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Zoe Gail: the lady who switched the lights on

It’s not rock and roll I know, but I do like it. It, in this case, is the story of Zoe Gail, who died on 20 February 2020. She was born on 20 February 1920, so she died on her actual 100th birthday. Only the Daily Telegraph published her obituary and I’ll confess that I had never heard of her, but it was such an amazing story I thought I’d make a note for an annual round-up of those we lost in 2020 for BBC Radio London.

Zoe Gail was a musical comedy star during and just after the Second World War. She was actually from South Africa, born Zoe Stapleton in 1920, but at 17 was already a striking beauty with long red tresses and a delightful singing voice, so her pushy showbiz mother sent her to London to be a star. Almost immediately she was snapped up to sing at the Comedy Theatre in Panton Street, in between the scene changes in revue shows (it was common that a singer would come out for 5 or 6 minutes to keep the audience entertained while they moved scenery and furniture around). 

She was such an immediate hit that the management of the Comedy Theatre put her on a substantial contract. Throughout the war she became a bigger and bigger star and top West End attraction at such places as the Hippodrome and the Palladium.

It’s odd to think that despite wartime, austerity and blackouts, the West End sort of continued. London was actually under a blackout from 1 September 1939, two days before war was declared. In those early days, even lighting a match in the blackout could result in a fine, but later a more realistic approach was adopted, with limited use of illuminated signs and what was called ‘glimmer’ or ‘star’ lighting. All lights however had to be extinguished during air raids, though from September 1944 onwards, the regulations were relaxed to allow a ‘dim-out’, which meant lighting could be in effect the equivalent of that night’s moonlight

As war broke out, a large number of West end theatres did close because let’s face it, we were all expecting a pretty immediate German bombing campaign and wanted to keep our citizens safe. However, when those bombings failed to materialise, many theatres re-opened within weeks but were not allowed to use bright lights in the way we might typically think of in, say, Piccadilly Circus. 

London theatre was an important part of life for the British people during World War II. As the war progressed, rules were gradually relaxed, especially when it became clear that the continuation of normal leisure facilities would be essential to maintain general morale and some sense of normality. Theatres became an important escape for the Londoners, a reprieve from their problems and theatre-going was a popular pastime. That’s not to say there weren’t difficulties: staff were obviously called up, costumes and make up were rationed, in fact performances moved earlier in the day, to lunchtimes and matinees, so that they took place before blackout at nightfall, depending on the time of the year.

Air raids did still disrupt performances. The programme always included instructions on what to do in the case of an air raid (run like hell to Piccadilly Circus underground station, I’d suggest). Audiences were warned when an air raid was in progress via illuminated signs and were free to leave for a shelter if they wished. ‘All we ask’ said the programme ‘is that if you feel you must go, you will depart quietly and without excitement’. Many theatregoers preferred to stay put and enjoy the play.

Things obviously got much easier once the Blitz was over, but the Doodlebugs and V2 flying bombs of 1944 brought another crisis, closing many shows. However, the shows that stayed open just mopped up all the folks who would have gone to the ones that closed, so everyone did rather well out of it. It’s worth saying that troops on leave were a huge part of the audiences too. By April 1945, the German war-making capability had been badly damaged and was nowhere near as dangerous as it had been, so street lighting was switched on in April 1945; on 30 April, the day Hitler committed suicide, Big Ben was lit 5 years and 123 days after the Blackout was first imposed.  Whilst streets could be lit, there were supply issues so there was some degree of rationing of power. The bright lights of West End theatres and the advertising boards of Piccadilly Circus were not considered crucial, so the West End remained in dim out mode till – would you believe – April 1949, almost 10 years after they were switched off. 

Anyway back to Ms Gail. She was one of the West End’s biggest stars all through the war on the stage and in the movies too. She was however quite controversial. She often dressed slightly androgynously in a man’s dinner suit when on stage and some of the lyrics in her revue Strike a New Note at the Prince of Wales Theatre were a bit racy for the time. Her big song was I’m Going to Get Lit Up When the Lights Go Up in London, whose lyrics included such filth as:

I’m going to get lit up when the lights go up in London;
I’m going to get lit up as I’ve never been before
You will find me on the tiles, you will find me wreathed in smiles;

I’m going to get so lit up, I’ll be visible for miles!

The critics were aghast at such louche behaviour. One disapproved of her male tuxedo costume, calling it ‘strange, hermaphroditic garb’ and denounced the spectacle of a young and beautiful woman appearing on stage vowing to get “pickled and positively pie-eyed” when the blackout ended. Her biggest fan, however, was Winston Churchill who just happened to be Prime Minister and after seeing the show he promised her that when the lights came back on in the West End, she would be the lady to switch them on. And despite the fact that Churchill was voted out of office almost the moment the war ended, strings were pulled and his promise was kept.

So, on 2 April 1949, Zoe Gail climbed out on to the balcony of the Criterion Restaurant overlooking Piccadilly Circus. Dressed in top hat, tie and tails, standing in a spotlight she sang I’m Going to Get Lit Up When the Lights Go Up in London to a huge crowd of over 10,000 packed into Piccadilly Circus below. Then, with an Abracadabra and a Hey presto!, she flicked a switch and the Bovril sign came on first followed by the rest of the lights in Piccadilly Circus. As a final flourish, she tossed her top hat into the crowd and opened a jeroboam of champagne.

She went from strength to strength after the war, on the stage, nightclubs, radio, TV and the movies. She appeared at the 1952 Royal Variety Performance in November 1952, the first of the Queen’s reign where she received a standing ovation when she sang Burlington Bertie in her trademark male tuxedo. She moved to Las Vegas in 1958 and appeared in cabaret in cabaret for several years. When she left show business, she ran a jewellery shop and bought and sold houses, but lost all her money in a scam and she died aged 100 penniless and sharing a room in an old people’s home. Nevertheless, as late as in her nineties, she would always get meticulously groomed for visitors, still maintaining that the night she switched on the lights in Piccadilly was the greatest moment of her life.


The Black-skinned Blue-eyed Boys

Black History Month is just ending, so I thought I’d have a look at the Black British chart pioneers, those first black British acts to trouble the chart compilers. Not surprisingly the UK singles charts were pretty white in the 1950s, full of the kind of singers your mum and dad – or even your grandma and grandad – might like, Jimmy Young, Lita Rosa and Dickie Valentine plus imports like Frank, Perry and Eddie Fisher.

But then immigration was only just starting. The SS Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in June 1948 and it was only in the 1960s that the West Indian population was sizeable enough to affect the charts. The first UK Singles chart was in December 1952 – our first Number One was Italian-American crooner Al Martino’s Here in my Heart  but it wasn’t until December 1954 that there was an act of colour at Number One: Let’s Have Another Party by Winifred Atwell. Ms Atwell was a Trinidadian boogie-woogie and ragtime pianist who enjoyed enormous popularity in Britain and Australia from the 1950s, selling over 20 million records. 

She is also the person who discovered one of our most beloved of singers, Matt Monro. She heard his demo and she got him a deal with Decca Records at a time when he was still working as a bus driver in North London. Decca decided Terry Parsons, Monro’s real name of course, wasn’t showbiz enough, so he took Matt from the Fleet Street journalist who had written his first good review and Monro from Winifred Atwell’s father.  

She was however not technically from the UK and neither were fellow holders of the Number One title like Harry Belafonte (Mary’s Boy Child) or Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers (Why Do Fools Fall in Love?) or Tommy Edwards (It’s All in the Game) who were all Black Americans (Belafonte was actually from a Jamaican background and still with us at 93). 

No, the first British act of colour to hit Number One was As I Love You as late as February 1959 by … Dame Shirley Veronica Bassey, now 83 and resident of Monte Carlo for many years, but born in Tiger Bay, Cardiff to a Nigerian father and an English mother. Her schoolteachers noticed even when she as 6 or 7 that she had an extraordinarily strong voice and asked her to please not sing so loudly. Not surprisingly by 13 she was singing in Cardiff pubs and clubs, in London by 16 and signed to Philips at 18. Her first single though, Burn My Candle turned out to be utter filth, with lyrics like: Open my door, and spurn the scandal, who wants to help me burn my candle, at both ends! The only radio station in town, the BBC, considered it so racy that they refused to play it, but Philips stuck with her and eventually her cleaner releases made the charts, starting with The Banana Boat Song and then As I Love You, which zipped to Number One for four weeks after she sang it on TV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

She wasn’t necessarily a pioneer, for there was one black act who paved the way but never troubled the charts. His name was Dudley Heslop, a name that may mean little or nothing to you but his stage name Cuddly Dudley may ring some bells with older readers. Cuddly Dudley was the featured singer on ITV’s Oh Boy! ITV’s Saturday evening pop show. He arrived here from Kingston, Jamaica in 1947 and worked the West End clubs with a calypso act until rock and roll hit in the mid-1950s and his manager promoted him as Britain’s answer to The Big Bopper. A chunky bloke, he got some flashy suits, snazzy ties and a new stage name.

You’d know him because he sang two songs a week for more than a year with Oh Boy!’s house band Lord Rockingham’s XI, but alas Dudley was unable to turn his TV exposure into hit singles. He certainly paved the way for the last Number One of the 1950s, What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? by Emile Ford & the Checkmates.

Emile Ford – Michael Emile Telford Miller – was from St Lucia and came to London in the mid-1950s to study Sound Engineering. In fact, once the hits dried up in the Sixties, he retired from singing and spent the rest of his life designing audio systems (he held dozens of copyrights not least for the technology that all Karaoke machines use). But back to the Fifties: he started singing in clubs and won a talent contest at the Cafe Royal at 68 Regent Street as part of the 1959 Soho Fair. Fortunately it was sponsored by Pye Records and first prize was an audition and a contract for a single, which turned out to be a slightly doo-wop version of a really old Broadway tune from 1911 called What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For? which was Number One for six weeks.

Famously he’s the first black British artist to sell sold over a million copies of a single. What is almost never mentioned though is that Emile Ford & the Checkmates were the first integrated, multi-racial pop group. The Checkmates were Emile, his two St Lucian half-brothers, Dave and George – George Ford was later the bass player with Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel by the way – and four white blokes and on big occasion even three white female backing singers. They never had any trouble, never had any comments from anyone and always had plenty of work. In 1960!

The early Sixties was basically guitar groups, none of whom came from the West Indian community, well, not yet anyway. It fell to an axiomatic Jamaican teenager – she was called Millie and she certainly was small – to be the gamechanger. Millie Small’s 1964 global smash My Boy Lollypop may have been recorded in central London but producer Chris Blackwell had had the good sense to bring the voice straight from Kingston. And the guitar, courtesy of the ubiquitous Ernest Ranglin, flown to the UK for the first time in his life for the occasion. It sold a million here and five more around the world. Caribbean music had arrived and had hit the mainstream. Progress was slow but by 1967 ska tunes direct from Jamaica were hitting the charts with great regularity, reaching a zenith with Desmond Dekker’s wonderful and wonderfully unintelligible Israelites.

Black-owned record labels were smart enough to know that most records were bought in chain stores like WH Smith or Woolworths, which happened to be the shops the BBC used for the UK Singles chart. Once Desmond Dekker got on Top of the Pops, it was a pretty short route to the top of the charts, because these songs were being bought not only by West Indian kids around the country but by young, white Herberts like me and I bought my records in Woolies. It wasn’t too long before bands forming at schools, particularly schools in London, would be made up of white kids and black kids. In 1965, three kids – Pat Lloyd, John Hall and Eddy Grant – yes, THAT Eddy Grant – at Acland Burghly school in North London made their own guitars in woodwork and formed the Equals to play youth clubs and get girls. When they were joined by the Gordon twins, Derv and Lincoln, they got serious and hopped on the Mecca/Top Rank circuit.

Signed to a record deal in short order, they did two things: they quit their jobs and they headed straight down to see Colin at the Carnaby Cavern in Ganton Street, just off Carnaby Street, who dressed them in the latest green silks and pink and purple paisleys. If they were going to look different, they were going to look REALLY different. At one point lest we forget, Eddy Grant – yes, THAT Eddy Grant – dyed his hair blond.

The first single did a little on the continent, but it was the follow up – well, the B-side of the follow up, once it was flipped – the Eddy Grant-penned Baby, Come Back that put them on the map. Number One in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, it finally nipped across the channel more than a year after it came out and shot to the top and stayed there for 6 weeks.

At exactly the same time, West Londoners The Foundations had formed in a basement club under at record shop in Bayswater. They were three white guys, four West Indians and Sri Lankan, aged from 16 to 38. After a successful audition with Pye Records, they were offered two Tin Pan Alley songs, Let The Heartaches Begin and Baby Now That I’ve Found You. They passed on Heartaches, which was snapped up by 6 foot 7 inch blues shouter Long John Baldry who took it to Number One. They went with Baby Now That I’ve Found You and once Radio Luxembourg got behind it, hit the lower reaches of the Top 30. A Top of the Pops appearance was booked and ‘ere long they toppled the mighty Baldry from the top in November 1967.

Fifty years on, all the Equals are still with us and are still close friends. Alas, Clem Curtis lead singer of the Foundations, had his head turned and suggested they now be billed as Clem Curtis & the Foundations. The rest of the Foundations suggested he sod off and sacked him, bringing in Barbadian Colin Young for the next biggie, Build Me Up Buttercup. Hardly anyone noticed.

Both bands are still on the road – well in any other year they would be – and are still doing their thing and a great night out.They both had other hits but gradually styles changed and ironically they may have been superseded by the rise of reggae and disco in the 1970s. The only exception is Eddy Grant, who became THAT Eddy Grant: the first owner of black record label, the first owner of a black recoding studio in his backyard in Stamford Hill and a global superstar with Electric Avenue, Living on the Frontline and I Dont Wanna Dance.

Marc Bolan: 43 years gone and forever 29

It is 30 September as I write and this would have been Marc Bolan’s 73rd birthday. Alas, the 16 September just gone was the 43rd anniversary of his death of in a car crash aged 29, 2 weeks before his 30th birthday.

Bolan burst onto the scene just as I and people of my vintage was about the right age to receive him. I was only 9 in 1970 when T.Rex’s Ride A White Swan first hit and I wasn’t yet watching Top of the Pops obsessively try Thursday at 7.25pm so I missed him, but my older sister used to get Jackie magazine and one week there was a picture of this odd-looking guy with staggering hair and for some reason glitter on his cheeks. An extraordinary sight for any 10-year-old and I waist.

