You Have Made A Nice Old Mess Of It: Ten Outstanding Music Hall Retentions in Pop Culture

I've been researching music hall, and – forgive the obvious point  – I firmly believe it never went away. Or, Music Hall is Not Dead, It Just Smells Funny. Here are ten outstanding retentions of music hall in pop (sixties and seventies) culture. 
  1. Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks 
Well, where do you start with The Kinks? The entire list could be Kinks songs, and it might look like… ‘Autumn Almanac’, ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Harry Rag’, ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’, ‘Do You Remember Walter’, ‘She Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina’, ‘Death of a Clown’, ‘People Take Pictures of Each Other’, ‘Tin Soldier Man’… But topping the list is the song where Ray Davies actually gets activist on behalf of music hall and other endangered pastimes. Studying the lyrics, music hall isn’t mentioned, but Vaudeville and Variety amount to the same thing, and Mrs Mopp (Dorothy Summers) and Old Mother Riley (Arthur Lucan) are music hall stars. The sentiment is impeccable; the timing less so. The last variety theatre, The Metropole, on Edgware Road, was demolished in 1963, five years before the release of Village Green Preservation Society.

      2.  I’m the Urban Spaceman, Bonzo Dog Band

So what single characteristic defines music hall? Supreme sanguinity. The Victorian/Edwardian working-classes were as downtrodden and exploited as any class in history, but favoured raucousness and jubilation over misery in their entertainment. Inevitably, there’s a lot of wish-fulfilment of the ‘Champagne Charlie’ type, but one song, one wonderful song, plays off reality against dream world. In Gus Elen’s ‘The ‘Ouses In Between’ the singer goes to ever more absurd lengths to project a rustic paradise onto his East End hovel. At minimum, this takes a few handy props, like the bucket and beetles that stand in for a bee-hive, and imitation horns for the donkey. More strenuous effort is required when rope and pulley are secured to the chimney to afford a better view of the gasworks and appreciate its resemblance to a mountain range. The singer is no fool, and recognises the true state of things. The garden greenery consists of all the vegetables this coster didn't sell at market during the week. Something similar is happening in the Bonzos hit of 1968. It’s a heroically willed escape from reality, punctured by the last line, which hits like a bucket of cold water no matter how many times you hear it. 

     3.   Itchycoo Park, The Small Faces 

And Steve Marriott was surely the reincarnation of Little Tich! Psychedelia was the last hurrah of music hall, and Ronnie Lane went on to refine a down-home variety with Anymore for Anymore and his work with Slim Chance. 

     4.   Billericay Dickie, Ian Dury 

100 years after its heyday, Ian Dury epitomised everything great about music-hall. New freedoms meant he didn’t have to pussyfoot with innuendo in this graphic account of the sexual adventures of an Essex wide-boy. Nicely provocative and non-judgemental ("I'm doing very well"), it defines an attitude to life. New Boots and Panties (Stiff, SEEZ 4), with Village Green Preservation Society (Pye, NPL 18233) and, what else?, You Have Made a Nice Old Mess Of It by Gus Elen (Topic 12T396) and a double album from EMI called Music Hall Top of the Bill (World Records, SHB.22: it contains Gus Elen recordings from 1899!) are all essential music hall (ancient and modern) discs. Oh, and… 


     5.   Granny Takes a Trip, The Purple Gang 

The anthem of the London underground came from this Cheshire outfit, more in thrall to George Formby Snr than Jimi Hendrix. Banned by the BBC because of non-existent drug references, and concurrent in time and place with ‘Bike’ by Pink Floyd (they share a producer, Joe Boyd). As cheery and subversive as music hall, the weirdness at the end precludes it from the Top Ten. 

     6.   Our House, Madness 

The greatest out-of-time music hall combo ever, although you'll notice that the sense of community has expanded to include a ska element. And it works perfectly. Designed to appeal to a working-class mass audience, any one of Madness’s songs could fit the bill. They’re all, to a greater or lesser degree, wry, comic, energetic, welcoming: all those dominant music hall characteristics. Albert Chevalier used the term ‘Cockney Carols’ for his songs, but Madness pin down the locale even more precisely. These are ‘Camden Carols’, balancing love, humour and reality. ‘My Girl’ has the tender ambivalence of music hall love songs like Gus Elen’s ‘Mrs Carter’, but ‘My House’ is the one, with it's echo of ‘The ‘Ouses in Between’ and an unapologetic sense of pride. And let's not forget that Chris Foreman's old man is John Foreman, a broadside seller who set himself up as the Broadsheet King, produced songbooks for the Aldermaston marches, recreated and reprinted one of the prime texts of Victoriana, Charles Hindley’s Curiosities of Street Literature, and made an LP of music hall songs called The ‘Ouses In Between. This piece of trivial knowledge explains a lot.

     7.   Starman, David Bowie 

One obituarist said something on the radio about David Bowie being a throwback to music hall. He didn’t elaborate, and I was only half attending, but it got me thinking. The nearest I can find is this sweet “hail fellow” to an extraterrestrial. Cockney, tick. Charismatic, tick. Theatrical, tick. But would Ziggy have a welcome at The Bedford? I’m reminded of the words of Marty McFly in Back to the Future: “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.” 

     8.   Fog on the Tyne, Lindisfarne

And let’s not forget, the provinces had music hall too, many highly idiosyncratic, and with a strong regional identity. The most tenacious was Northumbrian music hall. Lindisfarne acknowledged the debt by including ‘Blaydon Races’ in live sets, and advanced the tradition with ‘Fog on the Tyne’, a paean to fellowship, community, the welfare state and the pub.

