Sunday 29 December 2013

October 1978
The Quest For Blondie Part 1 

And then it’s New York again. Instant replay. This is getting seriously close to commuting. Every time I set foot on a plane I think I’m going to die, but after a line, a large brandy and Coke and a cigarette, the cabin looks a rosier place. I’m here for Blondie sans Debbie and Chris. But I also check out the intriguing Dan Hartman whose hot ‘Instant Replay’ is up there in my chart of fave 45s in ‘78 style.

This trip to New York is all part of the conspiracy to change my life forever. Remember what I said about the Debbie Harry interview − that it started a chain of events that would alter the course of my entire life? First, David the itinerant publisher tentatively stepped in, but his real influence would come later.

Debbie’s final words as I got up to leave gave me an idea for a feature: ‘Listen, er, do you think you could mention the rest of the band. See, er, everyone seems to just talk about me and it makes me feel kinda guilty, y’know.’

I sell the idea of a non-Debbie-and-Chris-Stein Blondie interview to Record Mirror. Next stop, Manhattan.

I mean, did you know there were four other people in Blondie apart from the sugar-candy kisser of Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, the man who bought his eyebrows from Axminster? Yeah, it’s true; I’ve seen ’em with my own eyes. Seen ’em on their home ground too − in ol’ numbland New York, that necropolis with neon tombstones where . . . Oh, so you think it isn’t dead, huh? Listen, any city that shows The Partridge Family twice every morning on TV, split only by I Love Lucy and Brady Bunch re-runs, just has to be dead, or severely wounded.

Like a Victorian explorer venturing into fleshy foliage in search of an obscure tribe, I take a cab to a nocturnal recording studio in one of the more uncivilised districts where the natives eat strange exotic food they call ‘Burrgakeeng’, which they claim possesses health-giving properties, and drink copious amounts of the ‘Pepsee’. The taxi winds its tortuous way through narrow streets infested by an unfriendly creature known locally as ‘deemugger’.

Alighting from the cab, I ask a statuesque black guy where I might find the Unknown Blondie. His eyes freeze and he utters a primal scream before fleeing into the night. My God, what have I let myself in for? Just then a wizened old man taps me on the shoulder, like they always do at such moments, and rasps, ‘The Unknown Blondie is a taboo tribe in these parts. ’Tis a curse of a thousand McDonalds to merely mention the name.’

‘But you mentioned it.’ ‘Yes − and I’m only nineteen!’ he wheezes, and points to a dilapidated building. ‘There. But beware…’

A tangled web of close-circuit TVs guards the door. I beat my way through, slide into a waiting elevator and press the button for star-filled limbo.

The doors open onto a recording studio that shows no sign of life. I hear a rustle and a figure dashes from behind one speaker to disappear beneath a control desk. Nervy. Not used to strangers. There’s some indecipherable chatter.

I reach for my Pistols album . . .

‘You’re a journalist?’ It’s the voice of Clem Burke. He touches me in what appears to be an Unknown Blondie ritual. But I soon realise he’s just making sure I’m real. ‘Hey, you guys, it’s a journalist.’ From the vinyl gloom emerge Jimmy Destri, Frank Infante, Nigel Harrison and several Elvis Costello lookalikes.


It takes some time to convince them that it’s them I intend to write about. Not Debbie or Chris, the Sonny and Cher of the lacquered New Wave.


It transpires that Clem is involved in producing former Unknown Blondie bass player Gary Valentine and the tribe has gathered to listen and rave.

‘This guy is sure talented,’ says Clem, in cute, cumbersome, cocktail tones. They decide to show me their native ways.

‘Hey, let’s take a drive to McSorley’s,’ says Nigel, an English muffin with fluffy curls. On our way we pass a giant plastic lizard recently erected on top of a bank. ‘Could cause a lot of trouble − sure scared the shit outta me,’ says Frank, who looks like he could make it as a movieland method myth -- y’know, all corrugated cheeks and Mogadon eyes.

McSorley’s Old Ale House (established 1854) is a soiled, silent-movie straitjacket of a bar in Greenwich Village (where the nuts come from). Fatty Arbuckle could have been filmed here, looking clown-sad and lovable but all the while immersed in crazed sexual fantasies. When it was built, women weren’t allowed into bars so there’s no ladies’ john. Local libbers have complained but McSorley’s virginity remains intact.