By 1971, it had taken Marc Bolan fully 6 or 7 years to be an overnight success. Ever the musical magpie, he had ruthlessly jumped from bandwagon to bandwagon until he found one that worked. He was a folkie a la Dylan, he was in 60s power pop group, he was a cross-legged psychedelic pixie, all without any noticeable success. But then he bought an electric guitar and became a teen idol, which is the bandwagon that worked for a few years.

He was not a great musician – he certainly didn’t think he was – the music is quite simple and the lyrics in hindsight are utter nonsense knocked off in ten minutes (if that long) but they sounded great then and they still do. And I must not have been the only one watching him avidly on those Thursday evenings in 1971 and 1972. Everyone else and many of them went on to form bands by the end of the decade. You can’t really imagine a lot of Punk like The Damned especially, the New Romantics, Depeche Mode, Culture Club, Oasis, The Smiths and U2 without T.Rex.

He was born Mark Feld on 30 September 1947 at Hackney Hospital in east London to lorry driver Sid and Phyllis Feld, and younger brother to Harry (as his younger brother took over the world a pop idol, Harry was content to be a bus driver). Sid Feld was Jewish, his mother Phyllis Atkins was not, so technically Mark was not Jewish either but he was aware of his dad’s heritage, not least because he was named after Sid’s brother, his uncle Mark Feld who was beaten to death after the end of the war in 1946 in a fight with more than a hint of anti-semitism

The family lived on the middle floor of four rooms of a large Victorian house at 25 Stoke Newington Common. There was a coal fire in one room and only cold water in the bathroom. He escaped the dreariness of poverty with his imagination, fired by visits the ABC cinema in Lower Clapton Road or the Regent in Stamford Hill. No scholar at any stage, he like many kids got hit pretty badly by the Elvis Presley bug and from the age off nine onwards, it was music and fashion and nothing else. Style was everything to him and school meant nothing. He only read one book willingly – The Life of Beau Brummel about the 19th century dandy George Brummel. He’d seen the film with Stewart Grainger so sought out the book at his local library

Aged 11, he almost never left the house without being dressed to them nines and carrying a rolled-up umbrella. He also went in search of a tailor. His little gang of Mods would meet in a coffee bar near Petticoat Lane market and then go off looking for clothes in the Jewish East End: Mr Bilgorri of Bishopsgate where all the best faces went. Borowick’s of Bow on the Mile End Road or Connicks on the Commercial Road in Whitechapel, one of the only places you could get American imported Levis. He was the Beau Brummel of Stamford Hill and would parade up and down the High Street till he got noticed by the older Mods.

By 13 he was venturing up to the West End regularly, blagging his way into the Lyceum where you had to be 16 to enter but he looked so sharp sartorially speaking and was so well connected he had no difficulty getting in. However, he never danced because he didn’t want to crease his jacket. He was hated – because he was so sharp and cool

What was more of a mystery was where he got the money to pay for his sartorial tastes because bespoke suits don’t come cheap. He would occasionally buy off the peg and get his mum to customise it at home, but big brother Harry suggests fondly that he may have been light-fingered, with a speciality in nicking anything that he could exchange for money but especially motorbikes and scooters, that vital accessory for many mods. Your scooter may have been stylish but it certainly was not secure. According to legend, the same key started every Vespa made between 1956 and 1965.

In early 1962, Town magazine were planning a photospread about the emerging youth culture of Mods called The Young Take The Wheel, with a little photo feature called Faces Without Shadows. Features Editor Michael Parkinson – yes that Michael Parkinson – had heard about the Stamford Hill Boys and despatched Don McCullin, later a very celebrated war photographer, to photograph their three leaders. They were the 20-year-olds Peter Sugar and Miki Simmonds and Mark Feld, only just 14, dressed to the nines and gibing it some gob. His main priorities, he said, were looking different: I mean you got to be two steps ahead. The stuff half the haddocks you see around are wearing I was wearing years ago when we used to go round on scooters in Levis and leather jackets. A kid came up to me in my class in his new suit, an Italian box it was. He says to me ‘Just look at the length of your jacket, he says ‘you’re not with it. I was wearing that style two years I said. He didn’t like that.

(For clarification: a haddock is a rival Mod but a very poorly dressed one).

When the issue of Town appeared in September 1962, Mark complained that the photos had actually been taken much earlier in the year, so obviously his wardrobe had completely changed and there was no way he’d even consider wearing any of that kind of clobber. Also by September 1962 issue came out, his parents moved to Wimbledon in south London and Stamford Hill lost its King Mod. He was distraught but he turned 15 and left school (you could in those days) and continued his education in Soho at the Flamingo, the Scene, the WAG and Le Discotheque on Wardour Street. One day he popped into the cinema and saw Summer Holiday in 1963 and decided he was going to sing like its star, Cliff Richard

He lived at home and was largely unemployed – work was for haddocks. Pushed by his mother Phyllis, he worked at Edgar James menswear in Tooting High Street for a few weeks until he saw an ad for Lucie Clayton’s modelling school in New Bond Street W1 which required £100, paid by Phyllis his mum. He may not have been a top model but he did get some work for Littlewoods and menswear chain John Temple and even got some TV extra work, so with his fees, he went out and bought an acoustic guitar , mainly because he’d fallen hard for Bob Dylan. He learned to play using Bert Weedon’s Play In A Day tutorial book and spent all days cross-legged on the floor strumming and singing in an odd voice, which no one who heard it thought would take him anywhere

With no manager, he hustled himself up West where he was no based. In January 1965, he paid to make his first demo of two songs at Maximum Sound Studios in Dean Street W1 one of which – natch – was Blowin’ In the Wind. The session took 22 minutes and included six goes at Blowin‘ because he discovered he couldn’t actually play guitar and play harmonica at the same time. According to a witness, his harmonica playing made Bob Dylan sound like Larry Adler. Not surprisingly, whoever he peddled the tapes to, rejected him. He was auditioned by EMI at Abbey Road in February 1965 but it lasted just 15 minutes before leaving unsuccessfully. He was Toby Tyler at this point, from a 1960 Disney film Toby Tyleror Ten Weeks with a Circus about an orphan who runs away to join the circus. He was convinced it was only a matter of time before a British Dylan burst onto the scene and he was convinced it was going to be him. Unfortunately, it turned out to be Donovan.

Later that week he moved into a flat in Landale Road in Barnes with two actors one of whom was James Bolam who had just started on BBC in a sitcom called The Likely Lads. Toby Tyler became Mark Bolan much to James Bolam’s chagrin. Mark couldn’t understand why Bolam was so upset. Get over yourself Jakes, there’s no way Bolam was ever going to be anywhere near as successful as Bolan. If that weren’t bad enough, Mark became Marc from a recent trip to Paris. It gets worse: there was now an umlaut to the o making it Bölan, although thankfully that didn’t last long.

Finally after much hustling and using new mates from up West, he got an audition with Decca Records who now needed their own Donovan which led to a deal for one single. That single was The Wizard released in November 1965 with the most bizarre press release ever written and I quote:

Marc Bolan was born in September 1947. When 15 years had passed, he travelled to Paris and met a black magician called The Wizard. He lived for 18 months in The Wizard’s chateau with an owl called Archimedes and the biggest whitest Siamese cat you could ever find. He then felt the need to spend time in Rome. For 2 weeks, he strove to find himself and the returned to London where he began to write. His writings mirror his experiences with mentionings of the magician’s pact with the great god Pan. In London, walking down the Kings Road, Chelsea in the dead of the night he chanced to meet a girl called Lo-og who gave him a magic cat. The cat, named after the girl is now his constant companion and a source of inspiration to him. Now the Wizard’s tale is set down for all to hear on Marc’s first recording for Decca.

No one bought it.

He barely played live, only a few occasional gigs, did a Ready Steady Go! but it was disastrous. Decca gave him another shot and he recorded another four songs which failed to see a release. He went into 1966 generally amazed that he wasn’t a star yet. At least his rival, another guy who chopped and changed as fashions mandated, that Davie Jones from Brixton, hadn’t got anywhere yet either.

Hanging around the right places as usual meant he hooked up with Yardbirds manager Simon Napier Bell who after another failed single put him in John’s Children, a band he was also managing and who were signed to Track records, home of the Who. They needed a songwriter, he needed a band, but he’d never been in a group before so he didn’t last long, In April 1967, on his way back from a German tour supporting The Who, he saw a Ravi Shankar concert which gave him the idea for a new bandwagon. He left John’s Children even before their first single Desdemona was released and formed Tyrannosaurus Rex, originally a 5-piece but soon slimmed to a cross-legged, be-kaftanned, josticked psychedelic bongos-and-acoustic-guitar duo. 

They were flavour off the moment. Signed to a record deal at last, they recorded a debut album with surely the best title ever: My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows. It cost £200 and found a champion in DJ John Peel and his Radio London show The Perfumed Garden. When he became resident DJ at the psychedelic club, Middle Earth, he made sure Tyrannosaurus Rex were on the bill for much of the next year. When he moved to Radio One he played them constantly on Top Gear. If he did a gig at a university, it was a condition that Tyrannosaurus Rex played too. 

He seemed genuinely intrigued by hippy culture but there’s little doubt he saw it as a vehicle to meet his enormous ambition. Thanks to John Peel the 4 Tyrannosaurus Rex albums – Prophets, Seers & Sages: The Angels of the Ages (1968), Unicorn (1969) and A Beard of Stars (1970) – were reasonably successful, not Top 10 successful but certainly Top 20. It was all Tolkein and Hobbit kind of stuff but no one ever saw him read a book, but he certainly came up with some wacky but very contemporary (for the time) poetry.

After touring America to almost complete indifference in 1969, he did three things. Firstly he sacked Steve Took, who had always been more interested in recreational drugs than the bongos (alas, Steve was not destined for a long and healthy life – he died of an overdose aged 32 in 1980). An ad in the Melody Maker at the beginning of October 1970 brought 300 replies, none of which he opened because his upstairs neighbour had introduced him to Michael Norman Finn – yes, that is his real name – of Thornton Heath who worked as a painter of shops. He worked on the huge mural that adorned the Apple Boutique at 94 Baker Street. As it turned out neither percussion nor harmony singing were particular strengths of Mickey’s, but he looked great hair, clothes, cheekbones. They got on like a house on fire and visually complimented each other.

Secondly, he bought an electric guitar, a white Fender Stratocaster, according to legend from Syd Barrett lately on Pink Floyd. And thirdly, as he had decided to go less hippy dippy and more hard rock he shortened the band’s name to T.Rex. With his new electric guitar, he went to Trident Studios in Soho on the first day of July 1970 and made Ride A White Swan, just him on electric guitar, producer Tony Visconti on bass, and 4 violins. There are no drums, just handclaps and percussion. And from perhaps a little less warble in the voice. It stormed up the charts, stalled, fell back a bit then got a second wind and shot back up to Number 2. It was only kept from the top by Clive Dunn’s Grandad.

He was a pop star at last. although he didn’t really look the part though. He wore plain dungarees on ToTP although his hair looked pretty awesome, so his manager Tony Secunda’s wife, Chelita took him shopping. Out went all the hippy cloaks, in came girls’ clothes, lots of satin and a bit of makeup offstage as well as on, which was unheard of. He played on his looks, upped the sexuality in his music

After Ride A White Swan, he brought in a drummer and a bassist with whom he recoded his first Number One in Hot Love. The new band arrived at BBC Studios in Lime Grove in West London on March 24 1971 to perform it on ToTP. Marc was wearing a green lurex blouse, yellow loon pants and his unruly corkscrew hair. Chelita added the last detail: glitter on his cheeks, just below his eyes. Glam Rock arrived in that moment.

Hot Love was number one for six weeks and they were off to the top of charts for the next three years – four Number Ones in Hot Love, Get It On (Bang A Gong), Metal Guru and Telegram Sam – written about his accountant, Sam Alder, who sent a telegram with the news that Get It On had reached number one – and three Number Two hits Jeepster, Children of the Revolution and Solid Gold Easy Action. He was the best-selling singles artist of 1971 and 1972 and T. Rex record sales accounted for about 6 percent of total British domestic record sales.

He was lost for a while after about 1974. Glam faded away and he didn’t really evolve the way old friend and rival Davie Jones – now David Bowie of course -m and he never really cracked America as Bowie had. He sat out a couple of years, drugs and booze made him a bit chubby. He lived in LA, south of France and Monte Carlo and only returned to London in late 1975. He got in shape, had a couple of hits, New York City and I Love to Boogie and even had his own six-part TV series, Marc. One episode reunited Bolan with his former John’s Children-band mate Andy Ellison, then fronting the band Radio Stars; his last show, recorded on 8 September 1977, had David Bowie as his guest.

One week later, on the night of September 15 1977, Bolan and wife Gloria had drinks at the Speakeasy at 49 Margaret St, W1 then dinner at Morton’s in Berkeley Square. After a long evening, Jones drove Bolan home at around 4am the next morning, September 16. As their purple Mini was traveling along Queens Ride, SW13 less than a mile from their home, at the southern edge of Barnes Common, the car left the road as it crossed a treacherous humpbacked bridge, shot through the fence and smashed into a sycamore tree. Gloria was seriously injured but Bolan’s side took the impact and he was thrown into the back of the car and killed instantly. All he had was a small bruise on his forehead.

T. Rex influenced almost everyone who followed for the next 10 years. If you were between the ages of 10-15 in 1972 and you formed a band when you were 18, your major influence was likely to be Marc, so any glam rock, the punk movement, post-punk, indie pop, Britpop and alternative rock, even American bands where he never really sold any records, acts such as New York Dolls, the Ramones, R.E.M. Look for great riffs, short songs and a big image

He had assumed the role of Punk grandfather or elder statesman – 1977’s album Dandy In the Underworld had its press launch at punk club The Roxy Club at 41-43 Neal St WC2 with various Pistols, Gen Xs and Damneds in attendance. He was apparently at the Roundhouse in 1976 to see The Ramones.  He went out on tour to promote it and he took along punk band The Damned as support. At the end of the tour in Portsmouth, the Damned joined them onstage for a 13-minute version of Get It On. On the bus trip back, he got out at Putney Bridge near where he lived, went to a phone box and called his dad, who was helping with Rolan, Marc’s 18-month-old child, to come and get him.

Which is a nice story to end on.

Arthur Chisnall: the sine qua non of Eel Pie Island

Last week would have been the 95th birthday of one Arthur Chisnall. A gentleman you will not have heard of, he was born in Kingston-upon-Thames on 3 June 1925 (and died aged 81 in December 2006), but he was what I call a sine qua non, a man without whom we simply would not have rock and roll as we know it, here,  in America and for that matter all around the world.

