Sunday, 9 December 2012


On December 10th, twenty eight years ago, the single 'Do They Know It's Christmas' by Band Aid was released. 

It all kicked off shortly after Bob Geldof watched Michael Buerk's bulletin from famine-wracked Ethiopia on the BBC News. Horrified by television footage depicting suffering of biblical proportions, Bob felt at once shocked and helpless, his gut telling him that he had to get involved. He had no idea how. He could do what he did best: sit down and write a hit single, the proceeds of which he could pledge to Oxfam. But his Irish punk band the Boomtown Rats were by then in decline, having not enjoyed a Top Ten hit since 1980. Their zenith, a Number One with 'I Don't Like Mondays', had been and gone in 1979. Music fans, he knew, would flock to buy a charity single provided the artist was big enough – especially at the Christmas-Single time of year. It was a question of finding a sympathetic star to record one. How much better if he could persuade a whole galaxy to collaborate on one song.

Bob had a chat with Midge Ure, whose band Ultravox were appearing that week on The Tube - a Channel 4 rock and pop show on presented by Geldof's then girlfriend, the late Paula Yates. Midge agreed to set Geldof's lyrics to melody, and to orchestrate some arrangements.  He  then went to Sting, Duran Duran singer Simon le Bon, Gary and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet. His galactic list stretched as time ticked to include, among the many, Boy George, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the Style Council's Paul Weller, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of Wham! and Paul Young. Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt of Status Quo went in willingly. Phil Collins and Bananarama followed suit. David Bowie and Paul McCartney, who were otherwise committed, made contributions remotely. These were sent to Geldof to be dubbed onto the single later. Sir Peter Blake, world-famous for his iconic artwork on the Beatles' album cover 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band', was recruited to design the sleeve. Band Aid was born, the name a pun on a common brand of sticking plaster. This was to be a 'band' which would 'aid' the world.

'Do they Know It's Christmas?' was recorded free of charge at Trevor Horn's SARM West Studios in Notting Hill, West London, on 25th November 1984.  It went straight to Number One on its release in the UK, outselling everything else on the chart put together to become Britain's fastest-selling single since the chart's inception in 1952. A million copies were shifted in the first week alone. The record held the Number One slot for five weeks, selling more than three and a half million copies. It went on to become the UK's biggest-selling single of all time - ending the nine-year reign of Queen's magnum opus, the 'ba-rock' Bohemian Rhapsody. 'Do they Know It's Christmas?' would only be out-sold in 1997 by Elton John's double A-side charity single 'Candle In the Wind/Something About the Way You Look Tonight', re-recorded as a tribute to the Princess of Wales. This notched up sales of more than thirty three million copies, still, incidentally, the world's biggest-selling single since charts began.  

Hot on the heels of the British chart effort came America's contribution, in the form of supergroup USA For Africa and their single 'We Are The World'. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian, the session brought together some of the world's most legendary musicians. It was recorded at Hollywood's A & M Studios in January 1985, and boasted a line-up including Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Dionne Warwick, Willie Nelson and Huey Lewis. In all, more than forty five of America's top artists took part. A further fifty had to be turned away. When the chosen ones arrived at the studio, they were confronted with a sign instructing them to 'please check your egos at the door'. They were also met by an impish Stevie Wonder, informing them that if the song wasn't up to scratch nor down in one take, he and fellow blind artist Ray Charles would be driving them home. The record sold more than 20 million copies, and became America's fastest-selling pop single ever.
Live Aid the following summer was another story.  The Band Aid single now playing on loop in a supermarket near you was its genesis.  Do they know it's Christmas?  Perhaps they didn't in 1984.  They do now. 

Friday, 23 November 2012


'I've had upheavals and I've had immense problems, but I've had a wonderful time and I have no regrets. Oh dear, I sound like Edith Piaf!'

Freddie Mercury

Freddie died relatively young. A lot of very talented people die young. Maybe it's because they reach their creative peak, and they 'commit suicide' in some way. Because they can't handle fame any more. Although some take their own lives directly, such as Marilyn Monroe with an overdose, most don't do that. Instead, they sabotage their existence in some way. James Dean drove a sports car so fast that it was inevitable that he would one day crash it and kill himself. Elvis was only 42 when he died, but he was wrung out, he had nothing left, and he knew it. Maybe Freddie's death-wish was excessive sex, which, in the climate we were in, was always going to lead to AIDS. It's a way of relinquishing responsibility for a life which has become too much for you.

Phil Swern, producer, BBC Radio 2

'Certain people in this industry are not meant to grow old. Freddie was one of them. I could never see Freddie at 70. Nor Michael Jackson. In any case, Freddie wouldn't have liked the way albums are recorded today. He lived his life to the full. He died young, but he crammed in an amazing amount. More than most people could in 5 lifetimes'.

Rick Wakeman

Having at last achieved an elusive BPI (British Phonographic Industry) Award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music, and mindful that time was running out for Freddie, Queen cooked the calendar to make 1990 their 20th anniversary. They hosted a celebration for 400 friends at London's Groucho Club, a private members' establishment. The venue was chosen for its name, in homage to early Queen albums named after Marx Brothers movies. Liza Minnelli, George Michael, Patsy Kensit, Michael Winner and Rod Stewart turned up. he celebration cake was in the style of a Monopoly board, with Queen hits pasted into the squares. As bloodthirsty picture editors foamed at the mouth over gaunt, give-away snaps of Freddie as he arrived at and left the party, the death-rumours continued to be denied.

There were a lot of people at that party, but not many were talking to the band.
It was almost as if they were afraid to approach them. I found myself standing near the bar with Freddie, chatting for about twenty minutes. I couldn't quite believe that I was talking with this icon like we were old pals. He was very pale and quiet. I suddenly realised that I was shaking and nervous. Why? The aura. He had it. Who else? Frank Sinatra: I was invited backstage at the Royal Albert Hall with Tony Blackburn once. Before I even set eyes on Sinatra, and even though my back was to the door, I knew the second he walked into the room. You felt it like a nuclear wave. Very few people have it. Not Paul McCartney. Not Mick Jagger. They're too accessible. Barbra Streisand does: she's ethereal, of another world. I met her at Wembley, and I've never forgotten it. You can't put your finger on whatever it is that these musicians have. Not even movie stars have it. That nuclear wave brings you out in a sweat. It still does now, when I think of it.Whatever it is, I believe that you are born with it. You never lose it. You can't work on it. You can't buy it. It is magical. You can't cut through it – so an ordinary mortal cannot have a successful relationship with a person like that. It's the primary reason why they have such disastrous love lives. Look at Liz Taylor, Madonna, Liza Minnelli. It's a tragedy on so many levels. You win the adoration of millions, but you cannot get or retain the love of just one person.

'Freddie and I chatted a bit about Queen's long career', said Phil Swern. 
'We even discussed the structure of his songs. He grew quite animated when he started talking about his music. It's what defined him, there's no question. I'd written a few songs in my time, which had achieved chart success. Songwriters are always fascinated by how other songwriters do it. So I had to ask the inevitable: where did he get his inspiration from?

''The lines just come to me', he smiled.
'It was very hard talking to him', Phil added, 'because I knew that he was dying. It hadn't been announced at that point, but I knew. Jim Beach told me. And I remember thinking that, if you have this aura, it crushes you in the end. It suffocates you. It is a huge cross to bear, and it's probably the price you pay for genius. Within that aura, you're only human like everyone else'.

Their final party over, the band returned to Mountain Studios.
'Innuendo was very much made on borrowed time, as Freddie really wasn't very well', Roger would reveal after Freddie's death.

During the last year of his life, hounded by the press, he would return to Montreux as often as his health would permit, finally allowing the peaceful place to become his refuge.

'Innuendo's' title track was released as a single in January 1991. It gave the band their first UK Number One for a decade. The February album, their fourteenth and final studio effort to be released during Freddie's lifetime, hit Number One in the UK, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, and became the first Queen album since 'The Works' in 1984 to go gold on release in America. In the video for the single 'I'm Going Slightly Mad' made by the Torpedo Twins in London, a painfully gaunt, heavily made-up Freddie aped a crazed Lord Byron. 'Headlong', their thirty ninth single, emerged in May. On a relentless mission now, against all clocks, Queen returned to Mountain Studios to begin work on 'Made In Heaven'. The album would not be released 4 years after Freddie's passing. Despite his dwindling strength, Freddie drove himself harder ever, and vodka'd his way through long and arduous studio sessions.

'I think maybe there was a part of him that thought the miracle would come', said Brian.

'I think we all did'.

'Those were very sad days, but Freddie didn't get depressed', said his assistant, Peter Freestone.
'He was resigned to the fact that he was going to die. He accepted it … Anyway, can you imagine an old Freddie Mercury?'

On 5 September, Freddie's forty fifth birthday, his partner Jim Hutton gave Freddie one last gift, a set of Irish crystal champagne glasses intended for their flat in Montreux. They were never to make it. The end was nigh-er than they knew. Soon afterwards, Freddie informed his household of his decision to stop taking his medication.

'He stopped everything except painkillers', says Peter Freestone.
'For weeks, 24 hours a day, the press had camped on his doorstep. He was a prisoner in his own home. He was going to decide when to die'.

