Monday, 20 March 2017

THERE'LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND: HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, DAME VERA LYNN





I write this almost seven years to the day that I almost killed Dame Vera Lynn with a saucepan of soup. Not a lot of people can say that they've washed a Dame's kitchen floor, either. Not that it wasn't spotless when I arrived.
Paul Gambaccini, producer Clare Bramley, a camera crew, make-up artist and I trekked to Vera’s home in Sussex, to film a documentary. When it was time for tea, I volunteered to wash the cups. Just as she was digging out the Fairy Liquid from under the sink, in through the back door, right beside the draining board, came DVL's daughter Virginia (who lives next-door), with soup for Mother's lunch. Startled by the flinging-open door, I jumped, knocked the saucepan flying, and its steaming contents over everyone present. At least I caught the brunt of it. I spent the remains of the day dripping in apparent vomit.
Vera laughed like a trouper. She turned not a snowy hair. I understood why as I listened to her reminisce about expeditions to Burma during the Second World War, when she endured long, arduous journeys by seaplane and on foot to bring a shred of home to far-flung, homesick soldiers.
'I slept on a stretcher between two chairs,' she said. ‘There wasn't always water to drink, let alone to wash with. Dinner was most often a bowl of rice with a spoonful of jam. It didn't bother me. Those were the conditions our boys were putting up with. Who was I to demand better? They were the ones who were risking their lives, not me.'
She was ninety-three at the time. Her face was beautiful in the flesh. Like a child’s. There was a poignant moment in her bedroom, while she was dressing for the shoot, when she couldn't bend down to do up her shoes. She asked me if I'd mind doing it. Thus did I kneel at the feet of one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century. I think of it to this day.
Divas take note. All those backstage demands, all those far-fetched contract riders - piles of fluffy white towels, Smarties with the orange ones taken out, crates of perfectly-chilled Bollinger - you're having a laugh. Dame Vera, a legend and an entire nation's sweetheart, left her toddler at home and suffered unthinkable hardship to sing for servicemen offering their lives in the name of liberty. There ain't nothing like a Dame.
There'll Always Be an England. We'll Meet Again. Happy 100th Birthday and God bless you, Ma’am. Everyone buy the record: 'Vera Lynn 100', featuring the likes of Alfie Boe and Aled Jones. She becomes, today, the oldest artist in history to release a new album.

Footnote on the doc: thanks to the greed and deceit of its backers, the film has never yet been aired. Out of respect for Dame Vera, it absolutely should be. I saw Paul Gambaccini at Mike Batt’s new musical Men Who March Away on Friday night (the lead character, Katherine Grayling, is Vera personified). Paul, like Clare and me, is enraged. There are other villains to tackle right now. But we’ll get there.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

