Monday, 28 December 2015


followed by a live recording of Sinatra in concert in New York in 1974.

Frank Sinatra strode out onto the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in September 1980, ambled across to the orchestra stalls where my father Ken Jones and I were seated in the front row, and sang the opening verse of 'Fly Me to the Moon' right into my face. Old Blue Eyes locked with Young Green Eyes, and that was it. It had long been a habit of his, I would discover later, to zoom in on a female in the audience to sing the first song to. I'd grown up on his music, thanks to Dad. I knew the songs by heart. Everything crystallised in that moment. I've been hooked ever since.
This Sinatra centenary year has been one of tributes. What could Simon Napier-Bell's documentary add to praise already heaped? I did wonder myself, when he invited to take part. But I can't say no to Simon.
He never disappoints. Taking the long view back over Frank's career from a British viewpoint was a clever idea. Although Francis Albert was flogged to America via live performances, movies, recordings and relentless press and publicity, whipping up hysteria among the bobbysoxers and cementing his place in the pantheon, information about him here during the Fifties and early Sixties was scant. The result was a British music-loving public intrigued by and hungry for a singer they couldn't get their hands on. Sinatra fan clubs began mushrooming all over the UK long before his records were ever released here. Every import became an instant collectible. 
Those fans stayed loyal for life, tidal-waving to catch him in his Royal Albert Hall and Festival Hall concerts. His nod to them? The only Sinatra album ever made outside the US was recorded here. 'Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain' featured gems by the British composers he most admired, including Noel Coward's 'I'll Follow My Secret Heart', Ivor Novello's 'We'll Gather Lilacs in the Spring', and Ross Parker's and Hughie Charles's most enduring war-time rouser for Vera Lynn, 'We'll Meet Again'. The recordings were made in 1962 at CTS Studios in London W2. Only a few days before Sinatra began taping in Bayswater, the Beatles were convening a couple of miles away at Abbey Road. The world was about to change irrevocably.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


I confess to a double-take at Kelvin MacKenzie's Sun column yesterday, announcing that PR and communications supremo Gary Farrow had terminated his working relationship with Sir Elton John. Surely some mistake: these two go back more than forty years. To 1974, in fact, when gift-of-the-gob Gary landed a job as a runner at Rocket Records after pestering the Rocket Man for a break. Which I happen to know first-hand, because I've known Gary since I was a teenager, when his garden backed on to my Mum and Dad's.

Only one way to find out. Our conversation today left me saddened beyond words. Gary, who once flogged singles off a barrow in Berwick Street market, Soho, before rising to fame in the entertainment industry, has represented, promoted, protected and made superstars of the cream of the crop: Bowie, Elton, Wham!, George Michael, Bob Geldof, Frankie, Duran, Jonathan Ross, Ozzy & Sharon. But he has called it a day with Elton, with whom he was once so thick that they attended each other's weddings, and Elton became Godfather to Gary's eldest daughter. He can apparently no longer abide EJ's husband, David Furnish, nor the way in which he is running the singer's life. We could go into blood-curdling detail here. Let's not. Although how could we ever disregard the misery of Elton's mother, Sheila Farebrother, forced to hire a tribute act to her son to perform at her ninetieth birthday party, because her own son has not spoken to her for seven years. Why? Because Sheila refused to end her friendships with Elton's former manager and sometime lover, John Reid, and with Bob Halley, Elton's ex-driver and PA. They are 'like sons' to her.

Life being too short. It's a long time since I last saw the excitable Furnish. In Atlanta, Georgia, probably. God knows when. But from what I've heard, he has found his vocation as a talentless control freak hell-bent on destroying the most meaningful relationships in his partner's life. Who knows what he's trying to prove. What will they do when there's nobody left?

Knowing Gary, never short of a line of two - he once bumped smack into Mel Gibson and retorted, 'What a f-ing stupid place to put a mirror' - he'll be raising a glass to the good times, and privately wishing Elton well. He's unlikely to lose much sleep over it. I bet Elton will.

I owe Gary, by the way, for the best piece of advice a media guru could give a writer.
'It only takes one,' he told me. 'Of all the nine billion however many people on the planet, it only takes one person to invest, to go 'let's have a punt', and to make your dream a reality. I've seen it happen more times than I've had cold breakfasts. I've seen for myself that it's true. So never, ever give up. Keep doing what you're doing. If you're any bloody good, then sooner or later it comes to you.'

Remember it.

Sunday, 13 December 2015


It makes you think. I grew up on the maestro's music - my parents were (are) die-hard fans. I interviewed Ol' Blue Eyes in LA - twice - and spent time with his widow, Barbara Marx. I got to know his daughter, Nancy, when I lived with Raquel Welch in Beverly Hills - 'Boots' was her best mate. Only after his death, when I was researching Ava Gardner, did I realise I'd known barely the first thing about him.
What we knew was the Sinatra myth, the legend. What we didn't want to know was what got him there. We certainly didn't want to hear about his backstreet-abortionist mother, nor the hell through which she dragged him - which accounts, at least in part, for who he became. Perhaps most telling was that night in Elaine's, New York - the night that Frank, on being introduced to Mario Puzo, author of 'The Godfather', refused to shake his hand.
A recent survey on the kind of music played at funerals revealed that traditional hymns are now chosen by fewer than 35%, while pop songs have soared to an 'incredible' 58%. It 'devalues human life', declared one commentator about the survey, to take one's final, shortest journey on earth to the accompaniment of music from popular culture.
Why so? Why not pop our clogs to popular music, if that's the way we lived?
Unsurprisingly, the song most played at funerals these days is Sinatra's 'My Way'. What's so bad about that? Whatever turns you off.
My friends and I have spent countless happy moments dancing round the kitchen to 'New York, New York'. I've certainly slated that one for my own funeral - along with Cockney Rebel's 'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me). performed live. Every time I see Steve Harley, he asks me if I've got a date. Clearly I have. I just don't know it yet.

Thank you for the music, Francis Albert. For better or worse, way to go.

Sunday, 25 October 2015


Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Queen fans have been arguing the toss for years.