     9.   Mrs Murphy’s Budgerigar, Blossom Toes 

Getting back to psychedelia: the USA had Easter Everywhere and Forever Changes, whilst the UK offered The Move and We Are Ever So Clean. USA psychedelia channelled the dread and paranoia and turbulence of the times into genuinely consciousness-expanding music. UK psychedelia did much the same, but wanted to be back in time for tea (“Show me that I’m everywhere and get me home for tea” – George Harrison, ‘It’s All Too Much’). In other words, the homegrown article had been infected by damned music hall whimsy. ‘Mrs Murphy’s Budgerigar’ epitomises this strain of domestic psych. Actually, the conscious cultural overlap between the Victorian age and the nineteen-sixties would make a good thesis, with Sgt Pepper being a useful starting-point‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is more Victorian parlour ballad than music hall. 

     10.   Five Foot Flirt, Cyril Tawney

“The thing that preserves I is my jo-vi-a-li-ty” sang Cyril Tawney, summing up the music hall ethos in a single sentence. And when the last theatre came down, music hall moved into the folk club, where, on any given night, might be heard traditional ballads, jigs and reels, rousing come-ye-alls, music hall retentions, recitations, art songs, children’s songs, regional songs, international songs, pre-rock ’n’ roll songs, rock ’n’ roll songs and self-penned songs by unlettered singers. In short, Variety. 

Ten Great Episodes from (British) TV History

I’ve never had a television in all my grown life, and I’m 57 years old. I say this not to gain sympathy but to gloat a wee bit, and with a huge sense of relief. My only exposure to mass culture comes from my trips to the gym, thanks to running machines equipped with a screen and a choice of channels. That’s plenty for me. And who needs a TV when you have BBC iPlayer (even here, the only TV I consistently watch is University Challenge, where it’s always humbling to realise that the pampered products of our elitist society know more than me)? And, of course, youtube is a vital storehouse of collective memory. With youtube I’ve caught up with TV landmarks that I a) missed first time around b) fondly, if hazily, remember, and c) wanted badly to see but was prevented by a rigorously enforced bedtime. The following choice of Great Episodes is subjective and hastily compiled, and confines itself to the British product rather than USA imports. Youtube co-ordinates are supplied where available. 

1. Minder, ‘Another Bride, Another Groom’
The one where Arthur Daley, desperately pressed for time, fatally mixes delivery of a consignment of pornography with the wedding of his niece. Escalating insanity unfolds, with, as ever, brilliant dialogue and rich social observation. It’s a bit like the scene in Goodfellas (sweaty Ray Liotta, pursued by helicopter) but with more laughs. Actually, acute pressure brings out Arthur’s inner resources. The scene where he bribes the bent policeman in the church is priceless (ah, George Cole!), and there’s a very satisfying twist when the identity of the heavies is revealed. Joy! 

2. The Naked Civil Servant 
This 1975 TV film marked a sea change in public attitudes towards homosexuality. Before The Naked Civil Servant, everyone was homophobic. After The Naked Civil Servant, everyone thought homosexuality was a great giggle. That’s if the boys in my class at school are representative. All this, and a cameo from my later friend Duncan (prominent in the Portsmouth idyll: that's him on the left). There’s also a life-size portrait of Quentin Crisp in the Gent’s in The Kings Arms, Salford, I noticed last night: further evidence of the film’s impact on society. 

3. Edna the Inebriate Woman
I’ve blogged about this before – It’s still the most humane and poignant study of the lower depths ever. 

4. Dr Who, ‘The Empty Child’ and ‘The Doctor Dances’ 
This two-parter from the regenerate classic turns an archetypal image of WWII – a child in a gas mask – into unforgettable horror, whilst weaving such issues as teenage pregnancy, national identity, survival and guilt into an elaborate sci-fi yarn. There was never a Dr Who of such ferocious integrity as Christopher Eccleston.   

5. Song of Summer
Eric Fenby offers his services as amanuensis for an ailing Delius. This touches youth and age, Yorkshire and the Riviera, regret, recrimination and the healing power of music. Nothing Ken Russell did afterwards – it was made for the BBC in 1969 – even hinted at this elegiac sensibility. It’s very restrained and deeply touching. 

6. South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg interviews Dennis Potter 
Viewing a play by Dennis Potter is a bit like watching a film by Alfred Hitchcock film. In that the pleasure is tarnished by the knowledge that your emotions are being manipulated by a pervert. So I’ve chosen his interview with Melvyn Bragg rather than any of his dramas (of which The Singing Detective is the one; and Mary Whitehouse was right: Brimstone and Treacle is indefensible). There’s nothing like a great artist confronting his own mortality to inspire awe in the rest of us. 

7. Ready When You Are, Mr McGill 
Tantalising snippet here:  
A hapless extra holds up the filming of a period costume TV drama. And that’s all there is by way of action. Actually it’s an anti-action, anti-pomposity film, and asks why modesty and simplicity are always judged small and insignificant in the world’s account. Two Jacks – Rosenthal and Shepherd – emerge as national treasures.  

8. The Owl Service
I didn’t know the meaning of ‘psycho-sexual’ until I watched this, a children’s TV series made by Granada in the revolutionary year of 1968. 

