Farewell then Chuck Berry…

So farewell then Chuck Berry. A true pioneer and without doubt – don’t even bother to argue with me – one of the most influential performers, songwriters and guitar players in the second half of the Twentieth Century. No argument at all.

From 1955 to 1964 he wrote and recorded an incredible list of songs that 60 years later we all know and can hum if not sing the actual lyrics. If you ever started a band at school, hell, at any time, the first song you rehearsed was a Chuck Berry song, in my case Roll Over Beethoven, but it could just as well have been Maybelline (his first hit in 1955) or  Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, Johnny B. Goode, Memphis, Tennessee, Promised Land or dozens of others.

They were songs of humour, attitude and no little insight into young teens’ lives. His lyrics deliberately appealed to them by describing exactly what they were interested in: dances, cars, high school life, the opposite sex – all in an exciting new guitar driven sound that has influenced almost every guitar player that came after. Let’s not forget that it was a Chuck Berry record Mick Jagger was carrying when he bumped onto Keith on Dartford railway station in October 1961. The Rolling Stones first single was a Chuck Berry tune and as Keith Richards said when he inducted him into the Hall of Fame in 1986: ‘I’ve stolen every lick he ever played.’


He did have a reputation as a VERY difficult man though, embittered by the experiences of his life and career, his mistreatment by the business and the law. When you booked Chuck Berry, he got his cash upfront before he played, always in US Dollars, regardless of where in the world he was playing. One Saturday in Glasgow in January 1973, the promoter hadn’t read the contract carefully enough and tried to pay in Sterling, but after a tongue-lashing from Chuck, headed out into a wintry Glaswegian evening to get it changed into dollars before Chuck would go on, despite the crowd getting, let’s say, ‘restless’ as only Glaswegians can on a Saturday night.

His contract stipulated the exact times he would appear and depart. He would sometimes stand backstage gazing at his watch, waiting to go on at exactly 8, not later, not earlier. He did an hour. Not 61 minutes, not 59 minutes but an hour. And he only played an encore if he was specifically paid to do so.

And you provided the backing band, so all Chuck had to do is turn up with his guitar. The promoter contractually had to provide a Fender Dual Showman amplifier, and if one was not provided, he either walked out or demanded a fine of $2,000 to be paid before the show. He insisted on being met at the airport with a Lincoln Town Car but if a promoter sent a stretch limousine with a driver, he would send it back.

But he did always give the crowd what it wanted. He played all his hits, did his signature duck walk, that knees together-legs bent strut he used to do as a kid to entertain his family, he’d work the crowd and give them what they wanted but when the clock ticked over, he was out of there with his money in cash.

Charles Edward Anderson Berry was born in an entirely segregated – i.e. entirely black – part of St Louis. It was so insulated that Chuck said he didn’t see a white person till he was 3 years old. He saw some white firemen at a blaze and assumed they were so frightened that their faces had turned white from fear of going near the fire. His father told him they were white people, and their skin was always white, day or night.

His very strict middle-class upbringing allowed him to pursue his interest in music from an early age. He played in public for the first time at his all-black High School aged 15 in 1941 and played some boogie-woogie songs for which he got a tremendous ovation. His music career was slightly delayed though, when he and two high school friends decided to drive to California. When they ran out of money, they used a fake pistol to rob a bakery, a barber shop and a clothing store. Then their car broke down so they had to steal another car, before being arrested. After 21 minute trial in a predominantly white rural town, he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, the maximum possible, despite being a first time offender. He served three years.

He was already in his late 20s, married with children, when he started singing in public again, mainly white hillbilly songs but played in a bluesier style by a trio of three black guys. His trick was to sing very clearly, like a white man, and be a hell of  a performer, dancing and guitar playing duck-walking around the stage and his showmanship began to attract white audiences to their shows. Emboldened by his minor success, during a club date in Chicago, he collared Muddy Waters and asked him how you got a record made. Muddy said see Chess Records.

He sent them a tape of Maybelline, a rock and roll rewrite of a country tune called Ida Red which Chess invited him to record in May 1955. It had that popular Bill Haley stomping beat, with a chop-chop guitar and the Berry’s unconventional lyrics about him in his cheap Ford chasing his faithless girl, who’s with another guy in a much nicer ride, a Coupe de Ville. It made to Number 5 in the Hot 100 pop singles and by the end of the year, the song had sold a million copies and his earnings went through the roof, from $30 a night to $500 a night

After a couple of misses, he next scored with Roll Over Beethoven. Sixty years later its verses are known to everyone on the planet: Tell Tchaikovsky the news and I’m gonna write a little letter, gonna mail it to my local DJ, It’s a rockin’ rhythm record I want my jockey to play.  A long line of hits followed, although you will search in vain though for hits between 1961 and 1964, due to an enforced hiatus when he was sent to prison for three years in prison for offences under the Mann Act, a federal law from 1910 and already an anachronism, which made it a crime to transport a woman or girl from one state to another for the purpose of prostitution or for any other immoral purpose.

He was on a tour in EL Paso TX , crossed the bridge over the Rio Grande to Cuidad Juarez in Mexico and met Janice Escalanti, a 14 year old schoolgirl of Apache descent who had already been arrested for vagrancy and prostitution as well as public drunkenness but was nonetheless only 14. She left with Chuck and travelled on tour with him all the way back to St Louis. When they fell out, she went to the Police. Chuck was arrested and it probably didn’t help that he was black and she was not and that he already had a conviction for armed robbery.

After a two-week trial in March 1960, the jury took just over two hours to convict him. He was fined $5,000, and sentenced to five years in prison, the maximum allowable. He appealed the decision, arguing that the judge’s comments and attitude were racist and prejudiced the jury against him. He won the appeal and a second trial was heard in May and June 1961, resulting in another conviction and a three-year prison sentence and $5000 fine. After another appeal failed, Berry served one and one-half years in prison, from February 1962 to October 1963

Released in October 1963 and immediately went back to work – unlike say Jerry Lee Lewis who’d had his own sex scandal whose career was finished – he just picked up where he’d left off. So Nadine (Is It You?), No Particular Place to Go, You Never Can Tell and Promised Land are all from 1964 and 1965, success buoyed by the Chuck Berry tunes popularised by the Beatles and the Stones. The late 60s were a bit lean, but by the early Seventies, there was a bit of a rock and roll revival, a backlash against the heavier and psychedelic rock sounds then in vogue.

