Friday, 13 December 2013

October 1978
Oh What A Circus! Starring in order of appearance
Boney M, Smokie, Kevin Keegan, Bill Shankly & David Essex 

I’ve just uncovered an innovative marketing ploy that takes advantage of the faceless mass of people otherwise known as record buyers.

The ploy, which should catch on like a forest fire, is based on the assumption that they never play the B sides of the singles they eagerly dash out to purchase on pay day. Now, bearing that in mind, if a B side happens to be catchy but has been overshadowed by the immense popularity of the A side, what are you going to do with it? Wait for an incompetent radio DJ to play it by mistake? Enclose a leaflet with each single begging them to flip it over occasionally?

Or do what Boney M’s record company, WEA, have just done and re-release the single but swap sides?

Sounds inconceivable? Well, why don’t you just wander over to your record collection, pick up your copy of ‘Brown Girl In The Ring’ and take a peep at what’s on the other side. Surprise, surprise ‘Rivers Of Babylon’. And while you’re about it, have a quick butcher’s at your copy of ‘Rivers Of Babylon’. See what’s on the back? Need I say more?

‘Brown Girl’ has been selling so well − around thirty thousand a day − that there are those of you out there who must’ve bought the same record twice. Mugs.

‘Isn’t it incredible?’ beams Marcia Barrett. She’s wrapped in a towel on the edge of her bed. Nope, I’m not there. We’re speaking over the phone.

‘People were showing interest in "Brown Girl", which is a West Indian school song, so the record company decided to put it out. I guess people aren’t playing their B sides.’

You guessed right, Marcia. So how come you’re all dripping and dreamy and drowsy at this unearthly hour -- nine a.m. -- with the sun caressing your towel like a Lifebuoy soap ad? Huh?

‘Well, I’m just off to Jamaica for a month-long holiday.’

And where’s the rest of that deliciously textured European disco warrior wagon − Boney M? (Wonder what the M stands for? Mouth, Mind, Meringue, Missile, Morony, Moko-Moko — that’s a New Zealand bell bird by the way — or maybe just plain Mammoth?)

‘Well, Maisie’s in Italy, Liz is in Paris and Bobby’s still back in Germany.’

And who are you going to Jamaica with?

‘My mum, who now lives in Croydon, and Wayne.’

Who’s Wayne?

‘My son.’

Er, but you ain’t, er, well, what I mean is ...

‘No. I’m not married, never have been. I had Wayne when I was sixteen and very naïve. It was a strange pregnancy. I was still at school and I had him in the Easter holidays.’ Quite some egg.

‘I went back to school when the headmistress told my sister I should. But it was difficult. I had to get up in the morning, bath and dress him and take him to nursery before going to school. I lived with my mum and sister then. My father was in Jamaica and that made things even harder. I went to night school during the holidays and got various jobs to help my mum make ends meet.

‘Before I had Wayne I was scared of life. But those experiences helped me grow up quicker than I could ever have expected. Wayne has always understood the situation and has had a better life than many kids with two parents. At least he hasn’t had to listen to parents arguing in the middle of some cold night.’

So what have you gained from all that?

‘To be careful with money and men.

‘I used to dream a lot before I had Wayne, but not anymore. I just take life as it comes. I never saw Wayne’s father again and I thank God I never married him.

‘I went out with a German guy for ten years. He’s still around but there’s no way I’ll marry him. Sure, I’d like to get married one day – wouldn’t every woman? − but a girl in my position has to watch herself. There are a lot of guys around unscrupulous enough to marry for a fast buck.’

Will you marry me, Marcia?

‘Listen, life is so short that you must have fun, you must enjoy yourself. That’s all I ask.’

Nicely dodged.

‘Rivers Of Babylon’ was a revelation, the tail-end of a chain of massive but disposable hits and the one record that has given them a broader acceptance and got lascivious bodies dripping in diamonds to boogie the night away in indulgent risotto-resort discos oblivious to the morality of it all.

‘Sometimes I’m not too crazy about our music,’ says Marcia. ‘Y’know, when you’re on a long tour and you keep singing those same old songs I get to thinking I wish I was singing something else. Something that I can get off on. And as for the critics, let them think what they like. I’m not bothered. We sell, don’t we?’

You sure do, Marcia. You sure do.

In this job you get to meet all sorts. When I worked exclusively for Record Mirror, I usually cherry-picked the interviews I wanted to do. The Pistols, Clash, Stranglers, Damned, Heartbreakers and Jam were my stomping grounds, with the occasional foray into Demis Roussos territory to keep the girlfriend happy. But being a freelance means that beggars
can’t be choosers, so I fly to Hamburg − a city on the Brits’ radar because that’s where Kevin Keegan plays his football − to meet and greet Smokie, who’ve been living next door to Alice for quite some time.

Their singles are trite, monosyllabic gestures calculated to appeal to that susceptible region of the brain prone to costume-jewellery tears. Smokie are the undisputed masters of mellifluence.

They succeed because the ugly, out-of-tune public craves pretty, in-tune opiates. A ditty a day helps you work, rest and play. Their insidious sophistry is difficult for critics to swallow but, in reality, Smokie are so much more capable of producing worthwhile music without resorting to such artifice. But it sure pays the rent.

‘It’s true, our singles do tend to resemble each other − but the problem lies with my voice,’ says singer Chris Norman, as we drink a couple of beers in a Hamburg hotel bar. The band are due on stage in a few hours. ‘The Beatles had the same "trouble" on their earlier songs. They all sound the same to me now. The fact is, we played music on our own terms for eight years and it got us absolutely nowhere. For the last three years we’ve had all these hits. Now we’ve got another three years to attempt something different.’

