Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hows about that, then?

Jimmy Savile is dead.

I suppose if you’re less than about 30 years old, you may not even know who he was. If you are a little older, then you probably have an image of a guy with a ridiculously long cigar and brittle white hair fronting a Saturday night TV programme called “Jim’ll Fix It”. A weird looking bloke making peoples’ dreams come true.

If that’s what you think, you don’t know the half of it. He really lived one of the oddest lives you could imagine, and he was someone who impacted on me immensely when I was a teenager in the late 50s - the most impressionable years of my life.

As I grew up in the late 50s, pop music simply didn’t exist. It hadn’t been invented. Commercial Radio, Radio Caroline and the like was several years away. You couldn’t even be “cool” in those days because the word had not then been invented. But those of us in the know used to listen to a strange radio station broadcasting from Luxembourg - wherever that was. Its signals arrived via the Medium Wave, 208 metres, and its reception, in Bedford where I lived, was the 50s equivalent of a lottery. The signal came and went like the tide coming in and out at the sea-side. Some evenings it was great, others you had to believe that the signal was coming from the Dark side of the Moon.

I used to be sent to bed at around 9 in the evening in those days, and one of life’s childishly clandestine pleasures was to sneak the (just invented) portable radio up to my bedroom, secrete it under my bedclothes and listen away very quietly to Radio Luxembourg, a bit like a wartime spy with one ear clamped to the radio and the other on the creaking stairs listening for my parents’ footsteps.

This was the way in the late 50s we all “found” pop music. It was the only real source of people like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly and the other great singers in the vanguard of Pop. No-one else played that sort of music. The BBC was still a million miles away from that sort of thing. They had the Home Service (R4), the Light Programme (R2) and the Third Programme (R3), and that was it.

Radio Luxembourg was the first meaningful commercial radio station, a total trailblazer and was funded by adverts at a time when ITV was still a figment of someone's imagination. To this day, anyone who knows how to spell Keynsham – K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M, and who smiles knowingly when the name Horace Batchelor is mentioned, will be over 50 and will, almost like one of Pavlov’s Dogs, be immediately transported back to the heady days of Radio Luxembourg.

The highlight of Radio Luxembourg’s week was a programme on Wednesday nights at 10.30pm called the “Teen and Twenty Disc Club”, a half hour programme introduced by a guy from Leeds named Jimmy Savile. He ran it as a club on the radio, where you could send in and join up to be a member. One of his never to be forgotten achievements was to have signed up a young American singer named Elvis Presley as a member. Presley’s membership number was 11321, a number which rather worryingly, I will remember till the day I die. That’s what happens when you’re in your early teens.

Jimmy Savile was the John Peel of his day, introducing us to new bands who later became household names. But, almost solely as a result of his programme, we all knew about them before they were well known. At that age, that knowledge was seriously important.

If you care to look up his history, you will find references to the Mecca Dancehall in Leeds, and him starting the first Discotheque, to his career as a wrestler, as a prodigious marathon runner, as an amazing philanthropist and bizarrely as an unpaid Hospital Porter. He absolutely doted on his mother – The Dutchess – and drove around in the most ostentatious Rolls Royce you could imagine.

Fast Forward now about 25 years and we lived in Aylesbury, about 40 miles north of London. The local hospital was at Stoke Mandeville, and it specialised in nursing spinal injuries. The stories put around by the media were that Jimmy Savile, the famous DJ and TV presenter worked there as a porter, something which any follower of the music world would scornfully dismiss as spin and rubbish – the invention of some sensation seeking newspaper hustler.

One evening, when one of my daughters suffered an accident, we had to rush her off to Stoke Mandeville for treatment, and as we shot in to get her attended to, I glanced into the Porter’s lodge next to the door.

Guess who was there.

There was a man who had made an enormous amount of money for himself, but someone who also had raised millions of pounds for charity, someone whose face was immediately recognisable by almost everyone in the country, and there he was working away for nothing in the Porter’s Lodge at my local hospital.

“Evening Jim.” was all I could manage as we rushed off to the Casualty department.

Forget whatever rumours you may have heard about him. He was a truly fascinating man, a One-Off and someone who played a large part in the development of my love of music.

How's about that, then?



Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pictures at an Exhibition - April 2008

MOMA - AtriumMy Feet have a headache!Walk on ByArt of GlassLadies in RedTwo Heads are better than One
I can see the GrainDoes my Bum look big in this?Gilbert and GeorgeWaiting for InspirationMe and Mark RothkoBonnie Tiler
Jackson PollackThat Trusting Look ....InspirationPas de DeuxThe Audio Lecture as LifelineFour in a Row
Snapping the SnappedMonet - WaterliliesSerious StudyGauguin and FriendMondrian and the Nasal InspectionJoan Miro - contemplation

Some pictures taken on a very rainy day in New York's spectacular Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in Spring a couple of years ago.

Watching the people watching the pictures, with Elliot Erwitt, the Worlds's greatest living photographer as my inspiration.

New York - April 2008

New York Cab - Times SquareTimes Square - Saturday NightTimes Square at nightManhattan skylinePier 17 at NightBrooklyn Bridge - Night-scene
Manhattan Bridge at DuskManhattan SilhouetteManhattan at duskLate evening FerryEmpire State Building at sundownManhattan Sunset
Maria Carey singing for Free - 48th StreetCentral Park snoozeTrump Towers - Conspicuous Consumption5th Avenue ReflectionsNew York Public LibraryFire Escape Abstract
Lights and DarkWell I never ....Closing the DealPicture for SaleMarket sellerNew York is Dead

New York - April 2008, a set on Flickr.

I took these images a couple of years ago when I had 5 days just wandering around the city. It's a hell of a place, with a real buzz of excitement about it, and I'd love to go back!

Sunday, October 09, 2011


The sad event of someone important dying way before their time last week has set me thinking. Especially about the ability of an individual to change the world and by their own actions make us all think differently. It doesn't happen all that often, which makes it all the more meaningful when it does. Sometimes it happens with an individual working on their own, and sometimes it is the result of a couple of them finding the personal symbiosis that makes the sum of them together much more potent than either of them individually.

The story which I couldn’t get out of my mind as a result of this began with two men who started out life in very different ways and came together as a team. What they achieved between them made the world a considerably different place. They changed the way we thought about things, and as they went about their work, even brought new words into our everyday vocabulary which are now in use all around the globe.

These two men were quite different from each other. Every individual has his own strengths and weaknesses, and in most relationships therefore it seems sensible to take on a partner whose skills complement rather than duplicate one’s own abilities, which is what they did. Most marriages (or at least the successful ones!) work like that, and I suspect most effective business partnerships achieve their success for the same reason.  

In this partnership, one was the Engineer. 

Let’s call him Mr. A. 

He was the man who understood completely how the technology that they both worked in, actually worked. He was the man who could not only do it himself, but believed he could do it better than all the other people around him who were trying to do the same thing. He got fed up with the failings of what was going on around him, but, unlike most of us, had the skills to go about changing it for the better. To do this, he had to be, and was, a perfectionist.

The other guy was much more of a salesman and a market oriented man.

Let’s call him Mr. B. 

Now this man was a person who understood in a unique way how customers, and those who were not yet customers, but would be if he could only get them to see things the way he saw them, would actually react to the new products and ideas which were swirling around in his head. He had to have the vision that could see, not just where everything was in the present, but where he and Mr. A could shift the market if they could manage to turn their future plans into reality. He was a bit of a showman, someone who understood the aesthetics and the importance of design, someone who understood the benefits which flow from engineering excellence, and an individual who had the marketing skills to turn these thoughts into reality. He also had to have a streak of ruthlessness to ensure that, when lesser mortals would have given up and changed course, he continued to sail his ship resolutely in what he thought and believed to be the right direction.

Fate brought them together, and in a very short time, the combination of Mr. A and Mr. B designed and produced things which literally changed the world they lived in. In a short time the names of their products became symbolic with excellence, not only in their own field of activity, but in a much wider and more general sense.

Their success resulted in some of those few generic words which become known everywhere. I am reminded of a very telling little “Tweet” I saw the other day which went something along the lines of “I got a new Dyson the other day. It’s the best Hoover I’ve ever bought.” If you get it right, the brand name literally becomes the product. Think “Coke”, “Biro” or “Transit”. In their chosen hi-tech field, Mr. A and Mr. B achieved the same thing.

Neither of the two men was prepared to accept second best, and they might have seen it as a compliment if they had been described as “unreasonable”, on the basis that the “reasonable” among us put up with second best. These guys didn’t. There are those around who called one or both of them geniuses, and who’s to say that it isn’t true.

Unfortunately, as so often happens, the story doesn’t have the Hollywood Fairy Tale ending that you’d like. One of them, in this case Mr. B, died early, way too early in fact. This left the whole venture they had built at a potential cross-roads, and with a set of visionary unknowns which, had they been able to have had a choice, they would much rather not have had.