Chuck was back but despite the seismic influence of his songs, none of them had ever gone to Number One in US or the Uk. Until My Ding a Ling. How heartbreaking that his biggest ever hit, his only Number One was a smutty novelty song that he didn’t even write, although he claims copyright and was often listed as writer until a law suit from New Orleans songwriter Dave Bartholomew, co-writer of many of Fats Domino’s hits.

My Ding A Ling was recorded live during the Lanchester Polytechnic College Arts Festival at the Locarno Ballroom in Coventry, England, on 3 February 1972. His pick-up band included guitarist Onnie McIntyre and drummer Robbie McIntosh from the Average White Band. Onnie reported, when I spoke to him, that the rehearsal was basically Chuck – who arrived an hour before show time in his stage clothes carrying  guitar – saying “When I drop the neck of the guitar down, I’ll start and you just follow me. When the neck comes down again, you stop.” That was it, rehearsal over.

But what a showman! He had the audience in the palm of his hand from start to finish. There was the Duck Walk, Cossack dancing and audience participation. At the end unusually he refused to leave the stage, staying beyond even his usual allotted 60 minutes to do Johnny B Goode. Once he’d finished though, he left without saying goodbye to his musicians and got into his car and drove off. The NME said Chuck Berry is no battered old relic being trotted out for a rerun He’s a living master of rock and roll.

Radio stations started playing My Ding a Ling as an album track and pressured Chess into releasing it as a single, although they weren’t keen and expected trouble. It got into the US singles charts so it then got released in the Uk where many radio stations refused to play it. On the BBC, broadcasting legend Alan Fluff Freeman introduced the song by saying “oh Chuck baby, how could you?”. Still, it sold in the millions.  Ever the businessman, he toured relentlessly to cash in, his fee back up to $10,000 from $1000.

It proved to be his swan song, failing to trouble chart compliers again despite performing into his late 80s. There were a few more legal scrapes, including 4 months for tax evasion in 1979 when the taking everything in cash caught up with him. And who can forget that  curious case of him installing CCTV in the ladies’ toilets at a restaurant he owned in St Louis in 1990.  A police raid on his house found videotapes of women using the loo, one of whom was underage, so in order to avoid the child-abuse charges, he agreed to a plea and was given a six-month suspended jail sentence, two years’ unsupervised probation, and ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital. He also settled with 59 women who sued him for around $1.2 million plus legal fees.

He announced on his 90th birthday last October that a first new studio album since 1979, entitled Chuck, will be released in 2017. It also features his children, Charles Berry Jr. and Ingrid, on guitar and harmonica and is dedicated to his wife, Themetta, for whom the word long-suffering barely seems adequate, but in the end they were married for 69 years.




Is this the real life? 40 years of Bohemian Rhapsody

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a  huge bombastic sprawling, six-minute rock opera  took three weeks to make starting on 24 August 1975. It was painstakingly pieced together in six studios, pushing 1970s recording technology to its limits. The song’s multi-tracked vocals were overdubbed so often that the tapes became virtually transparent and have to be baked today before they can be used.

It wasn’t a conventional song. First of all there’s no chorus; secondly it’s three different bits stitched together – intro, a ballad segment, an operatic passage, a hard rock part bookended by a rather reflective intro and outro. It was reportedly the most expensive single ever made at the time of its release


It was released on 31 October 1975, stayed at the top of the UK Singles Chart for nine weeks and had sold more than a million copies in the UK by the end of January 1976.  It’s been Christmas number one twice, reaching number one a second time in 1991 for another five weeks when the same version was re-released after the death of its composer and singer Freddie Mercury. Not bad for a song the record company said would never be played on the radio.

It was written at Freddie’s flat at 100 Holland Road Kensington W14, in Spring 1975 on an upright piano in his bedroom which was also the headboard of the bed, so if he thought of something in the night he could lean over backwards and play. He was double jointed apparently.

He had had bits of it since the late 1960s, certainly the piano riff and the ‘Mama’ bit, which he pinched from a Roy Orbison song called Mama. But he was sick of  always being compared to other bands, especially Led Zeppelin so he wanted to do something just ridiculously and outrageously different.

There was no demo.  It was all in Freddie’s head and was originally known as Fred’s Thing, all in Freddie’s mind. The rest of the band thought he was joking when he played the opening ballad section on the piano for them and stopped and said, ‘Right, this is where the opera section comes in.

They recorded it at Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, in a converted stable in rural Wales. It started with Freddie, drummer Roger Taylor and bass player John Deacon recording the backing track live, before they got to the vocals. Deacon is no singer apparently so Mercury, Taylor and guitarist Brian May reportedly sang their vocal parts continually for ten to twelve hours a day for days on end. The entire arrangement was written out on the back of fag packets, telephone directories and bits of papers. When they’d done one part, they moved onto next part of the harmony.

The entire piece took three weeks to record, and some sections featured 180 separate vocal overdubs. They thought they were finished then Freddie would come up with another ‘Galileo’, so they would have to splice in another piece of tape to the reel. They nicked a few things from band leader Mantovani: the Magnificos and Let Me Goes are Bells’ Chords, a technique where single notes of a chord are sung in sequence and sustained by separate voices to allow the chord to be heard. Brian May had heard it on his parents’ radiogram in the 1950s.


Freddie Mercury decided it was going to be the first single, although everyone at the record company EMI thought it would be a flop. EMI wanted to edit it down to 3 minutes as it was 5′ 55″ long, too long for radio and TV, not to mention it was a bizarre mix of opera, ballad, classical and heavy rock. Who was going to play it? UK radio in 1975 was limited to BBC Radio One or  Capital Radio, neither of whom playlisted it. And the press didn’t really like it either. The Melody Maker said that ‘Queen contrived to approximate the demented fury of the Balham Amateur Operatic Society performing The Pirates of Penzance’.

