INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
‘Life Is Never The Way We Want It To Be’
“Just lean out a little more, John,” the photographer, Mike Nicholson called up to me from the cobbled street below.
The old window box in front of me, full of mainly dead flowers and dried- up spiders, impeded any particularly dramatic leaning, but I gamely stuck my head out a little more, which got a “Great!” from Mike, who snapped away happily.
“Now, just slowly turn your head from left to right as I take the shots…Fantastic!”
Roslav Szaybo, CBS’s Art Director, had found the location, an old empty ‘two-up, two-down’ in Shepherd’s Bush. It was part of a lovely Edwardian red brick terrace, which would soon be pulled down to make way for one of the four huge tower blocks being built in the area.
Earlier that morning, I’d sat in the decaying front room while Jo the make-up lady once again got to work.
She told me that she’d been instructed by Roslav to “not make him so Gothic Nightmare this time” and to “go for a more natural skin colour. Nothing too outrageous.”
After about half an hour, Jo had declared me “Done” and handed me a mirror. ‘Yes,’ I thought, studying my new face, ‘it does look slightly more au naturelle.’ But, while the white panstick and black lips, which she’d applied for the previous photo session, had been replaced by a fresh-looking pink complexion and subtly lipsticked mouth, I was also struck by the pale blue eyeshadow, the black eyeliner and the light mauve blush rouge on the cheeks. To me, I still looked as camp as a row of tents. Roslav, however, was thrilled when he walked in and saw the results of Jo’s labours.
“More to your taste, Roslav?” Patsy asked him dryly.
“More to CBS’s taste,” he replied just as tartly.
“Gently effete rather than rip-your-heart-out vampire,” I joked.
Roslav pointed at me as if to say,
“You got it!”
Suitably donned in my pinstripe suit, white shirt, striped silk tie, brogues and white fedora, I wandered around the abandoned house, striking poses in various rooms, and then moving on. I climbed up a rickety old staircase, precariously leaning on a very wobbly banister, and into one of the bedrooms. There I sat on a beautiful but dilapidated art deco sofa, and did my best to look chic and self-contained, all the while wondering if the roof was about to fall in on us.
“These are going to be amazing!” Mike shouted.
Sure enough, as Stuart, Patsy and I looked at the transparencies in Roslav’s office a couple of days later, I had to admit that Mike had indeed come up with some stunning pictures. I noticed someone had ringed one of them with orange marker pen. It was one of the window shots, my face in profile.
“Yes,” Roslav said, “that’s the sleeve! There can be no argument about it.
That -” he pointed at it with his Gitanes cigarette, “That is a beautiful picture. That is our Kid In A Big World.”
A week later, I arrived at Apple Studios in Savile Row, to begin the recording sessions with Paul Phillips. Completely refurbished since Magic Alex had famously installed his useless ‘multi-track system’ five years earlier, it was now a state-of-the-art operation.
Paul greeted me at the door of the large control room:
“John! Come in!” he said, and led me into where our engineer, Phil McDonald was setting up the tracks, and the musicians, Pete Zorn, Barry De Souza, Ken Nicol and Pete Marsh were standing in a little group having their coffees.
Stuart and Patsy were also there, settled on a sofa under the control room window, and waved over at me as I shook all the guys’ hands.
“Okay,” Paul said, looking through his piles of manuscripts, “I thought we’d start with Family Man.”
With that, we trooped through to the studio, a nicely-sized room, with a beautiful grand piano awaiting me. Barry sat to the right of me on drums, Pete Zorn standing just in front of him on bass, Ken and Pete Marsh sitting to their right on guitars. We had one run-through, which sounded very smooth, and three takes later we had it.
We then recorded a song Paul wanted for a ‘B’ side, Third Man. In 5/4, I’d modelled it on Dave Brubeck’s Take Five, and the guys had a ball doing a full-on jazz interpretation.
“Okay,” Paul said in our cans, “Take a break, guys, but John? I’d like you to stay there and record Kid In A Big World on your own. You sound in great voice, so let’s get a take.”
The boys took off their headphones and left the studio.
“I want to get the same kind of feel you got on your piano/voice demo,” Paul continued, “so we’re recording this like a live performance. No vocal overdubs. Just you at the piano, singing the song. This won’t be a guide vocal, which you’ve been doing on the other tracks, this will be the vocal. Okay?”
Stuart’s hand raised up above the desk, a thumbs-up sign of agreement.
I recorded two takes, Paul declaring the second one as the best.
After a short coffee break, Ken and Pete added acoustic guitar figures to Kid, onto which Pete Zorn then overdubbed some lovely flute and sax parts. He stayed at the mike for an overdub on Third Man, playing wailingly great freeform jazz throughout the song. It made it sound very 1960s New York, and I loved it.
Barry then played calypso style marimbas on Family Man, onto which Ken and Pete added their backing vocals.