Although 'Bohemian Rhapsody''s creator, the late Freddie Mercury, never explained the lyrics, declaring vaguely that they were 'just about relationships' with 'a bit of nonsense in the middle', conflicting theories about the song's true meaning are as rife today as they have ever been. While Queen's surviving members - guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and retired bassist John Deacon - have always protected their frontman's most closely-guarded secret, intense speculation persists.

Forty years this month since Queen's soaring, decadent magnum opus was originally released, I can reveal the song's true meaning. The 'baroque'n'roll' classic was not, contrary to popular belief, Freddie Mercury's attempt at writing a song to upstage Led Zeppelin's folk-rock epic 'Stairway to Heaven'. Nor was it merely a fictitious fantasy, describing a random individual confessing a murder to his mother, pleading poverty at his trial, and resigning himself to a tragic fate - never revealing the identity of whom he had killed, nor why. It could not have been, as has been widely reported, Freddie's lament about having become infected with the AIDS virus. He conceived the idea for the song in the late 1960s, and dabbled with it for years, only completing, recording and releasing it with the band in late 1975. He was not diagnosed as HIV positive until ten years later.

It wasn't even a deliberate 'showcase single' of everything this superlative rock band was capable of, not only musically and lyrically, but also collectively and individually - as numerous music scholars around the world believe. The truth, though simply, is infinitely more personal.

The song was recorded for Queen's studio LP 'A Night at the Opera'. Realising its chart potential, the band drummed up support among radio DJs such as Kenny Everett and 'Diddy' David Hamilton for the unusually long (5:55 minutes) album track to be released as a single. It was, despite having broken every rule in the pop-hit-writing manual, an instant commercial success. It became the Christmas single of 1975, held its own at the top of the UK singles chart for nine weeks, and had sold more than a million copies by the end of January 1976. The single was accompanied by an avant-garde promotional video directed by Bruce Gowers, which is still considered definitive and ground-breaking, and which kick-started the MTV pop-video boom. It reigned at number one again in 1991 for five weeks following Mercury's death, eventually becoming the UK's third best-selling single of all time - after Elton John's 'Candle In the Wind/Something About the Way You Look Tonight' (reworked for the funeral of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997), and the 1984 Band Aid fund-raiser 'Do they Know it's Christmas'. It was thus the first same-version song ever to reach number one twice in the UK.

It also topped the charts in various foreign territories, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland and The Netherlands. In the United States, the song originally peaked at number nine in 1976. It returned at number two in 1992 after getting an airing in the smash-hit movie 'Wayne's World'.

In 2004, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Seven years later, BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs listeners chose it as their all-time favourite pop song. In 2012, it topped an ITV nationwide poll to find "The Nation's Favourite Number One" over 60 years of music. It is reckoned that the song is still played somewhere in the world at least once every hour. Despite Queen having released a total of 18 number one albums, 18 number one singles and ten number one DVDs worldwide, making them one of the planet's best-selling rock acts, not to mention the fact that they are the only group in which every member has composed more than one chart-topping single, it remains the song that defines them, their most enduring work. Largely because of it, Queen have overtaken The Beatles to become the UK album chart leaders.

Although critical reaction was initially mixed, 'Bo Rap', the name by which it is known affectionately in the music business, frequently makes lists of the greatest songs of all time.

All this, without anyone but Freddie ever knowing what the song really means.

Lead guitarist Dr. Brian May has always acknowledged Freddie's sole authorship of 'Bohemian Rhapsody', saying that when the singer first turned up with it, 'he seemed to have the whole thing worked out in his head.'

It was, Brian said, 'an epic undertaking.' The song comprises an a capella introduction, an instrumental sequence of piano, guitar, bass and drums, a mock-operatic interlude and a loaded monster-rock crescendo, before fading into its contemplative 'nothing really matters' conclusion. To the rest of the band, the piece at first seemed insurmountable.

'We were all a bit mystified as to how he was going to link all these pieces,' admitted Brian.

The song fetched to life a host of obscure classical characters: Scaramouche, a clown from the Commedia dell'arte; 16th Century astronomer and father of modern science Galileo; Figaro, the principal character in Beaumarchais' The Barber of Seville, and the Marriage of Figaro, from which operas by Paisiello, Rossini and Mozart had been composed; Beelzebub, identified in the Christian New Testament as Satan, Prince of Demons, and in Arabic as 'Lord of the Flies', or 'Lord of the heavenly dwelling'. Also from Arabic, the word bismillah is drawn: a noun from a phrase in the Qur'an meaning 'in the name of God, most gracious, most merciful'.

In 1986, I found myself in a hotel suite with Freddie Mercury, during Queen's 'A Kind of Magic' world tour. Having his undivided attention for a few moments, I put to him, not for the first time, my theory about these characters. Scaramouche, I ventured, had to be Freddie himself, with a penchant for the 'tears of a clown' motif. Galileo was obviously astronomer, astrophysicist and mathematician Brian May. Beelzebub must be Roger Taylor, the band's wildest party animal, while Figaro was perhaps not the operatic character at all, but the tuxedo kitten in Walt Disney's 1940 animated classic 'Pinocchio' - a dead ringer for 'pussy cat' John Deacon. Well, Freddie did adore his feline friends.

Freddie's face was a picture. He didn't say a word. He looked even more perplexed when I asked him about the song's inspiration. I suggested in so many words that it was, in fact, a thickly-disguised confession about his sexual orientation. Having been raised in a close, intensely religious Parsee community, adherents of the monotheistic religion of Zoroastrianism dating back to 6th Century BC Persia (modern-day Iran), Freddie had never been at liberty to live a publicly flamboyant lifestyle. Not only would this have offended his parents, but their religion does not recognise nor tolerate homosexuality. He was never able to live openly as a gay man. He shared his life for seven years with devoted girlfriend Mary Austin, before admitting to her that he thought he might be bisexual.
'No, Freddie,' responded Mary, 'I think you're gay.' From then on, apart from a brief, intense affair with the late German actress Barbara Valentin in Munich in 1984, conducted at the same time as liaisons with two male partners, he had sexual relationships only with men. He did not refuse to discuss all this with me. What he said about these questions was 'bad timing!'