HOW TO WRITE A HIT MUSICAL



What are the magic ingredients of Musical Theatre? Some cite the first five minutes of the Lion King, the innovation of Chess, the staging of Miss Saigon. Others maintain it's the familiarity of the numbers in the so-called Jukeboxers - Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, We Will Rock You, Beautiful - that draws audiences in droves. Les Miserables and Wicked tick some boxes. Phantom's a favourite. Book of Mormon has done it for millions, but not for me. West Side Story, Singin' in the Rain, Cabaret, The Sound of Music and Oliver! are more my speed, pop pickers. Any minute now, let's hear it for La La Land on Broadway, homeward-bound for a theatre somewhere near you.
If there were a formula, they'd all be cackling on down to Coutts.
There is perhaps no more crucial component than the ten thousand hours. And perhaps no finer example of self-belief and indomitable endurance than the musical I saw last night.
Men Who March Away, which received its world premiere at St. Anne's church, Limehouse, was not only a masterclass in the art of never giving up on a dream, but also the magic in a nutshell. My friend Wendy Baker, Mrs Danny, holed it in one:
'The songs were amazing because they were all brand-new, but somehow sounded familiar,' she said. I couldn't have put it better.
It's the art of creating something that everyone thinks they've heard before. Something comfortable and resonant, that makes us consider a subject, an era, an aspect of the human condition, that we may not have paused to think about, hitherto - or not in any focused way.
Mike Batt wrote this musical twenty five years ago, when his The Hunting of the Snark left the West End after a brief run in 1991. He toyed with staging it, down all the years, but was always sidetracked by demands on his time and talent. He met Katie Melua in 2002, and gifted her 'the one' of the many best songs from Men Who March Away: 'The Closest Thing to Crazy'. That hit debut single catapulted her to a multi-million selling career. Mike joked last night that now everyone will think he just bunged the song into this 'new' musical to give it a hit. The irony.
It is, of course, a love story. Musicals essentially are. Its backdrop is war - in this case, the first and second world wars with the Spanish Civil in between. War's devastating impact on the lives of ordinary people, its power to throw human relationships into disarray, is handled both brutally and tenderly. We are conflicted throughout, by vulgarity and gentility, cruelty and compassion, love and loss. Every song resonates. Every note haunts. Every lyric is both blunt and poetic. No less could be expected of the composer who gave us 'The Phantom of the Opera' (written with Andrew Lloyd Webber), 'A Winter's Tale' (with Tim Rice), and 'Bright Eyes'.
In this one-night-only staging, Mike conducted the magnificent Docklands Sinfonia - the only symphony orchestra in the East End, which was founded by conductor Spencer Down. He is the grandson of a docker and trumpeter in the working men's clubs. It showcased not only the marvellous musicianship of these extraordinary youngsters, but the talents of rising stars Alice Frankham, Alex Southern and Oliver Bower. As a delicious taster for a planned touring production, it was an unforgettable start. On your marks, now, guys. They'd better be looking for a West End venue and backers this morning. Men Who March Away is the most musical of all musicals. Get it on, Mike Batt. I am so proud of you. Go, give Hamilton a run for it. I'll be cheering from my front-row seat.


Friday, 17 February 2017

TIME TAKES A CIGARETTE ...



We used to live at the Hammy-O in the Eighties. Night after night, hanging out at the back of the crumbling Art Deco, garishly ghost-crammed cavern, behind the sound desk, backs to the wall, beer bottles in hand, that old, mouldy carpet glueing itself to the soles of our boots, the dank corridors, the shabby backstage, the unthinkable bogs (that still are). I must have seen a thousand gigs in what was once the Gaumont Palace, everyone from Kid Creole and the Coconuts to Blondie to Hot Chocolate to Michael Schenker to Duran Duran to Kylie to Bruce to Elton to Mott the Hoople to Japan to Billy Idol to Depeche Mode to KISS to Asia to Pink Floyd to Quo to Genesis to Dire Straits to Ian Dury to Aha to Queen to Kate Bush to Michael Ball to Riverdance... the rest escape me. Labatt's brewers nabbed and Apollo'd it in the early Nineties. By the time it had been snapped up by Carling, I was tucked up at home with three kids, wistfully wondering. Remembering.
There were countless owners and deals and renovations and glorifications to come... not just for me - (ha: today would have been my twenty first wedding anniversary; imagine) - but for that majestic venue too. Yet whatever they tried to make of it, it was always the Hammy-O. Now that most of the good old live music venues around London have bitten the dust, it is more precious than ever. Where else have we got? it's the Borderline Soho, Ronnie's at a pinch, or a train, boat or plane out to Greenwich Peninsular. The acoustics are exquisite at the Indigo 02, sure. But we who were young once are schlepping beauties and stranded by car park turmoil come the end.
Perhaps I long to be old enough to have witnessed Buddy Holly's UK shows at the Hammy-O in 1958... shows that turned out to be his last here. Or to have experienced Ella Fitzgerald and the Duke, Tony Bennett and the Count, or Louis Armstrong. Or a boy named Sue, how do you do. Or Simon Napier-Bell’s prototype Yardbirds, with Eric. Or one of the Fabs' thirty-eight gigs across twenty-one nights there, '64 into '65. I know a few who did. Those old snaps inside the Who's Quadrophenia album tell the tale. Kinda.
Last night, I remembered my first night. 3rd July 1973. Neat little schoolgirls jumping a train from the net-curtained suburbs, discarding navy pinafores and maroon-and-white-striped ties behind closed carriage doors, emerging in jewel velvet loons and studded platforms and make-up... 'What do you know about make-up, you're only a girl ...' There we were, up on screen, flat-streaming-faced and glitter-weeping, at least versions of us, screeching 'David! David!', a damp, desperate choir, longing to be as one with the one on our bedroom walls.
Consumed by the madness, in life-threatening need of relief and self-reinvention, Bowie finished off Ziggy and the Spiders that night. Our innocence died with them. We had invested so much, had compromised who we were, had made ourselves a laughing stock in the playground by keeping ourselves only unto weird, strange, shockingly androgynous, beautiful, thin him. It was over.

