Monday, 26 December 2016

RIP GEORGIOS KYRIACOS PANAYIOTOU



Another one bites the dust. Time - 2016 - is, of course, to blame. Get real. George was always the first to say that timing is everything. The suggestion that he may have taken his own life on Christmas Day, as some are saying, is therefore not so far-fetched. George was a control freak, a planner, an obsessive. The significance of Christmas Day will not have been lost on him. He created 'Last Christmas', one of the great modern Yuletide classics, to link his name indelibly with the season. Every year, for as long as we care, we will now remember George on Christmas Day. The arrogance, though breathtaking, should be forgiven.
I spent time with George and Andrew Ridgeley in the Eighties. We worked together. His former manager, Simon Napier-Bell, and his Sony publicist Jonathan Morrish, remain my friends. I have other close pals who went to school with George in North London. On a number of occasions, I got to glimpse the real Yog. He was a tormented soul who lived a lie. He never came out to his family while his mother was still alive. He felt compelled to wait until she died to be honest about his orientation.
The self-deception of his youth was a cancer. The damage would not be repaired. George admitted to a void, created by his distance from his parents and wider family, which generated unbearable deprivation. He acknowledged that he sought adoration from complete strangers, in order to fill that void. The harder he tried, the less he was able to compensate. He craved peace. He accepted that his need to become an artist was a cry for help. He agreed that he was desperately insecure, and that he was addicted to applause. He fell in love with Elton John at a very young age. Performing his Elton favourite, 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me' on stage with his idol was, he said, the pinnacle of his career. The pair later fell out, made up, fell out, made up, in that intensely emotional manner that tends to be the downfall of superstars.
George pressed the self-destruct button years ago. He gave in to his desires, and did time for them. He lost out in love, giving away his heart and having it returned to him in bits. Few can recover from that, least of all those whose every nerve ending is exposed to and raked over by millions of fans, dependent on his music and demanding, always demanding, answers about love and the meaning of life that he was not equipped to give.
This is how I will remember him: at Live Aid, 13th July 1985. George was twenty two, in his  prime, proud to be part of the greatest show on earth, and lapping up every blink of it. I watched him from the wings that day, getting everything he needed in the giving. If only in the moment. At least he had that. 


Sunday, 18 December 2016

BE IT HEAVEN OR HELL



Twenty-four years ago tonight, our lives fell to pieces when my father Ken Jones fell under a train. He was the Independent’s chief sportswriter at the time, and was making his way home from the office Christmas party. He’d done the sensible thing: he’d left the car at home, and was taking the train. A few had been cancelled. There was a platform-change announcement at London Bridge. A stampede up the stairs, over the bridge and down the other side. My father, a compact Welshman, was swept up in the maelstrom and hurled down onto the rails, just as the train was pulling in. It took them more than four hours to cut him from the wreckage. What was left of his right arm, and his writing hand, was left behind.
He still hears the voice of the nameless paramedic who talked him into holding on, into clinging to life. To this day, he suffers searing phantom pain in the arm that isn't there. He has lived for almost a quarter of a century one-armed. He continued to travel the world well into his seventies, covering  prize fights, football matches, summer and winter Olympic Games. He only retired when they made him. He could still kick them senseless for that.
Ken is eighty-five years old, scythe-sharp, and bored, much of the time. On a cocktail of prescription drugs, he phases in and out of the moment. He spends half the day on an oxygen generator for emphysema. We still have fierce bouts over politics and sport. He never has fewer than five books on the go, everything from Ancient Rome and Shakespeare to contemporary biographies, and ever the poetry of Dylan Thomas.
He lost a part of himself, that bitter night. But he became somehow more himself because of it. In many ways, random and brutal though such accidents are, it was the making of him. I've been looking at that raw, tragic stump for two and a half decades, now. It still shocks me to recall what happened, longer ago than the births of my children. It breaks my heart. But then I remember, he's still a whole dad. No less of a complete, confounding jigsaw puzzle of a man for want of a single absent piece.
Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell. Go easy out there, this coming week. Hang back from the edge. Stay behind the yellow line. Keep off the roads, if you can. Run for the shadows, but not for the train. Never, ever, run for the train. There will always be another. You might not be as lucky as Dad. Which is the way he sees it. Always has. It must be what saved him.



Sunday, 10 April 2016

TEN THOUSAND HOURS: MICHAEL ARMSTRONG



It boils down to the ten thousand hours: the time it is said to take to become good at our chosen pursuit. This theory arose from the work of Dr. K. Anders Ericsson at the Florida State University. You’ve got to put the hours in, and that’s that.

It got me thinking. Ten thousand hours equals four hundred and seventeen days. It may not sound like much, but it is a lot. There are only a hundred and sixty eight hours in a week. We spend, on average, around fifty of those sleeping. If we devote, say, forty hours a week trying to get good at something, that’s a little over two thousand hours per year. At that rate, it takes a good five years to become passable at your craft. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practise.