Arranged by Paul, they reminded me of the backing vocals Paul McCartney and George Harrison sang on The Beatles’ Help!, where they anticipated the next line John Lennon was about to sing:
When I was younger
So much younger than today
(I never need)
I never needed anybody’s help in any way
But now these days are gone I’m not so self-assured
(And now I find)
Now I find I’ve changed my mind
And opened up the doors”
On Family Man, Ken and Pete did something similar behind my lead vocal:
“I am a family man
(I do all I can)
I do all I can
(To bring it in)
To bring the money in regularly…”
It was extremely effective.
After a brilliant morning’s work, the boys took their leave and I re-did the lead vocals on Family Man and Third Man. I then double-tracked the choruses and put a doubled harmony line on Family Man. Both songs were second nature to me, so it didn’t take me long to get everything down.
“Fantastic!” Paul shouted as I came through into the control room. “You got those done so quickly!” I caught Stuart beaming over at me. “Just strings to do tomorrow, then the mixing!”
As Phil did some ‘housework’, as he called it, cleaning up the tracks for the strings overdubs, Paul and I chatted about the kind of music we liked. Unsurprisingly, our tastes were similar, both being big fans of Mott The Hoople.
“Roll Away The Stone is my favourite,” I told him, “I love the ‘rockabilly party on Saturday night’ bit, really fantastic.”
“Have you got ‘The Hoople’?” he asked me. “It’s a different ‘rockabilly party’ lady on there.”
“No, I haven’t got it yet.”
“You should. It’s a great album.”
“It was one of the Thunderthighs on the single, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right. Lynsey De Paul does it on the album. BUT! My favourite track is Marionette, utterly stunning! Very Bowie-esque. You’d love it, John!”
“I must buy it!”
Paul laughed and looked puzzled:
“You don’t buy CBS albums, John. I’ll get it for you.”
“Of course! In fact, give me a list of some other albums of ours you’d like, and I’ll order them for you! You’re a CBS artist now. You don’t buy albums by other CBS artists! It’s one of the perks!”
The next morning, I was woken by a knock on the door. I looked at my watch, it was eight o’clock. Mrs Mitchell, the landlady of the Earl’s Court flat I’d recently moved into, opened it a crack and peeked in:
“I’m sorry, dear, but there’s a call for you. It’s your father.”
As I quickly got dressed and walked to the phone in the hall, I already knew:
“Hello, son,” I heard Dad say from an oddly distant place. “It’s your mum. She passed away at three o’clock this morning.”
For a moment I didn’t know what to say. It felt rather surreal hearing the news I’d been expecting. Sounding surprised or shocked would have been dishonest, rather crass. So I asked the question which had immediately come into my mind:
“How are you, Dad?”
“She went peacefully,” he sort of replied. “I was with her when she – when she went.”
His voice sounded tiny.
“I’m really sorry, Dad.”
“So am I. But she’s at rest now.”
I asked him when the funeral was and told him I’d travel up there the day before.
“It’s next Tuesday.”
“Okay. I’ll see you on Monday afternoon then, Dad.”
“It’ll be good too see you, son. I just wish that -”
When I arrived at the studio at ten o’clock, the orchestra was already doing a run-through, conducted by a small blonde chap who I vaguely recognised:
“Nicky Graham,” Paul told me. “You probably saw him at the sales conference. He’s one of our A & R guys. He can read dots so I asked him in to conduct.”
What they were playing, along to Family Man, sounded lovely.
“I’m sorry about your mum, John,” Paul said, “Stuart told me.”
“When’s the funeral?”
“Tuesday. I’m going up there on Monday. I’ll be back on Wednesday evening.”
“Don’t you want to stay a bit longer?” Paul asked. “Be with your family?”
I shook my head:
“No. No, I’d like to come back as soon as possible. This is home now.”
“Okay then, so if I book the mixing sessions for Thursday and Friday next week, is that alright for you?”
“Perfect,” I said, knowing they would act as a lovely distraction.
“We’re ready for a take, I think,” Nicky’s voice came over the intercom.
Paul dashed over to the console and switched on his studio mike:
“Great! It’s sounding lovely, Nicky.” He turned to Phil, “Okay, Phil?”
Phil gave him a thumbs-up.
“Tapes are rolling,” Paul said.
We stood listening to the orchestra, which melded beautifully into the track. As the chorus came in, Paul turned and smiled at me:
“Do you recognise the figure they’re playing there?”
“It’s the line you sang on Tony Meehan’s Family Man, the one you did as a countermelody in the choruses.”
He sang it along with the orchestra for me and I could suddenly hear it.
“I didn’t want to lose that, it’s such a great melody. I just felt it intruded too much, the way you’d done it at Abbey Road. You were basically singing two choruses, and the original one is so great. Why take attention away from it? But as an orchestral line, it’s really fantastic. You should be a strings arranger!”
I was touched that he had ensured my chorus counter-melody had not been lost, and hearing it his way now, it sounded just right.