Only after Freddie's death from AIDS-related illness in November 1991, when I went to spend a week with his long-term live-in lover Jim Hutton at Jim's bungalow in County Carlow, south-east Ireland, did the truth about 'Bohemian Rhapsody' emerge.

One evening after supper, we took a stroll in Jim's garden, where he proudly showed me his lilac 'Blue Moon' roses, which Freddie had adored. The conversation turned to his former partner's most famous creation.

'You were right about 'Bohemian Rhapsody',' said Jim.

'Freddie was never going to admit it publicly, of course, because he always had to carry on the charade about being straight, for his family. But we did discuss it on numerous occasions. 'Bohemian Rhapsody' WAS Freddie's confessional. It was about how different his life could have been, and how much happier he might have been, had he just been able to be himself, the whole of his life. The world heard this song as a masterpiece of imagination, a great command of musical styles. It was this remarkable tapestry. It was so intricate and had so many layers, but the message, if hidden, was simple. Just as the management, the band, all of us in his life, never admitted that Freddie was even ill, not until the day before he died - because it was his business - he felt the same about this song.

'Not only that, but you'd have to say that he was a bit bored by the relentless interest in it. He didn't 'reveal' what it was all about because he couldn't be bothered. He had said all that he was ever going to say about it - which wasn't very much. Others have stated over the years that it was better for the song's true meaning never to be made public, because it would last much longer if its aura of mystique was maintained. I disagree. I don't think that matters. The song has proved itself over and over. It has stood the test of time. It isn't going anywhere. Freddie will be known throughout the world forever because of it.'

However convoluted and obscure, said Jim, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was 'Freddie as he truly was.'

Jim died of cancer in 2010.

During the course of my research for my biography of Freddie Mercury, I discussed the song at length with arguably the UK's greatest living lyricist, Sir Tim Rice. Having collaborated with Freddie on songs for the 'Barcelona' album with Montserrat Caballé, the co-creator of 'The Lion King' and 'Evita' knew Freddie better than most.

'It's fairly obvious to me that this was Freddie's coming out song,' Tim told me.
'I've even spoken to Roger Taylor about it. There is a very clear message contained in it. This is Freddie admitting that he is gay.

''Mama, I just killed a man': he's killed the old Freddie he was trying to be. The former image.

''Put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he's dead': he's dead, the straight person he was originally. He's destroyed the man he was trying to be, and now this is him, trying to live with the new Freddie.

''I see a little silhouetto of a man'; that's him, still being haunted by what he's done and what he is.

'Every time I hear the record on the radio, I think of him trying to shake off one Freddie and embracing another - even all these years after his death. Do I think he managed it? I think he was in the process of managing it, rather well.

'Freddie was an exceptional lyricist, and 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is beyond any doubt one of the great pieces of music of the twentieth century.'

There are further clues in a track from Queen's fifteenth and final studio album, 'Made In Heaven', which was released in 1995, four years after Freddie's death.

'A Winter's Tale' was Freddie's swansong. He wrote and composed the song in his Montreux apartment overlooking Lake Geneva, which he loved. The lyrics, describing all that he could see from his window, celebrate the peace and contentment he found there towards the end. The song's title is an homage to William Shakespeare's romantic play, and alludes to Freddie's early songwriting inspiration. One protagonist of the Shakespeare play is Polixenes, the King of Bohemia: an ancient kingdom which corresponds roughly to the modern-day Czech Republic. As such, it may have germinated 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. If, as presumed by many Bard scholars, this play was an allegory on the demise of Anne Boleyn, its character Perdita was based on the daughter of Anne and King Henry VIII, who would become Elizabeth 1st, England's Queen

The band's original greatest hit laced through Freddie's final offering? It's not impossible.

Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography by Lesley-Ann Jones is published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, and in numerous translations worldwide

Friday, 9 October 2015


'The more I have, the more I see, and the more experience I get, the more confused I become as to who I am, and what the hell life is all about.'
John Lennon, 1965

I never met John Lennon. I came to the party too late. I was just out of college and working for Chrysalis Records in London when news broke that John had been killed. The ground floor of our West End building housed the production offices of AIR Studios, Beatles producer George Martin's recording business. The entire staff gathered to mark the moment. I will never forget the look on George's face.

George had weathered with dignity, throughout the Seventies, endless public vitriol from his former charge. Lennon belittled George's 'influence' and input, and denied him credit, while McCartney, Harrison and Starr, George revealed, 'were always sweet.' Implacably loyal, George was of course distressed by the news of John's murder. There would not even be a funeral at which to pay his respects. He fled to Montserrat, where he had opened his dream residential studio the previous year. He sat for hours, staring at the ocean, he later told me, while listening to Lennon in his head. The recording complex, the whole island, would be flattened by Hurricane Hugo within the decade.

Only after his death did I begin to cross paths with others who had shared John's life, and who shaped my understanding of him. Paul, George and Ringo. Maureen Starkey, Ringo's first wife, who became a good friend. Linda McCartney, with whom I collaborated briefly on 'Mac the Wife', a memoir which never progressed. Cynthia Lennon, who invited me to discuss a new book. Her first, 'A Twist of Lennon', published in 1978, had left a bitter taste. She had been so frustrated at not being able to communicate with John after he left her that she had written her memoir as a 'long, open letter to him, pouring it all out.' With hindsight, she said, she would have done it differently. Now that the dust had settled on John's death, she was keen to have another go. But she became immersed in a doomed restaurant venture, and the project was shelved. Years later, in 2005, she published 'John', a much bolder and more confessional book than her first.

As a journalist, I accompanied their son Julian to the Montreux Rock Festival during the mid-Eighties. I met Yoko numerous times in London and New York. Like everyone else, I read Philip Norman's 'Shout!', Peter Brown's and Steven Gaines's 'The Love You Make', that infamous Albert Goldman biography, Hunter Davies's 'The John Lennon Letters', and of course Marc Lewisohn's matchless 'Tune In'. I formed and borrowed opinions of a man I never knew.