With the possible exception of the Beatles, almost every record you’ve bought in the last 60 years owes at least some debt to Mr Chisnall

That’s because Mr Chisnall founded a jazz and R&B club on Eel Pie Island, a tiny slice of land in the middle of the River Thames in South West London. And that club became one of the great institutions of rock and roll and if he had not opened that club, he would not have been able to nurture the very large number of musicians who either were members of the Eel Pie Island club or who played in bands that got their first gigs there. I’m talking about the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (both featuring Eric Clapton on guitar), Jeff Beck, Pink Floyd, Screaming Lord Sutch, The Who, David Bowie, Long John Baldry, Elton John, Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones and boatloads more.

“He was the most amazing guy, said one Eel Pie veteran, “one who changed so many young lives, forever and for better. All good salesmen know that the most powerful way to make a sale is to make the punters believe they thought of it themselves. That’s what Arthur did with Eel Pie. We thought it was our place, which we had conjured up on our own and he just someone who happened to be there, almost invisible allowing us to be ourselves and grow from that. Of course, where Arthur differed from most salesmen is that there was nothing much in it for him, just the reflection of what it did for us.”.


Eel Pie island is the only inhabited island on the tidal Thames, a tiny 9-acre island in the River Thames off the coast of Twickenham.  It gets its name from eel pies – yes, pies filled with cooked eels – which had been served by the inn on the island since the 1500s. Their biggest customer – in more ways than one – was Henry VIII, a large and usually hungry chap who would be overcome by hunger on his journey up to Hampton Court Palace and shout, ‘Stop the barge and bring us an eel pie!’ He then sent a minion ashore to buy him an pie from Mistress Mayo’s famous stall. True story apparently.

There had been a pub on the island for centuries and the people running the pub eventually made enough money to build a hotel. In 1830, Charles Dickens spent the summer living in Twickenham – a peaceful and rural retreat, he wrote – and visited the island frequently. He immortalised it in Nicholas Nickleby when The Kenwigs eldest daughter caught a steamer from Westminster Bridge to Eel Pie island to ‘dance in the open air to the music of a locomotive band.’

By the 1920s, there were dances in the large ballroom but by the 50s it was all pretty derelict, although for the most part the dance hall had survived the dereliction. It was still in use as a folk club and occasionally a trad jazz club, where loads of teenagers from South West London, or even further into town, who were all mad about this new, exotic jazz straight outta New Orleans. They would flock to Twickenham to play, listen and dance to the sounds of  the biggest Trad names around, Names like Chris Barber, Ken Colyer and George Melly as well as all the little bands springing up all over the suburbs. Like the Riverside Jazz Band from West London, whose drummer was Brian Clarke of 34 Wakeman Road NW10. I mention him only because he is my dad.

You had to want to get there. There’s a nice footbridge now, but that wasn’t built till 1957. Before that there was a small boat attached to a chain and a set of pulleys and you dragged yourself across to the dance. It was an adventure at the best of times, but if you were full of Scrumpy from the Barmey Arms up the road or the drummer or double bass player in the band, it could be rather perilous. One wag described it as like D-Day but without the gunfire. Many fell in of course. Possibly the same wag said it was probably the only bath that they’d taken in weeks.

In 1952 the Eel Pie Hotel was bought cheaply by a local antique dealer called Michael Snapper, who had an antique/ second-hand/junk shop at 146 London Road in Kingston, known as Snappers Corner.

Which is where we meet Arthur Chisnall…

Arthur was the manager of Snappers Corner. Born in 1925 in Kingston upon Thames, he grew up in a poor household, never knew his father and was raised entirely by his mum and grandmother. Despite the fact he was a bright guy, family circumstances dictated that he left school at 14 and worked in a number of jobs, before his call up to fight inn WW2. Typically a guy from his background would simply not have had the option to go to University, but in 1951 aged 26 he got a bursary to study Social Science at Harlech College in North Wales.

He was fascinated by social trends, and the junk shop gave him ample opportunity to watch the habits of 1950s youth. By the middle of the decade, he noticed that a large number of kids, particularly the cooler ones from the art college up the road, would come into the shop looking for second-hand blues and jazz records.

We may only have noticed in hindsight but there was youthquake going on. Kids didn’t want to become their parents. These were kids who had survived the privations of war: bomb shelters, evacuation and food rationing. This were new horizons. There was full employment, new opportunities nittiest in Further Education, the Church was less relevant and biggest of all, National Service was about to end.

Chatting to them, Arthur could see that there was nowhere for them to congregate and listen to their music. There were jazz clubs up West of course but that’s miles from Kingston, so he decided to do something about it. He opened a youth club with music for them in the delapidated hotel his boss Michael Snapper had just acquired over on Eel Pie Island.

So on 20 April 1956, the club opened. It was free for kids, every Friday and Saturday only,  but was so popular – they expected dozens, they got 300 with no advertising only word of mouth – that they started charging a tiny fee . It was licensed – although you could only get bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale –  but the Police insisted on keeping a membership, so Arthur named it Eelpiland and as a member, you paid 2/6 and got a passport as your membership card, which announced:

We request and require in the name of his Excellency Prince Pan all those to whom it may concern to give the bearer of this passport any assistance he/she may require in his/her lawful business of jiving and generally cutting a rug.

Given this day under pour hand this first day November 1957.

 Pan, The Prince of Trads

Eel Pie passport from 1958 - front

Arthur kept a watchful eye on members, he was always there to chat and help if we had any concerns in life. He purposely recruited professional people, doctors and lawyers, and if someone had a problem, he would try to steer them in the direction of someone who could help them. He also ran classes on how to write a CV, how to apply and how to be interviewed for jobs. At least 20 people from Eelpiland got grants thanks to Arthur to get into college where they would ordinarily not have had a chance. He called it a social experiment and he used the music as the way of attracting these young people. There was even a jive instructor to teach the crowd the finer points of ballroom jive

Not that the authorities were necessarily all that chuffed: the tabloids wrote about it as if it were a den of iniquity. The Mail published a story headline Down Among the Dead Beats and told their soon-to-be-outraged readers that they have hair like spun yarn, beards like spinach and eyes like rissoles in the snow. Any kind of clothing is worn as long as it is crumpled and dirty, any kind of haircut as long as it is not cut at all; any kind of expression as long as it is expressionless.

Not to spoil a story though, there was actually almost no juvenile delinquency. There was hardly any trouble or fighting, despite the Newky Brown (in fact most drinking was done in the Barmy Arms before you crossed the bridge), there were no real drugs at this point,  but there was quite a lot of sex, perhaps a little more than would be available elsewhere in 1960.

Trad jazz begat Skiffle begat Rock and Roll begat Rhythm & Blues and by 1960 or so, R&B was a new sound in the hearts of the young and this part of London – wittily known as the Thames Delta. There were new R&B clubs in suburbs like Epsom, Windsor Ealing and the famous Crawdaddy Club up the road in Richmond.

The lads of the scene Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies brought their band Blues Incorporated over to the island many times and at various times included Jack Bruce, Graham Bond, Ginger Baker and Charlie Watts. For a few shillings you would have also got to see The Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers (both featuring Eric Clapton), the Tridents (featuring Jeff Beck), The Who and Davie Jones and The Manish Boys (actually David Bowie). Brian Jones, desperate to get gigs for his band The Rolling Stones, called Arthur constantly before getting a slot which turned in to a 13-week residency throughout 1963.

1962 Archives - Eel Pie Island Museum

For the punters, the format of the evening was that you would meet at L’Auberge, now Nando’s, at 2-6 Hill Street Richmond, Surrey early evening for a couple of posh Italian coffees, then wander over the bridge and along about a mile and a bit to Eel Pie Land, but you would only leave L’Auberge when you had a quorum. Halfway over Richmond Bridge you would become aware that there were actually hundreds of you and so you would go in procession to Eel Pie. Then you paid 4d to a little old lady who always appeared to be there to cross the foot bridge.

“The island was the weekly pilgrimage to experience Newcastle Brown and Jessie Fuller singing ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, Cyril Davies playing ‘Country Line Special’, Rod ‘the Mod’ Stewart singing singing and dancing to ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ with Long John Baldrey, Alex Harvey wowing the women with his pelvic thrusts and Jeff Beck in the Tridents playing guitar with his back to the audience. Oh yeah, and the Stones.”

Cyril Davies, mentioned above and in the quote, was one of the key people along who popularised Chicago (electric) blues in London. A panel beater from South Harrow by day, Cyril was a dynamite blues singer, guitarist and particularly harmonica player by night. He was a giant at the scene and played Eel Pie countless times. He was only 31 when he died of leukaemia in January 1964 so Eel Pie put on a fabulous tribute night for him on 12 January 1964.

After the show, on the platform at Twickenham station, blues singer Long John Baldry who took over Cyril’s band, arrived on the platform to hear an 18-year-old waif singing and playing Smokestack Lightnin’ on the harmonica. ‘Young man’ Baldrey called out, ‘\ you have a good voice, why don’t you join my band?, to which the teenage Roderick David Stewart – for it was he – did, for £35 a week, after securing the approval of his mum. She approved of the wages and warned Baldry to make sure Roddy gets home on time. Rod still living at home. That is indeed how Sir Rod got started.

Eel Pie remained popular throughout the early and mId-60s but if the owners were making money, they certainly didn’t spend anything on repairs. There were holes in the roof and the floorboards were all rotten, especially directly in front of the stage, where it was always hazardous to dance. The police were always interested and by 1967 there were a lot more drugs around so by September 1967, denied a drinks license and with holes in the dance floor, Eel Pie closed, after 11 years of promoting new trends in music and inspiring new attitudes amongst the 30,000 fans who passed through.

Squatters soon moved in and although the club reopened in 1969 as Colonel Barefoot’s Rock Garden featuring progressive bands like Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Mott the Hoople, its days were numbered. By 1971, it was a squatter community again and after a nasty legal battle, the local council not only closed the place down, it tore it down as well. However, whilst the demolition was in progress, the Eel Pie Island Hotel mysteriously caught fire on 30 March 1971. 

Today, Eel Pie Island is now a small bohemian community of about 50 homes and artists’ studios, 120 inhabitants, a rowing club and two or three boatyards. Twice a year – not this year obviously – usually in June and December, the island opens up to the public and the studios open their doors to interested visitors. Michael Snapper died on 13 December 2006 aged 98. He competed in vintage car rallies well into his 90s, celebrated his 91st birthday by abseiling down a cliff and was planning on water skiing on his 100th birthday. Barely two weeks later, on 28 December, Arthur Chisnall left us, not before changing popular music in a modest but far reaching way. Genuinely if he hadn’t opened that club, nothing would have happened but not perhaps in the same way…

There is a museum in Twickenham dedicated to all things Eel Pie Island, which you can find at http://www.eelpiemuseum.co.uk. The curator is Michele Whitby, who is also th author of a splendid, superbly illustrated book called Eel Pie Island.

What’s Going On, said Marvin. He was not asking.

Marvin’s Gaye’s 11th album What’s Going On is not a question. IOt’s a statement and Marvin wasn’t asking us what was going on, he was telling us what was going on. It’s the Original Soundtrack to 1970/1, a concept album, a song cycle about drug abuse, poverty, Vietnam and ecology (before anyone new what that meant)

This towering, landmark musical achievement is 50 years old, It was released on 21 May 1971, 49 years ago this month but Marvin and well-chosen band of musical brothers went into Motown’s studios in Detroit and recorded the title track as Marvin’s next single on 1 June 1970. America was on fire with inner city race riots, poverty, drugs, Kent State, the Weathermen and the Vietnam War. And as I write this on 1 June 2020, America is on fire with pretty much the same thing. Whatever would Marvin make of it.

The list of accolades for What’s Going On is almost endless. It is regarded as one of the greatest albums and a landmark recording in popular music. It was 6th in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It was the Guardian’s Best album of the 20th Century. It was also massive commercial success in the USA, selling over 2 million copies in the first six months of release. Here in the UK, nada. Neither the LP nor any of its 4 singles troubled the chart compilers, only Save the Children got to 41 in late 1971.


Yet Marvin’s creative zenith came directly from his personal nadir. Always a troubled man with a cocaine habit which he couldn’t shake and which took all his money, he was extremely depressed, drug-addicted, skint, owed the IRS millions in tax, his best friend had just died and was in a doomed and volatile marriage. If that wasn’t bad enough, his wife was the boss’ sister. He couldn’t even make sense of the extraordinary success of I Heard It Through the Grapevine. He felt he didn’t deserve it because up to that point, Grapevine notwithstandinghe had become successful from a series of fluffy production line pop songs, although that production line was one of the finest ever known to culture.

He signed to Motown in 1961 after impressing CEO Berry Gordy Jr at a Christmas Party. Originally packaged a middle of road crooner, he sang jazz standards but no one bought his records so for the most part he earned a living playing as a session or on the Motortown Revue package tours. When the Revue arrived in Chicago in June 1962, Marvin Gaye was the drummer on Little Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips Part 2 which was Number One in the US singles chart for the 13-year-old Stevie a year later.

He didn’t have a hit of his till 1962 with Stubborn Kind of Fellow, the first of many modest pop hits, but they didn’t show off his extraordinary voice. He wasn’t fantastically successful either, so Berry Gordy turned him into a suave male half of duos with the likes of Mary Wells, Kim Weston and especially his favourite singing partner, Tammi Terrell, with whom there was considerable chart success. They singing one night at a club in Virginia in October 1967, Tammi collapsed in Marvin’s arms from a brain tumour from which she didn’t really recover.

He was devastated then and beyond consoling when she died in March 1970, by which time he was top of the world after 10 years of trying. A year earlier, his two-year old version of a stock Motown song, I Heard It Through the Grapevine which had been rejected by Motown’s Quality Control department and stuck out as an album track, became a worldwide hit.  A DJ in Chicago had started playing it so much that Motown released it as a single. It flew to the top in the USA and in the UK, selling more copies than any Motown record had sold before.

He was finally a major star and an artist of substance, guided by the hand of God. Whilst much of his personal life wasn’t especially divine, he remained deeply religious as a result of his upbringing. And as the World’s Number One, he thought he had a bit of leverage over Berry Gordy. No more would he or Motown nix a single because they didn’t think it would sound good on radio. He was going to make serious records.