The band bypassed EMI’s decision by playing the song for friendly Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett, to whom they gave a reel-to-reel copy and told him with a wink he could only have it if he promised not to play it. To which he agreed with a wink. Everett teased his listeners by playing only parts of the song so that audience demand intensified to the point that he played the full song on his show 14 times in two days in October 1975. Fans tried to buy the single the following Monday, only to be told by record stores that it had not yet been released. EMI then gave in to the pressure and it came out on 31 October 1975.

The next problem was how would you play it on BBC TV’s weekly pop show Top of the Pops? They’d look rather silly just the four of them miming to the 180 piece operatic choir on TV. So they made a video, the one that has been called the first ever music video, which is not really true (the Beatles made films of the latest single at the height of their extraordinary success in the 1960s) but they did invent the pop video as the promotional tool which everyone felt they had to make when they had new song out.

It was filmed in four hours at a cost of £4,500  on 10 November 1975 at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood, just North of London, where Queen were in dress rehearsals with all their stage lights and staging. That means the live bits are not filmed on stage somewhere, they are filmed in dress rehearsals for the tour that was to begin. The head and shoulders were done at the side of the same soundstage. There are some fairly primitive special effects which were done live like visual feedback where the camera turns to monitor, or a prism lens. It was all done in 4 hours, no post-production.


Playing the song live obviously created a problem with the operatic section. Initially they played it in 2 sections, opening the act with the first bit then playing h 4 or 5 songs in the middle as a kind of medley before ending it with the rocking ‘So you think you can love me and spit in my eye section’. Later they just played a tape of the whole operatic section accompanied by a light show so they could go off stage, get … ‘refreshed’, change their frocks, and come back and crash into the heavy section. Which is also what happened when Elton John – in a truly dreadful toupe – and Axl Rose played it together at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley on Easter Monday, 20 April 1992. Alas, Freddie had died aged only 45 six months earlier. He would have been 70 year sold this week.


Dylan plugs in

On 25 July 1965, 51 years ago this week, in Newport Rhode Island, USA, Bob Dylan strapped on a black Fender Stratocaster guitar, plugged it in and played with an electric blues band at. He only played three songs and one of them was apparently terrible but in about 15 minutes he managed to split the Sixties wide open and changed music more than a little. It must be aid the crowd that evening weren’t especially happy – Dylan was said to have “electrified one half of his audience, and electrocuted the other” – so Dylan travelled the world and played to audiences around the world, including here in the UK, who bought their tickets and booed him loudly.

Songs from the early Sixties were all moon-in-June I-love-you-yes-I-do teen fluff. Post 1964/5 though they have added weight, almost always still about love but now deeper and more sophisticated. If it wasn’t Bob Dylan’s immediate influence, then it was the massive influence he had on The Beatles when he finally met them, which he did on Friday 28 August 1964, in a room in the Delmonico hotel at Park Avenue and 59th in New York City, during the Beatles first US tour. According to one critic: “That meeting didn’t just change pop music – it changed the times.”


Dylan introduced the Fab Four to marijuana for (allegedly) the first time. Ringo Starr didn’t understand dope etiquette so smoked it all without sharing and collapsed in a giggling mess. Manager Brian Epstein was so stoned he could only squeak. Paul McCartney believed he’d attained true mental clarity for the first time in his life and instructed Beatles roadie Mal Evans to write down everything he said henceforth. Sober and later, it was gibberish.

Dylan, exposed to the Beatles, decided he’d had enough of the spokesman-of-his-generation nonsense and wanted to plug his guitar in. His next album, March 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home album was half acoustic and half full electric folk rock. The songs still had the social conscience of traditional American music and of his earlier songs but they didn’t half rattle along nicely. Exposed to Dylan and dope, the Beatles began to mine their own interior lives for more personal, self-examining songs. They went from “If I Fell” and “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” on A Hard Day’s Night in the first half of 1964 to “I’m a Loser” and “Baby’s in Black” in late 1964. In the middle they had got high with Bob Dylan. And in 1965 if it influenced the Beatles, sooner or later it was going to influence everyone.

In March 1965 he released a new single unlike anything he had done before, Subterranean Homesick Blues, a Beat stream consciousness, married with electric music inspired by Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’. But his next single which was the game changer. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ had been written in his suite at the Savoy Hotel on his May 1965 tour of the UK. By mid June back in the US, he had condensed 20 pages of lyrics to the six minute single we know. Actually it’s 6’10” but they put 5’59” on the label.

In July he was due to play the Newport Folk Festival in Newport Rhode Island, which he had played solo for the previous two years and where he was revered as a god by the folk faithful. In ’65 there was a terrific buzz on Dylan, that new single had been out four days and wasn’t like anything they’d heard him do before. On top of that, the Byrds’ truncated version of the 5 and a half minute poem on his latest album ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ had been the Number One hit single in the country less than a month before

On them Saturday, 24 July, he played the song writing workshop solo with his guitar as that kind of nasal troubadour we all love to a rapturous crowd. Over on the main stage, a group from Chicago called the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were playing their own set. They included singer/harmonica player Paul Butterfield and blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield, a Jewish kid from a wealthy family in Chicago who even at 21 was a guitar virtuoso. Chicago is after all where the blues went electric. The rest of the band were old timers who had played with old Chicago blues guys like Little Walter and Howlin Wolf.

They were introduced rather sneeringly by grandee of the folk movement called Alan Lomax, as ‘these kids from Chicago will try and play the blues with the help of all these instruments’. As he walked off, Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman said ‘that was a real chickenshit introduction’, at which point Lomax replied ‘do you want a punch in the mouth?’ and pushed Grossman. Both fell to the ground so you hadthe sight of these two large middle-aged men rolling around on the ground punching each other until they were separated.