Strings for both Family Man and Kid In A Big World were done and dusted by lunchtime and, as Nicky came through from the studio, he smiled and rushed over:
“John !” he shouted. “Lovely songs!”
He shook my hand enthusiastically and continued smiling at me. He was a handsome man, full of a wiry energy, which you could feel him wanting you to reciprocate, almost urging you to exude a mutual thrill. It was rather unsettling, and made me feel oddly tired.
“Good luck with them, John!” he added, still beaming away.
“Thanks, Nicky!” I said, trying on a bright tone of voice, which I knew sounded forced. “The strings are great!”
“They are,” Stuart’s reassuringly sanguine voice came to the rescue, as he introduced himself.
Nicky pumped his hand quickly and beamed:
“Hi Stuart! Great musician you have here! Lovely piano work!”
Stuart smiled proudly at me,
“John is a huge talent. I hope CBS is proud to have him on the label.”
“There’s no doubt about that, Stuart!”
“Are you a musician, Nicky? I would imagine you are.”
“Well, yes, now and again.” He gave us a mock-modest look, like a flattered little boy. “I played piano for David Bowie a couple of years ago.” He smiled at me, knowing I’d be impressed.
“Wow!” I duly gushed.
“On the Spiders From Mars tour.”
“Wow!” I gushed again and was about to ask him what Bowie had been like, but one of the musicians came over to talk to him. He apologised to us, said goodbye and hurried outside for a private chat.
“Another young hopeful, looking for a record deal,” Stuart joked.
As the musicians all began leaving, I took the opportunity, amidst the farewells, to go and sit next to Phil McDonald, as he worked on balancing the tracks:
“Hi,” he said, “you happy?”
“Knocked out. Great studio!”
“Yeah, it is now.”
“Paul told me you worked on Instant Karma,” I said, trying not to sound like a thrilled fan.
“Yeah! At Abbey Road. That session was a blast.”
“It’s my favourite Lennon track.”
“Yeah, and it shouldn’t have worked really. John insisted I push all the faders right up on everything, and mix it like that.* He wanted it recorded, mixed, mastered, cut and out within a week. He hated spending months on things. A bit different from doing ‘Sergeant Pepper’!”
“Did you work on that?” I felt my eyes widening with wonder.
“I was just second engineer on some of it, but, wow, it was a trip!”
“You worked on ‘Imagine’ too didn’t you?”
He nodded proudly at me and smiled. I could have talked to him all night, but I knew he had to get on.
“Do you think John will ever come back to the UK?” I finally asked him.
“We can only hope.”
*N.B. Phil Spector, the producer on ‘Instant Karma’, wanted to add strings to it, but Lennon turned that idea down. However, Spector did remix the track for the American release without John’s knowledge.
I found it very difficult to cry at Mum’s funeral. I was so relieved that she was now out of pain, I just felt rather numb, disconnected from the grief around me. It seemed unreal that she’d gone but in truth, she’d felt a rather distant figure the previous few weeks. Her light was slowly dying the last time I’d visited, and, because she’d become increasingly poorly, I hadn’t been able to speak to her on the phone since then.
I’d accompanied Dad, my sister and Gran Wood to the chapel of rest the evening before she was cremated. When I walked into the room where she was laid out, I was struck first of all by a sense that no-one was there. Although I could see her lying in her open coffin, Mum’s life force had completely gone. While that sounds an obvious thing to say, it was the oddest sensation. My eyes were telling me ‘There she is, there’s Mum’, but, in fact, she wasn’t there at all.
What disturbed me the most was her doll-like face. With over-rouged cheeks she would never have entertained, and a shade of lipstick which would have horrified her, her appearance drove it home that this was no longer my mum. It was akin to seeing a waxwork model in Madame Tussaud’s.
I noted her expression though, frozen at the point of death, and one which I did recognise – total resolve not to give in. As though she were steeling herself for one more battle ahead. She aimed to go down fighting.
“Good for you, Mum,” I thought as Dad held her hand and sobbed.
“It’s so cold,” he said. “She’s so cold.”
“But she’s at rest, Herbert son,” Gran said, patting his shoulder.
They’d never been close, Dad and his mother, at least he had never reciprocated her feelings for him. I knew her heart went out to him that day, and hoped he realised it.
“She always had such beautiful skin,” Gran said, glancing down at the lady she had never wanted as her son’s wife. I thought it was very touching that she was repeating what he’d told her, after his first date with ‘Bren’ in 1947:
“She has such lovely skin, Mum.”
Ethel and Brenda’s relationship had never been easy, consisting of a mutual toleration for “the sake of the kids.” Now, as Gran finally saw just how much Mum meant to her son, all previous arguments and disagreements between the two women were forgotten.
That evening, I listened as Dad told me how he’d sat with Mum in her last hours.
“I thought she was a goner,” he said. “She’d collapsed, unconscious, getting up to go to the loo while we were watching TV. So I lifted her onto the settee and just sat with her, holding her hand, waiting for her to – well, to fade away. I was there for about an hour, kept checking if she was still breathing, and wondering how long she’d last. I couldn’t believe it when she opened her eyes and smiled at me. ‘Hello, love,’ she said, bright as you like. ‘Have I had a little nap?”