An Irish waiter asks if we want dark or light beer, both brewed on the premises. The party go for light.

‘No, I’m not at all jealous of Debbie getting all the attention,’ says Jimmy, teen-dream face. ‘See, I think she sees it from our level too. I’m very happy having a face like that selling my music. I wouldn’t be in the position of selling records for Chrysalis if it wasn’t for her. She sells my music. I know that if I was in a record company and was responsible for marketing Blondie, I would market Debbie Harry as a viable commercial product simply
because she's the obvious thing.’

The table is now overflowing with glasses. A dollar for less than half a pint. ‘In time,’ Jimmy continues, oblivious to the stains and the ascending banter on other tables beneath timber walls covered with badges and original photographs of cloth-cap five-o’clock-shadow debauched ghosts, ‘people will begin to realise that Blondie is a conglomerate of ideas. All of us can do other things. We’re good musicians. It’s really cool being in this position because I have the opportunity to do other things. See, I get the respect that being a part of Blondie brings − and so you get asked to do things.

‘Okay, I admit being in the shadows was frustrating at the beginning, but now it’s just perfect for me. I don’t want to be a star. I’m happy everyone’s looking at Debbie on stage and not me. I’m content playing keyboards, writing and producing. Besides, it ain’t all that much fun being in a band.’ ‘Richie Blackmore’s mother . . .’ What the hell has she got to do with this conversation? But Nigel is insistent. ‘Richie Blackmore’s mother once said to him, "Why don’t you get yourself a decent job, son?"’


‘Well, I love being in a band. It’s been my ambition since I was sixteen.’ ‘What made my dreams come true,’ says Jimmy. In case you’re wondering, Clem and Frank are embroiled in deep conversation. ‘I was anxious to get somewhere. I came from a bad neighbourhood in Brooklyn, which ain’t that different from poor parts of London except for the accent and colour of the police cars. ‘I worked fourteen hours a day to get through college. When I was twenty-one my father gave me fifteen bucks and I felt like a king. Fifteen bucks!’

‘I lived in Hollywood for a while,’ says Nigel, ‘and many kids I bumped into who were in the music business were so rich. And you know why? Their parents organised trust funds for them from an early age. Y’know, twenty bucks a week for years. So these kids live a real maniacal life. It’s easy when you know you’ve got twenty grand coming to you in a year or so.’

The waiter brings another round of beers. Jimmy starts getting angry. ‘Yeah, some people are born lucky. I worked in a hospital emergency room strapping up junkies. I saw people who had no determination or energy try and get on simply because they’ve always had it easy. ‘That’s why when a dude becomes a pimp or pusher and starts making money, he becomes very ostentatious and buys every flashy thing he can lay his hands on. He ain’t ever seen ’em before.’

Jimmy then relates the tale of the frozen stiff.

‘One day Chris and Clem were walking in the Bowery and found a wino who was frozen solid dead. And they call this a rich country. You’re kept on a certain level and if you can’t transcend that you rot.’ Or freeze.

Next: The Quest For Blondie Part 2 and a chance meeting with the Shangrilas at CBGBs

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain

© Barry Cain 2013

Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H0IM2CY



Saturday 21 December 2013

November 1978

Bright & Old

It’s funny going round to Dina’s after spending an hour on a date with Sarah Brightman, the girl from Kenny Everett’s Hot Gossip that Mary Whitehouse couldn’t shut down.

And now they have a top ten single, I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper, which proves they have voices to match their shapes. ‘We never deliberately set out to be sexy,’ says sexy 18-year-old Sarah. ‘It’s simply our style of dancing. We were very surprised when we heard Mrs Whitehouse had complained.’

We sit in a coffee bar just around the corner from where Hot Gossip have been rehearsing. I feel like I’m on a date with Salome − being castigated by Mary Whitehouse really gives a gal an edge. Sarah has big, bouncy black hair and lips like Kate Bush. Lots of girls have lips like Kate Bush these days.

