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