18.12.17

JOOLS HOLLAND'S R&B ORCHESTRA – Brighton Centre, December 16, 2017



A chance encounter in September with my old friend Harvey Goldsmith, the concert promoter, took Lisa and I to Brighton on Saturday night where twice we were on the receiving end of ‘Hit The Road Jack’, the first delivered by the 20-strong Brighton Swing Choir as they strolled around the always lively area behind the Pavilion, singing loudly as they went, the second a duet by Jose Feliciano and Ruby Turner, featured guest stars with Jools Holland’s R&B Orchestra for whose show at the Brighton Centre Harvey had kindly proffered us tickets.
Concerts in Brighton are a preferred option to London from where we now live, the pleasant drive to the coast followed by a pizza, then the show and a fairly breezy drive home; so much less effort than struggling with the traffic and parking (and prices) in London. I gathered from my fellow concert-goers, a fairly mature lot, that Jools makes an annual trip to Brighton at this time of the year but never having seen Squeeze in their early days this was the first time I’d seen him in the flesh. Nevertheless I was pretty sure what I was in for and I was 100% right: a solid diet of hard core, enthusiastic and hugely danceable boogie-woogie interspersed with a sprinkling of ska, all delivered with the same charm that characterises the smooth-mannered, slightly unctuous patter that he’s perfected for his role as host on TV’s Later…, for which the one-time groovy fucker is rapidly ascending to the status of National Treasure.
On stage Jools dresses pretty much as he does on Later, his double-breasted black suit with pin-stripes, braces holding up easy-fit pants and a dark blue open-necked shirt suggesting the pasta-loving Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas, certainly someone to whom it would be inadvisable to advance a tenner. The rest of his 15-strong band, too, look a bit of a rabble, all of them a bit like the blokes that played in bands led by Ian Dury, once memorably photographed standing in a line at a bus stop, which in its way is a compliment since Dury’s bands put the sound they made before what they looked like, as do Jools’ men and women. Jeans are the trouser of choice, but not exclusively, and there’s little effort to co-ordinate a look, the odd hat suggesting lack of hair beneath, a beard or two, shirts of varying styles and colour. Only the female saxophonist in green sheen and the two girl singers make an effort, albeit a tad half-heartedly, their tight black pants and vaguely glittery tops functional rather than glamorous. Mind you, both girls move like trained dancers, especially when called to the front to relieve Jools of the vocal duties and belt out impressive solo vocals. 
Whatever their sartorial deficiencies, the Jools Holland R&B Orchestra make a terrific racket and swing like there’s no tomorrow, and Jools is as fine a boogie-woogie piano player you’ll find this side of New Orleans. He’s superbly confident, too, effortless stroking the keys on a black Yamaha baby grand, that pumping left hand a tireless reminder of heroes like the Fatses – Waller and Domino – to whom tribute was respectfully paid as the evening drew on. He’s also a generous leader, giving everyone on stage bar his bassist an opportunity to solo, and with four saxophones, three trombones and three trumpets, not to mention long serving drummer Gilson Lavis and guitarist Mark Flanagan, that’s an awful lot of solos. But they’re rigidly controlled, the individual sparks always short, sharp, enjoyable blasts with a notable absence of noodling. No matter its instrumentation, this isn’t a jazz band, it’s an R&B band, whose style is pitched somewhere between the fifties and sixties and even a nod to earlier decades. 
Jools arrived on stage shortly after eight and plunged straight into the boogie-woogie, ‘Double O Boogie’, I think, followed by ‘Young Man’s Game’, though the titles that follow are in some cases best guesses as many weren’t introduced. At stage left Mark Flanagan reminded me a bit of Keith Richards, his Gibson 330 worn low, slipping smoothly from chord to chord and only occasionally venturing into a solo, very understated in a coolly professional sort of way, and next to him at the back on a smallish organ was Chris Holland, Jules’ younger brother, and alongside him tall bassist Dave Swift on a stand-up, later exchanged for a six-string bass guitar. The 18th century French song ‘Plaisir Du Amour’, played with hint of blue beat, offered a break from the relentless boogie, as did Lavis’ economical drum solo which sliced a stride instrumental in half. Lavis has been with Jools since the very beginning, when the orchestra was just the two of them, as we learned from Jules’ between song chatter. Meanwhile, the rather low-tech backdrop featured close-ups of the musicians and, at one point, footage of a wonderfully quaint model town-cum-railway similar to the intro graphics on Later, which somehow added to the feeling of being taken back in time to when much of this music was first recorded.