He'd had enough. Not only was Freddie losing his sight, but the will to live was ebbing away.
He would meet death on his own terms.

'I think his only regret at the end was that there was so much more music inside him', said Peter.

'The Show Must Go On', Queen's brave, heart-rending single, backed by 'Keep Yourself Alive', was released in October. The band, their management, their publicists and entourage, all sworn to secrecy, continued to contradict rumours and to to their nearest and dearest, while EMI continued to pump out product – Greatest Hits II, Greatest Flix II. With Freddie's life hanging by a thread, the band appeared more prolific than ever.

Peter Freestone and Joe Fanelli nursed Freddie through the final days.

'There was nobody else', shrugs Peter.
'Freddie had now begun to cut people off. He just didn't want to see certain people again. His parents, for example … he didn't want them seeing him as he now was … that was the reason he turned his back on so many during the final year. A few really close friends were wonderful to him: Dave Clark, Elton, Tony King.
'It's amazing how quickly you learn things you never expected to have to do. Freddie had a Hickman line inserted into his chest, for example, through which we were able to give him his drugs. One comfort is that one of us was with him all the time – Jim, Joe, myself – even through the night, during those last weeks. Freddie was never once left alone'.
On 23 November, with Jim Beach at his bedside, Freddie approved his last-ever statement, admitting to his fans and to the world that he had AIDS.

Twenty-four hours later, the Great Pretender was dead.

Saturday, 27 October 2012


As his lightning-bolt image is set for pasting all over London ahead of a forty-year V&A retrospective next spring, David Bowie, the most iconic of all rock stars, could not be more conspicuous by his absence. Having handed over the keys to an obsessively-amassed cornucopia of sound and vision, comprising costumes, lyrics and instruments, videos, stills and artwork, the man who fell to earth follows proceedings remotely from the city he has long called home.
North of Little Italy and Chinatown, a saunter east of SoHo, David Bowie's Manhattan manor is an enclave of cupcake cafes, vintage emporia and hip boutiques. The reclusive musician who turned 65 last January and who has reassumed the name Jones, moves easily among the downtown dawdlers and bustlers. His base is a £5 million penthouse. His routine includes strolls to and from school with his 12 year-old daughter Lexi. He'll browse through volumes on art, photography and architecture in local bookstores en route to an Upper East Side lunch with a friend or colleague, often right-hand ma'am 'Coco' Schwab. Evenings are low-key: a quiet supper in Greenwich Village's Babbo or Indochine on Lafayette Street, say. He'll attend an occasional fundraiser but prefers the odd classical concert, just he and Mrs Jones - the Somalian supermodel Iman.

The couple's woodland retreat in the Catskills has replaced the Balinese temple to hedonism (I say this first-hand, having stayed there myself) that Bowie built on the Caribbean isle of Mustique. Although his private art collection boasts Tintoretto, Rubens and Damien Hirst, he confessed recently that his 'most treasured possessions' are a Sellotaped photograph of rock'n'roller Little Richard that he bought in 1958, and a pressed chrysanthemum that he picked on his Kyoto honeymoon. So nothing grand about 21st Century Bowie. His preferred attire - drab overcoat or hoodie, denims, shades, a working man's cap - is anonymous. There's no hint of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, nor any other rock incarnation in the bloke-ish hair, tidied teeth and soapy cheeks. He invites negligible rubber-necking as he trolls about undisturbed, eschewing limos for desert boots and yellow cabs.
There was a time when he would have given his mis-matched eyes to be recognised. When, as a suburban pop hopeful, he watched helplessly while his East End Mod mate Marc Bolan went stratospheric ahead of him, and seriously considered throwing in the towel.
Brixton-born, Bromley-based Bowie was still Davie Jones in 1964 when he met Bolan, who at the time was plain Mark Feld. The former was nearly 18 years old, the latter not quite 17. Each had been striving since boyhood to make it in the music business, experimenting with sounds and styles. The setting for their first encounter was the DJM offices of talent scout Leslie Conn, who saw nothing in Bolan but agreed to take a chance on his chum. The Bolan-Bowie attraction was instant. They forged a special relationship upon which plenty have poured scorn, but which was real enough to those who watched it unfold.

'There was always a certain rivalry,' admits Keith Altham, who over the years acted as publicist for both artists.

'But they were very close. They had what they had between them, they didn't have to prove it to anybody else. Which is why, I think, David doesn't ever speak about it. There was a real love there. They were very similar, in so many ways. They could have been brothers.'
They took to meeting regularly at La Gioconda, a cafe on Tin Pan Alley. Marc started recording for Decca Records and gained airplay on offshore pirate stations. He hustled – anyone, everyone - proclaiming irresistibly his intention to be 'bigger than the Beatles.'

Marc's first foray into electric pop was with John's Children, a band managed by flamboyant pop guru Simon Napier-Bell. A disastrous tour of Germany, supporting The Who, had the Children breaking for the border and Marc heading home to his acoustic. Tyrannosaurus Rex, the folk duo he founded with bongo-player Steve Peregrin Took, attracted a sizeable following with the support of DJ John Peel. Then along happened Brooklyn boy Tony Visconti, a musician and fledgling producer, who had left his native New York on a mission to find 'the new Beatles'. He wandered into London's Middle Earth club one night and was bewitched by Tyrannosaurus Rex. His partnership with Bolan would generate an incredible ten albums, and embraced Marc's metamorphosis from underground pixie to the undisputed king of glam.

But it was when Tony Visconti was introduced to David Bowie that the real sparks flew. The pair forged a deep rapport, sharing exotic interests – foreign art films, unusual foods,Tibetan Buddhism. There was an inevitability to their eventual creation of some of the most original and enduring rock music ever recorded. Marc Bolan fell second fiddle to Tony's adoration of Bowie. Both artists resented the triangle, and competed, if at times subconsciously, for the cool young American's time and talent.

Although Visconti would describe Bolan as 'the most focused artist I've ever worked with', it was Bowie with whom the producer fell irrevocably in love.

As Tyrannosaurus Rex gained popularity, Bowie couldn't give it away. When Marc and Steve Took played a string of UK dates including the Royal Festival Hall, Bowie opened for them. Marc met his future wife, agency secretary June Child, and the couple dropped in on Visconti once a week for baths and boogie nights.

'There were a few nights when David came over and we all jammed together,' recalls Tony.
'Marc and David on guitars, and me on bass.'

In January 1969, when Tyrannosaurus Rex debuted their new tour at Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank, they were supported by David Bowie. The frustrated musician had given up and become a mime artist. The career-change was happily short-lived. That July saw Apollo 11 deposit Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. The second release of Bowie's 'Space Oddity', about the launch of a fictional astronaut, could not have been better-timed. With the BBC playing the single constantly during their coverage of the lunar landing, David was at last in line for a hit. He and future wife Angela Barnett set up an unthreatening hippie commune in a Gothic mansion in Beckenham, Kent – and invited Tony Visconti and his girlfriend to move in.

Bolan and Bowie recorded together on David's 'The Prettiest Star', produced by Visconti. Marc's tangible envy of David's personal relationship with Tony boiled over in rage and rudeness on the part of June Bolan, who told David he 'wasn't good enough' to play with her husband. The single was lovely, but it flopped. After the success of 'Space Oddity', this was a blow. David would have to wait almost three more years for his next UK hit - 'Starman' - while waving off his bopping-elf friend and rival on the multi-coloured scream ride of fame.

During their brief reign, T. Rex forged and owned the quintessential sound of the Seventies. They came as close as anybody to becoming 'the next Beatles'. Things warmed up when Bolan and Bowie began trading blows in the all-important 'hit parade'. In 1972, David Bowie was on the up with 'Starman' (Number 10), 'John I'm Only Dancing' (12) and 'The Jean Genie' (2). Bolan went higher with two Number Ones – 'Telegram Sam' and 'Metal Guru', and a pair of Number 2s, 'Children of the Revolution' and 'Solid Gold Easy Action.' But by the following year they were neck and neck: Bowie's 'Life On Mars' and 'Sorrow' and Bolan's '20th Century Boy' all made it to Number 3. It was as if they had declared war. When Bowie took off internationally, reinventing himself at every turn and breaking into the American market at a level that Marc could only dream of, it was Visconti who was producing the hits. As the Seventies progressed, Bowie evolved as a complex and multi-faceted artist, exploring heavy themes via concept albums and other disciplines. His hit singles seemed merely an aside. Bolan, meanwhile, was delivering a simpler blend of glitter-bugged Fifties rock'n'roll. Bowie went schitzophrenic and deep on his discerning and more sophisticated rock fans. Bolan, oblivious, carried on serving up teenybop dance tunes for hoards of screaming girls. The Punk interlude barely crossed Bowie's radar. Marc, however, was threatened by and felt he had to get in on it, in order to move with the times.

All comes full circle. Marc flared, followed David into drugs and booze, then faded. He had cleaned up his act and was making a credible comeback when he landed his own show for Granada Television. It was his old pal Bowie, now a drug-addled and emaciated superstar living reclusively in Switzerland, whom he invited to close the series. He did so with 'Heroes.' It was the last time Bowie saw his friend alive.
When Marc was killed, aged 29, on September 16th 1977, it was the twelfth anniversary of the day David Robert Jones changed his name officially to David Bowie.