‘I want to make as much money and be as successful as I can before I get too old for this business,’ she reveals, and tentatively sips a black coffee. ‘But it’s really hard work. I get up at 5.30am most mornings and don’t get back home until midnight. My time teems with constant rehearsals, filming and strenuous exercise.’

Sarah danced with Pan’s People when she was sixteen. ‘I decided after eighteen months with them that it was time to give another girl a chance, so I joined Hot Gossip. I much prefer working with this group. Their dancing comes more from the heart. The funny thing is, we only wear those flimsy costumes because it’s much easier to move around.’

Oh, I see.

‘We try to be different. The public had ten years of Pan’s People and Legs and Co., but now they want something more exciting. We’ve all had classical training and we put a great deal of thought into our sets.’ One routine involved a French chambermaid in suspenders and sexy schoolgirls. Her boyfriend Andrew, a 27-year-old rock-group manager, is very understanding.                                                                           

‘Most men like to watch pretty girls bopping around wearing next to nothing.’

Not me.

‘But they hate it if one of those dancers happens to be their girlfriend.’

I wouldn’t mind.

‘But Andrew knows the work we put into our act so he doesn’t mind.’

Right on, Andrew. Hold on. Shit, she’s got a boyfriend. Well, I ain’t buying her another coffee.

‘Somebody once said this is the century of the dance. And suddenly in the seventies everybody wants to do it like Hot Gossip.’

Of course they do, Sarah, of course they do.

From the ridiculous to the sublime . . .

(Sarah married another Andrew -- Lloyd Webber -- in 1984, and the couple divorced six years later. She has received 160 gold and platinum awards in 34 countries, and is the only artist to hold the top spots on the Billboard classical and dance charts simultaneously. Sarah’s been ranked by the Recording Industry Association of America as the best-selling female classical artist of the twenty-first century, and has a Guinness World Record for the success of Time to Say Goodbye, the most successful single in German recording history. She has sold over 26 million albums and more than two million DVDs and is the world's richest female classical performer with a fortune of £36m. Sarah’s now in training to be a real life starship trooper – embarking on a journey to the International Space Station, currently set for 2015. My, oh, my).

Virgin have arranged a phone interview with Mike Oldfield, who’s currently promoting his fourth album, Incantations.

Apparently, Mike is in the back of a Rolls Royce driving round London while doing a series of interviews on the in-car phone. I’m at home in the King’s Cross council flat I share with my parents holding on tightly to my notebook and pen, and Mum’s in the kitchen preparing dinner. It’s a familiar scenario.

The interview is set for 4.30. At 4.25 the doorbell rings and mum answers it. ‘There’s a man outside says you know him,’ she tells me. ‘Strange looking bloke.’

Shit, who’s that? The phone’s gonna ring any second.

I open the door.

‘Mr Cain? Hello, I’m Mike Oldfield. Look, I’ve got my chauffeur waiting in the Rolls downstairs, but if it’s all the same with you I’d like to have a chat here. I’m sick to death of sitting in the back of that car. Put the kettle on.’
'I’ll tell me mum,’ is about all I can say, as he walks past me and wanders into the living room.

I know Mike Oldfield is supposed to have changed his hermit-like image, but this is ridiculous.

I’m flabbergasted, in a Frankie Howerd way, but that’s nothing compared with my mum who, wearing her nylon housecoat, hides in the kitchen making endless cups of tea for the thirsty superstar.

In between the Typhoo, Mike tells me how he clawed his way out of a ‘living hell’.

It turns out the 25-year-old millionaire composer of Tubular Bells has been trapped in his own bleak house in the wilds of Gloucestershire for the past five years, shunning the outside world.

‘I was hanging on the edge of a cliff, terrified of falling into the unknown,’ he reveals. ‘I began to lose my mind and had two nervous breakdowns, each lasting for three months. The idea of killing myself even entered my head. I started to really hit the bottle. I was petrified at the thought of meeting people or leaving my home. The only way I could face those doing those things was to get drunk.’

So why did Oldfield − hailed as rock music’s greatest composer − become a hermit?

‘I was determined to prove to myself that I could have a bad time. I always believed my parents didn’t like me. My mother was one of those really neurotic housewives − but she took it one step further. She became addicted to tranquillisers and alcohol after giving birth to a Down’s syndrome child.