So irritated was Dylan by what he considered Lomax’s condescending remarks and behaviour to his manager that he decided to do something he had wanted to do for some time: play his new songs with an amplified, electric band on his main-stage set the following night. He took the Butterfield Band’s rhythm section, plus their lead guitarist Mike Bloomfield and a few others he knew were there like Al Kooper, a guitar player who had blagged his way into playing the Hammond organ on Like A Rolling Stone a month earlier, back to Nethercliffe, a mansion nearby being used by festival organiser as a bolt hole for entertainers where he was staying in RI and rehearsed till dawn.

They all soundchecked at 5.30pm the next afternoon, Sunday, just as the afternoon’s heavy rain had stopped – which might not normally matter if all you have is a battered acoustic guitar but these guys had amps and mikes and metal harmonicas. At about 9pm, sandwiched between two very traditional acts, Dylan dressed in a leather jacket, black jeans, shades and Cuban heeled Beatles boots he’d bought on Carnaby Street two months earlier took the stage. Loud applause faded as the audience realised everyone on stage was plugging in and tuning up. Dylan then started strumming his electric guitar, the drums started as support then Bloomfield shouted Let’s go and they were off into Maggie’s Farm, Dylan’s vocals in a call and response with Mike Bloomfield’s blues guitar

By today’s standards it wasn’t especially loud but to a field full of folk enthusiasts “that first note of ‘Maggie’s Farm’ was the loudest thing anybody had ever heard”. People started booing about half way through the first song. The only mikes were on stage where there were more likely to be boos, hence the legend. The applause at the end lasts mere seconds when there was applause for nearly a minute when they first walked on stage.

Next was Like a Rolling Stone which most only knew from the radio and had a shambolic end . Again there was only 10 seconds applause for something that was in the Top 3 that week. They then played an early version of It Takes A Lot To Laugh It Takes A Train To Cry,  which was by all accounts awful. After which Dylan says ‘Lets go, that’s all’ at which an incredulous Bloomfield answers ‘That it?’ Yes it was but that was when the main booing started. They’d only played three songs – they had rehearsed five – and only been on for 17 minutes. The promoter begged him to go back out on his own lest there be a riot, so Dylan borrowed an acoustic guitar from Johnny Cash and went back on for two more solo songs. It had been a total of 35 minutes since he went on and he was off stage or tuning up for ten of them. The crowd exploded with applause at the end, calling for more but Dylan did not return (in fact he did not return to the Newport festival for 37 years and in an enigmatic gesture, sported a wig and fake beard).

Backstage the feeling was one of betrayal. All the old guard were incandescent with rage at the abandoning of their principles by the best known among them and according to legend Pete Seeger went hunting for an axe to cut the power. Dylan though seemed calm, claiming not to have noticed the booing but booing there was. In fact Yarrow had to ask for the booing to stop so the next act could come on. At the traditional post-show dinner, Dylan sat in the corner nervously whilst the traditionalists at the other end of the room stared daggers. Singer Maria D’Amato – later Maria ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ Muldaur went over to ask him to dance, and he said ‘I’d dance with you Maria but my hands are on fire’.

Dylan went back to New York and completed recording his Highway 61 Revisited album in just four days, an album generally regarded as a revolutionary record, one of the greatest ever made. He had big shows booked for August 1965 and he needed an electric band to back him up. The Butterfield Blues Band had their own careers. so  Albert Grossman’s secretary had seen a great band playing in a club in near Atlantic City, NJ called Levon and the Hawks. Drummer Levon Helm and lead guitarist Robbie Robertson joined Dylan’s electric band for the gigs but as band members left one by one fed up with being jeered every night, so the other three members of the Hawks – Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson – joined. The band we later knew as The Band went off round the world with Dylan and were roundly booed every single night.





Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd’s lost genius

Pink Floyd are one of the biggest bands in the world. They’ve sold 250 million albums, sold out football stadiums and will have a song from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ on the radio somewhere in the world right about now.

But there are two Floyds: the prog rock behemoth of course, but also the very English psychedelic pop group of the 1960s. That Floyd was led by guitarist Syd Barrett, who wrote all the songs on their first album and the early singles, like ‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’ but who left us early, one of the first and most enigmatic casualties of the 1960s, the victim of too much of what you could have too much of in 1967. Ironic then that deprived of their chief songwriter, the Floyd’s subsequent songs are almost entirely about Syd, viz Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Comfortably Numb and just about all of Dark Side of the Moon.


Post-Floyd, its lost genius made two solo records that have achieved cult status, ‘The Madcap Laughs’ and ‘Barrett’, both essentially the sound of a man with a very fragile and delicate state of mind actually falling apart. At the age of 24 he was gone, disappeared, unable to function.

Roger Keith Barrett was born on 6 January 1946 in Cambridge, into a very middle-class, cultured and musical family, all piano lessons and ‘Wind In The Willows’. He got the nickname ‘Syd’ when he showed up at Scouts wearing a working class flat cap instead of his Scout beret and “Syd” was the only working-class name they knew.

After his father died a month before Barrett’s 16th birthday, his mother, eager to help her son recover from his grief, encouraged him to join a band with his new guitar.Always a good looking guy, it was all the encouragement he needed be bohemian. Awful at everything at school apart from Art, where he was properly gifted, he applied tor Camberwell College of Art in London, where he arrived in the summer of 1964 to study painting. He lodged at 39 Stanhope Gardens, Highgate N6 with an old mate from Cambridge called Roger Waters, who was studying architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic. Along with a couple of guys from his course, Nick Mason and Richard Wright, Waters was playing student parties in a band known as either the Sigma 6 , the Tea Set, the Meggadeaths, Spectrum 5, The Architectural Abdabs and finally The Screaming Abdabs depending on which day of the week it as. Syd joined almost immediately. They were just an occasional party band playing the few old blues numbers they knew and improvising with lengthy solos just to fill the time. They got a new name, in late 1965, The Pink Floyd Sound  courtesy of two very obscure American blues musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

The also had a light show, which turns out was the key because no one else did. It was little more than painted spotlights nailed to a wooden frame but it got them noticed and a booking for a private Sunday afternoon gig  in early 1966 at the Marquee Club  called the Giant Mystery Happening. They went down well and did more of Sundays at what was generally known the Spontaneous Underground (well, it was 1966).