Telling him she felt better than she had for ages, she reminisced through the early hours of the morning about their life together; their summer wedding in 1948, complete with a chimney sweep for luck; their honeymoon in London, which had been Mum’s first visit there; Sue and me growing up in their brand new council house in Heywood, where Dad grew peas, lettuce, gooseberries, strawberries and raspberries in his little allotment garden at the back; our trips to Butlin’s Holiday Camps in the ‘50s, which we reached every year by way of various old jalopy cars, which often fell apart when – and sometimes before – we got back home; the first house they’d bought in 1960, a new-build in Bury which nearly bankrupted them, until they finally sold it in 1969 for four thousand pounds and bought a pretty little cottage in Ramsbottom, which cost them nine hundred. It put them ‘in the black’ for the first time in their twenty-six year marriage.
“And now,” she’d said proudly, “we’ve got our own little business!”
Dad smiled at me ruefully,
“She was still talking about running the shop when she got better.” He shook his head and looked away for a moment. “We should never have done it.” He looked at me. “Coming here. Worst decision we – I – made.”
“You did it for her, Dad. It wasn’t a bad decision, it was the only one you could make.”
He nudged me gently and smiled:
“She was bit worried about you, you know, being down in London on your own. But I put her mind at rest, I think so anyway. I reminded her what great people Stuart and Patsy are. That you had friends there. Good friends.” He put his hand on my arm. “Your mum was very proud of you, son. She was talking about you when she -”. I squeezed Dad’s arm as he fought back tears. “She suddenly gasped, sat bolt upright, looked kind of shocked, and fell back onto the cushion. That was it. She’d gone.”
I felt such compassion for him at that moment, for a man who I’d always felt was one step removed. Our relationship had always been distant, since I was a kid really. The truth of it was that I was none of the things Dad would have expected when I’d been born. His first – and only – son, he must have thought what great times we were going to have together, going to football matches, playing cricket, weekends at the swimming pool or hanging out with other blokes and their sons. None of that ever happened. I was completely uninterested in energetic pursuits of any kind.
He tried to teach me to box once, when I was about six, and after a few minutes of his mock-punching me and trying to get me to punch back, I pulled off my gloves, declared myself bored and went up to my room to read. I think about that now, and wonder at how let down he must have felt, as I left him sitting there, holding my tiny little boxing gloves he’d bought for me specially.
As a child, I preferred watching Mum bake or sitting by her dressing table as she applied her make-up. I used to love listening to the gossipy chat amongst her friends at the Tupperware parties she hosted.
Dad did actually manage to get me to go with him, just once, to a soccer match – although it had really been at Mum’s insistence.
“Go on,” she’d said, when I moaned to her that I didn’t want to go, “keep him company for a change.”
As we walked into the football ground at Gigg Lane, he told me that Bury was “your team”, they’re the ones wearing blue and white”, and that I should “cheer them on when they score.” Inwardly I asked “Why?”. Following a team of any sort has always been a mystery to me, and, freezing to death on a November afternoon, I gave up trying to work out what was going on and took to whining about my cold hands. Finally, he admitted defeat and took me home before the match was over. We hardly spoke on the bus home and he never asked me again.
He had no doubt looked forward, as I reached my teens, to meeting my girlfriends, and joshing me about them when I came home from ‘a date’. Again, my score on that front was, obviously, zero.
Instead, I took to listening to records for hours in my bedroom and reading Virginia Woolf and Kafka novels in the garden. Usually after getting up to leave when Match Of The Day came on.
When I grew my hair down to my shoulders, he tried to scare me into getting it cut by pointing at his own baldpate:
“You’ll end up like me!” he said delightedly.
“No, I won’t,” I replied tartly. “Baldness comes down through the maternal line.”
“You’re such a know-it-all, aren’t you?” he snarled, snapping his newspaper open and burying his reddening face behind it. “You look like a girl!”
“And that’s a bad thing why?”
And so it ground on, our father and son war, while Mum listened from the ramparts of the kitchen, offering cups of tea while I stormed up to my room and put on ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ or Zappa’s ‘Hot Rats’ as loudly as I could get away with.
At the age of eighteen, passing only two ‘A’ Levels, English and Art History – limiting my choice of Universities to none – I happily went off to do a ‘Pre-Dip’ art course. In Dad’s book it was “wasting another year having a bloody good time while we feed you”. I had finally become an alien living in his house. Nothing more than a “scruffy so-and-so” as well as a failure at everything else, I wholly disappointed him.
Even my songwriting bewildered him. It wasn’t jazz, his first love, it wasn’t catchy pop, it certainly wasn’t going to make me rich. “Why is he bothering?” must have been his constant question to Mum.