9. A Warning to the Curious 
The best and most genuinely disturbing of all M.R. James adaptions for TV. It’s a variation on James’ archetypal plot idea – how the quest for knowledge unwittingly unleashes dark forces – but this time the victim is not some tweedy don who deserves all he gets (à la O Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad) but a decent, lower middle-class man moved to pursue archaeology by recent unemployment. As played by Peter Vaughan, a character actor who was superb in everything he did, the characterisation, a tender mix of tenacity and insecurity, is rather more subtle than anything in M.R. James. Whilst the mundanity of an off-season Norfolk resort is depicted with realistic precision. It makes the supernatural element all the more frightening: the thing stooped and malevolent in a corner of the room, visible only with a flickering torch. 
10. Horace 
Ostensibly, a sentimental period drama set in a northern town about the title character, a man with learning difficulties. But this fragment, all that survives of Horace, has deep and disturbing resonance. The depiction of bullying is pitiless, and the contrast between the kids’ hard-bitten cruelty and the grown-up’s innocent fragility is grotesque and moving. Horace is clearly a holy idiot, and the implicit message – that a rich inner life is no protection against the harsh everyday world – was so problematic that Yorkshire TV pulled it after one series. 

Do you detect a pattern? All my Great Episodes, in some form or another, are pleas for decency and tolerance. So has my willed exclusion from TV made me a grumpier person? I don’t think so. From the admittedly scanty evidence of my running machine, condescension and meanness seem to be the norm of the medium these days.

The best jazz critic in the world (except sometimes)

Ronnie, Nina, B.B. and Me: My Jazz Interviews  

The following is the script of a talk Mike Butler gave to Manchester Jazz Society on 22 January, if not the talk itself. Audience participation is noted in square brackets, and the bits in italics indicate passages omitted for space reasons. 

Photo: Mike Black

A note of autobiography to set the scene: In 1989 I’d been out of Art College for three years. I was part of an artists’ studio group, MASA (Manchester Artists Studio Association) and edited a little magazine for the Friends of Castlefield Gallery. This was consistent with the general pattern of my life, which is to say, ineffectual but overall quite enjoyable. Anyway, I was living in a student household which had such a nice atmosphere that it stayed even after everyone had graduated (this was 44 Norman Road, Rusholme). A co-resident, Karen Morley, happened to be editing the Women section of Manchester’s what’s-on magazine, City Life, and one day she said to me, “The person doing the jazz page doesn’t even like jazz. You’d be far better at it.” The person doing the jazz page was in fact, Agraman, the Human Anagram. He was also doing the folk page. Really, his thing was stand-up comedy. Agraman (real name John Marshall) became a very successful  comedy promoter.

Some three weeks later I visited the office and was handed the jazz folder and directed to the nearest available Amstrad and that was it, I was hired. 

I wonder about that three week gap. Granted, I was always easy-going about the professional, paid world of work, and the word ‘employability’ had yet to be coined in 1989, but three weeks seems to be relaxed even by my standards. The following is just speculation, but it might be significant that I made my debut in City Life #122, which covered the dates April 19-May 4, 1989 (City Life was fortnightly). That date, April 19th, 1989, is quite significant in Manchester jazz history. Does anyone know what happened on April 19th, 1989? 

[Chris Lee gets it. “Didn’t Miles Davis play at the Apollo about then?”] 

Precisely… Miles Davis played his second night at the Apollo Theatre, Manchester, on Wednesday April 19th, 1989.  

[Chris Lee berates Manchester Evening News for not letting him review the concert. Tim Stenhouse was there,, but says that Miles was in better form in Nice a few years later.]

So I made my public appearance in town on the same day as Miles Davis. For practical purposes, I just missed him, because magazines have to be planned a bit in advance. So the question is, did I delay my debut until Miles Davis was safely out of the way? If there was any possibility at all of interviewing Miles, however slight, I know I would have been there ready to duck the challenge. The prospect was just too scary. What would a know-nothing like me say to a legend like him? This is the spirit with which I’ve approached most of my interviews. 

Let’s stop for some music. A bit of Miles Davis, I think, to commemorate a missed opportunity. This is what Miles sounded like in 1989. 

Miles Davis, ‘Amandla’ (fade after 1:42) … 

I managed to defer my first professional interview until the following year, March, 1990, in fact. Although most of my interviews took place over the phone, this one happened to be a one to one encounter. In 1990 the Ronnie Scott Quartet played at the Bury Met (Greater Manchester). An earlier date on the same tour took in the Kirklevington Country Club, near my home town of Middlesbrough. Aware that I was in Middlesbrough at the time, my editor despatched me to Kirklevington to get the interview. 

So it happened that at tea-time on the evening of the gig, I was ushered into the dining-room of the Kirklevington Country Club, which was completely empty except for a solitary table of diners. Ronnie Scott was not amongst them. There were the guys in the Quartet. I tentatively approached them. “Are you with Ronnie Scott?” I said, explaining that I’d come for an interview. A burly fellow stood up, raised himself to his full height, and said, “If you knew anything about jazz, you would know who I am.” This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. 

I’ve mentioned that I was pretending to be an artist, a painter, and this new sideline, jazz criticism, was compounding the fraud. I lived in perpetual fear of being exposed as someone with no expertise in his area of expertise. And Martin Drew had seen through me at a glance. All the same, I couldn’t help but think that these were very haughty words for a man with a mouth full of sherry trifle. 

Martin Drew (as I know now) was a mainstay of the Ronnie Scott Quartet, and served as Oscar Peterson’s drummer for some thirty years, and went on to lead Celebrating the Jazz Couriers, a tribute to his old boss, with Mornington Lockett and Nigel Hitchcock in the twin-tenor roles of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes. 

It was decided to do the interview in the dressing-room during the interval. The other fellows around the table, by the way, were pianist John Critchinson and bassist Ron Matthewson.

This comes from the published article, City Life #146, March 28 - April 12 1990. 