The show went up a gear with the arrival of Jose Feliciano, with whom Jules has recorded a recently released album. Blind since birth, Jose was led on by his minder who sat him down on a stool stage centre, handed him a nylon stringed guitar and let him get on with it. His first song was the Mamas & Papas’ ‘California Dreaming’ but from where I was sat he struggled to be heard against the might of the brass section. Two songs of his own, ‘Let’s Find Each Other Tonight’ and ‘As You See Me Now’ were followed by his Christmas hit ‘Feliz Navidad’ and, inevitably, ‘Light My Fire’, and in them all Jose took spikey, flamenco-style solos, his lightning quick runs still a feature of his guitar style. There were also a few well-rehearsed cracks about declining to drive after drinking too much and needing a lyric sheet in case he forgot the words.
The show reached boiling point with the arrival of Jamaican soul diva Ruby Turner, a lady of generous proportions and now a feature of all Jools’ shows, both live and on TV. Ruby shook the venue’s foundations with ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ and, more especially, the gospel fervour of ‘Peace In The Valley’ in which Satan stood no chance whatsoever of surviving Ruby’s emotive onslaught. There followed a five-song encore that included Jools’ good time evocation ‘Enjoy Yourself’, the return of Jose to duet with Ruby on ‘Hit The Road Jack’ and an audience participation rave-up on ‘What’d I Say’ that featured the entire ensemble. By this time the back drop was reflecting the time of the year, specifically Jools’ New Year’s Eve hootenannies, and at the close everyone went home very happy indeed. 
There have been times when Jools’ ingratiating patter on Later has left me cold, not least when many years ago he had Ginger Baker as his guest plugging his autobiography, a book I turned down at Omnibus because it was self-serving drivel and riddled with mistakes (that weren’t corrected by its eventual publisher). ‘Brilliant book,’ said Jools who plainly hadn’t read a word of it. That said, his patter works far better on stage and there were times during this show when the delight on his face was a joy to behold, a man in his element. The music of the JH R&B Orchestra won’t win any awards for originality, and it probably doesn’t impose too much on the skills of the men and women who play it, but if an uncomplicated fun night out is all you’re seeking, go no further.