He did come to my very first gig, at Accrington Art College in March 1970, and, after a really great evening where I was given a standing ovation from a packed theatre, I went to meet him and Mum in the foyer. All he said to me was,
“That’s a great drummer you’ve got there.”
I remember Mum staring at him, waiting for more.
“You were very good, love,” she said, giving me a peck on the cheek, but Dad had already gone to get the car.
It wasn’t until I moved to London three years later that, finally, it began to dawn on him. With a major record company signing me, a commission to write a song for a movie, and my first LP about to be released, he seemed to realise that his son wasn’t the oddball loser he had thought I was after all.
Many years later, around 2005, when Dad was staying with me and my husband at our house in Pembrokeshire, we were sitting on the rear balcony, admiring the lawns I’d just mown, enjoying the smell of freshly-cut grass as we sipped our gin and tonics. Suddenly, out of the blue, he said,
“I wasn’t much of a Dad was I?”
“You did alright,” I replied.
“I wasn’t very supportive of your music, not in the early days, when you needed it most.”
I laughed and told him the story of what he’d said after that first gig in Accrington. He looked utterly shocked, like someone had slapped him:
“I didn’t say that, did I?”
He shook his head:
“I was so proud of you that night!”
“I wish you’d said so.”
“So do I!” He sat staring out ahead of him, obviously going over it in his mind. He shook his head again and looked at me, his mouth quivering a little. “What a dickhead! Eh? What a prat!”
On my last night at the shop, before returning to London, I settled down in bed to read a copy of Melody Maker I’d brought with me. I must have been on the point of dropping off, when I became aware that the room seemed to be closing in around me, and I now inhabited a small cocoon, dimly lit. Outside of it was just darkness. I could sense a presence watching me from that darkness, but couldn’t pinpoint exactly where. Then a strange whirring noise began, all round me. It was a rhythmic sound, like a low humming, getting increasingly louder. It seemed to envelop me as I lay there, forcing me to lie still. When I tried to sit up, I couldn’t. It was as though a web had been wound around me, linked in some way to the sound pulsating in my little cocoon.
Oddly aware that the only thing I may be able to open were my eyes, I tried to force them open, really tried, but they wouldn’t budge either. So I concentrated on one eye instead, and gradually, very slowly, it shifted, just a tiny bit, and with a strength which felt like it could normally move mountains, I prised my eyelid open and saw just a blurred greyness, with a slightly whiter light in its centre. No longer ‘bound’, I sat up and the whirring noise immediately stopped. I jumped out of bed and switched on the main light. Like someone who had heard a burglar breaking in, I stood there, staring round the room. The fact this was not my bedroom made me feel very detached from everything. Only my little suitcase on the floor, the only thing of mine in there, brought me back. I continued to listen and watch, and realised that there was no-one there. Nothing.
I left the light on and got back into bed. As I lay there, shivering slightly, thoughts scurried through my brain. Had I been asleep? Was it a dream? Maybe I’d been in that in-between-world just before falling, and unable to rise back to consciousness? Or was it something more? Could I have been experiencing Mum’s imprisoning stillness, which she had fought as her life drained away? I had no idea, and, too exhausted to think about it anymore, fell asleep and dreamt of Mum…
…She was standing by a 1950s style, light brown tiled mantelpiece, in a dingily-lit sitting-room with flowery old-fashioned wallpaper and one overhead shadeless light. The walls looked nicotine-stained and it was all rather drab, even though the colours of the wallpaper had once been bright pinks, reds and yellows. I recognised the room, and yet I didn’t know where it was.
Mum was crying and I couldn’t tell why. I asked her and she just shook her head and looked at me.
Then, we were sitting in a bus stop, it was raining and she was crying again. I seemed unable to console her.
“What has happened to you?” she kept asking. “Why are you like this? What’s happened to my little boy?”…
Waking up with a start the next morning, I quickly got dressed and went downstairs. I settled down with a bowl of cereal and a cup of tea as the clock struck six. Sitting alone in the back sitting-room, I remembered how, just a few weeks earlier, Mum had been there, counting the shop’s takings at the small dining table, where only an Order of Service for her funeral now rested.
I was just clearing my dishes away when I heard Dad coming downstairs:
“You’re up early, son,” he said, yawning.
“Strange bed,” I replied, putting on the kettle for him.
“I’ve got something for you,” he said, going to the sideboard.
As I made his tea and brought it through to the sitting-room, he gave me a small clear polythene bag, with some trinkets clinking away inside it:
“Those are your mum’s things,” he said. “Have a look to see if there’s anything – I thought you might want to have something of hers. Take whatever you want, son.”
I stared at the bag. Was this all my mum had left behind? Her fifty year life – and this was it? I emptied the bag onto the table and found a coloured-glass medallion on a gold chain I know she liked, a photograph of her and Dad on their last holiday together, and a lovely silver bracelet I never saw her wear, but had once found in a drawer when I was a kid. I think she’d told me it had been her mother’s. I decided that was all I would take. Small things to remember her by which she had loved during her short lifetime.