      I asked about Club Eleven, a tatty basement called Mac’s Rehearsal Rooms in 
     Windmill Street, which opened in 1948. John Dankworth and Tony Crombie 
     were amongst its members. “It was all new to us. We were enthusiastic and very 
     young.” In 1950, Club Eleven, now charging admission on the door, moved to 
     Carnaby Street. How did it end? “Very inauspiciously. We were raided by the 
     police. We got nicked and the thing fell apart after that. It was drink, drugs… 
     and sex.”   

     The name of Zoot Sims came up. “Well we weren’t bosom pals exactly but we 
     enjoyed seeing each other.” Scott and Sims were together when the American 
     astronauts first landed on the moon. Sims said, “Jesus! They’re walking on the 
     moon and I’m still playing ‘Indiana’.”… “Zoot. I loved Zoot,” Scott told us. “He 
     was the first American player who gave a concert at Ronnie’s. He was a jazz 
     musician’s jazz musician.” 

I wanted to play something which displays Martin Drew to advantage. The next track is from a CD called Ronnie Remembered. The saxophonist is Pat Crumly and that’s Martin on drums. The tune is by Crumly and it’s called ‘Excuse Me Do I Know You?’ 

Ronnie Remembered, ‘Excuse Me Do I Know You?’ (4:57) 

He has in common with the USA drumming greats (like Jo Jones or Kenny Clarke) that ability to play urgently without making a lot of noise. He was an extraordinary drummer… [Enquiries about the piano player] That’s John Critchinson on piano, Pat Crumly on tenor saxophone, Leon Clayton on double bass, and Martin Drew on drums. 

At one point I sat down and wrote the names of all my interviews I could remember. They might number 300 musicians or thereabouts (not all jazz). [Eva says that, in the heat of the moment, I claimed I interviewed 300 musicians a year! This is an exaggeration. A sum total of 300 might be more accurate.] So you see, I eventually got over my shyness. It happened that City Life editor Chris Sharratt was headhunted by Metro and he took me with him. It was at a time when the coverage of arts and music events in the regions was part of Metro’s remit, and because there were several regional editions, I was kept quite busy. (Now everything is handed down from London and regional arts coverage and listings have been scrapped, so Metro has lost any purpose it had, apart from providing instant litter in trains and buses.) Anyway, I became quite a seasoned interviewer and sometimes spoke to itwo or three musicians a day. On one morning – 21st November, 2002, to be precise – I interviewed both Martin Drew and Benn Clatworthy back-to-back. 

Benn Clatworthy is a saxophonist wild man and grandson of Gertrude Lawrence. From London, and based in Los Angeles, Benn is a frequent visitor to the UK. It was a nice conjunction, because Martin and Benn were regular playing partners. Sadly, that’s the past tense. Martin Drew died in July, 2010.

[I mention how Tommy Melville regaled the audience of The Rhythm Station, “Yes, Picasso was knocking off his grandma,” as Benn smouldered. “It’s a good job I’m taking an anger management course, Tommy,” he said. Chris Lee says that Benn can’t have been that upset, because he invited Tommy to play saxophone at his wedding. I omit to mention that I was invited to the wedding too, but didn’t go because I had another event in London to attend on the same day. It was February 15, 2003, and the day of the great anti-Iraq War march.]   

It might be interesting to crosscut between the interviews. 

What music were you listening to when you were growing up, Benn? 

“I was listening to soul music, like most kids, and then the Beatles… It’s funny man, I don’t recall childhood a lot.” 

Did the Gertrude Lawrence connection have an impact? 

“No. It’s never affected me directly at all. Because she was dead three years before I was born. She was a very extravagant woman, Gertrude Lawrence, and my mother got screwed out of her  inheritance by her agent or lawyers or something. It’s kind of strange because it’s so close but it’s so distant.” 

It wasn’t like show tunes were being played about the house constantly? 

“We were dancing, yeah, doing routines. No nothing like that at all. Here’s a little bit I don’t want in the thing but you know my parents were separated and I got really mad and I was crazy and I got out of control and I got sent off to this place, Finchton Manor. And that’s where I heard the first thing that really struck me when I was around 13 and it was a guy called Harold McNair. He was playing flute on the track that got me really excited about that music. But I don’t want it mentioned that I was in trouble, y’know. I don’t like sounding like I was a hard-done-by child because my life wasn’t hard at all. Y’know what I mean?” 

Sure, rely on my discretion, Benn. 

“But I heard Harold McNair when I was around 13. Cut all that other stuff. I’m just telling you because it’s the story, man.” 

I think he died young. 

“Yeah. Do you think it will help me? Am I still in time? I better not leave it much longer, eh? I won’t be young if I leave it much longer.” 

Martin: “I have many, many memories, great memories of playing with Oscar, playing with Ray Brown, playing with Joe Pass. Sometimes I pinch myself that I’m working with such incredible jazz legends. I’m fortunate in saying that I’ve had many wonderful nights with Oscar and hopefully they’ll continue. Oscar is amazing because as you know he just has the facility of his right hand because of the stroke that he had and he’s 77 years old, but he still gets up there and does it. He still gets up there and goes for broke. You have to admire someone who does that. You have to have that kind of dedication. Musicians will understand what I’m saying. You don’t just get up there and make it up as you go along… there’s a lot of work and study that you can spend years [on], and most musicians do. 