The whole story is in my book, 'Hero: David Bowie'. The story as I now know it. There was no story back then, that night, that desperate ending. There was only bereavement.

Monday, 9 January 2017

ZIGGY RIDES AGAIN

Ziggy Stardust may have made David Bowie a star, but the wretch proved Frankensteinian. Eclipsing his creator from the moment he was fully formed, Ziggy subsumed Bowie and might have wound up destroying him, had not David decided to kill him and his arachnids first. Those closest are invariably the last to know.

By 1973, he knew he’d struck gold. Overnight stardom had taken almost ten years, but here he now was, all things to all people: a superstar on both sides of the Atlantic, worshipped as a teen idol, revered as a rock star, lusted after as a bi-sex symbol, hailed as some philosophical guiding light. He’d scuppered them all, this ruthless ransacker, this rag and bone man, this vampire. He had sucked the veins of all in his path, and was now gorging on the ultimate resource: his own self.

The Ziggy Stardust tour rolled relentlessly around Britain, a maelstrom of performances, TV appearances, radio, press, and fandemonium. Then America, Canada, Japan. Come 3rd July, the thriller. The Hammersmith Odeon, west London, staged the final night of the tour now fondly remembered as ‘the Retirement Gig’. The place was heaving with three and a half thousand fans. There must have been as many again outside as were crammed within. A film crew was present, and the stars were out: the Jaggers, the Rod Stewarts, the Ringos. David had finally made it into rock’s upper echelon. He was now one of them. ‘All the Young Dudes’. ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. ‘Moonage Daydream’. Freaky costume changes galore. At one point he emerged with that now legendary astral sphere on his forehead, which we found out later, from the magazines we pored over, had been created by make-up artist, Pierre La Roche. ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’: ‘This one’s for Mick!’ he announced. Ronson or Jagger? Maybe both. Rock royalty graced the line-up, the great Jeff Beck joining them on stage to play along with ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Love Me Do’. ‘Round and Round’, and David on harmonica. ‘Suffragette City’, ever my favourite. ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at one point, thank you and goodnight, some upstart leaping onto the stage, a minder chucking him off again. Hammersmith had been heaven. Then, out of the blue, we went to hell.

‘Not only is this the last show of the tour,’ cried David, just when it couldn’t get any better, ‘but it’s the last show we’ll ever do!’

Say what, was somebody, come again, he’s only joking right, wait, did he just go, why? NOOOOOOO! The whole place was screaming, there was a stampede for the stage, I was small, I hung back, I couldn’t find my friend, I wanted the toilet. And the band, wide-eyed, it looked as though it was news to them, played on. ‘Rock’n’roll Suicide.’ You couldn’t make it up. I cried. Most of us did. Hysteria, pandemonium, a throat-cut split-second. However good the show was, and I think it was, I was stunned. I remember only that moment. I recall precious little of the music, not a step of the journey home. I heard later that Kid Jensen confirmed it on air. Read later about the after-show, some crass, jumped-up luvvie-fest they were referring to as ‘the Last Supper’, at the Regent Street Café Royal of all places, where I’d been twice with my parents dressed in the same itchycoo gold lamé trouser suit and matching pumps, for a wedding and a bar mitzvah, which says it all. David and Angie apparently lorded it, pressing flesh with ex-Beatles and Barbra and Britt, with Hollywood legends and Cat Stevens and boisterous Lulu.