But there’s more to it than that. Anyone can spend the time. What makes the difference is talent. It’s not just practise that makes perfect, it’s perfect practise. Kids who get a guitar for Christmas, hone a few tunes, give it their best shot, can be as good as anyone who has been doing it all their life, is the 21st Century message. It’s not true. Most of us are better off fantasising, singing ‘I Will Survive’ or ‘The Power of Love’ into a hairbrush in the bedroom after a hard day’s wine. It takes guts to get up in front of a roomful of strangers, open your mouth and sing. It’s one of the hardest things to do. We all know the TV shows that have deluded the masses into thinking that anyone can do it. They can’t.

Michael Armstrong can. This was apparent the first time I saw him perform live, as the warm-up for Leo Sayer at London’s Hippodrome last autumn. Some of the songs were familiar, especially the Billy Joel numbers. Others were new and unique and seemed heartfelt, when I heard them after the gig. I confess to having dismissed Michael at first as just another pub singer. I was gossiping with my friends, and didn’t pay attention. But I took the album home, and actually played it.

Michael has devoted his life to music, but hasn’t had the breaks. He grew up on the Beatles, Neil Diamond, the Bee Gees, Led Zeppelin: his parents’ record collection. Didn't we all. He speaks movingly about music having unlocked his soul when he was little, of his youthful yearning to express himself through songs. The odds were against him. His family was not musical. Undeterred, he learned to play the drums, scraped together the cash for guitar lessons, and taught himself piano. He began to write, and started his own band. They pubbed and clubbed, and wound up with some support engagements at the Shepherds Bush Empire. Then reality kicked in. It was time to leave school. His builder father took into the family firm. The work sapped Michael's strength, and also his soul.

Wife, home, family. The dream grew distant. The economic crash took its toll. Then, out of the blue, an introduction to music PR Lisa Davies led to the recording of a three-track EP, which meandered, in turn, to positive attention from the music media. Michael found himself moving among musicians he had idolised, including Paul McCartney and Mark Knopfler. Working with Lisa to promote the artists  on her roster, Michael began performing with Cliff Richard and Chris de Burgh. With Lisa’s help and encouragement, and with input from Keith Bessey, famed for his work with the Ramones, 10CC and Elton John, Michael recorded his debut album, mostly in the garage, on no money. The harder we work, the luckier we get. Not many could persuade legends Albert Lee, Peter Howarth (current lead singer of the Hollies), Stephen Walters and Elliott Randall to perform on an unknown’s debut. Lisa Davies can.

Chances are you have already seen Michael Armstrong talking about his eponymous offering on television, or heard him on the radio. You may have seen him on the road with Beverley Craven or  Howarth, Vonda Shepard or Carol Decker and T’Pau. He’s not over-selling himself. 

‘It is an industry in decline,’ he points out. ‘Only a handful of artists sell records these days. There is no investment in new music. There is no development of  new artists. It is all about instant gratification, reality TV, and here today, gone tomorrow. Despite all this, we carry on. It’s in our blood, it’s in our hearts, it’s in our dreams.’

Michael put in his ten thousand hours. He’ll put in thousands more. He won't give up. His integrity and dedication are humbling. It’s the musical equivalent of banging your head against a brick wall, he knows. I hope for a time when you'll know him instantly, from those precious first few bars. 

Michael Armstrong: The Album is out now.
www.peterhowarth.com

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

EDDIE THE EAGLE



What is it about rooting for the underdog, cheering for the little guy? We all do it. Perhaps it's because there is something more human, more 'normal', more frail about an underdog. Something more like us. Success often appears to mean more if it's something that's 'not supposed' to happen. The underdog exerts him or herself more. They've had to make so much effort, even to come last. Perversely, it is because the odds are stacked against such figures that we convince ourselves they can win. Even when they don't stand a chance.


The universal desire for the no-hoper to triumph is the theme of new movie 'Eddie the Eagle'. I wept through it last night. Sentimental it is, pressing every button to get us behind the protagonist, who overcomes both physical disability and poverty to fulfil his dream of becoming an Olympian. We know the true story of Eddie Edwards, the first competitor to represent Great Britain in Olympic ski jumping. Back then, in Calgary, 1988 (my father was there, reporting for the late Independent), Eddie was our record-holder, finishing last in the 70m and 90m events. His perseverance, courage, lack of backing - other than money filched from his Mum and Dad's savings set aside to buy a new van - captured the world's imagination and gave Eddie his fifteen minutes. That quarter of an hour resonates sublimely to this day.


Eddie never qualified again for any championship or Olympic Games. But he had his moment. Books, videos, commercials and pop records followed. I remember accompanying him to Finland on a press trip (I was there for the Daily Mail) when his single 'Fly, Eddie, Fly' made it to Number One there. He was the nicest bloke. We had a laugh.