15.12.17

ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAME – 2018 Inductees

Earlier this week it was announced that the inductees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for 2018 are Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits, The Moody Blues and Nina Simone. Since I voted for only one of these, Dire Straits, I have thus maintained my proud tradition of picking mostly losers, my other four choices having been J. Geils Band, Eurythmics, Radiohead and – by popular demand through soliciting suggestions on Facebook and this blog – The Zombies.
Although I am familiar with their music I don’t own a single record by Bon Jovi, The Cars or The Moody Blues and never have done. (I think I may have received a complimentary Moodies album back when receiving complimentary albums was a daily occurrence but it flew in and out of my life quite rapidly.) I do have a Nina Simone compilation but, truth to tell, it hasn’t been played in years. I do, of course, own and play records by all those I voted for. 
        I’m surprised that J. Geils didn’t make it as their brand of rockin’ R&B and their long and fairly distinguished history places them among the kind of acts that the R&RHoF seems to favour. There is good reason to believe that Jann Wenner, the editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, is foreman of the jury that decides who’s in and who’s out, and the usually critical Albums Guide published by his mag is pretty generous to them. Also, I’d have thought that the death of guitarist John Geils in April of this year would have accorded a sympathy vote and enhanced their chances.
The Moody Blues, on the other hand, slot into the category that R&RHoF generally ignores, UK soft or prog rockers of their ilk being generally relegated to the naughty corner. That same Albums Guide is hilariously dismissive of them, awarding most of their albums one and a half or two stars out of five, with adjectives like ‘nonsense’, ‘truly crass’ and even ‘offensive’ finding their way into the critique of their work. Only Queen, Journey and John Denver fare worse in the whole book.
I’m largely ignorant of The Cars and imagine they deserve their induction through long service, and I suppose Bon Jovi earned their induction on the strength of their popularity. Nevertheless, I always thought BJ and his men were Bruce Springsteen clones wherein clich├ęs, carefully coiffured tresses and pin-up looks substituted for Bruce’s showmanship, intelligence and stamina. And though it’s doubtless wrong to hold it against them, I couldn’t help but shudder when that awful Heather Mills woman to whom Macca foolishly pledged his troth told the press she preferred BJ to The Beatles. 
Nina Simone deserves her place and I ought to have voted for her. So do Dire Straits whom I did vote for and what’s interesting here is that the band members inducted include Mark Knopfler’s brother David and drummer Pick Withers, both of whom were in the original line up but haven’t turned out in the DS strip for donkey’s years. As well as Mark and long serving bassist John Illsley, DS revolving keyboard players Alan Clark and Guy Fletcher will join them on the podium.
As for the others for whom I cast my votes, Eurythmics and Radiohead will almost certainly get another chance though I fear it may be curtains for The Zombies if for no other reason than that those older voters like me who actually remember them are falling by wayside while younger voters won’t know the time of the season from a hole in the ground, to misquote Randy Newman.

11.12.17

MAX CLIFFORD RIP

The world of bonking, of three-in-a-bed romps, of love rats and all the rest of the sleazy scandals that down-market red-top tabloids feed upon like vultures is the poorer this morning with the news that the man who ruled this world, the PR Max Clifford, has left us. As the obituary in today’s Guardian points out, rarely in the human experience does the truism that those who live by the sword die by it find a more perfect conduit than Max’s rise and fall, from a £3 million house in Surrey to a prison cell, from the very top to the very bottom. 