Even Keith Moon, not known for his fondness for togged-to-the-nines civilisation. Imagine. My schoolgirl mind boggled. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper. Had David worked so hard for so long for it to end like this?

‘It was fun while it lasted,’ David said, post-Ziggy. ‘I had a certain idea of what I wanted my rock’n’roll star to be like. I’ve gone as far with that as I possibly can. The star was created, he worked, and that’s all I wanted him to do. Anything he did now would just be repetition, carrying it on to the death.’

But there was a sense of loss in his words only four years later.

‘It soured so quickly, you wouldn’t believe it,’ he lamented, looking back. ‘And it took me an awful long time to level out. My whole personality was affected. I brought that upon myself … and it became very dangerous. I really did have doubts about my sanity.’

Yet Hammersmith Odeon was the only place to be. Ever. We were there. This was David’s pinnacle, his build-to moment, the culmination of all that he’d slaved to achieve. I have so often thought, what wouldn’t I give to relive that precious moment one last time.

Now, I’m about to. You can too.

Visit www.eventim.co.uk/tickets.html and grab them while you can: to a unique screening, on Thursday 16th February, of the concert film shot by D.A. Pennebaker, of that legendary gig, in the very venue where it took place. This will be the first time the film has been aired for over forty years. And there’s more: DJ duo the Smoking Guns, breakthrough band Animal Noise, and some relevant unpredictables. On your marks …

Monday, 26 December 2016

RIP GEORGIOS KYRIACOS PANAYIOTOU



My patience is stretched, now. I find myself wanting to herd all these bleaters yelping about the 'malevolence' of 2016 for 'taking' so many cherished stars away from us, and bang their unthinking heads together.
Let's go again. Time is intangible. It is an illusion, a construct, a concept. It doesn't exist. It was invented by man, just to keep track of all that we are up to. It varies, in fact, depending on your point of view. You can make a day longer than a year whenever you want to. Try it. You can make it last a lifetime in your mind: that's what baby births, wedding days, anniversaries and the so-called 'big birthdays' are about. Time is no more than an abstract measurement, a scale by which we chart our existence. It is supposed to give shape to the way in which we go about things, and to make life easier. As such, it is not to be blamed for the things we would rather had not happened; an excuse for devastation we cannot explain.
So another one bites the dust. Time - 2016 - is, of course, to blame. Get real. We're talking 'timing', not 'time', in this instance. George was always the first to say that 'timing is everything'. The suggestion that he may have taken his own life on Christmas Day, as some are saying, is therefore not so far-fetched. George was an extreme control freak, a planner, an obsessive. The significance of the designated birthday of our Lord will not have been lost on him. He created 'Last Christmas', one of the great modern Yuletide classics, to link his name indelibly with the season. Every Christmas, for evermore, we will now remember and give thanks for George on Christmas Day. The arrogance, though breathtaking, should be forgiven.
I spent enough time with George and Andrew Ridgeley in the Eighties. We worked together on numerous occasions. His former manager, Simon Napier-Bell, and his Sony publicist Jonathan Morrish, remain two of my most cherished friends. I have other close pals who went to school with George in North London. On more than a few occasions, I got to glimpse the real Yog. He was a tormented soul who lived a damnable lie for longer than he was able to be true to himself. He never came out to his family while his mother was still alive. He felt compelled to wait until she died to be open and honest about his orientation.
The self-deception of his youth was a cancer to him. The self-inflicted damage would not be repaired. George admitted to a void, created by his distance from his parents and wider family, which generated unbearable deprivation. He acknowledged that he sought adoration from complete strangers, in order to try and fill that void. The harder he tried, the less he found himself able to compensate. He did not know the true meaning of peace. He accepted that his need to become an artist was a cry for help. He agreed that he was desperately insecure, and that he was addicted to applause. He fell in love with Elton John at a very young age. Performing his Elton favourite, 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me' on stage with his idol was, he said, the pinnacle of his career. The pair later fell out, made up, fell out, made up, in that intensely emotional manner that tends eventually to become the downfall of superstars.
George pressed the self-destruct button years ago. He gave in to his desires, and even did time for them. He lost out in love, giving away his whole heart, and having it returned to him in shreds. Few can recover from that, least of all those whose every nerve ending is exposed to and raked over by millions of needy fans, dependent on his music and demanding, ever demanding, answers about love and the meaning of life that he was never equipped to give.
This is how I want to remember him: at Live Aid, 13th July 1985. George was twenty two years old, in his exuberant prime, thrilled to be part of the greatest show on earth, and lapping up every blink of it. I watched him at point blank range that day, getting everything he needed in the giving of so much ... if only in that moment. At least he had that. At least we still have the music. God rest him.