‘She spent many years in and out of mental hospitals. My father is a doctor and he treated her like a sick wife. She finally died four years ago − a wreck.

‘Right from the first I realised what was happening to her and decided that if this was how people lived, forget it. So I retreated into myself, striving to find my own world in music. I’ve tried to make some sense out of the whole thing ever since. I’ve tried living with lots of women, but I couldn’t have a proper relationship with them because I had to make them hate me.’

Tell it like it is, Mike. Maybe I should be charging him for this. By the hour.

He married a mystery girl − whom he refers to simply as Diana − this summer. But it wasn’t exactly George Burns and Gracie Allen. Within two weeks they’d split up and are now in the process of getting a divorce.

But now Mike has had enough of the past and wants to ‘play at being a superstar’.

‘I always wanted to be one, but I felt too guilty. I’m just waking up to the fact I can enjoy life if I want to. I can have loads of money and loads of girls. It’s so easy to change.’

Mike has shaved off his beard, cropped his hippie hair and now looks like a Vegas playboy.

‘I’ve even started going to discos and dancing the night away. It’s great.’

(Last I heard, Mike, who turned 60 this year, was living in the Bahamas and has seven children from three marriages – there’s a man chasing rainbows. His autobiography, Changeling, was published in 2007 by Virgin Books. A year later he released his first classical album, Music of the Spheres, which topped the UK classical chart and reached
number nine on the main UK album chart. At the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony Oldfield performed renditions of Tubular Bells. In October 2013 the BBC broadcast Tubular Bells:The Mike Oldfield Story, an hour-long appreciation of Oldfield's life and musical career. He’s currently creating a new rock-themed album of songs, Man On The Rocks, set for release next month).

Next: Blondie in New York and a chance meeting with the Shangrilas at CBGBs
Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain
© Barry Cain 2013

Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H0IM2CY



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

Thursday 5 December 2013

October 1978

The Bitterest PiL

It’s time to enter the twilight zone again.

Time to renew my acquaintance with public enemy number one, Spanky and his gang. Time to nip round to his place in Gunther Grove and meet the directors of his company.

And it’s not a bad gaff. Wallful of posters, floorful of pretty good carpet, teleful of interference, speakerful of Public Image, fridgeful of lager. Rottenful of bitter (draught). Wobbleful of quips. Sidfool in NYC.

John Rotten looks like he’s ready to take over from David Essex in
Evita. Khaki jungle-fighter outfit and black barnet. Clambering around Epping Forest gunning down picnickers and quick jab courting couples.

Whatever happened to the incandescent revolution? Maybe Malcolm McLaren sold it at a profit. Maybe straight bottoms held the shit in too long. Maybe, just maybe, it’s in a kind of splendid hibernation, ready to stretch and pounce on some future crazy kid.

So what remains?

Public Image Limited for one thing.

‘Oh, you’re talking about the Sex Pissups . . .’ John, lost in his huge sofa, spits out the words. ‘There weren’t many songs that band wanted to do. They were such a bunch of arseholes.’

‘They wanted to chug, chug, chug, chugchugchug,’ adds Jah Wobble, grinning.

‘Yeah,’ continues John, ‘they’re only really happy doing "Johnny B. Goode" and cover versions of Everly Brothers’ songs. If I’d have asked them to listen to this,’ indicating the PIL sound on the speakers, ‘they would have gone, "Oooh, that’s a bit heavy, ain’t it, John?" Anyone who expects us to come out with "Cosh The Driver" ditties is in for a big surprise.’

Like the Teddy Boys’ Picnic?

‘We’ve written 469 songs already,’ says Jah. They also found dog shit on the moon.

‘That’s exactly the way we want to hear music,’ says John. What -- moon dog shit? ‘Danceable but good. High, high treble.’ They play the album and it’s a million miles from the Pistols. It’s a million miles from anything.

He’s just read a newspaper report that detailed his life as a drug addict. The actual article confusingly said he took ‘smack (cocaine)’ and also mentioned how punk stars fell into a life of drug-taking, ‘smoke, cocaine, sulphate and speed ...’ Damned well informed lot these journalists.

