Tuesday, 8 October 2013



Writing for Record Mirror in 1978 can make your dreams come true, probably far too early. My aim isn’t so true anymore, doesn’t have to be, because shit just happens.

Like being around when a bunch of newly released albums land in the office one morning. I’m immediately attracted to the foxy fantasy cover of Earth Wind & Fire’s fancy pants album, All ‘n’ All, and, my recent trip to Fort Worth fresh in my mind, take it away to review. Whoosh, it’s a belter. Erudite dance music you can listen to – the ultimate accolade.

So I write a 150-word review praising its dynamism and desire to inject some off-the-shoulder soul into a late-seventies disco scene sadly lacking any fever of the Saturday-night variety. In other words, this is hot stuff.  

Someone somewhere high up likes my review.

A week after it appears, my office phone rings.

‘Barry, Ellie here.’ Ellie Smith is the PR for CBS in Soho Square. New Yorker, sharp, sassy and great company. ‘We liked your review and were wondering if you’d care to see the band play live again.’

‘Are they coming over to promote the album?’ I ask.

‘Yes, they’re planning a European tour for the late summer.’

‘Stick me down. I’d love to see them.’

‘Well, the idea would be for you to preview the show – as you know, it’s pretty spectacular – before it actually comes over. The band are currently on a US tour and the show we’re looking at is in Atlanta. Next week.’ 

At the end of 1977 I’d never been to Atlanta in my life. It was as far off the radar as Borneo or Billericay. Within barely the first four weeks of ’78, I’d have been there twice, first with the Sex Pistols and now with EW&F. So no difference there, then.

‘Sounds great. Thanks very much.’

‘Wonderful. Now, let me tell you the itinerary.’

She sounds a little excited.

‘You fly out in the afternoon, first class from Heathrow to Paris.’

‘First class?’ That’s never happened before. And why Paris if we’re flying to the States?

‘You then stay overnight at the George Cinq where you’ll dine with some other European journalists who are also going to the gig.’

See what I mean? Dreams.

‘How many?’

‘I think it’s about thirty.’

I can’t believe CBS would fly all those journos over – it’s unprecedented.

‘Any other British writers on the trip?’

‘Yes, Richard Williams for The Times and Pauline McLeod for The Mirror.’

A touch of class.

‘The next day you go to Charles de Gaulle airport where you catch a flight to New York on Air France Concorde. There you change planes and fly down to Atlanta on a private jet, stay for five days in a five-star hotel, see the show, do an interview and take in the sights. Then you get the private jet back to New York where you check in at the Plaza, have dinner and spend a night on the town. Next day, Concorde to Paris, Paris to London...’

‘First class?’

‘First class.’


‘Gee,’ she said, ‘I hope I get to go too.’

This is like an incredibly upmarket Price Is Right where I almost expect to be asked how much it will all amount to.

Come on down!

Take a ride in the sky on our ship fantasii

All your dreams will come true miles away.

We break through the sound barrier off the coast of France, George Cinq a distant memory.

As the head chef from Maxims prepares dinner in the galley, I toast Concorde with a glass of vintage champagne and a medallion of fresh foie gras followed by fillet of turbot in lobster sauce and a slab of chateaubriand with green pepper sauce. It’s the least I can do. This is Heaven in a tube for 128 passengers. The seats are tight but the speed is cool.

And the silver-plated futuristic cutlery is even cooler. I slip what I can into my inside jacket pocket and then feel terribly guilty for the rest of the journey. When we land in JFK, a passenger drops her handbag as she gets out of her seat. Its contents spill into the aisle and include several place settings’ worth of Concorde cutlery. She looks embarrassed as a smiling stewardess picks them all up from the cabin floor and puts them back into the handbag.

I don’t feel so guilty any more. Neither does virtually every other passenger. They must go through a shitload of Concorde cutlery.  I’ve still got mine in a drawer somewhere.            

I get to know Richard Williams a little that week. He’s an influential figure in music and the first presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test. But I don’t take advantage of the opportunity.

