisdom of aligning themselves in a function band and, eventually, Rob – who’d been playing in a CSN&Y tribute band called Goldrush – came on board as well, thus effectively bringing Redwood back together under another name.

Al

“Redwood has always been there and never disappeared,” says Alistair, known to his mates as Al. “The problem is that Rollcoaster gigs come up all the time and they pay the bills.”
Al has a businesslike demeanour that befits his status as the group’s de facto leader, the lead singer and the one who takes care of business. With his neatly trimmed beard and dapper blue suit he reminds me a bit of Gary Lineker. He does the deals – charging clients between £2,000 and £5,000 a night, depending on the type of show they want – and he runs a tight, professional ship.
It is the hiatus between the set-up, a complex two-hour operation that involves connecting dozens of cables, amps, speakers and coloured lights, and the show; the time when speeches are made, and the band has nothing much to do. Holly and violinist Jason Dickenson, he in the kilt, disappear to drive to the nearest petrol station to get food, a communication breakdown between client and caterer having somehow left Rollercoaster off the meal rota. Al, mindful that maintaining cordial relations with the clients is only marginally less important than singing in the right key, is loathe to complain.

Rob

Rob strums idly on his acoustic guitar. “Every wedding is unique but essentially exactly the same,” he says enigmatically, and Chris the drummer nods. In his pork pie hat, dark suit, white shirt and shades, Rob looks a bit like one of the Blues Brothers, and it’s fitting that on stage he plays a Cropper-like cream Telecaster. Chris, a wiry fellow, doesn’t say much but like Al and Rob he is very techno-savvy and as well as playing the drums, a hybrid kit with electronic cymbals, and singing, he triggers pre-recorded keyboard parts or synth washes into songs. The result is that Rollercoaster’s instrumental backdrop sounds virtually indistinguishable from that on the records of the hit songs they play, only much louder and with a live feel. The vocals and guitar solos vary a bit, of course, but not much. Wedding guests don’t want too many surprises.
“That’s the truth of it,” says Al, agreeing with Rob’s inscrutable logic. “We’re lucky to be able to do this. We know that what we do in Redwood is good because it’s taken us 30 years to get that sound, but it’s Rollercoaster that pays the bills. It’s like any job this. I mean, it is work but there are some moments in the gig when, well, it really is worthwhile and not just for the money. How can you not enjoy watching the fun people have when we are playing?"
          Rollercoaster have pre-sequenced set lists that can be viewed (and heard) on their website, “really rocking versions of sixties and seventies tunes,” as Al puts it. “In the history of the band we have played hundreds and hundreds of different songs but it all boils down to certain songs that just work. They’re gonna want ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Once you’ve played the 40 hits there’s really not much room for anything else. We have to do things like ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ which I would happily never ever play again but people really do like it.”

Chris

He’s not wrong there. The old Foundations chestnut, a number two hit back in 1968, seemed as popular with most of the twenty-something guests as anything Rollercoaster serve up from the past five years. Maybe it’s because it was on the soundtrack of There’s Something About Mary.
“Sometimes you end up learning something and it’s a waste of time,” continues Al. He thinks for a minute. “What was that song we did?”
Rob: “‘Lightning Bolt’?”
Al: “Yes, ‘Lightning Bolt’ by Jake Bugg, a massive, massive song. We put a lot of effort into learning that and you think it’s going to be really good but no, didn’t work.”
This is the reason why they discourage requests, cunningly – and cleverly – segueing several songs together so that guests can’t get a word in edgeways between songs. In the unlikely event that someone does request a song they feel unable to perform off the cuff to their usual standard, Chris, who can act as a DJ if called upon to do so, has access to a computer, one of many on stage, from which he can select just about anything to play in the break between sets.
“The thing is,” says Al, “we know what works and sometimes a request doesn’t work.”
“When you book the band you get our expertise in knowing how to do it properly,” says Rob. “The core of the band is the three of us that were in Redwood together and we’ve been doing it for years. We know how each other plays, how we work, and now there are bolt-on options. Ideally we’d do all 70 gigs a year as the seven piece… that’s the aim because we have to progress or it gets stale, and it’s more fun with more of us on stage.”
Holly Cowan might not appreciate being described as a bolt-on option but there can be no question that she’s a huge asset to Rollercoaster, sometimes singing lead, more often back-up, always with sass and style. A session singer and MTV model, she looks great in her short black dress, arms waving away like a Supreme, a match for any girl band member you care to name. Still, she’s careful not to outshine the bride, a terrible faux-pas for any wedding band.