Dad moved out of the shop just a few weeks later. It had been Mum’s dream to buy it, and now he no longer needed, or wanted, to be there. Too many memories and regrets inhabited those stark unloved rooms. He gave the shop to my sister, a little business she could run as an additional income for her young family, and found a very pleasant one-bedroomed flat in Bury. From there, he could rebuild his life as a single man in his late forties, and decide what his new future would be.
“This is a Christmas smash!”
Dan Loggins beamed up at me and laughed out loud as the just-mixed Family Man played in the control room.
“It’s an absolute smash, John!” he said again, utterly delighted at what he was hearing. “It’s the first single for sure!”
“Oh I’m so pleased you’ve said that, Dan,” Patsy said.
Dan smiled at her, then at me:
I looked over at Paul, who was watching proceedings with interest. I got the impression his Director/Manager relationship with Dan was not completely smooth-sailing. It always felt slightly prickly when they were in a room together.
“Great production, Paul,” Stuart said, slapping Paul on the back, trying to bring a few congratulations his way.
“It’s a great song, Stuart,” Paul replied. “All I did was take John’s demo and use that as the base for my production. It was all there already.”
A few feet away stood Mike Batt, one of CBS’s most successful artists of 1974, who’d popped in to have a listen. As the track finished, he nodded approvingly at me and said,
“What a fantastic track, John! I wish I’d written it!”
“I wish I’d written The Wombling Song!” I replied, then hoped he hadn’t taken that as a jokey dig.
The irony of Mike’s situation was that, although he’d had three Top Ten hits and two Top Twenty albums so far that year, he was almost completely unknown to the young fans who bought the records he had written, produced and sung lead vocals on. At the beginning of the year, he’d turned the theme song he’d composed for the children’s television series, The Wombles, into a novelty hit. By way of creating a ‘pop group’ out of the cute and furry Wimbledon creatures who kept the surrounding Common clean, he’d taken the single to Number Four in the charts. In what must have been exceedingly hot shaggy outfits under unyielding studio lights, the four Wombles pranced benignly around the Top of The Pops studio week and after week and stole the hearts of millions of kids. It was a catchy, extremely successful record, but everyone thought that would be that, just one of the many one-hit wonders which come and go in a heartbeat.
However, Mike – and I would guess CBS – must have been entirely unprepared for the phenomenon that followed. The follow-up, Remember You’re A Womble, took just a few weeks to crash up to Number Three. By the end of the year, with five Top Twenty hits under their rather wide belts, The Wombles were officially the best-selling singles group of 1974, outselling Paul McCartney & Wings, The Bay City Rollers and The Stylistics. They also figured in the Top Ten best-selling albums listing for the year, alongside The Carpenters, Simon & Garfunkel, Pink Floyd and The Beatles.
“Love that ‘reggae-reggae-regularly’ bit, John,” Mike laughed. “So good. Such a hook! Huge hit!”
“Fucking hell!” Paul shouted to the ceiling. “I’ve produced John Howard’s first hit single! Mike Batt said so!”
The studio phone rang and Phil picked it up:
“It’s for you, Stuart,” he said.
As Stuart chatted amiably away, Paul and Phil began setting up a mix for Kid In A Big World. Mike bid his farewells, telling us he was working on his next Wombles single, a Christmas song (Wombling Merry Christmas, which reached Number Two, the group’s biggest hit record).
“You might be in contention with John for the Christmas Number One!” Dan joked.
“Let battle commence!” Mike parried back.
Dan happily waved at us all and left with him:
“Really great, John!” he said as the door closed.
With the opening strains of ‘Hey, you’re a Kid In A Big World now’ floating across the room, Stuart came and sat with Patsy and me:
“That was Roslav. He has the sleeve finished and wants us to go and take a look. We’ll get a cab over there when the session’s finished.”
Half an hour later, we sat listening to Paul’s mix of what would be the title track of my debut album. He’d added a lovely echoed tambourine towards the end, which perfectly captured the resigned quality of the track, like a sigh of understanding. The strings, the guitars, and the flute and sax overdubs fitted beautifully.
“That’s exactly what I heard when Stuart played me your demo,” Paul said, smiling over at me.
What particularly pleased me was how much better this vocal performance was than the one I’d done on Tony’s version. It sounded much more assured, simply because this was how I’d written the song three years earlier, and how I’d been performing it ever since. Lovely though Tony’s production and Harry Gold’s 1930s arrangement had been, it never sounded quite there for me. I think if I’d written the song with a period feel in the first place, it might have been more natural done Tony’s way. Now, it felt as though I’d got the song back.
“It sounds fabulous, Paul,” I said. “I’m very happy.”
I was even happier when I saw what Roslav and his design team had come up with for my album sleeve. It looked extremely classy and atmospheric.
“Terrific!” Stuart said, as we stood looking at it propped up against Roslav’s wall, like viewers at an art gallery.
