Tag Archives: Uncut

The many voices of Bon Scott

While there’s no such thing as a romantic rock death, there are few as bleakly pathetic as that of Bon Scott, the AC/DC frontman who died drunk in the passenger seat of a Renault 5 outside a friend’s flat in East Dulwich, just a short distance from where I live.

I wrote about Bon Scott’s life in the current issue of Uncut, which allowed me to revisit some of the fabulous archive footage of Scott and AC/DC you can find on You Tube. The band spend much of the late 1970s based in London, where they were able to build up a large fanbase thanks to regular gigs at the Marquee. Here Scott is interviewed by Australian TV while walking through Covent Garden in a pair of the smallest shorts I’ve ever seen. I’m still not entirely sure where he produces that banana from.

A considerable amount of Scott’s charm as well as his brilliance as a vocalist is captured in this coruscating video for “Let There Be Rock”. Just watch it all the way through, and you can see how Scott worked the camera almost as well as he did the stage.

This is the Bon Scott I knew and loved, but researching the article I discovered more about Scott’s Australian life pre-AC/DC when he performed a pair of bands that were radically different from both each other and from AC/DC. Try this out for size, it’s Scott’s Perth-based teenybop 1960s act, The Valentines, singing, er, “Nick Nack Paddy Whack”. The main singer is Vince Lovegrove. Scott stands at the back next to the drummer, you can see his embarrassed grin at around 90 seconds. (The Valentines also recorded a jingle for Coca-Cola, which lifts you up when you are feeling down apparently.)

After The Valentines broke up, Scott did a complete turnabout and joined Fraternity, a bunch of Aussie hippies who lived in a commune in Adelaide and wanted to be The Band. Here he is, bearded and playing recorder, on a profoundly serious cover of “Seasons Of Change”.

No wonder, then, that he leaped at the chance to join AC/DC, and release some of his natural impish spirit. Here he is doing “I’m A Rocker” in London in 1977, the very image of the 1970s hard rock frontman and one of the best of his generation.

Scott’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top” is one of the great songs about being in a band. Scott wrote it from the heart. He knew. And that is why he could sing it like this, from the Marquee in 76.

And this is where it all ended: 67 Overhill Road, East Dulwich. How about a plaque, Southwark? It’s the least the man deserves.

Mick Farren: dead good Deviant

‘Sure the underground was elitist: we were an elite. We were the cutting edge of ongoing bohemianism at that point.’ Mick Farren in Days In The Life by Jonathon Green

The last time I spoke to Mick Farren (May, 2013) he was waiting for the doctor to come round. He was, he told me, in pretty poor shape but welcomed our interview as it gave him something else to think about. Farren’s ill health had been known for some years, but it didn’t stop him going on stage with his old band the Deviants every now and then. It was while performing at the Borderline last night (Saturday, July 27) that he collapsed and died.

It seems crude to say that is how Mick Farren would want to go, but it’s certainly no great surprise that this vivacious ball of hair and action, the closest thing London ever came to producing an Abbie Hoffman,  should die while giving it all to his great love rock and roll. (The following, and all subsequent quotes, are from my interviews with Farren.)

‘Essentially, from when I was in art school through to Joe Strummer the major communication medium of the counterculture certainly in the second half of the 1960s was rock and roll music. You start with that and everything else was peripheral to it.’

Farren’s Deviants were pre-punk noise terrorists whose self-distributed debut album, Ptooff! was one of the first records to come directly out of the London counterculture. When I spoke to Farren for Uncut about the Rolling Stones free gig at Hyde Park in 1969, I asked him whether the Deviants had wanted to play the show. He said,

‘We asked if we could play. We were vetoed, it was probably Jagger. Everybody said I wouldn’t behave myself and start rabble rousing, which was fair enough.’

I put this to Pete Jenner, who co-organised the gig, who responded.

‘Well, there was that and also the fact they were a rotten band. I really like Mick [Farren] but they were a rotten band who smashed instruments on stage. It wasn’t kick out the jams motherfucker, it was let’s have a joint and a buttercup sandwich.’

The Deviants weren’t really a rotten band, but Farren certainly saw them as London’s answer to the MC5. He was heavily active in the political end of the counterculture, forming the London branch of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party and leading the occasional putsch at the International Times when he felt it was getting too bourgeois and boring. Farren was a key figure in so much of what happened in the counterculture, running the door at UFO, writing for and editing alternative newspapers, organising free festivals while playing shows and really meaning it, man. He was fixer and a doer, a wit and sometimes a sage.

‘IT came out of the Beats – poetry, jazz and art with a bit of lefty politics. I told them this was fucked up, they weren’t talking about the weird changes going on with The Who, or where The Beatles were coming from. I’d say that with all respect to John Coltrane there’s this black geezer in the Bag O’ Nails who has long hair and plays guitar with his teeth, what are we going to do about THAT?’