Who can imagine what it was like to be a Beatle? Not even John Lennon, so it seems. All he had, at the height of the band's fame and significance, was a terrifying awareness of his own inner void. He was dogged by a deep sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction over the material things that fortune had afforded him. Neither recognition nor reward provided the answers to the questions that had tormented him since childhood. What was the meaning of life?

Sickened by his fear that 'this is all there is', John considered religion. At one point, he asked God for a 'sign'. When nothing was forthcoming, he withdrew into his imagination, concluding that 'God' was simply energy that vibrates endlessly throughout the universe, and that it was probably benign. Still, he longed for a theme, a code to live by, that would shape his existence and give it a point. It was through drugs, primarily LSD, that he landed on love.

An invitation for the Beatles to perform for the first live international satellite TV broadcast in June 1967, to a global audience of four hundred million, provided the perfect opportunity to promote his new theme to the world. Having fallen for his own publicity, John embarked on a mega-mission, to 'improve humanity'. This decision, however deluded, inspired the song they performed for that historic broadcast, 'All You Need is Love'. You want to save the world? Fit your own oxygen mask first. For what else is love but the wanting of it?

His stance chimed uncomfortably with the personality trait that had long kept him sane: his inherent cynicism. He clung to it nonetheless, a limpet to a rock, until Yoko Ono arrived and personified it. Despite both the world's and the Beatles' rejection of this curious interloper, she was his constant, his one true thing. Into the sunset they strode hand in hand, in search of world peace.

They would never get away with it today. But those were different, pre-politically correct times. One could still denounce the self-serving great and good and expose them for corruption, and go unpunished. John the peace-seeking missile hailed the human imagination as the key to salvation both collective and individual. His most famous, best-loved song, 'Imagine', took the three hottest taboo subjects, religion, patriotism and materialism, and encouraged us to consider them from alternative perspectives. In the absence of heaven and hell - it's easy if you try - there would be no fear of repercussion in the afterlife. Without frontiers - it isn't hard to do - we'd become citizens of the world, and could choose to live more harmoniously. As for overcoming our materialism - I wonder if you can - wouldn't the world be a better place if we could do what we were taught to do as children, and simply share?

'Imagine' was the distillation of everything that had hitherto preoccupied John Lennon. It reached for the stars in its attempt to inspire people from all walks of life, all over the world, and to transcend barriers of every kind. It succeeded, to a point, but was idealistic in the extreme. Look at us now.

Convicted assassin Mark Chapman aside, who, or what, really killed John Lennon? And when did the 'real' John Lennon die? For what is clear is that the four bullets which penetrated his body that fateful night in New York City on 8th December 1980 were just, so to speak, the final nail.

Was it his tragically dysfunctional upbringing, during which John was deserted by his father Freddie and virtually abandoned by his bohemian mother Julia into the care of her older sister, 'Aunt Mimi' - ? He subsequently lost his head to music, his best friend Stuart Sutcliffe to a brain tumour, his reckless mother in a car crash at the end of his street, and his heart to fellow student Cynthia Powell, who relieved him of his boyhood by getting pregnant and 'having' to marry him, long before he was ready for parental responsibility. Consider his sexual dalliances with Beatles Svengali Brian Epstein; his self-damning declaration that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ; his secret true-love affair with British popular singer Alma Cogan, whose early death from cancer rendered him suicidal; how he was hijacked out of his ill-fated marriage by Yoko, a manipulative Japanese artist who decided to become his second wife, virtually giving up her daughter Kyoko in order to ensnare him, and destroying the band that had made her beloved a superstar.

Or was it John's own cruel, collapsible, convoluted personality that had been destroying him since early childhood? Had the women in his life emasculated him, and drained him of all but the will to live? How withered was he in later years by the guilt he felt over first wife Cynthia having to debase herself when her paltry divorce settlement ran dry, penning tawdry tell-alls, opening eateries, designing cheap bed linens, marrying chauffeurs to make ends meet? Was his left-wing activism, all that giving peace a chance, some cynical smokescreen for how little he really cared about mankind? Imagine no possessions, while owning planes and boats, infinite farms and multi-million dollar real estate? Do any of the tangled conspiracy theories that have gained traction down the decades hold water? Could the CIA and the FBI have been to blame?


Was music John's salvation? Probably not. He was a rod for his own back, in so many ways. In 'personalising the political, and politicising the personal', he made music too complicated for his own good. Never less than an artist of integrity, he challenged everything, even his own songwriting. He was the first to admit that his early lyrics were sexist, adjusting his approach to reflect his feminist side in later years. He believed fervently in the notion that popular music had a far more important job to do than simply entertain. He took risks, and often fell short, but seemed always true to himself... or as true as he could be. The Beatles excelled because they broke rock'n'roll's rules, both in song structure and in lyric-writing. The icing on their cake was John, whose wit and sardonicism, whose love of riddles and puns and plays-on-words lifted their music into hitherto unheard realms. He experimented with the impossible, cramming mere pop songs with subliminal messages and layering them with clashing sentiments until they were almost too much. Listen to 'Strawberry Fields Forever' for proof. To the psychadelic 'Across the Universe'.

The so-called 'White Album', 'The Beatles', may be John at his most bitter, furious, frustrated, committed, mad, sad, vituperative, political and reflective. Then again, what about the 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono' band album, delivering his devastating denunciation of the Beatles - 'the dream is over' - and featuring the irresistible acoustic ballad 'Working Class Hero', John's gutted acknowledgement of what, thanks to global fame and unimaginable fortune, he was no longer able to be. Finally, from the last LP of his lifetime, 'Double Fantasy', 'Watching the Wheels': admitting why he stopped making music during the 'house-husband' years. Having found his own heaven on earth - domestic bliss, such as it was, with Yoko and his second son, Sean - 'I just had to let it go.'

What if he were here today? What sense might the seventy five-year old ex-Beatle have made of what our world has become? Would he have made peace with McCartney, having denied his childhood friend towards the end? Might there even have been a Beatle reunion before George Harrison's death in 2001?