And having read all the newspapers, Internet articles and “Twitter” postings over the last couple of days, it is this thought that drove me to pen this little piece. Things like this don’t happen very often, and when they do, their importance should be noted, appreciated and applauded.

I’m sure by now you will have worked out the identities of the two men in my story.

Mr.A was named Henry Royce, and the unfortunate Mr. B was Charles Rolls.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


Same train up to Birmingham as a fortnight ago for the Verdi Requiem, same place for a meal, same Concert Hall, but tonight it was music of a very different kind from one of the three best bands I know – Dire Straits.


Click on any of the images to enlarge them

Well, nearly Dire Straits. Dire Straits was one of those bands which was really built around one person – Mark Knopfler. He is a rather introverted Geordie who, as well as writing some of my very favourite songs, is one of the best pop guitarist in the world. The band started in the late 70s with Sultans of Swing and gradually the songs, many of them reflecting Knopfler’s inward looking character (is that why I like them?) became more complex and longer pieces of work.

The band was in almost continuous change mode for most of its life, with members coming and going, especially going, with unusual rapidity. But Yer Man was always there, and a string of amazing albums came out in the 1980s. Love Over Gold, Communiqué, Making Movies and Brothers in Arms were iconic pieces of work which, for me at least, defined the music of that era. Long, laid back, somewhat melancholic, often autobiographical songs dressed up in the third person to hide, or at least act as a cover for Knopfler’s privacy. And here was pop music where the power of loud and soft, quiet and loud, sometimes even silence made you realise that it’s often the difference in sound levels and not the number of decibels which makes for the dramatic effect.


The band became one of the biggest in the world, and toured relentlessly everywhere. I went to see them a couple of times, once at Wembley in 1985 and again in around 1993. I think he finally got fed up with it all a couple of years later, and it all dissolved around 1995. He moved onto other things with the Notting Hillbillies, writing Film music (Local Hero and The Princess Bride are both written by him) and playing with and writing for other musicians like Emmy-Lou Harris, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan and Chet Atkins.

His songs were often about very unusual subjects – the decline of American Industry (Telegraph Road), the sleazy, almost Mickey Spillane-like Private Investigations, the simple beauty of Romeo and Juliet, the bitter wistfulness of wars fought and friends lost (Brothers in Arms) and the glitzy pointlessness of consumer goods (Money for Nothing). These are great pop songs and the 10 minute long, slow, languid, looking back over your shoulder versions of Romeo and Juliet (far, far better than the bouncy 3 minute original) and the heartfelt Brothers In Arms are permanent members of my All-time Top 10. If they didn’t appear on the playlist tonight, then multiple murder was a real possibility.

The problem for bands like Dire Straits is one faced by all the bands I really liked in my life. They all wrote their own songs, and they are the only people who performed them. No other bands were daft enough to try a cover version or offer a different way of performing them. So, if you wanted to hear them live, you had to catch them when they were performing it on stage, or basically you were stuffed. It’s the same with the two other great bands in my life. With Pink Floyd, two of the original four members of the band are now dead. With Genesis, Phil Collins is not performing anymore, and Peter Gabriel is doing his own thing. With Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler today seems to have zero interest in the songs he wrote in that era. So, until tonight, I thought the opportunity to hear these bands live had effectively gone.

I went to the last Genesis tour in 2007, and I do not expect to hear them live again ever. Pink Floyd, given that they always performed in a very anonymous way, seem to have allowed a couple of very good Tribute bands to take over, one British and the other Australian replicating their music and to a significant degree their light show. Having seen both of them more than once, it’s fair to say that they fly the flag as well as it could possibly be done.

Last night was the first concert I’ve heard live of Dire Straits’ music for nearly 20 years. The problem was that Mark Knopfler, the centrepiece and focus of the band would not be there. In a similar way to Pink Floyd, the essence of Knopfler’s music is in the writing, and he was always a bit anonymous and somewhat reticent on stage. He collected some extremely good musicians around him, particularly towards the end and these are the guys who have reformed to take his music back on the road. Alan Clark and Chris White were the guys who were with the band in their heyday, and they were there last night to carry on the thread of continuity.

It’s not the real thing, and as long as the main man is not there, it never will be. But this is the real world, and you have to realise that if you want to hear this music again, there is only one option and this incarnation is it. So take it or leave it.