Rob, Holly & Al

            Al is keen to stress that Rollercoaster isn’t all he does. “I manage the band as well. I run open mic nights, I work with Holly and I write library music, which is really creative, music used in films and TV. Still the main thing is Rollercoaster but we never intended it to be.
“As an original band we used to sneer a little bit at covers bands but when you look at it realistically, how many people in a band that’s touring actually write the songs? If you don’t write the songs you’re just playing covers anyway. We didn’t write the songs we’re playing tonight but when we do an Elbow song we’re doing the same job as Elbow, and if you think about it, in that respect there actually isn’t much difference between us – just that we’re playing everyone’s songs and not songs by one act, like a tribute band.
“At times it’s work but then you have to remember that some people get up at five in the morning and catch a train into London. It’s not a bad life, well sometimes you don’t get the meals you’re promised…”
He looks around. Holly and Jason still haven’t returned with the food. Al grins sheepishly.
It’s no secret that rock and roll bands, some of them anyway, have a reputation for hedonism and Al is keen to stress that whatever the long-haired, grunge-like Redwood might have got up to in their youth, Rollercoaster are now mature adults. “People want a rock’n’roll band, not a band that behaves like rock and rollers. We conduct ourselves properly. The clients like us. We’re, I guess you could say, a high end function band but there are levels that are even higher. We’ve played at Old Trafford, Sandown, even Gleneagles. We know that function bands are not cool so the art of marketing it is to associate it with Redwood. The thing is that one thing allows you to do the other and although sometimes we feel Rollercoaster is a bit of a pain you have to remind yourself that it’s better than catching that train to London every day.”
We are outside behind the barn on a warm, sunny evening and when Holly and Jason arrive back with sandwiches everyone munches away. Then Rob picks up his acoustic again and for no apparent reason plays the chords to ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, and Holly, much happier now that her appetite is settled, sings along until she forgets the words. There is a bit of a delay as the speeches take longer than anticipated but the clients want to synchronise the cutting of the cake with the first waltz, so after a sound check that takes slightly longer than usual because they’re using a new, computerised monitor set-up, Rollercoaster take up their positions, as do I, standing at the back with a hand-held device, effectively faders on a tablet. The chords of Elton’s first hit ring out sonorously and the bride and groom take the floor. “It’s a little bit funny,” sings Al, and the coaster is rolling.
“It’s a warm night so they’ll be outside for most of the first set, but they’ll come inside later,” Al had told me earlier. He was only half right. The older guests do head outside, probably to escape from the noise, but the younger ones dance away in between trips to the bar. At one point, though, he is 100% right, and I’m the only one listening. Jason, who isn't required for every number, joins me to assess the sound balance and we agree that Chris and Holly's vocal mikes are a bit too low. We adjust their levels accordingly. I'm getting the hang of this but it's a bit late for a career change now. Then the guests all come back in a rush, probably because they recognise a song they all like – I think it was ‘You Really Got Me’ or maybe ‘Summer Of ‘69’ – and when the group takes a break there’s a collective groan because no one wants them to go.
During the half hour break between sets Rollercoaster do get fed, bacon baps as it happens, so everyone’s smiling again and so are the clients and their friends who by now are gagging for the band to return. Before the second set Jason of the kilt demonstrates how to do some Scottish reeling which gets absolutely everyone, young and old, onto the floor while Al, Rob and Chris vamp away in 4/4 time. Jason acts as a caller – ‘gentleman turn your partners’ – but it doesn’t really work because the floor is far too crowded, so it’s back to rock and pop, this time around a bit more extreme than before.

Jason

‘Mak show,’ Bruno Koschmider used to yell at the apprentice Beatles on stage in Hamburg, and Rollercoaster do precisely the same as the night draws on; Al bopping away in the centre with his Fender Precision, looking as though he’s starting to enjoy himself; Rob stretching out here and there on his Tele, a touch of the guitar hero that inspires some air guitar histrionics from at least one wedding guest; Chris snapping at his kit in perfect time, unfussy like Charlie in the Stones, and taking a measured vocal as required; Jason fiddling away in his kilt, his tall stature adding a touch of the absurd as he swoops down from time to time; and Holly, smiling like a sunbeam, dancing on the spot, heels tight together, cool as hell, like all the best girls on big stages everywhere.
About halfway through their second session, perhaps sensing that romance was in the air, Rollercoaster take the tempo down slightly and play a simply gorgeous arrangement of ‘My Girl’. Listening closely to a song I’ve always loved, I would defy any group, and that probably includes whoever nowadays comprises The Temptations, to perform as harmonically satisfying an interpretation of this spectacularly beautiful Motown song as Rollercoaster do tonight. The subtlety of their four-part harmony was probably lost on the wedding guests, but for me it was the highlight of the evening. Chris, the drummer, sang a high lead, joined on the chorus by Al and Holly, all three interweaving with Rob who added a bass harmonic – ‘talking ‘bout’ – before playing that tidy little octave riff, and to cap it all Jason added a touch of the orchestral strings that grace the Tempts’ 1965 original.
            And then it was back to Kings Of Leon and The Killers and, finally, ‘500 Miles’, the perfect closer, which accelerated wildly until it reached a break-neck climax. This inspired the wedding guests to form a circle, dashing around the bride and groom, quite dangerously so, all of them singing along at the tops of their voices. Watching from the back I couldn’t help but think that these deliriously happy men and women in their wedding suits and designer dresses don’t look like the kind of people who go to many rock gigs, so the fact that it’s Rollercoaster and not The Proclaimers who are ‘coming home to you’ doesn’t matter one iota to them. It sounds like The Proclaimers so it might just as well be – and that’s the whole point of it. It’s a gig they’ll all remember for a long time; the bride and groom for the rest of their lives.

Rob & Al

You can visit Rollercoaster's website here: http://www.rollercoasterband.co.uk/