John Lennon did the most important thing that a rock star can do: he died young. Instead of becoming a bloated, bitter, self-important old has-been with no new inspiration to share, rehashing the hits, busting a gut to write relevant songs and traipsing out endlessly on last-ever world tours, he was cut off in his prime and became immortal. He is preserved at that age, and for all that he stood for, into eternity.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015


Grumpy Old Rock Star Rick Wakeman, the former Strawbs/Yes keyboardist and solo artist whose career spans more than half a century, delivered an impassioned speech about music and the state of the industry at this year's Tom Olsen Lecture in the 'journalists' church', St. Bride's, Fleet Street, London last night. 
Focusing on the 'shameful' dropping of music from our schools' national curriculum, the prog-rocker also worked up a lather over the way our music industry has failed musicians. He blamed 'replacement' for the loss of musical genres and styles which all too often spells the collapse of earnings for its writers and performers. He also cited technology as something of a 'curse that at times outweighs its blessings'; called for the internet to be brought under greater control; for a greater range of professional orchestras to be restored; for formatted radio and playlists to be abolished in favour of the return of creative DJs with their own eclectic record collections; and for music to be widely available in proper shops again. In his heyday, he noted, London boasted no fewer than seventeen fully-functional recording studios, all of which he worked in. At the time of writing, there are two.
The former Royal College of Music student told of his tuneful awakening at the age of five; of the realisation, at the advent of Lonnie Donegan and Skiffle, that anybody could be in a band; charmed his audience back through the 'Baroque & Roll' period of the 17th to mid 18th Centuries, when the first 'show-off musicians' came to the fore: Antonio Vivaldi, the wild-haired priest who performed in his clerical robes; and Franz Liszt and Fryderyk Chopin, who toured to huge crowds, with women fainting at their feet. Rick wrote the score for Ken Russell's mad 1975 movie 'Lisztomania' - the Pope was played by Ringo Starr, and priapic, prancing Roger Daltrey was Liszt - describing his mother's delight convoluting to horror as Rick's own role in the piece evolved.
His knowledge of the great classical composers is beyond scholarly. He revealed his personal favourites, and what they mean to him: Mozart, Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninoff ... Dawson (Les) ... and performed a hilarious pastiche of nursery rhymes showcasing their disparate styles.
The piece de résistance was his recollection of Seventies pop star Cat Stevens - better known, today, as the education philanthropist Yusuf Islam - hiring Rick to compose, arrange and perform the piano part on his rendition of the Christian hymn 'Morning has Broken' in 1971, for his album 'Teaser and the Firecat'. The original hymn being less than a minute long, it was Rick's inspired imaginings, trills, repetitions and key-changes which extended and brought it to life. For this, he was paid no more than the standard session musician's fee of £9, which he didn't receive for thirty seven years. The track, released as a single, was an international hit. It remains instantly recognisable forty five years later. Rick was never credited for his significant contribution. He concludes, however, that the song is a beautiful piece of music 'that has helped bring people closer to religious truth', and is 'grateful' to have played a part in it.
As he performed it, eyes wide shut, all but oblivious of his audience, one could hear an eyelash drop. 

Tom Olsen had a long career in journalism both in London and the provinces. He worked as reporter, leader-writer, editor and author. He loved writing, which he did under both his real name and the nom de plume John Morrell. He also adored the grape, and spent the last fifteen years of his life as the wine correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.
Tom loved St Bride's, which in his day shared Fleet Street with the national press. When Tom died in 1987, it was decided that his memory should be perpetuated through a trust bearing his name, with the aim of furthering the work of St Bride’s. Lawyers, writers, politicians and others have given the annual address down the years. Past speakers include David Attenborough, PD James, Peter Hitchens, The Archbishop of Canterbury, John Simpson, Lord Rees-Mogg, Sir Oliver Popplewell, Jane Asher, the Rt. Hon. Ann Widdecombe, the Hon. George Osborne and Nigel Farage MEP. The lecture is an important event on the St. Bride's calendar.

Saturday, 19 September 2015


Paul Gambaccini has been a friend and sometime colleague for more than thirty years. We have worked together on various television projects. I have eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner with him. I have been to parties at his house. I have filmed and recorded in his flat. I admire him for his encyclopaedic knowledge and love of music, and for being a decent and honest human being.

Paul's life collapsed in October 2013, when he was arrested at home in the middle of the night. His belongings were seized, he was suspended from his job by the BBC, and he was forced to spend a fortune on lawyers in order to clear his name. He describes the nightmare experience as 'a witch hunt'.

Shortly after his arrest, he made a brief appearance at a party at London's Hippodrome to celebrate twenty-five years of Capital Radio's Gold network. There were many other veteran, household-name DJs present, some of whom were more than happy to line up with Paul for the photographer. There were others who were not. 

Paul was declared innocent of historical sex abuse. He was falsely accused, as so many have been, in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal Operation Yewtree. He has been to hell and back. What kept him sane was the daily writing of a journal that became this book. As Stephen Fry remarked, Paul's story reads like 'a page-turning thriller'. 'Read it and get very angry!' added Elton John.

If you care about the monstrous collapse of this country's justice system, and if you recognise that what happened to Paul could happen to you, buy this book.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015


When I was invited to write a biography to mark Bolan's thirty fifth anniversary and what would have been his sixty fifth birthday, I couldn't resist. Three and a half decades after his death, there were still many unanswered questions. Where facts are meagre, mythology rules. I started asking around, and was surprised. There were plenty of people left who'd 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, put it, 'nobody had ever asked.'

T.Rex hits are oversewn into popular culture, thanks to constant exposure through film soundtracks, TV commercials and radio playlists. Despite the fact that the songs are as familiar to our children as they are to us, 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 boy born Mark Feld in London's deprived post-war East End, who had transformed himself into Bolan. There was someone unknown. The tiny one in the nest of Russian dolls. I went in search of him.

It's a common theme, the lowly-born loser with an eye on the big-time. Sport and entertainment are classic escape routes from the ghetto. Marc probably never kicked a football in his life, but 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. That was Marc.