His politics though, always came with a sense of fun – at one anti-war demo the Deviants played he annoyed the po-faced organisers by being more concerned with getting on stage without splitting his trousers than with espousing the cause. He was once described to me by a fellow traveler as being one of the three coolest men in London in 1967, and that made him one of the three coolest men in the entire world.

”We were always condemned as frivolous and philosophically disorganised, and the counter-accusation was they were just boring totalitarians who wanted to sing the Red Flag when we’d rather listen to Voodoo Child and smoke pot.’

When the alternative press disintegrated, Farren – like many from the underground – went on to write great pieces like this for the NME:

The immediate legacy of the underground papers was the NME because we all went there. They had a very profound effect on the visual effect of magazine publishing, but much more important is that the spirit of the thing is now preserved on the internet.  It’s all still there, it’s just become more specialised and you have to go looking for it.’

Farren is one of the dominant figures in Jonathon Green’s essential history of the British underground, Days In The Life, and also wrote brilliantly, if unreliably, about his own activities in Give The Anarchist a Cigarette. What resonates from those books is what an unlikely fit Farren seems in the upper-middle-class world of the counterculture, which was largely run by public schoolboys and Oxbridge graduates imbued with that remarkable confidence that comes with a good education. Farren was different, his confidence was self-generated and less polite, while his art school experiences meant he ‘learned to manage chaos’. Indeed, he relished it. Take a look at the clips below if you don’t believe me.

In his own writings and when interviewed, Farren always came across as funny and incredibly sharp but there was more to it at than that. He was fundamentally, intrinsically, decent. A man without edges. As Jonathon Green told me when hearing the news of his death: ‘Of the underground ‘stars’ he seems, and always did, to have been one of the good guys.’

RIP Mick Farren. He will be missed by many.

Farren invading The Frost Show.

Farren recollecting the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam riot of 1968.

Gilbert & George and David Bowie at the Marquee, 1968/9

Should you be fortunate enough to attend the superb David Bowie exhibition at the V&A this spring, one of the first thing you will see is a video of the artists Gilbert & George performing their ‘Singing Sculpture‘. The intention, I think, is to draw a connection between Bowie and conceptual art, but there is another facet of the relationship between David Bowie and Gilbert & George that goes unmentioned: they both played gigs at the Marquee.

I have an article in the current issue of Uncut about the Marquee club. It mainly focuses on The Who, and while asking around about people who may have seen Townshend and Co perform at the Marquee I received an intriguing email from the writer Jonathon Green, who recalled a show at the Marquee in 1968. ‘They were holding auditions and some pals of mine who had a band tried their luck. Unsuccessfully. Naturally we friends tipped up to cheer. But the weird moment of the evening was when this pair of blokes appeared and, saying nothing, sat for some minutes on either side of a table that they placed centre stage. The two blokes, it transpired, though I must admit I can longer recall when I made this discovery, were Gilbert and George.’

Astonishingly, it seems London artists Gilbert & George did play the Marquee at least once – as they mention here – and possibly even twice. Because as well as the evening Green recalls they also played a show there in early 1969, when they were supported by Audience (who later played on the soundtrack to cult suedehead film Bronco Bullfrog).

I asked two members of Audience about their show with Gilbert & George. Sadly, G&G themselves did not respond to repeated queries about their Marquee days.

Trevor Williams: ‘It was an audition night for us, but I’m not sure what they were doing there unless it was to audition an act they were planning to perform later at the Marquee. It was our first live gig but their act basically consisted of them sitting at a table on two chairs facing each other. They were in suits and their faces were painted gold or silver and one told the other stories while the other said nothing. These were very macabre little stories one of which involved a dwarf committing suicide in the bath and the water getting pinker and pinker but never got red because there’s not enough blood in a dwarf.

They were really nice, pleasant, social guys. I don’t remember how they were received but it was an era when anything went and people enjoyed anything off the wall. I’ve no idea how many people were there although somebody once told me that Germaine Greer was in the audience that night.’

Howard Werth: We first encountered Gilbert & George at the back of the Marquee when these two tweed besuited gentlemen with metallic gold heads and hands, in the style of shop window dummies of a gentlemen outfitters, poked their heads into our van politely asking where the entrance to the Marquee was. We were getting ready to audition as were they. Their act consisted of them both seated with one of them (Gilbert I believe) relating a rather strange tale involving dwarves whilst the other one (George) listened intently, chin on fist. I remember Germaine Greer backstage who was trying to get members of another audition band to retrieve some of their equipment they’d left at her flat in the Pheasantry in the Kings road. We shortly after did a gig at the Lyceum with Gilbert & George, I believe they were about to leave Central St Martins art school around that time.’