'David Bowie is not my godfather', says Rolan Bolan, Marc's only child – who was just a toddler when his mother, American singer Gloria Jones, crashed the Mini 1275 GT in which Marc died.
'A lot of crazy stuff has been written and said down the years. Not true.
'Nor did David pay for me to go to school. I've never even met him.'

What David did, though he's never talked about it, was to invest in a fund for Rolan enabling the child and his mother to survive. Their home had been stripped of everything they owned. Marc's estate was frozen, and his fortune disappeared. When Gloria returned to her family in Los Angeles with Rolan, she was penniless. Bowie coughed up of his own volition, without once having been asked.

Thirty five years since Marc's death, Rolan is still trying to make sense of his father's affairs.

'His company Wizard (Bahamas) no longer exists', he confirms.

'It was acquired by the Spirit Music Group in New York, but rights are still all over the place. I'm still looking for questions to be answered.

'My father was a very proud Englishman. A London Boy. His music was and remains so special. People all over are still discovering him for the first time, which is amazing after all these years.'

To the many who believe he is rolling in Bolan millions and living the high life in LA, Rolan says this:

'I make my own living. There are some royalties (to Rolan and to the PRS for Music Members' Benevolent Fund), but there are no 'Missing Millions'. It has all gone. The people who took the
money know what they did with it. What's left is a great story of music, of love, and of a piece of time when everything stood a little differently. We all need to remember where we came from.

'The most important thing is that my Mom raised me to know that he loved me very much. To the fans, he will always be Marc Bolan. To me, he's just Dad.'

Acknowledged to this day as the most influential figure in rock, Bowie's rich catalogue of classics assure him a place in the pantheon well into his Golden Years. But he hasn't shaken off his old rival yet.

Marc's music is as familiar to today's young fans as it was to the legions who worshipped him during his lifetime. Much of it is disseminated via commercials and films. The soundtrack of the 2000 movie 'Billy Elliot' featured no fewer than five Bolan hits. Marc's records are played on mainstream radio as frequently as David's. Countless younger acts - Marc Almond, Boy George, Morrissey - not only cite Bolan as their childhood inspiration but pay homage to his sound in their own songwriting. The T.Rex tribute acts, of which Danielz and T. Rextasy are the best, are in popular demand all over the world. Several Bolan pressings remain among the most highly-prized in record-collecting history. Nor have the original teenaged fans who idolised Marc during his lifetime deserted him. At this year's 35th Anniversary Marc Bolan Tribute Concert at the 02 Shepherd's Bush Empire, and at the Official Marc Bolan Fan Club's London Bop at The Castle, London's best rock pub on the Finchley Road, hundreds of glitter-clad, feather-boa'd women in their 50s and 60s danced the night away in platform boots.

According to Marc's and David's loyal old friend Jeff Dexter, the latter's most common lament during their lengthy, regular telephone conversations is that he is 'not 29 anymore' - a sentiment shared fully by Dexter. Perhaps the thing that irks Bowie most is that Bolan still is.
Ride a White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan' by Lesley-Ann Jones is published by Hodder & Stoughton

Monday, 22 October 2012


Three things allowed Jimmy Savile to become one of the most notorious sex offenders of all time: apathy, a blind eye and a mute tongue. Within a culture of indifference, a refusal to acknowledge what they saw or to speak up about what they knew, the DJ, TV presenter and charity fundraiser's friends, colleagues and even family members colluded with a monster. Vile Savile, we now know, used and abused the weak, the vulnerable, the ignorant and the under-age. Many people knew what he was doing. Not only fellow BBC employees, but good, clean record company folk, no strangers to sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, mind - the likes of an old chum of mine, a former EMI executive,who confesses to me today, 'A lot of us know too much. We may not have known at the time it was all happening the full depth of his depravities, the alleged necrophilia and so on ... but we knew he was coercing girls and some boys under the age of consent into sexual activity. There was a mutual dislike between him and we industry personnel. He kept his distance from us.'

I bet he did.

Another music business pal responded to my email today to say, 'What investigations have uncovered thus far is the tip of the iceberg.  I know everything, and I truly wish that I didn't. It disgusts me, and it makes me lose sleep. It has done for years. I always think, what if it had been my own kids? But I'm keeping my distance from any Savile association, sorry.'

Isn't this why and how he was able to get away with it for so long?  And aren't such people, my friends though they are, as guilty as Savile himself?  What about Esther Rantzen, once the most powerful woman at the BBC;  also the wife of Desmond Wilcox, himself a mighty player within the same organisation.  Didn't she admit on camera to collusion recently, simply by knowing what Savile was doing, but doing nothing?  Was the founding of Childline Esther's atonement, then: an offering too late for the zipped lips she kept over all that past?

Simon & Garfunkel wrote 'the Sound of Silence' in February 1964, about the assassination of JFK.  Forty eight years on, can it really be, its lyrics are now haunting me. In the context of Savile, how apt they seem:

'Hello darkness my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain ... still remains ..'

The song pounded in my head as I listened to BBC journalists Liz McKean and Meirion Jones talking about why their Newsnight Savile investigation about Jimmy Savile being a paedophile was dropped. The excuse given - that a Surrey police inquiry had produced a lack of evidence - wasn't even known about at the start of the investigation.

'People who knew the truth, and told the truth, were ignored'. 

How many times has this kind of thing happened over the past fifty years at the BBC?  Why don't people speak up about things going on around them which they know to be wrong?  We all know the answer to that: they are afraid of muddying the waters, of ruining reputations, of tarring themselves with the same filthy brushes.  Afraid of losing their jobs. 

As former Fleet Street journalist turned Paul McCartney's publicist for twenty four years, Geoff Baker, comments on Facebook today,
'If MPs, the police and the media want to discover the extent of celebrity molesting at the BBC (and at ITV), don't interview Director Generals.  They will know bugger-all.  Interview the BBC/ITV press officers, as they would have been the poor sods who had and have to keep What Goes On out of the papers. Fact.'   

I have a confession to make.  As a young, virginal graduate doing part-time shifts at a rival station to Radio 1, I was assaulted by and narrowly escaped rape by a BBC DJ every inch, no pun, as famous as Jimmy Savile. This happened in the London apartment of a celebrity agent who represented the DJ.  The packed, wild party was brimming with household names.  Many of those names have resurfaced in the papers since the Savile scandal broke. Every one of them has denied all knowledge. I was saved, literally, by the hair on this brute's head. A sickening story, and one I have not told, for fear of upsetting my children. I must confess, stripping open my heart here, that I thought at the time (I was barely out of my teens) that it might damage my 'reputation'.

'Their words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed ...  in the wells of silence ...'

The sound of my silence has deafened me for years.  What this man did, and tried to do, to me, is something he is likely to have done to others. Could I have prevented further abuse by speaking up?  Or would I have been dismissed, his word against mine?  I am older, wiser and braver these days. I have three children, two of them daughters, two still under the age of consent.   is that if any such man attempted to harm my children in such a manner, I would be moved to kill. I could do it with my pen.

While we are on the subject of confessions:  years ago, when I was a twenty-something trying to break into newspapers, I was taken by a family friend who happened to be a famous cartoonist to see a distinguished Fleet Street newspaper editor. You'd know his name. I was seeking a break. He agreed to let me write a few pieces, asked me to file some feature ideas, and said that he would be in touch.  In response to the gushing list I posted to him, he called to invite me to dinner. I thought nothing of this ... nor of the fact that he called again on the day in question, to say 'I've been working from home and running late;  rather than meeting in the restaurant at the Royal Garden, can you pick me up from my house and we'll go together?'  I was still living at home, and borrowed my dad's car to drive to the given address. The editor answered the door in a towelling robe, and invited me in, saying he'd only take a few moments to get dressed. He showed me into the drawing room, and went to fetch champagne.  Then he excused himself again, returning, somewhat agitated, with a tee towel in his hand, which he thrust in my direction.  It was suddenly all too clear what was expected of me. I dropped my glass and fled.  I never did write for him. Why the sound of silence all these years? The  scumbag will have tried it on with others. Could my speaking up not have prevented similar? Two reasons.  One, I knew his wife, a journalist. And I did go on to work in Fleet Street. Although I never saw him again, she and I crossed paths for years. Two, he was one of the most powerful figures in the industry. I was a nobody on the bottom rung.  I thought that I would not be believed. That I would never get a job on a national newspaper. 

'People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
No one dared disturb the sound of silence
Silence like a cancer grows ...'

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw spoke on SKY News this morning about the BBC being 'still robust', pointing out that self-regulation does not work, and that the Beeb should be regulated by OFCOM. He tempered this with his view that the Savile affair is 'not yet the biggest crisis the BBC has ever faced.'  It could, however, be the biggest crisis of conscience we have all ever faced.

Maintaining the sound of silence makes us allies of evil.  Standing up to be counted - knowing the truth, telling the truth, creating a culture in which the abused, the challenged and the compromised can feel secure about it being 'all right to tell', that someone will listen, that they will not be ignored - is a collective responsibility. Fall at its fence and we are no better than abusers ourselves.