Sunday, 18 December 2016

HALLELUJAH, NOEL, BE IT HEAVEN OR HELL



Twenty-four years ago tonight, our lives fell to pieces when my father Ken Jones fell under a train. He was the Independent’s chief sportswriter at the time, and was making his way home from the office Christmas party. He’d done the sensible thing: he’d left the car at home, and was taking the train. A few had been cancelled. There was a platform-change announcement at London Bridge. A stampede up the stairs, over the bridge and down the other side. My father, a compact Welshman, was swept up in the maelstrom and hurled down onto the rails, just as the train was pulling in. It took them more than four hours to cut him from the wreckage. What was left of his right arm, and his writing hand, was left behind.
He still hears the voice of the nameless paramedic who talked him into holding on, into clinging to life. To this day, he suffers searing phantom pain in the arm that isn't there. He has lived for almost a quarter of a century as a one-armed bandit. He continued to travel the world as one, well into his seventies, covering major prize fights, football matches, summer and winter Olympic Games. He only retired when they made him, and he could still kick them senseless for that.
Ken is eighty-five years old, as sharp as a scythe, and bored, much of the time. On a cocktail of class A meds, he phases in and out of the moment. He spends half the day on an oxygen generator for emphysema. We still have fierce bouts over politics and sport. He never has fewer than five books on the go, everything from Ancient Rome and Shakespeare to contemporary biographies (he's partial to Bowie at the moment), and ever the poetry of Dylan Thomas.
He lost a part of himself, that bitter night. But he became somehow more of himself because of it. In many ways, utterly random and brutal though such accidents are, it was the making of him. I've been looking at that raw, tragic stump for two and a half decades, now. It still shocks me to recall what happened, longer ago than the births of my children. It breaks my heart to this day. But then I remember, he's still a whole dad. No less of a complete, confounding jigsaw puzzle of a man for want of a single absent piece.
Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell. Go easy out there, this coming week. Hang back from the edge. Stay behind the yellow line. Keep off the roads, if you can. Run for the shadows, but not for the train. Never, ever, run for the train. There will always be another. You might not be as lucky as Dad. Which is the way he sees it. Always has. It must be what saved him.
So this is Christmas. A brave and joyous, hopeful 2017 to you all. It's worth keeping in mind that life can turn on a sixpence, be demolished in a heartbeat. All we can do is love passionately, live honestly, and do what we do to the hilt, while we still can.


Sunday, 10 April 2016

TEN THOUSAND HOURS: MICHAEL ARMSTRONG



It boils down to the ten thousand hours: the time it is said to take to become good at our chosen pursuit. This theory arose out of ground-breaking work undertaken by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at the Florida State University. You’ve got to put the hours in, and that’s that.

It got me thinking. Ten thousand hours equals four hundred and seventeen days. It may not sound like much, but it sure is a lot. There are only a hundred and sixty eight hours in a week. We spend, on average, around fifty of those merely sleeping. If we devote, say, forty hours a week just trying to get good at something, that’s a little over two thousand hours per year. At that rate, it takes a good five years to become passable at your craft. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practise.