The dream faded fas. For all his opportunities, Eddie wound up bankrupt in 1992. His response to that was to study for a law degree, flying in the faces of those he felt had wronged and misrepresented him. He went on to present radio and TV, won the ITV diving show 'Splash', and commentated for Channel 4's ‘The Jump’. Last I heard, his wife had left him and he was back working as a plasterer, reluctantly retracing his father's footsteps. I hope this movie turns his fortunes around again. He should at least negotiate a new edition of his autobiography.

So they take creative liberties with the story. Nothing new, they do this with Shakespeare. The film's icing is heartthrob Hugh Jackman as Eddie's fictional coach, Bronson Perry, a one-time ski-jumper  who fell off the side in every sense. He is reeled reluctantly into Eddie's orbit and given another stab at glory, if only reflected. Welsh young'un Taron Egerton (‘Testament of Youth’, ‘Legend’) captures Eddie's gauche, long-sighted determination. Keith Allen, another Welshman, as Eddie's dad, leaves the menace of the Sheriff of Nottingham behind to bring long-suffering and acceptance of one's lot in life to the part. Jim Broadbent delights as a BBC commentator, while Christopher Walken, he of the alien face and other-worldly stare ('Pulp Fiction', 'Hairspray') is a wrencher as Perry's old coach. The Eighties soundtrack, curated by Gary Barlow, is irresistible. They deploy every trick: 'Cool Runnings', the classic film about the Jamaican bobsleigh team at the same Olympics, is paid homage to throughout. I could hear echoes of my all-time favourite film, 'Field of Dreams'.


'Eddie the Eagle' flew all the way to the Sundance Festival in January, where it received its world premiere. Released in the US by 20th Century Fox, it's just out in the UK, distributed by Lionsgate. It stands as a metaphor for what it means to be British. My old Fleet Street cohort Sean Macaulay wrote the screenplay, more than a decade ago. As he says, of Hollywood, 'You never know what can happen if you play the long game.' Eddie's philosophy in a nutshell. We'd better keep at it.


Wednesday, 24 February 2016

BBC, YOU HAVE GONE TOO FAR THIS TIME

I have known Tony Blackburn forever. I count him as a friend, and I am appalled by the BBC's sacking of him. If Lord Tony Hall and the Corporation think that they can destroy his fine fifty-year career for the most threadbare of reasons - that he couldn't remember attending a meeting - they have lost the plot.
What on earth are they doing? Shooting themselves in the foot. Pick of the Pops has a greater audience than anything else on the BBC. The Daily Mail's story about this yet-another-historic-'sex abuse'-scandal  reads, to me, as though the teenager who took her own life had self-esteem and mental health issues, and had created a fantasy life which, at such a vulnerable age, she came to regret - then punished herself in the most tragic way. Awful for her and her family - how do those left behind ever recover from that? - but devastating for Tony that all this should now resurface, tainting his name and robbing him of his job. He is a decent guy, a devoted husband to Debbie, and the proudest of fathers to talented Victoria.
Time to do a Gambo and start writing a diary, TB. Do it today. Paul said it was the one thing that gave him a focus, kept him sane, and sustained him through months of fear, when at one point he believed that he would end his days in a prison cell. Finally, when charges were dropped and he emerged, relieved, he was able to translate the experience into a book. His memoir 'Love, Paul Gambaccini' was published last year. It set the record straight. He had the last laugh.


Thursday, 11 February 2016

GARY KEMP'S HOMECOMING

I made it under the wire to this play at Trafalgar Studios last night. It concludes this weekend. Gary Kemp was the point. It seems an age since we worked with Spandau Ballet at Chrysalis.
Everything comes to us in the right moment. Bowie said that 'ageing is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person that you always should have been.' While no one would wish to wipe the Spandau years from memory, nor Gary's songs, he's through the barricade now. What a present and committed actor he is. He must be mindful of his years at Anna Scher's children's theatre in Islington, where his talent was kindled, moons ago.
It co-stars Keith Allen and Ron Cook, and is a difficult piece. Oft lauded as Pinter's finest, it bears a re-run in this its fiftieth year. It's none the lamer nor the tamer for it. Set in a working class north London home, a setting familiar to Gary, its focus is a cracked marriage re-examined against the backdrop of a vicious family who refuse to escape their past. The text is cryptic and cruel. Themes of sex and power deafen. Let it go, this clan of misfits will not do.
The spaces between the strokes. The dark beyond the light. Pinter magnifies every splinter to the point of pain. Raw irony that son Teddy, Gary's clipped and stunted character (even his accent, mannerisms and body language are an escape from himself) is an academic, a Doctor of Philosophy at a college in America, who has no understanding of family values or the meaning of love. The symbolism of an invisible mirror on the wall into which the actors peer, looking out into the audience, reminds us that we are Alice: through the play and out the other side, always looking at ourselves. Perhaps never seeing.
The oppressed woman, Teddy's wife Ruth, has been forced to live a fake life all these years. She finds herself. This is the homecoming. The play is her triumph.