Thursday, 19 April 2012

IT WAS TWENTY YEARS AGO TODAY ...


On 20 April 1992, Queen were finally ready to give Freddie his rock 'n' roll send-off - with a concert which would subsequently be voted the greatest live rock event of the 1990s. Brian May, who described Freddie's death as 'like losing a brother', stressed that the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium on Easter Monday that year 'is not Queen', although most of those who took part would perform Queen songs. On the day of the concert's announcement, 72,000 tickets sold out within 2 hours, even though no line-up had yet been agreed. The event would be broadcast on radio and TV to 76 countries and filmed for a documentary by David Mallet.


The dazzling show kicked off with live footage of Freddie doing vocal scales. Annie Lennox and David Bowie sang 'Under Pressure', Roger Daltrey 'I Want It All'. Extreme did 'Hammer To Fall', George Michael and Lisa Stansfield duetted on 'These Are the Days Of Our Lives', and Elton John tackled 'Bohemian Rhapsody' with Axl Rose. Seal chose 'Who Wants To Live Forever'. Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter, of Mott the Hoople veered from the rules, to offer a moving tribute with Bowie's 'All the Young Dudes'. So did Robert Plant, with the Led Zeppelin number 'Thank You' – although he also sang 'Innuendo' and 'Crazy Little Thing Called Love'. But it was Liza Minnelli who blew them all off the stage, brilliantly, with 'Who Wants To Live Forever'. The concert marked John Deacon's penultimate live performance as part of Queen.


Yet where were Dave Clark, Tony Hadley, Elaine Paige? Where was the 'out' gay element - Boy George, Holly Johnson, Jimmy Somerville, Leee John - to celebrate that aspect of Freddie's lifestyle? Where were Pavarotti, Carreras, Domingo, to deliver the classical arias Freddie adored? Above all, where was Montserrat? Not even the late Hollywood legend and AIDS campaigner Dame Elizabeth Taylor, in her tearful address, could compensate for the absence of La Stupenda.

George Michael, who stole the show with 'Somebody To Love', echoing the band's Live Aid triumph 7 years earlier, revealed that he was 'living out a childhood fantasy'.

'When I think of Freddie, I think of everything he gave me in terms of craft', George said.

'Just to sing those songs, especially 'Somebody To Love', was really an outrageous feeling. It was probably the proudest moment of my career'.

'George Michael at the tribute concert was amazing', enthused Peter Paterno.

'It did cross my mind, and I'm sure a lot of other people's minds, that they really should consider having him take Freddie's place. In the end though, I guess, no one ever could'.

Spike Edney, who contributed keyboards with Mike Moran, was saddened by the post-concert fall-out.

'It may not be fair to say that none of those great artists could sing any of the songs as well as Freddie', he reasons.

'But I know a lot of them felt as if they were there in his shadow. Of course, he would have loved that. It would have tickled him to see them all suffer. As well as appreciating it for what it was – a great tribute – he would have relished the agonies they all had to go through, not managing to match his keys!'

The experience was summed up, relates Spike, by the scene at the after-show party at Brown's nightclub.

'Upstairs, I saw Roger propped up against the wall, just staring into space. Then I spotted Brian a couple of feet away, doing the same thing. I went over to them. 'How do you feel?' I said. 'Can't feel anything', one of them replied. Nobody could remember anything about it. You just couldn't take it all in. Once it was over, it was 'God – what have we done for the past month? And what do we do now?'

Freddie Mercury:  The Definitive Biography
Hodder & Stoughton (c) 2012

Mercury:  Touchstone/Simon & Schuster USA (c) 2012


Tuesday, 17 April 2012

ORIGINAL ROCK CHICKS LOVE THE DUNWELLS & DAYTONA LIGHTS TOO




We were born in the 1950s, '60s, '70s. Some of us danced in the aisles of the New York Paramount, kissed the Spiders goodbye at the Odeon in 1973. Some of us were once in the music business ourselves: as managers, writers, producers, promoters, PRs. Some of us even play. Some of us know an Alembic Explorer from a Hamer 8-string, or were once backing singers, or dancers, or would have been groupies, had we had the stomach for it. Most of us just dreamed about that one (don't believe everything you hear or read). We have grown up with rock and pop, civil rights, equal rights. We are Ms Know-It-Alls. We are 30-something to 60-something, young at heart, single, married, divorced, widowed, with or without kids. There are all kinds of us, many different combinations and permutations. The media just see us as 'middle-aged women'. They want to wrap us in printed headscarves and stretchy-waist M&S jeans, and teach us to know better.