Benn: I don’t have a choice. This is what I do. I supposed I’m obsessed with it really. I’m always checking to see what’s happening. It’s not right. It’s a complete ****ing neurosis, you know? I was playing sax on the train back from Manchester in the toilet the other day. I’m in the toilet with the saxophone. I was. It’s absolutely mad. I don’t want to upset people. Oh Jesus! And they’ve got all this weird shit coming out of the toilet. It’s ****ing mad, man. I can’t go anywhere without the sax. I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not but I just can’t help it. 

4 West featuring Benn Clatworthy, Linda’s Lament (4:37)  

This is 4 West, Benn Clatworthy’s LA group, paying homage to his first influence, Harold McNair. With Benn Clatworthy on flute, Pablo Calogero on clarinet, Chris Colangelo on bass and Jim Paxson on drums. It was recorded in 2002. 

And here are Drew and Clatworthy on the differences between USA and British jazz. 

Martin: “Jazz essentially is an American art-form anyway. It came from the black American negroes and developed from there. It’s probably the only thing that America has that is truly original. It’s an indigenous product, you know? 

“The excellent players over here, in a lot of cases, are mostly the equal of our American cousins. People like John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and latterly Michael Brecker, are unsurpassable. But as far as the regular standard is concerned, people like Mornington Lockett, Steve Melling, Andy Cleyndert, Nigel Hitchcock, they give nothing away to the Americans.” [This, you’ll note, is the line-up of Celebrating the Jazz Couriers] “I have had the fortune, as I said, of playing with a lot of fantastic American musicians. I’ve also played with a lot of rubbish as well. While they have the best, they have a hell of a lot more of the worst. What tends to be the thing, when they come over here because they have an American accent everybody automatically assumes that they’re great players. And I’m here to tell you that a lot of them are, of course, but a lot of them are not.” 

Benn: “I think people come out to listen more here than they do in the States. You actually get better audiences here. I think most American audiences would say that too.” 

“Are the musicians better in the States? Is there a qualitative difference between the musicians?” 

“I can’t say that, Mike. I mean between you and me…” 

“Off the record.” 

Off the record, I prefer American musicians. I prefer their attitude. I prefer their groove. I mean Martin Drew can play a medium tempo groove on the drums like an American, but you can’t find half a dozen people in England who know what that is. Although there are some great musicians here, man. I’m just a ****ing saxophone player. There’s great musicians here, man. Can we cut all of this out, because it’s just not fair.” 

Ronnie Scott forewarned me about Nina Simone. 

“She worked at the club once or twice before we fired her. She’d always been difficult. That last time, I was away in Australia. It was in January. She’d been in the club about a week or so when I got a call from Pete King, my partner, who said, ‘she’s driving me mad. I’m going to have a nervous breakdown’. So I talked to him about it and it appears that what she was doing – she’s got a very big following, a cult following, and the place was packed every night – was she’d turn up twenty minutes after she was supposed to go on, and she’d walk through the crowded club with a fur coat and a Tesco’s shopping bag, and she’d put her bag down, play for quarter of an hour and pick up her shopping bag and walk out. That was it. We were getting quite a lot of complaints and when I came back it was my job to answer them all. But what can you do? So I just said to Pete the best thing you can do is get rid of her. Unfortunately.” Ronnie added, ‘She’s not playing with a full deck.” 

Martin Drew chipped in with, “All the lights are on but there’s no-one at home.” 

And then everyone in the dressing-room was running with the metaphor. 

“A few sandwiches short of a picnic.” 

“One sausage short of a full English breakfast.” 

I have to say, this was not my experience of Nina. Not on the first occasion I interviewed her anyway. Let me play one of her songs and then I’ll tell a story about it. 

Nina Simone, ‘A Single Woman’ (3:33)

In December 1977 I went to see Nina Simone play at the Drury Lane Theatre (I was living in London at the time) . She appeared quite vulnerable and fragile. And she sang the song which you’ve just heard, which I didn’t know. It moved me deeply. Flash-forward to April, 1991.  Nina Simone herself is on the line from Amsterdam, talking to City Life’s jazz person to publicise her forthcoming appearance at the opening night of the Nia Centre in Hulme. I mentioned the song. It was something about a woman looking back over the love in her life, and then questioning her memory and wondering if the love ever existed. Does she remember the song? And Nina sang it to me. Naturally, my editor (Mike Hill, back then) headlined the piece My Baby Just Sings For Me

Not many of my interviews from this era have been preserved. It was to do with the economics of the cassettes, which we used in that primitive stage of technology. But I hung on to the Nina Simone tape. That moment is preserved on tape. If you’ll bear with the terrible sound quality… 

Excerpt from tape: [singing] “…’I can’t remember when, the house was full of love. But then again it might have been imagination’s plan to help along a single woman.’ It’s called ‘A Woman Alone’ [sic] and I learned that from Frank Sinatra.”  

[Chris Lee says that a friend remembers the Nia concert as the gig of a lifetime. And it was so good because Nina was energised to be playing before a predominantly black audience. I know, I said, I was there. Indeed, she was ecstatic. She constantly mentioned about “playing to my people”. The story goes that a gang of black kids stood guard over Nina’s Mercedes car parked outside. This is almost a certainly an urban legend. Who tours in a Mercedes? If anyone did, we agree, it would be Nina. (Actually I couldn’t remember the car brand so I made up the Mercedes bit. It honours the spirit of the story. Any posh car will do.)]  