I had a brief acquaintance with Max in the first few weeks after I joined Melody Maker in 1970. Before he became the middle man between the tabloid press and those who sought to benefit by selling them their sordid tales of deceit between the sheets, Max was involved in music PR, first as an assistant in the EMI press office, where he encountered The Beatles*, and then working for Les Perrin, PR to many rock musicians, not least Beatles John, George and Ringo and The Rolling Stones. Max looked after the lesser names on Les’ client list, among them Status Quo, then undergoing a major image change from modish psychedelic pin-ups to denim-clad purveyors of the no-nonsense boogie that would sustain them thereafter.
Quite how I have no idea but Max had somehow discovered that at that time, before I found a flat-share in Bayswater, I lived near Egham in Surrey. Status Quo were playing a gig at a college in nearby Staines and Max invited to go along and see them. I wasn’t particularly keen on the idea and when I demurred he said, and I kid you not: “I’ll bring a bird for you.”
I was momentarily speechless. Perhaps he thought I imagined that Status Quo would stump up for a chicken dinner after the show. More likely he realised I was new to the job and a bit wet behind the ears. So he clarified his offer.
“I’ll bring a girl for you for the night.”
I was indeed pretty green in those days, my first few weeks on MM, certainly inexperienced in the ways by which dodgy PRs might snare the likes of me. I really wasn’t sure how to react. I didn’t actually know whether or not this was the norm in the world of pop into which I had so recklessly thrown myself. 
“Er, that’s not necessary,” I stammered. “I’ll come anyway.”
My name had been left on the door at the college in Staines and, mindful that I’d have compromised myself had I accepted his offer, I turned up with a (male) pal just in case the “bird” was waiting for me anyway. She wasn’t but Max was surprised that I’d turned up with my pal. Indeed he seemed more than surprised. He looked at me like I was mad, or maybe gay. Why on earth, he reasoned, would anyone turn down a “bird” – it was left unsaid what the provision of a girl would lead to, but it doesn’t take much to figure it out – in exchange for something as simple as a favourable MM review for Status Quo?
I can’t remember what I wrote about Status Quo but even though this clearly wasn’t their doing it put me off them for life. Happily, I had no further dealings with Max Clifford. Not long after this he set up his own company and switched from pop to kiss-and-tell, ultimately rising to the top in this field, the king of manipulative wheelers and dealers, the champion of women seduced and then abandoned by randy footballers, politicians and other men in the public eye. This wasn’t Melody Maker’s turf, of course, but I watched with mild interest from the sidelines as the man who once offered me a “bird” rose from strength to strength, acting as a broker between the wronged women and The Sun and its ilk, negotiating deals whereby the papers paid considerable sums for the saucy revelations, and taking a cut of the money, usually 20%. Heaven only knows how much he charged for keeping stories out of the newspapers. 
This made him very rich, of course, bought him a fancy house and flash cars, but along the way he made many enemies who would no doubt have gloated when Max found himself sentenced to eight years for sexually assaulting young girls and women. He even wrote an autobiography in which he bragged about his sexual adventures, and the book was leapt upon by the prosecution during his trial. Hoisted by his own petard indeed.
Max had threatened to write another book in which he would reveal those secrets about his clients that he’d managed to keep out of the press but now it seems the book is unlikely to see the light of day. No doubt those former clients will sleep more soundly in their beds now that the King of Sleaze is no more. My condolences to his family. 