Offer me an elasticated waistband and I might break your neck. I don't do daytime TV (come on). I'm no way ready for honey-blonde bob nor a Volvo. The only kind of round-the-world cruise I'd consider is called 'Tom'. My eventual geriatric fantasy is a groovy kind of love in a rock and roll nursing home, with album-cover artwork and personal jukeboxes in every psychedelic suite.

I suppose, yes, you could call me an ageing rock chick. Well so what. Is there a problem with me playing Hendrix on vinyl til the walls thrum when I'm home alone?

I still dance around the living room to Mott and Marc, to Ziggy and Freddie, if you want to know. I'm still acquainted with someone who slept with Mick Jagger. Actually, a couple of people - though these days they no longer brag about it. I still lust after Jon Bon (keep it clean), watch bands play live whenever I can. Yes, I still have long hair. The eyes are still smudged, the denim still as tight as I get, some nights. Anyone have a problem with this?  Of course not.

Someone called me a 'yummy-mummy' the other day, which is what started it. Just because I go to gigs and listen to a lot of music? Get over it. Who's to say that women like me are 'too old'? The media has us all wrong – especially those newspapers forever trying to flog us 'rejuvenation techniques' and cosmetic surgery. It is not the answer, I don't want to look younger. Changing the outside does not reflect the inside (eh, Madge). Besides, it is missing the point … which is, that we earn the right to be old. Age is a privilege, I never mind the numbers. I was young too, once, believe it or not. I thought I knew everything.  But my values were all wrong, all the stuff I chased turned out to be pointless. I'm getting closer to what counts, at least I hope I am. This age is so much better. It's a start.

A certain female columnist banged on ad nauseam in a Sunday newspaper last weekend about her many regrets. She'd had a few, too. Among them, her face lift, her boob job, her disastrous track record with men (don't go there … or here). It's not true, she moaned (in too many words) that when we reach the end of our lives, we regret only the things we didn't do – not all the things we did. I can't go for that. No can do.  Another middle-aged female newspaper columnist who isn't speaking to us. It's nothing new.

Which brings me back, in a round-about way, to why I adore musicians. Put simply, it is because they speak to us in a universal and living language which is prejudice-free and never dull. Whatever your musical tastes, however you interpret the sounds you choose to give shape to the ins and outs and ups and downs of existence, this point remains true. Do you imagine that honest troubadours care how old their followers are? All they care is that we listen.

I'll say it again: The Dunwells and Daytona Lights are my favourite bands of the moment. Grab a copy each of 'Blind Sighted Faith' and 'This Modern Landscape'. Toss caution to the wind, kick off your mouldering Uggs, rejoice in timeless, ageless exuberance. This music is for everyone. Especially original rock chicks.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

HOW TO MAKE IT IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS


As Bob Lefsetz says, you have to put in your 'ten thousand hours'.

Take me:  I have been writing professionally forever.  Only now, after decades of slog, am I getting the breakthrough - but I still have to sweat blood for it. Writing is a hard and lonely graft, best-suited to those with the right creative muscles for it.  Do I have those muscles?  How would I know?

 Music is not dissimilar.

You want to be a musician, you are going to have to slog for it, and carry on slogging, and then slog more, because the market is saturated.  Nothing will happen by magic, and unless you can finance your music yourself, you need a job, and a B-Plan. What they refer to as 'the old-fashioned way' - getting a label deal - is as rare as hens' teeth these days. There's not the money. The internet, and the way we consume music nowadays, have changed things for all time.

I had dinner with some friends in a band recently who are busting a gut to get a recording deal.  What was clear from the conversation that night was that they look upon America as the answer to all their prayers. Los Angeles especially: which so many seem to regard as a fantasy land thick with trees dripping with dosh and opportunity. I lived out there for six years, having previously lived and worked in New York.  Gotham was a doddle compared to LA, I found out the hard way - where the pressing of orange juice is religion, where even the cop who stops you for speeding wants to give you a cassette (nowadays CD) of his new song, or drop you a copy of his screenplay.  Everyone in that town is at it. You go to celebrity events and the all-pervading smell is of anaesthetic. Not a dry eye in the house? Those suckers have had so much surgery, they have no tear ducts left with which to cry. It is harder to make it in Los Angeles than in any town on earth. It is not a happy place.  There is a lot of desperation, and much drug-taking and prostitution.  The former because it helps the anxious to defer reality. The latter because, for many of the thousands upon thousands who flock to LA to 'become stars', it's the only way they can make a living.  That's tragic, but everyone has to eat and have a place to sleep. Don't be fooled into thinking that LA is the answer.  We all felt that way when we were young. Just like being in the movies, but in real life? It so isn't.