So there we have it. In an alternative universe perhaps Gilbert & George gave up art and continued their life in music, while David Bowie, fed up of playing bottom of the bill at the Marquee, jacked in the pop trade and threw himself wholeheartedly into the curious world of conceptual art.

Cockney Rebel’s Make Me Smile: exclusive pop trivia included in this post

There are some songs I have listened to all my life, without really stopping to think what they are about.

So it is with Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel’s “Make Me Smile (Come And See Me”), which I’ve spent around 20 years assuming was some sort of love song.

When I wrote about the song in this month’s Uncut, Harley told me the song was actually a rebuke to his old bandmates who asked for more money and then left him – he felt – in the lurch – shortly before he entered the recording studio. Harley’s response was to immediately write the accusatory “Make Me Smile” (‘Blue eyes, blue eyes, why must you tell so many lies?’) and sing it with a Dylanesque sneer, but bury the sentiment beneath a layer of perfect pop production. So a song written in a despondent stew made his fame and fortune and still follows him all round the world.

The favourite thing Harley told me though, was that one of the backing singers for the song’s famous ‘ooooh la la’ chorus was the actor and singer Clarke Peters, now better known as Lester Freamon from The Wire. You won’t find that on Wikipedia. Yet.

http://greatwen.com/2011/12/05/cockney-rebels-make-me-smile-exclusive-pop-trivia-included-in-this-post/

Slade in London

I have a piece in the latest Uncut magazine about Slade, the glam rock bovver boys who became the most successful British group of the 1970s.

Slade were proud Black Country band – all raised in and around Wolverhampton and Walsall – and they never really took to life in  London, something that may have explained why it took them so long to break through. As Don Powell, the drummer, told me, ‘We didn’t really feel comfortable in the London scene when we could just be in the pub with our mates in Wolverhampton.’ Even today, all four remain wonderfully faithful to their roots and have the flattest vowels of any band I have ever interviewed.

But London still had an impact on their career. In 1966, beanpole producer Kim Fowley spotted the band – then called the N’Betweens – playing Tiles nightclub in Oxford Street and promptly hustled them into the recording studio. This was the result.

Tiles was a Mod club. John Peel played there once but his hippie tunes didn’t go down too well with the audience and he recalled: ‘It was certainly not the kind of place where they wanted to hear what I was doing. And there were waves of irate customers coming up over the footlights to try and persuade me to play whatever it was they wanted me to play. Which certainly wasn’t the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish or whatever I was playing. They didn’t like me at all.’

This terrific Pathe newsreel shows The Animals playing at Tiles, and it was ex-Animal Chas Chandler who gave Slade their next big break after he saw them performing at Rasputins on Bond Street. Noddy Holder told me, ‘Chas wanted to see us live. So we were booked to play a tiny place called Rasputins in Bond Street and we played our usual set there. People stopped dancing to watch us, which didn’t really happen at the time, and as Chas came down the stairs he said we were that good he thought it was a record being played. He thought it was fantastic and signed us the next day, no second thoughts. We started working a lot of London clubs and bigger venues around the country.’

Thereafter, Slade became regulars on the London circuit, and were the first band to book Earl’s Court (Bowie played a show before them, but had booked it after Slade). While Bowie’s show was plagued by sound problems, Slade were able t learn from his mistakes and their concert was deemed a great success.

Their favourite venue was probably the Top of the Pops studio in Elstree, where their rabble-rousing songs and remarkable outfits meant they practically became the house band.

Sadly, though, two of their greatest London moments have been lost forever. As one fan writes here, the band recorded two promo videos for Top of the Pops, one at Chessington Zoo for “Look Wot You Dun” and another at Greenwich Observatory for “Gudbuy T’Jane”. Both films have been wiped and seem to  be lost, among with many other studio Top of the Pops appearances.

Finally, here’s the band just before they made it. Still known as Ambrose Slade, this promo for their first album was filmed in Euston Station. The band had recently come out of their skinhead phase, and are nothing like the colourful eccentrics they would soon become.

How about them Silver Apples

I have a piece in the latest Uncut about 60s electronica pioneers Silver Apple. If you’ve never heard them before, you should. Their main instrument is The Simeon, a bank of nine oscillators mounted on plywood and played by 86 different colour-coded buttons and pedals.

Here is their amazing country-electronica jam from 68, “Ruby”, on which they also play a banjo.

After forming by accident – everybody else in the previous band left, leaving just singer and oscillator-player Simeon Coxe and drummer Danny Taylor – the band had to split in 1970 when they created an LP cover that featured the pair in a Pan Am cockpit on one side, and with a plane crash on the back. Pan Am sued and that was that.

The band reformed in the mid-90s, however, although now it’s Coxe on his own after Taylor died of a heart attack in 2005. Silver Apples play Corsica Studios in Elephant on October 27. Check them out.