But there’s more to it than that. Anyone at all can spend the time. What makes the difference is talent. It’s not just practise that makes perfect. It’s perfect practise. Kids who get a guitar for Christmas, hone a few tunes, give it their best shot, can be as good as anyone who has been doing it all their life, is the 21st Century message. But it’s not true. Most of us are better off fantasising, singing ‘I Will Survive’ or ‘The Power of Love’ into a hairbrush in the bedroom after a hard day’s wine.
It takes guts to get up in front of a roomful of strangers, open your mouth and sing. It’s one of the very hardest things to do. We all know the shows that have deluded the masses into thinking that anyone can do it. They can’t.

Michael Armstrong can. This was apparent after the first time I saw him perform live, as the warm-up act for Leo Sayer at London’s Hippodrome last autumn. Some of the songs were familiar, especially the Billy Joel numbers. Others were new and unique and seemed truly heartfelt, when I heard them after the gig. Eh? I confess to having dismissed Michael at first as any other pub singer - I was gossiping with my friends David Stark and Anita Maguire at the time, and didn’t pay too much attention. But then I took the album home, and actually listened to him.

What comes across with brutal clarity is that here is a man who has devoted his life to music, but who simply hasn’t had the breaks. He grew up on a diet of the Beatles, Neil Diamond, the Bee Gees, even a smattering of Led Zeppelin when his Mum wasn’t looking. His parents’ record collection, effectively, just like the rest of us. He speaks movingly about music having unlocked his soul when he was still a small child, of his youthful yearning to express himself through songs. But the odds were against him. His family was not musical. Undeterred, he learned to play the drums, scraped together the wherewithal for guitar lessons, and taught himself piano. He began to write, and started his own band. They pubbed and clubbed and rocked around the clock, and wound up eventually with some support engagements at the historic Shepherds Bush Empire, no mean one. Then reality kicked in. It was time to leave school, and to start earning a living. His builder father enticed him into the family firm. Michael pulled his weight, but felt himself beginning to wane. The work sapped not only his strength, but his soul.

A wife, a home, a family. All the usual. The dream grew distant. The economic crash took its toll on his father’s business, as well as on his health. Then, out of the blue, an introduction to music PR Lisa Davies led to the recording of a three-track EP, which meandered, in turn, to positive attention from the been-there, seen-that music media. Michael suddenly found himself moving among musicians he had once idolised, including Paul McCartney and Mark Knopfler. Working closely with Lisa to promote the great artists and acts on her roster, Michael even began performing with the likes of Cliff Richard and Chris de Burgh. With Lisa’s help and encouragement, and with input from Keith Bessey, famed for his work with the Ramones, 10CC and Elton John, Michael set about recording his debut album, mostly in the garage, with less than no money. But then the magic set in. The harder we work, the luckier we get. Not many could persuade musicbiz legends such as Albert Lee, Peter Howarth - current lead singer of the Hollies - Stephen Walters and Elliott Randall to perform on an unknown’s debut. But Lisa Davies can.

Chances are you have already seen Michael Armstrong talking about his eponymous offering on the television, or heard him on the radio. You may have seen him out on the road, with Beverley Craven or the aforementioned Howarth, Vonda Shepard or Carol Decker and T’Pau. But he’s not over-selling himself. He’s not a rich or famous rock star, by any means - and by his own admission is a yellow brick road away from becoming one.

‘It is an industry in decline,’ he points out. ‘Only a handful of artists actually sell records these days. There is no investment in new music. There is no development of  new artists. It is all about instant gratification, reality TV, and here today, gone tomorrow. And yet, despite all this, we carry on. It’s in our blood, it’s in our hearts, and it’s in our dreams.’

Michael put in his ten thousand hours. He’ll put in another ten thousand, and ten thousand more, if he has to. He’s not inclined to give up, he’s not that kind. His integrity and dedication are humbling. It’s the musical equivalent of banging your head against a brick wall, and he knows it. I predict that there will come a time when you'll recognise him instantly, from those precious first few bars. I’ll be there with a bottle of Bollinger, cheering from my front row seat. In the meantime, catch him and the exuberant Peter Howarth. Let them throttle you with their talent. It’s what they do.

Michael Armstrong: The Album is out now.
www.peterhowarth.com