Nina acted more to type in our second interview together. It didn’t start well. She was clearly very tired and grumpy. “I’ll give you ten minutes,”  she barked. As clear as I can recall, it was her 1999 UK tour and Nina was booked to play Bridgewater Hall. The promoter had booked her into a health farm in Amsterdam (she was living in Amsterdam) in order to get her into shape for the tour. She was hating every moment. City Life had been offered an interview, but at the very last minute. I’d already filed my piece, which explains why there aren’t any direct quotes. City Life #375 contains an overview of her career instead. But, rather than miss the opportunity, I decided to go ahead with the interview and talk instead about Nina Simone And Piano, one of my favourite albums, and then hawk the piece to Mojo, the music magazine, for consideration as a Buried Treasure, a regular column devoted to forgotten classic albums. 

The plan was actually very successful, although Nina was so grumpy and uncommunicative that all I could salvage was a single quote. I said,  “Would you rather be remembered for ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ or…” Nina finished the sentence: “…I’d rather be remembered for Nina Simone And Piano!” 

And that was all it took. I penned my Mojo piece and it was gratefully received. And there was a happy sequel, because someone from Sony read Mojo and assigned me to write the sleeve-notes for the 1999 CD reissues of Simone’s RCA back-catalogue. It was all thanks to a heavy-handed prompt to a grumpy prima donna. It’s a fatuous remark anyway. For one, ’My Baby Just Cares For Me’ is a song, and Nina Simone and Piano is an album, so it’s not comparing like with like. And ’My Baby Just Cares For Me’ is a fantastic performance and one of the all-time wow factor records. Note I say performance, rather than song, because the song is a poor thing in the original by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. No, it’s what Nina does with it, and her vivid mix of delight and glee and incredulity. The song captures the euphoria of falling in love like nothing else. The piano solo is irrepressible to the point of jokiness. And that distinctive bouncing, descending riff is nowhere in Tommy Dorsey. Nina borrowed it from Count Basie. Let me refer you to the piano introduction of ‘Everyday I Have the Blues’, track one, side two of  Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings

Count Basie, ’Every Day I Have the Blues’ 

Actually, as the late Joe Sample told me in an interview in October 2008 for Metro, “Count Basie probably learnt that riff in the twenties when he got stranded in Oklahoma and found his way to Kansas City, where he joined the Bennie Moten Band. But I’m sure the riff was created in the late nineteenth century when black pianists discovered the blues.” 

It was her debut studio session, in 1958, and Nina was never so happy again. Nina Simone and Piano is something else. Let’s face it, romantic euphoria is always going to appeal more than remorse and self-laceration. But I don’t think I’ve heard anything quite as affecting as ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)’. The piano playing reminds that Nina was one of the best.  

Nina Simone, ’I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes) (4.37)

Everyone will tell you that that song was written by Hoagy Carmichael. It’s not quite so straight-forward. Hoagy Carmichael wrote the tune, right enough, but the words come from a poem that was handed to him on a scrap of paper, at Indiana University sometime in the late twenties – my source are the excellent liner-notes by John Edward Hasse for the Hoagy Carmichael box set The Classic Hoagy Carmichael: “The poem was signed only J.B. The song was copyrighted with the credit line, “Words inspired by a poem written by J.B. (?)” Finally, the author was located in Philadelphia – Mrs Jane Brown Thompson. Dick Powell introduced the song on national radio, but Mrs Thompson died the night before.”     

I’ve heard the song a few times by different people from Duritti Column to Margaret Whiting (it’s her version in the Hoagy box set), but I haven’t heard anything quite so profound and poignant as Nina’s version. As with any song she essays, Nina’s is the definitive version. [Lorraine Barnet begs to differ: she likes the Nina version but holds out for Frank Sinatra.] 

And I love the use of parenthesis. ‘(Except Sometimes)’ is the ultimate qualifying statement and should be borne in mind every time anybody, including myself, makes a blanket statement. 
Oh, like ‘Nina Simone was a reasonable woman (except sometimes)’. 

[“Well I don’t want to over-run. Shall we save B.B. King for a later occasion?” I say to ready agreement. The following is a draft of how it would have continued.]   

‘B.B. King is the most modest of bluesmen (except sometimes)’. 
I only included B.B. King because I liked having an internal rhyme in my talk title, and also because I’m an inveterate name-dropper. 

I interviewed B.B. King, rather late in the day – in June 2009, for Metro – and it was very hard to get beyond the “aw shucks” humility he adopted as a public facade. His charm was damn near impregnable. For example, “A bandleader once told me that if he see one person patting their feet or nodding their head, that’s the person he would play to all night.” And, “We in the country in Mississippi love to do one thing. We love to shake hands with people. I hope I’m able to shake your hand.” Just occasionally the mask would slip to give a glimpse of the ego which drove B.B. from sharecropper to Boss of the Blues. One obstacle to prevent me shaking his hand, for example, was that he was only playing arenas on that trip. I hinted that the natural habitat for the blues was surely a club. “Well I always thought that I was good enough to do like some of the other people of the generation today. I thought I was good enough to play in the big arenas like they do.” In other words, if U2 can do it, so can B.B. King. 

On the other hand, is there another artist who could hold audiences of 25,000 upwards whilst playing in a wheelchair? Let’s remember him in his youthful prime with ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’, the second ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’ of the night (though a different song).   

B.B. King, ‘Every Day I Have the Blues’ 

I was in the habit of painstakingly transcribing all my interviews, which was strictly  unnecessary, when only 300 or so words would appear in print. Sometimes, not wishing to waste my effort, I would send transcriptions to my friend, Pete Bocking. Pete Bocking was a jazz guitarist possessed of a sharp wit and ready imagination. He was soon sending back imaginary interviews which accurately parodied my interviewing technique, 

Here, courtesy of Pete Bocking, is my interview with J.S. Bach.  

MB: Well Joe, you are the foremost Baroque composer of all time. 