As it happens, one of the Four Tops, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson had written a song after he’d been on tour with the Tops in California in 1969 and had seen police beating protesters with clubs at a rally in Berkeley, near San Francisco.  He started wondering what was going on, why was it happening, why kids were being sent overseas to Vietnam. The results – with lyrics by a Motown staff writer called Al Cleveland was called What’s Going On. It’s a statement, not a question.

Obie played it for the Four Tops but they weren’t interested. They didn’t do the socially conscious stuff. Playing golf with Marvin one day, he pitched the song and Marvin thought it was perfect … for a group he was producing called The Originals, a traditional vocal group who often provided backing vocals on sessions for other Motown acts. He only agreed to do it himself when Obie offered him a third share in the publishing, despite the fact he had not contributed to it. In the end Marvin added the finishing touches to it lyrically and musically and it is credited to Obie, Al Cleveland and Marvin.

The song began to inspire Marvin’s vision for his new serious record. His younger brother Frankie had just come back from a 3-year tour in Vietnam and he had many conversations. Frankie was scarred and unemployed despite serving for 3 years in a real war zone. And a cousin, also called Marvin Gay, had been killed in Vietnam in late 1968. Marvin had enlisted age 17 but had effectively been dishonorably discharged in the late 1950s but felt he should do something in 1970 through his music

Marvin worked up some songs and took them to label boss Berry Gordy and said that he wanted to do a new album of protest songs, Gordy said why do you want to ruin your career? You sing love songs, not sings about police brutality. But he was adamant and he went ahead and changed his image. The 60s Marvin is suave and usually tuxedo’d. 70s Marvin has a beard and less tidy hair, and funkier, casual clothes. He was going to look different and he was going to sound different.

Marvin’s next single, What’s Going On was begun in 1 June 1970, fifty years ago today as I write at the Motown studios at Hitsville – now a museum – on West Grande Boulevard in Detroit, the same one next door to Berry Gordy’s house where the same basement studio had been used since 1959. It had been built as a basement extension by the previous owner for his dark room, It had a fabulous sound, and no one dared touch anything in the room lest they destroy the magic. The drums in the middle of the room had not been moved for 11 years.

He used many of Motown’s usual session musicians known as the Funk Brothers, plus a few other musicians on there that he thought would shake things up, especially percussion: on the title track there’s drums, bongos, congas, vibes and other assorted percussion. Marvin, a former drummer plays piano and conducts the percussion section for extra groove. The alto sax opening was played by a guy called Eli Fontaine. He played it through a few times as a warm-up, then said to Marvin in the control room, we can go for a take now. Marvin who had had the tases running all through, said it’s okay, we’ve got it, you can go home. Eli explained he’d just been goofing around. Well, said Marvin, you goof around exquisitely

In the background, they mixed in noises provided by three friends, who happened to play football for the Detroit Lions so it feels like you’re also at a really hip party, sitting round the piano while Marvin played you his latest tunes. On top of all that, they dropped the lush strings played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Lastly there is Marvin’s voice, doubled and layered so that he doesn’t sing the same thing twice, rather he answers himself and effectively duets with himself. It was an accident. He recorded two versions of the lead vocal, done different ways and the engineer accidentally played them in the control room at the same time and everyone went Wow!

Proud of his new sound, he took the song to brother-in-law Berry Gordy for approval. It would be an exaggeration to say that Marvin and Berry had ever been on good terms. They frequently clashed and when Marvin – the aged 24 – married Anna, Berry Gordy’s 41-year-old sister in 1963, things stayed bad. Berry said it was the worst thing he’d ever heard in his life and refused to release it. He thought he would alienate his fanbase at that time mainly women and suave Marv. Motown’s Quality Control dept turned the single down too, but the sales dept saw that shops had placed advance orders of 200,000 – he was hot from Grapevine after all – and they desperately needed a new Marvin record so went ahead and released it as a single in January 1971, months ahead of the LP. Berry Gordy, effectively based in California with Diana Ross, was furious

Only when it went to Number 2 on the US singles charts did he calm down but said I want an album and I want in 30 days, by the end ion March 1971. Marvin had a commitment to star in a movie, called Chrome & Hot Leather – stop sniggering at the back – a biker movie about a guy who returns home from Vietnam to find that a Biker gang has killed his fiancee. He rounds up his Green Beret buddies and takes revenge. Marvin is a Green Beret but gets ride a motor bike. Seriously. It’s on YouTube in its entirety and my research methods are so exhaustive that I have watched it all. So you don’t have to.

Marvin had his act together. He knocked the basic tracks off in 10 days March 1971, with him right at the centre of everything playing piano in the studio, essentially producing his own record for the first time. Up till then. He had been the hired singer. The music just seems to flow from start to finish, using the same or similar grooves or musical themes a bit like a film soundtrack. Yet they were all recorded separately recorded on different days and times and assembled into the running order he wanted by manually splicing the tape with a razor blade

Once he had the running order, he added the strings and the finally the vocals. He sang twelve hours a day for four days, usually at night in a darkened studio filled with the smell of, let’s say incense, using a handheld mike. He was done.

He gave the finished album to Berry Gordy on 5 April and it was released in May 1971. An immediate chart success in the USA, it sold 2½ million copies in the first 12 months. All 3 singles – What’s Going On, Mercy Mercy Me and Inner City Blues – were Top ten hits, the first act to have 3 Top Tens from the same album. However, it did not chart here nor did any of the 4 singles Tamla Motown UK released. The album did eventually get to No.56 …. but only in 1984 after he had died.

The next year Motown moved to LA and things were never the same, although for a time Marvin went from strength to strength. His Let’s Get It On sold more than What’s Going On and other records including the Diana and Marvin album sold phenomenally well, though not really here.

His problems never did get any better. He got divorced, married and divorced again, he always owed millions to the tax man and had a debilitating addiction to cocaine for most of his adult life. He even came to London in 1980 to get away from drugs but just found more than he had ever seen in his life. In early 1981, he relocated again – not to Los Angeles, but to Ostend in Belgium which is where he wrote and recorded his album Midnight Love and the hit single Sexual Healing which gave him a comeback 20 years after his first hit. Sexual Healing was his most successful single in terms of sales, bigger even than Grapevine.

He was back at the top, but what most people will remember of course is his death at the hands of his father on 4 April 1984, two days before his 45th birthday. Marvin Gay Sr told Police he had fired in self-defence and the Police did find both cocaine and PCP in Marvin’s system. His father in the end pleaded no contest to a charge of voluntary manslaughter and was given a six-year suspended sentence and five years of probation for the shooting.

Chain of Trivia at the Edinburgh Fringe 2019


I will be making my Edinburgh Fringe debut this August with Chain of Trivia, a remarkable rock and roll trivia journey of connections and coincidences. It is a mad ride that connects Elvis Presley the King, to Queen and Freddie Mercury in 10 degrees of separation, where each step linked to the next by a fascinating or hilarious piece of rock trivia you never knew or never thought of.

Tickets can be bought at https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/chain-of-trivia-1

It’s not only the story of Elvis and Queen, but also of Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly and includes tales of TV censorship, radio bans, law suits, Nobel Prizes and song crazy coincidental lyrics, all brought to life in a funny and memorable 50-minute blast of rock music history. There will be a minimum of props but more than an occasional tune will be thrown in for good measure.

Chain of Trivia is at theSpaceUK @ Surgeons Hall in Nicolson Street and runs every day from 2nd-24th August inclusive, except Sunday 11th. I’m in Theatre 3 for the first week, then I move to Theatre 2 for the remainder of the run.



Graham Bond: mad, bad and dangerous to know

Graham Bond was one of the most important, most influential and thoroughly under-appreciated figures of early British R&B. Along with John Mayall and Alexis Korner, Graham Bond was one of the great catalytic figures of the British music and arguably more gifted than either but is almost completely unknown 45 years after his mysterious death.

He was a phenomenally gifted musician, quite ahead of his time. He fused jazz with R&B and classical music years before those who came later who tend to bag all the the credit. You know, Miles Davis, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, people like that. Even Earth Wind & Fire.


Originally a tenor sax player, he played with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, a seminal band of British jazz and R&B nuts which at various times included the likes of Jack Bruce, Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker, Long John Baldry and depending on how you look at it Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones. His own Graham Bond Organisation attracted musicians like Bruce and Baker, who were to become key players in the development of British rock music in the 60s and 70s.

However, after years of avoiding the worst of the heroin-fueled London jazz scene, his life sank from powerful bandleader with some of our greatest ever musicians to chaotic drug-addicted derelict who died under the wheels of a Piccadilly line train.

He was born in Romford on 28 October 1937 and abandoned at birth by his mother. He spent his first five months in a Barnardo’s Home before being adopted by a civil servant and his wife. A Grammar School boy, he was teased for being overweight and bad at sport, but even at aged 6 he was a musical prodigy. He heard Charlie Parker as a teen and decided to teach himself to play the saxophone as a way of curing his asthma, thinking it would improve his breathing, which it did.

No great academic, he left school at 18 and got a job selling firstly encyclopaedias and then fridges door to door and playing sax in the evenings with a local band. He was a natural. If he wasn’t selling fridges, he was up West watching jazz and hassling people to let him sit in but he wasn’t popular and didn’t get anywhere at first. By 1958 though, he was an alto sax player to be reckoned with. He had the ability, the patter and looked the part with a sharp suit and a pencil moustache. Someone described him as a white Cannonball Adderley.

You might think only the American jazzers were on the hard stuff. Certainly many legends – Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker – all had habits. But the London jazz scene of the late 50s was no less a smack infested demi-monde. Graham refused to get involved with the hard stuff although there was a lot of it about. Many great careers came to an end because they were so unreliable and ultimately sloppy.

His playing had improved  MM’s Brightest Star of 1960. His first regular gig was with the Don Rendell Quintet in 1961, Rendall a noted tenor sax player. Rendall was quiet, sensitive player whilst Bond on alto sax was all energy and the free spirit. He appears on Roarin’’ the quintet’s debut record which was described as the greatest breakthrough ever made by jazz musicians outside the USA. He’d never been in a recording studio before was ordered to take his shoes off because the mikes picked up the sound of Graham’s stomping.

After Rendell, he jumped to the Johnny Burch Octet which included Ginger Baker, already a drummer with a reputation for trouble, and Jack Bruce, an 18-year-old double bass player from Glasgow. What a band! But whilst jazz had been the hip music for most of the last ten years, by 1962, the Blues was taking over.  The best British blues band of the time was Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, which had a fairly revolving door approach to band membership. At this point though, Blues Inc had Charlie Watts on drums but he jumped ship to a little band called the Rolling Stones in January 1963, so was replaced by jobbing jazz drummer Ginger Baker. A short time later Jack Bruce cam on board. The central musical phenomenon however was Korner’s harmonica player Cyril Davies, an extraordinary player for a guy who was a p[anel beater in Wembley by day, but he fell out with Korner over a Korner’s plan to add a brass section so he split.

Korner knew he could only replace a genius like Cyril with another genius, so he snapped up Graham Bond, primarily as saxophone player but Graham had just acquired a Hammond organ so all of a sudden he was a double threat (triple if you count his gruff, bluesy singing voice). The Hammond had a huge range of pedals, switches and drawbars that gave you a huge range of sounds, especially if you used it with a special rotating speaker called a Leslie which gives a swelling, surging sound. It was a unique sound not only in R&B but in any popular music at the time. In rock and roll the soloing instrument is usually the guitar; in jazz it’s usually a trumpet or sax; in R&B it was the more often than not the harmonica. No one had soloed on the keyboard before but the magical sound of the Hammond organ made that possible.

Bond took a jazz approach to the Blues. The Blues has a basic framework, the famous 12 bar and you either play the song in that format for 2-3 minutes verse, verse chorus verse. But in jazz, there’s a basic structure and then you each take a bow as a soloist and extend and improvise the song, which is possible when you have players of the quality of Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and guitarist John McLaughlin, whose career took a turn towards Miles Davis and jazz fusion only a couple of years later. Yes, that calibre of player.

Alexis Korner though preferred Bond to play sax and only allowed him to play the organ when most of the band went off for a fag and Bond, Baker and Bruce would play. It worked so well, they thought they’d make more money as a trio, so all three quit to form the Graham Bond Combo in April 1963. They toured the country relentlessly in a converted ambulance and established themselves as an explosive live act. In 480 days they played 340 gigs, all over the UK through the provinces where R&B had caught on. Bond, by now married with a child, was still selling fridges and ovens by day.

McLaughlin couldn’t handle the travel so he was fired to be replaced by sax player Dick Heckstall-Smith, who had also been a member of Blues Inc. At this point they became the Graham Bond Organisation, usually written – on account of the Hammond organ – the ORGANisation. Their live reputation was extraordinary but as is the case, it was difficult to capture it on record. Their debut LP The Sound of 65 has some great tunes, including a stunning version of Wade in the Water, but wasn’t a hit, despite touring constantly. Their second album There’s A Bond Between Us fared no better, despite being rather innovative and being the first record to use a new keyboard called a Mellotron

A-1082937-1491433848-1133But they never were going to make it. They didn’t look the part, as amazing as the music was. Graham Bond was a huge fat guy, Dick Heckstall-Smith was balding with glasses, Ginger, as someone put it, looked like he would eat your loved ones. Only Jack Bruce was a half decent looking guy and if your competition is someone like the Moody Blues, five good looking chaps from Birmingham in fashionable smart suits, you’re going to struggle. The whole of the British Invasion passed them by. What an opportunity lost!

There was though always tension between Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. They each knew they had never played with a better musician, but Bruce was too good a musician to be told what to do by the older Baker and Baker resented that the much younger Bruce wouldn’t do what he said. They were like brothers who loved each other but didn’t get on. And they had to spend 6 out of 7 days in the same van/ambulance. If that weren’t enough, Ginger Baker was four or five years into a pretty heavy drug habit. The rivalry came to a head one night at a gig in Golders Green when Baker fired Bruce. Bruce refused to recognise his authority and still turned up for gigs. Eventually Ginger threatened him with a knife saying that if you come back again this will go in you. So he left. As did Baker, when Eric Clapton asked him to form a band with himself – and Jack Bruce.