Monday, 1 October 2012


Good song, wasn't it, the 1980 Police hit single 'Don't Stand So Close To Me'.  With its hooky riff and off-the-tongue lyrics, throbbing with the guilt, shame, excitement and self-loathing of a teacher who fancies one of his pupils - a girl 'half his age' - the Grammy-winning song from their album Zenyatta Mondatta hung around forever. It was re-recorded and re-released in 1986.  It's still played on the radio, thirty two years after its original release.  Remember the line 'Just like the old man in that book by Nabokov'?  Wasn't this Sting confessing to his own 'Lolita' moments from his days teaching English in a school? We did wonder, and some of us asked.  He always and vehemently denied any autobiographical inspiration. He would, wouldn't he.

Poor, misguided Megan Stammers now finds herself cast in some quarters as a latter-day Lolita:  a twenty-first century variation on the theme explored so uncomfortably by Vladimir Nabokov in his 1950s novel. Why was twelve year-old Dolores 'Dolly' Haze, Lolita, presumed to be a sexually precocious child for becoming intimately involved with her stepfather Humbert Humbert?  Why was this girl the temptress and Humbert, an ageing professor of French literature, the victim? The man, said to have been inspired in part by the extra-curriculars of Lewis Carroll and Charlie Chaplin, was a child molester. How did this 'funny, charming' novel get away with making it the minor's fault? I read this as a teenager. Many of us did. I still find myself wondering. 

My children will tell you how obsessed I have been by the Megan Stammers/Jeremy Forrest case;  how I sat glued to the news reports, bereft at the sight of both sets of parents speaking in press conferences - an ordeal for even the most seasoned, let alone those who have never before had to face such a thing. How we all, including my fifteen year-old son, found ourselves weeping with relief when Megan turned up. The obvious reason is that I am a mother of two daughters.  One is grown-up enough to live independently and to take care of herself, which of course never stops me worrying. The other is still a schoolgirl, just thirteen. I drive her to school in the mornings because I live in fear of her being snatched off the streets, bundled into a car and murdered like Milly Dowler. On the days that I allow her to walk back with her friends, my heart is in my mouth until I know that she is safely indoors. Nightmares invade my mind while I'm supposed to be working. At least, I think, I know she is safe at school. But is she? 

I cast back to my own final year at secondary school, when a seventeen year-old classmate became involved with a twenty-eight year-old drama teacher down the road at the boys' school. Our two establishments were collaborating on a co-production of 'Romanoff and Juliet', Peter Ustinov's modern take on the Shakespeare tragedy (guess the storyline). Most of the rehearsals took place after hours at the boys' school, where the play was eventually staged. Were the rest of the cast shocked when we saw our friend wander off down the pub with the teacher who was directing the production?  I think we were. Shocked and impressed. The relationship scandalised two sixth forms.  We knew what they were up to. She wasn't making it up. But no one did anything about it. Our schools both turned a blind eye. Reader, she married him.

Married man Jeremy Forrest came on like a lovesick mongrel to Megan - at fifteen, half his age. He wrote her songs and love notes. he got a tattoo in homage. He held her hand on a plane. What was a pupil doing sitting next to a teacher on a twelve-hour return flight from Los Angeles? Not in our day. Her school and the local authorities were aware. They did nothing. They didn't even inform Megan's parents when they eventually saw fit to investigate Forrest. For this, heads if not Head must roll. Body parts should tumble, too, in the Rochdale sex gang case. Young girls were deliberately targeted, made to assume the blame. The authorities knew and did nothing, and must now pay. 

Would a book on the Savile scandal be a book too far?  I think so. Esther Rantzen and others now say they knew that the former DJ was a paedophile. Why didn't they expose him? Singer Coleen Nolan reports that the fright-haired yodeller was 'all over her' when she was only fourteen. How's about that, then? BBC bigwigs were aware, yet did nothing:  perhaps wary of trashing the image of such a high-profile charity do-gooder whose reputation reflected so well on the Corporation. Jim fixed it for himself? You have to wonder. At least ten women have now come forward with claims of sexual molestation. At least one has found the courage to admit that he raped her. She has told the Daily Mail the gut-wrenching tale of her illegal abortion. The mother-fixated, tracksuit-wearing Roller-driving, Gary Glitter-defending nutter got off Scot-free during his lifetime. His 'disgusted' family are now up in arms that such allegations are being made against a deceased individual no longer in a position to defend himself.  If only the Mail had been more on the ball. Their coverage of the 'Savile scandal' is too late. 

Friday, 28 September 2012


Long before I embarked on the career path which would fling me on the road with rock stars for two decades, I discovered Marc Bolan. I encountered him in Kent, in a pub in Beckenham High Street one Sunday afternoon, where I had been taken to a sitar workshop by a classmate's Indian mother.
I was only a child, and he left little impression, despite the fact that folksy, magic-carpet-y Tyrannosaurus Rex had been making albums for years. It was not until 'Ride a White Swan' that I cottoned on. Marc's debut single as the electrified T. Rex transformed him, early in 1971, into the idol of millions of young schoolgirls. 'Our' music was suddenly loaded with sex. As if driven by a national surge of oestrogen and progesterone, he was the perfect teenaged virgin's fantasy. While big, scary rock stars were a bit much for us at that point – raw, dirty-denimed, for one night only - it was to sweet, diminutive, tiny-toed Marc that we dreamed of losing it. Bring on the roaring log fire and the sheepskin rug, the Champagne spilling, the universe reclining in our hair. Sweet memories.

When I was invited, all these moons later, to write a book about him to mark his thirty fifth  anniversary and what would have been his sixty fifth birthday – on 16th and 30th September respectively – it seemed a no-brainer. Three and a half decades on, there remained many unanswered questions. Where facts are meagre, mythology rules. I started asking around, and was surprised. There were plenty of people left who had been close to Marc. Why had they not told all? As Marc's oldest, closest friend Jeff Dexter, 'The Man Who Taught Britain to Twist' and who styled The Beatles, puts it, 'nobody had ever asked.'

Despite the fact that so many T.Rex hits are oversewn into popular culture, and, thanks to constant exposure through film soundtracks, television commercials and radio playlists, are as familiar to our children as they were to us, relatively little was known about what made Marc tick. The many books about him, some of them excellent studies of and homages to the classic 20th Century Boy and his music, left me wondering about the little boy born Mark Feld in London's deprived post-war East End, who had metamorphosed into Bolan. There was someone still in there, the tiniest tot in the nest of Russian dolls. I'd better find him.

It's a common theme, and one we know too well: the lowly-born loser with an eye on the big-time. Sport and entertainment remain classic escape routes from the ghetto. While Marc probably never kicked a football in his life, he had been obsessed with rock'n'roll since he was small. He got his first guitar for his ninth birthday in 1956. He emulated a string of idols – Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan – before he found his true voice. Even that was an invention, a phlegmy gurgle crossed with a kid-goat's bleat, punctuated with the splutterings, groans and hiccups of carnal ecstasy. That he managed to deliver this with butter-mouth innocence was his USP. Having realised he was onto a winner, he worked it to the hilt.

America never really got Marc Bolan. T. Rex scored only one Top Ten hit in the States. Theories abound as to why, but I believe it was no more complicated than Marc having been ahead of his time. We're talking the Seventies, when cowboy country liked its rockers ruder, when 'rouge'n'roll' and glam androgyny offended. Times have changed. Take Queen: no career to speak of stateside at the time of Freddie Mercury's awful death in 1991. Look at them now. We're still talking about his impact during the closing ceremony of London 2012. When the crowd joined in with his classic 'Eyyyy-Ohhhs!', it was as if Freddie were there, larger than life – which of course he is. Whether thanks to the global success of their stage musical 'We Will Rock You', or to the popularity of some of their best crashing numbers as sports-event anthems– 'We Are The Champions', 'Another One Bites the Dust' - America gets Queen as never before. My definitive biography of Freddie, called 'Mercury' in the US, was published there recently. I have been humbled by the universally favourable reception. Queen's career was much longer and their catalogue greater, granted. Marc left a modest body of work, compared. Gone at twenty nine, he simply didn't live long enough. Then again, there's 'Billy Elliot'. The soundtrack of this very English, enduring and much-loved movie, which millions of American movie-goers embraced and remain enchanted by, featured 'Cosmic Dancer', 'Get it On (Bang A Gong)', 'I Love To Boogie', 'Children of the Revolution' and 'Ride a White Swan' – all Bolan's. I sense that America and Marc are not done yet.

Happy 65th Birthday this Sunday, Marc.

'Ride a White Swan: The lives and death of Marc Bolan', published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now, available wherever books are sold.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012


I flew to Dar es Salaam via Nairobi, and hitched a boat to Zanzibar Town across a harbour rocking with dhows and simple fishing canoes. Everything about the place felt exotic. To someone like me, born in the dullest of backwaters, Freddie's continuous dismissal of Zanzibar had begun to seem puzzling. The thought of him camping it up in front of his dinner party guests with stories of Ali Baba and Sinbad, of wild Arabian princes and Eastern promise galore is irresistible. Why didn't he? There had to be a reason. An 'enchanted past' was so quintessentially Freddie.