‘The article was merely an excuse to get me on the subject of Sid,’ says John.
Contrary to popular opinion, I’ve never taken heroin. Oh, sure, they used to say it was in my eyes and all that shit, but taking that stuff is totally against everything I stand for. I’ll sue.’
So − uh − while we’re on the subject what about . . .

‘Sid, eh? Nope. I’m not giving out any sensationalist copy. There’s nothing to say anyway. See, the geezer has always been a failure. He couldn’t play bass and he couldn’t even cope with his image. And as for him being violent . . . He met Nancy when she followed Heartbreakers’ drummer Jerry Nolan over here from New York. He just picked her up and that’s when he started on heroin. Right away she tried to interfere with the Pistols. Y’know.'   He and Jah begin to mimic a ramshackle, nail-across-the-blackboard, feline East Coast voice: ‘"Oooooh, Sid, you’re really good. You’d be soooo much better off without those other guys."’  

‘She was a starfucker,’ says John. ‘I spent a year trying to get Sid off his habit. A year. And every time I turned my back he’d start shooting up again, thanks to Nancy. And when he did eventually try and kick it he got hooked on the cure − methadone.’

Would he like to help Sid out of his predicament?

‘If I could help him personally I would. But he’d have to get rid of McLaren for a start and then stop trying to kill himself. I know a few people think I got jealous of Sid grabbing some of the limelight in the States. That’s absolute crap. Steve and Paul never wanted him in the band at all. It was me who got him in. Me. And when we were in America it was Sid and me who decided we didn’t want to get involved with a failed bank robber. McLaren was infuriated and he never even bothered to book hotel rooms for us over there.

‘There was no reason for the Pistols to bust up. No reason at all . . . except for McLaren. Sid agreed with me. Steve and Paul were over-concerned at finding themselves on their own. They were scared of that ’cos they need someone else to do everything for them. They like people telling them what to do. It was all just a nine-to-five job with them − and that’s a contradiction of what the band was all about.

Consequently, whatever Malcolm said, they would do. I spent a lot of time writing lyrics I felt were important and valid. But when I confronted the others with them they’d say, "I don’t think Malc’s gonna like these words, John." How can you run a band like that? As a group we had regular talks about his role. It used to get me down, but at the same time I kept thinking at least the songs were getting out. Getting across to people.

‘And all the time Steve was happy with his Chuck Berry impressions and Paul with his never-sounding-different drumming. It was me who had to bear the brunt of the studio work. They would fuck off leaving me and producer Chris Thomas to listen to the final mixes. Chris trying to make us sound like Roxy Music and me trying to fight it. We were just too limited.’

And there’s me thinking they were a great band. It’s easy to slag off in retrospect but what Rotten feels is unrefined hatred. Are we to assume, then, that he never liked anything the band achieved? ‘I like the good things. I like "Problems". I like "God Save The Queen". I like "Anarchy". Not much else.

‘But what I loathe most of all is being set up, taken for a mug. And that’s exactly what happened. Malcolm would tell me we were banned from playing everywhere and I believed him. It took six months to discover he was lying. At the beginning he was great. It was all so perfect for us to dominate the world. And then he changed. We never saw him from one month to the next. And when we did try to ring him a strange voice at the other end of the phone would say he was in LA or Paris or anywhere.’’

John demanded and received £12,000. He bought the flat with the money. And that, according to him, was all he ever made.

Still, no more bad times, eh, John? No more stitch-ups. No more misanthropy. No more midnight beatings. No more torrid TV.

‘At last I’m not limited to the old ways of doing things,’ he says. ‘At last I find myself in a situation that far surpasses my wildest dreams − I feel totally proud of being in the same band as this bunch of cunts. Christ, it took me so long to realise that these people have always known what I was about. They’re old friends. Friends I’ve known so much longer than the Pistols. Public Image Limited is a collection of friends.’

Ten minutes later we’ve adjourned to the boozer around the corner from John’s place. The girl who wrote the article that John hated walks in, and when she tries to explain how the sub messed around with her original piece, John’s reaction is a peach.

‘Piss off, shitbag.’