Up to this point, though no angel, Graham Bond had managed to swerve the worst of the lifestyle. However, in 1966 his wife divorced him, his adopted father died and his band left him in fairly short order, so he turned to heroin. He had 8 years left and it was all downhill from here

The Graham Bond ORGANisation limped on for another 18 months or so but when that finally fell apart, he moved to America for 2 years in which time he made a couple of ignored albums and worked on his drug habit. Oh, and he also got involved in the occult, what he called Magick. He was convinced he was the illegitimate son of arch Satanist Aleister Crowley, who he had discovered had had an illegitimate child in Essex around the same time Bond was born close by. It must be me, he thought and let’s face it drugs will not help you keep perspective and logic on these kind of things.

He was declared bankrupt in 1967, with debts of £2,500 (£45,000 today), mainly maintenance payments which he had not made since early 1966. He was however very aware that his ex-band mates Bruce and Baker were doing extremely well and making lots and lots of money as his career stalled.

He came back to the UK in late 1969 and formed a band called Initiation, but was arrested at their first gig at the Hampstead Country Club in Belsize Park for non-payment of maintenance under the terms of his bankruptcy and whisked off to Pentonville for days until Jack Bruce, now rather minted, paid his arrears. Initiation was an impressive band but the lyrics were all doom-laden occult stuff. He would routinely put spells on people who crossed him

Ginger Baker bailed him out when he recruited him to Ginger Baker’s Airforce – airforce was the nickname of Duke Ellington’s band because they really used to fly – a 10-piece rock band meets big jazz band which only lasted as long as Ginger Baker had any money. Which was about 8 months. IT did get Bond noticed again so he made a couple of weird occult albums Holy Magick and I’ll Put Our Magick on You which were received with puzzlement or vitriol. In the studio he had arranged the band in a circle around a huge pentagram drawn on the floor and the musicians had to stand in order of their birth signs. And no one bought them.

From then on, he was virtually unemployable. When he did work, he was invariably fired for unreliability. He was off drugs because he was penniless and couldn’t afford them but managed to replace them with alcohol and an opioid cough linctus called Collis Browne, downing up to 20 bottles a day. He couldn’t get gigs and answered ads in the MM for sideman organ player and when he turned up, people would say what’s the Graham Bond doing here? He had a few gigs here and there, mainly for £5, totally beneath his status but he needed the money. His wife left him and accused him of molesting her daughter.

By early 1974, he was in very poor spirits. His financial affairs were in a state of total confusion. He had no business acumen himself and was basically penniless. He was beaten up by drug dealers and terrified, deliberately walked into Ladbroke Grove police station with a bag of marijuana worth 35p in his pocket, thinking he’d be sent to prison where he’d be safe. Instead he was sectioned and sent to a mental hospital. On his release he went to stay with friends in Holloway. At lunchtime on Wednesday 8 May 1974, he said he was going for walk to clear his head but planned to come home and work on some songs.

He walked as far as Finsbury Park Underground Station, where he purchased a ticket, walked to the northbound platform of the Piccadilly Line and apparently dived in front of a tube train as it entered the station. The driver applied the brakes but it took 250 feet to stop, even though the train had slowed as it entered the station and was doing about 30 mph. He died instantly.

His body lay unclaimed at the Great Northern Hospital on the Holloway Road for two days, till police were finally able to identify the body from the fingerprints taken when he was imprisoned in 1969 for failing to pay maintenance. The inquest at St Pancras Coroners Court however recorded an Open verdict. There were no witnesses, no evidence of foul play and no note. The fact that he appears to have taken his own life mystified his friends, who say that he was healthier, off drugs and other substances and had enthusiastically made plans for the future. The papers though focused on his interest in the occult and printed lurid conspiracy theories bout the occult and drug deals gone wrong, which persist to this day.

Even the funeral was a shambles. He had asked for no religious trappings given his occult leanings, neither his current wife or his ex-wife turned up and no one knew what to do so a very stoned – and grief-stricken – Jack Bruce just got up and played the church organ at his funeral at the South London Crematorium in Streatham. His ashes were scattered in Cornwall, near Tintagel, a place he loved


The British Are Coming, the British Are Coming…

Fifty years ago, on February 9 1964, that the Beatles famously played the Ed Sullivan Show, a top-rated coast-to-coast Sunday Night TV variety show in the USA, a show which drew an estimated 73 million viewers, at the time a record for US television. Within two months, week ending April 4 1964, 55 years ago today as I write, the Beatles held the top five positions on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The British had truly invaded

The British Invasion, as it as known, was where you could have a hit or even hits in America as long as you were British and could do a British accent. And it wasn’t just the pop music. Other aspects of British culture became disproportionately and excessively popular in the United States too. You can’t really look at the British Invasion without at least mentioning David McCallum as Ilya Kyriakin in The Man from UNCLE, Julie Christie in Darling!, Albert Finney in Tom Jones, Richard Harris in This Sporting Life and of course Michael Caine in Alfie. And let’s not forget James Bond and Julie Andrews.

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Before 1964, UK acts had barely troubled the US chart compilers. In 1963, only 3 British records broke the US Top Twenty, but the Beatles changed that of course. According to Stones then-manager Andrew Loog Oldham: America was not even a possibility for anybody before the Beatles. The French stars used to say, “We’re touring America” but really, they were shopping. They might play Canada, but America wasn’t open.

Over the next 2 years, the invasion grew so that almost any UK act as long as they had the right accent and a record deal could get up the US charts. Most had talent and some didn’t but the only thing that really mattered was that they were British. In 1965, more than half of the 26 No 1 singles belonged to British acts – and this was the year of Mr Tambourine Man, My Girl, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling and I Got You Babe. In addition to the Beatles and the Stones, you had the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, Petula Clark, the Searchers, the Zombies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, the Moody Blues, the Animals and even Freddie and the Dreamers dominating the US charts.

Some were good,  some weren’t and there were some groups that were huge in the USA and genuinely British but unknown here. Ian Whitcomb and Chad & Jeremy were huge but failed to trouble the chart compilers back home, possibly because they were terrible, Ian Whitcomb in particular. Some changed pop culture and some were one-hit wonders, such as Tobacco Road from the Nashville Teens. They weren’t teens nor were they from Nashville. They were from Woking in fact.

On May 8, 1965, we almost had a clean sweep of the US Top 10, with nine of the slots taken by UK acts, only Count Me In by Gary Lewis & the Playboys being homegrown (Gary Lewis being the son of comedian Jerry Lewis). The Britsongs in the Top Ten were The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders’ Game Of Love, Petula Clark’s I Know A Place, Herman’s Hermits’ Silhouettes, Freddie And The Dreamers’ I’m Telling You Now, The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time and at Number One Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter by Herman’s Hermits, proving they weren’t all great songs

By the middle of 1966 when US bands sort of caught up and made their own British-sounding music, although some of the bands, especially the Beatles and the Stones continued to release hugely successful – and hugely important – records of course.

What we had done was tap into the particularly poor state of US music in 1963. Some say it died in 1959 with Buddy Holly. Apart from the Four Seasons, the biggest stars of 1963 were the Singing Nun and extremely bland, clean-cut teen idols like Fabian and Frankie Avalon, who’d had hit singles but couldn’t really sing and were mainly in awful B-movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini

The truth is we were doing far more interesting things with the rock and roll that we’d pinched from the Yanks. Traditionally American pop music had been hip, where British pop music was not. Our homegrown acts like Lonnie Donegan, Tommy Steele and Cliff, were just cheap copyists of US acts and few UK acts had ever done well in America. It wasn’t until mid-192that we had our first Number One when Mr Acker Bilk’s Stranger on the Shore got to the top.  

Acker Bilk aside, our music was new and exciting and aimed at the vibrant young people making America a huge success in the brave new decade of the 1960s. That optimism was shattered on 22 November 1963 when their young, energetic and good-looking President was shot dead in Dallas, Texas. TV and radio stations thought t it was unbecoming of American artists to perform with any kind of enthusiasm and exuberance in a period of national mourning. British acts did not have that guilt or that restriction so could be chirpy, bright, funny – and chock full of great pop tunes. America lapped it all up, still very much in mourning for John F. Kennedy, needing reinvigorating with a dose of fun, and, thus re-invigorated. First in of course were the Beatles.

On 31 October 1963, storied American broadcaster Ed Sullivan, his wife and his team were changing planes at London Airport (it was not renamed Heathrow until 1966) at exactly the same time as the Beatles arrived back from a tour of Scandinavia. Despite heavy rain, the roof of the Queens Building was packed with hundreds of them who were there to welcome them back. Sullivan and his wondered what all the commotion was. It’s the Beatles, he was told. Who the hell are The Beatles? he replied He didn’t necessarily like what he saw – he was a very conservative man in his 60s– but thought it might be good for his show.

The Ed Sullivan was America’s preferred viewing on a Sunday evening from 1948 to 1971 but the wily Sullivan was always looking for something that would keep him ahead in the ratings and knew that it was this pop music that could do that. He had famously outbid other TV shows in 1956 when he signed Elvis Presley despite having originally publicly called him lewd. He had Buddy Holly and the Crickets on the show in 1957 and again in January 1958.

Getting the Beatles became a priority for Ed Sullivan, especially after witnessing Beatlemania and reading about their turn at the Royal Command Performance. Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein flew to New York in mid-November and negotiated $12,000 for 3 performances (although Sullivan often paid $10,000 to a headliner for one show) although Epstein demanded they receive top billing and two spots (opening and closing) on each show.

The deal almost got cancelled. The BBC sold film of a Beatles performance to Jack Paar, a rival of Ed Sullivan who had a big primetime show on Fridays on NBC. Epstein had promised Sullivan an exclusive, the very first Beatles American television appearance. Epstein threatened to cancel The Beatles’ radio shows on the BBC if action was not taken and the BBC tried to rescind its licensing of the film, but Paar refused to budge. Sullivan was furious and phoned to cancel but fortunately, cooled off when he realized what a hot ticket The Beatles were becoming.

Ironically the Ed Sullivan show was not the Beatles’ first TV exposure in the USA. There was a news story about the phenomenon of Beatlemania sweeping England that was broadcast on the CBS Morning News breakfast show on 22 November 1963. The segment was scheduled to be repeated on the 6.30pm Nightly News show hosted by Walter Cronkite, but this was of course the day President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas so every other topic went onto the back burner

After two weeks of mourning, Cronkite started looking for a way to lift the spirits of the devastated American public with a cheerful segment. And he remembered that Beatles story the day JFK was shot. It was shown again on 10 December to a nation still reeling from the massive emotional trauma of the assassination, the film clip triggered an astonishing chain reaction that kick-started Beatlemania in the USA. The Beatles’ single I Want To Hold Your Hand was rush-released on 26 December 1963 (it was almost unheard of for US record companies to release new product over the holidays) and boosted by massive airplay now that American kids were off school, it sold over 250,000 copies in its first three days of release. By 10 January, it had sold over a million and was actually Number One when the Beatles landed in New York on 7 February 1964 to a crowd of 3,000 teenagers there to greet them as they stepped off their plane (Capitol Records had cleverly leaked details of the group’s itinerary to New York’s radio stations).

Their first Sullivan appearance on Sunday 9 February 1964 is considered a milestone in American pop culture. It drew an estimated 73 million viewers, the largest audience that had ever been recorded for an American television program to that point. It was just 77 days since President Kennedy had been assassinated. Watching were everyone who formed a band in the next 3 or 4 years.

Epstein had demanded that they be on at both the beginning and the end of the program in order to keep the audience tuned in throughout. The Beatles performed All My Loving and Till There Was You, which featured the names of the group members superimposed on close-up shots, including the famous Sorry girls, he’s married caption on John Lennon; and She Loves You. The studio was utter pandemonium, so it was a good job that the act that followed Beatles in the broadcast had been pre-recorded, rather than having someone perform live on stage amidst the chaos (incidentally in the same show was Davy Jones, later of the Monkees, then appearing in Oliver on Broadway who sang I’d Do Anything).

Thirty-five minutes later they played both sides of their latest single I Want to Hold Your Hand and I Saw Her Standing There. After taking their bows, John, Paul and George removed their instruments and Ringo jumped down from his drum riser. The group then headed over to Sullivan to shake hands and wave to the hysterical crowd.

They had perhaps given a grieving nation a much-needed reason to smile once again. There is an Urban Myth that during the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, crime rates plummeted all over the USA on the basis that everyone was hooked to the TV and had no time or inclination to burgle or rob. Not even a single hubcap was pinched between 8:00 PM and 9:00 PM on 9 February 1964, says the legend. As it happens, like most legends, it turns out to be completely false. Not only that, but it actually originated with a comment that was intended as a backhanded swipe at the group rather than a compliment. The News Editor of the Washington Post – now owned by the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos – a man called B.F. Henry quipped that the one good thing about the Beatles was that during the hour they were on Ed Sullivan’s show, there wasn’t a hubcap stolen in America.

His statement was actually a put-down reflecting the older peoples’ perception that the Beatles were a dumb fad that only appealed to the worst elements of American youth. If no hubcaps were stolen for an hour, it was because all the juvenile delinquents in the country who would normally be out committing petty crime if they hadn’t been glued to their television sets. That would have been that had Newsweek not re-published his comments and it national. The sarcastic origins of the comment became obscured and it became the truth, a legend that grew and grew as it was retold. Even the Beatles themselves came to believe it in time.

Sullivan had ponied up that $12k for 3 appearances, so they flew to Miami Beach, Florida and appeared live on the Ed Sullivan Show a second time the following week, broadcast live from Miami Beach where the then Cassius Clay was training for his title bout with Sonny Liston. The occasion was used by both camps for publicity. A third appearance  on February 23 was actually taped on February 9 before that first live appearance. By the time it was shown they were back home in England.

Then America went out and bought Beatles records. In the week ending April 4 1964, the Beatles held the top five positions on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (to date, no other act has simultaneously held even the top three). 1. Can’t Buy Me Love, 2. Twist and Shout, 3 She Loves You, 4 I Want to Hold Your Hand and 5.Please Please Me. Their debut album sold 3.6 million copies in 4 weeks. That same month, four Beatles tribute songs also made the charts: We Love You Beatles by the Carefrees – based on We Love You Conrad from the musical Bye Bye Birdie about a pop star who gets drafted into the US Army – My Boyfriend Got A Beatle Haircut by Donna Lynn, The Boy With The Beatle Hair by the Swans and A Letter To The Beatles by the Four Preps who were actually an established group with quite a few hits to their name. All were dreadful.