Zanzibar, no more than a speck on the Atlas, lies just south of the Equator off Africa's east coast. Peer closer and it's actually two specks: the main island, Unguja, and the more remote Pemba, a destination popular today with European honeymooners. Together with neighbouring former German and subsequently British colony Tanganyika, they now form the United Republic of Tanzania. For a tiny territory, Zanzibar has suffered more corruption, disruption and massacre than perhaps it was due. Invaded down the centuries by Assyrians, Sumerians, Egytians, Phoenicians, Indians, Persians and Arabs, as well as Malays, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British, its history reads like 'One Thousand and One Nights'. Some, notably the Shirazi Persians from what is today Southern Iran, the Omani Arabs and much later the British, stayed on to settle and rule. The Swahili civilization here dates back to the earliest awakenings of Islam. When the clove tree was introduced in 1818, Zanzibar's spice industry was born. Ginger, nutmeg, vanilla, cloves and cardamom began to be exported around the world. Thanks to missionaries and explorers passing through its portals en route to the Dark Continent, tales of harems, palace intrigues and royal elopements all added to its romance. As a flourishing trade centre of ivory and human trafficking, it acquired an awful notoriety. Until abolition in 1897, some 50,000 Africans a year, drawn from as far away as the continent's central lakes, were dragged through its barbaric market to be flogged, in both senses, as slaves.

On Unguja's shores stand imposing Sultan's palaces, an ancient Arab fort with rusting cannons, colonial buildings and merchants' mansions, some in a state of lingering renovation, some delapidated beyond repair. Behind these lay labyrinths of bazaars and narrow streets crammed with dwellings. For the first 18 years of Freddie's life, a Stone Town flat overlooking the sea was home.
His mother Jer was little more than a child herself when she gave birth to him in Zanzibar's Government Hospital, on Thursday 5 September 1946 – which happened to be the Parsee New Year's Day. That the tiny 18 year-old's first-born was male was a blessing. When the news reached her husband at work, Bomi rejoiced. The family name would continue. At least, they assumed that it would, blissfully ignorant of lifestyle choices which lay distantly ahead. The couple mused together on what they might call their baby. As Parsees – adherents of the monotheistic Zoroastrian faith dating back to early 6th Century BC Persia - their options were limited. They settled on Farrokh, the name duly registered by Bomi according to legal decree at the Government Records office.

Bomi Bulsara was based at offices in the non-residential Beit-el Ajaib, the House of Wonders, built for ceremonial purposes by Sultan Sayyid Barghash in the late 19th Century. In its day, it had been the tallest building in East Africa, and boasted lush botanical gardens. It survived bombardment by a British fleet following a brief uprising, and later underwent extensive conversion to become Zanzibar's main museum. Bomi's job necessitated travel throughout the colony and into India, which may well have influenced his decision to send his only son far away to school. But there was also the question of how far the child's education could be taken domestically. While his parents continued to practise Zoroastrianism, Farrokh attended the Zanzibar Missionary School from the age of 5, where his teachers were Anglican nuns. Considered brighter than average, he displayed early aptitude for painting, drawing and modelling.

All my efforts to procure a copy of her cousin's birth certificate from official sources had ended inconclusively. Not even my audience with the chief registrar produced good news.

'So you are here for Freddie Mercury's birth certificate', he smiled.
'It's not here. It was here. An Argentinian woman came some years ago, to look for it. A copy was made out for her, and the original has not been seen since, although it has been asked for on numerous occasions - I presume by his fans. That was how we discovered that it had gone missing. By the time that we did, it was too late to do anything about it. The main problem is that, in 1946, 1947, proper records were not yet kept. Just pieces of paper, which now lie in a jumble all over the place. I will show you'.

Behind the counter in the main office, the registrar rummaged in filing cabinets and returned with handfuls of loose birth certificates. Perhaps a dozen of these spilled onto the floor, and were left there.
'There is one person, a physician by the name of Dr Mehta, who is currently in Oman but returning next week. I know he has a copy of Freddie's birth certificate.' Try as I might, however, I was never able to track Dr Mehta down.

My investigations into the family's roots did not meet with the approval of all concerned. Freddie's cousins there were unimpressed, while insisting that they were not at all interested in 'Freddie Mercouri'.
'He went away from Zanzibar when I was only a baby,' one said, her face flushing.
'He gave up his family name. He did not live like us. He was nothing at all to do with us. He never came back. He wasn't proud of Zanzibar. He was a stranger. He was of another life'.

She declined to elaborate. So there was more.

This attitude was in keeping with what I found elsewhere. Although several Zanzibaris now claim to live in dwellings once owned by the Bulsara family, none could offer tangible evidence, and no one, it seemed, really cared. As one Indian shop-keeper explained,

'I don't know anything – and neither does anyone else. Anybody who tells you they do is only guessing. Especially these guides who take you round the island and show you the sights. They just want money. There is no one left here who knows. So many people left suddenly at the same time, a long time ago. But if ever you find out, will you come back here and tell me, please? Because I am heartily sick of people always asking me. Nationality? Americans, of course. South Americans. English. German. Japanese. Local people don't understand. Who was this person anyway?'

Who was Zanzibar's most famous son? For Queen pilgrims, this island is the ultimate destination. Specialist tour operators run expensive fan-friendly holidays into the singer's birthplace, where a few restaurants with beautiful views and a couple of gift shops cash in on the connection. But Freddie was never in his lifetime accorded star status here. No Freedom of the City. No official archive entry. No acknowledgement, at the time of visiting, at the local museum. No former dwelling converted into personal shrine. No statue, waxwork, nor effigy, no mass-produced ashtray nor fridge magnet, not so much as a postcard bearing his likeness - although postcards of almost everything else. Perhaps not even thermometers here have mercury in them. If ever one had cause to seek the antithesis of Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis, this must be it.

The mystery of the missing birth certificate reared its head again when I got home. Out of the blue, Marcela Delorenzi, an Argentinian – that Argentinian - made contact. She was, she told me, on her way to London with a gift for me. What the Buenos Aires-based broadcaster and journalist brought me was a copy of Freddie's birth certificate. I hadn't asked for it. We'd never spoken. I hadn't tried to track her down, she asked for nothing in return. If there was guilt, this was not discussed. At the time that she obtained it, she insisted, the original handwritten document was still in place in the records office. She'd seen it. Perhaps, in the end, it changed hands for vast profit, and is tucked away in a private collection somewhere.

In 2006, the Association for Islamic Mobilisation and Propagation (UAMSHO), a Zanzibar Muslim group, protested vociferously against plans to celebrate Freddie's 60th birthday on the island. Claiming that he had violated Islam with his openly gay, flamboyant lifestyle until his untimely death in 1991 from Aids, the angry group called for a 'gay-tourist' beach party to be scrapped, and for thousands of fans heading for the celebration from every part of the world to be sent packing.
It hardly came as a surprise. When Zanzibar officially outlawed gay relations in 2004, the move attracted criticism from gay communities everywhere. But UAMSHO head Abdallah Said Ali insisted defiantly that the event would 'send out the wrong signals'.

'We do not want to give our young generation the idea that homosexuals are accepted in Zanzibar', he said.

'We have a religious obligation to protect morals in society, and anyone who corrupts Islamic morals should be stopped'.
Islamic morals notwithstanding, there had long been the faith of Freddie's own family to consider. He loved and respected his parents and sister with all his heart. He also knew too well that orthodox Zoroastrians support the suppression of homosexuality – perhaps the primary reason why Freddie tried for so long to suppress his own inclinations. 

Let's set this in context. Consensual homosexual activity between adults remains illegal in some 70 of the 195 countries of the world. In 40 of these, only male-male sex is outlawed. Sexual acts between 2 adult males became legal in England and Wales in 1967, but not until 1980 in Scotland, and 1982 in Northern Ireland. During the 1980s and 1990s, gay rights organisations lobbied for the age of consent for heterosexuals and homosexuals to be equalised. Today, the universal age of consent in England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland is 16.

Naked truth, better than the best-dressed lie. Freddie had apparently forsaken his African homeland for the most fundamental of reasons.

Perhaps what Freddie felt in his heart was 'hiraeth'. No single word translates its ancient Welsh meaning. What it evokes is melancholy, a deeply-rooted sadness for what is lost. Did Freddie, like most of us, secretly mourn his spent innocence, longing for chapters of his past he could no longer reach?

Sometimes we go back. We revisit. We console our adult selves with quiet remembrance. Freddie never could. He would always have to fill the void elsewhere. Some believe he made peace with his past in 'The Seven Seas Of Rhye' – the band's first hit, in 1974. A hard rock anthem on an otherwise progressive album, its lyrics were based on a fantasy realm created by young Freddie with his little sister Kashmira. Could it have been the mysteries of their Persian roots, and in particular the prophet Zarathustra's epic journey, which fuelled their flights of fancy and inspired their fairytales of Rhye? It seems likely, according to Radio 2 producer, music archivist and record collector Phil Swern.
It has always been my impression, from remarks he made in interviews over the years, that 'Seven Seas of Rhye' was about his life in Zanzibar', says Phil.
'It was where he escaped to – in his mind, at least. He always had that, when reality got too much’.
In one radio interview, Freddie described the song's subject as 'a figment of my imagination'.
'My lyrics and songs are mainly fantasies', he said.
'I make them up. They are not down to earth, they're kind of airy-fairy really. I'm not one of those writers who walks out onto the street and is suddenly inspired by a vision, and I'm not one of those people who wants to go on safari to get inspiration from wild animals around me, or go up onto mountain tops or things like that. No, I can get inspiration just sitting in the bath'.