Pauline McLeod is attractive and laughs a lot, which makes her even more attractive. She’s a top Fleet Street music writer but do I ever call her?

Mind you, does she ever call me? Does Richard? And there you see my problem: my inability to cultivate in order to progress. I suffer from don’t-ring-us-we’ll-ring-you syndrome − I’m constantly auditioning and never getting a call back. Sad bastard, really. My face still doesn’t fit.

EW&F are the most successful black group in America, elevating the slick choreography and jump suit harmonies of elementary soft soul outfits to a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza.

They’re a Mafia funeral, Tubes with a straight face, a drug-free, festival-free, booze-free Sly and the Family Stone for the late seventies. I love everyday people − but Earth Wind & Fire?

Well, is their music lipstick on your collar or on your knob? Judging by their show at the Omni Coliseum in downtown Atlanta, there she blows ...

An essential ingredient for an EW&F show is a vast sports’ arena that seats fifteen thousand people. And what people. Smoking dudes in whippersnapper suits and Bogart Pan­amas, smoochy Astaire spats with gold laces and matching shades, emerald teeth, silk shirts, silk walk, silk talk. And their hoochie- coochie wet-dream girls just one step away from obscenity, daubed in soft-porn Vogue, all legs and smiles and joy. Money to burn.

In the States EW&F reached the apex of a career spanning eight years, seven gold albums and a Papa’s got a brand new bag full of accolades.

Bassist Verdine White, brother of Maurice, tosses an elegant glance across the room. To say he's smart, intellectually and sartorially, is an understatement. Pride in appearance is an important part of Verdine’s life. ‘You gotta look good,’ he says. ‘Brush your clothes every day. Comb your hair right.’

He sits a little stiffly on a stiff chair in his hotel suite sipping orange juice. ‘I used to drink but then the process of trying to get high just seemed to become more and more unnecessary, plus I broke up with two ladies because of it. None of the group drink or take drugs.

‘A lot of people figure that if you're clean you're square. People admire crazy people. Lennon was more liked than McCartney because ev­eryone thought he had guts, y’know, the experimenter. But I preferred McCartney because he was more sophisticated.’

Verdine was once quoted as saying that if EW&F weren't black they'd have been bigger than the Beatles. So?

‘We've had to cross a racial barrier in music. We're black and it's much harder to get in on any success trip when you are. For starters you don't have many people buying your records and, second­, black managers are notoriously inept. There's also less channels for black music to pass through.

‘It's taken us a long time to become accept­able. We could never be like the Beatles, but now we've opened the door for future black bands, one of them will be.

‘EW&F have helped to change a lot of blacks’ lives. Kids today are too wild. They get away with murder. Everyone needs direction and guidance. See, blacks take success differently from whites. A lot of black guys ask me what the white guy knew that he didn't. Success is a mystery to them whereas to whites it's a way of life because he's been taught in the ways of dynasty.

‘Young black people in England are different. They're more rastified. We just don't look like them. They'll check us out, though, simply because they want to convince themselves we're a hype. But we don't get upset.’

Their current album, All 'N' All, is their most successful to date and has attracted a whole new white audience. Teetering on the edge of an MOR abyss it's nevertheless impossible not to be impressed by the music − a black Chicago fused with the incestuous naiveté of mid-seventies disco.

‘I guess we'll have to change things, tone it down, when we get to Europe.’

So, Verdine, are you looking forward to the European tour this summer? A natural enough question, in the circumstances.

‘Oh, I do believe that was cancelled yesterday. We’re going early next year now.’

I think about that last line a few nights later in New York as I yank another Jack Daniels’ miniature from the mini bar in my huge suite at the Plaza and settle down to watch a little TV before going into the restaurant for dinner with the other twenty-nine.

And another trip on Concorde in the morning.

The music business is like that in 1978.

Money to burn.


Next episode – John Miles, The Buzzcocks & Squeeze

© Barry Cain 2013

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