By the end of 1964 the Beatles had sold 25 million singles and albums in the USA alone, including nine singles and six albums which sold at least a million. The single Can’t Buy Me Love sold 940,226 copies on the day it was released, March 16 1964. Capitol released anything they could. US albums usually had fewer tracks on them than they did here and in the UK the rule was you don’t add singles and B sides to albums. Capitol just released anything so for the next few years till Sgt Pepper the US versions of Beatles albums are very different than the UK ones and there are US albums that don’t exist here

If you thought the Rolling Stones were the second in the vanguard of the invasion? Nope. The day after the Beatles’ success on the show, Ed Sullivan called his people in London to ask who was Number One in England. The said it’s Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five, so the five lads from Tottenham who barely been out of N15 in their lives were on the next plane to New York for an appearance on 8 March 1964, exactly a month after the first Beatles appearance. They went down so well that Ed Sullivan wanted them back the next week but they said no because they didn’t fancy flying all the way back to London only to return to a few days later. Sullivan countered with the offer of a week’s holiday anyway they liked. On the way in from JFK they had seen a billboard advertising holidays in Montego Bay, so they said Can we go to Jamaica? and they did.  

Four months earlier they had been the house band at the Tottenham Royal, a Mecca ballroom at 415-419 High Road Tottenham, London, N17. They were all still semi-pro and working in factories and offices during the day. When they were booked to appear on Ed Sullivan, that was when they gave up their day jobs. They remain Gods in the USA to this day. They genuinely were second to the Beatles, certainly during the duration of the Invasion. They were the first British band of the British Invasion to tour the US, before the Beatles toured, and played to sell-out crowds and they made 18 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show – the most of any British Invasion group. And they were as influential on US music as the Beatles or anyone else arguably, especially anything that involves big drums. They scored seven straight Top 20 singles in the USA in 1964, and four more in 1965 and had hits all the way to 1967. They also sold out 12 straight concerts in Carnegie Hall

The market in the USA was so large and wide open that British record companies started signing groups for the US market. Before it was all about the UK but the success of the Beatles changed all that, so you had British bands having hits in the USA without ever having been there. A Beatles link helped. Both Billy J Kramer & the Dakotas and Gerry & the Pacemakers were managed by Brian Epstein’s NEMS group who of course also managed the Beatles and their records produced by George Martin. Kramer’s hits were almost entirely lesser Lennon & McCartney songs like Bad to Me and From A Window. Gerry & the Pacemakers did at least write many of their hits, though not all. You’ll Never Walk Alone is actually from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel.

Paul McCartney’s girlfriend throughout most of the Sixties was actress Jane Asher and in fact his London home until he bought a posh house in St John’s Wood was the attic bedroom of Jane Asher’s parents’ house at 57 Wimpole Street W1. Paul and Jane’s brother, Peter Asher, were great friends and Peter and his friend from Westminster public school Gordon Waller recorded a Lennon-McCartney song the Beatles didn’t was good enough for them called World Without Love as Peter & Gordon which went to Number One here and in the USA for 1 week in June 1964. They lasted till 1967. Peter Asher became the head of A&R for Apple Records, where he discovered James Taylor who was living in London at the time. When Taylor moved back to the USA so did Peter Asher basing himself in LA and managing and producing multi-platinum albums by Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, producing Andrew Gold and Bonnie Raitt and was instrumental in shaping that 70s LA sound. Which is not bad for a public schoolboy from London.

The biggest UK impresario after Epstein was Mickie Most, a former singer at the 2Is coffee bar who moved to South Africa to become a pop star and came back as a producer. Most was one of the first to make the effort to travel to NYC to trawl the Brill Building for songs UK artists could nick. British pop artists normally did covers of American records that had already been successful, but Most went to America to get the songs before they were recorded. In New York, he found a Gerry Goffin and Carole King song called I’m into Something Good, which he knew would be perfect for a band from Manchester he was handling called Herman’s Hermits. They were as polite and clean cut as the Beatles, fronted by Peter Noone, who was only 17-18 when they hit. Some of their hits were very good – No Milk Todaywas written by 10cc’s Graham Gouldman, who was their manager’s cousin – but not all were belters: extraordinarily in 1965, the year of Tambourine Man and Loving Feeling, their Number Ones were Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter and I’m Henry VIII, I Am. 

If Herman’s Hermits were Mickie Most’s clean-cut Beatles-alikes, the long-haired Stones equivalents were the Animals, an R&B band from Newcastle who had had a residency at the Scene club in Ham Yard. They had been playing The House of the Rising Sun, which was an old folk song sung by Dylan on his first album Bob Dylan. The arrangement was by the whole band – especially the catchy organ melody, played by Alan Price on a Vox Continental keyboard – but only Price was credited on the label and he was the only person to receive songwriter’s royalties. Needless to say his bandmates were less than pleased and he left the group for a solo career the following year.

They recorded it in May 1964 at De Lane Lea which was opposite Kingsway tube station, having driven 300 miles overnight from a gig in the North East. After parking the van and a quick cup of tea and a cigarette at a café round the corner, they nailed the song in three takes, the whole session was over in under half an hour and the invoice from De Lane Lea for the studio time was £4 10s or £4.50. The record hit Number One in Britain in June and in the US in September. They weren’t writers and had further Price-less hits with Tin Pan alley tunes like Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, We Gotta Get Out of This Placeand It’s My Lifebut gave up by 1967. There have been a few reunions and a version still tours.

The Zombies were very nice lads from St Albans, who were signed Decca in 1964. Decca thought their first single She’s Not There would do well in the USA so they were on the next flight. They toured the USA on a 7-performances-a-day package tour with amongst others the Shangri Las where the drummer Hugh Grundy played with the Zombies, then behind a curtain revved a motorcycle during Leader of the Pack. They had a couple of further hits like Tell Her No which got to Number 6. They continued recording but without chart success. Their 1967 slightly psychedelic album Odessey & Oracle failed to reach the charts so they split up. A year later the single Time of the Season was re-released after a DJ in Michigan started playing it and the record company re-released it. It got to Number 3, two years after it was made.

The Kinks hit big with You Really Got Me, All Day And All of the Night and Tired Of Waiting For You but in late 1965 they were banned for 4 years from touring in the US by the American Federation of Musicians, in which time they recorded what we might think of as their greatest stuff, but it never really charted in the USA. They were viewed as hooligans. Ray Davies and Dave Davies could not stand each other and the rest of the band did not particularly like either one of them. They would fight on stage, including a rather famous night in Cardiff where the drummer Mick Avory threw a cymbal at guitariot Dave Davies like a frisbee which left Davies in hospital and landed Avory in jail. They got a fight on a TV show called Where the Action Is and Dave Davies used the C-bomb on the radio in Boston when the DJ who was clearly American was talking with a Liverpudlian accent. He was dragged me out of the building.

The main problem was they fell out with their tour promoter who wanted them to play the hits, rather than the newer more complex stuff Ray Davies was writing. He refused to pay them so one night they played a 45-minute version of You Really Got Me. He filed a formal complaint with the American Federation of Musicians, who had the power to withhold work permits for British musicians, which they did. For 4 years. The Kinks not surprisingly lost their commercial momentum.

It was not just groups like The Yardbirds, The Searchers,The Hollies, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders, Manfred Mann, even Freddie & the Dreamers who hit gig in the States. We also had solo singers like Tom Jones, Dusty Springfield and especially Petula Clark who enjoyed a dozen huge hits crafted by Tony Hatch, another New Faces judge of the 70s. The one group whop couldn’t get a hit were the Rolling Stones, strange given that of all the Invasion groups they were doing the most obvious impression of American music, Herberts from Dartford singing with Estuary accents and reimporting it to the US with absolutely no irony.

It’s not that they didn’t try. Decca renamed The Rolling Stones, their debut album as The Rolling Stones: England’s Newest Hitmakers for the US market. A trip to the USA was announced in the press, so there were a few dozen screaming girls at London Airport on 1 June 1964 when the group were greeted at JFK by 500 fans, 4 months after the Beatles had 3000 fans turn up which gives you some idea of where they stood on the British Invasion pecking order.  The Stones gave a press conference at the airport but in direct contrast to the Beatles clean and smiling look, they were dirty and rude. The PR filled the room with flowers and told the press he had done so to bring relief to their nostrils because he feared that the Stones might be too smelly. He also brought along something typically English and Hairy: two Old English Sheepdogs.

The next day they went off into America for a fairly disastrous tour. The US Press were scathing: The Stones wear their hair long and uncombed their clothes are dirty and they appear to be strangers to a bathtub. You see them roaming around in packs. It’s hard to tell the girls from the boys because they dress the same way. Our teenagers look like angels compared to them. In California, they appeared on the Hollywood Palace TV show introduced by an apparently tipsy Dean Martin, whose kids had asked him to get Stones’ autographs but kept cracking wise about their appearance like These singing groups are under the impression they have long hair: not true at all, it’s an optical illusion, they just have smaller foreheads and higher eyebrows’ or ‘These long-haired wonders from England, the Rolling Stones…they’re backstage picking the fleas off each other.

Their first US Top 10 hit late in 1964 was a cover of Irma Thomas’s Time Is on My Side but their manager Andrew Oldham knew that for the Stones to compete they would have to start writing their own material. After a tentative start, Jagger and Richards finally hit their stride in 1965 with The Last Time and the Number Ones Satisfaction and Get Off My Cloud. In 2019 they are still touring, or at least they will be once Jagger’s ticker gets better.

The one British band who were not part of the British Invasion were the Who. They had come in right at the death with My Generation, the single and the album. In fact, their US label Brunswick changed the cover for the US release. The UK cover is the band standing beside some oil drums on a rooftop in Surrey Quays. For the US release in April 1966, Brunswick wanted a quintessentially British image and nothing says London more than Big Ben so the US cover was a shot of the band standing on Victoria Embankment in front of what is Westminster Pier with Big Ben very obviously in the background. The album did not chart!

The Who Sings My Generation

By 1966, the British Invasion was sort of all over. There wasn’t much left in Herman’s Hermits or the Hollies or even the DC5. After a little over 2 years, the US charts were full of groups who had been inspired by the British Invasion, so the circle was complete. Artists like the Mamas and Papas, the Young Rascals, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan had gone electric, the Shadows of Knight, Johnny Rivers. English singers were rare on the US charts and American bands regained the mainstream and the wave of anglophilia largely faded as American culture shifted in response to the Vietnam War and the resulting civil unrest.

The Beatles were unassailable as were the Stones to almost the same extent but it is worth saying that each of those groups were prolific innovative and fast-changing and changed the culture on an annual basis. Rubber Soul is a leap from Help, Revolveris a leap from Rubber Soul. Similarly., the Stones’ Out of Our Heads is a huge leap forward from their previous album, and December’s Children and Aftermath are a huge improvement on Out of Our HeadsThey were just the best groups in the world at that time. The only US groups who came close were the Beach Boys who had just made Pet Sounds.




The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Hoaxes

It’s April Fool’s Week as I write and whilst I may be a couple of days late but I thought a quick round-up of the Greatest Rock and Roll Hoaxes might be in order. A mixture of conspiracy theories, cheeky scams, hilarious pranks and downright evil sleight of hand.

The Sonny Boy Williamsons
The earliest hoax of the rock and roll age is the story of Sonny Boy Williamson. Or to be strictly accurate Sonny Boy Williamsons. Older Bluesheads out there, veterans of the Crawdaddy back in ’63, will remember kneeling at the feet of the revered blues pioneer, guitarist, singer and harmonica player when he toured here with The Animals and The Yardbirds – whose guitarist was an 18-year old Eric Clapton.

Only one problem. Sonny Boy Williamson died in 1948.

Image result for sonny boy williamson

The original Sonny Boy  – John Lee Williamson from Tennessee – was the best-known blues man in the USA during and just after the war. He had made his way to Chicago in the early 1930s, started recording in 1937 and made a number of songs which are regarded as blues standards, not least Sugar Mama Bluesand Good Morning Schoolgirl, which was Rod Stewart’s first single in 1964. He was hugely popular in those industrial cities of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, all of which had huge populations of African-Americans who had migrated North from Alabama, Mississippi and other Southern states for jobs in the North. Alas in June 1948, Sonny Boy Williamson was killed in a robbery as he walked home from a gig in Chicago. Terrible news for the Williamsons, but as it turned out, very good news for Alex Miller of Mississippi.

Miller had been playing in those Southern states for several years billing himself as Sonny Boy Williamson to cash in, safe in the knowledge that the real Sonny Boy Williamson was way too busy in the North to ever play shows anywhere else. Once the real Sonny Boy Williamson was safely dead, Miller was free to start recording as Sonny Boy Williamson. With no explanation given, he simply picked up where the dead Sonny Boy had left off. Blues historians now differentiate them as SBWI and SBWII but at the time no one knew. He even moved up to Chicago from Mississippi in 1953 because there was so much work for him

When the Blues craze exploded over here in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he got on a plane and toured Europe and the UK and even appeared on top TV show Ready Steady Go! He obviously liked the place. A dapper man with money now in his pocket for once, he headed to Savile Row and had a two-tone suit tailored personally for him, along with bowler hat, matching umbrella, and an attaché case for his harmonicas. You can take the man out of Arkansas, but you can’t take Arkansas out of the man. On tour in the Midlands, he tried to cook himself a tasty bit of rabbit in a coffee percolator of all things and set his hotel room on fire.

He didn’t enjoy that sharp suit for long. He died on May 25, 1965 of an apparent heart attack suffered in his sleep the night before. He had adopted the real Sonny Boy Williamson’s birthday to complete the subterfuge, so everyone thought he was 65. Actually he was 52.


Could Klaatu Be Beatles? Mystery Is A Magical Tour
It’s 1976 and a band called Klaatu – Klaatu was the extraterrestrial in the 1950s sci-fi film The Day The Earth Stood Still – released an album called 3.47 EST. Oddly, mysteriously it had none of the usual information about the group, no photos, no songwriting credits, no contacts and it came out on Capitol Records (lest we forget the Beatles’ label in North America) . On top of that the sleeve of Ringo Starr’s latest album Goodnight Vienna had the drummer standing in the doorway of the spaceship from The Day The Earth Stood Still, dressed as Klaatu. The lead singer did rather sound like Beatle Paul and the guitars were a lot like George’s playing. There were even a few Yeah Yeah Yeahs in there too in case we didn’t get the message

One person who did get the message was Steven Smith of the Rhode Island Providence Journal, who reviewed the album with a story titled Could Klaatu Be Beatles? Mystery Is A Magical Tour’. he even contacted Capitol Records for more information but as sales had been a bit slow and figuring this might help sell a few albums, they refused to confirm or deny.  He felt his only conclusion was to announce that this was an anonymous record by the Fab Four. Then all hell broke loose sales-wise.