JS: Well Mike, I wouldn’t quite put it in those terms. I mean Buxtehude is more my idea of baroque. I don’t like to be pigeon-holed. I like to think that my music has freer, more modern elements. 

MB: Yes, you have certainly done more to establish the dominant seventh with a flattened ninth chord than any previous composer. 

JS: Are you a musician? 

MB: No Joe, but I’ve got all your albums.   

Pete pinpoints the most common question I get asked by interviewees, “Are you a musician?” or “Do you play an instrument yourself?” Never, never own up to playing an instrument to a musician. Besides, my pedestrian piano playing is of no interest to anyone. And, in the interview situation, anything which distracts from the subject must be avoided. It’s the iron rule of journalism, and no ‘except sometimes’. 

Strawbs for Sale

Occasionally, I’ll pen a listing for eBay which is a bit self-revealing for comfort, and defeating in the way it stirs up affections which impel me to keep the damn thing. The following, which entailed an entire afternoon of bitter/sweet listening pleasure, is a case in point. 

STRAWBS x 5 JOB LOT inc. Strawbs, Antiques & Curios, Grave New World, Ghosts, Hero & Heroine 

On offer is a JOB LOT of 5 STRAWBS albums including (record graded first, then sleeve)…  

AMLS 936 STRAWBS (A&M, 1969) Say what you like about the Strawbs, they successfully rode the waves of psychedelia, prog and glam. Not bad for a folk group with a thing for bluegrass. This, their first offering, is the psychedelic one, and that’s the lovely Richard Wilson doing the spoken intro for ‘The Man Who Called Himself Jesus’. Condition is VERY GOOD only, although it plays through OK. The sleeve is marred by a name-tag in that embedded plastic stuff (the brand name eludes me), which is impossible to remove. Not content with this, ’Kevin Brear’ also had to write his name on the back in ink. Filler only. VG/VG. 

AMLS 994 JUST A COLLECTION OF ANTIQUES AND CURIOS (A&M, 1970) Enter Rick Wakeman. His musicianship took the Strawbs to a whole other level and suddenly the group were frontrunners in a category of one, wilfully serving a very eccentric fusion of folk and progressive rock. Extended compositions of overweening ambition? Check. The tardy retention of Victorian sentiment and poesy? Check. Gregorian chants subsumed in extended instrumental freak-outs? Check. The patrons of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on July 11, 1970 (for this is a live album), certainly got plenty of bang for their buck. Condition is a textbook VERY GOOD + i.e. “Better than Very Good: Obviously been played but no significant deterioration in sound quality despite light surface marks.” This translates as a few light clicks and pops and some scuffing which gets more pronounced as ‘Where Is This Dream of Your Youth?’ (the afore-mentioned organ work-out) progresses. The gatefold cover is VG+ too: “Very little wear and tear on cover and contents, without any major defects.” An original issue. The group shot on the back was substituted in a later edition by a portrait of the musicians in a pub. VG+/VG+. 

AMLH 68078 GRAVE NEW WORLD (A&M, 1972) The Strawbs’ apotheosis? The company got behind it in a big way, certainly, funding the ruinously expensive triple gatefold sleeve, and an accompanying 16-page booklet. The songs are equally extravagant, or pointedly low-key by way of contrast. It features ‘Benediction’, ‘Queen of the Forest’ and ‘New World’. Record is in excellent condition; cover is in excellent condition; the booklet is in excellent condition. The A&M logo on the label design declares that this as a later pressing. EX/EX. 

AMLH 68277 GHOSTS (A&M, 1974) The pattern is clear by now: extended, significant set-pieces counterbalanced by shameless filler. Dave Cousins’ vocals are very mannered indeed, and he dramatises emotion like a ham actor to compensate for the absence of more conventionally pleasing tones. This one has ‘Ghosts’ (the title track) and ‘Grace Darling’. Record is in excellent condition; cover has mild wear. Includes inner sleeve/lyric sheet. EX/EX-.

AMLH 63607 HERO AND HEROINE (A&M, 1974) More of the same. Contains the hit ‘Shine On Silver Sun’. Within a few years the Strawbs were utterly beached by Punk, and posterity has not been over-kind. Proper appreciation of their qualities requires a higher tolerance of mixed twee and bombast than modern audiences can muster. But hey, for me (a 57-year-old), it’s a nostalgic blast. Record is in excellent minus condition; the cover is in excellent minus condition. Includes inner sleeve/lyric sheet. EX-/EX-. 
What do you say? Starting price £4.99?

A few additional stray thoughts about the Strawbs

Just as essential is Dave Cousins' 1972 solo album, Two Weeks Last Summer, and All Our Own Work, the recordings made in Denmark with Sandy Denny, belatedly released, is charm itself. Contrary to what the sleeve says, it wasn't recorded in August 1968 but July, 1967. In August 1968 Sandy was a full-time member of Fairport Convention.

From the Witchwood is another guilty pleasure. This pursued the medieval interest that surfaced with 'The Battle' on the Strawbs' eponymous LP, but medievalism and the Victoriana of Antiques and Curios were all part of the same continuum, linked by the figure of William Morris. It was very sixties and very romantic.