The Monkees and Alf Garnett

I have a piece in the latest issue of Uncut magazine about the making of The Monkees 1967 hit “Alternate Title”, originally titled “Randy Scouse Git”.

The song was the band’s biggest hit in the UK reaching No 2 in the chart, which seems pretty appropriate given that it was written in London and is full of London references.  When Mickey Dolenz said it was called “Randy Scouse Git”, the English Monkee, Davy Jones, was a little perturbed. ‘They asked me what it meant,’ he told me, ‘and I tried to explain, but they just didn’t get it.’

Dolenz wrote the song during a visit to the UK. As he explains: ‘We were in London doing press and the Beatles threw us a big party . We were staying at the Grosvenor. Mike Nesmith and I had turned up on Top of the Pops to surprise everybody by saying hello – they’d smuggled us in in the boot of a car. That’s where I met my first wife Samantha who was a Top Of The Pops DJ, the record girl. We must have had a party and the next morning there were still a few people hanging around and Mama Cass was in town, and the Beatles were huge and I’d met this girl and I just start doodling with the guitar and singing about Samantha and my friend in the room and the waiter who came in with breakfast and the girls outside screaming day and night. It was like a diary, word association. There’s no deep hidden meanings in there.

It was an amazing experience in London. I am told I had a great time. And of course I met Samantha and we had a massive love affair.  Lots of stuff was going on. Brian Jones hid in one of our rooms when he was hiding from police and we got a letter from Princess Margaret asking if we could keep the fans quiet because she could hear them screaming over in the palace.

‘I must have been watching TV and Till Death Us Do Part was on and Alf Garnett called the kid, Tony Booth [later Tony Blair’s father-in-law], a “randy Scouse git”. I had no idea what it meant, no clue, but I thought it was funny. He said that line right in the middle of me writing the song and as was the way in those days I was just spontaneous –  ‘Wow man, what a cool title!’ – and wrote it down.’

So that is how you go from this…

…to this…

Eel Pie Island

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My feature on the birth of British R&B at Eel Pie Island is in this month’s issue of Uncut.

It includes interviews with Pete Townshend, Ron Wood, Kenny Ball, Top Topham and the inventor Trevor Baylis, who still lives on the island and told me.

 ‘I moved to the island in the 1970s when I’d made enough money as an underwater escape artist in Berlin to buy a plot of land, but I went there regularly from 1957. They were wild times. If you wanted to get your leg over, that’s where you went. It was notorious. There was no bridge, the only way to get there was on a chain ferry. On the island, a little old lady sat in a tollbooth and stamped the back of your hand. The hotel was very Dickensian, a bit of a tramshed just about hanging together, but it had a dance floor that was like a trampoline so if you couldn’t dance when you went in you certainly could when you came out.’

South-west London was a fertile territory for music in the early 1960s, and the likes of Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart and Jimmy Page all learnt their craft in the venues of Richmond and on Eel Pie Island.

As Ian McLagan of the Small Faces explained: ‘The audience was full of musicians. Loads of them. You’d see them all in the front row – “Do you see that?”, “Yeah”, “Well I can do that too”. We were all kids, but when you saw the Stones it was “Fuck me, it’s possible…” ’

Diamond Geezer visited Eel Pie Island recently and writes about it here.

To whom it may concern: Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall

The new issue of Uncut magazine contains my feature about the International Poetry Incarnation, which took place 45 years ago this month on June 11, 1965. It begins like this:

Allen Ginsberg is drunk. Big, bald and bearded, like a Jewish bear stuffed in a suit, the beat poet stands tall in the Royal Albert Hall, London’s sacred haven of the high arts, and proclaims to 7,000 fellow thinkers:

“Fuck me up the asshole”.

In the crowd was Heathcote Williams, the future poet, playwright and artist. Williams recounts what happened next: “A man with a bowler hat, beside himself with anger, shouted out: ‘We want poetry. This is not poetry’, and Ginsberg retorted, looking up towards the gods: ‘I want you to fuck me up the asshole.’”

And it goes on in a similar manner for another 2,400 words. If you think that sounds like fun, head down to your local newsagent now.

The International Poetry Incarnation – which featured Allen Ginsberg, Adrian Mitchell, Gregory Corso and Michael Horovitz – is said to be the moment that signalled the arrival of the 1960s counterculture movement in London. However, in ‘White Heat’, his otherwise splendid history of the 1960s, Dominic Sandbrook writes dismissively: ‘Seven thousand people was indeed an enormous attendance… on the other hand, it was still considerably smaller than the typical crowd for a Second Division football match… to millions of people, the event meant absolutely nothing. What is more, it had not even been a very good reading.’

Oh, really? Watch this extraordinary clip of Adrian Mitchell from Peter Whitehead’s film of the reading, ‘Wholly Communion’, and tell me it has the same impact as Torquay vs Rochdale.