As we climb onto the band’s coach to head off to the gig Kevin Keegan is waiting to greet us. Turns out Kevin is a huge Smokie fan and Chris and Pete are writing a song for him called, ‘Head Over Heels In Love’. The perm is a doosie.

A few weeks later I attend a reception to launch Kevin’s single and end up talking to Bill Shankly for most of the night. When he tells me, ‘Football isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s more than that,’ I thought I got the football quote of a lifetime until I found out the next day he’d said it to all the boys.

I make a point of hearing everything. I know every song in the Top 50, I see a live band at least five nights a week; I can have any record I want whenever I want. Song lyrics pepper my conversation and even my mates in the flats call me the music man. But much of it is unqualified shit and when you hang around shit long enough you become immune to the smell. Music − my blood, my soul, my heart, my sweet, sweet love – is slowly turning into Muzak in my ears.

I need to listen again, not hear. I need the fix of insane harmony. Letting punk in was like smoking three packs a day while hanging around Bikini Atoll in the late forties. I have an insidious tumour in my hearing and it grows fat and pink and bold. And one day I will never hear music again. There is no cure.

In the meantime, there’s always David Essex…

God knows why, but I’ve always had a soft spot for David. I thought ‘Rock On’ was cool and ‘Lamplight’ interesting. He was impressive in That’ll Be The Day’ and consistent in Stardust. Even ‘Hold Me Close’ held me close and you can’t say more than that.

But he’s getting older and those glorious looks are no longer the stuff of dreams. Where does a teen idol go when he ends up with an adoration overdraft? When the portable fourteen-inch monochrome kids on the block switch to colour and a flashier model? When the feline fans never − uh − close their eyes anymore when he kisses their lips?

So, does he borrow a revolver, venture into some sun-kissed field and shoot himself because this world was never meant for one as beautiful as him?

Or does he star in a hit show, release a song from that show – ‘Oh What A Circus’ − and sneak back into the charts and hearts.

Of course, David is no newcomer to the stage. Remember when he cornered the market in cool Christs in Godspell? Then 'Rock On' came knocking and he swapped his loincloth for a trendy demob suit and neckerchief and become the cheeky parvenu with the face of a god.

But when it became clear he wasn't comfortable in the teen zone, that he wanted to actually be regarded as a thinking artist, he was rejected. Oh sure, there were still a few loyalists who continued to haul his singles into lowly chart positions — but as a big-draw-peek-a-boo star, Essex was finito.

And then the Girl from Argentina − tall and tan and young and lovely − glided past and he went, Aaaah!

David Essex playing Che Guevara does seem an odd choice on the surface − but it works and Evita is more popular than Big Ben.

I follow the aroma of hamburgers down a labyrinth of grey corridors backstage at the Cambridge Theatre until I reach David’s dressing room. He’s wearing the jungle-fighter khaki outfit in preparation for the matinée and stuffing a Big Mac and fries.

His dressing room is spacious with a colour TV in one corner and a fridge full of vintage white wine in another. An adjoining room has nothing except a bed. He eats as we talk. His voice has that attractive quasi-Cockney intonation − cheeky chic. Although he enjoys playing Guevara, David has no intention of growing old gracefully in the role. In fact, he’s leaving the show in a few weeks’ time.

‘I’m getting into a routine now and it’s becoming too much like a real job. But I’m re-joining the cast when the show goes to Broadway next year. Having this hit is like a whole new beginning for me. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I never resented being a teen idol. I had a long life in that capacity. It was a wonderful experience. To get that reaction when you play a concert is unforgettable and unique.

‘I feel a lot easier now. Like a heavy weight has been lifted from my shoulders (George Foreman?). There’s a lot more space around me, personally, these days. Being a teen hero is only a point of fashion anyway and consequently very short-lived. You can’t rely on your looks for ever.’

Personally, I always thought you were a bit of an ugly bastard, David.

‘No, you’re getting confused with you looking in the mirror.’ He smiles. He can take a joke. Thank god for that.

Success has given him the freedom to explore his creative abilities. But it’s arguable that it also led to commercial suicide.

‘I just wanted to be able to write and record my own songs. What’s so terrible about that? I never became a musician for the money. I believe I’ve always done things for the right reasons. I can honestly I say I’ve never been complacent at any point in my career. Look, I’m not a male model, I’m not one-dimensional. I’m an artist. If I wasn’t then I’d have become a promotions man for a record company after the teen thing collapsed.’

At thirty-one, David appears to have transcended the showbiz image he seemed to be cultivating a few years ago. ‘I don’t think there’s another person like me in the world.’

He seems to have enjoyed my company. How can I tell? After the interview I shake his hand and turn to leave.

‘Hey, Barry! Fancy seeing the show?’

Tickets are like gold dust. I immediately think how much I could make on them. I really hate, ‘Oh What A Circus’.

‘Should help with the article, don’t you reckon?’

Absolutely, David.

‘Good. I’ll arrange for a pair to be sent to your home.’

I think I should go and, in the absence of Dina, I take Versa, a Greek PR girl, who reciprocates by treating me to dinner at the restaurant of my choice after the show. I decide on Langan’s in Mayfair. Cheers, Dave.

Next: Mike Oldfield

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain
© Barry Cain 2013

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