“The guys on the fifth floor love it too,” he said, blowing out a Gitanes-scented smoke ring. “For the back, we are repeating the same picture but with you not there, as though you have left the little house for the Big World!”
That night, I had the best night’s sleep I’d had for weeks. Finally, things seemed to be coming together.
The following day, Paul did the remix of Goodbye Suzie. He lifted my vocal and piano, which had always sounded too low in the mix before, took out some of the guitar flourishes from Tony’s production, and gave the track more ‘top’.
“That sounds like a single to me,” Stuart said, looking tentatively across at his wife, who had set her heart on Family Man being the first one out of the stalls.
“It does, Stuart,” Paul replied, “but we have to accept that it’s too long for radio…four minutes twenty-five seconds, much too long. Radio One would never play it.”
Patsy nodded and glanced at Stuart, while I silently argued ‘Hey Jude, over seven minutes, MacArthur Park, over seven minutes,’ but kept the thoughts to myself.
“So,” Paul continued, with a wry smile, “ we’re going to look at doing an edit. Play it again, please, Phil.”
As we listened to the mix again, I couldn’t actually hear what Paul could cut out to bring it down to a more ‘radio-friendly’ length. Maybe a fade rather than a proper ending could work, but that would only take off a few seconds. As the middle eight came in – “And in the morning, all the shops will be open…” – Paul lifted his finger:
“There. That’s where we do the edit. We cut the middle eight out, and cut in the final line of the first chorus, so it ends on the C chord, rather than F, then cut into the last verse and chorus.”
“Okay,” Phil said, rewinding the track, “let’s give it a go.”
Over the next ten minutes or so, the two men worked away and, voila, without the middle eight, they had cut it to three minutes and forty five seconds. As an edit, it worked perfectly, but I wasn’t happy about the missing F chord at the end of the penultimate chorus. It had led perfectly, with the following F7, into the B flat middle eight which I’d always been really proud of. I loved how it resolved back to the C chord – from E flat, into F with a D bass and then into C – ready for the last verse and chorus. I remembered going “Wow!” to myself when that section ‘arrived’ as I was writing the song. Paul must have seen the regret on my face:
“It’ll only be on the single, John,” he assured me. “The album version will untouched, it will be the original length.” He looked at me. “Honest!”
“Okay,” I said, a little reluctantly. “We need it to be a hit, I know.”
“But which will be the first single?” Patsy said, looking from Paul to Stuart, and bringing us back down to Earth. “Dan clearly said he wanted Family Man as the first one.”
“He did, Patsy,” Paul said, “but at the end of the day it’s in the lap of the marketing gods – and probably a certain Dick Asher…”
“Hm,” Patsy said, pulling a face, “that means it’ll be Goodbye Suzie. ‘Bye ‘bye Christmas smash!”
“Ballads have been Number One at Christmas,” Phil interjected. “Green Green Grass Of Home, also a story-song with a sad ending. Massive Christmas hit.”
“Two Little Boys,” I added.
Everyone pulled a face, including me.
“Well, let’s just be happy if we have a hit this Christmas!” Paul said.
“I’ll buy us all a case of champagne if we do!” Stuart said.
Patsy just sat quietly, not commenting any further.
Sure enough, Goodbye Suzie was chosen as the first single. It was scheduled for release on October 25th, and, as I played my advance promo copy, I felt a pang of sadness that Mum had missed its release by just five weeks. She would have been so thrilled to have a copy in her hand.
The promotions team had about three weeks, prior to release, to get radio play in place, so that, by the time it came out, the public knew it and hopefully wanted to buy it. After the first week, Stuart told me that they’d secured a couple of plays on Radio Luxembourg, but Radio One were, for some reason, not biting. By the second week, it had entered Luxembourg’s Power Play Top Thirty, but still no Radio One plays.
A few days before the single’s release, I sat with Stuart in Fortnum & Mason, my heart sinking, as he explained the reason Radio One wouldn’t be playing it:
“They say it’s too depressing for their audience.”
I nearly choked on my feathered eggs on toast:
“It’s about death, they don’t think it’s right for their audience.”
I dropped my fork noisily onto my plate, causing a few county ladies-who-lunch to glance over and look a little put out:
“What?” I hissed. “There have been so many hit songs about death! Tell Laura I Love Her, Leader Of The Pack, Terry, Ebony Eyes.” Stuart nodded sadly as I counted them off on my fingers. “New York Mining Disaster, Ode To Billie Jo. Seasons In The Sun just this year, for God’s sake! Number Bloody One!” (The second-best selling single of 1974, in fact).
“I know, John, but I think it’s the suicide element they object to. A young girl drowning herself. They think it’s too heavy for their primarily teenage audience.”
He played with his food and seemed almost embarrassed.
“You don’t agree with them, do you?”.
“No, of course not! I absolutely love the song. You know I do. It’s a great song. But what can I do? They’re gods in their world, the Power People. But when I spoke to Paul this morning, he told me that the playlist committee at Radio One is adamant – they will not be playing Goodbye Suzie. Period – their word, not mine. We’re all devastated! I would imagine Dick Asher is beside himself.”