America never really got 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. During the Seventies, cowboy country liked its rockers rude. 'Rouge'n'roll' and glam androgyny offended. Times have changed. Take Queen: they had no career to speak of in the US at the time of Freddie Mercury's death in 1991. Look at them now. We're still talking, three years on, about Freddie's impact during the closing ceremony of London 2012. When the crowd joined in with his classic 'Eyyyy-Ohhhs!', it was as if Freddie himself was there, larger than life. Whether thanks to the global success of their musical 'We Will Rock You', or to the popularity of their most crashing numbers as sports-event anthems - 'We Are The Champions', 'Another One Bites the Dust' - America gets Queen as never before.

My biography of Freddie, published as 'Mercury' in the US, is still selling around the world. I'll be giving a lecture about his influence at Chicago Ideas Week on 14th October. Would that I were able to do the same for Marc. Queen's career has lasted longer, granted. Their catalogue is greater. Bolan left a modest body of work, compared. Gone at twenty nine, he didn't live long enough.

Then again, there's 'Billy Elliot'. The soundtrack of this very English piece, 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'. I have a feeling that Marc and America are not done yet.

'Ride a White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan' by Lesley-Ann Jones, published by Hodder & Stoughton

Sunday, 13 September 2015


'I cry ... but tears don't seem to help me carry on ...'

This is what soul sounds like. This is almost as good as being there on the night. Almost - because nothing compares to the live-music experience. I used to say that singer-songwriter Jim Diamond underestimated his capabilities. I was wrong. I clearly remember him standing his ground and refusing to compromise, at a time when the music industry was consumed by a delirium that caused it to lose its grip on what was any good. A lot of Emperor's New Clothes were being worn. Too many panicky A&R guys headless-chickened about, trying to sign the Next Big Thing and wasting budget on also-rans and never-would-bes. Look what happened. Those same execs, I remember the conversations well, poured scorn on investment in the BRIT School. 'Fat lot of good that will do.' It gave us Amy Winehouse, Katie Melua, Leona Lewis, Adele, and poor Amy, whose music will stand the test. What of the rest?

Jim writes songs from the gut, from the membranes of his eyeballs. He has been to the brink. He shares the pain and heartache. He runs rings around 'X Factor' wannabes who spout a bit of karaoke down the Nag's and present as pop stars. They think that all it takes is the ability to gargle a passable  impersonation of Sam Smith or Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift or Lady GaGa, and to 'want it soooo much'.

Listen, wannabes. It takes a unique voice, one that is instantly recognisable. It takes guts, determination and an instinct for survival. It takes hope. It takes a long time.

I remain in awe of Jim's talent. Time has not withered him.  Anyway, age, today, is the least relevant factor. The longer you live, the better you get at it. if you had it in the first place. Our ailing record business needs to summon courage, rediscover its integrity and wise up to the true meaning of talent. Then it needs to persuade this precious one-off and others like him out of the wilderness. 

Sunday, 30 August 2015


Well everybody knows down Ladbroke Grove
You have to leap across the Street
You can lose your life under a taxi cab
You gotta have eyes in your feet … *

Takes me back.

Leo Sayer was a screw of contradictions more muddled than his hair. Then gentle, now raucous, sometimes scrabbling, brawling fierce. Small and slight away from the spotlight but a giant on stage, backing down from no one behind a mic. His face was a door, wide-open, welcoming all. He could bruise with a gaze, torch with a smile. He could sear with the kind of words that once made me blush. 

Chrysalis Records was where I came in. Early Eighties. Leo was still signed to the label responsible for his huge Seventies hits – 'The Show Must Go On', 'One Man Band', 'Long Tall Glasses', 'Moonlighting', 'You Make Me Feel Like Dancing', 'When I Need You' (the exquisite Albert Hammond/Carole Bayer Sager composition, number one in UK and USA in 1977), 'How Much Love', 'I Can't Stop Loving You'. He covered Bobby Vee's 'More Than I Can Say', Buddy Holly's 'Raining In My Heart', and three Fab songs in 1976 – 'Let It Be', 'I Am the Walrus' and 'The Long and Winding Road', for the Beatles concept movie 'All This and World War II'. He made the Top Twenty again in 1983 with 'Orchard Road', music by Alan Tarney, lyrics by Leo, a plaintive plea at the beginning of the end of a marriage. We went to the San Remo music festival in 1990. If there was a smile on his face, it was only there trying to fool the public.

He'd come the art student/hotel porter/busker route. David Courtney found him, and they co-wrote Roger Daltrey's first solo hit 'Giving it All Away'. (Daltrey also recorded 'I'm a One-Man Band', a year before Leo). They teamed with former heart throb Adam Faith, who did the deals. Giving it all away was the size of it. Only when Leo came to divorce first wife Jan in 1985 did it become apparent that Faith, ironically known as a money man and as the author of a financial column in one of the nationals, had mismanaged Leo's business affairs and investments. Leo sued him. They settled out of court for not very much. He was then forced to sue Chrysalis, too, to win back his publishing. In 1996 he was back in court, up against his new management for bungling his pension fund. Unable to afford to go the distance, Leo was forced to walk away and begin again. Fortune fetched him Ronnie Johnson, a former Van Morrison's guitarist. They mounted a band and toured relentlessly until Leo was back in the black. The exuberance of 1999's 'Live in London' is testament to the tidal wave of energy that carried them.

Every trial and tribulation leaves its mark. Leo was tired, and in need of fresh air. He found it ten thousand miles away, withdrawing to Sydney in 2005 with new partner Dona. He became an Australian citizen four years later.

In 2006 he scored his second UK number one, with the remixed 'Thunder In My Heart', making his first UK Top ten appearance in a quarter of a century.

He used to say that he wanted to be as big as Dylan or Elvis. He came alive in the US, where they got him. American artists excited him. He  tried to emulate them. Elvis, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry. He loved Shoreham, near Brighton, where he was born, and adored London, his adopted home. It took a while to shrug off the American dream. He did it by playing the Las Vegas Hilton, Lake Tahoe, Reno, Atlantic City and every major US city in between. He got it out of his system in the end.