By the summer, he moved into the attic room of 2 Earlham Street in Covent Garden and wrote most of the Floyd’s first album while all the other Floyds were on their summer hols. He was helped along by copious amounts of grass and the then still-legal LSD, which he had first discovered before he left Cambridge , where it was rife among Bohemian academics who you could via contacts get the best stuff straight from Sandoz the Swiss manufacturer.

After headlining a series of fundraising happenings for the London Free School throughout the autumn at All Saints Hall, billed as ‘London’s farthest out group’, they were the Darlings of the Underground. And Syd was its heartthrob. They were the house band at The UFO Club at 31 Tottenham Court Road, London’s premier psychedelic nightspot. Only when they signed to EMI did they give up their studies to turn professional. Syd agonised over leaving art college and Roger Waters was actually working as an architect, designing new vaults at the Bank of England.

The first single ‘Arnold Layne’, a dark piece of pop about a young man who steals ladies’ undergarments off washing lines of a night, got to Number 20 but its follow up ‘See Emily Play’, specially written by Syd for the ‘Games For May’ concert that took place on May 12 1967 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank, got to number six in the charts. That meant going on Top of the Pops and that meant being pop stars, a difficult transition for the band who only three weeks earlier had headlined that quintessential counterculture freak out, the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, attended by 10,000 people at Alexandra Palace, taking the stage at 3.30am just as light of a new day was breaking through the stained glass at the Palace. It certainly helped that just about everyone present was stoned or tripping or both.

From the middle of 1967, Syd began to unravel, initially only rarely, on occasions he wasn’t there but a day later was at the peak of his powers again. Ultimately though there were more bad days than good ones and the feeling that they weren’t phases that would pass. It didn’t help that he moved to a flat ar 101 Cromwell Road SW7 sharing with a number of loony messianic acid freaks where it was unwise to accept a drink unless you had actually poured it yourself. By December 1967, back from a disastrous US tour, he fell apart in front of 15,000 people at a festival at Olympia in West London standing immobile and speechless on stage throughout the show. In January 1968, David Gilmour, an old Cambridge school friend, was added and for a couple of weeks they were a 5 piece, but on the way to Southampton for a gig, someone said shall we pick up Syd? and they all agreed no.

Within a few months, he started recording his first solo album ‘The Madcap Laughs’ at Abbey Road, but he was in no shape to complete it. He took a year off and stayed in bed most of the time at 101 Cromwell Road, where a powerful drug called Mandrax – Quaaludes to my American readers – became his drug of choice. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell said he once took half a mandy and it wiped him out for three days; Syd took three at a time. He tried painting but by early 1969 he finally had enough songs to record again and completed his album.


He started recording the even more psychotic follow up ‘Barrett’ a few weeks later, produced by Dave Gilmour. Syd rarely played with the other musicians because it was too difficult to get him to turn up or perform when he did. It was mainly basic tracks that Gilmour then got musicians to tart up to highlight his old friend’s talent. He only played live once, back at Olympia in June 1970, but the show was a disaster. The PA was terrible and Barrett raced through four songs before fleeing the stage before the final song had ended, leaving the band to carry on Syd-less.

And that was it. Career over aged only 24. There were some abandoned sessions in 1974 but he made no further musical contributions of any note. He lived in London and the back in Cambridge for the rest of his life, kept going on a steady flow of royalties from his Floyd work. He lived alone, painting all day then quickly destroying whatever he had created, and had no friends to speak of, only a devoted and protective family around him.

He was kept afloat by royalties from his songs. To give the Floyd their due, they made sure that every compilation album included at least one Syd Barrett song for no other reason than the royalties would help their fallen friend. Dave Gilmour in particular made sure the money got to him. In an average year, he made £200,000; in 2001 when Pink Floyd released greatest hits set ‘Echoes’ he made £2 million. Poor Syd indeed. Not surprisingly he left £1.2 million in his will when he died of pancreatic cancer in July 2006 aged only 60.







There’s a Riot going on…with Cliff Richard? Are you sure?

Cliff Richard is possibly not the first name to spring to mind in answer to the question ‘Whose show at the Chiswick Empire was stopped by a riot?’ But I swear it’s true. It was 1 May 1959 and you never know, there may be a few readers out there today who were in the Upper Circle that May evening 57 years ago.

It’s odd to think of Cliff as a dangerous rock and roll star. People of my vintage grew up with his shows on Saturday evening BBC1 or being robbed of winning Eurovision or talking about God with Billy Graham.

Believe it or not in the late Fifties the man who began life as Harry Webb from Cheshunt was mad, bad, dangerous to know – and had quite an effect on the ladies.

He was little more than an Elvis impersonator of course, with a curled lip, a decent quiff and a good agent (Tito Burns: that’s him in Dylan’s ‘Don’t Look Back’ playing the BBC off against Granada) but he was all we had. And his effect on young kids was electric and his shows throughout 1959 were plagued with serious trouble.


Cliff’s 1959 had started at the Lyceum in Wellington Street. He had begun his week-long, two-shows-a-night residency on 2 February, headlining ‘The Big Teenage Show’ with his band the Drifters – within weeks changed to the Shadows – on a bill that also featured early mad rock and roller Wee Willie Harris, previously a biscuit factory worker from Bermondsey and an 18 year old Liverpudlian compere Jimmy Tarbuck.

Things were going well, though not everyone was impressed. The Evening Standard’s opening night review reported: ‘Like a thousand tortured canaries screaming for freedom from the cage, the yells went up at the Lyceum last night.

But this they told me wasn’t agony it was ecstasy. Or was it? For me and perhaps for two or three more in this audience aged mainly between 14 and 18, it was agonizing – and perplexing and a little frightening.’

Anyway, 4 February 1959, two nights into the run, was a significant date in rock and roll history. Due to the limits of international communications of the time, it was the day we found out that the music had died: Buddy Holly, along with the Big Bopper and Richie Valens had died in the early hours of February 3, 1959 when the light aircraft Holly had chartered crashed shortly after take-off from Clear Lake Iowa where their ‘Winter Dance Party’ package tour had played that evening.