“Maybe the Luxembourg plays will persuade them to think again?”
I was grasping at straws.
“The opposite probably, John. Radio One will be even less likely to start playing it, now that Luxembourg are supporting the record. They hate to think of themselves as followers of trends. It’s not called Radio One for nothing. Damn and blast them.”
On the tube back to Earl’s Court, I felt a rage growing inside me.
‘Here we go again,’ I thought, ‘another disaster, just when things looked to be getting better.’
That night, I went across the road to The Catacombs Bar in Finborough Road, a basement gay club which played the best disco music I’d ever heard. Entry was just fifty pence, and although it stank of burnt coffee and sweat, it was my idea of heaven. Through an orange-lit oasis of great music and attractive men, I made my way to the tiny, packed dance floor and joined in with the bumping and grinding mass of drenched, ecstatic bodies.
There was always a small group of guys who stood to the side and just watched. When one of them saw somebody they liked, they’d step forward and join in the dancing, moving closer to the object of their desire.
As I danced my depression away, a handsome Nigerian guy called Felix, who I’d spoken to briefly a few nights earlier with his American boyfriend Sy, caught my eye and smiled at me for a few minutes, nodding with approval. Finally, he walked onto the floor and began to dance around me. He could certainly move, but, tempting though he was, I wasn’t about to steal someone else’s guy.
“Where’s Sy?” I shouted into his ear.
“Gone back to the States,” he shouted into mine, his sweat dripping onto my face.
“For how long?” I yelled over the blasting music.
“For good. We’re over.”
I made an “I’m sorry” face but he laughed:
“No! I’m fine! It’s fine!” he yelled.
He held my shoulders as I boogied in front of him, enjoying what he saw.
“You?” he said. “Are you good?”
I threw my arms in the air,
“I’m great!” I shouted.
With that, he grabbed hold of me, pushed me into him, tight into him, and thrust us round the floor, ducking, diving, spinning, grooving. With no effort from me at all, we moved as one, so fast my heart was thumping. He was in total control and it was utterly divine. After months of feeling like my life and my career were unravelling, with nobody around to stop it, this was just what I needed.
For the next two hours, we bopped our butts off to amazingly funky tracks you never heard on Radio One, Do It ‘Til You’re Satisfied, Party Down, City In The Sky, You Got The Love, Skin Tight, Do It Baby, You’re Welcome (Stop On By), and the fabulous Higher Plane where the whole room sang as one, “Gotta keep on liftin’, liftin’, liftin’, liftin’ you UP!”.**
Chris Lucas, the ‘Cats’ DJ, played mainly American imports, months before they were released in the UK. It meant that we were amongst a very select few in Britain who heard them before anyone else. Every guy dancing felt that he belonged to an exclusive club. We were Underground, ahead of the game. Being gay truly meant being ‘Where It’s At!’.
“Those boring straights don’t know what they’re missing!” one shirtless guy in tight white jeans shouted as he shimmied past me.
He stood and watched me boogieing like a dervish, winked at me, blew me a kiss and disappeared into the sweat-filled melée.
Chris’s extra touch of ‘Cats’ magic came when he seamlessly mixed the ‘A’ sides into the instrumental versions on the ‘B’ side, then back into the ‘A’ side, so you literally had the equivalent of what later became 12” mixes, unknown in 1974. The records, and our joy, seemed to go on forever.
I whooped, I hollered, I was with probably the best dancer in the club that night, and I felt fabulous. And then, to top it all, The Pointer Sisters’ live version of Yes We Can Can/Love In Them There Hills gloriously shimmied in. It was a huge favourite at the club and the place went wild. Even those who hadn’t been dancing joined us on the floor, everyone going crazy to one of the most uplifting tracks I’ve ever heard.
As the sweat poured off me, and the music took me to new ecstatic heights, I yelled for all I was worth:
“Go fuck, Radio One!!”
Copyright John Howard 2017
**For those who want to check out the great disco tracks mentioned above, to which I danced my tits off that late summer of 1974, here’s a full run-down:
Do It ‘Til You’re Satisfied – B.T. Express (American No.1, not a UK hit)
Party Down – Little Beaver (Big R’n’B hit in The States, not a hit in the UK)
City In The Sky – The Staples Singers (American hit, not a UK hit)
You Got The Love – Rufus featuring Chaka Khan (American hit, not a UK hit)
Skin Tight – The Ohio Players (American hit, not a UK hit)
Do It Baby – The Miracles (American hit, not a UK hit)
You’re Welcome (Stop On By) – Bobby Womack (Top Five R’n’B hit in America, not a UK hit)
Higher Plane – Kool & The Gang (the group’s eighth American hit, five years before they’d have their first UK hit, Ladies Night)
Yes We Can Can/Love In Them There Hills – from ‘The Pointers Sisters -Live at The Opera House’