The music industry is not what it was.  It has changed irrevocably. Get over it. There are so few careers for life.  The business does not turn out Barbra Streisand or The Beatles anymore.  There are more 'used-to-bes' than wannabes in the game today.  One Direction may be flavour of the month in the US right now - but it won't last.  Neither will GaGa - whose very name is derivative, and not her own.  There are exceptions to every rule, which is why Adele.

Please forget about the get-rich-quick angle. I've helped to look after and try to break three bands over the years. All of them were brilliant - I wasn't the only one who thought so.  The most recent band that I helped, Right Turn Left, I happened upon at Exeter University one weekend when I was visiting my undergraduate daughter. (Yes, she graduated - has a great degree, and a good job, but things are still a slog). RTL were high-profile on the circuit, and got close, but never actually landed a deal. In the end, they broke up when Bob Matthews, their fabulous bassist, and his girlfriend, Catherine Pockson, formed a break-out duo, Alpines. They got a deal with Polydor, and are unusual and highly-creative - have a look at them on youtube - but how long will it last? Another band I was close to, Official Secrets Act, featuring Laurence Diamond, the son of my great friend Jim (who had smash-hits with 'I Should Have Known Better', 'I Won't Let You down' with PhD, 'Hi-Ho Silver' and so on) did get a deal, did tour a lot, did release records and enjoyed a great following -but eventually it folded and they are off trying to make new bands now.  The fabulous Dunwells are on the verge now, with a US deal... and Steve Levine, one of my favourite producers of all time, is putting his heart and soul into Daytona Lights. These bands are doing all the right things.

 What you must be, more than anything else, is original. 

 I'll say it again.

 What you must be, more than anything else, is original. 

You need to come up with something that no one has done before.  When I think of all the artists I've adored over the years - and there are hundreds, thousands - it's the unique ones who stand out.  Alex Harvey, Kate Bush, Ian Dury, even.  The late operatic soprano Maria Callas's voice was technically inferior, many experts said. When Walter Legge (acclaimed classical record producer) defended her in the face of criticism of her vocal shortcomings, he made this unforgettable declaration: that she possessed that most essential ingredient for a great singer - an instantly recognisable voice.  When I think about it, he could have been speaking about Marc Bolan, whose voice sounded like no one else's (and who is the subject of my new biography, to be published by Hodder & Stoughton this September). Marc and Maria, who were poles apart in most other ways, had two things in common. Not only the fact that they died on the same day - 16th September, 1977 (she was 53, he was 29) - but a magical quality that set them apart from the also-rans. They were cursed by this, as well as blessed. 

If you are intent on making the making of music your living for a lifetime, stick with it by all means. Carry on doing what you are doing.  Work on making your voice and sound as unusual and as unique as it can be.  Keep sweating the small gigs.  Hone and hone your craft.  Hone it more.  Don't expect anything to fall into your lap.  Not in five years, not even in ten.  You may well still be doing what you are doing now in 20 years' time.  Still waiting for that lucky break, and feeling that you have wasted your life because of it.  I would hate that to happen, which is why get real.

Get proper jobs: to sustain you and give yourself a lifestyle, a bit of dignity.  People's goodwill is finite, you will find. The successful musicbiz folk of this world have not got where they are today by doing anything for nothing. A producer may gift you an afternoon or a day in his studio, but he is not going to invest heavily in you without backing.  That is how it works, these people do not take chances.  It is why they are rich, and we are not. 

 Andrew Lloyd-Webber sinks millions of his own money into a musical film project which by his standards fails. He loses a fortune. Tim  Rice writes a new musical - 'From Here To Eternity'.  He is wealthy beyond reason. He could easily invest in his own musical, fast-track it to the West End stage.  He won't do that. Why? Because, as he says, if it is good enough, the professionals will invest in it.

 Hold the thought.