The news only filtered through to London the next day. Heartbroken Teds from all over London congregated up West to commiserate and seeing that Presley-a-like Cliff was at the Lyceum, decided to pay a visit. It all kicked off the moment a revolving stage brought Cliff into view of the 2,000 in the audience.

The show opened with fabulously bequiffed bass player Jet Harris starting up the bass line for ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ as the revolving stage swung into action and slowly revealing Cliff and the group in silhouette.

As they came into view, the girls started screaming. However their heartbroken and above all violently resentful Teddy boy boyfriends started hissing and booing. In fact the only reason that the booing and hissing stopped, was that it was replaced by a volley of missiles and the Teds could obviously not do both at the same time.

Within seconds of spotting Cliff, a barrage of missiles including fruit, eggs, tomatoes, bottles, cigarette packets, strips of linoleum ripped from the floor of the Lyceum, even bizarrely lampshades and coins (let’s all take a moment to remember how big an old penny was). Fights broke out all over the dance floor, girls fainted and were carried out by stewards above their heads to escape the crush.

To give him his due, Cliff tried to carry on, singing at a microphone stand whilst hopping from foot to foot dodging the missiles. Then Teds tried to storm the stage, pushing musicians out of the way to get close enough to aim a missed punch at Cliff’s head.

Luckily several stewards ran on stage to drag Cliff’s assailant off before he could land a follow up. Who knows what would have happened to British rock and roll if he’d connected?

Cliff and the band had not yet stepped off their slowly rotating stage so they just stayed on till it went round the back, where they ran off to the safety of the dressing room where Cliff was shaking with fear. The curtains came down and that was the end of the show, the concert abandoned.

Outside in Wellington Street, the Strand and the Aldwych, several hundred fans crowded around the hall booing and holding up traffic as fights broke out along the Strand. Cliff promptly cancelled the rest of the five shows that week, said to be worth £300 in fees, conveniently blaming it on a ‘troublesome throat’.

Things only got worse at later shows. At the Trocadero, Elephant and Castle, pennies, halfpennies and bottles rained down from the balcony.

At Romford, the tour bus was attacked just before they got on, bricks and planks of wood smashing many windows. The band, who had been trapped in the dressing room for an hour, made a dash for the bus, then got on the bus to make a swift getaway and many missiles including a lit firework were thrown inside.
And finally to Chiswick for the Chiswick Empire Variety Show on May 1, where unknown to Cliff, two groups of Teds, one from Hackney and one from Hammersmith, with a long standing vendetta, met for a pre-arranged tear up at the Chiswick Empire for the second show on Friday night.

Where had they arranged to meet? Why the upper balcony of course, in the cheap seats. Scuffles became battles and coins, eggs, light bulbs and bottles rained down on the stalls and stage. Within moments, said the local paper, ‘the stage looked like a miniature Covent Garden’.

The show continued for a while but opening act the Dallas Boys were hit by eggs every time they opened their mouths to sing. Most bravely, compere, none other than Des O’Connor, broke off from his routines to try and quell the row with jokes but failed and abandoned.

Eventually someone ripped a fire extinguisher off the wall in the balcony and threw it down into the stalls, where it hit two girls, one a glancing blow on the head causing concussion and one square in the chest, breaking her collar bone. At which point another of the acts on the bill, ventriloquist Ray Alan, pulled the curtain down himself and the show was called off with the theatre in absolute pandemonium.

Paul is Dead: the old world goes viral

The greatest hoax since Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ panicked New York at Hallowe’en 1938 is 46 years old. It’s a rock and roll story that started as a gag, but was picked up by the proper newspapers and spread virally – as virally as you could get in 1969 and it concerns Paul McCartney. Being dead.

The story was this: after an all-night recording session at Abbey Road NW8 on Wednesday, November 9, 1966 Beatle Paul had a furious row with the others and stormed out of the studio into his car. He picked up a female hitchhiker but she 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. Not wanting to their Golden Goose, record company executives 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, 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, William Campbell  just happened to be a songwriter with an exceptional ear for pop melodies. And for some reason, the surviving Beatles agreed to go along with the scheme. However as a protest, they decided to leave clues on their subsequent albums about Paul’s death and the imposter who took his place. Hunting for those clues  proved infectious for obsessive types and within a few weeks had become an international phenomenon. In particular fans examined the most recent album Abbey Road, which was of course chock-a-block with them.


The entire album cover symbolises a funeral procession, they claimed. Lennon, dressed in white, symbolises the preacher, Ringo Starr, dressed in black, is the undertaker. George Harrison, in denim jeans and shirt, is the gravedigger and McCartney, barefoot and out of step with other members of the band, is of course the corpse. Paul is holding his  cigarette in his right hand but hang on, Macca was the most famous left handed person in the whole world. and what’s that over George’s shoulder: a VW Beetle with the number plate LMW 28IF – the age (28) Paul would have been if he were still with us (actually he would have been 27).

When they’d exhausted ‘Abbey Road’, fans also went back through past albums, even those made before any of the alleged silly macabre nonsense had happened. Here a few of my favourites:

  • On 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 and McCartney has 9 letters
  • Paul’s Pepper uniform has an armband on his left arm which says OPD interpreted as London police jargon as Officially Pronounced Dead, although it’s actually the Ontario Police Dept
  • On the ‘Pepper’ lyric sheet George is pointing at a line from She’s Leaving Home which says Wednesday morning at 9 o’clock, the time on Wed 9 November 1966 that Paul was supposed to have had his accident
  • On their greatest hits set, A Collection of Beatles Oldies, the letters O and L in the word ‘Oldies’ are of course the letters immediately before P & M in the alphabet, so it could really read PM DIES – in the same way people think that HAL the evil computer in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is actually IBM shifted by 1 letter
  • There was a rumour that the word ‘walrus’ as in ‘I Am The Walrus’ derives from Ancient Greek for corpse (it’s not – it’s Old Norse for ‘horse whale’). And whilst the Beatles and George Martin were finishing the recording of the song in September 1967, they decided to insert some random stuff direct from the radio so they tuned into the BBC Third Programme which was broadcasting William Shakespeare’s King Lear, (Act IV, Scene 6 to be precise) and included the lines ‘Upon the British party. O, untimely Death!’
  • Funnier still is the attempt to explain John Lennon’s wacky lyric “I am the eggman, Goo goo ga joob.” as the last words of Humpty Dumpty as he lay dying after famously falling off that wall. Actually it’s just nonsense he made up under the influence

So how did it all happen? Well, on 17 September 1969, The Drake Times, the student newspaper of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, published an article entitled, “Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?”, based on a rumour the author had heard from a Californian student with too much time and marijuana on his hands that clues to McCartney’s death could be found among the lyrics and artwork of the Beatles’ recordings.