He's sixty seven now. Which makes me feel old, and not, because what goes around, and because he's still in there and out here, the plucky clown, the mischief-maker, the old Stratford Place rebel-rouser.

The latest album, 'Restless Years', is the album he had to earn, the one he had to work up to. Slow down, singer-songwriters. It takes fifty years to get this good. Five decades, big adventures, a lot of getting knocked down and getting back up. This is Leo at his finest, splashing emotion and belting it, the truth about humans, the planet, this wreck of an environment, relationships, and don't even go there about love. It's not preachy, he just sings it. It's almost too painful to listen to, some of it. Careful lyrics, tight writing, spirit-crammed and spilling soul. These are the tracks I love: 'How Did We Get So Old', for its cheek; 'Millennium Weekend', a celebration of London; 'Revolution of the Heart'; 'One Green World', loaded with shivery, Floyd-y guitar – 'A people divided is a paradise lost'; 'The River' – full-voiced Leo, bluesy and cool. 'Mister In Between' is masterful, with delicate trumpet.The title track, 'Restless Years', not only for the line 'Hold on when your dreams are faded', because he knows about my life, and about yours.

Sometimes he sounds like a child. Or he's a centenarian down-and-out with nothing left to give, but  with a glint in his eye, hope in his heart and the gurgle in his throat, just to remind us, always something.

Leo Sayer was never a major star. He should have been.


'Restless Years' was released this weekend in the UK, on Leo's own label Silverbird Records.
His 25-date UK tour begins in Birmingham on September 9th, takes him around England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales – and over the wet to the Isle of Wight – and finishes in Warrington on October 11th.
His band are :
Ronnie Johnson – guitars
Elliot Henshaw – drums
Rob Taggart – keys
Dave Troke – bass

*'I'm a One-Man Band', 1974, © David Courtney & Leo Sayer

Saturday, 29 August 2015


When Winston McIntosh was fifteen years old, his auntie died. He had to move to Trench Town in Kingston, Jamaica, lugging his life in his hands. It was challenging. Winston became a lost boy, with all the promise of a no-hoper. Then he found music.

He met a man on the side of the road, playing a song on his guitar. A song that young Winston found intoxicating. He sat and listened, and he watched for most of the day, focusing intently on every flick of the guy's fingers as he strummed those haunting notes. Eventually, he plucked up courage to ask the guitarist if he could have a go. He played the song right back to him, note-perfect. When the man asked Winston who had taught him to play so beautifully, the boy replied, 'you did.'

As Peter Tosh, he was the proudest member of Bob Marley's Wailers. He eschewed the parasitical business of music, forged an organic solo career, and won a Grammy for 'Best Reggae Performance' in 1987, for 'No Nuclear War'. It was his last-ever record. On 11th September 1987, a gang broke into his home in Jamaica, and murdered him.

Remembering Peter Tosh and his musicianship, which is forever, this Notting Hill Carnival weekend.

Sunday, 23 August 2015


Rick Wakeman, Grumpy Old Rockstar, songwriter, broadcaster and author famous for keyboard wizardry and uniquely eccentric showmanship - think capes - is confirmed today as guest speaker at the 2015 Tom Olsen Lecture at the 'journalists' church', Fleet Street, London on 5th October 2015.

The prestigious lecture has taken place annually in the autumn at Sir Christopher Wren's finest by a range of distinguished guests since its inception in 1991. Lord Rees-Mogg, Sir Oliver Popplewell, Sir David Attenborough, Miss Jane Asher, the Rt. Hon. Ann Widdecombe, the Hon. George Osborne, Nigel Farage MEP and many others have all contributed to this sell-out event on the St. Bride's calendar.

'We are thrilled to welcome Rick Wakeman to speak this year about music, the music industry, technology and its consequences,' commented James Irving, Head of Operations at St. Bride's.
'His passion and dedication to music across all genres over his fifty-year career at the top is known throughout the world. It is an honour to welcome such an important musician to the ranks of our illustrious Olsen lecture speaker list.'

The son of a professional pianist, Rick attended the Royal College of Music during the late 1960s, working as a session musician to pay the rent. When demand for his keyboard skills exceeded his inclination to continue studying, he left the RCM for the record industry and contributed to hits by a host of stars, including T. Rex, Elton John, David Bowie, Black Sabbath and Cat Stevens.
Invited to join the Strawbs in 1970, he was poached by Yes soon afterwards, with whom he achieved star status. His classical technique and flamboyant style proved the salvation of the band's at times tumescent style, as evident on their albums 'Fragile' (1971), 'Close to the Edge' (1972), 'Tales from Topographic Oceans' (1973), 'Going for the One' (1977) and 'Tormato' (1978). Following the success of his solo album 'Six Wives of Henry VIII', he quit the band in 1974 to pursue a solo career. His follow-up, 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth', proved a gigantic global success, as did its live stage spectacular. Galvanised by the triumph, Rick went one better with 'The Myths and Legends of King Arthur' and staged the live show on ice, complete with a forty five-piece orchestra and forty eight-piece choir. He regrouped with Yes in 1976 and clocked up three further years with them, during which he faced multiple personal problems that took their toll on his health and wealth.

After successfully scoring the movies 'Liztzomania' and 'White Rock', he tackled the soundtrack for horror flick 'The Burning', eclipsing that with music for World Cup film 'G'Olé' in 1983. Wakeman's next visionary work was '1984', which re-established his star status. In 1988 he co-formed Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, which returned him to Yes three further times. He has released more than 100 solo albums across most musical genres, which have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide.

A popular television presenter and personality, he has published, so far, an autobiography and two memoirs. He is a Master Freemason, and King Rat of the showbusiness charity the Grand Order of Water Rats. Married four times, he is the father of six children.

Tom Olsen had a long career in journalism both in London and the provinces. He worked as reporter, leader-writer, editor and author. He shared a great love of writing with his nom de plume John Morrell. He also loved wine, and spent the last fifteen years of his life as the wine correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.

