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 … *
Take me back.
Those-days Leo Sayer was a screw of contradictions more muddled than his hair. Now gentle, now raucous, sometimes scrabbling, brawling fierce. Small and slight out of character but a giant on stage, backing down from no one behind a mic. His face was a door, wide-open, welcoming all-comers. He could blister with a gaze, torch with a smile, even bruise with the kind of words that once made me blush. Had he been a bar, he would have been our kind of place.
Then he'd open his mouth and sing.
Chrysalis Records was where I came in. Early Eighties. Leo was still signed to the label responsible for all 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, and he did all the deals. Giving it all away was about 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 even 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 yet again, up against his new management for screwing up his pension fund. Unable to afford to go the distance, Leo was forced to walk away and begin again. Fortune fetched him the irresistible Ronnie Johnson, once Van Morrison's guitarist. They mounted a band and toured relentlessly until Leo was back in the black. The sheer exuberance of the 1999 album 'Live in London' is testament to the tidal wave of energy that carried them over the tough.
Every trial and tribulation leaves its tidemark. Leo was tired, and in need of new air. He found it ten thousand miles away, withdrawing to Sydney in 2005 with second 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 for about 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 really got him, I mean really, for a while. It was American artists who excited him, who he tried to emulate. Not only the Elvises, but the Ray Charleses, the Chuck Berrys. A class act, see. He loved Shoreham, near Brighton, where he was born, and he could have eaten 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, and got it out of his system in the end.
He's sixty seven now. Which makes me feel old, and yet not, because what goes around, and because he's still in there and out here, the plucky clown, the relentless mischief-maker, the old Stratford Place rebel-rouser, and then he opens his mouth and sings …
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, awfully big adventures, a lot of getting knocked down and getting back up. This is Leo at his finest, splashing emotion about and belting it, the truth about people, the planet, this wreck we've made of the environment and our relationships, and don't even go there about love. It's not preachy, he just says it. Sings it. Almost too painful to listen to, some of it. Careful lyrics, tight writing, spirit-crammed and spilling soul. These tracks I love: 'How Did We Get So Old', for it's tongue-in 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, exquisitely bluesy and cool. 'Mister In Between' is masterful, with meltingly delicate trumpet. Not a euphemism. The title track, 'Restless Years', not only for the line 'Hold on when your dreams are faded', because yes, he knows about my life, and he knows about yours.
Sometimes he sounds like a child. At others like a hundred year-old down-and-out with nothing left to give, but still with the glint in his eye and hope in his heart and the gurgle curdling in his throat, to remind us, always something.
Talent, luck, schmuck. He had it all, but Leo Sayer was never a major star. He really 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