* Before it was taken down after his conviction, the website of Max Clifford Associates claimed that in 1963 he worked for The Beatles and, by inference, played some role in their rise to fame. On Wikipedia it stated that he had been given the job of promoting “an unknown group called The Beatles early in their career, including their first tour of the United States”.
I always thought this was a dubious claim and to confirm my suspicions spoke with my friend Mark Lewisohn, the world’s most reliable Beatle archivist. According to Mark, Clifford was a junior assistant in the EMI press office in 1963. “The Beatles didn’t have a great deal to do with that office because Brian Epstein hired independent PRs, first Andrew Oldham and then Tony Barrow,” said Mark. “When they did have cause to fraternise with EMI, they mostly worked with press officer Syd Gillingham and his senior assistant Brian Mulligan. Clifford may have mailed out press releases. While he was certainly present at one Beatles photo session, this was only because it happened to take place right by his office at 20 Manchester Square. Otherwise, he wasn’t involved. He certainly never toured with them, or helped set up any tours. They’d no need of him.”
So that’s cleared that up.

4.12.17

THE STARSHIP

The more famous rock stars become the less inclined they are to fly on commercial airlines unless, of course, it’s a long-haul flight in planes with a restricted first-class cabin where they can avoid contact with the public. Nowadays the top acts of the day lease small private jets with less than a dozen seats to whisk them from city to city but back in the 1970s such planes weren’t as widespread as they are today and, in any case, this was an era when extravagance was rampant. A brash display of opulence was the measure of one’s stature in the hierarchy in the rock world, and the ultimate in grandeur in private planes was the Starship, the celebrated customised Boeing 720 that many rock bands – most notably Led Zeppelin – leased during the first half of the 1970s. 
The Starship, the first Boeing 720 ever built, was delivered to United Airlines in October 1960, then purchased for $750,000 in 1973 by Contemporary Entertainment, a company owned by teen-idol singer Bobby Sherman and his manager Ward Sylvester who spent $200,000 customising it in ways they thought might appeal to luxury-seeking rock bands. This involved reducing the seating capacity to 42, installing a fully-stocked bar in the main cabin as well as armchairs, swivel seats and tables, and a 30-foot couch that, facing aft, ran along the right-hand side opposite the bar, on the end of which was an electric organ. Wall-mounted TV sets showed an endless supply of videos, some of them pornographic. Towards the rear of the plane was what today would be called a chill-out room, with pillows on which to recline, and behind that a bedroom with a double bed and shower. A couple of attractive stewardesses were thrown in for good measure and to appeal to the vanity of its passengers the owners took to painting their name on the side of the fuselage. 
Led Zeppelin became the Starship’s first customers, the upshot of an uncomfortable flight between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 1973 when to their horror turbulence tossed their small private jet around in the sky. Manager Peter Grant decided to hire the far more sturdy Starship instead, and did so for the group’s 10-week 1975 US tour as well. One advantage of the Starship – or any private plane – was that it enabled the group to base themselves in one large US city from which they could fly out to shows within a 300-mile area and return the same night, thus avoiding the need to check in and out of a different hotel every day. Another was that they could bring along whoever they liked without having to obtain tickets for them, so Led Zeppelin’s friends – many of them from the fairer sex – could hop on board and off at their whim.
“The Starship was only $14,000 more [than the small private jet],” said Peter Grant, “because Boeing wanted the publicity and that kind of thing – and we thought, ‘Well why not? We’ll have a 720!’ The first day, in Chicago, they parked it next to Hugh Hefner’s plane. All the press were there, and somebody said to me. ‘Well how to you think it compares to Mr Hefner’s plane’. I said, ‘It makes his look a Dinkey toy.’”
Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant has gone on record as saying that his favourite memory of the plane was ‘oral sex during turbulence’ and Zeppelin PR Danny Goldberg recalls that Grant would disappear into the bedroom with girls and not reappear until the plane was coming into land. 
Another less well-known benefit was that the pilots were happy to allow passengers to sit alongside them in the cockpit and even demonstrate the workings of the controls. “Bonzo [John Bonham] once flew us all the way from New York to Los Angeles,” Peter Grant told me during Led Zeppelin’s 1975 tour when I flew with the group aboard the Starship from Chicago to Los Angeles, and on to Greensboro two days later, then back to New York on it the same night. Zeppelin’s road manager Richard Cole called the Starship a ‘flying gin palace’, and he wasn’t wrong: drink flowed, sumptuous food was served and at once point on my trip we all gathered around the organ while John Paul Jones played a selection of the English Music Hall songs favoured by Grant.
Led Zeppelin were famously photographed by Bob Gruen standing alongside the plane at a private airfield near New York but they were by no means the Starship’s only clients. My first trip on it was with the Alice Cooper Band whose tour manager Dave Libert handed out a plastic bag of vitamins to the passengers each morning. I was also on board in 1974 with Elton John for a trip around the Midwest and recall that Elton rejected the haute cuisine on offer and requested instead that the stewardesses pick up a plentiful supply of Kentucky Fried Chicken, several buckets worth in fact. The more sophisticated Elton of today no doubt cringes at the memory. 
Other Starship clients included Deep Purple, Bob Dylan & The Band, The Allman Brothers, Frank Sinatra and Peter Frampton who, in 1976, was the last rock act to charter it. “It was definitely a show of where you were in your career,” said Frampton. “It was a statement of how well you were doing. ‘Whoopee! We must be big – we’ve got the Starship’. It was pretty much a party plane.”
In the end the Starship was a victim of the fuel shortage that gripped America in the mid-seventies, its four greedy engines bringing the Starship era to a close after only four years. “The fact that there was a fuel shortage and we were flying this plane, we thought was a cool thing. It fit in with Alice’s extravagant image,” says Dave Libert. 
“It was headed for the scrap heap,” adds Frampton. 
The Starship went through several changes in ownership between 1977 and 1979, eventually ending its life in storage at Luton Airport, a rather prosaic ending for the career of this most iconic of rock chariots. It was broken up for parts in 1982 and today lingers on only in the memory of the few – probably not much more than 200 of us – passengers fortunate enough to have experienced its dubious charms.