As the final bars of 'The Seven Seas Of Rhye' fade, an old English bucket-and-spade ditty crooned by a raucous saloon bar crowd echoes fleetingly: 'Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside'. Further allusion to Freddie's once carefree beach life, to the palm-fringed, pristine coral reefs of youth?

We can't know. What we know is that there could never have been a welcome in the hillside for the man who fractured the code of his family's faith. Rightly or wrongly, the way it was.



Friday, 13 July 2012


'When Bob first came into my office to discuss it, I thought he was joking', remembers promoter Harvey Goldsmith.
'In 1985 there weren't fax machines, let alone computers, mobile phones or anything else.  We were working on telex and landlines.  I remember sitting in my office with a big satellite map and a pair of old callipers, trying to map out where the satellite was going to be at certain times. 
'Once the BBC had committed, we used that as leverage to persuade broadcasters all over the world to do it... the first time that had ever happened.  It was my job to pick up the pieces and make it work.'

Said Francis Rossi of Status Quo, 'this was the dickheads in rock'n'roll, just getting on with it.'

It was an understatement. Not even those involved were prepared for how things would pan out on the day.

No one was ready ... except Queen,' recalls Pete Smith, the show's worldwide event coordinator, and author of 'Live Aid.'
'I saw the set on the monitors backstage. Queen tore up the rule book and rewrote it in twenty minutes flat.  The effect was palpable.  Live Aid was now cooking on gas.'

At their best both musically and technically - there was no more professional rock band in existence at that point (and probably still isn't) - Queen's reputation on the world stage was confoundedly on the wane.  Their popularity had slipped due to a plethora of miscalculations, mishaps, and a general, sweeping change in musical tastes.  Queen were beginning to feel that they'd had their day.  A permanent split was on the cards.  They'd discussed it.  Thanks to Live Aid, all this was about to change.

Backstage, as the band awaited their turn,
'Freddie sat holding court, in that perfectly camp but quite humble way of his', remembers publicist Bernard Doherty.
'He knew the power he had over people, but it didn't go to his head.  If he'd been sitting outside a beach hut in Southend-on-Sea, he'd have taken people's breath away.  He was a true star, with that indefinable quality. 
'And they went out there and won.  What else do we remember about Live Aid?  The sound going down on The Who.  Bono getting in the zone, losing the plot, breaking the rules of performance. Simon le Bon, with the bum note of all time.  The critics drooling over Bowie.  Phil Collins playing both Wembley and JFK, courtesy of Concorde. As for Queen, they did exactly what Bob had asked them to.  I watched from the wings and I was blown away.'

Some of us did.  All of us were.  It was Queen who stole the show.  They drew from every influence, every which way.  So many other supreme performers sprang back into my mind at that point:  Alex Harvey, the great glam rocker of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.  Ian Dury and The Blockheads.  Mick Jagger.  Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders.  What Freddie displayed better than on perhaps any other occasion was instinctive star quality, as well as a phenomenal grasp of what makes a must-watch show.  He conjured all the genius of Vaudeville.  The ultimate peacock, Freddie seduced us all.

'Who came on before of after Queen?' Doherty points out.
'Hardly anyone remembers.  What do I remember?  That Freddie Mercury was the greatest performer on the day.  Perhaps the greatest performer ever.'

The other members of Queen were the first to praise their own frontman.
'The rest of us played ok, but Freddie was out there and took it to another level,' said Brian May, with typical modesty.
'It wasn't just Queen fans.  He connected with everyone.
'Live Aid WAS Freddie.  He was unique.  You could almost see our music flowing through him.  You couldn't ignore him.  He was original.  Special.  It wasn't just our fans we were playing to, it was everyone's fans.  Freddie really gave it his all,'

Of all Queen's 704 live performances fronted by Freddie Mercury, it remains their most iconic, their finest hour.  Live Aid gave the band the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that, stripped of props and trappings, of their own lighting rig and sound equipment, of fog and smoke and other special effects, without even the natural magic of dusk and with fewer than 20 minutes in which to prove themselves, they were unchallenged sovereigns who still had what it took to rock the world. 

Bravo Adam Lambert: your efforts in London this week have been flawless.  You've gone the distance, and some. It takes courage to front a band as brilliant as Queen when you know that even your best gut-busting effort can never be as good.

To the tearful clown who had the last laugh, then ... and to Brian May and Roger Taylor, keeping on to the end of the road. They'll die with their boots on, those two.  They will do so in Freddie's memory.  Good on them.

Freddie Mercury:  The Definitive Biography  (C) 2012
Hodder & Stoughton UK, and available from this week through Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster across the USA, wherever books are sold.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012


May 23rd 1988. As a merciless sun blazed down on Rome’s Spanish Steps, I took a stroll towards the Trevi Fountain to find an ice cream, toss a couple of coins in, and gather my thoughts ahead of Michael Jackson’s gig that night. As usual, with him, it was a lot to take in: the sensational ‘BAD’ tour, which had enthralled the Japanese in Yokahama the previous September, mind-boggled Australia and thundered halfway across America, was set to raise the sky above Rome’s Flaminio Stadium, the first of two remarkable shows. They were billing it as the greatest rock spectacle the Eternal City had ever seen, on a tour which would, by the time it ended back in Los Angeles the following January, have notched up 123 concerts, played to 4.4 million people and grossed over £76 million – more than any other entertainer on a single tour. In the UK alone, Jackson was to shatter a world record that July, with 504,000 fans attending 7 sold-out Wembley Stadium shows - more than any other artist in history.

Michael Jackson was the biggest artist on the planet. No surprise, then, that the world’s media had descended on Rome for the European kick-off. The city was packed, my walk frustratingly slow. Hot, anxious, and running out of time, I was unprepared for what I found down by the fountain: a familiar face peeping out through the falsely cascading curls of a nylon wig, fake moustache and the raised collar of a raincoat, shoulders hunched and turned against the milling throng. He was dropping dimes into the gush, and mumbling something about the Coliseum.

‘What are you doing here?’ I asked Michael,
‘Aren’t you supposed to be over at the stadium now?’
‘Not for a few more hours’, he murmured.
‘How did you get here?’
‘Walked. Ran out of the hotel, then I walked.’
‘On your own?’
‘I did. I did it. For once in my life. I wanted to find the Vatican and see the Pope and I wanted to see the lions at the Coliseum. I have been everywhere. I’ve seen nowhere. I just wanted to see something for myself, on my own, just one time.’
‘Security will be going nuts,’ I told him.
‘Didn’t even see me. But I’m lost now. Do you know where this is?’
‘All roads lead to Rome’, I winked..
‘What's that mean?’
‘Maybe it means you’re where you need to be right now’.

A stupid, meaningless comment which makes me cringe whenever I think of it - though it did make him laugh. We lingered for 20 minutes or so, shooting the breeze or would have, had there been one. I bought him an ice cream at a nearby gelato parlour (wild Sardinian strawberry honey flavour, in a tub). I actually bought Michael Jackson an ice cream. How freaky that sounds now. We mugged for a few photos at the fountain, taken by Daily Express reporter Roger Tavener, before hailing a cab and dropping Michael back at the luxurious Lord Byron Hotel near the Villa Borghese. Tavener's Canon Sureshot sat forgotten in the back of the cab.  He never got it back.

Our encounter in Rome wasn’t the first time I’d met Michael. Having long been a vague friend of his pop wannabe sister and Playboy centrefold La Toya, whom I’d originally met in Atlantic City and with whom I’d briefly shared a midtown Manhattan apartment, I was one of the few journalists who could vouch for the fact that Michael and La Toya were not the same person (that rumour had been doing the rounds for years). I has also got to know Jermaine, their libidinous brother, and cute sister Janet, then forging her own pop career. Globally famous since the late Sixties, when he had been the classic child star and darling of his family’s group The Jackson Five, Michael had not yet adopted the reclusive stance which defined him at the very height of his fame, and which served to offset fascination with the less comfortable aspects of his personality.

In those days, Michael would talk openly about his bleak, largely fun-starved childhood. Born in Gary, Indiana, into a humble working class family, he identified his primary role models as his Jehovah’s Witness mother Katherine and hisstrange steel worker father, Joe. The seventh of nine children – five brothers, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and Randy, and three sisters, Maureen (‘Rebbie’), La Toya and Janet – Michael admitted he’d been forced against his will to perform in the group which their frustrated musician father was determined would make the family’s fortune. Thus, Michael was singing and dancing for money before he’d even started school. He never got off that treadmill. What chance of a normal life did he ever have?

‘There were sad moments in my childhood’, he admitted.

‘It’s true for any child star. Elizabeth Taylor told me she felt the same way. When you’re young and you’re working, the world can seem awfully unfair. There were times when I hated my father. Times when I wanted him to die, when he beat me like a dog.’

But he always spoke fondly of his ‘adorable’ mother, recalling a meek materfamilias who deferred almost incessantly to her strict brute of a husband, even turning a blind eye to his relentless beltings and beatings of her much-cherished kids.

