Words on music

Manilow Magic

Something made me think about Barry Manilow the other day. Not a something I would normally admit to, but I noticed that on the very same day we were marking our little Brexit voting slips, Barry’s “One Last Time” tour had been signing off at the O2 in London. I can’t say it was a surprise to hear that he was still treading the boards, because every artist apparently now feels the need to perform until he or she is at least 120 years old, but just for a moment I went a little dewy-eyed recalling one cold November night at Wembley Arena in 1980. I can’t say it was an ‘encounter’ with Barry, but we were in the same building.

Back in 1980, Barry Manilow was a huge star, comfortably selling out five nights straight at Wembley and appearing on prime-time Saturday Parkinsonl. The only blight on his transatlantic takeover was a nose that resembled Concorde as it came in to land, its pointy proboscis in that funny downward tilt.

And although it’s a little unfair to bring it up, Barry’s special feature was going to come in handy for Doreen and Angela in Row ZZ at Wembley, who’d (before bus-sized video screens became the rage) brought their opera glasses with them.

I’d worked at Wembley for about a year stewarding concerts and I’d seen everyone from Abba to Fleetwood Mac, Rod The Mod to Springsteen, even Boney M, but Barry Manilow was a cabaret cut-above in my eyes: the blatant posturing, the pandering to coach-parties of swooning middle-aged women from Nantwich or Norwich but undeniably sporting a couple of pretty good songs. I was loitering backstage with a bacon sandwich when Bazza breezed past, pre-show, clucking female assistants applying powder to the proboscis and large men in black suits, equipped with walkie-talkies the size of household bricks, looking furtively right and left, as if expecting their charge to be the target of some unseen sniper hidden in the rafters. Didn’t half make me giggle, but I couldn’t help but be impressed when our man took the stage and you could feel the surge of female emotion break like waves on Barry’s beach. Gosh!

I suspect Barry’s evening got better as mine got worse. He tore the place up, while I got re-assigned to the car park to man the back gate. Apparently, I missed the front three rows bottom-wiggling to ‘Copacabana’ in the longest conga-line Wembley has ever seen. Ah well…I was huddled round a brazier in a little wooden shed as the cheesy strains of ‘Can’t Smile Without You’ echoed round the empty loading bays. It was at moments like this when I nearly considered getting a proper job and I was still turning this one over when, encores polished off and wrapped in dressing-gowns, snug inside his blacked-out limo, Bazza glided past me and past the gaggle of excited ladies clustered around the wire fence, through the gates and out into the night.


London 1963       

Silhouettes under streetlights, coming through the dark night, standing in doorways like crows on a blackened tree. The kids smoke cigarettes, jacket collars turned up: we’re Noah’s children, walking two by two, two by two…

On my way to college, I watch the London-bound trains rattling the silver rails, humming steel, crossing underneath the Springbridge Road. There’s a carpet of September leaves, brown and yellow under the trees at Haven Green. Down to the Broadway; bus station blues and there’s a cold, autumn wind blowing. My hands are dug deep in pockets, jacket collar turned up, trying to keep my last cigarette alight – the streets in black and white, litter kicking ‘cross the pavement, shop fronts drab, their windows lifeless.

But if you know where to look (and I do), there’s a backstreet shop tucked away. Soundtone Records, spinning on the circles of black vinyl – skiffle, blues and rock and roll, American imports. Rhythm and blues. Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, “Muddy Waters Live At Newport 1960” – Memphis slide and Chicago blues, twelve bars opening the way to the Delta, the Mississippi – to the New World. Blessed and blue.

I’m seventeen and dancing through the shadows, dancing in the darkness. Alexis Korner, Long John Baldry and Blues Incorporated, Cyril Davies’ All-Stars, Chris Barber’s Jazz Band – worship at the six-string temple of the blues. A pilgrimage to Eel Pie Island at Twickenham or The Ealing Blues Club – our Mecca, the Crawdaddy Club at the Station Hotel in Richmond. The Stones’ residency, tuning heads and breaking hearts – the low ceiling dripping with condensation, the crowd squeezed in tight and hard under the stained rafters. Cheap bitter and cigarettes, Keith and Brian Jones on stools, blues licks and slide guitar, Jagger’s Cockney holler raising the roof. Crawdaddy Blues.