Tom loved the journalists' church. When he died in 1987, a trust bearing his name was founded, to further the work of St. Bride's and to perpetuate his memory. An annual lecture for those in the law, journalism and in the immediate Fleet Street community was founded. At the time, St Bride’s was strongly supporting the campaign for the release of John McCarthy and the other hostages. Indeed, the church has in various ways given its support to organizations like PEN and encouraged the media to use its powers with honesty, courage and respect. It therefore seemed fitting that the lectures' general theme should be freedom, both spiritual and physical, and the responsibilities that go with it.

Over the years, lawyers, writers, politicians and others have given the address. Speakers ranging from David Attenborough to PD James, Peter Hitchens, The Archbishop of Canterbury and John Simpson have entertained and enthralled audiences drawn from Fleet Street, the City and beyond. In 2005, Andrew Marr delivered the lecture “Hacks and Politicians: are they destined to sink together?” to a packed house of journalists, political writers and intrigued members of the public.

Although the links between St Bride’s and the press are still strong, Fleet Street has seen the arrival of many other professions in recent years. A particular objective of the trust, embodied in its deed, is to promote the work and activities of St Bride’s amongst these newcomers. In the light of the strong musical tradition at St Bride’s, the trustees felt that there was a need to provide the means whereby individuals could come together and play music.

Tickets for the lecture may be obtained via the St. Bride's website –

For further information, please contact Gloria Lizcano, Publicity & Events Manager
St. Bride's Church, Fleet St, London EC4Y 8AU

020 7427 0133

Monday, 17 August 2015


You name them, he managed them. Wham!, Lisa Stansfield, D:Ream, his third wife Yazz, Scissor Sisters, La Roux, Klaxon, Snow Patrol, Soul II Soul and the rest.
He knew about music. He knew about the business of music.
'If you're a manager and you haven't had a hit, you're a nobody,' he said. 'If you're a manager and your bands are starting to have hits, you're a genius. If you're a manager and you come through a second time with more hits, you're a crook. It's the way it works.'
Jazz Summers knew, and repeated often, that the record industry is about chemistry. He had it with Simon Napier-Bell, his insatiable co-manager of Wham! George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley had it - regardless of the rumours. But, as Jazz was the first to admit, it is also about timing; about knowing when to threaten and cajole or keep silent, when to walk away, when to sign on the line, when to lock people out or to let them in. Above all, he admitted candidly, it was about knowing when and how to tell lies: 'but knowing how to tell them with a point.' At least he was honest about it.
He was fond of saying that the people who run the music business know nothing about music. He wished he'd had a quid for the number of times he was told that 'Careless Whisper' was wrong for radio; that the Verve's 'Bittersweet Symphony' (for which Mick and Keith earned all the money, look it up) didn't have a chorus, so it couldn't be a hit. He got it wrong so many times that people wondered how he had the nerve to keep getting up for more.
'It doesn't matter how many times you go down,' he said, 'it's the getting up that counts. How did I keep going through all the failure? I believed. I believed. These days, when the sorrows get me, I don't drown them in drink the way I once did. I meditate instead. I think about nature. I breathe. I stay in the moment. There are no accidents in life. If George Michael hadn't sacked me, I would never have gone on to do all the things that I have done. Every ending is a beginning. Every mean goodbye a sweet and hopeful hello.'
His favourite book, other than his own autobiography, 'Big Life' (Quartet Books) was Eckhart Tolle's 'The Power of Now'. Its Buddhism-meets-Christianity-via-New-Age-Zen spoke loudly to him. Towards the end of his life - he was seventy-one when he died this weekend - he had mastered the art of letting the past and the future take care of themselves. He warned that none of us has control over our life, and that the more we think we do, the more we don't.
Jazz's big subject was love. It took him four wives to get it right. Dianna was his reward. He lived for his daughters, Katie, Rio and Georgia. He could be so fierce at times, he'd make a grown man cry, but his heart was known to melt at the mention of love. 
'Can you picture a future without them?' he'd say.
'Does every moment of the rest of your life as you imagine it - even though it may never exist - feature that person by your side? Can you imagine growing old without them? Do you value their opinions as much or even more than your own? Do they make you want to be a better person? If not, don't settle. Wait. We all need to be cared for. We all need someone to come home to, someone we can be ourselves with, with whom we can be who we truly are. Most people never find that significant other.They compromise, because time is running out and they think they 'ought' to. If only all these 'most people' knew, that all you have to do is wait.'
Lung cancer took two years to take him. But not really. Every ending being a beginning. Every mean goodbye a sweet and hopeful hello.

Sunday, 9 August 2015


Queen. The Final. Knebworth Park, 9th August 1986.  
'A Kind of Magic', Queen's fourteenth album and the 'Highlander' soundtrack, was released at the end of May 1986 to mark the start of their European tour. It soared to Number One. At dawn on Wednesday 4th June, thirteen trucks of equipment rumbled out of London to begin their odyssey across eleven countries. Queen performed twent-six concerts for a million fans in twenty cities, including Stockholm, Paris, Munich, Barcelona and Budapest. Each city was chosen by the band members for personal reasons. 
On 9th August, they performed an open-air gig to more than 120,000 fans in the grounds of Knebworth Park, Stevenage. The stately home gave Queen the biggest-ever UK audience of their career. We celebrated into the night. The only person missing from the festivities was Freddie. He retreated discreetly at the end of the show, arm in arm with his boyfriend Jim Hutton and his PA, Peter Freestone. He had always hated record company dos. He had never liked making small talk with label employees.
In the helicopter conveying him back to Battersea heliport that night, Freddie was informed of the fatal stabbing of a fan during the show. The crowd had been too dense for paramedics to penetrate. Freddie was beside himself. He was still subdued the next morning, as friends began arriving at his home, Garden Lodge, for Sunday lunch. There was terrific concert coverage in all the papers. It failed to cheer him. That fan's death haunted him for the rest of his life. No one knew it at the time, and there were other hideous reasons, why Freddie would never again perform live with Queen.