Softly-spoken like his polio victim mother, whom I met only once, Michael smiled a lot, talked less. He liked to listen, and would soak up information and general knowledge like a sponge. He wasn’t stupid, but lamentably under-educated. It was always obvious from the level of conversation, both with Michael and his siblings, that formal learning had never been a priority. Their collective intellect had barely moved beyond first grade. What Michael had, however, was a gut instinct when it came to music, both the writing and the expression of it, which came so naturally to him that he seemed to take it for granted. He would joke about his impressions of Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Ray Charles, whom he had started impersonating at the age of 5. His talent was natural. When the original Jackson Brothers first stepped out on the mid-east American black club circuit during the late 1960s, they often found themselves the support act for strippers and other explicit entertainers. It proved a rude awakening for Michael, one which he never forgot. Having been exposed at point-blank range to adult sexuality at such a tragically young age, without anyone ever explaining it to him, sex became his obsession. It was also, he told me, the one dimension of normal adult relationships that he most feared.

Those who would later describe the King of Pop as ‘undeniably sexy but absolutely safe’ missed the point. How the public ever fell for his mono-gloved brand of sexless sensuality, even while he polished his crotch in public, is a mystery. With so many of his song lyrics and breathtaking dance routines revealing a fully mature male, how could he possibly be oblivious to it himself? And what drove him to insist that it was all an act?

Few of us who were there in the Eighties will ever forget Frank DiLeo: the redoubtable, rotund, Pennsylvania-born record industry executive and sometime movie actor with a mobster’s deflectional gaze. Ten years Michael’s senior, the star turned to Frank for personal management in 1984, following the terrifying success of ‘Thriller’, the biggest-selling album of all time - the impact of which had all but drowned its creator. DiLeo’s apparent genius was in interpreting the value of the things that Michael wasn’t, as well as maximising interest in what he was. Capitalising on contradictions had long been artful DiLeo’s game. Thus, Michael’s inherent shyness was hyped to Howard Hughes levels of reclusion. His light, breathy speaking voice was deployed as proof of boyish innocence. His plaintive, cracked ballad vocals betrayed an irrevocably broken heart. But who broke it? - and so on. Nor did DiLeo ever deny rumours of Michael’s extensive cosmetic surgery, despite MJ's eventual insistence that he’d only ever had two nose jobs. The fact that we could all see otherwise, simply by looking at him, was irrelevant. By preventing the media from getting anywhere near him, by dismissing all requests for personal interviews and never allowing him to be photographed – in the Eighties, Michael spent most of his time in the open air with a blanket over his head (which affected him so profoundly that he chose ‘Blanket’ as the nickname for his own third child) – DiLeo created a Wizard-of-Oz-like aura of mystery around his charge which, as in the fairy tale, was out of all proportion to reality.

It was odd to sit there listening to DiLeo giving Michael’s press conference in Rome in 1988 – when I knew, having spent a day with him earlier that year at Barry White’s barbecue at the latter’s home near Santa Ynez, that Michael could have given it himself, perfectly well.  He should have been allowed to. The comprehensive gagging of Michael by DiLeo was a move which privately outraged La Toya and Jermaine. They were beginning to feel, despite having hired DiLeo to manage the family’s acclaimed Victory Tour, that the manager was selling their brother short. Worse, that he was turning him into a laughing stock. It certainly seemed that way when, contrary to Michael’s protests that his skin was lightening due to treatment for the skin pigmentation deficiency Vitiligo, DiLeo suggested to the world that he was actually having it bleached. That it contradicted the line in Michael’s celebrated hit that it doesn’t really matter if you’re black or white, appeared to escape him. Then there was Bubbles, the pet chimpanzee, who accompanied Michael on every leg of the tour and shared his hotel room; rumours that he slept in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, to preserve his vocal chords; his landmark endorsement deal for Pepsi, during the filming of a commercial for which a pyrotechnic display set his hair alight, leading to tales of new hair-weave treatments hitherto unheard-of on planet Earth.

Meanwhile, back in Encino, California, in the grounds of the mock-Tudor mansion he had purchased, Peter Pan began building his personal Disneyland. Neverland was at once a fortress and an amusement park complete with a zoo, movie theatre, animated model museum, ice cream parlour and toy store – filled with models of the ‘friends’ he wasn’t allowed to cultivate as a child, and with whom he had never-ending fantasy conversations. It was weird. When I visited Neverland, I was upset by it. The grounds were filled with topiary cut in animal shapes; snakes slithered around the house; and Michael had such a collection of hard-core pornography, it had to be seen to be believed. Here was the guy who'd won 8 Grammy awards for Thriller: the consummate professional living the lifestyle of an obsessive. Of the actual human beings he deigned to hang with, every one seemed damaged, compromised or challenged in some way - just like him. Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Diana Ross, Marlon Brando – all significantly older than Michael himself. Perhaps only Paul McCartney, whom he’d met through music industry executive Judd Lander, with whom he later recorded and whose Beatles publishing rights Michael purchased in 1985, was a genuinely sane and balanced friend. The one friendship he could have done with was not to last.

When he wasn’t duncing around with eccentric pals, Michael was filling his Neverland ranch with hoards of innocent children. Many of them were cancer victims, some were terminally ill, others deprived and poverty-stricken. It was, he insisted, about giving them a chance at the childhood he’d never had himself. That Michael’s heart was loving was never in doubt. Having watched him inter-act with my then five year-old daughter Mia, whom he invited with a little gang of others to sing with him on stage during his Wembley Stadium concert in July 1992 – he had a dressing room on the stage itself, his legendary hat dangling from the bulb-popping mirror - there was no doubt that he identified better with children than adults; that he was clinging to the childhood he never had. It was the reason he was desperate to have children of his own, despite the fact that he was incapable of maintaining relationships with their mothers. After his childless 1994 marriage to Elvis’s daughter Lisa Marie Presley ended in divorce after only two years, he had 2 children - Prince Michael I and Paris Katherine - in his brief, chilly marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe. A third child, Prince Michael II - who made headlines when his father dangled him as a baby over a hotel balcony – was born to an un-named woman.

Where it went wrong for him, I reckon, is that the edges became blurred. It was only a matter of time before his fantasy dream world imploded. Michael would learn to his everlasting cost that some children are more innocent than others – often in direct proportion to the influence of their parents. No smoke without fire, huh? No clean-break comeback from accusations of the corruption of minors, however deluded those accusations may have been. His 2005 trial was one of the largest and most documented legal battles in history. The debate rages to this day as to whether, despite conclusive verdicts, Michael was actually guilty of child abuse. His consistent argument – that innocent kids were the only people who made him feel secure – would turn Neverland into Dangerland, a sinister territory where adult desires and urges invaded the innocent realm of childhood.

As for the money: a millionaire from the age of 14, and having banked fortunes in the ensuing years, big-spender shopping addict Michael became monstrously broke. On the brink of bankruptcy, and owing millions in tax as well as to a variety of individuals for defaulting on deals - including one with Prince Abdullah of Bahrain for two unmade albums for which he allegedly advanced the singer £3.3 million - he was forced to flog Neverland and agree to his hugely ambitious 50-date O2 comeback. With mastermind DiLeo long-gone, the debts had continued to rise. As his half-century loomed, he stepped out from behind his Oz-style smokescreen, looked in on 21st Century reality, and vowed to reinvent himself as an adult in charge of his destiny for the sake of his kids. The trouble was, he wasn’t strong enough for a mad bad world. He wouldn’t even allow his children to go to school; couldn't bring himself to let them experience the normal childhood he never had. His loyal family rallied, ranting endlessly about the O2 commitment, warning that Michael, who by this time was dangerously addicted to painkillers after allegedly having broken a vertebra, was far too frail to do such a mammoth run of shows. Their warnings went unheeded. Cocky promoters AEG, who were under-insured, got to pay the price.

A few of us had been saying for months that the 02 concerts would never go ahead.

I believe Michael knew that, too. He probably had an inkling that his days were numbered, that his fragile heart would never sustain the pace. Was his announcement of the comeback, the frantic scramble for tickets, the tidal-wave revival in global Jackomania, his way of checking out - not with a whimper, which would have been an pitiful let-down, but with the loudest, baddest, Jacko-worthy bang - ? We’ll never know. What we get to keep, let’s not forget, is the music.

Michael and I shared a few cherished personal friends. One of the best, Jonathan Morrish, who orchestrated Michael’s publicity for years at CBS Records,who was later a senior executive at Sony Music, and who truly loved Michael, said this:

‘Michael leaves behind one of the greatest musical legacies of all time. He didn’t just change music, he changed the whole music industry. I still miss him as a friend and also share in the world’s sense of loss of an extraordinary entertainer. People always ask me what he was like – to which I say that he was kind and sensitive, humorous and exciting. He was a great guy. Listen to his music … and you will discover what he was like. You don’t make music as great without knowing a thing or two about the human soul. It is music that will reach out to generations down the ages. My heart goes out to his family, and always will.’

Mine too.

Saturday, 19 May 2012


I always wonder what they'll choose. 