AM and FM radio who loved the Beatles and whose listeners were desperate for the Fab Four to reform, began to play tracks from the album and other stations caught on to the story. Within weeks Klaatu were being played all across the US.  It wasn’t just an American phenomenon. It was reported around the world, including the UK, although the New Musical Express famously squashed the rumours with an article under the title Deaf Idiot Journalist Starts Beatle Rumour. In the end some bright spark went to the US Copyright Office and discovered that the songs were copyrighted not to Lennon, McCartney, Harrison or Starkey, but to John Woloschuk, Dee Long and Terry Draper and Klaatu were actually a dull group of Prog Rockers from Toronto.

They made a number of albums, all apparently very good if you like that kind of thing, sold well in Canada but nowhere else now people knew they weren’t the Beatles. It was all 40 years and the only reason you’d remember them now is because they wrote the Carpenters Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (The Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day).


The Fake Zombies
The Zombies were very nice lads from St Albans, who enjoyed a few hits here and in the USA as part of the British Invasion. By 1967 though, it was pretty much all over, despite them making they masterpiece Odessey & Oracle, so they packed it in and went their separate ways.

However a couple fo years later, a DJ in Michigan started playing a track from Odyssey & Oracle, a song called Time of the Season so it was re-released and stormed upon to Number 3 in the charts. There was all of a sudden demand for a Zombies tour but they were all off doing other things and weren’t interested. Luckily a dodgy promoter in Bay City, Michigan, Delta Promotions, was and did what anyone would do if they were trying to fake a 5-piece band from St Albans: they found a 4-piece blues band from Dallas, Texas, took some promo photos (two of them were wearing cowboy hats) and set them out on tour as The Zombies. If anyone asked where the keyboard player was, they had to say he’d been busted and was in jail.


They were terrible, which is not surprising as they were a blues band from Texas not a pop group from St Albans but there was no internet or social media so they just moved on to another town. Newspaper reviews mentioned bad sound, shoddy playing, and unimpressed audiences but by the time the paper came out the Fake Zombies were hundreds of miles away. They played small clubs in Michigan and Wisconsin and went up into Canada, where they appeared on TV and played a gig in a prison.

The promoters were getting away with it, so they decided they’d make twice as much money with a second group of Fake Zombies. The second fake Zombies were a five-piece and at least had a keyboard player. They were also very good. If you heard them play Time of the Season, you couldn’t really tell the difference. The real Zombies did find out and were furious but there wasn’t a lot they could do. In the end it was Rolling Stone magazine that broke the story in December 1969, titled The Zombies Are A Stiff. 

Still Delta Promotions continued their dodgy business They had a fake version of The Animals and even a fake version of the Archies, which is bizarre because the Archies were a fake band to start with. It was also Delta’s downfall as the Archies were controlled by a very shrewd and powerful publisher and businessman called Don Kirshner, who had the clout – and the lawyers – to take Delta down, which they did. With Delta Promotions dissolved, the bands on the Delta roster headed back home. The Texas Zombies returned to Dallas where they ditched their Zombies past and returned to their normal lives. Tow of them, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard formed ZZ Top with guitarist and singer Billy Gibbons. They released their first album in 1970 and have since sold around 60 million albums worldwide.

Why Did You Do It? The fake Fleetwood Mac
Fast forward to 1974 and the lessons of Delta Promotions had obviously not been learnt. Fleetwood Mac had by this point been a blues band led by godlike guitar player Peter Green and were yet top be the radio-friendly AOR behemoth of Rumours led by Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. In fact, they were in a bit of a rut, constantly on tour in the US where they retained some kind of audience. However the John and Christine McVie’s marriage was under strain, there was a lot of drinking and drugging and Mick Fleetwood knew that their new guitarist was having an affair with Mick’s wife. Not surprisingly they didn’t fancy slogging round America in a tour bus, so they cancelled any remaining dates to sort themselves out and have a nice break. However, they didn’t realise that they were contractually obliged to play and would be sued for huge amounts of money if they didn’t play them. The financial losses could be huge.

So rather than lose a fortune, their manager Clifford Davis recruited a British band called Legs and sent them out on tour as a Fake Fleetwood Mac. They were told that Mick Fleetwood would join them on later dates, but when he didn’t show up, the excuse was he’d just dropped out when he rumbled the scam. Which audiences soon did too, what with there being absolutely no actual members of Fleetwood Mac on stage at any time. After a dreadful review in Rolling Stone, the tour ground to a halt as the news spread and promoters cancelled dates, although when they had played they had gone over a bit of a storm apparently. Then it all went legal. Everyone sued each other and they couldn’t work for months and months. Most of the industry assumed they were finished, although the real Fleetwood Mac relocated permanently to LA, recruited Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks at a studio in LA and have sold well over 100 million albums since

As a postscript, the musicians in the fake Fleetwood Mac later formed Stretch, who had a huge hit with Why Did You Do It? which is allegedly about Mick Fleetwood.

Orion: the Man who would be King
Elvis Presley of course died in Memphis in August 1977 of a heart attack after years of prescription drug addiction and dreadful diet.

Or did he? Many think he’s still alive. The first alleged sighting of a non-dead King of Rock’n’Roll was two days after Elvis’ death, when a bloke at Memphis airport bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Apparently he looked a bit like Elvis and used the name Jon Burrows, which was an alias of Elvis had often used when booking hotels for himself. Some swear he’s in the 1990 movie Home Alone as the bearded man behind Kevin’s mum as she checks in at the airport to fly home from Paris. Last year, when a man with a white beard was spotted visiting Graceland, fans were convinced it was Elvis.

The appetite to want Elvis not to be dead is huge and has been since 1977. At the end of that year, a cash-in pulp fiction novel called Orion was published. It was the story of a hugely successful Southern rock star called Orion Darnell who fakes his own death to get out of the rat race and live a normal life. In case you missed the link, the publishers cheekily added the words Is Elvis Really Dead? on the cover. It flew out of the stores and up the best seller lists.

A few weeks later, Sun Records, the label that first released his music, put out an album of duets between Jerry Lee Lewis and a singer who sounded uncannily like Elvis. Not a little like Elvis, like Les Grey of Mud or Shakin Stevens, but uncannily, preternaturally like Elvis. To ride the coat tails of the Orion bestseller, Sun Records called him Orion and had him wear a mask, which he never took off. To be honest he didn’t look unlike Elvis. He had quite a luxurious black Barnet, liked a gaudy jump suit like the King himself and there was that voice.

a5152f32cbf82678b60d9ecd0d70bb50There was frenzied speculation that these were new unreleased Elvis tracks and keen to have them sell, Sun were happy to create the mystique that it was Elvis. No one at Sun said it wasn’t Elvis. Sun’s first Orion album was called Reborn and people desperate for Elvis to still be among us bought it in large numbers. He sold out large theatres, always in the mask and always sounding uncannily like Elvis. He had massive following, released 9 albums between 1978 and 1982, some country, some gospel, some rock and roll, but all Elvis. There were 20,000 in his fan club and they all just really wanted it to be Elvis. They argued he wore a mask because he’d had plastic surgery to disguise himself after he died, although no one questioned why the biggest rock and roll singer would come back, er, as a rock and roll singer. When people started saying hang on he doesn’t actually look like Elvis, his manager started the rumour that whilst he might not look exactly like Elvis, he did look the spitting image of Vernon Presley, Elvis’ dad, so you know he might be his brother.

Was he Elvis? No, he was 34-year-old Jimmy Ellis from Orrville AL whoa been singing exactly like Elvis Presley since high school. He had had a singularly unsuccessful recording career in the 1960s but no one wanted another Elvis, there already was one. So he went back to the family business, which happened to be training horses. His heart though was always in music so one day in 1975 aged 30, he quit, sold everything he had and went to California to get into the music business. He hired a manager, a choreographer and a stylist to launch his career. But there was already one Elvis, so how do you market another.With difficulty and no success as it happens. After a year, his money ran out and it was back to the horses, with a sideline as an Elvis impersonator.

Then in August 1977, Elvis died.

Sun Records – now run by the less-than-scrupulous Nashville hustler Shelby Singleton – still owned the masters to Elvis’ early songs as well as those of Jerry Lee, Charlie Rich and Carl Perkins. With Elvis dead and the market going nuts for anything Elvis-related he overdubbed Jimmy EIllis’ voice onto all sorts of old Sun recordings and released them. The Orion best-seller gave Singleton an idea. He got Ellis to change his name to Orion and go out on the road. Ellis, after 20 years as a failed singer, thought this might be his shot. He even agreed to wear the mask, he so desperately wanted to be a successful singer.

He was the masked singer for five years, criss-crossing the USA and even touring the UK and Europe but still thought this might be a means to an end and that one day the mask might come off and Jimmy Ellis might be the big star. Alas it was not to be and when his manager finally told him that he was never going to be successful without the mask, he tore it off his face on stage one night and threw it into the audience. It ended his career. No one wanted him, they wanted the guy who sounded just like Elvis.

He didn’t stop singing trying a whole load of different stage names but after 5 or 6 years, skint and over 40 he found a new mask and was Orion once again. He barely made a living so had to do other jobs to support himself and his family. He went back to the family farm and then opened a Pawn Shop in his hometown of Orrville AL with his ex-wife. In December 1998, they were both killed in an armed robbery at the shop. The robber couldn’t get the till open and so ran out with no cash, having killed 2 people for nothing. Nothing at all. 


Milli Vanilli: Girl You Know Actually It Isn’t True
Milli Vanilli, two ridiculously good looking blokes in very tight trousers who sold several million records in 1989 and 1990, especially in America where they had three Number One singles, videos in permanent rotation on MTV and a Grammy for Best New Artist. The only problem was they didn’t actually sing on their records

Illustration for article titled 20 Years Ago Today, Milli Vanilli Lost Their Grammy For Lip Syncing Someone Else's Songs

They were formed in Munich by a German singer, songwriter and producer called Frank Farian, formerly an unsuccessful pop singer who had form for this kind of thing. In 1975, he came up with a song called Do You Wanna Bump? in fact a dangerously funky version of Prince Buster’s Al Capone with Farian’s tuneless and heavily accented voice over the top. He needed some good looking people to sell it so he recruited a proper female singer, a couple of exotic models and a whirling dervish of a dancer who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. They were called Boney M.

Boney M records sold 80 million copies throughout the rest of the 1970s, particularly here in the UK where they had a dozen Top Ten hits and albums that sold in the millions. People like me often look back on pop records of that time which I disregarded because I was listening to the Pistols and think actually that’s quite a good pop record. But with Boney M you really can’t. They are irredeemably terrible.

Fast forward to 1988 and Frank Farian is at it again. He had finished all the songs using session singers but needed someone to front it. He found two guys in a disco in Munich who were the best dancers there: Fabrice Morven who was French and originally from Guadeloupe; and Rob Pilatus, who was German, the son of an exotic dancer and American GI. He called them Milli Vanilli, claiming it was Turkish for Positive Energy (it isn’t, it’s the name of an old disco in Berlin).

Their debut album, known in the USA as Girl You Know It’s True, was released in late 1988 and had sold 10 million copies worldwide in a few months, mainly due to irritatingly catchy songs and sexy videos featuring Rob & Fab in phenomenally tight shorts. MTV invited them to tour America and they spent the Summer lip-synching their way across the country until one fateful night in Bristol, Connecticut when the tap e got stuck, repeating the line Girl you know it’s true over and over. They pretended to sing on for a while but just then ran off stage with the tape still playing their voices. Even then, the crowd didn’t seem to care, but suspicions were raised.

However their biggest problem was when they won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. Grammys are serious awards and the press decided that a little more scrutiny might be in order. One or two newspapers had heard about the incident with the tape and started looking into them. They couldn’t work out why the vocals on their records had such strong authentic American accents, yet when they had interviewed Rob & Fab they could barely speak English and had impenetrable German accents. Their enquiries were helped when the actual singers on the record suddenly revealed by press release that Rob & Fab were imposters and hadn’t sung a note. Farian buried the story by paying them handsomely to retract what they had said and got away with it. But worse was to come.

Emboldened by all the success, Rob & Fab actually demanded to sing on the next album. Farian, a wily music biz player, knew that would be a disaster, so he who blew the gaff himself with a news conference in November 1990, where he announced that Rob & Fab had mimed the whole thing and had not sung a single note on their records. Arista Records dropped them immediately and deleted their album. Their Grammy was revoked, the first time that had happened and they had to send it back

It didn’t end there. Twenty-two class-action law suits were filed in the US, charging that Arista Records had perpetrated consumer fraud by implying that Rob and Fab had sing on their own records. The plaintiffs, groups of fans, cited the “emotional distress” they experienced when the truth was revealed. They are demanded reimbursement of the money they spent on Milli Vanilli records, concert tickets and merchandise, as well as legal fees and costs. Arista were told to offer refunds to the tune of $1 if you bought a single, $2 if you bought an album or cassette, $3 if you bought a CD or video and $2.50 for a concert.

The actual singers released an album credited to The Real Milli Vanilli in 1991, which flopped. Rob & Fab tried a comeback but their album Rob & Fab sold around 2000 copies. Amazingly in 1997 they made another album with Frank Farian where they sang but Rob Pilatus who had not handled the scandal well, slid into substance abuse, attempted suicide and was arrested several times. Despite 10 stints in rehab, Pilatus couldn’t kick his habits. He died aged 32 after an overdose just as it was about to come out so it remains unreleased.


Paul is Dead
Possibly the most famous hoax of all. In November 1969, the world went crazy with the rumour that Paul McCartney had died.


The story was this: Paul McCartney had attended an all-night recording session at Abbey Road NW8 on Wednesday, November 9, 1966 but had had a furious row with the other Beatles and had stormed out of the studio into his car. He then picked up a female hitchhiker on his way to a friend’s house but the woman became so excited when she realized who had picked her up that she threw her arms around Paul and caused him to lose control of the car. Both Paul and his passenger were killed when the car swerved off the road and hit a stone fence.

Furthermore, not wanting to lose potential record sales, the Beatles’ record company  suppressed the story of Paul’s death and brought in a lookalike to replace him, a man named William Campbell, who was an actor and who had won a Paul McCartney lookalike contest. With a little plastic surgery, William Campbell had taken Paul’s place in photos of the group. The surgery had been successful except for a small scar above his lip. And, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, he could also sing and just happened to be a songwriter with an exceptional ear for pop melodies.