So there I was in Symphony Hall, waiting with a good deal of expectation and looking back to hear this music which is a real part of me and hoping to recapture a little bit of my long lost youth.

a very good support act
The audience did not include that many young kids, but I suppose this was music which faded from the front line in the mid 80s. The ticket, in very small print, alluded to the “special guest”, who turned out to be a singer/songwriter with a slightly twenty years on Gerry Rafferty feel in some of his work - and that’s praise indeed in my book. His name was Jon Allen, and I have to say I didn’t envy him, wandering out on his own with just a guitar into the cavernous interior of Symphony Hall to warm up the audience for the main act. Like the people around me to whom I spoke, I liked his music a lot, and am heading off to Amazon.

The Straits, for that was the band’s name, came onto the stage and I counted 8 of them. The keyboard player Alan Clark and Saxophonist Chris White were the old stagers of the original band, and the poor guy who was going to play the part of Mark Knopfler was Terence Reis. I bet he felt a bit nervous, as this was still at the very early part of their tour.

They played all the songs which Dire Straits made famous, and the sound was very faithful to the original. Terence Reis’s voice, to me, sounded more like Knopfler’s the longer the concert went on, and his guitar playing was very good. If I’m being ultra-picky, he couldn’t quite match Knopfler’s fabulously liquid quality of playing, which I have always thought the best I’ve ever heard. But that’s almost unfair, and in the end I thought he did an amazing job. The encore at the end, a very gentle, “close-in” version of Portobello Belle, to these ears at least, was better than the original.


All the signature sounds were there with Alan Clark’s almost classical piano playing and Chris White’s excellent sax playing bringing back some of the best musical memories of my life. In my mind, the water flowed back under all the bridges it had been passing under for nearly three decades. I was transported back to days when I was a lot younger, and for that I am very grateful to all the guys on stage for playing it. I know I will sound a bit like my grandfather when I say it, but they don’t write music like that anymore.

Was it perfect?

No, it wasn’t. The show had a slightly unfinished air about it. No-one in the band seemed to be “in charge”, so, at the beginning at least, it took on a slightly anonymous, unowned feel. It was almost as if Reis felt he ought to be stepping up and taking Mark Knopfler’s place, but only built up the confidence to start projecting himself forward a bit towards the end of the evening. They’re big shoes to fill, but he did a good job.

Chris White played excellently when he was involved, but, when he wasn’t, he looked quite unconnected and uninvolved, picking up and putting down his various instruments and almost wondering what to do. At one point he looked for all the world to me as if he was almost going to get his phone out and start checking on his e-mails and his Twitter stream. Alan Clark, who was directing operations musically, had the back of his head to the audience as often as his face, which was a shame, as he is a wonderful pianist and has a very expressive and watchable style of playing.


The lighting also had a slightly unpolished feel to it in places. A couple of times, when, at least to me, it was really important that the pulsing of the lights exactly matched the beat of the music, they were either not on the beat or not pulsing at the right frequency. The individual spotlighting on the main soloists, particularly Chris White, could often have been more crisply focussed, as on a few occasions he was playing his solo beautifully - but in the dark.

Symphony Hall, as I keep banging on when I write about concerts there, has fabulous acoustics, and this was of great help to the band, although Reis’s guitar was occasionally a bit submerged in the background when, to me, it should have been a little more prominent and more clearly defined.

I also haven’t had my rant about people who think it’s OK to get up in the middle of a song, disturb everyone else in their row so they can go off to relieve themselves of some of the excess beer they’ve consumed. They’ve paid a tidy sum for their ticket, to hear some music that quite likely they won’t ever hear again, but nipping off to the loo is more important. Can’t they wait until the song finishes? Rude, inconsiderate bastards. And why, in heaven’s name, do the stewards allow them to come back without waiting for a lull in the proceedings? At least that would halve the irritation. I have to confess I wish I hadn’t left my Kalashnikov in the car again. Aaaaaah!

These are however, minor and trivial comments which do not begin to detract from the music. It was a really good evening, and the spirit of Dire Strait’s music shone through as I had hoped it would. I hope the band is a success and that they become the “tribute” band for this marvellous music. The music is so good that it needs to be kept in the public’s mind for a long time, and until this tour all happened, it was starting to disappear off the new music fan’s radar.

The guy next to me had his two young children there, both of whom were clearly under 10 years old, with the band folding up several years before either of them were born. “They’re a bit young for this sort of gig”, I said to him jokingly. “No”, he replied, “They’re here to listen to some of the best pop music ever.”

How right he was.