I had an inkling yesterday, given that  the funeral was family, and Welsh, and that those burying their mother and grandmother are fervent music lovers.  I was surprised to learn yesterday that my Great Aunt Coral had not in fact been born in Wales, but in London, in 1928, her parents moving to the homeland weeks after her birth. Coral was deeply Welsh, married a Jones - my Great Uncle Ivor, like my grandfather Emlyn a professional footballer - and adored Welsh music with all her heart. 

Bryn Terfel came as no surprise, then  (he was born a Jones, too).  His rich bass baritone filled the Yardley crematorium chapel with 'Calon Lan' - the rousing Welsh hymn known to fans of Rugby Union, and of this season's Britain's Got Talent, being one of the songs sung by the  great choir from the valleys, Only Boys Aloud.  Then 'Abide With Me', which I think I'd expected. As that massive coal-fuelled voice echoed as if straight out of the pits with death and hope and longing, I found myself thinking how Coral would have loved to have him there, belting it live. 

We sang Psalm 23, creaking voices straining for the high notes; we left the chapel to Johnny Mathis singing 'What'll I Do'.  That old Irving Berlin standard always evokes memories of 'The Great Gatsby' for me. It also rings with so many indelible, perfect voices - Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Pat Boone, Elkie Brooks, Judy Garland, Cleo Laine, Sarah Vaughan, Perry Como, Crystal Gayle, Harry Nilsson - they could have chosen any one of them.  If it is the Mathis recording which haunts, it must have been what Coral would have wanted.  It was wonderful.

This is what it's all about, isn't it?  Music to remember them by.  The choices people make speak volumes, or are supposed to.  The millions who get played out to 'My Way', usually by Sinatra and, get this, the most popular funeral-song choice, wish to leave us with the memory that life was always on their terms, that they called the shots, that they have few if any regrets. Life mostly isn't like this, don't we know. We look around the chapel, thinking about where we are in our own lives, all the nightmares going on and whether we will get back in time to pick up the kids and who'll let the dog out, and we scrap in our bags and pockets for bits of snotty tissue and wonder which of us will go next. The song is so loaded with poignancy, we can hardly bear to sit still and actually listen to it. Why do so many choose it, then?  Because a funeral is the one time when we must hear. Because, whatever they choose, they are playing our song.

It got me thinking about other songs I have heard at funerals down the years.  Some of them feature on the Top Ten lists of the most popular - Bette Midler's 'Wind Beneath My Wings', Celine's 'My Heart Will Go On' and even Gerry's 'You'll Never Walk Alone', for example. Then there are those who seek solace in the elegance and dignity of soaring classical works: Elgar's Nimrod, Puccini's 'Nessum Dorma' and 'Pie Jesu' from Faure's Requiem being favourites. As for hymns, I wish I had a quid for the number of times I've had to warble 'The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended', 'Morning Has Broken' and 'the Old Rugged Cross'. There are hundreds of hymns in the Oxford University Press 'Songs Of Praise' (my old school hymn book);  countless thousands of popular songs and classical pieces we could have. The fact that we resort to the familiar, the predictable, the all-too-expected in times of grief says much. We won't hear our loved-one's voice again.  We can listen to their music, though. 

There won't be any 'My Way' for me... even though I've lived a life that's been far too full, travelled a lot of scabby highways and have bitten off so much more than I could chew. But it's not the song I'd have my loved ones remember me by. They know what is. My lifelong friend Steve Harley has promised to sing it at my funeral, if I turn out to be the one of us who gets there first.  Every time I see him, he asks me if I've got a date.     

Monday, 7 May 2012


It's not all about pitch, posture, pacing, control, breathing, delivery.  It doesn't matter if it misses the odd high C.  It's certainly not about reproducing faithfully a vocal style that someone else has invented.  All you have to do is be unique.  They must know you instantly, from the precious first few bars.  The voice must sound like no one else but you. 

It takes guts to stand up in front of a hoard of strangers, open your lungs and sing. It is  perhaps one of the hardest things to do.  Shows such as the X factor and Britain's Got Talent have deluded the masses into thinking that anyone can do it; that musical stardom is everyone's oyster, ours for the taking. It's not. I have always admired those who give it a go, because I cannot do it.  Never could.  I did my share of warbling in the back row in my school choir, and once made it as far as the stage of the Fairfield Halls.  I even put myself through an all-female barber-shop convention in Miami, once - not for a dare, for a magazine feature - and did a bit of backing-vocalling when I was living in LA. Not that I was desperate to 'get good' at it.  I knew I never would.  I just wanted to know what it felt like from the other side of the lights. I still break out in a cold sweat at the thought. 

There is a lot of talk these days about the '10,000 hours':  the time it takes to become any good at something we love.  This arose out of ground-breaking work done by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at the Florida State University.  Bob Lefsetz often refers to it in his challenging music business letter (  You've got to put the hours in before you even start trying to get a deal, is the gist.  While I don't disagree with the premise, I have issues with its implication, having pondered it.

10,000 hours equals 417 days.  It doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot. There are only 168 hours in a week (and we spend, on average, around 50 of those just sleeping). If we devote, say, 40 hours a week to trying to get good at something, that's a little over 2,000 hours per year.  At that rate, it's going to take 5 years to become a master of your craft. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?  You gotta practise.

Anyone can spend the time.  What makes the difference is the talent.  It's not practise that makes perfect, either.  It's perfect practise that makes perfect.  Think about it. Get a guitar for Christmas or your birthday, hone a few tunes, give it a shot with the best of them, they're no better than you, is the 21st century message.  It's not true.  Most can't.  Most are better off fantasising, singing 'Stand By Your Man' or 'The Power of Love' into a hairbrush in the bedroom after a hard day's wine. Or equivalent.

Not all, but many of our greatest modern musicians had the benefit of a classical training.  That's not easy, for a start. But the likes of Rick Wakeman and Elton John stuck at it until their bitten fingertips festered. They got their Grade VIII, wept through weeks and months of Music Theory, spent more time at their keyboards than they did at life.  It makes them eccentric, sure.  But rock stars are nothing if not extreme creatives.  They do wondrous things with their minds, hands and voices that we commoners will never comprehend. Not all of them went this route - Paul McCartney for one. No one is arguing with the talent there. There is no recipe ... and if there were, it wouldn't necessarily be the answer.  Anyone can buy the latest celebrity chef cookbook, assemble the ingredients and follow the instructions to the letter.  Doesn't mean our doughnuts will turn out like Fanny's.

So what's the point in trying, my youngest two children ask. One has been learning the guitar for years, the other is studying piano. Both have singing lessons.  They attend extremely academic schools, so these are extra-curriculars. Day after day I find myself nagging them to practise. It's not quite a kicking and screaming scenario, but it's not far off.  My kids are never going to make it big in the music business, because they can't be arsed.  But what all these lessons have given them is a respect for real musicians, an appreciation of how difficult it is to do it, and a sense of awe whenever they see and hear it done live. They know first-hand how hard it is. 

Last Friday night, I joined my friend Sharon Dean, the magical Judie Tzuke, her talented daughters Bailey and Tallulah and a small throng of others at a Crystal Palace showcase for Sharon's protege, new artist Goran Kay. The evening was opened by Jamie Wisker - a young guy I'd stood talking to at the back when I first arrived.  He had a face like a satellite dish, it was all going on.  He had come all the way from somewhere near Watford, and he'd brought his guitar. We chewed some cud before he nipped out to the back stairs for a final fag. Then he got up and sang.

Jamie blew me away.  Not because the songs he delivered were unlike anything I'd heard before - but because of his voice. This was Elvis curdled with Orbison in the burnt-out years, a swallowed gargle gagging with pain and despair.  He can't be more than 25, I thought, where's all this coming from?  Then, between songs, he offered snips of the facts of his life ... how his wife had left him for a bit, then came back;  how he'd been taunted for living in a council house;  what his little daughter means to him. The guy had lived a whole lifetime in a few short adult years.  He had found a way to process his emotion, and was channelling it. He was proud of himself. He was dignified. No expensive music lessons for Jamie, this was all his own work. The room stood still.

Not forgetting that it was Goran's night. The chalk, then the cheese.

Goran is one of those guys who sweats charisma. He and his little brother (who accompanies him admirably on piano) moved to England from Switzerland when his parents came to work in the UK.  Classically trained on piano since the age of 7, he has soaked up everything from Chopin to Carole King, from Jacques Brel to Ella Fitzgerald. He speaks 6 languages fluently, and started writing songs when he was 13.  His first break came when he was asked to co-write for G4's second album. He is writing with Judie Tzuke too. There is something utterly inevitable about his voice.

The sound wasn't great in that little rehearsal studio on Friday. It didn't matter.  It reminded me of something George Martin once said, another lifetime ago, when we all worked in the Chrysalis Records building in Stratford Place.  'I'm no one, the Fifth Beatle insisted, when asked about the importance of the producer in the scheme of things.  'The song itself has got to be good enough to throttle you in its most basic form.  All the producer does is style it and shape it, and add the frills.  I don't write the songs, and I couldn't write the songs.  My job is simply to make the best of other people's'. 

Classic George, heart-ripping understatement.  But we know what he means. 

Not forgetting the voice. 

Jamie and Goran?  By George, they've got it.  It's always such a thing to witness, when you think you've heard it all. - Judie's incredible new album 'One Tree Less' is out now.