John Ford and Richard Hudson contributed a couple of minor songs to Grave New World but soon looked set to threaten Cousins' hegemony when their 'Part of the Union' became the Strawbs' biggest hit. For me, this is the Strawbs most problematic song. It might have been excusable or even justifiable to knock the unions in 1973, but with hindsight, knowing that Margaret Thatcher's anti-union legislation was just around the corner, it seems grotesque and a betrayal (fancy nicking a pro-union Woody Guthrie song to do it!) Hudson and Ford were prone to jokes that backfired. They left in '73 to form Hudson Ford. If their big hit 'Burn Baby Burn' could sit comfortably in the Strawbs' repertoire, albeit not a distinguished part of the Strawbs repertoire, but their other greatest hit (as The Monks), 'Nice Legs Shame About the Face', would have instantly invalidated everything in the Strawbs' back catalogue.

Actually, the B-side of 'Lay Me Down', 'Backside', credited to Ciggy Barlust & The Whales from Venus, made me feel uneasy too. Then, I thought it was a snide dig at David Bowie, and unworthy of Dave Cousins' other-worldly muse. Now I hear it as an ode of lust. Actually, the timeline on the Strawbs' website – – makes interesting reading and is a mine of information.  I imagined Rick Wakeman might be the link with Bowie, but in fact the association goes as far back as 1969 when the Strawbs played Bowie's Free Festival in Beckenham.  

And the timeline was invaluable in my Bill Leader researches (I'm writing a book about Bill Leader, if you remember), giving the exact date that Bill's folk club, the Black Horse Broadside, closed (Saturday, 15 August, 1964). It's generous of Dave Cousins (I'm assuming he's the documentarist) to go into the fine detail on his timeline, because Bill never booked Strawbs to play the club once!

But there are other connections. It seems that cellist Clare Deniz played with the Strawbs at that date in Beckenham. She later provided cello on 'Fine Horseman' and 'Never the Same' on Lal and Mike Waterson's classic Bright Phoebus. And the first mention of the Strawbs in print was something by Karl Dallas in Melody Maker;  the gig listings in the self-same edition still refer to the Strawberry Hill Boys.

And this, from Wikipedia, has nothing to do with Bill, although is springs from the same milieu: "The Settlers' biggest hit was 'The Lightning Tree', theme song of the TV series Follyfoot, and lead singer Cindy Kent became a priest. Their bassist shared a flat in Hampstead with Tony Hooper of the Strawbs..."


Baja California Dreaming

Hey Mike, How was Mexico? – Matt Tortoise. ¿Ay Mexico? – Mick. Now that the hurricane has safely passed,  the story can be told. So here, by popular demand, is my Mexican adventure... 


 Baja California

Ensenada has mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, with palm trees in-between and the sun overhead. 

We flew into San Diego and David, our driver, picked us up and drove us to our hotel. Not only is it necessary to have a car to cover the sprawling distances in the New World, it's necessary to have a car to get around the campus of the Universidad Autonóma de Baja California and the research centre CICESE, as I subsequently discovered. 

It's in California – or Baja California on the Mexican side. Our imaginations have been nurtured all our lives by that landscape without our realising. I thought of Vertigo - there are lots of mission towers just like the one where Madeleine plunged to her death - and Chinatown: near the hotel was a dried creek-bed within metres of the ocean. A job for Jake Gittes? 

By coincidence, the Arts Centre opposite the hotel screened Vertigo the second night we were there, but if the chap who introduced it noticed the resemblance, I don't know, because naturally he spoke in Spanish. 

Zapata and Mike on La Primera

Within walking distance of the hotel – apart from the Arts Centre – was the main street, La Primera, which is clubland and the US tourist zone, with lots of viagra pharmacies and shops selling Cuban cigars (well, I spotted one). Oh, and the brothels seemed rather slick and soulless in comparison to the ones I remember from Sam Peckinpah, although I only walked past. All the above – viagra, Cuban cigars, and brothels – are banned in the USA, which explains their popularity in Mexico. Things haven't changed that much since The Last Picture Show.   

No hint of drugs (apart from viagra). The drug barons were nowhere to be seen, and everyone was gracious. Even the music pounding out of the clubs on La Primera was preferable to the UK equivalent, being Mexican. 

Dancing at Parque Revolución

Better yet was Saturday afternoon at Parque Revolución where old-timers whipped the crowd into a frenzy with a selection of rancheras to taped accompaniment. Eva translated one of them for me and it made my flesh creep. I thought of Al Parry, my good friend, by coincidence at that very moment in New Orleans enjoying the Ponderosa Stomp, and, not to be too competitive, I thought that my old-timers must be out-doing his, at least in quantity. 

Cervecería Aguamala, with an ocean view

After a Monday mooching around on my own, I caught up with Eva's conference. Lovely people. A mixed bunch of professors, scientists and students took me to a micro-brewery with an ocean-view. The beer was at least the equal of the Marble Brewery, my favourite micro in Manchester, and they were gracious enough, half the time, to speak in English for my benefit. The other half I was keeping up as best I could, and skipping over the ocean like a stone. 

This tells you something about Mexican graciousness: perturbed by the fact that the nearest second-hand record shop appeared to be in San Francisco, I asked where do you buy vinyl discos in this town? And Miguel, a professor I'd been introduced to moments before, rescheduled his Thursday morning to take me to something he called "hard-core Ensenada", which turned out to be a flea market, and as cheap and cheerful as all flea markets but with parrots and a deal of Mexican exotica. I came away with LPs featuring Chavela Vargas and Songs of the Revolution.  

   Eva-mania I 

  Eva-mania II

And Eva's contributions to the conference were triumphant. A party of Mexican schoolchildren queued for her autograph and to have their pictures taken with her. No other speaker received this treatment. The like had not been seen since Beatle-mania: except this was Eva-mania. 

The 2 hour wait to get back across the border was memorable too, but here the similarity to Hollywood ends. People were waving churros at me, not guns. 

Well you did ask. 

Vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe 

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