In a really slow analogue version of re-tweeting and Facebook-sharing, the University of Illinois’ student newspaper, the Northern Star, picked up the story and ran it as an article a weeklater on September 23, 1969, as did other college newspapers in that part of the country. One of these newspapers found its way to Detroit radio station WKNR FM and on 12 October, 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 Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan’s newspaper, with a whole lot more completely made up detail. The author had actually been asked to write a review of the Beatles “Abbey Road” LP but was listening to WKNR-FM the night of Russ Gibb’s broadcast, and he thought it would be funny to submit an article based on the tosh he’d just heard. He created the identity of Paul’s replacement, William Campbell – he originally considered Glen Campbell but he thought that might be a little too obvious – and inserted new made-up clues from the album he was supposed to be reviewing. 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 and even The Times in London in quick succession

In the absence of a statement from the Beatles record company Apple saying it was untrue, the rumour became 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 at his farm in Scotland and he was not at all happy to be confronted by reporters. When the crew from Life magazine appeared on his farm, an angry Paul doused the photographer with a bucket of water as he took pictures.
Life_magazine_nov_69The reporters quickly left and Paul, realizing that the photos would cast him in a negative light, followed after them. In exchange for the film of his outburst, Paul agreed to let the Life crew do an interview and take photos of him, his wife Linda, adopted daughter Heather and their new daughter Mary born at the end of August to prove it. Life printed the story as Paul Is Still With Us on 7 November 1969. Paul declared that the rumour probably started because he hadn’t been much in the press lately and didn’t have anything to say.

After the Life magazine article, coverage of the rumour declined rapidly, but there’s always an upside and in the weeks that the hoax ran all over the world, the sales of the records which held the secret clues increased significantly, leading some to suppose that the hoax itself was perpetrated by Apple to generate much needed cash. After all it was only a few months since John Lennon has said in an interview that “Apple is losing money. If it carries on like this, we’ll be broke in six months.”

Which is perhaps the key to why people believed it so readily? They were crazy times of great paranoia: Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther Kingt, Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Tate-LaBianca murders, where the Manson family murdered six people. And on top of that, people sensed that all was not well with the Beatles. They were still frighteningly successful and their last 3 albums – Abbey Road, Let It Be and The White Album – had all gone to No 1 in every available country (even the ropey ‘Yellow Submarine’ soundtrack album sold in the millions). and they’d had two Number One singles in ‘Get Back’ and ‘The Ballad of John & Yoko’

But they had stopped touring and had apparently been receiving fan mail since 1966 asking why their music got so weird. Well, drugs is why and by 1969 both John and George had been busted. And they were now all married, Paul being the last to fall when he married Linda Eastman at Marylebone Registry Office on 12 March 1969. And divorced too, Lennon having left his wife for a shrieking Japanese muse called Yoko Ono and had spent much of the year in beds or bags, apparently for peace.

The final straw was when they appointed Allen Klein, a New York showbiz accountant with a fearsome reputation – someone described him as ‘having all the charm of a broken lavatory seat’ – as manager. Paul however was not keen, preferring his new father-in-law, high powered New York entertainment lawyer Lee Eastman. This fundamental disagreement over Klein and the appointment of Eastman as legal advisers were the factors in the eventual break-up of the Beatles. Eastman & Eastman were appointed Apple’s legal advisers and Klein was their business manager. It all depended on co-operation which never happened – each side wanted the big prize and they hated each other.

By the end of the Summer of 1969 they were all sick of each other and wanted at least a break. John was under Yoko’s spell and doing his Peace Campaign thing, Ringo was in movies, George has stockpiled tons of songs the Beatles had rejected and wanted to do an album. They only ever met for business and last time they were all in the same room on 20 September it ended in acrimony and Lennon quitting. The same week someone decided in Iowa decided to start a little bit of student mischief…


At last London was ready for Bruce Springsteen

Over the years Bruce Springsteen has been a frequent visitor to London. In fact it’s difficult to think of a place he hasn’t played in London: Wembley Arena, the O2, the Royal Albert Hall, Brixton Academy, Crystal Palace Athletics Stadium, Wembley Stadium, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the Emirates Stadium, Hyde Park, Milton Keynes Bowl, Earls Court, LSO St Luke’s, not forgetting the Stanhope Arms at 97 Gloucester Road, London, SW7. On 24 May 1993 he apparently jumped up and sang Jumping Jack Flash at their Karaoke night.

And of course at the Hammersmith Odeon, where he played his first ever show outside the US on 18 November 1975, 40 years ago today. He played two shows, six days apart, another on 24th, with a trip to Sweden and Holland in the middle, and was under immense pressure, after a massive, massive promotional campaign designed to make him a star but instead heaped masses of pressure on him. It’s odd to think of him under the cosh or commercially unsuccessful or critically unappreciated, but that was the situation in November 1975.

Playing in bands in New Jersey from 1964, he was finally spotted in 1971 by an ambitious manager named Mike Appel – described as ‘Ed Sullivan meets Joseph Goebbels’ who became his manager and who got him an audition in May 1972 with legendary A&R man John hammond at CBS, the man who had signed Bob Dylan, Billie Holliday, Leonard Cohen and Count Basie, at the CBS Building in New York. As it happened, Dylan had just left the label so they were looking for The New Dylan and Bruce was it

His debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. came out in January 1973, to great critical acclaim but no sales. It’s a folk album, very lyrical – CBS used the line “More words in some individual songs than other artists had in whole albums” in early publicity campaigns. His second album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle had a bit more R&B about it, but still no one bought it. For a while he was known as Hammond’s Folly.