Over a pint he gets real. ‘I never realised the consequences of being a member of the Pistols and talking the way I did. The press had never seen anyone like me before. Never anyone so sensational, so personal, so hateful. Normal situations suddenly became extreme situations.

'But, fuck, as much as people try to put me down at least I’ve done something. Something they’ll never do. People who have attacked me are so, so silly. Now I’ve managed to get myself into the best possible set-up. Now I’m more involved with the way things should be rather than the way things are.

‘This is not Johnny Rotten’s band. If anything, I’m probably the weak link.’

We follow Johnny back to the flat. He’s sprawls out in front of the TV watching
The Hustler. Jah and I decide it’s time to split...

A toddle with a Wobble on Chelsea cobbles is an altogether illuminating affair.

His jacket collar upturned, his head submerged, the headless phantom of the King’s Road avoids the pavement cracks and basks in the shadows between the lamplights.

‘Let’s go in here,’ says Wobble, indicating a flash Frenchie establishment custom made for garrulous, three-piece-suit execs with Chicago tapes in their TR7s.

John met Wobble at Kingsway College of Further Education when both enrolled for their O' levels. The two remained firm friends.

‘Do you really wanna know something?’ he asks, over avocado and prawns. ‘This whole thing, Public Image and all, means absolutely nothing to me. Nothing. They put me away, y’know. Put me in a psychiatric ward for cutting up a copper. Said I went a bit mad, they did. Truth is, they’re waiting. Always waiting. Waiting for months, years. Ready to pounce when you crack. Then they’re on you like vultures. Then you’re in the hospital.

‘And that’s only like being on the outside, but more acute. Then they "calm" you down. That means they stick electrodes in your brain and drugs in your arms. I shit myself. I really shit myself. I quietened down. I conformed. You always lose. Nobody . . . nobody’s gonna stick up for you. So I said I was sorry, "sir". If I hadn’t they would have certified me and I’d have been in there for the rest of my life.

‘I stuck my neck out, I lost.’

Wobble is a twenty-year-old Whitechapel waif into reggae and prawns. He acts as unofficial minder of Public Image.

‘Put this down.’ He picks up my pen, which I’d placed on the table so I could eat my veal, and pushes it into my hand. ‘All these people in the restaurant . . .’ he frantically rubs the top of his head and looks around with psycho-killer eyes ‘. . . are never gonna stick their necks out. They’re all following their little set patterns. Look at them, look at their stupid fucking grins.

‘They’ve watched me bang my head against the wall. All through school − I hope some of those ex-puPiLs are reading this − all my life. I feel impotent. My spirit is gone. Please, please, never let them kill your spirit. Keep stoking the fire of your hatred. That’s all you’ve got left. Let me make myself a martyr. Let me try to break down their huge, indescribable rubber wall. The one that everyone bounces off.

‘See, the rest of the band think they’re going to break it. I know they won’t. They’ll try, try, try. But they’ll fail because the wall is 360 degrees.’

I pay the bill and we leave. There’s no way he’s a new Sid in town.

It's all becoming a game. Public Image will obviously succeed but just exactly how long they will last is entirely up to them. The public don't really matter much any more. Like Wobble says, ‘You can sell people bags of shit and they'll be happy.’

Public Image Limited ain't crap as their tapes confirm. It's just that it doesn't really matter any more. Wobble's paranoia doesn't really matter. It's up to him whether he enjoys himself or not. Eighteen months ago it was a different world.

Now we're back to the same old shit. And it really doesn't matter.

(John continues to front the Pistols and appear in butter ads on the telly. Jah left the band in 1980. He now runs his own label, 30 Hertz Records, and tours regularly throughout England and Europe with his current band, Jah Wobble & the English Roots Band. He also writes book reviews for the Independent, and his autobiography, Memoirs of a Geezer: Music, Life, Mayhem, was published in 2009. Levene left PIL in 1983 and has continued to release records including the ‘Killer In The Crowd’ EP in 2004. PiL played a few concerts in 2011 and the following year released their first studio album – This Is PiL – in twenty years)

Next: Boney M & David Essex

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

Check out Barry's debut novel Wet Dreams Dry Lives www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H0IM2CY


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