I’m seventeen and she’s too young, but there’s sex in the curl of Jagger’s lip and the air’s heavy with smoke, stinging your eyes and drying your mouth. She tastes of nicotine and wine and Sunday night, her perfume clinging to my skin, breaking through the sour odour of sweat and alcohol. Crawdaddy Blues.


 A Tale of Some Bristol Folk

The wind is whipping up and down the steep, narrow backstreets of Bristol. I’m almost bent double, shouting into my mobile, huddled in a shop doorway. Two girls ask me if I can help them with directions and we discover that all three of us are trying to find St.George’s concert hall for the Kate Walsh gig. They are working tonight, for SJM Promotions, so it’s just as well we quickly spot one of those little brown tourist signs directing us to the venue.

St.George’s is a former church, built in the early 1820’s and despite undergoing renovations at several points in its history, still retains a strong Doric architectural design. Indeed today, the concert hall itself bears the outward appearance of the inside of a Greek Orthodox Church. I’m usually late for gigs, for most things, but today, courtesy of an easy run down on the M5, I’m in time for a quick meal in the downstairs restaurant; I’m also “first on the list” with the girls’ from the promotions company, who are drumming up email contacts from the punters before the gig – despite all the world’s technological advances, they still write the names and addresses down on a clipboard.

It would be over-stating things to say I’m a fan of Kate Walsh’s music. I picked up one of her albums second-hand ages ago and the other in the sale at HMV and (shame on me) have only just listened to either of them. Only listened to them in fact because of the gig tonight. Only listened to them in the car on the motorway tonight. Otherwise they’d be in the large pile of unplayed CDs in the spare bedroom. But I’m partial to a bit of folk music (Ow! There it is, first use of the “f” word…), which, in all its various guises ranging from roots music to singer-songwriters, has become (whisper it very quietly)….popular again. Kate Walsh is one of a legion of girls strumming guitars who have found themselves a niche in amongst the preening pop princesses and whilst it might only be Good Old Bob Harris who plays their records on the radio, they can still fill a converted hall in Bristol on a blustery Tuesday evening.

She walks on to the stage in a floral dress and black leggings, clutching her acoustic guitar. Her first song is strummed so quietly that her whispered murmur of a vocal barely carries above it. Good Lord, the whole evening is going to turn into the musical equivalent of a room with Laura Ashley wallpaper. But Kate knows it: as she tunes her guitar after two more songs, she happily admits that “I don’t often change my strings. I play so quietly at times, they hardly ever need changing…..” It’s lucky microphones have been invented or she’d have to use sign language.

Kate sings like the vicar’s daughter in a Jane Austen novel, but her banter between songs is altogether more considered, with tales of her Essex upbringing, ex-boyfriends and a recent new life in Brighton. “Fireworks” is particularly affecting, with its story of lonely November the fifths: “Goldfish” and “Talk Of The Town” are both about needing to leave, but half wanting to return to, the small town of your birth. She’s joined on stage after four numbers by a tall, blonde double-bass player and a drummer who doubles up on second guitar when required. This certainly fills the sound out and saves the set from becoming overly “samey,” which is an accusation that could otherwise be levelled at her, although it’s close on being a borderline case as she tends to play everything mid-tempo and sing each song in a similar register.

She plays for an hour, says goodbye, returns to play two new songs for the encore, then does “meet ‘n greet” in the bar afterwards, now a time-honoured tradition for many artists not currently playing in a football stadium near you. Face to face, she’s chatty and friendly, and loses the fey persona she sings with, more Southend-on-Sea and less MansfieldPark. She signs our CDs and I complain that she didn’t play “Miss World” off her first album, which is a bit rich considering I only heard it for the first time three hours ago on the M5. Good job she didn’t ask me to hum along, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. We say goodbye to the promotions girls, who are on a final roll and have clipboards full of names, pull our coats closer and head out into the Bristol night where the wind is still hard at work.



Copyright owned by Nicholas John




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