Then just as he was getting over the Dylan thing, he played  a sold out three night stint at a club called Charley’s in Cambridge MA in April 1974. The first night was reviewed ecstatically in the local papers and the second was attended by heavy-hitting rock journo Jon Landau, who liked what he saw. Then next month, Springsteen was back in Beantown, this time if you can believe it, opening for Bonnie Raitt on the condition he did his full two hour show. She may have regretted that decision as he went down a storm and half the audience left when Springsteen finished.

For Landau too it was a transcendental moment. He went straight home and wrote a review on  called Growing Young With Rock and Roll, which included the deathless lines: Last Thursday, I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.

The future of rock and roll line is one of the most infamous lines in rock and roll journalism. CBS Records liked it so much they used it as the headline in press ads for the latest album. It turned out to be a bit of a millstone for Springsteen. Over the next few months, every critic In America (and the UK) gave Springsteen the greatest reviews. CBS were obviously keen to capitalise as well and get a new album out there, given it was a year since the last one and in those days artists released one, sometimes two a year.

There was huge pressure on Bruce to make a record as good as the live review. So he started recording and pretty soon had one song recorded called Born To Run, which CBS wanted to release it as a single but at four and a half minutes it would get played on top 40 radio. They tried to edit it but could never agree which bits to edit out so nothing happened.

His first album had taken 3 weeks to make, his second 2 months but they had been trying to record the album for 8 months before Jon Landau was invited to join in in the studio. At that point, they thought they needed two more months; it took six, from March to the end of July 1975, with the sax solo in Jungleland the last thing they recorded, three weeks before the Born To Run album was released. Springsteen obsessed over details and if he was pushed he would say the release date is one day; the record’s forever. He fussed to the last moment and nearly scrapped it all because he didn’t like it. The cover shot, a black and white photo of Bruce Springsteen and sax player Clarence Clemons taken on 20 June, was one of 700 frames snapped in his two-hour session.

The album received highly positive reviews. Rolling Stone said that Springsteen enhances romanticized American themes with his majestic sound, ideal style of rock and roll, evocative lyrics, and an impassioned delivery. Someone else said that anyone in America with a chip on their shoulder can accept these stories. And these stories add up to one big story: about a boy and a girl getting through a long tragicomic day.

CBS, keen to get some of its investment back, launched a huge promotional campaign, spending $250,000 on ads. His music was everywhere and the album went Top Ten, which he’d never achieved before. It went gold – 500,000 sold – very quickly, amazing given the last album sold no more than 150,000. By Christmas 1975, Born To Run had sold 1 million units and the single was in the Top 20

There was an outburst of interest from the serious press for interviews, indeed the demand was so great that Mike Appel only said yes if they’d put Bruce on the cover.  It all reached its apotheosis on October 27, when both Time and Newsweek put him on their covers, making history by becoming the first rock star to land such an honour. Bruce was rather overwhelmed by it all, and whilst he reasoned that the effect on his career  could only be positive, he could the pressure and a backlash building. Luckily he had a great album and an amazing stage show to back it up.

Bruce Springsteen’s first ever show outside the USA (he and the E Street Band had not even played Canada at this point) was  on Tuesday 18 November 1975 at the Hammersmith Odeon in Queen Charlotte Street W6. History records it as a disaster, a rattled artist with an aggressively unimpressed audience and he considers the show one of his worst. Still, on the weight of the promotion alone, the show had sold out quickly so a second  was added the following Monday, once he returned from two concerts in Europe, one in Stockholm and one in Amsterdam.

Springsteen described the trip as descending into hell. After the Time/Newsweek hype, there were posters all over town proclaiming him the future of rock and roll. Even the marquee of the Odeon said ‘Finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’, as captured in a wonderful Chalkie Davies photo (below) from that week’s New Musical Express.


The legend is that he went round London ripping down posters with his bare hands. Not quite true, although he did tear down a poster at the front of the Odeon. He did however go round the whole of the auditorium and remove all the flyers the record company had put on every seat in the venue advertising his new album. The pressure was getting to him. London was strange, none of them had been here before, London had barely got its first McDonalds so you couldn’t get a cheeseburger anywhere but Wimpy’s. And the beer was warm.

Which clearly all affected his performance on the 18th. He was sombre,  downbeat and not the usual live wire. He was 45 minutes late on stage. He wore a thick woollen hat pulled down over his eyes for the whole show. His mood was perhaps most evident in the introduction to “The E Street Shuffle”. Normally a rambling tale, he tails off after just a few sentences, going straight into the song. Having said that there were 3 encores, finishing with his rocking version of Gary US Bonds’ 1961 hit ‘Quarter To Three’

The return show a week later though was a completely different affair. He played for three hours and nine encores, including Elvis’s “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck”, “Pretty Flamingo”, “When You Walk In The Room”, “Twist And Shout”, and “Little Queenie”. And there was no woollen hat.

Despite this, the press were not convinced. The NME said Bruce Springsteen, when he was finally ready for London, was wonderful. Sounds was less gushing: When they were good they were very very good, and when they were bad they were so-so. There was an immense feeling of strain about this show, following a press and publicity campaign of unparalleled intensity. Make your own mind up. Thirty years later, in February 2006, a recording of the first week’s show was released as a live album called Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 and a video of the concert was released as a DVD as part of the Born to Run 30th Anniversary Edition package.

In the meantime he didn’t come back to the London for six years, until six nights at Wembley Arena in May/June 1981, missing out London shows around the next album Darkness On The Edge of Town. He joked that it was he couldn’t find any cheeseburgers. And he only played Hammersmith again 30 years later, one night in May 2006 on The Seeger Sessions tour. I paid a small fortune on eBay for a ticket and  30 years on, it may just have made me feel young again.