Ss if that weren’t far fetched enough, the surviving Beatles agreed to go along with this scheme, but as a protest decided to deliberately leave clues on their subsequent albums about Paul’s death and the imposter who took his place.


The Beatles had just released Abbey Road, where the cover of the 4 of them walking over the zebra crossing symbolises a funeral procession. Lennon, dressed in white, symbolises the preacher or heavenly figure. Ringo, dressed in black, is the undertaker or mourner. George, in denim jeans and shirt, symbolises the gravedigger and McCartney, barefoot and out of step with other members of the band, symbolises the corpse. In some cultures there is the custom to bury people without their shoes apparently. He’s also holding a fag in his right hand – although at that point was probably the most famous left-handed person in the whole world! The VW Beetle in the background with the number plate LMW 28IF, the age Paul would have been (actually he would have been 27)

And they were the most sensible, reasonable ones. Fans also went back through past albums and came up with all manner of bizarre stuff, like how on the Sergeant Pepper cover, if you put a mirror half way up the drum skin that says LONELY HEARTS you get I ONE IX arrow Die – the arrow points up to McCartney – IX being 9 in Roman numerals and (of course) McCartney has 9 letters. QED.

What about their greatest hits set, A Collection of Beatles Oldies– the letters O and L in Oldies are of course the letters immediately before P & M in the alphabet so it could therefore read PM DIES – in the same way people think the computer in 2001 HAL is IBM shifted by one letter. If you play the Strawberry Fields Forever single backwardsthere are messages in the final section that say I buried Paul (although it actually sound more like cranberry sauce.)

All a load of old tosh of course and here’s how it started. On 17 September 1969, the student newspaper of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa published an article titled Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead? based on a rumour they’d heard from stoned students from California that clues to McCartney’s death could be found among the lyrics and artwork of the Beatles’ recordings. One suspects student mischief and some exotic smoking might have been involved.

The Drake University story was picked up by the University of Illinois’ student newspaper, as well as other college newspapers in that part of the country. Then a copy found its way to Detroit radio station WKNR FM on 12 October where DJ Russ Gibb hosted a call in show about the rumour for the next hour, with the effect that hundreds of hysterical fans calling in to see if it was true.

Two days later the story appeared in the University of Michigan’s newspaper, with a lot more completely made up detail. They created the identity of Paul’s replacement, William Campbell, inserted new invented clues from their new album Abbey Road. The author assumed everyone would think it as a spoof and was then astonished when the story was picked up by proper mainstream newspapers across the United States, like, the Des Moines Register, the Chicago Sun Times the Washington Post, New York Times, the LA Times and The Times in London in pretty quick succession. This was the old world’s version of going viral.

In fact, the rumour though had become so widespread that both the BBC and Life magazine sent reporters to Paul’s farm in Scotland and get photos. Paul had taken refuge from the Beatles’ legal battles and he was not at all happy to be confronted by reporters but agreed to let an interview with Life, which did calm everybody down a bit. There was an upside though. In November 1969, Capitol Records sales managers reported a significant increase in sales of Beatles catalogue albums, attributed directly to the rumour. It was all student mischief that went round the world.


What’s So Funny? Nick Lowe at 70

Nicholas Drain Lowe, the Bard of Brentford, bass player, singer, producer, songwriter, former son-in-law of Johnny Cash, all-round nice bloke (I’ve met him) turns 70 this week, 24 March.

In a professional career of (at the time of writing) 51 years, he has produced records for the likes of Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, Graham Parker (with and without the Rumour), The Damned, Dr Feelgood, Wreckless Eric, Carlene Carter, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, The Mavericks and Johnny Cash. If that weren’t enough, his songs have been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart, Englebert  Humperdinck, Curtis Stigers, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Tom Petty, Dr Feelgood, Wilco, Graham Parker and Lene Lovich.

And himself of course, lest we forget the 14 cracking solo albums since the Seventies. I first bought a Nick Lowe record in 1977. It was called Bowi (a joke I’ll explain later) and I have bought all of them since then, usually on the day they’re released, and would include at least one of them – either 2001’s The Convincer or  Jesus of Cool from 1978, depending on my mood – in my All Time Top Ten of All Time.

WK-BD237_ARENA_P_20120912175432The child of an RAF Group Captain father and a musical mother, he had played in bands at Woodbridge School in Suffolk. After leaving school, he was a cub reporter with the Middlesex Advertiser & County Gazette newspaper in  Uxbridge, until his old school chum Brinsley Schwarz called him up and asked him to join his group Kippington Lodge – named after a Victorian manor house close to the Schwarz family home in Kippington Road Sevenoaks. Tired of writing about suburban flower shows, he said yes without a second’s hesitation. Which was very good news for all of us who have enjoyed his tunes since then.

Kippington Lodge had a record deal with Parlophone – lest we forget the Beatles’ label – but after a flop single, their first bass player left and in late 1967, Nick was his replacement. Parlophone wanted them to be a frothy pop group, replete with the appropriate hair and paisley clothes, but their next four singles all flopped (but sounded great) so they were dropped. Having failed miserably, they needed a new name and a new direction. They chose Brinsley Schwarz, after their guitarist and as it was 1969 and had been listening to a lot of CSN, Music from Big Pink and Dylan’s Great White Wonder bootleg, they went all hippy. Which was fine for the times but before long they were potless. Luckily they saw an ad in Melody Maker in October 1969: Young progressive management company require young songwriting group with own equipment.

It was placed by a company called Famepushers from the rough end of the Portobello Road and headed by a charismatic and entrepreneurial Irishman called Dave Robinson, who had been a tour manager and roadie for a band called Eire Apparent who had supported the Jimi Hendrix’s Experience in the USA. From the tons of replies, the Brinsleys were auditioned and signed.  All they needed to achieve fame and fortune was a record deal but that was proving remarkably difficult to secure.

Robinson had an idea: a big showcase gig to catch the record companies’ eye. The only problem was where? Every suggestion for a venue seemed inadequate so they dreamed bigger and bigger. The Speakeasy? Too small. The Albert Hall? We need bigger. Then someone suggested the hippest music venue in the World at that time, the Fillmore East. Except the Fillmore East was in New York City and Brinsley Schwarz were in Notting Hill, London, W10.

Not lacking in chutzpah, Dave Robinson called the Fillmore’s owner, legendary impresario Bill Graham in San Francisco begging for a slot of the bill, any bill. Despite an impassioned pitch, Graham refused but did say Stop by if you’re ever on the West Coast. Which inspired Robinson to cab it to Heathrow and fly straight to San Francisco, so that less than 24 hours after they had spoken on the phone, he was in Bill Graham’s office. And even then Graham would still only say he’d consider it. A  week later though, he called to say they could open for Quicksilver Messenger Service and Van Morrison at the Fillmore on 3-4 April 1970.

All of a sudden record labels thought hang on they’re on at the Fillmore and got interested. United Artists signed them for £22,000 and Robinson used the money to carry out the most daring – and ultimately unsuccessful – publicity stunt in the history of rock and roll.

He chartered an Aer Lingus Boeing 707, filled it with journalists and flew them to NYC on the Saturday for the shows and flew them back on the Sunday. The whole thing would be filmed for a documentary they would release in the cinemas for which Brinsley Schwarz would provide the soundtrack. The money would roll in. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, everything. There were visa problems for the band who pretty much had to sneak in via Canada. The 707 took off late, developed engine problems over the Irish Sea so had to make an emergency landing at Shannon airport, before finally leaving for NYC at 4.30pm. That was 11.30am US time with the band due on at 8pm and it’s an 8-hour flight. They managed to land dead on 7pm New York time and got to the Fillmore at 8.20pm, just as the band they’d all come to see took the stage. They played for 35 minutes and were terrible.

Stressed, under-rehearsed playing a large venue for the first time and were patently knees-a-knockin terrified. The next day they all flew back the next day with hangovers and a massive sense of disappointment. The Melody Maker referred to it as The Biggest Hype Of All Time. They were not only a laughing stock, they had overspent and were £13,000 in debt. When their debut album came out at the end of April, it achieved at best a lukewarm response. All they could do was live cheaply and gig furiously till it was all paid back, which is exactly what they did. They made five more albums of country-oriented based  R&B, based on the gifted songwriting of Nick Lowe, led the entire UK Pub Rock movement, got in all the papers, even supported Paul McCartney’s Wings on tour – and sold almost no records and so split up in March 1975 with a farewell gig at the Marquee on Wardour Street.

The other members went their separate ways, but as the main songwriter Nick was still contracted to United Artists, who saw him as a singer/songwriter in the James Taylor mould. Nothing against Sweet Baby James but that wasn’t Nick’s bag, so he did a kind of Producers thing where he deliberately made a single so terrible that it was bound to flop and he’d be dropped by UA, free to go somewhere else.

The problem was he put so much effort into making Bay City Rollers We Love You, it turned out to be a fantastic record. The lyrics were so tongue-in-cheek no self respecting Rollers fan in the UK was going to buy it, but the Japanese did – huge Rollers fans, the Japanese – and it went to Number One. United Artists were thrilled and wanted more, so he quickly did a follow up called Rollers Show, which was also a success. Finally he released Let’s Go To The Disco, as the Disco Brothers, which thankfully flopped everywhere so he was eventually released from the label.

Next he became an artist and in-house producer at Stiff Records, the new independent label formed by Dave Robinson and Nick Lowe’s flat mate, Jake Riviera. For just £45 he made the label’s first release, So It Goes, released in August 1976, with the witty catalogue number BUY1 and the words Mono-Enhanced Stereo, Play Loud! engraved on it. It made Single of the Week in Sounds and the NME and John Peel played it every night on his Radio One show.


As a producer, he had already produced Graham Parker & the Rumour’s debut Howling Wind and at Stiff was responsible for producing the country’s first punk single New Rose by The Damned as well as the wonderful Whole Wide World by Wreckless Eric. The records were made cheaply in small studios and his bash-it-down quickly-and-tart-it-up later philosophy earned him the nickname Basher. He also produced the first album by Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True. Costello had been a massive Brinsley Schwarz fan who dropped his demo tape off at the Stiff offices only to bump into Basher on his way home on the steps of Royal Oak tube station. Stiff loved the tape, signed him for an advance was £150, a battery powered amp and a cassette recorder. Nick Lowe was assigned to produce and between them they gave us the first five Costello albums and singles like Watching The Detectives and I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea. Fabulous stuff then and fabulous stuff still.

Your then 16-year old correspondent missed out on So It Goes but became aware of him when he released an EP in 1977 called Bowi. My regular rock and roll reading, Sounds, explained the joke: that if David Bowie couldn’t spell his name properly, then he wasn’t going to spell the Thin White Duke’s properly either (Bowie had just released the album Low). Tickled, I bought it forthwith and grooved to Born A Woman and Shake That Rat et al while I crammed for O Levels.

Concurrent to all this soloing and producing, there was Rockpile, a basic 50s rock and roll outfit with a very modern twist headed by the twin talents of Nick and Dave Edmunds. Rockpile actually recorded four studio albums, but Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds were contracted to different record labels – Nick Lowe to Stiff and Edmunds to Swansong, Led Zeppelin’s label – so only one, Seconds of Pleasure, was ever released under the Rockpile banner. They tried to get out the Swansong contract and thought Zep’s mercurial manager and label boss Peter Grant might be a tad busy making billions with the Zep and other charges Bad Company in the USA to be concerned about little old Edmunds. They drove all the way to Grant’s moated estate in Sussex to negotiate, but he didn’t recognise their car so he wouldn’t raise the drawbridge. Negotiations there were none.

However, if you bought a Dave Edmunds or Nick Lowe solo album in 1977, 1978 or 1979, you were really buying a Rockpile album – Tracks on Wax 4, Repeat When Necessary, Twangin’ and Labour of Lust all have the same players on them and were often recorded side by side. If it was Dave singing, they went on his albums, if it was Nick they went on his. Between them they had a number of hits, the likes of Girls Talk, Queen of Hearts, Crawling from The Wreckage plus his biggest hit Cruel To Be Kind and Cracking Up.  

Nick’s first chart hit though was the splendid I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, which got to Number 7 in March 1978 and is from his debut album Jesus of Cool (although anyone reading in the USA will not know it by that title; the US record label CBS thought it was too racy a title and wouldn’t sell in Peoria or other such god-fearing places, so it was renamed Pure Pop for Now People).

Finally in 1980 Edmunds got free of his Swansong contract and they were finally able to release Seconds of Pleasure as Rockpile – at which point they split up. Nick was now solo and released a series of very fine albums throughout the 1980s with wonderful titles like Nick the Knife, The Abominable Showman, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, The Rose of England, Pinker and Prouder Than Previous.

In 1979 he married Carlene Carter, the daughter of Johnny Cash’s wife June Carter Cash, which means he sort of became Johnny Cash’s son-in-law. Johnny, June and the Cash entourage were frequent visitors to Nick and Carlene’s house in Shepherd’s Bush and Cash covered a number of Lowe songs, including The Beast In Me. 

The late 1980s were perhaps not his best time, his marriage ended so older and wiser he moved further out into West London. Into the 90s, he surprised a few people when he formed a supergroup called Little Village with Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Keltner. They made only one rather decent album and when they played three nights at the Hammy Odeon in February 1992, the marquee out front said Tonight live from Nashville, Los Angeles and Brentford … Little Village.


The Nineties were the time he moved from being a pop star to a mature songwriter, dropping great albums of sensitive, witty and often melancholy songs every few years, recorded live with a steady company of great, understated musicians. What helped was the windfall when old Brinsley tune What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love & Understanding? was covered by American singer Curtis Stigers and found its way onto a movie soundtrack album. Luckily, that movie was The Bodyguard, with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, and at last count the soundtrack has sold over 45 million copies worldwide. Anyway, the thoroughly decent royalty cheque enabled him to record at his own pace and develop the music he could hear in his head. The results were fine albums like The Impossible Bird, Dig My Mood, The Old Magic, At My Age and my personal favourite The Convincer.

These days he still lives in Brentford, with second wife Peta Waddington and their young lad Roy and is as active as ever. Tours of the USA, a couple of new EPs, a new biography from author Will Birch and a UK tour in June, including the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, for which me and Mrs Routemaster already have tickets. I look forward to going back there as it was where Nick’s mum asked me to move seats in 1994 because my head was too big and she couldn’t see. How could I turn her down?

Will Birch’s biography, Cruel to be Kind: The Life & Music of Nick Lowe, is out in August, published by Constable and is already listed on Amazon and other online bookshops.